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Notes & Comment -- December 1996

A Few Loose Ends

As the big picture of reality becomes increasingly elusive, the insights of those who focus on the little picture merit new appreciation

by Cullen Murphy

Exhibitionist Tornado ARE cosmologists right to worry that 90 percent of the matter their theories say should exist in the universe cannot be found? Is it possible, as some measurements imply, that the universe as a whole is younger than some of its component parts? Is there in fact only one universe, or does there exist a variegated "multiverse"? What about "wormholes" -- those theorized modes of time travel? If they're for real, then why hasn't the future already come back to haunt us? (Or has it?)

The discomfiting unanswered questions of recent years continue: Can it truly be possible that there are "damp patches" on the sun, as the latest data indicate -- and should this affect whether we blame the heat or the humidity? Is global warming yet a palpable phenomenon? If so, is it due mostly to fossil fuels or, as provocative studies suggest, to the methane produced by termites and cattle? Did language develop in human beings in a single location, such as Africa, and then diffuse outward, or did it develop in several places independently, such as the Great Rift valley, the Anatolian plateau, and Brooklyn?

Science was not like this when I was young. As a practical matter, the world still seemed mostly Newtonian (in some ways even Ptolemaic), and although Einstein's theory of relativity could be a little daunting, at least it turned out to have a number of everyday applications (the atomic bomb, The Twilight Zone). Today every important new development in science causes the ground to shift, making ordinary people want to hold on to something solid, if there is any such thing left. The earth's core used to be something you could count on; but seismologists now say that the core is rotating separately from and faster than the rest of the planet. Meanwhile, scientists at the National Institute of Standards and Technology have announced the results of new experiments demonstrating that it is indeed possible for an atom to be in two different places at the same time.

My own informal survey suggests that scientific studies nowadays are barred from publication in reputable journals unless the peer-review committee is satisfied that press reports about them will have to include the phrase "calls into question long-accepted theories about . . ." Exceptions are made only in the case of findings that bolster the most disturbing and outlandish claims of quantum mechanics, when the press may depict scientists as "breathing a huge sigh of relief."

In this uncertain world I cling to the work of Marilyn vos Savant, the author of the "Ask Marilyn" feature in Parade magazine. Vos Savant, who is described in the small print at the end of every column as being "listed in the 'Guinness Book of World Records' Hall of Fame for 'Highest IQ,'" answers questions from readers every week about science, mathematics, and diverse aspects of the human condition. What do you consider the most practical invention of all time? "Writing." Please define time without speaking of the measure of it by man. "Time is the distance between the beginning of a state and the end of it." What is 'bad luck'? "What we call 'bad luck'. . . may indeed be unpredictable and without purpose, but we probably have more control over it than we realize." Why can't wind be seen? "Wind is merely air in motion, and air is a mixture of gases whose particles are so small that they cannot be seen by the unaided eye." With a confidence and a clarity that may transcend the confining thrall of strict accuracy, Vos Savant considers the world as it can be apprehended by our limited ken. Her aim is to establish tenuous beachheads of certainty on the formidable Tarawa of the unknown.

She is not alone. However mystified scientists may remain about all the most significant questions, scores if not hundreds of researchers bent on exploring the familiar have in recent years managed to tie up many loose ends. In recognition of the work of Marilyn vos Savant and others, I propose the creation of an award celebrating the distinguished exegesis of the mundane -- to be known, perhaps, as the Savant. And I have a few suggestions for an inaugural group of recipients.

. . .

A first Savant, in a field perhaps to be called psychodietetics, might go to Professor Susan Basow and her student Diane Kobrynowicz, of Lafayette College, in Easton, Pennsylvania. Basow and Kobrynowicz set out to test whether, as the unverified claims of folk wisdom would have it, women who eat sparingly are deemed more attractive than women who eat with Rabelaisian disregard. In a controlled experiment a student actress from a nearby college was filmed eating four different lunches, ranging from light to heavy; four groups of male and female volunteers were each shown one of the four films and asked to evaluate the lunch eater on various criteria of femininity and social appeal. The most modest lunch consumed was "a small tossed salad with diet Italian dressing and a glass of seltzer." The most substantial lunch was "a large meatball parmesan sandwich . . . accompanied by six mozzarella sticks, large fries, a large soda, and chocolate cake." The Basow and Kobrynowicz study found that the student actress was deemed considerably more appealing by the volunteers who watched her eating the smallest lunch than by the ones who watched her eating the largest. This specific issue, most of us would concede, can now be regarded as settled.

The relationship of the memory of smell to social attitudes and social development -- a field that might well be known as rhinomnemonology -- is finally getting the attention it deserves, owing in large measure to the Savant-worthy investigations of Alan R. Hirsch, M.D., of the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation. Some of his results fall into the realm of suggestive generality: Hirsch has found, for instance, that among those born from 1900 to 1929 childhood is associated with the smells of pine, hay, and sea air, whereas among those born from 1930 to 1979 it is more likely to be associated with the smells of VapoRub, scented markers, and Play-Doh. The research for which Hirsch would receive an award is considerably more focused: he has determined that people in whose memories of childhood the smells of body odor, dog waste, sewer gas, and bus fumes dominate all others are more likely to have been unhappy while growing up than those in whose memories of childhood such smells are largely absent. Hirsch's findings in this regard will, I think, be broadly accepted without cavil.

