Depressed people have to pop pills. It’s currently one of the only ways to manage the disorder. 350 million people around the world suffer from some kind of depression, and those who are fortunate enough to get treated for it are typically prescribed medication that they have to take multiple times a day. The medications may work, but they also come with countless other negative side effects and take weeks to take effect.
What if you could manage your depression with a single pill taken only once? What if this pill had no side effects and started working immediately? Sounds like science fiction, right? Well it’s not. In fact, this “Magic Pill” has been a part of human culture for thousands of years. It’s only recently that scientists are beginning to explore the possibility that magic mushrooms may have therapeutic effects.
Scientists have a reputation for not being terribly funny or up to date on the latest pop culture trends. But every once in a while, something comes out of the blue to chip away at that narrative. Geneticists seem to be particularly capable of pulling off culturally relevant jokes. Rather than referring to gene Zbtb7, for example, geneticists went with the much more fun (and easier to pronounce) POKemon. At least until the lawyers forced them to stop.
But many names have made it through the peer-review process, scientifically proving that geneticists are the funniest scientists out there.
Growing up reading Harry Potter, my favorite parts of the series weren’t the coming of age stories, nor the magical spells, nor the combat and adventure. Instead I obsessed over the mythical science, potions, and creatures. I was captivated by the Harry Potter companion book Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and wondered, did such fantastic creatures exist in our world?
We tend to think that all parts of the map that were once labelled “Here be dragons” are free from mysteries. True magic may not exist, but there are still beasts at the corners of the world with abilities so magical that scientists have not yet entirely figured them out. Let’s take a look at five entries in a modern-day muggle edition of Newt Scamander’s encyclopedia.
In the summer of 2012, scientist and entrepreneur Russ George sailed purposefully past the coast of Vancouver to the archipelago of Haida Gwaii. There, he proceeded to dump 100 tons of iron sulfate into 10,000 square miles of ocean.
The Haida Indians had given him their blessing. George was the director of the Haida Salmon Restoration Corporation, and the Haida Indians were told that this iron would fertilize the plankton, a valuable feedstock for the native salmon. But George’s intentions went beyond fish farming: adding iron would allow swarms of plankton to blossom, which would draw down massive amounts of carbon dioxide. Russ George claimed to have found a solution for amending the starving salmon population and mitigating the rising concentration of greenhouse gases in one fell swoop.
Most experts, however, were infuriated.
Since then, George has become an infamous case of the dangerous line between ingenuity and recklessness. Supporters argue that such drastic measures may be needed in the future unless we somehow reduce our greenhouse gas emission. But most scientists and policymakers argue that his hasty deed had no scientific merit, and could cause irreversible damage to the ocean environment.
How could an experiment with such good intentions have gone so wrong?
There’s a hairy beast out on the prowl. It spots its prey from a distance, stalks along the forest floor, and pounces with a mighty flying leap. It then proceeds to suck its prey dry.
This animal is, of course, a tiny jumping spider.
You may not be used to thinking of spiders as strategic hunters, but jumping spiders have cat-like talents, bundled in package smaller than a dime. Take a look at how these spiders make your house cat look like an amateur hunter.
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?
Erin Andrews is sold on probiotics. Are you?
Erin Andrews is trying to sell me probiotics.1 She is walking through a bustling gym wearing a sharp blazer and a fresh blow out. Male patrons gawk. She bubbles that the euphoric powers of probiotics can improve digestion and immunity. She takes probiotics, and she has grown tall, healthy, and has a sweet gig interviewing football players. And now every gym member is clamoring to get a slice of that probiotic pie.
In fourth grade, my classmates and I were assigned a project. We were to research our favorite animal at the local library, and give a presentation on this animal to the rest of the class. When it was time for our presentations, most of my classmates excitedly gabbed about lions, tigers, humpback whales, or dolphins. I went in front of the class to present my favorite animal, the weasel.
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?”