The Probable Volcano Problem of the Ptolemaic Kingdom

The timing of volcanic eruptions—and the fallout from said eruptions—coincided with the unrest in the Ptolemaic Kingdom.

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teBy Shelby Traynor

Collage by Alex Hanson

The fall of the Ptolemaic Kingdom in 30 BC was nothing if not dramatic: there was unrest and uprising in Egypt, the death of Queen Cleopatra VII, and the surge of the Roman Empire. According to researchers addressing the European Geosciences Union General Assembly in April, volcanic eruptions probably had a hand in the fall of the Ptolemaic dynasty as well. That’s right, volcanoes.

A team of volcanologists and historians, including Joseph Manning of Yale and Francis Ludlow of Trinity College Dublin, got together to compare notes. When they studied historical accounts alongside data from ice cores in Greenland and Antarctica (samples acting as chemical roadmaps to the past), they found the timing of eruptions—and the fallout from said eruptions—coincided with the unrest in the Ptolemaic Kingdom. Continue reading “The Probable Volcano Problem of the Ptolemaic Kingdom”

A Brief Tour of a Synesthetic History

Synesthesia, like many other puzzles, should always be examined through an interdisciplinary lens.

 

By Melody Xu

Art by Alex Hanson

When people hear the term synesthesia, the image of an individual who sees the number “3” in maroon or thinks that “purple” tastes salty usually appears. However, the term serves as a term for sensation interconnections that are even more complicated— violin music will lightly stroke against a person’s cheeks, the days of the week are carts on a ferris wheel. So what exactly is synesthesia?

Synesthesia, as explained by the Oxford Dictionary, is “the production of a sense impression relating to one’s sense or part of the body by stimulation of another sense or part of the body”. Deriving from the Greek term “to perceive together”, the phenomenon of synesthesia can come in many different shapes and sizes; some may be able to smell pain, others may taste shapes, some might be able to do both and even more. While there are countless types of synesthesia, without any two cases being exactly the same, there are some common types of synesthesia that occur within the human population, especially grapheme-color synesthesia, which is when a person may see individual letters and numbers in different colors.

Synesthesia, like many other puzzles, should always be examined through an interdisciplinary lens. For instance, synesthesia can also be seen as a gateway for creativity. When a novel’s narrator says that they see the rainbow when they hear the deep, soothing voice of their favorite singer, or when a painting’s harsh oil strokes clearly evoke a feeling of anger— these are all examples of creativity at its finest. Taking a deeper look reveals that these are connecting experiences primarily focused on one sense with another sense, which certainly can be considered an attempt to replicate the experiences that come with synesthesia. Whether the platform for examining synesthesia comes in the form of literature, music, art, or neuroscience, it’s an experience that has been the focus of human intrigue for all of history.

For scientists especially, synesthesia presents an interesting issue. Studies have been conducted that confirm that the phenomenon is in fact biological, happening automatically and without having any learning process behind it. It is neurologically distinct from hallucinations and is unlike metaphors, but the estimation for how many people have synesthesia (from 1 in 200 people to 1 in 20,000) and the causes of synesthesia has been a prevalent problem in the scientific community. The issue of the huge disparity between the estimation of people with synesthesia in the population is so prevalent in part because of the fear of judgement that people who have synesthesia have. The fact that the term itself is a blanket term for so many different variations of the phenomenon also has an impact on the wide range of values.

Modern technology and tools, including brain-imaging and molecular genetics tools, have allowed to scientists to look at the future of examining this phenomenon, along with the organization of the brain and the way we perceive and recognize the world around us, with promise. However, this was not always the case. Long having been dismissed of having neurological basis, synesthesia had been misunderstood by people for a large part of human history. In the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the world was swept up in a flurry of excitement over examining this phenomenon, but it also experienced a harsh dip in interest in the middle of the twentieth century. One of the incredible scientists responsible for the establishment of synesthesia as a major research area was Simon Baron-Cohen, a prominent psychologist and cognitive neuroscientist. In the 1970s he led a team who first found evidence that synesthetes have consistent experiences over periods of time, as well as established a method of measuring synesthesia through neuroimaging techniques. (Here is some info on Baron-Cohen’s book on the project.)

Despite all of these major steps forward in synesthesia research, the actual cause for synesthesia remains shrouded in mystery. Some theories claim that all newborns are born with synesthesia, with the division of sensory blocks appearing as the individual and brain mature. Other theories involve the opening of previously closed channels of communication after being exposed to “the light of consciousness,” hence why people who are under the influence of certain drugs and have these passageways coming into awareness can experience a sense of induced synesthesia. Regardless of what theory you choose to believe in, the study of synesthesia allows cognitive scientists a truly unique chance to learn about how perception is formed in our brains.

The Quest for Science’s Holy Grail (Through Falsification)

Just because there are grails or theories that are false does not mean that the one true Holy Grail or the one true scientific theory is impossible to find.

By Melody Xu

Illustration by Charlotte Southall

A common theme through science (and any field, honestly), is to set it apart from other fields. Perhaps more so in science, there is a desire to separate the “imposters,” the so-called pseudosciences, from being included underneath the scientific umbrella. This is an issue that has plagued philosophers of science for years, sparking debate and existential crises since the beginning of time. Surely, there is a common theme along the pseudosciences that links them together and sets them apart from the actual sciences. But what is this difference? How is pseudoscience different from science?

One of the most well-known theories for this demarcation problem comes from Karl Popper. Hailed as one of the best philosophers of science of the twentieth century, the Austrian-Brit rejected the traditional model of the scientific method which had prevailed since the time of Francis Bacon, choosing instead to turn to the concept of empirical falsification. The concept of falsification serves as a filter for hypotheses; the core of the concept states that a hypothesis is scientific if and only if there is a potential to refute it through observation. The underlying theme is that science is and should involve risk-taking. Hypotheses and theories, such as astrology or Marxism, that are all-encompassing and can explain any new data that is found, are in a sense unworthy of the title of science. Continue reading “The Quest for Science’s Holy Grail (Through Falsification)”

Steps to the Scientific Method

How has the scientific method come to be the process that we know it as today? Has it always been the same?

By Melody Xu

Art by Alex Hanson

Everyone has heard of the scientific method. It’s mentioned in practically every high school science textbook, presented to students as some sort of divine method to conduct experiments. In a way, the idea of the scientific method has been black-boxed for us; we know that it yields results, but do we know how it works? How has the scientific method come to be the process that we know it as today? Has it always been the same? In order to gain a better understanding of the scientific method, the history of it must also be examined.

There have been many different variations, where some steps may be combined or implied rather than explicitly stated, but the underlying concept, I would argue, remains pretty consistent. The steps are to (1) ask a question, (2) do background research, (3) construct a hypothesis, (4) conduct an experiment to test the hypothesis, (5) analyze the data, (6) draw a conclusion, and finally, (7) determine whether your hypothesis was correct or not. There are a plethora of different cultures and people that have had an influence on our modern scientific method, but I will be describing just a few of the earliest contributors: Aristotle, Ibn al-Haytham, Francis Bacon, and just briefly, Isaac Newton. Continue reading “Steps to the Scientific Method”