‘The Vital Question: Why Is Life the Way It Is?’, by Nick Lane

41m4swNgFaL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Clive Cookson at the Financial Times:

There is a black hole at the heart of biology,” says Nick Lane, who is emerging as one of the most imaginative thinkers about the evolution of life on Earth. The hole surrounds the transition around 1.8bn years ago from simple microbes, which had monopolised the planet for the previous 2bn years, to the complex “eukaryotic” cells that went on to become animals, plants, fungi and protozoa. For Lane, a biochemist at University College London, the little discussed origins of cellular complexity are The Vital Question for biologists seeking to understand why life is the way it is.

Yet scientists have paid much more attention to how the first primitive cells originated on the young Earth, when it was some 500m years old. Lane’s latest book, following on from his prizewinning Life Ascending(2009), does, in fact, start with the origins of life. Indeed, he puts forward a convincing argument for the first living cells having formed around alkaline hydrothermal vents. Only in this fiercely hot deep-sea environment could the chemical conditions and energy flow promote hydrogen to react with carbon dioxide and form self-replicating organic compounds.

more here.

Please, not Sabeen. And no, that won’t shut us up

I have lost a personal friend and hero. I have not stopped crying since hearing the news of this brutal murder. In my last note, I had said to her: “May you live to thrive and flourish and blossom and continue to serve your country and your fellow humans with the same sensitivity and humility.” Alas, my darling Sabeen, you have given your life for your cause. It seems Mustafa Zaidi wrote this sher for you my love:

Mein kis kay hathoun pe apna lahoo talaash karoun

Tamaam shehr ney pehnay huay hain dastanay

(Translation: On whose hands should I look for my blood? The entire city is wearing gloves)

SabeenCoffin-board, heavy stone,

Lie on her breast,

I vex my heart alone,

She is at rest.

Beena Sarwar in her blog Journeys to Democracy:

In shock and grieved beyond words at this horrible news that our dear friend and comrade Sabeen Mahmud has been shot dead, her mother in critical condition in hospital. They were returning from the event Unsilencing Balochistan (Take 2) held at The Second Floor (T2F) [NOTE: the facebook event link posted above mysteriously disappeared then reappeared]. It was tremendously brave of Sabeen to allow the event to be hosted there given that Balochistan is essentially a ‘no go’ area. Even as we grieve our friend we refuse to be silenced. “She always spoke out. We must honour her legacy of speaking out,” said Mohammad Jibran Nasir when I spoke to him just now. “We will not let Balochistan be a no-go area”. “They want to make us into a nation of intellectual cripples, no discussion, no dissent, no dialogue,” said Mona Kazim Shah. “How many will they kill?”

This intellecticide cannot continue. Sabeen… all-inclusive humanist, only child of her single mother, cat-lover, a gentle and compassionate soul who did all in her power to create spaces and platforms to give a voice to the less fortunate, the vulnerable, the under-privileged, those whose for whom her heart beat. Rest in peace my friend. I can’t believe you are no more. We will keep speaking out. We will honour your legacy.

More here.

Saturday Poem

The Room Next Door

I want to go to the room next door.
Is it a forest, sad and Slavic
Its old bears barreling past sickly pines?
A sombrous sanctuary
Where beds of brown with vaulted views
Inform the sky of mortal giants
And sweet decay?

I want to go to the room next door.
Is it a beach, where dusty palms
Sway to an ersatz beat of soda pops
In paltry oils?

I want to go to the room next door
Is it a city, chill and gray,
Unmade beds behind steel grids
And melting neon semaphores?
Where asphalt sinks with every step
And cracks jut up like faulty flowers
Before the frost?

I want to go to the room next door
Is it a cave, the mold of ages
Clinging to its dark embrace?

I want to go to the room next door
Where mountain air is thin and fine
Where myths and dreams loom side by side,
While death hones in on willful wings.

