“Michael Shermer says the human tendency to believe strange things — from alien abductions to dowsing rods — boils down to two of the brain’s most basic, hard-wired survival skills. He explains what they are, and how they get us into trouble.” – TED Talks
Titus Lucretius Carus (ca. 99 BC – ca. 55 BC) was an Epicurean poet writing in the middle years of the first century BC. His six-book Latin hexameter poem De rerum natura (On the nature of things) survives virtually intact. As well as being a pioneering figure in the history of philosophical poetry, Lucretius has come to be our primary source of information on Epicurean physics, the official topic of his poem. Among numerous other Epicurean doctrines, the atomic ‘swerve’ is known to us mainly from Lucretius’ account of it. His defence of the Epicurean system is deftly and passionately argued, and is particularly admired for its eloquent critique of the fear of death.
Virtually lost during the Middle Ages, it was rediscovered in a monastery in Germany in 1417.
[mp3 file: runs 00:54:00]
Lucretius anticipated the core scientific vision of modernity.
The Answer Man
An ancient poem was rediscovered—and the world swerved.
by Stephen Greenblatt
August 8, 2011
When I was a student, I used to go at the end of the school year to the Yale Co-op to see what I could find to read over the summer. I had very little pocket money, but the bookstore would routinely sell its unwanted titles for ridiculously small sums. They were jumbled together in bins through which I would rummage until something caught my eye. On one of my forays, I was struck by an extremely odd paperback cover, a detail from a painting by the Surrealist Max Ernst. Under a crescent moon, high above the earth, two pairs of legs—the bodies were missing—were engaged in what appeared to be an act of celestial coition. The book, a prose translation of Lucretius’ two-thousand-year-old poem “On the Nature of Things” (“De Rerum Natura”), was marked down to ten cents, and I bought it as much for the cover as for the classical account of the material universe.
Ancient physics is not a particularly promising subject for vacation reading, but sometime over the summer I idly picked up the book. The Roman poet begins his work (in Martin Ferguson Smith’s careful rendering) with an ardent hymn to Venus:
First, goddess, the birds of the air, pierced to the heart with your powerful shafts, signal your entry. Next wild creatures and cattle bound over rich pastures and swim rushing rivers: so surely are they all captivated by your charm and eagerly follow your lead. Then you inject seductive love into the heart of every creature that lives in the seas and mountains and river torrents and bird-haunted thickets, implanting in it the passionate urge to reproduce its kind. Continue reading
Toilets of the Gods
Or: The Colonisation of Space
By Sir Arthur C. Clarke
Space scientists recently completed an examination of orbital debris, recovered after circling the Earth for several years. They discovered that much of it was coated with a thin film of what was delicately described as “fecal matter”, attributed to astronaut’s sloppy sanitation.
This may solve one of the mysteries of life’s origin on Earth: it seems to have arisen almost as soon as conditions were favorable, and not after the billions of years of molecular trial and error required by what Isaac Asimov called the “unblind working of chance.”
Obviously, organized life-forms need have occurred only once in this Galaxy, if the very first space-faring civilization was as careless about the environment as we are. Years ago, Hoyle and Wickramasinghe suggested that life had a cosmic, and not terrestrial, origin. They may be right, though not precisely in the way they imagined. It’s a humbling thought that we may have arisen from dumped sewage; the first chapter of Genesis would certainly require drastic revision.
On the other hand, if – as some philosophers have suggested- this Earth does indeed harbor the only life in the Universe, that deplorable state of affairs is now being rectified. We may draw some consolation – I hesitate to say inspiration – from the fact that our descendants are already on their way to the stars.
But we certainly would not recognize them, and it might be tactless to ask exactly how they got there.
and my urban planner brain draws this metaphor:
January 15, 2012
By Sharon Begley
NEW YORK – From Darwinian evolution to the idea that personality is largely shaped by chance, the favourite theories of the world’s most eminent thinkers are as eclectic as science itself.
Every January, John Brockman, the impresario and literary agent who presides over the online salon Edge.org, asks his circle of scientists, digerati and humanities scholars to tackle one question.
In previous years, they have included “how is the Internet changing the way you think?” and “what is the most important invention in the last 2,000 years?”
This year, he posed the open-ended question “what is your favourite deep, elegant or beautiful explanation?”
The responses, released at midnight on Sunday, provide a crash course in science both well known and far out-of-the-box, as admired by the likes of Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, physicist Freeman Dyson and evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins.
Several of the nearly 200 scholars nominated what are arguably the two most powerful scientific theories ever developed. “Darwin’s natural selection wins hands down,” argues Dawkins, emeritus professor at Oxford University.
“Never in the field of human comprehension were so many facts explained by assuming so few,” he says of the theory that encompasses everything about life, based on the idea of natural selection operating on random genetic mutations.
Einstein’s theory of relativity, which explains gravity as the curvature of space, also gets a few nods.
As theoretical physicist Steve Giddings of the University of California, Santa Barbara, writes, “This central idea has shaped our ideas of modern cosmology (and) given us the image of the expanding universe.”
General relativity explains black holes, the bending of light and “even offers a possible explanation of the origin of our Universe – as quantum tunneling from ’nothing,”’ he writes.
Many of the nominated ideas, however, won’t be found in science courses taught in high school or even college.
