Neuroscience vs philosophy: Taking aim at free will.

Scientists think they can prove that free will is an illusion. Philosophers are urging them to think again.

The experiment helped to change John-Dylan Haynes’s outlook on life. In 2007, Haynes, a neuroscientist at the Bernstein Center for Computational Neuroscience in Berlin, put people into a brain scanner in which a display screen flashed a succession of random letters1. He told them to press a button with either their right or left index fingers whenever they felt the urge, and to remember the letter that was showing on the screen when they made the decision. The experiment used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to reveal brain activity in real time as the volunteers chose to use their right or left hands. The results were quite a surprise.

“The first thought we had was ‘we have to check if this is real’,” says Haynes. “We came up with more sanity checks than I’ve ever seen in any other study before.”

The conscious decision to push the button was made about a second before the actual act, but the team discovered that a pattern of brain activity seemed to predict that decision by as many as seven seconds. Long before the subjects were even aware of making a choice, it seems, their brains had already decided.

As humans, we like to think that our decisions are under our conscious control — that we have free will. Philosophers have debated that concept for centuries, and now Haynes and other experimental neuroscientists are raising a new challenge. They argue that consciousness of a decision may be a mere biochemical afterthought, with no influence whatsoever on a person’s actions. According to this logic, they say, free will is an illusion. “We feel we choose, but we don’t,” says Patrick Haggard, a neuroscientist at University College London.

You may have thought you decided whether to have tea or coffee this morning, for example, but the decision may have been made long before you were aware of it. For Haynes, this is unsettling. “I’ll be very honest, I find it very difficult to deal with this,” he says. “How can I call a will ‘mine’ if I don’t even know when it occurred and what it has decided to do?”

Thought experiments

Philosophers aren’t convinced that brain scans can demolish free will so easily. Some have questioned the neuroscientists’ results and interpretations, arguing that the researchers have not quite grasped the concept that they say they are debunking. Many more don’t engage with scientists at all. “Neuroscientists and philosophers talk past each other,” says Walter Glannon, a philosopher at the University of Calgary in Canada, who has interests in neuroscience, ethics and free will.

There are some signs that this is beginning to change. This month, a raft of projects will get under way as part of Big Questions in Free Will, a four-year, US$4.4-million programme funded by the John Templeton Foundation in West Conshohocken, Pennsylvania, which supports research bridging theology, philosophy and natural science. Some say that, with refined experiments, neuroscience could help researchers to identify the physical processes underlying conscious intention and to better understand the brain activity that precedes it. And if unconscious brain activity could be found to predict decisions perfectly, the work really could rattle the notion of free will. “It’s possible that what are now correlations could at some point become causal connections between brain mechanisms and behaviours,” says Glannon. “If that were the case, then it would threaten free will, on any definition by any philosopher.”

Haynes wasn’t the first neuroscientist to explore unconscious decision-making. In the 1980s, Benjamin Libet, a neuropsychologist at the University of California, San Francisco, rigged up study participants to an electroencephalogram (EEG) and asked them to watch a clock face with a dot sweeping around it2. When the participants felt the urge to move a finger, they had to note the dot’s position. Libet recorded brain activity several hundred milliseconds before people expressed their conscious intention to move.

Libet’s result was controversial. Critics said that the clock was distracting, and the report of a conscious decision was too subjective. Neuroscience experiments usually have controllable inputs — show someone a picture at a precise moment, and then look for reactions in the brain. When the input is the participant’s conscious intention to move, however, they subjectively decide on its timing. Moreover, critics weren’t convinced that the activity seen by Libet before a conscious decision was sufficient to cause the decision — it could just have been the brain gearing up to decide and then move.

Haynes’s 2008 study1 modernized the earlier experiment: where Libet’s EEG technique could look at only a limited area of brain activity, Haynes’s fMRI set-up could survey the whole brain; and where Libet’s participants decided simply on when to move, Haynes’s test forced them to decide between two alternatives. But critics still picked holes, pointing out that Haynes and his team could predict a left or right button press with only 60% accuracy at best. Although better than chance, this isn’t enough to claim that you can see the brain making its mind up before conscious awareness, argues Adina Roskies, a neuroscientist and philosopher who works on free will at Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire. Besides, “all it suggests is that there are some physical factors that influence decision-making”, which shouldn’t be surprising. Philosophers who know about the science, she adds, don’t think this sort of study is good evidence for the absence of free will, because the experiments are caricatures of decision-making. Even the seemingly simple decision of whether to have tea or coffee is more complex than deciding whether to push a button with one hand or the other.

Haynes stands by his interpretation, and has replicated and refined his results in two studies. One uses more accurate scanning techniques3 to confirm the roles of the brain regions implicated in his previous work. In the other, which is yet to be published, Haynes and his team asked subjects to add or subtract two numbers from a series being presented on a screen. Deciding whether to add or subtract reflects a more complex intention than that of whether to push a button, and Haynes argues that it is a more realistic model for everyday decisions. Even in this more abstract task, the researchers detected activity up to four seconds before the subjects were conscious of deciding, Haynes says.

Some researchers have literally gone deeper into the brain. One of those is Itzhak Fried, a neuroscientist and surgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, and the Tel Aviv Medical Center in Israel. He studied individuals with electrodes implanted in their brains as part of a surgical procedure to treat epilepsy4. Recording from single neurons in this way gives scientists a much more precise picture of brain activity than fMRI or EEG. Fried’s experiments showed that there was activity in individual neurons of particular brain areas about a second and a half before the subject made a conscious decision to press a button. With about 700 milliseconds to go, the researchers could predict the timing of that decision with more than 80% accuracy. “At some point, things that are predetermined are admitted into consciousness,” says Fried. The conscious will might be added on to a decision at a later stage, he suggests.

Material gains

Philosophers question the assumptions underlying such interpretations. “Part of what’s driving some of these conclusions is the thought that free will has to be spiritual or involve souls or something,” says Al Mele, a philosopher at Florida State University in Tallahassee. If neuroscientists find unconscious neural activity that drives decision-making, the troublesome concept of mind as separate from body disappears, as does free will. This ‘dualist’ conception of free will is an easy target for neuroscientists to knock down, says Glannon. “Neatly dividing mind and brain makes it easier for neuroscientists to drive a wedge between them,” he adds.

The trouble is, most current philosophers don’t think about free will like that, says Mele. Many are materialists — believing that everything has a physical basis, and decisions and actions come from brain activity. So scientists are weighing in on a notion that philosophers consider irrelevant.

Nowadays, says Mele, the majority of philosophers are comfortable with the idea that people can make rational decisions in a deterministic universe. They debate the interplay between freedom and determinism — the theory that everything is predestined, either by fate or by physical laws — but Roskies says that results from neuroscience can’t yet settle that debate. They may speak to the predictability of actions, but not to the issue of determinism.

