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Olivia Goes On Sabbatical

I want to wish Olivia Judson well on her year off and on her book project. Science lovers everywhere will miss her. Enjoy her last column before her certain triumphant return. This resonated with me:

For me, ideas are capricious. They appear at unpredictable (and sometimes inconvenient) moments — when I’m in the bath, falling asleep, jumping rope, talking to friends. They are also like buses — it’s never clear when the next one will come, or how many will arrive at once.

[…]

But having an idea is one thing; developing it is another. Some ideas look great from the bathtub, but turn out to be as flimsy as soap bubbles — they pop when you touch them. Others are so huge they can’t easily be treated in 1,500 words or less, or would take two or three months to prepare. Still others — luckily — are just right. But I don’t usually find out which is which until I begin to investigate them. 

(image from jla.co.ok) 

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New Meaning to the Term Fat Head?

April 23, 2010 Leave a comment

Olivia Judson gives us another good reason (are more needed?) to work out and eat right.

Brains usually atrophy with age, but being obese appears to accelerate the process. This is bad news: pronounced brain atrophy is a feature of dementia.

Happy Birthday Mr Darwin!

February 12, 2010 2 comments


It’s time to celebrate one of the most significant lives in our species. Charles Darwin’s remarkable theory permeates more of science every year expanding our perspective on life on this planet. In one of my favorite books looking at Darwin’s influence on science and our understand of ourselves, Dan Dennett best describes the theory as a “universal acid.”

In honor of his birthday, here’s a great recent column by Olivia Judson. Enjoy.
Each ciliate has something called a micronucleus; this contains two complete versions of its genome. During sex, the micronucleus divides in such a way that each individual keeps one version of its genome for itself; it then gives an exact copy of this version to its partner. Afterwards, each individual fuses the two genomes (the one it kept and the one it got) to make a new micronucleus.

This has three odd consequences. The first is that, by the end of sex, the two individuals have become genetically identical. It’s as if you and your mate began coitus as yourselves and finished as identical twins. The second odd consequence is that, partway through its life, a ciliate can radically alter its genetic make-up; genetically speaking, the transformation is so extreme that it’s as if you changed into one of your children. Talk about being reborn.

Remembering the year (biologist style)

December 30, 2009 Leave a comment

Olivia Judson adds a new post on different types of memory in honor of the end of the year.

Another year; another 584 million miles traveled on our endless journey ’round the sun; another set of joys and regrets, disasters and triumphs. And sitting here, reflecting on the year, I am also moved to reflect on the nature of memory — and on memory in nature. For the conscious, brain-based memories that we humans set so much store by are not the only memories out there.

She goes on to discuss memory in the immune system in animals and defensive memory in plants such as a wild tobacco.
We tend to think of memory as unique to animals. But it isn’t. Plants also have a form of memory. Yes: they, too, are shaped by what happens to them, and alter their responses to future events based on their experiences in the past.

[…]

Tobacco plants attacked for the first time take longer to mount their defense than tobacco plants that have previously experienced an attack. This isn’t because the previously attacked plants keep on producing a higher level of nicotine — they don’t. Nicotine is expensive for a plant to make (it takes a lot of energy and requires large amounts of nitrogen, which the plant might prefer to use for other purposes), so they only do it when necessary. No: the previously attacked plants respond to new leaf damage more quickly. And plants that have been attacked twice are faster to respond than plants that have only been damaged once. Somehow, they remember.
I saw Olivia Judson on a NOVA program today (on Tuesday the 29th) discussing evolution which got me thinking. Just as scientists compare and contrast, say, the genomes and embryos of different forms of life to learn their evolutionary heritage, I wonder if anyone has looked into whether plant and immune system (as well as any possible others) memory are evolutionary precursors to conscience memory. What, if any, are their relationships? I threw that question up in the comments section under her blog post so if anyone responds with anything interesting I’ll share it.
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