Edge 285—May 15, 2009
After all, we are witnessing the Waterloo of Wall Street. So, ironically, it was in the Canadian province of Ontario, in the small town of Waterloo, that a meeting was convened to shed new light on the world's financial debacle. In a densely packed conference schedule, the general approach was to take measure of the crisis not only in a new way, but with instruments never used before. Even the venue for event, the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics, was itself programmatic, though invitations to participate were sent far beyond the boundaries of economics and physics to mathematicians, lawyers, behavioral economists, risk managers, evolutionary biologists, complexity theorists and computer scientists.— Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
THE ECONOMIC MANHATTAN PROJECT — THE VIDEOS
In December, Edge published "Can Science Help Solve the Economic Crisis?" by Mike Brown, Stuart Kauffman, Zoe-Vonna Palmrose, and Lee Smolin. The paper was prompted by a suggestion by Eric Weinstein for an "Economic Manhattan Project".
This led to the Perimeter Institute conference: "The Economic Crisis and its Implications for The Science of Economics". According to the organizers, "Concerns over the current financial situation are giving rise to a need to evaluate the very mathematics that underpins economics as a predictive and descriptive science. A growing desire to examine economics through the lens of diverse scientific methodologies — including physics and complex systems — is making way to a meeting of leading economists and theorists of finance together with physicists, mathematicians, biologists and computer scientists in an effort to evaluate current theories of markets and identify key issues that can motivate new directions for research."
The conference began on May 1st, with a day of invited talks by leading experts to a public audience on the status of economic and financial theory in light of the crisis. I was pleased to be invited and to listen to the first day of public talks.
Among those participating were Nouriel Roubini, Nassim Taleb, Emanuel Derman, Andrew Lo, Richard Alexander, Eric Weinstein, introduced by Theoretical Physicist Neil Turok, who recently moved Cambridge to become the Executive Director of Perimeter, and Lee Smolin, a founding member and research physicist. Doyne Farmer of the Santa Fe Institute, and one of the original Edge contributors, was also in attendance.
Eric Weinstein set the stage with a statement on his talk, which began the proceedings:
Jordan Mejias, arts correspondent for Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and frequent Edge contributor, attended as well. His interesting report ran on the front page of the FAZ Feuilleton.
I am pleased to present the video presentations of Eric Weinstein; Nouriel Roubini; Nassim Taleb, a panel discussion of Eric Weinstein, Nouriel Roubini, Richard Freeman, and Nassim Taleb; Emanuel Derman, Andrew Lo, Richard Alexander; a panel discussion of Emanuel Derman, Andrew Lo, Richard Alexander, Bill Janeway, Zoe-Vonna Palmrose; and Doyne Farmer.
THE AGE OF PANDEMICS [5.2.09]
LAWRENCE B. BRILLIANT, Executive Director of Google.org. is a medical doctor who was a professor of international health and epidemiology at the University of Michigan from 1976-1986 and prior to that he lived in India and worked as a medical officer for the United Nations World Health Organization helping lead the successful effort to eradicate smallpox. He is a founder and a director of the Seva Foundation, an international organization dedicated to fighting blindness. Brilliant will soon begin work as president of the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund.
THE AGE OF PANDEMICS
In 1967, the country's surgeon general, William Stewart, famously said, "The time has come to close the book on infectious diseases. We have basically wiped out infection in the United States." This premature victory declaration, perhaps based on early public health victories over 19th-century infectious diseases, has entered the lore of epidemiologists who know that, if anything, the time has come to open the book to a new and dangerous chapter on 21st-century communicable diseases.
Indeed, to the epidemiological community, the Influenza Pandemic of 2009 is one of the most widely anticipated diseases in history. Epidemiologists have been shouting from rooftops that a pandemic (or, a world-wide epidemic) of influenza is overdue, and that it is not a matter of "if" but "when." The current pathogen creating the threat is actually a mixture of viral genetic elements from all over the globe that have sorted, shifted, sorted, shifted, drifted and recombined to form this worrisome virus.
No one knows if the 2009 swine flu will behave like the 1918 Spanish flu that killed 50 million to 100 million world-wide, or like the 1957 Asian flu and 1968 Hong Kong flu that killed far fewer. This 2009 flu may weaken and lose its virulence, or strengthen and gain virulence—we just do not know.
Here's the good news: Compared with a few years ago, the world is somewhat better prepared to deal with pandemic influenza. There have been training meetings, table-top exercises, dry runs and preparedness drills at virtually every level of government and civil society. World Health Organization member states have agreed on a set of regulations that require all members to report the status of diseases of global significance within their borders. We have two effective antiviral drugs, at least for the time being. There have been some breakthroughs to reduce the time required to get effective vaccines into the field, and there is even a small chance that last year's seasonal vaccine will help protect lives from H1N1. In the U.S. at least, influenza surveillance has improved.
Here's the bad news: Today, we remain underprepared for any pandemic or major outbreak, whether it comes from newly emerging infectious diseases, bioterror attack or laboratory accident. We do not have the best general disease surveillance systems or "surge" capacity in our hospitals and health-care facilities. We do not have enough beds, respirators or seasoned public-health staff (many of whom, because of the financial meltdown, ironically got pink slips from their state and county health departments days or even hours before WHO declared we are at a Phase 5 alert, one step short of its highest global level). We not only need to retain the public-health people we have, we quickly need to train a new generation of 21st-century workers who know both the old diseases and have mastered the computer and other digital technologies and genomic advances to keep them ahead of the newest emerging threats.
And there is worse news: The 2009 swine flu will not be the last and may not be the worst pandemic that we will face in the coming years. Indeed, we might be entering an Age of Pandemics.
In our lifetimes, or our children's lifetimes, we will face a broad array of dangerous emerging 21st-century diseases, man-made or natural, brand-new or old, newly resistant to our current vaccines and antiviral drugs. You can bet on it.
One of the top scientists in the world did bet on it. A few years ago, Lord Martin Rees, who holds three of the most distinguished titles in the scientific world (Astronomer Royal; Master of Trinity College, Cambridge; and head of the 350-year-old Royal Society, London) offered a $1,000 wager that bioterror or bioerror would unleash a catastrophic event claiming one million lives in the next two decades. Lord Rees said: "There's real concern about whether our civilization can be safeguarded without us sacrificing too much in terms of privacy, diversity and individualism."
Risks from bioterror are unpredictable, of course, but I think it's fair to say that world-wide access to infectious agents and basic biological know-how has grown more rapidly than even the exponential growth of computing power. According to Moore's law, the number of transistors on a chip doubles in 18 to 24 months—or, said another way, the "the bang for the buck" in computers doubles in less than two years.
The technologies supporting bioterror have exploded even faster than computing power. The cost of genomic sequencing, as one example of a supporting technology, has gone down from the nearly $1 billion it cost for the first full human DNA sequences to the low thousands for consumers in the coming years. Genetic engineering of viruses is much less complex and far less expensive than sequencing human DNA. Bioterror weapons are cheap and do not need huge labs or government support. They are the poor man's WMD.
Naturally occurring diseases with pandemic potential are much more ubiquitous and more certain to occur. Over the last decades, we have seen more than three dozen new infectious diseases appear, some of which could kill millions of people with one or two unlucky gene mutations or one or two unfavorable environmental changes. The risks of pandemics only increase as the human population grows, the world loses greenbelts, uninhabited land disappears and more humans hunt and eat wild animals.
Most pathogenic viruses that affect humans have originated in animals and jumped to humans; for that reason, we call them "zoonoses." They account for 60% of all infectious diseases, and 75% of all emerging infections.
Some of these diseases are well-known: bird flu, SARS, HIV/AIDS, West Nile, Monkey-pox and Ebola. Some are brand-new, like the arenavirus that was first found only a few months ago when it caused a handful of deaths in Africa and was genetically sequenced and identified by Ian Lipkin at Columbia University. He believes there may be as many as one million viruses that remain to be discovered.
Why are more new viruses with pandemic potential jumping from their traditional animal hosts to humans now? If I had to choose a single word answer it would be: "modernity." If I had two more words, I would add "human irresponsibility." And of course so much of this peril is made much worse by the Great Exacerbator—climate change and global warming.
Increasingly, humans push every conceivable barrier, and we now occupy more land that was historically the province of animals then ever before. More humans come in contact with animals and their viruses because there is less rain forest, jungle and wild lands separating them. Partly driven by poverty and lack of access to other food sources, Africans last year consumed nearly 700 million wild animals, about two billion kilograms of "bush meat." Scientists like Nathan Wolfe of the Global Viral Forecasting Initiative are taking matching blood specimens from the bush-meat hunters and the animals they kill, in an attempt to predict which virus will jump next.
If sub-Saharan Africa is the hotspot for blood-borne diseases, the Mekong area bounded by China, Myanmar, Laos, Thailand and Cambodia is the hotspot for respiratory diseases like SARS or pandemic bird flu. In these countries, the issue is not poverty but relative prosperity that has led to increased raising of cattle and chickens, and increased meat consumption. In China, the numbers of chickens raised for food has increased 1,000-fold over the past few decades. In parts of Southeast Asia, humans and chickens—and pigs—live so close together, exchanging viruses, it looks almost like a science experiment.
As climate change causes sea levels to rise and aquifers to dip dangerously into salty water, agricultural lands yield fewer calories of food per acre. That leads farmers to cut down jungle, creating deforested areas which once served as barriers to the zoonotic viruses that each day have more opportunities to jump from bats and rodents and monkeys and civet cats to humans. As temperatures rise and seashores change, animals head inland and to higher ground, moving into heavily populated human areas. Soon there will be human climate refugees on the move into land once thought inhabitable. All of these changes increase the potential for humans and animals to exchange new viruses.
I chair the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee, created by a presidential directive in 2008, comprising some of the smartest and most dedicated public health professionals I have ever met. We've been working to understand our national capability to respond to these emerging threats. Our first report will be released shortly. I can't prerelease it, but its contents will come as no surprise. We are concerned that the nation and the world do not have adequate "early warning" or bio-surveillance capabilities. We are recommending that governments need far better early warning systems for potential pandemics and other epidemic threats. We are also emphasizing that public health be restored to a position of respect and be given resources commensurate with its duty to protect us all from these and other threats to our health.
In the 1970s I had the great good fortune that my first job out of medical school was to be the junior-most member of the WHO's smallpox-eradication program in India. I was, in Silicon Valley terms, the third or fourth "hire" for the team that would create history and eradicate smallpox from India and South Asia. I stayed in India for nearly a decade and went back at the end of the program to turn off the lights and document this amazing success story, the only disease in history to be eradicated.
Smallpox killed 500 million people in the 20th century alone. The global smallpox program cost $150 million total in 1965 dollars; each year, in addition to lives saved from ending this terrible disease, the U.S. reaps economic benefits exceeding $2 billion from eliminating routine vaccination and the handful of very serious adverse consequences, including three or four vaccine-caused deaths, airport checkpoints (remember those little yellow cards?) and the loss of time away from work and school.
In analyzing the effect of loss of travel and trade in addition to the health-care costs of a possible bird-flu pandemic, Bank of Montreal chief economist Sherry Cooper estimated the global costs of a "mild" pandemic to be 2% of global GDP, which in 2005 dollars was $1.1 trillion. There is a stark contrast between savings in lives and treasure from investing in public health and prevention, increasing training programs, funding the research that leads to better vaccines, more lab capacity, improved antivirals and early warning systems—and the human and economic costs of not acting in time. The business community should be at the front of the line, advocating for prevention and public health, one of the history's best investments by any criteria.
There is hope for some good news on that front: Another disease may soon join be checked off the list of human scourges. Because of the dedicated staff of WHO and Unicef, and the generosity of Rotary International, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and others, polio, with only 1,500 cases in the world last year, may soon follow smallpox into the dustbin of history. The Carter Center has also brought Guinea worm close to its demise as well.
