Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:17 am

How Do I Love Thee? Let Me County the Ways -- And Other Bad Ideas
by Sharon Begley
September 6, 2002, p. B1.

Next time you go furniture shopping--for a sofa, say--take a look at half a dozen models, and analyze rigorously what you like and dislike about each one: the fabric...the color...the curve of the back...the arms and feet. Finally, choose one. Odds are, once you're living with the thing, you won't be nearly as happy with your purchase as if you had simply made a choice based on your intuition.

In last week's column about the unconscious, I described how the mental system operating beneath your awareness is able to size up many situations more quickly and accurately than conscious, deliberative thought.

But if you were hoping to get up-close-and-personal with your unconscious to better understand your values, beliefs, prejudices (or feelings about upholstery), forget it.

Introspection about the unconscious can be worse than useless. It "may even mislead people about how they feel," Timothy D. Wilson, professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, writes in his book "Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious," which reaches stores next week.

He ran a variant of the sofa experiment, asking volunteers to look at five posters, analyze what they liked and disliked about each, and then take home their favorite. Two weeks later, those who introspected about their likes and dislikes reported that they weren't too happy with the cute kitty (or whatever) on their wall. In fact, Dr. Wilson found, they were less happy than a control group of subjects who just picked a poster based on their gut feelings.

Living with a poster you can't stand is hardly the end of the world. But introspection stumbles in more-important tests, too, such as when people analyze a romantic relationship.

When Dr. Wilson and a colleague asked college students to write down why a romance was going well or poorly, the volunteers had no trouble coming up with reasons. But that immediately made many more students change their mind about the relationship--some became happier with it, others less so--than in a control group of students who didn't analyze their feelings to death. What happened?

We don't have meaningful access to the causes of our feelings. Just as introspection can't reveal how we process sights or access memories or perform many other mental functions, so, too, is it stopped short at the door to the unconscious. Faced with this brick wall, when we try to introspect about our unconscious feelings we wing it: We come up with whatever's on our (conscious) mind.

In analyzing why we love someone, we might hit upon a "reason" because we happened to be thinking about it ("he drives a cool little red sportscar") or because it is socially accepted ("she's devoted to our children"). Once these reasons are dredged up, we assume they accurately reflect our feelings. And that can change those feelings ("I must really like a guy with a Porsche").

Dr. Wilson finds that the reasons people offer for their (unconscious) feelings--why they love their partner or feel as they do about a product or social issue--are wonderfully detailed, but often hogwash.

Maybe you tell yourself that you enjoy your job because you like your colleagues or wield power, or that you want to have kids because you love the little things. But "insights" like those, born of introspection, often misrepresent the situation, as you see when you subject them to conscious analysis: "Wait a minute, my colleagues resent me and the boss always vetoes my decisions." "I have zero patience!" If you have a gut feeling about love, work or life, it's probably best not to analyze it to death. The unexamined life has its virtues.

If you're still determined to "know thyself," at least resist navel-gazing as a route to your unconscious. Instead, research shows, you can infer the nature of your unconscious--its beliefs, personality and motives--by how you behave.

Do you avoid socializing with people from a different ethnic group? Maybe you're not without prejudice after all. Do you procrastinate on extra projects? Maybe you're not as ambitious as you tell yourself. Do you disparage colleagues to the boss? You may be more devious than you admit. Do you find excuses to work late? Maybe you're not as devoted to your spouse as you profess. And so on.

Scientists disagree about how smart the unconscious is. Can it make only snap judgments, or decisions for the long term, too? From what researchers know now, Dr. Wilson advises, "We should let our adaptive unconscious do the job of forming reliable feelings and then trust those feelings."
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:18 am

Man-Made Mistakes Increase Devastation Of 'Natural' Disasters
by Sharon Begley
September 2, 2005; Page B1

While storms such as Hurricane Katrina are sometimes called an act of God or a natural disaster, the devastation they leave behind is not. Some scientists believe even the storms themselves could be at least partly man-made.

As Theodore Steinberg argues, God is getting a bum rap. "This is an unnatural disaster if ever there was one, not an act of God," says Prof. Steinberg, an environmental historian at Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland. "If the potential for mass death and destruction from extreme weather existed anywhere in the U.S., it existed in New Orleans."

In his 2000 book "Acts of God: The Unnatural History of Natural Disaster in America," Prof. Steinberg documented how much of the toll from "natural" disasters, from the 1886 Charleston earthquake to 1990s hurricanes, has been exacerbated by human actions.

The temporary lull in hurricane activity in Florida, from 1969 to 1989, spurred a reckless building boom, for example, putting billions of dollars worth of condos and hotels within reach of storm surges, notes Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado, Boulder. The Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 would have caused an estimated $90 billion damage had it occurred in 2000, he calculated. It caused just over $1 billion, in today's dollars.

It isn't only hurricanes whose destructiveness has been increased by human actions. Tornadoes turn mobile homes into matchsticks (one of Prof. Steinberg's first jobs was at a New York brokerage firm, where he followed the trailer-home industry). From 1981 to 1997, he found, more than one-third of all deaths from tornadoes occurred among people living in mobile homes; federal regulations didn't require them to withstand high winds, and a 1974 statute actually pre-empted stricter state standards with more lax federal ones.

