Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • The Math of March Madness

    With the opening round of March Madness (a.k.a. the NCAA Men’s basketball tournament) getting underway Thursday, the mathematicians are out in force. If you’re still looking for additional help with your bracketology, Lab Notes is here to help....
  • It's Good to Be on the 17th Floor

    With a record number of Americans now saying that press accounts of the impact of global warming are exaggerated—41 percent say that, according to a Gallup poll released last week—I can easily imagine the reaction to this study, but here goes anyway: sea level due to global warming will be almost twice as great along the northeastern U.S. coast as it is globally. As always, it’s not merely the average level of sea-level rise that’s the problem, but the synergistic effect of sea-level rise with hurricanes and winter storm surges. When winds hurl water onto coasts from a higher starting point, the damage is that much greater....
  • Hello Botox, Bye-Bye Anger?

    Have you ever had the experience of smiling to be sociable at a party, even though you don’t feel especially chipper, and finding that the smile actually makes you feel happier? Or of making a frown, perhaps when you’re in a meeting where layoffs are announced (even though your job is safe), to show that you are in sync with others, and even though you did not feel angry before you frowned the facial expression makes you feel mad? The phenomenon was first noticed by Charles Darwin, giving rise to his “facial feedback hypothesis”—but Darwin didn’t know anyone who’d had Botox....
  • One Fish, Two Fish, Be Careful Not to Rue Fish

    It’s always been a mystery to me why the fishing industry equates “some fish have mercury, so avoid high-mercury fish” with “don’t eat any fish at all,!” Yet it does, arguing that those irresponsible scientists who issue warnings about mercury in fish will make people miss out on the heart and (for fetuses) cognitive benefits of fish....
  • 1 Chimp + Many Rocks = Duck!

    Whenever a study claims a “first”—as in the first evidence for this or that phenomenon—my suspicious side emerges. A fascinating paper in the March 9 issue of Current Biology describes what it calls the first unambiguous evidence that a non-human animal (in this case, a male chimpanzee who lives in Sweden’s Furuvik Zoo) can plan for future contingencies: for the last 11 years Santino, who is 30, has been regularly collecting stones from his enclosure in the early morning hours before the zoo opened, stockpiling them in groups of three to eight, and then hurling them at visitors later in the day....
  • Too Much Carbon Dioxide? Suck It

    There are all sorts of ways to get a sense of when an idea’s time has come, but I recommend looking at how many conferences are devoted to it. By that measure, carbon capture and sequestration is ready for its close-up. I just got back from a conference on this, and was struck by how little the message had changed since I began writing about it in 2003 (such as here, here and here)....
  • Antibiotics for Colds, and Other Tales from the Trenches

    Among the many, many (really many) doctors who have written in to berate me for my column in this week’s magazine claiming that “doctors hate science” (which was shorthand and headline-speak for “why doctors are so reluctant to embrace evidence-based medicine and comparative-effectiveness research”), quite a few made a crucial point. Doctors may be paragons when it comes to using only treatments that have been proved to work. Patients are a whole ‘nother story....
  • Hubble: The People Have Spoken

    I hope Lab Notes readers got their votes in. As I blogged last month, NASA had invited people to weigh in on what additional target the Hubble Space Telescope should photograph during the International Year of Astronomy's “100 Hours of Astronomy,” taking place April 2 to 5. The winner is (sorry, planetary nebulae, spiral galaxy, star-forming region and edge-on galaxy): a pair of interacting galaxies.   Out of the 139,944 votes cast online since January 28, nearly 50 percent went to the interacting pair of spiral galaxies called Arp 274. (To find it yourself--or at least the general neighborhood, go here) It’s a good choice, since interacting galaxies “weave elegant twisted lanes of dust and stars, and brilliant blue clusters of newborn stars,” a NASA announcement says.   We’ll see what Hubble comes up with next month.
  • Extreme Makeover, Mongol Hordes Edition

    If work or play takes you to Houston between now and September 7, check out the Genghis Khan exhibit at the Houston Museum of Natural History and you’ll never again equate the conquering Mongol with “barbarian.”...
  • Vaccines and Autism: The Unending Story

    When I was reporting the story on vaccines and autism for the current issue of the magazine, everyone warned me that despite a sweeping decision by the “vaccine court” that neither thimerosal nor the MMR vaccine cause autism, the belief that either or both do was not going to fade away. Hard on the heels of that February 12 decision by the court, another case—decided in July 2007 but being released only now—went in favor of parents who believe the MMR vaccine caused their son’s Pervasive Developmental Delay (of which autism is one form)....
  • Bookshelf: 'Toxic Truth'

