In my readings of science fiction I’ve come across a persistent concept that was very popular in the twentieth century, and that is the future evolution of psychology into a “hard” science. I’ve already said something that is bound to offend lots of people, so let’s take a step back and lower the pitchforks.
The commonly accepted definition of a “hard” science is that it strives to understand the fundamental mechanical workings of the Universe. Some examples are physics, chemistry, geology, and even biology. “Soft” sciences use the scientific method to try to understand more intangible human aspects of the world, such as in psychology, sociology, and some aspects of anthropology. (“Biological anthropology” is much more of a “hard” science.) A more practical definition (and one that will serve us in the present discussion) is that “hard” sciences can make predictions based on established physical laws. For instance, if you stand in your kitchen and drop an apple, physic predicts that the apple will not only fall but that it will do so at a constant acceleration of 9.81 meters per second per second. That is true because you are standing on Earth, which has a known gravitational field per Isaac Newton’s equations (or if you want to get fancy you can use Einstein’s Relativity). Fields like psychology are quite a bit different. Though psychology aims to use statistical methods (i.e. mathematics), it does not truly offer predictions. That is not to say that psychologists can’t make predictions; indeed when people design experiments they often expect it to show a certain result (that’s the hypothesis part of the scientific method). It is more that psychologists tend not to make predictions because their predictions are less grounded in “known laws” than physicists’ predictions are. Of course, once upon a time the field that we would now call physics wasn’t good at making predictions either. That’s because those “known laws” weren’t yet known. Indeed, psychology is at the stage where scientists are trying to uncover “laws of psychology.” Do such laws even exist? Are humans governed solely by complex behavioral laws? The truth is that we don’t know yet, same as physicists didn’t know two thousand years ago how the Sun produced energy. (Basically all the theories back then were indistinguishable from magic because the key physical mechanism of the Sun’s energy production – atomic fusion – was a complete mystery.) Maybe there are laws that govern human behavior, laws that can be written down mathematically the same way we can describe the motion of planets orbiting a star. It’s not hard to understand why such scientific speculation is ripe for sci-fi pickings.
The most prominent science fiction example of psychology as a “hard” science is Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series, which is built upon the fictional concept of psychohistory. The laws of psychohistory state that large enough groups of humans behave in ways that can be predicted by fundamental behavioral laws. How large is “large enough”? Tens of billions. Meaning that Earth today could not be predicted by psychohistory, but the human population of the fully colonized Milky Way galaxy in the time of the Foundation books counts humans in the hundreds of billions, meaning that the motions of the Galactic Empire can be predicted with definable precision. And what future does Harry Seldon, the inventor of psychohistory, predict for the galaxy? The complete collapse of the Galactic Empire followed by a 30,000 year brutal dark age. Only by establishing the Foundation can they shorten the dark age to merely 1,000 years. That is the basic premise of the Foundation series, and it is entirely predicated on the idea that psychology can evolve into a “hard” science.
Foundation isn’t alone though, and I’ve encountered numerous examples of this concept in science fiction. Another prominent example is Robert Heinlein’s Starship Troopers. Though not a central idea, Starship Troopers explores the concept that psychology (or perhaps more appropriately, sociology) has evolved into a mathematical science. Here it is possible to mathematically prove that certain systems of government are better than others, finding mathematical optimizations. Though not a central concept, this imbues the militarist government of Earth with a moral certainty. “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus.” (Tangentially, if you’ve only ever seen the 1997 film then the book is not what you think it is. The book is essentially a philosophical treatise in monologue about militarism, war, obligation, responsibility, and maturity, with two action sequences as bookends. As such, it’s classic Heinlein and worth a read.)
To leave you with one final example. The television series Lie to Me exploits the idea of biological-based psychology. In the show, behavioral psychologist Cal Lightman (played by Tim Roth) has invented the science of microexpressions to read emotional responses, which he uses to consult with police departments to solve crimes. (Yes, Lie to Me is yet another 1990’s science-based crime drama.) Interestingly, the character of Lightman is based on a real psychologist, professor Paul Ekman, who has actually created the field that Lightman has in the show. Ekman has consulted extensively with the TSA to develop techniques to screen airline passengers, and if the idea of teaching TSA agents to read tiny muscle spasms in people’s faces to infer suspicious behavior sounds dubious that’s because it very much is. We should be skeptical any time a real world discovery sounds like science fiction, but when governments embrace science fiction sounding psychology to identify “threats” we should all run the other way. Perhaps that’s the moral we should take from Heinlein’s Starship Troopers as well: “Our government is the best government and I can prove it to you with calculus. If the math doesn’t work out then you did the math wrong.”
