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Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born

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It does seem that on the level of Planck’s constant nature may be granular, but Thomas Nail, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver whose latest book is Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018), has an interesting comment in Aeon:

The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.

Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.

Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe.

This book was one of the most important sources of inspiration for the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. Nearly every Renaissance and Enlightenment intellectual read it and became an atomist to some degree (they often made allowances for God and the soul). Indeed, this is the reason why, to make a long and important story very short, science and philosophy even today still tend to look for and assume a fundamental discreteness in nature. Thanks in no small part to Lucretius’ influence, the search for discreteness became part of our historical DNA. The interpretive method and orientation of modern science in the West literally owe their philosophical foundations to ancient atomism via Lucretius’ little book on nature. Lucretius, as Stephen Greenblatt says in his book The Swerve (2011), is ‘how the world became modern’.

There is a problem, however. If this story is true, then modern Western thought is based on a complete misreading of Lucretius’ poem. It was not a wilful misreading, of course, but one in which readers committed the simple error of projecting what little they knew second-hand about Greek atomism (mostly from the testimonia of its enemies) onto Lucretius’ text. They assumed a closer relationship between Lucretius’ work and that of his predecessors than actually exists. Crucially, they inserted the words ‘atom’ and ‘particle’ into the translated text, even though Lucretius never used them. Not even once! A rather odd omission for a so-called ‘atomist’ to make, no? Lucretius could easily have used the Latin words atomus (smallest particle) or particula (particle), but he went out of his way not to. Despite his best efforts, however, the two very different Latin terms he did use, corpora(matters) and rerum (things), were routinely translated and interpreted as synonymous with discrete ‘atoms’.

Further, the moderns either translated out or ignored altogether the nearly ubiquitous language of continuum and folding used throughout his book, in phrases such as ‘solida primordia simplicitate’ (simplex continuum). As a rare breed of scholar interested in both classical texts and quantum physics, the existence of this material continuum in the original Latin struck me quite profoundly. I have tried to show all of this in my recent translation and commentary, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018), but here is the punchline: this simple but systematic and ubiquitous interpretive error constitutes what might well be the single biggest mistake in the history of modern science and philosophy.

This mistake sent modern science and philosophy on a 500-year quest for what Sean Carroll in his 2012 book called the ‘particle at the end of the universe’. It gave birth to the laudable virtues of various naturalisms and materialisms, but also to less praiseworthy mechanistic reductionisms, patriarchal rationalisms, and the overt domination of nature by humans, none of which can be found in Lucretius’ original Latin writings. What’s more, even when confronted with apparently continuous phenomena such as gravity, electric and magnetic fields, and eventually space-time, Isaac Newton, James Maxwell and even Albert Einstein fell back on the idea of an atomistic ‘aether’ to explain them. All the way back to the ancients, aether was thought to be a subtle fluid-like substance composed of insensibly tiny particles. Today, we no longer believe in the aether or read Lucretius as an authoritative scientific text. Yet in our own way, we still confront the same problem of continuity vs discreteness originally bequeathed to us by the moderns: in quantum physics.

Theoretical physics today is at a critical turning point. General relativity and quantum field theory are the two biggest parts of what physicists now call ‘the standard model’, which has enjoyed incredible predictive success. The problem, however, is that they have not yet been unified as two aspects of one overarching theory. Most physicists think that such unification is only a matter of time, even though the current theoretical frontrunners (string theory and loop quantum gravity) have yet to produce experimental confirmations.

Quantum gravity is of enormous importance. According to its proponents, it stands poised to show the world that the ultimate fabric of nature (space-time) is not continuous at all, but granular, and fundamentally discrete. The atomist legacy might finally be secured, despite its origins in an interpretive error.

There is just one nagging problem: quantum field theory claims that all discrete quanta of energy (particles) are merely the excitations or fluctuations in completely continuous quantum fields. Fields are notfundamentally granular. For quantum field theory, everything might be made of granules, but all granules are made of folded-up continuous fields that we simply measure as granular. This is what physicists call ‘perturbation theory’: the discrete measure of that which is infinitely continuous and so ‘perturbs one’s complete discrete measurement’, as Frank Close puts it in The Infinity Puzzle (2011). Physicists also have a name for the sub-granular movement of this continuous field: ‘vacuum fluctuations’. Quantum fields are nothing but matter in constant motion (energy and momentum). They are therefore never ‘nothing’, but more like a completely positive void (the flux of the vacuum itself) or an undulating ocean (appropriately called ‘the Dirac sea’) in which all discrete things are its folded-up bubbles washed ashore, as Carlo Rovelli puts it in Reality Is Not What it Seems (2016). Discrete particles, in other words, are folds in continuous fields.

