Posts Tagged ‘science’

An interview with Booker-prize winning novelist Ian McEwan caught my eye the other day. He spoke to Nature about the gulf between science and the humanities. The classification of this boundary throws up some interesting areas of contention, especially when looking at those who attempt to stride the gap between the two giants of academia – taking their preconceptions with them.

Ian McEwan talked about emotion, literature and the brain

Is the flow between the two disciplines equal? Is the literal physicist as wary as his charismatic literary counterpart is of him? Have you read Shakespeare, do you understand quantum physics? Perhaps you know both. I’m envious.

Shakespeare - sexier than quantum physics?

Romanticism aside, McEwan raised some interesting points. He noted the wall between the two trains of thought, saying it was ‘intellectual madness’ for the humanities not to be interested. By the gulf between the archetypal scientist and literary scholar, he refers to differing philosophies. which can lead hostility.

McEwan said: “There’s something very warm and human about rationality. I think we are all both emotional and rational creatures and many of our conflicts or interactions with each other are mediated through our sense  of a natural justice, logic, and rationality. Somewhere along the line in Western culture, probably about the time that Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, an idea grew up that Science was an unruly beast, both cold, abstracted and antithetical to the deep, warm-blooded human nature.

Frankenstein - is modern scientific apathy his fault?

“I think that needs to be unpicked. There is great warmth, to be had, a great cross fertilisation, if you take the time to think, reflectively on what your emotional state is and how this might be changing your decisions.”

How to go about unpicking this perception? McEwan refers to the separation of mind and body imbued in the characters novelists portray – and cites this as an antidote to the embodiment promoted by scientists. Is this part of the greater problem in the public’s perception of the scientific community? Does the notion of science as an inaccessible, dusty discipline trickle down subconciously from those providing our well-thumbed method of escapism? If the two cultures were at peace – what would this acheive?

Charles Percy Snow CBE (1905 – 1980), an English physicist and novelst, famously lamented the dead space between scientists and literary intellectuals. In his lecture ‘The Two Cultures’, after finding a widespread incredulity at the illiteracy of scientists and a lack of scientific understanding of the scholars, he mused: ”The great edifice of modern physics goes up, and the majority of the cleverest people in the western world have about as much insight into it as their Neolithic ancestors would have had.’

There are, however, those in the Scientific community whom have, arguably, perpetuated this dusty reputation of the literal scientist. It doesn’t get much more literal than Charles Babbage, the ‘father of the computer’.

Babbage's 'Difference Engine' could perform mathematical calculations

Babbage (1791 – 1871) felt a little disgruntled after reading English poet Alfred Tennyson’s poem ‘The Vision of Sin’, so contacted Tennyson. He wrote: ‘In your otherwise beautiful poem, one verse reads –

Every moment dies a man

Every moment one is born

‘if that were true, the population of the world would be at a standstill. In truth the rate of birth is slightly in excess of that of death. I would suggest:

Every moment dies a man,

Every moment 1 1/16 is born.

‘Strictly speaking, the actual figure is so long I cannot get it into a line, but I believe the figure 1 1/16 will be sufficiently accurate for poetry.’ Now that’s romance.

Aristotle (384 -322 BC) - Philosopher or Scientist?

The scientific community has had a larger role in refuting the validity of work from those of a literary persuasion. In an article this week in The Times, Professor Armand Marie Leroi from Imperial College cited Aristotle as the ultimate heavy weight of science. He argued: ‘You know him as the inventor of logic and political philosopher, yet Aristotle was, above all, a scientist. A third of his works were about animals. He made living things the centre of the cosmos. What he thought defined biology for 2000 years.’

The octopus was one of the animals that inspired Aristotle

Upon observing the fauna in the lagoons on the Greek Island of Lesvos, a 39 year-old Aristotle compiled observations, classifications and dissections, writing a book spanning anatomy, physiology and the soul.  But his work was refuted by the founders of the Scientific Revolution, as science is ‘about the study of nature, not books.’

McEwan sums up today’s gulf as a conflict between innatism and constructivism. This brings the discussion back to the two sides of the highest and oldest wall in science; the battle of nature versus nurture. Considering the basics of this debate may remind those in each community to marvel plainly at the wonder of the natural world, just as Aristotle did in 349BC. Perhaps considering this may bring the lab coats and the quills closer, and the gulf may begin to lessen.

