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Curiosity and the Cat (October 28, 2016)

In Kim Todd’s Curious, not once did she mention the common phrase, curiosity killed the cat. Instead, Todd points out some of history’s lessons regarding curiosity: “Don’t unlock the door. Don’t open the box. Don’t eat the apple. Fairy tales, Greek myths, and biblical stories caution against giving curiosity free rein” (Todd 275). Yes, curiosity has been ill-advised in the past and can lead to bad things, but where would we be without it? What if Christopher Columbus hadn’t traversed the Atlantic Ocean to discover the New World? What if students here at Georgia Tech weren’t conducting research? Curiosity drives innovation and expansion, and at the very least yields valuable results from trial and error. Without it, we humans would just be biding our time here on Earth.

Just ask Curious George. While his curiosity gets him into sticky situations, he always learns a valuable lesson afterwards. Therefore curiosity is valuable. Curiosity is dangerous, but necessary. I can’t say the same thing for the poor cat, but he has multiple lives…

Todd argues the same point that curiosity has value. I think that is why she ends her piece with a cliffhanger. When she spots a possible Surinam toad in the Brownsberg Nature Park, Todd could have captured the toad to confirm her suspicion, but the mystery itself is more intriguing to the audience and demonstrates the value of curiosity. Todd’s curiosity and wonder, combined with the way she writes about how the toad left in an instant, never to be seen again, intrigues the reader and gives the reader his or her own sense of curiosity. The value in this is that our brains are stimulated enough so that we want to learn more.

That is the point right? Curiosity springs from new and surprising knowledge. When we hear a fun fact or read an interesting news article, we often times want to take a look behind the scenes. There is no strict explanation as to why we are curious. Simply put, we we are curious because we all share the curiosity-emotion. A happy coincidence is that curiosity is necessary for survival and and genuine progress. After all, “one of the things that makes us most curious is the suggestion that the world isn’t how we think it is, that our categories are the wrong ones, and the promise is that the answer to our questions will give us a different, fuller, better view” (Todd 279). Curiosity does not hinder development, curiosity enhances it. I personally believe that the sole meaning of life is to acquire as much knowledge as we can so that we can better the lives of our offspring and provide them with a higher standard of living. After all, if there isn’t some higher purpose for our creation, then why would we waste our lives away without gaining wisdom, experience, and knowledge? It is more than survival and basic nature, it is our moral and civic duty to be curious, to push the boundaries, to improve the lives of others.

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The Best and the Brightest (October 21, 2016)

In the documentary, Project Nim, Nim Chimpsky, a chimpanzee raised as a human being and taught American Sign Language (ASL), was the subject of an experiment to prove that humans are not the only animals to comprehend and use language. Even though the scientists involved in this experiment, namely Herbert Terrace, dismissed the study as a big flop, I think the purpose of the documentary was actually to show how much of a success the experiment was. Of course, Nim never came close to mastering the complex grammar of the English language, but he certainly developed a keen sense of awareness and the ability to communicate adequately with humans.

“The English language is nobody’s special property. It is the property of the imagination: it is the property of the language itself.” – Derek Walcott

Language can be defined very fluently as a rigid set of rules with structure and grammar to speak and write or just a means of communication. Regardless, Project Nim seemed to believe that Nim definitely learned human language. Making use of a sleek, modern visual with white, sans serif text and a black background, the film was able to show viewers just how accomplished Nim became as an ASL-“speaker.” During these short cutaways, the words Nim understood and used were displayed and tallied up to the sound of a cash register ringing up a sale or a wealthy man flipping through a stack of money. Science is measurable data, no? So, the results of the experiment were clearly measurable seeing as Nim could use 125 different signs. What I mean to say is, these graphics, combined with the clips of Nim clearly asking or demanding for what he wanted, make me feel like Nim had grasped a strong understanding of ASL (a.k.a., Nim was successful).

Ultimately, however, the success of this scientific endeavor is up to interpretation. It is hard to produce absolute, indisputable experimental results with such an abstract term as language. But, when you consider the number of words Nim could sign, 125, isn’t it acceptable to say that Nim understood language? At the very least, Nim was definitely able to scrape by with the bare minimum understanding, even though he didn’t make use of grammar. Another factor that I believe skewed results was Nim’s nature. He was, after all, a chimpanzee, and as Nim became more difficult to handle and started acting out, the researchers and caretakers started to doubt the project. So, who knows how much genuine progress Nim could have made the researchers stuck with the experiment…

 

 

The Martian (October 14, 2016)

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In the film adaptation of The Martian, science plays many roles in the returning of astronaut and botanist, Mark Watney, back to Earth from Mars. Science is what brings the Ares III team to Mars in the first place and also what enables Watney to survive on a distant planet with very limited resources. Additionally, science acts as a multi-faceted and extremely-intriguing twist on the typical “lost at sea” story. Not only does science bring Watney back to Earth, but it also draws the viewer in by utilizing a wide variety of different types of science and retells a familiar story with the implication that science can be useful for survival.

