Archive for June 2018

Phineas Gage holding the iron rod that went through his skull

Brain damage and personality

In September, 1848, the Rutland & Burlington Railroad was expanding its line across Vermont. In order to keep the tracks as straight as possible, construction workers first had to remove a great deal of stone. The foreman of one group of men undertaking this difficult task was Phineas P. Gage. Twenty-five-year-old Gage was intelligent, kind, and well-liked. He was also quite athletic and agile, and impressed his employers as being exceptionally efficient at his work.

Gage was an expert at removing rock using explosives. The procedure was to drill into the rock, fill the hole halfway with explosive powder, insert a fuse, and then cover the powder with sand. The layer of sand was necessary to direct the force of the blast into the rock, rather than out the top of the hole, and the sand had to be packed down by pounding it with a specially designed iron tamping rod. Gage had a custom-made rod that weighed 13 pounds (5.9kg) and measured 3 1/2 feet (1.1m) long, with a diameter of 1 1/4 inches (3.2cm) at the bottom, tapering to a dull point at the top.

Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones

At 4:30 p.m. on September 13, Gage was preparing a charge, and apparently failed to notice that it had not yet been cushioned with sand before he began tamping it. When the iron rod scraped against the rock, it created a spark that ignited the powder. The resulting explosion propelled the rod out of the hole, through Gage’s left cheek, and out the top of his skull. The rod landed nearly 100 feet (25m) away.

Remarkably, despite the two new and rather large holes in his head and the significant bleeding that resulted, Gage did not even lose consciousness. He remained upright and lucid as his coworkers loaded him onto an ox cart and took him to the nearby town of Cavendish. A half hour later he was sitting on the hotel porch, chatting with the owner while waiting for the arrival of Dr. John Harlow, the local physician. Dr. Harlow treated Gage’s injury as best he could, piecing the remaining portions of the skull back together and cleaning and dressing the wounds. Over the coming weeks Gage developed a series of infections but fought them successfully under Harlow’s care. Other than the loss of sight in his left eye, Gage was declared to have made a full recovery in just a couple of months.

Suddenly, I’m Not Half the Man I Used to Be

An experience like this is bound to make anyone a bit grumpy, but even as he healed physically, Gage underwent a profound change in personality. Although he never lost his language ability, memories, or motor skills, his temperament was completely different. He became profane, impatient, rude, obstinate, and unable to carry out any of the endless plans he made. His friends said that “Gage was no longer Gage”; it was as though all of his ethical filters had been turned off. Because he was such unpleasant company, he had difficulty keeping jobs, and at one point put himself on display at Barnum’s Museum in New York City. Several years later, having made his way to California after an extended stay in Chile, Gage began having epileptic seizures. These continued for several months until he suffered a series of major convulsions that led to his death on May 21, 1860—nearly twelve years after his accident.

Gage was buried without an autopsy, but seven years later his body was exhumed. The skull (along with the tamping iron, which had been buried with him) were sent to Dr. Harlow, who examined them and then donated them to the Warren Medical Museum of the Harvard Medical School. Later they were transferred to Harvard’s Countway Library of Medicine.

Brains and Personality

I first heard the story of Phineas Gage in a graduate course in cognitive science; anyone who studies the brain is bound to run across the story in textbook after textbook. Although no one can say with complete certainty exactly what parts of Gage’s brain were damaged, it seems the injury amounted to a very crude frontal lobotomy. This case became famous as the first hard evidence that aspects of one’s personality (and, by implication, behavior) were localized in portions of the frontal lobe.

Neurologist Antonio Damasio has spent years studying brain injuries similar to Gage’s. His research has led him to believe that emotion figures crucially into rational thought and decision-making. If the portion of the brain that processes emotion is damaged, it becomes difficult or impossible to make good decisions. The sad tale of Phineas Gage has produced valuable insights for the field of neuroscience, not to mention a lesson we can all heed: stay far away from explosives!

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on August 5, 2004.

Image credit: Originally from the collection of Jack and Beverly Wilgus, and now in the Warren Anatomical Museum, Harvard Medical School. [Attribution, GFDL or CC BY-SA 3.0], from Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Artist's concept of a near-Earth object.

On June 30, 1908, a huge explosion rocked a remote area of Siberia, flattening hundreds of square miles of forest. (Miraculously, no one was killed.) Later investigations showed that the explosion occurred when a meteoroid—either a comet or an asteroid—entered the atmosphere and burst a few miles above the planet’s surface. This was the largest impact event of an object from space in recorded history. (A larger one has frequently been implicated in the demise of the dinosaurs, but whether or not that is the case, there were no humans to witness or record it.) And so, each year on this date, we pause to freak out about the devastating and possibly unavoidable effects of a giant space rock hitting the planet. OK, it’s really to raise awareness about the potential threat and support research into how it could be countered (spoiler: it’s not as easy as the movies make it seem). But freaking out works too.

Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

Wet collodion being applied to a glass plate

Developing a better negative

Intellectual property lawsuits may seem like a thoroughly modern phenomenon, but the struggle to assert one’s rights over a creative work is very, very old. Patents, copyrights, and other formal claims of authorship exist largely—in theory, at least—to guarantee that a work’s originator has the greatest opportunity to profit from it. But ethical and legal complications arise when more than one person claims to have created something first, when the scope of someone’s claim is unclear, or when a creator’s interests are potentially at odds with the public good. The outcomes of such cases (one way or the other) can have a profound impact on technological progress, not to mention the financial success of both individuals and entire companies.

In the mid-1800s, a grand battle took place between a patent holder and someone we might today call an open-source advocate. As it turned out, both sides lost, but the public gained. The technology under dispute was nothing less than a method for creating multiple, clear copies of a photograph from an original—something we take for granted today, and without which, the world of media would be much different.

Picture Imperfect

The earliest days of photography were both exciting and frustrating. The daguerreotype, for instance, invented in 1837, made a beautiful, sharp image on a copper plate coated with light-sensitive silver iodide. But creating just one picture required extensive preparation, an exposure as long as 20 minutes, and development using toxic mercury vapors. Because the end result was a positive image on metal, there was no way to make a copy.

A less-expensive, competing process called the calotype was patented in 1841 by William Henry Fox Talbot. A calotype began with a negative image printed on light-sensitive paper. To make a positive, one sandwiched the negative together with a second sheet of the paper and exposed it to the sun. Because Talbot’s process was repeatable, one could make numerous copies of a single image. But the images weren’t very sharp, because the irregularities in the paper itself caused distortions; calotypes also took quite a while to create.

Holy Colliding Colloids!

Frederick Scott Archer was an English sculptor who liked the idea of working from a photographic image of his subjects. But the limitations of both daguerreotypes and calotypes made them less than ideal for his work, so he set about to create a solution—a process with all the sharpness and contrast of the former and the reproducibility of the latter. In 1848, he struck upon the idea of using a recently invented substance called collodion.

Collodion is a thick, sticky, clear, gelatinous substance. To make it, you start with pyroxylin—also known as “gun cotton”—which is created by treating cotton or wood pulp with nitric and sulfuric acids. Dissolve the pyroxylin in ether with a small amount of alcohol, and it turns into an adhesive of sorts. (The Greek word from which collodion is derived means “glue”; the same root gives us the word colloid, any of a class of gelatinous substances of which collodion is just one example.) At that time, collodion was used primarily to dress wounds. Archer’s innovation was to coat a glass plate with a mixture of collodion and potassium iodide, and then dip the plate into a silver nitrate solution to make it light-sensitive. (In fact, it was extremely sensitive—exposures could now be as brief as a few seconds.) Because the plate had to be placed in a camera, exposed, and developed immediately—while the coating was still wet—Archer’s method was known as the “wet collodion process” (or, sometimes, the “wet plate collodion process”). The result was a sharp, durable, glass negative that could be used to make any number of prints. In other words, it was a direct ancestor of modern negatives.

Nice Guys Finish Last?

Archer did not patent his process, but instead published a detailed description in the March, 1851 edition of The Chemist—making it freely available to all comers. It was an immediate success. Almost overnight, the daguerreotype and the calotype became obsolete; the wet collodion process went on to dominate photography for nearly 30 years. Although later discoveries would eliminate the awkward need to work with wet plates, Archer’s invention opened entirely new doors for the young art of photography.

One person, however, was highly chagrined at this turn of events: William Talbot. Talbot held that his calotype patent covered all silver-based photographic processes, and that therefore anyone who used Archer’s wet collodion process owed Talbot a licensing fee. For three years, Talbot waged intense legal battles, driving some photographers out of business. This made him an extraordinarily unpopular figure in the photographic world, and eventually the courts ruled that those who used Archer’s process were not in fact violating Talbot’s patent. So Talbot lost, but so did Archer. Because he didn’t patent his own process, he earned virtually nothing for his efforts. When he died in 1857—at which point his invention was still just taking off—he was penniless.

