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The Best Science Books of 2015

From Earth’s largest-hearted creature to the interconnectedness of the universe, by way of Einstein and artificial intelligence.

The Best Science Books of 2015

“Anyone who writes down to children is simply wasting his time,” E.B. White observed in a wonderful 1969 interview. “You have to write up, not down.” What’s true of great children’s books is true of great science books, which must do three things for the reader — explain, enchant, and elevate. They must tell you what something is and why it matters, captivate you to care about it and tickle you into taking pleasure in understanding it, and leave you in a higher state of awareness regarding whatever subtle or monumental aspect of the world the book had made its subject.

After the best art books of the year, here are the most stimulating science books of 2015, possessing this trifecta of merit.

1. ON THE MOVE

“I have been able to see my life as from a great altitude, as a sort of landscape, and with a deepening sense of the connection of all its parts,” Oliver Sacks wrote in his poignant, beautiful, and courageous farewell to life. In one final gesture of generosity, this cartographer of the mind and its meaning mapped the landscape of his remarkable character and career in On the Move: A Life (public library) — an uncommonly moving autobiography, titled after a line from a poem by his dear friend Thom Gunn: “At worst,” wrote Gunn, “one is in motion; and at best, / Reaching no absolute, in which to rest, / One is always nearer by not keeping still.” Sacks’s unstillness is that of a life defined by a compassionate curiosity — about the human mind, about the human spirit, about the invisibilia of our inner lives.

Oliver Sacks (Photograph: Nicholas Naylor-Leland)

The book, made all the more poignant by Dr. Sacks’s death shortly after its release, is not so much an autobiography in the strict sense as a dialogue with time on the simultaneous scales of the personal (going from world-champion weightlifter to world-renowned neurologist), the cultural (being a gay man looking for true love in the 1960s was nothing like it is in our post-DOMA, beTindered present), and the civilizational (watching horseshoe crabs mate on the beaches of City Island exactly as they did 400 million years ago on the shores of Earth’s primordial seas). This record of time pouring through the unclenched fingers of the mind’s most magnanimous patron saint has become one of the most rewarding reading experiences of my life — one I came to with deep reverence for Dr. Sacks’s intellectual footprint and left with deep love for his soul.

Dr. Sacks on the set of the cinematic adaptation of his book Awakenings, with Robin Williams, 1989 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Like Marie Curie, whose wounds and power sprang from the same source, Dr. Sacks’s character springs from the common root of his pain and his pleasure. At eighty, he reflects on a defining feature of his interior landscape:

I am shy in ordinary social contexts; I am not able to “chat” with any ease; I have difficulty recognizing people (this is lifelong, though worse now my eyesight is impaired); I have little knowledge of and little interest in current affairs, whether political, social, or sexual. Now, additionally, I am hard of hearing, a polite term for deepening deafness. Given all this, I tend to retreat into a corner, to look invisible, to hope I am passed over. This was incapacitating in the 1960s, when I went to gay bars to meet people; I would agonize, wedged into a corner, and leave after an hour, alone, sad, but somehow relieved. But if I find someone, at a party or elsewhere, who shares some of my own (usually scientific) interests — volcanoes, jellyfish, gravitational waves, whatever — then I am immediately drawn into animated conversation…

But Dr. Sacks’s intense introversion is also what made him such an astute listener and observer — the very quality that rendered him humanity’s most steadfast sherpa into the strange landscape of how minds other than our own experience the seething cauldron of mystery we call life.

On one particular occasion, the thrill of observation swelled to such proportions that it eclipsed his chronic introversion. He recounts:

I almost never speak to people in the street. But some years ago, there was a lunar eclipse, and I went outside to view it with my little 20x telescope. Everyone else on the busy sidewalk seemed oblivious to the extraordinary celestial happening above them, so I stopped people, saying, “Look! Look what’s happening to the moon!” and pressing my telescope into their hands. People were taken aback at being approached in this way, but, intrigued by my manifestly innocent enthusiasm, they raised the telescope to their eyes, “wowed,” and handed it back. “Hey, man, thanks for letting me look at that,” or “Gee, thanks for showing me.”

In a sense, Dr. Sacks has spent half a century pushing a telescope into our hands and inviting us, with the same innocent and infectious enthusiasm, to peer into an object even more remote and mysterious — the human mindscape — until we wow. And although he may paint himself as a comically clumsy genius — there he is, dropping hamburger crumbs into sophisticated lab equipment; there he is, committing “a veritable genocide of earthworms” in an experiment gone awry; there he is, watching nine months of painstaking research fly off the back of his motorcycle into New York’s densest traffic — make no mistake: This is a man of enormous charisma and grace, revealed as much by the details of his life as by the delight of his writing.

Dr. Sacks’s official portrait as a UCLA resident, taken at the neuropathology lab in 1964 (Courtesy of Oliver Sacks)

Dive deeper into this enormously rewarding book here.

2. ALEXANDER VON HUMBOLDT AND THE INVENTION OF NATURE

No thinker has shaped our understanding of the astounding interconnectedness of the universe more profoundly than the great Prussian naturalist, explorer, and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (September 14, 1769–May 6, 1859), who pioneered the notion that the natural world is a web of intricately entwined elements, each in constant dynamic dialogue with every other — a concept a century ahead of its time. His legacy isn’t so much any single discovery — although he did discover the magnetic equator, invented isotherms, and came up with climate zones — as it is a mindset, a worldview, a singular sensemaking sublimity.

Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806
Alexander von Humboldt by Friedrich Georg Weitsch, 1806

Goethe, in his conversations with Eckermann, remarked that a single day with Humboldt enriched him more than years spent alone, enthusing:

What a man he is! … He has not his equal in knowledge and living wisdom. Then he has a many-sidedness such as I have found nowhere else. On whatever point you approach him, he is at home, and lavishes upon us his intellectual treasures. He is like a fountain with many pipes, under which you need only hold a vessel, and from which refreshing and inexhaustible streams are ever flowing.

Darwin asserted that Humboldt’s writings kindled in him a zeal without which he wouldn’t have boarded the Beagle or written On the Origin of Species. Thoreau was an ardent admirer of Humboldt’s “habit of close observation,” without the influence of which there might have been no Walden. Trailblazing astronomer Maria Mitchell, who met Humboldt weeks before his death, marveled in her diary that “no young aspirant in science ever left Humboldt’s presence uncheered,” and his ideas reverberate through her famous assertion that science is “not all mathematics, nor all logic, but it is somewhat beauty and poetry.” Emerson, in his essays and lectures, called Humboldt “a man whose eyes, ears, and mind are armed by all the science, arts, and implements which mankind have anywhere accumulated” and saw him as living proof that “a certain vastness of learning, or quasi omnipresence of the human soul in nature, is possible.”

Goethe's diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt
Goethe’s diagram of the comparative table elevations of the Old and New World, inspired by Humboldt

In informing and impressing the greatest minds of his time, Humboldt invariably influenced the course of science and its intercourse with the rest of culture in ways innumerable, enduring, and profound. His visionary understanding of nature’s interconnected sparked the basic ecological awareness that gave rise to the environmental movement. His integrated approach to science, incorporating elements of art, philosophy, poetry, politics, and history, provided the last bold counterpoint to the disconnected and dysfunctional “villages” of specialization into which science would fragment a mere generation later. And yet Humboldt, despite his enormous contribution to our most fundamental understanding of life, is largely forgotten today.

In The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World (public library), London-based design historian and writer Andrea Wulf sets out to liberate this extraordinary man’s legacy from the grip of obscurity and short-termism, illuminating the myriad threads of influence through which he continues to shape our present thinking about science, society, and life itself.

Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.
Alexander von Humboldt in his home library at at 67 Oranienburger Strasse, Berlin. Chromolithograph copy of watercolor drawing by Eduard Hildebrant, 1856.

Wulf paints the backdrop for Humboldt’s enduring genius:

Described by his contemporaries as the most famous man in the world after Napoleon, Humboldt was one of the most captivating and inspiring men of his time. Born in 1769 into a wealthy Prussian aristocratic family, he discarded a life of privilege to discover for himself how the world worked. As a young man he set out on a five-year exploration to Latin America, risking his life many times and returning with a new sense of the world. It was a journey that shaped his life and thinking, and that made him legendary across the globe. He lived in cities such as Paris and Berlin, but was equally at home on the most remote branches of the Orinoco River or in the Kazakh Steppe at Russia’s Mongolian border. During much of his long life, he was the nexus of the scientific world, writing some 50,000 letters and receiving at least double that number. Knowledge, Humboldt believed, had to be shared, exchanged and made available to everybody.

But knowledge, for Humboldt, wasn’t merely an intellectual faculty — it was an embodied, holistic presence with life in all of its dimensions. A rock-climber, volcano-diver, and tireless hiker well into his eighties, Humboldt saw observation as an active endeavor and continually tested the limits of his body in his scientific pursuits. For him, mind, body, and spirit were all instruments of inquiry into the nature of the world. Two centuries before Carl Sagan sold us on the idea that “science invariably elicits a sense of reverence and awe,” Humboldt advocated for this then-radical notion amid a culture that drew a thick line between reason and emotion.

Wulf writes:

Fascinated by scientific instruments, measurements and observations, he was driven by a sense of wonder as well. Of course nature had to be measured and analysed, but he also believed that a great part of our response to the natural world should be based on the senses and emotions. He wanted to excite a “love of nature.” At a time when other scientists were searching for universal laws, Humboldt wrote that nature had to be experienced through feelings.

Out of this integrated approach to knowledge sprang Humboldt’s revolutionary view of life — the scientifically informed counterpart to Ada Lovelace’s famous assertion that “everything is naturally related and interconnected.” Wulf captures his greatest legacy:

Humboldt revolutionized the way we see the natural world. He found connections everywhere. Nothing, not even the tiniest organism, was looked at on its own. “In this great chain of causes and effects,” Humboldt said, “no single fact can be considered in isolation.” With this insight, he invented the web of life, the concept of nature as we know it today.

When nature is perceived as a web, its vulnerability also becomes obvious. Everything hangs together. If one thread is pulled, the whole tapestry may unravel.

Read more here.

3. DARK MATTER AND THE DINOSAURS

Every successful technology of thought, be it science or philosophy, is a time machine — it peers into the past in order to disassemble the building blocks of how we got to the present, then reassembles them into a sensemaking mechanism for where the future might take us. That’s what Harvard particle physicist and cosmologist Lisa Randall accomplishes in Dark Matter and the Dinosaurs: The Astounding Interconnectedness of the Universe (public library) — an intellectually thrilling exploration of how the universe evolved, what made our very existence possible, and how dark matter illuminates our planet’s relationship to its cosmic environment across past, present, and future.

Randall starts with a fascinating speculative theory, linking dark matter to the extinction of the dinosaurs — an event that took place in the outermost reaches of the Solar System sixty-six million years ago catalyzed an earthly catastrophe without which we wouldn’t have come to exist. What makes her theory so striking is that it contrasts the most invisible aspects of the universe with the most dramatic events of our world while linking the two in a causal dance, reminding us just how limited our perception of reality really is — we are, after all, sensorial creatures blinded by our inability to detect the myriad complex and fascinating processes that play out behind the doors of perception.

Randall writes:

The Universe contains a great deal that we have never seen — and likely never will.

A 17th-century conception of non-space by the English physician and cosmologist Robert Fludd, found in Cosmigraphics: Picturing Space Through Time

In Humboldt’s tradition of interconnectedness, Randall weaves together a number of different disciplines — cosmology, particle physics, evolutionary biology, environmental science, geology, and even social science — to tell a larger story of the universe, our galaxy, and the Solar System. In one of several perceptive social analogies, she likens dark matter — which comprises 85% of matter in the universe, interacts with gravity, but, unlike the ordinary matter we can see and touch, doesn’t interact with light — to the invisible but instrumental factions of human society:

Even though it is unseen and unfelt, dark matter played a pivotal role in forming the Universe’s structure. Dark matter can be compared to the under-appreciated rank and file of society. Even when invisible to the elite decision makers, the many workers who built pyramids or highways or assembled electronics were crucial to the development of their civilizations. Like other unnoticed populations in our midst, dark matter was essential to our world.

But the theory itself, original and interesting as it may be, is merely a clever excuse to do two more important things: tell an expansive and exhilarating story of how the universe as we know it came to exist, and invite us to transcend the limits of our temporal imagination and our delusions of omnipotence. How humbling to consider that a tiny twitch caused by an invisible force in the far reaches of the cosmos millions of years ago hurled at our unremarkable piece of rock a meteoroid three times the width of Manhattan, which produced the most massive and destructive earthquake of all time, decimating three quarters of all living creatures on Earth. Had the dinosaurs not died, large mammals may never have come to dominate the planet and humanity wouldn’t be here to contemplate the complexities of the cosmos. And yet in a few billion years, the Sun will retire into the red giant phase of its stellar lifetime and eventually burn out, extinguishing our biosphere and Blake and Bach and every human notion of truth and beauty. Stardust to stardust.

Read more here.

4. THE THRILLING ADVENTURES OF LOVELACE AND BABBAGE

In 1843, Ada Lovelace — the only legitimate child of the poet Lord Byron — translated a scientific paper by Italian military engineer Luigi Menabrea titled Sketch of an Analytical Engine, adding seven footnotes to it. Together, they measured 65 pages — two and half times the length of Menabrea’s original text — and included the earliest complete computer program, becoming the first true paper on computer science and rendering Lovelace the world’s first computer programmer. She was twenty-seven.

About a decade earlier, Lovelace had met the brilliant and eccentric British mathematician Charles Babbage who, when he wasn’t busy teaming up with Dickens to wage a war on street music, was working on strange inventions that would one day prompt posterity to call him the father of the computer. (Well, sort of.) The lifelong friendship that ensued between 18-year-old Lovelace and 45-year-old Babbage sparked an invaluable union of software and hardware to which we owe enormous swaths of modern life — including the very act of reading these words on this screen.

The unusual story of this Victorian power-duo is what graphic artists and animator Sydney Padua explores in the immensely delightful and illuminating The Thrilling Adventures of Lovelace and Babbage: The (Mostly) True Story of the First Computer (public library), itself a masterwork of combinatorial genius and a poetic analog to its subject matter — rigorously researched, it has approximately the same footnote-to-comic ratio as Lovelace’s trailblazing paper. The footnote, after all, is proto-hypertext linking one set of ideas to another, and in these analog hyperlinks, Padua draws on an impressive wealth of historical materials — from the duo’s scientific writings and lectures to Lovelace’s letters to Babbage’s autobiography to various accounts by their contemporaries.

Padua begins at the beginning, with Lovelace’s unusual upbringing as the daughter of Lord Byron, a “radical, adventurer, pan-amorist, and poet,” and Anne Isabella Millbanke, a “deeply moral Evangelical Christian and prominent anti-slavery campaigner.”

Determined to shield young Ada from any expression of her father’s dangerous “poetical” influence, her mother instructed the young girl’s nurse:

Be most careful always to speak the truth to her … take care not to tell her any nonsensical stories that will put fancies into her head.

She wasn’t spared the Victorian era’s brutal control mechanisms of women’s minds and bodies. Padua footnotes:

Ada’s upbringing was strict and lonely. She was given lessons while lying on a “reclining board” to perfect her posture. If she fidgeted, even with her fingers, her hands were tied in black bags and she was shut in a closet. She was five years old.

But the best control strategy for the disorderly tendencies of the poetical mind, it was determined, was thorough immersion in mathematics — which worked, but only to a degree.

Lovelace was eventually introduced to Babbage by the great Scottish mathematician, science writer, and polymath Mary Somerville — for whom, incidentally, the word “scientist” was coined.

And so one of history’s most paradigm-shifting encounters took place.

Implicit to the story is also a reminder that genius is as much the product of an individual’s exceptional nature as it is of the culture in which that individual is nourished. Genius leaps from the improbable into the possible — the courage of the leap is the function of individual temperament, but the horizons of possibility are to a large extent determined by the culture and the era.

Lovelace lived in an age when it was not only uncommon but even discouraged for women to engage in science, let alone authoring scientific paper themselves. In another illuminating footnote, Padua quotes from Babbage’s autobiography, capturing Lovelace’s dance with this duality of possibility and limitation perfectly:

The late Countess of Lovelace informed me that she had translated the memoir of Menabrea. I asked why she had not herself written an original paper on a subject with which she was so intimately acquainted? To this Lady Lovelace replied that the thought had not occurred to her.

And yet groundbreaking thoughts that hadn’t occurred to others did occur to Lovelace.

See more here.

5. THE BLUE WHALE

“The world is blue at its edges and in its depths,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her beautiful meditation on the color of distance and desire. No creature compresses the edgeless grandeur of our Pale Blue Dot into a single body as perfectly as the blue whale — an animal absolutely awesome in the true sense of the word. That awe-striking being is what London-based illustrator Jenni Desmond celebrates in the marvelous nonfiction children’s book The Blue Whale (public library) — a loving science lullaby about our planet’s biggest creature, and a beautiful addition to the finest children’s books celebrating science.

Alongside Desmond’s immeasurably warm and largehearted illustrations is her simply worded, deeply intelligent synthesis of what marine biologists know about this extraordinary mammal — in fact, she worked closely with Diane Gendron, a marine biologist who studies blue whales. At the heart of the book is a compassionate curiosity about the beings with whom we share this world, effecting what the great Mary Oliver called a “sudden awareness of the citizenry of all things within one world.”

Indeed, despite the gaping disparity of scales, we have more in common with this gentle giant of the ocean than we realize — the blue whale, like us, is a highly intelligent mammal and one of the few creatures with a lifespan comparable to our own.

There is a charming meta touch to the story — the protagonist, a little boy with a crown that evokes Maurice Sendak’s Max, is learning and dreaming about blue whales by reading this very book, which he is seen holding in a number of the scenes.

Although the whaling industry of yore may have inspired some legendary art, more than 360,000 blue whales were killed in the first half of the twentieth century as these magnificent creatures were being reduced to oil, blubber, baleen, and meat. A global ban on whale hunting made them a protected species in 1966, but other forms of our arrogant anthropocentrism are putting them in danger anew as our our commercial fishing entangles them in its indiscriminate nets, our passenger ships pollute their habitats, and our general human activity continues to raise ocean temperatures.

And yet it isn’t with alarmism or bitter lamentation but with love befitting this largest-hearted of earthly creatures — its heart alone weighs around 1,300 pounds — that Desmond invites us into the world of the blue whale. She writes in the preface:

Blue whales are magnificent and intelligent creatures, and like all of the natural world they deserve our admiration and care. It is only then that they will flourish and multiply in their native ocean home.

And so it is with admiration and care that Desmond opens our eyes to the glory of this beautiful and intelligent creature — a creature whose own eye measures only six inches wide.

Look closer here.

6. THE PHYSICIST & THE PHILOSOPHER

“It is the insertion of man with his limited life span that transforms the continuously flowing stream of sheer change … into time as we know it,” Hannah Arendt wrote in her brilliant inquiry into time, space, and our thinking ego. A generation earlier, Virginia Woolf contemplated how this insertion engenders the astonishing elasticity of time; a generation later, Patti Smith pondered the subjectivity of how we experience time’s continuous flow. These reflections, once so radical and now so woven into the cultural fabric, wouldn’t have been possible without a fateful conversation that took place on April 6, 1922, which steered the course of twentieth-century science and shaped our experience of time.

