Let’s get quizzical

The Science of Christmas 2011

Scientific Kitty's first ever event was a pub quiz called The Science of Christmas. It took place at the cosy Cumberland Bar in Edinburgh on a very chilly Sunday evening in mid December. The quiz was designed to test participants' scientific noëledge (geddit?!) on a range of topics to do with science AND christmas. A fun time was had by all, and we were very happy to receive just one complaint... that the questions were way too hard. WELL! Scientific Kitty suggests the teams start revising for next year's quiz now, because we're not dumbing down! Give it a go yourself and see if our teams were right, or if they were just making a mountain out of a Christmas pudding. (Err, to be fair to our teams, we should probably point out that most the questions were not multiple choice, so they were pretty solid actually...)

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Earth’s atmosphere trapped in ice: 800,000 years of climate change.

Suzanne Johnson reviews the recent Shell London Lecture Series:  Earth’s atmosphere trapped in ice: 800,000 years of climate change.

Eric Wolff, a very distinguished and entertaining Scientist explored the findings from the study of ice cores and the implications they present for predicting Climate Change.

Before expanding upon his findings, Eric reasoned why a lot of time, expense and expertise is invested in studying ice cores. Firstly, for model variation – if we want to predict how our earth will react to changes in its atmosphere it is useful to look back and see how it reacted to past changes; secondly, as a way of studying climatic processes and finally, curiosity of the past. Ice cores allow an insight into the historic atmosphere untouched by biological processes, for example, no fossilisation or calcification occurs to the air in ice cores. It is somewhat “clean” of biological processes.

The air, trapped as bubbles in the ice cores, is younger than the ice surrounding it. This is due to air diffusing through gaps between the snowflakes and snow layers. The further down the snow layers, the greater the pressure from the weight of the new snow on top, which causes ice to form trapping the air. In order to date the air, a mathematical formula is used to accurately predict the age, allowing the composition of the air to be studied and dated.

It is widely acknowledged that historically there have been periods of intense cooling and warming in our atmosphere. Furthermore a correlation between warm periods and high concentrations of greenhouse gases has been found. It is simple physics that increasing the atmospheric concentration of greenhouse gases traps heat and causes the climate, on average, to warm. It is also widely acknowledged that human activities have significantly increased the concentration of greenhouse gases in the last century. Therefore it is reasonable to conclude this increase will cause the
atmosphere to warm. This apparent mutual feedback, between greenhouse gas concentration and atmospheric temperature however, appears to interact differently in Greenland and Antarctica. Additionally, data from ice cores in these two locations show that whilst Greenland may experience cooling, Antarctica simultaneously appears to warm. The dynamics of this interaction between geographic location, atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations and temperature is, as yet, unknown. However, it illustrates the complexities of the relationship between greenhouse gas concentrations and atmospheric temperature, one that with further study Eric hopes to discover.

Suzanne is a recent Biological Sciences graduate with an interest in all things sciencey. She has a passion for Science Communication and the media.

Sense of Taste

Suzanne Johnson reviews Sense of Taste, Works by Ken and Julia Yonetani at the GV Gallery, London, 7 October – 22 November.

Ken and Julia Yonetani use sculpture to highlight the negative impacts of overconsumption upon our planet.

Sweet Barrier Reef is a series of beautiful coral sculptures, carefully displayed in the GV gallery with waves of blue light washing over the art. Detail is minute whilst the structures themselves are large; the largest being around half a meter tall. The idea behind the sculptures being entirely made of sugar is symbolic of the bleaching of corals from sediment runoff, particularly from the harvesting of sugarcane. This work is particularly evocative, especially as the bland white sculptures mirror what natural bleached coral looks like; colourless and lifeless.

Still Life is a sculpture of a banquet table filled with food. It focuses upon the interplay between salt as a preservative, allowing foods to travel around the world, and as a destructive force upon ecosystems. When salt reaches high levels of concentration it causes organisms and ecosystems to die. This work shows great skill on the Yonetani’s part and is interesting to look at yet; I feel that this work does not have the impact of Sweet Barrier Reef. It is somewhat dull in comparison and without knowing the interplay between these two sides of salt, the sculpture loses its impact.

The idea to bring attention to the environmental impact of sugar and salt through sculpture is very interesting and the exhibition is small enough that you can easily pop in during a lunch hour.

Well worth a visit but I’m not sure that the grand ideas behind the Yonetani’s inspiration are accessible to all.

Suzanne is a recent Biological Sciences graduate with an interest in all things sciencey. She has a passion for Science Communication and the media.


Matt Wall discusses ‘Inception’ and the science of dream-hacking.

“If you need me, me and Neil will be hanging out with the Dream King. Neil says ‘hi’, by the way…  

- Tori Amos ‘Tear in your hand’ from ‘Little Earthquakes’ (1991).

Dreams and the unconscious mind have long held a fascination for film-makers and other artists. This interest might derive partly from the stubborn refusal of the media world to progress away from a psychoanalytic perspective in their analysis (an approach which was already out of date in the 1960s in psychology, but, bafflingly, still seems to have some currency in media-studies departments), but also partly perhaps because of the limitless creative opportunities that trying to put dreams on the screen affords. A highly influential early example of dreams on film is the Salvador Dali-designed dream sequences in Hitchcock’s ‘Spellbound’ (1945), which (as you might expect) is disturbingly surrealist and seems to be what David Lynch based a substantial part of his early career on. Another well-known example is Kubrick’s ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ (1999), based on Arthur Schnitzler’s Traumnovelle (‘Dream Story’), which some have interpreted as an extended meditation on the nature of fantasy and dreams.

One of the big hits of last summer was ‘Inception’ by Christopher Nolan; a rare blockbuster in that it featured a highly convoluted plot, an ambiguous ending and the action taking place almost entirely in a dream-world. Inception is essentially a heist-movie, with the standard elements of ‘getting-the-team-together’ at the beginning and ‘oh-no-the-plan’s-all-going-a-bit-wrong’ towards the end, however the clever twist is that the operation takes place inside the victim’s head, as part of a shared dream-state. The technology which allows this multiple sharing of consciousness is never explained, but it doesn’t really matter; a great deal of thought clearly went into building up a consistent logic for the dream-world(s) and the means of operating within them, which makes for an instantly and deeply interesting and absorbing film. Use of impossible architecture like the Penrose staircase and other tropes such as zero-gravity which are not found in the real world make some really engaging sequences, and the creativity displayed in the use of visual effects (the exploding café, and Parisian streets folding in on themselves in particular) is stunning.

While the idea of being present in, and actively manipulating, someone else’s dreams is currently science fiction, a number of recent pieces of research have actually begun to take tentative steps in that direction. One of the recent advances in brain-imaging methods that’s generated a lot of excitement in the last few years is a technique called Multi Voxel Pattern Analysis (MVPA). This is a method of analysing fMRI data which relies on looking at broad patterns of activity across a brain region; a classification algorithm is ‘trained’ with some input in the form of brain images from two different categories, and can then (when given some new brain images) successfully predict which category the images belong to. So, a participant could be looking at either faces, or houses, and the algorithm (given the right examples in the training phase) could tell whether a face or a house was being presented, based on their brain activity. Some parts of the media have got quite excited about this technique and have called it ‘mind-reading’ however at the moment it’s somewhat limited by the algorithm having to go through an appropriate training phase with each participant. The technique has developed well beyond the simple two-category stage though, this press release from UC Berkeley details one of the most recent and exciting experiments in this area, where in fact movies are reconstructed from brain data. This technology is actually strongly reminiscent of another film, Wim Wenders’ sprawling, ridiculously-long, occasionally-magnificent but more often teeth-grindingly ponderous Until the End of the World (1991). In this film several of the characters become obsessed with an invention that allows them to record and play-back their dreams. Since we know the visual cortex of the brain is highly active during REM (dreaming) sleep, it’s not a huge leap to imagine that it will perhaps be possible to record at least a rudimentary version of a dreamer’s visual experience using a fMRI scan and further developments of the MVPA technique to reconstruct the content.

