Posts Tagged ‘Science’

On School Start Times, ADHD, and Sleep

I’m currently looking into high schools for my son, and start times are playing a larger role than expected. Many are too early for us to be able to get there on time without waking at an unreasonable hour. According to sleep researcher Dr. Matthew Walker, early school start times are increasingly common, as he writes in his book Why We Sleep:

A century ago, schools in the US started at nine a.m. As a result, 95 percent of all children woke up without an alarm clock. Now, the inverse is true, caused by the incessant marching back of school start times—which are in direct conflict with children’s evolutionarily preprogrammed need to be asleep during these precious, REM-sleep-rich morning hours.

Many schools start at 8:00am, or sometimes even earlier. Some of these otherwise great schools have dropped far down our list because of their unreasonable start times.

Levels of ADHD have been rising steadily around the world. This might seem unrelated, but according to Walker, sleep deprivation symptoms are often indistinguishable from those of ADHD.

If you make a composite of these [ADHD] symptoms (unable to maintain focus and attention, deficient learning, behaviorally difficult, with mental health instability), and then strip away the label of ADHD, these symptoms are strongly overlapping with those caused by a lack of sleep. Take an under-slept child to a doctor and describe these symptoms without mentioning the lack of sleep, which is not uncommon, and what would you imagine the doctor is diagnosing the child with, and medicating them for? Not deficient sleep, but ADHD.

More research is needed, as correlation does not mean causation, but the possibility that some of the rise in ADHD can be attributed to early school times is intriguing. As someone who is both bad at sleep, and diagnosed with ADHD, these passages are making me think hard about my own experiences in childhood with ADHD medication, which I absolutely hated and stopped after a couple of days.

Review of Every Living Thing

Friend of Elsewhat Jason Roberts has a new book, out yesterday, called Every Living Thing. His last book, A Sense of the World was beautiful and amazingly well researched, making this an instant buy (from your local independent book store, not Amazon).

The book follows the paths of two scientists endeavouring to come up with a taxonomy system to classify, well, every living thing. From the New York Time’s review:

Roberts’s exploration centers on the competing work of Linnaeus and another scientific pioneer, the French mathematician and naturalist Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon. Of the two, Linnaeus is far better known today. Of course, Roberts notes, the Frenchman did not pursue fame as ardently as did his Swedish rival. Linnaeus cultivated admiration to a near-religious degree; he liked to describe even obscure students like Rolander as “apostles.” Buffon, in his time even more famous as a brilliant mathematician, scholar and theorist, preferred debate over adulation, dismissing public praise as “a vain and deceitful phantom.”

Their different approaches to stardom may partly explain why we remember one better than we do the other. But perhaps their most important difference — one that forms the central question of Roberts’s book — can be found in their sharply opposing ideas on how to best impose order on the planet’s tangle of species.

Read the New York Times’ Review →

Putting The Eclipse Into Words

In preparation for my first ever total eclipse on Monday, I’ve repeatedly come across attempts to put the otherworldly experience of seeing a total eclipse firsthand into words. In Rivka Galchen’s Guide to the Total Solar Eclipse in The Atlantic, a cultural guide of sorts about eclipses, one of her interviewees says:

Describing an eclipse to someone who hasn’t seen one is like trying to describe the Beatles’ “Good Day Sunshine” to someone who has never heard music…You can describe notes, frequencies of vibration, but we all know that’s missing the whole thing.

I have seen a partial eclipse, but from all accounts that pales in comparison to the full show. XKCD summed up the difference between being in the path of totality or not in graph form:

But the best summary of the difference comes from Annie Dillard’s wonderful classic article Total Eclipse in The Atlantic. It dates from 1982, but feels as though it could timelessly apply to any total eclipse. It’s certainly worth a full read.

It comes with a reminder of how big a deal it is to be within the path of totality:

Seeing a partial eclipse bears the same relation to seeing a total eclipse as kissing a man does to marrying him.

Sleeping With One Eye Open

Reading through Matthew Walker’s book Why We Sleep, I ran across this bit about animals who sleep with one half of their brain at a time. This allows one side to be asleep (with the eye on its side closed), leaving the other side to be awake (with its eye open). Dolphins are known to sleep this way. But birds do it with an interesting wrinkle, taken from the book:

In some species, many of the birds in a flock will sleep with both halves of the brain at the same time. How do they remain safe from threat? The answer is truly ingenious. The flock will first line up in a row. With the exception of the birds at each end of the line, the rest of the group will allow both halves of the brain to indulge in sleep. Those at the far left and right ends of the row aren’t so lucky. They will enter deep sleep with just one half of the brain (opposing in each), leaving the corresponding left and right eye of each bird wide open. In doing so, they provide full panoramic threat detection for the entire group, maximizing the total number of brain halves that can sleep within the flock.

