Quick – which of these lines is longer?
If you’re reading this, you’re taking too long to answer the question.
If you said the one on the right, congratulations! You’re wrong, of course, but your brain is working perfectly well. This is an example of an optical illusion, an image specifically created to trick your brain. You probably saw a lot of these as a kid, and you may have even thought they were fun. I know I did. I remember finding optical illusions in books, learning about the trick, and then quizzing classmates about them (I was a strange kid). I got satisfaction from knowing the trick to the picture, especially when others couldn’t see the illusion.
Once I got through graduate school, though, I realized that there are a lot of times where knowing the trick just brings up more questions. For example, let’s look at those lines again:
Yup, still lines.
The right one still looks longer, right? But we absolutely know that these lines are the same length! That’s why, to me, the big question is this:
Why does the illusion still work, even after we know the trick?
It’s World Cup time, and around the world football and soccer fans are lining up to complain about how stupid the word “soccer” is. 31 of the world’s best footballing nations (and England) came to Brazil for a chance at glory and honor in the world’s favorite pastime. While many of the people in the U.S.A. may have only watched by accident, chances are good that you saw something remarkable this year. No, it’s not the US watching soccer once the cup’s over – that has no chance of happening. Take a look at this free kick (I humbly suggest muting the video and watching the first 45 seconds):
This is the final part of my series documenting my time at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Previous entries: Introduction, Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.
Part 5: Lessons Learned and Coming Home
All we have to do now is wait for our shuttle back to the airport. Around me there are all sorts of scientists who look just how I feel: Tired and ready to go home for some relaxation, but also anxious and ready to get back into the lab and work on some of the ideas that they got from the conference. A number of them also look like they have hangovers that could slay the most alcohol-tolerant of English dockworkers. So, you know, a pretty successful week, overall. I had a great time at the conference. It was very interesting, but also quite a bit of work for me. Even after two years of working on this system, there is just so much more to know about how sea urchins grow and develop. It can be a bit overwhelming, but I know that if other people here can understand it, then in the future I can too. I hope that next time I have a talk to give, because it really seems like talking to these people about my work would be extremely exciting and rewarding.
Previous entries: Part 1, Part 2, and Part 3.
Part 4: The Last of the Talks & a Poster Session
I’d like to take a moment to talk more generally about the dinners here. Not about the food, mind you, but about the people. For example, as people arrived on the first day, they would unload their stuff as quickly as they could to get to the dining hall. Yes, they we hungry, but more often they were coming in to see who was already there. Almost all of the professors in the sea urchin community know each other, either from past meetings or from having worked in the same labs before, as graduate students and post-doctoral fellows. And so there was a distinct reunion vibe to this first dinner that was a bit infectious. I remember one woman walking in with her bags and looking around. When she saw someone she knew, she dropped her bags and ran across the room to give him a hug and start a conversation. While these people email and call each other fairly frequently, they only get to see each other at this meeting, which only happens once every eighteen months or so. It doesn’t matter that they’re scientists, they still treat this meeting as a great opportunity to catch up with old friends. One really interesting way this manifests is that the PIs often all sit together at two or three tables in the corner, so that they can all keep talking at every meal. Also, at dinner tonight, I had the apparently revolutionary idea to walk along the whole dinner buffet to decide what I wanted to eat before getting into line. I find it fascinating that people that are generally very careful can go to dinner, get their food, then sit at a table with their friends and say, “Oh, shoot, they had corn bread? Why did I fill my plate with salad?”
Previous entries about my experience at Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins: Part 1, Part 2
Day 3: Finding A Routine, Learning New Strategies, Seeing Strange Fashion
On Saturday night, there’s a poster session and mixer. Over the last two days, many perfectly polished posters were pushpinned into place. In other, less alliterative words, right now there’s a room full of posters waiting to be discussed. It kind of feels like a locker room, with all of the posters playing the part of a team getting ready for their moment to shine.
This is part 2 of my experiences at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference. Part 1 can be found here.
Day 2: Food, Talks, and the Sinister Side of Science
A quick update, because the first talks start in 20 minutes. The food here is merely “edible,” meaning it’s better than your standard cafeteria, but actually putting effort into the food would simply be too much work because there are over 100 people eating at each meal. One thing about the meals is that they are much more casual than the actual talks, so people are much freer to discuss which aspects of their projects are frustrating, annoying, or confusing. I bet that about 70% of the actual science that’s done at these conferences is done over a burger and beer (although, since WHOI is in Massachusetts, it’s more likely to be a bowl of chowder and a Sam Adams). One observation I made is that the people here (especially the professors) seem to enjoy wine. A lot. Most meals resulted in enough bottles of wine being emptied that there’s probably a vineyard or two near Wooster that’s scrambling to replenish their inventory. Either way, there’s a lot of interesting discussion happening over meals that are really useful to doing science. The talks and posters are for telling everyone what you’ve done, but the meals are for talking about what you’re going to do.
This is the first article in a series about my experience at the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. For an introduction, click here.
Day 1: Travel and First Impressions
Because it was the cheapest flight, my plane from Pittsburgh to Boston leaves at 8:45 AM today. Because I’m an anxious guy who assumes that everything at the airport will take as long as possible, I had to wake up at 5:30 AM, to carpool to the airport at 6:00 AM, so I can get through security by 8 AM, so I can get some breakfast before boarding at 8:30 AM. It would have been more expensive, but I would have had a lot more fun driving to New York or Philadelphia on Tuesday, staying the night in a hotel, then finishing the trip Wednesday. But I’m paying for the trip with a grant, so I have to do the trip on the cheap. I hate air travel. I get awful motion sickness from both takeoff and landing, so I spend the entire lead-up to takeoff anxious about getting sick, then I spend the whole flight anxious about getting sick when we land. That’s why I avoid planes whenever possible. I don’t get too sick from cars, trains, or even boats – it’s just airplanes that have my number. I think it’s because my body is wholly aware that humans were never meant to enter parabolic trajectories above an altitude of about two feet.
Prologue – Why is there a conference about sea urchins?
This year I went to my first multi-day conference as a graduate student, the Developmental Biology of Sea Urchins conference at the Marine Biology Laboratory, located in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. I was a little nervous, because I didn’t feel like I knew all that much about the field, and also because I had no idea how it was possible to spend four days talking about sea urchins. Then I realized that every researcher will have to attend their first conference at some point, so I decided to write about the experience for all of you who want to know what happens when you get 100 scientists together who all work on the same problems.
Robert Hooke’s microscope is fancier than anything I own, period. (Photo credit: Wikimedia commons)
“I could exceedingly plainly perceive it to be all perforated and porous, much like a Honey-comb, but that the pores of it were not regular. . . . these pores, or cells, . . . were indeed the first microscopical pores I ever saw, and perhaps, that were ever seen, for I had not met with any Writer or Person, that had made any mention of them before this. . .”1 With these words, 17th century scientist and professional British person Robert Hooke realized there is literally more to life than we can see with our eyes. Continue reading
Last time, we went through two reasons why antibiotics may not be necessary in hand soaps. First, there has not been very much study about how safe these antibiotics are, especially Triclosan. Because we don’t know for sure, the FDA wants antibiotic manufacturers to be certain that their soaps are safe. But the second argument went into reasons why the antibiotics may not be needed at all. Research from Columbia and the University of Michigan reviewed papers back to the 1960s and found that the best way to reduce the risk of infection is to wash your hands, but what kind of soap is used is much less important than the duration1. So the antibiotics may be unsafe, particularly to the environment, and they may not be necessary. Today, the final part of the argument will show how antibiotics in consumer hand soaps may, paradoxically, be detrimental to health. Continue reading