Archive for the 'Pop Science' Category

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Damn Lies and Statistics?

I have just dicovered this amazing video (also embedded below in 3 parts) from professor of international health Hans Rosling. I think it’s one of the best examples I’ve ever seen of how it’s not just about having the data, or even analyzing it, but being able to visualize and present it properly. Just watch:

Making ADD work for you?

Days until departure: 7
For those of you who don’t know me well enough to know, I’ve been diagnosed with ADD for something like 10 years now. For the record, from personal experience, it seems to be a real thing, despite the overdiagnosing that may occur. That is, I really feel unusually distracted, more than most people, and these sysmptoms tend to lessen with medication.
In any case, medication or not, I always have some degree of difficulty concentrating, unless the activity is a particularly engrossing one. As such, I’ll often jump from channel to channel on the television, or read emails in spurts, or be in the process of reading five books at once. (At present, I’m only in the middle of three books, I think, but I have a few more that I’m adding to the pile.) I can’t help but wonder whether this isn’t a somewhat positive aspect of this so-called disorder I’ve been saddled with. You see, I have many varied interests, and I tend to be proud of this fact. I think my ability (or tendency) to jump from idea to idea is part of this whole phenomenon, one that helps me integrate concepts into a larger tapestry of knowledge. (Ok, so that sounded a little pretentious, I think, but I’m too tired right now to tone it down.)

On the other hand, I’ve found that by jumping from stone to stone, I often don’t go deep enough to satisfy to requirements of the material. For this reason, I tend not to have a great grasp on the more complex ideas in philosophy, nor do I have a real appreciation for many famous poets, because both of these disciplines require serious time, effort, and concentration. I guess it’s a trade-off of breadth for depth. My main concern here is that sometimes I feel like a phony discussing so many ideas, because I don’t always know if I’ve gone deep enough to grasp them well enough to comment. But my general feeling is that it’s better to say what you have to say, and let the world correct you if you’re wrong.

On Smell

Days until departure: 10

So one thing that tends to interest me is when pieces of information from two generally unrelated areas of knowledge intersect. I feel like it validates the idea itself, and gives us a brief glimps of how interconnected everything really is.

So here’s one example. The sense of smell occupies an interesting place in the realm of human experience. It has been shown that while smells are not better at evoking memories than other senses, they evoke memories more intensely. For instance, if you smelled your grandmother’s perfume, you might be able to imagine she’s in the room with you. Not so by looking at a picture of her, or hearing a recording. In fact, and I cannot give more details than I can remember from the brief talk I heard, physiologically, the olfactory nerve (the one that conveys smell) has a more direct connection to the brain than the other senses do.

When I learned all this (in a guest lecture by Jofish Kaye), I was reminded of my first visit to the Holocaust Museum in Washington. For those of you who have never been there, there is a cattle car that was used to transport Jews to the camps, set up so that you have to walk through it in order to progress through the museum. I was walking, and a teacher nearby leaned down to smell the cattle car. Perplexed, I asked him why he did so. He explained that four of the five senses were used in the first sin of Adam and Eve, tainting all of them, but leaving smell untainted. In Jewish tradition, smell is therefore considered the most “spiritual” or “pure” sense. (For instance, according to the Talmud (Sanhedrin 93b), the Messiah will be able to judge people by smelling them.)

So both scientists and rabbis have declared smell to be a peculiarly powerful sense, more pure in its effect and more evocative in its scope. Interesting collision of information, no?

Investigating Disruption

Days until departure: 11
Months ago, I went to an academic talk about electronic communication, and how it is affected by a long-distance move. That is, do people tend to talk more on the phone and write more emails when their friends and relatives move further away, and vice-versa? A friend pointed out that one of the aims of this sort of study is getting an understanding of how we use electronic communication these days. She said that by studying how these systems act when disrupted (as they are by a big move), we can better understand how they function normally.
I considered this, and realized that this is actually a standard method in many (hard and soft) scientific disciplines. To understand how a “healthy” or “normal” version of a system functions, we study such a system in disruption, and see how it differs from the usual. For instance, if I’m not mistaken, our first insights to the function of the different areas of the brain came from studying brain damage victims, and how their specific injuries corresponded to their altered behavior.

On Mourning

Days until departure: 12
At times, when I’m thinking about some topic, especially when I intend to write something on it, I take notes on my thoughts. Last Tisha B’av, I wrote a bunch of notes on the ideas behind the initial part of the day, before noon. Here’s a brief set of thoughts emerging from those notes, before I have to go back to synagogue to finish up the prayers of the day.

According to the Rav, Tisha B’Av is one of the rare times that we express grief to such a degree, that we actually accuse God of creating our tragedy. It’s generally an unthinkable concept, more brazen than we usually are. Indeed, the first set of kinot (the “wailing” prayers we say on this day) often juxtapose what God did with what it seems he ought to have done. How dare we? The Rav points out that in the beginning of Tisha B’Av, we are like recently bereaved mourners – not even up to the shiva period that starts after burial, but onenim. An onen is one who has recently lost someone, before the deceased is buried. “His deceased is suspended before him,” the saying goes. When it’s that recent, that intense, that visceral, well then the normal rules don’t apply. An onen is exempt from many of the positive commandments, and also it is acceptable for such a person to be downright angry with God. Healing of the mourner’s heart, and of his relationship to an often inscrutable God may take place later, but for now, we let him off the hook.
So in trying to create a feeling of mourning, our sages patterned our customs and liturgy such that we would be like onenim for part of the day. We move on later in the day, but the specter of intense grief haunts us through the rest of the day.

An interesting thought occurred to me a while back. I was reading a book by the renowned psychologist Paul Ekman, called Emotions Revealed. In it, he talks about the concept of an “emotional refractory period.” I don’t have the book handy to quote from, but if my memory serves, the refractory period is when you experience an emotion so intensely that you are temporarily blinded to any information that would contradict that emotion. It is usually a very brief period, varying with intensity of emotion, but it’s qualitatively different from your normal mode of being. Your mind shuts down all access to anything that would lessen the feeling, though I believe it’s usually too brief to have any practical ramifications. It’s a scary thought, but Ekman really knows his stuff. In any case, I can’t help but wonder whether the onen’s permit to indict God comes from an acknowledgement that an onen is in the refractory period of his grief, and therefore cannot be held as entirely responsible for his actions. Thus, he is even permitted an action which would otherwise be blasphemy.