Prenatal paracetamol impairs masculinisation

Thursday, August 17th, 2017

Prenatal exposure to paracetamol (acetaminophen) impairs masculinisation of the male brain and behaviour:

Paracetamol/acetaminophen (N-Acetyl-p-Aminophenol; APAP) is the preferred analgesic for pain relief and fever during pregnancy. It has therefore caused concern that several studies have reported that prenatal exposure to APAP results in developmental alterations in both the reproductive tract and the brain. Genitals and nervous system of male mammals are actively masculinised during foetal development and early postnatal life by the combined actions of prostaglandins and androgens, resulting in the male-typical reproductive behaviour seen in adulthood. Both androgens and prostaglandins are known to be inhibited by APAP. Through intrauterine exposure experiments in C57BL/6 mice, we found that exposure to APAP decreased neuronal number in the sexually dimorphic nucleus (SDN) of the preoptic area (POA) in the anterior hypothalamus of male adult offspring. Likewise, exposure to the environmental pollutant and precursor of APAP, aniline, resulted in a similar reduction. Decrease in neuronal number in the SDN-POA is associated with reductions in male sexual behaviour. Consistent with the changes, male mice exposed in uteri to APAP exhibited changes in urinary marking behaviour as adults and had a less aggressive territorial display towards intruders of the same gender. Additionally, exposed males had reduced intromissions and ejaculations during mating with females in oestrus. Together, these data suggest that prenatal exposure to APAP may impair male sexual behaviour in adulthood by disrupting the sexual neurobehavioral programming. These findings add to the growing body of evidence suggesting the need to limit the widespread exposure and use of APAP by pregnant women.

(Hat tip to Richard Harper.)

Environment is both feeble and overwhelmingly potent

Saturday, August 12th, 2017

Psychologists have been plagued by a paradox that suggests that environment is both feeble and overwhelmingly potent:

The paradox emerged from a debate about race. US whites outscore US blacks on IQ tests by 15 points. Does that gap have environmental causes or is it partially due to genes? In 1973, Arthur Jensen constructed a model that applied kinship data to group differences in IQ. Evidence from kinship studies showed identical twins separated at birth and raised in different homes grow up with very similar IQs. The fact that they have identical genes provides an obvious explanation. Jensen argued that fully 75 percent of IQ variance between individuals was due to genetic differences (a value which sits in the middle of the range recently endorsed by a select committee of the American Psychological Association for adult IQ). Jensen’s model showed that a purely environmental explanation of the black/white IQ gap meant that the environment of the average US black must be as unfavorable for the development of IQ as the lowest one percent of white environments measured in terms of their effects on IQ. That simply did not seem possible.

Jensen’s model seemed to preclude a purely environmental explanation for any large IQ gap between groups. Then, in 1987, Flynn showed that in nation after nation, the current generation outscores the last generation by some 9 to 20 IQ points. The gains are greatest on those tests often called the best measures of intelligence. Their size and speed dictate an environmental explanation. Flynn applied Jensen’s model. An environmental explanation meant putting the current generation within the top one-tenth of one percent of the last generation in terms of environmental quality. What was known to be true was shown to be impossible.

How could solid evidence show both that environment was so feeble (kinship studies) and yet so potent (IQ gains over time)?

Dickens has proposed a model that we believe solves the paradox. It assumes that people who have an advantage for a particular trait will become matched with superior environments for that trait; and that genes can derive a great advantage from this because genetic differences are persistent. A genetic advantage remains with you throughout life, while environmental differences tend to come and go, unless sustained by the steady pressure of genes.

Take those born with genes that make them a bit taller and quicker than average. When they start school, they are likely to be a bit better at basketball. The advantage may be modest but then reciprocal causation between the talent advantage and environment kicks in. Because you are better at basketball, you are likely to enjoy it more and play it more than someone who is bit slow or short or overweight. That makes you better still. Your genetic advantage is upgrading your environment, the amount of time you play and practice, and your enhanced environment in turn upgrades your skill. You are more likely to be picked for your school team and to get professional coaching.

Thanks to genes capitalizing on the powerful multiplying effects of the feedback between talent and environment, a modest genetic advantage has turned into a huge performance advantage. Just as small genetic differences match people with very different environments, so identical genes tend to produce very similar environments—even when children are raised in separate homes.

In other words, kinship studies of basketball, no matter whether they involved people with identical genes or different genes, would underestimate the potency of environmental factors. Playing, practicing, being on a team, coaching, all of these would be credited to genes—simply because differences in them tend to accompany genetic differences between individuals. Genes might seem to account for as much as 75 percent of variance across individuals in basketball performance. If someone showed that the present generation was far more skilled at basketball than the last (as indeed they are), Jensen’s math would prove that it was impossible. It would show that those aspects of environment that are not correlated with genes (which is all that environment gets credit for in kinship studies) were very feeble. So feeble that the present generation would have to be within the top one percent of the last in terms of quality of environment for basketball.

The cognitive ability differences measured by IQ tests may have the same dynamics. People whose genes send them into life with a small advantage for these abilities start with a modest performance advantage. Then genes begin to drive the powerful engine of reciprocal causation between ability and environment. You begin by being a bit better at school and are encouraged by this, while others who are a bit ‘slow’ get discouraged. You study more, which upgrades your cognitive performance, earn praise for your grades, start haunting the library, get into a top stream. Another child finds that sport is his or her strong suit, does the minimum, does not read for pleasure, and gets into a lower stream. Both of you may go to the same school but the environments you make for yourselves within that school will be radically different. The modest initial cognitive advantage conferred by genes becomes enormously multiplied.

Invasiveness may explain its potency

Friday, August 11th, 2017

You can call it one hell of a placebo:

The guy’s desperate. The pain in his knee has made it impossible to play basketball or walk down stairs. In search of a cure, he makes a journey to a healing place, where he’ll undergo a fasting rite, don ceremonial garb, ingest mind-altering substances and be anointed with liquids before a masked healer takes him through a physical ritual intended to vanquish his pain.

Seen through different eyes, the process of modern surgery may look more more spiritual than scientific, said orthopedic surgeon Stuart Green, a professor at the University of California, Irvine. Our hypothetical patient is undergoing arthroscopic knee surgery, and the rituals he’ll participate in — fasting, wearing a hospital gown, undergoing anesthesia, having his surgical site prepared with an iodine solution, and giving himself over to a masked surgeon — foster an expectation that the procedure will provide relief, Green said.

These expectations matter, and we know they matter because of a bizarre research technique called sham surgery. In these fake operations, patients are led to believe that they are having a real surgical procedure — they’re taken through all the regular pre- and post- surgical rituals, from fasting to anesthesia to incisions made in their skin to look like the genuine operation occurred — but the doctor does not actually perform the surgery. If the patient is awake during the “procedure,” the doctor mimics the sounds and sensations of the true surgery, and the patient may be shown a video of someone else’s procedure as if it were his own.

Sham surgeries may sound unethical, but they’re done with participants’ consent and in pursuit of an important question: Does the surgical procedure under consideration really work? In a surprising number of cases, the answer is no.

A 2014 review of 53 trials that compared elective surgical procedures to placebos found that sham surgeries provided some benefit in 74 percent of the trials and worked as well as the real deal in about half.1 Consider the middle-aged guy going in for surgery to treat his knee pain. Arthroscopic knee surgery has been a common orthopedic procedure in the United States, with about 692,000 of them performed in 2010,2 but the procedure has proven no better than a sham when done to address degenerative wear and tear, particularly on the meniscus.3

Meniscus repair is only one commonly performed orthopedic surgery that has failed to produce better results than a sham surgery. A back operation called vertebroplasty (done to treat compression fractures in the spine) and something called intradiscal electrothermal therapy, a “minimally invasive” treatment for herniated disks and low back pain, have also produced study results that suggest they may be no more effective than a sham at reducing pain in the long term.

Such findings show that these procedures don’t work as promised, but they also indicate that there’s something powerful about believing that you’re having surgery and that it will fix what ails you. Green hypothesizes that a surgery’s placebo effect is proportional to the elaborateness of the rituals surrounding it, the surgeon’s expressed confidence and enthusiasm for the procedure, and a patient’s belief that it will help.

Weirdly enough, surgery’s invasiveness may explain some of its potency. Studies have shown that invasive procedures produce a stronger placebo effect than non-invasive ones, said researcher Jonas Bloch Thorlund of the University of Southern Denmark. A pill can provoke a placebo effect, but an injection produces an even stronger one. Cutting into someone appears to be more powerful still.

The general consequences of race mixture can be predicted with confidence

Thursday, August 10th, 2017

A Duke ethics professor made a terrible mistake:

After reading some recent work on the biology of group differences last summer, it occurred to me that as an ethics professor, I should write something about the moral upshot: if there are such differences, what are the consequences for how we should treat one another? Should we support policies that attempt to equalize opportunities only if they produce equal outcomes?

My conclusion was modest: if there are biological differences between groups, and if, as Lee Jussim has argued, some stereotypes turn out to be accurate in part because of correct generalizations about biological differences, these facts should not undermine our commitment to treating one another as moral equals, or to increasing opportunity for all, regardless of group membership.

But I had committed a sin in the eyes of the two referees who read and commented on my paper. I simply acknowledged the possibility of group differences while arguing that whether or not they exist, they should not matter. For having done that, the two journal referees used expletives and exclamation points to give the most venomous and dismissive feedback I have ever encountered. (Needless to say, the paper was not accepted for publication after such hostile comments.)

This leads Razib Khan to share R. A. Fisher’s thoughts on race and human genetic variation, in response to the UNESCO statement on the Race Concept, published after WWII:

In so far as the Statement condemns any defamation of races and emphasizes the appalling nature of the recent abuse of racial theory, it has my full and unqualified approval. I wholeheartedly agree, also, with its explicit and implicit finding that anthropology and racial studies afford no justification for the assumption that members of any particular race are not entitled the enjoyment of all fundamental rights, or for any form of racial discrimination. And I am very glad that, after all the horrors that have been perpetrated, these principles should have been enunciated clearly and publicized widely by an organization of such standing and by distinguished men as the authors of this Statement.

But the Statement also purports to be an authoritative body of scientific doctrines, and this is quite a different matter. Without touching upon the content of these doctrines, and quite apart from whether or not they meet with my approval, I must register my fundamental opposition to the advancing of scientific theses as such, and protest against it.

I recall the National Socialists’ notorious attempts to establish certain doctrines as the only correct conclusions to be drawn from research on race, and their suppression of any contrary opinion; as well as the Soviet Government’s similar claim on behalf of Lysenko’s theory of heredity, and its condemnation of Mendel’s teaching. The present Statement likewise puts forward certain scientific doctrines as the only correct ones, and quite obviously expects them to receive general endorsement as such. I repeat that, without assuming any attitude towards the substance of the doctrines in the Statement, I am opposed to the principle of advancing them as doctrines. The experience of the past have strengthened my conviction that freedom of scientific enquiry is imperiled when any scientific findings or opinions are elevated, by an authoritative body, into the position of doctrines.

Fisher believed that human groups differ profoundly “in their innate capacity for intellectual and emotional development” and concluded that the “practical international problem is that of learning to share the resources of this planet amicably with persons of materially different nature, and that this problem is being obscured by entirely well intentioned efforts to minimize the real differences that exist”.

Khan goes on to quote from page 238 of his edition of The Genetical Theory of Natural Selection:

The general consequences of race mixture can be predicted with confidence…Their general character will therefore be intermediate, but their variability will be greater than that of the original races. Morever, new combinations of virtue and ability, and of their opposites, will appear in the mixed race, combinations which are not necessarily heterozygous, but may be fixed as permanent racial characters. There are thus in the mixed race great possibilities for the action of selection. If selection is beneficient, and the better types leave the greater number of descendants, the ultimate effect of mixture will be the production of a race, not inferior to either those from which it sprang, but rather superior to both, in so far as the advantages of both can be combined. Unfavorable selection, on the other hand, will be more rapidly disastrous to a mixed race than to its progenitors. It should of course be remembered that all existing races show very great variability in respect of hereditary factors, so that selections of the intensity to which mankind is exposed would be capable of producing rapid changes, even in the purest existing race.

Jordan Peterson interviews James Damore

Wednesday, August 9th, 2017

Jordan Peterson interviews James Damore on his memo regarding Google’s diversity programs and their overweening ideological basis:

Peterson provides some links to the pertinent hate facts:

Sex differences in personality:

Larger/large and stable sex differences in more gender-neutral countries: (Note: these findings runs precisely and exactly contrary to social constructionist theory: thus, it’s been tested, and it’s wrong).……

(Women’s) interest in things vs (men’s) interest in things:

The importance of exposure to sex-linked steroids on fetal and then lifetime development:

Exposure to prenatal testosterone and interest in things (even when the exposure is among females):

Primarily biological basis of personality sex differences:

Status and sex: males and females

To quote de Bruyn et al (first reference on status and sex, above): high status predicts more mating opportunities and, thus, increased reproductive success. “This is true for human adults in many cultures, both ‘modern’ as well as ‘primitive’ (Betzig, 1986). In fact, this theory seems to be confirmed for non-human primates (Cheney, 1983; Cowlishaw and Dunbar, 1991; Dewsbury, 1982; Gray, 1985; Maslow, 1936) and other animals from widely differing ecologies (Ellis, 1995) such as squirrels (Farentinos, 1972), cockerels (Kratzer and Craig, 1980), and cockroaches (Breed, Smith, and Gall, 1980).” Status also increases female reproductive success, via a different pathway: “For females, it is generally argued that dominance is not necessarily a path to more copulations, as it is for males. It appears that important benefits bestowed upon dominant women are access to resources and less harassment from rivals (Campbell, 2002). Thus, dominant females tend to have higher offspring survival rates, at least among simians (Pusey, Williams, and Goodall, 1997); thus, dominance among females also appears to be linked to reproductive success.”
Personality and political belief

Conscientiousness associated with conservatism; neuroticism and agreeableness with liberalism:
Occupations by gender:

Smart people might have been less careful about suppressing their stereotypical thinking

Wednesday, August 2nd, 2017

A recent Atlantic piece laments that people who are better at pattern matching are more likely to stereotype — that is, to match patterns:

These depressing results suggest there’s a downside to being smart—it makes you risk reading too much into a situation and drawing inappropriate conclusions. But there’s hope. In the second part of the study, the researchers showed that while smart people learn and apply stereotypes more eagerly, they also unlearn those stereotypes quickly in the face of new information.

When the smart participants were given new, contradictory information about the nose-bridge men, for example, they stopped lowballing them in the trust game. The worse pattern-detectors, meanwhile, didn’t update their thinking in the same way. The same thing happened when the researchers tried to get the participants to un-learn some gender stereotypes.


According to Geoffrey Wodtke, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto, it could be that, because this study focused on unrealistic stereotypes — about cartoon aliens or computer-drawn men, instead, of, say, real-life groups like gays or immigrants — smart people might have been less careful about suppressing their stereotypical thinking. “It’s quite likely that high-ability individuals are … able to efficiently learn and apply stereotypes in a vacuum but also that they are better attuned to social norms and concerns about not inflaming intergroup conflict,” he said.

In Thinking, Fast and Slow, chapter 16, Daniel Kahneman, Nobel laureate, has this to say:

The social norm against stereotyping, including the opposition to profiling, has been highly beneficial in creating a more civilized and more equal society. It is useful to remember, however, that neglecting valid stereotypes inevitably results in suboptimal judgments. Resistance to stereotyping is a laudable moral position, but the simplistic idea that the resistance is costless is wrong. The costs are worth paying to achieve a better society, but denying that the costs exist, while satisfying to the soul and politically correct, is not scientifically defensible. Reliance on the affect heuristic is common in politically charged arguments. The positions we favor have no cost and those we oppose have no benefits. We should be able to do better.