As an aside, with all the captivating media attention in the past year about sources of water on Mars, it is no wonder that the filmmakers decided to produce The Martian: people are already extremely fascinated by the scientific possibilities of exploring Mars. So, when the film begins, science has already played a huge role in actually initiating the mission to Mars seeing as the astronauts explore the surface of Mars to research possible plant life .

But more to the point, science plays a much larger role in The Martian as the savior of Mark Watney. Watney’s most pressing concern after coming to and recuperating is to make his food rations last for four years when Ares IV arrives on Mars. So, he builds a makeshift potato farm from his food supply. Using his own waste as fertilizer and separating hydrogen from rocket fuel to produce water, as well as a comedic, accidental explosion, Watney begins his survival period. So, right off the bat, this film attempts to convince the viewer that science can help you survive just like pure strength and primitive impulses do in such works as Cast Away and Lord of the Flies.

Later, Watney attempts to communicate with NASA, so he sets out to find the Pathfinder. After some tinkering, Watney sets up a circle of 16 characters, the 16 characters of the hexadecimal system, so that he can aim the Pathfinder camera at each character to speak with humans in the fundamental hexadecimal language. Since computers use hexadecimal to make sense of binary numbers, the audience knows immediately that they are witnessing an act of science.

Towards the end of the film, Watney decides to make the 90 day journey to the site of the Ares IV touchdown spot so he can be reunited with the Hermes ship, his original transportation to and from Mars. The physical journey itself represents Watney making progress and not losing hope, but what’s that? Oh right, he couldn’t have done it without science. Watney travels in his rover but must modify it to create more space for equipment and also fuel the rover with solar power. When he reaches the rendezvous point, Watney also alters the MAV to take away mass so that the trajectory devised by NASA can be executed correctly. So, essentially, science acts to push the plot forward.

Science is used left and right in The Martian to both intrigue the viewers and acts as a savior, but not in an esoteric manner seeing as this movie was intended for science fiction and pop culture fanatics. Over the course of this 2.5-hour-long movie, horticulture, biology, chemistry, computer science, the physics behind rocket propulsion, and much more are used to appeal to a wide variety of audience members. The filmmakers wanted to give viewers enticing samples of all the different kinds of science, so each particular branch of science gets a moment in the spotlight. Moreover, science is used to convey to the audience that it is an even more practical savior than we already know it to be. In contrast to similar scenarios where the main character is stuck alone on an island in the middle of the ocean and has to use his brawn and primal survival skills to survive, The Martian suggests that science can be used to reach the same results. Ultimately, science is portrayed a source of intrigue, an almighty savior, and a glue that brings multiple disciplines under the same roof (a terrific film).

 

 

 

 

Great Leaps and Bounds (23 September, 2016)

trail-running1I have been a runner for most of my life. From my first 2-mile Cardio Vascular days (CV day) every Monday in middle school gym class to my many 5k cross country races as a varsity captain, I have absolutely loved the sport. So, I can personally affirm the truths found in Sam Schramski’s article, “Running Is Always Blind.” I do my fair share of trail running, whether it be running along the Chattahoochee River or through the mountains of north Georgia. Most of the time, you rarely think about what you are doing (where to place your feet, how fast your legs are moving, etc.) because running is a mental sport and overthinking your actions is extremely detrimental. For instance, during cross country season, I took long runs around lakes near my high school and at one spot along the trail, a rock juts out of the ground and the elevation suddenly changes. Any time I thought about jumping up over that rock, or simply looked at the rock, I became unsure of myself and either tripped or stopped running altogether. When I just kept running, however, I glided over the rock with ease because I could easily adapt to the change subconsciously. So when researchers found that conscious estimates of slopes were less accurate than people angling their hand or when Young-Hui-Chang found that we run more efficiently on complex terrain, we realize that running is primarily a subconscious activity. In the case of Scott Jurek, his “agility relies on cognition that occurs at a high level in his brain, but never breaks into conscious awareness” (Schramski).

However, Schramski addresses exceptions, seeing as “although our brains help us trail run, it seems clear that our conscious self couldn’t possibly keep up with each tree root and pebble” (Schramski). Running on trails essentially boils down to quick combinations of looking down and looking straight forward. Like, Jonathon Matthis discovered in his experiment, “‘walkers make extremely rapid and precise eye movements to gather the visual information they need about the upcoming terrain'” (Schramski). Even when you run on flat pavement, you still need to look down every now and then to maintain balance and watch for obstacles, but they are mere moments, just fractions of seconds long, because you need to keep your eyes forward to let your legs and brain subconsciously do the work to maintain balance. Like Schramski mentions, “walking and running are a continuous state of imbalance in which one leg supports our body while the other goes through a swinging motion,” so instead of analyzing your environment, your brain needs to be focused on keeping the body upright and adapting to change (Schramski).