Neuroscientists also sometimes have misconceptions about their own field, says Michael Gazzaniga, a neuroscientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara. In particular, scientists tend to see preparatory brain activity as proceeding stepwise, one bit at a time, to a final decision. He suggests that researchers should instead think of processes working in parallel, in a complex network with interactions happening continually. The time at which one becomes aware of a decision is thus not as important as some have thought.

Battle of wills

There are conceptual issues — and then there is semantics. “What would really help is if scientists and philosophers could come to an agreement on what free will means,” says Glannon. Even within philosophy, definitions of free will don’t always match up. Some philosophers define it as the ability to make rational decisions in the absence of coercion. Some definitions place it in cosmic context: at the moment of decision, given everything that’s happened in the past, it is possible to reach a different decision. Others stick to the idea that a non-physical ‘soul’ is directing decisions.

Neuroscience could contribute directly to tidying up definitions, or adding an empirical dimension to them. It might lead to a deeper, better understanding of what freely willing something involves, or refine views of what conscious intention is, says Roskies.

Mele is directing the Templeton Foundation project that is beginning to bring philosophers and neuroscientists together. “I think if we do a new generation of studies with better design, we’ll get better evidence about what goes on in the brain when people make decisions,” he says. Some informal meetings have already begun. Roskies, who is funded through the programme, plans to spend time this year in the lab of Michael Shadlen, a neurophysiologist at the University of Washington in Seattle who works on decision-making in the primate brain. “We’re going to hammer on each other until we really understand the other person’s point of view, and convince one or other of us that we’re wrong,” she says.

Haggard has Templeton funding for a project in which he aims to provide a way to objectively determine the timing of conscious decisions and actions, rather than rely on subjective reports. His team plans to devise an experimental set-up in which people play a competitive game against a computer while their brain activity is decoded.

Another project, run by Christof Koch, a bioengineer at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, will use techniques similar to Fried’s to examine the responses of individual neurons when people use reason to make decisions. His team hopes to measure how much weight people give to different bits of information when they decide.

Philosophers are willing to admit that neuroscience could one day trouble the concept of free will. Imagine a situation (philosophers like to do this) in which researchers could always predict what someone would decide from their brain activity, before the subject became aware of their decision. “If that turned out to be true, that would be a threat to free will,” says Mele. Still, even those who have perhaps prematurely proclaimed the death of free will agree that such results would have to be replicated on many different levels of decision-making. Pressing a button or playing a game is far removed from making a cup of tea, running for president or committing a crime.

The practical effects of demolishing free will are hard to predict. Biological determinism doesn’t hold up as a defence in law. Legal scholars aren’t ready to ditch the principle of personal responsibility. “The law has to be based on the idea that people are responsible for their actions, except in exceptional circumstances,” says Nicholas Mackintosh, director of a project on neuroscience and the law run by the Royal Society in London.

Owen Jones, a law professor at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, who directs a similar project funded by the MacArthur Foundation in Chicago, Illinois, suggests that the research could help to identify an individual’s level of responsibility. “What we are interested in is how neuroscience can give us a more granulated view of how people vary in their ability to control their behaviour,” says Jones. That could affect the severity of a sentence, for example.

The answers could also end up influencing people’s behaviour. In 2008, Kathleen Vohs, a social psychologist at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis, and her colleague Jonathan Schooler, a psychologist now at the University of California, Santa Barbara, published a study5 on how people behave when they are prompted to think that determinism is true. They asked their subjects to read one of two passages: one suggesting that behaviour boils down to environmental or genetic factors not under personal control; the other neutral about what influences behaviour. The participants then did a few maths problems on a computer. But just before the test started, they were informed that because of a glitch in the computer it occasionally displayed the answer by accident; if this happened, they were to click it away without looking. Those who had read the deterministic message were more likely to cheat on the test. “Perhaps, denying free will simply provides the ultimate excuse to behave as one likes,” Vohs and Schooler suggested.

Haynes’s research and its possible implications have certainly had an effect on how he thinks. He remembers being on a plane on his way to a conference and having an epiphany. “Suddenly I had this big vision about the whole deterministic universe, myself, my place in it and all these different points where we believe we’re making decisions just reflecting some causal flow.” But he couldn’t maintain this image of a world without free will for long. “As soon as you start interpreting people’s behaviours in your day-to-day life, it’s virtually impossible to keep hold of,” he says.

Fried, too, finds it impossible to keep determinism at the top of his mind. “I don’t think about it every day. I certainly don’t think about it when I operate on the human brain.”

Mele is hopeful that other philosophers will become better acquainted with the science of conscious intention. And where philosophy is concerned, he says, scientists would do well to soften their stance. “It’s not as though the task of neuroscientists who work on free will has to be to show there isn’t any.”

Kerri Smith is editor of the Nature Podcast, and is based in London.

·         References

    1. Soon, C. S., Brass, M., Heinze, H.-J. & Haynes, J.-D. Nature Neurosci. 11, 543-545 (2008). | Article |
    2. Libet, B., Gleason, C. A., Wright, E. W. & Pearl, D. K. Brain 106, 623-642 (1983). | Article | PubMed | ISI |
    3. Bode, S. et al. PLoS ONE 6, e21612 (2011). | Article | PubMed | ChemPort |
    4. Fried, I., Mukamel, R. & Kreiman, G. Neuron 69, 548-562 (2011). | Article | PubMed | ISI | ChemPort |
    5. Vohs, K. D. & Schooler, J. W. Psychol. Sci. 19, 49-54 (2008). | Article | PubMed |

Source: Nature.

Sally Ride, the first US woman in space, dies aged 61.

Sally Ride, the first US woman to travel into space, has died aged 61, 17 months after she was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, her foundation says.

“Sally’s historic flight into space captured the nation’s imagination and made her a household name,” Sally Ride Science said in a statement.

She blasted off in the US space shuttle Challenger in June 1983.

Ride was not the first woman in space – that was Soviet cosmonaut Valentina Tereshkova in June 1963.

Since her first mission in 1983, more than 45 women from the US and other countries have flown in space, including two as shuttle commander.

Ride died on Monday in La Jolla, California.

Once an aspiring tennis player, she went on to earn no fewer than four university degrees including a doctorate in physics.

National hero

In a statement, US President Barack Obama said he was “deeply saddened” to hear about her death.

 “Start Quote

Her star will always shine brightly”

Charles Bolden Nasa administrator

“As the first American woman to travel into space, Sally was a national hero and a powerful role model,” he said in a statement.

Ride was born and grew up in Los Angeles, California, attending Stanford University for master’s and doctorate degrees in physics.

According to her foundation, Ride applied to Nasa after seeing an ad in the Stanford student newspaper, calling for scientists and engineers, including women to apply to the astronaut corps.

She joined Nasa in 1978 – one of 35 people selected as astronauts from a field of more than 8,000 who applied.

