Learn the art of conversation, with comedian Pete Holmes
We have a new range of skills coming to Big Think Edge this week, including communication, critical thinking, and emotional intelligence.
- At Big Think Edge this week, we delve into ways you can make your conversations sing. So to speak.
- Learn a valuable lesson about psychopaths, from diagnosed psychopath (and neuroscientsit) James Fallon.
- If you're not a subscriber yet, join Big Think Edge today. Boost your skills with our 7-day free trial.
To get what you want — to get what everyone wants — learn the 3 levels of listening with Michelle Tillis Lederman's video lesson this week at Big Think Edge. Former Facebook investor Roger McNamee helps you revisit your past decisions to make sure they still make sense and support your goals and beliefs (it's something he knows a lot about).
In Deep Dives this week, you'll learn how conversations can go so much better than they often have, with 36 questions that'll make anyone fall in love. You'll also learn how to handle psychopaths with care, under the tutelage of neuroscientist James Fallon, who is a diagnosed psychopath.
Building relationships through likability: Listen to understand (the 3 levels of listening), with Michelle Lederman
Michelle Tillis Lederman, author of The 11 Laws of Likability, explains how to develop listening skills that can help you establish strong, mutually beneficial relationships. Much of our listening involves matching up another person's story to what's happened in our own lives, and that's fine, but it's just first-level listening. Lederman introduces you to the next two levels, in which your understanding deepens and areas of overlapping interest and goals emerge, pointing the way toward a productive connection that works for everyone.
Available September 16 in Boost Your Emotional Intelligence
Fix your mistakes: How to revisit your decisions and realign them to your values, with Roger McNamee
Roger McNamee is the author of Zucked, and he tells an illuminating story of how his faith in Facebook lasted longer than it should have. An opinion or a decision is a hypothesis, he suggests, that may just seem correct for now. However, conflicting evidence can pop up at any time, and you do yourself no favors by ignoring it even if—especially if—it undermines your belief. McNamee's tale will have you re-examining your own past decisions in the hopes of never finding yourself, as he did, on the wrong side of what you believe to be right.
"GOOD DECISION-MAKERS THINK LIKE REAL-TIME ANTHROPOLOGISTS."
– ROGER MCNAMEE
Available September 18 in Boost Your Analytical Intelligence
Deep Dive: No more awkward conversations
We all want to have better, more meaningful conversations, right? That's what comedian, actor, and podcaster Pete Holmes asks in a Deep Dive this week called "Do Your Conversations Fall Flat? Do a 180 by Fostering Intimacy." Holmes shares some of his methods for helping podcast guests open up and be real, from his declaring the conversation a safe space to his trust in the benefits of artful interruption.
What if you want to connect with a total stranger? Psychologist Arthur Aaron's got just the thing for getting intimate with someone else, and fast: 36 questions designed to help you fall in love with anyone.
Available September 16 in Deep Dives
If computers can beat us at chess, maybe they could beat us at math, too.
- Most everyone fears that they will be replaced by robots or AI someday.
- A field like mathematics, which is governed solely by rules that computers thrive on, seems to be ripe for a robot revolution.
- AI may not replace mathematicians but will instead help us ask better questions.
The following is an excerpt adapted from the book Shape. It is reprinted with permission of the author.
Will machines replace us? Since the origin of artificial intelligence (AI), people have worried that computers eventually (or even imminently!) will surpass the human cognitive capacity in every respect.
Artificial intelligence pioneer Oliver Selfridge, in a television interview from the early 1960s, said, "I am convinced that machines can and will think in our lifetime" — though with the proviso, "I don't think my daughter will ever marry a computer." (Apparently, there is no technical advance so abstract that people can't feel sexual anxiety about it.)
Let's make the relevant question more personal: will machines replace me? I'm a mathematician; my profession is often seen from the outside as a very complicated but ultimately purely mechanical game played with fixed rules, like checkers, chess, or Go. These are activities in which machines have already demonstrated superhuman ability.
