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."
If you think Earthly matters haven't been going well already, it also turns out that our planet is much closer to the supermassive black hole at the center of the galaxy than we imagined. New observation data allowed researchers to improve the modeling of the Milky Way Galaxy, showing Earth is moving 7 km/s (~16,000 mph) faster and is 2,000 light years closer to the supermassive black hole Sagittarius A*.
The more precise information came from 15 years worth of data collected by the Japanese radio astronomy project VERA, which is a collection of acronyms standing for VLBI Exploration of Radio Astrometry (with "VLBI" meaning Very Long Baseline Interferometry). The project started in 2000 and has the goal of mapping the Milky Way's three-dimensional velocity and spatial structures.
VERA employs interferometry to pull together and combine data from radio telescopes all over the Japanese archipelago. This technique allows the project to get astounding resolution, as good as a telescope with a 2300 km diameter. The measurement is so accurate at this precise resolution of 10 micro-arcseconds, that it would be sufficiently sharp to pick out a U.S. penny if it was somehow left on the Moon's surface.
The VERA Astrometry Catalog and observations made recently by other researchers allowed the astronomers to put together a position and velocity map with a new center for the Galaxy. It's a point around which everything in the Galaxy revolves.
Arrows on this map show position and velocity data for the 224 objects utilized to model the Milky Way Galaxy. The solid black lines point to the positions of the spiral arms of the Galaxy. Colors reflect groups of objects that are part of the same arm, while the background is a simulation image.
The new map claims this center, along with the supermassive black hole it contains, is about 25,800 light-years away from Earth. Notably, this is closer than the distance of 27,700 light years established as the official value in 1985 by the International Astronomical Union.
The new map's velocity component also differentiated the velocity of the planet, showing that it's traveling at 227 km/s in its orbit around the Galactic Center. That's 7 km/s faster than the previously "official" speed of 220 km/s.
VERA next turns its attention to other objects, especially those close to the supermassive black hole at the galaxy's center.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
In a New York Times essay published the day of his funeral on July 30, 2020, Congressman John Lewis wrote that his "last days and hours"—in which he watched widespread protests over George Floyd's murder and saw a square in downtown D.C. christened Black Lives Matter Plaza—filled him with hope. "Around the country and the world you set aside race, class, age, language and nationality to demand respect for human dignity."
Human dignity is a powerful phrase invoked to peacefully protest against violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. But when we talk about human dignity, what do we mean?
The inherent worth of all human beings
Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.
Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect.
Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it.
But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.
From the 19th century to today
With Google Books Ngram Viewer, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.
We can also map human dignity against mentions of liberalism to see that discussion of human dignity increased with discussion of liberalism.
Then we can search through individual mentions to find how human dignity was discussed and understood over the last 200 years.
For example, German rabbi Dr. Samuel Hirsch gave a lecture in 1853 on "The Religion of Humanity" in which he condemned slavery. "That which we love in ourselves, our true human dignity, compels us to recognize and love the same human dignity in all others," Hirsh said. He wrote:
If I can look upon my brother-man as a creature, as a thing void of any will of his own, instead of as a free personality, that furnishes ample proof that I have not yet recognized the true human dignity in myself. To own slaves is spiritual suicide and homicide. This sin is in no way excusable on account of the kind treatment accorded to the slaves by their owner, as he never can treat them humanely. When man becomes a piece of property he is robbed of his human dignity.
In 1917, Kansas State Normal School published a journal on teaching that called for instructors to help each pupil "make completer use of his one lifetime" because "an abundant life, a life of awareness, a life of dignity is an undertaking worthy of gods."
Thomas Bell's 1941 novel Out of the Furnace centered on an immigrant Slovak family in Pennsylvania. A character muses that it wasn't "where you were born or how you spelled your name or where your father had come from" that mattered; instead,
It was the way you thought and felt about certain things. About freedom of speech and the equality of men and the importance of having one law—the same law—for rich and poor, for the people you liked and the people you didn't like. About the right of every man to live his life as he thought best, his right to defend it if anyone tried to change it and his right to change it himself if he decided he liked some other way of living better…. About human dignity, which helped a man live proudly and distinguished his death from animals; and finally, about the value to be put on a human life, one's enemy's no less than one's own.
In a 1953 speech, then Secretary of State John Foster Dulles argued that communist countries might be able to achieve short-term material gain, but "results so produced are not a glory but a shame. They are achieved by desecrating the dignity of the human individual." Dulles believed human dignity meant being entitled to a life that included physical well-being and "freedom to think, to believe, and to communicate with one's fellows," "opportunities which permit some exercise of individual choices," and "the contemplation and enjoyment of what is beautiful."
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
One hundred years after U.S. law stopped allowing Black Americans to be treated as property, Black writer James Baldwin was still calling for Black Americans' dignity to be equally recognized. It was not enough, not nearly enough, that the 14th Amendment ensured equal protection of the laws; what mattered was how Black Americans were treated by their fellow human beings. In a 1960 Canadian television interview, Baldwin said, "I don't know what white people see, you know, when they look at a Negro anymore. But I do know very well—I realized when I was very young—that whatever he was looking at, it wasn't me… I was not a man."
In his seminal 1963 book The Fire Next Time, Baldwin seemed to echo Dr. Hirsh's argument from a century earlier:
I am very much concerned that American Negroes achieve their freedom here in the United States. But I am also concerned for their dignity, for the health of their souls, and must oppose any attempt that Negroes may make to do to others what has been done to them. I think I know—we see it around us every day—the spiritual wasteland to which that road leads. It is so simple a fact and one that is so hard, apparently, to grasp: Whoever debases others debases himself.
This, then, is a common thread in our historic understanding of human dignity: Anyone who treats another human being as less than human undermines their own human dignity in addition to undermining the dignity of their victim.A 1964 New York University Law Review article argued that privacy was a key aspect of human dignity. "A man whose home may be entered at the will of another, whose conversation may be overheard at the will of another, whose marital and familial intimacies may be overseen at the will of another, is less of a man, has less human dignity, on that account," wrote author Edward J. Bloustein, who later became president of Rutgers University.
The future of dignity
Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."
The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all.
Some companies, like Amazon, quickly recovered their value – but many others were left in ruins. In the two decades since this crash, technology has advanced in many ways.
Many more people are online today than they were at the start of the millennium. Looking at broadband access, in 2000, just half of Americans had broadband access at home. Today, that number sits at more than 90%.
This broadband expansion was certainly not just an American phenomenon. Similar growth can be seen on a global scale; while less than 7% of the world was online in 2000, today over half the global population has access to the internet.
Similar trends can be seen in cellphone use. At the start of the 2000s, there were 740 million cell phone subscriptions worldwide. Two decades later, that number has surpassed 8 billion, meaning there are now more cellphones in the world than people
At the same time, technology was also becoming more personal and portable. Apple sold its first iPod in 2001, and six years later it introduced the iPhone, which ushered in a new era of personal technology. These changes led to a world in which technology touches nearly everything we do.
Technology has changed major sectors over the past 20 years, including media, climate action and healthcare. The World Economic Forum's Technology Pioneers, which just celebrated its 20th anniversary, gives us insight how emerging tech leaders have influenced and responded to these changes.
Media and media consumption
The past 20 years have greatly shaped how and where we consume media. In the early 2000s, many tech firms were still focused on expanding communication for work through advanced bandwidth for video streaming and other media consumption that is common today.
Others followed the path of expanding media options beyond traditional outlets. Early Tech Pioneers such as PlanetOut did this by providing an outlet and alternative media source for LGBTQIA communities as more people got online.
Following on from these first new media options, new communities and alternative media came the massive growth of social media. In 2004, fewer than 1 million people were on Myspace; Facebook had not even launched. By 2018, Facebook had more 2.26 billion users with other sites also growing to hundreds of millions of users.
While these new online communities and communication channels have offered great spaces for alternative voices, their increased use has also brought issues of increased disinformation and polarization.
Today, many tech start-ups are focused on preserving these online media spaces while also mitigating the disinformation which can come with them. Recently, some Tech Pioneers have also approached this issue, including TruePic – which focuses on photo identification – and Two Hat, which is developing AI-powered content moderation for social media.
Climate change and green tech
Many scientists today are looking to technology to lead us towards a carbon-neutral world. Though renewed attention is being given to climate change today, these efforts to find a solution through technology is not new. In 2001, green tech offered a new investment opportunity for tech investors after the crash, leading to a boom of investing in renewable energy start-ups including Bloom Energy, a Technology Pioneer in 2010.
In the past two decades, tech start-ups have only expanded their climate focus. Many today are focuses on initiatives far beyond clean energy to slow the impact of climate change.
Different start-ups, including Carbon Engineering and Climeworks from this year's Technology Pioneers, have started to roll out carbon capture technology. These technologies remove CO2 from the air directly, enabling scientists to alleviate some of the damage from fossil fuels which have already been burned.
Another expanding area for young tech firms today is food systems innovation. Many firms, like Aleph Farms and Air Protein, are creating innovative meat and dairy alternatives that are much greener than their traditional counterparts.
Biotech and healthcare
The early 2000s also saw the culmination of a biotech boom that had started in the mid-1990s. Many firms focused on advancing biotechnologies through enhanced tech research.
An early Technology Pioneer, Actelion Pharmaceuticals was one of these companies. Actelion's tech researched the single layer of cells separating every blood vessel from the blood stream. Like many other biotech firms at the time, their focus was on precise disease and treatment research.
While many tech firms today still focus on disease and treatment research, many others have been focusing on healthcare delivery. Telehealth has been on the rise in recent years, with many young tech expanding virtual healthcare options. New technologies such as virtual visits, chatbots are being used to delivery healthcare to individuals, especially during Covid-19.
Many companies are also focusing their healthcare tech on patients, rather than doctors. For example Ada, a symptom checker app, used to be designed for doctor's use but has now shifted its language and interface to prioritize giving patients information on their symptoms. Other companies, like 7 cups, are focused are offering mental healthcare support directly to their users without through their app instead of going through existing offices.
The past two decades have seen healthcare tech get much more personal and use tech for care delivery, not just advancing medical research.
In the early 2000s, many companies were at the start of their recovery from the bursting dotcom bubble. Since then, we've seen a large expansion in the way tech innovators approach areas such as new media, climate change, healthcare delivery and more.
At the same time, we have also seen tech companies rise to the occasion of trying to combat issues which arose from the first group such as internet content moderation, expanding climate change solutions.
The Technology Pioneers' 2020 cohort marks the 20th anniversary of this community - and looking at the latest awardees can give us a snapshot of where the next two decades of tech may be heading.
The unmatched biologist-reporter Tomasz Sitarz interviews his fungal namesake, maślak sitarz – known in English as the Jersey cow mushroom.
The humble fungus turned out to be quite a sage and agreed to share a few pieces of invaluable advice with the Homo sapiens species.
In the summer, I went camping with my friends. On the first day after our arrival, I woke up early to take a walk and pick some chanterelles for breakfast. As bad luck would have it, however, I left my glasses in the tent, and without them, I struggle to tell mushrooms apart. Still, I resolved to carry on, and having collected a handful of becapped specimens I returned to our camp.
My friends, still fast asleep, did not take me up on my breakfast offer, so I ate my tofu and mushroom scramble alone. And seeing the effect it had on me, I quickly realized I had accidentally collected some mushrooms from the Psilocybe genus. This little mishap was a surprise, but I didn't let it throw me off balance – I let the psilocybinous song carry me away. And now, I shall report on the places I visited and the things I saw. If I find the right words, that is.
The ground began to rumble, or maybe rather stir and writhe, as if there was a gargantuan snakelike creature breathing underneath its surface. A low murmur and chemiluminescent glow seeped from between patches of moss and foliage. Greenish tentacles glimmered in the murky ground, twisting and turning, and showed me the way towards the heart of the forest. I recognized those viridescent threads to be mycelium, made of the hyphae that are the basis of fungi's organization system, whereas the glow seemed to be caused by luciferins – a protein capable of emitting light as the result of an enzymatic reaction. Once this mycological phenomenon dawned on me, I was no longer anxious and walked ahead.
As I was forcing my way through the thicket, in my mind I tried to systematize all the information about fungi I have learned. They are a kingdom that belongs to the group of eukaryotes, which encompasses all cellular organisms that pack their genetic material into chromosomes kept in their cells' nuclei. This makes them quite similar to humans, which convinced me even more that I could trust the call that beckoned me forward, especially since those organisms boast ancient evolutionary history. The oldest fossils that have been identified as remnants of fungi are estimated to be around one billion years old, which indisputably proves the primaeval nature of the wisdom that summoned me.
With every step that brought me closer to the heart of the land, I could hear the commotion of heated dispute grow louder around me. Then I remembered a certain theory linking the consumption of hallucinogenic mushrooms by the ancestors of contemporary humans with the development of our consciousness. If not for the phenomenon of synaesthesia, the meaning of the conversations I heard would surely have been lost on me. After all, fungal communication happens noiselessly, with the aid of chemical substances that flow through the mycelium. Luckily, I could feel the vibrations of the ground and electromagnetic impulses, catching even the tiniest of signal molecules so that I understood everything that was being said.
I finally arrived at an arena shaped like an ascocarp, the fruiting body of the sac fungi. In the stalls sat tens of thousands of various species of fungi, with the elders occupying the seats at the top of the assembly hall, chaired by the Hatter who looked strikingly similar to the well-known and liked Jersey cow mushroom.
Silencing the crowd, he announced:
"Welcome, human, son of mycelium."
"Greetings to you, my brothers," I answered kindly, filled with a feeling of unity with all the organisms that surrounded me.
"Your current state is no accident. You have been chosen from all the Homo sapiens to help us solve the most pressing problems of the modern world. Are you ready to serve our cause?"
"If you're talking about the same problems that gnaw at my mind every day, I will be happy to help," I said to him, but felt that I had addressed each and every fungus individually, as they were an inseparable entity.
"We know your thoughts, but it might be more anthropomorphic-friendly to allow you to express your worries about the state of the world verbally. As a kingdom of sage species, we have decided to try and save our shared motherland. The only one we all have."
"It would be very helpful if I did a quick recap of what we know about you. Please, don't get me wrong. In my current state, nothing is certain, and such a historic exchange deserves to be fully comprehended by both sides."
"We know what you mean. And we would very much like to know what you, humans, think of us exactly."
"As far as I'm aware, you were classified as plants for a long time. Your ability to move is far from impressive, and you seem to be well-rooted in the soil. Even mycelium is deceptively similar to plant roots. What is it that makes you different from other kingdoms of the living world?"
"Actually, some of us can move at a rather speedy pace, and several characteristics differentiate us from plants. First, we have no tissue. Our bodies are made entirely of thickly weaved mycelium. Also, we are heterotrophs, meaning that we absorb nutrition from other organisms, namely decomposing organic matter. Of course, we help it decompose through releasing our digestive enzymes into the environment. This ability makes us the main cleaners of the natural world. We can also feed parasitically, hunt, and cooperate with autotrophic organisms."
"But you are not only what you eat?"
"We are also different from other organisms on a biochemical level. We have our cell walls just like plants do, and they serve the same purpose – to protect the inside of the cell. Interestingly, however, the main ingredient of our walls is not cellulose, as it happens for plants, but chitin, a polysaccharide also found in the exoskeletons of various insects. It's easy to tell us apart from animals because we use ergosterol instead of cholesterol to build our cellular membrane. But actually, on a genetic level, we are more closely related to animals than we are to plants."
"And I imagine this genetic similarity must be the reason for the brotherly feeling that overwhelms me so. I have heard some rumours about the largest organism on our planet. They say it's a fungus that weighs 440 tonnes! I must say, I find it quite hard to comprehend. If that were true, its cap would be visible from space."
"You are taking it a little too far. Cap-and-stem fungi are called mushrooms. They are the fruiting bodies of a fungus. Its essence that is mycelium remains hidden underground and only grows above it to reproduce. It is the mycelium of our stumpy brother that you believe to be the largest living organism. Unfortunately, he could not make it to our meeting. He is a little listless due to his impressive age and bulk. Nobody can remember it very well, but he claims to be more than 2500 years old."
"Please, do send him my regards. There is another question I must ask you, though. I have heard a lot about some pioneer species, capable of preparing a low-grade environment for being populated with more demanding species, including herbaceous plants. That makes it just one step away from a fully-developed ecosystem."
"Thanks to the wide range of enzymes we produce, we can decompose next to everything! We are not intimidated by rocky areas and conflagration sites. Mycelium and spores can be found even by receding glaciers and in the desert. By processing unwelcoming environments, we create a layer of fertile ground on which life can thrive. It was thanks to us that the first plants could populate dry land. But enough about us. Now it's time to discuss the problems you have caused for the Earth, and which we can solve. Ask ahead."
"You have been around for a long time, so you must be familiar with the history of fossil fuels. We use them as our energy source. We do it by burning them, and while doing so, we release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Recently, this has become a burdensome issue for our civilization. What should we do?"
