Aeon Magazine5 min read
Science Is Deeply Imaginative: Why Is This Treated As A Secret?
My latest book, The Poetry and Music of Science (2019), starts with my experiences of visiting schools and working with sixth-form pupils in general-studies classes. These students, aged 17-18, would tell me that they just didn’t see in science any r
Aeon Magazine6 min readSociety
Lolita Understood That Some Sex Is Transactional. So Did I
There is a moment in Adrian Lyne’s film Lolita (1997) that is burned onto my memory. I was probably around 12, up late, watching it on terrestrial television. Lolita and her guardian, lover or captor have been moving between seedy motels, the romanti
Aeon Magazine6 min read
How Time Stopped Circling And Percolating And Started Running On Tracks
Reflecting on Albrecht Altdorfer’s painting Alexanderschlacht (1529), or The Battle of Alexander at Issus, the German historian Reinhart Koselleck wrote that, for medieval Europe, time was marked by ‘expectations’ and thus the painting was filled wit
Aeon Magazine6 min read
Can Our Self-conscious Minds Save Us From Our Selfish Selves?
Like all living things, humans are organisms, biological entities that func­tion as physiological aggregates whose constituent parts operate with a high degree of cooperation and a low degree of conflict. But unlike other organ­isms, humans possess a
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Let Us Now Stop Praising Famous Men (and Women)
After the Notre-Dame Cathedral in Paris nearly burned down in April, the French luxury-goods magnate François-Henri Pinault was celebrated for committing €100 million to reconstruct what he called ‘this jewel of our heritage’ and ushering in a flood
Aeon Magazine4 min readSelf-Improvement
Going Green Is All About What You Gain, Not What You Give Up
According to The New Republic magazine in June this year: ‘You will have to make sacrifices to save the planet’, while the US newspaper Metro asks: ‘What would you give up to end climate change?’ These headlines, read from my desk in London where I c
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Why Synthetic Chemicals Seem More Toxic Than Natural Ones
Many people believe that chemicals, particularly the man-made ones, are highly dangerous. After all, more than 80,000 chemicals have been synthesised for commercial use in the United States, and many have been released into the environment without pr
Aeon Magazine5 min read
How Ergodicity Reimagines Economics For The Benefit Of Us All
The principles of economics form the intellectual atmosphere in which most political discussion takes place. Its prevailing ideas are often invoked to justify the organisation of modern society, and the positions enjoyed by the most wealthy and power
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Can You Step In The Same River Twice? Wittgenstein V Heraclitus
‘I am not a religious man,’ the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein once said to a friend, ‘but I cannot help seeing every problem from a religious point of view.’ These problems that he claims to see from a religious point of view tend to be technical m
Aeon Magazine5 min readSelf-Improvement
Why Speaking To Yourself In The Third Person Makes You Wiser
We credit Socrates with the insight that ‘the unexamined life is not worth living’ and that to ‘know thyself’ is the path to true wisdom. But is there a right and a wrong way to go about such self-reflection?  Simple rumination – the process of churn
Aeon Magazine5 min read
The Hypersane Are Among Us, If Only We Are Prepared To Look
‘Hypersanity’ is not a common or accepted term. But neither did I make it up. I first came across the concept while training in psychiatry, in The Politics of Experience and the Bird of Paradise (1967) by R D Laing. In this book, the Scottish psychia
Aeon Magazine4 min readPolitics
Protest Is Not Enough To Topple A Dictator: The Army Must Also Turn
What does it take to overthrow a dictator? Reflecting on this question in exile, Leon Trotsky wrote in History of the Russian Revolution (1930): However solitary the power of an authoritarian leader might seem, dictators never rule alone. When enforc
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Being And Drunkenness: How To Party Like An Existentialist
Existentialism has a reputation for being angst-ridden and gloomy mostly because of its emphasis on pondering the meaninglessness of existence, but two of the best-known existentialists knew how to have fun in the face of absurdity. Simone de Beauvoi
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Italy’s Erotic Revolution In Art Joined The Lusty To The Divine
In the Sistine Chapel, you look up at Michelangelo’s Last Judgment and see muscular angels hurtling through space, nude or with just a scrap of cloth tight across their buttocks (Figure 1, above). Then after leaving the Vatican, you browse a bookstal
Aeon Magazine4 min read
Why Epicurean Ideas Suit The Challenges Of Modern Secular Life
‘The pursuit of Happiness’ is a famous phrase in a famous document, the United States Declaration of Independence (1776). But few know that its author was inspired by an ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus. Thomas Jefferson considered himself an Epic
Aeon Magazine4 min readPsychology
How Can We Help The Hikikomori To Leave Their Rooms?
Hikikomori is a Japanese term that describes people who stay holed up in their homes, or even just their bedrooms, isolated from everyone except their family, for many months or years. The phenomenon has captured the popular imagination, with many ar
Aeon Magazine5 min read
What Big History Says About How Royal Women Exercise Power
Eleanor of Aquitaine is often portrayed as one of the most powerful queens in history. Wife, mother and counsellor of kings, crusader, landowner, patron of the arts, her power eventually grew so great – at least in the eyes of one royal husband, Henr
Aeon Magazine4 min read
How Ad Hominem Arguments Can Demolish Appeals To Authority
In 2018, the US Surgeon General declared e-cigarette use among young people an epidemic in the United States. As a result, parents were encouraged to talk with their children about smoking. One of the Surgeon General’s tips for parents is to ‘set a p
Aeon Magazine4 min read
What A Deer-tooth Necklace Says About Our Ice Age Ancestors
Ice Age Europe, approximately 20,000-13,500 years ago; a period known as the Magdalenian. The climate is gradually ameliorating after glaciers and cold temperatures reached their height in the Last Glacial Maximum. Despite this, the landscape is froz
Aeon Magazine4 min readPsychology
Why The Power Of Cute Is Colonising Our World
In such uncertain and uneasy times, and with so much injustice, hate and intolerance threatening the world, don’t we have more serious things to focus on than the escapades of that feline girl-figure Hello Kitty? Or Pokémon, the video-game franchise
Aeon Magazine4 min readScience
Richard Feynman Was Wrong About Beauty And Truth In Science
The American physicist Richard Feynman is often quoted as saying: ‘You can recognise truth by its beauty and simplicity.’ The phrase appears in the work of the American science writer K C Cole – in her Sympathetic Vibrations: Reflections on Physics a
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Why Is Psychedelic Culture Dominated By Privileged White Men?
A recent study of users of novel psychedelic substances found, probably to no-one’s surprise, that they are more likely than average to be male, white and college-educated. This has been the public face of psychedelic culture ever since it emerged mo
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Animals Do Have Memories, And Can Help Us Crack Alzheimer’s
For almost as long as modern science has been around, the idea that animals can remember past experiences seemed so preposterous that few researchers bothered to study it. Surely only humans, with our big, sophisticated brains, could be capable of ‘e
Aeon Magazine4 min read
Noah Webster’s Civil War Of Words Over American English
In the United States, the name Noah Webster (1758-1843) is synonymous with the word ‘dictionary’. But it is also synonymous with the idea of America, since his first unabridged American Dictionary of the English Language, published in 1828 when Webst
Aeon Magazine5 min read
Why The Community That Sings Together Stays Together
In Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), the movie about the British band Queen, the scene that sticks in my mind depicts the Live Aid concert in London in 1985. Queen belt out their best-loved songs and the crowd is singing along, swaying, clapping and stamping
Aeon Magazine5 min read
A Radical Legal Ideology Nurtured Our Era Of Economic Inequality
Where does economic power come from? Does it exist independently of the law? It seems obvious, even undeniable, that the answer is no. Law creates, defines and enforces property rights. Law enforces private contracts. It charters corporations and shi
Aeon Magazine5 min read
If Machines Want To Make Art, Will Humans Understand It?
Assuming that the emergence of consciousness in artificial minds is possible, those minds will feel the urge to create art. But will we be able to understand it? To answer this question, we need to consider two subquestions: when does the machine bec
Aeon Magazine4 min read
Reactionaries Love It, But Country Music Has A Progressive Heart
When Donald Trump took the first international trip of his presidency to Saudi Arabia in May 2017, another US icon also travelled along as part of the celebration of the alliance between these two countries: the country-music star Toby Keith. For man
Aeon Magazine4 min read
Ketamine Trips Are Uncannily Like Near-death Experiences
First-hand accounts of what it is like to come close to death often contain the same recurring themes, such as the sense of leaving the body, a review of one’s life, tunnelled vision and a magical sense of reality. Mystics, optimists and people of re
Aeon Magazine4 min readSociety
The Information Arms Race Can’t Be Won, But We Have To Keep Fighting
Arms races happen when two sides of a conflict escalate in a series of ever-changing moves intended to outwit the opponent. In biology, a classic example comes from cheetahs and gazelles. Over time, these species have evolved for speed, each respondi
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