Scientific American March 2011
The Latest in Science News
Science Agenda: Keep the Internet fair (p 12)
The Federal Communications Commission's (FCC) December 2010 ruling prohibiting unreasonable filtering of the Internet could be viewed as supporting the principles of net neutrality. But the ruling fell flat. As the editors write in this month's Scientific American, the ruling failed to define what "unreasonable" discrimination of Internet content is, leaving too much up for debate—"the only certainty it gives is of the tens of thousands of billable hours to be spent arguing over the meaning of 'unreasonable' in federal court."
To fix this vague language, the FCC must clarify that the only kind of unreasonable discrimination is discrimination against particular applications. Internet providers can structure their offerings in any way they see fit, but slowing or blocking services on an application-by-application basis would give them the power to choose the winners and losers of the information age. "This clarification gives Internet service providers the leeway they need to maintain healthy networks," argue the editors, "as well as plenty of incentive to invest in advanced network infrastructure for those customers willing to pay for ultrahigh-speed service."
Psychology: The neuroscience of true grit (p 28)
When tragedy strikes—such as losing a loved one or experiencing a natural disaster—most of us ultimately bound back, utilizing various innate coping skills to adapt to a crisis. Writing in this month's Scientific American, Gary Stix investigates the mechanisms of such resilience and how this knowledge can provide reassurance to those who suffer personal losses as well as help to craft treatment and intervention programs for people with post-traumatic stress and depression.
Mourning is important for healing after loss, yet it can become an overwhelming process. To deal with the effects, the body has a system of biochemical and genetic factors that can protect against stress. For instance, recent research has shed light on a group of chemicals in the brain that naturally dampen the damaging effects of prolonged exposure to stress hormones. "So the wiring inside our heads prevents most of us from getting stuck in an inconsolable psychological state," writes Stix. "If our emotions get either too hot or cold, a kind of internal sensor—call it a 'resilience-stat'—returns us to equilibrium."
If most of us are resilient, then what happens to those few individuals who become overwhelmed by stress, asks Stix? As he notes, in the end, personal resilience and treatment do not come in a one size fits all; but by better understanding our innate ability to bounce back, science may give insight into how to help those who have trouble coping.
Public health: Not just a disease of the rich (p 66)
To tackle the growing threat from cancer in developing countries, the disease needs to be given the same prominence that has been accorded to HIV, tuberculosis (TB) and malaria in recent years, says Paul Farmer in an interview published in this month's Scientific American.
Recent global health campaigns focusing on HIV, TB and malaria have meant that people are increasingly surviving these illnesses and living longer. But cancer incidence is on the rise in developing nations. This has prompted the launch of a new global taskforce, which aims to enhance overall healthcare systems, as well as improving vaccines, chemotherapy and palliative care.
Treatments are not often available in developing countries but resource-sharing initiatives could allow U.S. hospitals to help those in the developing world make diagnoses and provide chemotherapy to patients. Farmer says, "We hope that other providers in the field see this and stop saying, 'Oh, we can't do this. It's Africa. You can't treat cancer there.'"
Forum: Fear of cyberattacks could steal Internet charm (p 13)
Self-monitoring on the Internet is needed in order to avoid strict government controls and retain the freedom of speech and mobility that the Internet's invention provides, writes Jonathan Zittrain in a column in this month's Scientific American.
In the wake of Wikileaks' releases of classified U.S. government documents, the Internet has been made out to be a scary place. The unfolding event led to the temporary shutdown of several other related sites and has led an FBI official to say that the disruption of the Internet is the greatest active risk to the U.S. other than weapons of mass destruction. The fact that it is usually impossible to trace Internet attacks back to their instigator has led some law enforcement experts to call for a reworking of Internet architecture and protocols so that packets of data can be engraved and thus traced back to their source.
However, Zittrain asserts that such a reworking would also threaten what makes the Internet special both technologically and socially. He suggests that we should enlist operators and users themselves to monitor the Internet instead of employing top-down government interventions. Such a system of mutual aid would draw on the same co-operation and voluntary instinct behind the development of the Internet.