By Richard H. Smith
Excerpted from THE JOY OF PAIN: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature
The editors of popular tabloid magazines such as The National Enquirer would appreciate the observations of Edmund Burke, the 18th-century philosopher and statesman. He suggested that theatergoers anticipating a tragic performance on the stage would quickly lose interest and empty themselves from the theater if they heard that a criminal was just about to be executed outside in a nearby square. Burke believed that people have “a degree of delight, and that no small one, in the real misfortunes and pains of others.” Moreover, in his view, real misfortune probably trumps the “imitative arts” every time.
Some have taken this way of thinking even further. In their recent biography of Mao Tse-tung, Mao: The Unknown Story, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday make a persuasive case that Mao was someone who took a special joy “in upheaval and destruction.” But Mao also believed that he was not alone in this preference. For instance, he claimed that most people would choose war over perpetual harmony:
Long-lasting peace is unendurable to human beings, and tidal waves of disturbance have to be created in this state of peace…When we look at history, we adore the times of [war] when dramas happened one after another…which make reading about them great fun. When we get to the periods of peace and prosperity, we are bored.
Still others, such as Walker Percy, have also claimed that people have a pleasure-linked fascination with disasters and calamity, at least when these things are happening to other people. The appeal of the tabloid press and the heavy coverage of crime, accidents, and natural disasters in the media testify to the validity of such claims.
By Steve Nadis
The first speaker at Harvard’s Sanders Theater last night set the tone for the entire proceedings, going into a lengthy discussion of paper airplanes and their eventual throwing—an undertaking that would purportedly adhere to the strictest modern flight regulations. “Do not throw them yet, as the ceremony has not yet officially begun,” the speaker, a safety monitor of some sort, admonished the crowd. “The ceremony will not start until I give the countdown and say, ‘Go.’ After I give the countdown, you can begin throwing paper airplanes. You have 30 seconds to do so. Make them count.”
Hundreds, if not thousands, of airplanes were soon launched, and so began the twenty-third Ig Nobel Prize Ceremony. It’s an annual ritual dedicated to the zany underbelly of science—the curious investigations and even weirder findings that emerge from them, which won’t win any of the participants a trip to Stockholm but might win them a one way (no-expenses-paid) trip to Cambridge, Mass., where dubious notoriety awaits them.
The event is also dedicated, as noted, to paper airplanes, during two 30-second intervals of joyful mayhem. My attempts at unmanned flight were, I’m sad to say, abysmal—brief trajectories invariably ending in nosedives. As paper detritus was cleared from the stage, the master of ceremonies, Marc Abrahams, took the podium to welcome “our most special guests, the new Ig Nobel Prize winners.” Every one of them, Abrahams said, “has done something that makes you laugh and then makes you think.” And if you think too hard about it, you might even cry, especially if you’re slicing an onion at the time—but more on that later…
By Jill Neimark
“Planned genocide has begun,” read the Facebook entry on one of the groups I browse daily. The link: a picture of five monoliths looming like an American Stonehenge over a lush and lonely hill in remote Elberton, Georgia. I was only an hour away at the time, and decided to visit them in person.
The nearly twenty-foot granite slabs, known as the Georgia Guidestones, have sparked controversy around the world – praised by Yoko Ono, defaced by conspiracy theorists, featured on the History Channel, and the subject of the conspiracy web series Guidestones. The monument – five upright stones topped by a capstone – weighs nearly 240,000 pounds and is inscribed in eight languages with ten instructions for humans post-apocalypse. Three decades after being erected, the monument’s true purpose is still being argued, and its quasi-commandments can seem either sincere or satanic.
We’ve all had the experience—over and over all the time. You go down to the street to wait for the bus (the train, the subway, the boat); you know that buses come roughly every 10 minutes, so you expect to wait about 5 minutes (arriving, on average, in the middle of the between-buses interval). But in fact, we all know that almost always you have to wait longer than that! Is this an illusion we’ve developed over the centuries because we believe in the “persistence of bad luck,” or is it, perhaps, something real?
It is, in fact, a real phenomenon, and this result can even be proved mathematically. Because you arrived after the last bus has left, your overall waiting time is, on average, longer than half the average
interval of 10 minutes.
An intuitive way of seeing this is to draw the timeline, with short and long intervals—their average is indeed 10 minutes long, but by randomness some of them will be longer and some will be shorter than the stated average.
Your appearance at the bus stop is also a random event, and this event is more likely to take place during a long interval
between two buses than during a short one!
By Ben Thomas
Introversion, it seems, is the Internet’s current meme du jour. Articles on introverts are nothing new, of course—The Atlantic’s 2003 classic “Caring for Your Introvert” still gets passed around Facebook on a regular basis—but the topic has gained some sort of strange critical mass in the past few weeks, and has been popping up everywhere from Gawker to Forbes.
This latest swarm of articles ranges from glorified personality quizzes (31 Unmistakable Signs That You’re An Introvert”) to history lessons (“16 Outrageously Successful Introverts”) to business essays (“Why Introverts Can Make Excellent Executives”) to silly, self-aware send-ups of the trend itself (“15 Unmistakable, Outrageously Secret Signs You’re an Extrovert”). The vast majority of them also come packaged with the assumption the reader understands the basic concept of introversion, and already has a pretty clear idea of whether he or she is an introvert or an extrovert.
Scroll through the comments sections, though, and you’ll find that quite a few readers—even introverted ones—don’t appreciate being put in a labeled box. For every grateful response from a self-professed introvert, you’ll find several responses along the lines of, “No one is always extroverted and no one is always introverted,” and, “I consider myself an extrovert but a lot of these introvert traits apply to me.”
What does neuroscience have to say about all this? Do the brains of introverted people really look and behave differently from those of extroverts? And if so, what might those differences mean?
By Rebecca Boyle
When NASA announced in May that its celebrated planet-finding telescope Kepler was broken, astronomers and journalists started collectively mourning. The Kepler space telescope had found 2,740 possible exoplanets since its launch in March 2009, and it was so successful that NASA approved funding for it through 2016, with hopes that many years of discoveries would follow.
And Kepler managers finally announced last week that they are giving up trying to reactivate the telescope’s busted gyroscopic wheels, which stabilize it for staring at possible planet-harboring stars.
But that doesn’t mean the telescope’s days of discovery are over. NASA is soliciting ideas for using Kepler in its hobbled form — something for which there’s plenty of precedent.
Kepler was designed to stare at bright stars to look for blips in their brightness that could indicate planets passing in front of them, a technique called photometry. It was built with four gyroscopic reaction wheels — one for each axis of movement, and one spare — that spin to correct for the solar wind and keep Kepler precisely pointed at those bright stars. One wheel stopped working more than a year ago, and astronomers started wondering what Kepler could do should another wheel fail.
When that happened, in May, scientists initially worried Kepler would move around too jerkily for any precision photometry. But, while it won’t be able to find Earth-sized planets around sun-like stars, tests this summer showed it may still be up for other tasks, including looking for bigger planets.
“Everybody is excited; they’re thinking, ‘Hey, we have a telescope in space, what can we do with it?’” said Steve Howell, Kepler project scientist at NASA’s Ames Research Center. “And you can do a lot with it.”
By Julian De Freitas
Imagine what it would be like to take in everything about this moment. Not only would you be aware of these words on the screen before you, but also of the location of nearby objects with centimeter precision, of the feeling of your toes in your shoes, of every creak, crack and squeak. You would be able to focus on thousands of memories at once, and track every one of your changing emotions no matter what else you were busy with.
Needless to say, your mind would overload with all this information.
So why are you still functioning? Because you have the ability to selectively process only a subset of the information-rich world at a time—that is, the ability to pay attention. Attention is the gatekeeper that “decides” what the mind processes and what it ignores. Yet we typically pay attention so naturally that we seldom pause to consider exactly how our minds accomplish this feat.
By Katie Engelhart
The verdict is in. The world’s first hamburger made entirely of lab-grown, “cultured beef” tastes… OK.
It’s a little bland, tasters reported of the patty, which cost over $330,000 to produce. And it lacks juiciness. (The burger contains no fat.) But otherwise, it has a good “mouth feel” and a solid texture. Most importantly: it tastes like it once lived and breathed and mooed.
Scientists predict that you will be eating patties just like it in 10 or 20 years.
Today, hoards of journalists gathered at a production studio in west London for a historic event: the unveiling of the world’s first-ever cultured beef* burger—engineered by Maastricht University professor Mark Post. In the frenzied minutes before the launch began, reporters and film crews gathered around platters of free sandwiches. Ham, cheese, tuna and the perennial British favorite “prawn mayo” were all on offer, though roast beef was noticeably absent.
Inside the auditorium, flashing screens welcomed the crowd. A promotional film opened with Google founder Sergey Brin, who was revealed as the anonymous donor behind the burger product. Brin, captured in an orange t-shirt and Google Glass, spoke of cultured meat’s transformative potential. The film then switched to a historical reenactment of hunter-gatherers roasting animal bones over an open flame.
By Deborah Blum
It’s been more than a decade since scientists first raised an alarm about arsenic levels in rice—an alarm based on the realization that rice plants have a natural ability to absorb the toxic element out of the soil.
Since then study after study has confirmed that rice products contain more arsenic than those of any other grain. In response, consumer health advocates have pushed for regulatory agencies to set a safety standard for rice (more on that story in my forthcoming feature story in the October 2013 issue of Discover).
China, a high rice-consumption country, has already moved to do so. The World Health Organization is currently taking comments on a proposed safety standard. And last year—in a somewhat grudging response to pressure from activist groups in this country—the U.S. Food and Drug Administration announced that it was also studying the issue.
And studying and studying, apparently. Although the FDA released some data on arsenic contamination of rice last fall—in direct response to a comprehensive report on the issue from Consumers Union researchers—the agency has yet to provide any further information or to set a deadline on when it might set a protective limit.
In frustration, public health researchers at Consumers Union and the attorney general of Illinois, Lisa Madigan, last month wrote to the FDA asking why the agency was moving so slowly to protect American consumers, underlining the point that the agency’s preliminary results found the taint of arsenic in pretty much every rice product tested.
By Linda Marsa
The following excerpt from Marsa’s forthcoming book, “Fevered: How a Hotter Planet Will Harm Our Health and How We Can Save Ourselves,” was originally published on PLOS Blogs as part of their series “The Science of Extinction and Survival: Conversations on Climate Change.”
The wild swings in weather that are expected to become commonplace as the planet gets warmer—more frequent and severe droughts, followed by drenching rains—change ecosystems in a way that awaken and expedite the transmission of once dormant diseases.
Intriguingly, this type of weather pattern may be what led to the fall of the once mighty Aztec Empire in the early 16th century–and not as is commonly held, by the invasion of European colonialists, who brought with them diseases like mumps, measles and smallpox for which the native populations lacked immunity.