Saturday, October 18, 2008

Random thoughts

During a few slow moments today on cargo watch, I was talking with Cliff, the QA (Quality Assurance guy, sort of a purser's mate/expediter/safety/liaison guy on board), and we got to talking about lobster- him as a diver, and me as a former marine biologist with a woody for lobsters. It was really nice to talk about something I am a subject matter expert on; there's only a few things in the world that I actually am an expert at, and lobster biology is #1 on my list, anyhow.

My 15 minutes of fame as a scientist came when I discovered that lobsters can integrate neural input from both chemosensory and mechanosensory nerve cells and quickly adapt to minimize the impact of gaps in information availability.

Can you give a rat's ass about that? Let me explain why it's interesting:

Following a chemical trail to its' source (i.e., the smell of fire or food is easy to imagine, but this applies to chemical traces of explosives or oil in air or water, too) is actually very difficult to do. No one knew how animals actually did it- our brains don't use the information in any way you might think to track chemical stimuli. So, creating a bomb-sniffing robot or a machine that can track an oil leak underwater was impossible to do... But the navy gave my collegues 5 million bucks to try to create a mine-sniffing robot and solve the problems.
My contribution to science helped to disprove much of the existing theory about how our nervous systems integrate data from different types of nerve cells. I showed that there isn't a set of hard-wired behaviors- we already know that chemicals moving throgh air or water are dispersed in chaotic patterns- chaos math helped out, for certain, but the answer had to be more meat-and-potatoes than chaos-math derived (our brains don't work that way, exactly).

Anyhow, end result, I learned a little bit about how lobsters deal with chemical smells and flow data to find food. In the process, my little contribution helped robotics technicians to program their robots to deal with their sniffing sensors.

Not exactly Isaac Newton, am I? Still, I'm pretty proud that I was able to cram crash courses in physics, chaos math, chemistry , animal behavior and neuroanatomy into a cohesive study that worked within brain/behavior.

And hey, when there are bomb-sniffing robots on land and sea, and oil-sniffing robots on the sea floor, I can say that I helped to eliminate the need for putting a human in harm's way to reap the rewards.

But here's the thing: of the three biggest things I contributed to the world's knowledge base, my favorite one, which you know know a little about, is getting dated. My sweat and tears (well, sweat and diaper rash, really, from sitting in wet clothes for 14 hours a day for 90 days), are now relegated to footnotes. The field is advancing at a rapid pace, and my little cog is suffering from decreasing significance. I certainly can't dine out on it at the Harvard Club as I once did. I ain't even set foot in that place in over 10 years. Sigh.

Rather than performing cutting-edge neuroscience, I am on the shit end of the stick these days. Last night, my contribution to the world was limited to shooing a guy from shore from the fridge in the crew galley. Fucker was inhaling the Nitrous from a Whip Cream can and putting the dud can back in the fridge. Ain't that some juvenile shit? The guy actually had whip cream on his chin. I thought he was shooting the whip cream into his mouth, which is unsanitary as hell and license to get a kick on the side of the knee, as far as I am concerned. Anyhow, I restrained myself and told him to throw the whip cream away and get out, and I'd let it go.

I shoulda gotten than damn Ph.D.

You know, as much as a love a well-prepared cut of flank steak, half of it ends up between my teeth. Flossing after dinner is like having a second helping, you know?


Anyhow, heading back to Houston around midnightish. Looks like we've got some dirty weather to get through all the way down the Eastern seaboard. Crap. Glad we're running down full, anyhow.

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