Archive for the ‘ Science ’ Category

Hey, Wait a Minute! – Biological roots of today’s anger

David P. Barash in The Chronicle Review:

No fair! No fair!

“No fair” must rank among the loudest and most readily evoked complaints. Nor is the din of inequity limited to children. Consider the widespread anger generated by the Wall Street and AIG bailouts: Regardless of whether they were justified as national policy, those and other departures from perceived evenhandedness have a long history of rousing departures from citizen complacency, and even from civility. Ditto for outrage over executives getting outsized bonuses and golden parachutes while the rest of us are left to soldier on as best we can.

In evolutionary terms, what’s going on here?

Another way of asking that question is to turn it around. Why do we feel so violated? Lixing Sun, a professor of biology at Central Washington University, thinks we have a “fairness instinct.” And he may be right. He maintains that high on the roster of human propensities is a “Robin Hood mentality” that characterizes our species and qualifies as one of those “mental modules” that evolutionary psychologists consider part of our likely biological inheritance. If so, our fairness instinct goes far beyond the pleasure we take in romantic tales of medieval Merry Men adventuring in Sherwood Forest. Sun believes that despite the fact of our specieswide social and economic disparities—perhaps in part because of them—human beings are endowed (or burdened) with an acute sensitivity to “who is getting how much,” in particular a deft attunement to whether anyone else is getting more or less than one’s self.

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The Struggle for the (Possible) Soul of David Eagleman

Robert Jensen in Killing the Buddha:

A neuroscientist imagines life beyond the brain.

There’s a struggle inside the brain of David Eagleman for the soul of David Eagleman.

That is, there might be such a struggle if Eagleman’s brain believed that Eagleman had a soul, which he is not sure about. In fact, Eagleman’s brain is not completely sure that there is an Eagleman-beyond-Eagleman’s-brain at all—with or without a soul, whatever that term might mean.

Welcome to the world of “possibilian” neuroscientist-writer David Eagleman, to life in the space between what-is and what-if, between the facts we think we know and the fictions that illuminate what we don’t know.

Eagleman-the-scientist would love to rev up his high-tech neuroimaging machines to answer the enduring questions about the brain and the mind, the body and the soul. But Eagleman-the-writer knows that those machines aren’t going to answer those questions.

Eagleman rejects not only conventional religion but also the labels of agnostic and atheist. In their place, he has coined the term possibilian: a word to describe those who “celebrate the vastness of our ignorance, are unwilling to commit to any particular made-up story, and take pleasure in entertaining multiple hypotheses.”

Taking seriously the old saying “the absence of proof isn’t the proof of absence,” Eagleman recognizes that people who don’t believe in God (at least not in God defined as a supernatural force or entity) can never say with certainty what doesn’t exist. So, the difference between agnostic and atheist is typically a matter of attitude, and such is the case with adding possibilian to the mix. Eagleman is not trying to support or rule out any particular claim but simply suggesting that it’s healthy to imagine possibilities.

While he reports on what-is in scientific journals, Eagleman’s brain and mind run free pondering the what-ifs. In his 2009 book Sum: Forty Tales from the Afterlives, Eagleman imagines life beyond death, in a playful series of short philosophical musings: What if there were an afterlife in which we relive all our experiences but shuffled into a new order? What if in an afterlife we confront all the possible versions of ourselves that could have been? What if we experience death in stages: when the body stops functioning, when we’re buried, and the moment when your name is spoken by another for the last time? Sum offers 40 such what-ifs. The stories aren’t meant as serious proposals about what an afterlife may be. They are vehicles for Eagleman’s ruminations on the vexing philosophical questions of human life.

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Historian claims Plato’s manuscripts are mathematically ordered according to 12-note scale

Julian Baggini in The Guardian:

It may sound like the plot of a Dan Brown novel, but an academic at the University of Manchester claims to have cracked a mathematical and musical code in the works of Plato.

Jay Kennedy, a historian and philosopher of science, described his findings as “like opening a tomb and discovering new works by Plato.”

Plato is revealed to be a Pythagorean who understood the basic structure of the universe to be mathematical, anticipating the scientific revolution of Galileo and Newton by 2,000 years.

