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The Mysterious Holes in Indiana’s Sand Dunes

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Something strange is happening on one of Indiana’s sand dunes. Holes, about a foot wide and as much as 11 feet deep, are opening up in the sand on Mount Baldy at Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, and then vanishing within a day.

The holes made themselves known in the worst way: One swallowed a six-year-old boy last summer, burying him under 11 feet of sediment for hours. He survived, but the incident prompted the National Park Service to close Mount Baldy to the public indefinitely. Almost a year later, at least two other holes have opened and closed, and 66 anomalies have been detected in the sand.

Video shows researchers using long sticks to poke at “soft spots”—depressions in the sand where holes could open up. Grains of sand disappear into the 126-foot tall dune as if being sucked into the bottom half of an hourglass. It’s enough to make one shiver, conjuring up terrifying thoughts of being buried alive. Scarier still: Researchers don’t know for sure what’s causing the holes.

"We're seeing what appears to be a new geological phenomenon," says geologist Erin Argyilan, who has been studying the holes for several months.

But there is a working theory. The dune currently sits on top of what was once a forest, and the thought is that trees buried beneath the sand for the last century are rotting and disintegrating, leaving holes where the trunks once were. "The age of the materials and the wet conditions during the spring of 2013 may have forced these materials to become unstable, collapsing and creating openings to the surface," says the park's website.

Mount Baldy is one of Indiana’s fastest-moving dunes. The wind causes it to move between 11 and 20 feet to the south each year, park ranger Bruce Rowe tells mental_floss. “We have seen evidence of trees that have been uncovered before as the dune moved on,” Rowe says. “But in the past they were always partially decayed stumps of trees. They were called ghost forests. They fell apart as they were exposed to the air. But the idea of holes rather than stumps is completely new to science.”

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It’s also baffling because, until now, dunes were considered solid structures. “We contacted various coastal dune specialists, and one of them said, ‘If I hadn’t heard this had actually happened from you, I’d say it was impossible,’” Rowe says.

So what’s to be done? This summer, a team of researchers will use ground-penetrating radar to map the dune’s thickness and identify potential openings at its base, and take core samples to identify materials within the dune. Dr. G. William Monaghan, a geologist and geoarchaeologist with the Indiana University Glenn A. Black Laboratory of Archaeology, says they also hope to use an unmanned aerial vehicle (a.k.a. a drone) equipped with lasers that can accurately map the area’s topography and identify changes. “...Or we’ll see if there’s a void down there,” Monaghan adds. “In a way we’re not sure what we’re gonna see until we’re out there seeing it.”

Until researchers get to the bottom of the mystery, Mount Baldy will remain closed. “This has become a really fascinating science mystery that’s playing out in our park,” Rowe says.

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The Surprising Link Between Language and Depression
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Skim through the poems of Sylvia Plath, the lyrics of Kurt Cobain, or posts on an internet forum dedicated to depression, and you'll probably start to see some commonalities. That's because there's a particular way that people with clinical depression communicate, whether they're speaking or writing, and psychologists believe they now understand the link between the two.

According to a recent study published in Clinical Psychological Science, there are certain "markers" in a person's parlance that may point to symptoms of clinical depression. Researchers used automated text analysis methods to comb through large quantities of posts in 63 internet forums with more than 6400 members, searching for certain words and phrases. They also noted average sentence length, grammatical patterns, and other factors.

What researchers found was that a person's use (or overuse) of first-person pronouns can provide some insight into the state of their mental health. People with clinical depression tend to use more first-person singular pronouns, such as "I" and "me," and fewer third-person pronouns, like "they," "he," or "she." As Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at the University of Reading and the head of the study, writes in a post for IFL Science:

"This pattern of pronoun use suggests people with depression are more focused on themselves, and less connected with others. Researchers have reported that pronouns are actually more reliable in identifying depression than negative emotion words."

What remains unclear, though, is whether people who are more focused on themselves tend to depression, or if depression turns a person's focus on themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly, people with depression also use more negative descriptors, like "lonely" and "miserable."

But, Al-Mosaiwi notes, it's hardly the most important clue when using language to assess clinical depression. Far better indicators, he says, are the presence of "absolutist words" in a person's speech or writing, such as "always," "constantly," and "completely." When overused, they tend to indicate that someone has a "black-and-white view of the world," Al-Mosaiwi says. An analysis of posts on different internet forums found that absolutist words were 50 percent more prevalent on anxiety and depression forums, and 80 percent more prevalent on suicidal ideation forums.

Researchers hope these types of classifications, supported by computerized methods, will prove more and more beneficial in a clinical setting.

[h/t IFL Science]

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The ‘Scully Effect’ Is Real: Female X-Files Fans More Likely to Go Into STEM
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Fox

FBI agent Dana Scully is more than just a role model for remaining professional when a colleague won't stop talking about his vast governmental conspiracy theories. The skeptical doctor played by Gillian Anderson on The X-Files helped inspire women to go into STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) careers, according to a new report [PDF] from the Geena Davis Institute on Gender in Media, which we spotted at Fast Company.

“In the world of entertainment media, where scientists are often portrayed as white men wearing white coats and working alone in labs, Scully stood out in the 1990s as the only female STEM character in a prominent, prime-time television role,” the report explains. Previously, anecdotal evidence has pointed to the existence of a “Scully effect,” in which the measured TV scientist—with her detailed note-taking, evidence-based approach, and desire to autopsy everything—inspired women to seek out their own science careers. This report provides the hard data.

The Geena Davis Institute surveyed more than 2000 women in the U.S. above the age of 25, a significant portion of whom were viewers of The X-Files (68 percent) and women who had studied for or were in STEM careers (49 percent). While the survey didn’t ask women whether watching Dana Scully on The X-Files directly influenced their decision to be a scientist, the results hint that seeing a character like her on TV regularly did affect them. Women who watched more of the show were more likely to say they were interested in STEM, more likely to have studied a STEM field in college, and more likely to have worked in a STEM field after college.

While it’s hard to draw a direct line of causation there—women who are interested in science might just be more inclined to watch a sci-fi show like The X-Files than women who grow up to be historians—viewers also tended to say Scully gave them positive impressions of women in science. More than half of respondents who were familiar with Scully’s character said she increased their confidence in succeeding in a male-dominated profession. More than 60 percent of the respondents said she increased their belief in the importance of STEM. And when asked to describe her, they were most likely to say she was “smart” and “intelligent” before any other adjective.

STEM fields are still overwhelmingly male, and governments, nonprofits, schools, activists, and some tech companies have been pushing to make the field more diverse by recruiting and retaining more female talent. While the desire to become a doctor or an engineer isn’t the only thing keeping STEM a boy’s club, women also need more role models in the fields whose success and accomplishments they can look up to. Even if some of those role models are fictional.

Now that The X-Files has returned to Fox, perhaps Dana Scully will have an opportunity to shepherd a whole new generation of women into the sciences.

[h/t Fast Company]

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