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- Feb 2 20178 minutes
What Quantum Gravity Needs Is More Experiments: Math won’t solve quantum gravity. Experimentation will.
In the mid-1990s, I studied mathematics. I wasn’t really sure just what I wanted to do with my life, but I was awed by the power of mathematics to describe the natural world. After classes on differential geometry and Lie algebras, I attended a semin
- Feb 9 201712 minutes
Does Depression Have an Evolutionary Purpose?: Some psychologists believe suicide and depression can be strategic.
I had a tough time in high school. Like many other young adolescents, I saw myself as fundamentally flawed, and felt a searing isolation. Nothing I looked forward to brought any hope. I stopped getting out of bed. I cut myself. I drafted a suicide no
- Feb 16 201710 minutes
Atheism, the Computer Model: Big data meets history to forecast the rise and fall of religion.
In the United States, the nones have it. The nones being people with no organized religion and increasingly no belief in God or a universal spiritual power. They have the momentum, attention, and an expectation that in the future they will become a m
- Feb 16 201711 minutes
The Anatomy of Charisma: What makes a person magnetic and why we should be wary.
For weeks I had been researching what science has to say about the power of charisma. Why do some people so clearly have it and others don’t? Why do we fall so easily under its influence? Charismatics can make us feel charmed and great about ourselve
- Sep 24 201517 minutes
Let’s Play War: Could war games replace the real thing?
In the spring of 1964, as fighting escalated in Vietnam, several dozen Americans gathered to play a game. They were some of the most powerful men in Washington: the director of Central Intelligence, the Army chief of staff, the national security advi
- Sep 1 201610 minutes
The Bridge From Nowhere: How is it possible to get something from nothing?
The question of being is the darkest in all philosophy.” So concluded William James in thinking about that most basic of riddles: how did something come from nothing? The question infuriates, James realized, because it demands an explanation while de
- Dec 29 201629 minutes
What Does Any of This Have To Do with Physics?: Einstein and Feynman ushered me into grad school, reality ushered me out.
Have you ever been happy?” My girlfriend asked me that question, after work over drinks at some shiny Manhattan bar, after another stressful day on the trading floor. How to answer that? I knew she was talking about work, but how unhappy did she thin
- Jul 3 201416 minutes
The Scientific Problem That Must Be Experienced: To understand turbulence we need the intuitive perspective of art.
When the German physicist Arnold Sommerfeld assigned his most brilliant student a subject for his doctoral thesis in 1923, he admitted that “I would not have proposed a topic of this difficulty to any of my other pupils.” Those others included such g
- Feb 6 20176 minutes
Minority Groups Lose When They Collaborate with Power
Cailin O’Connor—a philosopher, scientist, and mathematician—may not enjoy tense situations, but they fascinate her. Last year, in a Huffington Post article titled “Game Theory and The Walking Dead,” she wrote that the zombie show’s “plot lines are ri
- Jan 26 201711 minutes
The Multiple Multiverses May Be One and the Same: Physics:If multiverses seem weird, it’s because we need to revamp our notions of time and space.
The name of the image—the “Flammarion engraving”—may not ring a bell, but you’ve seen it many times. It depicts a traveler wearing a cloak and clutching a walking-stick; behind him is a varied landscape of towns and trees; surrounding all is a crysta
- Oct 22 201510 minutes
How To Build A Search Engine For Mathematics: The surprising power of Neil Sloane’s Encyclopedia of Integer Sequences.
On the average summer Saturday, the mathematician Neil Sloane woke up to a crisis. “There are always crises,” he said— albeit crises of the teapot tempest variety. One Saturday over breakfast, he faced an inbox message titled “edits from outer space.
- Jun 9 201611 minutes
Selfishness Is Learned: We tend to be cooperative—unless we think too much.
Many people cheat on taxes—no mystery there. But many people don’t, even if they wouldn’t be caught—now, that’s weird. Or is it? Psychologists are deeply perplexed by human moral behavior, because it often doesn’t seem to make any logical sense. You
- Apr 21 201612 minutes
This Philosopher Helped Ensure There Was No Nobel for Relativity: Henri Bergson’s debate with Albert Einstein reached and swayed the 1921 Nobel committee.
On April 6, 1922, Einstein met a man he would never forget. He was one of the most celebrated philosophers of the century, widely known for espousing a theory of time that explained what clocks did not: memories, premonitions, expectations, and antic
- Dec 1 201614 minutes
When Einstein Tilted at Windmills: The young physicist’s quest to prove the theories of Ernst Mach.
When they met, Einstein wasn’t Einstein yet. He was just Albert Einstein, a kid, about 17, with a dark cloud of teenage angst and a violin. Michele Besso was older, 23, but a kindred spirit. Growing up in Trieste, Italy he had shown an impressive kna
- May 19 201613 minutes
The Man Who Blamed Aging on His Intestines: The productive, bizarre career of Nobel laureate and early aging researcher Elie Metchnikoff.
One day in late December 1899, Elie Metchnikoff, one of the world’s most famous biologists, woke up to discover he had found the key to immortality. That, at least, was what the popular French daily Le Matin announced on its front page that morning.
- Jan 15 201512 minutes
Why It’s Good To Be Wrong: Nothing obstructs access to the truth like a belief in absolute truthfulness.
That human beings can be mistaken in anything they think or do is a proposition known as fallibilism. Stated abstractly like that, it is seldom contradicted. Yet few people have ever seriously believed it, either.That our senses often fail us is a tr
- Jan 12 201713 minutes
Even Physicists Find the Multiverse Faintly Disturbing: It’s not the immensity or inscrutability, but that it reduces physical law to happenstance.
How do you feel about the multiverse?” The question was not out of place in our impromptu dinner-table lecture, yet it caught me completely off-guard. It’s not that I’ve never been asked about the multiverse before, but explaining a theoretical const
- Mar 6 201415 minutes
Why Physicists Make Up Stories in the Dark: In unseen worlds, science invariably crosses paths with fantasy.
For centuries, scientists studied light to comprehend the visible world. Why are things colored? What is a rainbow? How do our eyes work? And what is light itself? These are questions that preoccupied scientists and philosophers since the time of Ari
- Oct 8 20156 minutes
The Cello Music of the Spheres: Experience mathematical beauty and symmetry in a multimedia work.
If there really is a music of the spheres, the sound of a fundamental harmony in the universe, it has to be Just Ancient Loops, a 2012 work by composer Michael Harrison. Played on the cello, and complemented by a film created from archival clips and
- Aug 22 20139 minutes
The Man Who Invented Modern Probability: Chance encounters in the life of Andrei Kolmogorov.
If two statisticians were to lose each other in an infinite forest, the first thing they would do is get drunk. That way, they would walk more or less randomly, which would give them the best chance of finding each other. However, the statisticians s
- Sep 1 20167 minutes
How Much More Can We Learn About the Universe?: These are the few limits on our ability to know.
As a cosmologist, some of the questions I hear most frequently after a lecture include: What lies beyond our universe? What is our universe expanding into? Will our universe expand forever? These are natural questions to ask. But there is an even dee
- Dec 16 20167 minutes
Why Christopher Hitchens Was a Hero to Scientists
Yesterday marked five years since the passing of Christopher Hitchens, a writer with friends and admirers spanning the political spectrum, every age, gender and sex, and a range of professions and confessions. Those who’ve read and heard him speak kn
- Apr 9 20164 minutes
How a Hypothesis Can Be Neither True Nor False
Georg Cantor died in 1918 in a sanatorium in Halle, Germany. A pre-eminent mathematician, he had laid the foundation for the theory of infinite numbers in the 1870s. At the time, his ideas received hostile opposition from prominent mathematicians in
- Mar 17 201611 minutes
How Do You Say “Life” in Physics?: A new theory sheds light on the emergence of life’s complexity.
“To imagine a language is to imagine a form of life.” —Ludwig Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations (1953)1 Jeremy England is concerned about words—about what they mean, about the universes they contain. He avoids ones like “consciousness” and
- May 8 20153 minutes
David Deutsch Explains Why It’s Good To Be Wrong
Making a mistake on a science exam is bad. So is publishing a paper with flawed reasoning. But what about being fallible in the first place? That, says David Deutsch, should be embraced. Deutsch is a Fellow of the Royal Society, a pioneer in quantum
- Oct 9 201412 minutes
The Artist of the Unbreakable Code: Composer Edward Elgar still has cryptographers playing his tune.
You’d be forgiven if, settling into the fall 2003 “Literature of the 16th Century” course at University of California, Berkeley, you found the unassuming 70-year-old man standing at the front of the lecture hall a bit eccentric. For one thing, the cl
- Oct 21 20166 minutes
The Real Reason You’re Voting for Clinton or Trump
The Lebanese-Canadian professor of marketing Gad Saad (both sound like “sad”) can readily defend evolutionary psychology against the charge that it’s a convenient, “just-so story.” (Before diving in, he said, “Forgive me, it’s going to be a bit long-
- Aug 29 201320 minutes
The Death And Life Of The Frontier: A voyage to the limits of the knowable.
Where does the world begin and where does it end? In many creation stories the Earth has well-defined edges. In early Mesopotamian mythology it is a flat disk floating in the ocean and surrounded by a circular sky. The Hopi people of northeastern Ari
- Jan 12 201710 minutes
Famous For Being Indianapolis: How cities are like Kim Kardashian.
When Kim Kardashian was 4 years old, a University of California economist named Moshe Adler wrote a six-page paper explaining the means by which she would eventually attain worldwide renown. Published in the The American Economic Review, “Stardom and
- Apr 17 20164 minutes
Dolphins Are Helping Us Hunt for Aliens
When 12 men gathered at the Green Bank Observatory in West Virginia to discuss the art and science of alien hunting in 1961, the Order of the Dolphin was born. A number of the brightest minds from a range of scientific disciplines, including three No
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