Saturday, April 11, 2009

The Value of Breast Milk

I recently read a piece, "The Case Against Breast-Feeding," by Hanna Rosin in the Atlantic, which called the benefits of breast-feeding to babies into question. Former breast-feeding mom that I am, Rosin's argument caught my attention and has had me mulling it over for several weeks. I hadn't come to any conclusion when I spotted "Mother's Milk a Lifesaver for Preemies?" by Dr. Sanjay Gupta at today. Gupta's report is about the encouraging results with preemies and breastmilk experienced at UC Davis San Diego Medical Center. In particular, last year the use of breastmilk brought the rate of an often fatal illness, NEC or Necrotizing Enterocolitis, down from 5.8% to less than 1%. All of which leaves me wondering if there is a breastmilk benefit to term babies after all?

Rosin "The Case Against Breast-Feeding"
Gupta "Mother's Milk a Lifesaver for Preemies?"

Saturday, February 14, 2009

What Does It Mean To Be Lucky?

I’ve never been a believer in luck – good, bad, or otherwise – so it came as a surprise to me when a woman who had just played a card game with my then three-year-old asked if he was a lucky child. I didn’t have an answer so she went on to explain he’d lost the first game and instead of being upset had asked if they could play again. This, she told me, was an indication he had reason to believe he'd win the next game. I’ve been thinking about that off and on for about fifteen years now and I still don’t believe in luck – good, bad, or otherwise – but I do believe in serendipity. I’ve been content to leave it at that.

At least I was until Flight 1549 landed safely on the Hudson and people began writing about luck. Why weren't they weren’t writing about surviving. With that on my mind I read “The Unthinkable,” a book that explores the ways people react in a life-threatening emergency and what you can do to better your chances of survival. Next was a book called, “The Survivor’s Club” and from there it was just a skip to “The Luck Factor.”

Dr. Richard Wiseman, author of "The Luck Factor," has been studying luck for years as the result being misdirected in a library as a child. When he wound up in the magic section, he thumbed though some books that piqued his curiosity and as a result of studying magic, years later he had chance to come upon a woman who knew she’d make out alright as the volunteer in one of his tricks because she was a “lucky” person. He determined to study luck to see if it really did exist. Was it a matter of self-perception? Was it a matter of psychic ability? What made someone lucky?

Wiseman’s wonderful book spells it all out in detail. He's discovered there is no luck in the true random, lottery-winning sense but there is a sort of luck that can result from skills we all possess. Essentially it comes down to what I call being alive on the planet. If you’re aware of your surroundings, enjoying the people you come across, engaging with other people – not because you’re hoping to network with them in some self-serving way – you’re going to interact with more people than someone going through life with a cloud over his head or a book clutched in his hand. If you’re interested in people as people – and not for what benefit they can afford you – you’re going to know a lot of people you keep in touch with. Each of these networks – forgive the use of that term – opens opportunities for encounters and referrals to the one person who can help you out. In other words, luck is a direct result of the number of interactions you have in any given week and the number of relationships you maintain over time.

So. If you pick a lottery number, it doesn’t matter whether you’re lucky or not. That’s a random thing and your luck is as good as the next guy’s. If you get on a plane and the plane goes down, it doesn’t matter whether you’re lucky or not. That’s a random thing and your luck is as good as the next guy’s insofar as whether the landing goes well or not. From there it’s a matter of your survival skills. But that’s another post…

Check out Dr. Wiseman's blog!


Ripley, Amanda. 2008. The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes and Why. New York: Crown Publishers.

Sherwood, Ben. 2009. The Survivors Club: The Secrets and Science That Could Save Your Life. New York, Hachette Book Group.

Wiseman, Dr. Richard. 2003. The Luck Factor: The Four Essential Principles. New York: Hyperion.

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

$#@&?%! and Other Words for Snow

Snow has been on my mind a lot lately. Winter this year in Rhode Island has been unusually cold and snowy; the normal total snowfall in December and January is 17.1 inches, and this winter we have had 35 inches so far (Salit, 2009).

For me, it’s been especially hard to cope with after spending the first couple of weeks of January in the southern hemisphere summer in Buenos Aires, Argentina. For much of that time, the temperature was in the mid-90 degrees (more about my trip in future posts).

This winter confirms the silliness of that hoary myth about the 9, 48, 100, or 400 words for snow that Eskimos supposedly have. Actually, the Eskimos don’t have any more words for snow than New Englanders do. As Richard Salit put it in his 2/1/09 article in the Providence Journal, "Colder, Harsher Winter,"

“If Eskimos have lots of words for snow (which is apparently a myth), Rhode Islanders, especially public works directors, probably have a few choice words of their own for the stuff.”

Linguist Steven Pinker (1995), in The Language Instinct, succinctly analyzes how the myth of Eskimo words for snow took off, referring to work by anthropologist Laura Martin and linguist Geoffrey Pullman. (See my post of 8/29/08, “What’s the difference between a chimpanzee, a sewage sludge hauler, and my mother?” for another debunking by Steven Pinker).

It’s a good case study in how the misinterpretation of an obscure scientific observation by a careless amateur with an ideological agenda can blow up into a wildly inaccurate factoid.

“In 1911, [anthropologist Franz] Boas casually mentioned that Eskimos used four unrelated word roots for snow. [Insurance inspector and amateur scholar of Native American languages Benjamin Lee] Whorf embellished the count to seven and implied that there were more. His article was widely reprinted, then cited in textbooks and popular books on language, which led to successively inflated estimates in other textbooks, articles, and newspaper columns of Amazing Facts.” (p. 64)

Pullman, as cited by Pinker, theorized that a patronizing, racist attitude toward “primitive” cultures encouraged the “credulous transmission and elaboration of a false claim” that would not be intellectually interesting even if it were true: “Botanists have names for leaf shapes; decorators have names for shades of mauve.” (p. 64)

The myth about Eskimo words for snow has spawned a plethora of popular culture references. Ministers have gotten a lot of mileage out of it for sermons on various topics. Many comical lists of fake Eskimo words for snow have been created, such as one by Phil James, quoted by David Mendosa (example: hahatla, small packages of snow given as gag gifts).

It occurs to me, as the millionth snowstorm of the season is taking place outside my window, that the English vocabulary for snow isn’t nearly enough for Rhode Islanders to accurately express their feelings about snow. I propose the need for a few more words to cover the following concepts:
  • Pretty snow on the trees
  • Snow on your driveway that has to be shoveled
  • The three-foot-tall compacted pile of snow, dirt, and rocks blocking the driveway you have just shoveled after the city plows your street
  • A snowstorm that dumps 10 inches of snow on your driveway after you have just finished shoveling the 8 inches of snow from the previous storm
  • Snow as perceived by children when a snow day is declared
  • Snow as perceived by the Department of Public Works at the beginning of winter
  • Snow as perceived by the Department of Public Works halfway through the season when the snow removal budget has already run out
  • Snow piled up on your car
  • Snow that falls in spring and buries the daffodils that have just started blooming
  • The imaginary snow that people from normally snow-free Buenos Aires envision who think it would be really cool to visit Rhode Island in the winter
  • The actual snow that people from normally snow-free Buenos Aires experience that leads them to admit you were right that they should have visited in summer instead
  • A half-inch snowfall in a major metropolitan area where it has not snowed for 89 years, causing the city to grind to a halt and the residents to go endearingly berserk (see photo of Buenos Aires television newscast, winter of 2007: “Breaking news: It’s snowing”)

This is just a start; I’m sure there are a lot of other concepts I haven’t covered. But according to Punxsutawney Phil, we have at least six more weeks of winter, so there will be plenty more opportunities to think about snow.

ITV News. 2009. “US Celebrates Groundhog Day,” Independent Television News (February 3),

Mendosa, David. 2005. “Inuit Words for Snow,”,

Pinker, Steven. 1995. The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language. New York: HarperCollins.

Salit, Richard. 2009. “A Colder, Harsher Winter,” Providence Journal (February 1),

Monday, February 2, 2009

Super Bowl Ad

Did you catch the scarecrow and wind power ads during the Super Bowl?  They were from GE and coordinate with the content on their ecomagination site.  We'll be taking a look at that, too, so check back.  The next couple of weeks will be busy ones here.

(How about that game!?)

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Flight 1549 - Heroism and Survival/Stuff Happens - Planet Green

When Captain Chesley 'Sully' Sullenberger III safely landed US Airlines Flight 1549 in the Hudson River he was appropriately heralded for his heroism in saving the lives of all 155 passengers and crew.  But Sullenberger is also a survivor.  What can the science of survival tell you about the way you would react in a life-or-death situation?  We'll take a look at that next week...  

Meanwhile, check out "Stuff Happens."  It's the new Bill Nye show on Planet Green.  It's got the feel of the old "Bill Nye the Science Guy" with a serious look at the unintended consequences of our everyday decisions. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Will Obama Create a Cabinet-Level Science Position?

Whether or not Barack Obama was your choice in this past election, it’s clear changes are in the making. Major news organizations report possible reversals of current policies on stem cell research and drilling. Speculation on posts in his administration during the transition and afterward circle the Beltway in typical DC fashion, driving you wild or serving as a major source of entertainment.

I’m most eager to see if Obama will go with the recommendation made in letters to then-Presidential candidates Obama and McCain in October. These letters called for the speedy post-election appointment of a newly-created “Assistant to the President for Science and Technology” as a cabinet-level position. The signatories included a broad range of science- and math-related institutions such as the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the National Center for Science Education. They referenced both candidates' responses to the Science Debate 2008 questions as reflecting their “acknowledgment of the important role that science will play in a new Administration,” and went on to point out that, “it is essential to quickly appoint a science advisor who is a nationally respected leader with the appropriate scientific, management and policy skills necessary for this critically important role.”(1)

The Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars released a similar recommendation along with their OSTP 2.0 report back in June. (2) That report cited the importance of expert advice in the evaluation and shaping of the $142 billion investments in science and technology the US will need to make. It also pointed out that, “Science and technology pervade virtually all domestic and global issues. The defining policy issues facing our nation are directly related to our capabilities in science, technology, and innovation. Those issues span national security and economic competitiveness, energy security, environmental protection and natural resource conservation, public health, and quality of life.”

As “Key Issues Facing the OSTP” they cited environmental and energy challenges, enhancing US global leadership in innovation, responding to national security challenges, the need for improved S&T education at all levels, improving health and health care delivery, and ensuring greater public understanding of scientific issues and advances. (3) It’s certainly hard to question any of these.

Whether or not Obama goes with the recommendation remains to be seen, but with nearly 180 respected signatories on the letter and every living former Science Advisor contributing to the Wilson report, it’s certainly worthy of his serious consideration.

(1) Letter to then-Senator Barack Obama

(2) Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars OSTP 2.0 Critical Upgrade Report

(3) Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars OSTP 2.0 Critical Upgrade Report

Tuesday, October 28, 2008


It's the time of year for reflections on the fleeting nature of things and all sorts of other deep thoughts. Here in New England, the maple trees briefly – so briefly – flash their stunning incandescent red and orange leaves. Then, of course, the trees shed the leaves on my lawn, where they need to be raked up – a chore that is not at all fleeting.

It's also Halloween, which has a special place in the hearts of the Witches of Agnesi. So, here are a couple of Halloween-relevant legends.

Razors in Apples: Urban Legend
In their book Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip Heath and Dan Heath offer some fascinating explanations for why some excellent ideas – say, an earnest mission statement from a worthwhile nonprofit organization – get little traction, while some patently ridiculous urban legends are believed and repeated by millions of people.

The Heath brothers give the example of a wildly “successful” idea that spoiled Halloween for large numbers of people: the belief that evil strangers were putting razor blades and poison in apples and candy and giving them to trick-or-treating children. But in 1985, researchers Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi

“studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy. Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide. In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly OK. It's your family you should worry about.

"The candy-tampering story has changed the behavior of millions of parents over the past thirty years.... It has even changed the laws of this country. Both California and New Jersey passed laws that carry special penalties for candy-tamperers. Why was this idea so successful?"

To find out, read the book.

The Devil's Chord
Can a musical chord be evil? The Medieval Roman Catholic Church and modern heavy metal bands think so. The tritone, "a musical interval that spans three whole tones, like the diminished fifth or augmented fourth.... the gap between two notes played in succession or simultaneously, was branded Diabolus in Musica or the Devil's Interval by medieval musicians. A rich mythology has grown up around it. Many believe that the Church wanted to eradicate the sounds from its music because it invoked sexual feelings, or that it was genuinely the work of the Devil. It is a mythology much beloved of long-haired guitar wizards. In the newly-released documentary Metal: A Headbanger's Journey, bassist Alex Webster of death metal act Cannibal Corpse pays tribute to the effect of the forbidden "Devil's note" on heavy metal" (Finlo Rohrer, 2006).

According to Wikipedia,

"Today the interval continues to suggest an 'oppressive,' 'scary,' or 'evil' sound. However, suggestions that singers were excommunicated or otherwise punished by the Church for invoking this interval are likely fanciful."

Examples of music using tritones:
Jimi Hendrix, Purple Haze
Danny Elfman, The Simpsons theme song
"Maria," from Leonard Bernstein's West Side Story
Black Sabbath, "Black Sabbath"
Claude Debussy, Prelude to the Afternoon of a Faun
Richard Wagner, Gotterdammerung

Heath, Chip, and Dan Heath. 2007. Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die. New York: Random House (pp. 13–15).

Rohrer, Finlo. 2006. "The Devil's Music," BBC News Magazine (April 4),

"Tritone," Wikipedia,