Thursday, September 9, 2010

On the persistence of time dilation

Cool thought: Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity, which isn't so much a theory anymore for reasons I'll discuss later, tells us that increased speeds results in a slower clock rate for that object relative to a slower one (sorry, time isn't a fixed or constant thing across the Universe, get used to it). But Einstein didn't stop there. He also went on to describe his General Theory of Relativity in which he showed that gravity produces a similar time dilation effect; the heavier the gravity, the slower the clock.

So, as Einstein famously noted in his space-faring twin thought experiment, the returning twin, because he was moving faster relative to his Earth-bound sibling, will have aged less than his counterpart. Similarly, because of gravitational time dilation, a clock on Jupiter would run slower than a clock on Earth on account of its great size. I know it doesn't sound intuitive, but that's Relativity for you and why Einstein is considered such a genius for figuring this out.

Now, as messed as this sounds, this effect is becoming more perceptible to us, particularly as we travel faster and venture further into space. Gravitational time dilation has been experimentally measured using atomic clocks on airplanes and the effect is significant enough that the Global Positioning System's artificial satellites need to have their clocks corrected regularly. The International Space Station, because it is moving faster relative to Earth, and because it experiences less gravity, is subject to both effects; a faster speed means a slower clock, but less gravity means a faster clock! NASA's mathematicians must be having a blast trying to keep their clocks in synch with the ISS's.

And if you think that's complicated, we also have to deal with our robots on Mars where we need to account for the speed of Mars relative to Earth's and factor in the gravitational differences between the two planets. What blows my mind is that the Mars Rover is experiencing the passage of time at a slightly different rate than what we're experiencing on Earth.

Yikes. Problems like these remind me why I dropped out of high school math.

Telomerase-activating compound may help reverse aging

Researchers have discovered a telomerase-activating compound which could eventually be used to reverse aging in humans.

Specifically, a naturally derived compound known as TA-65 has been shown to activate the telomerase gene in humans. The researchers, a collaboration of scientists from Sierra Sciences, TA Sciences, Geron Corporation, PhysioAge, and the Spanish National Cancer Research Center, discovered that activating this gene could prevent the shortening of telomeres at the ends of chromosomes, thereby slowing or even stopping the cellular aging process.

While TA-65 is probably too weak to completely arrest the aging process, it is the first telomerase activator recognized as safe for human use.

"We are on the cusp of curing aging," said William Andrews, Ph.D., co-author of this study and President and CEO of Sierra Sciences, LLC. "TA-65 is going to go down in history as the first supplement you can take that doesn't merely extend your life a few years by improving your health, but actually affects the underlying mechanisms of aging. Better telomerase inducers will be developed in the coming years, but TA-65 is the first of a whole new family of telomerase-activating therapies that could eventually keep us young and healthy forever."

As excited as I am by this discovery, I believe Andrews's statement is considerably overstated. We are still quite a ways off from having interventions that will "keep us young and healthy forever," and it will unlikely be accomplished through the exclusive use of telomerase-activating therapies. Aging is a multi-faceted process that will inevitably require a cocktail of therapies. Moreover, as healthy life span is continually extended, new and unanticipated age-related diseases will crop up.

It's worth noting that, in addition to slowing the cellular aging process, the researchers hope that TA-65 may also help treat diseases which attack the immune system such as HIV/AIDS.

Press release.

Monday, September 6, 2010

NASA's warnings on the dangers of severe space storms

Back in June I blogged about the potential dangers arising from space storms that could spawn devastating solar flares. This is no joke, nor is it part of the laughable (but conveniently co-incidental) 2012 doomsday nonsense. There's actual science involved here; NASA issued a solar storm warning back in 2006 in which it predicted that the worst of it could come sometime between 2011 and 2012. Last year they slightly downgraded their warning, while extending their forecast to 2013—May 2013 to be exact, which sounds eerily specific.

According to NASA, we are currently in a solar maximum period. These cycles are capable of creating space storms—what are known as "Carrington Events," named after astronomer Richard Carrington who witnessed a particularly nasty solar flare back in 1859. The flare he documented resulted in electrified transmission cables, fires in telegraph offices, and Northern Lights so bright that people could read newspapers by their red and green Mexico.

If this is what happened in 1859, imagine what would happen today. Well, we're starting to have some idea—and the news is pretty bad.

A recent report by the National Academy of Sciences found that if a similar storm occurred today, it could cause $1 to 2 trillion in damages to society's high-tech infrastructure and require four to ten years for complete recovery. It could damage everything from emergency services’ systems, hospital equipment, banking systems and air traffic control devices, through to everyday items such as home computers, iPods and GPS's. Because of our heavy reliance on electronic devices, which are sensitive to magnetic energy, the storm could leave a multi-billion dollar damage bill and cataclysmic-scale problems for governments.

Worse than this, however, would be the potential length of blackouts. According to a Metatech Corporation study, an event like the 1921 geomagnetic storm would result in large-scale blackouts affecting more than 130 million people and would expose more than 350 transformers to the risk of permanent damage. It could take months—if not years—to put everybody back on the grid.

For more reading, I recommend the NASA report, "Severe Space Weather Events--Understanding Societal and Economic Impacts: A Workshop Report" (2008). Excerpt:
Modern society depends heavily on a variety of technologies that are susceptible to the extremes of space weather—severe disturbances of the upper atmosphere and of the near-Earth space environment that are driven by the magnetic activity of the Sun. Strong auroral currents can disrupt and damage modern electric power grids and may contribute to the corrosion of oil and gas pipelines. Magnetic storm-driven ionospheric density disturbances interfere with high-frequency (HF) radio communications and navigation signals from Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites, while polar cap absorption (PCA) events can degrade—and, during severe events, completely black out—HF communications along transpolar aviation routes, requiring aircraft flying these routes to be diverted to lower latitudes. Exposure of spacecraft to energetic particles during solar energetic particle events and radiation belt enhancements can cause temporary operational anomalies, damage critical electronics, degrade solar arrays, and blind optical systems such as imagers and star trackers.

The effects of space weather on modern technological systems are well documented in both the technical literature and popular accounts. Most often cited perhaps is the collapse within 90 seconds of northeastern Canada’s Hydro-Quebec power grid during the great geomagnetic storm of March 1989, which left millions of people without electricity for up to 9 hours. This event exemplifies the dramatic impact that extreme space weather can have on a technology upon which modern society in all of its manifold and interconnected activities and functions critically depends.

Nearly two decades have passed since the March 1989 event. During that time, awareness of the risks of extreme space weather has increased among the affected industries, mitigation strategies have been developed, new sources of data have become available (e.g., the upstream solar wind measurements from the Advanced Composition Explorer), new models of the space environment have been created, and a national space weather infrastructure has evolved to provide data, alerts, and forecasts to an increasing number of users.

Now, 20 years later and approaching a new interval of increased solar activity, how well equipped are we to manage the effects of space weather? Have recent technological developments made our critical technologies more or less vulnerable? How well do we understand the broader societal and economic impacts of extreme space weather events? Are our institutions prepared to cope with the effects of a “space weather Katrina,” a rare, but according to the historical record, not inconceivable eventuality?
Read more.

Hitchens: Domesticating religion an unceasing chore of civilization

Writing in Slate, Christopher Hitchens says the taming and domestication of religious faith is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. In the article, titled "Free Exercise of Religion? No, Thanks.", Hitchens asks himself: Am I in favor of the untrammeled "free exercise of religion"? Not surprisingly, his answer is no.

He tasks a number of religions to task for what he sees as moral inconsistencies and hypocrisies, everything from the Mormons through to Roman Catholicism. He writes:
The Church of Scientology, the Unification Church of Sun Myung Moon, and the Ku Klux Klan are all faith-based organizations and are all entitled to the protections of the First Amendment. But they are also all subject to a complex of statutes governing tax-exemption, fraud, racism, and violence, to the point where "free exercise" in the third case has—by means of federal law enforcement and stern public disapproval—been reduced to a vestige of its former self.
And concludes:
Reactions from even "moderate" Muslims to criticism are not uniformly reassuring. "Some of what people are saying in this mosque controversy is very similar to what German media was saying about Jews in the 1920s and 1930s," Imam Abdullah Antepli, Muslim chaplain at Duke University, told the New York Times. Yes, we all recall the Jewish suicide bombers of that period, as we recall the Jewish yells for holy war, the Jewish demands for the veiling of women and the stoning of homosexuals, and the Jewish burning of newspapers that published cartoons they did not like. What is needed from the supporters of this very confident faith is more self-criticism and less self-pity and self-righteousness.

Those who wish that there would be no mosques in America have already lost the argument: Globalization, no less than the promise of American liberty, mandates that the United States will have a Muslim population of some size. The only question, then, is what kind, or rather kinds, of Islam it will follow. There's an excellent chance of a healthy pluralist outcome, but it's very unlikely that this can happen unless, as with their predecessors on these shores, Muslims are compelled to abandon certain presumptions that are exclusive to themselves. The taming and domestication of religion is one of the unceasing chores of civilization. Those who pretend that we can skip this stage in the present case are deluding themselves and asking for trouble not just in the future but in the immediate present.
Read more.

Novae produce gamma-rays. Damn.

Bad news: Novae emit gamma-rays.

We've known for a long time that supernovae produce gamma-rays, but until now it was assumed that novae lacked the power to emit such high-energy radiation. This is bad because novae occur at much greater frequency than super- and hypernovae; we are therefore at a much greater risk of being wiped out by a blast of gamma-ray radiation than previously thought.

The Milky Way experiences about 30 to 60 novae per year, with a likely rate of about 40. Roughly 25 novae brighter than about magnitude 20 are discovered in the Andromeda Galaxy each year and smaller numbers are seen in other nearby galaxies.

Contrast that with supernovae which occur about five times every hundred years.

A nova event should not be confused with a supernova. It is a cataclysmic nuclear explosion caused by the accretion of hydrogen onto the surface of a white dwarf star, which ignites and starts nuclear fusion in a runaway manner. A supernova, on the other hand, is a stellar explosion that is more energetic than a nova. Supernovae are extremely luminous and cause a burst of radiation that can outshine an entire galaxy before fading from view over several weeks or months. During this short interval a supernova can radiate as much energy as the Sun is expected to emit over its entire life span. The explosion expels much or all of a star's material at a velocity of up to 30,000 km/s (10% of the speed of light), driving a shock wave into the surrounding interstellar medium.

Though not as powerful as a supernova, novae are still immensely energetic, emitting the equivalent of about 1,000 times the energy emitted by our Sun every year. And now we can add gamma-rays to its list of nasty excretions.

To say that a gamma-ray blast would be bad for us here on Earth would be a gross understatement. Combined with the effects of a cataclysmic stellar explosion, it is one of the most powerful forces in the Universe, able to sterilize massive swaths of the galaxy. Supernovae can shoot out directed beams of gamma-rays to a distance of 100 light years, while hypernovae disburse gamma ray bursts as far as 500 to 1,000 light years away.

As for novae, the explosion creates a hot, dense, expanding shell called a shock front, composed of high-speed particles, ionized gas and magnetic fields. These shock waves expand at 7 million miles per hour—or nearly 1% the speed of light. The magnetic fields trap particles within the shell and whip them up to tremendous energies. Before they can escape, the particles reach velocities near the speed of light. Scientists say that the gamma rays likely result when these accelerated particles smashed into the red giant's wind.

Previous to this discovery, it was known that the remnants of much more powerful supernova explosions can trap and accelerate particles like this, but no one suspected that the magnetic fields in novae were strong enough to do it as well. Supernova remnants endure for 100,000 years and produce radiations that affect regions of space thousands of light-years across.

These explosions produce highly collimated beams of hard gamma-rays that extend outward from a nova or supernova. Any unfortunate life-bearing planet that should come into contact with those beams would suffer a mass extinction (if not total extinction depending on its proximity to the event). Gamma-rays would eat up the ozone layer and indirectly cause the onset of an ice age due to the prevalence of NO2 molecules.

Life on Earth just got that much more tenuous.

Human stem cells restore motor function in mice with spinal cord injuries

A recent study at UC Irvine has demonstrated that human neural stem cells can restore mobility in cases of chronic spinal cord injury, suggesting that a human-specific application may be around the corner. About 1.3 million people in the United States live with chronic spinal cord injury; this latest study indicates that human neural stem cells may be a viable treatment in the near future.

Previous studies have focused on the early stages of spinal cord injury when drug treatments are still effective in helping restore some functional recovery. But the UC Irvine study, led by Aileen Anderson and Brian Cummings of the Sue & Bill Gross Stem Cell Research Center, is important because the therapy has restored mobility during the later chronic phase—the period after spinal cord injury in which inflammation has stabilized and recovery has plateaued. As is stands, there are no drug treatments to help restore function in such cases.

The team transplanted human neural stem cells into mice 30 days after a spinal cord injury caused hind-limb paralysis. The cells then differentiated into neural tissue cells and migrated to spinal cord injury sites. After three months of this treatment, the mice demonstrated "significant and persistent recovery of walking ability" in two separate tests of motor function when compared to control groups.

"Human neural stem cells are a novel therapeutic approach that holds much promise for spinal cord injury," said Anderson, associate professor of physical medicine & rehabilitation and anatomy & neurobiology at UC Irvine. "This study builds on the extensive work we previously published in the acute phase of injury and offers additional hope to those who are paralyzed or have impaired motor function."

According to Dr. Stephen Huhn, vice-president and head of the central nervous system program at StemCells Inc., the strong preclinical data that has been accumulated to date will enable the transition to a clinical trial, which they plan to initiate in 2011.


Sunday, September 5, 2010

The future of space telescopes

With the Hubble Telescope project slowly winding down, it's time to look ahead to the next generation of space-based telescopes. There are two projects currently in the works that will undoubtedly revolutionize space telescopy and yield extraordinary results once put into use: The James Webb Space Telescope and the Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope.

The James Webb Space Telescope

The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be an infrared space observatory with the main scientific goal of observing the most distant objects in the universe beyond the reach of either ground based instruments or the Hubble. The JWST is a NASA project with international collaboration from the European Space Agency and the Canadian Space Agency, including contributions from fifteen nations.

Current plans call for the telescope to be launched on an Ariane 5 rocket in June 2014 (or mid 2015) and put on a five-year mission. The JWST will orbit the Sun in Earth's partial shadow, approximately 1,500,000 km on the far side of Earth at the L2 Lagrange point. Objects at the L2 point orbit the Sun in synchrony with the Earth, which will allow JWST to use one radiation shield, positioned between the telescope and the Earth, to protect it from both the Sun's and the Earth's heat and light. It's also possible for the same shield to block moonlight as the telescope is much further from Earth than the Moon.

The JWST's primary scientific mission has four main components:
  1. Search for light from the first stars and galaxies which formed in the Universe after the Big Bang
  2. Study the formation and evolution of galaxies
  3. Understand the formation of stars and planetary systems
  4. Study planetary systems and the origins of life
All of these tasks are more effectively done in the near-infrared than the visible. For this reason the JWST will not have the Hubble Telescope's visible light and ultraviolet capability but will be able to see much further into the infrared. Because of this, JWST will be able to see many more and much older stars than Hubble.

