Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to be a part of “Once Upon a Christmas Cheery in the Lab of Shakhashiri”. Bassam Z. Shakhashiri is a professor of chemistry at the University of Wisconsin–Madison who is well-known for his fun science demonstrations and a fervent dedication to public science communication. Once Upon a Christmas Cheery started in 1970 as an end-of-semester treat for Dr. Shakhashiri’s freshman chemistry class; by 1973, the Christmas lecture had become so popular that Wisconsin Public Television offered to broadcast it during Christmas week, and this collaboration has continued uninterrupted ever since.

That’s 49 years of Christmas lectures, commemorated by making indium, the 49th element, the Sesame Street-esque “sponsor” of the show. It helps that indium burns bright violet, the name of Dr. Shakhashiri’s granddaughter and hence his favorite color. The color purple made a firm foundation for many aspects of the show: The chrysanthemums frozen in liquid nitrogen were purple, as was the balloon I inflated during my spiel on air movement. Most of the set was various shades of purple, too.

Bassam Shakhashiri and J. Nepper on the set of Once Upon a Christmas Cheery
The set was whimsical and very purple. Photo by Eric Baillies.

Continue reading “Fun with Science for the Holidays: An “Actor’s” Perspective”

Counting Crows: Evidence for Hard-Wired, Inborn Ability to Detect Numerical Sets

“The Great Book of Nature is written in mathematical language” –Galileo Galilei (1)

carrion crow (corvus corone) headshot portrait against a blue background
Carrion Crow (Corvus corone)

If mathematics is the language of the universe, might we find the ability to do math hard-wired in species?

Research in primates has demonstrated that even without training, humans and monkeys possess numerosity, the ability to assess the number of items in a set (2,3).

A paper in Current Biology from Wagener and colleagues provides evidence that crows are born with a subset of neurons that are “hard wired” to perceive the number of items in a set (4). This work provides yet more evidence supporting a hypothesis of an innate “number sense” that is provided by a specific group of “preprogrammed” neurons.

In this study, Wagener’s group measured the responses of single neurons in two “numerically naïve” crows to color dot arrays. They measured neurons in the endbrain region known as the niopallium caudolaterale (NCL), which is thought to be the avian analog of the primate prefrontal cortex. They found that 12% of the neurons in NCL specifically responded to numbers and that specific neurons responded to specific numbers of items with greater or lesser activity.

This is the first such study to investigate the idea of an innate “sense of number” in untrained vertebrates that are not primates, and as such it suggests that a hard-wired, innate “sense of number” is not a special feature of the complex cerebral cortex of the primate brain but is an adaptive property that evolved independently in the differently structured and evolved end brains of birds.

Many questions remain. Are there similarities in the actual neurons involved? What does learning do on a physiological level to these neurons: Increase their number, increase connections to them?  What other vertebrates have similar innate mechanisms for assessing numbers of items? What about other members of the animal kingdom that need to have a sense of number for social or foraging behavior? How is it accomplished?

And finally, one last burning question, if birds are dinosaurs, does that mean that dinosaurs perished because they didn’t do their math homework? Asking for an eleven-year-old I know.

  1. Tyson, Peter. (2001) Describing Nature with math. NOVA  http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/physics/describing-nature-math.html 
  2. Izard, V. et al. (2009) Newborn infants perceive abstract numbers PNAS USA 106, 10382–85.
  3. Viswanahtan, P. and Neider, A. (2013) Neuronal correlates of a visual “sense of number” in primate parietal and prefrontal cortices. PNAS USA 110, 1118–95.
  4. Wagnener, L. et al. (2018) Neurons in the endbrain of numerically naïve crows spontaneously encode visual numerosity Cur. Biol. 28, 1–5.

Welcome to Your Biotechnology Field Trip at the BTC Institute!

Kaukauna High School students arrive at the BTC for a biotechnology fieldtrip.
Kaukauna High School students arrive at the BTC for a biotechnology fieldtrip.

BTCI provides our students an opportunity that they could never get in the classroom.
—Jim Geoffrey, Biology Teacher, Kaukauna High School

Your bus has arrived and parked in the circular driveway at the front of the BioPharmaceutical Technology Center on the Promega Corporation campus in Fitchburg, WI. Your BTC Institute hosts – and instructors – for your field trip are Barbara Bielec (K-12 Program Director) and Ryan Olson (Biotechnology Instructor). They’ll greet you in the Atrium and direct you to a conference room where you can leave coats and backpacks, and then to the lab you’ll be working in during your visit.

Here’s a taste of what happened next for students from Random Lake High School and Wonewoc High School on December 3rd, and from Kaukauna High School on December 4th. Continue reading “Welcome to Your Biotechnology Field Trip at the BTC Institute!”

