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Ancient physics: How Democritus predicted the atom
Democritus also did not believe in free will but was still known as the "laughing philosopher."
- The idea of the atom goes as far back as the ancient Greek philosopher Democritus in about 400 B.C.E.
- This led to his "theory of eidôla" to explain how our minds create the illusion of reality.
- Democritus was one of the first determinists, arguing that a world made only of atoms and controlled by the laws of physics left no room for free will.
Philosophers love "The Matrix".
It's the perfect introduction to the ideas of big names such as Plato and Descartes but with leather trench coats, bullet time, and a brooding Keanu Reeves. One of the most memorable moments in the movie comes near the end when the protagonist, Neo, finally understands the Matrix for the illusionary simulation that it is. Now, he can see the numbers underpinning everything. He can see the source code of the world.
With only the slightest of modifications, Neo's epiphany is no science fiction at all. This is how the world is made. But, where Neo saw green, floating numbers, we now know the universe is actually made up of tiny, imperceptible objects. Rather than code, we have atoms—the building blocks of everything there is, ever was, and ever will be.
We know atoms exist thanks to scientists and electron microscopes, but the idea goes much further back than that. It goes back to the ancient Greeks. Their output was prodigious. Almost every discipline you can study, the Greeks turned their minds to first. Pythagoras laid the foundation for math and geometry, Aristotle contemplated biology and physics, Plato thought about governance, Herodotus was a historian, and Hippocrates gave doctors his eponymous oath. But one of the most ingenious "firsts" must come with the atomists, like Democritus or Epicurus.
It's odd to think that millennia ago, a few bearded men in togas, strolling around a sun-bleached agora, used philosophy to establish the fundamental fabric of the universe.
Although the idea of "the atom" had been floating around the Peloponnese for a while, Democritus was the first to articulate it fully. He argued that atoms must exist because the alternative is sheer nonsense. If we could constantly divide or cut a thing into two then we would go on forever. We'd get smaller and smaller all the way to infinity, and there'd be no end point. But the universe can't be built without foundations. Nothing can come from nothing. So, there must be a fundamental unit to the world from which everything else is made, and for this, Democritus coined the term "atom" (which literally means uncuttable, although 20th Century scientists learned how to split one, rather ruining the definition).
The question now facing Democritus was how these basic, imperceptible atoms came to make the objects we all see, touch, and love. He noted how, when we look at the world around us, we can see it constantly changing, shifting, dying, and growing. The world flows. So atoms, which make up everything there is, must themselves be moving. They can't just be inert or still.
Democritus argued that atoms come together in various combinations, and then emit something called an "eidôla." These composite blobs of atoms radiate eidôla outward, like ripples in water. The eidôla are then picked up by us as the subjective experiencer and we translate this atomic radiation into ideas or sensations.
Democritus thought that atoms emit an "eidôla" that we perceive as sensations.Credit: Courtesy of Jonny Thomson
For example, let's imagine a group of atoms come together and, with a special wiggle, emit their eidôla. This flies through the space (or "void," as Democritus called it) to our eyes. Our eyes then whizz this eidôla along to our understanding, where it's converted into "blue" or "round" or "big."
There were two big implications to Democritus' theory.
First, the world as we know it doesn't actually exist. Just like the code in the Matrix, the world is really just incomprehensible atoms. Our minds create "reality" out of these atoms, and everything is just an illusion we play on ourselves.
Second, the world is entirely made up of atoms. The tree outside, your pet turtle, your feeling of love, and even the mind that processes eidôla are all made up of atoms.
The upshot of this is that Democritus was one of the first "determinists" in that he thought there could be no free will or choice. We're all just marbles, bouncing around to the laws of physics.
We might think this a pretty depressing place to finish, yet Democritus was actually known as "the laughing philosopher." He simply refused to take anything seriously. If reality was ultimately the invented story of our minds, and the universe was just physical laws, what's the point in getting wound up by things? Why stress about that email from your boss, or that mean thing a friend said when there's nothing we can do anyway? If the world is an illusion, and a boringly scripted one at that, why not laugh?
The first "atomist," Democritus, of course got a lot wrong, but it's remarkable how much he got right. By reflecting on reality long enough, he came to conclusions that scientists proved millennia later. If nothing else, he offers a shining example of the power of contemplation.
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The father of all giant sea bugs was recently discovered off the coast of Java.
- A new species of isopod with a resemblance to a certain Sith lord was just discovered.
- It is the first known giant isopod from the Indian Ocean.
- The finding extends the list of giant isopods even further.
Humanity knows surprisingly little about the ocean depths. An often-repeated bit of evidence for this is the fact that humanity has done a better job mapping the surface of Mars than the bottom of the sea. The creatures we find lurking in the watery abyss often surprise even the most dedicated researchers with their unique features and bizarre behavior.
A recent expedition off the coast of Java discovered a new isopod species remarkable for its size and resemblance to Darth Vader.
The ocean depths are home to many creatures that some consider to be unnatural.
According to LiveScience, the Bathynomus genus is sometimes referred to as "Darth Vader of the Seas" because the crustaceans are shaped like the character's menacing helmet. Deemed Bathynomus raksasa ("raksasa" meaning "giant" in Indonesian), this cockroach-like creature can grow to over 30 cm (12 inches). It is one of several known species of giant ocean-going isopod. Like the other members of its order, it has compound eyes, seven body segments, two pairs of antennae, and four sets of jaws.
The incredible size of this species is likely a result of deep-sea gigantism. This is the tendency for creatures that inhabit deeper parts of the ocean to be much larger than closely related species that live in shallower waters. B. raksasa appears to make its home between 950 and 1,260 meters (3,117 and 4,134 ft) below sea level.
Perhaps fittingly for a creature so creepy looking, that is the lower sections of what is commonly called The Twilight Zone, named for the lack of light available at such depths.
It isn't the only giant isopod, far from it. Other species of ocean-going isopod can get up to 50 cm long (20 inches) and also look like they came out of a nightmare. These are the unusual ones, though. Most of the time, isopods stay at much more reasonable sizes.
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During an expedition, there are some animals which you find unexpectedly, while there are others that you hope to find. One of the animal that we hoped to find was a deep sea cockroach affectionately known as Darth Vader Isopod. The staff on our expedition team could not contain their excitement when they finally saw one, holding it triumphantly in the air! #SJADES2018
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What benefit does this find have for science? And is it as evil as it looks?
The discovery of a new species is always a cause for celebration in zoology. That this is the discovery of an animal that inhabits the deeps of the sea, one of the least explored areas humans can get to, is the icing on the cake.
Helen Wong of the National University of Singapore, who co-authored the species' description, explained the importance of the discovery:
"The identification of this new species is an indication of just how little we know about the oceans. There is certainly more for us to explore in terms of biodiversity in the deep sea of our region."
The animal's visual similarity to Darth Vader is a result of its compound eyes and the curious shape of its head. However, given the location of its discovery, the bottom of the remote seas, it may be associated with all manner of horrifically evil Elder Things and Great Old Ones.
It could lead to a massive uptake in those previously hesitant.
A financial shot in the arm could be just what is needed for Americans unsure about vaccination.
On May 12, 2021, the Republican governor of Ohio, Mike DeWine, announced five US$1 million lottery prizes for those who are vaccinated. Meanwhile, in West Virginia, younger citizens are being enticed to get the shot with $100 savings bonds, and a state university in North Carolina is offering students who get vaccinated a chance to win the cost of housing. Many companies are paying vaccinated employees more money through bonuses or extra paid time off.
The push to get as many people vaccinated as possible is laudable and may well work. But leading behavioral scientists are worried that paying people to vaccinate could backfire if it makes people more skeptical of the shots. And ethicists have argued that it would be wrong, citing concerns over fairness and equity.
As a behavioral scientist and ethicist, I draw on an extensive body of research to help answer these questions. It suggests that incentives might work to save lives and, if properly structured, need not trample individual rights or be a huge expense for the government.
In the United States, incentives and disincentives are already used in health care. The U.S. system of privatized health insurance exposes patients to substantial deductibles and copays, not only to cover costs but to cut down on what could be deemed as wasteful health care – the thinking being that putting a cost to an emergency room visit, for example, might deter those who aren't really in need of that level of care.
In practice, this means patients are encouraged to decline both emergency and more routine care, since both are exposed to costs.
Paying for health behaviors
In the case of COVID-19, the vaccines are already free to consumers, which has undoubtedly encouraged people to be immunized. Studies have shown that reducing out-of-pocket costs can improve adherence to life-sustaining drugs, whether to prevent heart attacks or to manage diabetes.
A payment to take a drug goes one step further than simply reducing costs. And if properly designed, such incentives can change health behaviors.
And for vaccination in particular, payments have been successful for human papillomavirus (HPV) in England; hepatitis B in the United States and the United Kingdom; and tetanus toxoid in Nigeria. The effects can be substantial: For example, for one group in the HPV study, the vaccination rate more than doubled with an incentive.
For COVID-19, there are no field studies to date, but several survey experiments, including one my group conducted with 1,000 Americans, find that incentives are likely to work. In our case, the incentive of a tax break was enough to encourage those hesitant about vaccinations to say they would take the shot.
Even if incentives will save lives by increasing vaccinations, there are still other ethical considerations. A key concern is protecting the autonomous choices of people to decide what they put into their own bodies. This may be especially important for the COVID-19 vaccines, which – although authorized as likely safe and effective – are not yet fully approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
But already people are often paid to participate in clinical trials for drugs that have not yet been approved by the FDA. Ethicists have worried that such payments may be “coercive" if the money is so attractive as to override a person's free choices or make them worse off overall.
One can quibble about whether the term “coercion" applies to offers of payment. But even if offers were coercive, payments may still be reasonable to save lives in a pandemic if they succeed in greater levels of immunization.
During the smallpox epidemic nearly 100 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the power of states to mandate vaccines. Compared with mandating vaccination, the incentives to encourage vaccines seem innocuous.
Exploitation and paternalism
Yet some still worry. Bioethicists Emily Largent and Franklin Miller wrote in a recent paper that a payment might “unfairly" exploit “those U.S. residents who have lost jobs … or slipped into poverty during the pandemic," which could leave them feeling as if they have “no choice but to be vaccinated for cash." Others have noted that vaccine hesitancy is higher in nonwhite communities, where incomes tend to be lower, as is trust in the medical establishment.
Ethicists and policymakers should indeed focus on the poorest members of our community and seek to minimize racial disparities in both health outcomes and wealth. But there is no evidence that offering money is actually detrimental to such populations. Receiving money is a good thing. To suggest that we have to protect adults by denying them offers of money may come across as paternalism.
Some ethicists also argue that the money is better spent elsewhere to increase participation. States could spend the money making sure vaccines are convenient to everyone, for example, by bringing them to community events and churches. Money could also support various efforts to fight misinformation and communicate the importance of getting the shot.
The cost of incentives
Financial incentives could be expensive as a policy solution. As in Ohio, lottery drawings are one way to cap the overall cost of incentives while giving millions of people an additional reason to get their shot.
The tax code could also allow for a no-cost incentive for vaccination. Tax deductions and credits are often designed to encourage behaviors, such as savings or home ownership. Some states now have big budget surpluses and are considering tax relief measures. If a state announced now that such payments would be conditional on being vaccinated, then each person declining the shot would save the government money.
Ultimately, a well-designed vaccination incentive can help save lives and need not keep the ethicists up at night.
Geologists discover a rhythm to major geologic events.
- It appears that Earth has a geologic "pulse," with clusters of major events occurring every 27.5 million years.
- Working with the most accurate dating methods available, the authors of the study constructed a new history of the last 260 million years.
- Exactly why these cycles occur remains unknown, but there are some interesting theories.
Our hearts beat at a resting rate of 60 to 100 beats per minute. Lots of other things pulse, too. The colors we see and the pitches we hear, for example, are due to the different wave frequencies ("pulses") of light and sound waves.
Now, a study in the journal Geoscience Frontiers finds that Earth itself has a pulse, with one "beat" every 27.5 million years. That's the rate at which major geological events have been occurring as far back as geologists can tell.
A planetary calendar has 10 dates in red
Credit: Jagoush / Adobe Stock
According to lead author and geologist Michael Rampino of New York University's Department of Biology, "Many geologists believe that geological events are random over time. But our study provides statistical evidence for a common cycle, suggesting that these geologic events are correlated and not random."
The new study is not the first time that there's been a suggestion of a planetary geologic cycle, but it's only with recent refinements in radioisotopic dating techniques that there's evidence supporting the theory. The authors of the study collected the latest, best dating for 89 known geologic events over the last 260 million years:
- 29 sea level fluctuations
- 12 marine extinctions
- 9 land-based extinctions
- 10 periods of low ocean oxygenation
- 13 gigantic flood basalt volcanic eruptions
- 8 changes in the rate of seafloor spread
- 8 times there were global pulsations in interplate magmatism
The dates provided the scientists a new timetable of Earth's geologic history.
Tick, tick, boom
Credit: New York University
Putting all the events together, the scientists performed a series of statistical analyses that revealed that events tend to cluster around 10 different dates, with peak activity occurring every 27.5 million years. Between the ten busy periods, the number of events dropped sharply, approaching zero.
Perhaps the most fascinating question that remains unanswered for now is exactly why this is happening. The authors of the study suggest two possibilities:
"The correlations and cyclicity seen in the geologic episodes may be entirely a function of global internal Earth dynamics affecting global tectonics and climate, but similar cycles in the Earth's orbit in the Solar System and in the Galaxy might be pacing these events. Whatever the origins of these cyclical episodes, their occurrences support the case for a largely periodic, coordinated, and intermittently catastrophic geologic record, which is quite different from the views held by most geologists."
Assuming the researchers' calculations are at least roughly correct — the authors note that different statistical formulas may result in further refinement of their conclusions — there's no need to worry that we're about to be thumped by another planetary heartbeat. The last occurred some seven million years ago, meaning the next won't happen for about another 20 million years.