Look, this is science. Belief isn't an option. —Daniel Kahneman

Edge 268—
December 5, 2008
(9,800 words)


By Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler

A Talk with Dean Ornish
Edge Video


Strangers May Cheer You Up, Study Says
By Pam Belluck

Happiness Can Spread Among People Like A Contagion, Study Indicates
By Rob Stein

Happiness Is Contagious, Research Finds
By Karen Kaplan

Not Every Vote Counts
By Charles Seife

Why Twitter Turned Down Facebook
By Clair Cane Miller

Getting Its From Bits
By Frank Wilczek

You're Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy?
By John Markoff

Only the Rich Can Afford It. Should Taxpayers Take It Back?
By Randall Stross

Managing Competitive Communications in a Digital Age

Darwin 200: The Needs of the Many
By Marek Kohn

Darwin 200: Beyond the Origin

Will the next Einstein come from Africa?
Ivan Semeniuk interviews Neil Turok

The free lunch that made our universe
By Lawrence Krauss

Even if You Can't Buy It, Happiness Is Big Business
By Patricia Leigh Brown

By Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler

We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person's happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person's probability of being happy by about 9%.

NICHOLAS A. CHRISTAKIS, a physician and sociologist, is a Professor at Harvard University with joint appointments in the Departments of Health Care Policy, Sociology, and Medicine. For the last ten years, he has been studying social networks. Nicholas Christakis's Edge Bio Page.

JAMES H. FOLWER is an internationally recognized political scientist who specializes in the study of social networks, human cooperation, and political participation. He is currently an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California, San Diego. James Fowler's Edge Bio Page.



Happiness is a fundamental object of human existence. To the extent that it is synonymous with pleasure, it could even be said to be one of the "two sovereign masters" that, Jeremy Bentham argued, govern our lives. The other master, lest we forget, is pain.

Our happiness is determined by a complex set of voluntary and involuntary factors, ranging from our genes to our health to our wealth. Alas, one determinant of our own happiness that has not received the attention it deserves is the happiness of others. Yet we know that emotions can spread over short periods of time from person to person, in a process known as "emotional contagion." If someone smiles at you, it is instinctive to smile back. If your partner or roommate is depressed, it is common for you to become depressed.

But might emotions spread more widely than this in social networks—from person to person to person, and beyond? Might an individual's location within a social network influence their future happiness? And might social network processes—by a diverse set of mechanisms—influence happiness not just fleetingly, but also over longer periods of time?

We recently published a paper in the British Medical Journal that addressed these questions. We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure.

We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person's happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends' friends, and their friends' friends' friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person's probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.

Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon.

To follow up this study, we have also been examining online social networks. Emotional clustering and contagion are so fundamentally rooted in our ancient evolutionary psychology that—we believe—they should carry over to the very modern online world of email, blogs, and social networking sites like MySpace and Facebook.

One of our efforts has involved the examination of a group of 1,700 college students who are interconnected in Facebook. We examined these students' online profiles. We noted who their friends were and we also studied their photographs.

The photographs were valuable in two ways. First, we coded who appeared in photographs with whom. People who take the trouble to be in the same place, take a photograph together, upload the photograph, and label ("tag") it, almost certainly have a closer relationship with one another than the usual "friends" people indicate in online social networking sites. In fact, while the average student in our data had over 110 friends on Facebook, they had an average of only six "picture friends" (i.e., people close enough that they tagged the student).

Second, we coded whether the students were smiling in their profile photographs, and we mapped the network of students and their picture friends, making note of who was smiling and who was not. In a way, this is the online analogue of the research we did with happiness in the Framingham social network, though smiling is, of course, different than happiness.

The figure below is a map of part of this Facebook network in 2007. It contains 353 students, each represented by a node; each line between two nodes indicates that the connected individuals were tagged in a photo together. Students who are smiling (and who are immediately surrounded by smiling people in their network) are colored yellow. Students who are frowning (and who are immediately surrounded by such serious looks) are colored blue. Shades of green indicate a mix of smiling and non-smiling friends.

Notice how strongly the blue nodes and the yellow nodes cluster together, indicating large-scale structure of smiling in the online network. Moreover, people who do not smile seem to be located more peripherally in the network. In fact, statistical analysis of the network shows that people who smile tend to have more friends (smiling gets you an average of one extra friend, which is pretty good considering that people only have about six close friends). Not only that, but the statistical analyses confirm that those who smile are measurably more central to the network compared to those who do not smile. That is, if you smile, you are less likely to be on the periphery of the online world.

It thus seems to be the case, online as well as offline, that when you smile, the world smiles with you.

[click on image to enlarge]

"Smiling in an Online Networks of College Students"

These findings may capture people's imagination—so often, people think there is not much they can do, what I call genetic nihilism. But even if your mother and your father and your sister and brother and aunts and uncles all died from heart disease, it doesn't mean that you need to. It just means that you are more likely to be genetically predisposed. If you are willing to make big enough changes, there is no reason you need ever develop heart disease, except in relatively rare cases.

A Talk with Dean Ornish

DEAN ORNISH is a clinical professor of medicine at UCSF and the founder and president of the non-profit Preventive Medicine and Research Institute in Sausalito. His most recent book is The Spectrum. Dean Ornish's Edge Bio Page


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[DEAN ORNISH:] For the last 30 years or so, I have directed a series of clinical research studies proving that the simple choices that we make in our lives each day can have a powerful impact on our health and our well being, and much more quickly than had once been thought possible, even at a cellular level. Ironically, we have been using very high tech, expensive, state of the art measures to prove how powerful very simple and low tech and often ancient interventions can be.

My scientific research papers cover a wide range, but my training was very conventional. I trained in internal medicine at Harvard Medical School and the Massachusetts General Hospital. I'm a clinical professor at UCSF. But my interests have always been interdisciplinary. A key moment in his my life was when, at the age of 19 and deeply depressed, I decided not to kill myself. I changed my major from biochemistry to humanities, and transferred to the University of Texas at Austin, where I could design my own major, find the best teachers, and take any course that I found interesting. It turned out to be the best training for what I do, because the intersection between so many different, seemingly unrelated areas and finding the common ground is to me intellectually interesting. And having consciously chosen to live, I decided to live as fully as possible and to take risks that I might not otherwise have chosen. Recently, my colleagues and I have conducted research in areas as diverse as the effects of comprehensive lifestyle changes on telomeres, gene expression, coronary heart disease, and prostate cancer.

In terms of heart disease, we were able to show, for the first time, that it could be reversed by changing lifestyle, and these improvements occurred much more quickly than had once been thought possible. Usually within hours, and almost always within days to weeks, your heart can receive more blood flow. As a result, we found over a 90 percent reduction in the frequency of angina or chest pain.

People not only felt better but also, in most cases, they were better in every way we could measure. Their hearts received more blood flow and pumped more normally. The arteries that feed the heart became measurably less clogged in one year and showed even more improvement after five years. Using cardiac positron emission tomography (PET) scans, we found that 99 percent of the patients in our research were able to stop or reverse the progression of heart disease simply by changing lifestyle, without drugs or surgery.

More recently, we conducted the first randomized, controlled clinical trial showing that the progression of early stage prostate cancer may often be stopped or even reserved by making these simple changes in diet and lifestyle. This study was done in collaboration Dr. Peter Carroll, the chair of urology at UCSF, and Dr. William Fair, who was chair of urologic oncology at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center at the time (now deceased). What is true of prostate cancer is likely to be true of breast cancer as well. We also found that the progression of diabetes, hypertension, and obesity could often be prevented, improved, or even reversed in most people.

Our prostate study was a randomized control trial of men who had biopsy proven prostate cancer and who have elected not to be treated conventionally for reasons unrelated to our study. What made this interesting from a scientific standpoint is that we could take men who knew they had cancer from biopsies, randomly divide them into two groups, and have a true non-intervention control group so we could determine the effects of comprehensive lifestyle changes alone without being confounded by other treatments. You can't do that with breast cancer because almost everybody gets treated right away, so you don't know if any improvements were due to the lifestyle changes or the chemo or the radiation or the surgery.

After a year we found that PSA levels, a marker for prostate cancer, went up (worsened) in the comparison or control group, but went down significantly (improved) in the experimental group that made the lifestyle changes we recommended. The degree of change in lifestyle was directly correlated with the degree of change in their PSA levels.

We also found that the prostate tumor growth in vitro was inhibited 70 percent in the group that made these changes compared to only nine percent in the group that didn't. The inhibition of the tumor growth was itself a direct function of the degree of change in lifestyle. In other words, the more people changed, the more it directly inhibited the growth of their prostate tumors.

J. Craig Venter has shown that one way you can change your genes is by making new ones. We are finding that another way you can change your gene expression is simply by changing your lifestyle.

In May of this year, we published an article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (Craig was the communicating editor). We found that changing lifestyle actually changes gene expression. In only three months, we found that over 500 genes were either up-regulated or down-regulated—in simple terms, turning on genes that prevent many chronic diseases, and turning off genes that cause coronary heart disease, oncogenes that are linked to breast and prostate cancer, genes that promote inflammation and oxidative stress and so on.

These findings may capture people's imagination—so often, people think there is not much they can do, what I call genetic nihilism: "Oh, it's all in my genes, what can I do?" Well, it turns out you can do a lot, more quickly than we had once realized and to a much greater degree than had been thought possible.

Even if your mother and your father and your sister and brother and aunts and uncles all died from heart disease, it doesn't mean that you need to. It just means that you are more likely to be genetically predisposed. If you are willing to make big enough changes, there is no reason you need ever develop heart disease, except in relatively rare cases.

Last week, we published in The Lancet Oncology a study in the same group of patients showing in collaboration with Dr. Carroll and coauthor Dr. Elizabeth Blackburn, who discovered telomerase. She is favored to win a Nobel prize for her pioneering work. Telomerase is an enzyme that repairs and lengthens damaged telomeres.

Telomeres are the ends of our chromosomes that control how long we live. Four years ago, in a study she did with Dr. Elissa Epel, she found that women who were under chronic emotional stress because they were taking care of a chronically ill child had lower telomerase levels and, as a result, shorter telomeres. What was also interesting was that the best predictor of how short their telomeres were was their perception of stress: the more stressed the women felt, the shorter were their telomeres. They published that in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences as well.

I was deeply impressed by that study. Two years ago, the three of us spoke at a conference with the Dalai Lama, and we got into a discussion afterwards. In my experience, most things in biology go both ways. If stress reduces telomerase and makes telomeres shorter, perhaps stress management techniques, exercise, improved nutrition, and social support might increase these?

Well, that's what we found. After just three months, telomerase increased by almost 30 percent and thus telomere lengthening is likely to have occurred as well. In this context, comprehensive lifestyle changes not only work as well as pharmaceutical drugs, but even better, as no drug has yet been shown to increase telomerase or to lengthen telomeres.

I'm not against the use of drugs or surgery—sometimes, they can be lifesaving—but they don't usually have to be the first choice in treating or preventing chronic diseases. One of the overriding themes of my work is finding that lifestyle changes not only work as well as drugs and surgery, but oftentimes even better.

Nowhere is this clearer than in cardiology where I have spent a lot of time doing studies and where, if you take an evidence-based approach, the most common treatments for heart disease like angioplasties and coronary bypass surgery really don't work very well for most people who receive them. Several randomized control trials of angioplasty and stents—the most recent in the New England Journal of Medicine last year—found that angioplasties don't prolong life and don't even prevent heart attacks unless you are in the middle of having one. Approximately 95 percent of people who receive angioplasties are stable and are not in the middle of a heart attack. In fact the new stents may actually increase the risk of a heart attack. Similar data from randomized controlled trials are available for bypass surgery. Yet these findings have not significantly reduced the rate of angioplasties or bypass surgery.

We spent $30 billion last year just in the U.S. on bypass surgery and another $30 billion on angioplasty, almost all of which could be avoided simply by changing lifestyle. Sometimes, people ask, "Why are you doing this radical intervention?" I reply, "Why is it ‘radical' to ask people to walk, mediate, eat vegetables and quit smoking, but ‘conservative' to cut people's chests open?"

Despite the talk about the need for evidence-based medicine, all-too-often the reality is reimbursement-based medicine. We doctors tend to do what we get paid to do and we get trained to do what we get paid to do. Therefore, I realized that good science is important but not usually sufficient; we needed to change reimbursement as well.

Beginning in 1993, my colleagues and I at the non-profit Preventive Medicine Research Institute began training hospitals and clinics throughout the country in our program of comprehensive lifestyle changes. Mutual of Omaha was the first major insurance company to cover this program; over time, more than 40 insurance companies provided at least some reimbursement. After 14 years and three demonstration projects, Medicare is now covering our program as well. This was a major breakthrough, as other insurance companies tend to follow Medicare's lead. By changing reimbursement, we may help to change both medical practice and medical education.

In 1995, I had a conversation with the Administrator (director) of Medicare at the time. In that meeting, he said, "Dean, before I'll consider doing a Medicare demonstration project, you first need to get a letter from the director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute of the National Institutes of Health stating that your program is safe."

"You mean that it's safe as an alternative to bypass surgery or angioplasty?"

"No, just that it's safe."

I was incredulous. "You want me to get a letter saying that it's safe for older Americans to walk, meditate, quit smoking, and eat fruits and vegetables?"

"That's right."

So we did. I met with the director of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute at the time, and his colleagues, and we reviewed the medical literature. Not surprisingly, we found that these are not high-risk activities—especially when compared with having your chest sawed open for a bypass operation. In our earlier research, we found that the older patients improved as much as the younger ones, whereas the risks of bypass surgery and angioplasty increase in older patients. So, our program was especially beneficial for older patients in the Medicare population. When you're doing something that doesn't fit the conventional wisdom, it's often held to a different standard.

These approaches are not only medically effective, they are also cost effective. A major study came out in The Lancet three years ago called the Interheart Study. They looked at 30,000 men and women in all six continents and found that almost 95 percent of heart disease is completely preventable knowing what we know today just by changing lifestyles. Heart and blood vessel diseases still kill more people in this country and in most others worldwide than virtually everything else combined. Yet it is almost completely preventable—or even reversible—just by changing what we eat and how we live.

We have 47 million Americans who don't have health insurance in this country, which is really disease insurance. If we are going to say that we want to make healthcare available to everybody and rely primarily on drugs and surgery, as we now do, then costs will go up exponentially, which we can't afford. Then, we have painful choices. Do we ration? Do we raise taxes? Do we let the deficit go up? None of these choices are very good.

But if we can treat the underlying cause of a problem rather than just literally or figuratively bypassing it, your body has a remarkable capacity to begin healing itself. That is as true on a health policy level as it is on an individual level.

Beginning in 1993, we conducted a demonstration project with a large insurance company where they found they saved almost $30,000 per patient in the first year because most of the patients who were told they needed a bypass or angioplasty were able to avoid it simply by changing their lifestyle. Eight years ago, we conducted another demonstration project with a major health insurer, and they found that their overall health care costs for these patients decreased by 50 percent in the first year and by an additional 20-30 percent in years two and three.

Three years ago, the CEO of one company approached me and said that his corporation was spending 120 percent of their net revenues on health care for their employees, clearly not sustainable. They had tried a managed care approach, which is another kind of bypass by treating the symptoms of cost rather the more fundamental causes of why people get sick. Not surprisingly, that didn't reduce costs and it led to a contentious strike that cost the company a billion dollars.

I said, why don't we try an approach that is based on treating the causes of why people get sick and incentivize healthy behaviors? They did that, and within a year the costs came down 11 percent and they have remained flat since then. I'm very happy that President-Elect Obama is putting a major emphasis on wellness and prevention in his health plan and feel fortunate to be a health policy advisor. I like this approach because it shows that as we gain more understanding as to how dynamic these mechanisms are that can cause physiological improvements, it helps to explain why cost savings may occur very quickly as well.

Ultimately, the reason I'm so passionate about doing this work is because it's about transforming people's lives. We are all going to die; it's just a question of when. For me, the more interesting question is not just how long we live but also how well we live.

It's hard to change lifestyle. I will be the first to acknowledge that. But if you're in enough pain, suddenly the idea of change becomes more interesting. It's like, "Well, it may be hard to change, but I'm hurting so badly I'm ready to try just about anything." When people make these changes and they feel so much better, so quickly, it's a powerful reinforcement.

Your brain literally gets more blood flow within a matter of hours. You can grow so many new brain neutrons your brain gets measurably bigger in just three months. That was thought impossible just a few years ago. Your skin gets more blood, so you age less quickly. Your heart gets more blood, so you can often reverse heart disease. Your sexual organs get more blood, increasing potency in the same way that Viagra works.

People may initially get interested in changing their lifestyle because they are hurting, but what sustains these changes is not fear of dying, it's joy of living.

What is sustainable is pleasure and joy and ecstasy and fun and transforming your life, not risk factor modification, which is boring, or living to be 86 instead of 85, or fear of dying, which is too scary to sustain. People want to feel good. They want to enjoy their life. When you make these changes, most people find that they feel so much better, so quickly, it reframes the reason for making them from living longer to living better.

This work is really about transformation: helping people use the experience of suffering as a catalyst for transforming their lives for the better. People often say things to me like, "Having a heart attack was the best thing that ever happened to me," or, "Having cancer was the best thing that ever happened to me. That's what it took to get my attention to begin making these changes that have made my life so much more joyful and meaningful, and I probably never would have done it otherwise."

Not that anyone looks for suffering. But often, there it is. It's what we do with it. Instead of just literally and figuratively numbing it or killing it or bypassing it with surgery, with drugs, with food or alcohol or cigarettes or those kinds of behaviors, we can work at a deeper level. Not just to address the behaviors but also what is underlying those behaviors. Then we find that people are much more likely to make and maintain choices in their lives that are more life-enhancing than ones that are self-destructive.

The idea that stress plays a role in illness is becoming more and more well defined. It happens both directly and indirectly, directly through mechanisms that we partially understand but not fully, and indirectly through changes in behavior.

What often underlies self-destructive behaviors is loneliness, depression, and isolation. The number-one epidemic in America is not obesity or heart disease, it is depression. The most commonly prescribed prescription drugs last year were antidepressants.

We assume that people want to live longer, but telling somebody that they are going to live longer if they just quit smoking and change their diet is not very motivating if they are depressed and stressed out and unhappy. I have learned that if you don't deal with the underlying loneliness, depression, isolation that is often present, it's very hard to motivate people to change their lives. It's not a lack of information that causes people to smoke. Everybody knows it's not good for you. It's on every pack of cigarettes.

In our studies, I asked people, "Why do you smoke, or eat too much, work too hard, watch too much television, etc? These behaviors seem so maladaptive." And they would reply, "You don't get it—these behaviors are very adaptive, because they help us get through the day."

One patient told me, "I have 20 friends in this pack of cigarettes and they are always there for me and nobody else is. Are you going to take away my 20 friends? What are you going to give me?" Another said, "When I'm depressed, I eat a lot of fat. it coats my nerves and numbs the pain." Or, "I fill the void with food" or "I drink too much to numb the pain" or "I spend too much time on the Internet" or "I spend too much time on video games." There are lots of ways we have of numbing ourselves and distracting ourselves from our pain, literally and figuratively bypassing our pain.

But the pain is not the problem. The pain is a messenger. It is saying, "Hey, listen up! Pay attention, you are not doing something that is in your best interest." Our goal is to help people connect the dots between when we suffer and why. Then, the suffering becomes information, a teacher, a catalyst for change rather than something to be numbed out.

Part of the value of doing science is to redefine what is possible for people, not only in terms of unclogging arteries and making your genes healthier but also in deeper ways. Again, why bother with all that stuff? We are all going to die anyway. The mortality rate is still 100 perecent, one per person. These are more existential questions that are worth asking because if you don't deal with the issue of why get better, then the how doesn't matter. One of the reasons we have consistently shown that we can motivate people to make and maintain bigger changes in lifestyle, achieve better clinical outcomes and even larger cost savings, is that we are working at a deeper level. We are not just focusing on the behavior, but we are also dealing with these underlying issues, which are really important.

It's not all or nothing. You have a spectrum of choices. But to the degree that you can move in a healthy direction, there is a corresponding benefit.

These are issues that cut across the political spectrum because these are just human issues that affect everyone. I love this work because you can really make a difference at a time when, in a real sense, our country is having a heart attack with the rise in health care costs—really, disease care costs—are reaching a tipping point at a time when the economy is melting down. So, the kind of transformational change that we have seen on a personal level we can now see on a social level as well.

There is a wide body of evidence linking stress to immune suppression and also with sudden cardiac death. In one study published in the journal Science, for example, Robert Nerem took cynamologous monkeys who are genetically comparable and put them all on the same diet. One group of monkeys was left alone. For the other group of monkeys, they would periodically introduce a new monkey into the cage. Being very hierarchical like humans, they would fight among themselves to see where they were on the hierarchy. This social instability was very stressful for the monkeys. After a while, the stressed monkeys had 50 percent more plaque in their arteries, even though they were genetically comparable, on the same diet and even their cholesterol and blood pressure levels were not significantly different.

But people aren't rabbits. We have more choices in how we react to stress. As I mentioned earlier, one of the interesting findings in the study that Liz Blackburn did with the women who were chronically stressed and found that their telomeres got shorter was that it wasn't an objective measure of stress. It was the women's perception of stress. How stressed they felt wasn't necessarily related to what was going on in their external environment. Some women reported that they were totally stressed out, even though the stresses didn't seem nearly as big as other women who had more demands but weren't as affected by them.

Consider the analogy to surfing. You can have a big wave and some people find it exciting and fun, whereas other may find it extremely stressful, even life-threatening. When you can manage stress more effectively, then you can often reframe "big waves" as challenges rather than as harmful. In our studies, we teach people very simple techniques of meditation and yoga in ways that are comfortable for them. It can be done in a secular way, it can be done in a religious way, whatever is comfortable for the individual. What they often find is that if they just practice even a few minutes a day of some kind of meditative practice, their fuse gets longer. As one patient told me, "The situation didn't change, but I did."

There are a lot of false choices: "Either I'm going to lead a really interesting and productive, exciting life, and I'm going to get sick and stressed out, or I'm going to be a lump and sing "Kumbaya" and watch my life go by." That isn't the choice.

The more inwardly-defined you are, the more you can quiet down your mind and body and experience more of an inner sense of peace and well being, the more empowered you are. Because, ultimately, people only have power over you if they have something that you think you need. The more inwardly-defined you are, the less you need, so the more powerful you become.

I have had the good fortune to spend some time with powerful, influential people. It's a bit of a cliché to say that they are not always the happiest people, but it's often true. It's hard to tell yourself if you have $3 billion, that if you only had $4 billion you would be happy. Oftentimes when you get to the end of that myth, people are even less happy.

In our work, we present the "stress management techniques" as tools for transforming our lives. Yes, they are powerful ways of managing stress, but they are also much more. They are really about redefining who we are. The ancient swamis and rabbis and priests and monks and nuns didn't develop these techniques to unclog their arteries or perform better at a sports event or board meeting. They can do all those things. But they are really tools for asking, "Who am I? What brings me happiness? Where does my peace of mind come from?"

To the extent that I or anyone else believes that it comes from outside of me, then everyone that I think I need to get something from them has power over me. To the degree that I can say, I enjoy doing all of these things but I don't need them because I know who I am, I'm more inwardly defined, the paradox is that you can often accomplish even more without getting as stressed or sick in the process. And it can be profoundly healing.

We can use science to measure a lot of different things but even Albert Einstein once said, "Not everything that can be counted, counts; and not everything that counts can be counted." Not everything that is meaningful is measurable. Often, the kinds of transformations that we see in people's lives that are the most meaningful to them are the hardest to measure.

Joseph Campbell once said, "I don't have faith, I have experience." Science is not just about what is observed, it's also about what is experienced. It's sometimes hard to measure what's most meaningful just because we don't yet have the tools for it. Awareness is the first step in healing, and science is a powerful tool for raising awareness—but it's not the only one.

December 5, 2008

By Pam Belluck

How happy you are may depend on how happy your friends' friends' friends are, even if you don't know them at all.

And a cheery next-door neighbor has more effect on your happiness than your spouse's mood.

So says a new study that followed a large group of people for 20 years—happiness is more contagious than previously thought.

"Your happiness depends not just on your choices and actions, but also on the choices and actions of people you don't even know who are one, two and three degrees removed from you," said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard Medical School and an author of the study, to be published Friday in BMJ, a British journal. "There's kind of an emotional quiet riot that occurs and takes on a life of its own, that people themselves may be unaware of. Emotions have a collective existence — they are not just an individual phenomenon."

In fact, said his co-author, James H. Fowler, an associate professor of political science at University of California, San Diego, their research found that "if your friend's friend's friend becomes happy, that has a bigger impact on you being happy than putting an extra $5,000 in your pocket."...

"It’s extremely important and interesting work," said Daniel Kahneman, an emeritus psychologist and Nobel laureate at Princeton, who was not involved in the study. ...

December 5, 2008

By Rob Stein

Happiness is contagious, spreading among friends, neighbors, siblings and spouses like the flu, according to a large study that for the first time shows how emotion can ripple through clusters of people who may not even know each other.

The study of more than 4,700 people who were followed over 20 years found that people who are happy or become happy boost the chances that someone they know will be happy. The power of happiness, moreover, can span another degree of separation, elevating the mood of that person's husband, wife, brother, sister, friend or next-door neighbor.

"You would think that your emotional state would depend on your own choices and actions and experience," said Nicholas A. Christakis, a medical sociologist at Harvard University who helped conduct the study published online today by BMJ, a British medical journal. "But it also depends on the choices and actions and experiences of other people, including people to whom you are not directly connected. ...

December 5, 2008

By Karen Kaplan

A study of the relationships of nearly 5,000 people tracked for decades in the Framingham Heart Study shows that good cheer spreads through social networks of nearby family, friends and neighbors.

They say misery loves company, but the same may be even more true of happiness.

In a study published online today in the British Medical Journal, scientists from Harvard University and UC San Diego showed that happiness spreads readily through social networks of family members, friends and neighbors.

Knowing someone who is happy makes you 15.3% more likely to be happy yourself, the study found. A happy friend of a friend increases your odds of happiness by 9.8%, and even your neighbor's sister's friend can give you a 5.6% boost.

"Your emotional state depends not just on actions and choices that you make, but also on actions and choices of other people, many of which you don't even know," said Dr. Nicholas A. Christakis, a physician and medical sociologist at Harvard who co-wrote the study.

The research is part of a growing trend to measure well-being as a crucial component of public health. Scientists have documented that people who describe themselves as happy are likely to live longer, even if they have a chronic illness. ...

December 4, 2008

OpEd Contributor

By Charles Seife

THE lizard people have eaten a vote in Beltrami County. That's not so strange in a recount like the one underway in Minnesota — voters do all kinds of inexplicable things like inscribing "lizard people" in the write-in slot, as one did, invalidating his ballot.

Much more alarming is that hundreds of votes have disappeared in the still too-close-to-call Senate race between Norm Coleman, the Republican incumbent, and Al Franken, the Democratic candidate. The missing ballots expose a fundamental flaw in our way of doing elections — one that proves the recount in Minnesota is futile. ...

...The problem is that a voting system that is based on physically recounting chits of paper is inherently error-prone, and in a close election like this, the errors are too large for the process to determine a winner. Even though, at the end of the recount, it will seem as if one candidate has won by a hair, the outcome will really be a statistical tie.

Luckily, Minnesota's electoral law has a provision for ties. After all the counting and recounting, if the vote is statistically tied, the state should invoke the section of the law that requires the victor to be chosen by lot. It's hard to swallow, but the right way to end the senatorial race between Mr. Coleman and Mr. Franken will be to flip a coin.

December 3, 2008

Why Twitter Turned Down Facebook
By Clair Cane Miller

...For now, a marriage between Twitter and Facebook is not meant to be — but the courtship between the two Web 2.0 companies could be rekindled in the future. That was one message from Evan Williams, the chief executive and co-founder of Twitter, in a talk at the Churchill Club in San Francisco Tuesday night.

...Still, he said, he has grand plans for the company. Mr. Williams founded Pyra Labs, which created Blogger, a decade ago, and sold it to Google in 2003. "I worked on Blogger for six years and I don't think it's nearly as big as Twitter. Twitter will dwarf that," he said. ...

...A decade ago, Blogger was one of the first services that allowed anyone on the Internet to immediately publish his or her own content. It forever changed the face of media (witness the blog you are currently reading) and the way people communicate. Twitter is an extension of that transformation, Mr. Williams said.

"I was surprised by blogging. It took me a while to realize the profundity of blogging," he said.

He is not surprised, though, that Twitter is being used in newsgathering, as it was during the terror attacks in India last week. "I've actually been waiting for it to happen," he said. The day Barack Obama was elected president was Twitter's most-trafficked day ever.

Twitter will complement other forms of media, he said, the way that blogs and newspapers co-exist. "New media never kill old media," he said. "It's all part of an ecosystem."


November 27, 2008

News and Views Feature

Getting its from bits

Frank Wilczek

The inventor of the term 'black hole', John Wheeler, has a gift for memorable phrases. 'Getting its from bits' is another of his creations. It refers not to an object, but to a vision of a world derived from pure logic and mathematics. That vision has to a remarkable extent been embodied in modern physics — here is a progress report.

The 'its from bits' programme has a venerable history, for perhaps the first great quantitative generalization in science was Pythagoras' discovery of the numerical patterns behind musical sounds. When two strings of a lyre — of the same material, and under equal tension — are played together, they produce a pleasant harmony precisely when their lengths are a ratio of small integers: 2 to 1 for an octave, 3 to 2 for a musical fifth, 4 to 3 for a fourth, and so on. For the followers of Pythagoras, this provided a satisfying example of a principle they held to be completely general, the idea that 'all is number'.


November 03, 2008

You're Leaving a Digital Trail. What About Privacy

By John Markoff

... Alex Pentland, a professor at the Media Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who is leading the dormitory research project, was a co-founder of Sense Networks. He is part of a new generation of researchers who have relatively effortless access to data that in the past was either painstakingly assembled by hand or acquired from questionnaires or interviews that relied on the memories and honesty of the subjects.

The Media Lab researchers have worked with Hitachi Data Systems, the Japanese technology company, to use some of the lab's technologies to improve businesses' efficiency. For example, by equipping employees with sensor badges that generate the same kinds of data provided by the students' smartphones, the researchers determined that face-to-face communication was far more important to an organization's work than was generally believed.

Productivity improved 30 percent with an incremental increase in face-to-face communication, Dr. Pentland said. The results were so promising that Hitachi has established a consulting business that overhauls organizations via the researchers' techniques.

Dr. Pentland calls his research "reality mining" to differentiate it from an earlier generation of data mining conducted through more traditional methods.

Dr. Pentland "is the emperor of networked sensor research," said Michael Macy, a sociologist at Cornell who studies communications networks and their role as social networks. People and organizations, he said, are increasingly choosing to interact with one another through digital means that record traces of those interactions. "This allows scientists to study those interactions in ways that five years ago we never would have thought we could do," he said.


November 30, 2008


Only the Rich Can Afford It. Should Taxpayers Take It Back?

By Randall Stross

The Tesla Roadster is an electric car that goes fast, looks sensational and excites envy. The seductive appearance, however, obscures some inconvenient truths: its all-electric technology remains woefully immature and don't-even-ask expensive. If enough billionaires step forward to inject additional capital to keep the doors of its manufacturer, Tesla Motors, open, I'm happy for all parties. ...

