Strange but true: Pros to being big fish in a little pond


Q: Should we encourage our children to attend the most elite college that will accept them, or might they be better off as "big fish in little ponds"?

A: There are surely advantages to a degree from Harvard as opposed to one from, say, Ohio Wesleyan. But there are also substantial risks attending a school outside your intellectual comfort zone, points out Malcolm Gladwell in "David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants." And these risks are often overlooked, to the detriment of students and society.

A science student with entrance exam (SAT) scores in the upper third of his or her freshman class has about a 55 percent chance of actually graduating in the discipline, dropping to about 15 percent if in the lowest third. But what is remarkable is that this is true independent of the ranking of the school. The mean SAT score for the lowest third at Harvard is about the same as for the upper third at Ohio Wesleyan, suggesting that these groups have the same smarts. Yet a student in the second group is far more likely to actually get a science degree — and a satisfying and lucrative career — attending the lower-ranked school.

Concludes Gladwell, "What matters, in determining the likelihood of getting a science degree, is not how smart you are. It's how smart you FEEL relative to the other people in your classroom."

Q: Whatever happened to the "ballistic broiler" of the 1950s, developed under top-secret conditions to broil enormous turnips?

A: Whoa! Broiling turnips? Yes, in a top-secret underground bunker somewhere in Virginia, aerospace researchers developed the MegaVeggie Roast-O-Matic 9000 to flash-broil the oversized root vegetables, says Evan Ackerman of "IEEE Spectrum" magazine. After their successful (and surprisingly tasty) test program, they turned to their true mission with missile nose cones, "using the apparatus to simulate the intense temperature of atmospheric reentry from space. This research proved much more practical, albeit less nutritious."

Q: When the hungry human gut gets to rumbling, what's producing the sound?

A: The ever-present human gut gasses — hydrogen, nitrogen, carbon dioxide and methane — gurgle audibly in a semi-liquid substrate that vibrates like the skin of a drum, writes Hugh Hunt of Cambridge, UK, in "New Scientist" magazine. A similar phenomenon occurs in central-heating systems where gurgling noises are also produced by trapped gasses. "The noises go away after 'bleeding' the radiators to release the gasses. In like manner, we bleed our stomach and bowels by burping and farting."

Q: What does your computer know about you that you may have missed?

A: Your computer can't read your mind but it can carefully track your "non-instrumental movements" — such as squirming, scratching, shifting — that give away your state of mind, says Rachel Nuwer in "Scientific American" magazine. In a recent study, British psychobiologist Harry Witchel and colleagues asked 27 participants outfitted with motion-tracking markers to read digital excerpts from Mark Hadden's novel "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" and from the European Banking Authority's regulations. Based on motion in the head, torso and legs, the computer's visual system could tell "when a person had mentally checked out. In fact, an analysis of the cumulative movements revealed that when people read from the novel, they fidgeted less than when reading the banking guidelines" (from "Frontiers of Psychology").

Eventually, Witchel says, a perfected system could allow educators "to create digital lessons that recognize when a student's attention is fading and respond with strategies to reengage him or her."

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