Spring: The Season for Scientific Fun and Games!

Filed as Features, General on March 26, 2007 8:12 am

Spring Is Here! After too many dark, cold February days spent poring over seed catalogues and nearly 5 months worth of winter time-switching designed for no rational purpose I can think of other than to mess with our internal clocks and depress half the population with induced SAD [Seasonal Affective Disorder], it’s about time! But in case it’s still cold where you happen to be, thus you aren’t spending your so-called “free time” preparing your garden or listening to birds from a porch chair, there are some good science blog outings I can recommend in this installment.

Better yet, they switched to Daylight Savings three weeks early too. Now if we can just convince them to leave it alone we might find that human beings actually CAN handle the seasonal shortening and lengthening of daylight hours without induced economic productivity losses or suicidal tendencies.

To celebrate, the first blog I’m recommending sets the mood: Scientists of Comedy? by Benjamin Cohen at The World’s Fair. We get links and posters for performances by the Galileo Players , “…a professional sketch comedy and improv troupe that writes and performs original comedic theater focusing on scientific, philosophical and intellectual themes.”

There’s A Comedic Tour of the Universe (an intergalactic sketch comedy), An Element Never Forgets, and some assorted other productions I’d pay to see. And if I get to catch a live performance this year, I’m probably going to want to look into some of the new Smart Drugs, which Albert at ScientificBlogging tells us will soon take over for caffeine and the addictive drugs used to treat ADD/ADHD. Perhaps if we had pills to make us smarter, there wouldn’t be so much complaining about the state of science education in schools.

Speaking of which, David Ng over at The World’s Fair talks about Things that are effective but dangerous (in our quest for scientific literacy). David reports on some workshop ideas and issues on how to promote sound science to the public without causing skeptical reactions. Coturnix at A Blog Around the Clock offers a great link to an online magazine, Science In School, which offers stories and reviews of various innovative techniques for getting kids excited about science.

Or, if you’re a parent who wants to encourage science in your children but are a little leery of organized PR campaigns in open controversies or using Erin Brokovich to teach environmental chemistry, you could just check out Books for Young Mathgeeks: Rabbits, Rabbits Everywhere, offered by Mark Chu-Carroll at Good Math, Bad Math as an excellent way to introduce 1st graders to the Fibonacci number series. A wizard, some rabbits, a Pied Piper and a very bright little girl who saves a whole town! Chu-Carroll’s review is so positive I may have to order this book twice.

On the neuroscience front, Jonah Lehrer at The Frontal Cortex offers an interesting report on the subject of happiness in Happiness, Wealth and the Amish. He examines research reported in Slate showing that over the 20th century Americans, instead of getting happier and happier with rapidly increasing wealth and material goods, got steadily unhappier with their lot in life. Worse, the decline in this “misery quotient” declined by orders of magnitude from one generation to the next!

Oddly enough, the American model is exactly the opposite from what has been demonstrated in Europe, where generations from 1900 to about 1950 got successively happier and happier. What in the world could account for this?

Lehrer postulates that the misery of American wealth can be attributed to conspicuous consumption and rampant consumerism. Where every status symbol of wealth and position becomes just another expectation of wealth and position, and a whole new set of expectations takes root in our “reward neurons.” He contrasts this tendency with what the Amish [a.k.a. the "plain people"] have accomplished, which is to restrain the insatiable appetite of those dopamine-seeking neurons. By not focusing their lives on the goal of acquisition and consumerism, their end result is a regular “happiness boom!”

The comments predictably take issue with the article’s statement of self-reported facts, arguing that “happiness” must equate to “ignorance” and offering the requisite self-assertions of superiority by a grumpy materialist who obviously can’t be very happy with his life (and who blames his unhappiness on the Amish). Hmmm… what an interesting way to prove a point!

From cognitive psychology, Chris over at Mixing Memory offers the interesting observation that Ghosts Make You Less Likely to Cheat. He describes a ‘bizarre’ experiment where researchers selected 25 of the most difficult mental rotation problems from a common spatial reasoning test, then adding that there was a glitch in the program for taking the test, which would sometimes offer the answer before the test-taker sees the question. Further, participants were told the top scorer would win fifty dollars, which served as a motivational carrot to see what the participants would do about the pre-displayed answers.

Then an additional issue was introduced – an “In Memoriam” statement to a grad student who helped design the test, and who had died unexpectedly during that process. On viewing this notice, the participants were told that the present experimenter had recently seen the ghost of that departed grad student in the room! This psychologically primed them to think about the possible presence of a supernatural agent – a ghost – in the room with them as they took the test.

Results demonstrated that participants who got the ghost story (as opposed to control groups who didn’t) were less likely to cheat during the taking of the test, choosing to space past the pre-displayed answers to more honestly evaluate the questions. Sort of makes one wonder if maybe introducing ghost stories in regular classrooms might serve to curb cheating among students. Only the ghost should be of a particularly strict teacher!

Finally, for a wealth of links to fun and interesting collection of yummy factoids and blogger sociology, check out The View From The Cheap Seats’ Tarheel Tavern 108: According to…, where you’ll find a report on a St. Pat’s Day get-together (drink of choice: Irish Coffee), some cuisine reviews, and links to cartoons about life in middle school. These are less scientific and more just fun and games, which is certainly a good use for tidbits and factoids for those of us who are not scientists but who want to sound smarter than we really are.

Happy Spring!

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