A Biophysicist Who Studied the Thermodynamics of Pizza

Science and philosophy might not seem like kindred practices at first glance, but much of what a scientist does is about studying the “fundamental nature of knowledge, reality, and existence.” Even less obvious is the intersection of science and humor, but biophysicist Harold Morowitz certainly brought a sense of humor to his job, and married these many elements into a life’s work.

Born in 1927 in Poughkeepsie, New York, Morowitz spent most of his academic career at Yale. He got his Bachelor of Science in—you guessed it—physics and philosophy, followed by an M.S. in physics, and a Ph.D. in biophysics, all from Yale, by the time he was 23 years old. After stints at the National Bureau of Standards and the National Heart Institute, he then became a professor at Yale until 1987, when he moved to George Mason University. Morowitz was also a prolific writer; he was the founding editor-in-chief of the journal Complexity, authored or co-authored 19 books, and wrote a popular science column for the magazine Hospital Practice.

Among his many books was 1968’s Energy Flow in Biology, which approached biology with a focus on thermodynamics, and put forth the theory that "the energy that flows through a system acts to organize that system,” a groundbreaking concept that proved to be his greatest legacy. As The New York Times reports, this idea extended beyond understanding the origins of life on Earth, and made the case for the likelihood of extraterrestrial life.

Morowitz’s multifaceted sense of curiosity was also apparent in the people who influenced him. The Times notes that he was inspired by Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, a somewhat controversial “mid-20th-century Jesuit paleontologist who developed the idea of the Omega Point, his term for a level of spiritual consciousness and material complexity toward which he believed the universe was evolving.”

A person is also defined by those they influence in turn, and Morowitz did pretty well in that regard: His student James E. Rothman won the Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine in 2013, and wrote about Morowitz in his autobiograpy for the Nobel Prize website, describing his teacher as an intellectual with cutting-edge interests as well as "personal warmth and charm."

Elsewhere in his studies concerning heat energy, Morowitz took a look at The Thermodynamics of Pizza (1991)—specifically, how fast one gets cold in zero gravity. That wasn’t his only foray into the food world: A 1985 book was called Mayonnaise and The Origin of Life: Thoughts of Minds and Molecules.

Morowitz also served as a longtime consultant for NASA, working on everything from the Apollo missions to the moon to the Viking missions to Mars, and on projects such as Biosphere 2. In 1983, he appeared as a scientific expert in the McLean v. Arkansas case (sometimes called "Scopes II") and testified that creationism should not be taught in public schools, specifically for its misuses of the second law of thermodynamics.

Some also credit Morowitz with discovering a candidate for a fourth law of thermodynamics, called Morowitz’s cycling law, which states that “In the steady state systems, the flow of energy through the system from a source to a sink will lead to at least one cycle in the system."

Morowitz died in March at age 88. He worked until the very end of his life, and currently has a posthumous book coming out called The Origin and Nature of Life on Earth. In a commencement address, Morowitz once said, “Conformity is not necessarily a virtue. Hard work is almost never vice. Hopefulness is a moral imperative. And, a sense of humor helps.”

Ted Cranford
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.

Women Suffer Worse Migraines Than Men. Now Scientists Think They Know Why

Migraines are one of medicine's most frustrating mysteries, both causes and treatments. Now researchers believe they've solved one part of the puzzle: a protein affected by fluctuating estrogen levels may explain why more women suffer from migraines than men.

Migraines are the third most common illness in the world, affecting more than 1 in 10 people. Some 75 percent of sufferers are women, who also experience them more frequently and more intensely, and don't respond as well to drug treatments as men do.

At this year's Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, researcher Emily Galloway presented new findings on the connection between the protein NHE1 and the development of migraine headaches. NHE1 regulates the transfer of protons and sodium ions across cell membranes, including the membranes that separate incoming blood flow from the brain.

When NHE1 levels are low or the molecule isn't working as it's supposed to, migraine-level head pain can ensue. And because irregular NHE1 disrupts the flow of protons and sodium ions to the brain, medications like pain killers have trouble crossing the blood-brain barrier as well. This may explain why the condition is so hard to treat.

When the researchers analyzed NHE1 levels in the brains of male and female lab rats, the researchers found them to be four times higher in the males than in the females. Additionally, when estrogen levels were highest in the female specimens, NHE1 levels in the blood vessels of their brains were at their lowest.

Previous research had implicated fluctuating estrogen levels in migraines, but the mechanism behind it has remained elusive. The new finding could change the way migraines are studied and treated in the future, which is especially important considering that most migraine studies have focused on male animal subjects.

"Conducting research on the molecular mechanisms behind migraine is the first step in creating more targeted drugs to treat this condition, for men and women," Galloway said in a press statement. "Knowledge gained from this work could lead to relief for millions of those who suffer from migraines and identify individuals who may have better responses to specific therapies."

The new research is part of a broader effort to build a molecular map of the relationship between sex hormones and NHE1 expression. The next step is testing drugs that regulate these hormones to see how they affect NHE1 levels in the brain.


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