Monday, 15 December 2008

Beautiful brain #1

I always appreciate a good artistic rendering of a nice brain.

This one is off the album cover of Canadian producer/engineer/performer Dean Marino's (aka EX~PO) newest release "Central Meaner Street" recently reviewed by Barb (ex-science type sensibly converted to freelance writer) here

The thing is, brains are intrinsically beautiful. Complex and intricate with curves and crinkly bits and layers and shapes within shapes within shapes that fit perfectly snugly together to produce a sculpture that is really something to behold.

Problem: They're made out of really gross vomit-pink slimy custard-like stuff.

So anyone who makes one out of something altogether more appealing gets my vote. In this case the brain is a small village with lines of houses to represent the creases in the cortex, and even rows of what look like vegetables to represent the ridges of the cerebellum (the cauliflower looking thing at the back) - what's not to like?

Apparently the album is also good.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

And all this time I should've been dancing

In a blatant attempt at being down-with-the-kids, the American Association for the Advancement of Science launched this science dance contest in which entrants posted their offerings on YouTube.

Quote from the AAAS "the human body is an excellent medium for communicating science--perhaps not as data-rich as a peer-reviewed article, but far more exciting".

In the video, Miriam Sach from the University of Dusseldorf communicates "Cerebral activation patterns induced by inflection of regular and irregular verbs with positron emission tomography. A comparison between single subject and group analysis" via the medium of dance.

The research showed that irregular and regular verbs are processed in the same parts of the brain rather than by specialised cortical areas.

As if it wasn't obvious, here is a guide to how Miriam's research findings are represented within the dance...

This piece is subdivided into 3 sections: 1.) Introduction of regular verbs, 2.) Introduction of irregular verbs, 3.) Common neural network of regular and irregular verb inflection.
1.) Regular verbs are represented by the walking at the very beginning of this piece.
The walking is simple, straight forward and without irregularities. It is accompanied by the sound of crackling fire a metaphor for the firing neurons.
2.) In contrast, irregular verbs are represented by a huge variety of different movements: jumps, slides, turns, rolls, level changes. Irregularities are also displayed musically by using syncopes and off-beat emphasis in percussion as well as further changes in instruments.
3.) The sound of the falling rain is a cleansing moment with no movements to introduce the final section of the dance: the common neural network of regular and irregular verb processing. It is the first time that symmetrical movements occur to emphasize the common network for both verb forms. In addition, both regular and irregular movements are shown to elucidate the presence of both entities in this network.
Overall, fiber connections in the brain representing the connections between regular and irregular verbs are shown by wavy arm movements.

I like this because everybody loves a good dance, and yet so often, as a medium, it is wasted on the communication of simple concepts* such as "OMG I totally love this song", "I want to sex you up" or "I'm a jet and you're a shark, let's have a bloody good fight".

More of this please.

*Although bees have got the right idea - wiggling their stripey little asses to communicate the precise location of particularly juicy flowers. 10 points to the bees.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Parisians are officially the most humourous criminals non?

Word is, the hunt is on in Paris for armed robbers - SOME DRESSED IN DRAG – who relieved Harry Winston jewellers of some €80 million-worth of diamonds, precious stones and other sparkly goodness. That makes it the biggest jewellery-heist-carried-out-by-gender-ambiguous-criminals France has ever seen. They good as emptied the shop.

So there are wanted men, in drag, with guns, covered in an appalling amount of bling, in Paris - capital of elegance and style. They will surely be banged up before tea time won’t they?

It reminded me of that story about the illegal restoration of an antique clock housed in the Panthéon. Remember that?

I went and found the website of the group responsible - ‘The Untergunther’. They proclaim themselves to be “a clandestine group with a mission to restore the neglected heritage in Paris”. Fabulous. It makes me really badly want to be a member of a clandestine group. Perhaps our mission could be to hold guerrilla roller discos across the UK or something.

