Brain Pickings

Posts Tagged ‘science’

27 JULY, 2011

The Beginning of Infinity: David Deutsch Explains the World


A new way to explain explanation itself, or how science and philosophy got their start.

Since time immemorial, mankind’s greatest questions — what is reality, what does it mean to be human, what is time, is there God — have endured as a pervasive frontier of intellectual inquiry through which we try to explain and make sense of the world, the pursuit of these elusive answers having germinated disciplines as diverse as philosophy and physics. But what place does explanation itself have in the universe and our understanding of it? That’s exactly what iconic physicist and quantum computation pioneer David Deutsch explores in The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World — an important and wildly illuminating new book on the nature and evolution of human knowledge. Fluidly switching between evolutionary biology, quantum physics, mathematics, philosophy, ancient history and more, Deutsch offers surprisingly — or, perhaps knowing his work, unsurprisingly — plausible answers to everything from why beauty exists to what is infinity.

Must progress come to an end — either in catastrophe or in some sort of completion — or is it unbounded? The answer is the latter. That unboundedness is the ‘infinity’ referred to in the title of this book. Explaining it, and the conditions under which progress can and cannot happen, entails a journey through virtually every fundamental field of science and philosophy. From each such field we learn that, although progress has no necessary end, it does have a necessary beginning: a cause, or an event with which it starts, or a necessary condition for it to take off and to thrive. Each of these beginnings is ‘the beginning of infinity’ as viewed from the perspective of that field. Many seem, superficially, to be unconnected. But they are all facets of a single attribute of reality, which I call the beginning of infinity.” ~David Deutsch

In 2009, I had the pleasure of seeing Deutsch speak at TEDGlobal, where he delivered what was unequivocally the event’s most mind-bending talk, presenting a new way to explain explanation itself — a teaser for the book as he was in the heat of writing it. Stay on your toes and try to keep up:

Empiricism is inadequate because scientific theories explain the seen in terms of the unseen and the unseen, you have to admit, doesn’t come to us through the senses.” ~ David Deutsch

Perhaps most powerful of all is Deutsch’s remarkable ability to shift convictions. As Peter Forbes writes in The Independent,

Deutsch is the kind of passionate, clear-headed advocate who can change minds. He endorses Stephen Hawking’s view that we would be wise to colonise space because the asteroid that will certainly come one day might be beyond even the capacity of our nuclear weapons. I have never believed in space colonisation, thinking it an idle fantasy. With no atmosphere or ecosystem we would have to live in bubbles. But Deutsch convinces me that we could colonise the moon and, after a while, that this life would seem natural.”

The Beginning of Infinity: Explanations That Transform the World comes as Deutsch’s highly anticipated follow-up, thirteen years later, to his excellent The Fabric of Reality: The Science of Parallel Universes and Its Implications, in which Deutsch outlined the four fundamental strands of existing knowledge.

Bear in mind, this is no light beach book, nor is it an easy read, but it’s an incredibly lucid one, the kind of book that stays with you for your entire lifetime, insights from it finding their way, consciously or unconsciously, into every intellectual conversation you’ll ever have.

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27 JULY, 2011

Science vs. Religion: 50 Famous Academics on God


Decoding divinity, or what the great intellectuals of our time have to say about science and spirituality.

The dialogue between science and religion is among humanity’s oldest and most controversial, drawing each era’s greatest thinkers into some of history’s most heated debates. We’ve previously looked at a BBC documentary on the complex relationship between the two and 7 essential books on the psychology of faith. Today, we turn to a fantastic mashup of 50 famous academics — including Brain Pickings favorites Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, Oliver Sacks, Steven Pinker and Daniel Dennett — talking about spirituality and science, created by Jonathan Pararajasingham.

I can’t believe the special stories that have been made up about our relationship to the universe at large, because they seem to be too simple, to connected, too local, too provincial. The Earth! He came to the Earth! One of the aspects of God came to the Earth, mind you. And look at what’s out there! How can… It isn’t in proportion.” ~ Richard Feynman

My favorite has to be Brian Cox, at around 18:30, who echoes my own belief that curiosity is more important than knowledge — an alternative route to intellectual inquiry that offers an antidote to the fundamental human discomfort with the unknown.