Ride went on her first space shuttle mission on board Challenger in 1983.

As well as being the first American woman in space, she was also – at the age of 32 – the youngest person in America at the time to go into orbit.

Great expectations

As part of that mission she used a robotic arm – which she had helped develop – to retrieve a satellite.

She reached orbit again the following year, and was scheduled for a third trip when the Challenger space shuttle broke apart during lift-off in 1986.

The disaster occurred just over a minute into the mission, killing all seven crew members, and prompting an almost three-year hiatus in the American space programme.

Following the disaster, she served as a member of the presidential commission that investigated the causes of the fatal accident. She also sat on a similar board following the Columbia space shuttle, which broke apart during its re-entry to Earth in 2003.

“Sally Ride broke barriers with grace and professionalism – and literally changed the face of America’s space program,” Nasa administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “She will be missed, but her star will always shine brightly.”

Ms Ride’s former husband Steve Hawley said in a statement: “Sally was a very private person who found herself a very public persona. It was a role in which she was never fully comfortable.”

The former astronaut, who was married to Ride from 1982 until 1987, added: “I was privileged to be a part of her life and be in a position to support her as she became the first American woman to fly in space.”

After leaving Nasa, Ride became a professor at University of California, San Diego, and served as a science fellow at Stanford University.

She launched Sally Ride Science, which created science programmes and publications for young students, in 2001. She also wrote five children’s science books.

“The fact that I was going to be the first American woman to go into space carried huge expectations along with it,” Ride said in a 2008 interview.

“I didn’t really think about it that much at the time – but I came to appreciate what an honour it was to be selected,” she said.

Ride is survived by her mother Carol and her partner of 27 years Tam O’Shaughnessy.

Source: BBC



Female genital mutilation.

Key facts

  • Female genital mutilation (FGM) includes procedures that intentionally alter or cause injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.
  • The procedure has no health benefits for girls and women.
  • Procedures can cause severe bleeding and problems urinating, and later cysts, infections, infertility as well as complications in childbirth increased risk of newborn deaths.
  • About 140 million girls and women worldwide are currently living with the consequences of FGM.
  • FGM is mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15.
  • In Africa an estimated 92 million girls 10 years old and above have undergone FGM.
  • FGM is a violation of the human rights of girls and women.

Female genital mutilation (FGM) comprises all procedures that involve partial or total removal of the external female genitalia, or other injury to the female genital organs for non-medical reasons.

The practice is mostly carried out by traditional circumcisers, who often play other central roles in communities, such as attending childbirths. However, more than 18% of all FGM is performed by health care providers, and this trend is increasing.

FGM is recognized internationally as a violation of the human rights of girls and women. It reflects deep-rooted inequality between the sexes, and constitutes an extreme form of discrimination against women. It is nearly always carried out on minors and is a violation of the rights of children. The practice also violates a person’s rights to health, security and physical integrity, the right to be free from torture and cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and the right to life when the procedure results in death.


Female genital mutilation is classified into four major types.

  1. Clitoridectomy: partial or total removal of the clitoris (a small, sensitive and erectile part of the female genitals) and, in very rare cases, only the prepuce (the fold of skin surrounding the clitoris).
  2. Excision: partial or total removal of the clitoris and the labia minora, with or without excision of the labia majora (the labia are “the lips” that surround the vagina).
  3. Infibulation: narrowing of the vaginal opening through the creation of a covering seal. The seal is formed by cutting and repositioning the inner, or outer, labia, with or without removal of the clitoris.
  4. Other: all other harmful procedures to the female genitalia for non-medical purposes, e.g. pricking, piercing, incising, scraping and cauterizing the genital area.

No health benefits, only harm

FGM has no health benefits, and it harms girls and women in many ways. It involves removing and damaging healthy and normal female genital tissue, and interferes with the natural functions of girls’ and women’s bodies.

Immediate complications can include severe pain, shock, haemorrhage (bleeding), tetanus or sepsis (bacterial infection), urine retention, open sores in the genital region and injury to nearby genital tissue.

Long-term consequences can include:

  • recurrent bladder and urinary tract infections;
  • cysts;
  • infertility;
  • an increased risk of childbirth complications and newborn deaths;
  • the need for later surgeries. For example, the FGM procedure that seals or narrows a vaginal opening (type 3 above) needs to be cut open later to allow for sexual intercourse and childbirth. Sometimes it is stitched again several times, including after childbirth, hence the woman goes through repeated opening and closing procedures, further increasing and repeated both immediate and long-term risks.

Who is at risk?

Procedures are mostly carried out on young girls sometime between infancy and age 15, and occasionally on adult women. In Africa, about three million girls are at risk for FGM annually.

About 140 million girls and women worldwide are living with the consequences of FGM. In Africa, about 92 million girls age 10 years and above are estimated to have undergone FGM.

The practice is most common in the western, eastern, and north-eastern regions of Africa, in some countries in Asia and the Middle East, and among migrants from these areas.

Cultural, religious and social causes

The causes of female genital mutilation include a mix of cultural, religious and social factors within families and communities.

  • Where FGM is a social convention, the social pressure to conform to what others do and have been doing is a strong motivation to perpetuate the practice.
  • FGM is often considered a necessary part of raising a girl properly, and a way to prepare her for adulthood and marriage.
  • FGM is often motivated by beliefs about what is considered proper sexual behaviour, linking procedures to premarital virginity and marital fidelity. FGM is in many communities believed to reduce a woman’s libido and therefore believed to help her resist “illicit” sexual acts. When a vaginal opening is covered or narrowed (type 3 above), the fear of the pain of opening it, and the fear that this will be found out, is expected to further discourage “illicit” sexual intercourse among women with this type of FGM.
  • FGM is associated with cultural ideals of femininity and modesty, which include the notion that girls are “clean” and “beautiful” after removal of body parts that are considered “male” or “unclean”.
  • Though no religious scripts prescribe the practice, practitioners often believe the practice has religious support.
  • Religious leaders take varying positions with regard to FGM: some promote it, some consider it irrelevant to religion, and others contribute to its elimination.
  • Local structures of power and authority, such as community leaders, religious leaders, circumcisers, and even some medical personnel can contribute to upholding the practice.
  • In most societies, FGM is considered a cultural tradition, which is often used as an argument for its continuation.
  • In some societies, recent adoption of the practice is linked to copying the traditions of neighbouring groups. Sometimes it has started as part of a wider religious or traditional revival movement.
  • In some societies, FGM is practised by new groups when they move into areas where the local population practice FGM.

International response

In 1997, WHO issued a joint statement with the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) against the practice of FGM. A new statement, with wider United Nations support, was then issued in February 2008 to support increased advocacy for the abandonment of FGM.

The 2008 statement documents evidence collected over the past decade about the practice. It highlights the increased recognition of the human rights and legal dimensions of the problem and provides data on the frequency and scope of FGM. It also summarizes research about why FGM continues, how to stop it, and its damaging effects on the health of women, girls and newborn babies.

In 2010 WHO published a “Global strategy to stop health care providers from performing female genital mutilation” in collaboration with other key UN agencies and international organizations.

Since 1997, great efforts have been made to counteract FGM, through research, work within communities, and changes in public policy. Progress at both international and local levels includes:

  • wider international involvement to stop FGM;
  • the development of international monitoring bodies and resolutions that condemn the practice;
  • revised legal frameworks and growing political support to end FGM (this includes a law against FGM in 22 African countries, and in several states in two other countries, as well as 12 industrialized countries with migrant populations from FGM practicing countries);
  • in most countries, the prevalence of FGM has decreased, and an increasing number of women and men in practising communities support ending its practice.

Research shows that, if practising communities themselves decide to abandon FGM, the practice can be eliminated very rapidly.

WHO response

In 2008, the World Health Assembly passed a resolution (WHA61.16) on the elimination of FGM, emphasizing the need for concerted action in all sectors – health, education, finance, justice and women’s affairs.

WHO efforts to eliminate female genital mutilation focus on:

  • advocacy: developing publications and advocacy tools for international, regional and local efforts to end FGM within a generation;
  • research: generating knowledge about the causes and consequences of the practice, how to eliminate it, and how to care for those who have experienced FGM;
  • guidance for health systems: developing training materials and guidelines for health professionals to help them treat and counsel women who have undergone procedures.

WHO is particularly concerned about the increasing trend for medically trained personnel to perform FGM. WHO strongly urges health professionals not to perform such procedures.

Source: WHO.

Why Did the Wall Street Journal Bury the Merck Fraud Story?

It was big news when court documents were unsealed revealing a whistleblower lawsuit accusing drug giant Merck of fraud and lying about the true efficacy of its mumps vaccine. Just about every media, large and small, picked it up and the world was abuzz about the hundreds of millions of dollars the lawsuit claimed Merck had defrauded from the U.S. government.

The Wall Street Journal published the story in the form of a Dow Jones news release written by Jon Kamp on June  22, 2012, and links to the story began popping up on social media like Facebook.

Then, suddenly, the link to the story no longer worked, and if anyone clicked on the link in social media, it would show up “page not found.” Apparently the story had been pulled, and when search engines and Internet archives wouldn’t even show it, it looked as if it had never been published on the Journal’s site at all. It was erased nearly clean–except for a small stock-watcher’s website,, which did a good job of erasing it from its main site but didn’t catch it in the cache.

The question is, why did the WSJ pull the story and try to erase as if it never existed when there were actual court documents for evidence?

Is it possible that an event that occurred on June 251—three days after the story broke—could have influenced the story being pulled? On that day, the Wall Street Journal’s “elite” network of CFOs from the world’s top corporations met at the WSJ2. Merck is on that executive council3.

My team attempted to connect with the WSJ on this issue, but as of this time, we have not yet received an answer as to why this article was pulled.

Merck Accused of Falsifying Efficacy Studies and Lying about Effectiveness of Mumps Vaccine

Merck has actually been slapped with two class-action lawsuits over their mumps vaccine (which is part of the trivalent measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine). The first, which was initially filed in 2010, was unsealed late last month.

Two former Merck virologists, Stephen Krahling and Joan Wlochowski, claim they witnessed first-hand the improper testing and falsification of data that was done to hide the fact that the vaccine has significantly declined in effectiveness4.

By artificially inflating the efficacy, Merck was able to maintain its monopoly over the mumps vaccine market—and that is the main point of contention of the second class-action lawsuit, filed by Chatom Primary Care5.

According to Courthouse News Service6:

“Merck has known for a decade that its mumps vaccine is “far less effective” than it tells the government, and it falsified test results and sold millions of doses of “questionable efficacy,” flooding and monopolizing the market… Chatom says in its antitrust complaint that Merck falsely claims its mumps vaccine is 95 percent effective. That claim “deterred and excluded competing manufacturers,” who would enter the risky and expensive vaccine market only if they believed they could craft a better product…

Merck is the only manufacturer licensed by the FDA to sell the mumps vaccine in United States, and if it could not show that the vaccine was 95 percent effective, it risked losing its lucrative monopoly…

That’s why Merck found it critically important to keep claiming such a high efficacy rate, the complaint states. And, Chatom claims, that’s why Merck went to great lengths, including “manipulating its test procedures and falsifying the test results,” to prop up the bogus figure, though it knew that the attenuated virus from which it created the vaccine had been altered over the years during the manufacturing process, and that the quality of the vaccine had degraded as a result.”

How Merck Faked and Manipulated Vaccine Trials to Achieve Desired Results

According to these two lawsuits, Merck began a sham testing program in the late 1990’s to hide the declining efficacy of the vaccine. The objective of the fraudulent trials was to “report efficacy of 95 percent or higher regardless of the vaccine’s true efficacy.”

According to Krahling and Wlochowski’s complaint, they were threatened with jail were they to alert the FDA to the fraud being committed. The sham testing program was initially referred to as “Protocol 007,” the Chatom anti-trust claim states. Suzanne Humphries recently wrote an excellent summary for GreenMedInfo.com7, explaining in layman’s terms how the tests were manipulated8.

Here’s a brief extract. For more, please refer to the original source article:

“For the new testing method, the children’s blood was tested for its ability to neutralize the virus using the vaccine strain virus, instead of the wild type strain that is much more infective, and the one that your children would most likely catch… But still it was not 95% effective. In order to make the blood pass the test, antibodies from rabbits was added. The addition of rabbit antibody increased the efficacy to 100%. But that was not the end, because the test has to be done on pre-vaccine blood and post-vaccine blood.

Just the addition of rabbit antibody made the pre-vaccine blood go from 10% positive to 80% positive and that was such an obvious sign of foul play that yet another manipulation had to be made.

The desired end result is to have very low pre-vaccine antibody and 95% or more post-vaccine efficacy as measured by antibody neutralization. So, yet one more change in procedure was made: The pre-vaccine tests were all redone… According to the Merck scientists, they did this by fabricating the “plaque” counts on the pre-vaccine blood samples, counting plaques that were not there. What this allowed was a mathematical dilution of the pre-vaccine positive blood counts.”

This is a perfect example of how medical research can be manipulated to achieve desired results, and why it may be wise to question vaccine makers’ study results. Clearly, there needs to be a truly independent review in the mix… As reported by the Courthouse News Service9:

“Chatom claims that the falsification of test results occurred” with the knowledge, authority and approval of Merck’s senior management.”

While I do not advocate indiscriminately abstaining from all vaccines, I strongly encourage you to exercise a major dose of due diligence as vaccines can cause serious reactions that can have devastating consequences. I believe in informed consent and the freedom to choose. There can be little doubt anymore that drug companies are in it for the profits, and virtually no price seems too high for them when it comes to protecting their profit-making.

When Words and Deeds Don’t Match, which is Closer to the Truth?

Forbes quoted a Merck spokesman saying10:

“Nothing is more important to Merck than the safety and effectiveness of our vaccines and medicines and the people who use them.”.


Then WHY did they heavily promote Vioxx and keep it on the market until it had killed more than 60,000 people? I warned my readers that this pain killer might be a real killer for some people, five years before Merck made its $30 billion recall! Five years they let it go, and they undoubtedly would have kept it on the market longer had the lethal dangers not become so shockingly obvious to other scientists.

After Vioxx came the HPV vaccine Gardasil—perhaps the most unnecessary vaccine ever created, and likely one of the most dangerous to boot. Merck claims their main concern is safety, yet ever since Gardasil’s approval in 2006, reports of life-altering side effects and sudden deaths of otherwise healthy teenagers have stacked up into the thousands, and Merck has steadfastly refused to acknowledge or address these health risks.

Gardasil appears to have one of the highest risk to benefit ratios of any vaccine on the market, and India even halted Merck’s post-licensing trials of the vaccine after four young participants died, yet Merck has the gall to claim that nothing is more important to them than safety. Give me a break… Actions speak louder than words, and Merck has a long paper trail of litigation highlighting the company’s questionable ethics.

More Censored News: MMR Vaccine Caused Autism, Italian Court Rules

These two lawsuits couldn’t come at a more precarious time for Merck, as the Italian Health Ministry recently conceded the MMR vaccine caused autism in a now nine-year old boy. As a result, a court in Rimini, Italy has awarded the family a 15-year annuity totaling 174,000 Euros (just under $220,000), plus reimbursement for court costs, ruling that the boy “has been damaged by irreversible complications due to vaccination (prophylaxis trivalent MMR).”

According to The Daily Mail, a British paper11:

“Judge Lucio Ardigo, awarding compensation to the family… said it was ‘conclusively established’ that Valentino had suffered from an ‘autistic disorder associated with medium cognitive delay’ and his illness, as Dr Barboni stated, was linked to receiving the jab. Lawyer Mr Ventaloro explained yesterday: ‘This is very significant for Britain which uses, and has used, an MMR vaccine with the same components as the one given to Valentino.

 ‘It is wrong for governments and their health authorities to exert strong pressure on parents to take children for the MMR jab while ignoring that this vaccine can cause autism and linked conditions.’

Claudio Simion, a leading member of the lobby group Association for Freedom of Choice in Vaccination (Comilva), adds: ‘The Rimini judgment is vitally important for children everywhere. The numbers with autism are growing. It is a terrible thing that the authorities turn a blind eye to the connection between the MMR vaccination and this illness.'”

This vaccine-news story was not picked up by a single US media outlet when it happened! Why? Could it be because the US government, which is brimming with paid-off industry shills, is hellbent on protecting the vaccination program? Not because it’s a marvelous panacea that promotes optimal health and longevity and can be defended with raw facts and first-class science, but because it’s a major profit center, both for the vaccine makers and for those whose pockets are lined with Big Pharma bribes.

U.S. Varicella Vaccination Program Also Found to be a Total Flop

In related news, a recent review of the varicella (chickenpox) vaccination program in the US concluded that the vaccine efficacy had declined well below 80 percent by of 2002. Furthermore, the varicella vaccine has:

  • Not proven to be cost-effective
  • Increased the incidence of shingles
  • Failed to provide long-term protection from the disease it targets―chicken pox―and
  • Is less effective than the natural immunity that existed in the general population before the vaccine

The damning news was published in May in the journal Vaccine12, and lends additional support to the idea that the vaccine program is based on financial interests, not health, as serious side effects are routinely ignored and ineffective and/or harmful products continue to be used.

The information was gathered from a review of chicken pox and shingles statistics in the years since the vaccine was introduced. The researchers point out that although statistics showed shingles rates increased after the vaccine, “CDC authorities still claimed” that no increase had occurred. The authors also state that the CDC not only ignored the natural boost in immunity to the community that occurred with wild chickenpox, as opposed to the vaccine, but also ignored the “rare serious events following varicella vaccination” as well as the increasing rates of shingles among adults:

“In the prelicensure era, 95% of adults experienced natural chickenpox (usually as children)—these cases were usually benign and resulted in long-term immunity. Varicella vaccination is less effective than the natural immunity that existed in prevaccine communities. Universal varicella vaccination has not proven to be cost-effective as increased herpes zoster [shingles] morbidity has disproportionately offset cost savings associated with reductions in varicella disease. Universal varicella vaccination has failed to provide long-term protection from VZV disease.”

Get Informed Before You Vaccinate Yourself or Your Family

Stories such as these underscore the importance to take control of your own health, and that of your children. It’s simply not wise to blindly depend on the information coming directly from the vaccine makers’ PR departments, or from federal health officials and agencies that are mired in conflicts of interest with industry…

No matter what vaccination choices you make for yourself or your family, there is a basic human right to be fully informed about all risks of medical interventions and pharmaceutical products, like vaccines, and have the freedom to refuse if you conclude the benefits do not outweigh the risks for you or your child.

Unfortunately, the business partnership between government health agencies and vaccine manufacturers is too close and is getting out of hand. There is a lot of discrimination against Americans, who want to be free to exercise their human right to informed consent when it comes to making voluntary decisions about which vaccines they and their children use.

We cannot allow that to continue.

It’s vitally important to know and exercise your legal rights and to understand your options when it comes to using vaccines and prescription drugs. For example, your doctor is legally obligated to provide you with the CDC Vaccine Information Statement (VIS) sheet and discuss the potential symptoms of side effects of the

vaccination(s) you or your child receive BEFORE vaccination takes place. If someone giving a vaccine does not do this, it is a violation of federal law. Furthermore, the National Childhood Vaccine Injury Act of 1986 also requires doctors and other vaccine providers to:

  • Keep a permanent record of all vaccines given and the manufacturer’s name and lot number
  • Write down serious health problems, hospitalizations, injuries and deaths that occur after vaccination in the patient’s permanent medical record
  • File an official report of all serious health problems, hospitalizations, injuries and deaths following vaccination to the federal Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS)

If a vaccine provider fails to inform, record or report, it is a violation of federal law. It’s important to get all the facts before making your decision about vaccination; and to understand that you have the legal right to opt out of using a vaccine that you do not want you or your child to receive. At present, all 50 states allow a medical exemption to vaccination (medical exemptions must be approved by an M.D. or D.O.); 48 states allow a religious exemption to vaccination; and 18 states allow a personal, philosophical or conscientious belief exemption to vaccination.

However, vaccine exemptions are under attack in a number of states, and it’s in everyone’s best interest to protect the right to make informed, voluntary vaccination decisions.

What You Can Do to Make a Difference

While it seems “old-fashioned,” the only truly effective actions you can take to protect the right to informed consent to vaccination and expand your rights under the law to make voluntary vaccine choices, is to get personally involved with your state legislators and the leaders in your community.


Mass vaccination policies are made at the federal level but vaccine laws are made at the state level, and it is at the state level where your action to protect your vaccine choice rights will have the greatest impact.

Signing up to be a user of NVIC’s free online Advocacy Portal at gives you access to practical, useful information to help you become an effective vaccine choice advocate in your own community. You will get real-time Action Alerts about what you can do if there are threats to vaccine exemptions in your state. With the click of a mouse or one touch on a Smartphone screen you will be put in touch with YOUR elected representatives so you can let them know how you feel and what you want them to do. Plus, when national vaccine issues come up, you will have all the information you need to make sure your voice is heard. So please, as your first step, sign up for the NVIC Advocacy Portal.

Right now, in California, the personal belief exemption is under attack by Pharma-funded medical trade organizations and public health officials trying to get a bill (AB 2109) passed that would require parents to get a medical doctor’s signature to file an exemption for personal religious and conscientious beliefs. Watch NVIC’s 90-second public service message and learn more about what you can do if you are a California resident.

Internet Resources

To learn more about vaccines, I encourage you to visit the following web pages on the National Vaccine Information Center (NVIC) website at

  • NVIC Memorial for Vaccine Victims: View descriptions and photos of children and adults, who have suffered vaccine reactions, injuries and deaths. If you or your child experiences an adverse vaccine event, please consider posting and sharing your story here.
  • If You Vaccinate, Ask 8 Questions: Learn how to recognize vaccine reaction symptoms and prevent vaccine injuries.
  • Vaccine Freedom Wall: View or post descriptions of harassment by doctors or state officials for making independent vaccine choices.
  • Vaccine Ingredient Calculator (VIC): Find out just how much aluminum, mercury and other ingredients are in the vaccines your doctor is recommending for you or your child.
  • Vaccine Adverse Events Reporting System (VAERS) on MedAlerts. Search the government’s VAERS database to find out what kinds of vaccine reactions, injuries and deaths have been reported by patients and heath care workers giving vaccines.

Find a Doctor Who will Listen to Your Concerns

Last but not least, if your pediatrician or doctor refuses to provide medical care to you or your child unless you agree to get vaccines you don’t want, I strongly encourage you to have the courage to find another doctor. Harassment, intimidation, and refusal of medical care is becoming the modus operandi of the medical establishment in an effort to punish those patients and parents, who become truly educated about health and vaccination and want to make vaccine choices instead of being forced to follow risky one-size-fits-all vaccine policies.

If you are treated with disrespect or are harassed in any way by a doctor (or government official), do not engage in an unproductive argument. You may want to contact an attorney, your elected state representatives or local media, if you or your child are threatened.

That said, there is hope.

At least 15 percent of young doctors recently polled admit that they’re starting to adopt a more individualized approach to vaccinations in direct response to the vaccine safety concerns of parents. It is good news that there is a growing number of smart young doctors, who prefer to work as partners with parents in making personalized vaccine decisions for children, including delaying vaccinations or giving children fewer vaccines on the same day or continuing to provide medical care for those families, who decline use of one or more vaccines.

So take the time to locate and connect with a doctor who treats you with compassion and respect and is willing to work with you to do what is right for your child, and isn’t just competing for government incentives designed to increase vaccination rates at any cost.

Source: Dr. Mercola



Storm Scents: It’s True, You Can Smell Oncoming Summer Rain.

Researchers have teased out the aromas associated with a rainstorm and deciphered the olfactory messages they convey.

When people say they can smell a storm coming, they’re right. Weather patterns produce distinctive odors that sensitive noses sniff out. This year’s peculiar weather patterns—such as drought in the Midwest and a “super derecho” of thunderstorms earlier this summer—are no exception. In fact, as the rains return after a dryspell, many of these odors are stronger than ever. So, what are the scents of a summer storm? Here’s a breakdown of three common odors:

—Oh, ozone
Before the rain begins, one of the first odors you may notice as winds pick up and clouds roll in is a sweet, pungent zing in your nostrils. That’s the sharp, fresh aroma of ozone—a form of oxygen whose name comes from the Greek word ozein (to smell). Tropospheric chemist Louisa Emmons at the National Center for Atmospheric Research explains that ozone emanates from fertilizers and pollutants as well as natural sources. An electrical charge—from lightning or a man-made source such as an electrical generator—splits atmospheric nitrogen and oxygen molecules into separate atoms. Some of these recombine into nitric oxide, and this in turn reacts with other atmospheric chemicals, occasionally producing a molecule made up of three oxygen atoms—ozone, or O3. (Most atmospheric oxygen is made up of two atoms—O2.) The scent of ozone heralds stormy weather because a thunderstorm’s downdrafts carry O3 from higher altitudes to nose level.

—Petrichor potpourri
Once the rains arrive, other odors come with them. Falling water disturbs and displaces odoriferous molecules on surfaces, particularly on dry ones, and carry them into the air. If you happen to be near vegetation, these molecules may come from plants and trees. For city dwellers, these odorants rise up from concrete and asphalt. Some are fragrant, others foul.

There’s a name popularly ascribed to this range of post-precipitation scents: petrichor. Petrichor was first described in 1964 by mineralogists Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas of Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization. As they defined it, it occurs when airborne molecules from decomposing plant or animal matter become attached to mineral or clay surfaces. During a dry spell, these molecules chemically recombine with other elements on a rock’s surface. Then when the rains came, the redolent combination of fatty acids, alcohols and hydrocarbons is released.

—Damp earth
After a storm has moved through, what’s often left is an earthy-musty whiff of wetness. This is the aroma of geosmin, a metabolic by-product of bacteria or blue-green algae. Geosmin can be a comforting call to gardeners eager to dig in the dirt, but it’s less beloved when it contaminates wine or drinking water, leaving a damp stench.

Why an aroma at all?
All these chemicals stirred up by the weather can carry messages. Some biologists suspect that petrichor running into waterways acts as a cue to freshwater fish, signaling spawning time. Microbiologist Keith Chater at the John Innes Center in England has proposed that geosmin’s fragrance may be a beacon, helping camels find their way to desert oases. In return, the bacteria that produce geosmin use the camels as carriers for their spores.

