"Our sense of wonder grows exponentially; the greater the knowledge, the deeper the mystery."
-- E.O. Wilson
Wednesday, September 30, 2009
Tuesday, September 29, 2009
Truth is stranger than fiction.... indeed.
"Panic In Level 4" by Richard Preston
I'm not sure it's possible for Richard Preston to write anything other than gripping, page-turning non-fiction. Whatever topics he tackles he brings to intense, memorable life for the reader. Preston hit the big time in 1994 with his international harrowing best-seller, "The Hot Zone," on the African Ebola virus. His last work, "Panic In Level 4," (the title derives from the "Hot Zone" volume) is now out in paperback, and is a compendium of several of his pieces, originally published in the New Yorker Magazine. These six wide-ranging expositions share little in common other than Preston's vivid, engaging narrative.
As a math fan, I particularly liked chapter 1 of this volume, on the Russian Chudnovsky brothers and their investigation of the number pi, employing a super computer they built from scratch in their Manhattan apartment (those less enthralled by math, and particularly number theory, may actually find this the driest chapter of the book). And after computing pi to over 2 billion digits they still found no pattern or hidden meaning to the most famous transcendental number that exists. Such is the nature of higher level number theory, and such is frequently the quirkiness of genius-level mathematicians as found in these two siblings.
Chapter 2 switches gears to cover the catastrophic decline in eastern hemlocks due to an invasive parasite.
Chapter 3, "The Search For Ebola," is not for the faint of heart, and may be redundant for those who have read Preston's earlier work, but still is chilling.
Chapter 4 jumps to the controversial Craig Venter and his deciphering of the human genome. Venter's early life before turning to medicine and science is especially interesting, but so are the later machinations between himself, James Watson, and Francis Collins, all of human genome fame. A very interesting portrait of one of the most polemical and brilliant scientific figures of our times.
Chapter 5 is a quirky entry on seven famous medieval "Unicorn Tapestries" held in a New York museum. Oddly, before the chapter is over, the Chudnovsky brothers of chapter 1 appear once again, applying their computer genius to these works of art. Artists will no doubt especially enjoy this chapter.
Chapter 6 is on the bizarre genetic metabolic defect of Lesch-Nyhan syndrome, which causes those afflicted to horribly self-mutilate and disfigure themselves. It is rare enough that many people have never even heard of it, but those who have, let alone those who have witnessed it, likely can't put it out of their minds, and it remains largely mysterious, evading a medical cure.
I probably most enjoyed chapters 1 and 4 here, but all are equally well written and reader favorites will vary depending on one's own predilections.
This book is a fabulous and quick read from one of the best science explicators writing today... or maybe it should be thought of as 6 fabulous reads or vignettes because it is a bit disjointed with its sudden chapter-to-chapter subject changes, that cause a bit of a jolt as one moves along. I give it an "A-" rating, and wonder in anticipation what pray tell, is Preston working on next? ...It's safe to assume it'll be good!
Another review of the volume HERE.
Posted by ARJ at 5:06 AM
Monday, September 28, 2009
Sunday, September 27, 2009
Friday, September 25, 2009
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Scanning a dead salmon and what it tells us (or cautions us) about fMRI results:
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Sometimes I feel very out-of-the-loop: heard the term "nanobacteria" for the first time ever today on NPR, denoting tiny particles that may or may not be lifeforms that populate other larger lifeforms and are possible causative agents for disease. They've been studied for over a decade, but still with much debate as to their true nature.
A few websites with further info:
Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nanobacterium
...and some more skeptical viewpoints:
Tuesday, September 22, 2009
Monday, September 21, 2009
Whooo goes there...?
"The Third Man Factor" by John Geiger
A lot of people, faced with extreme or arduous circumstances, have sensed the presence of another surreal human, who mysteriously aids them in their recovery from the life-threatening circumstance.
"Popular science meets extreme adventure" is how one piece of promotion reads for "The Third Man Factor," a new volume about just such stories from author John Geiger, sent along to me from the publisher for review here. This is a book that straddles that ethereal world between science and the supernatural or mystical. As such, anyone interested in the whole genre of near-death phenomena will no doubt want to read this volume, while more hard-core science-types may not find it substantive enough for their liking.
The book focuses on something christened "the third man" phenomenon or syndrome, in which an individual in a highly stressful situation, even near death, perceives a vision of another individual who helps them survive their ordeal, sometimes merely through a supportive presence and sometimes with voice instruction. The additional presence (some would say "guardian angel") could actually be a second or fourth or fifth individual, depending how many people are suffering through the ordeal together (the "third" man label actually stems from an old T.S. Eliot poetical reference to the phenomena).
