Neuroscience podcasts

I have a long drive to work each day so I listen to a lot of podcasts. I have been enjoying the new Unsupervised Thinking podcast from some computational neuroscience graduate students at Columbia. So far they have discussed: Blue Brain, Brain-Computer Interfaces, and Neuromorphic Computing. Where else would you find that?

I also found out that I got a shout-out on the Data Skeptic podcast (episode: Neuroscience from a Data Scientist’s perspective).

Update: I should also mention that I quite like the Neurotalk podcast. The grad students (?) interview neuroscientists who come to give talks at Stanford. Serious stuff. Raw Data was also recommended to me as up-my-alley but I have not yet had a chance to listen to it. YMMV.


Vernon Benjamin Mountcastle, 1918-2015

Vernon MountcastleMonday night brought the sad news that Vernon Mountcastle has passed away.

He got his career started, strangely enough, by studying motion sickness in dogs. His most famous discovery, though (motion sick dogs notwithstanding) is the columnar organization of cortex. Obviously he did much more. Here is a chapter on The History of Neuroscience devoted to Mountcastle which is well worth reading. You can also watch the video (embedded below). He evidently was also the first president of the Society for Neuroscience (SfN), a position he ran for on a lark.

Here is an interesting bit about the discovery of the columnar organization of cortex, and its reception:

Many friends have inquired why the description of this general principle is contained in the paper authored by me alone. The answer is: by request! My two colleagues were so apprehensive over my proposal of such a radical hypothesis that they sought to disavow themselves from it! Indeed, it is not possible to exaggerate the calumny I was subjected to over this proposition, and with the most vigor by my colleague Jerzy Rose. He and most other anatomists had been trained in the schools of Nissl cytoarchitecture, Rose by the Vogts themselves, and the idea of layered cytoarchitecture dominated the scene; some even designated different layers for different functions! All this was before the revival of Cajal-type studies of the cortex. One critic said that the idea was just the “musings of an old man,” and I was only 39! Columnar organization was confirmed in a few years for the visual cortex by Hubel and Wiesel, and then by many others for the homotypical cortex as well, and it is now part of the cortical zeitgeist.

His most-cited papers are:

Modality and topographic properties of single neurons of cat’s somatic sensory cortex J. Neurophysiology 1957

Posterior parietal association cortex of the monkey: command functions for operations within extrapersonal space Am. Physio. Soc. 1975

Parietal lobe mechanisms for directed visual attention J. Neurophysiology 1977

Cortical neuronal mechanisms in flutter-vibration studied in unanesthetized monkeys. Neuronal periodicity and frequency discrimination. J. Neurophysiology 1969

 Some aspects of the functional organization of the cortex of the postcentral gyrus of the monkey. Am. Physio. Soc. 1959

Sorry, Nature/Science/Cell.

Yet another programming note

I’m in the midst of some intense experiments and don’t really have time for writing or thinking for the next week or two, which is why things have slowed down…

I’ll try to post snippets of articles I find interesting – not that I have much time for reading – or very brief thoughts on relevant articles that I scan. Expect the blog to be even more glib than usual! I’ll try to keep it semi-active, though.

Greetings from Portland, OR

I’m currently visiting the Greatest City on Earth which is interfering with my science blogging. But here is some personal photoblogging.

(to be updated, if anyone cares)

waterfall number 4 multnomah falls line to the bridge how to buy a fish

sun above the waterfall the gorge mystery pipe froggy friend

Become an SfN official blogger! #sfn14

The annual Neuroscience meeting (SfN) is coming up soon and SfN has announced that they are once again seeking official bloggers:

Social media allows for the widespread sharing of scientific information and increased interaction with colleagues. Twitter, Facebook, and personal blogs allow up-to-the-minute scientific exchanges and experiences to be shared virtually.
The call for applications is now open and ends September 5, 2014.

I don’t have a particular reason to go to SfN this year, so I was wondering if SfN was willing to fund the travel – at least, the SfN Membership and conference fee. If anyone else was wondering the same thing, here is the response I got from SfN:

Thank you for contacting the Society for Neuroscience (SfN). SfN accepts blogger applications with the understanding that applicants have secured membership, and are registered to attend the annual. SfN offers bloggers the prestige of being an official blogger for the annual meeting, and an opportunity to increase their blog’s audience. Bloggers do not receive compensation for expenses associated with attending the annual meeting (ie. housing, travel, registration, etc).

Please let us know if you have any questions.

Membership costs $65 for grad students, $140 for postdocs, and $185 for ‘regular members’. Registration is another $100+…so they’re asking you to pay hundreds of dollars to be an ‘official blogger’ (in addition to housing and food, if you feel like eating or sleeping.)

Sure, you could probably relate this to the broader problems in academia such as the emphasis on cheap labor and expectation of overwork for the sake of ambition. But what do I know?

Visions of the Salk Institute

I have been working at the Salk Institute for the past six years or so. Beyond its science, the Salk has both breathtaking architecture and a stunning natural environment. It is absurdly common to see tour groups wander around, peering into the laboratories like us scientists are wild animals. As I am about to leave for the East Coast, I thought I would share some of the photographs I’ve taken over my time here; they range from DSLR to instagram to black and white film. The black and white was made intentionally dark; most pictures of Salk are intensely bright, highlighting the white color of the buildings. I thought it would be appropriate to show the bleakness that those of us forced to crawl through the floors-between-floors and work late nights experience.

All photos are under the Creative Commons license: feel free to use them just please give credit to Adam J Calhoun.

Salk Institute Salk Parking Lot Sunset sultry salk salk has a snail problem salk BEEEES in the salk lab from the salk parking lot setting up the salk Salk Hallway At Night Salk Parking Lot At Night Symphony at the Salk Salk Gate

Monday open question: What have you read that inspired you in science?

In a twitter discussion of inspirational scientists, I realized that a more interesting question was whether other scientists had particular papers or books that had profoundly inspired them.

For very young me, the answer would clearly have been Jurassic Park. This made me want to do science to the extent that several friends and I found a microscope and had one of us (not me) pick their nose until it bled so that we could look at the DNA in the blood, with grand visions of cloning near at hand. Needless to say, this did not work – it turns out that you can’t see DNA under a 40x microscope.

More near at hand, the text that continues to fascinate and inspire me is a book by Joshua Epstein and Robert Axtell, Growing Artificial Societies. This presents a simulation of behaving agents in a land called the Sugarscape. Epstein and Axtell then try to show what happens as these agents live and die in this brutal land. The idea that one could simulate the rules of life and use it to understand how living creatures create societies was breathtaking to me – much more so than something so abstract as Conway’s Game of Life. To this day, that is why I want to understand the clockwork neuroscience that drives organisms as they interact with each other and the ecological environment.

A suggestion by someone else was David Marr‘s Vision: A computational investigation into the human representation and processing of visual information. Marr died of leukemia tragically young, but his sketch of how to attack the problem vision is still considered fundamental. Here are some selections from the book and reading it one is left 35 years later marveling at the intellect behind it.

So what readings have influenced you? I want to read them!

Neuroecology programming note

Posting will likely be lighter than normal over the next month or two. I am writing my dissertation, working on multiple manuscripts, visiting family in India and moving to Philadelphia. Busy! And all this writing leaves me feeling drained and uncreative; it is hard to come up with the energy or ideas required for the blog to keep up its regular output.

Incidentally, if anyone who is reading this is a professor at UPenn or Princeton (or somewhere within driving distance of Philly), please send me an email, I am hunting for postdocs 😉