Archive for: March, 2011

Dinosaur Inspiration

Mar 17 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Brian Switek of Laelaps had a great post up recently asking people whether they were inspired to go into science by dinosaurs. Despite the worries of science communicators that too many people use dinosaurs and space (and nothing else, I think it was Martin Robbins that first brought that to my attention, but I can't find the post for the life of me) to get kids interested in science, it's true that many of the scientists in my generation found dinosaurs and space...pretty inspiring. Maybe it's because we didn't have anything else, I'd like to think that if someone had told me cool stuff about the brain when I was a kid I would have been inspired...but what do I know?

For me, it was dinosaurs. Totally. Space was FINE...if you like that sort of thing. Space ice cream was indeed pretty great. But I LOVED the dinosaur hall at the Smithsonian (the nearest place to where I grew up, and still a substantial trip). I went for my birthday at least three times. There was nothing better. (Ok, the mammoth they used to have in the entry way was also COMPLETELY AWESOME).

I was a dino-nut. I had a red T Rex sweatshirt I wore until it was so small my arms dangled out the sleeves like sausages. I've been trying to find one like it ever since.

I had stuffed dino toys. I had dino books. But my favorite was my brontosaurus toy. I remember getting it in a museum gift shop, but I have no idea where. It was a solid plastic model. It was dark green with a rather improbably pink belly. And I LOVED that bronty (I did name it Bronty, I was not a creative child). I loved it so much its tail got broken off and still I kept it. Its paint peeled, more and more of it became the improbably pink color of the underlying plastic. Sometime during high school it disappears from my memory of what my shelves looked like. I'd like to think it's stored somewhere with other detritus of my childhood, but I think it may have gotten thrown away, its poor broken tail a sign of having outlived its usefulness.

Why did I love brontosaurus? was green. I like green! It was tall. I was tall! Having been the tallest person in my preschool and school classes, I had fellow feeling for it. We had something in common. It had a long neck and so did I. And it was a gentle giant, a vegetarian. Something about that appealed to me. It was a big dinosaur, but it was NICE. Not going to hunt you down. No. It was a big, nice guy, who was just SO big that nothing else was going to bother it (until it was caught lying down or something).

So you can imagine my horror when I found out that it was not a brontosaurus. It was an apatosaurus. I think it was some older know-it-all kid who told me. I didn't believe it. I read they were the same and I STILL didn't believe it. People were lying to me. Everyone knew brontosaurus and apatosaurus weren't the same!!! My model of brontosaurus had a smooth chin. Apatosaurus had a floppy chin like a turkey and some sort of fleshy crest. TOTALLY DIFFERENT (my 7 year old mind probably never figured on the improbability of a floppy chin getting fossilized). Besides, brontosaurus was awesome!!! Apatosaurus was for losers. Brontosaurus sounds better, right? Right??!

Over time I have come to outwardly accept that brontosaurus doesn't exist. Inwardly, I still want to believe. There's a tiny piece of my heart that hopes that someday, we WILL find out that apatosaurus and brontosaurus are different, and brontosaurus will come back. The brontosaurus is my Pluto, and you're never going to make me really, truly believe Bronty didn't exist. My gentle giant is out there. Apatosaurus, you will ALWAYS be Brontosaurus to me.

*breaks into song*

"Always Brontosaurus to me"

You were my favorite sauropod
my vegetarian with heavy plod
and then I found out something odd
you disappeared and I am left aloooooone...

Who's this apatosaurus guy?
he's got those same thunder thighs
and that long neck that reached the skyyyy
but he's not YOUUUUUU....

For you're always Brontosaurus to meeee
the greatest dino that there will ever beee
You're the only Sauropod that I neeeeeeed
brontosaurus, always Bronty to meeeee

6 responses so far

Antidepressants, stress, and bodyweight.

Mar 16 2011 Published by under Behavioral Neuro, Uncategorized

I'd heard for a long time that various antidepressants (usually the SSRIs or TCAs) caused weight gain. Then again, I'd heard they caused weight LOSS as well. Same thing with sleep, with eating behavior, with anxiety, etc. Some people experience weight gain, some experience weight loss. Some sleep more, some sleep less. Some are more anxious than before, some less. But all of this is anecdotal, and no matter how many anecdotes you hear, it's not data.

But it turns out there IS data on this. A couple of studies have shown that long term antidepressant treatment has a side effect of weight gain in about 15-25% of patients, depending on the drug (weight gain is defined at an increase of more than 7% of your body weight. So if you were a 200lb guy, you'd have to gain 14 lbs). So there is a side effect here. The question is, how much of a side effect IS it, and how is it affected by other stuff going on in the patient's environment (such as stress, and access to a high fat diet). And of course there's the question of how long the effects last, as many patients discontinue their medications on their own (PSA: it's not a good idea to do this. Many of the current antidepressants on the market have withdrawal effects associated with them, such as refractory depression, vomiting, headaches, and more, and if you're going to discontinue use, you need to know how to do it safely. So ask your doctor. Don't just drop the pills.). So we have questions here about whether environmental factors affect the weight gain effects of antidepressants, and how long effects like this can last.

OR, you can just forego all those sensible questions and ask, as these guys did:

Could the current dramatic
increase in obesity be attributed at least in part to
exposure to antidepressants?

I rather wish I were kidding. Granted, I'm more than usually my grumpy Sci-self this morning (it's 5 am and I'm on my first cup of coffee), but...really?

Mastronadri et al. "Long-term body weight outcomes of antidepressant–environment interactions" Molecular Psychiatry, 2011.

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5 responses so far

Outdoor Afro at Scientopia Guest Blog!

Mar 15 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

As you probably know by now, Scientopia has an awesome Guest Blog!!! We switch it up every two weeks, and this time we've got Rue Mapp from Outdoor Afro, a fabulous blog focused on connecting African Americans with the outdoors. Make sure to check her out!!

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How long is that word? As long as it needs to be.

Mar 14 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

He studies too much for words of four syllables

-Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice


What do all of these words have in common? They are all in the 500 most frequently used words in the English language (ok, two of them aren't, but I bet you on the internet, they are). Notice something about these words? They are all really SHORT. Most of the big 500 are, the majority are only one syllable. This is not surprising, the most frequently used words in many languages are short. This is pretty obvious when you think about it, and applies to most languages (ok, maybe not German, where the word for "speed limit" is "Geschwindigkeitsbegrenzung". They've got other words of similar length. A mouthful? Sure. But super fun to speak!).

When you know that short words are used more frequently, then the next logical step is to hypothesize that word length is DETERMINED by how frequently its used. If you're going to use a word to mean you agree with something, and you're going to use it a lot, it doesn't make a lot of sense to have that word be 15 letters long, esp when you can say "yes", "oui", "ja", or "si" (I'd include a non-phoenetic alphabet example too but I don't think wordpress can do that in text...). The hypothesis that word length is determined by how frequently the word is used in a language was laid out by a guy named Zipf, who observed that the length of a word is inversely correlated to how often its used.

The idea behind this is straight up efficiency. Information is most efficient when its conveyed in the shortest way possible. That means short words.

This hypothesis has stood for the past 75 years or so, but there have been some problems. And now, there's a new hypothesis: what if the length of words is correlated with their INFORMATION content?

Piantadosi, Tily, Gibson. "Word lengths are optimized for efficient communication" PNAS, 2011.

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11 responses so far

Friday Weird Science: Penis Spines, what are they REALLY?

Mar 11 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science

I'm sure by now everyone here has heard about the Penis Spine Story. The actual paper involved bigger brains as well as penis spines...but who cares about brains when PENIS SPINES are around?? Yeah I didn't think so.

When I read the coverage of the penis spines, and heard it was the technical term, I was really confused. I thought, isn't the technical term the baculum? The bone in the penis of animals like mice and chimps and dogs, which facilitates erections. Humans don't have them. Penis Spine, baculum, makes sense, right? I was completely mystified as to why people weren't just calling it the baculum and seemed to be talking like there was more than one!!! Surely they didn't mean something like THIS:

And lo and behold, they DID mean ACTUAL PENIS SPINES!!! BE STILL MY HEART. I still didn't believe it, until Eric Michael Johnson (who will be doing another post on the penis spine paper over at Zinjanthropus! Check it out!) mentioned a need for a paper. And the paper...was on penis spines. The actual spines!

Osman Hill. "Note on the male external genitalia of the chimpanzee" Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, 1944.

Science. You couldn't MAKE this stuff up.

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27 responses so far

Charlie Sheen: A new kind of WIN-NING, and one heck of a drug

Mar 10 2011 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

I have to admit that I'm loathe to pay any attention to celebrity meltdowns. First off, because these people are often suffering a great deal, must they do it while the entire world looks on and slavers over what they are going to do next? And secondly, because then people go around looking for experts to ask them to give their opinions on someone they don't know, leading to some spectacular instances of misdiagnosis where no diagnosis is warranted in the first place, not to mention some crazy amounts of fail.

But then Genomic Repairman proposed a grant, and well, I'm a real sucker for grants. And it's not just about Charlie Sheen and what he did and what he's got and why, it's about what Charlie Sheen is ON. Which is, of course, CHARLIE SHEEN.

You may not have known this until now, but Charlie Sheen has been sweeping our nation, invading our homes and businesses, spreading like a fog via seemingly innocuous sites like Perez Hilton.

And so we wonder. What kind of a drug IS Charlie Sheen? What does it DO? How do people obtain it? Leigh has some preliminary thoughts on the possible mechanisms of action of Charlie Sheen, and I would like to add my own here.

First off, mechanism. As you might know (and as was mentioned in the comments), a drug is only as good as its receptor. And its possible to have more than one type of receptor. The question here is how Charlie Sheen causes WINNING without also causing FAIL. After all, WINNING and FAIL may be conceived as opposed in the opponent-process theory, and so most drugs causing WIN may also cause corresponding increases in fail. So my hypothesis is that there are two receptors at which Charlie Sheen acts (henceforth known as CB receptors, because Charlie Sheen is known to be Bi-Winning). Thus, you may get agonist effects at the CB-WIN receptors, while you might get antagonist effects at the CB-FAIL subtype.

But there is another question. What TYPE of drug is Charlie Sheen? We know it causes winning, and due to the way its taken over the nation, I have to wonder if its an inhalant. It is clearly not an opiate, does appear to have some but not all stimulant properties, and is entirely distinct from alcohol. The effects appear to be more complicated than those of hallucinogens.

I would like to propose herein that Charlie Sheen represents a NEW CATEGORY of drug. A new category that I would like to call the delusionogens. These types of drugs probably share mechanisms of action, and produce effects in many brain areas, resulting in hallucinations, stimulant properties, and predominating feelings of winning. Look out for the delusionogens, I have a feeling these are going to become incredibly well known and sought after drugs in our society.

3 responses so far

Baby Boy? Baby Girl? Baby X!

Mar 09 2011 Published by under Basic Science Posts

Perhaps some of you have heard of the fictional baby X (that's a PDF), a children's story piece which appeared in Ms. Magazine in 1975. I know that when I read it, I was amused, fascinated, and intrigued. The story is about a baby who is raised not as a girl, not as a boy, but as an X. The parents tell no one whether X is a boy or a girl, and many adventures ensue. I highly recommend you read the story, it's a fascinating reflection on what shapes us and forms us as boys and girls, beginning right at birth (and there is evidence of before birth shaping, too, but that's not what we're working on today).

Once you read the story of baby X, you might wonder, as I did, what the REAL effects of known gender have on how we deal with babies and young children. We might think we deal with babies fairly equally without regard to boy or girl, but...what DO we do? And more relevant to baby X, what do when do when we DON'T KNOW?

Welcome to the story of the REAL baby X.

Seavey, Katz, and Zalk. "Baby X: The effect of gender labels on adult responses to infants" Sex roles, 1975.

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20 responses so far

Assassins vs Men of Note: the old pseudoscience of phrenology

Mar 07 2011 Published by under Basic Science Posts

I thought that I had wavy hair
Until I shaved. Instead,
I find that I have STRAIGHT hair
And a very wavy head.

-Shel Silverstein

The poem above is something I think of whenever I think of phrenology (also it's just awesome, because Shel Silverstein is always awesome). Phrenology was (and is!) a pseudoscientific practice that was most popular for about 30 years between 1810 and 1840. It's always held some interest for me, because it seems like the inventors got SO CLOSE to getting stuff RIGHT, and then they just veered off in the wrong direction and went off the deep end and took the express train to crazytown. And today's paper is one shining example.

"Comparison of the Skulls of Assassins and Men of Note" Science, 1885.

Also, today's paper comes to you courtesy of Dr. Skyskull, who sent it along to Sci, knowing she'd get amusement out of it. YAY.
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9 responses so far

Friday Weird Science: It's not your imagination, that guy really IS taking a long time to buckle his %&$@ seatbelt

Mar 04 2011 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

I know Alexis blogged this just a few weeks ago, but a study this good CANNOT pass without me wanting to read it.  And when I read, I must comment!  And my comment?  The moral of this story: dang people are JERKS.  Territorial jerks.

Ruback and Jueing. "Territorial Defense in Parking Lots: Retaliation Against Waiting Drivers" Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 1997.

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8 responses so far

Guest Blog(ge?) Update

Mar 03 2011 Published by under Blog Carnivals

You all may recall that Scientopia just got a brilliant new Guest Blog(ge)! We're transitioning to new writers every two week, so please welcome this week Thony from The Rennaissance Mathematicus and Penny from Temple University! Thony already has a welcome post up (and probably more), and Penny has a fantastic one just up on empowering young girls. Go read!

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