News Notes

Zip Dobyns

Science continues to strengthen the case for information as a basic component of reality in even very primitive forms of life. The March 4, 1995 issue of Science News describes communication by bacteria which permit them to cooperate when food is scarce, to adjust to the situation by actually changing their genes. The “classic” view of evolution claims that mutations, gene changes, occur randomly, by chance. In theory, the beneficial ones increase survival and are passed on to offspring. The article by Richard Lipkin quotes James A. Shapiro, a microbiologist at the University of Chicago. “When a bacterium moves an element in its genome, the process isn’t really random. ... When mutations show up in response to new conditions, it’s as if the bacteria are operating an internal genetic engineering system. How they alter the genome depends on what they’re responding to.”

Not only are the bacteria able to change their basic structure in adaptive ways, but they do it cooperatively, following the communication through chemical signals. Researcher Ben-Jacob says “As environmental conditions grow more hostile, the colony requires a higher level of cooperation to achieve the same level of efficiency.” p. 137

Bacteria do cooperate to maximize the survival of the group, while the only advice we get from our human “leaders” is to become more competitive as conditions get more difficult in the world.

The April 1995 issue of Discover also has an article on genes and communication. Until recently, researchers have only found the useful roles of about 3% of our DNA so 97% was classed as “junk.” (Can you believe that anyone would class most of nature as useless just because they had not yet discovered its value?) Some Boston researchers have now discovered that this so-called “junk DNA” resembles a language, suggesting that it may also possess meaning. Boston University physicist Rosario Mantegna says that this mysterious DNA has the features of a language. Forty-five years ago, linguist George Zipf counted the frequency of words in several languages and found that the frequency increased around ten times for every tenth (in rank order) increasingly common word. Applying this technique to DNA sequences of the “alphabet” of four nucleotides which are the individual links in DNA chains, the Boston researchers found a similar pattern. The most common nucleotide string was ten times more common than the tenth most common string and so on. Mantegna says “We think we’ve found a language but we don’t know what it’s saying.” pages 17-18

Another article on page 18 in the same issue of Discover describes Central American birds called Manakins who display a fascinating mixture of competition and cooperation. Two male Manakins court a female by putting on an acrobatic flying show which requires mutual cooperation. Yet the dominant bird is almost always chosen by the female for mating. The same, unrelated pairs of male birds do their show for some years, so the observers wondered why the less dominant bird persisted in the action despite a lack of payoff. They discovered that the less dominant (usually younger) bird gets his chance with a female when the dominant one dies. For the female to accept a male, he has to be about 10 years old, vigorous enough to sing 4,000 times a day for months on end, and able to dance well. The end result is that the female gets a mate who is healthy and a good partner.

The March 1995 issue of Omni offers an interesting article about the World Game. It was originated by Buckminster Fuller in 1969 and an Institute (WGI) was founded in 1972 to maintain the effort to find cooperative solutions to world problems including hunger, disease, pollution, illiteracy, etc. To date, the WGI has conducted about 1,000 workshops in 48 states and 21 countries and some 90,000 people have participated, including members of Congress and the United Nations. I don’t know whether there is a connection, but in early March this year the U.N. convened an international conference in Copenhagen, Denmark to discuss possible solutions to the pervasive and growing poverty in the world.

In the World Game, players representing different regions and international agencies barter and negotiate in the hope of resolving conflicts and meeting the needs of their constituents. The simulations demonstrate the complexity of the problems and the need for cooperation. WGI offers two main software packages. Global Data Manager is said to be the “largest database of socioeconomic and environmental indicators for the world” with more than 15,000 statistics per country. Global Recall presents its data in a more “user-friendly” format with more than 300 maps of continents, regions, and countries and more than 800 statistics for every country. WGI sponsors an international competition called the World Game Tournament and the first round of the current one is now winding up with experts from the United Nations judging the entries. The winner will receive an around-the-world plane ticket plus a cash prize to begin implementing his or her strategy. Also, the top 50 solutions submitted will be published and sent to world leaders. Entries for the second round are due by December 1995.

The September-October 1994 issue of the Yoga Journal includes an interview with businessman and writer Paul Hawken who founded Erewhon and is the author of The Ecology of Commerce and A Declaration of Sustainability. Hawken states that any successful business, even those considered “green,” is contributing to resource exhaustion, pollution, and waste production. Taken together, “business is destroying life on earth.” All life forms depend on natural systems that recycle air, water, and soil, but our economic system does not recognize this interdependence and classes natural resources and processes as external to the economy. Hawken has no delusions that the world will suddenly change the market system or become ecologically enlightened. Very few are willing to give up the pleasures of modern technology. Hawken suggests replacing personal and business income taxes by taxes on pollution and the use of natural resources. His plan of “natural capitalism” would make it a matter of self-interest to preserve what remains and restore what we can of the balance of nature.

Some variation of such a system of taxation might be workable, but unfortunately, it is the poorest people in the world who depend the most on natural resources for their bare subsistence. There has been some movement toward taxes on pollution, but until humans learn to deal with over-population, wealth disparity, and rivalry between human groups: religious, cultural, and ethnic, solutions will remain evasive. But Hawken’s point is valid: instead of a “least price” economy which provides rewards for over-grazing cattle, cutting down forests, burning fossil fuels, etc., we need to move toward a “least-cost” economy, meaning one that costs less in resources, that does not pollute, deplete, and destroy the environment.

David Sobel, M.D. and Robert Ornstein, Ph.D. offer a small newsletter called Mental Medicine Update with information on mind-body interaction and health. The Volume III Number 3 issue in 1994 includes several interesting articles. One study tested the effectiveness of a new drug for the reduction of deaths from heart attacks in individuals who had already had one heart attack. There was almost no difference in the survival of the group which received the drug and the group which received a placebo, a “look-alike” pill with no therapeutic value. But more individuals in both groups survived who took their “pills” regularly than those who did not. Did the pill-takers who followed the doctor’s instructions have more faith in the pills or in the doctor? Were the patients who (for whatever reason) started feeling better more motivated to continue the treatment? Did the ones who resisted the treatment subconsciously really want “out” of an unsatisfying life? Several follow-up studies got similar results.

Numerous studies have connected stress with health problems. A recent study in Sweden found an improvement in the ratio of high and low density cholesterol in workers who were taught techniques to reduce the stress in their jobs. The magnitude of the cholesterol changes equaled the results of cholesterol lowering drugs, theoretically improving coronary artery blockage. The authors suggest that such stress reduction programs could be a cost-effective addition to other approaches to reducing the risk of heart disease.

It has been raining in California, so let’s include a lovely little story from the summer 1993 issue of ReVision magazine which illustrates the connectedness of the cosmos. Richard Wilhelm told the story to Carl Jung and Jean Shinoda Bolen reports it. A great drought in China continued despite Protestant prayers, Catholic masses, and traditional fire crackers being set off. Finally, the people sent for a rainmaker, a wizened old man who asked to be given a little house where he could be left alone. On the third day, the rains came. Wilhelm asked the rainmaker what he had done to make it rain, and he said “I didn’t do anything.” Wilhelm then asked “What have you done since you have been here?” The old man explained that he came from a place where people were in harmony with the universe, the Tao, but this was a disordered country that was out of harmony. So he went into his little house and got back in Tao. Then, naturally, the rain came.

The March 1995 issue of Discover has so many articles which I found fascinating that it was difficult to choose among them. One describes the widespread tremors from the 1992 Landers, California earthquake which reached as far as Yellowstone Park in Wyoming. The main focus of the article is the massive magma chamber lying about four miles deep under Long Valley which is like a great blister that is growing at about an inch a year. The seismic waves from the Landers’ quake raised the pressure in the magma chamber and set off a small flurry of quakes. A repeat of the massive explosion which created Long Valley 700,000 years ago would not leave much of California but the geologists do not think that California’s recent quakes have increased the potential of such an eruption.

Another article called “Unintended Consequences” describes a climate catch-22. According to the author, Carl Zimmer, by patching the ozone hole, we’re saving the world from too much UV light but we may be making it warmer too. Apparently, destroying ozone cools the planet while the chemicals being substituted for the ozone-destroying CFCs may add as much to global warming as all the carbon-dioxide we pumped into the atmosphere in the 1980s. The “experts” admit they don’t have a solution, and are currently “buying time.”

