The Delicious Science of Chinese Buffets, Where It's Always Thanksgiving

This Thursday, Americans from all walks of life will gather around tables beset with gobs of turkey, mounds of mashed potatoes, loaves of buttered bread, boats of gravy, and heaps of vegetables, oiled and salted, of course. And after a brief pause to give thanks, they will feast.

Such is Thanksgiving.

But there are 40,000 bastions around the country where it's Thanksgiving almost every day. Where you can eat throngs of delicious, calorie-laden dishes and gorge yourself into a gluttonous stupor. The sheer ubiquity of these places makes them distinctly American. In fact, they claim more locations than Wendy's, McDonalds's, Kentucky Fried Chicken, and Burger King combined. I'm talking, of course, about Chinese restaurants.

"If our benchmark for Americanness is apple pie, you should ask yourself, how often do you eat apple pie, versus how often do you eat Chinese food," leading food journalist Jennifer 8. Lee told the audience of Taste3 in 2008

Apple pie will undoubtedly be just one of the desserts on the menu for millions of Americans on Thursday. The final sweet binge is the last hurrah of a holiday meal that, when all is served and devoured, tallies in at between 2,500 and 4,500 calories for each reveler. That's some quality eating.

But if putting on the pounds is an American activity, and statistics seem to show that it is, then the Chinese buffet is actually more patriotic. The addicting blend of salt and fat make the foods they serve overwhelmingly appetizing. And the pool of vegetable oil poured into woks endows most Chinese dishes with more calories per square inch than even the most buttered mashed potatoes. According to a 2007 analysis by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a plate of stir-fried greens contains 900 calories, eggplant in garlic sauce has 1,000, six pork dumplings pack 500, and lo mein has 1,100. Time for seconds!

Speaking of seconds, Cornell consumer behaviorist Brian Wansink has found that people who seat themselves facing the buffet are more likely to get up for that second or third plate. Selecting a larger plate size may also subtly encourage overeating. Wansink has also found that the foods seen first, regardless of what they are, are the ones most selected by patrons. Moreover, if you're trying not to overindulge, learn how to use chopsticks. It's much harder to shovel in food with slim wooden sticks, compared to a fork or a spoon. You can practice on turkey and stuffing this Thanksgiving!

Of course, if you're looking to overindulge, that's fine, too. But it's best to balance the rare binge with habitual exercise and a common sense diet.

(Image: Shutterstock)

What's the World's Biggest Telescope?

In astronomy, bigger is better. So what's the very biggest telescope of them all?

The Canary Islands off the coast of Morocco house the largest glass mirror reflector telescope in the world. The Gran Telescopio Canarias (GTC) is owned and operated primarily by Spain. The surface of its concave focusing mirror eschews the parabolic glass bowl design of traditional telescopes. The reflector is actually 36 small hexagonal German glass mirrors tiled together in the shape of a single large hexagon with a missing tile in the center. This design is very similar to the slightly smaller Keck telescopes in Hawaii. GTC also employs adaptive optics to constantly fix the distortion of incoming starlight caused by its passage through atmospheric turbulence. Larger glass telescopes have been proposed, but none will be open for at least several more years.

It's worth noting that the famous Keck observatory in Hawaii also has a claim to the "biggest" title. Their two telescopes actually measure more light in total than GTC and can be used in parallel like a set of binoculars to further improve performance.

Light is just one type of wave. Radio waves are electromagnetic radiation with a much much longer wavelength. Radio telescopes look like giant satellite dishes. New Mexico houses an array (creatively named Very Large Array) consisting of 27 dishes each 82 feet in diameter. This iconically beautiful telescope is used for looking at all sorts of radio-emitting astronomical objects (black holes, quasars, supernova remnants and many others) and as well as searching for E.T.

However, VLA is blown out of the water by the size of the largest single radio telescope: the Arecibo radio telescope in Puerto Rico. This dish, made famous in the James Bond film GoldenEye, is suspended above a valley between hilltops. It is 1000 feet across and has a surface area of more than 25 acres. This behemoth has been used to take radar images of asteroids, measure pulsars and time the rotation of planets.

There's a still larger telescope, used for finding invisible particles from space. The Icecube neutrino observatory detector can't be seen from above, but the control room can. The detector itself is enormous: a cubic kilometer of ice. The enormous size of this detector is necessitated by how hard neutrinos are to see: a single neutrino is as likely to pass right through a piece of lead a light year thick as it is to hit any lead. While (very) roughly 10^20 neutrinos hit the system each day, only a handful are detected.

The telescope is really looking for the highest energy neutrinos. It sees interesting neutrinos about 10 times per year, and a very unusual one roughly once annually. Unlike most neutrinos which are created by the sun and the cosmic microwave background radiation, these high energy particles likely originate from far beyond the galaxy. Icecube has the largest volume of any telescope on earth, but its largest dimensions, scale, and expense are only second biggest.

The biggest telescope of all is right here in the US, and you probably haven't heard of it: LIGO, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory. It looks for gravity waves instead of light waves. LIGO does not collect and focus radiation. It shoots laser light roughly 186 miles and measures whether that light has traveled more or less distance than it should have. A miniscule discrepancy in distance traveled would indicate the passage of a gravitational wave, ever-so-slightly expanding or contracting spacetime along the 186 miles of travel.

Two LIGO 'arms', positioned in an 'L', can be seen by satellite. There are four arms altogether, located at two separate facilities: one in Livingston Louisiana and one in Hanford Washington. Each main arm is 2.5 miles (4 km) long!

Gravity waves may be created by far distant events such as black holes merging. As the wave travels millions of light years and passes through the earth and LIGO, spacetime along one arm or the other of the telescope will shrink or grow by that millionth-of-an-atom's width. The light in the other arm will be unaffected. When the light waves from each arm are collided together, they will interfere. Two waves that have traveled precisely the same distance will interfere without canceling any of their brightness. Waves that have travelled slightly more or less due to spacetime disturbance along their path will interfere destructively: their combined light will be a tiny fraction less bright.

LIGO is the largest and most expensive project ever completed with only NSF funding. It has not yet detected a gravity wave. Given how well Einstein's General Relativity theory has held up in all experimental tests, smart money is that they will detect one eventually.

Astronomers can't create events; they can only watch them. The larger and wider their eyes, the more they can see. Ever-larger telescopes strive to capture more and more of the limited light that we receive to help us reconstruct the universe around us.

(Image: AP)

Being Skinny-Fat May Be Worse Than Being Fat

The average sumo wrestler in Japan has a body mass index of 56 (considered morbidly obese) and eats 5,000 calories a day. But despite those inflated and alarming numbers, the "rikishis" (wrestlers) who practice this time-honored sport aren't as unhealthy as one might expect.

"They have low cholesterol, they have low insulin resistance and a low level of triglycerides [fatty acids]," Jimmy Bell, a professor at Imperial College, London told The Guardian.

How can this be? Well, while sumo wrestlers may have blubbery outsides, they have muscular insides. The training and exercise keeps their hearts strong and pumping, relegating much of fat formed in the wake of their gluttonous eating to the outsides of their bodies, where it serves as a protective layer rather than an internal roadblock. Evidence shows that sumo wrestlers do have a shorter life expectancy than typical Japanese men, perhaps due to problems adapting to normal life in the wake of their strenuous, structured careers, and blows sustained during them, much like NFL football players. Still, during his sporting tenure, a sumo wrestler is quite healthy. Maybe not as fit as a fiddle, but perhaps as fit as a cello.

For as many as a quarter of normal-weight Americans, the opposite is true. While they may have a "healthy" BMI and look skinny on the outside, on the inside, they're a mess. Dr. Neil Ruderman first recognized these individuals 33 years ago, labeling them "metabolically-obese, normal-weight." Today, they're more casually described as "skinny-fat." Skinny-fat people generally have all the hallmark health problems associated with obesity -- high blood pressure, increased levels of LDL cholesterol, insulin resistance -- without overtly looking the part.

In 1981, Ruderman lamented that these individuals would be "difficult to detect by any criteria." Thirty-three years later, doctors can see the telltale signs of "skinny-fat" from blood tests taken at a health check-up and a glancing physical exam -- a bulging belly is a key clue. For a clearer view of the condition, they can stick individuals in an MRI scanner. What they see -- displayed in the image above -- are layers of fat coating the internal organs, gumming up the works.

Alarmingly, being skinny-fat may be more dangerous than just being fat. A study published earlier this year found that people with a normal weight and high body fat have a significantly higher risk of death from obesity-related diseases than any other group.

While the health risks of skinny-fat may be worse than those associated with obesity, the solutions are mostly the same. Skinny-fat individuals don't necessarily need to eat less, but they should consider reorganizing their diet, particularly limiting the intake of sugary drinks, fried foods, and sources of simple carbohydrates like white bread, snack chips, and candy. Even more important is to begin habitually exercising. Working out doesn't just serve to trim your outside; it also trains your insides.

"Getting more exercise broadly and positively influences major body systems and organs and consequently contributes to make someone metabolically healthier," said Dr. Francisco Ortega, an associate professor at the University of Granada in Spain.

And you don't even need to pick up sumo wrestling. Regular walking is a great start. Running, playing sports, swimming, and weight-training are even better.

(Image: Wikimedia Commons)

Do Trees Die of Old Age?

The oldest known tree in the world is an unnamed Great Basin bristlecone pine in the White Mountains of California. At 5,064 years old, this tree has seen things, man. Though not even remotely as majestic or gigantic as the mighty Redwoods, the bristlecone pines, which claim the top three spots on the list of the world's oldest trees, look the part of their ancient age: round, wise, and a little scraggly around the edges, like crotchety old grandmothers.

So will there come a time when these sage trees die from old age?

Honestly, the question is a bit of a misnomer. No living thing, whether plant or animal, really dies of old age. When we say that a human dies of old age, it means that he or she passed away from one of the common diseases associated with aging, like pneumonia, influenza, cancer, or liver failure. Dying from old age is not actually a scientifically recognized cause of death, there's always something more specific.

When animals senesce, or grow older, their cells may cease to divide, or the division process may grow increasingly sloppy, leading to deleterious mistakes. On the outside, this aging process shows through cognitive decline, or wrinkles in humans. One animal in particular, the hydra, actually doesn't seem to senesce. For all intents and purposes, it is biologically immortal.

While it's not precisely known whether or not individual trees are biologically immortal in the same fashion, they definitely don't grow old the same way animals do. Trees grow indeterminately, meaning that with the right conditions, they can grow and grow and grow, with only the laws of physics limiting their height. (There's a certain point where a tree cannot send enough water from the roots to the top layer of leaves, preventing adequate photosynthesis.) Amazingly, once they hit that maximum height, instead of growing taller, they grow wider! And they do so at an ever-increasing rate! That's right, trees actually grow faster as they age. Scientists reported this amazing finding in the journal Nature earlier this year, after examining the growth of over 700,000 trees worldwide.

While it's not yet known precisely why trees grow faster as they age, the secret to their perpetual growth has already been revealed. Most plant cells are perpetually embryonic, meaning they can change into another cell type at any time.

So if trees never stop growing, why is it that the oldest individual tree is just 5,064 years old? Why aren't there trees that are hundreds of thousands of years old, or even millions of years old? An enlightened Reddit stated the answer succintly:

The longer a tree is around the more opportunities it has to have something happen to it that leads to its death. This could be a lot of different things such as a storm, a disease, an insect infestation. Often a tree can survive numerous instances of potential death, but over time these instances can aggregate, or lead to a greater susceptibility to death. For example, a storm might knock off a tree limb, which might give the tree a higher risk of exposure to a disease....Or a tree might live for quite a long time, out growing trees in the area, making it more likely to be struck by lightning, or blown over in storm.

So a tree may not die of old age, but after a long enough time, simple statistics dictate that it will die of some other cause. Such is life.

(Images: AP, Dcrjsr

Is RealClearScience Conservative or Liberal?

One of the questions we are often asked at RealClearScience is, "What sort of position do you take on scientific issues?" That's a not-so-subtle way of asking, "Is RealClearScience conservative or liberal?" We are pleased to announce that we are neither.

Earlier this year, we published an article explaining our editorial position on various hot-button topics. Unlike politicians or most other journalists, however, we do not arrive at our conclusions first and find data to support them later. Instead, we are guided by one overarching principle: Data comes first, and personal ideology comes second (or, preferably, dead last). If the evidence changes, our worldview allows us the flexibility and honesty to change our opinion, as well.

Though the three members of our editorial team possess three distinct political worldviews (two of us voted for Obama in 2008, and two of us voted for Romney in 2012), we find ourselves in near unanimous agreement on what many consider to be "controversial" science topics. Why? Because when it comes to science, we put data first. Period.

Yet, despite our insistence on adhering to this guiding principle like a gecko's toe on a freshly polished window, we are still regularly accused -- in e-mails, comment sections, and on other websites -- of being conservative or liberal. Here are some examples:

• In our most recent "controversial" piece, in which we reported on the results of a PNAS paper that concluded that marijuana may adversely affect brain structure, our readers accused us of having a conservative bias. This accusation was heaved at us despite the fact that all three of us support the legalization of marijuana, a decidedly center-left or libertarian position. (I even openly admitted to voting for legalization in the pages of USA Today.)

• In a piece on the American suicide epidemic, we suggested -- based on what is known about suicide prevention strategies -- that making guns harder to obtain would lower the suicide rate. Protecting the sanctity of human life is a decidedly conservative position, but for that opinion, we were accused of being liberal gun-grabbers.

• Last year, we criticized Portland for rejecting the fluoridation of its water supply, a policy that is overwhelmingly supported by scientific data and the public health community. For that, we were called "a national lab-rat news aggregator owned by Forbes." We have no idea what that means, but considering the radical left-wing source of the ad hominem, it was probably meant to be an attack aimed at conservatives. (We were not offended, but we did take issue with the gratuitous potshot at lab rats.)

• For articles in which we have explained the science behind climate change, e.g., by busting the myth behind "global cooling," we have been indicted on charges of pushing a left-wing agenda. When we explain further that climate change is not nearly as big of a concern as poverty and infectious disease, we are accused of being Republican cronies. When we add that we believe a carbon tax is a good policy, we are part of a UN conspiracy to enrich the global liberal elite. When we ask climate alarmists and deniers to calm down, we are accused of enabling the global warming hoax. Go figure.

• It also goes without saying that for articles in which we support the excellent science that comes out of industry in any way whatsoever -- be it biotechnology or nuclear power -- we are accused of being corporate shills and right-wing money-grubbers.

• And, of course, for supporting "three-parent embryo" technology, we are Nazis.

So, is RealClearScience conservative or liberal? If we are hearing our critics correctly, we are both, and something much worse: right-wing, liberty-hating, environment-killing, gun-grabbing, Earth-polluting, corporate-loving, science-pretending socialist totalitarian flunkies who have no business writing about science.

Fair enough.

(Photo: Liberals and Conservatives via Shutterstock)

Bad News for Long-Term Pot Smokers

The short-term effects of smoking weed are obvious: An increase in giddiness, an insatiable desire for Doritos, and a casual acceptance of one's loserhood. But, after the high wears off and the smoke clears, are there lasting effects upon the brain? This has been a contentious issue for many years; competing studies claim different results.

A new study published in the very high quality journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) claims to measure three major statistically significant brain alterations caused by marijuana use. It's mostly bad news.

Reduced Brain Volume

MRI scans were performed on the brains of a group of very heavy marijuana smokers. These subjects averaged roughly three joints per day and had been smoking on average roughly nine to ten years. MRI scans were also performed on a second group of non-smokers with otherwise nearly identical characteristics.

A computer algorithm processed both sets of images, dividing up the areas of the scan into gray matter (the main masses of neurons), white matter (nerve pathways which connect areas of gray matter), and cerebrospinal fluid. The computer then used some heavy math to compare the amount of each tissue in the brains of the smokers and non-smokers.

The analysis yields three very interesting conclusions. The first and biggest: the smokers had a significant reduction in the volume of gray matter in the orbitofrontal cortex (OFC). The OFC is located just behind the eye on each frontal lobe of the brain. Studies find that this area seems to be involved with correlating sensory inputs with rewards (such as a particular taste or touch being associated with a good or bad experience) and plays a part in decision-making.

Most significantly, the OFC seems to function "in controlling and correcting reward-related and punishment-related behavior." Losses in this area might not come as a surprise to those with friends who partake regularly.

Increased Connection (Initially)

There is a small positive effect of cannabis use. The brain matter calculations also show that there is an increased functional connectivity between the OFC and the rest of the brain. In their words, "greater network recruitment is engaged to compensate for OFC liability." The white matter nerve connections (forceps minor) between the OFC and the rest of the brain appeared to be strengthened to help it combat loss of volume. This is measured by looking at how fluid flows through these areas (fractional anisotropy, FA); the greater the disturbance in fluid, the better the nerve connections are working.

However, the good news only lasts for a while.

Decreased Connection (Eventually)

After a few years, subjects who continued to smoke heavily eventually lost this increased OFC connectivity. The first few years of use saw connectivity increase up to a limit; additional years of smoking saw it decrease back to initial levels, and smokers of a decade and more saw on average a net loss in OFC connectivity. So, if you smoke long enough, you'll both decrease the volume of the OFC and break down its connection to the rest of the brain.

This study has two messages. Heavy usage of marijuana has mixed and complicated effects on the brain. OFC volume shrinks, but at first it increases connections to the rest of the brain to compensate. The second message is unequivocal: long-term heavy use both shrinks and cuts off the OFC area of the brain.

But, I doubt this study will change any minds. It's always 4:20 somewhere, potheads.

(AP photo)

The Ten Million Dollar Diet

You've seen the statistics; America has a bit of a weight problem. So how do we fix it?

Purveyors of diets ranging from low-carb, to Paleo, to raw, to vegan, to Atkin's might try to convince you that their way is the true way, perhaps even the only way. The simple fact is that there is no single best diet for everyone.

There is, however, a diet that's pretty much guaranteed to work every time. 

It goes a little something like this: If you achieve your ideal weight and maintain it for at least three years, you get ten million dollars. No tricks. No games.

I call it the "Ten Million Dollar Diet."

Sadly, of course, it's not at all feasible, but it serves to illustrate a key point for successful weight loss: With the proper motivation -- say, a truckload of cash -- almost anyone can lose a significant amount of weight.

Author Matt Fitzgerald mentioned the "diet" in passing in his recent book, Diet Cults. (Though he thought $20 million would do the trick.) Such a program, he said "would achieve a near perfect success rate and prove once and for all that motivation is all it really takes for anyone to lose weight."

Fitzgerald is definitely on to something. How do we know? Because individuals who have lost a lot of weight told us so. Since 1994, the National Weight Control Registry (NWCR) has tracked over 10,000 people who lost large amounts of weight and kept it off for long periods of time, an average of 66 pounds for five and a half years. The study has revealed a feast of valuable information.

The first big finding was a lack of a finding: There was no common diet. Sure, all of the NWCR members altered what they ate in order to sheds pounds, but they achieved success through many different paths, reinforcing the notion any diet can work as long as you simply eat fewer calories.

The researchers behind the NWCR did glean three behavioral "secrets" from the registry members. The first was self-weighing. Individuals who consistently monitored their weight were more likely than others to stay slim. The second was monotonous eating. The people who consumed a smaller variety of foods controlled their weight much better than those who did not. The third was exercise, a lot of exercise. "About 1 hour per day of moderately intense physical activity."

What ties these three "secrets" together, Fitzgerald noted in Diet Cults, is that they all indicate high levels of motivation. One has to be borderline obsessive to step on the scale so frequently, disciplined to maintain a repetitive diet, and driven to work out every day.

"If the National Weight Control Registry has taught us anything, it has taught us that a person who is sufficiently motivated to lose weight is bound to succeed regardless of which diet she chooses to follow," Fitzgerald wrote.

"Eighty-two percent of NWCR members say they were more committed to making behavioral changes in their final, successful attempt to lose weight, than they had been in previous attempts... They didn't necessarily try anything different. They just tried harder," Fitzgerald added.

This is an empowering message. The key to long term weight loss isn't a specific magical diet; coupled with physical activity, any of them can work. The key is action!

The road to weight loss is long and winding, but it always leads to a healthier life, provided one stays on it. A healthier life may not be as powerful a motivator as 10 million dollars, but it's pretty darn worthwhile.

(Image: AP)

Is Teaching Psychology a Waste of Time?

Daniel Kahneman is perhaps the world's leading psychologist. A Nobel Prize winner and a professor emeritus at Princeton University, he may also be the field's foremost educator. His book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, has either been on a bestseller list, or not strayed far from one, since it was first published three years ago. And yet, despite his professorial standing, Kahneman has openly considered that teaching psychology may be a total waste of time.

What feeds this realization is not doubt or depression, but data. For Kahneman, it's one classic experiment in particular. In 1975, social psychologists Richard Nisbett and Eugene Borgida of the University of Michigan told students about the famous (and slightly unethical) "helping experiment." In that study, multiple subjects were led into individual opaque booths in close proximity to each other and told to talk to the other subjects about their lives and problems via an intercom. Each participant took a two-minute turn to share. Simple enough. Except the point of the experiment wasn't just to give participants a forum to discuss their feelings, it was actually to see how people would react if they thought someone amongst them was dying. At one point, an actor who was involved in the experiment and stationed in one of the booths, faked having a seizure while speaking over the intercom, cried out for help, then apparently collapsed.

Seeing as how one of their compatriots seemed to be in mortal danger, you'd think the subjects in the other booths would have leapt to lend aid. Most of them didn't.

"Only four of the fifteen participants responded immediately to the appeal for help. Six never got out of their booth, and five others came out only well after the 'seizure victim' apparently choked," Kahneman described.

After detailing the procedure of the "helping experiment" to students, Nisbett and Borgida had them watch videos of two people who had allegedly taken part. The videos painted a benign, genial picture of the supposed participants. After viewing the videos, students were asked to guess whether or not the depicted individuals rushed to the aid of the seizure victim. Half the students were informed of the results of the "helping experiment" and half were not.

Now, you might think that the students who were apprised of the experiment's gloomy results would have been more likely to guess that the individuals in the video didn't rush to the aid of the seizure victim. But they weren't. In defiance of the facts, both groups maintained their rosy outlook of human nature.

"For teachers of psychology, the implications of this study are disheartening," Kahneman wrote. "When we teach our students about the behavior of people in the helping experiment, we expect them to learn something they had not known before; we wish to change how they think about people's behavior in a particular situation. This goal was not accomplished in the Nisbett-Borgida study, and there is no reason to believe that the results would have been different if they had chosen another surprising psychological experiment."

Psychology professor Michael Hobbiss at the Bolton School in the United Kingdom has turned up similar results when teaching his students about Milgram's infamous shock experiment, in which 65% of participants obediently shocked other people from 15 up to 450 volts in 15-volt increments. (Unbeknownst to the participants, the electric shocks were actually fake, and the people getting shocked were actors.) Before Hobbiss apprises his students of the study's results, he estimates that roughly 10% think they would have completed the experiment all the way up to 450 volts. After fully learning about the study, that proportion rises to between 20% and 30%. That's a decent improvement, but still far less than the 65% level seen in the experiment.

Interestingly, Nisbett and Borgida did find a way to get their students to absorb the take-home message from the "helping experiment": Feed them convincing anecdotes. They told a third group of students the procedure of the "helping experiment," showed them the videos, then said that the two people in the videos had not come to the aid of the seizure victim. With this information, the participants accurately predicted the low proportion of people who aided the seizure victim.

So it may not be that psychology is a waste of time, just that general facts and veritable statistics will never trump powerful anecdotes. In many ways, that's even more depressing.

Primary Source: Daniel Kahneman (25 October 2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. Macmillan. ISBN 978-1-4299-6935-2.

Phil Plait's Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day

The Apocalypse is here.

Science writer Phil Plait's worst nightmare came true. The Republicans won control of the U.S. Senate. What can we expect to happen? In Plait's words, the Republicans will "put a cohort of science-deniers [sic] into positions of authority," which "quite literally affects the future of humanity." Why? Because, now, the United States will no longer be able to address climate change, "the single greatest threat we as a species face today."

In other words, this:

When it comes to climate change, this type of fearmongering is sadly common among science writers. Political silly season turns otherwise objective science analysts into obnoxious partisan cranks. Because so many people believe the sort of outrageous claims Plait has made, they need to be addressed.

"This previous Congress will go down in history as the least effective ever..."

As cathartic as it is to name everything you hate as the "worst ever," it makes for very poor analysis. For instance, the worst president in U.S. history is not George W. Bush or Barack Obama, but probably a tie between Franklin Pierce (the drunk), Warren Harding (who ran a very corrupt administration), and James Buchanan (who failed to prevent the Civil War). Any randomly selected Congress from the 1850s could probably be described as the "least effective ever."

"Ted Cruz, R-Texas, could be chairman of the committee on science and space..."

Unlikely. Ted Cruz and Mitch McConnell, the presumptive majority leader, do not like each other. Besides, the current ranking member of the committee is John Thune, which means he is far more likely to receive the gavel.

"Ask Californians suffering from one of the worst droughts in history how they feel about 'long-lasting changes in the climate'..."

Any one weather or climate event cannot be linked definitively to climate change. The LA Times recently reported that there is "no clear link" between global warming and the drought its state is experiencing. Besides, the Southwest has experienced a lot of long droughts in its history. As unsettling as this might be, megadroughts may be normal for the region. Yes, climate change can worsen extreme events or make them more likely, but that is the most that can be said. As a scientist, Plait knows that. However, logic and science go out the window when politics is involved.

"Do we finally take action about the single greatest threat we as a species face today?"

This question is so backwards and full of incorrect assumptions, it's not even wrong.

In the 111th Congress, the Democrats had a 60-seat, filibuster-proof majority in the Senate, and a large majority in the House. If the Democrats really wanted to do it, they could have passed climate change legislation. But, they did not. Instead, they did absolutely nothing. The House passed a cap-and-trade bill, 219-212, which then died in the Senate. Harry Reid, the Democratic Majority Leader, did not even call a vote on the bill.

Why is Phil Plait blaming Republicans, but not Democrats? Well, you can answer that question.

It should also be noted that American carbon emissions have fallen dramatically. There are a variety of reasons for this, but one of the big ones is the growing adoption of natural gas made possible by fracking -- a technology that Democrats and their environmentalist allies oppose. In fact, the U.S. is well on its way toward meeting the goals laid out by the Kyoto Protocol, even though we never ratified the treaty.

Finally, his assertion that climate change is the "single greatest threat we as a species face today" is absurd. RealClearScience believes the evidence for disruptive climate change is convincing, but the evidence for apocalyptic climate change is lacking. Besides, even if apocalyptic climate change is real, it would not pose an existential threat to the human species. That award still goes to nuclear war. Furthermore, poverty, infectious disease, malnutrition, and lack of access to electricity and health care are all far bigger threats than climate change.

Regardless of your political affiliation, you can rest assured that a GOP-controlled Senate will not cause the Earth to explode in an apocalyptic fireball. Unfortunately, the Bad Astronomer will likely continue to blow hot air.

(AP photo)

Private Space Flight Will be O.K.

Two private spacecraft were annihilated in fiery explosions last week. Catastrophic news for space tourism and private space contractors? Not particularly. Each situation exemplifies growing pains that this very young industry has to face.

The first failure ended in a massive picturesque fireball caught on camera. Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket mission was carrying a quantum entanglement photon experiment and dozens of tiny miniature satellites, as well as supplying 1400 pounds of food bound for the International Space Station. This was the fourth similar NASA contracted mission ferrying ISS supplies and science projects.

Mission crew on the ground hit the self-destruct button as the craft began to immolate seconds off the launch pad. The source of the problem was a failure originating at the rocket's engines. As yet, it's not clear exactly what happened.

The lesson here? Basing designs on retrofitting ancient parts with modern upgrades is not good business. Further, both the original rockets, designed by Russian firm Kuznetsov circa 1970 and the American upgrades have had spotty reliability. As the industry expands and companies tool up to design and build modern engines from scratch, the practice of buying up and retrofitting old parts to save money is going to drop. This will push that transition along at a greater pace.

Elon Musk, head of SpaceX, openly criticized Orbital Sciences for using the outdated equipment. His company designs, builds and tests everything from scratch. SpaceX experienced some early failures but has enjoyed a very good record since. Reliability and safety are achieved by designers and builders testing and refining their work.

Virgin Galactic's Spaceship 2 crash was an entirely different scenario with a similar lesson.

Somebody has to be the first person to fly every type of craft designed to leave the earth's surface. Test pilots make careers out of this incredibly dangerous mission. (Decades ago, it was an insanely dangerous mission: test pilots died twice a week at times.) Both victims of this accident were test pilots.

It's a dramatic headline, but cutting-edge spaceships have been killing test pilots for as long as they've been flying. It's a high price paid, but investigation will reveal the precise causes of the accident and improve safety that much more. This is the same type of refinement process as the evolving rocket engine designs. These test flights make sure things work before the normal crews, cargoes and passengers ever risk climbing on.

We've become so proficient at operating airliners and space flights that we've forgotten that painful early mishaps plagued those industries too.

Some reports quote experts saying that the entire nascent private space tourism industry may be in jeopardy. Sure, a few people may be scared off by these teething issues. Private spaceflight in 2014 is still difficult and risky. But any field with such high rewards for such challenging work will continue to evolve and refine itself. In a few decades, buying a ticket to space may not be any scarier than a ticket across the country.

(AP photo)

Should You Really Be Drinking All That Water?

WHEN IT COMES to hydration during exercise, the mainstream message of the day is "drink early and often." But that's exactly what got a 39-year-old athletic, healthy woman into dire trouble back in 2007.

According to the case report, the woman was brought to the emergency room at Baylor University Medical Center suffering from a splitting headache, nausea, vomiting, and severe lethargy. She was disoriented and borderline unresponsive, but managed to mutter out the events and conditions leading up to her sudden illness. She had played tennis when it was 100 degrees out, then weightlifted afterwards. How long? Oh, about two hours. How much water did you drink? I kept myself very hydrated; I have a one-liter water bottle and drank about four liters.

Laboratory tests would soon confirm the doctors' suspicions. On a mission to stay properly hydrated, the woman had almost inadvertently drunk herself into a coma.

"STAY HYDRATED." Repeated position statements from the prestigious the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) dating back to 1975 have drilled this "conventional wisdom" into athletes' collective psyche. The ACSM's latest recommendations urge drinking fluids before and during exercise in order to "prevent excessive (>2% body weight loss from water deficit) dehydration and excessive changes in electrolyte balance to avert compromised performance." The ACSM further encourages athletes to imbibe afterwards, up to 1.5 liters of fluid for every kilogram of body weight lost.

The advice seems fairly commonsense, but as a result, exercisers in the developed world seem to be growing increasingly waterlogged. Of runners surveyed at the London Marathon in 2010, only a quarter planned to drink according to their thirst. Furthermore, 13% of 488 runners sampled at the Boston Marathon in 2002 were found to have hyponatremia, the state that put the aforementioned woman in danger, in which salt levels in the blood fall below acceptable levels. Other studies have reported incidence rates as high as 29%. The likely cause is overhydration.

Salts are regularly vilified in modern health, but we can't live without them. Sodium salts are particularly vital, necessary for the regulation of blood and body fluids, transmission of nerve impulses, and heart activity. When we drink excessive amounts of water, salt concentrations fall, sometimes to dangerously low levels.

Death from exercise-induced hyponatremia is quite rare, but noticeably on the rise, prompting many scientists to re-examine the touted wisdom on water intake during physical activity.

WRITING IN THE journal Extreme Physiology and Medicine, exercise physiologist James David Cotter says the "just keep drinking" mentality seems to stem from a lack of trust in the human body.

"Drinking to limit changes in body mass is commonly advocated, rather than relying on behavioral cues (mainly thirst) because the latter has been deemed too insensitive."

But when Cotter reviewed the scientific literature comparing the ACSM's drinking guidelines to drinking "ad libitum" (when thirsty), he found the former to offer limited to no tangible benefits as far as reducing heat illness and increasing cognitive and physical performance.

When exercise scientist Dr. Timothy Noakes conducted a stress test of sorts, he came to the same conclusion. Noakes had 18 athletes run 25 kilometers in 112-degree heat, telling them to drink water at their pleasure, and monitoring them throughout the entire route. Even under these extreme conditions, their bodies functioned quite well. Noakes noted that "humans are the mammals with the greatest capacity for exercising in extreme heat." 

As a chemical compound, it's hard to dispute water's importance. As Cotter states, it is:

The medium in which metabolism occurs; a reactant and a product; the basis by which the volume of cells, tissues and organs is maintained; a shock absorber (e.g. for the brain); the medium for the mass-flow transport of gases, substrates, heat, hormones etc.; a thermal reservoir with a uniquely high specific heat capacity, hereby being capable of accepting or releasing large amounts of thermal energy with little change in tissue temperature, and; the substrate for evaporative cooling via sweating, which helps give humans an unparalleled versatility for moving in hot environments.

But more is not necessarily better. In fact, as stated earlier, it might actually be dangerous. Cotter asserts that drinking based on one's thirst is appropriate in the vast majority of environmental and exercise settings, and far less risky.

Source: Cotter et al. "Are we being drowned in hydration advice? Thirsty for more?" Extreme Physiology & Medicine 2014, 3:18

Politicians Say the Most Unscientific Things!

Washington sometimes seems like a place where the scientific method goes to die. More often than not, laws are passed based on ideological desires rather than rational considerations. Facts are made to fit arguments, when they should be molding them. Issues are brought to the forefront by attention-grabbing anecdotes, not any sort of evidential need.

So it is not surprising that this sort of unscientific thinking occasionally yields inane blather. Here, we count down nine of the silliest things politicians have ever said on matters of science. Happy Election Day!

9. Representative Paul Broun: "I've come to understand that all that stuff I was taught about evolution and embryology and Big Bang Theory; all that is lies straight from the Pit of Hell."

8. President Ronald Reagan: "Trees cause more pollution than automobiles do."

7. Senator John McCain: "It's indisputable that (autism) is on the rise among children, the question is what's causing it. And we go back and forth and there's strong evidence that indicates it's got to do with a preservative in vaccines."

6. President Barack Obama: "We've seen just a skyrocketing autism rate. Some people are suspicious that it's connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it."

5. Representative Dennis Kucinich: "While we wait for scientists to sort out the health effects of cell phone radiation, we must allow consumers to have enough information to choose a phone with less radiation."

4. Delaware senate nominee Christine O'Donnell: "American scientific companies are cross-breeding humans and animals and coming up with mice with fully functioning human brains."

3. Representative John Shimkus: "If we decrease the use of carbon dioxide, are we not taking away plant food from the atmopshere?"

2. Representative Joe Barton: "Wind is God’s way of balancing heat. Wind is the way you shift heat from areas where it’s hotter to areas where it’s cooler. That’s what wind is. Wouldn’t it be ironic if in the interest of global warming we mandated massive switches to energy, which is a finite resource, which slows the winds down, which causes the temperature to go up?"

1. Representative Hank Johnson (speaking about the island of Guam): "My fear is that the whole island will become so overly populated that it will tip over and capsize."