"Forests sponge up more than one-third of all CO2 emitted by the plunderous consumption culture of the current era, aptly named the Anthropocene. Plants absorb CO2 and transform it into biomass in the process of photosynthesis. And while we fungi do not photosynthesize, our role in the accumulation of CO2 could hardly be overstated. By establishing symbiotic relationships with plants, we increase the speed of their growth and improve their quality of life. When your scientists compare the efficiency of CO2 'cleaning' in a forest with a low level of mycorrhiza – that is the coexistence of plants and fungi – and a forest with a high level of such interaction, it becomes clear that fungi-rich ecosystems manage this task much better. We must, however, bring another issue to your attention. CO2 is not the only by-product of your activity. Pollution caused by nitrogen compounds is also very impactful, and we aren't very fond of them. Take care of us, and we will take care of you."
"I shall do whatever I can to convince my people. And speaking of fossil fuels, another issue comes to mind. When we extract and transport petroleum, we sometimes cause spills that pollute the environment. Do you have any advice in this department?"
"It is but a simple matter. We have several families in our ranks who can digest the hydrocarbons that make up this black gore. Other living organisms can use the products of its decomposition. Not only do we purify contaminated soil, but we can also cooperate with plants that grow there, and help them survive. In the right conditions, petroleum waste could become incubators of earth."
"It seems that some of our most pressing ecological issues could be tackled with fungal power. But we also have other problems at hand. Human life is becoming longer than ever, and as we age, our health begins to deteriorate. We suffer from all sorts of ailments, from cancers to metabolic diseases, such as diabetes. Could fungi heal us?"
"Oh, dear human, you surely know that many medicines are produced with the use of fungi. Baker's yeast, which you have been using for years to make bread, wine and beer, is also used in micro-factories."
"That is true. We discovered the genome Saccharomyces cerevisiae, which allowed us to understand many biological processes. The similarities between human and fungal cells are staggering. This species of yeast is a model organism, commonly used in scientific research. We can even use yeast to produce insulin, a hormone that is indispensable in treating diabetes, one of our civilization's diseases."
"I am proud of you humans. But remember that you have brought upon yourselves so many of those problems that you are so proud of fixing."
"You're right, and many of them remain unsolved."
"I won't tell you not to worry, but do not abandon hope. We fungi are very fond of Russian literature. One of us, the chaga mushroom that grows on birches, is the protagonist of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's novel Cancer Ward. An infusion made of this arboreal growth has incredibly potent healing abilities: it regulates blood pressure, relieves stomach ulcers, and it can even stop the development of some neoplastic cells. It is also used to treat HIV-positive patients."
"I have read this book, and I'd hardly consider the chaga its main character."
"Do you want our help or not?"
"It doesn't matter. Our time is almost up. I can feel the serotonin receptors in your body are almost depleted. In a few moments from now, we will no longer be able to communicate. But do take these leaflets with you, they contain some useful information and interesting facts. Whether you choose to use them and save our shared home or not, is your decision. Goodbye, human, and remember: we are always with you, inside you, and around you. Farewell!"
When I came to, I was lying in a beautiful forest clearing, a handful of leaflets in my fist. The mycelium's hyphae, which seemed to have coiled around my body, were now receding back into the depths of the fungal world. The clearing looked like an endlessly pulsating mandala, in which the fate of our planet was written. It is up to us whether and how we read them. Fungi are a vast, diverse kingdom, and scientists will need many more years to explore them. They have the potential to solve a number of issues that haunt our civilization. Will we accept the helping stem that they are offering?
For a few more minutes, I daydreamed. I pondered the challenges that loom over humanity. The thoughtless destruction of our environment. Of the natural magic that seems to be the key to the door of perception and survival. Then I heard the voices of my friends and of the fungi that live within them calling me. They didn't want to believe my story, but I very much hope that at least some of the fungal wisdom can seep through and into the thallus of Homo sapiens. After all, they gave me leaflets!
Decontamination of flat surfaces
Another nuclear reactor failure? Are the usual cleaning methods not good enough? Is your kitchen covered in radioactive ash? Or perhaps only cockroaches have survived, and you don't know whom you should call for help? Try the slimy spike-cap!
This inconspicuous clammy mushroom is capable of absorbing huge amounts of the radioactive isotope caesium-137, thus immobilizing it. The mushrooms can then be picked and burned in a controlled environment, creating radioactive ash, which enables a much easier way of storing or further processing. The concentration of caesium-137 in the slimy spike-cap can be up to 10,000 times higher than in the environment around it. So put on your hazmat suit and go sporulate some mushrooms.
