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The Cutting Edge of Science:
Not-so-serious Commentary

In a quest to find humor in the annals of science, my running commentary on current issues and discoveries in science could greatly affect your life - especially if your boss catches you reading this page at work.

ASSURANCE TO PARENTS: While the best science and scientists can sometimes be gross and disgusting, ALL material on this page is entirely suitable for very young children who can't read and older children who had "whole language" education and thus can't read either. It's those "phonics" kids you need to worry about.

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Genetically Engineered Cats

As reported in a post at the MIT Technology Review Blog, scientists have now developed genetically modified cats that don't produce the allergen that makes so many of us sneeze and have other nasty reactions when cats are around. This may seem like a handily innovation from the genetic engineering folks (you know, the ones who developed the cast for great films like Arachnophobia and Mutant Slugs Eat Manhattan), but what the world really needs are genetically modified cats that can actually do something useful, like retrieve shot ducks, attack burglars, rapidly consume leftovers, or chew up tennis balls.

Gaga about Nano

Jan. 18, 2004
Perhaps the hottest topic in science these days is nanotechnology, right up there with biotechnology. The ability to manipulate matter at much smaller scales than in the past opens up many opportunities for improved drug delivery mechanisms, improved sensors, novel materials, improved computers, and so forth. There's a huge amount of hype and hysteria. The hysteria comes from fear of the unknown, plus the fact that some classes of minute particles can kill you.

Yes, there are legitimate concerns, but it's outrageous to spread the concerns about some systems to create fear about all things nano. For example, a Nature Science Update of Jan. 9, 2004, "Nanoparticles in the Brain" by Jim Giles, raises the concern that tiny nanoparticles can enter the brain after being inhaled. It's a fair concern. I would add that they can also enter the lungs or bloodstream, and if they are toxic, they may kill you. But should we panic? The finding about nanoparticles entering the brain will certainly be used to further drive the hysteria about nanotechnology, but the nanoparticles in this study we not microscopic robots or novel drug delivery vehicles or improved computer chips, but particles generated by diesel engines--ordinary diesel soot, the kind that has been around for decades.

This is a key point: minute particles, all the way down to individual molecules, have always been around. Nanotechnology is no more inherently dangerous than chemistry or physics or material science in general. Nanotechnology includes utterly nontoxic nanoemulsions; it includes ceramics and metals and silicon chips fabricated with nano-scale components that are locked in place and unlikely to enter anyone's brain; it includes sensors and films with minute electronic devices built in that aren't a threat to anyone; it includes new kinds of plastics and inks and even foods. It's almost a shame that these materials and related technologies have been given a new common name that can be the subject of fear. Nanomaterials represent such a broad and diverse class, that they could almost be called "matter." Better yet, why don't we just scrap the term "nanotechnology" and call the materials "stuff" and the processes "making stuff." Can you imagine activists marching into Washington D.C. chanting, "Say no to stuff!" or "Ban stuff now!" or "Making stuff kills the earth." OK, I can, too, but it wouldn't seem as frightening to the uninformed.

A similar criticism applies to those who drive the hype over nanotechnology as the solution to all the woes of the world. One great example came from a keynote speech that I heard given by Philip J. Bond, Undersecretary of Technology in the US Department of Commerce, given at the NanoCommerce2003 Conference, Dec. 9, 2003, in Chicago, sponsored by Infocast, Inc. In his speech, he said that advocates of nanotechnology must avoid hype if they are to maintain credibility. Then, just moments after warning his large audience against hype, I heard him explain why he and the Bush Administration had worked so hard to provide billions of dollars to fund nanotech research. He said--and I am not making this up!--that "Nanotechnology has the ability to feed the world's hungry, to let the blind see and the deaf hear," along with bring other blessings that I failed to write down in my state of bemusement. To Mr. Bond, nanotechnology played a Messianic role, one that could bring the miracles of the New Testament to all of mankind, at least as long as a Republican administration is in power.

Would Mr. Bond or other spokespersons from the Bush Administration dare to say that "stuff can work miracles, so let's spend billions to get more stuff?" OK, I can imagine that, but it might not get as much support in Congress.

Strange Traditions in Science:
The Rite of Passage for California Biologists

Nov. 27, 2003
Marine biologist Ted Cranford (founder of is studying the incredible use of focussed sound waves emitted by several aquatic mammals. The sperm whale, for example, can emit a brief, focussed blast of sound many times more intense than the roar of a jet engine, a sound so intense that it may be used to stun large numbers of fish and squid for easy dining. His research in this area began in graduate school at the University of California at Santa Cruz's Biology Department, where he worked for marine mammalogist Kenneth Norris, studying the sound generation mechanisms in the head of the dolphin. As a new graduate student, Ted Cranford did not yet know about the rather bizarre initiation rituals so widespread in biology departments throughout the University of California system. His experience is reported by Shannon Brownlee, "Blast from the Vast," Discover (Vol. 24, No. 12, Dec. 2003, pp. 50-57):
A few years before, Norris and another student had shown that dolphins make their sounds somewhere in their nasal passages, not in the larynx, as many marine mammalogists had assumed. Norris wanted Cranford to create a three-dimensional map of a dolphin's head. He found Cranford a specimen and sent him off to do the rest. Cranford decided to cut thin slices of the frozen head with a diamond-studded wire saw, map the structures on each slice, and then use a computer to construct a three-dimensional image from the slices.

"The saw was a total failure," Cranford said. He spent further days dressed in foul-weather gear [Webmaster's note: if only he had known--it should have been fowl-weather gear!] in a walk-in freezer at Sea World in San Diego. He tried to cut through the head, but the blubber and fat never froze completely, and the diamonds were repeatedly stripped from the expensive wires. To add to Cranford's misery, the freezer was already occupied by a giant skua, a swan-sized bird recently captured in the Antarctic. The oceanarium was holding the skua in isolation before introducing it to other animals in an exhibit. [Webmaster's note: at least this was the pathetic excuse they offered a very green grad student, who apparently was mollified by the story.] While Cranford wrestled with the saw, the bird attacked and vomited on him.

The discouraged student gave up on his doomed head-sawing project and wisely enlisted the help of a radiologist to do a CT scan of the head, giving better three-dimensional data than could ever have been obtained sawing away at a frozen head while coping with skua attacks and marine vomit.

The author of this article paints Cranford's little skua experience in the freezer as if it were a bizarre and noteworthy event. To many of us outsiders, it is, but to those familiar with graduate student life in the biology departments of the University of California system, this kind of thing happens almost daily. According to rumors from high-level sources that cannot be named for fear of repercussions, what Cranford experienced was a fairly typical rite of passage in UC system. Graduate students in biology and now several other departments (including the performing arts at UC San Diego, I understand) are commonly given initial research assignments that involve being cooped up with a threatening bird of some kind, typically while the student attempts a particularly unpleasant dissection. A lame excuse is offered as to why the large, unrestrained bird needs to be in the same room. Skuas are popular when a cold room is available, but some departments use emus, ostriches, and even turkey vultures, which are particularly good at throwing up on you when they are scared. Faculty members observe using a hidden camera, and generally laugh themselves silly.

In Dr. Cranford's case, there was more to the skua story than merely being the victim of an assault. In retrospect, he may have made a particularly good impression on the bird. This insight requires a little knowledge about skuas and their ways. A page from the Iceland Worldwide Website provides this important biological information:

Their food is mostly animals and they steal food from seabirds by forcing them to release their catch and even have them vomit food.
Most new graduate students, of course, may not have know that skuas feed by making others vomit. If skuas feed off the vomit of others, then of course, they may expect others to do the same. Therefore, a skua vomiting on you is a sign of great respect, being an invitation to dine. Like many other scientists who have passed through the University of California system, Ted Cranford misread the situation. He wasn't attacked, at least not at first, but was warmly greeted. But undoubtedly all hopes for a friendly relationship with the skua must have melted away when he gave the skua the cold-shoulder treatment, bluntly rejecting the meal that was offered at great personal sacrifice. The tension undoubtedly was intense, and the insulted bird may very well have been provoked into a physical assault. But don't blame the skua, whose actions--unlike those of some biology departments--were entirely in good faith. As Cranford said with slight understatement, "It wasn't that funny at the time." And it's still not funny now, as the UC system continues running junior scientists through such strange rites of passage, often causing stress and serious emotional damage to humans and birds alike.

I pray that the scientific community will reject such rituals and show more respect for both birds and graduate students.

Brain Science Breakthrough:
Brain Damage Enables Man to Enjoy Hospital Food

March 1, 2003
Discover magazine's December 2002 edition had a fascinating article, "The Biology of . . . Disgust" by Josie Glausiusz (Vol. 23, No. 12, pp. 32 and 34). This article is now available online. The author notes that the emotion of disgust is one that plays an important role in survival, motivating us to avoid eating gross and disgusting things like feces and other pathogen-rich substances. New advances now shed new light on this mysterious human reaction, pointing to the role of specific portions of the brain and complex neural structures in the gut (an independent "brain of gut"). Regarding the role of the brain, Glausiusz reports (p. 34):
Psychiatrist Mary Phillips at the Institute of Psychiatry in London and neuropsychologist Andy Calder of Cambridge University have found that disgust has its own department in the brain, one separate from that used to process fear. Using magnetic resonance imaging, they found that two regions of the brain light up when subjects view either facial expressions of disgust or disgusting scenes such as cockroaches or decaying meat. One is the striatum, which is involved in movement, cognition, and reward. The other is the insula, which plays a key role in our ability to taste.

Stimulating the insula during brain surgery induces sensations of nausea and a foul taste in a patient's mouth; damaging it can eliminate disgust altogether. Calder cites the case of a young man whose insula was injured by a stroke. Afterward, he was willing to eat soup stirred with a washed fly swatter and chocolate shaped like dog feces, as well as sleep in a bed in which someone had died the previous night. Dysfunction of the insula may also play a role in obsessive-compulsive disorder. Some people with the disorder spend many hours a day washing or bathing to rid themselves of contaminants. Most psychiatrists see these habits as a classic case of fear and anxiety working overtime. But Phillips's research and that of others suggest that it is primarily an abnormal sense of disgust.

Those new to science might wonder how the good doctors designed a scientific study to test the effect of insula damage in the brain, a study designed with such foresight and scientific acuity to ultimately determine that soup stirred with a fly swatter would be readily consumed by the patient. Novices might wonder if the scientists' complex experimental designs with numerous experimental variables include variables like feeding a patient solid food that looks like dog doo-doo. Is this something they learn at Harvard?

No, it has nothing to do with Harvard. And while more experienced readers will note the definite Yale flavor to the experimental work with unusual foods, none of the researchers have any association with Yale. In fact, it's unfair to credit their work to the experimental strategies taught at any university or to any kind of experimental design at all, because the discovery, like most great advances in science was PURELY ACCIDENTAL.

Those with experience in psychobiological research in hospitals can immediately envision the way this discovery was made. Let me step you through the likely process in which a major scientific discovery was born:

Step 1: Young man has stroke.

Step 2: Young man is placed in hospital and studied by doctors.

Step 3: Brain studies indicate that the man's insula is damaged.

Step 4: Doctors wonder what an insula is and what it does.

Step 5: Doctors leave the patient in the hands of hospital staff.

Step 6: Normal hospital food is served to the patient.

Step 7: A nurse informs the doctors of unusual behavior: the patient is eating all his food, even the soup stirred with a fly swatter and the brownie shaped like dog feces.

Step 8: Doctors hypothesize (here is where the scientific method starts to kick in) that the damaged insula takes away normal reactions of disgust to hospital food. Could it eliminate adverse reactions to other aspects of hospital life?

Step 9: Hypothesis is tested by moving the patient to a bed recently occupied by a cadaver, and making sure the patient knows this. The patient seems content. EUREKA!

And so a breakthrough discovery has been made, and the authors will be generating publications and international publicity for some time. But science never ends, and one discovery usually lays the foundation for a host of even bigger advances. So it is here. The real payoff for the scientists comes not from the publication of their fly swatter-soup work, but from the money they will received to find and exploit the practical benefits of their work. It is very likely that the next two or three steps of this story have already occurred:
Step 10: Hospital accountants begin calculating the financial benefits of insula damage: less wasted food, improved efficiency with beds and linens, etc. Doctors assist by proposing methods to "stun" the insula of patients.

Step 11: The US military, working with the hospital, funds a major study exploring techniques for temporary insula damage to soldiers to improve performance and reduce complaints.

Step 12: A secret group in the White House explores the possibility of adding insula-damaging medication in drinking water to improve public acceptance of politicians and their activities. (This may have already happened in California.)

Like so many other great moments in science, all this progress came from simple serendipity (a word derived from the Latin expression for "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup"). How can you benefit from this? Next time you're in a hospital, ask for a quick insula trimming before you eat. Then, no matter what shape the food is in, or what they stir your soup with, you'll be able to enjoy a great meal. And as a side benefit, you'll find that listening to the evening news brings new-found enjoyment, no matter who we're bombing at the moment.

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Created: March 1, 2003
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