Evidence of serious head injury
Sometimes I wonder if there is any hope for the scientific mind. This evening I read in National Geographic the following article on military head injuries:
Since 2000 some 220,000 US troops have suffered traumatic brain injuries, often from exposure to explosions. To fathom – and treat – such wounds, blast data are key. So last year the US military and private sector partners developed and deployed devices that assess explosion severity. In field testing, soldiers wear the watch-size dosimeter on their chests, shoulders and heads. The gauges measure pressure and acceleration, letting medics press a button and evaluate risk in color-coded traffic light style: red for serious, yellow for moderate, green for insignificant.
I do have one question: why is such an advanced nation happy to completely wreck nigh on a quarter of a million of its young, energetic brains in a war zone? These injuries mean long-term damage and ruined lives.
So never mind designing clever ways to measure the damage – for God’s sake, what about getting them the hell out of harm’s way, by STOPPING THE WAR?!
Seeing stars after an argument
A year ago I was at the coffee bar at the office, arguing about the possibility of other life in the universe. My opponent was a scientist; he was a very likeable and intelligent chap whose company was developing a probe able to give blood diagnostic readings direct from the patient’s arm. And his stories were always worth listening to: like the time when as a toxicologist he diagnosed a number of people taken seriously ill in a single neighborhood. He deduced that someone had attached a pump to their own tap and injected petrol at high pressure into the neighborhood’s water system.
I assured him the universe must be teeming with life. He scoffed that the chances of life evolving were so perilously close to zero that there would be no way for it to evolve so completely elsewhere: we were therefore alone. The usual group had gathered and rather sided with him, as I found myself unable to mount a coherent defence apart from insisting there were far too may stars.
I had been unable to persuade anyone because I failed to bring to life an amount that was mentally unmanageable on its own. The number of stars was just too big. This failure was annoying, especially knowing the number of stars was so vast – somewhere between 7 times 10 to the power 21, and the power 23. But if I couldn’t imagine such a number, how could I expect to make it clear to anyone else?
The next morning I noticed the shower was probably less than a metre square, but it still looked fairly substantial. This gave me an idea: imagining a star as a 1mm grain of sand, a flat square metre of it would be a million grains, or 1 followed by six zeros. A cubic metre would be 1 followed by 9 zeros – a billion grains – and a strip a kilometre long would be 10 to the power 12, and a square kilometre (one metre thick) would be 1 followed by 15 zeros – which still left at least 6 zeros and possibly 8.
I knew the surface of the Earth was about 500 million square kilometres, or 5 followed by 8 zeros. That day’s coffee break couldn’t come soon enough. When it did, I casually asked my colleague if stars were sand, how much sand would he have? “Oh, Iain, not this again,” he protested, but shrugged “- a bucketful. No, no, probably a bathful.”
“Do you realise, that if stars were sand – 1mm per grain, let’s say, you would have enough sand to cover the whole parking lot, to a depth of one metre!” He looked shocked at this. “That’s a lot of sand – but how do you know the exact measurement of the parking lot?”
“Well, you’ll soon see. Because you’d have enough sand left over after the parking lot, to cover all of England, to the same depth!” The wheels were turning behind his eyes. “And after that, you would have enough to cover the entire planet – oceans, icecaps, continents, the whole lot – and possibly the moon as well, a metre deep in sand. Look around and imagine it. Do you really think, with all those stars, that one ordinary, run of the mill star in the corner somewhere is the only one able to produce life? It’s like believing God could only have one son, and then give up from exhaustion. The universe must be teeming with life!”
He laughed and shook his head: “it’s inevitable really, isn’t it?” And this conclusion must be intuitively obvious, since the job of a sun is to produce life. If you want scientific proof of that, conduct an experiment of your own: look out the window. But science wouldn’t know common sense if it ran them over with a steamroller. So I was heartened to read this week that NASA say:
“Our galaxy is loaded with planets”
Nasa’s Kepler space telescope has found 60 planets and 11 new solar systems – all from a fist-sized patch of sky.
It’s the latest find from a two-year space scan, and brings the total to 60 confirmed planets. The new haul triples the number of multi-planet solar systems found by Kepler.
Doug Hudgins, a Kepler scientist at Nasa says, ‘In just two years staring at a patch of sky not much bigger than your fist, Kepler has discovered more than 60 planets. Our galaxy is positively loaded with planets of all sizes and orbits.’
‘The approach used to verify the Kepler-33 planets shows the overall reliability is quite high,’ said Jack Lissauer, planetary scientist at NASA Ames Research Center at Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper on Kepler-33.
These discoveries are published in four different papers in the Astrophysical Journal and the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
When Less is Moore
Wired magazine have an excellent article this week by Jonah Lehrer about science reaching its limit in drugs research, due to its reliance on reductionist thinking which is not only now failing to work, but proving lethal. I’d like to print it in full, but Nate Lanxon at their PR department says I can only print an excerpt of 200 words, as long as I include a link to their article. That seems fair enough, so I’ll have to write my own instead, but here’s the link anyway as it’s well worth reading:
The gist of it is that the intellect seems to be reaching the end of its tether in some complex areas, provding diminishing returns much like Moore’s law of computing in reverse. Lehrer cites as an example the development of smart drugs to interfere with the molecular processes of the body, specifically Pfizer’s 2006 drug in development, torcetrapib. The molecule is shown below:
Torcetrapib was designed to manipulate the cholesterol production system in the body: Pfizer already has a medication called lipitor, which works by plugging up a very important enzyme usually kept busy making choleserol in the liver, so the level of low density lipoprotein (LDL) is lowered. LDL is supposed to be the dangerous cholesterol – like the cowboy with the black hat.
Now, the body is a complex place. As it happens, high density cholesterol, HDL, is supposedly the cholesterol wearing the white hat – as it takes the LDL back to the liver where it is broken down. Torcetrapib was designed to gum up a protein which converts HDL to LDL, thus causing a lot of white hats and no black ones. Pfizer expected the drug to redefine cardiovascular treatment.
Well, it certainly would have done that: in phase II trials it triggered chest pains and heart failure – killing 60 percent more people than their original medical condition would have done. But in their optimism, Pfizer had already invested more than half a billion in tests and in gearing up production lines. It all had to be scrapped. Now compare that molecule with this one:
This highly engineered molecule is called oxytocin – comprised of 9 amino acids (the codes given in blue), and much more complex than torcetrapib. And therefore tens of millions more ways it could go wrong. Each one is made in a very small factory – a single neuron – among a group of such neurons within the supra-optical nucleus. This area has come in for a lot of research because its neurons produce a significant number of very important neurotransmitters, but as there are only a few thousand of them, it is a very manageable area for study.
In fact oxytocin is manufactured (I say manufactured because all are identical molecules and made by separate neurons) in response to emotions of gratitude and generosity. The lack of it seems to be a factor in autism (a single injection of oxytocin can relieve some autistic symptoms for two weeks) and the presence of it seems to be an important part of bonding: animals which generate it are known to bond well, sometimes for life, and animals with less of it are known to lose interest after a while and seek another mate. So much, so clear.
The neurons which make oxytocin, and the very similar vasopressin, also make other hormones, but those two are the only neurotransmitters known to act at a distance. They enter the blood and the brain, and as one researcher claimed, “they seem to have a beneficial effect on every major system in the body.” To operate, oxtytocin requires a certain receptor – a receptor which itself requires cholesterol. I’m wondering if the cholesterol it requires is LDL. If so, this single fact could have saved Pfizer getting on to three quarters of a billion dollars.
My point is that this molecule which is so effective to the brain and every major organ system within the body is produced by a natural factory within the brain – a tiny neuron. It’s more complex and has more impact on us than anything we could come up with even with hundreds of millions in research. And it’s generated automatically in a unique way: in response to unselfish emotions which themselves feel good, leading you to feel you are doing the “right thing”. Well, you clearly are. How difficult is it to theorise that the body itself might be able to come up with powerful drugs already peer-reviewed and needed for robust health, provided we are living a fairly good life, and listening to our inner voice? Is it worth living if we rely on a crateload of pills every day instead of getting on with our lives?
The problem is widespread now. As Wired’s article points out, hormone replacement therapy was supposed to reduce heart attacks in post-menopausal women, but did the opposite. Oestrogen was supposed to prevent Alzheimers, but that didn’t work. Vitamin C was supposed to prevent bone loss in cases of MS, but it didn’t. Vitamin E was supposed to reduce cardiovascular disease – again, nope.
AstraZenca and GlaxoSmithKline are scaling back research into the brain – because it’s too complicated. One look at the electro-chemical diagram of the retina will astonish any engineer. In fact you could spend a lifetime on it and stil not grasp it in its entirety. And there you have a problem: how are you going to mess with a system that interlinks with a thousand other systems – not one of which you can completely understand? I’ve actually written software that turned out to be too complicated to maintain properly.
Once I came up with a six-dimensional array to handle a holiday pricing system for Budget Travel, the largest tour operator in Ireland. They revealed at the last minute a series of discounts which they’d inserted into their brochure to drum up extra business. Well, the first two dimensions were the number of hotel rooms and the details, with dates of stay and durations. The third was the number of people in each room. The fourth was the breakdown of passengers into adults, children and infants. The fifth was the meal plan per person, and the sixth was the discount structure so that each person could have a whole set of pricing per night, with free nights, reductions and so on. It wasn’t the comlexity so much as the fact that it was all in an array which only existed in the memory of the computer – it was laid to disk in a separate series of steps but it was the collection of dimensions that had to be managed mentally all at one time.
A year later I tried to add a seventh dimension, to incorporate currency variations, and I eventually gave up – it was too complicated. What I had done under pressure working overnight could not be duplicated later – not by me, anyway. I converted the whole thing into a series of tables which worked slower but was easier to diagnose. Things can get complicated because they have had too much intelligence put into them and the amazing thing is sometimes that they work at all. In the old days, Norton had a product that could fix the first Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets if they corrupted. But now, the things that can go wrong have hundreds of implications to other internal pointers and formulas – like reassembling a sandcastle. So if your magnificent Excel spreadsheet goes belly up the only question is, did you make a backup?
Words fail me when I see articles on meditation studies praising the benefit of various neurotransmitters and their great effect on the peace of mind of an individual – which sombrely conclude that analysing these processes could well lead to new drugs in the war on mental illness. Look! Never mind spending years of research and billions of dollars on factories churning out dodgy molecules, while the original problems all multiply and compound themselves – for God’s sake, man, the factories are already assembled, tooled up and ready to go, inside each and every brain – what about trying meditation?!
And now 175 words from the original Wired article, leading tortuously back to Moore’s law:
While correlations help us track the relationship between independent measurements, such as the link between smoking and cancer, they are much less effective at making sense of systems in which the variables cannot be isolated. Such situations require that we understand every interaction before we can reliably understand any of them.
These troubling trends play out most vividly in the drug industry. Although modern pharmaceuticals are supposed to represent the practical pay-off of basic research, the R&D to discover a promising new compound now costs about 100 times more (inflation-adjusted) than it did in 1950.
It also takes nearly three times as long. Industry forecasts suggest that once failures are taken into account, the average cost per approved molecule will top $3.8 billion (£2.46 million) by 2015. What’s worse, even these “successful” compounds don’t seem to be worth the investment. We are witnessing Moore’s law in reverse.
Although we’ve mapped every known part of the chemical pathway, the causes that matter are still nowhere to be found. If this is progress, it’s a peculiar kind.
A wolf in cheap clothing
In 2003 I received – as a result of my website which dealt at some length with genuine Kundalini experiences – a mysterious letter from one Solomae Sananda of PO Box 882, Somerset, California 95684, who had written a book called Kundalini and the Evolution of Consciousness, which she enclosed, along with an intriguing pamphlet. The pamphlet offered to train me via a mail order course to become an ordained minister for $250; they would even send me a parking permit with my certificate. I could pay up front, or pay half now and half when I took the final test.
But more intriguing by far was the claim that Cheryl Stoycoff – her real name – claimed to be an ascended master, and was now disseminating wisdom for the enlightenment of mankind. I read the book, which was as close to nonsense as I have ever seen. Her spiritual experience sounded so humdrum and banal that one could compare it to throwing out the trash. “Once again, I checked out of my body for a while.” It was as if she had read about genuine spiritual experience and decided that she, too, could be an ascended master, and make a quick buck. There was nothing in the book whatsoever other than a colossal insult to the idea of spirituality, and the charging of $50 per head to listen at her feet added a nauseating context to what might otherwise could been mistaken for simple ignorance.
I wrote back that it was exactly this kind of rubbish that gave spirituality a bad press. It’s small wonder that the militant atheists have so much ammunition when these frauds and phoneys are touting their wares. People giving themselves exotic Indian names and answering every question with a riddle is still in fashion simply because no proper long-term scientific research has ever been carried out on the biology of spiritual experience.
Anyway, last weekend I thought I’d see what had happened to her in the intervening nine years. It did not surprise me that her website, http://www.livingspiritfoundation.org was now a spam site pushing badly translated automated Chinese phrases about marketing scams, and that Cheryl has turned her back on universal enlightenment to push a rather averagely received book on raw vegatables for kids.
Oh well, no harm done, I thought. But much worse was the following news I found in the Tulsa World of 25th July 2005:
By Nicole Marshall
A family is waging a court battle with a church that they say is a religious cult over the estate of a woman who was found dead on an Arkansas River bank in April.
Linda Mauer belonged to the Living Spirit Foundation and moved with it from California to Oklahoma in 2003. The church, under the direction of its spiritual leader, Solomae Sananda, formerly Cheryl Stoycoff, is based in Inola, its Web site shows.
After joining the Living Spirit Foundation, which describes itself as a nondenominational, interfaith, nontraditional and Christ- based spiritual organization, Mauer began using the first name ‘Bethany.’
Two passersby found her body April 1 in a muddy area thick with brush north of the 21st Street Bridge. A detective at the time noted some “suspicious circumstances” but no obvious signs of trauma to her body.
Sananda’s husband, Clyde Stoycoff, filed a petition for probate of a lost will in Tulsa County District Court in June, claiming that Mauer willed her estate to him, Sananda and the Living Spirit Foundation, court records show.
Stoycoff describes himself as an ordained minister, director of ministerial services and business manager for the foundation, its web site shows.
Even if the judge allows the copy [of the will]to be used, or if the original is found, the family maintains that the will is not binding for several reasons, including the suspicious circumstances of Mauer’s death.
Apparently Mauer met Stoycoff in a yoga class, and Stoycoff convinced her to join the LSF. She became so committed to it that when her mother died – leaving her an undisclosed sum – choosing to leave California with the couple, headed to Oklahoma, instead of attending her mother’s funeral.
Stoycoff’s site is down. but the Internet Archive provides pages going back to before Mauer’s death. From the text on it, Stoycoff seemed obsessed with dark satanic forces, and this tallies with claims that Stoycoff nominated Mauer as a gatekeeper who “held the energy of the gates of hell at bay so that Christ could form the new Earth through His body.” No pressure, then.
I also found a tech discussion site in which someone who had moderated Stoycoff’s blog admitted that at the time, all this pretentious twaddle of hellish spectres around every corner sounded appealing, but in the light of this news, he realised it was corrupted and sick stuff.
Talk about putting a brave spin on a rejected, abandoned mental patient found starved to death in a ditch. Stoycoff’s husband wrote of the woman they expelled from their inner circle “..because of her isolation, when the time came and her mission was complete, she drove to a public place last Friday morning (April 1), laid down and, with the assistance of a bevy of angels, went home to be with her True Love in the peace she so richly deserves. In the midst of my selfish sorrow of my missing her, I am overjoyed at her current circumstance.”
With a flourish – no doubt tinged with sadness – the Stoycoffs then produced a copy of an email assigning them complete control over the funeral arrangements, which Mauer had supposedly hoped would expedite the processing of her will. How convenient. But how strange then, to read the following:
Paula Sullivan, a Tulsa woman who befriended Mauer, said Mauer changed both physically and emotionally before she last saw her in the winter.
“In the dozens of walks and even more cups of tea shared, Linda only spoke of spiritual topics — Scriptures and the inquiry classes she was taking in the Catholic Church. The last time I had tea with her in her apartment, she told me Clyde Stoycoff said Solomae was ‘expanding exponentially through spiritual realms.’ ”
Sullivan said Mauer was always very excited when she spoke about Sananda. But Mauer told Sullivan that she believed she had “denser energies” surrounding herself and that it wasn’t good for her to be physically near Sananda because of these dark energies, Sullivan said.
It seems the Stoycoffs got a bit tired of Mauer’s attentions and gave her the cold shoulder – a devastating blow for someone already on the fringe of sanity – but not so tired of her to turn down a chance at snagging her estate. Stoycoff wrote to me exactly two years before all this happened. She never responded to my furious reply.
All of this made me feel sick to think perhaps I could have prevented it by publicising her fraud with more vigour back in 2003. But all I knew for sure at the time was that she had written a crappy and deceitful book and was running an “ordained minister” course with free parking permits. It sounded like a stupid joke and impossible to take seriously; I never imagined someone might lose their life because of her. I could find no more about Cheryl Stoycoff from the internet, other than one of her sons has joined the Tulsa Air Squadron, and the other became a journalist.
I traced what looked like an affiliate website to an individual in Eastern Canada, who had claimed online that Sananda was her friend. From the hosting details of her site I obtained her phone number, but came up empty handed: a very pleasant lady, she assured me she had never met Sananda and had only been impressed by her book.
Kundalini, in a nutshell, is the Sanskrit name for the coiled up force at the base of the spine responsible for evolution, for altered states of consciousness, and also, in a tainted, corrupted form, the horrors of mental illness. Genuine knowledge of it is so sparse that cases of awakenings or partial awakenings can labour for years to find anyone with the least knowledge about it; some end up in institutions, or victims of despicable scam artists like the Stoycoffs.
There is one thing I can tell you for sure about Kundalini: it will one day be the most researched avenue in human biology. If you want information about it, forget the yoga sessions at the corner gym, forget anyone dressing themselves in funny white clothes and making silly hand gestures, forget anyone adopting an esoteric Indian pseudonym and charging you twenty bucks a time to listen to their stupid riddles. Especially avoid anyone who tells you they are an ascended master.
Instead, go to the Institute for Consciousness Research in Canada. They have a website which I have linked to on the side of the page, near the top. As far as I know, they are the only credible avenue interested in divesting Kundalini of its mysterious origins, and placing it on a firm scientific footing. Associated with the group are Gene Kieffer, a superb, energetic American writer who with John White brought Pandit Gopi Krishna to the attention of the western world and the Max Planck Institute.
And working tirelessly there are first class human beings such as Paul and Dale Pond, Michael Bradford, Vitold Kreutzer and Teri Degler. Some of them have had kundalini experiences themselves – and all have developed their personalities to the point where they are part of the solution. If you want to know anything about Kundalini, take it from me that these are the people to talk to.