    Sometimes it takes an SOB to get anything accomplished, especially against steep odds, and the battle to protect children from lead was especially uphill. Anyone who cares about children’s brains—for lead is a potent neurotoxin—can therefore thank two men who were arrogant, abrasive, and uncharitable with colleagues who did not see things their way. One of them, geochemist Clair Patterson of Caltech, was well known for insisting he was right, and for pointing out to others in great detail all of the mistakes and limitations in their work. The other, psychiatrist/epidemiologist Herbert Needleman of the University of Pittsburgh, was impatient, passionate about his science and social justice, and inclined to divide the world into those who were with him and those who were not, and not to waste much effort trying to get along with the latter. ...
  • Your Brain on Schadenfreude . . . Or Not

    Full confession: after the concerns raised by scientists about brain imaging, which I’ve written about here before as well as in the paper magazine,...
  • For Prostate Cancer, Just Pee? Not So Fast

    Before we get all excited about a potential urine test for prostate cancer, which is being reported tomorrow in the journal Nature, it’s worth remembering how littered the medical landscape is with promising early-detection tests that bombed. The biggest problem: if you want to do large-scale, population-wide screening, your test better be close to 100% specific (that is, not detect cancers that aren’t there). If you have even 1% false positives in a test that 25 million people take every year (25 million is how many men undergo PSA testing for prostate cancer), that’s 250,000 people you’re sending to have biopsies that will in most cases find nothing . . . and worrying those patients sick for no reason....
  • "Under the Sea," in 3D

    If you are the kind of aquarium goer who can’t help touching the glass in hopes of petting a fish, then if you see Under the Sea 3D at an Imax Theatre you should definitely sit on your hands: thanks to the 3D effect, green sea turtles, cuttlefish, sea lions, leafy sea dragons and other denizens of the Coral Triangle (around Papua New Guinea and Indonesia) and the Great Barrier Reef seem to swim just inches in front of your hands. The children at the screening I attended this past weekend were grabbing for fish in the air more than they were reaching into their popcorn....
  • Color My World: Hues that Enhance Thinking

    Is your job to detect side-effects of a new experimental drug, scrutinize manufactured parts for defects or something else that requires close attention to detail? Then you might want to pick red chairs, curtains and carpet for your work space. Ditto if you're a student studying for a test: find a room with lots of red. Is your job to brainstorm new product designs, dream up ad campaigns and do something similarly creative? Paint the walls blue. And if you're a student who has to write a paper or poem for this weekend's homework, plan on doing it in a room with lots of blue....
  • Snakes on a Plane? Try 'as Big as a Plane'

    The discovery of a 60-million-years-old fossil snake from northeastern Colombia, South America, whose size makes today’s anacondas and pythons seem like garter snakes is being hailed for the light it sheds on ancient climates, but let’s be honest here: the attention it’s getting has more to do with its mammoth measurements. At 13 meters (42.7 feet) from nose to tail, tipping the scales at an estimated 1,135 kilograms (2,500 pounds) and with a girth that would reach the hips of a grown man who had the misfortune to be around when the snake was slithering by, Titanoboa cerrejonensis (it’s from the Greek titan, for giant) was the largest snake the world has ever seen....
  • Human Clones: One Step Closer

    The science of cloning and stem cells has been somewhat of an unholy mess, what with fraudulent claims (by a South Korean biologist) of generating custom-made stem cells lines and, sigh, of producing a baby through cloning. (The little cloned boy should be 5 now; we wish him well in kindergarten.) The latest advance therefore shouldn’t inspire headlines about cloned babies being right around the corner, but here goes: scientists have transferred DNA from an adult human cell into a human egg, and made the egg to “reprogram” the donor DNA back to its embryonic state, producing a pattern of gene activation like that in normal IVF embryos--and therefore, it seems, the pattern necessary to create an embryo....
  • More on Brain Voodoo

    I had no intention of revisiting the debate over the use of brain imaging in social neuroscience, which I blogged about last month. But that post brought such a tsumani of anger, dismay, invective and outrage that I felt an obligation to go back and dig more deeply into whether the charges in a paper by Ed Vul of MIT, Hal Pashler of UC San Diego and colleagues that is in press at Perspectives on Psychological Science were as meritless as many of the scientists I heard from claimed....
  • What Good Are New Brain Cells?

    Ever since neuroscientists discovered a decade ago that middle-aged and even old brains keep producing new neurons, they have puzzled over a fundamental question: are these new recruits good for anything, and if so, what? “Intuitively we feel that those new brain cells have to be good for something, but nobody really knows what it is,” said James (Brad) Aimone, a graduate student at the University of California, San Diego....