Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • Spreading Democracy, Monkey Style

    This week brought a rich assortment of “isn’t that amazing” animal stories, including the mother gorilla in a German zoo who continued to carry her dead infant. Mourning (to be anthropomorphic about it) is hardly unknown in the non-human part of the animal kingdom. In 2006 a panda named Ya Ya, living in a zoo in China, seemed inconsolable after accidentally crushing her newborn to death. She wailed and kept searching for the tiny body after a keeper took it away, and when the keeper checked on her she looked at him with teary eyes....
  • East Brains, West Brains

    How do you look at a face? Since 1965 it has been a tenet of psychology that people look at faces through the triangle method; that is, they scan the eyes (especially) and then the mouth, in a basic visual process assumed to be common to all humans. But guess what? This conclusion was based on studies in which only Westerners participated. Now that someone has finally thought to study non-Westerners, you can consign the universality of facial processing to the scientific dustbin....
  • Racial Medicine: Not So Fast

    Next time you want to start a bar fight, proclaim to everyone within earshot that “race is not real; it is just a social and cultural construct and has no biological validity.” Then duck before you get punched in the face. . . . but as you're avoiding injury try to hand your would-be assailants a new paper published online this afternoon by the journal Clinical Pharmacology & Therapeutics, which concludes that classifying people by the crude category of race—as in, of African, Asian or European ancestry—for medical purposes, as some people want to do, is really, really stupid....
  • Kaplan: Are We Educating Enough Engineers?

    Workplace doomsayers keep predicting dire consequences from a looming shortage of scientists and engineers. Yet the real numbers tell another story.
  • Climate: Winners and Losers

    Memo to Gov. Schwarzenegger: you are right to make California a leader in the fight to control global warming. If a new study is right, your state is going to get hammered more than any other in the country as the climate changes. Droughts? Wildfires? Yes, yes and more yes....
  • Thank a Grandmother

    Why do animals, notably women, outlive their reproductive years? Nature would seem to have little or no use for us once we reach middle age, let alone our dotage; after all, the only thing evolution cares about—by which I mean, acts on—is how many offspring we leave. Why, then, should we live beyond the time when we can reproduce? ...
  • Human Evolution: Tale of the Y

    Nothing against fossils, but when it comes to tracing the story of human evolution they’re taking a back seat lately to everything from DNA to lice, and even the DNA of lice. A few years ago scientists compared the DNA of body lice (which are misnamed: they live in clothing, not the human body) to that of head lice, from which they evolved, and concluded that the younger lineage split off from the older no more than 114,000 years ago, as I described in a cover story last year. Since body lice probably arose when a new habitat did, and since that habitat was clothing, that’s when our ancestors first needed a haberdasher. The Y chromosome has been an even greater source of clues to human evolution, showing among other things that the most recent common ancestor of all men alive today lived 89,000 years ago in Africa, and that the first modern humans walked out of Africa about 66,000 years ago and became the ancestors of everyone outside that natal continent....
  • Last Primate Standing

    What difference does eight dead gorillas make? As Newsweek reported exactly a year ago, when poachers slaughtered eight of the world’s last remaining mountain gorillas—including in Congo's supposedly protected Virunga National Park—it cruelly highlighted a threat that conservationists thought was behind them: illegal hunting. It did something else, too. Scientists had been considering reclassifying the mountain gorilla (Gorilla beringei beringei) from critically endangered to endangered. But the brutal killings underscored just how fragile even the best-intentioned wildlife-conservation efforts are, and the mountain gorilla therefore remains critically endangered. (Click here to see a gallery of the world's vanishing primates.) For at least two decades the dogma in the conservation world had been that habitat destruction, not hunting, posed the gravest threat to the world’s rare animals. But the slaughter in the jungle was just the most notorious wake-up call that poaching...
  • To Get the Girl, Throw Rivals Off the Scent

    Take it from a fish: if you have your eye on someone cute at the beach or a party this weekend, pretend to your friends that you have no interest whatsoever in him (or her), to throw them off the scent....
  • Stem Cells for ALS

    Does anyone need more proof that stem cells are not going to serve as universal repair kits for Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease, Lou Gehrig’s disease and spinal cord injury any time soon? Here is what counts as a big breakthrough in stem-cell research these days: producing cells that can then be studied for clues to what drugs will work against a particular disease....
  • Exercise in a Pill

    Move over, steroids. Take a hike, human growth hormone. If scientists are right, a simple pill can enhance and even mimic the beneficial effects of exercise. At least in mice. But some people may not be waiting for research to show that the compounds work in people as well. The scientist who discovered the drugs, which are a cinch for chemists to synthesize, believes they may already be in athletes’ equipment bags—since anti-doping agencies had no idea they should even be on the lookout for them....
  • There's a Peasant Under My Van Gogh!

    If only Vincent van Gogh (1853−1890) had been able to afford canvas, the world would have many more of the master’s paintings. But as scholars have long known, van Gogh re-used his canvasses, especially when he wasn’t happy with a painting, creating a new work on top of an old one. These hidden compositions have mostly eluded art historians because current museum-based imaging tools cannot properly visualize them....
  • CT-Scanning the Past

    CT scans have been done on mummies (showing that King Tut wasn’t murdered), dinosaurs (determining, for instance, what parasaurolophus sounded like) and other pieces of the past, and now scientists have put computed tomography (CT) technology to another nifty use: taking skull fragments of a rare extinct lemur which were found at sites thousands of miles apart and virtually assembling them to produce a nearly-complete skull....
  • Alzheimer's: Have Many Grains of Salt Ready

    The huge annual Alzheimer’s meeting starts tomorrow in Chicago, and it comes at an interesting time for the field. I mean “interesting” in, of course, the sense of the old curse, “may you live in interesting times.”...
  • Ulcers Out, Asthma In?

    An old joke holds that the only people allowed to refer to themselves as “we” are royalty, editors and people with tapeworms. Yet as a 2007 NEWSWEEK cover story notes, we are all collections of thousands of species of bacteria, worms and other parasites—and losing some of them, it turns out, has dire consequences....
  • Grrrl Power

    We’ve all been there (though some of us longer ago than others): the cruising bar, fraternity party or other gathering place where men vastly outnumber women. As the men trip all over themselves trying to make their competitors look like losers and themselves like desirable partners, women get the upper hand: they have their pick of partners, and can crush the already-sensitive egos of the men with the back of their manicured hand....
  • Breast Self-Exam: Don't Count on It

    It’s a tough call, deciding which topics gets readers most incensed. Evolution always makes a strong run for the title, but I have to go with something else: readers get really, really upset when you tell them that early cancer detection is unlikely to save their life....
  • Extreme Weather As Far As the Eye Can See

    If you want to know who is really, really upset about natural disasters—ranking right after the victims, of course, but probably ahead of the environmental activists who point to the disasters and see the hand of climate change—look no further than the insurance industry and its re-insurers (those are the companies that insure the insurers). One of the biggest, Munich Re, is already saying that 2008 is likely to “go down in history as a year with one of the highest numbers of victims of natural catastrophes.”...
  • Juiced: Guilt by Graph?

    Here’s one of those phrases that The New Yorker would label as “sentences we never read past”:...
  • Poetic Justice in Climate Change

    Not that anything about global warming is fair, but one of the most unjust things about it is that the nations that have spewed most of the greenhouse gases into the atmosphere tend to be in the north (the U.S., Europe and now China), while the nations that stand to suffer the mostas in having their entire island covered by the rising seastend to be in the south. If a German researcher is right, it looks like nations will reap what they sow....
  • What Do Female Mosquitoes Want, Anyway?

    If you are diligently following the experts’ advice on mosquito control—getting rid of standing water in old tires, pots, gouges in your patio and other places where water pools—scientists have made a discovery that can reduce your labors: concentrate on the puddles where leaves are floating. That might be especially welcome news for Midwesterners who, after suffering the floods of June, are now dealing with plagues of mosquitoes that are in some cases 20 times the usual number....
  • The Scandal That is Alzheimer's Research

    Of all the columns I’ve written, no topic has brought more agonized, heartfelt and desperate-sounding emails than Alzheimer’s disease. Back in 2004, I wrote three columns (when I was at The Wall Street Journal) on how one particular theory of what causes this awful disease—and therefore the best approach for treating it—has had the field in a headlock, censoring competing theories. That closed-mindedness, I quoted scientists as saying, had a lot to do with why there is not only no cure or preventive for Alzheimer’s, but not even a treatment that slows down the inexorable cognitive decline....