Category Archives: physiology

West’s Batman vs Zen Batmen

“Holy kleenex Batman, it was right under our noses and we blew it.” I came of age with Adam West’s Batman on TV and a relatively sane Batman in the comic books. Batman was a sort of urban cowboy: a loner, but law-abiding, honest, and polite – both to the police and to the ordinary citizen. He was good, and he was “nice.” As with future Batmen, no one died, at least not from the Batman.


More recent Batmen have been not nice, and arguably not good either. They are above the law, trained in eastern monasteries by dark masters of kung fu, with a morality no one quite understands. One could say, quite literally, “He was a dark and stormy knight.”

Well, a few days ago, I found the item at left for sale on e-Bay, a plastic Batman-Buddha, and I started wondering about the meditations that produced Batman, and that Batman expounds on life and crime. It wasn’t pretty. They are not pretty. A quick check from the movie versions suggest the Zen Batman is pretty messed up, something that psychologists have noted.

Here’s a quote from the goofy, Adam West Batman of the 1960s: “Underneath this garb, we’re perfectly ordinary Americans.” Believing yourself to be normal helps improve sanity, and helps you relate to others. Calling yourself an American implies you keep American laws. Here’s another quote: “A reporter’s lot is not easy, making exciting stories out of plain, average, ordinary people like Robin and me.” It’s nice to see that the Adam West Batman feels for the other peoples’ problems, respects their professions, and does not profess to be better than they. By contrast, when a more recent Batman is asked: “What gives you the right? What’s the difference between you and me?” The Dark Knight responds, “I’m not wearing hockey pads.” This is a might-is-right approach, suggesting he’s above the law. The problem: a self-appointed vigilante is a criminal.

Here are some more quotes of the recent, eastern Batmen:
“Sometimes it’s only madness that makes us what we are.”
“That mask — it’s not to hide who I am, but to create what I am.”
“I won’t kill you, but I don’t have to save you.”

These quote are at least as messed up as the hockey pad quote above. It sometimes seems the Joker is the more sane of the two. For example, when Batman explains why he doesn’t kill: “If you kill a killer, the number of killers remains the same.” To which Joker replies: “Unless you kill more than one… but whatever you say, Batsy.”

Not a classic Batmobile, but I like the concept.

Not a classic Batmobile, but I like the concept; if that’s not Adam West, if could be.

The dark, depressive Batmen tend to leave Gotham City in shambles after every intervention, with piles of dead. West’s Batman left the city clean and whole. Given the damage, you wonder why the police call Batman or let him on the streets. Unlike West, the current Batmen never works with the police, quite. And to the extent that Robin appears at all, his relationship with Batman is more frenemy than friend or ward. Batgirl (mostly absent) has changed too. The original Batgirl, if you don’t recall, was Barbara Gordon, Commissioner Gordon’s daughter. She was a positive, female role model, with a supportive, non-sexist parent in Commissioner Gordon (an early version of Kim Possible’s dad). The current Batgirl appears only once, and is presented as the butler’s daughter. Until her appearance that day, you never see her at Wayne Manor, nor did she know quite what her dad was up to.

Here are some West Batman / Robin interactions showing an interest in Robin’s education and well-being:

“Haven’t you noticed how we always escape the vicious ensnarements of our enemies?” Robin: “Yeah, because we’re smarter than they are!”  “I like to think it’s because our hearts are pure.”

“Better put 5 cents in the meter.” Robin: “No policeman’s going to give the Batmobile a ticket.”
“This money goes to building better roads. We all must do our part.”

Robin: “You can’t get away from Batman that easy!” “Easily.” Robin: “Easily.”
“Good grammar is essential, Robin.” Robin: “Thank you.” “You’re welcome.”

Robin/Dick:”What’s so important about Chopin?” “All music is important, Dick. It’s the universal language. One of our best hopes for the eventual realization of the brotherhood of man.” Dick: “Gosh Bruce, yes, you’re right. I’ll practice harder from now on.”

“That’s one trouble with dual identities, Robin. Dual responsibilities.”

“Even crime fighters must eat. And especially you. You’re a growing boy and you need your nutrition.”

“What took you so long, Batgirl?” Batgirl: “Rush hour traffic, plus all the lights were against me. And you wouldn’t want me to speed, would you?” Robin: “Your good driving habits almost cost us our lives!” Batman: “Rules are rules, Robin. But you do have a point.”

And finally: “I think you should acquire a taste for opera, Robin, as one does for poetry and olives.”

Clearly this Batman takes an interest in Robin’s health and education, and in Batgirl’s. Robin is his ward, after all, rather a foster child, and it’s good to seem him treated as a foster child — admittedly with a foster-father whose profession is a odd.

Perhaps the most normal comment from a non-West Batman is this (it appears in many posters): “It’s not who I am underneath, but what I do that defines me.” It’s, more or less, a quote from Karl Jung (famous psychologist) and can serve as a motivator providing pride in one’s art, but job-attachment goes with suicide, e.g. when you lose your job. The far healthier approach is less identification with job; just be proud of doing good and developing virtue. West’s Batman finds Catwoman, a woman with her own moral code, odious, abhorrent, and insegrievious, and says so. The only difference between her and The Joker is the amount of damage done; he should find her insegrievious. Sorry to say, recent, Zen Batmen and Supermen are just as bad. To quote Robin: “Holy strawberries, Batman, we’re in a jam.”

Robert Buxbaum, June 26, 2017. Insegeivious is a made-up word, BTW. If we use it, it could become part of the real vocabulary.

you are what you eat?

The simplest understanding of this phrase is that you should eat good, healthy foods to be healthy, and that this will make you healthy in body and mind.

The author of the study published this book against GM foods simultaneously with release of his paper.

The author of this book against unhealthy foods faked his analysis to support the book.

Clearly there is some truth to this. Crazy people look crazy and often eat crazy. Even ‘normal’ people, if they eat too much are likely to become fat, lazy, and sick. There is a socio- economic effect (fat people earn less), and a physiological evidence that gut bacteria affects anxiety and depression (at least in rats). My sense here is at the diet extremes though. There is little, or no evidence to suggest you can make yourself more intelligent (or kind or good) by eating more of the right stuff, or just the right foods in just the right amounts. A better diet can make you look better, but there is a core lie at work when you extend this to imply that the real you is your body, or so tied to your body that a healthy mind can not be found in a sickly body. But most evidence is that the mind is the real you, and (following Socrates) that beautiful minds are found in sickly bodies. I’ve seen few (basically, no) healthy poets, writers, or great artists. Neither are there scientists of note (that I can recall) who lived without smoking, drinking, and any bad habits. Many creative people did drugs. George Orwell smoked cigarette, and died of TB, but wrote well to the end. There is no evidence that bad writing or thinking can be improved by health foods. Stupid is as stupid does, and many healthy people are clearly dolts.

Not that it’s always clear what constitutes good health, or what constitutes good food for health, or what constitutes a good mind. Skinny people may be admired and may earn more, but it is not clear they are healthy. Yule Gibbons, the natural food guru died young of stomach cancer. Adele Davis, another the author of “eat right to be healthy,” died of brain cancer. And Jim Fix, “the running doctor” died young of a heat attack while running. Their health foods may have killed them, and that unhealthy foods, like chocolate and coffee can be good for you. It’s likely a question of balance. While a person will feel better who dresses well, the extreme is probably no good. Very often, a person is drawn after his self-image to be the person he pretends. Show me a man who eats only vegetarian, and I’ll show you someone who sees himself as spiritual, or wants to be seen as spiritual. And that man is likely to be drawn to acting spiritual. Among the vegetarians you find Einstein, George B. Shaw, and Gandhi, people who may have been spiritual from the start, but may have been kept to spirituality from their diets. You also find Hitler: spirituality can take all sorts of forms.

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker

Ward Sullivan in the New Yorker. People eat, drink, and dress like who they are. And people become like those they eat drink and dress like.

Choice of diet also helps select the people you run into. If you eat vegetarian, you’re likely to associate with other vegetarians, and you will likely behave like them. If you eat Chinese, Greek, or Mexican food, you’re likely to associate with these communities and behave like them. Similarly, an orthodox Jew or Moslem is tied to his community with every dinner and every purchase from the kosher or halal store.

And now we come to the bizarre science of bio-systems. Each person is a complex bio-system, with more non-human DNA than human, and more non-human cells than human. A person has a vast army of bugs on him, and a similarly vast pool of bugs within him. Recent research suggests that what we eat affects this bio-system, and through it our mental state. For whatever the mechanism, show me someone who drinks only 30 year Scotch or 40-year-old French wine, and I’ll show you a food snob. By contrast, show me someone who eats good, cheap food, and drinks good, cheap wine or Scotch (Lauder’s or Dewar’s), and I’ll show you a decent person very much like myself, a clever man who either is a man of the people or who wants to be known as one.”Dis-moi ce que tu manges, je te dirai ce que tu es.” [Tell me what you eat and I will tell you what you are].

