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Posts Tagged ‘anatomy

“The body is our general medium for having a world”*…

Leonardo’s Vitruvian Man

The biggest component in any human, filling 61 percent of available space, is oxygen. It may seem a touch counterintuitive that we are almost two-thirds composed of an odorless gas. The reason we are not light and bouncy like a balloon is that the oxygen is mostly bound up with hydrogen (which accounts for another 10 percent of you) to make water — and water, as you will know if you have ever tried to move a wading pool or just walked around in really wet clothes, is surprisingly heavy. It is a little ironic that two of the lightest things in nature, oxygen and hydrogen, when combined form one of the heaviest, but that’s nature for you. Oxygen and hydrogen are also two of the cheaper elements within you. All of your oxygen will set you back just $14 and your hydrogen a little over $26 (assuming you are about the size of Benedict Cumberbatch). Your nitrogen (2.6 percent of you) is a better value still at just forty cents for a body’s worth. But after that it gets pretty expensive.

You need about thirty pounds of carbon, and that will cost you $69,550, according to the Royal Society of Chemistry. (They were using only the most purified forms of everything. The RSC would not make a human with cheap stuff.) Calcium, phosphorus, and potassium, though needed in much smaller amounts, would between them set you back a further $73,800. Most of the rest is even more expensive per unit of volume, but fortunately only needed in microscopic amounts.

Thorium costs over $3,000 per gram but constitutes just 0.0000001 percent of you, so you can buy a body’s worth for thirty-three cents. All the tin you require can be yours for six cents, while zirconium and niobium will cost you just three cents apiece. The 0.000000007 percent of you that is samarium isn’t apparently worth charging for at all. It’s logged in the RSC accounts as costing $0.00.

Of the fifty-nine elements found within us, twenty-four are traditionally known as essential elements, because we really cannot do without them. The rest are something of a mixed bag. Some are clearly beneficial, some may be beneficial but we are not sure in what ways yet, others are neither harmful nor beneficial but are just along for the ride as it were, and a few are just bad news altogether. Cadmium, for instance, is the twenty-third most common element in the body, constituting 0.1 percent of your bulk, but it is seriously toxic. We have it in us not because our body craves it but because it gets into plants from the soil and then into us when we eat the plants. If you are from North America, you probably ingest about eighty micrograms of cadmium a day, and no part of it does you any good at all.

A surprising amount of what goes on at this elemental level is still being worked out. Pluck almost any cell from your body, and it will have a million or more selenium atoms in it, yet until recently nobody had any idea what they were there for. We now know that selenium makes two vital enzymes, deficiency in which has been linked to hypertension, arthritis, anemia, some cancers, and even, possibly, reduced sperm counts. So, clearly it is a good idea to get some selenium inside you (it is found particularly in nuts, whole wheat bread, and fish), but at the same time if you take in too much you can irremediably poison your liver. As with so much in life, getting the balances right is a delicate business.

Altogether, according to the RSC, the full cost of building a new human being, using the obliging Benedict Cumberbatch as a template, would be a very precise $151,578.46. … That said, in 2012 Nova, the long-running science program on PBS, did an exactly equivalent analysis for an episode called ‘Hunting the Elements’ and came up with a figure of $168 for the value of the fundamental components within the human body…

An excerpt from Bill Bryson’s The Body: A Guide for Occupants, via the ever-illuminating Delanceyplace.com: “How much, in materials, would it cost to build a human body?

* Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Phenomenology of Perception

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As we take our vitamins, we might we might send dynamically-evolved birthday greetings to Stephen Jay Gould; he was born on this date in 1941.  One of the most influential and widely read writers of popular science in his generation (e.g., Ever Since Darwin, The Panda’s Thumb), Gould was a highly-respected academic paleontologist, evolutionary biologist, and historian of science.  With Niles Eldridge, he developed the theory of “punctuated equilibrium,” an explanation of evolution that suggests (in contrast with the gradualism that was prevalent until then) that most evolution is marked by long periods of evolutionary stability, which are interrupted– “punctuated”– by rare instances of branching evolution (c.f., the Burgess Shale).

Scientists have power by virtue of the respect commanded by the discipline… We live with poets and politicians, preachers and philosophers. All have their ways of knowing, and all are valid in their proper domain. The world is too complex and interesting for one way to hold all the answers.

Stephen Jay Gould, Bully for Brontosaurus: Reflections in Natural History

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“Anatomy is destiny”*…

 

For much of recorded history the human body was a black box—a highly capable yet mysterious assemblage of organs, muscles and bones. Even Hippocrates, a man who declared anatomy to be the foundation of medicine, had some interesting ideas about our insides.

By the early Renaissance, scientists and artists were chipping away at this anatomical inscrutability, and illustration was proving a particularly effective way to spread what was being learned via human dissection. There remained one nagging issue, however: accurately representing the body’s three-dimensional structure on a flat, two-dimensional piece of paper. Some artists relied on creative uses of perspective to solve the problem. Others began using flaps…

See 16th century scholars peel away anatomical ignorance one layer at a time at “How Flap Illustrations Helped Reveal the Body’s Inner Secrets.”

