Edge in the News

TED'S EXCELLENT ADVENTURE
GENTLEMAN'S QUARTERLY [6.30.10]

Or, how the annual networking session of America's nerd elite became the world's most important and influential talking shop. MICHAEL WOLFF reports on the technology, entertainment and design conference that's the global power summit for the new super-wealthy, tech-savvy, hyper-connected intelligentsia

...But TED, which launched first in 1984, and then became an annual event from 1990. was always a little different. It was a pageant of nerdiness, in a sense combining the key forms of nerd social life: summer camp, talent show and adult education class. Physicists competed with juggling acts. Magicians with New Yorker writers. Quincy Jones followed Richard Dawkins (who gave one of his first talks about atheism at TED). Cellist Yo-Yo Ma shared a stage with superstring theorist Brian Greene.

Most elementally, it attracted the world's biggest nerds. Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, the Yahoo! boys, the Google boys and everybody else who ever made a billion dollars. They, in turn, attracted Hollywood royalty, who in turn attracted the media moguls. TED is where I first went drinking with Rupert Murdoch and first flirted with American television personality Martha Stewart.

If there was a theme at TED, then it was "insider-ism". Everybody present was somebody And everybody knew everybody. (For several dotcom years, TED was the main driver of my social life.) The tech business was the Mafia and TED was the biggest Mafia wedding of the year.

A key feature and sought-after invitation at TED, hosted on the second night by the literary agent John Brockman, is the Billionaires' Dinner — row upon row of the world's most successful (and richest) human beings (Murdoch, in my first conversation with him at TED, was grouchy about some of the people who were implying they were billionaires who, according to him, were most definitely not!). ...

Read the full article →

THE SCIENTIST [6.30.10]

 
© Brucie Rosch
“From the point of view of aesthetic and intellectual elegance, it is a bad experiment. But it is nevertheless a big discovery...It proves that sequencing and synthesizing DNA give us all the tools we need to create new forms of life.”

—Theoretical physicistFreeman Dyson on the Venter synthetic biology paper in Science,quoted in Edge.org.

“The price we will pay for this huge amplification of our technological prowess is probably an equal and opposite vulnerability. Welcome to the fast lane, humanity.”

—Daniel C. Dennett, Tufts University philosopher on the Venter synthetic biology paper in Science, quoted in Edge.org.

© Brucie Rosch
“Empathy is a complicated emotion, even for mice. On seeing another in pain, a mouse will act as if it itself is also hurting—much more, though, if it knows the first mouse.”

—In “The Tears of Strangers Are Only Water,” a Big Think blog post by David Berreby about research probing the physiology of empathy.

“I understand the value of science but there is a cash constraint on what we can afford.”

—David Willetts in his first press briefing as the UK’s new Conservative minister for universities and science.

“No hope now remains for this species. It is another example of how human actions can have unforeseen consequences.”

—Birdlife International’s Leon Bennun on the recent extinction of Madagascar’s Alaotra grebe.

“I believe that man will destroy everything living on this planet, and I would like to preserve everything in the form of DNA. To have a DNA treasure house—I like the term ‘treasure house’ rather than ‘museum.’”

DEUTSCHLANDRADIO KULTUR [6.30.10]

Max Brockman (Hg.): "Die Zukunftsmacher. Die Nobelpreisträger von morgen verraten, worüber sie forschen", S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2010, 270 Seiten

18 jüngere Wissenschaftler zeigen, mit welchen Themen sich die Gesellschaft in Zukunft auseinandersetzen muss. Im Mittelpunkt steht dabei die Frage nach dem Wesen des Menschen.

"What's next?": Früher hätte man den Seufzer Zukunftsforschern überlassen - in diesem neuen Buch widmen sich 18 jüngere Wissenschaftler dieser Frage. Sie definieren damit, so der Herausgeber Max Brockman, "mit welchen Themen sich die Gesellschaft in Zukunft auseinandersetzen muss". 

Nicht wenige zielen dabei mit ihrer Grundlagenforschung auch auf die lange nicht mehr gestellte, bis vor Kurzem angestaubt wirkende Frage nach dem Wesen des Menschen. Sie wollen dazu beitragen, "dass wir neu definieren, wer und was wir sind".

Scheinbar harmlose und akademisch trockene Forschungsfragen entpuppen sich dabei oft als Sprengsätze. Zum Beispiel die Frage nach der zeitlichen Verarbeitung verschiedener Komponenten eines alltäglichen Erlebnisses. Akustische, visuelle, taktile und andere Reize werden jeweils von unterschiedlichen Hirnbereichen verarbeitet, und die funktionieren nicht zeitgleich. 

Wie also koordiniert unser Hirn die unterschiedlichen Komponenten, sodass die Reize als ein Ereignis wahrgenommen, gedeutet und in seiner Relevanz beurteilt werden; dass sie mit anderen Gedächtnisinhalten abgeglichen und als Muster für künftiges Handeln gespeichert werden? 

Könnte es sein, dass bestimmte Störungen - Dyslexie zum Beispiel, das eingeschränkte Lesevermögen - nicht auf Defekte der Sprachfähigkeit zurückgehen, sondern auf eine gestörte zeitliche Verarbeitung? Möglicherweise werden hier akustische und visuelle Repräsentationen zeitlich nicht richtig koordiniert, vermutet der Neurologe David Eagleman.

Oder ein anderes Beispiel: Unterschiede der Sprache bedingen nachweislich unsere Denkstrukturen, betont die Linguistin Lera Boroditsky. Sprache ist nicht nur Ausdruck von Inhalt, sie hat eine Definitionsmacht. Analog dazu steuern kulturelle Wertvorstellungen und Begriffe jeweils unterschiedliche Evolutionsmuster, zeigt der Oxforder Philosoph Nick Bostrom. 

Und längst haben Anthropologen den Nachweis erbracht, dass, umgekehrt, unterschiedliche biologische, etwa genetische Muster wiederum jeweils andere kulturelle und soziale Wertpräferenzen entstehen lassen. 

Dass Buddhismus und Konfuzianismus sich im Osten festsetzten und das Christentum im Westen: Dies sei kein Zufall, behauptet der Neuropsychologe Matthew Lieberman - sondern eine Art bio-kognitiver Konsequenz, evolutionär gewachsen, genetisch bedingt, hormonell gesteuert durch den Botenstoff Serotonin.

Überraschend viele Forscher fordern - angesichts der wachsenden Möglichkeiten, in die Natur einzugreifen - eine bewusste Steuerung der Evolution. Experimente an Tieren zeigen, dass Menschen allein durch Änderungen eines Lebensumfelds in wenigen Generationen genetische Veränderungen bewirken können, auch ohne direkt ins Erbmaterial einzugreifen, berichtet der Biologe Brian Hare. Wünschenswerte Menschentypen werden ohnehin längst gezüchtet: Erziehung ist nichts anders als der Versuch einer solchen evolutionären Steuerung.

Zum Thema: Treffen der Nobelpreisträger in Lindau

Besprochen von Eike Gebhardt

Max Brockman (Hg.): Die Zukunftsmacher. Die Nobelpreisträger von morgen verraten, worüber sie forschen
Aus dem Amerikanischen von Sebastian Vogel
S. Fischer Verlag, Frankfurt am Mein 2010
270 Seiten, 19,95 Euro

DIE WELT [6.25.10]

Vier naturwissenschaftliche Bücher erklären ganz einfach, wie das Leben funktioniert

Kinder sind die geborenen Naturwissenschaftler. Sie sind neugierig. Sie stellen Fragen. Sie wollen wissen, wie die Dinge funktionieren, und warum die Dinge so sind und nicht anders. Sie gehen lieber in den Zoo als in eine Kunstausstellung. Aber irgendwann - genauer: in der Pubertät - geht das meistens verloren. Wer sich noch für die Naturwissenschaften interessiert, wird zum pickeligen Nerd; die anderen werden coole Teenies. Im Kampf der Kulturen haben die Geisteswissenschaften immer die Oberhand, wenn es um Distinktionsgewinn geht. Man gewinnt keinen Blumentopf, wenn man weiß, wie das Internet funktioniert, aber man kann viel Geld mit einem Buch verdienen, in dem man dessen schädliche Auswirkungen auf die eigene Konzentrationsfähigkeit beschreibt. Wissenschaftsskepsis ist hip, wissenschaftliche Kenntnisse dabei störend. Wo sind all die neugierigen Kinder geblieben?

