Animal visual arcana, tweeted

I started tweeting under the name VisFact, in addition to my normal account.

To make vision science more interesting to undergrads, I frequently contrast human visual abilities with those of various animals.

Vision is so important that some animals have evolved eyes bigger than their brain. So vision is definitely important enough to deserve this twitter account!

open letter to Society for Neuroscience regarding their new open-access journal

The below letter was spearheaded by Erin McKiernan and requests that the Society for Neuroscience bring its new open-access policy in line with emerging best practices for sharing of data and ability to re-use content. 

Dear Society for Neuroscience,

This is an open letter concerning the recent launch of the new open access journal, eNeuro.

We welcome the diversification of journal choices for authors looking for open access venues, as well as the willingness of eNeuro to accept negative results and study replications, its membership in the Neuroscience Peer Review Consortium, the publication of peer review syntheses alongside articles, and the requirement that molecular data be publicly available.

As strong supporters of open access, we welcome the commitment of the Society to making the works it publishes freely and openly available. However, we are concerned with several aspects of the specific approach, and outline herein a number of suggestions that would allow eNeuro to provide the full benefits of open access to the communities the journal aims to serve. 

Our first concern relates to the specific choice of license. The purpose of open access is to promote not just access to published content, but, equally important, its reuse. The default use of a CC BY-NC license places unreasonable restrictions on the reuse of articles published in eNeuro, and is incompatible with the standards of open access as set out by the Budapest Open Access Initiative (BOAI). NC restrictions have significant negative impact, limiting the ability to reuse material for educational purposes and advocacy to the detriment of scholarly communication. NC-encumbered materials, for example, cannot be used on Wikipedia or easily incorporated into Open Educational Resources. The NC clause also creates ambiguities and uncertainties (see for example, NC Licenses Considered Harmful) and there is little evidence on benefits of the clause to justify its use. In contrast, the value of the CC BY license is outlined in detail by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association. How will authors or the broader community benefit from restrictions on the commercial reuse of eNeuro content? The eNeuro fees policy acknowledges CC BY-NC is incompatible with the requirement of funders such as Research Councils UKand Wellcome Trust, and offers their authors the solution to upgrade to CC BY for a $500 surcharge. This penalizes authors funded by such agencies, as well others who choose to adhere to BOAI principles. We believe that the only way for eNeuro to deliver on its open access commitment is to make all articles CC-BY, and to set the fees to an appropriate level to support this choice.

Our second concern relates to data access. We commend the journal’s requirement that all molecular data be publicly available, but we believe the policy on sharing other types of data should be improved. The current language does not guarantee data will be made available, does not speak to the terms of data licensing, nor describes a course of action if a request for data is not fulfilled. The criterion of “appropriate scientific use” is also vague:  Would reuse of data for educational purposes, for example, meet that criterion, and who would make that decision? Open data aids in verification and replication of results, creation of new analysis tools, and can “fuel new discoveries”. The value of open data has been recognized by the Allen Institute for Brain Science, the BRAIN Initiative, and the Human Brain Project. Immediate sharing of all data types in an open repository (preferably underCC0) should be a requirement, unless prohibited by law (e.g., privacy laws). Several flexible outlets, such as Figshareand DataDryad, are available that make this easy and cost-effective.

Finally, while we commend eNeuro’s commitment to transparent peer review, we worry that only publishing a synthesis may sacrifice the richness inherent to the review process. We believe the neuroscience community would be better-served by having access to the complete reports from reviewers, as offered by PeerJ, several Biomed Central journals, and others. Reviews should also be licensed CC BY to allow for reuse in teaching materials, for example. Reviewers can be provided a mechanism to communicate confidentially with editors, removing the risk associated with making the full reviews publicly available. Reviewers should also be given the opportunity to sign their reviews for added transparency and to receive due credit for their work (e.g., through Publons).

Based on the above points, we recommend that eNeuro:

  • Makes CC BY the default license and provides equal pricing for all CC licenses;
  • Provides a transparent calculation of its article processing charges based on the publishing practices of the Society for Neuroscience and explains how additional value created by the journal will measure against the prices paid by the authors;
  • Considers offering full waivers to authors, especially those from low-income countries, who are unable to afford any publication fees;
  • Requires authors to deposit their data in a public repository (preferably under CC0), unless there are legal or ethical reasons not to do so;
  • Publishes full individual reviewer reports (CC BY licensed) alongside each article.

We hope the Society for Neuroscience will collaborate with the academic community to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge through a journal committed to fully embracing the principles of open access.

We kindly request that you allow your response(s) to be made public along with this letter, and look forward to hearing your response soon.

Signatories -

Please note that the views expressed here represent those of the individuals and not the institutions or organizations with which they are affiliated.

  1. Erin C. McKiernan, independent scientist, SfN member
  2. Marco Arieli Herrera-Valdez, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México
  3. Christopher R. Madan, University of Alberta
  4. Philippe Desjardins-Proulx, Ph.D. student
  5. Anders Eklund, Linköping University, Sweden
  6. M Fabiana Kubke, University of Auckland
  7. Alex O. Holcombe, University of Sydney
  8. Graham Steel, Open Science, Scotland
  9. Diano F. Marrone, Wilfrid Laurier University
  10. Charles Oppenheim, Professor, independent
  11. Zen Faulkes, The University of Texas-Pan American
  12. Jonathan P. Tennant, Imperial College London
  13. Nicholas M. Gardner, Marshall University
  14. Avinash Thirumalai, East Tennessee State University
  15. Travis Park, Monash University & Museum Victoria, Melbourne, Australia
  16. Ben Meghreblian,, London, UK
  17. Sean Kaplan, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa
  18. Chris Chambers, Professor of cognitive neuroscience, Cardiff University, SfN member
  19. Joshua M. Nicholson, Founder of, PhD Student Virginia Tech
  20. Jan Velterop, BOAI signatory and past Director of BioMed Central
  21. Timothée Poisot, University of Canterbury
  22. Jérémy Anquetin, Section d’archéologie et paléontologie, Switzerland
  23. Liz Allen, ScienceOpen
  24. Johannes Björk, Institute of Marine Sciences, Barcelona, Spain
  25. Ross Mounce, University of Bath
  26. Scott Edmunds, GigaScience, BGI Hong Kong
  27. Mayteé Cruz-Aponte, Universidad de Puerto Rico – Cayey
  28. Joseph R. Hancock, Montana State University-Bozeman
  29. Nazeefa Fatima, University of Huddersfield, UK
  30. Nitika Pant Pai, McGill University, Montreal
  31. Elizabeth Silva, San Francisco, CA
  32. Björn Brembs, University of Regensburg, Germany
  33. Gerard Ridgway, University of Oxford, UK
  34. Pietro Gatti-Lafranconi, University of Cambridge, UK
  35. Xianwen Chen, Norwegian University of Life Sciences, Norway
  36. Jacinto Dávila, Universidad de Los Andes
  37. Benjamin de Bivort, Harvard University
  38. Stephen Beckett, Ph.D. student, University of Exeter
  39. Mythili Menon, University of Southern California
  40. Adam Choraziak, behavioural strategist at RedJelly marketing
  41. Graham Triggs, Symplectic
  42. Guillaume Dumas, Institut Pasteur, FR
  43. Jeffrey W. Hollister, University of Rhode Island (adjunct)
  44. Célya Gruson-Daniel, Centre Virchow-Villermé, Université Paris Descartes, FR
  45. Gary S. McDowell, Tufts University, USA
  46. Pierre-Alexandre Klein, Institute of Neuroscience, Université de Louvain
  47. Julien Laroche, Akoustic Arts R&D Lab, Paris
  48. Alex Thome, University of Rochester
  49. Nicolas Guyon, Karolinska Institutet
  50. Sibele Fausto, University of São Paulo, Brazil
  51. Nonie Finlayson, The Ohio State University, SfN member
  52. Dalmeet Singh Chawla, Imperial College
  53. John Wilbanks, Chief Commons Officer, Sage Bionetworks
  54. David Carroll, Medical Student, Queen’s University Belfast
  55. Noelia Martínez-Molina, Brain Cognition and Plasticity Lab, Barcelona University
  56. Maximilian Sloan,  Laboratory of Molecular Neurodegeneration and Gene Therapy, University of Oxford
  57. Stephen Eglen, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, University of Cambridge, SfN member

open letter to the AAAS regarding their new open-access journal

Below is the text of a recent open letter I signed, spearheaded by Jon Tennant. Here he explains why he spearheaded the below letter to the AAAS requesting they make changes to their policy regarding their new open access journal, Science Advances. 

Dear  AAAS,

This is an open letter concerning the recent launch of the new open access journal, Science Advances. In addition to the welcome diversification in journal choices for authors looking for open access venues, there are many positive aspects of Science Advances: its broad STEM scope, its interest in cross-disciplinary research, and the offering of fee waivers. While we welcome the commitment of the Association to open access, we are also deeply concerned with the specific approach. Herein, we outline a number of suggestions that are in line with both the current direction that scholarly publishing is taking and the needs expressed by the open access community, which this journal aims to serve.

The first of these issues concerns the licensing terms of the journal articles. The default choice of a non-commercial licence (CC BY-NC) places unnecessary restrictions on reuse and does not meet the standards set out by the Budapest Open Access Initiative. Many large funders, includingResearch Councils UK and the Wellcome Trust, do not recognise this as an open license. The adoption of CC BY-NC as the default license means that many researchers will be unable to submit to Science Advances if they are to conform to their funder mandates unless they pay for the upgrade to CC BY. There is little evidence that non-commercial restrictions provide a benefit to the progress of scholarly research, yet they have significant negative impact, limiting the ability to reuse material for educational purposes and advocacy. For example, NC-encumbered materials cannot be used on Wikipedia. The non-commercial clause is known to generate ambiguities and uncertainties (see for example, NC Licenses Considered Harmful) to the detriment of scholarly communication. Additionally, there is little robust evidence to suggest that adopting a CC-BY license will lead to income loss for your Association, and the $1,000 surcharge is difficult to justify or defend. The value of the CC BY license is outlined in detail by the Open Access Scholarly Publishers Association.

We raise an additional issue with the $1,500 surcharge for articles more than 10 pages in length. In an online-only format, page length is an arbitrary unit that results from the article being read in PDF format. Can the AAAS explain what the additional costs associated with the increased length are that would warrant a 50% increase in APC for an unspecified number of additional digital pages? Other leading open access journals, such as PeerJ, the BMC series, and PLOS ONE, offer publication of articles with unlimited page lengths. The extra costs create constraints that may adversely incentivize authors to exclude important details of their study, preventing replication and hindering transparency, all of which are contrary to the aims of scholarly publication. Therefore it seems counterproductive to impose this additional charge; it discriminates against researchers’ best effort to communicate their findings with as much detail as necessary.

We feel that the proposed APCs and licencing scheme are detrimental to the AAAS and the global academic community. As such, we recommend that Science Advances:

  • Offers CC BY as standard for no additional cost, in line with leading open access publishers, so authors are able to comply with respective funding mandates;

  • Provides a transparent calculation of its APCs based on the publishing practices of the AAAS and explains how additional value created by the journal will measure against the significantly high prices paid by the authors;

  • Removes the surcharges associated with increased page number;

  • Releases all data files under CC0 (with CC BY optional), which has emerged as the community standard for data and is used by leading databases such as Figshare and DataDryad.

We hope that you will consider the points raised above, keeping in mind how best to serve the scientific community, and use Science Advances to add the AAAS to the group of progressive and innovative open access scholarly publishers. We hope AAAS will collaborate with the academic community to facilitate the dissemination of scientific knowledge through a journal committed to fully embracing the principles of Open Access.

We kindly request that you allow your response(s) to be made public along with this letter, and look forward to hearing your response soon.

Signatories (please note that we do not formally represent the institutions listed):

  1. Jonathan P. Tennant, PhD student, Imperial College London (, @protohedgehog)
  2. Timothée Poisot, University of Canterbury (, @tpoi)
  3. Joseph R. Hancock, Montana State University-Bozeman (, @Joe_R_Hancock)
  4. M Fabiana Kubke, University of Auckland, New Zealand (, @kubke)
  5. François Michonneau, University of Florida (, @FrancoisInvert)
  6. Michael P. Taylor, University of Bristol (, @MikeTaylor)
  7. Graham Steel, Open Science, Scotland (, @McDawg)
  8. Jérémy Anquetin, Section d’Archéologie et Paléontologie, Switzerland (, @FossilTurtles)
  9. Emily Coyte, University of Bristol (, @emilycoyte)
  10. Benjamin Schwessinger, UC Davis (, @schwessinger)
  11. Erin C. McKiernan, independent scientist (, @emckiernan13)
  12. Tom Pollard, PhD student, University College London (, @tompollard)
  13. Aimee Eckert, MRes student, Imperial College London (, @aimee_e27)
  14. Liz Allen, ScienceOpen, San Francisco (, @LizAllenSO)
  15. Dalmeet Singh Chawla, Imperial College London (, @DalmeetS)
  16. Elizabeth Silva, San Francisco (, @lizatucsf)
  17. Nicholas Gardner, Marshall University (, @RomerianReptile)
  18. Nathan Cantley, Medical Student, Queens University Belfast (, @NathanWPCantley)
  19. John Dupuis, Librarian, York University, Toronto (, @dupuisj)
  20. Christina Pikas, Doctoral Candidate, University of Maryland (, @cpikas)
  21. Amy Buckland, Librarian, McGill University, Montreal (, @jambina)
  22. Lenny Teytelman,, Berkeley, CA (, @lteytelman)
  23. Peter Murray-Rust, University of Cambridge, UK (, @petermurrayrust)
  24. Zen Faulkes, The University of Texas-Pan American,, @DoctorZen)
  25. Robert J. Gay, The University of Arizona/Mission Heights Preparatory High School, AZ, USA (, @paleorob)
  26. Peter T.B. Brett, University of Surrey, UK (, @PeterTBBrett)
  27. Anders Eklund, Linköping University, Sweden (, @wandedob)
  28. Johannes Björk, Institute of Marine Sciences, Barcelona, Spain (, @AwfulDodger)
  29. William Gunn, Mendeley, London, UK,, @mrgunn)
  30. Nitika Pant Pai, McGill University, Montreal, Canada ( @nikkiannike
  31. Philippe Desjardins-Proulx, Ph.D. student (, @phdpqc).
  32. Joshua M. Nicholson, PhD candidate Virginia Tech, VA and founder The Winnower, VA (, @thewinnower)
  33. Scott Edmunds, GigaScience, BGI Hong Kong (, @SCEdmunds)
  34. Steven Ray Wilson, University of Oslo (, @stevenRayOslo)
  35. Stuart Buck, Vice President of Research Integrity, Laura and John Arnold Foundation (, @stuartbuck1)
  36. B. Arman Aksoy, Ph.D. student, Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center (, @armish)
  37. Nazeefa Fatima, University of Huddersfield, UK (, @NazeefaFatima)
  38. Ross Mounce, University of Bath, UK (, @rmounce)
  39. Heather Piwowar, Impactstory, (, @researchremix
  40. Avinash Thirumalai, Ph.D student, East Tennessee State University (
  41. Jason Priem, Impactstory (, @jasonpriem
  42. Clayton Aldern, University of Oxford, UK (, @compatibilism)
  43. Marcus D. Hanwell, Technical Leader, Kitware, Inc., (, @mhanwell)
  44. Kristen L. Marhaver, NSF Postdoctoral Fellow, Carmabi Foundation (, @CoralSci)
  45. David Michael Roberts, ARC Research Associate, University of Adelaide (
  46. Brian Hole, Ubiquity Press, UK (, @ubiquitypress)
  47. Alexander Grossmann, University of Applied Sciences Leipzig, Germany and co-founder of ScienceOpen, Berlin/Boston (, @SciPubLab)
  48. David L.Vaux, Assistant Director, The Walter and Eliza Hall Institute, Australia (
  49. John Murtagh, Repository Manager, London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine @LSHTMlibrary
  50. Alecia Carter, University of Cambridge, UK (, @alecia_carter)
  51. Alex O. Holcombe, University of Sydney (, @ceptional)
  52. Ignacio Torres Aleman, Cajal Institute, Madrid. Spain. (
  53. Sarah Molloy, Research Support Manager, Queen Mary University of London (, @moragm23)
  54. John Lamp, Deakin University, Australia (, @johnwlamp)
  55. Matthew Todd, The University of Sydney and Open Source Malaria,
  56. Anusha Seneviratne, Imperial College London (, @anushans)
  57. Guido Guidotti, Harvard University (
  58. Joseph McArthur, Assistant Director, Right to Research Coalition(, @mcarthur_joe)
  59. Carlos H. Grohmann, University of São Paulo, Brazil (
  60. Jan de Leeuw, University of California Los Angeles, (
  61. Jung H. Choi, Associate Professor, Georgia Institute of Technology (
  62. Ernesto Priego, Centre for Information Science, City University London, UK (
  63. Brian Pasley, University of California, Berkeley (
  64. Stacy Konkiel, (, @skonkiel)
  65. Elizabeth HB Hellen, Rutgers University (
  66. Raphael Levy, University of Liverpool (
  67. Paul Coxon, University of Cambridge (
  68. Nitika Pant Pai, McGill University, Montreal, Canada (
  69. David Carroll, Queen’s University Belfast  (, @davidecarroll)
  70. Jacinto Dávila, Universidad de Los Andes (, @jacintodavila)
  71. Marco Arieli Herrera-Valdez, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México (, @brujonildo)
  72. Juan Pablo Alperin, Simon Fraser University, Canada (
  73. Jan P. de Ruiter, Bielefeld University (, @JPdeRuiter)
  74. Xianwen Chen, Norwegian University of Life Sciences (, @xianwen_chen)
  75. Jeanette Hatherill, Librarian, University of Ottawa, Canada (, @jeanetteanneh)
  76. Katharine Mullen, University of California Los Angeles (
  77. Pedro Bekinschtein, University of Buenos Aires, Argentina (; @pedrobek)
  78. Quentin Groom, Botanic Garden Meise, Belgium (, @cabbageleek)
  79. Karen Meijer-Kline, Librarian, Simon Fraser University, Canada (, @kmeijerkline)
  80. Pietro Gatti-Lafranconi, Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge, UK (, @p_gl)
  81. Jeffrey Hollister, USEPA, Narragansett, RI (, @jhollist)
  82. Lachlan Coin, University of Queensland and founder of Academic Karma ( @AcademicKarma )
  83. MooYoung Choi, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Seoul National University, Korea (
  84. Oscar Patterson-Lomba, Harvard School of Public Health (
  85. Rowena Ball, The Australian National University, Canberra, Australia (
  86. Daniel Swan, Oxford Gene Technology, UK ( @DrDanielSwan)
  87. Stephen Curry, Imperial College London, UK (, @Stephen_Curry)
  88. Abigail Noyce, Boston University (, @abbynoyce)
  89. Jordan Ward, UCSF, San Francisco, CA, USA (, @Jordan_D_Ward)
  90. Ben Meghreblian,, London, UK (, @benmeg)
  91. Ethan P. White, Utah State University, Logan, UT, USA (, @ethanwhite)
  92. Sean R. Mulcahy, University of California, Berkeley, CA, USA (, @srmulcahy)
  93. Sibele Fausto, University of São Paulo, Brazil ( @sibelefausto)
  94. Lorena A. Barba, George Washington University ( @LorenaABarba)
  95. Ed Trollope, Director, Things We Don’t Know CIC (, @TWeDK)
  96. Stephen Beckett, Ph.D. student, University of Exeter (, @BeckettStephen)
  97. Andrew D. Steen, Department of Earth & Planetary Sciences, University of Tennessee, Knoxville (, @drdrewsteen)
  98. Mari Sarv, Estonian Literary Museum (, @kaskekanke)
  99. Noam Ross, Ph.D. Candidate, Ecology, University of California-Davis (, @noamross)
  100. Erika Amir, Geologist, Massachusetts, USA (, @geoflier)
  101. Martin Paul Eve, University of Lincoln (, @martin_eve)
  102. Franco Cecchi, University of Florence (
  103. Jason B. Colditz, University of Pittsburgh (, @colditzjb)
  104. Philip Spear, postdoc, Northwestern University (
  105. Mythili Menon, University of Southern California (, @mythmenon)
  106. Matthew Clapham, University of California Santa Cruz (,@meclapham)
  107. Karl W. Broman, University of Wisconsin–Madison (, @kwbroman)
  108. Graham Triggs, Symplectic (, @grahamtriggs)
  109. Tom Crick, Cardiff Metropolitan University (, @DrTomCrick)
  110. Diano F. Marrone, Wilfrid Laurier University (
  111. Joseph Kraus, Librarian, University of Denver (, @OAJoe)
  112. Steven Buyske, Rutgers University (
  113. Gavin Simpson, University of Regina (
  114. Colleen Morgan, University of York ( @clmorgan)
  115. Kara Woo, National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis, UC Santa Barbara (, @kara_woo)

Tactile perception demonstration: The “comb illusion”

At first, I was underwhelmed by this one.

comb, finger, and stick

Run the stick along the comb. With your eyes closed, notice the resulting percept: something moving down your finger.

Running an object (like a stick, or a pen) along the fine teeth of a comb, causes successive teeth of the comb to deflect laterally. There is no appreciable up-and-down component to the teeth’s movement, just the side-to-side movement. 

If you place your finger along the top of the comb’s teeth and close your eyes while you stroke the teeth with the stick, you’ll feel something running along your finger. I wouldn’t call this much of an illusion, so I didn’t think much of it at first. But Hayward & Cruz-Hernández (2000) pointed out that from this phenomenon, we can conclude your finger is able to sense lateral force, essentially skin stretch, not just indentation of the skin. The brain interprets the successive stretch signals as an object running down the finger. That stretch alone can result in these percepts is interesting.

There are several sorts of touch receptors in the skin. Most detect vibration or indentation. Stretch is detected by a rather distinct class, the Ruffini corpuscles, which are the specialized endings of nerves that carry the corpuscles’ signal to the spinal cord.

Now run the stick along the comb without your finger on top. Look carefully at the comb’s teeth. If you drag the stick along with some force, you’ll be able to see the teeth move a bit. But try running the stick along with very little force, at an acute angle so the side of the stick barely touches the comb, and runs smoothly. Make it nearly parallel to the plane of the comb, so it’s smooth enough that you don’t get the clicking sound and bump-bump vibration from successive teeth that occurs if the stick protrudes between the teeth. I noticed that when doing this, the deflection of the teeth is so small that looking directly at the ends of the teeth, I can’t see the deflection.

Yet if you put your finger again atop the comb, you should still have the sensation of something running along your finger. Hayward & Cruz-Hernández (2000) suggest that here the teeth move only by microns, and I believe them, as we ought to be able to see even a few microns of deflection when we look closely at the comb. Indeed, I suspect that the teeth may be moving less than a micron.

This shows how extraordinarily sensitive our sense of touch is- more spatially acute than vision. But note that the exquisite sensitivity of touch here comes from an ability that has no direct analogy in vision. In vision, when we think about spatial sensitivity, we think of acuity,

Spatial resolution in vision is limited by receptor spacing. Image: Gerald Westheimer.

Spatial resolution in vision is limited by receptor spacing. Image: Gerald Westheimer.

which is limited by receptor spacing (although hyperacuity makes it a bit more complicated than that). Vision has nothing like touch’s stretch receptors, which here are not limited by spatial spacing, but rather by the minimum force the Ruffini corpuscles can register.

Touch can also best visual acuity in another way. Receptors sensitive to ultra-high-frequency vibration allow us to discriminate a rough surface from a smooth one even when the roughness is created by features much smaller than a micrometer. For that phenomenon, I created a picture to put the spatial scales involved into perspective. I might explain it more another time. 


V. Hayward, M. Cruz-Hernandez, Tactile display device using distributed lateral skin stretch, in: Proceedings of the Haptic Interfaces for Virtual Environment and Teleoperator Systems Symposium, Vol. DSC-69-2, ASME, 2000, pp. 1309–1314. 

CHAST public science talks at University of Sydney

3 CHAST ( lectures:

Why we cannot make life

Professor Bert Meijer, Molecular Sciences, Organic Chemistry, Eindhoven University of Technology and 2011 Cornforth Foundation Lecturer, University of Sydney

Where: Old Geology Lecture Theatre, Edgeworth David Bldg, University of Sydney, map:

When: Wednesday 31 August, 6:30-7:30pm.   Free admission, no bookings.  All welcome.

Abstract: “The origin of life on earth” is without doubt one of the most intriguing scientific topics, while the wish to create life in a laboratory is amongst its most difficult challenges. The enormous progress in science and technology over the past decades has provided many deep insights into the miraculous composition and functioning of living systems. Today, on the one hand, we can clone sheep, grow organs from stem cells, while cells, plants, animals and bacteria have been genetically modified. On the other hand, the synthesis of small and large molecules has become so sophisticated that almost every molecule that exists on earth can now be made in a laboratory, including long strands of DNA, proteins and complex drugs that can cure diseases. These many insights, however, also show the complexity of the molecular biology of living cells. As a result, the astonishment about how life could ever have originated has further increased. The lecture will illustrate the greatest challenges that are encountered while seeking to understand the origin of life, including an explanation of why it will take a very, very long time before a living cell can be made in a laboratory out of its individual components, if it is possible at all. Special attention will be paid to the self-organization of complex molecular systems as a critical step in the building process.

E.W. “Bert” Meijer is Distinguished University Professor in the Molecular Sciences, Professor of Organic Chemistry at the Eindhoven University of Technology and scientific director of the Institute for Complex Molecular Systems. After receiving his PhD degree at the University of Groningen, he worked for 10 years in industry (Philips and DSM). In 1991 he was appointed in Eindhoven, while in the meantime he has held part-time positions in Nijmegen and Santa Barbara, CA. Bert Meijer is a member of many editorial advisory boards, including Chemical Communications, Angewandte Chemie, and the Journal of the American Chemical Society. Bert Meijer has received numerous awards, including the 1999 Silver Medal of the Macro UK group, the Spinoza Award in 2001, the ACS Award for Polymer Chemistry in 2006, the AkzoNobel Science Award 2010. He is a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Science.


Announcing a CHAST ( Lecture:

Numbers: Their Human Aspects. Perspective from Indigenous Cultures

Dr. Helen Verran, History and Philosophy of Science, University of Melbourne

Where: Old Geology Lecture Theatre, Edgeworth David Bldg, University of Sydney, map:

When: Tuesday 8 November, 5:30-6:30pm.   Free admission, no bookings.  All welcome.

Abstract: Many people spend a lot of time looking at numbers, or more to the point, looking through numbers at something else.  In this talk I take a look at numbers as such.  How can we ‘see’ numbers? And why would we want to? I will tell of the experience of working with teachers in primary school classrooms in Nigeria.  This had me recognizing that if we are going to understand how science might come to life as a significant cultural element in places like Nigeria we need a way to see the cultural lives that things like numbers have.  Having done some preliminary thinking with the help of Nigerian primary school children I turn to my experiences of working with Yolngu Aboriginal Australians who own lands in northeast Arnhem Land.  I will make a rather surprising analogy which I suggest can help us better understand the sorts of things numbers are.

Helen Verran is a Reader in History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Melbourne. She has a PhD in metabolic biochemistry. For most of the 1980s she worked as a science lecturer in the Institute for Education at Obafemi Awolowo University in Nigeria.  Her book Science and an African Logic (2001) was published out of this experience. Since she returned to Australia she has worked with Yolngu Aboriginal communities in northeast Arnhem Land an early product of this work was the small book Singing the Land Signing the Land now available on-line. which provides background for her CHAST Lecture.


The 2011 Templeton Lecture (

The Emotional Brain

Professor Joseph LeDoux, Center for Neural Science, New York University

Where: Eastern Avenue Auditorium, University of Sydney, map:

When: Monday 17 October, 6:00-7:30pm.   Free admission, no bookings.  All welcome.

Abstract: The study of emotion has been hampered by a fixation on feelings.  Feelings are important, but not all important.  Problems arise when we use feelings, and their semantic labels, as guides to studying brain function in other animals.  Rather than imposing concepts based on human introspective experience to the brains of other creatures, we should attempt to understand how the human brain is similar to the brains of other animals. This then becomes a foundation for understanding differences between humans and other animals. I propose that much of what is called emotion in studies of other animals is accounted for by the operation survival circuits, circuits involved in defense, energy/nutrition supplies, fluid balance, thermoregulation, and procreation. These circuits are highly conserved in mammals, including humans. While the behavioral expression of survival circuits can be species-specific, the circuits are species-general. Some other approaches also emphasize the adaptive function of emotions, but typically define emotions in terms of feelings. Survival functions are the real topic in most animal studies of emotion. By focusing on the adaptive function itself (rather than the behavioral expression or the conscious consequences) of survival circuits we have a way of characterizing phenomena that fall under the rubric of “emotion” in all mammals (perhaps all animals) without recourse to feelings. Feelings are what happens when consciousness witnesses the overall outcome (in the brain and body) of survival circuit activation. Feelings, which cannot be studied scientifically in non-human organisms, are neither necessary nor sufficient to understand survival circuits and their functions. By reorienting the comparative study of emotions around survival circuit functions, we have the opportunity to understand similarities and differences in emotional functions between humans and other animals.

“Visual Attention On the Go” seminar on Friday

My talk for the Sydney University psychology department will be at 4pm in the Education building, room 424. Below, the abstract:

Localizing a single object relative to oneself is fairly easy—ever seen a plant reaching towards the sun? It’s a no-brainer. A less trivial task is determining the position of two objects relative to each other. Humans evolved brains that can do it, probably because it’s important for survival, but we don’t know how we do it.  I asked some people to look at a stable scene and report which objects are adjacent. They said, “the red disc is next to the green disc” or “the red disc is next to the yellow disc”. Performance was essentially perfect. When the display started spinning, however, queer things started happening. These things suggest that apprehending the spatial relationship among objects requires a shift of attention from one object to the other. They also suggest that to perceive the spatial relationships among moving objects, the ability to follow an object with attention is critical[1]. The ability to follow an object with attention was tested by many previous investigators, who found that people can keep track of about four objects at once. But previous investigators never moved their objects as fast as we move ours. Our findings with speedy objects dispel previous theories of tracking and suggest that the faster an object moves, the more attentional resource it consumes[2]. Until nothing is left.

1. Holcombe, A., Linares, D., & Vaziri-Pashkam, M. (2011). Perceiving Spatial Relations via Attentional Tracking and Shifting. Current Biology, 21, 1-5. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2011.05.031

2. Holcombe, A.O., Chen, W.Y. (2011, submitted). Tracking a single fast-moving object exhausts attentional resources. (See the associated poster)

[Updated post with the time (4pm). Thanks Mat!]

Robert S. McNamara on nuclear weapons

“Is it right and proper that today there are 7500 offensive nuclear warheads of which 2500 are on fifteen-minute alert to be launched by the decision of one human being?””

“The lesson of the Cuban missile crisis is this: the indefinite combination of human fallibility and nuclear weapons will destroy nations.”

“Rational individuals came that close to total destruction of their societies. And that danger exists today.”

-Robert S. McNamara, former U.S. Secretary of Defense, The Fog of War (2003)

The surviving leader on the other side of the Cuban missile crisis, Fidel Castro, has also warned of the continued danger of nuclear weapons.