From the frying pan into the fire!

Two weeks spent in Italy were wonderful, but the weather was hot. I got quite a surprise when I got back to Paris for my last week there. When I had left there the weather was very cool – indeed most of May & part of June had been that way. But things changed quickly – a stalled weather system over Europe was going to make things very toasty – bringing southerly winds from Africa. So we were going to have ‘la canicule‘ or heat wave to get through. This was potentially a very serious problem: I saw on the French national news that an estimated 4% of French households have airconditioning [compare that to ~90% in the USA]. My 6th floor apartment of course was not airconditioned & my way of cooling it was to open every single window after sunset [& have the windows & shutters closed during the day]. That actually worked a treat – provided the temperature drops down at night. But during a canicule that does not really happen & there is no breeze at night, no respite. So I got prepared this time, because I had experienced that in the same apartment last year on sabbatical [thankfully only for a very brief time]. I went out & bought a fan to leave in the place for these rare occurrences. But I had to assemble the thing & did not have all of the tools to do it. I literally got 90% done & could not finish the last part because I either needed an extra hand or a special tool. Ironic & tragically funny at the same time. I was comparing heat stories with a friend who was staying with family in Germany while waiting for a new work visa – her problem is that they could not find the fan that one of her family members had ‘put in a safe place’ – so they were also having a similar problem! I finally got it fixed when my landladies stopped over as they were taking a pet to the vet in Paris. It took 3 of us to get it going. Ironically, I was only going to be there for 2 more nights… Here is a sunset from one of those nights. Looks as hot as Hades, but thankfully our temperatures were nowhere like those in Germany & Spain at the time…

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The day I returned to Paris was the longest day of the year – right in time for the Fête de la Musique which takes place on the night of the 21st June every year. It started in Paris in 1982. Everyone comes out into the street & makeshift stages pop up in neighborhoods. Anyone can sing or play music of their choice – so of course you get the good & the bad as well. More organized [& even televised events] take place in Paris, Nice etc. where well-known singers all come out to perform one song each. Music plays long into the night – which can be quite late since it does not really get dark until about 11 pm. As I starting to pack up some of my stuff I was very happy to be listening to some nice jazz filtering in through my open windows. [I missed this event last year because I was at the OHBM scientific meeting in Singapore.]

At the start of the week I had to attend & speak at a conference organized between Sorbonne Université & my own Indiana University – on artificial intelligence. What do I know about artificial intelligence, I hear many of you cry? Well not much. I had to present the work of a colleague & made sure that I made that clear…

One day we ended up having lunch in the same ‘tower’ that we were in last year for a similar meeting. The view from the 25th floor of the Zamansky Tower [of UPMC, or the science/technology campus of the Sorbonne] where we were was stunning. This year though, Notre Dame looked very different. Compare the two images below, the top one is from this year in late June and the bottom one was taken from the same location about a year ago.

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The damage in the top image is very evident & is quite extensive. I had previously posted images of the Notre Dame taken from the other side of the city – from 56th floor of the Tour Montparnasse [see images a few posts ago]. Those images did not look as bad as this one. Now I understand why people here think that it will likely be impossible to renovate it in the 5 year period proposed by Emmanuel Macron.

As part of the conference we had a collective dinner that was organized at a very well-known restaurant near the old Sorbonne campus called Bouillon Racine [see http://bouillonracine.fr/] in the 6th arrondisement. The word ‘bouillon’ is apparently the precursor word for ‘brasserie’ – the latter of which was originally used to designate places that brewed their own beer etc.  Bouillon Racine is quite an institution in the area – being around since 1906 & being lavishly decorated in an exuberant Art Nouveau style, as the panorama image below shows:

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It was a very toasty affair because we sat upstairs – with all the windows open, as can be seen from the street view:

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I would like to return there when the weather is cooler & one could sample some of the more heavier, traditional dishes. That particular night was one of those nights where you drink copious amounts of water, very little wine & sit forward in your chair so that the sweat can run down the small of your back. That said, however, we had a beautiful dinner & the conversation flowed nicely. It was really great to get to know colleagues from the Sorbonne as well as my own IU, that I had not really interacted with previously. Nice! After dinner, I retired to the coolness of the Metro for a fairly quick ride home. Happily, as I flung open my apartment windows that night we actually had a bit of a breeze – bearable. That said, however, the mosquitoes this year were really abundant & mean – probably the artifact of a cool & wet spring. Last year I was in the same apartment in summer & did not have that problem at all, so this was an unpleasant surprise…

The rest of the week was spent in dinners out catching up with friends to say adieu, finishing up at the institute, as well as packing up & cleaning out the apartment. Ironically, the last day I was there cleaning the apartment was the hottest one of all! So I made sure I got up early & moved my baggage out to a nearby hotel. I then fortified myself with a croissant from my favorite bakery & declared war on the apartment. The worst part was the dust – everything gets so dusty quickly when all the windows are open to a very busy street. Happily I was done by noon – so did not have to work during the hottest part of the day. Instead I joined my colleague for a long & languid lunch [which I followed up with a siesta later in the afternoon…]. It was a really nice time to spend some last hours together. I decided I would have a decent size meal, as my plan was to have just a snack for dinner. So I had a steak tartare & frites & a salad from my favorite local brasserie & a place I like to hang out in regularly. That way I could say my goodbyes to the lovely staff who work there. I have spoken about it previously, you might remember that… My colleague managed to do a stealth move & secretly paid for my lunch. What a lovely surprise that was!

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Thus fortified, I went back to my apartment to give back my keys & say goodbye to the gardienne of the apartment building &, of course, my landladies. They were hanging out in Paris that weekend because their cat had another vet’s appointment. So they insisted that we should go out for dinner & bailing out was not an option. We went to one of their favorite Thai places in our quartier [Thaï Papaya, 51 Rue des cinq Diamants, 75013 Paris]. The food was really delightful & pretty authentic. It has been years since I had a coconut based Thai veggie red curry whose whereabouts I could track exactly through my digestive system! Delightful! A great way to beat the heat. I remember I used to do this exactly that as a student in Australia when we did not have airconditioning – a Malaysian or Thai curry was just the thing to make one feel better during a heatwave.

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It was also good to sit pretty much out on the street instead of the back of the restaurant – much more comfortable. Sprayed myself with a ton of insect repellent. I think that that coupled with the garlic & chillies frightened away those nasty mozzies.

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My landladies insisted on paying for the dinner – I did feel a bit uncomfortable about that, but there was no way fighting that, they were adamant…

So it was time to head back across the Atlantic again, back home – so nice to have that Delta Airlines direct flight between Indy & CDG in Paris! Other half was away in Australia, so we had made a plan to exchange cars in the airport car park. The trick was to ensure that we both knew which car it was going to be so that I would have the correct keys. The other thing: text a picture of where the car was parked & the parking receipt. Easy peasy – we have done this before! Nice to get home to see the greenness of the garden etc. And of course to have an unpacking assistant or two to help out…

UnpackingAssistantFuture posts will deal with more scientific topics, pet peeves [not of the four-legged kind] & important issues that concern our profession etc.

I hope you are all well wherever you find yourselves in the world…

 

The lead-up to OHBM2019 in Rome

Quite a nutty week it was in Paris just before OHBM2019. Lots of things to be done – talks, posters to be finished for the Organization for Human Brain Mapping [OHBM] meeting in Rome! Lots of ICMers were working hard prepping for this meeting… including the ICM’s cat. Most mornings over the last week he sat on the edge of the moat [with quite a precipitous drop] or just in the middle of foot traffic on the moat, soliciting pats from everyone…

As part of the work side of this week I took a trip out to Fontainebleau with my colleague, who was a member on a Jury for a PhD thesis defense at an institution called INSEAD. INSEAD brands itself as the ‘Business School of the World’ [see https://www.insead.edu/] & it offers graduate education in business & marketing. It is a very international place – faculty & students alike come from all parts of the world. It has campuses in Singapore & Abu Dhabi as well. The name INSEAD is an acronym that stands for Institut Européen d’Administration des Affaires [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/INSEAD]. It was founded in 1957 by one of the first venture capitalists – Georges Doriot. Incredibly, for the first 10 years it had its classes in the Château de Fontainebleau, before moving to its new Fontainebleau campus in 1967! The cool part about INSEAD’s campus is that is it a stone’s throw from the famous Fontainebleau forest. We made sure that we got there earlier so we could take a stroll through some of it. Unusual forest for something that is so far inland – the soil is very sandy…

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…seems like you are at the beach. The trees are amazing – lots of huge oaks with twin trunks as well as lots of fir trees. Very pretty.

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Apparently there are a lot of deer, as well as wild boars running around in this forest. Thankfully we did not run into the latter. The thing that is the most striking though is the bird life – you hear so many different types of birds. We heard a cuckoo – with its very distinctive call. See if you can hear it in the video below:

It was a real treat to wander around for about an hour or so in the forest. Felt really weird doing that with my laptop slung over my shoulder & wearing a string of pearls. Here is another video showing the beautiful terrain & this time some different bird calls can be heard.

