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Archive for the ‘science’ Category

Building a Better Snowflake by Margaret Wertheim and Kenneth Libbrecht

In physics, research, science on August 19, 2014 at 02:49

From: Building a Better Snowflake: An Interview with Margaret Wertheim and Kenneth Libbrecht, Cabinet, http://cabinetmagazine.org

You are also following in the footsteps of the Japanese physicist Ukichiro Nakaya, who pioneered the classification of snowflakes. Tell us a bit about his work.

Nakaya was a student in the 1920s trained in nuclear physics. Like many physicists, he had trouble finding a job because there are only so many positions for nuclear physicists. He couldn’t get a job in Tokyo and ended up at the University of Hokkaido in the snowy north. There were no nuclear facilities there, so he had to find something else to do. In Hokkaido they get wonderful snow, so he decided this was an opportunity and started studying snowflakes. He was the first serious scientist to do this. He went outside and categorized things, but more importantly he started growing them in the lab under controlled conditions. Nakaya found out they grow differently at different temperatures—which is still a fundamental problem. We don’t understand why that is. He wrote a wonderful book called Snow Crystals about how you do science starting from nothing.

He tried to grow snow crystals on different kinds of threads. What did he use?

hexagonal_plate_FINALHe wanted to understand snow crystals as they fall out of the sky—which is basically single ice crystals. But when he tried growing them in the lab, mostly he got frost, which is a whole collection of crystals interfering with each other. This makes it hard to see what’s going on. It’s not easy to grow single crystals—you need something for them to grow on. In the sky, they grow on dust particles. Nakaya tried all sorts of things: silk, spiders webs, fine wires. Finally, he found that rabbit hair worked well. He decided it was because the hair is covered in a thin film of residual oil. It has these knobby things on it every now and then, and the knobby things are where the crystals start to grow. He was able to grow individual crystals provided he dried out the rabbit hair beforehand in a desiccator. We’re doing similar things, but we’ve got a different technique. I never liked the rabbit hair.

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Reposted with permission from: Cabinet

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What Is the Body Worth? by Ari N. Schulman

In ethics, medicine, science on July 30, 2014 at 16:25

From: What Is the Body Worth? by Ari N. Schulman, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

In 1951, a thirty-year-old woman living in Baltimore was experiencing abnormal bleeding and felt a lump on her cervix. She checked herself into the Johns Hopkins Hospital, where four months earlier she had given birth to her fifth child. The doctor found a tumor the size of a nickel — which was surprising, as it had not been seen in the checkup following her recent delivery. A biopsy confirmed the presence of what turned out to be an unusually aggressive cancer.

The woman returned to begin treatment; with the patient under anesthetic, the doctors cut two tissue samples — one from the tumor, another from her healthy cervical tissue — before inserting pieces of radium in an attempt to shrink the tumor. The samples were passed along to a researcher who was continuing a decades-long, so-far unsuccessful scientific effort to keep human tissues alive in culture indefinitely. While the healthy cervical tissue failed to culture, the tumoral cells began dividing at a remarkable rate — doubling every 24 hours. It soon became clear that the culture was the first line of human cells that could potentially be kept alive forever. By the end of the year, the power of those cells had taken the life of the patient they were taken from.

Market considerations aside, it is rightly a point of wide agreement among bioethicists and patient advocates that informed consent procedures ought to be strengthened. But it is wrong to think of informed consent as a panacea for bioethical concerns of all sorts — a mistake derived in part from the presumed sufficiency of information in making good decisions. Before turning to the question of how much information is necessary for consent to be considered adequately informed, it is worth examining how difficult it can be to obtain information that is even reliable about complicated scientific subjects. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, for better or worse, provides an instructive case study — for considering that it is the product of years of research, and has effectively become the canonical public discussion of HeLa cells and the Lacks story, it turns out not to have been as carefully fact-checked as readers might suppose.

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Brave New World, Plato’s Republic, and Our Scientific Regime by Matthew J. Franck

In government, literature, philosophy, politics, science, science fiction, sexuality, society, sociology, writers on May 18, 2014 at 08:24

From: Brave New World, Plato’s Republic, and Our Scientific Regime by Matthew J. Franck, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

 

“But I don’t want comfort. I want God, I want poetry, I want real danger, I want freedom, I want goodness. I want sin.”

“In fact,” said Mustapha Mond, “you’re claiming the right to be unhappy.”

“All right then,” said the Savage defiantly, “I’m claiming the right to be unhappy.”

But an even more telling comparison can be made — that Brave New World is a modern counterpart to the “city in speech” built by Socrates and his young interlocutors in Plato’s Republic. Whether Huxley saw the similarities himself is far from clear. In neither the “Foreword” added to the 1946 edition nor his lengthy 1958 essay Brave New World Revisited, which is published together with the novel in some editions, does he indicate any consciousness of a parallel. Nor do his Complete Essays (published 2000 – 2002) shed light on this. His biographer Murray mentions no such connection in Huxley’s mind either; nor does his earlier biographer Sybille Bedford. Yet it may not be necessary to confirm any precise authorial intention on Huxley’s part to imitate Plato. Whereas Huxley’s other novels are largely forgotten today by the general public, and his later visits to the themes of Brave New World are those of a crank whose imaginative gifts have deserted him, in writing his greatest work he seems to have been in the grip of an idea larger than himself. Plato’s Socrates tells us in the Apology that when he “went to the poets” to “ask them thoroughly what they meant” in their greatest poems, he found to his surprise that “almost everyone present, so to speak, would have spoken better than the poets did about the poetry that they themselves had made.” For as Socrates said (not without some biting irony) in Plato’s Ion, “all the good epic poets speak all their fine poems not from art but by being inspired and possessed, and it is the same for the good lyric poets.” Perhaps during the mere four months it took Huxley to write Brave New World, he was “possessed” in this way and remained forever unconscious of his debt to Plato.

In its political teaching, the Republic is as much a dystopian poem as is Brave New World. With every step in his radical project of instituting uncompromisingly perfect justice — from the noble lie, to the abolition of the family among the guardians, to the eugenics program that brushes aside the incest taboo with a wave of the hand, to the impossible proposal that the city be ruled by philosophers, to the absurd suggestion that the city be founded by exiling all of an existing city’s residents over ten years of age — Socrates reveals humanity’s inability to overcome the limits that our nature imposes. We love the good, but we also love what is our own. Nature draws us toward other particular persons whom we embrace and love as our own; it gets in the way of our commitment to the collective good of the community, which has, in the best case, its own just yet conflicting demands on our love. Nature, or nature’s God, has made us embodied souls, or ensouled bodies. We can live neither wholly for others nor wholly for ourselves, and this is no less true for the philosopher than for others. The project of perfect justice in which each of us is a “cell in the social body” is not within our grasp.

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Reposted with permission: The New Atlantis

Pandora’s Boxes by Heather Millar

In biology, chemistry, ecology, environment, nature, physics, science on April 3, 2014 at 23:49

From: Pandora’s Boxes by Heather Millar, Orion Magazine, http://www.orionmagazine.org

Wiesner and his colleagues spent several months designing the experiments that will help them outline some general ecological principles of the unique nanoverse. He knew they wanted to test the particles in a system, but a full-scale ecosystem would be too big, too unmanageable, so they had to find a way to container-ize nature. They considered all sorts of receptacles: kiddie pools (too flimsy), simple holes in the ground (too dirty, too difficult to harvest for analysis), concrete boxes (crack in winter). Finally, they settled upon wooden boxes lined with nonreactive, industrial rubber: cheap to build, easy to reuse, and convenient to harvest.

Some published research has shown that inhaled nanoparticles actually become more toxic as they get smaller. Nano–titanium dioxide, one of the most commonly used nanoparticles (Pop-Tarts, sunblock), has been shown to damage DNA in animals and prematurely corrode metals. Carbon nanotubes seem to penetrate lungs even more deeply than asbestos.

What little we know about the environmental effects of nanoparticles—and it isn’t very much—also raises some red flags. Nanoparticles from consumer products have been found in sewage wastewater, where they can inhibit bacteria that help break down the waste. They’ve been found to accumulate in plants and stunt their growth. Another study has shown that gold nanoparticles become more concentrated as they move up the food chain from plants to herbivores.

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Reposted with permission from: Orion Magazine

Your Body, Their Property by Osagie K. Obasogie

In biology, ethics, law, medicine, science, technology on October 5, 2013 at 01:19

From: Your Body, Their Property by Osagie K. Obasogie, Boston Review, http://www.bostonreview.net

An important example of this can be seen in the litigation surrounding John Moore’s spleen. Moore was a Seattle businessman who suffered from hairy cell leukemia, a rare cancer that caused his spleen to grow to fourteen times its normal size. Moore first traveled to UCLA Medical Center in 1976 for treatment, where Dr. David Golde told him that he should have his spleen removed. Moore complied and returned to UCLA for follow-up examinations with Golde for several years after the surgery. During the visits he routinely gave blood, skin, and other biological materials. Moore was told that these return visits and sample withdrawals were a necessary part of his ongoing treatment. What he was not told, however, was that Golde and the university were cashing in.

Researchers quickly realized that Moore’s cells were unique. The scientists took portions of Moore’s spleen to distill a specialized cell line—affectionately called “Mo”—and found that the cells could be useful in treating various diseases. Golde, researcher Shirley Quan, and UCLA were assigned a patent for the cell line in 1984. At the time, analysts estimated that the market for treatments stemming from Moore’s spleen was worth roughly $3 billion. Golde worked with a private company and received stock options worth millions, and UCLA also received hundreds of thousands of dollars in outside funding. Moore, whose spleen made all of this possible, received no compensation.

Moore sued the researchers and UCLA, claiming not only that they deceived him for their own financial benefit, but also that he was entitled to a portion of the revenues stemming from the Mo cell line because his property—his spleen and other biological materials—was taken from him and commercialized without his consent. In 1990 the California Supreme Court found that Golde and UCLA did not fulfill their disclosure obligations. Yet Moore was not owed a penny since the Court found that he no longer had a property interest in his own spleen once it was removed and used for research.

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Reposted with permission from: Boston Review

The Marvelous Marie Curie by Algis Valiunas

In biography, Europe, history of science, research, science, sociology on September 12, 2013 at 14:34

From: The Marvelous Marie Curie by Algis Valiunas, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

Marie Curie (1867–1934) is not only the most important woman scientist ever; she is arguably the most important scientist all told since Darwin. Einstein? In theoretical brilliance he outshone her — but her breakthroughs, by Einstein’s own account, made his possible. She took part in the discovery of radioactivity, a term she coined; she identified it as an atomic property of certain elements. When scoffers challenged these discoveries, she meticulously determined the atomic weight of the radioactive element she had revealed to the world, radium, and thereby placed her work beyond serious doubt. Yet many male scientists of her day belittled her achievement, even denied her competence. Her husband, Pierre Curie, did the real work, they insisted, while she just went along for the wifely ride. Chauvinist condescension of this order would seem to qualify Marie Curie as belle idéale of women’s studies, icon for the perennially aggrieved. But such distinction better suits an Aphra Behn or Artemisia Gentileschi than it does a Jane Austen or Marie Curie. Genuine greatness deserves only the most gracious estate, not an academic ghetto, however fashionable and well-appointed.

Yet the fact remains: much of the interest in Madame Curie stems from her having been a woman in the man’s world of physics and chemistry. The interest naturally increases as women claim their place in that world; with this interest comes anger, sometimes righteous, sometimes self-righteous, that difficulties should still stand in the way. A president of Harvard can get it in the neck for suggesting that women don’t have the almost maniacal resolve it takes to become first-rate scientific researchers — that they are prone to distraction by such career-killers as motherhood. So Marie Curie’s singularity cannot but be enveloped in the sociology of science, which is to say these days, feminist politics.

The sociology is important, as long as one remembers the singularity. For Marie Curie did have the almost maniacal resolve to do great scientific work. The work mattered as much to her as it does to most any outstanding scientist; yet can one really say it was everything? She passionately loved her husband and, after his premature death, loved another scientist of immense talent, perhaps of genius; she had the highest patriotic feeling for her native Poland and her adopted France, and risked her life in wartime; she raised two daughters, one, Irène, a Nobel Prize laureate in chemistry, the other, Ève, an accomplished writer, most notably as her mother’s biographer.

