Less Water on Exoplanets than Expected

Distant stars are pinpoint specks, too small to resolve. Exoplanets are ten times smaller in diameter and don't emit light of their own. They're vastly fainter than any star; we couldn't even see a single one until 20 years ago.

That's what makes a painstaking new study completed using the Hubble Space Telescope so beautiful. It not only located three exoplanets, but painstakingly measured the water composition of their atmospheres. There's water, but it's less than we expected. How is this possible?

Astronomers often find exoplanets by watching the light of many stars. If the brightness of a particular sun has a tiny (usually 1% or smaller) flicker that repeats in a regular pattern, we can calculate whether a planet's continuous orbit crossing in front of the star is the cause. Astronomical techniques have now evolved to the point that we not only look for a flicker in the total light from the star: we can see precisely how much each and every color of the rainbow flickers.

This is a more difficult version of the way we've been investigating stars for a century. We know the chemical makeup of far away suns because of their absorption spectrum: the colors missing from the light they broadcast to us.

The searing hot plasma at the core of a massive star emits light of all colors in the spectrum. The elements in the atmosphere of the star absorb a little bit of that light however, leaving certain colors absent from the light that reaches us.

Due to the quantum nature of energy states in atoms and molecules, they only absorb and emit energy in certain exact amounts, i.e., with very certain electromagnetic frequencies.

Water molecules absorb and emit a certain group of wavelengths due to their quantum transitions too. Upon absorbing an infrared photon of the correct wavelength (1380 nm for example), the atoms of the molecule will be kicked into vibrating back and forth in a certain pattern. This picture shows what such states look like.

An exoplanet atmospheric survey first looks to see how much light the star emits toward us at the colors absorbed by water when nothing else blocks any of the light. When the planet passes between the star and our telescopes during its orbit, we look at each of these wavelengths of light and see how much of it has been blocked. A certain percentage will be blocked solely by the mass of the planet itself.

However, a small part of the star's light will pass through the atmosphere of the planet and escape to the other side. We then look at this light that has passed through the sky of an alien world to see if it is missing a greater amount of those wavelengths that water likes to absorb.

The amount of water present in the measured alien atmosphere was actually something around 100 times less than predicted. This could mean that our models of how elements are distributed and retained in planet formation need tweaking. It could also be due to patterns of cloud or haze in the atmospheres of the planets. Measurements like these are the payoff of incredible recent improvements in astronomical instruments and techniques.

If this trend continues, it may not be long before we begin to look at something even more exciting: the atmospheres of earth-like planets.

(AP photo)

The Most Boring Time on Earth

Starting roughly 1.8 billion years ago and continuing for a "Boring Billion" years hence, life on Earth was slimy, and evolution stagnated. When the first eukaryotic organisms evolved many millennia before, things looked like they were going to get exciting! What followed was a mega letdown. Life consisted predominantly of microbes and algae. Our planet, so resplendent and colorful today, amounted to little more than a watery, brown-green mess.

Scientists don't have time machines, so how do they know this? The best ancient snapshots come from fossilized structures called stromatolites (pictured above). When scientists examine these primordial records of life -- specifically the ones that date back approximately 800 million to 1.8 billion years -- they see bacteria, single-celled organisms called Archaea, some eukaryotic algae, and little else.

While geologists generally agree on the monotony of the period, they offer many competing explanations for precisely why it was so dull. Through the first half of the year alone, three new studies joined the theoretical fray.

In a study published in April, geologists at the University of St. Andrews blamed the gradual cooling of Earth's interior, which may have caused Earth's surface to stabilize. Thus, with almost no tectonic activity to shake things up, life remained contentedly simplistic.

Ross Large, a distinguished professor of geology at the University of Tasmania, offered a different theory in March. By analyzing seafloor sediments from all across the world, Large and his team found that trace metals like cobalt, selenium, copper, zinc, molybdenum, vanadium, and cadmium seemed to decline in the oceans during the "boring billion." These elements, he says, are critical to life and evolution, and without them, life wouldn't have been able to diversify and advance.

Another recent hypothesis points the finger squarely at oxygen, or rather the lack thereof. Around 2.3 billion years ago, cyanobacteria sent atmospheric oxygen levels soaring 1000 times over, which in turn sent an untold number of oxygen-hating anaerobic bacteria to their graves. But according to a team of American researchers, after the brief spike -- which could very well have catalyzed the evolution of eukaryotes -- oxygen levels seem to have dipped back down. And so, eukaryotes persisted in oxygenated parts of the ocean, but evolution as a whole stalled.

While scientists research and debate why the "Boring Billion" was so boring, a few holdouts, like Harvard University's Andrew Knoll, proffer that the period wasn't as banal as its name suggests.

"There’s reason to believe that all of the properties of cell biology that made complex life possible in the next geologic era were put in place here: cytoskeletons that allow eukaryotic cells to change shape, and cell polarity that allows cells to send a molecular message to one side of the cell but not the other, and to interact with nearby cells. The molecular circuitry and cross talk that allow complex organisms like us to exist today all took root in the so-called Boring Billion."

(Image: Shutterstock)

Turkish Researcher Claims that Virgin Mary Was a Hermaphrodite and Souls Are Dark Matter

The history of science is populated with three types of ideas.

First, there are the great ideas. Peter Atkins counts ten of them, in his book Galileo's Finger: The Ten Great Ideas of Science. Evolution by natural selection, the heritability of genetic information, the conservation of energy, and an expanding universe are among those ten ideas.

Second, there are the fascinating-but-wrong ideas, such as alchemy, phlogiston, and spontaneous generation. All of those ideas seemed reasonable in their day, but subsequent investigation proved they were incorrect.

And then there are the stone cold crazy ideas. This is a post about those.

At RealClearScience, we have had the immense pleasure of stumbling across a Turkish researcher named M. Kemal Irmak. It was he who proposed that schizophrenia is actually demonic possession. Looking through his other published papers, he also apparently believes that fluoride causes diabetes in Finland.

He has other ideas. And, bless him, he's not afraid to tell us what they are.

The New Testament narrative of the virgin birth of Jesus has two widely believed explanations. On the one hand, most Christians (and Muslims) accept the biblical account as true but, due to its miraculous nature, is well beyond the reach of science. On the other hand, most skeptics and non-Christians insist the story is a myth, not unlike the Greco-Roman tales of the semi-divine birth of demigods, such as Hercules.

Dr. Irmak has his own hypothesis: The Virgin Mary was a hermaphrodite, and her pregnancy was the result of self-fertilization. He explains:

"Virgin Mary is a chimera of 46,XX/46,XY type resulting from the fusion of two embryos of different sex types and both ovarian and testicular tissues develop in Her body as seen in a beautiful plant."

In other words, the mother of the Virgin Mary was going to give birth to twins. Instead, the twins -- one male, one female -- fused together, forming a hermaphroditic Virgin Mary. After reaching adulthood, she accidentally self-fertilized. As crazy as this sounds, Dr. Irmak actually found an obscure 1990 paper in the journal The Veterinary Record that documents the curious case of a hermaphroditic rabbit that apparently became pregnant after living in isolation.

But, there are (at least) two very big problems with the "hermaphroditic Virgin Mary" hypothesis: (1) Mary's husband, Joseph, probably would have noticed; and (2) While human hermaphrodites certainly do exist, it is very unlikely that they would develop two sets of functioning genitals.

For the sake of argument, however, let's assume that the hypothesis is correct. Are there any milestones we should be looking for in the developing fetus? Dr. Irmak does not address the embryological development of Jesus, specifically, but he does have something rather unique to contribute to the field of embryology: It involves dark matter.

The allocortical birth theory, apparently coined by the esoteric Dr. Irmak, claims that a fetus receives a soul during the 13th week of development. This is predicated upon Dr. Irmak properly understanding a brain structure called the allocortex. Granting him that, where does the soul come from? Dr. Irmak explains:

"The dark matter constitutes most of the mass in our universe, but its nature remains unknown. The soul is likely to work into man’s physical body directly via that dark matter."

Aha! Dark matter, that mysterious substance that makes up 26.8% of the mass-energy of the universe, is actually soulstuff. And it enters the fetal brain during the 13th week of development... through its nose, via a vestigial structure called the vomeronasal organ.

If you've made it this far, you are probably thinking, I'm not terribly convinced by his argument. After all, can he make a testable prediction? I would strongly argue yes.

People who do not have noses would not have souls. People who don't have souls are evil. Can you think of any malevolent humans lacking a proboscis? Of course you can. His name is Lord Voldemort.

Q.E.D.

Source: Irmak MK. "Embryological basis of the virgin birth of Jesus." J Exp Integr Med 4(2): 143-146. (2014) doi: 10.5455/jeim.060113.hp.011

Source: Irmak MK. "Cosmological dark matter and ensoulment." J Exp Integr Med 3(4): 343-346. (2013) doi: 10.5455/jeim.110813.hp.006

(AP Photo)

The Strange Disorder Where Your Hand Has a Mind of Its Own

THE DAY WAS progressing normally enough for Pam Johnson (not her real name, in the interest of privacy), but when the 77-year-old sat down to watch television, the monotony turned disturbing. Out of the corner of her eye, she witnessed her left hand creep off its resting position on the armchair and slowly arc across her field of vision. It then began to stroke her face and hair. Now, none of this would be out of the ordinary... had she actually been controlling the appendage. But the hand was doing it all by itself!

Frightened, she called for her husband, and the pair zoomed off to the hospital. By the time they arrived, the hand was back under Pam's control. The 30-minute ordeal seemed like an apparition, but she didn't imagine it. Brain scans confirmed that something was amiss.

The story of Pam's temporarily wayward hand is not at all foreign to neurologists.

"ALIEN HAND SYNDROME is a phenomenon in which one hand is not under control of the mind. The person loses control of the hand, and it acts as if it has a mind of its own," scientists recently described in the Proceedings of Baylor University Medical Center.

Pam got off lucky. Her bout of alien hand syndrome is the shortest known to science. In the dozens of times that the condition has been documented previously, it usually lasts around a year, but can persist for more than a decade.

Pam's case of alien hand appeared to have been caused by a very minor stroke, but that's quite out of the ordinary. Most often, alien hand syndrome arises in the wake of some sort of damage to the corpus callosum or the supplementary motor area of the brain.

For the average patient, once the initial shock wears off, having an arm with a mind of its own can grow to be somewhat amusing, if a little annoying. The syndrome generally does not pose risks, though there are rare instances of out-of-control hands slapping or choking their owners. Occasionally, the hand will reach out and pick up random objects. Oftentimes, it does nothing. However, in some cases, it will maddeningly do the opposite of what the consciously controlled hand does. Imagine trying to change the television channel or get dressed in the morning!

Sergio Della Sala, one of the foremost experts on "anarchic hand" syndrome (as he calls it), described a meeting with one of his patients in a 2005 issue of The Psychologist:

We were discussing the implication of her medical condition for her and her relatives, when, out of the blue and much to her dismay, her left hand took some leftover fish-bones and put them into her mouth. A little later, while she was begging it not to embarrass her any more, her mischievous hand grabbed the ice-cream that her brother was licking. Her right hand immediately intervened to put things in place and as a result of the fighting the dessert dropped on the floor. She apologised profusely for this behaviour that she attributed to her hand’s disobedience. Indeed she claimed that her hand had a mind of its own and often did whatever ‘pleased it’.

IN THE PAST decade, neuroscientists have used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to compare the brains of people with alien hand syndrome to those of normal individuals.

"In normal individuals, initiation of motor activity shows activation of multiple extensive neural networks," the Baylor scientists detailed. "However, in patients with alien hand syndrome, only isolated activation of the contralateral primary motor cortex is observed."

So while the systems that move the hand function normally, adjacent systems in the brain that allow patients to consciously register the actions of their hand do not.

Currently, there is no cure for alien hand syndrome, but long-term suffers have been known to deal with their disobedient hands by constantly wearing an oven mitt or giving the hand something to hold on to. Dousing it in warm water throughout the day also may sate the hand's desire to move. It's possible that constant tactile stimulation serves as a basic form of treatment.

(Image: AP)

Scarlett Johansson's New Movie Is Based on One of the Biggest Scientific Myths of All Time

The reviews aren't yet in for Scarlett Johansson's new movie Lucy, but a single viewing of the trailer is enough to give the film a resounding "two thumbs down" on science.

Here's the synopsis:

In a near future where corruption reigns, the Taiwanese mob forces a young woman named Lucy to work as a drug runner. They implant a mysterious compound into her body for her to transport. But when its container ruptures, Lucy begins to experience radical changes. The chemical contained within boosts her brain capacity far beyond the normal 10% that humans utilize. She gains superhuman strength, dexterity, and accuracy, absorbs knowledge almost instantaneously, and develops telepathic abilities. Commence kickassery.

Have you spotted the problem?

The idea that humans only use 10% of their brains is a complete, utter, and total myth. Lucy is entirely premised on neuroscientific BS.

Now, as an ardent cinephile (I've often wondered how much better a science writer I'd be if my memory were packed with chemistry and physics facts instead of useless movie trivia), I'm not usually one to be overly pedantic when it comes to science and cinema. I remain in awe of Gravity, despite its scientific shortcomings. I'm willing to suspend belief in physics to allow the existence of a 700-foot wall of ice in Westeros. Heck, I even enjoyed Prometheus, even though the "scientists" in the film acted with complete and total disregard for, well, science.

Oh, and I'm almost certainly going to see Lucy.

But I refuse to pretend that the "10% Myth" is anywhere close to grounded in reality, even though 65% of the public believes it! Thanks to modern brain scanners, scientists have shown that virtually every part of the brain is in use at all times, even when we're sleeping! Moreover, it makes no logical sense that humans would evolve such large brains if we didn't use them.

It's easy to see why the myth has perpetuated for so long: It's an enticing fallacy! There might be psychic powers and super intelligence locked away within our minds. All that's needed is a key!

Or illicit drugs, apparently.

*Because Lucy is totally premised on a notion that's been thoroughly disproven, yet strives to maintain a semblance of realism, I think it enters contention for the most unscientific movie of all time. If you can think of any other nominees, share them in the comments below!

What to Do with a Failed $5 Billion Experiment?

So you spent 17 years and $5 billion to build a fusion experiment. You built a facility wider than the length of three football fields. You built a 400-foot-long laser with more than 33,000 optical parts; it is currently the highest energy laser in the world. You've been through more budget overruns and management problems than you'd care to admit.

Now, you finally turn the thing on at full power and carry out your experiment. And it fails monumentally. Now what?

This is the dilemma facing the National Ignition Facility (NIF). Built with the promise of providing ignition -- creating fusion energy greater than the energy needed to release it -- NIF fell 28,000 times short of its goal. No one knows how to fix it. So NIF has now been finding other things to occupy its time.

There are many useful things to do with a 1.8 MJ laser system.

One recent experiment tested whether diamond can take on a new crystalline form if you squeeze it hard enough. A pressure of 49 million Earth atmospheres was applied to a tiny sliver of the hardest natural material by placing it in the target chamber and firing the giant laser. The predicted crystal restructuring didn't occur. As the pressure increased, the diamond remained resilient instead of abruptly reordering its atoms. This tells us more about diamond and also about the behavior of carbon structures in the cores of extremely dense planets like Jupiter.

Another use for the NIF laser is to gather data for the design and upkeep of nuclear weapons. Since 1992 the US has not tested a single nuclear device. Real world tests of new bomb designs and the working condition of older weapons can no longer be carried out. The task falls to extremely complex codes run on supercomputers. NIF can produce heats and pressures found in bomb detonations. It also mimics the crushing action applied from the fission detonation to produce the far more powerful fusion reaction used in thermonuclear "hydrogen" bombs. Implosion-triggered fusion data can be gathered from NIF to guide the computer simulations.

NIF has also been running experiments on the properties of various materials at extremely high pressures and temperatures, shock wave creation, hydrodynamics and fuel pellets to look for better fusion results.

There are also a few useless things to do with a 1.8 MJ laser system.

In 2012 work was halted so that the film Star Trek: Into Darkness could be filmed at the laser target chamber. Releasing misleading press releases also falls under things not to do.

This seems like piling on, so let's be clear: fusion power is a goal worth spending billions on. It will take decades of work and massive resources to succeed. Taking gambles on facilities like NIF is a part of this process, and certainly a worthwhile investment. Now that this effort has failed, however, we need to find new science to produce at this uniquely powerful and capable facility.

Outbreak of Political Correctness in Science Media

A free and objective press: A quaint idea.

The American media is widely perceived to lean to the Left. Though most journalists won't openly admit the fact, it is indisputably true. As reported in the Washington Post, a 2014 study showed that among journalists Democrats outnumber Republicans by four to one. (The exact numbers were: 28.1% Democrat, 7.1% Republican, 50.2% Independent, and 14.6% "other" -- whatever that means.) It is impossible to know exactly what to make of the roughly 65% of journalists who refused to put a label on themselves, but it is perhaps safe to assume that Left-leaning independents outnumber Right-leaning independents by the same margin. After all, about 93% of DC-based journalists vote Democrat, and 65% of donations from journalists went to Democrats in 2010.

For science journalists, political affiliation shouldn't be a problem because the job of a science writer is to report data and facts. Yet, it is a problem. As Hank Campbell and I detailed in our book, Science Left Behind, science journalists are quick to point out unscientific flaws in Republican statements and policies, but shy away from doing the same for Democrats. (Thankfully, this is slowly beginning to change, as more journalists are rebuking Democrats for being opposed to GMOs.)

The left-wing echo chamber that is the modern-day science newsroom has resulted in some very troubling controversies. A recent outbreak of political correctness has resulted in the termination of a Scientific American blogger who committed the unspeakable crime of giving a favorable review to a controversial book on genetics by New York Times writer Nicholas Wade and for defending Richard Feynman against exaggerated accusations of sexism.

Then, the science writing community expressed bewildering outrage over a cover photo from the journal Science that depicted transgendered prostitutes for a special issue about AIDS. Of course, banging a hooker is a risk factor for acquiring HIV, and the spread of HIV via prostitution has become a giant problem in places like China. Initially, the faux outrage was directed at the supposed objectification of women, particularly because the photo does not show their faces. But, the photos were of transgendered individuals, not biological women. Besides, showing their faces surely would have been criticized as a violation of privacy. Either way, Science loses.

Finally, science writer Jeffrey Kluger penned an article titled "The Myth of the Diseased Immigrant" for TIME. In regard to the refugee crisis on the border with Mexico, he provocatively writes:

Now the nativists and xenophobes have played their nastiest -- and least surprising -- card: the border must be secured and the immigrants sent back because they are, of course, diseased.

In his entire 700-word screed, he states precisely one fact in support of his argument: In most Central American countries, people are vaccinated against measles at higher rates than U.S. citizens. It's hardly a relevant difference, however; 92% of Americans are vaccinated, while the rate of measles vaccination in Central America ranges from 93% to 99% (with the exception of Costa Rica at 90%).

It's a little strange that this needs to be pointed out, but measles isn't the only disease with which we need to be concerned. The World Health Organization estimates that around 2 billion people (nearly 1/3 of the planet) is infected with tuberculosis, a disease that still kills 1.5 to 2 million people annually.

In the U.S., the prevalence (i.e., the proportion of people currently infected) is 4.7 per 100,000, and the incidence (i.e., the rate of new infections) is 3.6 per 100,000. Compare that to Central American countries (all data per 100,000):

Mexico: Prevalence: 33; Incidence: 23
Belize: Prev: 51; Inc: 40
Guatemala: Prev: 110; Inc: 60
Honduras: Prev: 82; Inc: 54
El Salvador: Prev: 34; Inc: 25
Nicaragua: Prev: 55; Inc: 38
Costa Rica: Prev: 12; Inc: 11
Panama: Prev: 64; Inc: 48

The data speaks for itself. Central America has a vastly higher burden of tuberculosis than the U.S. In the worst-case scenario, 90,000 children (mostly from El Salvador, Honduras, and Guatemala) cross into the country. Based on the prevalence data, we can expect several dozen refugees to be carrying tuberculosis. Fortunately, long-term treatment can cure the disease, so hopefully these kids are being screened properly.

Beyond Central America, many developing countries are veritable Petri dishes of infection. Thankfully, many of the diseases, such as malaria, do not spread from person-to-person. But, some do. Hepatitis B, which is transmitted through body fluids like blood and semen, infects about 240 million people in the world, and more than a quarter of a million die every year. The virus is particularly prevalent in Africa and East Asia.

MERS, the deadly new virus similar to SARS that has killed at least 282 people, has already shown up in the U.S. Granted, the patients were travelers, not immigrants, but the threat is precisely the same. Many experts believe that it is merely a matter of time before Ebola -- which has killed more than 600 in the ongoing outbreak in West Africa -- turns up in the United States.

Simply put, an increasingly globalized world poses the very realistic threat of exotic diseases coming to the United States. It would be naive and irresponsible to pretend that immigrants, especially those from developing countries, pose absolutely no challenge to our public health system. Yet, that's what Mr. Kluger implies when he refers to the "myth of the diseased immigrant." He ought to know better; a brief scan of medical headlines proves he is incorrect.

Mr. Kluger is correct about one thing, however: We shouldn't fear or demonize immigrants. Any diseases that they might carry are usually curable or at least controllable. That is one of the benefits of living in a fully modern society. Therefore, we can welcome the world's tired, poor, huddled masses without worrying excessively about any microbes that might be coming along with them.

But, that's not what Mr. Kluger wrote. Instead, he absurdly claims that "immigrants have more to fear from us than we do from them." Then, he calls you a xenophobic bigot if you disagree.

Why on earth would a science journalist write such unmitigated nonsense? Could it be because Mr. Kluger places more emphasis on political ideology than on epidemiology and medical microbiology? Could it be because of political correctness? Given the other events this past week, these are tempting explanations.

Unfortunately, political correctness is a disease with no cure.

(Image: Censorship via Shutterstock)

The Things We Think Make Us Happy... Don't

What's likelier to make you happy: striking it rich in the lottery or getting paralyzed from the waist down?

The answer is obvious, right? Winning the lottery!

But when psychologists studied the question empirically, the results did not precisely follow our intuitive predictions. Oh, at first they did. In the ensuing 12 months after hitting the jackpot, lottery winners were significantly happier than paraplegics. Exotic trips and extravagant luxuries easily topped losing one's ability to walk.

But after a year, the gap vanished. Both groups reverted to the same levels of happiness they experienced before their life changing events. Once they acclimated to their new status, their expectations altered to match. Paraplegics found joy in small victories, while lottery winners grew accustomed to their wealthy lifestyle.

This example illustrates a fundamental error of human thinking: we are incredibly poor at gauging what will make us happy. University of Southern Indiana philosopher Garret Merriam attributes this ineptitude to what Harvard psychologist Dan Gilbert calls "impact bias."

"We're generally pretty good at imagining what it's going to feel like in the short term -- over the next couple days, the next week or so -- and we project that feeling out in perpetuity for much, much further than it will actually last. That really throws of our self evaluations of what's going to make us happy."

It's not just winning the lottery, of course. Many things that we think will improve our happiness over the long-term in fact do not. Moving to California? Nope. Getting married? Nada. Having children? Definitely not.

The graph is a tad difficult to read, but the description makes its message clear:

"As the four separate studies in this graph show, marital satisfaction decreases dramatically after the birth of the first child and increases only when the last child leaves home."

It should be noted that marital satisfaction is not a perfect proxy for happiness. Nevertheless, the data is enough to counter the conventional wisdom that children make us happy.

If we can't count on reproduction to make us content, surely that promotion at work will! Sorry, no. A 2012 study found "no evidence that promotions impact general health or life satisfaction." However, the researchers noted that two or more years after a promotion worker mental health is significantly lower, driven predominantly by increased anxiety.

"Fame, talent, wealth, beauty; most people think that 'if I only had these things I would be happy,'" Merriam stated at a 2011 talk at Sacramento State University. "But it turns out that the people who have these things are not on average happier than people who lack these things. The grass is always greener on the other side of the street."

