Category: Science

Hot potatoes

I am delighted that I can now buy irradiated beef at my local supermarket. It’s safer than regular beef but I would buy it just to spite the anti-science hysterics who kept this technology off-the-shelf for decades. Irradiation has recently been approved for Hawaiian sweet potatoes – the expense of the previous technology, methyl bromide fumigation kept these purple spuds out of mainland markets.

Of course, the mainland-based U.S. Sweet Potato Council is worried about competition. Mainland growers produce 1.3 billion pounds annually and Hawaiian output is only 1.8 million pounds leading the Potato Council to a unique argument for protectionism, “Hawaiian production is a mere pittance . . . and therefore, Hawaii should be able to consume every sweet potato they produce and then some.”

Coin flips

Never bet on a coin flipped by mathematician and magician Persi Diaconis who can flip it so that it lands on heads at will. Diaconis has also shown, using high-speed slow motion cameras and plenty of physics, that when flipped by a regular person there is a 1-2 percent bias in favor of the side that begins up. Some more info here.

Over your lifetime this information ought be be worth quite a bit to you. Remember where you heard it first and act accordingly!

Maternal role models

…in families where the mother worked while her children were growing up, her adult daughters and sons attain jobs that are more equitable in terms of prestige. But in cases where the mother did not work – and therefore daughters lacked a direct, same-sex parental role model in the world of careers – sisters fare considerably worse than their brothers: my data show that women whose mothers did not work outside the home when they were growing up are 15 percent less likely to have graduated from college than their brothers were; this statistic stands in contrast to a statistically insignificant 5 percent difference between sisters and brothers in families where the mother did work outside the home for at least a year during their childhood. To put the impact of maternal employment in even starker terms, consider the following: if we hold education level and occupational prestige constant, sisters earn approximately less than $5,000 less in annual income than do their brothers. If we divide this same data according to maternal employment, however, the pattern diverges wildly. For those whose mothers worked outside the home when they were growing up, the income differential between sisters and brothers is reduced to approximately $4,5000 – but for those whose mothers did not work, the income differential shoots to more than $8,000.

From Dalton Conley’s excellent The Pecking Order: Which Siblings Succeed and Why. Here is my earlier post on Conley.

What is the bottom line here? If a mother works, her daughters are more likely to earn an income commensurate with their familial status. Working moms should feel less guilty.

Why celebrities are good for your kids

Celebrity worship may play an important part of growing up, suggest the results of a UK study.

Star-struck teens are generally emotionally well-adjusted and popular, with their celebrity interests forming a healthy part of adolescent development and bonding, say psychologists from the Universities of Leicester and Coventry.

However, those with extreme celebrity fascination, are likely to be lonely children without close attachments to friends or family, suggests the new study.

John Maltby and David Giles surveyed 191 English schoolchildren between the ages of 11 and 16. They found that those who avidly followed celebrities’ lives were the most popular.

For about 30 per cent of the children, gossiping about favourite celebrities with their peer group took up much of their social time. These children were found to have a particularly strong and close network of friends and to have created a healthy emotional distance from their parents.

“As children grow up, they start to transfer their attachment from parents to their peers. Celebrities start to take on the hero status role that their parents formerly fulfilled when the children were younger and it seems to be a healthy part of development,” explains Maltby, who led the study.

“The main function of celebrity attachments in adolescence may be as an extended social network – a group of ‘pseudo-friends’ who form the subject of peer gossip and discussion,” he told New Scientist. “The ongoing subject of celebrities’ lives can provide a valuable bonding tool among their friends, while enabling them to be emotionally autonomous from their parents.”

Here is the full story. And don’t forget my book on fame, which views the production of celebrity as one of the most beneficial aspects of modern popular culture. Not only do stars give us focal points for social orientation, but we gain by paying them with fame rather than having to part with more money.

Teens really are less motivated

Teen brains show less activity in the regions associated with motivation, reveals a brain imaging study.

And adolescents may be more willing to engage in dangerous activities such as drink [sic] driving because this crucial part of their brain is under-developed, the US researchers suggest…Perhaps teens seek more extreme behaviours to achieve normal levels of stimulation in this brain region, he suggests.

Here is a longer discussion. I know I will receive hundreds, maybe even thousands, of angry emails from parents who cannot possibly believe this is true. But the reporting of science must progress, what can I say?

P.S. The skeptical may wish to note that the sample size is twelve teenagers and twelve adults for the study. But alas, no motivated teen wrote to tell me that.

Addendum: Randall Parker adds much more.

Is the earth seeding space with life?

Perhaps microbes are riding on specks of dust.

A grain less than a tenth of a millimetre across would still be capable of carrying microscopic life, says Napier. And the pressure of sunlight can quickly blow grains this small out of the solar system. The same force might one day propel spacecraft through the cosmos.

Such a grain could travel about six light years from Earth in 70,000 years – far enough to reach other stars. We could be surrounded by a huge ‘biodisk’ of frozen organisms floating on grains of rock, says Napier, all of which can wander in and out of our solar system quite easily. “The solar system is as leaky as a sieve,” he says.

Earth should spread its seed widest when we pass through a giant molecular cloud, a mass of dusty material from which stars are born. This has happened about five times since life appeared on Earth.

Each time, Napier estimates about three billion trillion microbes passed from Earth into the cloud. The chances of some of these finding their way to an Earth-like planet are quite high, he says. A similar process could even explain how the Earth wound up hosting life in the first place, he adds.

Panspermia is one of my favorite words.

Measuring Adam Smith’s sympathy

The ability to appreciate other people’s agony is achieved by the same parts of the brain that we use to experience pain for ourselves.

In other words, Adam Smith, a crazed bachelor writing in remote Scotland, and with no real means of making empirical measurements, nailed it. Some people’s introspection is better than others, here is Smith on sympathy. Read the full story about the recent work in neuroscience, here is another account. Here is a page for the researcher, Tania Singer.

Cell phones in Japan

About 70 million Japanese — 55 percent of the population — have signed up for Internet access from their cellular phones, a threefold increase from 2000. Cell phones, or keitai in Japanese, are closing in on computers as the device of choice for surfing the Internet. While the Japanese are using their cell phones in the same way many Americans use their laptop computers or personal digital assistants, they also are pulling out their phones to watch TV, navigate labyrinthine city streets with built-in GPS systems, download music, take and transmit home movies, scan bar-coded information, get e-coupons for discounts on food and entertainment, pay bills, play Final Fantasy, even program karaoke machines.

Here is the whole story.

Darwinian cattiness

…when women are at the most fertile point in their monthly cycle they tend to have a lower opinion of other women’s looks. And that’s not just because of mood swings. Menstrual phase had no effect on how the same women rated the looks of men, reports Maryanne Fisher of York University in Toronto, Canada.

Here is one version of the story. Here is another. Here is the home page of the researcher.

The strangeness that is our universe

Over the weekend I’ve been gobbling up Brian Greene’s The Fabric of the Cosmos. I still don’t understand strings, branes, and how the known universe might be a projected hologram, but this book gets me further than any of the other popular science treatments I know. The author favors string theory and the idea of extra, hidden dimensions. He also discusses how we are on the verge of testing some of these exotic ideas. Recommended, especially if you find these ideas intriguing but have a hard time grasping them in intuitive terms.

The family as a source of inequality

Forthcoming research suggests that the family is a significant source of inequality:

differences between families explain only 25 percent of the nation’s income inequality; the remaining 75 percent is explained by differences between siblings. More typical of the United States than President Bush and his brother Jeb, the governor of Florida, he suggests, are the White House’s previous tenant, Bill Clinton, and his half-brother, Roger, a college dropout, onetime cocaine dealer and failed musician. Or, for that matter, Jimmy Carter and his ne’er-do-well brother, Billy (emphasis added).

So what in the family matters? It is not birth order, here the analysis become quite intricate:

…his conclusions – that everything from parental job loss or divorce to race and family size can affect siblings differently – don’t lend themselves to catchy headlines, they arguably provide a more nuanced portrait of internal family dynamics than all-purpose explanations like birth order.

Some of his more provocative findings concern middle-borns. In families with three or more children, Mr. Conley says, middle offspring are less likely to receive financial support for their education and may do less well in school than their older and younger siblings. The chances that a second child will attend private school drop by 25 percent with the birth of a third, Mr. Conley found, and the likelihood that he or she will be held back a year increased severalfold. Unlike typical first- and last-borns, he reasons, middle children never experience family life as an only child; instead, they are forced to compete with their siblings for money and attention. (In this sense, he concedes, birth order does matter: not as a psychological variable but as a constraint on family resources.)

Other findings seem to confirm common-sense intuitions. According to Mr. Conley’s analysis, for example, women are more likely to be as successful as their brothers if their mothers worked outside the home. And, like the long-suffering George Bailey in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” the oldest child still at home at the time of a parental death or divorce is more likely than younger siblings to endure negative socioeconomic consequences as a result. Brothers and sisters may even experience race differently, he argues, since skin color can vary considerably within the same family.

So far it seems that the work is well-received. Here is the home page of the researcher, Dalton Conley, a remarkably prolific and rigorous scholar. Here is an earlier MR post on Horatio Alger and intergenerational mobility.

The (provisional) bottom line: Unhappy with your lot in life? It’s not the capitalist system or the Bush tax cuts, blame Mom and Dad. I’ll let you know more once the book arrives and I’ve read the whole thing.

How to stay together

What best predicts whether a marriage will last?

The crucial predictors, say the researchers, are the presence of facial expressions that accompany emotions such as contempt. Gottman says that just watching a couple and looking for this expression, described as a sideways pull of a corner of the mouth accompanied by rolling eyes, is enough to make a good guess about a couple’s suitability. “This is our best predictor,” he says. “Contempt is the sulphuric acid of love.”

We are told that the entire model has a 94 percent success rate in predicting divorce.

Here is some positive advice for Valentine’s Day:

Gottman may also have stumbled across the secret of a lasting relationship – simply ignore the nasty comments from your partner. He says that courting couples tend to ignore negative statements and pay more attention to positive remarks. Once married, this trend often reverses, although couples that remain together into their sixties retain this outlook.

How about gay couples?

…gay and lesbian couples, as well as heterosexual couples that do not marry, hold on to the positive value of courtship better than straight partners who get hitched, he says.

For more information, read The Mathematics of Marriage: Dynamic Nonlinear Models. Are they joking with that title?

You lie more over the phone

Relative to email, that is. Why? Email leaves a permanent record and you are afraid of getting caught in your lies.

Jeff Hancock of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, asked 30 students to keep a communications diary for a week. In it they noted the number of conversations or email exchanges they had lasting more than 10 minutes, and confessed to how many lies they told.

Hancock then worked out the number of lies per conversation for each medium. He found that lies made up 14 per cent of emails, 21 per cent of instant messages, 27 per cent of face-to-face interactions and a whopping 37 per cent of phone calls.

That’s a lot of lying. Here is the full story.

No baby, you really ARE beautiful…

Carry a lie detector in your pocket:

The Love Detector is based on layered voice analysis, a system that was developed for security work by Nemesysco, an Israeli company, and adapted for personal use by V Worldwide, the international distributor.

The Love Detector relies on a simplified form of the technology, said Richard Parton, chief executive of V Worldwide. The security version applies 8,000 algorithms to 129 parameters of a speaking voice, assessing, among other things, levels of emotion, embarrassment and concentration as well as whether what is said reflects certainty, uncertainty or outright lies.

When this reporter tried it informally, both in person and over the phone, the results were arguably accurate; the software detected the split in my attention as I took notes, though it misinterpreted my skepticism about the product as condescension.

Buy one here.

Some versions of the new product will put James Bond to shame:

Later this year V plans to introduce a simplified version built into sunglasses, with light-emitting diodes to signal emotional intensity and truth or falsehood.

Here is one article about the product. Here is the whole story. The article notes that many people will use the product to assess their own emotions, not just the person they are trying to court.

Don’t miss the gorilla

Picture yourself watching a one-minute video of two teams of three players each. One team wears white shirts and the other black shirts, and the members move around one another in a small room tossing two basketballs. Your task is to count the number of passes made by the white team – not easy given the weaving movement of the players. Unexpectedly, after 35 seconds a gorilla enteres the room, walks directly through the farrago of bodies, thumps his chest and, nine seconds later, exits. Would you see the gorilla?

Fifty percent of all observers do not see the gorilla.

This is called inattentional blindness, the link offers some further examples and tests. The bottom line: if you are concentrating on one static task, you often fail to notice dynamic movement. This is one reason why you should not drive and talk on your cell phone at the same time.

The quotation is from the March issue of Scientific American. Here is the the original research. Here are some additional studies, also look here. Here is a page of video exercises, although now you know what and who to look for.

The bottom line for economics? Neither investors nor voters need be rational in procedural terms. Searching more does not guarantee a better outcome. An “obvious” bubble can catch large numbers of investors unaware. And we, as voters, can fixate on some aspects of candidates and miss entirely their most important qualities.