Throughout the South and Midwest, mobile-home communities and poor neighborhoods are also much more likely to be sited in flood plains.

In New Orleans, the worst-hit parishes were the lower-income ones. But the city also ignored the power of nature. More than one million acres of Louisiana's coastal wetlands, or 1,900 square miles, have been lost since 1930, due to development and the construction of levees and canals. Barrier islands and stands of tupelo and cypress also vanished. All of them absorb some of the energy and water from storm surges, which, more than the rain falling from the sky, caused the current calamity. "If these had been in place, at least some of the energy in the storm surge would have been dissipated," says geologist Jeffrey Mount of the University of California, Davis. "This is a self-inflicted wound."

Studies estimate that for every square mile of wetlands lost, storm surges rise by one foot.

Leaving aside whether the levees that broke in New Orleans could have been better constructed, their very existence contributed to the disaster. Built to keep the city from being flooded by the Mississippi, they also keep the Big Muddy from depositing silt to replenish marshes and the river's delta, as do projects that direct the river's water and sediment out to sea to create a deep shipping channel.

The result is that much of New Orleans fell below sea level. Combined with the dredging to build canals, "the Gulf of Mexico is a lot closer to New Orleans than it was when Hurricane Betsy ripped through in 1965," says Prof. Steinberg. Now the gulf is in the city.

The ultimate question is whether Katrina's power reflects human-caused global warming, or is at minimum a harbinger of the kinds of storms we can expect in a warmer world.

No single freak storm can be attributed to global climate trends. But for hurricanes to form, the surface temperature in the tropical Atlantic must exceed about 80° Fahrenheit. That is more likely in a warmer world.

The best science to date suggests the frequency of hurricanes doesn't reflect global warming. Straightforward physics, however, says their intensity might. As the seas and air warm, there is more evaporation, which fuels storms, and more energy available to pump them up. A new analysis by atmospheric physicist Kerry Emanuel of MIT suggests the net power of tropical cyclones (hurricanes and Pacific typhoons), a combination of the energy they pack and how long they last, "has increased markedly since 1970."

The power of storms in the North Atlantic has tripled, while the power of those in the western North Pacific has more than doubled.

Similarly, a 2004 study from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory in Princeton, N.J., part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, found that a warmer world is likely to deepen hurricanes' central pressure (a measure of their power) and intensify the rainfall they bring. Today's storms, the scientists write, "may be upstaged by even more intense hurricanes over the next century as the earth's climate is warmed by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere."

By continuing to blame weather extremes on random events, the "stuff happens" attitude, officials and city planners are ignoring their contributions to the disasters that have pummeled the planet and promise to become only worse.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:18 am

Mission on the Cheap Will Launch Spaceship That Uses Solar Sails
by Sharon Begley
June 17, 2005; Page B1

When you have $4 million for a space mission that would cost NASA more like $60 million, accommodations must be made.

For starters, you don't look twice at Western space engineers, but hire some of the underemployed, bargain-basement Russians, who designed spacecraft that reached Venus and Mars and Halley's comet. Not only are these guys mechanical geniuses (the Russians, after all, kept the Mir space station aloft long past its planned lifetime using little more than cigarette paper and spit), but they work for 1/10th the going rate for U.S. engineers, says longtime Russia hand Jim Cantrell, president of the space consulting firm Strategic Space Development, Hyde Park, Utah. They are also veterans of a Soviet space and military culture where "if something didn't work you were shot," he says with only slight hyperbole.

You also use castoffs. For your rocket, you try an old ICBM that Russia needed to ditch anyway under an arms-reduction treaty. ("We got a helluva deal," says Mr. Cantrell.) And when your Russian engineers haul out the nuclear warhead from the sub and replace it with your spaceship but fail to make the bolts strong enough, with the result that the ship doesn't pop out during a 2001 test flight, you remain calm. You also think of the millions you saved by not testing everything umpteen times and by forgoing NASA-esque budget-busting backup systems.

And then you cross your fingers.

If all goes as planned, that ICBM will blast out of a Russian nuclear sub deep in the Barents Sea on Tuesday with a payload out of science fiction: a solar sail called Cosmos 1. A solar sail is the only kind of spaceship that interprets "ship" as they did in the 16th century. The unmanned craft will glide through space on gossamer wings propelled only by the pressure of photons, or particles of sunlight. The technology offers the possibility of a cheaper and faster route to the heavens, and the private financing -- from Cosmos Studios of Ithaca, N.Y., which produces science films and DVDs -- has renewed hopes that government agencies won't be the only ticket to the stars. Although NASA, the European Space Agency, Russia and Japan have developed solar sails, none has flown them.

Cosmos 1 will "blaze a new path into the solar system, opening the way to eventual journeys to the stars," says Lou Friedman, executive director of the Planetary Society, the private group that spearheaded the project.

Six minutes after launch, the last stage of the three-stage rocket will fall away. Soon after, a motor will begin a 70-second burn to kick the spaceship into a near-polar orbit 1,300 miles up. After 37 minutes in orbit, two solar panels (not to be confused with the solar sails: the panels produce electricity to turn the sails) will deploy and turn toward the sun like morning glories.

After four days, controllers will try to pop the ship's eight 49-foot-long, triangular sails from their folded package into a 6,500-square-foot configuration resembling a windmill. If it works, Cosmos 1 will be bright enough to see with the naked eye. (You can track it at

This will be white-knuckle time. "Will the sail material twist and wrap around itself? Will it get stuck?" Dr. Friedman asks. The Russians tested several ways of unfolding the sails. In some tests, there was too little force expelling the sails, so they got stuck; in others there was too much, so they tore. The folding method they settled on has never been tested in space.

If the sails unfurl, Cosmos 1 will ride on sunbeams. Sunshine may not feel like much, but calculations show that in the void of space it can accelerate Cosmos 1 to 195 miles an hour after one day, and to 10,000 mph after 100. The ship is unlikely to last that long, though. Built as a proof of principle, its 0.005-millimeter-thick sails will degrade, and it should fall back to Earth as a fireball after a month.

Free of expensive, heavy and inefficient rocket fuel, solar sails offer the best hope for long-distance space missions, supporters say. As maneuverable as the sails on water-borne ships, solar sails can tack, which in theory means they could make ports of call at any planet.

"Turning the reflective side of the sails toward the sun when the sun is behind it, but the less-reflective side when the sun is ahead of it, lets you control the solar sail as you do a sailboat," says Dr. Friedman, who researched solar sails at NASA in the 1970s. "If we succeed, we hope space agencies will look at this as the transportation technology that can pave the way for interplanetary missions."

A solar sail -- perhaps given an extra push with laser light from a station orbiting Earth or on the moon -- could reach Pluto in two to three years. And it is the only feasible route to the stars; standard rockets can't carry enough fuel for interstellar travel.

A launch on the summer solstice has a poignancy the Cosmos 1 team couldn't resist. "I can just imagine those first rays of the sun striking the ancient observatories of Stonehenge and Chaco Canyon," says Ann Druyan, the head of Cosmos Studios and widow of Carl Sagan. "Cosmos 1 will rise from the sea into space to take its place in the great story of exploration."
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:19 am

Scientists Research Questions Few Others Would Bother to Ask
by Sharon Begley
May 27, 2005; Page B1

Not every scientist can discover the double helix, or the cellular basis of memory, or the fundamental building blocks of matter. But fear not. For those who fall short of these lofty goals, another entry in the "publications" section of the ol' c.v. is within your reach. The proliferation of scientific journals and meetings makes it possible to publish or present papers whose conclusion inspires less "Wow! Who would have guessed?" and more "For this you got a Ph.D.?" In what follows (with thanks to colleagues who passed along their favorites), names have been withheld to protect the silly.

Want job satisfaction? A "careful choice of career is the key," researchers concluded in a paper this spring in the Journal of Economic Psychology. Choosing a career based on a well-lubricated encounter at a bar, it turns out, may not be the most promising route to career satisfaction. People who choose their jobs carefully are more likely to be satisfied with them than those who take a flying leap into the great unknown.

In April, scientists reported in the journal Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research that college students tend to drink much more alcohol than they think. Or, may I suggest, than they like to think. Or than they admit to their parents. Or remember.

Want to reduce problems with medications, such as harmful side effects or drug combinations that will kill you? The solution is at hand: "Communication between primary-care physicians and patients can reduce" such problems and the chance that patients will be harmed. That is especially true if doctors encourage their patients to -- wait for it -- tell them when they experience a bad side effect, concluded a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine in January. When patients reported an adverse effect, they were more likely to be switched to a different drug than if they never mentioned it. For this, let us be grateful.

In what its sponsors called a "landmark study," scientists found that when your fingers are numb and turning that lovely robin's-egg blue, you make more typing effors. Er, errors. "When employees get chilly," the scientists concluded, "they are not working to their full potential." Achoo!

Investigators working on that finger-in-the-chili case at Wendy's may find inspiration in a study published online in March in the Annals of Emergency Medicine. Every year some 28,000 kids and adults wind up in hospital emergency rooms because some mishap has cut off a finger; one high-risk group is men over 55. Apart from digits lost in workplace accidents, the most common cause of finger amputation in the men is -- drumroll, please -- power tools. So anyone looking suspiciously at, oh, sinks or toasters for their finger-gobbling potential can more profitably focus on chainsaws.

Taking nothing, especially not their readers' intelligence, for granted, the researchers advise men who use power tools to "avoid exposing their fingers to direct contact" with razor-sharp blades spinning at a few thousand rpm. Wise advice, to be sure, although you've got to think that anyone who didn't know this is in for more serious problems than a lost finger.

Just in case you were wondering whether it's a good idea to suck up carcinogens and respiratory poisons when your airways are already crippled, scientific proof is at hand. A study found that asthma worsens the effects of smoking, putting puffers at greater risk for the kinds of lung problems that smoking causes than people without asthma. If you do not have asthma, your airways are in somewhat better shape to withstand a toxic assault. Bottom line: Doctors should urge asthmatics to quit smoking.

Far be it from me to belittle research on forensic science, since I have written about the importance of questioning such conventional wisdom as the reliability of fingerprint evidence and the credibility of confessions. But surely we can do better than a February study in the journal Psychonomic Bulletin & Review that concluded that it's easier to identify someone close to you than someone more than a football-field-length away. At 450 feet, the scientist concludes, "the human visual system starts to lose small details."

If you had found yourself in the nation's capital earlier this month, you might have heard researchers at an American Heart Association conference proclaim that if you work full time and watch television, play videogames or surf the Internet in your off hours, then you are probably not engaging in as much heart-healthy physical activity as full-timers who spend no time with TV, videogames and the computer.

Full-time workers who spend more of their down time in front of a screen also get significantly less exercise than part-time workers who spend the same number of hours glued to one screen or another, but do other things with the rest of their time. (Memo to self: Working full-time eats up . . . time.) While the finding fails the "tell us something we didn't know" test, at least it does so with statistical significance: It was based on data from 4,500 people.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:19 am

Simulations of Attacks By Terrorists Illustrate Challenge Officials Face
by Sharon Begley
July 15, 2005; Page B1

When an explosion tore through the double-decker Steel Bridge in Portland, Ore., during the morning rush hour, officials knew they faced a potential calamity: The bridge carries trains and pedestrians on its lower level; Oregon Highway 99W, light rail and a streetcar up above; as well as a natural gas pipeline and fiber optics. As information poured in from television bulletins and first responders, the mayor, police chief, fire chief and others were bombarded with questions. Should they set up a command center, and if so, where? Evacuate downtown? Have police and bomb squads check other bridges? Close them pre-emptively?

As the hours ticked by, "what we found," says Mark Chussil, co-founder of the company Crisis Simulations International, Portland, "is -- depending how one interprets it -- overconfidence, confusion or lack of preparedness."

It was only a simulation, developed and run by CSI. Still, the exercise underlined what many public officials are discovering as they war-game terrorist attacks, an activity that is expected to increase in the wake of the London bombings. As former Polish Prime Minister Jerzy Buzek put it after he participated in the "Atlantic Storm" simulation run by the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and others this year: "Nobody is ready."

In that exercise, terrorists released smallpox in six cities around the world. Officials fumbled as they confronted a series of complex issues: Should the U.S. share its smallpox vaccine with countries that didn't support the Iraq war? What international agency would coordinate the response? Should borders be closed? As officials fumbled, hundreds of thousands of simulated people died, and the global economy teetered on the brink of collapse, says Tara O'Toole, director of the biosecurity center.

Such war games differ from drills in which police, fire and emergency medical teams practice, say, disarming a bomb. "Field exercises test plans," says Greg Hendricks, commander of the East Precinct in the Portland Police Bureau during the Portland exercise. "Simulations test people."

Many are getting failing grades. In the Portland simulation, participants debated whether to tell businesses to send workers home. When a terrorist group claimed responsibility for the bombing, the police chief dispatched squads to check other bridges, but the massive deployment left traffic unsupervised and produced gridlock. With the cellular phone network approaching overload, officials fretted that telling people not to make nonemergency calls would incite panic, so they did nothing. Soon the system, which also carried police and fire communications, crashed.

"One might expect that experts would gravitate to a single answer," Mr. Chussil says. "They didn't. Not even close. Either people don't know much about others' fields, or what's obviously right to one person is obviously wrong to another. Either way, there is a real potential for worse-than-necessary loss of life and property."

Mr. Chussil played the mayor in one run of the Portland exercise. "Even though I designed the simulation and knew what could/would happen, I was swept up in my emotions," he says. "I wanted to get people out. The police and fire chiefs said I couldn't, it would cause gridlock, and I exploded at them, screaming, 'Tell me what I can do!'" When he ordered an evacuation anyway, people sat for hours in traffic -- and in the path of a toxic cloud of chlorine released by a tanker car on the bombed bridge. Hundreds died.

Sometimes there is no "right" response, except in retrospect. If, after a bombing, you dispatch scores of medical, fire and police personnel to evacuate the wounded and secure the scene, many of them will die if terrorists have set a second bomb to detonate there. If you first order the bomb squad to sweep the area, the delay may doom the wounded.

"A terrorist incident is different from an accident or natural disaster," says J. Richard Russo of Cornell University, an expert in decision making. "You're dealing with an intelligent opponent. If you prepare for A and they find that out, they'll go to B."

Even absent clearly right responses, "there are definitely wrong responses," says Col. Dave McIntyre, director of the Integrative Center for Homeland Security at Texas A&M University and former dean of the Naval War College. If both EMT and fire crews are sent to the site of an attack, for instance, authorities have no one to dispatch if there is a second attack. If officials don't close the first freeway exits out of a city, evacuees will all slow down to get off at the first opportunity (Col. McIntyre says everyone makes a beeline for the first motel), hopelessly snarling traffic all the way back to the city.

"And if you fail to tell people within 30 minutes of an attack that their kids are safe and being sheltered in place, it's too late to tell parents not to go pick them up," says Col. McIntyre. "Then the fire chief tells you he can't get his people to the attack site because the roads are jammed.

"The value of exercises like this is to bring home to leaders the magnitude of what can happen -- and therefore the magnitude of the bet they've put on the table if they refuse to prepare because they say, 'It can't happen here.'"
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:20 am

So Much For Destiny: Even Thoughts Can Turn Genes 'On' and 'Off'
by Sharon Begley
Wall Street Journal, Science Journal
June, 2002

It wasn't the kind of passage you usually encounter in a strait-laced science journal: "I have had to spend periods of several weeks on a remote island in comparative isolation," Anonymous wrote in Nature. Curiously, he continued, the day before he was due for shore leave his beard grew noticeably: "I have come to the conclusion that the stimulus for this growth is related to the resumption of sexual activity."

Neither Anonymous nor his fellow scientists were surprised that the aforementioned activity would loose a flood of testosterone, which affects beards the way Miracle-Gro affects tomato plants. No, the weird part is that merely anticipating female companionship did the trick.

Just as stress in the med students I wrote about last week altered the expression of genes in their immune systems, so libidinous thoughts seem to affect gene expression, says developmental psychologist David Moore of Pitzer College in Claremont, California. Thoughts can cause the release of hormones that can bind to DNA, "turning genes 'on' or 'off.'"

If something as will-o'-the-wisp as a thought can tweak genes, it's no surprise that more substantial influences can, too. For instance, when R. Adron Harris and his team at the University of Texas, Austin, screened 10,000 genes in the frontal and motor cortexes of alcoholics, they found changes in the expression of 191, they reported in last month's Journal of Neurochemistry.

Alcohol seems to cause "a selective reprogramming" of brain genes in areas involved in judgment and decision making, says Dr. Harris. Among them, genes that code for myelin, whose loss may impair cognition and judgment.

Antidepressants may also alter genes. The conventional wisdom is that drugs such as Prozac work by blocking re-uptake by brain neurons of the neurotransmitter serotonin. But Prozac starts doing that in 24 hours. Why, then, do such drugs typically take weeks to lift depression? "The hunch is that Prozac works by altering gene expression, maybe causing sprouting of new neurons and remodeling of synapses," Dr. Harris says.

Experience, too, can affect gene expression. How much a mother rat handles and licks her offspring -- an environmental influence if ever there was one -- has an astonishing effect: It determines whether genes that code for receptors for stress hormones in the brain are expressed or not. And the level of those receptors affects how a rat reacts to stress. Rats with attentive moms were much less fearful and more curious, finds Michael Meaney of McGill University in Montreal. Rats that got less maternal handling grew up to be timid and withdrawn in novel situations.

Rats are not long-tailed people, so you can't infer that maternal affection affects gene expression and thus temperament in babies, too. But something sure does. There is no shortage of evidence that intelligence, shyness, impulsivity, risk-taking and illnesses have a genetic component.

But identical twins, who have the same genes, don't have identical traits: One twin might be schizophrenic and the other not, one might be shy and the other outgoing, one might get a "gene-based" cancer and the other not. The difference between identical twins is the experiences they have and, if I may speculate, which of their genes are expressed.

What signal from the environment keeps schizophrenia-related genes silent? What activates IQ-lifting genes? Whatever it is, even a short-lived environmental signal might turn on genes that tell neurons how, and how much, to grow. That would leave an enduring mark: Neural circuits would be complex or simple, and different brain regions would be strongly linked or not. From such neuronal differences arise differences in intelligence and personality, health and temperament.

Linking specific environmental influences to gene activity would have been a pipe dream only a few years ago. But the new technology of microarray analysis, in which "gene chips" reveal which DNA in a sample of tissue is expressed and which is quiescent, is making such discoveries possible.

This past April, in one of their coolest uses so far, gene chips showed that the difference between human brains and chimp brains is not which genes each brain has. Those are nearly identical. The difference is which genes are turned on and which are switched off.

Ironically, the recognition that genes depend on the environment follows hard on the heels of genetics' greatest triumph: sequencing the human genome. But what's now clear is that the more we learn about genetics, the more we'll see that genes are not destiny.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:21 am

Study of the Cosmos Proceeds, But Will Take New Directions
by Sharon Begley
April 11, 2003

When cosmologists unveiled the findings of the WMAP satellite two months ago, it sounded like the instrument, orbiting 2.4 million miles above Earth, had not only accomplished its tasks -- answering timeless questions like how old the universe is and how galaxies are born -- but had gone considerably further. The Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, it seemed, had taken the eternal enigma of genesis and sucked all the mystery out of it.

The findings were exactly as predicted by Big Bang inflation, which holds that the cosmos began when a quantum fluctuation created from nothingness an infinitesimal bit of space-time (since Einstein, space and time have been viewed as a single entity). This nearly infinite-temperature, infinite-density speck then ballooned in size 10 to the 50th power-times in a quadrillionth of a quadrillionth of a second.

When WMAP's measurements fit this model, it seemed that all the interesting cosmological mysteries were solved. It was enough, one researcher told me, to plunge several of his colleagues into depression.

But like Mark Twain's demise, reports of the death of cosmology are greatly exaggerated. Now that the dust has settled after the WMAP announcement, it's clear that some profound questions are still alive and kicking.

"While WMAP is a great advance," says cosmologist Jeremiah Ostriker, a professor at the University of Cambridge, England, "it does not answer all the questions. Cosmology is not over."

WMAP certainly firmed up some long-squishy cosmic parameters. The universe is 13.4 billion years old, give or take 300 million. Space is flat (if you shine a light straight ahead it won't bend around and smack you in the back in a few billion years). Its total mass-energy (the two are equivalent, Einstein showed) is 4% ordinary matter; 23% some unidentified, like-nothing-we've-seen dark matter; and 73% dark energy, a mysterious, repulsive oomph that makes the universe expand ever faster.

Just when a science seems all settled, though, something tends to pop up to shake up the whole field. So it may be with cosmology now.

"WMAP was an experimental triumph," says Cambridge astrophysicist Ofer Lahav. "But if all the observations fit your model, then most likely it's the wrong model, because observations tend to change."

WMAP measurements, in fact, are not "uniquely consistent with the standard inflationary Big Bang picture," notes Cambridge astronomer Sarah Bridle and colleagues in a recent paper in the journal Science. "There remains room for radical alternatives."

Among them: A new proposal that the universe is eternal, that its supposed genesis in a Big Bang was the beginning of just another in an infinitude of cycles of expansion and contraction alternating for time without end. This cyclic theory "fits all our observations, including WMAP's," says cosmologist Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, New Jersey.

Besides not knowing how the universe began, we're also in the dark about what it's made of. What is the dark matter? Massive black holes? Exotic new particles? We just know what it isn't: the electrons, protons and neutrons that make up stars, aardvarks, peonies and everything else we see.

Nor do we know what the dark energy is. An eerie, dynamic force field dubbed "quintessence," or the never-changing "vacuum energy" posited by Einstein? "How can anyone say cosmology is over when we don't know the identity of more than 95% of the stuff in the universe?" asks Prof. Ostriker.

The true mark of an unfinished science is the surprises it springs. One, surely, will be the explanation for why the dark energy has precisely the value it does. It is just right for supporting complex physical and chemical processes, and therefore life. The amount of dark energy was minuscule in the past, and is on track to be gargantuan in the future. Neither is any good for supporting the physics and chemistry that allow stars to burn, planets to exist and life to live.

Contrary to the belief that there is nothing special about our place in the universe or our moment in cosmic history, "We are living in an anti-Copernican moment," says Prof. Steinhardt. "We really do live in a special time, and are only beginning to understand why."

Another unsolved mystery verges on science fiction. A recent calculation suggests that zipping off to another universe, or to a distant point in this one, via a black hole can't be ruled out. Black holes harbor space-time singularities, regions of infinite density that rip apart any extended object foolish enough to venture near.

That makes black-hole travel fairly unappealing. But Lior Burko of the University of Utah shows that a gentler black hole might exist. It would push and pull a spaceship only a little, acting as a portal to other worlds.

Whether black holes are destructive depends on what kind of matter pours into their hearts, which in turn depends on things like the nature of dark energy. Since that's an open question, the possibility of black-hole portals is small but real, Prof. Burko calculates in Physical Review Letters.

Until astrophysicists figure out whether there's a shortcut to the Andromeda galaxy, I'm going to consider cosmology unfinished business.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:21 am

Study Says Hurricanes Are Getting Stronger
by Sharon Begley
August 1, 2005

Charley, Jeanne, Ivan and Frances caused a record-setting $20 billion in insured losses when they blew through Florida last year. But if scientists are right, that record for hurricane damage will prove short-lived.

Hurricanes have been lasting longer and hitting harder since the mid-1970s, and in the coming years global warming is likely to increase the storms' destructiveness, according to a study released yesterday.

The link between global warming and hurricanes (or cyclones, as they are known globally) has been one of the most controversial in the field of climate change. Last year, a U.S. government scientist resigned from the international panel that assesses climate change, charging that a fellow panel member had made baseless statements connecting hurricanes and human-caused global warming.

But now a consensus may be emerging on how a warmer world is affecting hurricanes. In the latest study, Kerry Emanuel of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculates that the storms' power -- a combination of the energy they pack and how long they last -- "has increased markedly since the mid-1970s." His report in the online edition of the journal Nature says since 1970, the power of storms in the North Atlantic has tripled, while the power of those in the western North Pacific has more than doubled.

The rise in cyclones' intensity and duration fits with both basic science and computer simulations of climate. As the temperatures at the surface of the ocean rise, so should wind speeds, since they draw their power from heat. Higher winds take longer to dissipate. But the surge in intensity has been even greater than predicted based on warmer ocean temperatures, Prof. Emanuel says.

How a warming world will affect the number of cyclones spawned each year remains unclear. There has been no clear trend in the frequency of hurricanes.

Prof. Emanuel does think human activities are behind the increasing power of storms. Natural climate changes affect the world's seas, but the recent rise in sea-surface temperatures, especially in the cyclone-forming tropics, "is unprecedented either historically or in the paleoclimatic record," Prof. Emanuel says, "and probably reflects the effect of global warming."

Other scientists are reaching the same conclusion. Sea-surface temperatures from 1995 to 2004 set records, atmospheric scientist Kevin Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research, part of the U.S. Department of Commerce, reported this spring in the journal Science, and he attributes that to "human-influenced environmental changes."

Even if human activities are intensifying hurricanes, however, there may be better solutions than reducing the emission of heat-trapping "greenhouse" gases, says environmental-policy expert Roger Pielke Jr., of the University of Colorado, Boulder. Stronger building codes and policies that keep people from building and rebuilding in hurricane-prone regions are much more cost effective, he argues.

The field of hurricanes and climate change is churning so fast that papers written only last year are obsolete. Prof. Emanuel co-authored one, accepted but not yet published by a leading meteorology journal, that concludes there is "only weak evidence of a systematic increase" in storm intensity. "We make a lot of statements in there about the unimportance of global warming [for cyclone intensity], statements I don't subscribe to anymore," says Prof. Emanuel. "I said I would have to withdraw as a co-author."
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:22 am

Theory Men Are Wired To Kill Straying Mates Is Offensive and Wrong
by Sharon Begley
May 20, 2005; Page B1

If Rudyard Kipling had had another "Just So Story" in him, he might have followed "How the Elephant Got His Trunk" and "How the Leopard Got His Spots" with "How the Man Got His Wife-Killing Streak." It would have gone something like this:

In the High and Far-Off Times, oh Best Beloved, the Man lived harmoniously with others. Although his heart ached when his Mate fell in love with another, and he raged and cursed love's cruelty, the thought of vengeance never crossed his mind. Seeing his Doormat tendencies, Women scorned his advances, and he never had children. His line ended, Best Beloved.

But the Man lived to see the birth of a New Man. When the New Man grew up and his Mate was unfaithful, he killed her. When his next Mate merely glanced at another Man, he killed her, too. His third Mate, he beat up to keep her too submissive to even dream of looking at another. Women became smitten with his power and status, and his line grew plenteous. His sons inherited his mate-killing instincts, and soon only they -- not the Doormats -- mated and begot children. And ever since then, oh Best Beloved, all Men have a mind designed to kill unfaithful Wives.

Kipling never got around to explaining how men's minds got wired for uxoricide, but fear not: David Buss, professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, has. In "The Murderer Next Door: Why the Mind Is Designed to Kill," he explains that the male mind "has developed adaptations for killing." (An "adaptation" is a trait that conferred an evolutionary edge; those with it left more descendants than those without it.)

Killing, according to his Kipling-esque reasoning, offered so many "advantages to our early ancestors in the competition for survival and reproduction" that, today, "all men have an evolved psychology of mate killing that lies latent in their brains." Men with the genetically based mental circuit for uxoricide had such an edge over their pacifist peers, in other words, that all men living today -- their descendants -- have this murder circuit, too.

For proof, Prof. Buss cites homicide statistics showing that more men than women kill, that over a five-year period in Dayton, Ohio, 52% of the women murdered were killed by a husband, lover or ex, and that women age 15 to 24 are killed by their mates or ex-mates more than over-the-reproductive-hill women are. His explanation: Only the former have evolutionary value, so men are wired to kill them if they stray but not to bother with unfaithful old bags. Also, unemployed men are more likely to kill women who dump them than are gainfully-employed men. Such low-status men, explains Prof. Buss, have the toughest time replacing their lost access to a uterus, so they're wired to raise their attractiveness to women ("you're so strong and powerful!") by murdering a cheating mate.

As evolutionary theory, this is ludicrous. Killing the owner of the uterus that is your only current chance to get your genes into the next generation (the evolutionary imperative), especially if she is caring for your current children and has a father or brothers who take exception to your uxoricide, is an excellent way to a dead end personally and genealogically. Being the target of angry in-laws, not to mention life imprisonment or lethal injection, tends to limit one's reproductive opportunities.

As a parsimonious explanation of data, the "evolution made me do it" explanation pales beside alternatives. Yes, murdered women skew young. But twenty-something men are more impulsive than fifty-something men and more likely to have a 23-year-old than a 57-year-old as a mate. And yes, unemployed men are more likely to kill or try to kill when dumped. But traits that make getting a job tough (being poorly educated, stupid, impulsive, psychotic ...) can also incline a man to murder.

The claim that men are wired to kill their mate also flies in the face of fossil and primate data showing that early humans were prey, not predators, notes anthropologist Robert Sussman of Washington University, St. Louis, co-author of the new book "Man the Hunted." "As prey, early humans survived only if they cooperated," he told me. "This, not murder, is what evolution selected for." He calls Prof. Buss's claim "bad science" for ignoring what a lousy strategy wife-killing is. "Not only would the man have all those angry male in-laws, but the next 'Jane,' seeing he killed his first wife, would say, 'Not me,' " and keep her eggs well away from his sperm.

Prof. Buss is no lightweight; he is the author of the definitive textbook on evolutionary origins of human behavior. But the notion that killing women is a winning evolutionary strategy is lousy biology. "Only a few species kill their mating partners" -- insects, says Jaak Panksepp of Bowling Green University, Ohio. "And the killing is usually done by females." He calls Prof. Buss's claim "ugly evolutionary icing with no basis."

The claim that works like "Murderer Next Door" are merely following data objectively in a search for truth is getting tiresome. The very decision to seek a "scientific" validation for killing women represents a value judgment. The fact that the claim makes no sense scientifically is almost secondary to that.
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Re: Sharon Begley's "Science Journal"

Postby admin » Tue Oct 29, 2019 2:22 am

U.S. Science Research Is in Danger of Losing Place on Cutting Edge
by Sharon Begley
August 12, 2005

News last week that scientists in South Korea had cloned a dog -- something no other researchers had ever managed -- was more surprising for the what than the who. Dogs are notoriously tough to clone, so the achievement was unexpected. But the scientists who pulled it off were exactly the ones the smart money had bet on.

In 2004, they cloned the first human embryo and extracted stem cells from it; earlier this year they became the first to create new lines of embryonic stem cells containing the DNA of patients with diseases or injuries, the first step toward cellular therapies custom tailored to a patient's genetic profile.

The fact that Seoul has become Cloning and Stem Cell Central has ratcheted up a concern that has been growing for years: Is the U.S. losing its decades-long pre-eminence in science? And if so, does it matter?

The numbers suggest that the answer to the first question is yes. According to the National Science Foundation, the U.S. share of scientific and engineering papers (a measure of how much knowledge researchers are generating) has been on a steady decline. From almost 40% in 1988, the U.S. share had fallen to 30% by 2001 (the last year for which the count is in), and is likely even lower now. That reflects, in particular, the rising scientific output of China, South Korea, Singapore and Taiwan.

As recently as 1995, the U.S. was the top producer of scientific knowledge, with about 200,000 papers. Since then, Western Europe has sprinted past, producing almost 230,000 papers in 2001. The U.S. was stalled at 200,000. Asia graduates more science and engineering Ph.D.s than the U.S. does; Europe graduates 50% more.

Unless you treat science the way the media do Olympics, with country-by-country medal counts obscuring the inspiring achievements, it's not obvious why the U.S.'s fall from dominance should cause concern, at least for patients. Ill Americans benefit from the antipsychotic drug Risperdal, invented in a lab in Belgium. The extract that formed the basis for the cholesterol-lowering drug Mevacor emerged from a lab in Spain. Americans don't need a passport to benefit from either.

That more smart people around the world are making more discoveries "portends well for the future of all humankind," Alan Leshner, CEO of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, argued in an editorial in Science.

"Do we have to trump the entire world?" he asked me rhetorically. "Probably not. That more papers are coming from outside the U.S. doesn't upset me nearly as much as the fact that cutting-edge scientists are leaving because they can't do research here" as a result of strict limits on human embryonic stem-cell studies. (It is illegal to use federal money for research like the Koreans', for example.) "This overlay of values onto research is a very alarming development."

That's the nub of it. It's one thing to lose pre-eminence, it's quite another to lose eminence, and that's where the U.S. is heading.

"Americans are rightfully proud of the research we do, but this is not the only place really great science is being done these days," says Evan Snyder of the Burnham Institute, La Jolla, Calif., a leader in stem-cell research. "Countries that never had a tradition of cutting-edge biomedical research now have an entrée as a result of U.S. [stem-cell] policy. Americans are at a disadvantage in not having the opportunity to develop the technical know-how."

One sign of how besieged he and others feel: Lab space financed with private or state money for studies that can't be legally done with federal money is called a "safe haven."

Allowing a minority opinion to stifle research is only one symptom of politics undermining science. Some appointees to federal scientific advisory panels have been chosen for their ideology rather than their expertise; staffers with no research credentials alter the scientific (not only the policy) content of reports on climate change. Politicians' attacks on the science of evolution continue, even though "intelligent design" may make a fascinating lesson for a philosophy class, but is not biology.

"This anti-scientism couldn't be more damaging to young people contemplating devoting their life to research," says neuroscientist Ira Black, whose own stem-cell institute in New Jersey has been stalled by political red tape. "The sense of opportunity that was always predominant in the U.S. now lies elsewhere."

Since scientific innovation has long fueled economic growth, there is a danger "that the U.S. will no longer be dominant in innovation," says G. Wayne Clough, president of the Georgia Institute of Technology and a member of the President's Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. "A larger number of international patents are being obtained overseas, R&D facilities are moving overseas. If we are not innovating here, the economic benefits will go elsewhere, too."

An interesting battle will come when a lab in Singapore or Seoul or Britain uses embryonic stem cells to develop a therapy for diabetes or Parkinson's or heart disease. Its use in the U.S. would require approval by the Food and Drug Administration. Will opponents of stem-cell research demand that the FDA reject it and deprive patients of their only hope?
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