Batman RIP

_45236035_-38.jpg

Comic Batman reaches end of road

Warning: If you do not want to know about the plot of Batman RIP, stop reading now.

_45249212_-7.jpg

Batman’s alter ego Bruce Wayne has apparently been killed off in the latest issue of the superhero comic.

Scottish writer Grant Morrison revealed earlier this year that Wayne would either retire or be killed in a clash with crime syndicate Black Glove.

The story – Batman RIP – sees Batman shot by villain Simon Hurt, who claims to be Wayne’s father Dr Thomas Wayne.

Morrison told BBC News there would be “a lot more twists and turns to come” before the story was finally resolved.

‘Definitive story’

“It’s great that it stirs up such passion,” he said.

“Nobody loves Bruce Wayne more than me, and I hope everybody understands that this is part of the great ongoing adventure of Batman.”

The caped crusader first appeared in comics in 1939, and has spawned a 1960s TV series and a host of films.

The “death” of Wayne’s father – shot alongside his mother by a robber when he was a boy – was the catalyst for the young industrialist to become the vigilante crime fighter Batman.

In the final scene, Hurt tries to escape in a helicopter after shooting Batman.

But the wounded superhero throws himself at the helicopter, causing it to crash. The comic story ends without a frame showing Wayne’s body, however.

Morrison, from Glasgow, told BBC News on Friday that the next two issues of the Batman comic would see a “summing up” of the superhero’s career before “the absolute, final fate” of Bruce Wayne was revealed in a sister publication, Final Crisis, in January.

“It’s the end of a story that goes back to 2005, a story to tell the definitive story of Batman,” he explained.

“We wanted to see what would happen if the most evil, richest people in the world decided they didn’t like Batman, and decided to take him apart piece by piece and destroy him.

“And then have Batman come back, and we could see why he’s so great,” added Morrison.

The storyline included clues which dated back to Batman comics from 40 years ago, he added.
Wayne may be dead, but publisher DC Comics shows no sign of bringing to an end the Batman franchise.

Frontrunners to take over as Batman include Tim Drake, who has been Robin since 1991, and Dick Grayson – the original Boy Wonder – who now protects Gotham City as Nightwing.

It is not the first time a superhero has met an unfortunate end in the comic world.

Last year, Captain America was killed after being shot by a sniper in New York.

157703.jpg

I personally think this is a very bad trend.

This is like a ratings hunt in Dallas and it annoys me when they do overly dramatic things just for sales. Because it always has to end with The Man From Atlantis in the shower and the rest of us dreaming he’s dead. Not a good scene.

I guess we can blame Superman for getting killed and selling millions a few years ago, or for Captain Mar-vell dying of cancer decades before — but for whatever reason, this is a horrible tend. Superheroes are larger than life and our modern myths. They need to remain above and beyond the common fray. Don’t kill for ratings. If you decide to cancel the comic forever, then fine, have an epic finale. Otherwise, just stop.

Posted in Literary | Tagged , | Comments Off

Martian Atmosphere Is Being Ripped Away

081123142222-large.jpg

Solar Wind Rips Up Martian Atmosphere

Researchers have found new evidence that the atmosphere of Mars is being stripped away by solar wind. It’s not a gently continuous erosion, but rather a ripping process in which chunks of Martian air detach themselves from the planet and tumble into deep space. This surprising mechanism could help solve a longstanding mystery about the Red Planet.

“It helps explain why Mars has so little air,” says David Brain of UC Berkeley, who presented the findings at the 2008 Huntsville Plasma Workshop on October 27th.

Billions of years ago, Mars had a lot more air than it does today. (Note: Martian “air” is primarily carbon dioxide, not the nitrogen-oxygen mix we breathe on Earth.) Ancient martian lake-beds and river channels tell the tale of a planet covered by abundant water and wrapped in an atmosphere thick enough to prevent that water from evaporating into space.

Some researchers believe the atmosphere of Mars was once as thick as Earth’s. Today, however, all those lakes and rivers are dry and the atmospheric pressure on Mars is only 1% that of Earth at sea-level. A cup of water placed almost anywhere on the Martian surface would quickly and violently boil away—a result of the super-low air pressure.

So where did the air go? Researchers entertain several possibilities: An asteroid hitting Mars long ago might have blown away a portion of the planet’s atmosphere in a single violent upheaval. Or the loss might have been slow and gradual, the result of billions of years of relentless “sand-blasting” by solar wind particles. Or both mechanisms could be at work.

Brain has uncovered a new possibility–a daily ripping process intermediate between the great cataclysm and slow erosion models. The evidence comes from NASA’s now-retired Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft.

In 1998, MGS discovered that Mars has a very strange magnetic field. Instead of a global bubble, like Earth’s, the Martian field is in the form of magnetic umbrellas that sprout out of the ground and reach beyond the top of Mars’ atmosphere. These umbrellas number in the dozens and they cover about 40% of the planet’s surface, mainly in the southern hemisphere.

For years, researchers thought the umbrellas protected the Martian atmosphere, shielding pockets of air beneath them from erosion by the solar wind. Surprisingly, Brain finds that the opposite can be true as well: “The umbrellas are where coherent chunks of air are torn away.”

Addressing his colleagues at the Workshop, he described how he made the discovery just a few months ago:

Brain was scrolling through archival data from Global Surveyor’s particles and fields sensors. “We have measurements from 25,000 orbits,” he says. During one of those orbits, MGS passed through the top of a magnetic umbrella. Brain noticed that the umbrella’s magnetic field had linked up with the magnetic field in the solar wind. Physicists call this “magnetic reconnection.”

What happened next is not 100% certain, but Global Surveyor’s readings are consistent with the following scenario: “The joined fields wrapped themselves around a packet of gas at the top of the Martian atmosphere, forming a magnetic capsule a thousand kilometers wide with ionized air trapped inside,” says Brain. “Solar wind pressure caused the capsule to ‘pinch off’ and it blew away, taking its cargo of air with it.” Brain has since found a dozen more examples. The magnetic capsules or “plasmoids” tend to blow over the south pole of Mars, mainly because most of the umbrellas are located in Mars’ southern hemisphere.

Brain isn’t ready to declare the mystery solved. “We’re still not sure how often the plasmoids form or how much gas each one contains.” The problem is, Mars Global Surveyor wasn’t designed to study the phenomenon. The spacecraft was only equipped to sense electrons, not the heavier ions which would make up the bulk of any trapped gas. “Ions and electrons don’t always behave the same way,” he cautions. Also, MGS sampled the umbrellas at fixed altitudes and at the same local time each day. “We need to sample many altitudes and times of day to truly understand these dynamic events.”

In short, he told the audience, “we need more data.”

Brain is pinning his hopes on a new NASA mission named MAVEN. Short for “Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution,” MAVEN is an upper atmosphere orbiter currently approved for launch to Mars in 2013. The probe is specifically designed to study atmospheric erosion. MAVEN will be able to detect electrons, ions and neutral atoms; it will be able to measure both magnetic and electric fields; it will travel around Mars in an elliptical orbit, piercing magnetic umbrellas at different altitudes, angles, and times of day; and it will explore regions both near and far from the umbrellas, giving researchers the complete picture they need.

If magnetized chunks of air are truly being torn free, MAVEN will see it happening and measure the atmospheric loss rate. “Personally, I think this mechanism is important,” says Brain, “but MAVEN may yet prove me wrong.”

Meanwhile, the Mystery of the Missing Martian Air is shaping up to be a ripping good yarn.

Posted in Science | Tagged | Comments Off

Two Degrees From Meltdown

cpsoin01271108144534photo00quicklookdefault-245×243.jpg

Two degree rise could spark Greenland ice sheet meltdown

A less than two degree Celsius rise in global temperatures might be sufficient to spark a meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet and Arctic sea ice, the WWF warned in a new study released Thursday.

“Scientists now suggest that even warming of less than 2 degree Celsius might be enough to trigger the loss of Arctic sea ice and the meltdown of the Greeland Ice Sheet,” the WWF said in a statement to accompany the findings.

“As a result, global sea levels would rise by several metres, threatening tens of millions of people worldwide.”

The melting of Arctic sea ice could affect ecosystems, while a meltdown of the Greenland Ice Sheet could lead to a sea level rise of up to seven metres, with a devastating impact for the rest of the world.

The WWF urged governments meeting for UN climate talks in Poland starting Monday to “develop a strong negotiation text for a new climate treaty” due at the end of next year.

Kim Carstensen, WWF Global Climate Initiative leader said: “The early meltdown of ice in the Arctic and Greenland may soon prompt further dangerous climate feedbacks accelerating warming faster and stronger than forecast.

“Responsible politicians cannot dare to waste another second on delaying tactics in the face of these urgent warnings from nature.”

Posted in Science | Tagged | Comments Off

No Moving Parts Zeolite Gas Pump

zeolitegaspump.gif

Gas pump made of minerals has no moving parts

Scientists have discovered that a type of hard mineral called zeolite can provide a high rate of gas flow in a micro-scale gas pump. Because the pump is based simply on temperature differences and has no moving parts, it could provide reliable and precise control of gas flow for a variety of applications, such as gas-sensing breath analyzers and warfare agent detectors.

Mechanical engineers Naveen Gupta and Yogesh Gianchandani from the University of Michigan have published their study on the zeolite gas pump in a recent issue of Applied Physics Letters. The researchers used a type of zeolite called clinoptilolite that, like all zeolites, contains billions of nanopores which a gas can flow through. The nanopores in clinoptilolite are packed much more densely than could be achieved through lithographic techniques, and so the mineral can enable a higher rate of gas flow.

“Unlike zeolite gas pumps, most of the traditional micropumping mechanisms have moving parts,” Gupta told PhysOrg.com. “As we go smaller in size, the ratio of the surface area to volume of the parts increases, which results in increased frictional losses of power. Larger frictional forces result in increased wear and tear in the devices, which affects the reliability of the system adversely.”

Using clinoptilolite, the engineers built a gas pump that operates on the principle of thermal transpiration, the phenomenon that gas molecules drift from the cold end to the hot end of a narrow channel. Their handheld-size gas pump, called a Knudsen pump, consisted of a thin, flexible heater in the center, sandwiched between two thin pieces of the porous mineral. The researchers added pieces of perforated aluminum between the layers to maintain a uniform temperature. Finally, the entire assembly was sandwiched between two pieces of insulating polyvinyl chloride (PVC).

The pump operated on 296 mW/cm2 of power, and contained two inlet ports for the gas to enter at opposite ends of the device. When the heater started operating, cold gas molecules from the inlet ports began drifting through nanopores in the zeolite mineral toward the heater in the center. The gas quickly flowed out through a central outlet port, and could be used for a specific application.

As the researchers explained, the thinner the nanopores (or nanochannels) through which the gas flowed, the higher the pressure at which the pump could operate. Using the zeolite’s large number of thin nanochannels, the device could pump gas at a high flow level. These nanochannels were so thin (in this case, about half a nanometer), that they were thinner than the mean free path of the molecules at atmospheric pressure, resulting in “free molecular gas flow.”

“The free molecular regime is a name given to the gas flow conditions in which the mean free path of the gas molecules is much larger than the characteristic length of the channel,” Gupta explained. “Unlike the case for the continuum gas flow regime, in the free molecular regime the gas molecules bounce against the channel walls much more frequently than they bounce against each other. Under these conditions, the wall interaction dominates and tends to cause the molecules to drift from the cold end to the warm end of the channel.”

Clinoptilolite, which has a greenish-white color, is one of the most abundant zeolites, and is also inexpensive, easily accessible, and mechanically strong. Along with having no moving parts, these advantages may make the pump useful for various purposes.

“These miniature pumps may someday be useful for a variety of applications ranging from ventilation to vacuum pumping,” Gupta said. “They may also assist as gas reservoirs and gas separation elements in miniature or handheld system diagnostic. However, the Knudsen pumping technology is still evolving and will need quite a bit of effort before it gets there.”

More information: Gupta, Naveen K. and Yogesh B. Gianchandani. “Thermal transpiration in zeolites: A mechanism for motionless gas pumps.” Applied Physics Letters 93, 193511 (2008).

Posted in Science | Tagged , | Comments Off

Carbon Dioxide Detected on Exoplanet

FIRST DETECTION OF CARBON DIOXIDE IN AN EXOPLANET

by Ron Cowen

Moving one step closer to finding the fingerprints of life in a habitable planet beyond the solar system, astronomers have for the first time detected carbon dioxide in the atmosphere of a planet that orbits a star other than the sun.

The extrasolar planet and its star lie about 63 light-years from Earth. A gaseous body slightly bigger than Jupiter, the orb circles its parent star at a proximity that renders it far too hot to support life. But the finding bodes well for ultimately detecting carbon dioxide and other potential markers of life in planets that do lie far enough from their parent stars to be habitable, says Mark Swain of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif.

In the atmospheres of more temperate planets, carbon dioxide — along with water, methane and oxygen — can be generated by biological processes, Swain says. “In that context, the carbon dioxide measurement constitutes a dress rehearsal …for our long-term goal of trying to detect signs of life or signs of habitability on terrestrial-mass planets or superEarths in the habitable zone” around a star, which is where water could exist as a liquid.

Using the Hubble Space Telescope’s Near Infrared Camera and Multi-Object Spectrometer, Swain and his colleagues recorded infrared spectra from the planet, which periodically transits, or crosses in front of, its parent star as seen from Earth. When the hot planet lies side by side with its parent star, HD 189733, astronomers can detect the spectra of infrared radiation, or heat, from both star and planet. When the planet dives behind the star, only the infrared radiation from the star reaches Earth. Subtracting the two measurements gives the amount of infrared radiation given off by the planet alone.

The spectra of the planet’s radiation, recorded by the Hubble instrument, reveal chemical constituents of the planet’s atmosphere. The team found evidence of water vapor, which was previously detected in the planet’s atmosphere, as well as carbon monoxide and the never-before-seen carbon dioxide, the researchers report in an upcoming Astrophysical Journal Letters. Team member Gautam Vasisht of JPL also presented the findings on November 19 in Paris at the Molecules in the Atmospheres of Extrasolar Planets meeting.

According to models that assume conditions in the atmospheres of Jupiter-like planets are similar to those of slightly more massive objects, such as brown dwarfs, carbon dioxide isn’t expected to be present in detectable amounts in such planets.

One explanation for the carbon dioxide, says Swain, is that because the planet lies so close to HD 189733, completing an orbit in just 2.2 days, it receives an unusually high dose of ultraviolet light from the star. The intense ultraviolet radiation could have altered the chemical composition of the planet’s atmosphere, breaking down compounds and creating new ones. If other explanations can be ruled out, “this would be the first real evidence that [ultraviolet starlight] can make a substantial contribution to the atmosphere of these extrasolar planets,” Swain says. In the solar system, for example, ultraviolet light from the sun is believed to have triggered complex chemical reactions in Earth’s early atmosphere.

