This site may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not always been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. We are making such material available in an effort to advance understanding of environmental, political, human rights, economic, democracy, scientific, and social justice issues, etc. we believe this constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law.

In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes. For more information go to: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/17/107.shtml

If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond ‘fair use’, you must obtain permission from the copyright owner.

FAIR USE NOTICE FAIR USE NOTICE: This page may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This website distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for scientific, research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107.

Read more at: http://www.etupdates.com/fair-use-notice/#.UpzWQRL3l5M | ET. Updates
FAIR USE NOTICE FAIR USE NOTICE: This page may contain copyrighted material the use of which has not been specifically authorized by the copyright owner. This website distributes this material without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for scientific, research and educational purposes. We believe this constitutes a fair use of any such copyrighted material as provided for in 17 U.S.C § 107.

Read more at: http://www.etupdates.com/fair-use-notice/#.UpzWQRL3l5M | ET. Updates

All Blogs licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Europe's Ancestors: Cro-Magnon 28,000 Years Old Had DNA Like Modern Humans

Science News

Europe's Ancestors: Cro-Magnon 28,000 Years Old Had DNA Like Modern Humans

Tibia fragment. DNA was extracted from this fragment and from skull splinters, and all extracts yielded the same HVR I sequence. (Credit: David Caramelli et al. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0002700.g001)

July 16, 2008 — Some 40,000 years ago, Cro-Magnons -- the first people who had a skeleton that looked anatomically modern -- entered Europe, coming from Africa. A group of geneticists, coordinated by Guido Barbujani and David Caramelli of the Universities of Ferrara and Florence, shows that a Cro-Magnoid individual who lived in Southern Italy 28,000 years ago was a modern European, genetically as well as anatomically.

The Cro-Magnoid people long coexisted in Europe with other humans, the Neandertals, whose anatomy and DNA were clearly different from ours. However, obtaining a reliable sequence of Cro-Magnoid DNA was technically challenging.

"The risk in the study of ancient individuals is to attribute to the fossil specimen the DNA left there by archaeologists or biologists who manipulated it," Barbujani says. "To avoid that, we followed all phases of the retrieval of the fossil bones and typed the DNA sequences of all people who had any contacts with them."

The researchers wrote in the newly published paper: "The Paglicci 23 individual carried a mtDNA sequence that is still common in Europe, and which radically differs from those of the almost contemporary Neandertals, demonstrating a genealogical continuity across 28,000 years, from Cro-Magnoid to modern Europeans."

The results demonstrate for the first time that the anatomical differences between Neandertals and Cro-Magnoids were associated with clear genetic differences. The Neandertal people, who lived in Europe for nearly 300,000 years, are not the ancestors of modern Europeans.

Share this story on Facebook, Twitter, and Google:

Monday, December 2, 2013

10 Tips for Highly Sensitive People

Psych Central

World of Psychology

10 Tips for Highly Sensitive People

When I completed Elaine Aron’s Highly Sensitive Person Self-Test, I checked 24 statements. Out of 27.

I checked everything from being bothered by bright lights and loud noises to getting startled easily to trying to avoid mistakes to not watching violent movies or TV shows.

Maybe you can relate.

While there are many differences among highly sensitive people (HSPs), we have one thing in common: HSPs have a sensitive nervous system that makes it harder to filter out stimuli and easier to get overwhelmed by our environment.

For instance, the sound of sirens and other loud noises might reverberate like nails on a chalkboard through your head. (They do in mine.)  Crowds might make you especially uncomfortable, while strong smells make you feel sick.

Being highly sensitive isn’t a disorder, aliment or flaw; it’s simply an innate trait, according to Ted Zeff, PhD, author of three books on HSPs, including The Highly Sensitive Person’s Survival Guide and The Strong, Sensitive Boy

Unfortunately, because we’re not like most people, HSPs tend to worry that something is wrong with them. (According to HSP pioneer Elaine Aron’s research, about 20 percent of the population is an HSP.) As an HSP himself, as a boy, Zeff recalled feeling shame for his sensitivity in a society that associates masculinity with being aggressive, tough and stoic.

Today, the idea of masculinity has largely remained the same in our culture with a few added pressures on both genders. Our world is a fast-paced one, filled with even bigger crowds, louder noises and shorter deadlines. Even the pressure to constantly stay plugged in with social media, email and texting can be tough on someone who requires regular peace and quiet.

But there are ways you can effectively cope. Below, Zeff shares his tips on how highly sensitive people can traverse today’s overstimulated world.

1. Set a bedtime and morning routine. 

For at least an hour or two before bedtime, shut down all electronic equipment and engage in calming activities, such as reading an uplifting book, Zeff said. Keep the morning calm, too. Spend 30 minutes centering yourself by practicing yoga or meditation, he said. You also might journal or read, he said.

2. Identify your triggers. 

Again, all HSPs are different, so it’s important to determine what stimuli trigger your discomfort. For instance, Zeff’s friend, an architect and fellow HSP, didn’t mind the deafening noise during his home remodel. (He could tell the workers to stop any time.) Similarly, one person might pass on violent movies, while another lives for them.

3. Plan ahead. 

If you’re sensitive to loud noises and crowds, avoid seeing new movies on a Saturday night or eating out at peak times, Zeff said. Instead, see an early showing or go on a weekday, and have an early dinner when restaurants tend to be less busy, he said.

4. Work around triggers. 

Planning ahead doesn’t mean avoiding the activities you love. For instance, Zeff loves to travel. But traveling is one of the noisiest, people-packed things you can do. To tune out triggering noises, Zeff brings his iPod with calming music, earplugs and construction-style earmuffs. He also books hotel rooms on the top floor, at the rear, which tend to be quieter. When he’s staying with family, he brings a white noise machine. If noise also bothers you, consider noise-canceling headphones or CDs with soothing sounds.

5. Investigate current stressors and solutions. 

If you’re in a super stressful job, consider why you’re staying, and be open to all options, Zeff said. One of his clients, a chef, worked in an upscale restaurant in San Francisco. The stress got so bad that he developed ulcers and digestive problems and had trouble sleeping. Because he was living in such a pricey place, he believed that he had to make this much money. He and Zeff discussed moving to a calmer, more affordable area. Months after, he got a job two hours away from San Francisco, and his rent was half the price. And even better, his health problems went away.

6. Remember your gifts. 

Even though being highly sensitive isn’t a flaw, you still might feel bad that you’re easily bothered by things that others aren’t. There have been many times that I wished I enjoyed roller-coasters like everyone else (as if riding roller-coasters somehow makes you brave), didn’t freak out when I heard a loud bang or wasn’t so sensitive to others’ critical comments. Many times I’ve felt embarrassed or weak or strange.
But HSPs also tend to have many positive qualities, including being creative, conscientious, loyal and deeply appreciative of the arts, Zeff said. (Douglas Eby, a Psych Central blogger, shares five gifts of being highly sensitive.)

7. Take mini retreats. 

Zeff stressed the importance of downtime. He suggested getting away at least once a month and relaxing several days a week. Enjoy nature (if you live in an urban area, visit a park) or get a massage, he said. Add calm into your week with activities like aromatherapy, he added.

8. Engage in gentle exercise. 

Zeff recommended hatha yoga, tai chi and walking. If you like exercising at the gym, pick a facility that’s not so noisy or wear a headset, he said. It’s also better to exercise before 6 p.m. or 7 p.m., because it takes a few hours for your nervous system to calm down, he said.

9. Speak up. 

Non-HSPs simply don’t notice loud noises or strong smells or other stimuli that might be bothering you, so speak up. For instance, say your co-worker talks loudly on the phone. If you think they’ll be open to adjusting their behavior, first build a rapport with them, Zeff said. Then explain that while they’re not doing anything wrong, you have a trait that makes it tougher to tune out stimuli (which about 20 percent of people have), he said. You don’t want to interfere with their lifestyle, but maybe they could speak more softly or when you’re on break, he said.
HSPs also tend to get more upset over hurtful comments, Zeff said. “If someone [has] an abrasive personality, speak up.” But remember to be polite. “Don’t become an insensitive sensitive person demanding everyone…shut up.”

10. If seeing a therapist, see someone who knows about HSPs.
Interview three therapists and ask if they’ve read books about HSPs (such as Elaine Aron’s Psychotherapy and the Highly Sensitive Person: Improving Outcomes for That Minority of People Who Are the Majority of Clients or Zeff’s books) or are at least familiar with the concept and willing to learn, he said.

HSP: Degrees of Sense and Sensitivity

Sense and Sensitivity

Settling into a chair for coffee with a friend, Jodi Fedor feels her heart begin to pound. Tension creeps through her rib cage. Anger vibrates in her solar plexus. But she's not upset about anything. The person across from her is. Fedor soaks up others' moods like a sponge.

On a walk through her neighborhood in Ottawa, Canada, her attention zeroes in on the one budded leaf that hasn't unfurled; it brings a lump to her throat. The cawing of a far-off crow galvanizes her attention. An abandoned nest half-hidden amid the treetops fills her with awe.
Less lovely stimuli can have equally powerful effects. As a child, a casual schoolyard taunt led to "sobbing and histrionics." Nowadays a small slight can ricochet through her entire body "like I'm actually wounded."

Fedor is sensitive—an adjective usually preceded by too. "I'm like an exposed nerve," she says. "At its worst, my sensitivity turns me into an emotional weather vane at the whim of my environment." But at its best, it's a gift, a fine-tuned finger on the pulse of every flutter of her surroundings.

The Highly Sensitive Person has always been part of the human landscape. There's evidence that many creative types are highly sensitive, perceiving cultural currents long before they are manifest to the mainstream, able to take in the richness of small things others often miss. Others may be especially sensitive to animals and how they are handled. They're also the ones whose feelings are so easily bruised that they're constantly being told to "toughen up."

Today, science is validating a group of people whose sensitivity surfaces in many domains of life. Attuned to subtleties of all kinds, they have a complex inner life and need time to process the constant flow of sensory data that is their inheritance. Some may be particularly prone to the handful of hard-to-pin-down disorders like chronic fatigue syndrome and fibromyalgia. Technology is now providing an especially revealing window into that which likely defines them all—a nervous system set to register stimuli at very low frequency and amplify them internally.

Image: Lady sleeping on 5 mattresses w/ a
We all experience shades of sensitivity. Who isn't rocked by rejection and crushed by criticism? But for HSPs, emotional experience is at such a constant intensity that it shapes their personality and their lives—job performance, social life, intimate relationships—as much as gender and race do. Those who learn to dial down the relentless swooping and cresting of emotions that is the almost invariable accompaniment to extreme sensitivity are able to transform raw perception into keen perceptiveness.
Dan Nainan, a full-time stand-up comic based in New York, gets tunnel vision after every show: "A thousand people stop by and say they enjoyed it, but one person says something negative and I take it so personally," he says. "It's led to some fights and has almost come to physical blows." He appreciates the irony in hating criticism yet voluntarily getting in front of a packed auditorium every night. "In a regular 9-to-5, no one's walking up to you and yelling, 'You're terrible!' "

The Outside, Amplified

Highly sensitive people are all around us. They make up about 20 percent of the population, and likely include equal numbers of men and women. All the available evidence suggests they are born and not made.
You would likely spot them by their most visible feature, their overemotionality. Shari Lynn Rothstein-Kramer, who owns a marketing firm in Miami, Florida, cries almost daily. The sight of a beautiful outfit or exquisite handbag can choke her up. She recently found a note from a neighbor on her windshield that read, "Park in the middle of your space!!" and teared up on the spot. She had to persuade herself not to let it ruin her day.

The proverbial thin skin of HSPs covers a highly permeable nervous system. Gentle ribbing or an offhand jab can leave them brooding for days. But just as likely, an unexpected compliment or kind exchange can send their mood soaring, while the sight of a dad playing adoringly with his child can bring on tears fueled by a rush of warmth.

A news segment about a disturbing event—a death, a rape—can upset them deeply. Reading about a recent gang rape, New York actor and writer Jim Dailakis became "overwhelmingly emotional. I couldn't stop thinking about what that poor woman went through and how it affected her loved ones. I felt sadness mixed with unbelievable rage toward her attackers." Given their extreme ability to sense and internalize the moods of those around them, the presence of an agitated person, even a stranger with whom they never interact, can make them uneasy.

HSPs often have a heightened sense of smell or touch and, say, zero tolerance for itchy fabrics or sudden sounds—reflecting their low threshold for sensory input. They complain about things no one else notices; a colleague's deodorant or a scented candle gives them headaches. And there's that damn light buzzing in the otherwise quiet office. An hour or two into a party or other sensory-rich event and they've withdrawn to a corner, a prelude to announcing they need to go home.

Image: Man's silhouette in a sunlit doorway
Above all, HSPs are defined by their internal experience. "It's like feeling something with 50 fingers as opposed to 10," explains Judith Orloff, a psychiatrist and author of Emotional Freedom. "You have more receptors to perceive things."
Highly sensitive people are often taken for introverts, and, as with introverts, social interaction depletes them. But in fact they react strongly to everything in their environment. As a result, they need and typically seek extra processing time to sort out their experience. About one in five HSPs are actually extraverts, social sensation seekers who derive pleasure from chatty interactions. But they, too, draw unusually heavily on cognitive horsepower to digest their experiences.

Rothstein-Kramer considers herself a highly sensitive extravert. "I'd even go with 'gregarious,'" she says, chuckling. "When people are positive, it inspires me to be more outgoing and energized." But negative interactions send her spiraling south: "People give me the highest highs and lowest lows."

In general, the heavy cognitive demands on all HSPs predispose them to a more reactive than boldly active stance in life. All that sensory input consumes psychic resources for thinking before they take action. Any risks they face are carefully calculated.

Delicate Subjects

The notion that there is a whole category of people whose nervous systems overreact to ordinary stimuli grew out of the personal experience of psychologist Elaine Aron. In 1991, she began seeing a psychotherapist for help coping with her intense response to a medical issue. On Aron's second visit, the therapist nonchalantly suggested that Aron's outsize reaction to a minor physical problem was "just because you're highly sensitive."

"I had noticed I was different," she says, "but I didn't have a way to conceptualize it. The term stuck with me, and I set out to see what we really mean by 'sensitivity.'" The short answer: nothing like the acute emotional responsiveness she had in mind. An in-depth search of the literature turned up only an occasional reference to chemical or medication sensitivity and vague references to sensitivity as a key dimension of mothering.

Aron's search led her to the work of Ernest Hartmann, a psychiatrist at Tufts University best known for his dream research. Around the same time, he was solidifying the concept of boundaries as a dimension of personality and way of experiencing the world. Life, he observes, is made up of boundaries—between past and present, you and me, subject and object. And people differ in the way they embody and perceive boundaries.

In his schema, people with thin mental boundaries do not clearly separate the contents of consciousness, so that a fantasy life of daydreaming may bump right up against everyday reality. It's as if those with thin boundaries have porous shells that allow more of their environment to penetrate and "get" to them—and into their dreams. Hartmann's concept of the thin-boundaried seemed to suggest that there indeed exists a group of people who take in a whole lot more than others.

Too, Aron saw intimations of highly sensitive people in Jerome Kagan's now-classic research delineating infant temperament. A Harvard psychologist, Kagan had found that about 10 to 20 percent of infants begin life with a tightly tuned nervous system that makes them easily aroused, jumpy, and distressed in response to novel stimuli. Such highly reactive infants, as he termed them, run the risk of growing into "inhibited" children, who tend to withdraw from experience as a defense and are at high risk for anxiety.

Kagan says his "high reactives" have only one specific kind of sensitivity—"a sensitivity to events in the environment that imply a new challenge." And brain imaging studies show that their reactivity reflects a distinctive biological feature: a hyperresponsive amygdala, the brain center that assesses threats and governs the fear response. Unexpected events—from a blizzard to a pop quiz—set off the alarm system embedded in their naturally touchy amygdala, keeping them on the constant lookout for danger.

Relieved to find indications that there existed people governed by sensitivity, Aron was disappointed that the feature, however defined, was associated only with pathology. As a psychologist, she says, "I decided to start at the ground and see what people who identify with the word think of it." Thirty "grueling" three-hour interviews later, she was on her way to creating a 27-item questionnaire that is the benchmark for sensitivity. "I have a rich, complex inner life." Check. "I am made uncomfortable by loud noises." Check.

Born to Be Mild

Advancing neuroscience research suggests that the kind of emotional sensitivity Aron had in mind might be linked to specific variations in gene expression in the nervous system, notably genes related to production of the neurotransmitters serotonin and dopamine.

Image: Woman crying at the movies
One gene variation, the short-short allele of the serotonin transporter 5-HTT, has long been associated with a vulnerability to depression and anxiety. Recent data indicate that the very same gene variant brings an array of cognitive benefits—including better, and more profitable, decision-making in gambling situations. Aron suspects the allele may be present in HSPs and could account for their tendency to assess risks thoroughly.
"It's hard to imagine this trait enduring in the gene pool if it led only to negative emotions like depression," Aron says. "The problematic outcomes are just easier to observe than more positive interactions with the environment."

Brain imaging studies suggest real differences in the brains of HSPs versus everyone else. Cortical areas linked to attention and processing perceptual data show higher activation in response to all kinds of stimuli. Further, the possibility of reward sparks an outsize response in the reward circuit, and fear-related regions are particularly stirred by threats.

In his own research on thin-boundaried people, Tufts' Ernest Hartmann has found a strong link to creativity that Aron believes applies to HSPs as well. Of hundreds of student artists and musicians he has studied, nearly all test positive on his thin-boundaries questionnaire. Many fewer do among those who are able to make a profession of the arts—suggesting that it takes more than practice to make it to Carnegie Hall.

A 2003 study reported in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that the brains of creative people appear to be far more open to incoming stimuli than those of the noncreative. During a simple task, they experience little latent inhibition—they do not screen out irrelevant data from consciousness and more of their brains are highly activated from moment to moment.

Their extreme responsiveness to all situations, Aron believes, makes HSPs prone to anxiety and depression in the face of a distressing situation. But it also makes life richer; sights, sounds, flavors, images of beauty are more vivid. It's as if HSPs alone see the world in high-def.

A Basis in Biology

Yet another facet of sensitivity is the focus of independent research by Michael Jawer. A decade ago, Jawer was an investigator for the Environmental Protection Agency looking into reports of sick building syndrome and preparing air-quality guidance for building owners. Why, he wanted to know, did only a handful of people complain about indoor environmental conditions?

"Some said that in everyday life they've been disabled by exposure to colognes, paints, pesticides, trace elements in the air," he says. "And some went on to tell me they'd been emotionally sensitive for many years. Perhaps the same factors that were disposing certain people to complain about their environment suggested a broader aspect of sensitivity than just the emotional kind."

When he surveyed people Aron had identified as HSPs, he found unusual susceptibility to an array of conditions long thought to have a psychosomatic component. Much more than others in the population, they suffered from migraines, irritable bowel syndrome, chronic fatigue syndrome, allergies, and fibromyalgia. Jawer felt the findings point to wide-scale biological differences in HSPs.

"Take migraines," he says. "We know they're triggered by a number of things in the environment—sights, smells, even changes in the weather." Moods, too, can act as a catalyst: "Strong feelings, even ones people don't realize they have, can bring migraines on," says Jawer. He believes HSPs are unusually touchy to both emotional and tangible irritants—to mean-spirited comments as well as pollen or dander in the air.
Behind it all, says Orloff, is likely a hair-trigger flight-or-fight response. A lower threshold of activation of stress hormones would leave the body flooded with cortisol and adrenaline. Chronically elevated stress hormones are linked with a host of health problems, from heart disease to decreased bone density to impaired memory.

To Aron, the evidence adds up to a distinctive personality type. The HSP's touchy nervous system leads to a touchy temperament. Like the princess sensing the pea below her tower of mattresses, HSPs perceive the slightest sensory or emotional provocation, then respond with a flurry of brain activity that begets an outsize reaction—rumination, tears, histrionics, on one hand, or unbridled enthusiasm on the other. Their personalities may run the gamut from moody to dramatic—all the product of their unique biology.

