Week in Review

by by By Erica Schwiegershausen & Caroline Soussloff

illustration by by Robert Sandler


Canadian Finance Minister Jim Flaherty announced last week that the Royal Canadian Mint will stop producing pennies this fall, as part of the federal government’s latest round of austerity measures and budget cuts. Calling the penny “a currency without any currency in Canada,” Flaherty explained that the 1.5 cents it costs to produce a Canadian penny—now worth a twentieth of its original 1858 value—makes the transition to a penny-free economy the rational choice. Penny production in Canada costs $11 million a year.

The coins will remain legal tender until they eventually disappear from circulation. Reactions are mixed. Many believe pennies to be little more than a nuisance—New Zealand, Australia, the Netherlands, Norway, Finland, and Sweden are among the countries that have already eliminated their lowest coin denomination. According to Flaherty, pennies “take up too much space on our dressers at home” and “far too much time for small businesses trying to grow and create jobs.”

Others are more sentimental, mourning the loss of a plethora of aphorisms. And some worry that the elimination of the one-cent coin will lead to price increases. “It’s another way for merchants to nickel and dime their customers” web developer Theo Danilov told the Associated Press. Although Derek Burleton, the deputy chief economist at TD Economics in Toronto told Yahoo!Finance that he doesn’t see this as “being a major impact on the consumer price index.”

In response to inquiries regarding the future of the American penny, the US Treasury has stated that there are no plans to eliminate the lucky coin, though Obama indicated during his 2008 campaign that “we’ve been trying to get rid of the penny for some time.” For now, the administration is simply looking at the possibility of using cheaper materials. Due to inflation and the rising price of zinc, it currently costs the US mint 2.41 cents to make a penny—composed of 97.5 percent zinc and 2.5 percent copper—resulting in a loss of $60,200,000 in 2011.

But the penny has its backers. The zinc lobby, for one, and the advocacy group Americans for Common Cents—an organization of penny enthusiasts that “attempts to ensure that accurate information about the penny is widely disseminated.” According to the group’s website, (the home page features the poll: “What’s your favorite Lincoln Bicentennial penny design?”), two-thirds of Americans support keeping the penny in circulation. The group maintains that eliminating the penny is a losing proposition, pointing out that, after all, “pennies add up to millions of dollars every year for charities across the country.”




Good news for those of us who still can’t tell our left from our right: last week Google released a video of a blind man riding to Taco Bell in the company’s self-driving Toyota Prius. This technology—which uses radar and lasers to scan and record a 3D map of its surroundings enabling it to navigate streets, obey traffic rules, and avoid obstacles—is not entirely unexpected: Google announced its self-driving car project in 2010, stating a goal of “making driving safer, more enjoyable, and more efficient.”

The video celebrates Google’s 200,000 miles of safely-executed, computer-led driving, but it will be at least a few years until self-driving cars hit the marketplace. In February, Nevada became the first state to specify regulations for testing driverless vehicles, but many predict that it states with more complex traffic problems won’t be as quick on the uptake.

In other surreal auto news, a highlight of this year’s New York Auto Show is The Terrafugia Transition, a flying car that was cleared for production last summer by the U.S. Highway Safety Administration. Described as a “roadable aircraft,” and designed to “provide pilots the convenience of a dual-purpose vehicle,” the street-legal airplane—which looks more like a hybrid plane/helicopter than an automobile—features wings that fold up to fit in a standard home garage. Unfortunately, there will be no flying demonstration of the $279,000 flying car at the April auto show, but the company—which claims it is targeting sales at “fly-in” communities where residents own small planes or ferry in and out of town—will be soliciting $10,000 down payments.

Meanwhile, scientists are hard at work developing a GPS for the galaxy. The BBC reported this week that German scientists are developing a technology that will allow spacecraft to navigate the cosmos by picking up X-ray signals from pulsars—highly magnetized neutron stars that rotate rapidly, releasing emissions at a steady rate that researchers believe is ideal for interstellar navigation. With the means to detect the pulsar emission rates, a spacecraft could determine its position in the galaxy with an accuracy of five kilometers. Currently, spacecraft position is determined by studying the time radio communications take to travel to and from satellites, a complex process that is often off by several hundred kilometers.

Werner Becker, a Professor at the Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, told the BBC that the GPS-like device they envision probably won’t exist for another 15 to 20 years, but he is optimistic about the technology’s applications. According to Becker, increased exactitude in autonomous navigation may make interplanetary missions—including manned trips to Mars—far more feasible in the future.




At the intersection of fashion and science, Dr. Adam D. Galinsky of the Northwestern University Kellogg School of Management has recently published a study that suggests that the clothes we wear inform our self-perception and behavior.  Of course, the idea that our clothing has an effect on the attitudes of other people is, ahem, well-worn.  One need only look to “power suits” or the iconic red tie/flag lapel pin ensemble preferred by presidential candidates during televised debates for examples.  More recently, the tragic profiling of Trayvon Martin’s hoodie has brought these snap judgments to bear on the public conscience.

Galinsky’s study is one of the first to scientifically examine the impact of outfits on the self.  Other examples include a 1988 study by authors M.G. Frank and T. Gilovitch, which found that “professional sports teams wearing black uniforms are more aggressive than sports teams wearing non-black uniforms,” a conclusion that Gadinsky et al. cite in their report in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology.

Galinksy’s team conducted their series of experiments using lab coats.  They found that when participants put on lab coats after having been informed that they were “doctor’s coats,” they began to emulate the focus and meticulousness associated with the surgical profession.  When viewing nearly identical images side-by-side, they were able to identify and record the differences faster than participants wearing coats that had been described to them as “painter’s coats.”
The study found that not only is the “symbolic meaning” of clothing important, but also the “physical experience of wearing the clothes.”  Participants who wore “doctor’s coats” also demonstrated sharper attention than those who simply sat in view of doctor’s coats on their desks.

Galinksy entitled his study “Enclothed Cognition,” referencing its place within the field of “embodied cognition,” which examines how physical stimuli influence psychological processes.  Embodied cognition, a relatively new area of cognitive science that began to gain traction in the 1990s, finds it roots in linguistics.  In 1979, the seminal text, Metaphors We Live By, explored why we experience certain physical sensations when describing psychological states.  For example, we describe power relationships in terms of “over” and “under,” moods in terms of “up” and “down,” and love in terms of “hot” and “cold.”

The evidence for these associations extends beyond the realm of language to physical perception.  As one of the co-authors of Metaphors We Live By described to Scientific American in 2011, in a University of Toronto study, “subjects were asked to remember a time when they were either socially accepted or socially snubbed. Those with warm memories of acceptance judged the room to be five degrees warmer on the average than those who remembered being coldly snubbed. Another effect of affection is warmth.”

The fields of embodied and enclothed cognition are still new.  Galinsky et al. suggest future avenues of research in light of their findings: “Does wearing the robe of a priest or judge make people more ethical? Does putting on an expensive suit make people feel more powerful? Does putting on the uniform of a firefighter or police officer make people act more courageously?”  For now, they conclude, “Although the saying goes that clothes do not make the man, our results suggest that they do hold a strange power over their wearers.”