Thursday, May 9, 2013

WOMEN, SEXISM & SOCIETY: From Sirens to Sluts, Angels to She-Devils...


“The emotional, sexual, and psychological stereotyping of females begins when the doctor says: "It's a girl.” -Shirley Chisholm

“SEX game gone wrong,” “sex game gone awry,” “sex-mad flatmate,” “sex-crazed killer.”

That’s from just the first three minutes of the ABC News special on Amanda Knox last week, a veritable drumbeat of sexual shaming that leaves no doubt about what elevated a college student accused of murder into an object of international fascination, titillation and scorn.

It wasn’t the crime itself. It was the supposed conspiracy of her libido, cast as proof that she was out of control, up to no good, lost, wicked, dangerous. A girl this intent on randy fun was a girl who couldn’t be trusted and got what was coming to her, even if it was prison and even if there was plenty of reason — as the eventual reversal of her initial conviction made clear — to believe that she might not belong there.

“Knox knew, it seemed, no boundaries, leaving a vibrator in a transparent washbag and enjoying one-night stands,” wrote Tobias Jones in a 2011 article in the British newspaper The Observer. One-night stands? How could she?!? Of course if a guy has one of those, it’s a triumph: all the pleasure, none of the commitment. And boys, after all, will be boys.

We’ll never know precisely what happened on the night in Perugia, Italy, in 2007 when Meredith Kercher, 21, was killed. Knox, her housemate, was found guilty, then acquitted and will soon, despite the profoundly flawed case against her, face another trial. The Italian judicial system works about as smoothly as the Italian government.

But we know this: the double standard concerning men’s versus women’s sexuality not only survives but thrives, manifest in the enduring notoriety of “Foxy Knoxy,” whose memoir was published on the same day last week that the ABC News special aired. Keep the rest of her story the same but make her a man in the midst of erotic escapades abroad. Are we still gawking? Is ABC trumpeting Diane Sawyer’s exclusive sit-down with the lascivious pilgrim?

Similar questions can be asked about Jodi Arias, 32, whose murder trial in Arizona was winding down last week. The Arias case hasn’t made quite the leap from the tabloids into the mainstream that Knox’s did. But HLN, the cable network on which Nancy Grace fulminates, has enjoyed a ratings bonanza with its saturation coverage of the courtroom proceedings.

Arias has admitted to stabbing, shooting and slashing the throat of a former lover: an act of self-defense, she unpersuasively claims. And while his death was certainly grisly enough to explain a baseline of media interest, the amount of attention it has received stems from the courtroom juxtaposition of the defendant, outfitted in nerdy eyeglasses and a frumpy hairstyle, and evidence of what a steamy, pliable playmate she was. It stems from pictures of her genitalia that she let her lover take, audiotapes of the phone sex that the two of them had — and that she recorded. It stems from the shock and censure of such potent female desire.

Knox and Arias aren’t just women accused of murder. They’re minxes accused of murder, sitting in their courtroom seats with scarlet letters emblazoned on their chests, no jury needed to pronounce them guilty of wantonness at the very least. For men, lust is a tripwire. For women, it’s a noose.

I’ve heard quite a bit lately about David Petraeus’s road to redemption. I’ve heard less about Paula Broadwell’s. Yes, he’s the more public figure, but the disparity also reflects the way their affair was often portrayed in the first place. He strayed; she preyed. He was weak; she was wily. He was the fly, she the spider.

Let’s bring a few other recent news stories into this. Let’s indulge in a few hypotheticals.

WHAT if it had been Antonia Weiner who took to Twitter and there had been a different architecture to the image she tweeted? Would she be able even to entertain the idea of a political comeback? And would the spouse standing dutifully by her be seen as a brave and magnanimous stalwart, the way Huma Abedin is viewed in some quarters, or dismissed by one and all as a pitiable pushover?

Had a Southern governor named Marcia Sanford been entangled with a Latin lover when reputedly hiking the Appalachian Trail, would she today be her party’s nominee for an open Congressional seat? We know the answer, and we know that Wilhelmina Clinton and Newtina Gingrich wouldn’t have rebounded from their infidelities as robustly as Bill and Newt did.

Men get passes, women get reputations, and real, lasting humiliation travels only one way. The size and scope of that mortification, despite many decades of happy talk about dawning gender equality, are suggested by recent news stories of one teenage girl in California and another in Nova Scotia who hanged themselves after tales or cellphone pictures of their sexual violation circulated among peers. It’s impossible not to wonder if shame drove them to suicide, and it’s impossible not to ask what sort of world allows the victims of such assaults to feel more irredeemably branded — more eternally damned — than their accused assailants by all appearances do.

I’ll tell you what sort: a world in which there’s a cornucopia of synonyms for whore and slut and no comparably pejorative vocabulary for promiscuous or sexually rapacious men. A world in which Knox’s vibrator and the lingerie she was said to have bought in a Perugia store were presented not just as newsworthy but as germane to the charge of murder against her: referendums on her character, glimmers of her depravity, clues to precisely how a good girl went bad. A world in which her erotic appetite made her a “man eater,” as the Italian press wrote and as the rest of the world more or less parroted. A world in which her tally, scribbled on a sheet of paper in her prison cell, of seven sexual partners in all of her life was seen as sensational. A similar count for a guy in his early 20s would provoke not derision but disagreement: swordsman or slacker?

When we chart and lament the persistence of sexism in society, we look to the United States Congress, where women are still woefully underrepresented. We look to corporate boardrooms, where the glass ceiling hasn’t really shattered. But we needn’t look any further than how perversely censorious of women’s sex lives we remain, and how short the path from siren to slut and from angel to she-devil can be.

-Frank Bruni (Sexism and the Single Murderess, NYT, 5.4.2013. Image: Ben Wiseman,2013).

Friday, November 2, 2012

SOCIETY: Are We Becoming More Psychopathic? Yes...

"Are you sure you wouldn't like to stay just a little while longer? Just for talk?" -Norman Bates, Psycho, 1960.
 
"When you look around you at modern-day society, do you think, in general, that we're becoming more psychopathic?"

Robert Hare, the eminent criminal psychologist and creator of the widely used Psychopathy Checklist paused before answering. "I think, in general, yes, society is becoming more psychopathic," he said. "I mean, there's stuff going on nowadays that we wouldn't have seen 20, even 10 years ago. Kids are becoming anesthetized to normal sexual behavior by early exposure to pornography on the Internet. Rent-a-friend sites are getting more popular on the Web, because folks are either too busy or too techy to make real ones. ... The recent hike in female criminality is particularly revealing. And don't even get me started on Wall Street."

He's got a point. In Japan in 2011, a 17-year-old boy parted with one of his own kidneys so he could go out and buy an iPad. In China, following an incident in which a 2-year-old baby was left stranded in the middle of a marketplace and run over, not once but twice, as passersby went casually about their business, an appalled electorate has petitioned the government to pass a good-Samaritan law to prevent such a thing from happening again.

And the new millennium has seemingly ushered in a wave of corporate criminality like no other. Investment scams, conflicts of interest, lapses of judgment, and those evergreen entrepreneurial party tricks of good old fraud and embezzlement are now utterly unprecedented in magnitude. Who's to blame? In an issue of the Journal of Business Ethics, Clive R. Boddy, a former professor at the Nottingham Business School, contends that it's psychopaths, pure and simple, who are at the root of all the trouble.

The law itself has gotten in on the act. At the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping trial, in Salt Lake City, the attorney representing Brian David Mitchell—the homeless street preacher and self-proclaimed prophet who abducted, raped, and kept the 14-year-old Elizabeth captive for nine months (according to Smart's testimony, he raped her pretty much every day over that period)—urged the sentencing judge to go easy on his client, on the grounds that "Ms. Smart overcame it. Survived it. Triumphed over it." When the lawyers start whipping up that kind of tune, the dance could wind up anywhere.

Of course, it's not just the lawyers. In a recent study by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, in London, 120 convicted street robbers were asked why they did it. The answers were revealing. Kicks. Spur-of-the-moment impulses. Status. And financial gain. In that order. Exactly the kind of casual, callous behavior patterns one often sees in psychopaths.

In fact, in a survey that has so far tested 14,000 volunteers, Sara Konrath and her team at the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research has found that college students' self-reported empathy levels (as measured by the Interpersonal Reactivity Index, a standardized questionnaire containing such items as "I often have tender, concerned feelings for people less fortunate than me" and "I try to look at everybody's side of a disagreement before I make a decision") have been in steady decline over the past three decades—since the inauguration of the scale, in fact, back in 1979. A particularly pronounced slump has been observed over the past 10 years. "College kids today are about 40 percent lower in empathy than their counterparts of 20 or 30 years ago," Konrath reports.

More worrisome still, according to Jean Twenge, a professor of psychology at San Diego State University, is that, during this same period, students' self-reported narcissism levels have shot through the roof. "Many people see the current group of college students, sometimes called 'Generation Me,' " Konrath continues, "as one of the most self-centered, narcissistic, competitive, confident, and individualistic in recent history."

Precisely why this downturn in social values has come about is not entirely clear. A complex concatenation of environment, role models, and education is, as usual, under suspicion. But the beginnings of an even more fundamental answer may lie in a study conducted by Jeffrey Zacks and his team at the Dynamic Cognition Laboratory, at Washington University in St. Louis. With the aid of fMRI, Zacks and his co-authors peered deep inside the brains of volunteers as they read stories. What they found provided an intriguing insight into the way our brain constructs our sense of self. Changes in characters' locations (e.g., "went out of the house into the street") were associated with increased activity in regions of the temporal lobes involved in spatial orientation and perception, while changes in the objects that a character interacted with (e.g., "picked up a pencil") produced a similar increase in a region of the frontal lobes known to be important for controlling grasping motions. Most important, however, changes in a character's goal elicited increased activation in areas of the prefrontal cortex, damage to which results in impaired knowledge of the order and structure of planned, intentional action.

Imagining, it would seem, really does make it so. Whenever we read a story, our level of engagement is such that we "mentally simulate each new situation encountered in a narrative," according to one of the researchers, Nicole Speer. Our brains then interweave these newly encountered situations with knowledge and experience gleaned from our own lives to create an organic mosaic of dynamic mental syntheses.

Reading a book carves brand-new neural pathways into the ancient cortical bedrock of our brains. It transforms the way we see the world—makes us, as Nicholas Carr puts it in his recent essay, "The Dreams of Readers," "more alert to the inner lives of others." We become vampires without being bitten—in other words, more empathic. Books make us see in a way that casual immersion in the Internet, and the quicksilver virtual world it offers, doesn't.

Which is worrisome, to say the least, given the current slump in reading habits. According to a 2011 survey conducted by the British charity the National Literacy Trust, one in three children between the ages of 11 and 16 do not own a book, compared with one in 10 in 2005. That equates, in today's England, to a total of around four million. Almost a fifth of the 18,000 children polled said they had never received a book as a present. And 12 percent said they had never been to a bookshop.

