Wednesday, December 28, 2011

In With the New

The Butterfly Nebula, Hubble Telescope

As another year draws to a close, I'm celebrating in a way that seems to have become traditional for me lately - by tweaking and sprucing up my website and blog. This year, I've combined the two into one! You can now find and the Complexity Simplified blog all in one convenient place.

In 2012, I hope to bring some improvements to the blog, so watch for a few new things:

  • Guest posts! If you have an idea for a guest post for Complexity Simplified, let me know. I am especially interested in posts on applications of complex systems science in the "real" world.
  • A series of tutorials! I started doing this back at the beginning when I wrote several short tutorials on attractors, bifurcations, fractals, and other concepts from complex systems science. Time to add to the list, and there is a lot more material to cover. Stay tuned.
  • Book reviews! I'm currently reading a fascinating book on dark matter and dark energy, and hope to review it soon. If you have a book on science or science and religion that you'd like me to review, please contact me.

Finally, I truly hope to be posting more often in the new year than I have in 2011. In fact, this is one of my new year's resolutions, so I really hope I can keep this one. Here's to a better blog in 2012!

Saturday, December 24, 2011

O Great Mystery

O magnum mysterium,
et admirabile sacramentum,
ut animalia viderent Dominum natum,
jacentem in praesepio!
Beata Virgo, cujus viscera
meruerunt portare
Dominum Christum

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Nearly Wordless Wednesday

Welcoming the Solstice...waiting for the return of the Light

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit the main site.
For more of my photos, see Flickr.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Celebrating Three Years

Three years ago today, I started this blog, Complexity Simplified, and put up my first post, which was pretty weak. It basically said, "Here is my new blog and I will be posting some stuff soon!"

Not the strongest start, perhaps, but I did start posting stuff soon, including a post about this fractal vegetable, Romanesco broccoli, along with an explanation: Fractals in Nature. That post is one of the most viewed on my site, coming in third after a post about Haiti (more on that below) and a post on The Emergent System.

I suppose a lot of people start their blogs the same way. It takes awhile to decide to even start a blog, and most people who don't blog think the design and layout is going to be the hard part. I, like many other bloggers, learned very quickly that the design was easy -- it was the content that was challenging, especially the ever-present need to create new posts and keep it interesting.

I, of course, find all the topics I post about here interesting, but I sometimes wonder if my wide range of interests has left people wondering just what this blog is about. In one sense, this is a science blog. I am a scientist, after all, and a true geek, as nerdy as they come, so any blog I wrote would have to be about science at some level. And it would be about complex systems science, of course, since that's what I have worked on my entire 30+ year career.

But I've posted here about other things: religion and science is one major topic. I also have reviewed books (many on science, religion or books comparing the two), posted a lot of photos as a participant in the Wordless Wednesday endeavor, and posted lots of other random posts about something that just happened to be on my mind that week.

So, feeling a little nostalgic today, I've spent some time going back through all the 178 posts I've made over the last three years and working with Google Analytics to see if there was any consistent pattern in reader response to posts about different topics. I guess I really am an incurable scientist, because my first thought was to look at the data and see if there were any patterns. And there are!

By far, the most viewed post at Complexity Simplified, with nearly 5000 views, is one posted January 16, 2010, a few days after the massive earthquake in Haiti. Entitled Haiti: Not a Natural Disaster this post starts with the sentence "Scientists who study disasters agree that this week's earthquake in Haiti was not a natural disaster but, rather, a man-made one."

The Haiti post goes on to provide links to studies that back up this statement. The upshot of this post is that although the earthquake was, indeed, massive, economic and social factors are to blame for the catastrophic nature of the event. People are still viewing this post on a regular basis, nearly two years after I wrote it.

The second most-viewed post, an explanation of The Emergent System, was really not viewed very much at all until a writer at linked to it in a widely-read post about a column in the New York Times. Other posts that week, about using complex systems theory to understand the spread of swine flu, were widely read, so I found it odd that this more "academic" post was suddenly capturing people's attention. I saw views of the page spike but didn't know why until a friend on Twitter pointed the BigThink article out to me. All this just goes to show what we all probably already knew: the power of personal recommendation should never be underestimated.

The Haiti post tied with another post, a personal reminiscence about the influence Madeline L'Engle's book "A Wrinkle in Time" had on my development as a scientist, for number of comments. Very different posts, but both clearly touched a nerve with readers.

Two posts were also tied for second in commenting. The first, a post written shortly after the catastrophic tsunami in Japan when people in the US were needlessly freaking out about radiation, is entitled "What you need to know about potassium iodide." A provocative topic for sure, as was the post with the same number of comments: "What Do Scientists Believe?" which was a book review of Elaine Howard Ecklund's book of the same title about the religious beliefs of scientists.

So, my conclusion from this admittedly non-scientific study of the analytic data on my blog, is that topics that tie to the news get the most views. This actually runs counter to advice I've seen other bloggers make: they say that adding one more voice to the large number of voices blogging about a topic is not the way to get noticed. That doesn't seem to be true in the case of Complexity Simplified, but I think I know why.

I think people are interested in reading about a view of the day's news that emphasizes the complex nature of the systems that underlie the events that we are all trying so hard to understand. People want to know how to prevent another catastrophe like the one in Haiti. They want to know as much as they possibly can about the pandemic they've read about in the news or the radiation advancing toward them across the ocean, because they need information to know how to protect themselves and their family.

I believe that complex systems science has much to offer the world in coping with and understanding these types of situations, so I have been happy to share what I know. And I look forward to the next three years of blogging about this topic that I cannot imagine I will ever lose interest in.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Amazing Bird Videos

I'm thrilled to see so many videos of bird flocking being passed around among friends on social networks. This amazing example of self-organization is truly awe-inspiring. Here is one example that has come to my attention lately. The action really starts about two minutes in, so keep watching!

For an in-depth explanation of this phenomenon, check out the post I wrote over two years ago when these videos first started to make the rounds.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Sunday, November 13, 2011

A Social Media Experiment

I unwittingly carried out a little social media experiment this summer when I took a sabbatical from most of my social media activity (Twitter, Facebook and Google+) and stopped posting to my blogs. At the time, I was overwhelmed with work that needed to be completed, travel that was taking up a lot of time, and starting a new business, so the sabbatical happened simply to create space in my life.

And it worked -- I completed most of the tasks I needed to do, completed the travel, launched the business -- but by taking "time off" from social media I found out a little bit more about the different social media platforms and their role in my life.

Looking back, I can now see that one of the triggers for my sudden sabbatical was the appearance of Google+ on the scene. I was very enthusiastic about the promise of this new social medium and wrote a post likening Google+ to an especially nourishing culture dish for people who want to talk to one another. But the time required to learn a new way to interact, find people to follow, post things and make comments, etc etc, was more than I had available, and my reaction was to shut down not only Google+ activity but everything else.

Or, ALMOST everything else, because I soon found that I was back on Facebook. It had been only a few weeks since I announced my sabbatical, but Hurricane Irene hit the east coast and I "needed" to let people know we were okay. I suppose I could have picked up the phone and called a bunch of folks, but how much easier it was to post one quick note that everybody could see...and so, I was back, but only on Facebook.

And, I completely understand why it is that FB is the place I went back to first. Here is where I will find people that I interact with in real life -- family members, friends and neighbors, co-workers, colleagues, and so forth. It is an online community that looks very much like my real-life community. 

By and large, though, my FB friends do not share my intellectual interests. I have found many new "friends," although most are still only online acquaintances, who are interested in the same things I am through Twitter and, now, Google+. I enjoy reading their posts and tweets, but I had no problem turning off the flow of incoming information during that time I needed to get back to my own work and ignore everything else.

This continued to be the pattern for the next two months. I completely ignored Twitter and Google+, except for occasionally logging in to see if anything was happening (it wasn't). When I finally ended my sabbatical in October, I was astounded to see that my followers on Google+ had jumped from less than 100 to, as of today, over 700. And this, despite the fact that I hadn't posted anything for two months!

Since re-appearing, I've had a hard time getting started with Twitter again. I find my way into a few conversations, see a few tweets with interesting links, but something seems to have disappeared from my Twitter experience. There are still a few friends on Twitter I like to talk to, but much of the news I see there is repeated over on G+, so I continue to wonder if Twitter will soon be obsolete. 

Google+ also seemed kind of dead until the last week or so when brand pages appeared. Not that I followed any of them, but suddenly I'm seeing new things on Google+ that I don't see on Twitter. And I'm wondering if this will continue and there will eventually be a big shake-out of all the different ways we organize ourselves into interacting on-line communities.

So, no words of wisdom from me about this today, just some raw anecdotal data. I would be interested to hear from others who have done similar experiments or are following the evolution of these media with an eye to their self-organizing capacities. It's an interesting era we are living in!

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Porcelain Berries

For more Wordless Wednesday, see the main site.
For more of my photos, visit Flickr.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Sunday, October 9, 2011

I'm Back!

I've been taking a sabbatical from Complexity Simplified and most forms of social media, as well as my other blog Yoga Emergence, for almost two months, and my sabbatical is now coming to an end.

When I announced that I needed a break, I was overwhelmed with things I needed to do, trips I needed to take, and a pressing need to get back to my writing. I think my sabbatical accomplished what I hoped it would, since:

(1) I organized and launched my new yoga teaching business and now have about a dozen regular students;
(2) I added about 2300 miles to the odometer in my car, bringing the total for this summer to over 5000 miles (that's what happens when you drive from Washington DC to Indianapolis and back three times);
(3) I completed a draft of my new novel and have started distributing copies to my writing buddies, who will help me find where it still needs work (and I'm sure it does!)

I have a few other observations about the results of this sabbatical--including the curious (to me) finding that of all the social media platforms I use, the only one I made a regular appearance on during my sabbatical was Facebook--but will hold the rest of my musings about sabbaticals and their value for a later post. 

Oh, and in addition to all that this sabbatical has brought into my life, surely the most photogenic is the young cat that we have just adopted. Meet Cricket, the newest member of our family!

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Soaring High

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit the main site.
For more of my photos, see Flickr.

I am currently on a blog and social media sabbatical (see here for more details) so may not respond to comments right away. See you in October!

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

On Sabbatical

After going through my calendar for the next several weeks and agonizing, once again, about how I am just not getting to the things I want and need to do, I've come to the inevitable conclusion that something needs to go, at least for awhile. So, Complexity Simplified will be "on sabbatical" for a few weeks, until October 1st, while Raima tries to get caught up.

Sabbatical might not be the right word for this break I need to take, since I expect to be very busy with several writing projects during that time, and with launching my yoga teaching business (as chronicled on my other blog, Yoga Emergence) and traveling to no fewer than three destinations between now and the end of September.

Vacation is not quite the right word, either, although one of the upcoming trips involves a short (four-day) stay at the beach. I toyed with the idea of an "internet fast," since the break from regular posting to Complexity Simplified will also involve a break from social media, but that didn't seem quite right, either.

I finally decided that I would just post an announcement that I'm "Gone Fishing," and that's actually a pretty good description of what I hope to accomplish during this time. It has actually been quite some time since I had anything of substance to say on this blog, and this is a reflection of being tapped out. The well feels like it's running dry, primarily because I'm not taking time for renewal and recharging the source. So, I'm going fishing, and hope to return in the fall refreshed and renewed with a lot more to say, and maybe with a mess of fish.

This doesn't mean that you won't see posts from Complexity Simplified during this time. I'm loading in a bunch of photos and short posts and scheduling these for publication throughout the coming weeks. Thanks to TwitterFeed and NetworkedBlogs all these posts should show up on Twitter and Facebook and it will look like I'm here, when actually I'm not. The wonders of computer automation!

Despite my enthusiasm for the newest social network site, Google+, it is still not sufficiently developed that automatic feed mechanisms are available, so it will probably look like I've all but disappeared from Google+ for the next couple of months. It will be interesting to see what that medium is like in October, since it's grown at an enormous pace in its first month of life. I predict big changes and new developments in the weeks to come, but they will have to take place without me hovering around to watch.

