How does our memory work? What’s the difference between remembering how to ride a bike and recalling people’s names? Is it possible to improve your memory? An exhibition in the Science Gallery is looking for the answers, writes BRIAN O’CONNELL
REMEMBER A NAME but can’t match it with a face? Good with numbers but useless at childhood recollections? Led by Prof Shane O’Mara of Trinity College, Memory Lab is a month-long experience at Science Gallery in Trinity College, which invites the public to take part in a range of scientific experiments aimed at examining how our memory works.
DICK AHLSTROM, Science Editor
DO YOU forget names seconds after an introduction? If so, then come along to the Science Gallery where you can participate in experiments in an exhibition called Memory Lab.
More here: http://sciencegallery.com/events
Posted by David Boaz
Matt Ridley’s new book, The Rational Optimist: How Prosperity Evolves, is garnering rave reviews. Ridley, science writer and popularizer of evolutionary psychology, shows how it was trade and specialization of labor–and the resulting massive growth in technological sophistication–that hauled humanity from its impoverished past to its comparatively rich present. These trends will continue, he argues, and will solve many of today’s most pressing problems, from the spread of disease to the threat of climate change.
The Cato Institute has now presented three different looks at the book, with a review in the Cato Journal, another in Regulation, and an event at Cato with Matt Ridley himself.
FWIW, it is one of the most enjoyable books I have read this year, and a great counter to the pervasive misery-mongering rife. The tagline ‘ideas having sex’ is a great metaphor for the advancement of knowledge. Here is his TED talk – well worth watching.
Great post on ‘The World Of Big Data’ by Andrew Sullivan -reproduced in full below.
In passing, a Government truly interested in developing the smart economy would engage in massive data dumps with the presumption that just about every piece of data it holds (excluding the most sensitive pieces of information) from ministerial diaries to fuel consumption records for Garda cars to activity logs for mobile phones to numbers of toilet rolls used in Government Departments would be dumped in realtime on to externally-interrrogable databases. This would be geek-heaven and would generate new technological applications beyond prediction and application. And the activity would be local – could an analyst sitting in Taiwan really make sense of local nuances? The applications would be universal, portable and saleable, however. They would seed a local high-tech industry – maybe even a local Irish Google. Can’t see the Civil Service going for it, though…
Elizabeth Pisani explains (pdf) why large amounts of data collected by organizations like Google and Facebook could change science for the better, and how it already has. Here she recounts the work of John Graunt from the 17th century:
Graunt collected mortality rolls and other parish records and, in effect, threw them at the wall, looking for patterns in births, deaths, weather and commerce. … He scraped parish rolls for insights in the same way as today’s data miners transmute the dross of our Twitter feeds into gold for marketing departments. Graunt made observations on everything from polygamy to traffic congestion in London, concluding: “That the old Streets are unfit for the present frequency of Coaches… That the opinions of Plagues accompanying the Entrance of Kings, is false and seditious; That London, the Metropolis of England, is perhaps a Head too big for the Body, and possibly too strong.”She concludes:
A big advantage of Big Data research is that algorithms, scraping, mining and mashing are usually low cost, once you’ve paid the nerds’ salaries. And the data itself is often droppings produced by an existing activity. “You may as well just let the boffins go at it. They’re not going to hurt anyone, and they may just come up with something useful,” said [Joe] Cain.
We still measure impact and dole out funding on the basis of papers published in peerreviewed journals. It’s a system which works well for thought-bubble experiments but is ill-suited to the Big Data world. We need new ways of sorting the wheat from the chaff, and of rewarding collaborative, speculative science.
[UPDATE] Something I noticed in The Irish Times:
PUBLIC SECTOR: It’s ‘plus ca change’ in the public service sector, as senior civil servants cling to cronyism and outdated attitudes, writes GERALD FLYNN:
…it seems now that it was just more empty promises – repeating similar pledges given in 2008. As we come to the end of yet another year, there is still no new senior public service structure; no chief information officer for e-government has been appointed; no reconstitution of top-level appointments has taken place; and no new public service board has been appointed [emphasis added].
So nothing will happen.
Self-experimentation – Scientists treating themselve as guinea pigs [from Oscillatory Thoughts: Sir Henry Head’s self-experimentation]
Oscillatory Thoughts: Sir Henry Head’s self-experimentation: a great post on a long-standing but little known tradition in science – especially physiology and psychology – experimenting on one’s self, usually to do unpleasant and excruciating things that might not pass an ethics committee!
JBS Haldane’s smoking ear
One self-experimenter whose work had long-term personal consequences was the polymath JBS Haldane.
Haldane wanted to build on work done by his father, John Scott Haldane, on the physiology of working Navy divers in the early 20th century. But whereas Haldane senior restricted himself to observation and measurement, his son took a more direct approach, repeatedly putting himself in a decompression chamber to investigate the physiological effects of various levels of gases.
Haldane was motivated by concern for the welfare of sailors in disabled submarines, and his work led to a greatly improved understanding of nitrogen narcosis, as well as the safe use of various gases in breathing equipment. But he paid a high price, regularly experiencing seizures as a result of oxygen poisoning – one resulting in several crushed vertebrae.
He also suffered from burst eardrums, but he was sanguine about the damage. “The drum generally heals up,” he said, adding, “if a hole remains in it, although one is somewhat deaf, one can blow tobacco smoke out of the ear in question, which is a social accomplishment.”
From the blogpost cited at top:
Following in this fine scientific tradition is the brilliant and influential neurologist (not to mention appropriately named) Sir Henry Head. If that’s not a proper 1960s punny, alliterative, Stan Lee name for a neurologist, I don’t know what is. Anyway, the good Dr. Head published quite a ground-breaking article with his collaborator WHR Rivers in the journal Brain in 1908 titled A Human Experiment in Nerve Division. In this article, Head and Rivers sought to examine the course of recovery of somatosensation after peripheral nerve damage. It was known from observing patients with such damage that the touch senses often recover after peripheral nerve damage, but because the patients weren’t properly trained, they couldn’t give an adequate account of their own recovery. As they say:
“It soon became obvious that many observed facts would remain inexplicable without experimentation carried out more carefully and for a longer period than was possible with a patient, however willing, whose ultimate object in submitting himself to observation is the cure of his disease.”So Head’s solution? Cut open his arm and sever some nerves! Dr. Head enlisted the assistance of another doctor to surgically sever some of the peripheral nerves in his left arm and hand.
I recall reading a case report by the late (and great) OJ Grusser where he injected the dissociative anaesthetic and glutamergic antagonist ketamine into his own eyeball to study its effects on optokinetic nystagmus (the tracking of moving objects when the head is stationary). The ketamine would inactivate transmission in the extra-ocular muscles, reducing reflexive tracking eye movements to moving objects. (I can’t locate the reference at the moment – my recollection is that it was in a book chapter). Not an experiment to be undertaken lightly!