The answer to the central question at the heart of modern science, ‘Is nature continuous or discrete?’ is as radical as it is simple. Space-time is not continuous because it is made of quantum granules, but quantum granules are not discrete because they are folds of infinitely continuous vibrating fields. Nature is thus not simply continuous, but an enfolded continuum.

This brings us right back to Lucretius and our original error. Working at once within and against the atomist tradition, Lucretius put forward the first materialist philosophy of an infinitely continuous nature in constant flux and motion. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 May 2018 at 2:33 pm

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One of the World’s Most Prestigious Medical Journals Just Called for Legalizing All Drugs

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Philip Smith reports at Drug War Chronicles:

Embracing a harm reduction and public health perspective, one of the world’s most prestigious medical journals has released a signed editorial calling for the legalization, taxation, and regulation of currently illegal drugs.

In a editorial last Thursday entitled Drugs Should Be Legalised, Regulated, and Taxed, Fiona Godlee, editor in chief of the British Medical Journal, notes that under drug prohibition, the global trade “fuels organized crime and human misery,” and asks, “Why should it not instead fund public services?”Citing an opinion piece in the same issue of the BMJ from British members of the Law Enforcement Action Partnership (LEAP, formerly known as Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) Jason Reed and Paul Whitehouse, Godlee notes that in the United Kingdom (as in the United States) “vast sums are spent prosecuting individuals and trying vainly to interrupt the flow of drugs into cities” while that money would be much better “spent on quality control, education, treatment for drug users, and child protection.” Under legalization, “revenues could be diverted from criminal gangs into government coffers,” she writes.

Godlee notes that the global drug prohibition consensus is fraying around the edges, and points to the example of Portugal, which decriminalized the possession of all drugs in 2001. There, drug use remains in line with levels in other European countries, but the harms associated with drug use under prohibition have decreased dramatically, particularly in terms of fatal drug overdoses and the spread of injection drug-related infectious disease.

Godlee also pointed to the Netherlands, the United States, and soon, Canada, where “regulated markets for the sale of cannabis generate substantial tax revenues.”

Again returning to the opinion piece by Reed and Whitehouse, Godlee writes that “when law enforcement officers call for drugs to be legalized, we have to listen.” Ditto for when doctors speak up, she adds, noting that just last month, the Royal College of Physicians came out in favor of drug decriminalization, joining the British Medical Association, the Faculty of Public Health, and the Royal Society of Public Health in supporting drug policy reform.

“This is not about whether you think drugs are good or bad,” Godlee concludes. “It is an evidence based position entirely in line with the public health approach to violent crime… The BMJ is firmly behind efforts to legalize, regulate, and tax the sale of drugs for recreational and medicinal use. This is an issue on which doctors can and should make their voices heard.”

Unfortunately for the BMJ and the other public health advocates, as in the United States, the political class in the United Kingdom isn’t yet on board with evidence-based best practices on drug policy. But this editorial loosens another brick in the wall — on both sides of the Atlantic.

Politicians simply are uninterested in evidence and the public welfare, and that is becoming increasingly clear.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2018 at 10:15 am

Scott Pruitt Is At It Again

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Kevin Drum posts at Mother Jones:

Back in 2016, the EPA released a health advisory for a class of chemicals called PFOA and PFOS, setting a limit in drinking water of 70 parts per trillion. Over the past decade these chemicals have mostly been phased out, but years of use had poisoned the groundwater in many areas, which now have to be cleaned up.

Then, earlier this year, the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, a part of HHS, wrote a toxicological profile advising that drinking water limits should actually be much lower, in the range of 10-20 parts per trillion. The EPA level might be adequate for most people, they advised, but was too high for infants and breastfeeding mothers. Luckily, EPA administrator Scott Pruitt, whatever his other faults, has declared that water safety is one of his signature priorities, so EPA embraced the new limits and instructed Superfund cleanup sites to implement them immediately.

Ha ha. Just kidding. Here’s what actually happened when the White House and EPA caught wind of the new report:

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.

….Some of the biggest liabilities reside with the Defense Department, which used foam containing the chemicals in exercises at bases across the country. In a March report to Congress, the Defense Department listed 126 facilities where tests of nearby water supplies showed the substances exceeded the current safety guidelines. A government study concluding that the chemicals are more dangerous than previously thought could dramatically increase the cost of cleanups at sites like military bases and chemical manufacturing plants, and force neighboring communities to pour money into treating their drinking water supplies.

It’s been three months since ATSDR drafted its report. It still hasn’t been published.

The GOP cares nothing for the health and welfare of the public. What they do care about is manipulating public opinion in their favor without regard to the merits involved.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2018 at 10:11 am

Michael Pollan: “My Adventures with the Trip Doctors”

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Michael Pollan writes in the NY Times Magazine:

My first psilocybin journey began around an altar in the middle of a second-story loft in a suburb of a small city on the Eastern Seaboard. On this adventure I would have a guide, a therapist who, like an unknown number of other therapists administering psychedelics in America today, must work underground because these drugs are illegal. Seated across the altar from me, Mary (who asked that I use a nickname because of the work she does) began by reciting, with her eyes closed, a long and elaborate prayer derived from various Native American traditions. My eyes were closed, too, but now and again I couldn’t resist peeking out for a glance at my guide: a woman in her 60s with long blond hair parted in the middle and high cheekbones that I mention only because they would, in a few hours, figure in her miraculous transformation into a Mexican Indian.

I also stole a few glances at the scene: the squash-colored loft with its potted plants and symbols of fertility and female power; the embroidered purple fabric from Peru that covered the altar; and the collection of items arrayed across it, including an amethyst in the shape of a heart, a purple crystal holding a candle, a bowl containing a few squares of dark chocolate, the personal “sacred item” that Mary had asked me to bring (a little bronze Buddha a friend brought me from Tibet) and, set squarely before me, an antique plate holding the biggest psilocybin mushroom I had ever seen.

The crowded altar also held a branch of sage and a stub of palo santo, a fragrant wood that some Indians in South America burn ceremonially, and the jet-black wing of a crow. At various points in the ceremony, Mary would light the sage and the palo santo, using the crow’s wing to “smudge” me with the smoke — guiding the spirits through the space around my head.

The whole scene must sound ridiculously hokey, not to mention laced with cultural appropriation, yet the conviction Mary brought to the ceremony, together with the aromas of the burning plants and the spooky sound of the wing pulsing the air around my head — plus my own nervousness about the journey in store — cast a spell that allowed me to suspend my disbelief. Mary trained under one of the revered “elders” in the psychedelic community, an 80-something psychologist who was one of Timothy Leary’s graduate students at Harvard. But I think it was her manner, her sobriety and her evident compassion that made me feel sufficiently comfortable to entrust her with, well, my mind.

As a child growing up outside Providence, R.I., Mary was an enthusiastic Catholic, she says, “until I realized I was a girl” — a fact that would disqualify her from ever performing the rituals she cherished. Her religiosity lay dormant until, in college, friends gave her a pot of honey infused with psilocybin for her birthday; a few spoonfuls of the honey “catapulted me into a huge change,” she told me the first time we met. The reawakening of her spiritual life led her onto the path of Tibetan Buddhism and eventually to take the vow of an initiate: “ ‘To assist all sentient beings in their awakening and enlightenment.’ Which is still my vocation.”

And now seated before her in her treatment room was me, the next sentient being on deck, hoping to be awakened. She asked me to state my intention, and I answered: to learn whatever the “mushroom teachers,” as she called them, could teach me about myself and about the nature of consciousness.

PSYCHEDELIC THERAPY, whether for the treatment of psychological problems or as a means of facilitating self-exploration and spiritual growth, is undergoing a renaissance in America. This is happening both underground, where the community of guides like Mary is thriving, and aboveground, at institutions like Johns Hopkins, New York University and U.C.L.A., where a series of drug trials have yielded notably promising results.

I call it a renaissance because much of the work represents a revival of research done in the 1950s and 1960s, when psychedelic drugs like LSD and psilocybin were closely studied and regarded by many in the mental health community as breakthroughs in psychopharmacology. Before 1965, there were more than 1,000 published studies of psychedelics involving some 40,000 volunteers and six international conferences dedicated to the drugs. Psychiatrists were using small doses of LSD to help their patients access repressed material (Cary Grant, after 60 such sessions, famously declared himself “born again”); other therapists administered bigger so-called psychedelic doses to treat alcoholism, depression, personality disorders and the fear and anxiety of patients with life-threatening illnesses confronting their mortality.

That all changed in the mid-’60s, after Timothy Leary, the Harvard psychologist and lecturer turned psychedelic evangelist, began encouraging kids to “turn on, tune in and drop out.” Silly as that slogan sounds to our ears, a great many kids appeared to follow his counsel, much to the horror of their parents. The drugs fell into the eager embrace of a rising counterculture, influencing everything from styles of music and dress to cultural mores, and, many thought, inspired the questioning of adult authority that marked the “generation gap.” “The kids who take LSD aren’t going to fight your wars,” Leary famously claimed. In 1971, President Nixon called Leary, who by then had been drummed out of academia and chased by the law, “the most dangerous man in America.” That same year, the Controlled Substances Act took effect; it classified LSD and psilocybin as Schedule 1 drugs, meaning that they had a high potential for abuse and no accepted medical use; possession or sale became a federal crime. (MDMA, which was still being used therapeutically, was not banned until 1985, after it became popular as a party drug called Ecstasy.) Funding for research dried up, and the legal practice of psychedelic therapy came to a halt.

But beginning in the 1990s, a new generation of academics quietly began doing psychedelics research again, much of it focusing on people with cancer. Since then, several dozen studies using psychedelic compounds have been completed or are underway. In a pair of Phase 2 psilocybin trials at Hopkins and N.Y.U., 80 cancer patients, many of them terminal, received a moderately high dose of psilocybin in a session guided by two therapists. Patients described going into their body and confronting their cancer or their fear of death; many had mystical experiences that gave them a glimpse of an afterlife or made them feel connected to nature or the universe in a way they found comforting. The studies, which were published in The Journal of Psychopharmacology in December 2016, reported that 80 percent of the Hopkins volunteers had clinically significant reductions in standard measurements of depression and anxiety, improvements that endured for at least six months.

Other, smaller studies of psilocybin have found that one, two or three guided sessions can help alcoholics and smokers overcome their addictions; in the case of 15 smokers treated in a 2014 pilot study at Hopkins, 80 percent of the volunteers were no longer smoking six months after their first psychedelic session, a figure that fell to 67 percent after a year — which is far better than the best treatment currently available. The psychedelic experience appears to give people a radical new perspective on their own lives, making possible a shift in worldview and priorities that allows them to let go of old habits.

Yet researchers believe it is not the molecules by themselves that can help patients change their minds. The role of the guide is crucial. People under the influence of psychedelics are extraordinarily suggestible — “think of placebos on rocket boosters,” a Hopkins researcher told me — with the psychedelic experience profoundly affected by “set” and “setting” — that is, by the volunteer’s interior and exterior environments. For that reason, treatment sessions typically take place in a cozy room and always in the company of trained guides. The guides prepare volunteers for the journey to come, sit by them for the duration and then, usually on the day after a session, help them to “integrate,” or make sense of, the experience and put it to good use in changing their lives. The work is typically referred to as “psychedelic therapy,” but it would be more accurate to call it “psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy.”

Though the university researchers seldom talk about it, much of the collective wisdom regarding how best to guide a psychedelic session resides in the heads of underground guides like Mary. These are the people who, in many cases, continued to do this work illicitly, long after the backlash against psychedelics during the 1960s ended most research and therapy. But their role in the current renaissance is an awkward one, as I discovered early this spring when I sat in on the nation’s first certificate program for aspiring psychedelic guides.

ON A FRIDAY AFTERNOON in late March, 64 health care professionals of various stripes — doctors, therapists, nurses, counselors and naturopaths — gathered in Namaste Hall at the California Institute of Integral Studies (C.I.I.S.), a school of psychology and social sciences in San Francisco, to begin their training to become legal psychedelic therapists. To be admitted to the program, an applicant must have a professional medical or therapy license of some kind, and most of the trainees — whose average age looked to be about 45 and whose number included nine psychologists, nine psychiatrists and four oncologists — had enrolled in this certificate program in the belief that psychedelic drugs like psilocybin and MDMA, administered with the proper support and guidance, hold the potential to revolutionize mental health treatment. The career path might not be clear or straight yet, but these people want to be ready to lead that revolution when it arrives — which may be sooner than we think.

It quickly became clear that . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more. A note at the end:

This article is adapted from “How to Change Your Mind: What the New Science of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression, and Transcendence,” published by Penguin Press. Read the book review here.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2018 at 1:12 pm

Can Psychedelic Drugs Do Good?

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Jason Diamond writes in The New Republic:

On October 29th, 1966, the Austin-based band 13th Floor Elevators performed their psych-rock hit, “You’re Gonna Miss Me” on American Bandstand. It’s an incredible song, but not one of the greatest performances. The band is lip-synching and obviously high off their asses. Singer Roky Erickson’s manic voice and demonic yelp don’t sound like what you’d hear on the radio in those days (or any day, really). What makes the clip memorable is when Dick Clark thrusts the microphone in the face of the band’s jug player, Tommy Hall. Clark, America’s preeminent cool old guy at the time, asks, “Who is the head of the group, gentlemen?” Hall replies: “We’re all heads.”

Author Michael Pollan was eleven years old when that episode of Bandstand aired. It hit the airwaves just six months after Life magazine released an editorial boldly titled “LSD: Control, not Prohibition,” and two months after the Beatles released what was their most acid-inspired album to date, Revolver. But Pollan wasn’t paying much attention to any of that. As he writes in the prologue to his latest book, How to Change Your Mind, he was born “halfway through the decade that psychedelics first burst onto the scene,” but he considers himself “less a child of the psychedelic 1960s than of the moral panic psychedelics provoked.”

One of the aims of his book is to correct that sense of panic. It’s a rare take on psychedelics that does not come dressed up in a cheesy colorful montage and backed by the sounds of the Doors and Jefferson Airplane. Pollan takes his time to show what LSD and 5-MeO-DMT (also known as “The toad,” smoked venom of the Sonoran Desert toad) can actually do: He reaches for enlightenment, and drags us along for the ride. He documents the positive effects of these drugs, from curing addiction to bringing relief to cancer patients, and shares some of his own experiences. As America struggles to help people who deal with addiction and mental health issues, Pollan supplies ample evidence that substances like LSD and psilocybin could actually help—if we’d just move past what we thought we knew.

Derived from the ergot fungi, Albert Hoffman accidentally created LSD in a Swiss lab in 1938. Within a decade, it was being used commercially in Europe for psychiatric use. By the time it made its way to the United States in 1949, scientists were split over the question of how it should be used. As Pollan lays out in his succinct history, some researchers believed that the drug originally known as psychotomimetic, “held promise as a tool for understanding psychosis.” Aldous Huxley famously tripped on his deathbed, while Bill Wilson, founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, believed that a hallucinogenic experience on the plant-derived alkaloid belladonna helped him become sober.

In the mid-1950s, Wilson attempted to introduce LSD into AA treatment, but his colleagues felt that introducing a mind-altering substance into treatment went against the organization’s core mission. By that point, the drug was already gaining a bad reputation among some doctors, but mostly thanks to a misunderstanding of how to administer it. Some, like Abram Hoffer and Humphry Osmond considered psychedelic experience “a key factor in the therapy,” which could lead alcoholics to “something closer to transcendence, or spiritual epiphany.” But other trials put test subjects in constraints, blindfolded them or both. This, of course, led to more than a few bad trips, and, Pollan writes, “critics of treating alcoholics with LSD concluded that the treatment didn’t work as well under rigorously controlled conditions.”

Some groups actively looked to weaponize the drug. One popular myth throughout the 60s was that terrorists were plotting to dump LSD into the water supplies of American and European cities. During the 1968 Democratic convention, rumors swirled that Yippie protesters, led by Abbie Hoffman, were conspiring to spike Chicago’s reservoir. Yet somewhat ironically, it was the CIA that came closest to using LSD for ill, when, starting in 1953 and only officially ending twenty years later in 1973, they carried out mind control experiments, secretly dosing subjects with the drug and observing their behavior.

Ultimately, prohibition won out. LSD was made illegal in 1968. Its connection to the growing counterculture made it appear more of a threat than a cure for anything. By the time the 1980s rolled around, psychedelic drugs had undergone an extensive smearing. Any discussion of possible medical benefit fell silent. From after-school specials dramatizing the devastating effects of drugs to the harsh law enforcement policies of the War on Drugs, the message was that if you took psychedelics, you could lose your mind and even your life. Pollan doesn’t review these psychedelic dark ages much, although he does devote a hefty page count to the work of underground scientists who kept researching these drugs through the 80s and 90s, believing that the maligned substances could be used for good. Those doctors and scientists helped inspire a new generation of researchers, some of whom are now funded by universities, while others still operate illegally and in secret.

In a chapter headed “The Trip Treatment,” Pollan observes the university-funded programs as he delves into psychedelic therapies for quitting smoking. The results are significant. As Pollan points out, giving up cigarettes is considered by some to be tougher than getting off heroin. Yet, after being administered a psychedelic, one patient finds that cigarettes simply “became irrelevant, so I stopped.” This patient participated in the Johns Hopkins smoking cessation pilot study that combined cognitive behavioral therapy with a compound containing psilocybin, the chemical that gives some mushrooms psychedelic properties. The reason this treatment is effective remains the subject of some debate. Pollan notes, “it may be that the loss of self leads to a gain in meaning,” and says explaining the change can’t be explained biologically “yet.”

Pollan compares the patient’s experience to the experience of astronauts who report that, having gone into space and looked down at the “pale blue dot” that is their home planet, their ego vanished. The idea is that taking psilocybin allows patients to confront “the immensity of the universe,” “making possible a shift in worldview and priorities that allowed them to let go of old habits.” Psychedelics can switch things in the brain around, in what amounts to a reorganization of the mental furniture. Pollan theorizes that psychedelics “relax the brain’s inhibition on visualizing our thoughts, thereby rendering them more authoritative, memorable, and sticky.”

These effects may also be therapeutic at the end of life. While some of the people Pollan talks with are trying to live longer and be healthier, some have decided to undergo testing with psychedelics as they come face to face with their own mortality. “I am the luckiest man on earth,” notes Patrick, a man dying of cancer, who participated in an NYU psilocybin trial. Throughout his sessions, he talks of “something beyond this physical body,” and the cancer as a “type of illusion.” For every report of a “bad trip,” there are a dozen stories of profound enlightenment and happiness experienced by people who have dropped acid or taken mushrooms.

Pollan had his whole life to try psychedelics, but for the baby boomer journalist, there was no dropping acid in the parking lot of a Grateful Dead show in the 1970s or anything like that. Pollan, who says early in the book that he tried magic mushrooms “two or three times in my late twenties,” only started experimenting in earnest in his sixties. “I’m not sure what I was waiting for: courage, maybe, or the right opportunity, which a busy life lived on the right side of the law never quite seemed to afford.”

In the chapter entitled “Travelogue,” he goes on three different trips. The guide who gives him LSD for “Trip One,” is the son of a man who served in the SS during World War II.

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2018 at 9:26 am

Ignorance as policy: Trump White House quietly cancels NASA research verifying greenhouse gas cuts

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Paul Voosen reports in Science:

You can’t manage what you don’t measure. The adage is especially relevant for climate-warming greenhouse gases, which are crucial to manage—and challenging to measure. In recent years, though, satellite and aircraft instruments have begun monitoring carbon dioxide and methane remotely, and NASA’s Carbon Monitoring System (CMS), a $10-million-a-year research line, has helped stitch together observations of sources and sinks into high-resolution models of the planet’s flows of carbon. Now, President Donald Trump’s administration has quietly killed the CMS, Sciencehas learned.

The move jeopardizes plans to verify the national emission cuts agreed to in the Paris climate accords, says Kelly Sims Gallagher, director of Tufts University’s Center for International Environment and Resource Policy in Medford, Massachusetts. “If you cannot measure emissions reductions, you cannot be confident that countries are adhering to the agreement,” she says. Canceling the CMS “is a grave mistake,” she adds.

The White House has mounted a broad attack on climate science, repeatedly proposing cuts to NASA’s earth science budget, including the CMS, and cancellations of climate missions such as the Orbiting Carbon Observatory 3 (OCO-3). Although Congress fended off the budget and mission cuts, a spending deal signed in March made no mention of the CMS. That allowed the administration’s move to take effect, says Steve Cole, a NASA spokesperson in Washington, D.C. Cole says existing grants will be allowed to finish up, but no new research will be supported.

The agency declined to provide a reason for the cancellation beyond “budget constraints and higher priorities within the science budget.” But the CMS is an obvious target for the Trump administration because of its association with climate treaties and its work to help foreign nations understand their emissions, says Phil Duffy, president of the Woods Hole Research Center in Falmouth, Massachusetts. And, unlike the satellites that provide the data, the research line had no private contractor to lobby for it.

