3 highlights from Penn Jillette's Big Think interview on 2020, cancel culture, and friendship

The renowned magician recently joined Big Think CEO and cofounder Victoria Brown for a wide-ranging discussion.

3 highlights from Penn Jillette's Big Think interview on 2020, cancel culture, and friendship
Big Think Edge
  • Penn Jillette is an American magician best known for his work as part of the magic duo Penn and Teller.
  • Jillette has also written eight books, co-hosted the Showtime show "Bullshit," and produced the film "Tim's Vermeer."
  • In the interview, Jillette talks about how libertarianism has been distorted in the U.S., and why the democratization of media hasn't produced a utopia.

Over the past half-century, Penn Jillette and his collaborator Teller have become one of the most respected and recognizable magic acts in the world. But outside of magic, the 65-year-old has been, in his own boisterously idiosyncratic way, an outspoken commentator on issues like atheism, libertarianism, and more recently, health and weight loss. Self-described "carnie trash," Jillette's commentary can be found in their Showtime show "Bullshit," his eight books, a YouTube channel, and in dozens of TV appearances.

Add to that list a recent interview with Victoria Montgomery Brown, cofounder and CEO of Big Think. Brown and Jillette touch on a wide range of topics — from how he lost more than 100 pounds in four months, to cancel culture, the strange nature of friendship, the strangeness of 2020, and how his relationship with audiences is transforming in his later years. Here are several highlights from Brown and Jillette's interview, which you can check out below.

​How being businesslike — not affectionate — can build strong friendships

Jillette has been collaborating with the magician and filmmaker Teller for 44 years on their magic act, currently stationed out of Las Vegas. In all that time, Jillette says their friendship has been more businesslike than affectionate.

"There's just some people you just want to be with and there's that cuddly feeling," Jillette said. "And there's other people who your relationship would be identical if it were over email, totally intellectual."

The pair's relationship is decidedly the latter.

"Teller and I have never had any affection for one another," Jillette said. "No desire to hug. We only shake hands when it's part of a script. We don't seek out each other's company, but there's no one that I respect more and I believe at a core level that I do better stuff with Teller than I do alone."

But that's not to say that relationships like these are entirely about business.

"It turns out respect is more enduring than love," he said. "Now, I have to add here that my daughter whenever I say this gets very, very bothered because she says that Teller is my BFF and there's no way around that and that's absolutely true. I'm saying that in a kind of skeletal way. The truth is that Teller's my best friend over all those years."

Jillette's description of this type of relationship sounds a bit like Aristotle's idea of the "friendship of the good."

The Greek philosopher outlined three types of friendship, each based on a different feeling or value: pleasure, utility, and "good." Aristotle thought the "friendship of the good" was the best kind of relationship, because it's built on the respect and admiration for the virtues each friend sees in the other. Aristotle believed these friendships might not form quickly, but they tend to be longer lasting than the other types.

​Why refusing to wear a mask is not a libertarian idea

Libertarianism is "the belief that peace, prosperity and social harmony are fostered by as much liberty as possible and as little government as necessary" according to the Institute for Human Studies at George Mason University. But when this impulse toward individual freedom becomes too rigid, it can pose problems for a society that needs to work together to navigate a nationwide problem, like a pandemic.

Since COVID-19 began spreading across the U.S., there's been a portion of Americans who say it's un-American for the government to try to force (or, more accurately in most cases, ask) citizens to wear masks in public. Here, Jillette distinguishes between positive and negative freedoms, most commonly defined as freedom to and freedom from.

"Libertarianism has been so distorted," Jillette said. "I mean I don't know if I have to pull my name out of that ring. It's been adopted by people who don't seem to hold the responsibility side of it and don't seem to hold the compassion side of it."

"I can see arguments for not wearing seatbelts and I can see arguments for not wearing motorcycle helmets but I cannot see any argument for driving drunk. And that is what not wearing a mask is. It's not risking yourself. It's risking the people around you which I don't see a way that that's your right."

​How removing media gatekeepers didn't lead to utopia

How did the democratization and decentralization of the media change the world? In the 1990s, Jillette might have said that removing media gatekeepers would produce a sort of open, meritocratic utopia: you have an interesting idea, you throw it online, and it spreads all over the world.

But that's not quite what happened.

"I thought getting rid of the gatekeepers could be nothing but good," Jillette said. "And now it seems like getting rid of the gatekeepers gave us Trump as president and in the same breath, in the same wind, gave us not wearing masks and maybe gave us a huge unpleasant amount of overt racism."

It also gave us cancel culture. But Jillette said he "can't even rant against cancel culture," because there's no obvious way to fix it without obstructing free speech rights. After all, it's a good thing that victimized people are now able to go online, post grievances, and (sometimes) see justice delivered, whereas in the past they had to file their complaints with a series of gatekeepers. But simultaneously, this unmanaged system leaves it vulnerable for abuse.

"Now you could be obviously lying and still have a million-and-a-half people believe you and do real damage to the person that you said wrong to," Jillette said.

This is what aliens would 'hear' if they flew by Earth

A Mercury-bound spacecraft's noisy flyby of our home planet.

Image source: sdecoret on Shutterstock/ESA/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • There is no sound in space, but if there was, this is what it might sound like passing by Earth.
  • A spacecraft bound for Mercury recorded data while swinging around our planet, and that data was converted into sound.
  • Yes, in space no one can hear you scream, but this is still some chill stuff.

First off, let's be clear what we mean by "hear" here. (Here, here!)

Sound, as we know it, requires air. What our ears capture is actually oscillating waves of fluctuating air pressure. Cilia, fibers in our ears, respond to these fluctuations by firing off corresponding clusters of tones at different pitches to our brains. This is what we perceive as sound.

All of which is to say, sound requires air, and space is notoriously void of that. So, in terms of human-perceivable sound, it's silent out there. Nonetheless, there can be cyclical events in space — such as oscillating values in streams of captured data — that can be mapped to pitches, and thus made audible.

BepiColombo

Image source: European Space Agency

The European Space Agency's BepiColombo spacecraft took off from Kourou, French Guyana on October 20, 2019, on its way to Mercury. To reduce its speed for the proper trajectory to Mercury, BepiColombo executed a "gravity-assist flyby," slinging itself around the Earth before leaving home. Over the course of its 34-minute flyby, its two data recorders captured five data sets that Italy's National Institute for Astrophysics (INAF) enhanced and converted into sound waves.

Into and out of Earth's shadow

In April, BepiColombo began its closest approach to Earth, ranging from 256,393 kilometers (159,315 miles) to 129,488 kilometers (80,460 miles) away. The audio above starts as BepiColombo begins to sneak into the Earth's shadow facing away from the sun.

The data was captured by BepiColombo's Italian Spring Accelerometer (ISA) instrument. Says Carmelo Magnafico of the ISA team, "When the spacecraft enters the shadow and the force of the Sun disappears, we can hear a slight vibration. The solar panels, previously flexed by the Sun, then find a new balance. Upon exiting the shadow, we can hear the effect again."

In addition to making for some cool sounds, the phenomenon allowed the ISA team to confirm just how sensitive their instrument is. "This is an extraordinary situation," says Carmelo. "Since we started the cruise, we have only been in direct sunshine, so we did not have the possibility to check effectively whether our instrument is measuring the variations of the force of the sunlight."

When the craft arrives at Mercury, the ISA will be tasked with studying the planets gravity.

Magentosphere melody

The second clip is derived from data captured by BepiColombo's MPO-MAG magnetometer, AKA MERMAG, as the craft traveled through Earth's magnetosphere, the area surrounding the planet that's determined by the its magnetic field.

BepiColombo eventually entered the hellish mangentosheath, the region battered by cosmic plasma from the sun before the craft passed into the relatively peaceful magentopause that marks the transition between the magnetosphere and Earth's own magnetic field.

MERMAG will map Mercury's magnetosphere, as well as the magnetic state of the planet's interior. As a secondary objective, it will assess the interaction of the solar wind, Mercury's magnetic field, and the planet, analyzing the dynamics of the magnetosphere and its interaction with Mercury.

Recording session over, BepiColombo is now slipping through space silently with its arrival at Mercury planned for 2025.

Photo by Martin Adams on Unsplash
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