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.

Space news roundup

Photographic observations by Australian amateur astronomer Anthony Wesley show that an impacting object left a scar on Jupiter similar to the ones left by Comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 in 1993. While SL9 was the only direct observation of an object coming in and making the scars, such scars have been observed before, by the likes of Giovanni Cassini, Robert Hooke, and William Herschel.

Here’s a smaller-scale impact. It’s not news, but it’s worth reminding folks of what happens if you tell Buzz Aldrin that he never walked on the Moon.

And if all the Apollo anniversary excitement wasn’t enough for you, there will be a total solar eclipse in a few hours.

It’ll be happening on the morning of the 22nd for those in the same time zones as totality (which will pass through India, China, and points between, and then out into the Pacific). For western Europe it’ll be starting around midnightish, and for the Americas it starts early this evening.

Here are a few sites that will be showing live webcasts. The best time to tune in and catch the start of totality, since these are from east Asia, will be around 01:30 UT. (Convert to your local time here so you know when to log in.)

http://sems1.cs.und.edu/~sems/index.php (from Wuhan, China)
http://www.atlaspost.com/2009tse (from mainland China)
http://www.live-eclipse.org/ (from Kyushu Island, Japan)

Two questions that have been bugging me

1. When a dog is sniffing very quickly (not from tiredness, just sitting around and sniffing) does he get a better time-resolution on smells? In other words, if he were breathing slowly, would he miss some smells that don’t last very long (for example, if someone who smells interesting walks by quickly)?

2. Why the heck do people (or other mammals, for that matter) have hymens? What kind of evolutionary advantage is that? Is it vestigial in humans, seeing as some women are born without one and there are lots of physical variations?

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?


This is just me thinking out loud and having more questions than answers. If anyone has the answers, let me know.

I was listening to a radio documentary (I think it was called “Ocean Mind”) on CBC Radio late last night, about how dolphins and whales perceive their world. Among other things, it talked about how echolocation (or sonar) may provide levels of social intimacy well outside the range of human experience.

One way is that since sound waves can travel through flesh, dolphins can see inside each other’s bodies. Another is that dolphins can intercept each other’s echoes, and effectively “see” what someone else is looking at.

Can unborn dolphins pick up on returning clicks that their mothers send out, and can they “see” the world around them from long before they’re born (or at least as long as they have sufficiently developed organs to detect the sound)? Would it be nonsensical without any other senses for frame of reference?

For that matter, how much learning or brain pathway development can a human fetus do before it’s born, when it can hear things from outside its mother’s body? As far as I know, babies who are born deaf don’t seem to have suffered intellectually from not having been able to hear before they were born.

The birds and the bees

…and moths and ants, and the occasional bat, and sometimes just a good stiff wind. Sorry to disappoint — this is about plant sex. It’s gardening season, so in honour of the new White House kitchen garden, here’s a refresher on how plants make whoopie.

Read the rest of this entry »

Warm slippery facts about cold hard Pluto

A teacher wrote a letter to one of my favourite magazines this month, expressing a wish that the International Astronomical Union would make up its mind on Pluto once and for all, because it’s hard to teach kids about the solar system when this stuff keeps changing. Is it a planet or not? Do we tell them there are nine planets, or eight (or even twelve or thirteen, given that a couple of main belt asteroids were called planets when they were first discovered)? The cold hard facts are lukewarm and slippery right now. Read the rest of this entry »

How do you know?

When I’m out stargazing I often have someone ask me ‘What’s that bright thing I’ve been seeing after sunset every evening?’ This month the answer to that question is either ‘Venus’ or ‘Jupiter’, and then they come back with ‘How do you know?’

I usually come up with some inane answer like ‘I looked it up’, but I’m really fumbling for more details. Here are all the answers I would give them if I had more time. Read the rest of this entry »