11.29.2006

Educated Guesses

It's going to be a few days before the next "Big Question" post. In the meantime, I thought I'd let the scientific luminaries speak for themselves:

The New Scientist has asked top scientists from a variety of fields to "forecast the future." I was particularly struck by Oliver Sacks' and Antonio Damasio's predictions. And those who found the "Quantum Physics for Artists" entry intriguing will want to check out Nobel Prize winning Theoretical Physicist Gerard 't Hooft's submission. Hooft believes that physicists will construct "a theory that not only unites quantum mechanics and gravity, but also predicts every single detail of the evolution of the universe," within the next 50 years.

If that whets your appetite, you may want to spend some time browsing the "Dangerous Ideas" on display over at The Edge. They're a bit older, but no less fascinating.

11.26.2006

Quantum Physics for Artists

I need to preface this entry by saying two things. First, I’m no quantum physicist. This is intended to be an introduction for the lay reader. Readers who are well versed in particle physics will no doubt be alarmed by my reductionism. So be it. You have to start somewhere. I would encourage those of you interested in delving deeper to read Michio Kaku’s 2006 book Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos.

Second, nothing bugs me more than getting hooked on a blog about, say, macramé and finding that the author has suddenly become obsessed with third world politics. If I wanted to read about third world politics, I’d go to the BBC website, ya know. By writing about quantum physics, some readers will accuse me of committing a similar transgression. In my defense, I’ll say only this, quantum physics in increasingly grappling with questions that were once considered the province of psychologists and theologians—questions like: What is the nature of self? And is there a god? I would argue that this line of inquiry qualifies as “psychology for the modern mind.”

Okay, that was my apologia. Now for the good stuff.

An Overview

In The End of Mr. Y, British novelist Scarlett Thomas presents the most concise, commonsense explanation of quantum physics I’ve ever run across:

Quantum physics deals with subatomic particles, in other words, particles that are smaller than atoms . . . But when physicists first began theorizing about these particles and observing them in action in particle accelerators and so on, they found out that the subatomic world doesn’t act the way we’d expect.

All that common sense stuff—the past happening before the future, cause and effect, Newtonian physics, and Aristotelian poetics—none of it is applicable at the subatomic level. In a deterministic universe . . . you can always tell what’s going to happen next, if you have enough information about what went before. And you can always know things for sure. It’s always night or day, for example: It’s never both at once. On a quantum level, things don’t make sense in that way.
(The End of Mr. Y, 137-138)

This is a perfect jumping off point for our conversation. Try not to get discouraged by the phrases “Newtonian physics and Aristotelian poetics.” Newtonian physics, for the scientifically challenged, is just capital ‘P’ physics—the kind you encountered in high school. As for Aristotelian poetics, this is just a fancy way of describing conventional notions of time. In our world, time behaves predictably. Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. This doesn’t hold true in the world of subatomic particles.

The Wacky World of Subatomic Particles

Subatomic particles are a lawless bunch. They refuse to be hemmed in by traditional notions of time and space. You and I are constrained by the laws of the physical world. We can only be in one place and one time. Our ability to interact with other people is contingent on proximity. (If I want to hug my mother, she has to be in the same room. If she’s on another continent, I’m forced to settle for a phone call.) And for us, the physical world is concrete. I may understand that I’m made up of the same stuff as my table on a philosophical level, but that doesn’t make me Neo. I still have to walk around it rather than through it. These rules don’t apply to quarks.

As Thomas writes, these “particles can go through walls just like that. There are pairs of particles that seem to be connected and stay connected in some way even when they are separated by millions of miles.” And there’s no three-act structure for these guys. They can be in multiple places at the same time. For them, beginning, middle, and end have no meaning. They exist in a state of never ending possibility known as a wavefunction.

Doing Cruel Things to Cats in the Name of Physics

The classic example of the dual nature of subatomic particles is, of course, Schrodinger’s cat. In 1935, a physicist named Erwin Schrodinger devised a thought experiment that allowed people to wrap their heads around the idea of a wavefunction. He said, imagine you put a cat in a metal box. Then, imagine that before closing the lid, you inserted a small amount of some radioactive substance. Two possibilities exist: the atoms could decay, thus triggering the release of an acid, which would kill the cat; or the atoms could remain in tact and the cat would survive.

Schrodinger was trying to answer a question: “when does a quantum system stop existing as a mixture of states and become one or the other?” Put simply, when does the wavefunction give way to one reality? The answer: not until someone is there to observe the cat. The cat’s fate will only be decided if someone pops the lid and checks in on it. If the cat remains in the box undisturbed, both possibilities will persist. The cat will be simultaneously dead and alive.

Both the Observor and the Observed

I like to think of quantum particles as wayward teenagers. When they’re on their own, it’s total mayhem. They’re doing drugs; they’re having sex; they’re generally thumbing their nose at “the man.” But once you get them in a room with their grandmother, they’re totally different creatures. Well-groomed, polite, and eager to please. In this analogy, we are the grandmother. When we’re there to watch how quarks conduct themselves, the hijinks come to end. No more walking through walls, or existing in multiple places at once. They begin to behave the way we expect them to.

But here’s where it starts to get really complicated. Because you are made up of these rebellious particles, you’re not just the grandmother. You’re also the wayward teen. And so is everything else. The tree outside your bedroom window. The chicken you cooked for dinner last night. The computer you’re browsing on. The question then becomes, why are we so constrained? If our subatomic particles are capable of walking through tables and being at the opera and the gas station at the same time, why aren’t we?

The answer, simply put, is that there’s always a grandmother watching us, keeping our behavior in check. 'But that’s just not true,' you say. 'If I’m locked away in my studio apartment watching The Sopranos on my own, there’s no grandmother.’ And you’re right. But according to quantum theory, when you’re in a witness-free environment, you’re just like the cat. You exist in a state of pure possibility and that won’t change until the pizza delivery guy shows up at your door and forces your quarks to cleave to reality. Weird, no? Well, brace yourself, because it gets even weirder.

The Problem with The Big Bang

If you buy into the idea that a quantum system exists as a mixture of states until an observer comes along and forces its hand, it brings up some profound questions about the beginning of life. According to quantum physics, the Big Bang wouldn’t have been possible without an observer to tip the scales. The explosion that gave rise to life on earth would simply have been one possibility floating around in a sea of possibilities. This realization has prompted some of the more romantic physicists out there to say there was an observer: God. Others aren’t satisfied with this explanation, thus was born the many-worlds interpretation.

The many-worlds interpretation says that because there was no observer to bring about the Big Bang, we essentially exist in a giant wave function. The Big Bang did not “happen” in a deterministic sense. It’s just one of a gazillion possibilities existing side by side. And we, humans, happen to live inside that possibility.

What does this mean for you and me? It means that we don’t exist in a deterministic sense either. The consciousness I’m experiencing is just one expression of the possibility that is called Orli. In this particular expression, I’ve made it to the age of 32. I live in a comfortable 1-bedroom apartment in Brooklyn. And I’m preparing to heat up a bowl of turkey soup. But on parallel planes, there are Orlis who decided to wait to eat; Orlis who opted to go to the gym instead of sitting down in front of the computer. There could also be Orlis who never made it out of childhood, and Orlis who opted to become hemp farmers in Santa Cruz instead of writers.

And, of course, it's not just about us piddling humans. The many-worlds interpretation also implies the existence of parallel worlds: Worlds where humans never bested the Neanderthals; where America was never colonized by Westerners; where the Holocaust never happened; and the atom bomb was never invented.

Contemplating the many-worlds interpretation always gives me a pleasant sense of vertigo. Being commitment-phobic by nature, I love the idea that all the possibilities this version of Orli has turned her back on still exist somewhere on an alternate plane. Others find the idea crazy-making. Not only does it require you to relinquish god, it also necessitates the abolishment of the soul. According to the many-worlds interpretation, you aren’t a unique flower destined to meet your maker in a giant park in the sky. You’re just one of an infinite number of possibilities.

11.19.2006

A Manifesto

I’m angry with my science teachers. I wish I could track them all down and give them a good tongue-lashing. They allowed me to get all the way through 12th grade believing that science was the domain of left-brainers: People who enjoyed computations and categorizations. People who seemed bent on bleeding life of all its color and distilling it down to a series of sterile “laws.” They never gave me any indication that learning the periodic table, the laws of physics, or the basics of evolution was just the grunt work—the equivalent of practicing scales so that you could go on to tackle Bach.

I was sold down the river. For years and years, I believed what CP Snow said about the two cultures. I believed you were offered admittance into one of two worlds: literature, philosophy, and the arts, or science. Once you received your passport, your ability to navigate between them was severely restricted. These two cultures had managed, with much finagling, to establish a kind of détente, like Russia and the US during the Cold War. And too much back and forth between them threatened this delicate equilibrium.

Of course, I opted to join the right-brainers. Given the choice between spending my time mucking around with charts and graphs and reading Fitzgerald, Whitman, and Blake, it seemed impossible to do otherwise. I was interested in the Big Picture questions, not the fine print. Science, it seemed to me, was all about the fine print. It’s only over the past year that I’ve begun to realize just how wrong I was.

I stumbled into writing about neuroscience entirely by accident. I was taking a class with Adam Penenberg, the technology writer, and one of the requirements was starting a blog. Write about something that fascinates you, he said. Given my low-grade ADD, I was having trouble choosing. But it occurred to me that there was a thread linking most of my obsessions: the quest to understand human nature. Then, I stumbled on an article in The New York Times by Sandra Blakeslee about mirror neurons, "Cells That Read Minds."

Having virtually no grounding in science, it took me a couple of reads to grasp the nature of mirror neurons, but I was immediately caught by Blakeslee description of their import:

The human brain has multiple mirror neuron systems that specialize in carrying out and understanding not just the actions of others but their intentions, the social meaning of their behavior and their emotions.

"We are exquisitely social creatures," Dr. Rizzolatti said [the man who "discovered" mirror neurons]. "Our survival depends on understanding the actions, intentions and emotions of others."

He continued, "Mirror neurons allow us to grasp the minds of others not through conceptual reasoning but through direct simulation. By feeling, not by thinking."

The discovery is shaking up numerous scientific disciplines, shifting the understanding of culture, empathy, philosophy, language, imitation, autism and psychotherapy.
(For more on mirror neurons to read: "Psychic Cells.")

I was floored. Cells that allowed us to feel with other people? Had they really discovered the biological underpinnings of empathy? This was the Rosetta Stone! Literature allows us to represent human experience, I thought; philosophy is an attempt to systematize it; and psychology enabled us to begin conceptualizing the nature of the self. But it suddenly it occurred to me that science could delineate what was really going on inside our heads. The idea that there were two cultures imploded in an instant. I was drunk on the potential, and Neurontic was born just a few days later.

Why am I telling you all this now? Because I’m not the only one who had lousy science teachers. Over the past 12 months, I’ve become convinced that many of you also bought into the myth of the two cultures. And I’m hell bent on changing that.

My world is peopled with right-brainers—creative types who stick the science section of The Times in the trash the moment they unwrap the paper. These are not incurious people; nor are they stupid people. They are people who still associate science with practicing scales. And even if a particular article strikes their fancy, they’ve spent so little time visiting “the world of science,” they fear the language will be entirely foreign to them. So they just don’t bother. And that’s a shame, because science is the new philosophy.

It is the possibility of one day being able to answer the Big Picture questions that fuels my growing obsession with science. And I fear I haven’t done a very good job articulating this to the reader. So, for the next couple of weeks we’re going to dangle our toes in the deep end.

I plan to write about two subjects: how scientific findings are challenging the traditional notion of “the self,” and the overlap between quantum physics and theology. Yes, I know, it sounds daunting. But I will do my utmost to keep things simple. If I’m successful, this won’t feel like homework; it will feel like intellectual playtime, because that’s how it feels to me.

