One of my obsessions: wordplay

Houses on Rowayton waterfront, 2013

I love messing with language. I subscribe to “A Word a Day” found at that posts a new word every weekday and has a weekend compilation of letters, puns, anagrams and limericks based on the week’s words (there are other links worth checking out – the Instant Anagram Server at  http://Anagram Server  is especially useful). The author of the website, Anu Garg, is an outspoken critic of Trump, as are most of his readers.

When I was a kid, I looked forward to every issue of Collier’s magazine, which had a kid’s page that included aphorisms and stories by “Colonel Stoopnagle.” He was a master of Spoonerisms, expressions in which phonemes are exchanged, named after a professor Spooner who purportedly made such mistakes. Here is an example:

The Orned Howl: He inks his bleyes, and weems very size, but is astoop as boutid as a beed can burr.

Which translates:

The Horned Owl: he blinks his eyes, and seems very wise, but is about as stupid as a bird can be.

Once you get the hang of it, the trick is to make the Spoonerism interesting and natural sounding, especially when you can rearrange the phonemes to come up with new words. Playing cards are useful, as in: who of tarts, hoar of farts, hive of farts, Spain of queeds, spack of jades, clicks of subs, space of aids, and so forth. Some Spoonerisms seem so natural that they stick in the mind: roak porst, sweet-streeper, flied crams.

In a typical Spoonerism (Spoonical typerism), you simply switch the initial phonemes of two words as in the above examples. If you exchange phonemes among more than two words with more than two syllables you can come up with elaborate concoctions that can baffle and irritate your audience, which rather defeats the purpose (for example “econcorate lab octions” for “elaborate concoctions”). Such concoctions require careful bookkeeping.

This reminds me of words with multiple consecutive double letters, with sub-bookkeeper being a prize-winner. A similar game is finding words with the most consecutive consonants. I know of two winners with six consonants each: Knightsbridge and catchphrase.

Another form of wordplay is substituting words that sound similar. In this hilarious version of Little Red Riding Hood, every word is a substitute: Be sure to click on the spoken version. For those who don’t want to go to the site, here is the ending:

“Mural: yonder nor sorghum stenches shut ladle gulls stopper torque wet strainers.” Which translates: “Moral: under no circumstances should little girls stop or talk with strangers.”

A true masterpiece is “Mot d’heure, gousse, rames,” (Mother Goose Rhymes) which is best explained in the Wikipedia entry’Heures , which has links and references to other similar works. Per the Wikipedia entry, the book “is purportedly a collection of poems written in archaic French with learned glosses. In fact, they are English-language nursery rhymes written homophonically as a nonsensical French text (with pseudo-scholarly explanatory footnotes).”

When our kids were young, we played a game during dinner in which we would start with a word, then one of us would come up with a definition of a similar sounding word. The next person would break in with “no, that’s (word),” then a new definition, new word, and so on. We would end up weeping with laughter.

Edward Gorey was an artist and writer known for “His characteristic pen-and-ink drawings [that] often depict vaguely unsettling narrative scenes in Victorian and Edwardian settings” to quote his Wikipedia entry. We own a wonderful little book he wrote called “15 Two”, now a collectors item. It imitates didactic Victorian friezes that one would apply around the walls of the nursery, in a format that would allow you to copy it as a frieze.

The book shows strange animals that look like a cross between a pig and a hippo following each other, each with a speech balloon containing a word. Large block capital letters standing in the bleak landscape spell out “The Nursery Frieze Edward Gorey,” perversely starting with the “E” in “nursery.”

The words in the speech balloons form rhymes, and are mix of obscure and common words:

Archipelago, cardamon, obloquy, tacks

Ignavia, samisen, bandages, wax

Gavelkind, turmeric, imbat, cedilla

Cassation, hendiadys, quincunx, vanilla

Corposant, madrepore, ophicleide, paste

Jequirity, tombola, sphagnum, distaste

Aceldema, lunistice, yarborough, cranium

Febrifuge, ampersand, hubris, geranium

Opopanax, thunder, dismemberment, baize

Hellebore, obelus, cartilage, maze

Antigropelos, piacle, occamy, whistle

Maremma, accismus, badigeon, epistle

Quodlibet, catafalque, hiccup, remorse

Idioticon, gibus, botargo, divorce

Phylactery, gegenschein, clavicle, sago

Ballonion, thurible, aphthong, plumbago

Amaranth, rhoncus, pantechnicon, hymn

Diaeresis, purlicue, sparadrap, whim

Cicatrix, salsify, palindrome, Bosphorus

Narthex, betrayal, chalcedony, phosphorus

Ligament, exequies, spandrel, chandoo

Gehenna, etui, anamorphosis, glue

Wapentake, orrery, aspic, mistrust

Ichor, ganosis, velleity, dust.

The ominous ending is typical Gorey. I’ve just scratched the surface of wordplay, and hope you will explore its pleasures.

So What’s Up with Trump?

Barn in New Canaan CT, 2016

The media seem bewildered that our new president would spend so much time insisting that he won the popular vote. This is monumentally unsurprising, given that the man is a classic narcissist. An article in the Atlantic published during the campaign helps explain his behavior:

Here is the important quote that ends the article:

“Who, really, is Donald Trump? What’s behind the actor’s mask? I can discern little more than narcissistic motivations and a complementary personal narrative about winning at any cost. It is as if Trump has invested so much of himself in developing and refining his socially dominant role that he has nothing left over to create a meaningful story for his life, or for the nation. It is always Donald Trump playing Donald Trump, fighting to win, but never knowing why.”

Donald Trump is out for himself, and will fight to win, whatever that means for him. It is therefore totally unsurprising that he would see the popular vote as a devastating loss that needed to be undone. The surprising thing to me is that he isn’t trying to lie his way out of this particular fact, as he has with respect to the inauguration attendance. How does he decide which facts are real and which can be safely discarded? Is he reading his base, or is he truly deluded about the facts? Probably a mixture of both. He is profoundly ignorant of and incurious about what’s going on outside the tiny and impoverished world of business and entertainment that he lives in.

Since his ideas are rooted in an imaginary world, he is going to fail repeatedly when his initiatives collide with reality. As failures and frustrations pile up, the many who followed him with strong reservations may check out and join some kind of opposition. Poll results may get worse, more victims of his rants and put-downs may summon the courage to oppose him. If this happens, he will become more and more panicked.

Enraging and cornering an extremely aggressive and powerful animal is a dangerous business. The disaster scenario would be something like this: as he antagonizes nearly every country except the Russians, we will become threatened on all sides. If Trump manages to stir up enough trouble (and he has made a great start in this direction) more Americans will agree with his version of the threats we face and go along with radical “solutions” to problems of his own invention. This is how wars start. But it is also the way you get everyone to work together: fear is a great leveler.

If somehow we skirt this disaster, we have two problems: how to rid ourselves of this pest, and what kind of trouble we will be in when he is replaced by a rampant right-wing ideologue who will get along famously with Congress. It would be ideal if we could somehow hook Trump off the stage with his ego intact, but I can’t see how that is possible – impeachment may be the only option, unless he decides to retire voluntarily.

In this scenario, no matter how he goes, he will leave behind a bitter divide between his die-hard followers and the rest of the country. If his followers fall into general disrepute, this might unite the rest of the country – probably a fond hope.

We need to focus our attention on Trump’s personality and use that knowledge to de-fuse this explosive man. I think belittling him will make matters worse. Instead, we should confront him with power comparable to his own, and that will require a leader of the opposition. It might turn out to be someone in his cabinet, like the Secretary of Defense, who sees disaster coming and does something about it.

The world is indeed a dangerous place, although not in the ways Trump believes it to be. The great threats we face are nuclear weapons, pandemics, climate change, water and soil depletion, ocean pollution, and species extinction. The threats people worry about are either symptoms of these underlying problems, or hot-button social issues that are utterly irrelevant to our survival as a species.

Can we worry about and deal with the real problems instead of those we imagine to be important? So far we have flunked the test.




Book Review: “The Gene”

This 500 page masterpiece by Columbia cancer physician and researcher Siddhartha Mukherjee traces the history of genetics science from ancient Greece through mid-2015. Mukherjee received the Pulitzer Prize in 2011 for his book on cancer, “The Emperor of All Maladies: a Biography of Cancer,” which Time magazine considered one of the 100 best and most influential works of non-fiction since 1923, and which was made into a PBS documentary by Ken Burns.

Mukherjee’s genius lies in his seemingly effortless ability to organize a bewildering maze of intersecting research programs and discoveries into a smoothly flowing story. Patiently, he reminds the reader of key facts from earlier in the story at just the point when you might lose the thread. There are practically no diagrams: he relies on his lucid prose and his ability to bring the protagonists to vivid life.

Through the narrative he weaves the story of his family, which was plagued by schizophrenia and bi-polar disease.

Do you believe there is a gene for specific behaviors or diseases? Are you confused about the “nature or nurture” debate? Are you aware of ethical implications of our very recently developed abilities to reconstruct the human genome? Did James Watson steal Rosalind Franklin’s findings? Do you want to know why we have half as many genes as corn or wheat? Can inheritance occur in other ways than the passing on of genes? Is “The Bell Curve” really racist? Did Craig Venter help or hinder the Human Genome Project? Is “junk DNA” really junk?

If so, read “The Gene.”

This book is a miracle: a fair, detailed, up-to-date story about a mindbogglingly complex subject that is almost a page-turner.

The 60’s Cough

Listen to recordings of live performances by pianist Sviatoslav Richter from the 1950’s and 1960’s and you will hear frequent coughs in the audience. I only heard Richter once, in Newark in 1960, but I vividly recall the coughing. He played Prokofieff’s 7th sonata, brilliantly and powerfully.

Today, it is rare to hear anyone cough in an audience. I wonder what was going on then. Was it bad manners, or bad air pollution, or radioactive fallout, or less effective medical care, or leaded gasoline, or something else, or some combination? I have no data on the dates when coughing was common in audiences.

Today’s cough is the cell phone.

What Would a Sustainable U.S. Be Like?

Ritterhof courtyard, Weingut Fitz-Ritter, Bad Dürkheim, Pfalz (founded 1785), watercolor and ink 1984

Despite our many problems, the U. S. is seen as a model of liberty, justice and prosperity. Many are rightly disturbed by accelerating income and wealth inequality in the U. S. Yet we ignore the profound inequality between our way of life and that of the vast majority of earth’s citizens. At best, we believe that everyone on earth should be able to live as we do.

This belief is self-serving nonsense. Earth’s resources are now being exploited well beyond a sustainable rate, especially its capacity to absorb pollution. As global population continues to grow, each person’s share must get smaller. If we truly believe in justice and equality, we would reduce our consumption of resources to meet a sustainable global average.

What would this mean? China uses roughly the same amount of earth’s resources as the U. S. It is also the same size as the U. S. Until recently, China was using resources at what optimists think might be a sustainable rate for the entire globe, assuming population growth slows rapidly. So using our fair share would be equivalent to adopting a Chinese standard of living.

Here’s the rub: China has more than four times our population. So bringing our consumption down to a sustainable level would amount to adding a billion people to our population without using any more resources than we do now. The share of my town, Norwalk, with a population of about 85,000, would be around 250,000 people. This is a truly ridiculous idea, yet it is the only fair and just solution.

Resolving the un-sustainability crisis requires cooperation, sharing, making do and doing without. That’s what I remember from my childhood during the Great Depression and WWII. It was hard, but it felt right. We could do with a large dose of that old medicine, to help cure us of the delusion that we can continue to live the way we do now.


Music I Must Stop and Listen To

It is common to ask yourself what music you would choose to take with you to a desert island. Instead, I will use this criterion: if I were listening to a broadcast while working on a project, what music would cause me to stop working and listen intently? This by no means is a list of music I revere, it is just those particular pieces that I have to stop and listen to no matter what. I am partial to fugues, luscious orchestral sound, and piano music I used to (attempt to) play.

I can’t imagine why anyone would be interested in this list.

Vivaldi: six violin concertos “La Stavaganza” Opus 4 (almost never played for some reason – I had a recording of it in college that I played incessantly)

Bach: both books of the “Well-Tempered Clavier”; “The Art of Fugue”; the Goldberg Variations; the choral fantasias from the “St. Matthew Passion” that open and close the first part, and the closing fantasia; the two great fugues on Kyrie Eleison and the Crucifixus from the Mass in b minor; and the choral fantasia that opens Cantata 8, “Liebster Gott, wenn werd ich sterben?.” Plus….

Mozart: Barbarina’s lament for a lost pin that begins Act IV of “Le Nozze di Figaro”; the opening Kyrie of the Great Mass in c minor; most of his piano sonatas. Plus….

