New Study: Friends Really Are Like Family

“Friends are the family you choose for yourself,” the old saying goes, but new research indicates that your close friends may be more like your family than you realize.

A study published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at 1,367 pairs of close friends from Framingham, Massachusetts, who had been friends since the 1970’s.  Researchers compared the participants’ DNA to one another, and then to the DNA of approximately 1.2 million pairs of strangers.  In their research, scientists from Yale and the University of California at San Diego looked at well over 400,000 points of comparison along the DNA strands of each of the participants in the study.

Surprisingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to be more genetically similar to each other than they are to strangers, including strangers with whom they share the same ethnic background.  In fact, the average genetic similarity among close friends was equivalent to the level of genetic kinship that exists between fourth cousins, i.e. people who share a set of great-great-great-grandparents.  That’s a pretty distant familial relationship, obviously, but still statistically significant enough that scientists are baffled as to why good friends could be so genetically similar without technically being related.

One explanation may be that people with similar genetic makeup tend to live in or move to similar environments, increasing the chances of their meeting and becoming friends.  It may also be that people with similar genetic traits also tend to share similar skills, making it more likely that they will find themselves engaged in the same type of work or activity.  Interestingly, the study revealed that close friends tend to share a closer sense of smell than any of the other senses.

A possible implication from the study, if the results are eventually shown not to be specific to the good people of Framingham, is that you might be able to create and take a genetic test, to determine whether you and someone else should become friends.  At first glance this might seem to be a pointless test, since even genetic similarity does not guarantee the bonds of friendship.  After all, almost everyone has at least one genetically close relative whom they do not get along with or do not speak to, for various reasons.

However, if these findings hold up over time, there could be potential practical implications beyond scientific theory.  For example, one could imagine that, in the formation of sports teams or military units, such a genetic test for similarity could be viewed as increasing the statistical chances of the members of the group being able to work well together.  Although not a guarantor of success, genetic closeness could be one factor among many to be taken into consideration, in the formation of productive groups.

Admittedly, most of us don’t need a test to tell us whom we care about the most.  By its very nature, true friendship doesn’t require a scientific explanation: it’s simply a gift, one freely given, received, and reciprocated.  Yet at the same time, it’s still interesting to learn that those people in your life whom you love as much as your own family may, in a sense, be just like family, on a genetic level.

"Snap the Whip" by Winslow Homer (1872) Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

“Snap the Whip” by Winslow Homer (1872)
Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Bringing Science to Art

A recent article combining art, archaeology, and technology caught my eye at lunch the other day, and it reminds us of the old saying, “If the mountain will not go to Mohammed, let Mohammed come to the mountain.”  The Molab, a mobile laboratory for undertaking scientific research into artifacts and art, was constructed by researchers at the University of Perugia in Italy.  It has been touring museums and collections for the past several years, to show what can be done by bringing scientific technology to a site, rather than trying to take an object from a site and bring it to a lab.

While we might not think about it, there are many situations in which detailed scientific examination of something such as a painting, sculpture, or other object is not possible, without causing some degree of damage, or even risking the destruction of the object itself.  For example, a few months ago I wrote about the possibility of rediscovering Leonardo Da Vinci’s lost fresco of the Battle of Anghiari in the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence.  If researchers are going to uncover the fresco, then the wall which currently stands in front of it will have to be removed, damaging or destroying a later fresco by Giorgio Vasari.

In some cases, it is simply impractical or impossible to move the object from where it is, because of size, or a fragile state of preservation.  Yet even if the desired subject of study is portable however, that does not mean that it should be moved if that can be avoided.  As Signore Russano points out in his article, the insurance costs involved with transporting something like a Da Vinci from a museum in one city to a laboratory in another – let alone from one country to another – would be astronomical.

In addition, even though many museums have conservation departments, not all have the budget or staff expertise to maintain their own hi-tech equipment such as digital microscopes or spectroscopes.  While cleaning and restoration may take place on site, deeper scientific analysis may be all but impossible in many instances without a serious outlay of funds.  The Molab eliminates the need for gigantic insurance premiums or anti-anxiety medication on the part of curators shipping away their treasures to some far-off place, by bringing the science to the source.

While the idea of creating a laboratory on-site is nothing new, such as in the case of the restoration, preservation, and study of major works such as Michelangelo’s ceiling in the Sistine Chapel or Da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan, this mobile concept strikes me as having something of a more egalitarian quality.  It allows even a smaller, idiosyncratic collection, for example, to engage in the kind of analysis previously only available to museums with deep pockets or major donors.  No doubt study in the areas of art history and archaeology in particular, but also in a range of fields from anthropology to zoology, will benefit from greater access to these types of tools, the more the concept of Molab becomes accepted in the museum community.


Molab researchers study “The Last Judgement” by Memling (c. 1467-1471)
at the National Museum in Gdańsk, Poland

Wonderful Things

If you have not had a chance to drop by Google yet today, make sure you do so to check out their beautiful “doodle” logo honoring the birthday of American archaeologist Howard Carter – arguably the most famous archaeologist of them all – who discovered the tomb of the Egyptian pharaoh Tutankhamun in 1922. As someone who has been fascinated by the Ancient Egyptians for decades, I was really pleased to see it. Yet the occasion also gives me a chance to encourage you as an individual, as well as those of you who are parents providing examples to your children, to make time for the study of science, regardless of what your chosen profession may be.

I suspect that many of my childhood dreams about what I would be when I grew up were no different from those of most American boys who grew up over the past several decades. Sometimes I wanted to be a superhero, or a policeman, or a knight. I liked to imagine that I could do what I read about in comic books or saw on television and in the movies: saving damsels in distress, fighting bad guys and monsters, and having all sorts of exciting adventures. Other fantasies were perhaps a bit more specialist, such as being fascinated by elves and wizards in the works of J.R.R. Tolkien, which was difficult to “play” with my younger siblings who had not read the books, as I made them tramp along with me and my friend as we acted out the shall we say “taller” roles, and they played humble hobbits.

Perhaps somewhat unusual as compared to some of my peers was a very early fascination with the sciences, from astronomy to entomology, paleontology, geology, and so on. I virtually inhaled books about subjects such as prehistoric animals, geological formations and epochs, and theories about planetary formation and space travel. Yet of all the sciences the one that probably attracted me the most, and in a way ultimately led me to the intellectual interests I continue to pursue in my spare time today, was that of archaeology, and specifically Egyptology, i.e., the study of Ancient Egypt.

One of the things which my parents did very well with all of us, if my siblings will not think it too presumptuous of me to speak on their behalf, was that in general, if they approved of an interest that we had, they would do their best to provide us with materials or opportunities to explore it. So if someone wanted to learn how to ice skate, for example, they would obtain skates and take them to skating lessons; a child who was interested in numismatics would be given coins, and books about them, and taken to coin fairs. Not every whim was indulged, but on the whole they did their best to try to encourage us to have as broad a set of interests as we were willing to explore.

In my case, I was very happily provided with many books about Ancient Egypt. Though because I was a rather precocious reader – having learned to read at the age of 2 – this often took the form of lavishly illustrated catalogues from museum exhibitions, or scholarly works with few pictures but plenty of footnotes. I taught myself about such things as how to read and write some of the simpler hieroglyphics; the chronological order of the major kings and dynasties; and about the development of different construction methods, theological beliefs, burial practices, and so on.

Tied into this study, and indeed a very essential component of it, was an understanding of how styles and ideas both changed and yet remained constant in Ancient Egypt over time. A sphinx for example, is a beast found at the time of the earliest pharaohs, but is also found well into the Greco-Roman period many centuries later, when Egypt lost its empire and became a colonial province. Some gods became more or less popular over time, and art, object design, and architecture changed to reflect the shift in popularity from one to another. The subtle, naturalistic beauty of the brief Amarna period under Akhenaten and Tutankhamun can be easily contrasted with the pumped-up, masculine style preferred by Ramses the Great.

Of everything that I studied, nothing was as exciting as the work of Howard Carter, which was partially due to the fact that he found a nearly-intact tomb, with a host of artefacts to study that provided an enormous wealth of information on all aspects of Ancient Egyptian life. This included not only theological and political subject matter, but also practical things, such as the kinds of foods they ate, and the clothing, footwear, and personal adornment they wore. Carter’s discoveries also told us about the way the Ancient Egyptians looked at each other, within their own families.

For example, you may not be aware of the fact that buried alongside Tutankhamun in his tomb were the mummified bodies of two unborn baby girls: one who died at about 5-7 months of pregnancy, and the other at approximately 7-9 months. One of these little bodies had enough remaining genetic material for later scientists to be able to prove conclusively Carter’s theory that at least the one girl, and probably the other as well, was the daughter of Tutankhamun. Although she and her sister had been stillborn, both were honored with a royal burial alongside their father including mummification and traditional funeral masks, just like any other Egyptian princess. Next time a Planned Parenthood supporter gets in your face about a “fetus,” hit them with the historical fact that even the Ancient Egyptians did not believe a fetus was simply a blob of tissue, but rather a human being with an immortal soul.

In any case, while in the end I never became an Egyptologist or archeologist like Howard Carter, I remain fascinated by these areas of study to this day, as I do many other areas of the sciences. I do not engage in any sort of scientific practice for a living, and yet if I spot an interesting article about discoveries of new planets or hitherto unknown species of sea creatures, I am once again filled with a childlike curiosity and sense of wonder about the universe. Listening to Ian Maxfield’s podcasts over on The Catholic Laboratory, about how faith and science have often worked together, whatever anti-Catholic voices may have told you to the contrary, is not only enlightening but also wonderfully entertaining. Even if like me, your profession is not in the sciences, they are a rich area for exploration and mental stimulation: however you may have done in science at school, to have a diversity of interests and a desire to learn more about the world in which one happens to live should be a joy, not a burden.

When Howard Carter first opened a hole in the sealed doorway leading into the tomb of Tutankhamun, he was asked by Lord Carnarvon, the expedition’s chief financial backer, whether he could see anything; Carter famously whispered, “Yes! Wonderful things.” I would encourage those of you who are parents to foster this same kind of curiosity and wonder in your children, as my parents did with me. Even if they do not grow up to be chemists, physicists, or biologists, you will kelp them to lead richer, fuller lives by picking up on their budding scientific interests, and perhaps even learn something yourself in the process. A lifetime of learning is not enough to absorb all of the wonderful things there are to be explored in the world.

Archaeologist Howard Carter and friend in The Valley of the Kings (1922)