Monthly Archives: June 2018

Ten Incredible Pearls of Wisdom From Great Minds

ten wisdom dawkins

The world can be a confusing place, but academics, authors, artists, poets and philosophers are just some of the many who have tried to explain things. In my wanderings through scientific texts, popular non-fiction and and documentaries, there have been a few stand out comments.

Whether it be Malcolm Gladwell’s keen insight into human nature, or Carl Sagan’s prophetic view of the world, all have resonated in some way beyond comprehension. They seem intrinsically correct, and universally true.

So here are ten incredible pearls of wisdom from the great minds.

1. On The Origins And Nature Of Human Behaviour

‘Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to because we may then at least have the chance to upset their designs.’ – Richard Dawkins, ethologist, evolutionary biologist and popular-science writer.

As the current face of evolutionary theory, Dawkins’ is no stranger to controversy. And although his work has revolutionised our understanding of the natural world, his opinions about how we must overcome our nature have caused the most conversation.

ten wisdom dawkins

The nature of life is conservative, selfish and driven by unconscious forces. Dawkins’ understands that to ‘be good’ you must understand our basic urges. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Dawkins’ is very aware how our evolutionary history, and how the selective pressures of the environment and each other, have shaped our behaviour. And in his book ‘The Selfish Gene‘, gives us to pause to consider the true morality of nature.

What is ‘natural’ isn’t inherently ‘moral’, and what we consider ‘moral’ is not inherently survival.  So Dawkins’ asks us to understand our primal natures if we are to best them.

2. On The Power Of Words

‘To acquire immunity to eloquence is of the utmost importance to the citizens of a democracy. ‘ – Bertrand Russell, Philosopher, Logician and Nobel Prize winner.

Although Russell is best known as a philosopher, his life of work reached deeper into the shared mind of society than we realise. By studying and writing on the academic disciplines of logic, mathematics and epistemology (the study of knowledge,) he became a strong advocate for peaceful societal reform.

A man’s words may make beautiful the macabre. Russell relied on logic to unify humanity toward a common good. Image courtesy of Flickr.

And most noteworthy are his observations of how people can be manipulated by words. The use of eloquent language, a flowery vocabulary or poetic arrangement can make the terrible seem empowering.  You need only read the words of Nazi spokesperson Joseph Goebbels to see how language can betray human decency.

We must understand a man’s motivation, and place it in the context of the sociopolitical climate, to truly understand what may be hiding behind the words.

3. On The Risks Of Virtue

‘Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.’ – Friedrich Nietzsche, Philosopher, Author and culture commentator.

As the central reference to ‘Nihilism‘, Nietzsche examined the purpose of life without purpose. His infamous quote ‘God is dead‘ instilled the idea that the concept and role of any God is limited, and that through pain and suffering we may choose a virtuous path.

wisdom nietzsche

Nietzsche warned us not to become monsters in the pursuit of greatness. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Whilst an avid skeptic of religion in general, his infamous parable ‘Thus Spoke Zarathustra‘ presented, in humbling terms, the true insanity of zealotry. He warns us not to lose ourselves in purpose, and to recognise how a belief in achieving ‘the good’ can lead to evil.

And in a world where popular influencers claim a moral authority, his words could not carry greater weight.

4. On The Importance Of Responsibility

‘Man is condemned to be free; because once thrown into the world, he is responsible for everything he does.’ – Jean Paul Satre, Philosopher.

Regarded by many as the father of ‘Existentialism‘, Satre believed that existence precedes essence, and that we must find our own way in a meaningless universe. But in accepting this freedom in action, we cannot ignore our role in what comes next.

wisdom star ten star

Satre  believed that with action comes responsibility, and with freedom comes the same. Image courtesy of Pixabay.

Many existentialists reject the concept of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour being an inherent natural motivation, and instead suggest that we make our decisions based on complex (although often incorrect,) contextual interpretations.

Not only does this mean we must be aware of our own limits, but take responsibility when they are exposed.

5. On The Stoicism Of Knowledge

The older I get, the more I understand that the only way to say valuable things is to lose your fear of being correct. – Malcolm Gladwell, Author and Journalist.

Famed author of ‘David And Goliath’, ‘Outliers‘ and ‘The Tipping Point‘, Gladwell explores the interconnectedness of humanity with the world around it. In his poignant prose he unravels what may seem miraculous, often challenging widely held beliefs.

wisdom pearls gladwell quote

Gladwell has exposed and explained the hidden reasons behind cultural success and individual power. To question convention is as useful as it is risky. Image courtesy of Flickr.

His work tells us not only to dig deeper to explain the world, but that explanations may exist beyond the obvious. He also extols the value of expressing new ideas, fearlessly with no regard for your own ego.

We must challenge convention to find the truth, even if it risks our reputations.

6. On The Insights Given By Friendship

‘You can learn something about a person by the company she keeps.’ – Sam Harris, Philosopher and Neuroscientist.

Although more likely to be a figure of repute for his views on religion, Harris is a distinguished author and surveyor of the interface between neuroscience, morality and the world at large.

A fierce critic of authoritarian dogma, Harris asks us to take responsibility for building our knowledge toward creating a better world.

wisdom harris quote ten

Sam Harris is a vocal critic of authoritarian regimes and their numerous abuses. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He also asserts that morality itself exists independently of religious doctrine, and empowers a human approach toward a coalescence of society. And as a neuroscientist, he is all to aware of how our behaviour may make us, or betray our intentions.

So if  you want the measure of a man, consider who they value as friends.

7. On The Illusion Of Simplicity.

‘I think you’ll find it’s a bit more complicated than that.’ – Ben Goldacre, Physician and Author.

The namesake of his popular book tells us a lot about Ben Goldacre. An academic and scourge of pseudoscience and ‘folk wisdom’, Ben uses evidence to expose the lies many are sold by the few to the many. He also tells that what is made simple, or appears so, may not be.

wisdom goldacre bad science

Ben Goldcare makes it his mission to challenge misleading beliefs, expose bad science and explain the misunderstood. Image courtesy of Flickr.

What is claimed to simple may be complex, and what lies between may be inaccurate, underhanded and deliberate.

And with that, we should try to understand the motives behind simplification, and why it is so easy for us to be sold a lie. Amongst his many targets is Homeopathy and the risks involved in being misled.

8. On the Arrogance Of The Human Mind.

‘See that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man.’ – Richard Feynman, Theoretical Physicist, Nobel Prize winner and  Science Communicator.

Whilst it may seem odd that a theoretical physicist is so humble about uncertainty, Feynman shows us just how wonderful the universe is.

Although a pioneer in our understanding of the nature of our reality, he recognises that there is simply more we don’t know.

feynman physics quote wisdom

Feynman studied and revealed some of the most hidden secrets of our universe, but in doing so realised that was is unknown is our greatest teacher. Image courtesy of Flickr.

The intricacies of our reality, currently hazy between the infinitesimally small and unimaginably large, appear to us through rigorous questioning and often teach us that our presuppositions are not just wrong,  revealing a drastic flaw in human understanding.

We claim to be intelligent, and yet this intelligence often blinds us to our own folly. We must revel in the wonder of whats left to wonder about, and not be afraid to look stupid doing so.

9. On The Value Of Choice And Humility

‘I was never born to write. I was taught to write. And I am still being taught to write.’ – Atul Gawande, Surgeon, Research and Author.

If you are a doctor, you no doubt are aware of Gawande. Whilst a strong advocate of evidence and comprehensive approaches, Gawande has also ventured into a philosophical musing of the human condition.

gawande life wisdom

As a surgeon, Gawande not only saves lives, but has taken it upon himself to understand what the true value of life is. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his best-selling book, ‘Being Mortal’, Gawande examines the true value of human life, and what we lose and gain as we age. And true to his nature, he treats himself with a level of skepticism coherent with his humble world view.

We are born with a choice in a difficult world, expertise is only a measure of dedication tempered by self criticism, and arrogance undermines greatness.

10. On The Size Of Our Influence

‘The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena.’ – Carl Sagan,  Astronomer, Astrophycist and Pulitzer Prize winner.

To reduce the works of Sagan to one sentence would vastly sell him short. Not only did he lead the way in popularising science, but housed a mind so in tune with the human condition that his loss is truly universal.

Having inspired legions of scientists, including protege Neil deGrasse Tyson, Sagan’s holistic approach to science and its delicate implications toward society rings as true today as it did years ago.

sagan quote wisdom science

Carl Sagan was not just a pioneer of knowledge, but arguably one of humanity’s greatest teachers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

He was exceptionally kind, humble and patient, expressing the very tenets he postulated as a universal ideal.

Sagan reminds us that the true beauty of the universe is not just in its nature, or its creation, but in our pursuit of explanation and the inherent ability to use this knowledge to better ourselves and future generations.

And that perspective matters, for the universe is much greater than such complex molecular machines as we. We are so very small, but in that there is much to be learned, gained and valued.

So Much Left To Learn

Ten quotes simply isn’t enough to even scratch the surface of the grand insights accumulated in the wealth of human knowledge, or beyond it. And with each quote, you may have taken your own interpretation of meaning and purpose.

Perhaps you disagree with some, or worry that they are incongruent with each other. But I am willing to contend the opposite, that each shares a unity in placing the pursuit of knowledge through humility, truth and beneficence as a true virtue.

So what are your favourite quotes? What and who has changed your life? Let us know in the comments. And if you believe, like I do, that knowledge is best shared, then help us by sharing this article with your friends and family.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

Note from the Author: Upon writing this article I became very aware of just how much I don’t know, and how much I can learn. I feel it only right to follow up on this article with more information about the works and lessons of the persons featured. There are many greats not featured on this list, but don’t worry, I will find ways to include them. I do not value my opinion of what is great  above any others, I only wish to signpost what is already there.

Advertisements

‘Did Mars Once Hold Life?’ Discovery Of Organic Molecules May Hold Vital Clues.

