Saturday, December 30, 2006

How to Teach Kids About Puberty

This is fabulous: a video from the NEMO Science Center's "Teen Facts" exhibit ... it is, as the website says, an "animated educative film showing a scientific experiment. For three minutes two kids are exposed to ten years of puberty." The narrator is a riot. The thing I find most interesting, culturally speaking, is that this video openly embraces the sexuality of teenagers. Naturally, it's from the Netherlands, not America, where many teaching teens about puberty like to pretend the sex portion of the lesson is optional. (Thanks once again, Marc)

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Friday, December 22, 2006

Study Shows Female Comic Book Characters Too Skinny

In a wonderful study titled, "Comparative Sex-Specific Body Mass Index in the Marvel Universe and the 'Real' World," a group of scientists has calculated the Body Mass Index (BMI) of Marvel comic strip characters and compared them to actual people, to see how comics stood up.

Their findings: 28% of Marvel women are underweight (funny, I would have guessed a higher percent from looking at their site). On average, female comic characters had BMI's on the low end of average. "This result is surprising, " the authors wrote, "considering that many of the women sampled are martial artists or extremely capable physically and should, if anything, have a BMI that indicates a higher body fat level than is actually present." Clearly, it takes a little more than a model's body mass to run at supersonic speeds or jump a 10 story building from a standstill.

The authors stress that their data is not conclusive, due to small sample size and "the physical and biological vagaries of the Marvel Universe." But, they say, "advance data indicates that Marvel women are portrayed as having a disturbingly low BMI compared to the healthy BMI range of their male counterparts ... The average Marvel female is approaching underweight despite a presumably active lifestyle. This may corroborate sociological and literary observations that in the Marvel Universe, women must fulfil criteria for being attractive by Western standards before fulfilling the criteria of biological realism." Though clearly, there is at least one exception to that rule.

Thanks for the link, Marc.


Sunday, December 10, 2006

2006 Year in Ideas

Today's New York Times Magazine published four stories of mine as part of their annual Year in Ideas issue -- a catalogue of interesting ideas from 2006. The stories are short, but oh so much fun:

Celebrity Narcissism: A new study, by Drew Pinsky (of LoveLine fame) and Mark Young, found that celebrities are nearly 20% more narcissistic than the general public, which probably doesn't mean what you think it means.

Tushology: A scientist named David Holmes has developed an equation to examine how perfect (or not) a person's rearend is (the story ran with the above illustration, which I think is brilliant -- in case you can't tell, each of those colored lines in the drawing is a strip of measuring tape)

The Ballot That's Also a Lottery Ticket: Mark Osterloh wants to increase voter turnout by offering a million dollar incentive to show up at the polls.

Publication Probity: Creating the Journal of Spurious Correlations, the first social science journal devoted entirely to publishing negative results.

The assignments I get for the Year in Ideas issue are always some of my favorites -- they're light, fun, and totally fascinating. In previous years, I've covered Why Yawns are Contagious, Celebrity Teeth, Why Some Popcorn Kernels Don't Pop, Creating a Singable National Anthom, and Eyeball Jewelery.


Sunday, December 03, 2006

Best Science Books

I posted about this earlier today on Critical Mass, but had to post it here too, because it's a subject near to my heart: Discover Magazine has just published their list of the 25 Greatest Science Books of All Time. They picked Darwin's Voyage of the Beagle and Origin of Species as number one. If you disagree with them, go vote on a different one ... you can choose one from their list, or add one you think they missed. (I can't believe Lewis Thomas didn't make the top 25!)

Clearly, their list is more about scientific umph than readability (with a couple exceptions, like The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat). If we're talking about books that made great scientific contributions, I'd say their top 25 is right on, but if we're talking literary contributions, that's another story. Because unfortunately, so many important science books are unreadable. For their next list, I'd love to see Discover do the 25 best science reads of all time, because I think the best science writing conveys important and complicated information to the general public through storytelling. But unfortunately, those books can be hard to find.

I'd start with this Lewis Thomas book and Randy Shilts, an under-read writer responsible for one of the best and most important science books ever. Then off the top of my head, I'd turn to NBCC winner Jonathan Weiner, Oliver Sacks, Deborah Blum, Tracy Kidder, NBCC winner Anne Fadiman, Richard Rhodes, Paul Hoffman, Michael Pollan. I loved Gay and Laney Salisbury's The Cruelest Miles: The Heroic Story of Dogs and Men in a Race Against an Epidemic, but I'm a sucker for a dog story. Burkhard Bilger is doing some of the best new science writing at the New Yorker, while Ted Conover's eerie essay Trucking Through the AIDS Belt has stuck with me for more than a decade. I think all science writers should read John McPhee's Travels in Georgia, then spend several days thinking about its structure, and several more thinking about its character development.

I'm curious to hear what others might add ...

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