I enjoyed the way this piece of writing was presented. It is scientific, but includes anecdotes and unlikely comparisons that interest all readers, even those who don’t enjoy running. Schramski presents his argument well and leaves room to acknowledge possible confusion. He then, explains his point using experimental results and personal knowledge.

The Need for Mice (9 September 2016)

Now is not the time to bicker about animal rights. After all, we couldn’t live without animal test subjects, much less without animals in general. Humans rely so much on modern medication and technology that for experimentation on mice to be taken away would mean less dependable or even effective medications. Are our lives really worth the same as the millions of mice and rats in the world? Should we instead test on chimpanzees or humans? No! That would be absurd and constitutes a war crime.

Experimenting on mice is beneficial. First of all, mice and rats accurately model the effects medicine will have on humans. The Jackson Laboratory article, Why Mouse Genetics?, states that mice “share between 95 and 98 percent of our genomes and get most of the same diseases” as humans. This is extremely important because whereas humans are not dispensable, mice are. We should be able to use mice without issue because they are small, numerous, and share most of our genes. If we were to experiment on anything else (something with a more similar genome perhaps), then we would have to experiment on humans, which is a huge finger-wagging no. Additionally, mice should be used instead of humans due to their short life span. According to the Jackson Laboratory, “mice have an accelerated lifespan, with one mouse year equaling about 30 human years.” Therefore, using mice as test subject allows scientists to predict what side effects drugs will have on humans, in just two to three years.

Besides all the negative backlash the scientific community gets from animal experimentation, can we deny their good intentions?  Experimentation on animals is not akin to Nazi Germany scientists: we are just trying to improve the general welfare of the world’s population. As far as I see it, mice are just a means to a well-justified end.

According to the National Anti-Vivisection Society, “the Animal Welfare Act (AWA), the primary federal law that regulates the use of animals in research, specifically excludes [mice and rats] and other animals, including birds and invertebrates, from the definition of ‘animal.'” While I do question the AWA’s not classifying mice and rats as animals, I understand their need for it. For instance, I understand that tobacco is ultimately bad for people, but if the government outlawed tobacco, an entire enterprise would be shut down, many people’s stocks would plummet, and a large chunk of jobs would be lost. I’m not trying to advocate for tobacco, but rather to explain that many people rely on the tobacco enterprise, much like many people rely on modern medicine. So, isn’t it more of a crime to harm humans by abolishing animal experimentation than to conduct tests on mice and rats?

Disbelief of Revolutionaries (2 September 2016)

It seems that whenever contemporary scientists bring to light any new idea, the public widely criticizes it or flat out rejects it. Just like Galileo’s ‘wild’ heliocentric theory or the Wright Brothers’ ‘unfathomable’ flying machines, Jennifer Francis’ theory that arctic amplification and the polar jet stream could actually be affecting the global climate was passed off as a ludicrous sentiment from the beginning. This is not to say that Francis is in fact a revolutionary scientist, but rather that in the past, controversy over a new scientific idea that breaks from the norm has often times come back to bite the naysayers in the rear. So, why aren’t more people giving her work at least some consideration? Why is Martin Hoerling rudely bashing her before she can even get her point across, according to Eli Kintisch, the author of “Into the Maelstrom?”

“‘When the public becomes confused, the carefully considered scientific consensus [on climate] becomes vulnerable to attack'” (Kintisch 161).

That is a tricky question to answer and involves multiple sides of one story. Admittedly, I do sympathize with the opponents of the Francis hypothesis because while some people believe global warming is just a myth, others are trying very hard to prove that global warming is a real and present danger. So, by turning the table on those scientists trying to convince people of global warming, Francis has understandably stirred some impassioned arguments. Francis even “‘[understands] that people would be skeptical… It’s a new paradigm'” (Kintisch 160). Why not give the idea a chance, though? It seems foolish to want to inhibit the progress of science by shooting down an unpopular belief. I was very relieved when reading Kintisch’s piece when John Wallace finally said: “the Francis hypothesis ‘deserves a fair hearing’… But to make it the centerpiece of the public discourse on global warming is inappropriate'” (Kintisch 161). Finally, someone wants to at least hear her case.

I enjoy reading how Francis generally reacts so calmly and complacently to all the negativity thrown her way. She still urges people that the hypothesis needs more time to verify her findings (after all, the earth wasn’t formed in a day – it is believed to have formed over around 4.5 billion years – so why should Francis’ theory regarding the entire global climate be soundproof after just 15 years of data?) and argues that modern modeling devices don’t take into account scientifically robust Arctic amplification. Francis is strong and confident though, seeing as she has braved the circumnavigation of the globe and “seeking out adversity is part of [her] character” (Kintisch 156). If she does ever feel too much pressure, though, Francis could always just sail away aboard the Nunaga into the sunset.