Saturday, September 03, 2005

Is water essential for life?

The author of this article recently wrote a book entitled Critical Mass which is worth reading.


Nature 436, 1084-1085 (25 August 2005) | doi: 10.1038/4361084a

Water and life: Seeking the solution

Philip Ball1

Philip Ball is a consultant editor for Nature.


Is there any fundamental reason to be fixated on water as the universal elixir of life? Philip Ball investigates.

Where there's water, there's life. That, at least, is what our experience on Earth has taught us, and when it comes to searching for life on other worlds, NASA seems determined to follow the water. But is it right to see water as the sole medium for extraterrestrial life?

Some think not. "Water is a terrible solvent for life," says chemist Steven Benner of the University of Florida in Gainesville. Benner is one of a number of biochemists, planetary scientists and philosophers who are trying to find out whether water is in some sense 'fine-tuned' for life.

It is a pertinent question. Scientists today are searching for extraterrestrial life wherever they can, from the subsoil of Mars to planets orbiting other stars. So far they have found nothing. But are they looking in the right places? If Benner is right, perhaps they have become too fixated on chasing water.

Benner led the case for the prosecution earlier this year at a meeting in Varenna, Italy. There, researchers faced up to what many of them consider to be their biggest challenge. How can we even begin to discuss the relationship between water and life when we have only one example — life on Earth. And more to the point, can the problem be dealt with in a rigorous, scientific manner?

For Benner the answer to the latter question is yes. He argues that it is possible to investigate experimentally whether water is essential for life. He hopes to prove that a type of biochemistry can occur without water. "We are working to create alternative darwinian systems based on fundamentally different chemistries," he says. "We are using different solvent systems as a way to get a precursor for life on Earth."

The notion of redesigning life's chemistry has become central to the emerging discipline of synthetic biology, which has among its long-term objectives the aim of creating entire cells from scratch, perhaps with a different chemical basis from that of existing organisms.

Benner points out that water is generally not a good solvent for doing organic chemistry — which is, in the end, what life is all about. For one thing, water is rather reactive, tending to split apart the bonds that link the building blocks of biomolecules together. It readily breaks peptide bonds, for example, as well as many of the bonds in nucleic acids, such as RNA. "The structure of RNA screams 'I did not arise in water!'" Benner asserts. He says that in about four out of five cases, synthetic organic chemists will avoid using water as a solvent.

Creative force

But of course organic chemists aren't usually trying to create life. Water has many properties that seem indispensable for the functioning of proteins and cells. It is an excellent solvent for ions, for example — crucial for nerve signalling, enzymatic processes, biomineralization and the behaviour of DNA. It is also a master of weak intermolecular interactions such as hydrogen bonds and hydrophobic forces. The latter play a central role in protein folding and protein−protein interactions, whereas the former often act as bridges between protein binding sites and their substrates. And water's ability to absorb and lose heat without undergoing a large temperature change provides thermal cushioning, shielding cells and organisms from wild temperature swings.

No other known liquid combines all of these properties. But does a life-supporting solvent need them all? Are any of water's unique properties essential, and are any of its essential properties unique?

To assess whether water is somehow 'special' as a biological solvent, we need to understand the basic requirements for life1. Proteins and nucleic acids rely on weak intermolecular interactions to organize and pass chemical information around — to transfer genetic instructions, for instance. It could be argued that general properties such as this will be needed for a 'chemistry of life', even when the building blocks are not proteins or nucleic acids.

But these familiar building blocks may themselves not need water to function. "I think it is perfectly possible that at least elements of relevant biochemistry can be persuaded to work in a completely non-aqueous environment," says physicist John Finney at University College London. Finney points to evidence that enzymes can work in 'dry' air, where they hold on to only the barest coatings of water molecules, and even in non-aqueous solvents2.

Most natural enzymes cannot fold into their compact, active forms without being immersed in water. But even that limitation might not be fundamental. A team led by Annelise Barron and Ishwar Radhakrishnan at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois, has recently found that molecules called peptoids, which are structurally very similar to peptides, can fold into compact forms in pure methanol.

Another way to explore the relationship between water and life is to modify water's molecular structure or properties until the liquid state itself begins to change. "Knowing which properties of water are particularly sensitive to its structure can help to show how fine-tuned for life the liquid properties are," says Ruth Lynden-Bell, a theoretical chemist at Queen's University Belfast, UK, who co-chaired the Varenna meeting.

Lynden-Bell and her co-workers have used computer simulations to model changes in water's properties. They found that if the bond angle in H2O was 90°, rather than 104.5° as in the real molecule, or if the hydrogen bonds were about 15% weaker, the three-dimensional network of hydrogen bonds — crucial to the liquid's unique properties — would be severely disrupted or fall to pieces3, 4.

Asking such 'what if' questions might seem strange to biologists and chemists, but it is far more common in cosmology or physics. For cosmologists, the physical Universe seems to be precariously fine-tuned to make life possible5. For example, the fine-structure constant, which determines the strength of electromagnetic interactions, is not fixed by any known fundamental theory; and yet if it was ten times larger, stable atoms could not exist.

Unlike physics, of course, biochemistry adapts to its environment, which is why the participants in Varenna generally agreed that life on Earth is adapted to water rather than the other way round. "Life on Earth itself is fine-tuned to water — a consequence of it evolving in close association with the medium," says Finney. "To put it the other way is perhaps to put the cart before the horse." He adds that "the fine-tuning argument with respect to water is a far more complex problem than that in astrophysics. Without knowing what aspects of water are important, I suspect we are doing little more than speculating."

Out of this world

Benner wants to use experiments to move beyond these abstract discussions. He sees several alternatives to water6. Ammonia, which is liquid between -78 °C and -33 °C at 1 atmosphere pressure, will dissolve many organic compounds and can form hydrogen bonds. It is also relatively common in the cosmos: there is liquid ammonia in the clouds of Jupiter, for example. Benner considers water−ammonia mixtures, which may exist in some cold extraterrestrial environments such as beneath the surface of Saturn's moon Titan, as another promising candidate. Then there is formamide, which is liquid over a wide range of temperatures and pressures, dissolves salts and has hydrophobic-like effects. Formamide might be present below the surface on Mars.

But Benner does not rule out more exotic possibilities, such as liquid nitrogen or supercritical liquid hydrogen on gas-giant planets such as Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Or perhaps hydrocarbons such as liquid methane on Titan. "Organic reactivity in hydrocarbon solvents is no less versatile than in water," he says.

Does widening the search for extraterrestrial life to places that don't have water make sense? The Cassini-Huygens space probe showed in January that Titan may have river-beds (if not actual rivers) carved from liquid hydrocarbons. And in March the detection of reflected light from two Jupiter-like extrasolar planets by the Spitzer Space Telescope7 marked the first step towards analysing their chemistry remotely.

But NASA's quest for habitable planets remains focused on water. In 2008 it intends to launch the Kepler Photometer, which will search for Earth-like planets by looking for evidence of their transit across the faces of parent stars. At a much later date, the agency hopes to launch two space-based telescopes that will form the Terrestrial Planet Finder (TPF) mission. These will detect and analyse reflected light from other planets. The gaze of both Kepler and the TPF will be firmly fixed on the 'habitable zone' of stars, where liquid water could exist, potentially overlooking worlds that are habitable by non-aqueous life forms.

Benner is not waiting around for these space missions to find extraterrestrial life in places with or without water. He is convinced that the time is ripe to explore more exotic life forms in the laboratory. But that, he says, requires a different mindset from the one that currently guides chemical research and funding. Benner is participating in a US National Academies panel funded by NASA that is looking at possible alternative chemistries for life, and which he hopes will identify research directions that funding agencies can pursue. He believes that researchers should aim high — to create life forms that do not reproduce the chemistry that is found on Earth. In other words, if we can't easily get to other worlds, we should build them here.

Friday, September 02, 2005

Oblivious to oblivion.

Shows how great the disconnect between knowledge and action has become. And it will only become greater.

From October 2001.


Drowning New Orleans

A major hurricane could swamp New Orleans under 20 feet of water, killing thousands. Human activities along the Mississippi River have dramatically increased the risk, and now only massive reengineering of southeastern Louisiana can save the city

By Mark Fischetti

The boxes are stacked eight feet high and line the walls of the large, windowless room. Inside them are new body bags, 10,000 in all. If a big, slow-moving hurricane crossed the Gulf of Mexico on the right track, it would drive a sea surge that would drown New Orleans under 20 feet of water. "As the water recedes," says Walter Maestri, a local emergency management director, "we expect to find a lot of dead bodies."
New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen. The city lies below sea level, in a bowl bordered by levees that fend off Lake Pontchartrain to the north and the Mississippi River to the south and west. And because of a damning confluence of factors, the city is sinking further, putting it at increasing flood risk after even minor storms. The low-lying Mississippi Delta, which buffers the city from the gulf, is also rapidly disappearing. A year from now another 25 to 30 square miles of delta marsh--an area the size of Manhattan--will have vanished. An acre disappears every 24 minutes. Each loss gives a storm surge a clearer path to wash over the delta and pour into the bowl, trapping one million people inside and another million in surrounding communities. Extensive evacuation would be impossible because the surging water would cut off the few escape routes. Scientists at Louisiana State University (L.S.U.), who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers, predict that more than 100,000 people could die. The body bags wouldn't go very far.

A direct hit is inevitable. Large hurricanes come close every year. In 1965 Hurricane Betsy put parts of the city under eight feet of water. In 1992 monstrous Hurricane Andrew missed the city by only 100 miles. In 1998 Hurricane Georges veered east at the last moment but still caused billions of dollars of damage. At fault are natural processes that have been artificially accelerated by human tinkering--levying rivers, draining wetlands, dredging channels and cutting canals through marshes. Ironically, scientists and engineers say the only hope is more manipulation, although they don't necessarily agree on which proposed projects to pursue. Without intervention, experts at L.S.U. warn, the protective delta will be gone by 2090. The sunken city would sit directly on the sea--at best a troubled Venice, at worst a modern-day Atlantis.

