Our pick of the week from around the web, including the spreading messages on social media, why death loves the number eight and how to lie with bad data.

Dr V’s magical putter
Caleb Hannan | Grantland | 15 January 2014

This story deserves some sort of special award for sheer narrative zest. It may not end up anywhere particularly momentous, but the journey is more than eventful. In brief: Mad scientist invents revolutionary golf club. “What’s more, she was a Vanderbilt, some link in the long line descending from Cornelius, the original Commodore”. And a friend of a friend of Dan Quayle’s. Now read on. Indeed, just try to stop yourself.           

What scientific idea is ready for retirement?
Andrei Linde et al | Edge | 14 January 2014

The 174 notes and essays responding to this year’s annual Edge Question amount to a book’s worth of reading; but well worth the time; few disappoint and many dazzle. Nina Jablonski’s call to get rid of “race” as a pseudo-scientific category is particularly well-argued, and conveniently placed close to the top of the stack. Martin Rees’s note, a little lower down, is also full of good things, if more diffuse.

Quantify your inner self
Arthur Allen | Washington Post | 13th January 2014

On the evolving market for sensors that can detect and communicate hidden emotions – stress, anger, fear. For the moment they are wearables; soon they will be embeds. “An autistic child might be lying on the floor looking lethargic, but the signal from his wrist sensor shows that he’s very tense. He’s probably lying on the floor to ease the tension. The signal allows the child to be better understood.”

Erez Aiden contains multitudes
Christopher Shea | Chronicle Review | 13 January 2014

Profile of Erez Lieberman Aiden, biologist and computer scientist best known for his work on the Ngram project using data from Google Books to trace the usage of words over time. He also co-invented a genome-analysing technique; has 40 patents in the works (including one for self-stabilising shoes); has published seven papers in Nature and Science; and is still just 33. The piece gushes a bit, but understandably so.

How to lie with bad data
Charles Wheelan | Medium | 13 January 2014

A few easy ways to mess up data collection, even before you get to the interpretation. Selection bias: A skewed sample is mistaken for a representative one. Publication bias: Positive results get published, negative results get ignored. Survivorship bias: Winners stick around to be measured, losers have already fallen out. Healthy User bias and Recall bias: Different ways of confusing causation and correlation. 

Life is a braid in spacetime
Max Tegmark | Nautilus | 9 January 2014

Enjoyable exercise in extreme reductionism, with a nice ruling conceit: “You are a pattern in spacetime. A mathematical pattern. Specifically, you are a braid in spacetime – one of the most elaborate braids known. At both ends of your braid, corresponding to your birth and death, all the threads gradually separate, corresponding to all your particles joining, interacting and finally going their own separate ways.” 

Death loves the number eight
Robert Krulwich | NPR | 8 January 2014

The likelihood of your dying during a given year doubles every eight years. When you are 33 the chances of your dying that same year will be about 1 in 1,500; when you are 41, the odds are 1 in 750; and so on. Why? The implication is that the immune system deteriorates at a steady pace throughout life, leaving us with fewer resources to combat disease. But the particular base-eight math has, as yet, no known explanation.

The evolution of memes on Facebook
Lada Adamic et al | Facebook | 8 January 2014

How things go viral. A study of how Facebook memes rise and fall, with a particular focus on this one: “No one should die because they cannot afford health care, and no one should go broke because they get sick”. Main finding: You can double the speed with which your post spreads by appending clear instructions, such as “please post this” or “copy and paste”. Getting the grammar and spelling right also helps.

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