I am so cold. I feel like I should watch Frozen just so that I can find things that relate. Iowa City, why you below freezing??
Also, I want to mull some wine. It sounds tasty.
But for now, Reign and hot tea.
Margaret Atwood's hand-drawn self-portrait, along with those of other famous authors
This week struck me as a particularly exhausting one when it came to that certain brand of provocatively-headlined-but-probably-not-what-you-think-it-is science news that we know and
As usual, it’s the science media click-machine that’s to blame, which is a polite way of saying that there exists a gaping void of careful, cautious, skeptical, dare I say scientific science writing out there amidst the great internet knowledge machine. It’s desperately hard to get people to read your articles or watch your videos, but that doesn’t mean that it’s okay to disengage the gravity of reason and drift off into the aether of just-so stories.
PHD Comics has summed up this vicious form of the science news cycle very well:
It’s not all bad, of course. There’s some real diamonds that we can regularly depend on to shine through amid the soiled throngs of pseudointellectual beggars out there, and I, along with others, try to highlight their work regularly. I shall do so again here.
Here, I present two cases of “science things that were badly reported” and some links to better explanations. As usual, the defendants come from that tenuous intersection of neuroscience and behavior, because studying the brain is hard stuff, folks.
1) Mice Can Inherit Memories: No they can’t. Well, maybe they can (although I doubt it), but that’s not at all what this widely-reported paper in Nature Neuroscience says. The poor authors of that study are probably at home, drinking, wondering how, after years of hard work, their paper about how mice may pass on sensitivity to smells got so twisted. Headlines ranged from declaring this the source of human phobias to saying that Assassin’s Creed is based in real science.
What the researchers did was to condition some male mice to associate a smell (cherry blossoms) with a mild electric shock, which is mean, because that’s a nice smell! Naturally, the mice began to avoid the odor. The weird part is that their offspring, even two generations down the line, also seemed to avoid that specific cherry blossom odor, without ever encountering it before (and without their dads showing them). The dads’ noses all had more of the cells that smell that odor, as did the noses of their offspring. This did not happen with female mice and their offspring.
These kind of things aren’t supposed to be possible in a single generation. A mouse dad shouldn’t smell something, become afraid of it, and then be able to pass on a change to his kids. That’s precisely the kind of thing that got Lamarck and his giraffe necks laughed at more than a century ago. But it is possible that these mice were transmitting some sort of epigenetic change.
It’s possible that there was an epigenetic change passed down. But it’s not for sure. Beyond that, the way that statistics are applied to mouse behavior studies make it possible that the differences they see are just due to sample sizes, or not including certain controls, or some other random factor like that the humidity on a particular day happened to make the mice very jumpy. There’s also the fact that there is no known way for nerve cell changes or chemical responses within the olfactory bulb to be communicated to the testes, where sperm are made (there’s literally a blood-testis barrier to prevent that kind of thing).
Read this instead: At National Geographic, Virginia Hughes goes through the research in great detail, including comments from several people in the field who remain, shall we say, less than convinced. Extraordinary claims call for extraordinary evidence, and that’s lacking, at least in part. “More work needed” as they say!
2) Men and women’s brains are wired differently, therefore men are better at reading maps. That’s almost a verbatim headline from this news outlet. It speaks of “hardwired differences” (our brains are not hardwired) and is loaded with brainsplaining and neurosexism. This story is frustrating notsomuch because of the science, which is so-so, but because it is being misapplied by the media to reinforce cutsie-pie stories about what men are good at and what women are good at and never the twain shall meet and boy is it funny how men and women argue over getting lost?! GUFFAW!
Read this instead: At Discover, Neuroskeptic explains why the spatial resolution of the techniques used are like making a road atlas, while on the moon, using a pair of binoculars, and how the only real difference here may be that men’s brains are just slightly bigger than women’s (which doesn’t account for any noticeable difference in abilities, but can mess with scans a lot). And if you’d like a nice introduction to the idea of neurosexism and pigeonholing gender-based brain research into outdated social molds, might I suggest you read this article at The Conversation?
The fact is that men and women are mostly the same when it comes to their brains, but “Everyone can probably become pretty good at reading maps whether or not they are male or female, suggests common sense, not needing to be backed up by neuroscience” doesn’t make a very catchy headline.
None of this is to say that any of the results presented in the scientific papers are patently or provably false. But as we communicate the vagaries of Science In Progress, we must include the Don’t Knows and the Possiblys and all the other fine (and frustrating) forms of cautious optimism. It doesn’t kill the excitement. It just comes with the territory. I read it on a map somewhere.
Another article on neuroscience research and sex differences: The Trouble with Sex Differences (from Nature)
Growing up, a lot of things that pushed me toward a career in science were popular science articles and books. I’m really grateful for people who make scientific discovery accessible to a greater audience. Now that I’m in grad school and making my science career more a reality than a dream, I keep being reminded of the sometimes-difficulty that arises in relationships between science and the public. Media representations of science and scientists are so often lacking. And science news often takes great leaps and complicates the work scientists are actually doing. Correlation does not imply causation! It’s never as simple as the headline makes it sound! (and if it is as simple, then those scientists are magic and the science deities favored them).
Anyway, just keep a critical mind about and question everything. Even things that scientists say. Or that the media says that scientists are saying.
The problem with Sound of Music being remade is that people are posting things about Maria and it is really really really confusing. I haven’t seen whatever the new thing and I don’t know if I want to, but this is just an unfortunate side effect.
There was a certain book with an attractive bright green cover. It received accolades from the Prophet, garnered its author thousands of galleons, and brought entertainment to generations of young persons. But it was the bane of Madam Pince’s existence.
It was an American book; American witches and wizards loved self-help nonsense. And yet Brewing a Better You: Twenty Tonics of Kindness to Win You The Wizard of Your Dreams, by Philetus Reese Washington, seemed to captivate even British witches aged eleven through eighteen. Never had a book been returned late so many times! Never before had a tome been held hostage by the entire Hufflepuff dormitory, all consulting it in turns before the Yule Ball. Never before had Madam Pince opened to the table of contents and found entire headings circled in purple ink — defiled; not to mention the ripped pages when one got to Washington’s personality tests in the third chapter; not to mention the love notes on pages 134 through 176, penned by a pair of sixth year Ravenclaw girls who had read the thing from cover to cover and concluded that no wizards existed in their dreams.
The entire affair horrified Madam Pince. She took a tonic (a real one) to steady her nerves, and declared the thing confined to the library. None could check it out. It would remain on the shelf, to be consulted as a reference tool, never again floating from student to student and subjected to the most horrible abuses. Madam Pince ruled over her dominion like the tyrants of old, with absolute power, and so she planted the book firmly in a corridor leading the Restricted Section (fully visible from her desk), and Charmed it to that one location, and there it stayed. This did not dissuade those young witches and wizards who longed, as Celestina Warbeck did in most of her songs, for a dream wizard. They simply came to the corridor to read it, sharing furtive glances and even more furtive giggles, flouting their fancies before Madam Pince.
All but Hermione. Hermione despised wooly self-help nonsense more than Madam Pince did. And if perhaps she had gazed longingly at the thing in her fourth year before a strapping Bulgarian chanced to take her to the Yule Ball, she would never admit it. The truth was: much as she loved books, she couldn’t bear to be seen as the kind of person who would seriously and frequently consult a book like that. She’d read it once with Parvati and Lavender. But aside from that, she never touched it, except in her prefect years. Then, she would find it sitting abandoned after hours when she came to return her Restricted Section pass, and then she would pick it up and calmly put it back in its place, with perhaps a touch less aggression than beleaguered Madam Pince was wont to use. Once, while very tired, half-thinking, really not her most rational self at that hour, she told it: "It’s not your fault you’re such a silly book.”
But that was it. She had no further contact with the thing. And the years passed, and she muddled her way through romance using far more cleverness and self-righteous fury than feminine kindness, and before long she was a woman with the job of her dreams, visiting Tintagel’s magical library (four hundred floors of books in every language, magically defying the laws of space and time by overlapping with every other library in the world; basically the library of her dreams), and then she met him.
He was surely not the wizard of her dreams. American, with breezy good looks and a fondness for wooly American pseudo-science, he would pass by her very loudly and rudely while she was trying to read — he was shelving things, always shelving things — and somehow he would manage to keep her attention. He paid her endless compliments, and not the usual ones, which were all about a witch’s hair and eyes, but ones calculated to make bookworms wriggle: “Everyone just uses the books, really; but you, you love them, because you’re better than that,” and “You don’t pick up just any dumb series, do you? You really know what you’re looking for, and you go for it,” and “I’ve seen you traveling down library corridors, you know; I’ve noticed you, every time,” and “Oh, to be the page that your slim hand turns!”
It was silly, intellectually speaking. But it had an effect. Hermione — who had a wizard at home, though not really the sort of wizard that could be called a wizard of dreams — found her mind turning in all sorts of odd directions.
"He’s very sweet, but a nuisance," she confided in Ginny.
"Hex him," Ginny said decisively. Hermione tested the method and found that the hex had no effect, save to muss the fellow’s green jacket a bit, making him seem even more rakishly attractive.
"I can’t help but think he’s a bit familiar, that’s all," she told Harry.
"Dark magic?" Harry suggested. Harry was in the middle of Auror training and had Dark magic on the mind, though to be completely honest when Harry wasn’t thinking of Dark magic he was thinking of Quidditch, and this was preferable to that. And, to Harry’s credit, such an ardent romantic attraction as this fellow had formed couldn’t really be regular magic.
"He’s almost not a person at all," Hermione told Luna. "That’s how focused on me he is. It’s unnatural. Almost inhuman, like something out of a book."
Luna thought that was her answer, right there. Hermione agreed.
"Or he’s rude and horrible, like Ginny said," offered stout Neville, going on to second Ginny’s call to hexing.
But Hermione was not one repeat failed methods. She was very scientific about romance, when she wasn’t being furious about it, and so she retired to bed to think about the thing. She wrote Madam Pince a brief Owl. Madam Pince replied speedily and confirmed that certain shelves in the Hogwarts library were shared with Tintagel, yes. And that yes, this did happen sometimes with books. Books could be odd like that. Distracting them was the only answer, and this was largely a matter of proper shelving.
So then the only remaining step was to consult Ron.
"Wha…?" said Ron, turning over, half asleep.
“Twelve Fail-Safe Ways To Charm Witches,” Hermione repeated, “Do you still have it?”
Ron squinted at her. “No…?” he said. “Hang on, am I in trouble?”
"Just give it to me," Hermione said.
"You’re the only witch for me," Ron assured her. "Unless you like witches. I mean. Not that I would be upset! That’s fine. We can experiment, even! You know, I’ve always had my suspicions about Bill and Percy—”
"Give. Me. The. Book."
Ron surrendered it. It had a leggy blonde witch on the cover, the spitting image of Madam Rosmerta. She was lovingly caressing a broomstick. This made Hermione roll her eyes. Hermione took this book to Madam Pince the very next day. Madam Pince said, “Yes, that will do the trick.”
And when Hermione put it on the shelf, she tapped its fellow absentmindedly and said, “You two will be perfect together.”
When she next went to Tintagel, she experienced no trouble at all. She saw her American friend, of course. He was with another witch. She’d somehow conspired to smuggle a broomstick into the library. No one was making her leave; she was far too leggy and blonde to be thrown out of anywhere.
They waved at Hermione.
"You have bested the love experts," said the American in green, clasping his hands to his bosom. Then he departed with his newfound paramour.
"Hmm," Hermione said. She’d spent her life loving books. Ordinary Muggle books, even. Textbooks and everyday novels and long tracts on mathematics or burial customs or podiatry or the origins of mankind…
But only magical books decided they loved you back.
it is the nature of rollercoasters to cure cancer because she was a hurricane in a paper town
Oh Chemistree, oh chemistree,
How lovely are your beakers.
You wish your chem lab was as cool as mine.
This is the most cyberpunk thing I have ever seen.
sooooo… i know that you don’t want to go to school tomorrow,
if it makes you feel any better
all you have to do is survive three weeks
it’s winter break
and that means
you get to sit inside, watch netflix, and cover yourself in blankets!!
YOU CAN DO IT BABE
I BELIEVE IN YOU AND I LOVE YOU VERY MUCH
Had a fantastic Thanksgiving. Didn’t do work… So tired, but now I need to do that work I didn’t do. Grr… three hours of driving makes me tired, but it was worth it.