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"...

 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.


- 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.

Monday, October 31, 2011

DISCOVERED: Bram Stoker's Private Diary

“Despair has its own calms.”  -Bram Stoker.

“I have learned not to think little of any one's belief, no matter how strange it may be. I have tried to keep an open mind, and it is not the ordinary things of life that could close it, but the strange things, the extraordinary things, the things that make one doubt if they be mad or sane.” - Bram Stoker.

THE private journal of Dracula creator Bram Stoker has been found after  lying undiscovered on his great-grandson's bookshelf in England, it emerged today. Stoker recorded his thoughts about his legendary character and other stories in the thin, unmarked book.

It had been passed down by his ancestors for more than a century before arriving in Noel Dobbs' home on the Isle of Wight.

Providing a snapshot of Dublin between 1871 and 1881, as well as a window on the life of the very private Stoker, the notebook was found by the author's great-grandson, Noel Dobbs. Dobbs sent photographs of pages from the book to his relative, Stoker's great-grandnephew Dacre Stoker  author of the recent novel Dracula: The Un-Dead, and Stoker has worked to decipher his ancestor's "terrible" handwriting with Dr Elizabeth Miller of the Transylvanian Society of Dracula. The Lost Journal, complete with annotations, is now lined up for publication by Robson Press next year, marking the centenary of Bram Stoker's death in 1912.

The 100-odd-page notebook covers the period when Stoker was a student at Trinity College in Dublin and a clerk at Dublin Castle, written in a clear precursor to the journalistic style of Dracula and containing the author's earliest attempts at poetry and prose. "There are some definite parallels between this notebook and Jonathan Harker's journal, and certain entries from Bram's notebook actually resurfaced twentysomething years later in Dracula.  Because he wrote little about himself, Dracula fans and Stoker scholars have largely been free to speculate about Bram. Rumours and myths have taken on a life of their own. Now, with this chapter of Bram's life revealed, the rest of his life will be more accurately interpreted," said Dacre Stoker.

'It's kind of incredible, but Noel was rather blasé about it,' said Dacre. 'When I saw it, I was amazed. 'I thought, 'The Holy Grail! We've found it!'

 'There is so little written by Bram about Bram. Family, scholars and hard-core fans -- so many people have wanted to know what made the man who wrote 'Dracula' tick. And here we had a major set of clues.'

His book, 'The Lost Journal,' will be published next March to mark 100 years since the author died in April 1912.

Dacre Stoker has worked with Bram Stoker scholars to annotate the journal which the author began in 1871 when he was in his early 20s. It would be more than a decade before the author learned about the primary inspiration for his Count Dracula, 'Vlad the Impaler.'

The last entry of Stoker's journal in 1881 hints at a major character he would use in Dracula, a man who  was driven to eat living things including flies.

Another entry reads "A man builds up a shadow on a wall bit by bit by adding to substance. Suddenly the shadow becomes alive", and would later become the kernel for Stoker's story The Shadow Builder. A note reading "'Palace of Fairy Queen. Child goes to sleep & palace grows – sky changes into blue silk curtains" foreshadows Stoker's frequent use of dreaming children in stories including Lies and Lilies and The Wondrous Child.

Stoker died before his Count Dracula became internationally famous when Bela Lugosi played him as a suave nobleman in the 1930s film. But in true Bram Stoker style, he left behind one more mystery. In one of his books, the author alludes to another diary which is not the notes found in the Isle of Wight.

'There's something else out there - that missing piece, this mystery diary,' Stoker said. 'I'm dying to know where it is.'”

( "It's the Holy Grail': Private journal of Dracula's creator Bram Stoker found on relative's bookshelf on the Isle of Wight", 10/31/2011. Image: Book cover for Bram Stoker's Dracula, Penguin Classics.).


Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Anonymous Speaks: Operation Bohemian Grove, 7.13. 2011: "Fools! Fools! Fools To Dream You Conquer Care..."


"Weaving soldiers come not here." -  On Bohemian Grove Logo. 

The hackers’ collective Anonymous may have  obtained “literally explosive” information concerning Bohemian Grove, an annual  gathering of power brokers from the US and Europe set to meet this week in  California, which many see as a nefarious avenue through which elitists secretly manipulate world affairs.

Bohemian Grove is a privately owned 2,700 acre  compound in Monte Rio, California surrounded by giant old-growth redwood trees.  Once a year it plays host to a bizarre confab attended by some of the most  powerful people in the world, including many US politicians and government  officials, during which participants embroil themselves in a heady mixture of  plutocratic plotting and occult pagan ritual ceremonies.

The Anonymous hacking group, which has already  announced its intention to occupy the entrance to the Bohemian Grove compound as  a protest against the group’s secrecy, may also be about to leak a whole  treasure trove of information about the organization as part of what has been  dubbed “the biggest day in Anonymous’s history”.

As part of a series of hacks conducted to protest  the treatment of Wikileaks founder Julian Assange, to whom Anonymous has  attached itself, the collective says it is about to unleash “literally  explosive” material on a number of organizations, including the London  Metropolitan Police and other agencies connected to the UK judicial system.

The hacks are timed to coincide with Assange’s  appeal hearing against extradition, which begins today.

“Speculation centres around material claimed to  have been obtained last week from contractors relating to security and secrecy  of “former world leaders”, or plans to target a senior leaders’ retreat at  Bohemian Grove, California,” write  the Guardian’s James Ball and Charles Arthur

Former Secretaries of State George Shultz and  James Baker are set to give lakeside talks at the event this year, which begins  Friday and runs for the next two weeks. But the details of what they say will  not be covered by any media outlet, the meeting is secret and any uninvited  guests are hastily dealt with by security guards and police.

Alex Jones became the first journalist to capture on video  the ‘Cremation of Care’ ceremony, where Grove members dressed in "Eyes Wide Shut" style hooded capes make a mock child sacrifice to Moloch, the pagan owl god,  represented as a 50-foot statue carved out of a hollowed redwood tree.

Presidents Nixon and Reagan  both attended the elitist get-together before they captured the Oval Office.  George  W. Bush was also introduced to Grove power brokers in 1995 by his father  five years before becoming President.

Nixon infamously later described the encampment as  the “most faggy  goddamned thing you could ever imagine,perhaps in reference to the fact  that male prostitutes and porn stars are routinely transported to the facility  to “serve the moguls,” as  the New York Post reported in 2004. Few women are allowed to work at the  camp and those that do are prevented from accessing many areas of the site.  Young men of high school and college age make up most of the temporary employees  hired by Grove organizers.

Although the establishment media routinely claims  the event is little more than a holiday camp, in  1942 it was the setting for the birthplace of the Manhattan Project which  led to the creation of the atomic bomb, a story often retold by Grove members  who are proud of the fact that the most important scientific development of the  20th century was conceived there.


-Paul Joseph Watson ( "Anonymous Could Unleash “Literally Explosive” Material on Bohemian Grove," Prison, 7-12-2011.
 Image: The Bohemian Grove Deity - "Moloch" : Moloch was one  of the false gods that Israel would worship during its periods of apostasy.  This false deity is associated with Ammon in 1 Kings 11:7 "Then Solomon  built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain  which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech the detestable idol of the sons of  Ammon." One of the practices of the cult that worshiped Moloch was to sacrifice their children.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Genuflecting Before the God of Science: Nuclear Detonation Map: 1945-1998

“The optimist thinks this is the best of all possible worlds. The pessimist fears it is true.” -J. Robert Oppenheimer

"The 2053 nuclear tests and explosions that took place between 1945 and 1998 are plotted visually and audibly on a world map. As the video starts out detonations are few and far between. The first three detonations represent the Manhattan Project and the two bombs that ended World War II. After a few representative minutes the USSR and Britain enter the nuclear club and the testing really starts to heat up.


Sunday, June 12, 2011

The Chronic & Meaningful Confabulations of The Artist....

“Great liars are also great magicians" -Adolf Hitler

"Shortly before his death, Marlon Brando was working on a series of instructional videos about acting, to be called “Lying for a Living”. On the surviving footage, Brando can be seen dispensing gnomic advice on his craft to a group of enthusiastic, if somewhat bemused, Hollywood stars, including Leonardo Di Caprio and Sean Penn. Brando also recruited random people from the Los Angeles street and persuaded them to improvise (the footage is said to include a memorable scene featuring two dwarves and a giant Samoan). “If you can lie, you can act,” Brando told Jod Kaftan, a writer for Rolling Stone and one of the few people to have viewed the footage. “Are you good at lying?” asked Kaftan. “Jesus,” said Brando, “I’m fabulous at it.”

Brando was not the first person to note that the line between an artist and a liar is a fine one. If art is a kind of lying, then lying is a form of art, albeit of a lower order—as Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain have observed. Both liars and artists refuse to accept the tyranny of reality. Both carefully craft stories that are worthy of belief—a skill requiring intellectual sophistication, emotional sensitivity and physical self-control (liars are writers and performers of their own work). Such parallels are hardly coincidental, as I discovered while researching my book on lying. Indeed, lying and artistic storytelling spring from a common neurological root—one that is exposed in the cases of psychiatric patients who suffer from a particular kind of impairment.

A case study published in 1985 by Antonio Damasio, a neurologist, tells the story of a middle-aged woman with brain damage caused by a series of strokes. She retained cognitive abilities, including coherent speech, but what she actually said was rather unpredictable. Checking her knowledge of contemporary events, Damasio asked her about the Falklands War. This patient spontaneously described a blissful holiday she had taken in the islands, involving long strolls with her husband and the purchase of local trinkets from a shop. Asked what language was spoken there, she replied, “Falklandese. What else?”

In the language of psychiatry, this woman was ‘confabulating’. Chronic confabulation is a rare type of memory problem that affects a small proportion of brain-damaged people. In the literature it is defined as “the production of fabricated, distorted or misinterpreted memories about oneself or the world, without the conscious intention to deceive”. Whereas amnesiacs make errors of omission—there are gaps in their recollections they find impossible to fill—confabulators make errors of commission: they make things up. Rather than forgetting, they are inventing.

Confabulating patients are nearly always oblivious to their own condition, and will earnestly give absurdly implausible explanations of why they’re in hospital, or talking to a doctor. One patient, asked about his surgical scar, explained that during the second world war he surprised a teenage girl who shot him three times in the head, killing him, only for surgery to bring him back to life. The same patient, when asked about his family, described how at various times they had died in his arms, or had been killed before his eyes. Others tell yet more fantastical tales, about trips to the moon, fighting alongside Alexander in India or seeing Jesus on the Cross. Confabulators aren’t out to deceive. They engage in what Morris Moscovitch, a neuropsychologist, calls “honest lying”. Uncertain, and obscurely distressed by their uncertainty, they are seized by a “compulsion to narrate”: a deep-seated need to shape, order and explain what they do not understand.

As with the woman who told of her holiday in the Falklands, the stories spun by chronic confabulators are conjured up instantaneously—an interlocutor only has to ask a question, or say a particular word, and they’re off, like a jazz saxophonist using a phrase thrown out by his pianist as the start of his solo. A patient might explain to her visiting friend that she’s in hospital because she now works as a psychiatrist, that the man standing next to her (the real doctor) is her assistant, and they are about to visit a patient. Chronic confabulators are often highly inventive at the verbal level, jamming together words in nonsensical but suggestive ways: one patient, when asked what happened to Queen Marie Antoinette of France, answered that she had been “suicided” by her family. In a sense, these patients are like novelists, as described by Henry James: people on whom “nothing is wasted”. Unlike writers, however, they have little or no control over their own material.

Chronic confabulation is usually associated with damage to the brain’s frontal lobes, particularly the region responsible for self-regulation and self-censoring. Of course we all are sensitive to associations—hear the word “scar” and you too might think about war wounds, old movies or tales of near-death experiences. But rarely do we let these random thoughts reach consciousness, and fewer still would ever articulate them. We self-censor for the sake of truth, sense and social appropriateness. Chronic confabulators can’t do this. They randomly combine real memories with stray thoughts, wishes and hopes, and summon up a story from the confusion.

The wider significance of this condition is what it tells us about ourselves. Evidently there is a gushing river of verbal creativity in the normal human mind, from which both artistic invention and lying are drawn. We are born storytellers, spinning narrative out of our experience and imagination, straining against the leash that keeps us tethered to reality. This is a wonderful thing; it is what gives us our ability to conceive of alternative futures and different worlds. And it helps us to understand our own lives through the entertaining stories of others. But it can lead us into trouble, particularly when we try to persuade others that our inventions are real. Most of the time, as our stories bubble up to consciousness, we exercise our cerebral censors, controlling which stories we tell, and to whom. Yet people lie for all sorts of reasons, including the fact that confabulating can be dangerously fun.

During a now-famous libel case in 1996, Jonathan Aitken, a former cabinet minister, recounted a tale to illustrate the horrors he endured after a national newspaper tainted his name. He told of how, on leaving his home in Westminster one morning with his teenage daughter, he found himself ‘stampeded’ by a documentary crew. Upset and scared by the crew’s aggressive behaviour, his daughter burst into tears, he said, and Aitken bundled her into his ministerial car. But as they drove away he realised that they were being followed by the journalists in their van. A hair-raising chase across central London ensued. The journalists were only shaken off when Aitken executed a cunning deception: he stopped at the Spanish embassy and swapped vehicles.

The case, which stretched on for more than two years, involved a series of claims made by the Guardian about Aitken’s relationships with Saudi arms dealers, including meetings he allegedly held with them on a trip to Paris while he was a government minister. What amazed many in hindsight was the sheer superfluity of the lies Aitken told during his testimony. Some were necessary to maintain his original lie, but others were told, it appeared, for the sheer thrill of invention. As Aitken stood at the witness stand and piled lie upon lie—apparently carried away by the improvisatory act of creativity—it’s possible that he felt similar to Brando during one of his performances. Aitken’s case collapsed in June 1997, when the defense finally found indisputable evidence about his Paris trip. Until then, Aitken’s charm, fluency and flair for theatrical displays of sincerity looked as if they might bring him victory. The first big dent in his façade came just days before, when a documentary crew submitted the unedited rushes of their “stampede” encounter with Aitken outside his home. They revealed that not only was Aitken’s daughter not with him that day (when he was indeed doorstepped), but also that the minister had simply got into his car and drove off, with no vehicle in pursuit.

Of course, unlike Aitken, actors, playwrights and novelists are not literally attempting to deceive us, because the rules are laid out in advance: come to the theatre, or open this book, and we’ll lie to you. Perhaps this is why we felt it necessary to invent art in the first place: as a safe space into which our lies can be corralled, and channelled into something socially useful. Given the universal compulsion to tell stories, art is the best way to refine and enjoy the particularly outlandish or insightful ones. But that is not the whole story. The key way in which artistic “lies” differ from normal lies, and from the “honest lying” of chronic confabulators, is that they have a meaning and resonance beyond their creator. The liar lies on behalf of himself; the artist tell lies on behalf of everyone. If writers have a compulsion to narrate, they compel themselves to find insights about the human condition. Mario Vargas Llosa has written that novels “express a curious truth that can only be expressed in a furtive and veiled fashion, masquerading as what it is not”. Art is a lie whose secret ingredient is truth."

-Ian Leslie ("Are Artists Liars", More Intelligent Life Magazine, 5-24-2011). Image: Marlon Brando in "Apocalypse Now", directed by Francis Ford Coppola, 1979.

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

A REVOLUTION: The Birth Of Religion: An Urge to Worship Sparked Civilization...Not Agriculture...

We used to think agriculture gave rise to cities and later to writing, art, and religion. Now the world’s oldest temple suggests the urge to worship sparked civilization."

"Dozens of massive stone pillars arranged into a set of rings, one mashed up against the next. Known as  (pronounced Guh-behk-LEE TEH-peh), the site is vaguely reminiscent of Stonehenge, except that Göbekli Tepe was built much earlier and is made not from roughly hewn blocks but from cleanly carved limestone pillars splashed with bas-reliefs of animals—a cavalcade of gazelles, snakes, foxes, scorpions, and ferocious wild boars. The assemblage was built some 11,600 years ago, seven millennia before the Great Pyramid of Giza. It contains the oldest known temple. Indeed, Göbekli Tepe is the oldest known example of monumental architecture—the first structure human beings put together that was bigger and more complicated than a hut. When these pillars were erected, so far as we know, nothing of comparable scale existed in the world.

At the time of Göbekli Tepe's construction much of the human race lived in small nomadic bands that survived by foraging for plants and hunting wild animals. Construction of the site would have required more people coming together in one place than had likely occurred before. Amazingly, the temple's builders were able to cut, shape, and transport 16-ton stones hundreds of feet despite having no wheels or beasts of burden. The pilgrims who came to Göbekli Tepe lived in a world without writing, metal, or pottery; to those approaching the temple from below, its pillars must have loomed overhead like rigid giants, the animals on the stones shivering in the firelight—emissaries from a spiritual world that the human mind may have only begun to envision.

