About Ponderer

Ponderer also writes science fiction and science-inspired rhyming poetry. Check her out at katerauner.wordpress.com/ She worked at Rocky Flats for 22 years - you may know her as Kathy London.

Can Perception Become Reality?

There’s a lot of discussion these days about how the media influences people – whether the stories are real or fake. I ran across an interesting example that predates our current political mess by decades: Mad Gasser of Mattoon in 1944

Mrs. Kearney and Daughter First Victims
Both Recover; Robber Fails to Get Into Home

Even for a newspaper, that’s a lot of assumptions: first, that these were only the “first” victims; second, that the prowler was using some sort of anesthetic; and third, that he was a robber. But it was enough. Within days, several more people called police saying that they too had been attacked by the prowler they read about in the newspaper. Their stories were published in the paper on September 5, owing to no publications on Sunday and the Labor Day holiday.

And that’s when the real melee began.



[Then] the character of the newspaper reports changed dramatically. The headlines became: THE MANHUNT FOR MR. NOBODY

And as soon as that became the tone, suddenly there were zero more police reports. skeptoid.com

No residue of gas or lasting symptoms were observed, no gas is known to cause all the symptoms reported, and no prowler was ever caught – though there is an anecdotal suggestion that the initial attack could have been real.

In 1945 the Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology published one research article on the Mad Gasser. Graphs of newspaper space in square inches compared to the number of reports showed a very apparent effect. If the morning newspapers dedicated more space to the Gasser, more reports came in that day. And during that initial 2-day Labor Day publishing break, no gassing was reported.

It’s depressing to think people can be manipulated so easily.

The Mad Gasser of Mattoon became one of the most famous case studies in mass hysteria. skeptoid.com

This was a small event in a small town during wartime, and it was over in a couple weeks when the local newspaper moved on. Consider Americans today, reading and viewing stories aimed at an agenda, whether pushed for ideological or financial reasons. Over and over, day after day. Maybe a single story gets repeated a dozen times – it feels as if it happened a dozen times.

As individuals zero in on fewer outlets, they get caught in the “echo chamber” of their own fears, hopes, and biases. Depending on which rabbit hole each of us chooses to fall down, we end up in “living” in different worlds.

No one can save us from ourselves – the answer must come from us.

Down the Rabbit Hole

I was fairly sure I knew where the expression “down the rabbit hole” comes from – from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, by Lewis Carol, and her entry into Wonderland by following a white rabbit and tumbling down his hole. But I was curious how it became a metaphor for any entry into the unknown, the disorienting or the crazy-making.

The slang expression arose in the drug culture for a psychedelic experience. Although I didn’t find a citation for its first use, the phrase has spread.

We mean that we got interested in something to Juliasetsdkpictfield3 (400x300)the point of distraction—usually by accident, and usually to a degree that the subject in question might not seem to merit. newyorker.com

The New Yorker’s writer goes on to attribute the current popularity of the phrase to the internet, and explains why it perfectly captures what happens to us as we surf. Fun article.

Stackexchange.com warns against the mistake of diving for a rat hole when you meant a rabbit hole. A rat hole is a North American phrase for a waste of money or resources, which are commonly “poured” down the rat hole in a short-sighted move. That’s a bad trip.

Tough Nut to Crack Not Tough to Find

A tough nut or a hard nut to crack is a situation, person, group, etc. which is difficult to deal with; or a place or opportunity to which it is difficult to gain entry. [wiktionary.org]

Phrases.com has a specific origin for the phrase:

This particular expression comes from 18th when Benjamin Franklin wrote a letter to his brother. A few colonists in US were trying to attain a French Fortress somewhere in Canada in 1745. Benjamin used the following words in the letter; “fortified towns are hard nuts to crack; and your teeth have not been accustomed to it.” However, new Englanders were able to capture the fortress and thus it was proved that there are a few nuts that are much easier to be cracked.

I found no information on when or how the phrase entered popular culture, but did discover that there are other slang uses for the word “nut.” No – not the body part you’re thinking of.

[The nuts refers to] the best possible hand — is one of those great poker terms that most players learn about soon after becoming acquainted with the game… just pronouncing the word “nuts” forces the speaker to end with a smile… pokernews.com

Such a hand would be tough to crack, or win against.

Pokernews further uses a meaning of “nuts to” listed from The Oxford English Dictionary, as “a source of pleasure or delight to one.” They suggest that meaning moved into poker, where having four aces in a game of five-card draw would most certainly be “nuts to” the player holding the hand. That seems strange to me since I think of “nuts to you” as an angry retort to someone who caused upset, perhaps a euphemism for a stronger condemnation.

The World Is Your Oyster

“The world is your oyster” has never been a favorite expression of mine, perhaps because oysters make me violently sick. Please world, don’t be an oyster for me, even if today the phrase means “you can have anything you want.”

The phrase “first appears in Shakespeare’s play ‘The Merry Wives of Windsor’ (1600).
Falstaff: I will not lend thee a penny.
Pistol: Why, then, the world’s mine oyster,
Which I with sword will open.’ Act II, Scene II.”

The original implication of the phrase is that Pistol is going to use violent means (sword) to steal his fortune (the pearl one finds in an oyster). English.stackexchange.com

Shmoop.com says “The subtext of Pistol threatening Falstaff is gone nowadays. There is no sword or threat in our modern version. Instead, we just like to think that if we’re persistent enough, we can find those oysters with pearls anywhere in the world.”

I didn’t see any earlier citations, so the Bard wins this phrase.

Born on Third Base

I’m familiar with the phrase “born with a silver spoon in the mouth” to refer to people with rich or privileged parents. But I heard a wonderful phrase the other night on TV that sent me scurrying to search. I thought I’d be offering a newly coined phrase, but I found it is well known from a Chicago Tribune interview with Barry Switzer, December 14, 1986. Although Switzer is a football coach, this is a baseball analogy:

Some people are born on third base and go through life thinking they hit a triple. wikiquote.org

There are earlier citations:

Texas politician Jim Hightower told the Democratic National Convention at Atlanta, Georgia, on July 19, 1988, about the Republican presidential candidate, George H. W. Bush: “He is a man who was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple.” barrypopik.com

But the earliest I saw, in a slightly different form, is from 1934

A genius is one who seems a wonder because he was born on third base. barrypopik.com

Since baseball’s been played in the US since 1791, and the “New York style” game played nationally since the Civil War, it’s no surprise to find a phrase coming from this sport.

Make Ends Meet

In current political discussions, this phrase refers to people’s efforts to pay all their bills with inadequate funds. World Wide Words says the exact origin is unknown.

The oldest example I can find is from Thomas Fuller’s The History of the Worthies of England of about 1661: “Worldly wealth he cared not for, desiring only to make both ends meet; and as for that little that lapped over he gave it to pious uses”, but the fact that Fuller is making a little joke using it suggests he already knew of it as a set phrase.

One suggested origin refers to columns of bookkeeping numbers where credits and debits must match, or where end-of-year numbers must balance. Another suggestion is the phrase refers to having enough fabric to complete a dress.

English Language and Usage adds the possibility that the phrase comes from ropes on a sailing ship or wearing a belt that is too short, but without any references it’s speculation.

Better Cruel Truth, Darn It

In my years at Rocky Flats, I occasionally heard rumors that low levels of radiation were good for health – that Rocky Flats workers were healthier than they “should” be, that workers in the plutonium area got very few colds. One friend suggested it was because smoking was banned in so many places, while others said it was just because you had to be healthy to hold down the job. I shrugged it all off.

Now I’ve run into a Skeptiod episode by Brian Dunning entitled “Radiation Hormesis: Is It Good for You?” Dunning was, as you might guess, skeptical, in part because

“Those trumpeting the benefits of radiation hormesis the loudest are often the same ones who deny anthropogenic global warming. This may be the result of people getting their information from political sources rather than from science sources”

and cited other warning signs that the position may not be science

Dunn provides background, explaining the difference between ionizing vs non ionizing radiation and a dose-response curve. He notes that the “linear no threshold” approach used with radiation, which assumes there is no safe level of exposure, has been adopted to be “prudent.” Since we all live bathed in background radiation, “it seems reasonable to infer that very low doses of even ionizing radiation are harmless.” Even the Health Physics Society has stated “no threshold” is an oversimplification.

The hypothetical radiation hormesis says the actual dose-response curve is U-shaped, starting at zero response to zero exposure, but then dipping down below the zero-risk line

“indicating radiation at that dose actually reduces the risk of cancer, less risk than you’d have with no radiation at all — and then, as the dosage increases, the curve comes back into the increased risk zone, and continues curving upward as the dosage increase.”

After a literature review, Dunn says hormesis

“is one claim of a pattern that some say can be found in the data, but that most dismiss because the data is simply far too noisy at that low level to support the drawing of any conclusions at all.”

So there may be a positive effect, a negative effect, or no effect – all tiny responses lost in the noise of the data. I’m not surprised – though maybe a little disappointed. With so much hyperbolic criticism of Rocky Flats, it would be ironically delightful if working there improved my health. Too bad the science isn’t there. I do believe, as Edward Abbey said, better a cruel truth than a comfortable delusion.