Robert E. Buxbaum, February, 2015. My 16-year-old daughter asked me to write on this topic. Perhaps she didn’t know what it meant, or how true I thought it was, or perhaps she liked my challenges of being 16.

Nerves are tensegrity structures and grow when pulled

No one quite knows how nerve cells learn stuff. It is incorrectly thought that you can not get new nerves in the brain, nor that you can get brain cells to grow out further, but people have made new nerve cells, and when I was a professor at Michigan State, a Physiology colleague and I got brain and sensory nerves to grow out axons by pulling on them without the use of drugs.

I had just moved to Michigan State as a fresh PhD (Princeton) as an assistant professor of chemical engineering. Steve Heidemann was a few years ahead of me, a Physiology professor PhD from Princeton. We were both new Yorkers. He had been studying nerve structure, and wondered about how the growth cone makes nerves grow out axons (the axon is the long, stringy part of the nerve). A thought was that nerves were structured as Snelson-Fuller tensegrity structures, but it was not obvious how that would relate to growth or anything else. A Snelson-Fuller structure is shown below the structure stands erect not by compression, as in a pyramid or igloo, but rather because tension in the wires helps lift the metal pipes, and puts them in compression. The nerve cell, shown further below is similar with actin-protein as the outer, tensed skin, and a microtubule-protein core as the compress pipes. 

A Snelson-Fuller tensegrity sculpture in the graduate college courtyard at Princeton, where Steve and I got our PhDs

A Snelson-Fuller tensegrity sculpture in the graduate college courtyard at Princeton, an inspiration for our work.

Biothermodynamics was pretty basic 30 years ago (It still is today), and it was incorrectly thought that objects were more stable when put in compression. It didn’t take too much thermodynamics on my part to show otherwise, and so I started a part-time career in cell physiology. Consider first how mechanical force should affect the Gibbs free energy, G, of assembled microtubules. For any process at constant temperature and pressure, ∆G = work. If force is applied we expect some elastic work will be put into the assembled Mts in an amount  ∫f dz, where f is the force at every compression, and ∫dz is the integral of the distance traveled. Assuming a small force, or a constant spring, f = kz with k as the spring constant. Integrating the above, ∆G = ∫kz dz = kz2; ∆G is always positive whether z is positive or negative, that is the microtubule is most stable with no force, and is made less stable by any force, tension or compression. 

A cell showing what appears to be tensegrity. The microtubules in green surrounded by actin in red. If the actin is under tension the microtubules are in compression. From here.

A cell showing what appears to be tensegrity. The microtubules (green) surrounded by actin (red). In nerves Heidemann and I showed actin is in tension the microtubules in compression.

Assuming that microtubules in the nerve- axon are generally in compression as in the Snelson-Fuller structure, then pulling on the axon could potentially reduce the compression. Normally, this is done by a growth cone, we posited, but we could also do it by pulling. In either case, a decrease in the compression of the assembled microtubules should favor microtubule assembly.

To calculate the rates, I used absolute rate theory, something I’d learned from Dr. Mortimer Kostin, a most-excellent thermodynamics professor. I assumed that the free energy of the monomer was unaffected by force, and that the microtubules were in pseudo- equilibrium with the monomer. Growth rates were predicted to be proportional to the decrease in G, and the prediction matched experimental data. 

Our few efforts to cure nerve disease by pulling did not produce immediate results; it turns out to by hard to pull on nerves in the body. Still, we gained some publicity, and a variety of people seem to have found scientific and/or philosophical inspiration in this sort of tensegrity model for nerve growth. I particularly like this review article by Don Ingber in Scientific American. A little more out there is this view of consciousness life and the fate of the universe (where I got the cell picture). In general, tensegrity structures are more tough and flexible than normal construction. A tensegrity structure will bend easily, but rarely break. It seems likely that your body is held together this way, and because of this you can carry heavy things, and still move with flexibility. It also seems likely that bones are structured this way; as with nerves; they are reasonably flexible, and can be made to grow by pulling.

Now that I think about it, we should have done more theoretical or experimental work in this direction. I imagine that  pulling on the nerve also affects the stability of the actin network by affecting the chain configuration entropy. This might slow actin assembly, or perhaps not. It might have been worthwhile to look at new ways to pull, or at bone growth. In our in-vivo work we used an external magnetic field to pull. We might have looked at NASA funding too, since it’s been observed that astronauts grow in outer space by a solid inch or two, and their bodies deteriorate. Presumably, the lack of gravity causes the calcite in the bones to grow, making a person less of a tensegrity structure. The muscle must grow too, just to keep up, but I don’t have a theory for muscle.

