The hearts and minds of Olympic athletes function differently than most people's. I try to imagine what would have made me willing give up my teenage years, or even my 20s, to put my body through painful workouts six or more hours a day, year after year, just for the chance of winning a single competition. Without even a major sponsor, most likely. I may say, lightly, that I "love" running, hiking, kayaking and scuba diving. But the love of a sport, and the desire to win--and win BIG--burns far brighter and more intensely in Olympic athletes than I can even really imagine.
So part of the fascination of the games is watching these alien creatures perform feats above and beyond what normal people would even attempt, and watching them triumph or fail in glorious or horrific technicolor. They are our avatars, playing out a battle among the gods for the inspiration and entertainment of the mortals watching from the sidelines.
But within that select group, there are those who comprise an even more rarefied and fascinating sub-set: those who take on sports that are dangerous as well as difficult. Nobody worried that Michael Phelps was going to kill himself while swimming the 100 meter freestyle. But no matter what the final ruling is on the safety of the luge track at the Vancouver Olympic games, last Friday's fatal accident there was hardly the first serious or even fatal accident in the sports that make up the Winter Olympics.
Nobody who grew up before the 1980s could forget the opening sequence of ABC's Wide World of Sports, with the ski jumper spinning and careening crazily off the side of the jump in the "agony of defeat." More recently, in the 2006 Turino Olympics, there were no fewer than 14 crashes in luge competition, with five significant injuries, including two head injuries that required hospitalization. And that pales next to the number of the top alpine ski racers who have struggled to come back from life-threatening crashes and injuries. Not all have made it.
It doesn't take a rocket scientist to figure out that there's serious risk involved in sports that propel unprotected humans down unforgiving slopes and ice tubes at speeds approaching 100 miles an hour. And the athletes know the risks as well as anyone. It's what they do with that knowledge that makes them different.
Recent research has explored a number of physiological factors that might explain why some people are drawn to sports like BASE jumping, cliff diving ... or luge, ski jumping, or downhill ski racing, while the rest of us are not. Those extreme athletes may have lower levels of something called monoamine oxidase B, meaning that it takes a bigger thrill ride for them to get the same rush most of us get in tamer situations. Or, their brains may release different levels of dopamine, making them more sensitive (in a good way) to thrills. Or they may possess higher levels of neuropeptide Y, which allows them be less afraid in high-risk situations.
But when it comes to Olympic competitors, a significant factor is also the intensity with which they want to win. A goal that, at least on some level, they have to want more than they want to survive. Because in order to win in a risky sport when the difference between victory and defeat can be a few hundredths of a second, athletes have to suppress their natural self-preservation instincts and throw themselves, fearlessly and aggressively, onto a razor-thin and murky edge outside of control, but just this side of disaster.
Being fearless is a lot easier, of course, when you're young or haven't ever discovered where all that fearless aggression can land you. Which is why, despite all the fuss made over American Bode Miller's Bronze Medal and the unlikely Swiss champion, Didier Defago, in yesterday's men's downhill race, the most astounding accomplishment actually may have been the Silver Medal finish by Norwegian skier Aksel Lund Svindal. Because two years ago, Svindal fractured bones in his face and had to undergo abdominal surgery to make sure his internal organs were intact after his ski sliced through his backside in a horrific downhill crash.
Normally, after an outcome like that, the human brain registers a distinctly negative association with the events that caused it to prevent the event from happening again--a reaction we generally recognize as "fear." In most people, that's a good thing. Helps the species survive, and all that. But you can't feel fear and be an Olympic or World Cup Champion. Feel fear, and your muscles tense, your technique tightens, and you can't take the risks necessary for victory. So for athletes who've sustained serious injuries--and there are a quite a few, in the Winter Olympic sports--and still want to win, the battle to overcome that natural survival instinct becomes a lot harder.
