Edward Willett

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The fire down below

The surface of our planet is nice and cool. (A little too cool, this time of year.) But not all that far beneath us, it's anything but. In fact, says Chris Marone, Penn State professor of geosciences, enough heat emanates from the interior of the planet to make 200 cups of hot coffee per hour for each of Earth's 6.2 billion inhabitantsThe Earth consists of three concentric layers. We're on the crust, hard and thin (from 10 to 100 kilometres thick). Under that is the mantle, made of molten rock and about 2,900 kilometres thick. At the center of the planet lies the core, consisting of an inner part about the size of the moon that is essentially ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 17:48, February 6th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

Why won’t you do what you’re told?

As a child, I always did what I was told. (Mom, stop laughing, I'm trying to make a point here.)But I can't say I didn't resent certain restrictions. And I'm not alone. Most people hate being told not to do something, and if they can't see a good reason for it, may well go ahead and do it anyway--even if it's detrimental to them.Psychologists call this reactance, and as Steve Booth-Butterfield, an expert in the field of persuasive communication, explains in his online book Steve's Primer of Practical Persuasion, it follows three sequential steps.First, people perceive an unfair restriction. "Unfair" is the key word: we don't have a problem with restrictions ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 21:09, February 13th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

The irrationality of political beliefs

Monday was Family Day in Saskatchewan, and probably more than one family that got together that day set a dinner-time rule: "Don't talk about politics."Political disagreements, unlike run-of-the-mill disagreements, tend to turn hot very quickly. And that's just one way they're unusual, says Michael Huemer of the University of Colorado in Boulder. In "Why People Are Irrational About Politics" the associate professor of philosophy notes that political disagreements are also unusually widespread (pick any two people and they'll probably disagree politically about something-or-other) and unusually long-lived.Heumer lists four theories that attempt to explain why.The miscalculation theory says political issues are so difficult that people make mistakes in reasoning them out and then disagree ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 5:12, February 20th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | 2 Comments »

Rise of the ray-guns

"Set phasers on stun!" Captain Kirk used to order his crew, the usual preference of the United Federation of Planets being to avoid killing aliens, no matter how bad their make-up, if at all possible.Alas, in the real world, we don't always have that option. Aside from the Taser, which zaps people with an incapacitating dose of electricity via electrical wires, non-lethal weapons that can be used from a distance are in short supply.What armed forces of all kinds, from the police to the army, really need is...well, a phaser you can set on stun. Or, more generally, a non-lethal ray gun.Such things were common in science fiction long before Star Trek came along. ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 15:32, February 27th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

Decisions, decisions

Life is one long series of decisions. Today, for instance, I had to decide on a topic for this column—and decided to write about the science of making decisions.Despite what we’d like to think, research continues to show that rational thinking often has little to do with our decision-making process.As Jerry Adler pointed out in a recent article in Newsweek, a lot of the equations and computer models used by economists assume that people act rationally—but in real-life tests, people simply don’t.A classic economic example is the “ultimatum game,” in which one participant gets 10 one-dollar bills (or loonies, in Canada). He chooses how many to offer to a second participant. If she accepts ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 5:12, March 6th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

That’s not funny…so why am I laughing?

Whenever an election is about to occur, we see stories of the “gender gap,” the difference in voting patterns between men and women.But there’s another gender gap that perhaps hasn’t had as much attention: the difference in laughing patterns between men and women.I’ve written before about laughter, but since I’ve noted sadly before now that very few people memorize my columns in their entirety, perhaps a recap is in order. (Or possibly a nightcap, depending on what time you read this.)The leading laughter researcher is Dr. Robert Provine, professor of psychology and neuroscience at the University of Maryland. He and his assistants eavesdropped on more than 2,000 conversations (over 10 years, not all at ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 18:10, March 13th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | 3 Comments »

"There are these two muffins, see, and…(snort, guffaw)…I’m sorry, I just can’t go on."

John Tierney, whose New York Times column and related blog post on laughter inspired and informed my Leader Post science column this week, has a follow-up blog post on a "shocking and unexpected development." It seems "readers reported laughing out loud at the muffin joke"!

Posted by Edward Willett at 22:54, March 14th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

Tanning junkies

Everyone has heard by now that too much sun is bad for your skin, yet you still see normally pale-skinned people who stay nut-brown all year long—even in the depths of winter.In the summer, they lie in the sun. In the winter, they lie in a padded coffin and have themselves irradiated.The danger in both practices is that ultraviolet radiation, which promotes tanning, can also damage the genetic information inside skin cells, prematurely aging the skin and sometimes triggering cancer.Why do people keep tanning, then? Recent studies are beginning to shed light (though hopefully not ultraviolet light) on this odd behavior.A couple of years ago, researchers at Wake Forest University Baptist Medical ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 18:48, March 20th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | 2 Comments »

A rat-tickling good time!

Last week's column on laughter, inspired by John Tierney's column in the New York Times, mentioned that rats make a high-pitched squeak when tickled.Tierney's blog has had several laughter-related posts since his column appeared. Here's another one, specifically about rat-tickling--complete with a link to a rat-tickling video! (And how often can one say that?)

Posted by Edward Willett at 20:55, March 20th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »

The civilized way to fly

I love airships, and I’m not alone.Award-winning children’s author Kenneth Oppel, for example, obviously loves them: his recent novels Airborn and Skybreaker are set in an alternate world where airships, not airplanes, rule the skies.Canadian science fiction writer Karl Schroeder must love them, too: his novels Sun of Suns and Queen of Candesce, set in a vast, hollow air-filled artificial world called Virga, feature vessels that sound much more like Zeppelins than spaceships.And increasingly, a lot of serious companies with serious money love airships, too.Unlike airplanes, which rely on the rush of air over their wings to generate lift, airships float in the air like boats float in water: thanks ...

Posted by Edward Willett at 21:30, March 27th, 2007 under Blog, Science Columns | Comment now »