April 10, 2012
"Internal Monument," G. C. Waldrep.

A man was sad—for himself, maybe for someone else, maybe he had lost something, or someone—so he hired some workmen to erect a monument. He was not surprised when they came calling early one morning, while he was still in bed, but he was surprised when, with a practiced slash, the foreman opened his chest. “We build the monument inside,” the foreman said. “But who will see the monument?” the man protested. “It’s a monument for feeling, not for seeing,” the foreman replied.

The operation was unpleasant but was soon over. And sure enough, after a brief interval of recuperation, the man felt, he thought, a little less sad than before.

This lasted a while, but then he felt the sadness returning, in spite of the dark, heavy space in his chest where the monument rested, nestled in flesh. He called the workmen again. They obligingly came and repeated the procedure.

Over the ensuing months and years, the man had cause to call upon the foreman and his crew repeatedly, as new life brought new losses, new sadnesses. His chest became a jumbled cabinet of monuments, the fatty tissue of his upper arms and thighs, his bowels: even his fingers and toes felt weighed down by his commemorations. At length, it was all he could do to lift the telephone receiver at his bedside. He called the foreman. “I can’t get up,” he said. “I can’t even move.” “An unfortunate side effect,” the foreman told him. “Really, there’s nothing we can do.”

Bedridden, the man felt deprived even of what had been the most mundane pleasures of daily life: strolls down the avenue, the smell of bread baking at a neighborhood patisserie, autumn leaves. It was not turning out at all as he had expected, this life.

Inside his body the monuments huddled. Mutely, he thought, though sometimes, late at night, when he tried to shift position, they brushed against one another and made what could only be called sounds, though no one else could hear them, and he heard them, if he heard them, with his body, rather than with his ears.

When the man died, his landlord, his executors, eventually the city authorities all attempted to wrest his body from what had become his deathbed. No one could move it. Finally, they called the foreman, who agreed to try one last procedure on the corpse.

The foreman unzipped the body like a flimsy valise and, with the assistance of his workmen, slowly, carefully turned it inside out. Now everyone could see the monuments, but no one could see the man.

They were beautiful, his monuments. People traveled into the city from miles around to view them. The city graded and graveled lanes in what had been the sad man’s body. Clerks and engineers began to take their families there for picnics. A bandstand was built. Lovers gathered at dusk for concerts and, later, laid out blankets on the generous lawns, over which the monuments stood like sentinels. “Look at the stars,” the lovers whispered to one another. “Look up at the beautiful stars.”

(Source: elmemorioso)

August 7, 2011
[1105.0183] Shape Dynamics. An Introduction

By Julian Barbour:

Shape dynamics is a completely background-independent universal framework of dynamical theories from which all absolute elements have been eliminated. For particles, only the variables that describe the shapes of the instantaneous particle configurations are dynamical. In the case of Riemannian three-geometries, the only dynamical variables are the parts of the metric that determine angles. The local scale factor plays no role. This leads to a shape-dynamic theory of gravity in which the four-dimensional diffeomorphism invariance of general relativity is replaced by three-dimensional diffeomorphism invariance and three-dimensional conformal invariance. Despite this difference of symmetry groups, it is remarkable that the predictions of the two theories — shape dynamics and general relativity — agree on spacetime foliations by hypersurfaces of constant mean extrinsic curvature. However, the two theories are distinct, with shape dynamics having a much more restrictive set of solutions. There are indications that the symmetry group of shape dynamics makes it more amenable to quantization and thus to the creation of quantum gravity. This introduction presents in simple terms the arguments for shape dynamics, its implementation techniques, and a survey of existing results.

May 6, 2011
The Stupidity of Dignity

by Steven Pinker

Published in The New Republic on Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Credit: Felix Sockwell

This spring, the President’s Council on Bioethics released a 555-page report, titled Human Dignity and Bioethics. The Council, created in 2001 by George W. Bush, is a panel of scholars charged with advising the president and exploring policy issues related to the ethics of biomedical innovation, including drugs that would enhance cognition, genetic manipulation of animals or humans, therapies that could extend the lifespan, and embryonic stem cells and so-called “therapeutic cloning” that could furnish replacements for diseased tissue and organs. Advances like these, if translated into freely undertaken treatments, could make millions of people better off and no one worse off. So what’s not to like? The advances do not raise the traditional concerns of bioethics, which focuses on potential harm and coercion of patients or research subjects. What, then, are the ethical concerns that call for a presidential council?

Many people are vaguely disquieted by developments (real or imagined) that could alter minds and bodies in novel ways. Romantics and Greens tend to idealize the natural and demonize technology. Traditionalists and conservatives by temperament distrust radical change. Egalitarians worry about an arms race in enhancement techniques. And anyone is likely to have a “yuck” response when contemplating unprecedented manipulations of our biology. The President’s Council has become a forum for the airing of this disquiet, and the concept of “dignity” a rubric for expounding on it. This collection of essays is the culmination of a long effort by the Council to place dignity at the center of bioethics. The general feeling is that, even if a new technology would improve life and health and decrease suffering and waste, it might have to be rejected, or even outlawed, if it affronted human dignity.

Whatever that is. The problem is that “dignity” is a squishy, subjective notion, hardly up to the heavyweight moral demands assigned to it. The bioethicist Ruth Macklin, who had been fed up with loose talk about dignity intended to squelch research and therapy, threw down the gauntlet in a 2003 editorial, “Dignity Is a Useless Concept.” Macklin argued that bioethics has done just fine with the principle of personal autonomy—the idea that, because all humans have the same minimum capacity to suffer, prosper, reason, and choose, no human has the right to impinge on the life, body, or freedom of another. This is why informed consent serves as the bedrock of ethical research and practice, and it clearly rules out the kinds of abuses that led to the birth of bioethics in the first place, such as Mengele’s sadistic pseudoexperiments in Nazi Germany and the withholding of treatment to indigent black patients in the infamous Tuskegee syphilis study. Once you recognize the principle of autonomy, Macklin argued, “dignity” adds nothing.

Goaded by Macklin’s essay, the Council acknowledged the need to put dignity on a firmer conceptual foundation. This volume of 28 essays and commentaries by Council members and invited contributors is their deliverable, addressed directly to President Bush. The report does not, the editors admit, settle the question of what dignity is or how it should guide our policies. It does, however, reveal a great deal about the approach to bioethics represented by the Council. And what it reveals should alarm anyone concerned with American biomedicine and its promise to improve human welfare. For this government-sponsored bioethics does not want medical practice to maximize health and flourishing; it considers that quest to be a bad thing, not a good thing.

To understand the source of this topsy-turvy value system, one has to look more deeply at the currents that underlie the Council. Although the Dignity report presents itself as a scholarly deliberation of universal moral concerns, it springs from a movement to impose a radical political agenda, fed by fervent religious impulses, onto American biomedicine.

The report’s oddness begins with its list of contributors. Two (Adam Schulman and Daniel Davis) are Council staffers, and wrote superb introductory pieces. Of the remaining 21, four (Leon R. Kass, David Gelernter, Robert George, and Robert Kraynak) are vociferous advocates of a central role for religion in morality and public life, and another eleven work for Christian institutions (all but two of the institutions Catholic). Of course, institutional affiliation does not entail partiality, but, with three-quarters of the invited contributors having religious entanglements, one gets a sense that the fix is in. A deeper look confirms it.

Conspicuous by their absence are several fields of expertise that one might have thought would have something to offer any discussion of dignity and biomedicine. None of the contributors is a life scientist—or a psychologist, an anthropologist, a sociologist, or a historian. According to one of the introductory chapters, the Council takes a “critical view of contemporary academic bioethics and of the way bioethical questions are debated in the public square”—so critical, it seems, that Macklin (the villain of almost every piece) was not invited to expand on her argument, nor were mainstream bioethicists (who tend to be sympathetic to Macklin’s viewpoint) given an opportunity to defend it.

Despite these exclusions, the volume finds room for seven essays that align their arguments with Judeo-Christian doctrine. We read passages that assume the divine authorship of the Bible, that accept the literal truth of the miracles narrated in Genesis (such as the notion that the biblical patriarchs lived up to 900 years), that claim that divine revelation is a source of truth, that argue for the existence of an immaterial soul separate from the physiology of the brain, and that assert that the Old Testament is the only grounds for morality (for example, the article by Kass claims that respect for human life is rooted in Genesis 9:6, in which God instructs the survivors of his Flood in the code of vendetta: “Whoso sheddeth man’s blood, by man shall his blood be shed, for in the image of God was man made”).

The Judeo-Christian—in some cases, explicitly biblical—arguments found in essay after essay in this volume are quite extraordinary. Yet, aside from two paragraphs in a commentary by Daniel Dennett, the volume contains no critical examination of any of its religious claims.

How did the United States, the world’s scientific powerhouse, reach a point at which it grapples with the ethical challenges of twenty-first-century biomedicine using Bible stories, Catholic doctrine, and woolly rabbinical allegory? Part of the answer lies with the outsize influence of Kass, the Council’s founding director (and an occasional contributor to TNR), who came to prominence in the 1970s with his moralistic condemnation of in vitro fertilization, then popularly known as “test-tube babies.” As soon as the procedure became feasible, the country swiftly left Kass behind, and, for most people today, it is an ethical no-brainer. That did not stop Kass from subsequently assailing a broad swath of other medical practices as ethically troubling, including organ transplants, autopsies, contraception, antidepressants, even the dissection of cadavers.

Kass frequently makes his case using appeals to “human dignity” (and related expressions like “fundamental aspects of human existence” and “the central core of our humanity”). In an essay with the revealing title “L’Chaim and Its Limits, ” Kass voiced his frustration that the rabbis he spoke with just couldn’t see what was so terrible about technologies that would extend life, health, and fertility. “The desire to prolong youthfulness,” he wrote in reply, is “an expression of a childish and narcissistic wish incompatible with devotion to posterity.” The years that would be added to other people’s lives, he judged, were not worth living: “Would professional tennis players really enjoy playing 25 percent more games of tennis?” And, as empirical evidence that “mortality makes life matter,” he notes that the Greek gods lived “shallow and frivolous lives”—an example of his disconcerting habit of treating fiction as fact. (Kass cites Brave New World five times in his Dignity essay.)

Kass has a problem not just with longevity and health but with the modern conception of freedom. There is a “mortal danger,” he writes, in the notion “that a person has a right over his body, a right that allows him to do whatever he wants to do with it.” He is troubled by cosmetic surgery, by gender reassignment, and by women who postpone motherhood or choose to remain single in their twenties. Sometimes his fixation on dignity takes him right off the deep end:

Worst of all from this point of view are those more uncivilized forms of eating, like licking an ice cream cone—a catlike activity that has been made acceptable in informal America but that still offends those who know eating in public is offensive. … Eating on the street—even when undertaken, say, because one is between appointments and has no other time to eat—displays [a] lack of self-control: It beckons enslavement to the belly. … Lacking utensils for cutting and lifting to mouth, he will often be seen using his teeth for tearing off chewable portions, just like any animal. … This doglike feeding, if one must engage in it, ought to be kept from public view, where, even if we feel no shame, others are compelled to witness our shameful behavior.

And, in 2001, this man, whose pro-death, anti-freedom views put him well outside the American mainstream, became the President’s adviser on bioethics—a position from which he convinced the president to outlaw federally funded research that used new stem-cell lines. In his speech announcing the stem-cell policy, Bush invited Kass to form the Council. Kass packed it with conservative scholars and pundits, advocates of religious (particularly Catholic) principles in the public sphere, and writers with a paper trail of skittishness toward biomedical advances, together with a smattering of scientists (mostly with a reputation for being religious or politically conservative). After several members opposed Kass on embryonic stem-cell research, on therapeutic cloning (which Kass was in favor of criminalizing), and on the distortions of science that kept finding their way into Council reports, Kass fired two of them (biologist Elizabeth Blackburn and philosopher William May) and replaced them with Christian-affiliated scholars.

Though Kass has jawboned his version of bioethics into governmental deliberation and policy, it is not just a personal obsession of his but part of a larger movement, one that is increasingly associated with Catholic institutions. (In 2005, Kass relinquished the Council chairmanship to Edmund Pellegrino, an 85-year-old medical ethicist and former president of the Catholic University of America.) Everyone knows about the Bush administration’s alliance with evangelical Protestantism. But the pervasive Catholic flavoring of the Council, particularly its Dignity report, is at first glance puzzling. In fact, it is part of a powerful but little-known development in American politics, recently documented by Damon Linker in his book The Theocons.

For two decades, a group of intellectual activists, many of whom had jumped from the radical left to the radical right, has urged that we rethink the Enlightenment roots of the American social order. The recognition of a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness and the mandate of government to secure these rights are too tepid, they argue, for a morally worthy society. This impoverished vision has only led to anomie, hedonism, and rampant immoral behavior such as illegitimacy, pornography, and abortion. Society should aim higher than this bare-bones individualism and promote conformity to more rigorous moral standards, ones that could be applied to our behavior by an authority larger than ourselves.

Since episodes of divine revelation seem to have decreased in recent millennia, the problem becomes who will formulate and interpret these standards. Most of today’s denominations are not up to the task: Evangelical Protestantism is too anti-intellectual, and mainstream Protestantism and Judaism too humanistic. The Catholic Church, with its long tradition of scholarship and its rock-solid moral precepts, became the natural home for this movement, and the journal First Things, under the leadership of Father Richard John Neuhaus, its mouthpiece. Catholicism now provides the intellectual muscle behind a movement that embraces socially conservative Jewish and Protestant intellectuals as well. When Neuhaus met with Bush in 1998 as he was planning his run for the presidency, they immediately hit it off.

Three of the original Council members (including Kass) are board members of First Things, and Neuhaus himself contributed an essay to the Dignity volume. In addition, five other members have contributed articles to First Things over the years. The concept of dignity is natural ground on which to build an obstructionist bioethics. An alleged breach of dignity provides a way for third parties to pass judgment on actions that are knowingly and willingly chosen by the affected individuals. It thus offers a moralistic justification for expanded government regulation of science, medicine, and private life. And the Church’s franchise to guide people in the most profound events of their lives—birth, death, and reproduction—is in danger of being undermined when biomedicine scrambles the rules. It’s not surprising, then, that “dignity” is a recurring theme in Catholic doctrine: The word appears more than 100 times in the 1997 edition of the Catechism and is a leitmotif in the Vatican’s recent pronouncements on biomedicine.

To be fair, most of the chapters in the Dignity volume don’t appeal directly to Catholic doctrine, and of course the validity of an argument cannot be judged from the motives or affiliations of its champions. Judged solely on the merits of their arguments, how well do the essayists clarify the concept of dignity?

By their own admission, not very well. Almost every essayist concedes that the concept remains slippery and ambiguous. In fact, it spawns outright contradictions at every turn. We read that slavery and degradation are morally wrong because they take someone’s dignity away. But we also read that nothing you can do to a person, including enslaving or degrading him, can take his dignity away. We read that dignity reflects excellence, striving, and conscience, so that only some people achieve it by dint of effort and character. We also read that everyone, no matter how lazy, evil, or mentally impaired, has dignity in full measure. Several essayists play the genocide card and claim that the horrors of the twentieth century are what you get when you fail to hold dignity sacrosanct. But one hardly needs the notion of “dignity” to say why it’s wrong to gas six million Jews or to send Russian dissidents to the gulag.

So, despite the best efforts of the contributors, the concept of dignity remains a mess. The reason, I think, is that dignity has three features that undermine any possibility of using it as a foundation for bioethics.

First, dignity is relative. One doesn’t have to be a scientific or moral relativist to notice that ascriptions of dignity vary radically with the time, place, and beholder. In olden days, a glimpse of stocking was looked on as something shocking. We chuckle at the photographs of Victorians in starched collars and wool suits hiking in the woods on a sweltering day, or at the Brahmins and patriarchs of countless societies who consider it beneath their dignity to pick up a dish or play with a child. Thorstein Veblen wrote of a French king who considered it beneath his dignity to move his throne back from the fireplace, and one night roasted to death when his attendant failed to show up. Kass finds other people licking an ice-cream cone to be shamefully undignified; I have no problem with it.

Second, dignity is fungible. The Council and Vatican treat dignity as a sacred value, never to be compromised. In fact, every one of us voluntarily and repeatedly relinquishes dignity for other goods in life. Getting out of a small car is undignified. Having sex is undignified. Doffing your belt and spread- eagling to allow a security guard to slide a wand up your crotch is undignified. Most pointedly, modern medicine is a gantlet of indignities. Most readers of this article have undergone a pelvic or rectal examination, and many have had the pleasure of a colonoscopy as well. We repeatedly vote with our feet (and other body parts) that dignity is a trivial value, well worth trading off for life, health, and safety.

Third, dignity can be harmful. In her comments on the Dignity volume, Jean Bethke Elshtain rhetorically asked, “Has anything good ever come from denying or constricting human dignity?” The answer is an emphatic “yes.” Every sashed and be-medaled despot reviewing his troops from a lofty platform seeks to command respect through ostentatious displays of dignity. Political and religious repressions are often rationalized as a defense of the dignity of a state, leader, or creed: Just think of the Salman Rushdie fatwa, the Danish cartoon riots, or the British schoolteacher in Sudan who faced flogging and a lynch mob because her class named a teddy bear Mohammed. Indeed, totalitarianism is often the imposition of a leader’s conception of dignity on a population, such as the identical uniforms in Maoist China or the burqas of the Taliban.

A free society disempowers the state from enforcing a conception of dignity on its citizens. Democratic governments allow satirists to poke fun at their leaders, institutions, and social mores. And they abjure any mandate to define “some vision of ‘the good life’” or the “dignity of using [freedom] well” (two quotes from the Council’s volume). The price of freedom is tolerating behavior by others that may be undignified by our own lights. I would be happy if Britney Spears and “American Idol” would go away, but I put up with them in return for not having to worry about being arrested by the ice-cream police. This trade-off is very much in America’s DNA and is one of its great contributions to civilization: my country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty.

So is dignity a useless concept? Almost. The word does have an identifiable sense, which gives it a claim, though a limited one, on our moral consideration.

Dignity is a phenomenon of human perception. Certain signals from the world trigger an attribution in the mind of a perceiver. Just as converging lines in a drawing are a cue for the perception of depth, and differences in loudness between the two ears cue us to the position of a sound, certain features in another human being trigger ascriptions of worth. These features include signs of composure, cleanliness, maturity, attractiveness, and control of the body. The perception of dignity in turn elicits a response in the perceiver. Just as the smell of baking bread triggers a desire to eat it, and the sight of a baby’s face triggers a desire to protect it, the appearance of dignity triggers a desire to esteem and respect the dignified person.

This explains why dignity is morally significant: We should not ignore a phenomenon that causes one person to respect the rights and interests of another. But it also explains why dignity is relative, fungible, and often harmful. Dignity is skin-deep: it’s the sizzle, not the steak; the cover, not the book. What ultimately matters is respect for the person, not the perceptual signals that typically trigger it. Indeed, the gap between perception and reality makes us vulnerable to dignity illusions. We may be impressed by signs of dignity without underlying merit, as in the tin-pot dictator, and fail to recognize merit in a person who has been stripped of the signs of dignity, such as a pauper or refugee.

Exactly what aspects of dignity should we respect? For one thing, people generally want to be seen as dignified. Dignity is thus one of the interests of a person, alongside bodily integrity and personal property, that other people are obligated to respect. We don’t want anyone to stomp on our toes; we don’t want anyone to steal our hubcaps; and we don’t want anyone to open the bathroom door when we’re sitting on the john. A value on dignity in this precise sense does have an application to biomedicine, namely greater attention to the dignity of patients when it does not compromise their medical treatment. The volume contains fine discussions by Pellegrino and by Rebecca Dresser on the avoidable humiliations that today’s patients are often forced to endure (like those hideous hospital smocks that are open at the back). No one could object to valuing dignity in this sense, and that’s the point. When the concept of dignity is precisely specified, it becomes a mundane matter of thoughtfulness pushing against callousness and bureaucratic inertia, not a contentious moral conundrum. And, because it amounts to treating people in the way that they wish to be treated, ultimately it’s just another application of the principle of autonomy.