(Image: AP)

The Great Condom Hypocrisy

If your Baby Boomer parent nags you for the upteenth time about practicing safe sex with a haughty tone of moral superiority, reply with a simple statistic. The rate of gonorrhea was roughly five times higher during the 1970s than it is now. You know, mom or dad, condoms were around back then.

Society is convinced that trouble-making teens need all of the instruction when it comes to sex, but in fact, adults may need more tutoring.

In school, kids are now rightfully bombarded with information about contraception, abstinence, and practicing safe sex, and the barrage seems to be working. From 2000 to 2010, the teen birth rate dropped precipitously across all ethnicities. Over that same period, rates of gonorrhea fell slightly or remained steady, perhaps because 8 out of 10 sexually active boys and 7 out of 10 girls say they used a condom during their last sexual experience. That rate could be as low as 59%, but even so, it still easily trumps that of older Americans.

Yep, the lowest rate of condom use is among people aged 45 and over. Okay, you might say, but that's because more adults are in committed relationships. True, but ninety-one percent of men older than 50 admitted to not using condoms for sex with a date or casual acquaintance, researchers from Indiana University found. Numbers like that undoubtedly contributed to this intriguing statistic: From 2000 to 2010, rates of sexually transmitted diseases such as chlamydia, gonorrhea and syphilis doubled for people in their 50s, 60s and 70s.

Teen still contract far more sexually transmitted diseases than adults. Adolescents ages 15-24 account for nearly half of the 19 million new cases of STD's each year, the CDC reported in July. But -- and this is just my guess -- that number probably says more about the prevalence of sexual activity by age group than it does about safe sex practices. After, all sexual activity declines rapidly beginning in middle age, most prominently due to physical difficulties.

Teens, it seems, are far more inclined to use condoms than adults are. Therein lies one of the greatest sex hypocrisies. Of course, that doesn't mean that sexual education should stop. Far from it! More than 400,000 teen girls aged 15–19 years gave birth in 2009. That's far too high!

But it does mean that the parents of teen students might want to attend a few sex education classes of their own, especially before adopting a "holier than thou" attitude.

(Image: AP)

String Theory: Now Circling the Drain

The largest physics experiment ever built is now testing the nature of reality. String theory, supersymmetry and other theories beyond the Standard Model are under scrutiny. More than 10,000 people have been involved. Total cost is nearing $10 billion. This, of course, is the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which helped discover the Higgs Boson.

Simultaneously, the ACME experiment, run by a team of less than 50, built for a few million dollars (and much, much smaller), has created a more precise test of these advanced theoeries. This experiment hinges on an extremely painstaking and precise method to picture the shape and size of electrons.

Electron electric dipole moment (EDM) is brutal physics jargon. It's a direct measurement of the interal structure of an electron. If an electron is an absolutely perfect sphere of negative charge with an infinitely small radius, the EDM is 0. If it's actually an extremely tiny speck made of even tinier specks of electric charge sitting next to one another, the EDM is some tiny value greater than 0.

String theory and similar theories require many unknown physics measurements. One of these is the magnitude of the electron electric dipole moment that this experiment probes. Each type of theory requires an EDM within a certain range of values to work.

What we know so far is that every experiment yet built has measured EDM = 0. (Not precisely zero, but zero within a margin of error, effectively establishing a tiny maximum experimental error value as the largest possible size.) Is the electron really like a tiny black hole with infinite density filling infinitely small space? Answering this question sheds light on the bigger one as well: Just how plausible are theories beyond the Standard Model?

Measurements taken for several decades have gradually reduced the possible size of the EDM. This year, the ACME collaboration published the best measurement ever made of the EDM: smaller than 8.7 x 10^-29 cm. (Free copy here.) It's an unimaginably small number. (Imagine an ant's size compared to that of the universe. This number is 100 times smaller than the ant.)

What this tiny value does is severely limit the likelihood of several particular varieties of theory stretching beyond the Standard Model.

de is the EDM, and the blue, red, green and purple areas are various theories beyond the Standard Model. Every theory to the left of the red line is now impossible! Large portions of the imaginary world of String Theory (e.g., versions of SUSY or "supersymmetry" shown above) are being ruled impossible by this machine 1/1000th the size and cost of the LHC. Previously, String Theory was on life support. Now, it might be circling the drain.

A more powerful upgrade of the ACME experiment coming on-line in the next few years may be able to push the elimination line about two more powers of ten to the right, refuting more theories.

Most importantly, finding funding for future physics projects as big as the LHC is going to be difficult. Managably small experiments like ACME relying on clever and precise methods may displace those relying on pure size and power.

Sugar Is Not Toxic

Defending sugar is not something David Katz thought he would ever find himself doing. In his two-decade-long career in public health as an associate professor at Yale University and as the director of the Yale Prevention Research Center, Katz has frequently warned about the dangers of excess sugar consumption. But now, he finds himself having to repeatedly debunk the extremist "sugar is toxic" message that has crowded out the less inflammatory evidence-based message of "just eat less sugar."

Writing last year in the Huffington Post, Katz was very clear.

"Sugar, in general, is not poison," he said. "Breast milk contains sugar. The human bloodstream contains sugar, at all times, and the moment it doesn't, we die."

To label sugar "toxic" is misleading. It implies that the sweet substance is dangerous at any dose. But of course, it's the dose that makes the poison. A single can of Pepsi, a veritable bastion of sugar, is a delicious complement to a slice of pizza. To die from an acute toxic overdose of sugar, the average adult male would have to drink roughly 58 of those cans in rapid succession. That doesn't leave much room for the slice of pizza.

Polonium, on the other hand, now that's a poison. As little as 800 nanograms -- an amount so small you could barely make it out on the palm of your hand -- is enough to kill the average adult male.

I make this comparison not to trivialize the health drawbacks of sugar, only to demonstrate that sugar is obviously not a poison.

The American Heart Association and the World Health Organization recommend that women consume no more than 24 grams of "added sugar" (basically, sugar not found in fruits or non-sweetened milk) each day. For men, that number is 37 grams. Currently, conservative estimates indicate that Americans consume roughly twice the recommended amounts. Much of that sugar comes from nutrient-deficient soft drinks, luxurious desserts, processed food, or candy. Eating too much of any of that stuff increases the risk of fatty liver disease, heart disease, diabetes, and being overweight.

Here's what we know: Eating sugar in excess, as many Americans currently do, is unhealthy. But to take that statement any further down the provocative road is simply not in accordance with the facts. For example, the American Diabetes Association lists the statement, "Eating too much sugar causes diabetes" as one of the biggest diabetes myths.

"The answer is not so simple," they qualify. "Type 1 diabetes is caused by genetics and unknown factors that trigger the onset of the disease; type 2 diabetes is caused by genetics and lifestyle factors."

But what about the scary studies out there showing that high-fructose corn syrup -- predominantly composed of two types of sugar, fructose and glucose -- engenders deleterious effects in rodents? Well, as Katz explains, the scientists orchestrating those experiments fed the animal subjects an amount of sugar equivalent to far, far more than the average human consumes.