It helps Geiger's chronicle that many of the people with a tale to tell are not mere unheard-of John Does, but more historically-known figures, or in historical circumstances. Many are well-known in mountaineering literature, or from sailing or exploration adventures. Others come from the ranks of divers, pilots (including Charles Lindbergh), war prisoners, astronauts, and the book's first individual who was the last survivor out of the 9/11 World Trade Center collapse. One of the early and most well-known stories involves famous polar explorer Ernest Shackleton, who survived near catastrophe in Antarctica, back in January 1915, to tell of a fourth figure who eerily seemed to accompany himself and two comrades to almost impossible safety.
What all these cases have in common is extremely stressful circumstances, very often (not always) in a context of great monotony or sensory deprivation (such as a polar or mountainous environs) and great physical exertion as well. However, it is pointed out that children also commonly have vivid "imaginary" friends, and widows/widowers often lucidly sense the presence of their loved ones close by. Whether all such experiences are part of the same phenomena or represent very different phenomena is impossible to say. And whether some sort of alternate reality or pure-and-simple hallucination is involved will obviously be debated.
Geiger finds it odd that the idea that we are never truly alone, but always have potential access to such 'other' beings, has not been more fully studied. "The Third Man represents something extraordinary," he notes. So he himself investigated it for six years resulting in this volume which is largely a compendium of anecdotal reports from people who have experienced the phenomena. To his credit though, unlike some volumes that cover fringe science by merely stringing together such anecdotal tellings, Geiger does a good and fair job of interspersing the book with possible scientific explanations for such unusual phenomena. Indeed, he does such a good job that I'm not even clear what his final take on the syndrome is: is it a mystical or supernatural phenomena, or does it have a simple scientific explanation in terms of brain chemistry and the brain's need for stimulation... or possibly, he is settled on a middle ground, where there may well be a scientific explanation, but we are thus far a long way from grasping it...
This is a book that gets better as it goes along, especially the last 100 pages or so (chapter 9 on), which includes some of the most gripping narratives, but also some of the most fleshed-out scientific aspects as well. The author spends a surprising amount of time speculatively tying psychologist Julian Jaynes' controversial "bicameral" theory of right-and-left brain consciousness to the phenomena. Other scientists have discovered that stimulating certain areas of the brain with electricity can sometimes simulate the sensation of another human presence. Moreover, some people seem to be more "open" to the experience than others; indeed, while Geiger has collected 100's of accounts, 1000's of other individuals in any given year, experience harrowing, life-threatening circumstances, yet only a small percentage ever report the "third man" phenomena. Why do many die and only a select few get led to safety? --- the question is not merely why does this phenomena exist, but if it is real, why does it not exist more widely? "The Third Man represents a real and potent force for survival," Mr. Geiger concludes. His best guess as to why some people access the power and others fail to is what he terms "the Muse Factor," a psychological variable that simply makes some people, by their personality, more "open" to unusual experiences and ideas than others. Maybe...
It's difficult to deny that mystical, religious, supernatural-type experiences happen --- the question that is forever debated is whether ALL such experiences ultimately have a "scientific" explanation. And on that, "The Third Man Factor" leaves us hanging. I give the book a "B" (and the last third I'd rate even higher), and an explicit read for fans of the whole "near-death" or spiritual-encounter genre. It can definitely leave one with much pause for thought... if... you are open to such.
Another online review of the volume HERE.
Friday, September 18, 2009
Recently came across "wingsuit" flying on the Web; an extreme (and fascinating) sport, that I'd never even heard of... sort of the closest thing yet to human free flight (using the gravitational pull of free-fall with a specially designed body suit... and a whole lot of training/skill). Thus far the record distance traveled is something beyond 20 km. So for the Friday video (prepare to be astounded):
Lest anyone think this is faked... it ISN'T, and plenty more clips on YouTube here:
Thursday, September 17, 2009
A few science-related Twitter sites I like to follow (in no particular order):
Feel free to send along any of your own favorite science Twitterers (there are a few thousand to choose from!)....
Wednesday, September 16, 2009
Tuesday, September 15, 2009
Monday, September 14, 2009
Sunday, September 13, 2009
A Swiss neuroscientist says we may be able to "replicate" the human brain within 10 years, calling it "technically and biologically possible." Others in the field have made similar predictions, and I'm sure they're a whole lot smarter than I am, but I'll still flat out say I don't believe any sort of thorough human brain replication is on the horizon in the next century; mimicking certain isolated functions of course may be accomplished, but not true replication of overall in-depth, inter-connected neural operation (just as we don't 'fly like birds' yet even though we've developed some mechanical forms of flight):
Hopefully, I'll still be around in 10 years to see if he's wrong, but neither of us will be around in 100 years to see if I'm right.
