Sunday August 5, 2012

Q:Do newborn babies enter the world as virtual blank slates or as little Einsteins, loaded with knowledge about things they’ve barely even seen?

A: "Helpless as they are, babies pop into the world neurally programmed for reasoning about objects, physical causality, numbers, the biological world, the beliefs and motivations of other individuals, and social interactions," says neuroscientist David Eag leman in "Incognito:The Secret Lives of the Brain."

For example, Baby’s brain expects to see faces, and so Baby will turn toward face-like patterns but not toward scrambled versions of these patterns. By just a few months old, babies will express surprise if one object seems to pass through another, or if solid objects seem to disappear as if by magic.

They know to treat supposed animate objects differently from inanimate ones and also make assumptions and draw conclusions about adults, trying to impersonate them when they do something right but not if they make a "whoops-punctuated" mistake. As for babbling, deaf children do this in the same way as the unimpaired, and children hearing radically different languages nevertheless wind up babbling similarly.

"In other words," Eagleman concludes, "by the time babies are old enough to be tested, they are already making assumptions about the workings of the world. So although children learn by imitating what’s around them -- aping their parents, pets and the tv -- they are not blank slates.


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Q: What’s in ice cream ingredient that you probably never thought about, though the manufacturers certainly have, counting their profits along the way? Beer lovers, take note.

A: Beer, you know, has foamy bubbles collected in the "head" that for many drinkers never lasts long enough, though others argue it lasts too long, says F. Ronald Young in "Fizzics: The Science of Bubbles, Droplets, and Foams." Some beer manufacturers fatten the foams by using additives, but ice cream manufacturers?

Fact is, ice cream is a dessert famous for its foam.

Before she became a politician, former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher once worked for an ice cream company and helped devise a method for introducing more air into the product, lightening the texture and winning over customers. "It also resulted in less ice cream (which is relatively expensive) and more air (which is relatively cheap), creating bigger profits. Mrs. Thatcher’s method, of course, spread widely."

Q: According to the classic Parkinson’s Law, "work expands to fill whatever time is available for its completion." What’s the garbage version of this principle?

A: As discovered by Tucson anthropologist William Rathje and reported by Edward Humes in "Garbology: Our Dirty Love Affair with Trash," the amount of garbage a household generates expands to fill its available receptacles. As part of his Garbage Project, Rathje discovered this after researchers pointed out "that households in Phoenix threw away a third more trash than their counterparts in Tucson, despite similar demographics." Phoenix used mechanized garbage trucks and 90-gallon bins, whereas Tucson used smaller containers.

Then when Tucson adopted the same trash system, the amount of garbage increased by a third. Included were more yard waste, old clothes, household toxins, recyclable plastics, glass and cans (previously disposed of separately, now all too easily dumped into the bigger bin). Concluded Humes: "Parkinson’s Law suggested the need for separate mechanized bins for recyclables, which has since become the industry standard."

Send STRANGE questions to brothers
Bill and Rich at Strangetrue@cs.com.