Monthly Archives: April 2014

Reprieve for men: Y chromosome is not vanishing

Reprieve for men: Y chromosome is not vanishing

by Josh Fischman

The sex chromosome has been shrinking throughout mammalian evolution,
but many of its remaining genes play crucial roles beyond sex determination.

The Y chromosome is definitely the runt of our chromosome litter. Among our 23 pairs of these precious genetic bundles, pairs one through 22 are basically equal in size. But the Y — which holds genes that determine whether a mammal will be a male — is paired with the much larger X chromosome, and pales in size by comparison. Indeed the Y has only 19 of the approximately 600 genes it once shared with the X, 200 to 300 million years ago. But the decline and fall of the Y has stopped, according to new research published in this week’s Nature1.

The Y has been stable for the past 25 million years, scientists say. And a major reason is that many of its remaining genes are crucial to the survival of all humans, going far beyond sex determination. There are genes that affect protein synthesis, how active a gene is, and others that splice RNA segments together. They are found in the heart, the blood, the lungs, and other tissues throughout the body. “These are powerful players in the central command room of cells,” says David Page, a biologist and director of the Whitehead Institute of Biomedical Research at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is one of the authors of the new paper, and says it “puts this notion of the ‘rotting Y’ to rest.” [A second, related paper2 and a News & Views article also appeared in the same issue of Nature.]

While other scientists agree that Page’s team is making the Y look rather robust, one of the proponents of the ‘rotting Y’ idea isn’t convinced. The past several million years may simply be a lull in a long-term trend of Y degradation, says Jennifer Graves, a geneticist at the Australian National University in Canberra. “At least two rodent groups have managed to dispense with it” altogether, she says.

The Y chromosome began losing respect in the late 1950s. Geneticist Curt Stern, at the time the president of the American Society of Human Genetics, gave an address noting that very few expressed genes actually resided on the Y. In 2002, Graves and another scientist noted in Nature that the Y had been diminishing in size from early mammal lineages through primates, and predicted the male chromosome would be extinct in 10 million years. That led to a lot of people wondering whether males would go with it.

Page and his colleagues, led by Daniel Winston Bellott, a research scientist in his lab, set out to test this idea by examining the evolutionary history of the Y. They compared complete sequences of the DNA on the chromosome in eight mammal species. They started with species that appear early in the fossil record, including opossums, bulls, rats and mice, and went on to species that appeared relatively recently, including rhesus macaque monkeys, chimpanzees and humans.

The comparison revealed there was indeed what Page calls “a calamitous loss of genes” from the Y hundreds of millions of years ago. But about 25 million years ago, when monkeys split off from chimps, who then split off from the human lineage about 7 million years ago, the attrition stopped. “We were actually brought up short by how stable the Y has been during the most recent 25 million years,” Page says.

That stability, he argues, comes from a vital core of about 12 genes on the Y that have nothing to do with male sex determination, sperm or male sex organ development. Instead, these genes ensconced on the Y are expressed in other tissues, such heart cells and blood cells. They are responsible for vital cellular functions, such as protein synthesis or regulating the transcription of other genes. That means the Y is important to the whole organism’s survival, he says, and so survival of these genes would be favored by evolution.

Fun to be at the Y

Andrew Clark, a geneticist at Cornell University, agrees that once these core genes had “run a gauntlet” that stripped the Y of less-essential pieces of DNA, they enjoyed remarkable stability.

Graves, the Australian geneticist, is not so sanguine. “Y degradation is clearly not a linear process,” she points out. “The last stages of decay are likely to be subject to great fluctuations.” In her view, the stability may be temporary. She says that two species of spiny rats in Japan have lost the mammalian Y chromosome completely, shifting many genes to other chromosomes. Two mole vole species, she adds, have lost some Y genes completely, probably using other genes to pick up their functions. “Although rodents seem to be ahead of primates in experimenting with bizarre new sex chromosome systems, we should not be complacent,” she concludes.

Page responds that he sees stability of these core Y genes in so many species that further losses appear unlikely. “It could happen, but I just don’t see it,” he says.

The persistent Y and its store of widespread regulatory genes brings up another issue for biologists, Page says: the cells of men and women could be biochemically different. Men with their Y-related genes will have slightly different cells than women, who have two X chromosomes, and that goes above and beyond the differences related to sex determination. When biologists experiment with cell lines, they typically don’t note whether the cells originally came from a male or a female. “We’ve been operating with a unisex model for a long time,” Page says. And it may not be valid. An experiment on an XX cell line may not have the same result as the same experiment run on an XY cell line.

Why this matters, Page says, is because some diseases, such as autoimmune illnesses, appear to affect women to a greater degree, while other problems, such as autism-spectrum disorders, affect more men. But biologists trying to untangle these mysteries on a cellular level have been, by and large, blind to subtle biochemical differences — because they are not comparing male and female cell lines — that could affect their results. It is time, Page says, to take those blinders off.


The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete

The Man Who Would Make Food Obsolete

by Roc Morin

Rob Rhinehart invented Soylent—a beverage that he claims contains all
necessary nutrients—as a food replacement. The first batch is shipping this month.

“I was 6 or 7,” Rob Rhinehart began, “and I guess my mother was serving salad. I was looking down at a plate with these leaves on it. I could look outside and see leaves on the trees, and it just seemed a little weird. It seemed a little primitive – like something an animal would do. On this nice plate, in this nice house, why would I eat this thing that grows on trees? I thought, ‘We can do better.’”

“Better,” for the now 25-year-old Rhinehart, is Soylent, a beige beverage that he claims contains every nutrient the body needs. With tongue firmly in cheek, he named it after the ubiquitous food substitute Soylent Green found in the dystopian science fiction movie of the same name.

For 30 days, the software engineer turned kitchen chemist consumed nothing but Soylent and reported his progress on a blog. With the help of an enthusiastic online community, he honed his formula, raised $3 million from investors, and is now bringing his product to the market.

I sat down with Rob at a Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles in January to talk about the future of food. He drank black coffee while I sipped Soylent from a chilled metal thermos he had brought.

*  *  *

This is pretty good. It tastes a bit like unsweetened custard.

What I’ve found is that a lot of people who like the idea, like the taste, and a lot of people who don’t like the idea are repelled by the taste. Because it has so little intrinsic taste, it pretty much comes from your expectation.

I have to say, of all places, I was surprised that you invited me to a restaurant.

[Laughter] I mean, where else are we going to meet? All of our societal rituals revolve around eating.

And you’d like to change that?

I’m looking forward to the point where we don’t have to worry about hunger, or nutrition. Where people make food just because it’s beautiful—like gardening, or painting. I’m looking forward to the point where food can just be art.

When I first heard about Soylent—one substance designed to fulfill all nutritional needs—I thought it sounded a lot like breast milk.

That’s a good point.

Have you looked at the similarities?

I have, and actually I’m even more interested in the similarities between breast milk and formula. As far as safety control and completeness are concerned, formula is actually better. Natural isn’t always best.

So, why do you think there’s a such a strong movement pushing for natural and unprocessed food?

Mostly I think there’s just an emotional attachment to culture and tradition. People have this belief that just because something is natural it’s good. The natural state of man is ignorant, and starving, and cold. We have technology that makes our lives better. It doesn’t make sense that you would keep technology out of this very important part of life.

I hear emotion in your appeal as well. Do you resent having to eat?

You know, with my body, I just don’t want it to be a burden. I would rather enjoy things because I want to, not because I have to.

So, how do you overcome that bias against consuming something as synthetic as Soylent?

With data—lots of data. If you talk to biologists or doctors, you’ll see that the biochemical pathways are the same. It doesn’t matter if you’re consuming fresh vegetables or a multivitamin because the nutrients are exactly the same. We make our eating decisions pretty shallowly. It’s mostly based on what it looks like, what it smells like, and what we grew up eating. There’s not a lot of in-depth analysis. Food is very complicated. It’s made of thousands of different chemicals and it’s not really pragmatic to test all of them individually.

So, even something as basic as an apple or a tomato…

I mean, honestly, nutritionally speaking, canned vegetables are better than fresh ones because fresh ones are decaying. They’re out in the air being oxidized. Bacteria are feasting on them. But if you can them, you seal them at the peak of freshness and the nutrients stay intact. So, it seems kind of backwards I think, actually, to go for fresh. Why are these foods seen as healthy? Looking at all of these hundreds of different plant metabolites, that’s kind of missing the point because a lot of those things that have been tested are harmful. It’s just intuitive on principle, these plants are not on our side. These plants did not evolve to feed us. If they could kill us, they probably would. It’s competition.

Many of them do. I’ve got a book called Poisonous Plants of North America on my shelf and it’s a pretty thick book.

Right. The only reason we eat most of the plants that we do is because we’ve changed them. We’ve engineered them over hundreds if not thousands of years. You know, the carrot is a new invention. Lettuce changed, cauliflower changed, bananas definitely changed. Bananas are not supposed to taste as good as they do. Carrots look and taste better after we steered their evolution. It makes a lot of sense to optimize them to be more effective.

It’s funny that you mention the carrot, since it’s so closely related to water hemlock, one of the world’s most poisonous plants.

Tapioca too. If you ate a raw cassava plant, it’s toxic. It has to be processed. All of these old traditional cooking processes are about making the plant less toxic.

Right, even though paradoxically, cooking often produces a lot of carcinogens.

It does. Especially if things get burned. And, you know, there’s very poor control of produce. If something’s coming from a garden or a field, you don’t know how much lead or arsenic is in the soil.

And with Soylent, you’re able to know exactly what you’re consuming at all times, right?

Precisely. We have testing data about everything in there. Everything is tested rigorously. We worry about a lot of things so that the user doesn’t have to.

So, I understand that you’re living almost entirely on Soylent now.

That’s right.

What was that transition like for you?

Well, for one thing, I did not expect to get healthier. But when I first switched over, I felt amazing. I mean, I never felt that good. I don’t know if there’s any science to detoxing, but that’s kind of how I felt. I felt like I had been hungover, for years, and all of a sudden I was out of it. I mean, my diet was pretty poor before, and some of the benefits probably came from me starting to exercise, but the energy to exercise came from having a better diet. The main thing for me, though, is not having that hassle—not having to worry about food all the time. You know, trying to get myself 2,400 calories every single day in a balanced fashion, avoiding simple sugars and saturated fats, not spending too much money, not spending too much time. That’s a full-time job.

What were some of the discoveries you made along the way?

Well, I started varying a bunch of different parameters, one at a time. People say Americans get too much sodium, so I wondered, how much do I really need? So, I dropped down the sodium and then started to feel very mentally foggy. So, I realized, obviously you need some sodium. And then, I underdosed and overdosed on potassium, and calcium, and magnesium, and phosphorus. And every time, I kept coming back to the levels recommended by the Institute of Medicine.

How did you know you had overdosed or underdosed?

Well, too much potassium was terrible. I had really bad heart arrhythmia. Magnesium poisoning was brutal, really painful. I felt like my insides were burning. It was so bad, I almost gave up. But the next day, when I went back to a normal level, I was fine.

Did that change your outlook at all, to actually experience the importance of each and every nutrient?

Absolutely, just seeing the biological basis of “You are what you eat.” Your body is literally building these proteins out of the things you’re putting in it. What’s fascinating to me is not so much that I can live on something that’s designed deliberately, but how well the body manages to live on the random stuff that we eat. It’s such an adaptable, remarkable system.

So, I’m wondering how efficient you can get with all of this. If you’re consuming only essential nutrients and everything is used, it must cut down on bodily waste significantly. How close can you get to zero waste? 

Well, there will always be something, because waste comes from other places too – dead red blood cells, for example. But if you were as elemental as possible, there would be a very, very small amount, primarily because most of the waste is due to fiber. It’s your gut bacteria. So, if you let those die off, there will be precious little waste. That’s basically what I did by consuming very, very little fiber. And, I felt great. But, when I would try to eat normal food again, it was very, very painful, because I didn’t have the bacteria to digest it. So, that was the trade-off.

I can see that being helpful in areas without adequate sanitation.


What kinds of things do your critics say?

They say a lot of things. I’ve gotten some pretty nasty emails.

Like what?

I don’t know. They just say they hope that Soylent gives me cancer.

That’s terrible.

I didn’t mean to offend anybody.  But, people seem a little offended.

So, who is Soylent’s target audience?

I mean, everyone has to eat, so I think this could help a lot of people. Currently we’re seeing a lot of interest from younger, educated males—people who are just busy or passionate about something. There are a lot of grad students, single parents, and business travelers.

How about the poor or people in developing countries?

Definitely. Especially in places like China, where people are spending half of their income on food. I mean, imagine if you were spending more on food than rent. Right now, Soylent provides about three calories per penny. Hopefully in time we can get the cost down even more. I think in the near future we may be able to get it down to five dollars a day. That would cover someone on food stamps. Ultimately, I would like it to be produced almost ephemerally. If food was just taken care of. If food was just a utility, like water coming out of the tap. If it was just there.

*  *  *

After the interview, I pulled out my camera to take an ironic photograph of Rob in front of a nearby lemon tree.

“Where else would you like to stand?” I asked.

“Maybe it’s a strange request,” he replied, “but how about in front of my new car? I haven’t had a picture taken with it yet.”

“Of course,” I said. “Lead the way.”

Roc Morin

As we walked to the parking lot, I asked if the new car had been bought with money from Soylent’s recent windfall. “It actually came from a Bitcoin investment,” Rob replied. He had seen the potential early on.

As we entered the lot, I scanned the rows for sports cars, trying to guess which was his. Rob strolled over to a beat-up old pickup truck.

“You bought this to haul all your money?” I teased.

He laughed. “It’s useful for hauling all kinds of things.”

After posing for a few photos, Rob climbed in and tried the engine. It just groaned and wheezed. “She does this sometimes,” he explained.

Finally, the pickup roared to life.

“I thought it was going to be a Ferrari,” I yelled over the engine’s racket.

“Ferraris are wasteful!” he shouted back, grinning, as the pickup pulled off and slipped into the endless gridlock of a Beverly Hills afternoon.

How Negative Energy Affects Your Life and How to Clear It

How Negative Energy Affects
Your Life and How to Clear It


You know that like attracts like, right? So here’s the deal: Positive people are drawn to positive energy; negative people are drawn to negative energy.

We tend to perceive negative energy as something other people have. Sure, sometimes we feel negative – as in, “go away and leave me alone, world!” but did you know that negativity can be so ingrained in you that it goes unnoticed?

That’s because negativity sometimes wears a disguise called ‘reality’. It’s easy to rationalize that you’re ‘just being realistic’ in not daring to act on a dream – and believe it!

You may assume that positive people are not being realistic – that they’re being naive, that they are in denial with their heads stuck in the sand, that they put on fake smiles in the face of difficulty and so forth.  But are they really happy idiots or is there something to their positivity?

Consider this: since when does ‘being realistic’ necessarily mean that things will go wrong and that you have to accept that as the truth?

That doesn’t mean that being realistic is automatically negative. When you view the world from a ‘realistic’ standpoint, you can’t help but be negative IF your version of reality is negative.

If your version of reality is negative, you are conditioned to believe that whatever can go wrong, will go wrong and whatever can go right, will probably go wrong too. Your unconsciously held beliefs make you into a negative person without your being aware of it!

So – if this negativity is so ingrained in you that you don’t notice it, how do you determine whether you’re stuck in a cloud of negative energy that is attracting the wrong people, wrong situations and wrong feelings? And how can you be sure you’re not perpetuating that negativity?

Here’s a quick quiz to gauge the level of negative energy within you:

  • Do you complain? All the time or just sometimes?
  • Do you often discuss what’s wrong in the world more than what’s right? This includes the ‘terrible’ weather, ‘horrible’ traffic, ‘idiotic’ government, ‘lousy’ economy, ‘stupid’ in-laws, etc.
  • Do you criticize? All the time or just certain people?
  • Are you attracted to drama and disaster (can you unglue yourself from the TV when there’s a news story of a disaster and can you avoid getting involved in the lives of dysfunctional celebrities?)
  • Do you blame? All the time or just certain situations?
  • Do you believe that you have no control over most of your results?
  • Do you feel like a victim? Do you talk about people doing things to you?
  • Are you grateful for what is or will you be grateful when things finally start going right for you?
  • Do you feel like things are happening to you? Or do you feel that they are happening through you?

This last two points are important:

If you’re not grateful except when things go right, you are negative. Gratitude is positive. If you are grateful for what is (including the unpleasant school of life lessons, then you can invite more and more positive energy into your life.

Believing that things happen to you puts you in the role of victim; then it’s easy to be negative because it’s convenient to give up that power. So consider this alternative: who or what is to blame when GOOD things happen to you? Do you acknowledge that you are responsible for the good things – as in, you worked hard, you earned it, etc… but blame external events or other people for your failures? So how come, when good things happen, they are a result of what you do, but when bad things happen, they are not your fault?

Nobody likes to hear that. It takes courage to accept that you create your life experience!

If you answered yes to any of the above questions, you are holding on to negative energy to some degree! To clear your negative energy and raise your vibration, you will need to retrain yourself to choose a positive attitude.

Here’s another interesting idea to consider: have you noticed that positive people seem to get what they want out of life, and even if things don’t go their way, they still enjoy their lives… while negative people whine and moan about their misfortunes and even the good things in their lives?





To clear negative energy, try this 3 -step process:

1. Take ownership:

“When you think everything is someone else’s fault, you will suffer a lot. When you realize that everything springs only from yourself, you will learn both peace and joy.” – the Dalai Lama

2. Cancel negative thoughts and replace them with positive thoughts.

This takes practice, dedication and making a decision to see the world through the eyes of “what can go right” instead of “what can go wrong.” You’ll have to catch yourself anytime you are acting out or speaking out your negativity, and immediately change your tune.

3. Use the Love or Above Spiritual Toolkit to clear your energy and bring more light and love into your life;  visualize the positive instead of getting sucked into negativity; overcome past conditioning; think intuitively from the soul instead from ‘reality’; create a new, desired reality in your imagination and manifest it in the outer world. Nobody wants negative energy to permeate their lives, yet many of us allow it. But we allow it unconsciously, based on past conditioning that suggests an inevitable outcome to certain situations. When you overcome that conditioning and realize that the future is NOT cast in stone but that you have more control over your circumstances than you believe – then you can begin to consciously design your life.

What’s going to happen then? Your positive energy will magnetically attract what you consider to be good and right for you: people, situations, things… and you’ll notice a huge, huge increase in your happiness and inner peace. Why not choose positive energy? Make some changes within, and you’ll quickly see positive changes in your life. Enjoy the good feelings and abundance!

Silicon Valley’s Giants Are Just Gilded Age Tycoons in Techno-Utopian Clothes

Silicon Valley’s Giants Are Just Gilded 
ge Tycoons inTechno-Utopian Clothes

by Joel Kotkin

The $300 million payout from tech giants like Google and Apple to settle a lawsuit brought by employees makes it clear that Silicon Valley is out for profit, not to change the world.
Silicon Valley’s biggest names—Google, Apple, Intel and Adobe—reached a settlement today in a contentious $3 billion anti-trust suit brought by workers who accused the tech giants of secretly colluding to not recruit each other’s employees. The workers won, but not much, receiving only a rumored $300 million, a small fraction of the billions the companies might have been forced to pay had they been found guilty in a trial verdict.The criminality that the case exposed in the boardrooms the tech giants, including from revered figures like Steve Jobs who comes off as especially ruthless, should not be jarring to anyone familiar with Silicon Valley.  It may shock much of the media, who have generally genuflected towards these companies, and much of the public, that has been hoodwinked into thinking the Valley oligarchs represent a better kind of plutocrat—but the truth is they are a lot like the old robber barons.

Starting in the 1980s, a mythology grew that the new tech entrepreneurs represented a new, progressive model that was not animated by conventional business thinking. In contrast to staid old east coast corporations, the new California firms were what futurist Alvin Toffler described as “third wave.” Often dressed in jeans, and not suits, they were seen as inherently less hierarchical and power-hungry as their industrial age predecessors.

Silicon Valley executives were not just about making money, but were trying, as they famously claimed, to “change the world.” One popularizing enthusiast, MIT’s Nicholas Negroponte, even suggested that “digital technology” could turn into “a natural force drawing people into greater world harmony.”

This image has insulated the tech elite from the kind of opprobrium meted out to their rival capitalist icons in other, more traditional industries. In 2011, over 72 percent of Americans had positive feelings about the computer industry as opposed to a mere 30 percent for banking and 20 percent for oil and gas. Even during the occupy protests in 2012, few criticisms were hurled by the “screwed generation” at tech titans. Indeed, Steve Jobs, a .000001 per center worth $7 billion, the ferocious competitor who threatened “war” against Google if they did not cooperate in his wage fixing scheme, was openly mourned by protestors when news spread that he had passed away.

But the collusion case amply proves what has been clear to those watching the industry: greed and the desire to control drives tech entrepreneurs as much as any other business group. The Valley is great at talking progressive but not so much in practice. In the very place where private opposition to gay marriage is enough to get a tech executive fired, the big firms have shown a very weak record of hiring minorities and women. And not surprisingly, firms also are notoriously skittish about revealing their diversity data. A San Jose Mercury report found that the numbers of Hispanics and African Americans employees in Silicon Valley tech companies, already far below their percentage in the population, has actually been declining in recent years. Hispanics, roughly one quarter of the local labor force, account for barely five percent of those working at the Valley’s ten largest companies. The share of women working at the big tech companies – despite the rise of high profile figures in management—has also showed declines.    

In terms of dealing with “talent,” collusion is not the only way the Valley oligarchs work to keep wages down.  Another technique is the outsourcing of labor to lower paid foreign workers, the so called “techno-coolies.” The tech giants claim that they hire cheap workers overseas because of a critical shortage of skilled computer workers but that doesn’t hold up to serious scrutiny. A 2013 report from the labor-aligned Economic Policy Institute found that the country is producing 50% more IT professionals per year than are being employed. Tech firms, notes EPI, would rather hire “guest workers” who now account for one-third to one half of all new IT job holders, largely to maintain both a lower cost and a more pliant workforce.

Some of this also reflects a preference for hiring younger employees at the expense of older software and engineering workers, many of whom own homes and have families in the area.

“I want to stress the importance of being young and technical,” Facebook’s CEO Mark Zuckerberg said at an event at Stanford University in 2007. “Young people are just smarter. Why are most chess masters under 30? I don’t know. Young people just have simpler lives. We may not own a car. We may not have family. Simplicity in life allows you to focus on what’s important.”

Of course what’s really “important” to Zuckerberg, like moguls in any time and place, is maximizing profits and raking in money, both for themselves and their investors. The good news for the bosses has been that employees are rarely in the way.  Unlike the aerospace, autos or oil industries, the Valley has faced little pressure from organized labor, which has freed them to hire and fire at their preference.  Tech workers wages, on the other hand, have been restrained both by under the table agreements and the importation of “technocoolies.”

Rather than being a beacon of a new progressive America, the Valley increasingly epitomizes the gaping class divisions that increasingly characterize contemporary America.  Employees at firms like Facebook and Google enjoy gourmet meals, childcare services, even complimentary house-cleaning to create, as one Google executive put it, “the happiest most productive workplace in the world.” Yet, the largely black and Hispanic lower-end service workers who clean their offices, or provide security, rarely receive health care or even the most basic retirement benefits. Not to mention the often miserable conditions in overseas factories, notably those of Apple.

It’s critical to understand that the hiring restrictions exposed by Friday’s settlement, reflect only one part of the Valley’s faux progressiveness and real mendacity. These same companies have also been adept at circumventing user privacy and avoiding their tax obligations.

One might excuse the hagiographies prepared by the Valley’s ever expanding legion of public relations professionals, and their media allies,  but the ugly reality remains. The  Silicon Valley tech firms tend to be  every bit as cutthroat and greedy as any capitalist enterprise before it. We need to finally see the tech moguls not as a superior form of oligarch, but as just the latest in long line whose overweening ambition sometimes needs to be restrained, not just celebrated.

Physicists Say Consciousness Might Be a State of Matter

Physicists Say Consciousness Might Be a State of Matter

by Allison Eck

It’s not enough to have a brain. Consciousness—a hallmark of humans, mammals, birds, and even octopuses—is that mysterious force that makes all those neurons and synapses “tick” and merge into “you.” It’s what makes you alert and sensitive to your surroundings, and it’s what helps you see yourself as separate from everything else. But neuroscientists still don’t know what consciousness is, or how it’s even possible.

So MIT’s Max Tegmark is championing a new way of explaining it:
he believes that consciousness is a state of matter.

By “matter,” he doesn’t mean that somewhere in the deep recesses of your brain is a small bundle of liquid, sloshing around and powering your sense of self and your awareness of the world. Instead, Tegmark suggests that consciousness arises out of a particular set of mathematical conditions, and there are varying degrees of consciousness—just as certain conditions are required to create varying states of vapor, water, and ice. In turn, understanding how consciousness functions as a separate state of matter could help us come to a more thorough understanding of why we perceive the world the way we do.

Most neuroscientists agonize over consciousness because it’s so difficult to explain. In recent years, though, they’ve tended to agree that a conscious entity must be able to store information, retrieve it efficiently, process it, and exist as a unified whole—that is, you can’t break consciousness down into smaller parts. These traits are calculable, Tegmark says. A case in point? We put labels on the strength of our current computer processing power. While they’re not human, some of our computers can operate independently, and we can use our knowledge of artificial intelligence to push these machines to new limits.

Tegmark calls his new state of matter “perceptronium.” From the Physics arXiv Blog on Medium:

Tegmark discusses perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware. This substance should not only be able to store and process information but in a way that forms a unified, indivisible whole. That also requires a certain amount of independence in which the information dynamics is determined from within rather than externally.

So if consciousness is a state of matter, he concludes, we might be able to apply what we know about consciousness to what we actually see:

[…] the problem is why we perceive the universe as the semi-classical, three dimensional world that is so familiar. When we look at a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system. How does this happen? Out of all possible outcomes, why do we perceive this solution?

In other words, quantum mechanics dictates that the world we see is just one of an infinite number of possibilities. But why? Tegmark doesn’t have an answer, but his ideas demonstrate that there might be a more dynamic relationship between consciousness and other states of matter—that our ability to perceive the world is both a means to an end and also an end (an “object”) in itself.

A new way of thinking about consciousness is sweeping through science like wildfire. Now physicists are using it to formulate the problem of consciousness in concrete mathematical terms for the first time

There’s a quiet revolution underway in theoretical physics. For as long as the discipline has existed, physicists have been reluctant to discuss consciousness, considering it a topic for quacks and charlatans. Indeed, the mere mention of the ‘c’ word could ruin careers.

That’s finally beginning to change thanks to a fundamentally new way of thinking about consciousness that is spreading like wildfire through the theoretical physics community. And while the problem of consciousness is far from being solved, it is finally being formulated mathematically as a set of problems that researchers can understand, explore and discuss.

Today, Max Tegmark, a theoretical physicist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, sets out the fundamental problems that this new way of thinking raises. He shows how these problems can be formulated in terms of quantum mechanics and information theory. And he explains how thinking about consciousness in this way leads to precise questions about the nature of reality that the scientific process of experiment might help to tease apart.

Tegmark’s approach is to think of consciousness as a state of matter, like a solid, a liquid or a gas. “I conjecture that consciousness can be understood as yet another state of matter. Just as there are many types of liquids, there are many types of consciousness,” he says.

He goes on to show how the particular properties of consciousness might arise from the physical laws that govern our universe. And he explains how these properties allow physicists to reason about the conditions under which consciousness arises and how we might exploit it to better understand why the world around us appears as it does.

Interestingly, the new approach to consciousness has come from outside the physics community, principally from neuroscientists such as Giulio Tononi at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.

In 2008, Tononi proposed that a system demonstrating consciousness must have two specific traits. First, the system must be able to store and process large amounts of information. In other words consciousness is essentially a phenomenon of information.

And second, this information must be integrated in a unified whole so that it is impossible to divide into independent parts. That reflects the experience that each instance of consciousness is a unified whole that cannot be decomposed into separate components.

Both of these traits can be specified mathematically allowing physicists like Tegmark to reason about them for the first time. He begins by outlining the basic properties that a conscious system must have.

Given that it is a phenomenon of information, a conscious system must be able to store in a memory and retrieve it efficiently.

It must also be able to to process this data, like a computer but one that is much more flexible and powerful than the silicon-based devices we are familiar with.

Tegmark borrows the term computronium to describe matter that can do this and cites other work showing that today’s computers underperform the theoretical limits of computing by some 38 orders of magnitude.

Clearly, there is so much room for improvement that allows for the performance of conscious systems.

Next, Tegmark discusses perceptronium, defined as the most general substance that feels subjectively self-aware. This substance should not only be able to store and process information but in a way that forms a unified, indivisible whole. That also requires a certain amount of independence in which the information dynamics is determined from within rather than externally.

Finally, Tegmark uses this new way of thinking about consciousness as a lens through which to study one of the fundamental problems of quantum mechanics known as the quantum factorisation problem.

This arises because quantum mechanics describes the entire universe using three mathematical entities: an object known as a Hamiltonian that describes the total energy of the system; a density matrix that describes the relationship between all the quantum states in the system; and Schrodinger’s equation which describes how these things change with time.

The problem is that when the entire universe is described in these terms, there are an infinite number of mathematical solutions that include all possible quantum mechanical outcomes and many other even more exotic possibilities.

So the problem is why we perceive the universe as the semi-classical, three dimensional world that is so familiar. When we look at a glass of iced water, we perceive the liquid and the solid ice cubes as independent things even though they are intimately linked as part of the same system. How does this happen? Out of all possible outcomes, why do we perceive this solution?

Tegmark does not have an answer. But what’s fascinating about his approach is that it is formulated using the language of quantum mechanics in a way that allows detailed scientific reasoning. And as a result it throws up all kinds of new problems that physicists will want to dissect in more detail.

Take for example, the idea that the information in a conscious system must be unified. That means the system must contain error-correcting codes that allow any subset of up to half the information to be reconstructed from the rest.

Tegmark points out that any information stored in a special network known as a Hopfield neural net automatically has this error-correcting facility. However, he calculates that a Hopfield net about the size of the human brain with 10^11 neurons, can only store 37 bits of integrated information.

“This leaves us with an integration paradox: why does the information content of our conscious experience appear to be vastly larger than 37 bits?” asks Tegmark.

That’s a question that many scientists might end up pondering in detail. For Tegmark, this paradox suggests that his mathematical formulation of consciousness is missing a vital ingredient. “This strongly implies that the integration principle must be supplemented by at least one additional principle,” he says. Suggestions please in the comments section!

And yet the power of this approach is in the assumption that consciousness does not lie beyond our ken; that there is no “secret sauce” without which it cannot be tamed.

At the beginning of the 20th century, a group of young physicists embarked on a quest to explain a few strange but seemingly small anomalies in our understanding of the universe. In deriving the new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, they ended up changing the way we comprehend the cosmos. These physcists, at least some of them, are now household names.

Could it be that a similar revolution is currently underway at the beginning of the 21st century?

Is Religion Man-Made?

Is Religion Man-Made?

By Stanley Fish

Sure it is. Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens
think that this fact about religion is enough to invalidate its claims.

“[R]eligion and the churches,” declares Hitchens “are manufactured, and this salient fact is too obvious to ignore.” True to his faith, Dawkins finds that the manufacturing and growth of religion is best described in evolutionary terms: “[R]eligions, like languages, evolve with sufficient randomness, from beginnings that are sufficiently arbitrary, to generate the bewildering – and sometimes dangerous – richness of diversity.” Harris finds a historical origin for religion and religious traditions, and it is not flattering: “The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom a wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.”

And, they continue, it wasn’t even the work of sand-strewn men who labored in the same place at the same time. Rather, it was pieced together from fragments and contradictory sources and then had claimed for it a spurious unity: “Ever since the nineteenth century, scholarly theologians have made an overwhelming case that the gospels are not reliable accounts of what happened in the history of the real world” (Dawkins).

Hitchens adds that “the sciences of textual criticism, archaeology, physics, and molecular biology have shown religious myths to be false and man-made.” And yet, wonders Harris, “nearly 230 million Americans believe that a book showing neither unity of style nor internal consistency was authored by an omniscient, omnipotent, and omnipresent deity.”

So there’s the triple-pronged case. Religions are humanly constructed traditions and at their center are corrupted texts that were cobbled together by provincial, ignorant men who knew less about the world than any high-school teenager alive today. Sounds devastating, but when you get right down to it, all it amounts to is the assertion that God didn’t write the books or establish the terms of worship, men did, and that the results are (to put it charitably) less than perfect.

But that is exactly what you would expect. It is God (if there is one) who is perfect and infinite; men are finite and confined within historical perspectives. And any effort to apprehend him – including the efforts of the compilers of the Old Testament, the New Testament and the Koran – will necessarily fall short of a transparency that will be achieved (if it is achieved) only at a future moment of beatific vision. Now – any now, whether it be 2007 or 6,000 years ago – we see through a glass darkly (1 Corinthians, 13:12); one day, it is hoped, we shall see face to face.

In short, it is the unfathomable and unbridgeable distance between deity and creature that assures the failure of the latter to comprehend or prove (in the sense of validating) the former.

O.L. (in a comment on June 11), identifies the “religion is man-made claim” as the “strongest foundation of atheism” because “it undermines the divinity of god.” No, it undermines the divinity of man, which is, after all, the entire point of religion: man is not divine, but mortal (capable of death), and he is dependent upon a creator who by definition cannot be contained within human categories of perception and description. “How unsearchable are his Judgments and his ways past finding out! For who hath known the mind of the Lord? or who hath been his counselor” (Romans, 11:33-34). It is no wonder, then, that the attempts to contain him – in scriptures, in ceremonies, in prayer – are flawed, incomplete and forever inadequate. Rather than telling against divinity, the radical imperfection, even corruption, of religious texts and traditions can be read as a proof of divinity, or at least of the extent to which divinity exceeds human measure.

If divinity, by definition, exceeds human measure, the demand that the existence of God be proven makes no sense because the machinery of proof, whatever it was, could not extend itself far enough to apprehend him.

Proving the existence of God would be possible only if God were an item in his own field; that is, if he were the kind of object that could be brought into view by a very large telescope or an incredibly powerful microscope. God, however – again if there is a God – is not in the world; the world is in him; and therefore there is no perspective, however technologically sophisticated, from which he could be spied. As that which encompasses everything, he cannot be discerned by anything or anyone because there is no possibility of achieving the requisite distance from his presence that discerning him would require.

The criticism made by atheists that the existence of God cannot be demonstrated is no criticism at all; for a God whose existence could be demonstrated wouldn’t be a God; he would just be another object in the field of human vision.

This does not mean that my arguments constitute a proof of the truth of religion; for if I were to claim that I would be making the atheists’ mistake from the other direction. Nor are they arguments in which I have a personal investment. Their purpose and function is simply to show how the atheists’ arguments miss their mark and, indeed, could not possibly hit it.

At various points Harris, Dawkins and Hitchens all testify to their admiration for Shakespeare, who, they seem to think, is more godly than God. They would do well to remember one of the bard’s most famous lines, uttered by Hamlet: “There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”

The Richer You Are the Older You’ll Get

The Richer You Are the Older You’ll Get

by Josh Zumbrun

Money may not buy love, but it appears to buy years.

Economist Barry Bosworth at the Brookings Institution crunched the numbers and found that the richer you are, the longer you’ll live. And it’s a gap that is widening, particularly among women.

Mr. Bosworth parsed this data from the University of Michigan’s Health and Retirement Study, a survey that tracks the health and work-life of 26,000 Americans as they age and retire. The data is especially valuable as it tracks the same individuals every two years in what’s known as a longitudinal study, to see how their lives unfold.

The good news is that men of all incomes are living longer. Yet the data shows that the life expectancy of the wealthy is growing much faster than the life expectancy of the poor.

Here’s the sort of detail this remarkable data set can show. You can look at a man born in 1940 and see that during the 1980s, the mid-point of his career, his income was in the top 10% for his age group. If that man lives to age 55 he can expect to live an additional 34.9 years, or to the age of 89.9. That’s six years longer than a man whose career followed the same arc, but who was born in 1920.

For men who were in the poorest 10%, they can expect to live another 24 years, only a year and a half longer than his 1920s counterpart.

The story is rather different for women. At every income level, for both those born in 1920 and 1940, women live longer than men. But for women, the longevity and income trends are even more striking. While the wealthiest women from the 1940s are living longer, the poorest 40% are seeing life expectancy decline from the previous generation.

“At the bottom of the distribution, life is not improving rapidly for women anymore,” said Mr. Bosworth. “Smoking stands out as a possibility. It’s much more common among women at lower income levels.”

Mr. Bosworth’s findings build off earlier research from Hilary Waldron at the Social Security Administration who has also documented the widening gap at the interplay of incomes and longevity. Researchers studying life expectancy use actuarial calculations for their estimates, as precise outcomes cannot be known until an entire generation has passed away. He analyzed the data, along with Kathleen Burke at the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, to evaluate a common proposal to keep Social Security in balance as the population ages: to simply raise the retirement age

“If it turns out people at the bottom are not having an increase in life expectancy. They are getting a real reduction” in Social Security benefits as a result, said Mr. Bosworth. “They’re going to get it for less years.”

Take the example above. A wealthy man, born in 1920 who retired at age 65, could expect to draw Social Security for 19 years. His son, born in 1940 and retired at age 67, could expect to draw benefits for 24 years. Yes, he retired later, but he’s living longer.

This would not be true for men and women at the bottom. They would draw Social Security for less years, if the retirement age rises, and their longevity does not.

“It’s really hard to come up with some effective means of trying to equalize this,” said Mr. Bosworth, “and that’s a serious concern.”

How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read

How Paperbacks Transformed the Way Americans Read

by Andrew Shaffer

Half a century before e-books turned publishing upside
down, a different format threatened to destroy the industry.

Here’s a little perspective: In 1939, gas cost 10 cents a gallon at the pump. A movie ticket set you back 20 cents. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, the year’s bestselling hardcover book, was $2.75. For a nation suffering 20 percent unemployment, books were an impossible expense.

But in just one day, Robert de Graff changed that. On June 19, 1939, the tall, dynamic entrepreneur took out a bold, full-page ad in The New York Times: OUT TODAY—THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT MAY TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS.

The ad was timed to coincide with the debut of his newest endeavor, an imprint called Pocket Books. Starting with a test run of 10 titles, which included classics as well as modern hits, de Graff planned to unleash tote-able paperbacks on the American market. But it wasn’t just the softcover format that was revolutionary: De Graff was pricing his Pocket Books at a mere 25 cents.

Despite its audacity, de Graff’s ad wasn’t brazen enough for his taste. A former publishing exec who’d cut his teeth running imprints for Doubleday, de Graff wanted the ad to read THE NEW POCKET BOOKS THAT WILL TRANSFORM NEW YORK’S READING HABITS. His business partners at Simon & Schuster were less confident and forced the edit. Even though some European publishers were making waves with paperbacks—Penguin in England and Albatross in Germany—New York publishers didn’t think the cheap, flimsy books would translate to the American market.

They were wrong. It took just a week for Pocket Books to sell out its initial 100,000 copy run. Despite industry skepticism, paperbacks were about to transform America’s relationship with reading forever.

The New Books on the Block

If paperbacks were going to succeed in America, they would need a new model. De Graff, for his part, was well acquainted with the economics of books. He knew that printing costs were high because volumes were low—an average hardcover print run of 10,000 might cost 40 cents per copy. With only 500 bookstores in the U.S., most located in major cities, low demand was baked into the equation.

In the U.K., things were different. There, four years prior, Penguin Books founder Allen Lane had started publishing popular titles with paper bindings and distributed them in train stations and department stores. In his first year of operation, Lane sold more than three million “mass-market” paperbacks.

Quantity was key. De Graff knew that if he could print 100,000 paperbound books, production costs would plummet to 10 cents per copy. But it would be impossible for Pocket Books to turn a profit if it couldn’t reach hundreds of thousands of readers. And that would never happen as long as de Graff relied solely on bookstores for distribution. So de Graff devised a plan to get his books into places where books weren’t traditionally sold. His twist? Using magazine distributors to place Pocket Books in newsstands, subway stations, drugstores, and other outlets to reach the underserved suburban and rural populace. But if Pocket Books were going to sell, they couldn’t just stick to the highbrow. De Graff avoided the stately, color-coded covers of European paperbacks, which lacked graphics other than the publishers’ logos, and splashed colorful, eye-catching drawings on his books.

Even with the success of Pocket Books’ test run, hardcover publishers scoffed at the idea of paperbacks for the masses. Still, they were more than willing to sell Pocket Books the reprint rights to their hardcover titles, if only to humor de Graff. “We feel we ought to give it a chance—to show that it won’t work here,” an anonymous publisher told Time shortly after Pocket Books’ launch. For every paperback sold, the hardcover publisher would receive a penny royalty per copy—which it split fifty-fifty with the author. Pocket Books would also make about a penny in profit for each copy sold.

Since de Graff offered refunds for unsold copies, carrying the books was a no-brainer. In 1939, de Graff told Publishers Weekly that he’d been deluged with requests from “out-of-town dealers.” And from the get-go Americans devoured every 25-cent paperback de Graff could feed them. By the time Pocket Books sold its 100 millionth copy in September 1944, its books could be found in more than 70,000 outlets across the U.S. They might not have had the glamour and sophistication of hardcovers, but paperbacks were making serious money. It wasn’t long before other publishers decided to jump into the game.

Cover Stories

In the late 1930s, Penguin’s Allen Lane met Ian Ballantine, a young American graduate student at the London School of Economics whose thesis examined the paperback business. Impressed by his research, Lane hired Ballantine to launch a U.S. branch of Penguin in 1939, the same year Pocket Books got its start.

At first, Penguin wasn’t much of a threat to de Graff, since Ballantine, with the help of his 19-year-old bride, Betty, mainly imported the parent company’s books from the U.K. The covers featured little besides the title, the author’s name, and the Penguin logo, giving them a generic, minimalist look that failed to excite the American market. But as World War II escalated, Lane’s control over U.S. operations became tenuous. Imports from the U.K. were scarce, and the Ballantines took the opportunity to print their own selections under the Penguin banner, adding illustrated covers to compete with Pocket Books.

After the war, Lane was horrified to see his prestigious Penguin logo stamped on such tawdry covers. In 1945, he forced the Ballantines out. Lane expected his new hires, German publisher Kurt Enoch and American Victor Weybright, to fall in line with his refined sensibilities, but they too failed him. Graphic (and sometimes lurid) illustrations were necessary for the American market, Weybright argued. “The general intention of our covers is to attract Americans, who, more elementary than the Britishers, are schooled from infancy to disdain even the best product unless it is smoothly packaged and merchandised,” Weybright wrote to Lane.

Pocket Watch

With Pocket Books and Penguin paving the way, the paperback gold rush had begun. Other paperback houses soon followed, including Popular Library, Dell, Fawcett Publications, and Avon Pocket Size Books. In 1948, Lane washed his hands of Penguin U.S., selling the operation to Weybright and Enoch, who renamed it New American Library of World Literature (NAL). Hardcover publishers watched nervously as these new players chipped away at their market share. For the most part, their only stake in the new paperback houses lay in the reprint royalties they split with authors. “If other publishers had any sense, they would combine against them and suppress them,” George Orwell once said of paperbacks, which he considered a “splendid” value.

Months after his removal from Penguin, Ian Ballantine pitched hardcover reprinter Grosset & Dunlap the idea of starting a new paperback business. Grosset & Dunlap was a joint venture of the day’s biggest hardcover players: Random House, Harper’s, Charles Scribner’s Sons, Book-of-the-Month Club, and Little, Brown. Each of these companies was looking for a way to dip its toes into the exploding market, and Ballantine had come to them at the right time.

De Graff himself unwittingly helped seal the deal by advising the publishers that the paperback industry wasn’t worth exploring. Random House president Bennett Cerf said, “When Bob came as a ‘friend’ to give us a talk about why we shouldn’t go into the business, we figured it must be a damned good idea.” Grosset & Dunlap, along with distributor Curtis, became shareholders in Ballantine’s new paperback house, Bantam Books.

Bantam’s impact was immediate—its initial printings were usually 200,000 copies or more. Crazier still, almost every title sold out. Each month, Bantam published four new books from the large backlist available via Grosset & Dunlap, and it had no shortage of quality titles, including The Great Gatsby and The Grapes of Wrath (now just 25 cents). How would other publishers keep up?

A Novel Idea

Toward the end of the 1940s, with so many new entrants in the booming paperback business, magazine and comic book publisher Fawcett Publications gave the industry a new idea to mock: paperback originals. Up to that point, paperback publishers had limited themselves to reprinting hardcover titles or publishing quick, timely original nonfiction such as the wartime bestseller What’s That Plane, a guide to identifying American and Japanese aircraft.

Fawcett was saddled with a distribution agreement that prevented it from publishing and distributing its own reprints of hardcover titles. Seeking to exploit a loophole, editor in chief Ralph Daigh announced that Fawcett would begin publishing original fiction in paperback form beginning in February 1950.

“Successful authors are not interested in original publishing at 25 cents,” Freeman Lewis, executive vice-president of Pocket Books said. Hardcover publisher Doubleday’s LeBaron R. Barker claimed that the concept could “undermine the whole structure of publishing.” Hardcover publishers, of course, had a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. They were still receiving 50 percent of the royalties by selling reprint rights.

Fawcett silenced the skeptics by selling more than nine million copies within six months. Authors did the math, and writers of genre fiction—thrillers, Westerns, and romance especially—jumped at the opportunity to write paperback originals. Still, “serious” literary writers insisted on staying in the hardcover market for the prestige, and critics in turn declined to review paperback originals. Clearly, the stigma was still there.

Trading Up

Literary authors and critics weren’t the only ones turning up their noses at paperbacks. Bookstore owners, for the most part, refused to stock them, and students at most schools and universities still used hardcover texts.

Enter the “trade paperback.” Publishers had been unsuccessfully experimenting with larger-sized paperbacks since the 1940s, but it wasn’t until Doubleday’s Jason Epstein introduced Anchor Books trade paperbacks in 1953 that the idea caught fire. The idea arose from Epstein’s own college experience. “The writers we had discovered in college were either out of print or available only in expensive hardcover editions,” he wrote in Book Business. Instead of reprinting last year’s hardcover bestsellers and classics, Epstein envisioned a line of “upscale paperbacks” handpicked for their literary merit from publishers’ deep backlists.

Anchor’s trade paperbacks were larger and more durable than mass-market paperbacks and were an instant hit with high schools and colleges. Their attractive covers, illustrated by fine artists such as Edward Gorey, immediately distinguished them from the grittier pulp paperbacks, and they appealed to a more “intellectual” market. As a result, they found a nice middle ground in price. Epstein’s paperbacks had small print runs of about 20,000 and sold for 65 cents to $1.25 when mass-market paperbacks were still going for 25 to 50 cents. Trade paperbacks also opened doors to bookstores. Within 10 years, 85 percent of bookstores carried the handsome volumes.

In 1960, revenues from paperbacks of all shapes and sizes finally surpassed those from hardcover sales. The same year, Pocket Books became the first publisher to be publicly traded on a stock exchange, essentially marking paperbacks’ ascent to the mainstream. Hardcovers never died out in the United States, though paperbacks continued to outsell them as recently as 2010, thanks in no small part to the continuing price difference—for example, George R.R. Martin’s bestselling novel A Game of Thrones retails for $32 in hardcover and just $8.99 in mass-market paperback.

Today, it’s de rigueur for major publishers to print both hardcover and paperback books. And of course, there’s a new “pocket book” transforming reading habits, the e-book. Now that Amazon—and the other online booksellers who followed—have untethered e-books from computers by offering inexpensive e-readers, the e-book revolution has done de Graff’s brilliant distribution scheme one better: These days, anyone with a smartphone has an entire bookstore in his or her pocket.

Proof That Life Experiences, Not Things, Make You Happier

Proof That Life Experiences — Not Things — Make You Happier

If you’re wondering whether to use your tax refund to buy that new expensive bag or go on vacation, a new study suggests your best bet may be the latter.

Researchers from San Francisco State University found that people generally know life experiences will make them happier, but they still choose to spend their money on material items because they think they’re of greater value.

“We naturally associate economic value with stuff. I bought this car, it’s worth $8,000,” study researcher Ryan Howell, associate professor of psychology at the university, said in a statement. “We have a hard time estimating the economic value we would place on our memories.”

For one of the experiments in the study, published in the Journal of Positive Psychology, researchers surveyed study participants before and after they bought something. Before making the purchase, the participants said that they were aware that a life experience would bring them more happiness, but that it would make more sense financially to buy the material item.

But their opinions changed after making the purchase, researchers found. The participants said post-purchase that not only would happiness be greater with a life experience, but that the life experience was also a better value than the material item.

In another experiment, participants were asked to prioritize either value or happiness in purchasing something. Those asked to prioritize happiness were more likely to pick using their money for a life experience, while those asked to prioritize value were more likely to choose a material item.

“These results suggest that when people are considering material or experiential purchases they are balancing happiness and monetary concerns,” the researchers wrote in the study.

What Does Heaven Look Like in the Movies?

What Does Heaven Look Like in the Movies?

By Alex Suskind

Filmmakers have been trying to crack heaven’s code for decades. Do you include pearly gates? Angels with golden halos? Just lots of people dressed in white? In the case of Heaven Is for Real, a new movie based on the best-selling novel of the same name, heaven is described as the stereotypical, above-the-clouds place where the Holy Spirit doles out help for those on Earth and God lounges around all day in a giant chair.

Though star Greg Kinnear has said that the movie is not just for religious folks, it is still being marketed at faith-based viewers as a story that challenges our thoughts on death and what exists after we shuffle off. Of course, not every movie that depicts heaven is intended to spark a conversation about religion. Here is a (non-comprehensive) look at how some movies tried to illustrate the afterlife.

All Dogs Go to Heaven (1989)

In addition to being one of those “kids” movies that turn out to be way more disturbing when you rewatch it as an adult, All Dogs Go to Heaven also takes a more childlike, colorful approach to heaven. Dog angels float through the clouds and the sky is filled with moon- and diamond- patterned roads. Though this location is first described as the Great Hall of Judgment, you do get to see what heaven looks like from a distance —a place where animals take naps all day and the temperature is kept at a consistent 73 degrees.

This Is the End (2013)

Though some may consider an afterlife filled with live boy band music akin to the red hot flames of hell, Seth Rogen and his crew in This Is the End are not among them. Especially if it’s the Backstreet Boys, who pop up in heaven at the end of the film after the Rapture has taken place. I assume God just couldn’t look past O-Town’s sins.

Defending Your Life (1991)

After Daniel (Albert Brooks) dies in a head-on collision, he ascends to Judgement City, a Los Angeles–like location where a group of judges get to decide whether he moves on to heaven. Unfortunately, Daniel isn’t worthy — at least not until he shows the ability to overcome fear, an afterlife prerequisite and something he neglected to do during his time on Earth. Luckily, Meryl Streep’s Julia is here to save the day, as Daniel eventually risks electrocution to be with her. If that’s not love, I don’t know what is.

Gladiator (2000)

We rarely hear the word heaven uttered in this Ridley Scott–directed epic. Instead, it’s referred to as “the afterlife,” a place filled with fields of grass, winding paths, and rolling hills (this afterlife also appears to only be set in monochrome blue, a rather drab look for paradise). Since Gladiator takes place in Ancient Rome, the location is likely a nod to the Elysian Fields, a vast green space where the righteous and pure are sent after they die.


What Dreams May Come True (1998)

Look past the cheesy death-is-what-you-make-of-it dialogue from this Robin Williams–starring drama, and you’ll get a unique interpretation of heaven. After dying in a car crash, Williams’s character ends up in what appears to be an abstract painting, where he’s unable to hold anything without it turning into a colorful mush. However, once he is able to come to terms with death, his heaven transforms into a mountainous range filled with flowers, trees, and sunshine.

Ghost (1990)

We technically never see the inside of heaven in this 1990 romantic drama, but we do see it from the outside, as a Northern Lights–esque glow off in the distance. Then again, that’s just from Demi Moore’s perspective. Perhaps what Patrick Swayze is looking at is completely different. Whatever the point of view, Swayze’s hair is perfect.


Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life (1983)

Monty Python’s take on heaven is a Las Vegas–style lounge where every single day is Christmas and women angels walk around topless with Santa hats on — which isn’t that far off from how some would describe Las Vegas in real life.

A Matter of Life and Death (1946)

This 1946 classic directed by British directors Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger (The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Black Narcissus, The Red Shoes) was called Stairway to Heaven in the U.S., a nod to several scenes depicting a giant escalator to the afterlife. Since Peter, a British Air Force pilot, cheated death, he is forced to argue his right to live in front of a judgment panel. Cleverly, the scenes in heaven were filmed in black-and-white while the scenes on Earth were shot in lush Technicolor.

Ice Age: The Meltdown (2006)

For Ice Age’s Scrat, the idea of heaven is the ability to get whatever you want, whenever you want. Therefore, during his near-death experience, he ends up in a place filled with an unlimited supply of acorns. Unfortunately for him, this vision only lasts so long, as the squirrel gets brought back to life thanks to Sid’s quick thinking.

South Park Bigger Longer Uncut (1999)

Back in 1999, South Park was still killing off Kenny on a regular basis. So you knew Matt Stone and Trey Parker would have something special up their sleeves for the show’s big-screen incarnation. Lo and behold, Kenny ends up dying in the film after attempting to set his fart on fire. His version of heaven turns out to be filled with naked ladies, along with a brand-new pair of angel wings attached to his back.

Don’t Tempt Me (2001)

This unique Spanish flick starring Penélope Cruz, Demian Bichir, and Gael García Bernal, takes a more abstract view of heaven, setting it in the middle of Paris. (The lesson here: If you’re not a Francophile, make sure to die with a few sins.) Though we never deal directly with God in Agustin Diaz Yanes’s film, we do end get to see angels, like Victoria, a sultry lounge singer.

Down to Earth (2001)

Chris Rock gets hit by a truck and goes to heaven in this 2001 comedy, where he meets two angels, played by Chazz Palminteri and Eugene Levy. The few things that Down to Earth ends up telling us about the afterlife are that (a) it looks like a gigantic ballroom, (b) if you die before your time you can go back to Earth and live in someone else’s body, and (c) angels have terrible taste in tuxedos.