Science

Quarantine Thoughts, Part 2: Science Will Save Our Asses

PandemicMoiI got a private message from a FB friend recently that basically said she felt insulted because I argued with her about the folk "cures" and preventions that are going around the Interwebs (esp. Facebook) for COVID 19. She's learning to be an Ayurvedic therapist and feels, somehow, that this is on par with the level of knowledge that microbiologists, immunologists, epidemiologists, geneticists, pharmaceutical and organic chemists, and MDs on the front lines of treatment are bringing to the COVID 19 table right now. Imma just say it: older is not necessarily wiser. 

The argument was over this piece of disinformaton (with my comments in brackets), which Snopes has debunked piece by piece:

Doctors are reporting they now understand the behavior of the COVID 19 virus due to autopsies that they have carried out. This virus is characterized by obstructing respiratory pathways with thick mucus that solidifies and blocks the airways and lungs. So they have discovered that in order to apply a medicine you have to open and unblock these airways so that the treatment can be used to take effect however all of this takes a number of days. Their recommendations for what you can do to safeguard yourself are ...

1) Drink lots of hot liquids - coffees, soups, teas, warm water. In addition take a sip of warm water every 20 minutes bc this keeps your mouth moist and washes any of the virus that’s entered your mouth into your stomach where your gastric juices will neutralize it before it can get to the lungs. [gastric acids do not kill it; it's been found in feces. Liquids must be 133° F—hot enough to scald you—to "kill" it.]

2) Gargle with an antiseptic and warm water like vinegar or salt or lemon every day if possible [only bleach, alcohol, and soap "kill" it. These gargles do nothing.]

3) The virus attaches itself to hair and clothes. And detergent or soap kills it but you must take bath or shower when you get in from the street. Avoid sitting down in your home and go straight to the shower. If you cannot wash your clothes daily, hang them in sunlight which also helps to neutralize the virus. [You do not need to wash your clothes every day or shower every time you go out. Nobody is doing this. Just don't shake what you've worn outside as it releases the virus into the air.]

4) Wash metallic surfaces very carefully bc the virus can stay viable on these for up to 9 days. Take note and be vigilant about touching hand rails, door knobs, etc. and keep these clean in home home [This is true.]

5) Don’t smoke [this is true in general.]

6) Wash your hands every 20 minutes with any soap that foams and do this for 20 seconds [You don't need to wash your hands every 20 minutes. Only if you've been outside or touched things that have come in from outside.]

7) Eat fruits and vegetables. Try to elevate your zinc levels [Maybe this helps, maybe it doesn't]

8)Animals do not spread the virus to people. Its a person to person transmission. [This is true.]

9) Try to avoid getting the common flu as this already weakens your system and try to avoid eating and drinking any cold things. [Getting the flu or anything else doesn't weaken your immune system. If you get too many things at once it might stress it though. Eating and drinking cold things don't affect you one way or the other; that's a holdover from Chinese folk medicine and they have a different definition of hot and cold foods that has nothing to do with temperature.]

10) If you feel any discomfort in your throat or a sore throat coming on, attack it immediately using the above methods. The virus enters the system through the throat but will sit in the throat for 3-4 days before it passes into your lungs. [The virus does not sit in the throat for 3-4 days. It immediately enters the mucosal tissue in the mouth and nose and starts replicating itself.]

In addition ...

Experts suggest doing this simple verification every morning: Breathe in deeply and hold your breath for 10 seconds. If this can be done without coughing, without difficulty, this shows that there is no fibrosis in the lungs, indicating the absence of infection. It is recommended to do this control every morning to help detect infection. [Fine. whatever]

The problem here is that the pathogenesis (how the virus infects and proceeds to make you sick) is not just factually false for this virus, but the recommendations are starting from a baseline assumption of some immunity. We've been exposed to cold and flu viruses for years and have some immunity even if those viruses mutate a bit. They are still cold and flu viruses, and we already have some antibodies to them floating around in our bloodstreams from exposure and vaccines. The blueprint for more antibodies is already programmed into us.

For this virus there is nada. Nunca. Nothing. Squat. Fuck all.

Those pre-existing antibodies from other corona viruses don't help. Our baseline means nothing right now. This is an entirely new species. It doesn't matter how healthy our immune system is because it has nothing to work with. We are starting from zero. None of these things mentioned above will help us produce antibodies to a brand new pathogen any quicker. Perfectly healthy people with well-functioning immune systems are getting this and are totally overwhelmed by it. Something similar happened with the 1918-1919 Spanish flu. It was the healthy people it really pummeled, overactivating their immune systems. We were terrorized by that virus for much the same reason that we are being terrorized by COVID 19: there were no vaccines to jumpstart our antibody production. We're at the mercy of this corona virus as we were at the mercy of Yersina pestis, the cause of the Black Plague—except that we now have Science on our side. 

When we talk about a "healthy" immune system, we're talking about one in which all the component parts function as they should. That's a lot of different kinds of cells, and a lot of complex processes. While it's true that being healthy in general, and eating real food that's good for you probably means your natural processes are getting the fuel they need to work as they should, that's no guarantee you won't get sick, because you can't guarantee you won't get infected with something. Some vitamins and minerals, which are best gotten through diet and not supplements, directly contribute to the healthy functioning of your immune system, but the way you boost it is to get vaccinated.

Vaccines provide the blueprint for possible future infections and prime the body to start producing the specific antibodies in large enough quantity to overwhelm and shut down the invader when it starts showing up in large quantities in your body, whether it's bacterial or viral. Without a vaccine for a pathogen, you have to fall back on treatment and support. For a totally new pathogen, finding a treatment is a bit hit or miss. You have to look at the symptoms and decide what's causing them, then match that up with an existing pharmaceutical that treats a similar problem. That may or may not work because you might have the wrong cause, or there's a different mechanism causing that symptom. Failing successful treatments, you can only support the body physically while it fights like hell to produce enough antibodies on its own to kill or deactivate the invader. In the worst cases of COVID-19, that can mean ventilators, because the most horrifying and critical symptom is the production of bloody mucous that floods the lungs. Sometimes the support is enough. Sometimes it's not.

Common sense should tell you that if gargling and good food and not smoking and avoiding the flu were enough to prevent getting this, we wouldn't have an out-of-control pandemic. People like to think they can do easy things to avoid terrible consequences because we're all basically lazy and it gives us a sense of control. Good news! In this case, you can do some easy things to avoid getting sick:

  1. Stay the fuck home. If at all possible, don't go out for groceries or anything else for the next three weeks, especially if you live in New York (we're kinda fucked right now). Isolation will stop this virus dead in its tracks. That's the best case scenario and it's not going to happen. The best we can hope fore is keep it from overwhelming our medical facilities. Staying home is literally the best thing you can do. 
  2. If you do have to go out, wear gloves and a mask, don't touch your face, and stay at least 6 feet away from other people. I know the evidence for cloth masks is uncertain right now but here's something else to think about: a mask reminds you to not touch your face, and it keeps other people safe from you by catching the moisture from your breath. It's also a reminder that this is serious business.
  3. When you get home, or when you touch anything you or other people have brought in from outside, wash your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds after you've disinfected what's been brought in with a bleach solution or wipes (or Lysol), or use hand sanitizer with at least 60% alcohol in it. If you're wearing gloves, peel them off so they turn inside out, and for God's sake, don't throw them away in the parking lot of the grocery store. Who do you think is going to have to pick them up, and why are you spreading your germs around more?

You won't kill the virus doing any of these things, but you will thwart its spread or deactivate it. I use the word deactivate because viruses, bless their freaky little selves, are not living things. They are molecular constructs built to deliver RNA or sometimes DNA to the interior of a host cell to hijack the host's replication machinery and insert its own genes to make more of itself rather than the host cell. In the case of the corona virus, there's a lipid (fat) shell, holding together little protein molecules that bind with the surface of the host cell and let it penetrate the host. When you wash a greasy pot with soapy water, the grease breaks down and washes away. Same thing with the virus. When the soap breaks the lipids down, the virus falls apart and the mechanism by which it enters a cell becomes inert. Deprived of moisture, it dries out and falls apart, also becoming inert. So you want to either break down the lipid shell or dehydrate it. Soap, bleach or alcohol are the only things that do this.

So if somebody is telling you to use vinegar or peroxide or some other non-toxic "natural" cleaner, wake them up. I've been moving from some of the more egregious chemical cleaners to less toxic ones; I clean my windows with vinegar instead of Windex, for instance. But I keep bleach and alcohol in the house to disinfect surfaces and really ugly wounds (like cat punctures), respectively. This is a mean virus and it needs to be dealt with harshly. Bleach, soap, alcohol. This is what the scientists tell us, and they've been doing their damnedest to keep us all safe. The other people telling you other stuff? At least some of them are out to make a buck. Some of them mean well but don't have any scientific basis for what they're saying. Some of them don't believe in science, and those are the most dangerous.

Rigorous, science-based medicine and hygiene based in germ theory are the new kids on the block, relatively, but the track record for them is a hell of a lot better than anything else we've come up with in the last 6,000 years for just about any acute and infectious disease and condition that you can name: typhoid, yellow fever, polio, measles, mumps, scarlet fever, rubella, chicken pox, small pox, intestinal ulcers, cancer—you name it. Anything that was a scourge to humans before germ theory and antibacterials and antivirals, western medicine has done a great job of getting a handle on it. So great that people have forgotten what it's like to live just like we're living now: in terror of something that we can't see without a microscope. People who got AIDS or were at risk for it remember, but the treatment and prevention of it have been so successful in my lifetime that the younger generation has never experienced that terror, either, and has too often thrown caution to the wind. That's the beauty of science based medicine: it's its own worst PR. But no other theory of health successfully found the cause, explained the mechanism, and developed those treatments and preventions. No other system is going to do it now. Peer reviewed, systematic, replicable science is going to save our asses.

Unless you can explain the actual mechanism of how what you're touting works on this virus and its symptoms in the body, just sit down and let the experts save lives. Stay at home, sanitize with bleach or alcohol or soap, wear a mask if you go out, and wash your damn hands in the meanwhile.


Quarantine Thoughts, Part 1: Reshaping the World

PandemicMoi

"Everything we do before a pandemic will seem alarmist. Everything we do after a pandemic will seem inadequate."

–Michael O. Leavitt, U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services, 2007

 

Soooooo many thoughts. So many.

I've been doing a lot of thinking about the Big Picture lately, and that's where I want to go right now. I'm not all that detail-oriented as a person but I'm good at pulling back and seeing patterns in events. If I could parlay that into working the stock market, or cared enough to, I'd be rich. But I'm more interested in the ebb and flow of history and social trends. Fascinated by it, really. William Gibson's book Pattern Recognition really spoke to me. I think I may have to re-read it. Anyway, I fear this will be one of a multi-part series. If the pandemic goes on long enough, I'll have my own collection of plague letters.

Because you realize that's what this is right? It's a plague, like the Black Death. A plague, but not The Plague. Not as virulent, thank goodness, but potentially able to wipe out a significant percent of the total population. And the Black Death, when it swept through the world in the Middle Ages, changed everything, in a way the last great pandemic, the Spanish Flu, did not. I'll append some links to useful information and science-geek sources on Covid-19 (the disease vs. the virus) at the end, but I've been doing a lot of that at my Facebook page (yes, I caved and went back; more on that in another post), where you can search the #covid19 hashtag, but that's not where I'm heading right now.

Right now, I'm seeing this as a watershed moment not just in the US, but the world. We are at a tipping point of many consequences, one that has the possibility to change the way we work, the way we interact socially, our political systems, our economics. Even how we arrange our lives. I don't think it will be long before most of the U.S. is forced into quarantine like China, because our response has been so woefully inadequate from the git-go. Americans don't obey orders well, and the last several years have seen us inundated with scientifically illiterate talking heads, poor scientific education for the masses, and most recently, a demagogue who is a moron and a fool who believes only in what he knows, which ain't much. So this is unlikely to be the orderly quarantine of China or Europe.

As an example, there's "Katie Williams, a former Ms. Nevada who was stripped of her title for putting pro-Trump postings on the non-political Ms. America social media accounts [responding to AOC's call for people under 40 to stay the hell home:] 'I just went to a crowded Red Robin and I’m 30. It was delicious, and I took my sweet time eating my meal. Because this is America. And I’ll do what I want,'” cited by the indispensable Heather Cox Richardson. I had an argument just last night with a young college-age idiot who repeated the "this is just a media hoax to weaken the president" party line from Fox (the perpetrator of which has since been put on leave, to Fox's credit). Assholes like that, and like a well-educated Facebook acquaintance—who insists on traveling because he's old, and he's got a zillion frequent-flyer miles to use up, and doesn't care what happens to him—are what make pandemics what they are. Quarantines only work if people have no physical contact with infected people or surfaces. It's not about you getting it, dumbasses, it's about you spreading it. This is why I'm at home right now.

I've been a little under the weather since about last Thursday (March 4th). The symptoms have been so mild that I didn't think much of it: a teeny fever I didn't know I had until I bothered to take my temperature; an almost-sore throat; a cough I attributed to seasonal allergies, though my nose isn't running much. By the time I had the information and presence of mind to think I might have been infected, it's possible that I'd been spreading it for at least a week, if I've got it. I'm not happy about that. I'm not sick enough to warrant going anywhere for treatment, and I couldn't get tested if I did, because our government has fucked this up so royally that we may never get a good count of how many people this virus infected, unlike China or Korea, who will have tested hundreds of thousands if not millions of people to get accurate data. But the idea that I've possibly been infecting other people really bothers me.

But this post is not about me. This is not me virtue-signaling either. This is me trying to model what the right thing to do is because so many people don't understand how serious this is. Stay home if you can. If you must go out, keep your distance, wash your hands, cover your mouth with a tissue when you sneeze or cough and throw the tissue away, wear gloves you can either throw out or wash. Stay. Home. I've been self-quarantining now for a week, and will continue to do so. My office asked us all to work at home if we could on March 5th, the day after I decided to stay home and take a sick day. Yesterday, our CEO announced that it seemed likely we would be working at home beyond the initial projection of March 23rd. I think we're likely to be doing it for a long time.

