Thursday, August 11, 2011

In Discover Magazine This Month: The Wine Whisperers

What does California taste like--in a wine? And who are the artisans who can bring that to [groan] fruition? See my Destination Science piece in September's Discover Magazine: "The Wine Whisperers."

ET, Go Home

What If We Call Out to Extraterrestrials, and They Respond?

NASA routinely beams messages into the universe in an attempt to contact extraterrestrial intelligence. In more than 50 years of listening for a response, they've heard zilch. Which might be good. For even as NASA sends messages, some of its scientists wonder what it is they should say, and whether Earth should, indeed, keep putting out the proverbial welcome mat.

In "Would Contact with Extraterrestrials Benefit or Harm Humanity?", in the June/July 2011 issue of Acta Astronautica, researchers from the University of Pennsylvania's Departments of Geography and Meteorology, and from NASA, systematically analyze a broad range of contact scenarios, categorizing each one as beneficial, neutral, or harmful to humanity. Although the researchers do not perform quantitative analysis on the likelihood of the various scenarios, they do note that a relatively large number fall into the "harmful" category. Because of this, they recommend that Earth's messages to extraterrestrials be written more cautiously.

For example, we should stop sending "About Us" information that includes specifics about our DNA. (It could be used to design biological weapons against us.) Initial communication should be limited to mathematical discourse, and we should take care not to suggest that we want to colonize other planets. Nor should we broadcast that we are less than admirable stewards of the natural resources of our own planet. After all, we want to seem like the sort of neighbors a more advanced civilization would want to keep around.

Praying for Peace

Religion may have caused century upon century of war, but praying--well, that's something we should all get behind. So say researchers from the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and from VU University in Amsterdam in "Pray for Those Who Mistreat You: Effects of Prayer on Anger and Aggression" (Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, March 18, 2011). In three control-group experiments the researchers determined that the act of praying for strangers who had provoked them actually calmed subjects' anger and aggression--and it did so with almost miraculous speed. If religion is the opiate of the masses, what's praying? Maybe the valium of the oppressed.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

In Discover Magazine This Month: 20 Things You Didn't Know about Magnetism

In the July-August special issue of Discover Magazine:

1 Magnetism is familiar to every fifth grader, but describing it can confound even the most brilliant physicist.

2 Take the case of Richard Feynman. When asked to explain magnetism, he urged his BBC interviewer to take it on faith (video). After seven minutes of stonewalling, he finally said, “I really can’t do a good job, any job, of explaining magnetic force in terms of something else that you’re more familiar with because I don’t understand it in terms of anything else that you’re more familiar with.”

3 He did break down and try for a few seconds before abandoning the attempt. Those seconds were packed with oversimplifications: “All the electrons [in a magnet] are spinning in the same direction.”

See "things" 4-20.

Clowning and IVF Success Rates

Anticipating a Sudden Run on Red Rubber Noses

Though it's been tried for millennia, it is of course as yet unproven that crying works as birth control. But laughing may help fertility. In a quasi-randomized study, researchers at Assaf Harofeh Medical Center in Zrifin, Israel found that the pregnancy rate following in vitro fertlization and embryo transfer was more than 16% higher among women who were visited immediately after embryonic transfer by a medical clown. As reported in "The Effect of Medical Clowning on Pregnancy Rates after In Vitro Fertilization and Embryo Transfer (IVF-ET)" (which came online in January in the journal Fertility and Sterility) the clown performed 12-15 minute routines of jokes, tricks, and magic at each woman's bedside. The researchers point out that the immune benefits of humor have long been understood, and that the beneficial effect of stress reduction on successful egg implantation has been demonstrated recently in rats. They also suggest that, even though their method requires one clown per IVF mom, it's a cheaper and more successful intervention than many other stress reduction techniques that fertility clinics have historically advocated.