Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • Sharon Begley: The Math Gender Gap Explained

    Even the most hidebound male chauvinists have been forced to admit that girls are as good at math as boys, on average. Boys no longer start outperforming girls at age 12 or 13, as they did as late as the 1970s; in the U.S., high school girls now take calculus at the same rate as boys;  tests mandated by No Child Left Behind show that girls have reached parity with boys in math achievement through high school; and tests of complex problem-solving (which NCLB doesn’t measure) find that girls have now pulled even with boys through 12th grade on this skill, too....
  • Origami DNA

    DNA is useful for many things, starting with that whole molecule-of-heredity thing and moving on to identifying murderers and rapists while exonerating the innocent. These are merely the tip of the iceberg, it turns out, when it comes to DNA’s talents: the double helix also makes an excellent origami material....
  • Birds Got Rhythm

    It's bird week at Lab Notes, what with yesterday's blue tits and now this:...
  • Botox Warning

    When I wrote a year ago about surprising new evidence that Botox and other drugs containing the neurotoxin botulinum could travel from the site of injection to the brain, it wasn't clear whether this posed a threat to patients (the study I described was done on lab animals). But yesterday the Food and Drug Administration announced that the risk was all too real: it will now require Botox, Myobloc and the other botulinum drugs to carry a black box warning—the strongest there is—alerting doctors and patients that the drug can spread to distant parts of the body, posing serious risks such as trouble breathing and swallowing. The FDA is also requiring manufacturers to send doctors a letter warning of the risk....
  • Brain Scan Update: 'Our Aim Was to Educate, Not Accuse'

    In a post earlier this week on a study raising doubts about some high-profile studies in neuroscience, I was remiss in implying that the problem existed only in fMRI studies. As the paper’s lead author, Niko Kriegeskorte, reminds me, “this is not only about brain imaging (as your title suggests), but equally affects other fields of systems neuroscience,” including EEGs....
  • Googling the Flu

    Official reports of swine flu cases always lag behind actual cases....
  • The Problem With Drug Clinical Trials

    It’s bad enough when a medication for asthma, hypertension or anything else doesn’t do what it’s supposed to. Even more exasperating is knowing that the way the system of drug discovery and testing is set up, it’s practically guaranteed to produce medications that will not help a lot of the people they’re aimed at....
  • Brain Imaging and (More) Voodoo, But Politer

    Even when you’re skewering an entire field of science, the better part of valor might be to use terms such as “circular analysis” rather than, say, “voodoo.”...
  • Smackdown! EPA, FDA and Mercury in Fish

    It isn’t every day that one federal agency says the work of another has such “serious scientific flaws” that the work is “not a product [we] should endorse as it does not reach the level of scientific rigor.” Nor is it every day that federal agency #1 (as we’ll call it) says that while federal agency #2 may have tried to get its act together in response to earlier criticism, the work is “essentially unchanged, and . . . [still] scientifically flawed.”...
  • The Blob That Didn't Eat the Universe

    It’s hard to resist an astronomy discovery when it’s called a blob, even if the precise name is the Lyman-Alpha blob. In a paper being published this afternoon in Astrophysical Journal, astronomers are announcing that they spied such an object—thought to be an enormous body of gas that may be the precursor to a galaxy—dating from when the universe was a mere 800 million years old. Stretching for 55,000 light years (approximately the radius of our Milky Way galaxy’s disk), this Lyman-Alpha blob has astronomers scratching their heads....
  • Sports Drinks: No Swallowing Necessary

    There’s all sorts of mumbo-jumbo about how sports drinks boost athletes’ performance, especially in endurance events such as yesterday’s Boston Marathon. But according to an intriguing new study, it isn’t the sports drinks’ calories (athletes benefit even if they spit out the drink rather than swallow it) or their sweet taste (drinks with artificial sweeteners do not boost performance). Instead, suggest Ed Chambers of the University of Birmingham and colleagues in a paper in The Journal of Physiology, carbohydrates in the drinks fit into receptors in the mouth that in turn activate the brain’s pleasure and reward centers, spurring athletes to push themselves harder without realizing how hard they're working....
  • A Tweeting Brain

    For patients suffering from locked-in syndrome, in which they are completely paralyzed and able to do no more than blink their eyes, the greatest hope is not walking, not feeding themselves, not anything else having to do with moving: it is communicating. (An episode of House last month did a good job of depicting the horror of locked-in syndrome, which can be caused by amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, aka Lou Gehrig’s disease, brain-stem stroke or high spinal cord injury.) Hence the intense research effort to build brain-computer interfaces (BCI) for such patients. As a 2007 publication from the National Institutes of Health described a BCI system being developed there, “eight electrodes hitched to the computer . . . record the user’s electrical brain waves, which the computer analyzes and translates into specific commands, such as writing emails, selecting computer icons, or moving robotic devices. No surgery is required and users typically master the system within an hour or two.”...
  • Kids, Genes and Daycare

    You can always count on studies of daycare to scare the living daylights out of parents, especially when they find that the more hours kids spend in daycare the more likely they are to be aggressive (a conclusion that, critics said, reflected shortcomings in the study) and that poor-quality daycare can hinder kids’ cognitive development, as the original report of a long-running study and a more user-friendly write-up both note....
  • Here Comes the . . . Oops: Make That, 'There Goes the Sun'

    There is no clearer evidence of how controversial geo-engineering (altering the atmosphere so as to reduce global warming, perhaps by lofting a haze of sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to reduce incoming sunlight) is than the tempest stirred up when White House science adviser John Holdren told the Associated Press that the administration was discussing it. To lots of people concerned about global warming, merely mentioning geo-engineering detracts from the urgency to reduce emissions of greenhouse gases, conveying a message of, “oh, no problem; we can keep making this mess but deploy a techno-fix when we need to.” But let’s leave politics aside for a nanosecond. The risk of geo-engineering is, to put it bluntly, that we’re not smart enough to know what climate effects it will produce....
  • 20% Chance of Rain, 100% Chance of Innumeracy

    It’s long been a puzzle to me why so many of my fellow commuters carry umbrellas when the weather forecast has called for, say, a 20 percent chance of rain. Me, I figure the odds are 4-to-1 in my favor. I assumed that other people are risk-averse—that is, even a small chance of getting drenched is worth the cost of carrying an umbrella. But a new study suggests something else is afoot: many people have no idea what “20 percent chance of rain” actually means....
  • R.I.P.: John Maddox

    Literary agent and Edge impresario John Brockman is reporting that John Maddox, long-time editor of the journal Nature, died Monday night at the age of 93. Maddox, who trained as a physicist, edited Nature for 23 years, making the publication arguably (well, I would argue) the best scientific journal in the world. Brockman has a nice Q&A with Maddox from 1997, in which Maddox is his usual irascible self....
  • God and Mental Health

    With two seders behind us, Good Friday upon us and Easter two days away, let us sing the praises of religion for its power to improve mental health (pace, Hitchens and Dawkins). Yes, “religion features in a lot of psychotic delusions,” as British medical writer Tom Rees notes in his blog Epiphenom. But as two new studies show, religion can also improve mental health--but only if you believe in the right god....
  • Bookshelf: Supersense

    When I was working on a 2007 column and then a longer story last year about why people believe in paranormal and supernatural phenomena, one of the most insightful scientists I spoke to was psychology researcher Bruce Hood of Britain’s University of Bristol. As he does in his blog, he explained that believing in ghosts, ESP, telepathy or even that you can tell when someone is looking at you from behind is not a matter of religion or culture, but instead reflects the normal workings of the brain....