You're More Likely to Visit the Moon Than Pick a Perfect March Madness Bracket

Not to dampen the enthusiasm for all you bracketologists out there, but the odds of accurately predicting the NCAA tournament range from 1 in 128 billion to 1 in 9.2 quintillion. 

It's bracket-filling season for college basketball fans as the NCAA Tournament kicks off tomorrow evening. And despite the fact that Warren Buffett is no longer holding his $1 billion bracket challenge, thousands of sports fans will be putting the final touches on their tournament predictions today with an eye toward potential perfection. Well, not to dampen anyone's enthusiasm or anything — but it's not going to happen. Lizzie Johnson of the Tribune News Service explains why: 


"The probability of creating the perfect March Madness bracket is shockingly low — as in less than 1 in 9.2 quintillion (or 9,223,372,036,854,775,808) chance.

Jeff Bergen, a mathematics professor at DePaul University, crunched the numbers and discovered that it was nearly impossible to create the winningest bracket...

... It’s more likely that the Chicago Cubs and the Chicago White Sox will win the next 16 World Series games, he said. Or that someone will win the Mega Millions lottery two times in a row buying one ticket both times. Or just as likely that someone will pick the winning party of each presidential election through 2264."

Those odds are... not great. But Bergen came to those conclusions by looking at each game as a total toss-up. Not every game is a coin flip. Tourney favorite Kentucky is much more likely to advance to the Final Four than jobbers like Texas Southern or Coastal Carolina. With that knowledge in hand, you should be able to cut into those lousy odds by confidently penciling in some sure victories, right?

Not so fast, says Bergen:

"The chances of creating a perfect bracket with knowledge of the teams would still be only about 1 in 128 billion with those odds. Additionally, the chances of having a perfect bracket after the first round is about 1 in 17,000, he said."

So if you've got wide-eyed aspirations of claiming one of the internet's many best bracket prizes on the strength of perfect predictions, you should maybe temper your expectations just a bit. The Washington Post suggests aiming for a perfect first round instead. If you're putting together an office bracket, maybe just hope to do better than Steve in Accounting. After all, being better than Steve is much more likely than going to the moon, which is itself much more likely than constructing a perfect bracket.

Read more at Tribune News Service (Hawaii Tribune Herald)

Image credit: EKS / Shutterstock

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Upstreamism advocate Rishi Manchanda calls us to understand health not as a "personal responsibility" but a "common good."

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Yale scientists restore brain function to 32 clinically dead pigs

Researchers hope the technology will further our understanding of the brain, but lawmakers may not be ready for the ethical challenges.

Still from John Stephenson's 1999 rendition of Animal Farm.
Surprising Science
  • Researchers at the Yale School of Medicine successfully restored some functions to pig brains that had been dead for hours.
  • They hope the technology will advance our understanding of the brain, potentially developing new treatments for debilitating diseases and disorders.
  • The research raises many ethical questions and puts to the test our current understanding of death.

The image of an undead brain coming back to live again is the stuff of science fiction. Not just any science fiction, specifically B-grade sci fi. What instantly springs to mind is the black-and-white horrors of films like Fiend Without a Face. Bad acting. Plastic monstrosities. Visible strings. And a spinal cord that, for some reason, is also a tentacle?

But like any good science fiction, it's only a matter of time before some manner of it seeps into our reality. This week's Nature published the findings of researchers who managed to restore function to pigs' brains that were clinically dead. At least, what we once thought of as dead.

What's dead may never die, it seems

The researchers did not hail from House Greyjoy — "What is dead may never die" — but came largely from the Yale School of Medicine. They connected 32 pig brains to a system called BrainEx. BrainEx is an artificial perfusion system — that is, a system that takes over the functions normally regulated by the organ. The pigs had been killed four hours earlier at a U.S. Department of Agriculture slaughterhouse; their brains completely removed from the skulls.

BrainEx pumped an experiment solution into the brain that essentially mimic blood flow. It brought oxygen and nutrients to the tissues, giving brain cells the resources to begin many normal functions. The cells began consuming and metabolizing sugars. The brains' immune systems kicked in. Neuron samples could carry an electrical signal. Some brain cells even responded to drugs.

The researchers have managed to keep some brains alive for up to 36 hours, and currently do not know if BrainEx can have sustained the brains longer. "It is conceivable we are just preventing the inevitable, and the brain won't be able to recover," said Nenad Sestan, Yale neuroscientist and the lead researcher.

As a control, other brains received either a fake solution or no solution at all. None revived brain activity and deteriorated as normal.

The researchers hope the technology can enhance our ability to study the brain and its cellular functions. One of the main avenues of such studies would be brain disorders and diseases. This could point the way to developing new of treatments for the likes of brain injuries, Alzheimer's, Huntington's, and neurodegenerative conditions.

"This is an extraordinary and very promising breakthrough for neuroscience. It immediately offers a much better model for studying the human brain, which is extraordinarily important, given the vast amount of human suffering from diseases of the mind [and] brain," Nita Farahany, the bioethicists at the Duke University School of Law who wrote the study's commentary, told National Geographic.

An ethical gray matter

Before anyone gets an Island of Dr. Moreau vibe, it's worth noting that the brains did not approach neural activity anywhere near consciousness.

The BrainEx solution contained chemicals that prevented neurons from firing. To be extra cautious, the researchers also monitored the brains for any such activity and were prepared to administer an anesthetic should they have seen signs of consciousness.

Even so, the research signals a massive debate to come regarding medical ethics and our definition of death.

Most countries define death, clinically speaking, as the irreversible loss of brain or circulatory function. This definition was already at odds with some folk- and value-centric understandings, but where do we go if it becomes possible to reverse clinical death with artificial perfusion?

"This is wild," Jonathan Moreno, a bioethicist at the University of Pennsylvania, told the New York Times. "If ever there was an issue that merited big public deliberation on the ethics of science and medicine, this is one."

One possible consequence involves organ donations. Some European countries require emergency responders to use a process that preserves organs when they cannot resuscitate a person. They continue to pump blood throughout the body, but use a "thoracic aortic occlusion balloon" to prevent that blood from reaching the brain.

The system is already controversial because it raises concerns about what caused the patient's death. But what happens when brain death becomes readily reversible? Stuart Younger, a bioethicist at Case Western Reserve University, told Nature that if BrainEx were to become widely available, it could shrink the pool of eligible donors.

"There's a potential conflict here between the interests of potential donors — who might not even be donors — and people who are waiting for organs," he said.

It will be a while before such experiments go anywhere near human subjects. A more immediate ethical question relates to how such experiments harm animal subjects.

Ethical review boards evaluate research protocols and can reject any that causes undue pain, suffering, or distress. Since dead animals feel no pain, suffer no trauma, they are typically approved as subjects. But how do such boards make a judgement regarding the suffering of a "cellularly active" brain? The distress of a partially alive brain?

The dilemma is unprecedented.

Setting new boundaries

Another science fiction story that comes to mind when discussing this story is, of course, Frankenstein. As Farahany told National Geographic: "It is definitely has [sic] a good science-fiction element to it, and it is restoring cellular function where we previously thought impossible. But to have Frankenstein, you need some degree of consciousness, some 'there' there. [The researchers] did not recover any form of consciousness in this study, and it is still unclear if we ever could. But we are one step closer to that possibility."

She's right. The researchers undertook their research for the betterment of humanity, and we may one day reap some unimaginable medical benefits from it. The ethical questions, however, remain as unsettling as the stories they remind us of.

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