Saturday, February 15, 2014

Love, Science and the Brain

This Valentines season, I would like to talk about a topic that is very intriguing to most but nevertheless essential in our understanding of the human body. This is something that we always do in our everyday lives but rarely thought of how it actually works and why we felt that way. It is an emotion called Love.

We love because we are fond of that person, wants to care for them and are sensitive to their needs and emotions. There are different ways to express love, depending on the type of relationship you have with that person. But, whether they are your parents, siblings, friends, special friends or your special someone, your body reacts with their surroundings and creates a cocktail of chemicals that would translate to love itself. 

As of the moment, two scientific disciplines have so far attempted to explain the processes that leads to the emotion of love. The fields of Evolutionary Psychology and Neurochemistry. 

Evolutionary Phychology*

Evolutionary psychology has proposed several explanations for love. Human infants and children are for a very long time dependent on parental help. Love has therefore been seen as a mechanism to promote mutual parental support of children for an extended time period. Another is that sexually transmitted diseases may cause, among other effects, permanently reduced fertility, injury to the fetus, and increase risks during childbirth. This would favor exclusive long-term relationships reducing the risk of contracting an STD.

From the perspective of evolutionary psychology the experiences and behaviors associated with love can be investigated in terms of how they have been shaped by human evolution. For example, it has been suggested that human language has been selected during evolution as a type of "mating signal" that allows potential mates to judge reproductive fitness. Miller described evolutionary psychology as a starting place for further research: "Cognitive neuroscience could try to localize courtship adaptations in the brain. Most importantly, we need much better observations concerning real-life human courtship, including the measurable aspects of courtship that influence mate choice, the reproductive (or at least sexual) consequences of individual variation in those aspects, and the social-cognitive and emotional mechanisms of falling in love." Since Darwin's time there have been similar speculations about the evolution of human interest in music also as a potential signaling system for attracting and judging the fitness of potential mates. It has been suggested that the human capacity to experience love has been evolved as a signal to potential mates that the partner will be a good parent and be likely to help pass genes to future generations.[5] Biologist Jeremy Griffith defines love as 'unconditional selflessness', suggesting utterly cooperative instincts developed in modern humans' ancestor, Australopithecus. Studies of bonobos (a great ape previously referred to as a pygmy chimpanzee) are frequently cited in support of a cooperative past in humans.

In Neurochemistry

In the United States, Helen Fisher of Rutgers University has proposed 3 stages of love - lust, attraction and attachment. Each stage might be driven by different hormones and chemicals. 

Three Stages of Falling in Love**

Stage 1: Lust

Lust is being driven by the sex hormones testosterone and oestrogen (estrogen). Testosterone is not confined only to men. It has also been shown to play a major role in the sex drive of women. These hormones as Helen Fisher says "get you out looking for anything".

Stage 2: Attraction

This is the real love-struck phase. People think of nothing else when they fall in love. Might lose appetite or have problems sleeping. They sometimes daydream of being together with the person they love. For family relationships, that also translates to tantrums or a "mini"-depression when they don't see their parents often. 

In this stage, several groups of neuro-transmitters called 'monoamines' play an important role:

Dopamine - Also activated by cocaine and nicotine.

Norepinephrine - Otherwise known as adrenalin. Starts us sweating and gets the heart racing.

Serotonin - One of love's most important chemicals and one that may actually send us temporarily insane.
Discover which type of partner you're attracted to by taking our face perception test.

Stage 3: Attachment

If a relationship is going to last, this is the next phase. It is said that people could not possibly stay in the attraction phase forever, otherwise nothing will be ever accomplished.

Attachment is the bond that keeps couples together in a long lasting commitment when they move on to have children. There a two key hormones released by the nervous system, which is currently thought to have a major role in keeping social attachments:

Oxytocin - This is released by the hypothalamus gland during child birth and also helps the breast express milk. It helps cement the strong bond between mother and child. It is also released by both sexes during orgasm and it is thought that it promotes bonding when adults are intimate. The theory goes that the more sex a couple has, the deeper their bond becomes

Vasopressin - Another important chemical in the long-term commitment stage. It is an important controller of the kidney and its role in long-term relationships was discovered when scientists looked at the prairie vole
Find out how the three stages can feel even stronger for teenagers in love, experiencing first love and first sex.


Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Excerpts on Gamma Radiation

Taken from the book "Defining Moments in Science". Article by Kate Oliver

Key Discovery : 1900

While studying the properties of beta radiation, the French chemist Paul Villard made an intriguing observation. He noticed that in experiments where a beam of beta rays was refracted (passed through a medium of different density), there were often traces of another, unrefracted beam in the results. 

Villard set up another instrument, using the newly discovered element radium as a source. He focused a beam of radiation from the radium through a series of glass plates and a magnetic field, to be recorded finally on photographic film. The unrefracted beam appeared again. It did not seem to respond to any external magnetic or electric fields, and would even show up on the photographic film when it was placed behind 0.2 millimeters of lead.

Villard suggested that the radiation he had found was a new type of more penetrating X-ray. He concluded that the three distinct types of radium beams - easily absorbed rays, a dividable stream of charged electrons, and his new super-penetrating X-rays - were analogous to the three types of radiation emitted by cathode ray tubes. With this observation, Villard correctly generalized radiation into the three types we now know as alpha, beta, and gamma. There was, however, very little interest in his discovery or theory, perhaps because it was outside the current scientific paradigm.

In 1903, Ernest Rutherford, having studied the penetrative power of the beams, named them gamma rays and his term soon fell into common usage. Villard, however, remains pretty much forgotten.*


Gamma Rays is a form of electromagnetic radiation. Of all forms of electromagnetic radiation, they have the shortest wavelengths and the greatest energy. 
It can be produced either as a result of a nuclear reaction or by the annihilation of matter by antimatter. Nuclear reactions that result in the emission of gamma rays include some types of radioactive decay and the fission (splitting) of a nucleus.

Gamma rays are very penetrating; even a thick sheet of a dense material such as lead will not block them entirely. When these pass through matter, they eject electrons from the atoms they strike. This process, called ionization, is harmful to living cells. A living thing exposed to intense or prolonged gamma radiation can become seriously ill and die.

Gamma rays are used in industry to inspect castings and welds. The gamma rays are passed through the object being inspected onto photographic film. The image formed on the film can reveal defects that are invisible to the eye or hidden from direct observation. In medicine, gamma rays are used to destroy certain types of cancer. Cobalt 60 is a substance that is commonly used in hospitals as a source of gamma rays for this purpose.

Artificial satellites have revealed that a variety of astronomical objects, including the sun, clouds of interstellar matter, and remnants of supernovae, are sources of gamma rays. They have also detected strong, random bursts of gamma rays from unknown distant sources.**

Source: *Defining Moments in Science: Over a Century of the Greatest Discoveries, Experiments, Inventions, People, Publications and Events that Rocked the World. Page 14.

Other sources:

Monday, February 10, 2014

Do I Need to Think Critically?

Thinking critically is a challenging and fun (sometimes) way of - well, thinking things. Many people aren't really aware they are doing it. When a student does his homework or when a family man (or woman) budgets their income for the rainy days, they are already thinking critically. Think of anything you have done in the past that does not require that you think. I can bet you can only think of only a handful, and most of it has maybe not so good consequences. But still, come think of it. You've been thinking your way through life since you've been made aware of all these choices and decision that has come along your way.

So what is critical thinking anyway? Is it just really, REALLY thinking hard? Not really. These are skills that all of us, young and old, need to learn to be able to solve problems and make better decisions. Information are gathered through observation, communication, experience, or through the use of our senses. This information is analyzed and evaluated, leading to the resulting decision or solution. 

At its core, critical thinking is about being able to listen, and respond to any information and not just simply accepting any information at face value. To question that information is the most important part of critical thinking.  "It is a part of scientific, mathematical, historical, economic and philosophical thinking, all of which are necessary for the future development of our society".*

Sounds complex eh? It's not. When you hear your neighbor rant about a thing or two gossiping another neighbor, do you instantly believe the person? I'm pretty sure it's not. In that scenario you have already exhibited basic critical thinking skills. You ask your neighbor one question after another and he or she answers it. Of course with every answer you analyse whether everything your neighbor said could be pieced together or makes sense. And it is totally up to you really whether you believe that story or not. Another example of using your critical thinking faculties is when you plan for your son's birthday party. You consider all the possible places to celebrate, the budget at hand or budget that needs to be saved for that event, inviting people, planning games and amusement, the food - who will prepare, was the dishes, cook, etc. Of course you get all the information and analyze it, coming up with all the preferable factors and put them into action. The culmination of all the planning is the party itself. There are still many things where we can practice critical thinking but I am not going to deal with that further. There's too many of them.

Critical Thinking as Defined by the National Council for Excellence in Critical Thinking, 1987**

A statement by Michael Scriven & Richard Paul, presented at the 8th Annual International Conference on Critical Thinking and Education Reform, Summer 1987. 

Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing, and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning, or communication, as a guide to belief and action. In its exemplary form, it is based on universal intellectual values that transcend subject matter divisions: clarity, accuracy, precision, consistency, relevance, sound evidence, good reasons, depth, breadth, and fairness. 
It entails the examination of those structures or elements of thought implicit in all reasoning: purpose, problem, or question-at-issue; assumptions; concepts; empirical grounding; reasoning leading to conclusions; implications and consequences; objections from alternative viewpoints; and frame of reference. Critical thinking — in being responsive to variable subject matter, issues, and purposes — is incorporated in a family of interwoven modes of thinking, among them: scientific thinking, mathematical thinking, historical thinking, anthropological thinking, economic thinking, moral thinking, and philosophical thinking.

Critical thinking can be seen as having two components: 1) a set of information and belief generating and processing skills, and 2) the habit, based on intellectual commitment, of using those skills to guide behavior. It is thus to be contrasted with: 1) the mere acquisition and retention of information alone, because it involves a particular way in which information is sought and treated; 2) the mere possession of a set of skills, because it involves the continual use of them; and 3) the mere use of those skills ("as an exercise") without acceptance of their results.

Critical thinking varies according to the motivation underlying it. When grounded in selfish motives, it is often manifested in the skillful manipulation of ideas in service of one’s own, or one's groups’, vested interest. As such it is typically intellectually flawed, however pragmatically successful it might be. When grounded in fair-mindedness and intellectual integrity, it is typically of a higher order intellectually, though subject to the charge of "idealism" by those habituated to its selfish use.

Critical thinking of any kind is never universal in any individual; everyone is subject to episodes of undisciplined or irrational thought. Its quality is therefore typically a matter of degree and dependent on, among other things, the quality and depth of experience in a given domain of thinking or with respect to a particular class of questions. No one is a critical thinker through-and-through, but only to such-and-such a degree, with such-and-such insights and blind spots, subject to such-and-such tendencies towards self-delusion. For this reason, the development of critical thinking skills and dispositions is a life-long endeavor.

So is it really important to think critically? A resounding answer would be yes!

Also, here is a good video presentation about Critical Thinking by Qualiasoup.

I have created a facebook group about this topic. I am no expert but I will do what I can to learn more and SHARE more! Please like the page.

I would like to say thank you for the 4000 views I currently have on my website. I really appreciate everything and I will do my best to give more basic science information and share more from different media.


Sunday, February 9, 2014

A Maverick for Science: Nikola Tesla

I never heard of this name when I was a kid. I can barely remember when I first heard his name. Must have stumbled upon his name maybe but did not really put his name in my list of personal heroes of Science, like Albert Einstein, Galileo Galilei, Isaac Newton, Pierre and Marie Curie, Alessandro Volta, and - I think that was it! I never imagined that during my youth I only know a handful of scientific heroes and heroines.  But I am very sure I can't remember hearing or reading his name during those times. I do wonder that sometimes, Why is that?

Of course I am familiar with this person now that I am an adult. Who wouldn't? Any Red Alert player heard his name as a defensive tower for the Soviets, shooting lightning bolts on any allied soldier desperate for a quick kill. That name stuck in my mind ever since.

His name is Nikola Tesla. A Serbian American inventor, electrical engineer, mechanical engineer, physicist, and futurist. A brilliant inventor and at the same time a mysterious figure in his later years, he made significant and lasting contributions in the science of Electricity. His vision and his passion produced his greatest contributions in the field of Alternating Current electricity supply system (AC).

He lived during the time electricity was at its infancy. He went to the US as an immigrant. Worked with Thomas Edison for some time and then was able to find financiers for his projects and inventions. As Wikipedia gladly summarized for us:

Tesla gained experience in telephony and electrical engineering before emigrating to the United States in 1884 to work for Thomas Edison. He soon struck out on his own with financial backers, setting up laboratories and companies to develop a range of electrical devices. His patented AC induction motor and transformer were licensed by George Westinghouse, who also hired Tesla as a consultant to help develop a power system using alternating current. Tesla is also known for his high-voltage, high-frequency power experiments in New York and Colorado Springs which included patented devices and theoretical work used in the invention of radio communication, for his X-ray experiments, and for his ill-fated attempt at intercontinental wireless transmission in his unfinished Wardenclyffe Tower project. 

His Tower is being financed by one of the big giants of Wall Street at that time, J.P. Morgan. The death sentence to the said project was also when Guilliermo Marconi was able to transmit a letter wirelessly from Newfoundland to England, shattering hopes whatever Tesla have on accomplishing his goal of wireless communication.  He also told Morgan that the tower can also provide wireless electricity. Ultimately after seeing that his project would not be profitable after all, he abandoned Tesla.  He Tesla died poor and unknown in January 1943.

During the last few decades of the 20th century, due to the rising demand of energy and the almost endless quest for renewable and sustainable sources of energy, researchers, scientists and people from all walks of life rekindled their curiosity about the life of this maverick for science. I am not sure whether Tesla is the reason but there is a movement called the "free energy" movement that stemmed from this quest for free and sustainable energy. The mainstream scientific community is still skeptical of the claims of these inventors from this movement.

Thanks to the internet, there are lots of resources about the person behind that extraordinary brain. You can watch a simple documentary below.

Here is a toast to everybody who supports my blog since the start. Two tesla coils singing an all-familiar tune.

Links of Interest: Note, I am showing all the links that has a pro and con approach to the Edison-Tesla rivalry at that time. Not siding who, just finding it interesting that people still have a fondness for defending long time heroes. You decide.