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  • The crucial breakthrough to completing [Christopher Nolan’s] “Inception” script was considering what could happen if multiple people could share the same dream.“Once you remove the privacy,” Mr. Nolan said, “you’ve created an infinite number of alternative universes in which people can meaningfully interact, with validity, with weight, with dramatic consequences.”
  • After years of effort to coax empathy from machines, robots and devices designed to soothe, support and keep us company are venturing out of the laboratory.
  • The psychological devices people use to manage what they express can affect social interactions in unintended ways.

Last month, Dr. James Fowler (UCSD) and Dr. Nicholas Christakis (Harvard University) published a research paper evaluating the spread of happiness within social networks. Their findings? Happiness is contagious up to three degrees of separation [doi:10.1136/bmj.a2338].

The following is an excerpt from an article written by the authors of the aforementioned paper:

By Nicholas A. Christakis & James H. Fowler

…Our happiness is determined by a complex set of voluntary and involuntary factors, ranging from our genes to our health to our wealth. Alas, one determinant of our own happiness that has not received the attention it deserves is the happiness of others. Yet we know that emotions can spread over short periods of time from person to person, in a process known as “emotional contagion.” If someone smiles at you, it is instinctive to smile back. If your partner or roommate is depressed, it is common for you to become depressed.

But might emotions spread more widely than this in social networks—from person to person to person, and beyond? Might an individual’s location within a social network influence their future happiness? And might social network processes—by a diverse set of mechanisms—influence happiness not just fleetingly, but also over longer periods of time? 

We recently published a paper in the British Medical Journal that addressed these questions. We studied 4,739 people followed from 1983 to 2003 as part of the famous Framingham Heart Study. These individuals were embedded in a larger network of 12,067 people; they had an average of 11 connections to others in the social network (including to friends, family, co-workers, and neighbors); and their happiness was assessed every few years using a standard measure. 

We found that social networks have clusters of happy and unhappy people within them that reach out to three degrees of separation. A person’s happiness is related to the happiness of their friends, their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends—that is, to people well beyond their social horizon. We found that happy people tend to be located in the center of their social networks and to be located in large clusters of other happy people. And we found that each additional happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%. For comparison, having an extra $5,000 in income (in 1984 dollars) increased the probability of being happy by about 2%.

Happiness, in short, is not merely a function of personal experience, but also is a property of groups. Emotions are a collective phenomenon…

I’m infectious! :)

The biggest problem with the U.S. health-care system is that it has long been designed to respond to illness rather than prevent it. [America’s Health Checkup via TIME]

“If you’re like 67% of Americans, you’re currently overweight or obese. If you’re like 27%, your blood pressure is too high. If you’re like a whopping 96% of the population, you may not be able to recall the last time you had a salad, since you’re one of the hundreds of millions of Americans who rarely eat enough vegetables. And what you do eat, you don’t burn off — assuming you’re like the 40% of us who get no exercise. Most troubling of all, if you’re like any parent of any child anywhere in the world, you may be passing your health habits to your children, which explains why experts fear that this generation of American kids may be the first ever to have a shorter life span than their parents do…”

“By too many measures, America is a lot less healthy than a developed nation has any business being. But just how sick — or just how well — are we? Broad national averages are limited things — very good at telling you the what, but notoriously bad at telling you much more. Who are the one-third of Americans who don’t have a weight problem, and how can the rest of us become like them? Why do some of us get our cancer screenings and make sure our kids are vaccinated while others don’t? It’s hard enough to get a thorough profile of any one person’s health outlook. Now imagine putting 300 million of us on the examining table together. That’s where TIME’s inaugural national health checkup can help. For this first annual feature, we’ve gone straight to the numbers to measure the vital signs of a 232-year-old nation that, let’s be honest, has let itself go a little lately. The results of such a collective physical are something that should concern us all.”

[5 Truths About Health Care in America via TIME]

  1. The U.S. spends far more on health care than any other nation.
  2. Yet the U.S. is not healthier for the money. We live shorter lives and have a higher infant-mortality rate than many other developed nations.
  3. Although smoking has been on the decline, Americans still don’t live heatlhy lives.
  4. The good news that more awareness and better treatments are curbing America’s top killers.
  5. Millions of Americans are at risk because they don’t have insurance or easy access to a doctor.

