Tagscience

Review: Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose, by Leigh Cowart

In academic circles, we have a half-joking-but-not-really saying: “All Research Is Me-Search,” and Leigh Cowart’s new book has taken that dictum to titanic new heights and visceral, evocative depths.

Cowart is a former ballet dancer, a biologist who researched Pteronotus bats in the sweltering jungles of Costa Rica, and a self-described “high-sensation-seeking masochist.” They wrote this book to explore why they were like this, and whether their reasons matched up with those of so many other people who engage is painful activities of their own volition, whether for the pain itself, or the reward afterward. Full disclosure: Leigh is also my friend, but even if they weren’t, this book would have fascinated and engrossed me.

Hurts So Good is science journalism from a scientist-who-is-also-a-journalist, which means that the text is very careful in who and what it sources, citing its references, and indexing terms to be easily found and cross-referenced, while also bringing that data into clear, accessible focus. In that way, it has something for specialists and non-specialists, alike. But this book is also a memoir, and an interior exploration of one person’s relationship to pain, pleasure, and— not to sound too lofty about it— the whole human race.

The extraordinarily personal grounding of Hurts So Good is what allows this text to be more than merely exploitative voyeurism— though as the text describes, exploitative voyeurism might not necessarily be a deal-breaker for many of its subjects; just so long as they had control over when and how it proceeds and ends. And that is something Cowart makes sure to return to, again and again and again, turning it around to examine its nuances and infinitely fuzzy fractaled edges: The difference between pain that we instigate, pain that we can control, pain we know will end, pain that will have a reward, pain we can stop when and how we want… And pain that is enforced on us.

Cowart writes again and again that if BDSM is not consensual then it is abuse, that the forms of training done in ballet have a direct effect on disordered eating and body image issues, and that the kinds of pain which are not in our control can contribute to lasting trauma. And they also discuss how healing it can be to take back the control of pain in consensual BDSM, or the story of a ballet dancer who found themselves drawn to mixed martial arts as a way to process what was done to them in the ballet studio, and how using therapy to recognize and grapple with what has been done to us can sometimes allow us to differently understand what we want for ourselves.

There are no firm answers, in Cowart’s book. There are multiple perspectives, from neuroscientists, to the aforementioned ballerinas-turned-MMA-fighters, to ultra-marathoners, to people who compete to eat the hottest chilies in the world, to people who pierce the skin of their backs to hang suspended from hooks and bars, in public, to polar bear plungers, and more. There are overlapping feelings and descriptions in all of these people who seek to experience pain on purpose, but there is also a stunning multiplicity of backgrounds, of beliefs, of reasons to seek these avenues out, each one helping the reader to understand something more about both individual psychology and whole cultures’ relationships to pain.

Hurts So Good

[Cover image for Hurts So Good, featuring various hot peppers, handcuffs, a  sword, a whip, a snake, a hook on the end of a rope, and pointe shoes, all arranged around the words “Leigh Cowart— Hurts So Good— The Science & Culture of Pain on Purpose]

As someone who studies, among other things, the intersections of religious belief, ritual, and social life, I was absolutely fascinated by Cowart’s discussion of the role of ritual in how we experience pain and pleasure, both in the context of the preparations for dance or other sport or how competitors psych themselves up before a chili eating match or the constant call-and-response and check-in and aftercare process of a BDSM scene, but also in terms of literal religious ceremonies. Cowart discusses the flagellants of the Black Plague era, and mystics who fasted and meditated to achieve oneness with the Divine (a practice that also had clear gender-political valences, which Cowart also gets into). So one thing I’d’ve loved more of from Cowart is what other religious groups they found also use pain in a spiritual context. I know of a few, myself, including schools of Zen Buddhism, and would have loved to have them alongside Cowart’s examples, as well.

Similarly, I greatly appreciated Cowarat’s exploration of the link between the psychological, emotional, and the physical, in categorizing and inscribing pain in the bodymind. I know firsthand that graduate school and academic research is often about enduring the emotional and psychological kinds of pain, for the sake of something more coming out of it, as well as for what we believe we can achieve in that moment, and so I would have loved even a bit more in psychological and emotional veins, too.