I want to go to the room next door,
Where all is well and endings good,
And grass is anything but green.
Or greener.

by Brooks Riley

The Chaos in Darfur

From the website of the International Crisis Group:

ScreenHunter_1160 Apr. 25 11.22Violence in the Darfur region of Sudan’s far west continues unabated. Some 450,000 persons were displaced in 2014 and another 100,000 in January 2015 alone, adding to some two million long-term internally displaced persons (IDPs) since fighting erupted in 2003. The government remains wedded to a military approach and reluctant to pursue a negotiated national solution that would address all Sudan’s conflicts at once and put the country on the path of a democratic transition. Khartoum’s reliance on a militia-centred counter-insurgency strategy is increasingly counter-productive – not least because it stokes and spreads communal violence. Ending Darfur’s violence will require – beyond countrywide negotiations between Khartoum, the rebel Sudanese Revolutionary Front (SRF) coalition and unarmed players – addressing its local dimensions, within both national talks and parallel local processes.

Darfur’s complex and multiplying local conflicts are increasingly ill-understood, due to lack of information and the limitations of reporting from the hybrid UN/African Union Mission in Darfur (UNAMID). Intensification of combat with rebel factions prompted the government in 2014 to fall back again upon notorious military auxiliaries, this time its new Rapid Support Forces (RSF), thus worsening violence and displacements. Arab militias and paramilitary forces like the RSF attacked non-Arab communities accused of being pro-rebel, fought each other, took part in communal conflicts and even hit at regular government troops.

More here. [Thanks to Wolf Böwig.]

Director T2F Sabeen Mahmud shot dead in Karachi

This is devastatingly sad news! Sabeen was a good friend of my sister Azra's and a great supporter of 3QD. I did not know her well but we exchanged emails about six months ago and she asked if 3QD might be able to help T2F in some way. I said that she should write an article to introduce 3QD readers to T2F. That article can be seen here. She seemed the nicest and most vivacious person in my exchanges with her. It is shocking to hear this news despite knowing that such things are no longer unusual in that wretched country. What madness.

This is from Dawn:

ScreenHunter_1159 Apr. 24 23.21The director of The Second Floor (T2F), Sabeen Mahmud, was shot dead by unidentified gunmen in Karachi on Friday.

Sabeen, accompanied by her mother, left T2F after 9pm on Friday evening and was on her way home when she was shot by unidentified gunmen in Defence Phase-II, sources confirmed. She died on her way to the hospital. Doctors said they retrieved five bullets from her body, which has now been shifted to Jinnah Postgraduate Medical Centre.

Her mother also sustained bullet wounds and is currently being treated at a hospital; she is said to be in critical condition.

T2F had on Friday organised a talk on Balochistan: 'Unsilencing Balochistan Take 2: In Conversation with Mama Qadeer, Farzana Baloch & Mir Mohammad Ali Talpur.'

Sabeen had left T2F after attending the session, when she was targeted.

T2F, described as a community space for open dialogue, was Sabeen's brainchild. In an interview with Aurora, she referred to it as “an inclusive space where different kinds of people can be comfortable.”

More here.

Three myths about the Iran sanctions

Aaron Arnold in the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists:

ScreenHunter_1158 Apr. 24 22.13Speaking from the White House earlier this month, President Obama announced details of a framework agreement between Iran and the P5+1—the United States, Russia, China, France, the United Kingdom, and Germany—that limits Iran’s path to building a nuclear weapon over the next 10 to 15 years. Although negotiators will finalize technical details between now and the June 30 deadline, the parameters provide Iran with sanctions relief in exchange for limits on its uranium enrichment, converting its Arak heavy water reactor, limiting the number and type of centrifuges, and agreeing to intrusive inspections. Should Iran cheat or fail to uphold its end of the bargain, however, the United States and its allies reserve the right to “snap-back” into place tough economic and financial sanctions.

Skeptics of the framework insist that it does not go far enough in preventing Iran’s path to a bomb. Instead, Congressional leaders are pushing for a greater say in approving a final deal. Most recently, Sen. Bob Corker, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, tentatively reached bi-partisan support on legislation that would reign in Obama’s ability to provide sanctions relief by requiring the president to submit the final deal to Congress for approval. If Congress decides not to approve the final deal, the alternative is returning to stronger sanctions in hopes of bringing Iran back to the bargaining table.

