Wednesday, May 30, 2007

The story of our lives...

The NYT has an article in Mental Health and Behavior on psychologists' views of how the narratives we tell about our past reflect our personality and outlook, on not only our past, but our present and future too.

Sometimes I tell stories from my past, and it is very true that how I relate the story depends on my mood at the time. Sometimes my past seems miserable and haphazard, and other times it seems like a wonderful breadth of experience that has made me who I am today. According to Cognitive Therapy, not only will my mood affect how I tell my story, but how I tell and think about my story will also affect my mood.

The Times article goes on to say that psychologists have found correlations between our moods and behavior with how we picture past events: whether we experience them again in the first person, or whether we view ourselves in the third person as if we were watching a movie. In a 2005 study at OSU, college students asked to visualize embarrassing moments from the third person tended to identify less with the bumbling fool in the story, and to feel more confident and social after their visualization, as measured by a research mole waiting to hit them up for conversation in the exit room. Students asked to visualize embarrassing events in the first person were more likely to state that they hadn't changed very much since high school, and were less friendly to the undercover lab coat outside. In a 2004 study, people who pictured themselves voting at the poll booth during the presidental election were more likely to go vote than those who did not. Can these technique help people achieve other goals? Who knows! I rarely picture myself in the third person. Frankly, I find it disturbing to look at myself. I'm really glad I don't have a twin.

But I'll try picturing myself on the big screen today, and you try it too. Picture yourself running a marathon, successfully completing projects at work, exercising, or being calm in congested traffic, and see if it helps you achieve those goals. I'm going to picture myself finishing a manuscript I'm working on and sleeping, because I've been an insomniac lately.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Skin Elasticity and Kate Hudson

Many women are concerned about loose skin remaining after they lose a lot of weight or have a baby. Kate Hudson has recently been featured as having a saggy belly in Star magazine's Best and Worst Beach Bodies, and has in the same week been featured in Us and In Touch as having a toned tummy.

People on the web have commented that the Star photo is fake, but I believe it is simply old; she felt a lot of pressure to lose her baby weight very fast (her kid is three or four). Stretched out skin can take up to two years to firm up. In the saggy photo Kate looks stressed out and scrawny, and her tummy has more fat and muscle in the newer photo.

I tried to find more scientific information on the topic of skin elasticity, but alas, all I came up with were articles on body contouring in plastic surgery journals. The best writing I came across is by Justin Leonard:

Weight Loss, Extra Skin

Question: I have recently lost a lot of weight and seem to have extra skin with some fat covering my lower abs. Is surgery the only solution?
Justin Leonard: Not necessarily . . . For some, the skin's elasticity will change over time back to its normal state. But admittedly, others' will never change. You may want to give it a couple months for improvement, just to make sure it isn't a temporary state for your skin.

He has a nice website on weight lifting and fitness issues.

One thing for sure is, kudos to Kate for baring her tummy and not getting impatient and having it tucked, and kudos to Star for publishing these pictures, even though they should have been in the "Stars, They're Just Like Us" section.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A Perfect "Boiled" Egg

How do you cook a perfect egg that is transportable?
Normally we boil our eggs, and they come out rubbery and bounce around and sometimes crack. You can solve this problem by baking your egg in an oven, no water needed. The various proteins in an egg denature and coagulate between 142-184 or so degrees Fahrenheit, far below the boiling temperature of 212 degrees F. By baking eggs at different temperatures in this range, you can bake an egg with the consistency you prefer. I like mine runny. Thanks to my organic chemistry professor for pointing this out to my class.
See the full article on baking eggs in Discover Magazine here. Those stuck on boiling may want to look at this site.
As soon as I get an oven thermometer, I will try out these techniques and post pictures.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Oh, what a lonely shark in Nebraska can do!

For anyone who missed it, a hammerhead shark in Nebraska gave birth to a baby she conceived on her own, with no male contribution (technical term: parthogenesis). The full story is here, on the NYT website.

Rumi, the sufi mystic poet, wrote a poem saying whenever a man and woman become lovers, a child is born, even if actual conception doesn't take place. The union of a man and woman is still an act of creation, whether in a one night stand or a marriage. This poem needs a new stanza:

Come come, called the mother, I will focus within.
Come come, little light, be born.
My time in confinement, surrounded by flat plains,
has resulted in you, my dear one.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Toxic Seats or Toxic Science?

Recently the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor issued a study of toxic chemicals in car and baby car seats. In the baby seat rankings, various car seats from several companies such as Graco and Eddie Bauer were ranked in terms of Lead, Bromine, and Chlorine.

What does this study say about your baby's car seat? They tested only one sample of each model, so we have no idea how these toxic chemicals vary among individual car seats. Also, all seats tested below the FDA allowable limit in Lead, yet each seat is rated relative to the other models tested on a scale from "least concern" to "most concern". Seats with the worst ratings are still within acceptable limits and seats listed as "least concern" may come from a better manufactoring plant than the seat sitting on the shelf in the Albuquerque Wal-Mart. We really don't know what these scales mean, with no absolute and only one sample.

I do think we need to minimize toxic chemicals in our life, but a poorly executed study like this raises an unnecessary amount of fear. And where will all these toxic car seats be disposed, when people rush out to buy new products?

Hopefully the Ann Arbor study will put pressure on car seat manufacturers to make more environmentally and child friendly seats, and open up the discussion on what to do with the toxic stuff we already own, without too many mothers believing they need to buy a new car seat or worrying that they damaged their child by buckling them in.

Here is a more detailed Eopinion review of the study.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Intel International Science Fair 2007

Last week I was a judge at the Intel International Science Fair. I judged in the physics and astronomy category, and also in microbiology. I had the chance to look at some posters in medicine and behavioral science also. About 40% of the students asked an interesting question that could come up in day-to-day life, and devised an experiment to answer it. The rest had grad school level research projects. Everyone did a great job, but I was inspired by the students who had more straightforward experiments, such as, how does dress inpact your success at getting adults to take a survey (Aubrey Lynn Havold), or can you influence what color of skittle a person will choose with subliminal messages (Robert MacKenzie), or what is the effect of snow density on ski speed (Elizabeth Magnussen DiMascio)? They showed that simple questions that come up and actually impact your life can be answered, or at least approached, with simple, scientific methods. Of course the students who solved 20 year old problems in astrophysics (Temple Mu He) or showed the dark side of anti-hormonal therapies on cancer (Tejal Ulhas Naik) were impressive too. I was also impressed with how poised and articulate the students were.
If you have a chance, be a judge at a science fair, or design experiments to answer any questions of your own.
Intel International Science Fair

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Polls, Evolution, and Stupid Americans

I work with a man from Sweden obsessed with and apalled by Americans' belief in creationism. Every so often, he sends out a statement of disbelief, along with a link to polls concerning Americans and evolution:

According to the Harris poll, roughly half of people believe humans and apes had a common ancestor, that fossil evidence supports evolution, and that other plants and animals evolved. The same poll also says that 64% of people believe God created humans in their current form, so some people both believe humans and apes had a common ancestor and that God created humans without evolution.

Does expressed belief in creationism indicate an anti-science attitude? Only a third of people believed that religion and science conflict with each other. Most people, including me, have a deeply rooted belief that humans are special and distinct from other animals, so it is difficult to accept evolution on an emotional or instinctual level. If the scientific community can support its viewpoint that creationism differs from a scientific theory and should be left out of science curriculums, we will gain more ground than by belittling people's religious belief and feeling incredulous that religious people exist. Let's support the teaching of evolution without comment on religion.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Why Drought Makes Plants Sad

I just saw a talk by Nate McDowell on climate change and the ecosystem. I learned that when the air is dry, leaves close little openings in their outer leaves (stomata, not to be confused with stigmata) to prevent moisture from escaping. During a drought, the stomata stay closed, which causes processes of defense, growth, and the intake of nutrients stagnate. The leaf becomes weak and dehydrated and bark beetles can have their way with the hapless plant.
In this way, drought leads to closed, unhappy plants.