Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • 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....
  • Space Photos: Vote Early and Often

    If your collection of space photographs has some gaps, this is your chance to fill at least one of them.   NASA has invited the public to vote on the next celestial object for the Hubble Space Telescope to photograph. There are six candidates, including two planetary nebulae (unrelated the planets, they’re the gaseous remains of stars in their death throes), a star-forming region, a spiral galaxy (NGC 5172), an edge-on view of a spiral galaxy (NGC 4289) and two galaxies “interacting”—or, to the dramatically-inclined, about to collide.   As I write this, the impending mash-up is winning. Do space aficionados have the sensibility of rubber-neckers fascinated by car crashes?
  • Here, Fido! (Watch Carefully)

    If you’re out of ideas for a conversation over family dinner tonight, try this (it works better if you have a four-legged pet): how do cats and dogs walk? That is, in what order do the four legs take steps?...
  • An 'Obama Effect' on Blacks' Test Scores?

    On only the fourth day of his presidency, it’s obviously way too soon to assess whether Barack Obama’s effect on African-Americans will extend beyond providing hope and inspiration. Will he, for instance, goad black students to higher achievement, since he is living proof that working hard can pay off? One intriguing hint of what researchers led by Ray Friedman of the Vanderbilt Owen Graduate School of Management calls the “Obama Effect” suggests that maybe, just maybe, Obama will do more for the scholastic achievement of African-Americans than anything since Brown v. Board of Education....
  • Childhood Obesity and School Exercise Programs: Not So Fast

    I hate to pour cold water on what seems like a surefire way to combat childhood obesity—namely, school-based health and exercise programs—so I’ll blame the Cochrane Collaboration for doing so. This non-profit group of scientists and physicians, based in England, regularly assesses the weight of the evidence on health and medical questions from whether St. John’s wort can alleviate depression (yes, sort of) to whether mouthwash can reduce bad breath (in some cases). Now the Cochrane team has weighed in on whether school programs can help kids lose weight and inspire them to ...
  • Designer Babies

    It was probably inevitable. With the growing use of preimplantation genetic diagnosis (PGD) , in which embryos created by in vitro fertilization are screened for genetic defects, the day was going to come when fertility doctors used it not for the well-established purpose of identifying glitches that invariably lead to disease—mutations such as those causing hemophilia, fragile X syndrome, neuromuscular dystrophies, Rett syndrome, cystic fibrosis, Tay-Sachs, sickle-cell anemia and Huntington disease. Instead, PGD was also going to be used to look for mutations that only might lead to problems. Doctors announced that the first baby screened for the breast- and ovarian-cancer gene BRCA1 was born in Britain....
  • Eat Cereal, Have Boys? On Second Thought . . .

    When scientists in England reported last April that what a woman eats around the time she conceives can affect whether she has a boy or a girl—the headline-making finding of the study, titled “You Are What Your Mother Eats,” was that women who ate breakfast cereal were more likely to have a boy—it was picked up by more newspapers and Websites than you can count (including here, here and here). Basically, they reported that 56 percent of women who consumed the most calories (including breakfast cereal) before conceiving had boys, while only 45 percent of women who consumed the fewest calories did. Now comes the not-so-fast part....
  • The 'Voodoo' Science of Brain Imaging

    If you are a fan of science news, then odds are you are also intrigued by brain imaging, the technique that produces those colorful pictures of brains “lit up” with activity, showing which regions are behind which behaviors, thoughts and emotions. So maybe you remember these recent hits: which regions of the brain listen to angry voices, which regions are active when women grieve the break-up of a romantic relationship, activity showing the problems cocaine addicts have in responding to rewards, how social rejection increases activity in the same brain regions as physical pain, how men and women show different brain activation patterns when they think about their partner cheating on them sexually (men: regions involved in sexual and aggressive behaviors such as the amygdala and hypothalamus become more active) or emotionally, which brain regions become more active when arachnophobes think about spiders, which regions become active when you first experience intense romantic love  . ....
  • 'I Hate It When Black People Do That!'

    So there you are, sitting in a tiny waiting room with one white man and one African-American. The latter suddenly says, oh no, I left my cell phone in my car, leaps up and walks to the door, lightly bumping against the knees of the white man. When the African-American is out of the room the white man says, “Typical. I hate it when black people do that.”...
  • The First Americans? Make That the First Two

    Looking back, it was pretty dumb to think that people got to the Americas from Asia once, or that a single group braved the ice bridge to the new world. A cool new study published online today in the journal Current Biology may bury that simplistic assumption once and for all: according to the evidence of mitochondrial DNA, the first Americans arrived in at least two separate migrations, at about the same time, about 15,000 to 17,000 years ago....
  • Tetris for Trauma?

    It’s too soon to load Tetris onto the equipment that soldiers carry into battle, but there’s an intriguing hint that playing that geometric game might act as what scientists are calling a “cognitive vaccine” against the horrible flashbacks that characterize post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), which more and more of those returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan are suffering....
  • That Collision You Hear Will Be Andromeda

    Newborn stars? Planets beyond our solar system? Black holes? The annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society has these and every other (it seems) denizen of the universe, but I have to mention three among my favorites of the discoveries being presented:...