(Roughly) Daily

Posts Tagged ‘medicine

“What I should have been, you see, is a neurologist”*…

Franz Anton Mesmer; drawing by David Levine

It was in a mood of irritable skepticism that the Scottish surgeon James Braid attended a public demonstration of Animal Magnetism—in which people were said to fall into trances—on the night of November 13, 1841. From everything he had read and heard about the trances that occurred at the bidding of the operator—the person who induced the trances—he reports that he was “fully inclined to join with those who considered the whole thing to be a system of collusion and delusion, or an excited imagination, sympathy, or imitation.” After observing the demonstration, he considered that the trances were quite genuine, but at the same time he felt satisfied “that they were not dependent on any special agency or emanation passing from the body of the operator to that of the patient as animal magnetizers allege.” He returned to the demonstration when it was repeated by popular demand a week later, and on this occasion he felt that he had identified the cause of these mysteriously punctual onsets of “nervous sleep.” He was to devote the last eighteen years of his life to the topic, and under the proprietary title of Hypnotism he explained and redescribed the process in terms which would have been unrecognizable to its eighteenth-century discoverer, Franz Anton Mesmer…

With its intriguing combination of occult powers, clairvoyant trances, and invisible weightless fluids, animal magnetism seemed to guarantee the existence of a reality beyond the world of the senses, and many people saw it as an irresistible alternative to an increasingly mechanized picture of the universe.

The remarkable Jonathan Miller— remembered as a partner of Peter Cook, Dudley Moore, and Allan Bennett in Beyond the Fringe and for his later career as a distinguished stage and opera director, but trained as a doctor– explains how Mesmer’s “animal magnetism” was wrangled by doctors and scientists into “hypnotism,” and how it birthed an understanding of the Unconscious that pre-dates Freud… and that’s undergoing a renaissance, as it’s proving more useful than the psychoanalytic version that obscured it for a century: “Going Unconscious” (an unlocked essay from The New York Review of Books archive).

* Jonathan Miller


As we go deep, we might send polymathic birthday greetings to William Whewell; he was born on this date in 1794. A scientist, Anglican priest, philosopher, theologian, and historian of science, he was Master of Trinity College, Cambridge.

At a time when specialization was increasing, Whewell was renown for the breadth of his work: he published the disciplines of mechanics, physics, geology, astronomy, and economics, while also finding the time to compose poetry, author a Bridgewater Treatise, translate the works of Goethe, and write sermons and theological tracts. In mathematics, Whewell introduced what is now called the Whewell equation, defining the shape of a curve without reference to an arbitrarily chosen coordinate system. He founded mathematical crystallography and developed a revision of  Friedrich Mohs’s classification of minerals. And he organized thousands of volunteers internationally to study ocean tides, in what is now considered one of the first citizen science projects.

But some argue that Whewell’s greatest gift to science was his wordsmithing: He created the words scientist and physicist by analogy with the word artist; they soon replaced the older term natural philosopher. He also named linguisticsconsiliencecatastrophismuniformitarianism, and astigmatism.

Other useful words were coined to help his friends: biometry for John Lubbock; Eocine, Miocene and Pliocene for Charles Lyell; and for Michael Faraday, electrode, anode, cathode, diamagnetic, paramagnetic, and ion (whence the sundry other particle names ending -ion).


“If locusts are ravenous sociopaths, cicadas are more like frat boys – clumsy, loud, and obsessed with sex”*…

… and they are, themselves, the object of other species’ obsessions…

This spring’s emergence of periodical cicadas in the eastern U.S. will make more than a buzz. Their bodies—which will number in the billions—will also create an unparalleled food fest for legions of small would-be predators, including many birds and mammals. But some animals may benefit more than others, and any boost predator populations get from the coming buffet of winged insects will likely be short-lived, researchers say.

Tiny chickadees and mice have been known to wrestle these chunky bugs for a quick snack. Raptors, fish, spiders, snakes and turtles will gulp them down when given the chance. Captive zoo animals, such as meerkats, monitor lizards and sloth bears, will do so as well if the insects show up in their enclosure. Observers have even reported seeing domestic cats trap two cicadas at once, one under each forepaw.

This spring, three species of cicadas (collectively referred to as Brood X or Brood 10) will crawl out of the ground where they have spent the previous 17 years. They will coat the limbs and leaves of trees, sing, mate, lay eggs and then die. Uneaten corpses and body parts will add nutrients to the soil, bolstering the ecosystem and its denizens long after the boisterous insects disappear. But the famous periodicity of cicada broods can set some predators up for feast-then-famine scenarios—population booms followed by food insecurity and then sudden drops in numbers.

“In response to this superabundance of food, a lot of the predator populations have outrageously good years,” says Richard Karban, a University of California, Davis, entomologist who studies periodical cicadas. “But then the next year, and in the intervening years, there’s no food for them, so their populations crash again.”

Predators could be part of the reason that these slow-flying, defenseless and colorful cicadas emerge periodically instead of perennially. Over millennia, synchronized periodic emergences as a dense mob could have led to higher adult survival rates. Thus, the insects evolved to adopt their unusual life cycle—most of which is spent feeding underground—explains University of Connecticut evolutionary biologist and ecologist Chris Simon, who studies cicadas. “The predators are really important in driving the whole story,” she says. The success of the species effectively banks on sheer volume…

Most bird species do not travel to take advantage of cicada emergences… They live and eat in the same areas year after year, picking off the insects opportunistically instead of traveling to the cicada motherlode… cuckoos are an exception: they migrate to take advantage of insect outbreaks all over the country…

Despite all the eager predators, the life-cycle gamble on high-volume emergences pays off for periodical cicadas. Most survive predation to mate and then drop dead to the forest floor. But even if they go uneaten, their ecosystem impact does not stop there. Cicada bodies contain about 10 percent nitrogen, which is more than the concentration found in dead leaves and other typical forest litter, says Louie Yang, a University of California, Davis, entomologist, who studies resource pulses and phenological shifts. Plants such as American bellflowers will take up the nitrogen from the dead cicadas, and herbivorous mammals and insects will selectively feed on the higher-nitrogen fertilized leaves, he adds.

Patterns such as this one illustrate the ecological lens that periodical cicadas can provide on biological communities and evolutionary timelines. “I love the reciprocity of the whole system,” Yang says. “I think this kind of stuff happens all the time, but it’s usually hard to see. When these pulse events happen, it makes it really obvious—we can see that pulse pass through the system.”…

Billions of emerging insects will likely trigger predator population surges: “Brood X Cicadas Could Cause a Bird Baby Boom.”

Oh, and given climate change, 17-year cicadas could become 13-year cicadas: “The cicadas are coming. And they’re changing dramatically.”

* Catherine Price, 101 Places Not to See Before You Die


As we bear the buzz, we might recall that it was on this date in 1923 that insulin became publicly available for use by diabetics. Frederick Banting had discovered insulin in 1921, and refused to put his name on the patent. He felt it was unethical for a doctor to profit from a discovery that would save lives. He and his co-inventors, James Collip and Charles Best, sold the insulin patent to the University of Toronto for a mere $1. They wanted everyone who needed their medication to be able to afford it.

Today, Banting and his colleagues would be spinning in their graves: Their drug, which many of the 30 million Americans with diabetes rely on, has become the poster child for pharmaceutical price gouging.

The cost of the four most popular types of insulin has tripled over the past decade, and the out-of-pocket prescription costs patients now face have doubled. By 2016, the average price per month rose to $450 — and costs continue to rise, so much so that as many as one in four people with diabetes are now skimping on or skipping lifesaving doses


Written by (Roughly) Daily

April 15, 2021 at 1:01 am

“To sleep: perchance to dream: ay, there’s the rub”*…

I’m not the first person to note that our understanding of ourselves and our society is heavily influenced by technological change – think of how we analogized biological and social functions to clockwork, then steam engines, then computers.

I used to think that this was just a way of understanding how we get stuff hilariously wrong – think of Taylor’s Scientific Management, how its grounding in mechanical systems inflicted such cruelty on workers whom Taylor demanded ape those mechanisms.

But just as interesting is how our technological metaphors illuminate our understanding of ourselves and our society: because there ARE ways in which clockwork, steam power and digital computers resemble bodies and social structures.

Any lens that brings either into sharper focus opens the possibility of making our lives better, sometimes much better.

Bodies and societies are important, poorly understood and deeply mysterious.

Take sleep. Sleep is very weird.

Once a day, we fall unconscious. We are largely paralyzed, insensate, vulnerable, and we spend hours and hours having incredibly bizarre hallucinations, most of which we can’t remember upon waking. That is (objectively) super weird.

But sleep is nearly universal in the animal kingdom, and dreaming is incredibly common too. A lot of different models have been proposed to explain our nightly hallucinatory comas, and while they had some explanatory power, they also had glaring deficits.

Thankfully, we’ve got a new hot technology to provide a new metaphor for dreaming: machine learning through deep neural networks.

DNNs, of course, are a machine learning technique that comes from our theories about how animal learning works at a biological, neural level.

So perhaps it’s unsurprising that DNN – based on how we think brains work – has stimulated new hypotheses on how brains work!

Erik P Hoel is a Tufts University neuroscientist. He’s a proponent of something called the Overfitted Brain Hypothesis (OBH).

To understand OBH, you first have to understand how overfitting works in machine learning: “overfitting” is what happens when a statistical model overgeneralizes.

For example, if Tinder photos of queer men are highly correlated with a certain camera angle, then a researcher might claim to have trained a “gaydar model” that “can predict sexual orientation from faces.”

That’s overfitting (and researchers who do this are assholes).

Overfitting is a big problem in ML: if all the training pics of Republicans come from rallies in Phoenix, the model might decide that suntans are correlated with Republican politics – and then make bad guesses about the politics of subjects in photos from LA or Miami.

To combat overfitting, ML researchers sometimes inject noise into the training data, as an effort to break up these spurious correlations.

And that’s what Hoel thinks are brains are doing while we sleep: injecting noisy “training data” into our conceptions of the universe so we aren’t led astray by overgeneralization.

Overfitting is a real problem for people (another word for “overfitting” is “prejudice”)…

Sleeping, dreaming, and the importance of a nightly dose of irrationality– Corey Doctorow (@doctorow) explains: “Dreaming and overfitting,” from his ever-illuminating newsletter, Pluralistic. Eminently worthy of reading in full.

(Image above: Gontzal García del CañoCC BY-NC-SA, modified)

* Shakespeare, Hamlet


As we nod off, we might send fully-oxygenated birthday greetings to Corneille Jean François Heymans; he was born on this date in 1892. A physiologist, he won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 1938 for showing how blood pressure and the oxygen content of the blood are measured by the body and transmitted to the brain via the nerves and not by the blood itself, as had previously been believed.


“Thought is an infection. In the case of certain thoughts, it becomes an epidemic.”*…

Frank M. Snowden, a professor emeritus of history and the history of medicine at Yale, examines the ways in which disease outbreaks have shaped politics, crushed revolutions, and entrenched racial and economic discrimination. Epidemics have also altered the societies they have spread through, affecting personal relationships, the work of artists and intellectuals, and the man-made and natural environments. Gigantic in scope, stretching across centuries and continents, Snowden’s account seeks to explain, too, the ways in which social structures have allowed diseases to flourish. “Epidemic diseases are not random events that afflict societies capriciously and without warning,” he writes. “On the contrary, every society produces its own specific vulnerabilities. To study them is to understand that society’s structure, its standard of living, and its political priorities.”…

Epidemics as a mirror for humanity- Isaac Chotiner (@IChotiner) interviews Frank Snowden: “How Pandemics Change History,” conducted on the occasion of the publication of Snowden’s new book, Epidemics and Society: From the Black Death to the Present.

See also: “Late-Stage Pandemic Is Messing With Your Brain.”

And for thoughts on addressing the issues raised, see “Governing In The Planetary Age.”

* Wallace Stevens


As we reflect, we might spare thought for August Paul von Wassermann; he died on this date in 1925. A bacteriologist and hygienist, he was director of the Institute for Infectious Diseases in Berlin, where he developed (in 1906) a universal blood-serum test for syphilis that helped extend the basic tenets of immunology to diagnosis. “The Wassermann reaction,” in combination with other diagnostic procedures, is still employed as a reliable indicator for the disease. He also he developed inoculations against cholera, typhoid, and tetanus.


“What is research but a blind date with knowledge?”*…

Science at work: a fascinating interactive visualization of every paper ever published in Nature.

Will Harvey


As we interpret influence, we might spare a thought for Neil Arnott; he died on this date in 1874. A physician and inventor, he created one of the first forms of the waterbed, the Arnott waterbed for the comfort of patients during prolonged illness. He also invented the economical Arnott stove (which he called a thermometer-stove), which featured a self-regulating fire. And in 1852, he won the Rumford Medal for the construction of the smokeless fire grate, as well as other improvements to ventilation and heating.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

March 2, 2021 at 1:01 am

%d bloggers like this: