Seeing the Beautiful Intelligence of Microbes

Intelligence is not a quality to attribute lightly to microbes. There is no reason to think that bacteria, slime molds and similar single-cell forms of life have awareness, understanding or other capacities implicit in real intellect. But particularly when these cells commune in great numbers, their startling collective talents for solving problems and controlling their environment emerge. Those behaviors may be genetically encoded into these cells by billions of years of evolution, but in that sense the cells are not so different from robots programmed to respond in sophisticated ways to their environment. If we can speak of artificial intelligence for the latter, perhaps it’s not too outrageous to refer to the underappreciated cellular intelligence of the former.

Under the microscope, the incredible exercise of the … Read the rest

What Tech Can Learn from the Fruit Fly’s Search Algorithm – Facts So Romantic

Scientists are starting to understand that search powers much of the natural world, too.Image by Intelligent Product Solutions / YouTube

Ask, and it shall be given you; seek, and ye shall find; knock, and it shall be opened unto you.” Verse 7:7 from the Gospel of Matthew is generally considered to be a comment on prayer, but it could just as well be about the power of search. Search has become one of the key technologies of the information age, powering industry behemoths and helping us with our daily chores. But that’s not where it ends. Scientists are starting to understand that search powers much of the natural world, too.

Saket Navlakha, of the Salk Institute for Biological Studies, works at the “interface of theoretical … Read the rest

Why Beauty Is Not Universal – Facts So Romantic

We’re all human—so despite the vagaries of cultural context, might there exist a universal beauty that overrides the where and when? Might there be unchanging features of human nature that condition our creative choices, a timeless melody that guides the improvisations of the everyday? There has been a perpetual quest for such universals, because of their value as a North Star that could guide our creative choices.

One oft-cited candidate for universal beauty is visual symmetry. Consider the geometric patterns of Persian carpets and the ceilings of the Alhambra Palace in Spain, created in different places and historic periods.

Persian carpetKsenia Palimski / Dreamstime.comCeiling of the Alhambra.Jebulon

But the relationship between beauty and symmetry is not an absolute. The Rococo art that was … Read the rest

How to Triumph and Cooperate in Game Theory and Evolution

At the heart of game theory, one of the foundations of modern economics, lies the foundational concept of “Nash equilibrium,” named after the late mathematician and Nobel laureate John Nash. Nash showed that for any competitive situation or “game,” there exists a set of strategies upon the use of which, players cannot further improve their winnings. His work continues to appear in important new research today, as described in Erica Klarreich’s recent article “In Game Theory, No Clear Path to Equilibrium” and Emily Singer’s 2015 article “Game Theory Calls Cooperation Into Question.” Anyone interested in gaining simple insights about the world — the very purpose of this column — will want to get acquainted with the fundamental principles of game … Read the rest

Why Math Is the Best Way to Make Sense of the World

When Rebecca Goldin spoke to a recent class of incoming freshmen at George Mason University, she relayed a disheartening statistic: According to a recent study, 36 percent of college students don’t significantly improve in critical thinking during their four-year tenure. “These students had trouble distinguishing fact from opinion, and cause from correlation,” Goldin explained.

She went on to offer some advice: “Take more math and science than is required. And take it seriously.” Why? Because “I can think of no better tool than quantitative thinking to process the information that is thrown at me.” Take, for example, the study she had cited. A first glance, it might seem to suggest that a third of college graduates are lazy or ignorant, or that higher education is a … Read the rest

The Jazz Pianist Vijay Iyer Played “Remembrance” for Us on 9/11 – Facts So Romantic

Iyer analyzes the morphology of jazz with the precision of a scientist.Photograph by Bruno Bollaert / Flickr

When we visited Vijay Iyer three years ago, on Sept. 11, at his home in Harlem, the monthly Nautilus theme was Genius. The jazz pianist was glad to talk about the subject and play signature pieces by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane for us. But the first thing he wanted to tell us was he didn’t care for the label “genius.” Too often the term was used to describe a lone master, born with special genes, and that was the wrong way to think about an artist.

“The ‘G word’ is often used to shut down conversation or inquiry into a particular artist, into his or her … Read the rest