52 Scientific Quotes of Sam Kean

” If you had to sum up chemistry in one sentence, it might be this: Atoms need to have full shells of electrons to feel satisfied, and different elements steal, shed, or borrow different numbers of electrons to achieve a full shell. “
” Despite what you might guess, when monitoring your breathing, your body doesn’t care whether you’re inhaling enough oxygen. It cares only whether you’re expelling enough carbon dioxide – that’s the gas that sets off the panic button when you’re suffocating. “
” Genes are like the story, and DNA is the language that the story is written in. “
” Everywhere in the universe, the periodic table has the same basic structure. Even if an alien civilization’s table weren’t plotted out in the castle-with-turrets shape we humans favor, their spiral or pyramidal or whatever-shaped periodic table would naturally pause after 118 elements. “
” The body tends to treat elements in the same column of the periodic table as equivalents. “
” Genes work with probabilities; they don’t work with certainties. So most things that you’re looking at with these genetic tests, it’s not like you’re condemned to automatically get the disease or the syndrome. There’s a lot of factors in play there. “
” Those of us raised in modern cities tend to notice horizontal and vertical lines more quickly than lines at other orientations. In contrast, people raised in nomadic tribes do a better job noticing lines skewed at intermediate angles, since Mother Nature tends to work with a wider array of lines than most architects. “
” The price of diamonds can vary greatly depending on size, cut, color, and other factors, including whether they have a history. But because of the rarity of blue boron diamonds, they often fetch more money than gems of similar quality. “
” If studying the periodic table taught me nothing else, it’s that the credulity of human beings for periodic table panaceas is pretty much boundless. “
” A long iron rod rocketed straight through the very forefront of Phineas Gage’s brain. It’s kind of an unusual part of the brain: you can suffer pretty severe injuries to it and often walk away from the injury. It’s not a part of the brain that’s necessarily vital for your biological self. But it is very important for personality. “
” The noble gases, which reside on the East Coast of the periodic table, are its aristocrats – detached and aloof, never bothering to interact with the rabble of common elements that make up the vast majority of the world. “
” Brain surgery couldn’t happen without the patient’s own active voice to guide the work. The patient is part of the surgical team here, perhaps the most important part, and above all, that’s what makes neurosurgery different. “
” Medieval alchemists, despite their lust for gold, considered mercury the most potent and poetic substance in the universe. As a child, I would have agreed with them. “
” Even fictional characters sometimes receive unwarranted medical opinions. Doctors have diagnosed Ebenezer Scrooge with OCD, Sherlock Holmes with autism, and Darth Vader with borderline personality disorder. “
” We know that genes shape human cultures and human societies: The DNA we inherited from our ancestors makes certain foods taste better, affects the way we care for children, influences what colors we find vibrant, and contributes to our love of socializing, among other examples. “
” People adored Element 13’s color and luster, which reminded them of the sparkle of gold and silver – a brand-new precious metal. In fact, aluminum became more precious than gold and silver in the 19th century because it was harder to obtain. “
” Unlike uranium, plutonium was created in an American lab in 1940, but scientists soon realized that it could produce even wilder chain reactions and even bigger explosions. In fact, fearing another country would create it, too, the American government went to great lengths to keep even the existence of plutonium a secret. “
” DNA is a ‘thing’ – a chemical that sticks to your fingers. “
” The idea of critical windows extends beyond just vision, of course: almost every system in the brain has a critical window when it needs to experience certain stimuli, or it won’t get wired up properly. The most obvious example is language: if you don’t learn a language early on, it’s nigh impossible to become truly fluent. “
” We human beings are humane in part because we can look beyond our biology. “
” I think it’s a natural human tendency, when you read something, you tend to read a lot of your prejudices into it. And neuroscience is like a lot of disciplines – it has fashions; things change. “
” On a submicro scale, pure diamond is billions of billions of carbon atoms bonded to one another. If you shrunk yourself down and stood inside the diamond, you’d see nothing but carbon in a perfect pattern in every direction. “
” Every glass thermometer has subtle variations in the size and shape of the bulb at the bottom and the capillary tube inside, as well as variations in the width of gradations on the side. The compounded effect of these uncertainties is that each thermometer reads temperature slightly differently. “
” Carbon’s eastern neighbor on the table, nitrogen, dresses up diamonds in pinks, yellows, oranges, and brownish tints known romantically as ‘champagne.’ “
