Fun facts about Pavlov

I think this should go under “things I never knew about Pavlov”:

Pavlov is perhaps best known for introducing the idea of the conditioned reflex, although Todes notes that he never used that term. It was a bad translation of the Russian uslovnyi, or “conditional,” reflex.

At the university, Pavlov’s freshman class in inorganic chemistry was taught by Dmitri Mendeleev, who, a year earlier, had created the periodic table of the elements as a teaching tool.

In Russia, and even to some degree in the West, physiology was still considered a “theoretical science,” and the connection between basic research and medical treatments seemed tenuous. Todes argues that Pavlov’s devotion to repeated experimentation was bolstered by the model of the factory, which had special significance in a belatedly industrializing Russia. Pavlov’s lab was essentially a physiology factory, and the dogs were his machines.

At first, Pavlov, his wife, and their four children were treated like any other Soviet citizens. Their Nobel Prize money was confiscated as property of the state. From 1917 to 1920, like most residents of Petrograd, which would soon be called Leningrad, the Pavlovs struggled to feed themselves and to keep from freezing. It was nearly a full-time occupation; at least a third of Pavlov’s colleagues at the Russian Academy of Sciences died in those first post-revolutionary years. “Some starved to death in apartments just above or below his own in the Academy’s residence,” Todes writes. Pavlov grew potatoes and other vegetables right outside his lab, and when he was sick a colleague provided small amounts of firewood to burn at home.

The Soviets came to regard Pavlov as a scientific version of Marx. The comparison could not entirely have pleased Pavlov, who rebelled at the “divine” authority accorded Marx (“that fool”) and denied that his own “approach represents pure materialism.”

He also never even used a bell, but preferred more precise tools like metronomes. He also had ‘angry’ days when his staff knew not to bother him.

The article is chock full of interesting stuff, and I feel bad about excerpting this much; there is much much more in the original article.

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The story of stress

A history of the science behind stress:

“He would subject them to extreme temperatures, make them go hungry for long periods, or make them exercise a lot,” the medical historian Mark Jackson says. “Then what he would do is kill the rats and look at their organs.”

What was interesting to Selye was that no matter how different the tortures he devised for the rats were — from icy winds to painful injections — when he cut them open to examine their guts it appeared that the physical effects of his different tortures were always the same.

“Almost universally these rats showed a particular set of signs,” Jackson says. “There would be changes particularly in the adrenal gland. So Selye began to suggest that subjecting an animal to prolonged stress led to tissue changes and physiological changes with the release of certain hormones, that would then cause disease and ultimately the death of the animal.”

And so the idea of stress — and its potential costs to the body — was born.

But here’s the thing: The idea of stress wasn’t born to just any parent. It was born to Selye, a scientist absolutely determined to make the concept of stress an international sensation.

Is everything we know about Phineas Gage wrong?

How many of the stories we tell about Gage are wrong? Well, a metal rod did fly through the guy’s skull but:

The day after his accident, a local newspaper misstated the diameter of the rod. A small error, but an omen of much worse to come…Within a few days, however, his health deteriorated. His face puffed up, his brain swelled, and he started raving, at one point demanding that someone find his pants so he could go outside. His brain developed a fungal infection and he lapsed into a coma… 

[T]here’s no record of what Gage did in the months after the accident—and we know even less about what his conduct was like. Harlow’s case report fails to include any sort of timeline explaining when Gage’s psychological symptoms emerged and whether any of them got better or worse over time. Even the specific details of Gage’s behavior seem, on a closer reading, ambiguous, even cryptic. For instance, Harlow mentions Gage’s sudden “animal propensities” and, later, “animal passions.” Sounds impressive, but what does that mean? An excessive appetite, strong sexual urges, howling at the moon?

People butcher history all the time, of course, for various reasons. But something distinct seems to have happened with Gage. Macmillan calls it “scientific license.” “When you look at the stories told about Phineas,” he says, “you get the impression that [scientists] are indulging in something like poetic license—to make the story more vivid, to make it fit in with their preconceptions.”

Apparently there’s a minor industry in academia devoted to modeling rods being blown through people’s skulls. And this author is not impressed with Antonio Damasio.

In the end, I think Gage is a proxy for the idea that changes in the brain can cause changes in behavior: it’s hard to emotionally grasp that we’re controlled by a squishy thing in our skull until you have ‘seen it’.

Purkinje and his cell

A hundred thousand hourglasses – on the Purkinje cell:

If a mid-19th century European—a Prussian, let’s say—wanted to contact famed Czech histologist Jan Evangelista Purkinje, he only needed to address his envelope with two words: Purkinje, Europe; so large was Purkinje’s renown, that his dwelling was an entire continent…

Born in 1787 to a housewife and a German priest, Purkinje was raised in Bohemia (now Czech Republic) and graduated in 1818 with a degree in medicine. He was soon appointed as a Professor of Physiology at Prague’s Charles University where he taught and conducted research on human anatomy. In addition to discovering Purkinje images (reflections of objects from structures of the eye) and the Purkinje shift (the change in the intensity of red and blue colors as light intensity ebbs at nightfall) he also proposed the scientific term for plasma, the colorless fluid part of blood, lymph, or milk, in which corpuscles or fat globules are suspended. Today, his name also adorns a university in Ústí nad Labem, Czech Republic; a crater on the Moon; and a small asteroid (#3701), but he lives on—commemorated best, I like to think—as an elegant cerebellar cell.

That I did not know about Purkinje! Go read this beautiful essay on the Purkinje cell.

Over 400 pictures of women in science

badass women in science

OK as long as I’m on the picture shtick, here are over 400 pictures of women in science via Prerana Srestha. Above are Alfred and Mary Gibson doing something badass. I also quite liked this one of Ruth McGuire (good composition) and this one of Marguerite Wilcox; I don’t quite know what she’s doing, but all those tubes in the background look like cool science to me.