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Dreams spur creativity

Sigmund Freud may have been the expert at interpreting what deep anxieties and desires were embodied in dreams, but new research finds an altogether different purpose for that state of mind when we sleep. According to Harvard Medical School psychologist Deirdre Barrett, dreams have produced some of the greatest creative thoughts in history.

In the November/December edition of Scientific American, she cites Dmitri Mendeleev's coming up with the final form of his now-famous periodic table, Mary Shelley's conjuring the two main scenes of "Frankenstein," and several musicians -- including Beethoven and Paul McCartney -- who woke up with melodies in their head.

Add to that "Mahatma Gandhi's call for a nonviolent protest," which she says was "inspired by a dream." Barrett cites recent studies in which REM-cycle sleep, when dreams occur, was shown to consolidate new learning and to solve problems.

She offers these step-by-step tips for how you can use dreams to solve problems: Jot down what the issue is, leave that note next to your bed, then look at it a few minutes before you get into bed. Once tucked in, visualize the problem and tell yourself you want to dream about it as you drift off to sleep. When you wake up, lie quietly for a minute and try to recall any dreams you had and write down descriptions of them. Keep it up, and if you're lucky maybe you'll come up with Beethoven's 10th.

-- Washington Post

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A better view of Eris

Eris, the dwarf planet whose 2005 discovery led to Pluto losing its status as a planet, has passed in front of a star, providing astronomers with the clearest view of it yet since it was identified.

It is about the same size as Pluto and one of the brightest objects in the solar system, according to the new analysis, released last month by the journal Nature.

Scientists' picture of Eris had remained fuzzy because its distance from Earth is so vast: It is about three times farther out from the sun than Pluto. Some estimates pegged Eris as about 25 percent larger than Pluto, but it was too far away to tell for sure.

"It's very difficult, because it's so small in the sky," said lead author Bruno Sicardy, a planetary scientist at Pierre and Marie Curie University in Paris.

With such small, far-off objects, astronomers wait for what's known as a stellar occultation, in which the object will cross over a star, essentially casting a shadow over the Earth. The amount of starlight blocked by the object allows scientists to calculate the object's size.

To spot the star-crossing, Sicardy's team asked telescope operators at 26 different sites around the world to make observations. Just three telescopes at two of those sites, both in Chile, managed to catch the event. From the data, the researchers were able to calculate that the dwarf planet's diameter is about 1,445 miles -- on a par with Pluto, which is between 1,429 and 1,491 miles across.

-- Los Angeles Times