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Posts Tagged ‘science’

22 OCTOBER, 2013

On Tenderness: What Genetics Godfather Gregor Mendel Teaches Us about the Heart of Science


“There is tenderness in the chemist measuring and re-measuring salts in the hood; in the mathematician kneading his equations to understand the shape of the cosmos; in the marine biologist learning to talk to dolphins…”

The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 (public library), edited by the pioneering cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee — who penned the Pulitzer-Prize-winning The Emperor of All Maladies: A Biography of Cancer — collects precisely what it promises, with contributions from such celebrated minds as Alan Lightman, who explores our place in the universe, David Deutsch, who ponders the quantum horizons, Oliver Sacks, who takes us to the mind-bending world of hallucinations, Robert Sapolsky, who considers what comes after humanity, and Gareth Cook, who challenges our assumptions about autism. Still, it’s worth noting that of the anthology’s twenty-seven essays, five are by women — where are Rebecca Skloot, Maria Konnikova, and Maggie Koerth-Baker , among countless other women who write about science with unparalleled rigor and eloquence? (Perhaps fretting over the obvious omission of Mary Roach, grand dame of popular science, can be put at rest, since she did edit the 2011 edition of the anthology.)

Gender imbalance aside, however, the essays are undeniably exquisite. But among the most poignant is in fact the foreword by Mukherjee, in which he adds to history’s finest definitions of science a beautiful and counterintuitive reflection on what lies at the heart of science. A masterful storyteller, he draws us into a personal anecdote, then catapults us into a larger meditation on what the peculiar life of genetics godfather Gregor Mendel reveals about the driving force of true science:

In the summer of 2012, I traveled to Brno, in the Czech Republic, to visit the monastery of Gregor Mendel. I knew the barest details of Mendel’s life — enough to generate an anatomical sketch but not much more. Originally from a farming family in Moravia, he had joined the Augustinian monastery in Brno in the 1830s. In 1864, working with peas in the garden of his monastery, he stumbled on arguably the most seminal discovery of modern biology: that hereditary information is transmitted from one generation to the next in the form of discrete particles of information — “genes.”

As a geneticist himself, Mukherjee was inordinately excited about his pilgrimage. But he was unprepared for his brush with that classic Eastern European bureaucracy, the kind so vexing it might just engender violence: Once he made his way to Mendel’s monastery, he realized that the abbey, tended by an auburn-haired Czech woman, was closed that day and he had to fill out an application, in duplicate, in order to enter it and look for Mendel’s coveted notebooks and set foot in the room where the great geneticist made his historic pea hybrids tabulations. This was exasperating information, given he was only in town for a night. The absurdity of the situation only swelled when the woman informed him it was to her the application ought to be made. Mukherjee recounts:

I scrutinized her face. If there was even the faintest glimmer of irony, I had missed it. Well, two could play this game, I thought.

“In that case, I am applying to you now,” I said. “I hereby present my application to visit Gregor Mendel’s monastery.” I restrained myself from executing a small bow.

The woman considered the impasse carefully. A moment of understanding passed between us, like a tiny, malevolent bolt of electricity. She looked defeated.

“No photographs, okay?” she said. She pulled out a large key from under her desk and escorted me in.

And so Mukherjee entered the holy premises of scientific history — but only to find damp walls, austere one-room cells, and a modest library of about 200 leather-bound books — none on botany or even any aspect of biology — with a reading chair beside them. Mendel’s own room was befitting, with only a small bed and a chair in the corner. Mukherjee found himself hopelessly underwhelmed — having traveled 3,000 miles to the birthplace of genetics in search of “something magical,” of “an insight into the soul of the man who had revolutionized biology,” he felt a growing sense of disappointment. He felt duped, even, in that familiar way we all have of being angry at no one in particular for the unfortunate turn of events that crushed our optimistic expectation. Once his anger cooled, though, he reflected on the apt meta-message of the experience:

Perhaps the custodians of Mendel’s legacy had — if unwittingly — achieved a rather accurate re-creation, or even a reenactment, of his life in the abbey. The rule-boundedness, the deference to authority, the moral disapproval at the smallest transgressions of discipline — that ever-so-slight shrug at my unfiled application — were all symptomatic; had Mendel himself been asked to curate a monument to his own stifling times, he could not have chosen a more seasoned actor to play its guardian.

