The Sonification of Science

“If music is inherent in all things and places, then why not let music play itself? The composer, in the traditional sense, might no longer be necessary. Let the planets and spheres spin.” – David Byrne

As science becomes further entrenched in the era of Big Data, scientists are facing the increasing challenges of how to organize large data sets generated by computation and automation in useful ways. Visualization is the standard method of representing scientific information and often yields visually striking images that can help reveal patterns in the data.

“This visualization depicts the carbon dioxide from various sources that are advected individually as tracers in the atmosphere model. Carbon dioxide from the ocean is shown as plumes during Feb. 1900.
Image courtesy of Forrest Hoffman and Jamison Daniel of Oak Ridge National Laboratory.”

Recently, however, scientists have been tinkering with different ways to experience scientific data–namely, through hearing it. Scientists, often in collaboration with artists, have used these large data sets to generate music. Here’s a recent sampling of science, musically-sonified:

The Music of Microbes

 “The English Channel project involves sequencing DNA found in the seawater and trying to piece together a sense of how some of these microbial systems work. How do thevarious organisms interact with one another? How do they respond to changing conditions like temperature, nutrients, acidity? The research generates terabytes upon terabytes of data.

To turn some of it into music, Larsen mapped environmental conditions–daylight, temperature, phosphorous level–to specific chords. When the conditions change, the chords change. Then he took the microbial concentrations at each of those environmental conditions—how much of a certain type of microbe exists at a certain temperature, say—and mapped each one to a scale. The chords play in a particular scale, depending on how the environmental conditions affect the size of the microbe communities.” (read more)

Listen to the Higgs Boson

‘Vicinanza led the Higgs sonification project collaborating with Mariapaola Sorrentino of ASTRA Project (Cambridge), who contributed to the sonification process, and Giuseppe La Rocca (INFN Catania), who was in charge of  the computing framework.

“Sonification worked by attaching a musical note to each data. So, when you hear the resulting melody you really are hearing the data,” Vicinanza said.

The researchers mapped intervals between values in the original data set to interval between notes in the melody. The same numerical value was associated to the same note. As the values increased or decreased, the pitch of the notes grew or diminished accordingly.’ (read more)

Scientists translate gamma rays to music

Published Thursday on the Fermi blog, this cosmic concert came from GRB-080916C, an especially strong gamma-ray burst that NASA recorded in September 2008. To make it audible, Fermi researchers converted the GRB’s energy signature into musical notes played on a harp, a cello and a piano. They also made an animation of its photon frequency, and then paired these sights and sounds” (read more)

Related Reading:

Music from tiny particles’ movements set to debut

Scientists listen to the sun in new sonification project

Joy Division’s Iconic Album Cover Is Actually a Data Visualization

Voters also have a right to know the science behind GMOs

On November 6th, California voters will decide if foods containing genetically modified organisms (GMO) will require labeling. Prop37 argues that consumers have a right to know so that they can make informed choices regarding the foods they buy. One of the issues that scientists have with this initiative is that Prop37, as well as media coverage of GMOs, contain misleading language that distorts the science behind how GMOs are made and how safe they are for consumption. This raises, then, the question of how useful would labeling of GMO foods be if there is general public misconception of the topic.

Katie PhD explains “what exactly IS a genetically modified plant” on her blog.

Many scientists and science communicators are seizing this opportunity to educate the public about GMOs. Some are taking the opportunity to explain to the public what a GMO actually is while others are providing insight concerning the safety of GMO foods. Others are exposing flaws in a recent study that claims GMO maize causes cancer (More related links can be found in Keith Kloors’ article in Slate).

Unsurprisingly, those entering the fray can also expect to have their credibility questioned. The food industry corporations, having spent a considerable amount of money in an effort to defeat Prop37, have provided the anti-GMO/pro-labeling crowd with a convenient way to dismiss or discredit scientists defending GMOs: they are all corporate shills (or worse). This, of course, is absurd. Could industry money be swaying scientist’s stance on GMOs? Maybe. But if scientists are that easily corruptible by money, why aren’t more scientists anti-climate change? Absent polling data, it’s unclear to me where scientists fall on the issue of GMO labeling (although, you can help by filling out this survey being conducted by @Katie_PhD). Anecdotally, in my interactions with other scientists, the stances on GMO labeling are not monolithic. Some are pro, some are anti, while others are ambivalent.

The issue for most scientists, I think, is not so much the labeling requirement itself, but the distortion of information being used to justify it and how that ultimately undermines science. The difficulty of course is that scientists are trying to engage the public dispassionately about a topic the public takes very personally. In my view, I don’t think GMO foods require labeling, but I certainly respect the public’s right to vote on this issue. However, by Prop37’s logic, if the consumer has a right to know if their foods contain to GMOs so that they can make informed decisions, then the public has the right to information so they can make an informed vote. Scientists are just making sure that they are getting accurate information.

Related Reading:

How California’s GMO Labeling Law Could Limit Your Food Choices and Hurt the Poor

The transfer of genes between unrelated organisms happens. All. The. Time.

Advice for Graduate Students of all Scientific Stripes and Stages

For this week’s Worldwide Wednesday post, here are some links with helpful advice for graduate students of all scientific stripes and stages.

Rookie class:

For most of you bright-eyed incoming grad students, choosing a thesis advisor will ultimately come down to research interest. Some of will you will go through lab rotations, which serve as 1) an audition, and 2) to determine if your interests align. But don’t forget to consider the intangibles: Are your working philosophies compatible? Will you integrate seamlessly in the lab/research group? What are the completion rates and times in said lab? And where do graduates end up after completing their thesis?

Mentor selection, of course, does not end there. At some point, you will also have to choose your thesis committee and a “good committee is worth it’s weight in gold.” I happen to agree. Unfortunately, in my observations, thesis committees are often underused and undervalued. Choosing a good committee will be important for your graduate career as they serve not only as advisors, but also as advocates and the beginning of your professional network. (You can read more of the Twitter conversation about selecting a thesis committee here)

The “in your prime” years:

It’s never too early to start thinking about your career after grad school. It’s true, believe me. That’s right, I’m talking to you, “good-data-generatin’, conference-travelin’,” excited third years. Not to be a killjoy, but it’s a poorly kept secret that jobs of the academic, tenure-track variety are getting harder to come by. Nature’s Soapbox Science series on revamping the PhD (PhDelta) is a good place to start reading about what you can do to make yourself more “marketable” and “flexible” to a changing job market. These pieces in Development and ASBMB list non-research and private sector jobs available to science PhD’s, of which you might not have been aware. Lastly, there’s the Individual Development Plan, which is a “new Web-based career-planning tool created to help graduate students and postdocs in the sciences define and pursue their career goals.“ I haven’t had a chance to really explore this web tool yet, but it’s worth a look see.

Grizzled (and maybe disgruntled) veterans:

And all of you with one foot out the door…how many times have you talked your way out of doing an experiment? Well, don’t talk yourself out of applying for jobs , because, well you know, “No one ever got a job by not applying.” And while on the topic of applying for jobs, if you haven’t started a CV yet, what’s the hold up? Here’s a crash course primer to what should be included in your CV (hint: Everything)–bearing in mind that CV’s will need to be tailored for each job application.

How to turn your CV into a Resume.


Good luck!

Related Reading:

CVs/Covering Letters

So you want to be a…

Nonacademic Careers for BioScientists

There is life after the bench

Autism in the News

Autism is coming off a big week in the news. The New York Times covered a recent study, which suggested that the risk of autism in children is linked to paternal age since older fathers pass on more mutations to their children. In another New York Times piece, this time an Op-Ed, Moises Velasquez-Manoff offers up the possibility that autism might be an autoimmune disorder. This is an idea with roots in the hygiene hypothesiswhich proposes that conditions like asthma and allergies are the result of a “bored” immune system, no longer burdened with fending off parasites (hence the hygiene), mounting an inappropriate response against the body or otherwise, unharmful, environmental substances (e.g. pollen). Lastly, there was the announcement of an FDA-approved trial using stem cells as a therapy for autism. In a week when headlines were dominated by autism, here were my favorite reads that offered some balance and insight:

On the Paternal Age and Autism linkVirginia Hughes gives us the “Top 3 Reasons to Stop Fretting About Being an Old Dad,” while Seth Mnookin writes about an overlooked implication of this study–“that the genetic health of the species is now facing a serious threat.” With regard to the stem cell trial for autism, Youssef Rizk explores how the design of the trial sidesteps ethical complications by using the patient’s own cord blood stem cell, and Kathleen Raven, rather than simply calling the trial a “cure,” explains the hypothesis being tested in the trial and the, “study’s primary goal…assessing changes in patients’ speaking and understanding of vocabulary.” As for Velaquez Manoff’s Op-Ed piece on autism as an autoimmune disease, Jonathan Eisen laments the “lack of a discussion of the distinction between correlation and causation.” And finally, Emily Willingham, in her critique, isn’t quite buying what Velaquez-Manoff is selling:

“From the headline to the final paragraphs focused on using parasitic worms to treat or even prevent autism, the science as Velasquez-Manoff presents it is limited at best, and frequently unsourced and unreferenced. Where a source is given or traceable, the conclusions are overstated or cherry-picked.”

Maybe we should just not eat anything

It seems like every week the news runs a story, based on some new study, that either touts the health benefits or demonizes the hazards of a particular food. One week, it’s eat walnuts if you want healthy spermies. Other weeks, it’s eating red meat could raise the risk of bowel cancer. Unfortunately, many of these stories lack, well, journalistic vigor, which can often lead to a regurgitation of the study’s press release, sensationalization of the studies claims, or worse, outright distortion of its conclusions. Other times, it overlooks just plain, old bad science. And to add to the confusion, this week’s story might contradict the findings of past nutrition research–leaving many of us wondering, “What CAN I eat, then?”

Luckily, capable science writers and communicators often step in to fill in the gap. Take for instance, Cassandra Willyard’s dissection of the actual study that many news outlets declared demonstrated eating eggs was almost as bad for your arteries as smoking cigarettes.

Or biochembelle’s breakdown of the link between Alzheimer’s and exposure to diacetyl, an ingredient in popcorn butter flavoring–pointing out that most of the articles failed to mention who was really at risk (industry workers) and also, that the “two major manufacturers, ConAgra and PopWeaver, removed diacetyl from their microwave popcorn.” Lastly, for a longer read, Gary Taubes writes on the limits of observational epidemiology, after reports that “meat-eating apparently causes premature death and disease” and “that chocolate is a food we should all be eating to lose weight” were published earlier this year.

These science writers provide insight and perspective into the science involved in food research by pointing out the limitations of these studies, illustrating what the news simply got wrong, or even  reminding us that sometimes we need to take these studies…with a grain of salt. And maybe, that’s why some of these journalists take the easy road. They know that someone else will come in later and do the hard work.

Related Reading:

Pink Slime: My beef with Jamie Oliver and Food Blogs

Is Sugar Really Sugar?

Image credits:

Walnuts courtesy of Marco Bernardini

Egg and Cigarette courtesy of Benjamin Maubach

Popcorn courtesy of  Jeff Baxter 


The problem with gender verification in the Olympics.

At the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Caster Semenya had the honor of carrying South Africa’s flag. This week, she makes her Olympic debut (qualifier preliminary heat spoiler alert) representing her country in the 800m and 1500m events. This is in stark contrast to 3 years ago, when Semenya was banned from competition by the IAAF after cruising her way to gold in the 800m at the World Athletic Championships in Berlin. Combined with her physical appearance, Semenya’s dominating performance came at a price, fueling speculations that she was not, in fact, a woman. After her victory, Semenya was barred from competing until her gender was verified by genetic testing. As you will see, this can be subjective and unreliable (You can try for yourself using the HHMI’s biointeractive gender test).

Humans have two sex chromosomes designated as X and Y chromosomes. Females have two X chromosomes (XX) while males have one X and one Y chromosome (XY). One of the major factors that initiates male sex determination is a protein called Testis-determining factor, which is encoded by the SRY (Sex-determining region Y) gene normally found only on the Y chromosome. So, at first glance it would appear that a simple sex chromosome test would suffice to verify sex. 

In humans, females have two X chromosomes and males have one X and one Y chromosome. The Sex-determining region Y (SRY) gene drives male sex determination and is found on the Y chromosome.

However, the  line delineating sex is not so rigid– disorders of sex development (DSD) can complicate reconciling genetics with gender and sex. For instance, in Swyer syndrome, individuals appear outwardly female and have a normal uterus and Fallopian tubes, despite having the  male sex chromosome karyotype (number and appearance of chromosomes in the cell): XY. This condition arises when the SRY gene on the Y chromosome has either been lost or mutated and, as a result, male sex determination cannot be initiated. Instead, these individuals develop physically as females. 

Male sex determination cannot be initiated because the SRY gene is either mutated or lost.

On the other hand, an individual with an XX karyotype can develop as male is if one of the X (X*) chromosomes abnormally carries the SRY gene. The SRY gene can find its way from the Y to the X chromosome through chromosomal crossover, a phenomenon where corresponding chromosomes exchange parts with each other to generate new, unique chromosomes. This usually occurs during meiosis, a specialized form of cell division that gives rise to either sperm or egg. Crossovers ensure that different combinations of paternal genes are packaged into sperm and different combinations of maternal genes are packaged into eggs. This recombination of chromosomes is the reason why we look different from our siblings (exception: identical twins) and is generally good because it increases genetic diversity.

Recombination between the X and Y chromosomes normally occurs only at the tips of the chromosomes, beyond the region that encompasses the SRY gene. However, sometimes recombination can go awry and crossing over occurs such that the SRY gene is moved to the X chromosome. Since the SRY gene is located on the Y chromosome, the abnormal recombination event that results in an X* chromosome must occur in the father of an XX individual. The presence of the SRY gene, even in the absence of a Y chromosome, is sufficient to initiate male sex determination.

Abnormal recombination in the father of XX males, results in an X chromosome that carries the SRY gene (designated X*). Reproduction involving sperm that carry the X* results in XX* males since the presence of the SRY gene, even in the absence of a Y chromosome, can initiate male sex determination.

Given the importance of the SRY gene in male sex determination, one might expect a test that detected the presence of SRY would be adequate to verify gender. But even this test has it’s problems. For one, the test is subject to false positives since it can detect the presence of a mutated, non-functional SRY gene. There are also conditions which can override male development, even when the SRY gene is present. Such was the case for “8 of 3,387 female athletes” who tested positive for the SRY gene, but were allowed to compete at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. In addition to carrying SRY, these 8 athletes also had a condition known as androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), which rendered them insensitive to the effects of male hormones such as testosterone.

Now, the International Olympics Committee (IOC) is pivoting away from gender verification to what they consider testing female “eligibility” by measuring levels of naturally occurring testosterone, a hormone classically associated with masculinity. This is not to be confused with tests that detect synthetic testosterone used for dopingUnder the IOC’s new rules, “women with levels of testosterone that reach a man’s [emphasis mine] normal level will be barred from competing with other women if it is found that the athlete’s body is responsive to androgens.” Still sounds like a gender verification test to me.


Unfortunately, testosterone is also an unreliable standard. For one, some women have abnormally high levels of testosterone, a condition known as hyperandrogenism. Secondly, as Rebeeca Jordan-Young and Katrina Karkazis write in the New York Times, “Testosterone is one of the most slippery markers that sports authorities have come up with yet. Yes, average testosterone levels are markedly different for men and women. But levels vary widely depending on time of day, time of life, social status and — crucially — one’s history of athletic training. Moreover, cellular responses range so widely that testosterone level alone is meaningless.” It’s also unclear whether higher levels of testosterone is a key factor in athleticism in women. Lastly, androgen insensitivity syndrome (AIS), or the inability to respond to male hormones such as testosterone, is overrepresented in women athletes. 

Testosterone testing, and gender verification in general, also reeks of sexism and discrimination, reinforcing not only perceptions of what a women should look like but also placing limits on what women can physically achieve**. Jesse Ellison of the Daily Beast writes,

“It all highlights a cruel injustice: the policy—and the testing, treatment, and humiliation that can come with it—only applies to female athletes. Men who excel at, say, ice dancing or synchronized swimming, where success has more to do with grace and rhythm than brute strength or speed, simply aren’t questioned in the same way women are. In 2010, after two French-Canadian sports commentators snickered over the flamboyant skating champion Johnny Weir and suggested that he should compete with the women, they were immediately and vociferously condemned for what was widely perceived as homophobic, despicable language. (This was, keep in mind, precisely the moment that Semenya was living in virtual exile after the subject of her gender had made international news.) Similarly, there is no upper—or lower, for that matter—limit to the amount of testosterone their bodies naturally produce.”

