The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ

Book report: The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ

The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQFor those of you who, like me, are reasonably intelligent folks who have long wondered why you weren’t bestowed with outrageous genetic gifts like musical genius or athletic ability, have I got the book for you! It’s The Genius in All of Us: New Insights into Genetics, Talent, and IQ by David Shenk.

OK, I’m being a little facetious. But honestly, Shenk’s book offers a lot more than just a purely scientific analysis of the nature/nurture debate. To my surprise, The Genius in All of Us is a bit of a hybrid — part case study, part self-help/motivational literature. He lays out the premise right away in the prologue, telling the story of how baseball legend Ted Williams became one of the game’s most feared sluggers not by sheer chance (nature), but by simply busting his ass for years (nurture).

The theory underpinning the entire book is that environment plays a much larger role in how our intelligence is developed than crude tools like IQ tests would indicate. He expresses this with the formula GxE (or Genes multiplied by Environment), as opposed to G+E (Genes plus Environment). The implication is simple but powerful — inside each of us is the potential for high levels of achievement. All that is missing for most of us is the right environment.

Shenk provides ample examples of his theory in action. He examines the lives of Mozart, Yo-Yo Ma, Williams, and Kenyan marathoners, and Jamaican sprinters among others as proof that “giftedness” is an outdated notion. Mozart’s genius did not just spring to life right from his DNA, Shenk argues, but was largely the result of intense dedication on the part of his father, Leopold, who was relentless in his efforts to turn his son into a success.

Likewise, Shenk argues that the unreal success of Kenyan runners has more to do with the culture they are raised in than any genetic advantage geared toward running long distances. The same goes for sprinters in Jamaica, who are revered on that island the way football or basketball players are in the United States.

The interesting thing about The Genius in All of Us isn’t the case studies Shenk quotes or the anecdotes he shares, but rather the overwhelmingly positive message he tries to impart. He stops at several points in the book to speak directly to us and let us know that, yes, you too can achieve all of this with some good old-fashioned stick-to-it-ive-ness!

I am not versed enough in the fields of genetics, behavioral studies, or whatever else deals with this whole thing, to say whether or not Shenk is onto something or merely deluded. You can easily find fairly lengthy refutations of this book from a number of sites and publications. My gut tells me that there is probably some truth in what Shenk writes, but that it’s not quite so simple as he would have us believe.

By the way, if you’re thinking of purchasing this book you should be aware that the actual content only covers about half of the 300+ page total. The entire second half of it is devoted to research notes, additional source citations, and the like. Perhaps The Genius in All of Us would’ve been a more substantial read had these pages been integrated into the main text.

Herman Potočnik

Was the American space program built in… Yugoslavia?

When most Americans think of Yugoslavia technology, this is probably the first thing that comes to mind (at least for those of us who remember the ’80s):

But if the trailer to the upcoming documentary Houston, We Have a Problem! is to be believed, the former Yugoslavia has a pretty rad space program back in the day. So rad, in fact, that the United States bought the whole thing from Marshal Josip Broz Tito in March of 1961.

Then, just two months later, President John F. Kennedy gave a speech before Congress announcing America’s ambitious plan to land a man on the moon. In September 1961 he gave a speech at Rice University that included the now-famous quote, “We choose to go to the moon. We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard…”

Herman Potočnik

Herman Potočnik

It’s certainly an interesting proposition, and one which the team of researcher/writer Boštjan Virc and co-writer/director Žiga Virc claim will contain other evidence showing that Yugoslavia’s space program was at one time the most advanced in the world.

The film credits Herman Potočnik and his 1928 book Das Problem der Befahrung des Weltraums – der Raketen-Motor (The Problem of Space Travel – The Rocket Motor) with inspiring, among others, Wernher von Braun, one of the fathers of both German rocketry and the American space program.

I certainly have no idea how accurate any of these claims are but it sure looks like a fascinating documentary. Houston, We Have a Problem! is set for a Spring 2013 release, and here’s that trailer I mentioned. God I miss the Cold War.

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The Storm Chasers Drinking Game

The Storm Chasers Drinking Game

Crab fishing is so last year, people. Now it’s all about risking your life to chase down deadly tornadoes to get video footage and, time permitting, scientific data I guess. We’re almost a month into the latest season of the Discovery Channel’s hit reality series, Storm Chasers, and I thought an accompanying drinking game was overdue. After all, I may be a failed meteorology student but I am not a failed drinker.

So for those of you who live to follow the latest twister-chasing exploits of Team Dominator (led by Reed Timmer), Team TIV (brow-beaten by Sean Casey), Team TWISTEX (led by Tim Samaras), and formerly Team DOW (poorly led by Dr. Joshua Wurman), hunker down in your storm cellars and drink up!

The Storm Chasers Drinking Game

If you like this drinking game, you can check out my other ones here.

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Say hello to Elektro, the Westinghouse Robot

He’s all but forgotten today, but at one time Elektro was king of all robots. He was assembled by Westinghouse at their Mansfield, Ohio facility in 1937/38 and made his public debut at the 1939 New York World’s Fair. Elektro stood at a height of seven feet, six inches and weighed 260 pounds. 60 of those pounds were his brain, which was comprised of “48 electrical relays.”

At the Westinghouse Pavilion of the World’s Fair, Elektro the Moto-Man demonstrated a wide variety of skills such as speech, counting, stand-up comedy, and of course, smoking! Witness the marvels of modern 1930s technology in this excerpt from the 1939 promotional film The Middleton Family at the New York World’s Fair.

“Stand aside puny human, as I enjoy the mild, refreshing tobacco flavor of Philip Morris!”

In 1940 Elektro appeared once again at the fair, this time with a robotic canine companion named Sparko. After the World’s Fair, he toured the U.S. and made a number of appearances on television and in film. This clip (from what I believe to be an episode of You Asked For It) finds Elektro in a decidedly more servile mood as he becomes the world’s most expensive helium tank.

I have to say I miss the spunk of earlier Elektro. He’s gone from cracking wise to proclaiming, “If you use me well, I can be your slave.” What a sellout.

By the 1960s Elektro had largely fallen out of public consciousness, despite a starring role as Thinko in the classic 1960 film Sex Kittens Go to College, co-starring Mamie Van Doren, John Carradine, Conway Twitty, and Tuesday Weld. Here’s a faux-racy but ultimately tame sequence involving fire extinguishers and lots of recycled footage.

As if that weren’t enough, the movies features a 10-minute sequence with Thinko checking out a series of strip tease dances while being served bourbon by a monkey bartender. Yup, you read that right. Here’s a brief clip (there’s nudity and whatnot, so this is definitely NSFW).

There’s probably nowhere to go but down after a cameo like this, and truly this was just about the end for Elektro. He stopped appearing in public and was consigned to the scrap heap. Luckily he was rescued and restored, and now spends his days quietly as a featured exhibit at the Mansfield Memorial Museum.

For those inclined to build a smoking Moto-Man of your own, here’s a cross-sectional drawing showing Elektro’s workings.

Elektro interior diagram

Finally, enjoy this Flickr slideshow of some neat Elektro images I’ve compiled!

Japanese honeybees

Damn nature, you scary!

A killer honeybee ball

That's hot

Pictured: Japanese honeybees (Apis cerana japonica) forming a “bee ball” in which two hornets (Vespa simillima xanthoptera) are engulfed and being heated. The body heat trapped by the ball will overheat and kill the hornets. Photo taken in Yokohama, Kanagawa prefecture, Honshu Island, Japan.

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Powerful new video of the Joplin, Missouri tornado

As if the impact of the Joplin tornado hasn’t been well-documented enough, now comes new video from storm chasers Jeff and Kathryn Piotrowski. They film the twister as it hits Joplin and are there in the immediate aftermath.

There’s nothing explicit in here (aka visibly dead people), but the emotion of the moment may be a bit much for some. You’ve been warned.

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hurricane on radar

The 10 Deadliest Atlantic Hurricanes in History

The 1900 Galveston HurricaneToday marks the beginning of the 2011 Atlantic hurricane season (which runs until November 30). Throughout the summer we’ll be looking at some of the worst hurricanes in history, in terms of death tolls and damage amounts. Up first is a review of the ten deadliest hurricanes ever spawned in the Atlantic Ocean.

One interesting fact that stands out to me is that unlike the list of the ten deadliest tornadoes, only three of these tropical cyclones occurred after 1950. This is a direct result of improved weather forecasting technology, which can typically allow for days of advanced notice rather than hours. So as a comparison, the infamous Hurricane Katrina, while still dealing a devastating blow to the U.S. Gulf coast, isn’t even in the top 20 in terms of casualties — although the nearly 1,900+ killed is still a tragically large number.

1. The Great Hurricane of 1780

Few meteorological details on this storm are known, but we understand this much — In October 1780 more than 20,000 perished in the Caribbean as it tore through the Lesser Antilles, Puerto Rico, Hispaniola, Bermuda, and possibly East Florida and some U. S. states. Rep0rts of the day claimed that every tree in Barbados was downed, but not before all being stripped of their bark.

Among the dead were 4,000 French soldiers who drowned near Martinique when their ships were capsized. The soldiers were aboard 40 ships involved in the American Revolution.

Hurricane Mitch2. Hurricane Mitch (1998)

As with many tropical cyclones, most of Mitch’s devastation was due not to fierce winds, but rather to torrential rainfall and flooding. In particular, Honduras (35.89 inches), Guatemala (23.62 inches), and Nicaragua (62.87 inches) were deluged with precipitation. Nearly 20,000 people in the region died, to say nothing of the mass devastation to housing, crops, and infrastructure.

In Honduras, an estimated 70–80% of the transportation infrastructure of the entire country was wiped out, including nearly all bridges and secondary roads. The damage was so great that existing maps were rendered obsolete.

Damage from the 1900 Galveston hurricane3. The 1900 Galveston hurricane

The hurricane that slammed into Galveston, Texas in September 1900 is still the deadliest one to ever strike the United States. Many of the deaths could have been prevented has the low-lying island of Galveston acted on proposals from some concerned citizenry and erected a protective seawall. The highest point of Galveston was 8.7 feet above sea level; the storm surge from the hurricane was more than 15 feet, enough to wash over the entire island.

When it was all over, an estimated 8,000-12,000 were dead, including one as far away as New York City. Needless to say, construction on the Galveston Seawall began in 1902.

4. Hurricane Fifi (1974)

Funny name aside, Fifi is the second-wettest hurricane to hit Honduras (after Mitch), and killed more than 8,000 people — most of them in Honduras. Nearly a quarter of those fatalities were in the city of Choloma, which lost between 2,800 and 5,000 of its population of 7,000 due to massive flooding.

5. Hurricane San Zenon (1930)

Also known as the 1930 Dominican Republic Hurricane, was a small but powerful Category 4 storm. It made landfall on September 3 near Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, packing peak winds of 155 mph. It cut 20-mile-wide swath of destruction and three whole districts in Santo Domingo. The Red Cross put the death toll at 2,000, although estimates ran as high as 8,000.

6. Hurricane Flora (1963)

With a total death toll of between 7,186 – 8,000, Flora was at the time the deadliest Atlantic hurricane post-Galveston. In addition, agricultural damage to the island of Tobago was so great that they abandoned crops altogether and switched to tourism as their main source of income. Some locations in Cuba received more than 80 inches of rainfall; Santiago de Cuba reported 100.39, the highest measured amount in the history of Cuba.

7. 1776 Pointe-à-Pitre hurricane

As you might expect, little is known about this storm. It struck Guadeloupe in the Lesser Antilles on September 6, 1776 and by the time it was over more than 6,000 were dead. The cyclone also struck a large convoy of French and Dutch merchant ships, sinking or running aground 60% of the vessels.

8. The Newfoundland Hurricane of 1775

At least 4,000 perished when this storm hit the British colony of Newfoundland (in what is now Canada). Most of the dead were English and Irish sailors, who drowned. The storm is Atlantic Canada’s first recorded hurricane and the country’s deadliest natural disaster.

It is thought that this same storm struck North Carolina and Virginia about a week earlier, and that what hit Newfoundland was the remnant.

Damage from the Okeechobee hurricane (1928)9. The Okeechobee hurricane (1928)

This was just the second recorded hurricane to his Category 5 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. It’s also the only Cat 5 storm to hit Puerto Rico at that strength. It’s known as the Okeechobee hurricane due to the deaths of at least 2,500 people in South Florida — they died when a storm surge from Lake Okeechobee breached the dike surrounding the lake, flooding an area covering hundreds of square miles.

At least an additional 1,200 in Guadeloupe lost their lives, as well as roughly 300 in Puerto Rico (where this is known as the San Felipe II Hurricane). Total fatalities are estimated to be at least 4,078.

10. The 1909 Monterrey hurricane

An estimated 4,000 people or more in Mexico died when this storm hit in August 1909. Peak winds were measured at 120 mph, a Category 3 on the Saffir-Simpson scale. Half of the city of Monterrey was destroyed, including four city blocks on the south side. 800 died in that area alone. Catastrophic flooding occurred when the reservoir dam near Monterrey burst.

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Tube talk: Nova – “Musical Minds”

Quite by chance, I caught Dr. Oliver Sacks’ appearance on The Daily Show a few days ago, where he was promoting an episode of PBS’s venerable science magazine Nova called “Musical Minds”.  Dr. Sacks is a British neurologist whose book Awakenings was the basis for the excellent movie with Robin Williams and Robert DeNiro.  “Musical Minds”, based on his 2007 work Musicophilia: Tales of Music and the Brain, boasted no such celebrities but was pretty interesting nonetheless.

The bulk of the special was dedicated to profiling four people who have very deep but very different connections to music.  Two of them (Derek Paravicini from England and Matt Giordano from upstate New York) have a high degree of innate musical ability that allows them each to seemingly overcome a significant neurological disorder.  Paravicini is an astonishingly gifted pianist despite being blind and autistic, while Giordano has a severe case of Tourette’s syndrome and finds relief only through his drumming (which he engages in even if there are no drums around).

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English manglage: Spit take

I can only imagine that the only thing worse than being hit in the eyes by the venom of a spitting cobra would be being hit in the eyes by the venom of a spitting cobra and then having to try to edit an article about said cobra.  That’s the only explanation I can think of for the gaffes in this recent article from Yahoo!  (courtesy


Man that’s gotta suck.  Not only does the cobra nail you with some venom but it shouts at you too.  “HAVE A FACEFUL OF THIS, JERKOFF!!!#!@  WOOO!$!!@#”