It's still early days for the British band Glass Animals, but with just a handful of songs they've definitely gotten our attention. Their latest groover, "Gooey," has an undulating sexiness that makes it worthy of heavy rotation. The Kingdom remix drops the vocal to emphasize sheer atmospheric cool.
Through the spring, NPR will be tracking eight runners competing in the 2014 Boston Marathon. This is the story of Eric Ashe, the fastest of the eight.
At mile 10, he could tell it was going to be close. Eric had consistently run each mile at a 4:47 pace.
He had to finish 13.1 miles in 65 minutes to qualify for a spot in the Olympic trials in Los Angeles in 2016.
But he was hurting by mile 10. It's at that point, Eric says, "where your mind starts telling you to slow down." But the conditions were perfect. A little humid but just the right temperature. And Houston is a fast course.
So he didn't listen to his brain and kept going at a blazing speed. If he were a car, he'd be rolling through the flat Houston streets at 12 miles per hour.
The 25-year-old is staging a sort of comeback. He was injured all of last summer and his college career finished with heartbreak in 2011. He had had his eyes set on making the Olympic trials in the steeplechase and missed his goal by four seconds.
"I thought it was over," Eric says. "I thought I would run again, but road races, for fun."
But less than three years later, he was testing his body again, trying to become one of the 80-or-so American men who get to compete for a chance to make the Olympic marathon team. Less than three years later, his life was again ruled by the measurement of seconds.
Mile 11 went just as planned, like clockwork, a 4:57 pace. But by mile 12 his brain had won out. He lost 11 seconds that mile.
He was back on pace by the time he hit mile 13. Flanked by the skyscrapers of downtown, he could see the finish line, the clock above it ticking off the last 30 seconds before the door to Los Angeles slammed shut.
"When I crossed the finish line," Eric says, "I saw the clock showed 65:00."
He didn't get his hopes up. That clock is unofficial. The official time would be determined by a computer that read a chip embedded in Eric's race bib as he crossed the start line and again when he crossed the finish line.
About 20 minutes passed and the computer handed down its verdict: 65:01.
He was one second too slow.
If you take a calculator to it, Ashe finished the race in 3,901 seconds. That's a pace of 297.786 seconds per mile. A pace of 297.709 seconds would have gotten him to the Olympic trials in Los Angeles.
Hundredths of a second per mile. That's what separated Ashe from becoming one of the chosen.
Houston had become another heartbreak. But he wasn't done. His next shot at qualifying comes at the Boston Marathon on April 21, where the magic number is 2 hours and 18 minutes.
I met Eric at a coffee shop close to his house in Brookline on the outskirts of Boston.
The Boston Marathon course winds its final miles through the neighborhood. It comes just after runners crest Heartbreak Hill, a nasty piece of road that tests everyone with a steep 91-foot climb just as their energy is plummeting from the exertion of making it that far in the first place.
Brookline comes at mile 23 in the marathon. It's peppered with cruel little hills. But by that point, runners can smell the finish line. They can see the top of the Prudential Building in central Boston, reminding them that Boylston is within reach.
By the time I got to the cafe, Eric was already sitting in a corner, nursing a cup of coffee.
That morning he had won a 10-mile race in Amherst, Mass. With the warm up and the cool down, he logged 20 miles that day. But he decided to run to the coffee shop, anyway, to get in a mile or two of recovery.
Ashe's life is ruled by running. By the time his training for the Boston Marathon peaks, he'll be racking up more than 100 miles a week. He pulls out his phone to show me his training log. He points to February 16.
"That was my first day off in like three months. I was sick."
The rest of the calendar is replete with two-a-day entries: Five miles in the morning, 10 miles in the afternoon. A 20-mile Sunday is followed by a 15-mile Monday.
What's even more astonishing is that, in a lot of ways, Ashe is putting in this kind of effort for free. He's one of those runners who is just seconds-per-mile slower than some of the athletes who are paid to run by major shoe companies.
While the Boston Athletic Association sponsors him, Eric is essentially on his own. So he has to juggle a few gigs — including a sales job at a running store in Newton — to sustain his running. Every once in while, he also enters some races, like that 10-miler in Amherst, to try and win a few hundred dollars in spending cash.
I ask Eric what keeps him going. He thinks about it, says he's always tried hard at everything he's taken on.
"I know I can improve 5 seconds," he says. Houston taught him that his lungs are ready for the kind of pace it'll take to break 2:18 in Boston.
"Now, it's a matter of whether my legs can do it. It's possible."
He's aiming high and he's giving up a lot for what seems like a far-fetched dream. However slim his chances are of becoming a professional runner, Eric already lives in rarified air.
