Archive for the ‘Science’ Category
I have been thinking of survivorship bias recently in the context of war and combat (from watching movies of that sort). The deep bond among men who have fought in combat has been often remarked, along with their sense of joy at being alive. But, of course, we hear that only from the survivors; those who fell may have had a different view. In his blog You Are Not So Smart, David McRaney has a lengthy, interesting, and informative post on this topic—which goes far beyond my limited view—and I highly recommend it. It begins:
The Misconception: You should study the successful if you wish to become successful.
The Truth: When failure becomes invisible, the difference between failure and success may also become invisible.
In New York City, in an apartment a few streets away from the center of Harlem, above trees reaching out over sidewalks and dogs pulling at leashes and conversations cut short to avoid parking tickets, a group of professional thinkers once gathered and completed equations that would both snuff and spare several hundred thousand human lives.
People walking by the apartment at the time had no idea that four stories above them some of the most important work in applied mathematics was tilting the scales of a global conflict as secret agents of the United States armed forces, arithmetical soldiers, engaged in statistical combat. Nor could people today know as they open umbrellas and twist heels on cigarettes, that nearby, in an apartment overlooking Morningside Heights, one of these soldiers once effortlessly prevented the United States military from doing something incredibly stupid, something that could have changed the flags now flying in capitals around the world had he not caught it, something you do every day.
These masters of math moved their families across the country, some across an ocean, so they could work together. As they unpacked, the theaters in their new hometown replaced posters for Citizen Kane with those for Casablanca, and the newspapers they unwrapped from photo frames and plates featured stories still unravelling the events at Pearl Harbor. Many still held positions at universities. Others left those sorts of jobs to think deeply in one of the many groups that worked for the armed forces, free of any other obligations aside from checking in on their families at night and feeding their brains during the day. All paused their careers and rushed to enlist so that they help to crush Hitler, not with guns and brawn, but with integers and exponents.
The official name for the people inside the apartment was the Statistical Research Group, a cabal of geniuses assembled at the request of the White House and made up of people who would go on to compete for and win Nobel Prizes. The SRG was an extension of Columbia University, and they dealt mainly with statistical analysis. Other groups with different specialities were tied to Harvard, Princeton, Brown and others, 11 in all, each a leaf at the end of a new branch of the government created to help defeat the Axis – the Department of War Math.
Actually…no. They were never officially known by such a deliciously sexy title. They were instead called the Applied Mathematics Panel, but they operated as if they were a department of war math.
The Department, ahem, the Panel, was created because the United States needed help. A surge of new technology had flooded into daily life, and the same wonders that years earlier drove ticket sales to the World’s Fair were now cracking open cities. Numbers and variables now massed into scenarios far too complex to solve with maps and binoculars. The military realized it faced problems that no soldier had ever confronted. No best practices yet existed for things like rockets and radar stations and aircraft carriers. The most advanced computational devices available were clunky experiments made of telephone switches or vacuum tubes. A calculator still looked like the mutant child of an old-fashioned cash register and a mechanical typewriter. If you wanted solutions to the newly unfathomable problems of modern combat you needed powerful number crunchers, and in 1941 the world’s most powerful number crunchers ran on toast and coffee and wore ties to breakfast.
Here is how it worked: Somewhere inside the vast machinery of war a commander would stumble into a problem. That commander would then send a request to the head of the Panel who would then assign the task to the group he thought would best be able to resolve the issue. Scientists in that group would then travel to Washington and meet with with top military personnel and advisors and explain to them how they might go about solving the problem. It was like calling technical support, except you called a computational genius who then invented a new way of understanding the world through math in an effort to win a global conflict for control of the planet.
For instance, the Navy desperately needed to know what was the best possible pattern, or spread, of torpedoes to launch against large enemy ships. All they had to go on were a series of hastily taken, blurry, black-and-white photographs of turning Japanese war vessels. The Panel handed over the photos to one of its meat-based mainframes and asked them to report back when it had a solution. The warrior mathematicians solved the problem almost as soon as they saw it. Lord Kelvin, they told the Navy, had already worked out the calculations in 1887. Just look at the patterns in the waves, they explained, see how they fan out in curves like an unfurling fern? The spaces tell you everything; they give it all away. Work out the distance between the cusps of the bow waves and you’ll know how fast the ship is going. Lord Kelvin hadn’t worked out what to do if the ship was turning, but no problem, they said. The mathematicians scribbled on notepads and clacked on blackboards until they had both advanced the field and created a solution. They then measured wavelets on real ships and saw their math was sound. The Navy added a new weapon to its arsenal – the ability to accurately send a barrage of torpedoes into a turning ship based only on what you could divine from the patterns in the waves.