That is either one, two or three diseases that could be ticked off the list of humanity's worst afflictions, with great savings in lives, health and wealth. Reducing the number of terrible forms of suffering is what we all want, but I fear that if we don't take seriously the factors that could make the next decade the Age of Pandemics, we will start moving backward, adding lethal diseases to that list—instead of subtracting them.
Larry Brilliant, an epidemiologist, is chairman of the National Biosurveillance Advisory Subcommittee and chief philanthropy evangelist at Google. He will soon begin work as president of the Skoll Urgent Threats Fund.
...I'm always on the lookout for religion's latest counter-arguments, the new rhetorical approaches that God People are constantly fine-tuning for use in pimping the righteousness of faith (and for demonstrating the moral dissoluteness of agnostics like myself). There isn't an inherently irresolvable metaphysical challenge that comes close to wasting as much of the world's time and energy as this particular one. It's the intellectual equivalent of the eternal R&D quest for a baldness cure: you just never stop being surprised at how many different ways men can find to fail at growing hair.
This latest salvo is fired by author/professor Stanley Fish, a prominent religion-peddler of the pointy-headed, turtlenecked genus, who made his case in his blog at the New York Times. Fish was mostly riffing on a recent book written by the windily pompous University of Manchester professor Terry Eagleton, a pudgily superior type, physically resembling a giant runny nose, who seems to have been raised by indulgent aunts who gave him sweets every time he corrected the grammar of other children. The esteemed professor's new book is called Reason, Faith and Revolution, and it's sort of an answer to the popular atheist literature of people like Richard Dawkins and Chris Hitchens. If you ever want to give yourself a really good, throbbing headache, go online and check out Eagleton's lectures at Yale, upon which the book was based, in which one may listen to this soft-soaping old toady do his verbose best to stick his tongue as far as he can up the anus of the next generation of the American upper class. ...
It's immaterial whether we find the fruits of their labors on paper, a laptop screen, a BlackBerry, a Kindle or podcast. But someone — and certainly not the government, with all its conflicted interests — must pay for this content and make every effort to police its fairness and accuracy. If we lose the last major news-gathering operations still standing, there will be no news on Google News unless Google shells out to replace them. It won't.
One of the freshest commentators on Internet culture, Clay Shirky, has written, correctly, that nobody really knows what form journalism will take in the evolving post-newspaper era. Looking back to the unpredictable social and cultural upheavals brought about by Gutenberg's invention of movable type, he writes, “We're collectively living through 1500, when it's easier to see what's broken than what will replace it.” So who will do the heavy journalistic lifting? “Whatever works.” Every experiment must be tried, professional and amateur, whether by institutions like The Times or “some 19-year-old kid few of us have heard of.”
What can't be reinvented is the wheel of commerce. Just because information wants to be free on the Intern et doesn't mean it can always be free. Web advertising will never be profitable enough to support ambitious news gathering. If a public that thinks nothing of spending money on texting or pornography doesn't foot the bill for such reportage, it won't happen. ...
[ED.NOTE: See "Newspapers And Thinking The Unthinkable"
By Drake Bennett
...For Daniel Gilbert, a Harvard psychologist and leading happiness researcher, the implications for policymaking are straightforward. Lawmakers, judges, doctors and managers alike should take the growing happiness literature into account as they decide what behavior they want to encourage or discourage. "Before we get people to do X, we ought to know that X is actually a source of happiness for them," he says.
The field that has taken this most to heart so far is the law. A few scholars have begun arguing, for example, that the damages we award in lawsuits need to be rethought in light of work like Gilbert's. Last year Cass R. Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor who is now the Obama administration's nominee for "regulatory czar," published a law review article in which he argued that our inability to predict how well people adapt to traumas leads to excessively large awards in personal injury lawsuits. Jurors and judges overcompensate plaintiffs for their suffering, he argued, because they are unable to believe that a disabled life can be a happy one. At the same time, Sunstein pointed to evidence that people are actually better at adapting to physical disabilities than to mental illness or chronic pain - conditions that, because they are not visible, don't tend to elicit the same sort of reaction from juries. Because of that, he argued, our misunderstanding of happiness shortchanges those plaintiffs.
As a solution, Sunstein proposed a set of civil damages guidelines that would take into account what psychologists are learning about which conditions people are better and worse at emotionally acclimating themselves to. ...
Money is essential to science, and at the same time it can be a dangerous corrupter. There's a common argument, for instance, that a lot of biomedical research is untrustworthy because it is done at the behest of Big Pharma dollars — it's more persuasive to people than it should be, because there is a grain of truth to it, and it would be easy to get sucked into the lucrative world of the industry shill. However, we also have a counterbalance: scientists don't go into research because they want to be rich, and we are also educated with a set of principles that puts the integrity of our observations above all. But we also have to be honest: there is temptation, and there are tradeoffs, and there are scientists who lose sight of their principles when the stakes get higher.
We have sources of funding that are supposed to be independent of politics or ideological distortion, institutions like the NIH and NSF. Of course, we know they aren't pure — witness the influence of the religious right in crippling support for stem cell research — but for the most part we can at least feel secure that most of the money is distributed by scientists, for scientists, and that scientific values dominate.
There is a second kind of funding available that tug at the scientist, whether it's a pharmaceutical company, a military arms company, or an industrial conglomerate, that do stir some ethical concerns (or the potential of ethical concerns) that at least have one shard of hope to offer: they all ultimately want something that will work. They need scientists to generate innovations and build improvements on existing ideas, even if they may also pressure one to take shortcuts or hide confounding results. Scientists can work under those conditions and make progress. Don't ask us to make up data, and we can operate.
But what about a tobacco company that wants to obscure information about health problems with their own obfuscating 'data' to cast doubt? What about a mining concern that wants a fudged environmental report that downplays the impact of their operations? I think we'd all agree that this third class are cases where the scientist has betrayed his mission, and has violated a cardinal principle, that is, to follow the evidence where ever it may lead.
How about an institution that hands out large grants with the expectation that the work will help reconcile science and religion, or that it will actually find evidence of a deity?
I'd class that with my third group, the funding source that wants a particular conclusion and can't be trusted to be scrupulous about following the evidence where ever it may lead. They have an agenda, and it is one of the most corrupting and untrustworthy causes of all, religion. They already know the answer, and they only want to pay for results that can be interpreted to bolster their unsupportable claims. Even if they are not asking that anyone fake evidence, we know that any line of inquiry that leads away from their desired answer will be abandoned, even if it is leading to the right answer. They are antithetical to good science.
Such an organization exists: the Templeton Foundation. And, boy are they loaded, with a massive endowment and the willingness to throw large sums of money around. Scarily huge sums — the kind of money that will tempt even the most principled scientist to compromise a little bit. ...
The record business is in the doldrums because sales are plummeting. Digital technology has made music easier to make and copy, with the result that recorded music is about as readily available as water, and not a whole lot more exciting.
This seems like bad news, until you pick up a copy of Time Out. Then you realise that the live music scene is exploding, for, unable to make a living from records sales, more and more bands are playing live. That experience can't be put onto a memory card—and people are willing to pay for it, and to pay quite a lot. Concert attendances are at an all-time high: recordings are increasingly ads for live shows, and live shows have become once again the real thing, the unduplicable. ...
Besuch bei Google
Auf der Kinderrutsche zur Kantine in einem der mächtigsten Unternehmen der Welt: Ein Besuch in der Europazentrale des Internetkonzerns Google.
Der Wissenschaftshistoriker George Dyson wurde 2005 zu einer Party in der Google-Zentrale im kalifornischen Mountain View eingeladen, um eine Rede zu Ehren des Physikers John von Neumann zu halten, der 60 Jahre zuvor den ersten elektronischen Computer entwickelt hatte - und der, das nur nebenbei, damals an einen Freund schrieb: "Ich bin sicher, dass die Spezies von Geräten, von denen dieses nur das erste Exemplar ist, so radikal neu ist, dass viele seiner Anwendungsmöglichkeiten erst noch erkannt werden".
Dyson schreibt, er habe sich an dem Abend in Mountain View gefühlt, als würde er "eine Kathedrale des 14. Jahrhunderts betreten; allerdings nicht im 14. Jahrhundert, sondern im 12. Jahrhundert, noch während sie errichtet wurde. Jeder war damit beschäftigt, hier einen Stein zu behauen, dort an einem Stein zu meißeln, während ein unsichtbarer Architekt dafür sorgte, dass alles zusammenpasste. Die Stimmung war spielerisch, doch lag eine fühlbare Ehrerbietung in der Luft." ...Google Translation
Eingefasst ist der Artikel in Zitate aus George Dyson's Artikel über Google bei edge.org, den man hier nachlesen kann. Dyson hatte Google 2005 besucht und sich dort von einem Mitarbeiter über das Google Book Project sagen lassen: "'We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,' explained one of my hosts after my talk. 'We are scanning them to be read by an AI.'" Sehr empfehlenswert auch ein anderer Artikel, aus dem Rühle zitiert: Jo Bager erklärte 2006 in der c't in einer auch für den informierten Laien verständlichen Art, wie und in welchem Umfang Google unsere Daten sammelt.
OPINION & EDITORIAL
By Michel Pireu
APPLETON professor of natural philosophy at Dartmouth College Marcelo Gleiser says that in the future we may be able to master death.
In a contribution to Edge.org, Gleiser says: "There is no question more fundamental to us than our mortality. We die and we know it. It is a terrifying, inexorable truth, one of the few absolute truths we can count on ... what to do? We spread our genes, write books and essays, prove theorems, invent family recipes, compose poems and symphonies, paint and sculpt, anything to create some sort of permanence, something to defy oblivion."
He goes on to ask: "Can modern science do better? Can we contemplate a future where we control mortality?"
"I can think of two ways in which mortality can be tamed, one at the cellular level and the other through an integration of body with genetic, cognitive sciences, and cyber technology," says Gleiser.
"But first, let me make clear that, at least according to current science, mortality could never be completely stopped ... you can't escape the second law of thermodynamics: even an open system like the human body, able to interact with its external environment and absorb nutrients and energy from it, will slowly deteriorate. In time, we burn too much oxygen. We live and we rust. Herein life's cruel compromise: we need to eat to stay alive. But by eating we slowly kill ourselves. ...
This week, NOW's David Brancaccio sits down with one of the most prominent figures in world health to discuss the future of the swine flu pandemic. Dr. Larry Brilliant is an epidemiologist, former chief philanthropist at Google.org, and was a central figure in the World Health Organization's successful smallpox eradication program.
Brilliant sheds light on high-tech tools that are making it easier for scientists to detect global outbreaks, the critical importance of early detection and early response, and how the current pandemic has yet to show its real hand.
"Anyone who tells you that they know that this is a mild pandemic, and the WHO has overreacted, they don't know. Anyone who tells you that the WHO and CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] have underestimated it, they don't know," Brilliant tells NOW. "We're all going to find out at the same time...we're all in it together."
The show also features vital insight from Dr. Nathan Wolfe, a Stanford University epidemiologist who specializes in hunting viruses to their source. ...
By Jerry Coyne
For if we ever begin to suppress our search to understand nature, to quench our own intellectual excitement in a misguided effort to present a united front where it does not and should not exist, then we are truly lost.
If you're a regular at this website, you've heard me complain about scientific organizations that sell evolution by insisting that it's perfectly consistent with religion. Evolution, they say, threatens many peoples' religious views — not just the literalism of Genesis, but also the morality that supposedly emanates from scripture. Professional societies like the National Academy of Sciences — the most elite organization of American scientists — have concluded that to make evolution palatable to Americans, you must show that it is not only consistent with religion, but also no threat to it. (And so much the better if, as theologians like John Haught assert, evolution actually deepens our faith.) Given that many members of such organizations are atheists, their stance of accommodationism appears to be a pragmatic one.
Here I argue that the accommodationist position of the National Academy of Sciences, and especially that of the National Center for Science Education, is a self-defeating tactic, compromising the very science they aspire to defend. By seeking union with religious people, and emphasizing that there is no genuine conflict between faith and science, they are making accommodationism not just a tactical position, but a philosophical one. By ignoring the significant dissent in the scientific community about whether religion and science can be reconciled, they imply a unanimity that does not exist. Finally, by consorting with scientists and philosophers who incorporate supernaturalism into their view of evolution, they erode the naturalism that underpins modern evolutionary theory.
By John Colapinto
One morning in January, a tall, gray-haired man whom I will call Arthur Jamieson arrived at the Mandler Hall psychology building, at the University of California, San Diego, in La Jolla. Jamieson is seventy years old and lives in the Midwest. He is a physician and an amateur cellist, and has been married for forty-seven years. He also suffers from a rare and bewildering condition called apotemnophilia, the compulsion to have a perfectly healthy limb amputated-in his case, the right leg, at mid-thigh. He had come to La Jolla not to be cured of his desire (like most people with the syndrome, he believed that relief would come only with the removal of the limb) but to gain insight into its cause. To that end, he had scheduled a meeting with Dr. Vilayanur S. Ramachandran, an Indian-born behavioral neurologist who is the director of the Center for Brain and Cognition at U.C.S.D., and has a reputation among his peers for being able to solve some of the most mystifying riddles of neuroscience.
Ramachandran, who is fifty-seven, has held prestigious fellowships at All Souls College, in Oxford, and at the Royal Institution ,in London. His 1998 book, "Phantoms in the Brain," about rare neurological disorders, was adapted as a miniseries on BBC television, and the Indian government recently accorded him the title Padma Bhushan, the country's third-highest civilian honor. But it is the awe that he inspires in his scientific colleagues that best illuminates his position in neuroscience, where the originality of his thinking and the simple elegance of his experiments give him a unique status. "Ramachandran is a latter-day Marco Polo, journeying the silk road of science to strange and exotic Cathays of the mind," Richard Dawkins once wrote. ...
The other day, I read this fawning review by Andrew O'Hehir of Terry Eagleton's new book, Reason, Faith, and Revolution: Reflections on the God Debate, and was a little surprised. I've read a smattering of Eagleton before, and the words "brisk, funny and challenging" or "witty" never came to mind, and the review actually gave no evidence that these adjectives were applicable in this case. I felt like ripping into O'Hehir, but was held up by one awkward lack: I hadn't read Eagleton's book. Who knows? Maybe he had found some grain of sense and some literary imperative to write cleanly and plainly.
So I was in New York the other day, and was offered a copy of Eagleton's book, and took the first step in my imminent doom by accepting it. Then I tried to fly home on Saturday, one of those flights that was plagued with mechanical errors that caused delays and long stretches locked in a tin can, and also flights that were packed tightly with travelers…so crammed with people that they actually took my computer and book bag away from me to pack in the cargo hold, and I had to quickly snatch something to read before the baggage handlers took it away. I grabbed the Eagleton book. Thus was my fate sealed.
I was trapped in a plane for 8 hours with nothing to read but Eagleton and the Sky Mall catalog.
This is an account of my day of misery. ...
...That is where science and reason come in. Science, says Eagleton, “does not start far back enough”; it can run its operations, but it can’t tell you what they ultimately mean or provide a corrective to its own excesses. Likewise, reason is “too skin deep a creed to tackle what is at stake”; its laws — the laws of entailment and evidence — cannot get going without some substantive proposition from which they proceed but which they cannot contain; reason is a non-starter in the absence of an a prior specification of what is real and important, and where is that going to come from? Only from some kind of faith.
“Ditchkins,” Eagleton observes, cannot ground his belief “in the value of individual freedom” in scientific observation. It is for him an article of faith, and once in place, it generates facts and reasons and judgments of right and wrong. “Faith and knowledge,” Eagleton concludes, are not antithetical but “interwoven.” You can’t have one without the other, despite the Satanic claim that you can go it alone by applying your own independent intellect to an unmediated reality: “All reasoning is conducted within the ambit of some sort of faith, attraction, inclination, orientation, predisposition, or prior commitment.” Meaning, value and truth are not “reducible to the facts themselves, in the sense of being ineluctably motivated by a bare account of them.” Which is to say that there is no such thing as a bare account of them. (Here, as many have noted, is where religion and postmodernism meet.)...
...One more point. The book starts out witty and then gets angrier and angrier. (There is the possibility, of course, that the later chapters were written first; I’m just talking about the temporal experience of reading it.) I spent some time trying to figure out why the anger was there and I came up with two explanations.
One is given by Eagleton, and it is personal. Christianity may or may not be the faith he holds to (he doesn’t tell us), but he speaks, he says, “partly in defense of my own forbearers, against the charge that the creed to which they dedicated their lives is worthless and void.”
The other source of his anger is implied but never quite made explicit. He is angry, I think, at having to expend so much mental and emotional energy refuting the shallow arguments of school-yard atheists like Hitchens and Dawkins. I know just how he feels. ...
Stephen Schneider explores what a world with 1,000 parts per million of CO2 in its atmosphere might look like.
Thinking about worst-case scenarios is nothing new — climate scientists have been doing it for more than 20 years. In 1988, after intense heat waves baked the eastern and central United States, Robert Watson, later to chair the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), and I briefed Bill Bradley, the Democrat senator for New Jersey, on the risks of disproportionate surprises from rapid, major climate change. The nature of those surprises was then, as it is now, unclear in details, although we had our hunches.
What is new is the assertion that we know the level of warming required to pass tipping points for potentially irreversible outcomes — for example, the risk of unstoppable ice sheet melt in Greenland. ...
Climate change: Too much of a bad thing
There are various — and confusing — targets to limit global warming due to emissions of greenhouse gases. Estimates based on the total slug of carbon emitted are possibly the most robust, and are worrisome.
It is one thing to agree on a goal of international policy, quite another to achieve it. The 192 signatories of the 1992 United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (including the United States) have committed themselves to reducing the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases to avoid "dangerous interference in the climate system". But policy-makers around the world are still trying to figure out how, specifically, to do that. ...
Q&A: Larry Brilliant
He's a physician who has had a major role in the eradication of smallpox and in tackling blindness. Now Larry Brilliant is heading up Google.org, the dotcom giant's philanthropic arm, which plans to tackle emerging diseases, climate change and poverty. Declan Butler talks to him about his diseases strategy....
Obama says more money
By Jeff Tollefson
Obama called clean energy the current generation's "great project" and said that investment levels must be increased despite ongoing economic woes.
"We're now in a no-excuse environment," says J. Craig Venter, the genomics pioneer now working on sustainable energy issues. "We have to deliver." ...
Beyond Belief: Research on religion goes after a new target: the secular
As sociologists, psychologists, and physicians turn their attention to measuring the effects of religion, often fueled by grant money from private foundations, the results have percolated swiftly through weekend sermons and the popular media. Being nonreligious, one might conclude, looks more and more like a danger to your health.
But as the academic interest in religion has mounted, some scholars have begun to call this picture into question. What's missing, they believe, is a comparable examination into the lives of nonreligious people and even the potential benefits of nonbelief. Galvanized by a desire to even the scales, these researchers have been organizing academic centers to study the irreligious, conducting major surveys, and comparing their findings. They've already found that convinced atheists appear just as well equipped to cope with hardship as convinced believers, and that some of the world's healthiest societies have the lowest levels of piety.
"There now seems to be a critical mass of people studying secularity," says Phil Zuckerman, a sociologist at Pitzer College, "and I think that is a big new development." ...
WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT
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"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent
"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo
"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent
"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian
"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times
"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph
The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle
"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer
"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail
"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star
"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online
"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal
"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine
"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed
"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday
"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant bok: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)
"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald
"Provocative" The Independent
"Challenging notions put forward by some of the world's sharpest minds" Sunday Times
"A titillating compilation" The Guardian
"Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover
"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times
"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times
"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer
"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed
"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian
"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe
"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4
"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer
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