” Some scientists claim – although these claims are contentious – that they can form deadly isomers with simple X-rays and that hafnium can multiply the power of these X-rays to an astounding degree, converting them into gamma rays up to 250 times more potent than the X-rays. “
” Guinea pigs are practically synonymous with experiments. Lab rats have become the workhorses of modern medicine. Genetics owes a huge debt to the humble fruit fly. There’s almost no branch of the life sciences, in fact, that hasn’t leaned heavily on one animal or another. “
” Despite the disreputable company it keeps, bismuth is harmless. In fact, it’s medicinal: Doctors prescribe it to soothe ulcers, and it’s the ‘bis’ in hot-pink Pepto-Bismol. Overall, it seems like the most out-of-place element on the periodic table, a gentleman among scoundrels. “
” Scientists have continued to tinker with different elements and have learned new ways to store and deliver energy. “
” Cancer is really a DNA diseaseā€¦ We have these certain genes that prevent our cells from growing out of control at the expense of the body. And it’s a pretty good, robust system. But if a couple of these genes fail, then that’s when cancer starts, and cells start growing out of control. “
” The more that I looked at DNA, the more I realized it was nature and nurture. It’s how genes and your environment work together to produce the person you are. “
” I’m kind of a sucker for the retro-diagnoses. “
” Our evolution could have gone in different directions a lot of times. We could have gone extinct at some points. We might not have gotten our big brains, or Neanderthals might have made it while we did not. “
” As a child in the early 1980s, I tended to talk with things in my mouth – food, dentist’s tubes, balloons that would fly away, whatever – and if no one else was around, I’d talk anyway. “
” I didn’t mind staying home from school and medicating myself with vanilla ice cream and chocolate sauce. Being sick always gave me another chance to break an old-fashioned mercury thermometer, too. “
” When first presented with the jumble of the periodic table, I scanned for mercury and couldn’t find it. It is there – between gold, which is also dense and soft, and thallium, which is also poisonous. But the symbol for mercury, Hg, consists of two letters that don’t even appear in its name. “
” In a vague way, I always knew neurosurgery was different – more delicate, more difficult, more demanding. After all, we say things like, ‘I’m no brain surgeon,’ for a reason. “
” Although it’s the hub of the nervous system and the ultimate terminus of every nerve, the brain itself lacks enervation and therefore cannot feel pain. “
” Brains, you see, vary a lot from person to person – they vary as much as faces do. “
” X-rays revealed that some people were born without a corpus callosum, and they seemed just fine. “
” No one knows quite the reason, but surgically severing the corpus callosum can reduce the rate and intensity of seizures. So in the early 1960s, a few patients with severe epilepsy had their corpus callosums cut, turning them into split-brain people. “
” The brain, which is plastic when young, must be exposed to certain sights early in life, or it will remain blind to those sights forever. “
” Animal vision – including human vision – is so biased toward movement that we don’t technically see stationary objects at all. “
” The amygdala plays a crucial role in processing fear, and minus her two amygdalae, S.M. became unflappable. Studies of her are actually a hoot to read, since they basically consist of scientists concocting ever-more-elaborate ways of trying to scare her. “
” The amygdala is one of those brain structures that a lot of people know a little bit about, and there’s a definite tendency to conflate the amygdala and the fear response itself – as if the amygdala, and the amygdala alone, ’causes’ fear. “
” The amygdala is indeed crucial for monitoring our environment and deciding what’s worth getting worked up over. Once the amygdala determines this, however, it merely trips another circuit to actually produce the panic. “
” Most people, even most doctors, learn that the placenta is a nice, tight seal that prevents anything in the mother’s body from invading the fetus, and vice-versa. That’s mostly true. But the placenta doesn’t seal off the baby perfectly, and every so often, something slips across. “
” In ‘The Violinist’s Thumb,’ I talk about the poignancy of cells leaking across the placenta into both the mother and the child. “
” Microchimeric sharing means that, even if the mother loses a child, she’ll have a small memento of him or her secreted away inside her. Similarly, a bit of our mothers live on in all of us no matter how long ago Mom died. “
” If stem cells divide equally, so both daughter cells look more or less the same, each one becomes another stem cell. If the split is unequal, neurons form prematurely. “
” To be sure, ASPM isn’t the gene responsible for building big brains – there’s no such single gene. But it’s critical to the process, and the primate line has almost certainly benefited from distinct changes in ASPM. “
” I was reading this story about these people who suffered from brain injuries, and then their behavior changed kind of drastically afterward, and I just said to myself, ‘There’s no way that that can possibly be true.’ “
” What I find fascinating is the idea that we all have a physical brain, but we also have this mental part, and we have to figure out how they work together. “