In my new column for Discover, I write about Eric Courchesne, a neuroscientist at the University of California at San Diego. Courchesne survived childhood polio, went on to become a champion gymnast, and then turned his attention to another nervous system disorder: autism. Courchesne is one of the first researchers to find anatomical differences in the brains of people with and without autism. He believes his findings point to autism’s beginnings before birth, and perhaps even to new ways to treat it. Check it out.
Joseph LeDoux of New York University has built his career on studying emotions, especially fear. But now he’s arguing that scientists don’t really have a good definition of emotions. In fact, he is issuing a call to avoid using the e-word at all costs. At Txchnologist, I reflect on how we can understand emotions without the emotions. Check it out.
In the March issue of Smithsonian, I profile Thomas Seeley, a Cornell scientist who has spent forty years pondering how honeybees make up their collective minds. His discoveries reveal some striking parallels between honeybee swarms and our own brains. There are even some lessons we can learn from bees about how to run a democracy.
Reporting this story involved some of the weirdest experiences I’ve ever had, as the introduction to my piece illustrates:
On the front porch of an old Coast Guard station on Appledore Island, seven miles off the southern coast of Maine, Thomas Seeley and I sat next to 6,000 quietly buzzing bees. Seeley wore a giant pair of silver headphones over a beige baseball cap, a wild fringe of hair blowing out the back; next to him was a video camera mounted on a tripod. In his right hand, Seeley held a branch with a lapel microphone taped to the end. He was recording the honeybee swarm huddling inches away on a board nailed to the top of a post.
Seeley, a biologist from Cornell University, had cut a notch out of the center of the board and inserted a tiny screened box called a queen cage. It housed a single honeybee queen, along with a few attendants. Her royal scent acted like a magnet on the swarm.
If I had come across this swarm spread across my back door, I would have panicked. But here, sitting next to Seeley, I felt a strange calm. The insects thrummed with their own business. They flew past our faces. They got caught in our hair, pulled themselves free and kept flying. They didn’t even mind when Seeley gently swept away the top layer of bees to inspect the ones underneath. He softly recited a poem by William Butler Yeats:
I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honey-bee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
A walkie-talkie on the porch rail chirped.
“Pink bee headed your way,” said Kirk Visscher, an entomologist at the University of California, Riverside. Seeley, his gaze fixed on the swarm, found the walkie-talkie with his left hand and brought it to his mouth.
“We wait with bated breath,” he said.
“Sorry?” Visscher said.
“Breath. Bated. Over.” Seeley set the walkie-talkie back on the rail without taking his eyes off the bees.
A few minutes later, a honeybee scout flew onto the porch and alighted on the swarm. She (all scouts are female) wore a pink dot on her back.
“Ah, here she is. Pink has landed,” Seeley said.
Pink was exploring the island in search of a place where the honeybees could build a new hive. In the spring, if a honeybee colony has grown large enough, swarms of thousands of bees with a new queen will split off to look for a new nest. It takes a swarm anywhere from a few hours to a few days to inspect its surroundings before it finally flies to its newly chosen home. When Pink had left Seeley’s swarm earlier in the morning, she was not yet pink. Then she flew to a rocky cove on the northeast side of the island, where she discovered a wooden box and went inside. Visscher was sitting in front of it under a beach umbrella, with a paintbrush hanging from his lips. When the bee emerged from the box, Visscher flicked his wrist and caught her in a net the size of a ping-pong paddle. He laid the net on his thigh and dabbed a dot of pink paint on her back. With another flick, he let her go.
Visscher is famous in honeybee circles for his technique. Seeley calls it alien abduction for bees.
As the day passed, more scouts returned to the porch. Some were marked with pink dots. Others were blue, painted by Thomas Schlegel of the University of Bristol at a second box nearby. Some of the returning scouts started to dance. They climbed up toward the top of the swarm and wheeled around, waggling their rears. The angle at which they waggled and the time they spent dancing told the fellow bees where to find the two boxes. Some of the scouts that witnessed the dance flew away to investigate for themselves.
Then a blue bee did something strange. It began to make a tiny beeping sound, over and over again, and started head-butting pink bees. Seeley had first heard such beeps in the summer of 2009. He didn’t know why it was happening, or which bee was beeping. “All I knew was that it existed,” he said. Seeley and his colleagues have since discovered that the beeps come from the head-butting scouts. Now Seeley moved his microphone in close to them, calling out each time the bee beeped. It sounded like a mantra: “Blue…blue…blue…blue…blue.”
When you consider a swarm one bee at a time this way, it starts to look like a heap of chaos. Each insect wanders around, using its tiny brain to perceive nothing more than its immediate surroundings. Yet, somehow, thousands of honeybees can pool their knowledge and make a collective decision about where they will make a new home, even if that home may be miles away.
The decision-making power of honeybees is a prime example of what scientists call swarm intelligence. Clouds of locusts, schools of fish, flocks of birds and colonies of termites display it as well. And in the field of swarm intelligence, Seeley is a towering figure. For 40 years he has come up with experiments that have allowed him to decipher the rules honeybees use for their collective decision-making. “No one has reached the level of experimentation and ingenuity of Tom Seeley,” says Edward O. Wilson of Harvard University.
By weird coincidence, on the same day I announce the launch of an ebook review, I get to enjoy some of the harsh realities of the ebook business. Over the past year I’ve published two collections of my pieces about the brain, Brain Cuttings and More Brain Cuttings. I just found out that Amazon has decided, for now, not to sell them. (Here’s some background.)
You still have lots of options for getting your hands on these ebooks.
Update: Publisher’s Lunch has the details of the showdown between Amazon and Independent Publishers Group over Kindle titles.
We can see because neurons in our eyes take in visible light and relay electric signals to the brain. But some of the neurons in our retinas detect light that we cannot actually see. In fact, people who lose all their other retinal cells except these neurons are blind. If you shine a light in their eyes and ask them to guess the color, however, they guess very well. It turns out these neurons feed this invisible light to many parts of the brain. In my latest column for Discover, I take a look at this hidden light. Check it out.
I’ve got a story on the cover of the latest issue of Time. It’s about the evolutionary origins of friendship. For a number of scientists, friendship–in a deep sense of the word–is not limited to our own species. The fact that friendship may be a widespread biological phenomenon could help us better understand why it has such a positive effect on our own health.
If you’re interested in the scientific literature, the best way in–and the way I first started to get familiar with it–is this review in the latest issue of Annual Review of Psychology by Dorothy Cheney and Robert Seyfarth, two of the world’s leading primatologists.
One thing that I delve into in the story is the question of just how widespread animal friendship really is. We don’t know, in large part because scientists haven’t done that many long-term field studies on wild animals. When scientists do watch dolphins or baboons for decades, they can see some bonds between unrelated individuals that last for long stretches. (Yet another value that comes from slow-cooked science.) On the other hand, what may look like friendship may just be anthropomorphic projection. In the article, I explain that a lot of cross-species “friendships” may be nothing like the kind seen in, say, chimpanzees. (As for the adorable dogs are on this week’s cover of Time, I note that the evidence about man’s best “friend” is quite thin.)
My story is behind a paywall, so you’ll need to subscribe or pick up a copy at a news stand. For a sense of the piece, here are the first few paragraphs–
Since 1995, John Mitani, a primatologist at the University of Michigan, has been going to Uganda to study 160 chimpanzees that live in the forests of Kibale National Park. Seventeen years is a long time to spend watching wild animals, and after a while it’s rare to see truly new behavior. That’s why Mitani loves to tell the tale of a pair of older males in the Kibale group that the researchers named Hare and Ellington.
Hare and Ellington weren’t related, yet when they went on hunting trips with other males, they’d share prey with each other rather than compete for it. If Ellington reached out a hand, Hare would give him a piece of meat. If one of them got into a fight, the other would back him up. Hare and Ellington would spend entire days traveling through the forest together. Sometimes they’d be side by side. Other times, they’d be 100 yards apart, staying in touch through the foliage with loud, hooting calls. “They’d always be yakking at each other,” says Mitani.