(Image: AP)

Scientific American's 'PC Police' Fires Blogger

Last week, while perusing Scientific American's blog section I stumbled upon a post entitled, "Richard Feynman, sexism and changing perceptions of a scientific icon," written by Ashutosh Jogalekar. Already a Feynman fan, I had an inkling of the article's thrust even before reading it: Richard Feynman was, on occasion, a total jerk to women.

That much is clear to anyone who has read Feynman's book, Surely, You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! In it, the Nobel Prize-winning physicist candidly reveals a great many personal anecdotes and beliefs. Some aren't exactly politically correct. For example, in regard to women, he describes his very questionable approach to picking up girls at parties or bars. With a hat-tip to Field of Dreams, it is best described as "If you disrespect them, they will come." Don't buy them anything, don't be polite to them, and don't do what they want... until they've agreed to sleep with you, that is.

When I read that section, I was taken aback. Feynman's actions were archaic, rude, and unacceptable, unbefitting of one of my scientific heroes.

Ashutosh Jogalekar, who penned the article at Scientific American, described having a similar reaction to Feynman's "casual sexism," which also manifested in more than just social arenas. But, he noted, though some of his actions are "disturbing and even offensive" when viewed from the socially-evolved lens of today, "they were probably no different than the attitudes of a male-dominated American society in the giddy postwar years." Thus, Jogalekar reasoned, we should not condemn Feynman wholly as a sexist.

That seems to make sense. While anecdotes from Feynman's own book show that he was a jerk to women in certain settings, there's no evidence that Feynman ever discriminated against women in science. In actuality, it was quite the opposite. As Julia Lipman wrote in 1999:

"Feynman took the side of a female Caltech professor who brought a sexual discrimination complaint against the school. He encouraged his younger sister’s career as a physicist even though their parents didn’t believe that women should pursue scientific careers."

And so, Jogalekar concluded, "We can condemn parts of his behavior while praising his science. And we should."

The article earned some controversy on Twitter, but generally prompted diverse, reflective discussion. Not a big deal.

Ashutosh Jogalekar's Feynman article appeared last Friday. The next day, it was taken down, and Jogalekar was abruptly excused from Scientific American's blog network. (The article has since been reposted "in the interest of openness and transparency.")

Scientific American editor Curtis Brainard offered an explanation for the dismissal earlier this week. He said that some of Jogalekar's posts lacked clarity, which made them insensitive to "valid concerns that many readers have about past and existing biases and prejudices in our society."

In addition to the Feynman piece, Brainard referenced two earlier articles that stoked the ire of a few readers, expressed almost entirely through social media. "The first was a guest post in April about Larry Summers’ statement regarding women in science. The second was a post in May, which favorably reviewed a controversial book by Nicholas Wade, A Troublesome Inheritance: Genes, Race and Human History." (Robert VerBruggen also gave this book a moderately positive review for RealClearScience.)

The first post attemped to navigate the muddy waters of gender discrimination in science, and why, in certain fields, there are more men than women and vice versa. The guest author, Chris Martin, respectfully contended, "The research clearly shows that such discrimination exists—among other things, women seem to be paid less for equal work... but the latest research suggests that discrimination has a weaker impact than people might think, and that innate sex differences explain quite a lot."

What exactly is "insensitive" about that?

In his review of Nicholas Wade's controversial book, Jogalekar wrote:

"Overall I found this book extremely well-researched, thoughtfully written and objectively argued. Wade draws on several sources, including the peer reviewed literature and work by other thinkers and scientists. The many researchers whose work Wade cites makes the writing authoritative; on the other hand, where speculation is warranted or noted he usually explicitly points it out as such. Some of these speculations such as the effects of genetics on the behavior of entire societies are quite far flung but I don’t see any reason why, based on what we do know about the spread of genes among groups, they should be dismissed out of hand. At the very least they serve as reasonable hypotheses to be pondered, thrashed out and tested. Science is about ideas, not answers."

While I disagree with Jogalekar's favorable view of the book, there was nothing in his review that struck me as distasteful. His article was well within the mainstream of scientific thought.

In the wake of his removal from Scientific American's blog network, Jogalekar has remained polite and pensive, expressing nothing but respect for Brainard and the magazine. He did, however, ask some open questions. For example:

"How much should a brand care about opinions (particularly negative ones) on social media, especially in an age when waves of such criticism can swell and ebb rapidly and often provide a transient, biased view of content?"

How much should a brand care about opinions (particularly negative ones) on social media, especially in an age when waves of such criticism can swell and ebb rapidly and often provide a transient, biased view of content? - See more at: http://wavefunction.fieldofscience.com/#sthash.6rFo9aVc.dpuf

The simple fact is that science is occasionally uncomfortable and sometimes runs counter to what we believe. But that doesn't mean we should shy away from it. Yet, that is what Scientific American has chosen to do; they have dismissed a blogger for tackling controversial topics and ruffling a few overly sensitive feathers.

"A scientific topic cannot be declared off limits or whitewashed because its findings can be socially or politically controversial," Jogalekar sagely wrote in one of his pieces.

Apparently, Scientific American disagrees. And in their politically correct world where feelings come before facts, that means you lose your job.

(Photo: Censorship via Shutterstock)

Robert Hooke: A Genius Comparable to Newton

Isaac Newton's preeminence in the history of science and mathematics is fully deserved. However, his enormous reputation overshadows the importance and work of some of the other founding fathers of modern science. Liebniz, Huygens, Boyle and other contemporaries are outshined by his incomparable brilliance.

Another early natural philosopher with gifts rivaling Newton's was Robert Hooke (1635-1703). Physics, biology, microscopy, paleontology, astronomy and engineering all bear his fingerprints. Hooke was an experimentalist and the definition of a polymath; he was a leading expert and discoverer in nearly every field in which he worked.

Hooke is known to physicists as the creator of Hooke's Law: force is proportional to stretch. This is an accurate approximation for the behavior of how elastic materials pull back against being stretched like a spring. The approximation of a resisting force linearly proportional to the pull on an object is ubiquitous in physics and engineering.

While the fundamental law of gravity is named for Newton, it appears that Hooke nearly discovered the law himself before and during the time Newton worked on the problem. Scientists and historians agree that Newton was the first to derive and investigate in detail the mathematical aspects of universal gravitation. Hooke attempted to prove the law by a series of experiments which were beyond the means of the time. Details of his ideas of an inverse square law of attraction between all heavenly bodies, pulling toward the centers of their spheres, were conveyed in his correspondence with Newton during the latter's time working on the Principia.

Perhaps Hooke's greatest contribution to science was in the field of biology. Hooke, along with Leeuwenhoek, was the first to construct a practical microscope and use it to study nature. Peering at plant tissues, Hooke saw a pattern of tiny container units, which he named cells after the tiny cubicles inhabited by monks. Later he verified Leeuwenhoek's discovery of microbes.

Hooke's famous work Micrographia contains beautiful, meticulous illustrations of flies' eyes, hairs on mites, crystals, veins in leaves, fibers in cloth and other subjects under his microscope. Hooke particularly marveled at the way that biological organisms were revealed to have tinier and tinier levels of beautiful detail, while man-made objects such as razor blades proved to be rough and ugly when magnified.

Fossils fascinated Hooke. He was the first to observe their microscopic structure; the similarity between living and petrified wood led him to propose that the bodies of dead organisms transformed into rock as their tissues were replaced with minerals. Many previous thinkers had concluded that fossils grew as they were within rocks, never having known life.

Turning his powerful magnifying lenses to the Heavens, Hooke worked on more studies. He attempted the failed measurements of Brahe and Galileo to find the distance to a star through the method of stellar parallax. This work was a failure. Even the best 17th century telescopes were far too weak to detect the tiny change. Hooke also misinterpreted his data. Other studies included the rings of Saturn and double-star systems.

Science wasn't the only discipline in which Hooke was a master. After the great fire of 1666 burned nearly all of London to the ground, Hooke was appointed chief surveyor for the reconstruction. He proposed to rebuild the city on a grid and carried out an enormous amount of surveying and architectural design. Hooke also invented some of the methods and devices used to make clocks extremely accurate for the time, maritime navigational instruments and other optical and mechanical devices, including the universal joint and a practical vacuum pump.

All this begs the question: Why don't we mention Hooke in the same breath as Newton? Blame the latter for a fraction of this. Newton was an incredibly jealous and vindictive man, who liked to destroy those with whom he disagreed. It's not all on Newton though. Hooke himself took a turn for the worse as he aged. Even short biographies of Hooke often include a prominent mention of his disagreeability. It always pays to make friends and be nice.

It also helps to not irritate the most famous scientist of all time.

Hookah: Like Smoking 40 Cigarettes & Kissing Everybody

Don't let her tempt you.

What could be more relaxing than hanging out with a few buddies and smoking 40 cigarettes in a single night? Possibly smoking 40 joints, but most people don't do that. On the other hand, 18% of high school seniors have reported engaging in behavior that is equivalent to smoking 10-40 cigarettes in a single sitting, and then kissing everybody as well.

A stunning Fox News report (embedded at the bottom of this post) by Marc Siegel, an NYU medical doctor, details the findings of a new study in the journal Pediatrics that found that nearly one-fifth of high school seniors have tried hookah. Males, citydwellers and wealthy students were the likeliest to partake.

Middle Eastern cultures have smoked hookah for centuries. A rather groovy-looking pipe is filled with a flavored tobacco, called shisha, which is burned and passed through a tank of water which supposedly filters the smoke. But it doesn't. According to the National Institutes of Health, a single session of hookah smoking "delivers 1.7 times the nicotine, 6.5 times the carbon monoxide and 46.4 times the tar of a single cigarette." In other words, this is one of the most toxic things you could do to your body in the span of about 60 minutes.

Unsurprisingly, hookah is linked to the same sort of diseases that afflict cigarette smokers, such as lung, oral, esophageal, stomach and pancreatic cancer.

This nasty habit, as Dr. Siegel indicates, is made worse by the fact that users often do not change the mouthpiece as they pass the inhaling device around for all to enjoy. Any disease transmitted by kissing -- e.g., mononucleosis, HPV, strep throat, colds, influenza, etc. -- can also be transmitted by sharing mouthpieces.

So, why is hookah becoming so popular? The tobacco is sweet and smells good, and people are under the very false impression that hookah is healthier than regular cigarettes. But, as just described above, it is actually many, many times worse. And, after your night out partying, you might just go home with a new infection, too.

You would be better off staying home and smoking pot.

Source: Palamar JJ, Zhou S, Sherman S, Weitzman M. "Hookah Use Among US High School Seniors." Pediatrics. 7-Jul-2014. pii: peds.2014-0538. [Epub ahead of print]

(Photo: Hookah via Shutterstock)

 

 

Can Psychopaths Be Cured?

TO THE BEST of our knowledge, there is no cure for psychopathy. No pill can instill empathy, no vaccine can prevent murder in cold blood, and no amount of talk therapy can change an uncaring mind. For all intents and purposes, psychopaths are lost to the normal social world.

But that hasn't stopped the scientists who study psychopaths from trying to bring them back. In 2012, Dr. Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at the University of Mexico and one of the foremost experts on psychopathy, discovered that psychopaths have reduced gray matter in the paralimbic system of the brain. His longtime suspicions were confirmed: Psychopaths -- who are unremorseful and antisocial -- have fundamentally different brains than the rest of us. The finding was replicated in psychopathic youth the following year. While the link between brain structure and psychopathy is correlational, the youth data strongly suggested that the stunted paralimbic system is present from birth.

Kiehl was proud of the discovery and the hard work that realized it, but saddened by the accompanying implications.

"It was if my lab had discovered a new disorder, but we didn't have a cure," Kiehl lamented in his new book, The Psychopath Whisperer.

Hope remained, however. Roughly 1,300 miles away from Kiehl's lab in Albuquerque, New Mexico, mental health professionals in Madison, Wisconsin were taking big steps to treat young psychopaths with a progressive new approach to criminal rehabilitation.

DEVELOPED AND IMPLEMENTED by staff at the Mendota Juvenile Treatment Center (MJTC), the Decompression Model operates without the strict deterrence and punishment commonplace at a normal juvenile facility. For psychopaths, who give little thought to punishment and rarely, if ever, learn from it, the status quo devolves into a vicious cycle of discipline and defiance. Punishment doesn't discourage their criminality; it cements it. Indeed, psychopaths are six times more likely than other criminals to commit new crimes following release from prison.

The Decompression Model at MJTC was originally enacted on the most troubled youth criminals in Wisconsin.

"Nearly all the boys sent to MJTC had been deemed uncontrollable at the other institutions," Kiehl described. "Indeed, the average youth sent to MJTC had over a dozen formally filed charges."

They also averaged in the severe range on the Youth Psychopathy Checklist, the gold standard for predicting whether a youth will be diagnosed a full-fledged psychopath as an adult.

The hallmark of the Decompression Model is positive reinforcement. The institutionalized youth are monitored continuously by all staff members for any sign of positive behavior, however small. When spotted, the behavior is reinforced with some sort of reward. The youth are also told that their rewards can scale, meaning the longer they persist with good behavior, the greater the prizes become. What starts out as a pat on the shoulder graduates to a candy bar, which graduates to the right to play video games, and so on and so forth. The youth were being introduced to the simple benefits of social society.

The staff drew on neuroscience to decide on the rewards.

"Brain scan studies have shown that both candy bars and video games are intrinsically rewarding–that is, the reward learning centers of the brain are engaged by both food and video games," Kiehl explained.

SO, HAS THE Decompression Model worked? In various studies, over 300 subjects who were treated at MJTC were matched with similar subjects not treated at MJTC. Researchers followed both groups over a five-year period, even after they were released.

"The results," Kiehl wrote, "were nothing short of staggering."

98% of the non-MJTC youth were arrested again within four years, while only 64% of MJTC youth were.

"In other words, the MJTC program had resulted in a 34 percent reduction in recidivism," Kiehl wrote.

Moreover, MJTC youth were 50% less likely to commit a violent crime, and, while non-MJTC youth killed 16 people after their release, MJTC youth didn't commit a single homicide! Furthermore, detailed economic analysis revealed that for every $10,000 spent at MJTC, the state of Wisconsin saved $70,000 by reducing the future costs of incarceration. That value didn't even include the savings to society. After all, crime exacts a tremendous monetary and an emotional toll.

What could explain the striking behavioral changes? Could the Decompression Model actually be stimulating the development of new grey matter in the paralimbic system of the brain? Kiehl thinks it may very well be. In 2012, his laboratory deployed a mobile brain scanner to the grounds of MJTC to see whether or not inmates' brains are actually affected by the treatment.

"We want to know if decompression therapy changes the function and structure of the paralimbic system," Kiehl recently noted. "The project is just getting started..."

Kiehl has high hopes for the MJTC program. If we can identify and treat pyschopaths early on, thousands of lives might just be saved.

Source: Kiehl, Kent. The Psychopath Whisperer. Crown. 2014

(Image: The Silence of the Lambs)

Does the Mind Affect Quantum Mechanics?

Let's discuss one of the craziest scientific and philosophical questions raised by quantum mechanics. How is it that by simply looking at something, we cause it to change? Does the human mind, through its power to observe, control quantum mechanical systems?

First, the science. A quantum system is in no definite state until you observe or measure it. Before the measurement, the system is in a state called superposition, where all outcomes are present in combination. In lieu of a set location in space, an electron orbiting an atom is actually spread out; some percentage of it exists in one place, and some percentage in another, and another. In fact, there is a minute amount of it everywhere in the universe!

In isolation, the location, energy and momentum of a quantum system has this "slightly everywhere, yet precisely nowhere" nature. However, if you look at it, you'll see a very precise measurement of any of these properties. Your observation forces the quantum system to coalesce and take a stand at some precise value. (This is often referred to as "collapsing the wavefunction.") An orbiting electron is most likely to appear where the highest percentage of it existed before, and less likely to appear where less of it existed before.

This raises some big questions.

Does a human hand or a human mind impart some special energy by contact? Well, no. But what is it about looking at something that changes it? Why does "measurement" become such a mystical activity in quantum mechanics?

The answer illustrates a deep thought about what we do to something when we observe it. How do we see something to begin with? Light does not shoot out of our eyes to illuminate our surroundings as Plato believed. We see an object by observing how it deflects, bends, scatters or otherwise alters the travel of incoming light. Our observation is made possible by the light interacting in some way with the object.

Hold your hand in front of your face. How do you know it's there? Because light shooting towards you from the far side of your fingers is no longer reaching your eyes. The color of the skin you see is the product of some wavelengths of light interacting with your hand and bouncing off while others are instead absorbed.

What about touch? Touch is the repulsion between the electrons in your hand and the thing which you are feeling. Your skin is stopped because electrons have interactions with one another. An unfathomable number of these tiny specks belonging to your fingertip crash into the space of many more specks belonging to something else.

Hearing? Same thing. Audio waves are created and altered by interactions of atoms. Temperature is the amount of energy imparted from one bit of matter to another.

So how does this relate back to quantum mechanics? Every measurement that you can name boils down to an interaction. You poke the quantum system with something (light, a tiny probe, a thermometer, a calorimeter, a laser, etc.) and that something interacts with it. Your probe is altered by the interaction, and you look at this alteration to understand your measurement. Light is deflected, new light comes out, the thermometer level rises, your probe is pushed back.

A quantum system is in a completely uncertain state only when isolated -- i.e., interacting with nothing else. When an outside object comes into its space, the intruder interferes with the quantum system and forces it to collapse from uncertainty down to a definite spot. You can mathematically treat the impinging second system as classical or quantum in nature. Either way, the overlap of the measuring device or the spread out areas of its constituent quantum systems force the quantum system you measure to resolve.

This gives rise to astounding facts. For instance, if you take a picture of an electron, its probability cloud evaporates and leaves it at one exact place. The light that bounced off the electron to hit your camera forced the electron to appear! The resolution to this troubling idea is that if you leave the light off, no photons hit the electron. The watching camera sees nothing, the electron remains ethereal. The electron will still be forced to resolve in a lit place while watched by a camera with its lens cap on.

This is a mechanistic way to rationalize quantum trouble; philosophically, greater problems remain. Why is the position of a quantum system spread out to begin with? Why it is that the Universe is fundamentally uncertain and not deterministic? Physicists usually settle for a practical answer called shut up and calculate: we don't know why, but we can at least learn to predict how.

(AP Photo)

Was John Wilkes Booth a Psychopath?

John Wilkes Booth committed one of the most infamous crimes in American history. By shooting President Abraham Lincoln in the back of the head on April 14th, 1865, Booth irrevocably altered his reputation from "talented stage actor" to "cowardly assassin." All this, you probably know.

But here's something you might not have considered: Was John Wilkes Booth a psychopath? For most, the instinctual answer is "yes."

"Many people assume horrific crimes indicate the perpetrator has a disturbed, even deranged, personality," Dr. Kent Kiehl, a psychologist at the University of Mexico and one of the foremost experts on psychopathy, recently wrote.

Psychopathy is a personality disorder "characterized by enduring antisocial behavior, diminished empathy and remorse, and disinhibited or bold behavior." It affects less than .4% of the worldwide population, roughly 1 in 250 people.

Continues Kiehl: "I am often asked whether all murderers are psychopaths. Many people assume they are. But... psychopathy is more complicated than the details of an single crime can capture, no matter how despicable the act."

In Kiehl's new book, The Psychopath Whisperer, he demonstrated this point by conducting an in-depth, posthumous assessment of John Wilkes Booth using the Hare Psychopathy Checklist. The Checklist is an inventory of 20 traits, including, for example, impulsiveness, callousness, pathological lying, and parasitic lifestyle. Through in-person interviews and examination of official records, the attending mental health professional assigns the individual scores of 0, 1, or 2 for each trait -- 0 if the item does not apply, 1 if it applies somewhat, and 2 if it fully applies. A score above 30 indicates the individual is a psychopath.

For obvious reasons, Kiehl wasn't able to interview Booth. Luckily, as a side effect of his notorious place in history, there is a bounty of information available on Booth's life, which was more than sufficient to complete the Checklist. Here's how Kiehl scored Booth.

1. Glibness and Superficial Charm. Booth was a suave and skilled actor, "attractive, athletic, and an engaging stage performer," Kiehl described. Though he embodied the celebrity lifestyle, with a minor superiority complex in tow, he does not merit full points. Score: 1.

2. Grandiose Sense of Self-Worth. Booth worked very hard to become a popular actor, which earned him a salary of $500,000 per year in today's dollars. But he was arrogant and somewhat of a playboy. Score: 1.

3. Need for Stimulation. Booth practiced roles for hours on end and played parts repeatedly. However, he was both a ladies man and a drinker, and this occasionally got him into trouble. Score: 1.

4. Pathological Lying. Booth was apparently very straightforward in all his dealings, even when womanizing. Score: 0.

5. Manipulation. Booth was regarded as an upstanding businessman and often donated to charity. Score: 0.

6. Lack of Remorse. Before his death twelve days following the assassination, Booth recorded in his diary a plea to his family begging for forgiveness. Score: 0.

7. Emotional Stability. The evidence suggests that Booth was able to experience a normal range of emotions, from anxiety, to sadness, to happiness. Score: 0.

8. Lack of Empathy. To his friends, Booth was empathetic and genial. However, he fully endorsed slavery, which is hard to ignore. Score: 1.

9. Parasitic Lifestyle. Booth was extremely wealthy, never borrowed money, and always paid his bills. Score: 0.

10. Inability to Control Behavior. Booth was impulsive and prone to excessive drinking, but these behaviors were rarely destructive. Score: 1.

11. Sexual Promiscuity. According to Kiehl, "His sexual liaisons were legendary." Score: 2.

12. Early Behavioral Problems. Booth had a typical childhood for the time. Score: 0.

13. Lack of Long-Term Goals. From striving without end to improve his acting to investing in land and oil, Booth had no problem making plans and seeing them through. Score: 0.

14. Impulsivity. Booth's drinking behavior merits a point. Score: 1.

15. Irresponsibility. As mentioned earlier, Booth handled his finances fairly well. Moreover, his heinous assassination seemed to have been motivated by a perverted sense of duty to the Confederacy. Score: 0.

16. Failure to Accept Responsibility. In a latter to his sister, Booth completely owned his crime and accepted "God's judgment." Score: 0.

17. Many Short-Term Marriages. Booth never married. Score: 0.

18. Juvenile Delinquency. There are no reports of criminal activity in Booth's teenage years. Score: 0.

19. Revocation of Conditional Release. This apples to the criminal justice system, and Booth was never arrested. Omitted.

20. Criminality. Up until his murder of President Lincoln, Booth did not display criminal activity. Score: 0.

Total Score: 8.4 out of 40

Clearly, Booth is nowhere near the score of 30 that's required to diagnose psychopathy. In fact, he's far below the average for a criminal.

"Prior to his crime, he is the sort of person I might have had a beer with, with the hope I could talk him out of his misguided political ideology," Kiehl remarked.

Source: Kiehl, Kent. The Psychopath Whisperer. Crown. 2014

How Star Trek Can Inspire Interstellar Travel

I'd like nothing more than to build the Enterprise.

But wistful desires must give way to physical realities: We cannot just take a blueprint of the Star Trek ship of legend, build it, and expect it to do anything besides look cool (ridiculously cool for that matter).

That doesn't mean that Star Trek can't have an impact on starships of the future. One day, we will achieve interstellar travel, and Star Trek may very well help guide us there.

The vessels of Star Trek are wondrous creations; bold and streamlined. Alas, they're firmly in the realm of science fiction.

"There is not enough substance behind these vehicles and the techno-speak that is used to describe them that you could begin a research program," scientists at NASA's Glenn Research Center wrote in 2008. "They are however, inspirational, and they do provide mental pictures that make it easier to contemplate how you might achieve such feats."

For example, Star Trek clues us in to three features that would be required for any faster-than-light ship: gravity control, a prodigious power source, and some form of warp drive. Thanks to the show, both present and future scientists have a rough and entertaining image of where to start! With that in mind, they can move through the steps that weld futuristic technologies into reality. NASA outlined them:

  • Conjecture: The very beginning of the quest for knowledge. This is when you know what you’d like to accomplish, but you have no idea if it is even possible.    
  • Speculation: When you have learned enough to know what you do know, and know what you don’t toward solving the problem.    
  • Science: The level when you have learned how nature works. You now know if something can be done and what it will involve.    
  • Technology: The level when you can begin to engineer and build working devices to apply those laws of nature to answer your goal.    
  • Application: The final state when the technology is good enough to be put to common use. Cars, airplanes, microwave ovens are all in this category.

