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Labour councils in England hit harder by austerity than Tory areas

Labour councils have borne the brunt of local government cuts over a decade of austerity, according to a new analysis by the Guardian.

It highlights for the first time the extent to which poorer, largely Labour-held areas of the country had their funding slashed on average by more than a third, while more affluent, largely Conservative areas were more protected.

The analysis, published on Monday and carried out with Sigoma, a special interest group for councils in metropolitan areas, comes exactly 10 years since the then Conservative chancellor, George Osborne, announced the deepest period of cuts to public service spending since the second world war.

In his budget speech on 22 June, 2010, Osborne said his plans would be fair and would protect “the most vulnerable in society” while eliminating the government’s budget deficit.

But the new analysis reveals that, on average, Labour councils saw their spending power reduced by 34%, while the average Conservative council saw an equivalent decline of less than a quarter (24%). Of the 50 councils which saw the deepest budget cuts, 28 were Labour controlled councils in 2010, while just six were Conservative. The remainder were Liberal Democrat controlled (two) or had no overall control (14).

The disparity grew by the end of the decade, with 38 of the 50 worst-hit councils being Labour-controlled while only five were Conservative authorities.

Hackney council reported the biggest percentage cut of any council, losing £180m in real terms, a 41% decline in its spending power. Newham, another east London borough, and Knowsley and Manchester in the north-west of England all suffered similarly deep cuts. All are also Labour areas with high levels of deprivation.

Labour council leaders from the worst-hit areas have told the Guardian that the cuts were so politically skewed as to feel like electoral manipulation. Graham Morgan, Labour leader of Knowsley council, said the targeting of Labour authorities was “deliberate, and the equivalent of gerrymandering. Funding of some of the most affluent areas increased while ours decreased.”

Describing austerity budgets as “shattering”, he added that Knowsley had lost nearly 2,000 staff over 10 years out of a total workforce of 4,500. “We’ve had to cut across the board.” The “deliberate” aim was to shift the political risk away from the Tories, the Labour leader of Birmingham city council, Ian Ward, agreed.

The north-west and north-east of England, which have historically had a high proportion of Labour voters, saw the biggest reductions in spending power. The more affluent and Conservative-voting south-west and south-east saw the lowest cuts.

The average council in the north-east saw a reduction in spending power of 34%, losing significantly more than the average council in the south-west or the south-east, which saw their spending power reduced by 23%.

The Guardian/Sigoma analysis is based on figures from the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) and looks at core spending power, a measure which encompasses all main income streams for councils, including central government grants and revenue from council tax and business rates.

Urban areas tended to see deeper cuts than rural areas. Inner London boroughs and metropolitan areas outside of the capital both saw their budgets cut by more than a third, while district and county councils in rural areas saw their budgets cut by 22%.

“It was very clear right from the beginning that Labour areas were being hit harder because of the way the government changed how central government funding for councils was calculated,” Richard Watts, Labour leader of Islington council and chair of the Local Government Association (LGA) resources board, said.

“They took away specific grants targeted at deprived areas, and later started stripping out the deprivation weighting from the funding formula,” Watts said. Islington has seen a 37% cut in its core spending power, our analysis shows.

Going into austerity, poorer, mainly Labour-supporting areas, especially in the post-industrial north, were far more dependent on their grant from central government than more affluent areas in the south, which had greater ability to raise revenue from council tax and business rates. Cuts in central government grants therefore represented a far greater loss to them proportionately.

A spokesperson for MHCLG denied there was any political motivation behind the distribution of cuts. “The local government finance system treats all councils fairly and has never made a distinction on political grounds,” they said.

The party political impact of the local government cuts largely stayed below the public’s radar in the early years of austerity because they were implemented through lots of different mechanisms, Graham Chapman, former Labour leader of Nottingham city council, believes. One example was the allocation of the government’s highways grant to councils for road maintenance; it used to be based on road use, but is now allocated by length of road, so that less-used rural roads in largely Conservative shire areas have received more at the expense of urban ones.

MHCLG pointed out that councils had been given a £2.9bn increase in their core spending power in total this year – the biggest annual real-terms increase in a decade – and said that councils in the north-east and north-west would receive 6% increases on the previous year. “We are working on a comprehensive plan to ensure councils’ financial sustainability over the coming year,” the spokesperson said.

Data from 2010/11 has been adjusted to reflect inflation and changes to accounting conventions. Shire counties and shire districts have been aggregated and the political control data for these combined authorities is that of the prevailing county

Fiber V2.0 Science of Health Enhancing Benefits

Fiber is so much more than “roughage!” From your heart, to your bones, to your microbiome, the list of health benefits linked to fiber keeps getting longer as nutrition science learns more about what it does for us.


  • “Soluble versus insoluble” is not the only (or even the most useful) way to sort and categorize fiber.
  • Benefits attributed to fiber include reduced inflammation, enhanced immune function, appetite and weight control, enhanced nutrient absorption, better blood sugar control and Type 2 diabetes prevention. A lot of the benefits of fiber happen via the beneficial bacteria in our gut.
  • Different types of fiber have different effects. If you’re looking for a specific benefit, match your choices to your concern.

Fiber may seem like a somewhat frumpy nutrient, but it is actually one of the hottest nutrition topics right now. That’s partly because fiber plays such a big role in the health and function of the gut microbiota. And anything to do with the microbiome is trending—for good reason!

The way we define and categorize fiber has also gotten a complete overhaul in recent years. We used to think of fiber simply as “roughage;” the parts of plants that our digestive system could not break down and convert into energy.

The list of benefits attributed to fiber now include reduced inflammation, enhanced immune function, appetite and weight control, enhanced nutrient absorption, better blood sugar control, and Type 2 diabetes prevention.

Dietary fiber was further broken down into soluble and insoluble fiber. Soluble fiber, like that in oat bran, was thought to act like a sponge, soaking up cholesterol and keeping it out of your bloodstream. Insoluble fiber, like that in wheat bran, was thought to work more like a broom, helping to move waste through the system.

We now recognize that fiber does a lot more than soak stuff up and move stuff out. And the list of benefits attributed to fiber has been expanded to include reduced inflammation, enhanced immune function, appetite and weight control, enhanced nutrient absorption, better blood sugar control, and Type 2 diabetes prevention.  A lot of this happens via the microbiome: the fiber in our diet affects the number and variety of beneficial bacteria in our gut.

RELATED: What are Prebiotics?

The fiber story is far more complex (and interesting!) than we ever imagined. Instead of just recommending you add more fiber to your diet in general, we now know that specific types of fiber have different effects. If you’re looking for a particular benefit, you’d want to match your choices to your concern. (And at the end of this article, you’ll find an infographic to help you do just that.)

But first, let’s just get our terminology straight.

Types of fiber

You’ll still see fiber broken down into soluble and insoluble on Nutrition Facts labels. But this is not the only—or even the most meaningful—way to sort or categorize fiber. We now define fiber not just by its solubility but also its viscosity, fermentability, tolerability, and prebiotic activity.

Soluble and insoluble

Soluble fibers dissolve in water. Insoluble fibers do not; stir them into water and they’ll eventually settle to the bottom of the glass.

Viscous and non-viscous

Viscous fibers are soluble fibers that don’t just dissolve in water, they actually form a semi-solid gel.

Fermentable and non-fermentable

Fermentable fibers stimulate the growth of beneficial bacteria in the gut. Fermentable fibers include both soluble and insoluble fibers (although most are soluble).

Prebiotic activity

A prebiotic fiber is a fermentable fiber that has been shown to selectively promote the growth of specific bacteria linked to health benefits. All prebiotics are fermentable fibers. But not all fermentable fibers have been classified as prebiotic.

How fiber is labeled

In addition to these terms describing form and function, there are other designations that have to do with how fiber is regulated and labeled.

Functional fiber

A functional fiber has been extracted from its original food source for use as a supplement or food additive. In order to be classified as a functional fiber, it must have some beneficial effect on health, but that does not necessarily need to be through its effect on the intestinal bacteria. A functional fiber may be soluble or insoluble, viscous or non-viscous, fermentable or non-fermentable.

Intrinsic, isolated, and synthesized

Fiber that’s naturally occurring in food, such as the fiber in whole wheat bread, is considered an intrinsic fiber. Fiber that’s been isolated or extracted from a food source, such as beta-glucans from oats or psyllium husk from psyllium seed, is isolated. Fiber that doesn’t occur naturally in food, such as polydextrose, is synthesized. Synthetic fibers may provide health benefits, or they may be used to improve the texture or other qualities of manufactured foods.

Inulin, for example, has some rather magical qualities in foods. It can drastically reduce the amount of sugar needed to make things taste sweet—without the use of noncaloric sweeteners. (Inulin is sometimes listed on the label as chicory root fiber.)

There’s not much fiber can’t do for us!

Now that we’ve sorted out all the different types of fiber, let’s review the latest research on all the things fiber can do for us.


Promoting regularity was once thought of as fiber’s only real benefit. While the list of health benefits has gotten a lot longer, this is still a good one. Both soluble and insoluble fiber play a role. Insoluble fiber, such as from wheat bran, absorbs water from the digestive tracts and adds bulk to the stool. Soluble fibers work more indirectly by increasing the number and activity of beneficial bacteria in the gut. These bacteria and their byproducts also have a stool bulking effect. The most effective types of fiber for promoting regularity are wheat bran and other cereal grains, oat bran, and psyllium husk.

Heart Health

Fiber also reduces the risk of heart disease, primarily through reducing LDL cholesterol levels. Soluble fiber is the most effective type for this, but not all soluble fibers are equally effective. The best types are the viscous ones, including beta-glucans from oats and barley, and psyllium husk. On the other hand, Inulin (a non-viscous, soluble fiber) has little effect on cholesterol levels.

Appetite & Weight Control

Another potential benefit of higher fiber diets is reduced hunger and lower body weight. Soluble, viscous fibers absorb water, form gels, and take up more room in the stomach. Soluble fibers also slow down the speed at which food leaves the stomach and the rate at which sugars enter the bloodstream. Even the extra time it takes to chew foods high in fiber may contribute to increased fullness and decreased food intake. Wheat dextrin, which is a soluble, non-viscous, fermentable, fiber found mostly in supplements has been shown to significantly reduce hunger between meals and reduce food intake.

Not surprisingly, people who consume more fiber tend to weigh less, regardless of what type or source of fiber they consume.

Not surprisingly, people who consume more fiber tend to weigh less, regardless of what type or source of fiber they consume. Studies have found that increasing fiber intake by 14 grams per day (which, for most people, would mean doubling their daily intake) led to a 10% reduction in calorie intake and modest weight loss. The changes in gut bacteria due to fermentable fiber intake also seem to tip the scale (as it were) toward weighing less.

Blood sugar control and type 2 diabetes risk management

The evidence for fiber’s ability to modulate blood sugar and Type 2 diabetes risk is not as unanimous. People whose diets are higher in insoluble fiber have a significantly reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. But adding fiber to the diet does not reliably improve blood sugar control in people with Type 2 diabetes. It’s possible that other nutrients in those higher fiber foods are partially responsible for the effect. (Another argument for getting our nutrients from whole foods instead of supplements.)

People whose diets are higher in insoluble fiber have a significantly reduced risk of developing Type 2 diabetes.

Gut inflammation and immune Function

Certain fibers—in particular, the fermentable, prebiotic fibers—help boost the gut’s immune function. The good bacteria promoted by the fermentable fibers crowd out pathogenic bacteria and prevent them from taking hold. Soluble, non-viscous fibers may also help alleviate gut inflammation, including irritable bowel syndrome.  

Note: Fibers that are fermented more quickly, such as FOS (fructo-oligosaccharides), may cause more gas and bloating than fibers that are fermented more slowly. Eating them in smaller amounts may be preferable. While these types of foods and fibers can cause discomfort in anyone (especially if consumed in large quantities), it can be particularly problematic for people with IBS. The low FODMAP diet, which I’ve discussed on the podcast before, avoids (among other things) foods that contain a lot of these highly fermentable fibers and can be extremely helpful for people with IBS and other inflammatory bowel conditions.

Nutrient Absorption

I’ve saved one of the most interesting benefits for last. Fermentable fibers that don’t qualify as prebiotics can still provide benefits by enhancing the absorption of calcium and other minerals from the large intestine.

Clearly, there’s more to fiber than just bran muffins.

As we learn more about the many different types of fiber and all the ways in which they affect our health, I expect that we’ll see more supplements and functional foods that target specific concerns with specific types of fiber. But I still think the best way to leverage the myriad benefits of fiber is to eat a wide variety of fiber-containing foods. Not just one whole grain but lots of different kinds of whole grains. Not just three or four super fruits or vegetables but a cornucopia of produce. And don’t forget all the legumes, pulses, nuts, and seeds!

Not only will this expose you to a wide variety of fiber types and benefits but also to the other nutrients that these high fiber foods contain. And the more of these foods you eat, the less room you’ll have on your plate and in your stomach (and maybe, one day, in your affection) for processed and nutrient-poor foods that aren’t doing nearly as much for you.

Religion means different things to different people

A lot of arguments about religion treat it like going to school: a religion is a set of lessons to be learned, tests to pass and rules to follow, all watched over by the great headmaster in the sky. That assumption shapes the sorts of questions we ask of religions and religious people: are your teachers telling the truth? Have they trained you to behave properly? And why do you think it’s a good idea to go to school anyway?

But there’s an increasing body of evidence to suggest that we need to think about religion in a different way: not as a process of training or indoctrination, but as arising from some deep-seated instincts, hardwired into our brains and then shaped by our cultures. This is more like the way we think about sex, emotions and relationships.

The shift in thinking arises from a field of study known as the cognitive science of religion, where cognitive psychologists and evolutionary theorists have joined forces to address a puzzling question. In the words of Jeffrey Schloss:

Why, despite a century of presumed secularisation, does religion persist in the western world, and why does it seem easier for human beings to be religious than to be secular?

The answer they propose is that our brains are hardwired with cognitive biases that have evolved in order to help us to survive, but which have the side-effect of making it natural to develop religious belief. For example, we are cognitively predisposed to imagine that every rustle in the bushes is a creature watching our every move: this hyperactive agency detection device was of real benefit to early humans alone in the jungle. It might have caused our early ancestors to run away from a few imaginary tigers, but they also will have escaped one that might otherwise have eaten them. The side effect, however, is that we see unseen watchers everywhere. From this point, it is a relatively easy leap to believe in gods that watch over us, unseen.

According to this model, we did not evolve to be religious, but ended up with religion as a spandrel, an unintended by-product of the main evolutionary process. Nevertheless, unintended consequence or not, it is now part of our mental architecture and culturally infused throughout our societies – and this is why religious behaviour proves so durable and persistent.

The hyperactive agency detection device and other mechanisms become incorporated into our social and cultural life. They help keep us honest with each other, help us to care for each other and fight our common enemies, and they become codified into the religions that survive and evolve alongside human societies. It is in this sense that religion is more like sex than like school – we might choose to ignore it or decide to have nothing more to do with it, but it will keep returning to haunt us in some form or another.

A new perspective

This evolutionary account of the existence and persistence of religion in most, if not all, human societies (it depends a lot on how you define it) is hotly debated and open to criticism from a number of angles. Opponents point out that the move from identifying in-built biases in human cognition to a theory of why we create entire religious universes that structure societies looks suspiciously like a “just-so story” – one that is highly speculative and requires us to make some assumptions for which there is little or no evidence. The cognitive science of religion gives us an interesting account of why we have religious intuitions, but tells us nothing about how these are translated into particular religious beliefs and practices.

Nevertheless, its description of religion as driven by deep-seated desires rather than rival accounts of reality opens up an intriguing set of questions and possibilities.

  1. Whatever floats your boat. We no longer believe that everybody’s sexual life has to be the same. Some people choose to give up sex altogether, others have multiple partners. There is a whole range of LGBTQI+ preferences now recognised alongside “vanilla” heterosexual monogamy. Perhaps our religious desires and impulses should be allowed the same diversity and recognition?
  2. You mean the whole world to me but … I do not expect everybody else to see how absolutely wonderful and perfect my partner is. What is absolutely true to me, religiously, may not make any sense to you. And that’s OK. Truth claims do not belong in affairs of the heart, or in affairs of the spirit. Arguments about whose religion is true similarly miss the point.
  3. Don’t shut me out. Although the religious drive is nothing like as powerful or fundamental as the sex drive for most people, it would be unwise to attempt to repress it completely. Perhaps the rise of extremism religion is partly to do with the “return of the repressed”, the violence with which an aspect of our character may reassert itself when it has been pushed down and ignored for too long.
  4. I love you … I just don’t like you. We have ambiguous relationships with our partners, sometimes adoring them and sometimes hardly able to be in the same room as them. Sexual attraction is part habit, part mystery, part madness. Most religious people, if pushed, might say something similar about how their spiritual involvement or commitment fluctuates and varies over time. It’s much more complicated than can be captured by simple questions like “What do you believe?” or “Are you religious?”

