Category Archives: Education

Sorry Nerds, There’s No Warp Drive

It makes for a sensational headline but NASA didn’t even come close to discovering warp technology.

The mechanism behind their fuel-free propulsion has no clear link to warping space-time. In fact, space-time is not proven or understood to exist as a material substance able to warp. It’s all nonsense. So what really happened?

Richard Feynman once said: “The first principle is that you must not fool yourself – and you are the easiest person to fool.”

You should have been suspicious when the story made the rounds on social media. The headlines were claiming NASA successfully tested something called the EM Drive. The EM drive is awesome, and it’s real science. It’s a propulsion engine doesn’t use propellant, which seems to violate the laws of physics by creating a reaction with no initial action.

First, let’s examine the actual finding. NASA has developed a hollow device that can be  pumped full of electromagnetic radiation which reflects back-and-forth, tapped inside the chamber, generates thrust, causing the device to accelerate in a direction based onthe shape of the chamber. You might ahve seen the story or similar reports over the last year because iterations of it have been built by Roger Shawyer (the EM Drive), one from a Chinese group led by Juan Yang, and one from Guido Fetta (the Cannae Drive), all claiming successful thrust. The stories on science news sites claim the acceleration created is caused by warped space of an Alcubierre Drive, the completely fictional “Star Trek” design.

Here are some problems. First off, none of the tests showed results from gadations in power. If this is a viable prototype for an engine, the science behind it hasn’t proven why a tiny acceleration in relation to a huge amount of relative power is worth any sort of real consideration for space travel. It’s a weak engine with no sign of how it can be scaled.

Secondly, the thrust they created is so small it might just be a mistake in mathematics or caused by an unknown factor, unrelated to warp tech. A true test requires an isolated environment, with atmospheric, gravitational and electromagnetic effects removed from the equation.

Thirdly, good science is reproducible. These tests lack a transparent design so no one else can verify that this actually works.
Finally, a real report has to be created that can be peer-reviewed and understood before irresponsibly publishing the claims.

Optimism of this sort, claiming to be able to put people on mars with a warp engine, is not scientifically valid. This latest group declared they have broken the previously-held laws of physics. They assume we can scale up and implement this engine for space propulsion just because of some questionably positive results. They claim to be distorting space, they claim they might be causing light to go faster by approximately 10^-18 m/s. They made these claims without actually proving them, and told the general public, spreading misinfo.

Harold “Sonny” White at NASA, has made extraordinary claims about warp drive in the past. He is totally the kind of guy who would jump to warp drive as a conclusion. There is nothing in NASA’s report that shows they’ve created a warp drive. Sorry, Star Trek and Star Wars fans. Most likely this is a public relations move to get America and the world science communities more excited about space travel and science education.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Beards don’t actually have feces in them

Clickbait headlines claiming there is poop in people’s beards whipped around social media this week. It’s junk science based on common misconceptions about bacteria.

These headlines are shite: “Some beards contain more poo than a toilet shocking study reveals” – the Mirror “Shock new research reveals some beards contain more poo than a toilet” – “Some beards are so full of poo they are as dirty as toilets” –

Of course, I wanted to read the evidence for myself, like I do with all outrageous, suspicious claims. I couldn’t even find a study cited in any of the articles. All I found was some pretty crappy journalism~!

If there was no legitimate study by respected microbiologists and no instances of unintentional poop in people’s beards, where did this story even come from? As far as I could tell, the story originated from a local tv news segment out of  New Mexico, wherein a reporter swabbed some random men’s beards and sent it to a microbiologist to culture for microbes.

To some readers that might sound like legit science. Here’s why it isn’t:

That’s a very small sample size. The reporter pretty much stayed vague about how many beards he swabbed but it was a “handful”. All it would take is a couple unwashed faces to make a petri-dish grow some gross stuff. So, yeah… bad science.

Just because a microbe lives in the guts doesn’t mean it isn’t on your face. Microbiologist, John Golobic called some of the bacteria found “enterics”, meaning bacteria that normally live in the intestines, “the types of things you’d find in faeces,” he said, without telling the reporter or audiences how unbelievably common it is to find these microbes on various surfaces in everyday life, including shaved and unshaven faces. That’s all it took to get the rumor started and people rewrote, retweeted and reshared the story.

Most of the headlines and editorials about this left out that it was merely a bacteria that can also be found inside the intestine, and reported that actual poop was on people’s face, which has nothing to do with the original story and beyond bad science – it’s bad reporting.

Scientists in the microbiology field and pretty much anyone who has followed current thought on the subject know that the human body is home to vast diversity of microbes. Bacteria like E. coli is commonly found all over the body, inside and out.