11.17.2006

Shameless Plug for Yours Truly

Just a quick note to let those of you interested in my non-brain related writing know that I will be contributing regular book reviews to several community papers in Manhattan:

*The Downtown Express
*The Villager
*Chelsea Now

Here’s a link to my review of Erik Larson’s latest offering, Thunderstruck: The Illusionist.

Next up, Scarlett Thomas’s riveting novel: The End of Mr. Y. I won’t say much about the book in advance of the review. But if you’re the type of person who spent time in college grappling with the mysteries of consciousness, the circuitous theories of Derrida, or the lunacy of quantum physics, The End of Mr. Y will make you remember why.

11.16.2006

Finding Happiness

The dark days of winter are upon us, folks, and as you know, wintertime has been shown to make many of us SAD. Luckily, experts in a variety of disciplines have been working feverishly to come up with strategies to stave off the blues and enhance happiness. Below, you’ll find a sampling of some of theories currently in vogue.

*Not long ago, a multidisciplinary team of experts in the UK compiled a list of 10 behaviors they claim have been statistically proven to promote happiness:

1) Plant something and nurture it
2) Count your Blessings – at least five – at the end of everyday
3) Take time to talk – have an hour-long conversation with a loved one each week
4) Phone a friend you have not spoken to for a while and arrange a meet up
5) Give yourself a treat every day and take the time to really enjoy it
6) Have a good laugh at least once a day
7) Get physical – exercise for half and hour three times a week
8) Smile at and/or say hello to a stranger at least one each day
9) Cut your TV viewing by half
10) Spread some kindness – do a good turn for someone every day
(Path to true happiness ‘revealed.’)

Some of these seem like practical suggestions. I can’t think of anything snarky to say about talking to a loved one, treating myself to something special, exercising, or even cutting my TV intake. That said, several of the prescriptions sound specious at best. Oprah has been urging people to “count their blessings” for years with negligible results. And how exactly does one go about “spreading kindness” exactly? This strikes me as something that might get you in trouble in New York—as does “smiling and saying hello to a stranger.” Call me paranoid.

As for the plant thing, the happiness doctors have made a faulty assumption. Not all of us have green thumbs. I have tried to “nurture” many a potted plant only to have it breathe its last gasp in my arms. This left me decidedly sadder than when I began, thus prompting me to renounce plant growing altogether. Does this destine me for a life of melancholy? Not so far.

I’m not wowed by this prescription. Are you? Fine then. Let’s move on.

*Perhaps a more methodical approach will suit us better. A British life coach claims to have come up with the “happiness formula:” P + (5xE) + (3xH)= Happiness.

According to the BBC, Pete Cohen stumbled on this magic equation after interviewing 1000 people. Not a huge control group, but hey, he’s a life coach. He knows what he’s talking about, right?

Here’s how it works: ‘P’ represents “Personal Characteristics,” which include “outlook on life, adaptability, and resilience;" ‘E’ represents "Existence," the quality of which is apparently determined by your health, friendships, and financial solvency; ‘H’ stands for “Higher Order Needs,” like self esteem, ambition and humor.

If all of this is bringing back unpleasant memories of your high school algebra class, don’t dismay. Determining your happiness quotient is easier than it appears at first glance. All you need to do is rate yourself on the following questions, using a score of 1-10 (with 10 being “to a large extent,” and 1 being “not at all”):

1) Are you outgoing, energetic, flexible and open to change?

2) Do you have a positive outlook, bounce back quickly from setbacks and feel that you are in control of your life?

3) Are your basic life needs met, in relation to personal health, finance, safety, freedom of choice and sense of community?

4) Can you call on the support of people close to you, immerse yourself in what you are doing, meet your expectations and engage in activities that give you a sense of purpose?
To tabulate your results, add the scores from question 1 and 2. This gives you the value of ‘P.’ The value of ‘E’ is the score from question 3, and ‘H’ is the score from question 4. The closer you get to 100, the happier you are.

