Saturday, January 29, 2011

Chaos and Freedom




This past week as I have watched the people in one country after another in the Middle East rise up in protest against their governments, I've wondered if we are witnessing a moment of bifurcation, when the internal governing force of a society (not the same as the government) goes through a dramatic upheaval and changes form. The result of such a transition can be chaos or it can be some other organized state, but whatever the eventual outcome, the trip from the past into the future is always tumultuous when a bifurcation is encountered.

It's really too early to tell if the situation we are witnessing is an example of what some people call a "tipping point," but complex system scientists call a bifurcation. Nevertheless, I was compelled to write something about this situation after hearing one line in the speech given last night by President Mubarak of Egypt: "There is a thin line between freedom and chaos," he said.

Yes, indeed, there is a thin line and although I'm sure what Mubarak wants is freedom without the chaos, it isn't possible, at least in my view. Chaos breeds creativity and is necessary for the emergence of new forms of existence. Chaos seems bad when we're in the midst of it, but without it, we become stagnant and unchanging, a situation not that much different from being dead.

Scholars who specialize in the Middle East say that they have no idea why revolt is bubbling over now. It certainly sounds like a tipping point has been reached, where a very tiny change leads to a dramatic upheaval, such as might happen if a bit more extra weight is shifted to the opposite end of a seesaw.

But, as I said, it is too early to analyze and interpret the current situation that is changing by the minute--and even if it weren't, I'm not sure I would want to try. Is it even possible to quantify what is in the hearts of a people who have been suppressed for decades? Do we need science to tell us anymore about what is painfully obvious to anybody who is watching: things in the world are about to change dramatically and, whatever the outcome, it is most certainly going to affect all of us.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Saturday, January 22, 2011

When Is A Crowd Like A River?

Almost exactly two years ago today, I attended the inauguration of President Barack Obama on the National Mall in Washington, DC. I was a small person in an enormous crowd, estimated at between one and a half and two million people. It was a little scary, since crowds have been known to break into panicked stampedes, and if that had happened, escape would have been impossible.

I was thinking, again, about that day when I wrote a special article for the L'Oreal Foundation's new website Agora for Women in Science. As it turns out, the large group who gathered on the Mall that day were being protected by a special design for crowd control that works by treating the gathering of people as if they were a large river, flowing between barriers.

Read the original article here.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Our Complex Microbial Selves

Of all the amazing insights to come out of scientific research in the last decade, the one that holds the most personal meaning for me is the mounting evidence that each of us is more a community than an individual. We are, it turns out, in a much more profound way than we ever realized, truly complex systems.

As discussed in Science magazine's "Insights of the Decade" special issue published last month, nine of every ten cells in your body are microbes. Only one of every ten cells that make up the "human" body are  actually human. Some might call this symbiosis, but to me it seems that we're more like little walking eco-systems, carrying around with us a whole host of living things that, apparently, keep us alive and healthy.

Although I find these results inherently fascinating from a complex systems point of view, I have a more personal reason for closely following these developments. As a person who suffers from an autoimmune disorder (specifically, collagenous colitis), I have been particularly intrigued by recent results that seem to indicate that autoimmune diseases, including multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis and type 1 diabetes, may be due to an imbalance in the population of microbes that live in our bodies.

Many of the microbes in our body colonize various body cavities, including the mouth, the bronchial tubes, the vagina and the intestines, although we also harbor many species on our skin. It is becoming increasingly obvious that these microbes, mostly bacteria, but also fungi, viruses and protozoa, have evolved symbiotically with us and we depend on them for healthy functioning, as they depend on us.

The use of "probiotics," or "good bacteria" in guarding health used to be the province of only alternative health practitioners, but nowadays many of those in conventional medicine encourage the use of probiotic supplements, especially when taking antibiotics. While I think this is a good approach, we know so little about which mix of bacteria are healthy that it's hard to know exactly which probiotics will help.

According to a review published in late December, more than 1000 different bacterial species have been found to be living symbiotically with humans, but each individual person harbors about 160 different species, so my ideal mix of beneficial bacteria may not be the same as yours.

One reason for this amazing diversity might be the recent observation that parts of the human immune system require the presence of specific microbes for both their proper development and function. Certain microbial species apparently help turn on or turn off genetic switches within the human immune system, and each of us has a unique set of switches.

Regulatory T cells dampen inflammation after microbial infection and these are switched on in accordance with genetically-determined factors. A microbe that lives in our gut, Bacteroides fragilis, is now known to produce a polysaccharide molecule that suppresses inflammation. Furthermore, some data from germ-deficient mice imply that the presence of this microbe is actually required for the development of healthy regulatory T cell function. Without this bacterium, it is suggested, we would not be able to mount a defense against other microbial invaders.

Similarly intriguing results exist for the influence of microbes on the down-regulation of inflammation. Since a healthy immune response requires a balance between pro- and anti-inflammatory reactions, an intriguing new possibility that has just emerged is that autoimmune disorders might be the result of what we could call "dysbiosis," or the dysfunction of the microbial colony that lives within us.

A large-scale project to map what is now being called the "human microbiome," or catalog of microbes that make up the colony within our bodies, has been launched by the National Human Genome Research Institute in Bethesda, MD and some of their recent results are described here. I'm going to be carefully watching the results that come out of this effort to better characterize our complex microbial selves. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Where There is Hate, Let Us Sow Love

I have been an enthusiastic user of Twitter for two years and follow an eclectic mix of people, a combination of scientists, writers, yoga and meditation practitioners, religious folks and people who are just plain fascinating. In short, I follow a group that reflects the mix of my own concerns and interests.

In the last two days as our country has witnessed the attempted assassination of a member of Congress, Twitter has been my go-to place for news, but it has also been one of my go-to places for spiritual comfort. Many of the people I follow are in shock, hurting, angry or even showing signs of despair, yet here is where I have found comfort. 

I, too, fear for the future of my country at this time and I have been grateful for the places online where I can gather together with others and pray, such as the Virtual Abbey, an online monastic community that tweets regular prayer of the type one could find in a monastery. At times like these, I find that going back to the ancient traditional forms provides the most comfort. These prayers have been around for hundreds of years for a reason: they speak to our souls, and they do it in ways that are timeless and profound.

Some of my more scientifically-minded followers often dismiss the value of prayer, looking to one or another scientific study about whether prayer can help heal illnesses, for example, or has some other sort of desired physical effect on a natural physical phenomenon. These functions of prayer are of little concern to me, and I often wonder why scientists are so concerned with proving (or disproving) that supernatural events can be influenced by prayer.

There are many types of prayer: prayers of thanksgiving, intercessory prayer (this is the type that some of those scientists confine themselves to studying) and prayers asking for guidance or strength, just to name a few. For the past two days a prayer attributed to St. Francis of Assissi has been running continuously through my mind, and I wanted to share it here with you since it is one of the latter types of prayers: a prayer asking for the strength and guidance we need at times such as the ones we are facing.

Peace be with you.

A Prayer Attributed to St Francis

Lord, make us instruments of your peace. 
Where there is hatred, let us sow love; 
where there is injury, pardon; 
where there is discord, union; 
where there is doubt, faith; 
where there is despair, hope; 
where there is darkness, light; 
where there is sadness, joy. 

Grant that we may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; 
to be understood as to understand; 
to be loved as to love. 

For it is in giving that we receive; 
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned; 
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

Amen.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Saturday, January 1, 2011

A New Look for the New Year

I'm welcoming in 2011 by dressing up my blog in a new outfit. I've tried on ten or twenty different options and after reviewing them all with my design consultant (otherwise known as my dear husband!) we've chosen this one. I hope you like it.

Happy New Year and best wishes to all of you for a healthy and happy 2011!