All posts by Diana Crow

How to find a planet that could hold life – Recap of talk by Dr. Sara Seager

The Talk:

Exoplanets and the Real Search for Alien Life

In Plain English:

Astrophysicist on the Search for Planets that Could Harbor Earth-like Life

The Speaker:

Sara Seager of the MIT Physics Department

The Sponsor:

MIT Presidential Fellows/Sidney-Pacific Distinguished Lecture Series

What it covered:

Dr. Sara Seager is an astrophysicist and MacArthur Foundation Fellow who is looking for signs of life on other planets. She doesn’t listen for alien radio signals; she looks at sizes, colors, and behaviors of visible exoplanets and tries to figure out what chemicals are in those planets’ atmospheres.

The presence of small-molecule compounds that are easily broken apart (like O2) could indicate that there are life forms on the planet that are constantly producing said compounds. Without the organisms that keep adding O2 to our atmosphere, we would run out of it pretty quickly. Even if we weren’t breathing it in, other molecules would still cozy up to the oxygen atoms and break them apart. So it’s a good thing our biosphere is home to an awesome team of leafy green autotrophs who excel at producing O2.

So Sara Seager and others in her field are brainstorming ways look for chemicals that could indicate the presence of life. In most cases, the first step is just finding a way see the planet better. Continue reading “How to find a planet that could hold life – Recap of talk by Dr. Sara Seager” »

Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter

The book:

Asleep: The Forgotten Epidemic that Remains One of Medicine’s Greatest Mysteries by Molly Caldwell Crosby (2010)

What it’s about:

Asleep is the story of the encephalitis lethargica epidemic that followed in the wake of the 1918 flu. Encephalitis lethargica is mainly known by the nickname “Sleeping Sickness”, but shouldn’t be confused with African trypanosomiasis, a tsetse-fly-borne malady that also goes by the “Sleeping Sickness” moniker. The two diseases are unrelated (as far as we know) but have vaguely similar symptoms.) It is terrifying.

Each encephalitis lethargica case began with an innocuous sore throat. Most people thought nothing of it at first. But then weird things began to happen. Patients began to fall asleep and not wake up for days or weeks or else began to lose motor control of their own bodies. They moved like zombies or puppets on strings. Still others retained normal motor function but began to feel uncontrollable violent urges, while remaining completely lucid and logical in normal conversation. (There was one story of a teenaged girl who dug her own eyes out of their sockets with her fingernails and then calmly denied doing any such thing because they had “fallen out during the night”. Otherwise, her behavior was completely rational.)

I couldn’t help but think of the Reavers on Firefly. (If you haven’t seen Serenity, I don’t want to spoil it for you. But seriously? Why haven’t you seen Serenity?)

Asleep follows the doctors and neurologists who tried to help these patients. Their efforts were overshadowed by the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic, fragmented by war, complicated by the pathogen’s invisibility (whatever caused sleeping sickness couldn’t be isolated under microscopes of the day), and hamstringed by the fact that the symptoms varied so widely. In fact, sleeping sickness initially appeared to be several different diseases.

Crosby is working off of case studies from the era, so the overall effect is almost like reading a series of interconnected short stories (featuring some of the same lead detectives). Separately, the chapters are kind of creepy and puzzling, but together they add up into a portrait of the neurology and epidemiology fields in their nascent state.

The Upsides:

It’s incredibly vivid and well researched. My favorite passages in the book actually had nothing to do with science; they were the passages where Crosby describes the bustling streets of 1910s & 1920s New York City. Her descriptions are extraordinarily cinematic, and I loved the way she presented the history of the disease almost as an anthology of stories based on the original case studies. Plus, it’s just an interesting disease. Creepy, ethereal, & unresolvable. Continue reading “Asleep by Molly Caldwell Crosby: A great epidemic history story, up until the last chapter” »

Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman

The Talk:

“Autism, Neurodiversity, and Disability Rights: Then and Now”

In Plain English:

Disability advocates are in the middle of an ongoing struggle to ensure civil rights for autistic individuals, and hardly anyone has seemed to notice.

The Speaker:

Ari Ne’eman, president of the Autistic Self-Advocacy Network

The Location:

Harvard Law School Project on Disability

What it covered:

This event was less of a lecture and more of a roundtable discussion about Disability Rights and Neurodiversity (a term so obscure that the Harvard Gazette mistakenly listed the title of the talk as “Autism, Neodiversity, and Disability Rights”). There were barely a dozen of us in the room, which made for one of the most intense academic conversations I’ve ever witnessed.

Ari Ne’eman began by giving an overview of the history of discrimination against and institutionalization of autistic individuals. Our culture has a long tradition of imprisoning people who are physically and/or mentally disabled, but “medical” institutionalization didn’t begin in earnest until the late 1800s, when the eugenics movement took hold. Ne’eman cited Alexander Graham Bell as one of the leaders of the American eugenics movement.

Bell and his eugenicist compatriots wanted a way to contain “different & defective members of the human race.” So they built massive institutions to house anyone who was considered a threat to mainstream society. Ne’eman emphasized the point that these early institutions were not specifically designed for autistic individuals* but rather anyone who was socially undesirable or difficult to manage. Continue reading “Neurodiversity & Disability Rights in the Autistic Civil Rights Movement- Recap of talk by Ari Ne’eman” »

Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells

The Talk:

The Space of Autonomy: Cyberspace and Urban Space in Networked Movements

In Plain English:

One of the world’s most honored sociologists discusses the relationship between online social activism and grassroots protests in urban centers

The Speaker:

Manuel Castells of University of Catalonia (UOC)’s Internet Interdisciplinary Institute

The Location:

Harvard Graduate School of Design

What it covered:

Manuel Castells been exploring the relationship between urban spaces and social movements for decades, but in recent years, he’s turned his attention toward social movements as they mobilize through social media. In this talk, he was summarizing/expanding on ideas that he wrote about in his most recent book Networks of Outrage and Hope: Social Movements in the Internet Age.

He began by arguing that the internet is not the birthplace of networked social movements but that modern communication technology has allowed the emotionally-charged conversations that coalesce into social movements to happen over a global network in real time. The overall effect is that more people are speaking more often and responding to issues raised by people in adjacent communities more quickly than ever. Continue reading “Space of autonomy: between Twittersphere and urban spaces – Recap of a talk by Dr. Manuel Castells” »

Americans spend 3 times as much on Valentine’s Day gifts as they do on the entire NSF budget

I’m not the first science blogger to point this out, but it bears repeating: The billions we spend on funding federal scientific may sound extreme on paper, but once you realize we spend $17 billion a year on Valentine’s Day, suddenly a 5 billion dollar NASA budget doesn’t sound so crazy.

Case in point: Estimates for spending this past Valentine’s Day hover in the 17 billion to 20 billion dollar range.

The proposed 2014 budget for the National Science Foundation is 7.2 billion. Out of that 5.8 billion will go into scientific research projects, while the rest go toward building new research facilities, covering administrative costs, and funding educational outreach activities (like Bill Nye the Science Guy).

So yeah. Annual spending on the NSF is about 1/3 the amount we spend on Valentine’s Day every year. Continue reading “Americans spend 3 times as much on Valentine’s Day gifts as they do on the entire NSF budget” »

Viruses can shut down our anti-viral proteins – Recap of talk by Dr. Ileana Cristea

The Talk:

Host Defense and Viral Immune Evasion: A Proteomics Perspective

In Plain English:

Human cells and viruses are locked in a protein-based arms race for global domination: Will the cell’s defensive proteins successfully recognize viral DNA and alert the immune system? Or will the virus counter with proteins that stop the defensive proteins in their tracks? The answer is that both of these processes are happening all the time.

