Our pick of the week’s science and tech stories, including why we’re not going to get pilotless planes and what London Underground stations taste like.

Cancer’s primeval power
George Johnson | Bloomberg | 29 August 2013

Cancer is older than humanity, and smarter too, in many ways. Earliest known instance killed a dinosaur 150 million years ago. When cancer strikes someone near to you, it’s an evil monster. But when you contemplate its resilience and ingenuity, it’s a marvel. “The tumour not only learns to evade the immune system, but it also turns it into an ally. The complexity of this all — the biological brilliance — is enthralling.”

What is the value of unique?
Izabella Kaminska | FT Alphaville | 27 August 2013

Bold, esoteric think-piece about the role played by scarcity in the production and perception of value, and what happens to value judgements if 3D printing enables perfect reproductions of, say, the Mona Lisa. “Functionally speaking, a molecularly perfect substitute provides exactly the same utility. The easier it becomes to replicate anything scarce for the masses, the more value will be directed to non-replenishable source material.”

On thinking caps
Venkatesh Rao | Tempo | 26 August 2013

“I’d like a literal thinking cap. A regular baseball hat, but with the look of an orange or yellow construction hard hat. It would say ‘Construction in Progress, Do Not Disturb’ on it. Having to actively keep up an ostentatious facade of activity just to signal that you are occupied can be very distracting. If I had a thinking cap, and such things were culturally normal, I’d probably be wearing it for more than half of my waking hours.”

Cockpit automation
Nick Valéry | Economist | 26 August 2013

Why we’re not going to get pilotless planes, even when we get driverless cars. Because the pilot is needed, not so much to fly the plane, as to monitor the automated systems that do so, and, very occasionally, “pick up the slack” when a system malfunctions. Trouble is, the automation is getting so complicated that it’s almost impossible for a pilot to be on top of everything at the same time. It might be easier for him to fly the plane.

How to read and understand a scientific paper
Jennifer Raff | Violent Metaphors | 25 August 2013

A guide for non-scientists. Tips include: Read the introduction first, and the abstract last. Write down every word that you don’t understand, so you can look them up later. Be ready to spend a lot of time on the Methods section. “You don’t need to understand the methods in enough detail to replicate the experiment, but you’re not ready to move on to the results until you can explain the basics of the methods to someone else.”

What do London Underground stops taste like?
Ben Riley-Smith | Telegraph | 23rd August 2013

President of UK Synaesthesia Association, diagnosed with lexical-gustatory synaesthesia, maps the London underground according to the tastes he associates with each station. Flavours include apple pie, bubble and squeak, HP Sauce, purple grapes, chicken soup and soft boiled egg. “Baker Street is lovely. The best way to describe it is crusty and sweet, like jam roly-poly but slightly burnt.” (Metered paywall)

Why Steve Ballmer failed
Nick Thompson | New Yorker | 23 August 2013

Microsoft shares soared on the news that its lacklustre boss will soon be leaving. “Ballmer is roughly the tech industry’s equivalent of Mikhail Gorbachev. When he took control Microsoft was one of the most powerful and feared companies in the world. As he leaves, it’s a sprawling shadow.” He alienated employees, missed every trend, came late to every innovation. Microsoft needs a successor who is his opposite in every way.

The reality show
Mike Jay | Aeon | 23rd August 2013

On the history and aetiology of paranoid delusions, and their evolving relationship with culture and technology. “Persecutory delusions can be found throughout history and across cultures; but within this category a desert nomad is more likely to believe that he is being buried alive in sand by a djinn, and an urban American that he has been implanted with a microchip and is being monitored by the CIA.”

With a name like Xalkori
David Schulz | Slate | 22nd August 2013

How drugs get their names. Most come from consulting firms, such as Interbrand, which lays claim to Xalkori, Zelboraf, Yondelis and Horizant — not to mention Prozac and Viagra. Some drug firms use algorithmic name generators: which may account for Zosyn, Ziac, Qnasl, Xeljanz and Isentress. The basic requirement is that the name should be distinctive, to minimise the risk of confusion. (Tell that to Zantac and Xanax.)

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