Lesley Hazleton sat down one day to read the Koran. And what she found — as a non-Muslim, a self-identified “tourist” in the Islamic holy book — wasn’t what she expected. With serious scholarship and warm humor, Hazleton shares the grace, flexibility and mystery she found, in this myth-debunking talk.
Sadly, that comic story can be applied this week to Stephen Hawking, the brilliant Cambridge physicist who announced he was pulling out of the “Facing Tomorrow” conference in Israel next month, “based on advice from Palestinian academics that he should respect the boycott” of Israel. For such a clever man, his recent actions are shockingly foolish and short-sighted.
Short-sighted because, given Israel’s central position in scientific and technological fields, to boycott the Jewish state would mean giving up on some of the most important advancements of recent years.
- Stephen Hawking himself, who has suffered from motor neuron disease for most of his 71 years, communicates using a mechanical voice system run by the Intel Core i7 Processor developed by the Israeli division of Intel.
- As a partical physicist, he is intimately involved in the most significant development in modern times: the discovery of the Higgs-Boson particle, found last year using Israel-developed particle detectors.
- Last year, Hawking accepted a prestigious physics award worth $3 million – awarded by Yuri Milner, a major investor in Israeli high-tech.
Clearly, Prof. Hawking is not about to take out his Intel voice chip, return $3 million, and cease engaging in scientific debate. With so many areas of his life impacted and improved by Israeli dynamism, his refusal to visit the Jewish state comes across as a whole lotta chutzpa.
If Hawking wants to boycott a nation for perceived human rights outrages, he is targeting the wrong country.
In a week when the world’s newspapers were filled with gruesome descriptions of profound human rights violations, it’s ironic that Prof. Hawking would choose to target Israel for approbation:
- Civil war is raging in Syria, with the Assad regime using chemical weapons against civilians
- Nigeria is massacring Islamist opponents of the government
- China is enforcing its brutal one-child policy through forced abortions
- Saudi Arabia is executing political prisoners and homosexuals
Of course, Israel is not be above criticism, but to single it out for special treatment is to hold it to a biased double-standard that is required of no other country in the world. To single out Israel, a liberal democracy with an open press, transparent judiciary, universal suffrage, and enshrined equal rights for all – as a country not only to be criticized, but utterly avoided – is total chutzpa.
Dr. Hawking, whose academic research is world-class, must also realize the key to bettering the world lies in fostering communication, not in shutting it down. By turning his back on all of Israel, he’s sending a reactionary and hate-filled message at odds with the extensive academic collaboration that’s marked his entire career. Chutzpa!
Indeed, serious academics, such as Sari Nusseibeh, the Palestinian President of Al-Quds University, deplore academic boycotts. Dr. Nusseibeh has pioneered joint projects with Hebrew University in Jerusalem and Brandeis University near Boston.
Hawking’s cancellation was such an embarrassment to his employer, Cambridge University, that the school spokesman tried to claim it was due to “health reasons” and not as a boycott of Israel. The university was then forced to backtrack, after Hawking’s office made perfectly clear that the decision was due to the boycott.
Wrong Side of History
Amazingly, the conference that Hawking is boycotting is designed to promote the very sort of tolerant, open world for which he surely yearns.
Held under the auspices of Israeli President Shimon Peres, the annual Facing Tomorrow conference brings together a diverse group of 5,000 world leaders and intellectuals for discussions on an array of pressing world – including geopolitics, economics, environment and culture. Peres, a Nobel Prize laureate and Israel’s elder statesman, is using his considerable political capital to address some of the planet’s most pressing issues. To boycott this effort is not reasoned criticism but rather pure chutzpa – an attempt to destroy an Israeli initiative not on its merits, but simply because it originates in the Jewish state.
As a theoretical physicist, Hawking surely knows that his field was shaped by unsuccessful attempts to silence Jews in the past.
In the 1930s, Jewish scientists in Germany – including Albert Einstein – found themselves edged out of traditional academic fields and into burgeoning scientific areas such as particle physics. Einstein and Enrico Fermi (who left Europe to save his Jewish wife) came to the United States, and built much of the foundation of modern theoretical physics.
This latest boycott attempt to silence Jews has a long and infamous history. Hawking’s synergy with this movement to delegitimize the existence of the Jewish state is destined to prove on the wrong side of history.
The simplicity of modern life is making us more stupid, according to a scientific theory which claims humanity may have reached its intellectual and emotional peak as early as 4,000 BC.
Intelligence and the capacity for abstract thought evolved in our prehistoric ancestors living in Africa between 50,000 and 500,000 years ago, who relied on their wits to build shelters and hunt prey.
But in more civilised times where we no longer need to fight to survive, the selection process which favoured the smartest of our ancestors and weeded out the dullards is no longer in force.
Harmful mutations in our genes which reduce our “higher thinking” ability are therefore passed on through generations and allowed to accumulate, leading to a gradual dwindling of our intelligence as a species, a new study claims.
Prof Gerald Crabtree, a developmental biologist at Stanford University, explained in the Trends in Genetics journal that a mutation in any one of 2,000 to 5,000 particular genes could lower our intellectual and emotional ability.
Our development of intelligence genes “probably occurred in a world where every individual was exposed to nature’s raw selective mechanisms on a daily basis,” he said, but the same pressures do not apply today.
The development of agriculture thousands of years ago led to larger community life, and “the need for intelligence was reduced as we began to live in supportive societies that made up for lapses of judgment or failures of comprehension,” he said.
“A hunter-gatherer who did not correctly conceive a solution to providing food or shelter probably died, along with his or her progeny, whereas a modern Wall Street executive that made a similar conceptual mistake would receive a substantial bonus and be a more attractive mate. Clearly, extreme selection is a thing of the past.”
Based on the rate at which harmful mutations in our genes happen, and the particular susceptibility of those genes related to intellectual and emotional function, Prof Crabtree calculated that humans “reached a peak” 2,000 to 6,000 years ago.
“I would wager that if an average citizen from Athens of 1000 BC were to appear suddenly among us, he or she would be among the brightest and most intellectually alive of our colleagues and companions, with a good memory, a broad range of ideas, and a clear-sighted view of important issues,” he said.
Within 3,000 years from now it is likely that all humans will have undergone at least two further genetic mutations which lower their intellectual or emotional stability, but science will most likely have progressed so far that we will be able to solve the problem, he added.
“One does not need to imagine a day when we could no longer comprehend the problem, or counteract the slow decay in the genes underlying our intellectual fitness, or have visions of the world population docilely watching reruns on televisions they can no longer build.
“It is exceedingly unlikely that a few hundred years will make any difference for the rate of change that might be occurring.”
Prof Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford University, said: “[Prof Crabtree] takes the line that our intelligence is designed to allow us to build houses and throw spears straighter at pigs in the bush, but that is not the real driver of brain size.
“In reality what has driven human and primate brain evolution is the complexity of our social world [and] that complex world is not going to go away. Doing things like deciding who to have as a mate or how best to rear your children will be with us forever.
“Personally I am not sure that in the forseeable future there is any reason to be panicking at all, the rate of evolution with things like this takes tens of thousands of years…no doubt the ingenuity of science will find solutions to these things if we do not blow ourselves up first.”
Doing simple tasks that allow us to daydream is key to solving trickier questions playing on our minds, scientists find.
Daydreaming really is the key to solving complex problems, a new study has found.
Some of the most important scientific breakthroughs ever made – by everyone from Einstein to Newton – came about as the geniuses behind them allowed their minds to wander.
Now research by modern day scientists has shown that mere mortals can also improve their problem-solving ability in the same way.
The study showed that people who returned to a difficult task after taking a break and doing an easy task boosted their performance by around 40 per cent.
But there was little or no improvement for people who did another demanding task during the break, used it to rest or did not have a break at all.
Scientists who carried out the study said the results indicate that doing simple tasks that allow us to daydream is key to solving trickier questions playing on our minds.
“Many influential scientific thinkers claim to have had their moments of inspiration while engaged in thoughts or activities not directly aimed at solving the problem they were trying to solve,” said lead author Benjamin Baird, of the University of California, Santa Barbara.
“This study demonstrated that taking a break involving an undemanding task improved performance on a classic creativity task far more than taking a break involving a demanding task, resting or taking no break.
“The findings arguably provide the most direct evidence to date that conditions that favour mind wandering also enhance creativity.”
The research, published in the journal Psychological Science, is likely to please school pupils and bored office workers who enjoy gazing out of the window but may not go down less well with teachers and bosses.
Einstein is believed to have begun his theory of relativity while he daydreamed about riding or running beside a sunbeam to the edge of the universe – after he was expelled from school for rebelling against rote learning.
Newton developed his theory of gravity after he happened to see an apple fall from a tree in his mother’s garden in Lincolnshire.
Further back the Greek philosopher Archimedes shouted ‘Eureka’ when he stepped into a bath and realised the relation between the rising water level and the volume of his body that was submerged.
The study involved 145 people aged between 19 and 32 who were given two minutes to list as many unusual uses as possible for everyday objects. They were then split into four groups with one of the groups not allowed any break from the task. The other three groups were each given a 12-minute break during which some carried out a demanding memory task, some enjoyed complete rest and some did an undemanding task.
Those who did the undemanding task were found to be daydreaming a lot about personal issues or past or future events as a result of its ease.
All participants were then asked to return to the task of listing unusual uses for ordinary objects. When considering new items all groups did the same. But when considering the same objects as earlier, daydreamers improved their performance by 40 per cent while the other groups performed the same as before.
The researchers said the improved performance was associated with “a higher level of mind wandering but not with a greater level of explicitly directed thoughts about the task.” They added that the “seemingly dysfunctional mental state” of daydreaming may “serve as a foundation for creative inspiration”.
The authors suggested that we may unconsciously process thoughts while concentrating on another task but said more research is needed to explain more fully how this happens.
“The mind is like the parachute, only it works when it opens”
Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
Quantify, wherever possible.
If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
Sao Miguel, Azores, Portugal.
Have I been living under an igneous rock? How had I never been to the Azores until last week? The facility of the whole thing was boggling. To think that one moment I could be cruising along the Boston harbor front and not 7 hours later plunging into a natural hot spring pool in a jungle in EUROPE...well that would just be asking too much of the universe.
By Jake and Stefy
The reason for this blog
The writers of this blog (my fiancé and I) decided to create this because many parts of the world don’t make sense to us, and we decided we might as well share our questions and developing thoughts in case others are wondering about the same. When talking about the world I don’t mean the literal rock of course (that would be a geology blog), but rather the way we—us, other humans—live and organize our lives within it.
Okay, okay, here I am, crawling back, shame-faced at my long absence. I've had several things I wanted to write about, but it all hinged on me first posting content from my travels, which hinged on me properly organising and uploading all my pictures, which I haven't properly done. And then there was the whole worry about worrying that I would forget salient details.