Sometimes the collision between physics and the cultural unconscious drops us into vast landscapes of the mythic. Nowhere is the cross-pollination more potent than the discovery of the Dark Universe.Photograph by MagzhanArtykov / Wikicommons
Family Physics” may be the best episode of Public Radio’s long running show, This American Life. Its premise was simple. Import key concepts from the realms of quantum mechanics and cosmology and use them to illuminate the everyday world of parents, kids, and their interactions. Introducing the show, however, host Ira Glass was quick to point out how much physicists detest this kind of enterprise. “They hate it when non-scientists … apply principles from physics to their petty little lives and petty little relationships.” Glass was equally quick to point out that he and his colleagues at the show just did not care. As he put it, “Once physicists name something the ‘mediocrity principle’ or the ‘uncertainty principle’ or the ‘grandfather paradox,’ well … they’re just asking for it.”
Glass had a point.
The names we physicists bequeath our cosmic laws sometimes resonate with the more mundane, everyday struggles everyone has making sense of everyday life. There is a deep well of humor to be tapped in using… Read More…
When Nate Soares psychoanalyzes himself, he sounds less Freudian than Spockian. As a boy, he’d see people acting in ways he never would “unless I was acting maliciously,” the former Google software engineer, who now heads the non-profit Machine Intelligence Research Institute, reflected in a The task is in a complex physical environment that makes it hard to fully specify everything Mickey really cares about. He wants the cauldron full, and overflowing the workshop is a great way to be extra confident that the cauldron is full (and stays full). Mickey successfully “aimed” his AI system but things still went poorly for Mickey.
Could today’s AI systems, which work in narrow domains, endanger us?
Not today, but as AI systems get better at finding clever strategies, and as they work in more complicated situations, it gets harder to find directions we could aim them in such that the results are good. Even if we did know which directions to aim very clever/capable systems such that their objectives align with the outcomes we actually want, there’s the remaining problem that we don’t yet have a good understanding of how to point a highly capable optimization process in a particular direction. This… Read More…
Happiness, in one form or another, seems to be a common goal that most of us would like to attain. We often behave as though we might find a route to contentment—comfort, satiety, warmth, or some other reward—and be happy all the time if we could just make the right choices. But pleasure is often fleeting, even from the most appealing experiences, giving rise to ennui and sparking the drive for something new and sensational. As a neuroscientist, I can’t help wondering whether the transience of our satisfaction may not in fact be inescapable and instead may reveal an inevitable aspect of the way the brain works, the understanding of which might provide a clue to how to contend with it.
Many moment-to-moment functions of the brain seem so natural that we can hardly distance ourselves enough to reflect upon them: The brain notices. It is obvious, once we consider it, that a basic job of the brain is to perceive; with those perceptions it can evaluate; and based on those evaluations, it can act. This work is carried out by neurons of the nervous system. They detect and represent input from the outside world (and the inside world), analyze… Read More…
There was no single job title for those who practiced science prior to 1834. Naturalists, philosophers, and savans tramped around collecting specimens, recorded astral activity, or combusted chemicals in labs, but not as “scientists.” When William Whewell proposed this term, he hoped it would consolidate science, which he worried otherwise lacked “all traces of unity.” Whewell saw scientists as analogous to artists. Just “as a Musician, Painter, or Poet,” are united in pursuit of a common goal—the beautiful—Whewell believed a botanist, physicist, or chemist should be united in their common pursuit of understanding nature.
Built into his concept of what it means to be a scientist was a relation between what the poet and philosopher, Ralph Waldo Emerson, a contemporary of Whewell, called “Each and All”: an attention to the particular that keeps the big picture in sight. For Emerson, the “All” was Nature and the “Each” could be a shell, or bird, a humblebee, or a Rhododendron. The point of science, according to Whewell and Emerson, was to investigate the relation between these two scales. Today, we have other terminology for “Each and All”: the reflection within the local, for example, of global phenomenon. Consciousness emerging from the activity… Read More…
My tongue is orange!” my 2-year-old daughter shrieked after licking a dollop of clear hand sanitizer. More orange experiences followed. “Mommy, my ear feels orange,” she moaned when an earache struck. “Mitten off! It’s orange,” she whined from inside her snowsuit when a scratchy tag in her new white glove rubbed uncomfortably against her wrist. As her vocabulary blossomed, she started to associate colors with scents. “What’s that brown smell?” (A local coffee roaster.) “What smells pink?” (Dryer exhaust puffing out of a neighbor’s basement vent.)
Anyone who has spent time around toddlers knows they say some strange things. But my daughter’s curious way of talking about colors was so emphatic, and so consistent, that I began to wonder if she might be experiencing synesthesia—a kind of cross-wiring of the senses that can evoke flavors from sounds, tastes from words, or colors from smells.
Since 1812, when an Austrian doctor first described his own propensity to see numbers and letters in their own distinct hues, researchers have documented more than 50 forms of synesthesia.1 The novelist Vladimir Nabokov wrote that the letter F assumed the green of an alder leaf, while the letter Z took on the dark blue of… Read More…
Oscar Wilde, the famed Irish essayist and playwright, had a gift, among other things, for counterintuitive aphorisms. In “The Soul of Man Under Socialism,” an 1891 article, he wrote, “Charity creates a multitude of sins.”
