Archive for December, 2008

The Sleep of Reason

By Carl Zimmer | December 11, 2008 7:17 am

sleep of reason

John, a graduate student in neurobiology at Cornell, writes, “Anyway, here’s my “science tattoo” and a bit of back story. It’s not directly science, but more like philosophy of science. It’s a piece by Francisco Goya, El Sueno de la Razon Produce Monstros. It means “The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters”, and it is part of his series of lithographs in the book Los Caprichos, which was highly critical of the Spanish Aristocracy of the time (1799). I first saw this image when I was in AP Art History in Highschool, about 9 years ago. Within seconds of seeing it, I thought to myself that this would be my first tattoo– and finally, it is! I had never seen an original print, though, even having  been to the Prado museum in Madrid. However, I happened to google it differently back in March and found that there was a print here at Cornell in the Johnson museum! I finally got to see it, and the staff there had me come back to get a picture of the tattoo next to the original, which they published in their seasonal magazine.”

Carl: Here is the original print, from Cornell’s Herbert Johnson museum’s web site.

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

Ringed By Physics

By Carl Zimmer | December 10, 2008 7:13 am

maxwell-tattoo.jpgWeldon writes, “I doubt I’m the only one with this, but Maxwell’s Equations in differential form on my arm are attached. Unfortunately it’s hard to get any shot of all four at once (given the curvature) and it’s hard to get my arm in the right position for any camera to get Ampere’s circuital law.”

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

You Want Eyes? We Got Eyes

By Carl Zimmer | December 10, 2008 1:01 am

A while back I mentioned I’d written a piece on the evolution of weird eyes for the new journal Evolution: Education and Outreach. Now the issue in which it appears–a special one dedicated to the evolution of the eye–is online and free as free can be. So download away. Here’s the table of contents, with links.

Evolution: Education and Outreach
Volume 1 Issue 4


351. Editorial by Gregory Eldredge and Niles Eldredge (PDF)

352-354. Introduction by T. Ryan Gregory (PDF)

355-357. Casting an Eye on Complexity by Niles Eldredge (PDF)

Original science / evolution reviews

358-389. The Evolution of Complex Organs by T. Ryan Gregory (PDF)
(Blog: Genomicron)

390-402. Opening the “Black Box”: The Genetic and Biochemical Basis of Eye Evolution by Todd H. Oakley and M. Sabrina Pankey (PDF)
(Blog: Evolutionary Novelties)

403-414. A Genetic Perspective on Eye Evolution: Gene Sharing, Convergence and Parallelism by Joram Piatigorsky (PDF)

415-426. The Origin of the Vertebrate Eye by Trevor D. Lamb, Edward N. Pugh, Jr., and Shaun P. Collin (PDF)

427-438. Early Evolution of the Vertebrate Eye–Fossil Evidence by Gavin C. Young (PDF)

439-447. Charting Evolution’s Trajectory: Using Molluscan Eye Diversity to Understand Parallel and Convergent Evolution by Jeanne M. Serb and Douglas J. Eernisse (PDF)

448-462. Evolution of Insect Eyes: Tales of Ancient Heritage, Deconstruction, Reconstruction, Remodeling, and Recycling by Elke Buschbeck and Markus Friedrich (PDF)

463-475. Exceptional Variation on a Common Theme: The Evolution of Crustacean Compound Eyes by Thomas W. Cronin and Megan L. Porter (PDF)

476-486. The Causes and Consequences of Color Vision by Ellen J. Gerl and Molly R. Morris (PDF)

487-492. The Evolution of Extraordinary Eyes: The Cases of Flatfishes and Stalk-eyed Flies by Carl Zimmer (PDF)
(Blog: The Loom)

493-497. Suboptimal Optics: Vision Problems as Scars of Evolutionary History by Steven Novella (PDF)
(Blog: NeuroLogica)

Curriculum articles

498-504. Bringing Homologies Into Focus by Anastasia Thanukos (PDF)
(Website: Understanding Evolution)

505-508. Misconceptions About the Evolution of Complexity by Andrew J. Petto and Louise S. Mead (PDF)
(Website: NCSE)

509-516. Losing Sight of Regressive Evolution by Monika Espinasa and Luis Espinasa (PDF)

Book reviews

548-551. Jay Hosler, An Evolutionary Novelty: Optical Allusions by Todd H. Oakley (PDF)

Image: Vernhart on Flickr

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Evolution, Writing Elsewhere

Microcosm: One of Granta Magazine's Best of 2008

By Carl Zimmer | December 10, 2008 12:47 am

Here’s the list.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Microcosm: The Book

Before DNA

By Carl Zimmer | December 9, 2008 7:53 am

RNA TattooJennifer writes, “It’s the RNA world hypothesis, but I took a little poetic license and used DNA instead of RNA just because I thought double stranded would be more aesthetic.”

Carl: Here’s an article I wrote for Discover about the RNA world hypothesis for how life got started. And another for Science.

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

Bad Science, Good Science Fiction: Hitting a Nerve

By Carl Zimmer | December 8, 2008 1:57 pm

On Friday I wrote about how good science fiction (at least to my tastes) often relies on bad science. I was glad to see my ravings triggered a lot of responses over the weekend, both here and abroad at sites like Science Made Cool and io9 (see the comments to their first and second posts). There’s no way I could respond to all the comments, but one in particular stuck in my memory–

Tim Bryon wrote:

I think Carl has a fundamental misunderstanding of what science fiction is – it’s not fiction about science per se, or necessarily fiction with accurate science (what about Jurassic Park?It taught me as an 11 year old about raptors) but fiction about the way advances in technology and knowledge might influence our lives (well, it’s more complicated than that, but anyway). In my mind, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind is the perfect science fiction movie. It’s vaguely plausible that neuroscience will advance to a state where the memory deletion in that movie is possible, and the ramifications of the technology are central to the story and well thought out.

I liked Eternal Sunshine too, and just fired it up on Netflix’s instant viewer to recall why. (Dangerous…must stop watching movies during working hours…) I don’t want to ruin the movie for those who haven’t seen it; suffice to say that the crux of the movie involved Jim Carrey going to a doctor to have memories of his relationship with Kate Winslet erased. But midway through the procedure he changes his mind and tries to hold onto his memories.

Tim thinks that I just don’t understand that science fiction is supposed to make us think about how advances in technology may alter our lives, and that Eternal Sunshine makes us consider the dangers of letting neurologists wipe out targeted memories. I just can’t see the movie that way. The “science” is intentionally silly–a low-rent doctor’s office filled with a bumbling dysfunctional staff. It’s just a way for the movie to get inside Jim Carrey’s head and create all sorts of wonderful images of how we assemble our lives from memories, and how terrifyingly sad it can be to forget them. Watching Winslet fade out of Carrey’s life reminds me of deep losses of my own, and offers the consolation that movies at their best can offer. I’m glad that the people who made Eternal Sunshine were able to produce such a wonderful story by riffing on neuroscience, but I’m also glad that they didn’t get hung up about the science itself.

Here’s a clip from Hulu…


Turn Right And Head North Till You Reach The Nape of the Neck

By Carl Zimmer | December 8, 2008 7:09 am

galapagos tattoo

Julie writes, “It’s a map of Galapagos, which obviously resonates with me as a biologist.  I also spent a month working there on a volunteer project a couple of years ago, and fell in love with the place so hard I’m determined to go back!  San Cristobal is a bit off to the right, and wasn’t really captured on this photo, unfortunately.  However, you will notice the two outlying islands, Darwin and Wolf, on the back of my neck!”

She also adds–“By the way,if you do publish this, could you make sure you credit Fatty’s Custom Tattooz in DC somewhere?  He did a great job from a handful of maps and pictures and my vague descriptions of how I wanted the piece to look!”

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

Tattoo What You Know

By Carl Zimmer | December 7, 2008 7:48 am

 PhD neuron

Christina writes, “After passing our neuroscience PhD candidacy exam, my friend and I decided to get neuron tattoos.  This tattoo was sketched while in research ethics class.”

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium


By Carl Zimmer | December 6, 2008 7:17 am


Jim writes, “This radiolarian (of the Polycyttaria) represents for me the staggering complexity, beauty and wonder of life.  That such an amazing looking critter can evolve, and be so amazingly intricate and small blows my mind. I love talking science, and so far (have had it for less than 24 hours) heaps of people have asked, ‘That is great; what is it?’  And after the brief explanation, they are always amazed.”

