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The beautiful thing about science is that it works. It doesn’t care if you are a Democrat or a Republican; an atheist, Christian or Muslim; rich or poor. It works. It has consistently provided the tools necessary to improve everyone’s lives. Whether that is to cure disease, to produce the computer or phone you are reading this on, or to heat your home, science works. There have always been two key to foundations that science is built on: scientific data and people. Donald Trump is attacking both of these.

Although we are lumped into categories — biologist, physicist, ecologist — there are very few real silos between fields. Science is a chaotic, swirling mess of ideas that get passed around as we attempt to explain the world. I am a neuroscientist. But, more importantly, I am a scientist. In my field, some of the most influential tools have come from studying how jellyfish glow in the dark and how bacteria survive in salty environments. We take ideas about how magnets align with each other and use them to explain how masses of brain cells are able to work together to perceive the world. I read papers from physicists, from computer scientists, from ecologists and apply this directly to problems of how brains are able to make decisions and communicate with each other. …

In the space of a few months, I have somehow become the foremost expert on punctuation. I now receive emails asking, “What does punctuation say about [highly intelligent topic that I should probably have a real opinion about]?” Typically I would say, probably nothing. But it is political season which means that truth is out the window and style is in. So what does punctuation tell us about Republicans and Democrats?

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Punctuation in Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy (left) and in Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner (right).

When we think of novels, of newspapers and blogs, we think of words. We easily forget the little suggestions pushed in between: the punctuation. But how can we be so cruel to such a fundamental part of writing?

Inspired by a series of posters, I wondered what did my favorite books look like without words. Can you tell them apart or are they all a-mush? In fact, they can be quite distinct. Take my all-time favorite book, Absalom, Absalom! by William Faulkner. It is dense prose stuffed with parentheticals. …

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From the Cell Image library

How will we crack the brain?

If you would like see things straight out of a science fiction movie, you should visit a neuroscience laboratory. Technology and science has advanced so quickly that I am not sure the public understands how advanced we are. Depending on the species, creating new transgenic animals — where you slip new genetic material into an organism — starts at ‘pathetically easy.’ During my PhD, there were days I would create the DNA for five or ten new transgenics in one go; creating the animals themselves was hardly a challenge. Light can be used as a physical force to move things around (“optical tweezers”). Scientists routinely create custom-made viruses to go forth into a chosen animal and label a precise set of neural cells. We can rain light down onto an animal to replay — or delete — memories. …

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The insanity of over-exertion in the brain from the Internet Archive Book Images

“The brain works the way it does because it’s made of meat, and meat is not deterministic.” — Anthony Movshon

At first glance, the brain is a mess. More like a tangled ball of yarn than a finely woven tapestry, every combination of neuron-to-neuron is in there, somewhere. Yet look a little closer and this complex structure devolves into very clear regularity. I could take you on a tour of the waves of Purkinje cells, straight-backed like military men, reaching their arms out to passing fibers shooting up from a distant province. I could show you the shapes of the hippocampus where memories are created, messages washing down step by step. I could show you the round columns of barrel cortex, clear to your eye, that precisely mirrors the pattern of whiskers that eventually stimulate them. …

What does it even mean to detect so many smells?

Smell has always seemed quite different from the other senses. In Kant’s Reflexionen zur Anthropologie, he distinguishes the senses which rational beings use to know things — such as sight, sound, touch — and those which are more carnal in nature, such as scent. However, he points out that classification of these smells will be difficult. Whereas in sight and sound all our vocabulary is of those senses, for odor we must borrow from others. Something smells sour: that is not a scent, that is a taste.

What can a machine tell us about beauty?

A story has been going around recently: scientists find that the beauty of mathematics is the same as the beauty of paintings, life, and everything. Our nuclear imaging shows that the brain, when stimulated by this beauty, begins pumping pumping pumping the blood to the same regions regardless of its particular incarnation. Breathlessly have we been whispering to each other: “mathematical beauty is beauty.”

Beyond the love that people have for knowing that the brain is indeed doing something, “lighting up” in the way that we hope it would, we should be wondering why this story has gained traction? …

Science as aesthetics

It’s a pretty typical Sunday evening for me: staring down through the double-barreled eyepieces of a microscope, my foot pushing a pedal up and down, up and down, blue lights flickering on and off, on and off, staring at the vulva of a worm. I pick up a small plate, consider a few of the worms carefully, then move them from one plate to another. Labeling the plate, I move it to the side and repeat the process.

It’s strange what happens when you stare at subtle variations of the same body again and again. Ever so slowly, a sort of idealization is revealed. As I work my way through worms found in the wild, mutant worms and transgenic worms I find a certain pleasure in considering the worm I move. It must be a certain type of slender, move with a certain sinuous grace and, most importantly, have a perfect crescent vulva — only one, mind you. With certain strains of mutated worms, I’ll get the task over with as quickly as possible. …


Adam J Calhoun

Social neuroscience, decision-making, machine learning, ecology, economics.

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