A Curious Relationship between Sex and Mathematics

February 29th, 2016

As noted in the Economist (2-27-16, p71), Michael Desai and his colleagues at Harvard (article published in Nature) report that “Sex Speeds Adaptation by Altering the Dynamics of Molecular Evolution.” The findings arise from Desai’s research with yeast, which reproduces both sexually and asexually. This feature has allowed Desai et al to experiment with the evolution of mutations in yeast populations that are limited to either one or the other reproductive modes.


Desai Lab, Harvard


Prescription Strength Nature

February 19th, 2016

In January, we reported on research at Stanford and Berkeley that verifies what we already know – there are physiological and psychological benefits from spending time in nature. This topic has gotten excellent humorous treatment in the youtube series Nature Rx. With more than 2.5 million viewers, Nature Rx offers brilliant and effective satire directed at the omnipresent medical ads with hyper-sentimental messages in staged nature settings. Yet its message is fundamentally positive – experience in nature is an excellent remedy for what some commenters refer to as “nature deficit disorder” – the stress and anxiety we experience in out modern, human, and largely artificial world.

The idea of actually prescribing nature may now be taking hold, as reported in Children and Nature. With inspiration from The Lewis and Clark National Historical Park, medical centers in northern Oregon will soon give prescriptions, known as Rx: 4 Play. With a doctor’s permission, people will get an Oregon Coast Pass good for one year of free parking at state and national parks on the North Coast.

Imagine the long term health benefits and reduced medical costs that would result from a nationwide movement to increase our collective experience of nature.

The Quandary of Medical Reversal – New Evidence!

February 18th, 2016

We have spent some time in this forum on the issues of bias and uncertainty, and recently included posts dealing with these challenges in medical testing and reproducibility in psychological research. All these findings support the call for humility in claims about what we know and, more importantly, what the experts think they know. Drs. Adam Cifu and Vinayak Prasad have recently addressed the extent of these problems in the practice of medicine in their book: Ending Medical Reversal: Improving Outcomes, Saving Lives (2015). (more…)

What does your conscience say about human gene editing?

January 25th, 2016

I recently read a series of articles dealing with conscience and culture posted under the Questions for a Resilient Future project of the Center for Humans and Nature. At about the same time, I also read a briefing in The Week on the CRISPR technique that has vastly simplified gene editing – the headline is titled “Editing the human race.”  (See also the post in this forum: “Engineering Better Babies” November 20, 2015.)   CRISPR is one among many technologies that, by their very existence, test our collective conscience. (more…)

May the Force be With You — and Disney!

January 4th, 2016

Like millions of others this past holiday season, I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”. The movie brought back fond memories of the first wave of Star Wars movies in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s (when my kids were young), and rekindled that sense of yearning and pride associated with the valiant underdog and the heartfelt joy in the triumph of good over the evil dark side.   Yet, the Economist magazine also points out (Leader and Briefing December 19, 2015) that the movie is a financial tour de force for the Disney empire, which has become modern society’s master myth-maker and increasingly controls the stories told to our children. What if Disney turns to the dark side? (more…)

Experiences in Nature Bring Health Benefits!

January 4th, 2016

This may not come as a surprise, since most of us appreciate the good feelings we experience when enjoying nature, but scientific research is now validating physiological benefits correlated with these good feelings. In a series of studies at Stanford University (reported in the NY Times and elsewhere), Gregory Bratman and his Team found that volunteers who walked briefly through a lush, green portion of the Stanford campus were more attentive and happier than volunteers who strolled for the same amount of time near heavy traffic. More specifically, walking along the highway resulted in higher blood flow to their subgenual prefrontal cortex (a key part of the brain involved in mood) and a greater broodiness. Volunteers who strolled along quiet, tree-lined paths showed slight but meaningful improvements in their mental health, reduced dwelling on negative thoughts and less blood flow to the subgenual prefrontal cortex.  A study at UC Berkeley led by Jennifer Stellar, has also found that the awe we feel when touched by the beauty of nature, art and spirituality generate positive emotions and lower levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines, proteins that signal the immune system to work harder. Sustained high levels of cytokines are associated with poorer health and disorders such as diabetes, heart disease, arthritis, Alzheimer’s and depression.

Enjoying nature is not just a self-indulgence – it is a healing experience.

Further Controversy – Should We Regulate Addictive Technology?

November 30th, 2015

This week AEON magazine published a provocative article by Michael Schulson suggesting (half-heartedly) that we might consider government regulations in responding to websites and apps that are designed to promote compulsion or addiction, just as we do drugs or casinos. Schulson traces the manipulative tricks of Internet designers to the experiments of B.F.Skinner, who found that pigeons facing variable timing of rewards “went nuts… One pigeon hit the Plexiglas 2.5 times per second for 16 hours.” He suggests that our individual battles with legions of savvy, well-funded Internet companies is “not a fair fight”, and yet, as we do in gambling or drugs, we blame the addicts and not the purveyors. Can we rely on industry auto-regulation to help us, or do we need government regulations? In our series on The Human Race and the Technology Race, we focused on the only realistic option —personal self-regulation, and we offered the four “A’ tips: AVOID; ADOPT; ADAPT; ADEPT.

What Can We Learn From Fire: Ecology, Economics and Spiritual Growth

November 19th, 2015

Modern humans tend to be afraid of fire, as it can be such an uncontrollable and destructive force. At the same time, our modern comforts all depend on the energy of controlled fire, and we retain a romantic fascination with fire, whether it’s a cozy fire in the living room, a campfire in the woods, or the pyrotechnic display of fireworks on July 4th. Only rarely do we think about fire as a creative, inspirational and transformational force. Yet that may be its ultimate, defining characteristic in nature, in economics and in human spirituality.



A New Evolution Debate – Does Religion Evolve?

November 14th, 2015

As the recent flap over the remarks of Presidential aspirant Ben Carson demonstrates, the controversy between science and religion is alive and well. As usual, it is focused on the theory of evolution, which postulates that the world, and man, is the result of evolution by Darwinian natural selection and not the ordination of God. While many, myself included, affirm both perspectives as true — evolution is simply the natural unfolding of divine order — there are those in both religious and scientific communities that reject one or the other. These opposing polarized views continue to dominate the controversy. However, there are other aspects of the God vs. evolution dialogue that are worthy of discussion. There may even be room for common ground. (more…)

Towards a TOE – Explaining Quantum Physics, Consciousness and Free Will

November 13th, 2015

For more than a century, physics has been confronting the demon of indeterminacy in the quantum structure of the universe in the search for a Theory of Everything (TOE). Theoretical physicists have struggled for a century to close the gap – unsuccessfully.   The esteemed Sir Roger Penrose (age 84) has a different idea that may move us closer to a TOE, but in an unexpected way: his theory also explains the mechanism of consciousness and free will. By implication, it forces each of us (and every quantum state) to make a choice. (more…)

The American Prairie Reserve

October 20th, 2015

Russ Roberts of Econ Talk has a particular interest in the complex processes by which economic and cultural institutions emerge. He often refers to this process as analogous to building a prairie. While we may know all the component plants and animals that live in the prairie and be able to assemble them in a plot of land, we cannot duplicate the complex dynamic interactions by which a living prairie emerges over time. In a recent episode, Russ interviewed Pete Geddes, Managing Director of the American Prairie Reserve, an ambitious non-profit dedicated to the long term goal of re-establishing a 3.3 million acre prairie in northeastern Montana. The interview provides some fascinating insights on the ecological and institutional challenges of building a prairie, and highlights the many correspondences between the natural biological and the human cultural dynamics.  Many of the challenges rest on “getting the incentives right”  — a challenge we discussed in a broader context in the 2014 FQXi essay The Tip of The Spear.

Blame versus Responsibility – Navigating the Confusion

October 20th, 2015

How often have we been admonished to “condemn the behavior, not the person?” Yet this seems to be incredibly difficult — how do you confront a bad behavior without also confronting the person who is doing it?   There is a subtler version of this conundrum in New Church Theology – based on the writings of Emanuel Swedenborg. Swedenborg teaches that it is the intent of a person, their truest inner love, which ultimately defines whether a person is good or evil. Yet we can never know another person’s intention – only God can do that. While we can name an action as having a positive or negative outcome, we cannot judge whether the person that made the action is good or evil. (more…)

Life After Death – An Eternal Mystery?

October 2nd, 2015

Of all the questions dividing science and religion, the question of whether there is life after death is one of the most important, as the answer defines our ultimate and eternal state.   The physical death of our body has always been fundamental and unavoidable. What comes next, if anything, for our conscious mind or soul, is a compelling mystery; one that humanity has grappled with since culture began. (more…)

Brain Science Update

August 13th, 2015

In a wonderful and very readable article in this month’s Nautilus Magazine, Ferris Jabr reviews some of the most recent discoveries about the human brain, particularly the previously unknown roles of glial cells as “the neurons’ secret partner.”

We have come a long way since the time when 90% of brain electrical activity was deemed “noise” and glial tissue (named after “glue”) was thought to be just a kind of “putty”.  There is such beauty and wonder in the complexity, sophistication and elegance of the human brain, perhaps the most intricate and complex object in the universe (see our prior post: Knowledge and Freedom. This experience should teach us all to be more humble and avoid concluding that we really understand the physical (or the non-physical) world – there is so much yet to discover among the “unknown unknowns.”