Image: Hand with a bleeding cut from a bird feather

Missing Men?

In crafting her questionnaire, Aron was determined to include only those questions men and women answered in equal proportions and calibrated it so that 20 percent of males and females registered as highly sensitive. But once she started administering the test to the general population, far fewer than 20 percent of males came up HSP-positive. Where did the guys go—or were they never there to begin with?

Aron insists that males and females are born highly sensitive in equal numbers—but some men grow up actively hiding it. "They don't want to identify as sensitive."

Kagan's "reactives," too, were male and female in equal measure—at 4 months of age. But "the male peer group is very harsh with shy, timid boys," he explains, and by young adulthood, the highly reactive males were very difficult to pick out from the non-reactive population.

The neural basis of sensitivity appears no different in men and women. But the resulting behaviors—tearing up in joy, getting upset by a ribbing, feeling overwhelmed at a concert or sporting event—may violate even contemporary Western standards of masculinity. HSP males may look effeminate to potential mates. (No, there's no evidence that HSP males are disproportionately homosexual.)

"In North America, in particular, we expect boys to be tough and to be risk-takers," says Ted Zeff, a San Francisco psychologist whose in-depth interviews with more than 30 highly sensitive men in five countries resulted in a book, The Strong, Sensitive Boy. "Boys are told to hide all emotions other than anger. This is especially hard on sensitive boys, who have to repress their natural tendencies."

New York's Jim Dailakis admits "I definitely hide my sensitivity from certain people. Wearing your heart completely on your sleeve leaves you open to ridicule."

Double-Edged Effects

Internalized by a highly sensitive child, ridicule can snowball into depression. Likewise, a "Nice job!" atop a book report might not seem like a game-changer, but to a sensitive child a little encouragement can have outsize effects, motivating a child to reproduce that behavior—say, by studying well for the next test. School and parenting practices can dramatically shape the development of highly sensitive children, who can thrive spectacularly in a mildly encouraging classroom or struggle endlessly in a slightly discouraging one, while a non-sensitive child would wind up about the same regardless of slight variations in the environment.

The possibility of opposite outcomes—downward spiral or rocketing success—underscores the double-edged nature of sensitivity. Neither flaw nor gift, it is, rather, an amplifier of an environment's effects. Sensitive people who happened to have troubled childhoods may wind up with high rates of anxiety and depression, but HSPs who were loved and encouraged as children can grow into well-adjusted adults.

"You Won't Make Me Sound Crazy, Will You?"

Fedor and Rothstein-Kramer both ask the same question, out of the blue, mid-interview. Connoisseurs of small slights, study partners who cannot focus with that stupid jackhammer roaring outside, HSPs are subject to a constant influx of criticism exhorting them to toughen up or to grow cojones. That message—that they're somehow unacceptable as they are—resonates with intensity.

Aron would like to see HSPs focus more on what they have to offer. They make compassionate friends who truly care about others; they channel beauty from the world into art and music; they notice things others miss. Ensconced in safe environments and steeled against the negativity of others, they can flourish.

HSPs inhabit a teeming world of vibrant colors, sharp smells, striking sounds, and powerful tugs at their emotions. "I am, and I always will be, extremely aware of my environment and the people within it," Fedor says. As CEO of a successful beauty company, she surrounds herself with supportive people. "I tried toughening up, rooting myself in taxing situations," she says. "Then I realized I was spending my time coping instead of thriving. Now I know that I can choose to respond or to let something go." For her, it's a purer way of savoring this piquant world. —Andrea Bartz

Tips for the Touchy

Highly sensitive? "You've probably gone through life assuming you're like the other 80 percent of people," Aron says. "The truth is, you need a whole different instruction manual." Here are a few adjustments you can make to sync your life with your mode of sensory processing.
  • Designate downtime. Your brain works overtime processing input and soaking up others' moods, so it needs a chance to recover. "Limit stimulation when you can," Aron suggests. "Turn the radio off when you're driving. Use a sleep mask and earplugs at night." Meditation is also a powerful way to tamp down stress hormones. Orloff prescribes quick, three-minute meditations during the day: Sit quietly, put your hand over your heart, deepen your breathing, and focus on something beautiful—a picture of your child.
  • Talk yourself calm. Sensitive people aren't doomed to spend life reeling from rejection. It's possible to rein in a response before it spirals down to depression. Fedor carries a checklist in her wallet and runs through it when she feels under attack: "Is this about me? What is the intent of the other person? Am I reacting because this brings out fear in me?" Similarly, Rothstein-Kramer asks herself, "How can I interpret this situation in a different way?" "Practice controlling your reactions," she says; "eventually a little dig won't throw you."
  • Change your interactions. Kindly but firmly cut off energy drains. Say your friend is midway through her umpteenth rant about her job. "You have to lovingly but matter-of-factly say, 'I see you're going through something; when you want to get into solutions, I'm here for you, but right now this is hard for me to listen to,'" Orloff explains. "Tone of voice is everything."
  • Arm yourself. Sometimes, you'll be forced into a situation that sucks you dry—a conference you must endure for work, a business lunch with an insufferable kvetch. Protect yourself: "Visualize a shield around your body, keeping negative input out," Orloff says.
  • Rewrite history. Think back to the decisions you've regretted and the things you dislike about yourself: "Very often, they have to do with sensitivity," Aron points out. The surprise party where you wound up crying in your room and the promotion you turned down because it involved too much pressure make much more sense through the lens of your sensitivity. Acknowledge this.

Dealing with Delicate People

Since 20 percent of the population is highly sensitive, "you're probably working with or are even friends with one—you just didn't realize it," Aron says. Now that you know the hallmarks of this personality, adjust your behavior to make your interactions smoother.
  • Skip the tips. HSPs are mighty sick of hearing, "You really shouldn't let it get to you" from well-meaning friends. They experience it as a put-down, a suggestion that they've done something wrong. Say something more reassuring—such as, that whatever situation is causing them stress will improve shortly.
  • Modify your view. In a close relationship, you may discover you've been making wrong assumptions about your partner. You may hear things like "I never liked going to those sporting events or concerts," Aron warns. Forgo the temptation to respond with grief or anger. Just accept it.
  • Respect their space. A common mistake HSPs' loved ones make: hovering. "They promise their partner an hour of recharge time," Orloff says, "and then they hang around waiting for you to come out." Better to tell them, "Fine, go replenish, I'll be out mowing the lawn"—and do it.

