Conway made what he called “The Vow”, promising himself: “Thou shalt stop worrying and feeling guilty; thou shalt do whatever thou pleasest.” He no longer worried that he was eroding his mathematical soul when he indulged his curiosity and followed wherever it went, whether towards recreation or research, or somewhere altogether nonmathematical, such as his longing to learn the etymology of words. Conway’s fate now was to do all the stuff that he had formerly feared his fellow mathematicians might floccinaucinihilipilificate. “Floccinaucinihilipilification” is his favourite word. He reckons it’s the longest word in the Oxford English Dictionary (it is certainly in the top three), and without prompting he gives an account of its etymology: it is a Latin-based word, invented circa 1730 at Eton as a schoolboy’s joke. And, Conway recites nearly verbatim the OED’s definition: “the action or habit of estimating as worthless.”
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March 21, 2019
[morris] Was Thomas Kuhn Evil? … Nice overview of Errol Morris’ big problems with Thomas Kuhn. ‘Morris, who calls his philosophy “investigative realism,” writes, “I feel very strongly that, even though the world is unutterably insane, there is this idea—perhaps a hope—that we can reach outside of the insanity and find truth, find the world, find ourselves.” Kuhn, for all his faults, goaded Morris into writing a brilliant work of investigative realism.’
[life] Do Animals Have Feelings? … A powerful examination of the consciousness of animals. ‘If one of the wasp’s aquatic ancestors experienced Earth’s first embryonic consciousness, it would have been nothing like our own consciousness. It may have been colorless and barren of sharply defined objects. It may have been episodic, flickering on in some situations and off in others. It may have been a murkily sensed perimeter of binary feelings, a bubble of good and bad experienced by something central and unitary. To those of us who have seen stars shining on the far side of the cosmos, this existence would be claustrophobic to a degree that is scarcely imaginable. But that doesn’t mean it wasn’t conscious.’
[science] Forget Fingerprints—in the Future We’ll Be Identified by Gut Bacteria … a future plot to CSI: Vegas? … ‘Compared to microbes in the skin, mouth, and vagina, gut microbes were the most stable over time, according to the researchers. Around 86 percent of the time, the scientists were able to uniquely identify an individual based on stool samples taken 30 to 300 days after the original stool sample from which the microbial fingerprint was derived. With bacteria in the skin, mouth, and vagina, later fingerprints matched the original ones about 30 percent of the time.’
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[science] 13 Science Myths You Probably Believe … … ‘Whether you can roll your tongue or not depends on your genes – In a 1940 study some children managed to learn the skill. Eleven years later, some scientists showed that the number of tongue rollers among Japanese school children increased by 20% between the ages of 6–7 and 12. So it can’t be purely genetic.’
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January 4, 2015
[science] Is the Universe a Simulation? … ‘But one fanciful possibility is that we live in a computer simulation based on the laws of mathematics — not in what we commonly take to be the real world. According to this theory, some highly advanced computer programmer of the future has devised this simulation, and we are unknowingly part of it. Thus when we discover a mathematical truth, we are simply discovering aspects of the code that the programmer used. This may strike you as very unlikely. But the Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has argued that we are more likely to be in such a simulation than not. If such simulations are possible in theory, he reasons, then eventually humans will create them — presumably many of them. If this is so, in time there will be many more simulated worlds than nonsimulated ones. Statistically speaking, therefore, we are more likely to be living in a simulated world than the real one.’
[life] This scientist solved the mystery of belly button lint … ‘It was mostly people that had stomach hair who also typically found belly button lint. He proved it by shaving his own stomach, and seeing that he didn’t produce any belly button lint until his hair grew back. He also confirmed the seemingly obvious fact that lint originates from shirt fibers in two ways: by seeing that it always matched the color of the shirt he was wearing, and by chemically analyzing the lint and finding that it was mostly made of cellulose (the material that makes up cotton). It also contained some nitrogen and sulfur, likely from sweat and skin cells.’
[life] Has David Birnbaum solved the mystery of existence?… engrossing profile of “outsider thinker” David Birnbaum … ‘There is no shortage of people who would say no, at least in Birnbaum’s case. His work, said a commenter on the Chronicle’s website, “reads like L Ron Hubbard had drunken sex one night with Ayn Rand and produced this bastard thought-child”. One scholar who became professionally involved with Birnbaum described the experience as “unsettling, unfortunate and, to my knowledge, unprecedented in academic circles”. Another just called him “toxic”. But then again – as Birnbaum pointed out to me, more than once, during the weeks I spent trying to figure out exactly what he was up to – just suppose that a scrappy, philosophically unqualified Jewish guy from Queens really had cracked the cosmic code, embarrassing the ivory-tower elites: well, isn’t this exactly the kind of defensive response you’d expect?’
[health] Setting the Record Straight: Debunking ALL the Flu Vaccine Myths … With flu season’s arrival this is a very timely debunking of myths about Flu vaccines … ‘Myth #18: If I get the flu, antibiotics will take care of me. (No, they can’t.) Influenza is a virus. Antibiotics fight bacteria (anti = “against”; biotics = “of life,” referring to living bacteria, not to viruses). All the antibiotics in the world won’t help you fight off a flu infection.’
[science] Science For The Epic Motherfreaking Win… a profound meditation on the glory of science … ‘Science… fuck yeah. The cool part about learning science on Facebook is that they use pictures and the words aren’t very big and you get to browse Facebook the entire time. Plus, the swearing. You can’t swear in school which is bullshit. I think I would like school a lot more if it was compacted down into meme format. Like instead of summer reading we could just look at like 10 to 20 different memes a day. Neil deGrasse Tyson for the motherepic shit win.’
[movies] Jurassic Park’s dinosaurs: out of time?… Twenty years after the release of Jurassic Park how realistic were the dinosaurs … ‘New finds show that the forelimbs of tyrannosaurs were rather closer together than previously assumed – on screen those famous little arms are set far up the side of the animal, but in fact should be much closer together and almost underneath the head. These are minor details in appearance compared to the probability that Tyrannosaurus had feathers, or the fact that there’s no good evidence that Velociraptor was a pack hunter or especially smart (or as fast as a cheetah while we’re on the subject), and the giant frill and venom-spitting in Dilophosaurus is basically fiction.’
[numbers] Pi Versus Information Theory … searching for meaning in Pi… ‘Is all of life written in pi? No. There is nothing there. For every fact you might find, you would also find the exact opposite. For every name of someone you might love, there would be countless other names. Claude Shannon would tell us that a sequence of random numbers contains no information, which he describes as “the removal of uncertainty.” No uncertainty is removed through perusal of the digits of pi.’
[funny] The Venn Diagram of Irrational Nonsense … ‘In my gross over simplification the vast majority of the multitude of evidenced-free beliefs at large in the world can be crudely classified into four basic sets or bollocks. Namely, Religion, Quackery, Pseudoscience and the Paranormal.’
[life] What is the most astounding fact about the Universe? … answered by Astrophysicist Dr. Neil DeGrasse Tyson … ‘So that when I look up at the night sky and I know that yes, we are part of this universe, we are in this universe, but perhaps more important than both of those facts is that the Universe is in us. When I reflect on that fact, I look up – many people feel small because they’re small and the Universe is big – but I feel big, because my atoms came from those stars. There’s a level of connectivity. That’s really what you want in life, you want to feel connected, you want to feel relevant you want to feel like a participant in the goings on of activities and events around you That’s precisely what we are, just by being alive…’
[life] A Timeline of the far future … 7.9 billion years from now: ‘The Sun reaches the tip of the red giant branch, achieving its maximum radius of 256 times the present day value. In the process, Mercury, Venus and possibly Earth are destroyed. During these times, it is possible that Saturn’s moon Titan could achieve surface temperatures necessary to support life.’
‘I went to the Illness drawer and scanned the divider labels: Asthma, Bowels. Cold virus, Colic, Consumption, Convulsions / Fits, Distemper, Dropsy, Faintings, Food Poisoning, Homesickness, Depressed, Kidney, Lips, Measles, Pleurisy, Pox, Prickly Heat, Scurvy, Seasick, Smallpox, Typhoid, Venereal.
Venereal was the thickest category. Eighty-seven notecards referencing 87 mentions in close to 87 logbooks – that’s one-third more than the Scurvy category and a magnitude thicker than the Homesickness category. I thumbed through Venereal and found, slid between endless Syphilis cards, an archaic Lady’s Fever, the whimsical Blue boar in groin, and the enigmatic doby itch. Of all the Illnesses, it appeared the stops on shore hit the whalemen the most, the damage done in the arms of a woman. One 19th-century writer calculated that during whaling season in the port of Lahaini, Hawaii, there were ”upwards of 400 instances of intercourse daily.”
Crammed between Depressed and Kidney, at only 10 notecards thick, was the file I was looking for: Injury by Whale.’
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January 2, 2012
[science] Stephen Hawking Seeks Geek To Maintain His Unique Wheelchair‘…the ideal candidate must be able to work under pressure, maintain “black box” systems with no instruction manual or technical support, be a whiz with computers and electronics, be able to speak to large audiences and show others how to use complex systems. Not a big ask, then. The salary is roughly £25k…’
[science] Richard Feynman on Curiosity … ‘The world is strange. The whole universe is very strange, but you see when you look at the details that the rules of the game are very simple – the mechanical rules by which you can figure out exactly what is going to happen when the situation is simple. It is like a chess game. If you are in a corner with only a few pieces involved, you can work out exactly what is going to happen, and you can always do that when there are only a few pieces. And yet in the real game there are so many pieces that you can’t figure out what is going to happen – so there is a kind of hierarchy of different complexities. It is hard to believe. It is incredible! In fact, most people don’t believe that the behavior of, say, me is the result of lots and lots of atoms all obeying very simple rules and evolving into such a creature that a billion years of life has produced.’
I’m thinking about the great American physicist, Richard Feynman, sitting in New Mexico, at the bed of his dying wife. He’d been called, and told that she had only hours to live; he’d hitchhiked from Los Alamos, where he was working on the top secret atomic bomb project. It was 1945.
He walks to her bedside, kisses her; she is breathing shallow breaths. We are still at war and six weeks later, America will explode its first atomic bomb. He stands there, sits there, watches her, kisses her, and very quietly, the Hodgkin’s disease that had attacked her young body takes her. She was in her 20s, he was 27. They’d been married only two years. The nurse records the time of death: 9:21 p.m. He is empty with loss. What few things she had, he packs up; he arranges for a cremation, walks back into her room and sees that the clock had strangely stopped ticking. The hands are frozen at 9:21, the very moment of her death.
I know how this story would feel to me. It would be as though the universe had somehow noticed what had happened, that some invisible hand slipped into my world and pointed, as if to say, “We know. This is part of the plan.”
So many of us, I think, would have this sense. Lawrence Krauss, in his new biography of Feynman, Quantum Man, says, “We seem to be hard-wired to find that what happens to each of us naturally appears to take on a special significance and meaning, even if it’s an accident.” But Feynman, he says, was unable to think that way. He couldn’t and he wouldn’t.
What he did was, he remembered that the clock had been fragile. He had been asked to fuss with it; he’d fixed it several times. In his memoirs (that is, in his version of this story), he says the nurse must have picked up the clock to determine the time of death, unsettled the workings inside, and the clock stopped. No miracle. Just an ordinary, accidental jostle. Here he is, describing a moment of enormous significance, and he won’t allow a Signifier.
[space] James Burke On Thermos Flasks … ‘You see, all three men had understood that certain gases ignite and that the thermos flask permits you to store vast quantities of those gases safely in the frozen liquid form until you want to ignite them; at which point, you take the top off the flask, the gases evaporate, you apply a light, and boom! Now, two gases do that better than any other. It was Oberth’s assistant, who put them together most efficiently. His name was Wernher von Braun…’
[space] Space Stasis … Neal Stephenson takes a fascinating look at path dependence and lock-in within the business, idea and design of rockets… ‘To employ a commonly used metaphor, our current proficiency in rocket-building is the result of a hill-climbing approach; we started at one place on the technological landscape – which must be considered a random pick, given that it was chosen for dubious reasons by a maniac – and climbed the hill from there, looking for small steps that could be taken to increase the size and efficiency of the device. Sixty years and a couple of trillion dollars later, we have reached a place that is infinitesimally close to the top of that hill. Rockets are as close to perfect as they’re ever going to get. For a few more billion dollars we might be able to achieve a microscopic improvement in efficiency or reliability, but to make any game-changing improvements is not merely expensive; it’s a physical impossibility.’
[history] The London Pedestrian Crossing of Doom … the place where one man’s thoughts later caused the deaths of a quarter of a million Japanese citizens …‘We’re on the corner of Southampton Row and Russell Square in leafy Bloomsbury. There’s no plaque to mark the event but this is the unlikely spot where the nuclear chain reaction was first conceived.’
[comics] Scientists Confirm Existence of ‘Kirby Krackle’ … ‘Scientists have made an incredible breakthrough in the study of antimatter that yielded the first ever creation and capture of antihydrogen, which looks almost exactly like the ubiquitous “Kirby Krackle” visual effect innovated by the legendary comics artist many decades ago.’
[history] Scott and Scurvy … a long wonderfully written look at the history behind the treatment of scurvy and how the was cure was misunderstood and forgotten at the start of the 20th Century … ‘They had a theory of the disease that made sense, fit the evidence, but was utterly wrong.’
[history] Nick Griffin’s Bad Science … ‘Furthermore, Britain has never had an indigenous population, in the sense of people who evolved here. Every member of Homo sapiens who has ever lived in Britain has been either an immigrant, or the descendent of immigrants. The very first ones, the genetic evidence suggests, came here from an ancestral home in northern Spain or the Basque country.’
[space] The Hunt for Extraterrestrial Life Gets Weird … ‘For instance, Leitner said, we can send rovers to Mars carrying antibodies that detect traces of chemicals and bacteria that would indicate life. But because we can only make antibodies to known substances, this method will be limited to finding Earth-like life. “When we try to find a definition for life, in most cases, such a definition is more a summary of the specific properties of terrestrial life,” Leitner said. Because life on Earth requires water, most of the search for extraterrestrial life thus far has focused on the “habitable zone,” or the relatively narrow region around a star where liquid water could exist.’
[funny] Let’s Say You’ve Gone Back In Time … useful document for all time travellers …‘Insulin can be extracted from the pancreas of dogs and pigs by tying a string around the pancreatic duct. Inject this extract and it will act as a miraculous treatment. Forget Banting and Best. Take the credit.’