As if the risk to human lives weren't enough, the potential drowning of New Orleans has serious economic and environmental consequences as well. Louisiana's coast produces one third of the country's seafood, one fifth of its oil and one quarter of its natural gas. It harbors 40 percent of the nation's coastal wetlands and provides wintering grounds for 70 percent of its migratory waterfowl. Facilities on the Mississippi River from New Orleans to Baton Rouge constitute the nation's largest port. And the delta fuels a unique element of America's psyche; it is the wellspring of jazz and blues, the source of everything Cajun and Creole, and the home of Mardi Gras. Thus far, however, Washington has turned down appeals for substantial aid.

Fixing the delta would serve as a valuable test case for the country and the world. Coastal marshes are disappearing along the eastern seaboard, the other Gulf Coast states, San Francisco Bay and the Columbia River estuary for many of the same reasons besetting Louisiana. Parts of Houston are sinking faster than New Orleans. Major deltas around the globe--from the Orinoco in Venezuela, to the Nile in Egypt, to the Mekong in Vietnam--are in the same delicate state today that the Mississippi Delta was in 100 to 200 years ago. Lessons from New Orleans could help establish guidelines for safer development in these areas, and the state could export restoration technology worldwide. In Europe, the Rhine, Rhône and Po deltas are losing land. And if sea level rises substantially because of global warming in the next 100 years or so, numerous low-lying coastal cities such as New York would need to take protective measures similar to those proposed for Louisiana.

Seeing Is Believing

Shea Penland is among those best suited to explain the delta's blues. Now a geologist at the University of New Orleans, he spent 16 years at L.S.U.; does contract work for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which builds the levees; sits on federal and state working groups implementing coastal restoration projects; and consults for the oil and gas industry. His greatest credential, however, is that he knows the local folk in every little bayou town, clump of swamp and spit of marsh up and down the disintegrating coast--the people who experience its degradation every day.

Penland, dressed in jeans and a polo shirt on a mid-May morning, is eager to get me into his worn red Ford F150 pickup truck so we can explore what's eating the 50 miles of wet landscape south of New Orleans. The Mississippi River built the delta plain that forms southeastern Louisiana over centuries by depositing vast quantities of sediment every year during spring floods. Although the drying sands and silts would compress under their own weight and sink some, the next flood would rebuild them. Since 1879, however, the Corps of Engineers, at Congress's behest, has progressively lined the river with levees to prevent floods from damaging towns and industry. The river is now shackled from northern Louisiana to the gulf, cutting off the sediment supply. As a result, the plain just subsides below the encroaching ocean. As the wetlands vanish, so does New Orleans's protection from the sea. A hurricane's storm surge can reach heights of more than 20 feet, but every four miles of marsh can absorb enough water to knock it down by one foot.

The flat marsh right outside New Orleans is still a vibrant sponge, an ever changing mix of shallow freshwater, green marsh grasses and cypress swamp hung with Spanish moss. But as Penland and I reach the halfway point en route to the gulf, the sponge becomes seriously torn and waterlogged. Isolated roads on raised stone beds pass rusted trailer homes and former brothels along now flooded bayous; stands of naked, dead trees; and browned grasses and reaches of empty water.

Down in Port Fourchon, where the tattered marsh finally gives way to open gulf, the subsidence and erosion are aggressive. The lone road exists only to service a collection of desolate corrugated buildings where oil and natural-gas pipelines converge from hundreds of offshore wellheads. Countless platforms form a gloomy steel forest rising from the sea. To bring in the goods, the fossil fuel companies have dredged hundreds of miles of navigation channels and pipeline canals throughout the coastal and interior marshes. Each cut removes land, and boat traffic and tides steadily erode the banks. The average U.S. beach erodes about two feet a year, Penland says, but Port Fourchon loses 40 to 50 feet a year--the fastest rate in the country. The network of canals also gives saltwater easy access to interior marshes, raising their salinity and killing the grasses and bottomwood forests from the roots up. No vegetation is left to prevent wind and water from wearing the marshes away. In a study funded by the oil and gas industry, Penland documented that the industry has caused one third of the delta's land loss.

Alligator Science

The Duet brothers know firsthand how various factors accelerate land loss beyond natural subsidence. Toby and Danny, two of Penland's local pals along our route, live on a 50-foot beige barge complex anchored in the middle of 15 square miles of broken marsh, some 20 miles northwest of Port Fourchon. Their family leased the land from oil companies, for fishing and hunting, 16 years ago when it was merely wet. Now it lies under five to eight feet of water. They filter rain for drinking water, process their own sewage, catch the food they eat and make money hosting overnight fishing parties for sportsmen. A dozen wellheads dot the marsh where Toby picks us up by boat. Heading out to the barge through one canal, he says, "I used to be able to spit to the mud on either side. Now they run big oil containers through here."

Inside the barge's wide-open room, Danny offers other measures: "Two years ago we drove a wooden two-by-four into the mud on the edge of a canal, to stake our alligator trap. I went past it the other day; the edge has receded 18 feet from the stake. Doesn't much matter, though. The gators are gone. Water's too salty."

With the marsh disappearing, the delta's only remaining defense is some crumbling barrier islands that a century ago were part of the region's shoreline. The next morning Penland and I travel an hour down the coast to the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium, a scientific outpost in Cocodrie, an encampment of scientists and fishermen on the coast's edge. From there we head out in one of the consortium's gray research boats.

The boat pounds across what appears to be choppy sea for 50 minutes before we reach Isles Dernieres ("last islands" in French). But the open surf is never more than seven feet deep. The vast reach of shallow water was once thick with swaying grasses, parted occasionally by narrow, serpentine waterways full of shrimp, oysters, redfish and trout. Penland beaches us in the bayside mud. We walk across a mere 80 yards of barren sand before we toe the ocean. A similarly diminutive outcrop is visible in the distance to either side. They are what remains of a once very long, staunch island lush with black mangroves. "It broke up ocean waves, cut down storm surges and held back saltwater so the marsh behind it could thrive," Penland says in mourning. Now the ocean rushes right by.

Louisiana's barrier islands are eroding faster than any around the country. Millions of tons of sediment used to exit the Mississippi River's mouth every year and be dragged by longshore currents to the islands, building up what tides had worn away. But in part because levees and dredging prevent the river's last miles from meandering naturally, the mouth has telescoped out to the continental shelf. The sediment just drops over the edge of the underwater cliff into the deep ocean.

Back in New Orleans the next day it becomes apparent that other human activities have made matters worse. Cliff Mugnier, an L.S.U. geodesist who also works part-time for the Corps of Engineers, explains why from the third floor of the rectangular, cement Corps headquarters, which squats atop the Mississippi River levee the Corps has built and rebuilt for 122 years.

Mugnier says that the earth beneath the delta consists of layers of muck--a wet peat several hundred feet deep--formed by centuries of flooding. As the Corps leveed the river, the city and industry drained large marshes, which in decades past were considered wasteland. Stopping the floods and draining surface water lowered the water table, allowing the top mucks to dry, consolidate and subside, hastening the city's drop below sea level--a process already under way as the underlying mucks consolidated naturally.

That's not all. As the bowl became deeper, it would flood during routine rainstorms. So the Corps, in cooperation with the city's Sewerage and Water Board, began digging a maze of canals to collect rainwater. The only place to send it was Lake Pontchartrain. But because the lake's mean elevation is one foot, the partners had to build pumping stations at the canal heads to push the collected runoff uphill into the lake.

The pumps serve another critical function. Because the canals are basically ditches, groundwater seeps into them from the wet soils. But if they are full, they can't take on water during a storm. So the city runs the pumps regularly to expel seepage from the canals, which draws even more water from the ground, leading to further drying and subsidence. "We are aggravating our own problem," Mugnier says. Indeed, the Corps is building more canals and enlarging pumping stations, because the lower the city sinks, the more it floods. In the meantime, streets, driveways and backyards cave in, and houses blow up when natural-gas lines rupture. Mugnier is also worried about the parishes (counties) bordering the city, which are digging drainage canals as they become more populated. In St. Charles Parish to the west, he says, "the surface could subside by as much as 14 feet."

The Scare

Humankind can't stop the delta's subsidence, and it can't knock down the levees to allow natural river flooding and meandering, because the region is developed. The only realistic solutions, most scientists and engineers agree, are to rebuild the vast marshes so they can absorb high waters and reconnect the barrier islands to cut down surges and protect the renewed marshes from the sea.

Since the late 1980s Louisiana's senators have made various pleas to Congress to fund massive remedial work. But they were not backed by a unified voice. L.S.U. had its surge models, and the Corps had others. Despite agreement on general solutions, competition abounded as to whose specific projects would be most effective. The Corps sometimes painted academics' cries about disaster as veiled pitches for research money. Academia occasionally retorted that the Corps's solution to everything was to bulldoze more dirt and pour more concrete, without scientific rationale. Meanwhile oystermen and shrimpers complained that the proposals from both the scientists and the engineers would ruin their fishing grounds.

Len Bahr, head of the governor's Coastal Activities Office in Baton Rouge, tried to bring everyone together. Passionate about southern Louisiana, Bahr has survived three governors, each with different sympathies. "This is the realm in which science has to operate," Bahr says. "There are five federal agencies and six state agencies with jurisdiction over what happens in the wetlands." Throughout the 1990s, Bahr says with frustration, "we only received $40 million a year" from Congress, a drop compared with the bucket of need. Even with the small projects made possible by these dollars, Louisiana scientists predicted that by 2050 coastal Louisiana would lose another 1,000 square miles of marsh and swamp, an area the size of Rhode Island.

Then Hurricane Georges arrived in September 1998. Its fiercely circulating winds built a wall of water 17 feet high topped with driven waves, which threatened to surge into Lake Pontchartrain and wash into New Orleans. This was the very beast that L.S.U.'s early models had warned about, and it was headed right for the city. Luckily, just before Georges made landfall, it slowed and turned a scant two degrees to the east. The surge collapsed under suddenly chaotic winds.

A Grand Plan

The scientists, engineers and politicians who had been squabbling realized how close the entire delta had come to disaster, and Bahr says that it scared them into reaching a consensus. Late in 1998 the governor's office, the state's Department of Natural Resources, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the Environmental Protection Agency, the Fish and Wildlife Service and all 20 of the state's coastal parishes published Coast 2050--a blueprint for restoring coastal Louisiana.

No group is bound by the plan, however, and if all the projects were pursued, the price tag would be $14 billion. "So," I ask in the ninth-floor conference room adjacent to the governor's office in Baton Rouge, "give me the short list" of Coast 2050 projects that would make the most difference. Before me are Joe Suhayda, director of L.S.U.'s Louisiana Water Resources Research Institute, who has modeled numerous storm tracks and knows the key scientists, Corps engineers, and city emergency planners; Vibhas Aravamuthan, who programs L.S.U.'s computer models; Len Bahr; and Bahr's second-in-command, Paul Kemp. All were involved in designing Coast 2050.

First and foremost, they decide, build a river diversion at several critical spots along the Mississippi, to restore disappearing marshland. At each location the Corps would cut a channel through the river levee on its south side and build control gates that would allow freshwater and suspended sediment to wash down through select marshes toward the gulf. The water could disrupt oyster beds, but if the sites were carefully selected, deals could be made with landowners.

--> Every 24 minutes Louisiana loses one acre of land. <--

The second step: rebuild the southern barrier islands using more than 500 million cubic yards of sand from nearby Ship Shoal. Next, the Corps would cut a channel in the narrow neck of the river delta at about halfway down. Ships could enter the river there, shortening their trip to interior ports and saving them money. The Corps could then stop dredging the southern end of the river. The mouth would fill with sediment and begin overflowing to the west, sending sand and silt back into those longshore currents that could sustain the barrier islands.

The channel plan might be integrated into a larger state proposal to build an entire new Millennium Port. It would provide deeper draft for modern container ships than the Port of New Orleans and its main channel, the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO, pronounced Mr. Go), which the Corps dredged in the early 1960s. The outlet has eroded terribly--from 500 feet across, originally, to 2,000 feet in places--and let in a relentless stream of saltwater that has killed much of the marsh that once protected eastern New Orleans against gulf storms. If the channel or the Millennium Port were built, the Corps could close MrGo.

A remaining chink in the delta's armor is the pair of narrow straits on Lake Pontchartrain's eastern edge where it connects to the gulf. The obvious solution would be to gate them, just as the Netherlands does to regulate the North Sea's flow inland. But it would be a tough sell. "We've proposed that in the past, and it's been shot down," Bahr says. The project's costs would be extremely high.

This list of the most promising Coast 2050 projects is only one small group's vision, of course, yet other established experts concur with its fundamentals. Ivor van Heerden, a geologist who is deputy director of L.S.U.'s Hurricane Center, concurs that "if we're going to succeed, we've got to mimic nature. Building diversions and reestablishing barrier-island sediment flows are the closest we can come." Shea Penland pretty much agrees, although he warns that the Mississippi River may not carry enough sediment to feed multiple diversions. U.S. Geological Survey studies by Robert Meade show that the supply of suspended sediment is less than half of what it was prior to 1953, diverted mostly by dams along the river's course through middle America.

--> With no action, one million people could be trapped. <--

As far as the Corps is concerned, all of the Coast 2050 projects should be implemented. The first to become a reality is the Davis Pond diversion, due to begin operating by the end of this year. Project manager Al Naomi, a 30-year Corps civil engineer, and Bruce Baird, a biological oceanographer, brought me to the construction site on the Mississippi's southern levee, 20 miles west of New Orleans. The structure looks like a modest dam, in line with the levee. Steel gates in its midsection, each large enough to drive a bus through, will open and close to control water flowing through it. The water will exit into a wide swath of cleared swamp that extends south for a mile, forming a shallow riverbed that will gradually disperse into boundary-less marsh. The structure will divert up to 10,650 cubic feet per second (cfs) of water from the Mississippi, whose total flow past New Orleans ranges from less than 200,000 cfs during droughts to more than one million cfs during floods. The outflow should help preserve 33,000 acres of wetlands, oysterbeds and fishing grounds.

The Corps is bullish on Davis Pond because of its success at Caernarvon, a smaller, experimental diversion it opened in 1991 near MrGo. By 1995 Caernarvon had restored 406 acres by increasing the marsh's sediment and reducing its salinity with freshwater.

Who Should Pay?

The corps of engineers is hiring more scientists for projects such as Davis Pond, a signal that the fragmented parties are beginning to work better together. Bahr would like to integrate science and engineering further by requiring independent scientific review of proposed Corps projects before the state signed on--which Louisiana would need to do because Congress would require the state to share the cost of such work.

If Congress and President George W. Bush hear a unified call for action, authorizing it would seem prudent. Restoring coastal Louisiana would protect the country's seafood and shipping industries and its oil and natural-gas supply. It would also save America's largest wetlands, a bold environmental stroke. And without action, the million people outside New Orleans would have to relocate. The other million inside the bowl would live at the bottom of a sinking crater, surrounded by ever higher walls, trapped in a terminally ill city dependent on nonstop pumping to keep it alive.

Funding the needed science and engineering would also unearth better ways to save the country's vanishing wetlands and the world's collapsing deltas. It would improve humankind's understanding of nature's long-term processes--and the stakes of interfering, even with good intentions. And it could help governments learn how to minimize damage from rising seas, as well as from violent weather, at a time when the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration predicts more storms of greater intensity as a result of climate change.

Walter Maestri doesn't welcome that prospect. When Allison, the first tropical storm of the 2001 hurricane season, dumped five inches of rain a day on New Orleans for a week in June, it nearly maxed out the pumping system. Maestri spent his nights in a flood-proof command bunker built underground to evade storm winds; from there he dispatched police, EMTs, firefighters and National Guardsmen. It was only rain, yet it stressed the response teams. "Any significant water that comes into this city is a dangerous threat," he says. "Even though I have to plan for it, I don't even want to think about the loss of life a huge hurricane would cause."

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Thursday, September 01, 2005

a bubble of bubbles?

An important feature of an asset bubble is the lack of awareness of one. The internet bubble was an example. Is it really a bubble if everyone and his grandmother thinks it's a bubble? It's doubtful that the housing run is over, and there is an outside possibility that the housing run has only just started.

Experts disagree on why oil prices go up

- Kathleen Pender
Sunday, August 28, 2005

You can't open a newspaper without reading about the housing bubble, but there's another market that's looking pretty frothy: oil.

Even though the price of West Texas crude has risen this year by almost $23 per barrel, more than 50 percent, you don't hear many people calling it a bubble.

Searching the Factiva news database for the past three months, I found only 55 mentions of an oil bubble, compared with 1,981 references to a housing bubble.

Maybe that's because a lot of energy analysts say the recent spike in oil is being driven almost entirely by fundamentals.

They say that worldwide demand is increasing at a time when there is little excess production capacity. Because it takes many years to bring new production online, there could soon be shortages of petroleum products, especially if there is a supply disruption in one of the major oil-producing countries, many of which are as stable as a two-legged stool.

Their theory: Oil prices won't come down until consumers, especially Americans, reduce their demand. Given that oil prices today are still cheaper, in inflation-adjusted dollars, than they were in the 1970s, prices could go even higher before demand falls.

In March, a team of Goldman Sachs analysts said we might not return to an era of excess capacity like the one we had in the late 1980s and 1990s until the price of crude -- which closed just above $66 on Friday -- stays between $50 and $105 for several years and U.S. gasoline prices top $4 per gallon.

But a separate group of experts says this idea of a looming oil shortage is overblown. Based on fundamentals, they say oil should be trading in the $30- $40 range and anything above that is largely the result of speculators. When they exit the market, prices will fall back to more reasonable levels.

"I don't see how anybody in their right mind can say this is based on fundamentals," says Kyle Cooper, an energy analyst with Citigroup Global Markets in Houston.

Who's right? Only time will tell. Here's a look at the arguments.

The bulls: There is no question that oil consumption has increased faster than oil companies can bring it out of the ground and turn it into gasoline, heating oil, diesel fuel and other products.

Between 2003 and 2004, world oil demand increased by 3.2 percent, more than twice the normal annual growth rate of around 1.5 percent, says Jonathan Cogan, an expert with the Energy Information Administration. Much of that new demand has come from the United States, the world's largest oil consumer, and fast-growing China, which now ranks No. 2.

"Growing demand is pushing up against stable production capacity," says Cogan. "There is no excess capacity anywhere but Saudi Arabia. Now we are sort of operating at capacity. It makes any uncertainty about political or other turmoil magnified. That uncertainty does get factored into the price."

The Goldman Sachs team created a stir in March when it published its report predicting a "super spike" in oil prices to $105 per barrel. At that time, oil was in the mid-$50s, and the team, led by Arjun Murti, wrote, "We believe oil markets may have entered a super-spike period, a multi-year trading band of oil prices high enough to meaningfully reduce energy consumption and re-create a spare capacity cushion, only after which will lower energy prices return."

The team noted four fundamental reasons for the increase in West Texas Intermediate crude, the light-sweet oil best for making gasoline:

-- It's costing more to find and pump oil, due to geologic maturity in many oil-producing regions, along with rising service and materials inflation. Figuring that these forces will increase the long-term cost of production, hedgers and speculators have bid up the price of long-dated futures contracts (for oil deliveries in five or six years). That, in turn, has increased the price of shorter-term contracts and the spot price of oil.

-- The price of light-sweet crude oils is growing faster than the price of heavy-sour grades, which are prevalent in the Middle East, "due to high and rising (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) production volumes, limited complex refining capacity and increasingly strict sulfur specifications in the U.S. and Europe."

-- Significant increases in energy efficiency since the 1980s have allowed world economies to withstand high oil prices more easily.

-- Geopolitical turmoil in key oil exporting countries keeps foreign oil companies from developing resources in a timely manner.

The analysts said that in 1980-81, gasoline spending in the United States averaged 4.5 percent of gross domestic product, 7.2 percent of consumer expenditures and 6.2 percent of disposable income.

Today, gasoline accounts for a much smaller share of income, expenditures and GDP -- roughly 3 percent or less.

"Our new $50-$150 super-spike range perhaps conservatively corresponds to gasoline spending in the United States that reaches 3.6 percent of forecasted GDP, 5.3 percent of consumer expenditures and 5 percent of personal disposable income. If we were to assume that gasoline spending needs to reach the highs of the 1970s, our upside super-spike estimate would be $135," the report says.

It added that gasoline would need to reach $4 per gallon before Americans would swap their SUVs for more fuel-efficient cars.

The Goldman authors said that speculation (i.e. hedge fund activity), "has played a negligible role in global oil markets beyond day-to-day trading noise."

Colorado energy consultant Phil Verleger agrees. He says the impact of speculators "is zip. It's too dangerous" to speculate.

He said prices have been driven up somewhat by the entry of pension funds into the market, but they are likely to be long-term investors, not speculators.

He said a recent paper co-authored by Wharton School economist Gary Gorton is encouraging pension funds to diversify into oil and other commodities. It showed that an index of commodities futures could produce returns equal to stocks with slightly less risk.

"The biggest problem we have today is a shortage of refining capacity" because U.S. refiners built no new plants while Detroit was busy rolling out SUVs, Verleger says.

He predicts that if the economy keeps growing, oil prices could reach $80 or $90. "Probably we are going to see $4 gasoline," he says.

The bears: Citigroup's Cooper says the run-up in oil prices "is based on fear of what could happen," not what's happening today.

"During the last 24 months, the world has added over 200 million barrels to petroleum inventories around the globe. How is that supply not keeping up with demand? Demand has grown significantly. Supply has met and exceeded demand by 200 million barrels."

In the United States, inventories of all energy products (excluding the Strategic Petroleum Reserve) were 4 percent higher in mid-August than they were the same time last year, according to the Energy Information Administration.

Gasoline inventories were lower than they were last year, mainly because refiners had switched to making heating oil early in the summer.

Cooper acknowledges that demand has grown and that it has gotten more expensive to produce oil. He says we will probably never see $20 oil again. But on a fundamental basis, it should be trading for $35 to $40.

The difference between that price and today's price, he says, is due largely to speculators.

"I think you had a massive redistribution of financial assets away from stocks, bonds and traditional assets, with an increasing focus on commodities, " he says.

He compares the price of West Texas Intermediate, which has an active futures market, with the price of residual fuel oil, which has no futures market. Residual fuel is what's left from a barrel of oil after gasoline, diesel and jet fuel and other products are made.

Before 2004, residual fuel typically traded at a $3 to $4 discount to oil. Today, it's $20 cheaper.

Cooper attributes the difference to the fact that hedge funds and other speculators can buy futures on oil prices, but not on residual fuel.

He says energy companies are approving projects that are economical if oil is at least $35 per barrel. Those projects, he says, have barely begun to add to the oil supply. If prices stay above $35, the world could be awash in oil.

People predicting $100 oil are ignoring inventories, just as investors ignored price-earnings ratios and other historical relationships during the dot-com days, he says. "Then, PEs didn't matter. Today inventories don't matter. Guess what? PEs do matter."

There is one difference between then and now. For dot-coms, "the entry cost was three college kids and a server. The entrance into the oil market is billions of dollars and a cadre of highly trained people," Cooper says.

Even so, "if inventories continue to rise, it tells you there's a glut, and the hype (about shortages) is not real," he says.

It's not personal. It's strictly business.

Can evolutionary psychology take the mystery out of how we meet and mate?

By Julia M. Klein
Los Angeles Times

August 29, 2005, 1:17 PM EDT

THREE years ago, Robert Kurzban spotted an advertisement for a service called HurryDate, offering an evening of three-minute meetings with 25 potential dates.

Kurzban was intrigued — but not because he was looking for romance. As an evolutionary psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, he thought speed dating could afford him a rare chance to study how people behave in real dating situations.

With the agreement of the company, Kurzban and a colleague surveyed the HurryDaters about a range of topics including religious background and their desire for children. Their fundamental questions: Did participants select the people most like themselves? Or did most of them prize similar traits — such as appearance or high income — and try to get the best deal they could in the mating market?

What the researchers discovered was that men and women chose their dates on the basis of "generally agreed upon mate values," the mating market hypothesis. Another finding: Both sexes relied mainly on physical attractiveness, largely disregarding factors such as income and social status.

"HurryDate participants are given three minutes in which to make their judgments," the psychologists wrote in a paper published in the May issue of the science journal Evolution and Human Behavior, "but they mostly could be made in three seconds."

The HurryDate research is one example of the everyday applications of evolutionary psychology, an interdisciplinary field that is influential and controversial. Other recent studies of human mating have explored issues such as the male preference for dating subordinates, why women have extramarital affairs and what trade-offs both sexes are willing to make in choosing partners.

Evolutionary psychology sees the mind as a set of evolved psychological mechanisms, or adaptations, that have promoted survival and reproduction. One branch of evolutionary psychology focuses on the distinct mating preferences and strategies of men and women. For example, because our male ancestors were easily able to sire numerous children at little cost to their fitness, the theory says, they were inclined to short-term mating with multiple partners. In choosing mates, they gravitated toward youth and physical attractiveness — markers of fertility and health.

By contrast, females, for whom conception meant pregnancy and the need to care for a child, were more selective, searching for long-term commitments from males with the resources and willingness to invest in them and their offspring.

Theory's evolution

Support for this theory came from a landmark study by psychologist David M. Buss and colleagues in the 1980s, involving 37 cultures and 10,047 individuals. Buss, now professor of psychology at the University of Texas in Austin, found marked similarities across cultures, including a female preference for men with resources and status that persisted even when women had considerable resources of their own. Overall, women valued financial resources in a mate twice as much as men did.

"Up until that time, everyone believed that these things were very tethered to individual cultures and that cultures were infinitely variable," said Buss, whose more recent books have described the utility of jealousy and the universality of homicidal impulses.

Buss' survey continues to influence research on human mating. But some scientists and social scientists remain skeptical, saying evolutionary psychologists tend to neglect the role of learning and culture and to overemphasize genetics. Melvin Ember, an anthropologist and president of the Human Relations Area Files, a Yale-affiliated research organization, says that "focusing on universals" fails to explain either individual or cultural variation.

Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist at Falk Center for Molecular Therapeutics at Northwestern University, has chided evolutionary psychologists for ignoring recent neurological findings about human and mammalian brains.

Despite the objections, the field of evolutionary psychology is growing.

In recent years, Darwinian feminists and others have developed a more nuanced view of the complexities of female behavior. Women, it seems, aren't quite as monogamous as their partners might wish. They too sometimes pursue short-term mating strategies, though not everyone agrees on why.

Randy Thornhill, professor of biology at the University of New Mexico, said he has discovered that women, in an unconscious bid for better genes, will choose "extra-pair copulation" — that is, have affairs — with men who are more attractive (though perhaps less likely to commit) than their long-term mates. Other research indicates that women make different choices at different points in their menstrual cycle, opting for better-looking, more symmetrical and more masculine-appearing men when they are at their most fertile.

In short-term relationships, physical attractiveness is a priority for women, just as it is for men, according to a study by psychologists Norman P. Li and Douglas T. Kenrick that is slated to appear sometime next year in the journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Trying to draw a distinction between "luxuries" and "necessities," the researchers gave men and women varied "mating budgets" and, in a series of tests, asked them to construct their ideal mate, using such qualities as looks, social status, creativity, and kindness. For one-night stands and affair partners, both women and men sought physical attractiveness above all else.

For long-term mates, the expected sex differences emerged: Men kept preferring attractiveness, and women opted for social status, as well as warmth and trustworthiness. But after their minimum requirements for these necessities were met, both sexes chose well-rounded partners over those with the very best looks or the highest status.

In other words, "Men are not complete pigs, and women are not complete gold-diggers," said Li, assistant professor of psychology at the University of Texas at Austin.

This makes good evolutionary sense, considering that to father a child, Li said, "you don't need the most beautiful woman in the world." At the same time, women "don't need the richest man in the world to guarantee reproductive success. You just need somebody who's not a bum, basically."

Trading up

In practice, Li said, people's budgets in the mating market are determined by what they themselves have to offer. "So a guy who is extremely high status or very wealthy can trade up for a more physically attractive partner," he said. And "women trying to make themselves more physically attractive so they can get a higher quality mate are not completely misguided."

It is also true, Li said, that very smart and successful women will have a harder time finding partners. "It seems that men want somebody intelligent enough so that they can recognize the man's brilliance," he said, "but not necessarily enough to challenge them — or so smart that they find someone else more interesting."

John Marshall Townsend, professor of anthropology at the Maxwell School at Syracuse University, says that women's status requirements often complicate their search for a mate. Townsend showed a group of female medical students, law students and professionals pictures of men dressed in different ways — wearing, for instance, a fast-food uniform or a designer suit and Rolex watch. He also gave participants descriptions of each man's social status.

The results were decisive. "Here's Mr. Hottie, but if he's in the wrong costume, and given the wrong status description, then she won't go out with him, much less go to bed with him or marry him," said Townsend. "You could put Cary Grant in a Burger King outfit, and he looks dorky."

If women do occasionally date "down" in terms of social status, Townsend said, "that would be out of desperation."

By contrast, he says, men are likely to date any physically attractive woman. When it comes to marriage, "guys are not completely insensitive to social class," but, he said, they're "not looking for socioeconomic gain."

Another recent study, by Stephanie L. Brown of the University of Michigan's Institute for Social Research and Brian P. Lewis of Syracuse University in New York, suggested that men prefer long-term relationships with subordinates rather than co-workers or supervisors. By contrast, women showed no significant preference for socially dominant men.

The reason for this result, Lewis hypothesized, is that men think they would "have more control over the behavior" of female subordinates, including being able to ensure female monogamy, and thus the paternity of any children. "Female infidelity is a severe reproductive threat to males only when investment is high," as it is in long-term relationships, the authors write.

Some evolutionary psychologists think gender differences can be overstated. In "The Mating Mind: How Sexual Choice Shaped the Evolution of Human Nature," Geoffrey Miller suggests that the human mind evolved, much like the elaborate peacock's tail, primarily as a way of attracting partners of both sexes. His book argues that traits such as musical and artistic ability played no clear role in helping human beings survive, but instead enhanced their reproductive success.

