August 12, 2013
You’re at work, typing away at an important memo or filling in the last cell of a spreadsheet when your phone rings. Answering it, the voice on the other line tells you that your seven-year-old son has fallen ill and needs to be picked up from school. It’s a familiar balancing act for working parents, being able to compartmentalize work and family life, and everyone experiences spill-over, from a child calling sick during work to a work project preoccupying some weekend time. But not everyone experiences it the same way, a new study shows. If you’re a man, getting that call from a school won’t necessarily derail your workday. If you’re a woman, however, family-life spilling over into work-life–or vice versa–can truly ruin your day.
Women have long been told that having it all–the dream job and the idyllic family life–is hard; maternal instincts coupled with traditional gender roles that require women to excel in both home life and work life push females to the brink of what’s humanly possible. But science now shows that it’s more than hard, it’s emotionally and psychologically damaging. The study, led by Professor Shira Offer of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, suggests that though women and men spend the same amount of time worrying about family matters, women feel a disproportional amount negative emotional affects–stress, depression, and the like–from this mental labor.
The finding, presented yesterday at the 108th Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association, looked at the work and family experiences of middle-class dual-earner families using the 500 Family Study conducted by the University of Chicago. Participants in the study–parents in 500 families across the U.S. with children of all ages–recorded responses to various questions, for example about work, child care, free time, division of responsibilities, etc. Subjects responded in two ways: first, they filled out a survey, and second, they participated in an experience sampling method (ESM), a unique kind of “time-diary” that allowed respondents to record their experiences and feelings at various times throughout the day. Participants would carry a device programmed to emit an alarm at random times throughout the day, and when the alarm sounded, participants were asked to respond to various questions and evaluate their experiences. Participants that failed to respond to the ESM over 1/4 of the time were removed from the data.
Offer chose a sub-sample from the 500 Family Study that responded to both survey questions and participated in the ESM. In her research, the responses of 402 mothers and 291 fathers were analyzed. The participants, it’s important to note, represent families where both parents work, and come from eight suburban and urban areas around the United States. The families that participated in the study were predominantly non-Latino white families with highly educated parents, and the family earnings rank above the average for married parents in the United States.
She then divided respondents’ experiences into three categories of mental labor: 1) general mental labor, which includes day-to-day planning of activities such as making sure you’re not late to something 2) family-specific mental labor, which includes thoughts about family matters and 3) job-specific mental labor, which includes thinking about things relating to the participants paid job. Offer also used the ESM responses to create two categories for emotional behavior: 1) positive, meaning the emotions associated with a particular mental labor caused cheerful, relaxed, or happy feelings and 2) negative, meaning emotions associated with the mental-labor created feelings of stress or worry.
Offer found that, on average, women engage in mental labor for 1/4 of the waking hours, while men only engage in mental labor 1/5 of the time. In keeping with Offer’s expectations, the study found that men spend more time engaging in work-related mental labor, but experience much less of a spillover of these concerns into non-work domains, contrasted with women, who experience a large deal of crossover with work-related mental labor in non-work domains.
But that’s not the whole story: In a surprising twist, the study showed that men and women spend an equal amount of time engaging in family-related mental labor, meaning that men spend just as much time thinking about their family’s needs as women do. What Offer discovered, however, is that men aren’t negatively affected by this mental labor: in the emotional category, men did not report negative emotional associations with family-related mental labor. Conversely, thinking about family matters translated to significantly negative emotional responses in women. In short, women suffer more from the burden of family-related mental labor than men.
According to Offer, these findings suggest that men might be more capable of compartmentalizing their work life and family life than women. But she notes that for women in America the level of compartmentalization
that men can exhibit may not be an option. Women, according to traditional family and gender roles, are often expected to be the primary caretaker of the house, no matter how successful they might be in their careers–a study conducted by the New America Foundation states that in 70 percent dual-earner families, women are still the primary caregivers (pdf). If family matters force the women away from the workplace (for example, women are more likely to miss work because of a sick child than men) then, in order make up for the lost time at work, women are forced to spend more non-work time thinking about work-related issues. As Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s chief operating officer, noted in an interview with PBS, “I feel guilty when my son says, ‘Mommy, put down the BlackBerry, talk to me’ and that happens far too much. I think all women feel guilty.” she explained. “I don’t know a lot of men who feel guilty for working full time, it’s expected that they’ll work full time.”
This “mommy guilt” might just be why women suffer more negative emotional responses to family-related mental labor, Offer suggests.
modern world where women increasingly need to work and in fact are the primary breadwinners, traditional roles of the mother whereby she assumes the largest burden for home care translate into women feeling stretched beyond their means. Therein lies the heart of the problem, Offer explained. “I believe that what makes this type of mental labor an overall negative and stressful experience for mothers only is that they are the ones judged and held accountable for family-related matters,” she said.
The study is one of the first to directly correlate what people think (based on survey and ESM responses) with how people feel about it. But the study isn’t foolproof or all-encompassing. In fact, it’s limited in its scope and only deals with families that tend to fit into families that exemplify the American “working parents” stereotype: white, heterosexual, highly educated and fairly wealthy, carving out a cross-section of the population that often has the most leeway in terms of work and family stress, financially and socially. Would the same results be found in same sex couples, where traditional gender roles wouldn’t be as clearly divided, or in minority couples, whose metal worries likely encompass how children will deal with racism? Would impoverished families, concerned with how to feed their children on small budgets, show the similar or different struggles between family and work stressors depending on the parent’s gender?
Answering these questions requires more research. But if this study’s findings can be broadly applied, what can be done to ease women’s mental burdens of family? Offer believes that certain policy changes at the state, federal and organizational levels–directed towards fathers–can make a huge difference. “Fathers have to be encouraged, rather than penalized, for being more active in the domestic sphere. Fathers should be able to leave work early, start work late, take time off from work, and take pauses during the work day to deal with family-related matters,” Offer explains. “I think that if fathers were able to do this without the fear of being viewed as less committed workers, they would assume greater responsibility at home, which would lead to greater gender equality.”
Given the huge stresses of child-rearing, one can’t help but ask: would gender equality in this specific case make for happier parents? Or for both parents feeling weighed down by responsibility? Give us your thoughts!
August 5, 2013
People have been fascinated and terrified by sharks for thousands of years, so you would think that we know a fair bit about the roughly 400 named species that roam the ocean. But we have little sense of how many sharks are out there, how many species there are, and where they swim, let alone how many existed before the advent of shark fishing for shark fin soup, fish and chips, and other foods.
But we are making progress. In honor of Shark Week, here’s an overview of what we have learned about these majestic citizens of the sea in the past year:
1. Sharks mostly come in shades of gray, and it’s likely that they only see that way as well. Now, that knowledge is being put to use to protect surfers and swimmers offshore. In 2011, researchers from the University of Western Australia found that, out of 17 shark species tested, ten had no color-sensing cells in their eyes, while seven only had one type. This likely means that sharks hunt by looking for patterns of black, white and grey rather than noticing any brilliant colors. To protect swimmers, whose bodies often look like a tasty seal from below, the researchers are working with a company to design wetsuits that are striped in colorblocked disruptive patterns. One suits will alert sharks that they aren’t looking at their next meal, and a second suit that will help camouflage swimmers and surfers in the water.
2. The thresher shark has a long, scythe-shaped tail fin that scientists long-suspected was used for hunting, but they didn’t know how. This year, they finally filmed how the thresher shark uses it to “tail slap” fish, killing them on impact. It herds and traps schooling fish by swimming in increasingly smaller circles before striking the group with its tail. This strike usually comes from above instead of sideways, an unusual technique that allows the shark to stun multiple fish at once—up to seven, the study found. Most carnivorous sharks only kill one fish at a time and so are comparatively less efficient.
3. How many sharks do people kill each year? A new study published in July 2013 used available shark catch information to estimate the global number—a staggering 100 million sharks killed every year. Although the data are incomplete and often do not include those sharks whose fins are removed and bodies are thrown back to sea, this is the most accurate estimate to date. Slow growth and low birth rates of sharks mean that they are not able to repopulate fast enough to catch up with the loss.
4. The 50-foot giant megalodon shark is a staple of shark week, reigning as the great white’s larger and even more terrifying ancestor. But a new fossil discovered in November turns that supposition on its head: it looks like the megalodon isn’t a great white shark ancestor after all, but is more closely related to the fish-munching mako sharks. The teeth of the new fossil look more like great white and ancient mako shark teeth than megalodon teeth, which also suggests that great whites are more closely related to mako sharks than previously thought.
5. Sharks are worth more alive in the water than dead on the plate (or bowl). In May, researchers found that shark ecotourism ventures—such as swimming with whale sharks and coral reef snorkeling—bring in 314 million U.S. dollars globally every year. What’s more, projections show that this number will double in the next 20 years. In contrast, the value of fished sharks is estimated at 630 million U.S. dollars and has been declining for the past decade. While dead sharks’ value terminates after they are killed and consumed, live sharks provide value year after year: in Palau, an individual shark can bring up to 2 million dollars in benefits over its lifetime from the tourist dollars that pour in just so that people can view the shark up close. One citizen science endeavor even has snorkeling travelers snapping photos of whale sharks in an effort to help researchers. Protecting sharks for future ecotourism endeavors just makes the most financial sense.
6. Bioluminescence isn’t just for jellyfish and anglers: even some sharks are able to light up to confuse predators and prey alike. Lanternsharks are named for this ability. It’s been long known that their bellies light up to blend in with sunlight shining down from above, an adaptation known as countershading. But in February, researchers reported that lanternsharks also have “lightsabers” on their backs. Their sharp, quill-like spines are lined with thin lights that look like Star Wars weaponry and send a message to predators that, “if you take a bite of me, you might get hurt!”
7. What can an old sword tell us about sharks? Far more than you might expect—especially when those swords are made of shark teeth. The swords, along with tridents and spears collected by Field Museum anthropologists in the mid-1800s from people living in the Pacific’s Gilbert Islands, are lined with hundreds of shark teeth. The teeth, it turns out, come from a total of eight shark species—and, shockingly, two of these species had never been recorded around the islands before. The swords give a glimpse into how many more species once lived on the reef, and how easy it is for human memory to lose track of history, a phenomenon known as “shifting baselines.”
8. Sharks know some pretty neat tricks even before they’re born. Bamboo shark embryos develop in egg cases that float on the high seas, where they are vulnerable to being eaten by all manner of predators. Even as developing embryos, they can sense electric fields in the water given off by a predator—just like adults. If they sense this danger nearby they can hold still, even stopping their breathing, so they won’t be noticed in their egg cases. But for sand tiger shark embryos, which develop inside the mother, their siblings can pose the biggest threat—the first embryos to hatch from eggs, at just roughly 100 millimeters long, will attack and devour their younger siblings.
9. Shark fin soup has been a delicacy in China for hundreds of years, and its popularity has only increased in the last several decades with the country’s growing population. This increasing demand has heightened the number of sharks killed every year, but the expensive dish may be losing some fans.
Even before last year’s Shark Week, the Chinese government banned the serving of shark fin soup at official state banquets—and the conversation hasn’t died down since. Countries and states banning the trade of shark fins and regulating the practice of shark finning have made headlines this year. And just a few weeks ago, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a ban of the possession and sale of shark fins in the state that will go into effect in 2014.
10. Shark fin bans aren’t the only method of protecting sharks. The island nations of French Polynesia and the Cook Islands created the largest shark sanctuary in December of 2012—protecting sharks from being fished in an area of over 2.5 million square miles in the south Pacific Ocean. And member countries of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) voted to place export restrictions on five species of sharks in March 2013. Does this mean that the general perception of sharks is changing for the better and that the public image of sharks is veering away from its “Jaws” persona? That, in essence, is up to you!
–Emily Frost, Hannah Waters and Caty Fairclough co-wrote this post
July 30, 2013
Pickles and potato chips, ice cream and burgers: the cravings that hit women during their pregnancies might be more than strange–they may be permanently changing the brains of their unborn children. New research, to be presented by scientists from the University of Adelaide on August 1 at the annual meeting of the Society for the Study of Ingestive Behavior (SSIB) in New Orleans, suggests that women who eat a junk-food heavy diet during their pregnancies alter the opioid signalling pathways in their unborn child’s brain, transforming the way these pathways operate when the child is born.