Terrence Sejnowski, a computational neuroscientist at the Salk Institute, extols the discovery that the conscious, deliberative mind is not the author of important decisions such as what work people do and who they marry. Instead, he writes, “an ancient brain system called the basal ganglia, brain circuits that consciousness cannot access,” pull the strings.
Running on the neurochemical dopamine, they predict how rewarding a choice will be – if I pick this apartment, how happy will I be? – “evaluate the current state of the entire cortex and inform the brain about the best course of action,” explains Sejnowski. Only later do people construct an explanation of their choices, he said in an interview, convincing themselves incorrectly that volition and logic were responsible.
To neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky of Stanford University, the most beautiful idea is emergence, in which complex phenomena almost magically come into being from extremely simple components.
For instance, a human being arises from a few thousand genes. The intelligence of an ant colony – labor specialization, intricate underground nests – emerges from the seemingly senseless behavior of thousands of individual ants.
“Critically, there’s no blueprint or central source of command,” says Sapolsky. Each individual ant has a simple algorithm for interacting with the environment, “and out of this emerges a highly efficient colony.”
Among other tricks, the colony has solved the notorious Traveling Salesman problem, or the challenge of stopping at a long list of destinations by the shortest route possible.
THE OTHER PAVLOVIAN EFFECT
Stephen Kosslyn, director of the Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences at Stanford, is most impressed by Pavlovian conditioning, in which a neutral stimulus such as a sound comes to be associated with a reward, such as food, producing a response, such as salivation.
That much is familiar. Less well known is that Pavlovian conditioning might account for placebo effects. After people have used analgesics such as ibuprofen or aspirin many times, the drugs begin to have effects before their active ingredients kick in.
From previous experience, the mere act of taking the pill has become like Pavlov’s bell was for his dogs, causing them to salivate: the “conditioned stimulus” of merely seeing the pill “triggers the pain-relieving processes invoked by the medicine itself,” explains Kosslyn.
Science theories that explain puzzling human behavior or the inner workings of the universe were also particular favourites of the Edge contributors:
* Psychologist Alison Gopnik of the University of California, Berkeley, is partial to one that accounts for why teenagers are so restless, reckless and emotional. Two brain systems, an emotional motivational system and a cognitive control system, have fallen out of sync, she explains.
The control system that inhibits impulses and allows you to delay gratification kicks in later than it did in past generations, but the motivational system is kicking in earlier and earlier.
The result: “A striking number of young adults who are enormously smart and knowledgeable but directionless, who are enthusiastic and exuberant but unable to commit to a particular work or a particular love until well into their twenties or thirties.”
* Neurobiologist Sam Barondes of the University of California, San Francisco, nominates the idea that personality is largely shaped by chance. One serendipitous force is which parental genes happen to be in the egg and sperm that produced the child.
“But there is also chance in how neurodevelopmental processes unfold – a little virus here, an intrauterine event there, and you have chance all over the place,” he said in an interview. Another toss of the dice: how a parent will respond to a child’s genetic disposition to be outgoing, neurotic, open to new experience and the like, either reinforcing the innate tendencies or countering them.
The role of chance in creating differences between people has moral consequences, says Barondes, “promoting understanding and compassion for the wide range of people with whom we share our lives.”
* Timothy Wilson nominates the idea that “people become what they do.” While people’s behavior arises from their character – someone returns a lost wallet because she is honest – “the reverse also holds,” says the University of Virginia psychologist. If we return a lost wallet, our assessment of how honest we are rises through what he calls “self-inference.” One implication of this phenomenon: “We should all heed Kurt Vonnegut’s advice,” Wilson says: “’We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.”’
* Psychologist David Myers of Hope College finds “group polarization” a beautiful idea, since it explains how interacting with others tends to amplify people’s initial views. In particular, discussing issues with like-minded peers -increasingly the norm in the United States, where red states attract conservatives and blue states attract liberals – push people toward extremes. “The surprising thing is that the group as a whole becomes more extreme than its pre-discussion average,” he said in an interview.
* Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, nominates the “astonishing concept” that what we consider the universe “could be hugely more extensive” than what astronomers observe.
If true, the known cosmos may instead “be a tiny part of the aftermath of ’our’ big bang, which is itself just one bang among a perhaps-infinite ensemble,” Rees writes. Even more intriguing is that different physics might prevail in these different universes, so that “some of what we call ’laws of nature’ may … be local bylaws.”
By Sharon Begley
In fifty years of broadcasting, Sir David Attenborough has travelled the globe to document the living world in all its wonder. Now, in the landmark series First Life, he goes back in time in search of the very first animals.
From the fog bound coastline of Newfoundland to the deserts of North Africa and the rain forests of Queensland, in First Life David Attenborough finds evidence in fossils and living animals of an extraordinary period in Earth’s history, half a billion years ago, when animals first appeared in the oceans. From the first eyes that saw, to the first predators that killed and the first legs that walked on land, these were creatures that evolved the traits and tools that allow all animals, including us, to survive to this day.
This is a story that can only be told now because in the last few years, stunning fossil finds at sites across the world have transformed our understanding of the First Life forms, and technology now allows us to recreate the first animals and their environments with photorealistic computer generated imagery
The Burgess Shale fossils, a Rocky Mountain treasure trove found in 1909 just west of the B.C.-Alberta border, represent the planet’s single most important snapshot of life as it existed during the so-called “Cambrian explosion” of organisms about 530 million years ago.
THE MAKING OF: