May 31, 2009
Biologists of aging and cancer are all too familiar with this process. I’ve often lamented the phenomenon depicted on the right-hand side of the figure — the “Cancer cured…again!” news story, poorly adapted from a university press release about a recent peer-reviewed paper, confusing the public while signifying nothing. Lately, as biogerontology heats up, the same thing has been happening with aging research. If I had more time I might consider starting a collection of unintentionally hilarious discussions of our field derived from the mainstream media. For now, hopefully this comic will suffice.
On a related note, see Research Topics Guaranteed To Be Picked Up By the News Media. From Piled Higher & Deeper: Life (or the lack thereof) in Academia, by Jorge Cham, who is always hilarious. Click through, read the comics, buy his books, and realize that you are not alone.
(For previous installments of Sunday Funnies, see here.)
May 15, 2009
And now for something completely different: the winning images from the 2009 Art of Science competition have been posted. Click through and enjoy the feast for eyes, mind and soul.
Happy Friday, everyone. Have a great weekend.
May 3, 2009
March 18, 2009
Death is the mother of beauty; hence from her,
Alone, shall come fulfilment to our dreams
And our desires.
— Wallace Stevens, Sunday Morning
What is love? Perhaps just one of the ways we shield ourselves from fear of death and dying. From Vaughan Bell at Mind Hacks:
We have a burning instinct for life and yet we know, ultimately, that we will die. We fear the one thing we cannot escape.
The question ‘why live?’ has preoccupied thinkers from the alpha to the omega of human history, but only relatively recently have we considered the question of ‘how’ – how do we live with this fear, this knowledge of our own demise?
We recognise love as our companion and protector and we now think that it may even shield us from death itself, at least while we’re alive.
‘Terror management theory’ sounds oddly militaristic to the modern ear, but it was never intended to makes us think of politics. It was developed by psychologist Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues to help explain how we live with existential angst.
The theory suggests we have various ways of keeping the fear of death out of our conscious mind, and of understanding what makes our life meaningful. …
[C]lose relationships help us manage the anxiety of mortality, partly through the strength of the bond, but partly through the fact that romantic partnerships give us a symbolic way of transcending death – as families provide a way for our contribution to ‘live on’ after the final curtain.
The post links to studies showing that people reminded of their mortality tended to ascribe greater significance and intensity to their romantic and social attachments. This behavior is consistent with the broader “mortality salience hypothesis,” which states that if an arbitrary belief serves to protect an individual from their fear of death, reminding them of their mortality will cause them to cling to and elaborate this belief. (The underlying edifice, terror management theory, deals with the way in which human minds navigate the double-bind of being simultaneously aware of our desire to preserve our lives and the technical impossibility of doing so.)
The classical example of such a belief would be a religion promising an afterlife, though the hypothesis would work just as well with a belief in which a person was “part of something bigger than themselves”.
It also works just fine with a belief in which the individual, by dint of some combination of industry, sagacity and/or having been born in the right century, has a chance of not dying at all. A prediction: life extension advocates might tend to increase their estimation of the feasibility of significant longevity enhancement after being confronted by reminders of their own finite lifespans. (I know I feel a twinge even writing those words, so I suspect this prediction has some real teeth.)
Another prediction: If love is a way of managing our fear of death, those of us who are dealing with that fear in other ways (even rationally motivated and potentially productive ways, e.g., working as biogerontologists) might not need love as badly– basically, because we have someplace else to run when we’re confronted by the Reaper’s grim visage — and therefore form weaker romantic and/or family bonds.
Distressing, but testable.
January 27, 2009
Resveratrol, a compound found in red grape skins and other plant sources, can increase exercise tolerance — but only at rather high levels: veritable torrents of red wine would be required for a human to achieve comparable doses. In the Shouts and Murmurs column of the most recent New Yorker, Noah Baumbach explores a humorous corollary of this idea (emphasis mine)
Red wine may be much more potent than was thought in extending human lifespan, researchers say in a new report that is likely to give impetus to the rapidly growing search for longevity drugs. The study is based on dosing mice with resveratrol, an ingredient of some red wines. . . . [In a related study] scientists used a dose on mice equivalent to just 35 bottles a day.
The complete account of a scientist’s descent into (happy) madness can be found here.
November 9, 2008