Why Comet Ison is not an epic fail

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary?

Who’d be a comet in this era of rolling news coverage and internet commentary? Errant celebrities and under-performing footballers have suffered less criticism, uninformed speculation and unwanted exposure.

The pressure has been on for Comet Ison. After being hailed as the “comet of the century” by various media sources for months, the Huffington Post pulled no punches a few weeks ago, with a headline declaring that the disappointing comet “Fails to dazzle so far”. Even New Scientist had to grit its teeth to get through a period of waning faith: “Until last week, it looked like Ison might be a total dud,” the magazine reported. A couple of weeks ago, the Independent grudgingly acknowledged that things might be looking up: “Comet ISON, the much anticipated ‘comet of the century’, is finally beginning to live up to its reputation.”

Even NASA has been known to trash-talk comets. Remember 2011’s Comet Elenin? Following a spate of predictions that Elenin would be responsible for calamity on Earth, NASA representatives were quick to burst its celebrity bubble. After Elenin disintegrated in the sun’s heat, the “icy dirtball” broke up into a “trail of piffling particles” making an “unexceptional swing” through the inner solar system, according to a NASA expert. It was “gone and should be forgotten”.

They might soon say the same about Ison. Yesterday the comet came within three quarters of a million miles of the sun’s surface, and was exposed to the full force of solar heating. It appeared to break up under the pressure, and the European Space Agency declared it dead. But now it has reappeared, diminished but triumphant, like an icy Obi-Wan. It’s no longer going to be the comet of the century, though.

NASA’s observing campaign for Ison distanced itself from that epithet long ago. The Comet Ison observing campaign has noted that Comet Elenin was “ridiculously over-hyped”, and were determined that their comet shouldn’t suffer the same fate. The tremendous number of observations and science data we have already recorded from Ison means that, even with the fizzled-out hopes, labelling it an epic fail is “particularly harsh” according to the NASA campaign’s site. Scientists only discovered ISON last September, and have scrambled to assemble missions that will photograph and analyse it. Scientists want to study the comet for clues to the conditions in the Oort cloud, a sphere of icy rocks in the outer regions of the solar system. This is where most of the comets we see are thought to originate.

Ison’s final indignity will come thanks to the many scientific instruments in space; there is no danger of the comet escaping unpapped. This week its fate will be caught by no fewer than eight space-based cameras. Out there, no one can hear you scream, but everyone can see you burn bright - or fall apart.
 

Another celebrity, comet Hale-Bopp appears in the sky over Merrit Island, Florida in 1997. Photo:Getty.

Michael Brooks holds a PhD in quantum physics. He writes a weekly science column for the New Statesman, and his most recent book is At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise.

This article first appeared in the 27 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The North

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Brain training: exposing the myth behind cognitive-enhancement games

A new study indicates that any benefits gained from brain games may be down to the placebo effect.

If you’ve ever searched for a quick-fix to mental lethargy, it’s likely that you’ve browsed through your smartphone app store to take a look at the latest offerings of brain-training games.

I certainly have. These games have been designed to sharpen people’s mental acuity, while offering “scientifically proven” means for improving IQs; through a variety of mini-games and careful documentation of improvements to intelligence parameters, people would wield the tools needed to craft the desired, smarter minds that the apps promise.

And the market for them has showed no sign of slowing down. In the space of a few years, the demand for the apps has made the industry a billion-dollar one, with growth expected to continue. A couple of the most popular apps have included Lumosity, a web-based program boasting more than 50m users seeking to “improve memory, attention, flexibility, speed of processing and problem solving”, and mobile-based Peak, whose similar goals and striking visuals entice potential users.

Though the apps have had huge amounts of success, there is a new body of research emerging to suggest that the successes may not be as a result of the games themselves, but because of the placebo effect.

The placebo effect is a phenomenon in which a dummy treatment or process can cause significant changes in a person – simply because that person believes the placebo (posing as a real treatment) will help them. With medication, it can be the mere presentation of a sugar pill disguised as a medicine which can cause a patient to get better. And in the case of apps and games, it seems that anything which promises users cognitive benefit, is more likely to do so.

In a study entitled “Placebo effects in cognitive training” published on Monday in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers found that participants who engaged in brain-training games for a single, one hour session showed improvements in IQ by up to ten points, but only if they believed the games would benefit them.

The group of cognitive scientists from George Mason University, Virginia, set up the experiment in a particular way to determine whether or not the placebo effect was involved.

50 participants were recruited, after two different posters asking people to sign up to a study were plastered around campus: one labelled “brain training & cognitive enhancement” and the other “email today & participate in a study”. The rewards for the former promised boosts in intelligence, while rewards for the latter granted study credits. Unknown to participants, however, was that both tests were the same, meaning any resulting changes to IQ were as a result of what participants were telling themselves about the tests.

The tests centred around the engagement of working memory and other factors to impact fluid intelligence – a type of intelligence which revolves around the application of logic and reason, independent of acquired knowledge. Those who chose to sign up to the “brain training & cognitive enhancement” study, aka the placebo study, were the ones to show remarkable gains in IQ after completing a post-brain games IQ test; gains of five to ten IQ points being made. Those who signed up for the control showed no signs of improvement.

Speaking to the Huffington Post, researcher and co-author of the study Cyrus Foroughi said: “Placebos are very pervasive and they have to be controlled for in a tremendous number of fields. This field is no different. So we put together the study to actually test whether expectation for a positive effect can lead to a positive outcome.”

Within the scientific community, frustration had already mounted as a result of the falsely promoted uses of brain games, particularly as tools to reverse age-related, cognitive-faltering illnesses such as Alzheimer’s disease. Overstated claims through advertising were enough to encourage scientists to sign an open letter in 2014, condemning the inaccurately purported benefits of brain training games. Earlier this year, Lumosity was fined $2m by the Federal Trade Commission for deceiving consumers with “unfounded claims”.

The recent findings strengthen this position, as the effects of cognitive training games seem less to do with the content of the games themselves, and more to do with what users tell themselves will happen after a session of, brain-training puzzle bonanzas. That’s not to say the games themselves don’t offer some benefit – it’s just that further clarification is needed to understand what they exactly contribute to, with the placebo effect factored in.

While scientists expand on their research to pinpoint the real effects of brain games, it seems for now that the best options to keep our brains active are the ones we are most familiar with: learn a language, do some exercise, or maybe just read a book.