Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brain transplant

On February 13, 2017, the Spanish newspaper La Razón Digital published an interview with Rafael Matesanz, expert in transplants, with the following headline:
Brain transplant would be the panacea
As usual, the media prefer the most spectacular headlines, regardless of whether they misrepresent the meaning of the article. In this case, for example, the headline was taken from a rather secondary part of the interview. The following:

The brain.
To make it replaceable, we should know how to connect with the bone marrow the fibers leaving the central nervous system, otherwise... We are still far away, although we would like to be able to do it, for that would mean being able to cure quadriplegia and paraplegia.
...
Consider what it would mean to people like Stephen Hawking, with a privileged brain, which you could transplant into a healthy body. Or many vegetative diseases that spoil the motor part of a body, with a healthy brain. It could be an unbeatable form of treatment, but we are far from it. Conceptually it would be the panacea.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Headlines and texts

Prehistoric pregnancy (Science News)
On several occasions I have criticized the distortion of scientific news by the media, especially the headlines, by saying things contradicted by the text, which apparently are more appealing. It seems that many journalists (at least those in charge of headlines) follow the old journalistic dictum, usually quoted in several forms, more or less equivalent, which, as is often the case with these lapidary phrases, has been attributed (probably apocryphally) to diverse personalities, such as William Randolph Hearst:
Do not let reality spoil a good headline (or a good report).
What I think regrettable is the fact that a magazine dedicated to scientific popularization, such as Science News, also falls in this trap of offering appealing headlines, which after reading the text can be seen not to correspond to the content. Let’s look at a few examples, offered during the week of February 19, 2017:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Intersex

Hermaphroditus,
wall painting from Herculaneum
In the previous post I mentioned that in biological chimeras (individuals formed by the fusion of two independent fertilized eggs) it may happen that most of the body belongs to one sex, but the genital organs belong to the other. This phenomenon is called pseudohermaphroditism. It can also be the case (although it is rarer) that the same individual has the two genital organs, complete or incomplete. This phenomenon was formerly called hermaphroditismname of a son of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology, but these cases have recently been included in the concept of intersexa more general term that covers all cases that do not fit the usual definition of male or female bodies, reserving the word hermaphroditism for animals or plants where that condition is normal.
To clarify things, normal members of the human species have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs), with pair 23 formed by the two sex chromosomes, which are responsible for the differences between the sexes. They can be either two X chromosomes (one inherited from the mother, the other from the father); this genetic endowment is called XX and the individual is female. Or they can be an X chromosome (inherited from the mother) and a Y chromosome (inherited from the father); this genetic endowment is called XY and the individual is male. But in addition to these two cases there are others, much less frequent. Let us quote a few (frequency figures are taken from Wikipedia):

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Biological chimeras

A chimeric mouse with pups
Identical twins arise when a zygote (a fertilized egg) begins to divide. About five days after fertilization, it reaches the blastula stage and is implanted in the uterus, but for unclear reasons it can be broken into two separate parts, which will result in two independent embryos that may or not share the same placenta, although they usually have a different amniotic sac. The two siblings who are born share the same genetic endowment (the same DNA), except for possible post-separation mutations.
In contrast, two non-identical twins arise when two distinct eggs are fertilized, each by one spermatozoid, forming two different blastulas, each of which is implanted in the uterus through a placenta of its own. The two brothers will have different genetic endowments, similar to those of two non-twin brothers, because they come from different gametes.
But there is a third possibility: a chimera arises when two blastulas that would normally give rise to two non-identical twins merge before being implanted in the uterus and give rise to a single embryo and, consequently, to a single individual possessing, in different cells, two different genetic endowments. Thus, it may happen that a chimeric individual has (for example) the liver with a genetic endowment and the kidneys with another. Typically, chimeras are difficult to detect, unless (for example) just one of the blastulas would have given rise to an albino, in which case the resulting chimeric individual may have unequally pigmented skin. Even in this case, the cause could be different. It could also happen (although it is very rare) that one of the two zygotes is male (with X and Y chromosomes) and the other female (with XX chromosomes), in which case part of the cells of the chimera would be male and another part female.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Toward Brave New World

Cover of Brave New World's 1st edition
Just as a utopia is a literary work that describes a perfect society, from the point of view of its author, a dystopia is the description of a society where certain characteristics of the world in which the author lives, which he considers unacceptable, are exaggerated and carried to the extreme, with a satirical or denouncing intent.
The two world wars caused a feeling of disillusionment in the West that gave rise to the two most famous dystopias of recent history: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (written in 1931, published in 1932) and Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell (written in 1948, published in 1949). These two works are original in another sense: while other earlier dystopias (such as Samuel Butler's Erewhon, 1872) were located in remote places, such as the Antipodes, the two modern dystopias take place in the future.
The feeling of oppression that seizes the reader of these two novels is almost unbearable. In both cases, the very few nonconformists in society are excluded: in the first, they are banished to an island; in the second, the exclusion is only temporary: the rebel is submitted to brainwashing so as to destroy his spirit and turn him into a mental waste, raw material on which the social planner can act, remodel and educate until he is recovered and adapted to society. The two dystopias are horrible, but they have a very great power of conviction and verisimilitude.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pending problems in the standard cosmological model

The standard cosmological model, prevailing since 1998, is called LCDM and is based on the following statements:
  • The universe began with a Big Bang, after which there was a phase of accelerated expansion (inflation), which then declined to levels close to the current ones. Ordinary matter appeared later, formed essentially by hydrogen and helium.
  • The average curvature of the cosmos is close to zero (flat universe): three-dimensional space is approximately Euclidean.
  • The average density of matter in the cosmos is equivalent to about 30% of the critical density (which separates an open, unlimited expanding cosmos from a closed cosmos that would contract again). Since the ordinary density of matter detected so far represents less than 5% of critical density, the remainder (over 25%) must be an unknown form (dark matter). In fact, it would be what is called cold dark matter, which explains the initials CDM in the name of the model. I talked about dark matter in an earlier post.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Automatic translation

John McCarthy
In a famous summer course that took place at Dartmouth College in 1956, the term artificial intelligence was applied for the first time to all those computer programs that perform tasks traditionally considered exclusively human, such as playing chess and translating from one human language to another. Those attending the course, led by John McCarthy, felt optimistic enough to predict that in ten years those two problems would have been completely solved. Thus, they hoped that by 1966 there would be programs capable of defeating the world chess champion, and others that would translate perfectly between any two human languages.
In March 1961, my uncle, Felipe F. Moreno, then chief of Spanish translators at the headquarters of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, wrote in the ITU magazine an article on machine translation and how it could affect human translators, which proves that the question was hot. Shortly afterwards, when the deadline announced by the artificial intelligence forerunners had been reached, with both problems far from being solved, it was obvious that they had been overly optimistic.
We know that the goal of writing a program that would defeat the world chess champion was met in 1997, when Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the champion in that year. The other problem, machine translation, was even more difficult. At the end of the sixties the following anecdote was well-known in the computer-programming world: