Saturday, January 28, 2012

Nose Hairs in Humans - An Idle Evolutionary Speculation

If you think about it, noses are funny looking.  What do you think an alien or other species would think of our schnozes?   They come in all different shapes for different reasons.
They're quite different from other primate noses: 

There's something else that's different.  The inside:

What does having a lot of nose hairs say about our evolution?  Let's consider some possibilities

Do other mammals have similar amounts of nose hairs to humans? Certainly they may, but I feel like I've typically seen nary a nose hair in another animal's nose by picture, pet, zoo.  Might we be special in this regard?  Frankly, I wish I knew more about this, but I'll offer some speculation (because I enjoy thinking about these things).

-We have the same amount it's just that humans have them closer to the exit of the nose. Possibly because we have dextrous fingers? :)
-We have more nose hairs because we have little in the way of turbinates--cilia filtering, warming, moisturizing nasal corrugations. And why is that? Our ancestors needed to distance walk/run and therefore hyperventalate? What does that say about our evolutionary climate?  Moister? Warmer?  Less focus on smell?

Turbinates are drastically more complex and corrugated in other animals.

-Does it say anything about the specific evolutionary environment from which we come? High dust desert? High bug zone?

The response I received: Photo
Other animals have nose hairs, we are not special in that regard. The amount varies, but I couldn't say anything about how much exactly.
We don't lack turbinates. We have three sets, an inferior, middle, and superior. They are not as well developed as in some others, like say dogs and seals, but we have them and they are very important in helpig us to limit water loss through our nasal passages and to a small degree in helping to cool the brain (ok, only by about half to one degree, but still).
Most people think we evolved in a more open, drier climate, which was probably dusty, so it is possible we were selected for bushier noses than our more forest-bred ape relatives, but I don't know of any real studies on that.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Detachment in the Bhagavad-Gita

“When he [, the virtuous person,] renounces all desires and acts without craving, possessiveness, or individuality, he finds peace.” Bhagavad-Gita 2:71

“Always perform with detachment any action you must do; performing action with detachment, one achieves supreme good.” Bhagavad-Gita 3:19

"If you cannot take to this practice, then engage yourself in the cultivation of knowledge. Better than knowledge, however, is meditation, and better than meditation is renunciation of the fruits of action, for by such renunciation one can attain peace of mind." 12:12

"Disinterested, pure, skilled, indifferent, untroubled, relinquishing all involvements, devoted to me, he is dear to me. He does not rejoice or hate, grieve or feel desire; relinquishing fortune and misfortune, the man of devotion is dear to me. Impartial to foe and friend, honor and contempt, cold and heat, joy and suffering, he is free from attachment. Neutral to blame and praise, silent, content with his fate, unsheltered, firm in thought, the man of devotion is dear to me. Even more dear to me are devotees who cherish this elixir of sacred duty as I have taught it, intent on me in their faith" 12: 16-20

*I’m writing this blog because, in many ways, I don’t get it.  Why is detachment and dispassion such a focus in Hindu and Buddhist teachings?  Raised in a Christian, Western culture I was told to believe the opposite.  The central mindset and call to action is to worship and love--two very emotional, attached actions.  As I’m currently reading through the Bhagavad-Gita I’m forced wrestle with what ‘detachment’ means and how it can be helpful to our every day lives.

Broadly and summarily, religion are sets of ideas that help us navigate life and reality as we understand it.  Some of the worst maelstroms in life to avoid are:
  • Regret/Guilt/Shame--negative feelings about the past
  • Disappointment/Anger**--negative feelings about the present
  • Fear/Dread--negative feelings about the future

Christianity and many other religions tend to deal with these emotions through doctrines on:

  • Forgiveness-- “What’s wrong has been dealt with.”
  • Providence/Predestination-- “It was meant to be.” “It will all work out.”

One way of looking at it is that Hinduism/Buddhism tends to take a much more personal role in dealing with negative emotions.  It isn’t God that is the one that will fix everything nor is reinterpretation of the problem. We must be separating ourselves from the cause of the pain--desire.  On some level we’ll always be disappointed by reality, however you can’t be disappointed if you never wanted anything in the first place.  This is the Eastern solution--don’t desire, be detached and you can’t be hurt.

In many ways, I’m resistant to this thinking.  I want to feel deeply.  I want to love.  I want to be attached.  And I should.  But, I also need to learn from the wisdom of the ancients.  There is truth and power in detachment by:

  • Realizing that emotions are both involuntary and a choice.  They’re a choice in so far as we have the ability to reinterpret and refocus our minds.
  • Gain perspective.  Are we going to care 10 minutes, 1 month, 1 year, 10 years down the line?  What would this situation look like from someone else’s perspective?  From an aliens?  From a deity’s?
  • Strive towards objectivity.  Our emotions aren’t reality.  They’re but one possible interpretation of reality.  
  • Pain and loss are inevitable. Life is in Buddhist terms 'dukkha', often translated as suffering. Everyone you love will die, your material wealth is transient, life is disappointing. Spiritual maturity is making a transition from the dependence on the ephemeral outside world for happiness--relationships, material wealth, comfort--to an unshakeable internal state of blessed felicity. That requires one to disconnect one's self on some level from the pain and disappointment of life to make it through.

