Monday, April 30, 2007

Say goodbye to Jules

Robots are getting a little tooooo good....I can't help but find this slightly frightening.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

Religion, science and hate mail

My piece about religion and its effects on the development of young children has made its way around the news media and the blogosphere (it's been on Fox News, Yahoo News, the Drudge Report and even Richard Dawkins' website), and boy, have I been getting some hate mail!

I came across this study while going through my usual weekly search for new journal articles. I tend to be attracted to psychology and sociology -- much to my chagrin, since such studies are more esoteric and controversial and generate a lot of opinionated feedback. (My piece on reincarnation elicited some VERY interesting hate mail.)

What's fascinating to me in reading my hate mail is that people overwhelmingly jump to conclusions and make grand assumptions. I have been accused of saying that atheists can't be good parents (I don't recall having said that, nor do I believe it), that I must be a religious fanatic (of course I'm anything but), and that the study I was reporting on wasn't scientific.

I concede it's social science, and that any such research is difficult to conduct and to make concrete conclusions from. But I tried to present the methodology of the study clearly so that people could realize what it entailed and make their own judgments about it. I pointed out some of its weaknesses and limitations and even suggested that the conclusions of the study could be backwards (something that the study's lead researcher wanted me to mention, for those who assume he is a Bible-thumper). But instead of realizing that I was pointing out these details so that people could benefit from them, readers sent me hate mail to the effect of "you must have been too stupid to realize that this study was inconclusive, because after all, you mentioned the limitations X, Y and Z." Guys, don't you think I pointed out X, Y and Z for a reason?

I happen to think that children benefit from religious families mainly because religion provides parents with positive support networks. But the effects of this support, in my opinion, have nothing to do with God or religion. Secular organizations would probably do the same thing -- they're just not as pervasive. But these are my opinions, not science (at least until someone tests them!), which is why I've saved them for my blog.

And don't get me wrong -- some of the mail I've gotten has been thoughful and thought-provoking, and those I really appreciate.

Now, for my favorite hate mail excerpt:

I suppose the moral sewage of the Vatican and the US Bush-God-speaking-with gov't can only be understood, enjoyed, and embraced by deeply brainwashed parasites, or religious people, as you say. I admit I only managed to stomach the first two lines of your mental vomit but it's enough to picture what sort of amazing filth you are to dare concoct such diseased rubbish.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Gore loses major points

I've always been a fan of Al Gore, but today my admiration took a heavy blow. Apparently he's been adding some new material to his An Inconvenient Truth slide show. PZ Myers says:

The slide I found particularly interesting/shocking/sad, was his new(?) slide containing a graph of human population growth over the past couple hundred-thousand years. It started off good. He pointed at the beginning of the graph, showing the population of humans on Earth from 200,000 years ago, and referred to the "rise of humans."

Cool beans. So he believes that Homo sapiens evolved from other hominid ancestors, right? Nope. In the very same breath, he then continued to explain that according to his religious beliefs, this "rise of humans" was God's creation of mankind — apparently 200,000 years ago. His graph then changed to include the caption "Adam & Eve" above this starting point.

Maybe he's done this because he's decided to run? Even so, it's no excuse. Barf.

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The mystery of the sneezy stomach bug

So, on Friday I woke up at 4am with a bout of what I believe was viral gastroenteritis -- a.k.a. the stomach "flu." Lots of nasty symptoms including vomiting, diarrhea and fever. It was yucky, but luckily I could stay home and rest as I had no deadlines that day.

What I found interesting about the illness was that despite the absence of any other respiratory symptoms, I found myself sneezing a lot more that day than I normally do. Sneezing would be a pretty effective way to pass on a bug like this, so I can't help but wonder whether the virus evolved this sneezing symptom precisely for that reason -- to improve its infectiousness. If I've come down the with same strain that has been all over the news this season, then perhaps this explains why it's been so damn virulent.

Luckily, I feel all better now. Phew.

Saturday, April 07, 2007

Science on stage

I saw a great play last week called Serendib -- I'd say anyone who loves science and lives in New York City should see it. It's playing at the Ensemble Studio Theatre, where actors including Sarah Jessica Parker and Stanley Tucci started their careers. Here's my write-up about the play in The Scientist.

Humans and Monkeys, Center Stage
A new play captures the power struggles that can occur among troops of monkeys and the scientists studying them

A group of monkeys darts across the stage. "Kill, kill, savage him!" A female screams to her mate, Jasantha, encouraging him to attack a member of her own troop. "Savage his ears and face! Go!"

Jasantha jumps up to meet the third monkey face-to-face. "I rule over you!" he yells.

War music pervades the theatre, and a deadly fight begins.

This is a scene from a new play, Serendib, opening this week in New York City as part of the First Light Festival, a month-long celebration of science and technology-inspired theatre supported by the Sloan Foundation.

Written by David Zellnik, Serendib (which refers to the ancient Arabic word for Sri Lanka and the origin of the word "serendipity") is inspired by one of the longest ongoing primate studies in the world. Begun by zoologist Wolfgang Dittus in 1968, the Polonnaruwa project, set in the evergreen forests of Sri Lanka, studies the behavioral ecology, sociobiology, and population biology of toque macaques (Macaca sinica).

Zellnik, who is young, sharp, and exceptionally friendly, first visited Polonnaruwa in 2004 after deciding on a whim to volunteer for the non-profit Earthwatch Institute. He realized there was enough dramatic material entwined in the goings-on of the scientists and monkeys to write a compelling play. (Though the play was inspired by the power struggles Zellnik observed first-hand, he maintains that the plot and characters are entirely fictitious.)

The end result is an entertaining and insightful commentary on the challenges faced by field scientists, the limits of scientific objectivity, and the power struggles that can occur among troops of native monkeys -- and the scientists studying them.

In Serendib, the Polonnaruwa scientists are joined by a documentary film crew. To spice things up, the crew brings along a primate geneticist named Ramsov who is critical of the project's research methods, and he proceeds to charm a female scientist who had been involved with the project's scientific leader. At the same time, a parallel power struggle transpires among the troop of macaques the scientists have been observing.

The play debates the value of long-term observational scientific studies like the one ongoing at Polonnaruwa, as Ramsov argues that the scientists' data are anecdotal, not reproducible, and therefore don't hold up to the rigors of the scientific method. He also accuses them of anthropomorphizing the monkeys to such an extent -- citing their use of "Moonbeam," "Nugget," and "Tulip" as names for them -- that it interferes with their research. Naturally, the other scientists disagree, maintaining that their understanding of the monkeys' behavior is based on years of objective observations.

Although Zellnik has no scientific background, the science and scientific culture portrayed in Serendib are delightfully accurate, down to the detailed scientific references the characters make as they discuss their findings ("females inherit status from their mothers, and then wield it in teams," the lead scientist explains at one point about the monkeys). This is thanks to Zellnik's own meticulous research as well as the input of his two scientific advisors, husband-and-wife team Don Melnick, a professor of conservation biology at Columbia University, and Mary Pearl, a primatologist and current president of the Wildlife Trust. Both provided Zellnik with feedback on evolving versions of the manuscript, and Pearl has worked directly with the actors to ensure that they use their binoculars just as they would in the wild.

"They did a very good job of evoking the atmosphere of the field camp," said Melnick, who spent years at Polonnaruwa in the 1980s and described the tensions arising in such close quarters as "very intense." Pearl pointed out that the questions raised by the characters are "quite realistic."

Portraying the macaques also came with unique challenges. Zellnik chose to incorporate puppets handled by the same cast members who play the scientists, but designing them and choreographing their movements took some time. "I wanted to make sure they had dignity," he said. "They're really fierce, wonderful, soulful animals." Their hard work paid off -- the puppets move realistically and are both graceful and creative.

Serendib runs through April 22 at the Ensemble Studio Theatre in Manhattan.

Friday, April 06, 2007

Scientists who rock out

Sorry for not posting some of these pieces earlier. More to come! A recent piece I wrote in The Scientist:

The Amygdaloids: Scientists who rock out
New York University researchers weave neuroscience and biology into classic rock

A quartet of two young women and two older men takes the stage in the cozy basement of New York's West Village hotspot Cornelia Street Café, famous host to artists ranging from Suzanne Vega to Monty Python. With a serious air about him, New York University neuroscientist Joe LeDoux takes hold of a microphone to introduce the first song, about "one of the great enigmas in the history of civilization" -- the mind-body problem.

Amygdaloids -- whose name is a play on the amygdala, an oval structure in the brain's temporal lobe involved in emotional behavior -- are a band comprised of LeDoux and NYU biologist Tyler Volk on guitar and vocals, NYU neural science postdoctoral student Daniela Schiller on drums, and Schiller's research assistant, Nina Galbraith Curley, on bass. Their "gimmick," says LeDoux, is that all of their original songs are about science.

"Mind Body Problem" is reminiscent of the Eagles and Bob Dylan -- easygoing classic rock that makes people in the audience tap their feet. "My body wants you so, but my mind just says no," LeDoux sings. At the end of the song, Volk, consistently the most energetic, throws his arms in the air, yelling to the audience in reference to the song's title: "Did that solve it for you!?"

Although the band only formed this Fall, LeDoux and Volk go back a few years. Volk, who was at the time working on a book called What is Death? A Scientist Looks at the Cycle of Life, contacted LeDoux in 2002 to learn more about his ideas on how the brain shapes identity. They discovered they both played guitar, and started meeting once a month to jam. After playing a few times for NYU gatherings, they learned that Schiller played the drums and Curley played the bass.

That marked the birth of the Amygdaloids, and the foursome has since performed at Brooklyn's
Secret Science Club and the Cornelia Street Café's Entertaining Science, a monthly science and entertainment gathering hosted by Nobel Laureate Roald Hoffmann. "Right now it's really fun," says LeDoux of being in the band. "I'm just having a good time."

The next two songs in their set are all about fear -- not surprising, since LeDoux is a Principal Investigator at the multi-institutional
Center for the Neuroscience of Fear and Anxiety. In "All in a Nut," an easygoing song with funky guitar effects, LeDoux asks, "Why do we feel so afraid?"

Having written several books about cognitive science for the general public, LeDoux, who speaks modestly about his musical abilities, says that he's enjoying experimenting with music as a new venue for his ideas. "Music is so direct and immediate," he says, noting that, in some ways, it's easier to communicate scientific concepts through music than through books. Volk agrees. Lyrics can, in just a few simple lines, make statements that "really grab people," Volk says. "Responses to music are just so, so strong." But don't expect them to abandon other forms of communication -- LeDoux has authored at least six papers each cited more than 300 times, including one 2000 article that has accumulated more than 1,000 citations.

Volk's song "Extinction" follows next, marking a shift towards evolutionary biology. It's a dark song that Volk sings so seriously, some of the audience members seem unsure how to react. Volk explains that the song serves as a response to people who believe that humans rule the animal kingdom and always will. "[Extinction] could well happen to humans," Volk says.

The band then plays a few cover songs, including a medley consisting of Cream's "Badge" and the Byrds' "Eight Miles High," followed by LeDoux's upbeat "An Emotional Brain" (named after his
book of the same name), which is complete with an audience sing-along. Their newest song, "Memory Pill," was written by LeDoux about his recent paper published in Nature Neuroscience in which he and his colleagues found a way to erase single memories in rats. By this point, the band and audience have had a few drinks and everyone's having more fun. "Old girlfriends, algebra, playground bullies and achievement tests," LeDoux wails. "Just give me a pill, wash away my memories." LeDoux says the Amygdaloids plan to stay together for the foreseeable future. He has a few new songs in the works, including a song about crimes of passion inspired by the so-called "amygdala defense" lawyers sometimes use. The band has also been invited to go to San Antonio, Texas in December, to play for the Mind Science Foundation's holiday party -- their first road trip.