There is a second reason to give dignity a measure of cautious respect. Reductions in dignity may harden the perceiver’s heart and loosen his inhibitions against mistreating the person. When people are degraded and humiliated, such as Jews in Nazi Germany being forced to wear yellow armbands or dissidents in the Cultural Revolution being forced to wear grotesque haircuts and costumes, onlookers find it easier to despise them. Similarly, when refugees, prisoners, and other pariahs are forced to live in squalor, it can set off a spiral of dehumanization and mistreatment. This was demonstrated in the famous Stanford prison experiment, in which volunteers assigned to be “prisoners” had to wear smocks and leg irons and were referred to by serial numbers instead of names. The volunteers assigned to be “guards” spontaneously began to brutalize them. Note, though, that all these cases involve coercion, so once again they are ruled out by autonomy and respect for persons. So, even when breaches of dignity lead to an identifiable harm, it’s ultimately autonomy and respect for persons that gives us the grounds for condemning it.

Could there be cases in which a voluntary relinquishing of dignity leads to callousness in onlookers and harm to third parties—what economists call negative externalities? In theory, yes. Perhaps if people allowed their corpses to be publicly desecrated, it would encourage violence against the bodies of the living. Perhaps the sport of dwarf-tossing encourages people to mistreat all dwarves. Perhaps violent pornography encourages violence against women. But, for such hypotheses to justify restrictive laws, they need empirical support. In one’s imagination, anything can lead to anything else: Allowing people to skip church can lead to indolence; letting women drive can lead to sexual licentiousness. In a free society, one cannot empower the government to outlaw any behavior that offends someone just because the offendee can pull a hypothetical future injury out of the air. No doubt Mao, Savonarola, and Cotton Mather could provide plenty of reasons why letting people do what they wanted would lead to the breakdown of society.

The sickness in theocon bioethics goes beyond imposing a Catholic agenda on a secular democracy and using “dignity” to condemn anything that gives someone the creeps. Ever since the cloning of Dolly the sheep a decade ago, the panic sown by conservative bioethicists, amplified by a sensationalist press, has turned the public discussion of bioethics into a miasma of scientific illiteracy. Brave New World, a work of fiction, is treated as inerrant prophesy. Cloning is confused with resurrecting the dead or mass-producing babies. Longevity becomes “immortality,” improvement becomes “perfection,” the screening for disease genes becomes “designer babies” or even “reshaping the species.” The reality is that biomedical research is a Sisyphean struggle to eke small increments in health from a staggeringly complex, entropy-beset human body. It is not, and probably never will be, a runaway train.

A major sin of theocon bioethics is exactly the one that it sees in biomedical research: overweening hubris. In every age, prophets foresee dystopias that never materialize, while failing to anticipate the real revolutions. Had there been a President’s Council on Cyberethics in the 1960s, no doubt it would have decried the threat of the Internet, since it would inexorably lead to 1984, or to computers “taking over” like HAL in 2001. Conservative bioethicists presume to soothsay the outcome of the quintessentially unpredictable endeavor called scientific research. And they would stage-manage the kinds of social change that, in a free society, only emerge as hundreds of millions of people weigh the costs and benefits of new developments for themselves, adjusting their mores and dealing with specific harms as they arise, as they did with in vitro fertilization and the Internet.

Worst of all, theocon bioethics flaunts a callousness toward the billions of non-geriatric people, born and unborn, whose lives or health could be saved by biomedical advances. Even if progress were delayed a mere decade by moratoria, red tape, and funding taboos (to say nothing of the threat of criminal prosecution), millions of people with degenerative diseases and failing organs would needlessly suffer and die. And that would be the biggest affront to human dignity of all.

Steven Pinker is Johnstone Professor of Psychology at Harvard and the author of The Stuff of Thought.

April 7, 2011
Future humans with algae implants could breathe underwater

Future humans with algae implants could breathe underwater

Ever wonder how we’re going to create humans who can breathe underwater? Of course you do. Now a study published this week about how algae insinuate themselves into salamander embryos (and DNA) could provide the beginnings of an answer.

We know that viruses can invade an organism, and eventually wind up integrating into that organism’s DNA permanently. Human DNA is packed with all the virus DNA we’ve absorbed over the past few hundred thousand years. But could other microbes do the same thing? A group of biologists decided to find out, by studying the relationship between algae and salamanders. They knew that algae often snuck inside salamander embryos, but the question that nagged was what happened next. Now it seems likely that some salamanders are literally part algae. And this odd situation could be the foundation for biological tweaks that might help future posthumans live underwater.

Basically, it appears that algae sneak into developing salamander eggs, and become part of the salamander fetus as it grows. And the algae doesn’t leave, either - some adult salamanders have algae DNA, which they are likely passing on to the next generation. That’s right: Salamanders are part-plant.

According to a release from PNAS:

The researchers report that algae, which may come into contact with developing salamanders when the eggs are laid in pools of water, enter the embryos before the development of the salamander’s adaptive immune system. Previous studies have proposed that the adaptive immune system prevents intracellular symbiosis between algae and vertebrate animals. Fewer algal cells were detected in later stage salamander larvae; however, tests revealed algal DNA in the reproductive tracts of some adults, which suggested to the researchers that algae may also directly transfer to salamander offspring from one generation to the next.

Here’s where things get interesting for those of us who look forward to the Homo sapiens aquatic bio-expansion pack. The likely reason why this half-plant, half-animal symbiotic relationship evolved was because the algae snacked on nitrogen in the embryo’s waste, while the embryo benefited from the oxygen in the algae’s waste. OK, yes, they were both eating each other’s poop, if you want to think of it that way. But more importantly, what it means is that algae could be built-in source of oxygen for organisms it decides to pair with symbiotically.

According to the authors of this study, we are now certain that algae can live within vertebrate tissues, which means - hey, why not in humans? We’re vertebrates. Next time you’re coming up with your mad scientist plan to design aquatic humans, consider algae implants. Sure you’d need to do a lot of bioengineering first, but algae could prove to be the foundation of a redesigned human who needs help pulling oxygen from the water.

Read the scientific article that inspired this futurist speculation in PNAS.

February 26, 2011
Public Spaces Are Key to Revolution – And Democracy | The Utopianist - Think Bigger

Written by Brian Merchant on 25 February 2011 


In the great civil protests the year has seen thus far, there’s at least one common element: ample public space for the peaceful protesters to gather. These spaces, from Tahir square in Egypt to the Capitol building in downtown Madison, Wisconsin, give citizens an integral venue to gather and be heard. That’s the point Jay Walljasper, author of All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons, raises in a recent piece for Yes magazine.

He writes that, while much of the attention in the media has been focused on the revolutions’ use of social media technology, “the importance of a much older form of commons in these revolts has earned scant attention—the public spaces where citizens rally to voice their discontent, show their power and ultimately articulate a new vision for their homelands.” And Walljasper points out that to “celebrate their victory over the Mubarak regime, for example, protesters in Cairo jubilantly returned to Tahrir Square, where the revolution was born, to pick up trash.”

Now, it should be pointed out that the social media networks that have gotten so much attention are a new form of public space — especially Twitter, but Facebook as well, etc, are open to everyone, with few caveats. Those public channels can be flooded with a show of dissent too, and can also yield a powerful example — that’s why an open Internet must be preserved at all costs.

But it is indeed the hallmark of a strong democracy when occupying such physical public spaces like city squares or government capitals is tolerated — or better, encouraged. In a way, Egyptians, Tunisians, and now Yemenis, Bahrainis, Libyans, and so on, are fighting for the right to peacefully occupy these public squares. More often than not it’s been dangerous for civil protesters to do so — and in some cases they’ve been cleared out with gunfire and other violent means. But occupying a presumably public space — taking it back for the people — is as symbolic a gesture for a revolution as there is. The sight of Egyptians gathering in Tahir, chanting, praying, channeling their anger peacefully, is not one we’ll forget soon.

The revolutionaries in the Middle East are fighting for a form of a right we enjoy in the US — the right to protest, show discontent, and engage our peers and government on issues of the day.

The protesters in Madison, WI, for example can flood the capital building with no such fear of violent retribution. Unfortunately, Walljasper worries that the ability to do this, which relies heavily on ample open spaces, is slipping away:

the exercise of democracy depends upon having a literal commons where people can gather as citizens—a square, Main Street, park, or other public space that is open to all. An alarming trend in American life is the privatization of our public realm. As corporate-run shopping malls replaced downtowns and main streets as the center of action, we lost some of our public voice. You can’t organize a rally, hand out flyers, or circulate a petition in a shopping mall without the permission of the management, which will almost certainly say no because they don’t want to distract shoppers’ attention from the merchandise. That’s why you see few benches or other gathering spots inside malls. The result is that our ability to even discuss the issues of the day (or any other subject) with our fellow citizens is limited.

Now, there have been moves to the contrary on occasion — New York City famously opened up Times Square as a pedestrian zone (ironically, perhaps, because it was a boon to commerce there). But by and large, the trend has been going in the direction Walljasper points to, especially in the smaller cities across the nation: More and more commercially and privately owned spaces, and fewer public areas. It’s a trend we should seek to reverse.

Image: Tahir Square, Madison Capitol, via Minnesota Public Radio

February 13, 2011
Vacuum has friction after all - space - 11 February 2011 - New Scientist

A BALL spinning in a vacuum should never slow down, since no outside forces are acting on it. At least that’s what Newton would have said. But what if the vacuum itself creates a type of friction that puts the brakes on spinning objects? The effect, which might soon be detectable, could act on interstellar dust grains.

In quantum mechanics, the uncertainty principle says we can never be sure that an apparent vacuum is truly empty. Instead, space is fizzing with photons that are constantly popping into and out of existence before they can be measured directly. Even though they appear only fleetingly, these “virtual” photons exert the same electromagnetic forces on the objects they encounter as normal photons do.

Now, Alejandro Manjavacas and F. Javier García de Abajo of the Institute of Optics at the Spanish National Research Council in Madrid say these forces should slow down spinning objects. Just as a head-on collision packs a bigger punch than a tap between two cars one behind the other, a virtual photon hitting an object in the direction opposite to its spin collides with greater force than if it hits in the same direction.

So over time, a spinning object will gradually slow down, even if equal numbers of virtual photons bombard it from all sides. The rotational energy it loses is then emitted as real, detectable photons (Physical Review A, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevA.82.063827).

