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).

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...

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.

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.

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: Sugar makes kids hyperactive? "While sugarplums may dance in children's heads,...

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.

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?

'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".

Why Do Dolphins Use Sponges? Hint: Not For Baths

One of the coolest examples of tool use by animals (the non-human kind) isn't chimps that twist sticks into termite mounds to haul out a nice insect dinner, or that use rocks to crush nuts—impressive, to be sure, but I think many of us have come to take for granted that our close cousins are clever enough to use tools.

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.

Happiness is Contagious?

Advice for anyone who wants to be happier: pick the right friends. For the increasing number of Americans who view happiness as a goal in and of itself rather than (sorry to be so old-fashioned) the result of, oh, leading a rewarding life or helping others or achieving something—a trend I bemoaned recently—the latest study provides a simple recipe.

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.

The Psychology of Political Power

While a "team of rivals" approach to White House advisers may indeed be what the country needs, scientists who study the decision-making of people in power know that surrounding yourself with competing voices is no guarantee that wise actions will follow.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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?

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?"   I am therefore looking forward to plant breeders taking a discovery published online this afternoon in Nature Genetics and later in a print version of the journal and putting it to...

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.