I really need to thank my friend, Susan Henderson, who posted a note on her blog LitPark back around the middle of June that she was taking a break from all things internet for the entire summer. I've missed her posts and missed interacting with her, but I completely identify with her story of saying that you want to write, but doing everything else instead. Social media is a wonderful new development in our society, but it can also become an addiction if used to avoid the work we need and want to do. I don't know if I'm quite to the "addicted" stage yet, but I know when I need a break--and I need a break.

So, I'll be back in the fall, when the leaves are starting to turn and the temperature is no longer hovering around 100 degrees days after day after day. If anybody really needs to find me, I will be reading email during this time. (I flirted with going on an email sabbatical, too, but that would be akin to not answering my phone!)

See you in October!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Colonizing Google+

I'm in! I've actually been in (to Google+) for a few days now, but have taken some time to play with it and see how it works. And I have to say, I am really impressed and see lots of potential for this new social medium. You can find my Google+ profile here, so please connect!

Bacterial Colony in Petri Dish
One of the things I've been impressed with is how the designers of the Google+ social medium have initiated the process of "inviting" people to join. It seems that they did, in fact, actually "invite" a few people at the beginning, but now those people have invited others, who've invited others, and so on. 

All it takes now to get in is to know somebody who is in and ask them to invite you. So, if you want in, send me your email address and I'll invite you!

I was struck by how the people who are on Google+ are coming in through their already-well-established social networks. It's like we're colonizing this medium the way a group of bacterial cells colonizes a petri dish. The result can, at times, be quite beautiful, as shown in this photograph from one of my far-flung friends and colleagues, Eshel Ben-Jacob at Tel Aviv University.

I wish I could have sat in on the discussions of the Google+ design crew as they made plans for launching this new platform. How did they choose those first adopters? It seems to me that they chose people who had a lot of well-established contacts, people who were already enthusiastic and competent users of other social media. I, for example, received my invitation from Meredith Gould who is linked to more social media communities than anybody I know -- and knows how to use them.

I have the same sense of potential for Google+ as I did for Twitter when I first joined it about two and a half years ago. The medium is set up to allow a self-organizing system to flourish, and it will, since people are very (very) social and will tolerate even a poorly-designed interface to get more chances to talk to one another and interact. Google+ seems to have fixed some of the problems with both Twitter and Facebook, which is great, but only time will tell if these improvements are enough to get people to migrate to this new medium.

One thing I am impatiently waiting for is the day when all these social media will merge and I can just "go online" to one place and see all my messages, all the ongoing conversations, all the news, all in one place with one login. Google+ works for me, a Gmail user, because it pops right up at the top and side of my email inbox. I don't have to make a special effort to go look at it, like I do with Twitter and Facebook. I would love to see this trend continue. (Developers, are you listening??)

Note added after initial publication of this post: Just saw this study which estimates the number of Google+ users at 10 million -- and this just two weeks after its launch!

Friday, July 8, 2011

End of an Era

Today the space shuttle is scheduled to launch for the very last time. I'm both sad about the end of an inspiring era but also excited about the future of space flight.

This image shows the shuttle Atlantis on the launchpad a few days ago. Launch is scheduled for 11:26 AM today and you can watch live at NASA TV.

At the moment, launch is a go!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Self Organizing After the Tornado

Tornado in central Oklahoma, 1999. Credit: NOAA
Last night, I switched on the television to check the latest news about the ongoing string of tornadoes in the US. Anderson Cooper was on CNN, interviewing people who were having trouble locating their friends and family members. The network was resorting to publishing photos and phone numbers of the missing to try and reconnect people with their loved ones. Several videos were shown of injured and exhausted folks waiting in line for hours on end to talk to a representative of FEMA or another government agency, sometimes just for permission to go to their neighborhood and look for the missing.

We should not, in 2011, be responding to disasters this way, with all we know about how people self-organize following disasters. It is well-known from studies of the aftermath of the World Trade Center bombings on September 11, 2001, Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans, and several other well-studied disasters that people develop ad-hoc communication networks to help each other cope with the aftermath of a disaster. Our disaster response strategy should reflect this knowledge, but it doesn't. We continue to react to disasters as if people were members of a military unit and can be ordered around, instead of working with their natural tendency to connect and care for one another.

Some of the complexity scientists studying disasters and response efforts using a complex systems approach include Carter Butts at the University of California-Irvine, Noshir Contractor at Northwestern University, Louise Comfort at the University of Pittsburgh, and others. I will be writing future posts with more details about the insights these complex systems scientists have found about how people respond to disasters.  

We can, and should, use technology to facilitate the natural self-organization potential that people possess. However, relying on television broadcasting and telephones, particularly when the cell phone network has been damaged, is not bringing the full potential of our technological abilities to bear on this problem. Here are just two examples of more up-to-date efforts to apply what we know from complex systems science to disaster response:
  • Google's people-finder project has been used to reconnect folks after several recent major disasters, including the earthquake and tsunami in Japan, the earthquake in New Zealand and the recent flooding in Australia.
  • The Emergency Mapping Service, an international organization combines GPS satellite data with on-ground information to produce maps that first-responders can use as they carry out their relief efforts. 
An excellent blog, Aid on the Edge of Chaos, focuses on the implications that complexity science has for foreign aid and humanitarian response in both disaster settings, as well as situations involving chronic conditions of poverty, drought, famine, etc.

In future posts, I will explore this topic in more detail. Stay tuned...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

When Our World Changes

Available for Kindle and Nook

In early October, 2001, when we were all still reeling from the attacks of September 11, I put pen to paper, to deal with my sense that the world had fundamentally changed. I started to write, because that's what I always do when faced with events in my life that I don't understand and am not coping with. I'm a writer, and writers write to make sense of their world.

And before long, I realized that the reason I felt the world had changed in fundamental ways, was because it had. I had a strong feeling that we were in the midst of a world-wide transition of such dramatic proportions that it might be the type of change complex systems scientists refer to as a bifurcation.

During a bifurcation, the attractor that characterizes the dynamics of a system changes abruptly and discontinuously, and the forces that governed the behavior of that system also change in fundamental ways. What used to organize the systems workings and operations, no longer does, and what has replaced that previous organizing force is not immediately obvious.

Because I knew that bifurcations are extremely disruptive but also indicate that a new organizing principle is coming into existence, I realized that the chaos and confusion we were experiencing was only temporary, as was the sense of unity and singular purpose that many of us also felt. A new world was coming into existence and we didn't yet know what it was, although those first few weeks held many clues about the new reality we would soon come to refer to as the "post-9/11 world."

Now, almost ten years later, it seems as if we might be closing a chapter in that post-9/11 story. The death of Osama bin Laden has brought to a conclusion one of the defining characteristics of the new world that came into existence that day, and just as it was nearly ten years ago, we really have no idea what the new world that awaits us will be like. The ongoing popular uprisings in the middle east and north Africa provide more than a hint of evidence that our world is going through another bifurcation.

A few days ago, I re-issued the essay that I wrote in those early weeks following September 11, 2001, this time in electronic form for the Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook e-readers, formats that didn't even exist at the time this essay was first drafted. The essay, originally published by the Institute of Noetic Sciences in their print publication, IONS Review, was widely distributed, and even translated into Spanish at one point. 

The scientific language has changed somewhat (the field was known as "nonlinear science" or even "chaos science" back then, but most people now refer to it as "complexity science") but I have decided to leave the old language intact. Despite the slight change in language, the concepts remain extremely relevant, and can help us navigate through turbulent times in society as well as weather the dramatic upheavals we all experience in our personal lives. 

If you don't own a Kindle or Barnes & Noble Nook reader, you can still read this essay using one of the free Nook apps or free Kindle apps available for almost any computer platform.

Finally, I would like to send a big Thank You to IONS for publishing my essay in the first place and for permission to re-issue it at this time. Check the IONS website for more details about their ongoing work in the juicy interface between science, spirituality, religion and consciousness studies.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Even More Adventures in Publishing

I received an automated email from Amazon last night saying, basically, "Congratulations, your book has been published," which didn't surprise me too much since I'd just finished uploading my fifth short story to Amazon's Kindle Direct Publishing site. 

The next line was very exciting, though, and invited me to set up an Author page on  I've seen these pages for other authors, but didn't know how to initiate the process. I dropped what I was doing, followed the links and instructions provided in the email--and within (literally) twenty minutes, I had my new Author page!

As with e-publishing itself, the process was extremely easy and fast, and I was even able to provide RSS feeds for my blogs. I was also invited to link my twitter account to this page, so all of you who don't follow me on Twitter get the great privilege of reading my latest tweet on Amazon.

I have a couple more short stories to upload, and will then turn my attention to re-publishing an essay I wrote in October 2001, just weeks after 9/11, in which I explain how the world encountered a bifurcation that day when planes crashed into the twin towers in New York. The points made in that essay remain valid today, nearly ten years later, so stay tuned for the re-release of my essay, "Life Lessons From the Newest Science."

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Sunday, April 10, 2011

Adventures in Publishing

I am very excited to report that, yesterday, my scifi short story, The Omega Upgrade was published by Barnes and Noble as a NOOKBook. NOOKBooks are electronic publications readable on B&N's NOOK or on just about any system (PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone, Android or Blackberry) after downloading the free NOOKApp. I expect the Kindle version to be out shortly, perhaps even tomorrow. 

I wrote the first draft of this story five or six years ago, about the time people began walking around with bluetooth phone connectors in their ears, talking to phantoms in the air (or so it seemed to most of us). Around the same time, the first waves of research in developing brain-computer interfaces were being reported, and I began to wonder what would happen if these technologies were combined. To tell any more would give away the story, so you're just going to have to read it if you want to know more!

Until quite recently, it never occurred to me to consider publishing my short stories myself in an electronic format. I've been writing fiction for a long time and have had a few stories published in the traditional way (in ink, on paper) and had started to mull over the idea of publishing a collection of my short stories using Amazon's self-publishing system. 

What I had in mind was creating an actual book--you know, the kind with paper pages and a cover. I was still thinking in the traditional way, that the only publication worth its salt is one that you can hold in your hands. And then, one day, I saw a few tweets and blog posts from my friend Drew Goodman about how he had published a single short story for the Kindle, available anytime, anywhere, for 99 cents.

I was intrigued, because short pieces seem perfectly suited to the Kindle or the NOOK -- or any handheld device like a smartphone. Wouldn't it be nice to pass the time waiting in line at the license branch or commuting on the train by pushing a button and downloading a short story for about the same amount of money one might spend on a single piece of music or an app? I, for one, would love to do that.

I admit it took me awhile to get around to actually trying this after reading Drew's first blog post. I thought it would be difficult, that I'd have to learn all sorts of new formatting tricks, that I'd have to create files that I didn't know how to I put it off, convincing myself it was too hard.

And then, on Friday this week (yes, two days ago), I decided to google "e-publishing short stories" and immediately came upon this excellent blog post with more excellent comments, both of which led me to even more useful information. For example, the sign-in page for electronic self-publishing on Barnes & Noble and the similar sign-in page for Kindle self-publishing.

So, I began to read and explore and I found that I didn't need to learn any fancy reformatting. I could upload a Word document. Yes, Word! I was initially excited by how easy this seemed, then realized that I'd have to create a cover image. How to do this? To make a long story a bit shorter, I took one of my own photos (that I own full rights for) and turned it into a cover using PowerPoint and Preview on my Mac. And, yes, I did it wrong about five times before I got it right. 

But the point is, I did all of this within a couple of hours, including the time spent setting up my publisher's account and doing one last word-polish and spellcheck of my story. I hit the submit button and by the next afternoon, there was my story on B&N's website, for sale for 99 cents. The whole process was almost as easy as publishing a blog post.

I will let you know when the Kindle version appears, as well as the other short stories I have in the hopper, ready to go. And for you skeptics out there, who wonder if electronically publishing short stories makes any sense, I'm happy to report that I've already sold 5 copies. In one day!

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Cherry Blossom Time

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit the main site.
For more of my photos, see Flickr.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Thursday, March 17, 2011

All Radiation is Not Created Equal

I have seen many alarming headlines and news-stories lately, saying things like "radiation clouds heading for the US from Japan" along with calls to protect your family now from this looming danger. Yesterday, I addressed the issue of using potassium iodide pills to block the radiation. Please read it if you haven't yet, but the short version is: those pills will not help much and they certainly won't block all the radiation as many people believe.

Radiation comes in many different forms. We are surrounded by and exposed to radiation all the time, since sunlight is radiation, as are radio waves, TV waves and microwaves. This type of radiation is called "non-ionizing" because when it is absorbed by matter (like your body) it does not produce charged particles known as ions.

Ionizing radiation, on the other hand, will strip electrons from the atoms in your body (or any other type of matter) when it is absorbed. This can wreak havoc in your tissues, since the result can be free radicals or other highly-reactive species that cause a cascade of worrisome events. 

We are exposed to ionizing radiation all the time, and our bodies have developed means to defend against a certain level of radiation in the environment. Free radical scavengers exist in our bodies and clean up the byproducts of ionizing radiation--as long as there's not too much of it.

Examples of ionizing radiation include X-rays, gamma rays, alpha rays and beta rays. The latter three are all produced in nuclear reactors and emitted by the substances which may be released when a nuclear reactor is damaged or explodes. An excellent, and very detailed, article about radiation can be found here.

A lot of attention has been focused in media reports on whether or not the explosions seen at the troubled reactors in Japan were "nuclear explosions" or not. (Apparently, they were not.) To me, this is irrelevant. An explosion that spreads radioactive material into the environment is a problem whether or not the source of the explosion was a thermonuclear event or a build-up of combustible gas. Nuclear explosions are much more powerful, of course, but the main reason they are so feared is because of the radioactive materials left behind afterward.

Last night, the special defense forces in Japan began an operation to flood the number 3 nuclear reactor at the Fukushima Daiishi power plant with water, and many wondered why they chose that particular reactor for their initial assault, when three others (numbers 1, 2 and 4) appear, visually, to be in much worse shape. I certainly don't know what led them to this decision, but perhaps the nature of the fuel rods inside reactor 3 had something to do with it.

Apparently (and I only know this from media reports, but I assume it is correct) the number 3 reactor uses a type of fuel rod known as MOX fuel, which stands for "mixed oxide." This name does not sound too alarming, until you read further to find that the MOX fuel rods are composed of a mixture of Uranium-238 (the usual fuel in a nuclear plant) and Plutonium-239, or Pu-230.

Pu-239 is not naturally occurring. It is produced in so-called breeder reactors by bombarding Uranium-238 with neutrons. It is used in nuclear weapons, which is why it's use in nuclear power plants has been controversial.

Pu-239 is chemically toxic, but it is also radioactive with a half life of 24,000 years. This means that half of a sample of Pu-239 will still be radioactive after 24,000 years have passed; the other half will have decayed by emitting what's known as alpha radiation.

Alpha radiation is actually a beam of helium atoms that have been stripped of their electrons, giving them a positive electrical charge. They are heavy and the energy they carry is, thus, low. Alpha rays can penetrate only 2-3 inches of air and can be stopped by a single sheet of paper or a thin layer of human skin.

The problem with alpha rays occurs when substances that emit them are breathed into the body or ingested through food and drink. Pu-239 is an alpha emitter and if it is present in particulates in the smoke coming out of a damaged reactor, anybody nearby needs to be shielded immediately. It is not clear to me how far Plutonium will travel in a "cloud" since that seems to depend on the size and nature of the particles in the smoke.

Another type of ionizing radiation produced in radioactive decay is beta radiation. These rays are actually electrons that travel with high speed. They can penetrate about an inch of water and about the same thickness of human flesh, but can be blocked by an eighth of an inch of aluminum, so special protective clothing is needed to block beta rays.

Gamma radiation is, by far, the most dangerous of all radiation produced by radioactive substances. Gamma radiation is pure energy (no particles are associated with it) and is very similar to X-rays. To block gamma radiation, 3 - 4 feet of concrete is required or, better yet, a few inches of lead. It is likely that the high radiation levels being measured near the Fukushima reactors is gamma radiation. Shielding workers from this type of radiation will be very difficult, if not impossible. 

It is important to realize that gamma radiation will not travel indefinitely through air as it will be absorbed by molecules of oxygen, nitrogen and water as it moves along, so there is no danger to anybody who stays far enough away. The bigger danger comes from the radioactive nuclei that may be escaping from the reactors. 

I would like to see more detailed information from the Japanese government and its electric utility TEPCO about the precise nature of the radiation they are measuring. A few bits of information are coming through about monitoring of Cesium and Iodine, but a fuller picture would help experts around the world do a better assessment of any dangers we all may be facing.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

What You Need to Know About Potassium Iodide

As I have watched the situation in Japan go from bad to worse to completely unbelievable, I have wondered what I could do to help. I am so far away, and it doesn't seem I or my family can provide much help in any direct way. I can watch and pray and send money to relief organizations such as the American Red Cross or directly to the Japanese Red Cross Society, so I do, but am still left feeling like I want to help in a more direct way.

The unfolding nuclear power plant disaster has raised fears around the world, which I addressed in my post yesterday. These fears are not completely unfounded, but I have become concerned about some of the responses, particularly in countries outside of Japan. When I heard yesterday that people on the west coast of the US were so panicked by the situation that they had bought up all the supplies of potassium iodide, I suddenly knew how I could help more: by sharing what I know about nuclear chemistry and radiation.

And I know a considerable amount. As I explained in yesterday's post, I taught a course for over two decades that included a major section on nuclear power, the fate of nuclear waste, radiation in the environment and related topics. It is an issue near and dear to my heart and I feel it receives scant attention in our education system. We are paying the price for that educational lack now, since people need good, reliable information about all things nuclear and they aren't always getting it.

The first thing people need to know is that potassium iodide tablets will not protect you from the effects of all nuclear radiation or nuclear fission products. I'll explain why below, but the second point is that if you have purchased these tablets, do not take them until instructed by an official. Potassium iodide can have harmful side effects and should only be used if there is an immediate threat of poisoning by radioactive iodine in the environment.

There is plenty of information out there on the web about this issue, but I will repeat it to be sure everybody understands. Potassium iodide tablets only protect the thyroid, not the whole body, and all they do is help block your body's uptake of radioactive iodine, which is but one of the products that are produced by a nuclear fission reactor.

We, of course, might want to protect the thyroid from absorbing radioactive iodine since it could cause cancer, but this is only one of multiple issues to be concerned about. These tablets do not protect the body against gamma radiation or any of the other dangerous radioactive nuclides that might be present after a nuclear accident, including Cesium-137 and Strontium-90.

When the term "radiation" is used, it is usually not specified exactly what type of radiation we are talking about or measuring. There are different types of radiation: alpha, beta, gamma and neutron radiation, all with different health effects, but it is also important to know what the source of the radiation is. 

Radiation is given off when radioactive atoms that are produced in the process of nuclear fission "decay," which means they eject small charged particles or beams of energy at periodic intervals. Some of these radioactive elements decay rapidly. Half of a sample of radioactive Iodine-151, for example, will decay, and become non-radioactive, in only 8 days. Iodine-151 is, thus, said to have a "half life" of 8 days. On the other hand, the half-life of Cesium-137 is thirty years, so when radioactive Cesium is detected, people tend to be much more concerned. 

All of these radioactive species are dangerous, but the truly ominous products of nuclear fission processes are those with extremely long half-lives, such as Iodine-129, which has a half life of nearly 16 million years, or Uranium-235, one of the components of active fuel rods. Its half-life is a whopping 700 million years. Here is a helpful primer on radioactivity in the natural environment with lots of links to other useful information.

It is unlikely that any of these long-lived radionuclides, if they were accidentally released from one of the damaged reactors in Japan, would ever reach the shores of the US. And we encounter radiation in our daily lives all the time, since the earth is constantly bombarded with cosmic rays and there are many, many naturally-occurring radioactive elements in the environment--and in our own tissues, for that matter. 

So, in one sense, we in the US need to calm down a bit and try to keep things in perspective. The people in the area closely surrounding the nuclear plants in Fukushima have good reason for immediate concern, but that doesn't mean the entire world is going to suffer the same effects.

And, yet, I believe we should be cautious and wary and pay close attention to what is going on. The US is the world's largest producer of nuclear energy, and our 104 nuclear reactors provide nearly 20% of the country's energy needs. Whether we go forward with building more is one question, but we already have plenty of reactors on hand to take care of and understand. All of us need to educate ourselves so that we fully grasp what any authorities may tell us. Your health, quite literally, depends on it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

A Radioactive Topic

Burial Site for the SL-1 Reactor in Idaho
The crisis in Japan expanded this weekend from an enormous earthquake, a catastrophically destructive tsunami, and hundreds of aftershocks to now include an ongoing and rapidly evolving crisis with several nuclear power plants in the Fukushima region

The threat posed by the damaged nuclear reactors has raised concern around the world. Some have downplayed these concerns, suggesting that people over-react to anything with the words "nuclear" or "radiation" in it, but I disagree. We should be worried. Very worried.

Many stories have appeared in the US press asking: could something like the situation in Japan happen in our country? In fact, something very similar did happen here, fifty years ago. And although it occurred just a few miles from where I was living at the time, I only learned of this in the last few days.

As I was looking up links to include in this post, I came across a series of articles about an accident that occurred at the Atomic Energy Commission (AEC) site in the Arco Desert outside my hometown on January 3, 1961. The circumstances are eerily similar to what we're hearing about at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. At around 9pm on that January day in 1961, a steam explosion occurred at reactor SL-1, an experimental nuclear reactor at the site. A control rod had been pulled out of the core, causing the reactor to go critical. The explosion was caused by a sudden upsurge in heat that explosively converted liquid water into steam.

Three workers were killed by the physical effects of the explosion but their bodies were so radioactive that they were buried in lead-lined caskets. The radiation exposure was due to the contents of the reactor being sprayed around by the explosion. The entire building and what was left of the reactor are still buried in the desert just outside my hometown. The accompanying image shows the marker sitting next to a pile of rock that looks just like dozens of other piles of rock I have passed by many times on my way to visit my grandparents.

I was five years old at the time so, of course, I remember nothing about this. I've found a newspaper article and a story in Time magazine, both published in 1961, that show the public was aware of what happened. Perhaps this explains my mother's insistence that we never eat the snow; she warned us repeatedly about "nuclear fallout" and how it could be in the snow. I always thought her fear was somewhat irrational, due to Cold War tensions, but now that I've learned about this little-known nuclear accident, I wonder if she had more immediate reasons to be fearful.

Some people are afraid of things they don't understand, and the mere mention of the words "nuclear" or "radiation" can generate irrational fear, or fear based not on facts but wild speculations and misunderstandings. This does not mean that all fear is irrational, however, and sometimes it is an appropriate emotion. I have not yet reached the point where the situation in Japan is making me feel actual fear, but I am concerned--and this concern is based on quite a bit of knowledge about nuclear topics.

I taught introductory college Chemistry for over twenty years and always included an in-depth unit on radioactive decay processes as the basis of nuclear power generation. I was one of only a few professors who covered this topic, but I felt compelled to teach it, and teach it thoroughly. It's possible that experiences in my early childhood had made me especially attuned to the importance of this topic, but I also knew that essentially no attention was paid to it in most science classrooms, and I wanted to do what little I could to remedy this lack.

At the end of each term, I always had a few students who had learned what I was trying to get across: that this topic is very important and whether we are in favor of nuclear power or not, we need people who understand it, since the materials and power plants exist and must be handled properly. These students would want advice about graduate programs, places they could go to pursue further study, but there were very few options available to them.

I have continued to be dismayed by the lack of opportunity to study and learn about nuclear energy in the US--it is as if the very topic is radioactive and people in our country shun it, wanting it to go away because it frightens them. The topic isn't going to go away, though, and sometimes the best defense is education.

It's possible that my passion about this topic was set at an early age. I grew up in Idaho Falls, about forty miles from the AEC site where the SL-1 accident occurred. The site is now known as the Idaho National Lab, and is a Department of Energy (DOE) facility. Many of my friends parents worked at the site, but I didn't understand for a very long time what they were doing out there.

Part of the reason was that I was young and had other concerns, but there was also a great deal of secrecy involved. The facts about the SL-1 accident apparently became more widely known only in the 1980s and later when the Freedom of Information Act was invoked to get at information about it. 

Also, the Cold War was raging at the time of the accident, and much of the activity going on at the site in the Arco Desert involved not just the development of nuclear power generators, but also weapons development and other military operations. We now know, for example, that tons of radioactive waste from the development of atomic weapons at the Rocky Flats Plant in Colorado were buried throughout the 1950s and 60s in that desert just above the aquifer for the Snake River Plain.

This situation became a huge news story in southeastern Idaho in the 1990s when there were suggestions that the aquifer might be contaminated with radioactive decay components. For more than two decades, DOE has been cleaning up the aquifer, and trying to prevent any additional seepage of buried waste into the groundwaters. There has been a great deal of controversy about cover-ups, mismanagement by government contractors, and on and on. It is all an unfortunately familiar-sounding story.

So, perhaps my readers and followers on Twitter will forgive me if I become a little obsessed with the unfolding events in Japan. There is a lot to keep track of, and a lot to understand. Stay tuned for more.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Scientific Disasters

Tsunami inundates city of Natori in Japan (Kyodo News/AP)
The catastrophic events occurring in Japan in the last two days show just how important good science reporting is to the public welfare. These events have (so far) included a magnitude 8.9 earthquake in Japan, dozens of aftershocks, an enormously destructive tsunami and, now, an ongoing emergency with several nuclear reactors damaged in the quake. 

All aspects of this event involve scientific topics and the public needs to understand both what has happened, what is likely to happen in the near future and long term, and what lessons (if any) we can draw from these tragic events in planning for the future.

I am not a journalist, and although I write about science I do so as a scientist, not a science journalist, so perhaps I have no place criticizing people who work in those fields. As a scientist, I have been so thoroughly trained in the values of the scientific enterprise that those values have become part of my ethical framework. When I see deviations from these ingrained values, I feel that a wrong has been committed.

To a scientist, truth is the highest ideal and all scientists strive to find out what the truth is, whether it be the exact mechanism that led to a particular earthquake or the precise sequence of events that have led to several overheated nuclear reactors in the earthquake zone. I realize that other people may not have these values, and may prefer to hear comforting statements if the truth is too hard to bear. I personally feel, though, that I would rather have the truth no matter how bad it is, and I will seek comfort in my own way.

Journalists say they seek the truth, too, but I wonder if some may have other sets of values, for example, seeking out (or even generating) controversy and drama. Despite the fact that I'm not a journalist, I have found myself with plenty of friends who are, and most freely admit that journalism, as a field, is driven by the idea that "controversy sells." Perhaps this explains the post yesterday by a young science writer entitled "Today's Tsunami: This is What Climate Change Looks Like."

After reading this piece, which claimed to show a link between climate change and earthquake-generated tsunamis, I immediately contacted a former colleague of mine at the National Science Foundation to ask his professional opinion, as a climate scientist, about whether climate change could be linked to more severe earthquakes or tsunamis. His response: "Absolute rubbish." 

He went on to explain that the more important issue linking tsunamis and climate change is the increasing numbers of people living along coastlines and the accompanying decrease in barrier marshes that are known to mitigate the impact of a tsunami. This important issue is not mentioned at all in the piece linked to above. It seems I wasn't the only one outraged by this article, and other journalists took the author to task, such as in this piece by Tom Yulsman.

A corrected article was posted this morning, so it seems as if the author might have gotten the message, but a careful reading shows he is apologizing only for the title, not the content of the article. And the "update" added today confuses the issue even further by seemingly equating tsunamis with storm surges that, as we know (or should know), accompany hurricanes. A hurricane is not an earthquake, and despite the fact that a storm surge might look like a tsunami, it doesn't take a scientist to know that these two phenomena are completely unrelated.

I have already seen the unfortunate effects of this type of uninformed writing, in comments on blogs, Facebook and Twitter from members of the public who seem to think that yesterday's horrific earthquake and tsunami could, somehow, be traced back to our lack of attention to global warming. Where did they get this idea? As a former science professor, I fully understand the confusion that members of the public have about scientific issues, but it is our duty as scientists--and science journalists--to help people keep all this complicated information straight.

I am no global warming skeptic and I fully agree that we need to pay attention, now, to the impact of our own activities on the planet, but publishing a provocatively-titled piece that seems designed more to draw attention than increase people's understanding, will set us back in those efforts. A few more people may read your article, but what will be the long-term consequences for the planet of spreading misinformation?

The catastrophe in Japan continues, and the need for good science reporting remains as we move to the next phase of this tragedy. Already there is a great deal of conflicting information out there about what is happening with several damaged nuclear reactors. The situation itself has drama aplenty, and there are ongoing controversies about nuclear energy that are guaranteed to muddy the waters of any facts that are released by the authorities. 

The public, both in Japan and around the world, is, understandably, on the verge of panic about this development, so solid reporting of well-researched facts is of utmost importance. I hope my colleagues in the science journalism community will rise to this challenge, so that we don't amplify the effects of an actual disaster by committing a scientific disaster.

Monday, March 7, 2011

Writing for the Red Cross

Today I am participating in a fund-raiser for the American Red Cross organized by my friend, Holly Tucker, aka @history_geek on Twitter.

Holly is the author of the recently published book Blood Work, a riveting tale of fire and plague, empire building and international distrust that accompanied the development of the "new" (in the 1600s) medical procedure of transfusing blood from one person, or animal, to another.

Holly also publishes the blog, Wonders and Marvels, in which she digs up and chronicles the most amazing (and sometimes disgusting!) stories from the history of medicine and all sorts of other strange places.

My post, "What the Red Cross Means to Me" is up this morning on the Write for Red website. In it I tell the story of how I failed miserably in my first attempt to "give" to the Red Cross.

The fundraiser involves a series of auctions of books and writing-related stuff and a new round of bidding just opened. There is some really good stuff among the donated items--check it out and put in your bid now!

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Wednesday, February 16, 2011

Nearly-Wordless Wednesday

Buddha in Spring

For more Wordless Wednesday, visit the main site.
For more of my photos, see Flickr.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Where Are The Women?

Percent Women in Some Science Fields at Various Stages
A new study, published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, tackles the question of whether discrimination can explain the low numbers of women in math-intensive science fields.

As shown in the accompanying figure, the percentage of women in fields such as physics, astronomy, computer science, chemistry and math is well below that in biology and psychology (data from NSF and AIP). For example, women account for an abysmal 13% of all physics faculty but over half of all women faculty members in psychology departments. As the authors point out in their paper's introduction, "Today, half of all MD degrees and 52% of PhDs in life sciences are awarded to women," yet only 9-16% of tenure-track positions in math-intensive fields are held by women.

The work reported in this paper was thoroughly done and the results presented show that women in the math-intensive fields were not "discriminated against," if discrimination is defined in the way the authors insist upon. Their definition is based on the fact that journal editors accepted women's papers at the same rate as they accepted those from male authors. Oh, and funding agencies seem to be doing an exemplary job of ensuring that women who apply for grants receive a fair review. This is good, but why are we looking for evidence of discrimination at this career stage? The problem clearly starts much earlier (as shown in the above figure for postdoc and graduate student percentages).

I cannot agree, though, with the authors' conclusion that no "overt discrimination" occurred and the only explanation for the low figures shown in the above figure is the differing biological realities women face. We all know that women are faced with tough choices juggling career and family, but this happens in all fields--not just in science. We will never understand why there are so few women in math-intensive science fields if all we talk about is the problem of family vs. work. If this were the only thing going on, we would not see over half of our MDs and psychology department faculty being women, not to mention the whopping 77% of veterinarians who are women.

Where are the women who might otherwise have become a physicist, astronomer or computer scientist? Are they more affected by work-life choices than our MDs, veterinarians, biologists and psychologists? I can't see why that could possibly be the case.

I have always been struck by the huge discrepancy in the percentage of women in math-intensive fields and it should be clear from the above data that the problem starts way before these women get jobs and start writing papers and applying for grants. Lots of studies have shown that it starts early, well before high school, perhaps even in elementary school.

What is the explanation for the lack of interest by girls and young women in math-intensive careers? The authors claim it's because girls prefer "careers focusing on people as opposed to things" but I can assure you that most of my career as a woman in a math-intensive field has been focused on people! I always loved math and never thought of it as having more to do with "things" than people, so while I'm sure this survey result is true, it says more about the way math is taught to kids (dry, boring, irrelevant) than it does about real work being done in math-intensive fields.

My interest in this goes way beyond the merely curious, since I spent over twenty years of my career as one data point in that tiny percentage of women chemistry faculty. For most of that time I was, in fact, the only woman in my department. Every chance I got, I tried to show young girls, particularly those at the critical seventh-grade juncture, that it was possible to be both scientist, wife and mother, but there's only so much one woman can do.

So, I have more than a passing interest in this topic and would have loved to read a paper that addressed the major fact of my life as a scientist, that I was often the only one of "my kind" in a field that I loved. Once, when I tried to explain how hard it is to be a woman in a male-dominated field to one of my super-sharp female students who had decided to pursue a career as an elementary school teacher she said, "I don't know why anybody would choose that."

And, yes, that's the issue: why would I choose to try to do what nobody who looked like me seemed to be attempting? Well, it was simple: I loved it. I loved the work, loved the math, loved everything about science. And I still do. 

What I didn't love was never having any friends who were "like me" and having little in common with the other women I came in contact with, if I was lucky enough to have time for friendships. I also grew weary of having to justify my opinion as just my opinion and not, somehow, representative of the entire female gender. And we won't even talk about the guy who told me during my job interview that he wasn't going to vote for me to be hired since I was a mother and "should be home with my children."

So why would anybody freely choose a life like this? As I said, I loved science, but I was also fortunate to be a student during the post-Sputnik era when lots of us were being lured toward science. In those days, my country made it clear to me that they wanted me, despite the fact that I was a girl. I needed that kind of encouragement. Girls these days still need it.

And it is this aspect of the problem, the choice that a young woman makes when she decides what interests to pursue, that was not addressed in this paper. Despite the paper's title ("Understanding current causes of women's underrepresentation in science") we will never get to that understanding until we start paying attention to the kids, not the women who have survived the gauntlet of graduate school, postdoc and a hiring committee.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Self-Organizing The Revolution

There is a revolution underway in Egypt unlike any the world has ever seen before. Leaderless, organized from within using technological tools and inspired not by any particular ideology but by a desire for self-determination and freedom, this revolution is different in many ways, but it is the lack of a single charismatic leader that seems to have bewildered many in the media and in the opinion sphere.

Recent articles have been written about using complex systems science to understand what is happening in Egypt. While it is true that we can look at the entire complex system, including its economic, environmental and political aspects, and try to explain how we got to where we are today, I am much more interested in applying the ideas of complex systems science to what is unfolding in front of our eyes right now. Complex systems science can give us insights into the possible future that awaits the people of Egypt and, in fact, the entire world.

When this uprising started last week, I wrote about the thin line between chaos and emergence of order, but it was way too early at that time to really know whether we were witnessing an example of a bifurcation. I think I've seen enough now to confirm that this is, indeed, what has happened: the world has changed and it will never, ever be the same again.

I have been watching the events unfold for a week now, and am now convinced that what we are seeing is a dramatic and moving instance of the power of self-organization. In the natural world, we see examples of self-organization in such things as the flocking of birds and the behavior of micro-organisms. These are dramatic enough, but when human beings, homo sapiens, begin to self-organize the result is nothing short of inspiring and awesome.

The crowd in the center of Cairo that has been gathering for a week now seems unimpressed by the individuals that have been brought in and presented to them as potential leaders. When Mohamed El Baradei, who is the closest to a spokesperson the group has, entered the square the other night to speak, the crowd shrugged and paid little attention. Their reaction seemed to say, "He has not risen up from our ranks, so how can he represent us?"

On the other hand, we have heard remarkable reports of people in the square dividing up tasks--guarding entrances to the area, preparing food, distributing water, providing medical help--in short, governing themselves. We know people can do this, since we've been doing it for millenia. Civilization would not exist were it not for our own inherent abilities to organize ourselves into vibrant, functioning societies.

It will be interesting to see whether this self-organization can continue once the current regime leaves power--and I believe Mubarak will leave, perhaps very soon. Will the people of Egypt be allowed to continue to self-organize into a new nation, one that will be of their own choosing? I certainly hope so, but only time will tell.

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.