What even are cats?

Cats are strange. They constantly seem to be plotting to kill you or to take over the world. They lend their name to quantum physics thought experiments or grinning characters from children’s tales. They come up with creative yet actually very annoying ways to brighten your day, and they only participate in science experiments when they feel like it.

Cats are strange and the scientific community at least agrees on this fact. A 2014 study wondered what the physical nature of cats was, asking the very important question: are cats solid or fluid?*

Fluid dynamics for some very fluid cats.

Marc-Antoine Fardin used a scientific approach to answer the question “Can a Cat Be Both a Solid and a Liquid?”

Here was his conundrum:
Cat’s are generally assumed to be solid. You know, you can touch them and they feel pretty solid. But on the other hand, cat’s fit into really small spaces and can seemingly adjust their form to the container they are in – a property usually attributed to fluids. This is commonly known in internet circles as I fits, I sits.”

A kitten fitting in a wine glass to illustrate that cats can fit into any small space.
Who needs a glass of whine when you can drink fur?
(Image credit: unknown)

The author takes a rheological approach (rheology = the study of flow of matter) to try to differentiate between whether the deformation of a cat is solid deformation or fluid flow. Solids can be deformed, especially if they are soft. Think Play-Doh, which can take any shape while keeping the same volume as opposed to honey, which can also take any shape while keeping the same volume but can be poured.

To me, “Can a cat be poured?” is the question worth asking, and this might be difficult to test without ending up with a lot of scratches.

Reading the paper, I was starting to think the author didn’t take his research very seriously (among his acknowledgements he thanks two people – or cats, I don’t know – for “providing a reliable technique to load Felis catus in different geometries: 1.Bring an empty box; 2. Wait.”). That said, studying the physical nature of cats could bring us closer to understanding the nature of matter itself. More recent experiments are promising:

It seems that the duality of cats extends beyond dead or alive.

On the Rheology of Cats,” Marc-Antoine Fardin, Rheology Bulletin, vol. 83, 2, July 2014, pp. 16-17 and 30.

* The study won the 2017 Ig Nobel prize for Physics. The prize awarded to science that first makes you laugh and then makes you think. To be honest, it makes you think that the whole thing was a joke in the first place. It probably was.

Death Stare for Gullie

It’s happened to me. I’m sitting, calmly enjoying a sandwich outside on a bench, and then …

A seagull swoops in and tries to steal my food.

It’s terrifying. Seagulls are scary, especially up close and especially in Dundee, where I used to live and frequently sit outside eating something or the other. They have mean eyes.

I remember the seagulls in Dundee being quite peculiar. An anecdote: I was walking along the sidewalk, edging close to a corner where a seagull was digging through a ripped trash bag. When I was a few meters away, the seagull looked up and did this little walk away from the bag, pretending as if they weren’t just digging through trash. After I passed the corner, I glanced back and saw that they’d done a u-turn and went back to digging.

Okay, maybe I’m giving the bird too much of a personality. But it was weird.

Back to the food stealing; a research conducted at the University of Exeter showed that if you stare at a gull, it is less likely to steal your chips (for US readers: french fries which are totally not from France but from Belgium and stop calling things the wrong name and, never mind, I’m okay).

Granted, the study had a limited scope. They tried to test 74 gulls, but more than half of them flew away. And it is likely that a lot of seagull related crime is due to a few bad seeds and most seagulls are perfectly happy leaving you and your food alone and digging through trash for snacks.

Nevertheless, seagulls that were “looked at” while they were approaching food, were a lot less likely to touch that food. In fact, only a quarter of seagulls that were being watched while they tried to approach and eat food actually touched the food.

Maybe they were just scared of getting caught while committing food theft. Maybe they hate the color of our eyes. Maybe our stare is truly terrifying (I certainly know a few people with a scary stare). But next time you see a seagull approaching your food, give them the death stare. Perhaps your meal will be saved.

Come at me bro


Sinking ship

Ever feel like your on a sinking ship? Just one of those days where everything seems to be going wrong, the weather, work, writing…

Wait – I’m not here to write about exististential crises. I want to write about sinking ships. And bubbles.

