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All of us—researchers, journalists, patients and their loved ones–are desperate for genuine progress in treatments for severe mental illness. But if the history of such treatments teaches us anything, it is that we must view claims of dramatic progress with skepticism, or we will fall prey to false hopes.
Trial for depression treatment pioneered by neurologist Helen Mayberg has been suspended, but she remains upbeat. Photo credit Emory University.
Case in point: a depression treatment, pioneered by neurologist Helen Mayberg of Emory University, that involves electrically stimulating the brain with electrodes inserted through holes drilled in the skull. In 2005, Mayberg and colleagues reported that stimulating a region called Brodmann area 25 can relieve severe, intractable depression in two out of three patients.
Since then, many journalists and scientists have lauded Mayberg’s research. In 2005, National Public Radio called her treatment “revolutionary.” In 2006, the journalist David Dobbs, in a glowing profile of Mayberg in The New York Times Magazine, said her “incredible” results were “already changing how neuroscientists and psychiatrists think about depression.”
More recently, her linkage of depression to area 25 has been praised by heavyweights such as Nobel laureate and neuroscientist Eric Kandel of Columbia and Thomas Insel, director of the National Institute of Mental Health. Last October, James Gorman of The New York Times cited Mayberg’s research in a report on how the Pentagon plans to “spend more than $70 million over five years to jump to the next level of brain implants.”
Mayberg continues to report promising results, most recently at a lecture that I attended yesterday at New York University. The most powerful part of her presentation consisted of depressed patients describing how their mood lifted after implants stimulated their brains.
But Mayberg “buried the lead,” as we journalists like to say. Midway through her talk, she mentioned that a multi-center, controlled trial of her method of deep-brain stimulation has halted.
Mayberg, who did not participate in the trial, did not know why exactly it had stopped. But she suspected that either subjects receiving stimulation of area 25 did worse than expected, or controls receiving “sham” surgery did better than expected, or both. Mayberg later told me by email that the so-called BROADEN (BROdmann Area 25 DEep brain Neuromodulation) trial was was overseen by St. Jude Medical Inc., for which she consults.
According to Neurotech Business Reports, an industry newsletter, the FDA suspended the BROADEN trial last fall because it failed a “futility analysis,” which considers whether an experimental treatment has a reasonable chance of improving upon current treatments. (See this post by the terrific blogger “Neurocritic” for more on the suspended trial.)
I’ve always had doubts about Mayberg’s claims. Her implant experiments have involved small numbers of patients (six in her 2005 study and 17 in a 2012 trial). I’m also troubled by Mayberg’s links to medical-device manufacturers, such as St. Jude. Mayberg’s potential conflicts of interest have been explored by one of her rare critics, journalist Allison Bass.
Moreover, I’ve delved into the history of deep-brain stimulation, so I know that it has inspired unfulfilled hopes in the past. (See my 2005 Scientific American article on brain-implant pioneer Jose Delgado.) Although the technology has become more refined, deep brain stimulation is still “associated with surgical risks (e.g., hemorrhage) and psychiatric complications (suicidal attenuation, hypomania) as well as high costs,” according to a recent review in Nature.
In a post last September, I expressed doubts about Mayberg’s work and criticized the reporting on her by David Dobbs. In a comment on my post, Dobbs vigorously defended Mayberg and himself, accusing me of desiring not “to inform, answer, or illuminate, but to deceive, darken, and distract.” (See his entire comment following my blog post.)
My guess is that Dobbs, in spite of the suspended BROADEN trial, will double down on his support of Mayberg’s approach to depression. At NYU, Mayberg admitted that she has to wonder why her implant studies show better results than the BROADEN trial apparently did. “Do my patients want to please me?” she asked.
She nonetheless remained upbeat. She told me by email: “The field will hopefully continue to move forward independently as it is doing, and hopefully companies will see the value of pursuing this approach given the research results.”
The question is, at what point does hope do more harm than good?
African elephants can distinguish human languages, genders and ages associated with danger.
Humans are among the very few animals that constitute a threat to elephants. Yet not all people are a danger — and elephants seem to know it. The giants have shown a remarkable ability to use sight and scent to distinguish between African ethnic groups that have a history of attacking them and groups that do not. Now a study reveals that they can even discern these differences from words spoken in the local tongues.
Biologists Karen McComb and Graeme Shannon at the University of Sussex in Brighton, UK, guessed that African elephants (Loxodonta africana) might be able to listen to human speech and make use of what they heard. To tease out whether this was true, they recorded the voices of men from two Kenyan ethnic groups calmly saying, “Look, look over there, a group of elephants is coming,” in their native languages. One of these groups was the semi-nomadic Maasai, some of whom periodically kill elephants during fierce competition for water or cattle-grazing space. The other was the Kamba, a crop-farming group that rarely has violent encounters with elephants.
The researchers played the recordings to 47 elephant family groups at Amboseli National Park in Kenya and monitored the animals’ behavior. The differences were remarkable. When the elephants heard the Maasai, they were much more likely to cautiously smell the air or huddle together than when they heard the Kamba. Indeed, the animals bunched together nearly twice as tightly when they heard the Maasai.
“We knew elephants could distinguish the Maasai and Kamba by their clothes and smells, but that they can also do so by their voices alone is really interesting,” says Fritz Vollrath, a zoologist at the University of Oxford, UK (see video below).
Fascinated by their findings, McComb, Shannon and their colleagues wondered whether the Maasai language on its own was a danger signal, or whether the animals were responding to the combination of the language and the voice of an adult male who was likely to wield a spear. To find out, they recorded Maasai women and boys saying the same phrase, and monitored elephant-family responses to them.
The differences were similar to what they saw with the Kamba. The elephants were less likely to flee from the voices of Maasai women and boys than they were from Maasai men, and they bunched together less closely. Most intriguingly, the researchers noted that elephant families led by matriarchs more than 42 years old never retreated when they heard the voices of boys, but those led by younger matriarchs retreated roughly 40% of the time.
It is not yet clear whether elephants are born knowing what a dangerous human sounds like or whether they can learn this from one another, but McComb suspects that the knowledge is cultural rather than innate. “Even though spearings by Maasai have declined in recent years, it’s still obvious that fear of them is high. This is likely down to younger elephants following the lead of their matriarchs who remember spearings from long ago,” says McComb.
In fact, elephants seem to be able to communicate about their encounters with dangerous people, according to a separate recent study that appeared late last month in PLOS One. It found that the animals adjusted the frequencies of their vocalizations as they meet different threats, and made a unique call when they came across swarming bees and a different unique call when they met people who traditionally hunted them. Whether these calls are something akin to language remains to be determined, but the findings certainly hint that there is much more going on in the minds of these animals than previously expected.
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Imagine going to the doctor with an infection and being sent home with a course of drugs. Unknown to your doctor you actually have two infections. If you take the drugs will the other infection go away by itself? What if you take the drugs and the other infection gets worse? This quandary faces those treating patients with multiple infections.
11 March 2014
• Study finds link between deprivation and not reading
• Frequent readers are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful in their professional lives
Britain’s divided reading culture is a barrier to social mobility, according to new research from the University of Sheffield.
The nationwide study, commissioned by Booktrust, reveals worrying indications that the UK is divided into two nations.
The ‘page turners’ – those who read daily or weekly and reap the benefits that books offer – make up 50 per cent of the population. Across the cultural divide, the ‘button pushers’, who prefer activities such as watching TV and DVDs, make up 45 per cent.
The study indicates links between deprivation and not reading books– those who never read live in more deprived areas, with a higher proportion of children living in poverty. Those who read less are also more likely to be male, under 30, and have lower levels of qualifications, happiness, and satisfaction within their lives.
Viv Bird, Chief Executive of Booktrust, said: “This research indicates that frequent readers are more likely to be satisfied with life, happier and more successful in their professional lives. But there is a worrying cultural divide linked to deprivation. There will never be a one size fits all solution when it comes to social mobility, but reading plays an important role – more action is needed to support families.”
Led by Professor Cathy Nutbrown from the University of Sheffield’s School of Education, the research suggests that there are strong indicators of the importance of literacy, reading, and writing, among other factors, in contributing to positive social mobility. The study also suggests that reading ‘rubs off’ in the home, with families playing a crucial role in fostering a love of reading.
At the launch of the research findings today (11 March 2014), academics from the University attended a conference organised by Booktrust, an organisation which promotes the lifelong benefits of reading and writing, in a bid to kick start a national conversation about improving social mobility by encouraging reading earlier and more often.
Booktrust commissioned the University’s School of Education to investigate the historical relationship between attitudes to reading and writing and social mobility. The review draws on a range of literature, archive material, family interviews and data gathered using social media to explore this issue.
The University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.
Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.
In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.
Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.
For further information, please visit www.sheffield.ac.uk
Things are starting to change. Brain imaging and spinal taps have now started to look for the plaques and tangles that are the hallmarks of the neurodegenerative disease in living patients. These techniques are now being tested in clinical trials to detect the presence of Alzheimer’s pathology years before symptoms appear as a prelude to administering drugs under development to stop progression of the disease. Many researchers have conjectured that by the time cognitive functioning starts to waver, damage to nerve cells may have proceeded too far for drugs to be of much benefit.
Ultimately, the vision of Alzheimer’s researchers is to create a predictive test that could be administered, perhaps at the age of 50, about the time when someone is first counseled to start colonoscopies, bone scans and other tests to ward off diseases of aging. If a test is positive, a still-to-be-developed drug regimen could then be prescribed.
Any predictive test would need to be simple and relatively inexpensive—MRI, PET or spinal taps don’t really fit that description. (MRI and PET have received approval in the U.S. for limited clinical use and spinal taps to sample cerebral spinal fluid are used in several European countries.)
A small step toward the kind of diagnostic that could be given in a doctor’s office can be seen in the March 9 online publication in Nature Medicine. The study highlights a test that looks at concentrations of certain fats circulating in blood to predict whether someone will become cognitively impaired or get Alzheimer’s within three years. The test was devised by examining blood from 525 people over the age of 70 during a period of five years.
After the first three years had passed, the researchers examined the blood of 53 members of the group who had developed memory impairment or early-stage Alzheimer’s and compared it with that of a healthy control group. They found levels of 10 fats whose presence seemed to indicate the breakdown of brain cell walls, possibly an indicator of neurodegeneration. They then tested these lipid concentrations in another 41 individuals from among the hundreds in the larger group, finding that 10 of them went on to develop dementia. “What we discovered is that these 10 circulating lipids in normal individuals could predict which of them would go on to have Alzheimer’s,” says Howard J. Federoff, a professor of neurology at Georgetown University Medical Center, who led the study. The changes in lipid levels determined with 90 percent accuracy (nine of 10 individuals) who progressed to dementia.
There have been previous attempts to develop Alzheimer’s blood tests to diagnose the disease. The main challenge has always been to replicate the assays in subsequent studies—and that was also a concern with the findings about this latest test. “The panel of markers identified are interesting and the greater than 90 percent accuracy is impressive,” says Ralph Martins, director of the WA Centre of Excellence for Alzheimer’s Research and Care at Edith Cowan University, which has been involved in developing blood-based Alzheimer’s diagnostics. Martins adds in an e-mail: “Other groups such as mine studying the thoroughly characterized Australian Imaging Biomarkers and Lifestyle study of Ageing cohort will need to independently confirm these findings.”
