Nautilus5 min readPolitics
What Trump’s Simplified Language Means
Acouple years ago, I was surprised that a panel called “The Press and President Trump,” held at the Columbia Journalism School, didn’t broach the subject of mental illness. Just over a week earlier, at a psychiatry conference at Yale, a group of the
Nautilus4 min readScience
Mind the Gap Between Science and Religion
Have you heard that we may be living in a computer simulation? Or that our universe is only one of infinitely many parallel worlds in which you live every possible variation of your life? Or that the laws of nature derive from a beautiful, higher-dim
Nautilus14 min read
Language Both Enraptures and Deceives Us: An interview with linguist and writer Julie Sedivy.
The purpose of language is to reveal the contents of our minds, says Julie Sedivy. It’s a simple and profound insight. We are social animals and language is what springs us from our isolated selves and connects us with others. Sedivy has taught lingu
Nautilus5 min read
The Communication We Share with Apes: Hand gestures signal the emergence of human language.
There are few one-offs in life on Earth—rarely can a single species boast a trait or ability that no other possesses. But human language is one such oddity. Our ability to use subtle combinations of sounds produced by our vocal cords to create words
Nautilus14 min read
The Strange Persistence of First Languages: After my father died, my journey of rediscovery began with the Czech language.
Several years ago, my father died as he had done most things throughout his life: without preparation and without consulting anyone. He simply went to bed one night, yielded his brain to a monstrous blood clot, and was found the next morning lying am
Nautilus9 min read
When Words Fail: Where our minds go when words let us down.
In Samuel Beckett’s novel, The Unnamable, the anonymous narrator laments, “I’m all these words, all these strangers, this dust of words, with no ground for their setting, no sky for their dispersing.” For Beckett’s narrator, words have become unmoore
Nautilus8 min read
Can New Species Evolve From Cancers? Maybe.
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. Aggressive cancers can spread so fiercely that they seem less like tissues gone wrong and more like invasive parasites looking to consume and then break free of their host. If a wild
Nautilus4 min read
A Hologram Shows How Space Could Pop Into Existence: The holographic principle—with a real hologram.
I remember buying my first hologram as a college student in the mid-1980s. It showed a bed of nails. I came across it at a gallery in what was then the world’s capital of spacey trinkets, Haight Street in San Francisco. When I picked it up, the holog
Nautilus15 min read
How American Tycoons Created the Dinosaur: The story of dinosaurs is also the story of capitalism.
The dinosaur is a chimera. Some parts of this complex assemblage are the result of biological evolution. But others are products of human ingenuity, constructed by artists, scientists, and technicians in a laborious process that stretches from the di
Nautilus9 min read
Metaphors Are Us: War, murder, music, art. We would have none without metaphor.
The other day I fixed something—a rarity for me. The flotation device in the toilet water tank was rubbing against the side, getting stuck halfway up so that the tank didn’t fill completely. I own a hammer and know how to operate it. But I couldn’t f
Nautilus8 min readSelf-Improvement
Why Monster Stories Captivate Us: Our brains are compelled by category violations.
I was 13 years old when the movie Alien was released. It scared me into a month-long spell of anxiety. The hair on the back of my neck was perpetually up and I had the jittery demeanor of a combat veteran. While the full-grown xenomorph alien was chi
Nautilus4 min read
What Color Really Evolved For
What color were the dinosaurs? If you have a picture in your head, fresh studies suggest you may need to revise it. New fossil research also suggests that pigment-producing structures go beyond how the dinosaurs looked and may have played a fundament
Nautilus6 min read
Butterfly Wonk Robert Pyle Pens His First Novel 44 Years in the Making
Last year marked a first for 71-year old Robert Michael Pyle, the acclaimed author, naturalist, and ecologist: the publication of his long-awaited first novel, Magdalena Mountain, nearly half a century in the making. Pyle has been investigating the b
Nautilus10 min readSelf-Improvement
Human Emotions Are Personal Narratives: Neuroscientist Joseph LeDoux on what makes our brains unique.
For his next book, Joseph LeDoux knew he had to go deep. He had to go back in time, way back, 3.5 billion years ago. The author of the seminal The Emotional Brain, followed by Synaptic Self and Anxious, sensed a missing element in those books on how
Nautilus20 min read
The Tricky Problem with Other Minds: How our mental states overlap with and diverge from those of other species.
Human “exceptionalism” is for many people an unquestioned assumption. For the religious, it is a God-given fact; for humanists, it is a celebration of our unique mental capacities. No other species has created music, art, literature, or built skyscra
Nautilus9 min read
Homo Narrativus And The Trouble With Fame: We think that fame is deserved. We are wrong.
Our understanding of fame is critical to how we see each other and our society. But it is also badly wrong. Let me tell you why. We humans are storytelling and story-finding machines: homo narrativus, if you will. In making sense of the world, we loo
Nautilus3 min read
Daydreams Shape Your Sense of Self
You are at home, cutting onions for dinner, and tear up from the vapor. Your mother, teaching you how to cut onions when you were a child, pops into your mind: Guide the blade against the knuckles of your free hand, curling your fingertips inwards to
Nautilus7 min read
How Aging Shapes Narrative Identity
In 2010, Dan McAdams wrote a biography about George W. Bush analyzing the former American president using the tools of personality psychology. It was, in his own words, a flop. “I probably had three readers,” McAdams laughs. But an editor from The At
Nautilus15 min read
Humans Are Wired for Goodness: We’re not as bad as the headlines make us out to be.
Nicholas Christakis and I are on the same page: We would definitely sacrifice our lives to save a billion strangers, perhaps even several hundred million, plucked at random from Earth’s population. But, for sure, not a thousand strangers, or a millio
Nautilus7 min read
Is Tribalism a Natural Malfunction?: What computers teach us about getting along.
From an office at Carnegie Mellon, my colleague John Miller and I had evolved a computer program with a taste for genocide. This was certainly not our intent. We were not scholars of race, or war. We were interested in the emergence of primitive coop
Nautilus10 min read
Survival Of The Friendliest: It’s time to give the violent metaphors of evolution a break.
Violence has been the sire of all the world’s values,” wrote poet Robinson Jeffers in 1940. “What but the wolf’s tooth whittled so fine the fleet limbs of the antelope? What but fear winged the birds, and hunger jeweled with such eyes the great gosha
Nautilus11 min read
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 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 read
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 read
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
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 read
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
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