Popular Nightmares

Dreams, and nightmares, are among the most private things we experience in life.  No matter how close your relationship might be with your spouse, your family members, or your friends, no one can actually share the dream with you.  And if you’ve ever tried to describe a disturbing nightmare to someone, you realize you can’t really capture the way you experience it — if you can even recall the rapidly vanishing fragments of the nightmare at all.  At best, you’re providing a pale reflection of an intense experience.

why-do-we-have-nightmaresStill, wouldn’t you like to know whether other people have the same kind of nightmares that from time to time haunt your dreams?

One company did a survey of 2,000 respondents to find out about their nightmares and see which nightmare scenarios were the most common.  The survey found some interesting results — including that the commonness of certain nightmares varies between men and women.  Women, for example, are far more likely to have a nightmare about a loved one dying or their house burning down, whereas men are much more likely to have a dream about killing someone.  (Curiously, women are slightly more likely than men to have a nightmare about going bald.)  The survey also showed that the frequency of certain dreams may be tied to the respondents’ specific circumstances.  Married couples are much more likely to have nightmares about abandonment by a partner or a partner’s infidelity than single people.

The top 10 most frequent nightmare scenarios, as determined by the survey, are:

  1. Falling
  2. Being chased
  3. Death
  4. Feeling lost
  5. Feeling trapped
  6. Being attacked
  7. Missing an important event
  8. Waking up late
  9. Sex
  10. Loved one dying

Farther down the list are other common scenarios, like being unprepared for an exam or being naked in a public place, and some weirdly specific nightmares, like your teeth falling out, being covered by bugs, or having car trouble.

Reading the list may cause you to realize that many of us have the same kinds of dreams, but also that there are other bad dreams that you luckily don’t have.  I’ve never had a nightmare about killing someone, fortunately.  And a word of caution — if you’re like me, looking at the list might cause you to remember a nightmare that you had otherwise forgotten.

Now, I can only hope that seeing some of the common nightmare scenarios other people have won’t cause my subconscious brain to add those to the nightly dream mix.

Countering The Cabal

One of the admirable things about modern science is its inherent skepticism.  Scientists are supposed to be constantly challenging accepted ideas, developing hypotheses, and designing experiments to try to disprove the hypotheses — all in the name of gathering data, advancing our knowledge and developing new ways to analyze or address problems.  Whether it is physics, or biology, or the treatment of disease, the “scientific method” has reliably produced enormous gains in our understanding and huge advances in numerous fields.

investigacic3b3n-cientc3adfica-pac38ds-vasco-1024x683-1But what if scientists stopped behaving as skeptical scientists?  What if, instead, scientists came to believe so deeply in a particular theory that they became zealous advocates for that theory — almost as if they were adherents to a religious belief, rather dispassionate, objective scientists?

That’s the sad story that this article tells about research into Alzheimer’s disease, which affects nearly 6 million Americans and one in 10 people 65 and older.  Unlike other areas of medical research where great strides have been made — think of the rapid developments in the treatment for HIV and AIDS, for example — research into Alzheimer’s disease has not produced much progress.  Some of that may be attributable to the fact that the human brain is complicated, but many observers now are saying the absence of significant gains is attributable, at least in part, to what they call “the cabal”:  a group of influential researchers and related individuals who believed so fervently in a particular theory about Alzheimer’s that they thwarted research into other approaches to the disease.

The particular theory is that a substance called beta-amyloid accumulates in the brain, creating neuron-killing clumps that cause Alzheimer’s.  It quickly became so accepted in the Alzheimer’s world that scientists, venture capitalists, scientific journals, and research funding entities wouldn’t support or publish work on alternative theories — even if that’s what the scientific method teaches.  One observer quoted in the article linked above said:  “Things shifted from a scientific inquiry into an almost religious belief system, where people stopped being skeptical or even questioning.”  That’s a pretty chilling indictment, because it’s directly contrary to what is actually supposed to happen.

Notwithstanding the impact of the claimed “cabal,” some alternatives hypotheses that appear to be promising have been developed, and some small trials of potential treatments have occurred.  Still, it’s clear that not much progress has been made in treating dementia over the past few decades, and many people now believe that the near-universal acceptance of the beta-amyloid theory is at least partly to blame.  It’s a disturbing, cautionary tale about the bad things that can happen when scientists stop acting like scientists.

A Supernova In The Offing?

The red giant Betelgeuse — don’t say it three times in a row unless you want Michael Keaton to show up and make your dinner guests dance to the Banana Boat Song — is one of the most familiar stars in the sky for people who live in the northern hemisphere.  It’s the right shoulder, and one of the brighter stars, in the constellation Orion, the hunter, which is visible even in the night sky of Columbus, with all of its light pollution.

betelgeuse-rigel-orionBut lately, Betelgeuse is acting strangely.  It’s become noticeably dimmer, and fallen out of the ranks of the top ten brightest stars in the northern sky.  That might mean nothing, because Betelgeuse is a variable star that shifts in brightness, or it might mean something extraordinary:  some scientists think we might be witnessing the death throes of Betelgeuse, and in short order we might see a supernova where Betelgeuse once was.  Supernovas occur when the lifecycle of a star of a particular size ends, and the star’s mass is ejected in a titanic explosion.  If Betelgeuse were to go supernova it would be brighter in the night sky than the Moon and might even be visible during the day.

Supernovas don’t happen every day, every decade, or every century.  One famous example occurred in 1054 A.D., when Chinese, Japanese, Arab, and Korean astronomers all reported observing a new star in the heavens, in the constellation of Taurus the bull, that was so bright it could be seen during the day for weeks and did not fade from view at night until two years later.  Modern astronomers believe that the ancient astronomers were seeing a supernova that now appears as the Crab Nebula.  Being able to observe a supernova in real time, with the sophisticated technology that is now available, would undoubtedly allow humanity to add significantly to its understanding of the death throes of a star.

And here’s a mind-blowing point.  As I write this, Betelgeuse may already have exploded.  In fact, it might have already exploded when Columbus sailed for the New World in 1492, or the American Revoluation began in 1776, or World War II ended in 1945.  We don’t know for sure, because the light from Betelgeuse takes about 600 years to reach Earth.  Whenever you look up at the stars in the night sky, you’re always looking into the past.

The U.S. Space Force

Earlier this week, Congress approved the 2020 National Defense Authorization Act.  Among its other provisions, the legislation has officially created the U.S. Space Force, which will become the sixth branch of the U.S. military — after the Navy, Army, Marines, Coast Guard, and Air Force.

spaceforce1_1533570559Although the legislation authorizes the creation of the U.S. Space Force, it does so in a cautious way.  The U.S.S.F. will initially be created under the Department of the Air Force, and it won’t be able to start hiring new service members.  Instead, to reduce redundancy and maximize efficiency, no new “billets” are authorized, which means that the U.S.S.F. will use existing personnel from the Air Force Space Command to staff the new branch.  That means that, at least initially, the U.S.S.F. will have a very strong Air Force feel to it.  During its first year, the Space Force will establish a headquarters, and the President is empowered to appoint a Chief of Space Operations, who will report to the Secretary of the Air Force and be a member of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

What, exactly, will the U.S. Space Force do?  The legislation identifies its core functions as follows:  “protect the interests of the United States in space; deter aggression in, from, and to space; and conduct space operations.”  That’s a pretty broad mission.  You can read one recently retired Air Force General’s view of the case for the Space Force, the need to seize the “high ground” of space, and the need to counter actions by the Chinese government in space, here.  His remarks also indicated that significant new technology has already been developed, and is currently being developed, that will help the U.S.S.F. fulfill its broad mission.  We can expect to see some advances in satellites, spacecraft, communications, space transportation, robotics, and life support technologies, among others, as the U.S.S.F. gets underway in earnest.  And don’t be surprised to see contracts awarded to SpaceX and other private space technology and exploration companies.

When the creation of the U.S.S.F. was first suggested, some people made fun of it as a silly Buck Rogers adventure, and others bemoaned the official militarization of space as inconsistent with the notion of space as the peaceful final frontier.   Congress, however, clearly saw a strategic need for a new branch of the service to focus on space, and the legislation approving the creation of the Space Force passed by overwhelming, bipartisan majorities.  The U.S. Space Force is here, and it signals a new era in the “Space Race.”  Exactly what that new era will look like will be sketched out in the next few years.

Whiz Kids

The younger generation gets a pretty bad rap these days.  They’re often depicted as shallow, selfie-obsessed snowflakes who spend all of their time looking at their phones, texting emoticons to each other, and failing to actually experience the real world.

imgNo doubt some young people fit that mold — but not all.  Consider Fionn Ferreira, an 18-year-old from Ireland who just won the $50,000 grand prize at the 2019 Google Science Fair for coming up with a process for removing microplastics from the ocean.

Plastics of all kinds are clogging our waterways and oceans, wreaking havoc for marine life.   Larger pieces of plastic can be removed with nets and mesh scoops, but microplastics — which are defined as bits of plastic that are less than 5 mm long — pose a different problem.  They are so small that they escape water filtration systems, end up in rivers and oceans, and are ingested by all kinds of fish and marine animals.  They end up in humans, too — especially if the humans tend to drink a lot of bottled water.  But how can something so small be successfully removed from the world’s waterways?

Fionn, who lives in a coastal town in southwest Ireland, noticed tiny bits of plastic sticking to an oil-covered rock.  Based on that observation, he began experimenting with a substance called ferrofluids to see whether they also would attract microplastics — because chemistry teaches that like attracts like.  His experiments showed that microplastics adhere to ferrofluids, and ferrofluids, and the microplastics attracted to them, can then be removed from waters through the use of magnets — leaving the water free of microplastics.

Fionn Ferreira’s use of ferrofluids to attract microplastics is an elegant but practical solution to a significant problem, and it’s based on a real-world observation — which is often the source of scientific discovery.  Thank goodness he didn’t have his head buried in his cellphone when he passed that oily rock on the Irish coast!

Mom Knows Best

A new study indicates that, when women become pregnant and are starting to deal with the changes that pregnancy inevitably brings, they’re likely to seek and rely on guidance from a more familiar source of counsel than their doctors.  That’s right:  they get the straight scoop from their mothers.

Interestingly, the study found that reliance on Mom is the strongest among minority and lower-income populations.  Wealthier women with college degrees tend to buy pregnancy advice books, often written by doctors, and are less likely to seek their mothers’ thoughts on issues like what foods to eat and what tests to have — although they still talk to Mom to get advice on child care and talk about their feelings and the physical changes they are experiencing.  In fact, the study found that the “how-to” books can create a “generational disconnect” between such women and their mothers.  But there is no such disconnect among other populations, because women in those groups tend to feel less well-served by busy doctors and crowded clinics.  Their mothers, on the other hand, are readily available and much more likely to carefully listen to their questions and complaints — and then offer specific advice.  And because pregnant women usually have lots of questions, an attentive and engaged listener is a really important part of the process.

The results of this study shouldn’t come as a surprise.  Mothers, grandmothers, and friends who’ve been through pregnancy are likely to have experiential wisdom and practical advice that doctors just can’t provide:  like how the careful use of pillows can help to secure a good night’s sleep, and what to do about that nagging backache.  And trying to adhere to the perfect scenarios sketched out in the how-to books can often cause needless worry about whether a particular woman’s condition is “normal.”  Talking to someone who has been through it all before is bound to help.

How-to books are fine, but when it comes to day-to-day matters there really is no substitute for actual experience.  The mothers out there have a lot of know-how to offer.  In this area, as in others, you can’t beat what you learn from Mom.

Instant Recall

Let’s say that Key to the Highway by Derek and the Dominos is one of your favorite songs, as it is one of mine.  How long would it take you to hear the first few notes and recognize that it’s being played on the radio?

According to some recent research, the answer is exactly 0.1 to 0.3 seconds.  That’s virtually instantaneous.

anim_homepageThe research focused on pupil dilation and certain brain activity that was triggered by hearing a favorite, familiar song and compared it to the reaction to listening to unfamiliar tunes. The study determined that hearing even a fraction of a second of a favorite song caused pupil dilation and brain activity related to memory retrieval — which would then cause you to immediately remember every note and every lyric.  One of the researchers noted that “[t]hese findings point to very fast temporal circuitry and are consistent with the deep hold that highly familiar pieces of music have on our memory.”

Why do researchers care about the brain’s reaction to familiar music?  Because the deeply engrained neural pathways that are associated with music might be a way to reach, and ultimately treat, dementia patients who are losing other forms of brain function.

The human brain is a pretty amazing thing, and its immediate recall of music is one compelling aspect of its functioning.  But here’s the thing the researchers didn’t consider:  immediate recall isn’t limited to favorite music.  In fact, it’s provoked by familiar music, whether it’s a tune you’d happily binge listen to or whether its a piece of music that you wish you could carve out of your synapses.  If I mention the Green Acres theme song, and you then think of the first few guitar notes for that song, I guarantee that every bit of the song will promptly come to mind, whether you want it to or not.  (Sorry about that!)  And isn’t it a bit disturbing to think that, if you eventually lose your marbles some day far in the future, one of the last things to go will be the tale of the Douglases and their “land, spreading out so far and wide”?