Fluffy Friday – Citizen Science Tackles The Dress

So there’s this dress right . . .

Last night I was doing some stand up science in the pub with Eu:Sci which was a huge amount of fun (thanks for the invite guys!) and then I may possibly have had some beers afterwards. When I was scrolling through tumblr on the way home, I noticed a blue and black dress . . .


This morning, while promoting #StreetDog (if you haven’t watched it – go watch it, it’s amazing) and preparing for our Friday HangOut, I saw that the little blue and black dress had taken the internet by storm, and also it was now white and gold.

ASAPScience does a great video on just why we perceive the dress differently: 

And then Buzzfeed (who are really running with this whole thing) have found that younger people are more likely to find the dress to be white and gold. They also made the link between the phenomenon and autism (a somewhat tenuous link, no matter how ‘profound’ they want to call it).

I love it. I love, first of all, that the internet can run with something so silly. (If only they could run with #StreetDog!) And I love how the illusion changes. Throughout the day I have perceived the dress differently, it’s currently blue and black again, but spent most of the day white and gold. This makes me wonder if there’s also a time of day effect affecting the way we perceive the illusion – if we’re more primed to see blue lights (and therefore white and gold dresses) during the day, but yellow lights (and therefore blue and black dresses) in the evening when we expect to see more artificial lighting.

And I think it does say something interesting about sentience – or being able to perceive the world around you. There’s a common philosophy question: “is your green my green?” As we can never perceive the world through another’s person’s neurobiology, we have no real guarantee that the green I see is the same green you see. We were taught that colour was green, but what I view as green, may look red through your eyes. We have no real common reference point.

With the sad news of Leonard Nimoy’s passing, I’m reminded of the undershirts the DS9 and Voyager crews wore on Star Trek. To me those are, and always will be, lilac. My friend still insists they’re grey. I have pretty poor colour vision anyway, and a photographer’s understanding of the awful things fluorescent lighting and auto white balance can do to a picture –  I wonder if this is why I can force my brain to perceive it both ways.

When I look at the picture and am able to comprehend both colour sets, it feels odd. Almost like the beginning of a migraine’s visual aura, where things start to glitter and take on visual properties they don’t have. Our brains are really rubbish sometimes, especially when they’re trying to parse information they don’t understand. Ever wondered why stomach pain is so pervasive and nagging? Your brain isn’t very good at figuring out where that pain is coming from, so it just gives a general “the stomach” feeling to you. If I was to ask you “How many of each animal did Moses take on the ark?” you would promptly answer “two“, because your brain had decided that it’s not important to remember that it was Noah on the ark, not Moses, even though that information is there and readily accessible. If I was to to tell you to find the flaw in tihs sentence, you might struggle. Your brain would edit out the superfluous ‘to’ and rearrange the letters in ‘this’.

So yes – our brains are deeply imperfect, cobbled together by evolution to create something that half way functions. We compare our brains to one another, and to other animals, and are left with nothing. I wonder, if I get migraines, can Athena? If I see the dress as white, does she see it as blue? When she stares at a spot on the wall, is there something happening between her eyes and her brain tricking her?

If you’re annoyed about the dress, just smile – it’s pretty cool. And it’s not the only one…

I see both

Chronicles of Athena – 30 Weeks

Those of you who have been following Athena from the beginning will remember she has a strong predilection for chewing wires. I used to be one of these pinterest addicts with fairy lights everywhere, the mood lighting in my life has been considerably reduced in the last twenty one weeks of my life.

Well no longer! View below my newest attempt to reintroduce fairy lights into my life, this time without the scent of lemon and pepper cat deterrent.


Not the small Yankee Candle currently being used a dead match repository to keep kitten from eating them all. She does love the taste of charcoal . . .

In the grand scheme of things, my life hasn’t changed so much since getting Athena. I’m less likely to stay late at work (a very good thing, really!) and more likely to catch up with work in the evenings (wait …), and I can no longer leave food lying out in the open. Oh, and I’m covered in scratches. The little things though, like the fact she’s sneaked up behind me to steal half the blanket and is kneading both it and my cardigan with a very smug purr, are very different.

She doesn’t change much from week to week any more, although she is firmly establishing her fussiness for food. So I may post more Fluffy Fridays vs Chronicles of Athena in the next few months. Rest assured, she’s still doing well.

Check out our MOOC’s hangout this week . . .

Renewal Season

It’s February, and what I have come to think of as contract renewal season. I’m reasonably confident of continuing the work I’m doing, which is split between coordinating the online MSc (mostly student wrangling, as I think of it), teaching and coordinating my two undergrad modules, miscellaneous knowledge transfer activities, and any bits of research I can stick my fingers into.

There’s a part of me that’s afraid of losing out on the research forever, and wants to get a postdoc. But it’s time for a confession: I hate the postdoc lifestyle. The uncertainty and enforced nomadicity wreaks havoc on my anxiety. So on balance, I’m happier to take on student wrangling and get to foster other peoples’ research in the best way that I can.

But the big news being circulated among my colleagues this week has been the news of Bristol University veterinary lecturer who was fired for not bringing in enough research money. Now if there’s anything guaranteed to send chills down the spine of an academic, its actually being judged on the merit of your work.

I’m being facetious. I feel very sorry for the lecturer in question, and the Epigram (Bristol Uni’s student paper) has a more detailed account of the disciplinary process brought against this lecturer. It must be deeply unpleasant going through several rounds of being told you must get more money or else.

We were asked, on our MOOC, how animal behaviour and welfare research happens – it’s a constant fight for funding and the numbers of graduates wanting to go into academia far outstrips the monies available. It is a hard, hard place to be in.

Of the five animal behaviour PhD students who were around when I started, three of us are teaching, one of us supporting academic innovation and business, and the fifth has a postdoc further from her home than she would like. I think we all enjoy what we do, and I don’t know that any of us would do anything different, but there are eight behaviour PhD students I can name in our office. There are probably more I can’t name.

There is always the work, there just isn’t always the money.

I don’t know how universities are supposed to do this, but I wish they’d figure it out.

Chronicles of Athena – 28 Weeks

One of the reasons I wanted a kitten, rather than adopt an older cat, was because I worried about socialisation. The life of a late twenties academic doesn’t lend itself to shy cats stressed by strangers, people, or changes of environment. And this weekend we had our flat warming party. I wasn’t sure if she’d hide under the bed or join the party.

The very first time we had a group of strangers over (my family), she was extremely shy and could only be lured out with the promise of treats. Oddly I didn’t blog about it at the time! Since then I’ve maintained a policy of encouraging all my guests to feed her treats when they settle in, which has led to Athena’s new policy of extremely skittish behaviour when people first arriving in an attempt to evoke the treat packet.

So I did think of this as a bit of a test – and she passed with flying colours. Her curiosity couldn’t keep her in the bedroom for longer than ten minutes, and she spent most of the night scoring treats from various guests (Aunty Jenni, we LOVE our Dreamies – definitely Athena Approved). While many of our lovely friends were possibly bullied into promoting feline obesity, she had a wonderful time and even took a late night ‘run around the house’ game stealing wrappers from peoples’ sweeties.

Today she’s so exhausted she decided it was better to let me bake in the kitchen alone, while she stayed on the sofa with white fluffy mummy blanket, dreaming about treats, unguarded cupcakes to lick and an endless source of fingers to scratch.

And Baby Makes Three

The UK looks like it will be the first country to allow babies with the genetic material of three parents, with our MPs voting for the bill on Tuesday.

Now in the UK we also have a House of Lords, who also must approve the bill at a later date, and there’s no guarantee they will, but given the large majority of parliament members (382 to 182) it’s likely they will. It also has to be approved by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, a UK governmental organisation.

On Tuesday morning I was listening to Morning Call on Radio Scotland. It’s a fairly simple show, where people call in to give their opinions on any given subject. That, combined with the online reaction today, has had me and my colleagues thumping our foreheads against the desks repeatedly.

Buzzfeed has a great “Six Things You Should Know...” list that I won’t repeat here, but there are a few things we have to discuss …


Three Parent Babies is a Bit of a Stretch

Yes, this is a classic case of a catchy headline. The mitochondria, which you probably remember from high school biology, is essentially the battery of a cell. Long, long ago in our evolutionary past, back when we were simple collections of cells, mitochondria were simple single cell organisms capable of doing things our little cells weren’t. Namely powering things. So they were captured and made a part of larger cellular organism that was us. And the rest, as they say, is history.

But it’s because of this that mitochondria have slightly interesting and unique DNA, a separate part of our genome that codes for our mitochondria. Some organisms have managed to get rid of all of the mitochondrial DNA, and others have got weird mutations in there, we’ll come back to that later.

The important thing to note is that ‘three parent baby’ simply takes the mitochondrial DNA from one genome, and the rest of the DNA in the traditional method (for a given definition of ‘traditional’, in a test tube, under the stars, wearing leather, wearing lace . . . ) comes from the two parents.


A Gateway To Eugenics

One of the strangest comments I’ve heard in relation to this news is that it means we’re a step closer to eugenics. This is, in some ways, deeply insulting to the families of those who are suffering from mitochondrial diseases. To want to be free of disease does not equate to eugenics.

In humans, mitochondria are inherited directly from the mother. You’ve heard of Mitochondrial Eve? The reason we have her is because our mitochondrial DNA doesn’t get recombined and altered in the same way as the rest of our genome. Like the Y chromosome, it is an excellent way of doing forensic genetics. Both of them remain greatly unchanged throughout our evolutionary history, and we can track back to a conceptual Mitochondrial Eve and Y Chromosome Adam. However, I’ll point out that these aren’t real people. They’re simply the earliest ancestor we’re all related to – which changes as our population changes over time.

But it’s this phenomenon, the conservation of this DNA, that allows us to swap them out in this fashion. The DNA inside the mitochondria is so useless to the rest of the body they can be exchanged very easily. So you see, we’re still many, many years and innovations away from selecting the genes we want and engineering our babies. This procedure is feasible, and safe, because mitochondrial DNA is so protected, and usually inconsequential in a genome.


Why Do We Need It?

Because mitochondrial diseases are horrific things. The mitochondrial DNA is special, yes, separate from the rest of the DNA, yes. But it also mutates, as all DNA does, and it doesn’t have much of a way of repairing itself or realising that its damaging its body. Symptoms include Multiple Sclerosis style diseases, loss of eyesight, loss of hearing, dementia, neurological problems, an inability to exercise, diabetes, poor growth, heart disease, gastrointestinal disorders . . . and each one of these things are a SYMPTOM of the disease, not the disease itself.

We can eradicate this disease, easily, while maintaining a person’s right to reproduce. If you fear that because you’ve seen one too many B movies about Frankenstein . . . you just show me how much work I have to do.



Finally I have to say something about the “Science has gone too far” style comments, and “humans have evolved to their current state, we shouldn’t meddle”. In so many cases, comics can communicate more about science than any of my blogs. To those people I say . . .

Thag no! You go too far! 

Athena Approved [Chronicles of Athena – 27 Weeks]

This week Athena would like to share some of her favourite, and not so favourite, products. These are all either free or purchased with my money, and the opinions are entirely Athena’s own.

Favourite Toys:

Cat Alone app – this is a really simple android app that locks the screen and plays a variety of small interactive graphics, such as a laser pointer, a finger, and some bugs. Athena’s absolute favourite is the blue butterflies which she scrabbles at frantically until they buzz and get ‘trapped’ under her paw. The images all interact with her, which she loves, though the fly screen seems to make her rather sleepy. I love this app too, especially for its versatility. On the occasions where we’ve travelled, or she’s been kept in her basket, the app is great to use. She does, however, scratch the screen when she’s too excited.

Also, the use of this app made me realise I would definitely stick children in front of the TV for an extra hour’s shut eye. 5/5 Stars

Willow’s Long Legged Cat Toy – All of Athena’s toys seem to get a name and an honorific. Miss Kitty, as we call this one, has quickly become a huge favourite. The bell is a little too low down for my liking, Athena likes to chew on it when she’s attacked Miss Kitty, and the plastic rod has completely bent in her playing, but something about the tactile nature of the long rope legs and plush body has completely enthralled Athena. Hunting Miss Kitty (and subsequently removing her facial features one by one) is Athena’s little joy in life. 3/5 Stars – we’ll need to get a new one soon

Cat Accessories

Igloo Bed – Athena’s igloo bed, which I purchased before she even arrived, is much like this one and has never been used. She has no real idea what a cat bed is for, and deeply mistrusts the fluffy pillow inside, even though it’s a close match for the fabric on Fluffy Mummy Blanket that she has loved so much she’s chewed a small hole in it. Unrated – can’t give a verdict on something she won’t use.

Climbing Tree – This is Athena’s tree, by Songmics, and it’s a great little starter tree for an indoor cat. She has multiple levels to play with and bounces between them. The toys lost their attraction pretty quick, but the top most platform is one of the best places to survey the living room and watch over any unexpected guests. Of course, being Athena, she hasn’t figured out what the cat bed part is for but  . . . never mind. Can’t have everything. 4/5 Stars – a little unstable when she’s going crazy, a broader base would be better. 


Thrive Cat Treats – 100% chicken, no additives, no mysterious extras. Athena does not recognise these as food. 0/5 Not to be bought again.

Whiskas Anti Hairballs – All the additives, all the salt, Athena would step over her own mother to get her paws on these. She deliberately acts shy when someone comes in the door because she knows if she does she’ll get some treats to entice her out. 5/5 Have taught Athena more guile than the rest of all her life experiences together.