Monday, May 2, 2016

[tt] CHE: Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: When Wellness Is a Dirty Word

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela: When Wellness Is a Dirty Word
May 01, 2016

Natalia Mehlman Petrzela is an assistant professor of history at the
New School, in New York, and the author of Classroom Wars: Language,
Sex, and the Making of Modern Political Culture (Oxford, 2015). She
is also a founder of the history podcast [61]Past Present.

First came the anthropologist of Arctic poverty who found me on
Instagram and confided that she was a Jazzercise fanatic. Then the
intellectual historian who eloquently introduced herself as an
expert on a similarly Serious Topic but rapidly and with sparkling
eyes, before any of our fellow conferees entered the elevator,
effused that it was really her Ashtanga yoga practice that sustained
her. And the implacable administrator who waited for the meeting
room to clear before explaining to me, her gaze softening, the
admirable commitment of her Wednesday-night "Zumba ladies," who
traveled from three boroughs to their class in the Bronx.

Ever since I began researching wellness culture in America--and
outing myself as a passionate participant--confessions from my
academic colleagues have come fast and furious, if in hushed tones.
Why all the furtiveness?

"Wellness" is everywhere. The White House is home to both an organic
garden and an annual children's yoga class. "Holistic pedagogy" is a
respected instructional approach, and the term "wellness" appears in
more than 30,000 titles on Amazon, not to mention labels on products
as varied as pet food and probiotics. It's no longer reserved for
Marin County hippies like those whom [49]Dan Rather interviewed in
1979 to explore then-radical concepts like "self-care" and "the
mind-body connection."

Yet with a few notable exceptions (including Lianne McTavish, a
[50]medievalist-turned-bikini-competitor, and Carol Horton, a
political scientist-cum-yogini), scholars are wary of fessing up to
enthusiastic participation in this widespread phenomenon. Why?

If the thinking classes were once skeptical of these wellness
pursuits as woo-woo and anti-intellectual, their marginal status
during the 1960s and '70s at least bestowed a measure of
countercultural legitimacy. Then, in the 1980s and '90s, the
language of well-being was commercialized by a booming fascination
with fitness and an array of products and experiences to satisfy it.
Cue Christopher Lasch's persuasive admonition that affluent America
was devolving into a sinkhole of narcissistic navel-gazing (sculpt
those abs!).

Now that luxury mind-body spas and juice bars are familiar totems of
gentrification, and Fortune 500 corporations roll out
"McMindfulness" seminars and on-site wellness centers, engaging in
such practices can feel like an endorsement of a superficial,
bourgeois mainstream--a mainstream against which many
intellectuals define themselves.

My colleagues' whispered confessions derive from this dissonance,
which I, too, have felt deeply. Growing up in the 1980s and '90s, I
was, like many future academics, a verb-conjugating, Ivy
League-aspiring "smart girl" operating in a middle-class culture
that privileged academic achievement above almost all else--
certainly above the sweaty physicality of the gym floor, the
ethereal New Age-ism of meditation and yoga, and the
anti-intellectual softness of the "self-esteem" movement.

Nevertheless, I found and fell in love with group exercise classes
at our suburban community center, a passion which for the next
decade of college and grad school was best expressed in the
funny-cause-it's-true joke I often told: "In another life, I'd be an
aerobics instructor." While writing my dissertation, I became
certified to teach an innovative mind-body fitness class called
intenSati. Soon I bracketed days of writing with teaching at the

I was terrified that my scholarly colleagues would discover me and
doubt my intellectual credibility. Not only wasn't I slaving in the
archives 24 hours a day, but I also wasn't moonlighting at the gym
just to supplement a strapped grad-student budget. I felt a sense of
fulfillment and purpose from teaching intenSati. The participants
enthused that my class emboldened them to leave abusive
relationships, to ask for raises, to climb Kilimanjaro. My huge
smile while teaching became my "thing"; I couldn't suppress my joy
at the lengths to which students went--some took multiple trains
before dawn--to sweat together. I remained "in the closet" through
my first year on the faculty, but given that the classrooms where I
was contemplating Bourdieu and Beard were mere blocks from the
studios where my pedagogy tended toward burpees and back-kicks, and
that I was featured on a life-sized poster at a nearby yoga-apparel
store, I knew my cover would soon be blown.

These fears notwithstanding, I dug in my sneakered heels. The
crackling excitement of my intenSati students' physical and
emotional breakthroughs put my academic teaching into relief. Could
I really say my college students left similarly inspired? Where was
the visceral joy in a roomful of desks, in students fatigued by the
all-consuming credentials chase and hardened by the academic
convention of hiding any evidence of vulnerability or wonder? I
remembered John Dewey's observation that classrooms really flourish
when the body is integrated into learning rather than treated merely
as an unruly entity to be disciplined. I strove to engage my
students more fully, connecting their lives to the curriculum, their
schooling to society, and their own lived experience to their

Soon, tentatively and then proudly, I let my wellness-freak flag
fly. Five years later, my research and teaching unapologetically
bear its influence.

Soon, tentatively and then proudly, I let my wellness-freak flag
Slowly, scholars are beginning to pay attention to wellness--
though mostly to trash it. Two recent books, William Davies's The
Happiness Industry (Verso, 2015) and André Spicer and Carl
Cederström's The Wellness Syndrome (Polity, 2015), as well as Mark
Greif's 2004 n+1 essay, "[51]Against Exercise," typify this trend.
They generally agree that the pursuit of well-being defines our age
--The Wellness Syndrome talks about the devolution of Max Weber's
"Protestant work ethic" into a "workout ethic"--but also signals
troubling tendencies toward social atomization,
anti-intellectualism, narcissism, and a creeping technocratic

Even biting critiques are welcome correctives to a deafening silence
about wellness among humanists and social scientists. Scholars of
the '70s, for example, frequently relegate jogging and yoga to the
status of frivolous fascinations like pet rocks and mood rings.
Psychologists and public-health experts generate the empirical basis
for the countless "Research shows ... " claims to sell cleansers or
coaching programs, but don't usually interrogate the philosophical
or epistemological implications of the larger wellness project.

This critical silence is exacerbated by a popular discourse that is
exceptionally unreflective. Practice gratitude, but never cease
striving for more. Love your body as it is, but tend to it like a
temple requiring vigilant beautification. Embrace the glorious fact
that your life is in your hands, but also accept that your
misfortune is your fault. Such Pinterest platitudes and talk-show
directives deserve scrutiny rather than obeisance.

Greif, an associate professor of literary studies at the New School,
offers the most concrete argument, training his sharp sights on the
dehumanizing experience of the modern fitness clubs that have been a
fixture of upper-middle-class life since at least the '80s. Gyms
make inescapable the industrial clock once reserved for the factory
floor. The "only truly essential pieces of equipment in modern
exercise are numbers," he writes of the dystonic tableau of LED
displays counting calories, heart rate, and miles. Remarkably, Greif
wrote of this orgy of exhibitionism and measurement before the
invention of the Fitbit and Facebook.

Davies, Cederström, and Spicer vent similar disgust, but they
venture more-sweeping critiques of government and business in the
United States and Britain. These interlocking institutions
constitute a "happiness industry," spreading a "wellness syndrome"
that fetishizes fulfillment and well-being. The responsibility for
attaining this elusive state, however, is foisted on individuals.
Forsaking social goods like job security and universal health care
for perks like wellness seminars and life coaching, both the state
and private industry extract maximum labor while directing the blame
for any failures back on citizens and employees, respectively, for
failing to think positively enough. The birth of the 21st-century
citizen inculcated to value productivity as the path to personal
fulfillment, and unqualified gratitude as the most evolved emotional
expression, is, in the eyes of those authors, a tragedy.

The quantification of everyday life far beyond Greif's nightmarish
gym is crucial to this narrative. The brave new world promised by
champions of the "quantified self" movement, or of the "smart"
technologies so pervasive they no longer need boosters, is actually
a realm of surveillance that no biorhythm can escape. But numerical
measurement alone, as Davies points out, doesn't explain our current
moment. Frederick Winslow Taylor, the industrial scientist largely
credited with both increasing Western productivity and Americans'
obsession with it, assumed an alienated experience of labor. How
could it be otherwise?

Davies turns to the Australian polymath Elton Mayo, who in the 1920s
argued that the key to unlocking productivity was actually to
increase employee happiness. This Harvard Business School professor
of "dubious scholarly provenance," Davies writes, is actually the
father of modern corporate culture, in which sunny-sounding
initiatives actually harness employees' "holistic" identities for
the benefit of the company. (Cederström and Spicer show how one
cadre of hard-driving bankers discovered an ability to go harder at
the office when they listened to their bodies and practiced
meditation and healthful eating rather than the usual mix of
caffeine and amphetamines.)

That the bottom line can drive the pursuit of well-being is a
central argument of The Wellness Syndrome. Wellness pros--if not
all enthusiasts--are cons. Life coaches, the insidious foot
soldiers of the movement, lack expertise and perhaps even the
emotional bona fides to peddle happiness. The book also takes issue
with campus "wellness contracts." Ostensibly benign goals such as
"contribute positively to the community," "maintain an alcohol- and
drug-free lifestyle," and cultivate a "holistic approach to living"
incite curiously intense contempt from the authors.

Permeating all three works is a criticism of modern wellness as both
marker and maker of elite status in an unjust society. Pop culture
provides plenty of bourgeois caricatures to bolster the point: the
cosseted and cultish [52]Spirit Cycle (based on the $35-per-class
SoulCycle) in TV's The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt; President Obama's
cringe-worthy 2007 "[53]arugula moment," in which he attempted to
bond with rural Iowa voters over the travails of buying gourmet
lettuce at the quintessentially coastal Whole Foods; or basically
anything Gwyneth Paltrow does, including her earnest if oblivious
[54]attempt to survive on food stamps, which involved spending a
substantial portion of her $29 weekly allocation on limes.

Greif evokes Tom Wolfe's wealthy "social X-ray"--the
quintessentially vapid gym bunny avidly pursuing her own corporeal
erasure by getting thin--hardly wishing the masses had the dubious
privilege of joining her narcissistic mission. The Wellness Syndrome
wryly jokes that "much of the population has an acute shortage of
organic smoothies, diet apps, and yoga instructors," surely not
extending the reach of those techniques for achieving and measuring
bodily, emotional, and moral fitness. The popular Daniel Plan, a
Bible-based diet-and-exercise collaboration among people including
the megachurch pastor Rick Warren and the physician Mark Hyman,
particularly arouses Spicer and Cederström's skepticism, for its
fusing of physical and spiritual health for the masses.

Intellectually, the arguments of wellness skeptics excite because
they question our most dearly held assumptions: What do you mean,
healthy isn't superior? How can a focus on wellness suggest social
malaise? But on the ground, they are less satisfying.

Last year, at a Colorado retreat, surrounded by wellness
professionals, I heard Hyman describe the results of the Daniel
Plan. Watching his grainy photos of smiling churchgoers forgoing
their ice-cream socials for power walks and pickup games and
reporting yes, weight loss, but also increased vitality in
relationships with their families and communities, it's difficult to
see the plan primarily as manipulative or damaging. Employers'
distribution of free Fitbits certainly raises questions about
corporate surveillance, but what of the enthusiasm of employees able
to access a pricey technology? Given the preponderance of health
problems in lower-income communities, isn't this disdain for
wellness in itself a privileged perspective?

Given the preponderance of health problems in lower-income
communities, isn't this disdain for wellness in itself a privileged
That privilege, which permeates these works, is symptomatic of the
same internalized intellectual elitism that caused my academic
colleagues to whisper about their clandestine corporeal lives.

If the pursuit of personal health and happiness is suspicious, a
tool of big business and government, what constitutes the good life?
Rejecting the fitness-industrial complex, Greif clearly thinks--a
position that curiously aligns him with some of the most passionate
proponents of exercise: back-to-the-land joggers, vegan yogis, and
Crossfitters, who likewise bristle at the big-box, machine-driven
exhibitionist culture he eviscerates. Greif very likely wouldn't
prefer those pastimes--as they are, after all, exercise--but
it's hard to know what he'd celebrate instead; the title of his
forthcoming collection of essays, Against Everything, doesn't
provide much insight.

Laxatives, cigarettes, and hard liquor are preferable to green
juice, quinoa, and probiotics, argue Cederström and Spicer,
rhapsodizing about the days when Sartre and his coterie had "more
important things to contemplate than their personal wellness." Real
community apparently existed in these substance-addled conversations
among (male) midcentury philosophers at the École Normale
Supérieure. While society once broadly revered intellectuals,
politicians, and priests, today "celebrity chefs and nutritionists"
occupy that vaunted place--the product, The Wellness Syndrome
argues, of our misguided dedication to "positive thinking." The
tragic result of this supposed crisis is, again, not so obvious. Is
it so terrible that as a job candidate, you are generally expected
to "package yourself as a healthy, upbeat, and positive talent in
waiting"? Would we advise job aspirants to appear sickly,
depressive, and creatively blocked?

Davies, a senior lecturer in politics at Goldsmiths, University of
London, acknowledges that the shared enthusiasm for happiness and
well-being among citizens, corporations, and the state generates a
"glimmer" of social progress, even if it is usually perverted by the
pursuit of profit. Concrete examples abound, though absent is the
Canadian behemoth Lululemon Athletica Inc., which is built on the
feel-good promise to nurture greatness and celebrate well-being but
now is just as closely associated with [55]misogyny.

The glimmer that Davies identifies is encouraging, and one could
imagine wellness proponents like Congressman Tim Ryan, who dreams of
a "mindful America," or the self-help guru (and onetime
congressional aspirant) Marianne Williamson, who proposes a
"politics of love." But that sense of possibility is lost in the
rest of Davies's treatise, which conjures a neoliberal threat so
overwhelming that science, civic virtue, and the self are powerless
to resist.

That sense of human irrelevance binds the arguments of these works
together but also points to their unraveling. Given the democratic
sensibility of their class critique, they ironically convey a shared
disregard for human agency. Pointing out the capitalist co-optation
of wellness is astute, but that should be a point of departure
rather than a conclusion. Capitalism structures people's choices,
but we do have choices.

Why have upwardly mobile young women gone from shelling out for high
heels and fancy drinks to [56]spending lavishly on yoga retreats and
stretchy pants? Why has "natural living" gained such traction in an
otherwise technocratic age? Even if a corporate-bureaucratic
superstructure deploys these practices to extract obedient labor,
isn't it possible that people embrace them to "optimize" their
familial and inner lives rather than to unwittingly serve corporate

Restoring human agency to those whose voices are marginalized in
society and scholarship--writing from the bottom up--was a
guiding purpose of a generation of late-20th-century academics who
pioneered the radical epistemological frameworks that Greif,
Cederström, Spicer, and Davies employ. Yet in their narratives,
humans are either hapless victims or depersonalized villains.
Patronizing and uncharitable at times, these academics fundamentally
misunderstand the experience many have of exercise: Gyms thrive
because of their social function, notable in an era of declining
civic engagement (but [57]rising gym membership). This doesn't apply
just to the country-club set, either; one [58]innovative ethnography
explored how working-class Latina women in Los Angeles use Zumba as
a vehicle for freedom of physical and emotional expression. Many of
my interviews and countless locker-room conversations uphold this
observation. Acknowledging the lived experience of wellness culture
would greatly strengthen academic explorations of this phenomenon.

The narrative of wellness over the past 40 years is as much about
the activism of the disenfranchised as about the forward march of
narcissism and neoliberalism. Wellness first gained currency among
those alienated from mainstream medicine. Ailing citizens rejected
arrogant Western physicians who couldn't cure their illnesses but
also turned up their noses at Eastern techniques of "self care."
Feminists established women's wellness centers in protest of the
mostly male doctors who pathologized childbirth and breastfeeding,
as the women's-studies professor Jennifer Nelson [59]has explored.
Enraged by the grotesque mistreatment of black bodies by white
"experts," the Black Panthers created clinics to care for
African-Americans "body and soul," at times donning the symbolic
white coat and at others shedding it for its traumatic associations,
as the sociologist Alondra Nelson [60]has written. These origins

Why have upwardly mobile young women gone from shelling out for high
heels and fancy drinks to spending lavishly on yoga retreats?
Fitness culture's similarly unexpected beginnings are also worth
recovering. Long discouraged from strenuous exercise because of
concerns about its ruinous effects on reproductive potential and
delicacy of character, women successfully fought for recognition as
athletes as early as the 19th century. Title IX, the 1972
legislation that helped equalize funding for sports teams across
gender, is this movement's most famous victory. The efforts to
legitimize physical activity for women more generally are less
glorious--midcentury slenderizing spas were attached to beauty
parlors and dedicated more to fighting fat than promoting feminism.
Yet a powerful and expansive recreational women's-fitness culture
germinated there, later creating its own spaces in church basements
and off-hours community centers rather than primarily seeking access
to established realms like collegiate varsity teams.

Though best remembered for laughable leotards and leg warmers, the
1980s craze for group fitness was a turning point. Exercise studios
were a "sweaty, funky, third space," the fitness pioneer Molly Fox
remembers, populated mostly by women and gay men who "needed
somewhere to go" and who created a subculture in places like Fox's
"kind of gritty, funky downtown studio where a mix of lifestyles
just came together." More rarefied establishments, such as the Lotte
Berk brownstone in New York, where men were forbidden entry for more
than a decade, until the early 1980s, also created opportunities to
explore a more muscular and embodied femininity than widely
accepted. One Lotte Berk employee recalled a client marveling at the
sight of sweat beading on her body. Fox, who studied under Jane
Fonda in her San Francisco studio, reminisced that Fonda's most
powerful legacy was making it acceptable--even empowering--for
women to exercise in public.

This history challenges the disparagement heaped on wellness and
fitness "lifestyles" as evidence of a superficial society in
decline. Even as Greif rightly calls out narcissism, Davies raises
crucial doubts about the neutrality of tracking, and Cederström and
Spicer explode our reflexive what-could-be-wrong-with-wellness
impulse, all three works overlook the auspicious origins of this
movement, not to mention its emancipatory potential. These works
offer no sense of how people might--or already--embrace wellness
to make their lives more meaningful.

Personal experience, every scholar knows, is the most problematic
lens through which to draw conclusions. Yet it is also the best
place to originate our questions. These four authors, however, who
argue that wellness culture is pervasive, seem to reside proudly
outside it. Clinical and detached, their tone describes a universe
of unenlightened pawns uncritically sweating and meditating their
autonomy away. No small part of this disdain is reserved for the
women overrepresented in the wellness world, be they "women just
past the college years" (Greif's "shock troops of modern exercise")
or Cederström and Spicer's "unhappy housewife" reading Deepak
Chopra. Echoing the cultural products that sensationalize the habits
of consumption of affluent women, from the Real Housewives franchise
to the pop memoir Primates of Park Avenue, these works are
surprisingly insensitive on gender, given their sharpness on class.
The gym is a site only to starve oneself into invisibility, perhaps
while gaining some male attention along the way. Wellness is but a
shiny brand, never dignified as a form of feminist resistance.

To those of us who engage in the apparently (but not necessarily)
incommensurate pursuits of scholarly inquiry and well-being, these
works are a call to action to clarify, and at times to cautiously
celebrate, how a set of once-marginal activities has converged into
a multibillion-dollar industry that unites countercultural yogis
with Ayn Rand-loving businessmen, back-to-the-land organic farmers
with conservative celebrants of the family meal, and feminist
advocates of self-care with Lycra-clad spin instructors.

At best, these works represent a crucial beginning in charting the
diverse and fascinating tributaries of Western wellness culture, in
part to show that such pursuits can be liberating even as they are
an expression of late-stage capitalism. The contribution we stand to
make is intellectual, articulating a new realm in the study of
modern politics, culture, and society. But it is also potentially
inspirational, standing to make unnecessary the kind of "double
life" I once felt compelled to lead, and to which many female
academics confess.



[tt] Smithsonian: Kristen Minogue: Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

Kristen Minogue: Coffee, Carbon and Crime: 22 Reasons to Love Trees

Friday is Earth Day, and this year it's [9]all about the trees. The
Earth Day Network is on a mission to plant 7.8 billion trees in five
years. Trees have enormous power when it comes to protecting the
Earth. Scientists at the [10]Smithsonian Environmental Research
Center (SERC) have spent decades uncovering the environmental
benefits of forests. But trees offer some advantages that are less
obvious. Like acting as painkillers. Or improving your morning
coffee. Since the holiday falls on April 22, we picked our top 22
things trees do for humanity.

SERC ecologist John Parker beneath a kapok tree in Panama.
1. Trees slow down climate change.
Little-known fact: Most of a tree's biomass doesn't come from
the soil. It comes from the air, as it soaks up carbon dioxide
and turns it into other forms of carbon. Estimates of how much
carbon the world's forests store range from [11]289 to [12]536
billion tons. That's a good thing for us, since by pulling
carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, trees reduce one of the most
abundant greenhouse gases behind climate change. And this
ability is only getting stronger, according to SERC research: In
the last 20 years, [13]trees have been growing two to four times
faster than they have in the last two and a half centuries.
2. Trees protect species biodiversity.
Tropical forests cover less than 10 percent of the planet's
land, but they're home to [14]between 50 and 90 percent of its
land species. Unfortunately, rampant deforestation means
[15]forests are losing species faster than any other ecosystem,
according to the United Nations.
3. More biodiversity leads to...more coffee?
Helping forest species thrive has a host of benefits--including
the survival of insects like bees that pollinate flowers. A
[16]study of a coffee farm in Costa Rica found that being within
1 kilometer of a forest increased coffee yields by 20 percent.
It also improved quality by slashing the occurrence of
"peaberries," or small, misshapen coffee seeds.
4. Trees reduce stormwater pollution.
Forests act like planetary sponges for more things than carbon
dioxide. In the 1980s, SERC scientists discovered streamside
forests (a.k.a. riparian buffers) can intercept runoff from
storms. In doing so, these forests filter out much of the excess
nutrients and toxic chemicals from the water before they journey
5. Trees trap sediments.
Besides filtering out pollution, trees along streams or shores
can also trap suspended sediments in the water. This has a
double benefit, as it keeps excess sediment from clouding the
water and helps stabilize the shoreline by building up soil. And
speaking of keeping things stable...
6. Woman on log bridge
Tree roots help hold soil in place, slowing erosion and
preventing landslides.
They also prevent landslides.
Trees help hold the soil in place, reducing the risk of
disastrous landslides or a gradual wearing away of the
landscape. In the tropics, soil erosion can be [17]10 to 20
times higher in areas where forests have been cleared out to
make room for roads or other development. Another Ukraine study
found that the health of a region's soil was closely tied to how
much forest cover it had.
7. Trees remove air pollution.
In U.S. cities, urban trees and shrubs remove [18]over 700,000
tons of air pollution every year (worth about $3.8 billion).
They do it largely via something called "dry deposition," in
which the trees take gas pollutants out of the atmosphere
through the small openings on their leaves. Without trees,
pollutants like sulfur dioxide and nitrous oxide could turn into
acid rain.
8. Trees (sometimes) reduce ozone pollution.
Trees get mixed reviews for reducing ozone (O[3]), a gas that
protects us from ultraviolet radiation but can cause breathing
problems when emitted in the wrong places. Some trees emit the
volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which can later create ozone.
But in major cities, where cars and buildings emit plenty of
ozone-forming chemicals already, [19]trees can reduce ozone by
pulling it out of the atmosphere once it's formed or making
other changes to the environment.
When It's All About the Economy:
Scientists in tropical forest
SERC ecologists study forests in Carrie Bow Cay, Belize
9. Trees cut energy costs...
Having trees shade a building helps keep it cool during summer.
One [20]model from the United Kingdom predicted increasing a
city's green cover by 10 percent could lower surface temps by
more than 2°Celsius (3.6°Fahrenheit). And the extra cooling pays
off: A [21]Chicago study discovered a single 25-foot tree could
cut a person's energy bill by 2 to 4 percent, and enough trees
could cut costs by up to 35 percent.
10....and increase real estate value.
The exact amount that trees can raise the value of a house is
always open for debate. Estimates range from [22]just under 1
percent for a single front-yard tree to [23]six or 15 percent
for general tree cover. But it's generally agreed that a house
with trees is more pleasant to look at than a house without
11. They're good for business.
Stores are more likely to attract shoppers if they have trees
nearby. A [24]University of Washington survey found people rate
not just stores, but the people and products inside them, more
positively when there are trees in the streetscape. They're also
willing stay longer and possibly pay more, as they valued goods
up to 12 percent higher in stores with trees.
12. They attract ecotourists.
"Ecotourism," touring nature with the lightest possible
environmental footprint, is growing roughly [25]six times faster
than the tourism industry as a whole, and many of the most
popular destinations include forests. Environmentally minded
tourists are also often willing to pay extra for a more
sustainable experience.
13. They protect homes from strong winds and hurricanes.
After a storm, it's common to see images of uprooted trees and
smashed roofs. But in the right setting, trees can act as
powerful windbreaks sheltering homes from the worst of the
squall. To be effective shields, trees need to be planted in
groups. Experts recommend planting a mix of conifers and
deciduous trees. See this [26]report for a list of some of the
most wind-resistant species.
14. They protect parking lots.
Though trees are often sacrificed to make room for parking lots,
keeping a few around can pay off in the long run. A
[27]California study found that shaded parking lots cracked less
and needed less repaving over 30 years than unshaded ones.
15. They give us water.
Forests supply water to one third of the world's 105 largest
cities. Mountain forests are especially critical water sources.
Cloud forests, high-altitude tropical forests blanketed by
clouds even in the dry season, have an exceptional ability to
capture water from the atmosphere.
16. They give us food.
There are the standard foods usually thought of in
forests--fruits, vegetables, mushrooms and spices. But forests
also shelter many of the animals we rely on for meat. Mangrove
trees along the coast provide habitat for fish, shrimp and
shellfish as well.
17. They give us medicine.
Forests plants have long been a staple of traditional medicine,
which roughly three-quarters of people in the developing world
rely on. In some African countries, traditional healers
outnumber doctors of Western medicine 150 to 1. In modern
medicine, forest plants have helped create medicines for heart
disease, leukemia, HIV and several cancers. Which brings us
How Trees Keep Us Healthy:
Jess Parker and monks by tree
Ecologist Jess Parker with Tibetan Buddhist monks in India.
(Bryce Johnson/Science for Monks)
18. Trees reduce pain.
Since the 1980s, multiple studies have shown people who can see
trees and other natural scenery [28]report less pain than those
facing a wall or an abstract image. Hospital patients request
fewer painkillers and experience fewer headaches, sicknesses and
other complications, and healthy people discover they're better
able to endure pain.
19. Trees protect us from UV.
Tree leaves absorb roughly [29]95 percent of the sun's
ultraviolet radiation (UV). Because excess UV exposure is linked
to three kinds of skin cancer and cataracts in the eyes,
spending more time beneath the trees can reduce the risk of
needing surgery or other treatment later in life.
20. Trees prevent crime.
Since the Middle Ages, there's been a prevailing notion that
removing plants scares off criminals, since it deprives them of
a place to hide. In 1285, King Edward I of England attempted to
cut highway robbery by forbidding highways from having trees
closer than 200 feet on either side. But a [30]2001 study looked
at crime rates in almost 100 apartment buildings, and found the
ones with greener surroundings reported fewer violent and
non-violent crimes. The trend held even after they took into
account size, number of apartments and vacancy.
21. Trees block noise pollution.
In the right spot, a row of trees and shrubs can muffle urban
noise by [31]3 to 5 decibels, making an area up to 25 percent
quieter as perceived by human ears. A denser row of mature trees
can block as much sound as a highway barrier.
22. Forests fight poverty.
More than 1 billion people in the developing world depend on
forests to survive, most in Africa and southern Asia. The remote
or chronic poor can rely on forests for more than half of their
livelihood, not for forests' cash value, but for products like
food, medicine, fuel and building materials. But forests can
also help create ways out of chronic poverty. Forests can
provide fodder for cattle or offer new crops households can
gather or domesticate. Extra income from forests can allow
families to send their children to school, or allow one family
member to look for a higher-paying job in the city.



Saturday, April 30, 2016

[tt] NS 3069: Upfront: Magazine cover date: 16 April 2016

NS 3069: Upfront: Magazine cover date: 16 April 2016


* Tiger numbers in the wild rise for the first time in 100 years
TIGER, tiger, burning brighter. For the first time in 100 years,
estimated global tiger numbers have increased. There's a total
of 3900 of them now - 700 more than the last global estimate
five years ago.
"Seeing this turnaround for the first time in conservation
history is an incredibly significant achievement," says Diane
Walkington, director of international programmes at WWF. "It's a
beacon of hope for all species, and certainly for tigers."
The wildlife charity released the estimates on Sunday ahead of a
summit on tiger conservation this week in New Delhi, India. The
meeting is focusing on the goal, agreed in 2010, of doubling
global tiger numbers by 2022 through consolidating conservation
efforts in the 13 Asian countries within the tiger's range, and
strengthening anti-poaching initiatives.
The news follows a study, published last week, that found there
is enough intact forest habitat left to accommodate a doubling
of the global tiger population (Science Advances,
"It means that in terms of protecting habitat, there's less
pressure to reclaim forest, with the focus instead on retaining
what we already have," says Walkington.
The current boost to tiger numbers is mainly down to
conservation successes in India, Russia and Nepal. But wild
tigers are not faring well in all countries in their range: in
Cambodia they are now functionally extinct, and the nation is
planning a programme to reintroduce them.

* Our top 5 wacky NASA missions that might just happen
MEET the space technologies of tomorrow - or maybe a decade
beyond. Since 2011, NASA's Innovative Advanced Concepts
programme has chosen long-shot exploration ideas that appear
worth pursuing. This year's crop, announced last week, features
13 proposals, each scooping a $100,000 grant covering nine
months of further research. Some of the more striking, even
bizarre, ones include:
o The Brane Craft. Where normal spacecraft are just way too
bulky, this solar-powered flat square, 1 metre to a side, could
be an agile substitute. It could wrap itself around debris in
low Earth orbit to drag it out of the way.
"A robot probe could travel to an asteroid and convert the ice
and rock into spacecraft parts"
o Blasting asteroids with a laser beam. This would vaporise icy
material on the surface and heat up rock underneath. The glow
from the heated rock would shine through the vapour plume,
letting a probe analyse and identify chemicals in the debris.
o The Direct Fusion Drive. Assuming it works as advertised, this
fusion-powered rocket engine could cut the travel time to Pluto
in half. Once there, it need not sail by like the New Horizons
probe did last year - it could settle into an orbit and even
o A clockwork Venus rover. No lander has survived on Venus's
hostile surface for much more than 2 hours. The solution might
be a fully mechanical one, with no electronics. To send messages
back home, it could record data on a phonograph, then loft it on
a balloon to rendezvous with a spacecraft overhead.
o A mechanical spacecraft carved out of an asteroid. A robotic
probe could travel to an asteroid and convert ice and rock into
analogues of spacecraft parts, including a propulsion system
that would control the asteroid's direction by jettisoning
material into space.
Full details of all the funded projects are scheduled to be
released in August.

* Second CRISPR human embryo study shows there is a long way to go
STILL a long way to go. The second attempt to use the CRISPR
gene-editing technique on human embryos hasn't been a big
A team at Guangzhou Medical University in China tried to insert
a mutation that makes people immune to HIV. But only four of 45
embryos both reached the eight-cell stage and had the mutation
in one copy of the relevant gene - still not enough for
resistance as both copies must be modified. On the plus side, no
unintended mutations turned up (Journal of Assisted Reproduction
and Genetics,
Like the first CRISPR study on human embryos, published by a
different Chinese team last year, the work used embryos with an
extra set of chromosomes. This means it's not clear whether
either study tells us much about CRISPR in normal human embryos.
At least three other gene-editing studies using human embryos
are rumoured to have been carried out in China, but the results
remain unpublished.

* SpaceX lands reusable rocket on a barge after four failures
MISSION accomplished - finally. SpaceX has successfully landed
the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket on an ocean barge, after
resupplying the International Space Station.
The firm has now shown it can safely return to both land and
sea, paving the way for reusable rockets that lower the cost of
space flight.
The successful landing comes after four failed attempts since
the start of 2015. Soon after the rocket touched down, workers
welded its legs to the deck of the barge to prevent it from
tipping over.
SpaceX will now inspect the rocket stage for potential reuse. If
it looks promising, it will undergo at least 10 test-firings on
the ground to ensure it is safe to launch again, said SpaceX CEO
Elon Musk at a press conference.
Eventually Musk hopes his rockets will be landing and
relaunching within a matter of weeks. "I think we'll be
successful when it becomes boring," he said.

* NASA recovers prized Kepler space telescope after emergency
THAT was close. For a few days, it looked like our primary
planet-hunter had bagged its last world.
"The Kepler telescope has discovered nearly 1000 exoplanets, but
on 7 April was in 'emergency mode'"
Last weekend, NASA reported that its Kepler space telescope,
which is responsible for discovering nearly half of the 2000 or
so known exoplanets, was in "emergency mode".
Kepler was launched in 2009 and operated successfully for four
years. An issue with its reaction wheels, which keep it pointing
at potential planet-hosting stars, brought its main mission to
an end in 2013, but a clever fix using radiation pressure from
the sun saw it reborn as K2 in 2014.
K2 was due to start a new job this week, using the warping
effects of gravity to aid the search for exoplanets. This
requires a reorientation of the spacecraft, to point it towards
Earth, but when mission managers contacted the telescope on 7
April they found it had entered emergency mode around 36 hours
NASA uploaded commands for a remote fix, and thankfully by 10
April it was working again. Next, they must make sure the craft
is healthy enough to continue its mission.

* DEA mellowing out on cannabis would make medical research easier
YOU can buy weed gummy bears in Colorado and vape cannabis in
Oregon, yet US scientists are struggling to get their hands on
the stuff for medical research. This could soon change: the Drug
Enforcement Administration (DEA) has announced that it hopes to
reach a decision on the legal status of cannabis by July.
"It's a catch-22: the government is looking for studies that the
law prevents from being done"
Although states have their own classifications and laws
governing the possession and sale of cannabis, the federal
government classes it as a Schedule 1 drug, a category typically
reserved for dangerous drugs that offer no medical benefits.
This creates significant hurdles for scientists interested in
marijuana research.
A letter signed by eight US senators last year urged the
government to craft a new policy that would support expanded
research on its potential medical benefits.
As part of the decision-making process, the DEA says that the
government is conducting an extensive review of the science
behind marijuana. This is ironic given that the current
structure makes it hard to carry out rigorous trials that would
prove cannabis's medical benefits and make it more acceptable to
the government, says Robert Capecchi of the Marijuana Policy
Project, a non-profit in Washington DC. "They're looking for
studies that the law prevents from being conducted," he says.
"It's this weird catch-22."

* Records reveal gender-selective abortion taking place in Canada
HOW far would you go for a son? A decade of medical records
strongly suggests that a few Indian-born women in Ontario,
Canada, are aborting female fetuses when they have two daughters
Marcelo Urquia at St Michael's Hospital in Toronto tracked more
than a million births over a decade in Ontario, noting the
parents' place of birth and the sex of the child. They found
that for Indian-born mothers with two daughters, their third
child was a boy 66 per cent of the time - much more often than
chance would dictate. If a woman with two daughters also had one
or more abortions, the odds were nearly 77 per cent that her
third child would be a boy. This implies that at least some of
these abortions were for sex selection. (Canadian Medical
Association Journal,


NFL brain hit
Football fame may come at a price. Two out of every five
American football players could develop signs of brain injury,
suggest scans of 40 retired NFL players. Seventeen had damage to
white matter, which connects brain regions, Francis Conidi of
Florida State University College of Medicine told a neurology
meeting last week.

Fly me to the moon
Moon Express, a company planning to land an uncrewed craft on
the moon, has submitted its mission plans to the US Federal
Aviation Administration. This marks the first time a private
firm has asked for approval for a flight beyond low Earth orbit.
Moon Express aims to touchdown on the moon next year and claim
the $20 million Google Lunar X Prize.

Silver lining gone
We overestimated our cloud protection. The wetter clouds get,
the better they become at reflecting the sun. We thought that
clouds would get wetter as climate change makes our world
warmer, but they are already wetter than expected, meaning there
is little scope for them to reflect even more in the future

Brain on acid
The brains of people taking LSD have been scanned for the first
time, showing how the drug alters consciousness. Certain changes
in brain activity correlated with volunteers' feelings of "ego
dissolution", offering clues to how we construct our sense of
self (PNAS,

Island birds quit flying
Living on small islands drags flying birds to the ground.
Isolated habitat and fewer predators mean that island species
evolve smaller flight muscles and longer legs that make them
more vulnerable and less likely to disperse (PNAS,
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[tt] NS 3069: In sync: How to take control of your many body clocks

NS 3069: In sync: How to take control of your many body clocks
13 April 2016

By Catherine de Lange

GERDA POT'S grandmother was a stickler for timekeeping. "She always
had breakfast at the same time, lunch and dinner at the same time,
but even in between she had tea and coffee breaks every day at the
same time," says Pot. She also aged robustly, living independently
well into her 90s. That got Pot wondering: was there something in
the regularity of her grandmother's habits that held the key to her
rude health?

A nutrition researcher at King's College London, Pot was better
placed than most to investigate - and she soon found she wasn't the
first to ask such questions. She had stumbled into the field of
chrononutrition, and is now one of a growing number shedding light
on the misunderstood role of time in human biology.

We have known for a long time that messing with our body clocks can
take a severe toll on our health. For decades, however, we thought
that the body clock was one central timepiece housed in our brain.
No longer. We now know our bodies contain thousands, if not
millions, of disparate clocks that carefully orchestrate the
functioning of our tissues and organs from the heart to the lungs to
the liver.

These clocks mean not only that there are benefits to eating
regularly, as Pot and others are discovering, but that different
parts of the body are tuned to work optimally at certain times of
the day. When these clocks fall out of sync it can have serious
consequences. Conversely, learn how to take advantage of these
rhythms and we could be on a fast track to everything from slimmer
waistlines to more effective treatments for cancer.

The first written report of circadian rhythms - the idea that living
things operate according to a regular daily cycle - came about 300
years ago when a French astrophysicist, Jean-Jacques d'Ortous de
Mairan, showed that, when placed in darkness, some plants continued
to open and close their leaves with a rhythm of about 24 hours.

But it wasn't until the 1970s that researchers looking for the seat
of biological rhythms in mammals struck gold. When they disrupted
different areas of rodent brains to see whether any of them affected
the animals' day-to-day activity, they discovered that two small
areas, collectively now called the suprachiasmatic nucleus and
located in the hypothalamus directly behind the eyes, track light
and dark signals coming in from the eye to keep the body in time
with day and night. These areas send signals around the brain and
body to control things such as hormone release, the regulation of
body temperature and appetite.

Only years later did gene studies reveal the startling fact that
this clock isn't the only one. In fact, the activity of almost half
of mammalian genes varies regularly with time, says John Hogenesch
of the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia. In 2014, he
published an atlas of these circadian genes across 12 organs in
mice, showing how the heart, lungs, liver, pancreas, skin and fat
cells, among others, function over the course of a day (PNAS, vol
111, p 16219).

These clocks work in a similar way to the brain's timepiece. In
response to an outside signal, two core genes activate a cascade of
other genes, causing a burst of cellular activity. Eventually, a few
of the activated genes act to switch off the core genes, dampening
down the tissue's cellular activity once more.

Perhaps the biggest surprise was that the outside signals
controlling the timing of this frenetic genetic activity didn't
necessarily come from the brain. "Put a liver cell in a petri dish
and it very happily ticks along at its rhythm of about 24 hours,"
says neuroscientist Frank Scheer of Harvard Medical School in
Boston, Massachusetts. The idea of "the body clock" had clearly had
its day. "You went from it being a single clock that drove every
rhythmical process of the body to a complex network of thousands or
millions of clocks all over the body, all doing their own thing and
all of which have to talk to each other and synchronise to each
other," says Jonathan Johnston at the University of Surrey in
Guildford, UK. "That totally changed how people thought about
circadian rhythms."

Then, in 2000, a seminal paper revealed that, in mice, you could
uncouple the peripheral clocks from the central pacemaker simply by
changing the time at which they ate. If the mice could only eat
during the day, when they are usually asleep, their peripheral
clocks shifted by 12 hours, but the central, light-activated brain
clock remained the same. The liver was the fastest to adapt, taking
three to four days, but after a week the heart, kidney and pancreas
had shifted too (Genes and Development, vol 14, p 2950).

There was more. Further research revealed how mice that had their
eating patterns disturbed, or their core clock genes disabled, were
more likely to gain weight and acquire fatty livers. "They are
eating the same thing and it's having a different effect," says

Equally, restrict the time windows in which mice could eat, and they
responded similarly to mice on a calorie-controlled diet, regardless
of how much they ate. It seems that external cues such as food can
reset a body's peripheral clocks, such as those in the liver and
pancreas involved in controlling blood sugar levels, leaving them
running out of sync with signals sent out by the brain's master
controller. Eat at an unusual time, and confused clock signalling
means the relevant organs aren't prepared to deal with food.

Time for a smackerel

These findings echoed Pot's suspicions about the role of food timing
in human health. But teasing out such effects is hard because you
can't take regular samples of human organs to monitor their daily
activity, or disable genes in specific tissues. Pot instead used
data from the UK National Survey of Health and Development, in
which, starting in 1946, over 5000 people kept detailed records of
when and what they ate over much of their lives.

It provided good evidence for her grandmother hypothesis, showing
that adults who ate their meals at irregular times had a greatly
increased risk of metabolic syndrome - which includes cardiovascular
problems and diabetes - decades later (International Journal of
Obesity, vol 38, p 1518). "Even though it's individual, I think
consuming regular meals is beneficial for everyone," she says. In
other words, it's not just about what you eat and how much you eat -
but when you eat it, too.

And it's not just about metabolism. We are starting to build a
timeline of activity around the body. For instance, the heart
experiences a burst of activity first thing as our bodies prepare
for the rigours of the day, as do other organs. We are also privy to
a surge of the stress hormone cortisol in this pre-dawn rush hour,
which may explain why things like heart attacks are so common in the

Similarly our lungs work to a circadian rhythm that appears to make
them more efficient and have a better immune function when we need
them most during our most active hours. There are even hints that
neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's could
be tied to changes in circadian rhythms, explaining why symptoms are
often worse in the afternoon and evening. Disrupted circadian clocks
are also increasingly being linked to psychiatric disorders
including depression and schizophrenia.

Taken together, the findings not only cast longevity in a new light,
but may also explain the higher prevalence of conditions such as
diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular problems among regular night
workers. Even if we don't work shifts, we are likely to experience
similar effects, for example through jet lag or "social jet lag".
This is when our work schedule demands that we get going at times
our body doesn't want to, and affects perhaps 80 per cent of people
in Europe, says Pot. Waking up at 6 am during the week and sleeping
in to 9 am or 10 am at the weekend, for example, requires a
resynchronisation effort equivalent to travelling across several
time zones.

"Understanding our bodily rhythms could help us control our weight"

If that all sounds rather disheartening, the insights also point to
ways to improve our health. For a start, understanding our bodily
rhythms and timing meals accordingly might help people control their
weight more effectively (see "Early bird, eat more worms", left). It
also seems that the brain's master clock is more sluggish in
shifting to a new time zone than our peripheral body clocks.
Johnston is investigating whether calibrating our mealtimes might
let us shift our metabolic rhythms more quickly and so avoid the
worst effects of shift work or jet lag, social or otherwise. "We
have data which shows clearly in humans that you can synchronise
some of your rhythms to changes in mealtimes," he says. One way to
avoid social jet lag, for instance, might be to stick to the same
meal times during the week and at the weekend as far as possible.

Some companies are trying to develop drugs to target peripheral
clocks directly. "If you think about the genes and pathways that you
target with drugs, you have a good chance that those pathways show
circadian activity," says Daan van der Veen, also at the University
of Surrey. For example, the lungs' reduced activity seems to be what
makes us more prone to asthma at night. "One of the deadliest
disorders in the clocks world is nocturnal asthma," says Hogenesch.
A few years ago, a company called Horizon Pharmaceuticals got
approval for a delayed release formula of prednisone, a steroid that
relieves asthma's symptoms.

Other studies show that if people take certain blood pressure
medications before going to sleep rather than when they wake up the
drugs work around 60 per cent better - and also reduce diabetes
risk. "These studies suggest that night-time administration could be
a very cheap way to get a major public health benefit," says

His work shows that the majority of the most commonly prescribed
drugs in the US, as well as those on the World Health Organization's
essential medicines list, target pathways that have some kind of
circadian rhythm. Many of those drugs also have a short half-life of
around 6 hours or so. Since he published those findings two years
ago, several pharmaceutical companies have been in touch, keen to
see whether drugs they had previously shelved for being too toxic or
inefficient may just have been tested at the wrong time of day.

Perhaps the most dramatic potential benefits could be in cancer
therapy. When cells become cancerous, they often become arrhythmic -
either the timings of their clocks shift, or are lost completely.
Drug transport pathways in the rest of the body, meanwhile, will be
following their normal rhythms. So there could be an optimum time to
administer anti-cancer drugs. "By giving the medicine at the right
time, you still harm the tumour but you harm the body less,"
Hogenesch says.

Time will tell whether this wider promise of chronobiology comes to
pass. Meanwhile, a whole body of evidence is telling us that we can
help ourselves by paying more attention to the ticking of our many
clocks. Stickler for timekeeping that she was, Pot's grandmother had
it right all along.

Early bird, eat more worms

When Marta Garaulet first suggested people were getting fat because
their fat was telling the wrong time, she was laughed out of town.
"Reviewers said clock genes were not important in obesity, they just
didn't believe this idea," she says.

That was 2008. Since then, Garaulet, a researcher at the University
of Murcia in Spain and head of several weight-loss clinics, has led
the way in demonstrating not just how human fat is one of many
tissues that has its own circadian clock (see main story), but also
how the ticking of these clocks and obesity are linked.

In 2014, for example, she and her colleagues measured circadian
rhythms in dieters who came to her clinics, and found that those
with a healthy circadian clock, as measured by how their body
temperature varied over the day, tend to lose more weight. What's
more, about a third of us, Garaulet included, who have a certain
variant of a clock gene seem to have more trouble losing weight.

In a study of over 400 obese dieters, her team has also shown that
time of eating can influence weight loss. "We found that people who
habitually ate their main meal earlier, so before 3 pm, lost around
25 per cent more of their body mass than those who ate later," says
collaborator Frank Scheer, of Harvard Medical School in Boston.

On the other hand if lean, healthy women were made to eat later than
usual, it slowed their metabolism, caused glucose intolerance - a
reduced ability to control blood sugar levels implicated in diabetes
- and blunted the daily variation of the stress hormone cortisol,
all within as little as a week. "It was amazing because in only one
week these young women of normal weight had metabolic alterations
similar to those previously found in obese women," Garaulet says.
"So imagine what happens after years of eating your main meal late."

The findings give scientific credibility to some common suspicions,
says Garaulet - for instance, that getting most of your calories in
a burger joint late at night isn't the best route to a healthy
metabolism. But even small shifts in food timing could have
significant health effects. "We know these things are real and we
can include them in the general dietary advice to the population,"
says Garaulet. Testing people to find out what variant of these
genes they have could be another way to help people make the most of
their metabolic rhythms.

Catherine de Lange is a feature editor at New Scientist
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[tt] NS 3069: It's mind-blowing what our puny brains can do

NS 3069: It's mind-blowing what our puny brains can do
13 April 2016

Sean Carroll is a theoretical physicist at the California Institute
of Technology. His new book, The Big Picture: On the origins of
life, meaning, and the universe itself (Dutton), is out next month

Physics is on a hot streak. Sean Carroll speculates on the next big
breakthrough, and warns of quantum wars ahead

By Michael Brooks

Are you enjoying the current popularity of physics that's come as a
result of discoveries like the Higgs boson and gravitational waves?

It's interesting, because physicists sort of ruled the 20th century
with quantum mechanics, the atomic bomb and all sorts of
technologies. We had the most political power and intellectual heft.
Now the biologists are stealing that from us. Biology is advancing
enormously quickly, and has a much more direct impact on our lives.
But such advances - gene editing, for example - can be double-edged
swords. In a sense, this works in favour of physics: the kinds of
discoveries we're making now don't have immediate implications for
technology or our everyday lives. No one's worried about how the
Higgs boson or gravitational waves are going to be used - they're
just really cool.

These physics breakthroughs have come from proving mathematical
theorems. Should we continue to use maths to guide research?

It's not just that mathematics is helpful in understanding nature,
it's the scientific methodology too. The bigger point is that these
things illustrate the knowability of our world. There's a quiet
debate between people who think nature is fundamentally mysterious
versus those who think it is fundamentally intelligible. These kinds
of discoveries remind us is that our puny little brains have the
power to make amazing predictions about far away and very
difficult-to-access aspects of the natural universe.

So what's next in this "decade of discovery"?

It's impossible to say. We could find proof of cosmic inflation in
the early universe, discover dark matter and find some particle
that's outside the standard model of physics. Any of those could
happen in the next two years. We also have a hint from the LHC that
they've found a new particle. I'm not on board with that yet. I
would give it less than a 50 per cent chance of being right, but
more than a 10 per cent chance, so that's still pretty impressive.
Then again, I'm very bad at predicting the future.

A hundred years passed between the theory of gravitational waves and
their discovery. Do we need to give today's frontier ideas more

Absolutely. There's a small part of the human intellectual portfolio
devoted to these big, ambitious questions, and you have to let the
people who devote themselves to tackling them take their time to
work it out. The discovery of gravitational waves by the LIGO
collaboration is incredibly impressive for so many reasons: it's not
just the number of people, but also the number of years it took.

People started taking the detection of gravitational waves seriously
in the 1980s and they knew before they built the first gravitational
wave observatory that it probably wouldn't be sensitive enough to
see anything - and indeed it didn't.

I would give infinite credit to the visionaries who knew this stuff
but would not give up, who devoted their lives to making it happen.

In the absence of experiments to test theoretical ideas, how do you
avoid spending decades on something that ends up being fruitless?

You can't. For example, I'm going to a meeting this summer at which
some great minds are going to debate whether or not cosmology has
lost its way by thinking about the multiverse, falsifiability and
things like that. I'm working a lot on quantum gravity now, and the
foundations of quantum mechanics. I think we're discovering
something about how space-time emerged, but maybe what I'm doing
will all turn out to be wrong.

Is the possibility of having wasted your time difficult to live

It can be, but I'm more excited about my own research than I've ever
been. In modern cosmology we're reaching a point where it matters
which of the many interpretations of quantum mechanics you favour -
Copenhagen versus Everett's many worlds, for example - and that's
enormously exciting. We need to think about the right way to think
about quantum mechanics if we're going to understand, for example,
how space-time emerges. What look from the outside like fuzzy,
philosophical questions about the nature of reality, which we can
debate for years and years, will suddenly become enormously
relevant. They will become sharp tools for answering deep questions
about cosmology and particle physics. For me, the many-worlds
interpretation is actually very simple, precise and compact.

How do your peers react when you say that your philosophical
position matters when you're doing cosmology?

A lot of them just roll their eyes. They're like, "Really? I thought
we'd got rid of that kind of stuff!" It's put me outside the
mainstream, but I'm OK with that.

Your book, The Big Picture, roams far beyond cosmology and physics,
into consciousness, philosophy and the meaning of life. What do you
hope to achieve?

Well, this is the book that should accompany the Gideons Bible in
all hotel rooms in the world - that would be a nice achievement!

Seriously, I think a better achievement would be if it's read by
some people who were curious but hadn't made up their minds about
how the world works at a fundamental level. They could read a book
like this and think, "Yes, this picture does kind of hold together,
I should think about it more deeply and learn more about it".

"My view has put me outside the mainstream, but I'm OK with that"

Would you like your book to encourage the next Einstein?

I don't like to talk about the next Einstein: the large majority of
theoretical work is collaborative these days. But I certainly have
no fear that our intellectual resources are drying up. The very
bright young people coming through know an enormous amount, and are
intellectually extremely lively and willing to dive deeply into the
harder questions.

Do you think artificial intelligence could do a better job of
developing physics than humans are capable of?

Why not? The brain is just a certain collection of atoms and
particles bumping together according to the laws of physics, so
there's no reason at all why some other collections of atoms and
particles bumping together couldn't come up with equally good
thoughts as my brain can - or much better thoughts.

We already get a lot of help from computers in solving equations.
But that's not what we get paid for: as a theoretical physicist it's
deciding which equations to look at that's the real difficulty.
That's a whole other level of creativity and reasoning that we are
very far from being able to implement in an artificial intelligence.

So your career is safe from AI?

My career, yes. But I wouldn't say that about the next generation.
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[tt] NS 3069: Leader: Science isn't as solid as it should be - but science can fix it

NS 3069: Leader: Science isn't as solid as it should be - but science can fix
13 April 2016

SCIENCE, like any walk of life, has its share of bad apples.
Scientists are under pressure to produce results and for some the
temptation to massage data or make it up is too much to resist. But
the rotters are rare: scientific fraud is sufficiently unusual and
shocking to make headline news when uncovered.

Science cannot afford to be complacent. Over the past few years
there has been a creeping realisation that while bad apples are few
and far between, there is a deeper problem. The barrel itself may be

Those at the scientific coalface strive for objectivity, but like
all of us they have unconscious biases that can lead them astray.
And the scientific method is not robust enough to catch all the
errors - statistics in particular can be used to prise a significant
result out of almost any data set, a practice known as "torturing
the data until it confesses". This means that all too often
scientists embarking on research projects are going to sea in a
sieve (see "Why so much science research is flawed - and what to do
about it").

These weaknesses have troubling consequences for the reliability of
our knowledge base. One analysis has claimed that more than half of
published research is wrong. A widely reported study published in
the journal Science last year found that of 100 important psychology
experiments, more than 60 couldn't be replicated. Similar problems
have been uncovered in medical science, biology and economics.

"Science's weaknesses have troubling consequences for the
reliability of our knowledge base"

That sounds like a crisis in the making, not just for our ability to
discover things but for the reputation of scientists and science.
One leading psychologist has compared it to the sub-prime mortgage
crisis which did so much to disgrace the bankers. There are some
signs that he is right. A UK poll carried out at the end of 2015
found that people's trust in scientists had fallen over the previous

Nonetheless, 79 per cent of people polled still said they trust
scientists to tell the truth. That is down from 83 per cent a year
ago, but it hardly constitutes a crisis. Bankers scored 37 per cent
and politicians 21 per cent.

What about the problem of reliable knowledge? On this front, things
might also not be as bad as they seem. Last month, Science published
a follow-up to the reproducibility paper arguing - ironically - that
it used flawed statistics. Correct for these, and almost all 100
studies were reproducible, its authors claimed.

That, of course, may be just another case of torturing the data; the
authors of the original paper have accused those of the new one of
selectively interpreting the numbers. And it doesn't absolve other
problematic branches of science.

But it does demonstrate science's willingness to face its own
problems. In fact, we wouldn't know about them at all were it not
for scientists turning their tools on themselves. Metascience - the
science of science - is a growing field that is increasingly
discovering the loopholes in the system and closing them.

For that, science should be congratulated. Which other field of
human endeavour would scrutinise itself so publicly, find itself
wanting, and then set about putting its house in order?

If there is a sub-prime problem in science, then scientists are
doing their best to fix it before it brings the whole edifice down.
Unlike those politicians or bankers, they are not turning a blind
eye, covering their own backsides or simply hoping to get away with
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[tt] NS 3069: Why so much science research is flawed - and what to do about it

NS 3069: Why so much science research is flawed - and what to do about it
13 April 2016
By Sonia van Gilder Cooke

[Leader: "Science isn't as solid as it should be - but science can
fix it" coming.]

LISTENING to When I'm Sixty-Four by The Beatles can make you
younger. This miraculous effect, dubbed "chronological
rejuvenation", was revealed in the journal Psychological Science in
2011. It wasn't a hoax, but you'd be right to be suspicious. The aim
was to show how easy it is to generate statistical evidence for
pretty much anything, simply by picking and choosing methods and
data in ways that researchers do every day.

The paper caused a stir among psychologists, and has become the most
cited in the journal's history. The following year, Nobel
prizewinning psychologist Daniel Kahneman stoked the fire with an
open email to social psychologists warning of a "train wreck" if
they didn't clean up their act. But things only came to a head last
year with the publication of a paper in Science. It described a
major effort to replicate 100 psychology experiments published in
top journals. The success rate was little more than a third. People
began to talk of a "crisis" in psychology.

In fact, the problem extends far beyond psychology - dubious results
are alarmingly common in many fields of science. Worryingly, they
seem to be especially shaky in areas that have a direct bearing on
human well-being - the science underpinning everyday political,
economic and healthcare decisions. No wonder the whistle-blowers are
urgently trying to investigate why it's happening, how big the
problem is and what can be done to fix it. In doing so, they are
highlighting flaws in the way we all think, and exposing cracks in
the culture of science.

Science is often thought of as a dispassionate search for the truth.
But, of course, we are all only human. And most people want to climb
the professional ladder. The main way to do that if you're a
scientist is to get grants and publish lots of papers. The problem
is that journals have a clear preference for research showing
strong, positive relationships - between a particular medical
treatment and improved health, for example. This means researchers
often try to find those sorts of results. A few go as far as making
things up. But a huge number tinker with their research in ways they
think are harmless, but which can bias the outcome.

This tinkering can take many forms (see "To err is human"). You peek
at the results and stop an experiment when it shows what you were
expecting. You throw out data points that don't fit your hypothesis
- something could be wrong with those results, you reason. Or you
run several types of statistical analysis and end up using the one
that shows the strongest effect. "It can be very hard to even see
that biases might be entering your reasoning," says psychologist
Brian Nosek at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, who
led the team trying to replicate 100 psychology studies. Take the
tendency to scrutinise results that don't fit with your predictions
more carefully than those that do. "There's no nefarious motive,"
says Roger Peng at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Maryland.
It's just natural to assume these results are likely to be "wrong".

You might think that journals, which get peers from the same
scientific field to review papers, would pick up on such practices.
But, say critics, the system isn't up to the task. For one thing,
most journals don't ask researchers to give them a tour of their
statistical sausage factory. "The vast majority don't require that
you make any data available beyond a brief description of the
methods," says Peng. Peer-reviewers usually don't see the complete
data and methods either. And even if they did, they might not have
the time, ability or inclination to check them. Refereeing is unpaid
and anonymous - so there's no reward and no recognition in it.

"In a major effort to replicate 100 psychology experiments the
success rate was little more than a third"

All this helps explain why so many studies don't hold up when others
try to replicate them. But it doesn't explain why psychology in
particular is facing a "crisis" right now. There's nothing new about
researchers being subconsciously committed to proving their own
theories, or journals favouring headline-grabbing research. Sure,
the pressure on researchers to publish is ever greater, however,
what's really new is the scrutiny being given to their published

Traditionally, once results are published they tend to go unchecked.
"The current system does not reward replication - it often even
penalizes people who want to rigorously replicate previous work,"
wrote statistician John Ioannidis of Stanford University in
California in a recent paper entitled "How to make more published
research true". Proponents of a new discipline called metascience
(the science of science) aim to change that, and Ioannidis is in the

Psychology may have borne the brunt of the controversy so far, but
Ioannidis has for a long time argued that the problem is widespread.
In 2005, he claimed that sloppy methods could mean more than half of
all published scientific results are flawed. Some fields of research
are less susceptible than others, though. In astronomy, chemistry
and physics, for instance, "people have a very strong tradition of
sharing data, and of using common databases like big telescopes or
high energy physical experiments", Ioannidis says. "They are very
cautious about making claims that eventually will be refuted." But
in fields where such checks and balances are absent, irreproducible
results are rife.

Take the case of cancer researcher Anil Potti when he was at Duke
University in Durham, North Carolina. In 2006, staff at the MD
Anderson Cancer Center in Houston, Texas, wanted to investigate
treatments based on Potti's published work on gene expression.
Before pressing ahead, they asked their colleagues, biostatisticians
Keith Baggerly and Kevin Coombes, to look over the findings. Their
efforts illustrate how hard it can be for peer reviewers to pick up
on mistakes. It took them almost 2000 hours to disentangle the data
and reveal a catalogue of errors. It later transpired that Potti had
falsified data, but in the meantime, three clinical trials had been
started on the basis of his research.

Evidence is mounting that medical research is particularly prone to
irreproducibility. In 2012, Glenn Begley, a biotech consultant,
showed that just 11 per cent of the preclinical cancer studies
coming out of the academic pipeline that he sampled were replicable.
Another study estimates that irreproducible preclinical research
costs the US $28 billion a year and slows down the development of
life-saving drugs. "The truth is everyone knew that this was a
problem," says Begley. "No one really knew the magnitude of the

Dodgy statistics

It's the tip of the iceberg. Research published last year by Megan
Head of the Australian National University in Canberra and her
colleagues showed that dodgy statistics are rife in the biological
sciences. They scrutinised results from a wide range of scientific
disciplines for evidence for "p-hacking" - collecting or selecting
data or statistical analyses until non-significant results becomes
significant. They found it to be particularly common in biological
sciences. "A lot of biologists go into biology because they don't
want to do maths, and then they get a rude shock when they learn
they have to do statistics," says Head.

"Sloppy methods could mean that over half of all published
scientific results are flawed"

But even mathematicians make errors. In 2010, economists Carmen
Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff at Harvard University published research
showing that when a country's debt reaches more than 90 per cent of
GDP there is an associated plunge in economic growth. The paper,
which appeared in a non-peer-reviewed edition of the American
Economic Review, was seized on by politicians in the UK and US to
justify austerity policies. However, three years later, when Thomas
Herndon, a graduate student at the University of Massachusetts,
Amherst, tried to replicate the findings, he ran into trouble.
Reinhart and Rogoff had made several mistakes including a coding
error in their spreadsheet. The effect they had observed had,
according to critics, been largely a mirage. Nevertheless, it had a
major impact on the public policy debate.

Given how influential a flawed paper can be, it's no wonder people
are up in arms. One obvious concern is that it could undermine
public faith in science itself. "It could very quickly become a wave
of mistrust of the kind we find associated with climate change,"
says psychologist Nicholas Humphrey at the London School of
Economics. Drawing an analogy with the global financial collapse of
2008, he calls it "sub-prime science". "After the disgrace of the
bankers, science must not be next," he wrote, earlier this year.

So what can be done? There has already been a rapid response in one
area of research where irreproducible results can have life-or-death
consequences. Since 2005, a group of major medical journals has
required researchers to publicly register clinical trials, and the
methods they intend to use, before recruiting patients. Ioannidis
estimates that about half of all clinical trials now are
pre-registered, vastly reducing the possibility of flawed work.

Psychologists have also taken matters into their own hands. In 2011,
the authors of the When I'm Sixty-Four paper - Joseph Simmons and
Uri Simonsohn of the University of Pennsylvania and Leif Nelson of
the University of California, Berkeley - met with Eric Eich, the
newly appointed editor of Psychological Science, to discuss the
problems facing their discipline. "That was really eye-opening for
me," says Eich. "There were a lot of things that were essentially

In January 2014, the journal began asking researchers more questions
about their methods and giving them more space to explain them. It
also introduced a "nudge" to reward good practice by displaying
badges on papers to recognise those who made data and methods
available or pre-registered their study. The result? Submissions
fell off a cliff. "I thought I had broken the damn journal," says
Eich. However, after five months, submission rates were back to
normal, and now some 40 per cent of new Psychological Science papers
have open data - up from 3 per cent before the badges were

Now the idea is being rolled out. Last year, Nosek and his
colleagues came up with guidelines that journals could follow to
increase transparency and reproducibility. These have since been
endorsed by the US National Institutes of Health, and adopted by
more than 500 journals, including Science, and 50 organisations.
Nature has its own guidelines. Meanwhile, the Center for Open
Science, co-founded by Nosek, has established a free online
platform, the Open Science Framework, where researchers can register
studies and display all their data and methods. More radically,
there have been calls to replace peer reviewers with paid experts -
accredited specialists in the analysis of research.

Quality not quantity

Universities may join the movement too. Ioannidis and others are
working to create a "coalition of university leaders" to address the
problem. "Universities are the gatekeepers of promotion and tenure,"
he says. "I hope that we will be moving pretty soon on that front."
One obvious solution is to stop rewarding scientists on the basis of
how much they have published - to consider quality not quantity when
making academic promotions.

Ultimately, we may need to create novel ways of determining which
studies are valid. Working with Nosek's team, the Science Prediction
Market Project asked psychologists to place bets on which studies
would stand up and which wouldn't. "It turned out that the market
performed pretty well in predicting the outcome of the
replications," says Anna Dreber Almenberg at the Stockholm School of
Economics in Sweden, who leads the project. Such an approach could
be harnessed to help identify iffy results before they are accepted
for publication. It's still early days, but Dreber Almenberg says
that prediction markets "could be interesting to think more about".

Meanwhile, replication projects are gaining popularity. Groups are
now looking at cancer research and experimental economics. One
member of the economics group, Colin Camerer at the California
Institute of Technology in Pasadena, says the project, which
published results of a pilot study in March, has been greeted with
enthusiasm. "People have been emailing us saying, if you do more,
we'll help you out," he says.

"It will take years to play out," says Eich. "But hopefully at the
end of it, you get more replicable, high-quality science." Given
that we fund academic research through our taxes and rely on it to
improve our lives, that will be good for everybody.

To err is human

Bias is inherent in research but there are ways to limit it


Wishful thinking - Unconsciously biasing methods to confirm your
hypothesis Sneaky stats - Using the statistical analysis that best
supports your hypothesis Burying evidence - Not sharing research
data so that results can be scrutinised Rewriting history -
Inventing a new hypothesis to explain unexpected results Tidying up
- Ignoring inconvenient data points and analyses in the write-up


Pre-registration - Publicly declaring procedures before doing a
study Blindfolding - Deciding on a data analysis method before the
data are collected Sharing - Making methods and data transparent and
available to others Collaboration - Working with others to increase
the rigour of experiments Statistical education - Acquiring the
tools required to assess data meaningfully

Sonia van Gilder Cooke is based in London
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