The view that holding out for a “better deal” by strengthening sanctions does not consider the reality of the current sanctions regime, and is based on bad assumptions and outright myths.

More here.

How to Die

Atul Gawande argues that physicians should focus care on the good life—including its very end.

Sophia Rosenfeld in The Nation:

ScreenHunter_1157 Apr. 24 22.05In the early 1990s, an upstate New York doctor became the medical director of a nursing home populated almost entirely by severely disabled elderly people. Unhappy about all the unhappiness he saw around him, the doctor launched an experiment. Shifting attention from “treatment” to “care,” he introduced plants in the living quarters, flowers and vegetables in the garden, and a veritable menagerie all around the property, including two dogs, four cats, and 100 parakeets. Eventually, he added an outdoor play area for the employees’ children. The results were surprising: greater contentedness in the home’s residents (measurable in part by a large decrease in the need for psychotropic drugs like Haldol), but also extended lives.

Atul Gawande believes in targeted fixes, especially small ones. His previous book, The Checklist Manifesto, detailed the outsize benefits of that favorite of highly organized people, the checklist. In Being Mortal, the writer-physician turns his attention to what happens when the elderly or infirm are granted a plant to look after, a chance to break an in-house rule, or even a sustained conversation about their future. His contention is that such little adjustments not only produce big payoffs for well-being, but also represent significant breakthroughs in terms of our thinking about questions of such daunting ethical and emotional magnitude that we generally avoid contemplating them at all. Questions like: What can we do to improve the existence of people in the final phase of life? How do we prepare others—and eventually ourselves—for the end?

More here.

a short history of american images

UrlLucy Ives at Triple Canopy:

We Go for the Union is an anonymous, undated nineteenth-century American painting. Titled, by curatorial fiat, after the political banner at its right, it depicts a group of men who are each, in varying ways, skilled in the manipulation of paint.

One man (of greatest height and most costly attire) holds a palette and narrow brush for applying precise touches. To this auteur’s right, a black man in stained overalls holds a bucket of paint at the ready. This paint has been applied across the background of a painting within the painting, a political sign featuring the likeness of George Washington. At far left, a strangely proportioned, muscular figure with pinched head and blurred features laboriously grinds blue pigment against a stone. An orange horizon emanates through the workshop windows, indicating, if not a clearly identifiable hour, then, perhaps, the sublime.

In this scene the labor of painting is divided into three, with only one worker accorded the status of artist: The giant, yellow-jacketed professional limns august features instantly

recognizable as those of the union’s first president. The artist seems to work from memory, pausing in reserved admiration before the realistic image he apparently believes himself to have authored. Yet we know that this image is in fact a copy of Gilbert Stuart’s famous Athenaeum portrait, which Stuart himself never officially finished, instead copying it at least seventy-five times and selling each reproduction for $100.

more here.

A lethal nostalgia

Deborah Rudacille in Aeon:

PAR46470-306x192Thousands of working-class communities around the country lament the shuttering of blast furnaces, coke ovens, mines and factories. This yearning for a vanishing industrial United States, a place in long, slow decline thanks to globalisation and technological change, has a name – smokestack nostalgia. It is a paradoxical phenomenon, considering the environmental damage and devastating health effects of many of the declining industries. Our forebears worked gruelling shifts in dangerous jobs, inhaling toxic fumes and particulates at work and at home. Many lived in neighbourhoods hemmed in by industries that pumped effluent into rivers, streams and creeks.

During the 1960s and ’70s, a fine red dust coated my home town near Sparrows Point. The local rivers and creeks, which fed into the Chesapeake Bay, became so contaminated with run-off that dead fish often littered the beaches. As the Sparrows Point monument testifies, many workers died gruesome deaths: burned, crushed, gassed, dismembered. Others experienced a slower, though no less painful, demise from diseases caused by exposure to asbestos, benzene and other toxins.