As Runner's World has reported, about half-a-million people in the United States finished a marathon in 2011. Just two percent finished in under three hours. Only the most talented athletes in the world finish in the lower end of the two-hour mark. About 80 U.S. runners will make the Olympic trials. And only three of those go on to represent the country at the Olympics. Frank Shorter was the last American to win gold. That was Munich in 1972.
I ask Eric, again, why is he doing this?
"I guess I want to be great," he says, laying out a plan in which he knocks a few minutes off his marathon time for the next few years and eventually makes it to the summit.
Right after the disappointment of his final college season, his fifth, Ashe all but gave up. He decided he would use his degree in international relations and criminology to get a job and live a normal life. He got a job at Fidelity as a building security supervisor, earning decent money. But running never left his heart.
"I have a cousin who's really good at singing and he moved to Los Angeles to follow his dream," Eric says. People may question his decision, he explains, but they understand. Running is a lot like that; running is a lot like art.
So, less than a year after he started his corporate job, Eric walked away from it to follow his muse.
"If I didn't do this, I would regret it."
It's a cold, windy Boston afternoon, but Tom Derderian doesn't bother with a coat.
He's a guy you've probably never heard of, but he's a central character in the story of American long-distance running. In the mid seventies, Derderian was running alongside greats like Alberto Salazar and Bill Rodgers and he was being coached by Bill Squires at the Greater Boston Track Club. He is also the author of the definitive history of the Boston Marathon. He's a man who has spent countless hours thinking about running and writing about running.
We talk a bit about what separates the greats from the second tier. He's says it's a blending of three things: talent, ambition and durability. When I ask him where he places himself, he doesn't blink.
There's no need for a subjective rating, he says.
"In the sport of running, unlike other things, there's numbers attached to it. So there is all your performances, all the times and all the places, that's that," he says. "That's what track and field is: rating human performance as precisely as possible."
About Derderian we know: He made the Olympic trials in 1972 and 1976. We also know his crowning performance at the Boston Marathon was a 2:19:04 effort in 1975. That's far behind the 2:09 and 2:08 efforts that made Rodgers and Salazar American legends.
The severity of Derderian's answer struck me. Subjectiveness, after all, is an essential part of art. I asked him what he thought about Eric comparing himself to an artist.
"That's not just a comparison; it's exactly the same," Derderian says. "The purpose of art is to create an emotional experience in those who are experiencing the art. That's the same with racing."
Derderian says that's what happened during the 10-mile race Ashe won in Amherst. He was competing against Ruben Sanca, who represented Cape Verde in the London Olympics.
"It was Eric and Ruben; they broke away from the pack early, man against man," Derderian says. "That's an emotional thing. That's artistry. How do you have your brain communicate with your body to do what it needs to do to create the emotional experience in whoever is paying attention, principally the other guy."
Racing is like a fist fight, Derderian says, the cadence of his speech quickening. Then he draws a distinction: Racers are not runners. Racers are concerned about those around them, while runners are concerned with themselves.
"Racers are out there on the ragged edge," Derderian says. "They have to go to that line, to the edge of collapse, either in the short term during the race itself or in the long term during training because most of the competition in running takes place during the training."
Right before we say goodbye, Derderian stops me to drop another piece of running wisdom. That's his style. He talks about running like Robert Hughes wrote about Goya.
"People who hate to lose are not going to go through with a running career because you have to lose and lose and lose to get to a point where you can win, to get to a place where you'll lose again."
The track feels like a highway.
Eric is standing in the middle, holding a stop watch, a wrist watch and a phone he's using to time the athletes. He works part time as an assistant track coach for the University of Massachusetts Boston.
"Thirty-five [seconds]. There you go, Danny. 42," he shouts. "It's not easy for these kids practicing at night."
The snow and the cold mean that on this recent Tuesday night, Harvard's indoor track was busy. Some of Eric's Boston Athletic Association teammates were there; they were the ones whizzing past on the inside lanes.
The runners move elegantly; they're fleet-footed. But the sound of their feet pounding the track is like the sudden roar of a motorcycle exhaust. You feel the wind as they speed by and then the staccato fades as they make the turn.
This is one place Eric looks totally comfortable. He's not much of a talker. But he seems confident and at home in this building.
Over several interviews, Eric never really admitted doubt. But that night he admits Houston was "pretty heartbreaking."
He stops for a second. His athletes cross in front of him. Now they are cooling down, trotting in the opposite direction on the track's outermost lane.
"It's really easy to give up. And that's what I'm not allowing myself to do, even if I get hurt or come up a second short. I'm going to give this my best shot until I'm at least 30, if not longer."
Boston, he hopes, will be his breakthrough.
Our bodies may help us remember our lives, fixing experiences in place. By using virtual reality, scientists can make people feel like they're outside their own bodies. And when they do, the brain struggles to remember what happened.
The phenomenon is a bit like the disembodied sensation that some people have with post-traumatic stress disorder or schizophrenia, according to Loretxu Bergouignan, a neuroscience researcher at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, and lead author of the study. You might even compare it to an extreme form of daydreaming.
"It's a new way to assess what's going on between two intermingled systems, the body and memory," Bergouignan told Shots. "We did not realize that they were so intermingled."
To create the out-of-body illusion, Bergouignan and her colleagues outfitted volunteers with goggles and headphones that let them see and hear through a camera and microphones positioned elsewhere in the room.
They heightened the illusion by touching the volunteers with a stick while they watched a different stick approach the camera from the same angle. The effect is "very, very strong," Bergouignan says, who tried it many times. "You feel outside your body. You feel where the camera is."
Then the student volunteers were grilled by a particularly demanding professor about information they had studied — surely something they could remember. (Unbeknownst to the students, the professor was played by a Swedish actor who used dialogue based on work of the British playwright Harold Pinter.)
When the students' location was virtually shifted outside their bodies, they had a harder time remembering details of that event a week later, compared to when they didn't feel like their location was shifted. "They did not remember the context," Bergouignan says.
The findings were published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
And it looks like the out-of-body students used their brains differently, too. When participants tried to recall the virtual reality sessions, they relied less on the brain's hippocampus, a region involved in creating memories of events, according to MRI scans.
Somehow, it seems, the brain relies on the body to help remember events. That wasn't the case with the emotional context of the encounter with the eccentric professor, or the facts they had to remember.
Knowing about this connection between the body and memory may help better understand PTSD. People who have been traumatized are more apt to have the feeling that they have been disembodied, Bergouignan says. "We know the trauma will change the person. But we don't know what's the effect of stress, and what's the effect of disassociation. Here we show the effect of disassociation alone. It has an effect on memory."
Daydreaming may be a very mild form of this "We can't say what's going on when it's milder, but it's giving hints," she says. "We need to be able to experience something to be able to recall it later."
But Bergouignan says it's too much of a leap to say that experiencing an increasingly virtual world, as we do through computers, phones and cameras, may tinker with memory. "We should not speculate," she says.
Young children are notorious for their surfeit of why questions, often directed at aspects of the biological world. Take a three-year-old to the zoo, for example, and you might be asked to explain why zebras have stripes, why elephants have trunks and why flamingos have such skinny legs. (Also: why you can't pet the lion, why another cookie is off limits and why it's really, really time to go home.)
Yet this childhood curiosity about the adaptive traits of biological organisms, which Rudyard Kipling recognized with his whimsical "Just So Stories," is all but ignored by current education standards in the United States. It isn't until high school — more than a decade after that curious preschooler wandered the zoo — that children start to learn how natural selection really works.
There are some good reasons to delay comprehensive evolution instruction. For one thing, an understanding of natural selection rests on concepts — such as deep time, randomness and probability — that are pretty hard to wrap an adult head around, let alone a child-sized head. In fact, even adults commonly have misconceptions about how natural selection works.
But in delaying evolution instruction, we may miss an opportunity to leverage children's natural curiosity about the biological world, and to establish the foundations for a more accurate scientific understanding before misconceptions become deeply entrenched. So here's the challenge for educators (and parents): figuring out how to teach evolution to children in a way that's compelling and effective.
It may be Kipling had it right. His explanations for how the leopard got his spots and how the camel got his hump won't win accolades for scientific accuracy, but they each tell a tale of biological change in a form we can all understand: a children's story. And in what might be a case of convergent (pedagogical?) evolution, two different groups — one of biologists and one of psychologists — have converged on the storybook as a medium for teaching evolution. These efforts show that scientists can create exciting, scientifically accurate materials for children, and — critically — that children can actually learn from them.
The first group just reached its initial goal of raising $25,000 on kickstarter.com for the creation of Great Adaptations, a children's book about evolution.
The book brings together evolutionary biologist Tiffany Taylor, children's book author Robert Kadar, founder of the online magazine This View of Life, David S. Wilson, a well-known evolutionary biologist, and a team of scientists and artists who will work together to create stories illuminating subjects such as crow intelligence, cooperation and photosynthesis.
Tiffany Taylor corresponded with me by email about the book, which she describes as "true 'just so stories' with a solid biological foundation." She highlighted the project's complementary aims of fostering genuine scientific curiosity alongside teaching basic evolutionary thinking:
My hope is that [the book] will equip children with the right tools to view the living world from an evolutionary perspective. By understanding how adaptations benefit an organism in a given environment, it will hopefully allow them to look at any living thing and make a good guess as to why it might look or behave the way it does. The first step to becoming a scientist is to be curious about the world, and we hope this book will inspire and encourage curious minds.
The book, which targets 8- to 12-year-olds but is designed to appeal to a broad range of ages, is expected to be ready in October.