All of which raises the question: If the IOC feels that high levels of natural testosterone offer an unfair advantage, then will they apply an eligibility policy to men as well?

China’s Ye Shiwen after winning gold in the women’s 200 IM.
Photo by Adam Pretty/Getty Images

Note: On the use of gender, Wood and Stanton: “Unfortunately, ‘gender verification’ is a misnomer that confuses the distinction between sex and gender. Sex is a biologic definition that distinguishes male and female; gender is the sense of one’s own self as a man or woman.”

** While the speculations surrounding Chinese Olympic swimmer, Ye Shiwen, is the suspicion of doping and not gender, it should be noted that it has been framed within the context of gender since in the “final 50 meters of the IM’s freestyle leg, she swam faster than Ryan Lochte did in that portion of his gold-medal-winning 400-meter IM.”

1) Eggers S, Sinclair A. Mammalian sex determination—insights from humans and mice. Chromosome Res. 2012 Jan;20(1):215-38. Review. PubMed PMID: 22290220; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3279640.

2) Wood RI, Stanton SJ. Testosterone and sport: current perspectives. Horm Behav.2012 Jan;61(1):147-55. Epub 2011 Oct 1. Review. PubMed PMID: 21983229; PubMed Central PMCID: PMC3264812.

Related Reading:

Olympic inequality: Studies show Olympics commentary differs based on gender, race and nationality

Sex Hormones! The Chemistry Behind Testosterone Doping


by Viet Le

Oxytocin gets the Yong treatment

*This was originally intended for last week’s Worldwide Wednesday post (7.18.12), but then I got sucked into the whole Aquaman debacle. You know, priorities and such. Better late than never.

The responsibility of a science writer, aside from, you know, communicating science, is to call out bullcrap when they see it, whether it be bad science or bad science journalism. Consider it self-policing. Or a very public form of peer review. This is what Ed Yong did last week in his takedown of the media’s continuing characterization of oxytocin as the “moral molecule.

Oxytocin is a hormone that has been long been known to play a role in lactation, sexual arousal, and uterine contractions. However, in 2005, a report was published in Nature demonstrating oxytocin’s ability to increase trust between strangers. Since then, oxytocin has been hyped as the hormone underlying human morality and trust by both the media and Dr. Paul Zak, also affectionately known as Dr. Love given his penchant for giving hugs, who was third–as many have pointed out–author of the 2005 report. Some have even gone as far as branding oxytocin as a potential cure-all drug for many of the world’s ills. As Ed Yong writes in Slate:

“Oxytocin hype might be storming the heavens, but oxytocin science is still finding its footing. Early studies certainly bathed the hormone in a shiny glow, but later ones uncovered a darker side [link mine]. The “love hormone” fosters trust and generosity in some situations but envy and bias in others, and it can produce opposite effects in different people. A more nuanced view of oxytocin is coming to light—one that’s inconsistent with the simplistic “moral molecule” moniker…the hype around oxytocin hurts and exploits vulnerable people. The hormone’s reputed ability to fix social ills has drawn the attention of parents whose children have autism, depression, or other conditions characterised by social problems.”

It should be noted, however, that Dr. Zak was at one time a healthy skeptic of oxytocin. Pondering Dr. Zak’s change of heart, The Neurocritic asks, “What happened in the last few years? Was it the TEDification of academic media success and book deals? Repeated use of the first person singular when referring to work done by a multitude of people?” Is anyone else suffering from TED fatigue?

Who can blame Ed Yong for going after the media’s fixation with oxytocin so doggedly? Just read io9’s “10 Reasons Why Oxytocin Is The Most Amazing Molecule In The World,” which makes this eye-rolling proclamation, “It’s clear that we really wouldn’t be human without it — we would simply lack the ability to be the social, caring species that we are.” Now it’s the “human” molecule, too?

