Friday Science Cattywampus, March 22, 2013

And with a mighty screeching of well-worn tires and a gigantic whispery hiss of escaping hydraulic fluid like a Leviathan of a whale blowing offshore, the Science Bus pulls up to take us lucky science loving tourists on another tour of that big wonderful world called Science.

On today’s route, we have such diverse stops as how to get an extra octave with a sex toy, the truth about doctors and placebos, the official medical opinion on gay adoptions, how rude comments on Web stories change your opinions, and the latest news in the exciting new world of 3D television.

So climb on board! Feel free to take all the pictures you want, but please, no flashes.

Our first stop is that sex toy thing. Sure, I could have teased you with the sex toy story and then saved it till the end like some cheap Action News broadcast, but I want you all relaxed and paying attention.

And relaxation is the name of the game. A voice coach from the University of Alberta (go Canada!) named David Ley has been using a sex toy to get extra octaves from his voice students.

We have reserved this portion of the tour for you all to giggle, whisper amongst yourselves, and speculate about just how one uses a sex toy to get better vocal performance.

Sadly, the truth is a lot more boring than any of our more colorful and anatomically intriguing notions. He just uses a small egg-shaped vibrator on the outside of his student’s throats in order to help relax their throat muscles and hence help them hit those high notes.

Reportedly, the device works like a charm for this purpose:

Toronto Actor Sara Farb, who is currently in three productions at Stratford, swears by the device and says she bought one online moments after being shown how it worked by Ley. “It was almost immediate,” she says. “I couldn’t believe it.”

I like this story not (just) because it is titillating, but because it represents the sort of novel thinking that I admire.

And who knows? A little vibro-massage now and then might save the voices of future actors and singers from the ravages of time!

Continuing our tour, if you look out the windows on your left, you will see a story about what percentage of doctors have prescribed placebos.

The percentage? Ninety seven percent. 97 out of every 100 doctors in the UK has sent a patient away with a placebo instead of a genuine pharmaceutical.

Shocking, isn’t it?

Well, no. Not really. Doctors have long careers and so most will end up in the situation where a placebo is the proper procedure at least once.

And the truth becomes even less shocking when you realize that the study cited includes prescribing an antibiotic for a viral infection in the category of “placebo” treatments.

And I am fine with that. After all, the antibiotic might not be the classic sugar pill, but it is definitely not going to do a damn thing for your viral infection. And a modern GP can be forgiven for doing this now and then when faced with the occasional very insistent and/or overwrought and upset patient with a viral infection.

After all, if the useless antibiotic helps the patient calm down and let nature take its course, then it has genuinely improved the patient’s life, and that is what medicine is all about.

And of course, none of us want to think our doctor has slipped us a placebo, and the odds are, they haven’t. The situations where they are called for are quite rare.

Next, on your right, soars the majestic towers of this story about how the American Academy of Pediatricians says same sex couples should be allowed to marry and raise children.

And the science is firmly on their side. They say there is absolutely no evidence that being raised by a same sex couple is any different than being raised by a traditional mixed gender couple.

Furthermore, the Academy has always had the opinion that stable, committed two parent families are better for raising kids, and letting gays marry can only increase the odds of this.

Way to go, AAP!

After that brief stop, we forge onward to gaze upon the exotic splendor of this story about how nasty comments on a Web article change your opinions on issues.

Basically, researches cooked up a fair and balanced story about nanotechnology, and then posted two versions of it, one with polite comments, and one with rude and nasty comments.

They found that people who read the story with the nice comments had no change of opinion, whereas the rude comments version made people’s opinions more extreme than before.

This is a known psychological effect. It comes from the tension between two parts of our psyches, the top level truth-seeking thoughtful part, and our more primitive and emotional oppositional instincts.

In the realm of pure logic, absolutely no opinion could change our opinion merely by being exposed to it. Only sound logic and reliable information could change your opinions.

But down here in the real world, rude and aggressive opinions make us feel like we have to dig in and fight them, and we do that by, in effect, pulling just as hard but from the other side.

To put it mildly, this is not the best way to get to the truth. But when we argue, we are defending our own intellectual integrity and world-view far more than we are seeking the truth or even trying to win the argument. Unopposed, human beings merge their senses of reality into one picture.

Which was fine when we were talking to each other about where the best food could be found. But once we got a serious sentience upgrade and became truly human, that got… complicated.

And for our final stop before I let you all off at the gift shop, we can all feast our eyes on this surprisingly realistic story about a form of 3D television that does not require glasses.

Yup. This story again. Like flying cars, fusion, and a dishwasher that really works, this is the something that has been promised many times before.

The basic problem is this : we seen in 3D because we have two eyes. Each eye sees a slightly different view of the world, and our brain combines these into a single 3D image.

So if you have ever wondered why everything has two eyes and not just one… that’s it. 3D!

This presents a rather sticky problem for would-be 3D pioneers, though. How on earth do you get a different image to each of the viewer’s eyeballs with a 2D screen?

The classic method is to put both images onscreen at the same time and get the viewer to wear something that separates the two images and gets them to their proper eyeballs.

But that is somewhat cumbersome and nobody really enjoys wearing dorky looking glasses. I would do it if the effect was impressive enough, but then again, I am already a dork.

The dork effect also rules out another method, the “goggles” method, which would involve wearing some form of goggles where each eyepiece is a tiny computer monitor and beams the image directly into your eye.

Such systems have been developed, but are expensive, heavy, uncomfortable, and a host of tricky issues pop up when you put the image that close to people’s eyes.

Then there are the famous holograms, currently making a big comeback on our credit cards. Those work great for still images, but moving images just do not work. Our eyes are very clever when it comes to tracking motion in 3D.

So the world has been looking for a way around the glasses or goggles problem for some time, and according to the story (remember it?), the big brains at HP Labs in Palo Alto, California have come up with a new contender for that long sought after prize.

They claim that their technology allows for the true “fishtank” experience, where one could have one’s 3D TV on and walk around your living room and it would still look fully 3D.

Color me skeptical. Also, honestly, people sit when they watch TV. As long as it works for being sprawled on their couches, it works fine, honestly.

Still, if they can pull it off, it would be the biggest improvement of the TV since color.

For me, though, I am not all that interested until I can put on a VR helmet and watch TV from the inside.

That’s it for this week’s tour, folks! See you next week for more science goodies!

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