Operating instructions: A haiku of gratitude

Just another summer day in the Vienna Woods

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For best results: Keep
Brain in cool, cozy dwelling
Cherished friends nearby

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It often happens that my most intense periods of work are during the hottest times. And so it was this year as well. The past month and a half have been at times brutally hot in Vienna. My un-airconditioned apartment has regularly reached 30 degrees Celsius. Fortunately, my dear neighbors allowed me to work in their comfortable basement apartment. The result is my latest piece in Nautilus magazine, about the longstanding debate over where color categories come from. Have you ever wondered whether blue is the same in every language? If so, this story is for you. The haiku above, on the other hand, is for my neighbors. Thanks for everything!

The Art of technology: "Behind every chip stands a human being"


In March, bioengineer Peter Ertl invited me to his lab at the Austrian Institute of Technology in Vienna. Peter, whom I first met at the Halloween party of a mutual friend, had spoken to me about the professional value of Viennese balls for a story in Science Careers. After that, we were both curious to learn more about the other’s work.

It turns out that Peter oversees a fascinating and wide-ranging program of research that aims to bring lab-on-a-chip systems to many areas of biomedicine. He works his many students and postdocs hard, but he also expresses genuine concern for their well-being and their futures. One way he encourages them to get perspective on their work as well as blow off steam is by creating art projects out of the lab’s discarded chips, which they do at an annual dinner.

I asked Peter to tell me more about one piece of collaborative student art, entitled The Human Chip Project, pictured above. Here is what he said.

The students tried to express their thoughts and ideas in these paintings using high technology – very expensive, actually, paintings. One of the chips is around 1,000 euro, so this [artwork] is around 100,000 bucks, right there.

We’re using very nice materials like gold, platinum, nano-fullerenes – all the stuff that is expensive and very, very noble. Not the copper but the rest.

There are lots of memories, lots of tears I can see here too.

[Some of the chips in the painting are] smart implants to measure bone healing kinetics. The idea was to penetrate the bone with electric fields to a couple millimeters, to measure the density and porosity, particularly in fibrosis patients.

Up there, I think that was the allergy on a chip. That was actually about babies. If you take a plasma sample and can predict [the potential for allergies] to different foods, that would be a nice way to help out.

This is our stem cell project, where we have micro- and nano-structured surfaces, and we see how stem cells react to different environmental cues. This is a completely new design that we actually wanted to patent: a double-triple interdigitated interdigitator, which was a fun simulation turned into a beautiful publication.

Never got anywhere, but now at least we have it on an artwork.

In the end [a project] did work or did not work, but most of the time it’s a lot of pain, lot of effort, to actually set up these chips.

We have lots of chips and behind every chip stands a human being.

It’s important for students to express their need for creativity, not only in the lab but also outside it. Art is part of what we do despite the fact that it’s technology.

What does it take to be a forensic scientist?


This week, I profiled forensic soil scientist Lorna Dawson for Nature. Her route into the profession was serendipitous, but not just anyone could do it -- her toughness and resourcefulness made her a perfect fit. 

Even as a student she was foiling miscreants. As an undergraduate at Edinburgh University and a graduate student at Aberdeen University, Dawson sailed a dinghy as part of a two-person team. “You have to secure your boat to make sure it couldn’t have been tampered with the night before, like shackles loosened and things like that,” she says. One year, she won best of eight on the Scottish circuit, becoming champion. “It’s all about strategy, as well as how fast you can sail.”

The sport also helped her practice extreme calm under pressure, which is necessary for testifying before a jury. “It is challenging, because there’s no training you can do that would give you that background,” says soil forensic scientist Rob Fitzpatrick, Dawson's counterpart in Australia. “They really hit you hard. They’re very clever people, these barristers.”

One of the first times she presented evidence in court, the expert for the defense confronted her in the toilet. “Watch out, I’ll give you a hard time,” Dawson recalls her saying. “It’s just a game, anyway.”

Taken aback, Dawson still managed to come up with a powerful retort. “I said, ‘I’m sorry, it’s not a game for the victim,’ and I walked out.”

News: Panel discussion at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly

Geoscience rocks! Here's some lovely geology I photographed on a recent trip to the Dana Biosphere Reserve in Jordan.

