Category Archives: science

It’s Monday. Your brain is barely functioning. Great news! You don’t need it!

Damaged brain due to fluid

You might think I am joking but I am not.

Take a look at the photo above. This is a scan of a living man’s brain: the black part is fluid, while the part around the black part is his remaining brain. Essentially 90% of his brain has been displaced by the fluid. And yet he was considered a functioning person, despite only have 10% of a brain mass most people have.

The story behind the scan and the questions that it raises is in this article: A civil servant missing most of his brain challenges our most basic theories of consciousness.

Fascinating. Perhaps in a few years / centuries we will understand how the brain works. For now we are mostly clueless, much like you are while you wait for your coffee to kick in. 🙂

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On Nash equilibrium and game theory

John Nash
I’ve been interested in Game Theory and in particular how to apply the concept of the Nash Equilibrium to work. These were four links I found useful

  1. Examples and exercises on Nash equilibrium in games in which each player has finitely many actions
  2. The Triumph (and Failure) of John Nash’s Game Theory | The New Yorker
  3. Nash equilibrium – Wikipedia
  4. Game theory text (PDF) from UCLA math department.

(Image of the great man himself from Wikipedia)

On the New Yorker’s piece: Why Freud Survives

Freud
This piece, Why Freud Survives, is a great review of not just Freud’s legacy, but some of the people involved with Freud’s legacy since his death. I’ve read about it before: believe it or not, this is the short version of it. While long, the piece is well worth reading.

This section in particular gives some good context with regards to psychoanalysis in the context of psychiatry.

Since the third edition of the DSM, the emphasis has been on biological explanations for mental disorders, and this makes psychoanalysis look like a detour, or, as the historian of psychiatry Edward Shorter called it, a “hiatus.” But it wasn’t as though psychiatry was on solid medical ground when Freud came along. Nineteenth-century science of the mind was a Wild West show. Treatments included hypnosis, electrotherapy, hydrotherapy, full-body massage, painkillers like morphine, rest cures, “fat” cures (excessive feeding), seclusion, “female castration,” and, of course, institutionalization. There was also serious interest in the paranormal. The most prevalent nineteenth-century psychiatric diagnoses, hysteria and neurasthenia, are not even recognized today. That wasn’t “bad” science. It was science. Some of it works; a lot of it does not. Psychoanalysis was not the first talk therapy, but it was the bridge from hypnosis to the kind of talk therapy we have today. It did not abuse the patient’s body, and if it was a quack treatment it was not much worse, and was arguably more humane, than a lot of what was being practiced. Nor did psychoanalysis put a halt to somatic psychiatry. During the first half of the twentieth century, all kinds of medical interventions for mental disorders were devised and put into practice. These included the administration of sedatives, notably chloral, which is addictive, and which was prescribed for Virginia Woolf, who suffered from major depression; insulin-induced comas; electroshock treatments; and lobotomies. Despite its frightful reputation, electroconvulsive therapy is an effective treatment for severe depression, but most of the other treatments in use before the age of psychopharmaceuticals were dead ends. Even today, in many cases, we are basically throwing chemicals at the brain and hoping for the best. Hit or miss is how a lot of progress is made. You can call it science or not.

Psychiatry has a long way to go. It will need better tools and better ways of understanding the brain and the mind. I think over time Freud will be seen the way Galen is: not so much relevant as influential and important in moving medicine forward.

(Image from link to Wikipedia)

Some perspective on the Arctic “doomsday” seed vault threatened with flooding

After reading this, The Arctic “doomsday” seed vault is supposed to ensure the future of humanity. It just flooded, I wondered why there is only one of these?! If this one gets destroyed, are we doomed?!

I should relax, though remain concerned: it turns out there are many seed vaults around the world.  I discovered this after a few minutes on Google. It’s still bad that this one is being threatened. And I can see why so many stories are being written about it. But some context is important.

In addition, the people maintaining this vault have plans to deal with the threat to it. I expect that this one will survive along with all of its seeds.

Yes, global warming is still a major problem and it is threatening our future. The flooding at this seed bank is not.

SpaceX tries to disrupt and partner with NASA at the same time

It’s not explicitly stated, but if you read this: If you think NASA is frustrated with SpaceX, you’re probably right in Ars Technica, then you may draw the same conclusion. It seems SpaceX is taking advantage of its partnership with NASA to position itself to get the point where it can get by without it and eventually compete with the space agency.

If that was not the case, then I would expect SpaceX to stick to missions that were separate from NASA and supportive of NASA. Instead they seem to be trying to compete with NASA for the same missions.

It’s a tricky call for SpaceX: if they are not careful, they could ruin their partnership and find themselves without a steady source of income to fund their ambitions. I’m all for both NASA and SpaceX both being viable for the long term. Let’s hope that happens.

The beauty of when science and poetry intersect

According to a post by Clive Thompson,

Recently, two scientists got interested in the poem, because they realized these two facts could be used to determine precisely what time of year Sappho wrote the poem.

The poem, the post, and the work the scientists did are all great. Highly recommended. (Click on the link to the post for more details.)

At Theranos, things are coming undone

And the journalists at Wall Street Journal have been leading on this story for some time now. Their latest piece, which is a good summary of what has been happening recently with the blood testing company is here:  At Theranos, Many Strategies and Snags – WSJ.

Everything I see leads me to believe this will be a debacle. It’s hard to tell, since Theranos consistently defends themselves against the many charges against them. Perhaps they will come out successful in the end. I think we’ll find out soon enough.