An excited fish (from the movie Finding Nemo) seeing bubbles escaping for a treasure chest in an aquarium.
I have used this gif before. And I will use it again.

The Bermuda triangle seems to be one of those unresolved mysteries. In this triangle-shaped area near Florida, an unusual high number of ships have reportedly sunk to the bottom. Is it due to paranormal activity? Aliens? Magic?

It might just be due to methane bubbles – there are flatulent cows at the bottom of the North Atlantic Ocean.

Just kidding. There are no cows there.

There are large areas of methane hydrates. This natural gas cause periodic methane eruption, causing bubbly regions in the ocean. And it turns out that bubbles can cause ships to sink.

Bubbles cause the average density of the water to decrease, and when this is too low (lower than that of the floating object), an object that would normally float, would sink. It sounds a bit like the opposite of a fluidized bed, where a solid is turned liquid, making things float on sand.

Methane bubbles are one of the possible reasons for the mysterious disappearance of boats in the Bermuda Triangle. Though violent weather and dramatic, exaggerated reporting are probably more to blame.

However, let’s not send any cows to the bottom of the ocean, just in case.

A comic of a cow snorkeling.
Stop it, Bella!






To the point

Quand le doigt montre le ciel, l’imbécile regarde le doigt.

(Jean-Pierre Jeunet)

For those who don’t speak French, or have never watched the fantastical modern fairy tale that is Amélie [in that case, stop reading and go watch it], this translates to: “When a finger is pointing up to the sky, only a fool looks at the finger.”

It’s not just fools; most animals would look at your finger and not the object that is being pointed at. Apparently, it is a rare trait to understand what pointing means.

Even though it is often considered rude to point – I surely remember being told that it was – it turns out that pointing is something very human.

What’t the point?

According to Michael Tomasello (Duke University), it all starts at the young age of 9 months.

Sometime between being 9 and 12 months old, infants start pointing at things that they want or find interesting. While it is possible for some animals (we’ll get to that later) to look at the pointed-to object, infants understand that there is more to it.

There are different reasons to point. You can point to things that you want, like a cookie or a toy. You can point to things that you find interesting, like a dog or a toy. You can point to things that remind you of a shared experience, like a train or a toy. I guess I really like toys.

At a very young age, infants understand that pointing can be used to draw attention to something. The fact that pointing starts exhibiting itself at such a young age is an indication that it is – at least for some part – an evolved trait rather than learned. By creating a connection, and shared experiences, with another person, you start automatically pointing to things that refer to that shared experience – even before language is developed.

No matter where you travel, what language you speak, how old you are, pointing is universal. We understand that something pointed at is a request to share attention.

Get to the point

So toddlers know that when we point at something, we want them to look at it. While it is possible to teach chimpanzees – our closest cousins in the animal kingdom – to look at the object that is pointed at and to use pointing as a means to communicate, it takes a lot of conditioning. Most chimps fail the “pointing test”.

Dogs, however, pass easily. It seems that living with humans for centuries (millennia even), has led to dogs evolving to understand what pointing means.

Dogs have long been the prime example of understanding what pointing means. Our second-favorite-pet, however, was long considered to be untrainable and aloof. Until recently, when new studies have shown that cats can pass the pointing test – if they care to participate…

But cats that have a good connection with their owner, and spend a lot of play time with them, often have the ability to not be the fool, and look at the object rather than the finger. It seems that again, shared experiences is crucial for pointing to work.

Few species understand what human pointing means, but cats know. (Photo by Holly Andres)

In any case, next time someone tells you that it’s rude to point, tell them that it’s human to point.



This blog post was partially inspired by my recent watching of Le Fabuleux Destin d’Amélie Poulin, my recent listening to Alan Alda’s podcast Clear and Vivid (Michael Tomasello On the Surprising Origins of Communication and Cooperation) and the feature in Science on behavioral research on cats: Ready to pounce by David Grimm.

The circle of life

MufasaEverything you see exists together in a delicate balance. As king, you need to understand that balance and respect all the creatures, from the crawling ant to the leaping antelope.
SimbaBut, Dad, don’t we eat the antelope?
MufasaYes, Simba, but let me explain. When we die, our bodies become the grass, and the antelope eat the grass. And so we are all connected in the great Circle of Life.

