Monday, September 26, 2011

Pupil Dilation--How It Works

Did you know there's an eye within your eye?  Tis true.  The top layer of your retina contains cells called photosensitive ganglion cells that both receive and process light separately from your normal rod and cone cells that form the images we see.  About 1-3% of the nerve cells cells within your eye (ganglion cells) have evolved to see light for a couple special reasons.

  1. To set your circadian rhythms.  Ever noticed how difficult it can be to sleep with the sunshine pouring in your room?  I actually choose to keep my blinds open so that I wake up easier in the morning.  I had the effectiveness of this proved by travel quite a bit and having to deal with jet lag.  There's a reason for that.  These photosensitive ganglion cells talk to the pineal gland in your brain and, among other things, release or suppress hormones like melatonin which helps put you to sleep.
  2. Cause your pupils to dilate or constrict!
These aforementioned cells use a photopigment called melanopsin that detects light that is essentially blue (460-484 nm).  Why blue?  If I had to guess, I'd bet that's the frequency that makes it through the eye lid the best!  

Other interesting questions: How is it that our pupils can dilate due to psychological reasons and we don't experience our vision brightening?  What is the brain mechanism that dims our vision during psychological dilation?



Sunday, September 18, 2011

How Does Joint Cracking Work?

I'll give my best understanding here, but let the reader know that there does seem to be some ambiguity and contradiction in what I read on this subject.  Some of what you shall read is only my interpretation and hypothesizing about how the process most likely works.

Our joints are lubricated in a liquid called synovial fluid that

  • Is free of cells
  • Separated from our blood and internal matrix by a sturdy fibrous joint capsule 
  • Has non-Newtonian characteristics that make it more fluid with movement and use
  • Etymologically means that it has similarities to egg whites--'ovial' from 'ovum' for egg
  • When a joint is bent or torsioned that liquid has to move between the bone, the capsule and the surrounding areas.
It is this movement of the fluid that causes cracking.  For instance with our knuckles, by pushing them in one direction we pressurize the synovial fluid on one side of the joint.  This pressurized fluid is then rapidly released between the bones to the opposite side of the joint.  In the process a bubble cavitation (think cavity) is formed.  Cavitation happens when a shock wave of liquid moves so quickly that behind it it creates a vacuum.  This vacuum collapses with great force creating a loud popping sound we recognize as a knuckle cracking.  A very similar process happens much more intentionally with pistol/snapping shrimps: 
And boat propellers:
The controversy behind knuckle cracking shall some day be quelled as video MRI technology advances!

Some mo':

Pictures from: 

Sunday, September 11, 2011

How a Gyroscope Works

I mean, really!?  They seem magical.  Gravity defiant.  If you need a reminder watch this:

Start the gyroscope spinning.
But, it isn't just rotating in a circle.  It's also being pulled out by angular momentum.

These forces, if it were not for the sturdy nature of the wheel, would cause the pieces to fling apart.

So, just like a racing car has trouble turning, since it wants to go straight, so the wheel wants to keep spinning around and out.  Any deviation from this is met with resistance, thus causing the gyroscope to stabilize.  

This may seem terribly simple to many of you, but it was something I had to think through explaining recently and found that there are not many quality explanations on the internet. That and I wanted to doodle. :)

Monday, September 5, 2011

Science Meditation

I had a friend recently say that, "Creativity is the combining of ideas in a new way." (Jamie Riley paraphrase)  I think he's on to something there.  Creativity is the game "Apples to Apples"--making new connections between disparate ideas.

What I'd like to do is consider how two ideas--meditation and science literacy--might intersect.   Let me give a greenhorn's understanding of some meditation practices and then discuss how science can fit hand in glove with your own practice of meditation.

First, a story on how meditation saved my butt!!!

I was at a local meditation event listening to a guided meditation and my mind unprompted went where it often goes in these situations--to imagining the invisible electro-magnetic/atomic world around me.  I was imagining the atoms around the room bustle in Brownian motion, interact with photons, change quantum states, vibrate synchronistically through sound, circulate around the room in zyphers of wind and conviction currents, etc...and...suddenly...O SH%#!!!  I forgot to turn off a heating plate at my job at a chemistry lab!!!  Luckily I was able to call over and have it turned off, but I was so scared since I had it on for a few hours!!  Yikes!  Meditation saved my butt!  haha!

Ok, back to an over view of meditation so we can see how science meditation can fit in!

Types of meditations (as I understand it)
  • Mind Scape Meditation
    • Idea/mantra
      • Focusing deeply on a central thought.  Learning about it. Thinking through it.  Applying it. Making it real within your mind. Reveling in it.
    • Person
      • Meditate on a person you truly admire.  Why do you admire them?  What can you learn from them?  How can you honor their lives with your life?
    • Object
      • Symbolism
      • Essence
      • Function
    • Feeling
      • Become self aware.  Not necessarily judging what you're mind is feeling, just only observing, analyzing.  Becoming mindful of your brain--the vast expanse of neural experiences within.
    • Problem solving
      • Taking time to work through a problem--reviewing past actions, considering future options.
    • Thankfulness
      • Counting  one's blessings.
  • Bodyscape
    • Become aware of your body
      • What is your body feeling?  Pain?  Boredom?  Fatigue?  Why?  Analyze, don't judge.
    • Motion
      • Walk
      • Be mindful of the motion, the muscles, the action, the intention.
  • Surroundings
    • Become aware of your senses.
      • What sounds do you hear around you?  See?  Feel?
      • For a challenge, see if you can observe more than one occurrence at a time.  Can you do three?  It's supposed to not really be possible to pay attention to three things with any real level of depth.
Now, within these three realms of focus--the mind, the body, the world around us--how can the teachings of science inform and empower our meditation?  My understanding of meditation centers around awareness, mindfulness and science has empowered human awareness to a degree that former generations could not have comprehended--so revel in it!  Become mindful of the universe happening around you right now!

  • Mind
    • Consider the crackle of electric impulses within your mind--100 billion neurons buzzing, humming, communicating, resting, their amoeboid arms stretching out to form connections totaling 100 trillion
    • Consider the micro ocean of neurotransmitters chemically setting into motion the thoughts, sensation and actions of the body--just slight parts per billion that manifest huges changes
  • Body
    • Go from head to toe considering all the functions that are taking place in your body
      • Blood
        • Red blood cell oxygenation
        • White blood cells capturing invaders and consuming dead or defunct cells
        • Heart and its molecular muscle motors reacting to the power of ATP
        • Lungs filling, oxygenating, dispursing CO2
      • Liver, kidneys, pancreas, gall bladder, intestines, muscles and on and on!!!
    • Surroundings
        • Consider sound.  Become mindful of the sources of the sounds around you.  Consider the waves emanating from the source--the compression pulses of wave in the form of concentric circles growing larger and then reflecting and bouncing off the other objects in the wall.  Much like a 3-D version of the surface of a pool of water that has been disturbed.  Become aware of how that sound hits the curves and bowl of your ear, traveling down your ear canal to the ear drum, the three ear bones, the inner ear, the cochlea, the fluid and hairs within the cochlea, the impulses traveling from ear to brain, etc.  
      • The Electromagnetic world around you
        • The process of seeing
        • The invisible spectrum

    I have benefited greatly from these lectures by Dr. Feynman and really do hope you'll click on this link if for no other reason that to see that they exist.  Feynman has a brilliant way of bringing the invisible reality to life.:
    • Neutrinos
      • There are billions of neutrinos flowing through our body every second flowing from the Sun.
    • Geographic location
      • Consider the forces that created the land around you.  Reverse, in your mind, time to undo the weathering forces, plate tectonics, igneous forces, etc.

    • Elemental  history
      • Consider the history of the elements around you.  Their age in billions of years.  Their star ancestry.
    • Evolution
      • If you're walking, consider an animal.  In your mind go through their evolution history, the epochs, bio-geography, the predators and prey its ancestors encountered.
    • Solar Power
      • Become mindful of how a seething ball of magnetized gas 93 million miles away is heating itself to astronomical degrees--27 million in the core-- by the crush of gravity as new heavier elements are created and releasing prodigious amounts of energy.  Electron motion becomes wavicle photons that travel through a void of space to a spinning ball held in rotation by the gravitational bending of space time.  This energy causes photosynesis, which powers plants, which power the animals we see and ourselves.  Everything is solar powered.
    • Space
      • See through the Earth and the physical features around you.  See in your minds eye the position of the Sun, the moon, the stars through the atmosphere and through the Earth.   See the core of the Earth, the upside down walking of people on the other side of the Earth, consider the distances of how far they are, imagine birds flying upside down, water being pulled "up", kangaroos hopping upside down in Ausatralia, the thousands of people in the air in planes being ferried from place to place, etc.

    So, why bother?  Why spend the time?  Why expend the energy?

    To me that's almost like asking, "Why love?"  To connect.  To realize.  To become one.  To stretch.  To unbound yourself.

    "The desire to be connected with the cosmos reflects a profound reality--we are connected; not in the trivial ways that Astrology promises, but in the deepest ways." --Carl Sagan

    Later note: There are two main kinds of meditation--focused attention and open monitoring.  Focused attention finds holds an object in conscious attention.  Open monitoring allows the mind and senses to wander, allowing thoughts and perceptions to come and go as they will.  Open monitoring with science might include being in nature and simply soaking up the sounds, sights, smells, and sensations.