Updates to this blog will be about as frequent as visits by Haley’s comet. Here you will find a few assorted posts that I’ve made since setting up this website. Check out my Tumblr page for a collection of my favorite music, videos and art. If you’d like to see a little more of my professional accomplishments, please go to my LinkedIn page.

Making videos for museum audiences

Screen Shot 2015-12-04 at 11.23.55 AMMSU Museum’s revamp of their evolution in action gallery focuses on the very cool research of Drs. Ashlee and Matt Rowe. They’ve studied the patterns of venom evolution in bark scorpions and venom resistance in grasshopper mice.

My biggest challenge with this project is translating this into something understandable to a museum audience:

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So I’ve been creating short animation modules to supplement the explanatory text, specimens and interactive components of the exhibit. I’ve been using Videoscribe to make whiteboard animations, which keep people’s attention better than traditional talking-heads videos (and are fun to watch to boot).

Here is a little teaser of one of the modules, which teaches about signal transduction in pain-sensing cells of the peripheral nervous system. The video will eventually be narrated by Ashlee and Matt, with their lovely voices, and will have more polished animations. For now, I’ll share an early draft, narrated by yours truly.

Hallucigenia Walking

Today I’m working on an evolutionary timeline for MSU Museum’s upcoming Evolution in Action exhibit. Fact-checking the dates for notable evolutionary events has included a delightful romp through paleontological debates and papers on recent fossil discoveries, which of course led me to this recent video of everyone’s favorite Cambrian Frankenstein, Hallucigenia.

OUTREACH: “Ghosts in the Brain”

I’ve been meaning to put together a post on creepy sensory illusions for months. It all started when Ammon and I volunteered at the Texas Memorial Museum’s Fright at the Museum Halloween event. Thousands of kids came to visit and spent the afternoon reaching their hands into creepy jars, handling snakes, and wandering around the spookily decorated museum. Our booth was called “Is That A Ghost Or Is Your Mind Playing Tricks On You?,” and demonstrated a bunch of sensory illusions that teach people things about our brains that we’re not normally aware of. This post is a curated list of some of the more interesting sensory illusions we put together and their cognitive explanations. Enjoy!

Print, cut out and tape together this dragon statue. Then close one eye (or dim the lighting in the room) and look at the dragon as you move around. It will seem like its head is tracking your every movement.

1) Why is that dragon following your every move?

You may have seen the video before. A handheld camera zooms around a tiny paper dragon statue, which seems to follow the camera’s every move with its eyes.

What is going on?

The dragon’s face is folded in such a way that it is “hollow,” or concave. Our brains have had many years to get used to the faces of animals and humans being convex and “popping out” at us. So when our eyes feed the information to our brain that no matter where we walk, the dragon’s face is still completely visible to us, our brain interprets this to mean that the dragon must be moving its head along with us.

This illusion is shockingly robust. Even once we know that the dragon’s head isn’t following us and that its face is hollow, we continue to perceive it in a way that doesn’t reflect reality.

2) Convince yourself that you have a third arm (or two noses)

With just a cheap plastic arm, a cardboard box, and a couple of brushes (we used some thick paint brushes), you can be convinced in 5 minutes or less that you have a third arm. The basic steps of the demonstration are nicely laid out in the video below.

If you’re feeling like doing a simpler tactile illusion, close your eyes, cross your fingers, and then line your fingers up so they are on either side of your nose. Then start stroking your nose with your crossed fingers. You should start feeling an eerie sensation that you have two noses instead of one. 

What is going on?

Two Noses Illusion: This illusion is commonly known as Aristotle’s Illusion, because the Greek philosopher wrote about it at least twice. In Metaphysics he wrote:

Touch says there are two objects when we cross our fingers, while sight says there is one.

The trick to this illusion again rests on what our brain is used to sensing in the world. By crossing our fingers, we are ensuring that the outside of each finger is stimulated by its brush against our nose. In our day-to-day existence, having only the outside of two fingers feel something in this way normally tells us that we are touching two separate objects. So even though we know that we don’t have two noses, our brain quickly interprets the incoming tactile information as just the opposite!

Hand Illusion: This one seems to work so well because two senses are being tricked at once. As you watch the fake hand get stroked by the brush, and feel that stroking on your hidden real hand, your brain starts adopting its new plastic arm surprisingly quickly. It seems that the multi-sensory trickery is key here. Our brains appear to decide on “ownership” of body parts by integrating information from all of the senses. Trick a couple of your senses at once, and your brain effectively throws up its metaphorical hands and decides you must suddenly have an extra appendage. The brain’s quick adaptability to altered stimuli has been observed in other odd situations concocted by scientists. For example, people who are asked to wear mirrored goggles that effectively flip the world up-side-down report that after a few days of wearing the goggles they start to see the world right-side-up again. 

3) Get a virtual haircut

Want to feel like you’re getting a haircut without even stepping away from your computer? Simply start playing the video below after plugging some headphones into your computer. Then, close your eyes, and prepare to get a little creeped out.

What is going on?

When an object vibrates, it pushes nearby air molecules away, which collide with other molecules and start a chain reaction that moves outward like a wave. The mechanical movements caused by these waves within our ears gets translated into neural signals, which our brain interprets as sound.

Because our two ears are placed on each side of our head we can use minuscule time delays in how long it takes sound waves to reach them to interpret the direction of sounds. The barbershop recording was made using the snazzy looking plastic head in this picture. He has a microphone in each of his plastic ears, which can record the directions of sounds just like our ears do. Then the resulting recordings got mixed together into a single stereo recording, so you can enjoy a free virtual haircut whenever you please.

Stay tuned for Part II of the sensory illusions series!

Our Evolutionary Hand-Me-Downs

I’ve had a lot of fun researching how many of our bodily “quirks” can be explained by evolution. These graphics were designed for an exhibit on evolution at the Texas Natural Science Center, but I’m working on expanding them into an interactive touchscreen game that will teach people about humankind’s deep evolutionary history. Check out some of the concepts in the panels below (click on the images to embigify them), and let me know what you think!

DarwinHandMeDownQuoteHandmeDownBlog EyeLabel LungsLabel HerbivoreFossil SkeletonLabel

The “scientism” vs. humanities debate goes on

6a012876c6c7fb970c01676913b1fd970b-500wiFewer college students, it seems, are majoring in the humanities. Those in the humanities often blame this on several factors, including economics (STEM majors seem to be doing better than humanities majors in the job market), the lack of appeal of post-modernism, and the rise of “scientism,” which is the supposedly widely held belief that the humanities can and should be subsumed by the sciences. Whether many scientists actually believe such a thing is really up for debate. But some stodgy philosophers like to set up this straw man and then demolish it with glee, usually using some variation of the following argument:

 Imagine a scientific explanation of a painting—a breakdown of Chardin’s cherries into the pigments that comprise them, and a chemical analysis of how their admixtures produce the subtle and plangent tonalities for which they are celebrated. Such an analysis will explain everything except what most needs explaining: the quality of beauty that is the reason for our contemplation of the painting. Nor can the new “vision science” that Pinker champions give a satisfactory account of aesthetic charisma. The inadequacy of a scientistic explanation does not mean that beauty is therefore a “mystery” or anything similarly occult. It means only that other explanations must be sought, in formal and iconographical and emotional and philosophical terms.

This quote comes from a recent essay by the literary editor of the New Republic, responding to another one written by Steven Pinker which made the rather reasonable argument that those in the humanities should not put up a wall to keep out science, which can actually supplement and enhance the study of philosophy, literature, linguistics, and anthropology.

Richard Feynman nicely summarizes the scientist’s reaction to the old painting argument:

Common refrains from those in the humanities include “science looks at the what and how, philosophy the why,” and “STEM majors cannot think creatively, argue well, or write coherently (e.g., here, herehere, and the comments here for a taste of these sentiments). Where these assumptions come from is anyone’s guess. Why do those in the humanities think their discipline is the only one offering the ability to philosophize, write, and think? I worry about the decline in people’s interest in the humanities just as much as the next person, but I also find it hard to pity those who apparently believe that they have a monopoly on the ability to think about the big picture and appreciate the beauty of human culture and of the universe. We could all use a lot more practice reading, writing, philosophizing, and appreciating art. I just don’t think that this has ever been purely the domain of those specializing in the humanities.

The humanities has long suffered from a decidedly anti-scientific sentiment. My friends who were schooled in the humanities simultaneously criticize GMOs, vaccines, global warming, while embracing homeopathy and other pseudo-scientific practices, without having a firm handle on the science behind any of them. Your average scientist has taken anywhere from a handful of humanities courses (through their general elective courses in college, which tend to be heavily humanities biased), to making philosophy a large portion of their research pursuits. Many specialists in humanities, on the other hand, have barely taken a course in the sciences since high school. The college courses that qualify as humanities majors’ sole “quantitative reasoning” requirement, if they have to take one at all, include titles such as Dinosaurs and the History of Life and Biodiversity (both at Columbia) and Counting People (at Harvard).

Our country might be going through a crisis of the humanities, but of much more concern to me is humanists’ crisis in scientific understanding. So why then does it so often feel as though our reasonable arguments are falling on deaf ears?