Edge 221 —September 4, 2007
(5,000 words)


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Edge 221 —September 5, 2007
(4,700 words)

THE THIRD CULTURE

LIFE: WHAT A CONCEPT!
An Edge Special Event at Eastover Farm
George Church, Freeman Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Dimitar Sasselov, Robert Shapiro,
and J. Craig Venter

FRANKFURTER ALLGEMEINE ZEITUNG
FEUILLETON — Front Page
By Jordan Mejias

SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
FEUILLETON — Front Page
By Andrian Kreye

THE REALITY CLUB
Richard Dawkins and Freeman Dyson: An Exchange

THIRD CULTURE NEWS

J. CRAIG VENTER INSTITUTE
The first publication of a diploid human genome from one person
Press Release

PLOS BIOLOGY
The Diploid Genome Sequence of an Individual Human. Levy S, Sutton G, Ng PC, Feuk L, Halpern AL, et al.

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Science Times
In the Genome Race, the Sequel Is Personal
By Nicholas Wade

CNN
Genetic variation greater than expected

SCIENCE
How to Build a Craig Venter
By Jon Cohen

THE GUARDIAN
DNA pioneer publishes own genome
Ian Sample, science correspondent

XCONOMY
Rubbing Elbows and Dodging Bees With Synthetic Biology Pioneer George Church
Gregory T. Huang


EL NORTE — MEXICO

Tercera cultura y política
Alfonso Elizondo

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Science Times
Through Analysis, Gut Reaction Gains Credibility
By Claudia Dreyfus

NEW SCIENTIST
Evidence for unified theory may lie in black holes
Zeeya Merali

NEW SCIENTIST
Editorial: The power of fiction

NEW SCIENTIST
Science in Fiction: Essay by Rebecca Goldstein

NATURE
From the Blogosphere

VANITY FAIR
God Bless Me. It's a Best-Seller!

THE COLBERT REPORT
Dr. Michael Shermer

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
Skeptic
Rational Atheism
An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens
By Michael Shermer

SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
Antigravity
What's the Big Idea?
When the lightbulb above your head is truly incendiary
By Steve Mirsky

THE NEW YORK TIMES
Science Times
Sleights of Mind
Some magicians have intuitively mastered some of the lessons being learned in the laboratory about the limits of cognition and attention.
By George Johnson

SLATE
The Undercover Economist
Milton Friedman, Meet Richard Feynman
How physics can explain why some countries are rich and others are poor.
By Tim Harford

NATURE
Correspondence
Scientists should unite against threat from religion
By Sam Harris

NEW SCIENTIST
Comment: Atheism à la carte
Lawrence Krauss

SCIENCE
Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution
Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, and Richard Davis



"Life/ Consists of propositions about life."
— Wallace Stevens
("Men Made out of Words")

LIFE: WHAT A CONCEPT!
An Edge Special Event at Eastover Farm


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In April, Dennis Overbye, writing in The New York Times "Science Times", broke the story of the discovery by Dimitar Sasselov and his colleagues of five earth-like exo-planets, one of which "might be the first habitable planet outside the solar system".

At the end of June, Craig Venter has announced the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words, one species becomes another. In talking to Edge about the research, Venter noted the following:

Now we know we can boot up a chromosome system. It doesn't matter if the DNA is chemically made in a cell or made in a test tube. Until this development, if you made a synthetic chomosome you had the question of what do you do with it. Replacing the chomosome with existing cells, if it works, seems the most effective to way to replace one already in an existing cell systems. We didn't know if it would work or not. Now we do. This is a major advance in the field of synthetic genomics. We now know we can create a synthetic organism. It's not a question of 'if', or 'how', but 'when', and in this regard, think weeks and months, not years.

In July, in an interesting and provocative essay in New York Review of Books entitled "Our Biotech Future", Freeman Dyson wrote:

The Darwinian interlude has lasted for two or three billion years. It probably slowed down the pace of evolution considerably. The basic biochemical machinery o life had evolved rapidly during the few hundreds of millions of years of the pre-Darwinian era, and changed very little in the next two billion years of microbial evolution. Darwinian evolution is slow because individual species, once established evolve very little. With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them.

Now, after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. It was an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer. The epoch of Darwinian evolution based on competition between species ended about ten thousand years ago, when a single species, Homo sapiens, began to dominate and reorganize the biosphere. Since that time, cultural evolution has replaced biological evolution as the main driving force of change. Cultural evolution is not Darwinian. Cultures spread by horizontal transfer of ideas more than by genetic inheritance. Cultural evolution is running a thousand times faster than Darwinian evolution, taking us into a new era of cultural interdependence which we call globalization. And now, as Homo sapiens domesticates the new biotechnology, we are reviving the ancient pre-Darwinian practice of horizontal gene transfer, moving genes easily from microbes to plants and animals, blurring the boundaries between species. We are moving rapidly into the post-Darwinian era, when species other than our own will no longer exist, and the rules of Open Source sharing will be extended from the exchange of software to the exchange of genes. Then the evolution of life will once again be communal, as it was in the good old days before separate species and intellectual property were invented.

It's clear from these developments as well as others, that we are at the end of one empirical road and ready for adventures that will lead us into new realms.

This year's Annual Edge Event took place at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT on Monday, August 27th. Invited to address the topic "Life: What a Concept!" were Freeman Dyson, J. Craig Venter, George Church, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd, who focused on their new, and in more than a few cases, startling research, and/or ideas in the biological sciences.

Physicist Freeman Dyson envisions a biotech future which supplants physics and notes that after three billion years, the Darwinian interlude is over. He refers to an interlude between two periods of horizontal gene transfer, a subject explored in his abovementioned essay.

Craig Venter, who decoded the human genome, surprised the world in late June by announcing the results of his lab's work on genome transplantation methods that allows for the transformation of one type of bacteria into another, dictated by the transplanted chromosome. In other words, one species becomes another.

George Church, the pioneer of the Synthetic Biology revolution, thinks of the cell as operating system, and engineers taking the place of traditional biologists in retooling stripped down components of cells (bio-bricks) in much the vein as in the late 70s when electrical engineers were working their way to the first personal computer by assembling circuit boards, hard drives, monitors, etc.

Biologist Robert Shapiro disagrees with scientists who believe that an extreme stroke of luck was needed to get life started in a non-living environment. He favors the idea that life arose through the normal operation of the laws of physics and chemistry. If he is right, then life may be widespread in the cosmos.

Dimitar Sasselov, Planetary Astrophysicist, and Director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, has made recent discoveries of exo-planets ("Super-Earths"). He looks at new evidence to explore the question of how chemical systems become living systems.

Quantum engineer Seth Lloyd sees the universe as an information processing system in which simple systems such as atoms and molecules must necessarily give rise complex structures such as life, and life itself must give rise to even greater complexity, such as human beings, societies, and whatever comes next.