This little tale does not have a nice, neat moral. We want to be thankful to Archer for his selflessness while at the same time lamenting his foolish lack of foresight; we feel angry at Talbot for being mean-spirited and vindictive, while respecting his prudent choice to patent his invention. So I suppose the lesson I take away is: “Be smart, but also be reasonable.”

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on May 6, 2005.

Image credit: By CARLOS TEIXIDOR CADENAS [CC BY-SA 4.0], from Wikimedia Commons


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A box camera

Each year on June 29 we observe National Camera Day, in recognition of this fabulous, world-changing invention. Sure, we all have them in our phones and tablets and computers now, and that whole mysterious process of having film developed and prints made has given way to the instant gratification of digital photos. But seriously, where would we be without cameras?

In honor of National Camera Day 2018, Take Control Books is offering three books about digital photography for 50% off, plus a free 11-page bonus PDF with the purchase of any of these three books about using a NAS to store your digital photos. The books are:

Enjoy! But hurry: this special offer expires at the end of June 30, 2018.


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day

A pie bird in a pie

A piecrust’s best friend

Cherry pie has always been one of my favorite desserts, and this preference was only reinforced by my repeated viewings of Twin Peaks. Years ago I had the pleasure of meeting Pat Cokewell, erstwhile owner of the Mar T Cafe (now called Twede’s) in North Bend, Washington. The Mar T achieved fame as the “RR Diner” on Twin Peaks, and it was Pat’s cherry pies that inspired director David Lynch to make the diner (and the pies) a central feature of the show. The cherry pies Pat bakes are indeed unimpeachable (and I’m sure even her peach pies are excellent). After sampling them I decided to teach myself how to bake cherry pies, and while I can’t yet claim to match Pat’s expertise, I’ve done OK.

The Crust of the Matter

The crust, of course, is the trickiest part of the pie to master, and I’ve messed up more than a few. In the course of my pie experiments, I’ve accumulated a pretty thorough collection of pie paraphernalia—a variety of pie pans, weights that are used to hold down a crust when baking it “blind” (without a filling), the special metal guards you put over the edges to keep them from burning, and so on. I considered myself quite well versed in the apparatus of pie-making until my wife came back from a trip to a large kitchen store with a shocking discovery: there was a Pie Thing I didn’t yet have, and indeed had never even heard of. It’s called a pie funnel.

My first thought upon hearing the term “pie funnel” was confusion at why someone would want to pour a pie into a bottle. Then I discovered that pie funnels are in fact devices designed to improve the top crust of a pie as it bakes. When you put a crust on top of your pie filling, you’re creating a sealed vessel containing a lot of moisture. As the pie bakes, some of that moisture turns to steam—and if the crust is completely sealed, the steam pressure can blow a hole through it, covering the inside of your oven. This is why lattice piecrusts were invented: not only do they look impressive, they leave plenty of holes for the steam to escape. But there’s more than one way to skin a pie.

Four and Twenty Ceramic Birds Baked in a Pie

A pie funnel is a hollow ceramic doohickey (to use a highly technical pie term) that stands a few inches high, with one or more openings near the bottom and a vent at the top—thus approximating the design of an upside-down funnel. In fact, the exact shape of a pie funnel is irrelevant; they are often made in the shape of birds (and called “pie birds”), but you can also find gnomes, chess pieces, and a variety of other designs that serve the same purpose. To use a pie funnel, you cover the bottom of the pie pan with dough as usual, place the funnel in the middle, and pour the filling around it. Then you lay on the top crust, with the pie funnel poking through and its top vent exposed; for best results, pinch the crust around the outside of the pie funnel to seal it.

As the pie bakes, the pie funnel vents steam from inside the pie, which helps to keep the crust from splitting, prevents the filling from boiling over, and serves to reduce and concentrate the juices. It also supports the top pie crust, keeping it from sagging into the filling and getting soggy. Depending on the shape of the pie funnel, you may or may not be able to remove it before slicing the pie. Either way, your pie will be a little goofy-looking, but that’s a small price to pay for an otherwise perfect crust.

Note: This is an updated version of an article that originally appeared on Interesting Thing of the Day on September 20, 2003, and again in a slightly revised form on July 27, 2004.

Image credit: Paul Joseph [CC BY 2.0], via Flickr


Source: Interesting Thing of the Day