The Sociological Perspective


Tristan Bridges argues that “if you can’t find a Calvin and Hobbes cartoon to put on your syllabus for a sociology course, there’s a good chance you’re not teaching sociology.”

This month, I am taking an introductory sociology class in preparation for the “Psychological, Social, and Biological Foundations of Behavior” section of the new MCAT, and it has got me thinking a lot about how genetics and sociology seem to face a lot of the same challenges when it comes to obtaining certain types of data largely due to moral and ethical considerations. After the completion of the Human Genome Project in 2003, the arduous process of genome annotation began. Since it’s not socially acceptable to force people to mate with each other and we can’t always find people who happen to breed in an informative way, we oftentimes use population data over time, genome-wide association studies being a good example of such an approach, to examine individual markers for possible associations between genotypes and phenotypes. Unfortunately, GWAS often fails to employ random sampling, and 96% of subjects included in GWAS have been people of European descent, as of 2013. Generally speaking, scientific disciplines (and others as well, I suspect) often disproportionately sample from WEIRD (western, education, industrialized, rich, democratic) countries, whether studying genetic diseases or human gut microbiota.

While sociology and the sciences have much in common, I’ve also noticed some major differences. The sociological notion of race, for instance, has no scientific basis. I have oftentimes heard the argument that race must exist because people look different and these kinds of differences can be clustered into broad groups, but the genetic signatures that correlate with large land masses are neither exclusive nor unique to any particular group of people. The idea of race serves to reflect patterns of social and economic inequity; race is socially constructed, not biologically based.

An op-ed published in the New York Times yesterday reminded me of some of our assigned reading from Best and Horiuchi on urban legends and Schuman‘s mention of “Newton and his apple in legends about scientific discovery.” In his piece, Mlodinow argues that urban myths surrounding scientific discoveries trivialize the scientific process and its complexities. The author concludes by citing the need for instant gratification among the negative effects of the media today, as such needs are diametrically opposed to the thoroughness of the scientific method. However, some education experts like Lilian Katz argue that the immediacy of social media provides an effective, incentivized social learning tool for teenagers, as the reward of dopamine release is thought to help solidify memories and enhance motivation. As with anything else, the instant gratification aspect of social media appears to be a two headed coin, a double edged sword.


The Modern-Day Scheherazade


Last night, my parents and I had the privilege of seeing John Adams conduct the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra in a work of his own composition, Scheherazade.2 (tickets were half off in honor of Mother’s Day weekend). I was especially excited to hear Adams’ re-imagination of the Arabian Nights folktales since I had decided to compare The Thousand and One Nights to Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade for my final term paper in comparative literature this past semester. (On a side note, scientists sometimes explain the idea of epigenetic regulation of gene expression using a symphony orchestra as an analogy in which the specific notes of the symphony are akin to the genome, or the DNA sequence, and the finer subtleties of the piece, such as dynamics, tempo, and instrumentation, constitute the epigenome. This analogy, however, invariably begs the question, “Who is the conductor?” to which there is no simple answer. I prefer the computer analogy where the genome constitutes the hardware of the machine, the platform on which everything else takes place, and the epigenome functions as software. Ironically enough, Adams joked that the title Scheherazade.2 sounds like a software update and explained that he intended his piece as an adaptation for the modern-day Scheherazade, a heroine in the fight for gender equality.) The four-movement piece, written for violinist Leila Josefowicz, whom Adams considers “a perfect embodiment of that kind of empowered strength and energy that a modern Scheherazade would possess,” differs quite a bit from its 19th century predecessor in many ways. While both pieces are staged in four movements and feature the character of Scheherazade as the central protagonist (represented by violin motifs), the two works convey different themes and ranges of emotions.

Adams calls his piece a “dramatic symphony,” and dramatic, it was, indeed. The first movement, “Tale of the Wise Young Woman—Pursuit by the True Believers,” introduces Scheherazade in “elegiac lines that keep breaking into skittish flights,” according to New York Times author Anthony Tommasini. Our young heroine begins to sound frantic, hurried, and even manic once the true believers, portrayed as a series of jagged chords, set their sights on her. The second movement consists of a love scene, violent at first but eventually resolving into mutual hope and understanding. In the third movement (my personal favorite), “Scheherazade and the Men with Beards,” our heroine is tried by a court of religious zealots, culminating with Scheherazade being sentenced to death. The section also makes significant use of a cimbalom, better known as a “hammered dulcimer,” played by Chester Englander. This movement reminded me of Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” at times, specifically the opera section, which references Scaramouche, the fandango, Galileo, Figaro, and Bismillah as rival factions fighting over the narrator’s soul. Music scholar Judith Peraino had once described this sequence as a “comic courtroom trial and a rite of passage… one chorus prosecutes, another defends, while the hero presents himself as meek though wily.” In Adams’ composition, the protagonist continues to calmly respond to the accusations flung against her until she is finally condemned to death, at which point Josefowicz begins playing sul ponticello (bowing right over the bridge), creating a skeletal, scratching sound, evocative of Scheherazade’s anguish.

The final movement, “Escape, Flight, and Sanctuary,” involves more scurrying and agitation until eventually alighting on a more bittersweet note, signifying that Scheherazade has reached a haven in which she is not necessarily content but is at least safe. Gabbie Watts of Atlanta’s NPR station describes the conclusion as a “Shostakovich kind of sunshine.” Herein lies one of the most striking differences between Adams’ and Rimsky-Korsakov’s versions of the story. In the modern retelling, Scheherazade manages to escape her oppressors, but her oppressors essentially remain unchanged in their ideas and ways, while in the original story, Scheherazade successfully transforms the Sultan, who recants his murderous vow, and saves countless lives in the process. Through this lens, the original Scheherazade seems more empowered and self-actualized than her modern-day counterpart. Furthermore, Rimsky-Korsakov’s composition seemed to convey a broader range of emotion from stern acerbity to subdued tenderness and tranquility. In contrast, Adams’ piece always possesses elements of consternation, as Scheherazade constantly faces new threats and adopts the role of a fugitive or refugee. Finally, while Rimsky-Korsakov told a flowing narrative through his composition, Adams’ work consists of a series of more discrete images.

While Scheherazade.2 may not have been my cup of tea (perhaps I am too much of a philistine), I am nonetheless glad that we are still afforded the opportunity to hear new works of classical music to this day. A couple years ago, NPR’s Deceptive Cadence interviewed David Robertson, music director of the St. Louis Symphony Orchestra, about the difficulties contemporary composers face in having their works performed. Audiences are not as comfortable with the unknown and often desire a certain degree of assurance that they are listening to music of the highest quality in their limited leisure time. Robertson even described challenges to the introduction of older works not already established in the classical repertoire. He discussed his lack of success in getting the First Symphony by Vasily Kalinnikov, a piece from the 19th century, performed except in instances where he was music director because the overwhelming sentiment was, “Here’s this big unknown symphony by someone whose name sounds like an automatic rifle.” Given the sometimes hostile atmosphere of professional life as a composer, listening to new compositions like those of John Adams inspires hope for future generations of budding composers.

Brainstorming the Existence of a Mythical Country

The Constitution of the United Citizens of Andalucía,

An Autonomous Community of Spain

Area: 88,000 sq. kilometers, Population: 1,000

  • Economics

Free market, fair trade, and laissez-faire economic policy. Production and export of wheat, barley, and other textiles as well as the development of hydroponics drive the economy. Carbon capture and sequestration methods are used to mitigate the effects of fossil fuel emissions of both global climate change and ocean acidification. Citizens fall into tiered tax brackets based on annual household income.

  • Politics

In our democracy, government is civil service. The prime minister serves an executive role and enables the goals of the bureaucrats below to come to fruition. Candidates for prime minister must be official citizens of Andalucía, aged 60 or younger to ensure sound decision-making abilities. Leaders are chosen based on proficiency on civil service exams and popular vote in public elections, held every four years. Prime ministers may not serve more than two four-year terms in order to ensure a democratic political system that is responsive to the will of the people and adaptable to the changing environment.

  • Education

Education from kindergarten through undergraduate is mandatory; tuition expenses for these years are covered by the state for all citizens. Scholarships are available for vocational, graduate, and professional education beyond the undergraduate years.

  • Criminal system

Criminals are tried and convicted by a jury of their fellow citizens in accordance with the severity of their offenses. The death penalty, capital punishment, and any variants thereof are strictly prohibited by law. The highest offenses are punishable by corporal punishment and court-mandated community service designed to improve infrastructure and transportation systems, including building of roads, construction of public buildings such as schools and libraries, and the development of diverging diamond interchanges to regulate traffic flow in a timely and efficient manner.

  • Medical system

Universal healthcare is provided to all citizens. Medical school expenses are covered by the state for those students that are eligible. Eligibility is based on academic proficiency in the life sciences, as assessed by competency exams that are administered subsequent to obtainment of an undergraduate degree. After successful completion of medical studies, physicians must pass a series of state-mandated board examinations in order to obtain licensure to practice.

  • Religion

Inhabitants are free to practice religion according to their own personal beliefs. Furthermore, the government does not sanction state-sponsored religion nor does it promote any one religious system over another. Agnosticism and atheism are not stigmatized. In this manner, peace and understanding are promoted among inhabitants of the state.

Should Falsifiability Be Put to Rest?

Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? (Image Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

Some theorists propose that our universe is just one bubble in a multiverse. Will falsifiability burst the balloon? (Image Credit: Flickr user Steve Jurvetson)

Falsifiability is a beautiful notion in that it allows us to empirically determine the scientific basis for a given theory. In other words, if a theory offers no testable predictions, then that theory has no place in the canon of science. As of late, some scientists have adopted the view that such a criterion is too stifling and actually hinders real progress toward the acquisition of scientific knowledge into the nature of reality. A case in point is string theory, classical physics’ frontrunner for unifying general relativity and quantum physics which posits that all matter is composed of tiny vibrating strings. Currently, the equipment required to test string theory’s predictions is beyond our reach and will be for an indeterminable amount of time, as string theory involves phenomena likely to to manifest themselves only at energies immensely higher than anything we can produce here on Earth. In a controversial essay published in Edge last year, Sean Carroll argued, “Refusing to contemplate [the existence of entities involved in certain theories] on the grounds of some a priori principle, even though they might play a crucial role in how the world works, is as non-scientific as it gets.”

Theoretical cosmologists George Ellis and Joe Silk worry, however, that an abandonment of the falsifiability principle will undermine public trust in the scientific method at a time when scientific results concerning topics such as global climate change and evolution, while backed by stacks of solid scientific evidence, are still on trial in the public eye. Furthermore, Ellis and Silk fear that eliminating this standard would allow for unchecked propagation of ideas with very little scientific evidence to support them and make intellectual dispute resolution practically impossible. In their Nature comment, Ellis and Silk point out that even string theory offers some testable predictions, such as supersymmetry, the idea that each kind of particle has a partner, none of which have been detected by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, narrowing the range of energies at which supersymmetry might exist. If these partners continue to elude detection, we may never be certain of their existence, and Ellis believes this uncertainty may simply need to be worked into our current understanding of the universe. “We need to rethink these issues in a philosophically sophisticated way that also takes the best interpretations of fundamental science, and its limitations, seriously,” says Ellis. “Maybe we have to accept uncertainty as a profound aspect of our understanding of the universe in cosmology as well as particle physics.”

Compiled List of Medical Reads


Hey everyone! As promised, here is the list of compiled suggested medical reads from everyone. I don’t know about you, but I want to buy all of these books and start reading right now! Thank you to everyone that sent me suggested books – this list came from all of you! Take a peek, enhance your library, and learn even more about the amazing and fascinating medical world. At the very bottom of the list is a section titled “Textbooks/References” for pre-meds and medical students. Enjoy!

Why medicine?: And 500 Other Questions for the Medical School and Residency Interviews – Sujay Kansagra, M.D.

Everything I learned in Medical School: Besides All The Book Stuff – Sujay Kansagra, M.D.

Baby Doctor: A Pediatrician’s Training – Perri Klass, M.D.

Intensive Care: The Story of a Nurse  – Echo Heron

The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks – Rebecca Skloot

When the Air Hits…

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A Wrinkle in Time: Building a Black Hole for Interstellar

Light around a wormhole doesn't behave classically—it doesn't travel in a straight line. Rogers describes a wormhole as "a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in space-time." (Diagram Credit: Kip Thorne, Wired)

Light around a wormhole doesn’t behave classically—it doesn’t travel in a straight line. Rogers describes a wormhole as “a crystal ball reflecting the universe, a spherical hole in space-time.” (Diagram Credit: Kip Thorne, Wired)

Adam Rogers recently wrote a beautiful piece for Wired discussing how astrophysicist Kip Thorne’s equations helped to create a scientifically realistic black hole model. Rogers explains, “Thorne sees truth. Nolan, the consummate image maker, sees beauty.” His words remind me of the closing lines of John Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn”:

‘Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all
    Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.’

Rogers himself concludes, “Most Interstellar viewers will see these images—the wormhole, the black hole, the weird light—and think, ‘Whoa. That’s beautiful.’ Thorne looks at them and thinks, ‘Whoa. That’s true.’ And from a certain perspective, that’s beautiful too.”

Physiology Notes


I haven’t had much time to write lately, as schoolwork and doctor’s appointments have kept me busy. For those of you who are taking the MCAT and/or a physiology class soon, I have typed up my physiology notes on the autonomic nervous system, the endocrine system, sensory physiology, and muscle physiology. All images are taken from Stuart Ira Fox’s Human Physiology, 13th Ed. unless otherwise noted. If anything in my notes seems to be in error, just leave a comment, and I will respond accordingly. Enjoy and best of luck in your every endeavor!

Physiology Notes