9/30/2008 12:13:58 PM
Scientists are trying to understand the concept of beauty using neurology, thinking that the "eye of the beholder" could be linked to a function of the brain. Writing for Seed, Moheb Costandi presents a history of scientific attempts to figure out the essence of beauty, from experiments with mescaline in the 1920s to Semir Zeki’s pioneering work in neuroaesthetics at University College London.
UCL scientists are collaborating with leaders in the arts and humanities to study the beauty in many forms, including prose and music. They’re are also examining the ways people perceive the aesthetics of architecture and other spatial relationships. In one study where scientists monitored brain activity as subjects looked at paintings, Costandi reports that “the ‘uglier’ a painting, the greater the motor cortex activity, as if the brain was preparing to escape.”
Researchers hope to learn what universal qualities, if any, the human mind assigns to beautiful things, how long-term exposure to beauty might permanently alter our neurological pathways, and how beauty affects other neurological conditions, such as depression. “An object’s beauty may not be universal,” Costandi speculates, “but the neural basis for appreciating beauty probably is.”
(Image adapted from a photo by goatling, licensed by Creative Commons.)
9/29/2008 3:05:28 PM
Though National Singles Week (September 21-27) has come to a close, Bella DePaulo assures singletons that not being in a committed relationship does not necessarily equate to loneliness or solitude. DePaulo, a psychology professor and author of Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Systematically Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, gives the lie to academic studies and conventional wisdom suggesting that married people are happier, and that a single life is an incomplete life.
DePaulo also targets discriminatory practices that favor married people, such as “the 1,136 federal benefits, protections, and privileges that are available only to people who are legally married” and the Family and Medical Leave Act. The 100 million unmarried American voters remain an untapped political demographic, DePaulo writes. And the media portrayal of marriage and couples’ culture is not doing people any favors.
“You are no more likely to live happily ever after if you get married than you were when you were single,” DePaulo writes. The statement could be reassuring or unsettling, demanding on your point of view.
Image by desdetasmania.blogspot.com, licensed by Creative Commons.
9/26/2008 10:13:00 AM
A group of UCLA geographers reached a surprising conclusion after analyzing the glow of Iraqi cities and neighborhoods at night: Ethnic cleansing may be the primary reason for the decreased violence in Iraq, not the much-touted “troop surge.”
“If the surge had truly ‘worked,’ we would expect to see a steady increase in night-light output over time, as electrical infrastructure continued to be repaired and restored, with little discrimination across neighborhoods,” said study co-author Thomas Gillespie, in a UCLA press release. “Instead, we found that the night-light signature diminished in only in certain neighborhoods, and the pattern appears to be associated with ethno-sectarian violence and neighborhood ethnic cleansing.” The researchers found that the amount of night light in mostly Sunni neighborhoods dropped before the surge and hasn’t bounced back.
The violence decreased in Baghdad, “because of intercommunal violence that reached a climax as the surge was beginning,” the study’s lead author John Agnew said in the press release. “By the launch of the surge, many of the targets of conflict had either been killed or fled the country, and they turned off the lights when they left.”
9/25/2008 3:15:40 PM
Modern science has shot monkeys into space, thrown Twinkies out of windows, and given hallucinogenic drugs to elephants. None of those experiments, however, were strange enough to make Reto Schneider’s list of the nine oddest experiments of all time for the New Scientist. Schneider chose to focus the list on international experiments, including one where Russian volunteers spent 370 days in bed to mimic the effects of weightlessness on the human body. That exercise ended up ruining the marriages of some of the volunteers involved. Schneider also points to a British government study where people were infected with the common cold. A film about the experiment can be seen below:
9/23/2008 10:26:45 AM
Biology may have a say in who gets your vote this November. A new study published in Science found a correlation between physiological responses to threats and people’s partisan leanings. Test subjects with firm conservative political views displayed stronger physical reactions to unexpected loud noises and threatening images than those with liberal persuasions. While researchers didn't want the study to be interpreted too broadly, Wired reports, "the results suggest that fear leads to political conservatism."
This isn't the first time researchers have tried to crack the political biological code. A 2005 study by Berkeley psychologist Jack Block looked at the personality traits of a group of toddlers and checked back in with them as politically opinionated adults. Block's conclusions were certainly colorful:
…the relatively Liberal young men, when in nursery school two decades earlier, impressed nursery school teachers as boys who were: resourceful and initializing, autonomous, proud of their blossoming accomplishments, confident and self-involving. The relatively Conservative young men, when young boys, were viewed in nursery school as: visibly deviant, feeling unworthy and therefore ready to feel guilty, easily offended, anxious when confronted by uncertainties, distrustful of others, ruminative, and rigidifying when under stress.
A 2003 study by New York University psychologist John Jost reached similar conclusions. According to Seed, “Jost said his study found that an adult displaying heightened needs to manage uncertainty and threat was associated with an attraction to conservative ideas, while openness to new experiences and cognitive complexity correlated with liberal ideas.”
Not surprisingly, the findings of these studies have invited ample criticism. Selwyn Duke, writing for the conservative American Thinker magazine, called the Block study “psycho-babble,” and came to the conclusion that “the social sciences today mainly serve to provide a specious scientific basis for liberalism.”
9/22/2008 10:18:19 AM
Vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s now-public emails could fundamentally change internet and free speech laws in the United States. Last week, Palin’s Yahoo email account was broken into and many of the emails were posted on Wikileaks, a website designed to publicize leaked government documents, the media gossip blog Gawker, and other websites. The McCain campaign has called the incident a “shocking invasion of the governor's privacy and a violation of the law.” Writing for the conservative blog Powerline, John Hinderacher cited the crime as, “Just another reminder that there is no sense of decency on the Left.” The issue has been widely covered in the mainstream media, but the real implications of the event may not be felt for years to come.
“I predict that some day we will look back on this breach as a watershed event in the history of statutory Internet privacy,” Paul Ohm writes for the law blog Concurring Opinions. The leak of Palin’s emails could motivate Congress to pass strict privacy laws, but also to punish websites like Gawker and Wikileaks, possibly igniting, “a fierce First Amendment debate.”
Under current laws, Gawker and Wikileaks are likely protected from prosecution, but that hasn’t stopped readers from sending various threatening emails. One of the few inoffensive messages read, “Get a good lawyer, in fact get at least a dozen… you are going to need them when the Secret Service and the FBI come to visit. Jerks!” Orin Kerr, a professor at the George Washington University Law School, disagrees. Kerr writes for the Volokh Conspiracy: “While it's unseemly and perhaps rather nasty to post it, it's normally not a crime to post evidence that was obtained as a fruit of crime”
That didn’t prevent justice officials from trying to intimidate journalistic organizations. The Associated Press, one of the many organizations that has reported on the incident, reports that “Secret Service contacted the Associated Press on Wednesday and asked for copies of the leaked emails, which circulated widely on the Internet. The AP did not comply.” Kurt Opsahl writes on the Electronic Frontier Foundation blog Deeplinks that the Associated Press and Gawker are likely not in any legal trouble, for now: “While the individuals who broke into Gov. Palin's personal email account have likely broken the law, news media… are entitled under the First Amendment to republish any newsworthy email messages.”
The incident has dredged up a fair amount of animosity toward the press, in spite of the legality of posting the emails. Andrew Grossman writes for the conservative Heritage Foundation, “just because it’s legal doesn’t mean it’s right.” On his show for Fox News, Bill O’Reilly said, “I’d like to see the website [Gawker] prosecuted.”
“Congress often enacts privacy protecting legislation only in the wake of salient, sensationalized, harmful privacy breaches.” Ohm write for Concurring Opinions. This could be one such incident. Should Congress decide to attack websites that post leaked documents, it runs the risk of infringing on the right to free speech and fundamentally changing the internet for the worse. The chances of this happening are even higher should the McCain-Palin campaign win the 2008 election. If that is the case, the true victims of this crime are still unknown.
, licensed under Creative Commons.
9/18/2008 12:06:23 PM
Even as a fifth grader, I knew better than to claim that gaming is educational when begging for a Nintendo game system. But video games have evolved exponentially over the past twenty years, becoming more sophisticated and sometimes educational. Today, gaming can teach not just kids, but scientists too.
Writing for Seed, Abbie Morgan looks at five video games, (Spore, Emotiv Systems’ EPOC Headset, Foldit, Immune Attack, and 3D Virtual Creature Evolution) which have each revolutionized and enhanced different areas of science. The games are intriguingly complex, especially the universe-building Spore, the latest offering by The Sims creator Will Wright. Seed has also posted a neat video of a conversation between Wright and astrobiologist Jill Tarter. Considering their applications in modern science, all five games profiled by Morgan could provide young gamers with good ammunition the next time they’re campaigning for more play time from their parents.
, licensed by
9/17/2008 10:41:33 PM
Members of the Royal Society, Great Britain's national academy of science, were thrown into a tizzy recently when, according to the New Scientist, the society's director of education Michael Reiss said, “creationism is best seen by science teachers not as a misconception but as a world view.” In an article for the Guardian, Reiss added that science teachers should be able to engage in serious and respectful discussion with students who have doubts about the theory of evolution.
Though Reiss was not advocating that creationism be taught as science, some society fellows were furious that Reiss, an ordained priest, would suggest creationism be discussed in science classes. Nobel laureate Harry Kroto told the New Scientist that Reiss's comments, taken at face value, are not entirely problematic, but the messenger is. “There is no way that an ordained minister—for whom unverified dogma must represent a major, if not the major, pillar in their lives can present free-thinking, doubt-based scientific philosophy honestly or disinterestedly.”
In a letter to the Royal Society calling for Reiss’s resignation (he has since stepped down), Kroto and fellow Nobel prize winners, Richard Roberts and John Sulston, emphasized the point that as a deeply religious man, Reiss never should have been appointed to his position in the first place: “Who on earth thought that he would be an appropriate Director of Education, who could be expected to answer questions about the differences between science and religion in a scientific, reasoned way?”
Their comments raise a big philosophical question: Can a person represent both science and faith? Or are science and religion so fundamentally different that a person must choose one before the other?
9/17/2008 12:29:39 PM
An indelible image from last month’s Olympic Games came when Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt dominated the 100-meter dash so completely that he began to celebrate before the race was over. He set a new world record, but how much faster could he have gone if he hadn’t slowed down for a victory dance? For all of those who have been waiting with bated breath to know for sure, a team of physicists at the Theoretical Astrophysics at the University of Oslo, Norway, has figured it out. * Bolt may have been able to shave a full .14 seconds off his finish, had he run the race normally. Maybe for their next project those scientists can calculate what else they could have studied in the time it took them to figure this one out.
(Thanks, New Scientist)
Image by Richard Giles, licensed under Creative Commons.
* Correction: The item originally read "with baited breath." It has been corrected
9/15/2008 5:11:47 PM
According to Google Trends, web searches for Sarah Palin have recently begun to exceed those for gossip darlings Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. What were so many curious citizens digging for? Mostly pictures, internet-search analyst Bill Tancer told Future Tense, especially “compromising” or “hot” ones. Tancer revealed the top 100 Palin search terms to Future Tense. Inquiries into Palin’s positions on issues barely make the list. Here are the top 15:
1. sarah palin
3. bristol palin
4. sara palin
5. sarah palin biography
6. sarah palin vogue magazine
7. sarah palin pictures
8. sarah palin photos
9. sarah palin beauty pageant
10. sarah palin bio
11. sarah palin scandal
12. sarah palin hot
13. sarah palin nude
14. sarah palin wiki
15. sarah palin speech
Photo by Sgt. Karima Turner, Alaska National Guard Public Affairs.
9/11/2008 9:46:24 AM
Society may be moving toward a more liberated view of love, but people increasingly are shackling themselves with rigid rules and systems when finding partners, Jean Hannah Edelstein writes in the Guardian. Online daters apply “scientific” formulas to their profiles in an effort to home in on the partner of their dreams, often neglecting more frustrating, unscientific, but endlessly fascinating pursuits like “pointless flirting.”
This methodological approach to love is reinforced, according to Edelstein, by the steady stream of studies designed to illuminate a scientific order to human relationships. After dating a man who looked eerily like her father, Edelstein writes that she was “absolved from responsibility for it” by a recent study suggesting that women are often attracted to men who look like their fathers. Freud may have written about that very idea years ago, but the new findings, reported by the Guardian, are being cited as further evidence of “sexual imprinting,” where sexual attraction in humans is determined early in childhood.
New studies are also pointing to a kind of genetic pre-determinism on love. The New Scientist reports that gene coding could “help to determine whether men are serial commitment-phobes or devoted husbands.” The researchers found that the more copies of a section of the gene RS3 334 that a man has, the less likely he is to remain monogamous. Having pinpointed the genetics of relationships, the team is now trying to test for gene coding in altruism and jealousy.
And even beyond the pages of Cosmo, new studies about how to attract potential mates are released nearly every slow news day. The British newspaper Telegraph has determined that a rollercoaster is the best place for a first date, since the excitement will cause people to release the hormone phenyl ethyl-amine, which is also released when a person first sees someone he or she is attracted to. And the BBC News reports that the simple act of saying “I love you” has the ability to make people more attractive.
The question for Edelstein is: What effect do studies like these have on our relationships? The findings could make dating more efficient, Edelstein writes, saving people time so they could “redirect it towards less sexy, but important undertakings, like recycling and exercise.” People could even sign on to Genepartner.com, a website designed to pair people off based on their genes. But what do people lose? By eliminating potential mates who are blonde, brunette, short, tall, strong, or weak, people cut themselves off from a huge portion of the dating pool, one of whom may be able to surprise them. That’s not a theory. That’s simple statistics.
, licensed under
9/10/2008 4:27:34 PM
The first proton beam whizzed around the Large Hadron Collider track today, far underground, beneath the Swiss-Franco border. “Like first light in a telescope, the first beam in the particle accelerator is a landmark moment for a program that has spanned more than 20 years and involved tens of thousands of scientists,” reports Wired News.
The track is the world’s largest, spanning 17 miles, built by the European Organization for Nuclear Research. Scientists won’t get busy with the good stuff—smashing atoms!—for several weeks, but when they do, many predict discoveries that will revolutionize physics, even our basic understanding of the world. Wired does a heck of a breakdown.
Other predictions for the outcome of the high-energy collisions haven’t been nearly as rosy. Doomsday scenarios include the creation of mini black holes and “dark matter” particles called strangelets. Even though independent reviews have deemed the planned experiments safe, my friend still thinks we should probably be throwing an end-of-the-world party come mid-October. I’m inclined to agree. No RSVP necessary, just check HasTheLargeHadronColliderDestroyedTheWorldYet.com before heading over.
9/10/2008 10:45:17 AM
Many gardeners feel that digging in the dirt and planting seeds helps them relax. Now researchers have found that gardening can have real physical and psychological health benefits. According to an article in Psychology Today (article not available online), gardening exposes people to soil-borne microbes called Mycobacterium vaccae that can stimulate their immune systems. The same microbes also boost the levels serotonin in mice, much like prozac and other antidepressants. Some researchers think that depriving children from playing in the dirt may have led to the recent rise in immune disorders, including asthma. Daniel Marano writes for Psychology Today that “the components of the soil itself might be as critical to human heath as the finest fruits and veggies grown in it.”
9/8/2008 1:13:18 PM
There’s a scientific explanation for why people love donuts at the office. A study recently published in Psychosomatic Medicine reveals that “knowledge-based work” causes people to eat much more than normal, even though their brains are technically performing at the same level of activity as if they were just sitting around. The researchers behind the study offer two possible explanations: One is that eating stabilizes blood glucose levels, which the brain relies on heavily. As evidence, the researchers show that glucose levels change when performing knowledge-based work. The other explanation is that knowledge-based work increases stress, and it’s well-documented that stress leads to increased appetite. Either way, it’s probably a good idea to keep the Snickers out of reach as deadlines approach.
(Image courtesy of Eyedropper, licensed under Creative Commons)
9/8/2008 11:41:35 AM
Information overload, data-security anxiety, and a feeling of queasiness about our culture’s proliferation of nonsense are inextricable parts of the human condition in the Google Age, according to Geert Lovink writing for Eurozine.
The impact of the modern “society of the query,” according to Lovnik, has caused people to forget the “art of asking the right question.” If we don’t know what information we’re looking for, we’ll never find it. No search engine (now matter how advanced) is going to help us find the right questions.
The Google society has also created an overwhelming accumulation of “data trash.” The problem is that if we’re too overwhelmed by data, we’ll have no time for serendipity—the equally lost art of stumbling upon good ideas. Lovnik summarizes his points, writing:
For the time being we will remain obsessed with the diminishing quality of the answers to our queries – and not with the underlying problem, namely the poor quality of our education and the diminishing ability to think in a critical way…What is necessary is a reappropriation of time. At the moment there is simply not enough of it to stroll around like a flaneur. … Stop searching. Start questioning. Rather than trying to defend ourselves against ‘information glut,’ we can approach this situation creatively as the opportunity to invent new forms appropriate for our information-rich world.
(Thanks, 3 Quarks Daily.)
Image by Juancho, licensed by Creative Commons.
9/2/2008 10:38:47 AM
The internet is buzzing with news about John McCain’s VP pick, Sarah Palin. Bloggers are struggling to figure out who the Alaskan governor really is. Twitter user Eamon 1916 claims that, “Sarah Palin taught MacGuyver [sic] everything he knows.” Twitter user Dabolos writes, “Sarah Palin isn't qualified for VP, but she did stay in a Holiday Inn last night.
The posts aren’t true, but they’re part of a “Little Known Facts” meme jetting around Twitter. Other favorites from CNetNews include: “Sarah Palin wants more cowbell” and “Sarah Palin knows who was on the grassy knoll.” Michael Turk, another Twitter user, is credited with starting the trend.
Fake Sarah Palin news can also be found on the blog Welcome to the PalinDrome, where the authors poke fun at “liberels [sic]” and have asked readers to contribute money for a new snowmobile. The site seems to be taking cues from the fake Harriet Meiers blog that appeared when Meiers was nominated as a potential Supreme Court justice.
The real battle ground in the fight for Palin information was her Wikipedia page, even before her nomination was announced. NPR News reports that a pseudonymous user known as “Young Trigg” began editing Palin’s Wikipedia page hours before the nomination was made public. The user, whose name may be a reference to Palin’s youngest child Trig, made some 30 edits, all of which cast Palin in a positive light. Young Trigg chose to deemphasize Palin’s experience in a beauty pageant and focused the entry on her governing prowess and tenacity as a high school basketball player.
, licensed under
Want to gain a fresh perspective? Read stories that matter? Feel optimistic about the future? It's all here! Utne Reader offers provocative writing from diverse perspectives, insightful analysis of art and media, down-to-earth news and in-depth coverage of eye-opening issues that affect your life.
Save Even More Money By Paying NOW!
Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our earth-friendly automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $6 and get 6 issues of Utne Reader for only $29.95 (USA only).
Or Bill Me Later and pay just $36 for 6 issues of Utne Reader!