Monthly Archives: December 2008

How long before they can tell what a person is dreaming?

Alert reader Robert “sent in” an article from Neuron this month (actually, he just walked over and showed it to me since we’re in the same lab). It is in keeping with the string of “brain chip” articles that The Big Upshot has been pleased to bring to the table. Miyawaki et. al. report in their article, “Visual Image Reconstruction from Human Brain Activity using a Combination of Multiscale Local Image Decoders” that they have successfully used fMRI brain scanning to reconstruct a person’s visual field.

Let me be perfectly clear. The Japanese can scan a person’s brain and determine what that person is seeing. How long before they can tell what a person is dreaming?

My grandmother told me that, years ago, people were worried about being hooked up to an electroenceephalogram. They would ask “you can’t read what I’m thinking, can you?”

Of course not. The EEG was far too low-resolution. But this… well… you don’t have anything to hide, right?

To be fair, the reconstituted image quality is not great. So at best these dream images would be of voyeur-tabloid quality. I don’t know if that makes the whole scenario better or worse.



Fringey science

This article at Esquire paints a fascinating picture of Dr. Mark Roth. The way this article tells the story, Dr. Roth went into the Fringe and came back with an interesting research subject. He figured out how to put mice into a state of near suspended animation.

Another scientist, Dr. Luca Turin gave a TED talk about the Science of Scent. I found it fascinating for several reasons, not the least of which is it iconoclasm. The accepted view on receptor-ligand interactions (that happen when you smell something) is based on the shape of the molecule. Dr. Turin suggests something quite different. He suggests that the interaction is (in a sense) spectroscopic/vibrational. And it sounds vaguely like some ideas from homeopathy which are pretty fringey.

That leads to the my real topic for today: what is to be done with an idea that is interesting, worth investigating, but that sounds like quackery? The danger of the fringe is that the majority is crap. It’s the kind of thing that will capture a scientist’s imagination and take them on a never-ending wild goose chase. That’s called pathological science. And it’s worth avoiding. The people who chase it get a bad reputation.

These two gentlemen, Dr. Roth and Dr. Turin risked madness and explored potentially career-ending hypotheses and came out on the far side successful. As Morgan Freeman put it, they crawled through a river of shit and came out clean on the other side.


Short Review of "A Culture of Conspiracy"

A Culture of Conspiracy” by Michael Barkun is by far the most coherent, scholarly material I have ever read on the contentious issue of “stigmatized knowledge.”

It is not a book written to “expose of the TRUTH” about the hidden reality of… whatever. It is also not a debunking of the conspiracy theories that abound about everything. The problem with the fringe, as I have said, is that the stuff out there is contradictory, so at best one of the competing voices is right… and it’s a lot easier to generate that crap than it is to debunk it. A definitive volume that debunks every conspiracy theory would be impossible. And the people to whom it would be the most use would denounce it as more propaganda from the conspirators anyway.

Barkun’s book is a sort-of natural history of crazy memes. The results are fascinating. The world views that people hold are… amazing, really. There are people in our midst battling literal demons in the moments leading up to the end of the world. That’s right now. Not fiction. They are living it. And it feels important to them.

Barkun sums up nicely: “A growing number of people believe that a super-conspiracy commonly referred to as the New World Order is on the verge of consolidating world domination, possibly in collaboration with malevolent aliens.” Or, I would add, in collaboration with the Devil. “The conspirators allegedly operate through so wide ranging a network of confederates that they have co-opted authority figures in every sector of life. Through this control, in turn, they shape the information available to the general public and thus conceal the conspiracy’s existence and activities.”

Well, that presents some epistemological/metaphysical problems for the rest of us.

Dean argues that there is no longer a “consensus reality” according to which contested questions of fact can be resolved.  She suggests that on such subjects as alien abduction and political conspiracies, there are multiple contending realities, which keep contested issues from being decided…Dean’s position, while extreme in its suggestion of epistemological anarchy, is sufficiently reflective of the material considered here that it must be taken seriously.

So, can we all live in radically different parallel realities? Do we need a consensus reality? Who would get to enforce it if we do need it?

That’s the real philosophical question at the heart of this strange stuff. It underlies the “culture wars” and C.P. Snow’s Two Cultures. I think it’s an issue we’re going to be dealing with a lot over the next century. What I’m afraid of is that the conspiracists and the orthodoxists (I just made up a word!) will get the limited attention of the intelligentsia and the fundamental issue will get overlooked. Or, worse, The Jester is right and nobody cares at all.


Wasabi receptor is the ammonia receptor: Lysol Sushi anyone?

So, according to this guy, Prof Makoto Tominaga, the wasabi receptor is the same as the alkaline/ammonia receptor. So… does that mean lemon lysol a good substitute on sushi?

“It has the first report showing molecular entity for the alkali-sensor. You could feel pain when you eat too much WASABI with Japanese Sushi. We found that this pain sensation is the same with that caused by ammonia”, said Prof Tominaga.

For those of you who have never had whiff of ammonia or tasted wasabi, there is a remarkable, nasal clearing similarity. I had read some time ago that the active chemical was an isothiocyanate and wikipedia backs me up. I gather that info comes from Wasabia. In any case, don’t snort it. If you really want to see a bad decision in action, feel free to watch the mistakes of others.