“It’s just got loads of great connotations… It’s also about the way you take information in, the way you respond to the environment you’re put in. You just become like a synapse in a long chain of other people’s ideas. You receive and you consume, you know, you buy things you’re told to buy, you read things you’re told to read, or you don’t read things you’re told to read. It’s very much about the passive acceptance of your environment.”—Thom Yorke, 1993, commenting on the band’s name (‘Radiohead’ - inspired by Talking Heads)
- “The dean looked over Barack’s transcript and college boards and then suggested in a kindly way that he apply to some less competitive colleges in addition to Columbia.”
- “There were no class rankings at his high school, but Barack never made honor roll even one term, unlike 110 boys in his class.”
- “His SAT scores were 566 for the verbal part and 640 for math. Those were far below the median scores for students admitted to his class at Columbia: 668 verbal and 718 math.”
- “At Columbia, Barack Obama distinguished himself primarily as a hard partier, and he managed to be detained by police twice during his university years: once for stealing a Christmas wreath as a fraternity prank and once for trying to tear down the goalposts during a football game at Princeton.”
- “Obama’s transcript at Columbia shows that he was a solid C student. Although a history major, he sampled widely in the social sciences and did poorly in political science and economics while achieving some of his best grades (the equivalent of a B+) in philosophy and anthropology. The transcript indicates that in Obama’s freshman year, the only year for which rankings were available, he was in the twenty-first percentile of his class—meaning that four-fifths of the students were above him. Yet at the same time that he was earning Cs at Columbia, Obama displayed a formidable intelligence in another way. At his induction into the Delta Kappa Epsilon (DKE) fraternity, he and others were asked to name all fifty-four pledges in the room. Most were were able to name only five or six. When it was Obama’s turn, he named every single one. Later he rose to become president of DKE, and he was also tapped into Skull and Bones, an elite secret society to which his father had also belonged.”
And then he somehow got into Harvard for graduate school.
I made a mistake.
Please replace the reference to “high school” with “Andover.”
Please replace “Columbia” with “Yale.”
Please replace “Barack Obama” with “George W. Bush.”
“So what is this universe? Is it a monarchy? Is it a republic? Is it a mechanism? Or an organism? Becuase you see, if it’s a mechanism, either it’s a mere mechanism, as in the fully automatic model, or else it’s a mechanism under the control of a driver. A mechanic. If it’s not that, it’s an organism, and an organism is a thing that governs itself. In your body there is no boss. You could argue, for example, that the brain is a gadget evolved by the stomach, in order to serve the stomach for the purposes of getting food. Or you can argue that the stomach is a gadget evolved by the brain to feed it and keep it alive. Whose game is this? Is it the brain’s game, or the stomach’s game? They’re mutual. The brain implies the stomach and the stomach implies the brain, and neither of them is the boss.”—Alan Watts, The Nature of Consciousness (via commondense)
Peter Wessel Zapffe, a Norwegian philosopher, provided, in his work The Last Messiah, a fourfold route that he believed all self-conscious beings use in order to cope with the inherent indifference and absurdity of existence, comprising Isolation, Anchoring, Distraction, and Sublimation:
“We are truly starting to read the language of thought,” author Eric C. Leuthardt said in a university news release. “This is one of the earliest examples, to a very, very small extent, of what is called ‘reading minds’ — detecting what people are saying to themselves in their internal dialogue.”
“all matter originates and exists only by virtue of a force which brings the particles of an atom to vibration which holds the atom together. We must assume behind this force is the existence of a conscious and intelligent mind. This mind is the matrix of all matter.”—Max Planck
“Until that moment of epiphany, I had no idea what a Good Guy Contract was, much less that it was the standard contract I consistently signed with almost everyone in my life. But in that startling moment of clarity I understood not only what it was but why I kept signing it: my self-esteem, which I’d previously believed to be built on things solely internal, was in fact entirely dependent on something external—the good will of others. The Good Guy Contract was simple: I would agree to be nice to you, to advise you, to sacrifice for you, to care about you—and in return you would agree to believe that I was wise, compassionate, excellent as a human being in every way, and finally and most importantly, you would like me.”—Alex Lickerman, M.D
“Often, parents will simply tell kids what to do and never encourage them to assert themselves," he says. "When the kids obey, the parents give them conditional love.”—Jay Earley, author of Finding Your Life Purpose
On March 28, 2011, NASA’s Swift satellite caught a flash of high-energy X-rays pouring in from deep space. Swift is designed to do this, and since its launch in 2004 has seen hundreds of such things, usually caused by stars exploding at the ends of their lives.
But this time was hardly “usual”. It didn’t see a star exploding as a supernova, it saw a star literally getting torn apart as it fell too close to a black hole!
The event was labeled GRB 110328A –a gamma-ray burst seen in 2011, third month (March) on the 28th day (in other words, last week). Normal gamma-ray bursts are when supermassive stars collapse (or ultra-dense neutron stars merge) to form a black hole. This releases a titanic amount of energy, which can be seen clear across the Universe.
And those last two characteristics are certainly true of GRB 110328A; it’s nearly four billion light years away*, and the ferocity of its final moments is not to be underestimated: it peaked at a solid one trillion times the Sun’s brightness!
Yegads. I’m rather glad this happened so far away. That’s not the kind of thing I’d like to see up close.
Although initially cataloged as a GRB, followup observations indicated this was no usual event. The way the light grew and faded seemed to fit better with a star getting torn apart. And what can do that to an entire star? A black hole. So instead of the star in question forming a black hole, it apparently literally fell victim to one!
The observations indicate the black hole in question may have as much as half a million times the mass of the Sun, meaning it’s very probably a supermassive black hole in the very center of a distant galaxy. Hubble Space Telescope observations (not yet released to the public) also place the event very near the center of a galaxy, which is consistent with this scenario.
So what happened?
We think that at the center of every large galaxy (including our own Milky Way) lies a supermassive black hole, some with millions or even billions of times the Sun’s mass. Some of these, like our own, are sitting there quietly. Without matter falling into them, black holes are pretty calm. But if a gas cloud, say, wanders too close, it forms a disk around the hole called an accretion disk. This disk heats up and can emit tremendous amounts of light (as in this illustration here). Some galaxies are continuously feeding of material like this, and we call them active galaxies.
In the case of GRB 110328A, something else happened. The galaxy is known to be quiet; NASA’s Fermi satellite can see gamma rays over much of the sky, and has reported no emission from this galaxy for the past couple of years. So whatever happened here was a singular event.
What fits all the data is that of a star orbiting the center of the black hole. Perhaps it was on a safe orbit but got flung closer to the black hole after a close encounter with another star or gas cloud, or perhaps it started out close and over millions of years its orbit has brought it closer and closer to that monster at the galaxy’s heart.
Swift X-ray image of GRB 110328A — a 41 hour exposure! Click to embiggen.
Whatever happened, the star’s life ended suddenly and catastrophically. Black holes have incredibly strong gravity, of course, but that gravity gets weaker with distance. Stars are big, a million or more kilometers across, and that means one side of the star was substantially closer to the black hole than the other, so the near side felt a stronger pull of gravity than the far side of the star. This has the effect of stretching the star in a process called tides.
A star is held together by its own gravity. As the star in question here inched closer to the black hole, the force stretching the star got stronger, and at some point overcame its internal gravity. The star got literally torn apart by the black hole!
The material swirled around the black hole, forming a small and temporary accretion disk. Observations indicate that for a short time, two beams of matter and energy called jets erupted from the doomed star the black hole, and it was the flash of tremendous energy from this that triggered Swift, and a flurry of observations from other telescopes cascaded from that.
It’s not certain that this is actually what happened so far away in the core of that far-flung galaxy, but it does fit what’s seen so far (and at least one other star has been seen to have been eaten by a black hole before). It also predicts that radio emission from the event will be highly variable, and that the visible brightness should brighten again over the next few weeks. Astronomers are eagerly observing this distant event to see if their ideas will still hold true as time goes on, or if more surprises are in store.
And I need to add something to this story. I used to work on Fermi and Swift, writing educational stories and activities based on their observations, but that was many years ago. I don’t keep up with their daily doings so much.
I actually found out about GRB 110328A when I got an email the other day from my friend Adria Updike, who observes GRBs. She told me an amazing thing: a colleague of hers, PhD candidate Alexander Kann, started a thread on the Bad Astronomy/Universe Today Bulletin Board about the GRB. BAUT, as we call the board, was started by my friend Fraser Cain of Universe Today and myself, hence the name of the board.
Another astronomer friend of mine, Bill Keel, is also a BAUT member. He read the thread, and used the SARA 1-meter telescope at Kitt Peak, Arizona, to observe the burst:
On the left is his observation on April 1, and on the right on April 4. The position of GRB 110328A is circled. As you can see, it was pretty faint. It has apparently faded somewhat over the three day interval — which is expected; the initial event (a star getting torn apart! I can’t get over that!) released a huge flash of energy which faded over time. It’s hard to see in the two images because the burst looks about the same brightness, but the second observation had a longer exposure time (you can see fainter stars in it), so the source did fade.
With observations in hand, Adria and Bill sent out a circular, a note to the community about what they saw:
We observed the field of GRB 110328A/Swift J164449.3+573451 (Cummings et al., GCN 11823) on April 1 at 11:50 UT (3.96 days after the trigger) for 20 minutes in the R band with the SARA North telescope at KPNO. At the location of the optical counterpart (Cenko et al., GCN 11827; Volnova et al., GCN 11837) we marginally detect the transient at R = 21.7 +/- 0.3 […]
This GCN resulted from a collaboration initiated by the BAUTforum.
Note the credit they give to BAUT. Awesome. Never underestimate the power of social media, especially in the sciences. You never know how far they reach… and in this case, that reach was 3.872 billion light years.
Artist’s illustration of star and black hole: NASA/CXC/M.Weiss. Illustration of accretion disk: A. Hobart, CXC. Images from SARA telescopes used by permission of Bill Keel; Swift image: UK Swift Science Data Centre
At any one time we only have so much self-control in the tank. When you’ve been tightly controlling yourself, the tank is low and you become more likely to give in to temptation. Psychologists call this ‘ego-depletion’.
Recognise when your levels of self-control are low and make sure you find a way to avoid temptation during those times. The first step to greater self-control is acknowledging when you’re at your weakest.
Make the decision before you’re in the tempting situation. Pre-committing yourself to difficult goals can lead to increased performance. In one study by Ariely and Wertenbroch (2002) students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves performed better than those who didn’t.
Only take a limited amount of money with you to curtail spending, or only have healthy foods at home to avoid the temptation to go astray.
It’s difficult to pre-commit because normally we like to leave our options open. But if you’re harsh on you future self, you’re less likely to regret it.
3. Use rewards
Rewards can really work to help strengthen self-control. Trope and Fishbach (2000) found that participants were better able to make short-term sacrifices for long-term gains when they had a self-imposed reward in mind. So setting ourselves rewards does work, even when it’s self-imposed.
4. …and penalties
Just like the carrot, the stick also works. Not only should we promise ourselves a reward for good behaviour, we should also give ourselves a penalty for bad behaviour.
When Trope and Fishbach (2000) tested self-imposed penalties experimentally, they found the threat of punishment encouraged people to act in service of their long-term goals.
5. Fight the unconscious
Part of the reason we’re easily led into temptation is that our unconscious is always ready to undermine our best intentions.
Fishbach et al. (2003) found that participants were easily tempted outside their conscious awareness by the mere suggestions of temptation. On the other hand, the same was also true of goals. When goals were unconsciously triggered, participants turned towards their higher-order goals.
The practical upshot is simple. Try to keep away from temptations—both physically and mentally—and stay close to things that promote your goals. Each unconsciously activates the associated behaviour.
6. Adjust expectations
Even if it doesn’t come naturally, try to be optimistic about your ability to avoid temptations.
Studies like Zhang and Fishbach (2010) suggest that being optimistic about avoiding temptation and reaching goals can be beneficial. Participants who were optimistic stuck at their task longer than those who had been asked to make accurate predictions about reaching a goal.
Allow yourself to overestimate how easy it will be to reach your goal. As long as it doesn’t spill over into fantasy-land, being fuzzy on the tricky bits can motivate.
7. Adjust values
Just as you can try to think more optimistically, you can also change how you value both goals and temptations. Research suggests that devaluing temptations and increasing the value of goals increases performance (Fishbach et al., 2009).
When we value our goal more we automatically orient ourselves towards it. In the same way devaluing temptations helps us automatically avoid them.
8. Use your heart
The heart often rules the head, so use your emotions to increase self-control.
In one study children were able to resist eating marshmallows by thinking of them as ‘white clouds’ (Mischel & Baker, 1975). This is one way of avoiding temptations: by cooling down the emotions associated with them.
You can increase the pull towards your goal in the same way: think about the positive emotional aspects of achieving it; say, the pride, or excitement.
Sometimes exercising self-control means avoiding a bad habit. One way of doing this is by using self-affirmations. This means reaffirming the core things you believe in. This could be family, creativity or anything really, as long as it’s a core belief of yours.
When participants in one study did this, their self-control was replenished (the study is described here: self-affirmation in self-control). Thinking about core values can help top-up your self-control when it’s been depleted.
10. Think abstract
Part of the reason self-affirmations work is that they make us think in the abstract. And abstract thinking has been shown to boost self-control.
In research described here, Fujita et al. (2006) found that people thinking in the abstract (versus concrete) were more likely to avoid temptation and better able to persist at difficult tasks.
We are more likely to think abstract if we think about the reasons why we’re doing something, rather than just how we’re doing it.
Another good reason not to give in…
There’s a comforting thought that if we give in to temptation just this once, we’ll come back stronger afterwards.
However psychological research has suggested this isn’t true. Students who had a good (versus mediocre) break from studying to ‘replenish’ themselves didn’t show increased motivation when they returned (Converse & Fishbach, 2008, described in Fishbach et al., 2010).
If all else fails, know that giving in won’t bring you back stronger. Worse, giving in to temptation may well just increase your tendency to crumble again in the future.