Sunday, September 14, 2008

A 1-in-1,000 Chance of Götterdämmerung

Source: Reason online

Will the world come to an end on September 10? That fear is motivating two lawsuits—one American, another European—that aim to stop the physicists at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN) from switching on the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) on that day. The LHC is a $10 billion 17-mile long particle accelerator lying in a circular tunnel beneath the border of France and Switzerland. Its massive superconducting magnets cooled with liquid helium accelerate two beams of protons and lead nuclei to nearly the speed of light. These particle beams will eventually be crashed into each other to produce temperatures and particles not seen since microseconds after the Big Bang 13.7 billion years ago.

One of the chief goals of the LHC experiments is to find the elusive Higgs boson, the only fundamental particle predicted by the Standard Model of particle physics that has not been directly observed. The Higgs boson plays a key role in explaining the origins of mass in other elementary particles. Exciting, if esoteric research, to be sure, but why oppose it?

Walter Wagner, a former nuclear safety officer, and Spanish science writer Luis Sancho, have filed a civil suit in federal district court in Hawaii asking for a temporary restraining order to stop the researchers at CERN from switching on the LHC until further safety analyses are completed. In Europe, Professor Otto Rössler, a chemist at the Eberhard Karls University of Tübingen in Germany filed a similar suit with the European Court of Human Rights.

These LHC opponents fear that the Earth could be destroyed by vacuum bubbles, magnetic monopoles, microscopic black holes, or strangelets produced by the high-energy proton-proton collisions planned by CERN physicists. Vacuum bubbles have been described as a kind of "cosmic cancer." If it turns out that there is a lower energy state into which the universe could settle, then the LHC might produce "bubbles" of such a state which would then expand, ripping apart the Earth and eventually the entire universe. If magnetic monopoles were produced they might induce protons to decay and thus destroy normal matter. Microscopic black holes might grow by gobbling up the Earth. And strangelets are combinations of quarks that theoretically interact with normal matter and transform it into strange matter.

At the Global Catastrophic Risks conference at Oxford University this past July, CERN's Michelangelo Mangano described the findings of a report released in June by the LHC Safety Assessment Group (LSAG). The bottom line: "There is no basis for any conceivable threat from the LHC."

While the LHC safety report goes through a number of scenarios, its chief point is that the energies produced in the LHC are "far below those of the highest-energy cosmic-ray collisions that are observed regularly on Earth." In fact, cosmic rays produced by phenomena in the universe "conduct" more than 10 million LHC-like experiments per second. If such energies actually produced vacuum bubbles, microscopic black holes, magnetic monopoles, or strangelets that could destroy planets and stars, physicists wouldn't be here to perform experiments in the LHC now.

At the Global Catastrophic Risk conference, Future of Humanity Institute research associate Toby Ord asked an interesting question: How certain should we be about safety when there could be a risk to the survival of the human species? As Ord argued, "When an expert provides a calculation of the probability of an outcome, they are really providing the probability of the outcome occurring, given that their argument is watertight. However, their argument may fail for a number of reasons such as a flaw in the underlying theory, a flaw in their modeling of the problem, or a mistake in their calculations."

In other words, for the argument that the LHC poses no existential risk to humanity to be sound, the theory underlying it must be adequate. But physical theories have been upended in the past. Ord pointed out that Lord Kelvin had calculated the age of the sun. Using the best physics of his time, Lord Kelvin concluded that the sun was 100 million years old. It was not until the discovery of radioactivity that the current estimate of 4.6 billion years could be calculated. So Ord argued that it's not unreasonable to think that there is a 1-in-1,000 chance that the theories underlying the LHC are flawed in some important details.

In addition, the model of the problem itself could be flawed. As an example of how flawed models can impact the real world, Ord cited the Castle Bravo 15-megaton thermonuclear bomb test in 1954, the explosive yield of which was two and half times what had been calculated by the bomb's designers at Los Alamos National Laboratory. Those experts had missed the fact that the lithium-7 isotope, when bombarded by high energy neutrons, decomposes into tritium and boosts neutron production. As a more recent example, Ord claimed that Lloyds of London's insurance models for New Orleans had failed to consider the risk that the city's levees might fail.

