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~Scientists: Teen Brain Still Maturing

Published: 12/2/07, 7:46 PM EDT


NEW YORK (AP) - The teenage brain, Laurence Steinberg says, is like a car with a good accelerator but a weak brake. With powerful impulses under poor control, the likely result is a crash.

And, perhaps, a crime.

Steinberg, a Temple University psychology professor, helped draft an American Psychological Association brief for a 2005 case in which the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed the death penalty for crimes committed before age 18.

That ruling relies on the most recent research on the adolescent brain, which indicates the juvenile brain is still maturing in the teen years and reasoning and judgment are developing well into the early to mid 20s. It is often cited as state lawmakers consider scaling back punitive juvenile justice laws passed during the 1990s.

"As any parent knows," wrote Justice Anthony Kennedy for the 5-4 majority, youths are more likely to show "a lack of maturity and an underdeveloped sense of responsibility" than adults. "These qualities often result in impetuous and ill-considered actions and decisions."

He also noted that "juveniles are more vulnerable or susceptible to negative influences and outside pressures, including peer pressure," causing them to have less control over their environment.

Some child advocates have pointed to the Supreme Court decision and the research as evidence that teens - even those accused of serious crimes - should not be regarded in the same way as adults in the criminal justice system.

Dr. David Fassler, a psychiatry professor at the University of Vermont College of Medicine who has testified before legislative committees on brain development, says the research doesn't absolve teens but offers some explanation for their behavior.

"It doesn't mean adolescents can't make a rational decision or appreciate the difference between right and wrong," he said. "It does mean, particularly when confronted with stressful or emotional decisions, they are more likely to act impulsively, on instinct, without fully understanding or analyzing the consequences of their actions."

Experts say that even at ages 16 and 17, when compared to adults, juveniles on average are more:



_emotionally volatile.

_likely to take risks.

_reactive to stress.

_vulnerable to peer pressure.

_prone to focus on and overestimate short-term payoffs and underplay longer-term consequences of what they do.

_likely to overlook alternative courses of action.

Violence toward others also tends to peak in adolescent years, says psychiatrist Dr. Peter Ash of Emory University. It's mostly likely to start around age 16, and people who haven't committed a violent crime by age 19 only rarely start doing it later, he said.

The good news here, he said, is that a violent adolescent doesn't necessarily become a violent adult. Some two-thirds to three-quarters of violent youth grow out of it, he said. "They get more self-controlled."

Some of the changes found in behavioral studies are paralleled by changes in the brain itself as youths become adults.

In fact, in just the past few years, Steinberg said, brain scans have given biological backing to commonsense notions about teen behavior, like their impulsiveness and vulnerability to peer pressure.

It's one thing to say teens don't control their impulses as well as adults, but another to show that they can't, he said. As for peer pressure, the new brain research "gives credence to the idea that this isn't a choice that kids are making to give in to their friends, that biologically, they're more vulnerable to that," he said.

Consider the lobes at the front of the brain. The nerve circuitry here ties together inputs from other parts of the brain, said Dr. Jay Giedd of the National Institute of Mental Health.

This circuitry weighs how much priority to give incoming messages like "Do this now" versus "Wait! What about the consequences?" In short, the frontal lobes are key for making good decisions and controlling impulses.

Brain scans show that the frontal lobes don't mature until age 25, and their connections to other parts of the brain continue to improve to at least that age, Giedd said.

The inexplicable behavior and poor judgments teens are known for almost always happen when teens are feeling high emotion or intense peer pressure, conditions that overwhelm the still-maturing circuitry in the front part of brain, Giedd said.

As Steinberg sees it, a teenager's brain has a well-developed accelerator but only a partly developed brake.

By around 15 or 16, the parts of the brain that arouse a teen emotionally and make him pay attention to peer pressure and the rewards of action - the gas pedal - are probably all set. But the parts related to controlling impulses, long-term thinking, resistance to peer pressure and planning - the brake, mostly in the frontal lobes - are still developing.

"It's not like we go from becoming all accelerator to all brake," Steinberg said. "It's that we go from being heavy-foot-on-the-accelerator to being better able to manage the whole car."

Giedd emphasized that scientists can't yet scan an individual's brain and draw conclusions about how mature he is, or his degree of responsibility for his actions.

Brain scans do show group differences between adult and teen brains, he said, "but whether or not that should matter (in the courtroom) is the part that needs to be decided more by the judicial system than the neuroscientist."

Steinberg, who frequently testifies on juvenile justice policy and consults with state legislators on the topic, said it's not clear to him how much the research on teen brains affects lawmakers. They seem more swayed by pragmatic issues like the cost of treating teens as adults, he said. But he noted that he has been asked to testify more in the past few years than before.

In any case, experts say, there's nothing particularly magic about the age 18 as a standard dividing line between juveniles and adults in the courtroom.

Different mental capabilities mature at different rates, Steinberg notes. Teens as young as 15 or 16 can generally balance short-term rewards and possible costs as well as adults, but their ability to consider what might happen later on is still developing, he said.

A dividing line of age 18 is better than 15 and not necessarily superior to 19 or 17, but it appears good enough to be justified scientifically, he said.

Steinberg said he thinks courts should be able to punish some 16- or 17- year olds as adults. That would be reserved for repeat violent offenders who've resisted rehabilitation by the juvenile justice system, and who could endanger other youth in the juvenile system if they returned. "I don't think there are a lot of these kids," Steinberg said.

For the rest, he thinks it makes sense to try rehabilitating young offenders in the juvenile justice system. That's better than sending them through the adult system, which can disrupt their development so severely that "they're never going be able to be a productive member of society," Steinberg said. "You're not doing society any favor at all."

Ash said that to decide whom to treat as an adult, courts need some kind of guideline that combines the defendant's age with the crime he's accused of. That should leave room for individual assessments, he said.

But "we don't have very good measuring sticks" for important traits like how impulsive a juvenile is, he said.

In any case, the decision for each defendant should balance a number of reasons for punishment, like retribution, protecting society, deterring future crime, and rehabilitation, said Ash, who's a member of the American Psychiatric Association's Committee on Judicial Action.

Even if a 14-year-old murderer is held morally responsible for the crime, he will have matured by the time he's 18, and in the meantime he may be more amenable to rehabilitation than an adult murderer is, Ash said.

In fact, most experts conclude that rehabilitation works better for juveniles than for adult offenders, he said.

And just as parents know how irrational juveniles can be, Ash said, they also know that rehabilitation is a key goal in punishing them.

"What we really want," he said, "is to turn delinquent kids into good adults."


On the Net:

American Psychiatric Association statement on youth sentencing:

Psychiatrists' brief in Supreme Court case:

American Psychological Association brief:


AP National Writer Sharon Cohen contributed to this story.




Robotics/Wireless Communications

~New Hitachi Robot Rolls Around, Crashes

Email this Story

Nov 21, 11:21 AM (ET)


(AP) Hitachi Ltd. humanoid robot EMIEW 2 performs during a press preview at its research center in...

Full Image

HITACHINAKA, Japan (AP) - Hitachi's new toddler-like robot rolled around and waved for reporters Wednesday, only to crash into a desk and demonstrate the challenge of turning automatons into everyday helpers.

The red and white robot, designed to run errands in offices, wasn't prepared for the jam of lunch-break wireless network traffic at the company's research center. Unable to communicate with its handler's laptop, it smashed into the office furniture as reporters gasped.

Still, the 31.5-inch tall, 29-pound EMIEW 2 was able to show how it can scoot on two wheels, get on its knees to move on four wheels and even lift its foot about an inch to step over thresholds and bumps.

One feature - wireless control - was at the heart of Wednesday's mishap.

While showing off its ability to understand human speech, a spectator asked where someone was sitting. It responded in a boylike electronic voice: "I will take you there. Follow me."

Seconds later, when it tried to maneuver between two desks, it smashed into one of them. A demonstrator reached out just in time to catch the robot by its winglike handles before it toppled over.

Reporters had to wait for an hour until after the lunch break to watch the robot repeat the demonstration - this time smoothly making its way between the desks.

Developers said the robot had performed fine on test runs but acknowledged kinks had to be worked out. Besides the collision, it also suddenly stood motionless at one point.

"We are studying what hurdles need to be overcome to make robots practical," said Hitachi researcher Takashi Teramoto. "One characteristic we feel we need to ensure for robots is safety."

(AP) Hitachi Ltd. Advance Research Laboratory staff Ryoko Ichinose holds humanoid robot EMIEW 2 during...

Full Image

Robots are now mostly used as industrial machinery and toys. Hitachi Ltd. (HIT)'s robot is the latest attempt by Japanese companies to develop one that can be an assistant in daily life.

In 2005, Hitachi showed the robot's 51-inch-tall predecessor, the EMIEW (for "excellent mobility and interactive existence as workmate").

The improved EMIEW 2 demonstrated Wednesday has shed some pounds to be safer around people and easier to carry around. It can shift from moving on two wheels to a more stable position on four wheels.

EMIEW 2 robot also features a gyrosensor to maintain its balance, lithium ion batteries for an hour worth of power before recharging and a laser radar to map out its surroundings in its computer brain, according to Hitachi. It can also dodge human-size obstacles in its way, the Tokyo-based company said.

Hitachi declined to say when the robot will be ready for commercial use. It also refused to say how much the robot cost or how much it spent on its research.

Japan is among the world's leaders in robotics, and the government is pushing major companies like Hitachi to develop robots for practical use.

Honda Motor Co. (HMC) and Toyota Motor Corp. (TM) have also developed human-like robots that reporters have seen working as guides at the Japanese automakers' facilities. Other electronics makers such as NEC Corp. and Fujitsu have shown robots, but Sony Corp. (SNE) has discontinued the Aibo dog-shaped entertainment robot. ~




Cave of Romulus found

~Sanctuary of Rome's 'Founder' Revealed

Published: 11/20/07, 10:45 AM EDT


ROME (AP) - Archaeologists on Tuesday unveiled an underground grotto believed to have been revered by ancient Romans as the place where a wolf nursed the city's legendary founder Romulus and his twin brother Remus.

Decorated with seashells and colored marble, the vaulted sanctuary is buried 52 feet inside the Palatine hill, the palatial center of power in imperial Rome, the archaeologists said at a news conference.

In the past two years, experts have been probing the space with endoscopes and laser scanners, fearing that the fragile grotto, already partially caved-in, would not survive a full-scale dig, said Giorgio Croci, an engineer who worked on the site.

The archaeologists are convinced that they have found the place of worship where Romans believed a she-wolf suckled Romulus and Remus, the twin sons of the god of war Mars who were abandoned in a basket and left adrift on the Tiber.

Thanks to the wolf, a symbol of Rome to this day, the twins survived, and Romulus founded the city, becoming its first king after killing Remus in a power struggle.

Ancient texts say the grotto known as the "Lupercale"_ from "lupa," Latin for she-wolf - was near the palace of Augustus, Rome's first emperor, who was said to have restored it, and was decorated with a white eagle.

That symbol of the Roman Empire was found atop the sanctuary's vault, which lies just below the ruins of the palace built by Augustus, said Irene Iacopi, the archaeologist in charge of the Palatine and the nearby Roman Forum.

Augustus, who ruled from the late 1st century B.C. to his death in the year 14, was keen on being close to the places of Rome's mythical foundation and used the city's religious traditions to bolster his hold on power, Iacopi said.

"The Lupercale must have had an important role in Augustus' policies," she said. "He saw himself as a new Romulus."~


re:throne in herculaneum,pompeii with images of transgender god

~Roman Throne Discovered in Italian Ruins

Published: 12/4/07, 9:45 PM EDT


ROME (AP) - Remnants of the first known surviving Roman throne have been discovered in the lava and ash that buried the city of Herculaneum in the first century, archaeologists said Tuesday.

Decorated with ivory bas-reliefs depicting ancient deities, two legs and part of the back of the wooden throne were dug out between October and November. They were found 82 feet below ground near Herculaneum's Villa dei Papiri, a first century country home that is believed to have been the residence of Julius Caesar's father-in-law.

Herculaneum, Pompeii and Stabiae were destroyed by the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that killed thousands in the year 79. The layers of volcanic ash preserved the sites for centuries, providing precious information on domestic life in the ancient world.

Archaeologists said the throne was an exceptional find; furniture of its type had previously only been seen in artistic depiction.

"It's the first original throne from Roman times that has survived until today," Pietro Giovanni Guzzo, Pompeii's archaeological superintendent, told a news conference in Rome.

Villa dei Papiri, so called because it has yielded a library of hundreds of ancient papyruses, has only been partially excavated and it is not yet clear whether the throne belonged to the ancient residence, said Maria Paola Guidobaldi, the dig's director.

The throne depicts Greek mythological figures absorbed by Rome's culture and is decorated with images of the gods Attis and Dionysus, as well as pine cones and phalluses.

Experts said the reliefs recall the "Attideia" ceremonies, which commemorated the death and resurrection of Attis, husband and victim of the goddess Cibele, and were introduced to the Roman calendar by the Emperor Claudius.

The fragile remains will now undergo a lengthy restoration, while archaeologists hope to discover many more precious artifacts as the dig in the Villa dei Papiri continues, Guidobaldi said.


Associated Press reporter Alessandra Molinari in Rome contributed to this report.



re:source for 'noahs flood'?


2,2 tailed crocs begat mammals and birds



~Scientists Find Fossil of Enormous Bug

Nov 21, 7:54 AM (ET)


LONDON (AP) - This was a bug you couldn't swat and definitely couldn't step on. British scientists have stumbled across a fossilized claw, part of an ancient sea scorpion, that is of such large proportion it would make the entire creature the biggest bug ever.

How big? Bigger than you, and at 8 feet long as big as some Smart cars.

The discovery in 390-million-year-old rocks suggests that spiders, insects, crabs and similar creatures were far larger in the past than previously thought, said Simon Braddy, a University of Bristol paleontologist and one of the study's three authors.

"This is an amazing discovery," he said Tuesday.

"We have known for some time that the fossil record yields monster millipedes, super-sized scorpions, colossal cockroaches, and jumbo dragonflies. But we never realized until now just how big some of these ancient creepy-crawlies were," he said.

The research found a type of sea scorpion that was almost half a yard longer than previous estimates and the largest one ever to have evolved.

The study, published online Tuesday in the Royal Society's journal Biology Letters, means that before this sea scorpion became extinct it was much longer than today's average man is tall.

Prof. Jeorg W. Schneider, a paleontologist at Freiberg Mining Academy in southeastern Germany, said the study provides valuable new information about "the last of the giant scorpions."

Schneider, who was not involved in the study, said these scorpions "were dominant for millions of years because they didn't have natural enemies. Eventually they were wiped out by large fish with jaws and teeth."

Braddy's partner paleontologist Markus Poschmann found the claw fossil several years ago in a quarry near Prum, Germany, that probably had once been an ancient estuary or swamp.

"I was loosening pieces of rock with a hammer and chisel when I suddenly realized there was a dark patch of organic matter on a freshly removed slab. After some cleaning I could identify this as a small part of a large claw," said Poschmann, another author of the study.

"Although I did not know if it was more complete or not, I decided to try and get it out. The pieces had to be cleaned separately, dried, and then glued back together. It was then put into a white plaster jacket to stabilize it," he said.

Eurypterids, or ancient sea scorpions, are believed to be the extinct aquatic ancestors of today's scorpions and possibly all arachnids, a class of joint-legged, invertebrate animals, including spiders, scorpions, mites and ticks.

Braddy said the fossil was from a Jaekelopterus Rhenaniae, a kind of scorpion that lived only in Germany for about 10 million years, about 400 million years ago.

He said some geologists believe that gigantic sea scorpions evolved due to higher levels of oxygen in the atmosphere in the past. Others suspect they evolved in an "arms race" alongside their likely prey, fish that had armor on their outer bodies.

Braddy said the sea scorpions also were cannibals that fought and ate one other, so it helped to be as big as they could be.

"The competition between this scorpion and its prey was probably like a nuclear standoff, an effort to have the biggest weapon," he said. "Hundreds of millions of years ago, these sea scorpions had the upper hand over vertebrates - backboned animals like ourselves."

That competition ended long ago.

But the next time you swat a fly, or squish a spider at home, Braddy said, try to "think about the insects that lived long ago. You wouldn't want to swat one of those."


On the Net:



re:cyprus examines ancient hippos in search for origins of early inhabitants

Dwarf Hippo Fossils Found on Cyprus

Published: 12/5/07, 11:25 PM EDT


AYIA NAPA, Cyprus (AP) - An abattoir used by early Cypriots, a place where animals went to die, or a shelter that ultimately proved a death trap?

Cypriot and Greek scientists are studying a collapsed cave filled with the fossilized remains of extinct dwarf hippopotamuses - descendants of hippos believed to have reached the island a quarter-million years ago.

Paleontologists have unearthed an estimated 80 dwarf hippos in recent digs at the site just outside the resort of Ayia Napa on the island's southeastern coast. Hundreds more may lie beneath an exposed layer of jumbled fossils.

Scientists hope the fossil haul, tentatively dated to 9,000-11,500 B.C., could offer clues to when humans first set foot on this Mediterranean island.

"It's about our origins," said Ioannis Panayides, the Cyprus Geological Survey Department official in charge of the excavations in conjunction with the University of Athens. "Knowledge of our geological history makes us more knowledgeable about ourselves."

Until the Ayia Napa discovery, the earliest trace of humans on Cyprus dated to 8,000 B.C. But signs of human activity at the new dig could turn back the clock on the first Cypriots by as much as 3,500 years.

"That's very significant, but we can't be certain yet. The task of examining is laborious and time consuming," said University of Athens Professor George Theodorou, who is tasked with examining some 1.5 tons of fossils.

The dwarf hippopotamuses were herbivores, like their modern cousins, but were only about 2 1/2 feet tall and 4 feet long. Unlike modern hippos, whose upturned nostrils seem designed for swimming, Cypriot hippos had low-slung nostrils better suited to foraging on land.

Panayides said the fossils show the Cypriot hippos had legs and feet adapted to land, enabling them to stand on their hind legs to reach tree branches.

Experts believe hippos arrived on Cyprus between 100,000 to 250,000 ago, and likely got smaller to adapt to the hilly island landscape. But scientists do not know how the animals reached Cyprus, which has never been physically linked to another land mass.

Panayides said paleontologists theorize hippos may have swum or floated here during a Pleistocene ice age from land that is now Turkey or Syria. They may have clung to tree trunks and other debris during the crossing.

Lower sea levels at the time made Cyprus much larger than its present 3,570 square miles, meaning it was much closer to other lands. By some estimates, what is now Syria was a mere 18 miles away.

Digs over the last century uncovered smaller numbers of dwarf hippo fossils at 40 locations across Cyprus. One cave found 20 years ago had evidence of fire, stone tools and scorched bones indicating dwarf hippos were hunted by humans.

Carbon dating on those hippo fossils showed the site dated to 8,000 B.C. Evidence of human activity at Ayia Napa means the island may have been settled by humans as much as 3,500 years earlier.

A human footprint at the Ayia Napa site could bolster the theory that the island's earliest inhabitants could have driven the dwarf hippos to extinction through hunting, said Panayides.

"If these new bones are found to be older than bones previously discovered and scientists can find an association with humans, then the discovery has the potential to tell us more about the island's first human inhabitants," said Eleanor Weston, a paleontologist at London's Natural History Museum who was not connected with the Ayia Napa discovery.

Panayides said indications that hippo bones at Ayia Napa had been crushed as if trampled by other hippos, suggesting successive generations came to the cave. Shelter is the most likely explanation, but Panayides didn't rule out the possibility the hippos returned to an ancient burial ground to die.~

(okay,,how does a location in which to die become instinctual?)



~Venus Craft Reveals Lightning, Supports Watery Past

James Owen

for National Geographic News

November 28, 2007

Despite its currently hellish environment, Venus started out much like our own planet and still shows some surprisingly Earthlike traits, scientists announced today.

The discoveries mark the first findings from Venus Express, a European Space Agency (ESA) craft launched in November 2005 to investigate our "sister" planet.

Observations from the first year of the mission suggest that Venus experiences lightning storms, hurricane-force atmospheric winds, and massive cloud vortexes over both its polar regions.

The mission also found evidence as to why Venus turned out more like Earth's "evil twin" despite being similar in size, mass, chemical makeup, and distance from the sun.

"Earth is a water planet, and Venus is its near-twin, so what happened to all the water [on Venus]?" asked team member David Grinspoon of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science in Colorado.

"Fortunately, we now have some clues."

Case of the Missing Water

Venus is the second planet from the sun and is only a few hundred miles smaller in diameter than the third planet, Earth.

But Venus's thick, rapidly spinning clouds create a scorching atmosphere with an average temperature of 864°F (462°C) and a surface pressure roughly 90 times that of Earth's.

Like present-day Earth, Venus could once have been covered in oceans, although the only water there now exists as vapor or as traces dissolved in vast clouds of sulfuric acid.

(Read "Early Venus Had Oceans, May Have Been Habitable" [October 11, 2007].)

Scientists suspect Venus's oceans may have "boiled off" due to a runaway greenhouse effect that saw carbon dioxide levels rise until the gas made up 96.5 percent of the planet's atmosphere.


~The latest findings, reported in this week's issue of the journal Nature, support this theory.

An instrument on the ESA spacecraft known as a plasma analyzer showed that the main ions escaping Venus's atmosphere are oxygen, helium, and hydrogen.


~Hydrogen and oxygen ions were shown to be escaping in the same proportions as they are found in water, H2O—providing a likely mechanism for how water has been leaving Venus.

"If you break up an H2O molecule, the hydrogen and oxygen escape at a proportional rate, so that seems to be where the water's going," Grinspoon said today at a press conference at ESA headquarters in Paris, France.

Further evidence for Venus's vanished water comes from high levels of atmospheric heavy hydrogen, or deuterium, the study team said.

"As hydrogen escapes, it leaves behind the heavier deuterium, so the amount of deuterium residue is an important clue to the amount of water that's been lost," Grinspoon said.

Estimates based on Venus's levels of deuterium suggest that the planet has lost anywhere from 13 feet (4 meters) of surface water up to "an Earth's ocean's worth," the scientist added.

Analysis of newly gathered data on the amounts of deuterium found at different levels of Venus's atmosphere should lead to much better estimates of exactly how much water has disappeared into space, Grinspoon said.

Lightning Strikes

The Venus Express team also found unexpected evidence for a warm layer of air 56 to 75 miles (90 to 120 kilometers) above the night side of the planet.

Previously the upper atmosphere of Venus's night side was thought to be so cold that it was named the cryosphere.

Violent winds were also detected in the planet's upper atmosphere. At 43 miles (70 kilometers) above Venus's surface, wind speeds reached 225 miles (360 kilometers) an hour.

In addition, the mission team found that Venus, like Earth, has huge areas of circulating air over both its polar regions.

But Venus's mass of swirling polar clouds forms a double vortex with temperatures much higher than the surrounding area. The warm air may be evidence of a planetary circulation system, with hot air flowing to the poles from equatorial regions.

The ESA spacecraft also provided the first solid evidence for lightning on Venus, according to the study team.

"It's quite possible there's as much lightning on Venus as on Earth," team member Grinspoon said.

This finding is highly surprising, according to planetary scientist Andrew Ingersoll with the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California.

"There shouldn't be any [lightning] on Venus, whose clouds are like [Earth's] smog clouds, which do not produce lightning," Ingersoll wrote in a commentary also appearing in Nature.

"Perhaps we have simply not thought of all the ways electricity can be generated in a planetary atmosphere," he added.

Venus Express mission scientist Fred Taylor from the University of Oxford, England, said that while Venus's climate is very different from Earth's, there are many common processes at work.

"On Venus, these have worked to virtually eliminate water from the planet while maintaining high levels of carbon dioxide, while Earth has retained much of its water and lost most of its atmospheric carbon dioxide," he said.

"In the light of the new data, it is possible to construct a scenario in which the climates on Venus and Earth were very similar when they started out, and then evolved to the state we see now, like twins separated at birth," Taylor said.

"Billions of years ago there is even the possibility that Venus would have been habitable."





~Mind of a Rock


Published: November 18, 2007

Most of us have no doubt that our fellow humans are conscious. We are also pretty sure that many animals have consciousness. Some, like the great ape species, even seem to possess self-consciousness, like us. Others, like dogs and cats and pigs, may lack a sense of self, but they certainly appear to experience inner states of pain and pleasure. About smaller creatures, like mosquitoes, we are not so sure; certainly we have few compunctions about killing them. As for plants, they obviously do not have minds, except in fairy tales. Nor do nonliving things like tables and rocks.

The Mental Atoms

“If evolution is to work smoothly, consciousness in some shape must have been present at the very origin of things. Accordingly we find that the more clear-sighted evolutionary philosophers are beginning to posit it there. Each atom of the nebula, they suppose, must have had an aboriginal atom of consciousness linked with it; ... the mental atoms ... have fused into those larger consciousnesses which we know in ourselves and suppose to exist in our fellow-animals.”

William James, “The Principles of Psychology,” 189

All that is common sense. But common sense has not always proved to be such a good guide in understanding the world. And the part of our world that is most recalcitrant to our understanding at the moment is consciousness itself. How could the electrochemical processes in the lump of gray matter that is our brain give rise to — or, even more mysteriously, be — the dazzling technicolor play of consciousness, with its transports of joy, its stabs of anguish and its stretches of mild contentment alternating with boredom? This has been called “the most important problem in the biological sciences” and even “the last frontier of science.” It engrosses the intellectual energies of a worldwide community of brain scientists, psychologists, philosophers, physicists, computer scientists and even, from time to time, the Dalai Lama.

So vexing has the problem of consciousness proved that some of these thinkers have been driven to a hypothesis that sounds desperate, if not downright crazy. Perhaps, they say, mind is not limited to the brains of some animals. Perhaps it is ubiquitous, present in every bit of matter, all the way up to galaxies, all the way down to electrons and neutrinos, not excluding medium-size things like a glass of water or a potted plant. Moreover, it did not suddenly arise when some physical particles on a certain planet chanced to come into the right configuration; rather, there has been consciousness in the cosmos from the very beginning of time.

The doctrine that the stuff of the world is fundamentally mind-stuff goes by the name of panpsychism. A few decades ago, the American philosopher Thomas Nagel showed that it is an inescapable consequence of some quite reasonable premises. First, our brains consist of material particles. Second, these particles, in certain arrangements, produce subjective thoughts and feelings. Third, physical properties alone cannot account for subjectivity. (How could the ineffable experience of tasting a strawberry ever arise from the equations of physics?) Now, Nagel reasoned, the properties of a complex system like the brain don’t just pop into existence from nowhere; they must derive from the properties of that system’s ultimate constituents. Those ultimate constituents must therefore have subjective features themselves — features that, in the right combinations, add up to our inner thoughts and feelings. But the electrons, protons and neutrons making up our brains are no different from those making up the rest of the world. So the entire universe must consist of little bits of consciousness.

Nagel himself stopped short of embracing panpsychism, but today it is enjoying something of a vogue. The Australian philosopher David Chalmers and the Oxford physicist Roger Penrose have spoken on its behalf. In the recent book “Consciousness and Its Place in Nature,” the British philosopher Galen Strawson defends panpsychism against numerous critics. How, the skeptics wonder, could bits of mind-dust, with their presumably simple mental states, combine to form the kinds of complicated experiences we humans have? After all, when you put a bunch of people in the same room, their individual minds do not form a single collective mind. (Or do they?) Then there is the inconvenient fact that you can’t scientifically test the claim that, say, the moon is having mental experiences. (But the same applies to people — how could you prove that your fellow office workers aren’t unconscious robots, like Commander Data on “Star Trek”?) Finally, there is the sheer loopiness of the idea that something like a photon could have proto-emotions, proto-beliefs and proto-desires. What could the content of a photon’s desire possibly be? “Perhaps it wishes it were a quark,” one anti-panpsychist cracked.

Panpsychism may be easier to parody than to refute. But even if it proves a cul-de-sac in the quest to understand consciousness, it might still help rouse us from a certain parochiality in our cosmic outlook. We are biological beings. We exist because of self-replicating chemicals. We detect and act on information from our environment so that the self-replication will continue. As a byproduct, we have developed brains that, we fondly believe, are the most intricate things in the universe. We look down our noses at brute matter.

Take that rock over there. It doesn’t seem to be doing much of anything, at least to our gross perception. But at the microlevel it consists of an unimaginable number of atoms connected by springy chemical bonds, all jiggling around at a rate that even our fastest supercomputer might envy. And they are not jiggling at random. The rock’s innards “see” the entire universe by means of the gravitational and electromagnetic signals it is continuously receiving. Such a system can be viewed as an all-purpose information processor, one whose inner dynamics mirror any sequence of mental states that our brains might run through. And where there is information, says panpsychism, there is consciousness. In David Chalmers’s slogan, “Experience is information from the inside; physics is information from the outside.”

But the rock doesn’t exert itself as a result of all this “thinking.” Why should it? Its existence, unlike ours, doesn’t depend on the struggle to survive and self-replicate. It is indifferent to the prospect of being pulverized. If you are poetically inclined, you might think of the rock as a purely contemplative being. And you might draw the moral that the universe is, and always has been, saturated with mind, even though we snobbish Darwinian-replicating latecomers are too blinkered to notice.

Jim Holt, a contributing writer, is working on a book about the puzzle of existence.~



Dioxin Spot in Mich. Could Be Worst Ever

Published: 11/25/07, 9:05 PM EDT

SAGINAW, Mich. (AP) - A find of dioxin at the bottom of the Saginaw River could be the highest level of such contamination ever discovered in the nation's rivers and lakes, according to a federal scientist involved in cleanup efforts downstream from a Dow Chemical Co. plant.

A crew testing the Saginaw and Tittabawassee rivers discovered the sample, which measured 1.6 million parts of dioxin per trillion of water, The Saginaw News and The Detroit News reported last week. That level is about 20 times higher than any other find recorded in the EPA archives.

"There may be more surprises out there," said Milton Clark, a health and science expert for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. "I'd be surprised if there's not more surprises out there."

State guidelines require corrective action on contamination above 1,000 parts per trillion.

Dioxins are toxic byproducts of the manufacture of chlorine-based products, and some have been linked to cancer and other health problems.

Michigan health officials were worried enough about last week's announcement that they extended a fish consumption advisory already in effect for the Tittabawassee River - a Saginaw River tributary that winds through Dow's plant in Midland - to include the entire Saginaw River and a portion of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay, where both rivers' water ends up.

Dow is removing three dioxin concentrations along a six-mile stretch of the Tittabawassee. The company plans to remove the latest find, Dow spokesman John C. Musser said.

"We don't believe there's any imminent or significant human health or environmental threat," Musser said.

The Michigan Department of Community Health advisory warns against eating carp, catfish and white bass - fish that feed near the riverbed where contaminants are buried. It also alerts women of childbearing age and children against eating certain types of other fish.


science / marine / biology / reef restoration / ecology / environment /

(+ alinsky gambit)

~Electricity Revives Bali Coral Reefs

Published: 12/5/07, 7:05 PM EDT


PEMUTERAN BAY, Indonesia (AP) - Just a few years ago, the lush coral reefs off Bali island were dying out, bleached by rising temperatures, blasted by dynamite fishing and poisoned by cyanide. Now they are coming back, thanks to an unlikely remedy: electricity.

The coral is thriving on dozens of metal structures submerged in the bay and fed by cables that send low-voltage electricity, which conservationists say is reviving it and spurring greater growth.

As thousands of delegates, experts and activists debate climate at a conference that opened this week on Bali, the coral restoration project illustrates the creative ways scientists are trying to fight the ill-effects of global warming.

The project - dubbed Bio-Rock - is the brainchild of scientist Thomas Goreau and the late architect Wolf Hilbertz. The two have set up similar structures in some 20 countries, but the Bali experiment is the most extensive.

Goreau said the Pemuteran reefs off Bali's northwestern shore were under serious assault by 1998, victims of rising temperatures and aggressive fishing methods by impoverished islanders, such as stunning fish with cyanide poison and scooping them up with nets.

"Under these conditions, traditional (revival) methods fail," explained Goreau, who is in Bali presenting his research at the U.N.-led conference. "Our method is the only one that speeds coral growth."

Some say the effort is severely limited.

Rod Salm, coral reef specialist with the Nature Conservancy, said while the method may be useful in bringing small areas of damaged coral back to life, it has very limited application in vast areas that need protection.

"The extent of bleaching ... is just too big," Salm said. "The scale is enormous and the cost is prohibitive."

Others note the Bali project is mostly dependent on traditionally generated electricity, a method that itself contributes to global warming. Goreau himself concedes it has yet to attract significant financial backing.

Nonetheless, scientists agree that coral reefs are an especially valuable - and sensitive - global environmental asset. They provide shorelines with protection from tides and waves, and host a stunning diversity of plant and sea life..

Goreau's method for reviving coral is decidedly low-tech, if somewhat unorthodox.

It has long been known that coral that breaks off the reef can be salvaged and restored if it can somehow be reattached.

What Goreau's Bali project has done is to construct metal frames, often in the shape of domes or greenhouses, and submerge them in the bay. When hooked up to a low-voltage energy source on the shore, limestone - a building block of reefs - naturally gathers on the metal. Workers then salvage coral that has broken from damaged reefs and affix it to the structure.

Goreau and his supporters say the electricity spurs the weakened coral to revival and greater growth.

"When they get the juice, they are not as stressed," said Rani Morrow-Wuigk, an Australian-German woman who rents bungalows on the beach and has supported efforts to save the reefs for years.

And indeed, the coral on the structures appear vibrant, and supporters say they have rebounded with impressive vigor. The coral in Pemuteran teems with clownfish, damselfish and other colorful tropical animals.

Funding, however, is a major problem. There are some 40 metal structures growing coral in Pemuteran Bay and about 100 cables laid to feed them with electricity, but only about a third of the wires are working because of maintenance problems and the cost of running them, said Morrow-Wuigk.

The electrification program is part of a wider effort in the bay to save the coral.

Chris Brown, an Australian diving instructor who has lived in Bali for 17 years, said he and other people determined to save the reefs have had a long struggle driving away fishermen who use dynamite and other coral-destroying methods to maintain their livelihoods.

He said a key has been demonstrating to shoreline communities the benefits of coral reef maintenance, such as growing fish stocks and jobs catering to tourists who come to dive in the area.

Brown has participated in Goreau's projects, and won funding from the Australian government to set up a Bio-Rock structure electrified by solar panels fixed on a floating off-shore platform.

Brown has also used seed-money from Canberra to establish the Reef Gardeners of Pemuteran, which trains islanders to dive, maintain the solar-paneled coral structure and clean the reefs of harmful animals.

Kadek Darma, 25, a Balinese who has worked with Brown for two years, said the advantages of the corals to the local economy were obvious.

"They attract the tourists, and more tourists means more jobs," he said. "I hope we can all keep maintaining the reefs for our great-great grandchildren."



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