Lately I’ve noticed lots of articles with titles that are variations of “Ten Things You Should Know About X.” I became so convinced this was not just a figment of my paranoid imagination that I did a search for “10 things” OR “ten things” in Google News (with quotes) and was immediately rewarded with more than 676 hits. This is impressive, since Google News searches over a limited time horizon. The top hits Du Nanosecond were: “Mitt Romney’s the frontrunner: 10 things the first big Republican debate showed”, “10 Things Not to Do When Going Back on Gold”, “10 Things We Learned at UFC 131”, “Top 10 things to do in your backyard”, “Steve Jobs: ten things you didn’t know about the Apple founder”, and my personal favorite, “Ten things you need to know today”.
What accounts for this ten-centrism? My first thought is an old joke. You’ve probably heard it: There are ten 10 kinds of people, those who get binary numbers, and those who don’t. Part of what I like about this joke is that it captures a bit of the arbitrariness of our penchant for counting in tens rather than twos. There is, on the other hand, the non-arbitrariness of how many bony appendages jut out of our pentadactyl palms. But, a list of the “Two things you need to know today” doesn’t seem to do justice to the complexity of modern life. So herewith is my list of the Ten Reasons We Are Seeing An Excess of Lists of Ten Things We Should Know:
1. We don’t have time to read anymore. Knowing we are going to get just ten things to process is comforting in its promise not to drain our attention from facebook and twitter.
2. Ten is close to the approximate size of our working memory. The size of our working memory, the amount of stuff we can recall from lists of things to which we’ve been recently exposed, is about seven (at least for numbers). I seem to recall there being a “plus or minus 2” factor here, in which case the upper limit for most of us mortals is nine items.
3. Since writers can’t make a living any more, we are sliding into an era of bullet point-ism. Anyone who has had a teacher who cares about writing has been warned by this teacher that making lists of bullet points in our essays is no substitute for actual writing in which thoughts are carefully connected to one another with transition sentences. This takes far too much time to work in any feasible business model for writers today (I’m trying not to use the word “nowadays” because the very same teacher who warned me not to write in bullet points also told me that this word was to be avoided). For one thing, they have to compete with bloggers like me who write for basically nothing. Ergo, the era of the articles of “ten things you should know,” which are typically not much more than bullet points.
4. In many cases, there’s more than ten things that you should know, or fewer than ten things that you should know. But, like “decades,” “centuries,” and other arbitrary anchors in the otherwise continuous flux of events and time, the writer doesn’t have to justify ten, because that’s what every other writer is chunking things we should know into.
5. It’s a way for pentadactyl animals to feel superior to unidactyl animals. No doubt if the planet were run by one-fingered/toed creatures, we would live in a George-Bush-like world of black and white. Downside: it takes longer to read “Top Ten” lists than “Top Two” lists. Over evolutionary timescales, this problem could result in unidactylism eventually reigning supreme.
6. At this point in the list, with four more to go, we enter the fat and boring midsection of the list of top ten things you should know about lists of ten things. It’s basically not remembered, so there’s really no point in putting anything here. Ditto for 7, and 8.
9. Because of the well documented recency effect, it’s time to start having content in our list of ten things again. I recall reading an apropos adage in a publication like Business Week that was like a pina colada to my information overloaded brain: “the value added is the information removed.” When it comes to digits, it seems that “the functionality added is the digits removed” – at least if our evolutionary history is any kind of guide. Our Devonian (350 million years ago) ancestors had 6-8 digits. In going down to five, and therefore lists of ten points, we’ve gone from fairly low achieving vertebrates to the spectacular successes of most subsequent animals by reducing our digits to what’s really needed.
10. If we’ve maintained our concentration to this point in the list, we will be rewarded with a bit of humorous fluff that helps bind some of our anxiety about the essential meaninglessness of our lives, and — especially — our time spent on reading yet another list of ten things we should know.
Image: Logo of a home and garden show in Australia. Correction: “didactylism” in #5 changed to unidactylism – thanks to @Matt for pointing out the miscount!
At night in the rivers of the Amazon Basin there buzzes an entire electric civilization of fish that “see” and communicate by discharging weak electric fields. These odd characters, swimming batteries which go by the name of “weakly electric fish,” have been the focus of research in my lab and those of many others for quite a while now, because they are a model system for understanding how the brain works. (While their brains are a bit different, we can learn a great deal about ours from them, just as we’ve learned much of what we know about genetics from fruit flies.) There are now well over 3,000 scientific papers on how the brains of these fish work.
Recently, my collaborators and I built a robotic version of these animals, focusing on one in particular: the black ghost knifefish. (The name is apparently derived from a native South American belief that the souls of ancestors inhabit these fish. For the sake of my karmic health, I’m hoping that this is apocryphal.) My university, Northwestern, did a press release with a video about our “GhostBot” last week, and I’ve been astonished at its popularity (nearly 30,000 views as I write this, thanks to coverage by places like io9, Fast Company, PC World, and msnbc). Given this unexpected interest, I thought I’d post a bit of the story behind the ghost.
It’s been a hectic year end, I’ve been overwhelmed with year-end stuff, and have been a bad, bad blogger. The good news is that I’m back at it now, but the fatalistic part of me asks “What’s the point? Afterall the world is going to end in a couple hours.” You’ve not noticed? Perhaps that’s best, because it reduces the likelihood of widespread panic, but our Gregorian calendar ends at midnight December 31st! The obvious implication is that it’s the end of the world! Clearly Pope Gregory XIII had advanced divinely-inspired knowledge of the coming cataclysm.