And finally, it's possible that errors in calculation could slip into errors of analysis. Ord cited the frequency of miscalculations in medication dosages as an example of such errors. To get an estimate of argument failure, Ord cited survey evidence which found that 1-in-1,000 to 1-in-100 articles are retracted from high-impact scientific journals. For an article to be retracted something must be found to be seriously wrong with it. "If the probability estimate given by an argument is dwarfed by the chance that the argument itself is flawed, then the estimate is suspect," argued Ord. He suggested that multiplying the probabilities that the theory, model, and/or calculations on which the operation of the LHC rests are wrong dramatically increases the probability estimates that switching it on will destroy the world. Thus Ord concluded that the LHC should not be switched on.

Mangano from CERN objected furiously to Ord's presentation, arguing, "I can apply that estimate of a 1-in-1,000 chance to everything." Ord responded that his analysis should only apply to experiments that pose an existential risk to humanity, not to experiments whose outcomes can be ameliorated later. I asked Ord if he could think of another experiment or situation to which he would apply his analysis. He looked surprised for a moment and then reluctantly said, "No." Over canapés after Ord's talk, several of his colleagues expressed glee at the prospect that a philosopher's arguments might derail a $10 billion physics experiment. Personally, I estimate the probability of that happening at less than 1-in-1,000.

As intriguing as Ord's argument is, I am ultimately unpersuaded by it. Why? Largely because the empirical evidence is that the universe has been running trillions of these high-energy physics "experiments" for billions of years without disastrous results. In fact, Ord's colleagues Nick Bostrom and Max Tegmark from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology calculate that the empirical evidence suggests a conservative estimate of the annual risk that LHC-like experiments would destroy the earth is 1-in-a-trillion. At the end of his talk, Mangano reminded the Oxford conferees, "Jeopardizing the future of scientific research would be a global catastrophe." Any theory, model, or calculation that suggests otherwise is clearly flawed.

Ronald Bailey is reason's science correspondent. His book Liberation Biology: The Scientific and Moral Case for the Biotech Revolution is now available from Prometheus Books.

Pathetic handling of blasts' aftermath

Source: Rediff

alf an hour after the first blast in New Delhi on Saturday, the NDTV 24/7 telecast telling visuals that said it all. We just don't know how to handle the aftermath of the terror attacks which we don't know how to forestall.

Take, for example, the young woman in a yellow top and black trousers, hurt in the bombing of the Connaught Place's Central Park. She was shown being carried away, four persons holding a limb each to a police vehicle several yards away in Connaught Place. She was dripping blood, her head snapped back under its own weight and in agony.

No stretcher in sight, no ambulance within miles and crowds who should have scattered to safety and enable the police to do their job, such as the job they do -- ham-handed, impulsive, not to a drill that would maximise results.

One does not know what happened to the poor young woman who later. such victims, are threatened with death less because of the injuries but more due to the way she was handled by well-meaning but perhaps misguided people. We may actually be pushing up the death toll and bolster the designs of the terrorists. And the State owes something better to its citizens.

Cut to the train blasts in Mumbai on July 11, 2006. Scores of people, badly mauled, were seen carried away in bed sheets thrown at the impromptu rescuers from homes along the railway tracks. Persons with a limb torn away were carted away in auto-rickshaws by good Samaritans, the ride being given free.

Speed, one accepts, is of the essence. But the means also has to be proper so that the good intent does not translate to death or further complications. It is as if the disaster managers don't even know that there is something called the Golden Hour when best support is required, even before the person is reached to the hospital. That is why modern civilisations -- we are living in one, aren't we? -- has the concept called an ambulance.

This kind of speedy but amateurish shift of the hurt, dying and the dead has been seen in every location where the terrorist struck by seting off explosions -- Hyderabad, Bangalore, Jaipur, Ahemedabad and now Delhi. This mishandling and the delays in being attended to on reaching the hospitals, I bet, are the causes of several deaths. Or permanent damage to the body.


Because, we have just not got our act together, despite the country having had a high-powered committee, headed by Sharad Pawar to outline how disaster management ought to be because of his experience of handling the aftermath of the March 12, 1993 serial blasts in Mumbai.

Now cut to the scenes outside the various train stations in London after the July 7, 2005 train bombings. Not an individual who needed medical help was just carried away any which way. Fully equipped ambulances with paramedics on board moved in with stretchers and ensured that help was fully professional. Within minutes plastic tents for on-the-spot support was set up.

It is here that we fall short; grievously so, in fact.

There are other critical phases of post-terrorist attacks where we fail abysmally, though there have been a few instances of positive gains made in policing. Here is the brief, very brief, positive list:

One, the Indian security agencies have now learnt to zero-in on the suspect computers or their routers used to send out terror threats or claims owning up attacks and IP addresses are located.

Two, in Surat, bomb after bomb which did not go off were found and defused, bomb by bomb, without any untoward collateral damage.

However, and unfortunately, there is not much to be added to this list because, apart from Afzal Guru and those convicted in the Mumbai's 1993 blasts, how many terrorists have been brought to book? Even Afzal Guru's death sentence remains to be carried out.

Now, let us look at the negative list of our so called anti-terror policing.

In Surat, in their hurry to unload and defuse the bombs found in the cars left on Surat roads, the police obliterated every fingerprint on it. These prints would have been valuable to fixing the involvement of people who otherwise would get the benefit of doubt and be let off for want of evidence.

They made a villain of Kenneth Haywood, feeding the media stories about sinister dimensions to some religious activities of his. He even left the country, returned and said he had not fled but only gone away to take a break from the stressful moments he was plunged into.

Often, and in most cases, the police establishments across the country speculate about the involvement of some faction or the other of the militants, pin the blame on the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence -- which well might be the real thing -- and announce the name of an outfit as the culprits. If they know it within the hour of an event even before the first clue is gathered, then pray, why did the police which was so close to the culprit's identity, not pre-empt the bombing?

This sleight of hand is now a thing of the past because the Indian Mujahedeen has made it a habit to announce its ownership of the dastardly acts. Now, it has even started sending e-mails minutes the blasts it sets off, saving the police the task of speculating as to who did it.

Take again the failure of the close-circuit cameras set up on the toll plazas on the highways going out of Mumbai. They caught not a single car that was stolen from Navi Mumbai for use in Ahmedabad and Surat because, as a senior police official of Thane district adjoining Gujarat explained, 'They were all at angles to photograph trucks' and not cars which are low-slung in comparison.

Equally galling was the -- yes, well meaning but potentially hazardous -- way a constable grabbed the plastic bag containing a bomb from two rag pickers in Delhi on Saturday, using a stone to crush the clock that was a timer. He saved lives, but he may have jeopardised those in the vicinity. Who knows, instead of disarming, he may have even set off an explosion. Where, pray, were the bomb disposal squads?

Policemen just do not have the means to chase the clues, and my feeling is that if there are suspects who have been brought to courts, then they are those who have confessed because of the third degree and those confessions found their way to the charge sheets. The good old policing is just dead.

They do not even go by the forensic laboratory findings. They begged to differ with the forensics who said the August 26, 2003 blasts near Gateway of India were carried out using RDX.

Fact, you see, has to fit a theory, not otherwise.

For, the police have to find someone, tell the media that they have a terrorist in the bag, damn and tar him/her in the media that's what trial by the media, trial in the media is all about, isn't it? and claim successes. And then what? The next terrorist attack and a few shibboleths like the one spouted by Union Home Minister, Shivraj Patil. The country would find the criminals and punish them.

That is an assertion the country, now angry at the spate of bombings, in city after city, can digest. Find something more credible to say, Mr Home Minister or you would be laughing stock. They are already saying enough was enough and time we stopped depending on these incompetents. Strong sentiment, that.

And in this posturing, he is not alone. He has L K Advani for company. He demands stringent laws like the Prevention of Terrorism Act, 2002 be brought back to the statute. He forgets the simple fact that for a terrorist driven by passion, laws are no deterrent. Before any stringent law is used against the criminals, they have to be caught. But have we caught enough of them?

Therefore, I have a more humane suggestion. Before we learn to catch the terrorist and then use any law against them, let us learn to handle those innocents who fall victim to the terrorists. Or else, we would be only shadow boxing.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

A heart that can feel

Source: The Hindu

We need to reach out with compassion to help people in pain.

Ahimsa teaches us that having a heart that can feel not only brings pain, but also great joy.

The concept of ahimsa comes wrapped up with the idea of compassion. Although today we have hijacked it by concentrating mainly on non-violence, we need to remember that it was the idea of compassion that gave way to that of non-violence. It is an amazing fact that this idea of love and caring not just for one’s own family and one’s own little circle, but also extending the same care and love to one who has done you harm, originated and was practised in our country centuries ago, by both kings and the common person alike. Just imagine how revolutionary this idea must have been at the time when hurting the person who hurt you, or being indifferent to those who were weak or poor or sick, was the norm. The first people who practised this kind of ahimsa with compassion as its main component, not just towards people, but also towards animals and all of Creation must have been people with great hearts.

Importance of empathy

Compassion flows straight from one heart to another and reaches out to those who deserve it, and those who don’t. Often we think that compassion is that feeling which makes us feel sorry for someone who is poor, sick or suffering in some way. On a superficial level, we toss a coin, give away an old sari, or write a cheque. Ahimsa teaches us that real compassion is more than just this.

It is using our hearts to feel someone’s pain, insecurity, fears, injustices, and reaching out to support, relieve and help them through this.

The compassion that ahimsa brings is active. We need not only to open our eyes, but also open our hearts and reach out with our hands. To do this one needs a heart that can feel. One of the lessons I learnt from a Vietnamese doctor was to actually want a heart that I could feel. This might seem strange as, in today’s world, it is easier not to feel. The mechanical way in which we live today makes us harden our hearts to any kind of feeling. When we stop feeling, we stop connecting. When we stop connecting, we become himsa people, caring only about ourselves. My Vietnamese friend who was a doctor was chased and hunted by the army and spent some rough times in refugee camps rife with TB, malaria, fevers and malnutrition. One night, in desperation, he caught a boat to America and found his freedom — or so he thought.

Unnerving experience

When he found a job again as doctor, he found that he was listening to well-fed people talking about wanting to lose weight; healthy people wanting surgery to change their noses and other parts of their bodies; very young girls wanting to abort their children; children who were abused in a variety of ways. He became angry and hard and very mean as he listened day after day to such people. He became short tempered with his patients and did not like the person he was becoming. So he went away for a few days and forced himself to remember how the people he had met and treated in the refugee camps felt. He forced himself to remember their anxieties, pain, and fears. Then he came back to work and began to look at his obese patients and neurotic patients in the same way. He put himself in their shoes and tried to understand their fears and worries and over time found that his clinics were busier than his colleagues’ and were always overflowing with patients. The reason? The patients found this doctor was compassionate and much more caring than the others. He had discovered that having a heart that could feel anger, pain, fear, worry, were the skills he needed to being not just a good doctor, but a good person as well.

Compassion is a much-needed ingredient in life for all of us, but more so for those in the healing and teaching professions. And somehow, it is here that it also seems to be missing the most in today’s life. A gardener’s children who go to local school were punished for not bringing Rs. 50 for something and the parents were scolded. “If you can’t afford to pay such a small amount of money even, then you are not fit to educate your child. ” The poor parent came away in great agony and went back to borrow some money.

Need of the hour

A woman I know had great difficulty when she was a young mother. Her boss was a spinster and could not understand why this woman took a day off when her baby was sick, or was teething. When this woman herself became the boss, I thought she would be more compassionate and understanding to her female staff. But sadly, she was just like her old boss. Hard and sometimes very mean. A truly himsa person. When we experience himsa behaviour, it becomes even more important that we practise ahimsa, to prevent our families and workplaces from disintegrating into ugly places.

Ahimsa teaches us that having a heart that can feel not only brings pain, but also great joy.