Many of the 65 projects supported by the CMS since 2010 focused on understanding the carbon locked up in forests. For example, the U.S. Forest Service has long operated the premier land-based global assessment of forest carbon, but the labor-intensive inventories of soil and timber did not extend to the remote interior of Alaska. With CMS financing, NASA scientists worked with the Forest Service to develop an aircraft-based laser imager to tally up forest carbon stocks. “They’ve now completed an inventory of forest carbon in Alaska at a fraction of the cost,” says George Hurtt, a carbon cycle researcher at the University of Maryland in College Park, who leads the CMS science team.

The program has also supported research to improve tropical forest carbon inventories. Many developing nations have been paid to prevent deforestation through mechanisms like the United Nations’s REDD+ program, which is focused on reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation . But the limited data and tools for monitoring tropical forest change often meant that claimed reductions were difficult to trust. Stephen Hagen, a senior scientist at Applied GeoSolutions in Newmarket, New Hampshire, was part of a team that with the Indonesian National Institute of Aeronautics and Space developed laser-mapping tools to automatically detect new roads and gaps in tropical forests, monitoring that helped the Indonesian government apply for REDD+ funding. The end of the CMS is disappointing and “means we’re going to be less capable of tracking changes in carbon,” Hagen says.

The CMS improved other carbon monitoring as well. It supported efforts by the city of Providence to . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2018 at 8:57 am

White House, Scot Pruitt suppressed chemical pollution study

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The Trump administration care zero about American citizens. Annie Snider reports in Politico:

Scott Pruitt’s EPA and the White House sought to block publication of a federal health study on a nationwide water-contamination crisis, after one Trump administration aide warned it would cause a “public relations nightmare,” newly disclosed emails reveal.

The intervention early this year — not previously disclosed — came as HHS’ Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry was preparing to publish its assessment of a class of toxic chemicals that has contaminated water supplies near military bases, chemical plants and other sites from New York to Michigan to West Virginia.

The study would show that the chemicals endanger human health at a far lower level than EPA has previously called safe, according to the emails.

“The public, media, and Congressional reaction to these numbers is going to be huge,” one unidentified White House aide said in an email forwarded on Jan. 30 by James Herz, a political appointee who oversees environmental issues at the OMB. The email added: “The impact to EPA and [the Defense Department] is going to be extremely painful. We (DoD and EPA) cannot seem to get ATSDR to realize the potential public relations nightmare this is going to be.”

More than three months later, the draft study remains unpublished, and the HHS unit says it has no scheduled date to release it for public comment. Critics say the delay shows the Trump administration is placing politics ahead of an urgent public health concern — something they had feared would happen after agency leaders like Pruitt started placing industry advocates in charge of issues like chemical safety.

Sen. Maggie Hassan (D-N.H.) called the delay “deeply troubling” on Monday, urging Pruitt and President Donald Trump “to immediately release this important study.”

“Families who have been exposed to emerging contaminants in their drinking water have a right to know about any health impacts, and keeping such information from the public threatens the safety, health, and vitality of communities across our country,” Hassan said, citing POLITICO’s reporting of the issue.Details of the internal discussions emerged from EPA emails released to the Union of Concerned Scientists under the Freedom of Information Act.

Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, a fellow New Hampshire Democrat, called the delay “an egregious example of politics interfering with the public’s right to know. … [I]t’s unconscionable that even the existence of this study has been withheld until now.”

The emails portray a “brazenly political” response to the contamination crisis, said Judith Enck, a former EPA official who dealt with the same pollutants during the Obama administration — saying it goes far beyond a normal debate among scientists.

“Scientists always debate each other, but under the law, ATSDR is the agency that’s supposed to make health recommendations,” she said.

The White House referred questions about the issue to HHS, which confirmed that the study has no scheduled release date.

Pruitt‘s chief of staff, Ryan Jackson, defended EPA’s actions, telling POLITICO the agency was helping “ensure that the federal government is responding in a uniform way to our local, state, and Congressional constituents and partners.”

Still, Pruitt has faced steady criticism for his handling of science at the agency, even before the recent spate of ethics investigations into his upscale travels and dealings with lobbyists. In his year leading EPA, he has . . .

Continue reading. There’s much more, and it’s disturbing.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 May 2018 at 8:24 am

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