24 April 2011

"I Am Not My Body. I Am My Mind" (Updated)

Raise a glass of bubbly along with Professor Rita Levi-Montalcini!*  She was 102 years old last week.  And is a Nobel Prize winner (Medicine, 1986) to boot.  As  only the fourth woman ever to be awarded the Nobel Prize, and the oldest living Nobel laureate, she deserves all honours, to put it mildly. 

“Italy -- and quite possibly the world -- has never seen a scientist quite like her,” the journal Nature wrote on the occasion of her widely celebrated 100th birthday.

Inspired Intuition

I do believe that I confront life not as a scientist, but as an artist, she declared in a video event aired on her birthday on the website Rita101+.   The night-long online program celebrated her massive accomplishments in a wired event shared by hundreds of researchers on social networks.

A feisty life

Born into a well-to-do Jewish family in Turin in 1909, Rita Levi-Montalcini  fought hard for her career from the beginning.  First there was her father, who didn't believe in higher education for women:
Both parents were highly cultured and instilled in us their high appreciation of intellectual pursuit. It was, however, a typical Victorian style of life, all decisions being taken by the head of the family, the husband and father. He loved us dearly and had a great respect for women, but he believed that a professional career would interfere with the duties of a wife and mother....
"I said I won’t be either a wife or a mother, but I will go on my way."

She entered the medical school of Turin where she studied under the famous Italian neuro-histologist, Giuseppe Levi.  He gave her a superb training in biological science and introduced her to her first passion: the developing nervous system.  Under Levi's attentive eye, she mastered a technique that would be key to her own successes, that of silver-staining nerve cells.

In 1936 she graduated with a summa cum laude degree in Medicine and Surgery, and enrolled in the three year specialization in neurology and psychiatry, still uncertain whether she should devote herself fully to the medical profession or pursue basic research in neurology. 

"My perplexity was not to last too long."

In a sense, Benito Mussolini made the decision for her.  In 1936, the Fascist dictator issued his 'Manifesto per la Difesa della Razza' (Manifesto for the Defence of the Race).  Racial laws soon followed, barring non-Aryan citizens from academic and professional careers.  All Jews -- including, of course, Levi-Montalcini and her maestro, Levi -- were ejected from Italian universities and public institutions.
The two alternatives left then to us were either to emigrate to the United States, or to pursue some activity that needed neither support nor connection with the outside Aryan world where we lived.  My family chose this second alternative.  I then decided to build a small research unit at home and installed it in my bedroom.
Nerve fibres in the bedroom

Levi-Montalcini had recently come across a paper telling of experiments by embryologist Viktor Hamburger of Washington University in St Louis, Missouri.  He had removed the growing limbs of chick embryos and found that doing so reduced the size of the ganglia, tiny structures that cluster together the nerve fibres emerging from the spinal cord and direct them on to their final destinations.  Her research challenge was decided: to work out how nerves emerging from the embryo's developing spinal cord find their way to the budding limbs they will eventually innervate.

Armed with a regular supply of fertilized hen's eggs, and using tiny scalpels and spatulas fashioned out of sewing needles to do her dissections, she repeated Hamburger's experiments in her bedroom laboratory, adding to it the silver-staining method which allowed her to see the nerve fibres in much greater detail.  She discovered that the ganglia did not, in fact, wither immediately. The neurons actually proliferated, differentiated and started to grow towards their targets -- but died before reaching them.  She concluded that the problem was the lack of some growth-promoting factor that would normally be released by the budding limbs.  Despite the upsets of war and having to go into hiding in Florence, she managed to publish her results in a Belgian scientific journal.**

When the war ended, Levi-Montalcini returned with her family to Turin where she resumed her academic position at the University. In 1947, Prof. Hamburger, who had read the Belgian paper she had published, invited her to St Louis for a semester to repeat and extend her experiments.

She had planned to remain in St. Louis for ten to twelve months,  but her stay extended to 26 years.

Nerve Growth Factor (NGF)

One of Hamburger's graduate students had grafted a lump of mouse sarcoma tumour onto a chick embryo and found that nerve fibres grew and invaded the tumour mass more abundantly than the limb bud.  This experiment made her  antennae vibrate.  She became convinced that the transplanted tumour tissue was releasing the same sort of factor she claimed the developing limbs released.  She repeated the experiment, ingeniously placing the tumour outside the sac containing the embryo: although physically separate, this area shares the embryo's blood supply. It was a killer experiment.  Nerves sprouted and grew wildly, supporting her theory that the tumour was releasing a factor that diffused into the blood and travelled to the embryo.  

