Science | The thrill of defeat
How science works, at its best. Sydney Brenner and Francis Crick, “two of the 20th Century’s most brilliant geneticists”, spent 10 years trying to decipher the language of DNA, only to find themselves scooped by a little-known biochemist who unveiled his breakthrough to an almost empty room at a conference in Moscow. Their reaction? They were delighted. The problem was solved. “We could get on with more important problems.” (Bob Goldstein, Nautilus, 2,730 words)
AI | Machine intelligence, part one
“Because we don’t understand how human intelligence works in any meaningful way, it’s difficult to make strong statements about how close or far away from emulating it we really are. We could be completely off track, or we could be one algorithm away … It’s possible that creativity and what we think of us as human intelligence are just an emergent property of a small number of algorithms operating with a lot of compute power.” (Sam Altman, 1,030 word)
Robotics | The robots are coming
What if smart robots take all the jobs? The Second Machine Age by Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee, and Average is Over by Tyler Cowen, discuss that possibility. But the triumph of robots is to be feared only if we also assume the triumph of capitalism, whereby the robots enrich their owners while others starve. There is an alternative: Robots build a socialist paradise for all of us. Why don’t we talk about that instead? (John Lanchester, London Review of Books, 6,230 words)
Aviation | I know where that Malaysian plane is
Officially the case of Malaysian Airlines MH370 has been closed. The Boeing 777 crashed in the Indian Ocean without trace, killing everybody on board. But what if a hijacker tampered with the final satellite transmissions to show a false course? What if the MH370 flew north and landed safely on a Russian airstrip in Kazakhstan? Of course it’s a wild theory. It’s also a great yarn, with just enough data points to sound plausible. (Jeff Wise, New York magazine, 4,270 words)
Psychology | Why do many reasonable people doubt science?
Why do only 40% of Americans believe in man-made global warming? How can parents refuse vaccination for children? Two main reasons. First, scientific findings ‒ including evolution ‒ can be powerfully counterintuitive. Second, we want to fit in with those around us. “Science appeals to our rational brain, but our beliefs are motivated largely by emotion, and the biggest motivation is remaining tight with our peers” (Joel Achenbach, National Geographic, 3,480 words)
Probability | Bayes’ theorem with Lego
Bayes’ Theorem defines conditional probability ‒ “how information about one event can give us understanding of another”; as such it offers a great improvement over the intuition or guesswork on which most of us tend to rely when relating one thing to another. The basic equation is a fairly easy one for mathematicians; others may need a helping hand. This explainer uses Lego bricks to get the idea across nicely. (Will Kurt, Count Bayesie, 850 words)
Time | Tempo shifts
Notes on the politics of time. No calendar arises spontaneously, none is wholly scientific. “While the Earth’s orbit is not a fiction, any attempt to organise that orbit’s movement into a rigid order is as arbitrary as any other." Every calendar is the product of a political or religious agenda ‒ which is why revolutions often bring a new one. Includes an interesting digression on historians who claim the Middle Ages never happened. (Colin Dickey, Berfrois, 3,860 words)
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