For Miller, assistant professor of psychology at the University of New Mexico, intellect and creativity are, well, sexy. "Guys are not picky about short-term mating, which is why we don't read about IQ scores in Penthouse magazine," he said. But when it comes to long-term relationships, he said, "There's good evidence that guys are as picky as women about the mental traits of partners."

In the context of speed dating, where quick impressions count, HurryDate president Adele Testani says she was not surprised to learn that both sexes were most choosy about physical attractiveness. Although participants invariably ask each other about their careers, Testani said, "it really is all about that face-to-face chemistry and connection and attraction." She added: "You're certainly not going to find out if you're going to marry the person" in a few minutes.

Kurzban said the "rich visual information" supplied by HurryDate encounters may help men and women get over the first hurdle of appearance, before other factors, such as social status, become relevant.

In the end, said Li, men and women tend to strive for the best partner their own attributes can buy. "Falling in love," he said, "is basically a process where both sides feel they're getting a good deal."

The new self-absorption.

Old school: I want to know more about you.

The new style: I want to know about you so that you can know more about me.


August 28, 2005

Do You MySpace?


IT seems a hazy memory, but Keith Wilson, a spiky-haired club promoter, can recall what it was like before MySpace - about two years ago. Back then people had normal names like "Joe" or "Keith."

"People don't call me 'Keith,' " he said, straining to be heard as cascades of power chords rumbled from the stage at Boardner's, a club just off Hollywood Boulevard, on a mid-August Wednesday night. "They call me 'Keith 2.0,' because that's my MySpace name. That guy over there, he's 'Joeymachine.' Everyone has a MySpace name now."

Dozens of extravagantly tattooed Hollywood urchins waited in a line down the sidewalk to join a sweaty throng inside the club, which that night was playing host to a weekly live rock series Mr. Wilson promotes called Club Moscow. The fans were there, he said, because they heard about the show on MySpace. The bands they were listening to were building a following by posting home pages on MySpace.

"I conduct my entire business through MySpace," said Mr. Wilson, 25, who relies on, a social-networking Web site, to orchestrate his professional and personal schedule and is no longer sure he needs an America Online account or even a telephone. "I haven't made a flier in years," he said.

Created in the fall of 2003 as a looser, music-driven version of, MySpace quickly caught on with millions of teenagers and young adults as a place to maintain their home pages, which they often decorate with garish artwork, intimate snapshots and blogs filled with frank and often ribald commentary on their lives, all linked to the home pages of friends.

Even with many users in their 20's MySpace has the personality of an online version of a teenager's bedroom, a place where the walls are papered with posters and photographs, the music is loud, and grownups are an alien species.

Although many people over 30 have never heard of MySpace, it has about 27 million members, a nearly 400 percent growth since the start of the year. It passed Google in April in hits, the number of pages viewed monthly, according to comScore MediaMetrix, a company that tracks Web traffic. (MySpace members often cycle through dozens of pages each time they log on, checking up on friends' pages.) According to Nielsen/NetRatings, users spend an average of an hour and 43 minutes on the site each month, compared with 34 minutes for and 25 minutes for Friendster.

"They've just come out of nowhere, and they're huge," David Card, a senior analyst with Jupiter Research, said of MySpace. "They've done a number of things that were really smart. One was blogging. People have been doing personal home pages for as long as the Internet's been around, but they were one of the first social networks to jump on that. They've also jumped on music, and there's a lot of traffic surrounding that."

"And," he added with delicacy, "I think a lot of their traffic comes from the pictures. I don't think there's anything X-rated, but there are lots of pictures of college students in various states of undress."

Even the founders seem taken aback. "I don't want to say it's overwhelming," said Tom Anderson, 29, who created MySpace with Chris DeWolfe, 39, "but I see these numbers coming out, I keep thinking, it must be a mistake. How can we pass Google? I mean, my mom knows Google, but she doesn't know MySpace."

One adult who has paid attention is Rupert Murdoch, the chief executive of the News Corporation, which agreed in July to pay $580 million to buy the site's parent company. At the time News Corporation executives explained the investment by citing MySpace's surging popularity among young people, who are often difficult to reach through newspapers and television.

The growth of MySpace - which is free to users and derives revenue from banner ads appearing on top of each page - is all the more striking because at its core it doesn't offer anything particularly new. Mr. Anderson, who has a master's in film studies from the University of California, Los Angeles, played guitar and sang in a band called Swank. He conceived the site while helping run an Internet marketing company he started with Mr. DeWolfe.

Internet commerce was then still recovering from the bursting of the bubble in 2000, although social networking sites like Friendster and Facebook were enjoying fad status with users who joined to track down old friends and troll for dates.

Mr. Anderson's idea was to expand the social-networking model into a one-stop Web spot, incorporating elements from other sites popular with the young: the instant-message capabilities of American Online, the classifieds of, the invitation service of and the come-hither dating profiles of The founders spread the word about MySpace through friends and anyone they happened to meet in Los Angeles at bars, nightclubs or rock shows.

"Since we're telling people in clubs - models - suddenly everyone on MySpace looks really pretty," recalled Mr. Anderson, who with his trucker hat and sideburns looks as if he could be gigging in a club himself later on. "That wasn't really the plan. It just kind of happened."

The soft-spoken Mr. DeWolfe, wearing a custard-yellow embroidered shirt and jeans, added, "It's sort of synonymous to how you start a bar." He has a master's degree in business from the University of Southern California and oversees the money side of MySpace.

From the beginning, independent filmmakers, actors, aspiring comedians and, particularly, unsigned rock bands have used the site to promote themselves - so many that MySpace became known, not quite accurately, as a music site (an impression reinforced now that acts like Weezer, Billy Corgan and Nine Inch Nails introduce albums there).

"I am Mr. Ben," one typical 19-year-old from Santee, Calif., writes on his home page. "I live in a suburb where a new shopping center makes everyone go loco it is so boring. I have got to find real people to talk to, thus I am on my space. I am here. Talk to me."

His is a plausible, if unwitting, manifesto for the countless users who chatter away on blogs into the wee hours, apparently needing to confirm that something is going on somewhere out there.

Members customize their home pages with zebra-stripe backgrounds and giant pictures of their favorite motocross riders, rock singers or bikini models. The site is also a testament to the exhibitionism spawned by cellphone cameras.

And a popular feature is the ability to assemble galleries of friends, with their photographs linking to their own pages. (As at many networking sites, MySpace members must receive permission from other members before adding them as friends, and sometimes "friendship" is no deeper than a brief e-mail exchange.)

Seabron Ward, 19, a student at the University of Colorado at Denver, said that many students consider it a status symbol to build a big friend list. "This one guy on my list has a thousand," she said, a bit enviously. "I only have 79."

The time-sucking potential of MySpace became an issue at the small record label where Ms. Ward works, Suburban Home Records, at least in the eyes of her boss, Virgil Dickerson. He said he started worrying when he noticed younger employees spending hours surfing through MySpace. "It was a drag on productivity, for sure," Mr. Dickerson, 30, said. "They were always goofing around, seeing if such-and-such added them as a friend or whatever."

In the winter three of his single employees got into relationships around the same time, meaning they could all graduate from the "single" designation on their MySpace pages. It was a big deal, and Mr. Dickerson gave an office party, complete with an ice cream cake with the message in frosting "Congrats Kyle, Joey, and Naomi on your MySpace Upgrade!""

As a man who makes his living from youth culture, he had to make peace with MySpace. His company has responded to a slow period in the record business by selling T-shirts on eBay that read, "MySpace ruined my life." "They're doing pretty awesome actually," Mr. Dickerson said. "I'd say, as far as a cultural phenomenon, MySpace is as important, if not more important, than MTV."

Like MTV, it is starting to create stars that glow brightly within its own universe. The band Hollywood Undead, which did not exist three months ago, has achieved celebrity thanks to MySpace. "We were just a bunch of loser kids who sat around our friend's house all day, and we started making music and recording it on computer," one of its vocalists, Jeff Phillips, said.

About two months ago the group posted a page on MySpace decorated with pictures of all seven members disguised in hockey masks and other forms of concealment. They also included a few original songs, a fusion of heavy metal and hip-hop. "In a matter of weeks it got huge, and it kept on getting bigger and bigger," said Mr. Phillips, whose left earlobe was splayed open enough to accommodate a hollow ring the size of a wedding band.

"It's been maybe nine weeks, and we've had over a million plays. We have 60,000 people who listen to it every day. It's crazy. If you look at our page, it's like we're a huge band that's toured a hundred times."

Hollywood Undead, Mr. Phillips said, is negotiating with major labels for a recording contract.

The biggest MySpace celebrity, however, is Mr. Anderson. His is the first face that pops up in every new member's box and therefore a man whose list of "friends" is 26.646 million and counting.

"Tom is a god," Mr. Phillips said. "Literally, anywhere I've seen him, when we're out with him, people just stop on the street. They're like, 'Tom!' They want his autograph, pictures taken with him. It's like he's a rock star."

Recently the growth of MySpace has allowed the company to move into sleek new headquarters in Santa Monica with glassed-in offices. Mr. Anderson acknowledges that he runs into employees whose names he does not know. The MySpace founders said the company will be starting its own record label in partnership with a major label shortly.

At the time of the News Corporation's decision to buy the site, Mr. Murdoch was asked by reporters if he was nervous putting more than half a billion dollars on two little-known entrepreneurs. "You bet," he answered. But he said his fears were allayed once he met Mr. Anderson and Mr. DeWolfe.

The founders seem reluctant to discuss anything about their coming absorption into the world's largest media conglomerate. Their silence suggests they may be nervous about losing their credibility as alternative-culture figures with MySpace members. They insist nothing will change. They will keep the same job titles, they say, and the site will look and feel the same.

"We get to keep doing what we're doing, and have more money to do it," Mr. Anderson said. "We're not moving over there, they're not coming over here. We just kind of go talk to them once a month and let them know what's up."

He said that as he meets with bands to sign up for the new label, he keeps hearing the same question: "How are you going to get me on MTV?"

