LEARN #16 – Week 131 of PhD

A new year just started.. and how did I grow in 366 days? Well, apparently I have grown a whole new organ, and you have too (or so they wrongly say)


First day back. Tuesday, the 3rd. Officially is still holiday, that explains the empty corridors, the lights off everywhere and the bathrooms immaculate and odorless. But approaching a lone passage with no exit, hidden in the ground floor of the imaging facility, a disturbing music fills the air. It comes from a room with no windows and almost no light, barely a desk fit the place and walls are covered in dusty posters of scary gigantic flies whose details are grossly enhanced by the electron microscope that was used to shoot the pictures….. It is my office, and actually I put the music on. Since I’ll be forced to take this day off even if I was around catching up on emails and rescheduling appointments, I don’t feel ashamed of being listening to what the internet has to offer without my headset. And the internet is a weird place:

So, while investigating why Rasputin would be called Russia’s greatest love machine (why maybe it shouldn’t since no scientific evidence has been brought), I learnt a lot a about the life of this mysterious character. Do you know, e.g., that he got the mesentery removed after the first assassination attempt against him?


You know what they say, right? New Year, New You! This year more literally than other years.. because you have a whole new body, with all new gadgets, i.e. a new organ: the mesentery!

‘Wait! I already know the mesentery! Isn’t that the one Rasputin lost in the first assassination attempt?’

Well, it is not new as in no-one-knows-it-was-there-before (as many blog/science website have implied in their coverage), but more in the we-didn’t-know-this-thing-we-have-studied-for-years-was-actually-an-organ way. In fact, the mesentery was known for its main purpose to suspend the intestines, and without it we could not be able to digest when standing upright. But is this enough to be declared an organ? Apparently it wasn’t: an organ is an ensemble of contiguous tissues (plus auxiliary tissues – optional) that serves a common purpose. The mesentery was long believed to be fragmented and mostly nothing else than a collection of subsidiary tissues to the gut, instead of a distinctive and inseparable anatomical unit. Now that the researchers in Limerick got that right, and showed how it is a proper organ on its own, we can start asking other questions: why does it also regulate the migration in the intestine of white blood cells? Why does it helps with the metabolism of lipids? What kind of cells is it made of? Or in short, what is actually the functional unit of the mesentery? Why sea anemones have at least 8 but their function is still unclear*? Oh.. and we don’t even know in which system to put it..

Still lots to characterize for physicians and researchers… and it’s already Wednesday!

* I fitted this question so, instead of the gross picture of an actual mesentery, I could you one of a pretty Sea Anemone.


Thursday was actually a bit more work, as I started with the outline of my thesis -WOOP WOOP- Gather the results together, the ideas, the achievements, the failures, made me feel weird: excited but also terrified. I did learn that starting on something important for me is a difficult step to take. I fear to stare at my own delusion. I fear to discover that I was not capable of my own ambitions. But I also learnt that even if I still think aiming really high is a quality I want to keep, it is also important to be critically evaluating oneself. Not only criticize on what it has not been achieved, but also acknowledge what was accomplished… trying to remember that if the goals look always so far away is because they continuously pushed further by your own moving forward and resetting them!

(So yes.. no curiosity for this day, but more an introspective lesson.. I need some seriousness too!)


Epiphany! Not that I had one myself.. but more as January 6th is the feast of, the one celebrating the Magi, aka the Three Kings bringing gifts to baby Jesus.

Talking about holiday traditions around the world with my friend at work (one you already know), I had the chance to rediscover an Italian one.

I knew all about the folklore since I lived it on my skin as a child, when on the morning of Jan 6th every year I was running around the house in search of the calza (sock) filled with sweets and candies (if I had been a good girl the previous year) that the good Befana had brought over the night. The Befana is an old lady giving presents to Italian kids (yes, we are really good kids and we deserve more gifts after Santa’s) flying on her magic broom (she is not a witch, though).

Legends associate the Befana with the catholic tradition, having her in search of baby Jesus since the day she refused to follow the Magi to meet him, and bringing gifts to good kids along the way.

But actually, it appears like it went the other way around. It is not the Befana that need to find a place next to the Magi, but the Magi festivity was chosen on that day because a (sort-of) Befana already existed in the pagan tradition, old as the cult of Mitra and then re-adsorbed by the Romans. During the 12 days (representing the 12 months of the years) after the Sol Invictus Nativity (25th Dec), goddesses flew over the cultivated lands for good luck on the next year harvest. On the 12th day, the 6th of January, Romans then celebrated the re-born of Nature. To mix things up, there was even a Roman tradition when people exchanged gifts to each other in honour of Father Christmas  Janus and the goddess of new year Strenua (another goddess the Befana is said to originate from).

The christians, in turn, absorbed these old cults by  choosing the same dates for their festivities. For the Epiphany, it was Epifanio di Salamina – someone with no conflict of interest in the subject – that suggested the 6th of January for the celebration of the Magi.

Let me just conclude by guaranteeing you that while I have started again with up-to-date LEARN posts, all the *Late* ones will soon eventually arrive too!

What’s left to say?

If you are tired of me gibbering on curiosities, often science-related, I learn in my daily routine, check out this blog about books, characters, and in general less alienating (maybe) stuff!

Oh, right:


And stay tuned for more LEARNing!

One thought on “LEARN #16 – Week 131 of PhD

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s