Beethoven: The first movement of Opus 130 string quartet (top of my list along with Bach’s Well-Tempered Clavier); the first (fugue) and middle (theme and variations) movements of Opus 131 string quartet; piano sonata opus 106 “Hammerklavier”, especially the closing fugue; Diabelli Variations opus 120; many other string quartets and piano sonatas

Schubert: “Winterreise”

Schumann: “Kinderszenen”

Mendelssohn: complete incidental music to “Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” with singing and recitation

Chopin: Preludes; 4th movement, Sonata #2

Verdi: Requiem

Brahms: Requiem; “Variations and Fugue on a Theme by Handel” opus 24; “Liebeslieder Waltzes” Opus 52

Borodin: Polovtsian Dances; “In the Steppes of Central Asia”

Dvorak: “Serenade for Wind Instruments” opus 44; opening movement of “Stabat Mater”.

Mahler: “Kindertotenlieder”

Tchaikovsky: “Romeo and Juliet”

Kodaly: “Hary Janos” (recording out of print, narrated by Peter Ustinov)

Bartok: Opening fugue of “Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta”; String Quartet #4.

Ravel: “Gaspard de la Nuit”

Stravinsky: “Le Sacre du Printemps”; “Le Chant du Rossignol”; “L’Histoire du Soldat”; “Symphony of Psalms”

Hindemith: “Symphonic Metamorphosis of Themes by Carl Maria von Weber”

Prokofiev: Symphony #5, second movement; “Cinderella” ballet, clock scene; Toccata; “Alexander Nevsky” cantata

Khachaturian: Piano Concerto (second-rate piece I happen to have loved as a youth) played by William Kapell

Britten: “Rejoice in the Lamb”; Serenade for Horn, Tenor and Strings; Four Sea Interludes from “Peter Grimes”

Weill: “September Song”

Gershwin: “Summertime”

Parker: “Klactoveedsedstene”

Beatles: “Fool on a Hill”




Breaking News About Our Ancestry

A New York Times article on Beethoven’s birthday, 2016 (December 16th) alerted me to three studies published in Nature based on extensive and detailed DNA analyses of several hundred living people from all over the globe.

The studies all agreed that there was one population of Africans that migrated out of Africa between 50 and 80 thousand years ago (kya), and that all living peoples except Africans are descended from this small population. In addition, African populations became genetically isolated by 125,000 kya and probably earlier, which implies that language (and very likely art) arose earlier than that.

This is big news, because there has been disagreement both about how many of the populations that emigrated from Africa are ancestral to modern humans, and about when language developed.

There is a small amount of mixing in New Guinea between this founding population and a somewhat earlier population of migrant modern humans, and also between modern humans and both Denisovans and Neanderthals. But the basic news is that almost all our genetic inheritance funneled through a population bottleneck, which corresponds to much earlier findings (the “mitochondrial Eve” hypothesis).

This adds credence to the idea that “click languages” such as that spoken by the Khoi-San people were antecedent to non-click languages, since the Khoi-San split off from our ancestral mainstream around 125 kya. This makes sense simply because clicks are hard to produce and are more likely to have been dropped than added.

What is of particular interest to me is that language developed earlier, maybe much earlier, than many have thought. This makes great sense to me, because I believe that language, music and other arts co-evolved in complex ways over a long period of time, as our ancestors became more able to form symbolic abstractions.

Here is a better write-up than the NYT article:

The Start-Up Drama of a Steam Locomotives

Penichette docked at a mill on the Mayenne River, 2001
Penichette docked at a mill on the Mayenne River, 2001

Starting is a big deal for a steam locomotive.  Unlike the electric motors in diesel-electric locomotives, which deliver maximum power at start-up, steam locomotives are wimpy at startup and gain power with speed. This is the result of a fixed ratio between the pistons and the wheels: the pistons move too slowly at start-up to use the available steam power (you can’t “down shift”). There are four ways to help the locomotive start: increase the coefficient of friction, decrease the weight being towed, maximize the leverage of the rods that crank the wheels, and temporarily increase the number of driving wheels.

To move a train, the locomotive’s drivers must push back against the rails without slipping. The “coefficient of friction” is the percentage of the weight that can be converted into horizontal force before the wheel slips, about 25% for steel wheels on steel rails. One hundred tons on the driving wheels translates into twenty-five tons of pulling force.

So the first step to beef up the starting force is to increase friction by sanding the rails. For this purpose, steam locomotives carry sand in one or two large domes atop the boiler, kept dry by boiler heat. Tubes from the sand domes, each with a valve, curve around the side of the boiler and then around the perimeter of each driver, terminating just above the rail.

Sand pipe
Sand pipe

The second trick, if you are hauling uncomplaining freight, is to reduce the load you are pulling. This is possible because in American trains  lack the “buffers” used in European trains to keep the couplings taut, allowiwng some slack in the couplings between cars. So you set the brakes at the back of the train, and back down until the couplings are compressed together. Then you take off like a bat out of hell, pulling first one car, then two, gathering more and more cars, until the last car, always the unfortunate caboose, became part of the chain only when the train was already moving at 5 or 10 mph.  Serious injury was the fate of  conductors caught unaware, and broken “drawbars” that connect the coupling to the car were common. The sound of a starting freight train was memorable, as the clank of slack couplings coming together ran like a zipper down the train, a kind of rolling thunder.

With a passenger train this approach can’t be used. It was a matter of pride for the engineer not to “spill the soup” when starting. Instead, you stretch out each coupling so all the cars move at once, with no start-up jerk. You are stuck with the whole load.

The third move is back up a bit until the rods that turn the wheels are at the angle at which they exert the most leverage.

The fourth move was available on a few locomotives, including the SP’s 4-8-4’s. These were equipped with “boosters”, a compact steam engine set between the wheels of the trailing truck, that added the weight on that truck to contribute to the tractive force at low speeds. They added almost 25% tractive force while emitting furious sideways snorts of steam, in detailed counterpoint to the much larger main drivers. It made a glorious show for the enjoyment of a track-side teenager.

So the engineer adjusts the position of the wheels, sands the rails, turns on the booster, applies steam very carefully, and hopes for the best.  A youth at track-side hopes for the worst: the drivers lose their grip, and the locomotive rapidly chuffs and clanks in place, like a trained horse.

The gradually accelerating tempo of the exhaust blasts has been imitated many times in music. Villa-Lobos’ The Little Train of the Caipira is a delightful piece that vividly captures the sound and motion of a train ride (listen and watch the wonderful graphics at ). Prokofiev intentionally or unintentionally captures the essence of a starting locomotive in the second movement of his great 5th Symphony. You can hear it at : the start-up begins at 5:06, but I encourage you to listen to the whole movement – it is a thrilling performance (learn more about this remarkable youth orchestra at the Wikipedia entry for “El Sistema”). Train enthusiast Arthur Honegger’s 1923 composition Pacific 2-3-1  is best heard at I also found a wonderful 10-minute 1949 film that captures the excitement of the steam locomotive, using Honegger’s score. The clearest video on YouTube is at  (it is the better for being without sound).

Why I Went to Architecture School

I drew a lot when I was a kid, mostly sequences depicting incredible explosions, or cars each with more exaggerated features than the last. I didn’t have good drawing materials, just bond paper and pencils, so the drawings had no depth – they were outlets for my distressed imagination rather than productions for display.

Then I got into model railroading, and spent all my spare time designing the layout, putting the layout together in our tiny cellar, or making rolling stock, but I never finished the layout – I dreamed its completion, just as I dreamed my own completion, my own empowerment. I was never finished.

My uncle Bud, one of father’s half-brothers, was a contractor, and he designed and built suburban houses in Southern California were we lived at the time. I watched his and others’ houses go up, utterly fascinated by the wood framing. I remember climbing onto the roof of one of his houses under construction and sticking a meat thermometer under the black shingles – it read 180 degrees, a datum that I found useful many years later.

I took mechanical drawing in high school and loved it. I loved the wonderful ruling pens, I loved the precision, and I loved the geometry. We drew other views of objects for which some views were given – a great aid to spatial visualization (which may be learned and not innate – why don’t they teach mechanical drawing today?)

My brother Bob and brother-in law John ran a blueprint company for a couple of years and I helped out, trimming blueprints. In those days, the early 50’s, blueprints were really blue. A roll of heavy paper coated with light-sensitive dye was kept in the dark under the machine. You pulled the paper across a table and up through a series of rollers. Once the machine was started, you laid the tracing paper original drawings one after the other onto the moving paper, being careful to align them correctly and avoid wrinkles or folds.

In their trip through the machine’s rollers, the blueprint paper and drawings first moved under a brilliant light source, which exposed the paper except where the pencil or ink links on the tracing paper blocked the light. The paper then ran up vertically, and you had to grab the originals as they peeled off the blueprint paper (while simultaneously feeding in the new originals – it required some skill). Up and over, the paper then ran through a bath of developing fluid that activated the dye, turning the exposed paper a beautiful Prussian blue.

The wet paper traveled over some burners that dried it (and shrunk the image – hence the dictum “never measure a blueprint”). All this paper was under tension, and if it got off track, it would wrinkle up dramatically, and you had to cut the paper and re-feed it. Finally, the trimmer used long scissors to trim the final prints as they came out of the machine. I searched the web and could find only one image of blueprint machine, from a patent application. This one has many more rollers than the ones I worked with, and doesn’t have a table to trim the prints.

Blueprint machine diagram from patent application
Blueprint machine diagram from patent application

The new “diazo” process was just coming into favor. Diazo paper was coated with a yellowish dye that was actuated by intense ammonia fumes. In this process the paper didn’t shrink, plus you got a black on white image (actually more purple on yellowish-white). Not long after this, the diazo process replaced blueprinting, but the old name stuck. The diazo machine was trade-named “Ozalid”, which is diazo backward with an added “L”. The ammonia came in big 10-gallon glass bottles. Once my brother-in-law dropped a full bottle and we all had to run out of the shop before we burned our lungs. Both diazo and blueprints faded when exposed to light for any period of time.

When I trimmed blueprints and diazos in the blueprint shop, I got to look at the plans for new houses that we were printing. I would take cast-off prints of them home to study, and then draw up my own floor plans. All these houses were one-story ranch houses without basements, with hipped roofs, one where the roof planes slope in all directions, like a tent. You can design a hipped roof over any plan, no matter what its shape, so you never had to think about anything but the plan layout. That’s where the idea of architects “drawing up the plan” came from. Few people were sophisticated enough to ask an architect to “draw up the spaces.”

So that’s why I went to architecture school at Berkeley: to learn how to draw up the plans for houses. Nothing more enlightened than that. My folks somehow managed to pay for college, which was affordable in 1953. The $1,200 cost per year for tuition, room and board was partly offset by $200 scholarships, available to anyone who had a B average. I had a scholarship every semester, one I remember getting because I was from Nebraska. In later years when I had my own apartment and car, my annual outlay including plane fare to and from home for Christmas and summer vacation, was around $2,500.

My first job as an architectural drafter (draftsman in those days) was 65 cents an hour, so $2,500 was not chump change, especially for my not so rich parents. It’s an interesting exercise to compare the 65 cent hourly wage and $1,200 annual cost with contemporary numbers. Let’s say a beginning drafter in an architectural office makes $15 an hour ($31,000 a year). The cost of a year in college varies, but I read on the web that Berkeley is in the $30,000 range. So that’s a year’s pay. A year’s pay at 65 cents an hour is $1,352. If my numbers are correct, today’s college tuition compared with earning power hasn’t changed that much, at least at Berkeley. It has become much more selective, however. In the 50’s, you got in if you had a good grade-point average and were a California resident.

Needless to say, architectural education does not consist solely of “drawing up the plan.” But that is another story.

I'm still drawing up plans for houses, typically in traditional styles
I’m still drawing up plans for houses, typically in traditional styles

MBL Lectures

Ritterhof courtyard, Weingut Fitz-Ritter, Bad Dürkheim, Pfalz (founded 1785), watercolor and ink 1984
Ritterhof courtyard, Weingut Fitz-Ritter, Bad Dürkheim, Pfalz (founded 1785), watercolor and ink 1984

We summer in Woods Hole (when our house is not rented, which is most of the summer) and occasionally can go to one of the Friday night public science lectures at the Marine Biological Laboratory, the world-famous research facility in Woods Hole. It is a magnificent privilege to hear and see world-class scientists give beautiful slide lectures on fascinating, cutting-edge science.

On occasion, when the lecture is particularly clear and my brain is fresh, I can go home and write down the gist of the lecture. So since I haven’t posted anything for almost a month, I dug up one of these writeups.


The lecturer, a famous Chinese neuroscientist Mu-Ming Poo, around 70, spoke on neural plasticity.

He started with a much-cited quote by the famous neuroscientist Donald Hebb, to the effect that neurons that fire together wire together, forming more or less permanent circuits – i.e. memories. This is a qualitative statement; Poo and his colleagues sought to explore it quantitatively.

He asked how close together in time the two firings had to be in order to create a memory. He found that the window generally was 40 milliseconds wide, with exceptions in certain animals. He also asked whether the sequence mattered (i.e. what happened if the second neuron fired before the first one), and he found that when the sequence was reversed, exactly the opposite effect occurred: the two neurons became less likely to fire together than previously.

Background: neurons collect inputs from “dendrites”, sum them in complicated ways, and if the incoming stimulus is sufficient, they fire. The electrical signal runs rapidly down the cell’s axon (at about 45 mph), which is the long “wire” that carries the electrical charge from the cell to the other cells to which it is connected, when the cell fires. During development, each neuron seeks out and finds the neurons in the part of the brain to which it “should” be connected. Retinal cells connect via intermediate links to cells in the visual cortex, which in humans is located at the back of the brain (“cortex” is the thin grey-colored coating of neurons on the outer surface of the convoluted brain). Back to the lecture.

To understand why the 40 millisecond window is adaptive, imagine a row of adjacent retinal cells. Each retinal cell connects with a large number of cortical cells in the visual cortex that are adjacent to one another. Call the retinal cells “A” and the cortical cells “B.” This means that each B cell receives inputs from a lot of A cells. So the image created by one A cell is spread out and blurred in the visual cortex.

The goal is to create a sharply focused “map” on the visual cortex that matches the image falling on the retina. To accomplish this, the brain needs to prune away connections between A cells and distant B cells, and strengthen connections between A cells and B cells that are close together.

Imagine a moving spot falling on the retina and hitting one A cell. The A cell will fire and cause all the B cells to which it is connected to fire. Since the B cells fire together within the 40 millisecond window, with the A cell firing first, the connections are strengthened. Now the spot moves to the next A cell (it is moving fast). Again the A cell sets off all the B cells to which it is connected. But some of these will already have fired during the previous 40 millisecond window mentioned above. In those cases, the B cell has fired before the A cell, which weakens the connection. Over many occurrences, this process sharpens the map in the visual cortex.

In the second example of neural plasticity, he explored how mature neurons in a frog’s brain form short term memory by training a string of neurons to fire in sequence. Remarkably, there are instruments that can probe individual neurons in a living animal brain, as well as a brain in a petri dish (in vitro – glass – as opposed to in vivo – life). First the investigators associated neurons in the retina with the corresponding neurons in the visual cortex. Then they passed a moving spot over the retinal cells and noted that the cortical cells lit up one after the other.

After doing this many times, training the cells, they then stimulated just the first retinal cell, which caused the string of cells in the visual cortex to fire one after the other. The neurons had learned that the spot moves on this particular track  (this is short term memory, lasting only about 10 minutes). When they stimulated the last cell in the sequence, nothing happened. They then stimulated the cortical cells directly, and the same thing happened, showing that it was the cortical neurons that learned and not the retinal cells.

In a third demonstration, they found that cells in a zebra-fish could remember the timing between sequential stimuli. This became evident because if they stimulated the cells five times or more, the cells fired one more time after the stimulus was removed at exactly the same interval as the initial sequence. This occurred at intervals up to about 10 seconds. The larger the number of sequential stimuli the more firings occurred after the stimuli stopped, but only up to 3 repetitions. He showed a movie in which the stimuli caused the tail of the fish to twitch to the side (an escape behavior), and sure enough, after the stimuli ceased, the tail twitched twice at exactly the same interval as the stimuli.

Finally, it was believed that only humans and some apes could recognize themselves in a mirror and that monkeys could not. He experimented with Rhesus monkeys. If you paint a spot on the monkey’s face (or even shine a light at the spot so he doesn’t feel anything) he ignores it when looking in the mirror, showing that he is not aware that the image is of himself.

So Poo did a clever thing: he applied the spot in a way that irritated the same location on the monkey’s face, which caused the monkey to reach up and touch the spot. By doing this many times, he trained the monkey to associate the two spots and thereby become aware that the image in the mirror was himself. Once they learned this (2 out of 3 could do so) they took advantage of their new skill by examining parts of themselves that they couldn’t see (their bottoms). It was hilarious to see the contortions they went into in order to inspect their nether regions.

Ritterhof courtyard, contemporary photo
Ritterhof courtyard, contemporary photo