Sharon Begley

Stories by Sharon Begley

  • 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....
  • 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?”...