Our picks of the week from around the web, including the end of food as we know it, the quest for immortality, and the legal realities of TV show Orphan Black.

Steven Pinker’s history of thought
Colleen Walsh | Harvard Gazette | 6 May 2014

An interesting and often delightful interview with the scientist Steven Pinker. On the blossoming of psychology: “Cognitive science, which connects psychology to linguistics, theoretical computer science, and philosophy of mind, has helped explain intelligence in terms of information, computation, and feedback. This crosstalk has made psychology more intellectually satisfying. It’s no longer just one damn phenomenon after another.”

Darwin’s unexploded bomb
Ed West | Spectator | 6 May 2014

Human evolution has been “recent, copious, and regional”, with groups diverging strongly from one another in the past 50,000 years, and especially in the past 10,000 years. Late 20th Century science tended to view race as a cultural construct without biological substance; but as we learn more about genetics, we may come to see that races and civilisations are distinguished not only by culture, but also by genes.     .

Objects of desire
Philip Ball | Homunculus | 5 May 2014

Why were old scientific instruments so beautiful, when modern ones are merely functional? Partly it’s because the most beautiful old instruments are the ones that get saved. They were built by general craftsmen, who brought their own aesthetic to bear. And they were used for demonstrations to noble patrons. They had to look the part. “Elegance was a key attribute of the courtly natural philosopher.”

The end of food
Lizzie Widdicombe | New Yorker | 5 May 2014

Bay Area tech guys invent food substitute called Soylent: 35 blended nutrients to keep your body fully fuelled for $50 a month so you can treat traditional food as an occasional recreation. Intended market: “Cubicle workers craving efficiency”. Soylent has the consistency of sludge, the mouth-feel of pancake mix, and just enough flavouring to mask the raw vitamins. Usage note: “In the first week you fart pretty bad”.

Thoroughbreds are running as fast as they can
Roger Pielke | FiveThirtyEight | 3 May 2014

Human runners continue to set new records for speed. But racehorses appear to have hit their limit: the Kentucky Derby has been won in roughly two minutes and two seconds every year since 1949. Secretariat’s 1973 record may stand for all time. Why? Perhaps because American racehorses are bred from such a small and static gene pool; 95% of them descend from a single 18th Century horse. A case for genetic engineering?

So you want to live forever
Charlotte Allen | Weekly Standard | 2 May 2014

On the modern quest for immortality, assisted by genetics and computing. Aubrey de Grey, “an extremely spry Methuselah”, believes the children of today can live to 1,000 if they take the right care of their bodies. Ray Kurzweil foresees a merger between humans and robots – and until then he takes 250 pills a day. If we have yet to abolish death, efforts to postpone it radically are improving our understanding of ageing and disease.

Restoring technology after the apocalypse
Lewis Dartnell | Scientific American | 2 May 2014

Extract from a book in which an astrobiologist collates the information survivors would need to recover if society were ever to collapse. In this article: how to re-invent photography, using eggs and a silver spoon. “First, coat a sheet of paper with egg whites containing some dissolved salt, and allow it to dry. Now dissolve some silver in nitric acid, which will oxidise the metal to soluble silver nitrate, and spread the solution over your prepared paper.”

Orphan Black
James Daily | Law Of The Multiverse | 1 May 2014

Is it legal to clone humans – the premise of the television show "Orphan Black"? The lawyers who write this blog claim the answer may be yes. “At the US federal level there is no comprehensive prohibition on reproductive cloning, despite several attempts. Part of the problem has been crafting a bill that would prohibit reproductive cloning [of whole humans] without prohibiting therapeutic cloning [of body parts]”. But you cannot patent a clone; on that the show errs.

Programming sucks
Still Drinking | 27 April 2014

Magnificent rant about the madness of coding. “Websites that are glorified shopping carts with maybe three dynamic pages are maintained by teams of people around the clock, because the truth is everything is breaking all the time, everywhere, for everyone. Right now someone who works for Facebook is getting tens of thousands of error messages and frantically trying to find the problem before the whole charade collapses.”

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