Who says that science is boring?

Psychology: Red enhances human performance in contests

Nature 435, 293 (19 May 2005) | doi:10.1038/435293a

Russell A. Hill1 and Robert A. Barton1

Red coloration is a sexually selected, testosterone-dependent signal of male quality in a variety of animals1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and in some non-human species a male's dominance can be experimentally increased by attaching artificial red stimuli6. Here we show that a similar effect can influence the outcome of physical contests in humans — across a range of sports, we find that wearing red is consistently associated with a higher probability of winning. These results indicate not only that sexual selection may have influenced the evolution of human response to colours, but also that the colour of sportswear needs to be taken into account to ensure a level playing field in sport.

Emails 'pose threat to IQ'

Martin Wainwright Friday April 22, 2005 The Guardian

The distractions of constant emails, text and phone messages are a greater threat to IQ and concentration than taking cannabis, according to a survey of befuddled volunteers.

Doziness, lethargy and an increasing inability to focus reached "startling" levels in the trials by 1,100 people, who also demonstrated that emails in particular have an addictive, drug-like grip.

Respondents' minds were all over the place as they faced new questions and challenges every time an email dropped into their inbox. Productivity at work was damaged and the effect on staff who could not resist trying to juggle new messages with existing work was the equivalent, over a day, to the loss of a night's sleep.

"This is a very real and widespread phenomenon," said Glenn Wilson, a psychiatrist from King's College, London University, who carried out 80 clinical trials for TNS research, commissioned by the IT firm Hewlett Packard. The average IQ loss was measured at 10 points, more than double the four point mean fall found in studies of cannabis users.

The most damage was done, according to the survey, by the almost complete lack of discipline in handling emails. Dr Wilson and his colleagues found a compulsion to reply to each new message, leading to constant changes of direction which inevitably tired and slowed down the brain.

How computers make kids dumb

By Andrew Orlowski in San Francisco (andrew.orlowski at theregister.co.uk) Published Monday 21st March 2005 20:45 GMT

A study of 100,000 pupils in 31 countries around the world has concluded that using computers makes kids dumb. Avoiding PCs in the classroom and at home improved the literacy and numeracy of the children studied. The UK's Royal Economic Society (http://www.res.org.uk/) finds no ground for the correlation that politicans make between IT use and education.

The authors, Thomas Fuchs and Ludger Woessmann of Munich University, used the PISA (http://www.pisa.oecd.org/pages/0,2987,en_32252351_32235731_1_1_1_1_1,00.html) tests to measure the skills of 100,000 15 year-olds. When social factors were taken into account, PC literacy was no more valuable than ability to use a telephone or the internet, the study discovered.

"Holding other family characteristics constant, students perform significantly worse if they have computers at home," the authors conclude. By contrast, children with access to 500 books in their homes performed better. The negative correlation, the researchers explain, is because children with computers neglect their homework more.

The Royal Society's quantitative approach mirrors concerned raised by qualitative analysis of technology in education. Children are now awash with "facts", but don't know what to do with them.

Schoolchildren are developing a "problem-solving deficit disorder", and losing the ability to analyze. A better way, experts insist, is to encourage creativity. And the best remedy for this is to turn off the computer and stimulate childrens' imaginations.

"Technology is not destiny, its design and use flow from human choices" the US Alliance For Childhood wrote in its critical report Tech Tonic: Towards A New Literacy (http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/) last September. This was a follow-up to the Alliance's scathing report Fools Gold: A Critical Look at Computers in Childhood (http://www.allianceforchildhood.net/projects/computers/computers_reports.htm), which is also available in Spanish. Both are free PDF downloads from the Alliance's website, and a good resource for concerned parents.

"Gourmand syndrome": eating passion associated with right anterior lesions

M Regard and T Landis University Hospital, Zurich, Switzerland.

We present a new benign eating disorder associated with lesions involving parts of the right anterior cerebral hemisphere. This "gourmand" syndrome describes a preoccupation with food and a preference for fine eating. Two exemplary case reports illustrate this new syndrome. Analysis of the clinical and anatomical data of 36 patients who displayed this behavior revealed, in 34, a strong association with lesion location in the right anterior part of the brain involving cortical areas, basal ganglia, or limbic structures. Our finding provides further evidence of a correlation between right hemispheric damage, eating, and other impulse control disorders. We conjecture that the serotonergic system subserves different functions in the left and right hemisphere. Neurology, Vol 48, Issue 5 1185-1190

Coin tossing is biased

A new mathematical analysis suggests that coin tossing is inherently biased: A coin is more likely to land on the same face it started out on.

In 1986, mathematician Joseph Keller, now an emeritus professor at Stanford, proved that one fair way to toss a coin is to throw it so that it spins perfectly around a horizontal axis through the coin's center.

Such a perfect toss would require superhuman precision. Every other possible toss is biased, according to an analysis described on Feb. 14 in Seattle at the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

The researchers' logic goes like this. At the opposite extreme from Keller's perfect toss is a completely biased toss, in which the coin stays flat while in the air. Since the coin never actually flips, it is guaranteed to land on the same face that it started out on.

Between the perfectly spinning toss and the flat toss lies a continuum of other possibilities, in which the coin spins around a tilted axis, precessing like an old-fashioned children's top. Each of these possibilities is biased, the team found. The bias is most pronounced when the flip is close to being a flat toss. For a wide range of possible spins, the coin never flips at all, the team proved.

Secrets of successful stone-skipping

Nature 427, 29 (01 January 2004); doi:10.1038/427029a

Hitting the water at a magic angle gives top performance in a time-honoured pastime.

Skipping stones across water has been a popular pastime for thousands of years. The world record, set by J. Coleman-McGhee in 1992, is believed to be 38 rebounds2. Following earlier attempts3-6 to analyse the physics of this ancestral human activity, we focus here on the crucial moment in stone skipping: when the stone bounces on the water's surface. By monitoring the collision of a spinning disc with water, we have discovered that an angle of about 20 degrees between the stone and the water's surface is optimal with respect to the throwing conditions and yields the maximum possible number of bounces.