* Sigmund Freud

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As we peek inside, we might send verbose birthday greetings to Josef Breuer; he was born on this date in 1842.  A physician, he made key discoveries in neurophysiology.  His work in the 1880s with his patient Bertha Pappenheim, known as Anna O., developed the talking cure (cathartic method) and laid the foundation to psychoanalysis as developed by his protégé, Sigmund Freud.

(Though Breuer’s treatment of Anna O. was not nearly as successful as he and Freud claimed, she eventually overcame her symptoms to become an innovative social worker and a leader of the women’s movement in Germany.)

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Written by LW

January 15, 2017 at 1:01 am

“Count your blessings, but count your calories too”*…

 

We’re skating into that time year…  the onslaught of celebratory meals and Holiday parties that promise to test our waistbands.  But help– or at least a nagging caution– is at hand.  The app Calorific uses simple, pastel images to reveal how much of virtually any food adds up to 200 calories.

From God’s condiment…

…to rabbit food…

More at “What 200 Calories of Every Food Looks Like.”

* Erma Bombeck

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As we go down for the count, we might send well-digested birthday greetings to William Beaumont; he was born on this date in 1785.  An American army surgeon, Beaumont was the first person to observe and study human digestion as it occurs in the stomach.  As a young medic stationed on Mackinac Island in Michigan, Beaumont was asked to treat a shotgun wound “more than the size of the palm of a man’s hand” (as Beaumont wrote).  The patient, Alexis St. Martin, survived, but was left with a permanent opening into his stomach from the outside.  Over the next few years, Dr. Beaumont used this crude fistula to sample gastric secretions.  He identified hydrochloric acid as the principal agent in gastric juice and recognized its digestive and bacteriostatic functions.  Many of his conclusions about the regulation of secretion and motility remain valid to this day.

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Written by LW

November 21, 2014 at 1:01 am

“If you’re shopping for a home entertainment system you can’t do better than a good dissecting microscope”*…

 

Harris P. Mosher lecturing at Harvard Medical School in 1929, with a giant skull made in the 1890s

In their introduction to the book version of Charles and Ray Eames’ Powers of Ten, Philip and Phyllis Morrison wrote elegantly of the importance of the evolution of the tools of science to scientific progress.  It’s the continuous improvement in these “instruments of vision” that pushes back the frontiers of knowledge, and allows us to know, ultimately to understand, more and more of the universe around us.  In an essential way, then, the history of scientific tools is the history of science.

Harvard’s Collection of Historical Scientific Instruments allows one literally to browse through that history.

The permanent collection includes over 20,000 instruments and artifacts, (including an incredible collection of  microscopes, partially pictured above).

Now through December 5, the Collection is mounting “Body of Knowledge,” an exhibition that focuses on the devices, publications, and tools that have contributed to our (still-)expanding understanding of the human body.

The title page of Andreas Vesalius’s 1543 anatomy textbook, De humani corporis fabrica (On the Fabric of the Human Body), depicting a public dissection.

It includes a copy of Vesalius’s masterpiece (as above) and anatomical models (the 78-inch-tall skull shown at the top of this post, plus a 48-in-long skeleton of a foot).  In all, it showcases the social and cultural practices of anatomy through the centuries.

For more background on the Collection, visit its site, and check out this Harvard Magazine piece; for more on the exhibit, click here and here.  Browse the collection (from whence, all of the images above) here.

* Jack Longino

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As we polish our lens, we might send birthday greetings in the form of a question to Jeopardy; the brainchild of talk-show host and game show maven Merv Griffin, it was first broadcast on this date 50 years ago, in 1964.  At sign-on, Jeopardy was an afternoon game show hosted by Art Fleming; after a decade before dinner, it moved after, as a weekly syndicated show.  Then, in 1984, the syndicated version got a facelift– Fleming was replaced by Alex Trebek– and the show went nightly…  where it’s prospered ever since.

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Written by LW

March 30, 2014 at 1:01 am

The Art of Drawing Science…

Horse Anatomy
From: Anatomia del cavallo, infermità e suoi rimedi by Carlo Ruini, Published in Venice, 1618.

Many more lovely lessons at Scientific Illustration.

As we sharpen our pencils, we might wish a feathery farewell to zoologist Alfred Newton; he died on this date in 1907.  One of the foremost ornithologists of his day, he was appointed (in 1866) the first Professor of Zoology and Comparative Anatomy at Cambridge University. Though he suffered from injured hip joints and walked with the aid of two sticks, he traveled throughout Lapland, Iceland, the West Indies, and North America 1854-63.  During these expeditions he became particularly interested in the great auk– and was instrumental in having the first Acts of Parliament passed for the protection of birds.  He wrote extensively, including a four-volume Dictionary of Birds, and the articles on Ornithology in several 19th century editions of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

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