Saturday, January 28, 2012

Scientific Jargon vs Reality

I saw this photo today and thought it was very funny and interesting.

While this is mostly intended for humor, it does address a real issue.

When writing anything, from scientific reports to news articles, jargon can be used in varying ways. Sometimes it can be used to obscure meaning or just to fill space. Writing would be made much better if the use of jargon and necessary words was cut down.

George Orwell said in his essay, Politics and the English Language, "In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning."

Scientists are incentivized to make even 'failed' experiments sound interesting. They won't get funding again unless their work at least seems important. Thus entire scientific articles are written that don't really contribute much to science.

Internists versus Surgeons

In class, we talked about the fact that physicians we completely different than surgeons in the Medieval times, and a question was asked as to what caused these differences. I stated that in a paper that I read by Dr. David A. Bloom of the University of Michigan, he emphasized that in the Hippocratic Oath, physicians were not allowed to wield a knife to cure their patients. A translation of the Oath reveals this statement:

“I will not use the knife, even upon those suffering from stones, but I will leave this to those who are trained in this craft.”

The people trained in this craft were surgeons, those who used implements to cut a human’s body in order to heal. I spoke with Dr. Bloom last week, and he said that in England, where he worked for some time, physicians and surgeons are still somewhat separate entities. For example, internal medicine practitioners are referred to as “Doctor”, while surgeons are referred to as “Mister”. Dr. Bloom showed me his name plate from England which had “Mr. Bloom” inscribed in it.

Today in America, doctors and surgeons are usually thought of as very similar. Both must go to undergrad and medical school, and both must complete residencies, which are at least 4 years. In most cases today, surgeons receive more formal training than internal medicine practitioners.

A brief history of surgery can be found on this website:

Some information on the life of a surgeon/internist can be found at this website.

The future of Science and Medicine

The chapter titled Science and Medicine out of Peter Bowler's Making Modern Science shares many insights on the process of integrating science and medicine throughout the 18th through the 21st centuries. After reading about this interesting process, I began to wonder what the future of science in medicine might bring. Researching the future of medicine brought to my attention many possible future technologies, procedures, and miracle cures that could be coming out in the near future. Some of the proposed futures include nanobots that circulate in your blood, drugs tailored to the patient's DNA profile, and DNA based microchips. Here I will describe how some of these cures/preventative methods work and how they will revolutionize science in medicine.

Circulating Nanobots
These little tiny robots swim through your bloodstream, measuring many different elements in your blood. They then send the information to your doctor (eliminating the need for blood to be drawn at check ups.) The sophisticated robots will also have the ability to read your DNA and decode your entire genome to make predictions about susceptibility to certain diseases. If made affordable and readily available, these little guys will likely be swimming through your body within the next twenty to thirty years. This would greatly improve the predictive and preventative ability of medicine since each doctor would be able to sequence each of their patients' genomes to make predictions about their future health.

DNA chips
The structures of DNA chips are refreshingly simple; they are little wafers of silicon or plastic with strands of DNA embedded in the surface. DNA naturally tends to bind to "complementary partners" in the process of hybridization. These chips can be embedded with the DNA of hundreds of different diseases or genetic disorders then sent into the bloodstream of patient. If one of these chips comes in contact with a matching strand of DNA, the complementary strand will bind to the chip within hours. These chips can then be input directly into an analyzer which confirms the presence of whichever diseases or genetic disorders effecting the patient. The application of DNA chips will greatly increase the accuracy of diagnosis and biopsy analysis.

The future of medicine is all about predicting diseases and preventing them. This will require much more personalization of medicine as doctors will know the genetic sequences of each of their individual patients. While much of this is possible today, the costs of genetic sequencing is a large preventative factor of its widespread application. Many doctors agree that in the next few decades, though, we will see personalization, prediction, and prevention improved dramatically.


Joey Gurrentz

Friday, January 27, 2012

Kepler and the Retina

So in the spirit of vision and the study of the eye, I decided to do a little research on the history of Optometry, and I came across some interesting information connecting optometry to the German mathematician, Johannes Kepler. Kepler, although renowned for his study of astronomy, was in fact the first person to correctly describe how light enters the eye. He proposed that as light enters the eye, the lens focuses light on the retina, forming an image. Kepler's theory was met with much speculation from the Western scientific world at the time (Tombran, Joyce). It's pretty interesting that someone could formulate an important, long-lasting theory that isn't rooted in his/her field of expertise, yet a mathemetician was able to join the ranks of various physiologists as one of the pioneers of modern optometry.


Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Physicians, Surgeons, and Apothecaries

In the eighteenth century, there were three types of professions that were considered to be medical professions: physician, surgeon, and apothecary. Only physicians needed any sort of training in higher education, as surgeons and apothecaries were often simply apprenticed into their position.

All of this made me wonder just how effective medicine of this century was. I think everyone has their preconceptions about what it would have been at this time, perhaps with surgeons haphazardly taking saws to patients and apothecaries giving mystery drugs to customers, but maybe medicine was a tad more advanced than that even three hundred or so years ago. I would think that, perhaps, people knew enough about human anatomy to at least have effective surgeries, even if they were conducted without anesthesia, and I think that the majority of "surgeries" really involved sawing a person's mangled limb off, but that may be another misconception. I have less confidence in the apothecaries' drugs, as chemistry wasn't really a flourishing field yet during the eighteenth century, but perhaps, just by experimentation, these apothecaries did manage to find some effective medicine. In any case, it adds to my intrigue as to why physicians, of all of them, were the only ones that needed formal training when the other two seem to be more precarious and advanced.

Again, most of this was merely speculative, and typing this has actually inspired me to look more into this, so I can put aside my misconceptions and learn about the quality of eighteenth-century medicine as it actually was.

-Christopher Hoef

Friday, January 20, 2012


Anthropocene, the Age of Man, has cropped up as a significant term in today's society, more significantly so, as opposed to past history. Today in class, we discussed nature and the role we as humans play in influencing nature. It was interesting to see different views my classmates held towards nature and how we should go about living are lives in consideration of it.
Here is an article from National Geographic that delves into the history of human influence on earth, how to go about determining our influence, and also the history/meaning of Anthropocene.

Perhaps reading it will change some individuals' views on how greatly we've impacted the earth. As I've expressed today in class, I personally, feel it is our responsibility to take on the role of taking care of nature. Just as Goethe stated, humans must look towards nature with care, caution, respect, and awe.

When you look at how we've been able to sustain our species, nature is where we come from and allows us to live the life we live today. Nature is not here for us, we are here because of nature.
Our population is greater than it has ever been in history, and when the correlation between the growth of the human population is compared to, take for example, the earth's changing atmosphere and the population of other species, there is a noticeable affect that we've had. That may not be important to some,  but it's almost like a common courtesy... I like to think of it that way.
It would be nice if everyone could be courteous to the earth. As much as it provides for us, it shouldn't be that hard for us to spend a little more time doing things that, although may always not be comfortable as Austin had described, would help preserve nature and its beauty.

It's interesting how Anthropocene came about. Had our influence not become a problem or been significant, perhaps the word would not exist today.
Reading the article, it's also interesting to think of things from a future perspective. How would they look back in time and describe our impact on earth? I'd like to think that future historians can look back and say we made Goethe proud.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

On Goethe, Scientific Understanding, and NOVA

I wanted to talk a bit more about Goethe, but in a more relative way. In his experiments, Goethe saw more merit in the visual and conceptual understanding of natural phenomena than in the exact numbers, figures, and calculations that constitute how these phenomena are measured. While Newton felt he needed to relate numbers and the exact degree of refraction to the spectrum of colors, Goethe chose to comment on the colors themselves - how the spectrum went from red to dark purple, how blue and yellow came together to form green, how magenta or pink started to form at both ends, etc. I think Goethe's approach makes more sense because I think that one must mention the basic observations involved in a given phenomena before he or she delves into the specifics of the phenomena. As an example, saying that the acceleration due to gravity is 9.8 m/s/s means nothing if one doesn't know what the Law of Gravity is.

As another example of this, I thought of TV shows that teach scientific concepts to laypeople like NOVA. As far as I've seen, shows like NOVA tent to take an approach like that of Goethe's when relating scientific knowledge, as they tend to stray away from the exact calculations and equations that so into the topic being discussed. When I watch a show like NOVA, I don't see rigid, completely left-brained individuals discussing the specifics of scientific concepts, I see eloquent speakers like Michio Kaku and Neil deGrasse Tyson relay ideas using creative metaphors and examples to relate scientific ideas to laypeople, comparing wormholes in apples to wormholes in space or visualizing a relativistic clock that accounts for movement. It is ideas like this that Goethe would approve of, and an ideology that I have come to favor. It seems that scientific understanding has very little to do with numbers, after all.

-Christopher Hoef

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Goethe's Colors Merge Art and Science

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was a German scientist, poet, and playwright who was a fascinating figure in that he was essentially able merge the arts and sciences in his works, a feat that, considering the modern tendency to view these two disciplines as somewhat conflicting, now seems quite incredible. However, after looking at his works, I like the idea of adding more art and literature to science, as it adds more subjectivity and true understanding to the field.

