Nature vs. Nurture
The role of genetics in athletic prowess
“The Sports Gene” by David Epstein

Are Michael Phelps and Serena Williams genetically predisposed to succeed athletically, or is their success purely a function of years of intense training? Is sprinter Usain Bolt “the most naturally gifted athlete the world has ever seen,” as his Web site contends, or did practice and community support contribute to his success? Are there genes for speed, strength and endurance, or can these traits be honed over time?

In “The Sports Gene,” David Epstein, a senior writer at Sports Illustrated, takes on the nature vs. nurture debate in the context of athletic ability. Epstein looks at the success stories of Olympic marathoners, high jumpers, professional baseball players and others, and examines studies about the effects of various factors on athletic development. The book covers variables such as eyesight, leg length and thickness, aerobic capacity, physical training and the use of human growth hormone.

Epstein also looks at training theories, such as the “10,000-hour rule” popularized in Malcolm Gladwell’s “Outliers,” which holds that 10,000 hours of practice can make anyone an expert in a given field. He writes that there is some evidence to support this theory, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. For example, Major League Baseball players spend thousands of hours honing their skills — but Epstein found that on the whole, they also have exceptional eyesight.

Epstein points to data indicating that some people have the genetic potential to benefit from intense practice while others will make marginal but not stellar improvements, no matter how hard or how long they work. That is why two people can follow identical training plans and see drastically different results, he says.

So which is it: nature or nurture? Epstein concludes that one is useless without the other. Most athletic traits, he writes, are “a braid of nature and nurture so intricately and thoroughly intertwined as to become a single vine.”

An x-ray of an Apollo-era “overboot” shows the adjustment strap that allowed astronauts to tighten this boot over another shoe that was attached to the spacesuit. (Mark Avino/SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION)

National Air and Space Museum takes three looks at art and science of space
“Searching for Goldilocks,” “High Art” and “Suited for Space,” through Dec. 1

Three new exhibits at the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum offer a fresh look at the art and science of space.

“Searching for Goldilocks,” a sculpture by Angela Palmer, was inspired by the astronomical search for a “Goldilocks planet” — one that is not too hot and not too cold, a world that, like Earth, is able to support life. The sculpture consists of 18 sheets of glass engraved with locations of planets and stars as far away as 4,300 light-years. “Searching for Goldilocks” uses data compiled by the Kepler Observatory, which has been charting the Milky Way since 2009.

“High Art: A Decade of Collecting” features 50 pieces of art inspired by aerospace. Acquired by the museum between 2003 and 2013, the works are divided into three collections. “Visions of Flight” comprises conceptual works, while “Faces of Flight” includes portraits and “Looking Back” is made up of works relating to historical events. Among the pieces on display are “Nimbus Munnekeholm,” an indoor cloud created by Berndnaut Smilde, and “Flying Boy Over Truro’s Pond” by Fran Forman, which shows a boy with butterfly wings flying over golden body of water.

“Suited for Space” tells the story of the design and development of spacesuits. Among the items on display are an X-ray of Alan Shepard’s Apollo 14 spacesuit, a NASA replica suit and a device that allows astronauts to drink while suited up and weightless. Why no spacesuits themselves? Built to withstand conditions in space for short periods of time, they are very fragile and require strict handling, temperature and humidity controls. Nonetheless, the exhibit offers a fascinating look at the technology that has allowed astronauts to live and work in space.

All three exhibits will be on display at the museum through Dec. 1.