When I was a teenager I read Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time. Instead of taking this beautiful book as a path to something useful, like a career in theoretical physics, I mainly used it as an excuse not to tidy my room. And I don’t mean I sat there screaming “Mum! Not now, I’m reading a book!”: if I understood it correctly, A Brief History of Time said that tidying my room would (in an absurdly, ridiculously tiny way) hasten the end of the universe. Surely, I argued, a tidy room wasn’t worth that…

That the argument was asinine should go without saying, but an argument can be asinine and still technically correct. More… “Don’t Tidy Your Room”

Uri Bram is the best-selling author of Thinking Statistically and writes about very big ideas and very small questions.
Friend? Enemy? Frenemy?

Public health messages usually sound easier said than done: you know, eat right, exercise regularly, stop smoking. But back in 1931, a key public health message was, in our modern view, truly simple: “wear good shoes.” According to an article in Alabama’s Florence Times-News, wearing shoes was exceedingly important — and apparently not all that common — to help eradicate the intestinal parasite known as hookworm:


Two decades or more have passed since the attention of our people was turned prominently to the existence of hookworm disease in the States. At that time, every one knew that the presence of hookworm in the bowel would make a man lazy, and that backwardness among some children in the south was probably due to infestation with this organism.

The article, by the eminent editor of the Journal… More…

The most famous meetup of art and medicine.

There was a time before the camera and the microscope, before x-rays and MRIs, when doctors and artists needed one another. Achieving insight on the body’s form and function was a truly demanding challenge, and everyone was better off for the doctor-artist partnership.


“Anatomy/Academy” Through April 17. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia.

This collaboration reached an apotheosis in Philadelphia during the late 1800s, when the city was a center of innovation for both fields. Well-regarded artists worked within walking distance of great medical innovators, and the proximity paid off. Sculptor William Rush carved “gigantic size” anatomical sculptures of small parts of the body — the inner ear, sphenoid bone, temporal bone, the right maxilla — which anatomist Caspar Wistar used as models when lecturing in the medical school amphitheater.

William… More…

A real turn-off.

The latest episode of Glee brought viewers yet another tearfest: Quinn quivering tearfully when boyfriend Sam breaks up with her; Sue blinking away tears while singing “This Little Light of Mine” to hospitalized children; Rachel tearing up after a compliment from ex-boyfriend Finn; and a Justin Bieber serenade driving some glee club members into an emotional, teary frenzy.


It was enough to make a person wonder: Do tears serve a purpose beyond the obvious expression of emotion?

A study published recently in Science takes us a little ways toward an answer. Investigators found that the smell of tears triggered neither sadness nor empathy in men, but it did make them feel less attracted to women. Men exposed to the scent of fresh emotional tears experienced decreased testosterone levels and less activity in brain areas… More…

In color, thanks to gene therapy.


When the pediatrician diagnosed both of my two sons with color deficiency, I learned that they see the world a little differently than I do. They see colors, but they have difficulty differentiating between particular shades of reds and greens or blues and yellows. I’m not even sure which. If they had total color deficiency — color blindness — I would have worried, but as it was, we laughed about their little vision condition. It did not seem like any big loss that their career options might be slightly limited, given the wide realm of possibilities.

So when I first read the news last week that scientists had cured spider monkeys of red-green color deficiency, I thought it was a pretty minor stuff. Big deal, so monkeys can now see more colors than my kids! But… More…

No, chromosomes and their telomeres — the links between stress and aging.


I celebrated my 39th birthday the other day, and, for the first time ever, I legitimately felt a year older. Times have been hard lately. I discovered two totally new emotions — hopelessness and panic. I realized my plans for the future now turn less on ideals and more on necessity. Wrinkles and gray hair have made their first appearance.

It all felt like too much, and I began to wonder how much of a toll this mental state has taken on my physical health. People have long suspected that chronic psychological stress impairs health and accelerates the aging process, but the mechanism behind this link had long been unknown.

The connection has become much clearer in recent years as researchers have ascertained that stress impairs telomeres — the DNA-protein complexes that cap the ends of chromosomes, protect… More…


There are times in life when it seems that nothing ever changes — life goes on and on in the same frustrating old way, cliché after cliché. Decades go by. Then suddenly, or so it seems, important parts of life change instantly and forever: a word processing computer replaces my clumsy typewriter, a microwave oven defrosts my food in minutes, and a cell phone makes reaching me in Lisbon, London, or Milan as easy as reaching me at home.

The 10 Most Beautiful Experiments by George Johnson. Vintage. 208 pages. $13.95 (new in paperback).

Scientific notions change in much the same way: not at all and not at all, and then, boom, in a flash of inspiration, utterly completely. In The Ten Most Beautiful Experiments (released in paperback this month), noted science writer George Johnson describes how some of… More…

Research into their diets could have implications for ours.


A few weeks into the new year and I, like so many Americans, have already neglected my predictable resolution to eat more healthfully. This year I kept it pretty simple, endeavoring to eat more super foods like berries, nuts, and oatmeal, and fewer butter cookies and blueberry muffins. While I have eaten more of the healthy super foods, I admit I’ve also eaten more desserts, too (there were just so many left over from the holidays).

I’m left wondering how I could I have failed so quickly. Is it just laziness and bad habits that make achieving the task feel so extraordinary?

Perhaps it’s not simply laziness or habit, at least. While willpower and discipline certainly play an important role in how we eat, I have come across a growing body of research hinting at biological underpinnings that… More…

If only we were so well-adapted to winter.


As a native Californian deprived of real winters, I most definitely romanticize the season. I expect to sing “Silver Bells” while dancing down the street of town, past shops decorated with Christmas lights and snow. Truly.

Alternately, I imagine ice skating on our local pond and wandering the nearby woods through quiet, soft snow. In my head, its like the rural winter scene captured by biologist Bernd Heinrich in Winter World. Bernd tells of wandering in the snowy woods of Maine, and finding hints of life and beauty everywhere: the call of the great horned owl and the coo of doves, the tracks from moose and big cats and wolves, a scampering chipmunk and a hidden den of porcupines, and snow-frosted trees. Of course, since I live in New Jersey, I don’t really expect the moose.

Winter World… More…

No — from my son's head!


They were there in the caves of the Neolithic Stone Age. They were there in the temples of ancient Egypt and Rome. They were there at the coronation of King Henry IV. They were there on Napoleon’s battlefields. And they were there, in my very own house, just last month.

Lowly, unlovely lice, that is. Despite their unwavering lineage, I was shocked to find them crawling on my own children. I knew that lice still existed, of course, but I had always assumed that they belonged in someone else’s house. So despite receiving a letter from school alerting parents of an infestation, it took three days of watching my son furiously scratching his neck before I realized that he might not have mosquito bites.

The moment I checked, there they were: little wingless, bloodsucking insects skittering over his… More…