16 May 2011


WEALTH & HAPPINESS. Does having enough money really buy happiness? There are proponents and opponents to the supposition, but not much scientific research. Until now. If you are a child growing up in poverty, the stakes are dire. Studies reveal a "link between lower socioeconomic status and lower hippocampal gray matter density [the hippocampus is that part of the human brain which is crucial to memory]." The graph below (click to enlarge) reveals the correlation between the percentage of children with serious mental or behavioral difficulties, and poverty level, broken down by age groups. Within each age group the trend is clear -- the more impoverished you are as a child, the more you struggle with cognitive and social performance. This is, of course, not the child's fault, nor in most cases the fault of the parents. We as a society are responsible for the health, education, and well-being of ALL our members. To the extent that poverty exists and hinders our children, to that extent is our society a failure.

As adults, the connection between wealth and happiness is less clear. Yes, having money makes life undeniably easier. But it also can substitute one set of worries for another. Daniel Kahneman suggests that just as education is only one component in achieving higher income, so higher income is only one component in people's satisfaction in their lives. He refers to our preoccupation with money as a "focusing delusion" -- "Nothing is as important as you think it is, while you are thinking about it." Thus it is that middle income and even poor people, while they undeniably contend with life struggles the wealthy don't face, can achieve a state of contentment simply by focusing on what is good in their lives, and appreciating the love and personal achievements already present. As with so much else in our lives, happiness is largely a result of what we choose to notice and to value.
LASER. On this day in 1960, American physicist Theodore Maiman operated the first working laser at the Hughes Research Laboratories in Malibu, California. The word "laser" is an acronym for "Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation". The emitted laser light possesses high spatial and temporal coherence -- that is, it exhibits very little diffusion or scatter over distance and time. Imagine a flashlight beam -- the light spreads very quickly in a conical shape, becoming weaker and illuminating less with distance. Now imagine a laser beam -- the light maintains its pencil-thin diameter over great distances -- so great that lasers are used to measure the distance from the earth to the moon, with accuracy measured in millimeters.
In the half century since the first lasers, they have become as ubiquitous as Velcro. Their uses include (but are not limited to) bloodless surgery and eye treatement in medicine, cutting and welding in industry, marking targets and acting as heat/light weapons in the military, latent fingerprint detection in law enforcement, spectroscopy and interferometry in scientific research, printing and optical disks (CDs and DVDs) in consumer goods, light displays, and cosmetic skin treatment. A more precise and versatile tool is hard to imagine. Check out the Wikipedia article for a comprehensive description of the history, design, modes of operation, and types of lasers in use today.

BONUS. Two of my favorite creatures are black cats and barn owls. Imagine my delight when I discovered this video showing a barn owl and a black cat who are best friends. I'd wager that both were very young when they first discovered each other, and perhaps were even raised together. How else to account for the apparent short-circuiting of each predator's hunting instincts in favor of play? Whatever the explanation, I hope that you enjoy it as much as I did.

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