While orbiting the planet during their June 1998 mission, the crew of the Space Shuttle Discovery photographed this view of two moons of Earth. Thick storm clouds are visible in the lovely blue planet’s nurturing atmosphere and, what was then Earth’s largest artificial moon, the spindly Russian Mir Space Station can be seen above the planet’s limb. The bright spot to the right of Mir is Earth’s very large natural satellite, The Moon. The Mir orbited planet Earth once every 90 minutes about 200 miles above the planet’s surface or about 4,000 miles from Earth’s center. The Moon orbits once every 28 days at a distance of about 250,000 miles from the center of the Earth.
One moment of unconditional love can invalidate an entire lifetime of uncertainty and doubt.
Rachel Naomi Remen in Kitchen Table WisdomSong: “This Must Be The Place (Naive Melody)” by Talking Heads
Who says North is up?
Upside Down maps (also known as South-Up or Reversed maps) offer a completely different perspective of the world we live in.
Technically speaking, even referring to the earth with words like “up” or “down” or comparing places with words “above” or “below” is flawed, considering that the earth is a spherical body (it’s actually slightly “fatter” at the equator) and flying through 3 dimensional space with no reference of up or down. However, the issue of “up” and “down” does become an issue when viewing the surface of the earth projected onto a flat piece of paper (a map). And the effect of the orientation of a map is more significant than you might realize.
As all maps require orientation for reference, the issue of how to layout the map orientation is as old as maps themselves. As map orientation is completely arbitrary, it is not surprising that they differed throughout time periods and regions.
The convention of North-up is usually attributed to the Egyptian astronomer Ptolemy (90-168 AD). Justifications for his north-up approach vary. In the middle ages, East was often placed at top. This is the origin of the term “The Orient” to refer to East Asia. During the age of exploration, European cartographers again followed the north-up convention…perhaps because the North Star was their fixed reference point for navigation, or because they wanted (subconsciously or otherwise) to ensure Europe’s claim at the top of the world.
In modern times, reversed maps are made as a learning device or to illustrate Northern Hemisphere bias. Different from simply turning a north-up map upside down, a reversed map has the text oriented to be read with south up.
The famous “Blue Marble” photograph of the Earth taken from on board Apollo 17 was originally oriented with the south pole at the top, with the island of Madagascar visible just left of center, and the continent of Africa at its right. However, the image was turned upside-down to fit the traditional view.
While the orientation of a map might seem harmless, it can have a significant effect on one’s perception of the world, and the relative importance of the different place in it.
In speech, we often refer to places being “above” or “below” others. Think of how you would say you’re about to travel to the state or country to your north or south (to go “down” to Kentucky from Indiana, or “up” to Canada from the US). Without even mentioning geography, ask any grade school student whether Mexico is “above” or “below” the United States. We’re all familiar with the “land down under”. As we often correlate importance to relative height (think how a citizens of a country will fly their flag higher than all other flags), the north-up convention reinforces the idea that northern bodies are more important than their southern neighbors. Suddenly, traveling “down” to the South might have an inference much deeper than geographic location.
After looking at the map more closely, you may realize that the South-Up orientation may change your perception of the relative status of different places. For example, South America suddenly looks to have more prominence, and Africa and the Middle East completely dwarf Europe. Likewise, tucking Northern Europe, Canada, and Russia away at the bottom of the map, subconsciously takes away their status.
Psychiatry needs its Higgs boson moment
Fighting the scourge of mental illness means giving psychiatry the kind of boost that physics got from the Higgs hunt
PSYCHIATRISTS and other mental health practitioners are nothing if not pragmatic, using the best available evidence to guide diagnoses and treatments. But not since Freud’s pseudoscientific theories early last century has psychiatry claimed any broad theoretical basis for making sense of our normal and abnormal feelings, thinking and social behaviors – the complexities at the heart of being human.
In fact, the international classifications used to diagnose mental disorders are descriptive and explicitly “atheoretical” – to acknowledge our limited understanding and the need for empirical evidence rather than fanciful theory.
While this is a necessary stage in the development of a complex field and intellectually attractive to some, there is a need to create a coherent scientific narrative and a more theoretical foundation for psychiatry. This may seem like a challenge too far for many, and it has undoubtedly been an impediment to recruiting enough of the best minds.
That matters for everyone. Mental ill health accounts for some 15 per cent of the disease burden in developed countries – and people who are seriously mentally ill typically die 20 years earlier than would otherwise be expected. Globally, by 2020, the WHO expects depression to come second only to heart disease as a cause of lost years of health. For that to improve, psychiatry must be able to recruit the very best.
Recently, a report, Strengthening Academic Psychiatry in the UK, justified how psychiatry had acquired – and was still struggling to shrug off – the label of a “vulnerable academic discipline”. There were particular concerns about a fall in academic recruitment and unfilled academic posts.
Compare this with a field like physics. At just one frontier, it has a standard model that describes particles, Higgs field theory, the search for the Higgs boson and the Large Hadron Collider. These constitute a clear narrative: there is a global collaborative search for a “missing” particle based on fundamental theory, using a large and expensive piece of equipment that allows experimental testing of this and other predictions. This heady mix understandably makes physics a popular career choice.
Psychiatry, on the other hand, started the new millennium a few hundred years behind physics. But the decade that followed saw radical change, and set the stage for an intense period of catch-up. It is not fanciful to describe what will happen as the equivalent of some 200 to 300 years of progress being compressed into 20 to 30 years. This corresponds to the period of greatest productivity in a scientist or clinician’s career, so someone starting research now stands to make great headway.
If such a speedy catch-up seems like an extravagant claim, consider that the scientific kit and culture of “big science” are now sufficiently developed to deliver unprecedented insights into the neuroscience of mental illness. Key tools include molecular genetics, neuro-imaging and artificial intelligence.
We are already seeing research into the neuroscience of decision-making and social behaviors such as neuro-economics, which models choice behavior mathematically. And enormous advances are being made in understanding the molecular genetics of major disorders such as schizophrenia, bipolar disorder and depression.
For centuries, we have known that susceptibility to psychiatric illness can be inherited. In the past five years, studies of tens of thousands of people are beginning to pin down some of the genes and biochemical pathways involved.
Take voltage-gated calcium channels. They were initially implicated in bipolar disorder in 2008, but have subsequently been linked to other psychiatric disorders. This was not a pathway that researchers had considered. It is, however, well understood when it comes to heart disorders.
That fact immediately opens up new ways of using existing knowledge and drugs. Crucially, too, this kind of exciting research may help us understand why we quite often see people who are both mentally and physically ill. In the calcium channel example, it may help explain why we often see patients with both heart disease and mood disorders.
Another tantalising finding is the involvement of the major histocompatibility complex – a key part of the immune system – in influencing how susceptible people are to mental illness. Together with research into other immune-related genes in diseases such as Alzheimer’s, the idea that immune processes are involved in some psychiatric phenotypes is looking ever more solid.
Powerful advances are also being made in using computer networks to model neuron biology and to build complex neuronal networks, which should produce interesting emergent properties. The European Union’s €1.1 billion Human Brain Project, for example, aims to understand the brain as a single system, integrating multiple levels of organization – surely a key step towards preventing or curing psychiatric diseases.
One of the biggest challenges will be to unite these disparate methodologies to tease apart the normal and abnormal working of the brain in schizophrenia, bipolar disorder, depression, and the like, diseases that devastate the lives of so many and are so often associated with early death.
So, in 2013, psychiatry has powerful scientific tools and a developing narrative that already points to strong theoretical bases. Yet, in the UK research into mental illness has stalled at around 5 per cent of the annual medical research budget, and the picture is similar in other rich countries. That will have to change – and governments and funders are starting to see this. The door is open: all that is needed is for more of the best to come in and find out just how hot psychiatry really is.
This mosaic of Mercury was taken by the Mariner 10 spacecraft during its approach on 29 March 1974. The mosaic consists of 18 images taken at 42 s intervals during a 13 minute period when the spacecraft was 200,000 km (about 6 hours prior to closest approach) from the planet.