7QT: Saturn’s Rings, Visiting Nurses, and Tests for the Nearly Dead

7QT: Saturn’s Rings, Visiting Nurses, and Tests for the Nearly Dead March 20, 2015


— 1 —

I’ve got a special weakness for clever methodology, and I loved this set up from an article on near death experiences (the protocol was informed by the frequency of NDE people reporting being near the ceiling looking down):

All involved placing some stimulus—a picture or a symbol on, say, a piece of paper or an electronic display—in a high location, visible only if you were floating near the ceiling. The research designers did their best to make sure that nobody—not the doctors or nurses, not the patient, and not whoever interviewed the patient afterward—would know what the stimulus was until after the interviews were over. (Getting the hospital staff to respect this protocol, Holden reports, wasn’t always easy.)

The latest and largest such attempt was the so-called Aware study, led by Sam Parnia of the State University of New York at Stony Brook, published in Resuscitation last October. In it, 15 participating hospitals in the United States, the United Kingdom, and Austria installed shelves bearing a variety of images in rooms where cardiac-arrest patients were likely to need reviving.


— 2 —

Another great experimental set-up was recreated and written up by my friend Anthony Rennekamp (and this one doesn’t require a bunch of almost-dead people, so you can try it out yourself at home).

I haven’t been teaching physics very long, but in my few years I’ve begun to notice that there are a few concepts in physics over which students tend to fold their arms across their chests. When you tell a student about Isaac Newton’s third law of motion, they nod and smile—until you start talking about gravity. They grow suspicious when you tell them that they exert an attractive force on Earth. “Sure, the Earth pulls me down, but come on. Am I really supposed to believe that I pull the Earth up with the same kind of force?” Then I tell them that all objects with mass attract all other objects with mass, and my credibility is gone.


I showed them a video on YouTube that was produced by a man named Brady Haran, and that got the whole class thinking: “Mr. Rennekamp, couldn’t we do this experiment? If we’re really careful, we could duplicate Henry Cavendish’s measurement for the gravitational constant.” I was intrigued and gave them the assignment to research the feasibility of recreating the Cavendish experiment.

— 3 —

Over at ScottBot, there’s a nice essay on how we make sense of our own perceptions of the world around us, and some experments designed to test how well our models and explanation match the world.  In order to test hypotheses about Saturn’s rings:

In 1660, the experimenters at the academy put the model of a ringed Saturn at the end of a 75-meter / 250-foot hallway. Four torches illuminated the model but were obscured from observers, so they wouldn’t be blinded by the torchlight.  Then they had observers view the model through various quality telescopes from the other end of the hallway. The observers were essentially taken from the street, so they wouldn’t have preconceived notions of what they were looking at.

Depending on the distance and quality of the telescope, observers reported seeing an oblong shape, three small spheres, and other observations that were consistent with what astronomers had seen. When seen through a glass, darkly, a ringed Saturn does indeed form the most unusual shapes.


— 4 —

And one more great study: one of the best ways to fight infant morality isn’t with a conventionally “medical” intervention, it’s by having visiting nurses follow up with vulnerable parents, offering them advice, logistical support, and someone to turn to in a medical or emotional crisis:

The program is unusual because it is based on a series of clinical trials much like those used to test drugs. In the 1970s, a child development expert, Dr. David Olds, began sending nurses into the homes of poor mothers in Elmira, N.Y., and later into Memphis and Denver. The nurses taught mothers not to fall asleep on the couch with their infants, not to give them Coca-Cola, to pick them up when they cried and to praise them when they behaved. The outcomes were compared with those from a similar group of women who did not get the help.

The results were startling. Death rates in the visited families dropped not just for children, but for mothers, too, when compared with families who did not get the services. Child abuse and neglect declined by half. Mothers stayed in the work force longer, and their use of welfare, food stamps and Medicaid declined. Children of the most vulnerable mothers had higher grade-point averages and were less likely to be arrested than their counterparts.

I think I’m only oversimplifying a little to say that a lot of the gains here are because you’re assigning people to have the older, experienced friends to reach out to that you would have had in more tight-knit communities.

— 5 —

Speaking of the care and support we receive from nurses and doctors, my friend Shara Yurkiewicz has a wonderful personal reflection up today on preparing for “Match Day” (the day that med students are assigned to residencies) and her future life as a doctor.

Somewhere over North Carolina, a passenger sitting in the row ahead of me slumped forward in her plane seat. She had been feeling light-headed moments before.

The flight attendant handed her a glass of orange juice, urging her to drink.

I silently urged her to drink too, for more selfish reasons.

My seatmate and I watched the scene. She whispered to me, “Maybe they should get a doctor.”

With growing horror, I whispered back, “I’m a doctor.”

Her eyes widened. “Mazal tov!” she announced to most of the plane.


— 6 —

Another once-a-year-day is the annual selection of the Word of the Year by the American Dialect Society, and the NYT covered the festivities:

“The word I will always regret not voting for is nomnomnom,” Mr. Schnoebelen said, referring to the voracious onomatopoeic eating sounds of Cookie Monster (think, “om nom nom nom!”). That entry lost to “app” in 2010.

“I remember distinctly the linguist who nominated nom saying that ‘A vote for nomnomnom is a vote for joy,’ ” Mr. Schnoebelen said. “I think she was right.”

— 7 —

I’ve read Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I didn’t really have strong feelings about it.  If you’re thinking of picking it up, I think David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5000 Years is quasi in the same genre and is more interesting and informative.  But here’s one passage from Sapiens that I liked on the rachet effect of institutions:

[T]he dollar, human rights, and the United States of America exist in the shared imagination of billions, and no single individual can threaten their existence. If I alone were to stop believing in the dollar, in human rights, or in the United States, it wouldn’t much matter. These imagined orders are inter-subjective, so in order to change them we must simultaneously change the consciousness of billions of people, which is not easy. A change of such magnitude can be accomplished only with the help of a complex organization, such as a political party, an ideological mocement, or a religious cult. However, in order to establish such complex organizations, it’s necessary to convince many strangers to cooperate with one another. And this will happen only if these strangers believe in some shared myths. It follows that in order to change an existing imagined order, we must first believe in an alternative imagined order.

In order to dismantle Peugeot, for example, we need to imagine something more powerful, such as the French legal system. In order to dismantle the French legal system we need to imagine something even more powerful, such as the French state. And if we would like to dismantle that, too, we will have to imagine something yet more powerful.

There is no way out of the imagined order. When we break down our prison walls and run toward freedom, we are in fact running into the more spacious exercise yard of a bigger prison.


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