It is interesting, though, that even in the very first verse above, and other context verses, might be paraphrased as something like, “Don’t feel because it feels good to not feel.”  Or, “Don’t desire anything...Except desiring to not desire.”

Now, I know I have much to learn about Eastern philosophy and I’m sure there are solid apologetic explanations of the above objections, but even without having figured it all out I know that practicing detachment from negative emotions has improved my life.  I shall continue and hope to both grow in understanding and in constitutional fortitude to be able to.

Your feedback is welcomed.

Online version of Bhagavad-Gita: 

*Please be fully aware that I’m a complete greenhorn concerning Eastern religions.
**Anger can be towards the past or future, too.

Post script:

Categories of things that one could be detached from, written to consider what contexts detachment might be helpful:

  • Relationships - As Shakespeare put it, "Tis better to have loved and lost [your mind through suffering a ridiculous amount of emotional pain and anguish] than to have never loved at all." Relationships are worth it. People are worth it. The pain is worth it. Don't detach.
  • Emotions - See above. What a shame and a loss if we can't fully experience all the fullness of the possible emotions that humans are capable. Tis a blessing even to sorrow. A friend, Sara, recently shared this quote with me by Antonio Porchia, "Man, when he does not grieve, hardly exists."
  • Reality - I'm going to go a head and say that life is better lived in reality. Perhaps that's debatable, but not for me (most of the time ha).
  • The experience of the moment - Detach from experiencing fully the moment? Living every breath? Every heart beat? Thought? Experience? NEVER!!
  • "Fruits of actions" - Much of what the Bhagavad-Gita refers to as needing to be detached from is the consequences of our actions. The author(s) are not the first I've heard this from. Bill Bright, a conservative Christian and founder of Campus Crusade for Christ put it like this, "Act in the power of the Holy Spirit and leave the results up to God." Things will not ever work out like we think they will. Those kinds of expectations are a sure fire recipe for disappointment. The Bhagavad-Gita advises us to not worry about that. Just worry about doing the right thing--our "sacred duty" or dharma. Beyond that things, by faith, just have a way of working out. :)
Perhaps the best summary (for me) is to be detached from expectations. Is there something you must have in order to be happy? Some thing? Some person? Some event? Then you're a slave to it. Detachment, of a certain kind, is freedom. If things go well, then all the more reason to be grateful and blessed. If they go poorly, how can we be disappointed if we had no expectation of how they'd go in the first place?

Post post script:

A Christian friend objected, "How is hope or faith different from expectations?" Where's the room for hope?  Must we be divorced from hope to not have any attachment to the fruit of actions?

Post post post script:

I like the word 'independence' better than 'detachment'.  It implies the ability to love and enjoy without being controlled and at the whim of life, which can be full of negativity and suffering.

Monday, January 9, 2012

"The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments" Book Summary

Mix serendipity, with just the right historic context, with army of prior scientific geniuses to build on, with strokes of insight, with creativity, with gruelingly boring repetition, with unflagging tenacity, with an insatiable curiosity and you have the makings of the ten men that this book is about.  I recommend this book highly if you find scientific inquiry, creativity and empirical experiments interesting on any level.  I shall give brief sketches to hopeful wet appetites either for the book or to further investigate yourself or to simply bask in the glow that is these luminaries.

What you get from the book, as opposed to this blog, is fascinating details about the historical context these experiments arose from, an abundance of other related experiments that these scientists fiddled with and biographical details that bring these stories to life.

