Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • Believing in Weird Things, Continued

    There is no better way to attract reports of the paranormal than to write a story casting doubt on it, and attract them I did. Besides the usual ghost sightings, my favorite was from a nice man in Florida who told me about his wonderful typewriter (note: not a word processor): he would type a few letters of a word and the machine would fill in the rest, apparently having read his thoughts....
  • Why It Hurts More When He Means to Hit You

    A certain spouse of our acquaintance has what we can only assume are religious objections to walking over to a wastepaper basket and dropping in his used Kleenex, crumpled envelope or other trash. Instead, he shoots what amount to living-room foul shots—occasionally hitting someone between him and the basket. This spouse has also been known—rarely!—to throw crumpled paper in anger, intentionally hitting someone. Question: why does it hurt more when he tries to hit you than when he hits you unintentionally? Related question: why does it hurt more if someone purposely stomps on your foot than if she accidentally treads on your toes?...
  • The Value of Mammograms: Think Again

    Yet another good friend told me over the weekend how she had narrowly (in her estimation) escaped death: she had had a mammogram a few months ago, a lump had been detected and deemed suspicious, surgery was scheduled, the lump was removed and found to be malignant. She is now starting the standard course of radiation, and thanks to the mammogram, she was telling me, her life has been saved....
  • When DNA is Not Destiny

    Experiences can silence genes or activate them. Even shyness is like Silly Putty once life gets hold of it.
  • A Talk With Iain Prance

    Sir Ghillean (Iain) T. Prance, the eminent botanist who served as director of Britain’s Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, from 1988 to 1999, was in New York this week to receive the Gold Medal of The New York Botanical Garden for his contributions to plant science. The award is given infrequently; the last recipient was Edward O. Wilson, in 2002....
  • Resurrecting Mammoths Gets One Step Closer

    If only Michael Crichton had lived to see this: scientists are announcing today that they have sequenced the genome of the woolly mammoth, which has been extinct for about 10,000 years. That makes it the first extinct genome to be sequenced, raising the tantalizing possibility that what Crichton envisioned for dinosaurs in Jurassic Park might come true for mammoths....
  • All in the Family: The First Nuclear-Family Grave

    Even when they were first discovered, in 2005, the four graves near Eulau, Germany, made scientists sit up and take notice: at 4,600 years old, they were unusually ancient and well preserved. But now, having performed genetic and isotopic tests on the remains, scientists have realized they have something even more momentous: one group of adults and children buried facing each other is the oldest nuclear family identified with molecular genetic evidence, Australian scientists are reporting today in the online edition of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. And analyses of strontium isotopes in tooth enamel, which reveal where people came from, indicate that the males and children came from around the area where they died, while females came from far away: in this Late Stone Age society, it seems, males found mates from outside the clan and brought them home, the first evidence of a practice that was to become widespread during human prehistory....
  • Orphan Diseases: Calling All Volunteers

    No child should be born into this world with Batten Disease, which—and here I’ll just quote from the National Institutes of Health—causes “mental impairment, worsening seizures, and progressive loss of sight and motor skills. Eventually, children with Batten disease become blind, bedridden, and demented. Batten disease is often fatal by the late teens or twenties.” And if Mark Chandler has his way, no more will be....
  • Cockroaches 101: How To Kill One On the Run

    Having recently tipped you off to the most effective way to swat a fly, Lab Notes is now proud to share the secret to killing a skittering, running-for-its-life cockroach. Thanks to research on animals’ predator-escape mechanisms (which we’re sure has relevance to deep mysteries about neural circuitry, or evolutionary biology, or something), it can now be revealed that the best way to smoosh a roach is to aim for a 90-degree angle from where the thing is currently headed (that is, figure it’ll make a sharp right or left turn) or a 180-degree angle (that it’ll reverse course)....
  • Seen, Not Inferred: Exoplanets Galore

    While all of us who are rooting for the existence of little green men have been cheered by each discovery of a planet orbiting a star other than our sun—an “exoplanet,” of which there were 322 when I checked the catalog a minute ago—there’s always been a tinge of disappointment. Every validated discovery, starting with the first in 1995, has been indirect. In other words, astronomers didn't actually see the planet beyond our solar system, but instead inferred its existence by, for instance, noticing something funny about how a star moves and realizing, gee, that funny movement must be due to a planet tugging gravitationally on the star. But this afternoon, two separate teams of astronomers, using three different telescopes, are announcing the discovery of exoplanets by, well, looking. One team, led by Paul Kalas of the University of California, Berkeley, used the Hubble Space Telescope to image a planet they call Fomalhaut b, orbiting the star Fomalhaut, 25 light years away i...
  • Alzheimer's: Still Barking Up the Wrong Tree?

    I was intrigued, and a bit alarmed, by a study in this month’s . The study used an imaging agent called Pittsburgh Compound B (so-named because it was discovered at the University of Pittsburgh; it detects brain deposits ) to examine the brains of 43 people, age 65 to 88, who had neither Alzheimer’s disease nor mild cognitive impairment. Of the 43, 9 showed evidence of these brain deposits, called amyloid plaques, in at least one brain area....
  • Storing Up Smarts for a Rainy Day

    Explain this: if Alzheimer’s disease  is caused by the accumulation of sticky amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles that kill neurons (as the leading theories of the disease hold), then how can holding a job that poses minimal cognitive demands and watching a lot of TV raise your risk of developing the disease? Nothing in neuroscience suggests that either activity speeds the formation of plaques or tangles—or, conversely, that mentally-demanding jobs and spending your leisure time in more intellectually-engaging pursuits blocks their formation....
  • Good News for Black Thumbs: Annuals Become Perennials

    As I watch this year’s impatiens, vinca and petunias shrivel up and die, this is what I am not thinking: “oh goodie, I get to plant another crop of annuals next spring!” No, I am thinking, “if a stupid tulip can be a perennial, why can’t these come back every year, too, with minimal intervention on my part?”...
  • Harbingers of Autism

    The tragedy of autism is compounded by one fact that makes desperate parents wish they could turn back the hands of time: symptoms of the neurodevelopmental disorder typically show up when a child is 2 or 3 or even older, but by then it may be too late to prevent or reverse whatever glitches in brain development (still pretty much a mystery) underlie the disease. It is even on the late side for getting a child the behavioral interventions and special education that might mitigate some of the worst symptoms....
  • Given a Choice, Get Anything Other Than Lung Cancer

    It’s no secret that oncologists and cancer researchers have made pitifully little progress against lung cancer, even compared to the less-than-stellar progress against other cancers, as I explained in a recent story. But as the Lung Cancer Alliance, a patient-advocacy group, details in its annual report card—filled with F’s—the news is so grim that it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that we need a whole new approach to this tragic disease....
  • Now It's Serious: As the World Warms, Lemmings Take a Hit

    Sure, effects of global warming such as more-intense hurricanes and exacerbated drought/flood cycles are no picnic, but now things are getting really dire: as the world, especially the top of the world, warms, the periodic explosion and crash of lemming populations is history....
  • Begley: Bring On the ‘Reality- Based Community’

    It took a while to discern the guiding ideology behind the Bush administration's poisonous science policies. The real problem wasn't tax cuts and war spending, even though the combination did strangle domestic programs so severely that scientists at the nation's premier physics lab were ordered to take unpaid leave, and the government is allocating 13 percent less to biomedical research in 2009 than it did in 2004. Nor was the culprit the sop that Bush offered the religious right in 2001 by banning the use of federal money for research on new lines of human embryonic stem cells, paralyzing the field for eight years and sending some of the nation's most promising young biologists overseas. It wasn't even Bush's refusal to take any action to reduce greenhouse gases, allowing U.S. emissions to grow by 178 million tons during his years in the White House and making the needed cuts that much deeper now. No, Obama and Congress can reverse all of that if they want to. The truly poisonous...
  • The Accidental Stem-Cell Advocate

    The debate over research on embryonic stem cells can seem pretty abstract, so if you want to get a real feel for the effect of President Bush’s ban on the use of federal money for studies of new stem-cell lines see if you can catch a screening of a documentary called The Accidental Advocate. It was produced and directed by Jessica Gerstle, who was an Emmy Award-winning journalist at Dateline NBC for 12 years and who is—more relevantly—the daughter of Dr. Claude Gerstle, an ophthalmologist who was paralyzed from the neck down after a bicycle accident that, as he says wonderingly in the film, left him with nary a broken bone nor a scratch on his helmet. "Merely" a quadriplegic....
  • Election 2008: How Much Do Looks Count?

