The Amazing Lives of Fan Li and Xi Shi

Screenshot 2015-03-31 23.49.14Gather round, my children and allow me to regale you with the wonderful tale of the adventures of Fan Li and Xi Shi – military strategist, femme fatale, and all-around badasses.

Fan Li was born in a town calledYuan Sanhu sometime in the late 6th Century BCE in a kingdom called Yue, near the modern city of Wuxi (a few hours drive from Shanghai). Born to a poor familyhe befriended a minister who took him to become an advisor to the king, Goujian. The king was clever but a little too abitious for his own good and despite Fan Li’s warnings he attacked a nearby kindom call Wu.

Wu crushed Yue and took it’s king and counselors as hostages. Records are thin during this period but it’s safe to assume that Goujian and his subjects were not treated well. After three long years in captivity, he was eventually release to go home and lick his wounds. But that’s not what happened. The king and Fan Li started hatching a plan to get their revenge – something more clever and subtle. It was well known that the king of Wu, King Fuchai, was a womanizer of the first degree and couldn’t say no to a pretty face. So Fan Li went out in search of pretty young women.

He found Shi Yiguang, otherwise known as Xi Shi – the daughter of a tea trader and one of the four great beauties of Chinese history.

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A Visit to the Museum of Osteology

inside the museum

I knew what I expected from the Museum of Osteology in Oklahoma City: amusement. I go to a lot of museums, and in my experience, privately-run museums based on one person’s obsession are always quirky and often pretty fun. This museum was founded by a guy and his wife who have a business next door cleaning skulls. (Apparently there are enough people who need skulls cleaned to support this business.)

But here’s the thing: It was a surprisingly interesting and educational visit. The skeletons are well organized and set up for maximum learning. The contents communicate stories about anatomy and evolution–don’t worry, there was a human in the ape corner, right next to our cousins the bonobo and the gorilla.

Osteology is the study of bones. Bones are an organ like any other. They make blood cells and provide a reservoir of calcium, which you need to make your cells work. They coordinate with the muscles and the tendons to move you around and keep you moving at dance parties. Continue reading

This Post Longs to Be Close to 500 Birds

4821595992_91c744d021_zThe other day I was just starting to work when I heard a strange cooing in the other room. It sounded like a baby. But I swore I’d just dropped the actual baby off at a friend’s house.

When I went to investigate, the baby wasn’t there, so I figured I was having a mild, pleasant postpartum hallucination. I went back to work. Continue reading


The Last Word

March 23 – 27, 2015

“How often do you get to document natural selection happening in a free-ranging population on such a short time scale? How many scientific studies look for that and don’t find it?” Guest poster Judith Lewis Mernit tells us about some very interesting bobcats.

In medicine, the word “decompensate” does not mean what you think it means. Ann explains why it’s a creepily good science metaphor.

Climate change: we just keep surpassing our worst case scenarios. But while it’s easy to assume we’re playing out a tragedy, Michelle has a better idea. What if we started treating our fate as though we inhabit the narrative logic of a comedy?

The right movie leaves us walking back into the world with a pit in our stomachs. That’s why we keep going back to chase that high, says guest poster Emma Marris.

What can those sacrificial dilemmas tell you about morality in real life? The exact opposite of what you thought they did. So maybe don’t use them to draw broad conclusions about the neural correlates of moral reasoning.

The trolley and the psychopath

trolleyStop me if you’ve heard this one. A trolley carrying five school children is headed for a cliff. You happen to be standing at the switch, and you could save their lives by diverting the trolley to another track. But there he is – an innocent fat man, picking daisies on that second track, oblivious to the rolling thunder (potentially) hurtling his way. Divert the trolley, and you save the kids and kill a person. Do nothing, and you have killed no one but five children are dead. Which is the greater moral good?

This kind of thought experiment is known as a sacrificial dilemma, and it’s useful for teaching college freshmen about moral philosophy. What you maybe shouldn’t do is ask a guy on the street to answer these questions in an fMRI machine, and then use his answers to draw grand conclusions about the neurophysiological correlates of moral reasoning. But that’s exactly what some neuroscientists are doing. The trouble is, their growing body of research is built on a philosophical house of cards: sacrificial dilemmas are turning out to be exactly the opposite of what we thought they were. Guy Kahane wants to divert this trolley before it drives off a cliff.

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Science Metaphors (cont.): Decompensation

1024px-Georges_de_La_Tour_Le_Tricheur_a_l'as_de_carreau_detail_des_piecesI suspect this isn’t really a science metaphor, but I got caught up in the word.

I had a friend who’s married to a hospital doctor, and he brought home many work-related words of interest:  “mother-of-record,” for instance, meant that he wasn’t going to be the one taking cupcakes to their kid’s class in the morning; “trichobezoar,” meant “hairball” and was a nice distraction from the one we found in the grocery-store salad. Then one day he came back with “decompensate:” somebody was decompensating all over the unit, he said.  “What’s decompensating?” I said.  “It’s when somebody just falls to pieces,” he said, “when they just lose it.”  “That’s a weird word,” I said.

“Compensation,” I thought, meant “payment,” like “compensation for pain and suffering,” or “zero compensation for blog posts.”  What’s falling to pieces got to do with it? Continue reading

Behind the Curve

keelingThe Keeling Curve—the sawtoothed upward slope of atmospheric carbon-dioxide concentrations—may be the world’s most famous scatter plot. The data that form the curve have been accumulating since the 1950s, when scientist Charles David Keeling set up his instruments at a geophysical observatory high on Mauna Loa, one of the massive volcanoes that form the Big Island of Hawai’i. Keeling soon discovered that the level of carbon-dioxide in the atmosphere fluctuates seasonally, but by the late 1960s, his precise measurements had revealed another story: the average concentration of carbon dioxide was increasing. Through chemical tests, Keeling and his colleagues established that the increase was due to the combustion of fossil fuels, and the Keeling Curve became a fundamental piece of evidence in the case for the reality of climate change. Keeling died in 2005, but his son Ralph has continued his father’s work on Mauna Loa, and their eponymous curve continues to illustrate both the steady respiration of the planet and the basic fact of climate change.

The Keeling Curve is now an iconic data image, reproduced on a brass plaque at Mauna Loa and in the lobby of the National Academies Building in Washington, D.C., where it is displayed next to illustrations of Darwin’s finches and the structure of DNA. But the curve is also a piece of history, and for the past few years, historian Joshua Howe has been considering the curve and humanity’s place on it. In his book Behind the Curve, and in a new article in Environmental History, he looks at the curve as a historical record—and as a metaphor for the relationship between science and society.

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Guest Post: Cinderella and the Cinema Hangover

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis weekend, I took my five-year-old daughter to her first movie in the theater, the new Cinderella. We got popcorn and Whoppers and great seats. The lights dropped, the previews and Frozen short ran, and then the film began, plunging us into another world. Two hours later, we were both hungover.

This new Cinderella plays it straight and traditional, with just tiny tweaks to make the story make sense in a more feminist world. (The film explains that Cinderella feels a duty to her ancestral home to make it comprehensible for 21st century viewers that she wouldn’t just bolt from her wicked stepmother’s ménage). It is gorgeous and straightforward and everyone is ravishing and having a wonderful time. Continue reading