Anyway. Basically, these Untergunther geniuses, in a time-honoured fashion, got themselves locked into the Panthéon one night and set about sorting out a secret workshop in the Panthéon’s dome (furnished, and with views over Paris, naturally).

They spent a year piecing apart and repairing a clock that had been sat rusting since the 1960s. When finished they decided to tell the folks at the Panthéon, primarily so they would know to wind the clock up.

So the officials took legal action and tried to have the cultural crims prosecuted. But of course all stories that involve getting locked in museums overnight have happy endings and the judge ruled in favour of the Untergunther.

Their website is here, some really amazing photos of the clock, the workshop and the hugely desirable seating is here. Get some Wiki action with more details of the sorts of thrilling things the French get up to underground here.

Probably those gun-totting diamond thieves in dresses don’t have a website. Maybe they’re on facebook though.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Conference chic

Huzzah! I am recently returned from a Brain Research conference in Washington U.S.A. (hence the Americanised header). If forced at gunpoint (admittedly unlikely) I would have to say that fannying around chatting about sciencey things with exotic people all over the globe is possibly my favourite thing about research.

I have proof I have been in the U.S. - See Fig. 1 which depicts a pedestrian crossing. Note the helpful and considerate count-down informing people exactly how long they have left to dither about in the middle of the road (taking pictures and whatnot).

Fig. 1 Crossing the road Washington style

Here in the U.K. it is conventional for drivers to signal to pedestrians that their road-crossing time frame is coming to an end by revving their engines and creeping slowly forward. It's not as precise but it seems to work ok.

As you can imagine, much of the discussion at the conference was given over to this year's trends in conference fashion. While trying to figure out if I could subsist entirely on free conference pastries and cakes for the rest of my stay (apparently there's some sort of economic problem happening at the moment and my credit card was shivering at the prospect of check-out), I was interrupted by an enthusiastic Italian epigeneticist (don't ask) who wanted desperately to impress upon me that a) she owned the same dress as the one I was wearing and b)I look almost as fabulous in it as she does.

She told me I should come to an epigenetics meeting in Lille. But I don't know anything about epigenetics. It makes my head hurt. So? Lille is beautiful and the food is amazing.

Is this what they call networking? If so I love it. She cooed some more about the other dress I'd worn the previous day and I decided that I totally rock at networking.

I'd also like to give a special mention to the conference bags which, at every other conference I've ever been to, have always looked like this or a variation thereof...

Not at this, the best-dressed conference of 2008. Oh no. Behold eco-friendly and bang on trend, the Nexus conference bag made from jute canvas, complete with a clasp made from finest coconut shell. Biodegradable and sustainable. Round of applause please...

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

OMG I totally love this

This is from The Times. Such a lovely story. So to get anywhere near David Tennant all I have to do is die, donate bits of myself, and wait patiently for 26 years. Brilliant. 

‘A concert pianist’s dying wish to appear on stage in Hamlet has been realised 26 years after his death.

André Tchaikowsky, a Polish Jew who escaped the Holocaust and settled in Britain, bequeathed his skull to the Royal Shakespeare Company to be used as a macabre prop.

From soon after his death in 1982 from cancer at the age of 46, Tchaikowsky’s final bequest has been kept in a box in a costume store. The relic finally emerged to take its place centre stage when David Tennant took on the role of Hamlet in Stratford-upon-Avon.

Tchaikowsky starred in 22 performances of the “Alas, poor Yorick” scene in which Hamlet holds aloft the skull of the court jester unearthed by a gravedigger.

The decision to use the skull was kept secret from the audience and many in the production crew for fear of distracting from Tennant’s performance…

When the unmarried musician made his will, it stated that he wanted his organs to be donated to science “. . . with the exception of my skull, which shall be offered by the institution receiving my body to the Royal Shakespeare Company for use in theatrical performance”.

David Howells, curator of the RSC’s archives, confirmed that this was the skull’s first public outing. “In 1989 Mark Rylance rehearsed with it for quite a while, but he couldn’t get past the fact it wasn’t Yorick’s, it was Tchaikowsky’s,” he said. Other actors also felt uneasy about using it.

The RSC had to obtain a licence from the Human Tissue Authority to use the skull because it is less than 100 years old.’

Saturday, 15 November 2008

Seeing red

“It is such a joy when the world of science presents womankind with Something She Has Always Known...”

...was the opening sentence of this article in The Times. It was an article inspired by a recent study published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, describing a series of experiments on the effects of the naughtiest of the colours, red.

I’m not going to go all Ben Goldacre. But not only was it quite a misrepresentation of what was actually written in the journal, but um, excuse me? Womankind? As distinct from the ‘world of science’? I feel compelled to take issue.

So, that opening sentence. I really really hate the idea that the world of science and womankind are different entities. Please. For starters the co-author and post-doctoral researcher that carried out the experiments, Daniela Niesta, is a lady.

Next, the findings of the paper are summarised:

“This week comes the revelation that females of the species who don a red frock are likely to have more money and attention lavished upon them than their less garish sisters. Hmmmn, d’ya think?”

How rude.

If one is going to be quite so disparaging about the scientific endeavours of one of their ‘sisters’ perhaps they should get their facts straight.

What the paper actually showed was that when a black and white photo of the same woman was presented on a red background rather than a blue background, the subject of the photo was rated as more attractive and more sexually desirable, more likely to be asked out on a date. These findings were replicated in a different set of experiments in which the shirt colour was manipulated.

In the actual study the photo of the woman is provocatively described as a “yearbook-like head and upper torso shot of a moderately attractive young adult woman with brown hair. She wore a striped button-down shirt and had a pleasant smile on her face”. What a minx. No red frock then.

The argument in The Times' article is that the presence of red carries certain connotations that are associated with sex, and if only they’d asked, the author could have told the “posse of menfolk” at the University of Rochester that men would rather date Mary Magdalene than the Virgin Mary.

Hmmmn, d’ya think?

Researchers tend not to be completely stupid. And believe it or not they had considered the possibility that societal associations influence the effect red has on our perceptions.

Societal use of red has a long and distinctly raunchy history. It symbolises fertility, passion and lust. We have red light districts, wear red lipstick, red underwear and consider these to be particular indicators of sex. See The Times article for more. If you squint, the article starts to look like a list of Things That Are Red.

The point is, why do we see red this way? The argument put forward by these experiments is that our societal use has roots in our biology. Nonhuman female primates display red on their genitals, perineum, chest or face when nearing ovulation.

There is a general consensus that in the animal kingdom, displaying red indicates elevated estrogen (which enhances blood flow under the skin) and represents a sexual signal that attracts males.

To test which force was greater here, everyday associations with red, or a more fundamental drive, the researchers did several things. First, they asked the participants. After the experiment, they asked the participants what they felt had influence their decision. Colour, the woman’s facial expression, the way the woman was dressed. Colour came bottom.

Secondly, they also included women as participants. When the women were making the judgements, there was no effect of red whatsoever. Also the effects of red on men were very specific, and had no influence on judgements of less exciting dimensions such as the woman’s general likeability, kindness or intelligence.

Ok, so it’s not a cure for cancer. But it’s an interesting and quite well designed study and I’m not sure articles like that are helpful to either the menfolk in the world of science, or womankind.

Fig. 1. Michelle Obama looking utterly stunning in a magnificent red dress. Would you want to date this woman?

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

When song titles and geekery collide (quite literally)

Fabulous new book in which popular song titles are expressed through Venn diagrams.

Couldn't really be called anything other than Venn That Tune

Perhaps my favourites...

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Excited state

I have been asked to write a commentary on an article I recently slagged off reviewed for a journal. 

This is a bit like an introduction, setting the scene, telling the story so far to explain why the research has been done, then discussing how clever the authors were to spot that these experiments needed doing, thinking a little outside the box to find the missing bit of the puzzle, and generally just being brilliant and doing brilliant experiments so their paper is thoroughly illuminating and inspired and isn't it all just brilliant.

This is proper “Oh My God people actually want to hear my clever thoughts and I get to put it on my CV” stuff and I got all excited and a bit sweaty.

Then (at about the point I read the word 'expert' in the e-mail) I suddenly remembered there was an actual expert in this field with the same surname and initial as me.

Oh the humiliation, having to confess to being the lesser of the two.

But I checked, and they already know I'm the lesser Karen. They actually meant to ask me to do it (and it's an automated e-mail so any old nobody gets called 'expert'). 

So now I'm all excited and a bit sweaty.

Friday, 24 October 2008

Big Undead Brother

The new Charlie Brooker 5-part Big Brother zombie thing starts tonight. Zombies and Big Brother. Genius. Can't wait.

Even better, it inspired someone at The Guardian to write about how to make a zombie because it turns out the CIA actually had a fair go at making one. 

Also describes hideous parasitic creatures that turn their hosts into zombies, either to lay eggs in them, or to make them behave in a ridiculous and dangerous manner so they end up inside a cat. 

I know, very very clever. Bit strange. Can't help thinking there are more efficient ways to colonise a cat. But very clever. 

Friday, 17 October 2008

Having a wonder-filled week (© Robert Krampf)

Last week* I went to a party hosted by the lovely people at New Scientist and The Wellcome Trust. I remember some kind of lychee champagne cocktail, lots of tiny puddings, lots of free wine. 

And some stellar networking with some fabulous science types. Of course.

The morning after I was sat on the train, nursing a coffee and a hangover. I had been staring out the window in the manner of someone trying really hard not to be sick in public. The train stopped. I stopped. People were alighting.

And yet the view from my window just kept on moving. And not just any old moving, but BACKWARDS!!! Blood alcohol level or motion aftereffect?

I googled it. Obviously. And I’m really glad I did, otherwise I would not have come across the legend that is Robert Krampf and his demonstration of the waterfall effect in this here video**

* I know, I know. Tardy blogging. This ain’t Reuters.
**All vision lecturers have big white beards. Fact.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

Tipu Aziz speaks, a miracle is performed, he twitches his moustache.

Things that have never ever happened before, in all the time I've been attending scientific lectures.

1. There was a queue, nay queues, to get in. The swell of people was such that they had to be subdivided according to the first letter of their surname to create several quite long queues. I know! At a lecture!

2. There was a police presence.

3. A full 15 minutes before the start of the lecture people were struggling to find seats.

4. There were 'reserved' notices on the best seats at the front. Like at a fashion show.

And then appeared the small man in spectacles and a bow tie. Behold. Tipu Aziz.

Tipu Aziz is a controversial character. He always draws a crowd. But it was very clear that the vast majority of people had actually turned out to see Mike Robins.

Tipu Aziz is Professor of Neurosurgery at Oxford and a lecturer at Imperial. He has done pioneering work on Parkinson's Disease and is regarded by some as 'God'.

Mike Robins is a retired businessman.

But in 1999 Mike had Deep Brain Stimulation, a technique developed by Tipu Aziz, and it all but cured the Parkinson's symptoms he been suffering with for six years. Before his treatment he felt like he was going crazy. He started crying spontaneously and stopped going out all together. If someone came to the door he would hide and for most of the time he was just really extremely miserable.

Then he had fine electrodes implanted deep in his brain. Controlled a bit like a pacemaker, these electrodes stimulate the cells thought to be involved in Parkinson's Disease. And whenever Mike wants, he can just switch them off.

The demonstration was dramatic and extremely touching. A little bit like this one but actually more profound. The audience sat in stunned silence. I think we were all a little bit moved. Everyone seemed to have a little something in their eye and there were several sniffles (though not from me, I'm hard as nails, I actually really did just have something in my eye right?).

Mike explained that, on our way to the lecture, we would have likely passed within a quarter mile of someone with his symptoms. Except we wouldn't have known about it because they don't come out.

Tipu stroked his moustache.