So argues science historian Jimena Canales in The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time (public library) — a masterwork of cultural forensics, dissecting the many dimensions of the landmark conversation between Albert Einstein and Henri Bergson.

einsteinbergson

What makes the encounter particularly notable is that unlike the canon of great public conversations between intellectual titans — including those between David Bohm and Jiddu Krishnamurti, Margaret Mead and James Baldwin, and Matthieu Ricard and Jean-François Revel — where surface disagreements are undergirded by and ultimately reveal a larger shared ethos, Einstein and Bergson clashed completely and vehemently on the subject of their conversation: the nature of time. Einstein insisted that only two types of time existed: physical, the kind measured by clocks, and psychological, the subjective kind Virginia Woolf would later observe. For Bergson, this was a barbaric and reductionist perspective robbing time of the philosophical dimension that permeates nearly every aspect of how we experience its flow.

The debris of that disagreement became the foundation of our present ideas about the fabric of existence.

Art by Lisbeth Zwerger for a rare edition of Alice in Wonderland

What the encounter also reveals is the astounding amount of humanity upon which science, with all of its presumed rationalism and universal objectivity, is built. How pause-giving to think that our present understanding of time is largely the function of the personal differences between two men. Canales writes:

While Einstein searched for consistency and simplicity, Bergson focused on inconsistencies and complexities.

[…]

Bergson was the paradigmatic philosopher of memories, dreams, and laughter.

[…]

Time, he argued, was not something out there, separate from those who perceived it. It did not exist independently from us. It involved us at every level.

Bergson found Einstein’s definition of time in terms of clocks completely aberrant. The philosopher did not understand why one would opt to describe the timing of a significant event, such as the arrival of a train, in terms of how that event matched against a watch. He did not understand why Einstein tried to establish this particular procedure as a privileged way to determine simultaneity. Bergson searched for a more basic definition of simultaneity, one that would not stop at the watch but that would explain why clocks were used in the first place.

At that point, Einstein was busy rattling our understanding of time with his relativity theory. Bergson, one of the most prominent philosophers of the century and a major influence on such luminaries as Virginia Woolf, Gertrude Stein, T.S. Elliot, and William Faulkner, had advanced a theory of time that explained what the mechanics of clock-time could not, from the malleability of memory to the perplexities of premonitions. A staunch defender of intuition over the intellect, Bergson was sometimes accused, most famously by Bertrand Russell, of anti-intellectualism — but he was undeniably one of the most intelligent and incisive minds of his time. Although today Einstein is the better-known of the two, the opposite was true at the time of their confrontation, the consequences of which were profound and rippled out not only across the scientific community but across all of culture.

Read more here.

7. WHAT TO THINK ABOUT MACHINES THAT THINK

When Ada Lovelace and Charles Babbage invented the world’s first computer, their “Analytical Engine” became the evolutionary progenitor of a new class of human extensions — machines that think. A generation later, Alan Turing picked up where they left off and, in laying the foundations of artificial intelligence with his Turing Test, famously posed the techno-philosophical question of whether a computer could ever enjoy strawberries and cream or compel you to fall in love with it.

From its very outset, this new branch of human-machine evolution made it clear that any answer to these questions would invariably alter how we answer the most fundamental questions of what it means to be human.

That’s what Edge founder John Brockman explores in the 2015 edition of his annual question, inviting 192 of today’s most prominent thinkers to tussle with these core questions of artificial intelligence and its undergirding human dilemmas. The answers, collected in What to Think About Machines That Think: Today’s Leading Thinkers on the Age of Machine Intelligence (public library), come from such diverse contributors as physicist and mathematician Freeman Dyson, music pioneer Brian Eno, biological anthropologist Helen Fisher, Positive Psychology founding father Martin Seligman, computer scientist and inventor Danny Hillis, TED curator Chris Anderson, neuroscientist Sam Harris, legendary curator Hans Ulrich Obrist, media theorist Douglas Rushkoff, cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker, and yours truly.

Art from Neurocomic, a graphic novel about how the brain works

The answers are strewn with a handful of common threads, a major one being the idea that artificial intelligence isn’t some futuristic abstraction but a palpably present reality with which we’re already living.

Beloved musician and prolific reader Brian Eno looks at the many elements of his day, from cooking porridge to switching on the radio, that work seamlessly thanks to an invisible mesh of connected human intelligence — a Rube Goldberg machine of micro-expertise that makes it possible for the energy in a distant oil field to power the stove built in a foreign factory out of components made by scattered manufacturers, and ultimately cook his porridge. In a sentiment that calls to mind I, Pencil — that magnificent vintage allegory of how everything is connected — Eno explains why he sees artificial intelligence not as a protagonist in a techno-dystopian future but as an indelible and fruitful part of our past and present:

My untroubled attitude results from my almost absolute faith in the reliability of the vast supercomputer I’m permanently plugged into. It was built with the intelligence of thousands of generations of human minds, and they’re still working at it now. All that human intelligence remains alive, in the form of the supercomputer of tools, theories, technologies, crafts, sciences, disciplines, customs, rituals, rules of thumb, arts, systems of belief, superstitions, work-arounds, and observations that we call Global Civilization.

Global Civilization is something we humans created, though none of us really know how. It’s out of the individual control of any of us — a seething synergy of embodied intelligence that we’re all plugged into. None of us understands more than a tiny sliver of it, but by and large we aren’t paralyzed or terrorized by that fact — we still live in it and make use of it. We feed it problems — such as “I want some porridge” — and it miraculously offers us solutions that we don’t really understand.

[…]

We’ve been living happily with artificial intelligence for thousands of years.

Art by Laura Carlin for The Iron Giant by Ted Hughes. Click image for more.

In one of the volume’s most optimistic essays, TED curator Chris Anderson, who belongs to the increasingly endangered tribe of public idealists, considers how this “hive mind” of semi-artificial intelligence could provide a counterpoint to some of our worst human tendencies and amplify our collective potential for good:

We all know how flawed humans are. How greedy, irrational, and limited in our ability to act collectively for the common good. We’re in danger of wrecking the planet. Does anyone thoughtful really want humanity to be evolution’s final word?

[…]

Intelligence doesn’t reach its full power in small units. Every additional connection and resource can help expand its power. A person can be smart, but a society can be smarter still…

By that logic, intelligent machines of the future wouldn’t destroy humans. Instead, they would tap into the unique contributions that humans make. The future would be one of ever richer intermingling of human and machine capabilities. I’ll take that route. It’s the best of those available.

[…]

Together we’re semiunconsciously creating a hive mind of vastly greater power than this planet has ever seen — and vastly less power than it will soon see.

“Us versus the machines” is the wrong mental model. There’s only one machine that really counts. Like it or not, we’re all — us and our machines — becoming part of it: an immense connected brain. Once we had neurons. Now we’re becoming the neurons.

Astrophysicist and philosopher Marcelo Gleiser, who has written beautifully about how to live with mystery in a culture obsessed with knowledge, echoes this idea by pointing out the myriad mundane ways in which “machines that think” already permeate our daily lives:

We define ourselves through our techno-gadgets, create fictitious personas with weird names, doctor pictures to appear better or at least different in Facebook pages, create a different self to interact with others. We exist on an information cloud, digitized, remote, and omnipresent. We have titanium implants in our joints, pacemakers and hearing aids, devices that redefine and extend our minds and bodies. If you’re a handicapped athlete, your carbon-fiber legs can propel you forward with ease. If you’re a scientist, computers can help you extend your brainpower to create well beyond what was possible a few decades back. New problems that once were impossible to contemplate, or even formulate, come around every day. The pace of scientific progress is a direct correlate of our alliance with digital machines.

We’re reinventing the human race right now.

Another common thread running across a number of the answers is the question of what constitutes “artificial” intelligence in the first place and how we draw the line between machine thought and human thought. Caltech theoretical physicist and cosmologist Sean Carroll performs elegant semantic acrobatics to invert the question:

We are all machines that think, and the distinction between different types of machines is eroding.

We pay a lot of attention these days, with good reason, to “artificial” machines and intelligences — ones constructed by human ingenuity. But the “natural” ones that have evolved through natural selection, like you and me, are still around. And one of the most exciting frontiers in technology and cognition is the increasingly permeable boundary between the two categories.

Art from Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore, an allegory of quantum physics inspired by Alice in Wonderland

In my own contribution to the volume, I consider the question of “thinking machines” from the standpoint of what thought itself is and how our human solipsism is limiting our ability to envision and recognize other species of thinking:

Thinking isn’t mere computation — it’s also cognition and contemplation, which inevitably lead to imagination. Imagination is how we elevate the real toward the ideal, and this requires a moral framework of what is ideal. Morality is predicated on consciousness and on having a self-conscious inner life rich enough to contemplate the question of what is ideal. The famous aphorism attributed to Einstein — “Imagination is more important than knowledge” — is interesting only because it exposes the real question worth contemplating: not that of artificial intelligence but of artificial imagination.

Of course, imagination is always “artificial,” in the sense of being concerned with the unreal or trans-real — of transcending reality to envision alternatives to it — and this requires a capacity for accepting uncertainty. But the algorithms driving machine computation thrive on goal-oriented executions in which there’s no room for uncertainty. “If this, then that” is the antithesis of imagination, which lives in the unanswered, and often vitally unanswerable, realm of “What if?” As Hannah Arendt once wrote, losing our capacity for asking such unanswerable questions would be to “lose not only the ability to produce those thought-things that we call works of art but also the capacity to ask all the unanswerable questions upon which every civilization is founded.”

[…]

Will machines ever be moral, imaginative? It’s likely that if and when they reach that point, theirs will be a consciousness that isn’t beholden to human standards. Their ideals will not be our ideals, but they will be ideals nonetheless. Whether or not we recognize those processes as thinking will be determined by the limitations of human thought in understanding different — perhaps wildly, unimaginably different — modalities of thought itself.

See more responses here.

BONUS: THUNDER & LIGHTNING

Although this gem is among the best art books of the year, it is also a project of significant scientific scholarship, so it warrants inclusion among the year’s best science books as well.

“Sailors have an expression about the weather: they say, the weather is a great bluffer,” E.B. White wrote in his elevating letter of assurance to a man who had lost faith in humanity, adding: “I guess the same is true of our human society — things can look dark, then a break shows in the clouds, and all is changed, sometimes rather suddenly.” Our most steadfast companion since the dawn of our species, the weather seeded our earliest myths, inspired some of our greatest art, affects the way we think, and continues to lend itself to such apt metaphors for the human experience. Its reliable inconstancy constantly assures us that neither storm nor sunshine lasts forever; that however thick the gloom which shrouds today, the sun always rises tomorrow.

That abiding and dimensional relationship with the weather is what artist, Guggenheim Fellow, and American Museum of Natural History artist-in-residence Lauren Redniss explores in the beguiling Thunder & Lightning: Weather Past, Present, Future (public library).

Part encyclopedia and part almanac, the book is a tapestry of narrative threads highlighting various weather-related curiosities, from Eskimo dream mythology to the science of lightning to the economics of hurricanes to Benjamin Franklin’s inclination for “air baths.” Although Redniss’s selections might give the impression of trivia at first brush, make no mistake — these are not random factlets that trivialize their subject but an intentional kaleidoscopic gleam that shines the light of attention onto some of the most esoteric and enchanting aspects of the weather.

Like Redniss’s previous book — her astonishing visual biography of Marie Curie — this project is enormously ambitious both conceptually and in its execution. Redniss created her illustrations using copperplate etching, an early printmaking technique popular prior to 1820, and typeset the text in an original font she designed herself, which she titled Qanec LR after the Eskimo word for “falling snow.”

Take a closer look here.

Step into the cultural time machine with selections for the best science books of 2014, 2013, 2012, and 2011.


Published December 11, 2015

https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/12/11/best-science-books-2015/

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