The speakers, in order of appearance:

1. Lawrence Krauss, World-Renowned Physicist
2. Robert Coleman Richardson, Nobel Laureate in Physics
3. Richard Feynman, World-Renowned Physicist, Nobel Laureate in Physics
4. Simon Blackburn, Cambridge Professor of Philosophy
5. Colin Blakemore, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Neuroscience
6. Steven Pinker, World-Renowned Harvard Professor of Psychology
7. Alan Guth, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Physics
8. Noam Chomsky, World-Renowned MIT Professor of Linguistics
9. Nicolaas Bloembergen, Nobel Laureate in Physics
10. Peter Atkins, World-Renowned Oxford Professor of Chemistry
11. Oliver Sacks, World-Renowned Neurologist, Columbia University
12. Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal
13. Sir John Gurdon, Pioneering Developmental Biologist, Cambridge
14. Sir Bertrand Russell, World-Renowned Philosopher, Nobel Laureate
15. Stephen Hawking, World-Renowned Cambridge Theoretical Physicist
16. Riccardo Giacconi, Nobel Laureate in Physics
17. Ned Block, NYU Professor of Philosophy
18. Gerard ‘t Hooft, Nobel Laureate in Physics
19. Marcus du Sautoy, Oxford Professor of Mathematics
20. James Watson, Co-discoverer of DNA, Nobel Laureate
21. Colin McGinn, Professor of Philosophy, Miami University
22. Sir Patrick Bateson, Cambridge Professor of Ethology
23. Sir David Attenborough, World-Renowned Broadcaster and Naturalist
24. Martinus Veltman, Nobel Laureate in Physics
25. Pascal Boyer, Professor of Anthropology
26. Partha Dasgupta, Cambridge Professor of Economics
27. AC Grayling, Birkbeck Professor of Philosophy
28. Ivar Giaever, Nobel Laureate in Physics
29. John Searle, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
30. Brian Cox, Particle Physicist (Large Hadron Collider, CERN)
31. Herbert Kroemer, Nobel Laureate in Physics
32. Rebecca Goldstein, Professor of Philosophy
33. Michael Tooley, Professor of Philosophy, Colorado
34. Sir Harold Kroto, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
35. Leonard Susskind, Stanford Professor of Theoretical Physics
36. Quentin Skinner, Professor of History (Cambridge)
37. Theodor W. Hänsch, Nobel Laureate in Physics
38. Mark Balaguer, CSU Professor of Philosophy
39. Richard Ernst, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
40. Alan Macfarlane, Cambridge Professor of Anthropology
41. Professor Neil deGrasse Tyson, Princeton Research Scientist
42. Douglas Osheroff, Nobel Laureate in Physics
43. Hubert Dreyfus, Berkeley Professor of Philosophy
44. Lord Colin Renfrew, World-Renowned Archaeologist, Cambridge
45. Carl Sagan, World-Renowned Astronomer
46. Peter Singer, World-Renowned Bioethicist, Princeton
47. Rudolph Marcus, Nobel Laureate in Chemistry
48. Robert Foley, Cambridge Professor of Human Evolution
49. Daniel Dennett, Tufts Professor of Philosophy
50. Steven Weinberg, Nobel Laureate in Physics

(One also has to wonder why there’s only one woman on this list — are there really this few female voices in academia weighing in on the science vs. religion debate, or is this mashup simply reflective of whose opinions Pararajasingham has chosen to hear?)

via @kirstinbutler

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22 JULY, 2011

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery & Thermogeddon: Lexicographer Erin McKean’s TEDBook on New Words


How to spot wordishness when you see it, or what serendipity has to do with digital publishing.

As a hopeless language lover with a soft spot for words, I was thrilled by this week’s release of a new book by lexicographer Erin McKean of Wordnik fame. Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon: Thought-Provoking Words from a Lexicographer’s Notebook comes from TEDBooks, the ambitious low-cost imprint we featured as one of 7 platforms changing the future of publishing, and, for just $2.99, offers a wonderfully fascinating look at a slew of a new words and phrases across science, politics, technology, social life and other facets of our ever-changing cultural landscape.

And, in the year when neo-words like “lifehack” and “unfollow” were officially inducted into the Oxford English Dictionary, it’s safe to say the techno-tangle of formal language is so pervasive it might necessitate professional untangling. McKean does this with equal parts wit and rigor, making the understanding of emergent language as exciting as it is necessary.

Why these words? I haven’t picked the newest words (or the older), the funniest words, or the most scientifically advanced words. Instead, these are all words that have struck me with their ‘wordishness’ — that quality a word or phrase has of packing up an idea into a handy carrying case, making it portable, accessible, and (most important) transmissible — among speakers of English. Wordishness doesn’t imply elegance, grace or even clarity, but we know it when we see it.” Erin McKean

Sample McKean’s linguistic genius and charisma with her excellent 2007 TED talk, in which she redefined the dictionary:

Online dictionaries replicate almost all the problems of print, except for searchability. And when you improve searchability, you actually take away the one advantage of print, which is serendipity. Serendipity is when you find things you weren’t looking for because finding what you are looking for is so damned difficult.” ~ Erin McKean

Aftercrimes, Geoslavery, and Thermogeddon is an absolute treat of insight at the intersection of linguistic timeliness and timelessness, served with the kind of passion that makes TED TED.

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21 JULY, 2011

The Man of Numbers: How Fibonacci Changed the World


What Medieval mathematics have to do with remix culture, publishing entrepreneurship, and gamification.

Imagine a day without numbers — how would you know when to wake up, how to call your mother, how the stock market is doing, or even how old you are? We live our lives by numbers. They’re so fundamental to our understanding of the world that we’ve grown to take them for granted. And yet it wasn’t always so. Until the 13th century, even simple arithmetic was mostly accessible to European scholars. Merchants kept track of quantifiables using Roman numerals, performing calculations either by an elaborate yet widespread fingers procedure or with a clumsy mechanical abacus. But in 1202, a young Italian man named Leonardo da Pisa — known today as Fibonacci — changed everything when he wrote Liber Abbaci, Latin for Book of Calculation, the first arithmetic textbook of the West.

Keith Devlin tells his incredible and important story in The Man of Numbers: Fibonacci’s Arithmetic Revolution, tracing how Fibonacci revolutionized everything from education to economics by making arithmetic available to the masses. If you think the personal computing revolution of the 1980s was a milestone of our civilization, consider the personal computation revolution. And yet, Leonardo’s cultural contribution is hardly common knowledge.

The change in society brought about by the teaching of modern arithmetic was so pervasive and all-powerful that within a few generations people simply took it for granted. There was no longer any recognition of the magnitude of the revolution that took the subject from an obscure object of scholarly interest to an everyday mental tool. Compared with Copernicus’s conclusions about the position of Earth in the solar system and Galileo’s discovery of the pendulum as a basis for telling time, Leonardo’s showing people how to multiply 193 by 27 simply lacks drama.” ~ Keith Devlin

The Latin phrase 'filius bonacci,' in the first line of the Liber Abbaci manuscript, gave rise to Leonardo da Pisa's modern nickname, Fibonacci

Image courtesy of The Library of Florence via NPR

Though “about” mathematics, Fibonacci’s story is really about a great number of remarkably timely topics: gamification for good (Liber abbaci brimmed with puzzles and riddles like the rabbit problem to alleviate the tedium of calculation and engage readers with learning); modern finance (Fibonacci was the first to develop an early form of present-value analysis, a method for calculating the time value of money perfected by iconic economist Irving Fisher in the 1930s); publishing entrepreneurship (the first edition of Liber Abbaci was too dense for the average person to grasp, so da Pisa released — bear in mind, before the invention of the printing press — a simplified version accessible to the ordinary traders of Pisa, which allowed the text to spread around the world); abstract symbolism (because numbers, as objective as we’ve come to perceive them as, are actually mere commonly agreed upon abstractions); and even remix culture (Liber Abbaci was assumed to be the initial source for a great deal of arithmetic bestsellers released after the invention of the printing press.)

Above all, however, Fibonacci’s feat was one of storytelling — much like TED, he took existing ideas that were far above the average person’s competence and grasp, and used his remarkable expository skills to make them accessible and attractive to the common man, allowing these ideas to spread far beyond the small and self-selected circles of the scholarly elite.

A page from the Liber abbaci manuscript. Leonardo da Pisa wrote symbolic calculations in the margin to illustrate the methods described in the text.

Image courtesy of Siena Public Library via NPR

A book about Leonardo must focus on his great contribution and his intellectual legacy. Having recognized that numbers, and in particular powerful and efficient ways to compute with them, could change the world, he set about making that happen at a time when Europe was poised for major advances in science, technology, and commercial practice. Through Liber Abbaci he showed that an abstract symbolism and a collection of seemingly obscure procedures for manipulating those symbols had huge practical applications.” ~ Keith Devlin

NPR has an excerpt, or you can sample The Man of Numbers on your Kindle:

UPDATE: Per Devlin’s comment below, there’s a complementary ebook titled Leonardo and Steve, drawing a compelling parallel between Fibonacci and Steve Jobs. If that isn’t already irresistible, the title goes for just $2.99 — now could one resist?

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