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  • Physicist proposes that the universe behaves like an artificial neural network.
  • The scientist's new paper seeks to reconcile classical physics and quantum mechanics.
  • The theory claims that natural selection produces both atoms and "observers".

Does the reality around us work like a neural network, a Matrix-like computer system that operates similar to a human brain? A new physics paper argues that looking at the universe that way can provide the elusive "theory of everything".

This controversial proposal is the brainchild of the University of Minnesota Duluth physics professor Vitaly Vanchurin. In an interview with Futurism, Vanchurin conceded that "the idea is definitely crazy, but if it is crazy enough to be true?"

The scientist developed the theory while exploring the workings of machine learning using statistical mechanics. He found that mechanisms involved in the computer learning were similar in some instances to the dynamics of quantum mechanics.

A computer neural network works via nodes, which mimic biological neurons, processing and passing on signals. As the network learns new information, it changes, giving certain nodes more priority, allowing it to connect bits of information in such a way that next time in will know, for example, what are they key traits of a "zebra".

"We are not just saying that the artificial neural networks can be useful for analyzing physical systems or for discovering physical laws, we are saying that this is how the world around us actually works," writes Vanchurin in the paper. "With this respect it could be considered as a proposal for the theory of everything, and as such it should be easy to prove it wrong."

How do you prove his theory wrong? Vanchurin proposes a way. All you have to do is "find a phenomenon which cannot be modeled with a neural network." That, of course, isn't actually so easy to pull off, as Vanchurin himself points out. We don't fully understand how neural network and machine learning work and need to grasp those processes first.

Vanchurin interview:

Vanchurin thinks his idea can accomplish another purpose that has been the goal of modern physics – to reconcile classical physics, which describes how the universe works on a large scale, and quantum mechanics, the study of the atomic and subatomic level of existence. The physicist thinks that if you view the universe as working essentially as a neural network, its behavior under certain conditions can be explained by both the quirky equations of quantum mechanics and the laws of classical physics like the theory of general relativity devised by Albert Einstein.

"The learning dynamics of a neural network can indeed exhibit approximate behaviors described by both quantum mechanics and general relativity," writes Vanchurin in his study.

Diving deeper into his theory, Vanchurin thinks it supports such apparent mechanisms of our world as natural selection. He suggests that in a neural network, particles and atoms, but even us, the "observers" would emerge from a natural-selection-like process. On the microscopic level of the network, some structures would become more stable while some would be less so. The stable ones would survive the evolutionary process, while the less stable ones would not.

'On the smallest scales I expect that the natural selection should produce some very low complexity structures such as chains of neurons, but on larger scales the structures would be more complicated," he shared with Futurism.

He sees little reason why this kind of process would only work on just the small scale, writing in the paper:

"If correct, then what we now call atoms and particles might actually be the outcomes of a long evolution starting from some very low complexity structures and what we now call macroscopic observers and biological cells might be the outcome of an even longer evolution."

While he posits the neural network explanation, Vanchurin doesn't necessarily mean we all live in a computer simulation, like proposed by philosopher Nick Bostrom, adding the caveat that even if we did, "we might never know the difference."

Vanchurin's idea has so far been received with skepticism by other physicists but he is undeterred. You can check out his paper for yourself on ArXiv.

Vanchurin on “Hidden Phenomena”:

Vitaly Vanchurin speaking at the 6th International FQXi Conference, "Mind Matters: Intelligence and Agency in the Physical World." The Foundational Questions...

If you've used a dating app, you'll know the importance of choosing good profile pics.


These photos don't just relay attractiveness; a recent study suggested that 43% of people think they can get a sense of someone's personality by their picture. You might guess that someone who has included a photo of themselves hiking is an outdoorsy type of person.

But as scientists who study human-animal interactions, we wanted to know what this meant for pet owners – in particular, male cat owners.

If you're a guy who owns a cat, what kind of effect does it have on suitors if you post a picture posing with your favorite feline?

Prior studies suggested that women do judge a potential male partner based on whether he has pets. While they favor men with dogs, the results showed that they also give men with cats an edge over non-pet owners.

Because of this, we reasoned that men pictured with cats would probably be viewed as more attractive and desirable than men who didn't pose with any animals.

In our study, we recruited 1,388 heterosexual American women from 18 to 24 years old to take a short anonymous online survey. In the survey, we presented them with photos of one of two young white men in their early 20s either posing alone or with a cat. To avoid biasing the women's responses, we randomly presented which photo they saw first. Each participant only rated one man, with and without a cat.

Each time the participants saw a photo, we asked them to rate the man pictured on several personality attributes, including his masculinity, femininity and dateability. We also asked the women if they defined themselves as a "cat person," "dog person," "neither" or "both."

Most of the women found the men holding cats to be less dateable. This result surprised us, since previous studies had shown that women found men with pets to have higher potential as partners. They also thought the men holding cats were less extroverted and more neurotic, agreeable and open. Importantly, they saw these men as less masculine, too.

This last point may explain our findings.

Prior research suggests that women often seek masculine men – both in terms of physical appearance and behaviors. So the fact that women in our study found the photo of the man alone more masculine and more dateable supports the idea that women are likely to look first for clues related to masculinity when determining dateability.

We suspect old cultural norms may be playing a role in the responses. Past research suggests that male femininity and homosexuality are still perceived to be connected. Since cats are sometimes associated more closely with female owners – and therefore, considered a feminine pet – posing with cats may have primed the women taking our survey to default to this outdated trope, despite some popular media efforts to elevate the status of male cat owners.

Alternatively, the perception of male cat owners as less extroverted and more neurotic, agreeable and open may have nudged our respondents to put these men in the "friend zone." In other words, perhaps seeing a man pose with the cat suggests he might be a better confidant than date.

It's important to note that whether the women identified themselves as "cat people," "dog people," "both" or "neither" affected their perceptions. Women who self-identified as "cat people" were more inclined to view the men pictured with cats as more dateable or say they had no preference.

Of course, like any research, our work has its limitations. Our sample is a very specific population – heterosexual, primarily white women, aged 18 to 24 years and living in the United States. We don't know how these results would change if we surveyed, say, bisexual or gender-fluid women, men interested in men or individuals from different cultural backgrounds.

And that's the best part. This is a new, growing area of research, and it's only one of a handful of potential studies on the relationship between pet ownership and first impressions on dating apps. This means we have our work cut out for us.

But in the meantime, if heterosexual men are looking to get a match, it's probably a good idea if they save showing off their photos with their favorite felines for the first or second date.The Conversation

Lori Kogan, Professor of Clinical Sciences, Colorado State University and Shelly Volsche, Lecturer, Boise State University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, conflicts between religious freedom and public health regulations have been playing out in courts around the world.


Churches from California to Maine have flouted public health orders by convening in person, indoors, unmasked and accompanied by choirs. When an underground church in South Korea seeded one of the country's largest outbreaks in February, the government responded by arresting its leader for obstructing contact tracers and violating public health regulations.

I am a historian of science and religion in the Renaissance, and what strikes me as remarkable about the current moment is not that some religious communities are defying public health measures, but that so many religious institutions and individuals are piously working to implement them.

Historical accounts from 17th-century outbreaks of plague in Italy reveal both tensions between religious and public health authorities and also examples for collaboration.

Sites of conflict

In the summer of 1630, a plague epidemic packed the plague hospitals known as "lazaretti" with over 15,000 people in Milan. Smaller towns also faced outbreaks that taxed their community resources.

In the Tuscan town of Prato, public health officials were beginning to doubt the wisdom of treating plague patients at the "lazaretto" located within the city walls. They feared a risk of further infection if the healthy were in such close proximity to the sick.

The city officials needed to identify an alternative location that was far enough to keep the city safe, but close enough that they could conveniently move the sick patients. They determined that the Convent of St. Anne, located a couple of kilometers outside town, should serve as the lazaretto and requisitioned it.

The seizure of church property by the nominally secular powers of the Tuscan grand duke infuriated the friars of St. Anne. They petitioned Grand Duke Ferdinando II de' Medici to overturn the act, but he ignored their objections.

This was not because the grand duke was persecuting Catholics – he ruled a Catholic state, and two of his brothers became cardinals. However, during this outbreak of plague, it appeared that the grand duke deemed such emergency measures to be a necessity.

Limits to jurisdiction

However, the grand duke's jurisdiction did have limits. In late-Renaissance cities, civil authorities could punish citizens for public health infractions, but they did not have direct authority over the clergy.

When a priest in Florence broke quarantine by staying out late at night drinking and playing guitar with family members, the health board punished his sisters but not him.

To discipline priests who broke public health laws, civil authorities had to petition local church officials, like bishops, to intervene. For example, as the plague spread in the Tuscan city of Pistoia in September 1630, public health officers resolved to broach with the archbishop the possibility of emptying the fonts of holy water in case they were spreading disease.

Although no records confirm the outcome, throughout this epidemic the archbishop of Florence repeatedly reinforced the importance of the policies of secular health commissioners.

State and religious officials alike were concerned about plague spreading through air, water and wine and curtailed traditional activities to minimize contagion.

Case of Father Dragoni

Much like today, when civil authorities canceled religious services and ceremonies, local protests ensued.

During the plague outbreak of 1631 in the small Tuscan town of Monte Lupo, a fight broke out between the guards tasked with preventing gatherings and a group of armed civilians from the surrounding countryside and their parish priest.

The worshipers insisted on congregating to pray at the crucifix in the local church and threatened to shoot with an arquebus – a long gun used during the Renaissance period – anyone who got in their way.

The health officer tasked with managing the delicate situation at Monte Lupo was a 60-year-old Dominican friar, Father Giovanni Dragoni, who was both a public health officer and a member of the clergy.

Father Dragoni was stated to be furious with the parish priest for his disregard for the public health measures. He promptly dispatched a message to the regional health commissioner: "It is necessary to take measures against these agitators of the people. The evidence is serious, and … the reverend parish priest is largely responsible for these uprisings."

Father Dragoni was unable to prevent the parish priest and congregants from gathering and feasting. He found himself further burdened the next morning with sorting out the events that had followed the procession, when prayer and feasts had turned into late-night drunken parties of revelers who tore down part of the wooden stockade that had been erected to enforce the quarantine.

When the plague outbreak finally ended and the town reopened, Father Dragoni offered the following report on his own actions: "I have not acted unjustly and have accompanied severity with compassion and charity. … In more than a year that I have held this office, no one has died without sacrament or confession."

In a period that has been characterized by faith's opposition to science, Father Dragoni demonstrated through his actions that carrying out public health measures and God's sacraments went hand in hand.

Then and now

Four centuries later, there are similar examples of religious resistance to public health measures and striking examples of religious collaboration with public health regulations.

Although there are instances of church leaders rallying congregants against public health measures, there are far more examples of people and institutions who, like Father Dragoni, bring together religious devotion and disease control.

When the coronavirus swept into Italy in February, the patriarch of Venice – the bishop – promptly complied with the government's edict to cancel Masses, eagerly doing his part to stem the epidemic. And in the Italian churches around Turin that remained open for private prayer, the cisterns of holy water were promptly emptied.

To be clear, there is a long history of religious resistance to public health measures during disease outbreaks. But cooperation between church and state in attempting to stem the spread of disease has its precedents too.The Conversation

Hannah Marcus, Assistant Professor, Department of the History of Science, Harvard University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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Is immigration key to bolstering the American economy? Could having one billion Americans secure the US's position as the global superpower? What if massive population growth could nourish rural economies and strengthen our country from the inside out? Perhaps these questions are provocative fodder for more debate and contention but, for Matthew Yglesias, asking them and arguing about them is part of the American way. Join him in a conversation moderated by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Charles Duhigg as they explore the case for one billion Americans.

Ask your questions for Matthew Yglesias during the Q&A!

Join the live stream at 1pm ET on Monday, September 28.

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  • Experiments on an ultracold gas show strange quantum behavior.
  • The observations point to applications in quantum computing.
  • The find may also advance chaos theory and explain the butterfly effect.

    • Experiments by California physicists revealed "bizarre" behavior in an ultracold gas. The results promise innovations in quantum engineering and a connection between classical physics and quantum mechanics.

      The scientists used lasers to set up an optical trap for lithium atoms. As they were held in a lattice formation, pulses of energy shook up the system and made the atoms exhibit truly unusual quantum activities.

      The research was carried out by UC Santa Barbara undergraduate student Alec Cao, who was the lead author of the paper, and his colleagues in professor David Weld's atomic physics group.

      The scientist's lab specializes in creating "artificial solids", described as "low-dimensional lattices of light and ultracold atoms" by the university's press release. These solids can simulate how quantum particles would behave in dense solids that are subjected to repeating force. The experiments go back to the work of the Nobel laureate physicist Felix Bloch for the underpinning. Bloch predicted that if you apply constant force to a quantum particle in a periodic quantum structure, it will start oscillating.

      Despite Bloch's theoretical prediction, actual observation of such oscillations didn't happen until 2018, also by Weld's group.

      In the new experiment, they changed laser intensities and outside magnetic forces, creating time dependency and curving the lattice. This established a force field leading to slow oscillations that "gave us the opportunity to look at what happens when you have a Bloch oscillating system in an inhomogenous environment," explained Weld.

      Quantum Mechanics, Onions, and a Theory of Everything

      And what happened was quite unexpected, according to the researchers. The atoms were shooting back and forth, moving further apart at various intervals, and even created patterns in reaction to the energy pulses.

      "It was a bit bizarre," explained Weld. "Atoms would get pumped in one direction. Sometimes they would get pumped in another direction. Sometimes they would tear apart and make these structures that looked like DNA."

      To explain what they were seeing, the scientists applied Poincaré sections - a mathematical technique developed for classical physics.

      "In our experiment, a time interval is set by how we periodically modify the lattice in time," said Cao. "When we chucked out all the 'in-between' times and looked at the behavior once every period, structure and beauty emerged in the shapes of the trajectories because we were properly respecting the symmetry of the physical system."

      Professor Weld pointed out that Alec understood that these paths could tell precisely "why in some regimes of driving the atoms get pumped, while in other regimes of driving the atoms spread out and break up the wave function."

      The research may have applications in topological quantum computing as well as advancing knowledge of how quantum chaos appears, explaining such phenomena as the butterfly effect.

      Check out the new study in Physical Review Research.