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Archive for the 'Science' Category

Monday, June 29th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Stem Cell Dialogues, by Sheldon Krimsky

This week our featured book is Stem Cell Dialogues: A Philosophical and Scientific Inquiry Into Medical Frontiers by Sheldon Krimsky.

In addition to featuring the book and the author on the blog, we will also be posting about the book on twitter, and facebook.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Stem Cell Dialogues to one winner. To enter the contest please e-mail pl2164@columbia.edu and include your name and address. The winner will be selected Friday, July 3 at 1:00 pm.

Here’s what Jonathan Garlick at Tufts University says about Stem Cell Dialogues: “This book presents a wonderful new approach to learning about stem cells and thinking about their broader impact at the interface of society, policy, religion, and ethics. Stem Cell Dialogues is highly novel, very engaging, and will open readers to new ways of thinking about the public stem cell debate.”

For more on the book you can read the chapter “Why Is This Cell Different From All Other Cells”:

Friday, June 12th, 2015

The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In the final post of the week’s feature, we have excerpted the twelfth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “The Personal Mystery and the Impersonal God.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Thursday, June 11th, 2015

The Beauty of Seeing More Than We Can Understand

Excellent Beauty

“Religions are completely natural illusions. All their alleged depth and mystery are chimerical. We can finally set them aside as sources of mysteries not worth taking seriously. We are now free to embrace the real mysteries, the ones worth taking seriously, the ones science reveals, the ones that have excellent beauty.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eleventh chapter of Excellent Beauty, in which Dietrich explains why “[t]he most exciting phrase to hear in science … is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny….”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

On the Mystery of Consciousness

Excellent Beauty

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s excerpt, Dietrich introduces and discusses the hard problem of consciousness.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Wednesday, June 10th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2

Excellent Beauty

“Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich discusses the continuing existence of “excellent beauties” (currently unsolved and possibly unsolvable mysteries).

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 2
By Eric Dietrich

In yesterday’s post, we saw what happens when science confronts religion, now we will what happens when science confronts the cosmos.

The grandest example of an excellent beauty is consciousness. I don’t mean anything unusual or strange by the word “consciousness”. Consciousness—or being conscious—is the most ordinary thing in your life . . . so ordinary, you rarely note it or think of it. Consciousness is the way the world seems to you, the way you experience it, feel it. Taste an apple, see a sunset, smell a rose or an angry skunk, stub your toe on the foot of the bed frame at 4:00 am, hear your dog breathe or a baby gurgle and coo. Introspect and consider your belief that there are an infinite number of numbers. These are all conscious experiences. We have experiences because we are conscious. Or, rather, our having them constitutes our being conscious. Being conscious is what makes it fun or horrible or merely boring to be a human (or anything else that is conscious). Using a phrase that the philosopher Thomas Nagel made famous (apparently only among philosophers), we can say that a being is conscious when there is something it is like to be that being. (See Nagel’s oft-cited paper, “What is it like to be a bat?”).

Consciousness has so thoroughly eluded scientific explanation that we have no idea what an explanatory theory of consciousness would even look like. This runs deep. Given an explanatory theory of conscious by, say, friendly, advanced, visiting space aliens, we couldn’t even begin to tell if it was correct or not. Consciousness somehow exists only inside our minds (not, note, inside our brains), while science can only tackle what is on the outside, what is public and measurable. But why should this be the case? Why should there be anything it is like to be a dog or an octopus or a lobster? Why should there be “insides” to our minds, beyond the reach of public, measuring science? A famous quote (apparently only among consciousness researchers) by Stuart Sutherland is apropos here: “Consciousness is a fascinating but elusive phenomenon; it is impossible to specify what it is, what it does, or why it evolved. Nothing worth reading has been written on it,” (from the International Dictionary of Psychology).

The denialism here is thick. Over the years, I’ve talk to many psychologists, neuroscientists, and philosophers about consciousness, and almost none of them think that consciousness is beyond explaining, none regard it as an enduring mystery. Pressed for why they should think such a thing in the face of our abject ignorance, they shrug and fall back on what is clearly faith—faith that our science will be one day explain everything.

