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Mice, Randomness and the Wonders of Technology

September 8th, 2010 by Jessika

(Photo by joostjbakker via Flickr)

This week I read many interesting science-related things. Several of them stuck out in particular. Unfortunately, though, they aren’t really all that related. So, I will talk about all of them separately in this post.

Mice

I have had many encounters with mice. Some comical. (One ended with me on the bathroom sink, my brother standing on a toilet, and a fast mouse up my mother’s pant leg.) Some disturbing. (Dead mice in a closet.) Some eye opening. (Animal rights protesters standing outside the lab I briefly worked in.)

Of all these close encounters, it’s the last one that relates most poignantly to Greg Critser’s “Of Men and Mice.”

This wonderfully frightening article really made me think.

How humane are lab technicians treating mice? Why aren’t animal rights groups more concerned with the welfare of monkeys than with rodents? (Especially, as pointed out in the article, since lab rodents are much more common than lab primates.) Perhaps, most important, why isn’t there better government regulation of lab animals and the environments they are kept in?

The article shed light on a world that few know about, and perhaps even fewer care about. Critser unraveled the mystery of the lab mouse string by string, keeping me engaged and inciting many emotions.

I shuddered at the descriptions of the techniques Joe Gile, an expert on mouse surgical procedures, used to draw blood by sticking the mouse in the eye with a needle. I almost stopped reading at the point Critser began talking about cervical dislocation (even if the animal isn’t supposedly in any more pain than newer euthanasia techniques).

It did not occur to me that a genetically modified mouse could sell for as much as $236.40. (Who knew modifying lab mice was so lucrative?) The lucrativeness doesn’t stop there. Mouse ultrasound equipment, which shows a researcher how a particular drug travels through a mouse’s body, goes for as much as $350,000.

Curiously, though, as the lab mouse industry continues to grow, the U.S. government’s regulation of it remains the same, virtually ignored. Critser points out that mice were specifically left out of 2002’s Animal Welfare Act, leaving many questions regarding the living conditions of the lab animals. One may argue, however, that lab animals don’t need luxurious spaces to live in. After all, they aren’t pets. But, pets or not, living conditions may be more important than we think. Does keeping mice in small, unstimulating cages stress them out? If it does, how much does that stress impact the results of the many experiments performed? The implications of this question have the potential to change the results of hundreds of experiments.

Regulation is also critical to ensure that the mice are treated humanely in all other aspects (not just living conditions) of the experimental process. One of the most startling revelations of the article was that nearly 70 percent of male newborn mice are euthanized because researchers just want use female mice. How is that humane? Should the government step in to prevent the senseless killing of thousands of mice? Yes. Unfortunately, though, the government can’t even properly regulate food and the other industries it has control over. So, how can we expect it to do a decent job governing mice?

Randomness

So, now from government control to something the government can never control. The concept of randomness.

I must admit The Drunkard’s Walk by Leonard Mlodinow left me with mixed emotions. By the end, I didn’t know whether my world had been turned upside down or just sideways. Whatever the turn it took, the book definitely had an impact on my outlook.

If you are looking to challenge your preconceived notion of reality, then this book’s for you. If you are happy with the belief that things happen for a reason and that there is a purpose for everything, then this book’s not for you.

Mlodinow challenges this concept by saying that things don’t happen for a reason. Events in our lives and events in history occur through random processes. In other words, chance rules the world (and by extension the universe). Not many people, myself included, are comfortable with this idea. I wouldn’t want to admit that any success I’ve had has happened by luck. But the funny thing is that when I do look back on the meaningful things in life, I can always find a specific (random) event that led to them.

Things seem to happen for a reason only in hindsight, and by the same token, we can also only foresee those events when we look back. To illustrate this concept, Mlodinow addresses one of the most scrutinized questions in history. Should the U.S. have been able to see the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor coming? It’s easy to say yes. But as he points out, many of the “warning” signs received by U.S. intelligence may not have seemed all that out of the ordinary. The Japanese’s radio silence could have meant any number of things. In hindsight, however, the ignoring of this silence seems like a grave misstep.

Mlodinow writes that the “logical picture of events is just an illusion of hindsight with little relevance for predicting future events.”

While I can’t pretend that I haven’t been guilty of assigning blame to events that may in fact be random, I can at least now say that I will look on those events differently now. It’s a bit scary to leave things to chance. But at the same time it’s also very freeing.

Our futures are not predestined. They are what we make of it.

There were a few parts of the book that were not very freeing, though. In particular, I found myself having to reread multiple sections when he was explaining probability problems as well as the rules of probability. I discovered that I must be more of a visual person when it comes to these explanations. Give me a long sentence explaining why so and so has a 3 out of four chance of happening and my mind turns to mush. However, give me a graph or some sort of visual depiction like Pascal’s triangle and things make a lot more sense. I have never been able to pay close enough attention to word problems. Equations and other ways to break down a problem make much more sense.

In addition, I found some of the historical descriptions of students of probability like Gerolamo Cardano and the founders of statistics John Graunt and William Petty a bit lengthy. Don’t get me wrong, I love history and I think the stories of these historical figures are important to the book. I just think these sections maybe could have been pared down.

But despite all of these minor gripes, I found the overall topic of the book very interesting.

“The true power of the theory of random processes, however, lies in the fact that once we understand the nature of random processes, we can alter the way we perceive the events that happen around us,” wrote Mlodinow.

It is this power that I find exciting. (But it’s definitely going to take a lot of work to truly change my perceptions.)

Wonders of Technology

If you have even made it this far (this post is rather long), I am sure you are getting tired of reading. So, I will keep this final part of the post short.

I came across a Scientific American piece titled “New Microscope Enables Real-Time 3-D Movies of Embryos.” The article is about a group of scientists who have used a fancy new microscope to do exactly what the title suggests, take movies of embryos for up to 58 hours.

According to the piece, current observational techniques with florescent microscopes killed the cells before scientists could observe the cells for long periods. This new microscope would enable them to watch the cells for much longer periods of times, revealing a wealth of information about embryo development.

So far German scientists have watched zebra fish and fruit fly embryos. But the implications of this technology are huge. Could we one day be able to watch a human embryo develop in its entirety?

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