Priests and rabbis are getting high on shrooms for science

Friday, July 28th, 2017

Scientists at Johns Hopkins are giving two powerful doses of psilocybin to two dozen religious leaders from a wide range of denominations — Catholic, Orthodox, and Presbyterian priests, a Zen Buddhist, and several rabbis:

“It is too early to talk about results, but generally people seem to be getting a deeper appreciation of their own religious heritage,” [Dr William Richards] said. “The dead dogma comes alive for them in a meaningful way. They discover they really believe this stuff they’re talking about.”

There is also a suggestion that after their psychedelic journey, the leaders’ notions of religion shifted away from the sectarian towards something more universal. “They get a greater appreciation for other world religions. Other ways up the mountain, if you will,” said Richards.

“In these transcendental states of consciousness, people seem to get to levels of consciousness that seem universal,” he added. “So a good rabbi can encounter the Buddha within him.”

The notion that hallucinogenic drugs can bring about mystical experiences is not new and was previously studied in a famous Harvard study known as the “Good Friday experiment”. The study involved a group of seminary scholars being given psilocybin during the Easter-season service to see how it altered their experience of the liturgy. The latest work is thought to be the first involving religious leaders from different faiths.

At war for more than a billion years

Thursday, July 27th, 2017

Viruses and their hosts have been at war for more than a billion years:

This battle has driven a dramatic diversification of viruses and of host immune responses. Although the earliest antiviral systems have long since vanished, researchers may now have recovered remnants of one of them embedded, like a fossil, in human cells.

A protein called Drosha, which helps to control gene regulation in vertebrates, also tackles viruses, researchers report today in Nature1. They suggest that Drosha and the family of enzymes, called RNAse III, it belongs to were the original virus fighters in a single-celled ancestor of animals and plants. “You can see the footprint of RNAse III in the defence systems through all kingdoms of life,” says Benjamin tenOever, a virologist at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York and lead author of the paper.

Plants and invertebrates deploy RNAse III proteins in an immune response called RNA interference, or RNAi. When a virus infects a host, the proteins slice the invader’s RNA into chunks that prevent it from spreading. But vertebrates take a different approach, warding off viruses with powerful interferon proteins — while Drosha and a related protein regulate genes in the nucleus.

But in 2010, tenOever witnessed an odd phenomenon: Drosha appeared to leave the nucleus of human cells whenever a virus invaded2. “That was weird and made us curious,” tenOever says. His team later confirmed the finding, and saw that Drosha demonstrates the same behaviour in cells from flies, fish and plants.

To test the hypothesis that Drosha leaves the nucleus to combat viruses in vertebrates, the researchers infected cells that had been genetically engineered to lack Drosha with a virus. They found that the viruses replicated faster in these cells. The team then inserted Drosha from bacteria into fish, human and plant cells. The protein seemed to stunt the replication of viruses, suggesting that this function dates back to an ancient ancestor of all the groups. “Drosha is like the beta version of all antiviral defence systems,” tenOever says.

tenOever speculates that RNAse III proteins originally helped bacteria to maintain their own RNA, and that bacteria later deployed the proteins against the genetic material of viruses. He points out the occurrence of RNAse III proteins in immune responses throughout the tree of life. For instance, some CRISPR systems, a virus-fighting response in archaea and bacteria, include RNAse III proteins. Plants and invertebrates deploy the proteins in RNAi. And although vertebrates rely on interferons for viral control, this study now shows that Drosha still chases after viruses, in the same way a pet Golden Retriever — a dog bred to retrieve waterfowl — fetches a stick as if it were a fallen duck.

At least 90% less likely to die than cigarette smokers

Wednesday, July 26th, 2017

As cigarette consumption falls, tobacco companies want U.S. regulators to bless smokeless tobacco as a safer alternative to smoking:

Many scientists agree that moist, smokeless tobacco, including chewing and dipping tobacco, is significantly less harmful than cigarettes. But rather than encouraging the country’s 37 million smokers to switch to less risky products, U.S. health officials have so far stuck with an abstinence-only message in communications with the public.

Online fact sheets published by the Centers for Disease Control, the Food and Drug Administration and the National Cancer Institute list multiple health risks associated with smokeless tobacco—including cancers of the mouth, esophagus, and pancreas—but give no indication it is less harmful than cigarettes. “There is no safe form of tobacco,” the cancer institute says on its website.