Early this morning China successfully launched the core module of their new space station into Earth orbit. This station is the focus of the entire Chinese manned space program, at least for the near future, and represents the culmination of years of development and planning. Like all modern space stations, the massive installation will be assembled in orbit utilizing multiple launches, but the Chinese government expects the station to be completed by the end of 2022. There is no reason to expect that target can’t be met given their modest plans. Apart from expanding manned access to space, this station represents one more part of the Chinese government’s soft power exercise over the global scientific community.
A nation exercises soft power anytime they use some form of cultural influence on another nation, and this is a form of power that the United States practically invented during the Cold War. One might rightly ask why the United States government allows foreign scientists to conduct research at US government laboratories, and one justification is the exercise of soft power. A more straightforward term might be “good will.” It helps to have scientists on your side because scientists create new technologies and capabilities that governments want to exploit for economic or defense ends. Since the early 20th century the USA has been the go-to nation for scientists. That is a big part of why the US led technological innovation in the last century. The USA has a reputation for being the place where scientific innovation happens. It’s not a guarantee that reputation will continue.
With the launch of their space station, and the expectation that it will be fully operational within two years, China has offered up the opportunity to fly experiments to the international community. In fact, nine international experiments have already been selected to fly on the station through a program run in collaboration with the United Nations. It is no coincidence that China is opening up room on their station for international collaboration now, given that the US-led International Space Station will reach end of life in 2028. This isn’t the only place where China is looking to pick up the slack that America has dropped.
The recent unceremonious collapse of the beloved and iconic Arecibo telescope represented a major loss to radio astronomy. Many international researchers had built their entire careers at Arecibo, and many of these same researchers were left holding the bag when it collapsed. But fear not, astronomers, because China coincidentally announced that they would be opening their newer and larger radio telescope to international cooperation shortly after the collapse. The Chinese government will be granting 10% of the FAST telescope to international collaborators, with the remaining 90% going to Chinese researchers. Competition for that 10% will be fierce, as will attempts to get Chinese colleagues to submit proposals as co-authors to grab some of that 90%. (This is all above board, and is, quite frankly, how this form of soft power functions. You create a system to draw in foreign talent to boost your native talent, which means that you win, but everyone feels like they win something they want.)
China is not guilty of anything that the USA hasn’t been doing for years, namely exercising soft power to attract scientific talent and prestige. If anything, China is acknowledging that they recognize the importance of soft power and want to apply it in the realm of science and technology. When it comes to soft power China is a pro, and they coordinate across multiple efforts to get what they want. China looks to the USA and the way it has led the world for decades, and wants that role for itself, and is doing what it thinks it has to in order to achieve that goal.
Think I’m being paranoid? Allow me to introduce you to panda diplomacy.
If I’m being honest, I’m not a huge fan of photography as an art form. I’m not saying that it’s not an art form, I’m just saying that for the most part it’s not for me. One strong exception is photomicrography, or the art of taking photographs of insanely tiny things, generally through a microscope. One of the best outlets for this work is the Nikon Small World Photomicrography Competition which announced its 2020 winners a few months ago.
These microscale photographs capture images of our world beyond our natural perception. A fly’s head becomes a nuanced structure of ridges, hairs, and texture that you could almost reach out and touch. An image of a beetle’s leg can be used to illustrate convergent evolution with a crab’s leg. Your mind can be blown by the size of the scales of a butterfly’s wing, or, like me, you can simply marvel at the size of hairs on a fuzzy beetle.
Astronomy asks us to look up and marvel at the immense scale of the Universe that dwarfs our everyday lives. Microscopy asks us to look down, and see the beauty of an entirely different universe all around us.
I can not be the only person to wake up during this pandemic with a cough and think the worst. Fortunately, all my coughs have been allergy related (thank you, every plant in New Mexico), but there is absolutely no guarantee that my luck will hold out. Or yours, if you’ve been lucky enough to not get Covid-19. (Though if you got it early in the pandemic you may be vulnerable again, though the data isn’t clear.)
There is some good news if you’re questioning if that cough is Covid-19. A recent study of tens of thousands of Covid-19 cases compiled by the WHO, along with thousands of influenza cases compiled by the University of Michigan, plus a handful of other respiratory illness cases compiled around the world, indicate that there is a very common order of Covid-19’s four most identifiable symptoms.
The most likely order of Covid-19 symptoms is the following:
2. cough and muscle pain
3. nausea and/or vomiting
There are two standouts in that order. Influenza normally starts with a cough and then a fever. Other household name coronaviruses (MERS and SARS) usually strike the lower gastrointestinal tract first, meaning diarrhea comes before nausea or vomiting.
Keep in mind that this is the most common order of symptoms, but absolutely not the only possible order. Even with so many global infections there is still a lot we don’t know about the Covid-19 disease and how it presents. According to the latest CDC estimate, potentially 40% of all Covid-19 cases are asymptomatic, meaning they show no symptoms at all. Still, researchers feel this likely order of Covid symptoms is a good guideline to determine if an individual should be tested. It also indicates that the common practice of taking someone’s temperature as an indicator of possible Covid-19 infection is a sound strategy.
With flu season rapidly approaching, and the near impossibility of widespread Covid-19 inoculations before it hits, being able to differentiate between influenza and Covid-19 on a symptomatic level is welcome news.
All I ever wanted as a scientist was to work on interesting problems. I’ve also long contended that almost any subject is interesting if you approach it from the right angle. I’d argue that James Smoliga feels the same way. Smoliga, a physiologist and physiotherapist, recently conducted a study of historical data from Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest to scientifically assess the long term performance increase of these “elite athletes.”
Essentially all competitive sports exhibit a long term improvement that will plateau at some point. Take sprinters, for instance. It is possible to use physiology to determine the maximum theoretical speed that a human could possibly run. Usain Bolt is famously the fastest runner ever officially clocked, with a peak speed during the 100 meter sprint of 27.51 mph. Scientists estimate that humans have a peak sprint speed of between 35 and 40 mph, which is about half the top speed of the fastest quadrupeds. It is reasonable to expect that over time, with improved nutrition and biological sciences, humans will get faster and faster, but will plateau somewhere around 40 mph.
It seems that competitive hot dog eating has undergone a similar trend in just 40 years, and that humans might be reaching the plateau very quickly. The limit to how many hot dogs a human can eat in 10 minutes is dominated by how far a human stomach and stretch to take on an ungodly amount of sausage. (With running, the limiting factor is how fast human leg muscles can move, which is based on the rate that muscles can contract and expand, so in a way it’s a very similar problem.) A more scientific term for stomach stretchiness is “gut plasticity,” and Smoliga has calculated that maximum human gut plasticity is equivalent to eating 84 hot dogs in 10 minutes. The thing is, the present world record is 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes. If you plot the “active consumption rate” of hot dogs – defined as hot dogs per minute – in the Nathan’s contest since 1980 you get the following chart.
The circles are data from 10 minutes competitions, and the squares are from 12 minutes competitions. In 1980 it was pretty much one hot dog per minute, or 10 hot dogs in 10 minutes. And that is what is so incredible. Every physical sport has this shape of curve, but the time between the low point and the plateau is usually much longer. As fast as Usain Bolt is, he is nowhere near the theoretical maximum human speed. Joey Chestnut, who holds the present record at 75 hot dogs in 10 minutes, is very close to the theoretical maximum of 84. This leads to an interesting question: Why are competitive eaters progressing up the curve so much faster than other athletes?
Smoliga proposes an answer. In competitive running, an athlete must train their body to undergo an intense physical strain. This training turns them into a very specialized, and highly adapted, peak physical specimen. A competitive eater must also train their body, but rather than improving physical fitness, what might actually be happening is a chronic form of damage. It’s a lot easier to break something than it is to fix it, and that may be exactly what competitive eaters are doing to their own guts. Smoliga argues that high performance competitive eaters haven’t been around long enough to assess the long term health implications of this sport, but in general increased gut plasticity to the point that normal gut plasticity is no longer possible would not be good for long term health. It’s not a shock that routine binge eating (“training”) is probably not good for you.
So there you have it. Nathan’s Famous Coney Island Hot Dog Eating Contest is a great case study for a weird bit of human physiology. And you probably thought it was just a silly sport.
Dr. Andrew Porwitzky is a scientist and freelance writer living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. He is the author of numerous works of fiction, scientific articles, and essays.