Archive for the ‘reviews’ Category

On Camera: The Brain Fitness Program



It’s happened to all us. We’re flipping through the channels when suddenly appears a pretty middle-aged woman telling us how important donating to public television is. It’s addicting to watch. You see what gifts they have to offer and smile at their comments about the quality program you’re currently enjoying.As “The Brain Fitness Program” aired on WGBH over the weekend, they were especially witty: “It helps me remember names and phone numbers…. One number I do remember is the number at the bottom of your screen.”

For this fundraiser, however, it seems PBS sold out. “The Brain Fitness Program,” explaining the science of neuroplasticity, was actually a “documercial” – a documentary selling a product. The show explained how our brain learns and forms new memories and how all us can bring about positive and negative plasticity. What causes negative plasticity? Aging of course. What causes positive plasticity? Paying hundreds of dollars to play six computer games sold by Posit Science.

The main neuroscience expert in the show was Dr. Michael Merzenich, the chief scientific officer for Posit Science and a businessman. It’s like having Ronald McDonald give expert advice on how hamburgers are good for you. Most of the science was sound, as dull as it was presented. Things began to get spun, however, when phrases such as “harnessing the power of positive plasticity” were thrown about, not to mention the bias. Some scientists may not agree playing computer games retains mental agility or there is even a “brain age.”

Most bothersome was how the donation gifts were also commercials in disguise.Here’s the breakdown:

$50 – Brain Fitness Home Primer – “Cognitive tests you can take in your home. Designed to be administered by friends or family members”

$90 – The Brain That Changed Itself by Dr. Norman Doige, also on the company’s payroll.

$120 – The Brain Fitness Program DVD with Bonus Material (45 minutes of interviews!)

$365 – All of the above plus the The Brain Fitness Gym. CD ROM with 40 1-hour sessions.

What happened to the tote bags? So the public television viewer spends the least amount for the free gift of The Brain Fitness Home Primer. They take the test and find, to their surprise, their brain age isn’t that high. It is then recommended they buy the full program for $400 or more.

The business of mental aging has been growing over the past decade. With video games for adults to keep the brain sharp and crossword puzzles touted as the first defense against dementia it makes sense for PBS to partner with Posit Science, their viewers are mostly older people concerned about their mental agility. But it’s important to also mention the jury is still out on how big a difference a card-match computer game a day will have in preventing the inevitable senior moment.

Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: January 27, 2008

Lecture Notes: Your Inner Fish


Some people collect stamps, others collect bugs; I collect autographed science and medical books. My newest addition is a book by Dr. Neil Shubin, a fish paleontologist and author of “Your Inner Fish: A journey into the 11-million-history of the human body” who spoke at Harvard Book Store this evening. 

Dr. Shubin made the news in 2004 with the discovery of Tiktaalik, which he described as a “fishapod,” the intermediary between life on water and life on land. After spending a few summers in the Canadian arctic searching unsuccessfully for such a species, he uncovered a site rich with fish skeletons. A team member came across an unidentifiable snout sticking out of the rock and soon multiple skeletons of the proto-amphibian were available to science.

In addition to being a fish paleontologist, Dr. Shubin is a professor of anatomy. He calls his book, which goes into detail about his discovery, its implications and his personal story, a book about our bodies. He says his background gives him an advantage as an anatomist. Many of the structures seen in primitive organisms, from worms to fish are the same structures in humans. “We unlock this history as we compare ourselves to creatures living and dead,” he said.

After his talk, it didn’t take long for audience members to raise questions on creationism and evolution, to which Dr. Shubin gave soundbyte-worthy responses. “I need a theory that allows me to work,” he said and with science he can ask questions. “ID [Intelligent design] feels like a philosophy of failure,” he added, “a retreat to superstition.”

Someone inquired on whether or not Dr. Shubin believes his discovery will change the minds of creationists. “I doubt it,” he responded and continued to defend the science. “If I found a human skull next to a Tiktaalic skull I’d be devastated,” he said, but we have 1000 years worth of evidence that evolution is correct.

He had not originally intended his book for non-science audiences. It was with the help of his father, a mystery writer who Dr. Shubin joked never understood what his son did for a living, whos comments allowed him to write a better book. His father’s main advice was simple but effective, “No one ever lost money writing a page-turner.”

Posted by Joseph, under lecture notes, reviews  |  Date: January 24, 2008

On Camera: Mapping Stem Cells


The debate over stem cells has been noisy. The raised voices of politicians berating an established anti-science administration. The protests of ordinary people holding signs declaring murder. The phone calls by patient advocates to friends and strangers for their cause.

Beneath the clamor are the stories of ordinary people, whose often-silent battles have been shaping a different kind of stem-cell narrative. Two such stories made tonight’s WGBH premier of “Mapping Stem Cell Research: Terra Incognita” reach across a rhetoric of science vs. religion to convey a universal story about how human suffering inspires a passion to heal.

The first featured Dr. Jack Kessler, an established neuroscientist at Northwestern University, who changed the direction of his research after a skiing accident left his daughter Allison paralyzed from the waist down. In interviews he describes the months spent educating himself on stem cell research, building a laboratory and hiring staff to focus specifically on how to use the controversial practice to regrow neuronal connections in the backbone of mammals. The film then does an excellent job of bringing viewers into the laboratory and explaining in plain English why and how the research is conducted.

What Maria Finitzo’s film does more beautifully, however, is show how his work has a clear agenda. Dr. Kessler is depicted as a man who out of love for his daughter becomes obsessed with fixing her. <!–[if !vml]–>StemCell.JPG<!–[endif]–>”He wishes he can speed up the process,” Allison says of her father’s research. He admits she gets mad at him for it. Through his actions, the viewer learns the long-term effects of the accident aren’t just her disability; Dr. Kessler is using science to fulfill a personal quest. “There’s this dagger that doesn’t go away,” he says.

The second narrative features Carrie Kaufman, a 22-year-old college student who became paralyzed from the waist down after a diving accident. The viewer comes to know Ms. Kaufman through the eyes of her parents. A woman who will never again play the piano and who is not asking for miracles from science, just the ability to move her right hand again. In the most moving scene of the film, she convinces her father to allow her to dorm at DePaul University, where she was accepted to study psychology. He tries to persuade her out of it as tears form in his eyes, the camera revealing a quieter toll from her injury. The stem cell issue isn’t just about repairing broken spines; it’s about broken hearts.

The film on the whole avoids the political debate by allowing ethicists from both sides to comment, but it is hard to ignore the hope in the eyes of Dr. Kessler who is clear where he stands: “I’m a physician. I absolutely reject anybody who tells me it’s wrong to alleviate suffering.”


Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: January 20, 2008

A Day at the Museum


How did eggs evolve? What would a hot or cold Earth look like? How do you take an artistic photograph of the hindparts of a rhinoceros?

Three “special exhibits” now on display at the Harvard Museum of Natural History are helping Bostonians find some answers.

These exhibits stand out significantly from the rest of the museum’s structure. The title natural history museum is no joke. The main halls are almost exclusively devoted to present thousands of animal, mineral and (glass) plant specimens. Rather than tell stories, this museum provides plenty of “Wow, that exists/existed?” moments a.k.a. education by observation.

Puffin.jpg“Nests & Eggs” is what a visitor is more likely to expect in a “modern” exhibit. There are videos playing, large boards of educational content and diagrams as well as photo opportunities with the kids.

There are some fun facts to learn. For instance, eggs come in all different shapes and colors as a form of camouflage. Even a bright blue egg is considered hidden somewhere. Also birds don’t live in their nests, they are simply nurseries. It seems obvious, but it came as a surprise to me – more support for scientifically accurate portrayal of birds in cartoons and movies.

The exhibit directors caught me by surprise by using unnecessary scientific vocabulary. In the middle of a content-filled board would suddenly appear an undefined bold word in red. For instance:

Precocial – Covered with down and capable of moving about when hatched.

While a fun exhibit for its originality, it could have used a bit more narrative and less information to make it as accessible as possible to the average visitor.

“Climate Change: Our Global Experiment” was on one half an exploration of past climates and the other a plea to the public to do something about global warming without explaining exactly what.

The activist half also has a small corner of interactive activities where visitors answer questions revealing how big their carbon footprint is and how much they are contributing to the problem. Not exactly the most diplomatic exhibit.PlanetCold.jpg

The climate science half involved a lot less guilt. This section is also split: One side explores what makes a planet cold and the other what makes a planet hot, each accompanied by two large thermometers. It was fascinating to see the hottest year on record (1998 – 59.97 F) is only a degree and a half warmer than the coldest (1917 – 58.38 F). Our planet is remarkably fragile.

The thermometers also reveal the temperatures on Mars (-81 F) and Venus (867 F) as well as the hottest temperature recorded on Earth (135 F in Libya) and the coldest (-129 F in Antarctica).

The rest of the exhibit is dedicated to ice cores and what animals species lived through previous ice and hot ages. When the exhibit stuck to science it worked, but it became a less effective communicator by treading into social waters.

JelliesPhoto.JPG“Looking at Animals: Photographs by Henry Horensteinprovides a  refreshing intersection between art and science. The room was converted into a gallery to display about a dozen pictures, each showing creatures such as the jellyfish to your right, an African gray parrot, and the behind of a rhinoceros. PlanetCold.jpg

According the Horenstein’s artist statement, he chose to shoot his subjects in black and white so the environment is ignored and the picture focuses on each organism’s “inherent beauty, oddness, and mystery.”

He also writes about the difficulty of working with animals. The pictures were taken in multiple zoos and aquariums and involved patience. After waiting for the subject to do something he wanted or something unexpected he had only a few seconds to snap the photo.

With a variety of topics and the integration of old and new, the Harvard Museum of Natural History easily keeps step with its larger peers. It just needs to keep its prose tight.


Posted by Joseph, under reviews  |  Date: January 10, 2008
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