Tobacco Mortality

At recent scientific conferences, Altria has presented an analysis of two federal surveys showing that users of moist, smokeless tobacco were at least 90% less likely to die over the course of the surveys than cigarette smokers. The U.S. data included nearly 387,000 survey respondents. Altria now is preparing this analysis for submission to an academic journal.

Industrial seed oils seem positively dangerous to health

Tuesday, July 25th, 2017

Vegetable oils are better called industrial seed oils, P.D. Mangan reminds us, since they’re made from seeds, not vegetables, and require an industrial process to make them in any volume:

The manufacturing process for vegetable oils involves pressing at high pressure, and extracting more oil using solvents such as hexane, a volatile hydrocarbon similar to gasoline. The oils are then refined by heating to a high temperature and adding sodium hydroxide (lye), and finally, degummed, bleached, and deodorized.

Without knowing anything else about it, I already know that I don’t want this industrial substance in my body, much less in the massive quantities most people consume.


The lipid hypothesis of heart disease, sometimes called the diet-heart hypothesis, holds that dietary saturated fat and high blood cholesterol cause coronary heart disease. Since the beginnings of that idea, mainstream health authorities have urged people to use vegetable oils in order to replace saturated fat with polyunsaturated fat, in the hope that this would reduce the incidence of heart disease. How has that worked out?

A recently published re-analysis of data from the Minnesota Coronary Experiment found that polyunsaturated fats did indeed lower serum cholesterol. Problem is, each 30 mg/dL reduction in cholesterol was associated with a 22% increased risk of death.

The same group re-analyzed the data from the Sydney Diet Heart Study and found that the intervention group that had replaced saturated fat with vegetable oils had a death rate from all causes that was 62% higher than the control group, and 70% higher for cardiovascular disease.

These were randomized controlled studies, which can show causation, as opposed to epidemiological studies, which cannot, and only show association. In epidemiological studies that show an association between intake of polyunsaturated fats and less heart disease, that association could very well be due to the healthy user effect.

Knowing this, deliberately consuming more polyunsaturated fats in the form of industrial seed oils seems positively dangerous to health.

The Sparkses simply got lucky

Monday, July 24th, 2017

While out for a walk with his family in Las Cruces, New Mexico, 9-year-old Jude Sparks tripped over something unusual:

It looked like a massive jaw, and Jude’s younger brother Hunter thought it belonged to a cow skull. His parents, Michelle and Kyle Sparks, thought it resembled the remains of an elephant. So they took a picture of the object to investigate further.

Jude Sparks with Stegomastodon Jaw

“When we went home, we were trying to research,” Ms. Sparks said. “It didn’t match perfectly with elephants, so then we said, O.K., I guess it was something else.”

They sent an email to a biology professor at nearby New Mexico State University, Peter Houde. He recognized the find almost immediately: These were the remains of a long-extinct Stegomastodon, and Jude had tripped over its fossilized tusk.

Dr. Houde said he gets calls and emails about potential finds from time to time — often, they amount to nothing much. But this time, it was different.

“This is really very unusual to find,” he said, explaining that prehistoric remains are so fragile that they typically disintegrate shortly after erosion exposes them to the elements. The Sparkses simply got lucky by visiting the site shortly after strong rains had exposed the fossil.

When Dr. Houde and the Sparks family visited the remains one day after Jude’s discovery, they made sure to bury them again. After months of arranging a team, getting money and securing a permit, the skull was finally excavated in May.

The creature it belonged to lived at least 1.2 million years ago, Dr. Houde estimated.

The math students dropped out because they could not understand anything

Saturday, July 22nd, 2017

June Huh took a path less taken to the peak of the math world:

Huh was born in 1983 in California, where his parents were attending graduate school. They moved back to Seoul, South Korea, when he was two. There, his father taught statistics and his mother became one of the first professors of Russian literature in South Korea since the onset of the Cold War.

After that bad math test in elementary school, Huh says he adopted a defensive attitude toward the subject: He didn’t think he was good at math, so he decided to regard it as a barren pursuit of one logically necessary statement piled atop another. As a teenager he took to poetry instead, viewing it as a realm of true creative expression. “I knew I was smart, but I couldn’t demonstrate that with my grades, so I started to write poetry,” Huh said.

Huh wrote many poems and a couple of novellas, mostly about his own experiences as a teenager. None were ever published. By the time he enrolled at Seoul National University in 2002, he had concluded that he couldn’t make a living as a poet, so he decided to become a science journalist instead. He majored in astronomy and physics, in perhaps an unconscious nod to his latent analytic abilities.

When Huh was 24 and in his last year of college, the famed Japanese mathematician Heisuke Hironaka came to Seoul National as a visiting professor. Hironaka was in his mid-70s at the time and was a full-fledged celebrity in Japan and South Korea. He’d won the Fields Medal in 1970 and later wrote a best-selling memoir called The Joy of Learning, which a generation of Korean and Japanese parents had given their kids in the hope of nurturing the next great mathematician. At Seoul National, he taught a yearlong lecture course in a broad area of mathematics called algebraic geometry. Huh attended, thinking Hironaka might become his first subject as a journalist.

Initially Huh was among more than 100 students, including many math majors, but within a few weeks enrollment had dwindled to a handful. Huh imagines other students quit because they found Hironaka’s lectures incomprehensible. He says he persisted because he had different expectations about what he might get out of the course.

“The math students dropped out because they could not understand anything. Of course, I didn’t understand anything either, but non-math students have a different standard of what it means to understand something,” Huh said. “I did understand some of the simple examples he showed in classes, and that was good enough for me.”

After class Huh would make a point of talking to Hironaka, and the two soon began having lunch together. Hironaka remembers Huh’s initiative. “I didn’t reject students, but I didn’t always look for students, and he was just coming to me,” Hironaka recalled.

Huh tried to use these lunches to ask Hironaka questions about himself, but the conversation kept coming back to math. When it did, Huh tried not to give away how little he knew. “Somehow I was very good at pretending to understand what he was saying,” Huh said. Indeed, Hironaka doesn’t remember ever being aware of his would-be pupil’s lack of formal training. “It’s not anything I have a strong memory of. He was quite impressive to me,” he said.

As the lunchtime conversations continued, their relationship grew. Huh graduated, and Hironaka stayed on at Seoul National for two more years. During that period, Huh began working on a master’s degree in mathematics, mainly under Hironaka’s direction. The two were almost always together. Hironaka would make occasional trips back home to Japan and Huh would go with him, carrying his bag through airports and even staying with Hironaka and his wife in their Kyoto apartment.


Meanwhile, Hironaka continued to tutor Huh, working from concrete examples that Huh could understand rather than introducing him directly to general theories that might have been more than Huh could grasp. In particular, Hironaka taught Huh the nuances of singularity theory, the field where Hironaka had achieved his most famous results. Hironaka had also been trying for decades to find a proof of a major open problem — what’s called the resolution of singularities in characteristic p. “It was a lifetime project for him, and that was principally what we talked about,” Huh said. “Apparently he wanted me to continue this work.”

In 2009, at Hironaka’s urging, Huh applied to a dozen or so graduate schools in the U.S. His qualifications were slight: He hadn’t majored in math, he’d taken few graduate-level classes, and his performance in those classes had been unspectacular. His case for admission rested largely on a recommendation from Hironaka. Most admissions committees were unimpressed. Huh got rejected at every school but one, the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, where he enrolled in the fall of 2009.

At Illinois, Huh began the work that would ultimately lead him to a proof of the Rota conjecture.

Experts’ brains transform data into action

Friday, July 21st, 2017

Neuroscientists Jason Sherwin and Jordan Muraskin are studying what happens inside the brain of a baseball player trying to hit a pitch:

Sherwin and Muraskin think they’ve identified a pattern of brain activation in professional hitters. One key area is the fusiform gyrus, a small spot at the bottom of the brain that is crucial for object recognition. For baseball players, this region is much more active during hitting. Recent data also suggests that in experts the fusiform gyrus may be more connected to the motor cortex, which controls movement. Sajda says this has important implications because the increased connection could indicate that experts’ brains are more efficient at transforming data about the pitch into movement.

The expert hitters also tend to use their frontal cortex — a part of the brain that is generally in charge of deliberate decision-making — less than nonexperts do when hitting. (When we decide to order a baked potato rather than french fries, it’s a good bet that our frontal cortex is deeply involved. However, this part of the brain tends to make decisions more slowly and meticulously; it is not adept at split-second choices.)

This diminished frontal participation is crucial, they say. “Players seem to make the decision in their motor cortex rather than their frontal cortex,” Sajda says. “Their brains recognize and act on pitches more efficiently.”

Another key area that appears to be more energized among expert hitters is the supplementary motor area (SMA), a small region at the top of the brain. It is involved in the coordination of sequences of preplanned movements such as hitting. In expert hitters, this area is especially active as the pitcher winds up and as the pitch approaches the plate. In essence, the researchers say, experts are better at preparing to swing.

Muraskin thinks that the SMA plays a key role in helping hitters choose when not to swing. Many good hitters — the Nationals’ Daniel Murphy is known for this — have a preternatural ability to wait for the “right” pitch, the pitch they can hit. In other words, they excel at inhibiting their swing. “When you choose not to swing, that’s a choice,” Muraskin says. “It is a learned expertise.”

Grass pyramids cut noise pollution

Thursday, July 20th, 2017

Airport noise travels far in a flat country like the Netherlands:

The tricky thing about dampening airport noise is that the noise is a very low frequency with a very long wavelength, around 36 feet, so a simple barricade will do little to stop the drone. But in 2008, airport staff noticed that noise levels were reduced every fall by an unsuspecting phenomenon: plowed fields. After examining the scene, they discovered that the ridges and furrows of the field were spaced in a way that they partially silenced the hum.

So, the firm H+N+S Landscape Architects teamed up with artist Paul De Kort to produce a series of 150 artificial pyramids of grass, each 6 feet tall and 36 feet apart (the approximate wavelength of airport hubbub). This ingenious method, based on the groundbreaking work of acoustician Ernst Chladni, has effectively reduced noise pollution in the region by half.

Buitenschot Land Art Park

To the amusement of the people in the area, the 80-acre swath of ridges adds entertainment to utility. Paths for pedestrians and bicycles slice between the grass ridges, and De Kort has even incorporated works of art into the park, including “Listening Ear,” a dish with a gap in the middle that amplifies sound, and “Chladni-Pond,” a diamond-shaped pond where park guests can power a wave mechanism with their feet.

You can get away with as little as one minute of effort

Wednesday, July 19th, 2017

Scientists out of McMaster University recently conducted research on the shortest interval training ever:

To see just how little you can get away with when it comes to interval training for health purposes, the researchers brought in 25 less-than-in-shape young men (future studies will focus on women). They tested their levels of aerobic fitness and their ability to use insulin in the right way to control blood sugar, and biopsied their muscles to see how well they functioned on a cellular level.

Then they split them into a control group, a moderate-intensity-exercise group, and a sprint interval training (SIT) group.

The control group did nothing differently at all.

The moderate-intensity group did a typical I’m-at-the-gym routine of a two-minute warm-up, 45 minutes on the stationary bike, and a three-minute cool down, three times a week.

The SIT group did the shortest interval training ever recorded thus far by science. Participants warmed up for two minutes on a stationary bike, then sprinted full-out for 20 seconds, then rode for two minutes very slowly. They repeated this twice (for a total of three sets). The whole workout took 10 minutes, with only one minute being high-intensity.

All of the groups kept at it for 12 weeks, or about twice as long as most previous studies.

The results?

The control group, as expected, had no change in results.

The two other groups enjoyed results that were basically identical to each other’s. In both, scientists found a 20 percent increase in cardiovascular endurance, good improvements in insulin resistance, and significant increases in the cells responsible for energy production and oxygen in the muscles (thanks, biopsies).

That is remarkable. By the end, the moderate-intensity group had ridden for 27 hours, while the SIT group had ridden for 6 total hours, just 36 minutes of which was arduous.

This means one group spent about 10 total minutes on each workout, while the other spent 50 minutes. The SIT group got the same benefits in a fifth of the time.