We didn't kill our grandfather

The most common objection to science ever developing any form of time travel is called "the grandfather paradox" -- i.e. the ability to travel in time would mean, theoretically that you could kill your own ancestors, thus preventing your own birth. Indeed -- so the argument goes -- by altering any of the ingredients of the past, even by so much as the flutter of a butterfly's wing, you would inevitably change the present. Since the present manifestly exists, and is as it is, then obviously time-travel cannot occur.

In a recent (July 2010) paper at arXiv.org, Seth Lloyd of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology notes that fiction has been grappling with these problems for far longer than science, but that even most fictional accounts, going at least as far back as the Mahabarata epic of ancient India, deal with travel into the future. "Perhaps because of the various paradoxes to which it gives rise, the concept of travel to the past is a more recent invention," says Lloyd, pointing to Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol and Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court. "The contemporary notion of time travel, together with all its attendant paradoxes, did not come into being until H.G. Wells masterpiece The Time Machine, which is also the first book to propose an actual device that can be used to travel back and forward in time."

To get around the grandfather paradox Lloyd and his co-authors suggest quantum teleportation and strict "post-selection" of what a time traveler could and could not do -- i.e. Read the rest

Finding the Neanderthal within ourselves

Photo by Erich Ferdinand. Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

Like a disowned half-brother the Neanderthals keep hammering on our door, forcing us to face inconvenient truths.

In the nineteenth century, fossil remains of powerful, thickset, short-necked human-like creatures with massive skulls and protruding brow ridges were found in Europe and recognized as belonging to an extinct species very closely related to us.

It turns out these "Neanderthals" (named after the German valley where the first examples were excavated) left the human homeland in Africa about 300,000 years ago. They migrated north into Europe and had sole possession of our continent for 250,000 years until people like you and I first arrived here, also from Africa, less than 50,000 years ago.

The two species lived side by side, without conflict, for the next 20,000 years -- an amazing achievement -- until suddenly, around 30,000 years ago, Neanderthals in eastern Europe began to die out. Whatever was killing them spread like a deadly curse. Soon none were left across the whole of Europe east of the Pyrenees. West of the Pyrenees, small populations clung on in isolated refuges in Spain but by 24,000 years ago these last Neanderthals, too, were extinct.

What caused the extinction? It's a great unsolved problem of science. But ever since we started finding the fossils we've been desperate to convince ourselves of one thing. It must have happened because of something inferior, something subhuman, about the Neanderthals themselves. Libraries full of scholarly books tell us they were slow-witted, with brains too simple to handle symbolism or intellectual gymnastics. Read the rest

Ayahuasca as a remedy for the wider ills of the West

Photo of Ayahuasca by Josh Gross. Creative Commons Attribution-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Travel almost anywhere through the Amazon rainforest, or fly above it, and you can't miss the demonic madness that's been let loose here -- flotillas of tugs heading downriver towing immense rafts of precious hardwoods, great fires blazing and crackling under clouds of smoke, vast areas of cleared land given over to cattle and soya-beans, indigenous  ways of life disrupted and destroyed ...

It's part of a wider syndrome of human behavior that's become increasingly dominant in the past hundred years and seems to be reaching its peak in the early twenty-first century -- an unthinking willingness, coupled with an unprecedented capacity, to squander the greatest treasures stored up for us by nature in exchange for short-term profits and the satisfaction of immediate needs. Included in the syndrome are such follies as the contamination and terminal overfishing of the oceans, a thousand different ways to pollute, destabilize and overheat the global environment, all manner of evil and irrational wars, financial markets operating on crazed and ultimately self-destructive principles, extreme nationalistic and religious hatreds, and widespread poverty and waste of human potential.

I could go on but the point is obvious. Business as usual is not an option if we hope to bequeath any kind of life worth living to our children and grandchildren. We all know this and yet we all, also, feel powerless to stop the bad, stupid and often wicked things being done in our name by our governments and military, by our banks and corporations and, of course, by our own lifestyle choices. Read the rest

Death holds no sting: new studies on effects of psychedelics

After decades consigned to research limbo, scientific studies of the very interesting effects of psychedelics on human consciousness are back in vogue.

On 19 July 2010 the prestigious Journal of Psychopharmacology reported the results of the first randomized controlled trial into the therapeutic potential of the "party drug" Ecstasy for victims of post-traumatic stress disorder. The trial showed the drug to be remarkably effective in treating PTSD. Soon afterwards, on 31 August, 2010, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies was granted a license by the US Drug Enforcement Administration to conduct a new and extended study in which Ecstasy will be given to war veterans with PTSD. Also around the end of August 2010, Charles Grob MD, a professor of psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, reported the results of administering psilocybin -- the active ingredient in magic mushrooms -- to patients suffering from terminal cancers. Grob found that the drug induced a "peaceful and blissful" state of oneness with oneself and the cosmos and notes: "these spiritually oriented altered states ... potentially allow patients to have an abrupt shift of consciousness from being scared about dying and feeling their life is over ... It was quite remarkable to me to see changes in these people who were very anxious and in distress and to see how they got better."

In the 1970s and 1980s the mentality of the "War on Drugs" ensured that no research was done with psychedelics at all. The twenty year hiatus was ended in 1990 by Rick Strassman MD, a professor of psychiatry at the University of New Mexico, who conducted a DEA-approved study administering the powerful hallucinogen DMT (dimethyltryptamine) to human volunteers. Read the rest