Protected: One Of The Greatest Scientific Detective Stories – Discovering The Elements – And Unlocking The Code Of Life
March 30, 2010
March 18, 2010
And you will
Fate is the force that interferes with our lives, wrecking things at the worst moments. Yet what we call fate is nothing more that the consequence of our own actions. Each time we act, we generate a chain of events that is tied to us completely. The faster we run from these links, the faster they follow us. They cannot be severed; our every act binds us further.
The operative element here is time. The events of the past are the curse. Beginning followers of Tao learn to manipulate past, present, and future. They learn how circumstances operate and seek to take advantage of that. More advanced followers of Tao eschew this process of manipulation. They obliterate all regard to past, present, and future as definitions in order to negate the concept of fate.
In order to attain a state of being where there is no past to weight upon the present and no future to be determined, followers of Tao must reach a profound merging with Tao. The follower then acts no differently that Tao would. There is no fate to oppose them, for they are existence, they are causality, they are Tao itself.
March 14, 2010
An opening in the storming sea,
Gold deposited on bones.
Once accumulation has begun,
Take care not to interfere.
There is a fable about a pious man whose father had just died. A geomancer instructed the son to bury his father at the mouth of a sea cave. The sea opened at this spot only once in a hundred years, and a family who utilised it would experience great fortune. Although he had misgivings about this unorthodox location, the son threw the casket into the waters at the indicated time.
For weeks the son doubted what he had done. He eventually went to a competing geomancer who, out of jealousy, advised the son to raise the casket. The son did so. When the coffin was brought up and opened, the man saw that a fine layer of gold had already been deposited on his father’s bones – a clear indication of the auspicious transformation that had begun. In regret, the son wanted to throw his father back in, but it was too late. There was no remedying what had been done.
Spiritual practise must be uninterrupted. We may be anxious because we see very little happening on a daily basis, but we must be patient until we can see what the accumulation of our effort yields. Self-cultivation means steady, gradual progress. To stop prematurely would be more disastrous than never having started at all.
March 9, 2010
Storm breaks into pieces,
Clouds charge the horizon.
Revolving of the heavens
Generates all movement.
Without movement, there could be nothing created in this universe. The revolving of the heavens can generate wind, rain, thunder, lightening. The revolving of the earth enables us to have day and night, the very cycle of the weather, the seasons, and the growth of plants. Movement is responsible for creativity.
Followers of Tao value initiative, but mere aggression is not enough. One needs creativity. This can mean the ability to solve problems, to think of unusual strategies, or to compose poetry, music and painting. In all these cases, one moves in concert with Tao not by blind aping, but by giving intelligent counterpoint and harmony. Creativity does not mean the arbitrary making of something out of our cultural minds. Rather, it is spontaneous movement in tandem with Tao, a movement that will generate life and not misery for others.
One has reached the ultimate levels of creativity when one has mastered skill so thoroughly that it has been forgotten. Look at heaven and earth. Do they think about creating the weather, the seasons, and the cycles of growing? They only go on revolving according to their nature, and the rest is generated without any thought or work on their part. This is truly effortless action and is considered the highest skill that a follower of Tao can attain.
March 7, 2010
Dawn is a shimmering of the horizon.
Dusk is a settling of the sky.
Dawn and dusk together represent the measure of a day. When the sun rises, the moon sets. When the moon rises, the sun sets. This represents the cycle of existence, for without such alternation, the power of the universe could not be generated. When the sun reaches its zenith, it will inevitably begin its descent towards its nadir. All events – including our own plans and activities – follow the same pattern.
It is wisdom to know the cycles of life and where any particular circumstance that we are involved in stands on the curve. If we want to perpetuate something, we should join it to new growth to compound our progress. If we want to destroy something, we need only lead it to its extreme, for all things decline after their zenith.
All too often, people express uncertainty about where they stand in life. It’s important to examine both the short-range and the long-range. If you want to go far in a decade, you have to go far each year. If you want to go far each year, you have to make sure that you do something significant each day. Use the cycles of life to establish a measure to your life, and then arrange your plans according to the units that you have chosen. Then there will be no fear of not knowing you own progress.
March 6, 2010
Chill morning, stone steps.
The path to the temple is steep.
We may stumble at times,
But we must always get up again.
Spiritual cultivation is a daily activity. No matter how much we achieve one day, we must continue the next. Progress is often so subtle that we may feel the effort futile, and it is hard to get up each morning and try again with the same enthusiasm. Yet this precisely what we must do.
If we have the benefit of guidance, talent, and the proper circumstances, then the bulk of our attention has to be paid to such a simple day-to-day effort. No person ever leapt to heaven in one bound. Spirituality is achieved by steady climbing, like a difficult journey to a mountain temple. The number of steps is in the thousands; the way is steep. It takes a long time to get there, and we must content ourselves with the panoramas along the way and think that the view at the summit will be best of all. If we fall, we must pick ourselves up and get back on the trail again.
Success in spiritual life is measured not by spectacular events but by daily devotion. This iron will, this deep sincerity maintains our ascent.
March 3, 2010
Just the other day I was speaking to a friend about who we really were i.e. what defines ‘us’, what is real about ‘us’, what makes ‘us’ us… And after we’d finished discussing The Grand Delusion Of Self, he decided that it was our body that defined us.
So came into question the time period with which our cells replenish and replace themselves. I had no idea about the exact facts or figures, but I had heard that every cell in the body replaces itself at least once every seven years. But… As hearsay is nothing more than scuttlebutt at the best of times, I decided to research this topic further. And thus I came across the following article in the New Scientist which decidedly covers the issue with a thoroughness that left me without any doubt that… Even though our bodies appear to be a solid structure of form and function that remain true, albeit age, for the rest of our life, they are certainly not as defining an aspect of ourselves as some of us would like think!? Why? Well… Even though I’ve been alive for 33 years here on Earth, my body is – on average – only 15 years old.
When we are presented with such undefinable aspects about the notion of our “self,” doesn’t it seem that we are sometimes overly prone to worrying about something which really not not exist? I mean, fair enough we have a need to survive and avoid certain death, for we are carrying the torch of Life for future generations; as an olympian carries the flame from mount Olympus to start the games with. But to obsess about ourselves; to worry about ourselves beyond reason… Well isn’t it missing the point of Life? Aren’t we really worrying about nothing? After all, we are nothing more than a collection of schemas/memes – ideas that originate from other people – that loosely add onto this framework of a body via the brain’s structure and ability; a body which is built from the star dust of ancient suns long extinguished, working on principles of chaos, weaving unpredictability into modes of ‘apparent’ understanding… An understanding that modifies itself all the time – via our constant study – into ever cosier comprehensions about the nature of reality and the beauty that guides it.
I mean, isn’t this uncertainty simply wonderful? For the first time it truly frees us from the confines of our own predefined humanity. It allows us to see that even WE – the predesignated arrangement of atoms that makes up our body, giving us substance in this world – are an uncertainty. I know this experience we are having seems pretty real i.e. I am really aware of the keyboard as my fingers type these words out on the keys in patterns of “QWERTY” order, and I can even interrelate these present experiences with past ones, and even calculate with a fairly accurate estimation about the chances of what might happen in the immediate future if I was to perform certain actions – like what would happen if I was to drive my bike at twenty miles per hour into the lake in the park… I’d go “SPLOSH!” and get rather wet, while ducks quack and fly off in many directions. BUT… Despite these amazing feats of organic supercomputing, our bodies and our memories are ever changing and ever shifting like the dunes of a desert. We’re just not really aware of them changing…
Perhaps this is something we should all bear in mind… That, while we might feel solid and certain at many points in our lives, ‘WE’ really are as fickle as the dunes of the Sahara. As Nisargadatta Maharaj once said, “When you have seen the dream as a dream, you have done all that needs to be done.”
Here’s a question: how old are you? Think carefully before you reply. It’s a lot trickier than you might imagine. The correct answer, it turns out, is about 15 and a half. According to recent research, that’s the average age of your body – your muscles and guts, anyway. You might think that you have been around since the day you were born, but most of your body is a lot younger.
That may come as no surprise. It’s a common belief that the human body completely renews itself every seven years, and though biologists would hesitate to put a firm figure on it most are happy to accept that cells eventually wear out and are replaced. In some tissues – skin and blood – we know how long it takes, for example from seeing how long transfused blood cells last. Surprisingly, however, we have no idea how often most cell types are replaced, if indeed they are replaced at all. Until a few months ago it was impossible to tell. Experiments on mice had hinted that some cells are replaced more often than others, but no one was sure how relevant the findings were to humans.
Now neurologist Jonas Frisén of the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm, Sweden, has invented an ingenious technique for determining the age of adult cells. He and others are using the technique to answer questions that have intrigued scientists and laypeople for decades: does cell turnover mean that you eventually renew your entire body? If so, how many bodies do you go through in a lifetime? If you live to a ripe old age, is there anything left of the original “you”? There’s more to it than curiosity value, though. The rate of cell turnover is a hot question in neuroscience and regenerative medicine, and may provide the key to treating numerous diseases and managing the effects of ageing.
Questions about the rates of cell renewal first arose about 100 years ago, when scientists discovered that most of our neurons are formed during fetal development and persist for life. Ever since, people have been wondering if the brain’s cerebral cortex – the seat of executive functions such as attention and decision-making – ever makes new cells. In the 1960s neurologists discovered that rodents and cats may make new neurons. Then in 1999 a study in Science caused great excitement with the claim that new growth had been found in the cerebral cortex of monkeys. Despite numerous attempts, however, the results have never been repeated.
Information about the lifespan of cells has historically come from experiments on rats and mice. The method involves giving the animals radioactive nucleotides, the building blocks of DNA, either in their food or by injection. The assumption is that if cell turnover is going on, new cells will incorporate labelled nucleotides into their DNA. Post-mortem tests can later reveal how much tagged DNA there is in various tissues and hence what proportion of cells were born during the animal’s exposure to the nucleotides. These experiments undoubtedly tell us about cell turnover rates in rodents but it is unclear whether the results can be extrapolated to humans. Because humans live for decades rather than months, we might have a greater need to replace our cells.
Feeding radioactive genetic material to humans, however, is clearly not on. Some researchers have attempted to date cells by other means such as measuring the lengths of telomeres, the DNA stubs on the end of chromosomes that shorten each time a cell divides. But no one has ever been able to develop a reliable method for reading age from telomere length. What’s worse, says Frisén, “some cells, such as stem cells, appear to be able to lengthen their telomeres, which would be a problem when trying to assess the cell’s age, especially in the brain”.
Frustrated with the lack of progress, Frisén decided there had to be another way. “My train of thought ran to the ancient Egyptian papyrus scrolls, which were carbon-dated, and I wondered if there was a way we could use that,” he says.
Carbon dating relies on measuring the amount of carbon-14 in a sample of organic matter. Carbon-14, a rare and weakly radioactive isotope of carbon, is continually produced in the atmosphere when neutrons generated by cosmic rays smash into nitrogen nuclei, stripping out a proton. Carbon-14 eventually decays back to nitrogen, with a half-life of 5730 years. But before it decays, carbon-14 can be taken up by plants during photosynthesis and converted into sugars. Animals eat the plants, and in this way all living things contain small amounts of carbon-14 – about 1 in a trillion carbon atoms in your body are carbon-14 rather than carbon-12. At death, however, the organism stops taking in carbon-14, and what it already contains eventually decays away.
That slow decay is what makes carbon dating of archaeological samples possible. By measuring the ratio of carbon-14 to carbon-12 in something that was once alive you can estimate when it died – up to 60,000 years ago, after which carbon-14 levels have fallen too much to be useful.
Slow decay, however, also makes the method fairly imprecise. An archaeological radiocarbon date is accurate only to between 30 and 100 years, depending on the age of the sample – fine for ancient Egyptian artefacts but useless for dating cells in a human body.
Frisén’s eureka moment arrived when he realised he could use carbon-14 in a different way thanks to a unique episode in recent history – the cold war arms race. Between 1955 and 1963, above-ground nuclear weapons tests loaded masses of carbon-14 into the atmosphere. At the peak of such tests in 1963, atmospheric levels of carbon-14 reached twice the normal background level (see Diagram below). This “bomb spike” was accurately recorded at locations all over the world, creating a unique window of opportunity that Frisén is now exploiting.
He reasoned that while most molecules in a cell are in a constant state of flux, DNA is very stable: when a cell is born it gets a set of chromosomes that stay with it throughout its life. Therefore the level of carbon-14 in a living cell’s DNA is directly proportional to the level in the atmosphere at the time it was born, minus a tiny amount lost to radioactive decay. Before 1955 that level was always roughly the same. But during the bomb spike, atmospheric levels rose and then fell again – and so did carbon-14 levels in cells’ DNA. What that meant, Frisén realised, is that he could take cells born after 1955, measure the proportion of carbon-14 in their DNA and then consult the bomb spike curve to obtain an estimate of their date of birth.
If Frisén was right, for the first time scientists would be able to work out the average age of cells in different parts of the body and, he hoped, finally settle the question of whether the brain makes new nerve cells.
Before he could start, Frisén needed to know how long the window of opportunity was open for. Ever since the 1963 partial test ban treaty, carbon-14 in the atmosphere has been declining steadily, halving every 11 years as it is absorbed by the oceans and biosphere. Even so, Frisén found that any cell born between 1955 and 1990 would contain enough extra carbon-14 in its DNA to give a reliable date, give or take a year or so.
Last year Frisén and his team reported preliminary tests on a few body tissues taken from cadavers of people who had been alive during the bomb spike (Cell, vol 122, p 133). They revealed for the first time how many different ages one human body can be.
The body’s front-line cells endure the roughest life, last the briefest time and are constantly replaced – these include the epithelial cells lining the gut (five days), the epidermal cells covering the skin’s surface (two weeks) and red blood cells (120 days).
Cells Frisén analysed from the rib muscles of people in their late 30s had an average age of 15.1 years, a similar lifespan to cells making up the body of the gut, which he found were around 15.9 years old on average. It seems our bodies are indeed in a constant state of breakdown and renewal – even the entire skeleton is replaced every few years, he says.
Exciting though these forays into uncharted territory were, Frisén was eager to get on with his original quest, working out the age of the cells in the brain. “I am a neurologist and that is where my love lies,” he explains.
“Of course I want to know how often our body cells are replaced – we will do it little by little, and I hope that experts in all those areas take on the research and help us. But I want to explore the areas of the brain and discover whether we generate new brain cells throughout our adult lives.”
The standard view from animal studies – and one man who agreed to have labelled nucleotides injected into his brain as he was dying from cancer – is that once the brain is formed, no new neurons are generated except in two areas: the hippocampus and a region around the ventricles.
Frisén first applied his new method to cells taken from the visual cortex. Here, as expected, the neurons turned out to be the same age as the person they came from – perhaps because they need to be wired up in a very stable way so that each time an object or colour is viewed it is perceived in the same way as before, he speculates. Cells in the cerebellum, which is involved in coordinating movement, turned out to be about 2.9 years younger on average than the person, which is consistent with the idea that this region continues to develop during infancy.
“We’ve now mapped the rest of the cortex and are well on our way with the hippocampus,” says Frisén. “So far, it doesn’t look like there are any new cells being formed in the cortex – they’re as old as you are. But some regions of the hippocampus are exciting – absolutely there’s neurogenesis.”
Frisén isn’t just motivated by curiosity. He hopes that by uncovering the secrets of cell turnover in the brain, he can help shed light on diseases including depression and Alzheimer’s. In 2004, a team led by Rene Hen at Columbia University in New York demonstrated that mice appeared to become depressed if hippocampal stem cells were not making enough new neurons, and that drugs such as Prozac work by stimulating neurogenesis: when the team inhibited neurogenesis, the antidepressants stopped working (Science, vol 301, p 805).
Alzheimer’s, too, has been associated with a lack of neurogenesis in the hippocampus, and other brain disorders, including Parkinson’s, are linked to cell death not being balanced by adequate cell creation. Frisén’s group is now studying cell turnover in people with neurodegenerative diseases.
The brain is not the only organ where information on cell turnover may provide clues to treating disease. Knowing how frequently healthy people produce new fat cells, for example, could help treat obesity: at the moment nobody knows whether obesity is the result of having enlarged fat cells or a greater number of them. Similarly, understanding the normal turnover of liver cells – which animal studies suggest have a lifespan of 300 to 500 days – could help physicians spot abnormalities such as cancer. And understanding the cell turnover rates in the pancreas could eventually help us to manipulate the organ’s lifespan with a view to treating diabetes.
There are other possibilities too. Experts believe heart muscle cells are not renewed when they die, leaving gaps that are filled with fibrotic material, resulting in a gradual loss of cardiac function as we get older. But no one knows for sure. Frisén’s group has just started preparing some heart tissue for analysis to see whether heart muscle cells are ever renewed.
Meanwhile, a group at the University of California, Davis, led by Krishnan Nambiar, is using Frisén’s method to investigate the lens of the eye. Cells in the transparent inner part of the lens form five weeks into embryonic life and stay with you for life. New cells are generated from the periphery, where they build up and make the lens thicker and less flexible with age, sometimes leading to cataracts. “If we could learn more about the turnover of cells in the lens, we could perhaps learn how to delay the onset of cataracts for five years and make tremendous savings in the health budget,” explains Bruce Buchholz at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, who uses atomic mass spectrometry to carry out the carbon-14 analysis of Nambiar and Frisén’s samples.
It is clear, then, that a large proportion of your body is significantly younger than you are, and that raises a paradox. If your skin, for example, is so young, why don’t you retain a smooth complexion even into old age? Why can’t a 60-year-old woman, with her youthful muscle cells, flick-flack across the floor with the acrobatic agility of a 10-year-old girl?
The answer lies with mitochondrial DNA. This accumulates mutations at a faster rate than DNA in the nucleus. As soon as you are born, your mitochondria start taking hits – and there is nothing much you can do about it. So while your cells may be only a third as old as you are, the snag is that your mitochondria are the same age. In skin, for instance, mitochondrial mutations are thought to be responsible for the gradual loss in the quality of collagen, the skin’s scaffolding, which is why skin loses its shape and forms wrinkles.
There is good news, however. If we ever find ways to protect or repair mitochondrial DNA – and there are many ideas for how to do so – the discovery that most of our cells are younger than we are means that we could significantly delay ageing. Perhaps in the future people really will struggle to answer the question “How old are you?”
written by Gaia Vince
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March 2, 2010
I like it when people leave comments and offer their own perceptive stance on their world view. It usually results in my learning something really important about the world… Something that I’m sure I knew on some level (having learnt most of statistics at university) but just never really had the foresight to translate it into real world analogies. Well… I’m glad to say it’s happened again!
Relating to current escalating global population levels and, thus, the resulting increase in consumption of resources, we’d be all well advised to watch this lecture entitled “Arithmetic, Population And Energy,” given by Albert A. Bartlett, Professor Emeritus in Nuclear Physics at Colorado University at Boulder. Here Professor Bartlett felicitously explains what it means to see an annual 7% increase in growth, asking questions like “What’s the doubling time for 7% growth?” and “Should we be promoting disease?” so as to bring these ideas into a crystal clear perspective… With a touch of humour here and there.
So where do we start? Well, let’s start in Boulder, Colorado. Here’s my home town. There’s the 1950 census figure, 1960, 1970—in that period of twenty years, the average growth rate of Boulder’s population was 6% per year. With big efforts, we’ve been able to slow the growth somewhat. There’s the 2000 census figure. I’d like to ask people: let’s start with that 2000 figure, go another 70 years—one human life time—and ask: what rate of growth would we need in Boulder’s population in the next 70 years so that at the end of 70 years, the population of Boulder would equal today’s population of your choice of major American cities?
Boulder in 70 years could be as big as Boston is today if we just grew 2.58% per year. Now, if we thought Detroit was a better model, we’ll have to shoot for 31?4% per year. Remember the historic figure on the preceding slide, 6% per year? If that could continue for one lifetime, the population of Boulder would be larger than the population of Los Angeles. Well, I’ll just tell you, you couldn’t put the population of Los Angles in the Boulder valley. Therefore it’s obvious, Boulder’s population growth is going to stop and the only question is, will we be able to stop it while there is still some open space, or will we wait until it’s wall-to-wall people and we’re all choking to death?
Now, every once in a while somebody says to me, “But you know, a bigger city might be a better city,” and I have to say, “Wait a minute, we’ve done that experiment!” We don’t need to wonder what will be the effect of growth on Boulder because Boulder tomorrow can be seen in Los Angeles today. And for the price of an airplane ticket, we can step 70 years into the future and see exactly what it’s like. What is it like? There’s an interesting headline from Los Angeles. (“…carcinogens in air…”) Maybe that has something to do with this headline from Los Angeles. (“Smog kills 1,600 annually…”)
So how are we doing in Colorado? Well, we’re the growth capital of the USA and proud of it. The Rocky Mountain News tells us to expect another million people in the Front Range in the next 20 years, and what are the consequences of all this? (“Denver’s traffic…3rd worst in US…”) These are totally predictable, there are no surprises here, we know exactly what happens when you crowd more people into an area.
Well, as you can imagine, growth control is very controversial, and I treasure the letter from which these quotations are taken. Now, this letter was written to me by a leading citizen of our community. He’s a leading proponent of “controlled growth.” “Controlled growth” just means “growth.” This man writes, “I take no exception to your arguments regarding exponential growth.” “I don’t believe the exponential argument is valid at the local level.”
So you see, arithmetic doesn’t hold in Boulder. I have to admit, that man has a degree from the University of Colorado. It’s not a degree in mathematics, in science, or in engineering. All right, let’s look now at what happens when we have this kind of steady growth in a finite environment…
Thus I ask if this could be a new slogan for the “Optimum Population Trust“? And perhaps when we tie this idea up with consumption, it might be a reason to change our habits, like finding the goods we need off “FreeCycle” rather than ‘buying’ them brand new in the shops OR throwing away what we think we don’t need or can’t use?
A BIG thank you to Andrew Soon for bringing this to my attention!
To find the transcript for this video, please click here.
Or to find out more about Professor Albert A. Bartlett, please click here.