So where are we in regards to interstellar travel? Let's start with gravity control. Faster-than-light ships will need technology to push space debris out of the way -- termed "deflectors" in Star Trek -- as well as to maintain artificial gravity inside the ship. Gravity control is in the "speculation" stage at the moment, bordering on "science." It's possible that we may be able to one day wield electromagnetism to influence gravity.

What about a power source? Nuclear fusion reactors, which combine nuclei to release energy, are in the "technology" stage currently, but aren't anywhere close to ready to power a starship. Even more futuristic, straight out of Star Trek, is antimatter -- matter with its electrical charge reversed. Antimatter is in the "science" stage. Mere milligrams of the stuff would provide a boatload of power, perhaps enough to power a trip to Mars, but those milligrams also cost hundreds of billions of dollars to produce. We won't be using antimatter anytime soon.

Last, but not least, we're at warp drive. Theoretically, such a device would warp space-time, permitting travelers to move at immense speeds at or near the speed of light without succumbing to the pesky problems of time dilation. Warp drive is somewhere between speculation and science. NASA's Harold "Sonny" White has demonstrated that the Alcubierre drive, which expands space-time behind a vessel and contracts space-time in front of it -- like riding a wave -- doesn't disagree with the laws of physics as we know them. However, such a drive would require around 350 kilograms of antimatter to even have a chance of working. In an article recently published at Jalopnik, physicist Sean Carroll put the odds of ever creating an operational warp drive at 1%. The light speed barrier is stubborn indeed.

Star Trek has etched out a concept of interstellar travel that we can all aspire to. Time will tell whether we can -- in the immortal words of the impeccable Captain Jean Luc Picard -- "make it so."

(Images: Paramount, Star Trek Online)

Some People Prefer Electric Shocks to Thinking Quietly by Themselves

In a new study, psychologists have demonstrated that most people do not enjoy sitting and thinking quietly by themselves. In fact, some would rather shock themselves to break the humdrum of being alone with their thoughts.

In an era of incessant stimulation, 83% of Americans recently reported to the Bureau of Labor Statistics that they spent no time "relaxing or thinking" in the previous 24 hours. Are we simply "too busy" for such seemingly fruitless exploits? Or, is there a simpler explanation? Perhaps we just don't enjoy sitting peacefully and thinking?

The current study, led by Professor Timothy Wilson at the University of Virginia and published in the journal Science, seems to support that notion.

Wilson and his team first recruited 413 college students and asked them to sit quietly with their thoughts in an unadorned room for 6 to 15 minutes. The students then rated how much they liked the activity on a scale from 1 to 9.

"On average, participants did not enjoy the experience very much: 49.3% reported enjoyment that was at or below the midpoint of the scale," Wilson described.

The researchers then checked to see if the results would hold if subjects completed the same task at home. 200 subjects followed instructions delivered online to sit quietly for twelve minutes entertaining themselves only with their thoughts. On average, participants rated their enjoyment lower than in the laboratory setting and 32% admitted to "cheating" by listening to music or using their phone.

Okay, so college students don't particularly fancy sitting by themselves and thinking, but heck, that isn't exactly a surprise! Surely if the experiment were run with older Americans, they would have no problems sitting patiently in contemplation...

Nope. The researchers repeated the "at-home" experiment on 61 community participants with an average age of 49 recruited at a local church and farmer's market. Their enjoyment ratings were only slightly higher, and 54% cheated!

In a final experiment, Wilson and his colleagues got creative and turned sadistic. They recruited 55 students and treated them to six different stimuli -- three positive and three negative -- one of which was an electric shock. The researchers then asked the students if they would pay $5 to not experience the shock. 42 said that they would. All the subjects then moved on to the primary experiment in which they were expressly told to entertain themselves with their thoughts and nothing else for 15 minutes. But they also were told that they could shock themselves by pressing a button, if they wanted...

Of the subjects who said they would pay to not be shocked, 67% of the males and a quarter of the females went on to do just that. (Hilariously, one outlier shocked himself 190 times! He was excluded from the results.)

"Simply being alone with their own thoughts for 15 minutes was apparently so aversive that it drove many participants to self-administer an electric shock that they had earlier said they would pay to avoid," Wilson commented.

The results of this study will certainly make the rounds at fancy dinner parties over the next couple of days, but so should some nuance. A big fact to keep in mind is that enjoyment scores for sitting and thinking alone weren't awful. On a scale of 1 to 9, they averaged roughly around 4.5 or a little lower. In other words, subjects didn't absolutely detest sitting quietly with their thoughts, they just didn't especially enjoy it. The study also didn't account for variables present in the real world like social pressure. For example, when people pull out smartphones in a public setting when disengaged or alone, they may not be avoiding their thoughts, but instead avoiding the stigma of appearing disconnected from a group.

Now, let's consider the intriguing results: Why can't Americans simply be satisfied sitting with their thoughts? Doubtless, many would heap the blame on modern technology. Comedian Louis C.K. famously called out cell phones last fall.

"You need to build an ability to just be yourself and not be doing something," he told Conan O'Brien. "That’s what the phones are taking away, the ability to just sit there.”

Wilson doesn't directly blame technology, however.

"The mind is designed to engage with the world," he said. "Even when we are by ourselves, our focus usually is on the outside world."

Source: Wilson et. al. "Just think: The challenges of the disengaged mind." Science JULY 2014 • VOL 345 ISSUE 6192

(Image: Shutterstock)

The Ocean of the Future Is Slime

Of all of Earth's natural majesty, there are few scenes more beautiful than a California beach at sunset. Waves of water painted red by the setting sun gently roll in and out, singing a spellbinding lullaby. Seabirds glide noiselessly overhead, occasionally dipping down to skim the water in search of a meal. Everything is so peaceful, so serene.

Now...

"Imagine an ocean seething with microbes, its red-brown surface weedy with algae. Vast dead zones and tides of neurotoxic water hamstring high-order productivity, wiping out the top half of the food chain while its base fills the world with toxic sludge. Waves crash on the beach, kicking up drifts of sticky green foam that cling to the sand. The clean salt air turns sickly toxic with the stench of decay. The ocean's delicate species have perished during the extremely hot days of summer or have expired in a bankruptcy of expensive skeletons."

Anthony Palumbi's description sounds like a setting from a dystopian alternate reality, but a great many ocean scientists think that it could become our reality if current trends continue. The world's oceans face a three-pronged attack from overfishing, pollution, and climate change. If we don't do something to abate the assault, the seas will turn to slime.

That's not a metaphor. The most common result of overfishing, pollution, and climate change is algae. Ranging from unicellular diatoms to multicellular kelp that can grow up to fifty meters in length, these organisms are very successful when humans mess with their watery habitats.

Take climate change, for example. As carbon dioxide increases in the atmosphere, the oceans absorb some of it and grow increasingly acidic. This upsets the delicate balance of life for coral reefs. Algae, however, don't mind the acidity at all. As coral reefs die and decay, algae supplants them.

Algae thrive off pollution, as well. Fertilizers have been a massive boon to agriculture and global food supplies, but they come with downstream consequences. Often, they leach into waterways and get carried to the coasts where they enter the oceans. Awaiting algae gorge on the nutrients and bloom in seemingly boundless numbers. When they do, they kill wildlife by choking off their supply of oxygen and even emit particulates that can send coastal residents to the emergency room. Residents of China know this all too well.

Nutrient pollution is much worse when combined with overfishing. The story of the Black Sea is the perfect example. Porpoises were nearly driven to extinction by humans, so their prey -- small fish -- flourished. The fish ate the zooplankton. Without zooplankton around, phytoplankton came to prominence. They got fat off fertilizers from agriculture and created dead zones that killed off more wildlife. Soon, all that was left besides phytoplankton were copepods -- tiny crustaceans -- and anchovies, but fishing fleets promptly gobbled up the anchovies. Enter invasive jellyfish. They thrived by eating the copepods. Again, slime prevailed, this time in the form of jellyfish.

"The result was leagues of barren water where once many fisheries had thrived. Barren, but for 3 tons of jellyfish in every square mile of ocean surface," Palumbi wrote in The Extreme Life of the Sea.

The Black Sea is now recovering under a healing regimen of porpoise protection, fishing restrictions, and changes in agricultural practices. But what happened to the Black Sea could happen to our mighty oceans. They may be vast, but they are not vast enough to be immune to human tampering.

"If the policy 'medicine' of reduced carbon dioxide, better land management, fishing restrain, and protected areas isn't swiftly administered, the oceans will experience truly dire crises at ever-increasing rates," Palumbi wrote.

That may be a tough pill to swallow, but it sure tastes better than slime.

Primary Source: The Extreme Life of the Sea by Anthony Palumbi & Stephen Palumbi, Princeton Press, 2014

(Image: Shutterstock, AP)

Earth's Magnetic Field Is Weakening. Time to Worry?

The earth's magnetic field protects our atmosphere and surface from the harsh solar wind. It guides the migration of birds and turtles and many other animals, and it may have small and unpredictable effects on behavior and biorhythms. (To wit: 7,000 dog observations reveal that the animals "preferred to excrete with the body being aligned along the North-South axis".)

SWARM, a satellite constellation launched by the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2013, measures the strength of the magnetic field everywhere on the globe. Comparing maps taken from month to month confirms what we previously thought: the earth's magnetic field is currently weakening slightly.

Should we be worried?

The magnetic field we have now is the complex sum of several contributing sources. We all know that there is a magnetic north pole and south pole. (But, magnetic north is actually geographic south and visa versa.) The important thing is that its overall shape is mostly like that of a simple bar magnet. This is dictated by the prodution of a magnetic field -- via Faraday induction -- from the flow of electrical charge caused by tides and currents in the molten iron core of the earth.

Finer details of the magnetic field are incredibly complicated. Earth is peppered with areas of greater and lesser field strength; i.e., small variations on the overall N-S pattern. Chaotic and unpredictable variations in the liquid metal currents cause some of this inhomogeneity. The fields produced vary from place to place and through time. Further, hardened deposits of iron and magnetic ore as well as local variations in geology contribute yet another layer of complication to the magnetic field seen at the earth's surface.

The magnetic field weakening currently being observed seems to be a reduction in the main north-south pattern (called dipole field for its two poles) responsible for enthralling compasses.

While SWARM was launched to learn more about how all of these processes create and control the total magnetic field of earth, it's also situated perfectly to observe the large-scale changes in the predominant pattern. Three individual satellites make up the constellation. Flying in polar orbits, they perpetually circle the earth north to south and back, gradually making their way across the lines of longitude to eventually fly over the entire surface. Sensors onboard can map both the direction and strength of the field radiating up from the earth below.

Is it our fault?

Truly, it's almost inconceivable that human activity has any correlation with this process. Powerful as we may be, the idea that we exert any power against more than 1024 kg (several thousand million trillion pounds) of convecting molten metal thousands of miles beneath the crust upon which we live is ludicrous.

It appears that the magnetic field has natural strengthening and weakening cycles. Dig up an old rock and look at the direction that magnetic fragments inside point. This tells you the approximate direction of the field when that rock formed. Such studies have shown innumerable shifts in the field over time, including many complete reversals of north and south. A geomagnetic reversal is the possible conclusion of the current weakening.

Is this scary?

Reversals appear to occur over timescales of millennia, or occasionally centuries, at worst. For animals this moderates the trouble: the field does not shift very much during their lifespans. Despite some concern, it's not at all clear that these events cause biological shakeups. Humans can easily adapt to terrestrial changes on this timescale.

The only big worry is whether there is some brief period of field so weak as to allow the solar wind to penetrate the magnetosphere. Charged particles would blast gas molecules out of the atmosphere into space and rain down on the surface.

The magnitude of the problem of solar wind stripping away the atmosphere is probably overblown. Research on complete pole reversals shows that some magnetic field remains. It's already happened many times, yet here we are with our rich atmosphere. Venus, with no strong magnetic field, retains an atmosphere far denser than ours too.

Don't lose sleep over magnetic field changes. Animals will be okay, we'll adapt easily, and eventually the cycle will shift back to growing. Engineering jobs will be created to shield and improve electronics and communications technology. It might make for unexciting journalism, but it's good to know that we don't have a new problem to pile on to our worries.

(AP Photo)

Why Diet Soda Will Never Top the Real Thing

"The diet soda business is in freefall." For three straight years, sales of low-calorie sodas have slipped. While there are many reasons for the decline, there's one glaring contribution: Diet soda is not as addictive as the real thing.

To our brains, the difference between soda and diet soda is as clear as day. When carbonated sugar water rushes down our gullets and is eventually digested, the sugar molecules contained within are recognized by dopamine receptors in the brain. It's a signal that they should execute their one and only duty: to release dopamine. And so, the hormone synonymous with reward and pleasure pours out in a torrent, prompting a cascade of good feelings and a desire for one thing: more dopamine. That's usually when we crack open another can of soda.

None of this happens with diet soda. While just as sweet as normal soda and similar in taste, diet soda utilizes artificial sweeteners: often sucralose or aspartame. The brain's dopamine receptors aren't fooled by the deceit, and so stay silent.

More often than not, we don't eat because we're physically hungry. We eat because food gives us pleasure. This fact is mirrored in mouse studies. In 2011, researchers used light techniques to activate the animals' dopamine receptors as they drank water. Even though the water wasn't sweet at all, the mice gulped it down in huge amounts. Later on, when they were offered both water and sugar, the mice preferred water.

The term "sugar addiction" is not a media-spawned overstatement; it's real.

"The repeated consumption of high levels of sucrose can create a cycle of continued overconsumption -- even compulsive eating -- in order to recapture the initial feelings of pleasure," Cristina García-Cáceres and Matthias H Tschöp, both researchers at the Helmholtz Diabetes Center in Germany, recently wrote. "This is similar in many ways to drug abuse or addiction, and also involves some of the same signaling pathways within the body."

A can of full calorie soda contains at least 35 grams of sugar in some form -- often either sucrose or high-fructose corn syrup. Diet soda has none.

It's simply not a fair fight.

(Image: AP)

World's Tallest Mountain Is in the USA: 5 Reasons Why Mauna Kea Trumps Everest

If you measure from base to peak, Mount Everest is not the tallest mountain in the world. That title actually belongs to Mauna Kea, located on the Island of Hawaii. Though Mauna Kea reaches just 13,803 feet above sea level -- overtly dwarfed by Everest's height of 29,029 feet -- its base begins at the bottom of the Pacific. Measured from its watery foundation, Mauna Kea stands 33,100 feet tall!

Height isn't the only reason that Kea trumps Everest. Here are five more.

1. It's a freakin' volcano! Roughly a million years old, Mauna Kea passed it's most active stages hundreds of thousands of years in the past. The last time it erupted was approximately 4,600 years ago. So it's due. But don't worry, when Kea does blow its lid, damage and loss of life would likely be minimal.

2. A great place to watch the stars. The atmosphere atop Mauna Kea is extremely dry, stable, and free of clouds. Moreover, light pollution is kept to a minimum thanks to isolation from surrounding towns and stringent legislation. As such, the mountain is currently home to thirteen telescopes and is set to host the Thirty Meter Telescope which, when completed, will be "the most advanced and powerful optical telescope on Earth."

3. Three distinct ecological zones. Mauna Kea features two different kinds of forest endemic to Hawaii on its lower regions and an alpine climate at the summit. It is the most biotically diverse location on the Hawaiian archipelago.

4. Home to the highest lake in the Pacific. Sure, Lake Waiau may be only 100 meters across at its wettest, but that still counts as a lake! Hawaiian mythology holds that Waiau was once bottomless, providing a path for spirits to travel from their realm to the mortal world.

5. An archaeological treasure trove. Archaeologists have unearthed 76 shrines, four manufacturing workshops, one confirmed burial site, and four possible burial sites, each at least half a millennium in age.

(Images: Vadim Kurland, Alan L)