Sunday SciKu | Low Dose

Photo by Jakub Kriz

This week’s sciku takes me back 20 years to my job as a group home counselor. We were trying to help adults with schizophrenia manage their lives and illnesses more independently, but the medication, which was so necessary, also made it difficult.

Antipsychotic medication needs cross the blood-brain barrier to work, but when you swallow a pill, only a small fraction makes it through. As a result, the effective dose is much larger than it would be otherwise, leading to very unpleasant side effects—from weight gain and fatigue to diabetes and eventually organ toxicity. Many patients had to take multiple drugs hoping to counteract the side-effects. And once they found a combination that worked, it would only last a while before they had to start over with an entirely new regimen due to the accumulating toxicity. It was rough—but still better than the hell of psychosis.

So I was thrilled to learn that researchers at McMaster University have developed a nasal spray using extremely fine particles of corn starch to deliver antipsychotic medication more directly into the brain, sneaking it through a hidden door along the olfactory nerve. The corn starch breaks down into simple sugar, but gradually, allowing it to be time-released with a 75% lower effective dose. Instead of taking medication multiple times each day, patients will only have to use a nasal spray once every three days, with far fewer side effects. The difference this will make for people’s quality of life is huge.

And that’s what I love about reading science news. Unlike what we call “The News,” where negativity bias is exploited for clicks, science incentivizes the good—it’s mostly mysteries solved, problems fixed, new questions to ponder. And there’s something new every week. This time with a bonus one-liner.


morning fog
the men line up
for their meds



more drizzle than mist refilling the pill box


Sunday SciKu | A Cloudy Forecast

Photo by Ales Krivec

We tend to think of our senses as the gathering of data, as if we’re video cameras that are always running, because that’s how it feels to perceive. But that’s not how perception works. That’s fine for electronics, but too inefficient for biology.

What’s really always running while we’re conscious is a model that we project onto the world—a hypothesis about the way things are. We only use our senses to test and adjust that model as necessary. Emphasis on necessary, because the model is actually a map of the tools and obstacles the world has lain before us. A cup isn’t a cup; it’s a handled drinking thing. A low branch is something to duck.

And we’re fortune it evolved this way, because this process is how consciousness was able bootstrap itself into existence, creating an evolutionary pressure for increasing brain power, allowing for more accurate and elaborate models, which we were eventually able to push into the future, imagining external realities that don’t yet exist and perspectives we can’t access. Without sensory perception being this kind of interactive process, we’d have remained as self-aware as a smartphone, programmatically reacting to stimuli.

There are serious downsides, though, in the modern world. Because so much of our experience is based on our expectations, we’re loaded with an array of cognitive biases that bury the truth about everything, and which are often exploited to our detriment. It’s almost impossible to overestimate our own disconnection from reality.

But many researchers have shown it in the lab, and that’s what was done at Dresden Technical University, inspiring this week’s sciku. Researchers hooked people up to MRI machines and watched their subcortical auditory pathways as patterns of sounds were repeated and broken. What they demonstrated, basically, is that once a sound pattern is established, it isn’t even processed by the ears until it changes. We hear the expectation and not the sound itself.

This theory of sense cognition explains a lot of things—why it’s so difficult to proofread our own work, for example. We see what we expect to see, not what’s there. It’s also likely what explains neurological disorders like dyslexia, which has been correlated with audio pathway disruption—it manifests so strangely, with words seeming to crawl around the page, because of a mismatch between audio and visual expectation. The experience of dyslexia is how difficult reading would be if our predictive text module in the sound-sensing area of the brain were turned off, and we couldn’t anticipate the next word as well as we usually do. No matter what we think we’re doing, most of perception is expectation.

Anyway, interesting stuff.


waiting on
the local weather report
clouds tomorrow


Sunday SciKu | Resistance Not Futile

Photo by Adrian Lange

Good news to start the new year from the Wistar Institute, where scientists have developed a novel approach for fighting antibiotic-resistant bacteria. The new class of antibiotics, IspH inhibitors, use a double-pronged strategy, killing bacteria while also flagging them to be targeted by the immune system’s cytotoxic T cells—like a fleeing bank robber covered in red dye. That way, if any of individual bacterium evolve to resist to the antibiotic, they’ll be hunted down by the body’s immune system before they can escape and become a new resistant strain.

“The end of antibiotics” has been touted as a looming crisis since I was in grade school, but this is why I’ve never been very worried about it. As an organizational system, human society is very good at incentivizing and so solving slow-moving problems. As problems become worse, the rewards for solving them become bigger, and we’re a very clever species. What we don’t do well is move quickly or incentivize responsibility, so the real crises are usually shocks and sudden collapses. When it comes to civilization’s future, I worry about viruses and CMEs and the petrodollar, but not things like this. We’re good at solving problems when they arrive gradually.

This week’s tiny sciku winds this into a little knot, with a nod towards our New Year’s resolutions.


the resistant


Sunday SciKu | Llama Spit

Llama in Patagonia by RocketFuel Collective (CC0)

This week’s #sciku is more of a senryū. NIH researchers were able to isolate “nanobodies” against SARS-Cov-2 in a llama named Cormac. The immune systems of camelids produce unusually tiny antibodies, about a tenth the size of our own. Basically these are just the binding domain that sticks to the virus and not the tail that flags it for the rest of the immune system. Because these nanobodies are so small, they’re easy to synthesize and can be aerosolized in a nasal spray.

It would need be tested (extensively, in my opinion), but in theory we could inhale a squirt before higher-risk activities (like holiday dinners) to create a temporary barrier in our nose and lungs against becoming infected.

When I was a kid, my grandmother’s house backed up to a zoo. After holiday dinners, all the kids would go down the hill, cross some railroad tracks, and look at the animals from the back of their enclosures. The closest were the llamas, and they’d chase us as we ran back and forth along the fence, until they’d finally become annoyed enough to start spitting. PETA would not approve, but we were kids, and it was fun.

The third layer to this little senryū, I should say, doesn’t apply to my family now—we all get along just fine!


almost dodging
the angry llama spray—
Christmas dinner


Sunday SciKu | Quantum Clocks

Image from the researchers at MIT

This week’s #SciKu was inspired by the development of a new type of atomic clock at MIT. Optical atomic clocks work using lasers to measure the vibration rates of atoms, usually cesium. But because of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it’s impossible to measure the vibration of a single atom—they have to be grouped together and measured probabilistically, which adds a (very) small amount of imprecision. So small that if an atomic clock were running over the entire age of the universe, it would be less than 100 milliseconds off. But still! With this new technique, scientists quantum entangle the vibrating atoms first to get even closer to perfection, which will help in the effort to detect gravity waves and other exotic physics phenomena.


Just Married
they find that time’s best kept