This sort of approach to religion has the potential to upset devoutly religious people but also the “devout atheists” who can see no place for it. It provides an explanation of religion which can sit alongside, but does not require, appeals to the call of god or the truth of religious claims. It also stands as a warning to the devout atheists that religion will never go away, and that attacks on religious people as irrational will not make any real difference. At the same time, it opens up a new and intriguing set of possibilities for thinking differently about how religion fits into our world, and how we might learn to express our religious instincts in a diverse society without blind dogmatism or violence.

How Insulin Helped Create Ant Societies

Ants, wasps, bees and other social insects live in highly organized “eusocial” colonies where throngs of females forgo reproduction — usually viewed as the cornerstone of evolutionary fitness — to serve the needs of a few egg-laying queens and their offspring. How they got that way has been hard to explaindespite more than 150 years of biologists’ efforts. Many researchers have thought the answer would come down to a complex suite of genetic changes that evolved in species-specific ways over a long time.

But new results suggest that a surprisingly simple hormonal mechanism — one that can be found throughout the animal kingdom — may have been enough to set eusociality in motion.

Last month, a team of researchers led by Daniel Kronauer, an evolutionary biologist at the Rockefeller University in New York, published a paper in Sciencethat many experts are saying provides one of the most detailed molecular stories to date in the study of eusocial behavior.

The scientists found that division of reproductive labor in ants arose when an ancient insulin signaling pathway, typically involved in maintaining nutrition and growth, became responsive to social cues. In doing so, they also uncovered deeper insights into “a process underlying how the environment gets under the skin to affect behavior, physiology, and the health and well-being of other members of a society,” said Gene E. Robinson, an entomologist and the director of the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Kronauer and his colleagues, hoping to uncover a common origin for the ants’ evolutionary journey toward eusociality, first compared which genes were expressed differently in the brains of the queens and workers among seven diverse ant species. They found a particularly strong signal for one gene, ilp2, which codes for the ant version of insulin and was expressed consistently higher in queens. (At least two dozen other genes emerged as important as well, Kronauer noted — many of them also related to insulin production and signaling, or to brain plasticity and other traits.)

To determine the role of ilp2, the researchers focused on a single ant species, the clonal raider ants Ooceraea biroi, whose colonies lack fixed queens. Instead, the ants alternate as a group between worker and queen roles, seemingly in response to the presence of larvae: With babies around, all the adult ants stopped reproducing to take care of them.

Kronauer’s team found that insulin signaling was responsible for that cycle. Production of the hormone declined when the researchers exposed the ants to larvae, suppressing reproduction and inducing the shift to caretaking behavior. When the larvae were removed, insulin levels rose significantly — and injecting the adults with insulin caused their ovaries to reactivate even when the larvae were still around. “If you think about it, it’s a crazy but also very elegant and simple way to make an organism social, to make it responsive to larvae,” Kronauer said.

“That this single gene has such a major effect suggests that the transition from a solitary to a social lifestyle can begin with relatively few changes,” said Andrew Suarez, a biologist at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. “You don’t need to invoke novel genes. You don’t need to massively change the genomic architecture or gene expression patterns. You can just tweak one or a few things, and start on this path toward advanced reproductive division of labor.”

Kronauer’s results vindicate a theory about the origins of eusociality proposed in 1987 by the evolutionary biologist Mary Jane West-Eberhard, now at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. She had observed that solitary wasps cycled through reproductive and caretaking phases in sync with their ovarian activity, and posited that eusocial division of labor emerged when parts of that ovarian cycle became exclusive to each caste: The queens had constantly active ovaries for egg laying, while the workers, whose ovaries stayed suppressed, dedicated themselves to foraging and brood care. West-Eberhard later described this as a model for making major changes in species through “developmental reorganization” and called it a way of “making something new (worker and queen phenotypes) out of old pieces” — in this case, the old behaviors linked to different phases of the solitary wasps’ ovarian cycle.

What was missing from West-Eberhard’s theory was a candidate for a potential trigger for that reorganization in the wasps, or in any of the other social insects. Kronauer’s findings now suggest that the culprit, at least in the case of ants, was ilp2, with the larvae manipulating the adults through their insulin pathways to turn most into full-time caretakers and a few into mothers to the community.

Insulin’s involvement makes sense in retrospect, Kronauer said, given that the hormone is known to play a crucial regulatory role in both food intake and reproduction. After the initial adaptation, evolutionary forces would have driven innate differences in insulin levels among individuals further apart to cement separate castes. Even among the queenless clonal raider ants, Kronauer and his colleagues observed that some had slightly larger, more active ovaries and foraged less, despite the presence of larvae. Their insulin levels turned out to be higher from the start.

“Even in this precursory state, there still seems to be a connection between reproductive behavior and insulin levels,” Kronauer said. Ultimately, individuals with higher insulin levels became queens, and those with lower levels became workers. “It starts out in a population where everyone is very similar, but over evolutionary time those small differences get exacerbated.”

What makes this work additionally compelling is that previous research implicated insulin in governing division of labor in honeybeesas well — but in a very different way. For those bee species, which evolved eusociality independently from the ants, insulin signaling helps determine whether workers forage or stay behind to nurse larvae, and can govern the kind of food the foragers prefer (which further affects their physiology and the tasks they perform). In both the ants and the honeybees, the insulin mechanism is entwined with sensitivity to offspring.

“It suggests that there’s something very general about how evolution proceeds when it increases the complexity of a system,” Kronauer said. To Suarez, it means that this kind of evolutionary innovation is in some sense “predictable, that there are genetic mechanistic patterns at play. That’s pretty exciting.”

That insulin has been used multiple times independently also reinforces an emerging insight that evolution routinely reuses conserved metabolic and developmental pathways to give rise to complex new traits and behaviors. In the case of social insects, the insulin and reproductive pathways were only waiting to be coopted for social functions — or “derived from ancestral ground plans,” said Karen Kapheim, an evolutionary biologist at Utah State University.

“Evolution is a tapestry of something old, something new,” Robinson said. “We see this beautifully on display in this work: the ancient, highly conserved insulin pathway with this new piece interposed — that one particular life stage, the babies, can influence the insulin signaling status, and therefore the physiological state of the adults.”

Kronauer and others still need to determine how the larvae elicited that signaling response in the adults, and how insulin became responsive to social cues in the first place. More work is also needed on what’s happening in the ants’ brains to mediate this process.

The fact that insulin signaling is so important in other animals has wider implications as well. For instance, insect queens are significantly larger than workers and enjoy considerably longer life spans. According to Kronauer, the underlying reasons for these differences remain unknown, but his study implies that insulin signaling could be at play. “People can now start to look at whether insulin signaling in other organisms, including in humans, plays a similar role in modulating something like life expectancy,” he said.

And perhaps it plays a role in the evolution of primitive social behaviors in other species as well, added Moore, who studies transitions to social organization in beetles. In his field, “we don’t have such a complete, causative story,” he said. “It really raises the bar for the rest of us.”

skeptic society Divisions of Islamophobia

Divisions of Islamophobia

A false dichotomy is a basic type of informal logical fallacy, consisting in framing an issue as if there were only two choices available, while in fact a range of nuanced positions may be on offer upon more careful reflection. There are nonetheless plenty of instances were they do identify truly bad reasoning.Another one is arguably represented by the never ending “debate” about Islamophobia.

It is easy to find stark examples of people defending what appear to be two irreconcilable positions about how to view Islam in a post-9/11 world. For the sake of discussion, I will bypass pundits and other pseudo-intellectuals, and use instead two comedians as representative of the contrasting positions:

Broadly speaking, I don’t think religions in general are particularly good ideas. In my mind they originate from a combination of false presuppositions (that there are higher beings of a supernatural kind) and a power grab by individuals (i.e., religious leaders) who sometimes unconsciously (and sometimes not) end up exploiting the fears and hopes of the people that they are supposed to lead. Even so, I recognize that the religious instinct is pretty much universal among human beings, and not likely to go away any time soon, if ever. I also recognize that religions have done lots of good in the world throughout history, and that it isn’t at all clear whether a world without them would indeed be a better one, as a number of overconfident atheists keeps claiming.

