This is Your Brain On Awesome Thoughts on the world from a student of the mind

30Nov/10

Has NASA discovered extraterrestrial life?

Just wanted to give all of you a heads up in case you haven't heard about this yet.  Apparently NASA has made some sort of "Astrobiology Discovery" and they're going to be discussing it during a press conference on Thursday.

For those unfamiliar with NASA's attempts to find life outside of our own atmosphere, Astrobiology is essentially a field that attempts to describe and investigate the conditions under which life can emerge and propagate in the universe.

Until now, we've found quite a few clues that life could exist (or at least existed in the past) in our galaxy.  For example, investigations of mars suggest that there were once large oceans of water that carved out the numerous ravines, canyons, and mountains that are spread all around its surface.  However, we still haven't found any definitive evidence of currently living organisms.

Granted, nobody has any idea what they're actually talking about (though there have been hints that it may have something to do with Saturn's largest moon, "Titan"), but they have noted that this is likely going to "impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life."  It may be a long shot, but I can't help but be excited about this.

A live stream of the conference will be broadcast this Thursday, December 2nd at 2:00pm eastern time (11:00am PST).  Check out http://www.nasa.gov/ for the video.

Update: So it looks like this announcement may have something to do with large amounts of arsenic on Saturn's largest moon, Titan.  One of the members on the team has been trying to find evidence of organisms that live off of arsenic in California, so maybe this has something to do with what they've found...only time will tell!

via NASA

29Nov/10

One man’s perspective on awareness and compassion

I know it's been quite some time since my last post, but unfortunately I wasn't able to sneak blogging into my schedule between mouthfuls of turkey and gallons of eggnog.  Given that I am still in a mild post-turkey state of lethargy, I'm going to forego writing anything and instead give you a link to an absolutely amazing commencement speech I recently heard.

The speaker is David Foster Wallace, an fantastic and enlightening author that clearly understands more about the world than I could ever aspire to.  Describing his speech would sort of counterproductive, so I'll just appeal to two things.  One, it gives a glimpse at how to be a better person (in the real sense, not the fake self-help book sense), and two, it comes across as one of the most honest speeches I've heard.  Give it a listen, I know you'll be impressed!

via YouTube

23Nov/10

Simplicity and Complexity are two sides of the same coin

I recently came across this fascinating TED talk by Eric Berlow, a scientist that specializes in complex systems ranging from ecological networks to the political spectrum.

As someone who's job is to understand the interconnected nature of complex systems, he's got an insight into our world that we'd all benefit from learning...luckily that insight has been packaged into a 3 minute presentation!

It's often easy to get mired in the multidudes of information that are presented to us each day, but it's important to remember that underneath that jumbled mess of data is often a beautifully simplistic trend that can explain most of the effects that we're trying to understand.  

Take a look at this short presentation, and think about how you might be able to pull the simple out of the complex in your own life.

via TED.com

21Nov/10

Limb reattachment is awesome as well!

So a few of you might have remembered a post that I recently had on the new Berkeley Science Review blog in which I described a thoroughly amazing surgical procedure known as "Rotationplasty."  Well, I may have found another bit of medical ingenuity that's almost as cool

Now, when I mention the phrase "limb reattachment," you might think that this is an incredibly complicated procedure already, and you'd be right.  Unsurprisingly, appendages were not designed by nature to be easily replaceable or reattachable, and fitting one back to the right location is truly a feat of technology (and patience)!

Firstly, when a limb is lost, there is precious little time to get it back to its owner.  All of our bodily tissues are in constant motion, metabolizing and using energy.  When a limb is lost, this machinery keeps moving, but the energy that is normally supplied by your bloodflow is cut off.  This means that in order for a limb reattachment to be successful, you need to restore bloodflow to the isolated body part before its own metabolism "runs out of fuel" and dies.

(At the risk of tangenting a bit, there's another fascinating piece of medical lore I found out about with regards to this.  Apparently, if you're worried that the cut off limb won't have enough time before you can reattach it, doctors have been known to use leeches to start sucking the blood out of the exposed veins in the appendage.  Leeches, bloodsucking creatures that they are, excrete a special kind of chemical as they do their business which prevents the blog from coagulating, thus expanding the lifespan of the separated limb.  Here's a great article in Slate that covers limb reattachment in general.)

Anyways, assuming that you do make it to the operating room in time, doctors need to re-hook-up the veins, arteries, and nerves in a very specific manner.  It's a very delicate process, and requires literally matching up these bits of plumbing one at a time.  Unfortunately, it also means that the tissue on either side of the cut needs to be relatively healthy, something that brings me to the present story.

Meet Ming Li, a young Chinese girl who lost her entire hand in a terrible farming accident.  Upon arriving at the hospital, doctors found that her arm was far too damaged to be able to reattach the hand to her arm.  Unfortunately, they also knew that leaving it unattached for more than a day or so would result in permanent loss of the hand.  So what did they do?

That's right, they attached the hand to her foot to allow time for the hand to heal.  Remember, the most important thing for a lost appendage is that blood starts flowing back to it, allowing the nutrients in the bloodstream to give it fuel to keep functioning.  By attaching the hand to the girl's leg, they allowed it time to stay alive, and once the arm had been properly healed, they cut off the hand and reattached it to her wrist.

She's now slowly regaining the use of her hand, which will likely lose quite a bit of its previous movement and feeling.  However, the fact that she's got one at all blows my mind...what an impressive operation!

via Orange

(and thanks to Samantha Neal for giving me the scoop!)

17Nov/10

Particle Physics in 4 easy steps

It's been a while since I threw a cool picture up here, so I thought I'd show this leaked plan for IKEA's new business venture: DIY Particle Accelerators!

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