Science journalist John Rennie is an amazing story teller. In this recording from Story Collider, he explains how he became the lab safety officer in his post-undergrad biology laboratory in the early 1980s (it involves being the only person who was concerned when other people started scooping up mercury with their bare hands). The peak of his experience: The day he stuck his arm, up past the elbow, into a barrel of liquid nitrogen. Good times.
Here's a great story from the science storytelling project Story Collider and physicist David Morgan. Morgan starts telling a story about how Sagan influenced him to become a scientist and how the beginning of that career was tied up with an attempt to get in touch with Sagan — pre-ubiquitous e-mail — in the year 1995.
Moran Cerf is a neuroscientist. In the video above, which Cory posted on Friday, he tells the story of how a paper he published in the journal Nature ended up getting him phone calls from Apple and invitations to appear with Christopher Nolan on the publicity tour for Inception. The problem: Nolan, Apple, and a lot of other people thought Cerf had figured out a way to record dreams. He hadn't. Not even close.
Cory's piece, and a link that Xeni sent me to the video, got me reading up on this case and I wanted to provide more of the scientific background—so you can see clearly what Cerf's research was really about and how the media got wrong. Back in 2010, Cerf and his colleagues were trying to figure out how humans look at a world cluttered with different faces, objects, smells, and sounds and manage to filter out the specific things we're interested in. What happens when I look at a messy desk and immediately focus in on one piece of paper? If there are two objects on the desk that are familiar to me, but only one of them really matters, how does my brain resolve the conflict and direct my attention in a single direction?
Turns out, at least under laboratory conditions, humans can filter out the important stuff by consciously controlling the firing of neurons in their own brains. Here's how Alison Abbott at Nature News described the research at the time:
In the last six years or so they have shown that single neurons can fire when subjects recognise — or even imagine — just one particular person or object. They propose that activity in these neurons reflect the choices the brain is making about what sensory information it will consider further and what information it will neglect.
In this experiment, the scientists flashed a series of 110 familiar images — such as pictures of Marilyn Monroe or Michael Jackson — on a screen in front of each of the 12 patients and identified individual neurons which uniquely and reliably responded to one of the images. They selected four images for which they had found responsive neurons in different parts of a subject's MTL. Then they showed the subject two images superimposed on each other. Each was 50% faded out.
The subjects were told to think about one of the images and enhance it.
Read the rest
Michael O'Hare is a public policy researcher. He teaches at UC Berkeley and specializes in the arts and the environment. He does not sound like a very threatening guy. But, since the early 1980s, Michael O'Hare has been the subject of another man's obsessive quest to find the true identity of the Zodiac Killer.
Let's be clear. Michael O'Hare is not the Zodiac Killer. He's got a pretty good alibi—namely the fact that he was nowhere near California when the murders happened. In fact, his name only entered the field because an enthusiast named Gareth Penn analyzed some of the famous Zodiac cryptograms and somehow came up with the name "Michael O". How that led Penn to O'Hare isn't exactly clear, but however it happened, Penn has spent the last 30 years telling anyone who will listen that Michael O'Hare is the Zodiac Killer.
And that has made O'Hare's life rather ... interesting. This weekend, I ran across a 2009 essay, written by O'Hare, describing his experience as the unwitting subject of somebody else's conspiracy theory. This is old, but I wanted to share it because it's such a rare perspective on this kind of thing. In the age of the Internet, it's easy to read up on conspiracy theories covering just about any topic. For most of them, you can also find extensive debunking sources. It's much less common for somebody at the center of the story to talk about what that experience has been like. Totally fascinating.
The decades since Penn fixed his sights on me have not been a living hell, much as that would spice up this story. They have been an ordinary life, punctuated by one or another flurry of fuss from Penn, sometimes involving pages of numbers (for example, the data pages from my PhD thesis) with this or that sequence picked out, circled, and "decoded" into words that fit somehow into Penn’s model of the crimes.
My favorite episode was the phone calls. Sometime in the 1980s, I started getting them at two and three in the morning. When my wife or I answered, a male voice would say something vaguely threatening like "I’m coming north, and I’m going to get you soon!" .... The calls were supposed to be transmitting coded messages via numbers—in particular, the time of the call! Apparently, Penn’s assumption was that when the average person is aroused by the phone in the middle of the night, the first thing he does, before woozily answering, is to note the time of the first ring on the digital clock he keeps by the bed—which is, of course, synchronized with the clock in the Naval Observatory. If your clock (or his) is off by just a couple of minutes, the call that was supposed to register as "2:14"—code for "Got you dead to rights this time"—will be misinterpreted as "2:16," which I think means "The Sox can’t make the playoffs without a closer." (Sadly, I’ve lost the magic decoder ring I got in exchange for cereal box tops as a child, so I can’t be sure.) The story got even better years later, when I discovered that a Penn skeptic had been calling him at home at times that figured into Penn’s theory, whereupon Penn assumed the calls came from me and "returned" them to my house, so he thought he was having a conversation with me, all in three-digit numbers.
Do they still make children's books with sad endings? Like The Velveteen Rabbit? Because I think I've got a doozy here.
It's all about a 747 who loves to fly. It's what she was built to do and it's what she does best. For years, she soars through the skies, ferrying cargo and, possibly, some nondescript men in nice suits. (Or maybe not. Depends on when she went into service.) But through it all, the little 747 just wants to spend as much time as she can aloft, among the clouds, where she belongs.
But then, one day, the nondescript men in nice suits tell her that it's time she retire. They take her to a place in the desert and leave her there, with lots of other retired planes who've given up and are slowly falling apart. Other men come and they take her engines. Then they take all the beautiful buttons and switches from cockpit. The other planes tell her that, soon, men will come with saws to cut away parts of her fuselage. But the little 747 never breaks. They can take her apart, bit by bit, but they can't take away her dreams. And still, sometimes, in the boneyard, she tries to take to the skies just one last time.
Seriously. Somebody call the Newberry committee.
And bring me a hanky.
Thanks to Andrew Balfour for the video, and to Shahv Press for the background on Southern Air.