Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Could Carbon Labeling Combat Climate Change?

 Some experts argue that revealing the carbon content of appliances and other items might help combat climate change. Image: Federal Trade Commission

While large-scale efforts to curb greenhouse gases aren't likely to happen in the near future, advocates are thinking of smaller ways to reduce emissions in the meantime.

Recently, Vanderbilt University professor Michael Vandenbergh and two others proposed the idea of voluntarily labeling carbon footprints on products in the journal Nature Climate Change.

"We know from other areas of labeling that labels do have some effect on behavior," said Vandenbergh, an environmental law professor and director of the Climate Change Research Network. "They don't drive all behavior but are certainly effective."

He's quick to point out that private measures like this can't solve climate change alone but says they still help. Vandenbergh estimates it could take years before any type of international cap-and-trade system fully develops. Any emissions between now and whenever, or if ever, that happens will likely stick around for a long time. "The emissions we don't reduce now will be in the atmosphere for a long time. This is a measure that would help fill the gap," Vanderbergh said.

The paper, written with Thomas Dietz at Michigan State University and Paul Stern at the National Research Council, doesn't precisely identify a label. It does, however, cite one by the London-based Carbon Trust, which certifies items in the United Kingdom like potato chips and hand dryers by adding up their amount of greenhouse gas emissions in kilograms.

But what's lacking is an internationally recognized certification encompassing a broad range of products.

Developing a label
Vandenbergh envisions a nonprofit or non-governmental organization developing a label of this type, similar to what the Marine Stewardship Council does for fish. MSC has certifications for fish caught wild and fisheries that are sustainable. Although not mandatory, the labels have caught on in grocery stores. Walmart Canada recently pledged to sell only MSC-certified fish by 2013.

Another example he points to is the dolphin-safe label on tuna, explaining that it was very hard to sell without the label once controversies over tuna fisheries harming and sometimes killing dolphins became known. Other labels, like nutrition ones, for example, have had mixed results. Green labels also sometimes leave out things. Recent carbon footprint calculations of Brazilian beef left out the amount of deforestation caused by raising the cattle, according to a study in Environmental Science and Technology.

Vandenberg admits labeling isn't perfect. "It's likely there are weaknesses in this system," he said. "The question is whether it's viable as an alternative. And if government can't act and we are getting some sustainability as result of that step, then it's important."

Apart from the Carbon Trust label, organizations like Toronto-based CarbonCounted and Bethesda, Md.-based have also developed carbon certifications.

In Madison, Wis., one organization is attempting to develop a smartphone application that scans food products to reveal their carbon footprints. The technology is there for it. The information is not.

Not enough information to work with
To develop the app, SnowShoeFood CEO Claus Moberg worked with three University of Wisconsin graduate students to find all the carbon footprint information they could on two brands of locally made ice cream.

"It's taken us four months and a lot of legwork to assemble our best bet of a carbon footprint for the two types of ice cream," Moberg said. And he still doesn't think what they ended up with is enough to be acceptable in an academic evaluation of a food item's carbon footprint. "It's almost impossible to do this as an outsider," he added.

If food companies made all carbon footprint data of their items available, the SnowShoe app would be able to rank them from smallest carbon footprints to largest. But until they come forward, it can't.


Under Pressure: Launch a Balloon Rocket

Have you ever wondered how a space shuttle launches all the way into outer space? It takes a lot of energy to make such a heavy object (4.5 million pounds at liftoff) go from standing still to blasting off toward space at more than 17,000 miles per hour—in just minutes!

For real space launches rocket scientists figured out special fuel to make enough energy to get a heavy shuttle off the ground. You, too, can use the same principle (but without dangerous rocket fuel) to propel a balloon rocket across the room.

Complex chemical formulas aside, rocket fuel is based on a simple idea: create enough power to push an object forward. This movement works in part because the power created by burning fuel is focused in a single direction. By controlling the direction that force goes, you can create thrust. During a space shuttle launch, the power is focused down, forcing the shuttle to move in the opposite direction.

In this activity we are working with air instead of rocket fuel, but we use the same idea of force in one direction moving an object in the opposite direction. When you blow up a balloon, you force extra air into it, creating higher air pressure inside the balloon than outside of it. Given the chance, the air molecules will move to a lower-pressure environment—which is why, if you let go of a balloon's opening without tying it off, air you added will rush out again.

