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Pythagoras was a cult leader, Socrates loved to dance + 8 other revelations
Philosophers often get depicted like sages in ivory towers without a practical or human side. A gossip-filled book from the 3rd century can fix that.
Think of how many celebrities you know with personal lives for the world to see. How many of them do you share hobbies with? How many of them have made a humanizing slip-up?
People have been gossiping about celebrity lifestyles since the dawn of fame, but we often focus our attention on the lives of actors, athletes, and attention seekers. Famous academics and philosophers usually get a little more privacy.
This doesn’t mean their lives are any less interesting, however. An entire book, Lives of the Eminent Philosophers by Diogenes Laërtius, was written on the subject in the third century. A new edition reminds us that even eggheads can be just as amusing as rock stars.
Here are some of the most demystifying life stories of 10 famous philosophers. Take some of the details here with a grain of salt though, the book is rather uncritically written, and many details lack sources. Other details are supposedly confirmed by sources long since lost.
This hasn’t stopped other philosophers, Nietzsche and Montaigne among them, from admiring the text and it shouldn't stop you.
Socrates is held in extremely high esteem as both a great philosopher and academia's great martyr. In Diogenes’ biography, we are reminded of Socrates the man. He tells us of how Socrates served in the army, was often found socializing downtown, and edited his friends’ plays—including Euripides, one of the big three ancient Greek tragedians.
Perhaps most amusingly, Diogenes tells us that Socrates loved to dance and thought that “such exercise helped to keep the body in good condition.” He also learned how to play the lyre as an old man, just like your crazy uncle during his mid-life crisis, and "he saw no absurdity in learning a new accomplishment."
In a showing of tremendous wit, when his wife told him he suffered unjustly, he asked her, “Would you have me suffer justly?" He also supposedly told a man that he would both regret both getting married and being single, perhaps explaining that last remark.
Plato’s most famous student, Aristotle would go on to touch every branch of human thought that existed at the time. He tutored Alexander the great, wrote an ethical theory that still has a punch, and founded his own academy in Athens.
The most interesting detail that Diogenes tells us about Aristotle is that he had a lisp or stutter. Given that many of Aristotle's works were given as lectures and recorded later, we must imagine that he either embraced it or worked around it. Diogenes gives us sources for this claim, but his book has long since become the authority on the matter. Accurate or not, Aristotle makes it on to many lists of celebrities with speech impediments.
Original Artwork: Engraving by Ambrose Tardieu (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
Thales is the first philosopher in the western intellectual tradition and is most famous for his argument that water is the fundamental substance of the universe. He was also a noted mathematician, businessman, and sage.
Diogenes reminds us of his sharp wit. He records that when asked if there was a difference between life and death Thales responded that there was not. When he was then asked, “Why then, do you not die?” Thales retorted “Because it makes no difference.” On another occasion, he was asked which was older, nighttime or daytime. He replied, “Night is older, by one day.”
Plato (left) and his student Aristotle (Right) as imagined by Raphael.
Plato’s contribution to western thought is impossible to overstate. Philosopher Alfred Whitehead went so far as to suggest that all of European philosophy was “a series of footnotes to Plato.”
Diogenes tells us a great many things about him. His name, allegedly, was given to him by his wrestling coach on account of his "robust figure"—the name is derived from the Greek word platys, meaning 'broad'. Plato was skilled enough to participate in the Isthmian Games, which attracted athletes from all over Greece.
Platon was a common name, however, it would be strange for a family so wealthy and noble as Plato's not to name him for an immediate male relative. Diogenes tells us that Plato's real name was Aristocles, but this is impossible to confirm. Plato also called himself "Plato" later in his life, making the issue more difficult. In any case, we might know one of the greatest thinkers of all time by his stage name!
Solon was an Athenian aristocrat who gave the city a very effective code of laws. Chosen to lead the city by virtue of his wisdom, he lowered the requirements for public office to a level that made the later Athenian Democracy possible.
Diogenes writes that Athens had passed a law threatening to kill any man who even suggested a continuation of the long and bloody Salaminian war. Solon, knowing that Athens could win, feigned insanity and ran into the Agora with a garland on his head as though he were an Olympic champion. In his pretend delirium he recited a poem he had composed to rouse the public to war. It worked, and he became a war hero as a result. This bizarre piece of political theatre made his career, and the golden age of Athens, possible.
Epicurus was a hedonistic philosopher who tried to come up with a new way of living that would maximize the pleasure gained over the course of a lifetime. His answer was to live a moderate, temperate life in a large house with your friends and to study philosophy. Overindulgence, long the stock and trade of the hedonists, was seen as the cause of suffering.
The only remaining works of Epicurus are to be found in this book, a few letters that he wrote are reproduced in full while an extensive bibliography of lost works is given. Diogenes agrees with other sources that he had and probably died of a severe kidney stone problem. However, the biography given here accounts that Epicurus had a happy death, as recounted in this poem.
Farewell, my friends; the truths I taught hold fast:
Thus Epicurus spake, and breathed his last.
He sat in a warm bath and neat wine quaffed,
And straightway found chill death in that same draught.
Democritus was a thinker who is best remembered for arguing that the universe was made up of atoms. He and the other atomists had no empirical evidence for their claims but largely stumbled into modern science anyway.
Diogenes explains that he would go on trips to far-off lands to learn and socialize with friends. Upon his return, he would be so broke that he had to live off his brother, kind of like that one friend of yours who always posts pictures of their exotic travels but then can’t afford to go out when they get back. He later earned a fortune as a result of "foreseeing the future"—using his masterful grasp of science to predict weather and seasons.
(Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)
The namesake for the Pythagorean theorem, Pythagoras was a mystic who saw mathematics everywhere he looked and managed a small cult. His followers had a myriad of strange rules; none of them could eat beans, the right shoe had to go on first, and long vows of silence were the norm.
He died as strangely as he lived. When he and his cult were attacked by a mob, Pythagoras fled. While modern scholars debate if he was killed or escaped to die in exile, Diogenes tells us he was killed. While running away from the mob, he came across a field of beans. Since he found them unsuitable to eat, he refused to run across them. The mob caught up and killed him.
Zeno of Elea is famous for inventing the dialectic method of argument and coming up with some famous paradoxes. He famously argued that movement is impossible.
Diogenes tells us that he was arrested for conspiracy against the tyrannical ruler of Elea. Zeno refused to give up his friends but did agree to whisper a secret to the tyrant that would be advantageous to him. When the tyrant allowed Zeno to approach his ear, the great philosopher “laid hold of it with his teeth and did not let go until stabbed to death.”
Diogenes Searching for an Honest Man by Johann Tischbein.
The author of The Lives of Eminent Philosophers himself shared a name with an eminent philosopher. Diogenes the Cynic was a thinker in the school of cynicism. He lived in a barrel, owned only a bowl, and once told Alexander the Great to move out of the way and stop blocking the sunlight. His life would inspire the Stoics, whose philosophy continues to inspire us today.
We learn in this book that he was once kidnapped by pirates and sold as a slave. As he stood on the auction block, he was asked his trade. He responded with, “I know how to govern men, does anybody need a master?” He was eagerly snatched up by a man who used him as a tutor for his children. Sources differ on if that man chose to free him immediately or not.
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.