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Best of the Web

What makes great thinkers great?

(Science Photo Library)

(Science Photo Library)

Our picks of the week from around the web, including why it’s better to be interesting than true, and how many people it takes to colonise another star system.

Life after death
Hannah Bloch & Peter Miller | National Geographic | 8 April 2014

Bruno Frohlich specialises in “the noninvasive study of just about anything nonliving”. He runs the Smithsonian Institution’s computed tomography laboratory, scanning whatever his colleagues care to bring him from dead gorillas to Stradivarius violins. By training he is a forensic anthropologist: He solved the gruesome murder, involving a frozen and minced corpse, that inspired the Coen Brothers’ "Fargo".

How to be interesting
Oliver Burkeman | 7 April 2014

What makes great thinkers great is not that their theories are true, but that their theories are interesting – which tends to mean counter-intuitive. They argue that what might seem to be good is, in fact, bad; that disparate things are, in fact, related; that some apparently individual phenomenon is, in fact, collective. Or vice-versa. “It’s unnerving how many thinkers can be pigeonholed this way.”

The mathematical world
James Franklin | Aeon | 7th April 2014

On the philosophy of mathematics. Two essential characteristics distinguish mathematics from other sciences: Complete abstraction, and the claim to discover absolute truths. But is mathematics anything more than a set of internally consistent rules – and therefore, at some level, a tautology? Or are those rules determined by external realities? Short answer: the latter. Symmetries and ratios exist in nature, for example.

Why we all love numbers
Alex Bellos | Guardian | 4 April 2014

Book introduction. Grab-bag containing lots of interesting nuggets. Pythagoras thought odd numbers to be masculine and even numbers to be feminine; we have the same instinct 2,500 years later. For a distinctive number, take a round number and add one — Levi’s 501, Room 101. “Eleven has just gone that one past 10. It has recognised that there is an order to things, and now it is exploring the distance beyond.”

The mental life of plants and animals
Oliver Sacks | New York Review Of Books | 4 April 2014

How worms, jellyfish and other living things think. “If one allows that a dog may have consciousness of an individual and significant sort, one has to allow it for an octopus, too”. Plants “are capable of registering what we would call sights, sounds, tactile signals, and much more.” They cannot learn, however; all information must be there in their genomes, which is why some plant genomes are larger than ours.

How many people does it take to colonise another star system?
Sarah Fecht | Popular Mechanics | 2 April 2014

A lot. You’d do well to send out a minimum of 10,000 people; 40,000 would be even better in case most died during the journey. And send them in separate batches of space ships, as further insurance against any particular disaster. You need numbers that large in order to represent the full range of human genetic diversity, maximising the capacity of the colonists to adapt to new environments.

Why the government should provide internet access
Ezra Klein | Vox | 1 April 2014

Interview with Susan Crawford, former White House tech adviser, on America’s need for a “public option” providing universal low-cost high-speed internet access. “This is by nature a monopoly. It really makes sense to have one wire going to your house. The problem is we’ve gotten stuck with the wrong wire. We’ve got a cable wire and it should be fibre and it should be then shared by lots of competitors.”

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