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Antidepressants Cause Weight Gain?

Antidepressant medications can be hugely helpful—even life-saving—for those who suffer from certain types of mood disorders. But they can also sometimes cause people to gain a significant amount of weight. Not so helpful.

Studies indicate that about 25% of the people who take antidepressant medications report significant weight gain. This is seen more commonly in those who take these drugs for six months or more, but it’s not uncommon for people to report gaining 8-10 pounds within just a few weeks of starting drug therapy. Either way, it’s a bummer. You can easily imagine that frustration and negative feelings about weight gain could cancel out whatever mood elevating benefits the drugs are delivering!

Are Antidepressants Worth it?

There’s also some controversy over how much these drugs are really helping the millions of people who are taking them. My friend Dr. Ellen Hendricksen of the Savvy Psychologist podcast reviewed some of the research on this in a recent episode of the Savvy Psychologist. According to Ellen, studies suggest that a lot of people get little to no benefit. The drugs seem to work best in those with severe depression or, at the other end of the spectrum, for those with mild but long-lasting depression.

But Dr. Hendricksen also emphasizes that these statistical analyses can’t predict how any one individual will respond. In other words, your mileage may vary. It’s really important to work with a qualified health professional that can help you get the best possible results with the fewest side effects, and also to help you assess whether the benefits outweigh the costs.

Switching to a Different Drug May Help

For example, sometimes the problem of unwanted weight gain can be solved (or at least improved) simply by switching to a different antidepressant medication in the same class. Although some antidepressants are statistically more likely to lead to weight gain, the effects vary greatly from person to person. You may gain weight on one of the drugs that’s not supposed to cause weight gain—or vice versa.

The same seems to be true of the mood-elevating benefits, by the way. For reasons no one seems to understand or be able to predict, one drug may help a lot and another very similar drug not help at all. So, it’s not at all uncommon for patients and their doctors to try a number of different options to find the one that works best and/or has the fewest unwanted effects.

And, as Dr. Hendricksen reminds us in her episode, the winning solution for depression and other mood disorders very often includes some sort of talk therapy in addition to pharmaceutical interventions. To that, I’d like to add a plug for a healthy diet, exercise, and good sleep habits as an essential part of mental hygiene and well-being.

How to Fight Back Against Weight Gain Caused by Antidepressants

But let’s say that the best possible solution for you includes a medication that has led to weight gain. Is there anything that you can do to fight back?

Again, we’re at a bit of a disadvantage here. Although this unfortunate side effect is well-known and well-documented, we still don’t fully understand why antidepressants cause people to gain weight. Theories include that antidepressants may affect your metabolism, or appetite, or cause water retention.

Some of that may be beyond our control but let’s not let what we can’t do keep us from doing what we can. Antidepressants or not, here are some strategies that can help keep your metabolism revved and your appetite under control.

Pump up the Protein

Increasing your protein intake helps on several fronts by modestly increasing your metabolism and keeping hunger at bay. Try to include some protein at every meal and snack. For specific ideas, see these previous articles.

A Likely Dictatorship

Term limits for the leadership are not usually found in dictatorships. The Chinese Communist Party’s proposed abolition of China’s presidential term limit means that it has forgotten one of the main lessons of Mao’s long despotism. The two-term limit was inserted into the People’s Republic of China Constitution after the Cultural Revolution ended and reflected a widespread desire to prevent the return of one-man dictatorship. Its abolition signals the likelihood of another long period of severe repression. This should prompt us to think of Chiang Kaishek as well as Mao and Yuan Shikai and, in a comparative Asian vein, of Marcos and Park among others. Of course, some recognize that Putin’s example may also have significantly influenced Xi Jinping.

Xi’s move will have a profound effect on world order. It will enable him to move more boldly and increases the risk of his acting arbitrarily and perhaps mistakenly in international relations. It will surely hinder China’s efforts to be respected for “soft power” as well as military and economic prowess.

Xi decided to strike while the iron is hot rather than wait for later in his new term when increasing problems might have made the change more difficult. His brash step has undoubtedly aroused profound concern among the elite. Many high Party personnel, bureaucrats, judicial officials, lawyers, intellectuals, academics and business people, mindful of the past Maoist dictatorship and the increasingly repressive and arbitrary government under Xi, have seen this coming and now, in social media and other informal ways, are showing their anxieties and opposition.

But not many public signs of protest can be expected, since he has stifled free expression in the past few years. There must be great grumbling and concern among the country’s elite and educated, especially since the same Party “proposals” that have eliminated term limits have also confirmed the establishment of the National Supervisory Commission that will make the regime more repressive and more free of legal restraints than ever, imposing what amounts to “the Inquisition with Chinese characteristics.”

There is big risk for Xi at home since, as it becomes more obvious that China’s problems are catching up with its achievements, the government will look less impressive and the masses will begin to lose their enthusiasm and hold the great leader responsible. The elite will be less surprised but less forgiving.

The external risk is more immediate. Xi’s bold consolidation of power will enhance fear of “the China threat”, and his ever greater repression will make people think of Stalin’s decades-long centralization of power, even though, one hopes, Xi will not engage in mass executions. He already is engaging in mass detentions in Xinjiang even though “re-education through labor” was abolished in name a few years ago.

These “proposals” are at least a 1-2 punch against the Constitution when we consider the simultaneous establishment of the National Supervisory Commission. People often wonder—even now—how in 1937 Stalin could have said: “We need the stability of the law more than ever.” while at the very same time displaying the infamous “purge trials” to the world and lawlessly executing huge numbers of people. Xi claims to be strengthening the “rule of law” while making certain that it will never get off the ground. Tell it to all the tens of thousands in Xinjiang who are locked up in Xi’s successor camps to the supposedly abolished “re-education through labor”.

Down side of daydreaming

Daydreaming is one of life’s great joys. You can indulge in it when you’re stuck in a boring meeting or a long queue. This seemingly innocuous pastime, however, is a double-edged sword. Some research has found that it boosts creativity, but other studies suggest that it is bad for your mental health and could lower your intelligence.

Before we look at the downside to daydreaming, let’s first look at the positive side. In a studyconducted by psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara, undergraduate students were asked to come up with as many uses for everyday objects – such as toothpicks, clothes hangers and bricks – as they could in two minutes, take a 12-minute break, and then repeat the exercise.

The students were able to generate more creative uses for the objects the second time around if their break involved completing an undemanding task, which is known to promote more daydreaming, compared with a break filled with a more attention-demanding task, known to reduce daydreaming.

Daydreaming has also been linked with feeling socially connected. In a study conducted by the University of Sheffield, a group of participants were induced to feel lonely. Afterwards, they were instructed to either daydream about someone special, daydream about a non-social situation, or complete a mentally demanding task.

Those who daydreamed about someone special demonstrated significantly increased feelings of connection, love and belonging, compared with the other two groups, indicating that daydreaming serves the function of keeping us connected to loved ones, even in their absence.


One of the downsides to daydreaming is that it can get in the way of learning. When people daydream during reading tests, they tend to perform poorly in subsequent comprehension tests. If attention is diverted away from words on the page and directed to the content of the daydream, retrieving information can be seriously affected.

Considering reading and understanding is one of the main ways in which educational success is measured, daydreaming can come at a high price.

Other studies have found that daydreaming is associated with poorer performance on tests of general intelligence and memory capacity. Young people in the US may need to be aware of this as daydreaming during tests of general intelligence and memory capacity can predict scores on the SAT, a test that can influence entry into university.

Not only can daydreaming mess up your chances of doing well in exams, it can also mess with your mental health.

Researchers at Harvard University used an app to monitor thoughts, feelings and activity of 2,250 adults in the US. They found that daydreaming about pleasant topics added nothing to the participants’ levels of happiness, and when they daydreamed about neutral or negative topics, they became more unhappy. It also appears that a wandering mind causes unhappiness rather than unhappiness leading to a wandering mind.

Some psychologists have suggested that how people evaluate their daydreaming may help to explain the link with unhappiness. When people believe their daydreaming is either uncontrollable or bad for them, these beliefs appear to significantly influence the relationship between daydreaming and unhappiness.

Get control

The ability to gain control of thinking and sustain focus on the present is considered the antidote to problematic daydreaming. Mindfulness is one technique that some people find helpful. Mindfulness helps people to bring their minds back to the present moment, and is associated with improving reading comprehension and memory capacity.

Despite some of the pros to daydreaming, evidence for its benefits is relatively weak compared with the cons. Maybe we should all try and be in the present moment a little bit more – we might be a lot happier as a result.

Songs With Philosophical Themes

Most of the Beatles songs, like most pop songs, are about love.  But as the group’s music developed, so their subject matter moved beyond “She loves you yeah, yeah, yeah,” and “I want to hold your hand.” Some of their finest songs express, illustrate, or connect up with more philosophical ideas

01 of 10Can’t Buy Me Love

“Can’t Buy Me Love is a classic statement of the philosopher’s traditional indifference to material wealth compared to what is good for the soul. It is true that Socrates was more concerned with truth and virtue than “love” (which as conceived in the song is presumably not purely Platonic). And it’s only fair to note that Paul later said that they should have sung “money can buy me love” given his experience of fame and fortune. Still, the core sentiment, “I don’t care too much for money, money can’t buy me love, would be endorsed by many philosophers from ancient times to the present day.

02 of 10A Hard Day’s Night

Karl Marx would have liked “A Hard Day’s Night.”  Writing about “alienated labor,” Marx describes how the worker is only himself when he’s at home.  When he’s at work he’s not himself, being reduced to the level of an animal forced to do whatever he’s told.  The wonderful “ooowwwwww” in the middle of the song could be a cry of ecstasy at being alone with the beloved or the howl of an animal from someone who every day has “been working like a dog.”

03 of 10Nowhere Man

“Nowhere Man” is a classic description of someone who is drifting without purpose in and disengaged from the modern world.  Nietzsche thought an appropriate response to the loss of meaning following the “death of God” would be a kind of panic. But the “Nowhere Man” seems to merely feel listless.

04 of 10Eleanor Rigby

Modern capitalism society is characterized by a pervasive individualism; and individualism produces, almost inevitably isolation and loneliness. This McCartney song poignantly captures the loneliness of ​a woman who witnesses other people getting married but lives to the end of her life by herself, so friendless that there is no-one at her funeral. “Eleanor Rigby” poses the question: “All the lonely people, where do they call come from?” Many social theorists would say that they are produced by a system that is more concerned with competition and commerce than community.

05 of 10Help

‘Help’ is a heart-wrenching expression of insecurity felt by someone making the transition from the blind confidence of youth to a more honest and adult recognition of how much he needs others.  Where ‘Eleanor Rigby’ is sad, “Help” is anguished.  At bottom, it’s a song about self-awareness and the shedding of illusions.

06 of 10 With a Little Help From My Friends

This song is at the opposite end of the spectrum from “Help.” With its pleasing melody, “With a Little Help From My Friends” expresses the security of someone who has friends. He doesn’t sound like someone with any great talents or ambitions; having friends to “get by” with is enough.  The ancient Greek philosopher Epicurus would approve.  He says that not much is necessary for happiness, but of those things that are necessary, the most important by far is friendship.

07 of 10 In My Life

“In My Life” is a subtle song, one of John Lennon’s greatest.  It’s about wanting to hold two attitudes together at the same time, even though they somewhat conflict.  He wants to hold onto his affectionate remembrance of the past, but he also wants to live in the present and not be stuck in his memories or bound by them. Like ‘Help’ it’s also a reflection on the process of moving beyond one’s youth.

08 of 10 Yesterday

“Yesterday,” one of Paul’s most famous songs, offers a fascinating contrast with ‘In My Life.’ Here the singer prefers the past to the present–“I believe in yesterday”–and is completely locked inside it with no desire to come to terms with the present at all.  It’s one of the most covered songs ever written, with over 2,000 versions recorded.  What does that say about contemporary culture?

09 of 10 Hey Jude

“Hey Jude” extols the virtue of a cheerful, optimistic, uncynical outlook on life. The world will appear a warmer place to someone with a warm heart, while “it’s a fool who plays it cool, by making this world a little colder.” It also tells us, in a modest way, to “live dangerously,” as Nietzsche puts it in The Gay Science. Some philosophies argue that the best way to live is to render oneself secure against heartache or misfortune.  But Jude is told to be bold, and let music and love under his skin, for that’s the way to experience the world more fully.

10 of 10 Let It Be

“Let It Be” is a song of acceptance, even of resignation. This almost fatalistic attitude is one that many ancient philosophers recommended as the surest route to contentment. Don’t struggle against the world: conform yourself to it. If you can’t get what you want, want what you can get.

How build a colony on an alien world?

If the human race is to survive in the long-run, we will probably have to colonise other planets. Whether we make the Earth uninhabitable ourselves or it simply reaches the natural end of its ability to support life, one day we will have to look for a new home.

Hollywood films such as The Martian and Interstellar give us a glimpse of what may be in store for us. Mars is certainly the most habitable destination in our solar system, but there are thousands of exoplanets orbiting other stars that could be a replacement for our Earth. So what technology will we need to make this possible?

We effectively already have one space colony, the International Space Station (ISS). But it is only 350km away from Earth and relies on a continuous resupply of resources for its crew of six. Much of the technology developed for the ISS, such as radiation shielding, water and air recycling, solar power collection, is certainly transferable to future space settlements. However, a permanent space colony on the surface of another planet or moon adds a new set of challenges.

Unnatural habitat

The first requirement for a human settlement is a habitat, an isolated environment able to maintain air pressure, composition (the amount of oxygen), and temperature, and protect the inhabitants from radiation. This is likely to be a relatively large and heavy structure.

Launching large, heavy objects into space is a costly and difficult job. Spacecraft since the Apollo missions, which comprised several modules that had to separate and dock, have been sent up in pieces and assembled by astronauts. But given the impressive steps forward we are seeing in autonomous control, the pieces of a colony habitat may be able to assemble themselves. Today, manoeuvres similar to the Apollo docking are performed completely automatically.

The alternative would be to carry a minimal “toolbox” from Earth and manufacture the habitat using locally-harvested resources. Specifically, 3D printers could be used to turn minerals from the local soil into physical structures. We’ve actually already started looking at making this possible. Private firm Planetary Resources has demonstrated 3D printing using raw material from a metal-rich asteroid sample found on Earth in an impact site. And NASA has installed a 3D printer on the ISS to show it can be used in zero-gravity, potentially as a way of making spacecraft components in space.

