• Oct. 31, 2005 |
5:30 p.m. ET
Ghosts on the rise: Can it really be true that more Britons believe in ghosts than believe in God ? Somehow that seems hard to, ahem, believe — but if the pop survey is an accurate reflection of popular opinion, it's a testament to the power of a good ghost story.
We're seeing more and more of those on American TV as well, in shows ranging from "Medium" to "The Ghost Whisperer." In fact, research indicates that exposure to spooky TV shows tends to foster beliefs in the paranormal, at least among people who have not had a spooky experience themselves. Paranormal phenomena are being taken seriously in the halls of academia and religious circles . Then there are the high-tech ghost hunters who put their stock in electronic voice phenomena , reverse speech and other eldritch glitches.
To be sure, there are more weird things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in the standard science textbooks — as demonstrated by this week's findings on the reality behind a spooky sort of "blindsight." But where do you turn when you need a scientific reality check?
The Center for the Scientific Investigation of Claims of the Paranormal has plenty to offer, including the "Critical Thinking Field Guide" and "The Belief Engine." And before you stress out too much about a supernatural experience, study up on what may be the perfectly natural explanations, ranging from sleep paralysis to temporal lobe disruptions.
Some researchers have said that vicariously experiencing a spooky experience carries a psychological payoff, by serving as a practice run for real-life perils or by providing a hormonal rush. In that spirit, then, here's your annual fix of ghost stories from Cosmic Log readers:
Frank Henahan: "I had just returned from deployment from Vietnam and stayed with my mother and stepfather at the new rental they had moved into while I was away. There was a second bedroom that my mother had intended to use for her sewing room and for a place my stepfather could sleep when they were at odds. Naturally, this room was mine to use while I was home.
"Mother never used this room for sewing, stating she always felt uncomfortable in there, like a feeling that someone was watching her. My stepfather — a decorated World War II and Korean War soldier — never slept in that room either. He stated he'd rather sleep on the couch in the living room.
"I found out why one night when I was sleeping on my back on the bed. 'Something' put its hand on either side of my feet at the foot of the bed and began crawling up my body! I opened my eyes and saw the dark figure in outline as it moved toward my head. I yelled out and tried to encircle this figure with my arms to fight it off me. It disappeared, just faded away. No noise, nothing. Just the mad beating of my heart.
"Finally, when it was time for me to leave and return to the Navy ship I was assigned to, the night before I left, I awoke to the sound of the closet doorknob being rattled. I turned on the lights and watched the knob turn to the left and to the right without the door opening! Gathering my courage, I pulled the door open quickly to find ... no one there. Absolutely no reason for that lock assembly to have moved that way and for as long as it did.
"Quite a bit more happened at that rental before my parents died, and space here does not allow me to tell you all the rest ... unless you ask."
Dr. V.S., Dallas: "Over the past few years my family has been experiencing some rather paranormal experiences in our home. About four years ago I had been chopping celery, and as I walked up to my sink to dispose of the scraps, my garbage disposal spontaneously switched on, much to the amazement of my neighbor, who was sitting across the room. The switch went to the 'on' position without being touched. The disposal and the electrical switch were in perfect working order and had not been used earlier that day. This had not occurred before or since.
"Then a few months after the disposal event, and in plain view of my wife and me, the paper towel roll spontaneously unrolled about two sheets of paper. The paper towel roll is located just above the garbage disposal switch. Around that same time period, our kitchen cabinet doors, which are located just above the paper towel roll, swung open and several plates flew out and hit the floor, but did not break.
"As time passed, there were several occasions, while I was cooking, that I would notice out of the corner of my right eye, a 6-foot shadow pass by the dining room doorway. This shadow figure was heading toward the above described area and seemed to be projected into midair. When I saw it, I would often go into the dinning room and check to see if someone was in our home or if there were passing cars, but to no avail. Although I never had a good look at this figure, it gave me the impression of a 6-foot man wearing a cowboy hat and a duster. Since I was not sure what I was seeing, I did not mention these strange sightings to anyone.
"Then, one evening, my 12-year-old son was playing with a toy motion detector set around the dining room and kitchen. He told me that he was trying to catch 'Joe.' I asked, 'Who is Joe?' He told me that Joe was a shadowlike figure that he had seen in the same dining room doorway and walking in the same manner as I had seen. As I stated, I had not spoken of this sighting, not even to my wife.
"When I asked him to describe Joe, he said that Joe looked like a shadow man with a cowboy hat and a coat like Joe's. I asked, 'Do you mean Joe, my friend?' and he said, 'No, like Joe at the dude ranch.' Joe at the dude ranch wore a duster. That is when the hair on the back of my neck stood up!
"Although I have not seen Joe for a couple of years, we are still experiencing strange paranormal events. My wife clearly saw our-four legged kitchen chair rotate about 45 degrees while she was alone and sitting about 3 feet away. And more recently, we have found our kitchen refrigerator rotated about 30 degrees from the wall. Both of our children are too small to move it. Incidentally, the refrigerator sits next to the dining room doorway. Then a few days later, we found that our freezer, which is located in the garage, was rotated about the same distance from the wall.
"Before this occurred, I had just returned from work and walked past the freezer where everything was in its place. At about the same time, my wife had retrieved a soda from our garage refrigerator, which sits alongside the freezer. Shortly after returning home I went to get some juice from this fridge. I found that our very heavy freezer was rotated a significant distance from the wall. Neither my wife or I could have failed to notice that the freezer had been moved.
"I am a very conservative individual, as is my wife, who is also a professional. I was a Dallas police officer and helicopter pilot for 11 years while I studied pre-med. And I have been a physician and university professor for the last twenty years. My imagination does not run wild. However, when one considers these events and the realm of the several dimensions that are possible according to the theories of quantum physics, even sane, sober, scientific individuals will start to consider that ghosts do in fact exist."
• Oct. 31, 2005 |
5 p.m. ET
Full circle on the scientific Web:
• Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: Let's talk! Computer translates
• Science News: Ghost-town busters
• Discovery.com: Bloodthirsty 'vampire' spider found
• Pittsburgh Post-Gazette: The coming robot rebellion
• Oct. 28, 2005 |
8:15 p.m. ET
Stringing theories together: Are there just too many theories in the scientific world today? Because of the debate over Darwinism, "theory" has become a loaded word. Intelligent-design advocates insist that evolution is a theory, not a fact — as if it couldn't be both — while Darwin's defenders insist that intelligent design isn't fit to be called a theory.
Then there are other concepts that scientists are still chasing down, such as string theory and the "theory of everything." As we discussed earlier this week , theoretical physicist Lawrence Krauss wondered whether such ideas even deserved to be called a theory.
Yet another theorist, Lisa Randall, suggests in her book "Warped Passages" that scientists should switch their focus from overarching theories to models that target specific puzzles — for example, why gravity is so weak compared with the other fundamental forces. As described in a New York Times review of the book, model-building provides a step-by-step route to constructing a theory.
Modeling serves as an apt description for what scientists ranging from cosmologists to climatologists do when they try to wrap their arms around difficult-to-test hypotheses. A model produces an explanation for existing data, as well as predictions about what further observations should produce. Eventually, scientists hope their models (say, the cold dark matter model of the universe's evolution) will emerge as the basis for settled theory. The classic example is the Standard Model, which has pretty much made it to total theoryhood.
For decades, biologists have been testing models for evolutionary change, while string theorists are still in the process of defining exactly what their models should predict. This week, I invited comments about string theory as well as the evolution debate. Here's a selection of the e-mail feedback:
Anonymous: "I find it almost devastating that the two topics deserve to be bundled and discussed together, giving the two equal weight. It is sad that the culture in the U.S. has gotten to the current state. The shift of population to the South over the past two decades has created a majority population of evangelical Christians, who proceeded to gain political power at the state and federal levels. The leaders of this powerful religious movement now want to overturn science as the principal source of knowledge. The utter failure of the secondary-school system only magnifies the movement by turning out a generation of people with rock-bottom scientific expertise. If they succeed, the US of A will become a Christian fundamentalist state complete with integration of religion and state. The mirror image of Iran. Am I an alarmist? Ask those scientists who had to struggle to defend the most basic ideas of science to a huge faith-based population in 21th-century USA. Absolutely amazing."
Dennis McClain-Furmanski reacted to Krauss' comment that favoring a theory just because it's beautiful smacks of religious faith:
Dennis McClain-Furmanski, Lawton, Okla.: "...Although the term beauty does get used, the one we more typically use, and the connotation carried by 'beauty,' is that of 'elegance' (hence Brian Greene's title ). When such statements are made they have to do with the simplicity of the statement as compared to the weight of the concept it explains. E=mc^2 is one such statement; the complete statement of the equivalence of matter and energy in quantifiable terms is given in six characters. The origin of this, and the concept behind it, remains true regardless of the pleasure or displeasure raised by the use of various adjectives and connotations. One of the longest-standing statements of this nature comes from Isaac Newton's Rules of Hypothesizing, in his 1687 work, 'Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy': 'Rule 1. We are to admit no more causes of natural things than such as are both true and sufficient to explain their appearances. To this purpose philosophers say that Nature does nothing in vain, and more is in vain when less will serve; for Nature is pleased with simplicity, and affects not the pomp of superfluous cases.' Even Newton fell prey to superlatives, and if we happen to find that a positive aesthetic is a simple explanation of a natural phenomenon, then we are simply seeing 'beauty' where our minds are tuned to see it. It takes a lot more than an aesthetic value to create a religion, and religions are not the sole purview of aesthetic values."
Jim Quinlan referred to Krauss' comment that present-day sunlight was the result of million-year-old nuclear reactions, ruling out the 6,000-year cosmic timeline favored by many biblical literalists:
Jim Quinlan,Atlanta: "Regrettably, Krauss looks at creative design with an evolutionary eyepiece. For instance, he assumes that the sun's light has to 'evolve' out of the sun, and uses that to refute intelligent design. Without the chains of evolution's premises, intelligent design can very easily assume the designer started the whole operation in operation, that is, with light in place as the designer wanted it to be. Certainly, as all creation shows a plan, the entity that created it had to have had the power to start it at any point in the cycle he desired."
Extending that argument, the Creator could have made the entire universe as it appears now, and all the memories we have of it in our brains, just a split second ago. But that theoretical "eyepiece" doesn't help us look very far into the past or the future, does it?
Glenda Dykstra, Hartford, Iowa: "OK, a quick question for all the scholarly 'fact' people. A fact is proven. You can re-create a series of events many times and get the same results each time! Have any of you evolved a human out of a chimpanzee? Based on what you yourselves teach, I doubt it. You take for 'fact' things you cannot prove. Until you prove that I am evolved from a monkey, re-create the test, then don't ask me to believe it. I wasn't around when the earth was 'born,' I wasn't around when dinosaurs walked the earth, and I sure wasn't around when man took his first steps, so I believe in what happened based on what I can see and what faith I have. I don't appreciate people putting me down because of my faith...."
Michael Hoos, Kings Park, New York: "Most people I've talked to who don't believe in evolution, believe that evolution states a hairy little monkey gave birth to a blond, blue-eyed human at some point in the past, or that a cat may one day give birth to a raccoon. These are the kinds of beliefs held by the people that the IDers are interested in courting."
Another correspondent reacted to Krauss' claim (which was actually made with a bit of a smile) that scientists love nothing more than to prove other scientists wrong.
Robert Hans Hansen Jr., Brush, Colo.: "The idea that a scientist would be interested in anything other then finding out the truth is absurd. To prove another scientist wrong as motivation is childish and absurd."
A couple of readers pointed out that theory isn't dogma:
Ted Llorens, Sacramento, Calif.: "Science does gloss over the enormous holes in evolution theory, for fear of being overrun by creationists. So I have to support the evolution skeptics in exposing the hypocrisy. Scientists and teachers need to draw a clearer line between what they know and what they think they know. The masses no longer need to be taught that the authorities (secular or religious) have all the answers!"
Robert Elam, Porto Velho, Rondonia, Brazil: "When I look at what the science books have said in the past, I have to declare that the science teachers are hard-put to answer the basic questions, like how did the cell make its outer case, and how did the cell get inside that little box? How did the spider develop a hollow tube leg with the muscles on the inside and the nerves capable of moving that leg? Or how did the eyes form within the head? The last is sort of puzzling when we read what is stated in textbooks: A blind fish was swimming with its back out of the water and got sunburned, and that developed into a photosensitive area which then developed into the eye with focusing muscles and optic nerves. Mother Nature is sooo wise!"
Eye evolution has long been a sore point for those who doubt Darwinism. To learn more about the issue, check the Talk.Origins Web site or Carl Zimmer's two-part exploration of the eye's rise (and occasional fall).
Dan in Indiana: "I just read an article on 'alien abductions' that indicates they may be false memories. I have my own 'hypothesis' on that. Hypothesis: 'Alien abductions are not a false memory. They are the Intelligent Designers returning to check their work.' See? It is a science."
• Oct. 28, 2005 |
8:15 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• The Loom: Hobbit as monkey?
• 'Nova' on PBS: 'Volcano Under the City'
• The Economist: Dreams are made of this
• Popular Science: The worst jobs in science
• The amazing Mr. Angry and Mrs. Calm (via GeekPress)
• Oct. 27, 2005 |
10:30 p.m. ET
Spooky sounds from space: Sometimes it sounds like dolphins singing in the ocean. Sometimes it's like being trapped in a video-game arcade. And sometimes you could swear you were really under alien attack.
Just in time for Halloween weekend, NASA has put together a new collection of sounds from the Cassini spacecraft — magnetometer and radar readings from the ringed planet and its moons, translated into otherworldly whistles, pops and screeches.
An eerie recording of radio emissions from Saturn is my favorite of the latest bunch: It sounds as if some space lord is warming up the death ray to zap Earth in a 1950s sci-fi serial. In reality, the sound represents "a very complicated interaction between waves in Saturn's radio source region, but one which has also been observed at Earth," NASA says. Scary!
Researchers have been translating spacecraft data into sound clips for years, and one of the best roundups is the "Space Audio" collection at the University of Iowa (which includes some of the latest Cassini audio). Professor Don Gurnett's greatest hits include some "Earth whistlers" that are not to be missed, plus scientific explanations of how they are created.
The sounds can be soothing as well as scary. In fact, Body-Mind.com offers samplers of space sounds as relaxation CDs. Some of the sounds from Gurnett's collection inspired Terry Riley to compose a multimedia concert piece titled "Sun Rings," which has been part of the Kronos Quartet's repertoire for years. (You can listen to excerpts by clicking over to this NPR story about the music.)
Scientists aren't recording this data merely for aesthetic reasons, of course: Radio and magnetic readings have revealed quite a bit about how planetary environments, and sometimes the absence of a magnetic field tells as much as its presence. Mars' patchwork magnetic field, for example, may explain what made the Red Planet's atmosphere what it is today.
And someday, perhaps, radio signals from a distant star system will signal the presence of other civilizations. Check out this archived audio clip for more about radio's role in the real-life search for extraterrestrial intelligence.
• Oct. 27, 2005 |
10:30 p.m. ET
Calling all ghostbusters:Halloween is a great time to gather around the virtual campfire and swap ghostly tales — and around here, they're especially appreciated if they trace the natural phenomena underlying a seemingly supernatural scare.
We've solicited ghost stories in 2004 , 2003 and 2002 (including a skeptic's guide to spooky claims). The otherworldly tales aren't restricted to Halloween: For example, check out these discussions of UFOencounters and out-of-body experiences.
So why should this Halloween be any different? Have you had a ghostly experience, or a haunting that turned out to be not that ghostly after all? Is there some spooky claim you're just dying to debunk? Send in your Halloween tale, and I'll publish a selection of the stories on Monday.
• Oct. 27, 2005 |
10:30 p.m. ET
Wonder and whimsy on the World Wide Web:
• UC-Berkeley: Picky female frogs drive evolution of new species
• The Independent: The secrets of '2001' (via Slashdot)
• The Guardian: Born in November? What a bummer!
• The Onion: NASA chief under fire for personal shuttle use
• Oct. 26, 2005 |
6:45 p.m. ET
A telescope is born: Crackling with newborn stars, the galaxy NGC 891 spreads out in an edge-wise view that represents “first light” for a next-generation, double-barreled telescope.
Today’s public release of the image represents a coming-out party for the Large Binocular Telescope, based in Arizona with support of partners from across the United States as well as Italy and Germany.
Eventually, the Earth-based telescope should be capable of producing deep-space images with 10 times the clarity of the Hubble Space Telescope — perhaps spotting planets in distant solar systems or infant galaxies on the edge of the observable universe.
The first-light image was captured on Oct. 12 with just one of the Large Binocular Telescope’s 27.6-foot (8.4-meter) primary mirrors, which have been cast using an innovative “honeycomb” design for lighter weight. The second mirror has just been installed at the telescope site on Mount Graham Observatory near Safford, Ariz., and should be operational in a year.
When they operate together, two telescope mirrors can be greater than the sum of their parts, due to tricks that astronomers can do with a technique known as interferometry. That’s what will give the LBT its super-Hubble powers.
“These first images far exceed our expectations, and provide a glimpse of the unparalleled observational power the LBT will provide,” Peter Strittmatter, president of the LBT Corp., said in today’s announcement of first light. “We are extremely excited by the prospect that we can now observe the universe from the earliest epochs of galaxy formation as well as provide major new capabilities for the study of exosolar planets and the possibility of life outside our solar system."
LBT’s astronomers say NGC 891, a spiral galaxy that whirls 24 million light-years away in the constellation Andromeda, is of particular interest because X-ray emissions point to a galaxy-wide burst of star formation. The blast of creation stirs up gas and dust, resulting in dusty filaments that extend vertically for hundreds of light-years.
To learn more about the $120 million telescope’s marvelous mirrors, click into the Large Binocular Telescope’s Web site.
• Oct. 26, 2005 |
6:45 p.m. ET
Fly me to the virtual moon: The latest version of NASA’s 3-D aerial imaging program can take you on a virtual trip to anywhere on Earth, and now you can even travel to the moon.
Video: Visit a virtual moon “We can now deliver the moon at 66 feet (20 meters) of resolution,” said Patrick Hogan, manager of the World Wind Project Office at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “This is a first. No one has ever explored our moon in the 3-D interactive environment that World Wind creates.”
Mark Leon, chief of Ames’ education department, compared the World Wind experience to “riding a magic carpet through the world and being able to zoom down to any point, or appear magically at any location.”
World Wind’s virtual Earth draws upon trillions of bytes of aerial photographs and satellite data, including observations of Hurricane Katrina. The latest version doubles the global image resolution from 3,281 feet (1 kilometer) per pixel to 1,640 feet (500 meters), with some urban areas pictured at resolutions as sharp as 1 foot (30 centimeters) per pixel.
The program was created in cooperation with the open-source computer community, which means it’s freely downloadable and upgradable. Some of the upgrades have been incorporated into the latest NASA version, Leon told me. Go to the World Wind site for information on downloading and system requirements.
Hogan said any computer that’s been produced in the past couple of years should work just fine — as long as it has a broadband connection and a suitable video graphics card. “It’s not as CPU-intensive as it is GPU-intensive,” he said. “Thank you, video-game technology.”
• Oct. 26, 2005 |
6:45 p.m. ET
Scientific smorgasbord on the Web:
• Columbia Journalism Review: Undoing Darwin
• HHMI: Flipped gene sequences illuminate evolution
• Physics News Update: Sound that's faster than light
• Discovery.com: First female gambler found?
• Oct. 25, 2005 |
8:30 p.m. ET
It's just a string theory: Physicist Lawrence Krauss has a knack for taking on way-out ideas, whether it's looking for the real science behind the "Star Trek" series or arguing with intelligent-design advocates over the theory of evolution. He's doing it again in his latest book, "Hiding in the Mirror: The Mysterious Allure of Extra Dimensions."
To some extent, the professor from Case Western Reserve University traces the same trails outlined by other physicist/authors, such as Columbia's Brian Greene (who discusses string theory in "The Elegant Universe") and Harvard's Lisa Randall (who delves into brane theory in "Warped Passages."). But Krauss has an unconventional scientific take on the quest for the theory of everything : "So far, it has explained absolutely nothing," he said Monday night during the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing's awards banquet in Pittsburgh.
In fact, Krauss wisecracked, "I might say one should call it the string hypothesis, because it's unfair to evolutionary theory for us to call it string theory — because that's one of the big problems, that the public doesn't understand what a theory means in science."
During Monday's talk, Krauss outlined the millennia-old search for extra dimensions, ranging from Plato's Cave to "The Twilight Zone" and beyond. He couldn't resist tossing in sly digs at the theories ... ahem, hypotheses ... that have been popularized by Greene, Randall and other researchers on the frontiers of physics. For now, the myriad, ever-shifting ideas on extra dimensions might as well be considered part of a "theory of nothing," or even a "theory of anything," he said.
"There is not a single physical problem that we know of, that cannot be explained by anything else, that these explain," he said. "Nor do they make predictions yet of anything that has been seen."
Despite all that, he acknowledged that string theory is currently "the only game in town" when it comes to addressing the gaps in modern-day cosmology. And there may be hope is on the horizon: Krauss noted that Europe's Large Hadron Collider, the super-duper particle accelerator due to start operations in 2007, could conceivably provide evidence for the existence of large, spread-out extra dimensions. Krauss said the possibilities reminded him of one of his favorite books, "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," which is soon to become a movie.
"We don't know what will happen when we turn on the LHC in Geneva, and whether we'll be looking through the 'wardrobe' into the extra dimension or not, or whether it's just a fairy tale," he said.
The metaphysical ruminations over the "theory of everything" — and over the fact that there is much scientists don't know about the origin and nature of the universe — naturally led to a question about how the far-out ideas of string theorists stacked up against the far-out ideas of intelligent design's advocates. Here's Krauss' answer:
"String theory is science, OK? People are trying to come up with predictions that actually do something. But some scientists say the theory is so beautiful it must be true. That's religion. And people who criticize science and say it's religion are right to criticize those statements. Those statements are not scientific ones.
"At the same time, what many of the intelligent-design advocates are saying is grossly wrong, grossly misunderstanding science in another sense. ... There was a great statement that I had from one of the Board of Education members in Kansas, who said, 'Look, billions or millions of years ago I wasn't around, and neither were they, so what are they squealing about?' Somehow the fact that we weren't around to see what happened means it's not science.
"Of course that's completely misrepresenting science. What they call it is 'historical science.' That's a great public-relations gimmick. What I argue is that ... there is no such thing as historical science; or rather, all science is historical. Physics is historical, because what you do is you look at the results of past experiments or past observations. And you formulate a theory. But it is not just a story. It's not just a narrative. Because what you then do is, you predict the future.
"You predict the future by predicting the results of an experiment or an observation that has not yet been performed. And in that sense, evolutionary biology is identical to all the other sciences, because you look at the genetic sequences between different species and you make predictions about the susceptibility to certain diseases, and a whole bunch of things, and then you go out and assess that. ...
"So what people don't realize is that the important part is not the past. It is the fact that theories make predictions about the future, which you then test.
"And then there are even the things you think about in the present. ... You can look at the sun, and that's the present, right? No, it's not. ... Do you know how long it takes for the light to get from the center of the sun to the outside? From the time that the energy's released from a nuclear reaction to get to the outside of the sun? A million years. So first of all, if the sun were 10,000 years old it wouldn't be shining. It means when we're taking the data up now, and deriving an explanation of how the sun is built, we're looking at million-year-old data. But now we use it to predict the density profile of the sun, and we do seismology, and it's exactly right. So that's the prediction.
"There are two aspects that they get mixed up. One is, they are claiming that scientists ... are based on faith, and that's true. Scientists are based on faith: They have faith that the ideas they're working on are right. But the difference is that Ed Witten and the other good string theorists will, if an experiment comes along that demonstrates that supersymmetry isn't discovered in a definitive way, be the first to say the theory is wrong. So they have faith in what they're working on. You have to, if you're going to spend 20 years working on an idea. But if the idea is wrong, you say, 'Too bad.'
"And that's the other thing about science that the people who talk about intelligent design don't realize. And it's the best thing about science: being proved wrong. They seem to think that scientists are these cabal people. 'We don't want anyone to deviate from our truth.' And of course, as you all know, the one thing a scientist wants to do is to prove his or her colleagues wrong. That's the main reason to go to work every day. ... That's really what science is all about. And the best educational experience any young person can have is having something they truly believe in their heart of hearts to be true, to be shown false. Because that is the liberation that science gives."
• Oct. 25, 2005 |
8:30 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• N.Y. Times (reg. req.): Long-ago rivals double up on Darwin
• Nat. Geographic: Coughing cats may be allergic to people
• BBC: Clear skies for Virgin spaceliner
• Scientific American: Did life come from another world?
That's one of the lessons you could take away from research released in Pittsburgh today at the "New Horizons in Science" briefing, organized by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. The new study correlated facial expressions with biological responses to a stressful situation, and concluded that justifiable anger stirred up less stress than fear.
"We're hopeful that this study is opening up a new path, so that we can take a new view on stress, in particular the role of anger in health — which heretofore has had quite a bad rap," said Jennifer Lerner, a professor of psychology and decision science at Carnegie Mellon University.
Lerner and her colleagues report on their experiment in the Nov. 1 issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry. The experiment builds on Lerner's previous work, which focuses on the differences between angry and fearful responses to stressful events such as the 9/11 terror attacks.
Psychologists have long held that anger and fear were two sides of the same "fight-or-flight" impulse and were thus marked by similar biological responses. In contrast, Lerner contends that anger is markedly different from fear: Angry people feel more of a sense of control and certainty, and are more optimistic when it comes to risk perception, she says.
That's what she found in the wake of the terror attacks four years ago.
The new research takes the study of anger vs. fear factors several steps further: The experimenters recruited 92 subjects and put them through a series of frustrating mathematical exercises, such as counting backwards in increments of 13. During the exercises, the experimenters intentionally nagged the subjects to get them even more worked up.
While the subjects stewed, the experimenters took pictures of their faces and monitored their vital signs as well as levels of a stress hormone called cortisol. Afterward, the facial expressions were analyzed using the Emotion Facial Action Coding System, to classify them as angry, disgusted or fearful.
It turned out that the subjects whose faces were classified as angry or disgusted showed a significantly lower stress response than the subjects with fearful faces.
Lerner said this was one of the first studies to demonstrate a correlation between facial expressions and the body's stress response system, lending evidence to back up claims that naturalist Charles Darwin made back in 1872.
She said the study also indicates that righteous anger might play a smaller role than expected in stress-related maladies such as coronary disease and hypertension. However, she cautioned, "you can't just say it's good to be angry." Although short-term anger isn't that bad for your system, people with a chronically angry, explosive temperament may be asking for trouble.
Lerner's co-authors on the paper include Shelley Taylor of the University of California at Los Angeles, Roxana Gonzalez of Carnegie Mellon University, and Ronald Dahl and Ahmad Hariri of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine.
Are Lerner and her colleagues applying the lessons of their own research to their lives out of the lab? "I wish I could benefit," Lerner replied, flashing a decidedly non-angry facial expression. "We joke that we wish we could study positive emotions, but we're just focused on negativity."