But if society really is becoming more psychopathic, it's not all doom and gloom. In the right context, certain psychopathic characteristics can actually be very constructive. A neurosurgeon I spoke with (who rated high on the psychopathic spectrum) described the mind-set he enters before taking on a difficult operation as "an intoxication that sharpens rather than dulls the senses." In fact, in any kind of crisis, the most effective individuals are often those who stay calm—who are able to respond to the exigencies of the moment while at the same time maintaining the requisite degree of detachment.  What I'm planning is a psychopath makeover, to find out firsthand, for better and for worse, what it's like to see the world through devil-may-care eyes. And there's nothing like a bit of competition.

Transcranial magnetic stimulation (or TMS) was developed by Anthony Barker and his colleagues at the University of Sheffield in 1985. The inaugural application of TMS by Barker and his team comprised an elementary demonstration of the conduction of nerve impulses from the motor cortex to the spinal cord by stimulating simple muscle contractions. Nowadays it's a different story—and TMS has widespread practical uses, in both diagnostic and therapeutic capacities, across a variety of neurological and psychiatric conditions, from depression and migraine to strokes and Parkinson's disease.

The basic premise of TMS is that the brain operates using electrical signals, and that, as with any such system, it's possible to modify the way it works by altering its electrical environment. Standard equipment consists of a powerful electromagnet, placed on the scalp, that generates steady magnetic-field pulses at specific frequencies, and a plastic-enclosed coil to focus those magnetic pulses down through the surface of the skull onto discrete brain regions, thus stimulating the underlying cortex.

Now, one of the things that we know about psychopaths is that the light switches of their brains aren't wired up in quite the same way as the rest of ours are—and that one area particularly affected is the amygdala, a peanut-size structure located right at the center of the circuit board. The amygdala is the brain's emotion-control tower. It polices our emotional airspace and is responsible for the way we feel about things. But in psychopaths, a section of this airspace, the part that corresponds to fear, is empty.

In the light-switch analogy, TMS may be thought of as a dimmer switch. As we process information, our brains generate small electrical signals. These signals not only pass through our nerves to work our muscles but also meander deep within our brains as ephemeral electrical data shoals, creating our thoughts, memories, and feelings. TMS can alter the strength of those signals. By passing an electromagnetic current through precisely targeted areas of the cortex, we can turn the signals either up or down.

Turn down the signals to the amygdala, of course, and you're well on the way to giving someone a psychopath makeover. Indeed, Liane Young and her team in Boston have since kicked things up a notch and demonstrated that applying TMS to the right temporoparietal junction—a neural ZIP code within that neighborhood—has significant effects not just on lying ability but also on moral-reasoning ability: in particular, ascribing intentionality to others' actions.""

Credits: -Kevin Dutton (Excerpt: "Psychopathy's Double Edge," The Chronicle Review, 10/22/2012. Image: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates, "Psycho," directed by Alfred Hitchcock, 1960).

Monday, June 4, 2012

NIGHTMARES: CDC OFFICIAL STATEMENT: "NO ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE", But Yet, The Dead Still Walk The Earth...



“It is a truth universally acknowledged that a zombie in possession of brains must be in want of more brains.”  -Seth Grahame Smith, ( Pride, Prejudice and Zombies).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has issued an official reassurance: no zombie apocalypse.  “CDC does not know of a virus or condition that would reanimate the dead (or one that would present zombie-like symptoms),” agency spokesman David Daigle told The Huffington Post.

Who knows, maybe the CDC statement allayed a few anxieties. I found it downright depressing. That the CDC felt compelled to issue an official denial that the zombie apocalypse was upon us seemed like another discomfiting moment in America’s cultural descent.     
 
All this, of course, was set off by the savage May 26 attack on a homeless man on the MacArthur Causeway and the horrible hospital photos and the overwrought on-line, hit-driven media coverage. And, as “zombie apocalypse” trended to become the second most popular search term on Google, it was as if Americans, some of them anyway, couldn’t be bothered with the intellectual distinction between a very real, brutal tragedy in Miami and the ghoulish zombie fantasies of movies, TV and literature.

“I’ve written quite a bit about the current ‘zombie renaissance,’ but things are starting to go far beyond the ideas I explored in my book,” Kyle Bishop, author of  American Zombie Gothic: The Rise and Fall (and Rise) of the Walking Dead in Popular Culture, told me by e-mail Monday. “I thought we as a culture were simply seeing a renewed and increased interest in monster narratives as a gut-check reaction to 9/11 and the War on Terror.

“Now, however, the zombie has become something much more visceral, something that has taken hold on our collective unconscious. People – many people, probably – think zombies, or something like them, may actually, indeed exist,” Bishop stated.

Elizabeth Bird, a professor of anthropology at the University of Central Florida, sees these reanimated corpses plodding through pop culture as surrogates for the pervasive fears that nag at modern life: pandemic diseases, nuclear destruction, environmental collapse, “the idea that we’re consuming ourselves. If world comes to an end, it will be because we destroyed ourselves.”

Professor Bird said that the CDC probably didn’t help itself last year with a tongue-in-cheek youth-oriented campaign, with ads and buttons and a novella packaged as “a fun new way of teaching the importance of emergency preparedness. Our new graphic novel,  Preparedness 101: Zombie Pandemic demonstrates the importance of being prepared in an entertaining way that people of all ages will enjoy. Readers follow Todd, Julie, and their dog Max as a strange new disease begins spreading, turning ordinary people into zombies.”

The CDC slogan: “If you’re ready for the zombie apocalypse, you’re ready for any emergency.”

I keep wondering what anthropologists, digging through the remnants of our society, will make of us, a thousand years from now. Judging by the content of our most popular books, movies and TV programs, we’ll look like a culture much more obsessed with vampires and zombies, with the occasional werewolf outlier, than, say, religion or philosophy or science.

“I expect anthropologists in the future will find our collective fascination with zombies (and other supernatural monsters) amusing — the wild rantings of a backward and superstitious culture,” ventured Bishop. “Or maybe they’ll be more sympathetic and see how we used our monsters to try to explain our society (and vice versa).”

“I think if future anthropologists were to look back on our culture and try to explain our fascination with monsters they would see a society riven by fears and anxieties of various kinds, including uncertainty about the future, the fear of being victimized by violent crime, and a sense that we live in an atomized culture, each of us separated from everyone else by religion, class, economics, among other things,” said David Schmid of the University of Buffalo, who has written about our pervasive fascination with real monsters in  Natural Born Celebrities: Serial Killers in American Culture. “You might think that our pop culture would be filled with happy-go-lucky tales of escapism that would help alleviate these anxieties, but the opposite is true: Whether it’s Suzanne Collins’  The Hunger Games trilogy, the  Twilight movies, TV series like  True Blood or  The Walking Dead, or this latest incident in Miami, both our pop culture and the media are saturated by violence, more often than not committed by monsters of one kind or another.”

 Schmid suggested via e-mail that all this zombie stuff is supposed to be therapeutic. “Watching TV shows or films, and reading books about monsters give us a safe, manageable way to work through our fears, to remind ourselves that happy endings can still happen.”

He wrote, “In this respect, the reason that the ‘face-eating’ incident has received so much press coverage is that it seems to signal a place where fiction has crossed over into reality.”

 “Even the ironic jokes about ‘The Zombie Apocalypse Starts Now!’ are tinged with a certain unease because our pop cultural monsters can only ever give us a way of processing our fears, not removing them entirely,” Schmid said. “Even if we know our house is secure, that next bump in the night will still make us start!”

Bishop, who teaches, among other courses, fantasy literature at Southern Utah University, said he intends to talk about the Miami incident in Montreal next month. He’s delivering the keynote address at the First (but probably not the last) International Zombie Conference.  

-Fred Grimm ("Fear, Anxiety Drive Zombie Craze", Miami Herald,6.04.12, Image: Dick Cheney, still alive, 2012).

Monday, December 12, 2011

On Physics: Religion, Science & Extra Dimensions

In her new book, Knocking on Heaven's Door, Harvard University theorist Lisa Randall explores how physics may transform our understanding of the fundamental nature of the world. She thinks an extra dimension may exist close to our familiar reality, hidden except for a bizarre sapping of the strength of gravity as we see it. She also ponders the makeup of dark matter, unseen particles that have shaped the growth of the entire cosmos. These ideas, once the sole province of fiction writers, face real tests in a new generation of experiments. Sensitive detectors now sniff for dark matter, while the most complex scientific machine ever created, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), beneath the border of Switzerland and France, smashes subatomic particles into one another at almost the speed of light.

What were your main goals for your new book?

One goal was to describe the science I'm interested in today: the physics happening at the LHC and searches for dark matter. But I also wanted to clarify the nature of science: what it means to be right and wrong, what it means to make measurements, and the roles of uncertainty, risk and creativity.

Do you feel the physics community is on the verge of finding something remarkable?

I certainly hope so. We have a good chance [with the LHC] to see the Higgs particle, which tells us how elementary particles acquire mass. Other deep issues include space-time symmetry and whether there are extra dimensions. We really do have a chance of making inroads on those subjects. There are a lot of bizarre ideas here, from string theory to a "brane" of extra dimensions right next to our own.

Why should we regard these ideas as more than fanciful constructs?

I'm certainly not asking anyone to take on faith any of the ideas that I present. That's part of the point of the book: science proceeds, and we systematically end up with new ideas and explanations, going from the human scales we're very familiar with to scales that are so remote it's hard to have intuition about them. Science is a self-correcting process, too, something that I expect will happen with the recent announcement of neutrinos that may move faster than the speed of light.

Can you describe the essence of your idea about extra dimensions?

There could be more to the universe than the three dimensions we are familiar with. They are hidden from us in some way, perhaps because they're tiny or warped. But even if they're invisible, they could affect what we actually observe in the universe. There are lots of things we cannot see with the naked eye that turn out to be based in reality. Extra dimensions could be relevant to one of the questions we're trying to answer at the LHC: how particles get their mass, and why they have the masses that they do, which are far smaller than physicists would expect them to be. So our idea is there's an extra dimension that's so warped, the masses would be big in one place and small in another. In other words, gravity could be weaker in one place and stronger in another. If so, it could be a natural explanation both for why particles masses are what they are, and why gravity is so much weaker than the other elementary forces we observe. This extra dimension could be separated from ours by a million trillion trillionth of a centimeter.

Is this a parallel yet inaccessible universe?

It interacts with our dimensions only via gravity. And gravity is extremely weak. An elementary particle at ordinary energies exerts negligible gravitational force. But at the LHC, if this idea is right, we would see evidence of this extra dimension. Particles could carry momentum into the extra dimension, and that could actually be observable.

But it's not something you think of as a "parallel universe?"

Technically, yes, it could exist parallel to our universe. But it's not just a carbon copy of our universe, which a lot of people think of when they hear that phrase. If physicists do find solid evidence of extra dimensions, how would that affect our view of the universe and our place in it?
You can have very exotic underlying phenomena, but they still would be consistent with the ordinary rules we're familiar with. At some level, it doesn't change anything. However, it means that at some deep underlying level, there's a much richer universe out there. It's just a wonderful thing to know what our universe is made of.


You describe the LHC as a "stupendous achievement."

Technologically, it's a tour de force. The fact that this thing works is amazing. We're looking for very rare events, so you need a very precise, very well understood machine to make them and detectors to understand what you see. You need an extreme amount of energy focused in a very tiny region to make these collisions happen, allowing the subcomponents of protons—quarks and gluons—to collide directly. And when they do, they can make new forms of heavier matter.Many people feared the LHC would produce a planet-devouring black hole. Scientists took it very seriously, and they ruled out this possibility not only theoretically, but also by looking at collisions of cosmic rays that create this same type of energy. We live in a world where there are many risks, and it's high time we start taking seriously which ones we should be worried about. Physicists showed this particular one is not a risk.

You offer a forthright discussion about religion and its compatibility with science. Why did you decide to broach that subject?

I almost had to in a book titled Knocking on Heaven's Door. But there is real confusion about what it means to be right and wrong—the difference between what spiritual beliefs are and what science is. I felt that if I was going to explain science, it was important to explain those distinctions. I wanted to take seriously the different views of the universe that people have, but to say there really are differences.

You wrote: "The religious part of your brain cannot act at the same time as the scientific one. They are simply incompatible.”

When I say they are incompatible, I mean something very specific: A spiritual belief based on something that isn't based on actual material or cause and effect—the ways we understand scientifically—is just different than science. It's a very specific statement.

When you speak to public audiences, which popular misconception about physics strikes you the most?

You're trying to get me in trouble! It's probably the over-application of quantum mechanics. People think it explains things that it can't. There are a lot of mysteries about quantum mechanics, but they mostly arise in very detailed measurements in controlled settings.

You describe the LHC's giant detectors as works of art. Is probing the nature of the universe just as much an aesthetic endeavor as a scientific one?

Art and science do appeal to some of the same creative instincts. There's an appreciation of something larger than ourselves, which I think both art and science address. However, you can have a beautiful idea in science, and it can be just wrong—not because it's mathematically inconsistent, but because it's not realized in the world.

-Robert Irion (“Opening Strange Portals in Physics,” Smithsonian magazine, September 2011. Image from The Twilight Zone, Spiral Staircase.)

Thursday, December 8, 2011

BIOLOGY: Lynn Margulis & Symbiosis In Cell Evolution

Evolution is no linear family tree, but change in the single multidimensional being that has grown to cover the entire surface of Earth.” -Lynn Margulis, What Is Life?   

Biologist Lynn Margulis died on November 22nd. She stood out from her colleagues in that she would have extended evolutionary studies nearly four billion years back in time. Her major work was  in cell evolution, in which the great event was the appearance of the eukaryotic, or nucleated, cell — the cell upon which all larger life-forms are based. Nearly forty-five years ago, she argued for its symbiotic origin: that it arose by associations of different kinds of bacteria. Her ideas were generally either ignored or ridiculed when she first proposed them; symbiosis in cell evolution is now considered one of the great scientific breakthroughs.

Margulis was also a champion of the Gaia hypothesis, an idea developed in the 1970s by the free lance British atmospheric chemist James E. Lovelock. The Gaia hypothesis states that the atmosphere and surface sediments of the planet Earth form a self- regulating physiological system — Earth's surface is alive. The strong version of the hypothesis, which has been widely criticized by the biological establishment, holds that the earth itself is a self-regulating organism; Margulis subscribed to a weaker version, seeing the planet as an integrated self- regulating ecosystem. She was criticized for succumbing to what George Williams called the "God-is good" syndrome, as evidenced by her adoption of metaphors of symbiosis in nature. She was, in turn, an outspoken critic of mainstream evolutionary biologists for what she saw as a failure to adequately consider the importance of chemistry and microbiology in evolution.

As I wrote in the introduction to the first part of the book (Part I: The Evolutionary Idea: "The principal debates are concerned with the mechanism of speciation; whether natural selection operates at the level of the gene, the organism, or the species, or all three; and also with the relative importance of other factors, such as natural catastrophes." These very public debates were concerned with ideas represented by George C. Williams and Richard Dawkins on one side and Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge on the other side. Not for Lynn Margulis, all the above scientists were wrong because evolutionary studies needed to begin four billion years back in time. And she was not shy about expressing her opinions. Her in-your-face, take-no-prisoners stance was pugnacious and tenacious. She was impossible. She was wonderful.
 
- John Brockman ("Lynn Margulis 1938-2011, Gaia Is A Tough Bitch:" The Edge, 11.23.2011. Image: Artist rendering of cell structure, 2010.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

A Global Consciousness Project: The Machine That Could Tell The Future

"The past is but the past of a beginning." -H. G. Wells 

DEEP in the basement of a dusty university library in Edinburgh lies a small black box, roughly the size of two cigarette packets side by side, that churns out random numbers in an endless stream.  At first glance it is an unremarkable piece of equipment. Encased in metal, it contains at its heart a microchip no more complex than the ones found in modern pocket calculators.  But, according to a growing band of top scientists, this box has quite extraordinary powers. It is, they claim, the ‘eye’ of a machine that appears capable of peering into the future and predicting major world events.

The machine apparently sensed the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre four hours before they happened – but in the fevered mood of conspiracy theories of the time, the claims were swiftly knocked back by sceptics. But last December, it also appeared to forewarn of the Asian tsunami just before the deep sea earthquake that precipitated the epic tragedy.

Now, even the doubters are acknowledging that here is a small box with apparently inexplicable powers.

‘It’s Earth-shattering stuff,’ says Dr Roger Nelson, emeritus researcher at Princeton University in the United States, who is heading the research project behind the ‘black box’ phenomenon.

‘We’re very early on in the process of trying to figure out what’s going on here. At the moment we’re stabbing in the dark.’ Dr Nelson’s investigations, called the Global Consciousness Project, were originally hosted by Princeton University and are centred on one of the most extraordinary experiments of all time. Its aim is to detect whether all of humanity shares a single subconscious mind that we can all tap into without realising.  And machines like the Edinburgh black box have thrown up a tantalising possibility: that scientists may have unwittingly discovered a way of predicting the future.

Although many would consider the project’s aims to be little more than fools’ gold, it has still attracted a roster of 75 respected scientists from 41 different nations. Researchers from Princeton – where Einstein spent much of his career – work alongside scientists from universities in Britain, the Netherlands, Switzerland and Germany. The project is also the most rigorous and longest-running investigation ever into the potential powers of the paranormal.

‘Very often paranormal phenomena evaporate if you study them for long enough,’ says physicist Dick Bierman of the University of Amsterdam. ‘But this is not happening with the Global Consciousness Project. The effect is real. The only dispute is about what it means.’ The project has its roots in the extraordinary work of Professor Robert Jahn of Princeton University during the late 1970s. He was one of the first modern scientists to take paranormal phenomena seriously. Intrigued by such things as telepathy, telekinesis – the supposed psychic power to move objects without the use of physical force – and extrasensory perception, he was determined to study the phenomena using the most up-to-date technology available.

One of these new technologies was a humble-looking black box known was a Random Event Generator (REG). This used computer technology to generate two numbers – a one and a zero – in a totally random sequence, rather like an electronic coin-flipper.

The pattern of ones and noughts – ‘heads’ and ‘tails’ as it were – could then be printed out as a graph. The laws of chance dictate that the generators should churn out equal numbers of ones and zeros – which would be represented by a nearly flat line on the graph. Any deviation from this equal number shows up as a gently rising curve.

During the late 1970s, Prof. Jahn decided to investigate whether the power of human thought alone could interfere in some way with the machine’s usual readings. He hauled strangers off the street and asked them to concentrate their minds on his number generator. In effect, he was asking them to try to make it flip more heads than tails.

It was a preposterous idea at the time. The results, however, were stunning and have never been satisfactorily explained.  Again and again, entirely ordinary people proved that their minds could influence the machine and produce significant fluctuations on the graph, ‘forcing it’ to produce unequal numbers of ‘heads’ or ‘tails’.  According to all of the known laws of science, this should not have happened – but it did. And it kept on happening.

Dr. Nelson, also working at Princeton University, then extended Prof Jahn’s work by taking random number machines to group meditations, which were very popular in America at the time. Again, the results were eye-popping. The groups were collectively able to cause dramatic shifts in the patterns of numbers.

From then on, Dr Nelson was hooked.

Using the internet, he connected up 40 random event generators from all over the world to his laboratory computer in Princeton. These ran constantly, day in day out, generating millions of different pieces of data. Most of the time, the resulting graph on his computer looked more or less like a flat line. But then on September 6, 1997, something quite extraordinary happened: the graph shot upwards, recording a sudden and massive shift in the number sequence as his machines around the world started reporting huge deviations from the norm. The day was of historic importance for another reason, too. For it was the same day that an estimated one billion people around the world watched the funeral of Diana, Princess of Wales at Westminster Abbey.

Dr Nelson was convinced that the two events must be related in some way. Could he have detected a totally new phenomena? Could the concentrated emotional outpouring of millions of people be able to influence the output of his REGs. If so, how?  Dr Nelson was at a loss to explain it.

So, in 1998, he gathered together scientists from all over the world to analyse his findings. They, too, were stumped and resolved to extend and deepen the work of Prof Jahn and Dr Nelson. The Global Consciousness Project was born.

Since then, the project has expanded massively. A total of 65 Eggs (as the generators have been named) in 41 countries have now been recruited to act as the ‘eyes’ of the project. And the results have been startling and inexplicable in equal measure. For during the course of the experiment, the Eggs have ‘sensed’ a whole series of major world events as they were happening, from the Nato bombing of Yugoslavia to the Kursk submarine tragedy to America’s hung election of 2000. The Eggs also regularly detect huge global celebrations, such as New Year’s Eve.

But the project threw up its greatest enigma on September 11, 2001. As the world stood still and watched the horror of the terrorist attacks unfold across New York, something strange was happening to the Eggs. Not only had they registered the attacks as they actually happened, but the characteristic shift in the pattern of numbers had begun four hours before the two planes even hit the Twin Towers.

They had, it appeared, detected that an event of historic importance was about to take place before the terrorists had even boarded their fateful flights. The implications, not least for the West’s security services who constantly monitor electronic ‘chatter’, are clearly enormous.

‘I knew then that we had a great deal of work ahead of us,’ says Dr Nelson. What could be happening? Was it a freak occurrence, perhaps? Apparently not. For in the closing weeks of December last year, the machines went wild once more.

Twenty-four hours later, an earthquake deep beneath the Indian Ocean triggered the tsunami which devastated South-East Asia, and claimed the lives of an estimated quarter of a million people.

So could the Global Consciousness Project really be forecasting the future?

Cynics will quite rightly point out that there is always some global event that could be used to ‘explain’ the times when the Egg machines behaved erratically. After all, our world is full of wars, disasters and terrorist outrages, as well as the occasional global celebration. Are the scientists simply trying too hard to detect patterns in their raw data? The team behind the project insist not. They claim that by using rigorous scientific techniques and powerful mathematics it is possible to exclude any such random connections.

‘We’re perfectly willing to discover that we’ve made mistakes,’ says Dr Nelson. ‘But we haven’t been able to find any, and neither has anyone else. Our data shows clearly that the chances of getting these results by fluke are one million to one against. That’s hugely significant.’ But many remain sceptical.

Professor Chris French, a psychologist and noted sceptic at Goldsmiths College in London, says: ‘The Global Consciousness Project has generated some very intriguing results that cannot be readily dismissed. I’m involved in similar work to see if we get the same results. We haven’t managed to do so yet but it’s only an early experiment. The jury’s still out.’ Strange as it may seem, though, there’s nothing in the laws of physics that precludes the possibility of foreseeing the future.

It is possible – in theory – that time may not just move forwards but backwards, too. And if time ebbs and flows like the tides in the sea, it might just be possible to foretell major world events. We would, in effect, be ‘remembering’ things that had taken place in our future. ‘There’s plenty of evidence that time may run backwards,’ says Prof Bierman at the University of Amsterdam.

‘And if it’s possible for it to happen in physics, then it can happen in our minds, too.’ In other words, Prof Bierman believes that we are all capable of looking into the future, if only we could tap into the hidden power of our minds. And there is a tantalizing body of evidence to support this theory.

Dr John Hartwell, working at the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, was the first to uncover evidence that people could sense the future. In the mid-1970s he hooked people up to hospital scanning machines so that he could study their brainwave patterns.

He began by showing them a sequence of provocative cartoon drawings. When the pictures were shown, the machines registered the subject’s brainwaves as they reacted strongly to the images before them. This was to be expected. Far less easy to explain was the fact that in many cases, these dramatic patterns began to register a few seconds before each of the pictures were even flashed up.

It was as though Dr Hartwell’s case studies were somehow seeing into the future, and detecting when the next shocking image would be shown next. It was extraordinary – and seemingly inexplicable.

But it was to be another 15 years before anyone else took Dr Hartwell’s work further when Dean Radin, a researcher working in America, connected people up to a machine that measured their skin’s resistance to electricity. This is known to fluctuate in tandem with our moods – indeed, it’s this principle that underlies many lie detectors.  Radin repeated Dr Hartwell’s ‘image response’ experiments while measuring skin resistance. Again, people began reacting a few seconds before they were shown the provocative pictures. This was clearly impossible, or so he thought, so he kept on repeating the experiments. And he kept getting the same results.

‘I didn’t believe it either,’ says Prof Bierman. ‘So I also repeated the experiment myself and got the same results. I was shocked. After this I started to think more deeply about the nature of time.’ To make matters even more intriguing, Prof Bierman says that other mainstream labs have now produced similar results but are yet to go public.

‘They don’t want to be ridiculed so they won’t release their findings,’ he says. ‘So I’m trying to persuade all of them to release their results at the same time. That would at least spread the ridicule a little more thinly!’ If Prof. Bierman is right, though, then the experiments are no laughing matter.

They might help provide a solid scientific grounding for such strange phenomena as ‘deja vu’, intuition and a host of other curiosities that we have all experienced from time to time. They may also open up a far more interesting possibility – that one day we might be able to enhance psychic powers using machines that can ‘tune in’ to our subconscious mind, machines like the little black box in Edinburgh.

Just as we have built mechanical engines to replace muscle power, could we one day build a device to enhance and interpret our hidden psychic abilities?  Dr Nelson is optimistic – but not for the short term. ‘We may be able to predict that a major world event is going to happen. But we won’t know exactly what will happen or where it’s going to happen,’ he says.

‘Put it this way – we haven’t yet got a machine we could sell to the CIA.’ But for Dr Nelson, talk of such psychic machines – with the potential to detect global catastrophes or terrorist outrages – is of far less importance than the implications of his work in terms of the human race.

For what his experiments appear to demonstrate is that while we may all operate as individuals, we also appear to share something far, far greater – a global consciousness. Some might call it the mind of God. ‘We’re taught to be individualistic monsters,’ he says. ‘We’re driven by society to separate ourselves from each other. That’s not right. We may be connected together far more intimately than we realise.’

Source: Daily Mail; London (UK), 2010.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Bertrand Russell: On God - "Knowledge, Kindliness & Courage"...

video
 EXCERPT – “Why I am not a Christian:”

The Emotional Factor

“As I said before, I do not think that the real reason why people accept religion has anything to do with argumentation. They accept religion on emotional grounds. One is often told that it is a very wrong thing to attack religion, because religion makes men virtuous. So I am told; I have not noticed it. You know, of course, the parody of that argument in Samuel Butler's book, Erewhon Revisited. You will remember that in Erewhon there is a certain Higgs who arrives in a remote country, and after spending some time there he escapes from that country in a balloon. Twenty years later he comes back to that country and finds a new religion in which he is worshiped under the name of the "Sun Child," and it is said that he ascended into heaven. He finds that the Feast of the Ascension is about to be celebrated, and he hears Professors Hanky and Panky say to each other that they never set eyes on the man Higgs, and they hope they never will; but they are the high priests of the religion of the Sun Child. He is very indignant, and he comes up to them, and he says, "I am going to expose all this humbug and tell the people of Erewhon that it was only I, the man Higgs, and I went up in a balloon." He was told, "You must not do that, because all the morals of this country are bound round this myth, and if they once know that you did not ascend into Heaven they will all become wicked"; and so he is persuaded of that and he goes quietly away.

 That is the idea -- that we should all be wicked if we did not hold to the Christian religion. It seems to me that the people who have held to it have been for the most part extremely wicked. You find this curious fact, that the more intense has been the religion of any period and the more profound has been the dogmatic belief, the greater has been the cruelty and the worse has been the state of affairs. In the so-called ages of faith, when men really did believe the Christian religion in all its completeness, there was the Inquisition, with all its tortures; there were millions of unfortunate women burned as witches; and there was every kind of cruelty practiced upon all sorts of people in the name of religion.

 You find as you look around the world that every single bit of progress in humane feeling, every improvement in the criminal law, every step toward the diminution of war, every step toward better treatment of the colored races, or every mitigation of slavery, every moral progress that there has been in the world, has been consistently opposed by the organized churches of the world. I say quite deliberately that the Christian religion, as organized in its churches, has been and still is the principal enemy of moral progress in the world."

Fear, the Foundation of Religion

"Religion is based, I think, primarily and mainly upon fear. It is partly the terror of the unknown and partly, as I have said, the wish to feel that you have a kind of elder brother who will stand by you in all your troubles and disputes. Fear is the basis of the whole thing -- fear of the mysterious, fear of defeat, fear of death. Fear is the parent of cruelty, and therefore it is no wonder if cruelty and religion have gone hand in hand. It is because fear is at the basis of those two things. In this world we can now begin a little to understand things, and a little to master them by help of science, which has forced its way step by step against the Christian religion, against the churches, and against the opposition of all the old precepts. Science can help us to get over this craven fear in which mankind has lived for so many generations. Science can teach us, and I think our own hearts can teach us, no longer to look around for imaginary supports, no longer to invent allies in the sky, but rather to look to our own efforts here below to make this world a better place to live in, instead of the sort of place that the churches in all these centuries have made it."
 
What We Must Do

"We want to stand upon our own feet and look fair and square at the world -- its good facts, its bad facts, its beauties, and its ugliness; see the world as it is and be not afraid of it. Conquer the world by intelligence and not merely by being slavishly subdued by the terror that comes from it. The whole conception of God is a conception derived from the ancient Oriental despotisms. It is a conception quite unworthy of free men. When you hear people in church debasing themselves and saying that they are miserable sinners, and all the rest of it, it seems contemptible and not worthy of self-respecting human beings. We ought to stand up and look the world frankly in the face. We ought to make the best we can of the world, and if it is not so good as we wish, after all it will still be better than what these others have made of it in all these ages. A good world needs knowledge, kindliness, and courage; it does not need a regretful hankering after the past or a fettering of the free intelligence by the words uttered long ago by ignorant men. It needs a fearless outlook and a free intelligence. It needs hope for the future, not looking back all the time toward a past that is dead, which we trust will be far surpassed by the future that our intelligence can create. “

-Bertrand Russell (EXCERPT: “Why I am not a Christian”,  Russell delivered this lecture on March 6, 1927 to the National Secular Society, South London Branch, at Battersea Town Hall. Published in pamphlet form in that same year, the essay subsequently achieved new fame with Paul Edwards' edition of Russell's book, Why I Am Not a Christian and Other Essays, 1957. VIDEO INTERVIEW: Bertrand Russell, 1959).

Thursday, November 10, 2011

CONVERSATIONS: Samuel Johnson: Dying Easy & Supernatural Interposition...


”A man may be so much of everything that he is nothing of anything.”  -Samuel Johnson

A CONVERSATION: between Samuel Johnson & James Boswell, 1778:

Boswell: We must be contented to acknowledge that death is a terrible thing.

Johnson: Yes, sir. I have made no approaches to a state which can look on it as not terrible.                                                   Mrs. Knowles: Does not St. Paul say, “I have fought the good fight of faith, I have finished my course; henceforth is laid up for me a crown of life”?
 
 

Johnson: Yes, madam, but here was a man inspired, a man who had been converted by supernatural interposition.

Boswell: In prospect death is dreadful, but in fact we find that people die easy.

Johnson: Why, sir, most people have not thought much of the matter, so cannot say much, and it is supposed they die easy. Few believe it certain they are then to die, and those who do set themselves to behave with resolution, as a man does who is going to be hanged—he is not the less unwilling to be hanged.

Ms. Seward: There is one mode of the fear of death, which is certainly absurd: and that is the dread of annihilation, which is only a pleasing sleep without a dream.

Johnson: It is neither pleasing, nor sleep; it is nothing. Now mere existence is so much better than nothing that one would rather exist, even in pain, than not exist.

Boswell: If annihilation be nothing, then existing in pain is not a comparative state, but is a positive evil which I cannot think we should choose. I must be allowed to differ here, and it would lessen the hope of a future state founded on the argument that the Supreme Being, who is good as he is great, will hereafter compensate for our present sufferings in this life. For if existence, such as we have it here, be comparatively a good, we have no reason to complain, though no more of it should be given to us. But if our only state of existence were in this world, then we might with some reason complain that we are so dissatisfied with our enjoyments compared with our desires.

Johnson: The lady confounds annihilation, which is nothing, with the apprehension of it, which is dreadful. It is in the apprehension of it that the horror of annihilation consists.

 CREDITS:

- Samuel Johnson & James Boswell, 1778 / London, ( “ A Conversation: The Dying Is Easy ,” Lapham’s Quarterly. Image: Unknown, Woman visited by Death ).
                           
NOTE: James Boswell, from Life of Johnson. Arriving in London from Edinburgh in 1762, Boswell, then in his early twenties, soon met and befriended Samuel Johnson, who was a prominent essayist, poet, and lexicographer in his fifties. Boswell’s account of Johnson and his own journals, the latter only rediscovered in the twentieth century, form his unique contribution to the world of letters. His Life was published in two volumes in 1791, seven years after its subject had died at the age of seventy-five.