Humans to Asteroids: Watch Out!

A FEW weeks ago, an asteroid almost 30 feet across and zipping along at 38,000 miles per hour flew 28,000 miles above Singapore. Why, you might reasonably ask, should non-astronomy buffs care about a near miss from such a tiny rock? Well, I can give you one very good reason: asteroids don’t always miss. If even a relatively little object was to strike a city, millions of people could be wiped out.

Thanks to telescopes that can see ever smaller objects at ever greater distances, we can now predict dangerous asteroid impacts decades ahead of time. We can even use current space technology and fairly simple spacecraft to alter an asteroid’s orbit enough to avoid a collision. We simply need to get this detection-and-deflection program up and running.

President Obama has already announced a goal of landing astronauts on an asteroid by 2025 as a precursor to a human mission to Mars. Asteroids are deep-space bodies, orbiting the Sun, not the Earth, and traveling to one would mean sending humans into solar orbit for the very first time. Facing those challenges of radiation, navigation and life support on a months-long trip millions of miles from home would be a perfect learning journey before a Mars trip.

Near-Earth objects like asteroids and comets — mineral-rich bodies bathed in a continuous flood of sunlight — may also be the ultimate resource depots for the long-term exploration of space. It is fantastic to think that one day we may be able to access fuel, materials and even water in space instead of digging deeper and deeper into our planet for what we need and then dragging it all up into orbit, against Earth’s gravity.

Most important, our asteroid efforts may be the key to the survival of millions, if not our species. That’s why planetary defense has occupied my work with two nonprofits over the past decade.

To be fair, no one has ever seen the sort of impact that would destroy a city. The most instructive incident took place in 1908 in the remote Tunguska region of Siberia, when a 120-foot-diameter asteroid exploded early one morning. It probably killed nothing except reindeer but it flattened 800 square miles of forest. Statistically, that kind of event occurs every 200 to 300 years.

Luckily, larger asteroids are even fewer and farther between — but they are much, much more destructive. Just think of the asteroid seven to eight miles across that annihilated the dinosaurs (and 75 percent of all species) 65 million years ago.

With a readily achievable detection and deflection system we can avoid their same fate. Professional (and a few amateur) telescopes and radar already function as a nascent early warning system, working every night to discover and track those planet-killers. Happily, none of the 903 we’ve found so far seriously threaten an impact in the next 100 years.

Although catastrophic hits are rare, enough of these objects appear to be or are heading our way to require us to make deflection decisions every decade or so. Certainly, when it comes to the far more numerous Tunguska-sized objects, to date we think we’ve discovered less than a half of 1 percent of the million or so that cross Earth’s orbit every year. We need to pinpoint many more of these objects and predict whether they will hit us before it’s too late to do anything other than evacuate ground zero and try to save as many lives as we can.

So, how do we turn a hit into a miss? While there are technical details galore, the most sensible approach involves rear-ending the asteroid. A decade or so ahead of an expected impact, we would need to ram a hunk of copper or lead into an asteroid in order to slightly change its velocity. In July 2005, we crashed the Deep Impact spacecraft into comet Tempel 1 to learn more about comets’ chemical composition, and this proved to be a crude but effective method.

It may be necessary to make a further refinement to the object’s course. In that case, we could use a gravity tractor — an ordinary spacecraft that simply hovers in front of the asteroid and employs the ship’s weak gravitational attraction as a tow-rope. But we don’t want to wait to test this scheme when potentially millions of lives are at stake. Let’s rehearse, at least once, before performing at the Met!

The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has just recommended to Congress that NASA begin preparing a deflection capacity. In parallel, my fellow astronaut Tom Jones and I led the Task Force on Planetary Defense of the NASA Advisory Council. We released our report a couple of weeks ago, strongly urging that the financing required for this public safety issue be added to NASA’s budget.

This is, surprisingly, not an expensive undertaking. Adding just $250 million to $300 million to NASA’s budget would, over the next 10 years, allow for a full inventory of the near-Earth asteroids that could do us harm, and the development and testing of a deflection capacity. Then all we’d need would be an annual maintenance budget of $50 million to $75 million.

By preventing dangerous asteroid strikes, we can save millions of people, or even our entire species. And, as human beings, we can take responsibility for preserving this amazing evolutionary experiment of which we and all life on Earth are a part.

Russell Schweickart, a former astronaut, was the co-chairman of the Task Force on Planetary Defense of the NASA Advisory Council.

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Full article and photo: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/opinion/26schweickart.html

Unpopular Science

Whether we like it or not, human life is subject to the universal laws of physics.

My day, for example, starts with a demonstration of Newton’s First Law of Motion.

Christoph Niemann - Physics

It states, “Every body continues in its state of rest, or of uniform motion in a straight line…”

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“…unless it is compelled to change that state by forces impressed upon it.”

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Based on supercomplicated physical observations, Einstein concluded that two objects may perceive time differently.