What I’m saying is that I don’t believe that religion, any religion (including Islam) is a particularly good idea, but at the same time I also don’t believe that any religion (again, including Islam) is “the motherlode of bad ideas”

Sure, one can argue that such interpretations are simply mistaken (though it’s hard to adjudicate theological debates, since we can’t ask the alleged divine source), but even so those ideas clearly play an enabling and highly motivating role in the ensuing violence and repression. To deny this is simply not to pay attention to what is plainly in front of our eyes and ears.

While some people may very well be “Islamophobes” (i.e., they may genuinely harbor an irrational prejudice against Islam), simply pointing out that Islamic ideas play a role in contemporary terrorism and repression does not make one a Islamophobe, and using the label blindly is simply an undemocratic, and unreflective, way of cutting off critical discourse. Then again, those who focus on Islam as uniquely problematic may themselves benefit from dusting off a couple of history books and learn a thing or two about the complex interplay of ideas and socio-political situations in human affairs, before making themselves Paladins of simplistic and highly misleading non-truths.

Genetic Engineering to Clash With Evolution

Genetic Engineering to Clash With Evolution

In a crowded auditorium at New York’s Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in August, Philipp Messer, a population geneticist at Cornell University, took the stage to discuss a powerful and controversial new application for genetic engineering: gene drives.

Gene drives can force a trait through a population, defying the usual rules of inheritance. A specific trait ordinarily has a 50-50 chance of being passed along to the next generation. A gene drive could push that rate to nearly 100 percent. The genetic dominance would then continue in all future generations. You want all the fruit flies in your lab to have light eyes? Engineer a drive for eye color, and soon enough, the fruit flies’ offspring will have light eyes, as will their offspring, and so on for all future generations. Gene drives may work in any species that reproduces sexually, and they have the potential to revolutionize disease control, agriculture, conservation and more. Scientists might be able to stop mosquitoes from spreading malaria, for example, or eradicate an invasive species.

The technology represents the first time in history that humans have the ability to engineer the genes of a wild population. As such, it raises intense ethical and practical concerns, not only from critics but from the very scientists who are working with it.

Messer’s presentation highlighted a potential snag for plans to engineer wild ecosystems: Nature usually finds a way around our meddling. Pathogens evolve antibiotic resistance; insects and weeds evolve to thwart pesticides. Mosquitoes and invasive species reprogrammed with gene drives can be expected to adapt as well, especially if the gene drive is harmful to the organism — it’ll try to survive by breaking the drive.

“In the long run, even with a gene drive, evolution wins in the end,” said Kevin Esvelt, an evolutionary engineer at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “On an evolutionary timescale, nothing we do matters. Except, of course, extinction. Evolution doesn’t come back from that one.”

Gene drives are a young technology, and none have been released into the wild. A handful of laboratory studies show that gene drives work in practice — in fruit flies, mosquitoes and yeast. Most of these experiments have found that the organisms begin to develop evolutionary resistance that should hinder the gene drives. But these proof-of-concept studies follow small populations of organisms. Large populations with more genetic diversity — like the millions of swarms of insects in the wild — pose the most opportunities for resistance to emerge.

It’s impossible — and unethical — to test a gene drive in a vast wild population to sort out the kinks. Once a gene drive has been released, there may be no way to take it back. (Some researchers have suggested the possibility of releasing a second gene drive to shut down a rogue one. But that approach is hypothetical, and even if it worked, the ecological damage done in the meantime would remain unchanged.)

The next best option is to build models to approximate how wild populations might respond to the introduction of a gene drive. Messer and other researchers are doing just that. “For us, it was clear that there was this discrepancy — a lot of geneticists have done a great job at trying to build these systems, but they were not concerned that much with what is happening on a population level,” Messer said. Instead, he wants to learn “what will happen on the population level, if you set these things free and they can evolve for many generations — that’s where resistance comes into play.”

At the meeting at Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, Messer discussed a computer model his team developed, which they described in a paper posted in June on the scientific preprint site The work is one of three theoretical papers on gene drive resistance submitted to in the last five months — the others are from a researcher at the University of Texas, Austin, and a joint team from Harvard University and MIT. (The authors are all working to publish their research through traditional peer-reviewed journals.) According to Messer, his model suggests “resistance will evolve almost inevitably in standard gene drive systems.”

It’s still unclear where all this interplay between resistance and gene drives will end up. It could be that resistance will render the gene drive impotent. On the one hand, this may mean that releasing the drive was a pointless exercise; on the other hand, some researchers argue, resistance could be an important natural safety feature. Evolution is unpredictable by its very nature, but a handful of biologists are using mathematical models and careful lab experiments to try to understand how this powerful genetic tool will behave when it’s set loose in the wild.

Resistance Isn’t Futile

Gene drives aren’t exclusively a human technology. They occasionally appear in nature. Researchers first thought of harnessing the natural versions of gene drives decades ago, proposing to re-create them with “crude means, like radiation” or chemicals, said Anna Buchman, a postdoctoral researcher in molecular biology at the University of California, Riverside. These genetic oddities, she adds, “could be manipulated to spread genes through a population or suppress a population.”

In 2003, Austin Burt, an evolutionary geneticist at Imperial College London, proposed a more finely tuned approach called a homing endonuclease gene drive, which would zero in on a specific section of DNA and alter it.

Burt mentioned the potential problem of resistance — and suggested some solutions — both in his seminal paper and in subsequent work. But for years, it was difficult to engineer a drive in the lab, because the available technology was cumbersome.

With the advent of genetic engineering, Burt’s idea became reality. In 2012, scientists unveiled CRISPR, a gene-editing tool that has been described as a molecular word processor. It has given scientists the power to alter genetic information in every organism they have tried it on. CRISPR locates a specific bit of genetic code and then breaks both strands of the DNA at that site, allowing genes to be deleted, added or replaced.

CRISPR provides a relatively easy way to release a gene drive. First, researchers insert a CRISPR-powered gene drive into an organism. When the organism mates, its CRISPR-equipped chromosome cleaves the matching chromosome coming from the other parent. The offspring’s genetic machinery then attempts to sew up this cut. When it does, it copies over the relevant section of DNA from the first parent — the section that contains the CRISPR gene drive. In this way, the gene drive duplicates itself so that it ends up on both chromosomes, and this will occur with nearly every one of the original organism’s offspring.

Just three years after CRISPR’s unveiling, scientists at the University of California, San Diego, used CRISPR to insert inheritable gene drives into the DNA of fruit flies, thus building the system Burt had proposed. Now scientists can order the essential biological tools on the internet and build a working gene drive in mere weeks. “Anyone with some genetics knowledge and a few hundred dollars can do it,” Messer said. “That makes it even more important that we really study this technology.”

Although there are many different ways gene drives could work in practice, two approaches have garnered the most attention: replacement and suppression. A replacement gene drive alters a specific trait. For example, an anti-malaria gene drive might change a mosquito’s genome so that the insect no longer had the ability to pick up the malaria parasite. In this situation, the new genes would quickly spread through a wild population so that none of the mosquitoes could carry the parasite, effectively stopping the spread of the disease.

A suppression gene drive would wipe out an entire population. For example, a gene drive that forced all offspring to be male would make reproduction impossible.

But wild populations may resist gene drives in unpredictable ways. “We know from past experiences that mosquitoes, especially the malaria mosquitoes, have such peculiar biology and behavior,” said Flaminia Catteruccia, a molecular entomologist at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health. “Those mosquitoes are much more resilient than we make them. And engineering them will prove more difficult than we think.” In fact, such unpredictability could likely be found in any species.

The three new papers use different models to try to understand this unpredictability, at least at its simplest level.

The Cornell group used a basic mathematical model to map how evolutionary resistance will emerge in a replacement gene drive. It focuses on how DNA heals itself after CRISPR breaks it (the gene drive pushes a CRISPR construct into each new organism, so it can cut, copy and paste itself again). The DNA repairs itself automatically after a break. Exactly how it does so is determined by chance. One option is called nonhomologous end joining, in which the two ends that were broken get stitched back together in a random way. The result is similar to what you would get if you took a sentence, deleted a phrase, and then replaced it with an arbitrary set of words from the dictionary — you might still have a sentence, but it probably wouldn’t make sense. The second option is homology-directed repair, which uses a genetic template to heal the broken DNA. This is like deleting a phrase from a sentence, but then copying a known phrase as a replacement — one that you know will fit the context.

Nonhomologous end joining is a recipe for resistance. Because the CRISPR system is designed to locate a specific stretch of DNA, it won’t recognize a section that has the equivalent of a nonsensical word in the middle. The gene drive won’t get into the DNA, and it won’t get passed on to the next generation. With homology-directed repair, the template could include the gene drive, ensuring that it would carry on.

The Cornell model tested both scenarios. “What we found was it really is dependent on two things: the nonhomologous end-joining rate and the population size,” said Robert Unckless, an evolutionary geneticist at the University of Kansas who co-authored the paper as a postdoctoral researcher at Cornell. “If you can’t get nonhomologous end joining under control, resistance is inevitable. But resistance could take a while to spread, which means you might be able to achieve whatever goal you want to achieve.” For example, if the goal is to create a bubble of disease-proof mosquitoes around a city, the gene drive might do its job before resistance sets in.

The team from Harvard and MIT also looked at nonhomologous end joining, but they took it a step further by suggesting a way around it: by designing a gene drive that targets multiple sites in the same gene. “If any of them cut at their sites, then it’ll be fine — the gene drive will copy,” said Charleston Noble, a doctoral student at Harvard and the first author of the paper. “You have a lot of chances for it to work.”

The gene drive could also target an essential gene, Noble said — one that the organism can’t afford to lose. The organism may want to kick out the gene drive, but not at the cost of altering a gene that’s essential to life.

The third paper, from the UT Austin team, took a different approach. It looked at how resistance could emerge at the population level through behavior, rather than within the target sequence of DNA. The target population could simply stop breeding with the engineered individuals, for example, thus stopping the gene drive.

“The math works out that if a population is inbred, at least to some degree, the gene drive isn’t going to work out as well as in a random population,” said James Bull, the author of the paper and an evolutionary biologist at Austin. “It’s not just sequence evolution. There could be all kinds of things going on here, by which populations block [gene drives],” Bull added. “I suspect this is the tip of the iceberg.”

Resistance is constrained only by the limits of evolutionary creativity. It could emerge from any spot along the target organism’s genome. And it extends to the surrounding environment as well. For example, if a mosquito is engineered to withstand malaria, the parasite itself may grow resistant and mutate into a newly infectious form, Noble said.

Not a Bug, but a Feature?

If the point of a gene drive is to push a desired trait through a population, then resistance would seem to be a bad thing. If a drive stops working before an entire population of mosquitoes is malaria-proof, for example, then the disease will still spread. But at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory meeting, Messer suggested the opposite: “Let’s embrace resistance. It could provide a valuable safety control mechanism.” It’s possible that the drive could move just far enough to stop a disease in a particular region, but then stop before it spread to all of the mosquitoes worldwide, carrying with it an unknowable probability of unforeseen environmental ruin.

Not everyone is convinced that this optimistic view is warranted. “It’s a false security,” said Ethan Bier, a geneticist at the University of California, San Diego. He said that while such a strategy is important to study, he worries that researchers will be fooled into thinking that forms of resistance offer “more of a buffer and safety net than they do.”

And while mathematical models are helpful, researchers stress that models can’t replace actual experimentation. Ecological systems are just too complicated. “We have no experience engineering systems that are going to evolve outside of our control. We have never done that before,” Esvelt said. “So that’s why a lot of these modeling studies are important — they can give us a handle on what might happen. But I’m also hesitant to rely on modeling and trying to predict in advance when systems are so complicated.”

Messer hopes to put his theoretical work into a real-world setting, at least in the lab. He is currently directing a gene drive experiment at Cornell that tracks multiple cages of around 5,000 fruit flies each — more animals than past studies have used to research gene drive resistance. The gene drive is designed to distribute a fluorescent protein through the population. The proteins will glow red under a special light, a visual cue showing how far the drive gets before resistance weeds it out.

Others are also working on resistance experiments: Esvelt and Catteruccia, for example, are working with George Church, a geneticist at Harvard Medical School, to develop a gene drive in mosquitoes that they say will be immune to resistance. They plan to insert multiple drives in the same gene — the strategy suggested by the Harvard/MIT paper.

Such experiments will likely guide the next generation of computer models, to help tailor them more precisely to a large wild population.

“I think it’s been interesting because there is this sort of going back and forth between theory and empirical work,” Unckless said. “We’re still in the early days of it, but hopefully it’ll be worthwhile for both sides, and we’ll make some informed and ethically correct decisions about what to do.”

Universe Got Its Bounce Back

Universe Got Its Bounce Back

Humans have always entertained two basic theories about the origin of the universe. “In one of them, the universe emerges in a single instant of creation (as in the Jewish-Christian and the Brazilian Carajás cosmogonies),” the cosmologists Mario Novello and Santiago Perez-Bergliaffa noted in 2008. In the other, “the universe is eternal, consisting of an infinite series of cycles (as in the cosmogonies of the Babylonians and Egyptians).” The division in modern cosmology “somehow parallels that of the cosmogonic myths,” Novello and Perez-Bergliaffa wrote.

In recent decades, it hasn’t seemed like much of a contest. The Big Bang theory, standard stuff of textbooks and television shows, enjoys strong support among today’s cosmologists. The rival eternal-universe picture had the edge a century ago, but it lost ground as astronomers observed that the cosmos is expanding and that it was small and simple about 14 billion years ago. In the most popular modern version of the theory, the Big Bang began with an episode called “cosmic inflation” — a burst of exponential expansion during which an infinitesimal speck of space-time ballooned into a smooth, flat, macroscopic cosmos, which expanded more gently thereafter.

With a single initial ingredient (the “inflaton field”), inflationary models reproduce many broad-brush features of the cosmos today. But as an origin story, inflation is lacking; it raises questions about what preceded it and where that initial, inflaton-laden speck came from. Undeterred, many theorists think the inflaton field must fit naturally into a more complete, though still unknown, theory of time’s origin.

But in the past few years, a growing number of cosmologists have cautiously revisited the alternative. They say the Big Bang might instead have been a Big Bounce. Some cosmologists favor a picture in which the universe expands and contracts cyclically like a lung, bouncing each time it shrinks to a certain size, while others propose that the cosmos only bounced once — that it had been contracting, before the bounce, since the infinite past, and that it will expand forever after. In either model, time continues into the past and future without end.

With modern science, there’s hope of settling this ancient debate. In the years ahead, telescopes could find definitive evidence for cosmic inflation. During the primordial growth spurt — if it happened — quantum ripples in the fabric of space-time would have become stretched and later imprinted as subtle swirls in the polarization of ancient light called the cosmic microwave background. Current and future telescope experiments are hunting for these swirls. If they aren’t seen in the next couple of decades, this won’t entirely disprove inflation (the telltale swirls could simply be too faint to make out), but it will strengthen the case for bounce cosmology, which doesn’t predict the swirl pattern.

Already, several groups are making progress at once. Most significantly, in the last year, physicists have come up with two new ways that bounces could conceivably occur. One of the models, described in a paper that will appear in the Journal of Cosmology and Astroparticle Physics, comes from Anna Ijjas of Columbia University, extending earlier work with her former adviser, the Princeton professor and high-profile bounce cosmologist Paul Steinhardt. More surprisingly, the other new bounce solution, accepted for publication in Physical Review D, was proposed by Peter Graham, David Kaplan and Surjeet Rajendran, a well-known trio of collaborators who mainly focus on particle physics questions and have no previous connection to the bounce cosmology community. It’s a noteworthy development in a field that’s highly polarized on the bang vs. bounce question.

The question gained renewed significance in 2001, when Steinhardt and three other cosmologists argued that a period of slow contraction in the history of the universe could explain its exceptional smoothness and flatness, as witnessed today, even after a bounce — with no need for a period of inflation.

The universe’s impeccable plainness, the fact that no region of sky contains significantly more matter than any other and that space is breathtakingly flat as far as telescopes can see, is a mystery. To match its present uniformity, experts infer that the cosmos, when it was one centimeter across, must have had the same density everywhere to within one part in 100,000. But as it grew from an even smaller size, matter and energy ought to have immediately clumped together and contorted space-time. Why don’t our telescopes see a universe wrecked by gravity?

“Inflation was motivated by the idea that that was crazy to have to assume the universe came out so smooth and not curved,” said the cosmologist Neil Turok, director of the Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics in Waterloo, Ontario, and co-author of the 2001 paper on cosmic contractionwith Steinhardt, Justin Khouryand Burt Ovrut. In the inflation scenario, the centimeter-size region results from the exponential expansion of a much smaller region — an initial speck measuring no more than a trillionth of a trillionth of a centimeter across. As long as that speck was infused with an inflaton field that was smooth and flat, meaning its energy concentration didn’t fluctuate across time or space, the speck would have inflated into a huge, smooth universe like ours. Raman Sundrum, a theoretical physicist at the University of Maryland, said the thing he appreciates about inflation is that “it has a kind of fault tolerance built in.” If, during this explosive growth phase, there was a buildup of energy that bent space-time in a certain place, the concentration would have quickly inflated away. “You make small changes against what you see in the data and you see the return to the behavior that the data suggests,” Sundrum said.

However, where exactly that infinitesimal speck came from, and why it came out so smooth and flat itself to begin with, no one knows. Theorists have found many possible ways to embed the inflaton field into string theory, a candidate for the underlying quantum theory of gravity. So far, there’s no evidence for or against these ideas.

Cosmic inflation also has a controversial consequence. The theory — which was pioneered in the 1980s by Alan Guth, Andrei Linde, Aleksei Starobinsky and (of all people) Steinhardt, almost automatically leads to the hypothesis that our universe is a random bubble in an infinite, frothing multiverse sea. Once inflation starts, calculations suggest that it keeps going forever, only stopping in local pockets that then blossom into bubble universes like ours. The possibility of an eternally inflating multiverse suggests that our particular bubble might never be fully understandable on its own terms, since everything that can possibly happen in a multiverse happens infinitely many times. The subject evokes gut-level disagreement among experts. Many have reconciled themselves to the idea that our universe could be just one of many; Steinhardt calls the multiverse “hogwash.”

This sentiment partly motivated his and other researchers’ about-face on bounces. “The bouncing models don’t have a period of inflation,” Turok said. Instead, they add a period of contraction before a Big Bounce to explain our uniform universe. “Just as the gas in the room you’re sitting in is completely uniform because the air molecules are banging around and equilibrating,” he said, “if the universe was quite big and contracting slowly, that gives plenty of time for the universe to smooth itself out.”

Although the first contracting-universe models were convoluted and flawed, many researchers became convinced of the basic idea that slow contraction can explain many features of our expanding universe. “Then the bottleneck became literally the bottleneck — the bounce itself,” Steinhardt said. As Ijjas put it, “The bounce has been the showstopper for these scenarios. People would agree that it’s very interesting if you can do a contraction phase, but not if you can’t get to an expansion phase.”

Bouncing isn’t easy. In the 1960s, the British physicists Roger Penrose and Stephen Hawking proved a set of so-called “singularity theorems” showing that, under very general conditions, contracting matter and energy will unavoidably crunch into an immeasurably dense point called a singularity. These theorems make it hard to imagine how a contracting universe in which space-time, matter and energy are all rushing inward could possibly avoid collapsing all the way down to a singularity — a point where Albert Einstein’s classical theory of gravity and space-time breaks down and the unknown quantum gravity theory rules. Why shouldn’t a contracting universe share the same fate as a massive star, which dies by shrinking to the singular center of a black hole?

Both of the newly proposed bounce models exploit loopholes in the singularity theorems — ones that, for many years, seemed like dead ends. Bounce cosmologists have long recognized that bounces might be possible if the universe contained a substance with negative energy (or other sources of negative pressure), which would counteract gravity and essentially push everything apart. They’ve been trying to exploit this loophole since the early 2000s, but they always found that adding negative-energy ingredients made their models of the universe unstable, because positive- and negative-energy quantum fluctuations could spontaneously arise together, unchecked, out of the zero-energy vacuum of space. In 2016, the Russian cosmologist Valery Rubakov and colleagues even proved a “no-go” theorem that seemed to rule out a huge class of bounce mechanisms on the grounds that they caused these so-called “ghost” instabilities.

Then Ijjas found a bounce mechanism that evades the no-go theorem. The key ingredient in her model is a simple entity called a “scalar field,” which, according to the idea, would have kicked into gear as the universe contracted and energy became highly concentrated. The scalar field would have braided itself into the gravitational field in a way that exerted negative pressure on the universe, reversing the contraction and driving space-time apart —without destabilizing everything. Ijjas’ paper “is essentially the best attempt at getting rid of all possible instabilities and making a really stable model with this special type of matter,” said Jean-Luc Lehners, a theoretical cosmologist at the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics in Germany who has also worked on bounce proposals.

What’s especially interesting about the two new bounce models is that they are “non-singular,” meaning the contracting universe bounces and starts expanding again before ever shrinking to a point. These bounces can therefore be fully described by the classical laws of gravity, requiring no speculations about gravity’s quantum nature.

Graham, Kaplan and Rajendran, of Stanford University, Johns Hopkins University and the University of California, Berkeley, respectively, reported their non-singular bounce idea on the scientific preprint site in September 2017. They found their way to it after wondering whether a previous contraction phase in the history of the universe could be used to explain the value of the cosmological constant — a mystifyingly tiny number that defines the amount of dark energy infused in the space-time fabric, energy that drives the accelerating expansion of the universe.

In working out the hardest part — the bounce — the trio exploited a second, largely forgotten loophole in the singularity theorems. They took inspiration from a characteristically strange model of the universe proposed by the logician Kurt Gödel in 1949, when he and Einstein were walking companions and colleagues at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey. Gödel used the laws of general relativity to construct the theory of a rotating universe, whose spinning keeps it from gravitationally collapsing in much the same way that Earth’s orbit prevents it from falling into the sun. Gödel especially liked the fact that his rotating universe permitted “closed timelike curves,” essentially loops in time, which raised all sorts of Gödelian riddles. To his dying day, he eagerly awaited evidence that the universe really is rotating in the manner of his model. Researchers now know it isn’t; otherwise, the cosmos would exhibit alignments and preferred directions. But Graham and company wondered about small, curled-up spatial dimensions that might exist in space, such as the six extra dimensions postulated by string theory. Could a contracting universe spin in those directions?

Imagine there’s just one of these curled-up extra dimensions, a tiny circle found at every point in space. As Graham put it, “At each point in space there’s an extra direction you can go in, a fourth spatial direction, but you can only go a tiny little distance and then you come back to where you started.” If there are at least three extra compact dimensions, then, as the universe contracts, matter and energy can start spinning inside them, and the dimensions themselves will spin with the matter and energy. The vorticity in the extra dimensions can suddenly initiate a bounce. “All that stuff that would have been crunching into a singularity, because it’s spinning in the extra dimensions, it misses — sort of like a gravitational slingshot,” Graham said. “All the stuff should have been coming to a single point, but instead it misses and flies back out again.”

The paper has attracted attention beyond the usual circle of bounce cosmologists. Sean Carroll, a theoretical physicist at the California Institute of Technology, is skeptical but called the idea “very clever.” He said it’s important to develop alternatives to the conventional inflation story, if only to see how much better inflation appears by comparison — especially when next-generation telescopes come online in the early 2020s looking for the telltale swirl pattern in the sky caused by inflation. “Even though I think inflation has a good chance of being right, I wish there were more competitors,” Carroll said. Sundrum, the Maryland physicist, felt similarly. “There are some questions I consider so important that even if you have only a 5 percent chance of succeeding, you should throw everything you have at it and work on them,” he said. “And that’s how I feel about this paper.”

As Graham, Kaplan and Rajendran explore their bounce and its possible experimental signatures, the next step for Ijjas and Steinhardt, working with Frans Pretorius of Princeton, is to develop computer simulations. (Their collaboration is supported by the Simons Foundation, which also funds Quanta Magazine.) Both bounce mechanisms also need to be integrated into more complete, stable cosmological models that would describe the entire evolutionary history of the universe.

Beyond these non-singular bounce solutions, other researchers are speculating about what kind of bounce might occur when a universe contracts all the way to a singularity — a bounce orchestrated by the unknown quantum laws of gravity, which replace the usual understanding of space and time at extremely high energies. In forthcoming work, Turok and collaborators plan to propose a model in which the universe expands symmetrically into the past and future away from a central, singular bounce. Turok contends that the existence of this two-lobed universe is equivalent to the spontaneous creation of electron-positron pairs, which constantly pop in and out of the vacuum. “Richard Feynman pointed out that you can look at the positron as an electron going backwards in time,” he said. “They’re two particles, but they’re really the same; at a certain moment in time they merge and annihilate.” He added, “The idea is a very, very deep one, and most likely the Big Bang will turn out to be similar, where a universe and its anti-universe were drawn out of nothing, if you like, by the presence of matter.”

It remains to be seen whether this universe/anti-universe bounce model can accommodate all observations of the cosmos, but Turok likes how simple it is. Most cosmological models are far too complicated in his view. The universe “looks extremely ordered and symmetrical and simple,” he said. “That’s very exciting for theorists, because it tells us there may be a simple — even if hard-to-discover — theory waiting to be discovered, which might explain the most paradoxical features of the universe.”

America’s declining relevance and China’s gains in the South China Sea

America’s declining relevance and China’s gains in the South China Sea

At a top regional security forum on Saturday, US Defence Secretary Jim Mattis said China’s recent militarisation efforts in the disputed South China Sea were intended to intimidate and coerce regional countries.

Mattis told the Shangri-La Dialogue that China’s actions stood in “stark contrast with the openness of [the US] strategy,” and warned of “much larger consequences” if China continued its current approach.

As an “initial response”, China’s navy has been disinvited by the US from the upcoming 2018 Rim of the Pacific Exercise, the world’s largest international naval exercise.

It is important to understand the context of the current tensions, and the strategic stakes for both China and the US.

In recent years, China has sought to bolster its control over the South China Sea, where a number of claimants have overlapping territorial claims with China, including Vietnam, the Philippines and Taiwan.

China’s efforts have continued unabated, despite rising tensions and international protests. Just recently, China landed a long-range heavy bomber for the first time on an island in the disputed Paracels, and deployed anti-ship and anti-air missile systems  to its outposts in the Spratly Islands.

China’s air force has also stepped up its drills and patrols in the skies over the South China Sea.

While China is not the only claimant militarising the disputed region, no one else comes remotely close to the ambition, scale and speed of China’s efforts.

China’s strategy

The South China Sea has long been coveted by China (and others) due to its strategic importance for trade and military power, as well as its abundant resources. According to one estimate, US$3.4 trillion in trade passed through the South China Sea in 2016, representing 21% of the global total.

China’s goal in the South China Sea can be summarised with one word: control.

In order to achieve this, China is undertaking a coordinated, long-term effort to assert its dominance in the region, including the building of artificial islands, civil and military infrastructure, and the deployment of military ships and aircraft to the region.

While politicians of other countries such as the US, Philippines and Australia espouse fiery rhetoric to protest China’s actions, Beijing is focusing on actively transforming the physical and power geography of the South China Sea.

In fact, according to the new commander of the US Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip Davidson, China’s efforts have been so successful that it “is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the US”.

America’s declining relevance

China’s efforts are hard to counter because it has employed an incremental approach to cementing its control in the South China Sea. None of its actions would individually justify a US military response that could escalate to war. In any case, the human and economic cost of such a conflict would be immense.

The inability of the US to respond effectively to China’s moves has eroded its credibility in the region. It has also fed a narrative that the US is not “here to stay” in Asia. If the US is serious about countering China, then Mattis’ rhetoric must be followed by action.

First, the US should clearly articulate its red lines to China and others on the kinds of activities that are unacceptable in the South China Sea. Then it must be willing to enforce such red lines, while being mindful of the risks.

Second, the US needs to renew its efforts to cooperate with allies in the region to build capacity and demonstrate a coordinated commitment to stand in the face of China’s challenge.

Third, the US needs to deploy military capabilities in the Indo-Pacific region, such as advanced missile systems, which would reduce the military advantages gained by China through the militarisation of the South China Sea features.

Long-term consequences

China’s tightening control over the South China Sea is worrying for a number of regional countries. For many, the shipping routes that run through the South China Sea are the bloodlines of their economies.

Moreover, the shifting balance of power will enable Beijing to settle its territorial disputes in the region for good. Without a doubt, China is willing to use its new-found power to change the status quo in its favour, even at the expense of its weaker neighbours.

Control of the South China Sea also allows Beijing to better project its military power across South-East Asia, the western Pacific and parts of Oceania. This would make it more costly for the US and its allies to take action against China, for example, in scenarios involving Taiwan.

On a higher level, China’s assertive approach to the South China Sea demonstrates Beijing’s increasing confidence and its willingness to flaunt international norms that it considers inconvenient or contrary to its interests.

There is little doubt China is becoming the new dominant power in Asia. Its rise has benefited millions in the region and should be welcomed. But we should also be wary of Beijing’s approach to territorial disputes and grievances if it employs military and economic intimidation and coercion.

If we want to live in a “world where big fish neither eat nor intimidate the small”, then there must be consequences for countries, including China, when they flaunt international norms and seek to settle disagreements with force.

It may be too late to turn the tide in the South China Sea and reverse China’s gains. No one would run such a risk. But it is not too late to impose penalties on China for further destabilising the region through its actions in the South China Sea.

The challenge is to figure out how to do that, and what we would be willing to risk to achieve it.

A Short Guide to Hard Problems

How fundamentally difficult is a problem? That’s the basic task of computer scientists who hope to sort problems into what are called complexity classes. These are groups that contain all the computational problems that require less than some fixed amount of a computational resource — something like time or memory. Take a toy example featuring a large number such as 123,456,789,001. One might ask: Is this number prime, divisible only by 1 and itself? Computer scientists can solve this using fast algorithms — algorithms that don’t bog down as the number gets arbitrarily large. In our case, 123,456,789,001 is not a prime number. Then we might ask: What are its prime factors? Here no such fast algorithm exists — not unless you use a quantum computer. Therefore computer scientists believe that the two problems are in different complexity classes.

Many different complexity classes exist, though in most cases researchers haven’t been able to prove one class is categorically distinct from the others. Proving those types of categorical distinctions is among the hardest and most important open problems in the field. That’s why the new result I wrote about last month in Quanta was considered such a big deal: In a paper published at the end of May, two computer scientists proved (with a caveat) that the two complexity classes that represent quantum and classical computers really are different.

The differences between complexity classes can be subtle or stark, and keeping the classes straight is a challenge. For that reason, Quanta has put together this primer on seven of the most fundamental complexity classes. May you never confuse BPP and BQP again.


Stands for: Polynomial time

Short version: All the problems that are easy for a classical (meaning nonquantum) computer to solve.

Precise version: Algorithms in P must stop and give the right answer in at most ntime where is the length of the input and is some constant.

Typical problems:
• Is a number prime?
• What’s the shortest path between two points?

What researchers want to know: Is P the same thing as NP? If so, it would upend computer science and render most cryptography ineffective overnight. (Almost no one thinks this is the case.)


Stands for: Nondeterministic Polynomial time

Short version: All problems that can be quickly verified by a classical computer once a solution is given.

Precise version: A problem is in NP if, given a “yes” answer, there is a short proof that establishes the answer is correct. If the input is a string, X, and you need to decide if the answer is “yes,” then a short proof would be another string, Y, that can be used to verify in polynomial time that the answer is indeed “yes.” (Y is sometimes referred to as a “short witness” — all problems in NP have “short witnesses” that allow them to be verified quickly.)

Typical problems:
• The clique problem. Imagine a graph with edges and nodes — for example, a graph where nodes are individuals on Facebook and two nodes are connected by an edge if they’re “friends.” A clique is a subset of this graph where all the people are friends with all the others. One might ask of such a graph: Is there a clique of 20 people? 50 people? 100? Finding such a clique is an “NP-complete” problem, meaning that it has the highest complexity of any problem in NP. But if given a potential answer — a subset of 50 nodes that may or may not form a clique — it’s easy to check.
• The traveling salesman problem. Given a list of cities with distances between each pair of cities, is there a way to travel through all the cities in less than a certain number of miles? For example, can a traveling salesman pass through every U.S. state capital in less than 11,000 miles?

What researchers want to know: Does P = NP? Computer scientists are nowhere near a solution to this problem.


Stands for: Polynomial Hierarchy

Short version: PH is a generalization of NP — it contains all the problems you get if you start with a problem in NP and add additional layers of complexity.

Precise version: PH contains problems with some number of alternating “quantifiers” that make the problems more complex. Here’s an example of a problem with alternating quantifiers: Given X, does there exist Y such that for every Z there exists W such that Rhappens? The more quantifiers a problem contains, the more complex it is and the higher up it is in the polynomial hierarchy.

Typical problem:
• Determine if there exists a clique of size 50 but no clique of size 51.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists have not been able to prove that PH is different from P. This problem is equivalent to the P versus NP problem because if (unexpectedly) P = NP, then all of PH collapses to P (that is, P = PH).


Stands for: Polynomial Space

Short version: PSPACE contains all the problems that can be solved with a reasonable amount of memory.