If you are an ahimsa person and have a story to share please write to the author at

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Life of the Mind

Source: BostonGlobe

ON A SUNDAY morning in 1974, Arthur Fry sat in the front pews of a Presbyterian church in north St. Paul, Minn. An engineer at 3M, Fry was also a singer in the church choir. He had gotten into the habit of inserting little scraps of paper into his choir book, so that he could quickly find the right hymns during the service. The problem, however, was that the papers would often fall out, causing Fry to lose his place.

Daydream achiever (David Flaherty for the Boston Globe)

But then, while listening to the Sunday sermon, Fry started to daydream. Instead of focusing on the pastor's words, he began to mull over his bookmark problem. "It was during the sermon," Fry remembers, "that I first thought, 'What I really need is a little bookmark that will stick to the paper but will not tear the paper when I remove it.' " That errant thought - the byproduct of a wandering mind - would later become the yellow Post-it note, one of the most successful office products of all time.

Although there are many anecdotal stories of breakthroughs resulting from daydreams - Einstein, for instance, was notorious for his wandering mind - daydreaming itself is usually cast in a negative light. Children in school are encouraged to stop daydreaming and "focus," and wandering minds are often cited as a leading cause of traffic accidents. In a culture obsessed with efficiency, daydreaming is derided as a lazy habit or a lack of discipline, the kind of thinking we rely on when we don't really want to think. It's a sign of procrastination, not productivity, something to be put away with your flip-flops and hammock as summer draws to a close.

In recent years, however, scientists have begun to see the act of daydreaming very differently. They've demonstrated that daydreaming is a fundamental feature of the human mind - so fundamental, in fact, that it's often referred to as our "default" mode of thought. Many scientists argue that daydreaming is a crucial tool for creativity, a thought process that allows the brain to make new associations and connections. Instead of focusing on our immediate surroundings - such as the message of a church sermon - the daydreaming mind is free to engage in abstract thought and imaginative ramblings. As a result, we're able to imagine things that don't actually exist, like sticky yellow bookmarks.

"If your mind didn't wander, then you'd be largely shackled to whatever you are doing right now," says Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. "But instead you can engage in mental time travel and other kinds of simulation. During a daydream, your thoughts are really unbounded."

The ability to think abstractly that flourishes during daydreams also has important social benefits. Mostly, what we daydream about is each other, as the mind retrieves memories, contemplates "what if" scenarios, and thinks about how it should behave in the future. In this sense, the content of daydreams often resembles a soap opera, with people reflecting on social interactions both real and make-believe. We can leave behind the world as it is and start imagining the world as it might be, if only we hadn't lost our temper, or had superpowers, or were sipping a daiquiri on a Caribbean beach. It is this ability to tune out the present moment and contemplate the make-believe that separates the human mind from every other.

"Daydreaming builds on this fundamental capacity people have for being able to project themselves into imaginary situations, like the future," Malia Mason, a neuroscientist at Columbia, says. "Without that skill, we'd be pretty limited creatures."

Teresa Belton, a research associate at East Anglia University in England, first got interested in daydreaming while reading a collection of stories written by children in elementary school. Although Belton encouraged the students to write about whatever they wanted, she was startled by just how uninspired most of the stories were.

"The tales tended to be very tedious and unimaginative," Belton says, "as if the children were stuck with this very restricted way of thinking. Even when they were encouraged to think creatively, they didn't really know how."

After monitoring the daily schedule of the children for several months, Belton came to the conclusion that their lack of imagination was, at least in part, caused by the absence of "empty time," or periods without any activity or sensory stimulation. She noticed that as soon as these children got even a little bit bored, they simply turned on the television: the moving images kept their minds occupied. "It was a very automatic reaction," she says. "Television was what they did when they didn't know what else to do."

The problem with this habit, Belton says, is that it kept the kids from daydreaming. Because the children were rarely bored - at least, when a television was nearby - they never learned how to use their own imagination as a form of entertainment. "The capacity to daydream enables a person to fill empty time with an enjoyable activity that can be carried on anywhere," Belton says. "But that's a skill that requires real practice. Too many kids never get the practice."

While much of the evidence linking daydreaming and creativity remains anecdotal, rooted in the testimony of people like Fry and Einstein, scientists are beginning to find experimental proof of the relationship. In a forthcoming paper, Schooler's lab has shown that people who engage in more daydreaming score higher on experimental measures of creativity, which require people to make a set of unusual connections.

"Daydreams involve a more relaxed style of thinking, with people more willing to contemplate ideas that seem silly or far-fetched," says Belton. While such imaginative thoughts aren't always practical, they are often the wellspring of creative insights, as Schooler's research shows.

However, not all daydreams seem to inspire creativity. In his experiments, Schooler distinguishes between two types of daydreaming. The first type consists of people who notice they are daydreaming only when asked by the researcher. Even though they are told to press a button as soon as they realize their mind has started to wander, these people fail to press the button. The second type, in contrast, occurs when subjects catch themselves daydreaming during the experiment, without needing to be questioned. Schooler and colleagues found that individuals who are unaware of their own daydreaming while it's happening don't seem to exhibit increased creativity.

"The point is that it's not enough to just daydream," Schooler says. "Letting your mind drift off is the easy part. The hard part is maintaining enough awareness so that even when you start to daydream you can interrupt yourself and notice a creative insight."

In other words, the reason Fry is such a good inventor - he has more than twenty patents to his name, in addition to Post-it notes - isn't simply because he's a prolific daydreamer. It's because he's able to pay attention to his daydreams, and to detect those moments when his daydreams lead to a useful idea.

Every time we slip effortlessly into a daydream, a distinct pattern of brain areas is activated, which is known as the default network. Studies show that this network is most engaged when people are performing tasks that require little conscious attention, such as routine driving on the highway or reading a tedious text. Although such mental trances are often seen as a sign of lethargy - we are staring haplessly into space - the cortex is actually very active during this default state, as numerous brain regions interact. Instead of responding to the outside world, the brain starts to contemplate its internal landscape. This is when new and creative connections are made between seemingly unrelated ideas.

"When you don't use a muscle, that muscle really isn't doing much of anything," says Dr. Marcus Raichle, a neurologist and radiologist at Washington University who was one of the first scientists to locate the default network in the brain. "But when your brain is supposedly doing nothing and daydreaming, it's really doing a tremendous amount. We call it the 'resting state,' but the brain isn't resting at all."

Recent research has confirmed the importance of the default network by studying what happens when the network is disrupted. For instance, there is suggestive evidence that people with autism engage in less daydreaming than normal, with a default network that exhibits significantly reduced activity during idle moments. In addition, more abnormal default networks in autistic subjects correlated with the most severe social deficits. One leading theory is that atypical default activity interferes with the sort of meandering memories and social simulations that typically characterize daydreams, causing people with autism to instead fixate on things in their environment.

The exact opposite phenomenon seems to occur in patients with schizophrenia, who exhibit overactive default networks. This might explain the inability of schizophrenics to differentiate properly between reality and the ideas generated by the imagination.

Problems with daydreaming also seem to afflict the aging brain: Harvard researchers recently discovered that one of the main symptoms of getting older is reduced coordination in the default network, as brain areas that normally operate in sync start to fire at different times. Scientists speculate that this deficit contributes to the inability of many elderly subjects to control the duration and timing of their daydreams.

"It's very important to use the default network at the right time," says Jessica Andrews-Hanna, a researcher at Harvard who has studied the network in older subjects. "When you need to focus" - such as during stop-and-go traffic, or when engaged in a conversation - "you don't want to let your mind wander off."

What these studies all demonstrate is that proper daydreaming - the kind of thinking that occurs when the mind is thinking to itself - is a crucial feature of the healthy human brain. It might seem as though our mind is empty, but the mind is never empty: it's always bubbling over with ideas and connections.

One of the simplest ways to foster creativity, then, may be to take daydreams more seriously. Even the mundane daydreams that occur hundreds of times a day are helping us plan for the future, interact with others, and solidify our own sense of self. And when we are stuck on a particularly difficult problem, a good daydream isn't just an escape - it may be the most productive thing we can do.

Jonah Lehrer is an editor at large at Seed magazine and the author of "Proust Was a Neuroscientist." He is a regular contributor to Ideas.

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