Monday, June 23, 2008

Eco-friendly Al Gore to Pee on the Bee at One Bryant Park

The TalkingScience office is fairly eco-friendly; we drink tap water and are planning to get a worm bin. New York is a competitive place though, and it’s tough to “keep up with the Jones’” when your neighbors are the hailed as the most environmentally responsible sky scraper in the world. Yes, our neighbors have completely outdone us, and we’re very proud of them. Pretty soon, they’re going to have Al Gore peeing on a bee.

Since Ann Marie (the Executive Director here at TalkingScience) and I have been planning a water conference and are utterly obsessed with all issues water-related, Alex Durst and Chief Engineer Ron German gave us a bee-hind the scenes tour of One Bryant Park to explain how they will cut down on water waste. The best part of the tour was the mens’ bathroom, where waterless urinals feature a friendly bee to guide men in their aim (the slogan, of course, is pee on the bee). “The Honey bees may be disappearing in some places, but they’re reappearing on all the urinals here!” Ron exclaimed. Giggles aside, though, the waterless urinals will save about 40,000 gallons of water per urinal per month. “The bee seems to be very popular with men who have used it,” says German, “though aiming abilities still vary.” I couldn’t help but wonder about Al Gore’s aim. He will soon be moving his investment firm, Generation Investment Management, to One Bryant Park. Who knows, maybe this will start a movement-- maybe Bush will be the next to pee on the bee. It will be the best thing he’s done for the environment for a while.
But I digress, there are lots of other systems in place to save water at One Bryant Park. For example, they have multiple 35,000 gallon tanks capture rainwater, which will be treated and re-used in the restrooms (regular, treated domestic water will be used for drinking). These efforts are projected to save 8-10 million gallons of water every year. Though the bee might get the most buzz on blogs, you can check out the long list of additional projects, plans, and systems to conserve energy and water at One Bryant Park by visiting their Web site.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

The Hype and History behind Hypnotherapy: Is it a Science, or Just a bunch of Silly Quacks?

I've seen people do some pretty wild things on stage when under the spell of a hypnotist. I sometimes wonder if these hypnotists are bitter, failed comedians reduced to making a living at the expense of silly volunteers whose curiosity sends them to the stage to quack like a chicken, stick ice cream in their nose, or run around trying to catch a non-existent tail. Not having a natural inclination to humiliate myself, the thought of paying someone to send me into a trance that would make me susceptible to the suggestions of a hypnotist and reduce my capability of making conscious decisions about what actions are appropriate in a given situation frightens me. The possibility that something awfully embarrassing might be lurking in my subconscious and a hypnotist could unleash such an inner monster is enough to make me tremble with trepidation. But curiosity gets the best of me every time, so off I went to try to face my fears about hypnosis, armed with science and skepticism

"I'm curious about the science behind hypnosis," I confronted one of the therapists at the NLP center. "Hypnosis is probably a placebo effect of sorts, right?"

"Kind of, but not really," he replied.

"Great, that's helpful," I grumbled, irritated.

"Do you want to try?" The therapist was calm and patient with my nervous, snappy remarks.

"Kind of, but not really—if you know what I mean." I mocked. "This is for my science blog, just so you know. Can we do this quickly? The mere idea is really scary for me. Please don’t ask me to eat an onion and run around the building. I did see a guy on stage do that once."

"No problem, We’ll keep this scientific. Make yourself comfortable. I suggest closing your eyes, but you don’t have to do anything you don’t want to. Try concentrating on <a href='' >Hypnosis
intense, effortless relaxing..."

"Should I be getting sleepy? Very sleepy?" I asked, just trying to clarify.

“No. Hypnosis is not at all like sleep, though that is a common misconception. Let’s try again." He lowered his voice and murmured: “Picture yourself by the ocean, in a hammock. The breeze is warm and ssooooothing...”

I have to admit, envisioning myself swinging in a hammock on the beach did make for a relaxing few minutes, and I don't recall doing anything too crazy. Actually, I don’t actually recall much at all. If anyone saw me running around Union Square and clucking like a chicken, please do let me know. In any case, for the rest of the skeptics out there, here’s a bit of information on scientific studies in the field of hypnosis:

The history of hypnosis can be traced back to the ideas of James Braid, who proposed the theory of hypnotism as an alternative to the practices of Franz Anton Mesmer. Mesmer was the founder of Mesmerism, a popular mid-18th century concept that was based on the theory that trance and healing could be achieved through calling on a mysterious power referred to as “animal magnetism.” Braid countered the idea of the supposed magical powers of animal magnetism with his theory that an altered state is achieved through neuro-hypnotism. In his practice, James would hold small, shiny objects 8-16 inches from a patient’s eyes, causing strain and spontaneous closing of the lids. His patients did seem to fall into a sleepy trance. Eventually, James found that he could induce a trance-like state in many of his patients through mere suggestion, so he tried to adjust the already coined term “hypnosis” (borrowed from Hypnos, the Greek God of sleep) to “monoideism,” but was unsuccessful. Maybe the term “hypnosis” was already locked in the depths of his patients' subconscious mind.

