On science blogs this week: Evolved

BRAIN MAPPING AND DEBATING THE CONNECTOME PROJECT. Two of science writing's best, Carl Zimmer (The Loom and much else) and Robert Krulwich (Radiolab and much else) teamed up last Monday to moderate a debate between Sebastian Seung of MIT and Anthony Movshon of NYU, the topic being whether neuroscience needs the Connectome Project. (The connectome is often referred to as a brain map; it describes every synaptic connection between neurons in a brain.)

The moderators didn't need to do much moderating, the debaters being themselves quite moderate — a bit too moderate for Krulwich, who confessed he was hoping for something more fiery. The event had been billed as "Brainbrawl," but the putative brawlers made the sensible decision not to play that game. Instead, they discussed, came to a lot of agreement, expressed their small disagreements in mild and gentlemanly form, sketched out the way forward, and in general displayed science's finest table manners.

I'm not equipped to evaluate their plans deeply, although I've written about neuroscience and their ideas seemed reasonable enough. But as a public relations exercise illustrating the best of science, the nondebate was brilliant. Seung and Movshon embodied science as the earnest, dispassionate quest for the best way to discover the truth about how beings work, and not — as we media often tell the tale — as the clash of formidable egos.

The event was livestreamed at the Radiolab site, but I was devastated to find it not archived there. At least the site archived the webchat during the debate; find it here.

Neuroscientist Zen Faulkes to the rescue; he has made the webcast available at his blog NeuroDojo, bless him, so you can see the non-Brainbrawl for yourself here. And don't just watch the video, read Faulkes's accompanying thoughtful analysis, the view from an actual neuroscientist who has misgivings about a Connectome Project. See also Faulkes's review of Seung's new book Connectome and also his earlier critique of a Connectome Project here.

Before the Seung-Movshon event, Krulwich posted an engaging analysis of the issues surrounding a potential Connectome Project at his NPR blog Krulwich Wonders. A Connectome Project is an example of what Movshon called "gigascience," so a major issue seems to be money.

Ceci n'est pas une singe.

And don't miss Krulwich's pre-Brainbrawl post on Seung's work, which also describes the Jennifer Anniston neuron, which flashes only when shown photos of Jen. It was discovered during an operation to correct epileptic seizures by UCLA neurosurgeon Itzhak Fried. References to her, Krulwich says,

might have triggered not just one, but a cascade of neural firings. And this may be the brain's way of storing a memory. Jennifer is not a single neuron, she's a plural, or as MIT professor Sebastian Seung puts it, she's "hierarchical organization." That neuron shouting "Jen!" is receiving signals from thousands, maybe tens of thousands, maybe hundreds of thousands of neurons down below.

MUTANT H5N1 FLU VIRUS PAPERS TO BE PUBLISHED AFTER ALL. The question of how those two papers describing fabrication of the virulent H5N1 "bird flu" virus into a flu virus that can be transmitted among mammals should be published has come to a kind of conclusion. The US National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB), which last year recommended that the papers be published only with major redactions, has changed its mind. It has voted to recommend publication of the revised papers with no redactions.

Uber-blogger Ed Yong has written a lot about this. See his post at Not Exactly Rocket Science for what lay behind NSABB's reversal. Also reporting on the new decision was Christopher Weaver at the Wall Street Journal Health Blog.

At the NPR health blog Shots, Nell Greenfieldboyce described the recommendations and reported that the US government has now devised a new policy for overseeing research that could pose public dangers; it involves monitoring government-funded projects investigating 15 pathogens.

The reversal came just before a Royal Society meeting about the mutant flu viruses that marked the first joint appearance of the two scientists who made them, Yoshi Kawaoka and Ron Fouchier. Yong has posted a Storify of his live tweets of the conference. Katie Scott described the meeting at Ars Technica.

Yong goes into detail about the mutations Kawaoka developed and their effects at the Nature Newsblog. Martin Enserink reported on the meeting too, also with details about Kawaoka's work, at ScienceInsider.

A COUPLE OF SHORT TAKES. At the Nature Newsblog, Brendan Borrell tells us that the US Food and Drug Administration has decided not to ban the endocrine disrupter bisphenol A (BPA) from canned goods, at least for the moment. According to Melody Bomgardner at CENtral Science, packaging makers are looking hard for BPA substitutes, due to pressure from their customers.

If you've been meaning to check out the trendy intersection of evolutionary biology and economics, Jason Thomas has a nice long reading list for you at Evolving Economics.

THE CARNIVAL OF EVOLUTION. And speaking of evolution, here is the Carnival of Evolution, Number 46. I don't do blog carnivals much because they are a prodigiously entangling form of Writing Avoidance. But I seem to have made an exception of Number 46, which appeared April 1 at Synthetic Daisies, a blog about computational biology.

I got drawn in by the theme, The Tree (Structures) of Life, in large part because blogger and computational biologist Bradly Alicea began with a brief overview of the use of trees in science, in this case computational trees and trees used in biological classification. Alicea's writing is a bit stiff but extremely clear. Even if, like me, you have shunned systematics systematically, this item is painless, compact enlightenment. Which he illustrates in part by classifying the carnival contributions into trees. There's a crossword puzzle too.

Among the individual riches: a post by paleoanthropologist John Hawks explaining why he believes humans are not, in fact, apes. (One reason is that "ape" is a descriptive English word, not a taxonomic term.) At Evolving Thoughts, John Wilkins disagrees.

At This Week in Evolution, R. Ford Denison discusses 2 papers comparing problem-solving in humans and other primates. The papers concluded that cooperation underlies good performance, and one suggested that primate cooperation arose in Africa some time after an ocean divided the New World primates from the old about 35 million years ago. Denison said he'd like to see more data from other monkey species before accepting that hypothesis.

MORE GOOD CARNIVAL THINGS. Greg Laden has a long delightful post at 10,000 Birds refuting the idea, abroad in some anthropological circles, that Homo sap went through a scavenging phase before evolving into Man the Hunter. It's full of juicy gossip about the spiteful behavior of famous anthropologists of the past while also making a persuasive case against scavenging as a way of human life. This Laden does by comparing humans with vultures, especially their eyesight, which in turn is the reason why dealing with global warming via wind power is death to vultures: they concentrate so completely on watching the ground and each other that they fly right into windmills.

Another treasure from this carnival is a post by Holly Dunsworth at The Mermaid's Tale. Remember that fossil foot from a couple weeks ago, the one that stirred so much excitement because it purportedly came from a new hominin species that, at 3.4 million years old, was contemporary with Lucy but likely arboreal? Dunsworth has an entirely fresh take, a meditation on what fossil feet have to say about mothering.

It's a subtle argument involving functional anatomy of different kinds of primate feet, what they say about lifestyle and, most intriguingly, what they say about mothering style. Lucy (probably) carried her infants. The infants of the owner of the new fossil foot (probably) clung to her with their grasping toes. Says Dunsworth:

Lucy would have had to care for infants more intensely than the [owner of the new fossil foot]. These species would have had different mother-infant interactions.

Dunsworth doesn't take her analysis any further, but there's lots of meat there for speculation about the evolution of human social behavior, child-rearing, psychological patterns, possibly even ideas about why Homo sap survived when all the other hominins are long gone. Anatomy as destiny. Well, a part of destiny anyway.

There's lots of junk out there in the blogosphere, but these last two posts exemplify the brilliance of science blogging. If you wanted to shoehorn them into traditional literary forms, I guess you could call them informal essays. But traditional constraints don't do justice to their imaginative rambling erudition, an erudition that sees connections among far-flung things that the infinite Web gives them space to spin out and display for the rest of us. No existing paper platform could offer them a home, and for that matter not many electronic platforms either.

Bless the blog. Nothing else like it.

April 6, 2012

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