Archaeologists are still excavating Göbekli Tepe and debating its meaning. What they do know is that the site is the most significant in a volley of unexpected findings that have overturned earlier ideas about our species' deep past. Just 20 years ago most researchers believed they knew the time, place, and rough sequence of the Neolithic Revolution—the critical transition that resulted in the birth of agriculture, taking Homo sapiens from scattered groups of hunter-gatherers to farming villages and from there to technologically sophisticated societies with great temples and towers and kings and priests who directed the labor of their subjects and recorded their feats in written form. But in recent years multiple new discoveries, Göbekli Tepe preeminent among them, have begun forcing archaeologists to reconsider.

At first the Neolithic Revolution was viewed as a single event—a sudden flash of genius—that occurred in a single location, Mesopotamia, between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in what is now southern Iraq, then spread to India, Europe, and beyond. Most archaeologists believed this sudden blossoming of civilization was driven largely by environmental changes: a gradual warming as the Ice Age ended that allowed some people to begin cultivating plants and herding animals in abundance. The new research suggests that the "revolution" was actually carried out by many hands across a huge area and over thousands of years. And it may have been driven not by the environment but by something else entirely.

Most of the world's great religious centers, past and present, have been destinations for pilgrimages—think of the Vatican, Mecca, Jerusalem, Bodh Gaya (where Buddha was enlightened), or Cahokia (the enormous Native American complex near St. Louis). They are monuments for spiritual travelers, who often came great distances, to gawk at and be stirred by. Göbekli Tepe may be the first of all of them, the beginning of a pattern. What it suggests, at least to the archaeologists working there, is that the human sense of the sacred—and the human love of a good spectacle—may have given rise to civilization itself.

The pillars were big—the tallest are 18 feet in height and weigh 16 tons. Swarming over their surfaces was a menagerie of animal bas-reliefs, each in a different style, some roughly rendered, a few as refined and symbolic as Byzantine art. Other parts of the hill were littered with the greatest store of ancient flint tools Schmidt had ever seen—a Neolithic warehouse of knives, choppers, and projectile points. Even though the stone had to be lugged from neighboring valleys, Schmidt says, "there were more flints in one little area here, a square meter or two, than many archaeologists find in entire sites."

The circles follow a common design. All are made from limestone pillars shaped like giant spikes or capital T's. Bladelike, the pillars are easily five times as wide as they are deep. They stand an arm span or more apart, interconnected by low stone walls. In the middle of each ring are two taller pillars, their thin ends mounted in shallow grooves cut into the floor.

I asked German architect and civil engineer Eduard Knoll, who works with Schmidt to preserve the site, how well designed the mounting system was for the central pillars. "Not," he said, shaking his head. "They hadn't yet mastered engineering." Knoll speculated that the pillars may have been propped up, perhaps by wooden posts.

To Schmidt, the T-shaped pillars are stylized human beings, an idea bolstered by the carved arms that angle from the "shoulders" of some pillars, hands reaching toward their loincloth-draped bellies. The stones face the center of the circle—as at "a meeting or dance," Schmidt says—a representation, perhaps, of a religious ritual. As for the prancing, leaping animals on the figures, he noted that they are mostly deadly creatures: stinging scorpions, charging boars, ferocious lions. The figures represented by the pillars may be guarded by them, or appeasing them, or incorporating them as totems.

Puzzle piled upon puzzle as the excavation continued. For reasons yet unknown, the rings at Göbekli Tepe seem to have regularly lost their power, or at least their charm. Every few decades people buried the pillars and put up new stones—a second, smaller ring, inside the first. Sometimes, later, they installed a third. Then the whole assemblage would be filled in with debris, and an entirely new circle created nearby. The site may have been built, filled in, and built again for centuries.

Bewilderingly, the people at Göbekli Tepe got steadily worse at temple building. The earliest rings are the biggest and most sophisticated, technically and artistically. As time went by, the pillars became smaller, simpler, and were mounted with less and less care. Finally the effort seems to have petered out altogether by 8200 B.C. Göbekli Tepe was all fall and no rise.

As important as what the researchers found was what they did not find: any sign of habitation. Hundreds of people must have been required to carve and erect the pillars, but the site had no water source—the nearest stream was about three miles away. Those workers would have needed homes, but excavations have uncovered no sign of walls, hearths, or houses—no other buildings that Schmidt has interpreted as domestic. They would have had to be fed, but there is also no trace of agriculture. For that matter, Schmidt has found no mess kitchens or cooking fires. It was purely a ceremonial center. If anyone ever lived at this site, they were less its residents than its staff. To judge by the thousands of gazelle and aurochs bones found at the site, the workers seem to have been fed by constant shipments of game, brought from faraway hunts. All of this complex endeavor must have had organizers and overseers, but there is as yet no good evidence of a social hierarchy—no living area reserved for richer people, no tombs filled with elite goods, no sign of some people having better diets than others.

"These people were foragers," Schmidt says, people who gathered plants and hunted wild animals. "Our picture of foragers was always just small, mobile groups, a few dozen people. They cannot make big permanent structures, we thought, because they must move around to follow the resources. They can't maintain a separate class of priests and craft workers, because they can't carry around all the extra supplies to feed them. Then here is Göbekli Tepe, and they obviously did that."

Discovering that hunter-gatherers had constructed Göbekli Tepe was like finding that someone had built a 747 in a basement with an X-Acto knife. "I, my colleagues, we all thought, What? How?" Schmidt said. Paradoxically, Göbekli Tepe appeared to be both a harbinger of the civilized world that was to come and the last, greatest emblem of a nomadic past that was already disappearing. The accomplishment was astonishing, but it was hard to understand how it had been done or what it meant. "In 10 or 15 years," Schmidt predicts, "Göbekli Tepe will be more famous than Stonehenge. And for good reason."

Hovering over Göbekli Tepe is the ghost of V. Gordon Childe. An Australian transplant to Britain, Childe was a flamboyant man, a passionate Marxist who wore plus fours and bow ties and larded his public addresses with noodle-headed paeans to Stalinism. He was also one of the most influential archaeologists of the past century. A great synthesist, Childe wove together his colleagues' disconnected facts into overarching intellectual schemes. The most famous of these arose in the 1920s, when he invented the concept of the Neolithic Revolution.

In today's terms, Childe's views could be summed up like this: Homo sapiens burst onto the scene about 200,000 years ago. For most of the millennia that followed, the species changed remarkably little, with humans living as small bands of wandering foragers. Then came the Neolithic Revolution—"a radical change," Childe said, "fraught with revolutionary consequences for the whole species." In a lightning bolt of inspiration, one part of humankind turned its back on foraging and embraced agriculture. The adoption of farming, Childe argued, brought with it further transformations. To tend their fields, people had to stop wandering and move into permanent villages, where they developed new tools and created pottery. The Neolithic Revolution, in his view, was an explosively important event—"the greatest in human history after the mastery of fire."

Of all the aspects of the revolution, agriculture was the most important. For thousands of years men and women with stone implements had wandered the landscape, cutting off heads of wild grain and taking them home. Even though these people may have tended and protected their grain patches, the plants they watched over were still wild. Wild wheat and barley, unlike their domesticated versions, shatter when they are ripe—the kernels easily break off the plant and fall to the ground, making them next to impossible to harvest when fully ripe. Genetically speaking, true grain agriculture began only when people planted large new areas with mutated plants that did not shatter at maturity, creating fields of domesticated wheat and barley that, so to speak, waited for farmers to harvest them.

Rather than having to comb through the landscape for food, people could now grow as much as they needed and where they needed it, so they could live together in larger groups. Population soared. "It was only after the revolution—but immediately thereafter—that our species really began to multiply at all fast," Childe wrote. In these suddenly more populous societies, ideas could be more readily exchanged, and rates of technological and social innovation soared. Religion and art—the hallmarks of civilization—flourished.

Childe, like most researchers today, believed that the revolution first occurred in the Fertile Crescent, the arc of land that curves northeast from Gaza into southern Turkey and then sweeps southeast into Iraq. Bounded on the south by the harsh Syrian Desert and on the north by the mountains of Turkey, the crescent is a band of temperate climate between inhospitable extremes. Its eastern terminus is the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers in southern Iraq—the site of a realm known as Sumer, which dates back to about 4000 B.C. In Childe's day most researchers agreed that Sumer represented the beginning of civilization. Archaeologist Samuel Noah Kramer summed up that view in the 1950s in his book History Begins at Sumer. Yet even before Kramer finished writing, the picture was being revised at the opposite, western end of the Fertile Crescent. In the Levant—the area that today encompasses Israel, the Palestinian territories, Lebanon, Jordan, and western Syria—archaeologists had discovered settlements dating as far back as 13,000 B.C. Known as Natufian villages (the name comes from the first of these sites to be found), they sprang up across the Levant as the Ice Age was drawing to a close, ushering in a time when the region's climate became relatively warm and wet.

The discovery of the Natufians was the first rock through the window of Childe's Neolithic Revolution. Childe had thought agriculture the necessary spark that led to villages and ignited civilization. Yet although the Natufians lived in permanent settlements of up to several hundred people, they were foragers, not farmers, hunting gazelles and gathering wild rye, barley, and wheat. "It was a big sign that our ideas needed to be revised," says Harvard University archaeologist Ofer Bar-Yosef.

Natufian villages ran into hard times around 10,800 B.C., when regional temperatures abruptly fell some 12°F, part of a mini ice age that lasted 1,200 years and created much drier conditions across the Fertile Crescent. With animal habitat and grain patches shrinking, a number of villages suddenly became too populous for the local food supply. Many people once again became wandering foragers, searching the landscape for remaining food sources.

Some settlements tried to adjust to the more arid conditions. The village of Abu Hureyra, in what is now northern Syria, seemingly tried to cultivate local stands of rye, perhaps replanting them. After examining rye grains from the site, Gordon Hillman of University College London and Andrew Moore of the Rochester Institute of Technology argued in 2000 that some were bigger than their wild equivalents—a possible sign of domestication, because cultivation inevitably increases qualities, such as fruit and seed size, that people find valuable. Bar-Yosef and some other researchers came to believe that nearby sites like Mureybet and Tell Qaramel also had had agriculture.

If these archaeologists were correct, these protovillages provided a new explanation of how complex society began. Childe thought that agriculture came first, that it was the innovation that allowed humans to seize the opportunity of a rich new environment to extend their dominion over the natural world. The Natufian sites in the Levant suggested instead that settlement came first and that farming arose later, as a product of crisis. Confronted with a drying, cooling environment and growing populations, humans in the remaining fecund areas thought, as Bar-Yosef puts it, "If we move, these other folks will exploit our resources. The best way for us to survive is to settle down and exploit our own area." Agriculture followed.

The idea that the Neolithic Revolution was driven by climate change resonated during the 1990s, a time when people were increasingly worried about the effects of modern global warming. It was promoted in countless articles and books and ultimately enshrined in Wikipedia. Yet critics charged that the evidence was weak, not least because Abu Hureyra, Mureybet, and many other sites in northern Syria had been flooded by dams before they could be fully excavated. "You had an entire theory on the origins of human culture essentially based on a half a dozen unusually plump seeds," ancient-grain specialist George Willcox of the National Center for Scientific Research, in France, says. "Isn't it more likely that these grains were puffed during charring or that somebody at Abu Hureyra found some unusual-looking wild rye?"

As the dispute over the Natufians sharpened, Schmidt was carefully working at Göbekli Tepe. And what he was finding would, once again, force many researchers to reassess their ideas.

Anthropologists have assumed that organized religion began as a way of salving the tensions that inevitably arose when hunter-gatherers settled down, became farmers, and developed large societies. Compared to a nomadic band, the society of a village had longer term, more complex aims—storing grain and maintaining permanent homes. Villages would be more likely to accomplish those aims if their members were committed to the collective enterprise. Though primitive religious practices—burying the dead, creating cave art and figurines—had emerged tens of thousands of years earlier, organized religion arose, in this view, only when a common vision of a celestial order was needed to bind together these big, new, fragile groups of humankind. It could also have helped justify the social hierarchy that emerged in a more complex society: Those who rose to power were seen as having a special connection with the gods. Communities of the faithful, united in a common view of the world and their place in it, were more cohesive than ordinary clumps of quarreling people.

Göbekli Tepe, to Schmidt's way of thinking, suggests a reversal of that scenario: The construction of a massive temple by a group of foragers is evidence that organized religion could have come before the rise of agriculture and other aspects of civilization. It suggests that the human impulse to gather for sacred rituals arose as humans shifted from seeing themselves as part of the natural world to seeking mastery over it. When foragers began settling down in villages, they unavoidably created a divide between the human realm—a fixed huddle of homes with hundreds of inhabitants—and the dangerous land beyond the campfire, populated by lethal beasts.

French archaeologist Jacques Cauvin believed this change in consciousness was a "revolution of symbols," a conceptual shift that allowed humans to imagine gods—supernatural beings resembling humans—that existed in a universe beyond the physical world. Schmidt sees Göbekli Tepe as evidence for Cauvin's theory. "The animals were guardians to the spirit world," he says. "The reliefs on the T-shaped pillars illustrate that other world."

Schmidt speculates that foragers living within a hundred-mile radius of Göbekli Tepe created the temple as a holy place to gather and meet, perhaps bringing gifts and tributes to its priests and crafts­people. Some kind of social organization would have been necessary not only to build it but also to deal with the crowds it attracted. One imagines chanting and drumming, the animals on the great pillars seeming to move in flickering torchlight. Surely there were feasts; Schmidt has uncovered stone basins that could have been used for beer. The temple was a spiritual locus, but it may also have been the Neolithic version of Disneyland.

Over time, Schmidt believes, the need to acquire sufficient food for those who worked and gathered for ceremonies at Göbekli Tepe may have led to the intensive cultivation of wild cereals and the creation of some of the first domestic strains. Indeed, scientists now believe that one center of agriculture arose in southern Turkey—well within trekking distance of Göbekli Tepe—at exactly the time the temple was at its height. Today the closest known wild ancestors of modern einkorn wheat are found on the slopes of Karaca Dağ, a mountain just 60 miles northeast of Göbekli Tepe. In other words, the turn to agriculture celebrated by V. Gordon Childe may have been the result of a need that runs deep in the human psyche, a hunger that still moves people today to travel the globe in search of awe-inspiring sights.

Some of the first evidence for plant domestication comes from Nevalı Çori (pronounced nuh-vah-LUH CHO-ree), a settlement in the mountains scarcely 20 miles away. Like Göbekli Tepe, Nevalı Çori came into existence right after the mini ice age, a time archaeologists describe with the unlovely term Pre-pottery Neolithic (PPN). Nevalı Çori is now inundated by a recently created lake that provides electricity and irrigation water for the region. But before the waters shut down research, archaeologists found T-shaped pillars and animal images much like those Schmidt would later uncover at Göbekli Tepe. Similar pillars and images occurred in PPN settlements up to a hundred miles from Göbekli Tepe. Much as one can surmise today that homes with images of the Virgin Mary belong to Christians, Schmidt says, the imagery in these PPN sites indicates a shared religion—a community of faith that surrounded Göbekli Tepe and may have been the world's first truly large religious grouping.

Naturally, some of Schmidt's colleagues disagree with his ideas. The lack of evidence of houses, for instance, doesn't prove that nobody lived at Göbekli Tepe. And increasingly, archaeologists studying the origins of civilization in the Fertile Crescent are suspicious of any attempt to find a one-size-fits-all scenario, to single out one primary trigger. It is more as if the occupants of various archaeological sites were all playing with the building blocks of civilization, looking for combinations that worked. In one place agriculture may have been the foundation; in another, art and religion; and over there, population pressures or social organization and hierarchy. Eventually they all ended up in the same place. Perhaps there is no single path to civilization; instead it was arrived at by different means in different places.

Klaus Schmidt knew almost instantly that he was going to be spending a lot of time at Göbekli Tepe. Now a researcher at the German Archaeological Institute (DAI), Schmidt had spent the autumn of 1994 trundling across southeastern Turkey.
In Schmidt's view, many of his colleagues have been as slow to appreciate Göbekli Tepe as he has been to excavate it. This summer will mark his 17th year at the site. The annals of archaeology are replete with scientists who in their hurry carelessly wrecked important finds, losing knowledge for all time. Schmidt is determined not to add his name to the list. Today less than a tenth of the 22-acre site is open to the sky.

Schmidt emphasizes that further research on Göbekli Tepe may change his current understanding of the site's importance. Even its age is not clear—Schmidt is not certain he has reached the bottom layer. "We come up with two new mysteries for every one that we solve," he says. Still, he has already drawn some conclusions. "Twenty years ago everyone believed civilization was driven by ecological forces," Schmidt says. "I think what we are learning is that civilization is a product of the human mind."

-Charles C. Mann, ( EXCERPT: “Göbekli Tepe, The Birth of Religion,” National Geographic, June 2011, Image: Berthold Steinhilber, 2011 ).

Monday, March 7, 2011

HISTORY REPEATING: Globalization & The Crush Of The Invisible Hand...

I have walked through the barren remains of Babylon in Iraq and the ancient Roman city of Antioch, the capital of Roman Syria, which now lies buried in silt deposits. I have visited the marble ruins of Leptis Magna, once one of the most important agricultural centers in the Roman Empire, now isolated in the desolate drifts of sand southeast of Tripoli. I have climbed at dawn up the ancient temples in Tikal, while flocks of brightly colored toucans leapt through the jungle foliage below.

I have stood amid the remains of the ancient Egyptian city of Luxor along the Nile, looking at the statue of the great Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II lying broken on the ground, with Percy Shelley’s poem “Ozymandias” running through my head:

“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Civilizations rise, decay and die. Time, as the ancient Greeks argued, for individuals and for states is cyclical. As societies become more complex they become inevitably more precarious. They become increasingly vulnerable. And as they begin to break down there is a strange retreat by a terrified and confused population from reality, an inability to acknowledge the self-evident fragility and impending collapse. 

The elites at the end speak in phrases and jargon that do not correlate to reality. They retreat into isolated compounds, whether at the court at Versailles, the Forbidden City or modern palatial estates. The elites indulge in unchecked hedonism, the accumulation of vaster wealth and extravagant consumption. They are deaf to the suffering of the masses who are repressed with greater and greater ferocity. Resources are more ruthlessly depleted until they are exhausted. And then the hollowed-out edifice collapses. The Roman and Sumerian empires fell this way. The Mayan elites, after clearing their forests and polluting their streams with silt and acids, retreated backward into primitivism.

As food and water shortages expand across the globe, as mounting poverty and misery trigger street protests in the Middle East, Africa and Europe, the elites do what all elites do. They launch more wars, build grander monuments to themselves, plunge their nations deeper into debt, and as it all unravels they take it out on the backs of workers and the poor. The collapse of the global economy, which wiped out a staggering $40 trillion in wealth, was caused when our elites, after destroying our manufacturing base, sold massive quantities of fraudulent mortgage-backed securities to pension funds, small investors, banks, universities, state and foreign governments and shareholders. The elites, to cover the losses, then looted the public treasury to begin the speculation over again. They also, in the name of austerity, began dismantling basic social services, set out to break the last vestiges of unions, slashed jobs, froze wages, threw millions of people out of their homes, and stood by idly as we created a permanent underclass of unemployed and underemployed.

The Mayan elite became, at the end, as the anthropologist Ronald Wright notes in “A Short History of Progress,” “… extremists, or ultra-conservatives, squeezing the last drops of profit from nature and humanity.” This is how all civilizations, including our own, ossify and die. The signs of imminent death may be undeniable. Common sense may cry out for a radical new response. But the race toward self-immolation only accelerates because of intellectual and moral paralysis. As Sigmund Freud grasped in “Beyond the Pleasure Principle” and “Civilization and Its Discontents,” human societies are as intoxicated and blinded by their own headlong rush toward death and destruction as they are by the search for erotic fulfillment.

The unrest in the Middle East, the implosion of national economies such as those of Ireland and Greece, the increasing anger of a beleaguered working class at home and abroad, the growing desperate human migrations and the refusal to halt our relentless destruction of the ecosystem on which life depends are the harbingers of our own collapse and the consequences of the idiocy of our elite and the folly of globalization. Protests that are not built around a complete reconfiguration of American society, including a rapid dismantling of empire and the corporate state, can only forestall the inevitable. We will be saved only with the birth of a new and militant radicalism which seeks to dethrone our corrupt elite from power, not negotiate for better terms.

The global economy is built on the erroneous belief that the marketplace—read human greed—should dictate human behavior and that economies can expand eternally. Globalism works under the assumption that the ecosystem can continue to be battered by massive carbon emissions without major consequences. And the engine of global economic expansion is based on the assurance that there will always be plentiful and cheap oil. The inability to confront simple truths about human nature and the natural world leaves the elites unable to articulate new social, economic and political paradigms. They look only for ways to perpetuate a dying system. Thomas Friedman and the array of other propagandists for globalization make as much sense as Charlie Sheen.

Globalization is the modern articulation of the ancient ideology used by past elites to turn citizens into serfs and the natural world into a wasteland for profit. Nothing to these elites is sacred. Human beings and the natural world are exploited until exhaustion or collapse. The elites make no pretense of defending the common good. It is, in short, the defeat of rational thought and the death of humanism. The march toward self-annihilation has already obliterated 90 percent of the large fish in the oceans and wiped out half of the mature tropical forests, the lungs of the planet. At this rate by 2030 only 10 percent of the Earth’s tropical forests will remain. Contaminated water kills 25,000 people every day around the globe, and each year some 20 million children are impaired by malnourishment. Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere now are at 329 parts per million and climbing, with most climate scientists warning that the level must remain below 350 ppm to sustain life as we know it. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimates that the measurement could reach 541 to 970 ppm by 2100. At that point huge parts of the planet, beset with overpopulation, droughts, soil erosion, freak storms, massive crop failures and rising sea levels, will be unfit for human existence.

Jared Diamond in his essay “The Last Americans” notes that by the time Hernan Cortés reached the Yucatán, millions of Mayan subjects had vanished.

“Why,” Diamond writes, “did the kings and nobles not recognize and solve these problems?  A major reason was that their attention was evidently focused on the short-term concerns of enriching themselves, waging wars, erecting monuments, competing with one another, and extracting enough food from the peasants to support all these activities.”

“Pumping that oil, cutting down those trees, and catching those fish may benefit the elite by bringing them money or prestige and yet be bad for society as a whole (including the children of the elite) in the long run, Maya kings were consumed by immediate concerns for their prestige (requiring more and bigger temples) and their success in the next war (requiring more followers), rather than for the happiness of commoners or of the next generation. Those people with the greatest power to make decisions in our own society today regularly make money from activities that may be bad for society as a whole and for their own children; those decision-makers include Enron executives, many land developers, and advocates of tax cuts for the rich."

It was no different on Easter Island. The inhabitants, when they first settled the 64-square-mile island during the fifth century, found abundant fresh water and woods filled with the Chilean wine palm, a tree that can reach the size of an oak. Seafood, including fish, seals, porpoises and turtles, and nesting seabirds were plentiful. Easter Island’s society, which split into an elaborate caste system of nobles, priests and commoners, had within five or six centuries swelled to some 10,000 people. The natural resources were devoured and began to disappear.

“Forest clearance for the growing of crops would have led to population increase, but also to soil erosion and decline of soil fertility,” Paul Bahn and John Flenley write in “Easter Island, Earth Island.”

“Progressively more land would have had to be cleared. Trees and shrubs would also be cut down for canoe building, firewood, house construction, and for the timbers and ropes needed in the movement and erection of statues. Palm fruits would be eaten, thus reducing regeneration of the palm. Rats, introduced for food, could have fed on the palm fruits, multiplied rapidly and completely prevented palm regeneration. The over exploitation of prolific sea bird resources would have eliminated these for all but the offshore islets. Rats could have helped in this process by eating eggs. The abundant food provided by fishing, sea birds and rats would have encouraged rapid initial human population growth. Unrestrained human population increase would later put pressure on availability of land, leading to disputes and eventually warfare. Non-availability of timber and rope would make it pointless to carve further statues. A disillusionment with the efficacy of the statue religion in providing the wants of the people could lead to the abandonment of this cult. Inadequate canoes would restrict fishing to the inshore waters, leading to further decline in protein supplies. The result could have been general famine, warfare and the collapse of the whole economy, leading to a marked population decline.”

Clans, in the later period of the Easter Island civilization, competed to honor their ancestors by constructing larger and larger hewn  stone images  which demanded the last remnants of the timber, rope and manpower on the island. By the year 1400 the woods were gone. The soil had eroded and washed into the sea. The islanders began to fight over old timbers and were reduced to eating their dogs and soon all the nesting birds.

The desperate islanders developed a belief system that posited that the erected stone gods, the moai, would come to life and save them from disaster. This last retreat into magic characterizes all societies that fall into terminal decline. It is a frantic response to loss of control as well as despair and powerlessness. This desperate retreat into magic led to the Cherokee ghost dance, the doomed Taki Onqoy revolt against the Spanish invaders in Peru, and the Aztec prophecies of the 1530s. Civilizations in the last moments embrace a total severance from reality, a reality that becomes too bleak to be absorbed.

The modern belief by evangelical Christians in the rapture, which does not exist in biblical literature, is no less fantastic, one that at once allows for the denial of global warming and of evolution and the absurd idea that the righteous will all be saved—floating naked into heaven at the end of time. The faith that science and technology, which are morally neutral and serve human ambitions, will make the world whole again is no less delusional. We offer up our magical thinking in secular as well as religious form.

We think we have somehow escaped from the foibles of the past. We are certain that we are wiser and greater than those who went before us. We trust naively in the inevitability of our own salvation. And those who cater to this false hope, especially as things deteriorate, receive our adulation and praise. We in the United States, only 5 percent of the world’s population, are outraged if anyone tries to tell us we don’t have a divine right to levels of consumption that squander 25 percent of the world’s energy. President Jimmy Carter, when he suggested that such consumption was probably not beneficial, became a figure of national ridicule. The worse it gets the more we demand illusionary Ronald Reagan happy talk. Those willing to cater to fantasy and self-delusion are, because they make us politically passive, lavishly funded and promoted by corporate and oligarchic forces. And by the very end we are joyfully led over the cliff by simpletons and lunatics, many of whom appear to be lining up for the Republican presidential nomination.

“Are the events of three hundred years ago on a small remote island of any significance to the world at large?”

Bahn and Flenley ask. “We believe they are. We consider that Easter Island was a microcosm which provides a model for the whole planet. Like the Earth, Easter Island was an isolated system. The people there believed that they were the only survivors on Earth, all other land having sunk beneath the sea. They carried out for us the experiment of permitting unrestricted population growth, profligate use of resources, destruction of the environment and boundless confidence in their religion to take care of the future. The result was an ecological disaster leading to a population crash. A crash on a similar scale (60 percent of the population) for the planet Earth would lead to the deaths of about 1.8 billion people, roughly 100 times the death toll of the Second World War. Do we have to repeat the experiment on this grand scale? Do we have to be as cynical as Henry Ford and say ‘History is bunk’? Would it not be more sensible to learn the lesson of Easter Island history, and apply it to the Earth Island on which we live?"

Human beings seem cursed to repeat these cycles of exploitation and collapse. And the greater the extent of the deterioration the less they are able to comprehend what is happening around them. The Earth is littered with the physical remains of human folly and human hubris. We seem condemned as a species to drive ourselves and our societies toward extinction, although this moment appears be the denouement to the whole sad show of settled, civilized life that began some 5,000 years ago. There is nothing left on the planet to seize. We are now spending down the last remnants of our natural capital, including our forests, fossil fuel, air and water.

This time when we go down it will be global. There are no new lands to pillage, no new peoples to exploit. Technology, which has obliterated the constraints of time and space, has turned our global village into a global death trap. The fate of Easter Island will be writ large across the broad expanse of planet Earth.

-Chris Hedges, ("This Time We’re Taking the Whole Planet With Us,", 3.7.2011. Image: Bruce Percy, Easter Island, 2008 ).