Saturday, December 22, 2012

Tehran cemetary

The transition from west to the Middle East begins at a European airport.  In the waiting area for the flight to Tehran, a young woman stands up and holds her hands close to her face, appearing to be reading a small, imaginary book.  She bows her head slightly, and then kneels to the ground, bringing her head down to the cold stone floor.   The ritual lasts no more than a couple of minutes, and after she finishes, she simply sits down and carries on a conversation with her fellow traveler.  But then someone else, over at the corner of the room, stands up and starts the ritual, facing exactly the same direction, holding up the same imaginary book.  

It’s time for afternoon prayers, and the devout do not need anything other than their faith to perform it.

Tehran is a densely populated, sprawling city that sits on the edge of a mountain range.  In the winter, when the westerly wind blows away the brown smog, the city is spectacular: a pearl necklace of snow covered jagged granite rise up toward the clouds, seemingly a few feet away from the tall apartments in the northern edge of the city.

The only reasonable method of transportation is the metro: a clean, modern system that is slowly growing.  At the last stop on the southernmost point of Line 1, something delightful awaits the traveler.  As you near the exit turn styles, a few people are standing with baskets or boxes full of cookies or sweets, giving them away for free.  They wait until all their food is gone before they go in to catch the train.  This is the stop for Beheshte-Zahra, the city’s main cemetery for its millions of inhabitants.  In the Iranian tradition, visiting your loved ones at the cemetery is a ritual, filled with compassion and giving to strangers; you offer food to a stranger, and silently ask for a prayer for your departed. 

The cemetery itself is a checkerboard of graves, marked only with black rectangular granite or white marble tombstones, lying flat on the ground, with the face of the departed chiseled in the stone.  The tombstones are works of art commissioned by ordinary people, each piece using calligraphy to describe a departed, often including a few tearful lines of poetry to measure the loss.

Many of the tombstones have only the top half marked, leaving one half unfinished.  Here is a wife or a husband, awaiting their mate.

People are grieving, of course, but there is a sense of shared pain, as all have brought something to give, making a friend for a moment, receiving a smile, a nod of the head, a few words of comfort.  Some even bring small stoves and make traditional soups (in winter) near the grave that they have come to visit.  You see the elderly woman making the soup, and the young boy walking with small bowls and spoons, offering it to strangers.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Choosing sides

On thanksgiving, after the turkey, homemade fruit salad, mango salsa, cheesecake, and blackberry pie, about fourteen of us, two families, head to an indoor volleyball court.  The young ones, from 12 to 20 something, take off early to buy a volley ball, which turns out to be a little difficult.  The older ones, the two dads (me and my friend), join them a little later. 

On the court, after a couple of hours of fun where teams are randomly put together, we come to the final game, where the two dads pick their teams.  Your competitive nature takes over your brain, and you pick the best player among the ones waiting to be called, not thinking that these are your kids, and you are choosing sides.  

On game point, my friend’s daughter, who is on my team, serves a good ball, but they return it strong, and our back center puts it in the net.  We all think that the point is over, but my son digs it out of the net, and another of my friend’s daughters puts it over for a win. 

Explosion of laughter and cheering.                                                                                  

My friend’s daughter yells out to him: "you should have picked me dad!"

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Book of friendship

On the plane ride home, in the seat pocket in front of me, I pick up a magazine.  On the front cover it says “3 perfect days in Istanbul”.  Inside, there is a nice house, overlooking a wooded area.  The house has a beautiful swimming pool, and a lovely lady diving in the water.  But she is all alone.  I think they missed the point.

My three perfect days in Spokane were spent in the exact opposite of alone, with my childhood friend and his family.  What made it perfect?

Watching, together,
the sun change the hues on a mountain range miles away as it warmed our bare toes;
the breeze caressing the golden wheat on a hill that leaned against a deep blue sky;
the moon rising slowly between two tall pines on a cloudless night;
nature, absolutely silent, awaiting sunrise;

our white long-haired dog, sleeping in the shade, on green, green grass;
tomatoes from the garden, just picked, sliced thick on white china;
homemade scones late at night, with hot tea, under Orion’s Belt;
four games of  two-on-two volley ball with ‘commercial breaks’, laughing while someone looks for the stray ball in the tall grass;

hawks circling slowly;
our lives unhurriedly shared;
adding a page of memories to our 35 year old book of friendship. 

Friday, August 17, 2012

A question of identity

During the summer, scientists like to organize short courses that are a couple of weeks long and are held at small research institutions near a beach or a mountain.  The classes are small, acceptance is tough, and the students come from diverse places around the world.  One morning this week after I gave a lecture at one of these courses, I hung around to chat with some of them over a cup of tea.  I was astonished to hear that about four or five of the students could speak Persian!  Curious to learn more, I inquired about their paths in life.  All were kids of parents who were displaced or otherwise negatively affected by the Iranian revolution in 1978.  The parents had been young intellectuals who had immigrated to the west, and these were their kids, raised with Persian language at home, a different language at school, and two cultures entangled.  What exactly are you when you are born and raised in London, the most important holiday for you is Norooz, and your favorite food is basmati rice with Khorshe Gheymeh?  Your passport says something about your nationality, but where is home?

A few years back, Yo Yo Ma, the famous cellist, talked about this question of identity in an interview with National Public Radio.  Here is what he said:  “I was born in Paris, my parents were from China, and I was brought up mostly in America. When I was young, this was very confusing: everyone said that their culture was best, but I knew they couldn't all be right. I felt that there was an expectation that I would choose to be Chinese or French or American. For many years I bounced among the three, trying on each but never being wholly comfortable. I hoped I wouldn't have to choose, but I didn't know what that meant and how exactly to "not choose." However, the process of trying on each culture taught me something. As I struggled to belong, I came to understand what made each one unique. At that point, I realized that I didn't need to choose one culture to the exclusion of another, but instead I could choose from all three.  The values I selected would become part of who I was, but no one culture needed to win. I could honor the cultural depth and longevity of my Chinese heritage, while feeling just as passionate about the deep artistic traditions of the French, and the American commitment to opportunity and the future.”

Thinking about Yo Yo Ma’s view, I realized that the diversity in the students’ experiences had provided them with options, samples of what different cultures could provide.  But in addition to cultures rooted in geographical locations, they had been exposed to the culture of science.  Science provided a few of the things that countries tend to provide: deep history, myths, inspirational heroes, and sensational legends.  For some students, science was a comfortable community, the closest thing to what they might call home.

Saturday, July 21, 2012

The oldest skill

On the golf course, it is easy to spot a skilled player: they not only hit the ball so that it lands in the fairway along the path to the green, but they do so consistently.  That consistency is also at display when you watch a lumber jack use an ax to drop a tree, or a sculptor use a chisel and hammer to turn a rough piece of marble into a life-like statue.   

The degree of precision with which we can use a tool is roughly a measure of our skill, and our brain acquires skills through years of practice.  You need devotion and persistence to become skillful with a tool, whether that tool is a golf club, chisel, or a violin.  When did humans first exhibit this ability and desire to acquire a skill?

About 40,000 years ago, humans that were anatomically similar to us entered Europe and settled in the continent that was once populated by Neanderthals.  They arrived at a place in which mammoths, lions, and wild horses were plentiful.  In Swabia, in southwestern Germany, a few of these early explorers left behind pieces of work that for me represent the earliest examples of skillful tool use.

One particularly beautiful piece is a horse carved from mammoth ivory that dates to about 30-35K years ago.  It is about 5cm in length, and was found by Gustav Riek, a professor at University of Tubingen, in a 1931 excavation of the Vogelherd cave in Wolfstal valley.  Horses were not domesticated until about 6000 years ago, so the sculptor who created this piece was carving based on the memory of observing these animals in the wild.  The piece is made from ivory, which on its outer layer has a hard enamel, requiring sharp cutting tools to work through.  Its hallmark is a remarkably expressive curved neck.  Looking closely at it at Hohentubingen museum, I could see small engraved symbols, including cross marks and angular signs, on the back of the neck, as well as on the back and the left chest.  I thought it was astonishing that people in the Stone Age, facing hardships unimaginable to me, could find time to learn and perfect a motor skill that could produce something so beautiful. 

Another piece that exhibits exceptional craftsmanship is a female figurine also made of mammoth ivory.  This piece dates to about 35K years ago and was found by Nicholas Conrad in a nearby region in 2008.  It is 6cm in length.  Instead of a head, it has a carefully carved ring above the shoulders.  In the original paper that described the find, Conrad writes: “This ring, despite being weathered, preserves polish, suggesting that the figurine at times was suspended as a pendant.”   The arms end with two carefully carved hands, with the fingers resting on the stomach.  There are lines carved on the back and front, suggesting of clothing.  Conrad writes: “Microscopic images show that these incisions were created by repeatedly cutting along the same lines with sharp stone tools.  Such deep cuts into ivory are only possible with the application of significant force.”

The precision with which these pieces were made is among the earliest evidence of skillful use of tools.  This evidence suggests that despite the struggles of existence, humans of the Stone Age had the motivation to invest the years needed to acquire a motor skill, so that they could create things that today we call art.

NJ Conrad (2009) A female figurine from the basal Aurignacian of Hohle Fels Cave in southwestern Germany.  Nature 459:248-252.
NJ Conrad and M Bolus (2006) The Swabian Aurignacian and its place in European prehistory.  In: Bar-Yosef, O., Zilhao, J. (Eds.), Towards a Definition of the Aurignacian. Trabalhos de Arqueologia, 45. Instituto Portugueˆs de Arquologia, American School of Prehistoric Research, Lisboa, pp. 211–239. 
R. White (1992) Beyond Art: Toward an Understanding of the Origins of Material Representation in Europe.  Annual Review of Anthropology 21:537-564.

Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dear Mr. Porsche

Stuttgart is where they build Porsches.  There is a Porsche museum near one of the show rooms, and I imagined that this might be a fun place for a family visit.  We drove over one Wednesday morning.  

As we entered the under-ground parking lot, the asphalt and concrete floors disappeared and we were driving on something that was white and very shiny.  I felt a little embarrassed in our somewhat dirty rental car.  Elevator doors opened and the unusual furniture, glass, steel, and white everything, made me think that I was visiting the future, despite the fact that the museum was of course about the past: history of Porsche and automotive engineering. 

The kids had a blast posing with and sitting in the fancy cars, but I thought the most interesting thing was the small exhibit that they had made to honor Ferdinand Alexander Porsche, the grandson of the original Ferdinand Porsche (who designed not only Porsches, but also the first Volkswagen Beetle).  The grandson died about two months ago and his major work was the design of Porsche 911.  In this exhibit there was a young lady attending a couple of imposingly large books bound in black leather.  Curious, I walked over and she told me that the books were there for visitors to sign.  I opened one and started reading.  I was surprised to read so many emotional comments.  The authors, just ordinary visitors to the museum, were from all over the world, but they were writing to the deceased man as if he was their friend, often thanking Ferdinand for the passion that he had brought to their lives.  One said: "Your car helped me when I was in a difficult period in my life".  Another said: "The design of the 911 was an inspiration to me when I needed an example of a passionate design."

I imagined that the people who had left these notes had driven one of his cars (or maybe just appreciated looking at one of his cars), and felt joy.  It’s like when I read a good book, and feel that I have gotten to know the author a bit.  When the author teaches me a few things, I feel grateful.  I had never thought about feeling this way about a car, and its designer.  It is good to see that engineers can leave such a positive impression on people who use their designs.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Simple and complex spikes

During my visit to Germany, I wake up early most mornings to walk to the lab.  I share a small office with some of the graduate students.  In one of those early morning, I walked in and surprised a graduate student from a neighboring office who was on the phone.  I think she felt a little embarrassed, and so afterwards she sat down to tell me that she comes in early to call her dad.  

She is from Poland, finished medical school 3 years ago, and decided to go into neuroscience and is now recording from the cerebellum.  She mentioned how important it was for her to talk to her dad each day, as the science was going slowly and things were not always so great. 

Over on her desk she has a piece of paper taped to her computer.  It's something that an earlier student made for her.  It shows a recording from a Purkinje cell.  The top part of the paper shows the raw voltage trace, where you can clearly see the simple and complex spikes in fantastic isolation.  On the bottom of the paper is the spike-sorting waveform that is used for online sorting of the simple and complex spikes.

The note on the paper says: "Motivation screen shot.  These cells exist and you can find them!"

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Revolutionary teenager

During a visit to University of Tubingen, I met a young neurologist who is the lead postdoc in the lab.  I see him talking to the students each day and helping them with their recordings and data analysis.  His is originally from East Germany, town of Leipzig.  In 1989, he was 14, living with his little brother, his dad (an engineer), and mom (a physician).  His parents had wanted to leave the country, and had finally gotten the courage to put in the paper work to get an exit visa. This was a brave thing, because in earlier years people who put in an application were usually arrested.  But there was a feeling that things might become easier, and there might be a window of opportunity now.  A family friend was so desperate that they bought a plane ticket to Cuba, and chose a flight that had a layover in Canada. Once there, they escaped from the transit area and asked for asylum.   He explains that his dad felt that his father had once had a chance to leave for the West, but had hesitated, and ended up living his life under communism.  Not wanting to make the same mistake, they put in for an exit visa and sold their house.

People who were in a similar situation met on Monday evenings in a Lutheran church in Leipzig named Nikolaikirche.  In summer of 1989, they would just meet in the evening and say a few prayers and then go home.  But in September of that year, a few people stayed after the meeting and went to the front of the church and just stood there for a while before going home.  This gathering at the church attracted other people who were dissatisfied with the East German regime, resulting in weekly “prayer for peace” meetings, held first at the courtyard of the church and soon in the streets surrounding it, with the meetings always culminating in standing outside.  He was there among them as the weekly meetings became larger, growing rapidly and within weeks including 70000 people (out of a city population of 500000).  The most famous chant became “We are the people”, referring to the government who used a similar phrase to describe itself.

The East German police showed restraint, and by October of 1989, the weekly meeting had more than 300000 people.  The news spread, as did the demonstrations in other cities, and the chant began to change from "We are the people" to "We are one people".  By November the Berlin wall was brought down.

He describes driving over to the west and being greeted by West Germans.  They had organized hotels for the immigrants, free of charge.  Within a few months they had a place of their own.  Within a year the two countries were united.

They settled in a small village outside of Stuttgart.  As he tells it, his life in the West turned out to be less than he had hoped for (at least at the beginning).  It was hard to be a participant in a revolution that toppled a regime and brought unification to two countries, and now just being an ordinary high school student.  He thinks he might have had the peak of his career at 14.  Half jokingly, we talked about how his experience might help people in other places who are striving for freedom.  He had thought of going to Syria to see if he could help organize demonstrations.  For now, he is a neurologist who sees patients one day a week and spends the rest of his time searching for mirror neurons in the premotor cortex.