Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
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Bryan Cranston
Actor
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Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
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Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
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Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
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What inspires you?

Question: What inspires you?

Steven Pinker: I think any kind of creative discovery depends on having first been immersed in a huge sea of motifs, and elements, and ideas and then recombining them in some way. I think the idea of a lighting bolt of inspiration hitting you out of the blue, and a fully formed idea emerging is very rare or non-existent. I’ve been impressed by how much people in all kinds of fields have to do an apprentice of exposure to a huge number of ideas before they can accomplish anything original. If you talk to a novelist, they’ve read thousands of novels. If you talk to a good rock musician, they’ll have an enormous record collection. If you talk to a scientist, they’ll know a huge amount of information in their own field. For me, synthesizing ideas really depends on having a universe of ideas to recombine in the first place. One of the things that means is not staying within your own discipline. Not only for me have I not … have I done cognitive psychology outside the boundaries of cognitive psychology by looking at linguistics, and philosophy, and literature; but even beyond that in understanding the mind. You can’t just do it with the straight jacket of psychology. As much as I love the field of psychology, it’s a small subset of ideas, and that ideas of how our emotions work are as likely to come from an economist, or from a game theorist as from a psychologist. Ideas about our sexual lives is likely to come from an evolutionary biologist studying insects as from someone studying human being in a psychology lab. So for me it’s very important that traditional academic disciplines don’t get in the way of finding ideas wherever they may be found … wherever they may live. As someone who works in the science of human beings, the boundary for me between science and other fields is kind of porous. What is essential in my finding an idea useful is that it comes from someone who thinks systematically, and rigorously and rationally; someone who cares about whether an idea is true or false; someone who’s interested in an explanation about why something is the way it is as opposed to another way that it could be. For me that’s the essence of science. That’s what’s valuable about science, but it’s not restrictive to science. And some things that used to be not science becomes science over the course of history, like in my own field of psychology as an example. And so I don’t try to think laterally or just get inspired by some strange image from fiction or music. But I do take seriously ideas that might have originated from a novelist commenting on human nature either directly in an interview or obliquely by a novel. I would care about what a historian might say as long as they are doing so in the general mindset that I think of as scientific, that is trying to explain things and caring about whether the things you say are true or false. Well one example of how I’ve used ideas from other fields in my own thinking is a chapter I wrote on the emotions and how the mind works, which was heavily inspired by the political theorist and game theorist Thomas Schelling who wrote a remarkable book in 1960 called “The Strategy of Conflict”. Schelling was kind of a Doctor Strangelove among other things – a nuclear strategist of how you think through survival in a case in which you have to figure out what the other guy is thinking, about what you’re thinking, about what he’s thinking, about what you’re thinking and so on. One of the things that Schelling pointed out that there are certain realms in which a measure of irrationality and lack of control can actually work to your advantage. So for example if you’re negotiating with someone … Let’s say you’re negotiating over the purchase of a car, and you’d be willing to pay anything between $20,000 and $30,000 – of course the lower the better. And the car dealer would make a profit if he sold it at any price between … over $20,000. So you’d both be better off settling for a price in that range rather than walking away from the deal. On the other hand within that range the closer it is to $20,000 the better it is for you. The closer it is to $30,000 the better it is for him. How do you arrive at a figure? Well it turns out the advantage goes to the person who’s more irrational, stubborn, hotheaded – the person who would walk away from the deal unless he got the maximum. So a salesman who says, “I’d like to sell it to you for $20,000, but I’m not allowed. My supervisor isn’t here. He won’t authorize me to go under $30,000” will get the better deal. On the other hand the customer who says, “Well I’d love to but my hands are tied. The bank won’t loan me more than $20,000 so I can’t pay more than $20,000”, that lack of control worked to his advantage. What’s the analogy to human emotions? Well often humans do things that seem to be irrationally stubborn. They vow undying devotion to their friends. They fight a duel or retaliate if they’re insulted. They’re hotheads in other words. This is an example showing that it may not be irrational in some spheres of human life to be a hothead. The hothead is the winner. This is also true with threats, for example. The problem with issuing a threat is someone calling your bluff. If they insult you, or invade your space, or chat up your girlfriend and you say, “If you do something like that I’ll beat you up,” well you could get hurt beating someone up. You might be better off just letting them have your lunch money or your girlfriend than getting killed in the process. Get a person that can anticipate that, and therefore they can act with impunity. How do you defend yourself against that dynamic? Well if you’re such a hothead that it would be intolerable insult if someone took advantage of you, and you had to retaliate even if it did you harm in the long run, paradoxically that might be the most effective deterrent. They can’t call your bluff if it isn’t a bluff. There’s often game theory. No psychologist ever thought that up; but it might offer an explanation as to why so many of our emotions seem to be passionate and irrational. There may be a method behind the madness, and it took someone – not a psychologist, I think – to unlock the mystery of human irrationality and passion.