Few of the steelworkers I’ve known deny the negative aspects of living and working on the Point, including long-standing racial, class and gender discrimination. Still, they grieve the shuttering of the Sparrows Point works, which provided not just union jobs with generous benefits, but a sense of family and community, identity and self-worth. At a ceremony on 24 November 2014 honouring the legacy and history of Sparrows Point, in advance of the demolition of what was once the largest blast furnace in the western hemisphere, steelworkers described what the Point meant to them. ‘My heart will always be in this place. This is hallowed ground,’ said Michael Lewis, a third-generation steelworker and union officer. Troy Pritt, another steel worker, read a poem calling the steelworks ‘home’.

Read the full article here.

the crooked tower

50965500-galileo-pisa-428623a762fe0818477747e1c0d1e40c2dad997bGreg Siegel at Cabinet Magazine:

Galileo taught mathematics at the University of Pisa from 1589 to 1592, and sometime during this period he mounted a dramatic public demonstration of one of his more unorthodox notions. Clutching two lead spheres of different sizes and masses, he climbed the stairs of the campanile, the bell tower in the Piazza del Duomo, behind the cathedral. The young professor then proceeded—before an assembly of expectant onlookers, many of them faculty and students from the university—to drop the test objects simultaneously from the upper balcony. The plummeting orbs reached the ground together; with no temporal interval between their terrestrial impacts, a single resounding thump announced their coincident landing. Aristotelian physics, for ages the dominant paradigm, held that the velocities of free-falling bodies moving through the same medium vary in direct proportion to their weights. Galileo’s so-called Leaning Tower of Pisa Experiment conclusively disproved Aristotle’s doctrine of natural downward motion: heavier objects do not fall to earth faster than lighter objects, after all. In a veritable instant, the old certainties, all those dusty apriorisms of ancient and medieval inheritance, were upended. Science and knowledge had at last entered the modern era.

more here.

The Armenian genocide: the journey from victim to survivor

Armenians_marched_by_Turkish_soldiers,_1915Anoosh Chakelian at The New Statesman:

When I mention that I’m Armenian to new people I meet, I usually receive one of two reactions. One involves Kim Kardashian. The other is a vague awareness of something horrible that happened during the First World War. It’s particularly noticeable this year, as the world (including cousin Kim) has lingered a little longer than usual on the events of the Armenian genocide as it reaches its centenary.

Today is 24 April, a date that has resonated for me ever since I was born. Well, the Armenian pronunciation of it has, anyway (“Uhbril Ksan Chors”). Today marks 100 years since the Ottoman Turks rounded up hundreds of Armenian community leaders and intellectuals in Constantinople, and executed them.

This was the first phase of a genocide that lasted throughout the First World War. The ensuing century has perpetuated the pain with silence and denial.

The facts are already out there – pretty much every western journalist or historian who has written about this subject, and many Turkish ones at that, will give you a similar account. During death marches and massacres perpetrated by the Young Turk regime as the bloody conclusion of its “Turkification” programme, 1.5m Armenians were killed of an estimated population of 2.1 million.

more here.

Christian America is an invention: Big business, right-wing politics and the religious lie that still divides us

Kevin M. Kruse in Salon:

Huckabee_bush_roveThe idea of “one nation under God” is a modern one — and does not date back to the Founding Fathers.

When he ran for the White House, Texas governor George W. Bush took a similarly soft approach, though one that came from the right. A born-again Christian, he shared Bill Clinton’s ability to discuss his faith openly. When Republican primary candidates were asked to name their favorite philosopher in a 1999 debate, for instance, Bush immediately named Christ, “because He changed my heart.” Despite the centrality of faith in his own life, Bush assured voters that he would not implement the rigid agenda of the religious right. Borrowing a phrase from author Marvin Olasky, Bush called himself a “compassionate conservative” and said he would take a lighter approach to social issues including abortion and gay rights than culture warriors such as Pat Buchanan. But many on the right took issue with the phrase. For some, the “compassionate” qualifier implicitly condemned mainstream conservatism as heartless; for others, the phrase seemed an empty marketing gimmick. (As Republican speechwriter David Frum put it, “Love conservatism but hate arguing about abortion? Try our new compassionate conservatism—great ideological taste, now with less controversy.”) But the candidate backed his words with deeds, distancing himself from the ideologues in his party. In a single week in October 1999, for instance, Bush criticized House Republicans for “balancing the budget on the backs of the poor” and lamented that all too often “my party has painted an image of America slouching toward Gomorrah.”

