Neurontic's New Home

I'm thrilled to announce that Neurontic is now part of Seed Magazine's Science Blogs.

The new site is live, so please go check it out when you have some time: http://scienceblogs.com/neurontic/.

Eventually this link will redirect. But -- as many of you already know -- computers are not my forte. Your patience during the move is much appreciated.


Sunday's Non-Silly Science Roundup

My apologies for the delay in getting to the next Big Question. Be assured, I haven't forgotten--I've just been buried in final papers. In lieu of a real entry, I'm providing a roundup of "non-silly" science writing worth checking out:

First, Noam Chomsky -- Linguist-cum-Know-It-All -- has a brief essay on The Edge in which he declares that:
On the ordinary problems of human life, science tells us very little, and scientists as people are surely no guide. In fact they are often the worst guide, because they often tend to focus, laser-like, on their professional interests and know very little about the world.
You have to admire the man’s certitude. That said, I couldn’t disagree with him more. A brief perusal of Science Daily or New Scientist demonstrates that scientists have plenty to say about “ordinary problems.” The articles currently on display in Science Daily’s “Mind & Brain” section, for example, offer die-hard smokers advice on how to quit, warn hockey superfans that they may end up deaf, and caution those with inferiority complexes to steer clear of novel plot twists.

I can’t help wondering if Mr. Chomsky is making the mistake of equating all scientists with his hyper-theoretical MIT colleagues Steven Pinker and Marc Hauser. If so, I’d like to be the first to remind him that most scientists don’t occupy the nosebleed section of the Ivory Tower. Only a very select group has the luxury of trying to determine “how nature designed our universal sense of right and wrong,” or the time to rail against the “modern denial of human nature.” And I’d be willing to wager that they too see their work as an attempt to address issues that impact people’s daily lives.

In other news . . .

After an extended hiatus, Clive Thompson is back online at Collision Detection and has an interesting post on "why interactive websites can create false memories.”

Over at Gladwell.com, The New Yorker’s resident systemitizer is trying to outline the “hierarchy of hate speech” on the heels of Michael Richard’s outburst.

And speaking of Gladwell, those of you who enjoyed his take on mass hysteria in The Tipping Point may be interested to learn that there was a recent outbreak among English school children after a small number watched a video on “human biology.” Oddly, neither Mind Hacks nor the article it cites goes into any detail about what was in the video. Color me curious.


A Sour Note for Science Bloggers

A Blog Around The Clock recently posted an entry titled, “You Gotta Be Nuts to Vote for Bush!” Normally I’m a huge fan of The Clock, but this post left me feeling a little sick to my stomach. It describes the vague outlines of a study conducted by Christopher Lohse, a master’s candidate in social work at the “highly prestigious” Southern Connecticut State University. Louse claims to have found a “direct link between mental illness and support for President Bush.” How? He surveyed . . .
69 psychiatric outpatients in three Connecticut locations during the 2004 presidential election. Lohse's study, backed by SCSU Psychology professor Jaak Rakfeldt and statistician Misty Ginacola, found a correlation between the severity of a person's psychosis and their preferences for president: The more psychotic the voter, the more likely they were to vote for Bush.
All of this, mind you, was relayed in an article in The New Haven Advocate, because the specifics of Lohse’s project aren’t actually available to the public yet.

As Orac over at Respectful Insolence wisely said: “When I encounter a study that seems to confirm my biases, as a skeptic, I try very hard to be even more skeptical than usual, because I would hate to be caught trumpeting a weak or bogus study as evidence supporting a belief of mine.” One would assume that most bloggers share his qualms, which makes it all the more surprising that The Clock and several other left-leaning blogs, were so quick to latch on to Lohse’s “findings,” sans data.

Shame on them. As information gurgles to the surface about Lohse’s study, his results are beginning to seem more and more spurious. According to The New Haven Advocate article, Lohse didn’t even set out to measure political preferences in these patients. In fact, Jaak Rakfeldt, Louse’s thesis advisor, told the reporter that the project “was not intended to show what it did,” admitted that data “were mined after the fact,” and that he hadn’t even bothered to look at “Lohse's conclusions regarding Bush.” (No wonder Southern Connecticut State University has such a stellar reputation.) Beyond these obvious red flags, as Deep Thought noted in the comments section of The Clock, “There is a rather large difference between 'A small sample of psychotics split 60/40 for a particular candidate' and 'Conservatives are crazy and dangerous.'”

Considering how much ink has been spilled in scientific circles over the Bush Adminstration’s willingness to skew science to further its political agenda, I find it appalling that normally levelheaded bloggers got swept away in this quasi-scientific brand of conservative bashing. Don’t get me wrong, I’m no fan of Little Green Footballs. But politics and science make strange bedfellows, and one must always proceed with extreme caution when mixing the two.


Educated Guesses

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

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

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


Quantum Physics for Artists

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

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

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

An Overview

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

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

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

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

The Wacky World of Subatomic Particles

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

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

Doing Cruel Things to Cats in the Name of Physics

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

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

Both the Observor and the Observed

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

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

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

The Problem with The Big Bang

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

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

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

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

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


A Manifesto

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Shameless Plug for Yours Truly

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

*The Downtown Express
*The Villager
*Chelsea Now

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

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