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November 1, 2008

Science of the Five Senses

Art Teams With Science to Explain It All to You


The taste of a ripe tomato, the hook of a catchy song, the scent of a lover’s hair. What is it, exactly, that drives us to seek these things again and again?

Neuroscientists who study perception are starting to discover the inner workings of the sensory mind. Starting on Monday at the New York Academy of Sciences, researchers and artists will team up to explore this new research in a series of talks called Science of the Five Senses. Their conversations will raise a question for the amateur hedonist: If we had a better understanding of the signals our bodies send to our brains, might we take more pleasure from them?

The academy, which was founded in 1817 and now has a membership of more than 25,000 scientists, has recently reached out to the general public with its Science and the City lectures.

“I wanted our live events to be at the intersection of science and culture,” said Adrienne Burke, an editor at the academy who conceived the new series. “That’s how we ended up with a singer and a food writer and an ex-magician. There is a deeper and more common connection between science and art than people tend to recognize.”

For “Science of the Five Senses” Ms. Burke asked the scientists to invite artists to explain their work. “I’m used to booking scientists,” she said. “But I was amazed that all the artists said yes right away, even Rosanne Cash.”

Ms. Cash, the country singer and songwriter, was one of a number of musicians, including Stevie Wonder, Paul Simon and Yo-Yo Ma, on the psychologist Daniel Levitin’s wish list for an evening to be held in April. The academy eventually selected Ms. Cash, who underwent brain surgery last year. Before her operation she had written to the well-known neurologist Oliver Sacks to ask whether she would lose the ability to play music. (She did not.)

“My brain was being crushed; I was in a lot of pain,” Ms. Cash said in an interview. “At first it was dark humor, then it was panic, but then I really got interested in the science of the brain.”

The series will begin with a discussion using excerpts from the documentary “Touch: The Forgotten Sense,” directed by the Danish-born filmmaker Kun Chang, which follows a woman who has been deprived of all bodily sensation by a virus.

“People generally don’t think about losing the sense of touch because we take it for granted,” said Mr. Chang, who recently regained feeling in his own fingers after lifting boxes in a move. “It’s the first thing we get and the last thing we lose. But it has an impact on everything we do.”

The Mexican neuroscientist Ranulfo Romo, who has studied how monkeys and humans store memories of touch, will comment on the science behind the film. He is likely to explain how it is possible for a man to crack a safe with his fingertips, and how a blind and deaf child can read his mother’s lips by placing his hand on her face to feel the vibrations as she talks. This will be Dr. Romo’s first collaboration with an artist.

Next on the agenda will be smell, which can signal the presence not just of food and loved ones but also of predators and sewage. In December the Rockefeller University olfactory researcher Leslie B. Vosshall will join the scientist Avery Gilbert, whose position as consultant for the perfume industry and author of the popular book “What the Nose Knows: The Science of Scent in Everyday Life” appear to qualify him for the role of artist. Among the topics they will cover: Can smells trigger memories? Does body odor really attract mates, and if so, why do we cover it with perfume? What makes some of us insensible to certain scents?

“People are notoriously bad at judging whether they have a good sense of smell,” said Dr. Vosshall, whose lab has discovered a gene that controls how people perceive the odor of male sweat. “From sexuality to food to poison, it’s a very emotionally loaded sense.”

In one of the more unusual pairings, Christof Koch, a neuroscientist at the California Institute of Technology who studies vision and attention, will enlist the master pickpocket Apollo Robbins, who has relieved members of the Secret Service of their watches and wallets, to demonstrate a variety of visual illusions on Jan. 12. The two met last year in Las Vegas at a meeting of the Association for the Scientific Study of Consciousness, where Mr. Robbins performed a public pickpocketing.

“I’ve become quite the armchair student of science,” said Mr. Robbins, who recently published a paper titled “Attention and Awareness in Stage Magic” in the prestigious journal Nature Neuroscience. Written in collaboration with psychologists and magicians, the article explained how performers can achieve tricks like spoon-bending by exploiting the habits of eyes and brains.

At the academy Dr. Koch plans to explain Mr. Robbins’s sleight of hand using the latest cognitive research. For the grand finale, however, it will be up to the audience to guess Mr. Robbins’s methods.

“I really live and breathe science, but I still want to have a sense of the mystery of things,” Dr. Koch said. “Both of us are manipulating attention. He does it for entertainment purposes, and I do it to study consciousness.”

For her co-presenter, the taste researcher Linda Bartoshuk invited the chef and author Harold McGee to join her. Although Mr. McGee expressed some hesitation about the term “supertaster,” which Dr. Bartoshuk coined to describe people who have a gene that makes them more sensitive to bitter compounds, he said they would distribute taste strips so audience members could test themselves for the trait.

Mr. McGee, who is about to begin work on a treatise on the science of flavor, said he hoped research into the mechanics of taste would help not so much in the creation of “crazy or novel” dishes as in helping ordinary diners “get greater pleasure out of the foods we already like, and maybe extending the range of things we’re interested in trying.”

He cited the example of the British chef Heston Blumenthal, who recently surprised food chemists when he discovered that the flavor in tomatoes is concentrated in the jelly around the seeds.

For her part, Ms. Burke of the academy said she was hoping the series could reveal the science behind a more commonplace mystery. “We all know what songs we end up humming all day,” she said, and she is looking forward to hearing Dr. Levitin and Ms. Cash explain “what’s going on in your brain that makes that happen.”

“Hooked on a Feeling: The Science of Touch,” with Kun Chang and Ranulfo Romo, will be presented on Monday at the New York Academy of Sciences, 7 World Trade Center, Lower Manhattan; nyas.org.

November 6, 2008

Opera for the End
of the World


Q&A: Opera for the end of the world

Nature 456, 39 (6 November 2008)

The dawn of the nuclear era finds its voice in Doctor Atomic, an opera about J. Robert Oppenheimer and the making of the first atom bomb. With a new production showing in New York, composer John Adams explains how physicists have reacted to the work, and how writing it has changed his view of nuclear weapons.
Q&A: Opera for the end of the world

What is the setting for the opera?

It mainly takes place during the night leading up to the detonation of the first atomic bomb, code-named the Trinity test, in New Mexico on the morning of 16 July 1945. Just as the plutonium sphere had been winched up on a tower over the desert, an electrical storm blew in, causing huge anxiety. There was pressure to test the bomb as soon as possible because Russia wanted a piece of Japan.

How is the story told?

Peter Sellars compiled a one-of-a-kind libretto using historical sources for every line of sung text. Some of Oppenheimer's words are drawn from a top-secret memorandum that discussed target choices. Because he was a cultured person, we used his favourite poets for moments of lyrical flight or hallucination. Exhausted and nervous, with a dawning awareness of the horror of his creation, our Oppenheimer sings from Charles Baudelaire's poetry, the sacred text of the Bhagavadgita and the John Donne sonnet from which he supposedly drew the name 'Trinity'.

Did Oppenheimer face opposition about dropping the bomb?

After two years of utter focus on the engineering feat, the war in Europe was suddenly over and there were rumours that the bomb would be dropped on civilians. A petition [to warn the Japanese] was circulated by young scientists who naively thought it would end up on the President's desk. But people have different recollections. After one rehearsal, an 80-year-old physicist who had worked at the Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico came up to me and said, "I want you to know that there wasn't a single person who wasn't happy as hell that we dropped that bomb on Japan."

How has working on the opera changed your view of nuclear weapons?

I've been thinking about the use of the bomb in Japan for eight years now and I still can't tell you whether I think it was the right decision. We were facing a land invasion where a million people could have been killed. If the bomb had not been used in Japan, I'm almost certain it would have been used in the Korean war a few years later. It's just human nature.

Have you received any criticism from scientists?

The first words sung by the chorus used to be "matter can be neither created nor destroyed but only altered in form." Marvin Cohen, a professor of physics at the University of California, Berkeley, wrote to me to say that's not strictly right [because a fission bomb turns matter into energy]. I tried to fix it at the dress rehearsal of the San Francisco production in 2005 but the chorus panicked. I have since corrected it.

The opera mentions physicist Edward Teller's concerns about the bomb igniting the air around it. Why did you include this?

Enrico Fermi had voiced his concern that the bomb might cause an atmospheric meltdown, and Teller once calculated the odds of this. By 1945, that possibility was not considered seriously, but I wanted to keep the discussion in the opera because this weapon was a tipping point in the relationship between our species and the planet. Starting on that morning, we had it in our power to destroy the world.

Interview by Jascha Hoffman, a writer based in New York.

November 19, 2008

Adrian Kantrowitz,
Cardiac Pioneer

[full text]


Dr. Adrian Kantrowitz, who performed the first human heart transplant in the United States in 1967 and pioneered the development of mechanical devices to prolong the life of patients with heart failure, died Friday in Ann Arbor, Mich. He was 90.

The cause was complications of heart failure, said Jean Kantrowitz, his wife of nearly 60 years and a longtime colleague in developing the devices.

On Dec. 6, 1967, when he removed the heart of a brain-dead baby and implanted it into the chest of a baby with a fatal heart defect, Dr. Kantrowitz became the first doctor to perform a human heart transplant in the United States. The patient lived for only six and a half hours, but the operation was a milestone on the way to the routine transplants of today.

Along with Dr. Michael E. DeBakey of Texas and a few others, Dr. Kantrowitz helped open the new era in care for seemingly terminally ill heart patients, using both surgery and artificial devices. His work at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn and Sinai Hospital in Detroit had a lasting impact, starting with his first headlines in 1959, when he gave a healthy dog a booster heart muscle.

Over six decades of surgical practice, he designed and used more than 20 medical devices that aided circulation and other vital functions.

Although his 1967 transplant was the first in the United States, it was not the first in the world, following by three days Dr. Christiaan Barnard’s in Cape Town. But Dr. Kantrowitz had been methodical in laying the groundwork for the procedure. He practiced hundreds of heart transplants in puppies over the previous four years, and had planned a human operation the previous year, but was prevented at the last minute because the donor infant had not been declared brain-dead.

“Although Dr. Kantrowitz had the dedication and perseverance to accomplish this remarkable surgical tour de force, it was the notion that, for the first time, science could view the heart as yet another organ that could be fixed that was a revolutionary concept,” Dr. Stephen J. Lahey, director of cardiothoracic surgery at Maimonides Medical Center, said in a statement on the 40th anniversary of Dr. Kantrowitz’s transplant.

While many doctors have worked to replace failing hearts altogether with artificial ones, Dr. Kantrowitz concentrated on finding ways to supplement the work of the natural heart with an impressive array of circulatory devices of his own invention. The most influential was the “left ventricular assist device,” or LVAD, which, for the first time in 1972, allowed a patient with severe chronic heart failure to leave the hospital with a permanent implant.

Another of his inventions was the intra-aortic balloon pump, described in The New York Times in 1967 as “a long, narrow gas line” inserted through the patient’s thigh that inflated “a six-inch-long sausage-shaped balloon” in the aorta. The device deflated when the heart pumped blood and inflated when it relaxed, thereby reducing strain on the heart, according to Dr. Kantrowitz’s theory of “counterpulsation.” The device has been used to treat about three million patients since it went into general use in the 1980s.

He also invented an early implantable pacemaker, designed with General Electric in 1962, and captured the first film of the mitral valve opening and closing inside a beating heart in 1951.

His inventiveness extended beyond cardiology. In 1961, inspired by the way the muscles in the heart were stimulated, he was the first doctor to enable paraplegic patients to move their limbs by electronically triggering their muscles.

Adrian Kantrowitz was born on Oct. 4, 1918, in New York City, to a mother who designed costumes for the Ziegfeld Follies and a father who ran a clinic in the Bronx that charged its patients 10 cents a week.

“My mother told me from the age of 3 that I wanted to be a doctor,” he told The New York Post in 1966.

As a boy he worked with his older brother Arthur to construct an electrocardiograph from old radio parts. The brothers later collaborated on the left ventricular assist device.

After graduating from New York University with a degree in mathematics in 1940, Dr. Kantrowitz enrolled in the Long Island College of Medicine (now a part of SUNY Downstate Medical Center) and completed an internship at Brooklyn Jewish Hospital. He earned his medical degree early, in 1943, as part of an accelerated program to supply doctors for the war effort. After serving two years as a battalion surgeon in the Army Medical Corps, Dr. Kantrowitz began a career in cardiac research and became a major figure in the first generation of cardiac surgeons.

From 1948 to 1955, he practiced surgery at Montefiore Hospital in the Bronx. From 1955 to 1970, he held surgical posts at Maimonides Medical Center in Brooklyn, where he led a team that devised many influential devices with support from the National Institutes of Health, including an electronic heart-lung machine and a radio transmitter that allowed paralyzed patients to empty their bladders.

In 1970 Dr. Kantrowitz left Maimonides when “it became apparent that a small community hospital in Brooklyn was not the proper environment for the development of innovative cardiac surgical techniques,” according to a recent profile in the journal Clinical Cardiology. Remarkably, he was able to move his entire team of 25 surgeons, engineers and nurses — and with them a nearly $3 million research grant — to Detroit, where he taught at Wayne State University School of Medicine and held surgical posts at Sinai Hospital for the rest of his career.

Besides his wife, Jean, who helped him start a medical device company, LVAD Technology, in 1983, his survivors include three children, Dr. Niki Kantrowitz, a cardiologist in Brooklyn; Dr. Lisa Kantrowitz, a radiologist in Newport Beach, Calif.; and Dr. Allen Kantrowitz, a neurosurgeon in Williamstown, Mass.; and nine grandchildren.

Dr. Kantrowitz received a lifetime achievement award from the American Society for Artificial Internal Organs in 2001. He did not rest on his laurels. This year the Food and Drug Administration approved a clinical trial of his latest cardiac assistance device, which promises to allow seriously ill patients to move around and even exercise.

About November 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Jascha Hoffman in November 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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