Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up To Deny Evolution
If adults want to deny evolution, sure. That’s fine. Whatever. But those adults better not make their kids follow in step because we as society need them to be better. Bill Nye, everyone's favorite Science Guy, explains the importance of promoting evolution education for America's future voters and lawmakers.
My Man, Sir Isaac Newton
Are you at least 26 years-old? If so, you are older than Isaac Newton was when he invented calculus... on a dare! (If you're younger than 26, better hurry up.) Big Think expert and overall cool guy Neil deGrasse Tyson explains why Newton is the greatest physicist who ever and likely will ever live.
Will Mankind Destroy Itself?
Theoretical physicist Michio Kaku sees two major trends today. One eventually leads to a multicultural, scientific, tolerant society that will expand beyond Earth in the name of human progress. The other trend leads to fundamentalism, monoculturalism, and -- eventually -- civilizational ruin. Whichever of these two trends wins out will determine the fate of mankind. No pressure, everyone.
Ricky Gervais on the Principles of Comedy
Comedy isn't just about making people laugh, says actor Ricky Gervais. It's about making people think. And while different forms of comedy require different approaches, the crux of any good performance will always be rhythm.
Reading the Bible (Or the Koran, Or the Torah) Will Make You an Atheist
Author and magician Penn Jillette was asked to leave his Christian youth group by a pastor who told his parents: "He's no longer learning about the Bible from me. He is now converting everyone in the class to atheism." The reason? Jillette did his homework and was turned off by the hostilities of the text. It can be intimidating to come out as an atheist, especially in a religious community. Jillette found that having "out" atheist role models helped him feel unalone.
Henry Rollins: The One Decision that Changed My Life Forever
Punk legend Henry Rollins describes the biggest turning point in his life: the moment he decided to leave his job as manager of a Häagen-Dazs store and eventually become the lead singer of Black Flag. It was the courage to take a risk, plus a whole lot of luck, that got Rollins to where he is today.
5 Programming Languages Everyone Should Know
Java is "heavyweight, verbose, and everyone loves to hate it," but programmer Larry Wall still thinks you should know it. In this video, he offers suggestions for people interested in learning languages, as well as suggestions for those significantly less invested in computer programming.
The Importance of Unbelief
If you assume there’s no afterlife, Stephen Fry says, you’ll likely have a fuller, more interesting "now" life. The actor and comedian details the positive influence philosophers have had on his life, as well as his journey of understanding both what he believes and why he believes it.
Why be happy when you could be interesting?
We don't really want what we think we desire, says philosopher Slavoj Žižek.
James Gleick on the Common Character Traits of Geniuses
This video is part of a series on female genius, in proud collaboration with 92Y's 7 Days of Genius Festival.
The personalities of Isaac Newton and Richard Feynman were, on one level, extremely different. Biographer and former New York Times reporter James Gleick says Newton was argumentative, had few friends, and likely died a virgin. Feynman, on the other hand, loved dancing and going to parties, and had many friends in the scientific community. But in regards to their working habits, both men were solitary and had the ability to concentrate with a sort of intensity that is hard for mortals to grasp. At bottom, Gleick says geniuses tend to have a yearning for solitude which, though fruitful for their professional work, made the task of daily living more burdensome.
The Importance of Doing Useless Things
From poetry and ballet to mathematics and being clever, life is laden with frivolous pursuits that hold no bearing on our ability to survive. Yet, insists Richard Dawkins, if it weren’t for the development of these impractical activities, we wouldn’t be here.
Why monogamy is ridiculous
Dan Savage: the idea that one instance of infidelity should ruin a relationship is a new—and misguided—notion.
Dan Harris: Hack Your Brain's Default Mode With Meditation
Dan Harris explains the neuroscience behind meditation, but reminds us that the ancient practice isn't magic and likely won't send one floating into the cosmic ooze. He predicts that the exercise will soon become regularly scheduled maintenance, as commonplace as brushing your teeth or eating your veggies. Harris, an ABC News correspondent, was turned on to mediation after a live, on-air panic attack. His latest book is 10% Happier: How I Tamed the Voice in My Head, Reduced Stress Without Losing My Edge, and Found Self-Help That Actually Works--A True Story.
How Intellectuals Betrayed the Poor
For 40 years academics were duped into idolizing the idea of unfettered markets, says Cornel West, and now our society is paying a terrible price.
Why Some Races Outperform Others
A psychologist explains the latest research into education disparity.
Why It's So Hard for Scientists to Believe in God
Some scientists see religion as a threat to the scientific method that should be resisted. But faith "is really asking a different set of questions," says Collins.
Why Facebook Isn't Free
Internet pioneer Jaron Lanier argues that free technologies like Facebook come with a hidden and heavy cost – the livelihoods of their consumers.
How to Tell if You’re a Writer
For John Irving, the need for a daily ration of solitude was his strongest "pre-writing" moment as a child.
Your Behavior Creates Your Gender
Nobody is born one gender or the other, says the philosopher. "We act and walk and speak and talk in ways that consolidate an impression of being a man or being a woman."
Are You a Liberal Snob? Take The Quiz
Charles Mrray designed this quiz to have a salutary effect on bringing to people’s attention the degree to which they live in a bubble that seals them off from an awful lot of their fellow American citizens.
Why You Should Watch Filth
John Waters defends the creation and consumption of obscene films, and recommends some of his personal favorites.
What Are You Worth? Getting Past Status Anxiety.
Writer Alain De Botton says that status anxiety is more pernicious and destructive than most of us can imagine, and recommends getting out of the game altogether.
Sheila Heen on the Psychology of Happiness and Feedback
Sheila Heen, a Partner at Triad Consulting Group and a lecturer on Law at Harvard Law School, explains the psychology behind feedback and criticism. Heen is co-author of "Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well."
Are You a Psychopath? Take the Test.
Psychologist Kevin Dutton presents the classic psychological test known as "the trolley problem" with a variation. Take the test and measure you response on the psychopathic spectrum.
Here's How to Catch a Liar, If You Really Want To
It’s very complex as to whether or not we really want to catch a liar. We think we do. What if we find out that both of our presidential candidates are lying? Then what do we do? I’m not saying they are; I never comment on anyone in office or running for office. Only after they’re out that they’re fair game. . . . Clinton said, "I didn’t have sex with that woman" and then gave her name. "That woman" is putting her at a distance from himself.
Why I Came Out at Age 81
As a teenager in the '40s, James Randi "would have gotten stoned" for being gay. But when he outed himself to the world in 2010, the reaction was "wonderful."
- The Battle of Britain is widely recognized as one of the most significant battles that occurred during World War II. It marked the first major victory of the Allied forces and shifted the tide of the war.
- Historians, however, have long debated the deciding factor in the British victory and German defeat.
- A new mathematical model took into account numerous alternative tactics that the German's could have made and found that just two tweaks stood between them and victory over Britain.
Soon after the Nazis took control of France in June 1940 they began a military campaign against Britain. For three months, the Luftwaffe bombed targets in Britain, countered by the Royal Air Force (RAF). Their targets were sporadic: First, the Luftwaffe attacked ports and shipping centers, then RAF bases, then strategic infrastructure, and finally, civilians and politically significant sites. This military campaign was known as the Battle of Britain, which included the series of high-intensity night bombings known as the Blitz.
Defeating the RAF was crucial before the German army could launch a land invasion of Britain, but ultimately, the military campaign became too costly for the German forces to sustain. The planned invasion was called off, and the campaign against Britain shifted its focus to blockading the island nation's access to the sea. This would become the German's first major defeat in the war and form a crucial turning point that would define its remainder.
In part, the British victory was won by the German's lack of preparation. Hitler never expected to need to invade Britain; after France fell, he expected Britain would recognize "her hopeless military situation" and agree to the favorable terms of surrender he had put forth. Historians have long debated what the Luftwaffe could have accomplished had the Germans developed a more comprehensive strategy.
Two strategic blunders
Now, historians and mathematicians from York St. John University have collaborated to produce a statistical model (docx download) capable of calculating what the likely outcomes of the Battle of Britain would have been had the circumstances been different.
Would the German war effort have fared better had they not bombed Britain at all? What if Hitler had begun his bombing campaign earlier, even by just a few weeks? What if they had focused their targets on RAF airfields for the entire course of the battle? Using a statistical technique called weighted bootstrapping, the researchers studied these and other alternatives.
"The weighted bootstrap technique allowed us to model alternative campaigns in which the Luftwaffe prolongs or contracts the different phases of the battle and varies its targets," said co-author Dr. Jaime Wood in a statement. Based on the different strategic decisions that the German forces could have made, the researchers' model enabled them to predict the likelihood that the events of a given day of fighting would or would not occur.
"The Luftwaffe would only have been able to make the necessary bases in France available to launch an air attack on Britain in June at the earliest, so our alternative campaign brings forward the air campaign by three weeks," continued Wood. "We tested the impact of this and the other counterfactuals by varying the probabilities with which we choose individual days."
Ultimately, two strategic tweaks shifted the odds significantly towards the Germans' favor. Had the German forces started their campaign earlier in the year and had they consistently targeted RAF airfields, an Allied victory would have been extremely unlikely.
Say the odds of a British victory in the real-world Battle of Britain stood at 50-50 (there's no real way of knowing what the actual odds are, so we'll just have to select an arbitrary figure). If this were the case, changing the start date of the campaign and focusing only on airfields would have reduced British chances at victory to just 10 percent. Even if a British victory stood at 98 percent, these changes would have cut them down to just 34 percent.
A tool for understanding history
This technique, said co-author Niall Mackay, "demonstrates just how finely-balanced the outcomes of some of the biggest moments of history were. Even when we use the actual days' events of the battle, make a small change of timing or emphasis to the arrangement of those days and things might have turned out very differently."
The researchers also claimed that their technique could be applied to other uncertain historical events. "Weighted bootstrapping can provide a natural and intuitive tool for historians to investigate unrealized possibilities, informing historical controversies and debates," said Mackay.
Using this technique, researchers can evaluate other what-ifs and gain insight into how differently influential events could have turned out if only the slightest things had changed. For now, at least, we can all be thankful that Hitler underestimated Britain's grit.
- Researchers find out how binary star systems produce gamma ray bursts.
- Gamma ray bursts are the brightest explosions in the Universe.
- Tidal effects created in a binary system keep the stars spinning fast and create the bursts.
Giant space explosions capture our imaginations, even though they take place unimaginably far and reach us years later. Now, a team of astronomers figured out how gamma-ray bursts – the biggest and the brightest bangs in the Universe take place.
What the researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK understood is that tidal effects, like those between our own Moon and the Earth, can cause the enormous space explosions.
To arrive at their conclusions, the astronomers looked at simulated models of thousands of binary star systems, which are solar systems where two stars orbit each other. Over half of all stars reside in such arrangements.
The research showed that the spinning of stars in binary systems can cause conditions for a gamma-ray burst to take place.
Specifically, the long gamma-ray bursts (GRB) that the study looked at, happen when a gigantic star that's ten times bigger than our sun explodes. It goes supernova, collapsing into a neutron star or turning into a black hole, while shooting out a massive jet into space.
The scientists explain that what happens next is that the star flattens out into a disc, keeping its angular momentum. The star's material falls inwards but this momentum propels it out as a jet – along the polar axis, as explains the press release.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts
Another aspect that is important to the creation of the jet – the star has to spin fast enough to launch such materials. While normally stars would slow down their spin quickly, tidal effects from a neighboring star could keep the spin rate high enough to cause gamma-ray bursts.
This effect is similar to the spin interaction between the Earth and its Moon.
The study's lead author Ashley Chrimes, a PhD student in the University of Warwick Department of Physics, explained that the team's accomplishment is in figuring out how to predict what types of stars cause "the biggest explosions in the Universe."
"We found that the effect of a star's tides on its partner is stopping them from slowing down and, in some cases, it is spinning them up," Chrimes elaborated. "They are stealing rotational energy from their companion, a consequence of which is that they then drift further away."
In another takeaway, the scientists found that most of the fast-spinning stars are doing so because of being locked in a binary system.
The binary stellar evolution models used in the study were devised by researchers from the University of Warwick and Dr. J. J. Eldridge from the University of Auckland. Dr. Elizabeth Stanway from the University of Warwick's Department of Physics pointed out that the models are of previously-impossible sophistication and will be expanded further "to explore different astrophysical transients, such as fast radio bursts, and can potentially model rarer events such as black holes spiralling into stars."
Check out the paper on this discovery in the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.
- There are two kinds of masks leaders wear. Executive coach Peter Fuda likens one to The Phantom of the Opera—projecting perfectionism to hide feelings of inadequacy—and the other to The Mask, where leaders assume a persona of toughness or brashness because they imagine it projects the power needed for the position.
- Both of those masks are motivated by self-protection, rather than learning, growth and contribution. "By the way," says Fuda, "your people know you're imperfect anyway, so when you embrace your imperfections they know you're honest as well."
- The most effective leaders are those who try to perfect their craft rather than try to perfect their image. They inspire a culture of learning and growth, not a culture where people are afraid to ask for help.
To learn more, visit peterfuda.com.
- Computers designed, and scientists have constructed, programmable living robots.
- Study announces potentially self-healing, biodegradable, purpose-build automatons.
- Two "xenobots" are already bumbling their way around dishes of water in a lab.
While we typically think of robots as being constructed from metal, circuitry, and plastic, a team of researchers from Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts and the University of Vermont in Burlington, Vermont have just announced the creation of task-specific robots made of living cells scraped from frog embryos. (They are not called "ribits.") Biologist Michael Levin tells The Guardian, "They are living, programmable organisms."
Levin and his colleagues call the tiny automatons "xenobots," after Xenopus laevis, the African clawed frogs from whom their cells came. They're proofs of a larger concept the researchers have invented: a method, or "pipeline," theoretically capable of creating living bots for all sorts of tasks.
Aside from being a somewhat shocking development, the robots raise obvious ethical and practical issues. "These are entirely new lifeforms. They have never before existed on Earth," points out Levin. Team member Sam Kreigman says, "What's important to me is that this is public, so we can have a discussion as a society and policymakers can decide what is the best course of action."
How the xenobots are made and how they work
Image source: Kriegman, Blackiston, Levin, and Bongard
The primary purpose of the research is the development of a workable, scalable pipeline that produces robots selected, or "programmed," for specific capabilities. It works like this:
Computer algorithms set to work iterating 500 to 1,000 virtual 3D structures using models of actual cells — whose behaviors are known — as building blocks. For the xenobots, models of passive and contractive (heart muscle) skin cells from frog embryos were used. Upon identifying designs that function in a desired manner, the scientists then painstakingly construct a real-world version using the actual, living cells.
In the case of the xenobots, the contractive skin muscles contract and expand, like an engine. Through this action, a xenobot can move itself around on a pumping pair of stumpy legs. One xenobot has a hole in its middle that's been formed into a pouch allowing it, theoretically, to carry a tiny payload of some sort. The xenobots can survive for about 10 days.
Since the research is really about the pipeline, the xenobots are primarily intended as a demonstration of the system's potential. If you're wondering why we might want living robots, you're not alone. According to senior researcher roboticist Joshua Bongard, "It's impossible to know what the applications will be for any new technology, so we can really only guess."
Even so, the researchers propose a few possible applications, including eating up and digesting microplastics in the ocean, and doing the same for toxins in the human body, delivering drugs to patients, and cleaning plaque from human artery walls.
All of these assume that the system can mature into a means of creating robots capable of performing multiple interlinked tasks such as identifying and then digesting toxins. If this becomes doable, there are some obvious benefits inherent in living-cell robots: They can heal themselves if the become damaged—this has already been demonstrated with the xenobots—and they are made of eminently biodegradable materials.
Ethical and practical issues
Image source: Kriegman, Blackiston, Levin, and Bongard
Chief among the ethical concerns regarding living robots is the notion that, as living organisms, the robots may be reasonably entitled to moral status as individuals.
L. Syd M Johnson, bioethicist at SUNY Upstate Medical University tells Big Think: "As with any new technology, how it is used or will be used raises important ethical concerns. As humans, we've shown time and again that we are really not good at predicting the future consequences of technological innovations. But when novel living organisms are created, I have concerns about potential harms to those organisms themselves. Humans have been creating and manipulating animals for millennia with little concern for how it affects the animals themselves. Will these xenobots be more like bacteria, which are alive, but not sentient, so we need not worry about their welfare? Or will they be more like jellyfish or corals, animals about whom we might reasonably wonder what they feel? In principle, xenobots are arguably animals, and could be created using neural cells, and to have a nervous system that would make it easier to "program" them to respond to and navigate the world. Releasing them into the world, and creating them to be potentially capable of feeling are both possibilities that I find worrying."
On a practical level, it's worth noting that among the possible uses mentioned by the researchers is an illustration of the type of problem the robots couldn't really solve. If they ate microplastics from the sea and then died, what would happen to their plastic-filled corpses? Wouldn't they eventually be eaten by other ocean organisms, merely shifting the plastic to a different rung in the ecological ladder? (Removing toxins from a human body would be less of an issue—the robot could simply be eliminated through the patient's digestive system.)
These concerns notwithstanding, the researchers remain excited by the possibilities, even beyond making living robots. "The aim is to understand the software of life," says Levin. "If you think about birth defects, cancer, age-related diseases, all of these things could be solved if we knew how to make biological structures, to have ultimate control over growth and form."
- Monogamy is natural, but adultery is, too, says biological anthropologist Helen Fisher.
- Even though humans are animals that form pair bonds, some humans have a predisposition for restlessness. This might come from the evolutionary development of a dual human reproductive strategy.
- This drive to fall in love and form a pair bond evolved for an ecological reason: to rear our children as a team.