Vermutlich sind sie zunächst durch die Schule abgeschreckt worden. Durch einen Unterricht, der alles tut, um die Neugier zu bestrafen, indem er auf die Grundfrage, was die Welt zusammenhält und wie alles miteinander zusammenhängt, keine Antworten gibt, sondern das Wissen in voneinander abgeschottete Fächer aufteilt. Wie dem auch sei: Wenn Sie sich beim Rückblick auf Ihren Schulunterricht allenfalls an einen Geruch von Schwefelwasserstoff und eine Kreidetafel voller Formeln erinnern, ist Natalie Angiers "Naturwissenschaft" das richtige Buch für Sie.

Im englischen Original heißt es herausfordernd: "The Canon" und verspricht eine Tour durch die "wunderschönen Grundlagen der Naturwissenschaften". Im Deutschen Untertitel hat sich ein Imperativ eingeschlichen: "Was man wissen muss, um die Welt zu verstehen". Davon sollte man sich nicht abschrecken lassen. Angier ist Wissenschaftsjournalistin bei der "New York Times" und beherrscht die angelsächsische Kunst, komplizierte Dinge einfach zu erklären. Das Buch ist garantiert formelfrei - denn für Angier ist die Mathematik "eine Sprache, nicht die Sprache, und ihre Symbole lassen sich in anderen Idiomen erklären, einschließlich der schönen Sprache, die Klartext heißt".

Anders als der Schulunterricht, der oft beim vermeintlich Konkreten beginnt und sich dann schnell im Abstrakten verliert, arbeitet sich Angier vom vermeintlich Abstrakten zum Konkreten vor. Sie beginnt mit einem brillanten Essay über das naturwissenschaftliche Denken, erklärt dann die Konzepte von Wahrscheinlichkeiten und Größenordnungen, um dann ihre Tour durch die Naturwissenschaften mit der Atomphysik zu beginnen. Tatsächlich wird es auf dieser Grundlage einfacher, die folgenden Kapitel über Chemie, Evolutionsbiologie, Molekularbiologie, Geologie und Astronomie zu begreifen. Es wäre zumindest einen Versuch wert, den Schulunterricht ebenfalls so umzustellen. Zumindest aber müsste man Angiers Buch zur Pflichtlektüre für Lehrer erklären - nicht nur für solche, die Naturwissenschaften unterrichten.

In Deutschland ist Stefan Klein möglicherweise der einzige Wissenschaftsautor, der es mit den großen angelsächsischen Vorbildern aufnehmen kann. Der Titel seines neuen Buchs, "Wir alle sind Sternenstaub", ist wohl eine Reverenz an seinen großen Vorläufer, den Wissenschaftspopularisator Hoimar von Ditfurth, dessen erstes großes Werk "Kinder des Weltalls" hieß. Und tatsächlich ist jedes Atom unseres Körpers irgendwann im Zentrum eines Sterns entstanden, wie der britische Hofastronom Martin Rees im Gespräch mit Klein erläutert, um dann hinzuzufügen: "Wenn Sie weniger romantisch veranlagt sind, können Sie die Menschen auch als stellaren Atommüll bezeichnen."

Im Auftrag des "Zeit-Magazins" führte Klein in aller Welt Gespräche mit einigen der führenden Wissenschaftler der Welt - übrigens nicht nur mit Naturwissenschaftlern wie Martin Rees oder der rumäniendeutschen Neurobiologin Hannah Monyer, sondern auch mit dem Schweizer Ökonomen Ernst Feher oder dem spekulativen Zivilisationstheoretiker Jared Diamond in Los Angeles. Er sprach mit ihnen nicht nur über die Resultate ihrer Forschung, sondern - buchstäblich - über Gott und die Welt. So antwortet der bekennende Anglikaner und Kirchgänger Rees auf die Frage, ob er an das glaube, was in der Kirche gepredigt wird: "Nein. Ich weiß doch, dass wir nicht einmal das Wasserstoffatom verstehen - wie könnte ich da an Dogmen glauben? Ich bin ein praktizierender, aber kein gläubiger Christ." Kleins Buch enthält viele solcher erhellender Momente - es ist das reinste Lesevergnügen und wie Angiers "Kanon" eine Verführung zum naturwissenschaftlichen Denken.

Wenn es einen Mann gibt, der mehr als alle anderen getan hat, um die Naturwissenschaften trotz der uns eingebauten feuilletonistischen Präferenz zu popularisieren, dann ist es der Literaturagent John Brockman, in dessen Autorenstall sich solche Stars finden wie der bereits erwähnte Jared Diamond oder das enfant terrible der Evolutionsbiologie und Religionskritiker Richard Dawkins. Jedes Jahr stellt Brockmann in seiner Internetzeitschrift "The Edge" eine Frage, die von Brockmans beängstigend weitgespanntem Netz korrespondierender Wissenschaftler beantwortet wird. 2005 etwa hieß die Frage: "Was halten Sie für wahr, ohne es beweisen zu können?" 2006 lautete sie: "Was ist Ihre gefährlichste Idee?" Der Fischer Taschenbuch Verlag hat es verdienstvollerweise unternommen, die im Internet auf Englisch erschienenen Antworten Jahr für Jahr ins Deutsche zu übersetzen. Perfekte Schmöker für einen kurzen Flug - nach einer Stunde fühlt man sich aufs angenehmste angeregt und klüger als seine Mitpassagiere.

Brockmans Sohn Max ist in die Fußstapfen (und die Firma) seines Vaters getreten und versammelt in "Die Zukunftsmacher" Essays von 18 jungen Wissenschaftlern über ihr Forschungsgebiet - es geht unter anderem um das Multiversum, die dunkle Energie, Spiegelneuronen und die Evolution der Moral, die Fantasie, die Ausbreitung guter Gedanken und das Verhältnis vom naturwissenschaftlichen Denken zur Realität - womit wir wieder bei Angiers Ausgangspunkt wären. Man muss also kein pickeliger Nerd sein, um sich für Naturwissenschaften zu begeistern. Es reicht, einige dieser Bücher zu lesen, um wieder zum Kind zu werden.

Natalie Angier: Naturwissenschaft. C. Bertelsmann, München. 382 S., 22,95 Euro.

Stefan Klein: Wir alle sind Sternenstaub. S. Fischer, Frankfurt/M. 269 S., 8,95 Euro.

John Brockman (Hg.): Das Wissen von morgen. S. Fischer. 287 S., 9,95 Euro.

Max Brockman (Hg.): Die Zukunfstmacher. S. Fischer, Frankfurt/M. 270 S., 19,95 Euro.

WASHINGTON POST [6.23.10]

From books to boardroom

Q: We all need advice as we seek success in our careers and lives. What are your five favorite business books, and why? What advice wasn't so helpful?

I believe there are three "must reads" for business.

The first is "Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes are High" (Patterson et al, 2002). Based on the psychology of dialogue, this book provides concrete tools and examples for handling difficult conversations in business.

Most business books provide, at best, a cursory coverage of effective business conversations. In fact, the business world assumes that interpersonal skills and dialogue techniques are not important enough to teach in an MBA program. And yet, when asked to share their most difficult business situations, my advanced business majors offer issues around conflict, negotiation, and verbal problem solving -- not finance, economics, or marketing. Patterson's book outlines a model that is invaluable to anyone that wants to go beyond the director level.

 


The second required book is "Primal Leadership"(Goleman, 2002). This book builds off of Goleman's initial two texts, Emotional Intelligence (1997) and Working with Emotional 
Intelligence (1998). Based on extensive research over ten years (tracking hundreds of leaders), Goleman proves that a distinctive set of core "soft skills" actually leads to bottom-line success.

Goleman's early work caused excitement in the world of organizational psychology. Yet, his latest work -- demonstrating a significant statistical difference in financial success --rocked the business world. For some executives, it was the first time they seriously began to consider that there might be something to this "soft stuff" such as empathy, emotional self-awareness, reality testing, and adaptability.

Last is a quasi-business book entitled "This Will Change Everything" (Brockman, 2010). This book compiles the thoughts of great thinkers of our time from every walk of life, including business, art, neuroscience, physics, chemistry, education, computers, etc. Every business person should read this book in order to maintain the big perspective and to hone one's thinking in strategic and synergistic ways. The best business people are those who can balance several yet seemingly contrasting concepts at once and, like a silver bullet, make the best decisions for overall effectiveness.

Stay away from quick-fix books. They are fun to read on airplanes or when you need to fall asleep. Yet in the complex business world, it takes energy and thought to continually develop and perfect the art of leadership and business success. Read books that challenge and force you to think beyond your daily grind. Or pick up the paper and read Dilbert. Laughing is always good.

NEW SCIENTIST [6.16.10]


100617_soapbox_1.jpg

Liz Else, associate editor and Shaun Gamble, contributor

"If you're confused by climate change, baffled by biodiversity and puzzled by particle physics, join us at Speakers' Corner to cut out the middle man and get the truth behind the headlines."

That was the invitation and challenge from the Zoological Society of London, the folks that runLondon Zoo. Just show up at the few square metres in London's Hyde Park that have become synonymous with freedom of expression, and look out for a bunch of scientists on soapboxes.

Fifteen scientists and science popularisers turned up on Monday to help invent a new form of science communication. This was the kind of public exposure that would make even an experienced stand-up comedian anxious, so wisely they all came armed with props, from a giant plastic ladybird to a blow-up globe.

The speakers' remit was to talk about the science the public care about most - or perhaps, more honestly, ought to care about most. So the kick-off session was Earth Evolution with talks including "Life on Mars from life on Earth", "Where do species come from anyway?" and "Pheromones: Smells at the heart of life".

Up next was Earth Challenges: "Bees in crisis: Well known fact or widely held belief?", "Why deforestation in the tropics should worry us" and "Global warming and a cold winter".

Last, and cut a bit short because of organisational glitches, came Earth Solutions: "Why we need science like we never needed it before", "Lessons from Ban the Bulb" and "Conservationists must learn Chinese".

Five at a time, the soapbox scientists were left to their own devices, giving mini-lectures, or asking questions to drag in the punters in true Speakers' Corner fashion.

Warmed-up by members of Team ZSL clutching questions sent via Twitter, the public began to quiz the speakers. Is global warming real? If it is, what can we do about it? Will humans evolve? Are polar bears becoming cannibals?

The speakers had questions of their own. Why fight to preserve the British green belt, but not the foreign rainforests? Is development worth the price of diversity?

This kind of getting down and dirty with the public is a rare thing in the UK, where we tend to prefer our science on TV shows with David Attenborough, Brian Cox or Kate Humble, in public lectures featuring Richard Dawkins or in occasional forays to the more populist Cafés Scientifique.

But apart from the odd crying child and a completely confused elderly Japanese couple, everyone seemed to find scientists on soapboxes a most agreeable way of whiling away a few summer hours.

Is this something that ought to happen more often? Chatting afterwards, one of the speakers, Exeter University professor Stephan Harrison, said he had come round to the view that engaging with the public was not just an important thing to do, it is a scientist's obligation.

New Scientist's own senior consultant Alun Anderson - whose "Vanishing Arctic" talk was guaranteed to appeal to a public in love with polar bears - agreed, adding that this kind of one-on-one connection could be positively "life-changing".

100617_soapbox_3.jpg

The problem remains convincing the public that there are pressing issues that deserve their attention, without allowing an unbalanced presentation of the facts. Polar bears may be resorting to cannibalism, but will people remember why?

Some topics are clearly more appealing to the public than others. It speaks volumes thatJonathan Baillie, director of conservation programmes at ZSL, literally had to shout to draw an audience to hear about endangered creatures that aren't as cute and cuddly as polar bears or pandas.

The truth is that science is seldom a majority sport, especially in times of economic stress, yet in an increasingly technological age when new jobs will depend on it, the need for science popularisation is arguably greater than ever.

Robin Dunbar, head of the Institute of Social and Cultural Anthropology at the University of Oxford and a professor of evolutionary anthropology, is fired up by the challenge.

He was burning with factoids guaranteed to disturb even the most bullish. Did we know, for example, that the number of UK-based applicants applying to study philosophy and English at university was holding steady but that the number applying to study chemistry and biology was showing such a linear decline year on year that by 2030 these departments would have no students at all?

That's all the more reason for doing more of these events, as apparently some of the speakers are now thinking of doing according to the event's organiser Seirian Sumner, whose team for the event also included Charlotte Walters and Kate Jones. Sumner is a featured essayist on how social insects got to be social in Max Brockman's book What's Next?, a who's who of science's next generation.

Given the modest £6000 funding (from Research Councils UK) it took to organise, such a simple event could hardly represent better value for money to a severely cash-strapped government. Assuming of course, that everyone is really serious about the horribly tough job of communicating science without patronising the general public: not the niche general public that pick up science magazines on newsstands, but the real masses who walk through places like Hyde Park, their minds reeling with daily concerns and science generally nowhere among them.

(Images: Aidan Weatherill)

MEDGADGET [6.13.10]

The Economist has recently featured an interesting article on the behavioral effects that parasitic protozoa Toxoplasma gondii has on its mammalian hosts. Many of these effects have been recognized for years, and some of us here at Medgadget been privy to Toxoplasma news, thanks to a friend at Stanford who works with Dr. Robert Sapolsky, a leading researcher in the field. First of all, there is strong evidence that urine from cats is sexually attractive to rats infected with Toxoplasma. Then there seems to be a connection between Toxoplasma gondii and schizophrenia, lack of interest in the novelties of life, and a noted correlation with people getting into more car accidents. It seems that the nature of this parasite's life cycle has created a strange symbiotic, psychological relationship between it and its typical feline and rodent hosts. The Economist provides a handy overview of the latest knowledge around this topic.

If an alien bug invaded the brains of half the population, hijacked their neurochemistry, altered the way they acted and drove some of them crazy, then you might expect a few excitable headlines to appear in the press. Yet something disturbingly like this may actually be happening without the world noticing....

One reason to suspect [that some people have their behaviour permanently changed] is that a country's level of Toxoplasma infection seems to be related to the level of neuroticism displayed by its population. Another is that those infected seem to have poor reaction times and are more likely to be involved in road accidents. A third is that they have short attention spans and little interest in seeking out novelty. A fourth, possibly the most worrying, is that those who suffer from schizophrenia are more likely than those who do not to have been exposed to Toxoplasma.

Nor is any of this truly surprising. For, besides humans, Toxoplasma has two normal hosts: rodents and cats. And what it does to rodents is very odd indeed.

DIE WELT [6.5.10]

Wenn wir jemanden vermissen, trösten wir uns mit Dingen, um mit der Sehnsucht zurechtzukommen. Mit Fetischismus hat das nichts zu tun.

Linus van Pelt erscheint interessanterweise als die am wenigsten neurotische Figur unter den Peanuts. Interessant deshalb, weil er nur in wenigen, extrem grausamen Szenen der Comics ohne sein Schnuffeltuch zu sehen ist. Die Beziehung von Linus und Schnuffeltuch ist sehr eng. In einer Episode, als seine Schwester Lucy eine feierliche Feuerbestattung des Tuches inszeniert, erleidet der hilflose Linus Qualen, die mit dem Schmerz des Vermissens eines geliebten Menschen identisch sind.

Unter Erwachsenen würde Linus als Fetischist bezeichnet. Seine Liebe zu einem Objekt würde als fehlgeleitet empfunden. Zwar ist ungeklärt, wie alt Linus, wie alt Lucy oder Charlie Brown zur Erzählzeit der Comicstrips sind - doch dass sie als Kinder betrachtet werden dürfen, sichert ihnen den Bonus der Unschuldigkeit. Und ein Schnuffeltuch erscheint harmlos, nicht als ein Fetisch, der unterschwellig stets mit der Aura des Perversen verknüpft wird. Charles M. Schulz, der sich die alterslosen Peanuts ausgedacht hatte, erfand auch den hübschen Begriff "security blanket", als das ein Schnuffeltuch im englischen Sprachraum seitdem bezeichnet wird.

Doch welche Sicherheit bietet Linus sein unverzichtbare Tuch?

Da vorausgesetzt werden kann, dass es sich bei Linus um ein Kind handelt, befindet er sich in einer Übergangsphase - noch nicht von der Mutter entkoppelt, in deren Leib er immerhin über neun Monate wohnte und schlief. Der frostige Begriff des seelischen Abnabelungsprozesses kommt hier zum Tragen. Ab einem gewissen Alter soll aus einem Mamakind ein "Nur-noch-Kind" werden. Es ist gewissermaßen eine zweite Geburt, allerdings wird auch diese nicht von allen Kindern als problemlos empfunden. Zwar klingt der Begriff einer seelischen Abnabelung irritierend leicht durchführbar (durch einen klaren Schnitt) - doch ist es, da es längst keine materielle Verbindung zwischen Mutter und Kind mehr gibt, tatsächlich ein mitunter langwieriger Vorgang, der sich sogar traumatisch gestalten kann.

"Die Mutter bestreiche sich die Brust mit bitterer Salbe", lautet einer der Erziehungstipps im Alten Testament: So, behauptet der Text, sei die seelische Abnabelung des Kindes von seiner Mutter durchzuführen. Von den Phantomschmerzen, die einem Kind entstehen können, ist freilich nicht die Rede. Die Psychologie ist eine Errungenschaft des 19. Jahrhunderts - als der Glaube nicht mehr weiterhalf.

Das "security blanket" des Linus van Pelt wird im Vokabular dieser jungen Wissenschaft als "transitionales Objekt" bezeichnet. Der Begriff beschreibt die Funktion zum Beispiel eines Schnuffeltuchs als Ersatz für die ersehnte Zuwendung der Mutter in jenem mulmigen Schwebezustand zwischen süßem Milchfluss und der Bitterkeit des Alleinseins (mutterseelenallein). Das Schnuffeltuch wird, trotzdem es nur ein Gegenstand ist, vom heranwachsenden Kind beatmet; dabei saugt es den Duft des Gewebes ein, es schmiegt sich in die Falten des Tuchs. Die Pfannkuchenhaftigkeit des Schnuffeltuchs lässt an eine schillernde Wortschöpfung des französischen Psychoanalytikers Jacques Lacan denken: Für die Gestalt des Begehrens erfand dieser den Begriff des "Hommelettes" - einer Kreuzung aus Mensch und Pfannkuchen offenbar, der es mit den Mitteln von Schmiegsamkeit und flacher Form gelänge, unter der Tür hindurch ins Schlafzimmer einzudringen, um sich einem dort Träumenden über die Nasenlöcher zu breiten. So gesehen begegnet das schnuffelnde Kind mit dem Tuch seinem Begehren nach der Mutter, von der es seelisch abgenabelt werden soll.

Wenn es nicht die Mutter ist, sondern eine Frau oder ein Mann, wenn der Mensch nicht mehr Kind ist, sondern erwachsen, verliert die Liebe zum transitionalen Objekt ihren unschuldigen Charakter. Hat es jemand beispielsweise nötig, beim Gefühl des Aufkommens einer innerer Unruhe sich einen bestimmten Pullover überzustreifen (weil dieses Kleidungsstück an eine Begebenheit mit der vermissten Person erinnern lässt), sich mit einer Creme zu pflegen (weil es Kosmetik ist, die auch von der vermissten Person verwendet wird) oder sich sofort ein bestimmtes Tellergericht kommen zu lassen (weil es sich dabei um der vermissten Person Leibspeise handelt), sind dies alles Handlungen, die identisch sind mit dem Griff zum Schnuffeltuch. Allerdings - Hölle des Erwachsenendaseins - verbietet sich das, "the real Stoff" sozusagen, von selbst. Regression wird halt leider mit geistiger Störung gleichgesetzt. Außerdem ist es im wünschenswerten Fall nicht länger die eigene Mutter, die jemand schmerzlich vermisst, sondern ein - zumindest potenzieller - Geschlechtspartner.

Was den Bilderbuchfetischisten, der beispielsweise an Schuhe denken muss, um in Ekstase zu geraten, mit dem Übergangsobjekt-Benutzer eint, ist die Heimlichkeit, in der er seine Handlung vollziehen will.

Zwar ist, von außen betrachtet, davon nichts wirklich zu erkennen - doch das Verzehren eines Sauerbratens mit Nudeln und Knödeln kann einen Moment größtmöglicher Intimität bedeuten, wenn es sich bei diesem Gericht um besagte Leibspeise des vermissten Menschen handelt; dieser Sauerbraten also die Funktion eines transitionalen Objekts innehat, dem sich der Esser sozusagen liebevoll widmet - und das nicht erst durch das Einverleiben, sondern schon während des Aufsuchens des Restaurants, durch das Bestellen des einzig Möglichen et cetera: Die Beschäftigung mit all diesen Vorgängen rund um das Übergangsobjekt wird als Beschäftigung mit dem abwesenden Menschen erlebt, dessen Nähe eigentlich von größter Wichtigkeit wäre, warum auch immer das dann gerade nicht möglich ist.

Diese gehirnliche Leistung ist die Königsdisziplin der Vorstellungskraft. Romaneschreiben, das blöde Ausdenken von gleichwie opulent ausgestatteten Phantasmagorien à la "Herr der Ringe" oder "Alice im Wunderland" sind ordentlich, aber nichts im Vergleich zu der kindlichen Selbsthypnose vermittels eines quadratischen Stücks Windeltuch. Oder dem Besänftigen der quälenden Sehnsucht durch die Beschäftigung mit einem Sauerbraten samt Knödel und Nudeln. Oder dem Sich-Einsprühen mit des anderen Parfum; dem bloßen Betrachten des Anzeigenmotivs dieses Parfums; dem Anhören eines Songs ("unser Lied").

In der jährlichen Umfrage der Wissenschaftsplattform edge.org ging es in diesem Jahr um Antworten auf "Was wird unser Leben noch einmal richtig verändern?"

Der 87s-jährige Physiker Freeman Dyson aus Princeton bedauerte, es selbst nicht mehr erleben zu können, glaubt aber an eine Revolution durch Radiotelepathie. Bei dieser Technologie wird das Gehirn von Mikrowellensensoren ummantelt werden, die jede neuronale Aktivität registrieren und - an einen anderen Menschen versenden können. Es wird dann möglich sein, zu erleben, was und wie ein anderer Mensch denkt; was und wie ein anderer Mensch fühlt. Man wird auf eine kaum vorstellbare Weise innig verbunden sein mit einem anderen Menschen. Man wird ihn, so Freeman Dysons Hoffnung, zumindest: tatsächlich verstehen.

Bis es zu ersten Tests kommen kann, müssen laut Dyson noch zwei marginale Technologien erfunden werden. Er geht davon aus, dass es noch 80 Jahre dauern wird, bis die ersten Radiotelepathie-Probanden große Augen machen werden.

Aber was diese gehirnliche Übertragungsleistung angeht, sind Übergangsobjektbenutzer dem Ganzen bereits recht nah.

Los Angeles Times [6.5.10]

Checkpoint_languages

An essay on how language influences thought from the pop-science anthology "What's Next: Dispatches on the Future of Science" has been posted on The Edge. Author Lera Boroditsky, an assistant professor of psychology, neuroscience and symbolic systems at Stanford, writes:

Most questions of whether and how language shapes thought start with the simple observation that languages differ from one another. And a lot! Let's take a (very) hypothetical example. Suppose you want to say, "Bush read Chomsky's latest book." Let's focus on just the verb, "read." To say this sentence in English, we have to mark the verb for tense; in this case, we have to pronounce it like "red" and not like "reed." In Indonesian you need not (in fact, you can't) alter the verb to mark tense. In Russian you would have to alter the verb to indicate tense and gender. So if it was Laura Bush who did the reading, you'd use a different form of the verb than if it was George. In Russian you'd also have to include in the verb information about completion. If George read only part of the book, you'd use a different form of the verb than if he'd diligently plowed through the whole thing. In Turkish you'd have to include in the verb how you acquired this information: if you had witnessed this unlikely event with your own two eyes, you'd use one verb form, but if you had simply read or heard about it, or inferred it from something Bush said, you'd use a different verb form.

She brings up experiments and other examples involving use of language and direction, time, color and gender, all of which seem to demonstrate that yes, language shapes how we think.

But my favorite is this example above. Only a linguist -- or perhaps a social scientist -- would put Chomsky in a hypothetical. 

-- Carolyn Kellogg

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.

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