See, it’s easy. Except, wait: What happens if you don’t happen to be ‘outgoing?’ What if it takes you a while to recover from a setback? What if after several basket weaving workshops, a pottery class, and Ph.D. in linguistics, you find that a “sense of purpose’ still eludes you? Hmm. Problematic. I suppose you’d just have to work overtime, and get some more friends, thus pumping up your “Existence” score, and offsetting your tragically low personality score. If any of you try this, please let me know how it goes. (And don’t underestimate the power of “a positive outlook.”)

*For those of you unwilling to make new friends or reluctant to launch a full scale self-improvement campaign, might I suggest an alternative: move. Adrian White, an analytic social psychologist from the University of Leicester, has just completed the world’s first Happiness Map. White found that, despite what you were told as a child, Disneyland is not the happiest place on earth: Denmark is (at least compared to the 177 other countries on White’s roster).

So, there you go, all you need to do to be happy is relocate to Denmark. However, those of you who weren't fortunate enough to have been born Danish or to have married a Dane may find the Danish government resistant to this idea. Fear not! You have other options. After reviewing the map, I’ve come up with a list of geographical do’s and dont's designed to safeguard your happiness. For optimum happiness:

*DO choose a tiny country with a tiny population
*DO opt for the most homogenous state available to you
*DO look for a country with socialized medicine, an extremely high tax rate, and an elaborate welfare system

Appropriate options include:
- Switzerland (The 2nd happiest place on earth.)
- Austria (3rd)
- Iceland (4th)
- The Bahamas (5th. But let’s face it folks: the Bahamas are gonna get bum rushed. To avoid competition, choose a colder locale.)

*DON’T live in Africa
*DON’T be ruled by a despot, a potentate, or a tin-pot dictator
*DON’T not have socialized medicine. (I can’t stress this enough.)
*DON’T follow the crowds

Examples of the correlation between discontent and overpopulation: India (the 125th happiest place on earth), and China (82nd).

*ABOVE ALL avoid disease breeding grounds, and areas prone to famine and chronic underemployment (like Africa).

Not essential, but worth considering when honing in on a choice:
*Current and former world powers don’t rank particularly well when it comes to happiness.

Examples:
- US: 23rd happiest place on earth
- UK: 41st
- France: 62nd
- Russia: 167th

I wish you the best of luck on your travels.

11.09.2006

The Quest for Long Life

Over the past decade, as Baby Boomers have begun flooding the ranks of the AARP, science has become increasingly focused on discovering the recipe for longevity. Every week, it seems, a new study is published touting the life extending powers of antioxidants, exercise, or sleep.

By and large, the anti-aging prescriptions issued over the last 10 years have been sensible. It’s hard to take issue with the idea that eating more greens, getting more sleep, and breaking the occasional sweat promotes health. But as the eldest Boomers enter their sixties, the mania for longevity seems to be reaching a fever pitch, and the quest for long life is becoming more and more bizarre. Case in point, the hunger fad, better known as the Calorie Restriction Diet.

In the early 90s, a UCLA pathologist named Roy Walford volunteered to shut himself away with seven other bioscientists in a hermetically sealed terrarium in the Arizona desert for two years. Why? It’s unclear. (My suspicion: Too many science fiction novels.) The point here is that the group quickly discovered that the “self-sustaining” ecosystem they’d engineered to provide for their nutritional needs wasn’t quite up to par. They were on the verge of abandoning the experiment when Walford proposed a solution.

He happened to be tracking some research on the impact of calorie restriction and was intrigued by the discovery that limiting food intake improved health and extended the life spans of species as varied as dogs, worms, and spiders. Walford suggested they use their time in the biosphere to find out if the same could be said for humans. The group spent the next two years eating just enough to stave off starvation. When they emerged, “tests proved them healthier in nearly every nutritionally relevant respect than when they’d gone in.” (The Fast Supper)

Walford was so convinced by the results that he later published what would become the bible of the Calorie Restriction Movement, Beyond the 120-Year Diet: How to Double Your Vital Years. His recipe for long life is simple in theory and punishing in practice. All you need to do is make sure you eat between 20 and 40 percent fewer calories than the recommended amount.

According to dietary experts, a woman my size should eat around 2000 calories per day to maintain a healthy weight. If I was really intent on living longer, I’d have to reduce my daily calorie intake to 1200. That may look like a fair amount on paper, but consider this: A dinner consisting of a six-ounce steak, a Cesar salad, and two glasses of wine would net roughly 1100 calories. If I splurged and enjoyed a Café au Lait with skim milk (110 calories) for dessert, I’d blow my entire wad. Of course, strict adherents of the Walford doctrine would never dream of eating anything so decadent. Instead, they opt for a steady trickle of foods like Quorn, kale, and carrots. Yummy!

Now, let’s set aside for the moment the fact that calorie deprivation has not been scientifically proven to extend human life. Advocates of the Calorie Restriction regimen argue that the benefits of the diet have been amply demonstrated in animals. Let’s say that’s true. The question remains: Is a life of such extreme deprivation worth living? Sure, you might get five or ten extra years, but the trade off is you're required to live like a monk. No more drinks after work; no more dinner parties; no more birthday cake. Under these conditions, I’m guessing those extra years you’d earned would feel long indeed.

But, hey, maybe I’m just a glutton. Luckily, there’s a new scientific finding tailor-made for people like me, who are unwilling to relinquish the small pleasures in the name of longevity. According to a recent article in SEED, I don’t need to restrict my food intake to live to a ripe old age, because I can achieve the same results by . . . freezing my ass off. Well, okay, mice can. And that’s good enough for me.
. . . scientists knew that body temperature and aging were linked in reptiles and other cold-blooded animals. They also knew that the lifespan of mammals, or warm-blooded creatures, could be extended by reducing the number of calories they consume, which in turn lowers the body temperature by slowing down the metabolism.

[Researchers at Scripps University] carried out a study to determine whether calorie reduction was indeed responsible for extending animals' life, with a lowering of the body temperature being a secondary effect, or whether the latter was actually the cause of the increased longevity.
They found that “lowering the body temperature of mice without limiting the amount of food they consume can prolong their life by up to 20 percent for females and 12 percent for males.”

Well, thank god. No starvation for me. I’ll just walk around with my temperature controlled suit set to a bracing 33 degrees Fahrenheit, enjoying my pasta and fois grais, and dreaming of all those frigid years I have to look forward to.

11.06.2006

Dear Neurontic

Something I’ve always wondered about and never understood: Why do extreme emotions cause people to cry? Does this water-letting have some kind of biological function?

Moved to Tears, California


Dear Moved to Tears,

I too have always wondered about this phenomenon, but have never taken the time to find out. So, thanks for your letter. And we can both thank Wendy Norlund of Gibbs Magazine for providing the answer.

As it turns out, crying is a far more complex mechanism than you might imagine. There are actually three kinds of tears: Basal tears, which keep your eyes from drying up like a grape left out in the sun too long; Reflex tears, your body’s response to eye irritants, like onions and gasoline; and Psychic tears, the droplets produced when something provokes an emotional response. “When emotions affect us, the nervous system stimulates the cranial nerve in the brain and this sends signals to the neurotransmitters [controlling] the tear glands,” says Norlund, thus kickstarting the production of tears.

This explains ‘how’ emotions trigger tears. Now let’s turn to ‘why.’ I’m dating myself here, but after reading about psychic tears I can’t help thinking back to the movie Broadcast News. Those of you ancient enough to remember this film will recall that Holly Hunter’s character, Jane Craig, was in the habit of starting off each workday with a therapeutic bout of crying. She claimed it helped her deal with the day’s stresses. Well, it seems she was right. According to Norlund’s article “Laughter and Crying,”
Scientists have discovered that the emotional tears contain higher levels of manganese and the hormone prolactin, and this contributes [to] a reduction of both of these in the body; thus helping to keep depression away. Many people have found that crying actually calms them after being upset, and this is in part due to the chemicals and hormones that are released in the tears.
The lesson here? Free to Be You and Me’s feel good message contained a grain of scientific truth. It is all right to cry, cuz crying does, indeed, "get the sad outta you.”

Have a question for Neurontic? Email orlivan [at] gmail [dot] com.