A small group of journalists interested in the kind of issues that are explored on Edge were present: Corey Powell, Discover, Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, Heidi Ledford, Nature, Greg Huang, New Scientist, Deborah Treisman, New Yorker, Edward Rothstein, New York Times, Andrian Kreye, Süddeutsche Zeitung, Antonio Regalado, Wall Street Journal. Guests included Heather Kowalski, The J. Craig Venter Institute, Ting Wu, The Wu Lab, Harvard Medical School, and the artist Stephanie Rudloe. Attending for Edge: Katinka Matson, Russell Weinberger, Max Brockman, and Karla Taylor.

We are witnessing a point in which the empirical has intersected with the epistemological: everything becomes new, everything is up for grabs. Big questions are being asked, questions that affect the lives of everyone on the planet. And don't even try to talk about religion: the gods are gone.

Following the theme of new technologies=new perceptions, I asked the speakers to take a third culture slant in the proceedings and explore not only the science but the potential for changes in the intellectual landscape as well.

We are pleased to present streaming video clips from each of the talks (links below). During the fall season Edge will publish features on each of the talks with complete texts and discussions.

JB


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RICHARD DAWKINS—FREEMAN DYSON: AN EXCHANGE

RICHARD DAWKINS: ...I would say competition between genes within gene pools. The difference between those two ways of putting it is small compared with Dyson's howler (shared by most laymen: it is the howler that I wrote The Selfish Gene partly to dispel, and I thought I had pretty much succeeded, but Dyson obviously hasn't read it!) that natural selection is about the differential survival or extinction of species. ...[more]

FREEMAN DYSON: ...First response. What I wrote is not a howler and Dawkins is wrong. Species once established evolve very little, and the big steps in evolution mostly occur at speciation events when new species appear with new adaptations. ...[more]

[...see below]





FRANKFURTER
August 31,.2007
FEUILLETON — Front Page

Let's play God!; Life's questions: J. Craig Venter programs the future
(
Lasst uns Gott spielen!)

By Jordan Mejias

Was Evolution only an interlude?  At the invitation of John Brockman, science luminaries such as J. Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Seth Lloyd, Robert Shapiro and others discussed the question: What is Life? 

EASTOVER FARM, August 30th

It sounds like seaman's yarn that the scientist with the look of an experienced seafarer has in store for us. The suntanned adventurer with the close-clipped grey beard vaunts the ocean a has in store for us. The suntanned adventurer with the close-clipped grey beard vaunts the ocean as a sea of bacteria and viruses, unimaginable in their varieties. And in their lifestyle, as we might call it. But what do organisms live off? Like man, not off air or love alone. There can be no life without nutrients, it is said. Not true, says the sea dog. Sometimes a source of energy is enough, for instance, when energy is abundantly provided by sunlight. Could that teach us anything about our very special form of life?

J. Craig Venter, the ingenious decoder of the genome, who takes time off to sail around the world on expeditions, balances his flip-flops on his naked feet as he tells us about such astounding phenomena of life. Us, that means a few hand-picked journalists and half a dozen stars of science, invited by John Brockman, the Guru of the all encompassing "Third Culture", to his farm in Connecticut.

Relaxed, always open for a witty remark, but nevertheless with the indispensable seriousness, the scientific luminaries go to work under Brockman's direction. He, the master of the easy, direct question that unfailingly draws out the most complicated answers, the hottest speculations and debates, has for today transferred his virtual salon, always accessible on the Internet under the name Edge, to a very real and idyllic summer's day. This time the subject matter is nothing other than life itself.

When Venter speaks of life, it's almost as if he were reading from the script of a highly elaborate Science Fiction film. We are told to imagine organisms that not only can survive dangerous radiations, but that remain hale and hearty as they journey through the Universe. Still, he of all people, the revolutionary geneticist, warns against setting off in an overly gene-centric direction when trying to track down Life. For the way in which a gene makes itself known, will depend to a large degree upon the aid of overlooked transporter genes. In spite of this he considers the genetic code a better instrument to organize living organisms than the conventional system of classification by species.

Many colleagues nod in agreement, when they are not smiling in agreement. But this cannot be all that Venter has up his sleeve. Just a short while ago, he created a stir with the announcement that his Institute had succeeded in transplanting the genome of one bacterium into another. With this, he had newly programmed an organism. Should he be allowed to do this?  A question not only for scientists. Eastover Farm was lacking in ethicists, philosophers and theologians, but Venter had taken precautions. He took a year to learn from the world's large religions whether it was permissible to synthesize life in the lab. Not a single religious representative could find grounds to object. All essentially agreed: It's okay to play God.

Maybe some of the participants would have liked to hear more on the subject, but the day in Nature's lap was for identifying themes, not giving and receiving exhaustive amounts of information. A whiff of the most breathtaking visions, both good and bad, was enough. There were already frightening hues in the ultimate identity theft, to which Venter admitted with his genome exchange. What if a cell were captured by foreign DNA? Wouldn't it be a nightmare in the shape of a genuine Darwinian victory of the strong over the weak? Venter was applying dark colors here, whereas Freeman Dyson had painted us a much more mellow picture of the future.

Dyson, the great, not yet quite eighty-four year old youngster, physicist and futurist, regards evolution as an interlude. According to his calculations, the competition between species has gone on for just three billion years. Before that, according to Dyson, living organisms participated in horizontal gene transfers; if you will, they preferred the peaceful exchange of information among themselves. In the ten thousand years since Homo sapiens conquered the biosphere, Dyson once again sees a return of the old Modus Operandi, although in a modified form.

The scenario goes as follows: Cultural evolution, characterized by the transfer of ideas, has replaced the much slower biological evolution. Today, ideas, not genes, tip the scales. In availing himself of biotechnology, Man has picked up the torn pre-evolutionary thread and revived the genetic back and forth between microbes, plants and animals. Bit by bit the borders between species are disappearing. Soon only one species will remain, namely the genetically modified human, while the rules of Open Source, which guarantee the unhindered exchange of software in computers, will also apply to the exchange of genes. The evolution of life, in nutshell, will return soon to a state of agreeable unity, as it existed in good old pre-Darwinian times, when life had not yet been separated into distinct species.

Though Venter may not trust in this future peace, he nearly matches Dyson in his futuristic enthusiasm. But he is enough of a realist to stress that he has never talked of creating new life from scratch. He is confident that he can develop new species and life forms, but will always have to rely on existing materials that he finds. Even he cannot conjure a cell out of nothing. So far, so good and so humble.

The rest is sheer bravado. He considers manipulation of human genes not only possible, but desirable. There's no question that he will continue to disappoint the inmate who once asked him to fashion an attractive cellmate, just as he refused the wish of an unsavory gentleman who yearned for mentally underdeveloped working-class people. But, Venter asks, who can object to humans having genetically beefed-up Intelligence? Or to new genomes that open the door to new, undreamt-of sources of bio fuel?  Nobody at Eastover Farm seemed afraid of a eugenic revival. What in German circles would have released violent controversies, here drifts by unopposed under mighty maple trees that gently whisper in the breeze.

All the same, Venter does confess that such life transforming technology, more powerful than any, humanity could harness until now, inevitably plunges him in doubt, particularly when looking back on human history. Still, he looks toward the future with hope and confidence. As does George Church, the molecular geneticist from Harvard, who wouldn't be surprised if a future computer would be able outperform the human brain. Could resourcefully mixed DNA be helpful to us?  The organic chemist Robert Shapiro, Emeritus of New York University, objects strongly to viewing DNA as a monopolistic force. Will he assure us, that life consists of more than DNA?  But of what? Is it conceivable that there are certain forms of life we still are unable to recognize?  Who wants to confirm that nothing runs without DNA?  Why should life not also arise from minerals?

These are thoughts to make jaws drop, not only among laymen. Venter also is concerned that Shapiro defines life all too loosely. But both, the geneticist and the chemist focus on the moment at which life is breathed into an inanimate object. This will be, in Venter's opinion, the next milestone in the investigation and conditioning of life. We can no longer beat around the bush: What is Life? Venter declines to answer, he doesn't want to be drawn into philosophical bullshit, as he says. Is a virus a life form? Must life, in order to be recognized as life, be self-reproducing? A colorful butterfly glides through the debate. Life can appear so weightless. And it is so difficult to describe and define.

Seth Lloyd, the quantum mechanic from MIT points out mischievously that we know far more about the origin of the universe than we do about the origin of life. Using the quantum computer as his departing point, he tries to give us an idea of the huge number of possibilities out of which life could have developed. If Albert Einstein did not wish to envisage a dice-playing god, Lloyd, the entertaining thinker, can't help to see only dice-playing, though presumably without the assistance of god. Everything reveals itself in his life panorama as a result of chance, whether here on Earth or in an incomprehensible distance

Astrophysicist Dimitar Sasselov works also under the auspices of chance. Although his field of research necessarily widens our perspective, he can present us only a few places in the universe that could be suitable for life. Only five Super-Earths, as Sasselov calls those planets that are larger than Earth, are known to us at this point. With improved recognition technologies, perhaps a hundred million could be found in the universe in all. No, that is still, distributed throughout and applied to the entire universe, not a grand number. But the number is large enough to give us hope for real co-inhabitants of our universe. Somewhere, sometime, we could encounter microbial life. 

Most likely this would be life in a form that we cannot even fathom yet. It will all depend on what we, strange life forms that we are, can acknowledge as life. At Eastover Farm our imaginative powers were already being vigorously tested.

Text: F.A.Z., 31.08.2007, No. 202 / page 33

Translated by Karla taylor

[German Original]




SUEDDEUTSCHE ZEITUNG
September 3, 2007
FEUILLETON — Front Page

DARWIN WAS JUST A PHASE
(Darwin war nur eine Phase)

Country Life in Connecticut: Six scientists find the future in genetic engineering


By Andrian Kreye

The origins of life were the subject of discussion on a summer day when six pioneers of science convened at Eastover Farm in Connecticut. The physicist and scientific theorist Freeman Dyson was the first of the speakers to talk on the theme: "Life: What a Concept!" An ironic slogan for one of the most complex problems. Seth Lloyd, quantum physicist at MIT, summed it up with his remark that scientists now know everything about the origin of the Universe and virtually nothing about the origin of life. Which makes it rather difficult to deal with the new world view currently taking shape in the wake of the emerging age of biology.

The roster of thinkers had assembled at the invitation of literary agent John Brockman, who specializes in scientific ideas. The setting was distinguished. Eastover Farm sits in the part of Connecticut where the rich and famous New Yorkers who find the beach resorts of the Hamptons too loud and pretentious have settled. Here the scientific luminaries sat at long tables in the shade of the rustling leaves of maple trees, breaking just for lunch at the farmhouse.

The day remained on topic, as Brockman had invited only half a dozen journalists, to avoid slowing the thinkers down with an onslaught of too many layman's questions. The object was to have them talk about ideas mainly amongst themselves in the manner of a salon, not unlike his online forum edge.org. Not that the day went over the heads of the non-scientist guests. With Dyson, Lloyd, genetic engineer George Church, chemist Robert Shapiro, astronomer Dimitar Sasselov and biologist and decoder of the genome J. Craig Venter, six men came together, each of whom have made enormous contributions in interdiscplinary sciences, and as a consequence have mastered the ability to talk to people who are not well-read in their respective fields. This made it possible for an outsider to follow the discussions, even if at moments, he was made to feel just that, as when Robert Shapiro cracked a joke about RNA that was met with great laughter from the scientists.

Freeman Dyson, a fragile gentleman of 84 years, opened the morning with his legendary provocation that Darwinian evolution represents only a short phase of three billion years in the life of this planet, a phase that will soon reach its end. According to this view, life began in primeval times with a haphazard assemblage of cells, RNA-driven organisms ensued, which, in the third phase of terrestrial life would have learned to function together. Reproduction appeared on the scene in the fourth phase, multicellular beings and the principle of death appeared in the fifth phase.

The End of Natural Selection

We humans belong to the sixth phase of evolution, which progresses very slowly by way of Darwinian natural selection. But this according to Dyson will soon come to an end, because men like George Church and J. Craig Venter are expected to succeed not only in reading the genome, but also in writing new genomes in the next five to ten years. This would constitute the ultimate "Intelligent Design", pun fully intended. Where this could lead is still difficult to anticipate. Yet Freeman Dyson finds a meaningful illustration. He spent the early nineteen fifties at Princeton, with mathematician John von Neuman, who designed one of the earliest programmable computers. When asked how many computers might be in demand, von Neumann assured him that 18 would be sufficient to meet the demand of a nation like the United States. Now, 55 years later, we are in the middle of the age of physics where computers play an integral role in modern life and culture.

Now though we are entering the age of biology. Soon genetic engineering will shape our daily life to the same extent that computers do today. This sounds like science fiction, but it is already reality in science. Thus genetic engineer George Church talks about the biological building blocks that he is able to synthetically manufacture. It is only a matter of time until we will be able to manufacture organisms that can self-reproduce, he claims. Most notably J. Craig Venter succeeded in introducing a copy of a DNA-based chromosome into a cell, which from then on was controlled by that strand of DNA.

Venter, a suntanned giant with the build of a surfer and the hunting instinct of a captain of industry, understands the magnitude of this feat in microbiology. And he understands the potential of his research to create biofuel from bacteria. He wouldn't dare to say it, but he very well might be a Bill Gates of the age of biology. Venter also understands the moral implications. He approached bioethicist Art Kaplan in the nineties and asked him to do a study on whether in designing a new genome he would raise ethical or religious objections. Not a single religious leader or philosopher involved in the study could find a problem there. Such contract studies are debatable. But here at Eastover Farm scientists dream of a glorious future. Because science as such is morally neutral—every scientific breakthrough can be applied for good or for bad.

The sun is already turning pink behind the treetops, when Dimitar Sasselov, the Bulgarian astronomer from Harvard, once more reminds us how unique and at the same time, how unstable the balance of our terrestrial life is. In our galaxy, astronomers have found roughly one hundred million planets that could theoretically harbor organic life. Not only does Earth not have the best conditions among them; it is actually at the very edge of the spectrum. "Earth is not particularly inhabitable," he says, wrapping up his talk. Here J. Craig Venter cannot help but remark as an idealist: "But it is getting better all the time".

Translated by Karla Taylor

(German Original)


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FREEMAN DYSON

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To me the most interesting question in biology has always been  how it all got started, so that has been a hobby of mine. And we're all equally ignorant as far as I can see which is why someone like me can pretend to be an expert.

 I was struck by the fact that the picture of early life that appeared in Karl Woese's article 3 years ago in which he had this picture of early life as the pre-Darwinian epoch where genetic information was open source and everything was shared between different organisms, that picture actually  fits very nicely together with my speculative version of  origin of life. So you have, according to this idea, you separate metabolism from replication,  that is the essential idea. We know modern life has both metabolism and replication but they are carried out by completely separate groups of molecules, metabolism carrried out by proteins and all kinds of other small molecules and then replication carried out by DNA and RNA. And maybe that's a clue to the fact that they really did start out separate rather than together.  So my version of the origin of life is that it started with metabolism only.

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FREEMAN DYSON is professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study, in Princeton. His professional interests are in mathematics and astronomy. Among his many books are Disturbing the Universe, Infinite in All Directions Origins of Life, From Eros to Gaia, Imagined Worlds, The Sun, the Genome, and the Internet, and most recently Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe.

Freeman Dyson's Edge Bio Page


Edward Rothstein
The New York Times

Deborah Treisman
The New Yorker
Antonio Regelado
The Wall Street Journal
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J. CRAIG VENTER

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I have come to think of life in much more a gene-centric view than even a genome-centric view, although it kind of oscillates.  And when we talk about the transplant work, genome-centric becomes more important than gene-centric. But we now have a pool, just from the first third of the expedition we discovered roughly 6 million new genes that doubled the number in the public databases when we put them in a few months ago, and we are probably a short ways from doubling that entire number again.  And we're just at the tip of the iceberg of what the divergence is on this planet. We are in a linear phase of gene discovery maybe in a linear phase of unique biological entities if you call those species, discovery, and I think eventually we can have have databases that represent the gene repetoire of our planet.

And the question is can we extrapolate back from that to this notion of the most recent common ancestor. I don't necessarily buy that. Its counterintuitive to me. I think we may have 10,000 most recent common ancestors and they are not necessarily so common.

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J. CRAIG VENTER is one of leading scientists of the 21st century for his visionary contributions in genomic research. He is founder and president of the J. Craig Venter Institute and the J. Craig Venter Science Foundation. The Venter Institute conducts basic research that advances the science of genomics; specializes in high volume genome sequencing, and explores the ethical and policy implications of genomic discoveries and advances. The J. Craig Venter Science Foundation supports both the Venter Institute and The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), an affiliated research organization led by Claire M. Fraser, Ph.D. Venter founded TIGR in 1992. He is the author of the forthcoming autobiography: A Life Decoded.

Craig Venter's Edge Bio Page


Corey Powell
Discover

Heidi Ledford
Nature
Greg Huang
New Scientist
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GEORGE CHURCH

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Many of the people here worry about "What is life?" But maybe we need to view it in a
slightly more general way—not just ribosomes, but inorganic life. Would we know it if we saw it? It's important as we go and discover other worlds, and as we start creating more complicated robots and so forth, to decide where do we draw the line. I think that's interesting.

That's kind of generalization of life at a basic level, but the kind of life that we are particularly enamored of—partly because of egocentricity, but also for very philosophical reasons—is intelligent life. How do we talk about that? Many people have casually dismissed "intelligent design"without carefully defining what they mean by "intelligence" or what they mean by "design". Science and math have long histories of proving things and not just accepting intuition. We're in a similar state with intelligent design. What Freeman suggests, is that we are moving into a phase, which is different not only in that it's like Web 2.0 where we're all sharing all of our parts like we used to, but maybe more fundamentally we are moving into intelligent design big time and we need to understand what that means, and what we should be designing.



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GEORGE CHURCH is Professor of Genetics at Harvard Medical School and Director of the Center for Computational Genetics. He invented the broadly-applied concepts of molecular multiplexing and tags, homologous recombination methods, and array DNA synthesizers. Technology transfer of automated sequencing & software to Genome Therapeutics Corp. resulted in the first commercial genome sequence (the human pathogen, H. pylori, 1994). He has served in advisory roles for 12 journals, 5 granting agencies and 22 biotech companies. Current research focuses on integrating biosystems-modeling with personal genomics & synthetic biology.

George Church's Edge Bio Page


Jordan Mejias, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

Andrian Kreye
Süddeutsche Zeitung

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ROBERT SHAPIRO

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I looked at the papers published on the origin of life and decided that it was absurd, the thought that nature of its own volition putting together a DNA or RNA molelcule was unbelievable. I'm always running out of metaphors to try and explain what the difficulty is.  But suppose you took scrabble sets or any word game sets , blocks with letters,  containing every language on earth , and you heaped them together and you then took a scoop and scooped into that heap and you flung it out onto the lawn there and the letters fell into a line which contained the line "to be or not to be that is the question".  That is roughly the odds of an RNA molecule, given no feedback and there would be no feedback because it wouldn't  be functional until it contained a certain length and could copy itself,  that such an RNA molecule would appear on the earth.

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ROBERT SHAPIRO is professor emeritus of chemistry and senior research scientist at New York University. He has written four books for the general public: Life Beyond Earth (with Gerald Feinberg); Origins, a Skeptic's Guide to the Creation of Life on Earth; The Human Blueprint (on the effort to read the human genome); and Planetary Dreams (on the search for life in our Solar System).

Robert Shapiro Edge Bio Page


Heather Kowalski
J. Craig Venter Institute
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DIMITAR SASSELOV

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Is Earth the ideal planet for life? What is the future of life in our universe?

We often imagine our place in the universe in the same way we experience our lives and the places we inhabit. We imagine a practically static eternal universe where we, and life in general, are born, grow up, and mature; we are merely one of numerous generations.

This is so untrue! We now know that the universe is 14 and Earth life is 4 billion years old: life and the universe are almost peers. If the universe were a 55-year old, life would be a 16-year old teenager. The universe is nowhere close to being static and unchanging either.

Together with this realization of our changing universe, we are now facing a second, seemingly unrelated realization: there is a new kind of planet out there which have been named super-Earths, that can provide to life all that our little Earth does. And more.

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DIMITAR SASSELOV is Professor of Astronomy at Harvard University and Director, Harvard Origins of Life Initiative. Most recently his research has led him to explore the nature of planets orbiting other stars. Using novel techniques, he has discovered a few such planets, and his hope is to use these techniques to find planets like Earth. He is the founder and director of the new Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, a multidisciplinary center bridging scientists in the physical and in the life sciences, intent to study the transition from chemistry to life and its place in the context of the Universe.

Dimitar Sasselov's Edge Bio Page


Karla Taylor
Edge
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SETH LLOYD

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The main outstanding challenge in physics is the unification of gravity with quantum mechanics. Recently, I made a major breakthrough in constructing a theory of quantum gravity based on quantum information. The theory describes the behavior of black holes, gravity waves, and the behavior of the early universe: it predicts the existence of exotic forms of matter and energy, and is confirmed by recent observations of dark energy and cold dark matter. In addition, the theory holds profound implications for the future of the universe. Because the universe is, at bottom, processing information, simple systems such as atoms and molecules must necessarily give rise complex structures such as life, and life itself must give rise to even greater complexity, such as human beings, societies, and whatever comes next.

[click on image]

SETH LLOYD is Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT and a principal investigator at the Research Laboratory of Electronics. He works on problems having to do with information and complex systems from the very small—how do atoms process information, how can you make them compute, to the very large — how does society process information? And how can we understand society in terms of its ability to process information?He is the author if Programming the Universe: A Quantum Computer Scientist Takes On the Cosmos.

Seth Lloyd's Edge Bio Page


[click on image to enlarge]
Andrian Kreye. Süddeutsche Zeitung
Jordan Mejias
, Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung

RICHARD DAWKINS—FREEMAN DYSON: AN EXCHANGE

As part of this year's Edge Event at Eastover Farm in Bethlehem, CT, I invited three of the participants—Freeman Dyson, George Church, and Craig Venter—to come up a day early, which gave me an opportunity to talk to Dyson about his abovementioned essay in New York Review of Books entitled "Our Biotech Future".

I also sent the link to the essay to Richard Dawkins, and asked if he would would comment on what Dyson termed the end of "the Darwinian interlude".

Early the next morning, prior to the all-day discussion (which also included as participants Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd) Dawkins emailed his thoughts which I read to the group during the discussion following Dyson's talk. [NOTE: Dawkins asked me to make it clear that his email below "was written hastily as a letter to you, and was not designed for publication, or indeed to be read out at a meeting of biologists at your farm!"].

Now Dyson has responded and the exchange is below.

JB


RICHARD DAWKINS [8.27.07]
Evolutionary Biologist, Charles Simonyi Professor For The Understanding Of Science, Oxford University; Author, The God Delusion

"By Darwinian evolution he [Woese] means evolution as Darwin understood it, based on the competition for survival of noninterbreeding species."

"With rare exceptions, Darwinian evolution requires established species to become extinct so that new species can replace them."

These two quotations from Dyson constitute a classic schoolboy howler, a catastrophic misunderstanding of Darwinian evolution. Darwinian evolution, both as Darwin understood it, and as we understand it today in rather different language, is NOT based on the competition for survival of species. It is based on competition for survival WITHIN species. Darwin would have said competition between individuals within every species. I would say competition between genes within gene pools. The difference between those two ways of putting it is small compared with Dyson's howler (shared by most laymen: it is the howler that I wrote The Selfish Gene partly to dispel, and I thought I had pretty much succeeded, but Dyson obviously hasn't read it!) that natural selection is about the differential survival or extinction of species. Of course the extinction of species is extremely important in the history of life, and there may very well be non-random aspects of it (some species are more likely to go extinct than others) but, although this may in some superficial sense resemble Darwinian selection, it is NOT the selection process that has driven evolution. Moreover, arms races between species constitute an important part of the competitive climate that drives Darwinian evolution. But in, for example, the arms race between predators and prey, or parasites and hosts, the competition that drives evolution is all going on within species. Individual foxes don't compete with rabbits, they compete with other individual foxes within their own species to be the ones that catch the rabbits (I would prefer to rephrase it as competition between genes within the fox gene pool).

The rest of Dyson's piece is interesting, as you'd expect, and there really is an interesting sense in which there is an interlude between two periods of horizontal transfer (and we mustn't forget that bacteria still practise horizontal transfer and have done throughout the time when eucaryotes have been in the 'Interlude'). But the interlude in the middle is not the Darwinian Interlude, it is the Meiosis / Sex / Gene-Pool / Species Interlude. Darwinian selection between genes still goes on during eras of horizontal transfer, just as it does during the Interlude. What happened during the 3-billion-year Interlude is that genes were confined to gene pools and limited to competing with other genes within the same species. Previously (and still in bacteria) they were free to compete with other genes more widely (there was no such thing as a species outside the 'Interlude'). If a new period of horizontal transfer is indeed now dawning through technology, genes may become free to compete with other genes more widely yet again.

As I said, there are fascinating ideas in Freeman Dyson's piece. But it is a huge pity it is marred by such an elementary mistake at the heart of it.

Richard


FREEMAN DYSON [8.30.07]
Physicist, Institute of Advanced Study, Author, Many Colored Glass: Reflections on the Place of Life in the Universe

Dear Richard Dawkins,

Thank you for the E-mail that you sent to John Brockman, saying that I had made a "school-boy howler" when I said that Darwinian evolution was a competition between species rather than between individuals. You also said I obviously had not read The Selfish Gene. In fact I did read your book and disagreed with it for the following reasons.

Here are two replies to your E-mail. The first was a verbal response made immediately when Brockman read your E-mail aloud at a meeting of biologists at his farm. The second was written the following day after thinking more carefully about the question.

First response. What I wrote is not a howler and Dawkins is wrong. Species once established evolve very little, and the big steps in evolution mostly occur at speciation events when new species appear with new adaptations. The reason for this is that the rate of evolution of a population is roughly proportional to the inverse square root of the population size. So big steps are most likely when populations are small, giving rise to the ``punctuated equilibrium'' that is seen in the fossil record. The competition is between the new species with a small population adapting fast to new conditions and the old species with a big population adapting slowly.

Second response. It is absurd to think that group selection is less important than individual selection. Consider for example Dodo A and Dodo B, competing for mates and progeny in the dodo population on Mauritius. Dodo A competes much better and
has greater fitness, as measured by individual selection. Dodo A mates more often and has many more grandchildren than Dodo B. A hundred years later, the species is extinct and the fitness of A and B are both reduced to zero. Selection operating at the species level trumps selection at the individual level. Selection at the species level wiped out both A and B because the species neglected to maintain the ability to fly, which was essential to survival when human predators appeared on the island. This situation is not peculiar to dodos. It arises throughout the course of evolution, whenever environmental changes cause species to become extinct.

In my opinion, both these responses are valid, but the second one goes more directly to the issue that divides us. Yours sincerely, Freeman Dyson.



THE FIRST PUBLICATION OF A DIPLOID HUMAN GENOME FROM ONE PERSON


[From the press release, J. Craig Venter Institute:] "In 2001 two versions of the human genome were published enabling researchers a first look at humans at our most basic level. While these achievements marked a new era in science, it was clear that more analysis and more sequenced genomes were needed for a more complete understanding of human biology. And because these first published genomes were mosaics of many people’s genomes, rather than genomes of individuals, it was likely that much of the key information about each person—what particular traits or propensity for disease were coded for in their genes and proteins, was missing. In short the era of true individualized genome medicine was not yet realized, until now.

"Today, researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute, along with collaborators from Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto, the University of California, San Diego, and the Universidad de Barcelona in Spain have published the first diploid genome of an individual—Dr. Venter, in PLoS Biology. This analysis and assembly of the 20 billion base pairs of Dr. Venter’s DNA is the first look at both sets of his chromosomes (one inherited from each of his parents) and has shown a greater degree and more kinds of genetic variation with human to human variation five to seven times greater than in previous genome analysis.

"This new individual genome has tantalizing vistas—more than 4.1 million genetic variants covering 12.3 million base pairs of DNA. More than 3.2 million single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNPs), 1.2 million never before seen variants and nearly a million non-SNP variants. But it’s still only the beginning. Many more individual human genomes need to be sequenced, the technology to do so needs to improve, and additional analysis of this first reference human genome will continue. Researchers at the J. Craig Venter Institute are forging ahead on all these fronts in their quest for new and better understanding of human genomics." ...




The Diploid Genome Sequence of an Individual Human. Levy S, Sutton G, Ng PC, Feuk L, Halpern AL, et al.





THE NEW YORK TIMES
September 4, 2007

In the Genome Race, the Sequel Is Personal
By Nicholas Wade

[picture caption:] A team led by J. Craig Venter, above, has finished the first mapping of a full, or diploid, genome, made up of DNA inherited from both parents. The genome is Dr. Venter’s own.

The race to decode the human genome may not be entirely over: the loser has come up with a new approach that may let him prevail in the end.

In 2003, a government-financed consortium of academic centers announced it had completed the human genome, fending off a determined challenge from the biologist J. Craig Venter. The consortium’s genome comprised just half the DNA contained in a normal cell, and the DNA used in the project came from a group of people from different racial and ethnic backgrounds.

But the loser in the race, Dr. Venter, could still have the last word. In a paper published today, his research team is announcing that it has decoded a new version of the human genome that some experts believe may be better than the consortium’s.

Called a full, or diploid genome, it consists of the DNA in both sets of chromosomes, one from each parent, and it is the normal genome possessed by almost all the body’s cells. And the genome the team has decoded belongs to just one person: Dr. Venter.

The new genome, Dr. Venter’s team reports, makes clear that the variation in the genetic programming carried by an individual is much greater than expected. In at least 44 percent of Dr. Venter’s genes, the copies inherited from his mother differ from those inherited from his father, according to the analysis published in Tuesday’s issue of PLoS Biology.

Huntington F. Willard, a geneticist at Duke University who has had early access to Dr. Venter’s genome sequence, said that the quality of the new genome was “exceptionally high” and that “until the next genome comes along this is the gold standard right now.” ...




CNN
September 4, 2007

Genetic variation greater than expected

From the first time it was reveled that my DNA constituted the majority portion of the human genome published by my team at Celera Genomics in 2001, I have frequently been asked what it is like to gaze at my own genetic code. Now, with today's publication of my diploid genome in the public access journal PLOS Biology as the first individual genome, it seems to have only increased people's fascination with what it's like to have your genome in hand. The difference between then and now is that many of the questions today center on what you can learn from reading your genetic code and how soon they can get their genomes sequenced. ....




ScienceNOW Daily News
4 September 2007


How to Build a Craig Venter
By Jon Cohen

...For the first time, researchers have published the DNA sequence from both sets of chromosomes in a single person. That person is none other than pioneering genome researcher J. Craig Venter. The new sequence suggests that there is substantially more variation between humans than previously recognized and pushes personalized medicine a step closer. ...




THE GUARDIAN
September 4, 2007


DNA pioneer publishes own genome

Ian Sample, science correspondent

...The nearly 3bn pairs of letters that spell out Craig Venter's genetic code were sequenced for the research paper, which was published last night in the free-to-access journal PLoS Biology.

It is the first time a complete genome, covering chromosomes inherited from each parent, has been published for an individual Dr Venter's genome, and that of James Watson, the co-discoverer of DNA's double-helix structure, have previously been posted on scientific web sites.

Analysis of the genome allowed the team based at the J Craig Venter Institute in Maryland to compare how chromosomes from one parent differed from those inherited from the other, revealing stark differences between the two.

Based on the study, the team concluded that genetic variation between humans is more than seven times greater than previously thought. ...



A Life Decoded
By J. Craig Venter





XCONOMY | Kendall Square
August 30, 2007

Rubbing Elbows and Dodging Bees With Synthetic Biology Pioneer George Church
Gregory T. Huang

On Monday I had the privilege of hanging out with Xconomist George Church and a few other distinguished scientists—Craig Venter, Freeman Dyson, Robert Shapiro, Dimitar Sasselov, and Seth Lloyd—as they discussed some deep topics like the origin of life, the end of Darwinian evolution, and what will come next on our planet.

It all took place under a white tent on an impossibly pleasant late-summer day in the Connecticut countryside. We were hosted by the literary agent and cultural impresario John Brockman, who regularly brings together well-known visionaries and thinkers as part of his nonprofit Edge Foundation.

Church is one of those thinkers. An entrepreneur (Church has helped start some 22 biotech companies) and professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School, he is one of the founders of synthetic biology, a cutting-edge field that seeks to program cells and other living systems to do useful work (e.g., create renewable energy) much as engineers hack computers. Recognizing the tension between understanding the origins of life and creating new forms of it, Church said, “I’m more interested in the future than the past.”‘ ...




EL NORTE — MEXICO
August 25, 2007

Tercera cultura y política
Alfonso Elizondo

...Para orientarse en los debates ecológicos, sobre el uso de las energías disponibles y desde el punto de vista de la sustentabilidad, ayuda mucho la idea de la entropía descrita por Nicolás Georgescu-Roegen y Barry Commoner. Para entender a la ética ambientalista no antropocéntrica sirve mucho la comprensión de la teoría sintética de la evolución de S.J. Gould. Para justificar la defensa de la biodiversidad y de la igualdad social ayuda comprender la genética y la biología molecular de Dobzhansky, y para combatir el racismo y la xenofobia conviene conocer los trabajos de genética de poblaciones de Cavalli Sforza y de Jared Diamond.

Se podría concluir que la nueva cultura científica es parte esencial de la cultura en general y desdeñarla equivaldría a renunciar al más profundo sentido de la política, definida como la participación activa de la ciudadanía en los asuntos de la "polis". Pero, por otra parte, es necesario comprender que la ciencia por sí misma no genera conciencia ético-política y las ciencias de la naturaleza y de la vida no enseñan cómo llevar la teoría personal a la decisión de actuar en beneficio de toda la comunidad. ...

[Google Translation]




THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 28, 2007

SCIENCE TIMES

Through Analysis, Gut Reaction Gains Credibility
By Claudia Dreyfus

Two years ago, when Malcolm Gladwell published his best-selling “Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking,” readers throughout the world were introduced to the ideas of Gerd Gigerenzer, a German social psychologist.

Dr. Gigerenzer, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, is known in social science circles for his breakthrough studies on the nature of intuitive thinking. Before his research, this was a topic often dismissed as crazed superstition. Dr. Gigerenzer, 59, was able to show how aspects of intuition work and how ordinary people successfully use it in modern life.

And now he has written his own book, “Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious,” which he hopes will sell as well as “Blink.” “I liked Gladwell’s book,” Dr. Gigerenzer said during a visit to New York City last month. “He’s popularized the issue, including my research.”

Q: O.K., let’s start with basics: what is a gut feeling?

A: It’s a judgment that is fast. It comes quickly into a person’s consciousness. The person doesn’t know why they have this feeling. Yet, this is strong enough to make an individual act on it. What a gut instinct is not is a calculation. You do not fully know where it comes from.

My research indicates that gut feelings are based on simple rules of thumb, what we psychologists term “heuristics.” These take advantage of certain capacities of the brain that have come down to us through time, experience and evolution. Gut instincts often rely on simple cues in the environment. In most situations, when people use their instincts, they are heeding these cues and ignoring other unnecessary information.

Q: In modern society, gut thinking has a bad reputation. Why is that?

A: It is not thought to be rational. One of the founders of your country, Benjamin Franklin, suggested to his nephew that when he made important life decisions, he should do it like a bookkeeper — list all the pros and cons and then make the decision, after weighing everything. That is the classical rational approach. ...


EdgeLinks: "Smart Heuristics":A Talk With Gerd Gigerenzer


EdgeVideo




NEW SCIENTIST
August 26, 2007

Evidence for unified theory may lie in black holes
Zeeya Merali

That may not sound much, but Dirac originally envisaged magnetic monopoles as being a single point without volume. Davies believes that if magnetic monopoles have size, and therefore mass, then adding them to a black hole would increase its entropy, even if it is also shrinking (www.arxiv.org/abs/0708.1783). "It turns out that there's a very subtle balance between these effects, which help to save the monopole," he says.




NEW SCIENTIST
August 25, 2007

Editorial: The power of fiction

....We take worthy tomes on vacation, only to sneakily open up a Henry James or a Dan Brown when we get down to the beach. So why do we feel guilty? Why do we feel the need to justify those hours spent curled up with a good book? Why would Rebecca Goldstein, the lead essayist in this week's Science in Fiction special (see "Science in fiction: Essay by Rebecca Goldstein"), feel she needs to defend her life as a novelist?...




NEW SCIENTIST
August 25, 2007

Science in Fiction: Essay by Rebecca Goldstein

...Science is always adding to, and sometimes changing, our views on what objective reality is like. When those modifications are radical, there is a time lag in bringing our world view into line, and sometimes we never fully succeed. So it is that we have struggled to come to terms with, say, the devastation of our view of time that was wrought by Einstein.

Time is so fundamental a concept, not only in the objective scientific world view, but in our inner worlds, where time flows ineluctably, no matter what scientific revolutions may come our way. Almost all of our emotions - hope, fear, anticipation, worry, excitement, regret, nostalgia, remorse, resentment - presume the linearity of time.

Can we make art that reflects on the world with which we've been presented by our ever more powerful sciences? Can we explore what these discoveries mean in human terms? Richard Powers's The Time of Our Singing meditates on the non-linear notion of time in the very structure of the story he tells. I tried to do something similar in Properties of Light: A Novel of Love, Betrayal and Quantum Physics, though, as the sub-title signals, I dwell more on the disruptions to our natural ways of thinking prompted by quantum mechanics, by ideas such as quantum non-locality and entnglement. ...



NATURE
August 22, 2007

FROM THE BLOGOSPHERE

What do Eric Lander, Frank Wilczek, James Randi and Martha Stewart have in common? The answer can be found at Nautilus (http://tinyurl.com/35xbq9): all attended the recent Science Foo Camp, co-organized by Nature Publishing Group, O'Reilly Media and Google, and hosted at the Googleplex in Mountain View, California.

The 'Foo Camp' format has been pioneered by O'Reilly, a publisher of computing books and organizer of technology conferences, as an antidote to restrictive formal conferences, where the best conversations seem to happen in hallways and during coffee breaks rather than at the main sessions. Foo is self-organizing, unpredictable and rather anarchic — but also quite wonderful.

Visit Nautilus for fuller accounts of what Henry Gee calls in his 'End of the Pier Show' blog "a gathering of some of the coolest and most influential scientists, technologists, engineers and thinkers on the planet". You will be directed to Gee's blog on Nature Network, an essay by George Dyson on the Edge website and Timo Hannay's account on Nascent.



VANITY FAIR
September, 2007

God Bless Me. It's a Best-Seller!
The author's book tour—for God Is Not Great—takes a few miraculous turns, including the P.R. boost from Jerry Falwell's demise, a chance encounter with the Archbishop of Canterbury, and surprising support for an attack on religion.
By Christopher Hitchens

One of America's most seminal books is William James's The Varieties of Religious Experience, in which he argues that the subjective experience of the divine can be understood only by the believer. I have just been finding out how true this is. You hear all the time that America is an intensely religious nation, but what you don't hear is that there are almost as many religions as there are believers. Moreover, many ostensible believers are quite unsure of what they actually believe. And, to put it mildly, the different faiths don't think that highly of one another. The emerging picture is not at all monolithic.

People seem to be lying to the opinion polls, as well. They claim to go to church in much larger numbers than they actually do (there aren't enough churches in the country to hold the hordes who boast of attending), and they sometimes seem to believe more in Satan and in the Virgin Birth than in the theory of evolution. But every single time that the teaching of "intelligent design" has actually been proposed in conservative districts, it has been defeated overwhelmingly by both courts and school boards ...



THE COLBERT REPORT
August 21, 2007


Dr. Michael Shermer

Is Michael Shermer, the publisher of skeptic Magazine, a professional buzz-kill?



SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
September 2007

SKEPTIC

Rational Atheism
An open letter to Messrs. Dawkins, Dennett, Harris and Hitchens
By Michael Shermer

...Whenever religious beliefs conflict with scientific facts or violate principles of political liberty, we must respond with appropriate aplomb. Nevertheless, we should be cautious about irrational exuberance. I suggest that we raise our consciousness one tier higher for the following reasons.

1. Anti-something movements by themselves will fail. Atheists cannot simply define themselves by what they do not believe. As Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises warned his anti-Communist colleagues in the 1950s: “An anti-something movement displays a purely negative attitude. It has no chance whatever to succeed. Its passionate diatribes virtually advertise the program they attack. People must fight for something that they want to achieve, not simply reject an evil, however bad it may be.”...



SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
September 2007

ANTIGRAVITY

What's the Big Idea?
When the lightbulb above your head is truly incendiary
By Steve Mirsky

...The book includes 108 contributions, some of which go egghead-to-egghead. For example, physicist and computer scientist W. Daniel Hillis's dangerous idea is "the idea that we should all share our most dangerous ideas." Whereas psychologist Daniel Gilbert's dangerous idea is "the idea that ideas can be dangerous." I both agree and disagree with both.

Nature's chief news and features editor Oliver Morton has the dangerous idea that "our planet is not in peril," although he quite rightly points out that many inhabitants of the planet are in great jeopardy because of environmental crises. Actually, George Carlin covered this territory years ago when he said, "The planet is fine. The people are f*^#ed ... the planet'll shake us off like a bad case of fleas."

My personal favorite entry is that of philosopher and psychologist Nicholas Humphrey, who knows a dangerous idea when he sees one and so simply quotes Bertrand Russell's truly treacherous notion: "I wish to propose ... a doctrine which may, I fear, appear wildly paradoxical and subversive. The doctrine in question is this: that it is undesirable to believe in a proposition when there is no ground whatsoever for supposing it true." The danger of ignoring this doctrine can almost certainly be found in the politics or world events stories on the front page of today's New York Times. On whatever day you read this.




THE NEW YORK TIMES
August 21, 2007

SCIENCE TIMES

Sleights of Mind
Some magicians have intuitively mastered some of the lessons being learned in the laboratory about the limits of cognition and attention.

By George Johnson

...In his opening address, Michael Gazzaniga, the president of the consciousness association, had described another form of prestidigitation — a virtual reality experiment in which he had put on a pair of electronic goggles that projected the illusion of a deep hole opening in what he knew to be a solid concrete floor. Jolted by the adrenaline rush, his heart beat faster and his muscles tensed, a reminder that even without goggles the brain cobbles together a world from whatever it can...“In a sense our reality is virtual,” Dr. Gazzaniga said. “Think about flying in an airplane. You’re up there in an aluminum tube, 30,000 feet up, going 600 miles an hour, and you think everything is all right.”...

...But if zombies do exist, it is probably in Las Vegas. One evening as I walked across the floor of the Imperial Palace casino — a cacophony of clanging bells and electronic arpeggios — it was easy to imagine that the hominids parked in front of the one-armed bandits were simply extensions of the machines...“Intermittent conditioning,” suggested Irene Pepperberg, an adjunct associate professor at Brandeis University who studies animal intelligence. If you want to train a laboratory rat to pull a crank to get a food pellet, the reflex will be scratched in deeper if the creature is rewarded with some regularity but not all the time...Dr. Pepperberg has thrown a wild card into studies of consciousness with her controversial experiments with African gray parrots...

...One evening out on the Strip, I spotted Daniel Dennett, the Tufts University philosopher, hurrying along the sidewalk across from the Mirage, which has its own tropical rain forest and volcano. The marquees were flashing and the air-conditioners roaring — Las Vegas stomping its carbon footprint with jackboots in the Nevada sand. I asked him if he was enjoying the qualia. “You really know how to hurt a guy,” he replied...For years Dr. Dennett has argued that qualia, in the airy way they have been defined in philosophy, are illusory. In his book “Consciousness Explained,” he posed a thought experiment involving a wine-tasting machine. Pour a sample into the funnel and an array of electronic sensors would analyze the chemical content, refer to a database and finally type out its conclusion: “a flamboyant and velvety Pinot, though lacking in stamina.”...



SLATE

August 18, 2007


THE UNDERCOVER ECONOMIST:
THE ECONOMIC MYSTERIES OF DAILY LIFE

Milton Friedman, Meet Richard Feynman
How physics can explain why some countries are rich and others are poor.
By Tim Harford

If economics can tell us something useful about crime, marriage, or carpooling—as I believe it can—then other academic disciplines should have something to tell us about economies. Last month, Science published an example that may turn out to be important. Two physicists, Cesar Hidalgo and Albert-László Barabási, and two economists, Bailey Klinger and Ricardo Hausmann, have been drawing unusual pictures of economic "space" that promise a deeper understanding of the biggest question in economics: why poor countries are poor. ...



NATURE
August 23, 2007

Correspondence

Scientists should unite against threat from religion
By Sam Harris

...At a time when Muslim doctors and engineers stand accused of attempting atrocities in the expectation of supernatural reward, when the Catholic Church still preaches the sinfulness of condom use in villages devastated by AIDS, when the president of the United States repeatedly vetoes the most promising medical research for religious reasons, much depends on the scientific community presenting a united front against the forces of unreason.

There are bridges and there are gangplanks, and it is the business of journals such as Nature to know the difference.



NEW SCIENTIST
August 25, 2007

Comment: Atheism à la carte
Lawrence Krauss

But having said that, what on earth does Dawkins think his latest campaign will achieve? It seems to me to be as ill-advised as attempting to label atheists as "brights" - with its implication that those who are not atheists are dumb. Dawkins has a great record of using sound intellectual arguments to try to convince the faithful to abandon their faith and persuade non-believers to be open about their scepticism. But before embarking on this new effort to appeal to people's emotions, he might have been well advised to consult a public relations firm. The scarlet A is strongly reminiscent of the A for "adulterer" in Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic novel The Scarlet Letter. I don't know who thought that this, combined with the phrase "coming out" with its gay connotations, and references to a "Jewish lobby", would win hearts and minds in middle America, but I can't imagine that it will.



SCIENCE
August 24, 2007

Sacred Barriers to Conflict Resolution
Scott Atran, Robert Axelrod, and Richard Davis

Efforts to resolve political conflicts or to counter political violence often assume that adversaries make rational choices (1). Ever since the end of the Second World War, "rational actor" models have dominated strategic thinking at all levels of government policy (2) and military planning (3). In the confrontations between nation states, and especially during the Cold War, these models were arguably useful in anticipating an array of challenges and in stabilizing world peace enough to prevent nuclear war. Now, however, we are witnessing "devoted actors" such as suicide terrorists (4), who are willing to make extreme sacrifices that are independent of, or all out of proportion to, likely prospects of success. Nowhere is this issue more pressing than in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute (5). The reality of extreme behaviors and intractability of political conflicts there and discord elsewhere--in the Balkans, Kashmir, Sri Lanka, and beyond--warrant research into the nature and depth of commitment to sacred values.

Sacred Values
Sacred values differ from material or instrumental ones by incorporating moral beliefs that drive action in ways dissociated from prospects for success. Across the world, people believe that devotion to core values (such as the welfare of their family and country or their commitment to religion, honor, and justice) is, or ought to be, absolute and inviolable. Such values outweigh other values, particularly economic ones (6). ...



"Danger – brilliant minds at work...A brilliant book: exhilarating, hilarious, and chilling." The Evening Standard (London)

Paperback—UK £8.99, 352 pp
Free Press, UK


Paperback — US
$13.95, 336 pp
Harper Perennial

WHAT IS YOUR DANGEROUS IDEA? Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable With an Introduction by STEVEN PINKER and an Afterword by RICHARD DAWKINS Edited By JOHN BROCKMAN

"A selection of the most explosive ideas of our age." Sunday Herald "Provocative" The Independent "Challenging notions put forward by some of the world’s sharpest minds" Sunday Times "A titillating compilation" The Guardian "Reads like an intriguing dinner party conversation among great minds in science" Discover


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