The Jeff Wise Blog

Flying Cars, A Very Old Dream

I must confess, I have a soft spot for strange aircraft designs. Thus I was happy to see today’s Popular Mechanics post about the age-old quest for the flying car. The story says that the dream is “almost 70 years old,” but it’s even older than that. As the site Roadable Times points out, aviation pioneer Glenn Curtiss designed a flying car, the Curtiss Autoplane, back in 1917, and patented it in 1919. It was a crazy dream then, and it’s a crazy dream today.

Filed under: Aviation

Readers Set Me Straight: The Love Parade Tragedy

Since I wrote about the stampede at Germany’s Love Parade on Saturday, a clearer picture of the event has emerged. Eyewitnesses, including some readers of this blog, have stated that the deaths were not due to a panicked stampede, but rather to the simple force of human bodies pressing forward into a dead-end space. Writes Keith Martin:

It wasn’t fear. It was necessity. I was in there. It was poor planning and far too many people. We were all stuck in a tunnel… NO WAY OUT. There was a mile long line of people behind us and when the venue filled, they simply closed the gates. We had nowhere to go and people kept pushing. Once exhaustion/dehydration set in people could no longer stand or remain conscious so they would collapse and people would fall on them and a body pile would assemble, with those at the body never getting back up. It wasnt fear… People had no choice but to crush each other.

Reader Mats writes:

I also was there, and have to agree with Keith. There was no panic and no stampede, there was just a slow grind as the enclosed area filled up with more and more people, and the ones in front were told to move back again against the people coming in, and people falling trying to climb out… I was in the crowd well before the big crush happened – I was into the festival area at 15:00 – but even then the crowd was intense and I saw with my own eyes a lifeless body being carried out on a stretcher from the tunnel. Ironically, the first thing I did when getting into the entrance area was what you recommend, taking note of exits and escape routes with the intention of getting out ASAP – only to find there was not a single one. There was really no way out, not from the entrance area, the festival area or from the crowd. Even if the entrance had worked, in my mind there is no question there would be an equal incident on the actual parade grounds – even there every single exit was locked down and not opened before the disaster was a fact.

I was careful to point out in my original post that the psychology of panic is only half the story when it comes to crowd stampedes; once the mass shoving is underway, the question of automatic versus deliberate action becomes irrelevant. In the case of the Duisburg tragedy, it seems that what happened wasn’t really the result of a stampede at all, in the strict sense, but rather a kind of slow-motion build up of pressure onto a crowd with no avenue for escape. At any rate, an investigation into the incident is currently underway, so hopefully in due time fuller answers will emerge.

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Filed under: Panic

Warning: Flying Cars May Appear Closer than They Are

Popular Mechanics has an opinion piece up on its website about why I don’t think the latest iteration of that long dreamed-of machine, the flying car, is all it’s cracked up to be:

We’ve covered the Terrafugia “Transition” flying car here before – as we wrote back in October, the two-seater aircraft has four wheels and four wheels that fold up so that it can be driven on the road. It also has a talent for attracting national publicity. The latest round came after the Federal Aeronautics Administration (FAA) issued a decision that seemed a major milestone in Terrafugia’s march to the marketplace. As the Discovery Channel reported in its article “Flying Car Gets FAA Approval,”

The Federal Aviation Administration has just removed a major hurdle from the path of a vehicle that may well be the first commercially viable flying car. The agency has agreed to classify the Terrafugia Transition as a Light Sport Aircraft [LSA], even though the vehicle is 120 pounds too heavy to qualify for that class.

At first reading, this seemed to imply that the FAA had agreed to certify the “Transition.” This indeed would be a newsworthy accomplishment for Terrafugia, and a major milestone in making roadable airplanes a reality.  But it also sounded a bit unlikely to us. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Aviation

Behind the Love Parade Tragedy: The Psychology of Stampedes

Terrible news today from the German city of Duisburg, where a summer carnival called the “Love Parade” has been stricken by tragedy. According to breaking news reports, a crowd of revelers inside a tunnel became overcrowded and panicked, causing a stampede that has left at least 15 dead.

There are multiple layers of dark irony in this kind of needless death — for one thing, that a gathering called together in the name of peace could result in such a horrific toll; for another, that in the 21st century simple fear by itself is able to cause mass casualties. But that’s the paradox of terror: a response that evolved to keep us safe can itself pose a terrible danger, rising up at the most inappropriate times. If anything, the advent of modern technology seems to have left us even more vulnerable to fatal stampedes, as mass transportation and instant communication make it easier to bring large crowds together. But this kind of tragedy has a long history. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Panic

How to Trick People into Thinking You’re Intelligent

Smart people have it good. Sure, they might get beat up in high school, but once they reach adulthood, it’s the brainiacs who get the the hottest girls, the biggest paychecks, the Nobel prizes and the whatnot. This is a problem for the 50 percent of us who are below average intelligence, as well as all the rest who just aren’t all that bright. Not an insurmountable problem, though. All you have to do is figure out how to make other people think that you’re smart. Just follow these steps. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Psychology

When Summer Fun Turns Deadly Serious

I was in the Rocky Mountains of central Colorado yesterday, whitewater rafting on the Arkansas River with a highly experienced outfitter called KODI Rafting. We were to start the day with a seven-mile run down the Numbers rapids, a continuous stretch of Class III and Class IV whitewater that takes about two hours to complete. It’s a challenging stretch of water that demands an aggressive approach. People can and do get hurt.

As we rode to the put-in on a former schoolbus, the head guide gave us a run-down of what to do if we fell out of the boat: one, immediately swim for the boat and try to get back in. Two, if you get separated from the boat, lift your feet up and point them downstream so that you can ward off rocks. And so on. It was all very solid and reasonable advice. But having spent the last few years studying the human fear response, I found myself wondering: if any of us novice rafters winds up in the drink, are we going to remember any of this advice amid our rising panic? Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

I Want My Inflatable Airplane

From the good folks at AvWeb, a story about the Swiss ultralight design that’s something like a cross between a hang glider and a powered parachute — and also bears a family resemblance to my ultimate fantasy aircraft, the Goodyear Inflatoplane. This was an otherwise conventional airplane which happened to have wings and a fusalage made out of inflatable rubber. The idea was that if one of your pilots bailed out behind enemy lines you could drop this to him and he could blow it up and fly it to safety. (Then, presumably, use it as a pool toy once he’d gotten back home.) Like many of the coolest ideas in aviation, it was a long way from practical. Here’s what it looked like:

If nothing else, one imagines that the crashes would be less than catastrophic.

Filed under: Aviation

Can a Common Health Supplement Help Conquer Fear?

Wouldn’t it be nice if you could master your fears with a single dose of medicine? It’s an age-old dream — people have been finding courage in a bottle for thousands of years — but recently military psychologists have begun to think they might be hot on the trail of a formulation that could actually work without getting users high as a kite.

Most of us have enjoyed a little “Dutch courage” now and again. It’s great for loosening up social anxieties at cocktail parties and the like; one of alcohol’s many neurological effects  is that it dampens the stress circuitry within the brain. Of course, other effects include loss of coordination and impaired decision-making, meaning that in high-pressure situations alcohol tends to do more harm than good. More recently, psychiatrists have prescribed benzodiazepines like Xanax for anxiety, but these too can cause serious cognitive impairment, and are highly addictive to boot.

Beta blockers like Propanolol aren’t nearly as mind-altering, but they have drawbacks of their own: by suppressing the sympathetic nervous system, they make it hard for users to engage in strenuous physical activity. In the military, you tend to do a lot of that.

So what’s the magic bullet? Some high-tech, top-secret formulation? Nope. Turns out to be a substance you can buy over the counter at most health food stores. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Mastering Fear

Montana Ranching: The Uncensored Story

The New York Times is running a story tomorrow that I wrote about hardcore vacation ranches out West, where guests take part in running real working cattle ranch. (It’s already available online, though.) Unfortunately, they had to cut out some of the more vivid scenes from the piece. “We’re a family newspaper,” my editor said. I didn’t think that what they took out was all that gruesome, but in my estimation it went a long way toward establishing just how hardcore these experiences are. This isn’t a Disney Channel version of cattle ranching; animals get castrated, have their ovaries pulled out, get tags punched into their ears, and all the rest.

At any rate, in the interest of full and complete reporting, I’m putting the full version online below, so those of a more hardy disposition can learn what these ranches are all about. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Recreation

Career Limbo: Why Intelligent People Get Stuck

My friend Tucker is one of the funniest, most incisive people I’ve ever met. Ever since he graduated from a prestigious university 15 years ago, he’s thrived in the intellectual circles of New York City, where his easygoing charm has won him friends in every branch of the arts.

In almost every way his life was a success. But career-wise, he was in the deep freeze. Having quickly landed a low-level job with a prestigious publishing company soon after graduation, he languished in the same job. What he really wanted was to be a professional illustrator, but he’d had to get by doing clerical work as his creative-minded peers rose up through the ranks at magazines and advertising agencies.

What went wrong? In a word, fear. Read the rest of this entry »

Filed under: Work

Interviews with the Author

Thinking About Fear & the Brain

If I find myself in a severe crisis, will I be able to keep it together? How can I control anxiety and panic? Is it possible to lead a life less bounded by fear? These are the sorts of questions that I'll be exploring in this blog, an offshoot of my book, Extreme Fear: The Science of Your Mind in Danger, published on December 8, 2009 by Palgrave Macmillan.

Video Introduction

Also by Jeff Wise