Precise version: In PSPACE you don’t care about time, you care only about the amount of memory required to run an algorithm. Computer scientists have proven that PSPACE contains PH, which contains NP, which contains P.

Typical problem:
• Every problem in P, NP and PH is in PSPACE.

What researchers want to know: Is PSPACE different from P?


Stands for: Bounded-error Quantum Polynomial time

Short version: All problems that are easy for a quantum computer to solve.

Precise version: All problems that can be solved in polynomial time by a quantum computer.

Typical problems:
• Identify the prime factors of an integer.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists have proven that BQP is contained in PSPACE and that BQP contains P. They don’t know whether BQP is in NP, but they believe the two classes are incomparable: There are problems that are in NP and not BQP and vice versa.


Stands for: Exponential Time

Short version: All the problems that can be solved in an exponential amount of time by a classical computer.

Precise version: EXP contains all the previous classes — P, NP, PH, PSPACE and BQP. Researchers have proven that it’s different from P — they have found problems in EXP that are not in P.

Typical problem:
• Generalizations of games like chess and checkers are in EXP. If a chess board can be any size, it becomes a problem in EXP to determine which player has the advantage in a given board position.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists would like to be able to prove that PSPACE does not contain EXP. They believe there are problems that are in EXP that are not in PSPACE, because sometimes in EXP you need a lot of memory to solve the problems. Computer scientists know how to separate EXP and P.


Short version: Problems that can be quickly solved by algorithms that include an element of randomness.

Precise version: BPP is exactly the same as P, but with the difference that the algorithm is allowed to include steps where its decision-making is randomized. Algorithms in BPP are required only to give the right answer with a probability close to 1.

Typical problem:
• You’re handed two different formulas that each produce a polynomial that has many variables. Do the formulas compute the exact same polynomial? This is called the polynomial identity testing problem.

What researchers want to know: Computer scientists would like to know whether BPP = P. If that is true, it would mean that every randomized algorithm can be de-randomized. They believe this is the case — that there is an efficient deterministic algorithm for every problem for which there exists an efficient randomized algorithm — but they have not been able to prove it.

Our Time Has Come - Alyssa Ayres

Our Time Has Come – Alyssa Ayres

How India is Making Its Place in the World

Over the last 25 years, India’s explosive economic growth has vaulted it into the ranks of the world’s emerging major powers. Long plagued by endemic poverty, India was hamstrung by a burdensome regulatory regime that limited its ability to compete on a global scale until the 1990s. Since then, however, the Indian government has gradually opened up the economy, and the results have been stunning. India’s middle class has grown by leaps and bounds, and the country’s sheer scale—its huge population and $2 trillion economy—means its actions will have a major global impact. From world trade to climate change to democratization, India now matters.

While it is clearly on the path to becoming a great power, India has not abandoned all of its past policies: its economy remains relatively protectionist, and it still struggles with the legacy of its longstanding foreign policy doctrine of nonalignment. India’s vibrant democracy encompasses a vast array of parties who champion dizzyingly disparate policies. And India is not easily swayed by foreign influence; the country carefully guards its autonomy, in part because of its colonial past. For all of these reasons, India tends to move cautiously and deliberately in the international sphere.

In Our Time Has Come, Senior Fellow for India, Pakistan, and South Asia Alyssa Ayres looks at how the tension between India’s inward-focused past and its ongoing integration into the global economy will shape the country’s trajectory. Today, Indian leaders increasingly want to see their country in the ranks of the world’s great powers—in fact, as a “leading power,” to use the words of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Ayres considers the role India is likely to play as its prominence grows, taking stock of the implications and opportunities for the United States and other nations as the world’s largest democracy defines its place in the world. As Ayres shows, India breaks the mold of the typical ally, and its vastness, history, and diversity render it incomparable to any other major democratic power. By focusing on how India’s unique perspective shapes its approach to global affairs, Our Time Has Come will help the world make sense of India’s rise.

Despite the various challenges author Alyssa Ayres has highlighted in her book, India is well on the road to acquiring global power and status.

The title of Alyssa Ayres’ latest book on India, ‘Our Time Has Come’, would apply more appropriately to a resurgent China, supremely confident in its arrival as a great power, rather than to India. One may legitimately argue that India’s time has not come yet although we may be getting there. The sub-title is perhaps more apt—‘How India is making its place in the world’.

Alyssa Ayres is a sympathetic chronicler of India’s rise to global prominence over the past quarter of a century. She covers this trajectory in eight chapters, grouped under three parts, one, titled, ‘Looking Back’; the next covering the ‘Transition’ and the third, ‘Looking Ahead’. The epilogue has some recommendations for US policy towards India, on how the partnership can be strengthened even as India seeks to carve out a place for itself in a new international order. For a balanced and carefully researched analysis of India’s prospects, as seen from Washington, this is a book which will rank pretty high in the years to come.

Alyssa did spend some time with me while gathering material for her book and we had a long conversation about the templates from the past, which continue to influence the way India looks at the world. She has duly reflected this in the first chapter. But her book is mainly about departures from the past and how a new India is defining her place in the world even as its historical experience lends its calculations a degree of caution.

Quite predictably, she considers the end of the Cold War as marking the end of an era when India had to cope with a greatly transformed geopolitical landscape even as it grappled with an economic crisis which threatened to push the country into a humiliating financial default. India’s relations with the US and West in general began to improve. The Cold War prism through which India was seen as being on the other side of the fence dissipated. The economic crisis compelled the adoption of far-reaching market based reforms and economic liberalisation, soon putting India on a high growth trajectory.

This reinforced the turn towards the West which could support India’s economic prospects with infusions of capital and technology. Along with the globalisation of the Indian economy and the opportunities this offered to foreign capital, India began to move from the margins towards the centre of the global economy. Its regional and global profile also began to rise.

Alyssa credits the Modi government with having given a new impetus to the transformation of India’s engagement with the world. India is a country more demanding of its due in the world. It is less hesitant in asserting its interests. This trend, she believes, is likely to grow stronger and both friends and adversaries need to acknowledge the change that is taking place.

In spelling out these changes, Alyssa quotes Foreign Secretary Jaishankar who argues that India today seeks to be a “leading power” rather than a “balancing power”, ready to shape events rather than be shaped by them. This, then, is an India which would be less reactive and defensive and would be ready to play a leading role on the world stage.

To be fair, the author acknowledges that previous political dispensations, both led by the Congress and the BJP, have presided over very real and significant changes that have taken place in the conduct of India’s foreign relations. However, the lingering legacies of the past, the defensiveness inherent in the concept of non-alignment, the deeply ingrained suspicions of foreign capital and the widespread political preference for self-reliance have all held India back from taking on a mantle of leadership on the global stage. However, she does credit Modi for having moved away from these constraining legacies more than any other leader so far.

Alyssa devotes a considerable part of her book to the Indian economic story. After all India’s place in the world is integrally linked to the country’s economic prospects. Here she finds that the country’s historical experience and its complex polity and society have prevented the whole-hearted embrace of economic reforms and this detracts from the expansive role that it aspires to on the world stage.

She has rightly pointed out that Prime Minister Modi is the first Indian leader to declare his support for reforms explicitly and unreservedly. There is no “reform through stealth” for him. He has also been open in his welcome of foreign investment and has been persuasive in his sales pitch during visits across the world. And yet he has not been successful in bringing about the long-pending reforms in land acquisition and labour laws or in overhauling India’s public sector.

India’s negotiating position in multilateral trade negotiations continues to be marked by defensiveness despite Prime Minister Modi’s penchant for deal making. Structural reforms, particularly, in mechanisms of governance, have made little headway and all this means that there is a mismatch between political ambition and capacity.

In the case of the US, there is an imbalance between a very robust security and defence relationship and still modest economic and commercial relationship. The two countries continue to spar with each other in multilateral trade fora and these difference are likely to sharpen under the Trump administration.

Alyssa concludes her book on an optimistic and forward looking note. Despite the various challenges she has drawn attention to, she sees India well on the road to acquiring global power and status. The country will be, by 2040, the third largest economy in the world after the US and China. It would have a formidable military, in particular, naval power and, if it plays its cards well, it could well begin to emerge as a leading manufacturing power, leveraging its demographic dividend into even more substantial national power.

The author has good advice for US policy makers who will need to accept that India will play according to its own template rather than accept a Washington template. There will be an insistence on a relationship as equals but it is a relationship which will be as important for India as it will be for the US.

One cannot quarrel with that.