One doesn’t have to look too far beyond the io9 article to see that oxytocin as the seat of human morality might be too simplistic a notion. For example, the article touts many benefits of the hormone, one of which is it’s ability to create sexual arousal. Yet, the paper that is linked in the io9 article discusses not only oxytocin, but also the roles of the hormones testosterone, estrogen, endorphin and prolactin in sexual arousal. Pertaining to obesity, the article states that researchers “have observed that oxytocin and oxytocin receptor-deficient mice become obese later in life.” But obesity has been linked to lower levels of testosterone as well. Furthermore, it has been suggested that testosterone might work in opposition to oxytocin and increase feelings of distrust. All of which illustrates that hormones are complex molecules that have myriad effects on our bodies and behavior. And given that bodily functions and complex behaviors are often times governed by many molecular inputs it would be naive for us to think that oxytocin alone would explain our moral nature.

Dear Science, leave Aquaman alone!

Defending Aquaman

This morning, Andrew Thaler (@SFriedScientist) over at Southern Fried Science posted a scathing, and some might say scurrilous, “science-based” attack on our beloved Aquaman. Not surprisingly, comic geeks have rushed to Aquaman’s defense (identities have been removed to protect their nerdiness):

Science and Comic Book Heroes

Best Incredible Hulk drawing ever!

Aquaman, of course, isn’t the only comic book hero to come under scientific scrutiny. The Incredible Hulk, for instance, has had his anatomy intrepreted, the physics of his jump analyzed, as well as his gamma ray-induced origins questioned. The Science of Superheroes even suggests an alternate origin for the Hulk based on experiments involving adrenal glands and green fluorescent protein. Similarly, the trajectory and velocity of Batman falling have been calculated. These are just a handful of examples, but you can find scientific analyses for many popular comic book heroes on the Internet. Just try this Google search formula: “(y of) + x,” where y = science, physics, or biology, and x = name of superhero.

What’s with science’s obsession with comic book heroes? Well for one, ALL scientists are comic book fans–I’m extrapolating, of course, from the fact that I am a biologist AND a comic book fan. Second, scientists love to think about brain-tantalizing problems. In fact, it’s basically what we’re preoccupied with all day–thinking about unexplained phenomena and then coming up with testable explanations. For us, comic books are an endless treasure trove of fantastic feats and incredible phenomena. So while it might appear like we’re all trying to ruin the fun, we’re really not. We just might love science a tad bit more than comic book heroes. And the fact that we can engage and illustrate scientific concepts to the public (excluding fanboys and apologists) with a readily an instantly relatable subject is an added bonus. Andrew Thaler could have simply wrote a blog post about physiological adaptations to life in the ocean, but bashing Aquaman provided a much more compelling framework to draw readers in.* After all, I think most would agree that comic book-themed physics problems sure beat this: 

A person standing on the edge of a 100 m high cliff drops a 0.5 kg stone vertically downwards. Determine the final velocity of the stone after falling 100m, and its kinetic energy.

*Updated 7.19.12

Featured image credit:

Links from the Facebook stream:


The Updated History of Aquaman’s Hands

MSS: Ep 132: Science of Superheroes – The Hulk

Gamma Rays: The Incredible, Hulking Reality


“What are you going to do after you get your PhD?”

It’s a question familiar to every PhD student, ranking up there with “When will you finish?”, and if you’re lucky enough to be in biology: “Are you working on a cure for cancer?” As a PhD student entering the twilight of my graduate school career, I have been thinking more and more about what I want to do next. Whether it be a post-doc in academia, industry, or a complete change of pace such as work in science communication or policy, the prospects of a new project in a new setting can be exciting. Other times, the uncertainty turns my stomach over with anxiety.

After reading U.S. pushes for more scientists, but the jobs aren’t there, Sunday felt more like the latter. The article fingers a confluence of factors contributing to the lack of STEM jobs, in particular for biology and chemistry PhDs. These include: a scarcity of traditional academic jobs, an overproduction of PhDs from 2003-2007, stagnant federal spending on research spending, and significant job contraction in the pharmaceutical industry. Put simply, the PhD bubble burst and now there aren’t enough jobs to go around. And as if the article isn’t disheartening enough, it ends with a woman discouraging her daughter from pursuing science–so much for efforts in encouraging women in STEM.