Perhaps we should all take a leaf out of George's bush

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Last week, an article that featured in Current Biology was covered broadly in the media – by the  BBC and bloggers alike – which I am thrilled to see as it involves an animal I think is awesome. The Veined Octopus (Amphioctopus marginatus), from the same group (Mollusca) as snails, has blown existing theory on intelligence in invertebrates clean out of the water.

Octopuses are considered as intelligent as dogs

In a study spanning nine years from 1999  to 2008, researchers Julian Finn and Mark Newman from Museum Victoria in Australia spent 500 hours diving in Indonesian waters. They filmed the shenanigans of the soft-sediment dwelling octopus, and realised something unique was going on. The octopus was seen digging empty coconut shells out of the sand, emptying them with jets of water, stacking them and carrying them with a cumbersome gait now known as ‘stilt-walking’:

The shells are used as an instant shelter for the octopus – and are only used when required, often being carried as far as 20 meters across the sea floor. Stilt-walking is a novel method of transporting the shells, and leaves the octopus open to attack by predators. This deployment of the shell is a clear example of tool use.

Ants carry leaves - but they are not as canny with them

Where various ant species will collect and carry leaves, this is only in reponse to specific stimuli and not deployed – meaning this is the first-ever recorded case of tool use in invertebrates.

The use of tools is a benchmark of higher intelligence, previously only observed in mammals and birds.  Professor Jerry Coyne from the University of Chicago discussed this in his informative blog, Why evolution is true.  Although the greater intelligence of the octopus is well-known and debated over in biological circles, the actions of acquiring the coconut shells are the most complex ever recorded – and there have been a few.

It seems the Beatles were a fan of the octopus, too –

Observational learning is considered a sign of higher intelligence. In 1992, an experiment in Naples proved octopuses displayed key characteristic behaviours of this type of learning, when a group of captive octopuses were trained to grab a red ball over a white ball – after having watching previously trained octopuses do the same.

In 1997, an article by Doug Stewart for America’s National Wildlife Federation cites how a night biologist at the Seattle Acquarium heard a commotion and caught a 40-pound octopus slithering around on the floor, having smashed the quarter-inch-thick lid of its tank.

Octopuses can be pesky beasts

The article also notes: ‘Octopus literature is filled with tales of naturalists briefly leaving animals in open tanks and returning to find them scaling a bookcase, hiding in a teapot or expired on the carpet.’ There have been reports of octopuses boarding fishing boats, opening holds and stealing fish, and playing with bottles, by releasing them into currents of water and catching them.

The biology of the octopus is just as neat. If in danger, they can expel black ink, change colour in less than a second and, if they do get nipped by a predator and loose an arm,  they can grow a new one back. Expert in animal behaviour from Marine Biology Laboratory in Massachusetts, Roger Hanlon, told Stewart: “When it comes to camouflage, it’s the most capable organism on the planet without question.”

The blue ringed octopus - master of deception

Octopuses have a retractable beak like a parrot’s to kill their prey. They can even eat sharks:

But the intelligence of the Veined Octopus as represented by their canny use of coconut shells is still baffling. How has their cognitive ability evolved to this extent in the marine environment, where selective pressures are completely different to those influencing the evolution of terrestrial beings? How does a species known for being solitary know to mimic the actions of its contempories – what is the advantage of this?

I shall keep an eye on the way this debate shapes up. Meanwhile, here’s Jean Geary Boal, one of the scientists who worked on the Naples experiment. She’s got a bit of a soft spot for the soft things:  “It’s extremely easy to anthropomorphise octopuses. They make eye contact with you. They respond to you. They reach toward you. There’s just something mesmerising for people about octopuses.”

*nb – in researching this article, I found Octopi is not the plural preferred by the majority of  scientists.

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According to the Human Genome Project, Biology will be the foremost science of the 21st Century following the completion of sequencing the human genome in 2003. The possible ramifications of this are vast, and may be applied to areas as diverse as human migration and archaeology.

We all need the work of research scientists

This is music to my ears, as I find reading about new research in biology absolutely fascinating. I feel many more people would if they could only get to see some of the things the human condition is capable of, and the phenomenal abilities of the minds of research scientists who literally work to save humanity. The fates of our lives are in the hands of these people, and I do not think we consider them enough. Here’s some music for your ears, I think it goes nicely with my blog:

It’s a tough job. Where would you start, if you were faced with a disease such as HIV? A disease that morphs and hides in the body in ways a human being with all the time in the world and the mind of Einstein could not invent. Imagine having only a laboratory, and a set of symptoms to work with, what would you do? I am in constant awe of the people who are able to not only seek out the tiny changes causing disease, but who can use these observations to create bespoke treatments.

I’ve been reading about synesthesia today. This is a harmless neurological phenomenon where a stimulus to one sense triggers a response in another – literal sense swapping. So, you could see a piece of music in morphing colours and shapes, taste the flavour of words, see numbers as objects, or directly associate numbers and letters with personalities. Or a day, month, or number might mean a specific location in space.

Seeing numbers as colours

Synesthesia means ‘joined sensation’, and has an incidence of one in 23 people in its different forms. It can be induced by epilepsy, a stroke, blindness or deafness, and is passed through families, although scientists are yet to identify the exact form of inheritance. The sense-swap is accumulative, so the sufferer will hear a sound and see a picture, at the same time. The correlation lasts a lifetime – if Tuesdays taste of beef bourguignon and Nirvana’s 1993 acoustic set looks like a dozen cardboard cutouts of Des Lineham floating three foot from the floor, they will do always.

Synesthesia was first mentioned in 1690 by Oxford philosopher John Locke. He questioned the mental capabilities of a ‘studious’ blind man after he claimed he tasted scarlet when he heard a trumpet. Attitudes now have progressed following a bout of research in the late 1990s, and synesthesia is now regarded as something more than a literal metaphor, and fascinates many in the science and art communities. Perhaps unsurprisingly, it is an affliction  not uncommon amongst artists and musicians.

Wassily Kandinski, 1866 - 1944

Russian artist Wassily Kandinsky is largely considered the inventor and theorist of abstract painting in the 20th century. Kandinsky, born in 1866, suffered from synesthesia and wanted to use his condition to create the painterly equivalent of a symphony, to stimulate the ears of the observer. That’s quite a brief.

Wassily Kandinsky - Composition VIII, 1923

When he was a child, Kandinsky complained that his paintbox hissed at him. But whether or not he actually had synesthesia has been a subject for debate, as it is a phenonemon sometimes sought by artists in order to find inspiration for their abstract creations.

The Tate Modern featured an exhibition of Kandinsky’s work in 2005, which helped to raise discussion around the topic. An insightful piece in The Telegraph at the time claimed he had acheived ‘pure abstraction’.

Wassily Kandinsky - Several Circles, 1926

Kandinsky mused: ‘Colour is the keyboard. The eye is the hammer. The soul is the piano with its many strings.’

If  a composer encountered his paintings and was inspired to write a symphony, I wonder how similar the two pieces of music would be. Perhaps this has happened already.

British painter David Hockney heard the colours blue and red during the music of Ravel, so painted his stage sets of the Metrolopolitan Opera accordingly.

David Hockney, An Image of Celia

Perhaps this painting is supposed to look like Ravel’s Bolero?

I think one of the most remarkable forms of synesthesia is ordinal linguistic personification, OLP. This is when days, months, letters or years are assigned personalities. Dr Richard Cytowic has written a book entitiled ‘The Man Who Tasted Shapes’ . One of his subjects suffering from OLP told him in 2003:  ‘I is a bit of a worrier at times, although easy-going; J is male, appearing jocular, but with strength of character. K is female; quiet, responsible’.

Dr Cytowic's book

Another synesthete, Carol Steen, revealed: ‘There was a piece of music by a group called Uman. The first note was grey and it was like a band with a slight curve to it, and it was a gradient, and it had gold specs on it. The background was black but it was being broken up by other colours, moving shapes of fuchsia and there was a small click, almost like a drumbeat, something being struck, and as it was struck, a black shape appeared, and the shapes appeared from left to right, going horizontally across the bottom of this, like a movie screen I was watching.

‘And the shapes were so exquisite, so simple, so pure and so beautiful, I wanted to be able to capture them, but they were moving too quickly and I couldn’t remember them all. And it’s kind of a pity because it was a year’s worth of sculpture I was seeing in a few moments.’

I try think of phenomena such as synesthesia in an evolutionary context. Have our senses always been wired as they are now? For arguments sake, suppose seeing and hearing sound led to a quicker reflex time in response to a predator. The individual displaying this characteristic would be more likely to live to a reproductive age and pass on this trait, the inheritance of which would be likely due to syntesthesia’s strong inheritability.

Perhaps this characteristic would spread throughout populations and increase in incident until the prevailing response to sound is vision. How would a society shaped by these duo-senses look? How would it be different to ours, today? Would we be more efficient as a people, or less?

James Watson and Francis Crick, and their famous DNA double helix

I don’t have the answers, but I bet there is a scientist out there who is searching for them right now.

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One hundred and fifty years ago today, Darwin’s On the Origin of Species was published. Recently, an article in the New Scientist mentioned copies of The Origin are distributed in some US college campuses – complete with a Creationist introduction. How can science and religion mingle and sit side by side together in explaining arguably the biggest question of all time; how and why it is we are here today?

Charles Darwin

On one hand, cynicism aside, perhaps the introduction is a good thing, as it may cause new questions to be looked at instead of relentlessly spinning the tired wheel spun by many in scientific and religious communities.

An interesting slant on the debate can be found on The Darwin Report.

This debate applies to all of us

As long as people look to The Origin for reasons why we are here, and to the Bible for an explanation of how we are here, there will continue to be misunderstanding and contempt. The Origin doesn’t claim to explain why we are here. The Bible should not be interpreted so literally as to explain how we got here. As long as Darwin’s work is viewed as a separate entity it will be forced to compete with the Bible, and this will continue to stop the debate moving forward.

It may be that science can explain the how, and religion, the why, and that the introduction will encourage this. If each does not attempt to branch into the other, can the two sit side by side? Will the people fighting the corner in each ever get on?

Creationists take the Old Testament literally

Perhaps the creationist introduction will make the debate move forward. This can only be a good thing, as the popular perception that science and religion can only sit at loggerheads may hinder our understanding. Buddhism, for example, can sit comfortably alongside evolutionary theory, which is more than theory now. This morning on Radio Four’s Today Programme, member of the Western Buddhist Order Vishvapani discussed the role of evolution in Buddhism. He said: “I value Darwin’s work as an account of how the world came to be as it is; but describing how our situation arose is one thing, and making sense of it is another.”

Buddhism may sit nicely alongside Darwinism

That said, clearly the idea that creationism should be so indelibly part of The Origin, will upset many in the science community. Richard Dawkins constantly fights to seperate evolutionary theory from intelligent design:

Even the act of considering these questions comes under the evolutionary spotlight. How does perception evolve – why would a greater understanding of why we are here be a preferable evolutionary trait? Does it lead to increased chances of survival?  In a world which has evolved to the incredibly complex state it is at now, to consider these seemingly simple questions is no small feat.

I wonder if Darwin thought we would evolve to this extent

But evolution lies at the very heart of our existence, of every single feature we have – including the mere act of thinking and reading these words. Or, as David Attenborough told The Guardian earlier this year, following an barrage of hate mail for not mentioning God in his documentaries: “It’s like saying that two and two equals four, but if you wish to believe it, it could also be five … Evolution is not a theory; it is a fact, every bit as much as the historical fact that William the Conqueror landed in 1066.”

David Attenborough

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Why does science matter? Do you think it does? Do you think about it much, at all?

What happened in one innocent man’s brain to make him drive 23 kilometers in his sleep and murder his parents in law?

Do we have to grow old and die?

If we could grow our own limbs, would you want to?

If you had to go out into the rainforest and find a molecule to cure breast cancer, how would you make a start?

Do you know how remarkable it is you were even born?

In a world where the diversification of humanity has lead to a myriad of cultures, religions and corresponding beliefs, the one common pulse for us all, the universal currency we can all relate to and prove, the only thing truly known, is science.

What is the future of science? This is a question that cannot, and should not, be answered by scientists alone. The ethical and moral dimensions of new biological advances must be considered by us all, as they will undoubtedly effect us all.

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