Cross-eyed Leonardo

LeonardoNot long ago, I wrote a post about the diagnoses of poor Mona Lisa, Feed Lisa Some Stake, whom the researchers could not leave alone and saddled Gioconda with multitude of health problems. Recently, scientists turned their attention to the master himself, Leonardo da Vinci.Leonardo1

Professor Christopher W. Tyler, PhD, DSc of City University of London, published an article Evidence That Leonardo da Vinci Had Strabismus in the journal JAMA Ophthalmology.

Key Points

Question  Did Leonardo da Vinci, the preeminent artist-scientist of the Italian Renaissance, have a form of strabismus that could have facilitated his artistic work?

Findings  Examination of 6 likely portraits and self-portraits of da Vinci in which the direction of gaze of each eye is identifiable shows that most paintings exhibit a consistent exotropic strabismus angle of −10.3°, supported by a similar Hirschberg angle in the recently identified da Vinci painting Salvator Mundi.

Meaning  The presence of exotropia, particularly if it was intermittent, may have contributed to da Vinci’s exceptional ability to capture space on the flat canvas.


Importance  Strabismus is a binocular vision disorder characterized by the partial or complete inability to maintain eye alignment on the object that is the target of fixation, usually accompanied by suppression of the deviating eye and consequent 2-dimensional monocular vision. This cue has been used to infer the presence of strabismus in a substantial number of famous artists.

Objective  To provide evidence that Leonardo da Vinci had strabismus.

The researcher analysed eyes in six pieces of art thought to be based on da Vinci: David (Andrea del Verrocchio); Young Warrior (Andrea del Verrocchio); Salvator Mundi (da Vinci); Young John the Baptist (da Vinci); Vitruvian Man (da Vinci).

Professor Tyler fitted circles and ellipses to the pupils, irises, and eyelid apertures on the artwork and then measured the relative positions of these features.

He found that there was evidence of strabismus in all six pieces of work.Leonardo


In this diagram, the degrees of optical axial angles of the left and right eyes of all the studied characters of paintings and sculptures are shown, and the difference between them just shows a slightly stronger deviation of the left in almost all cases. And this, according to Tyler, can serve as evidence of the divergent squint of da Vinci. Well, maybe…

Indeed, such an eye position significantly improves stereoscopic vision and the ability to see spatial depth. “The first thing to consider is whether the objects have the necessary contrasts corresponding to their [three-dimensional] position,” Leonardo wrote in his Treatise on Painting.  Leonardo was one of the first artists to incorporate three-dimensionality into his work. It seems very likely, is it not, that the cause of this brilliant innovation is physiological.



Lost And Found In Translation

Google announced a large-scale update of the Google Translate service: the basis of the translator will be driven by neural networks. For some languages, neural translation began to be used from November 2016 while others, including Russian, will switch to new technology in the near future. The developers argue that neural networks significantly improve the quality of translation, because machines can analyze not merely individual words and phrases but complete sentences and context.

How the new technology differs from the previous one? How to measure the quality of translation, and whether the machines can translate from one language to another as well as people?

Konstantin Benyumov, the journalist of Russian online publication Medusa, spoke with Barak Turovsky, Product Lead of Google Translate.Barak Turowski has been with Google since 2012, for the last three years managing Google Translate, including user interaction algorithms and design. Barak Turowsky was born in the USSR, lived and worked in Israel before moving to the United States.  At his request, the conversation was conducted in English, but during the interview Mr. Turowsky frequently switched to Russian.

Since I read the interview in Russian, the translation of an excerpt of the interview below is mine, not Google Translate. Although Turowsky’s words are given in quotes, these might not be the exact verbiage he used when he spoke in English. The likelihood that Mr. Turovsky will check my translation for accuracy is rather small. Should it happen, however, I can always put a blame on… Google Translate. So there.

– What is the weight of Google Translate in the company?

“The Translator is a very important product for us, and Google allocated significant resources to its development. The main reason for this is that almost 50% of the Internet content is in English. However, only about 20% of the people proficient in English. This is a very serious obstacle for effective use of the Internet. In fact, there are two obstacles. First, there is an infrastructure barrier: a huge number of people, for example in China and India, do not have access to the Internet at all. But this situation is gradually changing, thanks to the development of mobile Internet and smartphones. Thus nowadays people in these countries often go directly to the mobile Internet. However, they immediately encounter a language barrier, and this effectively limits their usage of the Internet.

Therefore, Google Translate is a priority product for us. The Translator is an immensely popular product — nearly a half billion people per month use it, we translate about 140 billion words per day.”

– Is Google Translate main goal mostly ideological — to unite the world, or mostly commercial — to attract more users?

“For our users, the Translator is free.  My main task as the Product Lead is to provide services to as many people as possible. Another important goal is to simplify access to the Internet, remove barriers that hinder its effective use. Personally, I’m not concerned about monetization whatsoever.

– Let’s talk about the design for which you are also responsible. Design in Google Translate clearly does not play a leading role. At least, it looks rather simple and over the years the project has undergone a minimum of changes. Is is so?

“You are absolutely right. Google Translator is a tool, its task is to be useful and convenient, and the design should therefore be minimalistic in order not to interfere with its effective use. But we constantly introduce new mechanisms and ways of interaction with the Translator, for example, using a mobile phone or camera. There is the Word Lens — a function that allows to use the technology of augmented reality to aim the camera at the text and translate it.”

– Has the translator learned to work with pairs of languages directly, bypassing English?

“Not quite yet. The popularity of English on the Internet means that the vast majority of training data is a translation from English into other languages and back. And if a user needs to translate from Russian into Japanese, in most cases we have to translate first from Russian into English and then into Japanese. Of course, direct translation would be better, but we support translation from 103 languages, that is, the number of their combinations is 103 square, it is more than ten thousand language pairs. For training it is very difficult.

But neural translation allows machines to learn to work with multiple languages at the same time. For example, languages can be combined into related groups, which greatly simplifies our work. In addition, within the related groups, we can create working models that do not need English language as an intermediary.”

Further in the interview, Turovsky answers questions about putting a Neural Machine Translation into action. Instead of me competing with Google Translator, I suggest you to read Barak Turovsky’s related blog articles  Google’s new translation software is powered by brainlike artificial intelligence and Found in translation: More accurate, fluent sentences in Google Translate.


It Hurts!

The Milgram Experiment  of 1961 showed ordinary people were willing to inflict terrible pain on a stranger when ‘following orders’. Stanley Milgram, an American social psychologist, attempted to test social compliance. His inspiration was the trial of Nazi war criminal Adolf Eichmann. Eichmann’s defense for arranging the mass killing of Jews was that he was only ‘following orders’.

Derren Brown recreated the experiment in his 2006 documentary The Heist. His findings differed not the whole lot from the Milgram original most subjects would, indeed, harm others, following orders given by persons of authority.

Human nature, surely, must’ve changed in fifty years! We’ve become more independent, less subservient, more defiant, freer thinkers, less willing to obey the authority without questioning its motives. More humane! That’s it. Haven’t we become all of the above?  We must have! Well? What?

Yes. Human nature have changed.  If anything, it has got worse. 

This time, 80 participants were recruited, including women as well as men, and 90 per cent were willing to inflict the highest shock level of 450 volts to a complicit “learner” screaming in agony.

Social psychologist Dr Tomasz Grzyb, from the SWPS University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Poland, said: “Upon learning about Milgram’s experiments, a vast majority of people claim that ‘I would never behave in such a manner’.

“Our study has, yet again, illustrated the tremendous power of the situation the subjects are confronted with and how easily they can agree to things which they find unpleasant.”

The participants, aged 18 to 69, were shown an electric generator which was demonstrated by administering a mild shock of 45 volts.

Volunteers were given a series of 10 levers to press, each appearing to send a successively higher shock to the learner – out of sight in a neighbouring room – via electrodes attached to the wrist.

In reality, no electric shocks were delivered, and, as in the original experiment, the learner was playing a role.

After pressing lever number two, “successive impulses of electricity ” resulted in screams of increasing pain from the learner,” the scientists wrote in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.

“These screams were recorded and played back at appropriate moments.”

The “teachers” were told they were taking part in research on memory and learning.

Just as in Milgram’s experiment, they were spurred on by prompts from the supervising scientist such as “the experiment requires that you continue”, “it is absolutely essential that you continue”, and “you have no other choice, you must go on”.

Mercy was more apparent when the learner was a woman. In this case, the number of participants refusing to carry out the orders of the experimenter was three times higher than when the person receiving the “shocks” was a man.

Dr Grzyb concluded: “Half a century after Milgram’s original research into obedience to authority, a striking majority of subjects are still willing to electrocute a helpless individual.” 

The above is a quote from the article in The Telegraph with a telling title, Nine in 10 people would electrocute others if ordered, rerun of infamous Milgram Experiment shows.

The article also mentions a recent study conducted at St Andrew’s University. The study suggests that people were happy to inflict pain on others if they believed it was for the greater good. The researchers looked back through records of the original experiment and found that those who took part were not unhappy with their choice.

So much for the humanity, human morals and its spirit, healthy and free. Makes you want to scream, “It hurts!”

Testosterone Plays the Market

A team of researchers of Ben-Gurion University of the Negev (BGU) determined that exaggerated risk-taking in financial and business endeavors is driven by… increased levels of testosterone.

Testosterone is the primary male sex hormone and an anabolic steroid. In men, testosterone plays a key role in the development of male reproductive tissues such as the testis and prostate, as well as promoting secondary sexual characteristics such as increased muscle and bone mass, and the growth of body hair. (Wikipedia.)

This phenomenon creates a state-of-mind where stock brokers feel their luck is unstoppable and things go their way no matter what.  The rise in testosterone level after a successful investment causes the individual loose all care, to take risks with abandon, which, in turn, creates stock market price bubbles.

Female stock brokers, research shows, seem to be largely unaffected, presumably due to lack of testosterone.

Stock market ‘bubbles’ can be caused by soaring testosterone levels among traders.

Makes you wonder, isn’t it? 

The effect is driven by the rise in testosterone level that occurs from a successful investment, which in turn causes the individual to take risks and create price bubbles.

It was also only found to affect performance among men, not women.

Stock market ‘bubbles’ can be caused by soaring testosterone levels among traders.


Ig Nobel Once Again

The Ig Nobel prizes are given every year for “achievements that make people LAUGH, and then THINK.” The  Annals of Improbable Research, the science humor magazine doles out the awards.

This year honorees included a man who lived as a goat, a man who lived as a badger, a man who put tiny pants on rats and tracked their sex lives, a team who investigated the personalities of rocks, and Volkswagen. The Chemistry Prize, awarded to Volkswagen “for solving the problem of excessive automobile pollution emissions,” was particularly ignoble.

In the picture above, Thomas Thwaites, in his goat suit, prepares to speak after receiving the Ig Nobel prize in biology from Nobel laureate Eric Maskin (economics, 2007) during ceremonies at Harvard University on Thursday.

Japanese scientists bend over forward to win an Ig Nobel prize for Perception Study. They  investigated “whether things look different when you bend over and view them between your legs.”

True, most of the awards were grin-inducing. However, in my opinion, the level of hilarity wasn’t quite as high as at the other years Ig Nobel ceremonies — Ig Nobel 2014 or last the 2015’s Happy 25th Birthday, Ig Nobel.




An Alien Construction Project?

kic.PNGWhat in the name of the Holy Universe are they building over there?


On KIC 8462852

Who are THEY? 


You are seriously kidding, right?

No. It’s all over the media…

Over the course of days, this star [KIC 8462852] can dim by more than 20%, something that ordinary stars never do. Then it will brighten, followed by a relapse of darkening weeks or months later. The amount of dimming is variable, and doesn’t occur with the regular cadence that would mark the presence of an orbiting planet.

When this odd behavior was first recognized, several possible explanations were offered by Boyajian’s team. The most favored was the presence of large clouds of dust from disintegrated comets around Tabby’s star. The orbiting detritus would occasionally mask its light.

But a more intriguing explanation was also proffered: perhaps this star shelters a planet boasting a civilization older and more technically adept than our own. And perhaps these advanced beings have embarked on a massive engineering project, building phalanxes of orbiting solar panels to supply the energy needs of their society. This space-borne construction could cause the dimming.

Robotics: Biohybrids

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have combined tissues from a sea slug with flexible 3-D printed components to build “biohybrid” robots that crawl like sea turtles on the beach.

Researchers at Case Western Reserve University have combined tissues from a sea slug with flexible 3-D printed components to build “biohybrid” robots that crawl like sea turtles on the beach. Photo by Vickie Webster.

“We’re building a living machine—a biohybrid robot that’s not completely organic—yet,” said Victoria Webster, a PhD student at CWRU who is leading the research.

Interesting development in robotic was reported in CWRU’s The Daily: Researchers build a crawling robot from sea slug parts and a 3-D printed body.

Oh god, don’t let my wild, unscientific imagination run amok. Is “not completely organic—yet” robot-slug just the beginning of  yet another branch of robotics — completely organic robots?

Ice Cream And You

Alan R. Hirsch MD, the head of SMELL & TASTE TREATMENT AND RESEARCH FOUNDATION, LTD in Chicago, Illinois, argues that our choice of ice cream can tell a lot about our personalities.
icecream.PNG Study participants were asked to choose a favorite variety of ice cream, after which they were given a whole battery of psychological tests designed to assess people’s personality. Although this study was sponsored by ice cream manufacturers (Baskin Robbins, Dreyer’s/Edy’s), the methodology of the research is quite sound and unbiased.

Those who chooses vanilla ice cream over all other flavors are idealistic, impulsive, ready to take risks, rely more on intuition than on logic.

Strawberry ice cream tempts most introverts, people who are generally calm, reliable and thoughtful.

Those who love chocolate ice cream also love flirting and seduction, they are fun, charming, though sometimes

Mint ice cream is chosen by people who love to argue. In a dispute, they will definitely find a fly in the ointment. They are ambitious, confident and sure in their righteousness.

Multi-colored popsicles, rather unexpectedly, attract pessimistic people. This flavor’s bright colors and fruity taste is no match for the downbeat attitude of those who choose it as their favorite. “We found that people who prefer rainbow sherbet are more pessimistic than you would think,” says Hirsch, who also found they’re analytic and decisive.

Ice cream with cocoa, biscuits, walnuts and marshmallow is often the choice of aggressive, successful in business people. These people often are very good listeners.

Coffee ice cream is liked by people who approach life with gusto, living big. They are energetic and often fall into histrionics. They live in the present and need constant revival of romantic relationships.

Generous, competent go-getters prefer chocolate chip vanilla ice cream.

Ice cream with walnuts or pecans is a preference of loyal, respectful and honest people. They hold high standards for right and wrong and are afraid of hurting people’s feelings.

Dr Hirsch also says that the preference of a certain type of ice cream might give us an idea about comparability — if people like ice cream of the same flavor, especially the ice cream with complex flavor, such as vanilla ice cream with chocolate ships and strawberries.

Thus tell me what kind of ice cream you like and I’ll tell you who you are. On the other hand, if I like several flavors equally then what am I?

March Of Dinosaurs

Here they are, on order of appearence:  Shuvuuia, Sinosauropteryx, Compsognathus, Microraptor, Caudipteryx, Microceratus,
Hypsilophodon, Ornitholestes, Masiakasaurus, Psittacosaurus, Velociraptor, Laeallynasaus
Stegoceras, Troodon, Oviraptor, Protoceratops, Dromaeosaurus, Stygimoloch, Coelophysis
Dracorex, Dryosaurus, Deinonychus, Scelidosaurus, Herrerasaurus, Ornithomimus,  Kentrosaurus, Gigantspinosaurus, Pachycephalosaurus, Dilophosaurus, Gastonia, Concavenator,
Utahraptor, Euoplocephalus, Sauropelta, Miragaia, Chasmosaurus, Magyarosaurus,
Einiosaurus, Camptosaurus, Diabloceratops, Styracosaurus, Cryolophosaurus
Tuojiangosaurus… and the rest of them:

Springtime Science

Spring is almost here. Love is in the air…  Birds are (or will soon be) courting, mating calls heard (or soon to be) heard from every bog and field. The two scientific discoveries I selected for this post are nature and, well, mating related.finch.jpg

Courtship is a spectator sport.

Take Australian zebra finches, for instance. Biologists describe an amazing “audience effect” in their mating habits. Namely, when a male finch is courting a finch-girl in front of another male or is being watched by an audience of his peers while at it, he is more likely to choose a more beautiful, catchy, brighter-colored girl. Specifically, researchers noticed, females with bright red crests on their heads have more chance to be courted while there is an audience of sympathetic but critically inclined friends.  zebra-finch.jpgLone male finch, however, follows “his heart’s desire” and a glamorous chick isn’t necessarily his first choice of mate. Interesting that this same effect has not been observed in female finches — girls, as a rule, seem oblivious to being observed by peers and chose boys despite their “trendy outfits,” completely disregarding other girls “opinions.” Go and figure.  The article Sex-Specific Audience Effect in the Context of Mate Choice in Zebra Finches explains it in scientific

Love to the last croak.

In my earlier post, Infectious Courage, the subject was Toxoplasma gondii, known to change the host’s behavior. (Studies showed the capability for the parasite to make rats fearless of cats, only to be eaten by them, so that to get inside of felines, their primary and preferable hosts.)

There is another in a series of examples where the parasite changes the behavior of the host in order to spread more effectively.  Those who are interested in nature, must have heard about the epidemic fungal disease in amphibians that destroyed a huge number of frogs and salamanders in some parts of the world (especially in Australia) over the last twenty years. Close to a hundred rare species are either extinct or soon to disappear.

A fungal disease that has killed amphibians worldwide may be spreading by making the mating calls of infected males more attractive to females. The finding—one of the first—to show that the pathogen can alter a species’s reproductive behavior could explain why frogs and related animals continue to disappear across the globe.

The name of the killer is  a pathogenic fungus, Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis (Bd), that causes chytridiomycosis (also known as chytrid fungus disease.)POTD_Smiling-Frogs.jpgIn what way the reproductive behavior of sick frogs change? It’s their mating call. Scientists noticed that a mating croak of an infected male frog differs in tone from that of a healthy one. And — surprise! — this sound is more attractive to unsuspecting girl-frogs. They become literally mesmerized by these differently tuned songs and choose lethargic, barely moving from the disease gentlemen-frogs as their mates. As a result, the infection is transmitted from males to females and continues to offspring. Hear the frogs croak here: Fungus turns frogs into sexy zombies.