The word “opioid” may conjure images of semi-synthetic drugs like oxycodone, a strong painkiller. But not all opioids are synthetic, or even semi-synthetic–in fact our body creates natural opioids known as endogenous opioids. Endogenous opioids are chemicals that are released in the brain and in turn signal the release of dopamine, the “feel good chemical” that is responsible for the euphoric feelings.
When we eat food high in sugar or fat, our brains release large amounts of opioid, which accounts for the “high” we experience after raiding the kitchen for a midnight bowl of ice cream or tucking back a bag full of Cheetos. As psychologist Leigh Gibson explains in an interview with the Daily Mail, our brains are rewarding us for ingesting foods loaded with calories. “From an evolutionary point of view, junk food cravings are linked to prehistoric times when the brain’s opioids and dopamine reacted to the benefit of high-calorie food as a survival mechanism,” Gibson said. Although foods rich in calories are available with much greater ease–and in greater abundance–than they were for our evolutionary predecessors, our brain chemistry remains the same, rewarding our intake of fatty, sugary foods with euphoria.
In the study to be presented at the SSIB meeting, researchers found that the chemical response to junk food was higher in rats whose mothers consumed a junk-food laden diet while pregnant. In comparing the rats who ate junk food with rats who ate standard rat feed, scientists found that in the offspring of the junk-food fed rats, the gene encoding one of the key endogenous opioids, enkephalin, was expressed at a higher level. This means that means that the baby rats of junk-food fed moms have more pathways to receive opiods than those whose moms were fed regular food. These findings add to previous research conducted by the group that shows that injecting the rats with a chemical that blocks opioid reception was less effective at stemming the fat and sugar intake in the offspring of the mothers who were fed junk food.
Combining these results, the group concludes that opioid signalling pathways are less sensitive in the offspring of the rats who ate only junk food. The findings reenforce prior research conducted by members of the group, which initially suggested a distinct preference for junk foods in the offspring of junk-food fed mothers. The new study adds to previous knowledge by pinpointing the specific brain chemistry at work, singling out the genetic encoding of enkephalin. More pathways and decreased sensitivity to opioids means that offspring of junk-food fed mothers would need to eat larger amounts of fatty and sugary foods to attain the same kind of high–leading scientists to speculate that they would consistently overeat junk food as they grow older.
If the implications of these findings hold true for humans, those who sport a baby bump are sure to pay attention. Expectant mothers are already told not to consume alcohol, sushi, cold cuts, soft cheeses, and daring to consume anything on the laundry list of off-limits items is a quick way to earn public censure. Could junk food become the next no-no for pregnant women? Could what you eat while you’re expecting inadvertently contribute to a more obese next generation? Or will the finding mirror the recent revelation that “crack babies,” children whose mothers used crack cocaine while pregnant, were no more worse off than other children of similar socioeconomic backgrounds?
For now, it is likely too soon to make sweeping generalizations about “junk food babies,” though the University of Adelaide researchers hope to continue building on their findings with continued research. Says Jessica Gugusheff, the graduate student leading the team’s recent research, “the results of this study will eventually permit us to better inform pregnant women about the enduring effect their diet has on the development of their child’s lifelong food preferences and risk of negative metabolic outcomes.”
April 25, 2013
Penguins seem a bit out of place on land, with their stand-out black jackets and clumsy waddling. But once you see their grace in the water, you know that’s where they’re meant to be–they are well-adapted to life in the ocean.
1. Depending on which scientist you ask, there are 17–20 species of penguins alive today, all of which live in the southern half of the globe. The most northerly penguins are Galapagos penguins (Spheniscus mendiculus), which occasionally poke their heads north of the equator.
2. While they can’t fly through the air with their flippers, many penguin species take to the air when they leap from the water onto the ice. Just before taking flight, they release air bubbles from their feathers. This cuts the drag on their bodies, allowing them to double or triple their swimming speed quickly and launch into the air.
4. Penguins don’t wear tuxedos to make a fashion statement: it helps them be camouflaged while swimming. From above, their black backs blend into the dark ocean water and, from below, their white bellies match the bright surface lit by sunlight. This helps them avoid predators, such as leopard seals, and hunt for fish unseen.
5. The earliest known penguin fossil was found in 61.6 million-year old Antarctic rock, about 4-5 million years after the mass extinction that killed the dinosaurs. Waimanu manneringi stood upright and waddled like modern day penguins, but was likely more awkward in the water. Some fossil penguins were much larger than any penguin living today, reaching 4.5 feet tall!
6. Like other birds, penguins don’t have teeth. Instead, they have backward-facing fleshy spines that line the inside of their mouths. These help them guide their fishy meals down their throat.
7. Penguins are carnivores: they feed on fish, squid, crabs, krill and other seafood they catch while swimming. During the summer, an active, medium-sized penguin will eat about 2 pounds of food each day, but in the winter they’ll eat just a third of that.
8. Eating so much seafood means drinking a lot of saltwater, but penguins have a way to remove it. The supraorbital gland, located just above their eye, filters salt from their bloodstream, which is then excreted through the bill—or by sneezing! But this doesn’t mean they chug seawater to quench their thirst: penguins drink meltwater from pools and streams and eat snow for their hydration fix.
9. Another adaptive gland—the oil (also called preen) gland—produces waterproofing oil. Penguins spread this across their feathers to insulate their bodies and reduce friction when they glide through the water.
10. Once a year, penguins experience a catastrophic molt. (Yes, that’s the official term.) Most birds molt (lose feathers and regrow them) a few at a time throughout the year, but penguins lose them all at once. They can’t swim and fish without feathers, so they fatten themselves up beforehand to survive the 2–3 weeks it takes to replace them.
11. Feathers are quite important to penguins living around Antarctica during the winter. Emperor penguins (Aptenodytes forsteri) have the highest feather density of any bird, at 100 feathers per square inch. In fact, the surface feathers can get even colder than the surrounding air, helping to keep the penguin’s body stays warm.
12. All but two penguin species breed in large colonies for protection, ranging from 200 to hundreds of thousands of birds. (There’s safety in numbers!) But living in such tight living quarters leads to an abundance of penguin poop—so much that it stains the ice! The upside is that scientists can locate colonies from space just by looking for dark ice patches.
13. Climate change will likely affect different penguin species differently—but in the Antarctic, it appears that the loss of krill, a primary food source, is the main problem. In some areas with sea ice melt, krill density has decreased 80 percent since the 1970s, indirectly harming penguin populations. However, some colonies of Adelie penguins (Pygoscelis adeliae) have grown as the melting ice exposes more rocky nesting areas.
14. Of the 17 penguin species, the most endangered is New Zealand’s yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes): only around 4,000 birds survive in the wild today. But other species are in trouble, including the erect-crested penguin (Eudyptes sclateri) of New Zealand, which has lost approximately 70 percent of its population over the past 20 years, and the Galapagos penguin, which has lost more than 50 percent since the 1970s.
Learn more about the ocean from the Smithsonian’s Ocean Portal.
April 9, 2013
Ever since the collective “YOU” became Time Magazine’s Person of the Year in 2006, campaigns to get our attention have increasingly sought out our digital selves. You can name a Budweiser Clydesdale. You can pick Lays’ new potato chip flavor. And it’s not just retail that wants your online opinions: You can vote for who will win photography contests. You can play the futures market on who will win elected offices. And with enough signatures, you can get the White House to read your petitions.
Many science endeavors rely on such crowdsourcing. With a simple app, you can let researchers know the exact date that your lilacs or dogwoods bloom, helping them to track how seasonal cycles are shifting as a result of climate change. You can join the search for ever-larger prime numbers. You can even help scientists scan radio waves in space to search for intelligent life outside of Earth. These more traditional crowdsourcing efforts allow users to brainstorm ideas and process data from computers at home.
But now, a few projects are allowing us to put our virtual selves beyond Earth’s atmosphere through recently launched space missions. Who said that rovers, space probes, a handful of astronauts and pigs were the only ones in space? No longer are we just bystanders watching spacecraft launch and cooing over images returned of other planets and stars. Now, we can direct cameras, help run experiments, even send our avatars–of sorts–to inhabit nearby planetary bodies or return to us in a time capsule.
Here are a few examples:
Asteroid Chimney Rock: On April 10 (tomorrow), the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency will open up a campaign that allows visitors to their site the opportunity of sending their names and brief messages to the near-Earth asteroid (162173) 1999 JU3. Called the “Let’s meet with Le Petit Prince! Million Campaign 2,” the effort aims to get people’s names onto the Hayabusa2 mission, which will likely launch in 2014 to study the asteroid. When Hayabusa 2 lands on the asteroid, the names submitted–embedded in a plaque of sorts on the spacecraft–will stand as a testament to the idea that humans (or at least their robotic representatives) were there.
The campaign is reminiscent of how NASA got more than 1.2 million people to submit their names and signatures, which were then etched on two dime-sized microchips and affixed to the Mars Curiosity rover. Sure, it’s a bit gimmicky–what useful function is brought by having people’s names out in space? But the idea of “tagging” a planet or an asteroid–preserving a bit of yourself on what will over decades become space junk–has powerful pull. It is why Chimney Rock, with its etchings from early explorers and pioneers, is the historical marker it is today, and why gladiators scored their names into the Colosseum before they fought to the death. For mission leaders hoping to get the public enthusiastic about space, nothing’s more exciting than a bit of digital graffiti.
Interplanetary time capsules: A key goal of Hayabusa2 is to return return a sample from the asteroid in 2020. Mission creators saw this as a perfect way to get the public to fill a time capsule. Those seeking to participate are encouraged to send to mission coordinators their thoughts and dreams for the future along with their hopes and expectations for recovery from natural disasters, the latter likely a way to get people to express their feelings on the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan’s east coast. Names, messages, and illustrations will loaded onto a microchip that will not only touch down on the asteroid’s surface, but will also be a part of the probe sent back to Earth with asteroid dust.
But why stop at a mere 6-year time capsule? The European Space Agency, UNESCO, and other partners are blending crowd sourcing with space technology to create the KEO mission–so named because the letters represent common sounds across all of Earth’s languages–which will bundle thoughts and images of anyone who seeks to participate and will launch this bundle in a probe that will only return to Earth in 50,000 years.
Project operators write on KEO’s website: “Each one of us have 4 uncensored pages at our disposal: an identical space of equality and freedom of expression where we can voice our aspirations and our revolts, where we can reveal our deepest fears and our strongest beliefs, where we can relate our lives to our faraway great grandchildren, thus allowing them to witness our times.” That’s 4 pages for every person who chooses to participate.
On board will be photographs detailing Earth’s cultural richness, human blood encased in a diamond, and a durable DVD of humanity’s crowdsourced thoughts. The idea is to launch the time capsule from an Ariane 5 rocket into an orbit more than 2,000 kilometers above Earth, hopefully sometime in 2014. “50,000 years ago, Man created art thus showing his capacity for symbolic abstraction.” the website notes. And in another 50,000 years, “Will Earth still give life? Will human beings still be recognizable as such?”Another logical question: Will whatever’s left on Earth know what’s coming back to them and will be able to retrieve it?
Hayabusa2 and KEO will join capsules already launched into space on Pioneer 10 and 11 and Voyager 1 and 2. But the contents of these earlier capsules were picked by a handful of people; here, we get to choose what represents us in space, and will get to reflect (in theory) on the thoughts bound in time upon their return.
You, the mission controller and scientist: Short of going to Mars yourself, you can do the next best thing–tell an instrument currently observing Mars where to look. On NASA’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter is the University of Arizona’s High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment (HiRISE), a camera designed to image Mars in great detail. Dubbed “the people’s camera,” HiRISE allows you–yes, you!– to pick its next targets by filling out a form specifying your “HiWishes.”
A recently launched nanosatellite is allowing the crowdsourced winners of a crowdsourced screaming contest the chance to test whether screams can be heard in space. Launched in February, the nanosatellite’s smartphone-powered brain will broadcast the screams–no word yet on results. But you may find just listening to the yelling therapeutic! This guy’s roar got the most votes: