Psychology | Shrunk
A frustrated patient’s notes from sessions with five British psychotherapists in the wake of a mild nervous breakdown. Psychiatry is in a “medieval" state. There is no discernible consistency in practitioners’ methods save for the sending of bills and the prescribing of antidepressants. The average patient might well derive more lasting benefit from getting a cat. (Oliver Black, Lancet Psychiatry, 1,840 words)
Weather | Ask not, ‘Will it snow?’
Instead, you should ask for the distribution of the forecast: How probable is a major blizzard? You also need to weigh the damage done by a false positive (you warn of a blizzard and it doesn’t come) against the damage done by a false negative (you don’t warn of a blizzard, and it does come). New York City probably made the right choice recently in preparing for a blizzard that didn’t happen, but it would be nice to know more about the data. (Zeynep Tufeckci, The Message, 1,940 words)
Mathematics | The pursuit of beauty
Yitang Zhang kept the accounts for a Subway franchise in Kentucky, taught calculus in New Hampshire — and then, at the age of 55, solved a fundamental problem in prime-number theory which had been troubling mathematicians since Euclid. Euclid proved that the sequence of prime numbers was infinite; Zhang showed that there were rules governing the distribution of them. Now he has “some other visions”. (Alec Wilkinson, The New Yorker, 6,070 words, metered paywall)
Genetics | Father, son and double helix
Paternity testing by DNA has boomed in India since the first commercial clinic opened in 2008. Most requests come from couples living in “joint families” where “the uncertainty over a child’s parentage tends to be high”. Maternity tests are also popular. Hospitals request them when staff inadvertently mix up babies, and in cases of “child swap” when professional thieves steal newborn boys and substitute girls. (Snigdha Poonam, Open, 2,600 words)
Identity | Why legal gender?
A short piece raising simple questions which would have seemed absurd to most people a generation ago, but now seem more than reasonable: “Why do we have to have a legal gender? Why even have someone’s gender on their passport? Why do we have to have a gendered title at all? It’s an interesting debate that will only grow as more and more people challenge what it means to be a man or a woman.” (Paris Lees, Prospect, 500 words)
Politics | Jonathan Wolff on political philosophy
British philosopher discusses books by Thomas Hobbes, Karl Marx, John Rawls, Robert Nozick and Jerry Cohen. Rawls “created the world of contemporary political philosophy” with his "Theory of Justice" in 1971. He “won the debate”. But Nozick is a more enjoyable and accessible writer. “Nozick makes you think. With Rawls, it probably has to be explained to you before you can start thinking about it.” (Nigel Warburton, Five Books, 7,600 words)
Mathematics | The art of mental arithmetic
Alexander Aitken was the most gifted “mental calculator” of the 20th Century. In this lecture he demonstrates and explains his genius: “At the end when all is done, the numbers come into focus. But mostly it is as if they were hidden under some medium, though being moved about with decisive exactness in regard to order and ranging. It is neither seeing nor hearing; it is a compound faculty of which I have nowhere seen an adequate description.” (A C Aitken, Mnemonic, 8,100 words)
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