Solar Eclipse Prep for Montrealers

This year I get a full solar eclipse on my birthday in the city where I live. The local libraries are giving out free eclipse glasses, and the school board is closing the schools for the day. Leave it to friend of Elsewhat Plateau Astro to give you a guide on everything you need to know for coming eclipse if you live in Montréal.

Design Concept: VR Synesthesia Simulator

Synesthesia is a phenomenon where some people experience their senses intermixing with each other. They might see sounds, or hear sights, or even physically feel words. It’s a mental condition apparently attributed to many great artists, from Vincent Van Gogh to Billie Eilish to allegedly even Beyonce.

I have always wanted to experience synesthesia myself, but I always assumed it would be impossible. Certain pieces of art can give me a fleeting sensation of it—Van Gogh’s paintings and Kanye’s 808s & Heartbreak come to mind. Visuals at a concert, when done well, can give a feeling of seeing the music. But that’s a sort of inferred collective synesthesia, where I can sense the impact of it on the work, but I don’t really get to experience it as someone with the condition would.

It occurred to me recently that augmented reality headsets like Apple’s Vision Pro, along with generative AI, could provide the technology to do a reasonable real-time synesthesia simulator. I’m adding it to the list of projects I’d undertake if I had unlimited resources, but for now it’s just a thought experiment.

The Vision Pro, along with generative AI, would fail to reproduce all iterations of the condition, but it could hypothetically reproduce the following types of synesthesia:

  • Grapheme Color Synesthesia, who see colours or shapes next to specific words or characters.
  • Number Form, who see particular forms or shapes for some numbers.
  • Chromesthesia, who sees sounds as colours or shapes.
  • Ticker Tape, who see strings of words scroll underneath people as they talk.

Here are some art/tech projects which explore other aspects of synesthesia. Google’s Play a Kandinsky is beautiful, but is again an interpretation of an artist’s view.

The game Audiosurf matches audio to visuals in a synesthetic way. A seemingly defunct smartphone VR app seemingly tried to accomplish the same concept, though it glitches on my phone and hasn’t been updated in 6 years. There are some fascinating video visualizations of synesthesia, like this YouTube video of a violinist who sees notes as coloured shapes.

My version would be real time, and importantly, individualized. You would choose the type of synesthesia you wanted to recreate, or even the specific artist whose synesthesia you wanted to experience, and everything you saw and heard would be filtered to recreate the look and sound of that type.

India-Pakistan Border from Space

Today I learned that the heavily fortified border between India and Pakistan, a fenced-off no-mans land lit at night by arc lamps, is visible to the naked eye from space.

The above was taken from the ISS.

Via NASA →

What If?

Speaking of XKCD, Randall Munroe also just launched a short video about the technical limits of using the Hubble Space Telescope to take pictures of the earth.

Podcast: Learn Real Good

This is a great science podcast made by the charming pair of Katie (trained biologist), and Vinny (trained in physics). Using their combined science backgrounds, speaking skills honed via improv theatre, and natural chemistry, they’re excellent hosts and interviewers of scientists working on all sorts of subjects. They just launched a new season, and it continues to be a very informative and fun listen.

Each episode consists of general science banter centred around recent science news or fact, followed by a more in-depth interview with a research student about their current work.

Learn More →

Montreal Solar System

Incessantly curious Montrealer Trevor Kjorlien, aka Plateau Astro, has a scale model of the earth and the moon on his front-yard fence. His photo of it from his Patreon looks like this:

This is a great little guerrilla educational tool already, but, he says it leads to a common question: “How big is the Sun? Where is it?”.

This prompted me to contact him and ask if Montréal’s own Buckminster Fuller-designed geodesic dome, formerly the Expo 67 American Pavilion and now ‘The Biosphere’, would make a suitable sun. Not at the scale of his front-yard models, it turns out. At his front-yard scale, the sun would be about 6 meters across, and about 900 meters away from his tiny earth. The Bucky-ball would be a lot larger than his front yard would allow, at a 76 meter-diameter.

Trevor then sent me a map made with the aptly-named Solar System Scale Model Calculator with the 76-metre Biosphere at its sun, and the results are fascinating, largely because by scaling to a known size, it makes it clear just how utterly empty the solar system actually is.

It’s also satisfying to zoom in and see the solar system scaled onto something more familiar to people, like a city (click to explore):

I also feel obligated, when mentioning the Biosphere taking the place of a star, to also mention that the biosphere was once covered in clear plastic panels, which caught fire in maybe the most heavy metal way.

Which brings us to the other obvious sun substitute in Montréal, the rather sunny-looking Orange Julep. At 12 meters across, the Orange Julep is about exactly double the size the sun would be compared to his front-yard earth and moon, and also too far away. He was nice enough to generate a map of the solar system scaled to the Orange Julep sun.

Visit Plateau Astro for much more fun space content.