If you were to pop a full balloon, the air from inside goes in all directions, distributing the force so that none of it is that strong in any one direction. But if you allow the air to exit through only one small hole, the force will be strong enough to propel the lightweight balloon in the opposite direction.

•    Balloon (Long ones work best, but a round one will do, too.)
•    Piece of string at least 10 feet long
•    Plastic straw
•    Tape
•    Two chairs or sturdy door handles about 10 feet apart (with clear space in between)
•    Balloons of other shapes and sizes (optional)
•    Other thin materials that can work as a guide wire, such as fishing line, ribbon or twine (optional)
•    Stopwatch or clock that indicates seconds (optional)

•    Tie one end of the string to a chair, handle or other steady object.
•    Thread the string through the plastic straw.
•    Making sure the string is taut, tie it to another chair or handle at least 10 feet away, keeping it at the same height so there is no upward or downward slope, and making sure the area around the string is clear.

•    Blow up your balloon (this is the part that’s like filling a rocket engine with fuel) and pinch the opening with your fingers to keep the air inside. (Don't tie it off.)
•    While you are pinching the end of the balloon, secure it onto the bottom of the plastic straw with a few pieces of tape.
•    Pull the full balloon with the straw to one end of the string, so that its opening faces in the opposite direction from the clear line of string ahead of the balloon.
•    What do you think is going to happen when you let go of the balloon opening?
•    Let go of the balloon, then release its opening.
•    What happened when you let go of the end of the balloon?
•    Which direction—and how far—did it go?
•    Try it again with the balloon only half inflated. How fast and how far do you think it will go?
•    What are other ways you could get a balloon to go faster or slower—or longer or shorter distances?
•    Extra: Try other sizes and shapes of balloons. How do they perform?
•    Extra: Try using other types of thin materials as your line, such as ribbon, twine or fishing line. Do these make a difference in balloon rocket speed or distance?


Supermarkets Try to Clean Up Another Spill: Greenhouse Gases

 WARMING FROM COOLING: Leaks from grocery store refrigerators are a big source of potent greenhouse gases. Image: Flickr/Copyright daveynin

On top of the usual "spills in aisle five," grocery stores have another mess they're hoping to clean up: greenhouse gas leaks.

U.S. EPA announced yesterday that its partnership to cut greenhouse gas emissions from grocery stores has reached 50 states. The partnership, called GreenChill, now has 7,000 members, about a fifth of all supermarkets in the United States.

Much of their carbon footprint comes from the electricity that powers their lights, soda fountains, meat slicers and other equipment. But there's a subtler, sometimes bigger source of greenhouse gases: the massive refrigerators and the systems that keep them frosty.

Grocery stores use a network of pipes and pumps to get coolant to the refrigerators. The coolants are typically greenhouse gases that, if they escape, have a global warming effect hundreds or thousands of times greater than carbon dioxide's.

"If you have a lot of piping, if you have a lot of joints, the probability of leaking is greater," said Karim Amrane, vice president of regulatory and research at the Air-Conditioning, Heating and Refrigeration Institute, a trade group representing equipment manufacturers.

EPA doesn't directly regulate these emissions, so it set up GreenChill in 2007 to encourage supermarkets to act on the issue voluntarily. The agency has offered Silver, Gold and Platinum awards to grocery stores that prevent the gases from seeping.

One Platinum awardee, Star Market in Newton, Mass., used to need 4,000 pounds of refrigerant; now it needs 275. According to the manufacturers of the new equipment, just a pound of this refrigerant has the same effect as 3,800 pounds of CO2.

Big opportunities for reductions
On top of that, the store believes it has plugged up many of the common leaks. Where it would normally store refrigerant in 2,000-pound cisterns, now it uses dozens of 11-pound cells. If any of them springs a leak, the total emissions are far smaller.

A store doesn't have to be state-of-the-art, like Star Market, to benefit the climate. If every grocery store in the United States were just at the level of the average GreenChill member, EPA claims, it would save the equivalent of 22 million tons of CO2 a year.

That's roughly the annual emissions of 4.3 million cars. It would also save the stores $100 million -- cash they wouldn't have to pay for replacing their elusive coolants.

Cindy Newberg, a branch chief at EPA's Stratospheric Protection Division, said GreenChill's 7,000 members will benchmark their refrigerants to see how much they're losing and where. The companies can also share information about best practices.

Greenpeace wants to take the issue even further. The group yesterday won a Harvard University award for pushing green refrigeration with major world retailers, including Safeway, Wal-Mart and Kroger.

Debate over 'natural refrigerants'
In November, 400 such retailers committed to stop using hydrofluorocarbons -- coolants that affect the climate far more than CO2 -- by 2015.

HFCs, as they're known, are the main refrigerant in use today. But Amy Larkin, a solutions director for Greenpeace, said Greenpeace has long been wary of them.

"When HFCs were introduced in the early 1990s, Greenpeace said, 'Whoa. This is a horrible substitution for CFCs, because they may not carve a hole in the ozone, but they will kill us with global warming,'" she said.

Larkin and these companies believe the technology for "natural refrigerants," such as ammonia, CO2 and even some fossil fuels, isn't far away. These coolants have far weaker effects on the climate than HFCs.

Amrane, of AHRI, the air-conditioning trade group, was more skeptical.

He said there are coolants with low global warming effects, but even if they keep the food cold, they may pose safety hazards. "There's always a trade-off," he said.

A tiny bit of propane or butane in a household refrigerator poses little risk, he said, but a large system, such as the one in a grocery store, is a different beast. "From a safety standpoint, having hundreds of pounds of propane might not be a safe thing to have," he said.

EPA is still evaluating whether the compromise on the federal budget for 2011 will affect the GreenChill program.

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500


Wolves Lose Out to Politics, Removed from Endangered Species List

In an abbreviated, terse press conference on Wednesday Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar announced that the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) will propose removing gray wolves (Canis lupus) from the endangered species list in the northern Rockies and the western Great Lakes.

Last month, lawmakers in Congress added riders to the annual budget bill to remove wolves in the Rockies from the Endangered Species Act, circumventing scientific evidence and advice in the process. The action by Congress and the proposal from Salazar supersedes federal court rulings granting greater levels of protections to the wolves.

The proposal would not remove protections from wolves in Wyoming, which the FWS has previously ruled does not have an acceptable wolf management plan in place.

"Like other iconic species such as the whooping crane, the brown pelican, and the bald eagle, the recovery of the gray wolf is another success story of the Endangered Species Act," Salazar said during the press conference. "The gray wolf's biological recovery reflects years of work by scientists, wildlife managers, and our state, tribal, and stakeholder partners to bring wolf populations back to healthy levels."

Not everyone agrees that wolves are recovered. "The feds are declaring victory, but gray wolves still only survive in 5 percent of their former range, and even in those places they continue to face a real threat of persecution," said Noah Greenwald, endangered species program director at the Center for Biological Diversity, in a prepared statement. "Taking protection away from them now is premature and will impede the long-term recovery of wolves in the United States."

Others say the political move undermines science and the Endangered Species Act. "While today's announcement comes as no surprise, the action taken by Congress and the Obama administration last month to strip federal protections for wolves was unwarranted and extremely disappointing," Defenders of Wildlife President Rodger Schlickeisen said in a statement. "It has undermined our nation's commitment to good stewardship and sets a terrible precedent for side-stepping America’s bedrock environmental laws whenever it's politically convenient to do so."

The proposal to delist wolves in the Great Lakes region (encompassing Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin and adjoining states) was not part of the recent budget rider. FWS acting director Rowan Gould said, "Gray wolves in the western Great Lakes are recovered and no longer warrant protection under the Endangered Species Act."

Almost all of the states where wolves would be delisted have been waiting for wolves to leave the ESA so they could reinstate wolf hunting; they now plan to cull wolf populations by as much as half. This week, Montana proposed a fall hunting season which would allow for 220 wolves to be shot, the highest amount ever.

Also unexpected was a proposal to remove the gray wolf from the ESA in 29 eastern states, based on new evidence that they never lived there. The wolves found in much of Canada and the eastern U.S. are actually eastern wolves (Canis lycaon), which were previously listed as a subspecies of the gray wolf but which new evidence suggests is a separate species.

FWS will initiate status reviews of the eastern wolf and the Mexican wolf (Canis lupus baileyi) to determine their long-term need for protection.

Throughout the press conference, Salazar referred to the long line of lawsuits that have moved wolves on and off the ESA in the past several years, calling them "unacceptable gridlock, acrimony and dispute."

The full proposal will be published Thursday in the Federal Register. Public comments will be accepted on the Great Lakes delisting, but the northern Rockies ruling will be considered final and take effect immediately.


Garrett Lisi Responds to Criticism of his Proposed Unified Theory of Physics

This past December, Jim Weatherall and I wrote "A Geometric Theory of Everything" for Scientific American, describing progress on unified geometric theories of gravitation and the Standard Model of particle physics. My personal contribution to this progress, a developing model called E8 Theory, was introduced three years ago in a paper titled "An Exceptionally Simple Theory of Everything." Almost immediately after this paper appeared, physicists and the interested public began a lengthy process of considering and discussing this new theory's merits and faults.

Not surprisingly, the initial response was largely critical, with most commenters encountering some unfamiliar mathematical structures in the paper and responding with appropriate skepticism. Much of this criticism was productive, helping me and others to develop the theory, while some was apparently motivated by physics politics rather than the search for a deeper understanding. Over the years, the many productive points of criticism have either been resolved favorably, answered by further development of the theory, or remain as open problems. Below, in an effort to keep the record straight, I describe the salient points of criticism and how they have played out:

1. Some physicists were initially mystified by the inclusion of both bosons and fermions in a single superconnection field -- formally adding fields of different types and units, seemingly in violation of basic principles, as described here. However, others pointed out that this sort of formal addition was not so unusual (coming as it does from the well established "BRST" model in quantum field theory, with references noted in the original paper), and is not problematic since the separate parts of the superconnection do not mix. This kind of superconnection was then discussed more extensively and constructively by mathematicians.

2. The most vocal objection to E8 Theory was inspired by the dramatic apparent violation of the Coleman-Mandula theorem, which prohibits the unification of gravity and Standard Model forces in spacetime. This is one of the greatest no-go theorems in particle physics and had prevented work on such unification for decades; but further consideration uncovered an important loophole, which is described in our article and more thoroughly in a published paper by a colleague. Even if E8 Theory accomplishes nothing else, it has brought attention to this loophole, providing a new understanding of cosmology as the symmetry breaking of a unified gauge-gravity theory.

3. Several people pointed out that the dynamics of the theory described in the paper, matching those of gravity and the Standard Model, were not invariant under the full E8 symmetry. This was an important problem, because when describing a unified theory one needs to describe how the full symmetry dynamically breaks to produce the less symmetric universe we see around us. Such a description was quickly provided by others and expanded upon.

4. In what has turned out to be the most widespread and destructive criticism, some physicists were misled to believe that the structure of gravity and the Standard Model (including one generation of fermions with parity-violating interactions) does not embed in the structure of the E8 Lie group. This criticism was first made and widely disseminated by Jacques Distler and Skip Garibaldi. It gained more public attention on the blog of cosmologist Sean Carroll, who wrote that "[Distler] shows that you can't even embed one generation [in E8]." Distler's colleagues also wrote a letter to the editor of Scientific American decrying the lack of parity violation. This fact would seem very damning for E8 Theory, but it is simply not true. The structure of gravity and the Standard Model along with one generation of fermions (including their parity-violating interactions) does fit in E8, as I described explicitly in a recent paper. In their misleading argument, Distler and Garibaldi make unnecessary assumptions about how the embedding needs to happen, and then prove it can't happen that way -- a "straw man" argument.

5. Early on, it was pointed out that the theory does not accommodate all three generations of fermions in an obvious way, or describe their masses. This problem was identified in the original paper, with a potential solution coming from triality. As of one year ago I was extremely discouraged by this puzzle, but with some insights into triality gained at the recent conference in Banff I now think it may work. E8 gauge transformations related to triality might mix and describe three generations of fermions, but it is very tricky. This issue remains the most significant problem, and until it is solved the theory is not complete and cannot be considered much more than a speculative proposal. Without fully describing how the three generations of fermions work, the theory and all predictions from it remain tenuous.

6. When one embeds gravity, the Standard Model forces, and the 64 particle states of one generation of fermions inside E8, there are many particles left over. Among these "extra" particles are "mirror fermions" -- partners to the fermions with all opposite charges (including opposite spins, making these different than antiparticles). Critics contend that these mirror fermions are bad, making the theory "nonchiral," and that the existence of physical mirror fermions has almost been ruled out by experiment. However, I see these extra particle states in E8 as providing a potential solution to the problem of the missing second and third generation fermions, since triality transformations can relate the 64 fermions of one generation to two other blocks of 64 in E8, including the mirror fermions.

7. There is not yet a consistent quantized description of E8 Theory. Although this is true, and remains an open problem, the formulation of the theory is compatible with the usual methods of quantum field theory. As E8 Theory develops, I expect renormalization and other quantum field theory or loop quantum gravity calculations will be carried out successfully. The lack of a fixed background spacetime does, however, make this difficult -- a known problem with quantizing gravitational theories.

8. Old-school scientists have dismissed E8 Theory for not being peer reviewed and published. Personally, I am not climbing an academic ladder and I enjoy an open exchange of ideas, so I did not feel the need to submit my original 2007 paper to a traditional journal, although I was invited to do so. Most physicists today rely on openly posted electronic preprints rather than journals. However, two E8 Theory papers have now been peer reviewed and gone to publication without difficulty. One paper, describing 90% of the theory, including the full E8 invariant dynamics, was written with coauthors Lee Smolin and Simone Speziale and published in a peer-reviewed journal. Another paper, "An explicit embedding of gravity and the standard model in E8," which counters Distler and Garibaldi's argument, was recently peer reviewed and accepted for publication in a conference proceedings.

All in all, despite an abundance of media hype and a mixed reaction from the physics community, I think things have gone well with the development of E8 Theory since its debut. Nevertheless, there are outstanding problems, and this is a young theory -- far from complete. For me, the inviolable mathematical truth that the entire structure of gravity, the Standard Model forces, and a generation of fermions (including parity-violating interactions) is part of the structure of E8 is extremely compelling, and is telling us something important about the universe. It was a pleasure to be able to describe this structure for Scientific American readers in our article. The mathematical fact of this embedding will not go away, and it may, as I believe, prove important, or it may, as Distler et al. believe, be an insignificant coincidence. Regardless of what anyone believes, in physics, it is only nature's opinion that ultimately matters.

Even as E8 Theory remains a contentious topic among physicists, it has brought to light many interesting structures and possibilities in particle physics, and revitalized the use of weight diagrams for exploring some of this beautiful structure. In writing our article for Scientific American my coauthor and I, as well as the ever-helpful editors, were very careful to ensure its accuracy. I would be very surprised if critics were to find fault in the article's veracity -- although I am not surprised if some are unhappy with its existence.

Elementary particle fields of gravity and the Standard Model embedded in the structure of the E8 Lie group.


Ask the Experts: What Does Bin Laden's Death Mean to Us and Society?

The death of Osama bin Laden elicited many different types of responses and feelings—triumph, sorrow and anger among them. Each of us, as individuals, is capable of having conflicting feelings about the death of the al Qaeda leader, depending on how we happen to see ourselves at any given moment—as parents, spouses, workers, Americans, and so forth. The variety of our responses reveals the subtle and powerful forces surrounding social identity: how we relate to different groups and roles, which is changeable and influenced by circumstances. To explore these social mechanisms, Scientific American contacted S. Alexander Haslam of the University of Exeter in England, and Stephen D. Reicher of University of St. Andrews in Scotland, who collaborate on studies of group dynamics. Their book, The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, written with Michael J. Platow of the Australian National University (Psychology Press, 2010), describes how successful leaders cultivate an understanding of "us" as a group and then find the best way to represent that understanding. Haslam and Reicher are advisers for Scientific American Mind.

When the news of Osama bin Laden's death was announced, some reacted by cheering on the White House lawn. Others reflected on how losing a life does not bring back the people who died at the World Trade Center. What is going on?

Social representations theorists have shown how we make sense of novel events in two ways. First, we find a way to make the abstract concrete and, second, we anchor the new and unfamiliar to something old and well understood. The attack on September 11 was a new and shocking event, which rocked old certainties about the world in general and American invulnerability in particular. It became understood in the West in terms of an Islamic terrorist threat against civilization as best represented by the U.S. Terror, an abstract concept, was made concrete by putting the face of Osama bin Laden on it. And the war against Osama was anchored in our understandings of the past, familiar war against Hitler. Once bin Laden was killed, those who identify strongly as Americans experienced a clear sense that "we" have won, that "we" have avenged the humiliation wrought upon "us," that "we" have reasserted "our" ascendancy.

But people have many group identities and hence many ways of relating to an event. We are not only "Americans," we are also parents, spouses and friends. So we don't only think of the death of bin Laden in terms of a national victory (and hence jubilation), we also think, as parents or as spouses, of those who will be remembering the loss of a child, a husband or a wife in 9/11—and therefore our sense of jubilation will by tempered by sadness. In other words, it isn't as simple as saying some crowed and some cried when they heard the news. The same person may react in both ways or even experience great ambivalence as his or her different identities become salient.

Bin Laden was discovered in Pakistan. Surely he must have had the aid and assistance of many. What are the mechanisms behind that kind of group reaction?

It is well accepted that those who oppose the state in any way can only operate where there is at least tacit social support in the community. Their activities will always be known by some and hence they have to be confident that these people, even if they don't give active support, at least don't inform on them. This is true if one is talking of ordinary criminality, it is true if one is talking of resistance to an oppressive state (and explains in part, for instance, the different survival rates of Jews in different countries during World War II), and it is certainly true in the case of contemporary terrorism.

There are at least three mechanisms that secure this type of support. The first is simple fear of retaliation: if you tell, you and your family will suffer. This effect certainly happens, but it is the least effective of mechanisms because it only works as long as the threat is credible and it leads to the build-up of increasing resentment from the community over time. In time, fear almost always fails.

The second mechanism involves genuine support based on the fact that those who oppose the state are "one of us" or even that they represent "our" struggle against an oppressor. As we have explained in our recent book The New Psychology of Leadership: Identity, Influence and Power, these are the conditions under which people come to be regarded as leaders and genuinely influence what we think and do. This mechanism is far more effective because it means that people do not feel inclined to inform even if they could do so with impunity.

A third mechanism sits between these first two and probably best represents the feeling in Pakistan, judging from Twitter, blogs and our own discussions with Pakistanis. That is, people may not like or identify with those who fight the state, but they don't like the state either. Hence they might not actively support the former but it is counter-normative to help the latter by informing. In Pakistan, many people hate bin Laden and various other insurgent elements. But they also see America as an enemy and hence are disinclined to aid U.S. forces.

The great danger is that too simplistic a view of matters (for example, coming to think that "those who are not with us are against us") leads this stance to be misunderstood as a pro al Qaeda position. Clearly, this misunderstanding may lead people in the West to treat Pakistanis as the enemy. And this treatment, in turn, may gradually lead Pakistanis to see those who fight the Americans as their kind of people. In this way, a Manichean view of the world can end up turning into a self-fulfilling prophecy whereby our third mechanism is transformed into our second. And it can make people in Pakistan view the ultra-radicals that they once shunned as their leaders.

Bin Laden is dead but al Qaeda is not. What might be the terrorists' reaction? Are there steps the U.S. or other countries can take to reduce the likelihood of retaliation?

Al Qaeda's power amongst those who felt disempowered and even humiliated by U.S. power was the fact that it could strike back at the "enemy" and make "them" suffer as "we" suffered. In a way, the dynamics of humiliation and revenge are working on both sides. If al Qaeda wishes to retain its mobilizing power, then it needs to demonstrate its ability to strike. Undoubtedly, then, in the short term, there will be a desire to strike (although whether the organizational capacity exists is quite another question).

Equally, in the short term, the question of whether al Qaeda will succeed or not is a security question. But in the longer term, the issue is social and political and comes down to understanding the conditions that have allowed al Qaeda and other insurgencies to thrive.

Recent work by Russell Spears, Rim Saab and their colleagues at the University of Cardiff on violent collective action suggests that this is most likely to occur when people believe that a system is unjust and oppressive but stable (in the sense of being immune to change in the short term). As many analysts have pointed out, the primary focus of bin Laden and many other insurgents is the Arab and Islamic world. They feel that these states (such as Saudi Arabia) are corrupt due to the influence of the U.S. and its allies. This feeling is why, in the absence of an ability to transform these states domestically, they target the power that is supposedly maintaining them.

But once people feel that these states are unstable and that their collective action can transform them into democratic countries under the control of the people, then al Qaeda's violent, conspiratorial and backward-looking approach becomes increasingly irrelevant. The success of democratic mass movements in the so-called "Arab spring" is the nemesis of al Qaeda and its like. So what can other countries do? Support the democratic movements. And what can our countries do? Stop supporting the anti-democratic regimes.

Sohaib Athar live-tweeted about the raid on bin Laden without knowing it, noting the arrival of helicopters and blast sounds. How has social media changed the information landscape?

Certainly it has.

One of the things that is becoming increasingly clear in psychology is that the way we act often has as much—if not more—to do with our sense of what others think as with what we think ourselves. The work of people such as Julie Duck, Debbie Terry and Mike Hogg (the first two at the University of Queensland in Australia, the latter now at Claremont Graduate University in California) shows that we are far more likely to act on an individual belief when we believe that it coincides with a shared social norm. And what the new media (Twitter, Facebook and so on) do is to transform our ability to establish shared views.

This ability is especially important in repressive contexts where alternative forms of communication (putting up posters, handing out leaflets, and so on) can lead to harsh punishment. But it is far harder to clamp down on the virtual world. So, to go back to the previous discussion, social media were critical in spreading dissent in Tunisia and then Egypt. They led people to realize that they were not alone in opposing the regime. They allowed people to plan mass demonstrations, knowing that if they turned up they would be in sufficient number to challenge state repression. They guided the eyes of the world to what was happening so it would be harder from the state to use its repressive apparatus without being held to account.

But, important as the social media were, we should not overstate their importance. They facilitated people gathering together in Tahrir Square and elsewhere, and they provided a means whereby the people could grow strong in the embrace of strangers. But ultimately it was the mass gatherings that they led to that drove change; and alone the social media could never be a substitute for this mass gathering.

Do you think that the reported disposal of bin Laden's body at sea, in observance of Muslim tradition, was a well-conceived idea?

Sometimes the same act can have complex or even paradoxical effects by having an impact on multiple processes in different ways at the same time. In their classic work on collective action, social psychologists Henri Tajfel and John Turner in Britain, who developed social identity theory in the 1970s, pointed to a number of factors that are critical to the emergence of collective conflict. Two of these are "illegitimacy" (a sense that the system is unjust) and "cognitive alternatives" (a sense that an alternative form of society is possible).  The greater the combination of illegitimacy and cognitive alternatives in a closed society, the more people will challenge the status quo.

In terms of illegitimacy, many Muslim voices are saying that burial at sea is allowed under extreme circumstances but, where possible, bodies should be buried pointing toward Mecca with the head to the right. Hence the disposal of bin Laden's body was an illegitimate act that does not respect Muslim practice.

As for cognitive alternatives, well, as we have argued recently, these have as much to do with the practical ability to organize opposition as with the ability to imagine a different world. Organization is always facilitated by having concrete symbols and sites to organize around and by having sacred relics, which can provide a material focus for a given movement. This effect has clearly been denied by burial at sea.

So, in the end, it is a close call as to whether the mobilizing effect of increased illegitimacy will be outweighed by the demobilizing effect of decreased cognitive alternatives. We suspect that the U.S. is already seen as so illegitimate and that the killing of bin Laden can further be represented as illegitimate in so many ways (for example, desecrating the soil of an Islamic country by the raid) that the mode of burial can't make things much worse. Conversely, some advantage (from the U.S. perspective) is to be gained by denying a site of pilgrimage. On balance, then, the decision probably serves U.S. ends.

Do you think that the burial at sea could help avoid some of the massive protests that followed in Pakistan and elsewhere after actions thought of as disrespectful of the religion, such as the burning of a Koran?

If the burial were seen as a real desecration, then one might expect it to increase protests. But the critiques to this point have been fairly muted and it is unclear whether it will become a major controversy.

It is also unclear whether there have been major protests. In the Pakistani media, there have been reports of demonstrations in Quetta (one of the more conservative religious centers in the country) of some 800 to 1,000 people. That number is really rather small. It does suggest the ambivalence that we referred to above when it comes to bin Laden and al Qaeda.

In all this, however, there is a real danger that we view everything in Pakistan through an Islamic lens and thereby lump things together that are very different. Yes, bin Laden was a Muslim, as are most Pakistanis. But that doesn't mean that most Pakistanis viewed bin Laden as "one of us" and as part of a shared Muslim identity. Many view him as an outsider, as a Saudi, as a terrorist or in terms of still other categories. They view what happened to him not in terms of something done to a Muslim but as the treatment meted out to a mass killer. Once again, in making sense of reactions in Pakistan as well as in the U.S., we must be alert to the multiple identities and multiple lenses through which people view the world, in coming to decide who is "them" and who is "us" and thereby arriving at a sense of what is or is not acceptable.

Do you think that it might spur a counter-reaction in the U.S.? For instance, the reasoning might be: Why should we respect this mass murderer? Will it cause some people to suspect that we never really caught bin Laden? Witness the birther controversy.

Certainly there are already widespread conspiracy theories both in Pakistan and the U.S. Even if people think bin Laden is dead, they are not convinced he was killed in this raid. Burial at sea and the lack of a body could play some part in this, but it is hard to see it as playing a causal role or to imagine that such theories would be seriously dented by producing a photo of the body, a DNA test, or even the body itself. After all, in the end you have to have some trust in those who provide the information in order to be persuaded by it.

In the end, conspiracy theories are rooted in broader representations of the "true processes" by which the world works. They normally see the authorities either as an alien outgroup in themselves, or as the dupes of a hidden outgroup (the Jews, the Freemasons, and so on). And, as we know from the work of Tom Tyler at New York University and others, to the extent that information is presented by outgroups (rather than ingroups) it is far less likely to be trusted. 

Further Reading
Haslam and Reicher also wrote a feature article, "The Psychology of Tyranny," for Scientific American Mind's October 2005 issue and are advisers for Scientific American Mind.

The New Psychology of Leadership
Recent research in psychology points to secrets of effective leadership that radically challenge conventional wisdom
By Stephen D. Reicher, Michael J. Platow and S. Alexander Haslam

Buzzing: 13-Year Periodic Cicadas Emerge

The humble vibrato of summer will crescendo a bit earlier this year in the U.S. South. Billions of cyclical cicadas will be out in full force starting this May, following a 13-year lull.

Having dropped to the ground from treetop eggs during the Clinton administration, the so-called "Great Southern Brood" (aka brood XIX) of cicadas spent more than a decade in a nymph stage underground nibbling on tree roots. But this year, the hefty hemipterans will all be roused from their burrows as the soil warms to crawl, for the first time, into the daylight in search of mates.

And 13 years in the making, the males' signature cacophony is certainly persistent. As St. Louis Zoo entomologist Jane Stevens explained in Scientific American in 1998, "The daytime noisemakers are indefatigable in calling for a mate."

How do they spend so long in their dank borrows, five to 46 centimeters belowground? Scientists are still trying to crack this and other cicada mysteries. But a 2009 study found that symbiotic bacteria that live inside cicadas' cells help produce essential nutrients that are otherwise lacking in the insects' earthy diets.

This brood isn't the only one that passes years underground—and by no means has spent the longest getting ready to make their entrance. There are about 15 broods of periodical cicadas (of the genus Magicicada), which surface in different regions of the U.S. in different 13 or 17 year cycles. The brood X "Great Eastern Brood" cicadas, for example, spent 17 years getting ready for their 2004 debut. The trusty annual crops of cicadas usually crawl out of the ground later in the season, often after the cyclical cicadas have laid their eggs and died.

Researchers still aren't sure why some of these riotous insects emerge in long and odd-yeared cycles. One hypothesis is that it helps to reduce competition for resources by minimizing the frequency with which broods are active at the same time. With each brood arriving in such large swarms, the sheer numbers might also help increase the odds that even if millions are picked off by predators, millions more will survive to reproduce. Birds are among the beneficiaries of these big periodic cicada years, along with scientists—and, apparently, hungry biologists. As Gene Kritsky, editor in chief of American Entomologist told NPR, "You can eat them. They taste to me like cold canned asparagus, very green."

Even if you choose to savor the song rather than the flavor of cicadas this spring in the South, rest assured that it's not likely to be as loud as 1998, when both the 17-year and 13-year cicada species overlapped—an event that happens only once every 221 years.

As for brood XIX, we'll expect to see—or at least hear—them again in 2024.