But do these smells send meaningful messages to humans? Anthropologist Diana Young at the University of Queensland has studied the traditions of aboriginal people in Australia’s Western Desert. There, the first rains before wet wintry and summer months are an important event, mingling the sweet odors of damp gum leaf oils, eucalyptus, animal waste and dust. The rains bring game such as kangaroo and emu, quench thirst and transform the red desert into a verdant landscape. Young says that to these people the smell of rain is linked to the color green, a connection she calls “cultural synesthesia.” In fact, many of these Aboriginal peoples manufacture their own perfume with plant and animal fats and rub it onto their bodies, a symbolic connection of body and landscape. The odor is believed to be protective and cleansing, linking present generations to their ancestors.

Psychologist Pamela Dalton, a member of the Monell Chemical Senses Center observes that, although humans don’t appear to have innate responses to these odors, we do learn to associate them with our experiences. Flooding may forever scar us with moist, mildewy memories, but for many the smell of rain is cleansing and refreshing—relief from the relentless summer heat.

Source: Scientific American.

Controversial Spewed Iron Experiment Succeeds as Carbon Sink.

Dumping iron into the ocean stimulates blooms of diatoms that pull down carbon dioxide in the atmosphere–but only under the right conditions.

Fertilizing the ocean with iron could help reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide levels, according to newly released findings of a research cruise. Why? In a word, diatoms.

A hunger for iron rules the microscopic sea life of the Southern Ocean surrounding ice-covered Antarctica. Cut off from most continental dirt and dust, the plankton, diatoms and other life that make up the broad bottom of the food chain there can’t get enough iron to grow. And that’s why some scientists think that artificially fertilizing such waters with the metal could promote blooms that suck CO2 out of the air. Then, when these microscopic creatures die, they would sink to the bottom of the ocean and take the carbon with them.

Such blooms occur naturally, of course, so the first part of the hypothesis is not controversial. What remained questionable until now is whether such blooms in fact sequestered much carbon or if it was being quickly recycled back into the atmosphere. The problem for scientists is that oceanic waters tend to mix, which makes monitoring and delineating an experiment in the ocean challenging.

The solution, devised by biological oceanographer Victor Smetacek of the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research in Germany and his colleagues, was to use an eddy. Such swirling currents can be remarkably self-contained. In fact, the new research to be published in Nature on July 19 shows that less than 10 percent of the eddy’s waters mixed with the surrounding ocean. (Scientific American is part of Nature Publishing Group.)

With such ideal conditions, the group dissolved seven metric tons of iron sulfate in acidic seawater and spewed the solution into the ship’s propeller wash starting on February 13, 2004, covering a circular patch in the eddy of some 167 square kilometers. That’s the equivalent of adding 0.01 gram of iron per square meter, levels similar to those found in the wake of a melting iceberg. They then monitored the fate of the patch off and on for five weeks, while also adding supplemental iron fertilizer after two weeks to keep concentrations high enough to promote growth.

As expected, microscopic sea life bloomed. Chaetoceros atlanticus, Corethron pennatum, Thalassiothrix antarcticus and nine other species of diatoms grew in abundance, boosting the amounts of chlorophyll, organic carbon and other signs of life in the waters to depths of as much as 100 meters beneath the surface.

By the middle of the third week after the researchers stopped adding iron, the bloom began to die. So many diatoms died, in fact, that they overwhelmed any natural systems for decay and fell in large numbers below 500 meters in depth. At least half of the total bloom biomass sank below 3,000 meters, according to the scientists’ calculations. Fresh diatom cell corpses littered the seafloor as well, and the research team believes that much of the bloom ended at the bottom as a layer of fluff. “Since the aggregates sank so rapidly and the water column was more or less ’empty’ on day 50, they must have settled out,” Smetacek argues. “Layers of fluff have been reported from various regions, including the Southern Ocean.”

The results offer fresh hope to would-be geoengineers hoping to draw down ever-increasing concentrations of industrial CO2 in the atmosphere, such as the ill-fated company Planktos and its failed bid to fertilize the ocean off Ecuador with iron. This new experiment induced carbon to fall 34 times as fast as natural rates for nearly two weeks—the highest such rate ever observed outside the laboratory. As the deceased oceanographer John Martin of Moss Landing Marine Observatories in California famously said in 1988: “Give me half a tanker of iron, and I’ll give you the next ice age.”

But such fallen carbon only resides in the deep for a few centuries at best. Eventually, it makes its way back to the surface as the ocean’s bottom water circulates and rises anew near the equator (although carbon buried in sediment might stay buried longer). And such techniques might be capable, at best, of sequestering one billion metric tons of carbon dioxide per year (based on the extent of iron-deficient waters around the globe), compared with annual human emissions of more than eight billion metric tons and rising. “There is massive uncertainty in this figure, and until much more research is done no serious scientist should express any confidence in such estimates,” of iron fertilization’s geoengineering potential, cautions oceanographer Richard Lampitt of the National Oceanography Center in England, who also argues that more research into such potential geoengineering techniques is needed due to the failure of global efforts to curb greenhouse gas emissions.

One key to the whole experiment’s success turns out to be the specific diatoms involved, which use silicon to make their shells and tend to form long strands of cellular slime after their demise that falls quickly to the seafloor. A similar cruise and experiment in 2009 failed despite dumping even more iron fertilizer over an even larger area of the Southern Ocean. The eddy chosen for that experiment lacked enough silicon to prompt these particular diatoms to grow. Instead, the experiment yielded bloom of algae, which was readily and rapidly eaten by microscopic grazers. As a result, the CO2 in the algal bloom returned to the atmosphere.

In fact, these iron-seeding experiments could backfire by producing toxic algal blooms or oxygen-depleted “dead zones,” such as the one created in the over-fertilized waters at the mouth of the Mississippi River. At present, scientists have no way to ensure that the desired species of silica-shelled diatoms bloom. In short, Smetacek says, the type of bloom—and therefore the ability to sequester CO2—”cannot be controlled at this stage.”

Source: Scientific American.

Sequencing of Single Sperm Could Reveal New Infertility Causes.

Sperm, decoded: a technological achievement parses the genomes of individual sperm cells, showing a new way to study reproductive medicine and hereditary cancer

Less than a decade after the first full human genome was mapped, technology has arrived to decode the full genome of a single sex cell. The ability promises to offer new insight into the causes of infertility, the development of mutations and the diversity of the human genome.

Sperm and egg cells differ from other bodily cells in that they have a single—rather than double—set of chromosomes. Researchers have successfully amplified and sequenced 91 sperm cells from a single individual, a 40-year-old man whose genome has already been sequenced and analyzed—an important factor for checking the accuracy of the sperm sequencing. They found that the sampled sperm had sustained about 23 recombinations, which help to mix up genes from the chromosomes to increase genetic diversity in offspring, and between 25 and 36 new mutations, rates that match previous estimations for those in the general population. The scientists reported the findings online July 19 in Cell.

The new capability is “going to allow us to answer a lot of questions about genome stability in the germ line,” says Don Conrad, a human geneticist at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis, who was not involved with the new research. The researchers found that although the man who donated the sperm already had healthy offspring, two of the sperm cells studied were each missing a full chromosome. Such mutations, however, make it less likely that a sperm cell will successfully fertilize an egg.

Until now, we have made rough estimates about genetic mutations and recombination on the population scale. “We haven’t had the tools to quantify those things on a personal level,” Conrad says. “This is a technological breakthrough.” Stephen Quake of the Stanford School of Medicine‘s Department of Bioengineering and his team have been working on this project for the past decade. “We started with bacteria and worked our way up to humans,” he says. They harnessed developments in the field of micro-fluidics to sequence the single cells on chips. These micro-fluidic chips allowed them to amplify the genome (with a process called multiple displacement amplification) using far less material, which reduced the odds for contamination—and thus erroneous findings—by 1,000 times, they reported.

The approach also revealed new places where mutations seem to congregate on the genome—so-called hot spots. Although the study was not designed to pinpoint particular biological signals, it demonstrates “how little we actually knew about hot spots across the genome,” Quake says. And future research can use these findings—and technology—to start to probe bigger biological questions, such as “to help understand and potentially diagnose reproductive disorders, to help understand what happens when it’s the man’s fault,” he says.

Reproductive technologists, however, will not be sequencing sperm to screen them for implantation anytime soon. The current method of sequencing destroys the sperm cell subject. Quake, however, suggests that both screening and capturing a sperm cell intact is possible under the right conditions—namely, just before a sperm cell splits through meiosis. “If you can capture them before they separate, you can sequence one and you’ll know what the other is.”

The ability to sequence these single sex cells will open a new window to study infertility. “I think there are forms of infertility out there waiting to be identified that don’t even have a name yet,” Conrad says. He estimates that the technology could be validated and ready for clinical use within five years. The next hurdle, he says, is not technological but biological: scientists do not yet know entirely what genetic changes might be linked to various fertility challenges—a major step before diagnostic tests can be developed and rolled out.

Some couples are already testing for inherited mutations that could cause disease before an embryo is implanted in the uterus. These existing genetic tests have also made clear that there are other considerations before genome screening for sperm could become widespread. One is a “complicated legal landscape,” Conrad points out. When clinicians do a full genome screen, they can find anything, such as a mutation that puts one at higher risk for a certain cancer. But it has not yet been established whether they are obligated to look for these mutations or tell patients if they find them. “Conceptually, it’s straightforward to do genome sequencing,” but layering on the clinical considerations and genetic counseling can make such screening thornier than it might first appear.

Sequencing a full genome from a single cell also holds promise for a variety of medical fields outside of reproduction. Quake and his team are already looking into cancer cells, which have “enormous genetic variation,” he says. Cancer cells, however, have two sets of chromosomes (as do most of the body’s cells), making them more difficult to genetically parse than sperm or egg cells, which have just one set of chromosomes.

Nevertheless, this technology could improve monitoring to look for specific genetic signatures of circulating cancer cells, he notes. “There’s quite a bit to do,” Quake says. But now that the technology is ready, “you can start thinking about those critical studies.”

Source: Scientific American.

Coning In: New Ways to Tap Old Data Boost Hurricane Forecast Accuracy.

To more accurately predict storm tracks, landfalls and damage risks, researchers are focusing their attention on individual storms and past behavior to reduce the “cone of uncertainty”

Despite advances in weather prediction technology, meteorologists must still qualify any hurricane forecasts with a “cone of uncertainty,” which depicts just how far the center of a storm might deviate from its projected track. This year’s hurricane season in the Atlantic Ocean, which began June 1, is expected to be less active than those recent years, but with season’s peak less than a month away researchers are exploring new data-driven approaches to better warn those potentially in the path of approaching storms.

Cones of uncertainty—also called error cones—arise because forecasts become less precise the further in the future they attempt to project. The National Weather Service’s National Hurricane Center (NHC) develops its tropical storm forecasts and the surrounding uncertainty cones by studying the degree to which all storms—regardless of location, intensity or other storm-related characteristics—have deviated from their projected paths over the past five years. The storm’s track is represented as a series of circles connected by a line, with each circle representing a 12-hour forecast period. A cone shape forms as the circles grow and merge because of increasing uncertainty the further into the future the storm’s path is projected.

NHC forecasts have improved steadily since 2003, when the agency first began issuing five-day warnings to the public. This year, for each 24-hour period, the radius of potential divergence is about 103 kilometers, down from about 110 last year. Despite these improvements, there is still only a 60 to 70 percent chance that through five days, the center of the storm will stay entirely within the uncertainty cone.

The hurricane center is refining its cone model and the software that generates it  to better assess storm behavior and reduce uncertainty on a case-by-case basis, says James Franklin, branch chief of the NHC’s Hurricane Specialist Unit, which maintains a continuous watch on tropical cyclones and areas of disturbed weather within the North Atlantic and eastern North Pacific basins.

Attention to individual storms provides “a more accurate assessment of risk,” Franklin says. “It’s an assessment more tuned to the situation at hand, rather than assuming the risk is the same all the time.” To make its decisions, the hurricane center relies primarily on the Wind Speed Probability Products, which indicates an area’s chances of experiencing hurricane-force and tropical-storm-force winds from any active storm.

Another notable effort to improve tropical storm and hurricane forecasting is underway at EarthRisk Technologies, a San Diego–based company developing what it calls a “dynamically adjusted cone model” for its clients in the energy and insurance industries. Given that not all storms are the same, the company creates these cones using the NHC data on storms of similar intensity and location, rather than on all storms in a region over the past five years.

History suggests that storms forming deeper in the tropics have been forecast more accurately in the past than storms that form in higher latitudes, says Steve Bennett, EarthRisk’s chief science and products officer. “Of course this remains to be tested, but we believe that the forecast for a strong hurricane moving through the western Caribbean Sea can often have a narrower uncertainty cone than a weak tropical storm moving through the Gulf of Mexico,” he adds. EarthRisk’s dynamically adjusted cone forecasts are still in the early stages and will not be available in time for this year’s hurricane season.

EarthRisk grew out of a Scripps Institution of Oceanography project a few years ago that sought to predict future extreme temperature fluctuations by studying historic weather data—including sea-level pressure, air temperature at altitudes of three to six kilometers and in the stratosphere (between about 10 and 50 kilometers), along with jet stream positions and velocities—gathered by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration since 1948. Whereas most temperature predictions are reliable only up to one week in advance, EarthRisk claims its forecasts can accurately detect the heat waves and cold snaps that impact energy prices as far as 40 days in advance.

Tropical storm and hurricane prediction are a new endeavor for EarthRisk, and Bennett says his company is not looking to compete with the NHC in terms of forecasting. He adds, “Our customers are looking for ways to assess financial risk related to weather, while the hurricane center is providing information for public safety.”

Source: Scientific American.