So perhaps Wilde wouldn’t have been surprised to hear of a series of recent scandals in the U.K.: The all-male charity, the President’s Club, which raised money for causes including children’s hospitals through high-valued auctions, was forced to close after the Financial Times uncovered sexual assault and misogyny at its annual dinner; executives of Oxfam, a poverty eradication charity, visited prostitutes while delivering aid in earthquake-stricken Haiti, and were allowed to slink off to other charities, rather than being castigated for their actions; and ex-Save the Children executives Brendan Cox and Justin Forsyth stepped down from their roles at other charities, after allegations of sexual harassment and bullying toward junior female colleagues resurfaced.
You might wonder how people who seem so good by occupation could be so bad in private. The theory of moral licensing could help explain why: When humans are good, it says, we give ourselves license to be bad.
The systematic study of sexual feedback is woefully thin. This blind spot is unwarranted considering how common sexual problems are, and those problems can often be traced back to flawed feedback loops.Photograph by starmanseries / Flickr
Have you ever stopped to consider how sex is like a thermostat? Sex may not sit in a beige box on your wall (or it might, no judging) but there are some striking similarities. The common ingredient is feedback.
Both sex and your thermostat depend on feedback loops. They work like this: 1) An action produces a result. 2) Information about the result then influences the subsequent action. 3) Repeat. Your thermostat, for example, measures the air temperature, then turns on or cuts off when it crosses the set point. Action of the heater or air conditioner influences the temperature, which influences future action.1 And so on, forever—at least until you need new batteries.
People often don’t think about sex as a feedback loop, but it is perhaps one of the most powerful and successful loops of all time. Sure, a hundred things can and do go wrong, but on the whole, people continue to have sex. In fact, it’s very difficult to stop them. And that’s pretty… Read More…
What does it mean to have an emotion? It seems obvious that having one means feeling it. If you’re happy but don’t know it, in what sense could you actually be happy?
Such reasoning seemed sound to William James. Conscious feeling, he thought, was precisely what distinguished the emotions from other mental states, like desire. Without conscious feeling, he wrote, “We find that we have nothing left behind, no ‘mind-stuff’ out of which the emotion can be constituted.” Sigmund Freud agreed: “It is surely of the essence of an emotion,” he wrote, “that we should feel it, i.e. that it should enter consciousness.”
Sigmund Freud—was he wrong about emotions needing to be felt?Wikicommons
But emotions are complicated things. Even if we do feel an emotion, there are parts associated with it that we aren’t usually aware of. Clinical psychologists, for example, recommend to patients with anger issues to look out for the warning signs—sweating in the palms, for example, or clenching of the jaws—so they can perhaps mitigate upcoming rage. And when we are frightened, or sexually aroused, our heart and breathing rates increase often without our notice (though we can recognize the change if its pointed… Read More…
We called them fairy rocks. They were just colorful specks of gravel—the kind you might buy for a fish tank—mixed into my preschool’s playground sand pit. But my classmates and I endowed them with magical properties, hunted them like treasure, and carefully sorted them into piles of sapphire, emerald, and ruby. Sifting the sand for those mystical gems is one of my earliest memories. I was no older than 3 at the time. My memory of kindergarten has likewise been reduced to isolated moments: tracing letters on tan paper with pink dashed lines; watching a movie about ocean creatures; my teacher slicing up a giant roll of parchment so we could all finger-paint self-portraits.
When I try to recall my life before my fifth birthday, I can summon only these glimmers—these match strikes in the dark. Yet I know I must have thought and felt and learned so much. Where did all those years go?
Psychologists have named this dramatic forgetting “childhood amnesia.” On average, people’s memories stretch no farther than age three and a half. Everything before then is a dark abyss. “This is a phenomenon of longstanding focus,” says Patricia Bauer of Emory University, a leading… Read More…
It is a bit of a stretch, but by no means impossible or even unlikely that a hybrid or a chimera combining a human being and a chimpanzee could be produced in a laboratory. After all, human and chimp (or bonobo) share, by most estimates, roughly 99 percent of their nuclear DNA. Granted this 1 percent difference presumably involves some key alleles, the new gene-editing tool CRISPR offers the prospect (for some, the nightmare) of adding and deleting targeted genes as desired. As a result, it is not unreasonable to foresee the possibility—eventually, perhaps, the likelihood—of producing “humanzees” or “chimphumans.” Such an individual would not be an exact equal-parts-of-each combination, but would be neither human nor chimp: rather, something in between.
If that prospect isn’t shocking enough, here is an even more controversial suggestion: Doing so would be a terrific idea.
The year 2018 is the bicentennial of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, subtitled the modern Prometheus. Haven’t we learned that Promethean hubris leads only to disaster, as did the efforts of the fictional Dr. Frankenstein? But there are also other disasters, currently ongoing, such as the grotesque abuse of nonhuman animals, facilitated by what might well be the most hurtful theologically-driven… Read More…
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