from the world's big
It's February and according to pagans, spring is upon us
Have we turned the corner of a cold winter?
- The ancient holiday of Imbolc celebrates the imminent return of the sun in spring.
- The holiday also commemorates either goddess Bhrigid or St. Brigid, who may or may not be the same person.
- Good weather on Imbolc means more winter to come.
Happy Imbolc! As it tends to be with pagan holidays, Celtic and Irish Imbolc is different things to different people and at different times. "Imbolc" is from the Celtic i mbolg, which means"in the belly," probably a reference to pregnant livestock at this time of year, mostly ewes, carrying their offspring to term in the spring. It was also called Oimelc, which means "milk of ewes."
Imbolc represents a hopeful moment as the seasons begin to turn from darkest winter to the promise of spring: new life — fertility — renewal, and the return of the warming sun. In 2019, appropriately enough, February 1 was the day that one of the most extreme periods of cold ever experienced in the U.S. finally broke.
As website Claddagh Designs puts it wryly: "The hardest part of the year was over; adverse weather, cold temperatures, food rationing, and of course, no warfare (an integral part of Celtic society) would soon be a thing of the past. Farmers were getting ready to go back to work, preparing animals for breeding, warriors were picking up their weapons again, and the political and social aspects of life that had been put on hold for winter were also beginning again."
Given the importance of agriculture and sunlight to ancient cultures, it's not a surprise that Imbolc dates back to Neolithic times, as evidenced by the way in which some monuments of that era — such as Mound of the Hostages at Tara in Ireland — contain passageways that align with sunrise on Imbolc and its autumnal cousin Samhain. The arrival of Christianity brought with it the association with St. Brigid, believed by some to have replaced the goddess Bhrigid. More on her/them later.
What happens on Imbolc
Photo credit: Tobias Vemmenby on Flickr
As with any good festival, Imbolc involves feasting, particularly of home-and-hearth edibles stored over the winter, such as breads, grains, onions, and potatoes.
In keeping with the (eventual) return of the sun, fire is a big part of Imbolc. Beyond spectacular public displays of fire, candles are lit all around celebrants' houses. In earlier times, hearths would burn through the Imbolc night, and if a house was made of non-flammable stone, multiple fires were lit.
People visit wells on Imbolc, particularly holy wells, circling them in the same direction of the sun and praying for a good year ahead. Afterward, coins and pieces of cloth called "clooties" may be left as offerings.
Leading up to the holiday, people make Brigid's crosses that can be hung up around their houses in celebration of Imbolc. Another popular item is the green brat Bhride, or Bhrigid's mantle. Its origin is an offer of property made to the young Bhrigid/Brigid for an abbey she wished to build. The king told her she could have as much property as she could cover with her cloak. Using magic, she increased the size of the cloak until it was so massive it covered all the land she needed.
Today, women fashion their own Bhrigid's mantles of green cloth for wrapping around their shoulders, and it's believed that leaving such a mantle on the hearth allows Bhrigid to visit and bless it on Imbolc each year, making the mantle more and more imbued with her magic with each passing Imbolc.
Creepier than a groundhog
A Cailleach bhéara. Image source: Rob Hurson on Flickr
As with modern Groundhog Day on February 1, the weather on Imbolc foretells the future: An Imbolc with nasty weather signifies a great summer on the way. This may seem backwards at first glance, but here's how it works.
It all has to do with the heating needs of the forest hag Cailleach, the goddess of winter. If winter is to go on for a while, Cailleach needs more firewood. She thus spends Imbolc searching the forests for it, and since she prefers to be out in the woods on a sunny and dry day, that's what the day provides. Bad weather, on the other hand, is good news: It means that Cailleach has no need for wood, what with spring just around the corner, and has decided to stay in and snooze a bit more.
Goddess Brighid and St. Brigid
A Brigid's cross. Image source: Bart Everson on Flickr
The true history of how Imbolc came to its connection to St. Brigit is a little unclear.
The commonly told version is that she was preceded by the daughter of the Dagda in Irish mythology. He was an early invader and one of the Tuatha de Danaan. His daughter's name, "Bhrigid," is from the Celtic brig, for "exalted one." She was actually one of a trio, all of whom were named Bhrigid, and who were understood to represent three aspects of a single goddess. Hence, Bhrigid was considered a triple goddess. Bhrigid was known for looking after healers, magicians, poets, and bards, and she was gifted at divination and prophecy. She also protected pregnant women and their infants; hence contemporary Bhrigid mantles are said to protect them as well.
A flame was secretly kept burning in Bhrigid's honor at the abbey she founded in Kildare, Ireland, and this flame — and the abbey — may have helped connect her to the later Christian St. Brigit. Lisa Lawrence suggests as much when she writes, in her Pagan Imagery in the Early Lives of Brigit, that,"When two religious systems interact, a shared symbol can provide a bridge from one religious idea to another. During a period of conversion, an archetypical symbol such as fire may acquire a new referent, while not being entirely emptied of a previous one. For example, the fire that clearly signifies the presence of the Holy Spirit in Saint Brigit may continue to signify pagan conceptions of religious power."
St. Brigid, on the other hand, was born in Faughart, County Louth in Ireland, and died sometime around 525. She was a devoted servant of the Church, and founder of religious communities in Ireland — likely the reason she was made a saint. she's also credited with founding the same Kildare abbey allegedly built by Bhrigid, one example of how the histories of these two women have become so interwoven that they're impossible to separate. Their identities have progressively merged since goddess Bhrigid's day became St. Brigid's day after the latter's death.
Adding more confusion to the story is the apparent case that the first written reference to the goddess Bhrigid appeared in the 10th century, long after St. Brigid had become the focus of Imbolc. Newgrange.com suggests, "So it could be argued that 5th century Saint Brigid predates the goddess Brigid." Or perhaps it's just a whisper of Outlander-style standing-stone time travel we can add to an already a magical story.
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>