Wednesday, October 31, 2012

An Unexpected Briefing #airnzhobbit

12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad with his research | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine

12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad with his research | Not Exactly Rocket Science | Discover Magazine

12-year-old uses Dungeons and Dragons to help scientist dad with his research

Alan Kingstone, a psychologist at the University of British Columbia, had a problem: all humans have their eyes in the middle of their faces, and there’s nothing that Kingstone could do about it. His 12-year-old son, Julian Levy, had the solution: monsters. While some monsters are basically humanoid in shape, others have eyes on their hands, tails, tentacles and other unnatural body parts. Perfect. Kingstone would use monsters. And Julian would get his first publication in a journal from the Royal Society, one of the world’s most august scientific institutions.
In 1998, Kingstone showed that people will automatically look where other people are looking. Other scientists have since found this gaze-copying behaviour among many other animals, from birds to goats to dolphins. It seems fairly obvious why we would do this—we get an easy clue about interesting information in the world around us. But what are we actually doing?
There are two competing answers. The obvious one is that we’re naturally drawn to people’s eyes, so we’ll automatically register where they’re looking. Indeed, one part of the brain – the superior temporal sulcus – is involved in processing the direction of gazes. The equally plausible alternative is that we’re focused more broadly on faces, and the eyes just happen to be in the middle. After all, we see faces in inanimate objects, and we have a area in our brains—the fusiform face area (FFA)—that responds to the sight of faces.
One evening, Kingstone was explaining these two hypotheses to Julian over dinner. “A colleague had said that dissociating the two ideas — eyes vs. centre of head — would be impossible because the eyes of humans are in the centre of the head,” Kingstone said. “I told Julian that when people say something is impossible, they sometimes tell you more about themselves than anything.”
Julian agreed. He thought it would be easy to discriminate between the two ideas: just use the Monster Manual. This book will be delightfully familiar to a certain brand of geek. It’s the Bible of fictional beasties that accompanied the popular dice-rolling role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons. Regularly updated, it bursts with great visuals and bizarrely detailed accounts of unnatural history. It has differently coloured dragons, undead, beholders… I think one edition had a were-badger. Parts of this blog are essentially a non-fictional version of the Monster Manual.
Levy knew that the Manual contained many nightmarish monsters whose eyes are not on their faces. If people still looked at the eyes of these creatures, it would answer the question. Kingstone loved the idea. He persuaded Julian’s teacher to give him some time away from school to test his ideas for himself, and she agreed.
Levy asked 22 volunteers to stare at the corner of a screen, press a key to bring up one of 36 monster images, and let their eyes roam free. All the while, he tracked their eye movements with a camera (which he’s modelling in the photo above).
The recordings showed that when volunteers looked at drawings of humans or humanoids (monsters with more or less human shapes), their eyes moved to the centre of the screen, and then straight up. If the volunteers saw monsters with displaced eyes, they stared at the centre, and then off in various directions. The volunteers looked at eyes early and frequently, whether they were on the creatures’ faces or not.
This isn’t just an academic exercise, says Kingstone. “If people are just targeting the centre of the head, like they target the centre of most objects, and getting the eyes for free, that’s one thing. Bu if they are actually seeking out eyes that’s another thing altogether,” he says. It means that different parts of the brain are involved when we glean social information from our peers. It might also help to explain why people with autism often fail to make eye contact with other people, and which parts of the brain are responsible.
In the meantime, the paper describing the results—delightfully entitled “Monsters are people too”—has been published in Biology Letters. Kingstone wrote it with postdoc Tom Foulsham, but Levy did the rest. He prepared the images, trained himself to use the eye-tracker, ran the experiment, and coded all the data. Accordingly, at the current age of 14, he’s the first author on the paper.
Reference: Levy, Foulsham & Kingstone. 2012. Monsters are people too. Biology Letters

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

St. Michan's Mummies | Atlas Obscura | Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations

St. Michan's Mummies | Atlas Obscura | Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations
St. Michan's Mummies
An Irish church where you can shake hands with an 800 year old mummy
Memento Mori Mummies Catacombs, Crypts, & Cemeteries Curious Places of Worship
Down a set of dimly lit narrow stone steps, in a vault underneath the church, lay dozens of coffins, and one mummy ready to shake your hand. The mummies in the basement of St. Michan's church in Dublin, Ireland, are really only available for viewing because of a loophole in the rules of the church.
The St. Michan church has an interesting history even without the mummies. The foundation of the church was built in 1095 to serve the remaining and ostracized Vikings, who were still in Ireland after the rest had been killed or kicked out by Wolf the Quarrelsome and other Irish forces in 1014. The church was rebuilt in 1686, and a large pipe organ was installed in 1724, on which Handel is said to have first played the Messiah. But all along, as the church changed, the crypt stayed the same: slowly mummifying all that lay within it.
There are a number of theories as to why the corpses in the basement have been preserved over time. One is that the basement contains limestone, making the basement particularly dry and therefore good for mummification. Another is that the church was built on former swamp land, and that methane gas is acting as a kind of preservative of the bodies. Other theories involve the presence of oak wood in the soil, or the building materials used in the church.
Regardless of the reason, whatever is preserving the mummies, is also disintegrating their coffins. After a certain amount of time the wood falls away and a well preserved mummy comes tumbling out. This is where the loophole comes in, for though it would be inappropriate for the Church to break open caskets looking for mummies, when the mummies reveal themselves, so be it.
The mummies have indeed revealed themselves. While there are caskets strewn about and in small nooks in the wall -- some coffins are falling apart enough to reveal an arm or leg -- the most visible mummies are "the big four," four mummified corpses which have no lids on their coffins and are displayed together. (Only two of the six crypts are open to the public for viewing.) On the right is, a woman, simply called "the unknown," and well, there isn't much more to say about her. The middle one is known as "the thief" and is missing parts of both feet and a hand, some say the hand was cut off as punishment. It is believed the "thief" later converted and became a priest or respected man, which is why he is buried in the church. (Or possibly, he was never a thief at all and lost the hand in some other way...) Next to him on the left lies a small woman, thought to have been, and known as, "the nun."
But the true star here is the coffin set apart from the others and belonging to an 800 year old mummy called "the crusader." Though it may be apocryphal, it is believed that he was a soldier who either died in the crusades, or returned and died shortly thereafter. (This assumes that these were the 4th crusades the only ones that match with a date of 800 years old. Curiously, the forth crusades turned into a kind of piratical free for all, ending in the sacking of Constantinople, without the permission of the church. It may be that the "Crusader" would be better known as "the thief.")
The Crusader was quite tall for the time -- six and a half feet tall, a giant back then -- and his legs have been broken and folded up under him to fit him into his small coffin. His hand stretches out of the casket slightly and visitors were once encouraged to give it a shake. Today, you are still allowed to touch his hand, but only lightly on his long dead finger, lest you wrench his whole hand off.
The crypt is also holds the coffins of the Sheare brothers who were executed by the British -- and as was discovered recently drawn and quartered as well -- for the Rising of 1798, as well as mathematician William Rowan Hamilton, the many Earls of Kenmare, and supposedly -- though others claim him too -- the remains of Robert Emmet, the Irish rebel killed by the British in 1803.
The crypt is said to have been visited by a young Bram Stoker, inspiring a certain morbid streak that would later serve quite well for the author.
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The Czech's Capuchin Crypt | Atlas Obscura | Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations

The Czech's Capuchin Crypt | Atlas Obscura | Curious and Wondrous Travel Destinations
The Czech's Capuchin Crypt
Mummified monks and the accidentally interred, in a 17th-century crypt
Image of The Czech's Capuchin Crypt located inImage of The Czech's Capuchin Crypt located in  | The exterior of the Capuchin ChurchImage of The Czech's Capuchin Crypt located in  | The mummified monks were lain to rest in neat rows beneath the churchImage of The Czech's Capuchin Crypt located inImage of The Czech's Capuchin Crypt located in
Ossuaries Mummies Catacombs, Crypts, & Cemeteries Curious Places of Worship
The rosy pink facade of Brno's Capuchin Church belies the haunting contents of its underbelly: the mummified bodies of dozens of monks, laid solemnly to rest in the crypt.
Before arriving at the main vault, the visitor must navigate some claustrophobic passageways, displaying stonework and the bodies of dignitaries. The corpse of one woman is frozen in a stricken pose, and a neat label informs the visitor that she was accidentally buried alive. Such errors were common during a time when paralysis and coma were little understood, and more than one such unfortunate in the crypt met this fate.
However, it is primarily the resting place of the Capuchin monks, who placed their deceased brothers beneath the church over a period of 300 years. This practice was banned by hygiene laws towards the end of the 18th century.
Mummification was never the intention. In keeping with their vow of poverty, the monks thriftily re-used a single coffin time and time again. After the funerary rites, they would move the deceased into the crypt, and lay him to rest on a pillow of bricks. The dry air currents and composition of the topsoil gradually preserved the bodies where they lay.
The result is remarkable. Twenty-four monks lie perfectly preserved, arranged in rows across the floor. All are clad in robes and a number are draped with rosaries, or clutching a crucifix. A few lie peacefully, but others have fear or sorrow etched into their papery features.
A warning, common to many such crypts, is inscribed in Czech above their final resting place: "As you are now, we once were; as we are now, you shall be."
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  • Hours15 February - 14 December: Tue-Sat 9.00-12 & 13.00-16.30, Sun 11.100-11.45 & 13.00-16.30 (also opens on Mon in May - September); 15 December - 14 February: closed
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  • Address Kapucinske namesti 5, Brno, Czech Republic

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