Readers might remember a similar viral story about unidentified DNA found on swabbed subway cars, implying there are millions of unknown microbes people are being exposed to. In reality everything in the world is covered in millions of microbes, and there isn’t any real danger from being exposed to them everyday.

If you are looking for media that debunks the dangers of microbial paranoia, check out NPR’s articles about probiotics and Mythbuster’s entertaining critique of the “five second rule”.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Fake Time? Bill Maher and AntiVaccination

Bill Maher threw softballs at the most famous anti-vaccination conspiracy theorist, Robert F. Kennedy Jr. on”Real Time”

Kennedy isn’t the only prominent vaccine denier but he’s the current media darling for whatever reason. After several hints in the past about vaccine paranoia,  Maher took it to the next level and had a notable anti-vaccine conspiracy theorist on the show for a one on one interview. His normally pro-science stance and no-bullshit interview style was strangely abandoned and at one point Maher himself actually went on an anti-vaccination rant, falsely claiming the anit-vaccination crowd has some kind of legit point. I’ll unpack the rant after the video, below.

“Why can’t we have a kind of grand bargain on this?”

Because a lot of people will die, many of them children, if we don’t act appropriately. The anti-vaccination rhetoric isn’t just easy to fall for, it’s catchy. People hear the soundbites and repeat them, or share articles off of persistent tabloid sites that feed off of the traffic it causes. Spreading false or controversial medical data isn’t without it’s consequences.

“It just seems like we’re calling each other kooks and liars.”

That’s because spreading fear about vaccines is a kooky lie, since there isn’t any data supporting the accusations that vaccines are dangerous. That’s crazy, and if you participate in the lie, you are, in fact, lying. On other subjects, like, say, Climate Change Denial-ism, Bill Maher would be first in line to tell an anti-science arguer they are being crazy or outright lying. The point is that the pro-vaccine side of the debate has an abundance of reliable data supporting it’s efficacy- so much that neither Maher nor his guest tried to make a case that vaccines don’t work. Vaccines aren’t just safe, they are saving people from untimely, rather unpleasant deaths. Denying that is kooky at best.

“It seems like common sense that vaccines, even thimerosal, probably don’t hurt most people — if they did, we’d all be dead, because they’re in a lot of vaccines that we all took — but some do.”


Saying Thimerisal “contains” mercury is like saying table salt contains a dangerous explosive just because one of the atoms in the molecule is sodium. Sodium explodes violently on contact with water. Is there an anti-table salt movement? nope.

It’s hard to even follow this because Maher’s conversational grammar is confusing. His grasp of the topic isn’t really demonstrated. It appears he thinks thimerisal is the name of a vaccine. Or maybe he left some words out? It’s hard to decipher a position that is illogical and wrong in the first place.

Marketed under the trade name Merthiolate, Thimerisal can be used as a preservative in vaccines. It has several other uncontested uses: immunoglobulin preparations, skin test antigens, antivenins, ophthalmic and nasal products, and tattoo inks. European Union, and a few other countries freaked out about it after an erroneous report of its link to autism back in the 1980’s. The current scientific consensus has repeatedly assured the public that it isn’t dangerous but the rumor of mercury poisoning and other ailments has persisted.



Obviously some minority gets hurt by this stuff.

Uh, no, actually it’s not obvious. What stuff? Thimerisal? Vaccines in general?


I don’t understand why this is controversial?

Because an embarrassingly ignorant internet meme successfully increased every American’s exposure to measles. It’s making people sick, dude.


Why we have this emotional debate about something that– there is science there.

No, There is no science supporting the anti-vaccine side. None.

It astounds me that liberals, who are always suspicious of corporations… and defending minorities, somehow when it comes to this minority that’s hurt…

It’s not about corporations. Liberals want people, including corporate entities to behave ethically. In this situation, the unethical behavior is not on behalf of a corporation. Secondly, there is no wounded minority. No one is getting hurt. Just the opposite.


It’s like, ‘You know what? Shut the fuck up and let me take every vaccine that Merck wants to shove down my throat.’


No, it’s not like that, obviously. If there was any alarming study demonstrating a dangerous aspect of vaccination the anti-science vaccination deniers wouldn’t be able to tell. It’s like the boy who cried wolf. By putting anti-vaccination talking heads on tv and lending legitimacy to their wolf-cries, Bill Maher is helping to confuse the general public. Bill Maher references a vague minority that doesn’t actually exist. There is no evidence of anyone being hurt by vaccines. Liberals might defend oppressed minorities but there general public, the mainstream are the ones being threatened by a dangerous minority opinion in this case.  If liberal America impartially stood up for all minorities, they would be defending climate deniers and Ku Klux Klan members. The fact that the anti-vaccine rhetoric has to put words in an imaginary opposition’s mouth should speak for itself.

I’m surprised Bill Maher took this position but he did hint at it last February, when he told guests and audiences he’s an “anti-flu shot guy” and has a problem with anti-vaccinators being told to  “shut the fuck up” and “don’t ask any questions.” It might be appropriate to tell someone in a crowded theater to shut the fuck up if they keep yelling fire, or persistently asking the audience if the theater is on fire despite no smoke or alarms. Yelling fire is dangerous and gives people wrong information that may lead to a percentage of the hypothetical crowd being injured or killed in the ensuing panic.

Back in February, Real Time guest Marianne Williamson, agreed with Maher and objected to anti-vaccination supporters being called “anti-science” or “kooks”, which is silly because it is a blatantly anti-science position and that makes it pretty kooky to give it airtime.

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Is bullying worse than child abuse when it comes to mental health?

Anyone who has ever been nastily teased or bullied in the playground will remember how it made them feel. Now a new study shows that bullying during childhood is as harmful as abuse. For some people, it is even worse than abuse.

The research, carried out by Dieter Wolke from the University of Warwick, studied more than 4,000 children in the UK and US. The team regularly measured rates of maltreatment – assessed as physical, emotional, or sexual abuse or harsh discipline – and bullying – characterised as repetitive aggressive behaviour by someone in their peer group with more power – by interviewing the children and their parents. The researchers then assessed the children for mental health problems when they were 18-years-old.

In the UK group, maltreatment was linked to depression but this wasn’t the case in the US group. But bullying was linked to mental health problems for children in both groups.

The team worked out the odds of developing mental health problems linked to maltreatment and the odds linked to bullying. They discovered bullied children were around five times more likely to experience anxiety and nearly twice as likely to report depression and self-harm at age 18 than maltreated children.

Digging deeper

It is difficult to say whether or not the team captured the true rates of maltreatment in the study since in many cases, they relied on parents admitting child abuse. If rates of maltreatment were missed then the findings linked to maltreatment may reflect an inaccurate picture.

But even if rates of maltreatment were missed, the findings linking bullying to mental health problems remain.

The team also looked at the relationship between bullying and mental health while taking into account other factors such as family hardship and the mental health of mothers. The harmful effects of bullying remained even when controlling for these other factors, again lending support to their conclusions.

Mental health issues are related to many factors including child abuse and family hardship.

But the investigators did not assess all key factors that could explain the link between bullying and mental health problems. Childhood speech and language problems, for example, which were not assessed, are known to be linked to peer bullying in childhood and anxiety disorders in adulthood.

A study carried out by Joe Beitchman and his team at the University of Toronto followed children for 14 years. They discovered that speech and language problems at the age of five were strongly linked to anxiety problems in young adulthood. The most common anxiety problem in adulthood was social anxiety disorder.

Lasting damage

In my own clinical practice, I frequently treat people suffering from disabling social anxiety who have a history of bullying. Sometimes my clients have a history of maltreatment and bullying, but more often than not they have a history of bullying. For many people, bullying ruptures healthy self-esteem, replacing positive beliefs about oneself with beliefs linked to shame, disgust and criticism.

If a child is teased for an aspect of their appearance, they may go on to believe they look distorted and ugly. When they look in the mirror they may actually see an image of themselves encapsulating the names that bullies call them. They may develop body dysmorphic disorder, an anxiety disorder that causes people to have a distorted view of their appearance and to spend a lot of time worrying about it.

But more commonly, past bullying is linked to social anxiety disorder. People with social anxiety disorder are terrified of socialising with others, fearing harsh evaluation and rejection. They typically underachieve at school and at work and are at risk of depression and early death by suicide.

Social anxiety disorder typically starts around the time bullying starts in childhood. Many people with this disorder recover as adults when their bullying is re-visited in treatment. The therapist will help the client to transform the meaning of the bullying so that it is no longer seen as a sign of weakness but rather as evidence confirming the weakness of the bullies. Clients also learn to update their negative images with realistic images of how they really come across to other people.

Preventing bullying

In some ways knowing how bullying leads to poor mental health is less important than preventing bullying. Zero tolerance programmes are needed and government recommendations should be implemented in every school – and monitored.

For example, it would be helpful if, as part of the nationwide curriculum, students learned to spot the signs of bullying in themselves and others. Classroom discussions about the effects of bullying would help to raise awareness among children.