Psst! Looking for some mystical experiences? Fancy feeling at one with nature and the shamans that surround you? Or maybe you're after vivid, colourful hallucinations? Come and join the Psilocybe circle, where colours have flavours, and all existential dread fades away!
Psilocybin, produced by our clever little brothers, has been known to humanity since the dawn of time. It is suspected to have contributed to the development of human consciousness and to have helped shape our spirituality, leading to the creation of religion. Today, it is used mostly for recreational purposes and in therapy. They say that once the door of perception is open and we see things as they really are, everything else will fall into place. We don't promise that we can save the world, but it's worth giving us a chance. Under specialist supervision, of course!
Are animal-borne diseases giving your civilization grief again? Has factory farming finally been recognized as animal violence? Perhaps you disagree with the concept of using animals as a source of protein in your diet, but you cannot imagine life without a tasty burger? The answer is already here: Quorn, the meat substitute made of Fusarium venenatum!
This spelling nightmare is, in fact, a delicious mushroom that grows in a sterile bioreactor, where it needs glucose and nitrogen to grow, and is later enriched with vitamins and mineral compounds. The final product is rich in proteins and fibre, has very little saturated fats, and has an exceptionally low track record of allergic reactions. On top of it, Quorn's carbon footprint is 80% lower than beef's. So far, the mushroom is known mainly in the West, but its popularity is growing fast – we can expect to see it on our plates sooner rather than later.
Will work for food
Reliable and hardworking fungus is looking for employment as polyethene waste utilizer. The issue of excessive amounts of plastic waste in the environment is prevalent, and humans are still looking for new ways to utilize them. My brother Aspergillus terreus and I, A. sydowii, will happily take it upon ourselves to solve this pressing issue. Can work under challenging conditions with no special equipment required – we produce all of our enzymatic instruments ourselves, and they are perfect for softening and decomposing polymers. We would also like to use this opportunity to recommend the services of our good friend the oyster mushroom, who specializes in the production of environmentally-friendly biodegradable materials that could soon replace the outdated plastics. Feel free to get in touch.
Yeast looking for eukaryote
I am one of the best-known organisms on the planet, so how come we haven't met yet? Tired of sexless germination, I am looking for the possibility of genetic recalibration to enrich my genome and establish a stable romantic relationship.
My full name is Saccharomyces cerevisiae, although I prefer to be called yeast. My career in the baking industry took off back in the times of the pharaohs. I'm still in touch with my friends and acquaintances in that part of the world, so if we get to know each other better, we can go for an exotic trip with a local guide. The baking business turned out to be very lucrative, but I didn't see it as much of a challenge, which pushed me to keep expanding my horizons. Maintaining my signature freshly-baked bread scent, I tried my hand at alcohol fermentation. But don't think me some shady moonshiner! I am a master of biochemical transformations, which I can prove with my vast portfolio of carbohydrates that I change into energy and ethanol. I'm comfortable with oxygen, but oxygen-free environments are also perfectly fine.
Being a fungus of success, I could never sit back for too long. I decided to try my hand at science next. I was hired as a model organism – not that I had to try very hard, considering my impressive skill set. A single-cell organism capable of growing in all kinds of conditions, a master of mitosis, who easily adapts to molecular modifications, has a lot in common – genetically at least – with more complex eukaryotes, including humans. In short, I am your perfect candidate. My academic interests include synthesizing medicines and hormones, ageing research, unveiling the secrets of cellular divisions and their accompanying DNA repairs, and intensification of mitochondrial mysteries. Lately I have become an avid fan of astrobiology, having visited the circumterrestrial orbit, and am planning a flight to the heliocentric orbit next. And while my genetic information isn't exactly a scientific enigma, I still have a delicious secret or two to share. If you think you might be interested, swipe right. We'll have a pastry, brew some wine, and if there's a spark, we can try some conjugation.
Translated from the Polish by Aga Zano
- The timeline of America post-WWII can be divided into two eras, according to author and law professor Ganesh Sitaraman: the liberal era which ran through the 1970s, and the current neoliberal era which began in the early 1980s. The latter promised a "more free society," but what we got instead was more inequality, less opportunity, and greater market consolidation.
- "We've lived through a neoliberal era for the last 40 years, and that era is coming to an end," Sitaraman says, adding that the ideas and policies that defined the period are being challenged on various levels.
- What comes next depends on if we take a proactive and democratic approach to shaping the economy, or if we simply react to and "deal with" market outcomes.