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

A Modest Proposal for Solving the “Meaning of Life Problem”


Science News

Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

My Modest Proposal for Solving the “Meaning of Life Problem”—and Reducing Global Conflict

This post was inspired, in part, by a recent conversation with two friends that followed a familiar pattern. My friends have adopted a Buddhist practice that makes them feel good. They urged me to try it, and I said I’m just not into Buddhism or any other spiritual path; I’m fine bumbling along in my usual fashion, gabbing with my students about why Freud isn’t dead, knocking particle physics on my blog, fretting over my kids, watching Homeland with my girlfriend.

Socrates, when he said "The unexamined life is not worth living," implied that there is one optimal meaning of life. 

He was wrong.

My friends became annoyed. They seemed to feel I was condescending to Buddhism and hence to them. Hoping for a truce, I said that we were, in effect, arguing about the “meaning of life,” and that all such arguments are silly, because the meaning of life is a totally personal issue.

My friends reacted with shrugs rather than eager agreement. At the risk of confusing or irritating even more people, I’ll try here to explain more clearly what I meant. In so doing, I hope to solve once and for all what I call the “Meaning of Life Problem.”

First, let me define “meaning of life.” It is whatever gives you joy, or consoles you when life has got you down. It is something you believe or do that makes your life worth living. And by “you” I mean not the collective you but the individual you, unlike every other person past, present or future.

Long ago, some of our ancestors came up with the idea that there must be One True Meaning of Life—one optimal set of beliefs, behaviors, values–for everyone. The most obvious embodiments of this idea are religions such as Taoism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, Islam, Scientology, each of which—to true believers—represents The Meaning of Life. The One and Only True Meaning.

If you don’t dig religion, you may still insist that some meanings of life are better than all others. The pursuit of scientific knowledge, for example, or artistic illumination, or social justice, or freedom, or pleasure, or power and glory. Socrates implied that there is one optimal meaning of life when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” I loathe this aphorism. I enjoy pondering existence myself now and then, but I certainly don’t fault those who prefer, say, fly fishing or fantasy football.

When we assert that our favorite meaning of life is objectively, universally valid, we are committing what philosophers call a category error. We are placing the meaning of life in the same category as truth, which can indeed be objective and universal (in spite of what Thomas Kuhn and other misguided skeptics would have us believe).

The meaning of life belongs in the category of beauty, not truth. It is an aesthetic and hence fundamentally subjective phenomenon. You are moved by the Upanishads, the Koran, The Interpretation of Dreams. I prefer Emily Dickinson, James Joyce, Breaking Bad. You believe in Allah or in Nirvana. I believe in free will and the imminent end of war.

In other words, what makes life meaningful is a matter of taste. Arguing that your meaning is better than someone else’s is like arguing that strawberry ice cream tastes better than Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, or that Walt Whitman’s Song of Myself is superior to Song of Solomon, or that Bach beats The Beatles.
You demanding that I love Jesus is as absurd as me demanding that you love my girlfriend (although she is awfully lovable).

There are as many possible meanings of life as there are individuals. “Plushies” and “furries,” for example, are people who have sex with stuffed animals or dress up in furry animal suits and have sex with each other. This behavior doesn’t appeal to me. But neither does being celibate and praying or meditating all day, which some religions have exalted as the best thing that you can do with your life.

My meaning of life isn’t even absolute for me, because it keeps changing as the circumstances of my life change. When I was young, I couldn’t imagine having kids. Who needs the hassle? Now my well-being is inextricably entwined with the well-being of my son and daughter. But I would no more urge my childless friends to have kids than I would exhort my gay friends to go straight.

It’s natural, if you find something that delights you, to want to share your discovery with others. I recently raced through all the novels of Jane Austen, and I’ve been raving about her to strangers at parties. But I accept that you can have a perfectly wonderful life without ever reading Jane Austen. After all, my life wasn’t so bad before I discovered her.

I’m not a total relativist. We can and should make judgments about the empirical plausibility and practical advisability of various beliefs and behaviors. But even if we rule out ideologies like young-earth creationism and white supremacy, that leaves lots of room for diversity. And most of the harmful consequences of beliefs stem from the insistence of believers that everyone agree with them.

I’m critical of religions that purport to be uniquely “true,” or that make empirical claims (for the therapeutic benefits of meditation, for example) that I find dubious. But I’m also critical of militant atheists who denigrate all beliefs that supposedly contradict their cramped, reductionist vision of reality. Science has told us a lot about how the world works, but reality is in many ways still as baffling as ever.

Hence I try to be tolerant toward people who have a greater capacity to suspend disbelief than I do about matters such as extra-sensory perception. The geneticist Francis Collins, who leads the National Institutes of Health, manages somehow to believe in modern physics and biology and in a loving God who occasionally performs miracles. As long as he doesn’t insist that I share his outlook, power to him!

So what does all this have to do with “Global Conflict,” which I mentioned in my headline? The notion that there is one true meaning of life is not only wrong. It may be the worst idea that humans have ever invented, in terms of how much harm it has caused.

If we can all accept that there is no universal Meaning of Life–and that each person must find his or her own unique, personal meaning—imagine how much more peaceful the world would be! My belief in this possibility helps make my life more bearable—and meaningful.

Photo by Eric Gaba of bust of Socrates in The Louvre. Wikimedia Commons, http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Socrates_Louvre.jpg.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Critical views of science in the news
Cross-Check Home

The Meaning of Life: The Sequel

In my last post, I argued that there is no single, “true” meaning of life, which applies to everyone. The meaning of life is a matter of taste, not of empirical truth. Thus, no matter how meaningful we find some belief system or activity or set of values, we shouldn’t insist that others embrace it.

Meaning of life, says 1983 Monty Python film, is, "Try and be nice to people, avoid eating fat, read a good book every now and then."

My post was inspired, in part, by two friends’ gentle attempt to persuade me to try a Buddhist retreat, but let me offer a more extreme example of proselytizing: I once encountered a Christian who, when I resisted his exhortations to embrace Jesus, compared me to a man on a burning plane, to whom he was offering a life-saving parachute.

He saw himself as compassionate. I saw him as nutty. Demanding that people embrace your faith because it works for you is as absurd as demanding that they listen only to Lady Gaga or have sex only with stuffed animals. If we could all adopt a live-and-let-live perspective toward each others’ meanings, we’d be a lot better off.

I hoped for, and got, some critical responses, which I’m posting, along with my replies, here. My Stevens colleague Garry Dobbins, a philosopher, objects to my interpretation of Socrates: “You err when you say, ‘Socrates implied that there is one optimal meaning of life when he said, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”‘ Socrates was not saying that the only life worth living is one in which someone sits around all day examining his life! No! Socrates was saying that EVERYONE, whatever she or he does, who never, and regularly, challenges her or himself by asking such questions as ‘Am I lying to myself saying/doing this?’ ‘Is that bastard over there who just accused me of being partial, or prejudiced, really TOTALLY mistaken?’ and so on, is not living an ‘examined’ life, and is thereby not living up to what we might fairly call a ‘high’ standard. You might say to me, ‘I don’t CARE to live UP to any such standard!’ To which I would say, ‘Out of your own mouth you stand condemned: not mine!’ So, Socrates’ words are perfectly consistent with someone being a doctor, lawyer, or Indian Chief–or candlestick maker for that matter–and examining her, or his life, or NOT.”

My reply: “Garry, I admit Socrates irks me. To me he comes across as an arrogant jerk, bragging about how wise he is compared to poets, politicians and everyone else. (He’s wise because he knows how little he knows! The irony.) You try to soft-peddle the implications of his ‘unexamined life’ remark, suggesting that he’s asking only for a little ethical introspection now and then. I don’t buy it. Socrates demands much more of us. His allegory of the cave describes ordinary people as hopelessly benighted, living in a world of illusion. If you’re not trying to escape the cave, you’re not really alive, hence your life is worthless. This is exactly the sort of extremism that I’m deploring, and that I see in both religious and secular zealots today.”

Lee Vinsel, who teaches science and technology studies at Stevens, writes: “Isn’t your philosophy just a tepid form of liberalism? The problem with this kind of philosophy, which also fits some forms of Existentialism, is that it squishes all of the interesting tensions in life by pretending they don’t exist. The ‘Whatever, man; you do your thing; and I’ll do my thing; and as long as our two things don’t interfere with each other’s things, dude, then everything is copacetic, dig?’ answer isn’t very interesting a) because it describes what, like, dormant kids who sit around in their pajamas and play World of Warcraft all day think anyway, b) because this variety of liberalism has been around for a long time to not much effect, and c) because it experienced a major uptick in the 60s and look how that turned out. Finally, isn’t the fact that the U.S. liberal, ‘whatever, man’ consensus is leading our world right off the cliff environmentally and otherwise proof that philosophically this isn’t the way to go?”

My reply: “Lee, liberalism hasn’t had much effect? Really? Looking just at the 60s, that was an era of enormous advances in rights for women, gays, blacks and other oppressed groups, and major grass-roots challenges to U.S. militarism and imperialism. Young people questioned the values of their elders and experimented with alternative forms of spirituality and social organization. Many of those experiments failed, but they were well worth trying, to my mind. I also reject your suggestion that liberalism is somehow to blame for our global problems. Ideological self-righteousness–whether religious or economic or nationalistic–is what threatens to lead us ‘off the cliff,’ as you put it.”

A friend who’s into meditation writes: “You portray us as born-again Buddhists trying to browbeat you into trying Buddhist meditation because WE liked it. Not fair. In fact, we only argued that if you were going to keep CRITIQUING meditation, you should really try it. (Not by reading about it, interviewing people about it, or taking a class here and there over the years – but by doing sustained meditation.)”

My reply: “I’ve never been psychoanalyzed or taken an antidepressant. Does that mean I shouldn’t criticize SSRI’s or psychoanalysis? I’m often faulted for not knowing enough about things I criticize, but no one ever accuses me of ignorance when I praise their pet belief. Now, you could argue that my criticism of others’ beliefs is inconsistent with the live and let live philosophy I spell out in my post. I worry about that now and then. But when I look at the world today, I don’t see it suffering from an excess of skepticism. Quite the contrary. Anyway, that’s my convenient self-justification.”

Dr. Strangelove comments on my blog: “We like to believe there is no universal meaning of life. What about democracy, human rights, right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness? Don’t we all agree to that?”

I reply: “As I said, I’m not a total relativist. There are certain meta-beliefs, or meta-values, that are good for us to share, collectively, so we can create a society in which we can pursue our individual meanings as freely as possible. These are the meta-values embodied in liberal democracy. Now some people will devote their lives to promoting the spread of democracy, tolerance, open-mindedness, and so on, and that’s fine. But if you insist that others join you in your social activism–and that your life is more meaningful than the lives of others who are not social activists–that’s not fine.”

Prazeologue comments on Twitter: “Logically your observation is self refuting. If it is true then it refutes itself. Bit like saying ‘I’m always lying.’”
I reply: “Yeah, as I once said about Thomas Kuhn, all skeptics are self-refuting. When I say no meaning-of-life system is true, I’m offering up another meaning-of-life system, which must also be false. I get it. But that, I like to think, is a paradox and not a contradiction.”

Andy Russell, an historian of technology at Stevens: “I’m glad fishing is part of this discussion. At the moment one of my favorite philosophers is Billy Currington, who wrote ‘A bad day of fishin’ beats a good day of anything else [http://youtu.be/Pptj7_GXMks].’”

I reply: “Now THAT is a wise man. I bet Socrates never went fishing.”
Image courtesy Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Monty_Python’s_The_Meaning_of_Life.

About the Author: Every week, hockey-playing science writer John Horgan takes a puckish, provocative look at breaking science. A teacher at Stevens Institute of Technology, Horgan is the author of four books, including The End of Science (Addison Wesley, 1996) and The End of War (McSweeney's, 2012). Follow on Twitter @Horganism.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Government Shutdown Was Temporary, Its Damage to Science Permanent

Science News


The Government Shutdown Was Temporary, Its Damage to Science Permanent

Missed opportunities and gaps in data will have consequences for years to come

NASA unavailable

 Image: Courtesy of NASA/Goddard Space Flight Center
SA Forum is an invited essay from experts on topical issues in science and technology.

In many ways the federal government shutdown was a huge, unplanned experiment in what happens when we give up on science for two weeks. The experiment is now over and the results are still incomplete. But so far, they are ugly.

In research labs across the country the shutdown had an immediate impact. As soon as it began, the National Institutes of Health suspended new clinical trials. Each week, the agency said, it had to turn away 200 patients, including 30 children, most of whom have cancer. For these patients, the NIH’s experimental treatments are often their last hope. Instead, patients were denied care. The rest of society was deprived of what doctors could have learned about new treatments. Thankfully, the NIH was able to continue the trials already in progress.

The shutdown also put public health in danger. Safety inspections were suspended across agencies. The Consumer Product Safety Commission prevents dangerous products like lead-laden toys and flammable sleepwear from making it into stores. For two weeks many of those products weren’t screened. Similarly, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration suspended routine food inspections, including ones for imported seafood like fresh fish and shrimp, which can easily spoil.

For long-term research in many fields, the impact could be severe and lasting. Losing two weeks of data collection during a critical research period or two weeks of a key experiment that took months or years to set up will have repercussions for years.

Tom Greene, an astrophysicist at NASA Ames Research Center, told us that key tests for the James Webb Space Telescope science instruments had to be suspended due to the shutdown. The telescope, which will replace the aging Hubble, is one of NASA’s top three priorities. Greene and his colleagues at NASA Goddard Space Flight Center are using a low-temperature vacuum chamber to simulate the harsh conditions of space and ensure that satellite components will function in orbit. He’s worried that the shutdown will mean that important tests will not be done, increasing risk to the scientific return of the mission. Completing all the tests after the shutdown is over is not an option because doing so would delay the entire project at a cost of about a million dollars a day, money that NASA does not have.

Geologist Joseph Levy of the Institute for Geophysics at the Jackson School of Geosciences is one of about 3,000 U.S. researchers who travel to Antarctica each year to conduct research. He’s likely to lose half a year of data from melting permafrost because he can’t get his instruments into place in time. “It’s like a biography of the Earth with a couple of pages in the middle torn out,” he told the New York Times. One young researcher told me she was unlikely to make it to Antarctica this year, a prospect she called a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.” She said her own disappointment pales in comparison to the sense of loss felt by researchers who have devoted years to studies that are now imperiled by the gap in data collection.

The shutdown is hurting scientists close to home, too. A U.S. Environmental Protection Agency scientist told us she had to cancel an emergency site visit to a contaminated water system in New Mexico. The scientist anticipates having to spend additional time plugging holes in the agency’s data on water quality, some of which has gone uncollected during the shutdown. Similarly, a federal wildlife biologist told us that his office had to suspend capturing endangered gray wolves to check on their population numbers. Because this is the prime season for tracking down the wolves, his study could be delayed a full year. In South Carolina at least 20 biology graduate students at the College of Charleston found that they couldn’t access their research materials, including lab animals and cell cultures, which were housed in a federal lab. Some of them may have to stay another semester—and pay more tuition—to complete their work.

The shutdown has certainly hurt morale and productivity at federal agencies. A U.S. Department of Agriculture entomologist told us, “It seems time to consider other ways of paying my salary, if the government puts so little value on science.” Overall, scientists feel as if policy makers don’t appreciate the need for sustained, reliable investment in science. That hasn’t always been the case. In one of his inaugural addresses Dwight Eisenhower praised the “genius of our scientists” and discussed how scientific progress ensures our prosperity. But since the end of the cold war, political polarization has gotten worse and the long-running partnership between science and democracy has become strained.

Federally funded science allows us to do things as a country that we could never do alone. But the threat of shutdown, combined with inconsistent funding from Congress, leaves America’s scientific enterprise in the lurch.

Scientists aren’t members of just another interest group—they’re public servants in whom the country has invested considerable time and resources. When policy makers sideline science, they’re also sidelining our safety, health and ability to understand the world around us. Looking at the results of the shutdown, they should realize that this is an experiment not worth repeating.


Andrew A. Rosenberg is director of the Center for Science and Democracy at the Union of Concerned Scientists

Friday, May 31, 2013

[UPDATED] Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

Science News 5

[UPDATED] Dear Guardian: You’ve Been Played

A number of people have been privately asking me about the recent Guardian article (and accompanying Op-Ed by Oxford mathematician Marcus du Sautoy) gushing over a supposedly revolutionary new unified theory of physics by a man who officially left academia 20 years ago. Or, as I’ve taken to calling it, Eric Weinstein’s Amazing New Theory That Solves Every Puzzling Conundrum in Theoretical Physics Only He Hasn’t Written An Actual Paper Yet So Physicists Can’t Check All Those Hard Mathematical Details But Trust Us, It’s Gonna Be Awesome!

Ahem. First, a couple of caveats. I’ve met Weinstein. He’s a nice guy. He’s wicked smart. He knows way more math than I ever will (which admittedly is not saying much). I don’t doubt his sincerity, or that of some of his supporters, which apparently  includes Berkeley mathematician Edward Frenkel. And while I doubt his grandiose claims will be borne out once all the details emerge, he deserves to have those ideas heard, debated and evaluated (once there’s an actual paper) by his peers. But that’s so far above my pay grade, it’s a task best left to the professional physicists, who I’m sure are sharpening their knives as I type. (“Fresh meat!”)

No, my beef is with the Guardian for running the article in the first place. Seriously: why was it even written? Strip away all the purple prose and you’ve got a guy who’s been out of the field for 20 years, but still doing some dabbling on the side, who has an intriguing new idea that a couple of math professors think is promising, so he got invited to give a colloquium at Oxford by his old grad school buddy. Oh, and there’s no technical paper yet — not even a rough draft on the arxiv — so his ideas can’t even be appropriately evaluated by actual working physicists. How, exactly, does that qualify as newsworthy? Was your bullshit detector not working that day?

I’ll tell you what happened: the Guardian was seduced by the narrative offered by a man who, in his dual post as Simonyi professor for the public understanding of science, has proved himself to be highly adept at manipulating the media. It pains me to say this, since this is my field we’re talking about, but the Guardian got played, plain and simple.

Admittedly, it’s a very seductive narrative. Who doesn’t thrill to the idea of an obscure unknown genius toiling away in the shadows, snubbed by the stuffy, closed-minded academic establishment, who defies the odds and manages to achieve what all those brilliant scholars failed to do, thereby ensuring his or her scientific immortality? I love a good story! But this is science, not Good Will Hunting, and that narrative just isn’t true — or rather, it’s too simplistic.

Granted, sometimes there is such an odds-defying breakthrough, quite notably in mathematics. Ramanujam was largely self-taught and worked in isolation, and nonetheless made extraordinary contributions to mathematical analysis, number theory and infinite series. And just this last week, there was a major advance in prime numbers by a relatively obscure math professor at the University of New Hampshire who hadn’t published a paper since 2001. But by and large, most significant breakthroughs occur through established scientific channels — especially when it comes to modern cosmology and theoretical physics.

“I’m trying to promote, perhaps, a new way of doing science. Let’s start with really big ideas, let’s be brave and let’s have a discussion,” du Sautoy told The Guardian. Great idea! Except it’s not really a new way of doing science. And as Oxford cosmologist Andrew Pontzen pointed out in a New Scientist op-ed, nobody thought to invite any of the Oxford physicists.

[UPDATE 5/26/13: Pontzen emailed me over the weekend correcting his original statement: "Unfortunately this statement now turns out to be wrong. Marcus Du Sautoy did in fact think to invite the Oxford physicists, sending an email to the head of department along with A3 posters; unfortunately no-one spotted the talk because the email, unbeknown to Du Sautoy, was not widely circulated or advertised on the internal web page. Apologies to all concerned that I didn't look into this deeply enough to uncover the extra complication to the story. The remainder of my piece stands."] You know, the people most qualified to evaluate Weinstein’s work. It’s hard to have a collegial dialogue that way, especially with no technical paper on hand to provide the necessary background information. This seems more like trying to do science via press conference.
I do give props to reporter Alok Jha — whom I like and respect enormously, so this is a doubly painful post for me to write — for at least TRYING to inject some common sense into the piece, via theoretical physicists David Kaplan — who affirms that Weinstein is “serious” and not your typical crackpot, in that his theory actually exhibits coherence — and the University of Surrey’s Jim al-Khalili. [corrected spelling] Both men strike appropriate notes of caution, emphasizing that — du Sautoy’s insistence that Weinstein’s ideas “feel right” notwithstanding — ultimately, any such theory must go beyond pretty mathematics and fit the real-world data. Per al-Khalili:
“My main concern with Weinstein’s claims is that they are simply too grand – too sweeping. It would be one thing if he argued for some modest prediction that his theory was making, and importantly one that could be tested experimentally, or that it explained a phenomenon or mechanism that other theories have failed to do, but he makes the mistake of claiming too much for it.”
Credit: Sidney Harris. http://www.sciencecartoonsplus.com/index.php

Nicely put. I’d like to buy both of them a pint for their measured restraint on the record. But those qualifiers are utterly lost in the surrounding hype, such as breathlessly noting the similarity between “Weinstein” and “Einstein” — as if that means anything. (Also, as the Time Lord tartly observed on Twitter: “Pretty sure Einstein actually wrote research papers, not just gave interviews to newspapers.”)

Furthermore, the entire tail end of the article undercuts everything Kaplan and al-Khalili say by quoting du Sautoy (and, I’m sad to say, Frenkel) at length, disparaging the “Ivory Tower” of academia and touting this supposedly new, democratic way of doing physics whereby anyone with an Internet connection and a bit of gumption can play with the big boys.

It’s disingenuous — and pretty savvy, because it cuts off potential criticism at the knees. Now any physicist (or science writer) who objects to the piece can immediately be labeled a closed-minded big ol’ meanie who just can’t accept that anyone outside the Physics Club could make a worthwhile contribution.

Do I sound a little angry? It’s closer to irritation. I’m currently at a conference exploring the frontiers of cosmology and theoretical physics at the University of California, Davis, where for the past several days, some of the top physicists in the world have been vigorously debating all kinds of wildly creative, speculative, alternative ideas about inflation, dark matter, dark energy, the multiverse, string theory, and so forth, and the implications for the various theoretical models in light of the latest experimental results from the Planck mission. Two weeks ago, I was at the Kavli Institute for Theoretical Physics for a week-long conference in which physicists grappled with fitting their theoretical models to confusing results from a number of dark matter detection experiments.

This is what truly free and open scientific discussion of brave/bold new ideas looks like. The tradition is alive and well in that stuffy old academic establishment. I’ll let Pontzen have the last word:
At what point during this long and difficult process does it become legitimate to proclaim a breakthrough? It’s a line in shifting sands, but that line has certainly been crossed. Du Sautoy – the University of Oxford’s professor of the public understanding of science, no less – has short-circuited science’s basic checks and balances. Yesterday’s shenanigans were anything but scientific.
Preach it.

ADDENDUM (5/29/13): As more details have emerged, a few other voices have chimed in over the last few days and I thought I’d link to them in this original post — rather than writing a new one — for those interested in following the ongoing discussion.

Cosmologist Richard Easther provides some insight into some potential sticking points — albeit with the most limited of information. Du Sautoy’s op-ed mentions that Weinstein’s theory posits a dynamical dark energy (cosmological constant), which is contradicted by all our observational data to date, showing a constant cosmological constant. Important point: this does not mean Weinstein’s theory is flat-out wrong and Easther (and others), as responsible scientists, are not saying that. Not until they’ve had a chance to see the details. But it doesn’t exactly inspire confidence either.

Easther points out that despite all the hyperventilated comparisons of Weinstein to Einstein, “the Swiss-German patent clerk played by the rules.” And he also has the single best take I’ve read so far on why a bit of conservatism and rectitude is a good thing when it comes to promoting cutting-edge science:
“My own favorite example of this sort of rectitude is the discovery of the microwave background, which was announced in a paper entitled ‘A Measurement of Excess Antenna Temperature at 4080 Megacycles per Second,’ as opposed to ‘We Have Discovered the Birth of the Universe, Now Can We Please Have a Nobel Prize.’ Really good work usually sells itself. Conversely, over-hyped proposals typically under-deliver.”
University of Richmond physicist Ted Bunn echoes my own concerns about how the Guardian coverage implicitly reinforces the stereotype of a hidebound academic “establishment” not open to new ideas, insisting on people following those pesky rules and procedures, which just cramp a lone genius’s style, dude! It’s The Man being all elitist and exclusive! (I am opting for snark because that’s my style; Bunn is more measured in his take.) As Peter Coles pointed out,
“I think it would be very unfortunate if this episode led to the perception that physicists feel that only established academics can make breakthroughs in their own field. There are plenty of historical examples of non-physicists having great ideas that have dramatically changed the landscape of physics; Einstein himself wasn’t an academic when he did his remarkable work in 1905. [JLP: But see Easther's earlier point about Einstein nonetheless playing by the rules.] I think we should give all theoretical ideas a fair hearing wherever they come from.”
For a curmudgeonly counter-take, Weinstein’s fellow academic outsider, the Ronin Institute’s Jon Wilkins, has a bit of harrumphing about this silly notion that one should have some kind of actual paper for one’s scientific peers to check details before giving a colloquium or whatever. I think Wilkins misunderstands the spirit of the objections in a pretty fundamental way — but read it and make your own assessment.

I haven’t seen anybody claim Weinstein shouldn’t have been invited to give a colloquium at Oxford, and had his claims been less extraordinary, I’m sure nobody would have minded if he gave some preliminary details without a paper. They’re more informal affairs, these colloquia; they should be about exciting new ideas. But given his grandiose claims, it would have been wise to have provided physicists with the gory details beforehand so they could better assess the merits and target their questions accordingly. That’s how science advances. Combine that with an ill-advised major media splash — well, that’s a recipe for a PR trainwreck, which is precisely what happened.

For my part, I’ve been especially struck by how careful every single physicist I’ve seen comment on this publicly has been to correct this misperception that the physics community is unwilling to listen to radical new ideas from outside some kind of elistist “Inner Circle.” Again, it’s an appealing narrative; that’s why this particular framing was used, to cut off any immediate objections at the knees. No doubt there are some hidebound traditionalists lurking in the Ivory Tower, but there are far more dynamic, passionately engaged physicists excited about any new revolutionary ideas that could set physics on an exciting new course — regardless of where they come from.

As always, the reality is far more nuanced.

Jennifer Ouellette About the Author: Jennifer Ouellette is a science writer who loves to indulge her inner geek by finding quirky connections between physics, popular culture, and the world at large. Follow on Twitter @JenLucPiquant.
The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.