Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

17 AUGUST, 2011

Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Scientists on God, Part 2


What uniform motion has to do with religion, or what Galileo can teach us about consciousness.

Last month, we watched 50 famous academics discuss God in a mashup video by British neurosurgeon Jonathan T. Pararajasingham, a fine addition to the ongoing conversation on science vs. religion and the psychology of faith. Now, Pararajasingham is back with a sequel mashup, featuring another 50 renowned academics, including Brain Pickings frequents Michio Kaku, Sean Carroll, V.S. Ramachandran, and Jonathan Haidt.

If you believe that the truth lies in strange scrolls, dug up by somewhere or other, written by someone, then there’s no logical counter to that.” ~ Sir Richard Friend

The sausage party in order of appearance:

51. Frank Wilczek, Nobel Laureate in Physics, MIT
52. VS Ramachandran, World-Renowned Neuroscientist, UC San Diego
53. Bruce C. Murray, Caltech Professor Emeritus of Planetary Science
54. Sir Raymond Firth, World-Renowned Anthropologist, LSE
55. Alva Noë, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
56. Alan Dundes, World Expert in Folklore, Berkeley
57. Massimo Pigliucci, Professor of Philosophy, CUNY
58. Bede Rundle, Oxford Professor of Philosophy
59. Sir Richard Friend, Cambridge Professor of Physics
60. George Lakoff, Berkeley Professor of Linguistics
61. Sir John Sulston, Nobel Laureate in Physiology/Medicine
62. Shelley Kagan, Yale Professor of Philosophy
63. Roy J. Glauber, Nobel Laureate in Physics
64. Lewis Wolpert, Emeritus Professor of Biology, UCL
65. Mahzarin Banaji, Harvard Professor of Social Ethics
66. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, Professor of Practical Ethics, Duke University
67. Richard Dawkins, Oxford Evolutionary Biologist
68. Bruce Hood, Professor of Experimental Psychology, Bristol
69. Marvin Minsky, Artificial Intelligence Research Pioneer, MIT
70. Herman Philipse, Professor of Philosophy, Utrecht University
71. Michio Kaku, CUNY Professor of Theoretical Physics
72. Dame Caroline Humphrey, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
73. Max Tegmark, World-Renowned Cosmologist, MIT
74. David Parkin, Oxford Professor of Anthropology
75. Robert Price, Professor of Theology and Biblical Criticism
76. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Psychology, Virginia
77. Max Perutz, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
78. Rodolfo Llinas, Professor of Neuroscience, New York
79. Dan McKenzie, World-Renowned Geophysicist, Cambridge
80. Patricia Churchland, Professor of Philosophy, UC San Diego
81. Sean Carroll, Caltech Theoretical Cosmologist
82. Alexander Vilenkin, World-Renowned Theoretical Physicist
83. PZ Myers, Professor of Biology, Minnesota
84. Haroon Ahmed, Prominent Cambridge Scientist (Microelectronics)
85. David Sloan Wilson, Professor of Biology and Anthropology, SUNY
86. Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies, UNC
87. Seth Lloyd, Pioneer of Quantum Computing, MIT
88. Dan Brown, Fellow in Organic Chemistry, Cambridge
89. Victor Stenger, Emeritus Professor of Physics and Astronomy, Hawaii
90. Simon Schaffer, Cambridge Professor of the History of Science
91. Saul Perlmutter, World-Renowned Astrophysicist, Berkeley
92. Lee Silver, Princeton Professor of Molecular Biology
93. Barry Supple, Emeritus Professor of Economic History, Cambridge
94. Alan Dershowitz, Harvard Professor of Law
95. John Raymond Smythies, Professor Emeritus of Psychiatric Research
96. Chris Hann, Max Planck Institute For Social Anthropology
97. David Gross, Nobel Laureate in Physics
98. Ronald de Sousa, Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, Toronto
99. Robert Hinde, Emeritus Professor of Zoology, Cambridge
100. Carolyn Porco, NASA Planetary Scientist

For more on the subject, see BBC’s excellent documentary, The End of God? A Horizon Guide to Science and Religion.

HT Open Culture

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15 AUGUST, 2011

Do You See What I See? BBC on the Subjectivity of Color Perception


Why you should wear red on your next date, or what an African tribe can teach us about the color of water.

We’ve previously examined the extreme ends of how the brain perceives color, from Ben Lotto’s remarkable optical illusions to the curious neurological short-circuiting known as synesthesia. But how do “normal” people see “normal” color? Turns out, the answer isn’t as black and white. From the fine folks behind BBC’s excellent Horizon series — who have also pondered the nature of reality, the age-old tension between science and religion, how music works, what time is, and how money came to dominate the world — comes Do You See What I See, a fascinating look at the subjectivity and divergence of how we each see the world and the surprising power colors can have on our mood, cognition, emotion, and entire lives.

The hour-long program explores a number of psychology and neuroscience experiments exploring everything from how the color red suppressed the stress-hormone cortisol to elevated confidence to how blue changes our sense of time to make a minute feel 11 seconds shorter to how language shapes the perception of color in different cultures. (Though it should be noted that, while presented as new, the findings are based on the pioneering work of Paul Kay and Brent Berlin, circa 1969.)

Your eye doesn’t simply see color — your brain creates it by drawing on knowledge of what things should look like.”