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
But for me, math is different: it is a creative pursuit that calls on our intuition as much as our ability to compute. (To be fair, chess players probably feel the same way.) Henri Poincaré, the mathematician who re-envisioned the whole subject of geometry at the beginning of the 20th century, insisted it would be hopeless
"to attempt to replace the mathematician's free initiative by a mechanical process of any kind. In order to obtain a result having any real value, it is not enough to grind out calculations, or to have a machine for putting things in order: it is not order only, but unexpected order, that has a value. A machine can take hold of the bare fact, but the soul of the fact will always escape it."
But machines can make deep changes in mathematical practice without shouldering humans aside. Peter Scholze, winner of a 2018 Fields Medal (sometimes called the "Nobel Prize of math") is deeply involved in an ambitious program at the frontiers of algebra and geometry called "condensed mathematics" — and no, there is no chance that I'm going to try to explain what that is in this space.
Meet AI, your new research assistant
What I am going to tell you is the result of what Scholze called the "Liquid Tensor Experiment." A community called Lean, started by Leonardo de Moura of Microsoft Research and now open-source and worldwide, has the ambitious goal of developing a computer language with the expressive capacity to capture the entirety of contemporary mathematics. A proposed proof of a new theorem, formalized by translation into this language, could be checked for correctness automatically, rather than staking its reputation on fallible human referees.
Scholze asked last December whether the ideas of condensed mathematics could be formalized in this way. He also wanted to know whether it could express the ideas of a particularly knotty proof that was crucial to the project — a proof that he was pretty sure was right.
When I first heard about Lean, I thought it would probably work well for some easy problems and theorems. I underestimated it. So did Scholze. In a May 2021 blog post, he writes, "[T]he Experiment has verified the entire part of the argument that I was unsure about. I find it absolutely insane that interactive proof assistants are now at the level that within a very reasonable time span they can formally verify difficult original research."
And the contribution of the machine wasn't just to certify that Scholze was right to think his proof was sound; he reports that the work of putting the proof in a form that a machine could read improved his own human understanding of the argument!
The Liquid Tensor Experiment points to a future where machines, rather than replacing human mathematicians, become our indispensable partners. Whether or not they can take hold of the soul of the fact, they can extend our grasp as we reach for the soul.
Slicing up a knotty problem
That can take the form of "proof assistance," as it did for Scholze, or it can go deeper. In 2018, Lisa Piccirillo, then a PhD student at the University of Texas, solved a long-standing geometry problem about a shape called the Conway knot. She proved the knot was "non-slice" — this is a fact about what the knot looks like from the perspective of four-dimensional beings. (Did you get that? Probably not, but it doesn't matter.) The point is this was a famously difficult problem.
A few years before Piccirillo's breakthrough, a topologist named Mark Hughes at Brigham Young had tried to get a neural network to make good guesses about which knots were slice. He gave it a long list of knots where the answer was known, just as an image-processing neural net would be given a long list of pictures of cats and pictures of non-cats.
Hughes's neural net learned to assign a number to every knot; if the knot were slice, the number was supposed to be 0, while if the knot were non-slice, the net was supposed to return a whole number bigger than 0. In fact, the neural net predicted a value very close to 1 — that is, it predicted the knot was non-slice — for every one of the knots Hughes tested, except for one. That was the Conway knot.
For the Conway knot, Hughes's neural net returned a number very close to 1/2, its way of saying that it was deeply unsure whether to answer 0 or 1. This is fascinating! The neural net correctly identified the knot that posed a really hard and mathematically rich problem (in this case, reproducing an intuition that topologists already had).
Some people imagine a world where computers give us all the answers. I dream bigger. I want them to ask good questions.
Dr. Jordan Ellenberg is a professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin and a number theorist whose popular articles about mathematics have appeared in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Wired, and Slate. His most recent book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.
Laughing gas may be far more effective for some than antidepressants.
- Standard antidepressant medications don't work for many people who need them.
- With ketamine showing potential as an antidepressant, researchers investigate another anesthetic: nitrous oxide, commonly called "laughing gas."
- Researchers observe that just a light mixture of nitrous oxide for an hour alleviates depression symptoms for two weeks.
The usual antidepressants don't work for everyone. That's what makes a new study of the antidepressant properties of nitrous oxide so intriguing. It looks like just a single low dose of what your dentist may call "laughing gas" can help alleviate symptoms of depression for weeks afterward.
The study, from researchers at University of Chicago and Washington University-St. Louis, is published in the journal Science Translational Medicine.
Resistance to anti-depression medications
Nitrous oxide: two atoms of nitrogen, one of oxygenCredit: Big Think
According to the senior author of the study, Charles Conway, "A significant percentage — we think around 15 percent — of people who suffer from depression don't respond to standard antidepressant treatment."
"These 'treatment-resistant depression' patients," Conway says, "often suffer for years, even decades, with life-debilitating depression. We don't really know why standard treatments don't work for them, though we suspect that they may have different brain network disruptions than non-resistant depressed patients. Identifying novel treatments, such as nitrous oxide, that target alternative pathways is critical to treating these individuals."
"There is a huge unmet need," says lead author Peter Nagele. "There are millions of depressed patients who don't have good treatment options, especially those who are dealing with suicidality."
If ketamine can help, can nitrous oxide?
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
The researchers wondered if some of the anti-depression properties seen in ketamine might also apply to nitrous oxide. Nagele explains, "Like nitrous oxide, ketamine is an anesthetic, and there has been promising work using ketamine at a sub-anesthetic dose for treating depression."
The researchers conducted a one-hour session — they describe it as a "proof-of-principle" trial — in which 20 individuals with depression were administered an air mixture with 50 percent nitrous oxide. Twenty-four hours later, the researchers found a significant reduction in the participants' symptoms of depression versus a control group.
However, the individuals also suffered the unpleasant side effects that laughing gas often causes in dental patients: headache, nausea, and vomiting.
Smaller dose, longer effect
Credit: sudok1 / Adobe Stock
"We wondered if our past concentration of 50 percent had been too high," recalls Nagele. "Maybe by lowering the dose, we could find the 'Goldilocks spot' that would maximize clinical benefit and minimize negative side effects."
In a new trial, 20 people with depression were given a lighter nitrous oxide mix, just 25 percent, and the individuals tested reported a 75 percent reduction in side effects compared to the a control group given an air/oxygen placebo. This time, the researchers also tracked the effect of nitrous oxide on symptoms of depression for a far longer period, two weeks instead of just 24 hours.
"The reduction in side effects was unexpected and quite drastic," reports Nagele, "but even more excitingly, the effects after a single administration lasted for a whole two weeks. This has never been shown before. It's a very cool finding."
Nagele also notes that, despite its popular renown as laughing gas, even a light 25 percent mix of nitrous actually causes people to nod off. "They're not getting high or euphoric; they get sedated."
Delivering help to people with depression
Nagele cautions, "These have just been pilot studies. But we need acceptance by the larger medical community for this to become a treatment that's actually available to patients in the real world. Most psychiatrists are not familiar with nitrous oxide or how to administer it, so we'll have to show the community how to deliver this treatment safely and effectively. I think there will be a lot of interest in getting this into clinical practice."
After all, Nagele adds, "If we develop effective, rapid treatments that can really help someone navigate their suicidal thinking and come out on the other side — that's a very gratifying line of research."
How one startup plans to use "death rays" for good instead of evil.
- A new advance in concentrated solar power makes temperatures of 2700° F possible from nothing but sunlight.
- The heat produced can be used to produce electricity, make clean fuels, or power industrial processes.
- Founder Bill Gross sees these plants as part of a grand design to wean the world off oil.
The need for clean, consistent, renewable energy sources has never been more pressing. Rising energy prices threaten to kick-start inflation and slow economic growth. Control of the supply of fossil fuels has caused wars before and may well cause them again. Burning fossil fuels continues to create greenhouse gas emissions, making solving the problem of climate change difficult.
While low-carbon and renewable sources of power are being used more than ever before, none of them are perfect. Solar and wind power are very clean and increasingly inexpensive but have an energy storage problem. The batteries required to store that energy require rare earth metals, which are messy to extract and increasingly in demand. Hydro power is great but can have negative impacts on the river ecosystem. Nuclear is still a tough sell.
If we're going to solve our energy problems, we either need to find a new way to produce a lot of energy or fix the problems with the power sources we have. A renewable energy technology company backed by Bill Gates and founded by serial entrepreneur Bill Gross called Heliogen has a new approach to an existing model that may just accomplish the latter with a giant, extremely precise magnifying glass and some really hot rocks.
