The universe is a mess

david_obrien_untitled_from_the_series_human_entropy_2011_1882_412

When I was 9, I earned the nickname “Teresa Tornado” from my summer camp counselor because my bunk bed used to look like a tornado rushed past. I was possibly the messiest camper in the cabin, or even in the whole of camp.

Since then, many things have improved about me- I no longer have long tangled hair where flies can find a home, I can swim more than 100 metres without getting exhausted and my English has improved quite significantly.

But there is a part of me that is the same as that little girl in oversized camp t-shirts:

I am still a mess.

My room gets attacked by tornadoes of lesser intensity nowadays, but it is undebatable that when you step into my room after I’ve had a tough week you will have to make an effort to recognise the material my desk is made of or the pattern of my bed covers.

It’s not out of carelessness that this comes about. And to answer all of the people who have criticised me for being a mess: Yes, it does stress me out, and no, I can’t concentrate with all that mess around me. But I find that as I get more and more preoccupied with other things, my room’s state goes from decent to post apocalyptic ruins, no matter how hard I try to keep it tidy.

Now, you can imagine the delight I felt when I read the following sentence in my chemistry notes:

Disorder is the natural state of the universe

The next time my family have me grief for being such a disaster I would be able to counteract with an argument that is supported by science:

“Well actually, disorder is the natural state of the universe and you wouldn’t want me to go and get in the way of the universe, would you, dad?”

It turned out that all the equations I was about to learn weren’t exactly going to justify the pile of clothes that were currently obscuring the floor of my bedroom. Instead, they introduced me to a interesting concept that has sparked other thoughts within me.

What does it mean when chemists say that the universe prefers a state of disorder?

As all messy people will know, it requires energy to be organised, and things that require less energy to happen are more likely to happen.

Chemists are interested in knowing which reactions will happen with more ease, which ones will need effort to get going and which reactions simply will not happen.

In a universe that tends towards disorder and that favours things that don’t require much energy, one can predict that reactions that end in more disorder than there was to begin with will be more successful, and reactions that take less energy to get started will happen more often.

Learning about Entropy in chemistry, I ended up jumbled up in a bunch of different equations and calculations which I might explain some other time, but I want to keep this short for now, because this post isn’t about entropy, it’s about the links that we make day-to-day as we discover the world.

Aside from learning how to answer the questions that will come up on my answer paper, that Chemistry lesson I learnt that when I can link my memories and previous experiences with new topics that might seem uninteresting at first, I can see my whole learning experience in a new light.

And as much as I continue to try and keep my room organised, when it gets difficult, I like to remember that the universe is messy, so who cares if I am too?

-teresa-

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Frankenstein: evil scientists and lonely monsters

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Illustration by Bernie Wrightson, 1979

“How ignorant art thou in thy pride of wisdom!”

The XIX century was a time of immense innovations and improvements. It was during this time that the human race developed a strong and almost religious faith in science, seeing it as the key to progress and a foundation of a new and better world where everything was possible. Mary Shelley, through her novel Frankenstein, makes a sharp critic against this mentality that believes men is all-powerful, focusing on the consequences this may have. The bottom idea of the book is that science should have certain limits, otherwise it can be dangerous; this is a notion that is still very much present nowadays. When Frankenstein finally gives life to his creature, he suddenly realises the implications of his actions- “I had desired it with an ardour that far exceeded moderation; but now that I had finished, the beauty of the dream vanished, and breathless horror and disgust filled my heart.”

Viktor Frankenstein is a student with great ability and skills, who becomes obsessed over the idea of providing life after seeing the power of a lighting bolt striking a tree. However, he does not think thoroughly about the repercussion of his actions. Later on, he even despises his creation and regrets it. Shelley denounces how science gives man great power; however, this power may hunt him in his sleep later on.

It can also be argued it is a simile- God is Frankenstein who created life but later abandoned it because it no longer found it perfect or capable of good, and the monster represents humankind who feels lonely, left alone in an inhospitable world where he does not feel loved. The feelings the creature experiments are often the most human of all, even though he is called a monster and despised because he is not human enough. Through the monster’s thoughts, Shelley communicates the worries and afflictions all men have:

Listen to me, Frankenstein. You accuse me of murder; and yet you would, with a satisfied conscience, destroy your own creature. Oh, praise the eternal justice of man! 