In the interest of full disclosure: I'm a member of the board of directors for CASW, which organizes the "New Horizons in Science" briefing.
• Oct. 24, 2005 |
11:55 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
• Wall Street Journal: 2005 Technology Innovation Awards
• Science News: Penguins' march inspires science
• Nature: Periods affect women's brains
• Sci. Am.: Fork in birds' road could split species in two
• Oct. 23, 2005 |
2 p.m. ET
Battle of the books: Does intelligent design pay? It does if you're talking about the book trade. At least that's what Chris Mooney figures, based on reports surrounding the federal trial over a Pennsylvania school district's education policy, plus an article in Publishers Weekly about the coming wave of ID books.
Intelligent design — the idea that life is so complex that it had to be designed by some kind of supernatural intelligence — doesn't sit well with most scientists. Mooney himself takes on the movement in his recently published book, "The Republican War on Science," as well as his Web log, The Intersection. But even though he holds the mainstream view that Charles Darwin got the theory pretty much right, he observes that "it pays — big time — to attack Darwin."
The case of Lehigh University professor Michael Behe provides one illustration. Behe, who testified at the Pennsylvania trial last week, is said to have sold more than 200,000 copies of his pro-ID book "Darwin's Black Box," which Mooney speculates could translate into $1 million in royalties.
Indeed, Behe's book currently bests Richard Dawkins' "The Ancestor's Tale" on Amazon's hit list, although the case may not be that clear-cut because Dawkins' book is now out in paperback as well as hardcover.
To be sure, there are also new works on the way from the other side of the cultural debate: For instance, at this weekend's annual meeting of the National Association of Science Writers in Pittsburgh, science writer Carl Zimmer mentioned his forthcoming book, "Smithsonian Intimate Guide to Human Origins."
Unfortunately, it's doubtful that books delving into evolutionary biology will ever do as well as books on the cultural controversy over intelligent design, just as it's rare that history texts outsell the latest from, say, Ann Coulter on the political right or Michael Moore on the left (although "1776" is putting up good numbers). Moreover, book sales are likely to reflect the opinion surveys that indicate most Americans have doubts about Darwin.
So what's a science-minded writer to do? Author/reporter/essayist James Gleick reflects upon that question in yet another newly published book, "A Field Guide for Science Writers," which had its official coming-out party here in Pittsburgh:
"Part of the answer is to report on the scientific process itself: the testing and questioning, the failures as much as the successes, the clashes of ideas and personalities. Another part is to make connections among different specialties — to remember that science is not merely a collection of facts, caged like the animals in a grand zoo, but an intricate, interconnected edifice. The fact of the heliocentric solar system cannot be plucked out; since Newton, it has been tightly bound to a vast body of understanding, a 'system of the universe,' gravity and the laws of motion, the oceanic tides and the flight of projectiles and all the rest. In the same way, evolution is not just a story about the past; it now informs modern medicine, genetics, and epidemiology, not to mention more distant realms, like computational ecology."
To learn more about those realms, you can check some of the resources I listed about a week ago. And to reflect on such issues, you don't need to write a book: For online junkies, one of the most interesting seminars here at the NASW meeting went into the mechanics and deeper meanings of Web logs and feeds. Folks such as science writer Joel Shurkin find the exercise addictive: "If I could figure out a way to make a living doing it, I'd do it."
Rather than giving you the blow-by-blow account, I'll just point you to Amy Gahran's "Contentious" Web log, where a podcast of the seminar should pop up as soon as she's had a chance to edit and post it.
Speaking of posting, I'll try to send along further reports from the "New Horizons in Science" workshops here in Pittsburgh as I get the chance.
• Oct. 23, 2005 |
2 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
• The New Yorker: A revolution in evolution?
• Christian Sci. Monitor: This suit is made for walking (on Mars)
• 'Nova' on PBS: 'Ancient Creature of the Deep'
• Transterrestrial Musings at the Space Frontier Conference
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