The Speaker:

Ileana Cristea of Princeton University’s Molecular Biology Department

The Location:

Harvard Medical School’s Microbiology & Immunobiology department

What it covered:

Full disclosure: I got to the talk about 10 minutes late after being stopped by a security guard (who wasn’t sure how to react to a 22-year-old with a backpack who could speak proteomics-babble but couldn’t produce a student ID). So I missed the first few slides of the talk, but when I arrived, Dr. Cristea was introducing the HMS research crowd to Gamma-Interferon-Inducible Protein 16 (IFI-16) and its role in the innate immune system. Continue reading “Viruses can shut down our anti-viral proteins – Recap of talk by Dr. Ileana Cristea” »

Bioelectric signals tell organisms when to grow limbs (among other things) – Recap of talk by Dr. Michael Levin

[This post is part of a series called “Brown Bag Lunch Reports” where I recap some of the academic talks given at college campuses in and around the city of Boston. Let me know what you think of the post format and what kinds of talks you think I should recap next!]

The Talk’s Title:

Manipulating natural bioelectric gradients to control growth and form in embryogenesis, regeneration, and cancer

In Plain English:

Changing the ways electric signals flow through living tissues alters the organisms’ growth in profound ways, including (but not limited to) the regeneration of complex organs like eyes and limbs.

The Speaker:

Michael Levin, Ph.d. of the Tufts Center for Regenerative Medicine and Developmental Biology

The Location:

Northeastern University’s Center for Interdisciplinary Research on Complex Systems

What it covered:

Dr. Michael Levin’s lab investigates a little-known (and if half of what he says is true, very underappreciated) topic in biology: the effect of variation in the electric charges of cells on morphological development. If that last sentence sounded like a random string of sciencey-sounding words from different disciplines, there’s a reason for that: Dr. Levin’s work draws heavily from both physics and molecular biology. Continue reading “Bioelectric signals tell organisms when to grow limbs (among other things) – Recap of talk by Dr. Michael Levin” »

Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much

What it’s about:

Moises Velasquez-Manoff’s Epidemic of Absence tackles one of the trickiest and trendiest topics in 21st-century biomedical research: the complex relationship between autoimmune disease and the bacteria that live in our guts.

A growing body of evidence suggests that by decimating the number of pathogenic microbes people are exposed to, modern medicine has inadvertently shifted the ecological balance between the human immune system and the human microbiome, leaving millions of people vulnerable to allergies and autoimmune disease.

The basic evolutionary argument is that our immune system evolved to cope with a constant onslaught of opportunistic microbes by developing a complex system of checks-and-balances with our bodies’ microbial populations. With those microbes gone, many of the immune system’s coping strategies are having disastrous side effects. In this book, Velasquez-Manoff implicates the depletion of bacterial biodiversity as a driving agent in the pretty much every non-infectious disease you can think of (cancer, depression, Crohn’s, Celiac’s, allergies, and autism are all covered in this book).

The Upsides:

It’s a rare snapshot of a scientific revolution in progress. And it’s easily the most thought-provoking book I’ve read all year. Continue reading “Epidemic of Absence: A book that made me think too much” »

Basic Research: How asking weird questions about science builds the economy

“Scientists, they’re isolated. They’re out of touch with real world concerns, and that’s why they can’t get funding. What can we do get them interested in relevant projects so that they can get their funding?”

This was an audience question at a Nova-sponsored Science Cafe in Cambridge, MA. The speaker was Ari Daniel, an oceanographer-turned-radio-producer, and the audience member asking the question was a middle-aged man with brown hair and glasses and a plodding, pedantic tone of voice.

The audience member went on, “I mean, there was a forest that the scientists wanted to save, and there was no money for it, so they got some hikers in there, and then they were able to raise money for it. So how can we get scientists to do more things like that? How can we convey to them that they need make their work relevant to people?”

I don’t know if he realized it, but his question was comparable to “Climate change is a scam concocted by environmentalists” in terms of being offensive to scientists. Continue reading “Basic Research: How asking weird questions about science builds the economy” »