‘Hateful day when I received life!’ I exclaimed in agony. ‘Accursed creator! Why did you form a monster so hideous that even you turned from me in disgust?’

The loneliness and the search of love and acceptance, as well as an explanation of the meaning of our own lives, are true human feelings. The monster is not good or bad in the beginning; it merely turns evil after his contact with the world. Mary Shelley gives Science the role of power and creation, which can be associated with God.

There was none among the myriads of men that existed who would pity or assist me; and should I feel kindness towards my enemies? No: from that moment I declared everlasting war against the species, and, more than all, against him who had formed me and sent me forth to this insupportable misery.

Furthermore, Shelley goes beyond her time preventing the dangers that the careless use of science may have. Science and technology are not things to play with without proper weighting of consequences. Think about Hiroshima and Nagasaki, where it was proved that science does not necessarily imply progress and can even cause barbaric actions.

“How dangerous is the acquirement of knowledge, and how much happier that man is who believes his native town to be the world, than he who aspires to become greater than his nature will allow.” Mary Shelley foresees the potential problems that the rapid advances of Science, which began in the XIX century, may bring. The author manages to present Science as the villain and well as the hero of the story.

Was Science the real monster?

-ana-

Lub-dub

Doc - 15-02-2016, 19-31

Put two fingers on your wrist.
Just where you can see a faint blue line, that should work ok.
You might feel a beat against your fingers.
Can you feel it?
Well done! I’m proud to inform you that you are alive.

This might not be news to you, but how often do you think about the organ that keeps you alive? How well do you understand the pulsing that you feel in your chest?

Let me offer you a small insight into this non-stop involuntary process.

A bit of background knowledge-
Your heart is an organ made out of muscle, it is the approximate size of your fist and you can find it in the middle of your chest pointing slightly to the left.

It has four chambers as seen in the diagram below-

Doc - 15-02-2016, 19-45

So what is a heartbeat? Why does it happen?

Cells in your body need oxygen to do their thing- be it skin cells, nerve cells or muscle cells, they all need the oxygen which is taken up in your lungs.
But as you may have noticed, your lungs aren’t close enough to your body that the oxygen might just magically get passed on.
This is why blood exists. Blood carries the oxygen from the lungs to all other body parts that need the oxygen. It must keep moving around, so an organ is in place that pumps the blood to allow it to pass through your body at speed, preventing it from becoming static.
The heart is this pump.

Every time your heart beats, it undergoes contraction (known as systole) and relaxation (also called diastole).
One round of these two is one heartbeat, and it happens in approximately 0.8 seconds.
In this fraction of a second many things happen:

1. Atrial Systole: The left and right atrium (1a & 1b) become smaller as they contract. This allows the blood to fall through the AV valves and into the ventricles (2a & 2b).

2. Ventricular Systole: The sides of the ventricles contract inward, pushing the blood out of the ventricles through the valves and up into the arteries- the aorta on the left side and the pulmonary artery on the right.

3. Diastole: The heart relaxes, allowing for blood to reenter it in order to complete the cycle all over again.

Where does the famous lub-dub noise come from then?

Lub: AV valves that separate the atria from the ventricles exist to prevent blood from flowing back into the atria, so when the ventricles contract, these must close. The noise these make when they close is recognised as “lub”.

Dub: After blood has been pushed out of the heart, the valves at the opening of the main arteries must close so that blood doesn’t fall back into the heart. The sound these make as they close is described as “dub”.

So next time your heart interrupts your attempts to fall asleep, take a second to thank it too for its hard work.

-teresa-

Counting sheep

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I’ve recently noticed that as I settle into my bed and get ready to drift off to sleep, I no longer count sheep.
Instead, I have caught myself counting ideas and questions- listing the things that I hope to understand better.
Some quite trivial, some quite deep; I revisit these concepts over and over in search for answers or some insight into why I think about them or what they mean.

Hoping to get some quality rest at night, I will attempt to resolve these ideas in my posts these coming weeks.
Here is an introduction to the things that keep me up at night and eventually send me to sleep:

1. What is that Lub-dub sound?: As I try to fall asleep at night, I can hear my heart pumping and it makes me wonder about the little quirks that maintain me alive. This involuntary beat is one of the many things that my body does to keep me alive and maintain my mind working. But isn’t my mind a part of my body too? That leads me to my next question-

2. Where is my mind?: I don’t mean that I’m very distracted (although I am) I literally mean: where is my mind located? Where do these thoughts take place? Is consciousness physical or is it just a metaphorical way of grouping our cognitive abilities?

3. Why is this place so messy?: Now, I’ve always been absolutely disorganised and messy. So when recently in a chemistry lesson I learnt that disorder is the natural state of the universe, I was delighted. Of course it turned out to be that it wasn’t a good way to excuse the messy area I live and work in, but entropy did turn out to be an interesting concept which still makes me wonder late at night…

4. If I stay up another 15 minutes, how will my life change?: Well for one I may be more tired in the morning, but that doesn’t seem like a huge impact on my life. However, learning about chaos theory has changed my perception of small things and the possibility of them having huge impacts.

5. What’s the difference between 15 minutes and 30 for that matter?: Yes, I know there is a difference between them and I can tell that one lasts longer than the other, but the concept of time is a strange one. How did it originate? what does it mean?

The list could continue for miles, but these are the questions that I have had in my mind long enough to mature and that I feel most ready to seek answers to. This way, I’ll have more space for different questions to arise and keep me awake at night…

Or maybe I’ll finally be able to get some sleep.

-teresa-

Mind the (mental) gap.

Mindthegap

If I told you that your mind was full of gaps, you might think I’m just being rude.
But in reality, you have trillions of them inside your brain.

When I say gaps, I don’t mean physical holes in your brain, I mean synapses.

Synapses are connections between two brain cells. It is when one cell “talks” to another. If these brain cells or neurons, don’t communicate, they wouldn’t be useful at all.
This is why it is fundamental that you have little spaces where they can exchange information.
Neuron
But it doesn’t all just happen randomly. Neurons don’t just phone each other up to spill their secrets, they use electricity and chemistry as their language. And every synapse happens in an organised way:

1. An electrical impulse travels down the longest bit in the neuron, called the axon. This electricity is called an action potential, which is created by an imbalance in charge outside and inside the cell.
The electricity shoots down this line jumping between insulated bits until it reaches the axon terminal.

2. The electricity reaches then end of the axon. At this point, chemicals which are stored inside the cell are launched into the gap between the neurons. These chemicals are called neurotransmitters.
They can either have an excitatory or an inhibitory effect on a neuron. In other words, they either stimulate or calm
the neuron.

3. The neurotransmitters travel through the gap between neurons towards the neuron on the receiving end. Where specific receptors are waiting for them.

4. The chemical messengers will dock on receptors specific to them. Many of these receptors need to be taken up in order for the neuron to receive the message. This is called an activation threshold. If the minimum number of neurotransmitter molecules do not find their way across the gap, then no signal will be detected by the neuron. Synapse

This all happens to allow you to have thoughts, memories and to move. As you read this, new synapses are forming in your brain, allowing you to recall this in the future.

Synapses are so important to our cognitive processes and yet most people ignore how they work.

So next time you feel like you have too many things missing in your mind, remember that gaps are what make up your knowledge.

-teresa-

Sources:
CrashCourse Anatomy and Physiology video on synapses: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VitFvNvRIIY
Neuroscience for Kids synapse explanation: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html
Alzheimer’s Association “Brain tour”: https://faculty.washington.edu/chudler/synapse.html

Sandwiches aren’t made in the lab.

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“Three things happen when they are in the lab: You fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticise them they cry.”
Nobel laureate Tim Hunt got a lot of criticism for this comment a couple of months ago.
But why?

Surely, the STEM gender gap is getting smaller than ever, and there are more campaigns to involve women in science than ever.

And yet, it is widely believed that men’s brains are wired for science, while women “have wordier brains”. While there are many studies that claim to prove that we are “wired differently” it’s tough to differentiate between what was a difference since birth and what was built through socialising and upbringing. It’s an age old debate of “nature vs. nurture”.

In my personal experience, I have seen no innate limitations in the women scientists I’ve known, nor have I seen any lack of enthusiasm.
Growing up in a girls only environment in both a conservative developing country and then a more liberal developed country, I have had the opportunity to experience two different approaches to girls’ education, and the effects that these have on their decisions for the future.

It seems to me that in an environment where girls are invited to explore any interest they please, many flock towards science. For example, 40% of girls in my current environment take at least one out of Chemistry and Biology, compared to the 10% from my old, more conservative environment.
The sciences are not discouraged for these girls, they are just not celebrated.

And this is the problem. We shouldn’t need to be advertising subjects, trying to “sell them” to pupils. The subjects should be a choice that everyone is free to make. It should not be overcompensated with more people leaning one way or another.
After all, we are all humans with different preferences and it is just as valid to lean towards the sciences as it is to the humanities.

Gender should not define our personalities or our interests, and it certainly should NOT define our professional limitations.

So long as there are people who make comments strongly based on stereotypes and and unfair judgements, women may not be able to pursue the fields they love most. Heck, there will be girls who may not even realise that there is this passion within them.

I’m trying to keep this short and to have a clear point across. The way we get more women involved in science is by realising that there is no trick behind it all. No hidden way of trapping girls into being interested in STEM fields. Girls will be interested if they are given the chance. If they understand that it is a choice for them to make, and especially if we acknowledge that it should be normal for girls to take an interest in science.

There is no space for sexism in STEM. Research is all about collaboration and team work. We need to stop telling women to “go make me a sandwich” because in a lab where cutting edge science is happening, there is no space for this kind of bigotry.

If you ever see a girl pick up a bug, please don’t tell her that it is masculine, or “gross”
If a girl ever tells you that she enjoys maths, do not tell her that maths are for boys.

If a girl ever expresses her love for science (or for any other subject, really) do not trap her down under your own gender stereotypes. Support girls and boys to pursue the things they love.

Passions have no gender.

-teresa-

Synaesthesia Part One: The Science Side.

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Tasting colours, hearing shapes and seeing numbers’ personalities might seem to some as an experience available only to those on illegal hallucinogens. Well, you’d be surprised, but many people have these experiences on a daily basis.
What happens is, they have a brain condition called Synaesthesia.
Now, the word condition makes it sound like a disease, but really, it’s far from a disease.

Synaesthesia is the simultaneous perception of different senses. 
For example, seeing a colour when presented with a letter or seeing shapes when listening to music. Everybody perceives it in a different way, and there are many possible ways of having it, depending on what senses are mixing.

But why? Or how?
Two main theories have been formulated to try to explain the condition:

1. Hyperconnectivity due to defective pruning in early development.

Quite a mouthful, but it’s not a very difficult concept to understand if we understand neural pruning.
Often described as “Use it or Lose it” neural pruning is the process through which your brain gets rid of connections which you don’t use anymore. This is done so that the brain runs more efficiently. Neural pruning doesn’t happen because “you’ll run out of space” in the brain. That’s not very plausible, considering a human brain has approximately 86 billion neurones. Pruning helps ensure that energy is not wasted on connections which are not being used.
During early development, the human brain makes an insane amount of new synapses every second, many of which, become irrelevant by the time a child turns 2. This is why the brain gets rid of many of them, losing up to 50% of these synapses by the time a child turns ten.
It is hypothesised however, that people with synaesthesia have some connections in their brain that should have been lost during pruning. This causes some cross-activation in their brains. For instance, if one area of the brain is activated (let’s say a person receives an musical input) then another unrelated part of the brain is activated simultaneously (the visual cortex perceives a colour).
Researchers believe that in babies, these coincidences happen frequently, whereas in adults, they are a lot more rare.
This could lead us to believe that through pruning, most people lose that relation between the senses. Well, it seems like synesthetes do…

2. Disinhibited Feedback.

What this theory suggests, is that synesthetes’ brains are not very different from normal people’s.
Multiple pieces of information received by the brain will typically be sorted out so that they make sense. They remain in the central processing area and all the extra information is inhibited.
However, in a synesthete’s brain, this electrical feedback is not ignored and so it is free to travel down to other ares of the brain and activate them, causing a seemingly unrelated experience.
This theory is supported by the experiences of people who use hallucinogenic drugs and experience similar things to synesthetes.