How to Make Plastic Out of Milk

As the daughter of a (former) dairy farmer, I love milk and all its derived dairy products (e.g., cheese and butter). However, it wasn’t until my colleague Michele highlighted a kid science app that I realized milk is a great science medium as well. In fact, I recently discovered mixing vinegar with milk will create moldable plastic. Not only is this milk-derived product fun for kids and adults, but it also offers a history lesson: the resulting substance was used before petroleum-based plastic was available. Watch the video to learn about a fun kitchen experiment and potential handmade gift opportunity all in one package.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VFvik_THcNQ]

Sleep Well Today to Learn Well Tomorrow

World War II Poster
Sleep, defined as a state of reversible disconnect from the environment (1), is an integral part of life. In this fast-paced life, you might think of sleep as a waste of time and unnecessary, impinging on productivity. But, nothing can be farther than the truth. Sleep researchers around the world are trying to understand what is the most important physiological function of sleep. It is too simplistic to say that sleep rests the brain, and it is not entirely true since neuronal activity in many parts of the brain do not slow down appreciably during sleep. So, what does sleep do? Continue reading “Sleep Well Today to Learn Well Tomorrow”

Forgot Something? Maybe Your Diet, not Your Age, is to Blame

Ribbon tied around a finger as a reminderHave trouble finding your car keys this morning because you forgot where you left them? Or maybe you can’t remember the name of the new person who just joined the department down the hall? Before you blame age for your faulty memory, take a look at your diet. New research suggests that low levels of omega-3 fatty acids in your diet could be disrupting biochemical signaling in your brain and impairing your ability to learn and remember. And, consumption of high levels of fructose, often found in sugary beverages, could be making it worse. So, put down that soda and keep reading to learn how those empty calories might be sabotaging your memory and what you can do about it.

Continue reading “Forgot Something? Maybe Your Diet, not Your Age, is to Blame”

On being wrong…

I am wrong. A lot. I am ready to admit it.

Case in point, this past week, my husband and son decided to take some time and enjoy our summer.  On Tuesday, we decided to go to the Milwaukee Zoo. Because I am a bit of a crazy perfectionist (who may or may not be a tad obsessive), it’s possible that I may have slightly over prepared for this relaxing activity. I printed coupons, maps, and details instructions on how to get to the zoo. I had prepared an itinerary that included train rides, the antique carousel, seeing all the animals, attending the seal show, and of course an amazing picnic lunch. I packed water bottles, sun block, mosquito repellent, and extra socks.  We were going to have a fantastic day.

Forty-five minutes into the trip, I realized that I forgot the backpack containing all of those amenities, including directions on the kitchen table.  I was (extremely) mad at myself, but I knew that I remembered the directions exactly.  Being the somewhat controlling driver, I navigated the way I was SURE was the right way, even as my husband pointed to the sign that said “Milwaukee County Zoo” as it was flying by.   He may have politely suggested that I missed the exit. I may have ignored him. 

I knew I remembered the number of the exit and it was not that one. I was right. He was wrong. I was sure of it. (Insert exasperated sigh here.) Continue reading “On being wrong…”

Neuroplasticity, trivia and a sprinkling of Twitter

Without really trying to be, turns out I’m kind of wired for trivia. My brain seems to reserve lots of little nooks and crannies for bits of information that are probably entirely useless to my day-to-day life or career, but man, are they fun to pull out at parties. I can’t tell you why it’s easier for me to remember that horses are largely physiologically incapable of throwing up than it is to recall some of the names of my childhood friends, I just know that’s the way it is. I’ve learned to embrace it. But is trivia useful, or just a waste of gray matter? Turns out, absorption of trivia is a potential tool to engender positive brain plasticity (neuroplasticity), especially as we age and fight the good fight against dementia and memory loss. Continue reading “Neuroplasticity, trivia and a sprinkling of Twitter”

Can a Font Make You Smarter?

An image of various fonts
A new font for the New Year, and better learning?

Today is the second Monday of the New Year, January 10, 2011 and we are returning to work, school and normal life, you know, the one without endless shopping, cooking and preparing.

Hopefully most of your holiday 2010 remembrances are fond ones…the greetings, baked goods, travel, gifts…all good.

Hold on. The greetings; was there one holiday letter that you just can’t forget? Perhaps the writer gave too many details about a vacation home or a new luxury car? Or maybe the letter was single-spaced or in an odd font, possibly Bodoni MT, 12 point?

You, my friend, have run up against an educational aid known as disfluency. It may have been the font, not just the contents of that letter, that so deeply embedded it in your memory. Continue reading “Can a Font Make You Smarter?”

Writing Better With Oatmeal

Yes, okay, I admit it. For as casual and conversational as I try to keep my writing, I’m a bit of a grammar geek*. I’m not a cantankerous stickler for a technically perfect phrase, and I’m certainly not exempt from grammatical blunders, but I do put my back into it a little bit. It’s one of the ways I extend a measure of respect to language, along with things like saying “croissant” correctly (I’m not French, but it’s one of my biggest pet peeves). Sure, maybe I go a little overboard sometimes and find myself sitting in silent, festering judgment of misplaced apostrophes. Maybe seeing “alot” shimmering like grammatical polyester on a page makes me want to flick someone’s ear. And maybe it hit just a little too close to home when a college classmate told me, “Caroline, you’d proofread a love letter.” Humph. You say that like it’s a bad thing.

As much as I enjoy the pursuit of grammatical excellence, I recognize it’s not as natural for everyone. Grammar may even be your sworn nemesis. I know exactly how it is — I have the same antagonistic relationship with math. Stupid math, making me feel all dumb. But enough of my issues, back to the point at hand: Grammar isn’t always intuitive, it isn’t always easy and, let’s face it, it’s not generally considered a lot of fun. Or so I thought until I found The Oatmeal. Continue reading “Writing Better With Oatmeal”