Category Archives: Brain

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Dock Ellis D

June 12th, 2014 | Brain

Dock Ellis No-Hitter

On this day, 43 years ago, Dock Ellis threw a no-hitter on ACID. It’s quite the accomplishment! Only around 300 such feats have ever been pitched since Major League Baseball began recognizing the statistic back in 1876.

No Mas and artist James Blagden stumbled across a four minute interview with radio producers Donnell Alexander and Neille Ilel, which appeared March 29, 2008 on NPR’s Weekend America. They were inspired to create this short animated account of Ellis’ legendary feat as a member of the Pittsburgh Pirates on June 12, 1970.

Unfortunately, Dock passed away a couple of years back, but this achievement will surely live on for a long time.


Female-Named Hurricanes are More Deadly

June 6th, 2014 | Brain

Hurrican Katrina Gender Stereotypes

According to a new study from the University of Illinois and Arizona State University, hurricanes with female names have a much higher death rate than their male-named counterparts. Hurricane Katrina (shown above) killed almost 2,000 people in 2005, making it the most deadly storm since the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. But, could the death rate have been lowered with a more ominous name?

To conduct the study, the researchers used archival data on actual fatalities caused by hurricanes in the United States (1950–2012), as well as information gathered from blind surveys from the public. The results are pretty astounding! The researchers’ model suggests that changing a severe hurricane’s name from Charley to Eloise could nearly triple its death toll! And the reason why… well, in the surveys, participants rated female-named hurricanes as having less perceived risk and intensity than male-named hurricanes. In addition, the need to evacuate was much less.

The study concludes that “the practice [of naming hurricanes] taps into well-developed and widely held gender stereotypes, with potentially deadly consequences.”

So, what should we call the hurricanes instead? How about… “Death From Above…” “Murdertron 4000?”

Feel free to add your ideas in the comments below!

Hurricane Murdertron


Glass Gem Corn

May 19th, 2014 | Brain


glass gem corn

glass gem corn Rainbow 2

The story of “Glass Gem Corn” starts with a half-Cherokee, half Scotch-Irish farmer from Oklahoma named Carl Barnes. As a way to reconnect to his Native American roots, Barnes became interested in the ceremonies surrounding planting, harvesting, and honoring seeds. After earning a degree in Agricultural Education, he worked to isolate ancestral corn varieties which had meaning to the Native American tribes that had been relocated to Oklahoma back in the 1800s.

Barnes selected and saved seeds from the cobs that exhibited the most vivid, translucent colors. The particular rainbow seed that became the Glass Gem Corn came from a crossing of “Pawnee miniature popcorns with Osage red flour corn and also another Osage corn called ‘Greyhorse.’”

glass gem corn Rainbow 3

Barnes passed down his knowledge to Greg Schoen who had this to say about meeting him:

“I first met Carl at a native plant and herb gathering in southwest Oklahoma in the fall of 1994. Carl had brought his portable display cases full of ears of traditional corns, which included several curious-looking, four- and five-inch ears, some of which seemed to literally have the whole spectrum of colors. I knew from the start there was something magical in that seed and that I needed to get to know Carl better.”

It’s pretty amazing what you can accomplish with genetics and selective breeding. This skill was a staple of ancient agriculture. Farmers have been choosing the most fruitful seeds to increase crop yields for generations. Carl Barnes had a slightly different goal in mind, but the technique is pretty much the same.

If you have any interest in trying to grow some Glass Gem Corn at home, you can actually purchase the seed at Native Seeds.

And you can read more about the rather fascinating origin story here.


A New Shark Deterrent Wetsuit

May 8th, 2014 | Brain


shark deterrent wet suit 2

I’ve always had an irrational fear of sharks. Every time I go surfing, I get this horridly vivid thought of a massive shark creeping below the surface, ready to pull me into the water. Hamish Jolly shares my fear. He’s an ocean swimmer in Australia, a country with 892 shark attacks on record since 1791, 217 of which have been fatal. He set out to create a suit designed to keep humans safe in the water, and the early results look promising! The designs work by using rather simple patterns that apparently confuse the shark just enough to avoid an attack.

I’ll definitely look into wearing one of these wetsuits next time I hit the open water.

You can read more about the project here.