Some, like Antoine Deneriaz, who won the Gold Medal in the men's downhill at the 2006 Olympic games in Turino, only to suffer a spectacular crash three weeks later, decide their instincts were right, after all. Deneriaz struggled to come back, but right after the race in which Svindal was so badly injured, Deneriaz announced his retirement. The New York Times quoted him as saying, "I'm no longer able to assemble all the ingredients. Not only am I not going fast, but I'm no longer having fun. The mornings, when I grab my downhill skis, had become days of worry and doubt."
Downhill racer Scott Macartney, who suffered such serious head injuries in a race accident two years ago that he had seizures on the slope before being airlifted to a hospital, struggled to get his old speed and form back, but didn't quite make the Olympic team this year. An article about Macartney in Outside magazine last fall quoted another skier, also struggling to come back from a violent crash and injury, as saying, "you watch the guys on that pitch and you can tell who's been injured. You can see it."
It's understandable. It's reasonable, even. The astounding exception, then, is the athlete who wants to win so badly that even if they have a visceral, hard-wired memory of disaster, they manage to push past it to reclaim their old form and win. Which is what's so remarkable about Svindal's Silver Medal finish. Beating Bode Miller was the easy part. Whatever threat Miller and the others posed, it had to be nothing compared to the challenge of beating back his own fears and heightened, primal instincts for survival in order to go screaming down that mountain at 73 mph--on the ragged edge, and fast enough to win.
The neurologist leaves behind a body of work that reveals a lifetime of asking difficult questions with empathy.
Oliver Sacks always seemed propelled by joyful curiosity. The neurologist’s writing is infused with this quality—equal parts buoyancy and diligence, the exuberant asking of difficult questions.
More specifically, Sacks had a fascination with ways of seeing and hearing and thinking. Which is another way of exploring experiences of living. He focused on modes of perception that are delightful not only because they are subjective, but precisely because they are very often faulty.
To say Sacks had a gift for this method of exploration is an understatement. He was a master at connecting curiosity to observation, and observation to emotion. Sacks died on Sunday after receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis earlier this year. He was 82.
Thicker ink, fewer smudges, and more strained hands: an Object Lesson
Recently, Bic launched acampaign to “save handwriting.” Named “Fight for Your Write,” it includes a pledge to “encourage the act of handwriting” in the pledge-taker’s home and community, and emphasizes putting more of the company’s ballpoints into classrooms.
As a teacher, I couldn’t help but wonder how anyone could think there’s a shortage. I find ballpoint pens all over the place: on classroom floors, behind desks. Dozens of castaways collect in cups on every teacher’s desk. They’re so ubiquitous that the word “ballpoint” is rarely used; they’re just “pens.” But despite its popularity, the ballpoint pen is relatively new in the history of handwriting, and its influence on popular handwriting is more complicated than the Bic campaign would imply.
In the name of emotional well-being, college students are increasingly demanding protection from words and ideas they don’t like. Here’s why that’s disastrous for education—and mental health.
Something strange is happening at America’s colleges and universities. A movement is arising, undirected and driven largely by students, to scrub campuses clean of words, ideas, and subjects that might cause discomfort or give offense. Last December, Jeannie Suk wrote in an online article for The New Yorker about law students asking her fellow professors at Harvard not to teach rape law—or, in one case, even use the word violate (as in “that violates the law”) lest it cause students distress. In February, Laura Kipnis, a professor at Northwestern University, wrote an essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education describing a new campus politics of sexual paranoia—and was then subjected to a long investigation after students who were offended by the article and by a tweet she’d sent filed Title IX complaints against her. In June, a professor protecting himself with a pseudonym wrote an essay for Vox describing how gingerly he now has to teach. “I’m a Liberal Professor, and My Liberal Students Terrify Me,” the headline said. A number of popular comedians, including Chris Rock, have stopped performing on college campuses (see Caitlin Flanagan’s article in this month’s issue). Jerry Seinfeld and Bill Maher have publicly condemned the oversensitivity of college students, saying too many of them can’t take a joke.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
On the desperation behind the migrant tragedy in Austria
On Thursday, as Krishnadev Calamur has been tracking in The Atlantic’s new Notes section, Austrian authorities made a ghastly discovery: a truck abandoned in the emergency lane of a highway near the Hungarian border, packed with the decomposing bodies of 59 men, eight women, and four children. They are thoughtto be the corpses of migrants who suffocated to death, perhaps two days earlier, in the bowels of a vehicle whose back door was locked shut and refrigeration and ventilation systems weren’t functional. Stray identity documents suggest that at least some of the victims were Syrian—refugees from that country’s brutal civil war. The truck featured an image of a chicken and a slogan from the Slovakian poultry company that the lorry once belonged to: “I taste so good because they feed me so well.”
