Saturday, June 27, 2009

Tents and Telescopes

Humankind has been fascinated by the stars ever since we were capable of looking upwards. Ancient civilizations thought the stars were holes punched into the dome (the firmament) that encircled the earth. They thought the firmanent was a hemispheric dome that sat on a round, flat earth.

Since then, people have marveled at the slow, gentle movement of the stars across the sky from east to west. In the summer under a dark sky, we are dazzled by what is called the Milky Way. John Milton, the great seventeenth century poet, described this beautiful heavenly highway in Paradise Lost:

A broad and ample road, whose dust is gold,
And pavement stars,—as stars to thee appear
Seen in the galaxy, that milky way
Which nightly as a circling zone thou seest
Powder’d with stars.

For people who live in the light-filled skies of the modern world, spending the night under a truly dark sky can be daunting. There are so many stars that even if one is familiar with the constellations, they are difficult to find amid all the other stars. It was that dark sky that inspired Henry Wadsworth Longfellow to write, "Blossomed the lovely stars, the forget-me-nots of the angels." These dark sky blossoms are indeed lovely to see.

Some people have the impression that as they look up at the stars, the stars themselves are looking down at them. People who spend time watching, observing and studying the night sky (astronomers) feel a sense of familiarity when a new season brings back stars that have been gone for a period. To some astronomers, it almost feels like a homecoming with a close friend.

Religious people through the ages have thought the stars represented something more than mere lights. For many, they were the lights from some supernatural being that had an influence on human affairs. People who believe in astrology today are convinced the position of the stars can make a difference on what happens on earth. Of course, there is not one shred of evidence (good evidence, not bad evidence) that astrology has anything important to say to us — but that is another topic for another time. Poetry about the sky is much more compelling than the pseudoscience of astrological nonsense.

All of this is an introduction to my activities last week: camping out under the stars with my new telescope and a good friend. The event lasted for four nights. We expected more nights but the weather had a different plan for our lives. My friend, Gary is an astrophotographer which means he takes pictures of different objects in the night sky. It may seem like a simple hobby, but the technology and learning curve can be forbidding. I am always amazed at his persistence and talent for capturing the beauty of things we simply cannot see with our naked eye.

We pitched our tents at a place called Blue Canyon in the California Sierra Nevada mountains. The site we originally went to was rained out at first, so we left. Each night at Blue Canyon was warmer and darker than the previous nights. For those of you who might not be interested in the technical details of what I saw and why, you can leave the blog at this point. The rest of you can follow along.

First of all, I bought a new telescope a few months ago after selling off an old car that had been sitting in my garage for many years. The telescope is made by Celestron and is a Schmidt-Cassegrain type of telescope that has an aperture of eleven inches. Eleven inches is quite respectable in size for amateurs. Most of my eyepieces are made by Televue (unfortunately expensive but they greatly enhance the ability to enjoy the sky). The two that I used most of the time were a 31mm Axiom LX (made by Celestron) and a 17mm Ethos (made by Televue) — the first for a wider field of view, the second for more faintly difficult objects.

To give you an idea of what one looks at through a telescope, let’s break down the parts of our universe. Our sun and planets (including our earth) is in the Milky Way galaxy. If we could stand outside our galaxy, it would see a pinwheel made up of millions of stars, some of which would be smaller and some bigger than our sun. Our sun is a very average star when compared to other suns in the galaxy. Many of the suns are doubles, triples or quadruples, meaning they travel through our galaxy as a unit. If a person were on a planet in one of these systems. she would see two or more suns in their sky. Through a telescope we can see many beautiful combinations. Some double stars have contrasting colors, for example a blue star next to a bright yellow star. Tracking down and finding these double stars is something amateur astronomers enjoy doing.

Our Milky Way galaxy also contains concentrations of dust and gas called nebula. These nebula are the place where stars are born so they are often called star nurseries. If there is a bright star near one of these nebulas, the nebula will light up and can be seen as a large patch of bright, hazy wispiness. Our eyes can only process black and white for dim objects so astrophotographers, like my friend Gary, can expose their cameras for long periods of time and see these nebula in brilliant colors.

We can also look at what is left over after a star has blown up at the end of its lifetime (yes, stars are like us because they are born and eventually die). After a star has died we can see the remains of the large amounts of gas expelled during its death throes. The most famous example is something called the Ring Nebula in the constellation Lyra.

As stars are born in their nurseries, they will often stay together for awhile like siblings growing up within a family. The sight of these clusters of stars can be stunning through a telescope. Seeing them is like looking at a scattering of diamonds under a very bright light. Each cluster is unlike any other. Because the stars within the cluster are loosely bound together by gravity, they move through our galaxy like a band of adolescents roaming the dark streets of a city.

One of the more famous open clusters is called the Pleiades and can be easily seen with the naked eye. Some people have called this cluster the Seven Sisters because there are seven stars (some people only see six bright stars) more prominent than the rest of the cluster. In the Japanese language, the word for "unite" can also refer to the Pleiades star cluster. The word is subaru and you can see the cluster of these six stars in the logo on the back of any Subaru car. Open clusters eventually break up like children who grow up and eventually leave home. The gravitational attraction is not strong so the stars in these clusters eventually wander off on their own. Some astronomers think our sun may have originally been part of a star cluster.

Another enjoyable sight in the sky is a different kind of star cluster, the globular cluster. Whereas an open cluster can have up to a couple thousand stars, the globulars can include millions of stars packed tightly together. The most powerful amateur telescope can only pick out a small fraction of the individual stars. The stars in these clusters are as old as the galaxy itself. Instead of being found in the galactic disk, these stars roam around the outside of our galaxy as if they are lost with nowhere to go.

The largest objects available for most amateur telescopes are the galaxies. As enormous as our galaxy is, it is merely one of many billions of galaxies in our universe. Galaxies also have different personalities for the observer. Some are small, others are large; some are young, others old; some are beautiful, others are just plain.

During our nights under the stars, I tried to see all of these different types of objects. On the last night, I concentrated on ten globular clusters that sounded interesting. There was a lot of variety. Like other objects, some of the clusters could barely be seen. One of the most stunning globular clusters almost looked like an open cluster with a very tightly packed center. However, the stars were so brilliant that when I looked through the eyepiece, the sight took my breath away.

Amateur astronomy has become a fascinating hobby for me. Dark skies, balmy weather, a good friend, the quiet of night, a telescope and a sky map can be soothing, but unsettling. Our brains do not yet have the capacity to really understand the immense distances involved in our own galaxy, let alone the entire universe. Carl Sagan used to refer to the earth as the "pale blue dot." In comparison to our own planet, we are microscopic beings in a vast universe that we are just beginning to understand. Are we alone? If it takes a thousand years to send a message to another galaxy, will we ever find out? Although humans are fragile, we are also responsible for the continuation of our species. What will the human race be like in another thousand years? One hundred thousand years? A million years? The likely answer is that we will be unrecognizable compared to who we are today.

"Ye quenchless stars! so eloquently bright, Untroubled sentries of the shadowy night." — Robert Montgomery.

"The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena ...The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand." Carl Sagan, The Pale Blue Dot

Friday, June 12, 2009


Do not expect to arrive at certainty in every subject which you pursue. There are a hundred things wherein we mortals. . . must be content with probability, where our best light and reasoning will reach no farther. — Isacc Watts, English poet, theologian, hymn writer.

The February 21, 2009 issue of Newsweek had an article about the big autism "controversy." Perhaps you know someone who has an autistic child. If so, you may be aware of the grassroots movement that is trying to prove to us that autism is caused by childhood vaccines. These folks are convinced that a preservative in vaccines, called thimerosal, "has been implicated in autism" (Google "autism" and you will get over 18 million hits; you will get just under a million hits for "thimerosal").

There are three reasons for keeping this non-issue alive.
  1. Parents who are convinced that thimerosal made their child autistic.
  2. Lawyers who are bringing class action suits against pharmaceutical companies.
  3. Physicians who have joined the anti-vaccine parade.
When you read the plaintive cry of pain from parents of autistic children, you can understand their emotional discomfort and readiness to accept any idea that can help explain their plight. Unfortunately, most of these parents are absolutely certain they have an autistic child because they agreed to have the child vaccinated against childhood disease. Explanations for what goes wrong in this world can be soothing even if the explanations are bogus.

It is sad to notice how certain these parents are in their assumptions of the relationship between vaccinations and autism. Their certainty does not allow them to accept the possibility they could be wrong. This degree of certainty can be dangerous. It is dangerous because vaccinations have saved the lives of millions of children on this planet. They do not accept the fact that without vaccinations we would unnecessarily be missing millions of children because they would have died unnecessary deaths.

Certainty is understandable — it is the curse of being alive. The demand for certainty is natural to humans. This is where we need to be thoughtful. Insisting on certainty may be folly because life is based on probabilities not guarantees. Granted some probabilities are extremely high while others are unbelievably low. One of the important lessons science has taught us is that we need to withhold judgment on what we don't know until good evidence has been found. As Jacob Bronowski reminded us, "knowledge is an unending adventure at the edge of uncertainty."

The problem is that few people can sort out good evidence from bad evidence. Doing so is not a matter of willpower or an intensity of feelings. For millennia, people have found many avenues for poor evidence: personal experience, authority figures, majority opinion, strong beliefs. These types of evidence are highly error prone. Since the time of Galileo, we have found that information separated from our personal biases and desires is much more reliable. The venue for finding this type of information is called the scientific method.

Science is poorly understood by the public. Good sources of evidence demand patience, objectivity, intelligence (because science is hard to do), and skepticism. Skepticism is the difficult stance that one takes by being willing to be proven wrong. Good scientists are never certain because they know that all knowledge is tentative and subject to change. This is what is so difficult for non-scientists to understand. They often think that scientific findings are eternal and unchangeable. Just the opposite is true.

Using the legal to discover the truth of a claim constitutes the vast hole in the idea that vaccines cause autism. By using the legal system to "prove" their case, anti-vaccination supporters are bypassing the highest standards of knowledge given to us by science. This is why the court system has become so skittish about "junk science." To illustrate this, you only need to look at the evidence put forth by the pro-thimerosal advocates. One example is the website entitled The great thimerosal cover-up. The end of the article has a section in which twenty-two expert opinions are quoted supporting the dangers of thimerosal. At first glance, this would seem highly credible and convincing to many of us.

However, of the experts listed, only six had advanced degrees: two with a Ph.D. and four with an M.D. One of these experts was quoted six times. All of these quotes were taken from books rather than peer-reviewed journals. Peer-reviewed journals that emphasize empirical knowledge are the gold standard for finding what is true and what is not. These journals are important because submitted articles are read by the top experts in the particular field who try to find what is wrong with the article. The tougher the critics, the more credence can be given to scientific articles.

Much of the world languished for a thousand years in the Middle Ages because the major source of evidence was power and authority. Not until Galileo dared defy the authorities did the ability to see more clearly begin to take shape. Since then we have learned more about humans and the world around us than all of the millennia prior to his bravery and courage. The tools of science have rid us of devastating diseases, put a person on the moon, invented radio, TV, computers and the smart phone and given us cognitive behavior therapy. The use of power and authority could have lasted forever and these discovers would have never taken place without the tools of science.

In the web site referred to above, the rest of the citations came from popular magazines and books such as Alternative Medicine and Building Wellness. These sources are not not known to utilize the highest standards for honest and helpful information gathering. One of the experts has since taken himself outside the self-correcting arena of science. Russell Blaylock is a retired neurosurgeon whose bio states, "During his 26 years of treating patients in his medical, nutritional, and neurosurgery practice, he became disgusted with the state of medicine in the U.S. and recently retired to devote his full attention to nutritional studies and research."

This bit of information about Dr. Blaylock makes him sound like a pioneer who is not afraid of bucking the medical establishment so that he alone can find the real truth about autism. In reality, the time of the renegade genius is long past and is now the stuff of fictional movies and novels. The science of medicine has become too complicated for any lone wolf researcher to independently overturn the combined work of tens of thousands of competent scientists.

What do the hundreds of scientists who specialize in this area have to say? Although the original link between autism was seen as a possibility in the 1990s and early 2000s, recent medical opinion has begun to change as more and new evidence has become available (remember — this is how science works).
  • 2003: The medical journal, Pediatrics, published an article titled, "Safety of Thimerosal-Containing Vaccines: A Two-Phased Study of Computerized Health Maintenance Organization Databases." this study found no consistent significant associations between vaccines with thimerosal and "neurodevelopmental outcomes."
  • 2004: An organization known by the lengthy name of The Immunization Safety Review Committee at the Institute of Medicine published a report that examined scientific studies from around the world. This review found no convincing evidence that vaccines cause autism.
  • 2004: One of the premier medical journals in the world, Lancet, published an article concluding that thimerosal based vaccines are "not associated with an increased risk of pervasive developmental disorders."
  • 2007: Another prominent medical journal, the New England Journal of Medicine, published a study that did not support the notion that thimerosal caused autism.
  • 2008: The medical journal, Archives of General Psychiatry, put another take on the research. They noted that, because of the public outcry about thimerosal, drug companies have stopped using it as a vaccine additive. Nevertheless, the frequency of autism keeps increasing "at a steady rate."
These articles in the peer-reviews journals above are only a fraction of the evidence that vaccines are not responsible for autism. The trend is now well established. The matter should be settled except for the certainty of the anti-vaccine crowd. As these folks continue their quixotic campaign they are verifying Voltaire when he said, "Doubt is uncomfortable, certainty is ridiculous."

As a side note, it was discovered in 2004 that the doctor who began this thimerosal scare, Dr. Andrew Wakefield of England, had a severe conflict of interest. He was paid over half a million dollars for helping lawyers try to prove the case against thimerosal. This vast amount of money certainly brings Dr. Wakefield's integrity into question regarding his stance against thimerosal.

We all know that we humans scare easily. What is more difficult is the task of getting us to calm down after the scare has taken place. Emotions can easily override intelligence. Yet, it is our reason that can save us as a race, not our emotions running rampantly out of control.

The big tragedy in keeping kids from getting vaccinated is that they might well die from measles or other deadly childhood diseases. In England a large number of parents, a few years ago, stopped having their children vaccinated with the MMR vaccine. Consequently, England now has more children developing measles than at any other time in the last twenty years. This is unfortunate because medical science has had the opportunity to almost eradicate measles in children.

For the first time in history, fewer children all over the world are dying from disease. In the 1980s only twenty percent of children were vaccinated against deadly illness. Today, eighty percent of children in the world have been saved from death by having been vaccinated. We know that childhood immunizations have saved the lives of about nine million children. Vaccinating young children around the world has shown a seventy-four percent drop in children who used to die from measles.

Because media stars such as Oprah have supported the anti-vaccination program, public attention has been drawn away from finding the real causes of autism. Millions of dollars have been wasted in futile legal wrangling that could have been used for more research to help families with autistic children. Fighting the power of science because of inadequate information and public hysteria is wasted effort because the human race needs all the intellectual resources available to make this planet a better place to live.

For more information on the actual science of vaccines, see...

Science Based Medicine
Timeline of the Autism Scare

Friday, June 5, 2009

Learned Optimism

The average pencil is seven inches long, with just a half-inch eraser - in case you thought optimism was dead. — Robert Brault

In the last article on Learned Helpless, you found out that psychologist, Martin Seligman, was instrumental in discovering the concept of learned helplessness as a graduate student. He became aware that learned helplessness is the result of a pessimistic view of life. His enquiring mind wondered what could be done about pessimism. Since it can be learned, he assumed it could also be unlearned. Dr. Seligman set out to see if this could be done.

Remember that people learn to be helpless by being taught they have no available options for dealing with unpleasant events. This belief is called a pessimistic explanatory style which means a person continually sees the world and self as bleak and unforgiving. How does a person learn to be pessimistic? It’s like most other things we learn. As infants our brains are in hyper learning mode. We are continually checking out the world around us so see how it works. Young brains strongly learn by imitation. Every person I’ve worked with who is pessimistic can easily identify the pessimistic adults who were in their lives when they were children. Like baby animals watching their parents in order to learn how to survive, human children look to older people for learning about the world.

At this point you may be wondering why optimism is so much better than pessimism. After all, some people reason, this world has a lot of heartache and pessimism is a better match with the world as it really is; pessimism is more realistic. Being optimistic in the face of financial meltdowns, starving children, natural disasters and all the things we read and hear about every day seems to be a fool’s errand. Optimism is best typified by the ostrich with his head in the sand — "if I don’t know about bad things, then I won’t have to feel so bad all the time."

Although many people believe that pessimism is a better way to deal with life, research has shown otherwise. As a scientist, Dr. Seligman did not merely think optimism was a good idea, but he and his colleagues studied optimism scientifically to see if there were really any benefits.

The first step was to show that an optimistic explanatory style could cure depression. This step has been a resounding success. Hundreds of studies have shown that cognitive therapy (CBT) is as good as or better than medication for dealing with depression. Additionally, CBT has no side effects, you can’t overdose on it, there are no costs for refills, there is no time limit for when it stops working. Many studies, but not all, also show the combination of medication and CBT is also a workable solution. My experience is that many of my clients, when they have mastered CBT and have fewer depressive symptoms, have been able to significantly decrease their dependence on medication or have even lived their lives without any medication.

Having an optimistic explanatory style has two overwhelming advantages: Optimists lead a better life and optimism can be learned. What is meant by a better life? Basically it refers to quality of life. As we have mentioned in other articles, there are two kinds of happiness. Optimism leads to the type we call the Big H. It is a type of happiness typified by tranquility and peace of mind. This state of being has enormous benefits. Research on thousands of people have show that people who experience this type of happiness actually live longer. Not surprisingly, relationships are much better than those pessimists have. You probably enjoy the company of someone who is upbeat more than someone who is continually whining and complaining about how bad life is.

Dr. Seligman did an interesting piece of research with Metropolitan Life in 1985. As with most companies, Met Life hired life insurance agents based on their skill and experience. Dr. Seligman persuaded the company to try an experiment by hiring people with less skill but who scored high on a test for optimism. After two years, the results were checked and they were stunning. The people who had been hired based on their optimism score outsold more experience agents who were more pessimistic. The optimists outsold the more experienced pessimists by fifty-seven percent!

The one place where you would think that skill would be more important than optimism is in sports. Dr. Seligman worked with the swim team at the University of California, Berkeley. He found optimistic swimmers overcame negative results by trying harder while swimmers who were less optimistic swam even slower after a poor performance. Other researchers have found similar results in other sports such as soccer, baseball, and basketball. In addition to optimism in individual athletes, optimistic teams tend to outperform teams who are more pessimistically driven.

Optimism appears to have a dramatic effect on health. We need to be careful here because there are so many snake oil salespeople out there insisting that your mind can cure all ills. This connection between the "mind and body" is constantly being exploited to the unsuspecting. Bogus cures are the life blood of infomercials. They are to be found in newspapers, the Internet, and even such trusted sources, sad to say, as Oprah Winfrey (See the Newsweek article).

Even though much of the nonsense about the power of the mind says it is research based, when looked at closely it is usually not. If it is, it is poorly done research but this is something the average person would not be able to discern. How your mind affects your health is a new area of research and is already loaded with exploded land mines. Your "mind" has little effect on your life. Rather, it is how you use it. In other words your type of explanatory style is what affects the rest of your body. This is miles away from so-called "positive thinking."

A study of Harvard University students found that many years after graduation, students who were optimistic when they graduated remained more healthy than their more pessimistic classmates when they were checked twenty and forty years later. Studies on the health of pessimistic people — not surprisingly — found they were generally less healthy, died younger, and had more diseases.

Remember to take this information with caution. It definitely does not mean that if you are not as healthy as others your age that you are more pessimistic. The effects of optimism and pessimism are only one the many qualities that affect your health. The big one is your genes you inherited from your parents and many other environmental factors.

A pessimistic thinking style is what causes and maintains depression. Depression is the result of bad learning and is not the fault of the depressed person. Since pessimism and depression are learned, they can be unlearned and new thinking styles can be learned. The process to teach people how to change their explanatory style is called cognitive behavior therapy (CBT).

We know that CBT is the method of choice for changing from a learned style of pessimism to a new one of optimism. The CBT variation (There are many effective variations — see The Worry Free Life) promoted by Dr. Seligman is called the The ABCDE Method of Learned Optimism. The five steps are as follows:
  • A - Define the problem: Adversity
  • B - Define the belief system that is interpreting that adversity: Belief
  • C - Define the consequences arising from the adversity and the (in)action: Consequences
  • D - Argue the core belief and effectively dispute the belief that follow the adversity: Disputation
  • E - Use the positive feelings that occur after the negative thoughts have been changed. Energization
Dr. Seligman explains that one of the results of using this five-step approach is to become more persistent because pessimistic people tend to give up more easily. Optimists are continually forging ahead in spite of the most devastating occurrences. For example, optimistic parents continue to find new and better ways for managing their out-of-control children.

These steps also lead to having less stress in one’s life. Surprisingly to some, optimistic people experience less stress than people who identify themselves as "realists." This is because optimists easily overcome minor setbacks and quickly bounce back from major negative events. You can review my article on stress and what to do about it at The Worry Free Life web homepage. At the home page, click on "Downloads" on the left. A new window will open with all the downloads. Click on the fourth one from the top.

You might think that optimists would take more dangerous risks. It is true they are risk takers but the risks are healthy ones — not ones that self sabotage. They see risks as the way of opening up life opportunities and enriching themselves and those around them.

If you are interested in finding out what your explanatory style is, you can take the Learned Optimism Test by clicking here.

Dr. Seligman has written many books. Here are a few that you might be interested in.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). What you can change and what you can’t: The complete guide to successful self-improvement. New York: Ballantine Books.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1995). The Optimstic Child. New York: Houghton Mifflin.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (1998). Learned optimism: How to change your mind and your life. New York: Free Press.
  • Seligman, M. E. P. (2004). Authentic happiness: Using the new positive psychology to realize your potential for lasting fulfillment. New York: Free Press.