Take, for instance, a study of colors, which is actually one of the things Goethe is known for doing. We can figure out everything scientific and mathematical that there is to know about lights and colors, such as their frequencies, wavelengths, and position on a "color wheel" relating these values, but would that really describe the colors themselves? I think that Goethe wanted to show that the answer to that question is no, because we can study the physical properties of colors all we want, but these properties mean nothing to our perception, all we see is reds and greens and blues and the colors themselves.

This is just one example of how Goethe's merging of Art and Science can have a practical application and can give us an idea of what scientific discovery means for our everyday experience. Goethe just wanted to make science more relevant to the common person. He just wanted to make it all more human and more real.

-Christopher Hoef

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

History of Science (Without the Science)

The Second Chapter of Helge Kragh's The Historiography of Science begins by questioning how much of the history of science really involves the understanding of science at all. There seems to be a debate over whether or not the history of science should focus more on the historical factors and influences that affected scientific discoveries or the scientific discoveries themselves, or as Kragh puts it the History of Science vs. the History of Science. I'm sure such a debate could be made in other fields such as the History of Math or History of Art.

What's most interesting is that before I read this chapter, I held the conviction that the science should be the focus, but now I think that the history is more important, if only to understand the context of the scientific discoveries. I think that the actual scientific findings in history are meant to be taught in a straight-up science class, since the definition of that class seems to be taking the scientific discoveries made throughout history and teaching them to a new generation. The history of science is, therefore, left to tackle the historical aspect of these discoveries.

Perhaps think of it this way the next time you're in class: while in class, even if it's not explicitly a history class, you are still being taught a culmination of ideas, developments and discoveries throughout history, but only history as a specific field delves into the origins of what you're taught in every other class. In a way, you could say that every class is a history class, even if some are more so than others.

-Christopher Hoef

Science Blogging

Scientific American has some interesting blogs, including the SA Incubator, designed to hatch the work of up and coming young writers. The blog is in conjunction with a UM Public Health course on science blogging.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Curiosities of the Color Wheel

Reading about Goethe's experimentations with the origins of light and color this week got me interested about other curiosities of the color wheel. In my journey though many an internet page led me to find a very interesting phenomenon about the color magenta. While this color may seem just as uninteresting as the rest of them, there are actually some very interesting aspects to magenta. To understand what is so interesting about magenta, one must first understand the basic properties of the visible light spectrum. Anyone with two brain cells to rub together knows that the visible light spectrum is made up of red, orange, yellow, green, blue, and violet. Now you may be thinking, "Wait Joey, how could there possibly be a color wheel? Wouldn't violet and red have to be connected somehow?" If these were your thoughts then you are indeed correct! It turns out that our brains have invented this color so that it can "bridge the gap" between red and violet on the light spectrum. When our brains interpret color, they detect the wavelength of light emitted or reflected from an object. When we detect light of multiple wavelengths our brains produce compounds of these colors (e.g. yellow light + red light = orange light.) Your brain does this by averaging the two wavelengths of light that the eye receives. The one case where your brain fails at this is with the case of adding red light to violet light. The average of these two wavelengths would be green (that seems wrong doesn't it?) Instead of producing green, your brain invents this new color magenta! Isn't that interesting? I'm sure that if you have read this you will never look at the color magenta the same way ever again!

-Joey Gurrentz

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

East Side Gallery, Berlin, Germany
While in Germany I took this picture of the East Side Gallery, which is a gallery of paintings on the Berlin Wall.  I took the picture because I was studying at a Goethe Institute and I found it interesting how many places I was able to find with Goethe.  Goethe is beloved by the Germans, rightfully so, and there is much around Germany remembering him.  Goethe is painted between Schiller, a poet and writer, and Einstein, a scientist.  Goethe embodied both roles as seen in the works Faust and Goethe's Theory of Colours.  For this reason, I find it fitting that he is placed in between the Schiller and Einstein.

Unethical Science

Last week I wrote my response paper partially on unethical scientists who put their aspirations for eternal glorry in front of reality, and eventually paid the price. I think that it correlates with our discussion both weeks that scientists need to maintain an objective stand point during a study, otherwise they will get too invested in it and be tempted to do unethical things. However, that is obviously easier said than done. Thankfully, we have peer review and boards that review scientists' work to make sure it is legitimate before it can be published.

Here is a link if anyone wants to read about some very unethical science.