Reaching Down The Rabbit Hole is a collection of medical stories from patients at the renowned Brigham and Women’s Hospital. Jointly written by neurologist Allan Ropper and neuroscience researcher Brian Burrell, the book melds Ropper’s perspective and experiences with Burrell’s extensive notes and related information.
“If (an aneurysm) reaches a critical size and form, it can burst open with the entire force of the body’s blood pressure. Blood then fills the spaces around the brain in a split second and causes a thunderbolt of a headache that no one forgets and many don’t survive.”
10 years ago, I took a GCSE history course on Medicine through Time, which was so engaging for me that I now credit it as part of why I ended up studying science communication. Since then, medical history has stayed as one of my cyclic background interests.
Quackery aims for a tone somewhere between a medical history textbook and a standard popular-science narrative, then strikes that note precisely throughout. It focuses on information about historical treatments, figures and ideas, rather than any autobiographical elements or personal narratives. Because Quackery is so consistent, it skirted the edge of monotony when I read much of the book in one sitting. However, the authors’ quick pace, and their frequent dry-humoured side notes and reactions, liven up the text.
“Edinburgh physician James Young Simpson was another nineteenth-century pioneer in anaesthesia. That is, if pioneering meant inhaling random substances with your colleagues, just to see what would happen.”
Biology is a conspicuous weak spot in my knowledge. My psychology education taught me a little about neurons, neurotransmitters, and brain structure. Beyond that, my main biological knowledge is trivia about platypi. So I read The Violinist’s Thumb less to learn about specific topics than to better understand how all these concepts of DNA, genes, cells and chromosomes related to each other.
The introduction sets up a powerful tension between the scientific value gained by understanding DNA and the fears thrown up by confronting our genetic building blocks. From there, we discover the parallel stories of Gregor Mendel and Friedrich Miescher, who first isolated genes and DNA. Using these building blocks of genes, Kean leads readers towards larger structures such as chromosomes, viruses, humans, and human cultures.
This year, about 2.5 million scientific articles will be published. Roughly 90% of them will only exist in English. So how and why did English become the default language for scientific work? If that question interests you, you might appreciate Scientific Babel.
Scientific Babel is about the languages we use to create scientific knowledge, and how the “language of science” has changed over time. It’s partly a history of science, and partly a discussion of how languages and cultures rise and fall.
Research from the University of Washington Medical School suggests how to improve treatments for college students struggling with non-suicidal self-injury (NSSI). Treatments which develop people’s practical skill in managing emotions may be more effective than the current therapies that increase people’s confidence in their ability to cope with events.
The study involved 187 students with a history of self-injury. The students provided information about their experiences with NSSI, including the age at which they first self-injured and the reasons behind their self-injury.
I previously talked about how scores on an IQ test are developed, and what they mean mathematically. Now, I’ll look at what they can mean for individuals.
IQ scores can be seen as the mind equivalent of BMI scores. Although both numbers can provide useful information when averaged across large groups, they shouldn’t be used to directly compare individuals, or used to sum up a person in one statistic. BMI can be helpful for an average-height and middling-framed Western person, but it is near-useless for athletes, who will often score as overweight or obese due to their increased muscle mass. Similarly, IQ measurements may be an accurate representation for a neurotypical person who is familiar with Western education systems and standardized testing. But they are not an accurate summation for people with neurodevelopmental disorders, or people who aren’t used to standardised tests and solving problems in a room with a stranger.
3) IQ tests cannot always measure someone’s ability accurately. Health conditions and neurological differences result in people having uneven patterns of ability, which confuse IQ tests.
The Intelligence Quotient- or IQ- is one of the most popular subjects in psychology. Yet despite us often using IQ as a shorthand for intelligence, and even using it to define others, misconceptions about IQ are often louder than explanations.
So how do IQ tests work, and what does an IQ score mean?
1) An IQ test does not directly measure your ability. It uses maths to estimate your ability in relation to other people.
This post is much later than intended, as I wasn’t able to watch all six episodes at the time and had to wait for reruns. Late enough, in fact, that the unfortunate news of its cancellation has already had its 15 minutes of angry tweets. So consider this a retrospective look at Season 10 rather than a live response. Also, spoiler warnings for the finalists and winner of Season 10.
Going into Season 10, I had been concerned about a few aspects of the show, such as the low profile of female team members, the robot reliability issues, and the focus on professionally-built robots. Rule changes ahead of Season 10 promised to bring in more diverse robots, and to counteract the dominance of spinners. So, how well did Season 10 live up to those promises?
