Nautilus5 min read
The Great Silence: A parrot has a question for humans.
The humans use Arecibo to look for extraterrestrial intelligence. Their desire to make a connection is so strong that they’ve created an ear capable of hearing across the universe. But I and my fellow parrots are right here. Why aren’t they intereste
Nautilus9 min readScience
To Fix the Climate, Tell Better Stories: The missing climate change narrative.
Here are two sets of statements from far-distant opposites in the climate change debate. The first is from Naomi Klein, who in her book This Changes Everything paints a bleak picture of a global socioeconomic system gone wrong: “There is a direct and
Nautilus6 min readPsychology
Why Did Witch Hunts Go Viral?
It’s hard to make sense of witch hunts. Many people of early modern Europe and colonial America seemed to have genuinely believed that witches posed a serious threat. But if witch trials—like the ones in Salem, Massachusetts, and in European communit
Nautilus11 min readScience
A Novelist Teaches Herself Physics: To explore loss and mystery, Nell Freudenberger journeyed into the atomic world.
Helen Clapp, a professor of theoretical physics at MIT, recounted the biggest news of 21st century physics, the detection of gravitational waves by the Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory (LIGO), an international collaboration of scie
Nautilus5 min readScience
In Brain’s Electrical Ripples, Markers for Memories Appear
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. It’s very easy to break things in biology,” said Loren Frank, a neuroscientist at the University of California, San Francisco. “It’s really hard to make them work better.” Yet agains
Nautilus9 min readPsychology
Our Brains Tell Stories So We Can Live: Without inner narratives we would be lost in a chaotic world.
We are all storytellers; we make sense out of the world by telling stories. And science is a great source of stories. Not so, you might argue. Science is an objective collection and interpretation of data. I completely agree. At the level of the stud
Nautilus6 min read
The Big Bang Is Hard Science. It Is Also a Creation Story.: Even with its explanatory power, Big Bang theory takes its place in a long line of myths.
In some ways, the history of science is the history of a philosophical resistance to mythical explanations of reality. In the ancient world, when we asked “Where did the world come from?” we were told creation myths. In the modern world, we are inste
Nautilus13 min readTech
The Storytelling Computer: Artificial intelligence needs to think like the mythical trickster.
What is it exactly that makes humans so smart? In his seminal 1950 paper, “Computer Machinery and Intelligence,” Alan Turing argued human intelligence was the result of complex symbolic reasoning. Philosopher Marvin Minsky, cofounder of the artificia
Nautilus6 min read
How to Collapse the Distinction Between Art and Biology
Language,” the Beat writer William S. Burroughs supposedly once exclaimed, “is a virus from outer space.” Burroughs was making a metaphorical extrapolation about the ways in which words, phrases, idioms, sentences, lines, and narratives can seemingly
Nautilus5 min read
Physicists Peer Inside a Fireball of Quantum Matter
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. A gold wedding band will melt at around 1,000 degrees Celsius and vaporize at about 2,800 degrees, but these changes are just the beginning of what can happen to matter. Crank up the
Nautilus9 min readRelationships & Parenting
Families of Choice Are Remaking America: Through their networks of friends, singles are strengthening society’s social bonds.
When Dan Scheffey turned 50, he threw himself a party. About 100 people packed into his Manhattan apartment, which occupies the third floor of a brick townhouse in the island’s vibrant East Village. His parents, siblings, and an in-law were there, an
Nautilus12 min read
The Flawed Reasoning Behind the Replication Crisis: It’s time to change the way uncertainty is quantified.
Here are three versions of the same story: 1. In the fall of 1996, Sally Clark, an English solicitor in Manchester, gave birth to an apparently healthy baby boy who died suddenly when he was 11 weeks old. She was still recovering from the traumatic i
Nautilus17 min readTech
Who Will Design the Future?: AI will be staggeringly diverse. Its developers should be, too.
Ada Lovelace was an English mathematician who lived in the first half of the 19th century. (She was also the daughter of the poet Lord Byron, who invited Mary Shelley to his house in Geneva for a weekend of merriment and a challenge to write a ghost
Nautilus6 min read
Collective Intelligence Will End Identity-Based Politics
The Canadian poet Dennis Lee once wrote that the consolations of existence might be improved if we thought, worked, and lived as though we were inhabiting “the early days of a better civilization.” The test of this would be whether humans, separately
Nautilus5 min readPsychology
The Science Behind “Blade Runner”’s Voight-Kampff Test
Rutger Hauer, the Dutch actor who portrayed Roy Batty in the film Blade Runner, passed away recently. To celebrate his iconic role, we are revisiting this piece on the Voight-Kampff test, a device to detect if a person is really human. Is Rick Deckar
Nautilus11 min read
The Disappearing Physicist and His Elusive Particle: He ushered symmetry into theoretical physics, then vanished without a trace.
The members of the physics institute at Via Panisperna were in the habit of giving themselves jocular nicknames: Enrico Fermi was “The Pope,” Orso Corbino was “God the Almighty,” and Franco Rasetti was “The Cardinal Vicar.” It was 1930, and the Itali
Nautilus7 min read
The Strange Similarity of Neuron and Galaxy Networks: Your life’s memories could, in principle, be stored in the universe’s structure.
Christof Koch, a leading researcher on consciousness and the human brain, has famously called the brain “the most complex object in the known universe.” It’s not hard to see why this might be true. With a hundred billion neurons and a hundred trillio
Nautilus11 min readSelf-Improvement
We’re More of Ourselves When We’re in Tune with Others: Music reminds us why going solo goes against our better nature.
When musicians have chemistry, we can feel it. There’s something special among them that’s missing when they perform alone. Anyone who’s heard a Mick Jagger solo album knows that’s the case. Clearly nature wants us to jam together and take flight out
Nautilus5 min read
Why a Thriving Civilization in Malta Collapsed 4,000 Years Ago
The mysteries of an ancient civilization that survived for more than a millennium on the island of Malta—and then collapsed within two generations—have been unravelled by archaeologists who analyzed pollen buried deep within the earth and ancient DNA
Nautilus6 min read
Can Neuroscience Understand Free Will?
In The Good Place, a cerebral fantasy-comedy TV series, moral philosophy gets teased. On YouTube, the show released a promotional video, “This Is Why Everyone Hates Moral Philosophy,” that gets its title from a line directed at Chidi, a Senegalese pr
Nautilus8 min read
She Rewrote the Moon’s Origin Story
Fifty years ago, in the Oval Office, Richard Nixon made what he called the “most historic phone call ever.” Houston had put him through to the men on the moon. “It’s a great honor and privilege for us to be here,” Neil Armstrong said, “representing n
Nautilus14 min read
The Moon Is Full of Money: Capitalism in space.
I was slung in my favorite deck chair, drink in hand, having a gawk at the night sky. Andromeda, Pisces ... I trawled the constellations, mind abandoned, still aware in some curve at the back of my brain that the world is coming apart at the seams an
Nautilus12 min read
When the Earth Had Two Moons: A new model—“The Big Splat”—explains the strange asymmetry of the moon.
For more than half a century, the moon had been mocking the best minds in science, and for Erik Asphaug enough was enough. The taunting began three years before Asphaug was born. On Oct. 7, 1959, the Soviet Luna 3 spacecraft looped behind the moon, s
Nautilus5 min read
How Swarming Insects Act Like Fluids
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. Starlings take to the sky in swirling vortices; ants teem like rivers. “They stretch, they move around, but they retain cohesion in a way you’d expect from a fluid moving,” said Nich
Nautilus5 min readScience
Think You Know the Definition of a Black Hole? Think Again
When I was 12, I made the mistake of watching the Paul W. S. Anderson horror film, Event Horizon. It gave me nightmares for weeks: The movie’s title refers to an experimental spaceship that could create artificial black holes through which to travel,
Nautilus5 min readPsychology
It Takes A Village To Raise A Meerkat: What the rare cooperative species tells us about ourselves.
Living in the flat, arid landscape of the Kalahari, meerkats are one of the most cooperative species of mammal on the planet. The scarcity of food and few places to hide from predators has led them to live in groups where they share the tasks of fora
Nautilus13 min read
Six Degrees of Separation at Burning Man: What our experiment in the desert taught us about social networks and human cooperation.
Today the alkaline desert is quiet. The roar of techno music and flamethrowers has been replaced with the soft clink of rakes and trash cans. Thousands of people put aside their hangovers to methodically clean the desert. After a dedicated communal c
Nautilus10 min read
The Computer Maverick Who Modeled the Evolution of Life: Nils Aall Barricelli showed that organisms evolved by symbiosis and cooperation.
In 1953, at the dawn of modern computing, Nils Aall Barricelli played God. Clutching a deck of playing cards in one hand and a stack of punched cards in the other, Barricelli hovered over one of the world’s earliest and most influential computers, th
Nautilus10 min read
Raising the American Weakling: There are two very different interpretations of our dwindling grip strength.
When she was a practicing occupational therapist, Elizabeth Fain started noticing something odd in her clinic: Her patients were weak. More specifically, their grip strengths, recorded via a hand-held dynamometer, were “not anywhere close to the norm
Nautilus5 min read
The Dr. Strange of the American Revolution
I ascribe the Success of our Revolution to a Galaxy,” Benjamin Rush wrote to John Adams, in 1812. He wasn’t invoking the astrological. It was commonplace then to associate a bright assembly of people with the starry band in the night sky that Chaucer
…Or Discover Something New