STRANGE BUT TRUE- Hook up: Connected people have it better


Q. In a word or two, what's the secret to happiness? a) money b) freedom c) social relationships d) being yourself e) self-reliance? –B. Graham

A. Hugs all around because the answer is c) social relationships, and not only for happiness but for longevity as well. The 19th century sociologist Emile Durkheim found suicide rates highest for people living alone, lower for married couples, even lower if they had kids. People seem to need obligations and constraints to lend structure and meaning to life.

And a hundred years of studies have confirmed this, says UVA's Jonathan Haidt in The Happiness Hypothesis. Having strong social relationships speeds recovery from surgery, reduces risks of depression, strengthens the immune system, adds years to one's life (more than quitting smoking). It's not that extroverts are intrinsically happier; when introverts are forced to be more outgoing, they too usually enjoy the contact and the mood boost that follows. Caring for others and being needed can be more beneficial than receiving help, whereas extreme personal freedom can lead to breaking of personal and professional ties and be risky. We are an ultrasocial species, finely tuned for helping, befriending, loving.

Q. Take 40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 bacteria (40 billion trillion), make them bioluminescent, then spot them from a ship, plane or even a satellite, and what do you have? –S. T. Coleridge

A. From ancient mariners down through the centuries came frequent tales of milky seas glowing bluish-white at night and extending as far as the horizon, says New Scientist magazine. Now this eerie glow has been spotted from space. When US Naval Research Laboratory's Steve Miller searched through satellite cloud-cover data, he found numerous mentions of the phenomenon, but only one documenting the precise time and location– in the northwestern Indian Ocean in 1995.

"I didn't really expect to find it," says Miller, "because the light is so weak, but I found a possible match within 30 minutes."

When Miller amplified the signal, a bright structure that followed the sea surface currents popped out. It
spanned 15,400 sq kilometers (about the size of Connecticut), far larger than any tale-telling sailors had
estimated. What's more, it lasted for three consecutive nights.

The favorite theory is it's bioluminescence from bacteria associated with micro-algae. If so, by Miller's calculations, that means 4 x 10^22 bacteria would be needed to produce the light, or about the number of grains of sand it would take to cover the entire Earth with a layer 10 cm (4 inches) thick!

Q. It was 1893 and the ship Fram was making an epic attempt to reach the North Pole when along the coast of
Siberia a mysterious thing happened. The vessel could manage only 1.5 knots instead of its customary 7, and control of the ship was so bad the captain was forced to travel in loops to escape the area. Yet the weather and water were seemingly calm... –C. Ahab

A. The Fram had encountered what is now called "dead water," where layers of fresh water from a river emptying into the ocean overlay salt water, creating an unusual double-wave set, says Jearl Walker in The Flying Circus of Physics. The first set of waves were the usual surface ones, but in addition, waves had formed below along the interface between the two types of water, creating drag upon drag. So the faster the vessel tried to go, the faster its energy was draining away. Plus, its length happened to be such that the rudder was right above a crest of the internal waves, wreaking havoc on maneuverability. End of mystery!

Q. Why are we all such suckers for a sunny day? –P. McCartney

A. Suckers we all well ought to be, with our moods, generosity, helpfulness soaring in Old Sol's photon bath. "For me, and I think most people," says Georgia Southern psychologist Russell Dewey, "those days producing most pleasure are those which just happen to be optimum for plants and other living things: moderate temperatures, moderate humidity, and sunshine. It would be surprising if there were not a mood correlation. Taking pleasure in such days is like taking pleasure in good health."

Then throw in the contrast effect– sunny days after grays. Plus good weather encourages more activities, greater freedom and mobility, the expansion of self.

You can even see farther in sunlight, colors are sharper, things seem brighter and more sparkling, says University of Louisville psychologist Michael Cunningham. Full spectrum sunlight may even produce more effective mental stimulation– after all, we're a species designed to shut down for our safety in the pitch of night (pre-Edison)– then to go again at sunrise, all the merrier with sharp shadows dancing right alongside.

Send Strange questions to brothers Bill and Rich at