William Hu of Emory University, also involved in developing Alzheimer’s blood tests, notes similar reservations: “Over the past six years (since the publication of a blood protein panel capable of diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease also published in Nature Medicine), we have seen many initially exciting discoveries fail replication because of unsuspecting technical factors driving the main findings,” Hu wrote. “These issues can include technical processing, over-the- counter supplements taken by those with MCI [mild cognitive impairment], or prescription drugs started on MCI/AD patients.”
For his part, Federoff emphasizes that this work has a long way to go. Specifically, larger studies are needed among a more diverse study population and it must be determined as well whether this test can predict disease onset more than a decade before diagnosis. “This is really quite distal. I think it’s vastly premature to talk about commercializing this,” he says. Diagnostics of course, are not the only challenge. Also desperately needed are the still nascent pharmaceuticals that can be administered to patients who, once tested, know that they are likely to develop Alzheimer’s. So far, effective drugs have proven elusive as millions of Alzheimer’s patients and their caregivers watch intently as one drug after another has failed to stop the inexorable progression of the devastating disease.
Source: National Institutes of Health
Invasive North American beavers now live in every watershed in Tierra del Fuego, and have spread to several other islands as well as the South American mainland. In Tierra del Fuego it is estimated that 50 percent of forested riparian areas are damaged by the beavers, creating the largest landscape-level alteration of those areas in the last 10,000 years…..[
When I took Mycology 101 in grad school, the textbook situation was so bad that the one we used came on a CD-ROM. Not came with a CD-ROM. It was one.
My professor grumbled that printed mycology texts all had their flaws and none was great. The illustrations were usually fair to poor. The drawings would often give you a vague idea of the majesty of fungi, but more often than not you had to use your imagination — and spend many hours in the company of a microscope — to bring them to life. Even on the CD-ROM, the images, though in color, were mostly tiny thumbnails.
Then last year, along came Jens Petersen’s The Kingdom of Fungi. And thanks to him, now we have this:
This is the asexual spore-making structure (sporangium) of a fungus called Rhizopus stolonifer. The spores are all the little dark things clustered at the head of the fungal filment. In the inset, you can see that the shiny transparent protective wrapper visible on the upper two sporangia has popped off the bottom one, though the spores have remained in place, giving it the matte appearance of a foam microphone cover.
And this, an assortment of cup fungi
And this, about a group of fungi called “Mazaedioid” that I didn’t even knew existed,
And this, about the charming and common bird’s nest fungi, which sit quietly on mulch piles right under people’s noses all around the world. The “eggs” are the fungus’s spore packets, designed to be launched by a wayward raindrop falling into the splash cup “nest”.
And there is page after page after page of these stunning images, many of which show perspectives and types of fungi that I have never before seen. There are close-ups of asci and basidia (the characteristic sexual cells of two important groups of fungi) that show them up close in their natural state in stunning and mind-blowing detail. There are amazing real-life close-ups of the Laboulbeniomycetes, a fascinating group of fungi often called “beetle hangers” that make a living harmlessly freeloading on insects. I have never seen anything like this collection of images before. Turning every page is like opening a new Christmas present.
It’s not just a coffee-table book, either, although it could easily serve that purpose. The photographs are embedded in a framework designed to teach you the basics of fungal biology and diversity. Though the book is a treat for mycologists, it’s even better, perhaps, for those of you who have had the interest, but never the time or ability, to learn about fungi . The book is also a gem for anyone interested in science and art; nearly every page has multiple sources of inspiration for those of you with a creative itch. And it would probably be a treat for curious kids, too.
Though there seem to be plans to offer the work as an ebook, paper is still the original and best for displaying and savoring high-resolution photos. As a bonus, the dead tree version comes in sturdy, well-bound hardback without that annoying dust jacket that only seems to exist to get beat up and fade with time.
All this is not to say the book is not without its limitations. Although the photographs are beyond-your-wildest-dreams spectacular, the graphic design is only about one step up from your average Power Point presentation. I would love to see what a professional designer could have done with this material, although as Petersen did the layout himself, the perhaps cost of a professional was simply beyond reach. Getting the book published was the far greater good.
The text is also utilitarian. Though the passages are appropriately succinct and illuminating, they are also often dry and clinical (“The fruiting bodies themselves display huge variation: from flat (resupinate) or oblique caps to large, fasciculate or stipitate structures.) and suffer slightly at times from an awkwardness that may be the product of translation from Danish, author Jens Petersen’s native tongue. Similar short descriptions in livelier language would make the book more enticing to non-experts.
One other small criticism is the relative prominence of large fungi. The many molds and microfungi that produce nothing more complex than their spores are not represented in proportion to their importance. But this is a small quibble. As beautiful and diverse as the spores of microfungi are, people are most likely to be curious about the things they could easily bump into and recognize on a walk through the woods. And what little people know even about the large fungi easily justifies a book that features them.
The world has been waiting for this book. If you are a connoisseur of life, it’s a don’t-miss. Get yourself a copy, curl up next to a fire with a cat and a cup of hot cocoa, and lose yourself in a visual candy box while learning about a fantastic — but all too real — parallel universe.
Thanks to the blog post at Cornell Mushroom Blog that alerted me to this book.