It was nice to come back to Fontainebleau once more – on a previous trip I had visited the chateau. Before we knew it though, it was time to head inside for the PhD thesis defense, which of course went well. After it was done it was time to get on the train back to Paris a colleague from INSEAD gave us a ride to the station in Fontainebleau. We could see a pretty nasty storm coming over as we were driving. Sure enough the heavens opened when we had to get out of the car at the station. Only took ~15 sec to get completely drenched from the hips down – I was valiantly clutching my umbrella in the wind. Actually I was glad to get under cover in the station – am not worried about the deluge as I am about the thunder & lightning. That afternoon’s storm was a doozy. A group of schoolchildren got hit by lightning while they were on a soccer field. Yikes.

As if the week was not busy enough, another thing to do before going to Rome was to check out a specialist cooking store in Paris. Why would I need to do that I hear you cry & also in this particular week? I was looking for some pasta cutters to make tortellini & agnolotti because mine at home have become blunt. So I was looking for some new sharp ones with the idea if I could not get them in Paris [Plan A], I would then look for them in Rome [Plan B]. The store is in the 1st arrondisement & is called MORA [https://mora.fr/].

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So as can be seen in the image above, the place has been around for quite some time! Mission accomplished! I bought my new pasta making tools there. I also got a chain mail glove as I often will bone poultry or rabbit at home. The boning knife is incredibly sharp & I worry that one day that knife might slip & it will be a trip to the emergency room… So no more worrying about that now.

During this week at ICM Stuart Firestein from Columbia University was in Paris  – working with his colleagues at an institute called the CRI or the Center for Research in Interdisciplinarity [https://cri-paris.org/]. Very interesting initiative – founded by François Taddei & Ariel Lindner in 2005 to create a student/researcher centered open environment, with a goal to promote life-long learning. The building is also very impressive – took a huge renovation & also includes student apartments. The building has a radical design – library & admin are between two other buildings – one of which has labs & the other offices etc. Here are some pics of a renovated Art Deco staircase. Originally the staircase also had a service elevator going down the center, which was taken out. Now a linear light sculpture, spanning many floors, is in the elevator’s place.

The doors of the elevator were salvaged to create this piece of wall art that compliments the surroundings very nicely. What a delightful way to feature something from days gone by…

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That night we went out to drinks & dinner – lovely to catch up with Stuart in Paris. We went to a bar where the shot below was taken. We were also accosted by a cat who insisted on sitting on all of our laps. When I told the bar’s owner that he had a really nice cat, he said it belonged to his neighbor & that it would always hang out in the bar soliciting pats from everyone.

We ended up going to a famous brasserie called Les Philosophes in the Marais [http://www.cafeine.com/philosophes]. The restaurant has been there since the 1920s & is in the old Jewish neighborhood of Paris. We had a great meal, washed down with a premier bottle of red. I also had the biggest steak tartare I have ever had. Finished every little bit of it…

The next day Stuart visited us at the ICM & checked out CENIR – the neuroimaging center with MRI/MEG/EEG – something I have described in a previous post.

What a busy, but enjoyable, week! This post started & ended with a cat. [Yes, I am missing my creatures.] The next post will come from Italy – after the madness that is OHBM2019 is over…

 

Is my brain activity the same either side of the Atlantic? Seriously.

These last couple of weeks have been really busy – so much to do before the OHBM meeting in Rome! Trying to finish manuscripts, working on scientific posters with colleagues, as well as preparing a couple of talks for Rome – one for an OHBM Symposium I have co-organized & another for a Symposium at the Sapienza Università di Roma.

The other thing we have been trying to do is to finish up our study of ‘living phantoms’ – my colleague & I have already made recordings of each other’s brain electrical activity and brain blood flow on the other side of the Atlantic, in my lab & in the 3 T MRI-scanner in our Imaging Research Facility at Indiana University [IU]. So now we are doing the same thing on this side of the Atlantic. The image below shows me wearing our 256-sensor cap [to measure electrical brain activity] at IU. The contraption I am sitting in [image below] is a photogrammetry system in my lab – a device that has 11 cameras that capture a picture of my head & where the sensors are located on the head.

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This allows a 3D map of the head surface with sensor positions to be made, which can then be subsequently merged with an anatomical MRI scan of my whole head, which ultimately looks something like this [image below], which was taken a few years earlier.

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Perhaps you can see that characteristic nose of mine in that hairless & colorless image. If you look carefully you can probably recognize my facial features – if you already know me well. This, of course, is a real ethical issue for subject privacy in labs all over the world. In functional MRI studies it is usual to ‘strip’ away the tissues of the head & face to leave only the brain – which of course is hard to identify. In some of our brain electrical activity [electroencephalography or EEG] studies this is not possible. We need to use the surface of the head/face & also consider how well the different tissues of the head conduct electricity  [i.e. the spontaneous brain activity that our brain emits 24/7] for certain types of very specialized data analyses. [This is not the case in all EEG studies – many studies use only the EEG traces & 3D maps of the head are not needed.]

One can also measure the tiny magnetic fields that the brain emits using a method known as magnetoencephalography [MEG for short]. If one wants to really go over the top, one can do both MEG & EEG at the same time. This is what I did this week in CENIR at the ICM. First, the EEG sensors were put on my head, with extra leads to also measure eye movements & cardiac activity. We also need to make a map of the EEG sensors on my head – but here a slightly different method was used. A radio frequency transmitter at the back of the chair I am sitting on [that you cannot see] puts out a signal whose strength varies as a function of 3D distance from it [a polhemus system] . The experimenter uses a wand-like device [a radio frequency receiver] to touch the central location of each EEG sensor & measure the signal strength [& therefore the sensor’s position on the head]. The ‘Biggles’ googles I am wearing also have this position sensing in them, so that if I move my head even slightly the measurement system will compensate for that…

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Once we had the sensors localized in 3D space, off came the goggles & it was time to ‘gel’ ’em up i.e. put in some conductive ‘goop’ to provide a good contact between my scalp & each sensor. This is always the fun part & takes quite a bit of time – the goop is usually cold & the experimenters have exfoliate the scalp as they go – yes indeed, one has a spa treatment for the face & head for this experiment… After a lot of checking that the contact between sensors & scalp is good, it is time to go into the shielded chamber, where the recording will take place. There I am fitted into the MEG helmet – a rigid device with sensors embedded in liquid helium. The thing weighs a lot & sits in a gantry that is adjustable. You have to make sure that your head is on contact with the MEG helmet [completely the opposite of being in an MRI scanner where you cannot touch the headcoil or the bore of the magnet].

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Before we started all of this & changed some of my clothing [PJ pants], took off all of my jewelry & watch etc. We had done a quick check to see that I did not have any residual magnetization in my body [this includes clothing such as metal clips on bras etc & also sometimes dental fillings, for example]. If there is something magnetic on the person’s body – such as clothing etc. one would have to change completely into the PJ set that is supplied. Similarly, shoes also come off & little booties are issued. For dental fillings that are a problem the head can be ‘degaussed’ using a wand-like device – makes me think of ‘aura cleansing’ when I see it done. 🙂 This time I did not need to be degaussed even though I was expecting to have to do so because I had an MRI scan at IU as part of this study & made sure that it was done at least 6 weeks before having this MEG study…

The shielded room is a minimalist place to be sure – nice clean white interior with minimal clutter. There is no electrical equipment is inside the room – the idea is to keep all magnetic fields out – including that from our own planet. This is because the magnetic fields we measure from the brain are really tiny & are indeed many, many orders of magnitude smaller than the Earth’s magnetic field… The shielded room is also soundproof, once the door is sealed, so all communication with experimenters occurs via a MEG-compatible intercom system. In the control room, the experimenters can monitor what I am up to in there at all times – cameras monitor me, as well as all the sensors whose activity is displayed on monitors.

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We were doing a ‘resting state’ study on me & also my colleague across 2 different continents – so we are being studied on either side of the Atlantic with multiple assessment modalities. We will look to see how we can integrate these datasets & also look for how consistent the profiles of activity are across the two measurements. Our plan is to share the data with colleagues in an open science framework, but we will have to do some gymnastics with data formatting first, so that it is in a new and desirable format [BIDS] that will allow more people to interact with it.

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One of the tough things about doing a resting state study is ‘staying on task’ i.e. keeping one’s eyes open & fixating on a cross on the wall of the chamber, but letting one’s mind wander. We are doing 4 x 10 minute recordings of MEG & EEG [we also did that for our EEG only study at IU, & our functional MRI studies on both sides of the Atlantic].

What is more fascinating to me personally is how the flow of thoughts runs during this time – it is interesting to monitor this in oneself. The thing that struck me the most was that I think in a couple of languages [& can force myself to think in a third]. I had not really realized how much I actually switch between them… that was what I learned the most about myself from doing this study. It was also interesting to see what happens when you are in an environment under sensory deprivation. As I noted, the room was white, with a black fixation cross on the wall. What was cool was that during the last 10 minute run [i.e. after I had been trying to stare at that fixation cross for over half an hour] I started to get some interesting visual hallucinations. The seams of the door of the chamber started to become colored – these were vivid neon-like colors. A very cool effect. I was just beginning to explore this further when unfortunately to my great surprise time was up – we were already done…

What other things do I think might be important for studies such as this one? I come back to the title of this post: I was not being facetious when I posed the original question. How does our brain activity vary with geographical location? What about effects from the season of the year? [The light levels outside can be vastly different in addition to temperatures – in Indiana it was winter when we did the study, here in Paris it is late now spring.] What about the cultural milieu one is in? [Fortunately, since I have been over here before, the environment is completely familiar, so at least there is a minimal effect of novelty here, but there may still be a cultural effect.] What differences in activity are there for measurements taking sitting upright versus lying down? What differences in brain activity occur after a 3-4 month period of time has passed? How does one’s emotional state change the data? What about the amount of caffeine consumed? What about one’s habitual diet? Same applies to blood sugar levels at time of measurement etc… What if someone has a cold & a fever versus when they are well? These are all questions that we do not have clear answers yet. Many future studies will have to be performed to get at these. And this is not something we can tackle with our little investigation – we are just trying to get a rough idea of reproducibility across different methods in different labs at this stage & trying to integrate datasets for future work together.

But here is the one question I wonder about the most: how has my brain changed since the time [a year ago] that I was here last? Clearly I am a year older, however, I have also had a very rich cultural experience when I was here last that would have changed me forever also [hopefully for the better]…

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Science, patrimony & hors d’oeuvres on the other side of the Atlantic…

It is a bit strange being in Paris again – back seeing colleagues, back in my old apartment… déjà vu to be sure, but things feel different – an indication that our minds are in constant forward motion, our brains are continually changing & that we are not the person we used to be. I arrived here Wednesday morning last week & in that relatively short period that ended last week moved back into my apartment, went back to the research institute, got my login privileges & ID back, had internet meetings with colleagues across the Atlantic & was in the institute working on manuscripts. Friday afternoon I had the privilege of being the guest of a colleague at a scientific function at the Collège de France. No wonder I felt tired at the end of last week…

The Collège de France is an amazing institution in so many ways – it was founded by Francis I for the specific purposes of providing teaching in disciplines that were not yet available at university level. In 1530, he appointed a set of ‘Lecteurs royaux’ who were charged with this task [for more background, see https://www.college-de-france.fr/site/en-college/index.htm]. I have copied the text below from their website which talks about its raison d’être: ‘Collège de France is a public higher education institution, which is unique in France and has no equivalent abroad. Since the 16th century, Collège de France has had a two-fold mission: to be a forum for cutting-edge research and teaching. Collège de France is committed to fundamental research, in partnership with the CNRS, INSERM and several other major institutions, but what differentiates it is that it teaches “knowledge in the making in every field of literature, science and the arts“.’

The French citizen benefits tremendously from this institution in that it has a wealth of free-public lectures in a wonderful auditorium/building – lectures that not only are given by high-profile French researchers/academics, but also by internationally renowned foreign scientists also. For example, this month György Buzsáki from New York University [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gy%C3%B6rgy_Buzs%C3%A1ki] was giving a set of lectures – I just missed him unfortunately. Indeed, coupled with the freely available podcasts on French Public Radio, the average French citizen has access to a wonderful knowledge base of the sciences, the arts & philosophy. On the other hand, prominent French researchers/academics who are doing truly ground-breaking work enjoy patronage from this institution – with professorial appointments in 1 and 5-year terms being available across 8 different disciplines or ‘institutes’. [For example, in our discipline, NeuroSpin Director, Stan Dehaene has a 5 year appointment as a Professor – & rightly so! It was nice to chat to him at the Friday event – albeit briefly.] The Collège also has a collection of rare manuscripts & books that are amazing research tools for professors/researchers attached to Collège de France, as well as potentially being available to specialist researchers from outside.

The building of the Collège de France is, as one would expect is old & beautiful in the classic French sense, as some of these images below indicate:

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Last Friday afternoon, the Fondation Fyssen had a 40th anniversary function at the Collège de France, where a set of academic ‘fireside chats’ with scientists had been organized. This Foundation is a private entity, with an endowment that facilitates & funds researchers – particularly post-doctoral fellows.

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The MC for the event was Mathieu Vidard, a science journalist who has quite a following for his weekday program on French Public Radio. He very capably wended his way through the disciplines, being able to draw out something interesting from each of the researchers who were discussing their findings with him. Very impressive – he was at it for about 4 hours or so… Here is his picture & link on France Inter – the app for French Public Radio.

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There was something for everyone on Friday afternoon – from archaeology & anthropology, animal behavior to human neuroscience, as the program below indicates:

As seen in the images above, there was pomp & ceremony with an initial opening address by the President of the Collège de France, Alain Prochiantz, followed by an address by Ghislaine Dehaene-Lambertz, an internationally renowned pediatric neuroscience researcher [who herself does really cool MRI-based work on how the infant brain develops], who is currently the Vice-President of the scientific teaching part of the Fondation Fyssen.

What was the coolest part of the afternoon for me? Probably the archaeology discussion.

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The above image shows Mathieu Vidard chatting with Dominique Grimaud Hervé, a paleo-anthropologist at the National Museum of Natural History, & Marie Soressi, an archaeologist at the University of Leiden. They discussed subjects such as endocasts across different hominins [Hervé] & the potential exchange of artifacts & culture between Neanderthals & Homo Sapiens [Soressi]. What really blew my mind was the latter topic: 200K years ago the extraction of birch resin occurred – being the 1st synthetic material ever made! Then, 50K years ago a fire-starter – MnO2 [manganese dioxide] was first used! But the thing that was most astonishing to me was the fact that the tool that is used to smooth leather today [in artisanal settings] comes to us courtesy of the Neanderthal culture! The idea of ‘cultural exchange’ between hominins has been advanced as Homo Sapiens & their Neanderthal cousins lived in certain common geographic regions & it is in these regions that early humans began to use these leather smoothing tools…

Overall, the afternoon was intellectually very stimulating, but very draining for me – since I had to concentrate extremely hard because when the scientists got excited about their work they spoke very fast & my French comprehension is not yet that good…

After the scientific program was completed everyone retired to the Collège de Bernardins, just up the road in the Latin Quarter, for a cocktail reception. This is an amazing building whose construction began in 1248 & its purpose was to provide a venue for the study of theology, philosophy & literature. It has had a checkered history, but in 2011 was repurchased by the Diocese of Paris from the City of Paris, with the idea of creating a cultural project devoted to the service of ‘mankind and his future’. In 2008 it opened to the public for the very first time & guided tours are available. Our reception was in the Large Nave – an amazing 70 meter long X 14 meter wide structure – which these days hosts receptions, concerts & exhibitions. Some images of this magnificent building appear below:

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The statue of Christ in the image above left, dates back from the 14th century…

Overall, we spent a delightful evening in the Collège de Bernardins – the champagne flowed & the hors d’oeuvres were absolutely delightful. I got back to my apartment that night & slept like a baby.  What a lovely cure for jet-lag!

Back on the regular work side, it was funny walking back into the ICM – lots of familiar faces – felt like I had never left it in some ways…

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Back in the lab with Nathalie George & Mariana Babo Rebelo at the ICM, Salpetriere in Paris.

When I walked back into the ICM the other day, I ran into a friend/colleague who had left the institute recently – what good fortune it was that we were both in the same place at the same time. What he did not mention to me is that he is now [in]famous – in an advertising sense! Another friend noted that she was standing at one of the main stations in London waiting to get a train to Paris. She did a double take because she thought she saw his face splashed across all of the TV monitors in the station… The ads were cycling through & sure enough – it was definitely him when she looked again. He is advertised as being a frenchman called Julien [he is Italian & has a completely different name]. The ad is for a bank whose pitch is that it’s customers live & work across Europe. I now call him ‘Julien’ when I see him! Mmm, I wonder what the bank is going to do with their advertising strategies with Brexit looming large…

Thinking about Paris…

… and Notre Dame, which will never be the same. I have thought a lot about it & the good fortune I have had on past trips to France to see this amazing building on multiple occasions. This post is devoted to sharing some recent images of this magnificent structure while it was still intact, with a lot of sadness on my part. I will be heading back there in a couple of days & in some ways dread the idea of going to the Île de la Cité & looking at what is left of this piece of history.

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The above image was taken about a year ago from the 25th floor of the Zamansky Tower at Université Pierre et Marie Curie [UPMC], which is now part of Université Sorbonne. Seeing the building from this height really shows off the scale & perspective of this magnificent structure. The image below is taken from the same view, but shows the huge scale of Notre Dame better relative to the surrounding architecture. B&W_UPMC_Zamansky_02

One thinks about all of the environmental challenges this building has experienced over the centuries – the regular flooding of the Seine over the years, for instance. The last big flood was in winter 2018 – here are a couple of images of the extensive flooding on the Seine – quite a remarkable sight. No river traffic possible – no vessel could actually fit under any of the bridges because the water level was so high. Nor could anyone actually get to the boats that were moored on the quays by the river, because the walkways &  quays themselves were all under water as well…

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It actually took a couple of months before the level of the river looked like anything normal.

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Here is a shot a couple of months later.

I have always enjoyed the many architectural features of Notre Dame – features that are often best appreciated from behind the zoom lens of a camera…

Every time I go & look at it I notice something that I have not seen previously.

I share with you one more shot of Notre Dame & its spire on a beautiful summer evening that was spent on a barge on the Seine last summer…

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The next pics of Notre Dame you will see on this blog will be in its current state, after the devastating fire…

Back stateside…

Have been back here in Indiana now for about 3 months or so… my wonderful sojourn in Paris seems like a dream now. That said, it is terrific to catch up with spouse, colleagues & good friends again – I missed everyone a lot. The creatures have also been cuddled many times over – missed them immensely also while I was away…

It is time to give thanks for the wonderful connections & interactions one makes as a scientist. I was also fortunate to catch up with old colleagues & friends while I was in Europe. Also, I have got to know so many young scientists as well in my travels over the last 6 months. Many of them I had already made contact with on science Twitter, but now was a chance to meet them in person! That was a lot of fun – whether visiting them in their home cities [Helsinki, Paris, Ghent or Singapore] or meeting them face-to-face at a conference. I look forward to doing more of this in future as I expand my contacts on science Twitter. I am enjoying regular Skype meetings with colleagues across the pond, as we continue to discuss ongoing projects.

As to what I have actually come back to, that is an interesting question. I left at the start of January 2018 & returned mid-July 2018. I had originally decided to do a post on what was different between 2 cultures on my return, but I have contemplated that for about 3 months now & have come to the conclusion that that no longer is viable. Why? Because it no longer feels like it is the same country here. I am not really sure what the culture really is about now, so I guess I will have to do a lot of navel gazing so I can figure that one out.

What to do? Instead I will share with you a couple of photos – the ‘then’ and ‘now’ of Paris, if you will. I went back to a couple of spots that I had taken some pics that I liked years earlier – in one case almost 20 years ago. I tried to take the same shot – same perspective etc. But there are different seasons, different times of day… The camera is different: the ‘then’ was an SLR, either digital or film, and the ‘now’ was my iPhone 8 with its 2 excellent little cameras. I also wonder how much my eye has changed over the years?

What you think of the images – do you like the old or the new best? [The ‘old’ is on the left & the ‘new is on the ‘right’.]

And for those of you who need data, here are the two original [& uncropped] new shots straight out of the iPhone. The old shots were taken with the explicit purpose of shooting in black & white – a medium that I absolutely adore. The new shots were taken with the aim of converting them to black & white.

On polymaths & Renaissance men II

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In an earlier post I talked about my visit to the Musée Rodin & the many talents of Auguste Rodin. Another individual who was very successful in traversing genres of art, but who is best known for his paintings is Pablo Picasso [1881-1973]. The museum devoted to him, the Musée National de Picasso-Paris, is in the 3rd arrondisement of Paris & it’s magnificent building also has an interesting history [http://www.museepicassoparis.fr/en/]. Pierre Aubert originally bought the land & the mansion’s construction was completed in 1659. The building was known as the l’Hôtel Salé, because Pierre Aubert collected taxes on salt in the name of the king.

The building was renovated between 1979-1985 by the architect Roland Simounet. One of the building’s original features is a magnificent central staircase. There is an interesting contrast of the old & the new: see the images of 2 staircases below – one of the original main staircase & the other of a [minor] staircase connecting the cafe with the rest of the building. The latter reminds me of some of Picasso’s curved brushstrokes…

Similar to the Musée Rodin (see earlier post), the creation of the Musée National de Picasso-Paris also has an interesting story. In March 1985, the Paris City Council made the decision to house the national museum devoted to Picasso in the renovated Hôtel Salé building, to house the collection of Picasso’s works that had been amassed by the state in earlier decades from two donations in 1976 & 1990 by members of Picasso’s family & friends. What is really interesting also is that Picasso’s personal archives were also part of the donations & this includes his personal art collection [donated by Picasso himself apparently] – which is housed on the top floor of the museum. This was something that I found particularly fascinating – for a number of reasons. First, it gives insight into the artist’s appreciation of the work of his peers, as well as artists who lived before him. Second, some of the works were unusual for the artists that painted them – either thematically or stylistically. For example. here is a rare self-portrait of Joan Miró [1893-1983] that was completed in 1919.

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Miró came from Barcelona & is most celebrated for his paintings of an abstract nature. He was certainly not known for self-portraits or for representational art… [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joan_Mir%C3%B3] I think that the treatment of the face & the textures/patterns on the shirt are very unusual & interesting. I have not been to his museum in Barcelona [https://www.fmirobcn.org/en/] – but that is on my list for my next visit there.

Picasso also owned a couple of paintings by Georges Braque [1882-1963], a Frenchman who among other things was a proponent of fauvism & cubism, alongside Picasso [https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Georges_Braque]. Here is an image of two of Braque’s paintings – examples of still life, hung side-by-side:

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The image on the right [Nature morte au pichet et aux pommes] is quite representational & was painted in 1919, AFTER the very cubist image on the left [Nature morte à la bouteille], which was painted in 1910-11. Interestingly, while the artist could radically change his style of painting, he kept the same relatively muted & harmonious color palette. That is something that I have always enjoyed in his work – the sharpness of the cubist lines & angles has always been tempered by his gentleness in coloration…

Finally, the last image that I found fascinating was this fairly subdued still life from 1902 [Bouquet de fleurs dans la chocolatière] by Matisse – so different to what he would generate years later…

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But what about Picasso himself? What drove him & influenced his work? The temporary exhibit at his museum in Paris was devoted to examining these themes & the background work & context for Picasso’s magnum opus Guernica – a work that today remains permanently housed in the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia in Madrid. I have had the good fortune to stand in front of this monumental canvas at the Reina Sofia in Madrid. It is a work not just of huge physical proportions [3.493 m x 7.766 m], but also of monumental human themes. The entire work is painted in a greyscale palate – blacks, greys & whites. The temporary exhibit in Paris featured a print of the work at the exhibit’s entrance – thereby setting the context for the exhibition. [I have not been able to reproduce an actual image of Guernica here for you due to copyright issues…]

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Picasso finished Guernica in 1937. The canvas represented the horrors of the Spanish Civil War – in particular, the April 26th 1937 bombing by Nazi planes of the town of Guernica – a Basque country stronghold of the Republican resistance. Incredibly, General Franco had allowed the bombing the town of Guernica by Adolf Hitler – letting the Nazis try out some new weaponry & military tactics on Spanish citizens. What made this particularly egregious was that the casualties were mainly women & children – apparently the men were away fighting in the Spanish Civil War. The wooden buildings in town produced a massive fire as a result of the bombing. The people of Guernica had no escape because the roads & bridges out of the town had been destroyed by the bombs. I bought a book of the story of history of the town of Guernica after the exhibition & it is very distressing reading indeed… [For a historical background see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guernica]

In 1937 Picasso was living in Paris, & had been commissioned by the Spanish Government to create a work of art for the Paris Exhibition of that same year. After hearing about the events in Guernica he changed his mind about the proposed theme & created a monumental canvas devoted to depicting the horrors of war & the suffering of humans & animals. In order to create his masterwork, Picasso create many drawings & smaller paintings – trying out potential images & themes to include in his magnum opus whose main elements are a bull, a horse & humans. The distress & agony of the horses leaps from the sketch [Étude pour Cheval] and the painting [Corrida: La mort du torero] below – studies that preceded the painting of Guernica.

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The horse is a central feature of Guernica & Picasso also did a study of it’s head – as seen in the image below [Tête de cheval, étude pour Guernica].

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At one point in time Picasso had said that the horse in Guernica symbolizes the people of Guernica, but there have been other reported interpretations. Another prominent feature of Guernica is the bull – that on one occasion Picasso had said was meant to symbolize brutality and darkness [https://www.spanish-art.org/spanish-painting-guernica.html]  The destructive bull can also be seen in one of the images above [Corrida: La mort du torero]. That said, Picasso is also on the record as saying: “…this bull is a bull and this horse is a horse… If you give a meaning to certain things in my paintings it may be very true, but it is not my idea to give this meaning. What ideas and conclusions you have got I obtained too, but instinctively, unconsciously. I make the painting for the painting. I paint the objects for what they are.” [see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Guernica_(Picasso)]

Whatever Picasso meant when he painted Guernica seemed to resonate with so many people – it became a symbol of protest. After its showing at the 1937 Paris World Fair [Exposition Internationale des Arts et Techniques dans la Vie Moderne] it was sent around the world on tour to raise money for Spanish war relief. Indeed, many artists made posters to support this effort to raise money for the casualties of the conflict, as this poster by Miro [see below] shows:

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… & this wall of posters supporting the resistance indicates:

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Artists & writers have always participated in political movements throughout history. Given that history currently seems to want to desperately repeat itself I am sure we will see a renewed effort in the creative arts in this sphere…

But back to Picasso. Painting is the main art that we associate with Picasso, but he was one to experiment with other media too – moving into collage, sculpture, stage design & also ceramics. The museum in Paris had mainly paintings, but I would like to see a collection of his other works.

I am glad that I found time to go to Picasso’s Museum in Paris – that visit & some background reading I did on him gave me a newfound respect for him. He was one of those rare individuals who can make the most of different media – producing memorable & astounding works – because he could imbue each medium with the representation of his idea. As I mentioned earlier, the building that the Museum is housed in is also interesting in its own right. But there are also interesting views of Paris from the upper floors of the Museum – as this picture of the rooftops looking out to Montmartre shows…

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