Nathalie Jonsson

Science Writer 

  1. You and your legacy...

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    Last week I launched my first website. It should have been a huge achievement and there should have been fireworks and champagne, the inanimate objects in my flat should have serenaded my victory like your standard Disney movie. But it was not like that. The project was done and I had other pressing matters (like finding my next project!).

    Jonathan Haidt describes the exact same reaction in his book The Happiness Hypothesis. The actual act of completion is less rewarding than the journey there. It’s in the short bursts of challenge and growing skill where the true joy lies.

    The theory behind this is known as the progress principle and is based on how reinforcement (think Pavlov’s dogs) works. Our brains understand a short burst of reward immediately after an action. It provides a distinct feeling of success that you want to keep on chasing. Working on projects is always most rewarding while you are making small advances towards completion.

    Any relief you may feel when a project is finished is fleeting because the brain is unable to provide immediate reward for something that was started months or weeks ago. It will most likely provide a ‘meh’ at the fact that you just sent that final email or that a client just officially launched something that was already built. Also, any prolonged exposure to the reward chemical dopamine only makes the brain adapt and it will become the new normal.

    So, looking at life with this new perspective, maybe it is the everyday grind that matters the most and not what you produced in the end. What if your legacy is not that important and the reward was in the many small everyday steps towards the goal?

  2. Just don't spend too much time on it...

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    When I was working as a writer for a large company I was told that one of my weaknesses was my seemingly obsessive need to always work on the visual impact of my pieces. I was expected to write words, make sure that they were supported by scientific data and then proofread those words for spelling errors. Anything else was considered a waste of time (and a waste of the client’s money) and as such, it drove my colleagues in charge of budgets crazy.

    During annual reviews and goal-setting exercises, I always had to reflect on why I experimented with colour-coding and visual elements to convey scientific data. Every time I would have to promise to only explore it when given the opportunity, but the truth is that I couldn’t control it. I didn’t know why I so often ended up with visual output when I was only asked to “write”. And it made me miserable.

    Today, when I am not in that job anymore, I feel less apologetic about it because I am just an autotelic person and we are always on the hunt for flow. Flow is a state at which your concentration is sky-high, time flies and you experience being at one with your work. Maybe one way to describe it is that point at which “the work writes itself”. We need it so bad that we often engineer situations to let us escape into flow.

    You probably know the type, these are the people who would rather stay at their desk, immersed in their work task than chit-chat with you. Don’t take it personally though, compared to the average person they are just better at getting into flow and at holding on to it. They also goddamn love it, much more than others.

    The autotelic person is able to mix business with pleasure and manage to build skills while enjoying the play of identifying the hidden challenges. They find enjoyment in breaking down problems deemed impossible by others (be it an angry rambling client or a complex scientific theorem), but also show persistence and concentration at tasks in a way that helps to acquire new skills.

    So maybe that colleague that always completes work in an unexpected way is not such a big problem. Maybe it’s their personality type and fighting it would be fighting the actual person? Maybe there are strengths in that personality type that could be harnessed and used to its advantage?

    Maybe you could just “go with the flow”?

  3. What happened after IKEA asked you many personal questions

    Sometimes you’re faced with a spread sheet of data and other times you have to read a 50-page report to understand what data the data means. Often there is a story hiding between the numbers that you have to work very hard to figure out.

    At other times data is presented in a format that really enhances that story. Ikea has complied its ‘Like at home’ report that for the first time surveyes the morning rituals in 8 cities around the world: Berlin, London, Moscow, Mumbai, New York, Paris, Shanghai, and Stockholm.

    In addition to being a compelling way of presenting data, the report also reveals some differences in morning rituals between the different cities. For instance, who knew that people in Stockholm snooze the most, that people in Mumbai and Shanghai wake up more quickly than in the other nations and that Moscow has the highest number of coffee or tea drinkers in the morning.

  4. How to make better decisions? Get to know your future self

    How do you change what people do and how they behave? More importantly, how can you persuade people to make decisions that will serve them better in the future?

    One theory is explored in the article Why we procrastinate published in the online version of Nautilus.

    In the article, assistant professor at New York University’s Stern School of Business, Hal Hershfield explains that: “It’s kind of a weird notion,”…”On a psychological and emotional level, we really consider that future self as if it’s another person.”

    It also hypothesises that: …procrastination or irresponsibility can derive from a poor connection to your future self, strengthening this connection may prove to be an effective remedy.

    And sure, psychologist Anne Wilson at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada confirms that: “Using a longer timeline makes people feel more connected to their future selves.”

    To test this theory, watch the following video and see if you would do anything differently for your future self.

  5. Is big data useless just because it disrupts scientific tradition?

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    I was once in a room of scientists discussing big data.The discussion went something like this:

    Big data is too big. How would you know what to look for? In traditional scientific investigation, you have one hypothesis and gather data to either prove or disprove that one hypothesis. Everything else you conclude and think you might see in the data are only your suspicions. To know for sure you need to conduct a whole new experiment focusing on each individual suspicion.

    Big data is not very precise. One of the most important measures used to validate traditional scientific data is statistical significance, which is an indicator of whether or not your result is likely to be a real effect or just be a coincidence.

    Then the discussion moved on to how Google had ambitiously tried to predict flu epidemics by tracking searches made by the public and failed.

    And at that moment, when big data had almost been written off as the latest trend that would never add value to anyone ever, I realised that we were all wrong. That just because we could not apply our traditional measures of what is accurate data on large volumes of data does not make it useless.

    Today, big data does play an important part in tracking epidemics and plays an important part in tracking Ebola right now. In fact, it seems like the HealthMap algorithm that mines the social web for mentions of Ebola managed to detect the epidemic nine days before the World Health Organization.

    So, it is quite harsh to deem an entire science useless just because it gets predictions wrong, try telling Francis Galton, English scientist born in 1822, who constructed the world’s first weather map.

  6. Preaching To The Choir Or Converting The Unbelievers

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    I have never had a science teacher that made me fascinated by science. I do not come from a family of scientists. I actually spent the first 18 years of my life trying to avoid science.

    When I was 16, I chose to study languages. I mainly did it because English was ‘easy’. I knew I’d get away with a good grade. I thought that, unlike science, languages are really simple. They are all about rules. Just learn the rules of how to conjugate verbs in French, learn the exceptions by heart and fluency will be within reach. An added bonus was that at beginner’s level just showing effort would lead to a good grade.

    Then at some point, I had to do some basic science classes. I was extremely unexcited at the prospect and probably skimmed through a French glossary in class. Then we got a handout on which we had to answer questions about the bases that make up DNA. My friend and I flicked through the biology book in search of complex answers.

    We were surprised to find that there are only four bases in DNA and they bind to each other in pairs and are most commonly known by their one-letter names: AT and CG. We had to ask our teacher if there were any exceptions that we could learn by heart. There were none. That was it. Our teacher prompted us to move on to the next question. We had never been so productive. No dictionaries, discussion of what was the most appropriate verb and not even Babel fish.

    A few years later, while studying biology at university, I was on the floor of my student accommodation drawing a visual representation of how DNA is duplicated. I was studying for my next exam, but most importantly I was having fun. In all honesty, it wasn’t that difficult. I wondered why I had been so reluctant all my life, why I had thought science was so hard.

    I vowed that I would do all in my power to make other people find science as interesting as I did. And I today I believe that the best way to do this is to approach the topic in new ways and make it easy to understand.

    There are others that also try to make scientific concepts easy to understand. In specific, a group of scientists based at the Blizard Institute in Whitechapel researching Multiple Sclerosis (MS) at Queen Mary University of London. They have developed an innovative take on how to explain MS to children who might have a parent suffering from the condition.

    To me, the mission of converting the science unbelievers is an important one. Hopefully, by attempting it, at least one youngster out there will dare to get excited about science and not run a mile whenever it is mentioned.

  7. The Power Of A Fingerprint

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    The sci-fi dream of instant identification through fingerprint scanning has finally arrived as mainstream technology that many of us will interact with every day. Apart from granting access to the Aladdin’s cave that our mobile phones currently are, researchers have obsessively looked into the possibility of diagnosing disease from fingerprint patterns. It may seem farfetched, but statistics show that maybe it’s not such a bad idea.

    We have much still to learn about our unique fingerprints. Exactly how they form is unknown. One theory is that we somehow inherit the patterns from our parents. To add complexity, the prints must also be maintained throughout life, since they don’t fade away with time. Some theories claim that fingerprints are very useful and could have evolved to improve gripping of objects and sensation of different surfaces.

    Fingerprint identification entered the realm of science in the later half of the 1800s. Back then, the focus was on forensics and new ways to catch criminals. In 1864 Professor Paul-Jean Coulier published his newfound technique making it possible to see and identify left over or accidental fingerprints at crime scenes. Since researchers started studying prints, a lot of faith has been put in the information they hold.

    In the past few decades, researchers have looked at fingerprints taken from people diagnosed with certain diseases and tried to find common characteristics in the prints. The idea could make it possible to diagnose other people by just looking for the same patterns in their fingerprints. So far, statistics show that a connection can be made between certain pattern characteristics and a large number of diseases, including arthritis, asthma, breast cancer, and schizophrenia.

    So, if your phone one day will be able to diagnose you is hard to fully predict, but we sure seem to think that our fingerprints can unlock more secrets than the ones we have stored in our phones.

  8. What Is the Ugliest Animal In the World, You Wonder...

    So the internet is all about watching cuddly kittens falling into toilets and puppies riding robot vacuum cleaners, right?! Well not anymore.

    The Ugly Animal Preservation Society teamed up with the National Science + Engineering Competition and asked the public to vote for the ugliest animal in the world to be the society’s mascot.

    And the result was announced today: Out of the 11 candidates the Blobfish was victorious as the ugliest animal.

    Personally, I think I would have voted for the Proboscis monkey or the…eh…Titicaca scrotum fog.