On March 7, 2009, I sat on the futon in my condo, laptop on lap, and composed my very first blog post. It felt like a bit of a lark. I’d long wanted to write a book, but that didn’t seem to be happening given my day job, and a friend had suggested blogging as an alternative. Today, 5 years later, I can’t believe how far I’ve come. Now I blog standing at my kitchen counter.
I want to thank you all for reading my ramblings, and Scientific American for giving me the soapbox on which to make them. You’ve all made me a better writer, and I hope I’ve enriched your world a bit with some entertaining stories and lifeforms you might not have otherwise encountered. Here’s to another five years of fun.
Research into why women continue to drop out of the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields despite high aptitude in these areas at early ages increasingly points to factors that include the stereotypical treatment and unequal representation of females in popular culture. It is becoming clear that toys, visual media and written media, from books to references such as Wikipedia, could do wonders to encourage girls and young women by adding more and better representations of females in STEM. Fortunately this is starting to happen, as evidenced by new offerings such as the latest LEGO scientist, whom I have written about at length on the heels of my own LEGO scientists minifigure project; by the runaway success of Gravity, a film with a medical engineer–astronaut as its protagonist and hero; and by the recent popularity of Wikipedia edit-a-thons, including several I have organized in the U.S. focusing on articles about women in STEM.
But there’s another sea change taking place right now, and that is the morphing of STEM into STEAM, an acronym acknowledging that art and design have always been integral to the fields of science and technology. Scientific and mathematical crafts have become easier to find and purchase in recent years, thanks to the growth of online artist communities and marketplaces. And although depictions of scientists remain overwhelmingly male, an increasing number of artworks are beginning to highlight women as thinkers and creators. The artists in the following collection of works featuring women in science have contributed boldly to the dual goals of celebrating women in the STEM fields and portraying them positively through the lens of visual media. A selection of these will be featured at a women-in-STEM art exhibit that I will guest curate at the Art.Science.Gallery. in Austin, Texas, from September 13 through October 15, 2014.
“Marie Curie” – Jeff Fenwick
(gouache and ink)
This provocative painting of renowned physicist Marie Curie gazing curiously at a serpent ghost appears at first glance to reference the fact that what Madam Curie became most famous for—her tireless work uncovering the mechanisms of radioactivity—was also what ended up killing her. But Jeff Fenwick, a Toronto-based illustrator and craftsman, describes a secondary symbolism to his work: The snake and vial, he says, were also designed to evoke a Rod of Asclepius, the universal symbol of medicine. “The piece is meant to represent Curie’s research being a miraculous breakthrough for medical science,” Fenwick explains, “while also suggesting the imminent danger Curie was in while working with radioactive materials.”
After learning of Curie’s life story, and of the circumstances behind her death from overexposure to radiation, Fenwick decided she would make an ideal model for a painting. He began and finished the piece during his first year at OCAD University in Toronto, where he is pursuing a degree in illustration. “I chose Marie Curie because she has a very particular melancholy expression, which I felt makes her portrait interesting to study.”
Fenwick plans to focus on creating comics and other illustration works after he graduates.” I also see a future,” he says, “in marrying my love of design and art with my professional career as a carpenter.”
“Lise Meitner and Nuclear Fission” – Orlando Leibovitz
(acrylic on jute)
Both Marie Curie and German-born physicist Lise Meitner were responsible for some of the most important advances in physics of the 20th century. Meitner’s contribution was the discovery of nuclear fission, the splitting of atoms that led to the development of nuclear energy and atomic weapons. Unlike Curie, who was showered with two Nobel Prizes, Meitner was snubbed when her collaborator, Otto Hahn, took home a solo Nobel in physics for their work. But Meitner’s accomplishments eventually earned her something even more enduring: a place on the periodic table of elements. She is the namesake of meitnerium, element 109.
I was pleasantly surprised by the whimsy with which Orlando Leibovitz, a self-taught artist based in Santa Fe, N.M., represented Meitner’s signature work. In stark contrast to Jeff Fenwick’s cautionary vision of a transformational breakthrough, Leibovitz provides a simpler, more joyful look at an iconic scientist and her discovery. The portrait belongs to a 10-piece series called “Painted Physics,” which also includes paintings of Richard Feynman dancing in front of a chalkboard filled with Feynman diagrams and Ernest Schrödinger juggling cats. “Since my teenage years,” Leibovitz says, “I have been intrigued by the way theoretical physics explains our universe. Artists seek the same explanations. Art, of course, does not require the same rigorous verification. But creativity and the desire to penetrate the mysterious connect art and physics.”
Leibovitz adds: “Lise Meitner’s discoveries continue to have a monumental impact on our lives. The way she overcame the discrimination she faced as a woman, as a physicist and as a Jew in Nazi Germany is a dramatic story. Meitner wrote, ‘Science makes people reach selflessly for truth and objectivity. It teaches people to accept reality with wonder and admiration….’ She lived that sentiment every day of her life. That is a story worth painting.”
“Inge Lehmann and the Earth’s Core” – Ele Willoughby
(ink on kozo paper)
Ele Willoughby is a marine geophysicist based in Toronto whose research focuses on gas hydrate deposits in underwater environments. She is also a highly accomplished printmaker who creates screen prints, etchings and linocut prints on topics in science and the natural world. This wonderful piece depicting Danish seismologist Inge Lehmann, who in 1936 demonstrated that our planet contains a solid inner core, is part of Willoughby’s linocut series on famous and less-known scientists. “I’m rather passionate about the history of science, particularly physics and geophysics,” Willoughby says. “I am more than happy to be sharing it through art—especially underappreciated female superstars like Inge Lehmann.”
The print’s geometric red figure is a representation of Earth in cross-section as depicted in Lehmann’s seminal paper, “P’,” one of the most succinctly titled articles in the history of science. “The three concentric spheres are the mantle, outer core and inner core, which she postulated,” Willoughby explains. “‘E’ marks the epicenter of a massive earthquake. The numbered rays from E show the waves we would expect to observe at various angular distances around the Earth, as time progresses and they propagate through the planet.”
“I’m not sure when I realized,” Willoughby adds, “that the Lehmann of the Lehmann discontinuity or the American Geophysical Union’s Lehmann Medal recognized a woman whose career spanned a period when it would have been unusual for her to achieve what she did. The more I looked into her story, the more interesting she was. It was not only really clever to infer that what she was seeing in the data were earthquake waves that shouldn’t have been there if the core was fluid as it was believed; it was really a paradigm shift. She decided that these needed a proper, systematic explanation, and her bold hypothesis fit. It isn’t widely recognized—even among Earth scientists—that this fundamental discovery about the structure of our planet was the work of a pioneering woman in the field.”
“Portrait of Gabrielle-Émilie le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet” – Nicolas de Largillière
(oil on canvas)
The great 18th-century mathematician, physicist and natural philosopher Émilie du Châtelet has been the subject of quite a few artistic renditions, but this radiant portrait by French painter Nicolas de Largillière is my favorite by far.
It dates to around 1735, a period in history when it was almost unheard of for a female scholar—particularly one who worked in the natural sciences—to be depicted by a master painter such as De Largillière. The work also dates, roughly, to the time when Du Châtelet reconnected with her childhood friend, Voltaire, the historian and philosopher who would become her lover, intellectual partner and lifelong friend.
Paris-born du Châtelet was drawn to the sciences from an early age, and she benefited from the encouragement and tutoring of many fine academics. As an adult, she became particularly fascinated with the work of Isaac Newton, and she is considered to have been a leading driver of the move among French academicians away from Cartesian and toward Newtonian physics. Near the end of her short life she contributed her most lasting work, a translation and commentary on Newton’s groundbreaking Principia. It is, to this day, the standard translation of the work into French. Du Châtelet died after the birth of her fourth child at the age of 42.
The symbols and gestures in de Largillière’s portrait are full of meaning. First, du Châtelet is staring skyward, a likely nod to the fact that she was interested in astronomy and the cosmos. She grips with her right hand a gold compass, symbolizing her work in measuring and bringing order to the natural world and universe. Her left hand sits on a celestial globe, probably a cue to her reverence for Newton’s theory of universal gravitation. Whether the positioning of this hand just above the constellation Scorpio was related to the fact that her beloved Voltaire was born under that particular sign is up for debate.
Incidentally, this artwork is one of the most valuable among those presented in this collection; the original sold at auction for $134,500 in 2010.
“Kathleen Yardley Lonsdale,” “Barbara McClintock,” “Agnes Pockels,” and “Maria Goeppert-Mayer” – Jennifer Mondfrans
(oil, acrylic, and wax pastel)
“I was having a conversation with a male acquaintance, and we were talking scientists,” begins San Francisco artist Jennifer Mondfrans. “He thought the only historical woman scientist was Marie Curie. After asking many of my smart friends, I realized that this was a secret history that needed to be known.”
Mondfrans’s response was two spellbinding series of vivid portraits depicting notable, but not necessarily well-known, women in science and mathematics. One set, “At Least I Have You, to Remember Me,” pairs portraits in wild, saturated colors with “autobiographies” in the form of letters to the viewer. These are meant to imprint a story along with Mondfrans’s visual interpretation of the scientist in question. The other set, “Women Scientists in History,” includes alternate interpretations for some of the same personalities, while introducing yet more individuals to her overall mix. “I chose women who had accomplished great work and who had been photographed,” Mondfrans says.
The four women represented here are (clockwise from top left): Kathleen Lonsdale, the pioneering British crystallographer who proved that the benzene ring is a flat hexagon; Barbara McClintock, the American geneticist and Nobel Prize–winner who produced the first genetic map of maize; Agnes Pockels, an underappreciated German pioneer in the discipline of surface science; and German-American Maria Goeppert-Mayer, the Nobel Prize–winning physicist who proposed the nuclear shell model of the atomic nucleus.
Mondfrans plans to add more portraits of women to her science collections as time allows. High on her to-do list are chemist Irène Joliot-Curie and biologist Lynn Margulis. “I will continue to do scientists as they pass,” she says, “to create an ongoing history.”
“Henrietta Swan Leavitt” – Raúl Colón
(colored pencil and lithographic crayon on paper)
I live in the same neighborhood where astronomer Henrietta Swan Leavitt spent a great deal of time, carefully analyzing the brightness of stars as they were observed around the turn of the 20th century. I often pass by her former office at the Harvard Observatory, and by the last apartment building she lived in before she died. I wonder how life might have been for her, walking these same streets.
Physically, much of the area remains unchanged, but in Leavitt’s time, women couldn’t even dream of matriculating at a university like Harvard. Nevertheless she was one of a famous group of women who not only worked at the Harvard Observatory (earning next to nothing, I might add) but who also succeeded in making a number of major contributions to the field of astronomy.
Last summer I came across a children’s picture book about Leavitt written by Robert Burleigh and illustrated by New York artist Raúl Colón. It details her life and greatest work: the discovery of an important relationship between the changing brightness of so-called variable stars and the duration, or period, of their light fluctuations. Leavitt gained little notoriety for it in her lifetime, but this observation proved so fundamental to later discoveries about our place in the cosmos that a number of scholars, including renowned astronomer Edwin Hubble, considered it worthy of a Nobel Prize. “I was impressed by her accomplishment—basically, finding a way to measure the distance of stars,” Colón says. In his portrait the top panel represents the varying brightness of a star whereas the bottom is a re-creation of how Henrietta and her fellow “computers” noted the changes on paper.
“When I visited Harvard, I saw the transparencies of different stars Henrietta and other astronomers studied,” Colón explains. “I also read through some of the notebooks they used to annotate their observations concerning the degree of brightness in each star through a period of time. Having some of the equipment they used—like the glass device to place the transparencies—right there for me to study and sketch really connected me to the past and her story.”
“Mae Jemison” – Muhammad Yungai
(oil on canvas)
You may know that Mae Jemison was the first African-American woman in space, but did you have any idea that she’s a serious dancer? That she spent two and a half years as a Peace Corps doctor in Africa? Or that she fulfilled a childhood dream by playing a small role on Star Trek: The Next Generation?
Mae Carol Jemison has become an inspiration to women and children everywhere, not only because she earned the call from NASA but because she has, in her post-astronaut years, excelled as a multifaceted and highly successful businesswoman, tech developer and social leader.
These credentials, plus her commitment to education, are just a few of the reasons why Atlanta-based artist and teacher Muhammad Yungai decided to create this expressive portrait of Jemison as part of his colorful “29 Black People You Should Know” series. “Mae Jemison is an amazing woman whose story should be known,” he says.
Yungai is a self-taught painter who grew up in New Orleans with a passion for artistic expression. “After receiving praise and guidance at a very early age from my father, my fascination with art bloomed into an unquenchable thirst,” he wrote on his Web site.
Today Yungai lives in Atlanta where he teaches visual arts to children at the KIPP WAYS Academy. His portrait of Mae Jemison was created to honor Black History Month and to serve as a fundraiser for his students. Along with the other 28 paintings of historical black leaders and figures from Langston Hughes to Whitney Houston, Jemison’s portrait was auctioned off, with proceeds going toward materials to help Yungai instruct a new generation of artists.
“Jane Goodall Darwin Day Portrait Project 2013″ – Hayley Gillespie
(paper collage and acrylic on wood panel)
In 2012 ecologist, conservation biologist and artist Hayley Gillespie began the Darwin Day Portrait Project, a community endeavor in Austin, Texas, that celebrates great naturalists on Charles Darwin’s birthday (February 12th). After crafting a collage of Darwin himself for the inaugural event, Gillespie decided to focus in 2013 on primatologist Jane Goodall, a chimpanzee expert and one of the most celebrated scientists of our time.
By happy coincidence, Gillespie learned she would have the opportunity to show her work to Goodall just a few months later, during a public lecture at Southwestern University in Texas, where Gillespie was a visiting professor. “I felt a lot of pressure to get the portrait just right because I knew she might see it,” Gillespie admits. “‘Very good likeness,’ was her calm assessment, so I felt really good about that!”
The collage, now signed by Goodall (top right), is on display at the Texas Memorial Museum in Austin—not far from Art.Science.Gallery., another of Gillespie’s creative endeavors. She began the project in response to her popular blog about science and art. “I met so many amazing artist–scientists through my blog who were searching for a place to exhibit their work,” she explains. “I woke up one morning and said, ‘Why not start a gallery specifically for science and nature-inspired work?’” Art.Science.Gallery. existed in pop-up mode for some time, but it now has a permanent space a few miles east of downtown Austin, where it not only showcases artworks but also provides a home for science communication activities.
“My mother, several aunts and grandmother are all artists, and my grandfathers were engineers, so art and science have just always been a part of my life,” Gillespie says. “I think they were just as much a part of Darwin’s life—who had to draw, sketch, etcetera—or Ernst Haeckel’s life, who became famous for his Art Forms in Nature. Somehow the two fields became more separated in the 20th century as science became more quantitative. But, I think we’re on the verge of a major resurgence of integrating arts and sciences.”
“Rosalind Franklin” – Geoffrey Appleton
(acrylic on board)
This unique painting of renowned x-ray crystallographer Rosalind Franklin was commissioned in the late 1990s by the science department of Staffordshire University in England. “I wanted to show Franklin at work,” says British artist Geoffrey Appleton, who was trained at Saint Albans College in the United Kingdom and at the Canterbury College of Art, now part of Kent University. “I knew more about her as a figure that had been sidelined in the DNA structure discovery, rather than as a committed crystallographer. But I got the impression from reading about her that she was very hard-working and thorough and solitary.”
Appleton’s intent was to portray Franklin “as an innocent in a dark, male-dominated world,” with the feet of scientific rivals James Watson and Francis Crick “waiting in the wings.” The figure before Franklin represents Photograph 51, her famous DNA x-ray image. Without her knowledge or permission, Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins showed Photo 51 to Watson and Crick shortly before they introduced the world to DNA’s double-helix structure in 1953. This photo led directly to Watson and Crick’s discovery, and today Franklin is often credited as a co-discoverer of DNA’s structure.
But only Watson, Crick and Wilkins shared the Nobel Prize—and the early glory—for this achievement. Franklin died at age 37 from ovarian cancer, likely a result of her work with high-energy particles. This left her ineligible for a share of the Nobel, because the prizes may not be awarded posthumously. It also left her unable to defend herself when Watson and others publicly belittled her in books and interviews. In more recent years Franklin has become a revered symbol of the history of discrimination against women in science.
Geoffrey Appleton has been a freelance illustrator since the 1980s. If you look closely, you can make out his likeness as a symbol of genetic inheritance on the bottom right of his Franklin portrait. “The picture is based on a family photo, showing my mum and dad with me as a baby,” he says. “It’s a sort of nod toward my identity.”
“Rita Levi-Montalcini” – Francesca Mantuano
On the penultimate day of 2012 the world said goodbye to Rita Levi-Montalcini, a spirited and highly decorated Italian neurologist best known for her Nobel Prize-winning discovery of nerve growth factor. That same day, Italian artist Francesca Mantuano created this digital portrait of the esteemed scientist.
Levi-Montalcini was 103 years young when she died, and by all accounts she lived each of those years to the fullest. Born an identical twin in 1909, Levi-Montalcini’s early career was colored by the dark cloud of World War II. After studying chicken embryos in hiding she moved to the U.S., where she spent three decades on the faculty of Washington University in Saint Louis. There she focused her work on a mysterious protein responsible for nerve growth and maintenance. She would eventually return to her homeland, first part-time and later for good. Levi-Montalcini never stopped working or supporting the causes that were important to her. A longtime champion of women in science, she was also, from 2001 until her death, a fiery member of Italy’s Senate. “I’ve always admired her for her work and contributions that she gave to science,” Mantuano says, “but also for her personality and importance in the Italian social contest. I wanted to make a tribute because I think it’s important to honor this kind of character—especially nowadays, when the Italian social-political-cultural situation is not the most prosperous and shiny.”
Mantuano dabbles in various media but her first love is comics. She has completed programs in comic, cartoon and animation design, and she is soon to finish a program in Web design at the New Institute of Design in Perugia. Mantuano takes pride in the achievements of Levi-Montalcini and hopes the illustration of her fellow countrywoman might serve as an inspiration: “We must remember that we, as a nation and people, can do a lot and bring a lot of enrichment to others.”
“(Augusta) Ada King, Countess of Lovelace (1815-1852) Mathematician; Daughter of Lord Byron” – Margaret Sarah Carpenter
(oil on canvas)
Augusta Ada King, the 19th-century Countess of Lovelace, is best known for her work on the Analytical Engine, an early computing machine devised by her mentor and friend, Charles Babbage. Her predictions on how this and other machines might one day move beyond simple arithmetic calculation were unique for her time, and for this reason she is considered a visionary in the field of computational technology. She is also said by many to be the first computer programmer for the notes she contributed to an Italian article about the Analytical Engine.
But Ada Lovelace is way more than the sum of her intellectual, mathematical achievements. She has become, especially in the last five years, an influential symbol of the celebration of women who have contributed significantly, oftentimes silently or without reward, to the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
This regal painting of Lady Lovelace was completed by British portraitist Margaret Carpenter in 1836. It was the same year that Lovelace gave birth to the first of three children with her husband William King-Noel, aka the Earl of Lovelace.
The piece was greeted with critical acclaim at the Royal Academy of Arts in London, but Lovelace herself was far from pleased with the likeness. In fact, she responded rather brusquely to it, and to Carpenter’s effort. “I conclude she is bent on displaying the whole expanse of my capacious jawbone,” Lovelace wrote, “upon which I think the word ‘Mathematics’ should be written.”
“Sally Ride” – Andrea Del Rio
It is fitting that astronaut, physicist and science educator Sally Ride would strike a pose in this portrait so similar to that of her fellow pioneer, Ada Lovelace. Standing tall with her characteristic bright, inviting smile, Ride provides hope for the next generation of explorers, whether out in the cosmos or here on Earth.
In becoming the first American woman in space, Ride captured the world’s attention when she flew on the shuttle Challenger in 1983. But in her post-NASA career, up until the day she died of pancreatic cancer in the summer of 2012, Ride made her living as a steadfast champion of STEM education. She particularly encouraged young girls to “reach for the stars.”
Andrea Del Rio, a Peruvian art student at the College for Creative Studies in Detroit, attempted to capture that inspiration in her unique artwork. To create Ride’s likeness, Del Rio utilized a variety of media, including watercolor, charcoal, india ink, colored pencil, chalk pastels and acrylic paint. “The pose is empowering,” Del Rio says. “Her helmet represents what the world saw her accomplish, and her suit shows what perhaps she saw out there in space. Sally did great things that before her time were not possible. As she smiles and looks away, I believe she is thinking how everything turned out just fine. Nothing is impossible.”
Del Rio’s own aspirations include becoming a full-time portrait painter and textile designer. On this particular work, she adds: “I wanted to represent someone who had overcome many obstacles to achieve her dreams, to serve as inspiration for me and other people, to realize that the possibilities are endless. Like saying, ‘Look at her! She did it. Now get to work!’”
Wristbands are the accessory of choice for people promoting a cause. And the next wave of wrist wear might act as a fashionable archive of your chemical exposure.
Researchers at Oregon State University outfitted volunteers with slightly modified silicone bracelets and then tested them for 1,200 substances. They detected several dozen compounds – everything from caffeine and cigarette smoke to flame retardants and pesticides.
“We were surprised at the breadth of chemicals,” said Kim Anderson, a professor and chemist who was senior author of the study published in Environmental Science & Technology.
Beginning with Lance Armstrong’s Livestrong, the cheap, colorful, rubbery wristbands have been a popular fad over the past decade in promoting charities and other affiliations.
Anderson initially tried to use silicone pendants attached to necklaces to test for contaminants. But then, at a football game she saw “all kinds of people, even burly men” sporting wristbands. That’s when the idea hit her.
Silicone is porous and acts similar to human cells, so once chemicals are absorbed by the wristband, “they don’t want to go back to the water or the air,” Anderson said.
“This study offers some real possibilities to address the weak link in epidemiological studies – which is the exposure science,” said Ted Schettler, science director at the Science and Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit environmental health advocacy organization.
The bracelets “can identify both chemicals and mixtures, and this could easily be applied to larger groups to see which compounds are showing up most commonly,” he said.
Thirty volunteers wore the orange and white Oregon State wristbands for 30 days. Forty-nine compounds were found in them, including flame retardants, indoor pesticides such as pet flea medications, caffeine, nicotine and various chemicals used in cosmetics and fragrances.
In addition, eight volunteers who worked as roofers wore the wristbands for eight hours. The researchers were looking for polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which are in roofing tar. All of the roofers’ wristbands had the compounds, including 12 on a federal priority list of harmful pollutants. As expected, roofers who wore less protection and worked in more enclosed spaces had higher levels of the chemicals on their wristbands, Anderson said.
Before outfitting the volunteers, the researchers had to remove chemicals that are introduced into silicone during manufacture.
Anderson said the bracelets are a big step up from stationary air monitors, which only capture a snapshot in time and may not be near people. Measuring individuals’ exposures usually means monitors worn in backpacks, which are difficult to use and expensive.
The bracelets are first screened to see which chemicals are there, and then the researchers can measure concentrations of specific ones. The wristbands won’t detect some particulate matter, and it’s unclear if they will pick up some of the more volatile pesticides.
Emily Marquez, a staff scientist with the advocacy group Pesticide Action Network, said the potential to use a wristband to quantify exposure to tens of thousands of compounds is exciting.
Schettler said the wristbands could help agencies, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, narrow their focus when they test people for contaminants.
“We could start asking questions like ‘why did person A have that chemical in their wristband, but person B didn’t’?” he said.
Anderson and colleagues have several other wristband projects, including agricultural fields in Africa and Peru, and hydraulic fracturing sites in the United States.
But don’t plan on running out and buying a personal chemical-monitoring bracelet just yet. As of now, they still have to undergo a laboratory analysis to see which chemicals show up.
Just like any new wristband, the fad caught on for the researchers, too.
“There was definitely some caffeine on mine,” Anderson said.
This article originally ran at Environmental Health News, a news source published by Environmental Health Sciences, a nonprofit media company.
Warming temperatures expand the risk area for malaria, pushing the disease farther uphill in afflicted regions, according to a new study.
Infecting more than 300 million people each year, malaria emerges from a tapestry of temperature, rainfall, vectors, parasites, human movement, public health and economics. Fighting the disease involves pulling on all of these threads, but scientists have a hard time figuring out which ones are the most important to predicting where the disease will go.
Temperature has been especially contentious. Some previous research indicated that warmer weather only plays a minor role in this mosquito-borne illness, with human factors being the major influence on disease risk (ClimateWire, Feb. 4). Other studies concluded that climate change will cause no net increase in the disease in some parts of the world (ClimateWire, Sept. 20, 2013).
“Part of the controversy has to do with how to attribute particular causes to a long-term trend,” said Mercedes Pascual, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of Michigan.
In a paper published online yesterday in the journal Science, Pascual and her collaborators looked at how malaria moved up in elevation with temperature in Ethiopia and Colombia. Tracking year-to-year temperature variations from 1990 to 2005, researchers observed how malaria’s range shifted.
Infection rates tend to increase as temperatures go up, since the Plasmodium parasite that causes the disease reproduces faster inside vector mosquitoes when it’s warmer, increasing the infection likelihood when the mosquito bites someone, Pascual explained. The Anopheles mosquitoes that spread the disease also thrive in the heat.
The results confirmed for the first time that malaria creeps uphill during warmer years and recedes as temperatures cool, a dangerous effect as the climate warms. “The implication is this will, without any mitigation, result in the increase of the malaria burden,” Pascual said.
The findings hold promise for better forecasting. In previous work, Pascual found she could predict malaria up to four months in advance in parts of India by monitoring monsoons (ClimateWire, March 4, 2013)
“What we hope to have done is eliminate lingering doubts about climate influencing malaria,” added Menno Bouma, a co-author and a lecturer at the London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine.
Highland cities could face severe outbreaks
He noted that some previous studies suggested that as malaria risk expanded in some areas, it would contract in others, so the net burden of disease would stay the same. The theory was that some areas would get too hot for the vectors to survive, so the infections would taper off (ClimateWire, Oct. 26, 2012).
But that doesn’t account for where people reside relative to the disease. Much fewer people live in the regions where malaria is endemic compared to the metropolises at higher elevations, many that emerged in part to avoid the disease, according to Bouma. About 37 million people — 43 percent of Ethiopia’s population — live at elevations between 1,600 and 2,400 meters.
People who live in these highland cities, whether in Africa or South America, have much lower rates of disease resistance and don’t have a history of fighting malaria. If the disease encroaches on these regions, overall morbidity would increase and the results could be devastating to millions.
“If you have a [disease range] contraction due to temperature increases in the drier parts of the world and an increase in the cooler parts of the world, the population affected in the cooler ends of the malaria distribution would be larger,” Bouma said.
Nonetheless, human interventions can still hold back the rising tide of the disease, if vaccine research, for example, delivers on its promises (ClimateWire, Feb. 26)
Kevin Lafferty, an ecologist at the U.S. Geological Survey who was not involved in the research, said the study is important because it isolates how temperature affects malaria. “Normally, if we were to compare a cool country and a hot country, there could easily be a lot of economic differences,” he said. “The value of going up an altitudinal gradient is you’re controlling for a lot of those things.”
Pascual said the researchers are now looking for better data on other variables like rainfall and migration to develop tailored malaria interventions.
Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500