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Creatures of Light

[ 4 ] June 20, 2012

In my work translating Santiago Ramón y Cajal’s Café Chats, I came across the following quote: “Like creatures of the deep sea, great geniuses go forth illuminated by their own light.” Cajal is referring to bioluminescence, the ability of certain creatures to produce light without the sun’s energy. Currently, at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, there is a special exhibition called CREATURES OF LIGHT: NATURE’S BIOLUMINESCENCE, which highlights these amazing organisms. With scaled-up models of fireflies (not flies at all, but rather beetles, you will learn) and iPad videos of a dolphin swimming through sparkling dinoflagellates (some genera of the marine protist become blue-green when jostled), the exhibition provides you with that classic museum experience, one of magic and wonder. At the same time, the science that explains and attempts to explain this complicated trait, which evolved distinctly many times in life on earth, will humble and bewilder.

Café Chats, by Santiago Ramón y Cajal

[ 2 ] May 17, 2012

In 1920, the Nobel Prize-winning “founder of modern neuroscience” Santiago Ramón y Cajal wrote  Charlas de café (Café Chats), a popular book of aphorisms and meditations inspired by his years of participation in tertulias, or Spanish salons. Contributing editor Ben Ehrlich has been working on an original translation into English, parts of which have just been published by the literary magazine New England Review. As always, the new issue of NER features great poetry, fiction, and non-fiction (including, incidentally, a re-discovered translation of “Rome: First Impression” by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, whom Cajal revered). Half of the Café Chats piece, selected from two chapters “On Glory, Death, and Immortality” and “On Sorrow and Old Age,” can be seen online here. Selections two other two chapters, “On Genius, Talent, and Stupidity” and “Thoughts on Pedagogical and Educational Tendencies,” can be found in the print edition.

“It is a moving sight to watch on summer mornings as young bees gather honey for the exhausted and dying workwomen who, before their eyes grow dim, receive a passionate kiss from the sun, our father of life. Hear the anxious cry of the dying—“Light, more light!”—from the great Goethe to the humblest creature. Might this universal plea signify an optimistic prophecy? After death’s darkness, will the sun of immortality rise? It is comforting to hope and to believe so.”

Santiago Ramón y Cajal, Café Chats (translated by Benjamin Ehrlich)

When Neuroscience Goes Public

[ 0 ] April 27, 2012

A review article published this month in the journal Neuron looks at the last decade of the brain in popular media. In “Neuroscience in the Public Sphere,” [full text available here], the authors reviewed media databases for articles discussing brain research published between January 1, 2000 and December 31, 2010 in the six top-selling British newspapers and tabloids. The results? The majority of stories (43%) dealt with brain optimization in some regard, with disease and psychopathology coming in second (36%). Most interesting to me was the topic at the bottom of this list: the brain as it relates to spiritual experiences and religion (1%).

From their analysis, some major, overarching themes jumped out about how the brain is typically portrayed or used to further a point in popular media. In the words of the authors:

This research identified three emerging trends in media interpretations of neuroimaging. Neurorealism describes the use of neuroimages to make phenomena seem objective, offering visual proof that a subjective experience (e.g., love, pain, addiction) is a “real thing.”Neuroessentialism denotes depictions of the brain as the essence of a person, with the brain a synonym for concepts like person, self, or soul. Finally, neuropolicy captures the recruitment of neuroscience to support political or policy agendas.

You can see the full results and read the article here.

Long Live Ignorance!

[ 2 ] April 23, 2012

In an interview with Casey Schwartz for Newsweek — The Daily Beast, neuroscientist Stuart Firestein argues that knowledge is overrated:

As I began to think about it, I realized that, contrary to popular view, scientists don’t really care that much about facts. We recognize that facts are the most unreliable part of the whole operation. They don’t last, they’re always under revision. Whatever fact you seemed to have uncovered is likely to be revised by the next generation. That’s the difference between science and many other endeavors.  Science revels in revision. For science, revision is a victory. In religion, or astrology, or any other belief system, revision is a kind of defeat. You were supposed to have known the answer to this. But the joy of science is that it’s about revision.

Dr. Firestein, the chair of the biological sciences department at Columbia University, has taught a popular course called IGNORANCE, dedicated to what we don’t know.  His new book, Ignorance: How it Drives Science, was released today by Oxford University Press.  It promises to be a great read.

Watch: Frans De Waal on Animal Morality

[ 0 ] April 13, 2012

The eminent primatologist Frans De Waal’s recent TED talk may be one of my favorite TEDs yet. De Waal presents compelling data on primate senses of fairness and empathy, buttressed by entertaining (and mesmerizing) videos of complex primate social behaviors (the Capuchin monkey experiment is my personal favorite). Oh yea, there are elephants too.

De Waal makes a strong case that empathy and fairness are not traits only seen in humans, and that they have older evolutionary roots.  Take a look and tell us what you think:


Rap about the Cosmos

[ 0 ] April 12, 2012

If you love hip hop, you love the Wu Tang Clan, which many people would say is the greatest thing to ever come from Staten Island.  (Please understand that I mean no offense to Staten Island; we’re talking about legends here.)  Matthew Perpetua caught up with one of them — GZA aka The Genius aka Gary Grice — and asked about the influence of science on his upcoming album Dark Matter.  Here is an excerpt from the interview in Rolling Stone:

You have a new album, Dark Matter, that is coming out. I understand that you put another record on hold to start on this. What made this record more urgent?

I didn’t make it urgent. I just pick and choose. I mean, it would probably be urgent in the sense that I decided to do this before. Plus, the other needed more of a setup and different type of approach. I mean I had several different ideas and concepts in my head. It’s just a journey of the universe. Dark matter, dark energy.

So this is about astronomy and physics?
Yes. And not necessarily so in that sense. It’s just a beautiful story – planets, black holes, comets.

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