Choke on Your Putts? Don’t Think About It. Better Yet, Here’s HOW to Think About It

A few months ago I posted a feature here about the science of choking under pressure, focusing on the work of University of Chicago psychologist Sian Beilock. A few days ago Bill Pennington ran a Times post about her work focusing on putting — a skill she uses in her labs to study the different ways we choke. (I played guinea pig one day in that lab, and it cost me $5. I was hustled.) The Times post writes this up nicely. Early on this caught my eye:

I began talking with Beilock last year after I wrote an article wondering why it is that young children learning the game always seem so good at putting. A 10-year-old, in my experience, almost never misses an easy, short putt. I figured it was because a 10-year-old doesn’t feel the weight of expectations and doesn’t have the scars of previous misses.

This reminded me of a putt my older son made several years back, when he was 10 or 11. He’d taken a few lessons that summer, and while his skills weren’t yet polished, you seldom saw him tighten up as he prepared a shot. So there’s something to this, I suppose. And one day we both made the green in one shot on a weird Par 3, and my son had his first op for a birdy. Only problem was, he was about 60 or 70 feet from the hole, and the line to the hole was perpendicular to a very steep slope. If he hit the ball straight at the hole, it would take a sharp right-hand curve and end up far from the target.

So he said, pointing left at a spot far uphill, on a line about 50 degrees to the left of the line from the ball to the cup, “I need to hit it way up there, right? By that brown spot?”

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Reef Madness 4: Alexander Agassiz Comes of Age

Alexander Agassiz at 12. Courtesy Ernst Mayr Library, Harvard Museum of Comparative Zoology

This, the fifth in a series of posts extracted from my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral, introduces the book’s main figure, Alexander Agassiz. In the book I track Alex from birth. In this abridged serialization, I skip that and we pick him here as a 12-year-old boy. Abandoned for the time by a father who has gone to America to make his fame, Alex finds himself caring for a mother who takes ill — and then, rather suddenly, in a new life in America.

To read it all, or if you ‘re impatient, kindly buy the book. Or feel free to dip in here and come back next week, where we’ll find Alexander’s father facing off against Charles Darwin.


5. Alex Comes of Age

from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

© David Dobbs, all rights reserved

Of the year that Alexander lived in Freiburg, so few facts survive that it’s hard to know what to make of them. He arrived sometime in the second half of 1847, not yet twelve years old, to find his mother living “in most straitened circumstances,” as George Agassiz would later put it, in a tiny apartment near the Schwaben Tour, a tower over one of the city gates.

Apparently never robust, Cécile was now ailing. Still, Cécile reportedly loved Freiburg, an extraordinarily charming town that was then perhaps at its most alluring. “She greatly loved the quaint old walled cathedral town and its beautiful surroundings,” her grandson George relates from the distance of two generations and an ocean, and “although now an invalid, she was still able to take short excursions into the country,” where she would draw the flowers brought to her by her daughters or the beetles, caterpillars, and butterflies captured by Alex. “The Freiburg winter,” he continues,

with its bracing and sunny air, was an especially happy time for the children. Alexander now became a proficient skater, an art in which as a young man he excelled…. The boy and his mother spent many happy hours, while she sat in one of the high-backed sleds of that region, which he skillfully guided through the gay crowd of all ages who glided gracefully over the ice.

This is hard to credit. At the age of twelve, having spent the previous 18 months in limbo as his parents parted ways, by all reports sensitive and prone to melancholy anyway, Alex probably felt something short of “especially happy” that winter. The transition from the window-smashing youth to the smiling skater seems forced. Possibly Alex himself held to that memory and passed it down because his skating supplied a pleasure rare in what otherwise must have been a dark winter.

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Reef Madness 3: Louis Agassiz, TED Wet Dream, Conquers America

Louis Agassiz (left) & Harvard mathematician Benjamin Peirce, c 1855. Peirce is pointing out Cambridge, Massachusetts, where the two stood prominent among America's intelligentsia.

This is the third of several installments of my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral. The first two brought us Louis Agassiz, Alexander’s father, who yearned to be “the first naturalist of his generation,” and the Rumble at Glen Roy, in which the young Louis, wielding ice, bests a young Charles Darwin in the first clash between these two ambitious intellects.

This installment finds 13-year-old Alexander joining his father, Louis Agassiz, in America. Louis, who had risen to prominence in his native Europe in the 1840s, came to America in 1849 and found even greater success and fame by seductively describing the “Plan of Creation” — a gorgeous creationist view of the natural order as a work of God. He was an extraordinary lecturer — a sort of TED fantasy of explication and charm. These talents would make him the country’s foremost scientist and set up an extraordinary showdown with Darwin.

This is part of the book’s fourth chapter. For the whole thing, or if you ‘re impatient, buy the book. Or feel free to dip in here and come back next week for the next installment, in which Louis confronts an explanation of the natural order as powerful as his “Plan of Creation,” but far more threatening.

4. Cambridge

from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

© David Dobbs, all rights reserved

Arriving in New York in June 1849, thirteen-year-old Alexander Agassiz entered a world sharply different than the one he had left. Though Boston, to which Louis immediately took him, resembled European cities more than did most American towns (Louis generously likened it to Paris and London), it remained a far cry from Freiburg. And Alex, shy to start with, knowing hardly a word of English, must have felt the language barrier keenly.

He found his father, however, glowing from his seduction of his new country. Continue reading →

What Mom Was Like – A eulogy for the woman in ‘My Mother’s Lover”

My mom and me, a while back, in Houston

The reception so far given “My Mother’s Lover,” my story at The Atavist of my mother’s WWII romance, has been immensely gratifying. Published late yesterday at Amazon, it shot by this afternoon to the #1 spot among Amazon’s Kindle Singles and 61st among all Kindle sales. “In uncovering and unraveling his family’s secrets, Dobbs draws out a heartrending narrative arc without sentimentality,” the Kindle reviewer says, and if that’s so, I’ve partly hit my target. If you’re among those who’ve bought the book or spread the word, many thanks. (And if you’re inclined, feel free to write a review at the site; I’m told it makes a big difference.)

The kind review, however, erred in saying that “for decades … [my mother] moved on with ersatz lovers and spouses,” apparently mixing up my grandmother’s serial marriage patterns with my mother’s one postwar marriage — an understandable error, but one my mother would be quick to forcefully correct.

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My Mother’s Lover: My New Story in The Atavist

My Mother and Angus, Hawaii, 1944

A big day for me: Today The Atavist published My Mother’s Lover, my account of a World War II romance my mother had with a flight surgeon, and of my search for this man six decades after my mother lost him. It’s a war story and a love story — several love stories. I’ve been trying to fully excavate this story ever since my mother left us a riddle about it on her deathbed — even as was trying to work its way out of me the whole time, almost ten years now. A slowbake dish. The story has taken several distinct forms in my imagination, in notebooks, in drafts of various length and finish. It began to take this current, published form early this year, after conversations with the founders of The Atavist, Evan Ratliff and Nicholas Thompson, suggested this story was a good match for that venue.

I’ve admired The Atavist as an innovative way to tell big nonfiction stories from the moment I saw Ratliff’s Lifted (a heist story) in its first issue. For My Mother’s Lover, The Atavist offers not only the space to do this story justice but the chance to enrich my usual longform narrative mode with art and documentary elements that would be hard to embed in any other format. The Atavist also includes an audio version of the story, which was both a delight and at time emotionally excruciating to record. Though this story sometimes posed enormous emotional, formal, and compositional demands — or really because it posed those demands — it was a joy and an enormous privilege to work on.

In a way this is a new sort of story for me: Aside from some forensics about halfway through, it’s not about science. Instead it’s about about family, love, loss, identity, and the lengths we go to try to understand our lives and to recover and redeem our lost loves and chances. Continue reading →

Gossip, Grooming, and Your Dunbar Number

On Saturday, NPR’s All Things Considered used a couple minutes of precious news time to air a conversation I had with my father about his chicken. They also aired me talking with my sister about my dad, with an old friend about why I haven’t called her, and with my best friend about fish we weren’t catching. You can listen to the audio here.

Why did All Things Considered consider this small talk worth broadcasting?  Because according to Robin Dunbar’s “social brain” hypothesis, with small talk and gossip we build and analyze the relationships that make or break us as individuals and as a species.

What’s at stake when we gossip idly with our family and friends? In the NPR segment, I’m mining the conversations with siblings and friends (and in audio that didn’t air, some work contacts) not only for ‘hard’ information like how many chickens my father has or  how much time I can have with the story I’m writing for the New York Times Magazine, but for vital information on how my dad is doing, how I stand in the affections and loyalties and priorities of my dad, my siblings, my best friends, and my editors, and how they stand within the realms in which they move. Gossip is content-rich.

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Free Science, Funny Science, Darwin, & Some Meta: Neuron Culture’s Top 5 for May

Howard Eisen, 1942-1987

1. The race for May’s top spot wasn’t even close: Free Science, One Paper at  a Time, my rescued feature about how too much of science is trapped in an increasingly archaic journal structure, easily drew the most hits, running well into  5 figures to become one of Neuron Culture’s Top Ten hits ever. I’m pleased to see this interest in a story that some might consider too “inside baseball.” And let me again thank Jonathan Eisen for sharing the extraordinary story of his quest to rescue his father’s papers from oblivion, which he recently brought to near-completion with it. Thanks to everyone who helped spread the word on this, with extra hat tip to Boing Boing for fronting it and to Ed Yong for making it one of his Tip Jar picks for May.

2. The vagaries and travails of scientific publishing also provided the second most popular post, Science Publishes “Arsenic Life” Critiques, Game On, which took a quick first look at the official publication of both the controversial Wolfe-Simon etal paper on a Mono Lake bug and the peer-reviewed responses to it published in Science.

3. Close behind came What is Mental Illness, Jason Goldman’s sharp and nuanced review of Richard McNally’s new book of that name. Goldman, who kindly provided this as a guest post, usually brings his bloggy chops to bear at The Thoughtful Animal

4. And I’m pleased that so many are enjoying reading The One Darwin Really DID Get Wrong: Rumble at Glen Roy, which is an excerpt from my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral. In this case, Darwin was arguing with Alex’s father, the creationist Louis Agassiz (who earlier got his own excerpt), over the meaning of some strange geology at a Scottish loch — a spat that taught both men vital lessons that come into play later in their lives and in my book.

5. And the fifth hit was Those Who Waited Get Impatient Too: or how new journo tools can get you out of old school, in which I explained how and why I published hits 1 and 4 above this month, using the opportunities of the new publishing ecosystem to compensate for some of the constrictions of the established publishing ecosystem.

Reef Madness 2: The One Darwin Really DID Get Wrong: Rumble at Glen Roy

This is the second of several excerpts from my book Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral. This is from Chapter Two. Series explained below; go here for context on this repub experiment.

2.  Rumble at Glen Roy

from Reef Madness: Charles Darwin, Alexander Agassiz, and the Meaning of Coral

© David Dobbs, all rights reserved

Like any decent scientist or curious human, Louis Agassiz could not resist seeking patterns in what he saw. And like Cuvier, he believed the taxonomic evidence showed no sign of transmutation and proved that species “changed” only by a series of mass extinctions and subsequent re-creations — a sort of global delete-and-replace pattern left by a God who revised his own work.

This vision raised an obvious and troubling question: What did God use for these waves of extinction and creation? The story of Noah’s flood could account for only one such revision (and hardly accounted for fish extinctions), and the fossil record showed at least several successions of similar species. This suggested either a continuous progression or (if you were determined to see waves of extinction and re-creation) at least several massive, worldwide revisions. If you wanted to buttress creationism with science, as Agassiz did, you had to come up with more than just a single catastrophe.

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“The Center of Gravity Has Shifted.” Carl Zimmer on the Arsenic Paper

In a wonderful post at Slate, Carl Zimmer describes the one wonderful thing about the whole #arseniclife paper published last November, and has identified what will probably be its lasting contribution: The reaction to that paper both catalyzed and revealed the power of more open peer review — a fast, post-publication peer review by the wider scientific community — to accelerate and make open the sort of slow, more private post-publication peer review that has always been the real adjudicator of a paper’s significance.

Both NASA and the authors tried to play the bloggers-in-their-pajamas card, but it was a losing hand. For one thing, the people who were talking on blogs and Twitter were not in their pajamas…  [They are scientists] starting to carry out a new way of doing science, known as post-publication peer review. Rather than leaving the evaluation of new studies to a few anonymous scientists, researchers now debate the merit of papers after they have been published. The collective decision they come to stays open to revision.

Post-publication peer review—and open science in general—is attracting a growing number of followers in the scientific community. But some critics have argued that it’s been more successful in theory than in practice. The #arseniclife affair is the one of the first cases in which the scientific community openly vetted a high-profile paper, and influenced how the public at large thought about it.

This sort of open, community-driven evaluation helps take over one of the functions that has long been tied up in the consolicated functions and power of the scientific journal paper, as I described in Free Science, One Paper at a Time. That power of review, and to establish the first impression of legitimacy and significance, has been guarded jealously by many scientific publishers, as it was in this case by Science. But as Zimmer notes, “The center of gravity has shifted.”

It’s a splendid piece, and essential to understanding what this episode means and how much it reveals about how science is changing.

See also:

Science Publishes “Arsenic is Life” Critiques. Game On.

Free Science, One Paper at a Time

The Wrong Stuff: NASA Dismisses Arsenic Critique Because Critical …

Arsenic Author Dumps Peer Review, Takes Case to TED | Wired …

I’ll Be on NPR Saturday, Looking After My Dunbar Number

I’ll be on NPR’s All Things Considered this Saturday afternon as part of a short segment about “Dunbar’s number,” the vital network of 150-or-so social relations that evolutionary psychologist Robin Dunbar says we must each maintain to live successfully. (We do it mainly by talking, especially gossip; monkeys do it mainly by grooming.) I’ve written about this dynamic in two magazine features and two blog posts. An NPR producer planning a segment on Dunbar and his new book read one of those pieces and had an inspired idea. We’ll see hear tomorrow whether the idea pans out. In any case, I believe I can safely promise listeners a chicken.

Catch it at your local NPR station on Saturday, May 28, at about 5:35 pm (unless some breaking news disrupts the planned program). I’ll post a url with the show here as soon as they have one.

See Also:

  • Picking Robin Dunbar's Brain: An Interview About Friends
  • Local & Distant Friendships – A Dunbar Number Conundrum
  • Robin Dunbar
  • Topic Page for Robin Dunbar

Image: by Laertes at flickr, some rights reserved