As you may have guessed, not everyone is equally susceptible to the power of suggestions. Over the course of many Google searches, I came across a number of studies that have tried to link certain personality characteristics (such as gullibility, aggressiveness, various psychological ticks, etc.) but the only connection that continued to come up was a person’s ability and tendency to become absorbed in activities like reading, listening to music, and daydreaming (if you’re interested in more details about this, check out information about the Stanford Hypnotic Susceptibility Scales). If you are totally engrossed in my blog and can't pull yourself away, for example, you probably shouldn’t volunteer at a stage hypnotist's show (unless you like to cluck like a chicken, stuff ice cream up your nose, and eat raw onions).

For those of you who are reading this blog when you're supposed to be working at the office, maybe you want to reconsider your career path. Here's a link to information about how to become a hypnotist:
If you're always getting sleeeeepy, very sleeeepy, it could just mean that you have a really boring job. Good luck trying to get people to stuff ice cream up their nose.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Portrait of an Indian Scientist

Last week I attended a panel at the United Nations to learn about the results of a recent survey of practicing Indian scientists who hold a PhD or equivalent in their field of study. The justification for conducting such a survey was backed by good intentions: discoveries and inventions made by scientists have an enormous impact on the lives of nearly every person, so it seems that it would be a good idea to find out a bit about the general beliefs held by this select group of people. India is a particularly fascinating and relevant place in which to conduct such a survey as it is framed by the importance of history and ancient traditions while simultaneously leaping ahead at an impressive (and alarming) pace so as to be a front runner in cutting edge science and technology. It is also a country of great diversity, with a population of over one billion people. With this in mind, who wouldn’t want to survey their scientists? That said, I am a bit skeptical of survey results, since they seem to foster stereotypes that lead to dangerous and gross over-generalizations. Bearing this in mind, here is a summary of the results:

In India, about 80-85% of PhD scientists are men, and nearly 75% are between 40-55 years old. Most are also Hindu. A majority chose to pursue their career out of personal curiosity, while only around 10% are scientists because they have intentions of “doing good in the world.”

According to the survey, they certainly do not feel that their jobs are highly respected; most feel that the level of respect given to scientists is mediocre. This may be due to scientific illiteracy: nearly everyone listed on the survey form (media, government officials, the general public, etc.) was rated by scientist as being nearly illiterate in the sciences– politicians were rated the worst. The only exception was teachers, who scored one tenth of a point above average.

Because there are a number of alternative and traditional curative techniques practiced alongside Western medicine in India, the American surveyors asked the Indian scientists which, if any, of alternative methods they believe to be valid. The results show that while only 12% think that predictions based on horoscopes carry considerable merit, about half (49%) believe in the efficacy of prayer (38% are certain that God performs miracles). Personally, I do not share this belief (I’m not an Indian scientist), but if I did, perhaps it would explain why there are so few women scientists: they are second class citizens in many major religions, after all. If prayer is so powerful and important, Muslim women who want to be scientists should try to finagle a place to pray beside or in front of men (they currently are forced to pray behind the men).

According to one panelist, only 16% of practicing scientists (with a PhD) in the United States are female–so we are certainly not promoting women in the field any better than India. Perhaps we need a female Catholic priest to say a few prayers for the ladies, too.

Ultimately, I found the survey to be very alarming.
For more details about the survey, which is still a work in progress, you can visit

Thursday, June 12, 2008


It’s no surprise that Akituusaq was 115 pounds when he was born, after all, his mother weighs in at a whopping 1,450 pounds and his fat father is about 3,000 pounds (give or take 50 here and there). Akituusaq is a healthy little fellow with an amazing appetite (he has gained 1-3 pounds every day since he was born)—in fact, he didn’t just eat a piece of his birthday cake, he devoured the ENTIRE cake within minutes. There was an audience of wide-eyed kindergartners from PS 90 who sang happy birthday and cheered him on, of course.
Akituusaq, as you may have guessed, comes from “Atkins”—you know, the guy who invented the Atkins diet. Obviously, the Atkins diet doesn’t work, and his son is just another obese, narrow-minded American whose only knowledge of world history is the story about Marie Antoinette shouting “Let them eat cake!”
OK, OK, here’s the truth: Akituusaq, whose name means “a gift given in return” in Yupic (the language spoken by Alaskan Inuits), is actually a walrus who lives at the New York Aquarium. As you may know, walruses are not exactly born every day in NYC —this guy was the first walrus ever to have been born at the aquarium, which has been around for 112 years. His parents were orphans living in Gamel, Alaska when they were rescued by the NY Aquarium in 1994.
Don’t worry that you missed the birthday party— there are about 8,000 other animals at the New York Aquarium so if you visit, the likelihood that you’ll be there for a birthday is pretty high. In fact, I suggest skipping the Freddie Kruger movie night this coming Friday the 13th and heading to the Aquarium instead…it’s the first night of freebie Fridays. For details, check out