The Toes Knows: Research Uncovers Key Co-Worker of Michelangelo

The Toes Knows: Research Uncovers Key Co-Worker of Michelangelo

One of my favourite things to do on a cold winter day off is wandering around an art gallery or museum! I love how the snow outside bounces a different kind of light onto paintings and photographs, and how — with the weather being so grim — there’s no pressure to be anywhere else, or do anything except sit and appreciate.
Good art raises big questions, including “What is meant by this piece?” “How does it affect me?” Sometimes, with pieces of murky provenance, the biggest question is “Who the heck made this??” That can be really difficult to answer. But, in a recent case, science has happily stepped in to add real-world context to some incredibly rare art.
The Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge, England, had a pair of 16th-century bronze statues, whose creator was unknown. So, they took the outside-the-box step of asking clinical anatomist Professor Peter Abrahams of Warwick Medical School to have a look. Abrahams focused not on technique or material, but on the model. And it is through the physical quirks of the man who sat for the artist that Abrahams has determined the sculptures to be the only known bronze works by Michelangelo! As the professor said to The Guardian:
“Being an observant person, both as a doctor and a scientist, I noticed that the toes on the bronzes were a bit odd. […]
I then went and had a look at all the toes that I could find anywhere in Michelangelo’s oeuvre. Out of 40 toes, all except for two fitted this brief: they had a short big toe and a long second toe, and the big toe goes outwards — it looks like someone is wearing a flip-flop in between the toes.
In the Sistine Chapel, David, Moses, they all have the same toes. There are certain traits that shine through in an artist’s work.”

The toes were the clincher, but there were other tells: the model also had an “eight-pack” series of abdominal muscles on display. This rare configuration has a genetic basis, and further narrows down the modeling pool to Michelangelo’s usual collaborator. Most fascinatingly, the statues’ legs showed evidence of the sartorius muscle in action. The sartorius is not usually externally visible, and both sculptures predated the publication of the first human anatomy textbook in 1543, so Prof. Abrahams concluded the person who sculpted the bronzes had dissected human bodies. Bingo: Michelangelo!
While we often think of science as the opposite of art, in the case of the mysterious Michelangelo, it complemented it. Prof. Abrahams’ analysis answered a question about who made the bronzes, and leaves us to contemplate so many more: Who was the quarry labourer who had such a great working relationship with the artist? What was it like collaborating with such genius? And, how beautiful are the pieces left for us to enjoy, 450 years in the future, on our day off in the museum!

Microbes: A Match for Childhood Leukemia?

I’m lucky enough to have lived through a good amount of the 20th century, and into the 21st, two amazing centuries for medical science. In my own time, doctors (and vaccines!) have eliminated or nearly eliminated such terrifying diseases as smallpox, polio, and measles. But these diseases all come from outside agents: viruses. (Never mind all the nasty infections you can get from bacteria.) What about that lofty goal of curing cancer — taming our own rogue cells when they go haywire? How can we possibly get in there and convince parts of ourselves not to kill us?
With a trusty outside agent, says Professor Mel Greaves of London’s Institute of Cancer Research . The recently knighted scientist has trialled microbes — yes, microbes  — as assassins of a terrifying childhood cancer, acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
This leukemia results from a collision of two unhappy states: a genetic mutation and an “unprimed” immune system. The latter is often due to today’s hyper-clean parenting, which uses wipes and all kinds of concoctions to minimize germ exposure in babies. But “Sir Mel”’s research has shown him that children whose immune systems aren’t challenged in their first year, and who carry the leukemia mutation, can later have those trigger-happy immune systems wig out — thus sparking full-on leukemia.
“‘When such a baby is eventually exposed to common infections, his or her unprimed immune system reacts in a grossly abnormal way,’ says Greaves. ‘It over-reacts and triggers chronic inflammation.’

As this inflammation progresses, chemicals called cytokines are released into the blood and these can trigger a second mutation that results in [leukemia] in children carrying the first mutation.

‘The disease needs two hits to get going,’ Greaves explains. ‘The second comes from the chronic inflammation set off by an unprimed immune system.’”
Happily, this research means that, even if a child has the unfortunate genetic mutation, leukemia can be averted by “seeding’ their immune system with appropriate bugs. To prevent having your baby lick an escalator railing, Greaves is experimenting on mice to determine which bugs are most helpful. Then he plans to develop a yogurt-like drink, that could be taken with a minimum of fuss. This should provide enough of an immune challenge to avert the second mutation in a susceptible child, without any attendant illness.  I love how we keep going back to the human microbiome for our overall health. And it just keeps getting better: today anti-jet-lag, tomorrow, anti-cancer!

A Red Bird is Not Just a Red Bird: The Many Kinds of Cardinal

Cardinal bird

Deep winter is when birdwatching really heats up in our (literal) neck of the woods. I love looking out into forested backyard over my first cup of coffee and seeing who’s joining me for breakfast. Species who end up at our sunflower-and-suet-filled feeder include juncos, chickadees, and blue jays — the bullies of the bunch!
Another bird I love to see is the Northern Cardinal, whose brilliant red (male) or warm dun (female) plumage really pops against our deep eastern Ontario snow! But I recently discovered an assumption I had been making about that species is false: the idea that they are in fact one species at all. 
Turns out, researchers out of the American Museum of Natural History have discovered that what was previously known as the heterogeneous Northern cardinal species is in fact made up of at least two genetically distinct populations. Since the types of birds look almost exactly the same, the researchers detected their differences through a fascinating tell — how the birds communicate.
The scientists began by looking at the behaviours of two different cardinal populations separated by a distance, with one centred in the eastern US, and another in Arizona and Mexico. In both cases, male cardinals use their songs to not only attract mates but to posture against males of the same species. Male cardinals do not react against males of different species as strongly as they do their own, so the researchers realized they had a clear marker of genetic difference on their hands. From Gizmodo:
“The researchers played cardinal songs for four trials at 128 different sites, 67 in the Sonoran desert and 61 in the Chihuahuan desert. The cardinals at the sites generally came much closer to the speakers when songs from the local population played than they did when songs from the other population did, according to the paper published recently in the journal Ecology and Evolution. […]

Furthering the evidence, the researchers performed a genetic analysis of cardinals in either group. It demonstrated that the two cardinal populations likely diverged approximately a million years ago.”
The two populations are separated by the Cochise filter barrier, a geographical and ecological phenomenon, including a mountain range, that prevents the mingling of species between the areas of the Sonoran and Chihuahuan deserts. Given this fact, and the confirmation of behaviour when confronted with rivals’ songs, the researchers are pretty certain they have different species on their hands. Much like books and covers, it seems you can’t judge a bird by its feathers!

What Alexa Knows

If Santa brought you an Alexa device this year, once you hear this news you might turn right around and punt it out the window!  A German Amazon user requested that company’s data in him back in August, under the EU’s new, stringent, General Data Protection Regulation. Amazon sent his data — along with a 100MB ZIP file full of recordings of someone else’s Alexa voice commands for the entire month of May 2018. 

After receiving no reply to his concerned enquiry to Amazon, the user contacted German tech magazine c’t , and they began to investigate. To parse the severity of the privacy breach, the c’t team attempted to identify the mystery second user through the leaked recordings.

“It was obvious that ‘Customer X’ uses Alexa in multiple locations. He has at least one Echo at home and has a voice-controlled Fire box connected to his TV. A female voice also spoke to Alexa, so there was clearly a woman around at least some of the time. […]

The alarms, Spotify commands, and public transport inquiries included in the data revealed a lot about the victims’ personal habits, their jobs, and their taste in music. Using these files, it was fairly easy to identify the person involved and his female companion. Weather queries, first names, and even someone’s last name enabled us to quickly zero in on his circle of friends. Public data from Facebook and Twitter rounded out the picture.”

The investigative team, after having identified Customer X (and his girlfriend) from the recording, contacted him to warn him. He was shocked at the breach, but even more shocked, they report, at the fact that Amazon hadn’t reached out themselves. (The offending company must at least contact the regulators within 72 hours if a breach occurs.) Amazon ended up calling Customer X, with an apology for the “human error” that released his Alexa commands, three days after c’t approached them.

Amazon has been having giant problems with Alexa, but this is the first time the company has sent a pile of someone’s data to someone else and had it been their unequivocal fault. We know why they’re collecting massive amounts of data on us: in short, monetization. The significant question — which we must ask of Google, Facebook, et al — is if the companies themselves can keep up with what they’re doing. If they’re going to keep innovating devices that make our lives the easiest they’ve ever been in dark exchange for that data, that’s the least they can do.

Systems vs. Goals: The Resolution Revolution?

Happy New Year! The DFC team hopes you’ve had a year of joy, challenge, and prosperity, and are looking forward to more of the same in 2019.

With the calendar turnover approaching, I’m sure many of us have been thinking about resolutions. In my case, I mostly think about them to immediately discount them — I’m not a fan of being told what to do, even if it’s by my past self!

So I’ve gotten interested in a different way of thinking about resolutions: one that’s not necessarily new, but that I’ve seen pop up on a few productivity blogs recently.

Scott Adams, creator of Dilbert and business and political commentator, outlined his process of “systems over goals” on his blog back in 2013 (before he got kind of alarmingabout American culture).

His productivity advice is quite cogent thought. Adams’ theory pits the standard, goal-oriented way of getting things done against one that he says Adams says is far more effective: the creation of a system, a state of small steps that serve to improve your self in relation to what you want to do — with the achievement of the goal as a side effect. He gives an example by citing his blogging system:

“Writing is a skill that requires practice. So the first part of my system involves practicingon a regular basis. I didn’t know what I was practicing for, exactly, and that’s what makes it a system and not a goal. I was moving from a place with low odds (being an out-of-practice writer) to a place of good odds (a well-practiced writer with higher visibility).

The second part of my blogging system is a sort of R&D for writing. I write on a variety of topics and see which ones get the best response. I also write in different “voices”. […] You readers do a good job of telling me what works and what doesn’t.

When the Wall Street Journal took notice of my blog posts, they asked me to write some guest features. Thanks to all of my writing practice here, and my knowledge of which topics got the best response, the guest articles were highly popular. […]

So the payday for blogging eventually arrived, but I didn’t know in advance what path it would take. My blogging has kicked up dozens of business opportunities over the past years, so it could have taken any direction”

I think this concept is inherently freeing because it leverages what you can personally control: if you set a goal to land a particularly large company as a client, for example, and you don’t because that company goes under, that’s technically a failure. But, if you were to establish a system of sending out one new pitch per day instead, your success becomes automatic, and landing Company X is a natural outgrowth.

I think I’m going to apply this process to a few things in 2019 I want to approach differently — my music for example. Dear readers, what systems or goals are you revisioning in the New Year? Whatever your chosen challenge, we at DFC wish you all the best!