Here, briefly, and minus explanations, is a short list of other excellent beauties. We begin with the most well-known: Basically all of quantum mechanics. Next, the infinity of numbers comes in sizes—that’s right: some infinities are bigger than others, by rather a lot, it turns out. No one knows why, yet the proof for this fact is relatively easy to follow. Logic contains some of the strangest mysteries. First, classical logic is completely unable to represent its fundamental notion, the inference from one sentence to another, say from “X is a prime number bigger than 2”, to “X is an odd number.” Second, there exist logics that allow some statements to be both true and false at the same time. More shockingly, some philosophers argue that such “true contradictions” are required to correctly describe completely ordinary things like walking into a room or blinking your eyes. Thirdly, any logical system that contains numbers and operations like addition produces truths that are obviously true, but which cannot be proven; here truth extends beyond proof. There are more logic mysteries, but let’s move on.

Here is a mystery involving something more ordinary: Did you know that there is a very old, currently undecipherable text complete with detailed colored drawings sitting in Yale University’s Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library? The author, purpose, and meaning of the text are unknown. Attempts to decode it or translate it defy all modern techniques used by linguists and cryptologists (going clear back to World War I). It’s called the Voynich Manuscript. Most scholars believe it was written sometime in the fifteenth or sixteenth century, but no one is sure (recent carbon-14 dating does put the date of the vellum in the fifteenth century). The language the manuscript is written in, if indeed it is a language, is completely baffling. Detailed statistical analysis of the symbols making up the manuscript, however, leads most scholars to believe that it is in fact written in some language, just not one used by any known culture or people. Here’s a final example. Recently it has been discovered that science itself, in its quest to find and explain all that can be found and explained, produces paradoxes that completely undo all the assumptions science has to make to be science. Science, it turns out, must assume what it wants to prove. (All the references to the above mysteries can be found in Excellent Beauty, except the last one; that one can be found in the paper “Science generates limit paradoxes.”)

What does the existence of enduring mysteries, of excellent beauties, mean? We have seen that in a sense, religion and science are co-conspirators—they conspire to create a world that is flatly natural. The supernatural bits of religions are not real, being only the products of our over-active imaginations fixed by group membership. But the excellent beauties are real, they are waiting there for any one to find and marvel at, and they are not the products of over-active imaginations. What are they the products of? That is itself the final excellent beauty: how is it that we inhabit a world that contains so many foundational paradoxes, so many enduring mysteries? How is it that some of our science and knowledge-seeking provides us with fulfilling and affirming explanations, while other parts of it shock us with strange enigmas that cause us to question the very core of what we think we know? It appears that what our science is telling us, with increasing urgency, is that the universe is not fully open to our comprehension. But it is fully open to our sense of beauty. And in the end, that’s better.

Tuesday, June 9th, 2015

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1

Excellent Beauty

“Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. In today’s post, Dietrich delves into our innate attraction to mystery, our nature as metaphysical realists, and the war between science and religion.

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Everyone Loves a Good — Temporary — Mystery, Pt. 1
By Eric Dietrich

Everybody loves a good mystery . . . as long as it gets solved. But if a mystery persists in spite of our best efforts to solve it, our love wanes. In fact, very few among us can tolerate an enduring mystery. Why is that? Why are enduring mysteries so upsetting? The answer cuts to the heart of what it means to be a human being and explains the enormous impact dodging enduring mysteries has played in human history. Science and religion owe their existence to such dodging. Excellent Beauty is the story of these three, science, religion, and enduring mysteries. The title of the book comes from a quote by Francis Bacon, “There is no excellent beauty that hath not some strangeness in the proportion.” The book also closely examines several such mysteries, revealing their excellent beauty, why they are enduring, and what this upsetting fact means.

Of course, most of the mysteries we encounter in our daily lives are upsetting not because they are mysteries, but rather because of what they are about. If someone you love has fainting spells, but six months of medical tests have revealed nothing, then you are confronted with an upsetting mystery. It is upsetting because someone you love is suffering, and experts cannot tell you why and so cannot fix the problem.

