Flu Virus Evolution

Posted in science on February 16th, 2014 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Flu Virus Evolution

This article has so many interesting ideas about the evolution of flu viruses it’s hard to pick one quote.

“People tend to think of wild birds as the source of everything, but we see a very strong indication of spillover from domestic birds to wild birds,” he said. “It turns out the animals we keep for food and eggs may be substantially shaping the diversity of these viruses in the wild over time spans of decades. That is a surprise.”

They figured out the evolution of viruses by including the length of time the virus was in each host:

“My longtime collaborator Andrew Rambaut implemented in the computer what I had been doing with a plastic ruler. We developed software that allows the clock to tick at different rates in different host species. Once we had that, it produces these very clear and clean results.”

Recently it had been cosmology and astronomy that had been in the throes of a golden age. Now it feels that science is exploding with new found wonders and insights daily in nearly all the sciences. There is great hope in this sort of news – a hope seldom found in the daily stream. There is implied hope that these discoveries can all come together into a deeper, wider understanding, and cures for the ancient miseries of humankind; even clarity about the physical context of our human spirit.

1729, The Taxicab Number

Posted in art, ideas, science on January 1st, 2014 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on 1729, The Taxicab Number

In this video Simon Singh explains the taxicab number (Simpsons), 1729.

The real story is that of Ramanujan, his astonishing genius, his sad and victorious journey as a mathematical genius. Singh has been on PBS explaining this and that – Simon has a real gift for explaining stuff, making the abstract into human stories.

Ramanujan’s genius unites the aesthetic and scientific. Ramanujan had an intuitive sense of the underlying order of the world.

Wiki writes that Ramanujan said, “An equation for me has no meaning, unless it represents a thought of God.”

Einstein Speaks

Posted in ideas, science on November 14th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Einstein Speaks

Einstein, in this talk, a reading of his essay, describes the entanglement of language and thinking. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Einstein’s speaking voice before.

The concepts and language of science, conceived…

… In solitude, and yet in cooperative effort as regards the final effect, …created the spiritual tools for the technical revolutions which have transformed the life of mankind in the last centuries. [This] system of concepts has served as a guide in the bewildering chaos of perceptions so that we learned to grasp general truths from particular observations.

I remember hearing a scientist saying one of the greatest mysteries, not only in mathematics, but in all science, is why mathematics, an invention of mankind, so accurately describes the real world.

The arts, the sciences: bridges spanning all human consciousness.

Speculation: Itchiness and Morgellons

Posted in science, Uncategorized on May 29th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Speculation: Itchiness and Morgellons

I read recently that the folk singer from long ago, Joni Mitchell – a fine performer – has Morgellons Syndrome. (Mitchell wrote and performed the signature rendition of Both Sides, Now.)

Her affliction is described in wiki…

…sufferers have the delusional belief that they are infested with parasites, whereas in reality no such parasites are present. Sufferers may exhibit a range of cutaneous symptoms such as crawling, biting, and stinging sensations (formication); unusual fibers in the skin; and persistent skin lesions (e.g., rashes or sores). These symptoms have been consistently identified by a range of medical experts including dermatologists,entomologists, and psychiatrists, as consistent with delusional parasitosis. Some cases of self-diagnosed Morgellons have been more accurately diagnosed as known skin disorders.

So patients report something, which doctors say, oh you read that on the internets, we can’t find anything, and the syndrome is labeled as delusional.

I listened recently to a podcast called The Naked Scientists. These are scientists at research universities such as Cambridge. They review recent science news, often interviewing the researchers themselves.

In the recent news they discussed a discovery: a molecule in the spinal cord triggers an itching sensation. That is, “a dedicated biocircuit to the brain that conveys the sensation of itch”. People who suffer severe eczema can feel intense itchiness all over their bodies, including their eyes. The doctor/host said it is an excruciating, serious disease. They’ve discovered how to block the itchy feeling, but at the cost of blood pressure, via sodium systemic regulation being sent askew. So they need a new angle to come at this.

To my surprise, they never knew what actually caused itchiness until now.

It did make me wonder if Morgellons is indeed delusional, or perhaps a variant expression of that same itchiness felt by eczema patients. The researchers apparently took literally the “embedded threads” description by patients and searched for any indication, of which they found none. It could just be a correlation with Morgellons, or since this is new, it could be causative. Seems worth looking at again.

Bill Bryson

Posted in books, science on April 30th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything is so good I’m having a second go at it, via audiobook from the library.

The experts he’s chosen, the facts to which he has given credence, express a soundness that reflects character. The miraculous thing is that he is able to parse these specialties, find baseline information, and express it in a witty, devilish way. He focuses on people, on the scientists and their eccentricities, as well as the science. Bryson’s giving due credit to those history left in the dust, without deserved acclaim, is particularly fine.

This is a 2003 book that needs updating, though.

Mean Green Mother From Outer Space

Posted in miscellaneous, science on February 15th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Mean Green Mother From Outer Space

A pineapple doesn’t sing the song from Little Shop of Horrors, titled in this post, to Rick Moranis, but pineapples sure appear an inhabitant of an intergalactic sex den.

While most everyone is familiar with the pineapple fruit, many do not know what kind of plant produces it. 

That’s how this great essay about our friend the pineapple begins.

Some snips:

…has no direct connections to pine or apple trees. When Christopher Columbus first brought the pineapple back from Guadeloupe to Spain’s Queen Isabella in 1493, no one in Europe had even seen anything quite like it. The Spanish saw the fruit’s resemblance to a pine cone, and first called it “Pine of the Indies”. The English called it an apple because of its tasty fruits. The name pineapple comes from the combination of the Spanish “pina” with the English “apple”

It became a status symbol of the social elite. 

European colonists carried the pineapple symbol back to the Americas to represent “friendship” and as an image of “welcome”.

It’s almost exclusively from the New World…Pineapples are not grown from seed…They do not become sweeter if harvested earlier since there are no starch reserves to be converted to sugar…Pineapples also contain bromelain, a protein digesting and milk-clotting enzyme similar to pepsin. Bromelain is used commercially to tenderize meat and chill-proof beer.

And here’s the shocking truth:

The pineapple “fruit” is not really a fruit at all but is a mass of individual berries fused to the central stalk.  This is why the “fruit” has leaves on top.  They are actually the continued growth of the stalk beyond where the berries are attached.

What a great essay from Dr. T. Ombrello – UCC Biology Department.

Pentimento and Rembrandt

Posted in art, science on January 26th, 2013 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Pentimento and Rembrandt

Here’s a new alphabet soup: MA-XRF; macro X-ray fluorescence analysis.

Brookhaven lab looked underneath a Rembrandt and found another image clearly rendered. This new and more informative method of X-ray is non-destructive.

Compared to other techniques, the X-ray investigation we tested is currently the best method to look underneath the original painting.

image rembrandt painting

©J. Paul Getty Trust

Pentimento, that great word, used cleverly by Lillian Hellman as the title of her novel about her putative real life lover, a courageous Nazi resister – fictionalized as Julia.

Pentimento: the marks of the past coming through, into the present. An apt description of human consciousness.

Richard Feynman’s Universe

Posted in art, ideas, science on May 8th, 2011 by admin – Comments Off on Richard Feynman’s Universe

Just finished listening to the audiobook of Lawrence Krauss’ biography of Richard Feyman, Quantum Man. The book is read by Krauss, who is a distinguished physicist himself – the insider knowledge helps,  as the quantum world is not intuitive. Krauss knew Feynman and admired him enormously. Feynman is such an interesting character, both in the scope and depth of his mind and richness of his personality.

Although the science is obscure in its details, the fundamental nature of the subject expands quickly – much of the subject matter spins off into philosophy. No surprise that after Newton determinism became a dominant influence in the mental framework of the West; Spinoza and Kant among many others. The idea of causation in the West spiked after Newton.


Bill Gates has put online Feynman’s “Messenger” lectures at Cornell (You will need Silverlight). This is a legendary series of seven lectures that inspired many physicists. Feynman worked hard on these lectures; the agreement was that he would only give these lectures once.

In addition, there are a number of clips from various biographical documentaries on youtube – so this also filled out the charismatic (overused but accurate word in this case) man for me.


Some random notes / thoughts:

I had not realized the crucial part the young Freeman Dyson had played in Feynman’s recognition. Dyson is an unusually modest man; he seems immune to the sci-careerism in his field. When asked about his being passed over for honors due, Krauss reports that Dyson simply expressed gratitude to have had such an excellent life, in such wonderful surroundings, and to be able to do the work he cares about. Dyson is at the Institute for Advanced Studies, if I remember correctly.

(Changing gears for a moment, I ran across this fascinating paper by Dyson, “TIME WITHOUT END: PHYSICS AND BIOLOGY IN AN OPEN UNIVERSE,” a speculation about the heat death of the universe. The first part is philosophical and for the general public.)

Feynman’s intuitive way of working, not building up from formalisms, as did Dirac, had a particularly energetic, American character. Feynman’s impatience, unpretentious grounding, and exploratory nature are noteworthy – you can see how those traits combined with a focused mind might yield great results.

The second lecture was particularly exciting: Feynman, a brilliant mathematician, describes the relation of physics and mathematics. The mysterious connection between mathematics and the physical world has long been noted. No second hand knowledge in Feynman’s lecture, but rather he explains the process of thinking a scientific genius uses to understand Nature with the tools of math. Feynman elucidated three principal ways of explaining the actions of the real world in numbers: Newton’s mathematics, action at a distance, and a minimal model for a mathematical explanation of the world. Feynman explains how Newton’s math, useful in the quotidian domain, is not of much use in the quantum realm; also, he explained that he felt the other two models will someday have to be united as a tool to explain the world.

Feynman notes – and this is truly a lifting of the curtain – the mysteries he perceives. He notes such things as the oddity that there are so many ways to describe the same actions in nature. That every instance in Nature is always that, unique, and never a general case. That it is impossible to extrapolate action from the micro world of the quanta to the macro world of physical reality. Feynman explains that physics uses not axioms, but modes of thinking; for example, Riemannian geometry might be exactly the tool needed by Einstein, even though it was formulated 75 years before Einstein worked on his theories. Mathematics is the generality and physics the specific, and so axioms don’t work in physics. Feynman explained that Einstein and Dirac made guesses as to how the physical world worked, and then used tools available (these mathematical models) that seemed most likely to help in the explanation.


I should add that I checked out Feynman’s paintings and drawings. They are competent but never got to expressing a true voice. He was a talented amateur. It was interesting to note that early on he was dismissive of the arts, but clearly, as time went on, began to realize there was something there. In one lecture he was dismissive of CP Snow’s Two Cultures, but in his trying to learn to draw and paint reflected a counter tendency – deeper and wiser – that there was something in art that is parallel to the complexity and beauty of the physical world, but which exists in the individual human soul and in the imagination. He would recoil hearing that, but I feel eventually he would admit it, if he had had the time to evolve that side of himself.

Feynman’s love for and gratitude to his father were beautifully expressed in a youtube video. He explained the way his father helped him understand in a deeper sense. People may know the name of a bird, and there are many names in different cultures of course, but that tells you nothing about the bird, said Feynman’s father. The difference between a name and knowledge.

His father was distrustful of the honorifics and uniforms of status. His father pointed out that the costumes of life are just that, and underneath, we all share a common humanity. People bowing before others, because of their uniform, or societal status, repelled Feynman and his father. A useful skepticism implanted early on. Following on this, Feynman did not even trust established laws of science, but derived them himself. This is parallel to the development of many artists, who, with their own individual emphasis, recapitulate in their work the history of art.

Feynman spent a long time trying to return to the bestower an honor many in science would lust for: membership in the National Academy of Sciences. Feynman even considered refusing the Nobel Prize, but felt that people would think he felt too good for such an honor, when really, he simply saw it a decision amongst people and of no real importance. The important thing was the knowledge he had gained of Nature. He remembered seeing scientists in one field trying to keep honors from chemists because they  did not want to sully their grandiose clique with mere chemists. He mentioned Arista, an honorary society of his early schooling, where all they talked about was who they would let in. He laughed at the idea of IQ scores. A truly egalitarian American spirit was Richard Feynman – all from the seed of his father’s character and evolved in his son Richard.

To be continued…

The Significant Pause and How Babies Learn

Posted in ideas, science on April 24th, 2011 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on The Significant Pause and How Babies Learn

Online, an English scientist discussed his discovery as to how children learn new words. Parents seem to know instinctively when teaching a new word, to point to the object and say, “Look at the, um, dog”.

That is, the parent pronounces the word as “thee” rather than “thuh”, and follows it with what the scientist called a disfluency – the um and ers of hesitant speech. This combination, of the pronunciation as thee, a pause, and a disfluency, triggers the child to understand it is being taught a new word; children look with more frequency at the referent when the word is presented this way.


I remember reading about how those who often have to deliver bad news are taught to present. They are told that if the news is serious but not fatal to say, “Your uncle was in an accident but he is all right”. A straight through presentation of the facts.

However, if the news is catastrophic, they are taught to say, “I have some bad news. [Here, a pause] Your uncle has died”. They are taught that after the pause, they are to leave no doubt as to the outcome. The pause is a signal for the receiver of the bad news to prepare him or her self.

In both cases, a baby learning, and the delivery of bad news, the pause seems to be a genetic, primal signal, universally recognized as a reason to take a breath and apply full focus.

Enterotypes: And Then There Were Three

Posted in ideas, science on April 21st, 2011 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Enterotypes: And Then There Were Three

This story has received a surprising amount of attention. The subject is somewhat arcane, but it fascinates.

Scientists have discovered that there are three definable ecosystems of microbes in the human gut. Any one of three distinct forests may inhabit our inner realm, crossing all the divisions human beings make among ourselves.

The scientists,

…found no link between what they called enterotypes and the ethnic background of the European, American and Japanese subjects they studied.

Any group of humans, anywhere, will have one of the three.

The potentials cascade:

The discovery of the blood types A, B, AB and O had a major effect on how doctors practice medicine. They could limit the chances that a patient’s body would reject a blood transfusion by making sure the donated blood was of a matching type. The discovery of enterotypes could someday lead to medical applications of its own, but they would be far down the road.

“Some things are pretty obvious already,” Dr. Bork said. Doctors might be able to tailor diets or drug prescriptions to suit people’s enterotypes, for example

Yet another affirmation, as if one were needed, that we are all of the same DNA soup made.

Keeping Your Balance

Posted in miscellaneous, science on February 18th, 2011 by Ira Altschiller – Comments Off on Keeping Your Balance

At instapundit Glenn Reynolds notes,

I think that things that involve practicing balance are very valuable. I’ve always had excellent balance, but I no longer do the stuff I did as a kid and when I did a balance-intensive routine at the gym a while back – involving standing on balls and the like – the two things that struck me were how much worse my balance was when I started than it was when I was a kid, and how rapidly it improved. I could almost feel the neural networks recalibrating between sets.

I remember years ago on a radio show hearing someone say, “Oh, I don’t want to be one of those guys who has to sit on the edge of his bed to put on his socks like an old man.” Ever since I heard that I always stand when putting on socks – more because it is something of a game than for balancing purposes. But I have gotten good at it – Glenn’s right, there is a learning curve.

Reynolds also offers a NYT link for preventing falls in older people.