September 8, 2011
I’m looking forward, with some trepidation, to seeing the movie Contagion, which comes out in theaters tomorrow. The subject is scarier than any made-up horror flick–a realistic scenario of a killer pandemic virus. Ian Lipkin, director of the Center for Infection and Immunity at Columbia University and an expert consultant on the new film, gave me real reason to worry about the scenario dreamed up by the moviemakers, telling Salon: “We know that if we were to have some sort of an outbreak—or pandemic, worse yet—in the United States, we don’t at present have the tools that are required to rapidly ramp up some sort of a strategy for making vaccines and distributing them. Those are just the cold, hard facts.” After watching Contagion, we’re all going to either want to hide away in our homes and/or start calling our congresspeople to take action so we’re better prepared for something like this.
Or we could just play games. Here are five games to play after watching the movie:
Sneeze: The goal of this mini online game is to sneeze at just the right time and in just the right direction to transfer a virus to others who then transfer it to others and so on, eventually reaching as many individuals as possible. It’s a simple demonstration of how easy it is to transmit a virus when people don’t cover their mouths when they sneeze (and one out of four people in one study didn’t bother).
Pandemic, The Board Game: In this cooperative game, two to four players work together to cure four diseases. Each player takes on a role—such as scientist or medic—and on each turn travels the world, treating people, building research centers and finding cures for the diseases. If you find the cures, everyone wins. If not, you’re all dead. The message of the game is that if this happens in real life, we’re all going to have to work together to fight a pandemic or we’ll all end up dead.
Pandemic 2: This is another mini online game (and not related to the board game, despite the name), and the goal is to wipe out the world. Pick a virus, bacteria or parasite and let it loose. As more people become infected (and eventually die), you earn points that you can use to buy new traits for your disease, such as symptoms, drug resistance and modes of transmission. Can you evolve your disease faster than humans can develop and deploy a vaccine? This game excels at demonstrating how the various traits of a disease can affect where and how quickly it spreads and how virulent and deadly it becomes.
The Great Flu: Choose from one of five viruses (difficulty levels) in this online game and then pick through a selection of strategies to defeat it. You can stockpile vaccines and antiviral medicines, spend money on research facilities and teams, shut down schools or airports, distribute face masks, or isolate infected individuals. Trying to contain the disease in a single country is not easy, and the numbers of infected and dead can quickly pile up. This game is an interesting simulation of some of the realistic options available to those fighting a pandemic disease.
Killer Flu: This game, from the U.K. Clinical Virology Network, should give us all a little hope. The UK CVN developed the game, in part, to demonstrate just how hard it is for a flu virus to mutate, spread and kill. And that adds a layer of difficulty to the game, in which you try to make a flu virus spread from person to person and city to city, infecting as many people as possible, and makes it that much more fun.
August 16, 2011
Do you hate it when someone tells you the ending of a book you haven’t read? Do you get angry at reviewers who give away too many plot points? Does the existence of “spoiler alerts” set your hackles up because you think spoilers shouldn’t even exist? Well, it seems you might be missing out—spoilers may enhance story enjoyment, according to a new study from Psychological Science.
Two researchers at the University of California, San Diego set up an experiment in which undergraduate students read classic short stories presented in one of three ways: by itself, with a separate spoiler paragraph, or with that same paragraph incorporated into the beginning of the story. They were then asked to rate their enjoyment of the story on a scale from 1 t0 10. The 12 stories fell into three types: ironic twist, such as “The Bet” by Anton Chekhov; mystery, such as “A Chess Problem” by Agatha Christie; and literary, such as “The Calm” by William Butler.
Each story type and each story were rated higher when presented with the spoiler paragraph. The scientists write:
Writers use their artistry to make stories interesting, to engage readers, and to surprise them. But giving away these surprises makes readers like stories better. This was true whether the spoiler revealed the twist at the end—that the condemned man’s daring escape was just a fantasy before the rope snapped taut around his neck—or solved the crime—that Poirot will discover that the apparent target of attempted murder is in fact the perpetrator.
The researchers suggest that knowing what will happen helps the reader (or viewer) concentrate on other bits of the storytelling. “So it could be that once you know how it turns out, it’s cognitively easier—you’re more comfortable processing the information—and can focus on a deeper understanding of the story,” says study co-author Jonathan Leavitt.
