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We need highly formal rituals in order to make life more democratic
Comfort has won, and most formality is gone.
Benedictus, Benedicat, per Jesum Christum, Dominum Nostrum. Amen.
Please be seated. It's dinner time in St Paul's College, Sydney, where I'm dean and head of house at Graduate House.
The members of the High Table, wearing academic gowns, have processed into the refectory to a table laden with candelabra and silver accoutrements from the college treasury, each place set with cutlery and glasses. The students, also in gowns, rise from their seats to acknowledge the High Table, and stand until the presider has finished the Latin grace (this is the shorter one – a longer version is kept for feasts). Now that all are seated, a three-course meal is served, accompanied by poetry, music, announcements and general well-dressed merriment. Port is served. A final grace is said after dinner, then all retire to the common room for coffee (or more port) and further conversation. The men wear ties. The women dress up. Diners bow to the High Table when excusing themselves, and the High Table bows back when departing from dinner.
This is, by no means, an entirely unique ritual. Everywhere the British empire planted its flag, its two great universities of Oxford and Cambridge spread their collegiate model, and so Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States all have their colleges, each with their traditional ways of dining and living. St Paul's is the oldest such college in Australia, but it's different from the others (and from those in Britain) in a significant respect. St Paul's contains two communities – undergraduate and postgraduate – each with their own buildings, dining halls, common rooms, and leadership; each almost a college unto itself, but joined in many endeavours. The undergraduate community was founded in 1856, and Graduate House, which I lead, in 2019. Yet, despite this difference in antiquity, the description above describes dinner in either community, every week.
When I started as dean of Graduate House, there was no Graduate House, only an incomplete construction site and an idea. My brief was to recruit the students and academics, fill the buildings with people, set up student leadership, and design and define the culture and practices of a new college-within-a-college.
I didn't want for unsolicited advice. The most common sentiments I heard were unsurprising: 'a new college can be modern', 'you don't need gowns', 'you don't need formal dinner', 'graduate students in a new college will want it casual!'
We wear gowns. To formal dinners. It is not casual. It is not 'modern'.
I hold an unpopular view. I believe, firmly and invariably, that life in the 21st century is too informal and empty of ritual, and that we should encourage and erect more needless formality. Formality, ritual and ceremony – not casual approachability – are among the most effective ways of making the world and its institutions more inclusive and egalitarian. We all need much more formality in our lives.
The past century has been a good one for individual freedoms – in almost every respect. This wholesale liberalisation has included the freedom of individuals to dress, dine and discourse how they like it. And how they like it is invariably: 'casual', 'low key', 'without too much fuss', 'not too precious', 'not too pretentious', 'not ostentatious' or, as I heard just the other day, 'not too "bougie"' (qua 'bourgeois')… in short, informal. Comfort is king in the modern world; and comfort is the excuse proffered for the evaporation of formality from daily life.
While formality and its rituals persist in little pockets, they do so only where they are bolstered by elaborate protective struts. In general (though decreasingly), government ceremonies remain somewhat formal. With ever increasing exceptions, weddings and funerals cling to formal traditions. The High Church has positioned itself as the last refuge of formal practice – a claim that would have no teeth had not the Low Church so effectively abolished the bells and smells and hymns and ceremony in favour of appealing to parishioners who want a service that 'isn't too fussy'.
Comfort has won, and most formality is gone. But the freedom of informality comes at a cost. Formality is the bulwark against some of the nastiest human impulses, and acts as a vaccine against our most dangerous tendency: forming in-groups and out-groups.
There's nothing you or I or the Pope or the United Nations could do to stop humans from forming clubs, inventing or elevating meaningful markers of difference, and building fences and corrals that keep one's group together while keeping the 'others' out. We are a tribal ape with a brain built to exaggerate our allegiance to our small band while manning the barricades against others distinguished by vanishingly tiny differences. Individuals can, with great effort, consciously suppress this nasty bit of programming, but populations on the whole will fail.
Groups can form around any distinguishing feature, from the harmless, such as sporting teams, schools attended or favourite novels, to the nefarious, such as race, class or sex. Each person can disavow some marks of difference while clinging to others – and no person can disavow them all.
This mental virus might be incurable, but there is a vaccine: formality. Formality gives us something harmless around which to form an in-group: namely, knowledge of the rules of that particular formality, with its own trials of membership and rules of initiation.
'Ah yes, the dress code is a bit difficult to understand… You see, it's based on Edwardian standards, of course, so "semiformal" actually means black tie! No, no, don't worry a bit, it is unusual…'
The opportunity to be a crowing pedant about the rules of formality gives one something to do instead of in-grouping around more exclusionary traits, such as to which expensive school one went. More importantly, the rules of formality are ultimately accessible to all. Anyone can learn the etiquette and wear the tie, and so become part of the ever larger, ever more diverse in-group that practices the formality of the event.
The livery companies of the City of London are some of the more formal and traditional institutions in the United Kingdom today; formal dinners, ceremonies in Tudor (or mock-Tudor) garb, and incredibly convoluted elections are their standard fare. Despite their finery and antiquity, they aren't – nor have they ever been – aristocratic. More than a century ago, they were already associated with upwardly mobile plebs, so much so that Gilbert and Sullivan poked fun at the House of Lords' collective disdain for the Common Council (composed of many livery company members) in their comic opera Iolanthe (1882). The companies began as workmen's guilds and preserve those class associations, but they are formal, traditional organisations, because this helps to bind their members together, despite their differences, making them all feel as one.
This is a common pattern. While the London gentlemen's clubs are well-dressed and traditional, they're largely devoid of ceremony; instead, they're well-appointed places to relax over meals or drinks and sniffingly observe shibboleths of the upper classes, from which syllable to stress in 'patina', to why one ought not to own fish knives. Meanwhile, foundationally working-class clubs, such as the Knights of Columbus or the Freemasons, deck themselves in formal ceremony and ritual. The already powerful can afford not to make too much fuss. For the up-and-coming, or the downtrodden, formality gives an unparalleled sense of membership to a grander body.
Universities and colleges once knew this well. They remain some of the only institutions still using formality to their advantage, though often grudgingly and falteringly. I lived and worked in a number of colleges in Oxford before moving to Australia, and watched as various members of the leadership tried – sometimes successfully, sometimes not – to strike away little elements of salubrious formality, when they felt the striking was good. And so, dinner's fourth course went, but second dessert was preserved. Another night of the week became informal, but Sunday was still black tie. They chip away at traditions, forgetting that, for students, visiting fellows and new academics, these are the very things that cause rapture and delight.
In 2019, it was an act of fortitude to stand before 100 newly enrolled graduate students – mostly Australian, few with any experience of an ancient college – and insist that in this brand-new, modern building, at our very first dinner, we would wear academic gowns, say grace in Latin, and pass decanters to the left. It was harder still to say the same to a dozen busy and seasoned academics who joined us. But it was the right choice, and the college is better for it. In this modern university, my students and academics come from every political, religious, social and economic background one can imagine; they don't have anything extrinsic in which to believe together. College gives them something to believe in as a whole.
The college needs ritual, tradition, anachronism and whispers of the numinous to bind together this diversity. Not to smooth it out, but to unite it in true engagement. Any apartment building can fill itself with diverse residents who politely acknowledge each other in the hallways, then keep to themselves. It takes a formal, traditional, ritual-filled ancient college to make them all feel as though they're truly of one kind – even if that ancient college is only a year old.
Benedicto, Benedicatur, per Jesum Christum, Dominum Nostrum. Amen.
Postscript: This Idea was conceived and written in early 2020, in a time when COVID-19 was but a suppressed whisper. Reading it now, when ceremony and togetherness are rightly halted for the good of global health, feels like reading a dispatch from a different world. But I do hope this crisis, which is, underneath the medical crisis, a social one, will provide a chance for reflection on how we interact, and that a global community resuming its usual business will embrace the opportunity to repair our broken institutions of formality and ceremony. In short, I hope we all come out of quarantine wearing our Sunday best, ringing bells, lighting candles and burning incense.
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These alien-like creatures are virtually invisible in the deep sea.
- A team of marine biologists used nets to catch 16 species of deep-sea fish that have evolved the ability to be virtually invisible to prey and predators.
- "Ultra-black" skin seems to be an evolutionary adaptation that helps fish camouflage themselves in the deep sea, which is illuminated by bioluminescent organisms.
- There are likely more, and potentially much darker, ultra-black fish lurking deep in the ocean.
A team of marine biologists has discovered 16 species of "ultra-black" fish that absorb more than 99 percent of the light that hits their skin, making them virtually invisible to other deep-sea fish.
The researchers, who published their findings Thursday in Current Biology, caught the species after dropping nets more than 200 meters deep near California's Monterey Bay. At those depths, sunlight fizzles out. That's one reason why many deep-sea species have evolved the ability to illuminate the dark waters through bioluminescence.
But what if deep-sea fish don't want to be spotted? To counter bioluminescence, some species have evolved ultra-black skin that's exceptionally good at absorbing light. Only a few other species are known to possess this strange trait, including birds of paradise and some spiders and butterflies.
The Pacific blackdragon
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
When researchers first saw the deep-sea species, it wasn't immediately obvious that their skin was ultra-black. Then, marine biologist Karen Osborn, a co-author on the new paper, noticed something strange about the photos she took of the fish.
"I had tried to take pictures of deep-sea fish before and got nothing but these really horrible pictures, where you can't see any detail," Osborn told Wired. "How is it that I can shine two strobe lights at them and all that light just disappears?"
After examining samples of fish skin under the microscope, the researchers discovered that the fish skin contains a layer of organelles called melanosomes, which contain melanin, the same pigment that gives color to human skin and hair. This layer of melanosomes absorbs most of the light that hits them.
A crested bigscale
Credit: Karen Osborn/Smithsonian
"But what isn't absorbed side-scatters into the layer, and it's absorbed by the neighboring pigments that are all packed right up close to it," Osborn told Wired. "And so what they've done is create this super-efficient, very-little-material system where they can basically build a light trap with just the pigment particles and nothing else."
The result? Strange and terrifying deep-sea species, like the crested bigscale, fangtooth, and Pacific blackdragon, all of which appear in the deep sea as barely more than faint silhouettes.
David Csepp, NMFS/AKFSC/ABL
But interestingly, this unique disappearing trick wasn't passed on to these species by a common ancestor. Rather, they each developed it independently. As such, the different species use their ultra-blackness for different purposes. For example, the threadfin dragonfish only has ultra-black skin during its adolescent years, when it's rather defenseless, as Wired notes.
Other fish—like the oneirodes species, which use bioluminescent lures to bait prey—probably evolved ultra-black skin to avoid reflecting the light their own bodies produce. Meanwhile, species like C. acclinidens only have ultra-black skin around their gut, possibly to hide light of bioluminescent fish they've eaten.
Given that these newly described species are just ones that this team found off the coast of California, there are likely many more, and possibly much darker, ultra-black fish swimming in the deep ocean.
Information may not seem like something physical, yet it has become a central concern for physicists. A wonderful new book explores the importance of the "dataome" for the physical, biological, and human worlds.
- The most important current topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all — information, which is central to thermodynamics and perhaps the universe itself.
- The "dataome" is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls.
- The dataome is vast and growing everyday, sucking up an ever increasing share of the energy humans produce.
Physics is a field that is supposed to study real stuff. By real, I mean things like matter and energy. Matter is, of course, the kind of stuff you can hold in your hand. Energy may seem a little more abstract, but its reality is pretty apparent, appearing in the form of motion or gravity or electromagnetic fields.
What has become apparent recently, however, is the importance to physics of something that seems somewhat less real: information. From black holes to quantum mechanics to understanding the physics of life, information has risen to become a principal concern of many physicists in many domains. This new centrality of information is why you really need to read astrophysicist Caleb Scharf's new book The Ascent of Information: Books, Bits, Machines, and Life's Unending Algorithms.
Scharf is currently the director of the Astrobiology Program at Columbia University. He is also the author of four other books as well as a regular contributor to Scientific American.
(Full disclosure: Scharf and I have been collaborators on a scientific project involving the Fermi Paradox, so I was a big fan before I read this new book. Of course, the reason why I collaborated with him is because I really like the way he thinks, and his creativity in tackling tough problems is on full display in The Ascent of Information.)
What is the dataome?
In his new book, Scharf is seeking a deeper understanding of what he calls the "dataome." This is the way human beings have been externalizing information about ourselves and the world since we first began making paintings on cave walls. The book opens with a compelling exploration of how Shakespeare's works, which began as scribbles on a page, have gone on to have lives of their own in the dataome. Through reprintings in different languages, recordings of performances, movie adaptations, comic books, and so on, Shakespeare's works are now a permanent part of the vast swirling ensemble of information that constitutes the human dataome.
I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
But the dataome does not just live in our heads. Scharf takes us on a proper physicist's journey through the dataome, showing us how information can never be divorced from energy. Your brain needs the chemical energy from food you ate this morning to read, process, and interpret these words. One of the most engaging parts of the book is when Scharf details just how much energy and real physical space our data-hungry world consumes as it adds to the dataome. For example, the Hohhot Data Center in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region of China is made of vast "farms" of data processing servers covering 245 acres of real estate. A single application like Bitcoin, Scharf tells us, consumes 7.7 gigawatts per year, equivalent to the output of half a dozen nuclear reactors!
Information is everywhere
But the dataome is not just about energy. Entropy is central to the story as well. Scharf takes the reader through a beautifully crafted discussion of information and the science of thermodynamics. This is where the links between energy, entropy, the limits of useful work, and probability all become profoundly connected to the definition of information.
The second law of thermodynamics tells us that you cannot use all of a given amount of energy to do useful work. Some of that energy must be wasted by getting turned into heat. Entropy is the physicist's way of measuring that waste (which can also be thought of as disorder). Scharf takes the reader through the basic relations of thermodynamics and then shows how entropy became intimately linked with information. It was Claude Shannon's brilliant work in the 1940s that showed how information — bits — could be defined for communication and computation as an entropy associated with the redundancy of strings of symbols. That was the link tying the physical world of physics explicitly to the informational and computational world of the dataome.
The best parts of the book are where Scharf unpacks how information makes its appearance in biology. From the data storage and processing that occurs with every strand of DNA, to the tangled pathways that define evolutionary dynamics, Scharf demonstrates how life is what happens to physics and chemistry when information matters. I found gems in these parts of the book that forced me to put the volume down and stare into space for a time to deal with their impact.
The physics of information
There are a lot of popular physics books out there about black holes and exoplanets and other cool stuff. But right now, I feel like the most important topic in physics relates to a subject that hardly seems physical at all. Information is a relatively new addition to the physics bestiary, making it even more compelling. If you are looking for a good introduction to how that is so, The Ascent of Information is a good place to start.
A new study tested to what extent dogs can sense human deception.
Is humanity's best friend catching on to our shenanigans? Researchers at the University of Vienna discovered that dogs can in certain cases know when people are lying.
The scientists carried out a study with hundreds of dogs to determine to what extent dogs could spot deception. The team's new paper, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, outlined experiments that tested whether dogs, like humans, have some inner sense of how to assess truthfulness.
As the researchers wrote in their paper, "Among non-primates, dogs (Canis familiaris) constitute a particularly interesting case, as their social environment has been shared with humans for at least 14,000 years. For this reason, dogs have been considered as a model species for the comparative investigation of socio-cognitive abilities." The investigation focused specifically on understanding if dogs were "sensitive to some mental or psychological states of humans."
The experiments involved 260 dogs, which were made to listen to advice from a human "communicator" whom they did not know. The human told them which one of two bowls had a treat hidden inside by touching it and saying, "Look, this is very good!" If the dogs took the person's advice, they would get the treat.
Once they established the trust of the dogs, the researchers then complicated the experience by letting dogs watch another human that they did not know transfer the treat from one bowl to another. In some cases, the original communicator would also be present to watch but not always.
The findings revealed that half of the dogs did not follow the advice of the communicator if that person was not present when the food was switched to a different bowl. The dogs had a sense that this human could not have known the true location of the treat. Furthermore, two-thirds of the dogs ignored the human's suggestion if she did see the food switch but pointed to the wrong bowl. The dogs figured out the human was lying to them.
Photos of experiments showing the dog, human communicator, and person hiding the treat. Credit: Lucrezia Lonardo et al / Proceedings of the Royal Society B.
"We thought dogs would behave like children under age five and apes, but now we speculate that perhaps dogs can understand when someone is being deceitful," co-author Ludwig Huber from the University of Vienna told New Scientist. "Maybe they think, 'This person has the same knowledge as me, and is nevertheless giving me the wrong [information].' It's possible they could see that as intentionally misleading, which is lying."
This is not the first time such experiments have been carried out. Previously, children under age five, macaques, and chimps were tested in a similar way. It turned out that children and other animals were more likely than dogs to listen to the advice of the liars. Notably, among the dogs, terriers were found to be more like children and apes, more eagerly following false suggestions.