In addition, visible spectrum views cannot peer through much of the gas and dust that may obscure an image like infrared views can. Almost all of the gas and dust obscuring images in visible spectrum views may entirely disappear if viewed in the infrared, so that the stars lying behind the gas and dust will become easier to see. Infrared astronomy can penetrate dusty regions of space (such as molecular clouds), detect objects such as planets, and also view highly red-shifted objects from the early days of the universe.

The most distant stars in view are also the "youngest," that is, they were formed during a time period closer in time to that of the Big Bang than those stars less distant to us, such as our Sun. Because the universe is expanding, the light reaching us from those younger stars becomes red-shifted and are therefore easier to see if viewed in the infrared. Infrared light is also useful for observing the cores of active galaxies which are often cloaked in gas and dust.

The Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope

The Advanced Technology Large-Aperture Space Telescope (ATLAST) is still in the design and approval stage. If constructed, it will be a 8 to 16.8-meter (320 to 660-inch) UV-optical-NIR space telescope with the ability to obtain spectroscopic and imaging observations of astronomical objects in the ultraviolet, optical, and Infrared wavelengths. It will have substantially better resolution than either HST or the JWST. And like JWST, ATLAST will be launched to the Sun-Earth L2 Lagrange point.

ATLAST is envisioned as a flagship mission of the 2025 to 2035 period and will be designed to address the question of whether or not life exists elsewhere in the Galaxy. It will work to accomplish this by detecting biosignatures like molecular oxygen, ozone, water, and methane in the spectra of terrestrial exoplanets.

In addition to this, ATLAST will assist in uncovering the underlying physics that drives star formation and the complex interactions between dark matter, galaxies, and the intergalactic medium. Because of the large leap in observing capabilities that ATLAST will provide, it is not fully known which types of investigations will dominate its use—just as the creators of HST did not foresee its pioneering roles in characterizing the atmospheres of Jupiter-mass exoplanets or measuring the acceleration of cosmic expansion using distant supernovae. ATLAST will likely have the versatility to outlast the scientific vision of current-day astronomers.


Technological advances have worked to drive science forward for centuries. There's no reason to believe that JWST and ATLAST won't do the same. Given the insights gleaned from Hubble, we may discover completely new things about the Universe, our Galaxy, and other solar systems.

We should also probably brace ourselves for what we may find. Our place in the Universe will undoubtedly get smaller and increasingly insignificant—that has been the trend for quite some time now as we continually gaze deeper into space.

In addition, I suspect that we'll start to find solar systems that more closely resemble our own. To date, we have only been able to find systems in which gas giants reside in the inner solar system. As it stands, our solar system, with its outer gas giants, is atypical—but that may be the result of an observation selection effect caused by limited telescopic technology.

Lastly, we should be on the lookout out for signatures that may reveal the presence of extraterrestrial intelligence. Specifically, we should look for signs of megascale engineering (Dysonian structures and megascale computers) and so-called calling-card objects.


Looks like I created a bit of a fuss yesterday when I put Michio Kaku to task for suggesting that extraterrestrials may account for UFOs. I realize that he didn't explicitly say that ETIs were definitely behind unexplained flying phenomenon; he was obviously choosing his words very carefully. But it is my opinion that Kaku exercised poor judgement (and not courage as others have pointed out) by appearing on a ridiculous TV segment that was clearly geared toward linking UFOs with aliens. His claim that "we don't have the smoking gun...but this is as close as you can get to the smoking gun," was a bit alarming to me.

I recognize that there are still a number of unsolved mysteries out there. As Kaku pointed out, we cannot account for 5% of these sightings. Okay, cool, I get it.

But it's the leaping to conclusions I don't get. Why the immediate linkage to extraterrestrial intelligence? Why not ghosts, superheros, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster? The tendency to do so has become a reflex action, a legacy of 1950s era futurism and its fixation on flying saucers.

I'm guessing that a lot of people, including Kaku, didn't get the memo: spaceships are dead. The whole starship concept makes for great science fiction, but as a potential method for galactic travel and colonization, it's an idea that's increasingly growing into disfavor among the futurist cognoscenti. And that's if colonization even happens at all. Kaku should stick to physics and leave the theorizing to those who know what they're talking about.

As for me, correlating UFOs with aliens seems very... unintuitive. It's not immediately obvious to me that an extraterrestrial intelligence has anything to do with with appears to be atmospheric phenomenon. If we're going to start throwing baseless Wild Assed Guesses out there, I'd put collective psi phenomenon or a simulation glitch ahead of alien visitations.

But Wild Assed Guessing like this is a bit of a cop-out. It's a kind of desperatism that people resort to when science can't provide the immediate answers. And this is another thing that disturbed me about Kaku's recent television appearance. Sure, it's very likely that he was using the segment to pedal his unique take on physics—extra dimensions and all—but it was frustrating to see him give up so easily on established science. For Kaku to tread forth and make assumptions about UFO phenomenon falling outside of the known laws of physics was surprising.