Children who are likely to bully need help to handle their difficult feelings and to learn positive communication skills. Their parents may need support too. Parenting classes may help or interventions that teach parents how to manage their own difficult feelings could be beneficial.

Schools should make it easy for kids to report bullying and to access immediate help. GPs should routinely ask about bullying when children visit the surgery. If teachers, health professionals, parents and children can work together to spot the signs and symptoms of bullying and stop it, there will be scope to prevent the linked mental health problems from developing.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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How the language you speak changes your view of the world

Bilinguals get all the perks. Better job prospects, a cognitive boost and even protection against dementia. Now new research shows that they can also view the world in different ways depending on the specific language they are operating in.

The past 15 years have witnessed an overwhelming amount of research on the bilingual mind, with the majority of the evidence pointing to the tangible advantages of using more than one language. Going back and forth between languages appears to be a kind of brain training, pushing your brain to be flexible.

Just as regular exercise gives your body some biological benefits, mentally controlling two or more languages gives your brain cognitive benefits. This mental flexibility pays big dividends especially later in life: the typical signs of cognitive ageing occur later in bilinguals – and the onset of age-related degenerative disorders such as dementia or Alzheimer’s are delayed in bilinguals by up to five years.

Germans know where they’re going

In research we recently published in Psychological Science, we studied German-English bilinguals and monolinguals to find out how different language patterns affected how they reacted in experiments.

We showed German-English bilinguals video clips of events with a motion in them, such as a woman walking towards a car or a man cycling towards the supermarket and then asked them to describe the scenes.

Is she walking? Or walking towards the car?
Walking via Radu Razvan/

When you give a scene like that to a monolingual German speaker they will tend to describe the action but also the goal of the action. So they would tend to say “A woman walks towards her car” or “a man cycles towards the supermarket”. English monolingual speakers would simply describe those scenes as “A woman is walking” or “a man is cycling”, without mentioning the goal of the action.

The worldview assumed by German speakers is a holistic one – they tend to look at the event as a whole – whereas English speakers tend to zoom in on the event and focus only on the action.

The linguistic basis of this tendency appears to be rooted in the way different grammatical tool kits situated actions in time. English requires its speakers to grammatically mark events that are ongoing, by obligatorily applying the –ing morpheme: “I am playing the piano and I cannot come to the phone” or “I was playing the piano when the phone rang”. German doesn’t have this feature.

Research with second language users shows a relationship between linguistic proficiency in such grammatical constructions and the frequency with which speakers mention the goals of events.

In our study we also found that these cross-linguistic differences extend beyond language usage itself, to nonverbal categorisation of events. We asked English and German monolinguals to watch a series of video clips that showed people walking, biking, running, or driving. In each set of three videos, we asked subjects to decide whether a scene with an ambiguous goal (a woman walks down a road toward a parked car) was more similar to a clearly goal-oriented scene (a woman walks into a building) or a scene with no goal (a woman walks down a country lane).

German monolinguals matched ambiguous scenes with goal-oriented scenes more frequently than English monolinguals did. This difference mirrors the one found for language usage: German speakers are more likely to focus on possible outcomes of people’s actions, but English speakers pay more attention to the action itself.

Switch languages, change perspective

When it came to bilingual speakers, they seemed to switch between these perspectives based on the language context they were given the task in. We found that Germans fluent in English were just as goal-focused as any other native speaker when tested in German in their home country. But a similar group of German-English bilinguals tested in English in the United Kingdom were just as action-focused as native English speakers.

In another group of German-English bilinguals, we kept one language in the forefront of their minds during the video-matching task by making participants repeat strings of numbers out loud in either English or German. Distracting one language seemed to automatically bring the influence of the other language to the fore.

When we “blocked” English, the bilinguals acted like typical Germans and saw ambiguous videos as more goal-oriented. With German blocked, bilingual subjects acted like English speakers and matched ambiguous and open-ended scenes. When we surprised subjects by switching the language of the distracting numbers halfway through the experiment, the subjects’ focus on goals versus process switched right along with it.

These findings are in line with other research showing distinct behaviour in bilinguals depending on the language of operation. Israeli Arabs are more likely to associate Arab names such as Ahmed and Samir with positive words in an Arabic language context than in a Hebrew one, for example.

People self-report that they feel like a different person when using their different languages and that expressing certain emotions carries different emotional resonance depending on the language they are using.

When judging risk, bilinguals also tend to make more rational economic decisions in a second language. In contrast to one’s first language, it tends to lack the deep-seated, misleading affective biases that unduly influence how risks and benefits are perceived. So the language you speak in really can affect the way you think.