The strength of the effect depends on the object’s make-up and size. Objects whose electronic properties prevent them from easily absorbing electromagnetic waves, such as gold, may decelerate little or not at all. But small, low-density particles, which have less rotational momentum, slow down dramatically.

The rate of deceleration also depends on temperature, since the hotter it is the more virtual photons pop in and out of existence, producing the friction. At room temperature, a 100-nanometre-wide grain of graphite, the kind that is abundant in interstellar dust, would take about 10 years to slow to about one-third of its initial speed. At 700 °C, an average temperature for hot areas of the universe, that same speed decrease would take only 90 days. In the cold of interstellar space, it would take 2.7 million years.

Could this effect be tested in the lab? Manjavacas says the experiment would require an ultra-high vacuum and high-precision lasers to trap the nanoparticles, conditions that are “demanding but reachable in the foreseeable future”.

John Pendry of Imperial College in London calls the analysis a “fine piece of work” and says it could provide insights into whether quantum information is ever destroyed, for example, when it falls into a black hole. He says the real photons emitted during the deceleration process should contain information about the quantum state of the spinning particle, much as the photons thought to escape from black holes as Hawking radiation are thought to encode information about the holes.

"This is one of the few elementary processes that converts what appears to be purely classical mechanical energy into a highly correlated quantum state," Pendry says.

How to float above a vacuum

Houdini would be proud. It seems there is a way to levitate an object in a vacuum just by channelling the quantum fluctuations.

The trick involves the Casimir effect, in which objects very close to one another are pulled together thanks to quantum fluctuations in the vacuum between and around them. When two plates are brought ever closer together, for example, fewer fluctuations can occur in the gap between them. Fluctuations on their outer sides, however, continue as normal. This pressure difference on either side of the plates forces them to stick together.

In recent years, physicists have been trying to develop ways to reverse the Casimir effect and repel nearby objects, causing them to levitate. Previous suggestions have included inserting various materials between the objects to be repelled - such as exotic metamaterials, which bend electromagnetic waves in the opposite way to that expected, reversing the Casimir effect.

Now, Stanislav Maslovski and Mário Silveirinha of the University of Coimbra in Portugal outline a way to repel objects with no filler material. Their setup, described in a paper to appear in Physical Review A, uses 40-nanometre-wide silver rods stuck in a substrate like candles on a cake.

The metallic “candles” would channel the fluctuations between them, pushing anything placed there away. So if a perforated metal bar was lowered over the candles, with a candle poking through each hole, the bar should float, repelled in all directions by the candles between and around each hole.

February 10, 2011
A Literary Glass Ceiling? Why Magazines Aren't Reviewing More Female Writers. | The New Republic

The first shots were fired last summer, when Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult called the New York Times Book Review a boys’ club. (I weighed in then, too, calling on the Times to respond to statistics posted by Double X regarding the disparity between books by male authors and female authors reviewed in their pages.) Now, the war is on. A few days ago, VIDA, a women’s literary organization, posted on its website a stark illustration of what appears to be gender bias in the book review sections of magazines and literary journals. In 2010, as VIDA illustrated with pie charts, these publications printed vastly more book reviews by men than by women. They also reviewed more books by male authors.

The numbers are startling. At Harper’s, there were 27 male book reviewers and six female; about 69 percent of the books reviewed were by male authors. At the London Review of Books, men wrote 78 percent of the reviews and 74 percent of the books reviewed. Men made up 84 percent of the reviewers for The New York Review of Books and authored 83 percent of the books reviewed. TNR, I’m sorry to say, did not compare well: Of the 62 writers who wrote about books for us last year, only 13 (or 21 percent) were women. We reviewed a total of 64 books, nine of them by women (14.5 percent). “We know women write,” poet Amy King writes on the VIDA website. “We know women read. It’s time to begin asking why the 2010 numbers don’t reflect those facts with any equity.”

But let’s slow down for a moment. There’s some essential data missing from these moan-inducing statistics. What’s the gender breakdown in books published last year? It’s crucial to both of the categories VIDA explores, because freelance book reviewers, who make up the majority of the reviewing population, tend to be authors themselves. If more men than women are publishing books, then it stands to reason that more books by men are getting reviewed and more men are reviewing books. So TNR’s Eliza Gray, Laura Stampler, and I crunched some numbers. Our sample was small and did not pretend to be comprehensive, and it may not represent a cross-section of the industry, because we did not include genre books and others with primarily commercial appeal. But it gave us a snapshot. And what we found helps explain VIDA’s mystery.

We looked at fall 2010 catalogs from 13 publishing houses, big and small. Discarding the books that were unlikely to get reviewed—self-help, cooking, art—we tallied up how many were by men and how many were by women. Only one of the houses we investigated—the boutique Penguin imprint Riverhead—came close to parity, with 55 percent of its books by men and 45 percent by women. Random House came in second, with 37 percent by women. It was downhill from there, with three publishers scoring around 30 percent—Norton, Little Brown, and Harper—and the rest 25 percent and below, including the elite literary houses Knopf (23 percent) and FSG (21 percent). Harvard University Press, the sole academic press we considered, came in at just 15 percent.

I speculated that independents—more iconoclastic, publishing more work in translation, and perhaps less focused on the bottom line—would turn out to be more equitable than the big commercial houses. Boy, was I wrong. Granted, these presses publish a smaller number of books in total, so a difference in one or two books has a larger effect on their percentages. Still, their numbers are dismaying. Graywolf, with 25 percent female authors, was our highest-scoring independent. The cutting-edge Brooklyn publisher Melville House came in at 20 percent. The doggedly leftist house Verso was second-to-last at 11 percent. Our lowest scorer? It pains me to say it, because Dalkey Archive Press publishes some great books that are ignored by the mainstream houses. But it would be nice if more than 10 percent of them were by women. (In the 2011 edition of Dalkey’s much-lauded Best European Fiction series, edited by Aleksandar Hemon, 30 percent of the stories are by women. Last year, at least Zadie Smith wrote the preface.)

Now we can better understand why fewer books by women than men are getting reviewed. In fact, these numbers we found show that the magazines are reviewing female authors in something close to the proportion of books by women published each year. The question now becomes why more books by women are not getting published.

The VIDA numbers provide a start toward an answer: Of the new writing published in Tin House, Granta,and The Paris Review, around one-third of it was by women. For many fiction writers and poets, publishing in these journals is a first step to getting a book contract. Do women submit work to these magazines at a lower rate than men, or are men’s submissions more likely to get accepted? We can’t be sure. But, as Robin Romm writes in Double X, “The gatekeepers of literary culture—at least at magazines—are still primarily male.” If these gatekeepers are showing a gender bias, there’s not much room to make it up later.

Or maybe it’s that we’re not quite as equal as we like to think we are. My colleague Meghan O’Rourke wistfully comments in Slate that “writing isn’t a field historically dominated by men, like theoretical physics … and one might reasonably have assumed that since feminism’s second wave, matters had roughly evened out.” In fact, it’s the rare profession in which the numbers are even. According to a fact sheet published last year by the AFL-CIO’s Department for Professional Employees, in 2008, women constituted 32.4 percent of all lawyers and 32.2 percent of physicians and surgeons. (We’re 68.8 percent of psychologists, 92 percent of nurses, and 50.4 percent of technical writers, the only type of writer included in the report.) Granted, many important numbers have already increased: The proportion of women in law school has gone up from 3.7 percent in 1963 to nearly 50 percent in 2007-08, and women also account for nearly 50 percent of med school students. Yet, while we may have come a long way, in many areas we’re still catching up.

Peter Stothard, editor of the Times Literary Supplement, told The Guardian that he refused to “make a fetish” of having an equal number of male and female contributors. “The TLS is only interested in getting the best reviews of the most important books,” he said. I, too, like to think I choose the books that I review for their inherent interest, their literary quality. But the VIDA statistics made me wonder afresh about the ways we define “best” and “most important” in a field as subjective as literature, which, after all, is deeply influenced by the cultural norms in any given age. As a member of third-wave feminism, growing up in the 1970s and ’80s, I was brought up to believe we lived in a meritocracy, where the battles had been fought and won, with the spoils left for us to gather. It is sobering to realize that we may live and work in a world still held in the grip of unconscious biases, no less damaging for their invisibility. (Meghan has written about this, too.)

Now, I’m contemplating my personal 2010 statistics, which demonstrate how a strict male-female breakdown flattens out the complexities. I reviewed a biography of a female writer (Clarice Lispector) written by a man, but focused the piece on her and her work: Does this count in the male or female column? What about a new translation by a woman (Lydia Davis) of a book by a male author (Madame Bovary)? And, in my columns, I often mentioned new books by female writers and addressed issues of particular interest to women, such as the aforementioned “Franzenfreude” debacle. But, in the end, my bottom line was only a little more equitable than the norm: Of the books I reviewed, around 33 percent were by women.

Ruth Franklin is a senior editor for The New Republic.

October 17, 2010
Excerpt from "The Structure of Evolutionary Theory" by Steven Jay Gould

Environments cannot be conceptualised (or even operationalised) as objective places or circumstances in a world fully external to the organisms involved. First of all, environments include all interactions with other organisms, both conspecific and belonging to different taxa, and not just the climates, substrates and other more measurable properties of a surrounding physical world. Second, and more important, […] environments are intrinsically referential, and actively constructed by the organisms in question. Environments, in short, are made, not found. (via elmemorioso)

October 16, 2010
Excerpt from “Practicing New Historicism,” Greenblatt and Gallagher.

[…] the anecdote could be conceived as a tool with which to rub literary texts against the grain of received notions about their determinants, revealing the fingerprints of the accidental, suppressed, defeated, uncanny, abjected, or exotic—in short, the nonsurviving—even if only fleetingly. (via elmemorioso)

February 21, 2010
Shakespeare's Tongue, Heard at the Globe : NPR

 The Globe Theatre in London will soon become the first professional theater company in centuries to stage an entire run of a Shakespeare play in the original pronunciation. The actors in Troilus and Cressida will recite their lines with accents that are believed to be close to what would have been heard in Shakespeare’s day. Robert Siegel talks with actor Peter Forbes, who is playing the role of Pandarus in the production.