What, then, is a newly minted PhD to do? Some find themselves working jobs for which they did not specifically train, such as an academic administrator. One emerging profession, called a knowledge broker, is also something to consider. Others might take different routes into science writing and communication. But as David Kroll points out, “Even a typical non-lab career of science writing is becoming extremely competitive, both for salaried positions and freelancers.” Not particularly encouraging news, considering how I started blogging to try my hand at writing.

Or perhaps we should be taking a cue from our more math-inclined brethren. Physics and astronomy PhD’s seem to be the exemption to this trend and are finding jobs in a variety of fields and industries. This is probably because, as Julianne Dalcanton explains, “a typical astronomy postdoc has experience with software development, image processing, filtering, large data volumes, experimental design, data visualization, project management, proposal preparation, and technical writing — all of which are generic skills that can be applied to a wide variety of technical positions outside of astronomy.” Take home message: obtain a skill set that is marketable and applicable to many different jobs. 

Or maybe we should keep things in perspective. As the article points out, the unemployment rate for chemistry PhD’s is around 4.6, while physics and astronomy is even lower at 1-2. No numbers were provided for biology PhD’s, but I suspect its lower than the national average. Razib Khan writes, “Consider that the woman who seems to have “wasted” a neuroscience Ph.D. in yesterday’s Washington Post article now has a job in academic administration. This is the sort of failure that manual laborers and factory workers alike would probably kill for.”

Truthfully, my ideal job would be some combination of what I currently do. I enjoy doing research, but I’d also like to devote some of my time towards education outreach programs like the one I’ve been involved with during grad school called ARISE. And I would also like to continue writing and blogging about science. The trick now is to find said job. And make sure it pays beaucoup bucks.

Related Reading:

More thoughts on the Washington Post article from Chemjobber

The Ph.D. Now Comes With Food Stamps (The article refers to the woman with a PhD as Ms. Apparently, once you go food stamps you lose your honorific.)

More than meets the eye

What is color?

If you’ve ever wondered if colors were really out there in nature or if they only existed in our minds then listen to last month’s Radiolab episode on Colors, “where Jad and Robert tear the rainbow to pieces.” Given its audio format, one of the standouts in the episode is the sonic interpretation of how a rainbow might appear differently to a dog, a human, and a mantis shrimp.

Comparison of the visible color spectrum of humans vs dogs.

Dogs, like most mammals, are dichromats–their eyes only have 2 types of photoreceptors: blue and yellow. This puts dog color vision on par with humans that are red-green colorblind. Humans, on the other hand, are trichromats, having a third photoreceptor for red in addition to blue and yellow.

Putting all of us to shame, the mantis shrimp has a whopping total of 16 types of photoreceptors (hexadecachromat anyone?), allowing them to see polarized light and into the UV spectrum (and perhaps appreciate each other’s pretty colors!)

Now imagine being a dog and not being able to appreciate this…OR imagine being a mantis shrimp and what a total mindbomb this would be:

The rest of the episode explores genetic engineering experiments that confer trichromacy to monkeys, the hunt for the fabled human “tetrachromat,” the mysteriously violent history of gamboge (a brilliant, yellow dye), and why blue is the last color to be attributed a word in nearly every culture.

Vertical stripes: The new black

Black clothing has a slimming effect due to an optical effect known as the “irradiation illusion, in which a black rectangle surrounded by white looks smaller than the same rectangle in white surrounded by black.”

The central squares are the same size, despite appearances given by the “irradiation illusion”

Another optical illusion suggests that horizontal stripes would also have a slimming effect. But amateur scientist and participant in Radio 4’s “So You Want to Be a Scientist?” Val Waltham disagrees. She put this effect to the test in 3-D by dressing models in outfits consisting of either vertical stripes, horizontal stripes, or plain black. Based on surveys she found that, “vertical stripes make people look taller, while horizontal hoops make them look wide – but plain black was the most slimming of all.”

Mental images

Close your eyes. Now imagine that you’re at the beach. Picture the sun, the sand, and the waves. Ever wonder how your mind creates these mental images? Neuroscientists at UTHealth are studying the neural mechanisms that allow us to form these images with the ultimate goal of designing a visual prosthetic to help the blind “see.”

Your eyes can play tricks on you

Have time to kill? Try this mysterious eye experiment.