Happy Birthday, Colo! December 22, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science.
Tags: Biology, Cognitive Science, Museums & Archives
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On this date in 1956, Colo was born. Her birth marked the first time a gorilla was born in captivity. And she’s thrived better than most. At 54 years of age today, Colo is the oldest captive gorilla living in the world. She shares today as her birthday with her grandson J.J.
Colo’s mother rejected her at birth. This rejection is a relatively common but not fully understood occurrence for captive-born gorillas. This lack of understanding isn’t particularly surprising, as researchers don’t know much about gorilla births in the wild. Her early human caretakers, who hand-reared the baby gorilla, briefly referred to her as Cuddles. Her name was chosen through a contest and is short for her birthplace: COLumbus, Ohio. Those caretakers bottle-fed Colo and dressed her in clothes. Colo would go on to bear three children of her own, with her mate Bongo. She did not raise those gorillas, though Colo did care for twin grandchildren.
On the one hand, anthropomorphizing this gorilla—dressing her in clothes, referring to second-generation offspring as grandchildren—is evidence of our own self-centeredness. It’s awfully presumptive to think that Colo shares our emotions and ways of thinking about the world. When we project our thoughts and feelings onto an animal—or another human, for the matter—to explain their behavior, we may miss the opportunity to understand that individual more deeply.
Empathy is a tricky thing; it depends on our ability to understand and project our own emotions, but ultimately requires the broader ability to understand another’s perspective in addition to our own. In the issue of American Scholar out this week, Richard Restak explains that the medial prefrontal cortex in the brain “is concerned with representing our own thoughts, feelings, and beliefs, as well as providing us with representations of the mental states of other people.” When we anthropomorphize gorillas without understanding their mental states, though, we may jump to conclusions and miss other interesting and relevant possibilities.
On the other hand, it’s no wonder we think of these great apes as very much like humans. Depending on how one parses it, since some genes vary more than others, gorillas share about their 95% of DNA with human beings. The chimpanzee and bonobo are our only closer genetic relatives, with 98% similarity. We remember first coming across this fact, at the Columbus Zoo, where Colo has lived all her life. We read the fact on a placard as we watched a woman bottle-feed a bonobo behind the glass.
Gorilla gestation is about 8½ months, nearly identical to that of humans. Baby gorillas stay with their mothers for three or four years, a timeframe reminiscent of human children, who generally, in the United States, go off to kindergarten at age five. Females mature at about age 11, often earlier in captivity. Human girls reach menarche at about age 12, often earlier if heavier. Gorillas have even been seen having sex face to face.
We’ve long known apes are social animals, living in troops with one or a few mature males, several females, and their young. Recent studies indicate that gorillas may be empathetic, too, which makes sense for social creatures. Richard Restak, in his discussion of empathy in humans, links our social nature with our ability to empathize: “The research finding that out thoughts and feelings about ourselves and others are processed in the same brain areas confirms what sages and religious thinkers have been saying throughout the ages: we’re not isolated components in an impersonal social network but, rather, deeply social creatures capable of imagining each other’s internal experiences.”
What if apes, being social creatures, are also empathizers? One researcher points out that both humans and apes console each other after, say, a defeat, whereas monkeys do not. In 2008, a gorilla in a German zoo clutched her dead baby, the second offspring she had rejected, and the zookeeper there said that mothers in the wild sometimes carry around their dead babies for weeks. Researchers in Scotland observed chimpanzees dealing with an impending death through increased grooming of the sick chimp. The chimps suffered fitful sleep in the immediate wake of the death and avoided the spot where the chimp had died. Another researcher found that orangutans share the phenomenon of contagious laughing with humans. Still other research shows that ape babies make pouting faces to get their mothers’ attention and, in one experiment, tried to make the experimenter smile.
We know, too, that gorillas use tools, turning sticks into digging implements or weapons. And there’s Koko, the gorilla who has been taught sign language to communicate with humans (see video below). Koko is the subject of a long-term research project. Because gorillas don’t have the physical capacity for human speech, the researchers use sign language with Koko to study interspecies communication and its possibilities. The thinking is that each species has its own communication system; gorillas use gestures, facial expressions, and vocalizations to communicate with each other. And some species are sufficiently intelligent and aware to be taught ways, like American Sign Language, to communicate with humans; Koko scored in the 80s and 90s on IQ tests. One wonders whether her researchers would do as well on a test designed and administered by Koko.
The International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) lists the Western Gorilla—Colo’s species—as critically endangered. IUCN uses this classification based on projections, as of 2008, that the gorilla is likely to face an 80% population reduction over three generations (66 years, from 1980 to 2046). Hunting—poaching—and disease, particularly Ebola, have devastated the wild gorilla population in Africa over the last two decades. Mining, the timber industry, farming, and climate change threaten the gorillas’ habitat. The Eastern Gorilla—the Mountain and Eastern Lowland gorillas—is considered endangered, but not yet critically endangered. Twenty years ago, the Western Gorilla—the Western Lowlad and Cross River gorillas—was considered vulnerable; ten years ago, this gorilla was endangered. Now, this gorilla is critically endangered, and the next step on this trajectory is to become extinct in the wild.
This morning, Nancy Roe Pimm was on hand at the Columbus Zoo to sign her book Colo’s Story. The zoo celebrated Colo’s birthday with cake for the apes, and special cake for the zoo’s visitors too. More than a year ago, Colo was anesthetized for a series of medical tests, because her keepers worried about her bouts of fasting and lethargy. She seemed to be depressed, perhaps showing signs of aging. But the tests showed nothing wrong physically, and her heart was strong. Undoubtedly, Colo didn’t think of her lethargy, medical tests, or her birthday party today the same way the humans do. Yet this celebration offers Lofty Ambitions an opportunity to ponder how animals are studied and considered.
Tags: Apollo, Biology, Chemistry, Nobel Prize
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German chemist Richard Willstätter was born on August 13, 1872. He studied plant’s pigment structures, including the structure of chlorophyll. For that work, he was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1915.
Italian microbiologist Salvador Luria was born on this date in 1912. He shared the Noble Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1969 for work with bacteria and inheritance. That’s especially important in understanding antibiotic resistance today. Because we like to point out connections, we note that Enrico Fermi helped Luria secure a fellowship at Columbia University, and his first graduate student (at Indiana University) was James Watson, who went on to share a Nobel Prize with Francis Crick for their discovery of the structure of DNA. Perhaps, there exists more than one kind of inheritance in science.
English chemist Frederick Sanger was born on August 13, 1918, and went on to be awarded two Nobel Prizes. His 1958 prize was for work on amino acid sequences in insulin, and his 1980 prize was for developing a method for DNA sequencing. Only three others have been awarded two Nobel Prizes: Marie Curie (see earlier post), Linus Pauling, and John Bardeen.
But if you think birth date is good predictor of your chance at a Nobel Prize, think again. University affiliation—either as an alum or faculty member—at Columbia University, University of Cambridge, University of Chicago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or Harvard University matters more. Each of those institutions “claims” more than 70 Nobel Laureates among its faculty and alums. Chapman University, our affiliation, has one Nobel Laureate on its faculty: economist Vernon L. Smith.
Today is also the date, in 1969, that Apollo 11 astronauts Buzz Aldrin, Neil Armstrong, and Michael Collins were released from quarantine for a ticker-tape parade in New York, then a state dinner in honor of their receipt of the Presidential Medal of Freedom for taking that great step for humankind (especially for Americans, who were happy to have beat the Soviets to the Moon). Watch a rare Neil Armstrong public appearance below.
Finally, on August 13, 1910, Florence Nightingale died. In her memory, consider donating blood at your local Red Cross.
Museum of Science & Industry (Part 1) August 10, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science.
Tags: Biology, Museums & Archives, Railroads
Just as Doug had a childhood of airshows (while Anna married into the experience), Anna’s childhood was steeped with Friday afternoon visits to the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago (MSI). Doug’s first visit—our first visit together—was over the December holidays in 1992. We went to see the “Christmas Around the World” exhibit, a display of evergreens, each decorated with ornaments representing a different country. Though not related to science or industry, the exhibit had started in 1942 as a tribute to the Allies in World War II. Likewise, Colleen Moore’s Fairy Castle has little connection with the museum’s main focuses. It’s a gorgeous, intricate simulacrum, but it’s not science. It demonstrates detail-oriented craftsmanship and industriousness, but it’s not about Chicago—or American—industry. Once a tradition takes hold at the Museum of Science and Industry, though, it tends to stay a long time. We like tradition; we appreciate the power of ritual.
What we especially enjoy about the MSI, and other museums like it, is that it’s a buffet for the mind, inviting us to stop and sample (the two of us have been known to overindulge). As children, we were interested in one thing one week, and another thing the next. Our tastes change inexplicably (even as adults, it turns out). Sometimes, it’s trains, but then it’s planets. And a museum like this one introduces interests we might not have thought to otherwise have. As a five-year-old, Anna didn’t know that a thing called a submarine existed, until she saw it nestled up to the museum—of course, then she was intrigued.
When Anna and her sister were young, their parents would sneak out of work in downtown Chicago on a Friday afternoon, head home to South Shore Drive, and haul the girls to the nearby museum for an hour (it was free in those days). Each girl could choose one exhibit to see. Brigid usually chose either the baby chicks hatching—their beaks cracking the shells from the inside until they could emerge wet and unable to stand under the heat lamps—or the Coal Mine, there since the museum opened in 1933, as opposite as could be from the feather clumps that become adorable, hopping chicks.
On our first visit together, we waited in the line up the stairs (there’s always a line) and finally entered the Coal Mine’s cage, its rickety, enclosed elevator. The ride is loud and dark, bodies packed together in a box descending with a racket into the mine. Doug’s claustrophobia only added to his sense of adventure, and even after we exited the cage, the mine shaft didn’t offer much more wiggle room. The lights went out, the lamp flame exploded with a pop, everyone jumped (even when you’re expecting it, you start), and the guide told us about methane gas build-up. This exhibit sucks you into believing—you can’t help but pay attention and, therefore, learn something new.
Though longtime visitors insisted the original ride not be altered, some updates to the Coal Mine—mostly to add modern-day technology (and probably safety)—occurred in 1997. That’s nostalgia, but it’s also evidence of the way we think about the world and our lives in it. As children, we take for granted that what is in a museum is true and always has been. We don’t have the perspective yet to know how much the world changes. We don’t really understand that time elapses over longer periods than we have lived. Pluto is another example of this phenomenon: it’s not really a planet, and we know there are objective rules about these categories, but don’t we wish, at some level, that Pluto still was a planet?
The nine-foot walk-through heart was a favorite, too, often added to a childhood visit when there was a little extra time. The plaster-of-Paris heart was like a playground ride—only it was something inside your body too! When we went to the museum together, Doug didn’t find it as impressive as Anna had led him to expect. She admitted that it seemed a little smaller than she remembered, but found it pretty amazing to see an organ from the inside. That heart was installed in 1950 and replaced (oh no!) last year with a 14-foot throbbing heart that matches its beats to a visitor’s pulse. We all grow up.
On the other hand, walking into the hall that’s housed “The Great Train Story” since 1941, we were struck by its enormity. That’s an odd sensation for a 1/48-scale model to evoke. Its scale is small, but the model spans from Chicago to Seattle, with 30 trains on 1400 feet of track running through all manner of terrain and industrial regions. Looking at Chicago, we recognize Sears (now Willis) Tower, but there are also beachgoers and Gene Kelly singing in the rain, a waterfall and a gas station, the American flag and pink flamingos. The detail is so accurate that the tiny figures waiting at the Red Line subway station are based on a photograph of people waiting for a train at that actual station in 2002, when the exhibit was expanded. Trains—we’ll have to come back to this topic in future posts.
Anna’s childhood memories of MSI remain so powerful that they drive the title poem of her poetry collection Constituents of Matter. Just as our childhood toys (see earlier post) created ways for us to see parts of the world we couldn’t otherwise imagine, the Museum of Science and Industry gives us ways to see the world and how it works. And to see a lot in a day. And to want to go back for more. Really, it’s delicious and nourishing!
What Toys Did You Have? August 4, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Collaboration, Science.
Tags: Biology, Chemistry, Physics
Last week, a friend posted a story from Science Daily that reported that having books in the home has as great an influence on a child’s eventual level of education as does the parents’ levels of education. We’ve long felt that the books in our homes (see our earlier post on encyclopedias) helped shape who we’ve become and fueled our curiosity about the world. But of course, that doesn’t tell the whole story.
Both our fathers grew up with Erector sets, those artifacts of an era before product safety lawyers were part of toy design teams. Even the heavy green metal case had corners and edges that could gash a careless child’s hand. Doug and his brother Richard inherited the Erector set that their father and uncle shared as children. The next generation whiled away hundreds of hours using the metal girders, bolts, electrical motor, and pulleys to construct small new worlds around them. Anna never played with an Erector set, in large part because her father, as the last of four boys, had the weakest claim to ownership of the family’s set. But even as an adult, his childhood memories were so fondly fixed that he bought an incomplete set at a yard sale on vacation in Wisconsin. The Erector set, first patented in 1913, is an open-ended toy, one that stimulates the imagination.
When we were in fourth grade, we each received such a gift for the mind’s eye: a microscope. Our optical microscopes were nothing fancy, just inexpensive stamped metal. They used a mirror as the light source so that we had to exert painstaking care to position the tool near a bright lamp or sunny window and then tilt the round mirror just so. We secured each slide—maybe a hair with a split end, maybe a stained paramecium—between pieces of glass and under the silver clips to hold it in place. Compared with grown-up microscopes, the magnification was unimpressive, and the coarse focus—moving the eyepiece down and then up slowly until the image sharpened—required patience. And yet, it opened our eyes to worlds we hadn’t imagined—to the structures of fabric, leaves, skin, blood. The microscope came with prepared slides, and we made more. Doug made dozens. The joy of peering through the eyepiece came from discovering something that’s there, but that can’t be seen otherwise. What’s next, we wondered. Look!
So too with the Visible Woman, one of Anna’s gifts from Santa. Her parents may have thought the investment in an anatomical model was a waste, for she never painted the plastic organs as the written instructions directed, nor did she fit the many pieces all together at once to make the body whole. Instead, Anna would put some organs into the clear plastic shell, then take them out again, turning them this way and that. Look around, and that’s what bodies are: singular entities. No, the Visible Woman was fascinating because it was a bunch of parts, each of which fit into the digestive system, the respiratory system, or somewhere else, somewhere specific. But looking at each unhinged from its context was as important as seeing the connections. Unlike the Visible Man, the Visible Woman had extra parts that could be swapped out for pregnancy—bulging breasts and abdomen, a fetus in utero. There was a “real” quality to this toy that other childhood toys (Barbie was the closest equivalent in size and shape) didn’t share. Anna didn’t become a surgeon based on her hours with the Visible Woman, though she’d thought about it. Our childhood experiences aren’t often that directly practical, or at least aren’t solely focused. Still, indirectly, the Visible Woman showed Anna a way to look at things, to appreciate details, to know that there’s more than meets the eye.
In Genius, his book about Richard Feynman, James Gleick writes, “it was said that physicists could be divided into two groups, those who had played with chemistry sets and those who had played with radios.” Since reading that book, Doug has wondered what influence receiving a young scientist kit had on his adult pursuits, particularly whether that kit instigated his tendency to change jobs, even careers, every few years. In that white box could be found the very same things as Feynman-era physicists—chemistry and electronics—but Doug grew up in the age of Apollo, so his kit also included rocks and minerals, a rubber-band-powered airplane, and a model rocket. The model rocket’s instructions frequently mentioned nichrome wire, a phrase as aesthetically pleasing as it was functionally necessary to ignite the engine. Perhaps the path of Doug’s career (career also means rushing forward while swaying here and there) might be explained by the fact that, after working his way through the first few experiments, he decided that he was happiest reading the instruction manual over again. He’s now very happy as a bookish librarian. The imaginative thinking that reading stimulated was even more satisfying than the physical outcomes of, say, the change of color in a pH strip.
For each of us, there existed different triggers for our childhood imaginations. Each of these tools—Erector set, microscope, Visible Woman, young scientist kit—invited, even demanded, we create new experiences. Each toy has a context and a process appropriate to that context. Yet each time we pulled out the microscope and raised the window shade to get the best light, we had to interpret anew. It’s not so different from story-telling, as when Jane Smiley reinterprets King Lear in A Thousand Acres or the Coen brothers recast Homer in O Brother, Where Art Thou? It’s all been done before, and it’s all new. Who knows what might unfold next?
What Genetic Traits Run in Your Family? July 20, 2010Posted by Lofty Ambitions in Science, Space Exploration.
Tags: Apollo, Biology
Yesterday was the birthday of Anna’s Great-Aunt Katherine, with whom she shares the shape of nose. Anna’s father, who died on July 20, also had that nose shape. He had a bad back, too, once hospitalized after bending to pick up a shaving cream top. Ten years ago today, Anna’a sister was hospitalized when her back went out. How do we know why family members share traits?
On this date in 1822, the father of genetics, Gregor Mendel was born (some report July 22, likely his baptismal day). Motivated by a repetitive and isolated monastic life, Mendel spent much of his time studying and meticulously recording inherited traits in pea plants, and then in bees. During his lifetime, his biology work wasn’t much touted, but his peers liked what he had to say about meteorology so he founded a society for that.
Oh, and Apollo 11 landed on the Moon in 1969. The televised images of Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin taking humankind’s first stroll there are Doug’s earliest memory. We’ll reminisce about this event in future posts!