Friday, January 1, 2010

Assumptions

So on our way back from Jersey, visiting the Sicilians [1] for the holidays, we decide to take a little detour across the river into New York City to visit my old friend (and co-Best Man at my wedding) Mike Gelfman for an afternoon.

We met at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which was my clever way of getting spousal brownie points, hanging with an old buddy from the Before Time, and getting to look at cool old armor and weapons all at the same time.

In the event, though, we never got to the Met's amazing medieval arms exhibit because we got sucked into the far earlier pottery and artifacts exhibits from Egypt, Greece, Tuscany [2], and so forth.

I didn't feel cheated.

Tucked away in a case, one vase among thousands, was this customer [3]:


Heather immediately noticed that the descriptive signage, while full of interesting bits about the religious symbolism, left out an important, if puerile, fact: what seemed obvious to us was about to happen in the depicted scene.

We went back and forth over whether the writer was assuming that tidbit would be obvious to museum goers; while we often decry the rather pathetic state of the art in museum signage these days, the fact is the Met's signs mostly date from some time ago, and it seems far mor likely to me that the author, in a Looney Tunes kind of way [4], was presenting information that a proper, if educated and cosmopolitan, city slicker parent can read to a child while “getting” it at a more adult level.

'Course, that's an assumption, and assumptions can be dangerous. Leading us to today's entry, a study of how the smell-reactive structures of the mouse olfactory epithelium map to the sensations reported by human subjects coming from Yuichi Furudono and pals at, of all places, the Japan Tobacco company's [5] Science Research Center and the National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology in Amagasaki, Japan.

They found, interestingly enough, that the patterns of nerve-cell activation in the mouse olfactory epithelium caused by 12 different odorants matches quite well with similarities and differences in the smells experienced by their human subjects when exposed to those odorants. It's a remarkable finding in its own right, in that it's a kind of Golden Spike that verifies what we're learning about the brain's encoding of olfactory experience by explicitly connecting a series of events in the nose and brain.

But let's take a moment to pick apart exactly what they were doing: they were watching the patterns of nerve-cell activation in the mouse's nose, using that information to figure out how the brain transforms those signals into the smells that we experience — as if we were certain that what happens in the mouse nose reflects perfectly what happens in the human nose, and to some extent brain to brain as well.

Now, the authors are careful to point out that this assumption carries some dangers, and discuss the issue at some length in the paper. But what really pops for me isn't that they're making this assumption, but that the odds are so fat that it's likely to be a sound assumption: from everything we know about the remarkable similarities in the sense of smell among vertebrates, I don't think anybody's losing sleep over the formal possibility that something vastly different can be happening in the mouse brain vs. human to produce similar patterns.

How far we've come.

Anyway, let me wrap up by taking a moment to wish everybody the best New Year Possible — Lord knows, we all could use a better year — and a belated Happy Other Holidays. And please, consider donating some dough to Wikipedia so that this remarkable resource can be there for us all.

[1] Aka my relatives.
[2] The Etruscans, who are a new interest of mine and worth a check-out.
[3] It's a krater, not a vase, apparently. Whatever.
[4] There's a New Year's Day marathon on today.
[5] Check out the link, there's an interesting, if coincidental, connection with the dumpling poisonings in Japan in 2008.

4 comments:

Maurice said...

Interesting image on the Krater; reminds me of images of a sacrifice of the White Bull to Mithras. There are direct descendents of the Estruscan in Italy who remain worshipers of Mithras. At the moment I cannot recall his name, but I will, there is a man in Cleveland who greatly resembles Lars Porcena, the last king of the Estruscans. In his novel "The Estruscan", Mika Waltari speaks of Estruscan relics that had not. at the writing, been discovered. How's he do that???


Maurice

美麗之城 said...

Knowledge is power...................................................

BPL said...

I don't think the guy was about to screw the animal, whatever they were into in ancient Greece. The positions are like those of Minoan drawings depicting the bull-leaping ceremony, and guys are often shown with their stuff hanging out even in very non-sexual situations. Note that the animal is leaping; all four feet are off the ground.

-Classics Minor in Greenfield

BPL said...

Oh, SACRIFICE it...! Could be, I guess. Well, I guess that shows you where my head is at... Time to head for that five-cent psychiatrist.