February 29, 2012

Announcement: AMOEBOID!

Hey, Paramecium!

Guess what!

I'm making an iPhone game called AMOEBOiD!

But seriously, now...

I'm working with super programmer Niilo Tippler and all-star artist Chris Tokunaga to create this iPhone/iPad game. My hope is that it does well enough that I can turn around and make another science-y game. But my dream is that it does so well that I can do Beatrice-y, science-y things on a full time basis, developing science video games and making Beatrice a full on legit science edutainment website. 

So stare deeply at the AMOEBOiD splash page. I will need your support to get this thing going when it hits the app store in a few weeks. Stay tuned!

February 23, 2012

I Got My Interview On

I had the honor of chatting with Sophie Bushwick from the Critical Wit Podcast about Beatrice. If you click this here link, you can listen to said interview. I strongly suggest you do so.


A little bit about Critical Wit:
"Critical Wit is a podcast about science, literature, and the arts. Each episode will feature an interview with someone who can help us understand and appreciate our world. The guests will often be communicators (writers, bloggers, teachers, etc.) who are enthusiastic about promoting ideas and reality."

And one of those people is me! Woot woot!

February 22, 2012

The Pill

The pill. I don't need to say anything else; you know exactly what I'm talking about. Don't you think that makes "the pill" incredibly elitist, if not just plain smug?

I'm just saying, I wouldn't invite the pill to a medicine cabinet cocktail party.

I'm not going to comment on the so-called debate raging about the pill. (You totally thought I was going to, huh? Fooled you!) I'm just going to talk about how exactly it works.

The pill contains synthetic hormones: estrogens and progesterone. Hormones are chemical messengers. They travel through the body and attach to specific kinds of cells, and in doing so, strongly suggest that the cell do a certain thing.

Progesterone is a very important player in the whole being-a-woman game. It's involved in the regulation of the menstrual cycle, and it's very important during pregnancy--yes, that thing that the pill generally prevents. That's what's so interesting about it. In a way, the pill tricks the body into thinking it's already pregnant.

Yes, uterus. It does sound very strange. But one of progesterone's jobs during pregnancy is to stop the whole ovulating and menstruating cycle. Because obviously, if you're already pregnant, you don't need to be doing either of those things.

Non-pill-taking, un-pregnant women generally release an egg each month. A highly synchronized ballet of hormones is responsible for this. There are 5 main hormones that regulate a woman's ovulation:

GnRH comes from the hypothalamus, a gland in the brain. It tells the anterior pituitary, a nearby gland in the brain to make FSH and LH.

FSH goes down and tells the ovaries to get ready to release an egg.

The ovary starts releasing estrogens. The estrogens encourage the hypothalamus to release more GnRH, which then makes the anterior pituitary secrete more FSH and LH.

Pretty soon there is an abundance of LH around, and this causes ovulation to happen.

Now, the progesterone in the pill keeps this whole thing from happening by stopping the hypothalamus from releasing GnRH, so the whole cascade doesn't happen.

But some sad GnRH is a small price to pay for the wonders the pill provides. 

February 13, 2012

Clarification, Sex Determination, and Cheesecake

Even though I was never on the debate team, I do love a good argument. And I like my arguments like I like my cheesecake: beautifully simple and without syrup on top.

Note: I foresee my love of plain New York cheesecake to be far more inflammatory than anything I could possibly say about gay marriage. That should tell you something about the US of A.

I wrote last week about how a law that defines marriage as a union between a man and a woman makes no sense because there is no good definition of man or woman that applies to everyone (because that's what laws should be able to do at a bare minimum--apply to all people). I talked about intersex people that defy any definition of man and woman that could be written into a law. But I'm not saying that intersex and homosexuality are related.

I'm also in no way saying that this is the best argument for legalized gay marriage. I would hope we would make gay marriage legal for far more interesting reasons (such as the fact that it's discriminatory and unfair not to), not just because a law against it would leave out intersex people. Mine is a logistical argument and nothing more. I left out all the really salient points like ethics, equality, and justice.  Because those things are horribly interwoven with people's opinions. And opinions are hard things to argue. Also, the people who have the opinions are sometimes scary.

Anywho, to expand on the discussion about sex determination, or what makes an animal male or female, let me show you that ours is not the only way to do this: 

In some insects like grasshoppers, crickets, and roaches, there is only one kind of sex chromosome, X. If you get 2 of them, you're female, and if you just get one, you're a male.

In birds (and even some insects and fishes) it's the females that have different sex chromosomes. Females are ZW and males are ZZ. Scientists changed the letters to differentiate between the XX-female, XY-male scenario.

In ants and bees, there are no sex chromosomes. Instead, sex is determined by whether or not an egg was fertilized. If the egg isn't fertilized, the offspring is male. If the egg is fertilized, it's female. So male ants have no fathers, and they have half as many chromosomes as females. Poor little things.

A species of deer called the Indian muntjac (as opposed to the Chinese muntjac) has three different kinds of sex chromosomes--X and two versions of Y, called Y1 and Y2. Females are XX, and males are XY1Y2. Ha, those crazy muntjacs.

May we never forget that biology is a complicated, messy, random process that has found several ways for dealing with sex and reproduction (and just about every other bit of life business). There is really no rhyme or reason for any of it. If it works, it works. If it doesn't, you die. That's pretty much the only rule in nature that applies all the time.

February 08, 2012

Biology Doesn't Support Gay Marriage Bans

Gay marriage bans don't make sense for a lot of reasons, but I'll just focus on one for now. The notion of defining marriage as a union between "one man and one woman" doesn't work unless you define "man" and "woman," and we actually don't have airtight definitions for those states. I know. You think biology has all the labels and definitions you could possibly want. But sex is complicated.

Ah, so is anatomy the answer? You have a penis and testes, and you're a boy. You have a vagina, uterus, and ovaries, and you're a girl. Ah, if only it were that simple.

Consider the story of a boy who accidentally had his penis cut off due to a freak accident during circumcision. The parents and doctor decided to just go with it and raise this child as a girl, complete with surgeries to make girl-ish anatomy and hormone replacement therapy. It wasn't until puberty that this biological boy and socially constructed girl found out the truth about him-her-self. He went off the hormones and resumed life as the boy he was genetically destined to be, but he did not have a penis or testes. So who does he get to marry?

Okay, then. Now you probably think that the answer simply lies in our sex chromosomes. Those two letters that determine so much of our identity, X and Y. XX is a girly whirly, and XY is a boy toy. Right?

Not always.

For starters, not everyone gets 2 sex chromosomes. Some people wind up with extra ones, or are missing one. You can have XXY, XYY, XXX, or just X.

So what about them? They don't match your cute definition of XX-female and XY-male. Some states define a man as someone with a Y chromosome, so someone without a Y is then a woman. That sounds relatively simple.

Now let's get really complicated. Even if you are XX or XY, sex doesn't always manifest based on which 2 chromosomes you have. It's about hormones, a complicated balance of hormones. And this can get tricky.

A person can be XY and appear female or be XX and appear male.

A person with XY chromosomes can appear female with a condition called androgen insensitivity syndrome. The Y chromosome has the gene for testosterone, which gets produced just like in many other guys, but the receptors for testosterone don't work. So even though testosterone is present, it can't do what it normally does: make a penis, put hair on the chest, etc. So someone who has this condition grows up appearing female, and often only finds out at puberty when no menstruation happens that she actually doesn't have a uterus or ovaries.

A person can be XX but appear to be a male because of congenital adrenal hyperplasia, where hormones in overdrive during development masculinize the body even though there is no Y chromosome. In an extreme case, a baby boy could be born and mature normally, having a fully functioning penis (and sex life), only to find later that not only does he have a penis and testes, but internally, a uterus and ovaries as well.

And finally, there is an issue of gene cross over. A female, XX, can still have a gene from the Y chromosome, such as the one to produce testosterone, because during meiosis in sperm formation, the X and Y chromosomes are near each other, and genes can be swapped. Does this make the woman who is XX and has female body parts less of a woman just because she has a gene to produce testosterone? The Olympics thinks so.

Sex is not the binary system we think it is, and we can't go around making rules about what people can and can't do based on what anatomy happens to be between their legs. So on top of the fact that gay marriage bans are unconstitutional, unnecessary, and downright petty, they are also terribly unscientific. And Beatrice will have none of that.

Edit: I continue this discussion with a follow-up post: Clarification, Sex Determination, and Cheesecake

(For more about anatomy and identity, watch this great TED talk by Alice Dreger, "Is Anatomy Destiny?" http://www.ted.com/talks/alice_dreger_is_anatomy_destiny.html)