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."
- Years ago, California Institute of Technology professor Konstantin Batygin was inspired to embark on a journey of discovering what lurked beyond Neptune. What he and his collaborator discovered was a strange field of debris.
- This field of debris exhibited a clustering of orbits, and something was keeping these orbits confined. The only plausible source would be the gravitational pull of an extra planet—Planet Nine.
- While Planet Nine hasn't been found directly, the pieces of the puzzle are coming together. And Batygin is confident we'll return to a nine-planet solar system within the next decade.
The site is infamous among anthropologists who study the Paleolithic period for the evidence of what appears to be the massacre and possible cannibalization of a family: Their bones seem to have been hacked at by stone tools and hammers, probably by another group of Neanderthals, to remove their flesh and marrow.
But more importantly, for this story, those bones also reveal something of the sex life of the cave's inhabitants. Anomalies and deformations, along with the DNA buried within their bones, suggest that the members of this group (and their parents) were mating with their close kin.
Lately, much news from the field of paleoarchaeology and anthropology has centered on Neanderthal bedfellows. You would be forgiven for thinking that paleoanthropologists think about little other than paleo-sex. Within the past several years, genetic evidence has emerged that Neanderthals interbred on more than one occasion with both anatomically modern humans and our newfound ancient relative, the Denisovans. One finger bone fragment from Denisova Cave in Siberia is now famous for belonging to a teenage girl who had a Neanderthal mother and a Denisovan father.
But evidence also shows that while some Neanderthals were apparently breeding well outside of the family group, some were also finding mates much closer to home.
In the remains from El Sidrón Cave, paleoanthropologist Luis Ríos and colleagues found 17 examples of congenital anomalies—structural malformations of various body parts that occur while an individual is developing in the womb.
One young El Sidrón individual, for example, had an oddly shaped patella, the bone that forms the kneecap: It had three lobes rather than just one. This Neanderthal probably had a limp. An adult male in the same cave had a markedly narrow nasal passage and a "retained deciduous mandibular canine," writes Ríos and his co-authors—this adult Neanderthal never lost one of his lower canine baby teeth. That tooth developed a painful cyst, which left its mark on the bone of his jaw. Microscopic striations on the tooth itself suggest that he coped with the pain by avoiding chewing on that side of his mouth.
One possible explanation for these skeletal abnormalities is that they resulted from extremely stressful environmental conditions, such as brutally cold weather and scarce food. A pregnant mother experiencing a lot of physical stress and nutritional deprivation might give birth to an infant with some of the same conditions seen at El Sidrón.
Inbreeding leads to a problematically small gene pool
But DNA tests from these bones indicate that inbreeding and a small population size were likely factors contributing to the physical peculiarities in this family. The 13 El Sidrón Neanderthals share much longer segments of their DNA than would be expected if they were the offspring of non-relatives.
Genetically, the three adult males in the group were closely related enough to be brothers, cousins, or uncles, while the four adult females in the group came from three distinct genetic lines. While all individuals were likely distantly related to one another (think third or fourth cousins), it is likely that the males exchanged females with another local, slightly less closely related group.
Today inbreeding carries connotations of "kissing cousins" or intimacy between even closer familial relations. But the term simply means mating between relatives, which increases the number of common ancestors in a family tree and the likelihood of inheriting deleterious genes from those common ancestors. Even third or fourth cousins are genetically similar enough for issues to arise.
The younger El Sidrón individuals (ranging in age from 5 to 15 years of age, along with one infant) were likely the offspring of at least some of the adults. At least one of these children, the young male mentioned above, possessed skeletal malformations that were likely passed down from parents who were fairly closely related.
The tangled familial ties of the El Sidrón Neanderthals are not a unique situation; DNA evidence from other Neanderthals elsewhere in Eurasia also shows elevated instances of shared DNA segments around this time, suggesting that mating between individuals who shared recent ancestors was fairly frequent, and possibly unavoidable, if local populations were small.
In general, inbreeding leads to a problematically small gene pool. Rare harmful traits that might disappear in larger populations tend to be amplified if close kin interbreed. Yet inbreeding has happened throughout human history, especially in the royal families of different cultures. Just look at the Habsburg family line in Spain or the royal families of Ancient Egypt to see the effects of keeping family bloodlines "pure."
Neanderthals were not the only ancient hominins to mate with their close relatives. Anatomically modern humans have also been found with skeletal evidence of inbreeding, such as abnormally bowed thigh bones, deformed arm bones, and even a case of a toddler with a swollen brain case consistent with hydrocephalus.
At the time that these congenital malformations appear, between 100,000 and 50,000 years ago, modern humans were traveling out of Africa. They fanned out across vast geographical regions, and, at times, were quite isolated from one another. Populations might have been separated by hundreds of kilometers at a time, only rarely encountering one another. This might be a simple reason why inbreeding occurred: Pickings were slim.
During the time that the El Sidrón Neanderthal family occupied their cave, it is likely that they were also fairly isolated. Their mating patterns probably had much more to do with small population size and low population density than any sort of cultural practice. There is no way to know if cultural taboos against mating with close relatives existed back then.
Interestingly, most of the individuals in the El Sidrón family group lived well past infancy despite physical conditions that, in some cases, would have made it difficult for them to get around and perform their day-to-day tasks. This family cared for one another, sharing physical burdens and helping each other to survive. Their relations, and their care, are recorded in their bones.
This column is part of an ongoing series about the Neanderthal body: a head-to-toe tour. See our interactive graphic.
- Many university mission statements do not live up to their promise, writes Ben Nelson, founder of Minerva, a university designed to develop intellect over content memorization.
- The core competencies that students need for success—critical thinking, communication, problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding, for example—should be intentionally taught, not left to chance.
- These competencies can be summed up with one word: wisdom. True wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations.
If you approach almost any university president and ask "What is the purpose of your university?", the response will likely be "the creation and dissemination of knowledge." This speaks to two core aspects of most institutions: a research capacity that is core to the advancement of human knowledge, and transmitting that information to the world, be it through publishing or in a classroom setting. The latter, oftentimes delivered via lectures, are demonstrably ineffective at conveying that knowledge.
If you ask that same university president, "What does an undergraduate student learn at your university", they will almost never respond with "Physics, sociology, and comparative literature." Instead you will hear of students learning to think critically, solve problems creatively, communicate effectively, along with a number of other laudable outcomes. When a third question is posed: "Where in your curriculum do you teach these skills?", the answer to that is revealing. "Well, we teach physics, sociology, and comparative literature, and the students acquire those skills by osmosis."
Instead of offering subject matter content that has become ubiquitous, why don't universities listen to themselves and employers from around the globe and teach the courses and skills that really matter?
Empirically, this is a false statement as fundamental cognitive tools have been proven not to be picked up incidentally. Logically, it exposes the university as structured to do exactly what the first statement admitted to: the creation and dissemination of knowledge. The role of the university as a disseminator of information was invaluable before the printing press, and to a lesser degree, in the centuries that followed. Information was often of questionable validity, and a curation of that information was crucial. In the era of the internet, though, it is hard to argue that the principles of physics, sociology, or any other field are not easily accessible online—in many cases offered by these same institutions for free.
Instead of offering subject matter content that has become ubiquitous, why don't universities listen to themselves and employers from around the globe and teach the courses and skills that really matter? The core competencies that students need for success—those espoused as goals by university presidents everywhere—should be intentionally taught, not left to be picked up haphazardly.
Universities know what they should be doing—just listen to what they say: critical thinking, effective communication, creative problem solving, and cross-cultural understanding are outcomes that are universally valued. We all want to see students emerging from their four years of undergraduate studies with these skills. These abilities and more can be summed up with one word: wisdom.
However, popular conceptions of wisdom are tied up with images of sage mystics and stoic elders, the keepers of ancient secrets and silent understanding. These associations suggest that wisdom is inaccessible, except through long meditative silences and lifetimes of experience. The reality is that true wisdom is the ability to apply one's knowledge appropriately when faced with novel situations. We can teach that by introducing concepts and giving students many opportunities throughout their education to apply them in different contexts. It really is that simple.
Knowing what to do in a familiar situation is simply memorization. But knowing how to differentiate between a fact and a claim in a subject matter you have little familiarity with, understanding how to effectively negotiate a business deal in a culture you've never interacted with, or understanding how to apply principles under radically different constraints is wisdom. And wisdom can, indeed must, be taught. However, it cannot be taught by accident, as a byproduct of teaching subject matter. It requires identifying the principles that underpin wisdom and deliberately recontextualizing them, so students develop both a depth of mastery and a breadth of applications.
If universities are to be successful in their stated missions, they should focus on redesigning their curricula to impart wisdom. It is time for universities to live up to their promises, to be intentional about developing the skills students—and the world—need.
