By Brad Balukjian
I was 12 years old, sitting in a movie theater in Warwick, Rhode Island, when Steven Spielberg changed movies forever. His Jurassic Park made Jaws look like a silly hand puppet and ushered in the modern era of computer-generated special effects, for better or worse.
But for that iconic scene when the paleontologists laid eyes on living dinosaurs for the first time, Spielberg had a crucial decision to make—what type of dinosaur would appear first, bending imaginations and searing its place in cinematic history? Would he go with the ultra-kinetic, flesh-rending T. rex? Or maybe a more subdued Stegosaurus?
Much to my delight, he chose a sauropod, the clade of lumbering vegetarians that dominated for 120 million years as, unequivocally, the largest land animals ever. Specifically, a Brachiosaurus, one of the few sauropods that probably used its long neck to browse treetops rather than holding it parallel to the ground. (Kudos to Spielberg et al. for getting this scientific detail right!)
I’m not sure what dictated Spielberg’s decision, but sauropods’ sheer size—up to 90 tons and 130 feet long—probably had something to do with it. (Contrary to popular belief, most dinosaurs were not gigantic.) And that gargantuan size is what inspired the new PLOS ONE sauropod collection (“Sauropod Gigantism”), organized by evolutionary biologist Martin Sander of the University of Bonn. Sander and 13 other researchers united to answer one question: how did these thunder lizards get so freaking big—and its shuddering corollary—why didn’t they get any bigger?
Most of what I know isn’t in my head. It’s out there in my books. I know how to do a lot of integrals in calculus, for example. But, really, what I mean by that is that I know where my book of integrals is, and I know where in the book any particular method is. I know all that stuff in all those books in my house because I can find my way there.
Books in a bookshelf possess lots of visual cues, so I can quickly find my way to the right book — “Oh, it’s on the bottom left of the shelf by the window in the living room, just below that big blue art book.”
And once I find the book, when I open it up I can use visual cues within it to find my way to the right page. After all, it’s not as if I remember the page number. No, I remember roughly where it is in the book, roughly what the page looks like, and roughly what the surrounding pages might look like. Pages in a book might not initially seem to have a look, but they very often do. There are often figures, or tables, or unique and recognizable features to the way the paragraphs are aligned. These visuo-spatial cues guide me further and further along to the goal, the piece of my knowledge out there in my library.
Mess with my library and books, and you mess with my brain.
By Ben Thomas
The first rat pressed a lever, anticipating the tasty reward it’d been trained to expect. An implant in the rat’s brain converted its neural activity into an electronic signal and beamed the impulse to the brain of the second rat, which leaped forward and pressed a lever in its own cage. But rat #2 had never been trained to press the lever. Its movement impulse came not from its own brain, but directly from the brain of rat #1 – despite the fact that the two were separated by thousands of miles.
What we have created, said lead researcher Miguel Nicolelis, is “a new central nervous system made of two brains.”
That advance happened in 2012, and other labs were quick to one-up Nicolelis and his team. In the summer of 2013, a team of Harvard University researchers engineered a brain-to-brain interface between a rat and a human, enabling the human to control the rat’s tail movements simply by willing them to happen.
Finally, in August 2013, University of Washington scientists Rajesh Rao and Andrea Stocco succeeded in making one leap everyone was waiting for: A human-to-human brain-to-brain interface. By strapping one person into a non-invasive EEG helmet, and strapping the second into a transcranial magnetic stimulation (TMS) helmet, the researchers mind-melded themselves – for the sake of science.
By Jesse Bering
The new Showtime series Masters of Sex is shining light on two remarkable figures in the history of sexology, William Masters and Virginia Johnson. Although most of us may not be aware of their colorful back-story, we have, at least, heard of “Masters and Johnson” before. Along with the famous Alfred Kinsey, they were iconic American figures in 20th-century sex research, widely known for shirking the conservative conventions that kept our forebears in the closet of erotic ignorance.
The history of sexology runs far deeper than a few charismatic figures, however. Their names may not be as familiar to us, but there were many other fascinating early sex researchers who left their own interesting legacies, and not always entirely positive ones at that. Some of these forgotten scholars were, like Masters and Johnson, angels of sexual healing; yet others were, quite frankly, bastards of bigotry.
So without further ado, allow me to introduce you to five early sexologists that you’ve (probably) never heard of… at least, not like this.
By Matthew D. Lieberman
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld used to tell the following joke: “According to most studies, people’s number one fear is public speaking. Death is number two. Does this sound right? This means to the average person, if you go to a funeral, you’re better-off in the casket than doing the eulogy.”
The joke is a riff based on a privately conducted survey of 2,500 people in 1973 in which 41 percent of respondents indicated that they feared public speaking and only 19 percent indicated that they feared death. While this improbable ordering has not been replicated in most other surveys, public speaking is typically high on the list of our deepest fears. “Top ten” lists of our fears usually fall into three categories: things associated with great physical harm or death, the death or loss of loved ones, and speaking in public.
What is curious is that the person speaking probably doesn’t know or care about most of the people there. So why does it matter so much what they think? The answer is that it hurts to be rejected.
Ask yourself what have been the one or two most painful experiences of your life. Did you think of the physical pain of a broken leg or a really bad fall? My guess is that at least one of your most painful experiences involved what we might call social pain—pain of a loved one’s dying, of being dumped by someone you loved, or of experiencing some kind of public humiliation in front of others.
Why do we associate such events with the word pain? When human beings experience threats or damage to their social bonds, the brain responds in much the same way it responds to physical pain.
By Erik Vance
In Douglas Adams’s hilarious classic, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, there are several animals said to be cleverer than humans. One – for the sake of irony – was the common lab mouse. The other was a creature that knew about the intergalactic bulldozers that eventually vaporized the planet and tried to warn us of the impending doom:
The last ever dolphin message was misinterpreted as a surprisingly sophisticated attempt to do a double-backwards-somersault through a hoop whilst whistling the ‘Star Spangled Banner’, but in fact the message was this: So long and thanks for all the fish.
It’s a fun punchline but it also reflects a long-held sentiment: that dolphins possess an unusual level of intelligence that sets them apart from the rest of the animal kingdom. In the popular consciousness it’s taken as a given that dolphins are highly intelligent, have complex behavior, and possess some kind of proto-language ability. However in recent months and years, a sort of backlash – or at least a re-alignment – has been fomenting on the periphery of animal behavior research.
By Gina Perry
It’s one of the most well-known psychology experiments in history – the 1961 tests in which social psychologist Stanley Milgram invited volunteers to take part in a study about memory and learning. Its actual aim, though, was to investigate obedience to authority – and Milgram reported that fully 65 percent of volunteers had repeatedly administered increasing electric shocks to a man they believed to be in severe pain.
In the decades since, the results have been held up as proof of the depths of ordinary people’s depravity in service to an authority figure. At the time, this had deep and resonant connections to the Holocaust and Nazi Germany – so resonant, in fact, that they might have led Milgram to dramatically misrepresent his hallmark findings.
Stanley Milgram framed his research from the get-go as both inspired by and an explanation of Nazi behavior. He mentioned the gas chambers in the opening paragraph of his first published article; he strengthened the link and made it more explicit twelve years later in his book, Obedience to Authority.
At the time Milgram’s research was first published, the trial of high profile Nazi Adolph Eichmann was still fresh in the public mind. Eichmann had been captured in Buenos Aires and smuggled out of the country to stand trial in Israel. The trial was the first of its kind to be televised.
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.