How do we measure and predict the human cost of climate change? Andrew T. Guzman, the author of ‘Overheated,’ on how dangerous global tensions could get much worse.
What’s your big idea?
We have all heard of climate change. In fact, many people are tired of hearing about it. Despite all the talk, the most important aspect of climate change has not been made clear: how serious it will be for human beings.
Emergency personnel walk through a severely damaged neighborhood after a tornado hit Joplin, Missouri in 2011. That year the United States saw one of the busiest tornado seasons in generations: nearly 1,700 tornadoes and 553 related deaths. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
The news notes facts about the physical world: the ice sheets in Antarctica are melting, seas are rising, coral reefs are jeopardized, 2012 was the hottest year ever in the United States. But we don’t live in Antarctica, a sea rise of a few feet seems like nothing to panic about, most of us have never even seen a coral reef, and 2012 did not feel like the end of the world.
The charismatic doctor and social activist, known for his work in Haiti and co-founding the organization Partners in Health, talks about why the American health-care system is not working, and what advice he has for the new crop of college graduates entering the real world. His commencement speeches have been collected in the new book 'To Repair the World.'
What is your big idea to impart on college graduates?
The big idea that I underline for medical students would be different from, but related to, a big idea I would share with college graduates. Let me give it a try. It may not sound like a big-enough idea.
Jacob Edwards, a resident-in-training physician, examines Lerner Medley, 1, at the Children’s Health Center in Washington, D.C., in February 2012. (Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post, via Getty)
I look at American medicine, and I look at how much money we are investing in health care—more than any other country in the world. And you see some of the wonderful possibilities that come out of it, when you have good research linked to care delivery. I would even mention the Boston Marathon bombing. There’s a reason that no one who was injured and made it to a hospital died—because we have really good hospitals in that city, as much as any city. I work in one of them, the Brigham. It is a pleasure to be in a hospital where there are thousands of competent, compassionate people working together for people who are sick or injured.
The animal-science pioneer and autistic activist looks inside her own brain to learn about the latest research on autism—and discovers that she’s quite face-blind.
What’s your big idea?
That there are three kinds of thinking. The traditional way of describing different kinds of minds is to say that some people think visually and some people think verbally. But “visual thinker” doesn’t really describe that part of the population well. I think in pictures, but I found that other visual thinkers don’t think like me at all. They think spatially. The more I asked people how they think, the more convinced I became that picture/object thinking and pattern/spatial thinking were as distinct from each other as the old visual and verbal categories. But did my hypothesis have any basis in scientific fact? To my delight, I discovered it does. Research by a neuroscientist named Maria Kozhevnikov has convincingly shown that not only do different parts of the brain correspond to picture-object thinking and pattern-spatial thinking, but that a brain that’s really good at one of those ways of thinking is usually weak in the other. They truly are different kinds of thinkers. Which makes sense. If you look at scientists and artists, they’re both visual thinkers, but they don’t think the same way.
What does neuroimaging of your own brain tell you about the causes of autism?
It tells me that when parts of the brain depart from the norm, it shows up in the real world. I have an abnormality in the circuits for language output, and sure enough, as a child I had trouble getting language out. I have an oversized amygdala, which is a part of the brain that’s associated with processing fear and other emotions, and I’ve always been prone to high levels of anxiety (which I control through antidepressants that I started taking in the early 1980s). When a control subject and I were studied, we found that our brains responded similarly to images of objects and buildings, but not to images of faces. My brain showed a lot less activation. And you know what? I’m so bad at recognizing faces that I have to remind myself, “He’s got a goatee” or “She’s wearing black glasses.” The book has some of the actual images from my brain scans. I should also say that neuroimaging is going to be a great diagnostic tool for targeting therapies.
Is the insular art world not giving us the excitement we crave? Jonathon Keats, author of the new book, ‘Forged,’ says forgeries are the new masterpieces we should be paying attention to.
What’s your big idea?
Art is in the business of anxiety. For well over a century, artists have been trying to rile us, making us question ourselves and our society. At the most fundamental level, Abstract Expressionism evokes existential angst for instance, and Pop Art satirizes consumerism. But the art world is an insular place, and for the select few who actually go to museums, any potential anxiety is neutralized by mind-numbing curatorial explanations.
A visitor looking at paintings by Han van Meegeren (1889-1947), on May 11, 2010 in the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam. (Robin Utrecht/AFP/Getty)
As a result, legitimate art is doing a bad job of taking us outside our comfort zone. Art forgery, on the other hand, does so brilliantly. Forgers are the foremost artists of our age.
You know labels like ‘organic,’ ‘free range,’ or ‘non GMO,’ but what exactly do they mean? Physician Daphne Miller, who teaches family medicine at UC San Francisco, sought to learn more about where our food is grown in ‘Farmacology,’ and finds that innovative farming can teach us new lessons about our health—a vineyard’s pest management strategy, for instance, offers a new take on cancer care.
What is your big idea?
We are more connected to the farm than we think.
A local Vermont worker, Brad Peacock, picks organically grown romaine lettuce at the Clear Brook Farm July 24, 2012 in Shaftsbury, Vermont. (Robert Nickelsberg/Getty)
Recently I began to take time away from my medical practice to visit sustainable farms and see what went on there. As I journeyed across the country, milking cows, gathering eggs, weeding brassicas, laying irrigation pipe and hawking produce at farm stands, I discovered that good medicine and good farming had much in common. In fact, I began to see family farmers as healers whose jobs were more complicated than mine, since they were responsible for the health of an entire eco-system (soil, soil creatures, animals, plants, water, air, people, and so on) while I was expected to care for just one member of that eco-system (people).
Why has the West dominated human advances in recent centuries, and is China poised to take over? Historian Ian Morris answers those questions.
On Valentine’s Day, psychology professor Barbara Fredrickson gives us the latest scientific view of love.
What’s your big idea?
Worldwide polls suggest that most people take love to be romantic, everlasting, and unconditional, confining it to that special relationship they have with the one person they call their soulmate—or would call their soulmate, if they ever met the “right” person. To me, this popular view of love suggests a worldwide collapse of imagination that poignantly limits the benefits that love might otherwise carry for us all. As an emotions scientist, working from the perspective of evolutionary psychology, I’ve come to a very different perspective on love, one that can require a radical shift.
Suppose you could, for a moment, disregard all the love myths, love stories, and love songs lodged in your head, and drop down to your heart, and see love from that perspective. I’m not talking about some metaphorical heart, or the cartoon hearts we see everywhere this Valentine’s season, but your physical heart, beating away inside your chest. By listening to what your heart has to say, we can begin to appreciate love from a new angle. And suppose we go beyond your heart, into your bloodstream, and touch base with your white blood cells, the very front lines of your immune system. What does love look like from that perspective? This is my big idea: in Love 2.0, my aim has been to give voice to your body’s definition of love.
Former Columbia biophysics professor Werner Loewenstein tells us what physics and quantum computing have to do with the brain.
What's your big idea?
How cells in our body transfer information to each other has been an old fixation of mine. Here, in Physics in Mind, I address the question of how information is transferred inside our most complex organ, the brain. I present an amazing set of molecules which achieve what the avant-garde of our computer scientists is only now hoping to: quantum computing. These molecules have been at it for eons—they were engineered in the oldest workshop on earth: evolution. And they wield unheard of computing power; they manage to harness the immense amounts of information inherent in quantum waves.
Quantum particles can behave like particles or like waves—all elementary particles will behave that way, including small atomic nuclei. And as waves, they will produce characteristic interference patterns caused by waves arriving out of step or in lockstep. It’s in the latter state, when their peaks and troughs all coincide, that these waves hold immense information amounts.
Oxford professor Mark Harrison tells us what governments are doing wrong in public health and what’s most dangerous about free trade.
What’s your big idea?
There can be little doubt that trade has contributed massively to human civilization, but we have often paid dearly for the goods and services it provides. That is as true today as it was at the time of Black Death, when the links between disease and commerce first became apparent. While the specter of plague no longer looms over us, we still rely heavily on the methods designed to prevent it. Renaissance city-states produced a template for dealing with trade-borne disease, which has proved enduring but also, in many cases, ineffective. By the late 19th century, it was clear to most governments that old-style methods like quarantine and sanitary embargoes had failed to prevent the movement of disease along the pathways of the new global market. They realized that quarantine needed to be combined with sanitary reform and that nation-states needed to come together to pool epidemiological information and agree on measures to prevent the spread of disease.
Up to this point in time, states had engaged in a form of sanitary diplomacy which had more to do with furthering imperial interests than protecting public health. Quarantine had become a form of war by other means. The result was commercial chaos and sanitary disaster. Somewhere along the way, we have forgotten the lessons learned by our Victorian forebears. Like them, we need to pay more attention to the factors which give rise to diseases and to seek greater cooperation in controlling them. That means shaking off some of the bad habits we’ve acquired over the years, especially our overreliance on measures of containment and our readiness to abuse sanitary controls for the purposes of economic protection. My book argues that we need to find a better balance between environmental reforms—especially regulation of agricultural production—and such tried-and-not-always-trusted methods as quarantine.
Are there mathematical models that study the ways diseases and commerce spread that can be applicable in, say, preventing pandemics or facilitating free trade? Can we even see commerce as a variation of a virus?
Computerized modeling has been used for decades to help governments assess the likelihood of pandemics and the ways in which they may spread. Some of these are now very sophisticated and incorporate studies of human interaction in real-life situations to gain an insight not only into the likely pattern of spread but also of how best to control pandemics should they break out. But sophisticated modeling isn’t necessary to prevent the spread of some trade-borne diseases. In the case of some foodborne diseases like E. coli we can often track and predict the movement of the disease by tracing suppliers and looking at logs and networks of distribution. In the case of diseases like influenza, sophisticated surveillance and modeling systems may enable us to pinpoint outbreaks and predict the rapidity of spread, but they are so protean in nature that they invariably defy expectations. Mathematical modeling, hypersurveillance and screening didn’t stop swine flu (H1N1) from spreading around the world. Nor did it prevent some countries from flying in the face of scientific knowledge and imposing quarantines and trade embargoes, even when the disease had already spread across their borders. Nor should we forget that a lot of trade in potentially dangerous products is illegal and therefore conducted with no sanitary scrutiny at all.
Scholars and writers tell us what their big idea is.
Laid aside for decades, Tolkien’s abandoned poem about King Arthur is finally released. Biographer John Garth reads the epic.