Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

The Magic World of Mr Feynman

It was in a recent episode of Big Bang Theory where one of the main characters in the popular sitcom, while visiting the grave of Richard Feynman in a state of inebriation, reminisced, “When I was a kid, I’d put on some headphones and crank up one of his lectures and just jam out to knowledge”. On watching that, I rather amusingly recalled my own experience of once going to bed listening to the Feynman audiobooks as my bedtime stories.

The brash and uproarious character of Richard Feynman shattered the typical public perception of a physicist as a withdrawn and agoraphobic creature. Neither was he an absent-minded genius with a wild mane he could not be bothered to tame. Instead, he frequented strip clubs, banged away at the bongo, and painted at a level that was decent enough to have his paintings sold. It is hard to pin down one single quality that makes up his enduring appeal. This short YouTube video of the great iconoclast talking about light, however, might just offer a taste of his infectious passion for science, even many years after he died.

His numerous achievements in physics aside, further elevating him to the status of a legend are his  quirks and his many adventures, immortalised in his memoirs Surely You’re Joking, Mr. Feynman! and What Do You Care What Other People Think?. Light-hearted and heartwarming as they are, the anecdotes contained in these two volumes also offer a glimpse into the inner workings of his mind, and are curiously able to make you see the world, if momentarily, from another point of view.

“I was born not knowing and have only had a little time to change that here and there.”

—Richard Feynman

One of the greatest physicists of the 20th century, Richard Phillips Feynman was born on 11th May 1918 in Manhattan, New York City to Lucille and Melville Feynman. A late talker, he did not start talking until two, causing his mother to worry for months. Much of the early making of the scientist could be attributed to his father who encouraged his natural curiosity to explore the world. From early on, Melville Feynman would sat little Richard down on his lap and read to him from the Encyclopaedia Britannica, teaching him how to “translate” what they read into some tangible reality. It was an ability which came into good use later in his life as he navigated his way through the abstractions of quantum mechanics. As his biographer James Gleick put it, Feynman had “a lightning ability to see into the heart of the problems nature posed”.

By his own account, another important lesson his father, who was in the uniform business,  instilled in him was a disrespect for authority. Indeed, this quality of being unencumbered by decorum was what later earned him the respect of many great giants in his field who, often having won a Nobel prize and established themselves, tended to have difficulties discussing anything without their ideas unchallenged. It took one such as Richard Feynman to usher physics into a new era.

As a little boy, Ritty—as his friends called him—loved to tinker with radios. From the little laboratory in his bedroom, he was able to catch a radio station program 300 km away, one hour before it was broadcasted in New York. The laboratory was soon expanded to cover the entire house, allowing him to make broadcasts.

His propensity for physics and mathematics was clear from a very young age. Finding the level taught at school much too easy, he soon became bored. Upon finding the schoolboy Richard unchallenged and recognising his aptitude for mathematics, a school teacher gave him a higher-level book of mathematics to work on at the back of the classroom, whereupon the journey of self-taught mathematics began. Keeping his own notebook of mathematics gave him a different “set of tools” which often enabled him to reach a solution faster than his colleagues later in his professional career.

The man himself (Photo: Gianca97, distributed under Creative Commons license)

What is captured aplenty in the aforementioned two books is his curiosity to explore fields other than his own. As a graduate student at Princeton, he decided to expand his knowledge by checking out what “the rest of the world was doing”, and so began to attend a philosophy seminar. In a display of surprising frankness, having listened to the arguments the philosophers were having, he pointed out the perennial problem with philosophers—that they did not even agree on the definition of what they were arguing about.

But what is, perhaps, lesser known is that Feynman also dabbled in biology. In the summer of 1960, he began working in the laboratory of the geneticist Max Delbrück on the rII mutation of the bacteriophage T4. There he chanced upon a new phenomenon of mutual suppression of mutations within the same gene, dubbed the “Feyntrons” by his colleagues in the laboratory. Keen to go back to his quantum theory of gravity, however, Feynman did not publish the work. It was later discovered independently and is now known as intragenic suppression.

Soon after finishing his PhD, Feynman became part of the elite group of physicists working at Los Alamos on the Manhattan Project during the Second World War, where the leader J. Robert Oppenheimer declared him as the most brilliant young physicist at the atomic bomb project. Shortly after the war in 1948, the same group of physicists gathered in a resort hotel to discuss the crisis in their then understanding of the atom. It was here that the “half genius and half buffoon”, as the physicist Freeman Dyson put it, introduced his unifying theory of quantum mechanics and electrodynamics using his famously simple Feynman diagrams. The theory of Quantum Electrodynamics (QED) later won him a Nobel Prize in 1965.

Feynman Diagram (Photo: Nuandawm, Public Domain)

The mathematician Mark Kac who worked with Feynman at Cornell University described him in a way that could not have been more apt:

“There are two kinds of geniuses, the “ordinary” and the “magicians.” An ordinary genius is a fellow that you and I would be just as good as, if we were only many times better. There is no mystery as to how his mind works. Once we understand what they have done, we feel certain that we, too, could have done it. It is different with the magicians. They are, to use mathematical jargon, in the orthogonal complement of where we are and the working of their minds is for all intents and purposes incomprehensible. Even after we understand what they have done, the process by which they have done it is completely dark. They seldom, if ever, have students because they cannot be emulated and it must be terribly frustrating for a brilliant young mind to cope with the mysterious ways in which the magician’s mind works. Richard Feynman is a magician of the highest caliber.”

And to this magician, I bow.

What is abnormal and normal?: How History Defined “Madness”

Trigger Warning: References to mental disorders, madness and mental aslyums 


Nowadays, it’s rare to encounter words like “mad”, “melancholic” or “hysteria” used in medical practices to describe a patient’s symptoms.

Instead, words such as “depressed,” “anxious” or “psychosis” are more commonly used to describe conditions what we once knew as madness.

Modern scientific understanding of mental illness stems comes from a biological understanding of the mind. The brain, neurotransmitters, synaptic connections – all that neuro- jazz is at the centre of explaining how our mind and body operate.

Pathologising and medicalising the state of mind is a fairly recent concept. Ever since the emergence of DSM (Diagnostic Statistics Manual), also known as the bible of psychiatry, revolutionised how we understand mental disorders. Throughout history, our understanding of the mind, and what is abnormal has constantly changed.

So why and how did these definitions of normality and abnormality change over time?


History of Science is a field that explores how science and scientific knowledge has developed throughout the ages. Crossing between natural sciences and philosophy, History of Science allows us to appreciate modern day science and understand it in context of history.

So lets time travel back to Ancient Greece and unravel the story of how people thought what the normal and the abnormal mind was.


Ancient Greece: 500 B.C – 600 A.D

Hippocrates, the father of medicine, proposed humouralism. Image: Flickr


The word “melancholy” is a portmanteau of “melan” which means black and “kole” which means bile. It was thought that people who were lethargic and chronically depressed had black bile. This idea comes from “humouralism” which was a trendy school of thought in ancient medicine. Humouralism proposes that body fluids control our state of well being. It was thought that deficiency or in excess of humours would cause physical and mental problems. This was before they realised that the brain was the central dogma, the mastermind behind the body’s actions.

So in Ancient Greece, “melancholia” now we know as depression, was first hypothesised as a bodily disorder.


The Medieval Ages: 5th century – 15th century

As we enter in the medieval times, known as the dark ages, we start to see a spiritual understanding of the mind and the body. Religious institutions like the Catholic Church were at its political peak and was thought that demonic possession and evil spirits caused madness. Exorcism, an infamous Catholic ritual, became a popular practice among people who were considered “mad”. These were probably patients whom we now consider as schizophrenic or have bipolar disorder. 


The Enlightenment Era ( Age of Reason ) : 17th century – 18th century

Father of modern western philosophy,Rene Descartes. His work emphasises on “reason” which moulded modern understanding of the mind. Image: Flickr


The Enlightenment Era bloomed science and philosophy. This meant that the emphasis was on reason. Rationality was regarded highly and was a prerequisite to being the ideal human. As a result, people thought that lack of rational thinking caused madness. Mental asylums were firstly introduced during this age. People thought that the mentally ill or “the mad” had to be segregated from the rest of the community. 

 With the sudden increase in population followed by industrialization, mental asylums were crowded with people that were “demented” and “mad”. The conditions of these institutions were very poor, with little regards for the inmates.


Post- Industrialisation : 19th century – 20th century 

Freud’s chair revolutionised psychiatric practices by introducing psychoanalysis. Image: Flickr


We’ve all heard phrases like “Freudian slip” or “Freud’s chair”. Viennese psychiatrist Sigmund Freud popularised psychoanalysis, the archetype of modern-day psychiatric therapy. Freud revolutionised how people perceive minds and madness. He proposed that every individual had an unconscious mind, a reservoir of feelings, emotions, memories, desires outside of our conscious awareness and that we unknowingly suppress our unconscious mind. His controversial psychosexual developmental model suggests that repressed childhood traumatic events contribute the development of one’s mental illness.

Psychoanalysis was a popular method of therapy, which deviated from mental asylum approach of treating the mentally ill, conducting treatment in an intimate environment where the patient lied down on a chair and relayed their thoughts.


21st century

The Florey Institute of Neuroscience and Mental Health is a leading research centre for understanding the brain. Image: Flickr


A biological understanding of the mind and madness manifests in modern scientific literature. We now understand that certain individuals are more genetically susceptible to inducing psychotic-like symptoms (known as schizophrenia) or that they are predisposed to a condition where they have lack of neurotransmitters that control the mood. Genetics and a physiological understanding of the brain are at the heart of mental illness research.

It is clearly evident that the definition of ‘normalcy” constantly changed which suggests that there could never be a clear-cut definition of what normal and abnormal is.



Whats really important isn’t about drawing the line but is to understand and provide the best care for people who may be experiencing difficulties with their cognition and emotional processing. 

Exams are fast approaching – let us sleep

Exams are fast approaching and we all tend to study hard by staying awake at night to go through a lot of information, causing sleep deprivation. Is the hard work we put through in reading by sleep deprivation helping us to memorize?

studying & sleeping

Image Source: Flickr

Sleep, we spend a third of our life’s doing it and we can’t live without it. It’s a complex phenomenon and it’s still not well understood after more than a hundred years of research. But over the year’s scientists have made a plenty of discoveries like sleep is important for memory and that nonsleeping can make pain worse and can make it harder to heal. Going too long without sleep will kill a person. It is also said that one could survive for three times as long without food as one could without sleep. Sleep deprivation causes memory lapses or loss, depression increased blood pressure, increased stress hormones, increased risk of diabetes, pain sensitivity obesity, hallucination and death. Researchers still quite don’t know why we sleep but we do know that not sleeping is deadly.

Sleep can be divided into two types: NREM (Non – Rapid Eye Movement) and REM(Rapid Eye Movement) sleep. NREM sleep is divided into different stages – light sleep, true sleep and deep sleep. During light sleep, we’re half awake and half asleep. Our muscle activity slows. During true sleep, the breathing pattern and heart rate start to slow down. This accounts for the largest of the human sleep. During deep sleep, the brain produces the delta waves (high amplitude and low frequency). Breathing and heart rates are slowest in this phase. During REM our brain is super active and we have around three to five REM episodes a night. During this time our eyes dart, breathing and blood pressure rise.


Image Source: Flickr

Sleep consolidates the memory. Declarative memories are memories of events and facts, and they rely on an area of the brain known as the hippocampus. They are separate from non-declarative memory, the kind of memory that builds habits and motor skills. Sleep is especially important for helping the brain process the declarative memory. Studies have discovered that the type of sleep that is important for this process is the NREM sleep. When you are lacking sleep the neurons firing in the prefrontal cortex begin to slow down the prefrontal cortex is particularly important for the behaviours that make us human. This region is associated with planning personality expression decision making attention control reasoning and problem-solving. When you lack sleep it is hard to complete a thought, perceive a problem in a new way. Of the four stages of sleep, slow wave sleep and REM sleep have shown an electrical impulse between the brain stem hippocampus, hypothalamus and cortex, these four areas are relay stations for memory formation. During this process, your brain takes the information in the short-term memory and moves the important bits to the long-term memory.

Researchers demonstrated in mice that during sleep, brain cells called astrocytes contract, expanding the space between all the brain cells by almost 60% this allows more cerebrospinal fluid, to flow through the cracks in the brain. Cerebrospinal fluid is produced by the brain that fills and cushions the brain and spinal cord. It is similar to the blood plasma and it plays important role in maintaining the chemical balance, When CSF flows between the brain cells during sleep, it acts like a cleaning fluid pushing out all of the debris that collects during the day. Clearing all these toxic waste products like a type of protein called amyloid beta, may be important for brain health since too much debris is thought to cause diseases like Alzheimer’s.

Rethinking the science of happiness

Do you want to be happy? I know I do…

I’m sure you’re all too familiar with the short term effects of pleasurable activities such as drinking alcohol, having sex or eating delicious food but would you like to know how things that make you happy can also keep you healthy? How can science help us live a happy life that is sustainable and fulfilling and keeps us healthy at the same time?

image sourced via Flickr

To understand this we need to look a little more closely at the mind/body connection.


We have known for decades that portions of the nervous system connect with immune-related organs such as the thymus and bone marrow where your blood cells are born. What has been discovered more recently is that immune cells can make, and have receptors for neurotransmitters suggesting that there is crosstalk between neurons and your immune cells themselves.


Just Imagine how powerful your immune system can be, now we know it has direct links to the brain.

Well, studies in the field of psychoneuroimmunology – that is, the link between your brain and your immune system – have long suspected that negative mental states such as stress and loneliness can heavily influence immune responses by driving changes in gene expression and thus shaping the bodies ability to fight disease.


This link became clearer when it was found in a 2007 study by Steve Cole that lonely people had upregulated genes involved in the inflammatory response, whereas many of their downregulated genes had antiviral roles. In sociable people, the reverse was true and their antiviral gene expression was increased and inflammatory genes were down These results make evolutionary sense because early humans in close social groups would have faced increased risk of viral infections, but by contrast, people who were isolated and under stress faced greater risk of injuries that could cause bacterial infection — and so they would need to respond by ramping up genes associated with inflammation, to help heal wounds and fight off those infections.


More recently Professors Steve Cole and Barbara Fredrickson have teamed up, moving from studying negative moods into the tricky concept of happiness.

In their study looking at what happens to gene expression in immune cells when people are happy – questions were designed to distinguish between the two forms of happiness recognised by psychologists:

  •             hedonic well-being (characterized by material or bodily pleasures such as eating well or having sex) and
  •             eudaimonic well-being (deeper satisfaction from activities with a greater meaning or purpose, such as intellectual pursuits, social relationships or charity work).


They found that two types of happiness influenced gene expression in different ways. People with a meaning-based or purpose-based outlook had favourable gene-expression profiles, whereas hedonic well-being showed gene expression similar to those seen in individuals facing adversity. One interpretation is that eudaimonic well-being benefits immune function directly. But realistically this can be explained in terms of response to stress. If someone is driven purely by hollow consumption then all of their happiness depends on their personal circumstances. If they run into adversity, they may become very stressed. Where as Eudaimonia, or caring about things greater than onesself, may help to buffer a sense of threat or uncertainty and limit stress responses potentially improving our health.

Hopefully In the future, as these links become clearer thanks to studies linking state of mind to immune function, the path to happiness may be one of health as well as wealth and wine.

So remember, its ok to enjoy the sweet things in life, but don’t forget to spend your time and energy on more long term rewarding pursuits as well – your mind and body will thank you for it in the long run!


The difference between bacteria and viruses

We have all gotten sick, we’ve all gotten some kind of flu and of course the classic cold. There is always talk about how we should protect ourselves from viruses and bacteria. But how are they even different? And how are they different to our most body cells. What if I told you that human cells have more in common with bacteria than with viruses.

Short story: Human cells are eukaryotic which means they are more complicated, bacteria cells are prokaryotic which means they are simpler and viruses are not even cells at all, they are just genetic material in a protein shell. Not all bacteria make us sick, most actually help us e.g. in our gut. Viruses are more like parasites they need a host cell to reproduce. Viruses are very specialized on their host so some only target certain human body cells (e.g. Herpes virus) and others attack certain bacteria.

Human cells

To make all of this more understandable let’s start with something you might be more familiar with: humans. We humans are multicelled organisms with an estimated 37 trillion cells in our body (over 5000 times more cells than people currently on earth). Our cells are eukaryotic. Because they having more organelles, they differ from prokaryotic cells (bacteria). Organelles are like the “organs” of a cell. They are specialized for different tasks for example the cell nucleus which stores the genetic information (DNA) or the ribosomes which build proteins.


A prokaryotic cell like a bacterium does not have a cell nucleus, the DNA just floats around in the cell. Bacteria are one celled organisms, each bacteria cell is independent from on another although they can interact with each other. Bacteria reproduce asexually by making an internal copy of themselves and then splitting, in a process called binary fission.

But both types of cells have a cell membrane which acts as a barrier between the inside of the cell and the outside environment. And this is where a virus can attack them.


Viruses are  just genetic material (DNA) in a protein shell. They can’t reproduce by themselves, they need a host cell. Viruses dock onto the membranes of their host cell (human cell or bacteria cells) and insert their genetic material into the cell.

Viruses attack a bacterium, Image credit: Wikimedia commons

The virus DNA manipulates the cell and turns it into a virus replication machine. All resources of the cell are spent on replicating (duplicates/copies) this viral DNA and producing protein shells to builds lots of different new viruses inside the cell. Then the cell is either programed to die and the cell bursts open releasing the viruses or the cell is kept alive and keeps realeasing viruses through its membrane.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

As you now know a virus needs to kill its host cell to reproduce so they are all bad for us? Well, not all of them, there is a group called bacteriophages (bacteriakillers). Much like “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” these bacteriophages only infect bacteria and leave the human cells alone, so we can use them to combat harmful bacteria.

This was all very basic microbiology and the processes are a bit more complicated than I described here. So if you are interested check these great interesting videos out:
Bacteria: from Khan Academy
Viruses: from Khan Academy
How our immune system works to fight these: from Crash Course (one of my favorite youtube channels)

Sidenote: Are viruses evil?

You might think that a virus wants to kill us it wants to hurt us. But the Virus does not have a purpose to exist, it does not care about making us ill, it is not “evil”. The thing is that viruses which are good at reproducing exist. A virus which was bad at reproducing simply died out. But viruses which are good at reproducing survived. For example the flu virus: it makes us cough and sneeze and thus spreading the virus to other humans. It didn’t want to make us ill but those viruses that made us ill got spread more. They had an evolutionary advantage over viruses which were worse at reproducing, which died out.



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