The Evolutionary Psychology of Beer Pong: Are Drinking Games Mostly About Sex?

Flip cup, quarters, presidents, fuzzy duck, chandeliers, beer pong: the names and varieties of drinking games are limited only by the determination of college students to create innovative ways to drink themselves into a stupor. Games can test motor or verbal skills, rely on gambling, or are sometimes as straightforward as taking a shot of beer once a minute for an hour.

Up to three-fourths of college students participate in drinking games. The reasons they do so are quite simple: to get drunk, to get others drunk, to meet new people, and to compete.

The competitive aspect of drinking games has particularly peaked the interest of evolutionary psychologists. In a sense, alcohol strips us of our culturally evolved senses, returning mankind to a more primitive mode of thinking. Foremost on many an intoxicated mind, even if not explicitly acted upon, is mating. Enter the drinking game.

"Men have described drinking games as a way to "outdo" other players and to impress females, thus establishing one's masculinity and a maintaining hierarchical power structures in close groups," says Professor Brian Borsari, a clinical psychologist at Brown University.

In fact, multiple studies have found drinking games to directly or indirectly lead to sexual interest or activity. The studies prompted two University of Miami psychologists, Lisa Hone and Evan Carter, to investigate further.

"We hypothesized that certain students participate in drinking games because drinking games enable: (1) males to compete with other males; (2) males to display to females their physical dexterity, coordination, fortitude, strength, mental prowess, willingness to use force, and willingness to take risks; and (3) females to observe these competitions and displays."

To test their hypothesis, they extensively surveyed 698 students at the University of Miami throughout the 2010-2011 school year. The results largely backed their hypothesis.

"Without exception, males scored higher than did women in the trait-level measures of mating effort and social competitiveness, the situation-specific measures of sexual, competitive, and fortitude-display motivations for participating in drinking games," they found.

The concept of the beer bong or flip cup table as a mating arena received further backing in a study recently published to the journal Evolutionary Psychology. Hone and another colleague surveyed students again and found that males who were more socially competitive were more likely to participate in drinking games.

Sexual competition related to drinking games can also have a dark side. Drinking games often result in much higher levels of intoxication than drinking alone, particularly amongst women. This is a situation that uninhibited males may attempt to take advantage of.

"There is much anecdotal and empirical evidence that males intentionally intoxicate females in order to have sexual contact," says Borsari.

Something to be cognizant of as you play kings, cardinal puff, or the name game.

(Image: Shutterstock)

Subsidies: What Fossil Fuels & Porn Have in Common

It's time to end the federal porn subsidy.

You might be asking, What federal porn subsidy? Fair question. Technically, there isn't a federal porn subsidy. However, if we borrow some of the logic commonly used by politically driven economists, we can redefine the word subsidy to mean whatever we want.

Pornography is enjoyed by many people, but it comes with a very real social cost: it can break up families and perhaps even become an addiction, which are profound losses of productivity. Economists refer to these as negative externalities -- i.e., bad side effects that affect people other than the person making the decision. One way to deal with such decisions is to tax them. This should, in theory, reduce the negative side effects, while simultaneously forcing the decisionmaker to bear the "true cost" of his actions. Clearly, if anyone should have to pay for this societal cost, it should be porn watchers, in the form of a porn tax. If they don't pay such a tax, they are getting an indirect subsidy.

As it turns out, we don't have a federal porn tax. Thus, we could say that the American government has issued a federal porn subsidy.

Obviously, that reasoning is absurd. Not only does it dubiously redefine the word subsidy, but it unconvincingly claims to be able to accurately place a price tag on every conceivable externality created by watching porn. Accepting that argument would require a nearly complete suspension of disbelief.

Yet, that is essentially the argument that a group of economists at the International Monetary Fund (IMF) just made about fossil fuel subsidies. (See PDF.)

Before we dig further, I must clarify that I am, as a general rule, opposed to government subsidies. In my ideal world, government subsidizes only the things that the free market cannot or will not provide, such as parks, infrastructure, basic scientific research, a police force, firefighters, a military, and so forth. The government should not be in the business of picking winners and losers in the marketplace, distorting our tax system with thousands of loopholes, or engaging in crony capitalism by favoring particular pet corporations.

That is why I agree with the IMF report's (implied) conclusion that we should put an end to fossil fuel subsidies. I even believe that we should implement a modest carbon tax to encourage more energy efficient cars and power plants. However, the IMF report goes absolutely off the rails in its calculation of the "true" fossil fuel subsidy. And, predictably, too much of the media's coverage of this report has been disturbingly free of any serious journalistic skepticism.

The Guardian, which penned the most influential coverage, began its article with an eye-popping statistic:

"Fossil fuel companies are benefitting from global subsidies of $5.3tn (£3.4tn) a year, equivalent to $10m a minute every day..."

Wow. $5.3 trillion in fossil fuel subsidies? That sounds insane. But, how do they arrive at that number? The Guardian goes on to explain:

"The vast sum is largely due to polluters not paying the costs imposed on governments by the burning of coal, oil and gas. These include the harm caused to local populations by air pollution as well as to people across the globe affected by the floods, droughts and storms being driven by climate change."

Ah, okay. The subsidy isn't a direct financial calculation, but is instead based on a bunch of externalities whose costs are nearly impossible to derive with any sense of believability. To give you an idea of just how much fudging exists in these kinds of calculations, a similar report issued in 2013 (PDF) concluded that the fossil fuel subsidy was $1.9 trillion. A discrepancy of $3.4 trillion should raise red flags in regard to methodology. Indeed, the authors of the IMF report included the following caveat:

"These findings must be viewed with caution. Most important, there are many uncertainties and controversies involved in measuring environmental damages in different countries—our estimates are based on plausible—but debatable—assumptions."

Such measured language was not be found in The Guardian's coverage. In fact, the article did not give voice to a single dissenting or skeptical opinion, and it left out the rather inconvenient fact that the $5.3 trillion estimate could be wrong by as much as a few trillion dollars.

The Economist, on the other hand -- one of a mere handful of major global publications worth reading -- addressed head-on the major problem with the IMF report:

"Defining subsidies is tricky. The simplest measure is the amount of taxpayers' money used directly to keep a price artificially low. A broader one includes the costs borne by others, such as pollution, and exemptions from taxes. The IMF uses the wider definition to reach its $5.3 trillion figure. Seen more narrowly, the cost would be $333 billion."

Yikes. That's nearly a 16-fold difference! A calculation based on a narrow (and more commonly understood) definition of subsidy yields $333 billion, while the expanded (and controversial) definition of subsidy (which includes the costs of externalities such as air pollution, traffic, and climate change) yields $5.3 trillion. Notably, the IMF report did not highlight the $333 billion estimate; instead, it was buried on page 18 of the report.

Now, things are becoming much clearer. The IMF authors issued a hyped report that highlighted inflated numbers and buried more conservative estimates. They knew they could get away with it because sympathetic left-wing outlets like The Guardian aren't interested in serious journalism. And they knew that other politically motivated websites, such as Slate, would pick up the story and decorate it with utter absurdities like this: "[M]ajor oil companies like Shell couldn't exist without their continued support from the world's taxpayers."

By the time more sober analysis was published, such as that found in The Economist or Forbes, the hyped version of the story had already circled the planet.

Impressive.

(AP photo)

Five Reasons Why 42 May Actually Be the Answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything

Yesterday, Americans of all ages gathered to salute and remember the men and women who died while serving in the armed forces of the United States. A select few did so with towels in their hands, offering a subtle homage to a man who was neither a veteran nor even an American, but, with his written words, made many a reader smile and think. Yes, yesterday was Memorial Day, but it was also Towel Day, a day dedicated to humorist and author Douglas Adams.