Here are drawings of Polycyttaria by Haeckel.  And here is an entire web site dedicated to radiolarians.

Click here to go to the full Science Tattoo Emporium.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science Tattoo Emporium

The Search For the Great Science Fiction Movie (or, I Am Doooomed)

By Carl Zimmer | December 5, 2008 11:10 am

I was in New York yesterday to give a talk about evolution, which was simultaneously a Rockefeller University Science and Media Series Lecture, and a New York Skeptics Society Public Lecture. We had a great turn-out: as I told the crowd, there’s nothing a public speaker likes to see more than a serious fire hazard. The talk was recorded, and I’m hoping soon to be able to direct you to it.

One of the many reasons I enjoy giving these lectures is that I can meet people before and after my talk. Yesterday I met a number of interesting folks, including Alexis Gambis, who somehow manages, all at once, to pursue a Ph.D. by researching neurons, make science-themed movies, and even run a festival of science movies. We got to talking about movies and science–there is a lot of buzz these days about how scientists can get involved in the movie-making process. The National Academy of Sciences has even dispatched emissaries to Hollywood “to help bring the reality of cutting-edge science to creative and engaging storylines.”

Scientists who get involved in these kinds of projects hope to do some good. They hope that they can get rid of misleading representations of science in movies, and help movies to convey what science really tells us, or what science really is. (This is my impression from speaking to these folks and reading some of their blogs, etc. If you’re one of those scientists, leave a comment to tell me if this is wrong.)

When I get on this subject, as I did with Gambis yesterday, I turn into a raging skeptic. It’s probably not a very helpful response, and I’m not sure why it gains so much momentum inside of me. But I started raving yesterday. My favorite science fiction movies generally deal in some really, really bad science. Laws of physics are regular flouted. Aliens make no physiological sense.

That’s because the directors are just using fragments of science to assemble fiction that reaches down deep inside us, not to our internal database of scientific facts, but to our addiction to beautiful images and human stories. Science fiction movies are not really about science. I just watched Wall-E and liked it very much, not because I learned about robotics (I didn’t), but because the movie’s creators paid close attention to how Buster Keaton made love stories. On the other hand, I watched GATTACA years ago and found the science side relatively clever and the plot as tedious as a tax form. You can’t just add good science to Hollywood like pixie dust and get good movies.

I do think it’s great for scientists to help steer Hollywood away from pernicious myths about science. But there are limits to how far this fact-checking can go. Another grad student who was talking with Gambis and me yesterday complained about how bogus forensics is on CSI. Results of DNA tests just pop up in minutes. He complained about all the people who would crowd around a machine waiting for the results–“All that hair!” he said in horror.

Fair enough. But let’s imagine CSI with all the tedium and dreariness that goes into good forensic work. Tonight on CSI: our heroes wait for results. And wait. And wait! Next week: the samples were lost, so our heroes have to run the test again! We watch movies and TV shows to escape reality, not to be enslaved by it.

I will also grant that Hollywood can find huge amounts of inspiration in science. I myself ended up writing about science because it was far weirder than things I could think of myself. But (yes, there’s always a but) I think a good Hollywood director can find inspiration in economics, politics, crime, and the lives of bored housewives. What matters most, however, is whether the director knows how to turn the raw ingredients into a good story.

Once I was done with this riff with Gambis, I wondered if I was making any sense. Perhaps there’s a kind of science-based movie that transcends my skeptical take. By eerie coincidence, I just got an email from Netflix saying that with my Mac I can now watch an unlimited number of free movies on my computer. I’m now scanning through their science fiction collection (everything from Contact to Plan 9 From Outer Space) to conduct a little “research.” In my heart of hearts, I know that what I’m really doing is setting up my own professional downfall, because I’m going to watch movies all day long. But if anyone thinks I’m totally off the mark, please suggest to me a movie that proves me wrong.

[Image of Buster Keaton: Silent Gents’ Buster Keaton Gallery]


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The Loom

A blog about life, past and future. Written by DISCOVER contributing editor and columnist Carl Zimmer.

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