The earliest colors we learned — blue and yellow — have hard-wired emotional connections. Our associations with red and green we’ve had to learn.”

For more on the science of color perception, you won’t go wrong with Mark Changizi’s fantastic The Vision Revolution: How the Latest Research Overturns Everything We Thought We Knew about Human Vision and the out-of-print but excellent Color Perception: Philosophical, Psychological, Artistic, and Computational Perspectives from Oxford University Press.

HT Boing Boing

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10 AUGUST, 2011

Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge


Going beyond biology’s limits, or how laboratory advances will change the way we think about the law.

What consumes the best and brightest minds working in science today? With the brand-new anthology Future Science: Essays from the Cutting Edge, literary agent Max Brockman poses (and provides a spectrum of answers to) the question. From astronomy to virology to computer science, 19 first-rate researchers contributed short pieces to this collection, intended for the curious layperson. Their participation isn’t without risk since, as Brockman notes in his introduction, “if you’re an academic who writes about your work for a general audience, you’re thought by some of your colleagues to be wasting your time and perhaps endangering your academic career. For younger scientists (i.e., those without tenure), this is almost universally true.”

Given our optimism for the future and soft spot for intellectual anthologies, we’re certainly glad the contributors to Future Science took the chance. The result is a fascinating tour of academy’s advanced guard on, among other topics, why stress causes some people to crumble even as it spurs others on, what sense computer science can make of social media’s vast digital data, and how infinity has entered the realm of testable science. The breadth of subjects and their authors’ ability to make them accessible is thrilling — it’s like TED in book form.

Here’s just a small sampling from Future Science‘s contents:

For much of human history, we have been explorers of other continents — examiners of rocks and regions ripe for habitation, the culmination being the Heroic Age of Antarctic exploration and the capstone being our flags and footprints on the surface of the Moon. But in the decades and centuries to come, exploration — both human and robotic — will increasingly focus on the ocean depths, of both our own ocean and the subsurface oceans believed to exist on at least five moons of the outer Solar System: Jupiter’s Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto and Saturn’s Titan and Enceladus. The total volume of liquid water on those worlds is estimated to be more than a hundred times the volume of liquid water on Earth.” ~ Kevin P. Hand, “On the Coming Age of Ocean Exploration”

If humans are to succeed as a species, our collective shame over destroying other life-forms should grow in proportion to our understanding of their various ecological roles. Maybe the same attention to one another that promoted our own evolutionary success will keep us from failing the other species in life’s fabric and, in the end, ourselves.” ~ Jennifer Jacquet, “Is Shame Necessary”

This afternoon I received in the post a slim FedEx envelope containing four small vials of DNA. The DNA had been synthesized according to my instructions in under three weeks, at a cost of 39 U.S. cents per base pair (the rungs adenine-thymine or guanine-cytosine in the DNA ladder). The 10 micrograms I ordered are dried, flaky, and barely visible to the naked eye, yet once I have restored them in water and made an RNA copy of this template, they will encode a virus I have designed.” ~ William McEwan, “Molecular Cut and Paste: The New Generation of Biological Tools”

We were particularly excited about Future Science given Brockman’s own pedigree — his father, John Brockman, has spent a lifetime investigating audacious intellectual inquiries as founder of the EDGE Foundation. (In fact, prior to this new volume, the younger Brockman also edited a 2009 book for EDGE’s own imprint as a kind of prequel to Future Science called What’s Next? Dispatches on the Future of Science.)

For a provocative survey of the ever-expanding scientific frontier, you’ll find much to enjoy among the big ideas, probing techniques, and intriguing insights of Future Science.

Kirstin Butler is writing an adaptation of Gogol for the Google era called Dead SULs, but when not working spends far, far too much time on Twitter. She currently lives in Cambridge, MA.

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09 AUGUST, 2011

Radioactive Orchestra: Making Music from Nuclear Isotopes


Getting excited about excited states, or what Marie Curie has to do with experimental music.

In 2011, the need to understand radioactivity glared at us with more urgency than ever, in the face of the Fukushima disaster and continued debates about nuclear energy. In May, we took a more playful and artistic look at the issue with Lisa Redniss’s Radioactive, the beautiful cyanotype-illustrated story of Marie Curie’s life and legacy, and today we turn to another cross-disciplinary illuminator: The Radioactive Orchestra — a project aiming to explain radioactivity through music by inviting you to compose tunes with 3,175 of the most interesting radioactive isotopes in an effort to glean new understanding of what radiation really is.

It works like this: Melodies are created by simulating the decay of an atomic nucleus from an excited nuclear state down to its ground state. A single gamma photon is released for every step of the energy loss and, by representing the energy of the photon as the pitch of a note, the photon plays a note each time this happens. For an added touch of synesthesia, this is also visualized by a colorful ray coming out of the atomic nucleus. Because every isotope has a unique set of possible excited states and decay patterns, it also has a unique sonic fingerprint.

It’s really exciting to do a project where we can listen to radiation. There has never really been a way to sense the radiation around us. You can neither see it nor hear it.”

The project comes from Swedish nuclear safety organization KSU and DJ Axel Boman, and is a fine addition to this running list of experimental music projects. (Besides, if you can play the HIV virus and the number pi, why shouldn’t you play an isotope or two?)

So go ahead, give it a whirl.

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