Time remains a profound mystery and another Discover article discusses the “crisis” in cosmology. Within the last few years, two new observations have challenged the reigning theory on the formation of the cosmos following a “big bang.” The first discovery was that galaxies in a region at least 1 billion light-years across, the region which includes our own galaxy, are moving in the same direction at about 435 miles per second. [Ed. Note from Mark: there is some question about the calculations involved in this.] This observation does not fit the idea that everything is separating, moving away from everything else. Also, the only force that could be producing such motion in such a large part of the universe is gravity. But there is not enough mass around to generate that much gravity and even when theorists suggest that 90% of the universe is made of invisible dark matter, they can’t get that many galaxies to move that fast.

The second observation was made by the newly repaired Hubble Space Telescope and is even more inexplicable. According to the Hubble data, the “big bang” occurred between 8 and 12 billion years ago. But stars in our galaxy are estimated to be at least 14 billion years old. How can the universe be younger than the stars in it? Too little mass and too little time are heralding a scientific revolution. Even the most basic assumptions of cosmology seem open to questioning.

(Addition by Zip) It is not there yet, but maybe someday science could consider the possibility that ultimate reality is composed of desire and information rather than meaningless, random, matter-energy.

A more optimistic article in the same issue of Discover describes ongoing work to produce a battery powered by microbes. Peter Bennetto and his colleagues at King’s College in London think that the energy released by their “bugs” may one day power everything from wristwatches and automobiles to Third World villages. They claim that a bug digesting its lunch turns a larger proportion of fuel into energy than do zinc- or lead-based batteries. Bennetto calculates that a comfortable-size electric vehicle could travel as far as 15 miles on two pounds of sugar in a concentrated solution. Sugar is a cheap (on the world market) and renewable fuel, and since the biofuel cell is regenerative, no recharging would be needed. The bugs reproduce all the time. In economic terms, the bugs can even compete with solar-powered and rechargeable batteries. Bennetto says that less than a tenth of a gram of carbohydrate would power a quartz watch for a year. (The cost of sugar in the U.S. is higher than the world market price since we protect our sugar beet farmers.)

To further confuse the communication between astrologers and astronomers, each field now has its own version of “Trans-Neptunian” objects. The transneps of the astrologers are sometimes called “planets” and sometimes “points.” They are hypothetical, never (so far) observed in a telescope, deduced (invented?) by a couple of German astrologers when they couldn’t find an astrological factor to account for major events in human lives. Of course, this was done before we had Pluto, thousands of asteroids, planetary nodes, chart angles (the intersections of great circles) in addition to the MC axis and Ascendant axis, Heliocentric planetary positions, harmonics (the use of additional aspects) and many other factors which are now available to astrology.

Astronomy now has an increasing number of small planetary bodies which are being called “Trans-Neptunian Objects” since they are being discovered mostly outside the orbit of Neptune. They are being spotted with telescopes, of course, so they are “real” physical bodies, but the choice of the same name as the astrological hypotheticals means that when we talk about “transneps,” we have to specify which ones—the astrological or the astronomical.

An article in the April-June 1995 issue of The Minor Planet Bulletin describes the discovery of 17 of these objects since early 1992. Their orbits are still considered preliminary, but they are being found in clusters. Seven of the better observed ones have average distances from the Sun which are similar to the distances of Pluto and its moon Charon. Four are farther away from the Sun and are in resonance with Neptune and with Pluto/Charon. The Pluto-Charon binary planet system is now classed with the Trans-Neptunian objects. The new objects are considered part of the Kuiper Belt which, even before the Transneps were discovered, was postulated as the source of short-period comets. Astronomer Stern has recently suggested that there may be as many as 20,000 to 40,000 objects out there with physical compositions fairly similar to the asteroids. Of course, more asteroids are being discovered. The count is over 7,200 at present though many have yet to be given names.

Copyright © 1995 Los Angeles Community Church of Religious Science, Inc.

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