- Over 1,200 pastors in California claim they're opening their churches this week against state orders.
- While church leaders demand independence from governmental oversight, 9,000 Catholic churches have received small business loans.
- A number of re-opened churches shut back down after members and clergy became infected with the novel coronavirus.
Last week a group of over 1,200 pastors signed a petition to announce that their churches will be open for business beginning on May 31. This announcement defies California's shelter-at-home orders—in fact, a federal court just backed Governor Newsom's directives. Under the state's four-stage reopening roadmap, churches are allowed to resume corporate worship in Stage 3. At the moment, California is early in Stage 2. Church leaders claim they need to open now.
This problem isn't confined to California, as churches from Massachusetts to Texas are already open for business. This story doesn't always have a happy ending. A Catholic church in Houston had to shut its doors again after five church leaders were diagnosed with COVID-19. Two weeks after reopening, a Georgia church closed after several families that attended discovered they had the virus.
In Sacramento County, California, 71 people that attended a service later learned they were infected. The virus has hit African Americans especially hard. So far, 33 bishops, pastors, and reverends have died from the disease. Epidemiologist Kimberly Powers says indoor religious services are a high risk for transmission.
An ongoing spreadsheet database by mathematical modeler Gwen Knight has linked around 220 different church events resulting in disease transmission. Her detailed report links to each case, which tracks religious services around the world.
But not all religious are rushing back to the pulpit. Father James Martin, Jesuit priest and consultant to the Vatican's Secretariat for Communications, called for leaders to listen to the advice of public health officials and state orders. He said reopening early is "the opposite of pro-life." California churches that have reopened are producing new clusters of cases. Martin is hosting services on his Facebook page instead of in person.
All of this makes you wonder: What is the rush to reopen really about?
Coronavirus: Who is driving the U.S. protests against lockdown?
The U.S. government has been unprepared from day one. Are shut-downs the best idea? There are credible cases against it. This administration has gutted our health care system, which was already hemorrhaging from previous administrations supporting the for-profit model. Our response to this virus has been piecemeal because that's exactly how health care has been dismantled. That trend leaves the onus to state and local governments.
The rebellion against state orders has largely been Christian, as mosques and temples have remained quiet. Religious believers claim their houses of worship are essential even though churches are not necessary for survival. Food stores, pharmacies, and laundromats, sure. Appliance repair and plumbing, understandable.
In California, questionable inclusions are on the list of essential businesses. Florists? Big Flower might rule yes, but that's a strange one. Speaking of flower, a bit of an uproar ensued when marijuana dispensaries remained open. Yet my local dispensary only allows a handful of people to enter, masks are required, and social distancing is strictly enforced. Is that really possible in a church?
Perhaps. Smaller services, absolutely. Some of the stated reasons for reopening don't add up, however. Over 12,000 Catholic Churches in the United States applied for small business loans after lockdowns began. In total, roughly 9,000 received them. Yet on the petition to reopen, the author opens with a Martin Luther King, Jr. quote which reads, "[The church] must be the guide and the critic of the state, and never its tool."
How does an institution alleging to be the "guide of the state" claim it doesn't have to play by the state's rules, yet turn to the same governing body—one it doesn't pay taxes to—and request money? This is a longstanding problem. Revenue from church taxes would equal $71 billion a year. A lot of heat is rightfully aimed at Amazon for not paying its fair share. Tax evasion from religious organizations is equally problematic.
The church organist plays for the congregation during a drive-in Sunday church service at Dunseverick Baptist Church on May 24, 2020 in Bushmills, Northern Ireland.
Photo by Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
Many churches are small and rely on member donations. While an understandable concern, the problem with church structure must be addressed. A 2018 investigation into the Catholic Church in Australia uncovered $30 billion in holdings in that country alone. The overall wealth of the Church is, according to one journalist, "impossible to calculate." For an institution to claim independence (and even superiority) over government yet turn to the same government for taxpayer money needs to be addressed.
The social impact is hard on church communities, as it is on all communities. Increasing mental health distress due to isolation is a growing problem we need to reckon with as a society. We must also ask how a church service is different from other gatherings. Many religious will claim this to be the case, but plenty of Americans find solace in yoga studios, health clubs, and sporting events. There is no supremacy for one social circle over another. This is about transmission of disease, not personal preferences.