A looooooong time. Like, months. (A friend who was on a CDC conference call today said they are predicting ongoing infections into next year.)

And the longer that time is, the more businesses shut down or shift the way they do business—from us going to them to them coming to us—the more changes happen in our economy. The more changes in our economy—lost jobs, mandatory paid sick leaves, quarantining of all non-essential workers (medical personnel, people in infrastructure jobs, repair people, banks, pharmacies, grocery stories, delivery people) the more our way of life changes. The longer that goes on, the more normal it becomes. The more normal it becomes, the less we want to go back to the old ways when this is over. The end result is massive social change.

There is a tsunami of things that need to happen to support ordinary people in the midst of a pandemic, especially in a country like ours where there is very little in the way of social safety net. When people get sick or infected, we don't want them working in public or with pubic goods. That means mandatory sick days or loss of jobs for people who are running public transportation, delivering your mail and goods, manning the gas pumps. When people lose their jobs, they can't pay bills or rent. Landlords and banks lose mortgage and rent payments. They can't pay their bills. Wealth doesn't trickle down, but poverty sure does in this instance. Our lack of mandatory paid sick days is a major failing. My vote for Most Despised Motherfucker in the World, Jeff Bezos, owner of Whole Foods, has offered his serfs two weeks of paid sick leave and unlimited unpaid sick leave, and urged his workers to donate their vacation time to their colleagues. Like he couldn't afford to absorb a month or more of paid sick leave for all his Amazon and subsidiary employees without missing anything in his grotesque pile of cash.

Hoarding wealth & TPI can rant about Bezos's lack of humanitarian values all day, but Amazon, especially, is illustrative of the underlying problem. If you cannot afford to not work, you are a source of contagion. If you are too sick to work, your fiscal house of cards falls over in the winds of a system that demands money for everything. When enough houses fall over, when enough people are evicted, have their utilities cut off, their internet turned off, their houses repossessed, their cars—that plunges more and more people into the kind of poverty it's almost impossible to get out of later. Capitalism has no mercy. And with the majority of wealth concentrated in the hands of a few people, we are in no position to weather even a couple of months of non-payments. That will lead to economic collapse. And the dispossessed are an excellent pool of vectors, so the pandemic takes longer to burn itself out, and then they become endemic sources. Trade and tourism get shut off because we can't get our shit together. That tanks our economy further. The cause and effect here is really fucking brutal. 

Closing schools is another example of the unintended consequences problem. School is a source of contagion. Kids are germ factories and snot everywhere. We all know this. But if you close schools, who's going to watch the kids of people who can't afford childcare and must go to work to pay the rent, many of whom perform vital services for the rest of us? Where are the kids who depend on school lunches for their main meal of the day going to eat? What if we had a basic income? What if we had affordable childcare for all? What if we had a president who wasn't eviscerating the food stamp program? What if he hadn't bankrupted so many farms with his stupid manufactured trade war bullshit? 

And don't even start me on healthcare. I don't think I need to explain what a hot mess that is in the middle of a pandemic, with or without gutting the CDC and making us utterly unready to face this. Or the fact that so few of us have access to healthcare that won't bankrupt us. And when people start dying in large numbers of something their government should be helping to alleviate, it tends to make them a little testy. That can lead to all sorts of world-changing things. Or at least regime-changing.

So the system we have now, of unfettered capitalism and the sequestration of wealth among a few people, along with a group of leaders who think less government is more, is abysmally failing the test of the pandemic. Now what?

I can see this going a couple of ways, one good, one not so good.

After 9/11 and Hurricane Sandy, New Yorkers did an amazing job of helping each other out. People lined up to give blood, to volunteer, to search, to help rebuild, to feed, clothe and shelter each other. Sure there were some ugly incidents. There always are. But overall, we pulled together and helped each other. We became not just a city, but a community. Even when government failed, and it did in both instances in a big way for many people, the community didn't. 

Now, we've had too many years of meanness both on social media, via Faux News, and from our own elected officials. I don't think there's ever been an American administration as gratuitously, indifferently, indiscriminately cruel as this one is, even the ones that practiced genocide on Native Americans, supported slavery, and locked up Japanese Americans in concentration camps. This one fucks over everyone who is not a rich white male of a certain age. If you are not rich, fuck you.

One way this pandemic can go is that we can follow the lead of the administration and adopt an every man for himself attitude. Can't get healthcare? Too bad. Die, motherfucker, and your little dog too. Can't afford to not work or don't have any paid sick leave? Too bad. Work while you're sick, spreading the disease. We don't care. Quarantined and can't get out to get food? Too bad. Starve. Lost your job and can't pay your rent or mortgage? Too bad. Out the door. In this scenario, disaster capitalism rules and everything gets privatized or bought up that isn't already. The black market that is already getting started continues unchecked and encompasses more and more goods, including food and medicines that may or may not be efficacious. T-Rump uses this opportunity to impose martial law at the height of the quarantine and institute his favorite fascist policies. Your civil rights, always dicey during national emergencies, are "temporarily" suspended. Elections are "delayed." Schools and universities are permanently closed. Big business is bailed out but the common consumer is not. Eventually, the pandemic subsides, but we are left with a massive number of homeless people, and more dead than we should have had. The National Guard, or perhaps the army, deployed for the first time on American soil to enforce the quarantine, remains in place to suppress citizen unrest. The U.S. becomes a fascist state with Trump as president for life, our government pared down to nearly nothing, the rich getting rich and the poor—eh, let them eat cake.

Probably the sole check on the full horror of this scenario is that the pandemic is not Ebola or something more virulent and deadly. With that kind of a disease, even close neighbors can easily get panicked enough to weld you into your house and/or set it on fire with you inside, while handing over all their authority to whomever's in charge, hoping to save themselves.  Covid-19 is pretty mild by comparison. Being an old fart with at least two contraindications myself, I'm not going to say it doesn't matter that it mostly affects older people and the immuno-compromised. I have two friends with new kidneys I'm deeply worried about. But that it doesn't prey indiscriminately on everyone is far better than otherwise.

Now, here's what I'm hoping will happen: 

First, all those old, rich, white, male Republicans who pooh-poohed the severity of Covid-19 and went everywhere shaking hands and raising money for their re-election get sick as dogs and die. Kidding! (Maybe. Something has got to stop that sociopathic fuckhead Mitch McConnell from using his ideology to obstruct anything that might help people who aren't his donors and cronies.) Somehow, we hold T-Rump's feet to the fire and Congress manages to pass a massive aid bill (suck it out of the border wall funds and some of the military budget) that includes: mandatory paid sick leave; free covid-19 testing and treatment; a basic income to tide over people who have no other source of income and can't work during quarantine, have lost their jobs, or who are too sick to work; a moratorium on evictions and mortgage, rent, and utilities payments for the duration of your illness; strict enforcement of the ADA regulations forbidding people from being fired for this illness; suspension of student and other loan payments for the duration; investment in internet infrastructure to facilitate distance work and learning (let's just call it a public utility and be done; we all know we're paying too damn much for it now). Let me know if I forgot something.

None of this is impossible. Some of it is being instituted now in New York City and California, who I hope are leading the way to more community-minded action. AOC, Elizabeth Warren and Nancy Pelosi (and Bernie, I think; I haven't kept track) have all put forward plans to help ordinary people out, while T-Rump and his gang of robber barons are busy shoring up big business. But it's less the details of plans themselves that are important, though they are, than the message they send, which is, Take Care of Each Other. Help your neighbors. Don't pretend you can do this alone.  As my friend Sylvie Richards posted:

Do you know who the elderly people are in your building or neighborhood? In my building, the doormen have identified the elderly people who live alone. We are making sure that they have groceries, medicine, wipes, etc. and that they know that they are being cared for. Now is the time for us to take care of each other. Please -- identify and care for the elderly around you.

And of course, one of the reasons Mitch McSatan is fighting anything like this tooth and nail is that this legislation is a slippery slope to FDR-like programs: single-payer healthcare, free college, an infrastructure that serves the people not the corporations, loan forgiveness, job protections, maybe even—gasp!—higher wages. Not utopia, by any means, but a better way of life. Just as a sample of what this might lead to, the unintended consequences of supporting people: With better, cheaper internet service, maybe more of us will continue to telecommute, having broken the grasp of our micromanagers. Our cities would become less congested We'd need less office space and have more room for affordable housing. Imagine less commuting, less pollution from that commuting, less crowded public transportation. But again, the biggest change would be in us abandoning the bullshit myth of pulling ourselves up by our non-existent bootstraps, and bootstrapping each other instead. I'm not going to use the words kinder, gentler because they leave a bad taste in my mouth now, but there's so much room for us to become more humane. In becoming more humane, we become more human, less bigoted, more welcoming. 

My company had a massive Zoom meeting partially about our response to Covid-19 this Friday, followed by a note from our CEO. This is what she said, in part:

Please end the week by noticing what an incredible set of colleagues you have, and take time this weekend to rest and rejuvenate. I am so grateful to work with all of you, and proud of how everyone has engaged in problem-solving this week, across all levels of the organization and all our departments.  Take care of yourselves -- this is going to be either a half-marathon or a marathon, but certainly not a sprint.

Let's start work on Monday by finding ways to continue being kind to one another - for example, set up some cyber coffee breaks that help you connect with others at [work], relaxed time with either people you work with regularly or perhaps someone you've been meaning to get to know better. This is a weird circumstance in which our usual rituals of gathering with friends in our communities - whether at church or temple or at a restaurant - are being curtailed just when we need those comforting interactions.  So just as we have been creative at solving the challenges facing some of our projects, let's think outside the box about how to stay connected with one another and offer each other support. As one of many emerging examples, the intrepid group working on our Thursday 3/19 "critical conversations and celebrations" has been reworking it into a cyber-based community gathering. Something to look forward to toward week's end! 

In this spirit, I decided to organize a once-a-week or so Virtual Happy Hour in Zoom to keep track of my friends both online and the ones I usually see in meatspace. It's likely to be awhile before we can meet in person again, and seeing one another via videolink is far better than just interacting on social media. Let me know if you're interested, and I'll add you to the email group. Because our actions as a community and in-community might help tip this the right way for everyone and reshape the world in a good way.


Filthy mittnesAs promised, some #covid19 resources:

Natalie Dorfeld's Colonel VonMittens (left) says it all.

Advice and explanations from science reporter Beth Mole at Ars Technica.

Very in-depth and multi-sourced information on Reddit.

Geeky: Covid-19 Surveillance Dashboard. And this one, made by a 17-year-old. Watch this motherfucker spread.

Johns Hopkins Coronavirus Resource Center

For the thick among you, a vivid illustration of how your heedlessness and selfishness makes other people sick. From WaPo.

A really great podcast.


random thoughts on the end of the decade

DreamingMoiHmm, it's been an interesting 10 years. In just about 6 months, I turn 50 and it seems to be making me a little philosophical in my old age. The last 10 years have been, in comparison to, say, my 30s, really good personally, despite some things most people would call tragedies but that I've come to see as either life stages or just ordinary events. I think I've grown and changed more in roughly the last decade than I have in the first 40, with the possible exception of childhood, when pretty much every human being grows and changes exponentially. It's not that I've gained so much more knowledge (though I hope I never stop learning new things), but that I've figured out what to do with what I already know, emotionally and otherwise.

Continue reading "random thoughts on the end of the decade" »


poetry month!

Writer Moi It's Poetry Month, peeps, and somehow, I screwed my courage to the sticking place and signed up to write a poem a day, from prompts, over at Writer's Digest's blog Poetic Asides with Robert Lee Brewer. Tonight I'm frantically composing at the last minute because I had a long day teaching and grading papers. There will be an instant replay tomorrow night, probably, but here's the first one, anyway. It's an origin poem, as per the prompt.  I thought, what the hell? Why not go for the ultimate origin? So I've committed science poetry. Be merciful; it's a first draft.

Start Here


It always starts with light
real and metaphor:
a minuscule point
floating
in the deeps,
one moment quiescent,
the next—
the universe
cracks open.
Fractions later, the shrapnel flies
at the speed limit of sight,
us and anti-us,
bangs around like bumblebees in a bottle
(those will come much later)
smashing itself
back to nothing first, then
smaller, hotter, faster, fortunately
more us than anti.
Baryons
shimmer into being,
condensing like raindrops
(again, much later). The universe
quarks.
A chill sets in, the particles dance
for warmth, and couple
the way everything does
in long, cold nights.
Hadrons and leptons snuggle;
deuterium is born,
grows up to be hydrogen.
Soon there’s a periodic family
at the table.

In the space of
a hundred breaths:
light and matter, and
all that matters.

© Lee Kottner, 2009

This poem brought to you courtesy of Chris LaRocco's and Blair Rothstein's Big Bang Page over at U of M. Meaning that's where I got my quick and dirty summary of the aforementioned events.


Damned if you do, damned if you don't

Bitchbutton In the You Can't Fucking Win Department, this just in:

A new study in Psychology of Women Quarterly finds that women who present themselves as confident and ambitious in job interviews are viewed as highly competent but also lacking social skills. Women who present themselves as modest and cooperative, while well liked, are perceived as low on competence. By contrast, confident and ambitious male candidates are viewed as both competent and likable and therefore are more likely to be hired as a manager than either confident or modest women. . . .

Results show how disparate hiring criteria further discriminates against ambitious, competent women. When judging the ambitious women's hirability, a perceived lack of social skills formed the basis of the hiring decision, and the womens' high competence was relatively neglected. For ambitious men, however, perceived competence and interpersonal skills were weighed equally in the hiring decision. Women were doubly disadvantaged because even when female applicants adhered to stereotypic expectations by presenting themselves as modest, they were unlikely to be hired because evaluators emphasized their relatively low competence and discounted their (high) social skills.