Liquid lifeline

Once the habitat is built, the colony will need continuous supplies of water, oxygen, energy and food to sustain its inhabitants, presuming the colony wasn’t built on an idyllic Earth-like planet with these resources in abundance. Water is fundamental for life as we know it but could also be used to make propellant or radiation shielding.

An initial settlement would need to carry a certain amount of water and recycle all waste liquids. This is already done on the ISS, where no drop of liquid (washing, sweat, tears, or even urine) is wasted. But a colony would also likely try to extract water, possibly from underground supplies of liquid – as may exist on Mars – or ice, as can been found under the surface of certain asteroids.

Water also provides a source of oxygen. On the ISS, oxygen is generated by using a process known as electrolysis to separate it from the hydrogen in water. NASA is also working on developing techniques to regenerate oxygen from atmospheric byproducts, such as the carbon dioxide we exhale while breathing.

Energy farming

Producing energy is probably the technological aspect of starting a colony that we are best prepared for thanks to photo-voltaic solar panels. But depending on the location of the colony planet, we may need to improve this technology much further. At Earth distance, we can obtain about 470W of electric power for each square metre of solar cells. This value is lower on the surface of Mars because it is 50% further from the sun than Earth and has a thick atmosphere that partially shields the sunlight.

In fact, Mars’s atmosphere is subject to periodic sand storms, which are notoriously problematic as the sand further limits the amount of received light and can also collect on and cover the panels. But we have already started to deal with these issues in the design of our current rover missions to Mars. For example, NASA’s Mars Exploration Rovers Spirit and Opportunity were designed to last about 90 days but after more than 12 years, they are still operational. And we’ve discovered that Martian wind periodically cleans the dust from the panels.

A colony needs to be self-sustained so – without a Star Trek-style replicator – farming will be essential for producing food. Crops can also be used to convert carbon dioxide in the air back into breathable oxygen. Growing plants on Earth is relatively easy because the environment is what they have been adapting to for thousands of years, but growing fruits and vegetables in space or in another planet is not as simple.

Temperature, pressure, humidity, carbon dioxide levels, composition of soil and gravity all affect the survival and growth of plants, with different effects on different species. Several studies and experiments are currently ongoing to try to grow plants in controlled chambersthat mimic the environment of a space colony. One potential solution that has already been proven on Earth with radishes, lettuces and green onions is hydroponic farming, which involves growing plants in a nutrient-enriched fluid without any soil.

Climate change

The final requirement for a space colony will be keeping the climate habitable. Atmospheric composition and climate on other celestial bodies are very different to Earth’s. There is no atmosphere on the moon or asteroids, and on Mars the atmosphere is made mainly of carbon dioxide, producing surface temperatures of 20°C down to -153°C during winter at the poles, and an air pressure just 0.6% of Earth’s. In such prohibitive conditions, settlers will be limited to living inside the isolated habitats and strolls outside will only be possible using spacesuits.

One alternative solution may be to change the planet’s climate on a large scale. We’re already studying such “geo-engineering” as a way to respond to Earth’s climate change. This would require huge effort but similar techniques could be scaled and applied for example to other planets such as Mars.

Possible methods include bioengineering organisms to convert carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to oxygen, or darkening the Martian polar caps to reduce the amount of sunlight they reflect and increase the surface temperature. Alternatively, a large formation of orbiting solar mirrors could reflect the light of the sun on specific regions such as the poles to cause a local increase in temperature. Some have speculated that such relatively small temperature changes could trigger the climate to take on a new state with much higher air pressure, which could be the first step towards terraforming Mars.

Wormhole Allows Information to Escape Black Holes

In 1985, when Carl Sagan was writing the novel Contact, he needed to quickly transport his protagonist Dr. Ellie Arroway from Earth to the star Vega. He had her enter a black hole and exit light-years away, but he didn’t know if this made any sense. The Cornell University astrophysicist and television star consulted his friend Kip Thorne, a black hole expert at the California Institute of Technology (who won a Nobel Prize earlier this month). Thorne knew that Arroway couldn’t get to Vega via a black hole, which is thought to trap and destroy anything that falls in. But it occurred to him that she might make use of another kind of hole consistent with Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity: a tunnel or “wormhole” connecting distant locations in space-time.

While the simplest theoretical wormholes immediately collapse and disappear before anything can get through, Thorne wondered whether it might be possible for an “infinitely advanced” sci-fi civilization to stabilize a wormhole long enough for something or someone to traverse it. He figured out that such a civilization could in fact line the throat of a wormhole with “exotic material” that counteracts its tendency to collapse. The material would possess negative energy, which would deflect radiation and repulse space-time apart from itself. Sagan used the trick in Contact, attributing the invention of the exotic material to an earlier, lost civilization to avoid getting into particulars. Meanwhile, those particulars enthralled Thorne, his students and many other physicists, who spent years exploring traversable wormholes and their theoretical implications. They discovered that these wormholes can serve as time machines, invoking time-travel paradoxes — evidence that exotic material is forbidden in nature.

Now, decades later, a new species of traversable wormhole has emerged, free of exotic material and full of potential for helping physicists resolve a baffling paradox about black holes. This paradox is the very problem that plagued the early draft of Contact and led Thorne to contemplate traversable wormholes in the first place; namely, that things that fall into black holes seem to vanish without a trace. This total erasure of information breaks the rules of quantum mechanics, and it so puzzles experts that in recent years, some have argued that black hole interiors don’t really exist — that space and time strangely end at their horizons.

The flurry of findings started last year with a paper that reported the first traversable wormhole that doesn’t require the insertion of exotic material to stay open. Instead, according to Ping Gao and Daniel Jafferis of Harvard University and Aron Wall of Stanford University, the repulsive negative energy in the wormhole’s throat can be generated from the outside by a special quantum connection between the pair of black holes that form the wormhole’s two mouths. When the black holes are connected in the right way, something tossed into one will shimmy along the wormhole and, following certain events in the outside universe, exit the second. Remarkably, Gao, Jafferis and Wall noticed that their scenario is mathematically equivalent to a process called quantum teleportation, which is key to quantum cryptography and can be demonstrated in laboratory experiments.

John Preskill, a black hole and quantum gravity expert at Caltech, says the new traversable wormhole comes as a surprise, with implications for the black hole information paradox and black hole interiors. “What I really like,” he said, “is that an observer can enter the black hole and then escape to tell about what she saw.” This suggests that black hole interiors really exist, he explained, and that what goes in must come out.

A Cryptic Equation

The new wormhole work began in 2013, when Jafferis attended an intriguing talk at the Strings conference in South Korea. The speaker, Juan Maldacena, a professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, New Jersey, had recently concluded, based on various hints and arguments, that “ER = EPR.” That is, wormholes between distant points in space-time, the simplest of which are called Einstein-Rosen or “ER” bridges, are equivalent (albeit in some ill-defined way) to entangled quantum particles, also known as Einstein-Podolsky-Rosen or “EPR” pairs. The ER = EPR conjecture, posed by Maldacena and Leonard Susskind of Stanford, was an attempt to solve the modern incarnation of the infamous black hole information paradox by tying space-time geometry, governed by general relativity, to the instantaneous quantum connections between far-apart particles that Einstein called “spooky action at a distance.”

