Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Dr. Money and the boy who lost his penis

Photo by Nynne Schrøder on Unsplash

Pink or blue baby shower? Is it a boy or a girl?

Biologically, our sex/gender is determined by our sex chromosomes. Females have XX, while males have XY.

One of the big questions regarding gender identity is whether our gender is dictated by nature or nurture. Are we a boy because of our genetic makeup or due to our upbringing?

One scientist attempted to find out.

Tragic accident

Twin brothers, Bruce and Brian were born in Canada as two perfectly healthy boys. But at 6 months old, they were both having difficulty in urinating. Acting on doctors’ advice, the boys were taken to the hospital for a circumcision to treat their condition.

Unlike his brother, Bruce was the unlucky one. He suffered an irreversible damage to his penis due to an accident during his circumcision. Devastated, Ron and Janet Reimer, Bruce’s parents went to see Dr. Money for a consultation.

A decision that would drastically change Bruce’s life.

The ideal experiment

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

As a psychologist who specialized in sex change, Dr. Money met his ideal subjects – a pair of identical twin brothers, Bruce and Brian Reimer in the 1960s.

Dr. Money believed that our gender identities are not determined by biology but rather on how we were raised. The Reimer boys presented to him the perfect experiment to test out his theory.

Here was a boy who Dr. Money believed should be raised as a girl, who also came with his own control group, an identical twin raised in the same environment.

With Dr. Money’s encouragement, Bruce was given sexual reassignment surgery when he was only 17 months old. His parents also secretly fed him female hormones during puberty to encourage breast growth. Throughout his childhood, Bruce was never informed about his male biology.

As far as he knows, he was Brenda Reimer, a girl.

Emotional hardship

Growing up, Brenda was a lonely girl. She didn’t fit in with the girls and were not welcomed to play with the boys. She didn’t like dressing up as a girl or acting as one.

By the tender age of 13, Brenda was suicidal and depressed. Faced with their daughter’s sadness, Brenda’s parents went against Dr. Money’s advice and told her she was born a boy. Within weeks, Brenda underwent penile reconstructive surgery and stopped taking female hormones.

Brenda transformed herself to David Reimer.

Unhappy ending

Well into his thirties, David/Bruce struggled through the psychological trauma caused by Dr. Money’s experiment.

Coupled with unemployment, separation from his wife and the death of his brother due to a drug overdose, David committed suicide at the age of 38.

What we learnt

Today, we still don’t have a clear idea on how gender is constructed.

Given the recent awareness on gender dysphoria, transgenderism and gender fluidity, science is now slowly catching up.

But even though we don’t have the answers yet, Bruce’s story showed that there is a strong genetic basis to gender – most of us act like a girl or a boy because we just simply feel that way.

Most importantly, Dr. Money’s ‘experiment’ reminds us that beyond jargons and labels, we are all humans wanting to be accepted for who we are.

So what are your opinions? Do you agree with Dr. Money?

Photo by Sharon McCutcheon on Unsplash


Further information

The social constructs of science: Gender

Most of us would like to think that science provides us with unbiased truths about the world. In reality, science is heavily influenced by our own social constructs. Today’s culprit? Gender.

The books of history are filled with scientific missteps. Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash.

Horrible histories

Most of us, at some point in our lives, have surely benefited from science. 

But despite all its advantages, science has had a very problematic social and cultural history on many fronts. Some of the most prominent and violent examples include the eugenics movement, hysteria and its ‘treatment’, and development of weapons technology. And even though some of these ‘sciences’ are in the past, their effects can still be felt today.

Sure, these examples are glaringly obvious missteps of science. But there are also problems with science that are less overt. If we look close enough, we can see ideas from our own social world in scientific places we might not expect.

Our science, our selves

One social dimension that has often been slipped into scientific thought is gender. On scales from the cellular to the global, ideas about gender pervade scientific thought. And too often than not, they are based on very outdated ideas about who we are.

Ever noticed that certain behaviours are associated with ‘males’ and others associated with ‘females’? Or that anyone or anything that doesn’t fall into these categories is overlooked or labelled as ‘wrong’? Unfortunately, these types of views about our social world are often applied to scientific phenomena. And this has pretty bad outcomes for both science, and ourselves.

Even our floral friends receive the gendered treatment. Photo by Masaaki Komori on Unsplash.

Metaphor and misunderstanding

What do you imagine when you think about sperm and egg interaction? Probably an energetic, wiggly little sperm determined to pierce the egg’s protective barrier at any cost! An unstoppable little force, thrashing wildly with all the might of its little tail!

This old story is a well known one, but a study by Anthropologist Emily Martin uncovered just how gendered it is. In fact, recent science has discovered that the thrust of a sperm is ‘extremely weak’. And rather than ‘piercing’ the egg, the sperm builds a bridge-like structure of protein molecules that sticks to the egg. Sounds a little different to the aggressive, ‘masculine’ traits typically assigned to sperm, huh?

But the gender games don’t stop there — even the plant world isn’t safe from these tired stories. Unsurprisingly, people like old mate Linnaeus (the “father of modern taxonomy”) used some very outdated ideas of gender. When a male/female sex binary was first applied to plants in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Linnaeus and his friends went all out with the gendering. Odd stories of plant ‘marriage’, petals as ‘bridal beds’, and plant romance and courtship dominated botanical understandings.

Why does it matter?

Of course, these beliefs all sounds quite silly and antiquated. But these types of scientific analogies persist today – and they have very real effects. When these social frames are applied to natural phenomena, it is often claimed that these frames are in fact from nature. See the problem here?

Ideas like this often reinforce belief in the inferiority and ‘abnormality’ of many groups of people. As for women? Historian of science Londa Schiebinger states that these “Ancient doctrines of sexuality had claimed to reveal women’s place in the cosmic and social order.”

But these gendered analogies don’t just reinforce oppressive ideas about men and women. Dominant male/female and man/woman binaries also erase intersex and gender-non-conforming people. Often, scientific ‘proof’ of these sex and gender binaries are used as justification for violence against anyone who doesn’t fit into one of these two very restrictive boxes.

Gendered scientific analogies can be damaging for people of many identities. Photo by Joshua Rawson-Harris on Unsplash.

The history of social constructs in science is a long and complex one. One to which a single blog post could never do justice. But the ways that our social worlds shape our science is something we should pay close attention to.

Awareness isn’t enough, but it’s a start. If we can at least see where we’re going wrong, we can start on trying to fix things. Then, perhaps, we can create science that supports a safe and equitable future for all.


To find out more:

Hip Science Media Has A Gender Essentialism Problem

Did the science investigating gender differences get women wrong?

Unnatural selection: How racism warps scientific truths

Babies prescribed antidepressants

The past few decades have seen a surge in antidepressant use. Antidepressants are now the second most commonly prescribed drug type in the U.S. Though the increase in usage has not been only in adults, but also children and even babies.

In 2014, a reported 83,000 children in the U.S. aged 2 and under were prescribed the antidepressant Prozac. A 23% increase from the previous year.

Doctors are using the medication to treat early signs of depression in children and believe it may also protect them from developing adult depression in later life. Though with the fear of over-prescription and pharmaceutical dependence, many are concerned about the use of antidepressant medication in young people.

The rise of infant antidepressant drugs has been documented not only in the U.S. The use of psychotropic drugs, which include stimulants, antipsychotics, antidepressants and anti-anxiety medication, in children has increased in the UK, Denmark, Germany and Netherlands. Australia, too, has seen an increase in child prescriptions of psychotropics though predominantly for the treatment of schizophrenia, autism and ADHD.

By Bess-Hamiti from Pixabay.

Can babies even be depressed?

It’s hard to imagine a baby needing antidepressants. They don’t exactly have too many pressures in their life. No work on Monday morning, no relationship drama or 2000 word essays due. At 2 years old children typically are still learning to walk, talk and are not yet emotionally developed.

So, depression looks different for children at this age compared adults. It is typically characterised as a consistent:

  • lack of emotion or disinterest
  • irritability
  • behavioural issues such as temper tantrums
  • decreased appetite
  • sleeping issues

Some of these symptoms in themselves don’t sound like particularly unusual behaviours for a newborn baby or toddler. Though doctors may become concerned if the child’s parents have or have had mental health issues. As children with a family history of mental illness are at a greater risk for depression and are more likely to start displaying symptoms at a young age.

Does medication even work?

The only medication that has clinically shown to be effective in the treatment of childhood depression is Prozac. Prozac, pharmaceutical name fluoxetine, falls into a class of drugs known as SSRIs, Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors.

By Vtvu from Wikimedia Commons.

Serotonin is a chemical found in the brain (as well as the digestive system) that’s involved in regulating mood and emotion. Ordinarily, it is released from neurons in the brain into synapses (gaps between neurons). The influx of serotonin triggers a series of events that cause connected neurons to fire and pass messages throughout the brain.

SSRIs increase serotonin in the brain by preventing its reuptake at the brain’s synapses. So the serotonin stays in the synapses longer and is not broken down. Allowing the serotonin to have a longer lasting effect and increasing the overall concentration in the brain.

Though scientists are unsure exactly how the increase in serotonin improves mood. There are some that claim that people with depression have an imbalance of serotonin that effects positive thought pathways. There are others that believe depression is linked to reduced neuron regeneration and that serotonin helps to reverse this process. It appears that Prozac does reduce symptoms of depression.

By 3dman_eu from Pixabay.

Is it safe?

Brain imaging has found no abnormal effects of antidepressant on children’s brains. In fact, the neurological differences seen in depressed children appear to eradicate with antidepressant medication.

Though there are still great concerns about the use of antidepressant medication in the developing minds of children and its long-term effects. That while antidepressants may improve positive thought pathways they could also create a reliance on medication or prevent normal brain development.

Due to recency of antidepressant development and an understandable unwillingness on behalf of parents to volunteer their children for such an experiment. There have been no longitudinal studies on how antidepressant use in childhood effects development.

There are also concerns that antidepressants are being over-prescribed and used unnecessarily.

Though medical protocol requires practitioners to recommend therapy and psychological counselling as the first port of call. There are long wait-lists for therapy, especially for specialist child psychologists. The appointments themselves are expensive especially in places such as America which lack affordable public healthcare. That anti-depressant medication is sometimes the only available solution for depression.

Though overall, medical institutions including the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists, suggest that benefits of antidepressants outweigh the potential risk. That “not treating depression is more likely to result in harm than is appropriate use of antidepressants”.

*I would also like to append that this blog post is not intended to serve as medical advice, for any issues concerning depression or psychological disorders please see a medical professional.


A hole lotta trouble: obliterating our ozone layer

With over 15,000 new cases reported each year, Australia and New Zealand share the dubious honour of being the world’s skin cancer capitals. Ask someone why, and there’s a good chance they’ll pin it on ‘the hole in the ozone layer’ sitting above these hapless countries. Luckily for us, this is an urban myth – the chronic failure of pasty Europeans to slip, slop, and slap is the real culprit. On the other hand, the penguins in Antarctica might need some SPF 50+, because the hole in the ozone layer there stretches across twenty million square kilometres!

Cancer Council could be making a fortune with an Antarctic branch – these penguins are ready to buy.
Image by David Cook, via Flickr

Sunscreen in the sky

If you’ve ever heard of the ozone layer, you probably know that it protects our planet from the Sun’s rays. As a giant nuclear reactor, the Sun is constantly churning out excess energy as waves of radiation. Most of the radiation that escapes is harmless, but the waves with the highest energy – mainly ultraviolet (UV) rays – can irreversibly damage the DNA of living cells. Just one thing stands between us and certain death: a thin layer of ozone floating in the stratosphere, twenty kilometres above the Earth’s surface.

Ozone is effectively just a deluxe version of the oxygen gas we breathe – instead of two oxygen atoms, ozone is made of three. This simple difference, however, gives ozone one very fortunate quirk: the ability to absorb the most harmful forms of UV radiation. When a UV ray crashes into an ozone molecule, its energy is sucked up into the bonds holding the ozone together. The rush of solar power ‘excites’ the bonds enough for one to break apart, and the excess energy dissipates as harmless heat. Voila! The UV ray is vanquished, and life on Earth avoids the curse of mass melanoma.

But what becomes of the ozone itself? When it breaks apart, it leaves behind a molecule of oxygen gas (O2), and a lone oxygen atom. Oxygen atoms would make fantastic cast members in a soap opera – they’re volatile, reactive, and hate being single. In a desperate bid to return to a happy marriage, they latch onto the first puff of oxygen gas that drifts by, and a new ozone molecule is born. The result is a constant cycling of oxygen particles that has allowed our ozone layer to continuously regenerate for hundreds of millions of years.

All that stands between our skin and the incredible energy of our Sun is a few tiny particles of gas.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Flickr.


If our atmosphere’s built-in sunscreen can replenish itself, then why is there such an enormous hole above the South Pole? The blame – as usual – falls squarely on our shoulders.

Following the First and Second World Wars, many of the innovations developed by countries to aid their fight on the front line were transitioned into mainstream industries. Among these were an extremely unreactive group of chemicals known as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs for short). Originally used to suppress fires in military aircraft, they gained popularity with public pilots throughout the 1930s. When less toxic CFCs were discovered in the 1950s, their use skyrocketed – at the peak of their popularity, they could be found in just about every light aircraft, fire extinguisher, and spray can. They were also ubiquitous as coolants in household fridges, trademarked under the brand name Freon. But the same properties of stability that make CFCs so good at withstanding the fury of fires, and the pressure inside a spray nozzle, could also spell doom for our planet.

Old fire extinguishers like this one often contain CFCs – they were one of the largest contributors to the hole in our ozone layer!
Image by Sean Fallows
via Flickr.

CFCs are stable due to the incredibly strong bonds that hold their atoms together; they contain chlorine and fluorine, which have the strongest ‘grips’ of any element. The iron fist these elements exert on the carbon atom at their centre gives each CFC as long as a century to move through the environment without decomposing. Over several years of heavy use, CFCs began to float out of our cities and right up into our ozone layer. But the moment they move above this protective sunshield, something happens: they break up.

The incredible power of the Sun’s UV radiation is strong enough to rip apart the bonds within these hardy molecules, sending chlorine flying into the open air. If free oxygen is an unhappy soap star, then these atoms are the mass murderers from American Horror Story. Just one chlorine atom can easily destroy one hundred thousand ozone molecules before leaving the stratosphere. With such a deep thirst for blood, it should come as no surprise that CFCs (and some related chemicals) have been named and shamed as the #1 culprits behind our sprawling ozone hole.

One of the least important uses for chlorofluorocarbons – adding weight to wax in lava lamps!
Image by Faruk Atesvia Flickr.

No hole the end goal

If we were to give CFCs free reign over our skies, the hole over Australia might not be a myth for much longer. Luckily, in a rare case of political cooperation, the rest of the world seems to agree. In 1987, just over a decade after the harmful effects of CFCs were first discovered, forty-six states signed the now-famous Montreal Protocol. Developed to restrict the use of ozone-damaging chemicals across the globe, the protocol has been described as the world’s ‘single most successful international agreement‘. Fast-forward to 2018, and an incredible 197 states are signatories to the plan. Better yet, CFC emissions have declined massively, and the hole in the ozone layer is actually closing up.

Despite our habit of ruining everything we touch, it’s clear that humanity has the power to meet lofty environmental goals. While Australians will probably never learn to apply enough sunscreen, I’m sure the cancer-free penguins waddling around Antarctica’s frosty shores will thank us in the years to come.

By the end of the 21st century, this wound in our stratosphere could be gone completely.
Image by NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, via Flickr.

On cloud nine? Read more:
1. A mysterious new CFC?
2. An unexpected culprit: the plastic foam industry!
3. What we really mean by ‘ozone hole’.

Could you lie to me?

You know that feeling when a word is on the tip of your tongue but you can’t quite figure out what it is? You can remember one or two letters but you lack the ability to communicate it? Patients of global or receptive aphasia are perpetually in this state. It is an illness described as “when your brain holds your words hostage”. The disease is characterised by complete language loss: in communication and comprehension. And it has an interesting side effect – you cannot lie to an aphasiac.

What is Global Aphasia?

Well, Aphasia results from brain damage to the language regions of the brain. Depending on the extent and site of the damage, there are three different types of Aphasia. Global is the most severe. It results from damage to the regions seen below:

Image by Haggort P via Wikipedia Commons

In the left temporal lobe of the brain and the lower frontal cortex, where 2 major language regions lie: Broca’s and Wernicke’s areas. Damage to these areas or the path between them (Perisylvanian Cortex) results in Global Aphasia.

This can be the result of a stroke, epilepsy, migraines, brain tumour, Alzheimers or Parkinsons.

Pants on Fire

Image by Dmitry via Flickr

There is a common phenomenon in illness: Where a patient loses a feature/ability/sense, other aspects of the body are heightened to compensate for this loss. For example, patients who are blind are more sensitive to sound, touch and smell.

In the context of Global Aphasia, the patient compensates for their lack or language comprehension with hyperawareness of tone, emphasis, cadences, expressions and gestures. Oftentimes, this means that they can fully comprehend conversations with family and friends. They are so aware of extra-lingual cues that they cannot be fooled by lies.

Global Aphasiacs can immediately tell when a person is lying as they cannot be duped by the words and instead rely on tone.


Getting Political

In his now world famous 1985 book, The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat, Dr Oliver Dax describes watching a Ronald Reagan speech with a group of aphasiacs. During his speech, the group began impulsively laughing to his apparently sincere speech. They could see through his charm and pretty words, for his mannerisms gave him away as disingenuous to the most trained eye.

Image by Opus Penguin via Flickr


A similar experiment was performed at the time of the 2016 U.S Presidential elections. With the help of a speech pathologist, a group of aphasiacs watched one the Presidential Debates between Mr Trump and Ms Clinton and communicated their insights. The group concurred that Ms Clinton was convinced that she would be successful in the election and that Mr Trump was terrified of taxes.

Though these notes are not too shocking for us now, it is still very interesting that those who cannot understand words managed to gleam this purely from extra-lingual cues.

There is a Neitzche quote that best describes why those who cannot understand words can yet detect a lie:

“One can lie with the mouth but with the accompanying grimace, one nevertheless tells the truth.”

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