Based on simple life experience, I have concluded that this is true.

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Newtonʼs Cradle shows how energy travels through a series of objects.

In our particular arrangement, kinetic energy is ultimately converted into a compression of the forehead.

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The forehead can be uncrumpled by a downward movement of the jaw.

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Excessive mechanical strain will compromise the elasticity of most materials, though.

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The human body functions like a combustion engine. To produce energy, we need two things:
– Oxygen, supplied through the nostrils (once the toy car is removed, that is).
– Carbohydrates, which come in various forms (vanilla, chocolate, dulce de leche).

Christoph Niemann - Physics

By the by: I had an idea for a carb-neutral ice cream.
All you need is to freeze a pint of ice cream to -3706 F.
The energy it will take your system to bring the ice cream up to a digestible temperature is roughly 1,000 calories, neatly burning away all those carbohydrates from the fat and sugar.
The only snag is the Third Law of Thermodynamics, which says it’s impossible to go below -459 F.
Bummer.

Christoph Niemann - Physics

But back to Newton: he discovered that any two objects in the universe attract each other, and that this force is proportional to their mass.

The Earth is heavier than the Moon, and therefore attracts our bodies with a much greater force.

Christoph Niemann - Physics

This explains why an empty refrigerator administrates a much smaller gravitational pull than, say, one thatʼs stacked with 50 pounds of delicious leftovers. Great: that means we can blame the leftovers.

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(Fig. A): Letʼs examine the behavior of particles in a closed container.

(Fig. B): The more particles we squeeze into the container, the testier they will become, especially if the container happens to be a rush-hour downtown local at 86th and Lex.

(Fig. C): Usually the particles will distribute evenly, unless there is a weird-looking puddle on the floor.

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The probability of finding a seat on the subway is inversely proportional to the number of people on the platform.

Even worse, the utter absence of people is 100 percent proportional to just having missed the train.

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To describe different phenomena, physicists use various units.

PASCALS, for example, measure the pressure applied to a certain area.

COULOMBS measure electric charge (that can occur if said area is a synthetic carpet)

DECIBELS measure the intensity of the trouble the physicist gets into because he didnʼt take off his shoes first.

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Often those units are named after people to recognize historic contributions to their field of expertise. One NEWTON, for example, describes the force that is necessary to accelerate 1 kilogram of mass by one meter per second squared.

This is not to be confused with one NIEMANN, which describes the force necessary to make a three-year-old put on his shoes and jacket when weʼre already late for kindergarten.

Christoph Niemann - Physics

Once the child is ready to go, I search for my keys. I start spinning around to scan my surroundings. This rotation exposes my head and all its contents to centrifugal forces, resulting in loss of hair and elongated eyeballs. That’s why I need to wear prescription glasses, which are yet another thing I constantly misplace.

Christoph Niemann - Physics

Obviously, the hair loss theory I just presented is bogus. Hair canʼt be “lost.” Since Antoine Lavoisier, we all know that “matter can be neither created nor destroyed, though it can be rearranged,” which, sadly, it eventually will.

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Not everything can be explained through physics, though. Iʼve spent years searching for a rational explanation for the weight of my wifeʼs luggage. There is none. It is just a cruel joke of nature.

Christoph Niemann, New York Times

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Full article and photos: http://niemann.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/25/unpopular-science/

No Second Thoughts

When times get tough, it’s really important to believe in yourself. This is something the Democrats have done splendidly this year. The polls have been terrible, and the party may be heading for a historic defeat, but Democrats have done a magnificent job of maintaining their own self-esteem. This is vital, because even if the public doesn’t approve of you, it is important to approve of yourself.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that Democrats have become role models. They have offered us lessons on how we, too, may continue to love ourselves, even in trying circumstances.

Lesson one. Think happy thoughts. Never allow yourself to dwell on downer, depressing ones.

Over the past year, many Democrats have resolutely paid attention to those things that make them feel good, and they have carefully filtered out those negative things that make them feel sad.

For example, Democrats and their media enablers have paid lavish attention to Christine O’Donnell and Carl Paladino, even though these two Republican candidates have almost no chance of winning. That’s because it feels so delicious to feel superior to opponents you consider to be feeble-minded wackos.

On the other hand, Democrats and their enablers have paid no attention to Republicans like Rob Portman, Dan Coats, John Boozman and Roy Blunt, who are likely to actually get elected. It doesn’t feel good when your opponents are experienced people who simply have different points of view. The existence of these impressive opponents introduces tension into the chi of your self-esteem.

Similarly, the Democrats and their enablers have paid lavish attention to the Tea Party this year. It’s nice to feel more sophisticated than those hordes of Middle Americans, who say silly things like “Get government off my Medicare.”

On the other hand, Democrats have paid little attention to the crucial group in this election — the independent moderates who supported President Obama in 2008 but flocked away during the health care summer of 2009 and now support the GOP by landslide proportions.

Losing friends makes you sad. It is better to not think about why these things happen.