Friday, September 11, 2009
Thursday, September 10, 2009
A Chet Raymo ode to nematodes here:
And his ode to caterpillars here:
Wednesday, September 9, 2009
Geeeee, what a surprise, over-diagnosis and treatment suspected in our for-profit medical system:
Tuesday, September 8, 2009
Two broad-brush reviews for the price of one today...
I shan't pretend to cold, scientific objectivity here (especially since it rarely exists anyway); I'm an animal-lover, particularly a bird-lover; and of birds, parrots and owls are among my favorites, perhaps the most human-like of all avians. With that said....
By stroke of happenstance I recently commenced reading two somewhat similar and wonderful 2008 books simultaneously; both centering on the relationship between a single bird and a single human companion:
"Alex and Me" (newly out in paperback) by Dr. Irene Pepperberg recounting the now-famous 30-year relationship between a parrot, friend, and research subject, and its owner/companion; a unique memoir.
"Wesley the Owl" by Stacey O'Brien telling of the remarkable 19-year relationship between an injured wild Barn Owl and it's rehabber human companion and 'mate'-for-life. This book by a first-time author may already be destined to be a classic.
Alex's story has been well-covered in the press and on the Internet, so much so that much of the book will already be known to readers. Wesley the Owl's story is less well known, thus fresher, and for that reason alone might be the more interesting read, full of surprises. Both books are filled with wonderful anecdotes, scientific tidbits about birds, and emotional tugs, evoking smiles and tears... and, more smiles and tears.
Beginning with Alex, was there any animal lover, or certainly any bird lover who didn't email or write Dr. Irene Pepperberg upon the sudden death of her beloved African Grey in 2007? There's little new I can add to the 1000's of words already written about this book and story. Alex's death traveled around the world via the press and Internet in a manner usually reserved for major world leaders, and unknown in the annals of non-human creature deaths. This was a book that Dr. Irene Pepperberg HAD to write; she really had no choice, but to give some closure and satisfaction to Alex's legions of fans, and no doubt to herself as well. There is almost a kind of urgency to some of the text, or a forced feeling that this story MUST be put into print in tribute to Alex, because the public demands it.
However, even with the many interesting, humorous, instructive, insightful anecdotes sprinkled throughout the volume there is still a certain clinical, almost dry feel to much of the narrative. Pepperberg can't fully escape the scientific detachment which is such an ingrained part of her training as a scientist, and which was probably even more enforced by the frequent criticism/doubts she endured about her work early on. Scientists working on animal cognition always have a difficult row to hoe, and probably even more-so for females in the field. Pepperberg walks a tightrope here between expressing the emotion Alex's fans may want and expect, but also maintaining the scientist's steely cool that is her academic milieu. The book totters a bit as she walks that tightrope. She also sketches the various ups and downs of her personal/professional life, hinting at many of her feelings/emotions, but without going into great detail (...which is understandable, since this is at root a volume about Alex, more-so than about her, and yet it also leaves a feeling of restraint or holding back, and wanting to hear more about her inner life).
She early on admits that only Alex's death allowed her to finally feel the depths of her love and connection to this 30-year companion; feelings that she had to always guard against as the grant-seeking researcher/scientist, even while others sometimes recognized the close relationship/bond that was there, one observer comparing Alex/Irene's fusses to an 'old married couple' (indeed, they were together longer than most married couples!).
I rate the book a "B" that all animal lovers will want to read (most already have), but it will likely fall short for the less animal-enamored crowd. (More hard-core science-folks may actually prefer Pepperberg's earlier, more technical volume, "The Alex Studies.") Chapter 1 and the last chapter, "What Alex Taught Me," where Pepperberg does free herself up to speak more openly about science, about the nature of our relationship to animals, and about interconnectedness, are highlights of the book. The middle chapters are a more matter-of-fact compendium of history and chronology, that varies from interesting and touching to mundane, and brings the reader to the final emotional ending. The last chapter should be read by all, even if you don't read the entire volume. This is a good book, it just isn't the great or overpowering book that some may have yearned for.
Pepperberg's studies continue at Brandeis University with other African Grey Parrots, and she is head of The Alex Foundation.
For all their similarities Stacy O'Brien's offering, "Wesley The Owl," is also quite different from "Alex and Me," and I give it an "A" rating; a simple, beautiful, again unique story. "Charming" and "heartwarming" are overworked terms for animal stories, but in this instance they apply in spades. Others have called the book "sweet," "quirky," but it is so much more; rich, insightful, moving, wondrous.
