Fragile

We live in a world where at any given time a natural catastrophe can change the lives of an entire country in just minutes. And compared to the strength of natural forces we are nothing more than a fragile and helpless host in this planet. These thoughts came to my mind as I read The New Yorker’s article “The Really Big One” An earthquake will destroy a sizable portion of the coastal Northwest, by Kathryn Schulz. According to scientific calculations (that even though are never 100% accurate try to approximate reality as much as they can) the United States Northwest area is years past a major catastrophe that will literally change the lives of everyone living on this planet. Do you think that’s exaggerated? Let’s take a look.

First of all, the simple fact that thousands of people will die and millions will be somehow affected by this natural disaster should be worrying enough. But let’s say that for a second you thought “Well I don’t live close to that area and I simply don’t care about the life of anyone how is not directly related to me”. The thing is that in this globalized world we are all related in one single aspect: the economy. So no matter how misanthropy you think you are if the United States’ Northwest is wiped out by a natural disaster of this magnitude, the repercussions will extend to every single citizen of every single country.

The even more troubling part is how unprepared for an event this catastrophic the people of the Northwest are, and how little this problem is talked about. Only if the general awareness for this event can be raised and the discussion can be brought to the big table of policy making, some lives can hopefully be saved.

Article: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/07/20/the-really-big-one

 

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Project Nim

Think about this for a moment: If you, me and any other human being’s DNA structure is about 98.8 percent the same as a Chimpanzees’ DNA. Does this means that we are virtually the same? What applies to us also must apply to Chimps? If a chimp is raised and taught like a human would it act, communicate and behave like a human being?

This last question is the argument for the 2011 documentary film “Project Nim”. Based on a series of true events the British motion picture follows the life of Nim, a Chimpanzee who had a very peculiar life, and the people involved in every step of his way. After been taken from the arms of her mother, Nim was the subject of a behavioral research which aimed to proved if a chimpanzee could be taught sign language and raised to behave as a human being.

The movie concludes in an ambiguous way. One of the researches stated at the very end that the project was in essence a failure, even though Nim “learned” some signs he was not actually communicating but rather repeating them to get what he wanted, and he was never able to overcome his animal nature. In the other hand, another person refused this idea and assured that he could feel how Nim was behaving and communicating like a human. Deciding which conclusion is more accurate is difficult since the film provides effective evidence that supports both through graphic examples and personal testimonies from those who where involved. First, in repeating occasions Nim suddenly reacted in a violent and instinctive way when he didn’t obtained what he wanted or was upset by any other reason. In contrast, many times Nim showed an impressive human-like behavior: he was fond with his keepers, learned an impressive number of words and was able to use them in coherent short sentences.

In conclusion the success of the project was unsettled, nevertheless it had a groundbreaking value that left a footprint in the field of behavioral science. According to what the leading scientist of the project stated at the beginning, if the project was proved to be successful it would mean a revolution in the fields of psychology, behavioral science, biology and science in general. Even more the film emphasizes the high value this project represented to its time, back then it wasn’t even remotely common to conduct that kind of experiment and the sole fact that it could be done was already a leap forward in the world of science.

 

Diving Into It

In her article “Curious”, Kim Todd develops an amazingly complex and deep argument about the human nature of curiosity departing from what it seemed like a biology writing on toads. First, I felt completely bored by the article, I began reading the first two paragraphs and immediately though “Oh no, toads is probably one of the last things I want to read about right now”. Surprisingly, as I continue reading I realize that it was taking a completely different direction. In fact the toads where only an opening for the main idea, a small piece of the article’s big puzzle.

Indeed, I was missing the big picture until I finished the article. The fact is that the main argument behind it was “curiosity”, and how it can be a great and terrible part of the human condition at the same time. Kim presents both sides of the coin, she argues how some historical figures looked at curiosity with caution and fear since it, according to them, lead us to “spirituality drunkenness”. And other thought of it as the reason of our evolution as society and a necessary trait of our conduct. She does not only provides deep philosophical arguments but also brings up the scientific facts. Referring back to experiments conducted in Columbia and Yale, she presents the science behind this feeling that itches in the back of our brains.

In conclusion, my point is that sometimes we settle with skimming through the surface of articles, papers and any other written publication that goes by our eyes. We are used to get the information we want in a blink of an eye, and the smallest possibility of having to go into depth to find what the real argument is just kills our motivation. This habit is dangerous to the world of scientific writing, and the only solution is to put it to a side and dive into the information.

 

The Next Frontier: Humans

As I was reading the article “Running Is Always Blind” by Sam Schramski, I thought how the human body is an amazingly complex “machine” that could never be compared to any man made creation. Nevertheless, when I finished the article I though about it and actually asked myself: Is the human body really that unmatchable? I do not longer think that.

This article is simply one of the greatest rhetorical texts I have read in a while. It perfectly manages to convey ideas as complex as human neuromechanics, robotics and gait analysis in a nice to read article. Schramski takes a bunch of technical definitions, historical background facts and new scientific breakthroughs and mixed all of them in some kind of story full of twists and turns. From the anecdote of a ultra runner he builds up an argument about the complexity of biomechanics to then introduce us to the world of robotics and the new attempts to meet our biological capacities, finally living us with the whats next then? question.

I personally think that science’s next frontier is the human body. Its simply beyond explanation how complex our own body is, and the fact that we haven’t been able to fully comprehend it astonishes me. And yes, I’m probably biased by my personal interests in biomechanics and physiology. But if the fact that as we are uncovering the mysteries of the human body people are building machines that almost match human’s biomechanics capabilities (like the Boston Robotics’ Atlas project)  doesn’t shake you to the core, I can’t imagine what does.

http://nautil.us/issue/38/noise/running-is-always-blind

 

 

The Peril of Words

Ok, so this week I read two articles regarding the use of genetic modified mice and rats in research on cancer, immunology, genetics, Alzheimer’s, diabetes among many others. Basically the theory states that mice and human genome are similar by 95 to 98 percent, making them the number one test animal for research in a broad quantity of genetic related diseases. Now, as it always happens in science, there are some who support the use of this animals as subjects and others who stand against it. Everyone has their own argument, some of them more valid than others, yet anyone with a scientifically based idea can either support or disclaim this technique without been “wrong” or “right”. What is unequivocally wrong and should be rejected by the science community is the use of misleading, out of context information to convince an audience of a personal opinion.

Something that caught my attention and I couldn’t get out of my mind was a quote used in the second article regarding this issue “Mice and Rats in Research, the National Anti-Vivisection Society”(1). in the first paragraph, Dr. Thomas Hurting a Johns Hopkins toxicologist is said to be responsible for stating that “We are not 70kg rats” a cite that seems perfectly valid and accurate statement in the context of the article, and from where I inferred that the author wanted to support his main idea (that mice and men are not the same, and therefore shouldn’t be used as subjects of human-related experimentation) by using an upstanding literal quotation. The problem is that this quote was pulled out of context, partially cited, and originally referred to a different topic; making it totally invalid to support the authors argument and represents a major scientific fault that should be reported and disclaimed.

Now it will be hypocritical from me to not explain where my claim comes from, so here I go: As I said this quote caught my attention from the beginning so I decided to look for more information of where it was stated before and I found an article called “Agilent Technologies and Johns Hopkins University to Research Novel Toxicity Pathways for Embryonic Brain Development Using Metabolomics”(2). Basically it is about how Dr. Hurting received a prize for “his research for the use of toxicity pathways to predict developmental neurotoxicity” where he stated that in the field of toxicology (study of adverse consequences of chemicals in living organisms) is it not correct to use mice because “The information we need to fully understand the toxic effects of chemicals on humans cannot be obtained using traditional animal models. We are not 70-kilogram rats”, a perfectly fine argument. My point then is that the author of the article took this quote from a toxicology related study, trimmed it to his convenience and then made a generalization that since Dr. Hurting stated that mice could not be subjects for toxicology experiments, neither could they be used for all of the other types of experiments in which mice and used as subjects.

(1) http://www.navs.org/what-we-do/keep-you-informed/science-corner/animals-used-in-research/mice-and-rats/

(2) http://altweb.jhsph.edu/news/2010/hartungagilent.html

 

 

A Vision of the Future

Have you ever noticed that every scientific discovery throughout history always follows the same, or a very similar, story: A visionary man (or woman) comes up with a new idea, this idea is rejected by We the public, the idea ends up working, people slowly start using this idea until it becomes an universal and common thing. Some of the most famous examples can be Nikola Tesla’s alternating current, Thomas Edison’s light bulb and Steve Jobs’ home computer.

This happens because it is part of the human behavior to be afraid of the unknown, to reject the new and innovative and to simply get used to what seems “normal”. Nevertheless, every so often the world of science faces a dramatic shift like the three examples previously presented where an incredible idea is brought to life by a brilliant person who struggles against the vast majority rejection to finally improve the life of others.

But these breakthroughs are not only part of history they are also happening right know as I write this and also as you are reading it. One of the most recent ones is the Electric Vehicle, which invention is not necessarily new but the introduction of this technology to the market is definitely something that has just began. So what is the problem you may ask? well as I explained before, we are the problem or at least a group of members of our society. The technology exist, it has been proved that it works and it is even less expensive than a fuel vehicle aside of the fact that it is better for the environment! But still yet EVs only represent about the 5% of the total annual car sales.

I personally believe that this will turn out exactly as it has before, the society will eventually accept EVs as a necessity and all of this discussion will be in the past. The only problem is that our planet’s well being depends on it and if we don’t do something about it there may not be a future at all for us…

 

Welcome Statement

Welcome everyone! First of all I will like to congratulate you on the decision you just made by coming to this unique place where science and fun go hand in hand (or at least I hope you are here because you meant to and not because you made a typo in the URL).

Lets begin by denying the very common misconception, which people tend to assume as an absolute truth, that science is a boring and crazy subject that only brilliant people study. Well NO, science is actually something way more big, abstract and transcendental; science is the human race attempt to understand and describe the Universe. It is literally everywhere and even though we don’t realize it we are in constant use of scientific theories, rules and formulas in our daily life. But the real problem here is that most of the scientific discoveries out there are first brought to the public through papers or thesis. This long and complex documents tend to be very tiring to read and, at the end, we read them but don’t actually understand what they are saying.

Through this digital portal I will try to bring a numerous of scientific topics in a short, pleasant but enriching way. Every time I will cover a different topic so you, the audience, can explore the big picture of scientific discoveries, and of course can make your own decision on which topic you will like to learn about. It’s important to highlight that the purpose of this page is to get as much information out there as it is possible so I will like to challenge you to do two things every time you read a post:

1.- Share it with your friends! There is nothing better than showing someone else something they didn’t knew about.

2.- Comment everything, we all have opinions and surely no one knows the absolute truth so I will like to see what you have to say about my posts, do you agree, why? you don’t, why?

So, what are you waiting for? start reading, sharing, commenting and above all have fun!

Vicente Blat

08/30/16