Sabermetrics is the study of baseball statistics. A third Savant might be awarded to practitioners in an important subfield -- what could be called itinerosabermetrics. When organized baseball got under way, in the nineteenth century, professional teams ventured to games far from home by train -- a means of conveyance that was leisurely enough to minimize the biological effects of travel across long distances. Has air travel affected team performance? This is a question that many fans have asked -- and one that was addressed by Lawrence D. Recht, Robert A. Lew, and William J. Schwartz, a team of Massachusetts doctors who studied American and National League scoring and travel records for the 1991 through 1993 seasons and recently published their findings in the journal Nature. The reality of "performance decrements" caused by jet lag seems undeniable: the doctors discovered that a home team could expect to score 1.24 more runs than usual when playing a visiting team that had just made an eastward trip (the direction requiring the greatest readjustment) across three time zones. What this means, medical science thus now shows, is that in game two of the 1990 World Series, which took place in Cincinnati, the Oakland As, rather than losing 5 to 4, actually beat the Reds 4 to 3.76. The series, which was once thought to have been won by the Reds in a stunning four-game sweep, therefore now stands unresolved at 3-1. Needless to say, the task of statistically reconfiguring baseball history according to itinerosabermetic principles will be immense.

Armchair meteorologists like me have long wondered about the origin of violent weather events -- vortigenetics? -- and in particular the propensity of weather disasters such as tornadoes and hurricanes to wipe out trailer parks. Some have speculated that trailer parks might attract bad weather the way golf clubs attract lightning (Callowaykinesis). The very question would no doubt be dismissed as unscientific in the mainstream meteorological community, but this did not put off the vortigeneticist Frank Wu, of the University of Wisconsin at Madison, on whom a fourth Savant should be conferred. Comparing state-by- state-data on mobile-home sales and number of tornadoes and hurricanes per square mile, Wu assembled a mass of compelling circumstantial evidence, which he presented in The Annals of Improbable Research.

Tornadoes and hurricanes are indeed most frequent in states with many mobile homes. For instance, eight states are in the top eleven for both prefab homes and tornadoes. Furthermore, Florida leads the nation in violent storms and is third in manufactured home purchases. Indiana ranks second in tornadoes and first in mobile homes.
An open-minded reader can draw but one conclusion.

. . .

I look forward to extensions of established studies and, upon recommendation by the Savant awards' executive committee, to formal recognition of new ones. The eating-and-social-appeal findings cited above, for example, cry out for follow-up. Surely the same dynamic will turn out to diminish the attractiveness of males, endowing Basow/Kobrynowicz's Law with the enviable status of a universal. Frank Wu is already postulating a possible correlation between tornadoes and the presence of video camcorders, which would certainly help to explain why, judging from the impression left by television news, tornadoes always seem to put down within sight of a video-equipped family in a station wagon ("as if, perhaps," Wu has suggested, "tornadoes were 'posing' for pictures").

A study conducted in kindergarten classes in Philadelphia shows promise. Funded by the Children's Literacy Initiative, the study has attempted to test alternative ways of preparing children for reading instruction. One group of kindergarten classes -- the control group -- was selected to be given no books, and their teachers no special training pertinent to the teaching of reading. A second group was selected to receive just books. A third group was selected to receive copious supplies of books and lots of special teacher training. "At the end of the school year," an account of the study explained, the groups "will be surveyed to see if the books and training made a difference." Another beachhead, it seems certain, is about to be secured.

The field of panetics, which is the science of suffering, has been making quiet inroads in academe since the creation of the International Society for Panetics was reported in these pages some years ago. A recent issue of the society's journal carries a call for an investigation into the nature and uses of hypochondria which, if pursued, is almost certain to garner a Savant nomination. The poet and paneticist Nora M. Barraford frames the issue as follows:

"But everyone knows," most insurance companies may protest, "that hypochondriacs aren't really sick at all. . . . That it is a 'known fact' they are so much healthier than everyone around them [that] they usually outlive their long suffering families and impatient, attendant doctors."

Ever wondered why? Maybe we should check out their life styles and learn how to be so much healthier than other people!

As for the design of the Savant award itself, I leave the matter to others. Gold? Silver? Polished wood? The physical object could take any number of forms. And in a larger sense, of course, this is one question that hardly needs answering. Whatever material is chosen, it will be made, like the aforementioned wind, out of particles too small to be seen with the unaided eye -- and will thus be invisible anyway.

Illustrations by Steven Guarnaccia
Copyright © 1996 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
The Atlantic Monthly; December, 1996; A Few Loose Ends; Volume 278, No. 6; pages 18-21.

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