Saturday, April 22, 2006

What we talk about at the bar

(And if you think this is geeky, you haven't seen Dan and me complaining to each other in Morse code while someone's telling a boring story.)
  • New Scientist just reported new evidence of a split between form and function: apparently websites proportioned according to the Golden Ratio are the least user-friendly. Specifically, when the ratio between the navigation bar and the content frame was (1+√5)/2, users had a significantly harder time finding information than they did when the ratio was smaller. Of course, this leads us to the radical conclusion that design is not the same as art, and what people find pleasing is not the same as what they find useful. Although I'm actually a bit uncertain on the "pleasing" part; it's true that phi seems to show up an awful lot in natural forms and in art, but it's also true that this conclusion probably involves some fudging. As the Skeptical Enquirer points out, "Measurements of parts of a building, or work of art, have such fuzzy boundaries that it is easy to find phi when ratios close to phi fit just as well." It seems there are as many experiments showing that people like a 1.83 ratio (Markowsky) as that they like 1.618 (Fechner).

  • Also from New Scientist: Nobel laureates warn Bush that nuclear attacks are, you know, not so good for children and other living things. I actually brought this up at dinner, but I should have waited until we got to the bar, because I can't think of any response to this other than heavy drinking. As Dan pointed out, if he's seriously considering the nuclear option, it's not physicists we need. It's Special Ops assassins. How coked-up do you have to have been during the Cold War to require eminent physicists telling you that nukes are a bad idea?

  • Shaggy insisted, probably because of his own imposing mandible, that chin size is determined by testosterone and, accordingly, directly correlated to testosterone levels. I can't find any support for the second claim that doesn't look like phrenology, but one of the late pubertal effects of testosterone does seem to be jaw growth. I'm still on the fence about whether we can take this to mean that Amy Grant is a hormonal hermaphrodite. I'm also trying to reconcile it with the fact that mandibular prognathism is a symptom of Klinefelter Syndrome (in other words, men with an extra X chromosome have big jaws).

    I was willing to grant that men find small chins attractive on women and women find strong chins attractive on men, but apparently it's not that simple. Well, the part about men liking tiny ineffectual baby jaws is that simple, but according to Discover, the ladies are a little more choosy about chins:
    There's no question that a dose of this classic "maleness" does contribute to what is now called handsome. Actor Brad Pitt, widely regarded as a modern paradigm of male attractiveness, is a wide-jaw guy. Biologically speaking, he subconsciously persuades a female that he could chew more nutrients out of a leafy stalk than the average potential father of her children-a handy trait, in hunter-gatherer days anyway, to pass on to progeny.

    But a woman's agenda in seeking a mate is considerably more complex than simply whelping strong-jawed kids. While both men and women desire healthy, fertile mates, a man can-and, to some extent, is biologically driven to-procreate with as many women as possible. Conversely, a woman, "thinks about the long haul," notes Etcoff. "Much of mate choice is about finding a helpmate to bring up the baby." In several studies, women presented with the hypermale face (the "Neanderthal type" as Etcoff puts it) judged its owner to be uncaring, aggressive, and unlikely to be a good father.
    Also, get this: "Female preferences in male faces oscillate in tandem with the menstrual cycle, suggests a study conducted by Perrett and Japanese researchers and published [June 1999] in Nature." Can't wait to bust that one out on Shaggy next time we go drinking.


Laura said...

Biologically speaking, he [Brad Pitt!] subconsciously persuades a female that he could chew more nutrients out of a leafy stalk than the average potential father of her children

This kind of sentence is why I find evolutionary psychology hilarious. I mean, I understand they've qualified this with "biologically speaking" and "subconsciously," but I've certainly read other evo. psych. articles that didn't. And they sound like morons, no matter how scientific they're trying to sound.

This is not really a substantive comment; I don't disagree that there are biological underpinnings for sexual attraction. I just people sound inevitably goofy when they talk about them.

4/22/2006 2:30 PM  
jess said...

It is goofy. I'm also not really convinced that it's true. Okay, so at one point Brad Pitt's jaw either signalled that he had a lot of testosterone (Shaggy's theory) or that he could, uh, chew really well. But are we reacting to that, even subconsciously, at this point in our evolution? Or do we just find strong-jawed men handsome because we've always found strong-jawed men handsome, we've been taught that strong-jawed men are considered handsome, and the men who have been presented to us as handsome have been strong-jawed?

4/22/2006 5:40 PM  
jess said...

(Of course the answer, in true Triple Helix fashion, is almost undoubtedly "a little of both.")

4/22/2006 6:51 PM  

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