Adams is widely known for penning the incredibly funny science fiction novel The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, as well as the impeccably named five-part Hitchhiker's Trilogy, but he is perhaps best known for answering, in the Hitchhiker's Guide, the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything. The answer, of course, is 42.

Is the ultimate answer really 42? To be honest, nobody really knows (partly because we don't know the ultimate question). But here are five reasons why 42 is as good an ultimate answer as any:

1. In a 3 x 3 x 3 magic cube, where the numbers 1,2,3,4... 27 are all written at an intersection point, each column, row, and pillar adds up to 42.

 

2. The optimum angle for white light to refract through water and thus form a rainbow is between 40.89 and 42 degrees.

 

3. The number 42 was the first number to be retired from any professional sport. It was worn by Major League Baseball player Jackie Robinson, the first African American to play in the major leagues in the modern era.

4. "Two physical constants in the universe are the speed of light and the diameter of a proton. It takes light 10 to the minus 42nd power seconds to cross the diameter of a proton."

5. Google says so.

(Images: AP, Jaksmata, KES47, Bob Sandberg)

H/T John Dumay

 

Slate's Science Page Has Gone Crazy

Something has happened at Slate. Until relatively recently, Slate's science page produced so much amazingly good content that we were tempted to link to them multiple times per day. In our 2013 list of the Top 10 Science News Sites, we awarded them an honorable mention.

But, that was then. Now, for some reason, Slate's science page has partially abandoned its strong tradition of in-depth analysis to promote an angry, opinion-driven reportage that is mostly aimed at insulting Republicans and Christians.

This is counterproductive. Science journalism that forsakes its primary mission of science communication to engage in partisan culture wars does a grotesque disservice to the scientific endeavor and is doomed to fail. Just ask ScienceBlogs, which has become a shell of its former self because, as the New York Times described, it became "Fox News for the religion-baiting, peak-oil crowd" that utilized "redundant and effortfully incendiary rhetoric." Slate's science page is heading toward a similar path.

Take Phil Plait, for example, an accomplished astronomer. When he so chooses, he can be an excellent science communicator. Too often, however, he chooses to be a shrill partisan who is more interested in promoting the Democratic Party than thoughtful science policy analysis. In between posting selfies (Hi Phil! Hi Neil!), he provides readers with one-sided rants about how stupid he thinks Republicans are. That is such a common theme for Dr. Plait that he recently managed to post three such screeds in merely five days.

In the first, he criticizes Rep. Lamar Smith and other Republicans for wanting to cut NASA's earth science budget. Of course, Dr. Plait's analysis is tainted by a conflict of interest (since he once worked at NASA and still indirectly makes his living from the institution). He also neglected to mention that, historically, Republicans and Democrats are roughly equally generous in their funding for science. In his second article, he blames Republicans for not taking climate change seriously. Absent from his critique is the fact that when, under President Obama, Democrats had control of the House and a filibuster-proof Senate, they chose to take no action on climate change. In his third piece, Dr. Plait absurdly implies that Louisana students are too uneducated to apply to universities because of the state's Republican policies on the teaching of evolution and Intelligent Design. Dr. Plait, however, neither shows contempt for the Democratic governor of Kentucky, who approved tax incentives for the Creation Museum, nor for the 27% of Democrats who accept creationism.

Along similar lines, Slate has given a platform for Zack Kopplin, a science activist, to attack the Republican governor of Louisiana, Bobby Jindal. While I agree with Mr. Kopplin's latest piece that Louisiana ought not promote Intelligent Design (ID) in biology classrooms, his purposeful conflation of creationism and ID is clichéd and tiresome. ID is not creationism. Many people who consider themselves ID advocates accept evolution, often to a fairly large extent. Though Christian biologists (like me) prefer the concept known as theistic evolution and take issue with ID on scientific and theological grounds, it is patently unfair to call ID "creationism." Referring to it as such betrays either dishonesty or ignorance of ID's actual claims. And, of course, Mr. Kopplin remains silent about the aforementioned creationists in the Democratic Party.

Finally, Slate has recently published a piece by Dr. Jerry Coyne, an influential evolutionary biologist, about the danger of religious exemptions for vaccinations. He is absolutely correct about this, however the article is also promoting his new book on the incompatibility of science and religion. It's difficult to accept that an educated person could hold such a belief in the year 2015, particularly because the historical consensus rejects it. Dr. Coyne's animosity toward religion is so great that it leads him to endorse a revisionist history of science, which Dr. James Hannam, a science historian, and I thoroughly debunked. Furthermore, Dr. Coyne is on the record calling Dr. Francis Collins -- one of the most successful living scientists who helped sequence the human genome and currently serves as the director of the NIH -- "deeply, deeply superstitious," and a person whose Christian faith "contaminate[s] his scientific views."

Yikes. If Dr. Coyne had said that about any other religion besides Christianity, he'd be ridiculed as a bigot. Despite that, Slate has given him a pedestal from which he can proclaim what is essentially a fringe minority viewpoint.

The pattern is clear: Slate's science page has decided to single out Republicans and Christians for scolding, while ignoring the plethora of anti-science beliefs that come from Democrats and (yes, even) atheists. If their goal is to educate the public about science, this is a terrible way to accomplish it.

Now, wait a second, some of you may be thinking. Doesn't RealClearScience also harshly criticize unscientific beliefs? Yes, we do. Frequently. But the key distinction is that we do not make this about political parties (or religion). Any fair-minded observer of American politics knows that both Republicans and Democrats (or the religious and non-religious) use science as a wedge issue to score political points. Politicians from both parties eagerly throw science under the bus if they think it can score them a few extra votes.

Because we have made a purposeful decision to remain politically agnostic, we can do our jobs as science journalists properly. That is why, on RCS, you will find articles that criticize anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, climate deniers, evolution deniers, Dr. Oz, Fox News, MSNBC, CNN, The Atlantic, New York Times, Shark Tank, and anybody else who stands in the way of good science. It's the only intellectually honest way to be a science journalist.

In its current form, Slate's science page appears more interested in scoring cheap clicks by feeding red meat to a left-wing audience. It risks alienating whatever conservative or religious readers it has left and, along with them, any constructive role it might have played in advancing the nation's scientific discourse. That would be a shame.

Slate, bring back the old science page. We miss it.

(Photo: "Paris Tuileries Garden Facepalm statue" by Alex E. Proimos via Flickr/Wikimedia Commons)

How a Very Wrong Answer Changed the World

On a summer day in 1741, Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon, a wealthy French naturalist, mathematician, and cosmologist, strode into the foundry on his expansive country estate with a task in mind. Lugging two dozen solid iron balls of various sizes, he plopped them in the forge and heated them all to red-hot. Then, one by one, he pulled them out and observed how long it took each to cool. He repeated the procedure many times to obtain accurate cooling times for each size ball. Next, with data in hand, he extracted an equation for the relationship between cooling time and volume, and used it to calculate the age of the Earth.

You might be wondering how such a simple experiment could possibly be used to tackle such an immense topic, but Buffon's reasoning was actually fairly sensible. As the formidable thinker Sir Isaac Newton suggested at the time, the Earth may have started out as a red-hot piece of iron, perhaps a remnant of a cometary collision with the Sun flung out into space. So if you could calculate how long the proto-Earth took to cool, you'd arrive at a fairly accurate estimate of the age of the planet. By plugging the volume of the Earth into his equation for cooling time, Buffon attempted to do just that.

Unfortunately, the answer Buffon got was wrong, very wrong, many orders of magnitude wrong: 74,832 years old. Today, we know the age of the Earth to be roughly 4.54 billion years. But, as science journalist Michael Mosley presented in the BBC documentary The Story of Science: Power, Proof and Passion, Buffon's answer wasn't consequential. What was consequential was the fact that he questioned conventional wisdom.

"The important point is that by doing the experiments and by publishing the results, Buffon sparked a debate, not just about how old the Earth actually is, but how and why every creature on Earth came into being."

In 1778, when Buffon published the results of his experiment, the Biblical age of the Earth -- roughly 6,000 years -- still held sway amongst the general public, though many were beginning to question it. Suddenly, Buffon's calculation erupted onto the scene, increasing the age of the planet twelve times over!

As we've witnessed time and time and again throughout history, the world is changed by challenging that which we "know" to be true and trying something new. Such efforts usually begin with simple questions: "How does _____ work?" "What is out there?" "Why are things the way they are?"

Wrong answers often litter the path to resolving difficult queries, but at the same time, such errors serve as stepping-stones to ultimately finding the right answer! Second century physician Galen of Pergamon's work was riddled with errors and scientific accuracies, but by demonstrating that the answers to how the body works lies inside the body, itself, he advanced our understanding of medicine and biology. Dmitri Mendeleev's original periodic table of the elements was correct in many ways, and flawed in just as many others, but it laid groundwork for chemistry that would guide decades of discovery. Isaac Newton's law of universal gravitation eventually proved to be incomplete, but it led to Einstein's theory of general relativity.

What question today will change the world as we know it? What wrong answer will eventually inspire the right one?

(Image: Shutterstock)

One Scientist Analyzed All the Spam Email He Was Getting from Journals. This Is What He Found.

In the spring of 2012, Dr. Marcin Kozak, an Associate Professor at the University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszow, Poland, was getting bombarded with spam from scientific journals, most requesting that he publish an article. But he took it as a matter of course, just something to be expected when you're an interdisciplinary researcher with dozens of publications.

Come August, though, Kozak started pondering all that annoying email. Where did the messages really come from? Were they all scams? What did the senders want? He resolved to answer the questions roiling in his brain. So, instead of deleting all of the spam emails from scientific journals and publishers, he started collecting them. A little over a year later, he had built up a formidable data set of 1,024 emails, enough to drive an organized person insane, but also enough to conduct a fairly thorough scientific analysis.

Kozak enlisted the help of Olesia Iefremova, a social scientist at his institution, and James Hartley, an honorary research professor in psychology at Keele University in the United Kingdom, and set to work. The trio examined every spam email's country of origin, the model of publishing the journal or publisher sending the email used, how much they charged for publication, as well as whether or not they were included on Beall's List, a list of "potential, possible, or probable" predatory journals and publishers who may dishonestly exploit researchers in some fashion.

The team's findings were published last week to the Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology.

First off, the overwhelming majority of spam was sent to the email address that Kozak provided when publishing research, suggesting that spammers obtained his contact information from the Internet pages of articles.

Kozak, Iefremova, and Hartley found that 74% of the journals used the open access model, in which the published papers are free for all to view. Most were funded by article processing charges (paid by the researcher) and touted an enticingly swift peer review time of four weeks or less. Moreover, more than 70% of the publishers appeared in Beall’s list. Lastly, the three most common places of origin for the journals and publishers were India, the United States, and Nigeria.

Spam can be especially insidious in scholarly publishing, the authors say.

"Researchers not only have to read it, but they also need to decide which particular journals and which publishers are predatory and which are legitimate."

This is in stark contrast to the past.

"Some time ago, receiving an invitation to submit an article to a particular journal was considered a mark of distinction, evidence of recognition. These days, receiving e-mails inviting the recipient to submit an article can be considered a kind of spam, something that irritates rather than flatters."

A good piece of advice for any researcher is to scrutinize the journal in which you seek to publish just as much as you would an expensive purchase. Be skeptical. Think like a scientist.

Kozak is still receiving boatloads of spam, and will probably be subject to even more now that this report is published. He's not saving them anymore, though. Now, he's deleting them.

Source: Kozak, M., Iefremova, O. and Hartley, J. (2015), Spamming in scholarly publishing: A case study. Journal of the Association for Information Science and Technology. doi: 10.1002/asi.23521

(Image: Shutterstock)

These Are the Four Types of Drunk College Students, According to Science

According to anecdotal reports, clinical lore and internet articles like ‘‘The 12 types of drunk people you’ll encounter at a bar,’’ ‘‘The 7 kinds of drunk people you’ll find at parties,’’ and ‘‘The 9 types of drunk people (and which one you may be!),’’ not all drinkers act the same when intoxicated.

So begins Rachel Winograd's latest scientific paper, published in the journal Addiction Research and Theory. When Winograd, a psychology graduate student at the University of Missouri, perused those clickbait Internet articles, she found them devoid of scientific evidence and entirely incapable of answering the valid question they broached: Are there truly "types of drunks"?

The landscape of published scientific literature was similarly barren. Winograd and her co-authors, Douglas Steinley and Kenneth Sher couldn't find a single empirical study on the matter, so they formulated their own. The trio was treading upon new ground. It would be the first attempt to scientifically identify drunk personality types.

The work began where many psychology studies often do: in an introductory psychology class.

187 pairs of "drinking buddies" were recruited via email and invited into the laboratory, where -- in strict confidence -- they individually completed surveys covering their background, drinking behavior, and personality, both sober and drunk. Each participant also described the personality and drinking behavior of their "buddy."

With the bounty of data from the surveys, Winograd, Steinley, and Sher utilized modeling software in an attempt to identify behavioral clusters. Were there common trends buried in the responses?

Indeed there were. Four distinct clusters emerged, representing the sought-after "drunk types."

They dubbed the first "Hemingway." It was the largest type, roughly half male and half female. People under this category set themselves apart by retaining a fair amount of their mental faculties when under the influence.

"Specifically, members of this group reported decreasing less in Conscientiousness (e.g. being prepared, organized, prompt) and Intellect (e.g. understanding abstract ideas, being imaginative) than the rest of the sample," the authors wrote, "much like the author Ernest Hemingway, who claimed that he could ‘‘drink hells any amount of whiskey without getting drunk.’’"

Winograd and her partners labeled the second group "Mary Poppins." The least prevalent type, and mostly female, it described people who were particularly agreeable when sober and who remained agreeable when intoxicated.

"The Mary Poppins group of drinkers essentially captures the sweet, responsible drinkers who experience fewer alcohol-related problems compared to those most affected," the researchers described.

The third group was termed "Mr. Hyde." Members of this group -- surprisingly about two-thirds female -- were defined by "larger than average intoxication-related decreases in Conscientiousness, Intellect and Agreeableness."

"Members of this group, much like the dark-sided Mr. Hyde, reported a tendency of being particularly less responsible, less intellectual, and more hostile when under the influence of alcohol than they are when they are sober," the authors wrote, further adding that "Mr. Hydes" were more likely to incur harm from drinking, like experiencing a memory blackout, getting arrested, or sustaining an injury.

The researchers termed the fourth and final type "The Nutty Professor." About 50-50 male and female, this type described subjects who tended to be introverted when sober but became extroverts when drunk, similar to how Professor Sherman Klump transformed into Buddy Love in the movie of the same name.

The importance of these drunk types goes beyond debunking Internet clickbait, the authors say.

"These results, as well as the concept of ‘‘drunk personality’’ more broadly, hold promise for developing novel assessment-based and motivational interventions for problem drinkers."

Studying drunk personalities is deceptively tricky, and a variety of factors limit the study's findings. Most notably, self-report data can be specious, and it's possible that subjects' descriptions of themselves and their drinking buddies were predominantly affected by recent experiences. The research is a good start, however.

What type of drunk are you?

Source: Rachel Pearl Winograd, Douglas Steinley, and Kenneth Sher.  Searching for Mr. Hyde: A five-factor approach to characterizing “types of drunks.” 5 May 2015. Addiction Research and Theory. doi:10.3109/16066359.2015.1029920

(Image: Shutterstock, Disney, Paramount, Imagine Entertainment)

Schools Need More Questions and Fewer Answers

Every day, Tibetan Buddhist monks in Dharamsala, India engage in a daily debate. They pair off, and then one monk continually questions another for about an hour. The activity is intended to hone logic skills and probe intricate questions. One might also think it would be an exercise in tempering frustration. Surely, such a dogged, delving interview would drive anyone to their wit's end. But though the atmosphere can often be intense, it's regularly enlivened with episodes of laughter and joy.

Here in America, similar scenarios play out daily as well, between student and teacher and child and parent. But unfortunately, all too often they conclude with simple, incomplete, or incomprehensible answers, annoyance, or even rebukes. "Why do you ask so many questions?" "That's just the way it is." "Don't ask me."

Rather than registering dismay, we should be encouraging questions at all costs. The best place to start is in elementary school.

You might think that education already promotes curiosity -- in many classrooms it does. But as a whole, our current system severely restricts adventurous inquiry. In a 2013 perspective, Ronald D. Vale, a professor of pharmacology at UC - San Francisco who's founded several science outreach organizations, identified two key impediments -- one tacit and one institutional -- to reinforcing questioning in K-12 education. The first, he says, is the belief that, "the teacher is an almighty vessel of knowledge who imparts information to students."

"In that formulation, a difficult question with no immediate answer or an uncertain answer can be threatening to a teacher and disappointing to a student."

But, he adds, that view is unreasonable.

"Teachers also need to be students. A teacher should feel completely comfortable saying, 'I do not know the answer to that question, but let me look it up—or let’s look it up together.'"

The second barrier may be more difficult to dislodge. Questions are unpredictable; they can arise at any moment. Yet teachers are often afforded little to no time to deviate from established course outlines. "State science curricula mandate a list of 'required' topics and information that is so long that it becomes quite difficult for teachers to pack it all in during a school year," Vale says. In short, teachers are expected to shovel as many textbook facts into the heads of their students as possible, and pack them in tight.

"The ability to ask a question, research the answer, and present it to the class requires some degree of flexibility in the weekly lesson plan," Vale adds. That's a luxury most teachers lack.

Granting more flexibility to teachers could simultaneously empower students. Through asking questions, they can exert more control over their education. As science communicator Derek Mueller recently speculated, traditional schooling focused on memorizing and regurgitating facts may inadvertently foster learned helplessness in students, the sense that they have little control over the direction of their learning and lives. When ingrained, such a feeling can be difficult to shake off, hampering success and leading to deficits in motivation that can last for years.

Matthew H. Bowker, an assistant professor of interdisciplinary studies at Medaille College in Buffalo, New York has been employing a "question-centered pedagogy" in his classes for years to great success. He shared a few insights into his methods back in 2010.

"I have found that requiring students to create their own questions about course material helps them understand how the answers we have come to accept are connected, contingent, and contextual, how they rely on, imply, and beg additional questions... [T]he questions themselves are the answers."

Today, while questions have grown comparatively scarce, answers are more available then ever before. Educators no longer need to pump students full of knowledge and send them forth into the world to use it. They need to encourage students to ask questions about the answers that are out there. Such a pursuit could lead to new insights, reveal untraveled paths, and -- critically -- help students distinguish fact from fiction.

(Image: AP)

Unscientific Nonsense on 'Shark Tank'

Shark Tank is one of my favorite television shows. Though its depiction of the angel investor/venture capital world is a bit skewed, it provides an amazing insight into the heart of American capitalism. Indeed, the show easily disproves the myth oft-repeated by certain politicians that "rich people don't create jobs." Yes, they do. Start-ups, which directly create jobs, often rely on the beneficence of monumentally rich investors to get their businesses off the ground. Shark Tank, therefore, provides Americans with a basic, 101-level course in entrepreneurialism.

Unfortunately, one of the lessons of entrepreneurialism is that "money matters more than science." If a buck can be made, few business owners care if their products make a mockery of science. Businesses that peddle unscientific organic food regularly appear on Shark Tank. The owners proudly proclaim that their product has been selling well at Whole Foods -- a business that blatantly lies to its customers -- after which they often walk away with a sizable investment from the sharks. As a scientist, I am appalled by this.

One recent and particularly egregious example was a business that sold "The Paleo Diet Bar." According to its website, the bars are a "gluten free, grain free, soy free, dairy free, fiber-rich, and protein-rich, preservative free optimal nutrition bar for the hunter-gatherer lifestyle." Yum. Sounds like cardboard. In addition to selling food that is utterly unappetizing, it is amazing how much unscientific nonsense the owner packed into a single nutrition bar. Let's examine a few of these claims.

Gluten free. As we have discussed on this website ad nauseum, gluten free is nothing more than an unscientific food fad. Gluten sensitivity isn't real, and the only people who really need to eat gluten free foods are those who have either allergies or Celiac disease.

Grain free, soy free, dairy free. Why, exactly? Grains, soy, and dairy are all part of a healthy diet.

Preservative free. Personally, I prefer food that doesn't rot on the shelf. That is why I like preservatives, because they allow us to eat foods that would otherwise spoil. This point seems to have been lost on the owner, who in her pitch to the sharks decried the evils of potassium benzoate (a safe and effective antimicrobial agent) and other similarly difficult-to-pronounce science-y sounding chemicals, which certainly would have made the Food Babe proud. This drives me up the wall, as it is a shameless exploitation of the public's chemophobia, as well as a mindless deployment of the argumentum ad ignorantiam fallacy.

Hunter-gatherer lifestyle. The paleo diet itself is a load of B.S. Sorry.

Thankfully, this business owner was turned away empty-handed by the sharks, but not because of her butchering of food science. Instead, the sharks weren't happy with various aspects of her business. In that, at least, I can take a bit of solace.

(AP photo)

You're Drinking Caffeine All Wrong: How That Daily Coffee Ends Up Making You More Tired

Approximately 85 percent of the U.S. population drinks at least one caffeinated beverage per day. Caffeine consumers over age 22 gulp down about 300mg of the stimulant per day, predominantly in the form of coffee and soda.

But if you're a daily drinker of caffeine, relying on your morning espresso for an A.M. jumpstart, or can of Coke for an afternoon pick-me-up, chances are, you're consuming caffeine all wrong. Though everybody reacts differently to the drug, most habitual users receive little to no benefit from caffeine; it neither enhances mental performance nor mental alertness.

To the novice caffeine drinker, a cup of coffee is an awakening experience. Metabolism is boosted, along with alertness and even physical endurance. These effects are rooted in cerebral subterfuge. Caffeine molecules from the beverage weasel their way to the brain where they sneakily bind to adenosine receptors. These receptors, which produce feelings of tiredness and fatigue when filled with adenosine, a by-product of cellular activity, don't respond to caffeine. This allows the body's natural stimulants, dopamine and norepinephrine, to persist at higher levels.

But the body doesn't remain fooled for long. As few as three weeks of daily caffeine consumption over 100mg (roughly one cup of coffee) prompts the nervous system to increase the number of adenosine receptors. The greater amount of receptors makes you more susceptible to the fatiguing effects of adenosine, and means you need to consume more and more caffeine to fill those receptors, and thus stave off fatigue.

In other words, habitual caffeine consumption makes the average adult consumer more tired!

So why do tens of millions of Americans swear by their morning brew, or snap awake after can of soda in the afternoon? It seems that the onrush of wakefulness they feel actually arises from the reversal of caffeine withdrawal symptoms, which include headache, sleepiness, anxiety, depression, and an inability to concentrate.

Habitual caffeine consumption is generally recognized as safe, however a growing amount of research is demonstrating that it may be pointless. Instead, it's probably wiser to wean yourself off daily caffeine and strive for a normal sleep schedule -- seven to nine hours a day is great for most adults. Doing so means you may have to endure a week or so of irritating withdrawal symptoms, but afterwards, you'll likely return to a more wakeful state, and with your tolerance reset, you'll also be able to take full advantage of caffeine's stimulating effects at a time when you may truly need them.

(Image: AP)

How Yellowstone Revolutionized Biotechnology

Life is capable of thriving in the most inhospitable places. The photograph above, which I took on my recent trip to Yellowstone National Park, shows Morning Glory Pool, a hot spring that is a short hike from Old Faithful. It's named after the purplish-blue morning glory flower, but the pool no longer has that color, which was due to a particular type of thermophilic (heat-loving) microbe. That is because ignoramuses threw coins and other debris into the pool, blocking the vents and lowering its temperature, which allowed microbes of other colors to grow. According to YellowstonePark.com:

"In 1950 the water level was lowered by siphoning which induced the pool to erupt. Socks, bath towels, 76 handkerchiefs, $86.27 in pennies, $8.10 in other coins came up; in all, 112 different objects were removed from Morning Glory."

(Honestly, I think the trashed up version of Morning Glory with its rainbow of colors is prettier than the original, pristine version. But, you can judge for yourself here.)

Surreal beauty isn't the only thing that Yellowstone's microbes have given us. Arguably, the most important enzyme ever discovered was found in a bacterium that lived in one of Yellowstone's hot springs. That microbe, along with its amazing enzyme, revolutionized molecular biology and helped birth modern biotechnology.

In 1969, a microbiologist by the name of Thomas D. Brock was poking around Yellowstone. He took samples of hot spring water back to his laboratory and cultured the bacteria found within them in conditions that mimicked the hot spring. He isolated a bacterium, which he called Thermus aquaticus (PDF), that optimally grew at a toasty 70 deg C (158 deg F). Little did he know that this basic scientific discovery would come in handy about two decades later.

In 1983, the LSD-using, AIDS-denying, UFO-believing, yet somehow Nobel Prize-winning biochemist Kary Mullis invented a technique to multiply small segments of DNA. The process, called polymerase chain reaction (PCR), is now a common procedure used in research and medical laboratories across the world. In fact, molecular biology wouldn't even be possible without this reaction. Because DNA manipulation is not terribly efficient, many copies of identical molecules are required to do even basic things, such as cloning. PCR solves this by amplifying DNA segments exponentially; i.e., after just a few hours, a single segment of DNA can be converted into several billion identical copies.

For the reaction to occur properly, PCR requires both high temperatures and a DNA replicating enzyme called polymerase. Originally, the polymerase came from the gut bug E. coli. However, E. coli preferentially grows at human body temperature, and its enzymes begin malfunctioning at temperatures above 37 deg C (98.6 deg F). However, this is far below the temperature required for PCR to work, which requires a range of around 68 to 95 deg C (154 to 203 deg F). As a result, the E. coli polymerase continuously broke down, and scientists had to keep adding more polymerase in order to keep the reaction going.

This was slow, tedious, and inefficient. If only there was a DNA replicating enzyme capable of withstanding high temperature...

Aha! Re-enter Yellowstone. Dr. Brock's bacterium, Thermus aquaticus ("Taq"), thrives at searing temperatures. It stands to reason, therefore, that its polymerase works optimally at high temperatures. And, indeed, it does. Taq polymerase does not break down at high temperature, and hence, the reaction can proceed quickly and smoothly without human intervention. In 1988, Dr. Mullis and a team of researchers published this breakthrough in the journal Science.

PCR's fundamental problem had been solved, and Taq polymerase permanently replaced E. coli polymerase as the DNA replication enzyme in PCR. It is not an exaggeration to say that Taq polymerase is now sitting in thousands of laboratories all over the world.

So, next time you visit Yellowstone, keep in mind that the beautiful hot springs around you played a direct role in the biotechnology revolution!

Other sources: Brock Biology of Microorganisms, History of Polymerase Chain Reaction (Wikipedia)

(Photo: Alex Berezow)

Dear Mom: You're Better Than These Fantastic Insect Mothers. And That's Saying Something!

Doting mothers come in all shapes and sizes, even small, some might say "unflattering" ones. Take the earwig, for instance. After egg-laying, females of this inch-long insect species dutifully guard their eggs, all 20 to 80 of them, warding off predators and continuously cleaning them. Once the eggs hatch, she'll protect her flock for a further few weeks, until their second molt.

The female lace bug is similarly motherly. When a damsel bug approaches to snack on her young nymphs, she'll jump on the back of the larger, armored insect and fan out her wings in an attempt to slow it down, allowing her young time to scuttle away to safely. The encounter usually doesn't end well for the mom, but at least some of her offspring may survive.

It's a pity the lace bug isn't more formidable, like the praying mantis. Utilizing brain and brawn, the mother mantis sends her nymphs to the tip of a twig, and positions herself at the base. There's only one way to her kids, and it's through her. Most insect predators elect not to test the gauntlet.

The Brazilian tortoise beetle is a bit more hands-on. Her larvae, which are roughly one-tenth her size, brown, and resemble millipedes, form themselves into a symmetrical pile underneath her. In this defensive posture, they begin to defecate, and their feces collect on tiny hooks near the anus. It's a bizarre sight: a brilliantly colored beetle, resting atop a throng of unbecoming larvae, ringed by poop. (Below: A golden tortoise beetle.)

All insect moms likely pale in comparison to a "momma strepsiptera," however. While the males of this species of parasitic wasp are actually rather elegant, the females are just blubbery piles of eggs. Their only purpose is to mate and give birth. "Birth" may be a euphemism in strepsiptera's case, though. Is it technically "birth" when your ravenous babies devour you on their way out?

Now, to all the human mothers out there, you might think that nothing says "I love you" like letting yourself be eaten from the inside out, but I disagree -- you're just being humble. The sacrifices you made, in terms of time, physical health, and sanity, for outweigh those of the mother strepsiptera. She never had to deal with dirty diapers, complaining, or puberty. Cannibalism was a cop out.

Happy Mother's Day!

(Top Photo by Tom Oates, 2010 / Middle by Ilona Loser)

Six Fascinating Facts About Sexual Touch

Of all forms of pleasure, sex is in a class of its own, stoking the senses and stimulating the brain like few other activities can. The act is accompanied by an array of erotic sights, sounds, and touches.

In his recently published book, Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, Johns Hopkins neuroscientist David Linden dedicated an entire chapter to the latter, revealing a multitude of facts sure to titillate the curiosity of any reader.

Here are six fascinating facts about sexual touch.

1. The clitoris and the head of the penis have their own special kind of touch receptor. Across much of the skin, and particularly the lips and the fingers, sensory receptors called mechanoreceptors transmit pressure sensations to the brain. Not so in the female clitoris and the head, or glans, of the male penis. These small, but sensitive regions are jam-packed with unique nerve endings called genital end bulbs that transduce heat, cold, and pain. It's almost certainly due to the high concentration of these bulbs that these two areas are so incredibly sensitive and often integral to sexual pleasure.

2. The pudendal nerve is key. Nerves are cable-like bundles of axons that serve as pathways for electrochemical signals throughout the nervous system. Many wind throughout your body, but the one that's the most important for sexual sensation is the pudendal nerve, the main nerve of the perineum, which serves both the penis and the clitoris. Interestingly, in men, the pudendal nerve also carries information from the anus and scrotum, which could explain why one man in the Netherlands reported that he would orgasm every time he defecated.

3. If you think about it, sex is sort of like eating. Walking home from work, you're feeling hungry, but then, out of nowhere, you catch the scent of barbeque on the air. Within seconds, your hunger spikes and you start to salivate. Quickly you find the source of the sumptuous smell: a joint just across the street. You walk in and order up a storm, eating until you're satiated. The hunger is gone, and you feel relaxed.

Sex follows a similar path. First, a state of desire prompts you to seek out sexual contact. If you find a receptive partner, your excitement spikes, and you experience uncontrolled bodily changes, such as vaginal lubrication or an erection. Finally, when the experience is over, your desire is quenched for a time and you feel at ease.

4. Women become "aroused" without even being aroused. While men tend to get erections only when directly stimulated or sexually aroused, women tend to experience vaginal lubrication from a wide range of stimuli, even from things they report as not being arousing. Sex researchers Meredith Chivers and Ellen Laan propose that this "reflexive lubrication" may be an evolved, adaptive response to sex that is rapid or nonconsensual, as lubrication reduces the chance of injury or infection.

5. Orgasms can occur with no involvement of the genitals. For some, stimulation of the nipple, neck, mouth, and rarely even the nose and knee can produce orgasm. Even more fascinating, paraplegics with no sensation whatsoever in the lower half of their bodies can experience orgasms during sleep that feel as if they were occurring in the genital region. According to Linden, all of this demonstrates that orgasm ultimately occurs in the brain, not the genitals.

6. The clitoris is much larger than you might think. The clitoris a female sex organ primarily responsible for sexual pleasure. The button-like external clitoris, located above opening of the urethra is merely the "tip of the iceberg." The entire organ extends like an opening flower to below the pubic bone. The interior sections, or bulbs, of the clitoris can also be stimulated through the wall of the vagina.

Source: David Linden. Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind. 2015. Viking

(Top Image: Shutterstock)

One of the Coolest Theories About the Large Hadron Collider May Also Be the Craziest

Last month, within days of restarting after a two year break, the upgraded Large Hadron Collider (LHC) successfully fired a beam of protons at the immense energy of 6.5 teraelectronvolts. The record-setting blast resolutely demonstrated that the world's largest particle accelerator is back in business, and more powerful than ever before.

The LHC's initial run between 2009 and 2013 culminated in the discovery of the Higgs boson, an elementary particle, many of which combine to form an unseen field that endows particles with mass. In the wake of the finding, theoretical physicists Peter Higgs and François Englert shared the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physics for originally theorizing the Higgs.

Though difficult to fathom now, things weren't always so rosy at the LHC.

In September 2008, after a decade of construction and nearly $9 billion spent, the LHC was switched on, and within two weeks... exploded. One hundred of the machine's massive superconducting magnets quenched, or malfunctioned, due to an electrical fault, and a subsequent power abort triggered an electrical discharge which damaged the shell of an enclosure containing supercooled helium. In seconds, two thousand kilograms of liquid helium escaped explosively, damaging 53 magnets in all, and setting back the start of the first run by 14 months.

While bad news for the LHC, the 2008 accident was auspicious for a strange (some might say "insane") theory proposed by two otherwise respectable theoretical physicists. In a series of papers, Holger Bech Nielsen of the Niels Bohr Institute in Copenhagen and Masao Ninomiya of the Yukawa Institute for Theoretical Physics argued, in essence, that the LHC would never be fully operational because nature would not allow it, furthering that the LHC's creation of the Higgs Boson would send ripples backward through time to prevent it from ever happening in the first place!

Nielsen and Ninomiya took as weak evidence for their theory the fact that the Superconducting Supercollider, a particle accelerator being built in Texas which was slated to be even bigger than the LHC, was canceled by the U.S. Congress after years of construction and expenditures of $2 billion.

"Such a cancellation after a huge investment is already in itself an unusual event that should not happen too often," Nielsen and Ninomiya wrote, calling the event an "anti-miracle" (to which many Americans would undoubtedly reply that an act of stupidity and lack of foresight by Congress are hardly miraculous).

Nielsen even offered a way to test his theory, which Brian Wecht, a theoretical physicist and Queen Mary University of London, neatly summarized in layman's terms during a recent episode of the Skeptics' Guide to the Universe:

He said get a deck of like a billion cards. On every card there is an action. You know, hang out with Bob tonight, go home, call your mom, turn off the LHC… So you shuffle very well, and you commit to pick a card and whatever that card says you’re going to do. If you pick out the ‘turn off the LHC’ card, that event is so improbable, he was arguing… that that is evidence that the LHC… is telling you to not turn it on.

Wecht, who is highly skeptical of the theory, added that after the aforementioned 2008 accident, "some particularly crazy people were asking, ‘is this evidence that the LHC is protecting us from itself?’"

Nielsen and Ninomiya's card test was, of course, never conducted. Instead, scientists at the LHC confronted Nielsen and Ninomiya's theory in a more practical manner: by producing Higgs particles in the latter half of 2011 and the first half of 2012.

As Nielsen admitted with a smile back in 2009, that would cause his model to "fail miserably in terms of trustworthiness."

So alas, Nielsen and Ninomiya's eccentric theory combining high energy particle physics and future time travel seems pretty much dead, and one can't help but feel just a little bit let down.

(Image: AP)

The Most Egregiously Botched Surgery in History?

Despite all their training and meticulous preparations, surgeons are not perfect. According to estimates, each week, they leave a foreign object like a sponge or towel inside a patient's body 39 times, perform the wrong procedure 20 times, and operate on the wrong body part 20 times. Do the math: that's over 4,000 surgical mistakes each year. Whoops.

Ideally, these events should never happen, but it should be noted that they are exceedingly rare. Each year, 51.4 million surgeries are performed in the United States that require a hospital stay. That puts the rate of surgical mistakes at less than 0.008%! Consider yourself lucky to be alive at a time of such competent care.

After all, you could have lived in London in 1828 and had the misfortune to be operated on by one Bransby Cooper, nephew of the famous surgeon Sir Astley Cooper, and by numerous accounts, an utterly inept surgeon at who only held his position at Guy's Hospital thanks to his uncle. In her book, Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, author Mary Roach described in morbidly comical detail Bransby's botched removal of a bladder stone (lithotomy), conducted without an anesthetic, from a patient, Stephen Pollard, a hardy and healthy 53-year-old working father of five:

While lithotomies were normally completed in a matter of minutes, Pollard was on the table for an hour, with his knees at his neck and his hands bound to his feet while the clueless medic tried in vain to locate the stone... When a succession of tools failed to produce the stone, Cooper "introduced his finger with some force..." It was around this point that Pollard's endurance ran dry... "Pray let it keep in!" Cooper persisted, cursing the man's deep perineum (in fact, an autopsy showed it to be a quite normally proportioned perineum). After digging with his finger for some ungodly amount of time, he got up from his seat and "measured fingers with those of other gentlemen, to see if any of them had a longer finger." Eventually he went back to his toolkit and, with forceps, conquered the recalcitrant rock... brandishing it above his head like an Academy Award winner. The quivering, exhausted mass that was Stephen Pollard was wheeled to a bed, where he died of infection and God knows what else twenty-nine hours later.

Amazingly, this was not the end of young Bransby's career. Despite performing the botched operation in front of 200 colleagues, students, and members of the public, and being openly accused of malpractice and incompetence in the medical journal The Lancet, he kept his position.

In the first recorded medical malpractice litigation that followed, Sir Astley Cooper took the stand in defense of his nephew, saying, quite euphemistically, "I think he is already a very good surgeon, but I do not think he is a perfectly good surgeon."

Bransby was neither fined nor punished for his mistake, and later went on to give medical lectures at Guy's Hospital, where -- ironically -- he one day instructed students on the "difficulties and dangers of the operation of lithotomy." He touched upon his own ignominious experience only briefly.

"In the case with which my name is associated in connection with certain legal proceedings well known to the profession, the difficulty which occurred was from the position of the stone, which was resting upon the upper part of the prostate gland, in a sac, between the former and the pubes, so as to elude the grasp of the forceps."

Source: Mary Roach. Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers. 2004.

(Image: Shutterstock)

The Biggest Myth About Melting Sea Ice

One of the potentially devastating outcomes of climate change is sea level rise. The Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets contain more than 99 percent of the freshwater ice on Earth. If just five percent of the Antarctic ice sheet melted, or worse, slid into the ocean, global sea level would rise over 13 feet, displacing millions of people!

Common wisdom holds that sea level rise is a danger restricted only to land based ice, not to the 660,000 cubic kilometers of floating ice in the form of icebergs, ice caps, and ice shelves. As Greek polymath Archimedes discovered long ago, a floating body displaces its own weight in water. Therefore, as outspoken climate activist and former vice president Al Gore reminded everyone in the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, floating ice does not contribute to sea level rise.

Gore was just espousing common wisdom, but as is so often the case, common wisdom is wrong. Melting sea ice would actually contribute to sea level rise!

Though at first counterintuitive, this actually makes perfect sense when you remember a key tidbit of information: floating sea ice is composed almost entirely of pure water, yet the seawater in which it floats holds a significant amount of dissolved salt. This makes seawater denser than the meltwater from the sea ice. Now, lets turn to what this means for the ocean as a whole. As you might remember from school:

 

Rearranged to solve for volume, the equation turns into volume = mass/density. Thus, when less dense meltwater from floating ice mixes with seawater, it ever so slightly reduces the density of the oceans, resulting in a tiny, but discernible increase in volume, and thus, sea level!

Researchers Peter Noerdlinger and Kay Brower first demonstrated this back in 2007, yet eight years later, the myth that melting sea ice does not raise sea level still seems widespread. Perhaps because, in this case, debunking the myth yields knowledge that -- while interesting -- is not pressing. After all, as Noerdlinger and Brower, calculated, even if all of the free floating ice in the oceans melted, sea level would rise just 4.7 centimeters. That amount is not inconsequential, but compared to the twenty-foot sea level rise that would take place if Greenland's ice sheet melted or slipped into the North Atlantic, it's not really that concerning.

(Images: AP, An Inconvenient Truth, Noerdlinger & Brower)

There May Be a Vast, Alien, Saltwater Ecosystem Under Antarctica

In the frigid, southernmost part of our planet, there is a place where the Earth occasionally bleeds. Of course, the salty, red, iron-oxide rich sludge that seeps from Antarctica's Taylor Glacier onto the ice-covered surface of Lake Bonney isn't the same blood that flows in your veins, but it's similar enough to earn the spot a macabre title: Blood Falls.

Considering that blood is the life force of many an organism, it's fitting that life should exist within the outflow oozing from Blood Falls. In 2009, University of Tennessee - Knoxville microbiologist Jill Mikucki uncovered the presence of 17 different microorganisms. The bacteria, which had apparently been hoisted up from the deep, seemed to use a metabolic process that had never been seen before in nature. Trapped in total darkness below Taylor Glacier, in salty brines devoid of oxygen, the organisms utilized sulfate as a catalyst to "breathe" with ferric iron. They might as well have been aliens.

The organisms were definitely earthly in origin, however, but from where exactly? In 2011, Mikucki went back to Antarctica to find out. Using a sophisticated sensor system attached to a helicopter, she and an international team of scientists probed below the surface of the McMurdo Dry Valleys, the largest ice-free regions of Antarctica. Their study's 295 km² range also encompassed the area around Blood Falls.

The specialized sensor, called AEM, induces electromagnetic eddy currents underground. These currents decay differently if traveling through ground that is frozen solid or ground that contains liquid. Thus, scientists can analyze those decay rates to determine the presence of groundwater.

It turns out, as Mikucki and her team announced today in Nature Communications, there's a whole bunch of groundwater below the McMurdo Dry Valleys, as well as Taylor Glacier, where Blood Falls is located. According to Mikucki, it's very likely that this groundwater is the same salty, life-containing, iron-rich sludge seeping from Blood Falls.

"If Blood Falls brine is representative of the subsurface fluid observed with AEM, an extensive ecosystem exists below the Taylor Glacier and much of Taylor Valley," the researchers write.

That would be remarkable, especially considering that ground temperatures in the area range between -3 and -20 °C! The high salt content of the water prevents it from freezing.

Mikucki's findings are particularly timely, as NASA scientists recently reported signs of similarly super salty brines just below the surface of Mars. Though transient, these Martian brines may very well contain the same sort of life seen beneath Antarctica!

Source: J.A. Mikucki et. al. Deep groundwater and potential subsurface habitats beneath an Antarctic dry valley. NATURE COMMUNICATIONS | 6:6831 | DOI: 10.1038/ncomms783

(Images: National Science Foundation/Peter Rejcek, L. Jansan)

Landing a Spaceship on its Tail is Really Hard

On April 14th, SpaceX tried to land another rocket on its tail. They failed spectacularly, but it was damn close! Why are they having so much trouble?

The problem is rooted in the most basic factors that shape the silhouette of a rocket ship. When launched from Earth's surface, the hardest part of a rocket's job is to overcome Earth's gravity and leave its atmosphere. For a reusable craft, the trip back down is brutal, too.

The ship is hindered by all of the air molecules it crashes into on its way up (and down). This aerodynamic drag adds to the rocket engine's massive burden. Drag resistance from air increases as you go faster through it. But it doesn't increase gradually, or even proportionally: doubling speed quadruples drag. If a rocket travels 50 times faster than a Ferrari, the rocket faces 2500 times the drag of the car. A narrow, sleek, pointy profile is absolutely critical for a rocket launching from an object with as much atmosphere as our planet.

The atmosphere creates a second obstacle for rockets. The extremely high velocity of the craft going both up and down causes the impacted air molecules to impart not only not only drag but dangerous amounts of heat to the ship. Small damage to the heat protection of a spaceship can turn its re-entry into a catastrophe. The necessity of a long pointy design to lessen air impact is thus doubly important. This physical form does come with one large cost.

Imagine if we took the rocket and laid it lengthwise across a huge balance beam. If we gradually moved the balance point of the rocket from the tail to the nose cone, we'd find a place along the length where it would balance perfectly suspended above the ground--if it didn't crack in half! This point would be the vertical location of the center of mass, or equivalently center of gravity, of the ship. This point is way high above the ground when the rocket is standing upright. Its altitude would also measure much higher than the width of the ship.

A high center of mass in a narrow object gives its upright stance a very tenuous balance. If carefully set perfectly on the tail, the ship will stand. But, shake up this configuration even slightly and the rocket tips over. The crucial tipping point is the moment that the center of mass tips out beyond the edge of the tail of the rocket on the ground. Once that happens the ship is doomed to fall unless it's immediately pushed back in the opposite direction.

A short, squat ship with a low center of mass point could lean much further before that low point could get far enough out from the center of the ship to project beyond the edge. As you shrink the diameter relative to the height however, stability drops quickly. On the far end of the narrowness spectrum, a hair-thin needle is likely to tip over with even a feather's touch. The rocket with its very thin aspect ratio is much closer to a needle than a coin.

SpaceX of course is well aware of this. They build small rocket thrusters, called attitude control thrusters, into the top of the rocket to push back against tipping. When the ship starts to tilt, one of these rockets can fire to give the top a little push back. In the most recent landing attempt you can see one of these thrusters firing on the left side of the nose at nine seconds in:

 

The ship almost rights itself, but it has just picked up too much momentum pushing it over. The firing thruster isn't strong enough to push the center of mass back over the tail.

Don't jeer these failures. Salute SpaceX for trying something so hard and nearly succeeding. They will probably make a successful tail landing soon. Progressing from one safe landing to nailing it every single time will be an even greater challenge. Still, their accomplishments are the most exciting news going in space travel right now.

(Image: AP)

A Letter to Dr. Oz from a PhD Microbiologist

Dear Dr. Oz,

As a TV host, book author, and "America's Doctor," you hold a powerful and privileged position to which few people inside or outside your profession could ever aspire. I must admit to being envious of your influence. I wish that more Americans were fascinated by the complicated nuance of biomedical research than are fascinated by miracle cures. Alas, they are not (yet). I'm working on it, though.

I am writing to you because I was deeply troubled by your rebuttal to the letter signed by ten medical doctors seeking your termination from Columbia University.

While I understand your desire to defend your reputation, your rebuttal failed to address any of the scientific and ethical concerns raised in the letter. Instead, your statement was full of ad hominem attacks and other logical fallacies. Such a rejoinder is not what I would expect from somebody claiming to be a scientist (as you do), but far more typical of a person who has been thoroughly defeated in a scientific debate. In fact, your response reminds me of the sort of outburst one regularly hears from anti-vaxxers, anti-GMOers, climate change deniers, and the like.

For instance, you wrote:

"The lead author, Henry I. Miller, appears to have a history as a pro-biotech scientist..."

How is this relevant to the issue at hand, which is your promotion of unscientific alternative "remedies" and dubious ethical practices? Changing the topic by trying to smear Dr. Miller is simultaneously an ad hominem and a red herring fallacy. Also, how is being "pro-biotech" a bad thing, which you are clearly implying? I hold a PhD in microbiology, and I am vehemently pro-biotech because it will (and already has begun to) revolutionize the planet. I was pro-GMO when I first learned about them in my undergraduate molecular biology class in 2001, long before most people even knew what GMOs were. (In case you were wondering, despite my vocal support, I have never received a nickel from industry or its lobbyists.)

Furthermore, on your TV show, you sent your "investigative journalist" out to smear Dr. Miller's reputation. Nowhere in the segment did she seriously discuss Dr. Miller's credentials, such as him being the Founding Director of the FDA's Office of Biotechnology. That makes Dr. Miller perhaps the nation's #1 expert on GMOs and biotech regulation. No, the report conveniently left that analysis out. Instead, your "journalist" found two left-wingers, Lisa Graves (a progressive activist) and Gary Ruskin (an anti-GMO activist who has been harassing scientists with dubious FOIA requests), to call Dr. Miller a "shill" and a liar.

You then trotted out Dr. Joel Fuhrman, who has partnered with the exceedingly dishonest Whole Foods, to call your critics "anti-American." Anti-American, because they disagree with you, Dr. Oz? That's not investigative journalism. That's propaganda.

Now, back to your essay. You went on to write:

"Another of the letter signees, Gilbert Ross, was found guilty after trial of 13 counts of fraud related to Medicaid."

One of your TV guests killed somebody, then paid $2.3 million to the family in an out-of-court settlement. What does this have to do with anything? Nothing. I just thought I'd mention it because you seem to find the "guilt by association" fallacy persuasive.

I would also suggest that the only reason you haven't been arrested for fraud is because, mind-bogglingly, it is legal in this country to promote fake medicine. You have presented no fewer than 16 different weight loss miracles. You believe in talking to the dead. And you've promoted homeopathy.

Next, you go on to criticize the American Council on Science and Health (ACSH) because they are pro-industry and have taken money from food and agriculture companies. Let's set aside the fact that a lot of fantastic science comes from industry. Let's also set aside the fact that combating chemophobia and pseudoscience, which is what ACSH does, is necessary because of people like you. And, let's set aside the fact that, as a non-profit, ACSH has to raise money from somebody, and industry is just as good as anybody else.

Let's set aside all that. Instead, I would like to focus on the fact that you take money from companies, too, such as Walmart, IcyHot, and I Can't Believe It's Not Butter. (Okay, I can't blame you for that last one; Fabio is rather convincing.) Recently, WikiLeaks released emails from your show that strongly hint at a lucrative deal you were hoping to strike with Sony. Your speaking fee, according to your profile on All American Speakers, is a jawdropping "$200,000 and above."

There is absolutely nothing wrong with making lots of money. But, how is your criticism of ACSH's finances anything other than pure, unadulterated hypocrisy?

I will end my lengthy letter by noting a piece that eight of your own colleagues wrote for USA Today. While they defended your employment at Columbia University, they still had this to say: "Many of us are spending a significant amount of our clinical time debunking Ozisms." Further, your "unsubstantiated medicine sullies the reputation of Columbia University and undermines the trust that is essential to physician-patient relationships."

Aren't you ashamed by that? Aren't you humiliated that your colleagues hold you in such low regard?

Like you, I am a professional communicator. But, unlike you, I use my platform to tell people things they don't always want to hear. I don't have applause lines. I tell the truth as best as I understand it. I present data, even if I don't happen to like it. I don't offer miracle cures. I don't offer oversimplified, easy answers. In other words, I do what scientists and journalists are supposed to do.

That decision, to put integrity first, almost certainly won't earn me much fame or fortune. But, injecting science and reason into public debates allows "America's Microbiologist" (if I may) to sleep with a clear conscience.

Sincerely,

Alex Berezow, PhD
Founding Editor, RealClearScience

(AP photo)

Why Freud Was Not a Scientist

There is perhaps no figure in psychology more contentiously scrutinized than Sigmund Freud. The Austrian neurologist best known for creating psychoanalysis has both been hailed as a "revolutionary" and lambasted as a "fraud." One thing that is certain, however, as noted by io9's George Dvorsky, is that Freud's ideas have "transcended science" and invaded modern culture.

"Rarely does a day go by where we don’t find ourselves uttering a term drawn from his work: Mommy and daddy issues. Arrested development. Death wishes. Freudian slips. Phallic symbols. Anal retentiveness. Defense mechanisms. Cathartic release. And on and on and on."

But the primary reason why Freud's ideas are so ubiquitous is that they didn't transcend science; they bypassed them. If the notions of the id, ego, or superego had been subjected to rigorous peer review, they would undoubtedly not be as widely known as they are today. The same goes for dream analysis, the Oedipal Complex (the idea that adolescent boys lust after their mothers), and penis envy (a supposed stage in development where girls experience anxiety over the realization that they lack a penis). We now know all of these ideas to be wrong, and frankly, a tad whacko.

In 1996, UC-Berkeley's Frederick Crews, writing in the journal Psychological Science, concluded “Independent studies have begun to converge toward a verdict... that there is literally nothing to be said, scientifically or therapeutically, to the advantage of the entire Freudian system or any of its component dogmas."

That damning conclusion might be a tad overstated. Psychiatric treatments premised on the most basic, bare-bones tenets of Freud's psychoanalysis seem to be effective at treating many mental disorders, including depression. Psychoanalysis, itself, was founded on shaky, unscientific grounds, however.

In 1991, historian of science Dr. Frank Sulloway reviewed six of Freud's principal case studies on psychoanalysis and found them to be "rampant with censorship, distortions, highly dubious 'reconstructions,' and exaggerated claims." Despite Freud's many misrepresentations, he couldn't mask the fact that half of his case studies ended in spectacular failure, with no relief for the patient whatsoever.

Writing for Science-Based Medicine, Harriet Hall further elaborated, "His approach was not scientific. He never tested his ideas with experiments that might have falsified his beliefs, and he ignored facts that contradicted his beliefs."

These aren't the actions of a true scientist. Rather than use data to construct meaningful theory, Freud theorized first, then attempted -- half-heartedly -- to produce data that fit. In essence, Freud was little more than an armchair psychologist, thought admittedly a well educated and influential one.

In Sulloway's opinion, Freud held back psychology. "Freud's training methods... represent a backward step toward the kind of learning based on authority and secrecy that typified scholasticism and alchemy prior to the Scientific Revolution," he wrote.

Psychologist Hans Eysenck agreed, calling Freud "a genius, not of science, but of propaganda, not of rigorous proof, but of persuasion, not of the design of experiments, but of literary art."

"At best, Freud is a figure of only historical interest for psychologists," Berkeley psychologist John F. Kihlstrom furthers. "He is better studied as a writer, in departments of language and literature, than as a scientist, in departments of psychology."

(Image: AP)