In concrete terms, Bush’s “compassionate conservatism” constituted a promise to empower private religious and community organizations and thereby expand their role in the provision of social services. This “faith­ based initiative” became the centerpiece of his campaign. In his address to the 2000 Republican National Convention, Bush heralded the work of Christian charities and called upon the nation to do what it could to sup­port them. After his inauguration, Bush moved swiftly to make the pro­posal a reality. Indeed, the longest section of his 2001 inaugural address was an expansive reflection on the idea. “America, at its best, is compassionate,” he observed. “Church and charity, synagogue and mosque lend our communities their humanity, and they will have an honored place in our plans and in our laws.” Bush promoted the initiative at his first Na­tional Prayer Breakfast as well. But it was ill-fated. Hamstrung by a lack of clear direction during the administration’s first months, it was quickly overshadowed by a new emphasis on national security after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

More here.

Why Almost Everything Dean Ornish Says about Nutrition Is Wrong

Melinda Wenner Moyer in Scientific American:

FatLast month, an op–ed in The New York Times argued that high-protein and high-fat diets are to blame for America’s ever-growing waistline and incidence of chronic disease. The author, Dean Ornish, founder of the nonprofit Preventive Medicine Research Institute, is no newcomer to these nutrition debates. For 37 years he has been touting the benefits of very low-fat, high-carbohydrate, vegetarian diets for preventing and reversing heart disease. But the research he cites to back up his op–ed claims is tenuous at best. Nutrition is complex but there is little evidence our country’s worsening metabolic ills are the fault of protein or fat. If anything, our attempts to eat less fat in recent decades have made things worse. Ornish begins his piece with a misleading statistic. Despite being told to eat less fat, he says, Americans have been doing the opposite: They have “actually consumed 67 percent more added fat, 39 percent more sugar and 41 percent more meat in 2000 than they had in 1950 and 24.5 percent more calories than they had in 1970.” Yes, Americans have been eating more fat, sugar and meat, but we have also been eating more vegetables and fruits (pdf)—because we have been eating more of everything.

What’s more relevant to the discussion is this fact: During the time in which the prevalence of obesity in the U.S. nearly tripled, the percentage of calories Americans consumed from protein and fat actually dropped whereas the percentage of calories Americans ingested from carbohydrates—one of the nutrient groups Ornish says we should eat more of—increased. Could it be that our attempts to reduce fat have in fact been part of the problem? Some scientists think so. “I believe the low-fat message promoted the obesity epidemic,” says Lyn Steffen, a nutritional epidemiologist at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health. That’s in part because when we cut out fat, we began eating foods that were worse for us. Ornish goes to argue that protein and saturated fat increase the risk of mortality and chronic disease. As evidence for these causal claims, he cites a handful of observational studies. He should know better. These types of studies—which might report that people who eat a lot of animal protein tend to develop higher rates of disease—“only look at association, not causation,” explains Christopher Gardner, a nutrition scientist at the Stanford Prevention Research Center. They should not be used to make claims about cause and effect; doing so is considered by nutrition scientists to be “inappropriate” and “misleading.” The reason: People who eat a lot of animal protein often make other lifestyle choices that increase their disease risk, and although researchers try to make statistical adjustments to control for these “confounding variables,” as they’re called, it’s a very imperfect science. Other large observational studies have found that diets high in fat and protein are not associated with disease and may even protect against it. The point is, it’s possible to cherry-pick observational studies to support almost any nutritional argument.

More here.

Friday Poem

The Child Who Was Shot Dead

The child is not dead
the child raises his fists against his mother
who screams Africa screams the smell
of freedom and heather
in the locations of the heart under siege

The child raises his fists against his father
in the march of the generations
who scream Africa scream the smell
of justice and blood
in the streets of his armed pride

The child is not dead
neither at Langa nor at Nyanga
nor at Orlando nor at Sharpeville
nor at the police station in Philippi
where he lies with a bullet in his head

The child is the shadow of the soldiers
on guard with guns saracens and batons
the child is present at all meetings and legislations
the child peeps through the windows of houses and into the hearts of mothers
the child who just wanted to play in the sun at Nyanga is everywhere
the child who became a man treks through all of Africa
the child who became a giant travels through the whole world

Without a pass

by Ingrid Jonker Trust
from Rook en Oker
publisher: Afrikaanse Pers, Johannesburg, 1963

How the Truth About Palestine Won Netanyahu the Israeli Election


Omri Boehm in The Boston Review (Image: Wikimedia commons):

The universal deceit exposed by Netanyahu just before Election Day had two main lies for pillars. First, of course, his own lie, the 2009 “Bar Ilan Speech,” in which the Prime Minister, facing European and American pressure, pretended to renounce everything that he himself and the Likud Party had ever believed in, and publically endorsed the two-state solution:

The truth is that in the area of our homeland, in the heart of our Jewish Homeland, now lives a large population of Palestinians. We do not want to rule over them. We do not want to run their lives. We do not want to force our flag and our culture on them. In my vision of peace, there are two free peoples living side by side in this small land, with good neighborly relations and mutual respect, each with its flag, anthem and government, with neither one threatening its neighbor's security and existence.

Non-experts may be unable to appreciate how dramatic this statement was. Ever since the 1930s, the ideological difference dividing Ben-Gurion’s mainstream Labor Zionism from Jabotinsky’s nationalist-revisionist alternative has turned on the question of the land’s partition. In 1947, Ben-Gurion enthusiastically supported the United Nation’s Partition Plan—encouraging the establishment of a two-state solution within today’s ’48 borders—while Jabotinsky’s successor as revisionist leader, Menachem Begin, fiercely objected.

True: some thirty years later, as Israel’s Prime Minister, Begin would hand over to Sadat the entire Sinai Peninsula. But this was a territorial compromise to the Arab Republic of Egypt, not a political-territorial concession to the Palestinian people, whose existence revisionists have always denied. Also true: Ariel Sharon, as Prime Minister, handed over occupied land to the Palestinian Authority in Gaza, and to that end evacuated thousands of settlers. But in order to do this, Sharon had to leave the Likud party, his natural home, and establish a new party, Kadima, with Labor leaders such as Shimon Peres.

So when Netanyahu stood in Bar-Ilan University and announced, as Israel’s Prime Minister and Likud leader, that the Palestinians deserve to get “their own flag, anthem and government,” he did something genuinely new in Zionist history. For die-hard revisionists such as Rubi Rivlin, Israel’s current friendly-looking president, Netanyahu’s two-state concession came as a shock. If the Likud Party kept relatively calm, it was because everybody knew that Netanyahu was lying.

More here.

The Function of Criticism at the Present Time


Virginia Jackson in the LA Review of Books:

LAUREN BERLANT is a critic’s critic, a feminist’s feminist, and a thinker’s friend. This is most simply true because of the number, depth, and influence of her abundant authored and co-authored and edited and co-edited books, her ever more numerous articles, essays, interviews, dialogues and monologues, and especially her proliferating collaborations; she always seems to be writing yet another book with yet another interesting someone else. Lots of people think with and because of Lauren Berlant. But academic “productivity” (that ubiquitous and ugly word, itself a symptom of the corporate manufacture of a crisis in the humanities) isn’t the most important reason that my first proposition — that Berlant is a critic’s critic — is just true. The reason that Lauren Berlant occupies this moment in critical theory so capaciously is that what she really always thinks about is genre.

Once upon a time, or so the story goes, the genre system was hierarchical and taxonomic (though not so fixed that at least as early as Aristotle’s Poeticsit wasn’t open to debate), with “tragedies” clearly separated from “comedies,” for example. Later, in modernity (the novel is usually considered both the origin and result of this shift), genres became modes of recognition — complex forms instantiated in popular discourse, relying on what we could or would recognize collectively, in common — and so subject to historical change and cultural negotiation. Once genres became historical, the story continues, it then became the critic’s job to manage and translate those emerging forms of recognition for the benefit of readers who experienced them without knowing exactly what it was they were seeing and feeling.

Genre seems like an old-fashioned, belletristic frame to impose on Berlant’s political, cultural, and affective range. I may be wrong, but I’m betting that if I asked you to think of a queer theorist, Berlant is one of the first critics you would name, and if I asked you to think of a theorist of public culture or affect or performativity or media publics or marginal aesthetics or crisis, Berlant would be one of the first critics you would name, but if I asked you to think of a genre theorist, Berlant would not be the first critic to come to mind. No one would accuse Lauren Berlant of being a purely literary critic.

More here.

Scientists seek rare muon conversion that could signal new physics

Diana Kwon in Symmetry:

ScreenHunter_1155 Apr. 23 17.48This weekend, members of the Mu2e collaboration dug their shovels into the ground of Fermilab's Muon Campus for the experiment that will search for the direct conversion of a muon into an electron in the hunt for new physics.

For decades, the Standard Model has stood as the best explanation of the subatomic world, describing the properties of the basic building blocks of matter and the forces that govern them. However, challenges remain, including that of unifying gravity with the other fundamental forces or explaining the matter-antimatter asymmetry that allows our universe to exist. Physicists have since developed new models, and detecting the direct conversion of a muon to an electron would provide evidence for many of these alternative theories.

“There's a real possibility that we'll see a signal because so many theories beyond the Standard Model naturally allow muon-to-electron conversion,” said Jim Miller, a co-spokesperson for Mu2e. “It'll also be exciting if we don't see anything, since it will greatly constrain the parameters of these models.”

Muons and electrons are two different flavors in the charged-lepton family. Muons are 200 times more massive than electrons and decay quickly into lighter particles, while electrons are stable and live forever. Most of the time, a muon decays into an electron and two neutrinos, but physicists have reason to believe that once in a blue moon, muons will convert directly into an electron without releasing any neutrinos. This is physics beyond the Standard Model.

Under the Standard Model, the muon-to-electron direct conversion happens too rarely to ever observe. In more sophisticated models, however, this occurs just frequently enough for an extremely sensitive machine to detect.

The Mu2e detector, when complete, will be the instrument to do this.

More here. [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]

Kiss goodbye to freedom

Raymond Geuss foresees a future of strict controls or war over resources. Matthew Reisz meets the radical philosopher and traces his intellectual development.

Matthew Reisz in The Times:

Philosophy_and_Real_PoliticsRaymond Geuss would like his fellow philosophers (and many of his fellow citizens) to think about politics in a radically different way. His latest book, Philosophy and Real Politics, is a quietly ferocious broadside against much received wisdom.

Among its targets are “the highly moralised tone in which some public diplomacy is conducted, at any rate in the English-speaking world, and … the popularity among political philosophers of the slogan 'Politics is applied ethics'.” What this slogan usually means in practice is starting off with abstract general principles or intuitions about fairness, justice, equality or rights, and then applying them to specific political situations. Such an approach, Geuss believes, is unlikely to tell us anything much about the real world of power struggles and messy compromises.

Some of his arguments have their roots in his earliest educational experiences. In a tribute to the philosopher Richard Rorty, Geuss offers an entertaining account of his Roman Catholic upbringing and how it had granted him “relative immunity to nationalism” – and in particular the “patently absurd” notion that there was something “special” about the United States.

For the Irish and Irish-American nuns who taught him from the ages of five to 12, only the Roman Catholic Church was truly universal and international. They knew that all the popes had been Italian, but that was for purely fortuitous reasons. “Only an Italian could stand to live in Rome: it was hot, noisy and overcrowded, and the people there ate spaghetti for dinner every day rather than proper food, ie potatoes, so it would be too great a sacrifice to expect someone who had not grown up in Italy to tolerate life there.”

More here.