Another related piece of recent research concerns so-called ‘lucid’ dreamers, the small percentage of the population who manage to become aware that they are in a dream while still dreaming, and can then influence the dream environment. A team from the Max Planck institute in Germany gave specific instructions to a lucid dreamer, and then scanned his brain while he carried them out, in his dreams. The instructions were to clench first his right first, and then his left alternately for ten seconds, and this dreamed ‘movement’ was evident in characteristic alternating activation patterns in the left and right motor cortex; the participant’s actual hands never moved. This research represents an impressive leap forward as it’s the first time that the specific content of a dream (the movement) has been visualised by an external system. Another good report on this experiment is here.

Another set of researchers are coming at the idea of dream-hacking from a different angle. A project called ‘Power Dreaming’, due to launch next year, and funded by the US army, is seeking to provide therapy for the large number of veterans who suffer from nightmares as a result of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). While details are somewhat sketchy at the moment, it appears the aim of the project is to reduce the power of negative, traumatic dreams through alternative soothing stimuli, generated through virtual reality and delivered through 3D goggles. A more detailed write-up on this project was recently published by Wired.

So, while ‘Inception’ remains science fiction for the moment, the dream-recording device which featured in ‘Until the End of the World’ in 1991 is now taking its first steps towards being a viable technology. In fact, I’d be very surprised indeed if more than one group of researchers was not actively working on extending the techniques mentioned above in this direction already. Within a decade or two we could all be routinely recording our dreams and playing them back over breakfast. It sounds far-fetched I know, but, you gotta dream, right?

Matt Wall is a cognitive neuroscientist currently working at UCL, specialising in fMRI. He does occasionally dream in MRI scanners, but only by accident. His main web-page is here and he also writes the blog ‘Computing for Psychologists’. Twitter: @m_wall.

Scientific Kitty’s first ever event: The Science of Christmas – PUB QUIZ!

Come along to The Cumberland Bar on the 11th of December to take part in Scientific Kitty’s first event – The Science of Christmas!

It’s a pub quiz designed to test your scientific noëledge (sorry) on subjects as diverse as the physics of sleigh travel, the psychology of gift giving and the genetics of dwarfism.

Teams of up to 6 can battle it out to win our very exciting science hamper. We’ll also have a party snack buffet and Christmas crackers for one and all.

The entry fee is £2 per person and tickets must be purchased in advance from http://www.wegottickets.com/sct/3nwaFVkDnM (there won’t be any tickets on the door). If you want to come along but don’t have a team then never fear! Get a ticket, turn up, and we’ll find you some festive friends.

Meowy Christmas from Scientific Kitty!



Samantha Price reviews the recent medical thriller Contagion.

This isn’t Science-fiction, this isn’t 28 days later, this is Contagion.

Last weekend me and my other half went to see Contagion. A film I hadn’t seen advertised on the television or papers. In fact I only found out about it via Twitter. That said, I expected the cinema to be empty.

Did I honestly expect non-scientists to see this film? No. I expected the room to have a handful of scientists and students. On immediately walking into the dimly lit screen I realised I couldn’t have been more wrong…

Packed, the cinema was packed! Contagion it seems had managed to entice the non-scientists! So before the film had started, Contagion had managed to do what few Science films/documentaries have managed. Get the non-scientist – the general public – in!

The film was made brilliantly, perhaps my favourite film of the year. The eerie music, the red letters displaying ‘day 1, day 2’, etc. Another exciting thing about this movie was that high profile actors and actresses were involved (gives you a hint that it’s going to be good). Plus, you don’t know whether these well-known actors are going to survive! 10 minutes in and they’d already killed off Gwneyth Paltrow. You didn’t know whether Matt Damon, Kate Winslet or Jude Law were going to be next! So from the opening scene you were gripped.

The story is about a virus that has mutated from a pig and bat virus, which then quickly changes its host to humans. The story follows how in a matter of days this virus travels worldwide. With air travel and high human contact this is a highly possible – We all remember Swine Flu. That originated in Mexico and quickly became a worldwide outbreak. Then there’s the E. coli cucumber outbreak. International travel in such short time frames has allowed outbreaks to spread faster than before. Also, how many times do you touch your face in a day? 300 times. As well as this you’re touching all kinds of surfaces. Makes you realise how easily infection can occur.

So this highly virulent virus in Contagion develops even higher virulence further into the film by mutating! The film deals with how difficult a new virus is to sequence, grow and identify. The film also addresses the issues with developing a vaccine and identifying the source. What is interesting though is how the government reacts, the control measures they implement, and how the public reacts. From social isolation to riots. You get a real sense of watching this film and thinking “this isn’t a film, this could happen, this is real life”. It felt to me like I was watching a documentary or the news and not a film.

The film also shows how the power of social networking and the internet, can impact on an outbreak. Jude Law plays a blogger who shows how you shouldn’t believe everything you see on the internet.

The Science is spot on, which is scary as you do get a real sense that unlike your typical ‘monster horrors’ this could happen and it would be a lot worse than Big Foot chasing you!

Overall, I highly recommend this film. The scientific content is excellent. The acting is great and it’s great for engaging the public in science.

Samantha Price is doing a PhD in Applied Microbiology at De Montfort University, and is also a registered biomedical scientist who has a passion for communicating science to the public. She’s on Twitter here.

Louis Theroux – America’s Most Dangerous Pets

Joe Bathelt gives his two pence on an issue raised by Louis Theroux’s America’s Most Dangerous Pets. 

This post is a little bit different and for once it has nothing to do with neuroscience. I don’t claim to know anything about it, but I wanted to raise some questions, because these issues have been on my mind for some time. I watched the programme ‘Louis Theroux – America’s Most Dangerous Pets’ yesterday. For those of you who haven’t seen the programme, it should still be available on iPlayer. Here is a short summary: in the style of typical British entertainment, a smart-arse (no offence) journalist is sent to take a look at ridiculous lower class practices on the other side of the big pond. He visits several private wildlife parks, in which dangerous animal enthusiasts (aka idiots) keep big exotic animals like tigers, lions, bears, chimps etc.

Their practices are of course completely ridiculous and sometimes downright stupid like the guy holding a fully grown tiger on a lead apparently think that he has the tiger under control. Sometimes, it’s even involuntarily funny like when the rangers claim that they are creating a saber tooth tiger by cross-breeding a lion and a tiger. Apparently, you don’t need any expertise to do experiments like this (“A PhD is jest a docoomnt on th’ wall”). Or the part where the owner of the park explains that a bear and a tiger are raised together in the same cage to show that everyone can learn how to get along no matter how different they are (at least until they rip each other into pieces when they get in a playful mood).

The interesting bit is how Louis Theroux (the journalist) raises ethical questions and how they the owners of the dangerous pets defend their practices. In one instance, an enclosure for bears is shown. It is fairly large for an enclosure, but the bears show clear signs of hospitalism by pacing up and down the fences. The question is whether it is right to keep animals in enclosures or if they belong in the wild. The keeper argues that they don’t roam through square miles of territory because they want to, but because they have to in order to find resources. In his view, they are just as happy with the confined space and being fed.

For me and a lot of other people that see animals in captivity walk up and down along a fence repeatedly, it seems obvious that keeping animals in these conditions is ethically wrong. But how do you argue this position? Most people emphasise that this is not the natural state of the animal, but this is inconclusive and in the end a circular argument: arguing like that is falling for the ‘naturalistic fallacy’. Something is the natural state therefore it should be the state, consequently it is the natural state, because it should be so. That occurs a lot when people talk about vegetarianism in my experience. Carnivores often argue that eating meat is ‘natural’ and therefore should be done, but one cannot derive a normative argument from a given state. That is circular thinking.

However, it is problematic to assess what animals want. They don’t communicate with us in a way that allows unambiguous judgment of their desires and wishes. Additionally, we tend to anthropomorphise them. The owners of the dangerous pets think that their animals love them and have a good time being imprisoned. So, one pragmatic concession that I would make is to argue that we can only judge what animals want by their natural state. We have to assume that animals in the wild are happiest, because we have no indication that they are happier in a cage. This is a relative argument that allows to be re-evaluated once the evidence changes. For example, it could be that animals in captivity are better off, when most of their natural habitat is lost or degraded.

I would be very interested to hear what other people think about this. So, please leave your comments!

Joe Bathelt is a neuroscientist currently working on his PhD at the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the Institute of Child Health, University College London. He graduated in Biology from the University of Tübingen, South Germany, and also holds a Master’s degree in Neuroscience from UCL. His interests are in the neuroscience of human social interactions, emotions and philosophy of mind. He’s on Facebook here.

The Fog

Joe Bathelt reviews The Fog and talks about the science of horror films… Just in time for Halloween (mwahahahaha!).

Yes, I admit it. After hours of hard intellectual work of dwelling through impenetrable scientific journal articles and exhausting data analysis, I occasionally kick back in front of the TV and pop in a DVD. At this time of the year, one obvious temptation for the tired office worker, who craves a bit of excitement, are horror movies. In my case, I ended up watching the film The Fog starring actors you most likely haven’t heard of. I don’t even know what seemed appealing to me about this particular movie and to be honest, I think the writers of the movie script got a bit too much of the fog in their head. Nonetheless, it made me wonder what the common topic in cheap horror films is and why these motifs make us sit at the edge of the couch with our fingers clasping a pillow in fear. So, be prepared for some Halloween-themed neuroscience (*manic laughter here*).

First of all, some details about the film so that you get the picture of what kind of fear-provoking nonsense I’m talking about. The film is set on a little island somewhere on the coast of the US. The landscape is stunning, the sea blue and the people look like they escaped an underwear hoarding. The horror starts when the protagonist stirs some resting spirits on the bottom of the sea in some remote place with the anchor of the fishing boat that he inherited from his late father. This leads to a curse that manifests itself as a bank of fog that covers the island and subsequently kills most of the cast. In case you are wondering, yes, the fog kills people. In one particularly stupid scene, the fog even kills someone by throwing a knife at them.

I think there is some similarity between this film and other ‘teenage horror movies’. It seems it doesn’t really matter who does the killing. It could be low altitude meteorological phenomena, various household appliances (Final Destination), teachers possessed by aliens (Faculty), vicious plants (The Happening), or static on the TV (White Noise). However stupid the plot is, these movies seem to scare a sufficient number of people. It doesn’t look like these things are frightening by themselves. At least I’m not massively concerned when I enter the shower, but in The Fog, a sense of foreboding accelerates my heart beat as soon as a protagonist enters this steamy death trap.

The Amygdala

From a neuroscience perspective, I think there are at least two reasons why these stupid films still manage to scare us despite their apparent stupidity. The first reason lies in a little almond-shaped area called the amygdala. You might be able to find your the amygdala, if you drill from underneath the ear towards the midline of the brain. If you can’t find it on the first try, don’t worry – there is one on each side. The amygdala has a central role in emotion processing, particularly to fear-related stimuli. The amazing feature of processing in the amygdala is that it is faster than most other kinds of visual processing. A study by Patrik Vuilleumier and colleagues from the University of Geneva in 2003 demonstrated that the amygdala will show an increased BOLD signal in response to fearful faces when normal pictures were presented or when just the contours of the face are presented. This allows rapid extraction of fear-related information before the fine-grained processing can take place. This in turn allows for faster responses. The amygdala pathway seems to provide a fast bridge between visual information and motor responses. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes perfect sense: When a sabre-toothed cat jumps at you from the bushes, you wouldn’t survive if you just stood there and enjoyed the marvellous view of the drool dripping from its massive canines. It is also the reason why Hollywood filmmakers can sell us horror movies with stupid plot lines. We will get afraid if there is something barely visible and vaguely fear-related. This is a central theme in all these movies: there is always a killer/monster/meteorological anomaly in the dark corner. If we saw Freddy Krueger in broad daylight, we wouldn’t be as afraid. If there is enough visual input and some longer processing time, higher cortical areas would jump in. We would have access to memories and could use cognitive strategies to guide our behaviour.

Another important aspect in my view is how you are able to empathise with someone and experience the fear, even though you are ‘just watching’ a movie. There has been a concept in philosophy for many centuries that we understand the actions of others by simulating what they are doing in our own head. We are mapping what it would feel like for us, if we were in the same situation as someone we are observing. This idea was revived when a group headed by Giacamo Rizzolatti at the University of Parma in Italy discovered that there are neurons that seem to do exactly that job. They recorded the activity of nerve cells in rhesus macaques and discovered that neurons in the somatosensory (body-sensing) cortex respond when a monkey is grasping something, but surprisingly also when the monkey is just observing the action. The somatosensory cortex is the part of the brain, where sensations from the peripheral nerves end up. It is the part that is usually represented with a funny little brain man that shows how much area is dedicated to each body part in the somatosensory cortex. It was proposed that these neurons are part of a more extensive “mirror neuron system” that allows us to simulate observed actions. A study by Shmuelof and Zohary from 2005 shows that the same is likely to be true for humans. In the study, they show that parts of the somatosensory cortex increase in fMRI activity when a participant observes a hand grasping an object, but not when just the object is observed. So, in the context of Halloween movies, part of the reason why your heart begins to race when you see the helpless victim being chased in the dark is that you stimulate the experience in your head.

I hope you enjoy your amygdalae and mirror neuron system excitation this Halloween season! And stay away from The Fog!

Joe Bathelt is a neuroscientist currently working on his PhD at the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Unit at the Institute of Child Health, University College London. He graduated in Biology from the University of Tübingen, South Germany, and also holds a Master’s degree in Neuroscience from UCL. His interests are in the neuroscience of human social interactions, emotions and philosophy of mind. He’s on Facebook here.

Planet Dinosaur

Samantha Price reviews the BBC series Planet Dinosaur.

I first saw the trailer for the BBC’s Planet Dinosaur back in the New Year. (You know? In the advert where the BBC shows off its amazing documentaries and dramas for the coming year?) Well, I’ve been looking forward to this documentary since then. I was expecting great things. Like Walking with Dinosaurs but more updated.

Unfortunately my great excitement turned to disappointment after watching the very first episode.

There are a number of downfalls. Clearly the BBC has spent more money on Doctor Who, instead of trying to create something as successful as the 1999 documentary. Walking with Dinosaurs got me interested in dinosaurs and the science behind them at such a young age, it’s such a shame that Planet Dinosaur is unlikely to have the same effect (let alone be repeated).

And it’s not just me…

On the BBC website, @edyong209: “How do you recreate a dinosaur?” asks BBC. Anyone who has seen Planet Dinosaur knows the answer is “unconvincingly”

My mum: It’s a bit boring, the narrator, the science…

I’m not having a go at the BBC. Wonders of the Universe and Walking with Dinosaurs were excellent documentaries. I just feel Planet Dinosaur could have been so much better. Walking with Dinosaurs worked so well because it was a story about these amazing creatures and how they used their adaptations to survive. Also the computer graphics were a hundred times better in Walking with Dinosaurs, along with animatronics and puppets (clearly in 12 years this hasn’t improved much if Planet Dinosaur is anything to go by).

I also feel, for the non-science individual, the facts and science behind the fossils seemed to disrupt the ‘story’ (if there was one?) and left the likes of my mum falling asleep. Personally I found the fossil evidence and facts incredibly interesting, however I feel that the majority of the general public was not quite enthralled by it (my mum for example). What the BBC should have done is what they did with Walking with Dinosaurs. Six half an hour episodes followed by a final episode on the fossil evidence, making the dinosaurs and general behind the scenes information for the ‘dino science geek’ who likes the fossil facts.

I can’t fault the science. The detail and information regarding the sites and structure of the fossils was brilliant. The explanations for dinosaur behaviour (cannibalism etc.) and even feathers were backed up with a lot of fossil and scientific evidence.

Like I said, the main fault was how the science was presented. If the ‘dino science geek’ is happy, that’s all good… However if the rest of the general public (who we as scientists WANT to be interested in our work) are snoozing away, then clearly something’s gone wrong.

A little fact: The ‘Walking with Dinosaurs’ TV series was the most expensive documentary series, per minute, ever made according to the Guinness Book of World Records (I doubt ‘Planet Dinosaur’ can be put in the same category of expenditure).

Coming soon: Walking with Dinosaurs 3D! Apparently the BBC and 20th Century Fox are working on a film adaptation of the TV series. Due for release October 2013. Let’s hope this does what the TV series did to me. Get children interested in Dinosaurs and Science!

Samantha Price is doing a PhD in Applied Microbiology at De Montfort University, and is also a registered biomedical scientist who has a passion for communicating science to the public. She’s on Twitter here.