Where does patience come from?

Cottontop tamarin
Impulse snack: A cotton-top tamarin eats a grasshopper (Mickey Samuni-Blank on Wikimedia Commons)

To explain the origin of patience, scientists tell a modern-day fable. It is about cotton-top tamarins and their close cousins, marmosets.

Being patient often feels like a rational response, whereas being impatient feels like the animal mind acting out. Indeed, scientists used to think that the ability to be patient was a high-order function nearly unique to humans. Other animals were just impulsive, grabbing what they needed when they could get it.

But patience, it turns out, is more complicated than that. Research in the past decade suggests that all species have a combination of patience and impatience that makes sense for their evolutionary background. 

The cotton-top tamarin and the marmoset provide evidence. Both new-world monkeys dine on tree gum. But they have different overall feeding strategies. The tamarins will eat the gum if they see it, but they’ll also eat other things like fruit and insects, foods that require a certain amount of impulsivity.

The marmosets, on the other hand, eat primarily the gum, using special teeth that let them gouge holes in a tree. “They basically just sit on the tree and wait for the sap to leak out of the tree and then they eat it,”  says behavioral anthropologist Alexandra Rosati, who is finishing a postdoc at Yale before joining the faculty at Harvard. “As you can imagine, this is a very slow process.” 

Noticing this ecological difference, Rosati’s colleagues including Jeffrey Stevens of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln tested the two monkeys to see how patiently they would wait for food. They did this by adapting a classic economics study, in which subjects are offered a small reward now or a larger reward later, in order to see how much they will discount the future reward. People who discount the future reward too much are considered to be acting irrationally.

For humans, the reward in this type of experiment is usually money, but Stevens offered the monkeys two versus six pieces of food. At first, he offered both with no delays. Of course, the monkeys preferred the six pieces to the two. Then he began delaying the six-piece option by a second, then two seconds, then three, and so on. Eventually, after the delay got long enough, the monkeys decided that it was better to have the two pieces now than the six pieces later.

As Stevens predicted, the tamarins and marmosets had a very different tolerance for waiting. For the tamarins, which forage impulsively for fruit and insects as well as tree gum, the game-changing delay was nearly 8 seconds on average. For the marmosets, which gladly wait for sap to ooze out of trees, the average delay was over 14 seconds.

This could mean that the marmosets are more rational than the tamarins. But the right conclusion (supported also by further research) seems to be the opposite one: That patience is not necessarily about rationality at all, but a finely tuned adaptation to ecological niche. “The amount of patience different species show is an evolved ability that is tailored to their normal environment,” Rosati says. That is, the marmosets' patience helps keep them alive; likewise, the tamarins' relative impatience helps keep them alive.

It follows that our inherited balance of patience and impatience must have kept our hunter-gatherer ancestors alive at one time too. The fact that today we value patience so much may indicate that that balance isn't working quite as well for us in the modern world. But if I had to give this fable a moral, it might be this: Patience is a virtue, but wait too long for anything and you might die.

Even monkeys know that.

If you have any patience left for reading about patience, please click over to my latest piece for Nautilus, "Why Your Brain Hates Slowpokes."

Meet Oven Dog and Oven Cat

Dog Looking in Oven
Photo: Ttrentham on Flickr (

Have your pets met Oven Dog and Oven Cat? These myterious beasts apparently inhabit many homes, as I learned when I asked for peoples' stories about animals reacting to mirrors, which I've collected on a special page. Here's Oven Cat, as remembered by Matt:

My wife and I have two cats, but for a year, we lived with a third animal who we named "Oven Cat." The house we were in at the time had an oven with a very reflective door, and when one of the cats, Rosie, would walk by, she'd often catch her reflection in it. Sometimes, she'd just sit and stare at it. Sometimes, she'd get closer to inspect the mystery cat. Sometimes she would paw at the door, giving Oven Cat a sort of high five. Our older cat, on the other hand, paid is reflection no mind.

And here's Oven Dog, from a reader on Slate:

One dog maintained a perpetual growling match with Oven Dog, an unpleasant canine who apparently lived in the oven and was always showing house dog her fiercest expression. The match was usually a draw with both parties wandering away in boredom.

The page also has fun videos from YouTube and links to my stories on what animals think they see when they look in the mirror, so enjoy, and submit your own.

A Magnificent failure: The 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna

The main entrance to the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna. (Photo by Michael Frankenstein via at

The 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna was widely considered a colossal failure — it lost the equivalent of 160 million euro because of a devastating combination of the world’s first truly international financial crisis and Vienna’s last cholera epidemic. In many ways, this is all you need to know to understand the crucial time in history at which the World Exhibition was held: At the beginning of a new era of science and public health, as well rapid communication that enabled rampant speculation and its inevitable consequences.