The mysteries we love are not like this. They occur at some remove from us. Murder mystery novels are a billion dollar a year industry for precisely this reason. Sir Charles Baskerville has died, apparently of natural causes, yet the footprints of an unknown and enormous hound were found near where he perished. This fact has a pressing and dark relevance because the Baskerville family has been living under an old curse, apparently involving a hound from Hell. . . . All good fun. And in the end, Sherlock Holmes solves this mystery nicely. Of course, mysteries such as these are at such a remove from us that they aren’t real. Consider a real mystery that is nevertheless something we can love: Why did the dinosaurs go extinct? We now know the answer to this mystery, or at least there is wide agreement on what the answer is: Earth was hit by a massive asteroid or comet, the smoking gun of which is the Chicxulub crater off the Yucatan Peninsula in the Gulf of Mexico. (For a recent definitive treatment, see “The Chicxulub Asteroid Impact and Mass Extinction at the Cretaceous-Paleogene Boundary” in Science, 5 March 2010: 1214-1218.) Before this explanation was discovered, the mystery of the missing dinosaurs was compelling and intensely investigated. (It is still being investigated since there is only “wide agreement” among scientists on the asteroid theory.)

There is a great affirmation for humankind in solving any deep, real mystery. This affirmation extends beyond the utility of any solution. The discovery of the virus responsible for AIDS was a tremendous advance in human health care and in the treatment of the disease itself. But the discovery of HIV goes deeper than human health. Two human properties explain this going-beyond aspect of the affirmation. Humans are, quite naturally, realists, in the metaphysical sense: we all think that there is a mind-independent world out there. We don’t know, except roughly, how many dogs there are in the world now, but we all think there is some definite number of them. And we think this number is what it is independently of our minds, independently of what we want it to be or what we wish it was. We are also all children of the Enlightenment at least in the sense that we carry around with us an Enlightenment ideal: we think we live in a rational universe, and we think that problems can be solved, at least in principle, by rational discourse or by some application of rationality. Putting these two together, we all think that there are answers out there and rationality can in principle reveal them. Every time a virus is found, a particle is discovered, an element is produced, some DNA is sequenced, or a planet’s unusual orbit is explained, our deeply held enlightenment ideal is affirmed: Yes! We inhabit an understandable world.

Religion is a great participator in this affirmation. And in this important sense, religion and science are compatible. Religious mysteries run deep. How can Jesus’s death redeem sinners today? How can their faith in him activate that redemption? Why is there evil if God is all-good and all-powerful? Why are there so many religions? (This bears a short digression. Conservative estimates put the number of religions today well into the tens of thousands. This estimate includes sects or denominations of the twenty or so major religions, which can be defined as religions with at least half a million adherents. Often, these sects or sub-religions differ almost as much from each other as the major religions differ from each other. So, for example, some experts estimate that there are over 30,000 versions of Christianity (see, for example the World Christian Encyclopedia or this list). Arguably all these versions worship some version of Jesus Christ, but beyond that, they differ significantly. For example, some see Jesus Christ as a sort of warrior against sin; some see the Christ as a god of love, unconcerned about sin; still others regard Jesus as a male human being who managed to live the perfect life and should therefore be emulated.)

The answers to all religious mysteries are commonly believed to be out there and fixed (realism), the understanding of which awaits our final fate. If our fate is good enough, the answers will be revealed to us, and such revelation will, at that time, finally make perfect sense (the Enlightenment ideal).
From this perspective, there is no war between science and religion, not really, and the world we live in, while troubled and dangerous, is, at least in principle, law-like and understandable.

Excellent Beauty argues that the above view of us and the universe we inhabit is Panglossian. There is a fierce war between science and religion. Science is winning—by a lot (this war is examined in detail in Excellent Beauty). Realism is at best an ineluctable metaphysical position. And most importantly, holding the Enlightenment ideal depends crucially on self-deception. Soberly considered, our universe contains only islands of understandability, islands where rationality is the dominant force, islands where our explanations work. Beyond these islands there is a vast, bizarre world consisting almost exclusively of enduring mysteries at which we can marvel, but can never explain or explain away.

Let’s take these points in turn.

Stephen Jay Gould is the avatar of the view that science and religion are not at war. He proposed what he called nonoverlapping magisteria for the proper relationship between science and religion (see his Rocks of Ages: Science and Religion in the Fullness of Life). Gould said that science and religion are in fact so different that they can easily coexist, respecting each other’s dominion (i.e., magisterium; a magisterium is “a domain of authority in teaching” (p. 5)). Gould says:

I do not see how science and religion could be unified, or even synthesized, under any common scheme of explanation or analysis; but I also do not understand why the two enterprises should experience any conflict. Science tries to document the factual character of the natural world, and to develop theories that coordinate and explain these facts. Religion, on the other hand, operates in the equally important, but utterly different realm of human purposes, meanings, and values—subjects that the factual domain of science might illuminate, but can never resolve. (p. 4)

If anyone other than Gould had written that, I would have thought that person irremediably naïve. But Gould is not naïve. So, I can only assume this suggestion of his results from some level of desperation. He so wanted to halt the war between science and religion that he fabricated this idea of separate but equal domains. A moment’s reflection, however, reveals that religion and science are not separate magisteria at all—they are profoundly overlapping magisteria. All religions make factual claims about the world: Jehovah created it in six days, Changing Woman created it and the Navajo who live on it, ghosts roam the world, magic can heal the sick, prayer is talking to Yahweh (or Jesus or Allah or Zeus, etc.), living beings reincarnate, and on and on. In fact, it is because all religions make factual claims that they are able to supply purpose, meaning, and values. Going the other direction, religion is not the sole provider of purposes, meanings, and values. There are plenty of atheists and agnostics whose lives hum with meaning. They get meaning from the traditional places: their families, their jobs, their hobbies—from doing science, making art and music, climbing mountains, learning to juggle, raising children, working on their marriage, and so forth. Oddly, and disturbingly, in flatly denying the obvious truth that religions make factual claims, and in denying that religion and science are at war, Gould is behaving exquisitely religiously: he is changing the “evidence” to fit his beliefs, rather than letting the evidence change his beliefs. The nonoverlapping magisteria idea is simply false. Science and religion are at war.

Science has arguably already won this war, and in the best way possible: by explaining why we are religious. Evolutionary theory explains both why we humans are religious and why there are tens of thousands of religions. Being religious, or having the propensity to be religious is an evolutionary adaptation. What advantage do religions bestow? They help knit groups together, among other things. The details of such an evolutionary explanation are complex and still being worked out by anthropologists, biologists, philosophers, and psychologists. In broad outline, most of these nascent theories are similar, and contribute to a large emerging explanation. In Excellent Beauty, I combine two of the most well-known and well-received theories, David Wilson’s group selection theory and Daniel Dennett’s hyperactive agent detection device (see, respectively, Wilson’s Darwin’s Cathedral, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell). In brief, I argue that religions help bind groups together via shared magical thinking. We like being in a group that shares our beliefs about the weird, disturbing stuff we’ve experienced. And we like belonging to a group that offers and promotes compelling explanations of the stuff we experience. Both Wilson and Dennett’s theories are needed: Only Dennett’s theory can explain the universal existence of belief in the supernatural in the world’s religions, and only Wilson’s theory can explain why there are thousands of religions instead of billions of them.

Tomorrow we turn to the excellent beauties themselves.

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion

Excellent Beauty

“Atheism doesn’t really get at the heart of the matter. It is not that there are no gods or goddesses, but rather that there are no religions. What we call religion is people engaged in various rituals at various times of the year and at various stages of their lives, wearing various ritualistic clothing, and uttering various words and phrases. But this is all a kind of vast pretending, a pretending so complete that most of us cannot even see the pretense, a pretense fueled solely by our genetic makeup and our group membership.” — Eric Dietrich

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. To kick the feature off, we are happy to present an excerpt from the eighth chapter of Excellent Beauty: “Beyond Atheism: The Religion Illusion.”

Don’t forget to enter to win a free copy of the book in our book giveaway!

Monday, June 8th, 2015

Book Giveaway! Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich

Excellent Beauty

“This is, quite simply, one of the most eloquent books on religion and science I have read in recent years. Dietrich writes clearly and accessibly, with a touch of humor and a great deal of personality. His book moves fluidly between historically supported arguments and pedagogically minded examples, all presented in a limpid style that will be attractive to the general reader.” — William Egginton

This week our featured book is Excellent Beauty: The Naturalness of Religion and the Unnaturalness of the World, by Eric Dietrich. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book and its author on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of Excellent Beauty. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, June 12th at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Monday, June 1st, 2015

Jeffrey Sachs Discusses “The Age of Sustainable Development” on Charlie Rose

Last week, Jeffrey Sachs appeared on Charlie Rose to discuss his new book The Age of Sustainable Development and the urgent need for global action on climate change:

Friday, May 22nd, 2015

The Journey Ahead

The Thirteenth Step

“[F]or now at least, any promise of “cure” is somewhere between naïve and dishonest, depending on who makes it and why. But it is equally true that these chronic relapsing disorders can now be managed so that most people with such disorders can decrease their risk for relapse, allowing them to live productive, good lives.” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. For the final day of our giveaway, we are happy to present an excerpt from “The Journey Ahead,” the final chapter of The Thirteenth Step.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

Thursday, May 21st, 2015

PTSD and addiction

The Thirteenth Step

“Here’s a dream: A future in which every patient with alcohol problems, man or women, is thoroughly evaluated for PTSD, treated with evidence based behavioral interventions, and given the opportunity to benefit from synergistic effects of psychotherapy and pharmacology. Wouldn’t that be something?” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. In today’s post, Heilig discusses the deep connection between PTSD and substance addiction which scientists are still trying to fully understand.

And don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

PTSD and addiction
By Markus Heilig

The public is clearly waking up to the fact that much of the toll of PTDS comes from substance use. Hard drinking may appear as the only way to temporarily escape the intrusive memories of traumatic events, face people at the grocery store, or fall asleep without the torment of nightmares. Up to 75% of combat veterans with PTSD also have alcohol problems. Conversely, between a third and half of patients seeking treatment for alcohol problems have PTSD.

But here’s something else to think about: The vast majority of PTSD patients are actually not veterans of wars. Firefights or explosive devices are not the most common causes of PTSD. Rape, sexual assault, or intimate partner violence are. Even with the recent wars, PTSD is twice as common among women as it is among men, affecting 8 – 16% of adult females in the US. Yet women suffering from PTSD are not much talked about. When they seek treatment for alcohol problems, the questions that would allow a PTSD diagnosis to be made are rarely asked. And even if the diagnosis is obvious, people look the other way. Traumatic events are so hard to talk about. Excuses are plentiful. Maybe bringing back traumatic memories will trigger cravings and relapse? So this difficult material is left for a “later” that never comes. (more…)

Wednesday, May 20th, 2015

Us and Them

The Thirteenth Step

“In this book I will share some of the amazing advances the neuroscience of addiction has made over the years I have been in the field. I will offer a personal take on what addiction is: a malfunction of some of the most fundamental brain circuits that make us tick, and a disease that is not much different from other chronic, relapsing medical conditions. I trust it will be clear what addiction is not: a moral failing, a simple inability to say no, or a condition that can be cured by mystic incantations.” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. Today, we are happy to present an excerpt from “Us and Them,” the first chapter of The Thirteenth Step, in which Heilig explains his experiences working with addiction, and lays out his hopes for what his book will accomplish.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

Tuesday, May 19th, 2015

Why breakthroughs in addiction research have not changed addiction treatment

The Thirteenth Step

“But the size of the addiction research enterprise is dwarfed by a $35 billion a year or so treatment industry in this field. This is a booming entrepreneurial world, where treatment centers charge people tens of thousands of dollars for various offerings. And despite all the investment in science, few of those treatments make much use of the scientific advances in the area of addiction. In fact, treatment approaches have not changed much at all over the past quarter century.” — Markus Heilig

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. To open the week’s feature, Heilig has written a powerfully argued guest post in which he contrasts the advances in the science of addiction and the stagnation in the way that addiction is actually treated.

Don’t forget to enter our book giveaway of The Thirteenth Step!

Why have breakthroughs in addiction research not changed addiction treatment?
By Markus Heilig

The US taxpayers fund the overwhelming majority of addiction research in the world. Every year, Congress channels about $1 billion to the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). An additional almost 0.5 billion is separately given to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA), my own workplace for the past decade. That may sound impressive, and in many ways it is. With the help of these resources, there have been truly amazing advances in the understanding of how addiction works. “Brain reward systems” have become part of the general parlance. The NIDA director has become a celebrity who has appeared on 60 Minutes. New findings on how alcohol and drugs get people hooked have shown a rare ability to fascinate people far outside the circle of scientists. And there has been perhaps a more modest, but still significant progress in figuring out better treatments.

But the size of the addiction research enterprise is dwarfed by a $35 billion a year or so treatment industry in this field. This is a booming entrepreneurial world, where treatment centers charge people tens of thousands of dollars for various offerings. And despite all the investment in science, few of those treatments make much use of the scientific advances in the area of addiction. In fact, treatment approaches have not changed much at all over the past quarter century. If someone were to be pulled out of a 12-step meeting then and transported through time to one today, he or she would probably not notice much of a difference. Here is, perhaps unsurprisingly then, something that the investment in research has not bought us: Any measurable dent in the damage done by addictions.

Some basic facts: Alcohol continues to kill about 80,000 Americans each year. Death from prescription pain killers adds almost 20,000 more, and has been on the rise for over a decade. As we have begun clamping down on these prescriptions, heroin has become resurgent instead. Why is it that all the passionate research efforts by dedicated scientists have such a hard time producing much of a change in the lives of real people with addictions? Only about one in 10 people with alcoholism ever receive treatment. For most of those, that is synonymous with joining Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a movement formed three-quarters of a century ago, when medicine had little to offer addicts beyond perhaps treating the shakes of acute alcohol withdrawal. (more…)

Monday, May 18th, 2015

Book Giveaway! The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig

The Thirteenth Step

“Heilig makes the science accessible to both lay and professional audiences alike by using a strong, conversational tone interspersed with humor and illustrative vignettes. He draws the reader in and effectively consolidates complex concepts. I applaud his efforts to bring the plight of the addicted to the attention of others and for calling upon the field to do its very best to help.” — Valerie J. Slaymaker

This week our featured book is The Thirteenth Step: Addiction in the Age of Brain Science, by Markus Heilig. Throughout the week, we will be featuring content about the book, its subject, and its editors on our blog as well as on our Twitter feed and our Facebook page.

We are also offering a FREE copy of The Thirteenth Step. To enter our book giveaway, simply fill out the form below with your name and preferred mailing address. We will randomly select our winners on Friday, May 22nd at 1:00 pm. Good luck, and spread the word!

Wednesday, May 6th, 2015

An interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, Author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett

Theatre and Evolution, Kirsten Shepherd-Barr

The following is an interview with Kirsten Shepherd-Barr, author of Theatre and Evolution from Ibsen to Beckett:

Question: What initially struck the connection between the theatrical arts and evolutionary theory? What specifically drew you to evolutionary theory as a lens?

Kirsten Shepherd-Barr: I had written about it before for my book Science on Stage in 2006, where I devoted each chapter to an area of science, such as physics, evolution, math, medicine, etc. After I finished it, the chapter I really wanted to pursue in a lot more depth was the one on evolution. Then around 2009 everyone was gearing up for the 150th anniversary of On the Origin of Species and Darwin’s 200th birthday so there was this massive worldwide interest in Darwin. I was asked to do a panel on “Darwin and the Theater” for the International Darwin Festival in Cambridge. I brought together two playwrights and a neuroscientist who had been a theater director earlier in his career. I did a lot of research for the panel and it revealed to me how much there was to still delve into. And the other piece of the puzzle was that I had come across fantastically interesting books on Darwin and the novel, but nothing on Darwin and drama. It struck me that there was so much to say about theater and evolution and it became very clear to me that it was going to go way beyond Darwin. It’s not just a 19th century phenomenon, either; it’s looking over the past 200 years at evolutionary theory’s development.