  1. Galileo - There are some more snobbish scientists who look down upon the more observational sciences like biology and astronomy because it's rare or difficult to be able to actually preform experiments.  Most of the science is simply "sitting back" and making careful observations.  Galileo, of course, was most well known for his work on confirming Copernicus's assertion that, no, the Earth was not the center of the solar system--there were moons that even revolved around other planets. (Aside: the term 'revolutionary' was popularized after Copernicus publication of his work "revolutionizing" our understanding of space and the revolution of the heavenly bodies.)  Galileo insightfully wanted to understand the principles underlying the movement of Jupiter's moon's or that of Earth's.  He wanted to understand motion and gravity.  For this, he completed his well known (and likely apocryphal) drop of two different weights off the Leaning Tower of Pisa giving support to gravity's equal attraction of the two different weights.  He did, however, likely complete something very similar to that leading him to attempt to slow down the experiment in order to make more accurate measurements.  What he did was this, roll objects of various weights down inclines timing them with drops of water coming from a hole in the bottom of a bucket.  There's hardly a variable he didn't tinker with: weight of the objects, incline, method of timing, use of bells to be hit by the rolling objects, etc.  What's more is his deft analyse of the math.  By dividing the time elapsed by the distance covered he quickly realized that the acceleration was exponential and, as a bonus, that exponents are the sum of the odd integers proceeding it.  
  2. William Harvey - Hard to believe, but during the 1600s there was much confusion and debate about what the function and mechanics of the heart were.  With many a vivisection, pinching veins and arteries off and on, by considering valve construction, location and function he discovered that blood flowed one direction by the systolic push of the heart.
  3. Isaac Newton - The Presocratics believed that we saw by beams emanating from our eyes.  Others thought that light could be 'stained' by bouncing off colored objects.  How, indeed, did light work?  And how could we test it?  One man, cloistered away for fear of the plague ravaging Europe, set out to find out.  He experimented by taking a blunt probe and pushing on  his eye and making careful recordings and sketches of the colors and shapes that action produced.  He separated the colors of the rainbow by the use of a prism.  And, insightfully, he recombined the broken colors with a lens showing that they weren't a product of the prism, colors were fundamental and the constituents of white light.
  4. Antoine-Laurent Lavoisier - How does fire work?  What are the main components of the atmosphere?  Lavoisier completed a number of experiments to help answer these questions, one of which was using lens as wide as eight feet to focus light and burn such things as diamonds (they are, after all, carbon).  He also completed experiments burning mercury compounds thereby consuming oxygen from the air.  By preforming other reactions he could then release that oxygen back into the air.  
  5. Luigi Galvani - How does electricity work?  How does the body use electricity for muscle contraction?  A charge, it was previously known, could make frog legs twitch.  Galvani hooked frog legs up to wires outside during thunder storms, he poked and proded while touching/not touching the metal of the probe, he contacted experiments near rudimentary generators/far from/hooked up/not hooked up, with the same kind of metal/with two different kinds of metals making a simple battery.
  6. Michael Faraday - Could there be a connection between light and electricity?  Among many other experiments one of the more illustrative used a candle, a relective surface, Nicol prism (polarized lens) and an electromagnet.  He bounced the image of the candle light off the surface and through a piece of glass and then made his observations through the polarized lens.  Moving the the lens such that the polarized light disappeared from sight he then turned on the electromagnet running adjacent to the glass that the image went through.  He could then see the image.  A magnetic field changed the polarization of the light.
  7. James Joule  - What is heat?  How is it related to work?  He vigorously stirred water to show that heat wasn't an ethereal substance spoken of as 'caloric' that caused objects to heat; it was work (friction).  He devised a way to measure the amount of work done (mass moved) and temperature of water stirred.  
  8. A. A. Michelson - Was able to calculate the speed of light by bouncing light off a spinning  mirror.  The light would return to bounce again off the mirror, but in the time elapsed the mirror has moved causing the reflection to move.  How did he know the speed of the spinning mirror?  By attaching a mirror to a electric tuning fork.  The reflected image of the spinning mirror would stroboscopicly freeze at an equal speed.  He also disproved that Earth was moving through an ether realm by bouncing light at right angles and showing that light was reacted the same both in the direction of the Earth's movement through a theoretical ether and at right angles to it. 
  9. Ivan Pavlov - He preformed minor surgery on dogs to move a salivary gland from the inside to the outside of the mouth.  This could then be used to measure the physiological response to various stimuli such as sand in the mouth, dry bread, and classical conditioning, or pairing reward with reward cue.  Even though the reward is removed the cue still triggers the response.
  10. Robert Millikan - 

Sunday, January 1, 2012

The Palate - Yet Another Difference Between Mammals and Other Vertebrates

You wanna know one of the biggest reason that mammals are special?  We chew.

In fact, only mammals chew. (Pretty much.  It's hard to make absolute statements in biology.)

More on this here.

The gist:  We mammals have evolved warm bloodedness because it helps us move quickly and with sustained energy (reptiles have to bask in the sun, etc. to get warm).  Hot bodies are costly, though--they burn something like 10 times more energy than being cold blooded.  Not only do warm blooded animals have to eat way more (big snakes can go months without eating--try that sometime!), but we have to get every possible calorie out of the food we eat--and fast!  Thus, we chew.  So, what does it take to chew?  Proper teeth, of course.  And...the ability to breath and chew.  Not choking to death is nice, too.

Therefore, the palate was born.  The palate is the bone/flesh separating you nasal passage from your mouth.  I never would have realized this, other than through reading about evolution, but other critters like birds and most reptiles (with the exception of crocodilians who hold their food underwater to drown it without, hopefully, drowning themselves) don't have palates.  They breath through their mouth.

Birdy mouth nasal passages entering mouth (it's the thin slits in the middle of the roof of the mouth):

Dinos were mostly mouth breathers.  (And images below.) 
Mouth Breather

Not Mouth Breather

Also Not (they're exceptions to the rule)