Success and Religion – The Importance of Social Competence in Children

August 11th, 2015

A recent article in the Washington Post caught my eye: “If you want your children to succeed, teach them to share in kindergarten.” The article reports on research (tracking 753 students) validating the strong relationship between social competence in kindergarten and future wellness in adults (Damon E. Jones et all, American Journal of Public Health in July 16, 2015). This is wonderful, but it is hardly news. Missing, however, is any discussion of what leads to social competence (including sharing behaviors) among young children.

For that we need to dig a bit deeper. Jee Young Noh of Harvard reported in 2010 (International Journal of Arts and Sciences) on research involving 17,500 subjects that reaffirmed the significance of both religious environment and parental warmth on children’s social competence. According to Noh, “As many previous studies have pointed out, religious people, overall, have a greater ability to self-control and fewer externalizing and internalizing problem behaviors because they learn religious values and engage in religious services, which creates stronger social competence.”

Religious practice leads to increased social competence in children and more success for them as adults.  This is news!

The Curious Mathematics of Nothing – and Why It Is So Important.

July 28th, 2015

Abstract:  We usually think of mathematics as something kids have to learn in school – we rarely or only dimly comprehend that it provides the foundation for virtually all of modern science and the ubiquitous technological infrastructure that nurtures us. Mathematics is a marvel, and the greatest minds have not been able to explain why it works as well as it does in explaining the way the world works. Curiously, one of the more incomprehensible features of modern mathematics is – nothing.

zero (more…)

Exploring the Flip Side: Irrationality

June 24th, 2015

In our series on rationality, we have attempted to understand our cognitive limitations and to improve our effectiveness in being rational, but we have not discussed what it means to be irrational. Lisa Bortolotti has written an excellent little book, Irrationality (2015), that does exactly that. Bortolotti, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Birmingham, reviews the current thinking in philosophy and psychology about when and how humans are not rational, and offers some notable conclusions that add significantly to our understanding. (more…)

On the Curious Life and Fate of the Neanderthal

May 20th, 2015

Lydia Pyne, in her article “Our Neanderthal Complex – What if our ancient relatives did “human” better?”, published in Nautilus online in May, offers an intriguing fresh look at the mythology of the brutish “cave-man” that roamed Europe tens of thousands of years ago. While Neanderthals were first identified some 150 years ago, they were promptly relegated to inferior status, a failed and dead species when compared to modern humans. (more…)

Bugs in Our Mindware – Being Rational is so Hard!

May 20th, 2015

Nautilus magazine this month has provided another well-documented summary of the pitfalls to being rational, providing further confirmation of our discussion On Rationality last fall.  Richard Nesbitt, in The Bugs in our Mindware, provides a good overview and some detailed examples of where the human mind can go wrong. (more…)

FQXi 2015 Essay Contest Update

April 5th, 2015

The rating process for the 2015 FQXi Essay Contest: Trick or Truth? – on the puzzling relationship between math and physics – is well underway. Over 200 essays were submitted this year, and the quality has vastly improved over last year. As a result the community rating process (the essayists evaluating each other) is highly competitive. My essay “The Hole at the Center of Creation” is currently rated in the top quartile, and the posted comments have been very favorable, but it is facing headwinds as I discuss below.

After having at least scanned all of the essays, my informal assessment is that more than half, including all the highly rated ones, reflect a strongly “physicalist” perspective. They grapple with specific issues in mathematics and physics, many at a quite deeply technical level, while avoiding or even disavowing concepts that fall into what they categorize as “metaphysics” or “mysticism.” However, many discuss, and are committed to, the “many worlds” or similar hypotheses that intend to resolve the measurement paradox in quantum physics by postulating that anything that could happen at the quantum level, does happen — in an alternate universe. One extension of many worlds that is getting a lot of attention extends the realm of existence to include the range of all possible mathematical configurations — any math that can be imagined is displayed in a world somewhere. Arguably, these hypotheses are all metaphysical – but they are a-theistic and, therefore, comfortable to this audience. The corresponding dichotomy between randomness and purpose runs through the contest as a whole – those eschewing God also reject purposeful fine-tuning or selection and seek explanations that preserve the perfect neutrality of a random world that only follows mathematical laws and not intentional ones.

In this context, “The Hole at the Center of Creation” is an uncomfortable and perhaps unwelcome reminder of the emptiness of existence without intention and purpose. It’s call for a mythology that encompasses the physicality of the world, the abstraction of mathematics and the teleological basis of creation and life is quite unique. While many essays touch on the same technical issues of mathematical and quantum paradox, they do not reach the same conclusions.

The community rating procedure closes on April 22, and the final selection of essays ends on June 6. Public ratings are also welcomed at any time – and could have a result on the final outcome.