How YouTube can save the world

Janet Jackson's accidental breast exposure has led indirectly to earth avoiding deadly asteroids.

Will YouTube help to save humanity in the event of an asteroid impact?
Image: Getty

When Hollywood rewrites this story, it will become known as the day that Janet Jackson saved planet earth. According to company legend, YouTube was created after one of its inventors had trouble accessing a video of Jackson’s moment of “wardrobe malfunction” breast exposure during the 2004 Super Bowl. The video-sharing website’s latest achievement is to become the source of scientific data that might help us evade the next big asteroid threat.

You might remember the last big one: it exploded in the air 27 kilometres above Chelyabinsk in the Russian Urals on 15 February this year. The explosion was equivalent to the detonation of 500,000 tonnes of TNT – enough to damage buildings and injure several hundred people. Perhaps not enough to get itself a Hollywood re-enactment, though.

Fortunately, the asteroid’s passage through earth’s atmosphere made it glow far brighter than the early-morning sun, causing locals to whip out their phones and record its flight. The high incidence of insurance fraud in Russia also helped – many cars are equipped with dashboard cameras, which recorded the event.

On 6 November, a group of scientists published an analysis of these videos. They had discovered that our risk of being hit by similar asteroids is ten times higher than we thought. The researchers were able to deduce the asteroid’s mass from its flight path. It was twice as heavy as scientists’ initial estimates. We need to pay attention to the threat from orbiting objects much smaller than those we have been keeping an eye on.

Things were much easier when we only needed to worry about the larger rocks orbiting the sun. The cut-off used to be about one kilometre in diameter; we had concluded that anything smaller would most likely burn up in our atmosphere and inflict near-negligible damage. We know the orbits of all these big rocks; we don’t, however, have a clue where the millions of smaller rocks are, or whether they might hit earth at any point. The YouTube-derived data suggests that we should start to find out and is certain to inform the activities of the Nasa asteroid-tracking telescope due to come online in 2015.

Atlas (Asteroid Terrestrial-Impact Last Alert System) will need broad shoulders: for the foreseeable future, it will be the only means by which we can reliably detect an imminent impact with these newly threatening smaller asteroids. Existing early-warning systems watch only certain patches of the sky and aren’t great at picking out objects that are smaller than one kilometre.

Nasa has plans to put an asteroid-hunting camera called NeoCam into orbit (no launch date yet) and a group of concerned citizens is raising money to build Sentinel, a similar eye in the sky. Until either of those are deployed, it’ll be down to Atlas.

Atlas will give us a week’s warning of any asteroid likely to collide with earth with an impact equivalent to the detonation of several megatonnes of TNT. If the asteroid is bigger, we should know about it three weeks in advance.

If you think that will give us time to send swarthy heroes up to attach a nuclear bomb to the asteroid and deflect it away from its collision course, think again. There is no agency on earth with the mandate to do this – and certainly no one with the necessary equipment or expertise. So all you can expect is plenty of time to charge your phone’s battery and ensure you are the first to get the video of its arrival on to YouTube. Then you have to hope there’ll still be some scientists around to appreciate your efforts.

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 13 November 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The New Exodus

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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.