Edge in the News: 2010

IL RECENSORE.COM [6.2.10]

Al Circolo della Stampa di Milano, lo scorso 22 febbraio, lo scienziato Edoardo Boncinelliha presentato “Mi ritorno in mente” (Longanesi, 2010), assistito dal prof. Giulio Giorello e dal filosofo ed epistemologo Armando Massarenti.

Questo testo appartiene alla genia di libri che vede nel capostipite “Il gene egoista” di Richard Dawkins e, più in generale, al cosiddetto genere della Terza cultura, secondo la definizione dell’agente letterario John Brockman, cioè un nuovo tipo di libri scritti da scienziati e storici della scienza, che trasmettono la loro visione del mondo a un vasto pubblico piuttosto che soltanto ai lettori di riviste specializzate, a dimostrazione di quanto la scienza stia diventando sempre più interdisciplinare e complessa.

Oggi i temi intorno ai problemi della coscienza sono più attuali che mai, interessano le istituzioni, non solo religiose, e la collettività, che si divide su concetti quali la morte cerebrale e gli stati di coscienza. Il terreno sul quale si muove Boncinelli è difficile e ambiguo: lui stesso ha dichiarato che questo testo ha richiesto tre anni di lavoro, soprattutto perché esigeva posizioni ben definite che minimizzassero il pericolo di essere attaccati. “È un trattato che fa meno acqua di molte cose che ho scritto e letto“, afferma l’autore, ben lungi dal voler fornire risposte assolute su un tema come quello della coscienza, il problema dei problemi, ma anche una delle questioni più affascinanti.

Si parte dai nervi e, attraverso molecole, circuiti, cervello, emozioni e coscienza, si arriva finalmente all’Io. Le posizioni sono ben definite, come si è già detto: la razionalità è innaturale, perché tiene ferma l’attenzione su un argomento per più di qualche minuto, cosa che avviene difficilmente e fa sbuffare il nostro sistema nervoso; la mente non è niente di diverso dall’azione del cervello, anzi, è il cervello stesso; le emozioni sono la materia della vita, intimamente connesse alle funzioni cognitive, poiché anche nell’azione più razionale c’è una componente affettiva.

Una stimolante digressione ha per oggetto l’amore: perché ci si innamora? Perché restiamo affezionati alle persone? Perché siamo gelosi? Perché soffriamo in seguito a un abbandono? L’amore è l’espressione che gli umani utilizzano quando intendono la sessualità. Questo rapporto implica il riconoscimento di una sola persona, che ha origini ben precise: l’uomo è l’essere umano che resta cucciolo più a lungo, mentre gli animali, a parte quelli domestici, non riconoscono la parentela già dopo qualche anno, per cui questoprolungamento della fase infantile spinge l’uomo a cercare questo rapporto unico per tutta la vita.

È un libro che pone importanti questioni etiche, e spinge a prendere una posizione. Il linguaggio è molto chiaro e non richiede nessuna conoscenza preliminare. Il maggiore pregio del libro è nell’enfasi posta sulle emozioni, che colorano il lavoro della mente e si compensano a essa. I temi sono quelli sui quali tutti ci siamo interrogati, dalla coscienza, alle emozioni, alla razionalità, e Boncinelli, da bravo scienziato innamorato del suo lavoro, mostra il lato scientifico di questi argomenti universali.

Edoardo Boncinelli, genetista, insegna Biologia e Genetica presso l’Università San Raffaele di Milano. Collabora a Le Scienze e al Corriere della Sera. Tra le numerose opere pubblicate, ricordiamo L’anima della tecnica (2006), La magia della scienza (2006), Idee per diventare genetista (2006), Il Male (2007),L’etica della vita (2008), Come nascono le idee (2008), Lo scimmione intelligente. Dio, natura e libertà(con Giulio Giorello, 2009) e Perché non possiamo non dirci darwinisti (2009).

Autore: Edoardo Boncinelli
Titolo: Mi ritorno in mente
Editore: Longanesi
Anno di pubblicazione: 2010
Prezzo: 16,60 euro
Pagine: 256

PODER 360 [5.31.10]

The "dangerous ideas" are those that emerge to eliminate the validity of a paradigm and are rejected by the establishment of the day for their potential to change things.

Most innovation columns dedicated to present and discuss cases and draw conclusions that may be applicable to decision makers. This is fun at first, but soon ends up boring both author and readers. So this column will be different. 

Here we will try to implement design approaches and innovation to analyze and discuss contingency and present them several times, find different points of view, unexplored and to identify and discover some "dangerous ideas" associated with them, and as defined by Steven Pinker Harvard University. 

What are dangerous ideas? Pinker does not refer to this term to those that generate harm to society, as they could be racist or fascist ideologies, or weapons of mass destruction. Quite the contrary. Defined as those that emerge to eliminate the validity of a paradigm that has come to be regarded as normal and accepted, and that threat, as it is-is rejected by the establishment of the day for their potential to change things. 

Why call it dangerous? They challenge the status quo and the economic, moral, political, religious or stability of an industry or sector. They are dangerous not because they may be "wrong" but because-oh, paradox could be "correct." These ideas are dangerous because, in testing an institutionalized idea, promise to make obsolete much of it invested in creating the system that maintains its validity. ...

...The aim of this column is to stimulate discussion and action on these dimensions. To learn more read "What is your Dangerous Idea?" Edited by John Brockman.

L'ACTUALITE.COM [5.24.10]

Coup de tonnerre jeudi dernier: une étude publiée dans le magazineScience rapporte comment 24 scientifiques du J. Craig Venter Instituteont conçu par ordinateur, synthétisé puis assemblé un petit chromosome, qu’ils ont ensuite transféré dans une cellule préalablement vidée de tout autre matériel génétique.

Pilotée par ce petit bout d’ADN entièrement synthétique, la cellule a exprimé les instructions codifiées dans son nouveau génome et s’est multipliée. Plus facile à raconter qu’à faire, comme vous pourrez le lire dans cet article de La recherche.

J’ai préféré attendre quelques jours avant de commenter cette annonce, car les réactions qu’elle suscite sont presque aussi intéressantes que l’étude elle-même.

Rappelons d’abord que ce n’est pas d’hier que des scientifiques tentent de recréer la vie en laboratoire. Dans les années 1960, le prix Nobel d’origine indienne Har Gobind Khorana fut le premier à synthétiser de l’ADN, et le virus de la poliomyélite a été fabriqué en 2002 par l’Américain Eckard Wimmer.

Les scientifiques jouent-ils à Dieu ? À chacune de ces nouvelles avancées, certaines personnes attendent fébrilement la réaction du Vatican (même si Dieu ne fait pas partie des hypothèses sérieusement envisagées par les scientifiques pour expliquer l’apparition de la vie sur Terre…).

Cette fois, Rome voit les choses plutôt d’un bon œil. Bizarre, quand même, la réaction de Rino Fisichella, le président de l’Académie pontificale pour la Vie, qui considère qu’il ne s’agit que d’une étude théorique et qu’il est encore trop tôt pour émettre un jugement éthique. Il s’agit pourtant bien d’une avancée expérimentale !

Le président Obama, lui, a au contraire déjà expressément demandé à laPresidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, créée en novembre dernier, de se pencher au plus vite sur les découvertes de Craig Venter (lettre d’Obama en pdf).

En France, l’association Vivagora s’inquiète aussi au plus au point des questions éthiques que pose la biologie synthétique, résumées sur son site. Voyez aussi, si vous lisez l’anglais, les points de vue très éclairés sur cette avancée, comme celui du spécialiste de l’évolution Richard Dawkins, présentés sur le site de la Edge Foundation.

Il faut effectivement s’interroger sur les usages d’une technologie potentiellement aussi révolutionnaire, voter des lois si nécessaire, mais sans pour autant verser dans la paranoïa.

Ainsi, la probabilité que les découvertes de Craig Venter soient récupérées par des terroristes pour tuer des milliers de gens est absolument infime. La peur qu’elle suscite relève essentiellement du fantasme.

L’être humain a déjà inventé au fil de son histoire une multitude de technologies susceptibles d’être détournées à des fins terroristes. Comme on l’a vu le 11 septembre 2001, même de simples avions de ligne peuvent devenir des armes redoutables!

Le monde regorge déjà de bactéries et virus pathogènes, alors pourquoi se compliquer la vie pour en fabriquer? Comme le raconte très bien le microbiologiste français Patrick Berche dans L’histoire secrète des guerres biologiques, mensonges et crimes d’État, il est fort difficile de transformer un virus ou une bactérie en une arme efficace.

L’autre grande inquiétude tient au fait que Craig Venter a déjà déposé plusieurs brevets en rapport avec la biologie synthétique et qu’il passe pour un génie du marketing.

Y a-t-il là aussi des risques de dérive? Peut-être. Mais force est de constater que depuis que Craig Venter a claqué la porte de la recherche publique dans les années 1990 pour voler de ses propres ailes, le retombées économiques de ses découvertes ont essentiellement servi à financer ses recherches.

C’est grâce à cet argent que ce vétéran du Vietnam a pu s’aventurer dans des chemins scientifiques peu fréquentés. Craig Venter est peut-être très doué pour gagner de l’argent, mais c’est avant tout un authentique génie, comme on n’en compte pas beaucoup.

Après avoir développé la technique du séquençage automatisé qui lui a permis de séquencer le génome humain pour une fraction du coût du programme public, il a été le premier à publier la séquence d’un génome individuel (le sien!), puis a largement participé au décollage de lamétagénomique en lançant un vaste inventaire de la vie dans les océans du globe, avant de se tourner vers la biologie synthétique. Tout ça en moins de 20 ans!

 Contrairement à une idée reçue, il ne se fiche pas du tout des questions d’éthique reliées à la biologie synthétique. En 2007, le J. Craig Venter Institute a d’ailleurs publié son propre rapport sur le sujet sous le titre deSynthetic genomic : options for governance, réalisé en collaboration avec le MIT et le Center for Strategic and International Studies.

Dans ce document, il y suggère déjà plusieurs pistes pour encadrer cette technologie… trois ans avant que le gouvernement américain ne s’en soucie!

J. Craig Venter, The Observer [5.23.10]

CRAIG VENTER: THE DAZZLING SHOWMAN OF SCIENCE

A maverick, headline-grabbing biologist with an ego the size of a planet or a brilliant researcher who has succeeded in creating life? A bit of both, actually

By Tim Adams

...Stewart Brand, the ecological visionary and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, is more persuaded. Brand has got to know Venter over the last couple of years through John Brockman's Edge initiative which brings together the world's pioneering minds. What differentiates Venter from many of his peers, Brand believes, is that he is not only a brilliant biologist, but also a brilliant organisational activist. "A lot of people can think big but Craig also has the ability to fund big: he doesn't wait for grants, he just gets on and finds a way to do these things. His great contribution will be to impress on people that we live in this vast biotic of microbes. What he has shown is that microbial ecology is now where everything is at."

Brand once suggested that "we are as gods and we might as well get good at it". That statement has gained greater urgency with climate change, he suggests. "Craig is one of those who is rising to the occasion, showing us how good we can be."...

THE OBSERVER [5.22.10]

There is, appropriately enough, a biblical quality to Craig Venter's account of the genesis of his quest to create life "from scratch". He dates his mission to 1968 when he was working in the frontline medical corps of the US army in Vietnam during the Tet offensive. He had tried, and mostly failed, to save hundreds of men from dying – it was M*A*S*Hwithout jokes – and he felt he'd had enough of the horror of life. A champion swimmer, he determined to swim out into the South China Sea and not swim back. In the beginning, then, this mythology goes, the biologist was in the middle of the ocean, "surrounded by venomous sea serpents", preparing to meet his genome. It took a shark circling to wake him out of this suicidal fantasy.

"For a moment," he wrote in his 2007 autobiography, "I was angry that the shark had disrupted my plan. Then I became consumed with fear. What the fuck was I doing? I wanted to live…" Venter struck out for shore, now miles behind him, and when he arrived there it was if he had been reborn, like Crusoe, into a new fate: "I lay on the sand, naked, for what felt like hours. I was exhausted and relieved. I wanted my life to mean something; I wanted to make a difference. I felt pure; I felt energised."

For the last 40 years, that pure energy has driven Craig Venter to extraordinary heights. ("A doctor can save maybe a few hundred lives in a lifetime," he told his brother as he embarked on his scientific career, with a characteristic mix of hubris and chutzpah. "A researcher can save the whole world.")

Venter first came to international attention as the "rogue" biologist who attached himself to the painstaking $5bn, 15-year programme to decode the human genetic blueprint, "the book of life" Human Genome Projectand announced to anyone who would listen he could do it much more quickly and much more cheaply with private capital (the distinguished scientists leading the global initiative were, he insisted, "the Liars Club": habitual fibbers about costs and deadlines).

He caused further outrage when he said he would not only beat that establishment club to the solution but patent the results. He eventually – arguably – made good the first part of that boast but, under pressure from President Clinton, gave up on the latter and agreed a joint declaration of the triumph with the official team in the millennium year, losing a fortune in the process. (Asked how he felt to have deciphered human life, Venter, who had designs on being "the first billionaire biochemist", replied: "Poorer.")

Not content with what was widely considered the landmark scientific achievement of our age, however, Venter then decided he would solve the crisis of climate change and ecological meltdown by discovering a biologically engineered source of energy. He set sail on his $15m yacht Sorcerer II on an unending voyage with the mission, along the way, "to put everything that Darwin missed into context" and map the whole world's genetic components. He dipped buckets into the Sargasso Sea and sent millions of primordial microbial lifeforms back to his labs for decoding.

As a development of that ongoing effort, last week Venter announced in the pages of Science magazine that his research team had – by putting together a living and replicating bacterium from synthetic components, inserting a computer-generated genome into a cell – "created life" in the laboratory for the first time. The experiment suggested the possibility of creating bacteria to perform specific functions: as producers of fossil fuels or medicines.

Venter, now 63, is nothing if not a showman and the publication of this revelation and the subsequent press conferences, have polarised opinion in ways with which he has long been familiar. Some authorities, and several newspaper leader writers, have claimed him as our Galileo or our Einstein; others have been notably underwhelmed.

Freeman Dyson, the physicist, captured the full range of academic sentiment in this dry appraisal: "This experiment is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery… the ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning point in the history of our species and our planet."

Venter's ego and his preference to turn to corporations rather than research foundations as funding partners (Exxon Mobil is a $600m sponsor of his energy experiments) do not tend to endear him to the academic establishment. Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, and a perennial voice of reason, offered me this verdict on the biologist's latest headlines.

"It's very easy to mock Venter," Jones suggests. "When he first appeared, people just kind of sneered at him. But they stopped sneering when they saw his brilliance in realising that the genome was not a problem of chemistry but a problem of computer power. I don't think anybody can deny that that was a monumental achievement and he has been doing fantastically interesting things subsequently with marine life. Having said that, though, the man is clearly a bit of a prick and one with a serial addiction to publicity."

Jones is sceptical about the hyperbole of breathless headlines. "The idea that this is 'playing God' is just daft. What he has done in genetic terms would be analogous to taking an Apple Mac programme and making it work on a PC – and then saying you have created a computer. It's not trivial, but it is utterly absurd the claims that are being made about it."

Stewart Brand, the ecological visionary and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, is more persuaded. Brand has got to know Venter over the last couple of years through John Brockman's Edge initiative which brings together the world's pioneering minds. What differentiates Venter from many of his peers, Brand believes, is that he is not only a brilliant biologist, but also a brilliant organisational activist. "A lot of people can think big but Craig also has the ability to fund big: he doesn't wait for grants, he just gets on and finds a way to do these things. His great contribution will be to impress on people that we live in this vast biotic of microbes. What he has shown is that microbial ecology is now where everything is at."

Brand once suggested that "we are as gods and we might as well get good at it". That statement has gained greater urgency with climate change, he suggests. "Craig is one of those who is rising to the occasion, showing us how good we can be."

On the publication of his autobiography, Venter also brought out another book, one that contained the six billion characters of his own genome. It was the first full catalogue of a single individual's genetic code and it revealed several secrets about Venter's inherited traits, notably a predisposition to heart disease and to Alzheimer's. What it has not so far rendered, however, is the chemical clue to his most vital characteristic: impatience.

The greatest scientists have shared the understanding that there is so much to do and so little time in which to do it. A decade ago, Venter was plagued by the sense that "as a civilisation, we know far less than 1% of what will be known about biology, human physiology and medicine. My view of biology is: we don't know shit". In the years since, he has perhaps done more that any man who has ever lived to add to that raw information. He did this initially by being the first to see that "the analogue world of biology" had to be transformed by the "digital world of the microchip". He is now, it is said, the largest private user of computer power in the world.

Just as he found his vocation in the sea, so he returns to it constantly for inspiration. He was a high school dropout, a prototype beach bum. "I was a surfer as a kid, I was a surfer in Vietnam, I am still a surfer," he likes to say. When a writer for Wired magazine caught up with him in French Polynesia a couple of years ago, Venter was wandering the shoreline, naked, fishing items of interest out of the water. At the time, he described his scientific quest by gesturing to the ocean: "We're just trying to figure out who fucking lives out there." Of the billions of answers to that particular question, Venter himself has now added another one: Mycoplasma mycoides J Craig Venter Institute-syn1.0. Life has his name on it.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/theobserver/2010/may/23/observer-profile-craig-venter [5.22.10]

Stewart Brand, the ecological visionary and creator of the Whole Earth Catalog, is more persuaded. Brand has got to know Venter over the last couple of years through John Brockman's Edge initiative which brings together the world's pioneering minds. What differentiates Venter from many of his peers, Brand believes, is that he is not only a brilliant biologist, but also a brilliant organisational activist. "A lot of people can think big but Craig also has the ability to fund big: he doesn't wait for grants, he just gets on and finds a way to do these things. His great contribution will be to impress on people that we live in this vast biotic of microbes. What he has shown is that microbial ecology is now where everything is at."

Brand once suggested that "we are as gods and we might as well get good at it". That statement has gained greater urgency with climate change, he suggests. "Craig is one of those who is rising to the occasion, showing us how good we can be."

GULF NEWS [5.20.10]

Abu Dhabi:  Kalima, the translation initiative of the Abu Dhabi Authority for Culture and Heritage (Adach), has published the Arabic version of The Next Fifty Years: Science in the First Half of the Twenty-first Century, edited by John Brockman which contains the unpublished work of 25 leading scientists and thinkers.

Brockman is the founder of the non-profit Edge Foundation and editor of edge.org, the website devoted to discussions of cutting edge science.

The book, which is translated into Arabic by Fatima Ganem, provides 25 original never-before-published essays about the advances in science and technology that we may see within our lifetimes.

Various theories

Theoretical physicist and best-selling author Paul Davies examines the likelihood that by the year 2050 we will be able to establish a continuing human presence on Mars.

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi investigates the ramifications of engineering high-IQ, genetically happy babies.

Psychiatrist Nancy Etcoff explains current research into the creation of emotion-sensing jewellery that could gauge our moods and tell us when to take an anti-depressant pill.

And evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins explores the probability that we will soon be able to obtain a genome printout that predicts our natural end for the same cost as a chest X-ray.

This book explores not only the practical possibilities of the near future, but also the social and political ramifications of the developments of the strange new world to come.

THE NEW YORK TIMES [5.19.10]

 

A remarkable paper published online today by the journal Science could — emphasis on could — signal the start of an energy revolution, and more generally a manufacturing revolution. By “start” I mean this could be akin to the first twitch of a runner’s leg as she positions herself for the opening pistol shot of a marathon, not a sprint.

The video interview above, conducted by a reporter for the journal with the leader of the research, J. Craig Venter, lays out some of the basics. One prime goal of Venter, a genomics pioneer and entrepreneur (partnering with Exxon Mobil, among others), is to program organisms that, at large scale, could harvest carbon dioxide and generate hydrocarbons, replacing oil as a fuel and feedstock. Nicholas Wade’s news story notes other avenues being pursued to develop next-generation biofuels.

There are other paths being pursued in the early days of  the energy quest — including those followed by  Nathan Lewis on the frontiers of photovoltaics or  Daniel Nocera, with his effort to deconstruct photosynthesis. The Department of Energy is  trying to stimulate more breakthroughs, but with a paltry pot of money compared to federal investments in other areas of science that matter to society.

The new paper and accompanying news article are available without the usual subscription wall at the Science Magazine Web site.

There’s  a running string of reactions to the work at the Edge Web site (which also hosts Venter), including a provocative contribution from Freeman Dyson ( no surprise there!):

This experiment, putting together a living bacterium from synthetic components, is clumsy, tedious, unoriginal. From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery. It opens the way to the new world of synthetic biology. It proves that sequencing and synthesizing DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life. After this, the tools will be improved and simplified, and synthesis of new creatures will become quicker and cheaper. Nobody can predict the new discoveries and surprises that the new technology will bring. I feel sure of only one conclusion. The ability to design and create new forms of life marks a turning-point in the history of our species and our planet.

THE FRONT PAGE [5.3.10]

John Brockman è un “imprenditore culturale”, editore, scrittore, e creatore, fra l’altro, della Edge Foundation, un laboratorio di idee e dibattiti dove, a mio avviso, è in via di formazione quella “Terza Cultura” che dovrebbe diventare “la” cultura del secolo XXI.

Avendo subito le conseguenze della chiusura degli spazi aerei europei causa nube di polveri vulcaniche, ha postato sul sito www.edge.orgalcune domande provocatorie. Che cosa gli psicologi hanno da dire sul modo in cui sono state prese decisioni che hanno messo a terra milioni di passeggeri, confinandoli in bivacchi improvvisati per più di una settimana, nell’apparente, totale assenza di prove di pericolo reale? E cosa hanno imparato gli economisti comportamentali? E cos’hanno da dire ingegneri, fisici, meteorologi sul tema?

Molte le risposte, assai interessanti. Riassumerle tutte è impossibile. Per Haim Harari, fisico ed ex presidente dell’Istituto Weizman di Tel Aviv, la crisi finanziaria attuale e la crisi “da polveri” hanno molto in comune. Entrambe sono figlie di decisioni prese da decision makers che “non capiscono di matematica e di scienza neppure a livello elementare” e da “matematici e scienziati che non si rendono minimamente conto delle conseguenze, nella vita reale, dei loro calcoli”. E dunque ecco che “ingegneri finanziari” creano strumenti finanziari complessi e banchieri navigati ed enti di regolamentazione li recepiscono, senza ammettere di non avere la minima idea di ciò che tali strumenti presuppongono.

Allo stesso modo, i costruttori di modelli matematici convincono le autorità che “la nube è qui, o lì, senza preoccuparsi minimamente di andare a fare una misura sul campo”. E nessuno che domandi, a questi “scienziati”, se le ipotesi poste a base dei loro modelli sono realistiche oppure no. In entrambi i casi, chiunque abbia un minimo di preparazione scientifica, aggiunge Harari, sentirebbe immediatamente puzza di bruciato. E quindi ecco perché politici senza cultura scientifica, e scienziati senza cultura manageriale, sono incapaci di affrontare adeguatamente entrambi i problemi. Conclusione: “The world is discovering that an important profession is missing: Scientifically trained political decision makers”.

Chales Simonyi, della International Software, ex Chief Architect and Distinguished Engineer della Microsoft, dopo avere con dovizia di particolari ricordato che le ceneri, se presenti, possono danneggiare i motori e che i costi della manutenzione, in tal caso, diverrebbero molto alti, aggiunge di trovare “piuttosto misterioso il modo in cui le mappe sulla nube vengono prodotte ogni giorno” e di non trovare da nessuna parte “misure dirette” del fenomeno, e neanche come le “interpolazioni e le estrapolazioni” delle misure vengono fatte. E non si spiega neppure perché sugli aeroplani non vengano montati i rivelatori di polvere che invece sono dotazione comune degli hard disk di qualsiasi computer.

Conclude Simony: “Se gli aeroplani avessero tali rivelatori di polvere, come hanno i radar meteorologici, potremmo fare come facciamo quando c’è un temporale: il radar lo vede e l’aereo cambia rotta”. Buon senso pragmatico. Ma che non appartiene, in tutta evidenza, ai meteorologi, ai climatologi e ai politici.

Chiudo con Gloria Origgi, filosofa, del Centro Nazionale Ricerche Scientifiche, Parigi. Origgi rammenta che il trattato di Maastricht adotta il “principio di precauzione” e che, quando tale principio ha a che fare con l’ambiente, è decisione Ue che “l’assenza di una completa certezza scientifica non sarà usata per posporre misure efficaci e dal costo ragionevole per prevenire il degrado ambientale” (cosa che rappresenta un assegno in bianco per politici e imprenditori privi di scrupoli, come chiunque può capire, ndr). Questa è una particolarità tutta europea: infatti, il principio di precauzione altrove viene applicato (USA, per esempio) solo per situazioni che riguardano la sicurezza nazionale, e, comunque, le decisioni ultime sulla sicurezza dei voli è lasciata alle compagnie aeree.

Così alla domanda se non esista una certa sproporzione fra la chiusura totale dello spazio aereo e un rischio potenziale legato alla nube di polveri, rischio piuttosto indefinibile in assenza di prove certe, un ministro Ue risponde: “Non si è mai abbastanza prudenti sulla sicurezza aerea”. La conclusione, per Origgi, è ovvia: “Una politica che mette a terra un intero continente basandosi su un proverbio” non può essere “una buona politica”.

A quanto pare, il vulcano islandese è di nuovo in eruzione. Sarà interessante vedere se, questa volta, le decisioni verranno prese con più buon senso di quanto sia stato fatto la volta scorsa. Ma conoscendo i nostri polli di Bruxelles e quelli di Roma, direi che non si può essere ottimisti.

THE SCIENTIST [4.30.10]

 

Many thanks to readers who responded to my inaugural editorial (in the February issue), calling for feedback on the “next new thing.” To some, the thing was the t-shirt (we’re working on that), others wanted hats, while the more persnickety called for a total revamp of scientific research, publishing, and reporting. Here ideas ran the gamut from ditching peer review, to mandating interdisciplinary-infused research, to less US-centricity, to investigative myth-busting, to crowd-sourced experimental design, to a “Journal of Fantastic Failures.” And there resonated a need for context and depth. Instead of, or in addition to, pouncing on what’s new and now, you said papers should be examined retrospectively—after weeks, months, and even years to reveal which hypotheses and experiments have shone light upon the dark and vast terrain of the unknown.

Every generation of scientists must keep the enlightenment flame alive, and much has been written about whether those weaned on the Internet will cause that flame to flicker and dim or to burn more brightly. Yet 150 years ago, certainly pre-Internet, Thoreau had premonitions:

I fear that the character of my knowledge is from year to year becoming more distinct and scientific; that, in exchange for vistas wide as heaven’s scope, I am being narrowed down to the field of the microscope. I see details, not wholes nor the shadow of the whole. I count some parts, and say, “I know.”

Back to the future, in a stimulating debate on Edge.org, based on Nicholas Carr’s Atlantic Monthly article “Is Google Making Us Stupid” (Jul/Aug 2008), W. Danny Hillis opined:

Our problem is not so much that we are stupider, but rather that the world is demanding that we become smarter. Forced to be broad, we sacrifice depth. We skim, we summarize, we skip the fine print and, all too often, we miss the fine point.

There’s no doubt that as today’s science fragments into ever more specialization, the breadth required for smartness is overwhelming. Can the molecular biologist afford to ignore developments in systems biology, bioinformatics, structural biology, and now even physics? And can the stream of science news and commentaries in all their incarnations—including RSS feeds, blogs, and Twitter—fulfill this requirement and spark the leaps forward?

“It’s not information overload, it’s filter failure,” said Clay Shirky, author of Here Comes Everybody, at the Web 2.0 conference in 2008. For biomedical researchers, it turns out, Faculty of 1000 is the made-to-order filter, with depth to match its breadth. It’s a post-publication review service by 5,000 of the world’s top biomedical researchers, who select, rate and comment on the top 2 percent of papers (soon to reach 90,000!) in their specialties. In this issue of The Scientist, and appearing at http://www.the-scientist.com, we introduce ourselves as the magazine of F1000, with the aim of spotlighting, de-jargonizing, and providing context for the Faculty’s highest-rated papers.

For instance, list lovers can check out the latest top-rated papers on Page 30, as well as a featured “Hidden Jewel”—this month, a description of biotechnologist Alex Shneider’s classification of four scientist-types, from innovator (Stage 1) to synthesizer (Stage 4). In the Literature section, Suzanne Pfeffer of the Stanford University School of Medicine, a cell biology Faculty Member (FM), describes intriguing findings about molecular events underlying protein transport in the Golgi complex. Additional “surprises” are revealed in three papers from the Faculties of molecular, structural, and developmental biology. Of course we’ll continue our brand of investigative journalism—see the feature on the FBI’s newfound and increasingly invasive interest in biology research—to provide a perspective on trends that individual top-rated papers cannot offer.

Our Web offerings are expanding, too. Introduced last month, “Naturally Selected: Biology’s Personal Best” at http://blog.the-scientist.com, provides a highly selective coverage of scientific news, evaluations, books, trends, and cultural events that will prompt those “Aha” connections. And with that, we may have the germ of an idea for a t-shirt.

Correction (April 29): When originally posted, the article listed the author of an article in Atlantic Monthly as David Carr. The author's name is Nicholas Carr. The Scientist regrets the error.

THE MAUI NEWS [4.29.10]

The testimony to Congress was on causes of political violence, the factors that lead young Muslims to join radical Islamist groups. But the observations appeared to apply to other sociopathic, violence-prone packs - criminal gangs and ideological militants.

Scott Atran, a cognitive anthropologist and risk-modeling researcher, was testifying to the U.S. Senate Armed Services Subcommittee on Emerging Threats & Capabilities, invited to speak on his research on "pathways to and from violent extremism" (www.edge.org/3rd_culture/atran10/atran10_index.html/).

Author of "In Gods We Trust: The Evolutionary Landscape of Religion," Atran has studied political violence among groups in the Middle East. His analysis of factors promoting jihadism mirrors the issues spawning criminal gangs.

Atran says his research shows most young people successfully recruited by radical jihadists were from moderate secular backgrounds. They were recruited to radical religious militancy from outside, not within.

"Youth generally favors actions, not words and challenge, not calm. That's a big reason so many who are bored, underemployed, overqualified and underwhelmed by hopes for the future turn on to jihad with their friends. Jihad is an egalitarian, equal-opportunity employer: fraternal, fast-breaking, thrilling, glorious and cool."

Substitute "gangs" for "jihad" and Atran could be discussing the reasons young people enlist in their neighborhood criminal gangs.

He does observe a difference.

"Although lack of economic opportunity often reliably leads to criminality, it turns out that some criminal youth really don't want to be criminals after all," he told the subcommittee. "Given half a chance to take up a moral cause, they can be even more altruistically prone than others to give up their lives for their comrades and cause."

The line separating the criminal gang member from the political terrorist is the cultural factor, a belief in a moral cause. Atran suggests militancy begins in the same place.

"Entry into the jihadi brotherhood is from the bottom up: from alienated and marginalized youth seeking out companionship, esteem and meaning, but also the thrill of action, sense of empowerment, and glory in fighting the world's most powerful nation and army," he said.

On the less global scale, a criminal gang member clearly achieves a sense of empowerment in challenging the community's authority with criminal acts of drug dealing, prostitution, illegal gambling, extortion, robbery and theft, or assault and murder.

There are differences of kind. A criminal gang member may have a cultural identification, but it is more likely a bonding mechanism rather than a motivating element. The terrorist adheres to an idealized cultural identity to act on moral imperative, rather than purely out of personal gain.

There are differences of scale and intent between the criminal gangs terrorizing communities and religion-based groups seeking to terrorize nations.

But Atran suggests the terrorist feeds in the same egoistic trough as the criminal when media effectively glorify the criminal act in the telling of it. It's an issue for journalists reporting a crime. Tell the story. Help an investigation. Do not aggrandize the deed.

"If we can discredit their vicious idols (show how these bring murder and mayhem to their own people) and give these youth new heroes who speak to their hopes rather than just to ours, then we've got a much better shot at slowing the spread of jihad to the next generation than we do just with bullets and bombs," Atran said.

"And if we can de-sensationalize terrorist actions, like suicide bombings, and reduce their fame (don't help advertise them or broadcast our hysterical response, for publicity is the oxygen of terrorism), the thrill will die down."

* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at hakumoolelo@earthlink.net. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.

CRITICIZING THE CRITICS [4.28.10]

 


O lady of the depths,
what are you doing at the surface,
attentive to all that passes
watching the clock at my hour?

what obscure deliverance
do you ask my alliance?

O you, always ready to end,
you would like to hold me back
on the very edge of abyss
Of which you are the strange summit.

———Katinka Matson‘s Flower work

“”For past several years she has experimented with a non-photographic technique for creating images by utilizing input through the flatbed CCD scanner. No camera or lenses are used. The process involves scanning flowers and other natural objects on an open-top scanner from underneath the objects with a slo-moving sensor. This technique allows for unusual opportunities to explore new ideas involving light, time, and rhythm.”"

WIRED.CO.UK [4.26.10]

Caught up in Moscow because of the volcanic ash cloud last week, my biggest regret was missing the annual Edge dinner in London on 19 April. Well, just look at the sort of people that Edge Foundation president, literary agent and superconnector John Brockman manages to bring together.

Guests at last year's London dinner ranged from Alfonso Cuarón and Terry Gilliam to Brian Eno and Richard Dawkins. So you can see why it was painful for me to be 3,000km away while all the big ideas were being nurtured over the entrees at Zilli Fish.

But Brockman -- whose latest book This Will Change Everything (Harper Perennial) lies well thumbed on my desk -- is not a man to waste an intellectual opportunity. In town from New York for the "eerily deserted" London International Book Fair, Brockman became caught up in talk of stranded travelers and 20-hour road trips. "Something is going on here that requires serious thinking," he reflected. "We've had earthquakes before, and we've had plane stoppages, but nothing like the continuing effects of the ash cloud. Why?"

So he invited the Edge community of smart and original thinkers -- from behavioural economists to psychologists, physicists to software engineers -- to think about the ash cloud and the reaction to it, and tell him (in 250 words) something "that I don't already know and that I'm not going to read in the newspapers".

The thinkers came through. Edge received contributions from the likes of Haim Harari, Roger Schank, Charles Simonyi, Peter Schwartz, Stephen Schneider, Karl Sabbagh, Emanuel Derman, Mark Pagel, Joel Gold, George Dyson, Matthew Ritchie, Paul Romer, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Greg Paul, Lawrence Krauss and Alexandra Zukerman. You can now read their conclusions -- an exercise that's worth your while. ...

WIRED.CO.UK [4.26.10]

Big thinkers on what the ash cloud means

Caught up in Moscow because of the volcanic ash cloud last week, my biggest regret was missing the annual Edge dinner in London on 19 April. Well, just look at the sort of people that Edge Foundation president, literary agent and superconnector John Brockman manages to bring together.

Guests at last year's London dinner ranged from Alfonso Cuarón and Terry Gilliam to Brian Eno and Richard Dawkins. So you can see why it was painful for me to be 3,000km away while all the big ideas were being nurtured over the entrees at Zilli Fish.

But Brockman -- whose latest book This Will Change Everything (Harper Perennial) lies well thumbed on my desk -- is not a man to waste an intellectual opportunity. In town from New York for the "eerily deserted" London International Book Fair, Brockman became caught up in talk of stranded travelers and 20-hour road trips. "Something is going on here that requires serious thinking," he reflected. "We've had earthquakes before, and we've had plane stoppages, but nothing like the continuing effects of the ash cloud. Why?"

So he invited the Edge community of smart and original thinkers -- from behavioural economists to psychologists, physicists to software engineers -- to think about the ash cloud and the reaction to it, and tell him (in 250 words) something "that I don't already know and that I'm not going to read in the newspapers".

The thinkers came through. Edge received contributions from the likes of Haim Harari, Roger Schank, Charles Simonyi, Peter Schwartz, Stephen Schneider, Karl Sabbagh, Emanuel Derman, Mark Pagel, Joel Gold, George Dyson, Matthew Ritchie, Paul Romer, Eduardo Salcedo-Albarán, Greg Paul, Lawrence Krauss and Alexandra Zukerman. You can now read their conclusions -- an exercise that's worth your while.

A handful of examples:

First, from Haim Harari, a physicist and former president of the Weizmann Institute of Science (and author of A View from the Eye of the Storm):

The ash crisis and the financial crisis have much in common. Both result from the fact that almost all decision makers do not understand mathematics and science, even in a rudimentary level, while most mathematicians and scientists have no feel for the real life implications of their calculations.

Both camps refuse to admit their failings.

"Financial engineers" created complex mathematical instruments, neglecting to emphasize unavoidable assumptions they had to make. At the same time, senior bankers and regulators did not admit that they had no idea what these papers really meant, and never asked whether there were undisclosed hidden assumptions, lurking behind new quick ways of profiteering.

Theoretical scientific model builders convinced authorities that the ash cloud is here or there, without bothering to measure anything, while no one asked whether the computer model was based on realistic assumptions.

In both cases, decision makers, with good training in standard scientific thinking, could smell trouble immediately, even if they knew nothing about derivatives or volcanoes. The fingerprints of a sophisticated pyramid scheme should be obvious whenever one claims he can always win, and a "killer cloud" that no one can see, affecting an entire continent, based on no actual measurements, should have raised any intelligent pair of eye brows.

The world is discovering that an important profession is missing: Scientifically trained political decision makers. Neither a good scientist lacking management experience, nor a smart politician with no scientific training, could spot the trouble. We need people who have both qualities.

There was a shorter contribution from Emanuel Derman, professor of financial engineering at Columbia University, and author of My Life as a Quant:

Old technology -- propellor-driven planes -- would not have been grounded by ash. More efficient, more vulnerable.

And Mark Pagel, professor of evolutionary biology at Reading University and The Santa Fe Institute:

I may be proven wrong by the reactions from the atmospheric scientists, physicists and aeronautical engineers but this debacle seems to have had far less to do with science than to a far more pernicious and growing risk aversion in British society and perhaps the world. The science is almost without a doubt far far better than it has ever been, and there was data collection. The shutdown of our airspace was driven by people worried they would be hounded out of their jobs (politicians, airline bosses, etc.) and shamed. It is far easier to hide behind the shield of "I was only trying to save lives" than to get it wrong and kill someone.

I have been puzzled for some years now by what is one of the most unstoppable and yet not always obviously good ideas to be surging through our minds for the last century: that of democracy with a small d and all it implies for self-interest, so-called "rights", protection, etc. That is another topic, but the current hysteria appears to be part of its wider manifestations.

Quite a few British newspaper editorials would seem to agree.

David Rowan is the editor of Wired magazine.

TODAY IN THE FEUILLETONS (ARTS PAGES)
DER SPIEGEL ONLINE [4.16.10]

A long excerpt from the book The Future Makers - The Nobel Prize winners of tomorrow reveal what they are researching," in which Stanford psychologist Lera Boroditsky, a researcher on how language shapes our thinking, summarizes: "What we have learned from our research is that people who speak different languages, really different, and who use special features of grammar, sometimes have their view of the world impacted in far-reaching ways."

Read the full article →

WIE PRÄGT DIE SPRACHE UNSER DENKEN?
SÜDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG [4.15.10]

Der Streit um die Frage ist alt, doch nur selten wurde sie bei den Menschen selbst untersucht — ein Forschungsbericht / Von Lera Boroditsky

Read the full article →

DIE TAGESPOST [4.15.10]

America leads a discussion about Internet services, which are often overestimated in its effect by the media

... there is a debate in America about the power of social networks and their relationship to state power. The policy researcher Evgeny Morozov strongly in America represents the view that social networks do not help to more democracy. This opinion he had taken in an extensive interview with Clay Shirky, which has the websitewww.edge.org published with the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (11.4.) titled "Digital Power and It's Discontents." This is about the debate between utopians and realists in terms of social networks, namely the question of whether the Internet is more a medium for human emancipation and revolution, or a tool to control and repression. Morozov calls it ridiculous if someone takes from the American Foreign Ministry, the CEO of Google or Twitter with a business trip. The fact that Google with the American intelligence agency "National Security Agency working together, is a dangerous proximity between politics and business. Because no citizen could be so happy if the e-mail traffic will be handled by a company that works closely with the national safety. The problems concerning the control of people including democratic governments.

Morozov provides the power of social networks like Twitter or Facebook rather skeptical. Even millions of cell phone cameras directed at the soldiers would not deter the Iranian government to resolve the violent demonstrations. The protests were lost in the sand column and the country further. Morozov sees the use of networks rather the possibility that the Iranian authorities have early information on anti-government groups and provide the intelligence agencies with this information. The coordination of the Internet users and the coordination in the reality gapes however far apart for the Belarus-born scientists. He had protested doubts that many demonstrators had left because of the information on Facebook or Twitter to the streets and coordinated. The demonstrations are more likely with "lava" as compared with planned events.

The media often reports on the role of networks for protest movements. Other and equally important issues are neglected. About whether the Internet can not promote a hedonistic colored ideology, which discourages people from more political commitment. Nongovernmental forces can gain power in the Internet, such as nationalistic, but also the very same state. For many countries, says Morozov, no protest waves, as is the case in China. In the interview, is also the Danish philosopher Kierkegaard on language, had complained before more than 150 years that in the then emerging era of newspapers, cafes and formed a public sphere where opinions were more in circulation and no longer a matter feel obliged. There is no more, what people would die. This is what also Morozov and many similar Internet critics the "indiscriminate nature of the digital activism: it recognizes our commitment to political and social issues that are really important and require permanent victim down. This is also the American computer scientist Jaron Larnier that the Internet destroys the individual creativity and speaks of "Digital Maoism", the more appealing to the swarm intelligence of the people, because Internet like Wikipedia disseminated not truth, but the average opinion of the anonymous mass. That sounds judged hard, but true when it comes to questions about ultimate things too far. For the representation of knowledge calls for Larnier and personal responsibility. In this direction also argues Morozov, the blogger does not hold for large icons critical of the government campaigns: "The people must be led by people who are willing to courageously stand up for their cause, to sacrifice to go to jail and the next Havel, Sakharov's Solzhenitsyn, or to be ... My fear is that it will not be a Twitter-age Solzhenitsyn more. "He would probably disappear just because the networks much earlier in the prison. The Chinese government has long since developed new strategies, methods of propaganda, in order to supposedly 'netizens' meet. She had admitted to investigators of a network 15 rounds in a police station, in which a young man who died mysteriously, and the "investigators reported" then the net, there is nothing remarkable. Later came out then that there were former employees of state media.

David Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale University, compares the Internet with a school, but not with artificial intelligence. One could learn a lot on the internet like in school, but would if it mutates into an institution like the school, it would be a disaster.

The debate on edge.org expands the view of the Internet as crucial aspects. By highlighting the positive effects of the network, there is no doubt, it is not enough. The force is easy to overestimate the social networks and overestimated the Internet with regard to the crucial problems of man.

BELIEFNET [4.12.10]

A great Edge exchange between Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky about how the Internet and digital technology works to affect power relations within polities. Morozov says he thinks techno-utopians in the press are taking a too-narrow view of how the Internet conditions and subverts power relationships in society:

One of the reasons I've been so unhappy with how the media have been covering the role of the Internet in Iran -- and this I guess also has to do with them reading certain things into your book that you did not intend to say there -- is the almost exclusive focus on analyzing what the Internet has done to protest movements, at the expense of thinking about its impact on everything else. But if we focus only on how people coordinate themselves with the help of social media before, during, or after the elections, we miss many other effects that the Internet is having in public, social, and political life in authoritarian states, especially in the long term.

Shouldn't we also be asking whether it's making people more receptive to nationalism? Or whether it might be promoting a certain (hedonism-based) ideology that may actually push them further away from any meaningful engagement in politics? Does it actually empower certain non-state forces within authoritarian states that may not necessarily be conductive to democracy and freedom? Those are all big questions which we cannot answer if we just focus on who gets empowered during the protests, the state or the protesters, because some countries, well, don't have that many protests. Or elections. China doesn't have national elections.

I keep meaning to get around to blogging about James Davison Hunter's new book, which discusses culture-makers as having the real power in the world (versus mere politicians). Later, I promise. Meanwhile, John Brockman of Edge has a tart observation about academics and the conversation about communications and media's impact on the current world:

The questions being asked in this conversation are for the most part coming from thinkers who are not situated in traditional academic disciplines and whose authority is not derived from institutional affiliations. This is a crowd of maverick intellectuals. In addition to Evgeny Morozov and Clay Shirky, participants in the ongoing Edge discussion include David Gelernter, George Dyson, Nicholas Carr, Jaron Lanier, Kevin Kelly, Yochai Benkler, Douglas Rushkoff, and Charles Leadbeater. Only Gelernter (Yale), Benkler (Harvard), Shirky (NYU), hold academic positions.

Perhaps one reason there are so few thinkers from the psychology, anthropology, sociology, and philosophy departments of our major universities contributing to this conversation is that communications theory has long been deemed to be a low-prestige discipline among academics. The best people are likely to be found outside academia.

Read more: http://blog.beliefnet.com/roddreher/2010/04/digital-power-in-the-postmodern-age.html#ixzz15LsQUaBY

BEYOND THE BEYOND Digital Power and Its Discontents
WIRED [4.11.10]

Great to see Shirky and Morozov having a civilized and productive discussion here.

* I take John Brockman’s point that it would be great to see these important matters tackle by a host of accredited thinkers — but I don’t know what the academy would say before these phenomena vaporize. By the time you can figure out whether Twitter is "good for" Kazakhstan or not, there may be no Kazakhstan and/or no Twitter.

* Also, watching people jump all over hippie utopian tracts that John Perry Barlow wrote ten years ago — that forces me to recognize how important John Perry Barlow was, and still is. Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world, boys.

Read the full article →

CARTA [4.10.10]

Evgeny Morozov und Clay Shirky haben sich in Prospekt Anfang Januar einen kleinen Schlagabtausch über die  Bedeutung von Twitter für die iranische Protestbewegungen geliefert. Morozov hielt dabei soziale Netzwerke, wie Twitter und Facebook, vor allem auch für Ansatzpunkte der Kontrolle durch das Regime. Clay Shirkyerwiderte damals: “Even taking into account the increased availability of surveillance, the net value of social media has shifted the balance of power in the direction of Iran’s citizens.”

Die F.A.S. crosspostet heute nun ein Gespräch zwischen Morozov und Shirky für Edge.org(dort noch nicht online) unter dem Titel “Das Unbehagen an der digitalen Macht”. Beachtlich ist unter anderem, wie Morozov hier Søren Kierkegaard, Jürgen Habermas und Twitter verschraubt:

Wenn Sie Kierkegaard gelesen haben, werden Ihnen einige subtile kierkegaardsche Untertöne in meiner Kritik des Twitter-Aktivismus aufgefallen sein. Kierkegaard lebte genau in der Zeit, die Habermas so preist: Cafés und Zeitungen waren in ganz Europa auf dem Vormarsch, eine neue demokratische Öffentlichkeit bildete sich heraus. Kierkegaard aber machte es zunehmend Sorgen, dass immer mehr Meinungen im Umlauf waren, dass es allzu leicht war, Menschen für beliebige Anliegen zusammenzutrommeln, dass niemand sich irgendeiner Sache tief verpflichtet fühlte. Es gab nichts, wofür Menschen zu sterben bereit waren. Ironischerweise ist das auch eines meiner Probleme mit dem wahllosen Charakter des digitalen Aktivismus: Er würdigt unser Engagement für politische und gesellschaftliche Themen, die wirklich wichtig sind und permanente Aufopferung verlangen, herab.

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