Friday, 20th July 2018
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By Bill Sones and Rich Sones, PhD

Q. We humans have many a way of dealing with our aches and pains, ranging from going to a doctor to cursing. But there's a hipper modality that needs no prescription, has no unwanted side effects and offends no one's ears. Hospitals are aware of this computer connection, helpful for coping with stress, improving memory and sleep, even speeding recovery after surgery. So, best not to write this one off...

A. Scientists (and writers) have long known about the therapeutic benefits of writing about personal experiences, thoughts and feelings, says Jessica Wapner in "Scientific American." A modern electronic version of ancient journal writing, blogging is basically a way of complaining to potentially like-minded people, and as such is selfadministered therapy, a sort of personal placebo.

This self-expression has even been found to help cancer patients, who feel markedly better both mentally and physically afterward, compared with those not writing. Hospitals have started hosting patient-authored blogs on their Web sites, encouraging a community of connected recoverers.

Q. How might today's e-cowboys retitle the old range song, "Get Along, Little Dogies"?

A. When Massachusetts Institute of Technology roboticist Daniela Rus tackled an Australian cattle rancher's problem of herding 24,000 cows across a range land the size of Vermont, she devised a "smart collar" to help keep the cows from straying, says "Science" magazine. The bovines wore GPS-equipped headsets that made noises - like the sound of roaring lions or crashing cars - to scare them back if they started to leave the designated area.

Eventually, researchers settled on barking dogs as the most effective noise. And if this didn't work, a solarpowered unit would deliver a mild electric shock. Now Rus is working on headsets programmed to herd the herds from pasture back to their barn, even logging in to follow specific cows. She and a colleague plan to add webcams so e-cowboys can scan for trouble and possibly use heart rate monitors to check animal stress loads.

So make that "Get Online, Little Dogies."

Q. Photographically, at least, how might you "stop" a bullet in mid-flight?

A. Extremely short film exposure times are key, possibly done by limiting illumination time to maybe 10 microseconds, or one hundred-thousandth of a second, say David Falk et al in "Seeing the Light." This is doable with modern electronic flash units. If the camera shutter is left open for several stroboscopic flashes, the photograph will show a multiple exposure of the speeding bullet. If the bullet moves faster than sound, say 1,000 feet/sec., then in one hundred-thousandth of a second, it will go only 1/100 foot. In other words, the bullet will move barely a tenth of an inch in that time, appearing to be virtually frozen in space. (An early action-stopping photo by Eadweard Muybridge was used to settle a bet that all four legs of a running horse do indeed simultaneously leave the ground.)

Q. Historically, what was the "oil guzzler" that preceded today's "gas guzzler"?

A. In the U.S., when people first noticed oil, they didn't quite grasp the energy angle. Instead they did what any industrious American would do; they bottled and labeled it and sold it as a health tonic. Several hundred thousand bottles of the stuff are said to have been purchased and, perhaps, consumed. (Susan Kruglinski in "Discover" magazine)

Q. Laboratory rats listening to the music of Mozart and Schoenberg? What were social scientists trying to prove with this one?

A. Oddly, the rats that had been brought up listening to Mozart came to prefer Mozart and the Schoenberg rats preferred Schoenberg, says Richard E. Nisbett in "What Is Your Dangerous Idea?," edited by John Brockman. The researchers placed trip-switches on either side of the cages, enabling the rats to move freely to the side where their preferred composer could be heard. The point of the experiment was to show that rats - like people - are susceptible to the "familiarity effect," where familiarity breeds liking or at least acceptance for a wide variety of stimuli.

When people were shown unfamiliar Turkish words or Chinese ideographs, from 1 to 25 times, it turned ou that they liked the symbols more the more often the were exposed to them. A classic example of this was the historic experience with the Eiffel Tower: Upon completion in 1889, it was mocked as a "grotesque blot on the landscape." But soon, just as Professor Henry Higgins of "My Fair Lady" grew accustomed to Eliza Doolittle's face and came to love her, Parisians came to adore their iconic landmark.

Q. If we don't exactly see with our eyes, what DO we see with? For an unusual answer, consider Erik W., blind since age 13, who today is an amazing rock climber, plays soccer with his daughter as well as rockpaper- scissors and tic-tac-toe.

A. An early victim of retinoschisis, Erik now "sees" via light-triggered electrical pulses delivered to his tongue, using a tool called the BrainPort, says Buddy Levy in "Discover" magazine. "With more tactile nerve endings than any other part of the body except the lips, the tongue can discriminate two points spaced less than a millimete apart."

In 2001, Erik became the first - and to date the only - blind climber to summit Mount Everest. You have to learn to climb a whole new way, he says; it's like learning Braille or French for the first time. The BrainPort "gives" Erik's tongue the world in two dimensions, which he then mentally converts to three dimensions. "Mentally" is the key: We all see fundamentally with our brains as much as with our eyes, and resourceful Erik is anything but brain-blind!


Letters to the Editor

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    Time for a breakJust as the height of Summer begins it seems that it is also the time when our politicians begin their yearly departure from Dail Eireann. While not many professions get as much holiday time as politicians do you have to ask the question whether they merit such long breaks?There are many who would immediately answer that they don't really deserve such long holidays, that they barely seem to spend any time in the Dail at all and after all they are well remunerated for the long hours …

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