The fact that the carbon dioxide compounds were identified in relatively low-resolution spectra, comments theorist Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C., “represents the proof-of-concept for what we would hope to look for when characterizing the atmospheres of extrasolar Earths with a Terrestrial Planet Finder-type space telescope.”

Study coauthor Drake Deming of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., says the carbon dioxide detection in this hot Jupiter-like planet “presages a similar detection in the atmosphere of a rocky superEarth planet by the James Webb Space Telescope at [an infrared] wavelength of 4.3 micrometers.” Set for launch in 2013, the James Webb is the proposed successor to the Hubble Space Telescope.

The new finding “means that three of the Big Four biomarkers for habitable/inhabited worlds have now been seen: water, methane and now carbon dioxide,” Boss says. “The only one that has not yet been detected is oxygen/ozone.”

Posted in Science | Tagged | Comments Off

More Evidence of Water on Saturn Moon Enceladus

artsaturnnasa.jpg

Astronomers find hints of water on Saturn moon

Astronomers looking at the spectacular supersonic plumes of gas and dust shooting off one of Saturn’s moons say there are strong hints of liquid water, a key building block of life.

Their research, appearing in Thursday’s issue of the journal Nature, adds to the growing push to explore further the moon Enceladus, as one of the solar system’s most compelling places for potential life.

Using images from NASA’s Cassini probe, astronomers had already figured that the mysterious plumes shooting from Enceladus’ icy terrain contain water vapor. New calculations suggesting the gas and dust spew at speeds faster-than-sound make the case for liquid, said study lead author Candice Hansen of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab in California. Her team calculated the plumes travel more than 1,360 mph.

Reaching that speed “is hard to do without liquids,” Hansen said. While her paper offers more evidence building on what others have found, she added that her research is not the final proof of liquid water on Enceladus (pronounced en-SELL-ah-dus).

Other planetary scientists, such as Andrew Ingersoll at the California Institute of Technology, said the research is good, but that it is possible to achieve such speeds with ice particles and at cooler temperatures. So Hansen hasn’t proven her case yet, he and other scientists said.

Carolyn Porco, the head of the Cassini camera team and an astronomer who didn’t take part in Hansen’s research, said “the evidence in my mind is building on liquid water.” That moon, one of 60 circling Saturn, “has become the go-to place” for exploration in the outer planets, she said.

Europa, a moon of Jupiter, may have a liquid ocean beneath its frozen surface. But Enceladus, thought responsible for producing one of Saturn’s rings, is more accessible, Hansen said. “Enceladus is sort of helpfully spewing out its innards,” she said.

Posted in Science | Tagged | Comments Off

The Rise of Overparenting

081117_r17906_p233.jpg

THE CHILD TRAP

The rise of overparenting.

by Joan Acocella

We’ve all been there—that is, in the living room of friends who invited us to dinner without mentioning that this would include a full-evening performance by their four-year-old. He sings, he dances, he eats all the hors d’oeuvres. When you try to speak to his parents, he interrupts. Why should they talk to you, about things he’s not interested in, when you could all be discussing how his hamster died? His parents seem to agree; they ask him to share his feelings about that event. You yawn. Who cares? Dinner is finally served, and the child is sent off to some unfortunate person in the kitchen. The house shakes with his screams. Dinner over, he returns, his sword point sharpened. His parents again ask him how he feels. It’s ten o’clock. Is he tired? No! he says. You, on the other hand, find yourself exhausted, and you make for the door, swearing never to have kids or, if you already did, never to visit your grandchildren. You’ll just send checks.

This used to be known as “spoiling.” Now it is called “overparenting”—or “helicopter parenting” or “hothouse parenting” or “death-grip parenting.” The term has changed because the pattern has changed. It still includes spoiling—no rules, many toys—but two other, complicating factors have been added. One is anxiety. Will the child be permanently affected by the fate of the hamster? Did he touch the corpse, and get a germ? The other new element—at odds, it seems, with such solicitude—is achievement pressure. The heck with the child’s feelings. He has a nursery-school interview tomorrow. Will he be accepted? If not, how will he ever get into a good college? Overparenting is the subject of a number of recent books, and they all deplore it in the strongest possible terms.

Most of us have heard of people who pipe Mozart into their child’s room. In “A Nation of Wimps: The High Cost of Invasive Parenting” (Broadway; $23.95), Hara Estroff Marano, an editor-at-large at Psychology Today, writes that Baby Einstein, a subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, will sell you not just a Baby Mozart CD but also a Baby Beethoven. Both are available on DVD as well, with the music supplemented by puppet shows and other imagery. These DVDs, Baby Einstein says, are for the three-months-and-older age group. Since, at three months, babies cannot sit up, parents will have to hold them in front of the monitor, and since these infants have only just learned to focus their eyes, it is hard to know what they will make of the material. (Nothing at all, Susan Linn, a psychologist at Harvard Medical School, told the Chicago Tribune: “The baby video industry is a scam.”)

The DVDs are intended to provide you with a head start on the academic-achievement front, but there is also the environmental-hazards problem. Hovering parents, Marano says, see lethal bacilli on every surface. To thwart them in the supermarket, you can buy a Buggy Bagg, a protective pad that you insert into the front of the grocery cart before you put the child in. According to Buggy Bagg’s literature, this will guard against “viruses, bacteria, and bodily fluids” left on the cart. In a survey that Marano cites, a third of parents reported that they sent their offspring to school with antibacterial hand gels. Who trusts soap?

Once the child goes to nursery school, the academic pressure begins. Gone are the finger paints. Even preschools, Marano tells us, have replaced playtime with reading- and math-readiness training. As the child progresses, the academic load becomes heavier, and his ability to carry it is now regularly measured by standardized tests, as mandated by the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Because the test results are rendered in numbers—and can thus be compared with the norm, the ideal, and the neighbor’s kid—ambitious parents may, at this point, begin hiring tutors. According to Marano, there is now a four-billion-dollar tutoring industry in the United States, much of it serving elementary-school children. (Some of the coaches sent out by Princeton Review, a leading tutor-provider, charge close to four hundred dollars an hour.) If tutoring doesn’t do the trick, enterprising parents can argue with the school that their children, because of special needs, should not be held to a time limit in taking standardized tests. In 2005, according to Slate, seven to nine per cent of students in Washington, D.C., were given extra time on their S.A.T.s. Their scores—which were sent out to colleges, with no notice of the dispensation, alongside the scores of students working against the clock—were, on average, well above those of others.

Overparented children typically face not just a heavy academic schedule but also a strenuous program of extracurricular activities—tennis lessons, Mandarin classes, ballet. After-school activities are thought to impress college admissions officers. At the same time, they keep kids off the street. (In the words of one book, “You can’t smoke pot or lose your virginity at lacrosse practice.”) When summer comes, the child is often sent to a special-skills camp. Extracurricular activities and camps are areas where competition between parents, thought to be a major culprit in this whole business, is likely to surface. How do you explain to the other mother that while her child spent the summer examining mollusks at marine-biology camp, yours was at a regular old camp, stringing beads and eating s’mores?

Finally comes the Last Judgment: college applications. Admissions officers, it is said, don’t know what to make of application forms these days—many of them have so clearly been filled out by someone other than the applicant. If the parents don’t feel up to the job, they can turn to IvyWise, a service that, for a fee ranging from three thousand to forty thousand dollars, gives students a course in how to get into college. IvyWise’s offerings include “Application Boot Camp,” on how to complete the forms, and “Essay Writing Workshop,” on how to get the application essay into “optimal shape for submission.” Careful parents don’t have to wait for application time, however. IvyWise will also advise high-school freshmen and sophomores on which courses and extracurricular activities to choose, so that two or three years later, when the application process begins, they won’t make the awful discovery that they have been spending their time on classes and clubs that will not please admissions committees.

When the student goes off to college, overparenting need not stop. Many mothers and fathers, or their office assistants, edit their children’s term papers by e-mail. They also give them cell phones equipped with G.P.S. monitors, in order to track their movements. In Marano’s eyes, the cell phone, by allowing children to consult with their parents over any problem, any decision, any “flicker of experience,” has become the foremost technological adjunct of overparenting. Some parents, she adds, are not content with calling. They buy a second home in their child’s college town. According to a recent report on this trend in the Times, the child may protest, at the start. A student at Colorado College told the Times that when she found out that her parents, Maryland residents, were buying a four-bedroom house fifteen minutes from her school, she thought, “Are you kidding me? You’re following me across the country?” But then she came to like the arrangement: “I found myself not doing my laundry until my mom was in town.” I wonder if it was actually she who did the laundry.

Students provided with such benefits may study harder and, upon graduation, land a fancy job. On the other hand, they may join the ranks of the “boomerang children,” who move straight back home. A recent survey found that fifty-five per cent of American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-four, and fourteen per cent between the ages of twenty-five and thirty-four, live with their parents. Among the reasons cited are the high cost of housing, heavy competition for good jobs, and the burden of repaying college loans, but another factor may be sheer habit, even desire. Marano and others believe that, while hovering parents say that their goal is to launch the child into the world successfully, the truth lies deeper, in some dark dependency, some transfer of the parent’s identity to the child.

One cause of the overparenting trend, Marano says, is the working mother. That seems paradoxical: if Mother is at the office, how can she hover over the child? Well, she can hover at night and on weekends. The rest of the time, she can hire someone else to do it—and secretly install a “nanny cam” (one model is disguised as a smoke detector), to make sure it’s being done right. Marano believes, however, that the risk of overparenting is greater for a woman who quits her job in favor of full-time mothering while her children are young. Such a woman faces a huge loss of income—one source says a million dollars, on average, over the course of her career. It is no surprise that she might want child-rearing to be a project worthy of that sacrifice.

Another cause—and Marano stresses it over all others—is insecurity bred of the global economy. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik, in 1957—the first unmanned spacecraft, ever, and not ours—American school curricula shifted dramatically toward math and the hard sciences. “How are we ever going to beat the Russians?” people asked. Likewise, Marano says, the overparenting phenomenon got going in the seventies, in response to “stagflation” and the oil crisis, and has been nourished, ever since, by the rise of the global economy. No Child Left Behind: that sounds like the expression of a democratic wish. More likely, it was the product of an economic wish—that America not be left behind by India and China.

A third development that pushed people into overparenting, Marano and others believe, is the “brain plasticity” research published in the nineteen-nineties. This research said that, while the infant brain is, in part, the product of genes, that endowment is just the clay; after birth, it is “sculpted” by the child’s experience, the amount of stimulation he receives, above all in the first three years of life. That finding prompted many programs aimed at stimulating babies whose mothers, for whatever reason (often poverty), seemed likely to neglect them. Social workers drove off to homes deemed at risk, to play with the new baby. But upper-middle-class parents—and marketers interested in them—also read about the brain-plasticity findings, and figured that, if some stimulation is good, more is better. (Hence Baby Einstein.) Later research has provided no support for this. The conclusion, in general, is that the average baby’s environment provides all the stimuli he or she needs.

Marano thinks that the infant-stimulation craze was a scandal. She accepts the idea of brain plasticity, but she believes that the sculpting goes on for many years past infancy and that its primary arena should be self-stimulation, as the child ventures out into the world. While Mother was driving the kid nuts with the eight-hundredth iteration of “This Little Piggy,” she should have been letting him play on his own. Marano assembles her own arsenal of neurological research, guaranteed to scare the pants off any hovering parent. As children explore their environment by themselves—making decisions, taking chances, coping with any attendant anxiety or frustration—their neurological equipment becomes increasingly sophisticated, Marano says. “Dendrites sprout. Synapses form.” If, on the other hand, children are protected from such trial-and-error learning, their nervous systems “literally shrink.”

Such atrophy, Marano claims, may be undetectable in the early years, when overattentive parents are doing for the child what he should be doing on his own, but once he goes off to college the damage becomes obvious. Marano sees an epidemic of psychological breakdown on college campuses: “The middle of the night may find a SWAT team of counselors calming down a dorm wing after having crisis-managed an acute manic episode or yet another incident of self-mutilation.” Overparented students who avoid or survive college meltdowns are still impaired, Marano argues. Having been taught that the world is full of dangers, they are risk-averse and pessimistic. (“It may be that robbing children of a positive sense of the future is the worst form of violence that parents can do to them,” she writes.) Schooled in obedience to authority, they will be poor custodians of democracy. Finally—and, again, she stresses this—their robotic behavior will threaten “American leadership in the global marketplace.” That was the factor that frightened parents into hovering. And by their hovering they prevented their children from developing the very traits—courage, nimbleness, outside-the-box thinking—that are required by the new economic order.

Marano gets a vote of agreement from “Under Pressure: The New Movement Inspiring Us to Slow Down, Trust Our Instincts, and Enjoy Our Kids” (Harper One; $24.95), by Carl Honoré, a partisan of the so-called “slow movement,” which is aimed at persuading us all to abandon the fast track. Honoré is not from the United States—he was brought up in Canada and lives in London—and he therefore looks beyond his own national boundaries. You might have thought that the United States, with its susceptibility to child-rearing fads, would be worse off than other countries in the matter of overparenting. Not so, Honoré says. Look at East Asia, where tutoring and testing constitute a sort of religion. In international comparisons, he says, East Asian youngsters “score near the top in math and science, yet rank near the bottom for enjoyment of those subjects.” And where the joy of learning has vanished, Honoré argues, so have its ethics. He feels that test-driven schooling has contributed to what is apparently a recent surge in cheating, so much easier, now, with the Internet: “Nearly three-quarters of Canadian undergraduates recently admitted to serious acts of cheating on written work while in high school. . . . In 2007, officials revealed that five per cent of applicants to Oxford and Cambridge had embellished their application forms with material taken off the Web. Explaining why they wanted to study chemistry, two hundred and thirty-four applicants cited word for word the same example, ‘burning a hole in my pajamas at age eight,’ as a formative experience.”

As for children’s safety, Honoré makes what will no doubt be the controversial recommendation that we stop fretting about it. He quotes Samuel Butler on the subject: “Young people have a marvelous faculty of either dying or adapting themselves to circumstances.” Allergy rates in children are rising throughout the industrialized world. Honoré blames this on oversanitized environments: “Just look at what happened in Germany. Before unification, allergy rates were much higher in the western part, even though the Communist-run eastern half had much worse pollution and more children living on farms. After the countries reunited, East Germany was cleaned up and urbanized—and allergy rates soared.”

Finally, Honoré takes on domestic psychology, in particular the “self-esteem movement” born of the nineteen-seventies. To him, as to other writers on overparenting, this is a matter of disgust. “Every doodle ends up on the fridge door,” he says. According to the research he’s read, such ego-pumping confers no benefit. A review of thousands of studies found that high self-esteem in children did not boost grades or career prospects, or even resistance to adult alcoholism. If I am not mistaken, however, there is something about the self-esteem movement that strikes Honoré at a level deeper than the question of our children’s competence. Marano, as the title of her book tells us, is worried that we are producing a nation of wimps, people who won’t “make it.” Honoré is worried that the Stepford children produced by overparenting will make it, and turn the world into a rude, heartless, boring place.

He’s not the only one. Sooner or later, all critics of overparenting get to the problem of morals—the sheer selfishness of these parents and of the children they produce. Even the pragmatic Marano makes this point. Why, she asks, aren’t parents “manning the barricades,” demanding benefits for all children? Why do they care only about their own? And doesn’t it bother them that the extra help they can buy for their children—the college-admissions courses, the tutoring—is tilting the playing field? Hovering, as most of these books acknowledge, is largely the preserve of upper-middle-class parents, and these people want their children to prosper as they did, fairness be damned. The socioeconomics get special attention from Madeline Levine, whose 2006 book “The Price of Privilege” is now in paperback (Harper; $13.95). Levine is a clinical psychologist, specializing in the treatment of adolescents, in California’s Marin County. In other words, she spends her days ministering to rich children, many with ambitious parents looming over them. She seems inured to the girls’ tales of giving blow jobs behind the gym, but she describes with real dismay her patients’ lack of any “conscience, generosity.”

The focus of Gary Cross’s “Men to Boys: The Making of Modern Immaturity” (Columbia; $29.50) is specifically the current generation of young men, compared with those of the post-Second World War period (Cross’s father’s generation) and those of the sixties (his own generation). According to Cross’s statistics, this new breed takes much longer to get jobs, marry, and have children—that is, to grow up, by his definition. Instead, these boy-men, as he calls them, hang out with their friends and play video games. They don’t even have girlfriends anymore, Cross says. They’re content with “hook-ups,” casual arrangements. A professor of history at Penn State, Cross has done a lot of research. He seems to have watched every episode of “Father Knows Best” and “Seinfeld.” His conclusion, that the fathers of yesteryear did know best, or better—that the patriarchy wasn’t so bad, after all—is disappointing, but it should be said that what he admires in the old-time dads is not so much that they knew how to wield power as that they looked out for someone besides themselves, an interest not popular with the boy-man crowd.

These books’ concern with altruism probably stems, in part, from “positive psychology,” a new movement that stresses fulfillment and affiliation as primary measures of mental health. But, like positive psychology, the moral emphasis is clearly related to the values of the sixties and the early seventies, the world that we left behind in the buckle-down eighties. The writers are shocked by the materialism of the new generation. (You should hear Honoré on the subject of today’s high-end birthday parties.) They also note with alarm the rising indifference to any species of idealism. Levine describes a 1998 study at U.C.L.A.:

When asked about reasons for going to college during the 1960s and early seventies, most students placed the highest value on “becoming an educated person” or “developing a philosophy of life.” A minority deemed “making a lot of money” as the main reason to attend college. Beginning in the 1990s, a majority of students say that “making a lot of money” has become the most important reason to go to college, outranking both the reasons above, as well as “becoming an authority in my field,” or “helping others in difficulty.”

In view of these writers’ reversion to the values of the sixties, they are strangely reluctant to cite the thinkers of that period. You could read most of these books without finding out that there was a progressive-school movement in the fifties and sixties, or that R. D. Laing ever talked about “inauthenticity,” or Abraham Maslow about higher-order needs.

On the other hand, some writers do address the sixties—and give it poor marks. “My generation’s obsession with youth,” Cross writes, “stands out in the history of human vanity.” He thinks that today’s layabout young men are the inheritors. Another book that indicts the sixties, though from a different perspective, is “Judging School Discipline: The Crisis of Moral Authority” (2003), by Richard Arum, a professor of sociology and education at New York University. It was in the sixties, Arum tells us, that the students’-rights movement began, as an effort to protect minority children from unfair treatment. The resulting lawsuits won the right of due process for all children threatened with expulsion or, in some cases, merely suspension. And this, Arum says, resulted in a new, worse kind of unfair treatment for minority students. The due-process requirement intimidated teachers, discouraging them from imposing discipline. The students ran wild. Furthermore, school administrators became sitting ducks for aggressive parents seeking preferential treatment for their children. In one of Arum’s sources, a teacher is quoted as saying, with regard to discipline, “It all depends on who you grab. Grab the dumb ones—they don’t know what the hell to do. Don’t grab a lawyer’s kid.” Of course, the ones who don’t know what to do—or whose parents don’t—are the poorer children.

Arum’s conclusions are the product of long research. Other writings on the connection between the sixties and current child-rearing practices sound more like the product of fogyism. A good example is an article, “The Kindergarchy,” that the conservative commentator Joseph Epstein recently contributed to The Weekly Standard. “My mother never read to me, and my father took me to no ballgames,” Epstein writes. They took no photographs, avowed no love, of him. This, he says, was the general approach to child-rearing in the nineteen-forties and fifties, when he grew up, and children benefitted: they developed into regular people, “going about the world’s business.” As for the steamy devotion shown by later generations of parents, what it has produced are snotty little brats filled with “anger at such abstract enemies as The System,” and intellectual lightweights, certain (because their parents told them so) that their every thought is of great consequence. Epstein says that, when he was teaching, he was often tempted to write on his students’ papers: “D-. Too much love in the home.” As his essay suggests, critics of overparenting have political concerns as well as moral ones. The politics go both ways, however. The conservatives are afraid that we’re turning our children into pampered ninnies (that is, Democrats); the liberals that we’re producing selfish, authoritarian robots (Republicans).

The literature on overparenting raises a number of sticky questions. For example, is it really wrong for us to push our children to excel in areas where they are talented? Honoré relates how his seven-year-old son’s art teacher told him that the child was a truly gifted artist. So the next morning Honoré suggested to the boy that he take an art class after school, and got the following response: “I don’t want to go to class and have a teacher tell me what to do—I just want to draw. . . . Why do grown-ups have to take over everything?” Honoré backed off, ashamed of what he now judged to be his opportunism. If the fathers of Mozart and the Williams sisters had done the same thing, the history of human achievement would have been different.

Another discomforting matter in these books is the role of feminism in today’s child-rearing follies. According to Gary Cross, one reason that young men are refusing to grow up is that the women’s movement has eliminated the rewards for doing so. In return for putting on a suit every morning and going to work, men used to be the boss both in the office and at home. No more. So why grow up? Cross acknowledges that patriarchy and slackerhood are not the only available choices. As he notes, some people are saying that our society, by discarding sexism, can produce a new kind of man, one who is “nurturing and emotionally expressive,” and who “abandons his old patriarchal privileges and embraces equality in private and public roles.” Cross is not looking forward to such a development, however: “How many men (or women) can distinguish this approach from the stereotypical wimp?” I can, but there are other matters to consider as well—for example, Marano’s claim that if a woman, before having children, holds a high-powered job, this may predispose her to overparenting whether or not she quits the job to stay home with the kids. I’m sure Marano doesn’t believe that women who plan to have a family should not be given responsible jobs—I’m not so sure about Cross—but, if what she says is true, this raises the old problem that, if you improve some element in a system, another element may break down in response. Adjust the carburetor, and the transmission goes out of whack.

final question that one has to ask is whether the overparenting trend is truly the emergency that these authors say it is. In the manner of popular books on psychology, the commentators tend to forget that they are talking, for the most part, about a minority. (Recent surveys have found that today’s teen-agers are volunteering for community service at a rate unequalled since the nineteen-forties.) And the writing is very pushy. Marano’s book is endlessly repetitive; you could read every third paragraph and not miss anything. Also, what about the sensationalism? Are there really SWAT teams of therapists descending on college dorms in the middle of the night? Honoré, too, beats us over the head. In almost every chapter, he (1) isolates the baleful trend—standardized tests, overcoached sports, and the like; (2) reports that some brave folk are now bucking the tide; (3) visits a site of their revisionist activity—the experimental school, the back-yard ballgame; and (4) reports on how the children thrive under the new regime. In one progressive school that he inspects, “the mood is pure sunshine.” The students stampede to class; they tell Honoré how much they love homework. Never, in any of these wholesome environments, is any child starting a fight or picking his nose.

To get some perspective, look at “Huck’s Raft: A History of American Childhood” (2004), by Steven Mintz, a professor of history at Columbia. Mintz’s story begins with the beginning of the United States, and therefore he describes children with troubles greater than overparenting: boys dispatched to coal mines, and girls to textile mills, at age nine or ten. As for the current outbreak of worry over the young, Mintz reminds us that America has seen such panics before—for example, in the nineteen-fifties, with the outcry over hot rods, teen sex, and rock and roll. The fifties even had its own campaign against overparenting, or overmothering—Momism, as it was called. This was thought to turn boys into homosexuals. For the past three decades, Mintz writes, discussions of child-rearing in the United States have been dominated by a “discourse of crisis,” and yet America’s youth are now, on average, “bigger, richer, better educated, and healthier than at any other time in history.” There have been some losses. Middle-class white boys from the suburbs have fallen behind their predecessors, but middle-class girls and minority children are far better off. Mintz thinks that we worry too much, or about the wrong things. Despite general prosperity—at least until recently—the percentage of poor children in America is greater today than it was thirty years ago. One in six children lives below the poverty line. If you want an emergency, Mintz says, there’s one.

Posted in Literary | Tagged | Comments Off