At the festival in Cambridge, there was a wonderful exhibition on Darwin and the visual arts. They had mounted these huge canvases by famous painters of wildlife and scenes of survival and great drama in the natural world. There was a kind of underlying message there, a more oblique engagement with Darwin, not necessarily obvious, but doing it in a more subtle way. You have to sniff it out. It’s not necessarily going to be this overt reference to Darwin. It’s about the texture of the play rather than the direct references.

Q: What does theatre specifically ask from evolution that establishes a relationship different from other art forms?

KSB: The number one thing that struck me in the broader field in literature and science is that generally there is a sense that George Eliot, Thomas Hardy, and other novelists of the time had a real understanding of Darwin’s work and incorporated it in a more or less positive way. There is almost the opposite reaction in theater. The plays I was studying tended to be questioning. There was much more probing skepticism going on. Why would that be? Theater is a live art form. And the potential there in terms of evolution is just so great. You’re putting a human body on stage, a physical signifier of evolution. When you stick an actor on stage you’re signaling physiological processes that all humans have in common. You have an evolutionary process in front of you. Evolution is such a long-term 19th century spectacle, you have these huge dramatic scenes, waterfalls on stage even, and they are all part of a larger process.

In many ways my real starting point is the discoveries of Lyell, whose work Darwin was reading during his voyage on the Beagle, seeing the things he’s reading about. He is absorbing this concept of deep time and is then incorporating that as he formulates his own evolutionary ideas. The connection is this idea of the spectacle, particularly seen in British theaters in the mid-19th century, where effects, machinery, sophisticated and ambitious stagings, displaying natural settings like waterfalls, are pointing to what’s going on in the sciences, telling us the earth is much older than we thought. There really has to be a connection there, it’s not a coincidence.

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Friday, April 24th, 2015

The Drugs Do Work (Sometimes) — Nessa Carey on Junk DNA and Medicine

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

“One day science will probably be able to interpret all the pos­sible epigenetic modifications that are found in the genome and predict precisely what their consequences will be for gene expres­sion. But unravelling the rea­sons behind the triumph of hope over experience in the investment community? Be realistic.”—Nessa Carey

In the final post for our week-long feature on Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, by Nessa Carey, we’ve provided an excerpt from the penultimate chapter, “The Drugs Do Work (Sometimes). In the chapter Carey explains how drug companies are building on new discoveries relating to junk DNA to develop new drugs. However, as Carey points out, the time and money they’re willing to devote to research and development is not consistent and often results in slowing down progress:

Billions of dollars are spent every year by companies trying to cre­ate new drugs to treat human diseases. They hope to find ways to tackle unmet medical needs, a situation that is becoming ever more urgent with the increasing age profile of the global population. The breakthroughs in the understanding of the impact of junk DNA on gene expression and disease progression are triggering a slew of new companies seeking to exploit this field. Specifically, most of the new efforts are in using non-protein-coding RNAs as drugs in themselves. The basic premise is that junk RNA – long non-coding, smallRNAs or another form called antisense – will be given to patients, to influence gene expression and control or cure disease.

This is very different from the way we treat diseases at the moment. Historically, most drugs have been of a type known as small molecules. These are chemically created and are relatively simple in shape. More recently, we have learnt how to use proteins as drugs. Probably the most famous is insulin, the hormone that diabetics use to regulate their blood sugar levels. Antibodies are another very successful type of protein drug. These are engineered versions of the molecules we all produce to fight infections. Drug companies have found ways of adapting these so that they will bind to over-expressed proteins and neutralise their activities. The bestselling antibody is one that treats rheumatoid arthritis very effectively, but there are others that treat conditions as diverse as breast cancer and blindness.

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Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

Nessa Carey Introduces Us to Dark Genomic Matter

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

“It’s becoming apparent that junk DNA actually has a multiplicity of different functions, perhaps unsurprisingly given how much of it there is.”—Nessa Carey

We continue our week-long feature on Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, by Nessa Carey, with an excerpt from the chapter “An Introduction to Genomic Dark Matter:

For years, scientists had no explanation for why so much of our DNA doesn’t code for proteins. These non-coding parts were dismissed with the term ‘junk DNA’. But gradually this position has begun to look less tenable, for a whole host of reasons.

Perhaps the most fundamental reason for the shift in empha­sis is the sheer volume of junk DNA that our cells contain. One of the biggest shocks when the human genome sequence was completed in 2001 was the discovery that over 98 per cent of the DNA in a human cell is junk. It doesn’t code for any proteins.

Let’s imagine we visit a car factory, perhaps for something high-end like a Ferrari. We would be pretty surprised if for every two people who were build­ing a shiny red sports car, there were another 98 who were sitting around doing nothing. This would be ridiculous, so why would it be reasonable in our genomes? While it’s a very fair point that it’s the imperfections in organisms that are often the strongest evidence for descent from common ancestors—we humans really don’t need an appendix —this seems like taking imperfection rather too far.

A much more likely scenario in our car factory would be that for every two people assembling a car, there are 98 others doing all the things that keep a business moving. Raising finance, keep­ing accounts, publicising the product, processing the pensions, cleaning the toilets, selling the cars etc. This is probably a much better model for the role of junk in our genome. We can think of proteins as the final end points required for life, but they will never be properly produced and coordinated without the junk. Two people can build a car, but they can’t maintain a company selling it, and certainly can’t turn it into a powerful and financially successful brand. Similarly, there’s no point having 98 people mopping the floors and staffing the showrooms if there’s nothing to sell. The whole organisation only works when all the components are in place. And so it is with our genomes.

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Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

VIDEO: Nessa Carey Discusses Junk DNA

Courtesy of Icon Books, the British publisher of Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome, comes this excellent video in which Nessa Carey discusses her book and some of the most important challenges confronting the current study of genetics:

Wednesday, April 22nd, 2015

Earth Day Video: Michael Mann on the Climate Wars

As today is Earth Day, we thought it worthwhile to feature this video featuring Michael Mann, author of The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines. The video is a powerful reminder of the continuing challenges faced by scientists and others to develop policies to protect the environment. In the video, produced by the Yale Climate Forum, Michael Mann discusses his work as a climate scientist as well as the political objections and obfuscations that have served to muddy scientific research and stymied efforts to create productive policies to combat climate change.

Tuesday, April 21st, 2015

An Interview with Nessa Carey, Author of “Junk DNA”

Junk DNA, Nessa Carey

The following is an interview with Nessa Carey, author of Junk DNA: A Journey Through the Dark Matter of the Genome:

Question: Junk DNA explores the massive amount of excess DNA that do not directly create genes and make up proteins. Your last book, The Epigenetics Revolution focused on all of the different influences that can affect our genome as it is being written. Would you say you have a fascination with the imperfectness or the vulnerability of our own biology?

Nessa Carey: I think what I am drawn to are the areas of biology that are ambiguous. The ambiguity is both in terms of the biology itself, but also in how we view it. So I love that epigenetics is a discipline that takes us aware from genetic determinism and into situations where the genome can be affected by the environment but also by random fluctuations. With junk DNA I like that there is a vast network of subtly interacting factors that work together but are very hard to predict. But I am also drawn to what these areas tell us about the way scientists think—particularly how we create terms to describe things of which we have a very incomplete understanding, and then we get trapped in defending these inappropriate terms.

Q: In Junk DNA, you write that only 2% of our DNA is devoted to coding amino acids while the rest is “junk.” You ask the question, “What on earth is the other 98% doing?” Is this question and its prospect of the unknown ever terrifying to you? Or is it one that simply fuels more curiosity?

NC: That’s the fun bit. When I was choosing what to specialize in for my degree—biochemistry, microbiology or immunology—I chose immunology because it was the topic where my questions most often got the response of “we don’t know”.

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