Recorded On: 6/13/07

Synthesizing ideas really depends on having a universe of ideas to recombine in the first place, says Steven Pinker.

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A "very massive star" in the Kinman Dwarf galaxy caught the attention of astronomers in the early years of the 2000s: It seemed to be reaching a late-ish chapter in its life story and offered a rare chance to observe the death of a large star in a region low in metallicity. However, by the time scientists had the chance to turn the European Southern Observatory's (ESO) Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Paranal, Chile back around to it in 2019 — it's not a slow-turner, just an in-demand device — it was utterly gone without a trace. But how?

The two leading theories about what happened are that either it's still there, still erupting its way through its death throes, with less luminosity and perhaps obscured by dust, or it just up and collapsed into a black hole without going through a supernova stage. "If true, this would be the first direct detection of such a monster star ending its life in this manner," says Andrew Allan of Trinity College Dublin, Ireland, leader of the observation team whose study is published in Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society.

So, em...

Between astronomers' last look in 2011 and 2019 is a large enough interval of time for something to happen. Not that 2001 (when it was first observed) or 2019 have much meaning, since we're always watching the past out there and the Kinman Dwarf Galaxy is 75 million light years away. We often think of cosmic events as slow-moving phenomena because so often their follow-on effects are massive and unfold to us over time. But things happen just as fast big as small. The number of things that happened in the first 10 millionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Big Bang, for example, is insane.

In any event, the Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is far way, too far for astronomers to directly observe its stars. Their presence can be inferred from spectroscopic signatures — specifically, PHL 293B between 2001 and 2011 consistently featured strong signatures of hydrogen that indicated the presence of a massive "luminous blue variable" (LBV) star about 2.5 times more brilliant than our Sun. Astronomers suspect that some very large stars may spend their final years as LBVs.

Though LBVs are known to experience radical shifts in spectra and brightness, they reliably leave specific traces that help confirm their ongoing presence. In 2019 the hydrogen signatures, and such traces, were gone. Allan says, "It would be highly unusual for such a massive star to disappear without producing a bright supernova explosion."

The Kinsman Dwarf Galaxy, or PHL 293B, is one of the most metal-poor galaxies known. Explosive, massive, Wolf-Rayet stars are seldom seen in such environments — NASA refers to such stars as those that "live fast, die hard." Red supergiants are also rare to low Z environments. The now-missing star was looked to as a rare opportunity to observe a massive star's late stages in such an environment.

Celestial sleuthing

In August 2019, the team pointed the four eight-meter telescopes of ESO's ESPRESSO array simultaneously toward the LBV's former location: nothing. They also gave the VLT's X-shooter instrument a shot a few months later: also nothing.

Still pursuing the missing star, the scientists acquired access to older data for comparison to what they already felt they knew. "The ESO Science Archive Facility enabled us to find and use data of the same object obtained in 2002 and 2009," says Andrea Mehner, an ESO staff member who worked on the study. "The comparison of the 2002 high-resolution UVES spectra with our observations obtained in 2019 with ESO's newest high-resolution spectrograph ESPRESSO was especially revealing, from both an astronomical and an instrumentation point of view."

Examination of this data suggested that the LBV may have indeed been winding up to a grand final sometime after 2011.

Team member Jose Groh, also of Trinity College, says "We may have detected one of the most massive stars of the local Universe going gently into the night. Our discovery would not have been made without using the powerful ESO 8-meter telescopes, their unique instrumentation, and the prompt access to those capabilities following the recent agreement of Ireland to join ESO."

Combining the 2019 data with contemporaneous Hubble Space Telescope (HST) imagery leaves the authors of the reports with the sense that "the LBV was in an eruptive state at least between 2001 and 2011, which then ended, and may have been followed by a collapse into a massive BH without the production of an SN. This scenario is consistent with the available HST and ground-based photometry."

Or...

A star collapsing into a black hole without a supernova would be a rare event, and that argues against the idea. The paper also notes that we may simply have missed the star's supernova during the eight-year observation gap.

LBVs are known to be highly unstable, so the star dropping to a state of less luminosity or producing a dust cover would be much more in the realm of expected behavior.

Says the paper: "A combination of a slightly reduced luminosity and a thick dusty shell could result in the star being obscured. While the lack of variability between the 2009 and 2019 near-infrared continuum from our X-shooter spectra eliminates the possibility of formation of hot dust (⪆1500 K), mid-infrared observations are necessary to rule out a slowly expanding cooler dust shell."

The authors of the report are pretty confident the star experienced a dramatic eruption after 2011. Beyond that, though:

"Based on our observations and models, we suggest that PHL 293B hosted an LBV with an eruption that ended sometime after 2011. This could have been followed by
(1) a surviving star or
(2) a collapse of the LBV to a BH [black hole] without the production of a bright SN, but possibly with a weak transient."

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