From Monday 24th to Friday 28th July 2017 I had attended a residential Sciences Summer School which made me even more set on a future career in STEM (which I didn’t think was possible, haha) and especially medicine. Moreover, I made an abundance of fellow nerd friends who didn’t make me feel as lonely. There were a total of 58 fifth year pupils from all different backgrounds, Scottish, English, Welsh and 1 lone Northern Irish guy but somehow we all connected in a way which prior to the summer school, I believe to be impossible in the span of only a week.
To give myself enough time to travel to the college, I had packed up my bags a day before and arrived to explore the city. Like the tourist I was, I stocked up on a plethora of various fridge magnets depicting medieval buildings and misleadingly sunny postcards which did not accurately depict the British weather. We (10 other people who also travelled down on Sunday) met and were instantly friends. I tried my hand at the out of tune piano and out problems just melted away for a while under the diminishing sunlight.
After everyone else arrived and the different procedural introductions we got stuck in problem solving. (Note: the icebreaker we had to go through did not in fact break-the-ice for it was a bingo involving facts of students. An absurd example being to find someone with blue socks which I was only one of a precious few.) The director of studies did not treat us like kids, as a brilliant mathematician he questioned our intuition. After explaining Claude Shannon’s Information theory, he asked an array of mind-bending questions, but even the simplest one caused commotion amongst budding mathematicians:
“I have a bottle and a cap, together costing £1.10. The bottle costs exactly £1 more than the cap so my questions to you is: How much does the cap cost?”
……Now, he urged us to scribble down the first answer which came to our head. I can safely say, many people did write 10p. I mean it sounds logical…but is it really? He explained that our intuition rushed in their before logic and of course the real answer is that the cap costs: 5p with the bottle costing £1.05 a whole £1 more, simple really.
In fact after the summer school I had found out that our next ‘warm up question’ was from the North American Computational Linguistics Olympiad (thanks Paul!). I have the link to the questions so you can work on it as well [Click me for questions]
Our task in simple terms was code breaking, trying to decipher a whole English alphabet which is represented by numbers from 7 clues such as the one shown below:
At this point my brain was turning into mush and Paul helpfully turned to the practical application side of all this work: Computer text representation especially in phones with less storage capacity. You require to pack as much data in as little space as possible to maximise the hardware utility. Commonly used letters such a ‘e’ would come up so often that using a shorter number sequence to represent it would be most sensible. And thus infrequently used letters such as ‘z’ could afford to be a longer string of numbers. This went nicely with information theory and the relative scale of it all with Shannon and his ideas (1916 –2001) overlapping with our own life time. This was so much easier to connect with than the traditional Pythagorean or Newtonian school maths.
Through Shannon, Paul made us rethink what is information itself. For the first time, information could be clearly represented elegantly by mathematics.
The above question can be explained by a simple number guessing game which we played. Paul had a previously written down an integer from 1 to 64 inclusive and hid it in an envelope. Our job was to find out what that number is by asking the least number of yes/no questions. This state of being either one possibility or the other (Px) is the binary code we use for transistors in computers and thus is why the simple equations is so powerful. The probability of guessing the number right away is 1 out of 64 numbers so 1/64. Plugging in the numbers we see that the amount of information we need to know the number,
I(x) = -log2(1/64)= 6, therefore we need to ask a minimum of 6 questions to definitely know the answer, provided you do not guess the number by chance right away. In practice, we did manage to get down to 6 questions which began with ‘Is the number greater ( or less) than 32?’.
We were now split into the physical and the biological side of things and I, of course, chose the latter. The lecture I attended first was Neurobiology which again questioned everything I thought I knew. We talked about addiction, differentiating compulsivity from impulsivity which the user cannot control. Chronic drug/users/abusers/addicts seem to lack compulsivity as they are unable to comprehend the harmful consequences and act upon it (ie abstain).
We discussed how the same feeling can have different values due to subjective attribution by our brain. We learn attribution when we grow up, seeing our parents smile or argue and associate with our own values. For example, having butterflies in your tummy can arise from sheer nervousness or on a positive note the attraction toward another. The feeling is the same but we have our own take on what it means. This is done by the insula a part of the brain under the cortex which interprets feeling and the value we attribute to it. Even when making choices between things we like equally well, the amygdala which gives value to feelings works with the insula. Say, I equally like Coke and Pepsi (in a hypothetical world, most people I know have a strong preference for one, not naming any names) if I wanted to drink one of them and I had Coke recently, the insula tells me that the utility of Coke decreases whilst the utility of Pepsi increases and thus I am more inclined to drink Pepsi. This sounds simple but the fact that the brain physically recognises all these different factors to make 1 decision is very intriguing to me.
Neuroscientist Antonio Damasio proposed the somatic marker hypothesis saying that emotions guide behaviour. The insula plays a very important role in this and when there is trauma to the insula, very interesting things happen. The hypothesis was especially true during the Iowa Gambling task which is a psychological task conducted by Damasio in the University of Iowa. The task involved comparing test subjects who are pathological gamblers against non-gamblers which acted as controls. Pathological gamblers are the people who keep on gambling to the point of addiction as they have ALL the features of addiction but there is no drug. Especially at slot machines they always believe in the chance of winning the next time, for example getting two slots the same does not mean there is more of a chance of winning next time. However, within their minds, they believe this to be true and the cycle is endless, no matter how many losses they keep on going.
Researchers think that drug addicts have a malfunction of the insula which is the same as pathological gamblers. Test subjects were given the same set amount of money and gambled to gain the most amount of money. Put simply, there were two choices in each round, a high risk but high gaining option or a low risk and low gain option. At the beginning, everyone, including non-gamblers wanted the risk as there was so much money to be gained and so it seemed like the quickest route to winning. However very soon it became apparent that this option was unsustainable. So after a set number of rounds, the non-gamblers showed a clear preference for the low-risk option as there was a greater guarantee of gaining instead of losing. But with pathological gamblers, the initial high-risk trend continued on until the end by choosing high risk all the time. Cases of patients who had neurosurgery of the insula seemed to show symptoms of pathological gamblers when tested again the Iowa Gambling task, they too failed to improve by choosing the low-risk option. It is important to say that this is neurological not simply that they were bad gamblers who made bad or unlucky choices. Their somatic markers did not give them a negative emotional response to their decision of choosing high risk. We require this negative feedback to make beneficial decisions. They are still working on entangling the possible factors of addiction which are genes, environment, personality and medical care. This is a future which I am looking forward to.
I have included a few miscellaneous photos from my stay, most impressed with their desserts:
That’s all folks, until next time!
Author – Jiangmin Hou
Jiangmin is a 5th year high school student currently studying five STEM subjects at Scottish Higher level-Mathematics, Physics, Biology, Computer Science and Chemistry. She is interested in pursuing a degree in Medicine after completion of Secondary Education.