Trekking through different topics in science, one book at a time

The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt

picture of The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt on top of a closed mac laptop. The bright red asian arowana on the cover stands out in stark contrast to the black background of the book coverAt first glance, The Dragon Behind the Glass by Emily Voigt seems like it will be a true crime style book about a highly coveted, ornamental trophy fish. The Asian arowana, or the “dragon fish”, is a modern phenomenon in the world of aquarium enthusiasts, prized for its rarity and dazzling colors (red, gold, and green). Baby Asian arowana sell for a few thousand dollars, while prime adult specimens can sell for upwards of $150,000. On the surface, Voigt presents the history and current events surrounding this fish, focusing on those that depict the obsession arowana lovers as well as the miasma of half-truths and danger that surrounds the Asian arowana. Stories of fish farmers or sellers being robbed at gunpoint multiple times or of judges at expos refusing to be responsible for arowana judging for fear of their safety/life are the norm. But, woven throughout these fantastical tales is an important discussion about our effect on the environment and animals — how much are we to blame and what is the best course of action to correct these wrong-doings?

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Vapor Detection and Discrimination with a Panel of Odorant Receptors

Model diagram to show that the authors measured the amount of luminescence (glow) over time in the cells, and then they used the area under the curve (AUC) as the number they reported to determine response to the odorants.

Today I learned: that scientists have been trying to create artificial “noses”. Traditionally, dogs and other animals have been trained to identify specific smells like cancer, drugs, toxins, etc. But recent research is trying to design these artificial systems that could act as a way to screen for many odors at once. This groups of scientists used cells grown in the lab that have an olfactory receptor (OR) and proteins inside the cell that cause the cell to light up when an odorant (chemical that has a smell) is recognized by the OR. This works because in mammals, when an OR recognizes an odorant, that OR then becomes “activated” and transmits a signal into the cell. The cell then passes that message along to another cell, which passes it onto the area of the brain that processes these signals and tells us what we are smelling. They used seven odorants — ranging from those that smell like cloves to those that smell like banana — and tested them with many different ORs to see how much the cells lit up. With this they were able to identify specifically which ORs responded to which smells and how sensitively they could respond. This system can be used to help create systems that can discriminate between odorants, even if they look very similar in structure.

Reference: Kida, Hitoshi, et al. “Vapor Detection and Discrimination with a Panel of Odorant Receptors.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-06806-w.

Baleen Whale Cortisol Levels Reveal a Physiological Response to 20th Century Whaling

Today I learned: whaling in the 20th century indirectly stressed out many different species of whales. A group of scientists looked at the earplugs of three different types of baleen whales: fin, humpback, and blue. A whale earplug is a collection of ear wax that has alternating lines that tell the age of a whale (like tree rings do) and store both endogenous (i.e. hormones) or exogenous (i.e. pollutants) chemicals. Because of this, they could measure the amount of cortisol, a stress hormone, in each whale during many different years. They found that when whaling numbers peaked, there was also a peak in the average cortisol levels. Interestingly, when whaling decreased during World War II, they still saw slightly higher cortisol levels, which suggests that wartime noises (i.e. submarines, bombing/explosions, planes, etc.) also increased the stress in the whales. The sharp drop in cortisol levels in the 1970s was connected to the start of the Marine Mammal Protection Act that put a moratorium on whaling. However, cortisol levels have been slowing increasing since then, indicating that other stressors are present (i.e. increased sea temperatures, over-fishing, and noise).

Graph showing that when whaling numbers peak, there is a peak in cortisol levels

The graph shows that from 1900-2000, when whaling numbers (blue) increased, there was also an increase in cortisol levels (black). Highlighted in grey is a period corresponding to WWII where the whaling numbers were low, but cortisol was still high. Also shown is a red line to indicate when the Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect in 1972 to emphasize the sharp drop in cortisol levels that followed.

Reference: Trumble, Stephen J., et al. “Baleen Whale Cortisol Levels Reveal a Physiological Response to 20th Century Whaling.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07044-w.


Blood Matters by Masha Gessen

front cover of Blood Matters by Masha Gessen with blue jeans and a white bedspread in the backgroundBlood Matters by Masha Gessen is what I imagine you would get if you were to immerse yourself in the inner monologue of a fact-obsessed individual’s decision-making process. The book opens with Gessen learning their mother has died of breast cancer, followed by a jump in time to Gessen getting a positive BRCA1 mutation test result. These two events set the tone for the book in which Gessen examines through the past and present lens how genetics, and our knowledge of our own genetics, has shaped how we view ourselves, the world, and our connections to each other. In doing so, Gessen lends a perspective not often seen in journalistic or scientific writing — the Jewish one. As readers, we get to learn about scientific concepts in the frame of Jewish history and anecdotes, as well as how these concepts and the ideologies born from them have reverberated through history. For me, Gessen’s need to know all the facts before making a life-changing medical decision was extremely relatable, and I think many others will find it easy to empathize with Gessen’s experience(s).

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Modern Slavery and the Race to Fish

Today I learned: about 32% of wild-caught fish that is eventually sold in the US is illegally caught. Because of how fish are caught, and then distributed, it is really hard to track which shipments come from ships/fishery sectors that abuse their labor force. Additionally, labor accounts for 30–50% of fishing costs and many fishing sectors are seeing falling profit returns, prompting many countries to cut costs and resort to unethical conditions to make a profit. A group of researchers from Canada and Australia looked at a few different metrics to try and identify which countries were more likely to have poor worker conditions. The authors found that a country’s Global Slavery Index (GSI), the percent of unreported fish caught, the value of the fish caught, and the amount of distant-water fishing best predicted the countries that had modern slavery in the fishing industry. While an obvious step to reduce the unethical conditions includes more oversight on the ships themselves, more research has to be done to understand how the current problems affect fisheries policy.

Diagram showing that the more that the US, Western European, and Scandinavian countries import fish from high slavery-risk countries, the more likely that the domestic supply contains illegally caught fish

River plots showing that when the US (left) and Western European and Scandinavian countries (right) import fish from high slavery risk countries (yellow, orange, and red), the domestic supply contains fish caught under unethical conditions. (Figure adapted from Tickler et al.)

Reference: Tickler, David, et al. “Modern Slavery and the Race to Fish.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-07118-9.

War of the Whales by Joshua Horwitz

An unusually large whale stranding event in the Bahamas on March 15, 2000, set into motion a clash between environmental activists and the US Navy. War of the Whales, part detective and part history novel, by Joshua Horwitz covers every nuance of this battle, while also providing some really cool marine animals facts throughout. As someone who toyed with becoming a marine biologist, until realizing that a fear of open water and studying marine animals don’t really mix, this book was right up my alley. Right off the bat, you get to learn that beaked whales are the only predator that regularly dive one mile deep; with one dive even being recorded at two miles deep for just over two hours. Even if you don’t have a lot of background knowledge on these topics, this book is super easy to read, largely due to Horwitz’s writing style. War of the Whales skillfully avoids being a dry listing of facts thanks to its well-written and compelling narrative that spans across a decade or so of back-and-forth between activists and the US Navy, along with brief ‘flashbacks’ to give the historical context that led up to the current events. So, for anyone who is even mildly interested in the ocean or the interplay between ocean conservation and military policy/practices, this book a great choice.

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Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks

If you’re someone who loves music, is a musician, and/or just really likes to learn about the brain, then I highly recommend that you read Musicophilia by Oliver Sacks. I originally chose this book because I love music to the point where I probably spend about 75% of my day with music playing in the background, and I wanted to learn more about how the brain processes music. That being said, I learned far more than I expected, and I was consistently blown away by how complex the brain is and the idiosyncratic ways it manages to function in spite of damage or deterioration. For a scientific field that didn’t really take hold until the 1980s, the amount of information that the neuroscience of music has uncovered is already impressive. Oliver Sacks is probably one of the more well-known science writers, and for good reason. He continually brings a poetic writing style to his books that grabs the imagination of the reader. Once he reels you in with that, he keeps your attention with how he writes about his patients and other medical anecdotes; always blending traditional observation with touches of personal experiences and empathy.

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Distinct Patterns of Brain Activity Mediate Perceptual and Motor and Autonomic Responses to Noxious Stimuli

experimental set-up showing that the scientists randomized the time between laser pulses and how strong the pulses were. Perception (how it felt), motor (reaction time), and autonomic (skin conductance) responses were measured after laser pulses.

Experimental design from Tiemann et al.

Today I learned: a group of scientists figured out that distinct brain responses are involved in mediating our response to pain (noxious stimulus) via motor (movement), perceptual (feeling), and autonomic (unconscious body reactions like signal conducting) responses. To figure out this stimulus-brain-outcome relationship they measured motor (reaction times), perceptual (pain rating 0-100), autonomic (skin conductance), and brain (brain waves) responses to a series of random laser pulses (varied in both the time between pulses and the intensity of the pulses). As expected, more intense laser pulses caused the participants to have a faster reaction time, a higher pain rating, and stronger skin conductance measurements. But what was really interesting about this study was that they found that of the four brain waves they measured, not all were responsible for every response. Rather, each brain wave was involved in mediating either only one or two of the responses to the laser pulses. And contrary to what most people would expect, the earliest brain waves were not involved in the perception response, which means that you don’t need to consciously perceive the painful stimulus in order to have a motor or autonomic response.

Reference: Tiemann, Laura, et al. “Distinct Patterns of Brain Activity Mediate Perceptual and Motor and Autonomic Responses to Noxious Stimuli.” Nature Communications, vol. 9, no. 1, 2018, doi:10.1038/s41467-018-06875-x.

Bad Science: Quacks, Hacks, and Big Pharma Flacks by Ben Goldacre

Front cover of Bad Science by Ben Goldacre on a white textured backgroundBen Goldacre’s Bad Science is the perfect book if you’re looking for something written in a sarcastic and blunt voice, while still teaching you about how mainstream media distorts scientific facts. While this book may be most useful for those not as deeply entrenched in the science world, as a scientist I still learned a lot about the history behind media presentation of science and evidence-based medicine. From the opening, Goldacre sets up the structure of his book; he clearly outlines the anecdotes he will mention and how they all build upon each other to explain the cultural and psychological influences that drive the pervasive misrepresentation of good science and the peddling of pseudoscience. He also sets the foundation for how he plans to teach readers how to conduct basic scientific reasoning/thinking on their own so they can pass judgment confidently on pseudoscience in the media. What seems like a monumental task has been neatly broken down into manageable/approachable sections. Continue reading…

Oxygen Depletion of Pacific Ocean During Glacial Period

Today I learned: scientists figured out the oxygen levels in the waters off of Central America from 40,000 years ago. Before this study, people had thought that during the last glacial period (~110,000-15,000 years ago), oxygen levels in the oceans were higher because cold water can hold onto oxygen better. But this group was able to use a type of fossilized plankton that only takes up a type of nutrient in oxygen-rich conditions to determine that the deeper waters of the eastern Pacific Ocean were actually oxygen-depleted during this time. Typically, oxygen levels in oceans increase as you go deeper, but Hoogakker et al. found that there was no increase from shallow to deeper waters. Because the Pacific Ocean is the biggest sink (or storer) of carbon, holding about 50% of the total oceanic amount, this group suggested that the Pacific Ocean played an important role in the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere during the glacial period and the transition period that followed.


Reference: Hoogakker, Babette A. A., et al. “Glacial Expansion of Oxygen-Depleted Seawater in the Eastern Tropical Pacific.” Nature, vol. 562, no. 7727, 2018, pp. 410–413., doi:10.1038/s41586-018-0589-x.