The Conversation

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Tips for the young engineer

First and foremost is Adaptability – Be prepared to change jobs and even your career over the course of your working life. This is particularly true for women who are likely to grapple with raising children while pursuing a career. This adaptability provides you with new situations, new colleagues and new social situations, from which you… Continue reading

Will guns on campus lead to grade inflation?

Texas college professors may soon face a dilemma between upholding professional ethics and protecting their lives.

The Texas legislature appears poised to approve a bill that would allow college students to carry firearms to class. Called “campus carry,” public universities in Texas will not be allowed to ban guns on their campuses, once the law is passed, although private schools could enact their own prohibitions.

Its backers argue that students have the right to protect themselves on campuses with handguns. The lobbying extends to sponsoring crash courses such as the NRA University, a two-hour seminar course for college students.

With this proposed law, a question coming up for many academics is whether they would be forced to give As to undeserving students, just so they can avoid being shot.

This is not as far fetched as it sounds. In my five years as a college professor, I have had experience with a number of emotionally distressed students who resort to intimidation when they receive a lesser grade than what they feel they deserve.

Threats on campus

Here is an example of one such threatening experience: one evening in a graduate course, after I handed back students’ papers, a young woman stood up and pointed at me. “This is unacceptable!” she screamed as her body shook in rage.

She moved toward the front of the class waving her paper in my face and screamed again, “unacceptable!” After a heated exchange, she left the room, and stood outside the door sobbing.

All this was over receiving a B on a completely low-stakes assignment.

What followed was even more startling. The following week, the student brought along a muscle-bound man to class. He watched me through the doorway window for the entire three hours of the class, with his arms folded across his chest.

And if this wasn’t enough, the young woman’s classmates avoided me on campus because, they said, they were afraid of getting caught in the crossfire should she decide to shoot me.

After that, every time she turned in a paper I cringed and prayed that it was good so that I wouldn’t have to give her anything less than an A.

Guns on campus could create an environment of fear.
Gun image via

Learning from this experience, now I give papers back only at the end of the class or just “forget” to bring them with me.

I was lucky that the student didn’t have a gun in my classroom. Other professors have not been so lucky.

Last year, a student at Purdue shot his instructor in front of a classroom of students. In another incident in 2009, a student at Northern Virginia Community College tried to shoot his math professor on campus. And, in 2000, a graduate student at the University of Arkansas shot his English professor.

In each of these states, carrying handguns on campus was illegal at the time of the shooting, although a bill was introduced in Arkansas earlier this year to allow students to carry guns.

Grade inflation

Despite these and other shootings, a new trend has emerged across the US that supports guns on college campuses.

Eight states allow firearms onto college campuses and 11 states are now considering similar legislation.

We know that some students will carry guns whether it is legal or not. One study found that close to five percent of undergraduates had a gun on campus and that almost two percent had been threatened with a firearm while at school.

Allowing students to carry weapons to class strips off a layer of safety. Students are often emotional and can be volatile when it comes to their GPAs.

Who would want to give a student a low grade and then get shot for it?

Many majors are highly competitive and require certain GPAs for admission. Students on scholarships and other forms of financial aid must maintain high grades to keep their funding. It’s no surprise that some might students resort to any means necessary to keep up their GPAs.

An international student once cried in my office and begged me to change his F to an A, as without it, his country would no longer pay for him to be in the US. I didn’t. He harassed me by posting threatening messages on Facebook.

So, the question is, will we soon see a new sort of grade inflation, with students earning a 4.0 GPA with their firepower rather than brain power? And if so, what sort of future citizenry will we be building on our campuses?

The Conversation

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Why do poor children perform more poorly than rich ones?

Research has shown that children of poorer parents display substantially worse math and reading skills by the time they start grade school. Other studies have revealed that these wide gaps in pre-school skills persist into adulthood and help explain low educational attainment and lifetime earnings.

Put together, these findings paint a bleak picture of how the fates of generations of poor children are largely sealed before they even set foot in a classroom, suggesting the current K-12 school system is ineffective as a springboard for opportunity.

So if we want a society that is meritocratic, we need to answer a fundamental and vexing question: why do less well-off children perform so poorly? Once we get a better sense of the answer, we can begin to understand how to improve mobility from generation to generation and craft appropriate economic and social policies to close the yawning income-related gap in ability.

A rich investment

These income-based achievement gaps are at least partially caused by substantial differences in how much rich and poor parents invest in their children. For example, parents of very young children among the top 25% of earners are more than twice as likely to have at least ten books in the home than those from the bottom quartile. Wealthier mothers are also more than 50% more likely to read to their child three or more times a week.

TKTK, Author provided

In addition, children aged 6 to 7 from richer families are more than twice as likely to be enrolled in special lessons or extracurricular activities compared with their lower-income counterparts.

tktktk, Author provided

That leads us to the next question: why do rich and poor parents invest so differently in their children?

Career investment

One important reason parents invest so much time and money in their children’s development is to improve their career prospects when they grow up.

Economic theory tells us that if this were the only reason families invested in their children (and all parents had sufficient access to borrowing), then all families would invest time and money up to the point where the labor market returns to the last dollar of investment equals what the family could earn from putting that same dollar in the bank.

Put simply, they’d invest in their kids until stashing cash in a savings account offered the same return.

This does not necessarily mean that all families should invest the same amount in their children, as not all children earn the same labor market return from the same investment. Indeed, children with higher ability have higher marginal returns at every level of investment. So, it takes more investment in them before the return on this additional investment equals the gains from savings.

This suggests one potential reason children from higher-income families receive greater investments and perform better academically: the natural ability of children and parents may be positively correlated. Higher-ability parents will tend to earn more and have more able children leading to a positive correlation between parental income and child investments and achievement.

The fact that these investment and achievement gaps shrink considerably when accounting for differences in maternal ability and education suggests that this is likely an important part of the story. However, the fact that significant gaps remain even after accounting for these characteristics suggests that other factors are also likely to be important.

The joy of reading to a child

First, parents may care about more than their children’s future careers. Parents may simply take pleasure in reading stories to their children or watching them learn to play a new musical instrument. They might enjoy bragging to their friends about their children’s success in school. In other words, if investments in children provide a direct benefit above and beyond the future labor market returns, parents will choose to invest more as their income rises – just as they tend to purchase more of other goods or services as their earnings increase.

Another explanation for the difference is that low-income parents may be poorly informed about the value of investment activities. They may face uncertainty about (or under-estimate) the value of investing in their children.

A third possibility is that poor parents may be unable to finance desired investments if they cannot borrow fully against their own future income or against the potentially high returns earned by their children.

While all of these possibilities might explain why richer parents invest more in their children than their poorer peers, it is important to understand which ones actually do, because they have very different policy implications.

If parents are investing in their children up until the return is the same as saving elsewhere, then there is no way to shift spending to increase future income, and the investment level is efficient. On the other hand, if they are investing too little in their children, so that the labor market returns are higher than saving elsewhere, the investment level is inefficient. In this case, policies that shift spending to education investment for these children increase future income.

If investment gaps result only from a strong correlation between the abilities of parents and children and/or the pure pleasure gained from activities like reading to a child, policies designed to reduce the income-related gap may be equitable but inefficient (that is, they may reduce overall US output).

By contrast, if low-income families are poorly informed or constrained in their capacity to borrow, then they may make inefficiently low investments in their children. In this case, well-designed policies can improve both equity and efficiency.

Finding the right policy response

In order to help sort this out, University of Western Ontario colleagues Lance Lochner, Youngmin Park and I examined the extent to which these explanations are consistent with other important empirical findings in the child development literature. We started with four facts:

  • fact 1: the return to additional investment for poor children is high relative to the return on savings

  • fact 2: the return to additional investment is lower for higher-income children

  • fact 3: unexpected increases in family income lead to greater investments in children and improved childhood achievement

  • fact 4: income received when a child is young has a greater impact on achievement and educational attainment than income received when the child is older.

Our research showed that to explain the high returns to additional investment among the poor (fact 1), information or credit market failures are needed. Absent these market frictions, families will invest until the returns are driven down to or below the returns on savings.

The timing of income is only important (fact 4) if some parents are constrained in their borrowing. Otherwise, families can always use borrowing and saving to spend money when they want regardless of when it is received.

If parents with young children are poorly informed about the value of investments and/or face limited borrowing opportunities, then policies designed to alleviate these market failures can improve efficiency while also improving the economic outcomes for those who are most disadvantaged.

What might these policies look like?

Governments can step in to directly provide credit for early child investments like they do for college students. One recent example is New York City’s pilot program, Middle Class Child Care Loan Initiative, which provides low interest loans to middle-income families with small children to help pay for quality childcare programs. Means-tested subsidies for preschool can also help address borrowing problems.

Programs that help inform low-income parents about the value of talking and reading to their young children or the benefits of attending a quality preschool are steps towards confronting information problems.

By ensuring poorer families have access to financial resources and information about how important it is to make even modest and inexpensive investments in their children like a bedtime story, we can go a long way to shrinking this investment gap.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
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Spider Silk Continues to Inspire Biotech Advancement

From folklore to children’s stories, it seems humans have always been fasterrificcinated with spider silk, the diverse material produced in abundance, at will from the body of nearly all species of spider. Studying the biomechanics of the spinnerets and the chemicals that combine to produce various textures of silk at a molecular level has allowed scientists a new perspective on efficiency and biosynthesis.

The golden orb-weaver spider (Nephila clavipes) produces so much silk everyday it has become the most studied spider in the world, and was even included in a trip to the International Space Station in a special terrarium. Golden Orb-Weaver silk is 30 times thinner than your average human hair. If Spider-man were to produce a proportionate thickness of the same material the line would likely hold, maybe even hold the weight of two adult humans(Valigra, 1999.)

Spider-manIt’s hard to find a material as strong while still retaining the flexibility and elasticity of spider silk. Maybe impossible. The dragline of the average spider silk is five times more durable than the Kevlar used in bullet-proof vests(Benyus, 2002, p. 132), plus, it’s lighter and breathes better. Kevlar is a petroleum product and requires pressurized vats of intensely hot sulfuric acid (Benyus, 2002, p.135; 2001). Biologically-inspired materials might be drastically more efficient on energy costs to create. Oil-based synthetic molecules often create dangerous bi-products which are hazardous to handle, expensive to store and virtually impossible to dispose. Spiders create superior materials with a very small amount of energy, heat or byproducts. (Benyus, 2001). NASA studies found that Gold Orb Spider spinneret systems can be so efficient they include reusing spider silk eaten and ingested after use.


Electron-microscope imaging shows the variety of textures a single spider can produce from its body.

Spider silk would be so incredibly useful it might not even be possible to anticipate the range of products it might inspire. Most materials knows to man are either elastic or have a high tensile strength but some  pider silks fall in a  rare category of scoring high in both areas (Benyus, 2001). Spider silk can stretch 40 percent longer than its relaxed state without losing any of it’s shape when it returns. Even the stretchiest nylon can’t perform that way (Benyus, 2002, p.132; 2001). Dupont materials compared silk to current steel cables used on bridges and standing structures worldwide and found dragline spider silk strong enough to be used as the quick-stop brake system on a jet in flight on an aircraft carrier (Valigra, 1999), at a fourth of the thickness of steel cables.

“spider silk is so strong and resilient that on the human scale, a web resembling a fishing net could catch a passenger plane in flight. If you test our strongest steel wire against comparable diameter silk they would have a similar breaking point. But if confronted with multiple pressures, such as gale-force winds, the silk can stretch as well; something steel cannot do” (Benyus, 2001, 2002).

Spiders evolved the ability to spin a web strong and versatile enough to  allow it to run across, pull and twist into position and manipulate with its many legs in order to trap prey, set complicated tricks into action and run along without becoming entangled. The elasticity and strength of the web are partly why it is so easy for another species to become ensnared. Researchers who have taken the time to examine closely have realized in awe the potential for application in spaceflight, industrial, commercial and even fashion industries.

Spider silk also shows incredible tolerance for colder temperatures without becoming brittle or falling apart. Spiders are able to hide underground or near the warm trunk of a tree and return to their outdoor webs later to repair and rebuild what is largely left intact. These cold-tolerant properties lend superior promise to its potential as aan advanced suitable for bridge cables, as well as lightweight parachute lines for outdoor climbing in military and camping equipment. Scientists have been hyping up its many bumberpotential medical applications such as  sutures and replacement ligaments (Benyus, 2001) and as a durable substance to fabricate clothing and shoes (made of “natural fibers”) and synthetic moldable solid material that can create rust-free panels and hyper durable car bumpers. (Lipkin, R., 1996).

“if we want to manufacture something that’s at least as good as spider silk, we have to duplicate the processing regime that spiders use” Christopher Viney, early biomimetic proponent (Benyus, 2002, pp. 135-6).

Take a look at the fascinating process as a spider creates silk and you will find something that more closely resembles human technology than animal biology. Spiders have evolved to create something highly specialized without tools or any sort of special diet requirements to fuel autosynthesis of silk.  Spider silk is formed out of liquid proteins within the spider’s abdomen. Several complex chemicals in a cocktail travel through the duct of a narrow gland. The substance is squeezed out in a very controlled manner through any combination of six nozzles called spinnerets. the protein collected from eating insects and various vegetable matters “emerges an insoluble, nearly waterproof, highly ordered fiber” (Benyus 2001).

Most spiders can produce a few different types of of silks. They can make threads that can be used to build structures, a strong dragline, or an elastic cable for repelling and reusing while creating the foundation for a web.  They can make a sticky, wet line that clings to itself and most other surfaces for fastening strong structures, making cocoons and trapping prey. There is much to be learned because all of human scientific knowledge on the subject still comes from a handful of studies of only fifteen or more spiders to date. There are 40,000 spider species, most of which we know almost nothing about. There might be even better silk from some species.

“But yes there is probably a tougher, stronger, stiffer fiber being produced right this minute by a spider we know nothing about. A spider whose habitat may be going up in smoke” Viney (Benyus, 2002, pp.138-40).

Jonathan Howard
Jonathan is a freelance writer living in Brooklyn, NY

Learning a language? Sleep on it and you’ll get the grammar

In 2006, former US president George Bush supported his embattled defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld with the words: “But I’m the decider, and I decide what is best.” This quotation quickly entered the folklore of political humour. But to psychology researchers, it revealed something fundamental about human language.

At that time, most Americans had not encountered the word decider. While this is a common word in some parts of the world, it refers to the part of a game that determines the winner. So how did people understand what it meant? They understood it because across all of the words that people know, the suffix –er often transforms a verb into a person (as in teacher, builder, dancer). Thus, a decider must be someone who decides.

The ability to extract general principles from a small number of examples is fundamental to language and literacy. In teaching children how to read, teachers introduce sets of words like chin, church, chest, chess, chop, to convey information about how to pronounce particular letters. This general knowledge might then be applied to new words like chick. In later years of primary school, children develop general knowledge about the functions of affixes. Through exposure to relevant sets of words like uncertain, unknown, unhappy, children become able to use affixes like -un in new contexts.

What’s a dunklomb?

In new research published in the journal Cognitive Psychology, we investigated the brain processes responsible for acquiring this type of general knowledge. We trained adults on a fictitious language, in which groups of individual words were bound together by a rule that was not disclosed to participants. For example, participants learned:

• a clinglomb is a small device used by cat burglars to cling to skyscrapers

• a dunklomb is the gadget used by royalty to dunk biscuits in tea politely

• a skimlomb is a professional tool which is used to skim cream off milk

• a weighlomb is the official scale used to weigh boxers before an important match

Our interest was not whether people could learn the individual words, but whether they could uncover the rule – in this case, the function of –lomb. We tested this by examining people’s understanding of untrained words like teachlomb when they were presented in sentences.

The remarkable power of sleep

Our key finding was that participants could apply their understanding of the rule (that –lomb refers to some kind of tool) to untrained words such as teachlomb. But this was the case only if participants were tested some days after training. Participants showed no such ability immediately after training.

In later experiments, we mixed words that conformed to the rule with examples of words that violated it – for example, that a mournlomb is “the cost of organising a wake to mourn a loved one”. This word is an exception because -lomb is supposed to refer to a tool. Crucially, the introduction of exceptions abolished people’s learning of the rule being taught. However, people did learn the rule if we inserted a period of overnight sleep between training on the rule-based examples and the exceptions.

Our findings fit neatly into dual-mechanism theories of memory. These theories argue that rapid learning of individual episodes is followed by a slower process of integrating that knowledge into long-term memory. The claim is that these processes rely on different brain structures optimised for fast and slow learning. Critically, these theories suggest that sleep may be a necessary component of the second, slower process.

Research in adults and children has shown that the brain continues to process new memories during sleep, allowing them to become stronger, more resistant to interference – and better integrated with existing knowledge. Our findings advance these theories by showing that sleep may also be necessary for discovering regular patterns across individual episodes and encoding these in the brain.

Helping children understand patterns

A way through the gobbledigook.
Word patterns via donatas1205/

This research has clear messages for the teaching of language and literacy. Our work suggests that if teachers want to convey some general linguistic principle, then they must structure the information in a way that promotes learning. If a teacher is trying to illustrate use of the suffix –ing, for example, then presenting a child with a spelling list including the words standing, jumping, swimming, kicking, dancing, talking, nothing would be unlikely to facilitate learning.

For one, the letters –ing do not function as a suffix in the word nothing (noth is not a verb). And although the spelling alterations present in swimming and dancing are highly systematic, these items appear to be exceptions in the list presented. Our research suggests that lists that include such exceptions may disrupt a child’s learning of the pattern.

Most generally, our work adds to a growing body of research implicating overnight sleep in aspects of language learning. It suggests that key aspects of learning arise after classroom instruction – and thus reinforces the importance of proper sleep behaviour in children.

Next read: Brains can make decisions while we sleep – here they are in action

The Conversation

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