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Ask an astronomer: How do astronauts deal with isolation?
Being stuck at home is not as intense as being away from Earth, but there are ways to cope in either scenario.
Dr. Michelle Thaller is an astronomer who studies binary stars and the life cycles of stars. She is Assistant Director of Science Communication at NASA. She went to college at Harvard University, completed a post-doctoral research fellowship at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena, Calif. then started working for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's (JPL) Spitzer Space Telescope. After a hugely successful mission, she moved on to NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center (GSFC), in the Washington D.C. area. In her off-hours often puts on about 30lbs of Elizabethan garb and performs intricate Renaissance dances. For more information, visit NASA.
MICHELLE THALLER: When it comes to how to deal with isolation and feeling like you're sort of helpless and cut off from everybody, it's hard to beat the experience of an astronaut, where they literally are cut off from Earth. And even if they wanted to, they couldn't just come to Earth very easily. It would be a lot of effort to do so. And they're going to be up there, say in the Space Station, for quite a long time. Six months or even longer. So, how do astronauts deal with isolation? Although I've never been to space myself, I have several friends who are astronauts and one of the things that I had heard about from them, psychologically, when you're trying to deal with that sort of withdrawing of stimulus, everything is much more constrained than you're used to.
One of the things they do is try to really maintain a schedule. Try to understand that you're going to get up at this time. Even though that's artificial. The Space Station goes around the Earth once every 90 minutes, so when you're on the Space Station you get a sunrise and a sunset every 90 minutes. And so, the idea is that internal to their world they create a routine, a time they get up, a time they all get together, a time to talk, a time to interact, a time to work, and they keep the schedule as consistently as they possibly can.
You may have heard that people who have trouble sleeping often will sleep better if they will go to bed at a set time every day and your body just knows to expect those same rhythms. That said, some of my friends who are astronauts have talked about the difficulties of dealing with, I said before sort of the lack of sensory input. And one of the things, surprisingly, I've heard them talk about is the sense of smell. That up on the Space Station, things are very clean and very sterile as you might expect, a very enclosed environment, the air is recirculated, all of the water is recirculated and they miss the smell of life, of food, of being outside, of the air and grass. There was one astronaut I was giving a presentation with that said there was a shipment of fresh fruit that came up during a resupply cargo mission and one of the things they brought were oranges, fresh oranges. And everybody was really enjoying this and people ate their oranges and he said that he actually hid his orange away in his private compartment and all he wanted to do was just smell it, just smell that really lovely orange smell, something that reminded him of life. And a lot of astronauts talk about that when they finally open the door of the Soyuz capsule after they have gone back to Earth and they smell the air, that's really wonderful. So, part of it is maybe also look for ways to give yourself some comfort, some stimulation that you find really enjoyable.
I know for me I've done a lot of just walking just outside my house. I live on a two acre lot so there aren't people around, enjoying the sunlight, enjoying the breeze, taking steps not to feel quite so cooped up if you do have that. On a personal note for me as scary as COVID-19 is, it turned into kind of a silver lining for my husband and I because my husband is now, this is sad but it's life, he's actually in the final stages of cancer and we don't expect him to live out more than a year. And going to work, which I love, I absolutely love going to work every day for NASA, for my friends, for the discoveries, but sometimes in the middle of the afternoon I'd say should I be here when Andrew is at home when I may not have that much time with him? And the quarantine, we haven't left the house now for over a week at all I mean just to go out into the yard a little bit. It's giving me a chance to be with him to sort of slow life down, still getting the work done, still having all of that connection virtually, but to me it's been this wonderful time to actually just enjoy very simple things: cooking a meal, looking out a window, playing with our cat and enjoying life. So, one of the things as well when you're given a difficult situation is try as hard as you can to find some aspect of it that's good. And there are certainly situations that have nothing good about them, but if you're still reasonably healthy and you're inside due to COVID-19 take some time to think about yourself. Maybe something that you've been curious about, something you didn't have time to do before. If you're having forced time with a loved one someone and now you can't escape because you're not supposed to leave the house, what about your relationship might take some work, some good work, some fun, some growth, some development? It turned out that this was going to be a very special time for me. Hopefully I will recover and I won't get very sick from COVID-19 if I do get it, but I think that as I look back in time this isolation, this slowing down, is going to turn out to be a real gift for me that I'll remember for the rest of my life.
- While she has not personally been to space, NASA astronomer Michelle Thaller has heard from friends and colleagues what it is like to truly be isolated. Coping mechanisms for these extreme cases can also benefit people here on Earth during the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Setting and maintaining a schedule can help you and your body return to a more normal state, as can finding familiar sensory inputs. For astronauts, that includes Earthly scents like citrus.
- Speaking personally and making a point about silver linings, Thaller shares a story about how COVID-19 has given her more time with her sick husband for what are likely his final days.
Join Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter and best-selling author Charles Duhigg as he interviews Victoria Montgomery Brown, co-founder and CEO of Big Think, live at 1pm EDT tomorrow.
A study looks at the performance benefits delivered by asthma drugs when they're taken by athletes who don't have asthma.
- One on hand, the most common health condition among Olympic athletes is asthma. On the other, asthmatic athletes regularly outperform their non-asthmatic counterparts.
- A new study assesses the performance-enhancement effects of asthma medication for non-asthmatics.
- The analysis looks at the effects of both allowed and banned asthma medications.
WADA uncertainty<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMDc4NjUwN30.fFTvRR0yJDLtFhaYiixh5Fa7NK1t1T4CzUM0Yh6KYiA/img.jpg?width=980" id="01b1b" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2fd91a47d91e4d5083449b258a2fd63f" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="urine sample for drug test" />
Image source: joel bubble ben/Shutterstock<p>When inhaled β-agonists first came out just before the 1972 Olympics, they were immediately banned altogether by the WADA as possible doping substances. Over the years, the WADA has reexamined their use and refined the organization's stance, evidence of the thorniness of finding an equitable position regarding their use. As of January 2020, only three β-agonists are allowed — salbutamol, formoterol, and salmeterol —and only in inhaled form. Oral consumption appears to have a greater effect on performance.</p>
The study<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU0Ny9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTIzMDQyMX0.Gk4v-7PCA7NohvJjw12L15p7SumPCY0tLdsSlMrLlGs/img.jpg?width=980" id="d3141" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ebe7b30a315aeffcb4fe739095cf0767" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="runner at starting position on track" />
Image source: MinDof/Shutterstock<p>Of primary interest to the authors of the study is confirming and measuring the performance improvement to be gained from β-agonists when they're ingested by athletes who don't have asthma.</p><p>The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 34 existing studies documenting 44 randomized trials reporting on 472 participants. The pool of individuals included was broad, encompassing both untrained and elite athletes. In addition, lab tests, as opposed to actual competitions, tracked performance. The authors of the study therefore recommend taking its conclusions with just a grain of salt.</p><p>The effects of both WADA-banned and approved β-agonists were assessed.</p>
Approved β-agonists and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYxMzkxODk0M30.3RssFwk_tWkHRkEl_tIee02rdq2tLuAePifnngqcIr8/img.jpg?width=980" id="39a99" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="b1fe4a580c6d4f8a0fd021d7d6570e2a" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="vaulter clearing pole" />
Image source: Andrey Yurlov/Shutterstock<p>What the meta-analysis showed is that the currently approved β-agonists didn't significantly improve athletic performance among those without asthma — what very slight benefit they <em>may</em> produce is just enough to prompt the study's authors to write that "it is still uncertain whether approved doses improve anaerobic performance." They note that the tiny effect did increase slightly over multiple weeks of β-agonist intake.</p>
Banned β-agonist and non-asthmatic athletes<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzNzU1Mi9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYzNjI3ODU5Mn0.vyoxSE5EYjPGc2ZEbBN8d5F79nSEIiC6TUzTt0ycVqc/img.jpg?width=980" id="de095" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="02fdd42dfda8e3665a7b547bb88007ef" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="swimmer mid stroke" />
Image source: Nejron Photo/Shutterstock<p>The study found that for athletes without asthma, however, the use of currently banned β-agonists did indeed result in enhanced performance. The authors write, "Our meta-analysis shows that β2-agonists improve anaerobic performance by 5%, an improvement that would change the outcome of most athletic competitions."</p><p>That 5 percent is an average: 70-meter sprint performance was improved by 3 percent, while strength performance, MVC (maximal voluntary contraction), was improved by 6 percent.</p><p>The analysis also revealed that different results were produced by different methods of ingestion. The percentages cited above were seen when a β-agonist was ingested orally. The effect was less pronounced when the banned substances were inhaled.</p><p>Given the difference between the results for allowed and banned β-agonists, the study's conclusions suggest that the WADA has it about right, at least in terms of selection of allowable β-agonists, as well as the allowable dosage method.</p>
Takeaway<p>The study, say its authors, "should be of interest to WADA and anyone who is interested in equal opportunities in competitive sports." Its results clearly support vigilance, with the report concluding: "The use of β2-agonists in athletes should be regulated and limited to those with an asthma diagnosis documented with objective tests."</p>
Certain water beetles can escape from frogs after being consumed.
- A Japanese scientist shows that some beetles can wiggle out of frog's butts after being eaten whole.
- The research suggests the beetle can get out in as little as 7 minutes.
- Most of the beetles swallowed in the experiment survived with no complications after being excreted.
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>
Several experts have weighed in on our sometimes morbid curiosity and fascination with true crime.
- True crime podcasts can get as many as 500,000 downloads per month. In the Top 100 Podcasts of 2020 list for Apple, several true crime podcasts ranked within the Top 20.
- Our fascination with true crime isn't just limited to podcasts, with Netflix documentaries like "Confessions of a Killer: The Ted Bundy Tapes" scoring high popularity with viewers.
- Several experts weigh in on our fascination with these stories with theories including fear-based adrenaline rushes and the inherent need to understand the human mind.
Why are we fascinated with true crime stories?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzUzODA1MC9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MzkwOTAzOX0.7WqeWaf-odtEJV5XB2jdEG1uPU5d6Uaujw6iy6MKMbw/img.jpg?width=1245&coordinates=0%2C0%2C0%2C0&height=700" id="d99fc" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e14d547e4d386925bad470882a823333" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" alt="woman standing in front of crime scene notes" />
Several experts and psychologists weigh in on why we could be so fascinated by violence, destruction and true crime stories...
Photo by Motortion Films on Shutterstock<p>Several experts have weighed in on this topic over the years, as the spike in popularity of true crime media has continued at an astonishing rate.</p><p><strong>Psychopaths are charismatic.</strong> </p><p>One of the <a href="https://www.scienceofpeople.com/psychopath/#:~:text=Psychopathy%20researchers%20found%20that%20psychopaths,defer%20gratification%20and%20control%20behavior" target="_blank">defining qualities of a psychopath</a> is that they have "superficial charm and glibness", which could explain part of our fascination with podcasts, TV shows, and movies that cover the lives of famous serial killers like Ted Bundy.</p><p><strong>Our psychology demands we pay attention to things that could harm us.</strong></p><p>Psychology can play a large role in why we like what we like, and our fascination with true crime stories is no exception. When it comes to potential threats or things that could be threatening to humanity, perhaps we've been conditioned to pay those things extra attention. </p><p>According to Dr. John Mayer, a clinical psychologist at <a href="http://www.doctorondemand.com/" target="_blank">Doctor on Demand</a> who spoke about the process <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">in an interview with NBC News</a>, seeing destruction, disaster, or tragedy actually triggers survival instincts in us. </p><p>"A disaster enters into our awareness - this can be from a live source such as driving by a traffic accident or from watching a news report about a hurricane, a plane crash or any disaster," Mayer said. "This data from our perceptual system then stimulates the amygdala (the part of the brain responsible for emotions, survival tactics and memory). The amygdala then sends signals to the regions of the frontal cortex that are involved in analyzing and interpreting data. Next, the brain evaluates whether this data (awareness of the disaster) is a threat to you, thus judgment gets involved. As a result, the 'fight or flight' response is evoked." </p><p><strong>Could it just be morbid curiosity? </strong></p><p>Dr. Katherine Ramsland, Ph.D., a professor at De Sales University, explained <a href="https://www.bustle.com/p/why-are-people-so-obsessed-with-true-crime-experts-reveal-the-evolutionary-reasons-why-18138062" target="_blank">in an interview with Bustle</a>:</p><p>"Part of our love of true crime is based on something very natural: curiosity. People reading or watching a true crime story are engaged on several levels. They are curious about who would do this, they want to know the psychology of the bad guy, girl, or team. They want to know something about the abhorrent mind. They also love the puzzle - figuring out how it was done." </p><p><strong>Perhaps it's a way of facing our fears and planning our own reactions without risking immediate harm. </strong></p><p>In an interview with NBC News, psychiatrist Dr. David Henderson suggested that we may be fascinated with violence, destruction, or crime as a way of assessing how we would handle ourselves if put into that situation:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;"><em>"Witnessing violence and destruction, whether it is in a novel, a movie, on TV or a real life scene playing out in front of us in real time, gives us the opportunity to confront our fears of death, pain, despair, degradation and annihilation while still feeling some level of safety. This sensation is sometimes experienced when we stand at the edge of the Grand Canyon or look through the glass at a ferocious lion at the zoo. We watch because we are allowed to ask ourselves ultimate questions with an intensity of emotion that is uncoupled from the true reality of the disaster: 'If I was in that situation, what would I do? How would I respond? Would I be the hero or the villain? Could I endure the pain? Would I have the strength to recover?' We play out the different scenarios in our head because it helps us to reconcile that which is uncontrollable with our need to remain in control."</em></p><p><strong>Psychologically, negative events activate our brains more than positive events. </strong></p><p><a href="http://psycnet.apa.org/doiLanding?doi=10.1037%2F0033-2909.134.3.383" target="_blank">A 2008 study</a> published by the American Psychological Association found that humans react to and learn more from negative experiences than we do positive ones. The term "negative bias" is the tendency to automatically give more attention (and meaning) to negative events and information more than positive events or information. </p><p><strong>A forced perspective may trigger empathy and act as a coping mechanism. </strong></p><p>Viewing destruction (or listening to/watching true crime stories) could be beneficial. According to Dr. Mayer, "the healthy mechanism of watching disasters is that it is a coping mechanism. We can become incubated emotionally by watching disasters and this helps us cope with hardships in our lives…" <a href="https://www.nbcnews.com/better/health/science-behind-why-we-can-t-look-away-disasters-ncna804966" target="_blank">Dr. Stephen Rosenburg points out</a>, however, that this empathetic response can also have a negative impact. "Being human and having empathy can make us feel worried or depressed."</p><p>Dr. Rosenberg goes on to explain that this can also impact the negativity bias. "We tend to think negatively to protect ourselves from the reality. If it turns out better, we're relieved. If it turns out worse, we're prepared." </p><p><strong>Perhaps the adrenaline of fear that comes from listening to or watching true crime can become addicting. </strong></p><p>Similarly to how people get a "runners high" from exercise or feel depressed when they have missed a scheduled run, the adrenaline that pumps during our consumption of true crime stories <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/science-choice/201508/can-you-be-addicted-adrenaline" target="_blank">can become addictive</a>. According to sociology and criminology professor Scott Bonn, <a href="https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/wicked-deeds/201605/the-delightful-guilty-pleasure-watching-true-crime-tv" target="_blank">in an interview with Psychology Today</a>: "The public is drawn to these stories because they trigger the most basic and powerful emotion in us all: fear."</p>