Educational exhibits were part of the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition. This was an example of an American rural schoolhouse. (via the LOC
The interior of the schoolhouse. (Also via LOC at

A Wien Museum exhibition recently elucidated this period, and the role of the World Exhibition in it, with a fascinating collection of photographs and artifacts. That fast-changing world was trading old scourges for modern ones, and the World Exhibition sat at the fulcrum of that transition. Despite the dark circumstances surrounding the event, it optimistically promoted the world's progress in industry, art, and agriculture, and highlighted foreign lands that were freshly accessible because of new transit options. Built from scratch in Vienna’s enormous city park, it was five times larger than the previous exhibition in Paris, making room for 53,000 exhibitors from 35 countries in 194 pavilions. Almost none of it is left today.

The plan of the 1873 World Exhibition in Vienna from Jutta Pemsel: Die Wiener Weltausstellung von 1873, Verlag Böhlau, 1989 via Wikimedia Commons at

Although the World Exposition itself was a financial disaster, it managed to welcome some 7 million visitors, and the exhibitors themselves left happy: They made money, and the exposure benefited them for years to come. The event also helped inaugurate the era of mass tourism in Vienna some 20 years later than in London and Paris. Today, it’s still possible to wander the streets downtown and see what the World Exhibition’s visitors saw — except then, the buildings were brand new symbols of Vienna’s aspirations, not relics of a time long past.

The machinery hall at the 1873 Vienna World Exhibition via

Scenes from a Louisiana oyster boat



At the Society of Environmental Journalists meeting, I got to go out on an oyster boat operated by John Tesvich and his nephew, Luke. We learned about the challenges to oyster reefs, including Katrina, the BP oil spill, the low-oxygen "dead zone" along Louisiana's coast, and the proposed freshwater diversions that will build up wetlands along the coast.

Above all, oysterers want to preserve their lifestyle, and it's clear why. It's not an easy life, but it's a special one.

(All photos are my own.)


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Taking a Turn on the Space Curl

I get to do a lot of cool things thanks to my job as a science journalist, but this is something that anyone can do at the Vienna Technical Museum, where I spent Yuri's Night (April 12). The Space Curl, in the museum's SPACE exhibition (until January 6, 2015), puts you inside of a gyroscope. In case it's not clear in the video, I'm controlling the Space Curl's movement, although not really expertly. According to the museum's website, it simulates the disorientation experienced in space, and NASA uses it as a training device for astronauts. I thought it was great fun, and I would love to do it again.


Thanks to Christy Reed for taking the video. I didn't know she was going to do that.

How I would fix that scene in Gravity with the questionable physics

Letgo_mobileI know I’m late to the party, but I finally saw Alfonso Cuarón’s space movie Gravity last night. Like Neil deGrasse Tyson and nearly everyone else, I really enjoyed it. That’s why it’s gnawing on me that a pivotal scene relied on some dubious physics.

It’s the one in the promotional image to the left. (If you’ve haven’t seen it yet, I’m shocked, but SPOILER ALERT.) Astronauts Dr. Ryan Stone (Sandra Bullock) and Matthew Kowalski (George Clooney) are in space suits, trying to board the International Space Station. Unfortunately, they approach it at high speed and ricochet around, at the risk of bouncing or sliding off into space, never to come back. Fortunately, some cable catches Stone’s ankle, and she in turn catches a loose tether attached to Kowalski’s suit, forming a chain. They stop in this position to have a conversation, but it’s clear that Kowalski is being pulled out into space, and he eventually releases his tether in order to let Stone survive and return to the ISS.

As many have pointed out, the question is: What the heck is pulling Kowalski out into space? In many, many, many, too many movies, this scene appears like so: Character 1 is hanging over an abyss, with only character 2 to hold him or her, usually by the wrist. Gravity is pulling down, and character 2 either is or isn’t strong enough to hold character 1, so either saves or drops him or her. (In a twist, sometimes character 1 lets go as a self-sacrifice to save the other person, as Kowalski does.)

But in the movie Gravity, the force of gravity is not in play, since it takes place in space. So there’s no reason that Kowalski, once stopped, should float out into space once released. He should just stay where he is. In fact, it’s worse, as Tyson tweeted:

ClooneySome have argued in favor of the physics in this scene, but even if there is some reasonable explanation having to do with momentum or centrifugal force, there’s clearly something wrong when smart people like Bad Astronomer Phil Plait is in the audience wanting to scream, "'CLOONEY DOESN’T HAVE TO DIE!’"

I’m with Plait, of course, but I’m not content to just scream silently in my head. I want to fix this, dammit. As I lay awake after watching it, this is what I came up with as an alternative to this scene:

We start in the same configuration as in the promotional image, with a cable insecurely looped around Stone’s ankle. It has stopped her from floating out into space. She is holding Kowalski’s tether, arm extended, and he has also stopped moving. (I would venture to say that it’s highly improbable that they would actually end up in this position, but the movie is built on improbabilities that are physically possible, so I’ll allow it.)

It appears they are saved. Now all that’s needed is for her to pull him to her, and for them to use the cable to get back to the ISS. But as she pulls, her leg makes a stray kick, accidentally releasing the cable; worse, kicking it just out of reach. Instead of Kowalski coming to her, she and Kowalski move together.

BullockNow they are floating within spitting distance of the ISS (especially in space, where the spit would fly forward forever), but with no way to get there. He has no fuel in his jet pack, and she is quickly running out of oxygen. There’s only one thing to do: He will push her toward the station so she can board it. As a result, he will go flying off in the other direction, never to be seen again. Just like in the original, he sacrifices himself to save her, but in a way that makes physical sense. As he floats away, they have the same touching conversation as in the film.

So that’s my solution. I think it both makes the physics more realistic and avoids the clichéd cliffhanger scene that I have come to resent.

But, gosh, I could be wrong, either from the standpoint of physics or of dramatic integrity. As I was doing the necessary thought experiments to reimagine the scene, I realized that it’s harder than it would seem to work out cause and effect in zero gravity. (I kept going back to the cool frictionless sleds we had in teacher Aaron’s physics class at the fabulous Edmund Burke School in Washington, DC.) That gave me all the more respect for the rest of the film, which gets it really right a very large portion of the time. Seriously, it’s spectacular.

So I very humbly submit this alternative to the interwebs, not so much in the spirit of a movie critique as in the spirit of fan fiction.

Confessions of a science-fair failure

Report_card_orangeIn my last few weeks as editor of Under the Microscope (I'm leaving because of my upcoming move to Vienna), I've helped launch a new online event, Report Card for My Teachers. For this event, anyone -- and especially women in science and math -- can submit a "report card" grading their best and worst teachers from the past.

My report card came out today. In it, I describe my rocky relationship with science fairs. I always did terribly in the science fairs I entered. Once I was one of only four people to enter in the physics category, and I was the only one who didn't medal.

I think I failed again and again because I just didn't get it. I didn't see the point in repeating experiments that had already been done (the vast majority of science-fair entries), but I didn't know what it took to come up with and test an original hypothesis.

Now I know that even Ph.D. scientists struggle to come up with good experiments and fail far more than they succeed. But I really wish I had known that back then. I probably would have thought of myself differently: not as a science failure, but as a scientist-in-the-making.

Science "shoulds"?

CleggIn the past few weeks, I've written two stories about cohorts of scientists who are trying to change the way science is done. The first, co-written with friend and colleague Corinna Wu and published in Science, is about a movement to incentivize (or perhaps even require) scientists to use more female mice and rats in basic research. They believe that this will lead to better medicine for both women and men.

Corinna and I first became aware of this issue thanks to Deborah Clegg's talk at the 2009 CASW conference in Austin, TX. (Here's the video; the talk was about something else, but she hinted at the dearth of male subjects in basic research.) During a one-on-one conversation later that day, Debbie (pictured in the photo from the UT Southwestern Medical Center) told me that she started using females completely by accident. It was her first day of graduate school, and her adviser told her to go grab some male mice (or rats, I don't remember) for an experiment. She thought she knew what the males looked like, but she didn't, and she grabbed females instead. She decided to stick with them, though, and soon became one of the leading researchers on estrogen.

She's got other good stories, too, which come out in this Q&A I did with her for Under the Microscope several months ago. 

20080408_eisen_jonathan_09The second story I recently wrote (this time for Science Careers) is on the Open Science movement (photo here is of Jonathan Eisen by Karin Higgins). Advocates of Open Notebook Science and Open Data say that publicly funded science should be totally transparent -- "no insider information" is the motto. The day it was published, I initiated what turned out to be a fascinating discussion about it on FriendFeed. The discussion ranges from practical tips for practicing Open Notebook Science to the parallels between science and journalism.

Will these movements get some traction? I don't know. If there's one thing that I've learned about scientists in all these years, it's that they don't like to be told how to do their science.