The double standard is alive and well: "He's ambitious; she's a bitch." Men are still not expected to have social skills; women are still expected to fill that role in society. Ambition and competence conflict with social skills (where did that one come from?) Women should be modest, not toot their own horns, not have goals and dreams and desires that might conflict with men's. Women who present themselves as confident and ambitious are still seen as dangerous aggressors who threaten the social order and the

Continue reading "Damned if you do, damned if you don't" »


Attention Science Geeks!

My pals, mutual spousal units Sean Carroll (CalTech Physicist, Cosmic Variance) and Jennifer Ouellette (Science Writer, Cocktail Party Physics) talk about the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) at CERN and what it hopes to find (not, of course, mini black holes that will devour the earth, you idiots!) in language we can all understand. And they're so cute and smart!

Watch and learn:


How to Keep Us Down

SciencemoiIt's not just religion, obviously, that's misogynistic, but it's always been interesting to me that this is one of the characteristics that religion and science, often so antithetical to each other, share and for so many of the same reasons. Of course, this is because both spring out of the society around them and are carried out and structured by the people in that society who have the power to make the structure. So if men decide women are too inferior in whatever way to have a personal relationship with God either through study of the texts or through participating in the mysteries (Milton's "He for God only, she for God in him.") little wonder scientists should think the same way about what many saw (and still see) as a new, improved replacement activity.

The reasoning, though is strikingly similar and you'd think scientists would pay more attention to that. Of course, it's to their advantage not to. It's convenient for them to claim that women's brains are not made for math (an old saw rapidly being dulled) or that we don't do science the way it "should be done," i.e., the way men do it. Probably true, but not necessarily bad or wrong. Just different. I'm not talking about the scientific method here, but about the culture of science and the way men and women approach problem-solving.

And of course, there are social and cultural pressures on women now that men don't have to deal with, as a report by the American Physical Society I recently helped edit shows quite admirably (it's still in production so I can't link to it, but APS has a great reading list). This is a factor just as often conveniently forgotten in the interpretations of key scriptures that seem to ban women from positions of authority in the church, while just as conveniently ignoring the scriptures that show them in those positions.

There are also some striking similarities between the two areas in their jealous guarding of knowledge. In both cases, men are are frequently the gatekeepers of the more esoteric aspects of knowledge (see, physicists), intentionally or unintentionally. Personally, I think this is because guys like secret societies and all that. They're forever making exclusionary clubs, from the Royal Society to the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks. But religion and science are public endeavors, affecting all of us. (Just look at the Evangelical Right's influence on elections in the U.S., if you don't believe me.) Faith that asks no questions is merely blind, stupid obedience; science that allows no free sharing of knowledge is not just bad science, but dangerous blind itself. In both cases the idea that "it's too complicated for you to understand" is used to keep the general public from asking uncomfortable questions: "Why is Junia, a woman, called an apostle?" (see sidebar) or, "Wait, why should we give you taxpayer money for that science project?"

All this is by way of saying that Richard Dawkins's selection of writers for the new Oxford Book of Modern Science Writing is damned odd. For one thing, there's nary a mere science writer among them; they're almost all scientists, even Rachel Carson, who started her career as a biologist. This is one example of the "father knows best" attitude so many scientists have toward the public: only scientists can truly communicate the beauty and wonder and complexity of science to the rest of you ninnies. This is far from the truth. It is, in fact, a hell of a lot easier to teach good writers about science than it is to teach most scientists to write well, particularly for the public. Most of them have a tendency to include too many advanced details that chase people away, rather than broad interesting ideas that draw them in. My science writer pal Jen waxes eloquent about this frequently in our conversations. The advanced details are important, but you don't start out with those for people with no or little background in the subject, and getting the concepts if you're not a scientist is far more important than understanding the technical details right away. Scientists often have a bad case of "can't see the forest for the trees" when it comes to writing for the public, particularly in their own subject.

And, of course, there are too few women, three, to be precise: biologist Rachel Carson, Helena Cronin, a philosopher who works in sex selection (and who happens to think there are more smart men than smart women—to be fair, she also thinks there are more dumb men than dumb women); and Barbara Gamow, not a scientist, but wife of physicist George Gamow, who is included because of the poem she wrote in response to one of George's lectures. How cute. I say this not to denigrate Barbara Gamow, who was, like many women married to male scientists, extremely supportive of her husband's work and no doubt a sounding board for it, but to illustrate the attitude prevalent about women's role in science: supportive; observer not participator; muse not partner.

Rachel Carson got in, I suspect, because she's hard to ignore; she was so prolific (and a fellow alumna of my alma mater!) and so pivotal in the early days of the ecology movement. But where's biologist Lynn Margulies, who, with James Lovelock, developed the Gaia theory? She's a wonderful writer. Where is primatologist Dian Fossey? Hello? Gorillas in the Mist anyone? Child psychologist Anna Freud? Primatologist/ethologist/anthropologist Jane Goodall, who, like Fossey, wrote extensively for the public? For that matter, where's Margaret Mead? I see physician Lewis Thomas on the list (one of my favorite writers, though he wrote as much about life as about science) but not doctors Perri Klass or Michelle Harrison. Where's oceanographer Sylvia Earle? Or forensic anthropologist Emily Craig? And those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head.

And we haven't even gotten to the non-scientist, women science writers: Natalie Angier, Dava Sobel, Heather Pringle,or Mary Roach, to name a few.

Hawkins's selection is pretty heavy on evolution (no surprise, given that he's an evolutionary biologist), genetics (again, no surprise), physics, neuroscience, and biological systems. There's not much chemistry, straight-up biology, medicine, and no ocean science or any of the so-called soft sciences like sociology or anthropology. If what he was aiming for was a balanced picture of the wonders of modern science, this book is hardly that, but it's not even a balanced picture of the best science writing. Like the hard sciences, it's very male dominated (and white males at that). Enough with Peter Medawar already. He's not that brilliant. He's taking up space with his multiple selections that could easily have been given to a woman or two, scientist or not.

Dawkins could have done much for women scientists everywhere by recognizing their work in this volume. Instead, he dragged out a lot of the old war horses: Eiseley, Watson & Crick, Gould, Thomas, Hoyle, Haldane, Snow. That's fine in an anthology like this. You need to include the classics and the big guns like Hawking and Einstein. But if you're going to include the likes of Steven Pinker, Oliver Sacks, Brian Greene, Lee Smolin and Kenneth Ford (whom I used to work for), then you need to include some contemporary women scientists too, dammit.

Why make a fuss over this? Because this is how women are systematically pushed out of history, in exactly the same way we were pushed out of recognition of our rightful place in the early church. Simply by excluding us from memory. By being ignored by the big shot males. That's all it takes.


Archaeology, Science, Beer

Beermug_moiJen and I had a great conversation recently about the pervasiveness of science in our lives. It really is everywhere: your furniture (engineering in the milling of the pieces and metal that connects it), the obvious places like your computer and media, textiles (weaving and spinning were some of the earliest technologies); the paint on your walls (chemistry); your transportation (engineering and physics); most of our jobs involve some kind of science, even if we're only pushing electronic paper (computer science). Even agriculture is a science: fertilizers, crop rotation, planting and harvesting technologies.

Then there's beer.

Ben Franklin's assertion that "beer is the proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy" goes farther than any number of scriptures in proving His existence to my mind (even though the quote itself may be a fake). And the quest for substances to "make us happy" has a led to a lot of scientific advancements, not the least of which is basic chemistry (One of my favorite breweries, Magic Hat, actually has a brew called Chaotic Chemistry). Beer is based on the chemical transformation of starch and sugars into alcohol through the use of biological agents (yeast). The fermentation still is one of humanity's greatest inventions, right up there with fire and the wheel, in my personal opinion.

There are scholars who actually spend time studying the history of beer and brewing (why didn't I know these people in college? More importantly, why didn't I grow up to be one of them?) Irishmen Declan Moore and Billy Quinn are two of them, and they set out to discover how Bronze Age Irishmen might have brewed up their IPAs. "This quest" they say in their very important article, "took us to Barcelona to the Congres Cerveza Prehistorica, [this sounds even better than the Medievalists' bash in Kalamazoo which is always a big party, and how did I miss this on my trip to Barcelona?] and later one evening in Las Ramblas in the company of, among others, an international beer author, an award winning short story writer, a world renowned beer academic ["Beer academic"?!? You mean that's a job description? Not a foible? Damn. . . .] and a Canadian Classical scholar - all of whom shared our passion for the early history of beer." Here's Dec and Billy's demo and tasting party, complete with grilled dead pig. Sláinte! And happy Fourth to all you Budweiser-swilling, grilling patriots, carrying on the long tradition of beer and pig-roast.

[Thanks to North Atlantic Skyline for the tip]


Anti-intellectualism

Radicalmoi Jen's hubby Sean the Cosmologist has started an interesting discussion over on Cosmic Variance about "why so many academics are hostile to some religions rather than others." For me, this is a very interesting twist on the opposite question, why so many (particularly American) religions are hostile to learning and education. According to a recent study (PDF) by The Institute of Jewish and Community Research, "Faculty feel most unfavorably about Evangelical Christians." Big surprise. Having grown up in a religion that considered going to college about equivalent to choosing to live in a combination brothel and crack house, I find the question of why academics are more hostile to evangelicals not at all puzzling. It's a mutual hostility club caused not just by opposing world views, but opposing value systems.

Some of the things that academics value most are freedom of inquiry and freedom of speech. By contrast, evangelicals value unquestioning faith. Each intellectual challenge to that faith is seen as a test in loyalty and one's ability to bear the burden of ridicule for the sake of one's faith. The dogma of faith is unchanging—except when revealed by God—while, thanks to the spirit of inquiry, secular knowledge, with the exception of basic laws of nature, changes all the time. Even those basic laws are often refined, the way Newtonian physics was refined (or surpassed) by quantum mechanics. Evangelicals often view the effort to understand the wonders of our universe, both macro and micro, as a quest for forbidden knowledge. There are some things that we were just not meant to know, they often assert, usually in stentorian voices with much Bible thumping.

I've never understood that, though I do often despair of the way in which the knowledge we gain is used, e.g. splitting the atom. I think this is one reason science needs the counterbalance of some kind of spirituality. But not one that puts actual restrictions on what we're "supposed" to know. If you believe in some kind of creative deity, why would that deity not just freeze the brain power of its creation instead of giving it the capacity to become more intelligent, and understand more of the universe? Deities can do that, right?

No, that's because it's a test, the faithful say. But it's one the intelligent are going to fail. Intelligent people by nature can't stop questioning without real effort. And making that effort kills a part of them, their essential nature. That's some sacrifice.

What this claim of mystery means usually means, unfortunately, is that you, the little people, are not supposed to know these things. It's okay for the priesthood (literal or political) to know them, but not you. Because knowledge is power. That's one of the reasons that early education should be compulsory and advanced education should be free, for as far as you want to go. Otherwise, you are crippling your populace, and leaving them open to the manipulation of superstitious or just plain power-hungry nutcases. Jim Jones, anyone? Of course, it's far easier to control people who aren't that well-informed. Marking off certain areas as forbidden knowledge is one way to cement that control. The real problem with this, of course, is that if you don't understand your world, you can't make smart decisions about how to live your life. And if only a certain group understand the world, they get to make the decisions. As a rule, academics are in the business of spreading knowledge around to anyone who wants it. That can be a subversive activity in some cases.

It's no wonder academics are hostile right back to people who are hostile to their entire reason for being.

Like so many other prejudices, anti-intellectualism has its origin in fear, mostly of having your entire worldview dismantled, and the more petty but no less real fear of being made to look foolish. I can attest to the fact that it's a little scary to not have any sense of sureness about what the future will bring, either while you're living or dead. It was a relief to know we'd never have an all-out nuclear war because God would never let us totally destroy the earth. On the other hand, it's a little exhilarating, too, a bit like skydiving, I suspect.

But that fear is very real. My mother, not an ignorant or anti-intellectual woman by any means, found the idea of alternate dimensions really frightening. The idea that there might be someone else just like her somewhere else who had made different choices than she had was I think what she found so scary. Somehow, that would invalidate her life in her mind, though it did no such thing. The concept of alternate universes is a little more complex than that, but it does raise interesting "road not taken" possibilities. By contrast, I love the idea that our lives fork and branch at every moment, at ever choice we make, perhaps at every breath, not just for us but for every event. The number of universes is mind-boggling, but that may only attest to our lack of brain capacity to comprehend it. It's not by any means fully accepted in the physics community, but it raises some very interesting questions.

And that's what it's all about, isn't it: the questions.


Teach the Controversy

TeachermoiI mentioned on my other blog that I've gotten back into teaching after a 10-year hiatus, and I'm loving every minute of it. At the moment, I'm teaching a class on journal writing at the College of New Rochelle's South Bronx campus, and though I haven't taught this class before in any shape or form (which makes it a lot of prep work) I'm having a great time with it. I haven't had a group of people in a class that I've enjoyed so much since I taught honors science writing at MSU, one of my alma maters. My students absolutely rock; they're bright, motivated, funny, not afraid to talk back and challenge me. And they are so eager that they teach each other (and me) as much as I teach them. I'm high after every class, just from their energy.

Devil_2 But I digress. In the years since I've been away, especially from teaching science writing, the Creationists have started using a new tactic to get their bogus "science" taught in place of evolution which they call "Teach the Controversy." This is so wrong on so many levels, the main one being that there is no controversy. Evolutionary biology, while termed a theory (which is what scientists, in their caution, call a fully developed and tested set of ideas; and what else would you call that?), as an overarching paradigm is fact. Details are still being worked out, and disagreements about those details break out, but that doesn't mean there's any question about the theory's validity or truth. That's how science works; it's based on argument. There is something like a marketplace of ideas: the more testable facts, the better the argument, the more firmly it becomes an accepted part of the body of scientific knowledge. Intelligent Design, which is the latest thinly disguised Christian evangelical conversion tool, does not hold water, not even in the courts.

I'm not entirely opposed to the idea that there is a Creator out there somewhere. "How" S/He made it happen is less important to me than "if." I think evolution is a completely workable tool for developing life. Just because the human metaphor for making things involves factories and exacting, get-it-right-the-first-time craftsmanship doesn't mean it's the only way to accomplish that goal, especially when it comes to life. Evolution may, in fact, be the most efficient way of producing intelligent life. What looks entirely random and without structure to us, from inside the system, may actually be just be so extremely complex that we can't, at present, fathom it. It may be one of those things that we have to wait until the Post-Human to really grok.

GeocentricWhat's all this leading to? T-shirts. I was highly amused to run across Wear Science's Teach the Controversy designs on one of my favorite science blogs, Deep Sea News. I was so amused, in fact, that I bought myself a sun-yellow messenger bag with this design on it in blue. The one above, with a devil burying all those dinosaur bones, refers to the age of the earth problem and those pesky fossils of creatures that no longer exist that keep turning up. Young Earth creationists have been known to claim that God put them there as fossils when he created the earth. As I've said before, I think that's a pretty cruel and petty God to go obfuscating himself like that. Evolution is so much neater. But we all know the sun revolves around the earth. Right?


Gotcha!

Purity_2

From the hilarious xkcd: "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language." Extremely nerdy and geeky yet very funny. One of my faves.

The concept of "purity" is something of an inside joke in science, and I've never quite understood it. Mostly it refers to the difference between fundamental concepts or knowledge and research for its own sake, and practical, applicable science that solves problems. Both are necessary, though pure science often gets a bum rap from non-scientists for being "ivory tower" precisely because it doesn't immediately solve a pressing problem. What many non-scientists don't understand is that the fundamental explanations have to be there first, e.g., you can't make a successful lighter than air craft until you know what substances are lighter than air.

But purity also refers to the degree of solid factuality in your data: how big the margins of error are, how elegant the experiment, how tidy the solution, how much it stands aloof from whether or not it fits with your preconceived notions, how much it just is. The idea originally arose from the Enlightenment's desire to free itself from superstition and magic in the nascent development of the scientific method, particularly the separation of alchemy from chemistry. I suspect that what it really springs from is the rational mind's horror of baser human qualities like greed, ambition, and the desire for praise and respect, as well as skepticism about the supernatural. The more rational your data, i.e., the less tainted by the messy unpredictability of human emotions, needs, or desires, the more pure the science, supposedly.

Sociology is the poor cousin in the crowd precisely because it studies human behavior and tries to quantify it, with varying levels of success. Sociology's main problem is that it taints the data just through observation; by definition, it's really hard to solve a problem when you are part of the subset being studied, e.g., humanity. But even physicists and mathematicians who deal with the most rational and rarefied of realms, pure mathematical theory, are influenced by their emotions, whether they like it or not. There wouldn't be as much rancor and infighting as there is, otherwise. Sure, desire for money to fund one's projects is a noble motive, but still, the competition can get amazingly cut-throat and sometimes downright nasty. James Watson's The Double Helix about the race to discover DNA, is a classic example of how emotions drive science. Not to mention the rampant misogyny in many scientific disciplines. Whether they like it or not, science is a human endeavor and will always be affected by human behavior, however pure the data.

(An amusing aside, apropos of nothing: if you Google "string theory," your browser tab will read "g string theory" with the "g" logo of Google in front of your search subject. And how lovely that Randal Munroe's mathematician in this comic is female.)


Bourne and the Brain

Cocktailphysicsmoi

Cross Posted at Cocktail Party Physcis.

Lee Kottner here, on assignment from Jennifer to cover at least one of the offerings the World Science Festival held in NYC last weekend. Before I get started on the one event I actually got to, let me say how hard it was to narrow it down. So many cool offerings! So little time! It was just like being presented with with a really juicy conference program and having to pick between overlapping sessions: a nerd's paradise, with the bonus that there was also a street fair, movies, and art. Definitely more fun than your average conference (unless it's the Kalamazoo Mediaevalists). This is the World Science Festival's first year, so it's a little rough around the edges yet organizationally, but the line-up is absolutely stellar, and the intersections of art and science couldn't have been more intriguing. Theatre, dance, music, and film were all represented, along with the history of science and the fields of math (or maths, for you Brits out there), physics and astronomy, evolutionary biology, environmental science, epidemiology, genetics, botany, computer science, engineering, and neuroscience. The topics ranged from creativity, space-time, longevity, climate change, and astrophysics to the science of sports, of illusions, of green building and of Disney Imagineering, and plays and films about Einstein, Richard Feynman, Hugh Everett (of the parallel worlds theory) and . . . Jason Bourne.

And yes, that's where I come in, shallow fan of action flicks that I am. But it's the neuroscience offerings as a whole that got me excited about the festival. One of my favorite science writers, neurologist Oliver Sacks, had not one but two presentations, the first on visual perception and the brain, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the second on music and the brain, in conjunction with the Abyssinian Baptist Church choir. I've read most of Sacks's books for the general reader, so normally I'd jump at the chance to hear him speak. But I couldn't resist "The Brain and Bourne" (nothing like Pinky and the Brain, I assure you) with producer/director Doug Liman, psychiatrist/neuroscientist Giulio Tononi, and producer/screenwriter (oh, the multitasking!) James Schamus. (Spoiler alert for anyone who hasn't seen the movie. And, like, what's taking you so long? There are two more already!)

Bourneidentityr2pic1The movie opens with an unconscious figure in a wetsuit (Matt Damon) floating face-up in a stormy Mediterranean Sea. Hauled aboard a passing fishing vessel, Wetsuit Man is discovered (1) to be still alive, though (2) shot twice in the back and (3) to be carrying a stainless steel capsule embedded under the skin of his hip. The capsule contains a laser which projects the number of a blind Swiss bank account. Huh? Wetsuit Man comes to, understandably upset at having objects removed from his body without his consent (or anesthesia), even if they are bullets and weird implants, and discovers he doesn't know who he is. He can walk, talk, play chess, shuffle cards, do pull-ups, tie complicated knots, speak several languages and function on a day-to-day level, but he has no idea who he is or was, or where he's been for the last twenty-some years of his life. For all he knows, he's sprung from the sea like Venus on the half shell. Classic amnesia.

Or at least the Hollywood version. Amnesia of just about any type is actually pretty rare, though you'd never know it from watching soap operas or reading Gothic murder mysteries. But there are several different types of amnesia and a number of causes. The two main types are anteretrograde amnesia, the inability learn and remember new information since the time the amnesia began, and the kind our hero experiences: retrograde amnesia, which involves a lack of memory of the past preceding the time one becomes conscious again. One of the symptoms of dementia is memory problems, but unlike those suffering from, say, Alzheimer's, victims of amnesia retain their cognitive powers and intelligence. They lack only their former memories, or, in the case of anteretrograde amnesia, the ability to make new memories. Guy Pearce's character suffers from this type of amnesia in the 2000 movie Memento, and must constantly write himself notes and take Polaroid pictures to tell himself what he's been doing for the past fifteen or so minutes.

Amnesia can encompass varying stretches of memory—from all of your previous life (global amnesia, usually transient) to just the five minutes before you knocked yourself out in a bike accident—and last for varying periods of time. Its causes include stroke, inflammation (from infections like encephalitis), tumors, oxygen deprivation (from a heart attack or CO poisoning), long-term alcohol abuse, and the classic Hollywood cause: pressure from bleeding between the brain and skull, i.e., a knock on the head. It takes a fairly serious head injury, however, one likely involving a long coma and months of rehab, to induce anything but transient global amnesia.

Bourneidentityr2pic2Wetsuit Man, who eventually decides his name is Jason Bourne on the strength of the evidence he finds in his lockbox at the Swiss bank, also discovers along the way that some of the things he knows how to do are downright scary. In one very subtle scene before Bourne visits his lockbox, he tries to catch some sleep on a park bench but is rousted by the Swiss cops. One pokes him with a nightstick, which Bourne grabs reflexively. If you watch carefully, you'll see him pause and in that pause is the moment when Bourne says to himself, much like Neo in The Matrix, "Hey! I know Jujitsu!" Bourne then handily disarms and disables the cops and runs away, to live to lay movie-fu on other attackers another day. Okay, he doesn't know who he is, but he can take out two trained cops in less than 30 seconds? Wait, it gets weirder!   

As the movie progresses, it's clear that Bourne is not just a martial artist with lightning reflexes (and that he fights dirty as hell), but he knows all about surveillance techniques, weapons, and being followed. Sitting in a truck stop on the way to Paris, he says to his new accomplice, Marie, "I can tell you the license plate numbers of all three cars out front. I can tell you that the waitress is left-handed and the guy at the counter weighs two-hundred and fifteen pounds and knows how to handle himself. I know that the best, first place to look for a gun is the cab of that grey truck outside.  I know that at this altitude I can run flat out for half a mile before I lose my edge. I knew that you were my first, best option out of Zurich.  How do I know all that?  How can I know all that and not know who I am?  How is that possible?"

Excellent question, Mr. Bourne. Is this just another example of Hollywood mangling scientific truth? Well, no, it's not for a change, though I wouldn't have known it without going to this talk. James Schamus started it off by asking Dr. Tononi if this kind of amnesia was actually possible. Surprisingly, the answer is yes, but it is more likely if it has a specific cause. In Robert Ludlum's original book, it's the classic blow on the head that gives Bourne his case of amnesia. Liman, in his research before making the movie, discovered this was unlikely to cause the kind of amnesia Bourne suffered from. Liman twisted the plot a bit and, though Bourne does suffer a break of consciousness after he's shot and falls (is tossed?) overboard with two bullets in his back, his amnesia is purely psychological in nature, arising from an internal conflict.

Brian_diagram_1 Psychogenic amnesia, it turns out, acts just like physically induced amnesia in many ways, but without the trauma. Dr. Tononi studies consciousness and its disorders, so this is right up his alley. True to the nature of the talk, he came prepared with a PowerPoint presentation, the first slide of which showed two PET scans of amnesiacs, one caused by encephalitis, one psychogenic. In both, the right temporal lobe (the yellow bit in the diagram at right) is inactive in almost exactly the same areas, though one brain is completely uninjured. Unsurprisingly, this is the part of the brain that is most closely involved with memory, mostly the storing (the hippocampus is thought to be mostly closely involved with making memory). Recent studies in brain mapping and neuroscience have shown that our brains generally parcel tasks into regions. Our memories are concentrated in one area; our skills, some of which involve muscle memory (proprioception) in another; our pattern recognition in another, and so on. Knowledge and personal memory are not the same thing, either. Our knowledge about a subject is static and factual, while personal memory tends to encompass a linear sense of time and other sensory impressions. Memory, like dreams and oddly like the movies, as Schamus pointed out, is a limnal state: ambiguous and untrustworthy as cops and prosecutors well know.

Hippocampus We tend to think of our memories as fixed and visual. The research of Dr. Tononi and others has shown that consciousness is a process, not just a location, and that our memories are not representational but rely more on reconstruction than recall. There's no rewind or replay button in your head, in other words. When we ask ourselves "Who am I?" or "What happened?" we're not going to get a picture, but a narrative, a story. This story includes not just our memories, but who we tell ourselves we are—our interpretation of those memories. If there's a clash between who we think we are and our memory, guess what loses? Then we become our own unreliable narrator.

In the case of Jason Bourne, as the other two sequels to this movie show, the internal conflict is between the kind of person Bourne thinks he is (one of the good guys who doesn't just randomly kill people) and the things his memory tells him he has done (not-so-randomly kill people). What sparks the conflict is a mission to assassinate a dictator in exile and finding him on his boat with his children in the same room. Bourne can't bring himself to shoot the man while he's holding his daughter and his other children are asleep in chairs around him. Instead of a blow to the head, guilt is the trauma, and Bourne conveniently forgets what he does for a living when he wakes up. It's too awful to contemplate otherwise.

In effect, Bourne becomes the person he thinks he is. Tononi pointed out that people with dissociative disorders, including multiple personalities, don't share the memories, even on a PET scan, that their "others" have. People in dissociative fugues can suddenly forget who they are (usually because of some emotional trauma) and wander off. But unlike Bourne, they generally don't know they've lost something, and will assume another identity, not try to find their old one. This separation can also occur in sleep states, such as the infamous case of Kenneth Parks, who killed his mother-in-law and seriously injured his father-in-law when he was sleepwalking, but had no memory of it. Bourne is in the process of writing a new story for himself, reconciling what he did with who he is now, and in doing so, recovers the memories of who he was. Like Kenneth Parks, until he regains his full memory, Bourne is conscious but not self-conscious.

Originally, this was a big problem for Liman, as a director. Usually, when characters are introduced in a story, the audience is cued on how to relate to them by seeing them in the context of their life: with friends, relatives, their dog, their boss. Bourne has no one and nothing to cue his audience. He's a blank slate. It's only in his journey, in the reconstruction of a new personality, that he becomes interesting and fully aware.

Now, imagine not only having your past be a blank slate, but not being able to imagine a future. Tononi also mentioned the case of Clive Wearing, a British musicologist who developed total amnesia after a viral infection. Although he still knows how to play the piano and conduct music, he has no other personal memories and cannot form new ones, like the character in Memento. Only Wearing's memory is of even shorter duration than Guy Pearce's character. Wearing has none. Most of his waking time is spent "rebooting" his consciousness from moment to moment. His diary consists of the consecutive statements "I am alive! I'm awake now. I am alive!" If that's the entirety of one's self-consciousness, is there a self? Bourne, at least, does manage to find or make a new one, as well as recover his past. But not everyone does.

Cue The Who. Oh wait. That's CSI. I forgot.