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Do Elephants Have Souls? by Caitrin Nicol

In Africa, animals, biology, ecology, ethics, philosophy, science on July 3, 2013 at 19:06

From: Do Elephants Have Souls? by Caitrin Nicol, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

The taboo against anthropomorphism exists for three basic reasons. First of all, we as human beings are prone to mistake the thoughts and feelings of each other, even the people we are closest to — how much more so is this a risk in speculating about members of another species?

Even supposing that the elephants were our equals in intelligence, their life differs from ours so fundamentally that trying to infer their perspective from our own experience is bound to miss the mark in many ways. For one thing, as a rule elephants have poor vision — but their sense of smell is exquisite, revealing a whole olfactory landscape that we are contentedly closed off to. Also, they do not fall romantically in love (that we know of; that their behavior indicates). Think how many other aspects of our lives are profoundly influenced by good sight and deep eros, and ask yourself what might loom equally large iStockphoto in an elephant’s world that we ourselves would have very little grasp of. And of course there are a variety of other differences — where they live, how they live, the fact that from birth to death a female (unless something has gone wrong) will never be alone and after a certain point a male mostly will. How might these things shape a psyche?

For real sentient beings, though, the truth is more complex. They are not us, but to look into their eyes is to know that someone is in there. Imposing our own specific thoughts and feelings on that someone is in one sense too imaginative, in presuming he could receive the world in the way we do, and in another not imaginative enough, in not opening our minds to the full possibilities of his difference. The philosopher and theologian Martin Buber called this “the immense otherness of the Other,” reflecting on his relationship with a family horse as a child. As he stroked the mane, “it was as though the element of vitality itself bordered on my skin” — “something that was not I,” he notes, but was “elementally” in relation to him. There was an existential connection between them in their improbable blessing of breathing, beating life. And not only life, but the particularity of sentient individuals, as the horse “very gently raised his massive head, ears flicking, then snorted quietly, as a conspirator gives a signal meant to be recognizable only by his fellow conspirator: and I was approved.”

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Ma Jun: Information Empowers by John Haffner, Ma Jun

In Asia, ecology, economy, environment, government, human rights, information, politics, science on June 3, 2013 at 21:19

From: Ma Jun: Information Empowers by John Haffner, Ma Jun, Policy Innovations, http://www.policyinnovations.org

Sitting with Ma in his office last year, I asked him to talk about the remarkable 20-year career that propelled him to the forefront of China’s environmental movement.

Ma was lucky enough to find a job with “the privilege of asking questions.”

He took me back to 1992, the year Deng Xiaoping made his famous tour to open southeastern cities to commerce. China remained closed in many ways but Ma was lucky enough to find a job with “the privilege of asking questions.” He was a fresh journalism graduate from the University of International Relations and had landed a position as a researcher and translator in the Beijing office of the South China Morning Post, later working his way up to office manager. At the paper he found himself immersed in every kind of issue and story.

While working as a journalist Ma came to realize that China was in an environmental crisis. He had grown up learning the poems of Li Bai and Du Fu, poets who spoke of China’s lakes, rivers, and land in lyrical, beautiful images. “I grew up reading these books, knowing this landscape through the words of ancient literary giants. I had an image in my mind, but when I traveled—it was just so different.”

In 1994, he found himself at the Three Gorges Dam site covering the story for his paper. Ma was saddened to find that the trees had been clear cut, the river muddied and polluted. “Li Bai and Du Fu had both been so inspired by the landscape, by the gorge, by the torrential flow. When I saw the river, I felt such a big loss.”

When he traveled to Dongting Lake in 1996, he expected to find a place he knew from ancient literature as “vast and extremely pretty.” But when he got there, he “found that the lake during the dry season had been reduced to a few rivers. The degradation was just so obvious.”

And when he went to the Fen River in Shanxi province, Ma saw “streams coming out of different villages with different colors, representing different industries: copper green and iron red and iron brownish, and yellowish and reddish. And they all came together to form a very highly polluting flow, eventually ending up in the Yellow River.”

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Reposted with permission from: Policy Innovations

Hunting number 113 by Philip Ball

In history of science, politics, research, science on May 19, 2013 at 18:48

From: Hunting number 113 by Philip Ball, Homunculus, http://philipball.blogspot.ca

The periodic table of the elements just got a new member. At least, maybe it did – it’s hard to tell. Having run out of new elements to discover, scientists have over the past several decades been making ‘synthetic’ atoms too bloated to exist in nature. But this is increasingly difficult as the atoms get bigger, and the new element recently claimed by a Japanese group – currently known simply as element 113, its serial order in the periodic table – is frustratingly elusive. These artificial elements are made and detected literally an atom at a time, and the researchers claim only to have made three atoms in total of element 113, all of which undergo radioactive decay almost instantly.

That, and competition from teams in the United States and Russia, makes the claim controversial. The first group to sight a new element enjoys the privilege of naming it, an added spur to the desire to be first. Just as in the golden years of natural-element discovery in the nineteenth century, element-naming tends to be nationalistic and chauvinistic. No one could begrudge Marie and Pierre Curie their polonium, the element they discovered in 1989 after painstakingly sifting tonnes of uranium ore, which they named after Marie’s homeland. But the recent naming of element 114 ‘flerovium’ – after the founder of the Russian institute where it was made – and element 116 ‘livermorium’, after the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory where it originated, display rather more concern for bragging than for euphony.

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Reposted with permission from: Philip Ball

Neo – Humanism by Roland Benedikter

In ethics, humanities, information science, philosophy, research, science, society on May 11, 2013 at 19:15

From: Neo-Humanism by Roland Benedikter, The European: The Transhumanist Delusion, http://www.theeuropean-magazine.com

Technological changes have turned discussions about human self-perception from a peripheral topic into a substantive one. Our conditio humana, that which we have thus far embraced as the essence of human identity, is being put into question. For example, neurotechnologies of the newest generation aim to increase human freedom by transcending established boundaries of human capability. They do so by entering into our own flesh and blood: Brain implants have made it possible to link man and machine at the neural level and have produced simple patterns of neural-technological interaction. Some advocates harbor the ultimate hope of constructing a system of interactivity on a global level: It promises universal agency without the need to even get up from our chair.

While we can measure the degree to which technologies transcend physical and physiological boundaries, we can merely speculate about the ethical consequences of these developments and about their effect on human self-perception. The merging of human consciousness and technology changes not only the latter, but also the former. And the question is whether technology will become more human in the long run, or whether humans will become more technical.

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Reposted with permission from: The European

Bananas! Kafka’s Ape by Justin E. H. Smith

In animals, biology, Europe, nature, science on April 27, 2013 at 20:20

From: Bananas! Kafka’s Ape by Justin E. H. Smith, Berfrois, http://www.berfrois.com

In his 1917 short story, “Report to an Academy,” Kafka tells the story of Red Peter, a chimpanzee captured in Africa and brought back to Europe to be studied by the members of an institution very much like the Muséum d’Histoire Naturelle in Paris. Red Peter, by some unusual transformation that is never fully explained, develops after his capture into a cultivated, language-endowed gentleman, and the titular report is in fact his narration of his own autobiography, beginning shortly after his first encounter with humans while still in his merely animal stage.

Peter recounts how, early in his captivity, he had been subjected to various experiments in which, for example, scientists hung a banana from the ceiling in order to see whether he had the requisite intelligence to stack blocks together and climb up to reach his reward. This sort of experiment, of course, takes a number of things for granted. Among other things, although it purports to be testing for something human-like, it does not allow for the possibility of individual whim; it does not allow for the possibility of a response such as that of Zira, the fictional chimpanzee in Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971), who cannot help but exclaim, when the human scientists try a similar experiment on her, “but I simply loathe bananas!”

The fact that experiments such as these require a certain course of action in order for an animal to be deemed intelligent suggests that what is being tested for is not really intelligence in any meaningful, human sense –since humans are permitted to have arbitrary whims and individual tastes– but rather a certain automatism that reproduces the kind of action of which a human being is capable, e.g., stacking blocks, but in the pursuit of a species-specific goal, a goal that a creature is supposed to have simply in view of the kind of creature it is, and that for that reason is not the result of a human-like willing, e.g., the will to obtain a banana. If ‘being intelligent’ is defined as ‘being like us’, we may anticipate in advance that non-human animals are doomed to fail any possible intelligence test.

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Reposted with permission from: Berfrois

A Bat in a Jar by Elke Weesjes

In aesthetics, biology, Europe, history, medicine, North America, religion, science on April 24, 2013 at 07:06

From: A Bat in a Jar – Wet Specimen and the History of the Curiosity Cabinet by Elke Weesjes, United Academics, http://www.united-academics.org

Jeiven teaches taxidermy classes at the Brooklyn Observatory. She followed in Walter Potter’s footsteps and specialized in anthropomorphic taxidermy. This means attributing human characteristics to taxidermied animals. Jeiven’s animals wear clothes, are usually posed in tableaux, and often represent a parable or a story. In last week’s workshop, Jeiven went outside of her comfort zone and taught a group of enthusiasts the arcane art of wet specimens. These stunning artifacts fill natural history, medical, and anatomy museums. They are deceptively simple to the eye, but in fact, demand special skills to do properly. And Jeiven’s students were lucky; these skills are generally taught only in professional apprenticeships rather than classes for the general public. I was fortunate to be among her students; this blog post describes my experience.

Ewen and Ewen note that the practice of creating curiosity cabinets goes back to the Middle Ages, when the Catholic Church assembled relics of saint’s artifacts associated with Jesus and the Madonna to provide believers with concrete evidence and firsthand access to stories from the Old and New Testament. Myriad religious souvenirs were brought back from the Holy Land as part of the crusades and people viewed them with a fervent sense of awe. “In sealed cases, some ornately crafted a panoply of sacred remnants could be found, including such items as a drop of the Virgin’s milk, a pot that figured at the miracle at Cana, a scrap of a martyr’s shroud, nails, or a fragment of wood from the true cross or the comb of Mary Magdalene.”[2] Human remains were also brought into Europe; for example, the arm of the apostle James and parts of the skeleton of John the Baptist. Interestingly, alongside these sacrosanct objects ‘legendary’ artifacts like griffin’s eggs, tortoise shells, and unicorn’s horns were also part of the same collection.

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Reposted with permission from: United Academics

The Monsanto Protection Act? with Amy Goodman

In biology, ethics, government, law, North America, politics, science on April 2, 2013 at 20:12

From: The Monsanto Protection Act? A Debate on Controversial New Measure Over Genetically Modified Crops with Amy Goodman, Democracy Now!, http://www.democracynow.org

President Obama outraged food activists last week when he signed into law a spending bill with a controversial rider that critics have dubbed the “Monsanto Protection Act.” The rider says the government must allow the planting of genetically modified crops even if courts rule they pose health risks. The measure has galvanized the U.S. food justice movement, which is now preparing for its next fight when the provision expires in six months. We host a discussion on the “Monsanto Protection Act” and the safety of genetically modified foods with two guests: Gregory Jaffe, director of the Biotechnology Project at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a nonprofit consumer advocacy organization that addresses food and nutrition issues; and Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch and author of the book, “Foodopoly: The Battle Over the Future of Food and Farming in America.” On Wednesday, Hauter’s group is releasing a major new report called “Monsanto: A Corporate Profile.”

AMY GOODMAN: One of the biggest supporters of the provision was Republican Senator Roy Blunt of Missouri, Monsanto’s home state. Blunt reportedly crafted the bill’s language with Monsato’s help.
On the other side was the lone member of the Senate who’s also an active farmer, Democrat Jon Tester of Montana. Senator Tester tried to remove the rider when the budget bill made its way through Congress last month. Speaking on the Senate floor, Tester said the provision would undermine judicial oversight and hurt family farmers.

SEN. JON TESTER: The United States Congress is telling the Agricultural Department that even if a court tells you that you’ve failed to follow the right process and tells you to start over, you must disregard the court’s ruling and allow the crop to be planted anyway. Not only does this ignore the constitutional idea of separation of powers, but it also lets genetically modified crops take hold across this country, even when a judge finds it violates the law—once again, agribusiness multinational corporations putting farmers as serfs. It’s a dangerous precedent. Mr. President, it will paralyze the USDA, putting the department in the middle of a battle between Congress and the courts. And the ultimate loser will be our family farmers going about their business and feeding America in the right way.

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Reposted according to copyright notice from: Democracy Now! website

Artificial wombs by Dick Pelletier

In civilisation, medicine, nature, research, science on March 12, 2013 at 15:38

From: Artificial wombs: is a sexless reproduction society in our future? by  Dick Pelletier, IEET, http://ieet.org

Although naysayers believe that this bold science makes us less human, most experts predict that artificial wombs will one day be accepted by mainstream society as more people recognize its many benefits. Babies would no longer be exposed to alcohol or illegal drugs by careless mothers, and the correct body temperature would always be maintained, with 100% of necessary nutrients provided.

Concerns over losing emotional bond between mother and newborn are unwarranted, say scientists. Artificial intelligence advances expected over the next two decades will enable doctors to reproduce exact parent emotions and personalities via vocal recordings, movement, and other sensations. The developing infant would be maintained in a safe secure environment, connected electronically to the mother 24/7.

In the near term though, experts predict most women will probably gestate their children the old-fashioned way; but career-minded females might welcome a concept that allows them to bear children and raise a family without becoming pregnant, a physical condition that often weakens their job status.

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Reposted with permission from: IEET

Patterns in art and nature by Philip Ball

In aesthetics, art, biology, nature, photography, science, visual arts on February 24, 2013 at 01:03

From: Patterns in art and nature by Philip Ball, http://www.philipball.co.uk

Fingal’s Cave on the island of Staffa, near Mull in Scotland, has inspired artists (this is Turner) and composers – Felix Mendelsohn wrote his orchestral piece named after the cave in 1829. But it also made an impression on an awestruck Joseph Banks, president of the Royal Society, when he sailed to Staffa in 1772 during an expedition to Iceland. This is what he said:

    “Compared to this what are the cathedrals or palaces built by men! Mere models or playthings, as diminutive as his works will always be when compared with those of nature. What now is the boast of the architect! Regularity, the only part in which he fancied himself to exceed his mistress, Nature, is here found in her possession, and here it has been for ages undescribed.”

Banks had noticed that the entrance to the cave was flanked by these great pillars of rock. Close up, you can see the regularity that Banks spoke about: hexagonal cross-sections.

Now, this of course has its counterpart on the west coast of Ireland itself: the Giant’s Causeway in County Antrim, built in legend by the giant Finn MacCool.

There are something like 40,000 pillars of rock in the giant’s Causeway, and they generally have this extraordinarily regular and geometric honeycomb structure. When we make an architectural pattern like this, it is through careful planning and construction, with each individual element cut to shape and laid in place. At Fingal’s Cave and the Giant’s Causeway, the forces of nature have conspired to produce such a pattern without, we must presume, any blueprint or foresight or design. This is an example of spontaneous pattern formation.

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Reposted with permission from: Philip Ball

The Last Idealist? by Leemon McHenry

In Europe, humanities, nature, philosophy, science, theory on February 10, 2013 at 18:12

From: Timothy L. S. Sprigge – The Last Idealist? by Leemon McHenry, The Philosopher, http://www.the-philosopher.co.uk

Idealism is much less an option today than it was in the nineteenth century because of its association with universal, absolute religious principles and totalitarian, imperialistic political ideas. The decline of such thinking, especially in England, was also marked by the skepticism generated after the senseless carnage of World War I. For Sprigge, all of this was irrelevant to his quest for a satisfactory metaphysics.

Today, the idealistic doctrines are generally regarded as historically interesting but philosophically inconsequential. Idealism is largely viewed as implausible because of its disregard for the physical and biological sciences. Sprigge could rightly be accused of sidestepping science in his attempt to arrive at first principles, and he was well aware that his ignorance of science was a shortcoming of his philosophy. How far metaphysical thinking could get at first principles without the aid of detailed empirical studies was a great source of concern. He admired Spinoza and Whitehead for their scientifically informed metaphysics.

Moreover, while Sprigge followed Bradley and Royce in defending the sharp distinction between appearance and reality, or between the investigations of structural phenomena undertaken by physical science and those of introspective psychology, it is unlikely that physicists, chemists and biologists see themselves as engaged in anything less than a quest to know reality. Scientists do not see themselves as investigating what is merely abstract or phenomenal but rather an underlying reality. As far as the critiques of Russell, Moore and Ayer are concerned, the charge that metaphysical construction is a sort of Hegelian megalomania has not quite the force it had in the first half of the 1900s. The anti-metaphysical, linguistic methodologies ran their course and eventually faced fatigue, but the idea that idealism could serve as a metaphysical foundation for any system adequate for the sciences is upheld by relatively few.

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Reposted according to copyright notice from: The Philosopher

Tianeptine and Psilocybin by Sarah Ackley

In law, medicine, politics, psychology, research, science on February 4, 2013 at 19:32

From: Tianeptine and Psilocybin: The Science and Politics of Antidepressants by Sarah Ackley, The Hypocrite Reader, http://hypocritereader.com

Antidepressants are the most commonly prescribed class of drugs in the United States, prescribed more often than drugs that treat high cholesterol or headaches. However, with the bad press they’ve received in recent years, the slew of side effects they cause, and the increasing popularity of alternative and natural medicine, many are seeking alternatives to traditional antidepressants. Assuredly, many alternative antidepressants don’t work very well; St. John’s wort, a popular herbal remedy, has debatable efficacy, with most American studies showing that it is no more effective than placebo. However, there is important scientific evidence to support the use of two alternative antidepressants, tianeptine and psilocybin; yet these two drugs haven’t been researched in large clinical trials or adopted as conventional treatments in the United States. As we explore the critical research on traditional American antidepressants, as well as the trajectories of these two alternatives, we can begin to understand why these two treatments haven’t been approved for use in this country while other potentially less effective antidepressants remain the gold standard for mood disorders. The system in which drugs are researched, approved for use, and marketed to consumers has determined how, or even whether, we weigh the side effects and benefits of promising drugs. The medical establishment’s traditional definitions that conventional treatments are scientifically proven, while alternative treatments are not, do not hold in all cases.

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Reposted with permission from: The Hypocrite Reader

Will the elderly be taken care of by robots? by Dick Pelletier

In science, society, technology on January 27, 2013 at 03:47

From: Will the elderly be taken care of by robots? by Dick Pelletier, IEET, http://ieet.org/

Two-legged robotic systems will also advance as we wind through the next two decades. Willow Garage, a Menlo Park, CA maker of robot hardware and software just released a test version of their personal robot platform, the PR2, designed to help senior citizens in their daily lives.

The machine follows the elderly around their homes, providing a number of essential services, which include enabling Internet access, medicine reminders, opening doors, grabbing the morning paper; and retrieving objects from drawers such as clothes, pill bottles, and other living necessities.

Today, this system sells for a whopping $400,000, but as technologies advance in the coming years, by as early as 2020, units like these could be reasonably priced and covered by insurance companies. In addition, tomorrow’s improved heavier-duty versions will even carry handicapped patients upstairs and help with bathing procedures.

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Reposted with permission from: IEET

Psychocivilization and Its Discontents by Magnus Bärtås, Fredrik Ekman and José Delgado

In ethics, government, interview, medicine, psychology, research, science on January 27, 2013 at 03:31

From: Psychocivilization and Its Discontents: An Interview with José Delgado by Magnus Bärtås, Fredrik Ekman and José Delgado, Cabinet, http://cabinetmagazine.org

The letter from Professor Delgado carries two insignias. One is made of Hebrew letters on what looks like a Torah scroll. Under the scroll it says “lux et veritas”—light and truth. The other insignia reads “Investigacion Ramon y Cajal.” In our letter to him, we have explained that we are two artists who have been studying his “astonishing research,” and that we are interested in his views on the relationship between humans and machines. José M.R. Delgado has written that he will be most happy to receive us at his home in Madrid.

Delgado’s name is a constant on various conspiracy websites dedicated to the topic of mind control; those with names like The Government Psychiatric Torture Site, Mind Control Forum, and Parascope. The Internet has in fact become the medium of conspiracy theorists. The network functions as an endless library where the very web structure lends itself to a conspiratorial frame of mind. The idea that every phenomenon and person can be connected to another phenomenon and person is the seed of the conspiracy theorist’s claim to “make the connections between things,” track the flow of power, and show how everything hangs together within some larger murky context.

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Reposted with permission from: Cabinet

Life’s Matrix by Philip Ball

In astronomy, biology, literature, nature, philosophy, research, science on January 14, 2013 at 06:41

From: Life’s Matrix by Philip Ball, http://www.philipball.co.uk

In myth, legend, literature and the popular imagination, then, water is not a single thing but a many-faced creature: a hydra, indeed. This is the essence of water’s mystery, and it remains even when water is picked apart by science. Water is the archetypal fluid, the representative of all that flows, and yet science shows it also to be a profoundly anomalous liquid, unlike any other. Some scientists doubt whether water inside living cells, the very juice of life, is the same stuff as water in a glass; at the molecular scale, they think its structure may be altered; perhaps cell water even congeals into a kind of gel. Water behaves in unexpected ways when squeezed or cooled below freezing point. Life needs water, but it remains a profound mystery why water, a lively and reactive substance, didn’t break apart the complex molecules of the earliest life forms on Earth almost as soon as they were formed.

When a substance becomes mythical, it works curious things on our imagination, even without our knowing it. Substances like this are ancient, and they have magical powers. Gold and diamonds, bread and wine, blood and tears are agents of transformation in story and legend. But none, I think, surpasses the beauty, the grandeur, the fecundity and the potency of water. This is why water is, and must always be, much more than a simple compound of hydrogen and oxygen, or a dance of molecules. To explain its role in our imaginations, its life-giving potential, its bizarre and perplexing properties, its sweet nourishment and its glittering surface-to fully explain these things, we do perhaps have to reduce water to its mundane constituents. But even when we do so, we have to remember what we are dealing with: not just a chemical compound, but a fundamental part of nature, with aspects that are serene, enchanting, enlivening, profound, spiritual and even terrible. In the voice of the babbling stream, says Wordsworth, ‘is a music of humanity’. And Bachelard bids us listen well to this music: ‘Come, oh my friends, on a clear morning to sing the stream’s vowels! Not a moment will pass without repeating some lovely round word that rolls over the stones.’

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Reposted with permission from: Philip Ball

How Do We Judge Nonhuman Beings’ Personhood? by Jønathan Lyons

In animals, biology, ethics, nature, science on January 8, 2013 at 00:35

From: How Do We Judge Nonhuman Beings’ Personhood?  by Jønathan Lyons, Institute for Ethics & Emerging Technologies, http://ieet.org

“Various debates have focused on questions about the personhood of different classes of entities. Historically, the personhood of animals, women, and slaves has been a catalyst of social upheaval. In most societies today, living adult humans are usually considered persons, but depending on the context, theory or definition, the category of ‘person’ may be taken to include such non-human entities as animals, artificial intelligences, or extraterrestrial life, as well as legal entities such as corporations, sovereign states and other polities, or estates in probate. The category may exclude some human entities in prenatal development, and those with extreme mental impairment.”

Because this definition has built-in limits that impede our purposes – which is to say, for the purpose of eliminating the far too limited definition of person that includes only members of our species, homo sapiens sapiens (HSS) –  it is necessary to evolve that definition, adapt it into a more inclusive form. A “natural person,” legally speaking, means a human being. Other entities, such as corporations, ships at sea, and states, also have legal personhood – a bone of some contention here in the U.S. For our purposes, legal recognition of corporations and states and ships serves little purpose. For that reason, I hope to focus on the a notion of personhood that includes natural persons, but also extends to include not only nonhuman biological species who meet certain criteria, but also abandons substrate chauvinism by embracing the possibility of technological beings meeting those same criteria, and therefore qualifying as persons.

 

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Reposted with permission from: IEET

Property Rights in Space by Rand Simberg

In economics, ethics, politics, research, science, science fiction, space, technology, transportation on January 5, 2013 at 05:42

From: Property Rights in Space by Rand Simberg, The New Atlantis, http://www.thenewatlantis.com

Space contains valuable resources. These provide a compelling reason for entrepreneurs, investors, and governments to pursue space exploration and settlement. Asteroids are known to be rich in valuable elements like neodymium, scandium, yttrium, iridium, platinum, and palladium, most of which are rare on Earth. Because of the high price that these minerals command, harvesting them from space could possibly justify even very costly mining expeditions. This is the hope of Planetary Resources, a company recently formed and funded by Google executives Larry Page and Eric Schmidt with the intent of mining asteroids. Similarly, Microsoft billionaire Naveen Jain has founded the company Moon Express, with plans to use robots to start mining the Moon — as early as next year, it claims. Meanwhile, Texas-based Shackleton Energy Company plans to mine ice in Shackleton Crater at the lunar south pole to provide propellant for planetary missions, and is raising funds for the venture now.

The basic technology for space travel necessary for off-planet development has of course existed for several decades; the United States did, after all, put a man on the Moon in 1969. And recent advances in spacefaring technology, like the SpaceX Falcon Heavy launcher, promise to reduce the cost of transporting people and goods to and from outer space. This new rocket will deliver about fifty metric tons of payload to low-Earth orbit at a price of $120 million, allowing material to be shipped to space for about a thousand dollars per pound — far less than the tens of thousands of dollars per pound that technologies like NASA’s retired space shuttle cost to ferry cargo. And if SpaceX or some other company can achieve the goal of partial or full reusability, the price of launching goods into orbit will likely drop much further, especially if market forces bring more competitors into the field.

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Reposted with permission from: The New Atlantis

Sloterdijk’s Moment by David Beer

In books, civilisation, culture, media, philosophy, science, technology, theory, writers on December 16, 2012 at 16:44

From: Sloterdijk’s Moment by David Beer, berfrois, http://www.berfrois.com

Bubbles: Spheres I
by Peter Sloterdijk, translated by Wieland Hoban,
Semiotext(e), Los Angeles, 663 pp.

This weighty text is the first part of what is seen as Sloterdijk’s defining and most important intellectual contribution. In this particular text the focus is upon small-scale microsphereology. Volumes two and three build upon this foundational text through a focus upon the macrospherology of globes and the plural spherology of foam (see Couture, 2009). The book itself highlights a genuine openness, resourcefulness and creativity in Sloterdijk’s thinking. He pulls together wide-ranging points of reference in his writing, many of which are unexpected and revealing. His use of art in particular opens up a visual imagination that sits alongside a set of knowing encounters with a number of important philosophical figures. Soterdijk carves a way through the tangential possibilities of bubbles by drawing upon this type of intellectual eclecticism. Actually this is something of an understatement, this book runs-riot as it lurches across the major issues of our time. These issues include globalisation on a small scale, the understanding of the divergence of nature into culture, how history shapes the now, how the individual becomes isolated into social connections, and so on. There is a rhythm at work here, with long takes interspersed with short cuts. There are slowly argued explorations of all-sorts of references juxtaposed with sudden, and sometimes disoientating, blasts of philosophical proclamation.

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Reposted with permission from: berfrois

Becoming a Cyborg should be taken gently by Tyger.A.C,

In biology, civilisation, science, sociology, theory on December 12, 2012 at 18:46

From: Becoming a Cyborg should be taken gently: Of Modern Bio-Paleo-Machines by Tyger.A.C, The Society Pages, http://thesocietypages.org

We are on the edge of a Paleolithic Machine intelligence world. A world oscillating between that which is already historical, and that which is barely recognizable. Some of us, teetering on this bio-electronic borderline, have this ghostly sensation that a new horizon is on the verge of being revealed, still misty yet glowing with some inner light, eerie but compelling.

The metaphor I used for bridging, seemingly contrasting, on first sight paradoxical, between such a futuristic concept as machine intelligence and the Paleolithic age is apt I think. For though advances in computation, with fractional AI, appearing almost everywhere are becoming nearly casual, the truth of the matter is that Machines are still tribal and dispersed. It is a dawn all right, but a dawn is still only a hint of the day that is about to shine, a dawn of hyperconnected machines, interweaved with biological organisms, cyberneticaly info-related and semi independent.

The modern Paleo-machines do not recognize borders; do not concern themselves with values and morality and do not philosophize about the meaning of it all, not yet that is. As in our own Paleo past the needs of the machines do not yet contain passions for individuation, desire for emotional recognition or indeed feelings of dismay or despair, uncontrollable urges or dreams of far worlds.

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Reposted with permission from: The Society Pages

Tears of Laughter by Christopher Turner

In animals, art, biology, history, nature, research, science on December 8, 2012 at 21:38

From: Tears of Laughter by Christopher Turner, CABINET, http://cabinetmagazine.org

Nearly half a millennium after Leonardo, contemporary scientists have discovered a neurological explanation for the affinity between physical expressions and emotional sensations of joy and grief. In the centuries between, scientists took over where artists left off in urgently pursuing the question. Charles Darwin notably fused the two approaches, using the art of photography to further his scientific inquiry. In order to formulate The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals (1872) with scientific veracity, Darwin broke with both schematic artistic representations of the passions and aristocratic conventions preventing extreme displays of emotion. He hoped to use photography to portray emotional subtleties—like the close similarity between the laughing and crying face—with a renewed realism.

Capturing particular expressions, inherently transitory, volatile, and ephemeral, at first seemed almost impossible with the long exposure time photography then required. (Eadweard Muybridge had only just begun his experiments recording sequences of a horse in motion the year Expression came out.) Darwin described the spasms a laughing fit provoked, which would have rendered any photograph a blur: “During excessive laughter the whole body is often thrown backward and shakes, or is almost convulsed. The respiration is much disturbed; the head and face become gorged with blood, with the veins distended; and the orbicular muscles are spasmodically contracted in order to protect the eyes. Tears are freely shed,” he noted, appending a key observation, “Hence . . . it is scarcely possible to point out any difference between the tear-stained face of a person after a paroxysm of excessive laughter and after a bitter crying-fit.”­

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Reposted with permission from: CABINET

U.S. Grants License for Laser-Powered Uranium Enrichment by Sharon Weinberger

In news, North America, research, science, technology on November 19, 2012 at 22:50

From: U.S. Grants License for Laser-Powered Uranium Enrichment by Sharon Weinberger, Scientific American, https://www.scientificamerican.com

The US Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) this week granted a licence to allow construction of a plant that uses a controversial uranium enrichment process — one that critics fear could pose a serious nuclear-proliferation risk. The plant, which would be built through a partnership between General Electric (GE) and Hitachi in Wilmington, North Carolina, could be used to enrich uranium to make fuel for nuclear reactors quickly and cheaply using a process that involves a laser.

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Reposted with permission from: Scientific American

Scientists create ‘tree of life’ mapping all known bird species

In biology, ecology, research, science on November 18, 2012 at 22:34

From: Scientists create ‘tree of life’ mapping all known bird species, Mongabay, http://news.mongabay.com

The international team researchers used DNA-sequencing data — when available — to show the evolutionary relationships between living bird species. It also shows bird speciation rates across time and geographies.

“We have built the first ever family tree showing the evolutionary relationship among the species of birds. We used fossils and genetic data to estimate the ages of all the different branches of the bird tree so that we could assess how diversity has accumulated through time,” said co-author Gavin Thomas of the University of Sheffield in a statement. “Our work is indebted to researchers from museums and universities who have collected astounding amounts of genetic data from birds around the world.”

See at Mongabay

Reposted with permission from: Mongabay

The Making of Cezanne’s Palette by Philip Ball

In aesthetics, art, Europe, history of art, nature, science on November 14, 2012 at 20:54

From: The Making of Cezanne’s Palette by Philip Ball, http://www.philipball.co.uk

Innovation in art has always been a gamble. While originality may be given lip-serving credit, unfamiliarity has an even chance of breeding contempt. There is no other word to describe the critics’ response to the first independent exhibition by the Impressionists in Paris in 1874. These artists, it was claimed, had rejected “good artistic manners, devotion to form, and respect for the masters”. Part of the outrage was directed at the choice of subject-ordinary people going about their business, for goodness’ sake-and part at the quick-fire style of the brush strokes. But the detractors were also offended by the colours.

The critic E. Cardon said sarcastically, “Soil three quarters of a canvas with black and white, rub the rest with yellow, distribute haphazardly some red and blue spots, and you’ll obtain an impression of spring in front of which the adepts will be carried away by ecstasy.” The second group exhibition two years later elicited similar complaints: “Try to make M. Pissarro understand that trees are not violet, that the sky is not the colour of fresh butter…”. Renoir’s “green and violet spots” in areas of flesh were seen to “denote the state of complete putrefaction of a corpse”.

Yet these were not new charges. In England, the Pre-Raphaelite painters such as William Holman Hunt and John Millais stood accused in the 1850s of using greens “unripe enough to cause indigestion”. J. M. W. Turner, the supreme British colourist of the early nineteenth century, had in 1829 been denounced for producing “a specimen of colouring run mad” in his Ulysses Deriding Polyphemus (Figure 1).

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Reposted with permission from: Philip Ball

It is a duty that we should save seeds for the future by Vandana Shiva

In Asia, biology, community, culture, ecology, ethics, nature, research, science on November 9, 2012 at 00:16

From: It is a duty that we should save seeds for the future by Vandana Shiva, America Latina en Movimiento, http://alainet.org

(…) Biodiversity is not empty, it is not pure nature, none of the varieties that have been evolved over centuries by peasant societies, particularly the women, are landrace. I think it’s just a wrong term to use because there’s intelligence in every bit of their breeding.
And as we think of how do we achieve systems of development, particularly rural development, there can be objectives of providing food of high quality, good nutrition, how do we assure that rural communities are not excluded, that women are not excluded, I think the first step along with development [is] food security as well as social inclusion, it is to start removing the boundaries and walls that have lead to exclusion. In my view the most important wall is a very invisible wall that gets higher and higher and higher.
This is a wall I have called the creation boundary. This is a wall that is destroying our biodiversity, that is pushing our rural communities to marginalization and poverty, and it is a wall that has discounted the knowledge of peasant societies, especially the women.
And this wall started to get put in place when knowledge was suddenly demarcated between scientific knowledge and other [types of] knowledge that aren’t knowledge.

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Reposted with permission from: America Latina en Movimiento

Does a Liberal Education Still Have Value? by John von Heyking

In academia, economics, philosophy, science, universities on November 9, 2012 at 00:02

From: Does a Liberal Education Still Have Value? by John von Heyking, CARDUS, http://www.cardus.ca

The recession has renewed our attention to the number of liberal arts graduates from universities and the difficulty they often encounter in finding work that matches their skill sets. There are numerous stories of English or History majors who have to work in low-paying jobs because their skills simply do not match the needs of employers with higher-paying jobs. Conversely, employers in Canada’s energy sector and even in its struggling manufacturing sector regularly complain they have difficulty finding workers with necessary skill sets to fill their job openings. It seems that Canadian higher education needs to be geared more toward producing workers with strong vocational skills than the ability to write essays on Virginia Woolf or Plato’s metaphysics.

As pressing as these concerns are to us now, the debate between the liberal arts and the “worker bees” has been around since the days of Socrates. The exemplar of the liberal arts, Socrates, was viewed by the Athenians as a parasitic lay-about that is, when he was not undermining the allegiance of Athenian youths to the laws of Athens. He embodied the liberal arts by not getting paid for his work not because he was lazy, but because knowledge is first and foremost for its own sake, not for its utility. To reverse these is to forget that the liberal arts enable one to be free (liber).

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Reposted with permission from: CARDUS

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