Are you a scientist with questions about how to communicate with the public? Kathryn Adamson (@Climatica) of Manchester Metropolitan University has put together an intriguing and, we hope, helpful panel for the EGU General Assembly next week.

This panel-based question and answer session is part of the Public Engagement and Outreach series. Four expert outreach panel members will discuss their experiences of science communication, and provide an interactive discussion forum for other scientists hoping to develop their outreach skills. The panel members will focus on a range of science communications platforms including: websites and blogs; the news media; schools outreach; and film making. These topics will provide a range of practical advice for the audience, and will directly complement the other public engagement and outreach sessions during the General Assembly. 

My delightful co-panelists include Tim Lane (@glaciologytim), co-editor of Climatica, on communicating through websites and blogs, and Liz Whitfield (@lizwhitters), on public outreach and exhibitions. I am excited to meet them and hear what they have to say.

I (@chelseawald) will be talking about journalism and mass media, so come with your most probing questions. I've been told that I can be a tough interrogator, so fair's fair!

The panel is scheduled for Tuesday, 14 April, at 12:15 pm in room B4.

Where does patience come from?

Cottontop tamarin
Impulse snack: A cotton-top tamarin eats a grasshopper (Mickey Samuni-Blank on Wikimedia Commons)

To explain the origin of patience, scientists tell a modern-day fable. It is about cotton-top tamarins and their close cousins, marmosets.

Being patient often feels like a rational response, whereas being impatient feels like the animal mind acting out. Indeed, scientists used to think that the ability to be patient was a high-order function nearly unique to humans. Other animals were just impulsive, grabbing what they needed when they could get it.

But patience, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Research in the past decade suggests that all species have a combination of patience and impatience that makes sense for their evolutionary background. 

The cotton-top tamarin and the marmoset provide evidence. Both new-world monkeys dine on tree gum. But they have different overall feeding strategies. The tamarins will eat the gum if they see it, but they’ll also eat other things like fruit and insects, foods that require a certain amount of impulsivity.

The marmosets, on the other hand, eat primarily the gum, using special teeth that let them gouge holes in a tree. “They basically just sit on the tree and wait for the sap to leak out of the tree and then they eat it,”  says behavioral anthropologist Alexandra Rosati, who is finishing a postdoc at Yale before joining the faculty at Harvard. “As you can imagine, this is a very slow process.” 

Noticing this ecological difference, Rosati’s colleagues including Jeffrey Stevens of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln tested the two monkeys to see how patiently they would wait for food. They did this by adapting a classic economics study, in which subjects are offered a small reward now or a larger reward later, in order to see how much they will discount the future reward. People who discount the future reward too much are considered to be acting irrationally.

For humans, the reward in this type of experiment is usually money, but Stevens offered the monkeys two versus six pieces of food. At first, he offered both with no delays. Of course, the monkeys preferred the six pieces to the two. Then he began delaying the six-piece option by a second, then two seconds, then three, and so on. Eventually, after the delay got long enough, the monkeys decided that it was better to have the two pieces now than the six pieces later.

As Stevens predicted, the tamarins and marmosets had a very different tolerance for waiting. For the tamarins, which forage impulsively for fruit and insects as well as tree gum, the game-changing delay was nearly 8 seconds on average. For the marmosets, which gladly wait for sap to ooze out of trees, the average delay was over 14 seconds.

This could mean that the marmosets are more rational than the tamarins. But the right conclusion (supported also by further research) seems to be the opposite one: That patience is not necessarily about rationality at all, but a finely tuned adaptation to ecological niche. “The amount of patience different species show is an evolved ability that is tailored to their normal environment,” Rosati says. That is, the marmosets' patience helps keep them alive; likewise, the tamarins' relative impatience helps keep them alive.

It follows that our inherited balance of patience and impatience must have kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive at one time too. The fact that today we value patience so much may indicate that that balance isn't working quite as well for us in the modern world. But if I had to give this fable a moral, it might be this: Patience is a virtue, but wait too long for anything and you might die.

Even monkeys know that.

If you have any patience left for reading about patience, please click over to my latest piece for Nautilus, "Why Your Brain Hates Slowpokes."