Robert Buxbaum, February 2, 2014. Vaguely related to this, I’ve written about architecture, art, and mechanical design.

Slowing Cancer with Fish and Unhealth Food

Some 25 years ago, while still a chemical engineering professor at Michigan State University, I did some statistical work for a group in the Physiology department on the relationship between diet and cancer. The research involved giving cancer to groups of rats and feeding them different diets of the same calorie intake to see which promoted or slowed the disease. It had been determined that low-calorie diets slowed cancer growth, and were good for longevity in general, while overweight rats died young (true in humans too, by the way, though there’s a limit and starvation will kill you).

The group found that fish oil was generally good for you, but they found that there were several unhealthy foods that slowed cancer growth in rats. The statistics were clouded by the fact that cancer growth rates are not normally distributed, and I was brought in to help untangle the observations.

With help from probability paper (a favorite trick of mine), I confirmed that healthy rats fared better on healthily diets, but cancerous rats did better with some unhealth food. Sick or well, all rats did best with fish oil, and all rats did pretty well with olive oil, but the cancerous rats did better with lard or palm oil (normally an unhealthy diet) and very poorly with corn oil or canola, oils that are normally healthful. The results are published in several articles in the journals “Cancer” and “Cancer Research.”

Among vitamins, they found something similar (it was before I joined the group). Several anti-oxidizing vitamins, A, D and E made things worse for carcinogenic rats while being good for healthy rats (and for people in moderation). Moderation is key; too much of a good thing isn’t good, and a diet with too much fish oil promotes cancer.

What seems to be happening is that the cancer cells grow at the same rate with all of the equi-caloric diets, but that there was a difference the rate of natural cancer cell death. More cancer cells died when the rat was fed junk food oils than those fed a diet of corn oil and canola. Similarly, the reason anti-oxidizing vitamins hurt cancerous rats was that fewer cancer cells died when the rats were fed these vitamins. A working hypothesis is that the junk oils (and the fish oil) produced free radicals that did more damage to the cancer than to the rats. In healthy rats (and people), these free radicals are bad, promoting cell mutation, cell degradation, and sometimes cancer. But perhaps our body use these same free radicals to fight disease.

Larger amounts of vitamins A, D, and E hurt cancerous-rats by removing the free radicals they normally use fight the disease, or so our model went. Bad oils and fish-oil in moderation, with calorie intake held constant, helped slow the cancer, by a presumed mechanism of adding a few more free radicals. Fish oil, it can be assumed, killed some healthy cells in the healthy rats too, but not enough to cause problems when taken in moderation. Even healthy people are often benefitted by poisons like sunlight, coffee, alcohol and radiation.

At this point, a warning is in-order: Don’t rely on fish oil and lard as home remedies if you’ve got cancer. Rats are not people, and your calorie intake is not held artificially constant with no other treatments given. Get treated by a real doctor — he or she will use radiation and/ or real drugs, and those will form the right amount of free radicals, targeted to the right places. Our rats were given massive amounts of cancer and had no other treatment besides diet. Excess vitamin A has been shown to be bad for humans under treatment for lung cancer, and that’s perhaps because of the mechanism we imagine, or perhaps everything works by some other mechanism. However it works, a little fish in your diet is probably a good idea whether you are sick or well.

A simpler health trick is that it couldn’t hurt most Americans is a lower calorie diet, especially if combined with exercise. Dr. Mites, a colleague of mine in the department (now deceased at 90+) liked to say that, if exercise could be put into a pill, it would be the most prescribed drug in America. There are few things that would benefit most Americans more than (moderate) exercise. There was a sign in the physiology office, perhaps his doing, “If it’s physical, it’s therapy.”

Anyway these are some useful things I learned as an associate professor in the physiology department at Michigan State. I ended up writing 30-35 physiology papers, e.g. on how cells crawl and cell regulation through architecture; and I met a lot of cool people. Perhaps I’ll blog more about health, biology, the body, or about non-normal statistics and probability paper. Please tell me what you’re interested in, or give me some keen insights of your own.

Dr. Robert Buxbaum is a Chemical Engineer who mostly works in hydrogen I’ve published some 75 technical papers, including two each in Science and Nature: fancy magazines that you’d normally have to pay for, but this blog is free. August 14, 2013