(Hey, who else is nostalgically hyped for the Lion King?)

The circle of life. Simple really. (Arrows point from the one that does the eating.)

Obviously, actual ecosystems don’t work that way. In Mufasa’s circle, if one of the nodes disappears due to a mysterious antelope-plague, all of life would break down. But more likely, the lion would eat a zebra instead. And if there is no grass, the herbivore will eat some leaves of a tree. (Okay, I know that Scar then went ahead to mismanage everything and life did basically die, but there’s also the part where the little plant breaks through showing that life happens anyway.)

Ecosystems are intricate webs where everything is connected to everything. If one thing falls away, the balance probably shift, but it wouldn’t be a full blown mass extinction. Even if all bees disappear, we’d end up being okay.

We don’t fully understand the intricacies of the ecosystem. We’ve tried, for example through the Biosphere 2 project (planet Earth was considered number 1). This artificial earth was built in the late ’80s in the middle of the desert in Arizona. The “bubble in the desert” was intended as a testing facility, creating a “closed system” where nothing would come in or go out, recreating different natural biomes on a smaller scale to test if a small little earth with human interference would be sustainable.

One of the goals of this facility was to see how we would build human habitats in space, and whether such closed ecological could be maintained. Remember how in the Martian, Watney had to do crazy science to be able to grow potatoes (which is “kind of really possible”, apparently)?

Biosphere 2 looks really cool and futuristic but is essentially a failed experiment.

We wanted to recreate a complete ecosystem and failed. Biosphere 2 is on the list of the 100 worst ideas of the 20th century. We obviously do not understand complete ecosystems enough to create an artificial one. It should be noted, though, that the crew members, who spent the full 2 years in the the sphere, call the experiment a success.

I am currently watching The Expanse, and in one of the episodes they talk about the Cascade. This describes how one element in a closed system breaking down (in this case an agricultural biosphere on one of Jupiter’s moons) leads to the whole system will fail in a cascade of events we cannot predict. Cut out the lions at the top of the food chain, and the antelopes will overgraze the grass and everything will die.

We can try to recreate a tiny world, completely isolated from everything else, but do we really know enough to make it work? It’s not a circle of life, life’s an intricate mumble jumble of wiggly squiggly connections and wow I just sound like the doctor talking about time.

Writing this post just took me on a weird tip through time and space. This post is a mess… (Tardis Blue Space by Koko Priyanto)

Inspiration for this post was an article in ARCADE 37.1 by Nicole DeNamur: Recognizing our environmental arrogance: what an artificial earth taught me about failure

Note: apologies for the relative radio-silence. I am currently working on a few writing projects and job applications, leaving blog writing on the down-low. Apparently my brain and typing fingers can only handle so much?


The twin paradox states the following:

There are two identical twins. One of them travels through space in a high-speed rocket. When they return home, the Earth-bound twin has aged more. This is a result of special relativity. Very briefly, this is due to time slowing down as higher speeds are reached, and why Matthew McConaughey returned to Earth only to find his 90-something year old daughter on her dying bed.

This thought experiment has long been exactly that, a though experiment. But recently, we actually were able to learn what happens to twins when one is in space (granted, not in a high-speed rocket, but on the ISS) for almost a year, while the other twin stays on Earth.

Real Space Twinsies

On March 27 2015, astronaut Scott Kelly arrived at the International Space Station (ISS), while his brother, astronaut Mark Kelly, remained on Earth. (One can have a discussion on who was the luckier of the two.) They did the same activities, ate the same things, and followed the same schedule*, the only difference being that Scott was 400 km from the Earth’s surface, travelling at a speed of 7.66 km/s, while Mark was 0 km from the Earth surface, travelling at a speed of merely 460 m/second, as we all are.

340 days later, March 1 2016, Scott returned to Earth. For the full duration of his time on the ISS, as well as after his return, numerous samples were collected and tests were conducted to monitor his health and compare the physiological and biological changes that happened as a consequence of spacelife. Using his twin brother, a perfect genetic duplicate, as a control.

twins patch
The Twin Study, a massive undertaking involving lots of collaboration and fancy badge design.

