Light in Slow Motion

October 18, 2012

How does light look in slow motion? This MIT scientist shows us using a femto-camera that is able to slow down photography to less than a nanosecond.

Happy Thursday Viewing, All!



The Weight of Words

August 20, 2012

“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”

Wanna make a bet? I’ve never agreed with that saying. For anyone who has been bullied before, words can do more damage than a machine gun.

Words have more power in the material world than we think. Japanese researcher Dr. Masaru Emoto  revolutionized how we think about the energy of words when he published his work on how water crystals react to certain terms, photography or music.

The reaction the water had to the word peace looks like this:

The word truth had this response:

The negative term you fool gave the water crystal the following form:

I’m beginning to see a pattern here, are you?

Words in the form of fiction can also have an amazing influence on our lives. Through books, screenplays and short stories, we get to travel to far off worlds without leaving our easychair. In fact, Annie Murphy Paul reported for the New York Times about a York University study in Canada headed up by psychologist Ramyond Mar, that found “individuals who frequently read fiction seem to be better able to understand other people, empathize with them and see the world from their perspective.”

Darmouth College’s Geoff Kaufman teamed up with Lisa Libby at Ohio State University to prove that literature can truly have a profound impact on our self-understanding, attitudes and even behaviors. In the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology (Vol. 103, No. 1, 1-19, 2012), they report on the phenomenon they’ve termed “experience-taking“. Essentially, you take on the fictional character’s experience as your own.

The neat thing is our brains can’t distinguish between reading about an experience and actually encountering it in real life, which is maybe why the more teary-eyed folks among us cry so easily when reading a good book or seeing a good movie (I am one of them. I admit. You know that scene in Spielberg’s 2011 flick, War Horse, where the British and the German soldiers gather together in no-man’s land to free the horse from the barbed wire fence in a momentary act of peace and purpose? Yea, I was bawling, people. Bawling I was!). If a book is good, I cry at the end too. It’s that empathy thing, like saying goodbye to a dear friend you won’t see for a long, long time.

Because in your mind, you are. Those characters are real, dammit! Who needs reality TV when you can enter a fantasy world by opening a book at any time?

If you have ever written fiction, you will know that those characters come knocking at your door at all hours of the night, wanting to be heard, formed and plopped into the storyline of your own creation. They can be pretty adament, too. I have a few slumbering in my head myself. Maybe I’ll let them out to play on the page a little more.

And when I do, you’ll get to be a part of the fantasy too.

For now, I offer you this three-minute video to illustrate the power of words. May you choose yours carefully and with all the kindness you possess.

You can’t argue with the American Heart Association when it says leisure-time activities are good for you. Especially when it plunks down a longitudinal study that proves it.

In a new study that was just published in the AHA journal, Circulation, more than 4,200 participants (average age 49) reported the duration and frequency of their leisure-time physical activities such as brisk walking, vigorous gardening, cycling, sports, housework and home maintenance.

“It’s not just vigorous exercise and sports that are important,” said Mark Hamer, Ph.D., study lead author and associate professor of epidemiology and public health at University College in London, U.K.

“These leisure-time activities represent moderate intensity exercise that is important to health. It is especially important for older people to be physically active because it contributes to successful aging.”

Overall, 49.1 percent of the participants met the standard physical activity recommendations for cardiovascular health (2.5 hours per week of moderate to vigorous physical activity). The rate reached 83 percent in subsequent phases of the study as the participants entered retirement.

“We have shown that retirement seems to have a beneficial effect on physical activity levels,”  Hamer said.

The benefits of exercise cannot be denied. It can keep you vital in all areas of your life.

So what activities can you engage in this week to get that body moving? Gardening? Cycling? Something else? Whatever you do, get that blood pumping.

It’s good for you. And your heart too.


The Empathy Habit

July 27, 2012

Do you want to know the secret to a happy life?

It starts with empathy.

Research in young adults has shown empathy is associated with heightened sexual pleasure and I’m sure the older crowd could benefit from the effects of empathy in that department too.

Have I got your attention now?

According to a recent study at Oregon State University, the ability to be empathetic may be partly genetic. “The love hormone” oxytocin plays a strong role in bonding and empathy, for instance. Those with two “G” variants of the oxytocin receptor gene tend to have better social skills.  At the same time, those with at least one “A” variant are apt to deal with stress less effectively and suffer from mental health issues. That’s a whole lot of science talk for “Empathy has some basis in neuroscience.”

Nonetheless, most anyone can learn empathy so we can’t blame not being kind on our genes alone.

How can you be more empathetic? Follow the “walk a mile in their moccasins” rule.

My mother is probably the most empathetic person I know. She taught me long ago to really consider another person’s perspective before laying judgement on them. By the time you’re finished feeling into their situation, you will have forgotten to lay judgement at all. So empathy is about looking at someone’s situation, trying to get their perspective and suspending judgement altogether.

It is incredibly liberating not to carry judgement around like an old sack of clothes. Imagine a world in which we did more loving and less judging.

Photo Courtesy of

Have you ever experienced an empathetic listener, someone who feels into what you are saying without judgement or advice? You may not have noticed at the time why you felt so much better after talking to that person, but you know they uplift you every time. What you experienced was empathy.

It truly is the key to unlocking your joy.

Now there are people whom you may try to connect with who are simply not interested. You can be as empathetic as you want to be and they still won’t care. As Rick Hanson says in Buddha’s Brain (yes, I’m finally nearing the end of the book – it’s a great read!), you need to match the relationship with its true foundation. That means you might have a deeper relationship with someone you thought was only a casual acquaintance. Or you may have to disconnect from those who are toxic.

Either way being empathetic does not mean trying to change a person. It means being your truest self, celebrating what you and the other person has to offer and being kind. Sometimes the kindest thing to do is to walk away. Sometimes it is to draw nearer.

How might you show empathy today?

Pluto, the smallest of planets in our solar system, was demoted to dwarf planet status in August 2006 when the astronomy community redfined what it means to even be a planet. Since then I’ve developed a particular fondness for Pluto, perhaps because I typically root for the underdog with an overarching empathy usually reserved for animals and small children.

And now Pluto is back in the news [in German], triumphant and with an admirable constancy that inspires. The Hubble telescope discovered that Pluto has a fifth moon that is between 10 and 25 kilometers wide.

The news made me smile. That lovely demoted celestial body flying through space with its expansive posse in tow. And by the way, the Earth only has one moon. So take that!

Can you tell I once wanted to be an astronomer?

Take the Pluto quiz. [in English] How well do you know it?