Robots and Weapons
Episode One started well by introducing clusterbot The Swarm, built by Ian Watts of Team Big Brother fame. Clusterbots have often been failed experiments in previous series, mostly due to their weight limits and elimination rules. Clusterbots were either equally-sized pairs, or a near-heavyweight bot accompanied by a distraction minibot. As they were ruled out if either piece was immobilised, minibots were merely a liability, while paired bots were weaker than standard competitors without many corresponding advantages. However, due to advances in materials and weapons, The Swarm was made of five featherweight robots with individual working weapons. The Swarm could use four robots in each fight, and they would remain in if at least two robots (>40% by weight) were moving. This approach meant they could carry out the roles clusterbots were designed for, and generate tactical advantages like distractions and multiple angles of attack.
Due to these material advances, the rule changes, and the team’s cohesion and experience, The Swarm performed well for a clusterbot. Team Big Brother defeated Donald Thump by tactically combining the clusterbot’s weapons, and they used the clusterbots to protect and self-right each other during their narrow defeat by Sabretooth. Unfortunately, the sheer weight and power of Behemoth was too much for the small bots, and Team Big Brother were eliminated.
I was introduced to “The Two Cultures” during the first lecture of my scicomm MSc. When we were talking about scicomm history, “The Two Cultures” stood proudly on our timeline alongside documents which were fundamental to the field. So I wanted to read it for myself.
Originally “The Two Cultures” was a lecture, presented by scientist-turned-fiction-author C. P. Snow in 1959. Snow’s titular cultures were “people of the humanities and literature” and “people of the sciences”. In the lecture, Snow sketched out divisions between these cultures, with anecdotes from his experiences as a novelist amongst scientists and a scientist amongst literary intellectuals. He blamed this cultural divide on Britain’s education system, which forced people to specialise in one subject too early and prioritised humanities at the expense of science and engineering.
Books that ask “what’s wrong with our brains?” are a current pop-psychology staple. Cordelia Fine’s A Mind of Its Own was ahead of this trend, as it was first published in 2005.
A Mind of Its Own explores ways in which our brains don’t make sense and cognitive biases that funnel us down faulty mental shortcuts. The book starts with the bias equivalent of little white lies, detailing how almost all of us are biased to see things as a little easier, happier, and less flawed than they really are. From this gentle introduction, Fine talks us through the progressively larger mental failings discovered through social psychology studies.
I first noticed Sapiens because of its polarising reviews; its readers seemed divided over whether it was one of the greatest books in existence or one of the most pretentious. With my curiosity piqued, Sapiens jumped to the top of my to-buy list.
As I haven’t studied much biology or early history, I expected that Sapiens might be a challenging read. However, I was surprised by Yuval Harari’s clear writing style – Harari generally limits jargon words, and he uses conversational language rather than unnecessarily academic sentence structures. The challenge in reading Sapiens comes from its ideas, not its style.
“imagined orders are not evil conspiracies or useless mirages. Rather, they are the only way large numbers of humans can cooperate effectively”
“This is why today monogamous relationships and nuclear familes are the norm in the vast majority of cultures, why men and women tend to be possessive of their partners and children, and why even in modern states such as North Korea and Syria political authority passes from father to son” .
Although I’m both a science nerd and a video game fan, those interests don’t intersect often. Scientist characters in video games are often feared (or laughed at) from a distance, rather than being understandable or sympathetic. Worse, they are usually locked into two narrow roles:
The “Mad scientist” – a friendly yet distant and absent-minded tinkerer, whose inventions take on a life of their own or wind up as destructive rather than helpful.
The “Bad scientist”- a character who focuses entirely on their intellect and considers themselves superior to non-scientists. They can be obsessed with finishing their research or completing their next latest invention, regardless of its use or consequences. Many take utiliarianism to an extreme, seeing no problem with immoral or hurtful acts if they might achieve a greater good.
When I first became interested in video essays I noticed there were very few science-based video essays on YouTube, especially from academics or scientists. I wanted to figure out why. I started with two underlying questions: Do other academic fields use video essays? And can video essays can be used appropriately in science?
For me, the answer to both questions was yes. Continue reading
Over the last few years, a new genre of video has gathered momentum on YouTube; the analytic video essay. Today’s question is; what characterises a video essay?
The phrase “video essay” has two main meanings; the concept currently used by YouTubers (and the internet in general), and the original meaning used in filmmaking communities. For filmmakers, a video essay is a compilation of clips from a film which demonstrates a point about that film. In this definition, the video takes priority- many video essays make their point solely through the chosen clips.
However, other communities use the phrase differently. Reddit’s dedicated subreddit /r/videoessays describes them as:
“a written essay that is read aloud over video accompaniment which seeks to analyze some media text (tv, film, music, art, speech, etc)”.
I’ve previously read Kean’s third book, The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons, which I found very informative and fun to read, so I was looking forward to reading The Disappearing Spoon.
Initially, The Disappearing Spoon was a more difficult read than Duelling Neurosurgeons, although that’s partly because I have less background knowledge about chemistry than I do about psychiatry or neurology. In comparison to Duelling Neurosurgeons, TDS is denser and more complex. While I could read a chapter of Neurosurgeons in one go and follow its major ideas and mechanics, I couldn’t do the same with TDS. Instead, I needed to stop and retrace my steps frequently to ensure I was keeping track of how new details related to previous information. (This applies most to the early chapters, which focused on the chemicial knowledge required to make sense of featured elements.)
Most reality shows spark controversy, and Child Genius is no exception. Series finales are often followed by arguments that the show placed too much pressure on contestants, while the 2017 series was also interrupted by accusations of cheating parents.
Today I’m going to talk about another issue; how the competition and the programme portrays “intelligence” and “genius” in a one-dimensional way which reinforces misconceptions about intelligence.
On the second Tuesday in October, we celebrate Ada Lovelace Day to commemorate the great mathematician and writer who massively influenced computing history. We often use Ada Lovelace Day to highlight the past and present achievements of women in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths). But focusing solely on STEM means we miss the most important parts of Ada’s story.
Firstly, I’ll recap Ada’s background for context, though I’d also recommend reading either of these articles for more information.
Augusta Ada Gordon (Countess of Lovelace, after her marriage) was the daughter of Romantic poet Lord Byron and Baroness Anne Milbanke. Lord Byron was well-known for his adventures and affairs, and was famously described as “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. (Researchers believe that Byron probably experienced bipolar disorder). He left his family when Ada was four months old, then died when she was eight years old.
A few months ago, I read and enjoyed Sam Kean’s The Tale of the Duelling Neurosurgeons. Thanks to that book, I figured out something interesting about how I understand sci-comm.
The principles I believe in when it comes to science and sci-comm, and the threads which run through both my psychological and scientific interests, weren’t created through my science or psychology education.
1) Cross-disciplinary connections – Science doesn’t work in a vacuum but is informed by art, humanities, politics, and religion.
2) Human history – Rather than being detached thinking agents, scientists are as human, flawed and biased as anyone else.
3) Accidents, serendipity and luck – “Failed” inventions, wrong beliefs and faulty discoveries can be as valuable, informative and powerful as “successful” history.
Season 10 of Robot Wars will hit our screens in the next few months. As a long-term fan, I’m happy that the most memorable show of my childhood is doing well. However, I’m uncertain whether Season 10 will be able to outgrow the problems that Seasons 8 and 9 highlighted.
Interviews with cast members such as Angela Scanlon hinted at the social goals invested under the fun and spectacle. Rebooted Robot Wars aimed to encourage women into engineering, to make robots more than just “boy’s toys”, and to interest children and young people in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths). But Seasons 8 and 9 revealed dramatic advances in robot technology – advances which have taken Robot Wars far from its amateur roots. To me, the rebooted show is less interesting or entertaining than the original show as a result. Also, the way both seasons have portrayed roboteering teams has arguably locked out women and people without a STEM background.
As a result, I believe that rebooted Robot Wars is currently failing at the social goals it set out to achieve. In its current format, it’s instead opposing the causes it wishes to champion. Something needs to change, and I hope that whatever is planned for Season 10 can bring the show closer towards its aims.
I picked up a copy of The Accidental Scientist thanks to its title- one of my favourite scientific topics is how luck has influenced science and medicine, so this book seemed like a good idea.
The Accidental Scientist is a short and fast read which covers the story of various inventions such as Botox, explosives, and telephones. Each 8-12 page chapter starts with one invention as a theme. From this point, single-page subsections handle each link in a chain of discoveries. This book is concise by necessity, as it aims to pack a large collection of trivia in tightly limited space.
As a result, every sentence has a role; either moving the chronological narrative onwards or bringing in a new character or development. Nothing here is padded or wasted. While admirable, the speed and constant progress also results in some individual stories losing their impact and gravity. Given what has been shown here, plenty of the events in single chapters could fill their own book if treated differently. For example, I found the section on nitroglycerin and the Nobel family a little disjointed when compared to other sections- keeping track of the many names, inventions and connections discussed in sequence was difficult.