Once a week.
Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
Walker Percy and Carl Sagan—Part I
The title Lost in the Cosmos is meant to be a correction to Carl Sagan’s “splendid picture book” Cosmos, which Percy understands as a failed self-help book. Sagan aims to get our minds off our insignificant selves by getting it on the magnificence of the stars and planets. Every moment in scientific progress has been about the demotion of the place of man in the cosmos, until he becomes nothing more than an insignificant speck on a pale blue dot. So he has every reason to use his mind to take pleasure in losing himself in the wonders of the cosmos. In that sense, Sagan agrees with Socrates that the way of life of the scientist or philosopher (Socrates didn’t distinguish between the two) is “learning how to die” or getting over yourself, all the illusions you have about your personal significance.
Insofar as he is mind, his thoughts, the physicist says, correspond to the whole that is cosmos. And so, far from being lost, he lives at home in the cosmos. Sagan actually agrees with the philosopher Leo Strauss that the world, so understood, is the home of the human mind.
Insofar as he is body, he can lose himself in the species, and that’s why Sagan said that we conscious beings should abandon this planet and populate many others in what we can say is a sacred effort to keep the species around. Even this solar system isn’t species-safe; the sun that is the indispensable condition of all life has only maybe a million years to go.
Even though our planet and our solar system are far from reliable homes, we’re not, Sagan explains, really displaced persons. Far from being lost or all alone, we live as parts of a species.
No mind and no body need be anxious or homeless, and self-obsession and anxiety are based on misunderstandings of who we are as minds and bodies, misunderstandings we get from religion. It’s from religion that we get the untrue and needlessly alienating view that the cosmos—understood as a world of bodies understood by minds—is not our true home.
Percy himself sides with science against superstition, such as the ridiculous New Agey superstitions about UFOs, parapsychology, astrology, Wicca, transhumanism, Gaia, pantheism, undisciplined or sentimental Western (or eat, pray, love) mixture of Buddhism and Hinduism, flaky spirituality generally, and so forth prevalent in our post-Christian age. Percy adds, of course, that the popularizing scientists have a hard time explaining why the scientific discrediting of the personal, loving God has made our replacement superstitions especially silly forms of self-denial. The least we can say is what appears to be the sophisticated movement from religion (an organized community of belief) to spirituality (as in “the God within” or “the spirituality of running”) has hardly been good for real thought about who each of us is.
Americans these days are free to choose between the atheistic free thought and joyful wonder of the scientist about the world outside himself and the blind faith in the personal friend we have in Jesus of the fundamentalist, but it turns out many or most of them aren’t choosing either.
Percy observes that the dispute between scientific popularizers such as Sagan and the later New Atheists and “fundamentalists who believe God created the world six thousand years ago” is “enough to give both science and Christianity a bad name.” The scientists are certainly right to say that the fundamentalists are wrong to willfully deny what we can know through science. Percy adds that the fundamentalists do Christianity a misleading disservice by saying that what Christianity really teaches is incompatible with what we can really know through science.
The scientists are certainly right to say that evolution happened, but they’re wrong to say that some homogeneous theory of evolution can explain who we are. So they’re wrong to say the fact of evolution—viewed in light of what we can really see with our own eyes—rules out the possibility of personal creation. Percy writes with the faith that the self-correcting method of science can be an effective antidote to the pretentious and vulgar self-helpism of scientism.
It’s not so clear that Percy expects his book, by itself, to do much good for the fundamentalists at all. None of the significant characters in Percy’s novels is or was a fundamentalist. Jane Smith, the wonderfully realistic yet elusive scientist, wife, and mother in second fictional space odyssey in Lost in the Cosmos, is a Methodist (the relatively liberal, sophisticated, and not-so-angry form of southern Protestantism) who readily becomes a Catholic.
Percy speaks against scientism with science, and he speaks against fundamentalism with both science and theology, with theologians especially attuned to science such as Thomas, Pascal, and Kierkegaard. Actually, his advice to scientists is also to read those three guys with open minds to get over their self-indulgent prejudice about what Christianity is. His advice to fundamentalists is to do the same to get over their self-indulgent prejudice that they can know God easily by reading the Bible all alone and all by itself.
Nonetheless, when I speak at evangelical (not the same as fundamentalist, admittedly) colleges I quote Percy or shamelessly sample his arguments against their prejudice that they must choose between evolutionism and creationism, between two incompatible "worldviews." Evolution happened, I say! Get over it! But that’s not to say that it’s really scientific to believe that the reigning neo-Darwinian theories actually don't explain anywhere near completely who we are or what we’re supposed to do.
At sophisticated secular colleges I begin by asking how you square what you believe about evolution and what you believe about your personal autonomy. Do you really believe you have “a theory of man” that explains how “the autonomous chimp” came into being? Or a theory that explains who that being is and what that being in supposed to do, a theory that reconciles what the Darwinians say about “the eusocial animal” and what the feminists and transhumanists say about not being determined by our bodily instincts?
My real experience—despite the self-correcting mechanisms of the scientific method—is that secularists get more angry with me than the fundamentalists. The latter actually love to argue—in the service of truth and love—more.
Well, that’s enough for now. What comes next is Percy’s question “Why is Carl Sagan so lonely?” The physicist may be able to tell us all about the cosmos, but that doesn’t mean he can really integrate himself in the world he describes.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
A team of archaeologists has discovered 3,200-year-old cheese after analyzing artifacts found in an ancient Egyptian tomb. It could be the oldest known cheese sample in the world.
The tomb that held the cheese lies in the desert sands south of Cairo. It was first discovered in the 19th century by treasure hunters, who eventually lost the knowledge of its location, leaving the Saharan sands to once again conceal the tomb.
“Since 1885 the tomb has been covered in sand and no-one knew about it,” Professor Ola el-Aguizy of Cairo University told the BBC. “It is important because this tomb was the lost tomb.”
In 2010, a team of archaeologists rediscovered the tomb, which belonged to Ptahmes, a mayor and military chief of staff of the Egyptian city of Memphis in the 13th century B.C. In the tomb, the team found a jar containing a “solidified whitish mass,” among other artifacts.
“The archaeologists suspected [the mass] was food, according to the conservation method and the position of the finding inside the tomb, but we discovered it was cheese after the first tests,” Enrico Greco, the lead author of the paper and a research assistant at Peking University in Beijing, told the The New York Times.
To find out what the substance was, the team had to develop a novel way to analyze the proteins and identify the peptide markers in the samples. They first dissolved parts of the substance and then used mass spectrometry and chromatography to analyze its proteins.
Despite more than 3,000 years spent in the desert, the researchers were able to identify hundreds of peptides (chains of amino acids) in the sample. They found some that were associated with milk from goat, sheep and, interestingly, the African buffalo, a species not usually kept as a domestic animal in modern Africa, as Gizmodo reports.
Those results suggested that the substance was cheese, specifically one that was probably similar in consistency to chevre but with a “really, really acidy” taste, as Dr. Paul Kindstedt, a professor at the University of Vermont who studies the chemistry and history of cheese, told the The New York Times.
“It would be high in moisture; it would be spreadable,” he said. “It would not last long; it would spoil very quickly.”
The researchers also found traces of the bacterium Brucella melitensis, which causes brucellosis, a debilitating disease that can cause endocarditis, arthritis, chronic fatigue, malaise, muscle pain and other conditions. It’s a disease usually contracted by consuming raw dairy products.
“The most common way to be infected [with Brucella melitensis] is by eating or drinking unpasteurized/raw dairy products. When sheep, goats, cows, or camels are infected, their milk becomes contaminated with the bacteria,” the U.S. Centers for Disease Control wrote on its website. “If the milk from infected animals is not pasteurized, the infection will be transmitted to people who consume the milk and/or cheese products.”
Dr. Kindstedt said one reason the study is significant is for its novel use of proteomic analysis, which is the systematic identification and quantification of the complete complement of proteins (the proteome) of a biological system.
“As I say to my students every year when I get to Egypt, someone has to go ahead and analyze these residues with modern capabilities,” he told the The New York Times. “This is a logical next step and I think you’re going to see a lot more of this.”
'The Great Pyramid of Chee-za'. An artist's interpretation of a very ripe, slightly deadly Egyptian tomb cheese. (Credit: Creative commons/Big Think)
However, Dr. Kindstedt did offer a bit of caution on the conclusions the researchers drew from the findings.
“The authors of this new study did some nice work,” he told Gizmodo in a statement. “But in my view, on multiple grounds (I suspect in their zeal to be “the first”), they inferred considerably beyond what their data is capable of supporting within reasonable certainty, and almost certainly they are not the first to have found solid cheese residues in Egyptian tombs, just the first to apply proteomic analyses (which is worthy achievement on its own).”
As bad as this sounds, a new essay suggests that we live in a surprisingly egalitarian age.
- A new essay depicts 700 years of economic inequality in Europe.
- The only stretch of time more egalitarian than today was the period between 1350 to approximately the year 1700.
- Data suggest that, without intervention, inequality does not decrease on its own.
Economic inequality is a constant topic. No matter the cycle — boom or bust — somebody is making a lot of money, and the question of fairness is never far behind.
A recently published essay in the Journal of Economic Literature by Professor Guido Alfani adds an intriguing perspective to the discussion by showing the evolution of income inequality in Europe over the last several hundred years. As it turns out, we currently live in a comparatively egalitarian epoch.
Seven centuries of economic history
Figure 8 from Guido Alfani, Journal of Economic Literature, 2021.
This graph shows the amount of wealth controlled by the top ten percent in certain parts of Europe over the last seven hundred years. Archival documentation similar to — and often of a similar quality as — modern economic data allows researchers to get a glimpse of what economic conditions were like centuries ago. Sources like property tax records and documents listing the rental value of homes can be used to determine how much a person's estate was worth. (While these methods leave out those without property, the data is not particularly distorted.)
The first part of the line, shown in black, represents work by Prof. Alfani and represents the average inequality level of the Sabaudian State in Northern Italy, The Florentine State, The Kingdom of Naples, and the Republic of Venice. The latter part, in gray, is based on the work of French economist Thomas Piketty and represents an average of inequality in France, the United Kingdom, and Sweden during that time period.
Despite the shift in location, the level of inequality and rate of increase are very similar between the two data sets.
Apocalyptic events cause decreases in inequality
Note that there are two substantial declines in inequality. Both are tied to truly apocalyptic events. The first is the Black Death, the common name for the bubonic plague pandemic in the 14th century, which killed off anywhere between 30 and 50 percent of Europe. The second, at the dawn of the 20th century, was the result of World War I and the many major events in its aftermath.
The 20th century as a whole was a time of tremendous economic change, and the periods not featuring major wars are notable for having large experiments in distributive economic policies, particularly in the countries Piketty considers.
The slight stall in the rise of inequality during the 17th century is the result of the Thirty Years' War, a terrible religious conflict that ravaged Europe and left eight million people dead, and of major plagues that affected South Europe. However, the recurrent outbreaks of the plague after the Black Death no longer had much effect on inequality. This was due to a number of factors, not the least of which was the adaptation of European institutions to handle pandemics without causing such a shift in wealth.
In 2010, the last year covered by the essay, inequality levels were similar to those of 1340, with 66 percent of the wealth of society being held by the top ten percent. Also, inequality levels were continuing to rise, and the trends have not ended since. As Prof. Alfani explained in an email to BigThink:
"During the decade preceding the Covid pandemic, economic inequality has shown a slow tendency towards further inequality growth. The Great Recession that began in 2008 possibly contributed to slow down inequality growth, especially in Europe, but it did not stop it. However, the expectation is that Covid-19 will tend to increase inequality and poverty. This, because it tends to create a relatively greater economic damage to those having unstable occupations, or who need physical strength to work (think of the effects of the so-called "long-Covid," which can prove physically invalidating for a long time). Additionally, and thankfully, Covid is not lethal enough to force major leveling dynamics upon society."
Can only disasters change inequality?
That is the subject of some debate. While inequality can occur in any economy, even one that doesn't grow all that much, some things appear to make it more likely to rise or fall.
Thomas Piketty suggested that the cause of changes in inequality levels is the difference in the rate of return on capital and the overall growth rate of the economy. Since the return on capital is typically higher than the overall growth rate, this means that those who have capital to invest tend to get richer faster than everybody else.
While this does explain a great deal of the graph after 1800, his model fails to explain why inequality fell after the Black Death. Indeed, since the plague destroyed human capital and left material goods alone, we would expect the ratio of wealth over income to increase and for inequality to rise. His model can provide explanations for the decline in inequality in the decades after the pandemic, however- it is possible that the abundance of capital could have lowered returns over a longer time span.
