Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Magnets mess with the mind's morality

Here's a little snippet I wrote for Nature's news blog. The authors seem to take it as read that magnets can alter brain functioning in this manner, but I find that remarkable.

Talk about messing with your mind. A new study [www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0914826107] by neuroscientist Liane Young and colleagues at Harvard University does exactly that: the researchers used magnetic signals applied to subjects’ craniums to alter their judgements of moral culpability. The magnetic stimulus made people less likely to condemn others for attempting but failing to inflict harm.

Most people make moral judgements of others’ actions based not just on their consequences but also on some view of what the intentions were. That makes us prepared to attribute diminished responsibility to children or people with severe mental illness who commit serious offences: it’s not just a matter of what they did, but how much they understood what they were doing.

Neuroimaging studies have shown that the attribution of beliefs to other people seems to involve a part of the brain called the right temporoparietal junction (RTPJ). So Young and colleagues figured that, if they disrupted how well the RTPJ functions, this might alter moral judgements of someone’s action that rely on assumptions about their intention. To do that, they applied an oscillating magnetic signal at 1 Hz to the part of the skull close to the RTPJ for 25 minutes in test subjects, and then asked them to read and respond to an account of an attempted misdemeanour. They also conducted tests while delivering the signal in regular short bursts. In one scenario, ‘Grace’ intentionally puts a white powder from a jar marked ‘toxic’ into her friend’s coffee, but the powder is in fact just sugar and the friend is fine. Was Grace acting rightly or wrongly?

Obvious? You might think differently with a magnetic oscillator fixed to your head. With the stimulation applied, subjects were more likely to judge the morality based on the outcome, as young children do (the friend was fine, so it’s OK), than on the intention (Grace believed the stuff was toxic).

That’s scary. The researchers present this as evidence of the role of the RTPJ in moral reasoning, with implications for how children do it (there is some evidence that the RTPJ is late in maturing) and for conditions such as autism that seem to involve a lack of ability to identify motives in other people. Fair enough. But to most of us it is news – and alarming news – that morality-related brain functions can be disrupted or suspended with a simple electromagnetic coil. If ever a piece of research were destined to incite paranoid fantasies about dictators inserting chips in our heads to alter and control our behaviour, this is it.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Solar eclipse

This is more or less how my review of Ian McEwan’s new novel Solar in Prospect started out (the final paras got a little garbled in the edit). I’m amused to see that my suggestion here that his modest intentions might head off extreme reactions has been proved wrong. Lorna Bradbury in the Telegraph calls the book McEwan’s best yet, and thinks it should win the Booker (no way). And some found the comic elements ‘extremely funny’. Others think it is a stinker: one reviewer calls it ‘an odd, desultory production, by turns pompous and feebly comic’, and Leo Robson in the New Statesman says McEwan has lost his ear and that ‘With Solar, McEwan has finally committed the folly that we might not have expected from him.’ Really, they are all getting too worked up. Although I wouldn’t go as far as the dismissive comment in the Economist that this is ‘A novel to chuckle over, and chuck away’, it is simply a fairly light, intelligent piece of entertainment. Not, I imagine, that McEwan will be too bothered about any of this.


After Saturday, which several reviewers considered (unfairly) to be an insufferably smug depiction of Blair’s Britain in the approach to the invasion of Iraq, it looked as though a place was being prepared for Ian McEwan alongside Martin Amis on the pillory. Our two most celebrated novelists, the story went, were getting above themselves, pronouncing on the state of the nation from what seemed an increasingly conservative position.

Amis seems now to be in some curious quantum superposition of states, defended in a backlash to the backlash while demonized as the misogynistic wicked godfather. His latest novel The Pregnant Widow has been both praised as a return to form and derided as a farrago of caricature and solipsism. But Solar may extricate McEwan from such controversies and reinvest him with the humble status of a storyteller. For the book is a modest entertainment, dare one even say a romp, and essentially a work of genre fiction: lab lit. This genre, a second cousin of the campus novel, draws its plots from the exploits of scientists and the scientific community, and includes such titles as Allegra Goodman’s Intuition and Jonathan Lethem’s As She Climbed Across the Table.

McEwan’s interest in science is well established. The protagonist of Enduring Love is a science journalist, and the plot of Saturday hinged on the technical expertise of its central character, the neuroscientist Henry Perowne. McEwan has spoken about the uses of science in fiction, and has written passionately about the need to tackle climate change.

And that is where Solar comes in. When McEwan mentioned at the Hay Festival in 2008 that his next book had a ‘climate change’ theme, people anticipated some eco-fable set in the melting Arctic. He quickly denied any intention to proselytize; climate change would ‘just be the background hum of the book.’

So it is. Michael Beard, a Nobel laureate physicist resting on the laurels of his seminal work in quantum physics decades ago, is balding, overweight, addictively philandering, and coming to the end of his fifth marriage. Like many Nobel winners he has long ceased any productive science and is now riding the superficial circuit of plenary lectures, honorary degrees, Royal Commissions and advisory boards. Becoming the figurehead of the National Centre for Renewable Energy, marooned near Reading, seemed a good idea at the time, but the centre’s research has become mired in Beard’s ill-advised notion of making a wind turbine. Beard is privately indifferent to the global-warming threat, but when a chance arrives to give his career fresh lustre with a new kind of solar power, he grasps it greedily. With Beard running more on bluster and past glory than on scientific insight, and with his domestic life on autodestruct, we know it will all end badly. The question is simply how long Beard can stay ahead of the game. As the climate-change debate moves from the denialism of the Bush years to Obama and Copenhagen, he is increasingly a desperate, steadily inflating cork borne on the tide.

As ever, McEwan has done his homework. Mercifully, he knows much more than Lethem about how physicists think and work. And he is more successful in concealing his research than he was with the neuroscience shoehorned into Saturday. But not always. Beard’s speech to a group of climate-sceptic corporate leaders reads more like a lecture than a description of one: “Fifty years ago we were putting thirteen billion metric tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year. That figure has almost doubled.” And when Beard debunks his business partner’s doubts about global warming after the cool years of the late noughties, he gets full marks for science but risks becoming his author’s mouthpiece. “The UN estimates that already a third of a million people a year are dying from climate change” is not the kind of thing anyone says to their friend.

In case you care, the solution to the energy crisis on offer here – the process of ‘artificial photosynthesis’ to split water into hydrogen and oxygen using photocatalysis – is entirely respectable scientifically, albeit hardly the revolutionary breakthrough it is made out to be. Much the same idea was used by Stephen Poliakoff in his 1996 lablit play Blinded By the Sun; McEwan’s clever trick here is to involve quantum-mechanical effects (based on Beard’s Nobel-winning theory) to improve the efficiency, which left the nerd in me wondering if McEwan was aware of recent theories invoking such effects in real photosynthesis. I’m not sure whether to be more impressed if he is or if he isn’t.

McEwan nods toward recent episodes in which science has collided with the world outside the lab. Beard’s off-the-cuff remarks about women in science replay the debacle that engulfed former Harvard president Larry Sumner in 2005, and Beard stands in for Steven Pinker in an ensuing debate on gender differences (although Pinker’s opponent Elizabeth Spelke did a far better demolition job than does Beard’s).

He also makes wry use of personal experience. When he read at Hay a draft of the episode in which Beard eats the crisps of a fellow traveller on a train, thinking they are his own and suppressing fury when the young man ironically helps himself, someone in the audience pointed out that a similar case of false accusation of an innocent stranger appeared in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Some newspapers made a weak jibe at plagiarism. When Beard recounts the tale in a speech, a lecturer in ‘urban studies and folklore’ accuses him of appropriating a well-known urban myth, making Beard feel that his life has been rendered inauthentic – and the allusion to Douglas Adams is now inserted in the story.

One of the pleasures for a science watcher is identifying the academics from whom Beard has been assembled – I counted at least five. He is a difficult character to place centre-stage, not just selfish, unfaithful and vain but also physically repulsive – McEwan is particularly good at evoking queasiness at Beard’s gluttony and bodily decrepitude. But he has said that he wanted to leave Beard just enough possibility of goodness to engender some sympathy, and he succeeds by a whisker. When the final collapse of Beard’s crumbling schemes arrives (you can see it coming all along), there is room for compassion, even dismay.

Solar is, then, a satisfying and scientifically literate slice of genre literature, marred only slightly by McEwan’s curious addiction to the kind of implausible plot hinge that compromised Enduring Love, Atonement and most seriously, Saturday. Come the event that places opportunity in Beard’s hands, all the strings and signposts are glaringly evident – I think I even murmured to myself “No, not the corner of the coffee table”. And like the thug Baxter in Saturday, Beard’s wife's uncouth former lover Tarpin ends up doing things that just don't ring true – a failure not of ‘character motivation’ (McEwan is too good a writer to belabour that old chestnut) but of sheer plausibility.

In the end, this is McEwan-lite, a confection of contemporary preoccupations that, while lacking the emotional punch of Atonement, the political ambition of Saturday or the honed delicacy of On Chesil Beach, is more fun than any of them. And if it dissuades us from turning McEwan, like Amis, into a cultural icon to be venerated or toppled, so much the better for him and for us.

Monday, March 15, 2010

What went on in February

Here’s my little round-up for the April issue of Prospect, before it is edited to probably a third of this size. I don’t want to sound churlish, in the last item, about what is clearly a useful trial – but it did seem a good example of the kind of thing Colin Macilwain at Nature nailed recently in an excellent article about science and the media.
     I’ve also reviewed Ian McEwan’s new book Solar in this forthcoming issue of Prospect – will post that review shortly. In short: it’s fun.

As the global warming debate intensifies, expect to hear more about methane, carbon dioxide’s partner in crime as a greenhouse gas. Since it doesn’t come belching from our cars and power stations, methane bulks small in our conscience, but agriculture, gas production, landfills and biomass burning have doubled methane levels in the atmosphere since pre-industrial times and it is a more potent greenhouse gas than CO2. There are immense natural resources of methane, and one doomsday scenario has some of these releasing the gas as a result of warming. A frozen form of methane and water, called methane hydrate, sits at the seafloor in many locations worldwide, but the methane could bubble out if sea temperatures rise. A team has now discovered  this happening on the Arctic continental shelf off northeastern Siberia, where the sea water has vastly more dissolved methane than expected. Some think a massive methane burp from hydrate melting 250 million years ago caused environmental changes that wiped out 70-96% of all species on the planet. There’s no reason to panic yet, but I’m just letting you know.

A few scientists and an army of bloggers still insist that global warming has nothing to do with any of this stuff, but is caused by changes in the activity of the sun. If you like that idea (or indeed if you hate it), don’t expect much enlightenment from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory (SDO), launched in February to study the inner workings of the sun. We already know enough about variations in the sun to make the solar-warming hypotheses look flaky. But we don’t really understand what causes them. The 11-year sunspot cycle is thought to be the result of changes in the churning patterns of this volatile ball of hot plasma. It causes small periodic rise and fall of the sun’s energy output, along with the recurrent appearance of sunspots at the height of the cycle, and increases in solar flares that spew streams of charged particles across millions of miles of space, disrupting telecommunications and power grids on Earth and supplying a very practical reason for needing to know more about how our star works. SDO, launched by NASA at a cost of $856 million, will take images of the sun and detect convective flows of material beneath the surface, over the coming solar cycle that is due to peak around 2013.

A new study from researchers in Newcastle and Ulm of why our cells age does not, as some reports suggest, reveal the ‘secrets of ageing’, but rather debunks the notion of a ‘secret’ at all. Ageing, like embryo growth or cancer, is not a biochemical process but the net result of a complex network of processes. The new study shows how cells can become locked into a steady decline once they accumulate too much damage to their DNA, so that they don’t go on dividing with an inherent risk of initiating cancer. Although this process is triggered by the gradual erosion of the protective ‘caps’ at the ends of our chromosomes, called telomeres, it suggests that the story is far more complex than the simplistic picture in which we age because our chromosomes go bald. And it makes a magic bullet for reversing ageing seem even more of a pipe dream.

A cure for peanut allergy could be only three years away, recent headlines said. It’s a cheering prospect for this nasty condition, a source of anxiety for many parents and on very rare occasions a genuinely life-threatening problem. The reports were based on a presentation given by Andrew Clark of Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge at the meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, an annual jamboree of science news. Clark and his colleagues are about to begin a major clinical trial, following earlier success in desensitizing children to the allergy by ‘training’ the immune system to tolerate initially tiny but steadily increasing doses of peanut. The news is welcome, but also an indication of the rather formulaic nature of much science and health reporting, where everyone seizes on the same story irrespective of whether it is really news. This is, after all, just the announcement of a forthcoming trial, not of its results. And besides, the desensitizing strategy is well established in principle: similar successes were reported recently by two groups at a meeting of the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology in New Orleans.