Mendel’s forty-odd-year stint at the Brno abbey was, indeed, deeply constrained by rules, habits, and limits. He began his experiments on inheritance by breeding field mice but was asked to discontinue them because forcing mice to mate was considered too risqué for a monk. He failed his training exams in science —notably in geology and biology — because he was unable to classify rocks and mammals using the elaborate traditional systems of classification. A sympathetic superior, Abbot Napp, allowed him to continue his experiments on peas in his garden plot, but Mendel was held to the abbey’s strict routines and demands. In one of the few letters that survive, a stern note from his watchers instructs him to remember to wear his cap to church services. Mendel, for his part, was all too eager to comply. Far from a boundary-breaking, rule-bending enfant terrible, he was disciplined, deferential, and dull.

How on earth, then, did this man, in this place, unlock the secret of genes?

At this point, Charles Bukowski might chime in with his sarcastic admonition about the ideal conditions of creativity, but Mukherjee continues:

Newton had his cometary intellect; Einstein was born a rebel and bred to defy convention; Feynman was the comic genius of physics, exposing his discipline’s vanities like a jester in a court of fools. But Gregor Mendel? The founder of modern biology seems, in contrast, to have been born without contrast — a man of habits plodding his way among men in habits.

William James, on the other hand, would have gladly commended rather than condemned habit as a force of creativity. But Mukherjee steers his way to a different kind of solution to the seeming puzzle, one that captures with equal parts poetry and pride the essence of science:

At least part of the answer, I think, takes us back to the monastery — to that minuscule rectangle of land by the refectory; to the walled garden; to the indelible image of a monk in wire-rimmed glasses tending plants—stooping, with paintbrush and forceps, to transfer the orange dust of pollen from the stamen of one flower to the pistil of the next. “It requires indeed some courage to undertake a labor of such far-reaching extent,” Mendel wrote in his 1865 paper, describing an eight-year experiment on cross-fertilization that ultimately revealed the existence of genes. But “courage,” I would argue, is the wrong word here. More than “courage,” there is something else evident in that work — a quality that I can only describe as “tenderness.”

It is a word not typically used to describe science or scientists. It shares roots, of course, with “tending” — a farmer’s or gardener’s activity — but also with “tension,” the stretching of a pea tendril to incline it toward sunlight or train it on an arbor. It describes a certain intimacy between humans and nature — a nourishment that must happen before investigation can happen, the delicacy of labor that must be performed before the delicacy of its fruits can be harvested.

It’s interesting, too, that George R. R. Martin has used a similar metaphor to describe the two kinds of writers, architects and gardeners. It’s precisely this gift for “gardening,” argues Mukherjee, that lent the godfather of genetics his great strength:

Mendel was, first and foremost, a gardener; his science began with tending. His genius was certainly not fueled by deep knowledge of the conventions of biology (thankfully, he failed that exam). Rather, it was his instinctual knowledge of the garden, coupled with an incisive power of observation, that brought him to question the nature of inheritance and thereby discover genes. The act of tending — the laborious cross-pollination of seedlings, the meticulous tabulation of the colors of cotyledons and the markings of wrinkles on seeds — soon led him to findings that could not be explained by the traditional understanding of inheritance. Heredity, Mendel realized, could be explained only by the passage of discrete pieces of information from parents to offspring. There had to be atoms of information — particles of inheritance — moving from one generation to the next. Tending generated tension — until the old fulcrum of biology was snapped in two.

Mendel’s legacy, of course, is history — not only in science, but in every aspect of culture. Without it, for instance, Richard Dawkins would’ve never coined the concept of a “meme,” which he originally explained with an analogy to Mendel’s discovery: “Just as genes propagate themselves in the gene pool by leaping from body to body via sperms or eggs, so memes propagate themselves in the meme pool by leaping from brain to brain.”