"They don't quite get it, and I'm only starting to get it myself," Mr. Anderson said. "We've got our 26 million, with a lot more people logging in each day."

He added, with a shrug, "It's kind of like, who cares about MTV anymore?"

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company

Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Another societal experiment/prescription for disaster.

link to original article.


Deep into Sleep

While researchers probe sleep's functions, sleep itself is becoming a lost art.

by Craig Lambert

Not long ago, a psychiatrist in private practice telephoned associate professor of psychiatry Robert Stickgold, a cognitive neuroscientist specializing in sleep research. He asked whether Stickgold knew of any reason not to prescribe modafinil, a new wakefulness-promoting drug, to a Harvard undergraduate facing a lot of academic work in exam period.

The question resonated on several levels. Used as an aid to prolonged study, modafinil is tantamount to a “performance-enhancing” drug—one of those controversial, and often illegal, boosters used by some athletes. In contrast to wakefulness-producing stimulants like amphetamines, modafinil (medically indicated for narcolepsy and tiredness secondary to multiple sclerosis and depression) does not seem to impair judgment or produce jitters. “There’s no buzz, no crash, and it’s not clear that the body tries to make up the lost sleep,” reports Stickgold. “That said, all sleeping medications more or less derange your normal sleep patterns. They do not produce normal sleep.” Even so, the U.S. military is sinking millions of dollars into research on modafinil, trying to see if they can keep soldiers awake and on duty—in Iraq, for example—for 80 out of 88 hours: two 40-hour shifts separated by eight hours of sleep.

“No—no reason at all not to,” Stickgold told the psychiatrist. “Not unless you think sleep does something.”

When people make the unlikely claim that they get by on four hours of sleep per night, Stickgold often asks if they worry about what they are losing. “You get a blank look,” he says. “They think that sleep is wasted time.” But sleep is not merely “down time” between episodes of being alive. Within an evolutionary framework, the simple fact that we spend about a third of our lives asleep suggests that sleep is more than a necessary evil. Much transpires while we are asleep, and the question is no longer whether sleep does something, but exactly what it does. Lack of sleep may be related to obesity, diabetes, immune-system dysfunction, and many illnesses, as well as to safety issues such as car accidents and medical errors, plus impaired job performance and productivity in many other activities.

Although the modern era of sleep research started in the 1950s with the discovery of REM (Rapid Eye Movement) sleep, the field remained, well, somnolent until recently. Even 20 years ago, “The dominant paradigm in sleep research was that ‘Sleep cures sleepiness,’” says Stickgold. Since then, researchers have developed a far more complex picture of what happens while we snooze. The annual meetings in sleep medicine, which only this year became a recognized medical specialty, now draw 5,000 participants. Harvard has long been a leader in the area. The Medical School’s Division of Sleep Medicine, founded in 1997 and chaired by Baldino professor of sleep medicine Charles Czeisler, has 61 faculty affiliates. The division aims to foster collaborative research into sleep, sleep disorders, and circadian biology, to educate physicians and the lay public, to influence public policy, and to set new standards of clinical practice, aiming, as its website ( declares, to create “a model program in sleep and circadian biology.”

A Culture of “Sleep Bulimia”

Imagine going on a camping trip without flashlights or lanterns. As the sun sets at the end of the day, daylight gradually gives way to darkness, and once the campfire burns down, you will probably go to sleep. At sunrise, there’s a similar gradient in reverse; from the beginning of time, human beings have been entrained to these cycles of light and dark.

Homo sapiens is not a nocturnal animal; we don’t have good night vision and are not especially effective in darkness. Yet in an instant on the evolutionary time scale, Edison’s invention of the light bulb, and his opening of the first round-the-clock power plant on Pearl Street in Manhattan in 1882, shifted our time-and-light environment in the nocturnal direction. At the snap of a switch, a whole range of nighttime activity opened up, and today we live in a 24-hour world that is always available for work or play. Television and telephones never shut down; the Internet allows you to shop, gamble, work, or flirt at 3 a.m.; businesses stay open ever-longer hours; tens of millions of travelers cross multiple time zones each year, worldwide; and with the growth of global commerce and communication, Wall Street traders may need to rise early or stay up late to keep abreast of developments on Japan’s Nikkei exchange or at the Deutsche Bundesbank.

Consequently most of us now sleep less than people did a century ago, or even 50 years ago. The National Sleep Foundation’s 2005 poll showed adult Americans averaging 6.8 hours of sleep on weeknights—more than an hour less than they need, Czeisler says. Not only how much sleep, but when people sleep has changed. In the United States, six to eight million shift workers toil regularly at night, disrupting sleep patterns in ways that are not necessarily amenable to adaptation. Many people get only five hours per night during the week and then try to catch up by logging nine hours nightly on weekends. “You can make up for acute sleep deprivation,” says David P. White, McGinness professor of sleep medicine and director of the sleep disorders program at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. “But we don’t know what happens when people are chronically sleep-deprived over years.”

“We are living in the middle of history’s greatest experiment in sleep deprivation and we are all a part of that experiment,” says Stickgold. “It’s not inconceivable to me that we will discover that there are major social, economic, and health consequences to that experiment. Sleep deprivation doesn’t have any good side effects.”

All animals sleep. Fish that need to keep swimming to breathe sleep with half their brains while the other half keeps them moving. It is uncertain whether fruit flies actually sleep (“We can’t put electrodes in their brains,” says White), but they seem at least to rest, because for extended periods they do not move. When researchers stopped fruit flies from resting by swatting at them, the flies took even longer rest periods. When lab technicians added caffeine to the water that the flies drank, they stayed active longer—and also rested longer after the drug wore off, evidence that the caffeine had disrupted their resting patterns.

Sleeping well helps keep you alive longer. Among humans, death from all causes is lowest among adults who get seven to eight hours of sleep nightly, and significantly higher among those who sleep less than seven or more than nine hours. (“Those who sleep more than nine hours have something wrong with them that may be causing the heavy sleep, and leads to their demise,” White notes. “It is not the sleep itself that is harmful.”)

Sleep is essential to normal biological function. “The immune system doesn’t work well if we don’t sleep,” says White. “Most think sleep serves some neurological process to maintain homeostasis in the brain.” Rats totally deprived of sleep die in 17 to 20 days: their hair starts falling out, and they become hypermetabolic, burning lots of calories while just standing still.

There once was a fair amount of research on total sleep deprivation, like that which killed the rats. Doctors would keep humans awake for 48, 72, or even 96 hours, and watch their performance deteriorate while their mental states devolved into psychosis. For several reasons, such studies rarely happen any more (“Why study something that doesn’t exist?” asks White) and researchers now concentrate on sleep restriction studies.

In this context, it is important to distinguish between acute and chronic sleep deprivation. Someone who misses an entire night of sleep but then gets adequate sleep on the following three days “will recover most of his or her normal ability to function, ” Czeisler says. “But someone restricted to only five hours of nightly sleep for weeks builds up a cumulative sleep deficit. In the first place, their performance will be as impaired as if they had been up all night. Secondly, it will take two to three weeks of extra nightly sleep before they return to baseline performance. Chronic sleep deprivation’s impact takes much longer to build up, and it also takes much longer to recover.” The body is eager to restore the balance; Harvard undergraduates, a high-achieving, sleep-deprived population, frequently go home for Christmas vacation and pretty much sleep for the first week. Stickgold notes that “When you live on four hours a night, you forget what it’s like to really be awake.”

Sleep researcher Eve van Cauter at the University of Chicago exposed sleep-deprived students (allowed only four hours per night for six nights) to flu vaccine; their immune systems produced only half the normal number of antibodies in response to the viral challenge. Levels of cortisol (a hormone associated with stress) rose, and the sympathetic nervous system became active, raising heart rates and blood pressure. The subjects also showed insulin resistance, a pre-diabetic condition that affects glucose tolerance and produces weight gain. “[When] restricted to four hours [of sleep] a night, within a couple of weeks, you could make an 18-year-old look like a 60-year-old in terms of their ability to metabolize glucose,” Czeisler notes. “The sleep-deprived metabolic syndrome might increase carbohydrate cravings and the craving for junk food.”

Van Cauter also showed that sleep-deprived subjects had reduced levels of leptin, a molecule secreted by fat cells that acts in the brain to inhibit appetite. “During nights of sleep deprivation, you feel that your eating goes wacky,” says Stickgold. “Up at 2 a.m., working on a paper, a steak or pasta is not very attractive. You’ll grab the candy bar instead. It probably has to do with the glucose regulation going off. It could be that a good chunk of our epidemic of obesity is actually an epidemic of sleep deprivation.”

Furthermore, “Many children in our society don’t get adequate amounts of sleep,” Czeisler says. “Contrary to what one might expect, it’s common to see irritability and hyperactivity in sleep-deprived children. Is it really surprising that we treat them with wake-promoting drugs like Ritalin?” Schools and athletic programs press children to stay awake longer, and some children may be chronically sleep-deprived. Czeisler once took his daughter to a swim-team practice that ran from eight to nine o’clock at night, and told the coaches that this was too late an hour for children. “They looked at me like I was from another planet,” he recalls. “They said, ‘This is when we can get the pool.’”

Stickgold compares sleep deprivation to eating disorders. “Twenty years ago, bulimics probably thought they had the best of all worlds,” he says. “They could eat all they wanted and never gain weight. Now we know that they were and are doing major damage to their bodies and suffering major psychological damage. We live in a world of sleep bulimia, where we binge on weekends and purge during the week.”

The Fatigue Tax

Lack of sleep impairs performance on a wide variety of tasks. A single all-nighter can triple reaction time and vastly increase lapses of attention. Sleep researcher David Dinges at the University of Pennsylvania studied such lapses using a “psychomotor vigilance task” on pools of subjects who had slept four, six, or eight hours nightly for two weeks. The researchers measured subjects’ speed of reaction to a computer screen where, at random intervals within a defined 10-minute period, the display would begin counting up in milliseconds from 000 to one second. The task was first, to notice that the count had started, and second, to stop it as quickly as possible by hitting a key. It wasn’t so much that the sleep-deprived subjects were slower, but that they had far more total lapses, letting the entire second go by without responding. Those on four hours a night had more lapses than those sleeping six, who in turn had more lapses than subjects sleeping eight hours per night. “The number of lapses went up and up for the whole two weeks,” says David White, “and they hadn’t plateaued at the end of the two-week study!”

There’s fairly large individual variation in susceptibility to the cognitive effects of sleep deprivation: in one of Charles Czeisler’s studies, somewhere between a quarter and a third of the subjects who stayed awake all night contributed two-thirds of the lapses of attention. “Some are more resistant to the impact of a single night of sleep loss,” he says. “But they all fall apart after two nights without sleep.” In a sleep-deprived state, says White, “Most of us can perform at a fairly low level. And a lot can run around sleep-deprived without it being obvious. But truck drivers, neurosurgeons, nuclear-plant workers—after six or eight hours, they have to put a second crew on and give them a break.” Very few people are really immune to sleep deprivation: in Dinges’s study, only one of 48 subjects had the same performance after two weeks of four hours’ nightly sleep as on day one.

Students often wonder whether to pull an all-nighter before an exam. Will the extra studying time outweigh the exhaustion? Robert Stickgold, who has studied sleep’s role in cognition for the past 10 years, reports that it depends on the exam. “If you are just trying to remember simple facts—listing all the kings of England, say—cramming all night works, ” he explains. “That’s because it’s a different memory system, the declarative memory system. But if you expect to be hit with a question like ‘Relate the French Revolution to the Industrial Revolution,’ where you have to synthesize connections between facts, then missing that night of sleep can be disastrous. Your ability to do critical thinking takes a massive hit—just as with alcohol, you’re knocking out the frontal-cortex functions.

“It’s a version of ‘sleeping on a problem,’” Stickgold continues. “If you can’t recall a phone number, you don’t say, ‘Let me sleep on it.’ But if you can’t decide whether to take a better-paying job located halfway across the country—where you have all the information and just have to weigh it—you say, ‘Let me sleep on it.’ You don’t say, ‘Give me 24 hours.’ We realize that it’s not just time; we understand at a gut level that the brain is doing this integration of information as we sleep, all by itself.”

Not only mental and emotional clarification, but the improvement of motor skills can occur while asleep. “Suppose you are trying to learn a passage in a Chopin piano étude, and you just can’t get it,” says Stickgold. “You walk away and the next day, the first try, you’ve got it perfectly. We see this with musicians, and with gymnasts. There’s something about learning motor-activity patterns, complex movements: they seem to get better by themselves, overnight.”

Stickgold’s colleague Matthew Walker, an instructor in psychiatry, studied a simple motor task: typing the sequence “41324” as rapidly and accurately as possible. After 12 minutes of training, subjects improved their speed by 50 to 60 percent, but then reached a plateau. Those who trained in the morning and came back for another trial the same evening showed no improvement. But those who trained in the evening and returned for a retest the following morning were 15 to 20 percent faster and 30 to 50 percent more accurate. “Twenty percent improvement—what’s that?” asks Stickgold, rhetorically. “Well, it’s taking a four-minute mile down to three minutes and 10 seconds, or raising a five-foot high jump to six feet.”

Bodily Rituals

So sleep is essential, but exactly why we go to sleep remains a mystery. Professor of psychiatry Robert McCarley, based at the VA Boston Healthcare System, has linked sleep to the brain neurochemical adenosine. Adenosine binds with phosphorus to create adenosine triphosphate (ATP), a substance that cells break down to generate energy. McCarley and colleagues inserted microcatheters into cat brains while keeping the cats awake for up to six hours—a long time for a cat. They found that rising adenosine levels in the basal forebrain put the cat to sleep; then, in the sleeping cat, adenosine levels fall again. In both cats and humans, the basal forebrain includes cells important for wakefulness, and adenosine turns these cells off, triggering sleep.

Like cats, when we are awake and active, we burn ATP, which breaks down to adenosine. Over time, adenosine levels build up, causing pressure for sleep. During sleep, many of the body’s cells are less active and hence burn less ATP, so adenosine levels fall again, setting the stage for wakefulness.

A drug like caffeine, however, partially blocks adenosine receptors, so the brain doesn’t perceive the actual adenosine level, and we don’t get tired. In a world that values wakefulness and productivity over rest and recovery, caffeine has become, in dollar amounts, the second-largest commodity (after oil) traded in the world. Some consumers require ever-greater jolts—one 24-ounce Starbucks beverage packs a walloping 1,000-plus milligrams of caffeine. (A commonly used figure for one cup of coffee is 100 milligrams.)

The lab run by Putnam professor of neurology Clifford Saper has done related research, refining the location and functions of the “sleep switch,” a group of nerve cells in the hypothalamus that turns off the brain’s waking systems; conversely, the waking systems can turn off the sleep switch. “When you have a switch where either side can turn off the other, it’s what electrical engineers call a ‘flip-flop,’” Saper explains. “It likes to be in one state or the other. So we fall asleep, or wake up, quite quickly. Otherwise we’d be half asleep or half awake all the time, with only brief periods of being fully awake or asleep. But we’re not—we are either awake or asleep.”

The adenosine cycle at least partly explains the homeostatic drive for sleep—the longer we are awake, the greater our fatigue, and pressure to sleep builds up progressively. But circadian rhythms also profoundly affect sleep and wakefulness. Circadian cycles (from circa, meaning “about,” and dies, a “day”) are internal periodic rhythms that control many things like body temperature, hormone levels, sleep and wakefulness, digestion, and excretion. “The circadian cycles go way back in evolutionary time,” Charles Czeisler says. “They are probably older than sleep.”

Since the 1970s, Czeisler has established himself as one of the world’s leading authorities on circadian cycles and the chronobiology of sleep and wakefulness. He has done groundbreaking work in the sleep laboratory at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, where a special wing on one floor is shielded not only from sunlight, but from all external time cues. There, researchers can do exotic things like simulate the 708-hour lunar day or conditions on the International Space Station, where the sun rises and sets every 90 minutes. (Czeisler leads a sleep and chronobiology team that, under the auspices of NASA, researches human factors involved in space travel.)

Exotic light environments like space challenge human biology, partly because people differ from other mammals, which take short catnaps and rat naps throughout the day and night. In contrast, we have one bout of consolidated (unbroken) sleep, and one of consolidated waking, per day (or, in siesta cultures, two of each). In addition, “There is a very narrow window [in the daily cycle] in which we are able to maintain consolidated sleep,” Czeisler says, “and the window gets narrower and narrower as we get older.”

The origins of humans’ consolidated sleep take us to the beginnings of terrestrial life, since even prokaryotes—one-celled organisms like bacteria, lacking a nucleus—have built-in 24-hour rhythms. It is not surprising that these biological clocks are so universal, as they reflect the entrainment of all living things to the primeval 24-hour cycles of light and darkness created by the rotation of Earth.

“The light and dark cycle is the most powerful synchronizer of the internal circadian clock that keeps us in sync with the 24-hour day,” Czeisler says. As late as 1978, when he published a paper demonstrating this effect, many still believed that “social interaction was the most important factor in synchronizing physiological cycles—that we had evolved beyond light,” he says. “But much of our subsequent research shows that our daily cycles are more like those of cockroaches than we want to believe. We are very sensitive to light.”

Light strongly affects the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), a biological clock in the anterior region of the hypothalamus that directs circadian cycles. All cells have internal clocks—even cells in a tissue culture run on 24-hour cycles. “They all oscillate like violins and cellos, but the SCN is the conductor that synchronizes them all together, ” Czeisler explains.

While the homeostatic pressure to sleep starts growing the moment we awaken, the SCN calls a different tune. Late in the afternoon, its circadian signal for wakefulness kicks in. “The circadian system is set up in a beautiful way to override the homeostatic drive for sleep,” Czeisler says. The circadian pacemaker’s signal continues to increase into the night, offsetting the build-up of homeostatic pressure and allowing us to stay awake well into the evening and so achieve our human pattern of consolidated sleep and wakefulness. (There is often a dip in the late afternoon, when the homeostatic drive has been building for hours but the circadian signal hasn’t yet kicked in; Czeisler calls this “a great time for a nap.”) The evolutionary benefit of consolidated sleep and wakefulness is a subject of speculation; Czeisler says that long bouts of wakefulness may enable us to “take advantage of our greater intellectual capacity by focusing our energy and concentration. Frequent catnaps would interrupt that.”

The circadian pacemaker’s push for wakefulness peaks between about 8 and 10 p.m., which makes it very difficult for someone on a typical schedule to fall asleep then. “The period from two to three hours before one’s regular bedtime, we call a ‘wake maintenance zone,’ ” Czeisler says. But about an hour before bedtime, the pineal gland steps up its secretion of the hormone melatonin, which quiets the output from the SCN and hence paves the way for sleep.

Some years ago, melatonin supplements became popular as a natural sleeping pill, but as Czeisler’s research has proven, light is a more powerful influence on the biological clock than melatonin. Mangelsdorf professor of natural sciences J. Woodland Hastings has shown that even a split-second of light exposure can shift the circadian cycle of a single-celled organism by a full hour. Light interferes with sleep, at least partly because it inhibits melatonin secretion and thus resets the biological clock. For this reason, those seeking a sound sleep should probably keep their bedroom as dark as possible and by all means avoid midnight trips to brightly lit bathrooms or kitchens; blue light, with its shorter wavelength—and its resemblance to the sunlit sky—has the most powerful resetting effect.

Light resets the pacemaker even in the case of some completely blind people, who generally lose circadian entrainment and suffer recurrent insomnia. “The eye has two functions, just as the ear does, with hearing and balance,” says Czeisler. “The eye has vision, and also circadian photoreception.” A subset of about 1,000 photosensitive retinal ganglion cells connects by a direct neural pathway to the SCN; these cells are sometimes active even in those who are blind to light. Exposure to bright light will decrease melatonin levels in some blind persons, and this subset, unlike other blind people, generally do not suffer from insomnia and are biologically entrained to the 24-hour day.

Disastrous Exhaustion

The human species, or much of it, anyway, apparently is trying to become simultaneously nocturnal and diurnal. Society has been squeezing the window for restful sleep ever narrower. (Czeisler likes to quote colleague Thomas Roth of the Henry Ford Sleep Disorders Center in Detroit, on the minimal-sleep end of the spectrum. “The percentage of the population who need less than five hours of sleep per night, rounded to a whole number,” says Roth, “is zero.”)

Czeisler has conducted several studies of medical interns, an institutionally sleep-deprived population who provide a hugely disproportionate fraction of the nation’s healthcare services. Interns work famously long 80- and even 100-hour weeks; every other shift is typically 30 hours in duration. “On this kind of schedule, virtually everyone is impaired,” he says. “Being awake more than 24 hours impairs performance as much as having a blood-alcohol level of 0.1 percent—which is legally drunk.”

In addition to both acute and chronic sleep deprivation, interns sleep and wake in patterns that misalign with circadian cycles—being asked, for example, to perform with full alertness at 4 a.m. A fourth factor is that the human brain is “cold” and essentially impaired during the first half-hour after awakening—even more impaired, says Czeisler, than after 70 hours of sleeplessness. “It’s a colossally bad idea to have an intern woken up by a nurse saying, ‘The patient is doing badly—what shall we do?’ ” he says. “They might order 10 times the appropriate dose of the wrong med.”

The intensity and growing technological advance of medical care only enhance the probability of errors under such conditions. Christopher Landrigan, assistant professor of pediatrics, led a study that compared interns working traditional schedules with those on an alternate schedule of fewer weekly hours and no extended (e.g., 30-hour) shifts in intensive-care units. The doctors on the tiring traditional schedule made 36 percent more serious medical errors, including 57 percent more nonintercepted serious errors, and made 5.6 times as many serious diagnostic errors.

Some Harvard-affiliated teaching hospitals, like Brigham and Women’s, where Czeisler works, are taking the lead in substantially reducing work hours for physicians and surgeons in training. Yet no rules limit the work hours of medical students (including those at Harvard Medical School), and at the national level, little has changed for interns and residents. Not long ago, the Accreditation Council of Graduate Medical Education, faced with the threat of federal regulation, enacted new rules limiting extended shifts to 30 hours (before the new rules, they averaged 32 hours), and capped work weeks at 80 hours (beforehand, the average was 72 hours)—with exceptions allowable up to 90 hours. “The new, self-imposed rules largely serve to reinforce the status quo,” Czeisler says. “They haven’t brought about fundamental change, and haven’t changed the length of a typical extended shift, which is still four times as long as a normal workday. And those marathon shifts occur every other shift, all year, several years in a row during residency training.”

The risks don’t end when the doctors leave work. Research fellow in medicine Laura Barger led another group in a nationwide survey of interns that showed them having more than double the risk of a motor-vehicle crash when driving home after an extended shift. (They aren’t alone: 60 percent of American adults drove while drowsy in the past year.)

The moral of much sleep research is startlingly simple. Your mother was right: You’ll get sick, become fat, and won’t work as well if you don’t get a good night’s sleep. So make time for rest and recovery. Stickgold likes to compare two hypothetical people, one sleeping eight hours, the other four. The latter person is awake 20 hours a day, compared to 16 hours for the first. “But if the person on four hours is just 20 percent less efficient while awake, then in 20 hours of waking he or she will get only 16 hours of work done, so it’s a wash,” he says. “Except that they are living on four hours of sleep a night. They’re not gaining anything, but are losing a huge amount: you’ll see it in their health, their social interactions, their ability to learn and think clearly. And I cannot believe they are not losing at least 20 percent in their efficiency.”

Yet instead of encouraging restorative rest, many of our institutions are heading in the opposite direction. This fall, for example, Harvard will begin keeping Lamont Library open 24 hours a day, in response to student demand, and Harvard Dining Services has for several years offered midnight snacks. “These are the wrong solutions,” says Stickgold. “This is like the Boston Police Department getting tired of drunk drivers killing people and setting up coffee urns outside of bars. At Harvard there is no limit on the amount of work students are assigned; you can take four courses and have three professors say, ‘This is your most important course and it should take the bulk of your time.’ Students are dropping to four hours of sleep a night, and the University sees it has to do something about it. But the way you deal with students overloaded with work is not by having dorms serve snacks at midnight and keeping the library open all night. Instead, you can cut back by one-third the amount of work you assign, and do that in every course without serious detriment.”

Such are the prescriptions of sleep researchers, which differ radically from those of the society and the economy. The findings of the sleep labs filter only slowly into the mainstream, especially in areas like medical internships, where enormous financial pressures favor the status quo. Even at Harvard Medical School, in a four-year curriculum, only one semester hour is devoted to sleep medicine. For a sleep disorder like narcolepsy, the average time between symptom onset and diagnosis is seven years; for sleep apnea, four years. “Physicians aren’t being trained to recognize sleep disorders,” Czeisler says.

When all else fails, there is always the option of common sense. Sleep is quite possibly the most important factor in health, and neither caffeine nor sleeping pills nor adrenaline can substitute for it. “As it looks more and more like some of these processes occur exclusively during sleep and can’t be reproduced while we are awake, the consequences of losing them look more and more terrifying,” says Stickgold. “And that’s the experiment we are all in the middle of, right now.”

Craig A. Lambert ’69, Ph.D. ’78, is deputy editor of this magazine.

Copyright ©1996-2005 Harvard Magazine, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

Sunday, August 28, 2005

Tipping: an outmoded practice.

What message does it send when we reward people for providing good service instead of making good service the norm?

Perhaps we should deduct when service is poor, as opposed to rewarding people for simply doing what they are supposed to do in the first place.

Something to consider with respect to any system of "rewards".


August 10, 2005

Tipped Off

WHEN Thomas Keller, one of America's foremost chefs, announced that on Sept. 1 he would abolish the practice of tipping at Per Se, his luxury restaurant in New York City, and replace it with a European-style service charge, I knew three groups would be opposed: customers, servers and restaurateurs. These three constituencies are all committed to tipping - as they quickly made clear on Web sites. To oppose tipping, it seems, is to be anticapitalist, and maybe even a little French.

But Mr. Keller is right to move away from tipping - and it's worth exploring why just about everyone else in the restaurant world is wrong to stick with the practice.

Customers believe in tipping because they think it makes economic sense. "Waiters know that they won't get paid if they don't do a good job," is how most advocates of the system (meaning most everybody in America) would put it. To be sure, this is a seductive, apparently rational statement about economic theory, but it appears to have little applicability to the real world of restaurants.

Michael Lynn, an associate professor of consumer behavior and marketing at Cornell's School of Hotel Administration, has conducted dozens of studies of tipping and has concluded that consumers' assessments of the quality of service correlate weakly to the amount they tip.

Rather, customers are likely to tip more in response to servers touching them lightly and crouching next to the table to make conversation than to how often their water glass is refilled - in other words, customers tip more when they like the server, not when the service is good. (Mr. Lynn's studies also indicate that male customers increase their tips for female servers while female customers increase their tips for male servers.)

What's more, consumers seem to forget that the tip increases as the bill increases. Thus, the tipping system is an open invitation to what restaurant professionals call "upselling": every bottle of imported water, every espresso and every cocktail is extra money in the server's pocket. Aggressive upselling and hustling for tips are often rewarded while low-key, quality service often goes unrecognized.

In addition, the practice of tip pooling, which is the norm in fine-dining restaurants and is becoming more common in every kind of restaurant above the level of a greasy spoon, has gutted whatever effect voting with your tip might have had on an individual waiter. In a perverse outcome, you are punishing the good waiters in the restaurant by not tipping the bad one.

Indeed, there appears to be little connection between tipping and good service. The best service in the Western world is at the Michelin three-star restaurants of Europe, where a service charge replaces tipping. As a customer, it's certainly pleasant to dine in France, where the menu prices are "service compris," representing actual totals, including the price of food, taxes and service.

Tipping is hardly the essence of capitalism. Actually, it would seem to have little to do with capitalism at all: it is - supply and demand be damned - a gift, a gratuity decided on after the fact.

Waiters and waitresses also believe it is their right to be tipped. A tip, while a gift, is a strange sort of gift in that it is a big part of the server's salary. In most states, servers don't even get paid minimum wage by their employers - there is an exemption (called a "credit") for tipped employees that allows restaurants to pay them just a token couple of dollars an hour (as low as $1.59 per hour in Kansas and $3.85 per hour in New York City). They are instead largely paid by tips, to the tune of $26 billion per year.

When you talk to servers, you'll find that most believe they make more money under the tipping system than they would as salaried employees. And that's probably true, strictly speaking. The tipping system makes waiters into something akin to independent contractors. And in most any business the hourly wage of a contractor is higher than that of an employee. Yet in most businesses, people choose to be employees.

That is because those who wish to guarantee their long-term financial security sacrifice a little bit of quick cash for longer-term benefits like health insurance, retirement plans and vacation pay. But, of course, most servers see themselves as transient employees - waiting tables before moving on to bigger and better things.

Still, this may not always be the case. The large number of waiters I see in their 40's, 50's and 60's put the theory in doubt. While kitchen workers trade low wages and no tips for a future in the business - the opportunity to rise in rank, to one day run a kitchen - what calculation do waiters and waitresses make? Under the tipping system, it seems, they're trading a little extra now for the promise of nothing later. With his announcement, Mr. Keller has sent a signal to his culinary colleagues that there just might be a better way.

For their part, restaurateurs believe it is their right to have consumers pay servers, so they don't have to pay their employees a living wage. They prefer the current system because it allows them to have a team of pseudo-contractors rather than real employees.

But that too is shortsighted. Over time, as in any service-oriented business, waiters loyal to the restaurant will perform better and make customers happier than waiters loyal only to themselves.

In this, the world's most generous nation of tippers, most restaurants don't even offer service as good as at the average McDonald's. While it lacks style, service at McDonald's is far more reliable than the service at the average upper-middle-market restaurant. This is not because the employees of McDonald's are brilliant at their jobs - it's because they are well-trained and subject to rigorous supervision.

And come to think of it, at McDonald's there is no tipping.

Steven A. Shaw is the author of the forthcoming, "Turning the Tables: Restaurants From the Inside Out."

Copyright 2005 The New York Times Company