Lesson two. Always remember, many great geniuses were unappreciated in their lifetimes.

Democrats are lagging this year because the country appears incapable of appreciating the grandeur of their accomplishments. That’s because, as several commentators have argued over the past few weeks, many Americans are nearsighted and ill-informed. Or, as President Obama himself noted last week, they get scared, and when Americans get scared they stop listening to facts and reason. They get all these crazy ideas in their heads, like not wanting to re-elect Blanche Lincoln.

The Democrats’ problem, as some senior officials have mentioned, is that they are so darn captivated by substance, it never occurs to them to look out for their own political self-interest. By they way, here’s a fun party game: Get a bottle of vodka and read Peter Baker’s article “The Education of President Obama” from The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. Take a shot every time a White House official is quoted blaming Republicans for the Democrats’ political plight. You’ll be unconscious by page three.

Lesson three. Always remember: You are the hero of your own children’s adventure story.

Some low-minded people could look at events this year and tell a dull, prosaic story. They would say that parties that promote unpopular policies tend to get punished at election time, These grubby-minded people would point out that Democratic House members who voted against health care are doing well in their re-election bids, while those who voted for it are getting clobbered.

But many Democrats have a loftier sensibility. They see this campaign as a poetic confrontation between good (themselves) and pure evil (Karl Rove and his group, American Crossroads).

As Nancy Pelosi put it at a $50,000-a-couple fund-raiser, “Everything was going great and all of a sudden secret money from God knows where — because they won’t disclose it — is pouring in.”

Even allowing the menace of secret money, embracing this Paradise Lost epic means obscuring a few inconvenient facts: that Democrats were happy to benefit from millions of anonymous dollars in 2006, 2008 and today; that the spending by Rove’s group amounts to less than 1 percent of the total money spent on campaigns this year; that Democrats retain an overall spending advantage.

But legend rises above mere facticity, and this Lancelots-of-the-Left tale underlines a self-affirming message — that Democrats are engaged in a righteous crusade against the dark villain who tricked Americans into voting against John Kerry.

In short, it’s hard not to be impressed by the spirit of self-approval that Democrats have managed to maintain this election. I say that knowing it may end as soon as next Wednesday, when, as is their wont, Democrats will flip from complete self-worship to complete self-laceration in the blink of an eye.

David Brooks, New York Times

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Full article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/10/26/opinion/26brooks.html

Serving Two Masters: Shariah Law and the Secular State

A few weeks ago, the Cardozo School of Law mounted a conference marking the 20th anniversary of Employment Division v. Smith (1990), a case in which the Supreme Court asked what happens when a form of behavior demanded by one’s religion runs up against a generally applicable law — a law not targeted at any particular agenda or point of view — that makes the behavior illegal. (The behavior at issue was the ingestion of peyote at a Native American religious ceremony.) The answer the court gave, with Justice Antonin Scalia writing for the majority, was that the religious believer must yield to the law of the state so long as that law was not passed with the intention of curtailing or regulating his or anyone else’s religious practice. (This is exactly John Locke’s view in his “Letter Concerning Toleration.”)

“To make the individual’s obligation to obey . . . a law contingent upon the law’s coincidence with his religious beliefs” would have the effect, Scalia explains, of “permitting him, by virtue of his beliefs, ‘to become a law unto himself.’” And if that were allowed, there would no longer be a single law — universally conceived and applied — but multiple laws each of which was tailored to the doctrines and commands of a particular faith. In order to have law in the strong sense, Scalia is saying, you can have only one. (“No man can serve two masters.”)

The conflict between religious imperatives and the legal obligations one has as a citizen of a secular state — a state that does not take into account the religious affiliations of its citizens when crafting laws — is an old one (Scalia is quoting Reynolds v. United States, 1878); but in recent years it has been felt with increased force as Muslim immigrants to Western secular states evidence a desire to order their affairs, especially domestic affairs, by Shariah law rather than by the supposedly neutral law of a godless liberalism. I say “supposedly” because of the obvious contradiction: how can a law that refuses, on principle, to recognize religious claims be said to be neutral with respect to those claims? Must a devout Muslim (or orthodox Jew or fundamentalist Christian) choose between his or her faith and the letter of the law of the land?

In February 2008, the Right Reverend Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, tried in a now-famous lecture to give a nuanced answer to these questions by making what he considered a modest proposal. After asking “what degree of accommodation the laws of the land can and should give to minority communities with their strongly entrenched legal and moral codes,” Williams suggested (and it is a suggestion others had made before him) that in some areas of the law a “supplementary jurisdiction,” deriving from religious law, be recognized by the liberal state, which, rather than either giving up its sovereignty or invoking it peremptorily to still all other voices, agrees to share it in limited areas where “more latitude [would be] given in law to rights and scruples rooted in religious identities.”

Williams proceeded immediately to surround his proposal with cautionary safeguards — “no ‘supplementary’ jurisdiction could have the power to deny access to the rights granted to other citizens or to punish its members for claiming those rights” — but no safeguards would have satisfied his many critics, including Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who declared roundly that there is only one common law for all of Britain and it is based squarely on “British values.”

Prompted by Williams’s lecture and the responses it provoked, law professors Rex Ahdar and Nicholas Aroney have now put together a volume, to be published in 2011, under the title “Shari’a in the West,” a collection of learned and thoughtful essays by some of the world’s leading scholars of religion and the law. The volume’s central question is stated concisely by Erich Kolig, an anthropologist from New Zealand: “How far can liberal democracy go, both in accommodating minority groups in public policy, and, more profoundly, in granting official legal recognition to their beliefs, customs, practices and worldviews, especially when minority religious conduct and values are not congenial to the majority,” that is, to liberal democracy itself?

This is exactly the question posed by John Rawls in a preface to the second edition of “Political Liberalism,” his magisterial account and defense of liberal political principles: “How is it possible for those affirming a religious doctrine that is based on religious authority . . . also to hold a reasonable political conception that supports a just democratic regime?” The words to stumble on are “reasonable” and “just,” which at once introduce the requirement and indicate how hard, if not impossible, it will be to meet it: “reasonable” means confirming to rational, not religious, principles; “just” means respecting the equality of all, not just male or faithful, individuals.

With these concepts as the baseline of “accommodation,” accommodation is going to fall far short of anything that will satisfy the adherents of a religion that “encompasses all aspects of public and private law, hygiene, and even courtesy and good manners” (A. A. An-Na’im). In liberal thought these areas are the ones in which the individual reigns supreme and the value of individual choice is presupposed; but, as Ann Black explains, “Muslims do not conceptualize Islam in terms of the Westernized sociological categorization of religion which places the individual at the centre of all analyses.”

And so, perhaps predictably, the essays in Shariah in the West tack back and forth between the uneasy alternatives Williams names in his lecture — “an assumption on the religious side that membership of the community . . . is the only significant category,” and on the other side secular government’s assumption of a “monopoly in terms of defining public and political identity.” These assumptions seem to be standing obstacles to the ability of secular Western states to think through the problem presented by growing Muslim populations that are sometimes militant in their demand to be ruled by their own faiths and traditions.

On the one hand, there is the liberal desire to accord one’s fellow human beings the dignity of respecting their deepest beliefs. On the other hand, there is the fear that if those beliefs are allowed their full scope, individual rights and the rule of law may be eroded beyond repair. It would seem, at least on the evidence of most of these essays, that there is simply no way of “finding a viable path that accommodates diversity with equality” (Ayelet Shachar), that is, accommodates tolerance of diverse religious views with an insistence that, in the last analysis, the rights of individuals cannot be trumped by a theological imperative. No one in this volume quite finds the path.

Except perhaps theologian and religious philosopher John Milbank who puts forward, the editors tell us, “the striking argument that only a distinctly Christian polity — not a secular postmodern one — can actually accord Islam the respect it seeks as a religion.” The italicized phrase is key: the respect liberalism can accord Islam (or any other strong religion) is the respect one extends to curiosities, eccentrics, the backward, the unenlightened and the unfortunately deluded. Liberal respect stops short — and this is not a failing of liberalism, but its very essence — of taking religious claims seriously, of considering them as possible alternative ways of ordering not only private but public life.

Christianity, says Milbank, will be more capable of deeply respecting Islam because the two faiths share a commitment to the sacred and to a teleological view of history notably lacking in liberalism (again, this is not a criticism but a definition of liberalism): A “Christian polity can go further in acknowledging the integral worth of a religious group as a group than a secular polity can.” Christianity can acknowledge the worth of Islam not merely in an act of tolerance but in an act of solidarity in the same way that Christian sects can acknowledge each other. If you are a Catholic, Milbank explains, “and you do not agree with the Baptists you can nevertheless acknowledge that, relatively speaking, they are pursuing social goals that are comparable with, and promote a shared sense of human dignity” as defined by a corporate religious identity. Liberalism can acknowledge individual Muslims or individual Baptists or individual Catholics, but the liberal acknowledgment detaches these religious believers from their community of belief and turns them into citizens who are in the things that count (to liberalism) just like everyone else.

“Liberal principles,” declares Milbank, “will always ensure that the rights of the individual override those of the group.” For this reason, he concludes, “liberalism cannot defend corporate religious freedom.” The neutrality liberalism proclaims “is itself entirely secular” (it brackets belief; that’s what it means by neutrality) and is therefore “unable to accord the religious perspective [the] equal protection” it rhetorically promises. Religious rights “can only be effectively defended pursuant to a specific and distinctly religious framework.” Liberal universalism, with its superficial respect for everyone (as long as everyone is superficial) and its deep respect for no one, can’t do it.

If that is so, then the other contributors to this volume are whistling “Dixie,” at least with respect to the hope declared by Rawls that liberalism in some political form might be able to do justice to the strongly religious citizens of a liberal state. Milbank’s fellow essayists cannot negotiate or remove the impasse he delineates, but what they can do, and do do with considerable ingenuity and admirable tact, is find ways of blunting and perhaps muffling the conflict between secular and religious imperatives, a conflict that cannot (if Milbank is right, and I think he is) be resolved on the level of theory, but which can perhaps be kept at bay by the ad-hoc, opportunistic, local and stop-gap strategies that are at the heart of politics.

Stanley Fish, New York Times

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Full article: http://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/10/25/serving-two-masters-shariah-law-and-the-secular-state/

Testosterone Put to the Test

Men today—wimpy or exploited or both?

Do today’s men need to man up? Yes, absolutely, Peter McAllister says in “Manthropology,” viewing contemporary males as faint shadows of their shaggy forebears.

Modern man, Mr. McAllister declares, is “the worst man in history,” though not every reader will be convinced by the evidence presented. Certainly the guys of 2010 are not as physically tough as the men of other times and other places. Mr. McAllister, who is especially entertaining when he writes about male-centric mayhem, scoffs at what passes for grit these days. He dismisses, for instance, modern-day “blood pinning,” in which military insignia are jabbed into soldiers’ chests, as minor-league at best. Sambian boys in New Guinea have traditionally been initiated into manhood with cane splints jammed up their nostrils and vines shoved down their throats. He also roughs up modern soldiers, noting that Army recruits are asked to run only 12 miles in four hours; in China, Wu Dynasty soldiers in the sixth century B.C. were reputed to go on 80-mile runs without a break.

You might think, given all the moaning lately, that helmet-to-helmet hits in football are a sign of a violent sports culture. Don’t tell Mr. McAllister. Even the no-holds-barred brawling of Ultimate Fighting Championship, he says, is “a ridiculously safe form of combat” when compared with Olympic boxing back in the good old days—say, the fifth century B.C. That’s when a boxer named Cleomedes killed his opponent Iccus “by driving his hand into his stomach and disemboweling him.”

For Mr. McAllister one measure of manhood is the willingness to face an enemy and mete out punishment without flinching. Today our conduct in war is governed by a handbook of careful rules. Mr. McAllister, for contrast, points to the 17th-century Native American practice of not only scalping victims alive but also “heaping hot coals onto their scalped heads.” Which is nothing compared with the attentions lavished by the Romans on a Christian named Apphianus, who was racked for 24 hours and scourged so hard that “his ribs and spine showed.”

Even today’s bloodthirsty maniacs are pikers by comparison with the rampagers of yore. In the 13th century, Genghis Khan’s son Tolui killed nearly every inhabitant of Merv in Turkmenistan, then the world’s largest city. All told, Mr. McAllister writes, the Mongols killed as many as 60 million people during nearly a century of slaughter. “Al Qaeda and its affiliates,” he adds with something of a sneer, “succeeded in killing 14,602 people worldwide in 2005.” True enough, although by some readings Mr. McAllister is describing a positive development.

Male readers who slink away from “Manthropology” feeling that Mr. McAllister has driven a Cleomedesian fist into their guts may find some solace in Roy F. Baumeister’s “Is There Anything Good About Men?” Mr. Baumeister is less concerned about the wimpification of modern man than about the degree to which men have been historically “exploited.” The very cultures that men have built, he says, have considered males more “expendable” than women.

The expendability is reflected in wartime casualty rates, of course, but men also die more often in work-related accidents and die earlier, on average. Their energies are the motor for some bad things but also for a great deal of good, including the economic bustle and technological advance that we associate with progress. But men, Mr. Baumeister says, are often taken for granted and denigrated as the bane of female existence, with some gender activist insisting that women would be better off without them. In a feisty rejoinder, Mr. Baumeister says that “if women really would have been happier without men,” they would have “set up shop” on their own long ago. “The historical record is overwhelming,” he adds. “Women stick around men.”

In a passage that may strike a chord in some male readers, Mr. McAllister says that men are disadvantaged when it comes to sex. Women don’t pay for sex because “they don’t have to. Women can get sex for nothing.” When women offer themselves to male celebrities, he notes, men jump at the opportunity. When men do the same to women celebrities, they can expect a visit from the security detail. But Mr. Baumeister, a psychology professor, writes with a hopeful air, insisting that, while men and women are different, they can create partnerships based on complementary skills. No hard feelings, apparently, about those centuries of exploitation.

Both “Manthropology” and “Is There Anything Good About Men?” leave the reader wondering: Aren’t men better off these days? What’s a decline in pillaging-proficiency and a history of being a tad taken-advantage-of when, on the whole, modern man has it so good?

Mr. McAllister inadvertently answers the question at book’s end by envisioning a male Homo erectus from a million years ago, plucked off the African plain and plunked down at a Nascar event. The visitor, we’re told, gazing at the soft-bellied male race enthusiasts in the stands, would be horrified and bellow (if he could indeed speak): “My sons, my sons, why have you forsaken me?”

But there is another view. If ancient erectus were told that his “sons” had driven to the event at 70 m.p.h. in cars outfitted with satellite radios; that they lived in climate-controlled houses equipped with refrigerators full of parasite-free steaks from Argentina and beer from Holland; that they and their womenfolk took showers and were familiar with shampoo, he might shout: “My sons, you have found the Kingdom of Heaven!” And, comparatively speaking, he’d be right.

Mr. Shiflett posts his journalism and original music at Daveshiflett.com.

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304410504575561103201543976.html

Study Highlights German Foreign Ministry’s Role in Holocaust

Historians Deliver Damning Verdict

A camera man films the Foreign Ministry building in Berlin. A panel of historians is due to present a study of the ministry’s history during and after the Nazi era.

Historians have found that the German Foreign Ministry was far more deeply involved in the Holocaust than had been thought. A new study commissioned by former minister Joschka Fischer in 2005 is due to present its findings this week, and concludes that diplomats went on covering up the past for decades.

As far as book launches go, this will be an unusual one. Three German foreign ministers past and present will be marking the publication on Thursday of a history about the ministry’s role during the Nazi era.

The 880-page work compiled by a panel of historians was commissioned in 2005 by Joschka Fischer shortly before the end of his tenure as Germany’s top diplomat. It will be formally handed over to the present incumbent, Guido Westerwelle, on Thursday afternoon.

That evening, Fischer and Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was foreign minister from the end of 2005 until last year, will be attending an event hosted by the publishing company Blessing Verlag.

All three ministers will have to talk about the Holocaust, about war crimes, about diplomatic failure, about perfidious behavior and about rare incidents of heroism, all in the context of the German Foreign Ministry during the Third Reich.

The book will be presented by a commission that includes the historians Eckart Conze and Norbert Frei of Germany, Peter Hayes of the United States and Moshe Zimmermann of Israel. Their book deals with the history of this most distinguished of German ministries during this dark chapter, and about how it dealt with its past after the war.

Diplomats ‘Actively Involved’ in Holocaust

The experts’ verdict is damning. “The diplomats were aware of the Jewish policy throughout,” they write, “and actively involved in it.” Cooperating in mass murder was “an area of activity” of ministry staff “everywhere in Europe.”

Fischer had commissioned the study in 2005 to settle a heated dispute in his ministry about the extent of its historical guilt. The results are unlikely to calm the controversy. Fischer was shocked by the findings. “It makes me feel sick,” he said.

The head of the commission, Eckart Conze, even described the Foreign Ministry as a “criminal organization” in an interview with SPIEGEL (to be published in English later this week). That was the term used at the Nuremberg Trials to describe the SS. Conze’s assessment amounts to a condemnation of Germany’s upper classes during the Nazi era. No other institution had so many members from illustrious families on its staff — the Weizsäckers, the Bismarcks, the Mackensens.

The historians’ findings about the ministry in the post-war West German era are also explosive. Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, who had the job of foreign minister from 1951 until 1955 during his tenure as West German leader, allowed former Nazis to remain on the ministry’s staff even though he was well aware of the roles they had played under Hitler. Diplomats with Nazi pasts were posted in Arab countries and Latin America where they were unlikely to encounter public criticism.

Former Nazis in West German Foreign Service

The situation didn’t improve much when the center-left Social Democratic Party came to power in 1966. Willy Brandt, who resisted the Nazis and emigrated during the 1930s, became foreign minister and then chancellor. But he continued to work with Ernst Achenbach, a foreign policy expert for the Free Democratic Party in the 1960s and 1970s, who — according to the commission — was involved in the deportation of Jews from occupied France during the war when he was a high-ranking member of the German embassy in Paris. Right up until 1974, Achenbach blocked an agreement between West Germany and France to permit the prosecution of Nazis who had committed crimes in France.

Well into the 1980s, during the tenure of Foreign Minister Hans-Dietrich Genscher, historians ran into a wall of silence when they wanted to dig for incriminating documents in the ministry’s archives in order to refute the official version of events — that it had been “haven of resistance.”

Former Foreign Minister Steinmeier says the study’s findings about the post-war years were among the most depressing passages. He said it was “incredible” that it had taken 60 years to conduct systematic research into the history of the ministry. The study was only launched because Fischer got into an argument with his staff.

Fischer says the trigger was a “ridiculous obituary” circulated among staff in 2003 about Franz Nüsslein, who had been a diplomat in the West German Foreign Ministry. The text declined to mention that Nüsslein had been senior prosecutor in Prague during the war and had been partly responsible for hundreds of executions there. Fischer, who was foreign minister at the time, ordered that the ministry should refrain in future from honoring former Nazi party members.

This ban was applied for the first time a year later after the death of Franz Krapf, West Germany’s ambassador to NATO under Genscher. He had been a member of the Nazi party and the SS.

Former diplomats rebelled against the ban and many active members of the diplomatic service joined the protest. They argued that it was unfair to condemn staff who had been members of the Nazi party, and 128 former diplomats put a large death notice in the respected Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung newspaper in defense of Krapf’s honor.

Surprised by the reaction, Fischer responded by hiring the commission. He feels that the findings have confirmed his stance. “That’s the obituary these gentlemen deserve,” he said.

Study Lacks Balance

But Fischer’s victory isn’t that clear-cut. The study shows that membership in the Nazi party in itself says nothing about the extent of involvement in crimes. But above all, it isn’t as balanced as the studies that usually put debates such as this to rest. 

It contains repeated references to “the” diplomats even though they didn’t all commit crimes, as the book itself emphasizes in another passage. In addition, it assumes that diplomats had demonstrated their support for the “Final Solution” — the term the Nazis used for the Holocaust — just by reading the reports filed by the murderous death squads and signing them as read.

The study also creates the impression that several diplomats were involved in murders, but then fails to provide proof.

For example, Krapf was stationed at the German embassy in Tokyo during the war. The historians write: “Little is known about Krapf’s activities (editor’s note — in Japan), but it’s clear that German diplomats dealt with the ‘Final Solution’ of the Jewish question even in the Far East.” That is supposed to mean: Krapf took part in the genocide somehow.

Former diplomats won’t be the only ones to scrutinize such passages. The historians are also likely to face criticism from younger diplomats because the study accuses staff members of having failed to question the official line right up to the 1990s. One high-ranking ministry official said that wasn’t true. He pointed to research conducted long ago by the historian Hans-Jürgen Döscher about the crimes committed by diplomats. Staff members had read that research, the official said.

Contrary to the commission’s claims, the ministry has already adopted a differentiated view of its own past, the official added. An official brochure published in 1995 says the ministry had contained “several fanatical supporters” and a “considerable number” of people who went along with the Nazis and were indifferent about their crimes.

In a sign of how sensitive the study’s findings are, Westerwelle cancelled a joint book presentation with Steinmeier and Fischer after the publishing firm said it planned a panel discussion between the three ministers and the historians.

Westerwelle seems to have had a feeling that he couldn’t win in a clash with the eloquent Fischer, for whom confronting Germany’s Nazi past has been a lifelong theme and who always relishes taking a swipe at Westerwelle.

New Approach to Dealing With Past

But Westerwelle too has praised the book as “a weighty piece of work” which would help reaffirm the ministry’s sense of self. He wants to incorporate the book in the training course for young diplomats and to change the way the ministry observes its traditions.

The ministry also plans to revise any brochures that fail to mention the roles former staff members played during the Nazi era. In addition, it will take a closer look at the portraits of diplomats hanging on the walls of the ministries and of embassies.

It may well be that embassies follow the example of the London embassy, which mentions the Nazi past of Konstantin von Neurath, the foreign minister from 1932 to 1938, beneath a portrait of him. It may be that in future, only portraits of post-war ambassadors will be shown.

The study in itself represents a break with the past in one important respect: The foreign ministry has put itself at the forefront of historical research into its past. The other ministries largely ignore their Nazi history to this day.

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Full article and photo: http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/0,1518,725248,00.html

Seeking Proof in Near-Death Claims

At 18 hospitals in the U.S. and U.K., researchers have suspended pictures, face up, from the ceilings in emergency-care areas. The reason: to test whether patients brought back to life after cardiac arrest can recall seeing the images during an out-of-body experience.

People who have these near-death experiences often describe leaving their bodies and watching themselves being resuscitated from above, but verifying such accounts is difficult. The images would be visible only to people who had done that.

“We’ve added these images as objective markers,” says Sam Parnia, a critical-care physician and lead investigator of the study, which hopes to include 1,500 resuscitated patients. Dr. Parnia declined to say whether any have accurately described the images so far, but says he hopes to report preliminary results next year.

The study, coordinated by Southampton University’s School of Medicine in England, is one of the latest and largest scientific efforts to understand the mystery of near-death experiences.

At least 15 million American adults say they have had a near-death experience, according to a 1997 survey—and the number is thought to be rising with increasingly sophisticated resuscitation techniques.

People often describe moving down a dark tunnel toward a bright light after a near death experience.
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Dead or Alive?

An analysis of 613 near-death experiences gathered by the Near Death Research Foundation found:

  • About 75% included an out-of-body experience
  • 76% reported intense positive emotions
  • 34% described passing through a tunnel
  • 65% described encountering a bright light
  • 22% had a life review
  • 57% encountered deceased relatives or other beings

Note: Patients could report more than one sensation.

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In addition to floating above their bodies, people often describe moving down a dark tunnel toward a bright light, feeling intense peace and joy, reviewing life events and seeing long-deceased relatives—only to be told that it’s not time yet and land abruptly back in an ailing body.

The once-taboo topic is getting a lot of talk these days. In the new movie “Hereafter,” directed by Clint Eastwood, a French journalist is haunted by what she experienced while nearly drowning in a tsunami. A spate of new books details other cases and variations on the theme.

Yet the fundamental debate rages on: Are these glimpses of an afterlife, are they hallucinations or are they the random firings of an oxygen-starved brain?

“There are always skeptics, but there are millions of ‘experiencers’ who know what happened to them, and they don’t care what anybody else says,” says Diane Corcoran, president of the International Association for Near-Death Studies, a nonprofit group in Durham, N.C. The organization publishes the Journal of Near-Death Studies and maintains support groups in 47 states.

Dr. Corcoran, a retired Army colonel who heard wounded soldiers talk of such experiences as a nurse in Vietnam, says many military veterans have had near-death experiences but are particularly hesitant to talk them for fear of being branded psychologically disturbed.

Some investigators say the most remarkable thing about near-death reports is that the core elements are the same, among people of all cultures, races, religions and age groups, including children as young as 3 years old.

In his new book, “Evidence of the Afterlife,” Jeffrey Long, a radiation oncologist in Louisiana, analyzes 613 cases reported on the website of his Near Death Research Foundation and concludes there is only one plausible explanation: “that people have survived death and traveled to another dimension.”

Skeptics say there is no way to verify such anecdotal reports—and that many of the experiences can be explained by neurobiological changes in the brain as people die.

In the 1980s, British neuroscientist Susan Blackmore theorized that oxygen deprivation was to blame and noted that fighter pilots also encountered tunnel vision and hallucinations at high altitudes and speeds.

This year, a study of 52 cardiac-arrest patients in Slovenia, published in the Journal of Critical Care, found that the 21% who had near-death experiences also had high blood levels of carbon dioxide, which has been associated with visions, bright lights and out-of-body experiences.

A study of seven dying patients at George Washington University Medical Center, published in the Journal of Palliative Medicine, noted that their brainwaves showed a spurt of electrical activity just before they were pronounced dead. Lead investigator Lakhmir Chawla, an intensive-care physician, notes that the activity started in one part of the brain and spread in a cascade and theorized that it could give patients vivid mental sensations.

Matt Damon, left, plays a psychic in the movie ‘Hereafter,’ which explores themes of the afterlife.

Some scientists have speculated that the life review some patients experience could be due to random activation of the dying brain’s memory circuits. The sensation of moving down a tunnel could be due to long-buried birth memories suddenly retrieved. The feeling of peace could be endorphins released during extreme stress.

Other researchers say they have produced similar experiences by stimulating neurons in parts of the brain—or by giving patients ketamine, a tranquilizer and sometime party drug.

Yet researchers who have studied near-death experiences note that such experiments tend to produce only fragmentary visions and hallucinations, not the consistent, lucid and detailed accounts of events that many resuscitated patients report. One study found that people who had near-death experiences had higher blood oxygen levels than those who didn’t.

Several follow-up studies have found that people undergo profound personality changes after near-death experiences—becoming more altruistic, less materialistic, more intuitive and no longer fearing death. But some do suffer alienation from spouses or friends who don’t understand their transformation.

Other relatives understand all too well.

Raymond Moody, who first coined the term near-death experience in his 1975 book “Life After Life,” explores the even stranger phenomenon of “shared death experiences” in a new book, “Glimpses of Eternity.” He recounts stories of friends, family and even medical personnel who say they also saw the light, the tunnel and accompanied the dying person partway on his or her journey.  “It’s fairly common among physicians who are called to resuscitate someone they don’t know—they say they’ve seen a spirit or apparition leave the body,” says Dr. Moody.

Meanwhile, in his book, “Visions, Trips and Crowds,” David Kessler, a veteran writer on grief and dying, reports that hospice patients frequently describe being visited by a deceased relative or having an out-of-body experience weeks before they actually die, a phenomenon called “near-death awareness.”  While some skeptics dismiss such reports as hallucinations or wishful thinking, hospice workers generally report that the patients are otherwise perfectly lucid—and invariably less afraid of death afterward.

Mr. Kessler says his own father was hopeless and very sad as he was dying. “One day, he had an amazing shift and said, ‘Your mother was here—she told me I’d be dying soon and it will be fine—everyone will be there.”

Dr. Parnia, currently an assistant professor of critical care at State University of New York, Stony Brook, says verifying out-of-body experiences with pictures on the ceiling is only a small part of his study. He is also hoping to better understand whether consciousness exists apart from the brain and what happens to it when the brain shuts down. In near-death experiences, people report vivid memories, feelings and thought processes even when there is no measurable brain activity.

“The self, the soul, the psyche—throughout history, we’ve never managed to figure out what it is and how it relates to the body,” he says. “This is a very important for science and fascinating for humankind.”

Melinda Beck, Wall Street Journal

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Full article and photos: http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052702304248704575574193494074922.html