The effects of space

There are many “unusual” aspects about living in space, compared to living on Earth, including the odd noises of the ISS, the isolation (Scott was in contact with a mere 12 people during those 340 days), the ultra-controlled environment, a disruption of the normal body clock (imagine perpetually being jet-lagged because of constant switching of time zones), living in micro gravity and the excess of radiation.

An ultra-combined effort, i.e. a major collaboration between a lot of different labs that looked at all possible aspects of physiological and biological function, the effects of 340 days in space (in this specific set of twins) was published last month. There are a lot of changes that occur to the human body in space, some more severe than others.

An immense effort and a lot of numbers went into creating, collecting and comparing samples from the twins. Credit: NASA

There are some changes that don’t really matter much, like changes in the gastrointestinal microbiome and changes in biomass, which were affected during Scott’s time in space, but rapidly returned to normal after he returned. Not much to worry about.

Mid-level risks included known effects of living in microgravity such changes in bone density (you don’t really need to use your skeletal muscles while floating around) and changes in how the heart pumps around blood (you don’t need to fight gravity to pump blood to the head). NASA already knows this and therefore has a rigorous rehabilitation program for returning astronauts to re-acclimatize to Earth’s gravity.

However, it’s the high-risk findings that we all have to worry about, which a mostly due to prolonged floating and prolonged radiation exposure. Due to changes in air pressure as well as that thing I mentioned about blood pumping, a lot of astronauts experience ocular issues after their return, a risk that only increases with increased dwell time off-Earth. This can severely compromise vision. There is also evidence of some cognitive decline. Both those aspects are worrying in the light of long term space travel, we would hope that space-explorers can see and think clearly while carrying out dangerous tasks in dangerous conditions. And that’s without considering a final severe risk…

Who’s the oldest twin?

In addition, the radiation that Scott experienced on ISS is pretty much equivalent to 50 years of normal exposure on Earth. This causes significant genomic instability and DNA damage, and consequentially an increased risk of developing cancer.

One example of this genomic instability has to do with telomeres**. Telomeres are bits of DNA that cap the end of chromosomes. Every time a cell divides, and in the process duplicates its whole DNA library, the telomeres get shorter. When they get too short, the cell can no longer divide. This is something that happens naturally during aging: shortening of telomeres phases out cells until they can no longer divide. Eventually, this leads to cell death.

1 year of space had an odd effect on Scott’s telomeres. Some of them grew longer, while others showed shortening. However, the lengthened telomere returned to normal after Scott’s landing on Earth, while the shortening persisted. So even though Scott was the space twin in our paradox, he seems to have ended up aging faster than Mark…

At a glance, the different effects of one year in space on a human body. Well, it probably takes more than a glance to read this.

A lot happens to a body in space

Overall, the results are pretty surprising, prolonged living in space had more of an effect on the human body than researchers expected. And there is probably a lot more to learn, even just with the data collected from Scott and Mark.

On one hand, the twin study showed how resilient and robust the human body is. 91.3% of Scott’s gene expression levels returned to his baseline level within six months of landing, and some of the changes that occurred to his DNA and microbiome were no different than what occurs in high-stress situations on Earth. That’s amazing, the human body has not evolved to survive in space, but it seems to do pretty well considering how outlandish the conditions are!

On the other hand, the prolonged exposure to microgravity and high radiation does have severe effects on the human health, leading to increased risk for compromised vision, cardiovascular disease, and cancer development. Even with the rigorous preparation and rehabilitation programs astronauts go through before and after spaceflight, some of these effects will be impossible to avoid.

The massive study, combining the effort of 84 researchers in 12 different universities is a feat of collaboration (though nothing compared to the black hole telescope, if I’m honest) and it’s definitely a first that the genomes of space vs. Earth could be compared with a true genetic control. This compiled study, and the many pieces of research that are expected to be published in the next year with the results from the individual studies, provide crucial insight on the effects of space in the long term. If we think that it takes approximately 1 year for a return journey to Mars, this research is valuable for the health of future astronauts and mankind’s ambition to explore further into space.

Want to know more? Watch NASA’s video on the three key findings, or read more in the Science paper or the NASA website (links below).


Markus Löbrich and Penny A. Jeggo. Hazards of human spaceflight. Science 364 (6436) p. 127-128. 2019. DOI: 10.1126/science.aaw7086

Francine E. Garrett-Bakelman, et al. The NASA Twins Study: A multidimensional analysis of a year-long human spaceflight.
Science 364 (6436) eaau8650. 2019. DOI: 10.1126/science.aau8650

Twin study on the NASA website: https://www.nasa.gov/twins-study

Cover image: The International Space Station crosses the terminator above the Gulf of Guinea, image credit NASA

*I remember reading this somewhere, but I cannot find the source anymore. It is thus possible that Mark just went about his normal life. Regardless, it is amazing that NASA had the opportunity to do this experiment with a perfect genetic control.

** Fun fact, my spelling check does not know the word “telomeres” and suggests that I mean “omelettes”. Well, I guess they both get super scrambled up in space? (Eeeeh for an inaccurate joke, sorry).

One printed heart, please

It goes without saying that 3D printing is cool*. The ability to think up any three dimensional structure, design it in a 3D design software and have it materialize blows my mind. Granted, I’m making it sound like it’s a very easy and fast process and I know that’s often not the case, but I also know that for a lot of engineering and physics laboratories, the ability to relatively quickly print a model or prototype for anything is extremely useful. In addition, it’s an amazing educational resource. You can print model organs, molecular structures, planets, … and have something physical to show or throw around during a science demo.

Just to name a few reasons why 3D printing is cool.

What is possible even cooler is the potential of printing tissues and organs. And now, for the first time according to a group of researchers in Tel Aviv, it has happened: a complete 3D heart was printed.

They started with some cells isolated from a sheet of fatty tissue from a human patient. These cells were reprogrammed to what’s called pluripotent stem cells. Pluripotent stem cells have the potential to give rise to many different cell types , depending on the biochemical cues they get – for example by changing the formulation of the culture media, which contains nutrients, hormones and other components to “feed” the cells.

In this case, the cells were driven towards being heart muscle cells and blood vessel cells. By mixing these cells with a personalized hydrogel, consisting of collagen (remember, from the reindeer eyes?) and glycoproteins (proteins have a sugar molecule connected to it), the researchers created a “bioink”, a material that could be used to print cardiac tissue in the same way a 3D printer prints 3D structures using a plastic “ink”.

3D printing a mini-heart (image credit AFP or licensors)

While the 3D printed heart – currently around the size of a rabbit’s heart – cannot beat yet, the possibility to be able to print custom organs, starting from a patient’s own cells and therefore eliminating an immune response, is of major importance for medical applications. To enable heart function, the heart cells would have to be taught how to contract in an organized manner, and create a beating heart.

Beating has already been achieved in heart organoids. Organoids are little mini-organs grown in a petri dish, that mimic the organization and function of an organ in a living organism. The difference between 3D printed organs and organoids, is that organoids are allowed to form their own structure and cell types, driven by the media cocktail they are given, while 3D printing positions already differentiated cells in a 3D scaffold. Heart organoids, starting from one or a few reprogrammed cells, grow into structured groups of cells that spontaneously start beating.

Beating heart organoids (gif from Popular Mechanics US)

These organoids, however, don’t really mimic the structure of the heart unless you “force” structure by growing these mini-hearts in a mold, basically geometrically confining the cells to form a predefined structure.

A model of a pumping heart was developed last year, creating an in vitro biomimetic system that could help with drug discovery and studying cardiac diseases. While it doesn’t look as much as a heart as the 3D printed one developed by the Israeli research group, it’s still pretty amazing to watch this little blob of tissue beating under electrical stimulation:

In any case, I hope to see a combined version of all of the above: a 3D printed, functional heart. Nevertheless, this first (though debatable if they actually were the first) 3D printed heart is pretty awesome and has a lot of potential applications in medicine and clinical research. Not to mention that it looks pretty cool:

3D confocal image of the printed heart (Advanced Science, scale bar = 1mm)

Sources used:

Noor N., Shapira A., Edri R., Gal I., Wertheim L., Dvir T. 3D Printing of Personalized Thick and Perfusable Cardiac Patches and HeartsAdv. Sci. (2019), 1900344. https://doi.org/10.1002/advs.201900344

Ma Z., Wang J., Loskill P., Heubsch N., Koo S., Svedlund F.L., Marks N.C., Hua E.W., Grigoropoulos C.P., Conklin B.R., Healy K.E. Self-organizing human cardiac microchambers mediated by geometric confinement. Nat. Comm. 6 (2015), 7413. https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms8413

Li R.A., Keung A., Cashman T.J., Backeris P.C., Johnson B.V., Bardot E.S., Wong
A.O.T., Chan P.K.W., Chan C.W.Y, Costa K.D. Bioengineering an electro-mechanically functional miniature ventricular heart chamber from human pluripotent stem cells. Biomaterials 163 (2018), 116-127. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.biomaterials.2018.02.024

*Sudden realization that most (if not all) of this blog is me saying “Hey, did you hear about this science thing, it’s really cool!!”

Behind blue eyes

Occasionally, a colleague passes by my desk and says something along the lines of “Hey, did you know that *insert fun – usually science-related – fact here*?”

The other day, this exact thing happened:

“Hey, did you know that reindeer’s eyes turn blue in the winter?”

The question was prompted by the magnificent drawing of an octomoose (name pending) on the white board in our office. How the octomoose came about, is not that interesting a story, but I would want to share with you that we held a poll to determine the name of the 8-tentacled creature. My vote was for moctopus. I did not win (6 vs 3 votes).

Behold the mighty octomoose. Name votes currently stand at 3 for “moctopus”, 6 for “octomoose”.

So now that winter has come to an end, let’s talk about those weird reindeer eyes.

Discerningly, the first suggestions google search gave me when I typed in “reindeer eyes” was “reindeer eyes recipes”, which is just creepy; though actually clicking through reassured me that it was about chocolates and cookies (phew).

The struggle did not end there. The next page I found had a photo of a “summer reindeer eye” vs a “winter reindeer eye”:

Credit: Alexandre Buisse. From this website.

Jackpot? Nope. The photo was photoshopped (quite obviously). Sigh. This is turning out to be a lesson in fact checking.

In the original, the reindeer has brown eyes. Never trust photos you find on the internet, I guess .

However, I was not chasing a myth. It’s still true that reindeer’s eyes change color from gold in the summer to blue in the winter. Proof of this is in a scientific paper (hurray for backtracking to the source) which features some very creepy photos of reindeer eyeballs:

Reindeer eyes collected from reindeer killed in the winter (left) and in the summer (right). Credit: Glen Jeffery

The explanation to why this happens seems to lie in the reflective layer that sits behind the retina: the Tapetum lucidum. A lot of mammals have this layer; you might have noticed it when shining a light in your cat’s eyes (and survived to tell the tale). This extra layer helps animals see when it’s all twilight-y. It reflects light that passes through the retina, causing the light to pass through the retina twice, giving the light-detecting cells of the retina a second chance to detect any photos. When you see that yellow glow in your cat’s eyes, it’s the light reflecting right back at you off their Tapetum lucidum.

The Tapetum lucidum sits right behind the retina and causes creepy glowy yellow eyes in most mammels. Image from medwrite.biz.

The next bit of eye knowledge you need to understand the changing reindeer eye color is the fact that pupils widen and shrink depending on how much light is available. Dilated pupils allow more light to enter the eye, and hence more photons can be detected by the light-sensing cells in the retina.

Dilated pupils, a sign of darkness. Or physical attraction. Or drug use. But for the sake of this post it’s a sign on darkness; let’s just go with that.

In the arctic winter – basically 3 months of darkness – the reindeer’s pupils are continuously dilated. The constant effort to keep the irises open, constricts the small vessels that usually drain fluid out of the eyes. This in turn causes a pressure buildup within the eye, which compresses the Tapetum lucidum.

The Tapetum lucidum is mostly made up of a protein called collagen. This fibrous protein is a hydrogel, an ordered mesh of fibers that absorb and retain fluid. However, when this mesh is compressed, the fluid is squeezed out (like when you squeeze a sponge) and the orderly rows of collagen fibers become more tightly packed. The type of light that is reflected by the Tapetum depends on the spacing between these fibers. When they are “normally” spaced, like in the summer, longer wavelength light (yellow) is reflected, giving the Tapetum a golden color. When tighter packed, blue wavelengths (which are shorter) are reflected, giving the reindeer blue eyes.

In short, in the months of darkness, reindeer’s pupils are permanently dilated, leading to swollen eye, leading to compression of the collagen fibers, changing the color that is reflected by the Tapetum.

Or, in a drawing, if you will.

Research is still ongoing, because even though the mechanism behind eye-color-change has been explained, the effect on eye function is still unclear. Perhaps this change in eye color changes the sensitivity of the eyes. And why do other arctic animals, who also live through months of perpetual darkness, not have this cool change in eye color?

However, one thing is for sure, Rudolph’s red nose cannot be explained by science. Yet.

And in the mean time, octomoose remains on our office white board.


Je parle très bien français quand je suis bourée (1)

An article popped up on my radar recently that caught my attention about some researchers in the UK that had performed a study looking at the foreign language skills of people after a drink or two. This interested me for a number of reasons. First of all, it’s a scientific publication about alcohol and I have to admit that always spikes my interest (but not my drink). Second of all, after spending almost a year in France (2) on an exchange program, I have experienced firsthand how my (self-perceived) language skills improve after increasing my blood alcohol percentage. However, these experiences were not only anecdotal, but also purely subjective, so I was naturally buzzed when I read that there could be a scientific basis to my observations.

And now we start the selection of general stock pictures of beer.

What’s this scientific basis you’re talking about?

In the study, the researchers measured the self-rated and observer-rated verbal skills of native German speakers who had recently started learning Dutch (3) after drinking a little bit of alcohol (or none for the control group). Basically, they recorded a number of conversations between the Dutch-speaking Germans and a blinded experimenter before and after having a drink: vodka-lemonade for the test subjects and water for the control. These recordings were then rated by native Dutch speakers. The participants were also asked to rate their own verbal skills.

Participants who had had a glass of Russian Water were rated significantly higher by the Dutch native speakers, specifically with regards to their pronunciation. Surprisingly, and against the whole principle of Dutch courage – strength or confidence gained from drinking alcohol, – there was no effect on the self-rating.

This means that the improved pronunciation cannot really be an effect of improved self-confidence, as the self-rating would change in that case. I should remember this next time I have a science stand-up comedy thing. Usually, I adhere to the rule of “no drinking before a gig” because I’ve been told that drinks make you think you’re funnier, while in reality, you are probably less funny. But perhaps my fear of becoming overconfident is completely unsubstantiated? (4)

Anyway, a possible explanation for the results is decreased language anxiety, which is the feeling of nervousness felt by someone using a second or foreign language (also known by the name xenoglossophobia, a word that already just makes me anxious as it is). Basically, when speaking a foreign language, a lot of people are scared of making mistakes or sounding stupid, making them overthink everything they want to say and eventually resulting in a strained conversation. With a bit of alcohol, there is less overthinking et voilà, better pronunciation and more fluid speaking.

Oh, I obviously have to point out that this study was conducted with low amounts of alcohol consumption. Don’t try downing half a bottle of vodka before speaking a foreign language because that will most likely result in slurred speech and a headache the day after, at the least.

Oh look another generic beer stock photo.

This almost sounds too good to be true…

As with a lot of scientific research, there are a few caveats in the study, because that’s how science works… For one, it was conducted on native German speakers who learned Dutch as a second language which means that – if we also disregard the sample size issues – the results might only be valid for German speakers who have learned Dutch, and unvalid for any other combination of native-foreign language speakers. The researchers also didn’t look at whether the subjects suddenly became better at speaking their own language after a drink; perhaps a little bit of alcohol just improves verbal skills in any language?

Also, there is some proof that people of alcohol having a placibo effect, for example, people drinking non-alcoholic beer thinking they are getting drunk without actually consuming alcohol (5). This alcohol expectancy effect could have biased the study because the difference between vodka-lemonade and water is pretty obvious, which makes me (and the researchers, who to their credit have pointed out the limitations of their study) wonder what the results would have been if the study participants had been blinded to whether there was alcohol in their drink or not (6).

And yet another foamy beer stock photo.

Final thoughts?

Well, there you go, having a little bit of alcohol might actually make you better at speaking a foreign language. Maybe it actually helps you in the learning process. But for now, I just feel like grabbing a beer. And then maybe speak some French.


(1) This translates to – pardon my French if I may misuse that phrase – “I speak French really well when I’m drunk.” I’ve also just experienced how much a pain it is to type French on a qwerty keyboard and will refrain from doing so from now on.

(2) #HumbleBrag. Well, more like a #NotSoHumbleBrag.

(3) They titled their paper “Dutch courage? Effects of acute alcohol consumption on self-ratings and observer ratings of foreign language skills” which is pretty punny.

(4) I haven’t tested this and don’t plan to. Drink responsibly people. 

(5) I definitely do not just know this from a Freaks and Geeks episode *ahem*

(6) I don’t know how hard this is to do; I for one would like to think that I’d be able to tell if a drink is alcoholic or not but on the other hand, I have had hard cider.

In the spotlight: Juana Inés de la Cruz

Since I first gained the use of reason my inclination toward learning has been so violent and strong that neither the scoldings of other people … nor my own reflections … have been able to stop me from following this natural impulse that God gave me. He alone must know why; and He knows too that I have begged him to take away the light of my understanding, leaving only enough for me to keep His law, for anything else is excessive in a woman, according to some people. And others say it is even harmful. 

I read this quote in Contact by Carl Sagan. It was written by Juana Inés de la Cruz in her Reply to the Bishop of Puebla in 1691. The Bishop had attacked her scholarly work as being inappropriate for a woman; while he claimed to agree with her views, he didn’t think them appropriate for her sex. Rather than writing, she should devote her life to prayer, an endeavor much more suitable for a woman.

Aargh. 17th century clergymen are just the worst.

We’d better talk about this amazing woman then:

Juana Inés de la Cruz lived in (what was then New Spain but what is now) Mexico in the 17th century and was a self-taught polyglot (my favorite type of inspirational people). She studied scientific thought and philosophy, she was a composer and a poet, all in an age long before women were allowed to do anything involving using their brain. 

If we may believe the stories, Juana started teaching herself at a young age by hiding to read her grandfather’s books. She supposedly learned how to read and write Latin at the age of three. At the age of 16 she had asked her mother’s permission to disguise herself as a man so she could study in some avant la lettre version of She’s the Man; but her mom wouldn’t let her so she had to continue to study in secret. But by then, she already knew Latin, Greek, Nahuatl, and accounting – the most important language of them all *ahem*.

In 1669, she became a Hieronymite nun so she could study in freedom – other monasteries were a lot more strict and wouldn’t allow her to pursue her passion for knowledge, philosophy, and writing. As a nun, she would write on the topics of religion, feminism, and love; often criticizing the hypocrisy of men and defending women’s right to education. In Reply to Sister Philotea, she wrote:

Oh, how much harm would be avoided in our country [if women were able to teach women in order to avoid the danger of male teachers in intimate setting with young female students.]

[Such hazards] would be eliminated if there were older women of learning, as Saint Paul desires, and instructions were passed down from one group to another, as in the case with needlework and other traditional activities.

Okay, now I’m imagining needlework maps of our universe. That’d be cool.

Unfortunately, this story has an unhappy ending. According to some sources, rather than being censored by the church, Sister Juana decided to stop writing and sell all her books, musical instruments, and scientific tools. Other sources claim that her belongings were confiscated by the bishop due to her defiance towards the church. Nevertheless, a lot of her writings have gone lost and soon later, in 1695, after caring for other nuns with the plague. 

There’s a lot of humdrum about inspirational women, in science or not, nowadays. With a lot of books with inspiring stories, such as Rachel Ignotofsky’s Woman in Science, finding empowering role models has never been easier. And I love it. Showing an as diverse possible range of inspirational historical figures provides everyone with role models than can identify with and aspire to. However, I have noticed that my knowledge of inspirational women is primarily European-based. So this is me trying to change that.  

“One can perfectly well philosophize while cooking supper.” – Multitasking 101


Soucre: ye old trustworthy