...Tesla's backers in Silicon Valley can be forgiven for hoping for a miraculous technical breakthrough, because Moore's Law makes miracles appear in the Valley every day: costs drop by half every two years, again and again and again. The law is actually a rule of thumb, not a scientific law, and is based on the recurring doubling of transistors placed on an integrated circuit.

Unfortunately for Tesla, batteries are based on chemistry and have nothing to do with Moore's Law. Lawrence H. Dubois, chief technology officer at ATMI, a semiconductor industry supplier, said, "With batteries, you can't just squeeze more energy into a smaller and smaller space the way you can squeeze more transistors."

Elon Musk, the chief executive of Tesla, said his company would benefit from what he called "a weak Moore's Law," referring to the 8 percent annual improvements in the price performance of lithium-ion batteries. But 8 percent, compounded, would bring too few benefits, too late to Tesla: it would take nine years to halve the price of its battery pack.



Ofcom International Conference
London, November 20-21

Managing Competitive Communications in a Digital Age

Keynote by Douglas Rushkoff

"Insights into latest research on the transformative nature of the internet on the economic and social dynamics of consumers and users, and their commercial implications — vital information for regulators, industry and investors as they seek to remain relevant in this new ecology".

November 20, 2008

Darwin 200: The Needs of the Many

The idea that natural selection acts on groups, as well as individuals, is a source of unending debate. Marek Kohn reports on what the two sides disagree about — and why it matters to them.

If biologists have learnt one thing about evolution over the past 40 years, it is that natural selection does not work for the good of the group. The defining insight of modern Darwinism is that selection 'sees' individuals and acts on them through the genes they embody. To imagine otherwise, generations of students have been warned, is to fall into a naive error definitively exposed as such in the mid-1960s.

Yet group selection — the idea that evolution can choose between groups, not just the individuals that make them up — has a higher profile today than at any time since its apparent banishment from mainstream evolutionary theory. And it gets better press, too. This is in part owing to the efforts of David Sloan Wilson, of Binghamton University in New York, who argues that the dismissal of group selection was a major historical error that needs to be rectified. And it does not hurt that he has been joined by Edward O. Wilson, the great naturalist and authority on social insects. They and many others have worked to reposition group selection within the broader theme of selection that acts simultaneously at multiple levels. ...

...Kin selection was easily and powerfully expressed in mathematics, and became the new orthodoxy, its ascendancy cemented in place by its forceful and compelling popularization in Richard Dawkins's The Selfish Gene (Oxford Univ. Press, 1976). Group selection might be possible in theory, these thinkers allowed, but it could be ignored in practice. As the theorist George C. Williams declared in his 1966 book Adaptation and Natural Selection (Princeton Univ. Press) — a rallying call against group selection that had great influence in America — "the higher levels of selection are impotent".


November 19, 2008


Darwin 200: The Needs of the Many

This issue of Nature anticipates next year's bicentenary of Charles Darwin's birth and the 150th anniversary of On The Origin of Species. We begin here with a look 50 years into the future.

One distinct possibility is that evidence of life beyond Earth will be found by detecting tell-tale features in the spectra of planets orbiting other stars. Although astronomers are hardly likely to be able to observe variation and evolution of that life in the next 50 years, detection alone could provide insight into the frequency of life's origination. And that, in turn, could help illuminate how life came to be on Earth — a problem that classical Darwinism is hard put to answer.

An even more likely development is that life will be created de novo here on Earth. The first experiments in whole-organism synthetic biology, such as the synthetic mycoplasma being worked on at the J. Craig Venter Institute in Rockville, Maryland, will cleave quite closely to the designs already developed by natural selection.


November 24, 2008


Will the next Einstein come from Africa?

Will the next Einstein come from Africa? If Neil Turok gets his wish the answer will be a resounding yes. When he's not pondering the origin of the universe, Turok is setting up mathematical science institutes across Africa.

Ivan Semeniuk caught up with him at the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Canada to find out how Turok plans to change not only who does physics, but how physics is done.

NEIL Turok may not be a visitor from another dimension, but he could certainly play one on TV. With an other-worldly energy, he evinces the gentle curiosity of an outsider accustomed to crossing barriers. When he walks into a room, the dust of three continents trails behind him.

Turok is a theoretical physicist and cosmologist whose journey has taken him from his South African homeland to some of the world's most renowned scientific institutions, including Fermilab, Princeton and Cambridge. Now, at 50, Turok finds himself in starting anew once again, taking the reins of what may be the most ambitious intellectual experiment on Earth. ...

...All of this suits Turok who, like Lazaridis, is no stranger to going against the grain. As a scientist he is best known, along with collaborator Paul Steinhardt of Princeton University, for conceiving the "ekpyrotic universe", which re-imagines the big bang as a collision between two branes - constructs of string theory - in a higher-dimensional space. According to the theory, the collisions occur again and again, producing a cyclic universe. ...


November 25, 2008

The free lunch that made our universe

By Lawrence Krauss

... Key to this was the notion of inflation, introduced by physicist Alan Guth to explain several cosmological puzzles, including that the universe appeared close to flat even after 14 billion years of expansion. A flat universe is like the top of a hill. If you are a little away from it - a bit open or a bit closed - the expansion of the universe soon drives you far away from this value, just as a ball that is a short distance from a hilltop will roll down to the bottom. Inflation, on the other hand, drives the universe towards flatness - just as blowing up a ball reduces the curvature of its surface.

But as Guth emphasised, there is another reason for favouring a flat universe: it is fundamentally beautiful. In a flat universe, the total gravitational energy is precisely zero.


November 26, 2008

Even if You Can't Buy It, Happiness Is Big Business

SAN FRANCISCO — The stock market has been on a roller coaster, banks are going under, unemployment is skyrocketing, and foreclosed homes pepper the landscape. What better time for a happiness conference? ...

...Planned before the current crises, the first American "Happiness and Its Causes" conference was equal parts Aristotle and Oprah. It brought together heavy hitters like Paul Ekman, the psychologist known for deciphering facial "microexpressions" that reveal feelings, and Robert Sapolsky, the Stanford biologist. They considered topics like "Compassion and the Pursuit of Happiness" and "Why Zebras Don't Get Ulcers."

...Professor Sapolsky of Stanford made a similar point about humans and baboons. Modern stress disorders contributing to hypertension, heart disease and other illnesses are the result of a disjuncture between primitive conditions and our own — or, as he put it, "running for your life in the savannah versus 30-year mortgages."

The relatively new field of behavioral neurogenetics is exploring a handful of genes that seem to be related to depression, anxiety, addictive personality, sensation seeking and other traits. But, Professor Sapolsky said in a follow-up e-mail message, a person's risk seems not predetermined but rather the result of interactions of genes and the environment, especially stressors in childhood.

Social support is vital, no matter how healthy you are, he told the crowd. "How much you groom somebody else is more important than who grooms you."



Edited by John Brockman
With An Introduction By BRIAN ENO

"A thought-provoking collection of focused and tightly argued pieces demonstrating the courage to change strongly held convictions."

Publishers Weekly

"An Intellectual Treasure Trove"
San Francisco Chronicle

[Forthcoming, January 9, 2009]

Contributors include: STEVEN PINKER on the future of human evolution • RICHARD DAWKINS on the mysteries of courtship SAM HARRIS on why Mother Nature is not our friend NASSIM NICHOLAS TALEB on the irrelevance of probability ALUN ANDERSON on the reality of global warming ALAN ALDA considers, reconsiders, and re-reconsiders God LISA RANDALL on the secrets of the Sun RAY KURZWEIL on the possibility of extraterrestrial life BRIAN ENO on what it means to be a "revolutionary" HELEN FISHER on love, fidelity, and the viability of marriage…and many others.

Praise for the online publication of
What Have You Change Your Mind About?

"The splendidly enlightened Edge website (www.edge.org) has rounded off each year of inter-disciplinary debate by asking its heavy-hitting contributors to answer one question. I strongly recommend a visit." The Independent

"A great event in the Anglo-Saxon culture." El Mundo

"As fascinating and weighty as one would imagine." The Independent

"They are the intellectual elite, the brains the rest of us rely on to make sense of the universe and answer the big questions. But in a refreshing show of new year humility, the world's best thinkers have admitted that from time to time even they are forced to change their minds." The Guardian

"Even the world's best brains have to admit to being wrong sometimes: here, leading scientists respond to a new year challenge." The Times

"Provocative ideas put forward today by leading figures."The Telegraph

The world's finest minds have responded with some of the most insightful, humbling, fascinating confessions and anecdotes, an intellectual treasure trove. ... Best three or four hours of intense, enlightening reading you can do for the new year. Read it now." San Francisco Chronicle

"As in the past, these world-class thinkers have responded to impossibly open-ended questions with erudition, imagination and clarity." The News & Observer

"A jolt of fresh thinking...The answers address a fabulous array of issues. This is the intellectual equivalent of a New Year's dip in the lake—bracing, possibly shriek-inducing, and bound to wake you up." The Globe and Mail

"Answers ring like scientific odes to uncertainty, humility and doubt; passionate pleas for critical thought in a world threatened by blind convictions." The Toronto Star

"For an exceptionally high quotient of interesting ideas to words, this is hard to beat. ...What a feast of egg-head opinionating!" National Review Online

Today's Leading Thinkers on Why Things Are Good and Getting Better
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by DANIEL C. DENNETT


"The optimistic visions seem not just wonderful but plausible." Wall Street Journal

"Persuasively upbeat." O, The Oprah Magazine

"Our greatest minds provide nutshell insights on how science will help forge a better world ahead." Seed

"Uplifting...an enthralling book." The Mail on Sunday

Today's Leading Thinkers on the Unthinkable
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by STEVEN PINKER


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

"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

Today's Leading Thinkers on Science in the Age of Certainty
Edited by John Brockman
Introduction by IAN MCEWAN


"Whether or not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." LA Times

"Belief appears to motivate even the most rigorously scientific minds. It stimulates and challenges, it tricks us into holding things to be true against our better judgment, and, like scepticism -its opposite -it serves a function in science that is playful as well as thought-provoking. not we believe proof or prove belief, understanding belief itself becomes essential in a time when so many people in the world are ardent believers." The Times

"John Brockman is the PT Barnum of popular science. He has always been a great huckster of ideas." The Observer

"An unprecedented roster of brilliant minds, the sum of which is nothing short of an oracle—a book ro be dog-eared and debated." Seed

"Scientific pipedreams at their very best." The Guardian

"Makes for some astounding reading." Boston Globe

"Fantastically stimulating...It's like the crack cocaine of the thinking world.... Once you start, you can't stop thinking about that question." BBC Radio 4

"Intellectual and creative magnificence" The Skeptical Inquirer







"deeply passionate"









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