Of course, it's one thing to provide children with beautiful, scientifically informed material. It's another thing to have them actually learn from it. That's where a group of psychologists comes in with the timely publication of a paper demonstrating that evolutionary understanding in 5- to 8-year-olds can be improved by — that's right — a storybook.
The paper by Deborah Kelemen and colleagues, just published in the journal Psychological Science, reports studies in which children worked through a 10-page storybook about fictional "pilosas" and how they changed from having highly variable trunk widths to predominantly thin trunks today.
In an email conversation, Kelemen explained some of the background to the studies as follows:
There have been a slew of education studies over the past 30 years indicating that adults don't tend to understand adaptation even after instruction. This is often because they maintain inaccurate teleological ideas that natural selection transforms animals to give them the body parts they need or animals transform themselves through their own efforts.
These kinds of misconceptions, which focus on change within individuals, are extremely effective at shutting down an ability to accurately see natural selection as a population-based process.
In other words, people tend to think of evolution as a goal-directed process that changes individual organisms rather than a selective process that changes the makeup of a population of organisms over successive generations. To illustrate this crucial difference (and to test your own scientific literacy for good measure!), consider this question from an assessment of evolutionary understanding developed by psychologist Andrew Shtulman:
A youth basketball team scores more points per game this season than they did the previous season. Which explanation for this change is most analogous to Darwin's explanation for the adaptation of species?
(a) Each returning team member grew taller over the summer.
(b) Any athlete who participates in a sport for more than one season will improve at that sport.
(c) More people tried out for the same number of spots this year.
(d) On average, each team member practiced harder this season.
The correct answer is the third. But the others may be compelling because they exemplify plausible — but inaccurate — mechanisms by which biological adaptations could arise: by a process analogous to growth (option a), to a change in strength or force (option b), or to intentional action (option d), the process that figures in many of Kipling's "just so" stories.
Using measures more appropriate for young kids, Kelemen and colleagues assessed their participants' understanding of the "population-based logic" of natural selection both before and after reading their storybook. For example, kids were shown an image depicting "Wilkies," and were asked to explain how grown-up Wilkies went from mostly having short legs many hundreds of years ago to having longer legs today.
The results were encouraging. In one study, only 11 percent of 5- and 6-year-old children met the minimum criterion for population-based understanding before reading the story. But 54 percent did so immediately after, and 43 percent continued to do so three full months later. For children aged 7 and 8, the learning gains were also significant, jumping from 42 percent before the story to 90 percent after.
Kelemen credits the intervention's success in part to its storybook form, including the use of narrative and drama:
Narrative is a great way to offer a very extensive explanation-it ties together a lot of different ideas into a cohesive theoretical unit.
The picture book format is [also] wonderful because kids are intrinsically motivated. Even though the storybook itself is pretty stripped down—no bells and whistles even in the pictures—there's a lot of drama. The story is about life and death. Kids want to know what is going to happen next.
Naturally, Kelemen is enthusiastic about the potential implications for science education:
Children learned a lot from one pretty basic storybook intervention so imagine what a curriculum spread over several years might do for scientific literacy long term. It's an exciting thought.
Given the poor track record for most educational interventions targeting evolution, a short (and pleasant!) activity that actually works is exciting for both educators and science-minded parents.
Understanding the basics of natural selection isn't just important for appreciating contemporary issues like antibiotic resistance and answering your three-year-old's questions at the zoo. It's also a thrilling scientific theory at the core of contemporary biology. To quote Great Adaptations' Tiffany Taylor:
Evolution is a foundation of biology, not an optional extra.
You can keep up with more of what Tania Lombrozo is thinking on Twitter: @TaniaLombrozo
Every year Bob Boilen, NPR Music's Stephen Thompson and I prepare for South by Southwest by listening to songs from roughly 1,500 artists. And when you go through that many bands you start to see trends in the names. The two most commonly occurring words are always — always — "black" and "DJ." In addition to those two, this year we noticed that "white" appears an awful lot, too, as does the name John. Michael, Paul and Jesse are also pretty popular. Go figure.
Using the power of Internology, we compiled a list of all (or nearly all) of the bands playing SXSW this year (there are a lot). Then we used that list to create a tag cloud. The names used most often are in larger type.
If you make a new band name using just the most popular words, you'd end up with something like "Wild White Ghost DJ Black Band." But the possibilities, just from the pool of words used in this year's batch of SXSW bands, are seemingly endless. Here are a few I came up with:
Team Joe Orchestra
Young Wild Sound
Of course, if you find this colletion of words too limiting, you can always refer to the online Band Name Maker or the Wu-Tang Clan Name Generator (which is reportedly how actor and musician Donald Glover came up with is rap name Childish Gambino).
Tell us your new fake band name in the comments section or tweet it @allsongs. And stay tuned for a boatload of coverage on SXSW, coming this week from NPR Music, starting with the All Songs Considered SXSW preview show, coming Tuesday.