Another Case of Bad Science and Science Reporting on Marijuana

April 22nd, 2014 | Brain

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

You may have recently stumbled across one of the recent headlines in the media that look something like this:

Casual marijuana use linked with brain abnormalities, study finds

Casual marijuana use may damage your brain

Even Recreational Marijuana May Be Linked To Brain Changes

The scientific paper they are all referring to is linked here (although you can’t read it without a subscription, which brings up a totally different problem in access to science):

When I first read these headlines, I was understandably intrigued. Had someone REALLY found good evidence in MRI data that there are differences in the brains of casual marijuana smokers? The idea is not totally far fetched. Alcohol is known to be neurotoxic and it can shrink the size of the brain through dehydration, but this is mostly corrected after you quit drinking. Carbon monoxide in cigarette smoke is also a known neurotoxin, but I’ve never read about any changes in the size of anatomical regions of the brain from smoking tobacco, unless you count brain tumors. However, no one has ever really found evidence to support major anatomical changes in the brain following marijuana use. So could this really be true?

Even before reading the paper, my intuition said the answer was no… brain imaging research is notoriously fraught with spurious findings linked to inappropriate use of statistics.

I gave the paper a casual read, and immediately, I noticed problems, MAJOR problems. First of all, sample size… only 20 people were included in the cross-sectional study. That is low. A cross-sectional study means that they had no within-subject comparisons. In other words, all of the data was collected at one time. A much stronger approach would have been to image subjects before they smoke and then through time as they begin to “casually smoke” marijuana. Of course, this is much more difficult, but with a study design containing so many potential confounds (see below), it’s pretty much required (imho) to say anything definitively.

Second of all, the confounds… the investigators did not control for various other aspects of these people’s lives that may cause changes in brain anatomy. How much did each subject drink? smoke tobacco? do other drugs? etc… These all could be equally correlated to the differences in brain anatomy which they discovered. Or it could something entirely different like genetics?

And lastly, the statistics… I came across this article by computational biologist Lior Pachter, and that was sort of the nail in the coffin. I suggest reading through it because Lior does a great job of highlighting the problems with multiple comparison statistics, causation vs. correlation, and many other mistakes.

He even calls it  “quite possibly the worst paper [he’s] read all year.” The Journal of Neuroscience is a rather prestigious journal, so this is all the more upsetting.

I do not study the effects of marijuana use on the brain, so I can’t tell you how it may or may not cause harm. I am absolutely positive it has some effect. But it’s important to remember that pretty much everything you do creates changes in your brain. Reading a book, riding a bike, talking with your friends… these all create lasting memories that are encoded in your neurons. However, after reading this most recent article, there is ABSOLUTELY NO WAY you can assert that marijuana use is harmful, or creates anatomical changes, or anything really…

It’s just another case of sensationalist reporting of poorly conducted science.


Chalkboard Quantum Mechanics by Alejandro Guijarro

April 2nd, 2014 | Brain, Space

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 1

Chalkboards 2

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 3

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 4

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 5

Chalkboards 6

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 7

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 8

Alejandro Guijarro Chalkboards 9

There is something enchanting to be found in chalkboards, an intellectual canvas where remnants of hypnotic scribbles and fantastical ideas are scattered. They epitomize that moment where knowledge and imagination meet to foster new ideas. Academic brainstorming sessions in fields such as quantum mechanics often result in a flurry of mysterious equations, symbols, and geometric shapes, and Alejandro Guijarro set out to capture them.

Alejandro is an artist based in London and Madrid who works primarily in photography. Over a three year period, he traveled the world visiting institutions known for their prowess in quantum mechanics: CERN in Switzerland, Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, and UC Berkeley.

From the artist:

“I’ve visited top universities all over the world for this project: Oxford, Cambridge, Stanford, Berkeley, Cern in Switzerland, Brussels, Vienna and institutions in China and Spain. It was a challenge to find places that still had blackboards rather than whiteboards or interactive screens. Many of the boards were in professors’ own rooms where they do their research. Some of them were intrigued, wondering why I wanted to photograph work they didn’t consider important. They didn’t see what they had done as art.”

Quantum mechanics (you can read about here, good luck!) is a branch of physics dealing with the strange, quantum realm of atomic and subatomic matter. You would have to work hard to find a more confusing (and compelling) topic to capture in photographic form. All of this mystery builds the intrigue found in Alejandro’s photographs. The aesthetic is certainly a nice interaction of line, color, and form, but the real magic lies in knowing these symbols represent the very fabric of our reality. It’s fascinating stuff!

If you’ve enjoyed these, you can find more from Alejandro Guijarro at his site.


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