Saturday, June 26, 2010

Peace Be With You


Last year around this time I made a conscious choice to be more consistent and regular about meditating. I had been involved in meditation off and on for almost twenty years, but had not had much success with sitting still for any length of time. Even more difficult than quieting my body was quieting my mind.

And, yet, I kept getting drawn to the cushion and I wanted to be more consistent in my practice. I had just read Barbara Bradley Hagerty's book, Fingerprints of God (which I reviewed here last year) and was excited by the evidence she reported in this book of the positive effects of meditation.

In just one example from this excellent survey of the latest scientific evidence about the effects of meditation on the brain, she reports about a study carried out by Jon Kabat-Zinn and others on inexperienced meditators. The results were remarkable and showed that the regular practice of meditation shifted brain-wave activity toward what Hagerty calls a "happier" state.

I had already wanted to be more consistent about my meditation, but it was the scientific evidence presented in Hagerty's book that helped convince me to try a bit harder to establish a regular meditation practice.

I knew that it takes a good 30 to 40 days of regular repetition of any activity before it becomes part of our regular ritual, so the "trick" I used to start my meditation practice was simple: I gave myself a gold star on the calendar for each day I sat on my cushion at the appointed time.

I had a few setbacks, missed a day here and there, but within a couple of months I realized I no longer needed those gold stars to convince me to sit down and light a candle. Now, a year later, I simply want to do it and I miss the moments with myself if I don't get them.

At first, most of the changes I noticed in my life occurred during those hours between the times I meditated, not during the meditation itself. The effects of the meditation made themselves known in every aspect of my life, as I became more centered, more relaxed and much, much more in touch with what I really thought and felt.

Oh, and about that study that Kabat-Zinn carried out that showed that meditator's brains shifted to a happier state? I can personally confirm that this is, indeed, true.

Peace be with you!

Friday, June 18, 2010

The Chatty Lives of Bacteria


Did you know that bacteria actually talk to one another? They do, using a chemical language that was discovered by Princeton University's Bonnie Bassler. I first discovered Bonnie through her fabulous TED talk on the social lives of bacteria. Watch it here.

This photo shows a petri dish from her lab that has been swabbed with marine bacteria that glow in the dark. The bacteria glow only when enough of them are present to create a bright light. The chemical language they use to communicate and "take roll" makes all this possible.

The process these bacteria use to produce this self-organized collective action is itself an example of complexity in action. The chemicals that the bacteria give off to signal "I am here!" are called auto-inducers.

This means that the presence of the signal molecule induces more of it to be produced. This leads to a kind of "chemical amplification" of the signal, boosting its intensity as more cells enter the region.

I've recently been invited to write occasional posts for LiveScience.com and my first article, on this very topic, went up today. Read it here.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

What Price For A Wetlands?

I was watching the news the other day, and there in the middle of yet another agonizing and depressing report about the catastrophic Gulf oil spill appeared a person whose name I didn't catch. All I noticed was that he was identified as "oil economist."

Here is a paraphrase of what he said: "The revenue that can be generated from the oil produced by these deep wells is much greater than the cost to the environment of one spill. It would take hundreds of oil spills like this to produce any measurable economic impact on the environment."

The reporter didn't question him or follow up on this outrageous statement. How in the world did this "oil economist" calculate the monetary worth of an entire ecosystem? I admit I'm not an economist and don't understand the arcane formulas he might have used to measure the value of intangibles, but something tells me this fellow is either being paid to say these things by somebody who will financially benefit from the sale of this oil, or he is living his life in a sealed-up ivory tower.

We are witnesses to one of the greatest ecological catastrophes of all time, and it should be obvious to all who are watching or directly experiencing this tragedy that the coast, the wetlands and the oceans themselves are valuable in ways that defy a simplistic cost-benefit analysis.

It's offensive for "oil economists" to presume to know how to calculate the value of something as vast as an ocean or as fragile and important as a wetlands. This complex system--of which we, oil producers and consumers alike, are integral components--is showing us everyday what it is like to be part of an integrated whole whose parts cannot be separated or valued separately.

How much would you pay for one clean wetlands area? How about a flock of brown pelicans? How about one healthy turtle? What is a fair price for a clean, working ecological system on which we, and the world we are a part of, depends?

There has been a lot of finger-pointing and blame-making during this incident, but I am looking in the mirror, and I urge you to do the same. How much do you spend on gas each week? How much oil do you and your family consume? Are you willing to change your lifestyle to find ways to lessen or even eliminate our dependence on a petroleum-based economy?

Several years ago, my husband and I moved to a new neighborhood. One of the reasons we chose this location is that it allowed each of us to walk or bike to work. A Metro station is a mile away (a bit of a brisk walk, but it's good exercise) and the bus line runs right outside our door. We put our cars away and often they sit, unused, for days at a time. I still use my too-large Buick to go to the grocery story and run errands, and I would like to trade it in for a hybrid, but nothing (yet) has tipped me past the point of dithering about whether or when to buy a new, more fuel-efficient car.

I've done a lot to lessen my use of petroleum, but I think I can do more. All I have to do is look at any newspaper to see another picture of the devastation wrought by this oil spill to know that I need--soon--to find an answer to this question: what price am I willing to pay for a pristine wetlands or a clean ocean?

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Cellular Flash Mobs

I'm fascinated by flash mobs, those seemingly spontaneous group behaviors that certain groups of humans have begun to develop lately. Consider this example, in which people agree to meet in Grand Central Station only to freeze in place, producing much confusion and delight among bystanders.

You might think that flash mobs were invented by homo sapiens and I would agree that our species has certainly perfected the art form. However, the ability to come together as a collective and carry out a pre-determined set of steps, has been going on for a long time among the lowliest of creatures: the slime mold.

Flash mobs are a form of self-organization, a spontaneous collective behavior that arises due to interactions between the parts of which a group is made. These parts can be individual cells, individual humans, or anything, really. Either way, the result can be quite wonderful.

Here is a strangely moving film, produced using old movies from the lab of Princeton University's John Bonner, showing slime mold cells (or Dictyostelium discoideum, as they are more properly know) coming together into a sort of "cellular flash mob" after sending each other sets of chemical signals. The result is extraordinary and, dare I say, inspiring: