Tag Archives: science

Autism and adults….really?

Okay, granted, I have never studied autism. I don’t know much of the research and what I do know I get strictly from the news and conversations with people who have actually studied autism or deal with it on a regular basis (like my mom and my sister). I do know that one concern is over-diagnosis of autism and autism-spectrum disorders, which is why this article kind of disturbs me.

All that the article says is ‘new research funded by the Department of Health’ shows that 1 in 100 adults has autism. There is no link to the new research, no quotation from anyone who carried out the research, and no formal statement from the Department of Health. Just ‘new research’. What kind of research? What criteria are they using to diagnose? There are things that are part of responsible science reporting, and some of those things are missing in this article.

Also, ‘Mozart, Orwell, Einstein, Beethoven and Newton all had it’? Really? Again, by what criteria? When was this decided, and by whom? I’m pretty sure autism wasn’t recognized as a disorder when Mozart was alive, or Newton (anyone know when it was first diagnosed?). Posthumous diagnoses are tricky, because they are based on necessarily biased and incomplete accounts of a person’s behavior. My first instinct, when reading a statement like that lead, is to see it as nothing more than a publicity attempt, especially when there’s no further context for it. I’m not saying that the diagnoses are necessarily wrong, you understand. I just think it’s a troubling attempt to impose modern criteria on personalities of other eras, especially when it’s autism which is such a vaguely defined but highly public diagnosis anyway. I’d like to see whatever study came up with the idea that Mozart and Newton and especially Beethoven were autistic.

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A Brief History of Nearly Everything, by Bill Bryson

I really like Bill Bryson’s writing voice. It’s wry, it’s distinctive, it’s colloquial without being overly dated.  I was a little bit nervous about this book, because I tend to like Bryson’s specifically travel books better than anything else (I have not gotten all the way through Thunderbolt Kid, for instance – although I haven’t tried his Shakespeare book yet). But I quite enjoyed this book, which, if you don’t know, is all about the history of science. Every science – chemistry, physics, geology, biology, anthropology, paleontology, astronomy, etc. – is described from the beginning of the Enlightenment to the beginning of the 21st century. It’s like a travel book through the history of science.

One of the things that reading books like this does to me is make me want to read more books like this. I walked into Blackwell’s today and had to restrain myself from buying an anthology of science writing. I also had to restrain myself from adding lots of obscure public-domain science books to my list, and looking up ways that I could get extra degrees in things like chemistry or bacterial biology or astronomy or even just mathematics. Books like this also make me want to write books like this: I have at least one travel book started in my head now. The only problem is that my writing keeps sounding like Bryson, and not so much like me yet.

Because that’s another thing that reading books like this does to me: it makes me want to know everything about everything. The world doesn’t know a lot about bacteria? I should study it! It’s a part of my whole ‘searching-for-focus’ thing that doesn’t work well because I’m interested in EVERYTHING. I want to find a niche that I can fill; unfortunately the niches that are out there don’t quite mesh with my current education or experience.

I did notice quite a few references in the book to amateurs – people who were in other fields and did science almost as a dedicated hobby, and ended up making amazing discoveries. I don’t know how feasible that would be today. Most of the things that I am interested in (genetics, for example, or astronomy) require equipment that I don’t have access to at this point, and I don’t know how I would be able to get access to it. Maybe I’ll become a mathematical ‘celebrated amateur’ instead. Or a (semi-trained) linguist. (Or maybe I’ll just stick to being a voracious reader of everything that I can get my hands on.)

Overall I liked the book, obviously. Also, I figured out how to read footnotes on the ereader, which is a plus. Science is fascinating, and Bryson makes the history of science accessible. I probably won’t remember some of the names and facts in a week or so – it’s not a textbook, and I wasn’t taking notes or anything – but the love of it definitely will stay with me.

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Some days, I wish I had studied science

Genetics was my favourite part of biology class, and is one of the reasons that I sometimes wish that I’d continued studying science past high school. I still follow science news, though, and was intrigued by this article about the Quagga. There are only 23 hides left, and yet from these 100+ year old skins they were able to extract enough DNA to analyse it and plan a breeding program. Thank goodness that there are still enough Plains zebras around to make such a project feasible. I doubt a similar program would work with the big cats or the rhinos (there’s a subspecies of black rhino, I think it is, that is near extinction): the gene pool just isn’t varied enough.

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