Dun put a bag ober mah hed, pls kthx.

(Video of Frank and Louie doing cat stuff while his owner talks about him.)

Meet Frank and Louie, the two-faced cat. Kitties like this are often called Janus cats, after the Roman two-faced god. These kitties often don’t live very long after birth or are euthanized. This guy has lived to the ripe old age of twelve, and in September 2011 entered the Guinness Book of Records as the oldest surviving Janus cat. (I’m referring to him in the singular because his owner does; she gave him two names, but after twelve years she seems confident that he is one cat with two faces rather than two cats on one body, and he does have only one brain so it’s likely that he has one consciousness.)

Frank and Louie’s condition is called diprosopus, or craniofacial duplication. He is not a pair of conjoined twins. In conjoined twinning, a developing embryo splits partially and becomes a pair of twins who remain connected to each other. (If they split completely in two, they would develop independently as identical twins.) In diprosopus, a single embryo simply grows duplicated body parts, due to an excess of a particular morphogen protein (whimsically named sonic hedgehog homolog or SHH for short) that controls cell division and organ formation.

Fortunately Frank and Louie doesn’t have any life-threatening physiological differences. Only one of his mouths connects to his esophagus. He has no trouble eating or breathing. Sometimes this condition can be dangerous, as in the case of a human baby with craniofacial duplication; Lali had a cleft palate which made it difficult for her to suck milk, and due to a lack of proper care she died at the age of two months.

I Can Has Cheezburger, among many other pop culture sites, posted about Frank and Louie because of his Guinness Book induction. Unlike other sites, they chose to hide his pictures behind a link, so that readers had to click to see him. You could read about him before clicking, but in order to see him you had to click through, because the editors thought the images might be disturbing. I know the site is dedicated to the pursuit of cute, but isn’t that going a little too far? I’ll decide for myself who I think is cute, thank you very much. (And I’ve never seen a cat that I thought was ugly.)

I’ve been reading Frankenstein and I was bothered by the idea that humans are flat-out unable to overcome their disgust for a person who looks different. Then I watched The Fantastic Four, in which Ben Grimm’s mutation makes everybody (including his wife) treat him like garbage. Then Cheezburger decided that I needed to be protected from the sight of this cat.

Of course, the human sense of disgust at people who are radically different from the norm is an evolved trait; it prevented severe disabilities from being propagated in the gene pool. But the result is that a person who deserves to be treated like a person will be treated like a freak by most people. It’s time for humans to buck up and consciously overcome this evolved trait, and learn to deal with people who have physical differences in a polite and humane way. They don’t need to have bags over their heads until someone else decides they’re ready for the sight.

Since this is a science blog, it’s likely that I’m going to post pictures of people and animals whose physical differences have made the news. I’m not going to warn about them. I might warn if I’m posting pictures of dead or injured people and animals (if you search the web for diprosopus and related conditions you will see lots of pictures of dead babies) but that’s it.

If you can’t handle it, don’t click the links I post, or don’t read this blog at all because if I can post pictures I probably will. But I would strongly recommend learning to handle it, simply for the sake of common decency. Kthx bai!

LINKS: more cats with facial differences.
Charlie, the cat who looks like Lord Voldemort. Yay, he’s been adopted!
Chase No-Face, who survived a nasty accident but has some bits missing. And she is also very happy.


No, they did not laugh at Galileo

It’s like a junk science equivalent of Godwin’s Law. Pseudoscientific theories are defended with “Well, they laughed at Galileo too!”, as if the only reason these ideas were being rejected by scientists was that they were new and different. There are two big problems with this defense. Read the rest of this entry »

Be kind to your claw-handed friends

Scientists in Northern Ireland have concluded that lobsters and crabs feel pain when they’re injured. I loved this quote from the Discovery news feed:

Robert Elwood, the lead author of both papers, explained to Discovery News that pain allows an individual to be “aware of the potential tissue damage” while experiencing “a huge negative emotion or motivation that it learns to avoid that situation in the future.”

Part of me wants to say “well, duh.”

The crabs observed in the experiment not only responded to pain by leaving the situation in which they were being hurt, but also behaved in ways similar to what many other animals do when in pain — grooming, stress-related fidgeting, and protective behaviours such as limping.

Is this an experiment that needed to be done, and will the results change the way people treat invertebrates? Or was it an unnecessarily cruel thing to do to a bunch of hermit crabs for the sake of an obvious result?

Given the number of people who do believe that these animals don’t feel pain, arguably because it’s a “nice” thing to believe when you like to eat a type of critter that is traditionally boiled alive, maybe a scientific result is needed to shake things up a bit and make people question commonly-held beliefs.

The next question might be: are there any members of the animal kingdom who don’t feel pain, who would not benefit from it as a sign of danger because they aren’t capable of evasive or defensive action?

6 December 1989

Nineteen years ago today, a gunman killed fourteen women, most of them engineering students, at Montréal’s École Polytechnique. He had separated the men from the women in a classroom and opened fire on the women, and killed more women outside the classroom before killing himself. His suicide note was a hate-filled rant against women and feminists.

We have a day of remembrance so that we don’t forget to continue speaking out against hatred and violence, and to remind us that even though we’re better off than the pioneering female scientists of a hundred years ago or more, things still aren’t perfect.

I remember being surprised that that kind of misogyny still existed in my part of the world. I was a twelve-year-old girl thinking about someday being a scientist, and until then I had taken it for granted that I would be able to go to school in whatever field I chose and nobody would object.

Debunking the intellectual elite

(EDIT 2 July 2009: Man, this is one of the most ponderous pieces of omg!seriousness I have ever written. I’m leaving it up because people have already replied to it. But yikes, my writing embarrasses me sometimes.)

In the dictionary, the word elite is impartial. It means those who are at the top of anything for any reason — the fastest racehorses, the highest-ranking military officers, the most popular kids in school. The word does not imply that elite status is objective or subjective, deserved or undeserved, earned or bestowed, important or meaningless.

Elitism — the practice of treating people at the top differently than others — is therefore sometimes justifiable. Do you promote your hardest-working grease monkey to the position of head mechanic? Sure, because it’s good to have a responsible and knowledgeable person in a position of power, rather than someone who is inexperienced and apathetic about the job. Do the President’s kids deserve a Secret Service escort when they go shopping? It’s necessary if it’s thought that they are more likely than other kids to be targets of crime.

In popular usage, the word elitism is usually only trotted out when we want to talk about unfair or undeserved treatment. People can be rewarded in one context for being perceived as elite in a different and irrelevant context. A military officer from a royal family might be given more comfortable quarters than other officers of the same rank who come from less noble bloodlines. A teacher or professor might be more likely to call on well-dressed students than on shabby-looking students.

People paying attention to American politics and news media will have heard a lot of the term ‘intellectual elite’ in the last little while, because certain political parties have thrown it around as an insult against their opponents. The thought process that they’re taking advantage of, in order to influence the voting public, goes something like this:

  1. Elitism is undeserved special treatment.
  2. The elite are the people who benefit from elitism.
  3. Therefore being elite is a bad thing.
  4. Therefore anything that makes people elite must be a bad thing to be.

Are you following the dangerous leaps of illogic? Here’s the counterargument:

  1. Elitism is not always undeserved; that’s just the most common usage of the word, but not a full definition.
  2. Therefore, not everyone who benefits from elitism is unfairly getting something they don’t deserve.
  3. Therefore, a person who is elite is not made good or bad solely because of that elite status.
  4. The things that people can be that make them elite also do not have inherent moral value; it isn’t universally bad or wrong to be strong, rich, of noble blood, popular — or intellectual.

If you’re still with me, I’d like you to consider two things. First, being intellectual does not make someone a snob. It just means they do a lot of thinking, or like to engage in activities that require thought.  Second, given that dictionary definition of the word, anyone can be an intellectual. You don’t have to have money or nobility or powerful friends or even an education in order to enjoy using your brain to observe and analyse the world around you.

I got into university under my own steam; I got out of university without graduating because I didn’t have unlimited money or indestructible mental health. My lack of a complete formal education hasn’t stopped me from being an intellectual, because a university degree is not a license without which I am not allowed to enjoy thinking.

I am going to use this blog to geek out about all kinds of stuff, mostly astronomy, and to expound upon the virtue of critical thinking and the sheer fun of learning about stuff. If you like the sound of that, feel free to join in and play.