May 14, 2013 10:45 am
One in three students in the UK wears lucky underwear, according to a new survey by Bic pens. And while you might laugh their habits off, there’s a reason that those rituals might actually work.
At Scientific American, researchers Francesca Gino and Michael Norton explain some of their research on rituals and behavior:
Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence. What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work. While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
And there are studies to support this. If you give someone a “lucky golf ball,” they golf better. If you tell someone you’ll “cross your fingers for them,” they’ll do the task better. If you help a tennis player mentally train, they’ll play better. People who use rituals to stop smoking or ward off bad luck truly believe they work. And just believing might be enough to at least take the pressure off and make people relax and succeed just a bit more.
There’s even an argument that rituals are what bond us together, what make us human and what keep culture and society intact. Nature reports:
Rituals are a human universal — “the glue that holds social groups together”, explains Harvey Whitehouse, who leads the team of anthropologists, psychologists, historians, economists and archaeologists from 12 universities in the United Kingdom, the United States and Canada. Rituals can vary enormously, from the recitation of prayers in church, to the sometimes violent and humiliating initiations of US college fraternity pledges, to the bleeding of a young man’s penis with bamboo razors and pig incisors in purity rituals among the Ilahita Arapesh of New Guinea. But beneath that diversity, Whitehouse believes, rituals are always about building community — which arguably makes them central to understanding how civilization itself began.
Whitehouse is trying to catalogue the world’s rituals. Here he is talking on the Nature Podcast about the project:
Scientists are still trying to understand which rituals we cling to, why, and what they might be doing to us. But for now, be proud of your lucky underwear.
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May 14, 2013 9:43 am
In Belize, they needed to build a road. Roads require rocks, there happened to be a really convenient, large pile of rocks for the construction team to use nearby. It also happened to be one of the largest Mayan pyramids in the country. Now that pyramid is gone, destroyed by bulldozers and backhoes.
The construction company building the road appears to have extracted crushed rocks from the pyramid to use as road fill. The pyramid, called the Nohmul complex, is at least 2,300 years old and sits on the border of Belize and Mexico. It’s over 100 feet tall, the largest pyramid in Belize left over from the Mayans.
Jaime Awe, the head of the Belize Institute of Archaeology said that the news was “like being punched in the stomach.” The pyramid was, he said, very clearly an ancient structure, so there’s no chance the team didn’t realize what they were doing. “These guys knew that this was an ancient structure. It’s just bloody laziness,” Awe told CBS News. He also said:
“Just to realize that the ancient Maya acquired all this building material to erect these buildings, using nothing more than stone tools and quarried the stone, and carried this material on their heads, using tump lines. To think that today we have modern equipment, that you can go and excavate in a quarry anywhere, but that this company would completely disregard that and completely destroyed this building. Why can’t these people just go and quarry somewhere that has no cultural significance? It’s mind-boggling.”
And it turns out that this is an ongoing problem in Belize. The country is littered with ruins (although none as large as Nohmul), and construction companies are constantly bulldozing them for road fill. An archaeologist at Boston University said that several other sites have already been destroyed by construction to use the rocks for building infrastructure. There isn’t much in the way of protection or management of these sites in Belize, so many people who live in the country either aren’t aware of their significance, or aren’t taught to care.
The Huffington Post has photographs from the scene, showing backhoes and bulldozers chipping away at the stone structure. HuffPo ends this story on a lighter note, pointing out that due to the destruction, archaeologists can now see the inner workings of the pyramid and the ways they were built.
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May 14, 2013 8:56 am
Today, Angelina Jolie announced that she has decided to have a preventive double mastectomy, after testing positive for the BRCA1 gene implicated in increasing the risk of breast cancer in women. Her decision is a drastic one, but she’s not the only woman to have both breasts removed before any sign of cancer. While the procedure is still rare, rates of preventive double mastectomies are on the rise. But no one is quite sure what’s driving these increasing rates, and doctors disagree about the benefits of the procedure.
Jolie joins a few celebrities who have had the procedure. Sharon Osbourne had her breasts removed last year. Miss America contestant Allyn Rose said in January that she would have hers removed once the contest was over. In 2006, the then 23-year-old Lindsay Avner became one of the first women to undergo the procedure to avoid breast cancer. A study from last year reported that the rate of these surgeries—which remove breasts before cancer is found—is on the rise. In 2002, 94 women in Pennsylvania had preventative surgery. In 2012 that number was 455. (These number include both women who had two seemingly healthy breasts removed and women who had one healthy breast removed after a diagnosis of cancer in the other.) The Journal of Clinical Oncology found that bilateral mastectomies—in which a woman with cancer in one breast has both removed—increased from 1.8 percent in 1998 to 4.8 percent in 2003.
It’s hard to track these sorts of things, though. There is no good nationwide data on exactly how many are done each year and how that number has changed from year to year. But doctors generally agree that the rate is increasing.
The reasons for that increase are also slippery. Easier and cheaper genetic testing is providing more women with the information that often spurs the procedure. And surgeries to remove the breasts are getting safer and less expensive, as are plastic surgeries to replace tissue or minimize scarring.
The women who opt for the surgery cite a few reasons. The first is the real risk of breast cancer. Angelina Jolie, in her opinion piece for the New York Times, says that “doctors estimated that I had an 87 percent risk of breast cancer and a 50 percent risk of ovarian cancer.”
The second is peace of mind. Women living with the gene say they feel as though cancer is looming over them at all times. “There wasn’t a minute where it didn’t cross my mind in some way,” Sara Tenenbein wrote in XO Jane. “BRCA was taking over my entire life.” Tenenbein opted for the preventive double mastectomy. She knows her choice was unusual, but she doesn’t regret it. “I know that I chose something extreme in order to live without fear. I chosejoie de vivre over vanity, and I am proud of it,” she writes.
“A lot of women really feel that it’s liberating,” Jocelyn Dunn, a breast surgeon in Palo Alto, California, told the Daily Beast. “Regrets are rare.” But peace of mind has a dark side, too. The Daily Beast also talked to Stephen Sener, a doctor and former president of the American Cancer Society. “The main motivation is fear. Some women say, ‘I can’t live with the anxiety of having this happen again’.” The opening of a 2007 story about another woman who chose the surgery reads: “Her latest mammogram was clean. But Deborah Lindner, 33, was tired of constantly looking for the lump.”
But doctors say that there’s also a problem in risk perception. Only 5-10 percent of the women who get breast cancer are positive for the “breast cancer genes.” Women with the genes have a 60 percent chance of getting breast cancer. But having the double mastectomy doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be cancer free, either. One study found that the procedure doesn’t work for all women. The study looked at women who have preventive mastectomies after being diagnosed with cancer in one breast and found that the procedure only seemed to help women under 50 whose cancer was in very early stages. Another study that looked at preventive mastectomies says that, while the procedure does reduce the risk of developing breast cancer, “there is conflicting evidence on whether or not it reduces breast cancer mortality or overall death.”
While the research is still out on how effective it is, women who have the BRCA1 gene or a family history of breast cancer might see people like Jolie and Osbourne as examples. Removing both breasts might seem drastic, but it can feel worth it to those who have watched a loved one die of cancer. But that fear and dread could be pushing women to make decisions that aren’t medically sound. Allyn Rose, the Miss America contestant, says her father suggested the procedure, and when she pushed back he told her that, if she didn’t do it, “you’re going to end up dead like your mom.”
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May 13, 2013 12:49 pm
In 1066, the town of Dunwich began its march into the sea. After storms swept the farmland out for twenty years, the houses and buildings went in 1328. By 1570, nearly a quarter of the town had been swallowed, and in 1919 the All Saints church disappeared over the cliff. Dunwich is often called Britain’s Atlantis, a medieval town accessible only to divers, sitting quietly at the bottom of the ocean off the British Coast.
Now, researchers have created a 3D visualization of Dunwich using acoustic imaging. David Sear, a professor at the University of Southampton, where the work was done, described the process:
Visibility under the water at Dunwich is very poor due to the muddy water. This has limited the exploration of the site. We have now dived on the site using high resolution DIDSON ™ acoustic imaging to examine the ruins on the seabed – a first use of this technology for non-wreck marine archaeology.
DIDSON technology is rather like shining a torch onto the seabed, only using sound instead of light. The data produced helps us to not only see the ruins, but also understand more about how they interact with the tidal currents and sea bed.
Using this technology gives them a good picture of what the town actually looks like. Ars Technica writes:
We can now see where the local churches stood, and crumbling walls pinpoint the ancient town’s remits. A one kilometer (0.6 mile) square stronghold stood in the center of the 1.8km2space (about 0.7 square miles), with what looks like the remains of Blackfriars Friary, three churches, and the Chapel of St Katherine standing within it. The northern region looks like the commercial hub with lots of smaller buildings largely made of wood. It’s thought that the stronghold, as well as its buildings and a possible town hall, may date back to Saxon times.
Professor Sears sees this project as not just one of historical and archaeological importance, but also as a forecast of the fate of seaside cities. “It is a sobering example of the relentless force of nature on our island coastline. It starkly demonstrates how rapidly the coast can change, even when protected by its inhabitants. Global climate change has made coastal erosion a topical issue in the 21st Century, but Dunwich demonstrates that it has happened before. The severe storms of the 13th and 14th Centuries coincided with a period of climate change, turning the warmer medieval climatic optimum into what we call the Little Ice Age.”
So, in a million years, when aliens come to look at our planet, it might look a lot like Dunwich.
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May 13, 2013 11:20 am
Every so often you hear about the oldest person in the world dying. On April 1st, Elsi Calvert Thompson, America’s oldest person, died at 114. On December 17th, 2012, the 115-year-old Dina Mandredini passed away, handing off the world’s oldest living person title to Besse Cooper. But how often does the world’s oldest person die?
If you live in a country with Ncountry people, a continent with Ncontinent people and a world with Nworld people, during a year and on average, how often will you be notified (if you’re paying attention to your quality tabloid) of the death of the oldest man/woman/person alive of your country/continent/world? (Note that a death will result in at most one notification.)
On Stackexchange, which calls itself “a question and answer site for people studying math at any level,” Marc van Leeuwen tried to answer that question, and with the help from the community, came up with lots of ways to think about it.
Mortality tables from the CDC, for example, give one answer, provided by Chris Taylor. These tables only go up to 100, and since many of the oldest people crack that ceiling, he had to extrapolate a bit, knowing that the oldest person to have ever lived died at 122.
For each age a, the number of people of age a in year t is the fraction of the population aged a−1 at time t−1 who don’t die, i.e.N(t,a) (1−h(a−1))×N(t−1,a−1)
Eventually, he had an answer:
Taking the total number of events, and dividing by the number of years that I run the simulation for, gives an approximate rate. The punchline is that in my simulation, I see 15,234 events in 10,000 years, for an approximate rate of once in every 0.66 years.
Another person looked to the Gerontology Research Group, who keeps records on the death of the oldest living person. A user named Gwern calculated:
I extracted the final column, death dates, and formatted it and extracted the intervals between the death dates of each person, reasoning that if the Oldest Person In The World who died in 1955 is succeeded by a person who died in 1956, that meant an observer would, in 1955, wait ~1 year for the new Oldest Person to die. The mean interval between deaths turns out to be 1.2 years, but the median wait turns out to be 0.65 years! This seems to be due in large part due to the astounding lifespan of Jeanne Calment, as you will see on the interval graph shortly.
At Stackexchange, a few more people came up with answers, but things seem to settle around one oldest-person death every 0.65 years. Now, obviously, figuring out who the oldest person in the world is, is pretty hard. But since most of us will never hold the title of oldest person in the world, we can at least savor the fact that, for at least a few seconds, we were at one point the youngest.
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