The devotion of the mathematical soldiers grew stronger as the war grew bloodier and they learned the things they etched on hidden blackboards and jotted on guarded scraps of paper determined who would and would not return home to their families once the war was over. Leading brains in every scientific discipline had eagerly joined the fight, and although textbooks would eventually devote chapters to the work of the codebreakers and the creators of the atomic bomb, there were many groups whose stories never made headlines that produced nothing more than weaponized equations. One story in particular was nearly lost forever. In it, a brilliant statistician named Abraham Wald saved countless lives by preventing a group of military commanders from committing a common human error, a mistake that you probably make every single day. . .
Reading an interview with Steve Jobs, I came across this quote: “The thing I love about Pixar is that it’s exactly like the LaserWriter.” What? The most successful animation studio in recent memory is “exactly like” a piece of technology from 1985?
He explained that when he saw the first page come out of Apple’s LaserWriter — the first laser printer ever — he thought, There’s awesome amounts of technology in this box. He knew what all the technology was, and he knew all the work that went into creating it, and he knew how innovative it was.
But he also knew that the public wasn’t going to care about what was inside the box. Only the product was going to matter — the beautiful fonts that he made sure were part of the Apple aesthetic. This was the lesson he applied to Pixar: You can use all sorts of new computer software to create a new kind of animation, but the public isn’t going to care about anything except what’s on the screen.
He was right, obviously. While he didn’t use the terms picture thinker and pattern thinker, that’s what he was talking about. In that moment in 1985, he realized that you needed pattern thinkers to engineer the miracles inside the box and picture thinkers to make what comes out of the box beautiful.
I haven’t been able to look at an iPod or iPad or iPhone without thinking about that interview. I now understand that when Apple gets something wrong, it’s because they didn’t get the balance between the kinds of thinking right.
The notorious antenna problem on the iPhone 4? Too much art, not enough engineering.
Contrast this philosophy with Google’s; the minds behind Google, I guarantee you, were pattern thinkers. And to this day, Google products favor engineering over art.
After I gave a talk at one high-tech firm in Silicon Valley, I asked some of the folks there how they wrote code. They said they actually visualized the whole programming tree, and then they just typed in the code on each branch in their minds. I recalled my autistic friend Sara R. S. Miller, a computer programmer, telling me that she could look at a coding pattern and spot an irregularity in the pattern. Then I called my friend Jennifer McIlwee Myers, another computer programmer who is autistic. I asked her if she saw programming branches. No, she said, she was not visual in that way; when she started studying computer science, she got a C in graphic design. But she did think in patterns. “Writing code is like crossword puzzles, or sudoku,” she said. (Crossword puzzles involve words, of course, while sudoku involves numbers. But what they have in common is pattern thinking.)
Once I realized that thinking in patterns might be a third category, alongside thinking in pictures and thinking in words, I started seeing examples everywhere. (At this point, this third category is only a hypothesis, though I’ve found scientific support for it. It has transformed my thinking about autistic people’s strengths.)
I’m certainly not the first person to notice that patterns are part of how humans think. Mathematicians, for instance, have studied the patterns in music for thousands of years. They have found that geometry can describe chords, rhythms, scales, octave shifts, and other musical features. In recent studies, researchers have discovered that if they map out the relationships between these features, the resulting diagrams assume Möbius strip-like shapes.
The composers, of course, don’t think of their compositions in these terms. They’re not thinking about math. They’re thinking about music. But somehow, they are working their way toward a pattern that is mathematically sound, which is another way of saying that it’s universal. The math doesn’t even have to exist yet.
The same is true in visual arts. . .
Brad Plumer reports in the Washington Post:
The current U.S. law on chemical safety is 37 years old, riddled with exceptions, and widely seen as ineffective — so much so that the federal government hasn’t even tried to restrict an unsafe chemical since an asbestos ban was overturned in courts in 1991.
Now that law could soon get a face-lift, amid growing concern that ingredients in ordinary consumer products are leading to health problems.On Wednesday, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) and Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) announced they had reached a “groundbreaking” agreement to revamp the 1976 Toxic Substances Control Act, ending two decades of gridlock in the Senate over how to test and regulate the tens of thousands of chemicals found in everything from crib mattresses to water bottles.
