Mayim Bialik: Again on Nature

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Mayim Bialik, the actress with a PhD in neurobiology. Now, she’s featured again in Nature. There’s an interview with Dr. Bialik in Nature this week, where she talks about having children as a neuroscientist grad student and about her experiences on The Big Bang Theory. She’s a pretty interesting person, and I always enjoy hearing more about her, so hopefully you do too!

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No new smell neurons for you

A recent paper in Neuron presents the findings of a study examining the age of neurons in human olfactory bulbs. As the ScienceNow article states, your olfactory bulb neurons are the same age as you. In other words, according to the results of this study, we are not generating new neurons to help process smells. This may be an artifact of the study population utilized in this particular experiment, or it could be accurately representing our evolutionary history. Modern day humans do not rely on our sense of smell, and thus we may have simply lost the ability to generate new smell neurons because there was no selective pressure put on that particular trait. It’s an interesting finding nonetheless!

Red in the Face

A recent study published in Biology Letters  and publicized in a ScienceNow article studied temperature changes in women during social interactions. The researchers discovered that neutral conversation topics (which did not elicit any emotional response, as reported by the subjects), caused an increase in temperature by ~0.1 degree. Touching on the arm, palm, face, or chest (under the guise of re-positioning the temperature monitoring device) elicited as much as ~0.4 degree increase, particularly when the investigator was male (all of the subjects were female)! This indicates that our facial temperature changes simply through routine social interactions. The investigators do not know for certain why this happens, but they present several options, all of which depend on the person and/or the person they are interacting with being able to perceive the slight temperature changes in some way. Increased temperature is due to an increase in blood flow, so it is likely that the other person can judge the temperature changes based on skin coloration. The authors propose that temperature increases may act to increase perceived attractiveness (acting as a social cue), or the individual may alter their behavioral reactivity. However, it is unknown why this phenomena occurs, but it is an interesting one. 

Fracking

Fracking seems like such a promising idea; rather than drilling for oil, to which we don’t have great access, let’s tap into the natural gas right underneath my house! But as a recent Nature news article demonstrates, and as environmental groups have been saying for years, it comes with some costs. A recent paper in New Solutions (referenced in the Nature article) presents correlative evidence demonstrating that gas drilling and increased livestock mortality rates may be linked. Additionally, when there were earthquakes across the midwestern US, it was suggested that fracking may have been a causal factor. Of course, it’s important to gather data before coming to any conclusions, which is why I look forward to hearing about the results from the EPA’s pre- and post-fracking study (mentioned in the Nature article).

Evolution of birds

When most people think of dinosaurs, they usually think of overgrown reptiles. However, ever since I took an upper-level geology class freshman year, I’ve known that most dinosaurs are actually more closely related to birds than reptiles. A recent study examined the skulls of modern day birds, birds’ intermediate ancestors, and dinosaurs and were able to show that birds have structural similarities in their skulls to baby dinosaurs. The authors conclude that birds evolved by slowing down development, and basically maintaining the juvenile characteristics of baby dinosaurs into adulthood. It’s pretty neat!

White House petitioned to make research free to access

There is a White House-backed petition being sent around trying to pass mandates that government-funded scientific research be made available on open-access websites. It will be interesting to see how that plays out.

Personally, I have mixed thoughts on the matter. Generally speaking, I am definitely in favor of making research available to the general public. That’s what science is all about! And while those of us working for institutions like universities have access to just about anything we’d like to read, that is not the case for scientists working in other professions, including people working for The Nature Conservancy, for instance.

However, I do worry a bit that the publishing companies will be less likely to publish articles if they aren’t receiving revenue from charging for access, or that they’ll bump up the authorship costs (you have to pay to get your papers published, if you didn’t know). I’m pretty liberal, so extended government control doesn’t really bother me, but I am worried about unforeseen responses on the part of the publishing companies. And what about research that isn’t government-funded? There could be all sorts of downstream effects of this type of mandate. But at least people in power are interested in seeing some change for the better happen!

The Black Widow: Debate

There has been some debate, among me and my friends as well as among others on the internet, about whether or not people liked the Black Widow character in The Avengers. She was the only female hero in the movie, which I discussed a little bit in a previous post, and I personally think she did a really great job. However, one of the first reviews I read was author Jim C. Hines’ post, Black Widow and Power. He argues that since she was the only one to use her vulnerability as a weapon, it’s a bit of a subversion of sexism, but at the same time is disturbingly seductive. Hines also argues that, “He [Loki] rips into her more viciously than he does anyone else in the film, including his own brother”, and that Bruce Banner doesn’t ‘fake’ anger towards anyone but her. I’m not sure if I agree with all of this. If you read through the comments, other readers have also brought up points, such as that Banner probably would have done the same thing to anyone (and I could definitely see Captain America, at least, reacting similarly to Black Widow).

Anyway, since reading that review, I’ve read a couple more. For instance, this post over at HelloGiggles lauds the fact that she’s vulnerable, and that she has the courage and strength to use it and risk her emotional well-being for the good of the world. I think that this article brings up a good point; Black Widow is human (read: not a superhero, just a super badass), and she has human emotions and is mortal, and at least she knows it! Additionally, Kelly Thompson discusses Joss Whedon’s history of bringing strong female heroes to the forefront in this post, and she concludes that Black Widow was a success. She says, “Whedon has absolutely (and elegantly) nullified the argument that females can’t work as fantastic superheroes in mainstream films”.

Finally, Ian Grey at Indiewire wrote a post about how the perceived success of the Black Widow character is all from female critics while the perceived lack of success comes from male critics. I don’t have enough data to really agree or disagree with him, but I think it’s an interesting point. I do tend to agree more with the HelloGiggles article than Hines’ post, because I do think that Black Widow was one of the strongest, sanest, and coolest characters in the movie. She’s definitely a good female role model, and I hope to see more of this type of character in superhero movies! She definitely held her own with the male superheroes, and gained their respect. I guess that puts me in camp Yay Black Widow!