February 26th, 2013 at 10:09 pm (Biology, Music)
Three plastic surgeons decided to conduct a study of finger dexterity in violin and viola players versus the general population. The paper describing their findings, which was published in The Journal of Hand Surgery, has a title that tickles my funny bone:
Assessment of the presence of independent flexor digitorum superficialis function in the small fingers of professional string players: Is this an example of natural selection?, by Godwin, Wheble, and Feig.
The paper is, lamentably, behind a paywall, and I am unconvinced by the abstract that it is worth $32.00. But never fear, The Atlantic Monthly has provided a summary and analysis of the paper in an article titled Study: Violinists’ Fates Resides in Their Left Pinky Fingers.
The gist of their argument is that you can conduct tests to determine how much independent motion a person has for their pinky and their ring finger. Go ahead, test yourself:
Hold down the index, middle, and ring fingers of your left hand, then try to bend your pinky. Now try it again, but allow your ring finger to bend as well.
About 18 percent of people can do neither, according to a study in The Journal of Hand Surgery. But in a similar group of 90 professional musicians from “three of London’s leading orchestras” (38 first violinists, 33 second violinists, 19 viola players), none lacked this ability, and all but two were able to bend just their pinky finger.
(Source: Atlantic Monthly).
I can easily bend the ring and pinky fingers together, but I have only limited curl of the pinky on its own. Does this explain why I continue to struggle to get good intonation with 4th-finger stops?
Picture from http://www.the-violin.com/violin-fingering-E.html
Apparently, Godwin et al. recommend testing children for this ability prior to signing them up for violin lessons. As a filter? Really?
As a possibly-slightly-impaired player, I’m more in favor of the Atlantic’s take: “[Instead,] music teachers could use this knowledge to go easy on kids who aren’t predisposed to the violin, instead of just telling them to practice more.”
February 7th, 2013 at 9:46 pm (Animals, Biology)
I killed two ants the other day, for Science. “Adventures with a Microscope” instructs you in how to kill a fly so that you can remove its legs and eyes for a close look under the microscope. No flies were available, so I victimized some ants who kept trying, with mindless persistence, to invade my personal space. I put them under glass, where one asphyxiated, slowly, as I had no chloroform. The other escaped and I flicked it into some water, where it drowned. I felt more than a few twinges of guilt, staring at their huddled corpses, but then decided to examine them under the microscope.
And oh, how glorious!
40x (lowest magnification):
The segmented, slightly blurry object on the right is its antenna.
The thin filament is (I think) carpet fuzz.
Note the difference in texture between chitin and eye (zoom 100x):
These were all taken with reflected light, since ants don’t transmit light well. But are they not beautiful and alien, seen up so close? We’ve all heard of the fly’s multi-faceted eye. I’m not sure I realized that the ant’s is likewise complex and compound.
January 22nd, 2013 at 11:33 pm (Biology, Chemistry)
Adventure 2 in “Adventures with a Microscope” is titled “We Become Crystal Gazers.” The author continues:
We are not going to peer into such crystals as fortune tellers use, in which they claim to be able to predict that some rich relative is going to leave you money, or some equally nonsensical bosh.
No indeed, this is about chemistry. So I followed along, heated some water, and mixed up supersaturated solutions of various interesting substances from my kitchen. And wow, check it out! (Click to enlarge.)
Salt. Best viewed ~1 hour after deposition on the slide, with partial crystal formation; if you wait longer, the slide becomes crowded, and since the crystals are cubes, it’s hard to get them all in focus (too much relief!). I love this shot. It reminds me of Flatland.
More salt, the next day, with larger crystals.
Baking soda, which apparently creates sparry crystals.
Sugar! This one took a full day to form interesting crystals. But wow, they are gorgeous!
More sugar, almost a butterfly-like configuration. I expect the symmetry is coincidence.
The biggest surprise for me — my saliva, 24 hours later, had created these awesome fractal patterns. At first I thought it might be nucleation following tiny scratches in the slide glass, but the fact that they’re fractal renders this unlikely. No clue what this is, but my best guess is that it’s just random diffusion patterns, like these manganese fractal patterns.
Aha, I found an article titled “Dendritic growth in viscous solutions containing organic molecules” which has these great examples:
Caption: “Crystal patterns of some body fluids: (a) saliva; (b) cerebrospinal fluid; (c) urine; (d) blood serum.”
My examples seem to match the “blood serum” image the best, but I assure you it was saliva. Not sure what’s going on in their sample (a)!
The more I panned across the expanse of fractal growth, the more it started looking like a map of a European city. Is it not marvelous?
January 18th, 2013 at 9:39 pm (Biology, Plants)
The world just expanded by a factor of ten. At least.
Of course this is true in a literal sense, given the arrival of my Celestron 44345 microscope. I can now see down to scales previously invisible to my eye, magnifying at 40x, 100x, 200x, 1600x! But even more meaningful is the figurative way in which things have expanded. I have access to a rich, teeming layer of reality that previously existed only in a hypothetical fashion. And because this is a microscope with a digital camera embedded in it, I can also store and share what I see.
I first took a look at the seven prepared slides that came with the microscope. Here are some examples of the fantastic sights I saw (click to zoom):
“Apple” (seed? cell? blossom? wha?):
I’ve now placed an order for a set of blanks so that I can prepare my own slides to study anything I encounter — and even just within the confines of my house there is a veritable zoo of things to study. High on my list is sampling from the cornucopia of interesting structures that grow in my compost bin. I can’t wait to share what I discover!
September 8th, 2012 at 11:10 pm (Biology, Chemistry, Food)
I think I’ve finally figured out the longtime mystery about why tea both wakes me up and calms me down (anxiety-wise). I consistently feel a physical effect after drinking a cup of tea, as if a knot inside my stomach dissolves, and problems don’t seem quite as pressing, and it’s easier to be friendly and sociable. This sounds like the opposite of caffeine, which is known to increase irritability.
But just recently, I stumbled on a possible explanation. It’s not the caffeine at all! It’s something called L-theanine:
“Theanine is able to cross the blood-brain barrier and appears to have psychoactive properties. [...] it appears to increase levels of the inhibitory neurotransmitter GABA, and to a lesser degree, dopamine.”
L-theanine is often mentioned in conjunction with green tea, but it is also found in black tea. This article says green tea has about 8 mg per cup, while therapeutic doses of the stuff (for anxiety disorders) are more like 200-600 mg. Another source indicates 15-30 mg per cup, and that “L-theanine increases the production of dopamine and serotonin, two brain chemicals associated with alertness, pleasure, and a good mood.”
Further, there’s evidence of a lack of side effects (at least in rats):
“In 2006, a study conducted on rats administered super-high doses of L-theanine daily for a 13 weeks found no consistent or significant negative effects on behavior, food intake, body weight, clinical chemistry, urine, blood, morbidity or mortality.”
Therefore, I should be free to experiment away. And if theanine is the active agent, then I should get the same mood benefits (though not the wake-me-up effect) from decaf green tea. If only it were easier to do controlled experiments on oneself!