The MacGuffin

Archive for February, 2010

LiveScience Article Misses the Mark

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 25, 2010

Photo courtesy of

As I was headline surfing today, this article from popped up. With my insatiable appetite for knowledge I’ll never need unless I appear on Jeopardy, I decided to take a break from serious news consumption and indulge myself with this little morsel.

Right off the bat, the headline – “Parents Choosing More Unusual Baby Names Now” – was a bit misleading. I thought I would get the fun, perennial list where Johns and Nicoles were replaced by Apples and Tuesdays, but not once did the article mention any of these unusual names that parents are allegedly choosing.

What I got instead was a convoluted summary of new “research” out of the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, where the primary claim (I think) was that choosing less common names *could* suggest an emphasis on uniqueness and individualism, but, if taken too far, could lead to narcissism. In fact, narcissism is first mentioned fairly early in the article, then several times afterward:

When taken too far, however, this individualism could also lead to narcissism, according to study researcher Jean Twenge, of San Diego State University.

The positive side of individualism, Twenge said, is that there is less prejudice and more tolerance for minority groups. But she warns that when individualism is taken too far, the result is narcissism.

“I think it is an indication of our culture becoming more narcissistic,” Twenge said.

But not until the very last paragraph does the article finally cave to the caveat:

“It remains to be seen whether having a unique name necessarily leads to narcissism later in life,” Twenge said.

Well, duh.

Unique names undoubtedly help children stand out, for better or worse. But this article didn’t mention any names, save for a passive example using James and Jacob, which illustrated that even the most common names each year are given to fewer children. When the article wasn’t spewing hard-to-digest facts (which I’ll get to in a minute), it was mostly harping on culture and parenting styles.

Aha! So the parents most likely to choose unusual names are also more likely to raise their children to feel entitled – hence the narcissism. Good old correlation ≠ causation. So why push the narcissism issue? Could it be because Twenge is the author of two books: “The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement” (Free Press, 2009) and “Generation Me: Why Today’s Young Americans Are More Confident, Assertive, Entitled – and More Miserable Than Ever Before” (Free Press, 2007) [to be fair, this was disclosed in the article], and she simply suckered a journalist with a gimicky “news hook” into assisting her self-promotion?

I haven’t read either of Ms. Twenge’s books, but a quick search for editorial reviews and synopses on Amazon tells me that they draw mostly on cultural examples like plastic surgery, Wall St., MySpace, and adulterous politicians (who, recently, have been named Bill, John, Eliot…). If someone has read these books I would appreciate knowing whether she talks at all about unusual names as a major contributor to narcissism.

Getting back to the LiveScience article, though. This paragraph was the first attempt at explaining statistics:

For instance, in the 1950s, the average first-grade class of 30 children would have had at least one boy named James (top name in 1950), while in 2013, six classes will be necessary to find only one Jacob, even though that was the most common boys’ name in 2007.

Perhaps your comprehension skills are finer than mine, or perhaps because it’s late at night, but I read this line three times before I realized it basically said that in 1950 1 in 30 children had the #1 most popular name, and by 2013 that number will drop to 1 in 180. The rest of the examples weren’t as imaginative but were equally as confusing to grasp conceptually.

Finally, the use of links in this online article were anything but helpful; two of them led to articles (also on LiveScience, and written by the same author over the past two years) that listed popular or unique baby names. Why wasn’t this information included in this article about unusual baby names. Save the links for an interesting side story, like a documentary about a boy named Nickles who grows up to be a billionaire. The other links were to an unrelated LiveScience story about baby boomers, to the LiveScience section on babies, and to another LiveScience article about narcissism, which – surprise, surprise – also touted Twenge’s books.

Because I found the article on a third-party site, the bottom of the page included a brief description of LiveScience that said: chronicles the daily advances and innovations made in science and technology. We take on the misconceptions that often pop up around scientific discoveries and deliver short, provocative explanations with a certain wit and style.

Sorry, LS, not this time.

But not until the very last paragraph does the article finally cave to the caveat:

Posted in Media | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

SB: Green Gadget Design Competition

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 24, 2010

My latest post on highlights some of the front runners in this week’s Greener Gadgets Conference design competition. While some of the entries are designer mockups, others are already available on the market and making an impact.

The 18 finalists’ designs are posted on the conference website, where viewers could vote for their favorites leading up to the conference. These will be a part of the final vote, which includes audience participation and commentary from a judging panel of three sustainability experts. The winners will be announced tomorrow in NYC.

Designers Compete to Create “Green Gadget” of the Year

Update: Which gadget was deemed the greenest? Learn about the design competition winner here.

Posted in Consumer Technology, Scientific Blogging | Leave a Comment »

In Futuro Has a New Home!

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 20, 2010

Dear Readers,

In Futuro has recently become a member of the family. My articles about scientific and technological advances can be found at, so update your bookmarks accordingly, but please continue to visit In Futuro on WordPress!

This site will make a slight transition from reported research news to an outlet for more personal musings and reactions to what others are talking about. While science will still be the main focus, the scope of In Futuro could expand to include mainstream news, personal and professional experiences, and, well, whatever else I might have an informed opinion about.

For now I will link to my SB stories here, and tag them all under Scientific Blogging in the Categories list on the left sidebar. So to start, here is my most recent post: Science Imitating Art: Why is 21st Century Science Obsessed With the Mona Lisa?

I hope that these changes will help *this* In Futuro evolve from a list of stagnant news pieces to a source for involved conversation with the rest of the science blogosphere. As always, your readership is greatly appreciated, and I look forward to the future of In Futuro!

Posted in Scientific Blogging | Leave a Comment »

Metal Foam Could Build Better Bones, Car Bumpers

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 18, 2010

A highly elastic composite metal foam could one day be a favorable material for biomedical implants and car bumpers.

No, this isn’t a close-up of the surface of a golf ball. It’s a new type of material, one that is porous and elastic, lighter than solid aluminum yet stronger than steel, one that its creators are calling an “ultra high-strength metal matrix composite foam.” A bit of a misnomer, really, considering the foam is made up entirely of stainless steel.

But one particular feature of this metal foam, its modulus of elasticity, is what makes it so lucrative for the biomedical, aerospace and transportation industries. This measure is essentially the relationship between a force applied to an object and the amount of deformation the object experiences as a result of that force; elasticity refers to the object’s ability to bounce back to its original state, undamaged, once the force is removed. Diamonds, for example, have a high modulus of elasticity, while something like a foam stress ball would have a much, much lower one.

The foam is created with a modulus of elasticity very similar to that of natural bone in humans, making it an ideal material for biomedical implants, compared with the modulus of titanium implants, which can be anywhere from 3 to 10 times higher than bone. This is important, the researchers say, because an implant has to function much like a natural bone inside the body, especially when it comes to handling loads. If an implant is too strong, it takes over load-bearing responsibilities and the surrounding bone begins to weaken, which in turn loosens the implant and requires another replacement surgery. The material is also very light due to its porosity, and its rough surface could help natural bone adhere to the implant, further increasing its strength and stability inside the body.

Another advantage of the metal foam, notes the research team from North Carolina State University, is its relative ease to produce. They combine tiny, hollow stainless steel beads with powdered steel in a mold, then put the mold into a hot press, where high pressure and temperature ultimately force the materials to weld themselves together. The end result of this process, a standard one called powder metallurgy, is the composite foam consisting of tiny, uniform pockets of air reinforced by a solid metal matrix. Although the foam is 1/3 the density of solid steel, it can absorb up to 80 times as much energy over the same volume. This is also an improvement over other types of metal foam, where variations in cell size and thickness of the cell walls cause uneven deformation under stress.

Besides biomedical implants, the researchers imagine that the foam could be useful in aerospace or transportation. Putting two cylinders of the foam on a car bumper, for example, would make an impact at nearly 30 mph feel like an impact at only 5 mph.

Their research will be published in the March 2010 issue of Materials Science and Engineering A: “Evaluation of modulus of elasticity of composite metal foams by experimental and numerical techniques”: L. Vendra, Afsaneh Rabiei

Posted in Biotechnology, Materials Science | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Food for Thought: Your favorite vices might actually be good for you

Posted by Lauren Rugani on February 11, 2010

Several reports came out this week claiming that some of our favorite edible indulgences may not be so bad for us after all. Perhaps strategically released in time for Valentine’s Day, or perhaps just a cosmic coincidence, whether we are sharing wine and chocolate with our special someone or drinking alone to forget that we are single, we might actually be increasing our chances of living a healthier life.

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Cancer, Nutrition | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments »