Category Archives: science

Civilization Is Built on Code – Facts So Romantic

Code is at once a force, or a means, of liberation and constraint.Photograph by Donnie Ray Jones / Flickr

How did we humans manage to build a global civilization on the cusp of colonizing other planets? It seems like such an unlikely outcome. After all, we were prone to cycles of war and famine for millennia, and have a meager capacity for society-wide planning and coordination—among other problems.

Maybe it’s our unique capacity for complex language and story-telling, which allow us to learn in groups; or our ability to extend our capabilities through technology; or political and religious institutions we have created. However, perhaps the most significant answer is something else entirely: code. Humanity has survived, and thrived, by developing productive activities that … Read the rest

This Famous Aging Researcher Doesn’t Want Us to Live Forever – Facts So Romantic

The potential for undying tyrants or tyrannical bodies is one reason Leonard Hayflick, one of the world’s preeminent experts on aging (he was a founder of the Council of the National Institute on Aging), is against slowing down or eliminating the aging process.Photograph by dirkmvp41 / Flickr

In the Netflix anime series Knights of Sidonia, humankind is marooned in a spaceship 500,000-strong, refugees constantly on the run from shapeshifting aliens who destroyed Earth over 1,000 years ago. Both the patriarchy and poverty have been smashed. Advances in genetic engineering have allowed androgynous individuals to proliferate and asexual reproduction to become commonplace. Everybody (except the protagonist, a clone of his grandfather) can photosynthesize, drastically reducing the need to eat.

A plot twist near the end … Read the rest

Learning to Speak Shrub – Issue 59: Connections

Entomologist Richard Karban knows how to get sagebrush talking. To start the conversation, he poses as a grasshopper or a chewing beetle—he uses scissors to cut leaves on one of the shrubs. Lopping off the leaves entirely won’t fool the plants. So he makes many snips around the edges and tips of the leaves—“a lot of little bites.”

A few months later, Karban, a professor at the University of California, Davis who studies plant defense communication, returns to the sagebrush and examines its leaves, many of which now have damage from real grasshoppers or beetles. However, within about two feet of the branches he clipped, leaves have been spared the worst ravages of the hungry insects. That’s because Karban’s cuttings convinced those damaged leaves they were … Read the rest

Why Some Sports Fans Have More Fun – Issue 59: Connections

You won’t have seen it on the podium, but the human brain’s mirror neuron system could have medaled at this year’s Olympic Games, or basically any sporting event with an audience. The mirror neuron system is a network of neurons that activates both when you watch someone do something and when you do it yourself, and it turns out to be an important part of the subjective experience of being a fan.

But watching a sport doesn’t just flip your mirror neuron system on like a switch. There are degrees of activation. While you and the person sitting beside you probably both have your mirror neuron systems firing, your neighbor’s neurons might have different levels of activation than yours. So who gets the biggest mirror buzz, … Read the rest

Another Side of Feynman – Issue 59: Connections

All through a long life I had three main concerns, with a clear order of priority. Family came first, friends second, and work third.”

So writes the pioneering theoretical physicist Freeman Dyson in the introduction to his newly published collection of letters, Maker of Patterns. Spanning about four decades, the collection presents a first-person glimpse into a life that witnessed epochal changes both in world history and in physics.

Here, we present short excerpts from nine of Dyson’s letters, with a focus on his relationship with the physicist Richard Feynman. Dyson and Feynman had both professional and personal bonds: Dyson helped interpret and draw attention to Feynman’s work—which went on to earn a Nobel Prize—and the two men traveled together and worked side by side.… Read the rest