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Is Your Child a Dandelion or an Orchid?

An article in the December 2009 issue of The Atlantic poses a fascinating scientific question: do some children's genes give them a greater risk of failure, but also a greater chance for success, if they're raised under the right circumstances? Such children are dubbed "orchid children" David Dobbs's piece The Science of Success. The comparison is to a Swedish folk saying about "dandelion children" who will thrive anywhere (although, yes, good parenting helps them too -- just not as much). Dobbs details current research into biology and evolution which suggests that a percentage of the population (for humans and other species) are "orchids," who require careful parental attention during early development -- without this attention, they suffer and fail, but with careful nurturing, they succeed spectacularly, like orchids in a greenhouse.

Read the article for an excellent bit of science writing that's directly applicable to parenting. I have quoted a few key quotes from the article below (emphasis added):

... [R]esearchers have identified a dozen-odd gene variants that can increase a person's susceptibility to depression, anxiety, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, heightened risk-taking, and antisocial, sociopathic, or violent behaviors, and other problems—if, and only if, the person carrying the variant suffers a traumatic or stressful childhood or faces particularly trying experiences later in life.

... This new model suggests that it's a mistake to understand these "risk" genes only as liabilities. Yes, this new thinking goes, these bad genes can create dysfunction in unfavorable contexts—but they can also enhance function in favorable contexts. The genetic sensitivities to negative experience that the vulnerability hypothesis has identified, it follows, are just the downside of a bigger phenomenon: a heightened genetic sensitivity to all experience.

... Together, the steady dandelions and the mercurial orchids offer an adaptive flexibility that neither can provide alone. Together, they open a path to otherwise unreachable individual and collective achievements.

("White Moth" orchid photo courtesy of Flickr user phocks and used under Creative Commons license; dandelion photo by Chris Higgins.)

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History
The Queen of Code: Remembering Grace Hopper
By Lynn Gilbert, CC BY-SA 4.0, Wikimedia Commons

Grace Hopper was a computing pioneer. She coined the term "computer bug" after finding a moth stuck inside Harvard's Mark II computer in 1947 (which in turn led to the term "debug," meaning solving problems in computer code). She did the foundational work that led to the COBOL programming language, used in mission-critical computing systems for decades (including today). She worked in World War II using very early computers to help end the war. When she retired from the U.S. Navy at age 79, she was the oldest active-duty commissioned officer in the service. Hopper, who was born on this day in 1906, is a hero of computing and a brilliant role model, but not many people know her story.

In this short documentary from FiveThirtyEight, directed by Gillian Jacobs, we learned about Grace Hopper from several biographers, archival photographs, and footage of her speaking in her later years. If you've never heard of Grace Hopper, or you're even vaguely interested in the history of computing or women in computing, this is a must-watch:

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science
Why Are Glaciers Blue?
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The bright azure blue sported by many glaciers is one of nature's most stunning hues. But how does it happen, when the snow we see is usually white? As Joe Hanson of It's Okay to Be Smart explains in the video below, the snow and ice we see mostly looks white, cloudy, or clear because all of the visible light striking its surface is reflected back to us. But glaciers have a totally different structure—their many layers of tightly compressed snow means light has to travel much further, and is scattered many times throughout the depths. As the light bounces around, the light at the red and yellow end of the spectrum gets absorbed thanks to the vibrations of the water molecules inside the ice, leaving only blue and green light behind. For the details of exactly why that happens, check out Hanson's trip to Alaska's beautiful (and endangered) Mendenhall Glacier below.

[h/t The Kid Should See This]

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