Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • 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:...
  • Crystal-Ball Time

    Every December the online intellectual salon called Edge, presided over by literary agent John Brockman, asks a select (virtual) assembly of scientists to ponder a question, such as what they are optimistic about (2007), what “dangerous” ideas they have (2006) and what they believe is true but cannot prove (2005). As the bell tolls on 2008 and rings in 2009, Edge is unveiling this year’s: “What game-changing scientific ideas and developments do you expect to live to see?”...
  • Kissing Cousins

    A good way not to win friends in an immigrant community is to blame its high rate of birth defects on the practice of cousin marriages. That’s what British environment minister Phil Woolas did in February, blaming birth defects in children in the UK’s Pakistani community on marriages between first cousins. “If you have a child with your cousin, the likelihood is there will be a genetic problem,” he told the Sunday Times. (Calls by a Muslim activist group that Woolas be fired went for naught; he was promoted in October to immigration minister.) That belief is reflected in laws in 31 U.S. states that either bar cousin marriage entirely or permit it only if the couple undergoes genetic counseling or cannot have kids....
  • A Better Mousetrap Car

    If boredom sets in over the holidays, take a page from some freshmen engineering students at Johns Hopkins: try to build a racecar powered only by two mousetraps and six rubber bands. Many of the students went with wood slabs for the body, and there were more than a few wheels made of DVDs. The cars needed not only propulsion but also maneuverability: they had to navigate an 11-foot-long curved course and somehow slalom around two sand-filled soda bottles blocking the way. The winners hit on an ingenious solution: they attached rods to the top of their cars, and when the rods hit the soda bottles it forced the front wheels to turn, steering the cars around the obstacle. But words do not to justice to these feats of engineering: watch the video. Best rubber-band-and-mousetrap racecar at your holiday gathering wins an extra piece of fruitcake.
  • White House Science Advisor

    That sigh of relief emanating from laboratories around the world is the sound of scientists reacting to reports that president-elect Obama will name physicist John Holdren his science adviser. Holdren has a resume longer than your arm (he is Teresa and John Heinz Professor of Environmental Policy and Director of the Program on Science, Technology, and Public Policy at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government, President and Director of the Woods Hole Research Center, Professor of Environmental Science and Policy in Harvard’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and former president, and chairman of the board of American Association for the Advancement of Science), but what he will bring to the table is an unflinching commitment to evidence-based policy making....
  • The Map of Death: Flood, Heat Waves, Tornadoes ...

    Thinking of moving? Go nowhere until you consult the “death map,” a county-by-county snapshot of the likelihood of dying from a natural disaster like an earthquake or hurricane....
  • Holiday Medical Myths: Zapped!

    Slaying medical myths is like playing whack-a-mole: no sooner do you eliminate one than another pops up. Last year Rachel Vreeman and Aaron Carroll of Indiana University School of Medicine exposed seven medical beliefs as myths (more on this below), and now they are refining their aim: in a paper in BMJ, the duo shows that seven medical beliefs related to Christmas are as shaky as an underdone plum pudding:...
  • May the Dark Energy Be With You

    Going, going ... The universe as we see it—that starry expanse in the night sky—may never get better than it is now, at least in a visual sense: dark energy, the mysterious springy stuff that is causing the cosmic expansion to accelerate, is also squelching the growth of the largest entities in the universe, clusters of galaxies. From here on out, those clusters will grow no more than a ballerina on a diet....
  • Milkshakes for All Our Mutated Friends!

    Does anyone else feel that one of life’s singularly unfair phenomena is that some people can live on buttered eggs, dripping bacon and marbled steak yet never show any sign of heart disease? You know—the people who live to 95 and smugly assert that they never so much as met a low-fat food....
  • 'The Day the Earth Stood Still'

    You can tell a lot about a society by its movie demons, such as the fear of nuclear weapons parodied in “Dr. Strangelove” (1964, two years after the Cuban missile crisis) or the unease about biology run amok as captured in 1971’s “The Andromeda Strain”. In “The Day the Earth Stood Still”, which opens tomorrow nationwide, the great fear is environmental. ...
  • Name That Rover!

    The two Mars rovers that have been investigating the geology (areology?) of the red planet since soon after they landed on opposite sides of Mars in 2004 have nice, safe names that combine solidity and seriousness with a soupcon of inspiration: Spirit and Opportunity. Can you do better?...
  • Hourglass Figures: We Take It All Back

    Finally, more scientists are taking aim at the ludicrous idea that there is a biology of beauty—specifically, that men prefer women with an hourglass shape because that is a sign of fertility, and men wired to find fertile women attractive were and are more likely to have descendants, who would carry their gene for that preference. Or so the story has gone....