Kennedy’s breakthrough, published in the journal Apeiron this week, is based on stichometry: the measure of ancient texts by standard line lengths. Kennedy used a computer to restore the most accurate contemporary versions of Plato’s manuscripts to their original form, which would consist of lines of 35 characters, with no spaces or punctuation. What he found was that within a margin of error of just one or two percent, many of Plato’s dialogues had line lengths based on round multiples of twelve hundred.

The Apology has 1,200 lines; the Protagoras, Cratylus, Philebus and Symposium each have 2,400 lines; the Gorgias 3,600; the Republic 12,200; and the Laws 14,400.

Kennedy argues that this is no accident. “We know that scribes were paid by the number of lines, library catalogues had the total number of lines, so everyone was counting lines,” he said. He believes that Plato was organising his texts according to a 12-note musical scale, attributed to Pythagoras, which he certainly knew about.

“My claim,” says Kennedy, “is that Plato used that technology of line counting to keep track of where he was in his text and to embed symbolic passages at regular intervals.” Knowing how he did so “unlocks the gate to the labyrinth of symbolic messages in Plato”.

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The art of slow reading

Patrick Kingsley in The Guardian:

Has endlessly skimming short texts on the internet made us stupider? An increasing number of experts think so – and say it’s time to slow down . .

If you’re reading this article in print, chances are you’ll only get through half of what I’ve written. And if you’re reading this online, you might not even finish a fifth. At least, those are the two verdicts from a pair of recent research projects – respectively, the Poynter Institute’s Eyetrack survey, and analysis by Jakob Nielsen – which both suggest that many of us no longer have the concentration to read articles through to their conclusion.

The problem doesn’t just stop there: academics report that we are becoming less attentive book-readers, too. Bath Spa University lecturer Greg Garrard recently revealed that he has had to shorten his students’ reading list, while Keith Thomas, an Oxford historian, has written that he is bemused by junior colleagues who analyse sources with a search engine, instead of reading them in their entirety.

So are we getting stupider? Is that what this is about? Sort of. According to The Shallows, a new book by technology sage Nicholas Carr, our hyperactive online habits are damaging the mental faculties we need to process and understand lengthy textual information. Round-the-clock news feeds leave us hyperlinking from one article to the next – without necessarily engaging fully with any of the content; our reading is frequently interrupted by the ping of the latest email; and we are now absorbing short bursts of words on Twitter and Facebook more regularly than longer texts.

Which all means that although, because of the internet, we have become very good at collecting a wide range of factual titbits, we are also gradually forgetting how to sit back, contemplate, and relate all these facts to each other. And so, as Carr writes, “we’re losing our ability to strike a balance between those two very different states of mind. Mentally, we’re in perpetual locomotion”.

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Lost Sleep Is Hard to Find

Erin O’Donnell in Harvard Magazine:

it’s a time-honored practice among medical residents, cramming undergrads, and anyone else burning the candle at both ends: get very little sleep for days, maybe even pull an all-nighter, and then crash for an extra-long night of shut-eye to catch up.

Ten hours of sleep at once may indeed recharge us, and allow us to perform well for several hours after waking, according to research recently published inScience Translational Medicine. But “the brain literally keeps track of how long we’ve been asleep and awake—for weeks,” says Harvard Medical School (HMS) neurology instructor Daniel A. Cohen, M.D., lead author of the study. And that means that the bigger our aggregate sleep deficit, the faster our performance deteriorates, even after a good night’s rest.

Cohen and his coauthors monitored nine young men and women who spent three weeks on a challenging schedule: awake for 33 hours, asleep for 10—the equivalent of 5.6 hours of sleep a day. (This approximates the schedule of a medical resident, but many of us live under similar conditions; the National Sleep Foundation reports that 16 percent of Americans sleep six or fewer hours a night.) When the study participants were awake, they took a computer-based test of reaction time and sustained attention every four hours.

The researchers were surprised to discover just how much an extended rest boosted test performance. “Even though people were staying awake for almost 33 hours, when they had the opportunity to sleep for 10 hours, their performance shortly after waking was back to normal,” Cohen says. “The really interesting finding here is that there’s a short-term aspect of sleep loss that can be made up relatively quickly, within a long night.”

But the days and weeks of lost sleep eventually took their toll. The investigators knew from previous research that people awake for 24 hours straight display reaction times comparable to those of people who are legally drunk. Cohen’s new study reveals that those who pull an all-nighter on top of two or three weeks of chronic sleep loss reach that level of severe impairment faster—after just 18 hours awake.

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Why Our Universe Must Have Been Born Inside a Black Hole

From Technology Review:

“Accordingly, our own Universe may be the interior of a black hole existing in another universe.” So concludes Nikodem Poplawski at Indiana University in a remarkable paper about the nature of space and the origin of time.

The idea that new universes can be created inside black holes and that our own may have originated in this way has been the raw fodder of science fiction for many years. But a proper scientific derivation of the notion has never emerged.

Today Poplawski provides such a derivation. He says the idea that black holes are the cosmic mothers of new universes is a natural consequence of a simple new assumption about the nature of spacetime.

Poplawski points out that the standard derivation of general relativity takes no account of the intrinsic momentum of spin half particles. However there is another version of the theory, called the Einstein-Cartan-Kibble-Sciama theory of gravity, which does.

This predicts that particles with half integer spin should interact, generating a tiny repulsive force called torsion. In ordinary circumstances, torsion is too small to have any effect. But when densities become much higher than those in nuclear matter, it becomes significant. In particular, says Poplawski, torsion prevents the formation of singularities inside a black hole.

That’s interesting for a number of reasons. First, it has important implications for the way the Universe must have grown when it was close to its minimum size.

Astrophysicists have long known that our universe is so big that it could not have reached its current size given the rate of expansion we see now. Instead, they believe it grew by many orders of magnitude in a fraction of a second after the Big Bang, a process known as inflation.

The problem with inflation is that it needs an additional theory to explain why it occurs and that’s ugly. Poplawski’s approach immediately solves this problem. He says that torsion caused this rapid inflation.

That means the universe as we see it today can be explained by a single theory of gravity without any additional assumptions about inflation.

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Revised theory of gravity doesn’t predict a Big Bang

Lisa Zyga in PHYSORG:

The Big Bang theory has formed the basis of our understanding of the universe’s origins since it was first proposed in 1927 by Georges Lemaitre. And for good reason: the theory is supported by scientists’ latest observations and experiments, and is based on Einstein’s widely accepted theory of general relativity. But scientists are always on the lookout for any evidence that might suggest an alternative to the Big Bang. The latest in this area of research comes from astrophysicists Maximo Banados and Pedro Ferreira, who have resurrected a theory of gravity from the early 20th century and discovered that a modified version of the theory may hold some surprises.

In a recent study published in , Banados and Ferreira have reconsidered the theory of gravity proposed by Arthur Eddington, a contemporary of Einstein. Eddington is perhaps best known for his trip to the Island of Principe on the west coast of Africa in 1919, where during a solar eclipse he observed that the Sun’s gravity does indeed bend starlight, providing one of the earliest confirmations of general relativity.

Although Eddington played a significant role in developing general relativity, during the following decades he became more interested in finding a theory to unify gravity and  – a task that is still being studied today. In 1924, Eddington proposed a new “gravitational action” as an alternative to the Einstein-Hilbert action, which could serve as an alternative starting point to general relativity. In astrophysics, a gravitational action is the mechanism that describes how gravity can emerge from space-time being curved by matter and energy. However, Eddington’s theory of gravity only worked for empty space and didn’t include any source of energy such as matter, making it an incomplete theory.

Since Eddington’s proposal, scientists have attempted various ways of including matter into the theory, although they have run into problems. In this study, Banados and Ferreira have tried a new way to extend the theory to include matter by using a gravitational action called the Born-Infeld action.

In their analysis, the scientists found that a key characteristic of Eddington’s revised  is that it reproduces Einstein gravity precisely in the vacuum conditions (with no matter), but it produces new effects when matter is added. Due to this characteristic, the revised theory has implications especially for high-density regions, such as in the very early Universe or within a black hole. For instance, the theory predicts a maximum density of homogeneous and isotropic space-time, which could have implications for black hole formation.

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