[President -Elect Obama’s FireWire Chats: Transparency Redefined? via RWW]

“…President Elect Obama’s transition team announced the weekly Democratic address will be posted on YouTube. Today we saw the first of these fireside chats go live on the new video wire. It’s clear that Obama and his team are extremely competent when it comes to the social Web, but it might be useful to examine some of the reasons behind his phenomenal success online, and look at a potential misconception.”

“By changing one little word, the committee drafting the Republican 2008 election platform last week proposed banning all human embryo research in the United States, whether publicly or privately funded.”

[Republicans at odds over human embryo research via Nature]

How John McCain diverges from the Republican party platform:

  • Wants to loosen restrictions on federal funding of human embryo stem cell research.
  • Will enact limits on “greenhouse gas” emissions through a cap-and-trade system.

As if there weren’t enough restrictions on stem cell research already, Republican committee members would propose to eliminate it entirely. Bah, humbug!

Embryonic stem cells [ESCs] have a special place in my heart, because those little guys are pluripotent, which means they have “many possible outcomes.” You, being the non-embryo you are, are composed mostly of unipotent cells (a gross oversimplification): your skin cells will divide to form more skin cells and your muscle cells more muscle cells and so on. These unipotent cells have long since differentiated from the totipotent cells from when you were a zygote, and now each cell has been programmed to have “one outcome,” to be only one kind of cell. Embryonic stem cells, on the other hand, remain undifferentiated and can give rise to any mature cell or tissue type of the three germ layers. In addition, ESCs are capable of continual self-renewal and are literally immortal, unlike other cells which eventually age, degrade, and undergo apoptosis (cell death). Can you imagine the incredible potential of ESCs? 

Once we fully understand the molecular triggers to induce and/or reverse cell differentiation and organ development, we will have the ability to bioengineer all human tissues and organs, cure neurodegenerative diseases, and control cancers. We can create therapeutics to repair or even replace any portion of our ailing human bodies – the possibilities are endless. ESCs represent a veritable fountain of youth and supreme health that need only be deciphered by scientists to obtain. Thus, stem cell research should be allowed to continue by lifting funding restrictions, not by an outright ban.

    Click to read Barack Obama’s answers to the top 14 science questions facing America.It’s a pity that these issues that are not brought up often enough in the media.

    In one of the plant biotechnology courses I took last year, the professor announced that the course didn’t have a required textbook. [Of course, every time that happens I feel like I’ve won the lottery, since I’m exempt from spending a couple hundred dollars to purchase a slab of bound paper.] Instead, we would be pulling from recent peer-reviewed research publications, because the pace of acquired knowledge in plant biotechnology far outpaces the ability to assemble an up-to-date textbook. 

    This isn’t only true for textbooks: science and technology, which lie at the heart of a large number of policy issues facing the United States, has advanced beyond the comprehension of current policy-makers (who often have little or no background in the sciences). Science and politics do heavily intersect, despite the common notion that the two exist and should continue exist as incompatible and distinct subject matters. An deep familiarity with science and technology is absolutely crucial in being able to draft and institute these policies dealing with the challenges facing our nation and the world. It’s very important that our next president understands this as well.

    I applaud the creators of the ScienceDebate2008. Their mission statement:

    Given the many urgent scientific and technological challenges facing America and the rest of the world, the increasing need for accurate scientific information in political decision making, and the vital role scientific innovation plays in spurring economic growth and competitiveness, we call for a public debate in which the U.S. presidential candidates share their views on the issues of The Environment, Health and Medicine, and Science and Technology Policy.


    The policy issues AKA other things I will blog about in the near future. I’ve added asterisks next to the ones that I am especially concerned about.

    The Environment

    • Climate Change*
    • Conservation and Species Loss
    • The Future of The Oceans*
    • Fresh Water: Drought, Pollution, Ownership
    • Population Growth and the Environment
    • Renewable Energy Research*

    Health and Medicine

    • Global Diseases and Pandemics
    • Stem Cell Research*
    • Antibiotic Resistant Bacteria
    • Drug Patents, Generic Drugs
    • The Genome*
    • Bioethics*

    Science and Technology

    • Scientific Innovation and Economic Growth
    • Improving Science Education
    • Space Exploration
    • Preserving Scientific Integrity in Government
    • Energy Policy*

    The Republican National Convention is being curtailed by a hurricane. Could this be foreshadowing?