If the legislation were to pass, it would be the first time that a major U.S. environmental law was updated since the 1990 overhaul of the Clean Air Act.
“This bill proves that bipartisan compromise can still work in Washington,” said Sen. Joe Manchin (D-W.Va.), who Senate staffers say was critical in bringing the main authors together. All told, the bill has eight Democratic co-sponsors and eight Republicans onboard.
The American Chemistry Council, which represents manufacturers like Dow and Dupont, hailed the compromise. Environmentalists were split, with some viewing it as a encouraging step and others criticizing it for doing too little.
All sides seem to agree that the current process is dysfunctional. . .
Bill Moyers and Michael Winship take a look at causes of US decline:
At the end of a week that reminds us to be ever vigilant about the dangers of government overreaching its authority, whether by the long arm of the IRS or the Justice Department, we should pause to think about another threat — from too much private power obnoxiously intruding into public life.
All too often, instead of acting as a brake on runaway corporate power and greed, government becomes their enabler, undermining the very rules and regulations intended to keep us safe.
Think of inadequate inspections of food and the food-related infections which kill 3,000 Americans each year and make 48 million sick. A new study from Johns Hopkins shows elevated levels of arsenic — known to increase a person’s risk of cancer — in chicken meat. According to the university’s Center for a Livable Future, “Arsenic-based drugs have been used for decades to make poultry grow faster and improve the pigmentation of the meat. The drugs are also approved to treat and prevent parasites in poultry… Currently in the U.S., there is no federal law prohibiting the sale or use of arsenic-based drugs in poultry feed.”
And here’s a story in The Washington Post about toxic, bacteria-killing chemicals used in poultry plants to clean more chickens more quickly to meet increased demand and make more money. According to Amanda Hitt, director of the Government Accountability Project’s Food Integrity Campaign, “They are mixing chemicals together in these plants, and it’s making people sick. Does it work better at killing off pathogens? Yes, but it also can send someone into respiratory arrest.”As long as there are insufficient checks and balances on big business and its powerful lobbies, we are at their mercy.
So far, the government has done next to nothing. No research into the possible side effects, no comprehensive record-keeping on illnesses. “Instead,” the Post reports, “they review data provided by chemical manufacturers.” What’s more, the Department of Agriculture is about to allow the production lines to move even faster, by as much as 25 percent, which means more chemicals, more exposure, more sickness.
Think of that and think of the 85,000 industrial chemicals available today – only a handful have been tested for safety. Ian Urbina writes in The New York Times, “Hazardous chemicals have become so ubiquitous that scientists now talk about babies being born pre-polluted, sometimes with hundred s of synthetic chemicals showing up in their blood.”
Think, too, of that horrific . . .
Julie Rehmeyer writes at Science News:
Every pure mathematician has experienced that awkward moment when asked, “So what’s your research good for?” There are standard responses: a proud “Nothing!”; an explanation that mathematical research is an art form like, say, Olympic gymnastics (with a much smaller audience); or a stammered response that so much of pure math has ended up finding application that maybe, perhaps, someday, it will turn out to be useful.
That last possibility is now proving itself to be dramatically true in the case of category theory, perhaps the most abstract area in all of mathematics. Where math is an abstraction of the real world, category theory is an abstraction of mathematics: It describes the architectural structure of any mathematical field, independent of the specific kind of mathematical object being considered. Yet somehow, what is in a sense the purest of all pure math is now being used to describe areas throughout the sciences and beyond, in computer science, quantum physics, biology, music, linguistics and philosophy.
Samuel Eilenberg of Columbia University and Saunders Mac Lane of the University of Chicago developed category theory in the 1940s to build a bridge between abstract algebra (the generalization of high school algebra) and topology (the qualitative study of shapes, including those in very high dimensions). Very similar arguments repeatedly cropped up in the two fields in different contexts, so the mathematicians reasoned that some deeper structure must unite these situations.
They created an organizing framework that any field of mathematics could be put in. A “category” is a collection of mathematical objects together with arrows connecting them. So, for example, the natural numbers are the objects of a category, and one particular arrow in that category would connect each number to its double. Eilenberg and Mac Lane could then analyze maps between entire categories, and maps between those maps. This allowed the connections between different fields of mathematics to be formulated precisely.
Mathematicians sardonically dubbed the field “abstract nonsense.” Its extreme level of abstraction drains all the content out of the theory, since the objects can represent nearly anything. Draining the content, many expected, would also drain its power: What can anyone possibly say that will apply to essentially all mathematical objects?
Surprisingly, a lot. . .
This article by Natalie Wolchover, published in Wired Science, is truly fascinating:
In 1999, while sitting at a bus stop in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a Czech physicist named Petr Šeba noticed young men handing slips of paper to the bus drivers in exchange for cash. It wasn’t organized crime, he learned, but another shadow trade: Each driver paid a “spy” to record when the bus ahead of his had departed the stop. If it had left recently, he would slow down, letting passengers accumulate at the next stop. If it had departed long ago, he sped up to keep other buses from passing him. This system maximized profits for the drivers. And it gave Šeba an idea.
“We felt here some kind of similarity with quantum chaotic systems,” explained Šeba’s co-author, Milan Krbálek, in an email.
After several failed attempts to talk to the spies himself, Šeba asked his student to explain to them that he wasn’t a tax collector, or a criminal — he was simply a “crazy” scientist willing to trade tequila for their data. The men handed over their used papers. When the researchers plotted thousands of bus departure times on a computer, their suspicions were confirmed: The interaction between drivers caused the spacing between departures to exhibit a distinctive pattern previously observed in quantum physics experiments.
“I was thinking that something like this could come out, but I was really surprised that it comes exactly,” Šeba said.
Subatomic particles have little to do with decentralized bus systems. But in the years since the odd coupling was discovered, the same pattern has turned up in other unrelated settings. Scientists now believe the widespread phenomenon, known as “universality,” stems from an underlying connection to mathematics, and it is helping them to model complex systems from the internet to Earth’s climate.
The pattern was first discovered in nature in the 1950s in . .
Amazing, and reported by Erica Klarreich at Wired Science:
On April 17, a paper arrived in the inbox of Annals of Mathematics, one of the discipline’s preeminent journals. Written by a mathematician virtually unknown to the experts in his field — a 50-something lecturer at the University of New Hampshire named Yitang Zhang — the paper claimed to have taken a huge step forward in understanding one of mathematics’ oldest problems, the twin primes conjecture.Original story reprinted with permission from Simons Science News, an editorially independent division of SimonsFoundation.org, whose mission is to enhance public understanding of science by covering research developments and trends in mathematics and the physical and life sciences.
Editors of prominent mathematics journals are used to fielding grandiose claims from obscure authors, but this paper was different. Written with crystalline clarity and a total command of the topic’s current state of the art, it was evidently a serious piece of work, and the Annals editors decided to put it on the fast track.
Just three weeks later — a blink of an eye compared to the usual pace of mathematics journals — Zhang received the referee report on his paper.
“The main results are of the first rank,” one of the referees wrote. The author had proved “a landmark theorem in the distribution of prime numbers.”
Rumors swept through the mathematics community that a great advance had been made by a researcher no one seemed to know — someone whose talents had been so overlooked after he earned his doctorate in 1992 that he had found it difficult to get an academic job, working for several years as an accountant and even in a Subway sandwich shop.
“Basically, no one knows him,” said Andrew Granville, a number theorist at the Université de Montréal. “Now, suddenly, he has proved one of the great results in the history of number theory.”
Mathematicians at Harvard University hastily arranged for Zhang to present his work to a packed audience there on May 13. As details of his work have emerged, it has become clear that Zhang achieved his result not via a radically new approach to the problem, but by applying existing methods with great perseverance.
“The big experts in the field had already tried to make this approach work,” Granville said. “He’s not a known expert, but he succeeded where all the experts had failed.”
The Problem of Pairs
Prime numbers — those that have no factors other than 1 and themselves — are the atoms of arithmetic and have fascinated mathematicians since the time of Euclid, who proved more than 2,000 years ago that there are infinitely many of them.
Because prime numbers are fundamentally connected with multiplication, understanding their additive properties can be tricky. Some of the oldest unsolved problems in mathematics concern basic questions about primes and addition, such as the twin primes conjecture, which proposes that there are infinitely many pairs of primes that differ by only 2, and the Goldbach conjecture, which proposes that every even number is the sum of two primes. (By an astonishing coincidence, a weaker version of this latter question was settled in a paper posted online by Harald Helfgott of École Normale Supérieure in Paris while Zhang was delivering his Harvard lecture.)
Prime numbers are abundant at the beginning of the number line, but they grow much sparser among large numbers. Of the first 10 numbers, for example, 40 percent are prime — 2, 3, 5 and 7 — but among 10-digit numbers, only about 4 percent are prime. For over a century, mathematicians have understood how the primes taper off on average: Among large numbers, the expected gap between prime numbers is approximately 2.3 times the number of digits; so, for example, among 100-digit numbers, the expected gap between primes is about 230.
But that’s just on average. Primes are often much closer together than the average predicts, or much further apart. In particular, “twin” primes often crop up — pairs such as 3 and 5, or 11 and 13, that differ by only 2. And while such pairs get rarer among larger numbers, twin primes never seem to disappear completely (the largest pair discovered so far is 3,756,801,695,685 x 2666,669 – 1 and 3,756,801,695,685 x 2666,669 + 1).
For hundreds of years, mathematicians have speculated that there are infinitely many twin prime pairs. In 1849, French mathematician Alphonse de Polignac extended this conjecture to the idea that there should be infinitely many prime pairs for any possible finite gap, not just 2.
Since that time, the intrinsic appeal of these conjectures has given them the status of a mathematical holy grail, even though they have no known applications. But despite many efforts at proving them, mathematicians weren’t able to rule out the possibility that the gaps between primes grow and grow, eventually exceeding any particular bound.
Now Zhang has broken through this barrier. . .
Bill Moyers talks about a study that reminds one forcibly of the Tuskegee syphilis study, which also restricted the study to African-American subjects. It was, I believe, never explicitly stated why White subjects were excluded from the studies.
In the 1990s, a prominent research facility associated with Johns Hopkins University conducted an experiment that knowingly exposed children — mostly African American, some as young as a year old — to varying levels of potentially dangerous lead, as part of a study comparing different degrees of lead paint abatement. The researchers, at Hopkins’ Kennedy Krieger Institute, recruited poor families to move into homes that had only been partially abated using three different methods of lead paint removal at three different levels of cost.
The research was “conducted in the best interest of all of the children enrolled,” Dr. Gary W. Goldstein, president and chief executive of the Kennedy Krieger Institute, said in response to a class-action lawsuitfiled by the families in 2011. “Over all, the blood lead levels of most children residing in the study homes stayed constant or went down.”
But in some cases, children placed in homes that received the two cheaper forms of abatement were exposed to levels of lead known to cause permanent neurological problems.
Here, public health historians Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner tell the story. You can read about it in more detail in this chapter of their book, Lead Wars.
Watch Bill’s entire interview with Gerald Markowitz and David Rosner.
Fascinating. Lindsay Abrams in The Atlantic:
PROBLEM: “Marijuana use is associated with an acute increase in caloric intake,” goes the clinical jargon for popular lore. Still despite eating more while high (by some measures, over 600 extra calories per day), marijuana users’ extra intake doesn’t seem to be reflected in increased BMI. Indeed, studies have identified a reduced prevalence of obesity in the pot smoking community.METHODOLOGY: Researchers at the University of Nebraska, the Harvard School of Public Health, and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center analyzed data from a nationally representative sample of over 4,600 adults. About 12 percent of the participants self-identified as current marijuana users, and another 42 percent reported having used the drug in the past. The participants were tested for various measures of blood sugar control: their fasting insulin and glucose levels; insulin resistance; cholesterol levels; and waist circumference.
RESULTS: Current marijuana users had significantly smaller waist circumference than participants who had never used marijuana, even after adjusting for factors like age, sex, tobacco and alcohol use, and physical activity levels. They also had higher levels of HDL (“good cholesterol“). The most significant differences between those who smoked marijuana and those who never or no longer did was that current smokers’ insulin levels were reduced by 16 percent and their insulin resistance (a condition in which the body has trouble absorbing glucose from the bloodstream) was reduced by 17 percent.
People who had previously used marijuana, but not in the past thirty days, tended to have similar outcomes, but to a much lesser degree. In addition, none of these measures were impacted by how much marijuana people reported smoking.
IMPLICATIONS: Although they’re not sure exactly how it happens, write the authors, these findings suggest that marijuana somehow works to improve insulin control, regulating body weight and perhaps explaining why marijuana users have a lower incidence of diabetes. Adding to the big questions — “can weed can treat obesity?” and “marijuana makes you skinny?!” — is the possibility that marijuana might be useful in helping people to manage their blood sugar.
The full study, “The Impact of Marijuana Use on Glucose, Insulin, and Insulin Resistance among US Adults,” is published in The American Journal of Medicine.
A world orbiting two suns. Planet is about the size of Saturn. More here.
I think that it’s odd that we Americans allow the poisoning of our own food supply. Tom Philpott in Mother Jones:
Last week, the European Commission voted to place a two-year moratorium on most uses of neonicotinoid pesticides, on the suspicion that they’re contributing to the global crisis in honeybee health (a topic I’ve touched on here, here, here, and here). Since then, several people have asked me whether the Europe’s move might inspire the US Environmental Protection Agency to make a similar move—currently, neonics are widely used in several of our most prevalent crops, including corn, soy, cotton, and wheat.
The answer is no. As I reported recently, an agency press officer told me the EU move will have no bearing on the EPA’s own review of the pesticides, which aren’t scheduled for release until 2016 at the earliest.
All of which got me thinking about other food-related substances and practices that are banned in Europe but green-lighted here. Turns out there are lots. Aren’t you glad you don’t live under the Old World regulatory jackboot, where the authorities deny people’s freedom to quaff to atrazine-laced drinking water, etc., etc.? Let me know in comments if I’m missing any.
Why it’s a problem: A “potent endocrine disruptor,” Syngenta’s popular corn herbicide has been linked to range of reproductive problems at extremely low doses in both amphibiansand humans, and it commonly leaches out of farm fields and into people’s drinking water.
What Europe did: Banned it in 2003.
US status: EPA: “Atrazine will begin registration review, EPA’s periodic reevaluation program for existing pesticides, in mid-2013.”
2. Arsenic in chicken, turkey, and pig feed
Why it’s a problem: Arsenic is beloved of industrial-scale livestock producers because it makes animals grow faster and turns their meat a rosy pink. It enters feed in organic form, which isn’t harmful to humans. Trouble is, in animals guts, it quickly goes inorganic, and thus becomes poisonous. Several studies, including one by the FDA, have found heightened levels of inorganic arsenic in supermarket chicken, and its also ends up in manure, where it can move into tap water. Fertilizing rice fields with arsenic-laced manure may be partially responsible for heightened arsenic levels in US rice.
What Europe did: According to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, arsenic-based compounds “were never approved as safe for animal feed in the European Union, Japan, and many other countries.”
US status: The drug giant Pfizer “voluntarily” stopped marketing the arsenical feed additive Roxarsone back in 2011. But there are still several arsenicals on the market. On May 1, a coalition of enviro groups including the Center for Food Safety, the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit demanding that the FDA ban them from feed.
3. . .
Good news for many, no change for me: I generally use very little salt—I add no salt to most of my cooked dishes, for example—but OTOH never tried for the (completely unrealistic) 1500mg/day figure. I just tried to use little salt, and since I very seldom eat out or eat prepared foods, I get little salt.
Not that it makes any difference, apparently.
Via Open Culture, where Mike Springer notes:
Here’s an extraordinary film of the great Swiss psychologist Carl Gustav Jung speaking at length about some of his key contributions to psychology. Jung on Film (above) is a 77-minute collection of highlights from four one-hour interviews Jung gave to psychologist Richard I. Evans of the University of Houston in August of 1957. In “Sitting Across From Carl Jung,” an article for the Association of Psychological Science, Evans explains how the interviews came about:
I was teaching a graduate seminar called Approaches to Personality when it seemed like an interesting idea to have the graduate students in the seminar role-play in front of the class and pretend to interview the various personality theorists that I was presenting. Carl Jung was one of those theorists, and during the seminar, I learned that he had never agreed to an extensive recorded interview except for a brief exchange on the BBC. I wrote a letter to Dr. Jung to request an interview because I believed that filmed interviews of eminent psychologists would encourage students to read their work.
Jung, who was 82 years old at the time, agreed to the interview and set aside an hour a day over a four-day period. Evans met with Jung at the Federal Institute of Technology, or ETH, in Zurich. In the excerpts above, Jung talks about his early association with Sigmund Freud and how he came to disagree with Freud’s fixation on the sex drive as the primary influence in mental life. He talks about his theory of personality types and about universal archetypes, including the anima and animus. He talks about the interplay between instinct and environment, and about dreams as a manifestation of the unconscious. At one point he stresses the urgency of understanding psychology in a world where man-made threats, like the threat of the hydrogen bomb, are greater than those posed by natural disasters. “The world hangs on a thin thread,” says Jung, “and that is the psyche of man.”
In shaving, I quickly learned of two mindsets: explorers, who look for any excuse to try a new product or technique, and settlers, who look for any excuse to stick with what they have. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is the slogan of the settler, and many in this mindset are completely unwilling to try (say) a new shaving soap: “The one I have now works fine, so why should I try something different?” The answer, “Because it could be a whole lot better” doesn’t seem to have much impact—as evidenced by the many millions who continue to use cartridge razors and canned foam in preference to trying DE shaving, which offers better shaves at (substantially) lower cost. Settlers tend to settle—thus the name.
But explorers and settlers—also termed “bold” and “shy” respectively—are found throughout the animal kingdom: some minnows will hide back in the reeds while others dart out in search of food. Have both mindsets in a species aids survival: the bold can find new grazing grounds, new foods, and so on, while the shy can preserve the species when an innovative locale or food proves deadly.
Don Cossins in The Scientist has an interesting finding on the two modes:
When a group of genetically identical mice lived in the same complex enclosure for 3 months, individuals that explored the environment more broadly grew more new neurons than less adventurous mice, according to a study published today (May 9) in Science. This link between exploratory behavior and adult neurogenesis shows that brain plasticity can be shaped by experience and suggests that the process may promote individuality, even among genetically identical organisms.
“This is a clear and quantitative demonstration that individual differences in behavior can be reflected in individual differences in brain plasticity,” said Fred Gage of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California, who was not involved the study. “I don’t know of another clear example of that . . . and it tells me that there is a tighter relationship between [individual] experiences and neurogenesis than we had previously thought.”
Scientists have often tried to tackle the question of how individual differences in behavior and personality develop in terms of the interactions between genes and environment. “But there is next to nothing [known] about the neurobiological mechanisms underlying individuality,” said Gerd Kempermann of the German Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases in Dresden.
One logical way to study this phenomenon is to look at brain plasticity, or how the brain’s structure and function change over time. Plasticity is hard to study, however, because it mostly takes place at the synaptic level, so Kempermann and his colleagues decided to look at the growth of new neurons in the adult hippocampus, which can easily be quantified. Earlier studies have demonstrated that activity—both physical and cognitive—increases adult neurogenesis in groups of genetically identical mice, but there were differences between individuals in the amount of neuron growth.
To understand why, Kempermann and his colleagues housed 40 genetically identical female inbred mice in a complex 5-square-meter, 5-level enclosure filled with all kinds of objects designed to encourage activity and exploration. The mice were tagged with radio-frequency infer-red (RFIR) transponders, and 20 antennas placed around the enclosure tracked their every movement. After 3 months, the researchers assessed adult neurogenesis in the mice by counting proliferating precursor cells, which had been labeled before the study began.
The researchers found that . . .
Full disclosure: In terms of ideas and foods and the like, I am an explorer; in terms of sports and travel, I am a settler. Most people are a mix.
And where is the FDA in this? Laura Fraser reports at OnEarth.org:
You probably wouldn’t expect to find pesticides in your toothpaste or your gym socks, but they might be in there all the same. And the vast majority of those pesticides have made it into everyday products without adequate oversight by the Environmental Protection Agency. That’s because they’ve been approved through a bureaucratic loophole known as “conditional registration,” which means they haven’t been fully tested to ensure that they pose no threat to human health or the environment, as required by U.S. law.
Most of us think of pesticides as the chemicals that get sprayed on weeds or used to kill rodents and bugs, but they’re actually found in everything from cosmetics to food containers, as well as antimicrobial textiles (such as the exercise shirt you might have worn to the gym this morning). By killing bacteria and other microorganisms, pesticides can help clothes resist stains or help containers keep food fresh longer. But some have also proven to cause health concerns in humans, kill trees, birds, bees, and fish, or do other unintended harm to the environment.
The EPA has been responsible for registering pesticides since 1972, and during that time, 90,000 have been allowed on the market. A significant number of those — just over 25,000, according to the EPA — were initially approved through the conditional registration process. An internal report by the EPA’s Office of Pesticide Programs shows that of the more than 16,000 pesticides allowed on the market as of 2010, about 11,000 of them were conditionally registered. Because of the agency’s poor record-keeping and flawed procedures, it remains unclear how many of these conditionally registered pesticides have ever gone through the full gamut of safety testing required by law.
“The dirty little secret of the EPA is that almost every pesticide gets put on the market while the agency is looking the other way,” says Michael Hansen, a senior staff scientist at Consumers Union. “That’s not good for consumers, and it’s not the intent of the regulations.”
By law, in order to register and sell a pesticide, companies are supposed to go through a process than can last several years; it includes public comment, reviews of scientific studies, and evaluations by the agency’s in-house science experts. The fast-track conditional registration process was intended to be used only under rare circumstances — when a product is nearly identical to one already on the market, for instance, or when the EPA needs to approve a new pesticide immediately to prevent a disease outbreak or other public health emergency (a new treatment for bedbugs, for example).
No one knew the extent to which the EPA had been abusing the conditional registration rules until 2008, when the Natural Resources Defense Council (which publishes OnEarth) began asking questions about why nanosilver, an antimicrobial made of extremely tiny bits of silver and used to kill bacteria in products such as athletic gear and baby blankets, had been granted conditional registration.
That year, Swiss manufacturer HeiQ had applied to the EPA for permission to use nanosilver in textiles, including clothing and bedsheets. NRDC scientists were concerned that nanosilver might be more toxic than regular silver — which is not very harmful to humans, but toxic and persistent in aquatic environments — because its tiny size allows it to travel into cells, organs, and blood, with potentially dangerous, but poorly understood, health effects. A 2010 internal EPA report on nanosilver notes: “the same property that makes it lethal to bacteria may render it toxic to human cells.”
“Until we understand the risks of nanosilver, we really shouldn’t be wearing it in our clothing and bedding,” says NRDC senior scientist Jennifer Sass. Chemist Martin Mulvihill, the executive director of the Berkeley Center for Brain Chemistry, agrees that more studies are needed, especially because nanosilver is widely used in consumer products. The effects of nanosilver on human health are not well understood, “which is not to say there are no concerns,” says Mulvihill, who adds, “It’s very clear silver is bad for the environment.” Silver bioaccumulates and is toxic to single-celled organisms and aquatic invertebrates; a 2010 study found that runoff containing silver particles dramatically reduced the reproductive capabilities of mollusks in San Francisco Bay. Products like nanosilver washing machines, which kill bacteria with nanosilver ions embedded in the machinery, could also damage water organisms with their runoff.
“Do I really need nanosilver in my jeans or Tupperware?” Mulvihill asks. “I don’t think so. I can just wash them.”
In response to HeiQ’s 2008 request to use nanosilver, the EPA Scientific Advisory Panel recognized that the effects of nanosilver are different from regular silver. The panel said its regulations would require the company to produce numerous studies on the specific health effects of nanosilver before it could be registered for use as a pesticide.
Then the agency went ahead and allowed the company to use nanosilver in its products anyway. . . .
Interesting column by Eli J. Finkel and Gráinne M. Fitzsimons:
American parents are more involved in our children’s lives than ever: we schedule play dates, assist with homework and even choose college courses.
We know that all of this assistance has costs — depleted bank balances, constricted social lives — but we endure them happily, believing we are doing what is best for our children.
What if, however, the costs included harming our children?
That unsettling possibility is suggested by a paper published in February in the American Sociological Review. The study, led by the sociologist Laura T. Hamilton of the University of California, Merced, finds that the more money parents spend on their child’s college education, the worse grades the child earns.
A separate study, published the same month in the Journal of Child and Family Studies and led by the psychologist Holly H. Shiffrin at the University of Mary Washington, finds that the more parents are involved in schoolwork and selection of college majors — that is, the more helicopter parenting they do — the less satisfied college students feel with their lives.
Why would parents help produce these negative outcomes? It seems that certain forms of help can dilute recipients’ sense of accountability for their own success. The college student might think: If Mom and Dad are always around to solve my problems, why spend three straight nights in the library during finals rather than hanging out with my friends?
And there is no reason to believe that parents and children have cornered the market on these dynamics. Indeed, “helicopter helping” should yield similar consequences in virtually any relationship — with spouses, friends, co-workers — in which one person can help another.
We tested this idea in a 2011 experiment, published in the journal Psychological Science, in which we randomly assigned American women who cared a lot about their health and fitness to think about how their spouse was helpful, either with their health and fitness goals or for their career goals. . .