Prayer has long been a group activity, yet it is also an individual connection, as Matthew 6:5-6 states. Church goers are missing the feeling of being in a group. Severing this connection is painful. But we mustn't confuse loss of group for loss of faith.
The loudest garner headlines. Fortunately, plenty of religious leaders are putting smart guidelines in place for reopening. As with every public event, vigilance is required. A number of churches appear ready to practice precaution for the health of their flock. They're also listening to public health officials for a reopening timeline.
Finally, there's a belief floating around that God will protect the faithful. We don't have to spend too much time on this, except to shame anyone using the pulpit to make such a ridiculous claim. Viruses don't pray. They only prey. Their followers deserve better than that.
For many of us, our microwaves and dishwashers aren't the first thing that come to mind when trying to glean health information, beyond that we should (maybe) lay off the Hot Pockets and empty the dishes in a timely way.
But we may soon be rethinking that, thanks to new research from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL). The system, called "Sapple," analyzes in-home appliance usage to better understand our health patterns, using just radio signals and a smart electricity meter.
Taking information from two in-home sensors, the new machine learning model examines use of everyday items like microwaves, stoves, and even hair dryers, and can detect where and when a particular appliance is being used.
For example, for an elderly person living alone, learning appliance usage patterns could help their health-care professionals understand their ability to perform various activities of daily living, with the goal of eventually helping advise on healthy patterns. These can include personal hygiene, dressing, eating, maintaining continence, and mobility.
"This system uses passive sensing data, and does not require people to change the way they live," says MIT PhD student Chen-Yu Hsu, the lead author on a new paper about Sapple. "It has potential to improve things like energy saving and efficiency, give us a better understanding of the daily activities of seniors living alone, and provide insight into the behavioral analytics for smart environments."
Of the two sensors, the "location sensor" uses radio signals to sense placement, and covers around 40 feet, or enough to cover a typical one-bedroom apartment. A user can walk around their apartment to set up the sensor, which allows it to understand the physical boundaries, and then the sensor can limit itself to that specified area.
The team says the system could potentially be useful during the Covid-19 pandemic, where there's an increasing interest in contactless sensing of health and behaviors. They can imagine using passive sensor data to free up the need for caregivers to visit higher-risk populations and minimize overall in-person contact.
Sapple comes from the team's growing body of research focused on using wireless sensing to better understand our complex human bodies — such as an in-body "GPS" sensor with the goal of tracking tumors or dispensing drugs, a wireless smart-home system for monitoring diseases and helping the elderly "age in place," and another system for measuring gait to help monitor and diagnose various ailments.
Previous work in learning appliance usage has looked at using energy data from a utility meter. But this approach makes it challenging to tease out details, as the energy data is a mix of multiple appliances' patterns all added together.
Unsupervised approaches — those in which training data aren't labeled — assume patterns of individual appliances are unknown. However, since the utility meter measures the total energy used by the home, it's really hard to learn individual appliances or detect them effectively.
Sapple stays in the unsupervised realm: It doesn't assume we know the patterns of individual appliances, but instead uses data from a second sensor to help learn appliance usage patterns with self-supervision. For example, the location sensor captures a person's motion as they approach a microwave, put food in it, and turn it on. The model then analyzes the data, and learns when specific appliances are turned on, and what their locations are in a home.
In addition to health, Sapple could potentially help reduce our heavy imprint on the natural world. By analyzing appliance usage patterns within homes, the system could be used to encourage energy-saving behaviors and improve forecasting and delivery for utility companies.
The team notes that their system's approach solves some of the issues that can be tricky for in-home sensors. For example, using the location data doesn't always imply appliance usage, as people can be next to an appliance without using it. Also, many appliances like refrigerators cycle their power and create "background events," and there could be location data from multiple people in a home, but not all of them are related to appliance usage. Sapple solves these problems by learning when the two sensor streams become related, and uses that to discover when appliances are turned on, and their locations.
"As indoor location-sensing starts to potentially become as common as Wi-Fi in the future, the hope is that our technology can be effortlessly applied to all places with utility meters," says Hsu. "This could enable new applications for passive health sensing in the homes. Utility companies, for example, could reduce peak demands by providing personalized feedback, optimize energy generation and delivery, and ultimately improve energy efficiency."
Hsu wrote the paper alongside CSAIL PhD students Abbas Zeitoun and Guang-He Lee, as well as MIT professors Dina Katabi and Tommi Jaakkola. They presented the paper virtually at the International Conference on Learning Representations.