"The levels of fructose intake invoked to produce end-organ damage in provocative articles do not occur under real-world conditions. Pushed to comparable extremes of dosing, articles about oxygen would reach far grimmer conclusions, concluding the compound is not just toxic, but uniformly lethal over a span of mere days."

Moreover, as Scientific American's Ferris Jabr points out, rodents are not humans.

"Studies that have traced fructose’s fantastic voyage through the human body suggest that the liver converts as much as 50 percent of fructose into glucose, around 30 percent of fructose into lactate and less than one percent into fats. In contrast, mice and rats turn more than 50 percent of fructose into fats, so experiments with these animals would exaggerate the significance of fructose’s proposed detriments for humans, especially clogged arteries, fatty livers and insulin resistance."

On the other hand, systematic reviews that have examined fructose intake in humans have found no specific effect of the widely used sugar on blood pressure or body weight.

For a quick source of bodily fuel, nothing tops sugar. That's the primary reason sugary sports drinks like Gatorade have been consistently shown to enhance athletic performance. And the intermittent ice cream cone, perhaps with a friend, family member, or significant other, is not just acceptable, but healthy.

In short, sugar is a substance meant to be used strategically and enjoyed occasionally, not avoided at all costs. Don't worry, parents, a little sugar binge tomorrow is not as scarily detrimental to your kids' health as many articles on the Internet would have you believe.

(Image: Shutterstock)

The Math Behind the 'Shoe Size-Age' Trick

The "shoe magic" trick is making its way around the Internet. (See above.) It's a nifty little math trick, and it does indeed work (most of the time). I will first use my own data to demonstrate.

I wear a size 10 shoe.

10 x 5 = 50.

50 + 50 = 100

100 x 20 = 2000

2000 + 1014 = 3014

I was born in 1982.

3014 - 1982 = 1032

It works! Amazing! Indeed, my shoe size is 10, and I am 32 years old.

How does this work? It requires a little bit of algebra to understand. Let's call shoe size "s" and your birth year "y." Now, let's do the trick again, using these letters instead of numbers.

Multiple s by 5: 5s

Add 50: 5s + 50

Multiply by 20: 20(5s + 50) = 100s + 1000

Add 1014: 100s + 1000 + 1014 = 100s + 2014

Subtract birth year: 100s + 2014 - y

Do you see why it works? No matter what your shoe size is, it will always be the first two digits of the answer. If your shoe is 12, then 100s = 1200. If you are European and your shoe size is 36, then 100s = 3600.

The age part should be obvious. 2014 (the current year) - y (your birth year) will give your age.

But this trick does not always work. If you were born in, say, December 1982, then this trick would incorrectly conclude that you were 32 years old. In fact, you would be only 31. The trick also does not work if you are 100 years old or older. If you were born in 1914 and wear a size 10 shoe, the trick would conclude that your shoe size is 11 and that you were 0 years old.

So, if you want to impress people with a math trick this Halloween, just be sure their birthday is sometime before November... and don't show it to any centenarians!

A Psychiatric Evaluation of Michael Myers

For psychiatric resident students taking the REDRUM Psychopathology course at the Robert Wood Johnson Medical School at Rutgers University, weekly homework assignments are a tad more macabre than you might expect. Instead of reading Hales, Gabbard, or Blazer, they're watching Bates, Krueger, and Myers, as in Michael Myers, from cinema serial killer fame.

REDRUM stands for Reviewing [Mental] Disease with a Rudimentary Understanding of the Macabre. Anyone who's seen The Shining knows it better as "MURDER" spelled in reverse. In the REDRUM course, Professor Anthony Tobia harnesses Hollywood to teach his students about mental disorders.

At first, this might seem like a bad idea. Movie portrayals of mental illness are often wildly inaccurate. Thanks to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, lots of people think electroconvulsive "shock" therapy is a barbaric, ineffective, and antiquated treatment. In fact, it's not. Many other flicks portray psychiatric doctors and asylum directors as uncaring or even malevolent. But Tobia takes great care "not to perpetuate the stereotypes of mental illness often portrayed in cinema."

"Residents are directed not to take the movies at face value," Tobia says. "Instead, we focus on an abstract and symbolic understanding of the plot summary or aspects of character analysis that allow psychiatry residents to discuss major teaching points germane to a full spectrum of adult mental illnesses."

Residents learn, for example, that demonic possession as seen in The Exorcist, is not actually caused by demons. Instead, it's woefully misdiagnosed mania, Tourette’s syndrome, conversion disorder, histrionic personality, or dissociative identity disorder. It might even be a confluence of some or all of these conditions.

Slasher films offer some of the best educational material. The legend of Jason Voorhees from Friday the 13th is a symbolic outcome of the direct effects of fetal alcohol syndrome. Michael Myers losing the ability to speak after murdering his sister showcases conversion disorder, where symptoms of acute or chronic stress manifest physically. Myers also likely suffers from voyeurism and autism.  If you're looking for a metaphorical example of narcolepsy, look no further than A Nightmare on Elm Street, in which nightmares involving maniacal killer Freddie Krueger intrude into wakefulness. Krueger himself likely has pedophilia, psychopathy, and "mother issues."

Zombies -- modern society's favorite monsters -- also offer an invaluable teaching opportunity when viewed through the lens of neurology, says Dr. Susan Hatters-Friedman, a forensic psychiatrist at Auckland University.

"Schlozman suggests the ataxic gait and imbalance in Romero’s zombies could be explained by a cerebellar lesion. Constant hunger could be explained by abnormalities in their ventral medial hypothalamus not receiving or being able to interpret signals. Lack of problem-solving and executive functioning capacity may be explained by prefrontal cortex damage, and their characteristic lack of fear and constant anger by amygdala alterations."

Tis the season for horror flicks. Make it an educational one!

Sources: Anthony Tobia et. al. The Horror!: A Creative Framework for Teaching Psychopathology Via Metaphorical Analyses of Horror Films. Academic Psychiatry March 2013, Volume 37, Issue 2, pp 131-136

Friedman SH, Forcen FE, Shand JP. Horror films and psychiatry. Australas Psychiatry. 2014 Oct;22(5):447-9. doi: 10.1177/103985621454308

(Image: Shutterstock)

Iran's Evil Imprisonment of My Colleague

Omid Kokabee is a physicist and PhD student who sat in front of me in class. He worked on a project much like mine, in the same field, on the same degree, and we even started at the same time. That was four years ago. I'm still here. He went home to Iran to visit his family in January of 2011 and never came back.

The cruel and evil authoritarian states of the world sometimes seem remote. We read about them in news reports. They murder and ruin the lives of people we never see or know. We know how terrible their crimes are, but it's all at a distance. This situation is as personal as a punch in the face.

Kokabee disappeared into thin air on his way back to Texas. Investigation by his American colleagues revealed that he was arrested at an airport in Iran. He was thrown into a prison in Tehran and left for over a year without charges.

Bewildered letters penned by Kokabee from his cell questioned the regime's coercion of his family and himself. He was not allowed a lawyer and openly threatened by the judge before charges were brought. Time went on and Kokabee kept sharp by teaching English, Spanish and physics to his fellow prisoners.

In the summer of 2012 he was convicted in Iran's kangaroo Revolutionary Court of communicating with a hostile government and receiving illegal earnings. These sham charges were brought by the government hoping to force Omid into collaborating with the regime's floundering physics efforts.

Nature reported that 10-15 other people were tried simultaneously, and all plead guilty to the surely fictional crime of collaborating with Israel's Mossad intelligence agency. Kokabee refused to speak.

For his defiance of the Iranian government's demands, Kokabee was sentenced to rot for a decade or more in jail. An extra sentence was tacked on for teaching those prison classes.

Omid was not a close acquaintance. But, the fact that the man who worked in the lab next door to mine every day disappeared into prison and never came back is jarring and incredible. I work closely with another Iranian. He no longer goes home to see his family.

It's not just this one case. Scientists, students, writers and peaceful protesters are held in prison by Iran and other repressive and authoritarian governments. It's a fate that reminds us that brutal and corrupt rulers still control parts of our world. What can we do? Collective pressure can bring hope: Iran's supreme court may take up an appeal of Kokabee's case.

It may not be popular for scientists to say this, but I will: Evil is real. We must fight to ensure it does not triumph.

(AP photo)

Another Big Psychology Theory Fails to Replicate

The bakery at most grocery stores is a minefield. Cakes to the left, muffins to the right, pastries dead ahead, and cookies... cookies everywhere. If you escape without making a purchase, congratulations, you have tenacious self-control. Or you were just lucky. But though your wallet and waistline won't take a hit, according to a leading psychological theory, your willpower will.

Originally put forth back in 1998 by Florida State psychologist Roy Baumeister, the notion of ego depletion states that self-control is a limited resource. Like a muscle, it can fatigue with use, and needs time to recharge. According to the theory, saying "no" to sweets in the grocery store will leave you temporarily vulnerable to subsequent temptations.

In the sixteen years since its inception, ego depletion has been tested and validated in a variety of situations. Psychologists emphasize its role in many arenas, such as dieting, athletics, and consumer behavior. Some even propose that willpower can be trained and strengthened via repeated use, again, just like a muscle.

But critics aren't so sure. They note that much of the research has been done on young, WEIRD (Western, Educated, and from Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic countries) college students, and thus may not carry over to the general population. They also suggest that the effect could benefit from publication bias, the tendency to only publish flashy or positive results. It is in this light that a team of psychologists recently attempted to replicate the ego depletion effect using the two most frequently used measures of self-control in scientific research. Their results were just published to PLoS ONE.

Four groups of participants took part in the study: two diverse groups from the general population with an average age in the mid-forties, and two more groups of young adults with an average age around 20. Each group was assigned to one task, either a grip challenge in which subjects had to hold a grip machine at 70% of their maximum grip strength for as long as possible, or a Stroop Test, in which subjects viewed color words on a computer (like 'green', 'yellow,' or 'blue') that appeared one at a time in a mismatched font color (for example, 'red' may be shown in blue font) and have to press the key corresponding to the font color.

The subjects completed each of their respective tasks twice. In between the repetitions, some subjects engaged in an activity meant to diminish their self-control whilst others performed an easy control activity. The researchers then compared the scores of the subjects who performed the control activity with those who performed the experimental one.

The subjects who had performed the task meant to diminish self-control should have performed significantly worse on their assigned tasks compared to the control groups the second time around. But they did not.

"There was no evidence for significant depletion effects in any of these four studies," the researchers found.

The researchers don't believe their results are in error. The tasks they used were identical to those most frequently employed in past research, and they also used similar sample sizes. In fact, the researchers suggest their study design may be stronger, because, unlike many previous studies which found evidence for ego depletion, they used a control group and recruited subjects from a broader population.

Despite the failure to replicate, the researchers don't believe their study is enough to invalidate ego depletion altogether, just that the effect may be more limited than has previously been theorized.

Ego depletion is not the first big idea in psychology to face replication problems. A key theory, priming, took a notable hit last year.

Some social psychologists, like Harvard University's Jason Mitchell, have fired back at detractors, suggesting that they are impugning the integrity of their colleagues, overstating the problems of publication bias, and are likely producing "false negative" results.

(Images: AP, Nevit Dilmen)

Source: Xu X, Demos KE, Leahey TM, Hart CN, Trautvetter J, et al. (2014) Failure to Replicate Depletion of Self-Control. PLoS ONE 9(10): e109950. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0109950

The Healthiest Diet 'Proven' by Science

It's actually happened.   

After decades of research filled with millions of meals eaten by hundreds of thousands of subjects, the verdict is in. Science is now ready to proclaim the healthiest way to eat: one diet to rule them all.

So which is it? Atkin's, perhaps? Or Paleo? Low-Carb? Low-Fat? South Beach? Raw? Fruitarian? Veganism?

The answer, my friends, is none of the above. But it could also be all of the above. That's because healthiest diet isn't a specific diet at all. It's the absence of a diet.

This is not a sudden, world-changing, mind-altering finding. It is not well suited to a blaring news headline. It is not share fodder on social media. What it is, however, is a realization that surfaced gradually and methodically: Science will never conclusively prove that a single diet is the best diet.

Author Matt Fitzgerald summarized the finding, or rather, the lack thereof, in his new book Diet Cults:

"Science has not identified the healthiest way to eat. In fact, it has come as close as possible (because you can't prove a negative) to confirming that there is no such thing as the healthiest diet. To the contrary, science has established quite definitively that humans are able to thrive equally well on a variety of diets. Adaptability is the hallmark of man as eater. For us, many diets are good while none is perfect."

Further support for this notion comes from a simple glance back at the history of our species. Mankind has populated almost every corner of the earth, and in every diverse situation, humans were able to survive, even thrive, on whatever food their homes had to offer.

Even more convincing evidence has been found by observing those who have lived the longest. The University of California-Irvine's 90+ Study has tracked thousands of Americans who've made it to age 90 and beyond, yielding an unprecedented wealth of information about their lifestyle habits. For lead investigators Claudia Kawas and Maria Corrada, the most surprising finding they made is that most participants didn't seem to be too concerned with their health. Generally, the 90-year-olds said they didn't really keep to a restrictive diet. Nor did they abstain from alcohol, quite the opposite actually! The researchers found that up two drinks a day -- no matter the type -- was associated with a 10-15% reduced risk of death. They also discovered other things that might disturb ardent dieters. Vitamin supplements did not affect lifespan in any way, and being a little overweight starting in middle age positively affected longevity.

But what if you're already overweight and want to shed some pounds? In that case, pick whatever diet works for you, because they all can work. What matters the most for weight loss is finding a solution that you can adhere to. That much was elucidated in a review recently published to the Journal of the American Medical Association. Scientists reviewed a multitude of randomized trials on popular diets and, lo and behold, found that all the diets helped subjects shed pounds, with minimal differences in weight loss between each diet.

Just like there is no one true religion, there is no one true diet. So why do so many dieters believe that there is?

"The short answer is that people believe what they want to believe," Fitzgerald wrote in Diet Cults. "The complete answer is that people want to believe that a certain way of eating is the best way because it gives them a sense of identity and a feeling of belonging. It's the work of that old, no-saying human impulse to eat according to the rules of a special group, which is often much stronger than the reasoning faculties."

"It feels good to believe in something."

(Image: AP)