Am I suggesting that we know everything there is to know about physics? Not by a long shot. I'm just suggesting that we exhaust all scientific avenues of inquiry before we start making extraordinary and sensationalistic claims like these.

Saturday, September 4, 2010

Apples in Stereo member creates mind-controlled Theremin

Okay, Robert Schneider of Apples in Stereo is my new hero. In one fell swoop he has combined two of my favorite things, namely vintage electronic instruments and a neural interface device. Scheider has invented a new instrument he calls the Teletron, which allows him to play an analog synth completely through brain activity.

The Teletron combines a vintage Moog with a Mattel toy called the Mindflex. "Experimental composers like Alvin Lucier and Pierre Henry used EEG sensors to make brain-controlled music as early as the 1950's. What is cool about the Teletron is that you can go out and buy this toy and make this simple mod, and mentally control your own synthesizer at home," he says.

Anissimov: Beware botulinum and EMP attacks

Michael Anissimov of Accelerating Future is feeling a bit doomy these days—and for good reason. He argues that we're collectively understating and underreporting non-conventional but thoroughly viable catastrophic risks, including the deliberate spread of botulinum toxin and an EMP attack.

On the latter risk, Anissimov writes:
If an EMP attack came, cars and trucks would just stop. Factories, controlled by computers, would stop. Molten steel on the assembly line would cool and solidify in place due to failure of the heating elements. The vast majority of tractors, combines, and other heavy machinery would become useless. Transformers and other electrical elements, large and small, would be fried. The largest transformers have to be ordered from China and are generally ordered with a year of lead time.

An effective EMP attack on the US would cause tens of trillions of dollars of damage. Cities would run out of food in a few days. The US grain stockpile only has about a million bushels of wheat. Wheat is the only common grain with enough nutrients to sustain someone on an all-grain diet. A bushel is only 60 pounds, and someone needs about a pound of wheat a day to avoid hunger pangs. Ideally two pounds if you are doing manual labor. 60 million man-days of food is not a lot. The population of the United States is 300 million. That means our grain stockpiles are enough food for everyone to eat a fifth of a pound and then they’re gone.
By the way, if you're particularly paranoid about this, you can always convert your house into a Faraday Cage. I'm just not sure how useful all your electronics will be given that everyone else's will be fried.

And in regards to the botulinum risk, he writes, "99.9% of the population will dismiss [it] as not a big deal, due to wishful thinking. It’s all just words on the page, until people start dying."

Hanson: Who should exist? And who pays?

Economist Robin Hanson of Overcoming Bias is wondering who should exist? and the ways in which our future creations can pay to exist. He writes,
[C]onsider the question, “Which creatures should be created?” in a future where factories can make a wide range of creatures. This situation might arise with whole brain emulation, or advanced genetic engineering. Imagine a supply-and-demand world where many similar competing profit-seeking factories can each make many possible creatures with great precision, endowing them with any preferred debts or rights, but aren’t overly limited by intellectual property rights. When creating creatures is such a competitive industry, supply and demand has strong implications.
Hanson eventually devises a principle of existence:
Creature X should exist if it wants to exist [i.e., would want to exist if they existed] and it can pay for itself. … Most new creatures would have designs near the peak of factory profitability, and own little surplus relative to their cost. Residual control rights (e.g., “are they slaves?”) would rest in the hands of whomever could squeeze the most market value from them.
Given that a 'creature producing factory' will have to foot the initial cost [his terminology, not mine], he comes up with a list of ways for the factory to recoup:
  • Slavery
  • Debt
  • Stock
  • Contract
  • Gratitude
  • Shared goals
  • Reproduction
Hanson admits that these approaches can be mixed, and concludes by saying, "While today’s creation practices include elements of all these approaches, we clearly lean most heavily on reproduction, and many of us are horrified at the prospect that future folk might not act similarly. For example, some libertarians tell me it is a basic ethical fact that no person should be born with debt, stock, or physical restraints. But I fear this is merely arrogant presumption that our ways must be best."

Nobody thinks like Robin Hanson. Nobody.

Seven ages of the body [video]

Archaeologist John Robb of Cambridge University provides a quick overview of how humans have interpreted and represented our bodies throughout the ages. Robb covers over 10,000 years in six minutes, taking us from the “Animal Body” and “Sexualized Body” of the Mesolithic and Neolithic Ages, to the “Politicized Body” of the Classical Age, “God’s Body” of the Middle Ages, and finally “The Body as Machine,” the metaphor we have been living with since 1500. Robb concludes with the “Body Digital,” the body of the future, and “Multiple Bodies.”

H/T @blazingbetta

Artificial hand of the 19th Century

From the Science Museum:
Made from steel and brass, this unusual prosthetic arm articulates in a number of ways. The elbow joint can be moved by releasing a spring, whereas the top joint of the wrist allows a degree of rotation and an up-and-down motion. The fingers can also curl up and straighten out. The leather upper arm piece is used to fix the prosthesis to the remaining upper arm. The rather sinister appearance of the hand suggests the wearer may have disguised it with a glove. Among the most common causes of amputation throughout the 1800s were injuries received as a result of warfare.
Disguise it with a glove?! Bah, it looks seriously badass.

How to reduce social anxiety and expand your social circle

As noted in a recent post, an inadequate social life may be as detrimental to your health as smoking, alcoholism and obesity. This is serious stuff. For those of us who are conscious of healthy living and extending our healthy lifespans, social disconnection needs to be taken as seriously as any other risk factor.

And this may hold particularly true for our community, that of the futurist sci-tech crowd, many of whom are too buried in their work and/or socially awkward (yes, Aspies, I'm talking to you). So, if you're finding it hard to get out and meet people, there are things you can do to remedy the situation.

Dealing with social anxiety

Now, before I get into it, I realize that for many people expanding a social circle is easier said than done. Social anxiety, severe introversion and shyness are serious things. If you suffer from these problems, I suggest the following:
  • Role playing: As silly as it may sound, you may wish to start roll playing all by yourself. Or recruit a friend or family member and practice various social scenarios with them. You'll be amazed at how this kind of pre-visualization helps.
  • Work within your skill-set: There's no need to completely reinvent yourself. Just remember your strengths and good qualities and work with them. Be sure to operate in social contexts that are familiar and nonthreatening to you.
  • Make good eye contact: Practice good eye contact. And that doesn't mean staring. As a rule of thumb, a natural range of eye contact is between 30% to 60% of the time during a conversation. As for you Aspies and Autistics, I know this is physically painful, but practice and regularity will ease the discomfort.
  • Have topics ready to discuss: If you're particularly anxious about the conversation itself, be prepared to have a dialogue ready. Make sure your topics are contextually appropriate and interesting, and that you deliver them in a seamless way (i.e. not as non-sequitors).
  • Introduce yourself to a stranger: Again, if you're going to approach a stranger, be sure that it's contextually appropriate and that you don't come off as being creepy. Put a smile on your face, introduce yourself, and inject a topic that is consistent with the setting (e.g. "Wow, it's taking forever for the bus to show up today"). The more you do it, the easier it will get.
  • Learn social skills: If you're feeling particular helpless, you can sign-up for an assertiveness training class. Community colleges, centers and adult learning facilities often offer free and low-cost classes. Alternatively, you can join an improv class.
  • Join a local or online support group: Find forums or classes where other social phobics can get together and share in their struggles and breakthroughs.
Failing this, you may wish to seek professional help; counselors and mental health professionals can help you with your social phobia with talk therapy, medication, and other techniques.

Expanding your social circle

Many of us take our friends and family for granted. We also take our social skills for granted, rarely thinking about the processes required to create and maintain our social circles. Assuming you're starting from scratch (e.g. you've moved to a new city, or you're overcoming social anxiety), there are some things you can do to start your very own social group:
  • Work with what you have: Do you have family that lives nearby? If so, you may want to increase your contact with them, especially if you're having trouble meeting and making new friends. This includes not just immediate family, but grandparents, aunts, uncles, nephews, nieces and cousins. And if you already have a friend or two, be sure to treasure and foster those relationships. You may even want to get to know friends of your friends, and even their family members. Lastly, if you have online friends who live in the area (e.g. through Facebook, Twitter or chat sites), be sure to organize a meet-up. If this is too much too soon, set-up a video chat as an intermediary step to meeting in person.
  • Pursue your passions in a social setting: You will stand a far better chance of meeting new friends when (1) you're in a setting that you're passionate about and comfortable in, (2) you're seen as someone who clearly has a specific interest and skill, and (3) you're surrounded with like-minded individuals. At the very least, you'll have fun doing what you love doing. Ideas include sports, public speaking, politics, games, crafts and so on.
  • Organize!: Why wait for someone else to organize something when you can? Create a meetup online. Help a friend set-up a party. Create a new group and schedule get-togethers. There's lots you can do, here.
  • Be the fun guy/gal: This might take you a bit out of your comfort zone, but it's important that you come across as being a genuinely fun, happy, and interesting person. Ultimately, you want to make people feel good when they're around you. If you project positive qualities, those around you will suck it up like a sponge and continue to want to hang out with you.
  • Make an effort: All of this advice will be for naught if you don't actively pursue friendships. Go into these settings with the mindset that you will meet new people. Approach strangers and introduce yourself. Build on familiarity and take it to the next stage by inviting your new acquaintances to alternative venues, like a bar or sporting event. Failing that, learn to enjoy the company of others in these settings. Remember, the goal here is to reduce the ill effects of social isolation.
As a last piece of advice, realize that there are a lot of people out there who would be happy to know you. Borrowing an axiom from the dating world, just remember that there are plenty of fish in the sea. Moreover, people are, for the most part, genuinely nice and well intentioned. Creating or increasing a social circle takes time, patience and persistence, but the payoffs are certainly well worth it. Your efforts will undoubtedly translate to positive and formative experiences.

Thousand-Hand Guan Yin

This performance is as spectacular as it is beautiful. The human capacity for creativity never ceases to amaze me. The choreography and precision required to pull this off boggles the mind.

Michio Kaku credibility FAIL: "UFOs are real"

Look, I'm a true believer in the right for academic freedom, but to see a prominent public intellectual and science popularizer go on like this about UFOs is too much for me to take.