The catastrophe theory put forth by Walter Scheidel suggests that the only force strong enough to wrest economic power from those who have it is a world-shattering event like the Black Death, the fall of the Roman Empire, or World War I. While each event changed the world in a different way, they all had a tremendous leveling effect on society.
But not even this explains everything in the above graph. Pandemics subsequent to the Black Death had little effect on inequality, and inequality continued to fall for decades after World War II ended. Prof. Alfani suggests that we remember the importance of human agency through institutional change. He attributes much of the post-WWII decline in inequality to "the redistributive policies and the development of the welfare states from the 1950s to the early 1970s."
What does this mean for us now?
As Professor Alfani put it in his email:
"[H]istory does not necessarily teach us whether we should consider the current trend toward growth in economic inequality as an undesirable outcome or a problem per se (although I personally believe that there is some ground to argue for that). Nor does it teach us that high inequality is destiny. What it does teach us, is that if we do not act, we have no reason whatsoever to expect that inequality will, one day, decline on its own. History also offers abundant evidence that past trends in inequality have been deeply influenced by our collective decisions, as they shaped the institutional framework across time. So, it is really up to us to decide whether we want to live in a more, or a less unequal society."
Our love-hate relationship with browser tabs drives all of us crazy. There is a solution.
- A new study suggests that tabs can cause people to be flustered as they try to keep track of every website.
- The reason is that tabs are unable to properly organize information.
- The researchers are plugging a browser extension that aims to fix the problem.
A lot of ideas that people had about the internet in the 1990s have fallen by the wayside as technology and our usage patterns evolved. Long gone are things like GeoCities, BowieNet, and the belief that letting anybody post whatever they are thinking whenever they want is a fundamentally good idea with no societal repercussions.
While these ideas have been abandoned and the tools that made them possible often replaced by new and improved ones, not every outdated part of our internet experience is gone. A new study by a team at Carnegie Mellon makes the case that the use of tabs in a web browser is one of these outdated concepts that we would do well to get rid of.
How many tabs do you have open right now?
We didn't always have tabs. Introduced in the early 2000s, tabs are now included on all major web browsers, and most users have had access to them for a little over a decade. They've been pretty much the same since they came out, despite the ever changing nature of the internet. So, in this new study, researchers interviewed and surveyed 113 people on their use of — and feelings toward — the ubiquitous tabs.
Most people use tabs for the short-term storage of information, particularly if it's information that is needed again soon. Some keep tabs that they know they'll never get around to reading. Others used them as a sort of external memory bank. One participant described this action to the researchers:
"It's like a manifestation of everything that's on my mind right now. Or the things that should be on my mind right now... So right now, in this browser window, I have a web project that I'm working on. I don't have time to work on it right now, but I know I need to work on it. So it's sitting there reminding me that I need to work on it."
You suffer from tab overload
Unfortunately, trying to use tabs this way can cause a number of problems. A quarter of the interview subjects reported having caused a computer or browser to crash because they had too many tabs open. Others reported feeling flustered by having so many tabs open — a situation called "tab overload" — or feeling ashamed that they appeared disorganized by having so many tabs up at once. More than half of participants reported having problems like this at least two or three times a week.
However, people can become emotionally invested in the tabs. One participant explained, "[E]ven when I'm not using those tabs, I don't want to close them. Maybe it's because it took efforts [sic] to open those tabs and organize them in that way."
So, we have a tool that inefficiently saves web pages that we might visit again while simultaneously reducing our productivity, increasing our anxiety, and crashing our machines. And yet we feel oddly attached to them.
Either the system is crazy or we are.
Skeema: The anti-tab revolution
The researchers concluded that at least part of the problem is caused by tabs not being an ideal way of organizing the work we now do online. They propose a new model that better compartmentalizes tabs by task and subtask, reflects users' mental models, and helps manage the users' attention on what is important right now rather than what might be important later.
To that end, the team also created Skeema, an extension for Google Chrome, that treats tabs as tasks and offers a variety of ways to organize them. Users of an early version reported having fewer tabs and windows open at one time and were better able to manage the information they contained.
Tabs were an improvement over having multiple windows open at the same time, but they may have outlived their usefulness. While it might take a paradigm shift to fully replace the concept, the study suggests that taking a different approach to tabs might be worth trying.
And now, excuse me, while I close some of the 87 tabs I currently have open.