The paradox has loomed since 1974, when the British physicist Stephen Hawking determined that black holes evaporate — slowly giving off heat in the form of particles now known as “Hawking radiation.” Hawking calculated that this heat is completely random; it contains no information about the black hole’s contents. As the black hole blinks out of existence, so does the universe’s record of everything that went inside. This violates a principle called “unitarity,” the backbone of quantum theory, which holds that as particles interact, information about them is never lost, only scrambled, so that if you reversed the arrow of time in the universe’s quantum evolution, you’d see things unscramble into an exact re-creation of the past.

Almost everyone believes in unitarity, which means information must escape black holes — but how? In the last five years, some theorists, most notably Joseph Polchinski of the University of California, Santa Barbara, have argued that black holes are empty shells with no interiors at all — that Ellie Arroway, upon hitting a black hole’s event horizon, would fizzle on a “firewall” and radiate out again.

Many theorists believe in black hole interiors (and gentler transitions across their horizons), but in order to understand them, they must discover the fate of information that falls inside. This is critical to building a working quantum theory of gravity, the long-sought union of the quantum and space-time descriptions of nature that comes into sharpest relief in black hole interiors, where extreme gravity acts on a quantum scale.

The quantum gravity connection is what drew Maldacena, and later Jafferis, to the ER = EPR idea, and to wormholes. The implied relationship between tunnels in space-time and quantum entanglement posed by ER = EPR resonated with a popular recent belief that space is essentially stitched into existence by quantum entanglement. It seemed that wormholes had a role to play in stitching together space-time and in letting black hole information worm its way out of black holes — but how might this work? When Jafferis heard Maldacena talk about his cryptic equation and the evidence for it, he was aware that a standard ER wormhole is unstable and non-traversable. But he wondered what Maldacena’s duality would mean for a traversable wormhole like the ones Thorne and others played around with decades ago. Three years after the South Korea talk, Jafferis and his collaborators Gao and Wall presented their answer. The work extends the ER = EPR idea by equating, not a standard wormhole and a pair of entangled particles, but a traversable wormhole and quantum teleportation: a protocol discovered in 1993 that allows a quantum system to disappear and reappear unscathed somewhere else.

When Maldacena read Gao, Jafferis and Wall’s paper, “I viewed it as a really nice idea, one of these ideas that after someone tells you, it’s obvious,” he said. Maldacena and two collaborators, Douglas Stanfordand Zhenbin Yang, immediately began exploring the new wormhole’s ramifications for the black hole information paradox; their paperappeared in April. Susskind and Ying Zhao of Stanford followed this with a paper about wormhole teleportation in July. The wormhole “gives an interesting geometric picture for how teleportation happens,” Maldacena said. “The message actually goes through the wormhole.”

Diving Into Wormholes

In their paper, “Diving Into Traversable Wormholes,” published in Fortschritte der Physik, Maldacena, Stanford and Yang consider a wormhole of the new kind that connects two black holes: a parent black hole and a daughter one formed from half of the Hawking radiation given off by the parent as it evaporates. The two systems are as entangled as they can be. Here, the fate of the older black hole’s information is clear: It worms its way out of the daughter black hole.

During an interview this month in his tranquil office at the IAS, Maldacena, a reserved Argentinian-American with a track record of influential insights, described his radical musings. On the right side of a chalk-dusty blackboard, Maldacena drew a faint picture of two black holes connected by the new traversable wormhole. On the left, he sketched a quantum teleportation experiment, performed by the famous fictional experimenters Alice and Bob, who are in possession of entangled quantum particles a and b, respectively. Say Alice wants to teleport a qubit q to Bob. She prepares a combined state of q and a,measures that combined state (reducing it to a pair of classical bits, 1 or 0), and sends the result of this measurement to Bob. He can then use this as a key for operating on b in a way that re-creates the state q. Voila, a unit of quantum information has teleported from one place to the other.

Maldacena turned to the right side of the blackboard. “You can do operations with a pair of black holes that are morally equivalent to what I discussed [about quantum teleportation]. And in that picture, this message really goes through the wormhole.”

Say Alice throws qubit q into black hole A. She then measures a particle of its Hawking radiation, a, and transmits the result of the measurement through the external universe to Bob, who can use this knowledge to operate on b, a Hawking particle coming out of black hole B. Bob’s operation reconstructs q, which appears to pop out of B, a perfect match for the particle that fell into A. This is why some physicists are excited: Gao, Jafferis and Wall’s wormhole allows information to be recovered from black holes. In their paper, they set up their wormhole in a negatively curved space-time geometry that often serves as a useful, if unrealistic, playground for quantum gravity theorists. However, their wormhole idea seems to extend to the real world as long as two black holes are coupled in the right way: “They have to be causally connected and then the nature of the interaction that we took is the simplest thing you can imagine,” Jafferis explained. If you allow the Hawking radiation from one of the black holes to fall into the other, the two black holes become entangled, and the quantum information that falls into one can exit the other.

The quantum-teleportation format precludes using these traversable wormholes as time machines. Anything that goes through the wormhole has to wait for Alice’s message to travel to Bob in the outside universe before it can exit Bob’s black hole, so the wormhole doesn’t offer any superluminal boost that could be exploited for time travel. It seems traversable wormholes might be permitted in nature as long as they offer no speed advantage. “Traversable wormholes are like getting a bank loan,” Gao, Jafferis and Wall wrote in their paper: “You can only get one if you are rich enough not to need it.”

A Naive Octopus

While traversable wormholes won’t revolutionize space travel, according to Preskill the new wormhole discovery provides “a promising resolution” to the black hole firewall question by suggesting that there is no firewall at black hole horizons. Preskill said the discovery rescues “what we call ‘black hole complementarity,’ which means that the interior and exterior of the black hole are not really two different systems but rather two very different, complementary ways of looking at the same system.” If complementarity holds, as is widely assumed, then in passing across a black hole horizon from one realm to the other, Contact’s Ellie Arroway wouldn’t notice anything strange. This seems more likely if, under certain conditions, she could even slide all the way through a Gao-Jafferis-Wall wormhole.

The wormhole also safeguards unitarity — the principle that information is never lost — at least for the entangled black holes being studied. Whatever falls into one black hole eventually exits the other as Hawking radiation, Preskill said, which “can be thought of as in some sense a very scrambled copy of the black hole interior.”

Taking the findings to their logical conclusion, Preskill thinks it ought to be possible (at least for an infinitely advanced civilization) to influence the interior of one of these black holes by manipulating its radiation. This “sounds crazy,” he wrote in an email, but it “might make sense if we can think of the radiation, which is entangled with the black hole — EPR — as being connected to the black hole interior by wormholes — ER. Then tickling the radiation can send a message which can be read from inside the black hole!” He added, “We still have a ways to go, though, before we can flesh out this picture in more detail.”

Indeed, obstacles remain in the quest to generalize the new wormhole findings to a statement about the fate of all quantum information, or the meaning of ER = EPR.

In Maldacena and Susskind’s paper proposing ER = EPR, they included a sketch that’s become known as the “octopus”: a black hole with tentacle-like wormholes leading to distant Hawking particles that have evaporated out of it. The authors explained that the sketch illustrates “the entanglement pattern between the black hole and the Hawking radiation. We expect that this entanglement leads to the interior geometry of the black hole.”

But according to Matt Visser, a mathematician and general-relativity expert at Victoria University of Wellington in New Zealand who has studied wormholes since the 1990s, the most literal reading of the octopus picture doesn’t work. The throats of wormholes formed from single Hawking particles would be so thin that qubits could never fit through. “A traversable wormhole throat is ‘transparent’ only to wave packets with size smaller than the throat radius,” Visser explained. “Big wave packets will simply bounce off any small wormhole throat without crossing to the other side.”

Stanford, who co-wrote the recent paper with Maldacena and Yang, acknowledged that this is a problem with the simplest interpretation of the ER = EPR idea, in which each particle of Hawking radiation has its own tentacle-like wormhole. However, a more speculative interpretation of ER = EPR that he and others have in mind does not suffer from this failing. “The idea is that in order to recover the information from the Hawking radiation using this traversable wormhole,” Stanford said, one has to “gather the Hawking radiation together and act on it in a complicated way.” This complicated collective measurement reveals information about the particles that fell in; it has the effect, he said, of “creating a large, traversable wormhole out of the small and unhelpful octopus tentacles. The information would then propagate through this large wormhole.” Maldacena added that, simply put, the theory of quantum gravity might have a new, generalized notion of geometry for which ER equals EPR. “We think quantum gravity should obey this principle,” he said. “We view it more as a guide to the theory.”

In his 1994 popular science book, Black Holes and Time Warps, Kip Thorne celebrated the style of reasoning involved in wormhole research. “No type of thought experiment pushes the laws of physics harder than the type triggered by Carl Sagan’s phone call to me,” he wrote; “thought experiments that ask, ‘What things do the laws of physics permit an infinitely advanced civilization to do, and what things do the laws forbid?’”

Is religion a force for good?

Do we need religion in order to be moral? George Washington cautioned against“indulg[ing] the supposition that morality can be maintained without religion”, and today more than half of Americans believe morality is impossible without a belief in God.

The idea that religion is important for morality is not just widespread but deeply ingrained. Psychologist Will Gervais has shown that even people who explicitly deny believing in God harbour the intuition that acts such as serial murder and incest are more representative of atheists than of religious people. Of course, prominent atheistic commentators resent any suggestion that the religious have some special claim on moral behaviour. Comedian Tim Minchin said “if you think altruism without Jesus is not altruism, then you’re a dick.”

In Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion he writes: “Faith can be very very dangerous, and deliberately to implant it into the vulnerable mind of an innocent child is a grievous wrong.” In a month when gunmen shouted “Allahu akbar” (God is greatest) while murdering 132 school children in Pakistan, it may be easy to sympathise with this viewpoint.

There is no shortage of spirited rhetoric on this emotive topic, but what does the scientific evidence reveal? Does religion promote moral behaviour? In a new paper published in Psychological Bulletin, Harvey Whitehouse and I explore this issue.

What is religion and what is morality?

The first problem is how to define “religion” and “morality”. This is no mere matter of academic hair splitting. Take religion: what does it actually mean to be religious? Does it mean that one believes in agents or forces that transcend ordinary physical laws? For example, gods, ancestors, or karma? Or that one identifies and affiliates with a certain community or tradition – by being Roman Catholic, Sunni Muslim or Buddhist for example? Or that one attends certain services and partakes in certain ritualistic behaviours? Each of these possible definitions captures phenomena that would not ordinarily be classed as religious – a belief in Santa Claus say, or national or sporting affiliations, or rituals in military settings. What is more, each of these tendencies may be underpinned by different psychological processes, with differential effects on relevant behaviours.

The situation is, if anything, worse where morality is concerned. According to the currently influential Moral Foundations Theory, there is no single morality but rather a set of mutually incompatible and incommensurable moralities, each underpinned by a psychological system specialised for solving a particular adaptive problem. For example, the moral foundation of “fairness” generates ideas about justice and rights, and is thought to have evolved to solve the problem of how best to secure the benefits of two-way partnerships. Depending on your cultural background and political leanings, your personal moral norms may be constructed on a particular subset of these moral foundations. So while some may consider appropriate sexual behaviour to be of primary moral importance (the “sanctity” foundation), for others morality may be more a matter of charitable concern for those who are less well off (the “care” foundation).

To be seen to be doing

Assuming we could all agree on what it means to be religious and what it means to be moral, how might we go about investigating the relationship between them? One common approach simply involves asking people about their beliefs and behaviours. For example, surveys indicate that those who score higher on indices of religiosity – those who report praying regularly, for example – reliably report giving more money to charity.

So does this mean religion promotes charitable behaviours? Not necessarily. There is evidence that religious individuals are more motivated than nonreligious individuals to preserve a moral reputation, so it could be that the religious are more likely to report charitable behaviours simply because they care more about making a charitable impression.

Another problem is that a correlation between religiosity and charity (self-reported or otherwise) does not merit the conclusion that religiosity promotes charitable behaviour. It could be that people with community-minded dispositions are more likely to gravitate toward religion (and more inclined to donate to charity), simply by virtue of those social inclinations.

Religious primers

To circumvent these problems, a number of studies have employed “priming” methods in a bid to establish causal relationships between religious concepts and morally relevant behaviours. In these studies, which began with the seminal work of psychologists Azim Shariff and Ara Norenzayan, religion is not just measured but is “experimentally assigned” to some of the participants.

For example, in a recent study Mark Aveyard had 88 Muslim students listen to an audio recording of a busy city street, and asked them to count the number of vehicle horns they heard. In one condition the Islamic call to prayer could be heard on the recording. The students then took an unsupervised mathematics test on which cheating was possible. Aveyard found that participants exposed to the call to prayer cheated substantially less. This finding is consistent with the results of other priming studies, which have also found that religious priming enhances cooperation and generosity towards others.

So, religion may promote a love for thy neighbour (or at least neighbourly behaviour), but how big is the neighbourhood? The positive picture revealed above is complicated by the results of other studies, which have shown that religious priming also elicits a range of aggressive and prejudicial behaviours. For example, Brad Bushman and colleagues foundthat participants who read a description of violent retribution commanded by God were more aggressive in a subsequent task than participants who read the same description but with the passage about God’s sanction omitted. And Megan Johnson and colleagues have found that participants primed subliminally with Christian concepts display increased covert racial prejudice and negative affect toward African Americans.

Another recent study by Joanna Blogowska and colleagues revealed that self-reported religiosity predicted the helping of a needy member of the in-group but also physical aggression towards a member of a moral out-group (a gay person).

So, is religion a force for good? Ultimately there may be no easily characterisable relationship between religion and morality. Under the pluralistic approach we advocate decomposing both religion and morality into smaller units, such that the relationship between them fans out into a matrix of separate relationships between more basic elements. So some components of “religion” may promote some components of “morality” just as others suppress the same, or different, components.

In short, in discussing whether religion is a force for good we must be very clear what we mean by religion and what we mean by good. This rather nuanced conclusion may disappoint the polemicists, but – at least until this research field matures – a measure of restraint before we jump to conclusions about whether religion is inherently good or bad may not be such a bad thing.

How to help Vaccine Doubters

We are in the golden age for vaccines. We have dozens of highly effective vaccines licensed for infectious disease, promising new technologies contributing to massive advancement of vaccine development, and several promising vaccines on the horizon. Unfortunately, vaccines have been a victim of their own success. With the drastic reduction of once-devastating diseases like whooping cough and measles, it seems like some parents think that the vaccines themselves are the new danger. But the threat isn’t gone; it’s been kept at bay by vaccinations. With clusters of vaccine-hesitant individuals especially worrisome, we need to find effective ways to convince people that the true danger is still disease.

Concerns about the chemical components of vaccines, government mandates of vaccinations for school entry, and “Big Pharma” pushing vaccination seem unchanged when facts countering these claims are presented. Most of the existing research focuses on providing education or addressing parental vaccine attitudes, but rarely addresses the values people hold. We know that a host of factors influence how people retain and use facts in their decision-making, and most of us don’t make our decisions rooted in emotionless logic. But if the facts alone don’t work, then what does?

Perhaps we haven’t been looking in the right place. Recently, the focus has been on educational interventions, appeals to altruism, and statistics, when the answer may lie in an unexpected place, like political science and social psychology. We suspected that individual values might hold the key – after all, there’s a reason that many politicians will appeal to their voters’ values – so we sought to determine if there is a relationship between values and vaccine hesitancy. We found a link between vaccine hesitancy and values of purity and liberty, which is especially informative given that many “traditional” pro-vaccine arguments focus on other values: fairness and protecting oneself and others from harm. Perhaps, if we incorporate these additional values into pro-vaccine messages, they’ll resonate more with hesitant parents and be more effective at convincing people to get vaccinated.

So, what are these values, and what do they mean? We used a framework known as Moral Foundations Theory, a relatively recent development in social psychology that can be used to describe the moral palate. Multiple broad values – authority, care, fairness, liberty, loyalty, and purity – guide our intuitions as we make snap judgements about whether something is right or wrong. Not everyone uses these values in the same way. Just as some people respond more to sweet than salty flavors, so too do some individuals prioritize certain foundations over others. The scores an individual receives on the Moral Foundations Questionnaire reflect the strength of their emphasis on particular foundations; the higher the score, the larger of a consideration it is in their decisions.

In our first study, our team at Emory recruited over one thousand participants online and asked them questions about their vaccine attitudes and their endorsement of the moral foundations. Vaccine attitudes were measured using the Parent Attitudes about Childhood Vaccines short scale, a standardized assessment method. We found that parents with moderate vaccine concerns scored similarly to their less-concerned counterparts on all foundations except purity. Moderately concerned parents were twice as likely to have a high purity score. Compared to parents with the lowest hesitancy, parents in the highest category were twice as likely to have high scores for both purity and liberty, and twice as likely to have a low score for authority. Essentially, hesitant parents are more likely to strongly emphasize values of purity and liberty, and less likely to strongly emphasize values of authority, than non-hesitant parents.

Our colleagues at Loyola (Cara Ray, Kala Melchiori, and Jeff Huntsinger) suspected that common claims on anti-vaccination websites, like “Vaccines contain poisons/toxins/contaminants” and “Vaccine mandates are excessive government control” might especially resonate with hesitant parents because they stimulate these purity and liberty values. In a second study, we asked parents to rate their strength of belief in vaccine claims themed around both purity and liberty, which were adapted from the claims we commonly saw on anti-vaccination websites. This second study not only replicated the first study’s purity and liberty findings, but also demonstrated that high scores for these two foundations were linked with stronger belief in these purity- and liberty-themed vaccine claims. This suggests that stronger endorsement on these foundations may make individuals more likely to believe claims that resonate with these values, even if the claims themselves are factually inaccurate.

While these findings might provide a potential mechanism for vaccine attitude formation and change, it’s important to note that our results are correlational, not causal. Moreover, accurately identifying a phenomenon doesn’t automatically translate to successful interventions. All the same, these findings suggest that current messages promoting vaccination – which overwhelmingly tend to concentrate on care/harm and in some cases fairness – may not be targeting the most salient moral concerns among vaccine-hesitant parents. This could open up a new avenue for pro-vaccination messaging to incorporate purity and liberty values.  If we can better connect with concerned parents, they might be more receptive to hearing what we have to say. What if other healthcare decisions and attitudes, like those about palliative care or testing for sexually transmitted diseases, are also associated with moral foundations? How can we leverage such associations to promote overall public health? We are eager to learn the answers.

Facts on Diet and Inflammation

In health, as with so many things, our greatest strength can be our greatest weakness. Take our astonishingly sophisticated response to injury and infection. Our bodies unleash armies of cellular troops to slaughter invaders and clear out traitors. Their movements are marshaled by signaling chemicals, such as the interleukins, which tell cells where and when to fight and when to stand down. We experience this as the swelling, redness and soreness of inflammation—an essential part of healing.

But when the wars fail to wind down, when inflammation becomes chronic or systemic, there’s hell to pay. I’m looking at you, arthritis, colitis and bursitis, and at you, diabetes, colon cancer, Alzheimer’s and cardiovascular disease.

Cardiovascular disease is the world’s biggest killer, and we’ve known for 20 years that inflammation (along with too much cholesterol) ignites the buildup of plaque in our arteries. Still, no one knew if runaway inflammation could actually pull the trigger on heart attacks and strokes—until this summer. Results from a large, well-designed trial showed that certain high-risk patients suffered fewer of these “events” (as doctors so mildly call them) when given a drug that precisely targets inflammation (aiming at interleukin 1). It was sweet vindication for cardiologist and principal investigator Paul Ridker of Harvard University, director of the Center for Cardiovascular Disease Prevention at Brigham and Women’s Hospital, who had long contended that inflammation was as vital a target as cholesterol.

The patients in Ridker’s study had already suffered a heart attack and had persistent inflammation (as measured by blood levels of C-reactive protein). But it is tempting to extrapolate lessons for all of us. Given that chronic inflammation plays a nefarious role in heart disease and many other disorders, shouldn’t we all do what we can to keep it in check? And I’m not talking about taking drugs like ibuprofen, which ease short-term inflammation. I mean something we can do every day of our lives: eat right.

Hop on the Internet or visit a bookstore, and you will see “anti-inflammatory” diets galore, dishing out recipes and hope. Many aim at specific ailments—arthritis, breast cancer, heart disease, various autoimmune disorders. Health guru Andrew Weil goes so far as to offer an “Anti-Inflammatory Food Pyramid.”

The underlying science, however, is somewhat shaky. Sure, plenty of foods have been found to reduce inflammation—many of them in laboratory experiments as opposed to in people: turmeric, blueberries, ginger, tea, various vegetables, dark chocolate, fish. University of South Carolina epidemiologists James Hébert and Nitin Shivappa valiantly surveyed 1,943 such studies and published in 2014 a Dietary Inflammatory Index, with 45 food elements. They created it as a research tool for evaluating diets but concede it’s built from studies that varied widely in methodology.

When I asked Ridker his views on anti-inflammatory diets, he grew uneasy. “This has caught on like wildfire,” he says, “but I have seen extremely little data that say this piece of food is ‘anti-inflammatory’ and this piece is ‘pro-inflammatory.’” He advises his own patients to eat a Mediterranean-type diet, heavy on vegetables, whole grains and fish and light on red meat and processed foods.

That diet, long endorsed by cardiologists, has been shown in well-designed studies to reduce key markers of inflammation and the risk of heart disease. Would it be even more effective if it incorporated more blueberries and turmeric? No one knows for sure.

Diet research is tricky. Turmeric may work anti-inflammatory wonders for mice, but “that’s in the context of rodent chow with a whole different set of macro and micro nutrients,” explains Martha Clare Morris, a nutritional epidemiologist at Chicago’s Rush University. And context matters. The typical Mediterranean diet calls for loads of seafood a week, and yet studies of people taking fish oils as a supplement have not found much benefit. The virtues of fish may lie elsewhere or have more to do with displacing meat.

That’s why researchers such as Morris prefer to study overall dietary patterns rather than particular ingredients. Her current project examines whether cognitive decline can be slowed with a regimen called the MIND diet, which combines elements of the Mediterranean diet with another well-studied diet called DASH. It will look at inflammation, but results won’t be out before 2021.

Until then, there is no harm in adding more so-called anti-inflammatory ingredients to your diet. Hébert suggests a spicy chai (loaded with ginger, turmeric and pepper). But remember, context! So don’t drink it with cookies and chips.

Does Gender Matter?

When I was 14 years old, I had an unusually talented maths teacher. One day after school, I excitedly pointed him out to my mother. To my amazement, she looked at him with shock and said with disgust: “You never told me that he was black”. I looked over at my teacher and, for the first time, realized that he was an African-American. I had somehow never noticed his skin colour before, only his spectacular teaching ability. I would like to think that my parents’ sincere efforts to teach me prejudice were unsuccessful. I don’t know why this lesson takes for some and not for others. But now that I am 51, as a female-to-male transgendered person, I still wonder about it, particularly when I hear male gym teachers telling young boys “not to be like girls” in that same derogatory tone.


Last year, Harvard University president Larry Summers suggested that differences in innate aptitude rather than discrimination were more likely to be to blame for the failure of women to advance in scientific careers. Harvard professor Steven Pinker then put forth a similar argument in an online debate, and an almost identical view was elaborated in a 2006 essay by Peter Lawrence entitled ‘Men, Women and Ghosts in Science’. Whereas Summers prefaced his statements by saying he was trying to be provocative, Lawrence did not. Whereas Summers talked about “different availability of aptitude at the high end,” Lawrence talked about average aptitudes differing. Lawrence argued that, even in a utopian world free of bias, women would still be under-represented in science because they are innately different from men.

Lawrence draws from the work of Simon Baron-Cohen in arguing that males are ‘on average’ biologically predisposed to systematize, to analyse and to be more forgetful of others, whereas females are ‘on average’ innately designed to empathize, to communicate and to care for others. He further argues that men are innately better equipped to aggressively compete in the ‘vicious struggle to survive’ in science. Similarly, Harvard professor Harvey Mansfield states in his new book, Manliness, that women don’t like to compete, are risk adverse, less abstract and too emotional.

I will refer to this view—that women are not advancing because of innate inability rather than because of bias or other factors—as the Larry Summers Hypothesis. It is a view that seems to have resonated widely with male, but not female, scientists. Here, I will argue that available scientific data do not provide credible support for the hypothesis but instead support an alternative one: that women are not advancing because of discrimination. You might call this the ‘Stephen Jay Gould Hypothesis’ (see left). I have no desire to make men into villains (as Henry Kissinger once said, “Nobody will ever win the battle of the sexes; there’s just too much fraternizing with the enemy”). As to who the practitioners of this bias are, I will be pointing my finger at women as much as men. I am certain that all the proponents of the Larry Summers Hypothesis are well-meaning and fair-minded people, who agree that treatment of individuals should be based on merit rather than on race, gender or religion stereotypes.


Like many women and minorities, however, I am suspicious when those who are at an advantage proclaim that a disadvantaged group of people is innately less able. Historically, claims that disadvantaged groups are innately inferior have been based on junk science and intolerance. Despite powerful social factors that discourage women from studying maths and science from a very young age, there is little evidence that gender differences in maths abilities exist, are innate or are even relevant to the lack of advancement of women in science. A study of nearly 20,000 maths scores of children aged 4 to 18, for instance, found little difference between the genders, and, despite all the social forces that hold women back from an early age, one-third of the winners of the elite Putnam Math Competition last year were women. Moreover, differences in maths-test results are not correlated with the gender divide between those who choose to leave science. I will explain why I believe that the Larry Summers Hypothesis amounts to nothing more than blaming the victim, why it is so harmful to women, and what can and should be done to help women advance in science.

If innate intellectual abilities are not to blame for women’s slow advance in science careers, then what is? The foremost factor, I believe, is the societal assumption that women are innately less able than men. Many studies, summarized in Virginia Valian’s excellent book Why So Slow?, have demonstrated a substantial degree of bias against women—more than is sufficient to block women’s advancement in many professions. Here are a few examples of bias from my own life as a young woman. As an undergrad at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), I was the only person in a large class of nearly all men to solve a hard maths problem, only to be told by the professor that my boyfriend must have solved it for me. I was not given any credit. I am still disappointed about the prestigious fellowship competition I later lost to a male contemporary when I was a PhD student, even though the Harvard dean who had read both applications assured me that my application was much stronger (I had published six high-impact papers whereas my male competitor had published only one). Shortly after I changed sex, a faculty member was heard to say “Ben Barres gave a great seminar today, but then his work is much better than his sister’s.”

Anecdotes, however, are not data, which is why gender-blinding studies are so important. These studies reveal that in many selection processes, the bar is unconsciously raised so high for women and minority candidates that few emerge as winners. For instance, one study found that women applying for a research grant needed to be 2.5 times more productive than men in order to be considered equally competent. Even for women lucky enough to obtain an academic job, gender biases can influence the relative resources allocated to faculty, as Nancy Hopkins discovered when she and a senior faculty committee studied this problem at MIT. The data were so convincing that MIT president Charles Vest publicly admitted that discrimination was responsible. For talented women, academia is all too often not a meritocracy.


Despite these studies, very few men or women are willing to admit that discrimination is a serious problem in science. How is that possible? Valian suggests that we all have a strong desire to believe that the world is fair. Remarkably, women are as likely as men to deny the existence of gender-based bias. Accomplished women who manage to make it to the top may ‘pull up the ladder behind them’, perversely believing that if other women are less successful, then one’s own success seems even greater. Another explanation is a phenomenon known as ‘denial of personal disadvantage’, in which women compare their advancement with other women rather than with men.

My own denial of the situation persisted until last year, when, at the age of 50, several events opened my eyes to the barriers that women and minorities still face in academia. In addition to the Summers speech, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) began the most prestigious competition they have ever run, the Pioneer Award, but with a nomination process that favoured male applicants. To their credit, in response to concerns that 60 of 64 judges and all 9 winners were men, the NIH has revamped their Pioneer Award selection process to make it fairer. I hope that the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) will address similar problems with their investigator competitions. When it comes to bias, it seems that the desire to believe in a meritocracy is so powerful that until a person has experienced sufficient career-harming bias themselves they simply do not believe it exists.

My main purpose in writing this commentary is that I would like female students to feel that they will have equal opportunity in their scientific careers. Until intolerance is addressed, women will continue to advance only slowly. Of course, this feeling is also deeply personal to me. The comments of Summers, Mansfield, Pinker and Lawrence about women’s lesser innate abilities are all wrongful and personal attacks on my character and capabilities, as well as on my colleagues’ and students’ abilities and self esteem. I will certainly not sit around silently and endure them.

Mansfield and others claim that women are more emotional than men. There is absolutely no science to support this contention. On the contrary, it is men that commit the most violent crimes in anger—for example, 25 times more murders than women. The only hysteria that exceeded MIT professor Nancy Hopkins’ (well-founded) outrage after Larry Summers’ comments was the shockingly vicious news coverage by male reporters and commentators. Hopkins also received hundreds of hateful and even pornographic messages, nearly all from men, that were all highly emotional.


There is no scientific support, either, for the contention that women are innately less competitive (although I believe powerful curiosity and the drive to create sustain most scientists far more than the love of competition). However, many girls are discouraged from sports for fear of being labelled tomboys. A 2002 study did find a gender gap in competitiveness in financial tournaments, but the authors suggested that this was due to differences in self confidence rather than ability. Indeed, again and again, self confidence has been pointed to as a factor influencing why women ‘choose’ to leave science and engineering programmes. When women are repeatedly told they are less good, their self confidence falls and their ambitions dim. This is why Valian has concluded that simply raising expectations for women in science may be the single most important factor in helping them make it to the top.

Steven Pinker has responded to critics of the Larry Summers Hypothesis by suggesting that they are angry because they feel the idea that women are innately inferior is so dangerous that it is sinful even to think about it. Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz sympathizes so strongly with this view that he plans to teach a course next year called ‘Taboo’. At Harvard we must have veritas; all ideas are fair game. I completely agree. I welcome any future studies that will provide a better understanding of why women and minorities are not advancing at the expected rate in science and so many other professions.

But it is not the idea alone that has sparked anger. Disadvantaged people are wondering why privileged people are brushing the truth under the carpet. If a famous scientist or a president of a prestigious university is going to pronounce in public that women are likely to be innately inferior, would it be too much to ask that they be aware of the relevant data? It would seem that just as the bar goes way up for women applicants in academic selection processes, it goes way down when men are evaluating the evidence for why women are not advancing in science. That is why women are angry. It is incumbent upon those proclaiming gender differences in abilities to rigorously address whether suspected differences are real before suggesting that a whole group of people is innately wired to fail.

What happens at Harvard and other universities serves as a model for many other institutions, so it would be good to get it right. To anyone who is upset at the thought that free speech is not fully protected on university campuses, I would like to ask, as did third-year Harvard Law student Tammy Pettinato: what is the difference between a faculty member calling their African-American students lazy and one pronouncing that women are innately inferior? Some have suggested that those who are angry at Larry Summers’ comments should simply fight words with more words (hence this essay). In my view, when faculty tell their students that they are innately inferior based on race, religion, gender or sexual orientation, they are crossing a line that should not be crossed—the line that divides free speech from verbal violence—and it should not be tolerated at Harvard or anywhere else. In a culture where women’s abilities are not respected, women cannot effectively learn, advance, lead or participate in society in a fulfilling way.


Although I have argued that the Larry Summers Hypothesis is incorrect and harmful, the academic community is one of the most tolerant around. But, as tolerant as academics are, we are still human beings influenced by our culture. Comments by Summers and others have made it clear that discrimination remains an under-recognized problem that is far from solved. The progress of science increasingly depends on the global community, but only 10% of the world’s population is male and caucasian. To paraphrase Martin Luther King, a first-class scientific enterprise cannot be built upon a foundation of second-class citizens. If women and minorities are to achieve their full potential, all of us need to be far more proactive. So what can be done?

First, enhance leadership diversity in academic and scientific institutions. Diversity provides a substantially broader point of view, with more sensitivity and respect for different perspectives, which is invaluable to any organization. More female leadership is vital in lessening the hostile working environment that young women scientists often encounter. In addition to women and under-represented minority groups, we must not forget Asians and lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered folks. There are enough outstanding scientific leaders in these racial and gender groups that anyone with a will to achieve a diverse leadership in their organization could easily attain it.

Second, the importance of diverse faculty role models cannot be overstated. There is much talk about equal opportunity, but, in practice, serious attention still needs to be directed at how to run fair job searches. Open searches often seem to be bypassed entirely for top leadership positions, just when it matters most—search committees should not always be chaired by men and the committee itself should be highly divers. Implementation of special hiring strategies and strong deans willing to push department chairs to recruit top women scientists are especially effective. It is crucial in the promotion process that merit be decided by the quality, not quantity, of papers published.

Women faculty, in particular, need help from their institutions in balancing career and family responsibilities. In an increasingly competitive environment, women with children must be able to compete for funding and thrive. Why can’t young faculty have the option of using their tuition benefits, in which some universities pay part of the college tuition fees for the children of faculty, for day care instead? Tuition benefits will be of no help if female scientists don’t make tenure. And institutions that have the financial capability, such as HHMI, could help by making more career-transition fellowships available for talented women scientists.


Third, there should be less silence in the face of discrimination. Academic leadership has a particular responsibility to speak out, but we all share this responsibility. It takes minimal effort to send a brief message to the relevant authority when you note a lack of diversity in an organization or an act of discrimination. I don’t know why more women don’t speak out about sexism at their institutions, but I do know that they are often reluctant, even when they have the security of a tenured faculty position. Nancy Hopkins is an admirable role model, and it is time that others share the burden. It doesn’t only have to be women that support women. I was deeply touched by the eloquent words of Greg Petsko following Summers’ comments. And it has been 30 years since I was a medical student, but I still recall with gratitude the young male student who immediately complained to a professor who had shown a slide of a nude pin-up in his anatomy lecture.

Fourth, enhance fairness in competitive selection processes. Because of evaluation bias, women and minorities are at a profound disadvantage in such competitive selection unless the processes are properly designed. As the revamped NIH Pioneer Award demonstrates, a few small changes can make a significant difference in outcome. By simply changing the procedure so that anyone can self-nominate and by ensuring a highly diverse selection committee, the number of women and minority winners went up to more than 50% from zero. This lesson can and should now be applied to other similar processes for scientific awards, grants and faculty positions. Alas, too many selection committees still show a striking lack of diversity—with typically greater than 90% white males. When selection processes are run fairly, reverse discrimination is not needed to attain a fair outcome.


Finally, we can teach young scientists how to survive in a prejudiced world. Self-confidence is crucial in advancing and enjoying a research career. From an early age, girls receive messages that they are not good enough to do science subjects or will be less liked if they are good at them. The messages come from many sources, including parents, friends, fellow students and, alas, teachers. When teachers have lower expectations of them, students do less well. But we are all at fault for sending these messages and for remaining silent when we encounter them. Teachers need to provide much more encouragement to young people, regardless of sex, at all stages of training.Occasional words of encouragement can have enormous effects.

All students, male and female, would benefit from training in how to be more skillful presenters, to exert a presence at meetings by asking questions, to make connections with faculty members who may help them to obtain grants and a job, and to have the leadership skills necessary to survive and advance in academia. Because women and minorities tend to be less confident in these areas, their mentors in particular need to encourage them to be more proactive. I vividly recall my PhD supervisor coming with me to the talks of famous scientists and forcing me to introduce myself and to ask them questions. There is a great deal of hallway mentoring that goes on for young men that I am not sure many women and minorities receive (I wish that someone had mentioned to me when I was younger that life, even in science, is a popularity contest—a message that Larry Summers might have fo und helpful as well). It is incumbent on all of us who are senior faculty to keep a look out for highly talented young people, including women and minority students, and help them in whatever way possible with their careers.