Their friendship—for that’s what Mitani calls it—lasted until Ellington’s death in 2002. What happened next was striking and sad. For all the years that Mitani had followed him, Hare had been a sociable, high-ranking ape. But when Ellington died, Hare went through a sudden change. “He dropped out,” says Mitani. “He just didn’t want to be with anybody for several weeks. He seemed to go into mourning.”
In 2011, the Loom reached its eighth birthday. Thanks to everyone who’s paid a visit or become a loyal reader in that time. With the year coming to a close, I spent a little time this week perusing the Loom’s archive, reflecting on the things that obsessed me during 2011.
More than many years, this one reminded me just how huge science is. Even if you limited yourself to the most important stories of this past year, there was just too much to keep up with. (Here’s Discover’s top 100 picks.) As a science writer, my focus is biology, but that didn’t ease my year-long case of head-spinning. The anchors that kept me from spinning away completely were the very small and the very complicated.
At the small end of the spectrum were, among other things, the bacteria that call us home. Like every year, 2011 saw outbreaks, such as the E. coli that sickened thousands in Germany. But now that we can read the genomes of these killers, as I noted in Newsweek, we can see how chillingly fast new pathogens can evolve.
But the good germs also gained more recognition in 2011. The science of the microbiome is blooming at an astonishing pace, as you can see in the map I created for the September issue of Wired. As I got more familiar with the microbiome, it became clear to me that scientists won’t be able to handle its complexity without thinking like ecologists. I made that point in a talk this spring called “The Human Lake,” which I turned into a blog post in April. (I was delighted when it was selected as one of the best pieces of 2011 by The Browser and Longreads, and was picked to be including in the 2012 edition of Open Lab.)
The microbiome, I predict, is going to become very intimate in years to come. It’s a strangely thrilling experience to discover 53 species of bacteria living in one’s belly button, as I found out this year. In the future, doctors may check our bug types just as they check our blood types today. But all this new knowledge about the microbiome will bring us unexpected ethical quandaries, some of which I discussed in December in the New York Times.
Bacteria may be small, but they’re positively plus-sized compared to viruses, the subject of my book A Planet of Viruses, which came out in May. (You can read excerpts in Audubon and i09.) Working on the book opened my eyes to just how abundant, diverse, and powerful viruses are–a point I tried to get across in the talks I gave in the spring. The two that I was happiest with were an interview on Science Friday on NPR, and a talk I gave at the Long Now Foundation in San Francisco. As always happens when I write a book about a fast-moving field, the science of virology offered up lots of surprises after the book came out–such as the biggest virus ever, a possible ancestor of hepatitis C in dogs, and signs of a battle between viruses and bacteria in our mouths. When the movie Contagion came out in September, I took a look in Slate at how realistic its story of a new world-wide pandemic was. I found it real enough to be very scary. And in an eerie bit of timing, this fall scientists developed a strain of bird flu that some researchers worry could make the movie a reality.
At the other end of the spectrum from bacteria and viruses is the human brain, those 100 billion neurons that make the universe aware of itself. There seems to be no end of revelatory research coming out of neuroscience and psychology. At the World Science Festival, I talked with three scientists doing extraordinary work on the mystery of sleep (you can watch the video here). In my own stories, I explored genes for language, teen brains, music in the brain, the neuroscience of smiles, how our brains make us capable of both war and peace, and the minds of Neanderthals. A lot of the pieces I wrote first appeared in the New York Times or magazines, but some of them have gotten a new lease on life. I published a new ebook in December, More Brain Cuttings, and my feature on the possibility of uploading our brains to achieve immortality was selected for The Best of American Science Writing 2011.
In 2011, it wasn’t just new science that was in the news. The nature of science was, too. Over the course of 2011, some high-profile papers came under fierce criticism, including arsenic-based life and a link between viruses and chronic fatigue syndrome. These studies prompted a debate about how science gets done in the first place, and how some of it then gets “de-discovered.” I pondered the nature of de-discovery in the New York Times in July, and the emergence of a more transparent discussion of science in Slate.
A lot of that discussion happened on Twitter. Twitter was just one of many new media that became more widespread this year. And just as scientists were getting comfortable with these channels of communication, science writers were too. I spent a fair amount of time in 2011 experimenting with different formats. On Twitter, I went after some egregiously bad science with a hashtag: #Greenfieldism. When I wasn’t on Twitter, I was often on Facebook, Tumblr, and Google+. Each medium has different strengths, I’ve found, which only emerge after playing around with it for a while. Google+ has spurred some fascinating discussions; Twitter is a fast way to spread links. I spent some time working with the folks at Radiolab this year, including the newly minted Macarthur genius Jad Abumrad. It was fascinating to see them turn spoken words into symphonies, such as this episode entitled “Patient Zero.” Another form of storytelling can be found at Story Collider, where people tell tales live in front of an audience. An invitation to be a part of a Story Collider evening led me to talk about how a trip to a war zone made me realize just how deeply science speaks to me. And at the end of the year I published Science Ink, a book born out of a blog-based obsession with science tattoos.
It was a strange year indeed when a traditional book felt like a fresh new format. And it makes me eager for the surprises waiting for us in 2012.
We take in streams of information of radically different forms: photons through the eyes, textures through the skin, air vibrations through the ears, molecules through the nose. Marvelously, we manage to integrate all that information into a unified, coherent feel of the world. It turns out that as we draw in these different streams, we use information from one sense to shape what we take in from others. It’s an efficient way to make the most of our imperfect perceptions. But it also leaves us vulnerable to some remarkable illusions, like the one illustrated in this video.
In my latest column for Discover, I explore our powers of multi-sensory integration. Check it out.
Last year I decided to play in the ebook sandbox. I brought together some of my favorite pieces about the brain in an anthology I entitled Brain Cuttings: Fifteen Journeys Through the Mind. I teamed up with the publishers George Scott and Charles Nix, and we produced an ebook.
Along the way, we learned a lot. I recounted some of the lessons in this piece for the Atlantic, and others in this conversation with the writer Steve Silberman. Suffice to say, publishing ebooks is by no means a frictionless utopia for writers. Nevertheless it remains strangely addictive. Perhaps we writers get the same jolt of dopamine that readers get when they tap a glass screen and are rewarded with a new book.
It just so happens I now have some new material to keep fueling my addition. I’ve continued to write about the brain, and recently I selected another crop of favorites. This new ebook has made it down the digital assembly line, and is now available for $7.99: More Brain Cuttings: Further Exporations of the Mind (Amazon, Barnes & Noble).
You’ll find a range of subjects here. How a 100 billion cells use 100 trillion connections to create a working brain. How the ringing in our ears may tell us important things about the nature of consciousness. How dancing cockatoos may reveal how we’re pre-adapted to love music.
I hope you enjoy the book. The brain unfolds like a flower; the more I have explored neuroscience, the more it has rewarded me with new stories. I expect there will be many more to come.
The New York Times has launched a series called Profiles in Science. When I was invited to join the undertaking, I proposed writing about the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. I had run into Pinker at the World Science Festival in June, and he had told me about his next book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, which was due out in the fall. In the 800+ page tome, Pinker argues that rates of human violence have been crashing for millennia, and he offers psychological explanations for the fall.
I’ve followed Pinker’s work since I first came across his 1994 book, The Language Instinct. In the wake of the book’s success, he quickly became a leading exponent of evolutionary psychology, coming out swinging against its critics such as Stephen Jay Gould. When Pinker described his book to me, I was intrigued. I wondered how someone who argued that human nature was shaped long ago by natural selection would end up arguing that human nature–or at least human experience–is now changing rapidly for the better. But there were other things I was wondering–how, for example, does a writer of massive books about human nature live inside the same body as an expert on irregular verbs?