    Say what you will about Sarah Palin’s experience, competence and views on (to pick just two of Lab Notes' favorites) creationism and climate change, give her this: she's got that whole beauty queen thing going for her. Roll your eyes if you must, but in a finding that will further depress anyone who still thinks that voters are rational scientists, for female pols, looks really, really matter. ...
  • Surprise: Scientists for Obama

    Let's not kid ourselves: an endorsement by scientists is unlikely to sway many voters next week. But the decision by 76 American Nobel laureates—including all three of the Americans who won one of the science prizes this year—is notable for one thing: if you think ordinary Americans believe the last eight years have been a nightmare, you should see how scientists feel. As documented over and over, especially by Rep. Henry Waxman’s House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, the politicization of science by this administration has set records. Scientists are furious and can’t wait for it to end....
  • Found? King Solomon's Mines

    King Solomon, who assumed the throne of the kingdom of Israel after the death of his father King David,...
  • 'Out!' Called the Ref. Challenge?

    Memo to tennis players: because of the way the human visual system works, referees are more likely to call “out” a ball that actually lands in, rather than call “in” a ball that in fact lands outside the line. Now that professional players are permitted to challenge calls, therefore, they would do well to focus on balls that are called “out,” since they are more likely to be wrong....
  • Race and Health--or Not

    In our gene-obsessed society, whenever one group differs from another on some measure of health, laypeople as well as experts reflexively leap to a genetic explanation. Higher rates of hypertension among African-Americans than Caucasian Americans? It must be their genes. That assumption is behind race-based medicine, too—the idea that different medications will work better for people of different races....
  • Animals. Acupuncture. Huh?

    As coincidence would have it, I finished reading the terrific new book, “Superstition: Belief in the Age of Science,” by physicist Robert Park, on the very morning that I came across a story about using acupuncture in animals. The coincidence is this: among the fascinating debunking that Park engages in (intercessory prayer, homeopathy, ESP . . . ) is the obligatory chapter on acupuncture, which has been shown to be effective for such things as relieving lower-back pain and headaches. Acupuncture works, Park explains, because it triggers the placebo effect: patients believe in it, and that belief releases endogenous opioids, among other effects....
  • What Am I Bid for This Nice Ivory?

    As of a few minutes ago, you could buy a lovely carving made of African-elephant ivory on eBay for $1,100, an ivory mermaid for $300, an ivory napkin ring for $99 and more: all of the ivory is described as “pre-ban,” meaning it was “harvested” (such a benign word for ripping tusks out of slaughtered elephants) before the international community banned the sale of elephant ivory in 1989. It’s illegal to sell any ivory harvested after that, and illegal to sell any ivory, pre-ban or not, internationally. As for whether the "pre-ban" claims are all accurate, well, if you believe that perhaps I can interest you in a nice bridge we have here in New York....
  • Help Mouse with Lou Gehrig's Disease. Win $1 Million.

    Add another group to the growing list of those who realize that if we wait around for the current way of doing biomedical science to produce cures for disease, those cures will forever be “10 years off,” as researchers in cancer, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and just about everything else have assured me (and everyone else) for years and years. ...
  • Solar and Wind Energy in a World of $70-a-Barrel Oil: RIP?

    When oil was $147 a barrel and money was sloshing through the financial system like water, renewable energy seemed like a slam dunk: wind and solar projects attracted bank loans and private-equity money, and the higher cost of generating electricity from green sources compared to fossil fuels seemed like it might soon be a thing of the past....