Good Sci-Fi quote

“When you form a good bond, it’s an advantage. And when it’s gone, you’re weaker without it,” Paul explained, not tearing up but Kara could hear the strain his voice as he shut off his own memories from her. “If you relied upon it, then you will be hobbled. So the trick of it is to gain from it, but not rely on it. You doubt your own merit, and are relying on others for any calibration you can get. That leaves you vulnerable when it gets pulled out from under you.”

Humans are made to be touched — so what happens when we aren’t?

Humans are made to be touched — so what happens when we aren’t?

Watch Helena Wasling’s TEDxGöteborg Talk here:

Our bodies are designed to respond to touch, and not just to sense the environment around us. We actually have a network of dedicated nerve fibers in our skin that detect and emotionally respond to the touch of another person — affirming our relationships, our social connections and even our sense of self.

So, what happens when we don’t receive that?

This was one of the first questions that neuroscientist Helena Wasling PhD considered when social distancing restrictions were introduced to curb the spread of COVID-19. Based at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden, she has studied these nerves — known as C tactile or CT afferents — and their importance to our emotions for over a decade.

“What struck me very early on, in the first week of being told that we were restricted from touch,  was that people no longer knew how to behave,” she says.

Even if you don’t consider yourself to be a tactile person, touch is — or was — embedded in the social structure of our lives. From meeting a new colleague and evaluating their handshake to giving a friend a long hug when we haven’t seen them in a while, it is one of the fundamental ways we have all learned to relate to one another. “To take it away is a very big intervention,” says Wasling.

New York based psychologist Guy Winch PhD agrees; “Touch is something we associate with emotional closeness, and we associate the absence of it with emotional distance. We may not fully appreciate it, but in pre-pandemic life there were literally dozens of small moments of touch throughout the day.”

This is significant not just in the landscape of our minds, but that of our bodies. Being emotionally and socially responsive to touch is so biologically fundamental to us that CT afferents are present over almost every inch of our skin, absent only from the palms of our hands and the soles of our feet.

These nerves are, Wasling explains in her TEDxGöteborg talk, particularly attuned to three things: a light touch, gently moving, and around 32 degrees Celsius (89F). Which just happens to be human skin temperature. So they are programmed to be most responsive to a gentle caress from another person.

Rather than simply telling our brains that this touch has happened — this is the role of other receptors in the skin that help the primary somatosensory cortex to processes physical sensations — CT afferents instead send signals to the insular cortex. “This is a deeper part of the cortex that deals more with your emotional equilibrium,” explains Wasling. “So you will get kind of a vague sensation. In the best of cases, it will be: ‘That was nice. I’m accepted. I feel safer now. Someone is counting on me.’ CT afferents also have pathways to parts of the brain that deal with who you are socially.”

For people who have now been living without that connection for a long time, it can be incredibly difficult, says Winch. “I have friends and patients that I work with who have not been touched in a year. At all. Not a handshake. And they are really suffering for it. There’s something that feels very distancing and cold about not having any kind of option for an embrace, and that can leave long lasting scars.”

Hugs, the form of touch we probably all miss the most, are particularly important and emotionally nourishing, says Winch. “When someone’s crying and we hold them, we’re doing it to comfort, but what it allows them to do is cry more. People usually will hold it together until somebody puts an arm around them, and then they’ll break down because that hug represents security and safety, and because of the closeness we feel when we know and trust that person.”

Moreover, the benefits of touch that we are missing out on are not just emotional and social but also physical; it can reduce pain and stress, as well as giving us a general feeling of wellbeing. These are the areas, says Wasling, where we may be able to support ourselves when we need to go for prolonged periods without social touch.

Here are some of the ways that we can ease the difficulty of living without this closeness — both for ourselves, and the people in our lives.

Take a shower or have a warm bath.

Although it doesn’t elicit quite the same physiological response as interpersonal touch, Wasling says the slow movement of the water on your skin is likely to generate a CT afferent response. Having a warm bath also relaxes your muscles, which can help to alleviate tension.

Cuddle a pet, or ask to walk someone else’s.

“Just being close to a furry animal has been shown to lower your stress, reduce your heart rate and your blood pressure,” says Wasling. You also have a social relationship with your pet — they rely on you and need you to show up for them.

There’s been a noted increase in people adopting pets during the pandemic, and at least one study has identified the potential therapeutic benefits of human-animal relationships when we are denied our normal level of human social interaction.

If you are able to see anyone in person, be wholly present — even if you can’t touch.

When we remove touch from our social interactions, we should consider what else we can emphasize instead. “Maybe we could be better at looking each other in the eyes, if we do have physical meetings,” suggests Wasling. “We can make sure that we see each other, because touching a person is a way of saying that ‘I see you, I acknowledge your existence.’”

Don’t be afraid to have deeper, more meaningful conversations where you really listen — especially if you know someone might be isolated or lonely. While these interactions don’t activate the same touch-based neural pathways, they still stimulate our social sense of belonging and intimacy, says Winch.

Don’t just “check in” on people who are alone — connect with them meaningfully.

It feels like everyone from our employers to the Twittersphere to US vice president Kamala Harris is reminding us to check in on our single friends. But are we going the right way about it?

“When we say ‘check in’ that’s like a checkbox. Tick; done,” says Winch. But that really isn’t enough. While the boredom and frustration of lockdowns are similar experiences for everyone, being isolated from the regular physical closeness of friends and family is uniquely difficult for people who are alone; the elderly, those who live by themselves, and those who are in high risk categories and cannot chance even one hug.

“If you just check in, that’s not going to be sufficient. You should be talking for at least 15 – 20 minutes for that to be a meaningful conversation. You have to really connect,” says Winch. If you’re both feeling Zoom fatigue, try each taking a walk while you talk on the phone.

If friends have described feeling ghostly or unreal, do your best to appreciate that the absence of touch has been a significant emotional loss for them during this time. One that you may never fully understand. Try not to say “I know how you feel,” if you are not in the same position.

“You know that when you touch things, they’re real to you,” says Wasling. “One of the reasons why I think touch is so important is that it makes you convinced you have a place in the social world of other people.”

As we look towards a vaccinated future, it is difficult to know right now how the pandemic will change our social attitudes towards touch in the long term. Will we still shake hands? Hug colleagues? A UK study conducted from January to March 2020, mostly before lockdown measures were introduced, found that 54 percent of people already felt they had too little touch in their lives. So we may well want this aspect of our lives to return as soon as possible.

But one facet that worries Winch is how the pandemic has actually reshaped our relationship with touch; “We took the thing that represents something so close, intimate and important, and now it represents something that’s actually dangerous and you should avoid. Even if we don’t fully register it, we are going to feel surges of anxiety at the idea of getting a hug. It’s going to take a while to bring us down from the danger alert of touch.”

A “no math” (but seven-part) guide to modern quantum mechanics

A “no math” (but seven-part) guide to modern quantum mechanics

Welcome to “The curious observer’s guide to quantum mechanics”–featuring particle/wave duality.

by Miguel F. Morales –

Quantum mechanics is complex, fold-your-brain stuff. But it can be explained.Aurich Lawson / Getty Images

Some technical revolutions enter with drama and a bang, others wriggle unnoticed into our everyday experience. And one of the quietest revolutions of our current century has been the entry of quantum mechanics into our everyday technology. It used to be that quantum effects were confined to physics laboratories and delicate experiments. But modern technology increasingly relies on quantum mechanics for its basic operation, and the importance of quantum effects will only grow in the decades to come.

As such, the time has come to explain quantum mechanics—or, at least, its basics.

After cracking the ‘sum of cubes’ puzzle for 42, researchers discover a new solution for 3

After cracking the ‘sum of cubes’ puzzle for 42, researchers discover a new solution for 3 by Jennifer Chu , Massachusetts Institute of Technology

In September 2019, researchers, harnessing the combined power of half a million home computers around the world, for the first time found a solution to 42. The widely reported breakthrough spurred the team to tackle an even harder, and in some ways more universal problem: finding the next solution for 3. Credits: Christine Daniloff, MIT

What do you do after solving the answer to life, the universe, and everything? If you’re mathematicians Drew Sutherland and Andy Booker, you go for the harder problem.

In 2019, Booker, at the University of Bristol, and Sutherland, principal research scientist at MIT, were the first to find the answer to 42. The number has pop culture significance as the fictional answer to “the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything,” as Douglas Adams famously penned in his novel “The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy.” The question that begets 42, at least in the novel, is frustratingly, hilariously unknown.

In mathematics, entirely by coincidence, there exists a polynomial equation for which the answer, 42, had similarly eluded mathematicians for decades. The equation x3+y3+z3=k is known as the sum of cubes problem. While seemingly straightforward, the equation becomes exponentially difficult to solve when framed as a “Diophantine equation”—a problem that stipulates that, for any value of k, the values for x, y, and z must each be whole numbers.

When the sum of cubes equation is framed in this way, for certain values of k, the integer solutions for x, y, and z can grow to enormous numbers. The number space that mathematicians must search across for these numbers is larger still, requiring intricate and massive computations.

Over the years, mathematicians had managed through various means to solve the equation, either finding a solution or determining that a solution must not exist, for every value of k between 1 and 100—except for 42.

In September 2019, Booker and Sutherland, harnessing the combined power of half a million home computers around the world, for the first time found a solution to 42. The widely reported breakthrough spurred the team to tackle an even harder, and in some ways more universal problem: finding the next solution for 3.

Booker and Sutherland have now published the solutions for 42 and 3, along with several other numbers greater than 100, this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences

Washington is the best state for the second year in a row. Obviously!

Washington is the best state for the second year in a row. Obviously!

Seattle’s skyline is seen from Ella Bailey Park in Magnolia in February. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)
Seattle’s skyline is seen from Ella Bailey Park in Magnolia in February. (Greg Gilbert / The Seattle Times)

By Christine Clarridge Seattle Times staff reporter

Everyone knows the Pacific Northwest is the best and Washington is the best of the best, especially compared to other states.

But that seems kind of mean and elitist, so we don’t talk about it too much among our friends from other states, right? Right?

U.S. News & World Report, however, has no such compunction, boldly naming Washington the best state in the union for the second time in a row — the only state to be so named twice — and unapologetically identifying the worst.

The most recent rankings, released on Tuesday, were drawn from government and proprietary data covering more than 70 metrics and weighted to what U.S. News & World Report said matters most to people: health care, education, the economy, infrastructure, opportunity, fiscal stability, crime, corrections and a state’s natural environment.

“Washington’s low-carbon energy system and robust secondary education system continue to rank among the nation’s best, as does the state’s economy, the fastest growing in the nation,” according to an article on the Best States rankings.

The other states at the top of the 2021 ranking are: Minnesota, Utah, New Hampshire and Idaho, in second through fifth places respectively.