At least that’s the logic being used to advance the whole 2012 mythos.
For both of you who haven’t heard about this, the ancient Mayan calendar ostensibly comes to an end in 2012, and there are no shortage of doomsayers who claim that the Mayans somehow had advance knowledge of the end of the world, and their calendar reflects this. With 2012 slightly over a year away, you can be certain that this is a topic to which we’ll be turning here fairly regularly, even though it more correctly falls under the purview of “Fiction not Science”.
It’s understandable, actually. From an evolutionary standpoint, it was practically yesterday that we hunted/gathered our own food, and lived in constant fear of being eaten by the saber toothed cat. So in some senses our bodies are still wired for a way of life that hasn’t existed for several thousands of years. Most of us, with varying frequencies and intensities, still need to feel that primal surge of adrenaline. Some of us, myself among them, enjoy violent games like football, rugby, or hockey. Some of us, myself sometimes among them, get the ol’ adrenaline pumping through extreme sports. Some of us, myself rarely among them, enjoy roller coasters (not a fan). Many of us in all the previous categories scare ourselves by watching horror or action movies.
Some, myself definitely not among them, worry about the End of the World Scenario Du Jour. This is neither uncommon nor surprising, humans have worried about the end of the world since somebody first realized that it might, in fact, have an end. With 2012 now a year away, The End seems to be more of a player in the zeitgeist and is an ever-increasing topic of relevance in media and popular conversation. The popularity of my friend (and fellow Discover blogger) Phil Plait’s book Death From the Skies: These are the Ways the World Will End speaks to this. Even mainstream media outlets like Fox News, LiveScience , and Fox News again, recently ran pieces examining end of the world scenarios (and even though the second Fox entry was about debunked scenarios for the End, it still implies that it’s in the forefront of thought).
The Eyjafjallajökull eruption as seen by NASA’s Terra satellite
In theory, geoengineering seems like the ideal remedy for our climate ills. Some white reflective roofs here, a little ocean fertilization there, a few simulated volcanic eruptions, and voilà! you have a potential fix for one of the world’s most intractable problems.
But there’s good reason to believe that many of these proposed schemes would prove much costlier to the planet over both the short- and long-term than more mainstream approaches to addressing climate change—and leave a number of critical problems, like ocean acidification, in the lurch.
Take the injection of sulfate aerosol particles into the stratosphere, which I alluded to earlier. The idea would be to recreate the cooling effects of a volcanic eruption by blanketing the sky with a thin layer of particles that would reflect a fraction of incoming sunlight back into space. For this method to put a crimp on greenhouse warming, studies estimate that it would have to cut solar radiation by roughly 1.8 percent—not an easy feat by any means, but not entirely out of the question either.
Thomas Alva Edison once said, “Genius is one percent inspiration and ninety-nine per cent perspiration.” We recently saw a fine example of this in a field in which Edison’s quip may prove increasingly true.
It turns out that group of 8th Graders have discovered what appears to be a “skylight” — a caved-in lava tube–on Mars. This isn’t the first such discovery, but they’re not overly common, either. The students’ work was done as part of the Mars Student Imaging Project through Arizona State University. The program allows students, 5th graders through college sophomores, to pose a question about Mars and then have a Mars-orbiting spacecraft take the observations necessary to answer it. The team that found the skylight was from Evergreen Elementary School in Cottonwood, CA, and initially they sought to examine erosional features on Martian Volcanoes, in particular Pavonis Mons (at right) one of the Tharsis Volcanoes.
Where is the smelliest place in the Solar System?
Where are there snowballs in Hell?
Where is the surfing the most extreme, dude?
If you’re extremely intrigued by those questions, I’m extremely excited to announce an extremely interesting book coming this Fall, written by two extremely fascinating gentlemen. It’s The 50 Most Extreme Places in the Solar System by Dave Baker and Todd Ratcliff. Like any good scientist, I’ll admit my bias up front: the authors were graduate students with me at UCLA. Still, both of them are extremely knowledgeable and I’ve no doubt that the book will be extremely fun and interesting and…
…I’ve overdone the running gag to the extreme.
And the first Star Wars may have been 30+ years ago, but its spirit lives on in the hearts of harp music loving pre-teens everywhere [via The Website at the End of the Universe] :
Most planets featured in science fiction tend to be rather generic. These planets are usually convenient celestial bodies upon which to pitch a narrative tent for a few scenes before the plot moves on. Generic planets also tend to be one-note, reflecting some particular environment on Earth. You have your ice-worlds, desert worlds, lava worlds, jungle worlds, water worlds, city worlds, forest worlds (in particular, forests that look like those near the city of Vancouver), earthquake worlds, and so on.
But sometimes an author will create a world whose presence has a weight and ring of truth, a world that feels like it could happily go on existing on its own terms, with or without a protagonist or antagonist strolling around on its surface. Setting aside obviously artificial habitats like ring words or hollowed out asteroids, here are my top ten best science fiction planets, in chronological order:
The latest cinematic version of Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth opens this Friday, staring the ever-likeable Brendan Frasier. Frasier’s character, (Professor Trever Anderson), his nephew and local Icelandic guide find themselves having hair-raising adventures as they voyage through underground seas and landscapes populated with all manner of bizzare plants and animals. Verne’s original book was published in 1864, a time when quite a few people took very seriously the idea that the Earth was hollow–and inhabited. In this they were inspired by a scientific proposal by Edmund Halley (of Halley’s comet fame) that turned out to be not completely off the mark.