But, of course, when writing a book, we have the time we have, and the time that Leigh Cowart took to research and write their book was well worth it.

Hurts So Good: The Science and Culture of Pain on Purpose is an illuminating, joyous, deeply emotional examination of what makes pain what it is, what makes pain mean what means, and why. And what could be more fitting for one of the most intimate, personal, and universal experiences of the human species.

Hurts So Good is out now from Public Affairs and Hachette, and if you want more from Leigh, you can check out their appearance on NPr’s The 1a.

These tiny scorpions would like to perform an important inspection of your old book collection, please

Book scorpion

Scientific American reports on the horrifying ecosystem of old books:

Book scorpions are the best/worst thing to happen to books, because book scorpions! But also book scorpions…

Properly known as pseudoscorpions, these tiny, tiny creatures have a fondness for old books, because old books also happen to contain delicious booklice and dust mites. And they’re really not book scorpions… at all because they can’t hurt us, and they’ve basically been performing a free pest control service since humans started stacking excessive numbers of dusty, bound-together piles of paper along our walls and nightstands. This arrangement works because old book-makers used to bind books using a starch-based glue that booklice and dust mites love, so without a healthy population of book scorpions patrolling your collection, those gross parasites are probably having a horrible, silent field-day chewing them all apart.

Full Story: These tiny scorpions would like to perform an important inspection of your old book collection, please

(via Matt Staggs)

Why major creative breakthroughs happen in your late thirties

Quartz reports on a recent study on scientific breakthroughs:

James Murphy, the former frontman of the band LCD Soundsystem, made what he called the biggest mistake of his life at 21, when he turned down a writing job on a sitcom that was about to launch.

The sitcom’s name was Seinfeld.

Instead, he lurched around, working as a bouncer and later a DJ before finally releasing the first LCD Soundsystem album at the not-so-tender age of 35.

Murphy might have been older than some of his dance-rock peers, but his experience is fairly common among people who experience major creative breakthroughs, according to a new paper from NBER.

The authors examined the high points of the careers of both great inventors and Nobel-Prize winning scientists, and they found that the late 30s were the sweet spot for strokes of genius.

Full Story: Quartz: Why major creative breakthroughs happen in your late thirties

Why, Unfortunately, Malcolm Gladwell Matters

Christopher Chabris writes:

What Malcom Gladwell says matters because, whether academics like it or not, he is incredibly influential.

As Gladwell himself might put it: “We tend to think that people who write popular books don’t have much influence. But we are wrong.” Sure, Gladwell has huge sales figures and is said to command big speaking fees, and his TED talks are among the most watched. But James Patterson has huge sales too, and he isn’t driving public opinion or belief. I know Gladwell has influence for multiple reasons. One is that even highly-educated people in leadership positions in academia—a field where I have experience—are sometimes more familiar with and more likely to cite Gladwell’s writings than those of the top scholars in their own fields, even when those top scholars have put their ideas into trade-book form like Gladwell does.

Full Story: Christopher Chabris: Why Malcolm Gladwell Matters (And Why That’s Unfortunate)

(via Boing Boing)

Previously: The SHAME Project’s profile of Gladwell

Hogwarts for Hackers: Inside the Science and Tech School of Tomorrow

Evan, a student at IMSA

I wrote about the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a boarding high school in Aurora, IL, for Wired:

The IMSA Wednesdays are like Google’s “20 percent time” — only better. “At Google, 20 percent time is actually tacked on to the rest of your job. ” says Daniel Kador, another former IMSA student. “At IMSA, it really is built into your schedule.” And though Kador and other students admit that they spent more than a few Wednesdays just goofing off — as high school students so often do — they say the environment at IMSA ends up pushing many of them towards truly creative work. And it pays off.

After teaching himself to program at IMSA, Chu went on to the University of Illinois, where he worked on NCSA Mosaic, the first graphical web browser, following in the footsteps of fellow IMSA alums Robert and Michael McCool. And, eventually, he joined several other IMSA graduates as an early employee at PayPal, where he still works today.

Chu is just one of many tech success stories that have sprung from IMSA over the years (see sidebar, page two). Other IMSA alums have gone on to discover new solar systems, teach neurosurgery, and found such notable tech outfits as YouTube, Yelp, SparkNotes, and OK Cupid. And the spirit that moved Chu to teach himself programming is still very much alive and well. You can think of IMSA as a Hogwarts for Hackers.

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Hogwarts for Hackers: Inside the Science and Tech School of Tomorrow

Photos by: Greg Ruffing

Kiera Wilmot Won’t Be Charged With Felony For School Yard Explosion

Good news from the Orlando Sentinel:

Kiera, 16, was a student at Bartow High School until last month when she was arrested after she mixed toilet bowl cleaner and aluminum foil in a water bottle on school grounds, a police report stated. She was arrested and faced felony charges for possessing a weapon on campus and discharging a destructive device.

She also was suspended from school and told she faced expulsion, according to her attorney, Larry Hardaway. He said she served a 10-day suspension and is now attending classes at an alternative school.

Her case drew national attention and outrage on Twitter and other social media sites, with many arguing both school and police overreacted. An online petition on her behalf has more than 195,000 signatures.

The office of State Attorney Jerry Hill, whose jurisdiction includes Polk, said that it extended “an offer of diversion of prosecution to the child.” That typically means a probationary-like program that allows the youngster to perform community service or meet other conditions and then avoid a criminal record.

Full Story: Orlando Sentinel: Kiera Wilmot, student who caused small explosion, won’t face charges

Previously: Teen Girl Charged With Felony For Science Experiment Gone Wrong

Teen Girl Charged With Felony For Science Experiment Gone Wrong

Kiera Wilmont

Update: here’s an online petition to drop the charges against her.

Koa Beck writes:

Given all the data that is out there regarding young girls and STEM fields, ladies who demonstrate an interest in science should be culturally supported. A quick peruse of certain popular culture guarantees that they certainly won’t be getting that support elsewhere. Yet when 16-year-old Kiera Wilmot, who reportedly “got good grades” and had “a perfect behavior record” had a science experiment go awry, she was slapped with felony charges. Way to support our young girls in the sciences.

Wtsp.com reports that the teen was arrested and charged with possession/discharge of a weapon on school property and discharging a destructive device. At seven a.m. that morning at Bartow High School, Kiera allegedly mixed some “household chemicals” in an eight-ounce water bottle. The top reportedly popped off creating a “small explosion” complete with smoke. No one was hurt, according to reports.

In addition to her criminal charges, she has since been expelled from Bartow High School. It remains unclear whether there was any malice in the experiment. But even the young lady’s school principal, as well as her peers, believe that she didn’t possess any vicious motives:

Full Story: Mommyish: Teen Girl With A Penchant For Science Is Slapped With Felony Charges After Her Experiment Explodes

There’s no clarity as to what she was actually trying to accomplish, or exactly how big the explosion was. I can understand people being on edge after recent shooting and the Boston bombing, but the charges seem trumped up for a simple accident. There could be more to this than meets the eye, but it feels a lot like another example of the criminalization of curiosity.

Update: Here’s a copy of the police report. The explosion happened outside “near the gazebo/lake area.” Her science instructor claims it was not part of any classwork, though she said it was part of a “science fair experiment.” She says she thought it would “just cause some smoke.” But what she built is what’s known as a drano bomb.

Here’s the news clip:

See also:

Criminalizing science: chemistry student arrested for home lab

Students in ‘Weird Science’ Halloween party arrested under anti-terror laws

Drone Artists/Hackers Detained Held in London on Suspicion of Terrorism

Counterterrorism Agency: Urban Exploration Helps Terrorism

Why So Many Scientists Are Abandoning Their Fields

Here’s my article for Wired about why so many scientists ended up working in the tech industry:

Tech companies are snapping up scientists with backgrounds in fields like physics, mathematics and bioscience — people we might expect to be busy curing cancer, saving the environment or discovering the origin of the universe. It’s easy to be cynical about this. “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click ads,” former Facebook data scientist Jeff Hammerbacher told Business Week in 2010. But it’s happening for a reason.

It’s not that tech companies need people with PhDs. Many of the best data scientists in the business only have bachelor’s degrees. It turns out that many scientists are moving into tech because opportunities aren’t as prevalent as you might think.

The U.S. produced 100,000 PhDs between 2005 and 2009, while creating only 16,000 new professorships, according to data cited by The Economist. Though we’re used to hearing about PhDs in the humanities ending up as low-paid adjunct professors or baristas, we tend to expect another fate for people who major in fields like bioscience or physics. But even the natural sciences produce more PhDs than professorships. […]

Those that do land jobs are often frustrated. “Scientists spend more time chasing funding than thinking about the science,” Berkolz says. And because funding sources are so risk adverse, the type of research funded tends to be conservative. “Scientists are supposed to be all about falsifiability,” Miller says. “But your job as a professor is to never be wrong. It’s hard to be intellectually experimental when you’re a scientist.”

Full Story: Wired Enterprise: Shouldn’t All Those Internet Scientists Be Curing Cancer?

I think this is also probably why some researchers fabricate experimental data.

The Psychologist Busted For Faking At Least 55 Experiments

The New York Times reports on Diederik Stapel, psychology’s most notorious fraudster. But the problems with psychology — and science — go far beyond Stapel’s deception:

At the end of November, the universities unveiled their final report at a joint news conference: Stapel had committed fraud in at least 55 of his papers, as well as in 10 Ph.D. dissertations written by his students. The students were not culpable, even though their work was now tarnished. The field of psychology was indicted, too, with a finding that Stapel’s fraud went undetected for so long because of “a general culture of careless, selective and uncritical handling of research and data.” If Stapel was solely to blame for making stuff up, the report stated, his peers, journal editors and reviewers of the field’s top journals were to blame for letting him get away with it. The committees identified several practices as “sloppy science” — misuse of statistics, ignoring of data that do not conform to a desired hypothesis and the pursuit of a compelling story no matter how scientifically unsupported it may be. […]

Fraud like Stapel’s — brazen and careless in hindsight — might represent a lesser threat to the integrity of science than the massaging of data and selective reporting of experiments. The young professor who backed the two student whistle-blowers told me that tweaking results — like stopping data collection once the results confirm a hypothesis — is a common practice. “I could certainly see that if you do it in more subtle ways, it’s more difficult to detect,” Ap Dijksterhuis, one of the Netherlands’ best known psychologists, told me. He added that the field was making a sustained effort to remedy the problems that have been brought to light by Stapel’s fraud.

Full Story: The New York Times: The Mind of a Con Man

This is the sort of thing that led to the foundation of the The Reproducibility Project, which aims to verify studies published in Psychological Science, the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology and the Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition in 2008.

One thing not really discussed is the difficulty of funding for experiments. I have a story coming out on Wired.com tomorrow that deals in part with the state of scientific research, including how hard it is to get funding for research that has the chance of failing. Researchers are spending more time chasing funding than doing research, and the stakes are quite high to find positive results and to publish. Then there’s also, as alluded to above, the ever present publication bias. Update: here’s the Wired story.

In Science, Men Are Assumed Competent Until Proven Otherwise. Women Are Assumed Incompetent Until Proven Otherwise

The Wall Street Journal on how men and women are treated differently in science. To sum it up: men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise. Women are assumed to be incompetent until proven otherwise. Sharon Begley writes:

Ben Barres had just finished giving a seminar at the prestigious Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research 10 years ago, describing to scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Harvard and other top institutions his discoveries about nerve cells called glia. As the applause died down, a friend later told him, one scientist turned to another and remarked what a great seminar it had been, adding, “Ben Barres’s work is much better than his sister’s.”

There was only one problem. Prof. Barres, then as now a professor of neurobiology at Stanford University, doesn’t have a sister in science. The Barbara Barres the man remembered was Ben.

Prof. Barres is transgendered, having completed the treatments that made him fully male 10 years ago. The Whitehead talk was his first as a man, so the research he was presenting was done as Barbara.

Full Story: Wall Street Journal He, Once a She, Offers Own View On Science Spat

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