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Big Think

by Christopher Dickey
Big Think 040513

Yasuyoushi Chiba—AFP

Around the world in six ideas.

You Complete Me

If Hollywood ever makes a prequel to The Matrix, it could start with the research that scientists at Duke University are doing with rats. In the sci-fi movie, humans were connected to a machine and to each other in one enormous interlinked, well, matrix. It’s not too dissimilar to what they’ve been doing at Duke. Thanks to technology they’ve developed that records and transmits brain signals, they’ve been able to plug rats’ brains into each other so that when one learns a simple task, the other does as well. They even managed to connect a rat brain in Brazil to a rat brain in North Carolina. It seems the rodents begin to share their identities: acting, for instance, as if their whiskers were the same length when they’re not. “We are creating a single central nervous system made up of two rat brains,” says neurobiology professor Miguel Nicolelis. Theoretically, he said, there could be many more in what he called a “brain-net,” or perhaps even a vast organic computer. “You can imagine that a combination of brains could provide solutions that individual brains cannot achieve by themselves,” says Nicolelis. No mention of plugging human brains into each other … yet.

Thank You, Please

There should be nothing surprising about gratitude. We all feel it from time to time, and we all like to hear it expressed. But when Harvard Business School’s Francesca Gino and Adam Grant at Wharton decided to quantify its impact as a management tool, they came away impressed. In experiments with both students and adults, they found not only that the subjects felt greater self-worth after a simple “Thank you so much! I am really grateful,” but also that their inclination to help others was much higher than a control group that did not get thanked. In the adult sample, a group of university fundraisers were personally thanked by their director, and the number of calls they made afterward increased by 50 percent. Gino’s new book, Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan, looks at a wide variety of emotions that affect choices in life and business, particularly those that we may not even recognize. (The displacement of anger from one subject to another is a key theme.) But she says the dramatic “gratitude effect” really was the most surprising part of her research.

Losing Faith

Americans are not giving up on God (only about 3 percent are atheists). But a growing number are turning away from organized religion. According to a recent survey, 20 percent say they have no religious preference at all. In 1990 that figure was only 8 percent; in 1972 it was 5 percent. Sociologist Mike Hout at the University of California, Berkeley, and his colleagues call this group the “unchurched.” And in some respects detailed analysis of the data from the General Social Survey conducted every two years by the National Opinion Research Center is predictable. They found, for instance, that 40 percent of liberals are unchurched, but only 9 percent of conservatives. More than a third of the 18-to-25 crowd is without a religion. One can speculate about the reasons for this overall trend, including public disappointment with repeated scandals that expose the hypocrisy, or worse, of moralizing evangelists, ministers, imams, rabbis, gurus, and, of course, priests. Although 35 percent of Americans were raised Catholic, only 25 percent say they still consider themselves Catholic. The next survey in 2014 may show us whether a new generation of religious leaders—and a new pope in Rome—have changed these trends.


Stewart Brand grew famous in the 1960s for his iconic counterculture tool book, The Whole Earth Catalog, and he’s proved a remarkable prophet of technology and environmental activism ever since. But, for Brand, the Earth still isn’t whole enough. Too much of its natural richness and too many of its amazing species have been destroyed in just the last few millennia. So Brand is working with some of the top scientists researching ways to resurrect lost species from fragmentary DNA, and he’s reaching out to the public with a TED talk on the Web meant to inspire a global movement for what he calls “de-extinction.” Brand knows there may be problems if passenger pigeons return to the skies or woolly mammoths once more roam Siberia. (There is no question, scientifically or ethically, of bringing back dinosaurs à la Jurassic Park.) But “humans have made a huge hole in nature in the last 10,000 years,” he says. “Some species that we killed off totally we could consider bringing back to a world that misses them.” It’s got to be a huge effort and long term, he says. It will take generations. But, “we will get the woolly mammoths back.”

Questioning Capitalism

Ever since the collapse of the Soviet empire, the ideologues of the free-market system have been triumphant. Indeed, they’ve all but monopolized the economic debate in the United States. But now may be the time to give them a little more competition in the realm of ideas, not just budget battles (competition being good for everyone, of course). Steven Pearlstein of George Mason University suggests in a recent essay for The Washington Post that as free markets have produced “stagnant incomes, gaping inequality, a string of crippling financial crises and 20-somethings still living in their parents’ basements,” the ideologues are retreating from the argument that free markets “are good for you” to claims that they are just good, period. Pearlstein’s essay is an admirably balanced primer on the liberal-conservative divide, but he finds it hard to make a moral case for a system where “for every dollar of increased output resulting from higher worker productivity, a mere 13 cents now goes to the typical worker in higher pay and benefits.” The debate, he says, should not be just about the size and role of government, it should be about what we truly believe is right and what is wrong.

Environmental Earthquakes

Almost any remotely optimistic strategy for containing the manmade greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and preventing a disastrous rise in global temperatures assumes there’s a way to trap and store those emissions underground. And there is: called carbon capture and storage, or sequestration, it injects the gases into sealed subterranean reservoirs. It’s this technique for hiding the dirt that allows people to talk about “clean coal,” for instance. But to have any appreciable impact on the environment, the scale of such programs would have to be huge, sequestering more than 3.5 billion metric tons of CO2 a year. And that just may not be possible. Researchers at Stanford have concluded that the kind of high-pressure injection involved is likely to produce earthquakes. They might not shake whole cities, but they probably would cause the stored gas to leak, and that would make the whole enormously costly strategy worthless. “It’s a very high-risk endeavor,” says Stanford geophysics professor Mark Zoback. “We need options that are practical, don’t cost literally trillions of dollars, and aren’t vulnerable to moderate-size earthquakes.” Perhaps it’s time to go back to the drawing board.

From our April 5, 2013, issue; Around the World in Six Ideas.

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