Mukherjee reflects on the broader role of tenderness in science and its function as our last bulwark against the dehumanizing capacities of technology, an antidote to this age of exponentially glorified science-industrial complex of big data, factory-like labs, and disembodied algorithms:

When I witness science in action, I see this tenderness in abundance. … Look closely among scientists, and you find this quality everywhere. There is tenderness in the chemist measuring and re-measuring salts in the hood; in the mathematician kneading his equations to understand the shape of the cosmos; in the marine biologist learning to talk to dolphins. . . . In age of increasingly mechanized production, the genesis of scientific knowledge remains an unyieldingly, obstreperously hand-hewn process. It is among the most human of our activities. Far from being subsumed by the dehumanizing effects of technology, science remains our last stand against it.

And so it is with this criterion in mind — tenderness — that Mukherjee selected the essays in the collection, meditations that reveal not only how science actually happens but also who or what propels its immutable humanity. Complement The Best American Science and Nature Writing 2013 with this collection of 2012′s finest science writing online, then revisit the best science books of the past year.

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18 OCTOBER, 2013

Irving Geis’s Pioneering Scientific Illustrations and Diagrams of Imaginary Flight Paths to Venus


What the structure of DNA has to do with interplanetary travel and the cross-pollination of art and science.

Two generations after Ernst Haeckel’s seminal biological art, American artist Irving Geis (October 18, 1908–July 22, 1997) ushered in a new era of scientific illustration, his intricate hand-drawn work shedding light on such landmark twentieth-century discoveries as the structure of proteins and DNA. When he was only 29, he was commissioned by Fortune to create this stunning drawing of the circulatory system, which would come to influence a wealth of subsequent stunning vintage illustrations of the body and which marked his foray into scientific illustration:

Though best-remembered today as the illustrator behind the 1954 classic How to Lie with Statistics (which remains an essential piece of cultural literacy, all the more relevant in today’s data-driven everything), Geis found himself mesmerized by the world of science by the beginning of the 1960s — a world that had been catapulted into an electrifying renaissance with the discovery of DNA only a few years earlier. And so Geis, formally trained as an architect and thus as far removed from science as formal education makes possible, set out to illuminate the building blocks of life using his singular skill. Soon, he began working with Scientific American and illustrating everything from cellular biology to space travel.

Geis's early sketch of a hemoglobin molecule. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

Geis's illustration of the hemoglobin tetramer. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

Concept sketch for Geis's 1961 painting of sperm whale myoglobin, the very first protein structure solved by X-ray crystallography, for Scientific American.

Irving Geis with his near-complete 1961 painting of the structure of myoglobin. The heme portion of the protein, depicted in red, is still lacking the oxygen molecule at its center. (Courtesy of the Irving Geis Collection, Howard Hughes Medical Institute)

In 1960, a year before he created his now-legendary myoglobin illustration for Scientific American, Geis was commissioned by the magazine to draw a series of diagrams envisioning four alternative flight paths to Venus. An article titled “Interplanetary Navigation,” premised on the idea that space flight between the planets should be a reality “within a year or two,” imagined how an earth-bound navigator would go about bringing a vehicle loaded with scientific instruments to the alluring second planet from the sun, which Scientific American deemed “the planet most likely to be visited first by an interplanetary vehicle.” (They were, of course, wrong — it wasn’t Venus, and it took another ten years to realize the interplanetary dream with Mars.)

Geis’s first task was to revise our conventional models of the cosmos with a third dimension in mind, because treating the solar system as two-dimensional “could cause a vehicle to miss its objective by a thousand miles.” So Geis took the standard two-dimensional diagram…

…and gave it a third dimension, drawing Earth’s orbit on one transparent sheet of plastic and Venus’s on another, then mounting the two sheets in a glass plate and angling them at the approximate angle at which the two planets’ orbital planes intersect each other:

Geis then inspected his three-dimensional model and decided on the best angle at which to translate it into a two-dimensional diagram. The resulting four diagrams depicted the four possible paths to Venus:

A flight path wholly in the plane of earth's orbit which is timed to make rendezvous with Venus when the planet crosses the earth's orbital plane.

A flight path wholly in the plane of Venus, with the launching of the vehicle timed at a moment when the earth crosses Venus's orbital plane.

A flight path started in the orbital plane of the earth and deflected in the orbital plane of Venus by a rocket thrust fired on a radio command from earth.

A flight path projected on a plane (hatched area) that intersects the orbital planes of the two planets, with the vehicle flying out of the earth's orbital plane and into the orbital plane of Venus.

Complement Geis’s work with this retrospective of 2,000 years of scientific images and a look at the history of medical illustration.

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09 OCTOBER, 2013

How Mind-Wandering and “Positive Constructive Daydreaming” Boost Our Creativity and Social Skills


The science of why fantasy and imaginative escapism are essential elements of a satisfying mental life.

Freud asserted that daydreaming is essential to creative writing — something a number of famous creators and theorists intuited in asserting that unconscious processing is essential to how creativity works, from T. S. Eliot’s notion of “idea incubation” to Alexander Graham Bell’s “unconscious cerebration” to Lewis Carroll’s “mental mastication.” In the 1950s, Yale psychologist Jerome L. Singer put these intuitive observations to the empirical test as he embarked upon a groundbreaking series of research into daydreaming. His findings, eventually published in the 1975 bible The Inner World of Daydreaming (public library), laid the foundations of our modern understanding of creativity’s subconscious underbelly. Singer described three core styles of daydreaming: positive constructive daydreaming, a process fairly free of psychological conflict, in which playful, vivid, wishful imagery drives creative thought; guilty-dysphoric daydreaming, driven by a combination of ambitiousness, anguishing fantasies of heroism, failure, and aggression, and obsessive reliving of trauma, a mode particularly correlated with PTSD; and poor attentional control, typical of the anxious, the distractible, and those having difficulties concentrating.

In a recent paper titled “Ode to Positive Constructive Daydreaming” (PDF), published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology, writer Rebecca McMillan and NYU cognitive psychologist Scott Kaufman, author of Ungifted: Intelligence Redefined, revisit Singer’s work to deliver new insights into how the first style of Singer’s mind-wandering, rather than robbing us of happiness, plays an essential, empowering role in daily life and creativity.

My highlights from Anaïs Nin's diary, illustrated by Lisa Congdon. Click image for details.

One of the most fascinating aspects the authors explore is the seeming paradox of the high costs of daydreaming, which prevents us from wholly inhabiting the present moment, and the astounding frequency with which we engage in it. This is related to the default mode network (DMN), which neuroscientists discovered in the late 1990s and which Singer presaged by decades — a neural network that engages when our brain is at wakeful rest, as in meditation, rather than actively focused on the outside world. The authors explain:

While the costs of mind wandering are apparent and easily quantifiable, the benefits seem less obvious and tangible. They require us to dig a bit deeper.

Singer and colleagues report many of the costs associated with mind wandering, yet the central theme of Singer’s large body of work is the manifestly positive, adaptive role that daydreaming plays in our daily lives. We turn now to the benefits of daydreaming first described by Singer, then bolstered by recent studies exploring the adaptive role of the DMN and mind wandering on cognition.

Right from the start, Singer’s research produced evidence suggesting that daydreaming, imagination, and fantasy are essential elements of a healthy, satisfying mental life. His early research included studies looking at delayed gratification and the interaction of imagination and waiting ability in young children. In another early study presented evidence of correlation between daydreaming frequency, measures of creativity, and storytelling activity. … Singer explored the relationship between daydreaming, personality, divergent thought, creativity, planning, problem solving, associational fluency, curiosity, attention, and distractibility. Singer noted that daydreaming can reinforce and enhance social skills, offer relief from boredom, provide opportunities for rehearsal and constructive planning, and provide an ongoing source of pleasure. In later work, Singer describes those who engage in positive constructive daydreaming as “happy daydreamers” who enjoy fantasy, vivid imagery, the use of daydreaming for future planning, and possess abundant interpersonal curiosity.