Both of these theories have been supported by research and both seem like good explanations of this condition.

Next week, my sister will tell you all about how synaesthesia has influenced art in the second part of this exploration.

In the mean time, if you think you experience synaesthesia or want to learn more about it, I highly recommend VS Ramachandran’s paper: “Synaesthesia- A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language”, which I based a lot of this post on. Also make sure to check out the websites I consulted, as they offer a lot more detailed information.

A is definitely red, E and 3 are blatantly green and the number 5 is overwhelmingly yellow… Do you feel the same way?

-teresa-

Sources:
http://neurowiki2013.wikidot.com/individual:why-synesthesia-occurs
http://synaesthesia.com/en/Information/einfuhrung/
http://synaesthesia.com/en/information/state-of-science/synasthesie-generell/
http://courses.evanbradley.net/wiki/doku.php?id=the_disinhibited_feedback_theory

VS Ramachandran, “Synaesthesia- A Window Into Perception, Thought and Language” http://www.imprint.co.uk/rama/synaesthesia.pdf

Image credit: https://kitchen-theory.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/brain-scans.jpg

EXTRA! EXTRA! Greedy scientists love torturing animals!

It seems to be that people are terrified of the use of animals in laboratories.

The words “animal research” seem to conjure a series of morbid and distasteful images of rats with extra limbs or puppies drenched in blood and strapped to a chain. When seeing pictures like these on the internet, it’s not difficult to understand why so many people violently oppose to new drug research when non-human animals are used.

But in reality, animal research is far from barbaric.

If you walk into a lab, as I did last June, you will find that there are no crying animals, no mad scientists laughing at the animal’s torture, no rabbits who are missing half of their skin.

I got the chance to spend a week of work experience in a lab, part of a well respected university. As excited as I was for this experience, a small fraction of me was worried, because I had seen a lot of morbid images on my Facebook homepage, images which I had not asked to see. But when I saw the way animals were used, I was very positively surprised.

And because I know that one single experience is not representative of the use of animals across all laboratories, I was pushed to investigate more.

I decided to look into the situation in the UK as this is where I live, and hopefully where I will go on to study and carry out any experiments in the future.

First of all, I would like to point out that not anybody can work with animals. In the eve of my Biology and Chemistry investigations, it has become clear to me that working with animals is more of a pain than it is a joy. The UK government requires those wanting to use animals under laboratory conditions to have a license and to have passed a course in animal care. Countless restrictions have to be taken into account and the animals have to be treated with the utmost care, always keeping their welfare in mind.

As a researcher pointed out to me jokingly when I worked in their lab this past summer: “The animals here are treated a lot better than any of the researchers!”

These people know that it is not ideal to work on animals, and try as much as they can to find alternatives for works on animals, as it can be expensive and won’t always give the best results, but it is still very useful to work with non-human animals.

It seems that the general consensus in the scientific community is that animal research may not be ideal, but in a lot of cases, essential.

This is why, it is fundamental to carry it out as well as possible, always keeping in mind what is known as “The three Rs of animal research”:

Replacement: To try as far as possible to replace the use of animals with alternative techniques

Reduction: To always use the minimum possible number of animals to make a fair investigation.

Refinement: To find ways in which animal stress and suffering will be brought to a minimum.

These three principles were first described by W.M.S Russell and R.L Burch in their book: “The Principles of Humane Experimental Technique”

I am trying to keep this as short as possible, but it is proving extraordinarily difficult to do so, as there are many points of view. But the thing is, I’m not writing this post because I wish to convince others to take on my views on such a controversial topic.

What I do hope to transmit is an invitation to understand this issue further and to stop the spread of guilt-trapping facts. What I wish for, is an educated debate, a space free of morose pictures of suffering bunnies, an unbiased discussion free from violent opposition.

It is not uncommon to hear that researchers working with animals are sent threats, or that they fear the security of their lab. These people who are claiming to be in favour of ending cruelty and in favour of peace seem to be aggressively lashing out against those who disagree with them.

What sort of peace is that?

I hate to be tricked into feeling guilty about my beliefs, when in reality, I am only in favour of what to me, seems like the best conclusion.

I am in favour of using animal research solely when essential.

I am for giving the best treatment to animals.

I agree that we should find alternatives as much a possible.

And if I see one more picture of a tortured animal on Facebook, I swear…   I won’t get angry, I will only carry on to inform people about responsible research instead of abusing them for having their own views.

I hope that those who violently oppose will learn to do the same.

-teresa-

Sources:

http://www.understandinganimalresearch.org.uk/

http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/animal-research

http://www.bbc.co.uk/ethics/animals/using/experiments_1.shtml

Portraits

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When we are young, we are often asked in school to draw our family. The way we do so says rather a lot about the perception we have of reality, how we see ourselves and how we see others. We have to carefully choose just a couple of characteristics to represent them.

A portrait is much more than the illustration of a person’s physical appearance. A good artist can depict one’s soul. It is said that king Phillip IV of Spain, at the end of his life, was reluctant to be painted by Velázquez, as he would capture the sadness in his eyes. Likewise, some indigenous people are even afraid of having their picture taken, as they believe it could steal their being.

Sometimes, I argue with a friend who states that History and Politics are far more useful than art. He does not seem to realise that through art, one can learn so much about human reality. For instance, what sort of portraits of himself did Henry IV of France wanted, or how did Stalin use his self-image as a propaganda method. In a way, political ideas are hidden in portraits.

The artist tells a story when he or she makes a portrait, whether it is of himself or someone else.

How many selfies have you taken today? And why?

-ana-

It killed the cat.

ItKilledtheCat

“It is a miracle that curiosity survives a formal education”

(Albert Einstein)

I remember sitting in front of a computer following our first lesson in a real science laboratory. How was I meant to write this “lab report” I had been assigned? In primary school, Science lessons had been fun, and we got a taste of what feels like to question the world; I had thought that Science was going to be a lot more fun than completing a layout of instructions and using the right kind of font for an assignment.

 And yet here I was, struggling to remember what I did in the experimental class, and how many drops of some solution I’d added, or whether the flask I’d used was called “Erlenmeyer”.

 This is how I fell into the awful habit of asking the teacher to spoon-feed me the expected results, to steal her hypotheses, and to avoid – wherever possible – making a connection between what I learnt from a book and what I did in the lab.

 The perennial Monday morning deadline meant that every Sunday night I would make my eyes sore trying to figure out what it all meant, forever cursing the lab work and the lab reports for making science such a dreadful experience.

 But that was then.

 Today, I realise that it had less to do with the reports themselves than the extreme lack of interest I had in the science I was being forced to study. And I have come to realise this because today I consider myself to be a person intrigued by the empirical process, who has dedicated ten hours per week to Science this academic year. I came to recognize the vital element I had been missing.

 Curiosity.

 I had been taught to accept unquestioningly the words in textbooks – especially if the letters were small and the pages adorned with diagrams I did not understand. It took time for me to realise that the things I learnt in class were relevant to the world beyond my desk. Who could have guessed that the diagrams I failed to decipher explained how my body managed to keep me alive?!

 Coming to the realisation that I do not have a clue about how my body works at a smaller, more complex, level helped me to begin to frame questions which have become unrelenting. This is the motor that keeps the sciences advancing. Without questions, knowledge is reduced to complicated words that kids and adults alike can’t be expected to care about. As humans, we have created a compendium of facts and information because there have been people who have asked the right questions, and people who have found the answers.

 If I could go back in time (although according to my bud Stephen Hawking, not a plausible scenario…) I would tell 13-year-old me that there is a world of knowledge she hasn’t explored yet, and that if she takes an interest in what goes on in the lab, not only will she save herself from painful Sunday nights trying to complete that report she doesn’t care about, but she’ll also surprise herself with how contagious it is to learn.

 They say that curiosity killed the cat, but at least it gave life to Science.

-teresa-