The book flows evenly from one touching, amusing, instructive anecdote to another, condensing a 19-year relationship into 230 emotional, captivating pages. The writing is simple and terse, yet descriptive, without being floral or gushy, and the small black-and-white photos accompanying are delightful as well. Interesting scientific factoids and observations about owls abound through these pages, right alongside the emotive storyline; in fact I'd say there may be (surprisingly) more scientific/behavioral insight here than in the Alex volume. But more importantly, the Wesley pages ooze with sheer depth of feeling and intensity. Unfortunately, for all the love his handlers no doubt felt toward him, Alex still comes off more as a subject, even an object or prop at times, than Wesley who is clearly a sensitive, participating member of a family, even if it is but a family of two.
From the first chapter on, O'Brien refers to "the Way of the Owl," a reference to the passion, commitment, and unconditional love of these fascinating avian creatures. By the end of the book it is a mantra for what we all ought strive for.
O'Brien writes toward the end of her work how she hates that animal stories typically cause you to fall in love with the main character throughout the book only to leave you in tears when the animal dies in the last chapter. She says she has learned to often read the last chapter of such books first so as to be braced well ahead of time for the ending that is to come. That recommendation might well apply to her own book as well. You may want to read chapter 16 first to know of Wesley's death before you are drawn into the deep emotional ride that is this story.
Chapter 10 of the book veers off course slightly to give a picturesque sketch of life/study and idiosyncratic characters at Caltech, where O'Brien was employed, and where owl studies were routine; at one point she compares the famed school to Hogwarts of Harry Potter fantasy.
Chapter 12, "Deep Bonds," is one of the best of the book, detailing human "bonds" of different types and levels. This is followed by chapter 13, "The Sex Tapes," which as the title hints, is another wonderful, entertaining chapter, the details of which I'll let you discover on your own.
The last few chapters of the book build beautifully toward a crescendo even more powerfully than Alex's story.
And having originally saved the life of this remarkable creature, before it's over, Wesley in turn saves Stacey from the depths of depression she confronts during her own devastating health crisis (although she doesn't go into great detail about this phase of their lives).
Wesley is simply one of the most memorable animal characters I have encountered in a nonfiction book.
Anyone who has ever deeply loved a companion animal, and certainly anyone who loves birds, will want to read both these volumes... just be sure to have a box of tissues handy within arm's reach.
Ultimately both these volumes are more about relationship, connection, and love, than about science or birds; cross-species love, but love nonetheless. In the video clip below O'Brien concludes that we use the wrong things to define ourselves, and we are really on this planet simply to bestow love. That is after-all, 'the way of the owl'... And Alex's famous last words to Irene, the night before he passed on, were "You be good. I love you." ...The world would be a better place if we could all take a cue from these feathered teachers.
(One can Google either "Wesley the owl" or "Alex and me" and find a great deal more around the Web about either of these.)
Monday, September 7, 2009
...well, at least some at Wellesley College:
Study cited HERE looked at virginity rates for females with different college majors. I suppose this could be open to all sorts of interpretation (...not to mention punchlines), and wider replication might be interesting, but clearly the difference between "studio art" majors and science/math majors is, well, statistically significant... probably has something to do with the difference between hallway ads for "nude models wanted" versus ads for "differential equations tutor needed."
Sunday, September 6, 2009
The prolific, incisive Derrick Jensen expounds on the nature of Nature in an essay from the latest Orion Magazine:
Jensen also has a new volume out, "What We Leave Behind." He is one of the most powerful, intense writers I know of addressing American and human culture. In fact I can barely read him anymore his content, revolutionary and anarchist as it is, is so depressing to contemplate! ...It's not that I find his strident, calamitous assessment of matters so inherently wrong, but rather my nervousness that he could just possibly be right.
His homepage here: http://www.derrickjensen.org/
Friday, September 4, 2009
Thursday, September 3, 2009
Stephen Jay Gould versus the reductionists....
Older essay on the 'Darwin wars' here:
Wednesday, September 2, 2009
Bird nerds get the chicks:
In this recent research the 'brainy-est' Australian bowerbirds were found to win more lovemaking opportunities than their less keen counterparts:
Tuesday, September 1, 2009
It's amazing how many volumes for public consumption have come out in recent years about crows or the avian corvid family they represent; a tribute to both the ubiquity, and the inherent fascination, of these brainy birds.
Now another new meditation and natural history on crows has arrived, "Crow Planet" by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. See HERE and HERE.
Haven't had a chance to read it myself yet, but looks promising.
Brief NY Times review here: