Archive for: August, 2013

Arclight: lighting the brain in action

Aug 12 2013 Published by under Behavioral Neuro

Over at SciAm Blogs, I'm talking about a brand new technique called Arclight, which detects voltage changes in neurons, allowing you to watch as a neuron fires, in real time. It's pretty cool, and there are videos! Head over and check it out!

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Friday Weird Science: Get off my beach blanket!

Aug 09 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science

It's summertime, and that means it's time to head to the beach. And of course, when there's only a limited amount of beach, a limited amount of summer, and lots of people, well, you get crowded beaches.

What's the first thing that anyone does when they go to the beach? No, it's not running straight into the water or put on your sunscreen or whatever. When you get to the beach, the first thing you do is claim towel (and umbrella, if you are an umbrella type) territory. You gotta stake your claim! Usually you need a place to put however many towels out, umbrellas, maybe a cooler, toys for kids. Things. Beach things. You need space for that. And a place to park your butt when the sea is too cold and the sand is too hot, or to soak up some rays (which, it should be noted, has its health hazards, esp when a book is involved. I gave myself a second degree sunburn once trying to finish "Pillars of the Earth", because I forgot to do things like roll over or put on sunblock. This is why beach reads should not be TOO interesting).

And when you look for a spot on the beach...well you don't want to just up and set your towel RIGHT NEXT to someone else. Especially if the beach is less crowded. It looks weird, ok? If you don't know them, it's weird.

But how much space do you give? What's the personal space beach bubble diameter?

Would you believe that someone has done science on this?

H.W. Smith. "Territorial Space on a Beach Revisited: A Cross-National Exploration.

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Sci Walks Hadrian's Wall, Part Three

Aug 08 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

Day 6: The WALL!


(Yes. I am standing on a 2000 year old UNESCO World Heritage Site. What did YOU do today?)

After a fortifying breakfast (it was make your own, which I really liked, and I have MASTERED the full English breakfast! With beans! Good for hiking fuel, beans) we set off. 15 miles for our first day, and by the end, yeah, my feet were really tired. But so far, it's definitely worth it (though poor Mr got a blister).

Side Note: One of the things I really liked about the UK: Half pints! It's a great system. Costs less. You drink less. It's good especially for when there are like three things on tap you want to try and you don't want to commit to a full pint. Can the US get these? Please??

The first leg of Hadrian's Wall actually had...very little WALL. The one you see above is a good sized chunk of "broad" wall in Heddon-on-the-Wall, and the last bit of wall we saw...all day ("Broad" wall is wall built to three meters wide, on the original plan. After they got a few miles in the the Romans realized it would be too much of a pain, and the rest of the wall was 2 meters wide "narrow" wall on 3 meter foundations). What we mostly saw was the Vallum, a very wide ditch on the south side of the wall, which is still there in a lot of places, and the deep, steep ditch on the north side of the wall (originally there would have been sharpened stakes in there, something you couldn't ride a horse through), which we ended up walking along for a good portion of the day. the ditches on both sides of the wall enabled the Romans to have good defense on both sides, and also to restrict traffic to a few access points for easy customs and taxes (priorities!).

The hills and woods were a brilliant green, the weather was perfect (ok, the locals were all complaining about how it was SO HOT. It was about 80 degrees F at the hottest. We thought it was lovely), and there were lots and lots of sheep. And cows. And horses.


(Bucolic is the word I'm going for here)


(Hadrian's barn packed us a lunch with appropriately themed chips)


(Our constant, skittish companions)


(The path itself)

Every once in a while we'd run into a convenience pub and stop for a beer. Hadrian's Wall Path, the longest pub crawl in the world.

It should also be noted that the trail ran mostly through fields, though a little bit through towns. The result of this is that you're hiking with cows and sheep and stuff. This also means they own the fields, and the fields can become...well we started calling them "mines". Poop mines. At some point, you WILL get mined. If you can choose, choose a sheep mine over a cow mine. Trust me on that.

At the very end, we hit the Roman fort and bridge remains at Chesters. The remains are really striking, gates, barracks, and a full bathhouse down by the river (Romans took bathing VERY seriously). There were also a bunch of people there who were Roman reenactors. We chatted with one guy for a while (an Irish Roman reenactor, who flew over with all his armor to feed his reenactment habit) about reenactment culture and what they do.

The Museum at Chesters had a bunch of artifacts and stones. The majority of these are small alters or stones stating that "so and so fulfilled his vow to Mars/Venus/Jupiter", which were made as offerings to a temple when someone...fulfilled their vow. Whatever that happened to be (it could be a dove sacrifice or something a lot more difficult). There were also various symbols of things like good fortune:


(A Roman sign of prosperity and good fortune. Not kidding. Yes, that is exactly what you think it is)


(The ruins at Chesters)


(I am sitting in the bath house at Chesters. The niches were probably for statuary, but that whole row of niches has survived over 2000 years)

Then we headed to the George Hotel for some good beers, a friendly bartender, and pretty views after a long hike. The bartender was nice enough to say that we looked in way better shape than most of the people who come limping in after the 15 mile leg.


(Intrepid Neuron contemplates paradise)

We then hiked another mile or so to our stop for a day, a rooming house that will remain nameless, as it loses strongly for the GIGANTIC spider in the bathtub at 2am.

Day 7: The Wall Continues

We had gotten lucky. The beautiful sunny mild weather. The warmth. Light breezes. And then. Then there was day 2 on the wall, when Northumbria reminds you what she is made of. It rained. Hard. Sideways. For the first 8 of our 12 miles. 8 miles of driving wind and rain and COLD. The invention of thermal underlayers and waterproof jackets was the most amazing thing in history. Makes you really pity the poor Romans, all in their wool tunics, shivering as they stared north searching for the Scots.


(Hadrian's Wall in the rain)

During today's sodden hike, we saw the very well preserved remains of the Mithraeum, a temple to Mithras, a Persian god adopted by many Roman soliders, involving dark, light, and the sacrifice of a bull.


(Remains of the temple)

Today was the windiest, and also the HIGHEST point of Hadrian's Wall, and today we finally saw a LOT of wall. A lot of it is "narrow" wall, only 2 meters across. But it's well preserved, and there's a good reason why. The wall in this area runs on the top of steep cliffs called the "Whin Sill". It's testament to sheer Roman bloody mindedness. It's on the top of a hundred foot cliff. There is NO WAY that invaders are getting at it. You don't NEED a wall there! But there it stands. Because they were going to build a wall across the whole country, and so help them, they built it.

After a lot of hiking in rain, wind, mud, and misery, we arrived at the Roman Fort at Housesteads, which happily had a nice hot drinks machine and nice museum curators, who let us sit inside while we dried out and warmed up. Housesteads has been beautifully preserved and is well worth a visit. We also saw a bunch of turrets every quarter mile or so (which would have a fire in the bottom and a ladder to the top of the wall), and a bunch of milecastles (built, obviously, every mile), which housed a detachment of about 30 men.


(A milecastle with a very well preserved arch.

We also went through the Sycamore gap.


(It is apparently most famous for it's role in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves)

The Sycamore Gap is another testament to Roman bloodymindedness. Those hills are NUTS. Cavalry would break a leg. You'd think you could build the wall as a terrace set, or maybe curve it a little and build somewhere flatter. But no. The wall will go in a straight line because the Romans SAY SO. Even if that means building up a nearly 90 degree angle.

Our feet are tired, but we haven't given in! On the A6318, the highway that runs the entire length of Hadrian's Wall (based on a military road from the 1700s),  you can see the Hadrian's Wall bus go by (the AD122, named that because Hadrian's Wall was built in AD...122. Yes. They really named the buss that). We have dubbed it the "fail bus", and are determined only to get on it if we fail to hike the distance (a name, by the way, which we quickly spread to our fellow hikers on the trail). But not to day, failbus, not today.

After Housesteads the rain let up, and we ended up comfortably ensconced in the town of Once Brewed, at the Twice Brewed Inn (yes, this exists).


(Told you it exists)

We lingered over tasty beers and tasty sausage, letting our feet dry (sort of, we were wearing wet boots for the next TWO DAYS), before we headed to our accomodation that night, Hunter Crook Lodge, a lovely renovated barn. It was really classy, and best of all, they had baby lambs we got to play with!


(Your heart just melted a little, didn't it)

They even have a hot tub! After the rather lame place last night with a huge spider, it was a lovely improvement.

Day 8: More Wall

This day was "only" 8 miles, but it was a pretty up and down 8 miles with lots of hills. We also saw our first injury, as we witnessed someone's ankle break on the trail. Yeah. I hope he's ok, poor kid. Thankfully they had phones and could call for assistance, but I can only imagine how they got him out of there, it was the middle of nowhere Northumbria. The wall is not easy on the unwary.

We also passed another instance of Roman insanity. This milecastle:


It's a little hard to see from the photo, but the milecastle is build on a horrid angle, constantly sloping. Terrible to walk on and probably worse to build on. Just behind it, there is a small valley. 50 feet to the left, with places for travelers to go through and nice flat ground. But see, this is a milecastle, and it WILL be built every MILE, not every mile and 50 feet to the left, no matter how convenient it might be. Romans.

But it's got lovely scenery


Just off the wall path, we stopped at the lovely and romantically ruined Thirwell Castle (also of Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves fame)


And we backtracked a little to get to the Roman Army Museum, which has some really nice exhibits and videos. And helmets.


(Intrepid Neuron goes Roman)

We headed on to our next stop, Gisland, where we stayed at another incredibly charming place, Bush Nook, and had a super tasty dinner at the Samson Inn (seriously, the chicken is GREAT there. I wanted to try a fish pie, but another hiker took the last one! I still blame him for my never having had one). After seeing a kid break bones on the trail, you need a pint.




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Sci Walks Hadrian's Wall, Part Two

Aug 07 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires, Uncategorized

Ok, we're not to Hadrian's Wall yet. Patience. Patience.

Day 3: Edinburgh, part the third.

Did you know that bagpipe renditions of Coldplay exist? I could have gone my entire life without knowing that. Sadly, it was blasting from a souvenir shop. Which means, of course...I had to find it and share it with you.

You adore me, don't you.

Anyway, we had a lot to fit in this morning! Started out at the High Kirk of St. Giles, the main cathedral below the castle on the Royal Mile.


You can't take any photos inside (unless you pay), but it's really gorgeous, with a full set at the back of stained glass depicting the life of Jesus, and a small chapel for the Order of the Thistle, which has lovely warm wood paneling. There are also monuments to various things, including one which I enjoyed, a monument blessing the invention of chloroform for anesthesia.

From there we headed to the Royal Museum/Museum of Scotland, two museums merged into one. One half tells the history of Scotland, while the other has...everything else. It's rather confusingly organized. One minute you're looking at taxidermied narwhals, and the next...mummies! We had trouble finding a coherent narrative in the Scottish history section, either, though I see what they were trying to do with it. We did see "the maiden", the famous guillotine that ended up executing the guy who designed it.


The main hall of the museum was great.


But amidst all the other stuff they had...Dolly!

(Sci meets Dolly).

Dolly was the first mammal cloned from an adult cell. As a sciencey person, I have to say that seeing her was...honestly pretty emotional for me. She's an embodiment of some of the wonders of science. And she's looking very good for her age...nice taxidermy work. I was also very impressed at the exhibit surrounding her, which had a whole educational thing where you could elect to learn more about cloning, and then it asked your opinion as to what you thought about it, whether cloning should be used for medicine, for example, and then showed your response and how it compared with others. I thought it was very effective.

There was also a special exhibit on Mary, Queen of Scots, which was very cohesive and extremely interesting. In every country there are a few historical people who really stand out, for one reason or another. England has Elizabeth I, Henry VII, Cromwell, Richard III. The US has Washington, Franklin, Custer. And Scotland has Mary, Queen of Scots, Robert the Bruce, William Wallace, Bonnie Prince Charlie, and James the VI and I (the last is the son of Mary, and united Scotland and England under a single monarchy after the death of Elizabeth I).

Mary, Queen of Scots had a...well a rough life. Not all her fault. But some of it probably was. She became queen at 6 DAYS old (her father having died, possibly of a fever, after a massive defeat from the English at the Battle of Solway Moss in 1542), and immediately became the subject of wars and political craziness. Henry VIII of England wanted her (his great niece) to marry his son Edward (who became Edward VI). Her mother, Mary of Guise, wanted her to renew the Auld Alliance and marry Francois, the Dauphin of France. Henry VIII came in with an army and sacked a few cities to try and get the Scots to agree to a betrothal (called the "rough wooing"). Given this touching display of romance, I'm not surprise the Scots ended up going with France over England. They smuggled Mary out of England to be raised in France by the time she was 5, partially due to constant issues with the English, but MOSTLY due to religious issues between Protestant and Catholic (Mary was Catholic).

Mary grew up at the French court, married the Dauphin, and was, for a short time, Queen of France AND Scotland, while her mother ruled as regent in her place. But Francois died, and Mary came back to Scotland to rule. It didn't go very well, there were a lot of religious tensions (things leaned Protestant, and Mary was thought to be too open about Catholicism), a lot of political tensions (a woman, rule?! God forbid!), and there were personal tensions as well. Mary was, by that time, very French, and clearly preferred her life in nice warm France to the Highlands. The Scots did not appreciate it at all. Mary then went and got married again, to Henry Lord Darnley. Apparently it was love at first sight, that then went VERY sour. Everyone else hated him too, but Mary said she didn't want his death "on her conscience". So some lords probably set up the plot that ended up murdering Darnley in a large gunpowder explosion. Mary then runs off with the Earl of Bothwell (charged with Darnley's murder, but acquitted), and marries HIM (she may have been forced to it, but no one really knows). She's forced to abdicate the throne and flee to England for asylum, Bothwell dies insane in a prison in Denmark. Mary is placed under house arrest in England where she stays for 19 years before being tempted into providing evidence of treason against Elizabeth I, who then has her executed. With history like this, why read a novel?

The exhibit on her was VERY good, with lots of maps and a nice timeline to guide you through, and a AV thing on who really murdered Darnley (answer, well everyone had a motive...).

We stopped for lunch at an AWESOME little cheese shop that had sandwiches! And then I FINALLY got my scone. Two. Covered in clotted cream and jam. Heaven.

We then visited the University of Edinburgh building, which has a fabulous library.


(They don't build 'em like that anymore, do they)

We then headed to the Greyfriars Kirk. It's a pretty little church with lovely gardens, and home of the Greyfriars' Bobby, a little terrier that stood by his old owner's grave for 14 years (don't worry, they did give him a doghouse). He even has his own little grave.


And statue.


The church is surrounded by old graves, some of which still have the iron gratings across, put there to stop grave robbers taking the bodies and selling them to the medical school as cadavers.


The garden contains pretty little plots of medicinal plants, with little tablets stating their purported uses. The man who managed the church chatted with us, and told us that the gardens are a form of therapy for some of the mentally ill.


(I don't know how Alex Wild does it. I could NOT get this bumble bee to pose)

We then wandered the Price St. gardens next to the castle. They are gorgeous, and have a nice memorial to Robert Louis Stevenson.


And a completely awesome clock that is made out of plants and WORKS!


For dinner we went to Wiski, where we enjoyed a delicious flight of...whiskies (of course), and more tasty haggis.


Then we raced off because we were almost late for...the Literary Pub Tour! Edinburgh is home to lot of the world's greatest authors (Burns, Stevenson, Scott, etc, etc), and the Edinburgh Literary Pub Tour takes you through some of their former haunts, stopping at each pub to have a drink and hear hilarious and interesting anecdotes. Really interesting and lots of fun! And a hint, when they say "the Bard" in Scotland, they don't mean Shakespeare. They mean Burns. We ended up at the Cafe Royal with a group from Sweden (hello, Malmo!!)


Day 4: Goodbye Edinburgh, Hello Newcastle!

After a breakfast where I finally discovered traditional Scots porridge (how do you make porridge?! Is it just...oatmeal? It's WAY better than oatmeal. Someone needs to teach me this. SO GOOD), we spent our final morning at the National Gallery of Scotland. It was small (half is closed for repair), but they had Rodin's "The Kiss" on loan, and the famous Skater painting and many others (also, can someone tell me what the HECK it means when a painting is described as "painterly"? What does that even MEAN?). A good collection of European art as well, though some of the subjects were a little weird. For example, there's a painting of St. Agatha (or a young girl posing as her namesake) posing holding a pair of her own breasts, which were cut off as St. Agatha earned her saintly status. So the girl is just posing there with a rose and a pair of breasts in one hand. Like you do.


(Intrepid neuron with roman busts. I'm pretty sure the one at center was on the cover of my first Latin Primer)

We snagged more cheese sandwiches for lunch and then I got a PASTY! I thought this would be an essential experience. Really, I'm surprised they haven't caught on in the US. Nice little handheld pie full of bacon and cheese. It's GOT to be a winner, right?!

We loved Edinburgh, but now we were coming to the real purpose of our journey: Hadrian's Wall, a Roman wall built starting in 122 CE (by the Emperor Hadrian, of course) to separate the Roman empire and the "wild" people of Scotland. It runs 73 miles from Newcastle Upon Tyne to Bowness on Solway. It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and it also has a path running alongside it. If you like history, hiking, and beer, you can't possibly find a better way to spend a week. But I admit I was starting to get a little nervous. When we signed up for a tour (you hike on your own, but the tour means they put you in a B&B every night and take your bags on a truck. Because that is how I travel), the company emphasized that we should train and that the hike "should only be attempted by those who are used to a good walk" ("walk" being the UK version of "hike"). We...didn't train. We were hoping our long distance training would get us through.

But first we had to get to Newcastle, and ended up walking a good 1.5 miles with the packs to find our hotel (and an Italian dinner that, while cheap...did not go down well at all).


(Our hotel was across from a cricket pitch. We watched a while. We had NO idea what they were doing).

Day 5: Newcastle upon Tyne

Hadrian's Wall begins at Wallsend (yes) in Newcastle upon Tyne. You can hike the first day all through Newcastle. We decided to skip out on this first day, and instead spent the day seeing Newcastle itself. We started at the St. Thomas Becket church, where a very friendly guy who works there (and is from Texas, strangely enough), told us all about the church, how it was built originally to say "sorry" for the murder of St. Thomas a Becket (who, as far as I can tell, wasn't really all that great of a guy, but turned suddenly extremely holy when appointed the Archbishop of Canterbury. This did not agree well with the king, Henry II, who got him the appointment. Murder ensued), and how it was eventually moved to where it stands today. He had some great recommendations for places to eat and drink along the wall, and asked us to look out for the locals on the hike (the weather was unusually hot for the area, he worried they didn't carry enough water. But don't worry, we didn't see dehydration!).

We then headed to the Great North Museum, which has a fantastic interactive exhibit of Hadrian's Wall, with lots of characters and descriptions and a model of the temple of Mithras, which was found along the wall itself.


(Examples of Roman armor. Left is an Auxilliary, right is a man of the Legions)

Also, it had a giant deep sea crab.


(Giant Crab. Mr. S provided for scale)

Side Note: In Europe, Vodaphone stores have little lockers where you can charge your phone!! This is great as while our chargers had the right voltage...we did not realize they had the entirely wrong plug shape. You just put in a pound and lock the phone and take the key away. Come back, phone is charged! Saved our butts.

When then headed to St. Andrews, the oldest church in Newcastle. Most of it was built before the 13th century, but people have worshipped on the spot since before the Norman Conquest (1066).


(St. Andrews)


(An interesting memorial, dedicated to men who worked in the Newscastle Brewery and who died in the world wars. I thought it was kind of nice that the company would do that)

Next stop was St. Nicholas, the official Church of England Cathedral (as opposed to the Catholic Cathedral which is just down the street, and while also a Cathedral, is not a Church of England cathedral).


(St. Nicholas)

Then we hit up the "New Castle" (ever wonder where the city name came from?), built in 1080 by the eldest son of William the Conqueror (he of 1066 fame) as a wood fort, and then a stone castle was built by Henry II in 1177.


(The New Castle Keep)

The site, another nice high precipice, this one over a river, has been used for defense since Roman times (hence the wall). The castle was a last hold out of the Royalist group in Newcastle during the Civil War in 1644 until the Scots took it. Not much of a museum, but a very nice view from the top! We then headed back, picked up our packs, and took a bus to Heddon-on-the-Wall, to a nice little B&B called Hadrian's Barn (you know it's nice when you get your own cottage), and grabbed a super taste dinner at the local pub called the Swan (which has a "cutlery" which is basically a buffet with lots of meat). Tomorrow: the WALL! (Not that wall. Though I guess, in a way, winter is coming...)



(The Hadrian's Barn concierge. Not so great at recommending places to eat, but really knows his way around a frisbee. Snuggles and chase free of charge)

Final Edinburgh shot!


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Sci Walks Hadrian's Wall, Part One

Aug 06 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Hi Everyone! I'm back and suffering from a certain amount of jetlag (but since that means I woke up at 6:00am with absolutely no effort, I'm actually not really complaining. I hope it keeps up!). It's a little scary to return to the wild, wonderful world of the internet, the hundreds of emails and tweets, feeling that I missed an entire generation in internet time, etc. But I promised I would tell everyone where I was going when I got back, and the answer is: the United Kingdom, with a stop in Edinburgh and an entire week spent hiking the length of Hadrian's Wall. I know I missed seeing a lot of you in the UK, and I'm really sorry! I would love to plan an entirely different trip just to see everyone! But really, sometimes you need to really get away all together, you know?

Anyway, here we go: The UK (in limited areas) Part 1.


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Sci's BACK! Did you miss me?

Aug 05 2013 Published by under Synaptic Misfires

Because while I wasn't here, I left blog posts in my wake! At SciAm while I was gone, you could read about a sleep study that looked at food intake. Not surprisingly, sleep less, gain more. But what is it carbs? Fat? Protein? Head over and find out!

And not only that, I also wrote about sweet tooths. Sweet tooths and alcohol. If you've got a sweet tooth, do you drink more? What does that mean? Make sure to head over and check it out!

I'll be blogging my traveling adventures starting tomorrow, with lots of pictures! I've got a post up at SciAm today on 5-HT1A receptors, and how they might impact antidepressant effects, and regular science blogging will resume here on Friday!

In the meantime...what did I miss? Please let me know the most important thing I missed while out of the country in the comment (and yes, I know Snowden got asylum in Russia, so that doesn't count).


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Friday Weird Science: The Armadillo Penis, a study in flexural stiffness

Aug 02 2013 Published by under Friday Weird Science, Uncategorized

You know, it's nice to know that there are people out there who really CARE. Who CARE about things like penises. Animal penises. And how they work. And who care so much about animal erections that they will create mathematical functions to describe them. Where would we (or at least, weird science) be without these people? I really cannot say. And most particularly, where would we be without Diane Kelly. Without Diane, who I would hereby like to promote to the Queen of Animal Peen (in an importantly non-dirty way), there would be no awesome studies of the armadillo penis, for example.

But we have Diane, and I am grateful. Because now, my friends, now we know all about the flexural stiffness of the armadillo penis. I'm sure that question has been plaguing you for ages, right? Right??

NINE-BANDED ARMADILLO (DASYPUS NOVEMCINCTUS)" The Journal of Experimental Biology, 1999.

(I must say these guys are cute. Would make such charming little pets! Source)

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