Pointing to recent research, McMillan and Kaufman argue that Singer presaged the same four primary adaptive functions of positive constructive daydreaming that modern neuroscience has identified since the discovery of the DMN:

Future planning which is increased by a period of self-reflection and attenuated by an unhappy mood; creativity, especially creative incubation and problem solving; attentional cycling which allows individuals to rotate through different information streams to advance personally meaningful and external goals; and dishabituation which enhances learning by providing short breaks from external tasks, thereby achieving distributed rather than massed practice. All four functions are present in Singer’s work, though his terminology differs.

Lynda Barry watercolor over Freud's essay on creative writing and daydreaming. Click image for details.

The authors debunk yet another paradox in the study of daydreaming — the notion that mind-wandering is often bemoaned as a “mental mishap” or “cognitive failure,” yet it can also be, and often is, an act of volition:

Individuals can choose to disengage from external tasks, decoupling attention, in order to pursue an internal stream of thought that they expect to pay off in some way. The pay off may be immediate, coming in the form of pleasing reverie, insight, or new synthesis of material, or it may be more distant as in rehearsing upcoming scenarios or projecting oneself forward in time to a desired outcome. Projection backward in time to reinterpret past experiences in light of new information is also a possibility. All of these activities, which take place internally, sheltered from the demands of external tasks and perception, offer the possibility of enormous personal reward. These mental activities are, in fact, central to the task of meaning making, of developing and maintaining an understanding of oneself in the world. … Certainly a large share of mind wandering occurs without permission or awareness. But some mind wandering occurs because we actively choose to decouple from external tasks and perceptions and focus instead on an internal stream of thought with full awareness both of the choice being made and the contents of consciousness.


It seems likely that the ability to engage in volitional daydreaming, i.e., to switch easily back and forth between different streams of consciousness, might be sensitive to practice effects. Choosing to disengage from external tasks, decouple, turn attention inward, and follow an internal stream of thought with full awareness undoubtedly requires skill. The process can break down in a number of places along the way: at the decision point, decoupling, the switch from outer to inner streams of consciousness, or meta-awareness. But the more a person does it, the easier it is likely to become.

They cite Singer himself, who noted this cognitive dance:

Our human condition is such that we are forever in the situation of deciding how much attention to give to self-generated thought and how much to information from the external social or physical environment.

Though McMillan and Kaufman’s conception of mind-wandering does border on romantic idealism at times — there are, after all, some hard numbers on the matter — it does give one pause about the art of pausing and offers a necessary antidote to our cultural cult of extreme goal-oriented productivity:

We mind wander, by choice or accident, because it produces tangible reward when measured against goals and aspirations that are personally meaningful. Having to reread a line of text three times because our attention has drifted away matters very little if that attention shift has allowed us to access a key insight, a precious memory or make sense of a troubling event. Pausing to reflect in the middle of telling a story is inconsequential if that pause allows us to retrieve a distant memory that makes the story more evocative and compelling. Losing a couple of minutes because we drove past our off ramp, is a minor inconvenience if the attention lapse allowed us finally to understand why the boss was so upset by something we said in last week’s meeting. Arriving home from the store without the eggs that necessitated the trip is a mere annoyance when weighed against coming to a decision to ask for a raise, leave a job, or go back to school.

And yet, there’s something to be said for bridging these adaptive benefits of mind-wandering with an active intention to remain awake to the world before us — because, as Annie Dillard poignantly observed, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives,” and while spending some of those in daydreams might be delicious, the art of living, unlike the art of writing, is more than a guided dream.

The article, which you can read in PDF here, concludes by reminding us just how far ahead of his time Singer was, and how seminal his theories were for modern cognitive science:

Whatever aspect of mind wandering current researchers might wish to pursue, it is likely that Singer considered the question first and made as thorough an investigation as the technology of the day would allow. His research serves as a solid foundation and springboard for all who come after him and share his fascination with positive constructive daydreaming, mind wandering, and the imaginative capabilities of the human mind.

A used copy of Singer’s The Inner World of Daydreaming — sadly, long relegated to the lamentable cemetery of out-of-print gems — is very much worth the hunt. Complement it with this omnibus of cultural icons on what creativity is.

Thanks, Scott Myers

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