This is a low-stress way to ease back into the ancient art of blogging. Our leaders, from J.J. Gould to Chris Bodenner, have explained the logic behind this new feature on The Atlantic’s site here. My colleagues, including Ta-Nehisi Coates and Jeffrey Goldberg, have gotten into the swing of things as you will read.
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution
Protofeather fossils discovered entombed in amber from the Late Cretaceous era support theories of dinosaur and avian evolution -- and make for one beautiful gallery
Dinosaur and bird feathers preserved in amber from a Late Cretaceous site in Canada reveal new insights into the structure, function, and color of animals that date back to about 78 million years ago.
Researchers led by University of Alberta paleontologist Ryan McKellar say these specimens represent distinct stages of feather evolution, from early-stage, single filament protofeathers to much more complex structures associated with modern diving birds. After analyzing the preserved pigment cells, the authors add that these feathered creatures may have also had a range of transparent, mottled, and diffused colors, similar to birds today. They can't determine which feathers belonged to birds or dinosaurs yet, but they did observe filament structures that are similar to those seen in other non-avian dinosaur fossils. Their findings appear in the current issue of the journal Science.
A new study pinpoints the Facebook status updates that irk us to the point of no return.
In the 1997 movie Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion, the two title characters, worried that they haven’t done anything noteworthy to share at said reunion, decide instead to lie and claim they invented Post-it notes.
Their story quickly unravels, of course, but had the movie been made a decade later, even the very concept of the ruse would have been impossible. Everyone would have known about Romy’s daily slog at the Jaguar dealership through Facebook.
Or would they?
The ebb and flow of Facebook friendships has become fruitful territory for social scientists in recent years. At least 63 percent of people report having unfriended someone on Facebook, but what prompts these digital rejections can tell us a lot about both the nature of real-life friendship and about how we manage our online personalities.
What it's like to look for romance when "a big smile can be frightening"
The way to Paulette's heart is through her Outlook calendar. “Honestly, if you want to be romantic with me, send an email through Outlook and give me all the possible dates, locations, and times, so that I can prepare,” she said.
The former Miss America system contestant and University of Cincinnati College-Conservatory of Music-trained opera singer knew she had a different conception of romance than her previous boyfriends had and, for that matter, everyone else.
“People tend to think of romance as spur of the moment and exciting,” she told me. “I think of romance as things that make sense and are logical.” However, she didn't know why until this year when, at the age of 31, when she was diagnosed with autism.
Residents of Newtok, Alaska voted to relocate as erosion destroyed their land. That was the easy part.
NEWTOK, Alaska—Two decades ago, the people of this tiny village came to terms with what had become increasingly obvious: They could no longer fight back the rising waters.
Their homes perched on a low-lying, treeless tuft of land between two rivers on Alaska’s west coast, residents saw the water creeping closer every year, gobbling up fields where they used to pick berries and hunt moose. Paul and Teresa Charles watched from their blue home on stilts on Newtok’s southern side as the Ninglick River inched closer and closer, bringing with it the salt waters of the Bering Sea.
“Sometimes, we lose 100 feet a year,” Paul Charles told me, over a bowl of moose soup.
Many communities across the world are trying to stay put as the climate changes, installing expensive levees and dikes and pumps, but not Newtok, a settlement of about 350 members of the Yupik people. In 1996, the village decided that fighting Mother Nature was fruitless, and they voted to move to a new piece of land nine miles away, elevated on bedrock.