The Reality Bubble Book CoverIf the history of science over the last 450 years has taught us anything, it is that there is a major mismatch between perception and reality. The invisible forces so important to our understanding of the world—from heliocentrism and gravity to evolution and microorganisms—were discovered only by scientists bold and radical enough to see what everyone else was blind to. It is only through the extension of our senses and the transcendence of our cognitive limitations that we have made any progress in our knowledge of the world at all.

That human sensation and perception is limited is a major understatement: humans can see less than 1 percent of the electromagnetic spectrum (visible light), making us literally blind to 99 percent of it. Other animals can not only see better and farther than us, many have greater sensitivity to a wider range of colors while others can see ultraviolet and infrared light and even magnetic fields. We are deaf to most frequencies and incapable of experiencing many smells, tastes, and sensations. We are blind to the smallest scales (and to the trillions of bacterial cells that inhabit our bodies) and to the farthest reaches of the known universe (46 billion light-years across).

Continue reading “How Psychological Blind Spots and Illusions Shape Our Reality”

The Human Swarm by Mark MoffettIn most accounts of world or macro history, you get a few introductory sections or chapters on our hunter-gather past before moving on to the civilizations of written history. Yet 6,000 years of written history represents only three percent of our collective 200,000 year history as a species. Surely this span of time has more relevance and deserves more attention than it is typically given.

The Human Swarm by biologist Mark Moffett does not suffer from this limitation; it takes 21 chapters and 275 pages before the author gets to the societies of written history. In what truly represents a biologist’s take on the history of our species and societies, the majority of the book discusses our deep evolutionary past and our connections to other social species, including chimpanzees, bonobos, dolphins, elephants, and even ants.

Continue reading “Review of The Human Swarm: How Our Societies Arise, Thrive, and Fall”

Einstein's Unfinished Revolution book coverTo understand the enigma that is quantum physics, it’s best to start with the relatively easier problems of classical physics.

Classical physics was invented by Galileo, Kepler, and Newton to deal with everyday macroscopic objects that you can see with the naked eye or with the assistance of telescopes. Classical physics—equipped with calculus and its associated equations—can describe the precise location, speed, direction, and trajectory of any visible object, from airplanes and cannonballs to stars and planets.

If you were to take a snapshot of the solar system at this moment in time, you could measure, using the equations of classical physics, the position and velocity of each planet and could predict the precise location of any one planet at any future time (within a small margin of error up to a limited but significant amount of time). The mechanics of the equations are complex, but the problems are fully soluble.

As Lee Smolin explains in his new book, Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution, this turns out to not be the case at the smallest of scales. When you start asking what matter is made of—atoms, protons, electrons, photons, quarks, etc.—a new type of physics is required, quantum physics. Quantum mechanics was invented in the early twentieth century to explain quantum physics, and seeks to describe how quantum particles behave and interact with each other.

Continue reading “Philosophy Meets Physics: The Competing Interpretations of Quantum Mechanics”

Infinite Powers by Steven Strogatz book coverCalculus is one of those subjects that is so complicated that most people not only don’t understand it, they don’t even know what it is that they don’t understand. But that’s unfortunate, because calculus is one of humanity’s most impressive achievements, an accomplishment that unlocks the secrets of the universe and delivers our most profound and useful technology, from radio and television to GPS navigation and MRI imaging. Calculus is the main protagonist in the story of science, and is a subject every educated person should understand at least conceptually.

Fortunately, you don’t have to trudge through a thousand-page textbook to appreciate the story and power of calculus. Steven Strogatz, in his latest book Infinite Powers, has provided a clear, concise, and fascinating tour of the subject. In fact, if you don’t understand what calculus is all about after reading this book, then the prospects are not great that you ever will. There is simply no better, clearer presentation of the ideas available. Strogatz uses metaphors, illustrations, stories, and examples to guide the reader through the most difficult concepts. While this is not an easy read, it is as reader-friendly as possible; remember, you’re tackling the most sophisticated branch of mathematics, the underlying logic of all science, and a subject that the sharpest mathematical minds in history had to grapple with for thousands of years.

Continue reading “How Calculus Reveals the Secrets of the Universe (And the Power of Human Cooperation)”

Blueprint by Nicholas ChristakisSocial scientists can approach the study of human culture, broadly, by either focusing on differences or similarities. All too often, they choose to accentuate the differences, elaborating on what divides us and on our more aggressive and sinister behaviors. Since cultural differences are so obvious, the countless cross-cultural variations in human behavior would seem to dispel the possibility of cultural universals.

In Blueprint, Nicholas Christakis makes the opposite case: that our genes code for universal traits—the social suite—that underlie all superficial variation in human behavior and provide the foundation by which we form social networks. Christakis uses the metaphor of viewing two mountains from a 10,000 foot plateau, noting that one mountain appears three times the size of the other, until you descend from the plateau. Then, you realize the two mountains are 10,300 and 10,900 feet tall, and are not so dissimilar from this enlarged perspective.

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Genesis by Edward O. Wilson book coverThere exists within evolutionary theory a deep contradiction, one that Charles Darwin noticed back in the nineteenth century. The problem is this: how can evolution by natural selection account for altruistic behavior that benefits the group at the expense of the individual?

The standard view of natural selection, operating at the level of the gene, goes as follows: genetic mutation results in variation in form and function in the individual, which either confers an advantage or disadvantage (or is neutral) in relation to other individuals. If the mutation enhances survival and reproduction in a particular environment, then that individual will flourish and the frequency of those genes will increase within the population.

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This View of by Life David Sloan WilsonIn the final paragraph of On the Origin of Species, Charles Darwin wrote, “There is grandeur in this view of life…from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”

From this poetic ending we get the title of David Sloan Wilson’s latest book, This View of Life, which seeks to expand the evolutionary worldview beyond the biological realm to the realm of human culture and policy.

Biology is one of the few disciplines that already has its grand unifying theory: evolution by natural selection. It’s what prompted the geneticist Theodosius Dobzhansky to declared in 1973 that “nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution.”

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The Unihabitable EarthWhether or not you will find The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells valuable depends on what you’re looking for; if you’re interested in the science of, or evidence for, global warming, or in creative solutions to save the planet, then you are bound to be, like me, disappointed.

The book, rather, focuses almost exclusively on the potential consequences of living on a planet that will experience anywhere from 2 to 8 degrees celsius of warming between now and the year 2100.

First, to state the obvious, global warming is definitely happening, it’s mostly caused by human activity, and the consequences are and will be devastating. This is all beyond reasonable doubt; if you think otherwise, you stand in direct opposition to NASA and to an intergovernmental panel of 1,300 experts from around the world.

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The Beginning of InfinityExpanding on the work of Karl Popper, The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch represents what may be considered the definitive work of the philosophy of science for the twenty-first century. What follows is a brief outline of that philosophy.

In general, Deutsch is making the claim that knowledge and biological adaptation share a similar history of development (although they are much different in other important ways). In terms of biological adaptation, variation in genes results in different biological forms which are then selected via the process of natural selection. The information needed to assemble biological forms is contained within the genes.

Continue reading “The Beginning of Infinity: How David Deutsch is Carrying on the Work of Karl Popper”