To denote extraterrestrial intelligence as a viable reason behind 5% of all unexplained atmospheric phenomenon is the same tendency creationists have when then claim that God is responsible for all unknown aspects of Darwinian processes. It's the facile fill-in-the-gaps with God/UFOs routine, where neither solution has any basis in empirical reality.

Further reading:

Via Daily Galaxy.

God's response to Stephen Hawking [humor]

Courtesy MacLeod Cartoons.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Diane Benscoter on how cults rewire the brain

In this TED talk from 2009, cognitive deprogrammer Diane Benscoter talks about her efforts to help people leave cults.

At the age of 17, Benscoter joined The Unification Church—the religious cult whose members are commonly known as “Moonies.” After five long years, her distressed family arranged to have her deprogrammed. Benscoter then left The Unification Church, and was so affected by her experience that she became a deprogrammer herself. She devoted her time to extracting others from cults, until she was arrested for kidnapping— but the shock of her arrest caused her to abandon her efforts for nearly 20 years.

Now, after decades of research and study, Benscoter is once again talking about her experiences. She recently completed a memoir describing her years as a member of The Unification Church and as a deprogrammer.

In addition to this, she has embarked on a new project to define “extremist viral memetic infections”. She believes that defining extremism as a memetic infection, from a cognitive neurological perspective, might allow us to develop better memes that would inoculate against the memes of extremist thought. These inoculating memes could prevent the spread of extremist viral memetic infections and their inherent dangers.

Social isolation just as bad as smoking

Turns out that your friends and family are more important to you than you may realize. In fact, they might actually be extending your healthy lifespan.

A recent scientific review of 148 previous studies involving more than 300,000 people has revealed that social disconnection is a risk factor equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes per day. The study showed that those with adequate social relationships were 50% more likely to be alive after an average follow-up period of nearly eight years, compared to more socially isolated people. Put another way, social isolation is as unhealthy as being an alcoholic or never exercising—and twice as dangerous as obesity.

Previous studies have shown that strong social networks boost mental health, but links to physical health have proved harder to establish across the age span. Social isolation as a health problem is usually attributed to the elderly, but this is not the case. While previous research has demonstrated survival benefits on this scale for elderly people, the new study finds that it holds true across all age groups.

"This effect is not isolated to older adults," said Timothy Smith, of Brigham Young University in Utah, who led the research. "Relationships provide a level of protection across all ages."

Reporting their findings in the journal Public Library of Science Medicine, the researchers noted that people with adequate social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival compared to those with poor or insufficient social relationships. Consequently, the authors declared that physicians, health professionals, educators and the public media need to start taking social disconnection seriously. Specifically, medical professionals should routinely evaluate patients' social networks, and recommend more connections with other people.

The researchers said there were two mechanisms by which a thriving social network of friends and family could contribute to good health: (1) the support of other people may reduce the harmful effects of stress, and (2) the influence of others may also encourage behaviour that contributes to good health. They also speculated that isolation may reduce immune function.

"When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility for other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks," Julianne Holt-Lunstad, one of Dr Smith's colleagues.

Public health expert Bruce Armstrong noted that the findings were "persuasive", but it was not clear whether social isolation itself directly affected health outcomes, or simply led to other unhealthy habits such as a poorer diet and exercise routine. He admitted, however, that this might not matter because even if this was the case, it was plausible to suppose these unhealthy habits would improve if the individual could be given more social connectedness and interaction.

So get out of your caves, people.


Thursday, September 2, 2010

It's a control thing: Religion and human reproduction

Christianity is, like many other religions, a reproduction control system.

Its various sects take great pains to enforce a sexual code of conduct—and for very good reason. There's no better way for churches to control group behavior and ensure the growth of their flock than through the control of human reproduction. This explains why many Christians find it so important to get involved in biotechnological and bioethical discourse; it's crucial for Christian leaders to show their followers that they have authority over these areas, as authority imbues a sense of ownership.

Catholicism is a prime example. The Vatican's uncompromising stance on virtually all facets of reproduction shows how integral it is to the faith. Birth control, abortion, homosexuality and recreational sex (including sexual acts and positions that cannot lead to procreation) are considered taboos as each of these things represent a kind of subversion. And as far as health science is concerned, procedures like in vitro fertilization (IVF) are shunned upon as such practices wrest control away from the Church and towards individual couples and doctors. The injunction to 'not play God' is a memetic trick which convinces the faithful to avoid certain areas of inquiry traditionally reserved for the Church.

At the same time, Christians work to uphold so-called family values, knowing full well that the family unit is unquestioningly the most important vector for the entrenchment and spread of religious values.

Religious leaders and ideologues may argue that the reasons for their interest in human biology extend beyond mere reproduction. Instead, they argue that their domain extends into the realm of morality and spirituality, and that 'reproductive control' is a trite interpretation of their motives.

Now, I'm sure many of them are sincere when they make this case. That's how memes work, with hosts convinced that they're acting rationally and in the collective best interest. Memetics is, at its core, a study of the tendencies and vulnerabilities in human psychology.

In the case of human reproduction, Christians make the case for such things as embryonic personhood (or ensoulment) and espouse a strong interpretation of naturalism (i.e. humans were created in God's image). The problem with these arguments, however, is that they are rooted in fictions. The subsequent rationalizations and injunctions that emerge from these premises are thus intrinsically flawed.

Ultimately, once the arguments are stripped down and exposed for what they are, it's painfully obvious that the Christian memeplex is merely working to control human reproduction and the makeup of family units for the purpose of producing more willing hosts. One merely needs to stand back and look at the world's most successful religions as proof; those faiths that work to control human reproduction, namely Christianity, Islam and Hinduism (though Islam and Hinduism less so than Christianity) are undeniably the ones who have fared the best over the ages. It's the killer memetic adaptation.

As an example of the opposite effect, take the Shaker movement. It's a 250 year old Christian sect that acquired a rather disadvantageous characteristic—call it a maladaptive trait. According to Shaker law, all members of the faith are forbidden to engage in sexual activity. Reproduction is completely prohibited. The only way for Shakers to have children is through adoption, but even that was rejected in 1960. The only way new members could be acquired was from outside the community, which happened with great infrequency.

Today, the Shakers are all but finished. Their communities started to dwindle in the late 1800s. Although there were 6,000 believers at the peak of the Shaker movement, there were only twelve Shaker communities left by 1920. As of today, they are down to their last three members.

While most Christian sects have avoided this particular problem, they're not immune to changing social patterns and mores. The Vatican is having fits over the whole birth control thing. When it comes to family planning and recreational sex, Catholics and Christians alike are increasingly turning a blind eye to scripture. Couples want to continue engaging in sexual activity without having to have eight children. Additionally, infertile couples are choosing to have babies through IVF despite the Church's admonition against it.

The decline of Christian influence in much of the developed world (especially in Europe, but except, quite perplexingly, the USA) can be attributed to higher living standards and improved education—factors that lead couples to want smaller families and less to do with organized religion. Meanwhile, Christianity and Islam continues to spread in developing nations whose populations are still primed for religious memes.

But given the speed with which the developing world is catching up to the rest, it will only be a matter of time before they too start to shun religious laws that govern sexual activities and reproduction. Mark this as yet another reason to bring everyone up to first world standards.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Hunger improves mental clarity

For all you living on a calorically restricted diet, it turns out that you may be doing more than extending your lifespan—you may also be improving your mental clarity and wakefulness.

This revelation isn't a huge surprise to me. Several years ago I used to fast on a regular basis. The first couple of days were awful, but I remember feeling uncharacteristically alert and energetic as the fast went on. I could never account for this increase in brain power, but scientists at Washington University in St. Louis may have finally uncovered the mechanism behind this phenomenon.

New research in fruit flies suggests that hunger may provide a way to stay awake without feeling groggy or mentally challenged. It turns out that the need for nourishment pushes aside the need for sleep. While experimenting on fruit flies, the researchers discovered that starvation nearly tripled the amount of time they could survive without sleep.

What they found was that the ability to resist the effects of sleep loss was linked to a protein that helps the fruit fly brain manage its storage and use of lipids, a class of molecules that includes fats such as cholesterol and fat-soluble vitamins such as vitamins A and D.

"The major drugs we have to either put people to sleep or keep them awake are all targeted to a small number of pathways in the brain, all of them having to do with neurotransmission," says Paul Shaw, PhD, assistant professor of neurobiology and anatomy. "Modifying lipid processing with drugs may provide us with a new way of tackling sleep problems that is more effective or has fewer side effects."

Scientists have long known that there is a complex relationship between sleep and dietary metabolism. Inadequate sleep results in obesity and contributes to the development of diabetes and coronary disease. But until now, no one had connected genes linked to lipids with regulation of the need for sleep; the results fit into a growing awareness that organisms use lipids for much more than energy storage.

"It's becoming apparent that fats serve as signaling molecules in a number of contexts. If you identify the appropriate lipids involved in sleep regulation and figure out how to control them, you may be able to decrease suffering associated with loss of sleep or the need to stay awake," says Clay Semenkovich, MD, a Washington University lipid expert not directly involved in the study.

Shaw uses fruit flies as models for sleep's effects in higher organisms. He has proven that flies enter a state comparable to sleep, showing that they have periods of inactivity where greater stimulation is required to rouse them. Like humans, flies deprived of sleep one day will try to make up for it by sleeping more the next day—what's called sleep debt. Sleep-deprived flies also perform poorly on a simple test of learning ability.

Scientists tested the starving, sleepless flies for two markers of sleep debt: an enzyme in saliva and the flies' ability to learn to associate a light with an unpleasant stimulus. Both tests showed that the starving flies were not getting sleepy.

Studies in other labs have shown that starvation or, in the case of human volunteers, fasting leads to less sleep. More recent research has also shown that starvation can change the activity levels of genes that manage storage and use of lipids.

"From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense," says Matt Thimgan, PhD, a postdoctoral research associate. "If you're starving, you want to make sure you're on the top of your game cognitively, to improve your chances of finding food rather than becoming food for someone else."