Concentrated solar power
The Crescent Dunes Solar Energy Project near Las Vegas, Nevada. This project, while not associated with Heliogen is a typical example of concentrated solar power. DANIEL SLIM/AFP via Getty Images
In Lancaster, California, a mid-sized city in the Mojave Desert, Heliogen has built a miniature version of their planned solar refinery. While concentrated solar power is nothing new — it has been operating commercially since the 1960s and is said to have been used by Archimedes to build a heat ray to burn the Roman fleet — this plant improves on the concept with stunning results.
Essentially a lot of mirrors arranged in a circle reflecting sunlight at an elevated target, concentrated solar power uses the energy in the sun's light to heat that target, which could be water, molten salt, or even something solid, to very high temperatures. (When this heat is used for something other than producing electricity, it is called concentrated solar thermal energy.)
Heliogen's current test refinery has 400 mirrors, known as heliostats, though it is only a tenth the size of what the company is proposing. Even with this reduced number of mirrors, the refinery has produced eye-popping results. Its operation has produced temperatures as high as 1500° C (2732° F). For comparison, most existing, full-sized concentrated solar power plants are able to produce temperatures in the 400° to 500° C range.
Heliogen's advance is made possible by state of the art software. Using AI and a series of cameras, the heliostats are kept on target as much as possible (currently to a twentieth of a degree) through micro-adjustments to their position throughout the day. By keeping the mirrors on target, the greatest amount of sunlight possible is focused on the target, creating more heat than was previously possible.
Concentrated solar power isn't just for electricity
It's important to remember that this is technically a solar thermal system. Unlike solar panels, this project does not use the photovoltaic effect to turn sunlight directly into electricity. This project is about generating heat. This heat can then be used to produce electricity — and the high temperatures involved mean it can do so very efficiently — but it has applications beyond that as well.
Many industries use intense heat in their manufacturing processes, like smelting or cement making, and they often burn fuels to create those high temperatures. Heliogen's refinery is able to produce similar temperatures without burning fuels and could provide the heat for these industries in the future. Additionally, the heat produced is high enough to make hydrogen fuel via electrolysis.
As Gross explained to CNN, "If you can make hydrogen that's green, that's a game-changer. Long term, we want to be the green hydrogen company."
If not used immediately, the heat energy can also be stored in plain old rocks, which can stay hot for days or even up to a week in a properly insulated storage unit. Their energy can then be called upon when needed or possibly even shipped to a location in need of heat. Compared to the difficulties of storing electricity produced from solar, this is child's play.
How can concentrated solar be applied at scale?
Gross hopes to improve the process by reaching the same results with increasingly smaller heliostats. His are already smaller than usual, which would allow them to be mass produced more cheaply than they are today. The hope is that this, along with other refinements to the system, would help lower the cost of energy produced by concentrated solar until it is cheaper than fossil fuel energy.
Currently, energy from concentrated solar power is more expensive than burning fossil fuels but only slightly. Also, compared to large arrays of solar panels, solar refineries are more expensive to build and operate. But costs are expected to decrease, in part because they are much better at energy storage than traditional solar, as discussed earlier. Furthermore, large scale concentrated solar power operations already exist in Spain, the Middle East, and the Southwestern U.S.
Concentrated solar power could radically change manufacturing
Gross's grand vision is to build many refineries all over the world using their heat to power industrial processes. The electricity produced by other refineries would create vast quantities of cheap "HelioFuels," starting with hydrogen. Since hydrogen fuel cells are extremely efficient and can run everything from submarines to laptops, this would be a huge step toward cleaning up the energy supply.
Similar ideas exist and have been used elsewhere to cleanly produce jet fuel, another industrial process that normally requires burning fossil fuels in order to create high temperatures.
The reduction in carbon emissions due to widespread use of concentrated solar could be substantial. Concrete manufacturing alone is responsible for 8 to 10 percent of all global emissions. Nearly 40 percent of those emissions are caused by burning the fossil fuels needed to create heat for the manufacturing process. Quick mental math suggests that if concentrated solar power replaced fossil fuel burning for heat in concrete production alone, global carbon emissions would fall by as much as four percent. For comparison, that is roughly equal to the share of carbon emissions created by France, Italy, the United Kingdom, and Brazil combined.
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