Two Mice in a Handbag 

Now, she had to learn how to culture isolated chick-embryo ganglia, and knew of only one laboratory that could do so. So she put two live, tumour-riddled white mice into her handbag and boarded a plane for Rio de Janeiro, where another of Levi's former students was running a big tissue-culture facility. In Rio she learned to culture ganglia and grew them close to pieces of mouse sarcoma. After 24 hours of culture, she was thrilled to see haloes of nerve fibres growing from the ganglia like suns (left), with their highest density facing the tumour.

Returning to St Louis, she worked together with a new associate, Stanley Cohen, for six years, trying to identify the factor released by the tumour.  Both were determined to provide the solid chemical evidence that the nerve-promoting factor was a reality.  As it was, the scientific establishment refused to believe in the existence of a nerve growth factor (NGF).  It required too great an imaginative leap to accept this unlikely soluble factor, which was supposed to diffuse from one tissue and then potently affect specific processes in nerves.  Such a mode of biological action was not accepted in those days.  And, perhaps, the fact that a woman was proposing it made it easy to believe that it was not serious biology.

But it was the discovery of of NGF that eventually won Levi-Montalcini the 1986 Nobel Prize in Medicine (shared with Stanley Cohen). "That discovery was huge — it opened up a whole field in understanding how cells talk and listen to each other," says neuroscientist Bill Mobley of Stanford University in California. 

Levi-Montalcini had to endure a great deal of scepticism in the early days but her later discoveries faced no such obstacles.  She showed, for example, that NGF had major effects on the immune system, yet another unexpected finding that became a major turning point in biology.

In 1962 she established a research unit in Rome, dividing her time between Italy and the U.S.A.  From 1969 to 1978 she held the position of Director of the Institute of Cell Biology of the Italian National Council of Research (CNR).  She retained her faculty status at Washington University in St Louis until 1977, when she became professor emeritus. After 1978, she continued her research at the Institute in Rome, collecting innumerable awards from institutions around the world. 

A life-long socialist in politics, she was made an Italian senator-for-life in 2001 for her work in science and for the promotion and defence of civil rights. She has always championed social issues related to research, such as ethics and women in science. The Rita Levi Montalcini Foundation supports education for more than 6,000 African women — "to improve their chances of becoming scientists", she says.

In 2005 at age 96, Levi-Montalcini founded the European Brain Research Institute which aims to understand the molecular basis of neurological diseases.  At the EBRI she runs a research project to see how far back NGF goes in evolution. Several young scientists are helping by trying to find out whether the factor exists in a series of invertebrates.  They are gratified to be able to speak with her most days.  And they, in turn, make her happy. "I am not afraid of death — I am privileged to have been able to work for so long," says Levi-Montalcini.  "If I die tomorrow or in a year, it is the same — it is the message you leave behind you that counts, and the young scientists who carry on your work." 

On her 102nd birthday, EBRI posted this exclusive video (in English with Italian subtitles) on YouTube, Rita Levi-Montalcini in Conversation with Eight Researchers -- eight young women scientists, and one very old, sharp lady discussing the world of scientific research and the role of women. 


“I do not care about dying,” she says in the video. “The most important thing is the message you leave.  This is immortality.” 

Updated on 30 December 2012.

With great sadness, I report that the Italian Nobel prize-winning neurologist Rita Levi-Montalcini has died today at the age of 103 (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-20871120).  The message she left to us will be read by all who care about women, science, and civil rights.  What an inspired life!

Father: Adamo Levi, electrical engineer and mathematician; mother: Adele Montalcini, a talented painter.

** Levi-Montalcini, R. & Levi, G. Arch. Biol.Li├Ęge 54 (1943) 189–200.

I am grateful to Dr Dorothy Lobel King for alerting me to Rita's 102nd birthday celebrations and its significance.

Main sources were Rossella Lorenzi , 'Oldest Living Nobel Laureate Turns 102' on Discovery News; Alison Abbott, 'Neuroscience: One hundred years of Rita' on NatureNews; her Autobiography on the Nobel Prize website; and her dedicated page on the EBRI website.

Photo Credits

Upper left:  Discovery News

Upper middle: Halo effect: of nerves sprouting from chick ganglia.  Photo credit: Rita Levi-Montalcini, via Nature News.

Lower middle: Rita Levi-Montalcini receiving the Nobel Prize, 1986.  Photo credit: her Facebook page

Lower left: EBRI website.


07 April 2011

The Fate of Saudi Witch, Fawza Falih Muhammad Ali (Updated)

In 2006, Human Rights Watch (HRW) petitioned King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to halt the execution by beheading of a witch who was convicted a year earlier of "witchcraft, recourse to jinns [supernatural beings], and slaughter of animals". Despite a world-wide outcry (and a great deal of ridicule), Fawza Falih languished for years in Quraiyat Prison, having exhausted her appeals against the sentence. The illiterate defendant had been arrested back in 2005, and allegedly beaten and obliged to fingerprint a confession that she couldn't read.

According to the petition by Human Rights Watch,

the court of did not define the meaning of “witchcraft”, but instead cited a variety of alleged actions, stated intentions, and “tools” for “witchcraft” in a weak attempt to suggest that “witchcraft” had indeed taken place. The court cited one instance in which a man allegedly became impotent after being “bewitched.” In another, a divorced woman reportedly returned to her ex-husband during the month predicted by the witch said to have cast the spell. The court failed to probe alternative explanations for these developments which appear to be ordinary phenomena.
Following Fawza Falih's conviction in April 2006, an appeals court ruled that she could not be sentenced to death for 'witchcraft as a crime against God' because she had retracted her confession. However, lower court judges then sentenced her to death on a 'discretionary' basis, for the benefit of 'public interest' and to 'protect the creed, souls and property of this country.'

After that, nothing more was heard of her fate and the international media -- as is their wont -- lost interest.*   If someone's life wasn't at stake, we would just laugh at this happening in this day and age, and move on.  But silliness and sneers aren't really appropriate when someone is threatened with beheading.

A little background to the case.

Islamic Witchcraft

There is much in the Qur'an to suggest a mystical and occult world of unseen spirits (the jinn, or genies), the 'Evil Eye' and other powerful sinister forces.  Throughout the Middle East, one popular Quranic verse carried as a talisman to ward off the jinn and witches and conjurers, reads: 

I take refuge in the Lord of the Daybreak, from the evil he has created, from the evil of the darkness as it spreads, from the evil of those who blow on knots, and from the evil of the envious.
The evil eye, the conjurers who blow on knots, a dark, mystical place of black magic from which only God provides refuge.  

With the help of Saudi judges, of course.

The Crime of Witchcraft

The learned judges had to ask themselves whether the woman had committed a scriptural crime (the hadd), or what are known as 'discretionary' crimes.  Scriptural crimes are specifically linked to Holy Text: that would make witchcraft a form of apostasy, which carries a sentence of death.  Discretionary crimes are those that are close to the scriptural crimes in nature but, strictly speaking, are outside their parameters.  In that case, witchcraft isn't quite apostasy (meaning, she wasn't necessarily denying Islam by being a witch), so her punishment would be up to the judge's discretion; hence the term and hence the problem: discretionary crimes by their nature are uncertain as to precise contours. 

In Fawza Falih's first trial, the judges ruled that she had committed a scriptural crime, a hadd: that is the apostasy one which carries a sentence of death.  When her confession was retracted, however, the appeal judges no longer had scriptural proof, which requires two witnesses or a confession.  The judges in the lower court then employed the discretionary principle and decided that witchery was close enough to apostasy (a man was impotent and a divorced woman went back to her husband; what more proof could you need than that!)and therefore it was a discretionary crime for which death was the right punishment.

What could be fairer?

Fast Forward from the Middle Ages to 2011

On the 4th of April 2011, Arab News  reported that 30 officers of the religious police -- known to their many fans as the Commission for the Promotion of Virtue and Prevention of Vice, the Hai'i -- had just completed a training session (left) in the Eastern Province city of Al-Alsa on how to deal with cases of black magic.  The officers were justifiably on a roll:

The Commission has achieved remarkable success in combating black magic in various parts of the country. It has set up nine specialized centers in the main cities to deal with black magicians.

They had their work cut out for them, too.  It was reported that just a single centre had dealt with 586 sorcery cases in 2010 -- which shows the enormity of the problem.  With so many witches running about, the Riyadh governorate launched a campaign against evil magicians and those who illegally treat people by reading from the Qur’an.

Illegally reading from the Qur'an? 

Yes indeed.  It seems that only qualified Saudis are allowed to practice Qur’anic treatment methods.  Expatriates practising such treatments, the Commission warned, would be caught and deported. 

Lucky expats: at least, not beheaded.

Just a few days after their training session, the religious police of Al-Alsa bagged their first quarry: they arrested a sorcerer who dealt in magic and provided services to several men and women, who turned to him out of a lack of religious motivation and ignorance.  They had hardly pulled in this fiend when two more witches were arrested in the same city, 

being accused of leaving egg and salt on an acquaintance’s doorstep in an attempt to put a spell on him.  The 21-year-old accuser informed the police who took the pair into custody and handed over the case to the Commission for Investigation and Prosecution to proceed with inquiries.
Needless to say, with two such cases within as many days, witchery became the talk of the town. 

Nailing Witches

So we are relieved to learn from the Saudi Gazette that Sheikh Adel Faqih, director of the Hai’a branch of sorcery in Riyadh (the capital), is an expert in black magic matters.  He was able to tell us how the Hai'i worked in such cases:

We deal with sorcerers in a special way. No one should think that we mention the name of whomever files a report about sorcery. We protect the identity of informants. We merely receive the information and thank the individual for his help without involving him in any kind of confrontation.
Sheikh Faqih said that they do not arrest a sorcerer simply because someone has filed a report against him.  Of course not!  Proper procedures must be followed.  Investigations have to be made and information collected before an arrest can be made. 

They scrupulously follow up all clues.

Sheikh Faqih explained that a sorcerer can be identified when he asks for the name of a patient and for the name of the patient’s mother or if he is seeking to buy an animal with certain features. He can also be identified if he asks for a sheep to be killed without mentioning Allah’s name and asks to stain the body with the animal’s blood or if he asks for similar unusual things.  
You couldn't make this up; could you? 

And the Fate of Fawza Falih?

Did anyone over the years say, "Don't be silly. Lots of men are impotent and women go back to their divorced spouses for reasons other than spells."

No.  They didn't.

And King Abdullah?  You may remember he was asked to reprieve her.  Did he?  No, apparently not.  At the end of 2009, she was still on Death Row at Quraiyat Prison.

But at least she hadn't been beheaded.  No, they merely left her to rot.

HRW did not make the news public but what happened was this:

Fawza Falih died in prison early last year, choking on her meal as her health had greatly deteriorated during her imprisonment.**

I don't suppose her guards "blew on the knot" and simply strangled her.  That wouldn't be proper procedure at all. 

It makes me sick.

R.I.P. Fawza Falih, Saudi witch.

*  Zenobia's first report on the Saudi witch was on 15 February 2008, updated on 15 March 2008.  Thereafter, despite frequent searches for more information, there was no news until late 2009 (see below) ... and silence until this week.

** Their last report of her was on 24 November 2009, to wit: "Minister of Justice Abdullah Al al-Shaikh responded that Human Rights Watch had a preconceived Western notion of shari'a, but did not answer the organization's questions about Falih's arbitrary arrest, coerced confession, unfair trial, and wrongful conviction. She remains on death row in Quraiyat prison, close to the border with Jordan, and is reportedly in bad health."  As Sarah Leah Whitson, Middle East director, then said:
"Saudi courts are sanctioning a literal witch hunt by the religious police...The crime of ‘witchcraft' is being used against all sorts of behavior, with the cruel threat of state-sanctioned executions."
I am grateful to Ms Whitson for finally getting me the information as to Fawza Falih's fate, and to Christoph Wilcke, HRW researcher for Saudi Arabia, who sent me the sad news.

I have made much use of Haider Ala Hamaoudi's discussion of the Saudi Witch case on his blog,Islamic Law in Our Times (or Foam From a Camel's Mouth, Spewing and Subsiding). 

Updated 7 May 2011: Islamic sorcery is (almost) a gender free-fire zone.

Off with the heads of male witches, too! 

And so, according to the Guardian newspaper, this is the hot story from Iran:

President Ahmadinejad allies charged with sorcery

Because it isn't enough that you attack your political opponents. No, they must be destroyed as god's apostates.

Iran's president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad with Esfandiar Rahim MashaeiMahmoud Ahmadinejad's closest allies have been accused of using supernatural powers to further his policies amid an increasingly bitter power struggle between him and the country's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
 Several people said to be close to the president and his chief of staff, Esfandiar Rahim Mashaei, have been arrested in recent days and charged with being "magicians" and invoking djinns (spirits).
Sound familiar? It's those footloose djinns again.
Ayandeh, an Iranian news website, described one of the arrested men, Abbas Ghaffari, as "a man with special skills in metaphysics and connections with the unknown worlds".

Metaphysics, huh? 

That sounds serious.  But, then again, it couldn't happen to nicer people; could it?


No photograph of Fawza Falih exists, as far as I know. I've had to make do with other images.

Upper left: Photograph via Bare Naked Islam.

Upper middle left: A 75-year-old Syrian woman sentenced to 40 lashes, four months imprisonment and deportation from the kingdom for having two unrelated men in her house.  Photograph via Jihadwatch.

Lower middle left: photograph of training session from Arab News via The Memri blog .

Lowest left: Photograph from 'Save the Women' blog. 

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