from the world's big
9 folks who were way ahead of their time
These great thinkers remind us that taking an unpopular, bold stance might not be madness.
- Sometimes, people are so far ahead of the curve that it takes everybody else hundreds of years to catch up to their ideas.
- While many people are content to quietly sit back and flow with popular opinion, these nine thinkers let the world know what it was doing wrong, often with major consequences.
- These great thinkers remind us that taking an unpopular, bold stance might not be madness.
It's been said that when you're one step ahead of the crowd you're a genius but that two steps ahead make you a crackpot. In some cases, people were so far ahead of their time that they would seem progressive even today, despite hundreds of years of history slowly working to catch up to them.
Here, we have nine scientific and social visionaries who were well ahead of everybody else. The names of others like them have been lost to history, buried under the weight of popular opinion. These bold few are the ones we know about.
Dante, 1450, painted by Andrea del Castagno.
(Photo by: Picturenow/UIG via Getty Images)
The author of the Divine Comedy, Dante had more than his share of ideas that were well ahead of the 14th century.
The first and most famous part of the comedy, Inferno, slips a serious jab at Catholic teachings past the radar. In the story, sodomites are placed in the same circle of hell as murderers; in line with church teachings. Dante, however, expresses sympathy for the damned here that is absent in other chapters.
The sequel to Inferno, which features purgatory, also has depicts homosexual characters in a favorable light, implying that Dante didn't consider it a sin to be gay. Historian John Boswell called Dante's treatment of the subject "revolutionary" in comparison to theological consensus at the time.
Dante also wrote books on political philosophy which were a few centuries early. In De Monarchia he argued for separating secular government from religious authority and called for a universal monarchy to unite all secular governments in the interests of peace.
Hero of Alexandria
(Public Domain/Wikimedia commons)
An inventor who nearly touched off the industrial revolution two thousand years early, Hero has several fantastic credits to his name. He invented the windmill, the vending machine, and the automatic door.
He is best known for his description of an aeolipile, an early steam engine. It is a simple device and consists of a boiler with two jets. When heated, water in the boiler escapes and causes the whole thing to spin. The device, often called 'Hero's Engine' was described by him in the 1st century C.E., but may date back earlier.
The aeolipile was first used to demonstrate the power of the weather but was later used as a temple curiosity. While some historians argue Hero understood its possible uses, this is controversial. It wasn't until 1543 that we can confirm that anybody came up with the idea to attach the engine to something and do work with it.
Victoria Claflin Woodhull
Woodhull presidential campaign.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The first woman to run for the office of President of the United States, Victoria Woodhull's platform would seem radical even today. She also did this before any woman could have voted for her, though Susan B. Anthony famously tried.
Running for the Equal Rights Party, Woodhull campaigned for labor rights, progressive taxation, equal rights for men and women, free love, an international system of preventing war by arbitration of disputes, total employment through public works projects, and the end of the death penalty.
The Equal Rights party also nominated Fredrick Douglass for vice president; he never acknowledged it and campaigned for President Grant. Woodhull received a negligible number of votes and was too young to take office anyway, but still has the distinction of being the first woman to run.
Her progressive stances didn't end there; her personal life shocked the Victorian moralists of her day. She and her sister were the first women to be stock brokers on Wall Street. They ran a newspaper that discussed issues of sexual double standards, how long a skirt needed to be, vegetarianism, and other social problems. It also featured the first English printing of Marx's Communist Manifesto. While she later walked back on it, she was also a supporter of free love during her more radical years.
Christine de Pizan
Madam de Pizan giving a lecture.
An Italian poet writing in France during the 14th century, Christine de Pizan was a celebrity in her own time with big ideas. Simone de Beauvoir called her works "the first time we see a woman take up her pen in defense of her sex." She was the first professional woman of letters in European history.
Left without an income source after the death of her husband and father, she embarked on a writing career at a time when nearly all other female writers wrote under pseudonyms. She wrote love poems, biographies, and prose works.
Most noteworthy is The Book of the City of Ladies, a story of Christine using the achievements of famous women in history to build a city. In the book, she argues by allegory that men and women were both equally capable of goodness, a radical notion at the time. She also claimed that women should be educated and wrote an accompanying manual for it, another stunning departure from medieval practice. Her books remained in print for two centuries.
Ada Lovelace as depicted by Alfred Edward Chalon.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The daughter of Lord Byron, Lovelace was directed towards math and science by her mother out of fear that she would otherwise turn out like her father. While science didn't save her from an early death, it did allow her to become the first computer programmer in history.
In 1842, she translated an article about an incomplete mechanical computer devised by Charles Babbage into English. At the end of the article, she added a series of notes which included the algorithms necessary for the machine to compute Bernoulli numbers, the first published computer program. In the same section, she argued that artificial intelligence was impossible, explaining that the device could only act as ordered.
In addition to being the first person to write computer code, she was the first person to realize how much computers could do. Computer historian Doron Swade argues that she was the earliest person to understand that the numbers a computer was crunching could represent anything, not just quantities. This jump, which nobody else at the time made, predicted our current use of computers as more than mere calculators.
(Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
A famous French scientist and philosopher, Descartes was also a few hundred years early on one of his inventions.
After reviewing an idea for improving vision pitched by Leonardo da Vinci, Descartes invented the contact lens. Consisting of a glass tube filled with liquid and placed directly on the eye, it was able to correct for vision problems. However, it was so large that it made blinking impossible. The first practical contact lenses would not be invented for another 250 years.
This was on top of Descartes successful career inventing modern philosophy, fusing algebra and geometry, and laying the foundations for the invention of calculus, which happened shortly after his death.
The last of the Five Good Emperors of Rome, Marcus Aurelius was a stoic philosopher whose ideas on life and governance make for great reading.
His excellent rule was progressive on many fronts. His dedication to free speech was particularly noteworthy. He wrote in Meditations of the nobility of "the idea of a polity in which there is the same law for all, a polity administered with regard to equal rights and equal freedom of speech, and the idea of a kingly government which respects most of all the freedom of the governed."
He practiced what he preached and ignored satirical depictions of him when he could just as easily have killed the people making fun of him. While he wasn't the only person holding this stance, he was one of the few people to allow such liberties before the modern era. His statement is held as one of the ancient origins of liberal political philosophy.
Jeremy BenthamJeremy Bentham
(Edward Gooch/Edward Gooch/Getty Images)
One of his first reform efforts was the creation of a better prison, the Panopticon. The design featured a single watchtower surrounded by cells, which were arranged in a circle. Bentham proposed that since every prisoner could be seen at any time, all prisoners would behave themselves. The building was never constructed, though Michel Foucault remarked that core concept spread throughout the criminal justice system and every other part of our society.
Bentham, convinced that the rejection of the Panopticon was caused by a conspiracy against the public, set his sights on reforming everything else. During his lifetime he argued for animal rights, women's rights, and law reform. A paper arguing against the criminalization of homosexual acts was published after his death, making him the first person in England to write an essay in support of gay rights.
He is still ahead of the UK on the issue of no-fault divorce, which he supported and they still haven't gotten around to.
Chanakya was an Indian statesman, philosopher, and economist in the 4th century BCE who was one of the architects of the Mauryan Empire.
His treatise Arthashastra, which was thought to be lost until the 20th century, and has been favorably compared to Machiavelli's The Prince. Unlike the European work, the Arthashastra encourages a king to rule justly and empower the people he rules.
Several points in the book would be considered progressive today. He argues for giving welfare to those who could not work, giving out land to the peasants if the landed elite weren't using it, a mixed economy, conservation, and giving animals which had worked their entire lives a comfortable retirement.
Privatized prison labor: Will you be on the right side of history?
Andy Samberg and Cristin Milioti get stuck in an infinite wedding time loop.
- Two wedding guests discover they're trapped in an infinite time loop, waking up in Palm Springs over and over and over.
- As the reality of their situation sets in, Nyles and Sarah decide to enjoy the repetitive awakenings.
- The film is perfectly timed for a world sheltering at home during a pandemic.
Richard Feynman once asked a silly question. Two MIT students just answered it.
Here's a fun experiment to try. Go to your pantry and see if you have a box of spaghetti. If you do, take out a noodle. Grab both ends of it and bend it until it breaks in half. How many pieces did it break into? If you got two large pieces and at least one small piece you're not alone.
But science loves a good challenge<p>The mystery remained unsolved until 2005, when French scientists <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~audoly/" target="_blank">Basile Audoly</a> and <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/~neukirch/" target="_blank">Sebastien Neukirch </a>won an <a href="https://www.improbable.com/ig/" target="_blank">Ig Nobel Prize</a>, an award given to scientists for real work which is of a less serious nature than the discoveries that win Nobel prizes, for finally determining why this happens. <a href="http://www.lmm.jussieu.fr/spaghetti/audoly_neukirch_fragmentation.pdf" target="_blank">Their paper describing the effect is wonderfully funny to read</a>, as it takes such a banal issue so seriously. </p><p>They demonstrated that when a rod is bent past a certain point, such as when spaghetti is snapped in half by bending it at the ends, a "snapback effect" is created. This causes energy to reverberate from the initial break to other parts of the rod, often leading to a second break elsewhere.</p><p>While this settled the issue of <em>why </em>spaghetti noodles break into three or more pieces, it didn't establish if they always had to break this way. The question of if the snapback could be regulated remained unsettled.</p>
Physicists, being themselves, immediately wanted to try and break pasta into two pieces using this info<p><a href="https://roheiss.wordpress.com/fun/" target="_blank">Ronald Heisser</a> and <a href="https://math.mit.edu/directory/profile.php?pid=1787" target="_blank">Vishal Patil</a>, two graduate students currently at Cornell and MIT respectively, read about Feynman's night of noodle snapping in class and were inspired to try and find what could be done to make sure the pasta always broke in two.</p><p><a href="http://news.mit.edu/2018/mit-mathematicians-solve-age-old-spaghetti-mystery-0813" target="_blank">By placing the noodles in a special machine</a> built for the task and recording the bending with a high-powered camera, the young scientists were able to observe in extreme detail exactly what each change in their snapping method did to the pasta. After breaking more than 500 noodles, they found the solution.</p>
The apparatus the MIT researchers built specifically for the task of snapping hundreds of spaghetti sticks.
(Courtesy of the researchers)
What possible application could this have?<p>The snapback effect is not limited to uncooked pasta noodles and can be applied to rods of all sorts. The discovery of how to cleanly break them in two could be applied to future engineering projects.</p><p>Likewise, knowing how things fragment and fail is always handy to know when you're trying to build things. Carbon Nanotubes, <a href="https://bigthink.com/ideafeed/carbon-nanotube-space-elevator" target="_self">super strong cylinders often hailed as the building material of the future</a>, are also rods which can be better understood thanks to this odd experiment.</p><p>Sometimes big discoveries can be inspired by silly questions. If it hadn't been for Richard Feynman bending noodles seventy years ago, we wouldn't know what we know now about how energy is dispersed through rods and how to control their fracturing. While not all silly questions will lead to such a significant discovery, they can all help us learn.</p>
The multifaceted cerebellum is large — it's just tightly folded.
- A powerful MRI combined with modeling software results in a totally new view of the human cerebellum.
- The so-called 'little brain' is nearly 80% the size of the cerebral cortex when it's unfolded.
- This part of the brain is associated with a lot of things, and a new virtual map is suitably chaotic and complex.
Just under our brain's cortex and close to our brain stem sits the cerebellum, also known as the "little brain." It's an organ many animals have, and we're still learning what it does in humans. It's long been thought to be involved in sensory input and motor control, but recent studies suggests it also plays a role in a lot of other things, including emotion, thought, and pain. After all, about half of the brain's neurons reside there. But it's so small. Except it's not, according to a new study from San Diego State University (SDSU) published in PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences).
A neural crêpe
A new imaging study led by psychology professor and cognitive neuroscientist Martin Sereno of the SDSU MRI Imaging Center reveals that the cerebellum is actually an intricately folded organ that has a surface area equal in size to 78 percent of the cerebral cortex. Sereno, a pioneer in MRI brain imaging, collaborated with other experts from the U.K., Canada, and the Netherlands.
So what does it look like? Unfolded, the cerebellum is reminiscent of a crêpe, according to Sereno, about four inches wide and three feet long.
The team didn't physically unfold a cerebellum in their research. Instead, they worked with brain scans from a 9.4 Tesla MRI machine, and virtually unfolded and mapped the organ. Custom software was developed for the project, based on the open-source FreeSurfer app developed by Sereno and others. Their model allowed the scientists to unpack the virtual cerebellum down to each individual fold, or "folia."
Study's cross-sections of a folded cerebellum
Image source: Sereno, et al.
A complicated map
Sereno tells SDSU NewsCenter that "Until now we only had crude models of what it looked like. We now have a complete map or surface representation of the cerebellum, much like cities, counties, and states."
That map is a bit surprising, too, in that regions associated with different functions are scattered across the organ in peculiar ways, unlike the cortex where it's all pretty orderly. "You get a little chunk of the lip, next to a chunk of the shoulder or face, like jumbled puzzle pieces," says Sereno. This may have to do with the fact that when the cerebellum is folded, its elements line up differently than they do when the organ is unfolded.
It seems the folded structure of the cerebellum is a configuration that facilitates access to information coming from places all over the body. Sereno says, "Now that we have the first high resolution base map of the human cerebellum, there are many possibilities for researchers to start filling in what is certain to be a complex quilt of inputs, from many different parts of the cerebral cortex in more detail than ever before."
This makes sense if the cerebellum is involved in highly complex, advanced cognitive functions, such as handling language or performing abstract reasoning as scientists suspect. "When you think of the cognition required to write a scientific paper or explain a concept," says Sereno, "you have to pull in information from many different sources. And that's just how the cerebellum is set up."
Bigger and bigger
The study also suggests that the large size of their virtual human cerebellum is likely to be related to the sheer number of tasks with which the organ is involved in the complex human brain. The macaque cerebellum that the team analyzed, for example, amounts to just 30 percent the size of the animal's cortex.
"The fact that [the cerebellum] has such a large surface area speaks to the evolution of distinctively human behaviors and cognition," says Sereno. "It has expanded so much that the folding patterns are very complex."
As the study says, "Rather than coordinating sensory signals to execute expert physical movements, parts of the cerebellum may have been extended in humans to help coordinate fictive 'conceptual movements,' such as rapidly mentally rearranging a movement plan — or, in the fullness of time, perhaps even a mathematical equation."
Sereno concludes, "The 'little brain' is quite the jack of all trades. Mapping the cerebellum will be an interesting new frontier for the next decade."
What happens if we consider welfare programs as investments?
- A recently published study suggests that some welfare programs more than pay for themselves.
- It is one of the first major reviews of welfare programs to measure so many by a single metric.
- The findings will likely inform future welfare reform and encourage debate on how to grade success.
Welfare as an investment<p>The <a href="https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/hendren/files/welfare_vnber.pdf" target="_blank">study</a>, carried out by Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser of Harvard University, reviews 133 welfare programs through a single lens. The authors measured these programs' "Marginal Value of Public Funds" (MVPF), which is defined as the ratio of the recipients' willingness to pay for a program over its cost.</p><p>A program with an MVPF of one provides precisely as much in net benefits as it costs to deliver those benefits. For an illustration, imagine a program that hands someone a dollar. If getting that dollar doesn't alter their behavior, then the MVPF of that program is one. If it discourages them from working, then the program's cost goes up, as the program causes government tax revenues to fall in addition to costing money upfront. The MVPF goes below one in this case. <br> <br> Lastly, it is possible that getting the dollar causes the recipient to further their education and get a job that pays more taxes in the future, lowering the cost of the program in the long run and raising the MVPF. The value ratio can even hit infinity when a program fully "pays for itself."</p><p> While these are only a few examples, many others exist, and they do work to show you that a high MVPF means that a program "pays for itself," a value of one indicates a program "breaks even," and a value below one shows a program costs more money than the direct cost of the benefits would suggest.</p> After determining the programs' costs using existing literature and the willingness to pay through statistical analysis, 133 programs focusing on social insurance, education and job training, tax and cash transfers, and in-kind transfers were analyzed. The results show that some programs turn a "profit" for the government, mainly when they are focused on children:
This figure shows the MVPF for a variety of polices alongside the typical age of the beneficiaries. Clearly, programs targeted at children have a higher payoff.
Nathaniel Hendren and Ben Sprung-Keyser<p>Programs like child health services and K-12 education spending have infinite MVPF values. The authors argue this is because the programs allow children to live healthier, more productive lives and earn more money, which enables them to pay more taxes later. Programs like the preschool initiatives examined don't manage to do this as well and have a lower "profit" rate despite having decent MVPF ratios.</p><p>On the other hand, things like tuition deductions for older adults don't make back the money they cost. This is likely for several reasons, not the least of which is that there is less time for the benefactor to pay the government back in taxes. Disability insurance was likewise "unprofitable," as those collecting it have a reduced need to work and pay less back in taxes. </p>