However, this study does not indicate that writers should be giving away all their secrets in the first lines. When the spoiler paragraph was presented as part of the story, there was no additional benefit to reader enjoyment.
The researchers conclude:
Erroneous intuitions about the nature of spoilers may persist because individual readers are unable to compare between spoiled and unspoiled experiences of a novel story. Other intuitions about suspense may be similarly wrong, and perhaps birthday presents are better wrapped in transparent cellophane, and engagement rings not concealed in chocolate mousse.
Perhaps not. But considering all the joy people (including myself) get from rereading and rewatching stories over and over again, maybe we shouldn’t worry so much about ruining our pleasure when we come across spoilers.
August 11, 2011
In the new movie Rise of the Planet of the Apes, the leader of the ape revolution can talk. In the real world, apes can’t speak; they have thinner tongues and a higher larynx, or vocal box, than people, making it hard for them to pronounce vowel sounds. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they don’t have the capacity for language—sign language, after all, doesn’t require any vocalization.
Over the years, researchers have succeeded—and failed—in teaching apes to use language. Here’s a look at some of the more famous “talking” apes.
Viki: Viki, a chimpanzee, came closest to being a real talking ape. In the late 1940s and early 1950s, Keith and Catherine Hayes of the Yerkes Laboratories of Primate Biology, then located in Orange Park, Florida, adopted Viki and raised her at home as if she were a human baby. With the Hayeses moving her lips for her, Viki learned to utter “mama.” Eventually, with much difficulty, she managed to say three other words—papa, cup and up—on her own. Viki’s tenure as a talking ape didn’t last long; she died at the age of seven of viral meningitis.
Washoe: In the 1960s, psychologists Allen and Beatrix Gardner of the University of Nevada, Reno recognized that chimpanzees naturally gesture a lot and thought chimps would be well suited for sign language. In 1966, they started working with Washoe. Later, psychologists Roger and Deborah Fouts, now retired from Central Washington University, continued the work. By the end of Washoe’s life in 2007, she knew about 250 signs and could put different signs together to make simple combinations like “Gimmie Sweet” and “You Me Go Out Hurry.” Washoe’s adopted son Loulis also learned to sign—by watching his mother. He was the first ape to learn signs from other apes, not humans. For more on Washoe’s life, read Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin.
Nim: After the success with Washoe, psychologist Herbert Terrace of Columbia University decided to replicate the project. At first, Nim—full name Nim Chimpsky, named after linguist Noam Chomsky who thought language was unique to humans—was raised in a human household. (Washoe had been treated like a person too but had her own trailer.) Later, Nim was removed from the family and his language lessons moved to a lab on Columbia’s campus. In the end, Terrace concluded Nim never really learned language; he had merely been trained to imitate his teachers to get rewards. The sad story of Nim’s life after the project ended is told in the new documentary Project Nim.
Chantek: Chimpanzees are not the only talking apes. In 1978, anthropologist Lyn Miles of the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga began studying an orangutan named Chantek. During eight years of study, Chantek learned 150 signs. He also showed signs of being self-aware: he could recognize himself in a mirror. Today, you can visit Chantek at Zoo Atlanta, his home since 1997.
Koko: Koko the gorilla is probably best known for her love of kittens and Mr. Rogers (and maybe less well-known for her encounter with Captain James T. Kirk). Koko’s sign-language training began in 1972 with then-graduate student Francine (Penny) Patterson of Stanford University. According to the Gorilla Foundation, Koko knows 1,000 signs and understands spoken English. It also claims the gorilla has an IQ somewhere between 70 and 95 (the average human IQ is 100). (Critics, however, remain skeptical about some of Koko’s supposed abilities due to the lack of recent scientific publications supporting the claims. (PDF))
Kanzi: Kanzi, a bonobo, doesn’t use sign language; he uses different combinations of lexigrams, or symbols, to communicate. In the early 1980s, psychologist Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, then of Georgia State University, was trying to teach Kanzi’s mom, Matata, to use the lexigrams; instead, Kanzi was the one who mastered the symbols. Kanzi understands spoken English and knows close to 400 symbols. When he “speaks,” his lexigram usage follows rules of grammar and syntax, according to researchers at the Great Ape Trust in Iowa, where Kanzi now resides. Kanzi is also an accomplished stone-tool maker.
August 5, 2011
It’s the summer of the chimpanzee, at least at the movies. The documentary Project Nim and the sci-fi flick Rise of the Planet of the Apes offer audiences very different forms of simian entertainment, but moviegoers will walk away from both wondering, “Is it ethical to use chimps in research?”
Project Nim chronicles the life of Nim Chimpsky, the chimpanzee who was the focus of one of the most (in)famous ape language studies. In 1973, just days old, Nim was taken from his mom at an ape lab in Oklahoma and brought to New York City. Herbert Terrace, a psychologist at Columbia University, wanted to see if he could communicate with a chimpanzee through language (Nim was named after linguist Noam Chomsky). Because apes do not have the proper physiology to speak, Terrace decided to teach Nim sign language.
The best way to do this, Terrace thought, was to raise Nim among humans. Terrace gave Nim to one of his former graduate students, a mother in a Brady Bunch-style household. Life there was chaotic, with few rules, and no one in Nim’s human family really knew sign language.
Lacking results, Terrace once again took Nim away from his mother. This time he brought him to an old mansion in the New York suburbs owned by Columbia. Nim lived there with a few college students who were his teachers. Nim also made trips to the university’s campus for language training sessions, which he apparently disliked. One former teacher claims Nim used the sign “dirty,” meaning he needed to use the bathroom (he knew how to use a toilet), to get out of the classroom.
As Nim got older, he became stronger, unpredictable—and violent (his teachers have the scars to prove it; he bit one woman’s face so hard that she had a gaping hole in her cheek for months.) This is normal for a chimpanzee. “Nobody keeps a chimp for more than five years,” Terrace says. Soon Terrace ended the project.
Nim is then returned to the Oklahoma lab. This scene is why you should bring tissues to the theater. Nim gets locked up, forced to live alone in a small cage next to the cages of strange creatures he’d never seen before: other chimps. The lab looks like a primate prison. The workers shock the animals with cattle prods to keep them in line. One former worker describes Nim as a “spoiled child.”
Nim’s life gets worse. He is sold to a medical lab for vaccine testing. Later he moves to a sanctuary—for horses. He lives there in almost total isolation, as the owners don’t know how to care for an ape. Nim appears lonely, depressed. It’s heartbreaking.
Nim eventually gets some chimp companionship. But there’s no real happy ending for him. He died in 2000 at the age of 26, quite young for an animal that can live up to 45 years in the wild and 60 in captivity.
The movie begins in Africa with the capture of a female chimpanzee. In the next scene, she’s solving a puzzle in a lab. (Today, chimps used in research are bred in captivity. It is illegal to bring them in from the wild.) This chimp is part of a medical trial for a gene therapy to treat Alzheimer’s. The treatment goes beyond the expectations of medical researcher Will Rodman (played by James Franco); it enhances the cognition of the chimp, making her super-smart. (Ed. note — Mild spoilers ahead, though its nothing you haven’t already seen in the trailers, so consider yourself warned. You can read on after the note below)
The ape passes down her superior intellect to her son, Caesar (played by Andy Serkis with the help of amazing CGI effects). After an unfortunate incident, Caesar’s mom is killed, and the lab manager halts the project and orders all the chimps to be put down. Rodman saves newborn Caesar and takes him home.
This is where Caesar’s life begins to resemble Nim’s. Rodman treats Caesar like a human and teaches him sign language. Several years later, a bigger, stronger Caesar attacks a neighbor while trying to protect Rodman’s father, and is sent away to a primate “sanctuary” that bears a striking resemblance to the Oklahoma lab where Nim lived, right down to the cattle prods. And Caesar must learn how to interact with other apes.
Eventually, Caesar breaks out, steals some of the medicine that made him smart and returns to give it to his ape comrades. The apes revolt and descend on San Francisco. During an incredible battle on the Golden Gate Bridge, it’s clear that the California Highway Patrol—and perhaps all of humankind—is no match for this army of super-simians. By the end (stick around for the credits), it’s clear how the apes will conquer the rest of the world.
What happened to Nim and Caesar made me incredibly sad and made me think about the ethics of captive ape research. I’m not alone.
(Spoiler-concerned readers: You’re safe to read on from here)
Although the premise of Rise of the Planet of the Apes seems absurd, some scientists worry that genetic engineering is advanced enough to create primates with human-like behavior and self-awareness. The U.K. Academy of Medical Sciences released a report last month suggesting such experiments should be off-limits. The United Kingdom along with many other countries already ban the use of great apes in research. The subject is now being debated in the United States.
In the case of Nim, Terrace concluded years after the project ended that the chimp never really understood sign language; he just learned to mimic his teachers to get rewards. As the movie implies, the lack of results could be blamed on the lack of a proper experimental design in the first place. Other apes—most notably Washoe the chimpanzee, Koko the gorilla and Kanzi the bonobo—have been taught to use sign language. The researchers studying them believe they are truly communicating with these animals via language, but there are still some skeptics, including Terrace, who think otherwise.
I have mixed feelings on chimp studies. The sad irony is that the very reason it seems wrong to study chimps is the same reason why they are attractive study subjects: they are our closest living relatives, and the animals that come closest to being like us.
April 18, 2011
Zombies seem to be only growing in popularity, and I’m not talking about the biological kind. They’ve got their own television show, plenty of films, and even a musical. They invaded the world of Jane Austen, and there are zombie crawls around the world, in which people dress up like the living dead and shuffle across some urban area.
And then there’s the growing field of zombie science.
In 2009, University of Ottawa mathematician Robert J. Smith? (and, yes, he really does include a question mark at the end of his name) published a paper in a book about infectious disease modeling titled “When Zombies Attack! Mathematical Modelling of an Outbreak of Zombie Infection” (pdf). It started as a class project, when some students suggested they model zombies in his disease modeling class. “I think they thought I’d shoot it down,” Smith told NPR, “but actually I said, go for it. That sounds really great. And it was just a fun way of really illustrating some of the process that you might have in modeling an infectious disease.” Using math, the group showed that only by quickly and aggressively attacking the zombie population could normal humans hope to prevent the complete collapse of society.
That paper sparked further research. The latest contribution, “Zombies in the City: a NetLogo Model” (pdf) will appear in the upcoming book Mathematical Modelling of Zombies. In this new study, an epidemiologist and a mathematician at Australian National University refine the initial model and incorporate the higher speed of humans and our capacity to increase our skills through experience. They conclude that only when human skill levels are very low do the zombies have a chance of winning, while only high human skill levels ensure a human victory. “For the in-between state of moderate skill a substantial proportion of humans tend to survive, albeit in packs that are being forever chased by zombies,” they write.
Then there’s the question of whether math is really the most important discipline for surviving a zombie attack.
But how might zombies come about? There are some interesting theories, such as one based on arsenic from Deborah Blum at Speakeasy Science. Or these five scientific reasons a zombie apocalypse could happen, including brain parasites, neurotoxins and nanobots.
A Harvard psychiatrist, Steven Schlozman, broke into the field of zombie research and then wrote The Zombie Autopsies: Secret Notebooks from the Apocalypse, which blames an airborne contagion for the zombie phenomenon. The book delves into the (fictional) research of Stanley Blum, zombie expert, who searched for a cure to the zombie epidemic with a team of researchers on a remote island. (They were unsuccessful and succumbed to the plague, but nicely left their research notes behind, complete with drawings.) It’s more than just fun fiction to Schlozman, though, who uses zombies to teach neuroscience. “If it works right, it makes students less risk-adverse, more willing to raise their hands and shout out ideas, because they’re talking about fictional characters,” he told Medscape.
For those interested in getting an overview of the science, a (spoof) lecture on the subject, Zombie Science 1Z, can now be seen at several British science and fringe festivals. Zombiologist Doctor Austin, ZITS MSz BSz DPep, lectures in three modules: the zombieism condition, the cause of zombieism, and the prevention and curing of zombieism. And for those of us who can’t attend in person, there’s a textbook and online exam.
And the Zombie Research Society keeps track of all this and more, and also promotes zombie scholarship and zombie awareness month. Their slogan: “What you don’t know can eat you.”