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Brainiac

Turbulence? Blame gravity waves

And other recent highlights from the Ideas blog

Globe staff

From a window seat in coach, it often seems like turbulence strikes for no reason. You’re flying through cloudless skies when suddenly the plane shakes and the seat-belt light dings on. It would be nice to think that the pilots, at least, saw the rough air coming, but often they’re caught by surprise, too.

That may be about to change. A recent study by the National Center for Atmospheric Research, or NCAR, proposes a new explanation for why turbulence crops up. It owes to something called atmospheric “gravity waves.”

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Even if you’ve never heard of gravity waves, you’ve definitely seen them in action. Think of the ripples created when a rock is dropped into a pond: The force of the dropped rock propels the water upwards while gravity pulls the disturbed water back to its equilibrium state. Or consider waves at the beach: They’re gravity waves, too, produced when the wind whips up the ocean surface and gravity pulls the
water back down.

The same principle applies in the earth’s atmosphere. Robert Sharman, author of the NCAR study, explains that atmospheric gravity waves occur when air moving up and down through the atmosphere hits resistance. For example, clouds rise from the troposphere into the more stable air of the stratosphere and the collision, as it were, sends out waves of air around the clouds. Sometimes those waves peter into nothingness; sometimes they run into airplanes, breaking on the body of a 747 the same way ocean waves break when they hit the shore. Turbulence happens, and you spill your Diet Coke.

Sharman and his team are currently analyzing turbulence data from airplane flight recorders in order to build a model for forecasting gravity waves. If their model gets good enough, pilots will be able to steer around choppy air, and you’ll find yourself with more time to move around the cabin.

Ryan North

If you choose to be, turn to page 29, if you choose not to be...

Over at Kickstarter, the hopelessly indecisive Hamlet has found his genre. Comic illustrator Ryan North, who amuses a great many millennials with his wry Dinosaur Comics, has been raising money to publish a choose-your-own-adventure version of Shakespeare’s tragedy. The Kickstarter pitch promises the ability to act as Hamlet, Ophelia, or the ghost of Hamlet Sr. (among others) and swears off the capricious deaths that for decades have given CYOA fiction a bad name. People seem intrigued. The fund-raising campaign, which closed on Dec. 21, had an initial goal of $20,000 but ended up pulling in $580,905, a Kickstarter record for a publishing project. The book is due in May, at which point Hamlet, mercifully, will get some help answering his famous question.

Psych wars

It’s no secret that rates of psychiatric conditions like autism and attention-deficit disorder have spiraled upward in recent years—increases that have sparked an intense debate about where to draw the line between what’s considered “normal” behavior and what’s not. The American Psychiatric Association is in charge of drawing these lines, and its latest effort to do so—the fifth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, or DSM-5—is scheduled to be published in April.

The book isn’t even out and already a backlash has begun: Some experts who have seen the recently finalized text are charging that this new version of “the bible” of psychiatric disorders goes too far in prescribing psychiatric treatment for ostensibly normal human behavior. Writing earlier this month in Psychology Today, psychiatrist Allen Frances argues that the DSM-5 creates psychiatric conditions where none really exist. In his article, Frances, who chaired the committee that oversaw the book’s previous edition, the DSM-IV (released in 1994), outlines what he takes to be the “ten most potentially harmful changes” in the DSM-5. These include the creation of categories that reinterpret behaviors like grief, excessive eating, and forgetfulness as psychiatric disorders.

Echoing a critique made by the British Psychological Society of a draft of the DSM-5 in 2011, Frances worries that this expansion of psychiatric diagnoses may lead people away from the kinds of help they really need:

“Normal grief will become Major Depressive Disorder, thus medicalizing and trivializing our expectable and necessary emotional reactions to the loss of a loved one and substituting pills and superficial medical rituals for the deep consolations of family, friends, religion, and the resiliency that comes with time and the acceptance of the limitations of life.”

The growing purview of the DSM invites conspiracy theories—that committee members, many of whom have industry ties, are in cahoots with pharmaceutical companies to sell more drugs. Frances rejects this idea and instead proposes a subtler explanation for why the DSM—which is nearly 10 times as long today as it was when it was first published in 1952—expands with every revision. “Theirs is an intellectual, not financial, conflict of interest,” he writes, “that results from the natural tendency of highly specialized experts to over value their pet ideas, to want to expand their own areas of research interest.” Or, put another way: Over-
Eagerness-to-Apply-Your-Professional-Perspective Disorder.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in Ann Arbor, Mich.
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