An exciting discovery by NASA’s Curiosity rover has strengthened the idea that Mars may have once been suitable for life. The chance finding of organic material in an ancient lake bed suggests Mars once held the foodstuffs necessary for life.

Although not conclusive, these findings add to the growing evidence for previous life on Mars, with seasonal methane and liquid water providing cause for excitement.  Mars is inhospitable for now, but may not have always been.

And with that, the tantalising hope that life may exist beyond earth.

mars life organic rover

Mars is considered a cold, dead world. But did life once flourish? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Curiosity’s Discovery Of Organic Molecules

The discovery of these ‘organic molecules’ asks many questions. We cannot tell exactly where they came from, perhaps remnants of long dead organisms, something crash landed from space or indeed simply ancient foodstuffs.

But what we can say is that these molecules, formed of carbon, oxygen and other elements fundamental to life as we know it, could very much  suggest something significant.  Whilst it is important to note that these structures can be created without life, life can’t exist without them.

“With these new findings, Mars is telling us to stay the course and keep searching for evidence of life. ” – Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA Science Directorate.

life organic simple mars

Life is a complex array of molecules and processes. But at its core, the foundational elements may coalesce with relative ease. Image courtesy of Flickr.

 

Food For Thought

Although direct evidence of life on Mar’s is yet to be discovered, if at all, these new findings tell us that the environment may have supported it. Biological creatures like we subsist  on organic compounds for energy, and this is consistent down the food chain.

There is little reason to thing extra-terrestrial life would be that different. In fact, many believe that the ingredients for simple life are abundant enough that finding alien organisms is almost a certainty. And the chances are that, on a fundamental level at least, we will all be built of the same stuff.

And with that, makes a strong case for a similar ecological energy source. Jennifer Eigenbrode, NASA biogeochemist says of the finding;

“It is not telling us that life was there, but it is saying that everything organisms really needed to live in that kind of environment, all of that was there.”

earth life mars organic

All life as we know it evolved from the same ingredients. And these ingredients grow universally. Image courtesy of Flickr.

A New Direction In Ancient Footsteps

Although direct evidence of extra-terrestrial life eludes us, the chances are good. Although the paucity of interstellar craft and signals presents some concerning questions, it may be that life is abundant between the stars.

And you have  to look no further than your own back yard to find out why. It is likely made of common stuff.

Whilst we imagine aliens as, well, very alien, very basic life may be a natural inevitability. Current theories of the origins of life on earth centre around the unconscious replication of favourable molecules, building more complex structures over time.

Eventually, these would become us and everything else that breathes, grows and dies. And the more we learn, the more beautiful and interconnected it all becomes.

life organic mars

The size of our universe is beyond comprehension. But can we really say that it is ours? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Given the vast numbers at hand, i.e trillions of stars, innumerable planets and billions of years, chances are that Curiosity’s discovery may be just the first of a truly cosmic collection.

So what do you think, is there life out there? What does it mean for us? Let us know in the comments below.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Flickr.

 

 

 

Happy Birthday! Another Maths Paradox To Test Your Mind

Continuing on our theme of head-breaking maths, I’d like to present another example of probability gone wrong.

For this experiment, we’re going to need to gather twenty two of your friends at random. Hold a party in your kitchen (or any way you can snugly fit twenty three people).

Well done Mr Popular, but did you know that there is half a chance that one of you shares a birthday?

This is the Birthday Paradox; that in a set of twenty three people selected randomly, there is a 50% chance that two will share a birthday. Seem unlikely? Let us explain.

Counting backwards

To demonstrate how this works, we’re going to need to scale things up for a second.

Instead of imagining your kitchen or classroom, think about a ballroom (those from The Shining or Titanic will do nicely) and instead of twenty three of your friends, I want you to invite three hundred and sixty six.

 

16

(That’s got to fit 367 people, surely?)

Once you’ve crammed all of these people into one room, you can be certain that two of them will share a birthday. How do we know this?

There are only 366 possible birthdays (including February 29th on a leap year), even if somehow you managed to find one person whose birthday was on a different day of the year for the first 366, if you were in the room, one of them would have to share a birthday with you (of course, in real life, some birthdays are more common than others).

In discrete mathematics, this is called the Pigeonhole principle. If you have x pigeons and y pigeonholes, where x > y, then at least two pigeons are going to have to buddy up.

This sounds pretty simple, but gets fairly odd when we introduce the idea of infinity and upwards, but that’s for another article.

Half A Chance

Going back to our party in the ballroom, there are either one of two probabilities; that someone in that room shares a birthday with another or nobody does. These are mutually exclusive; they cannot both be true.

If we calculate this probability, we see that it is in fact comprised of several more, one for each person. The probability that nobody in the room shares a birthday can be split down into the probability that Person A doesn’t share a birthday and then Person B and so on.

Probability isn’t as simple as just heads or tails, especially when we think about big numbers. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In probability, we can express mutually exclusive outcomes as:

Probability something happens + probability something doesn’t happen = 1

P + not P = 1 or P + ‘P = 1

In our paradox, either at least two people in that room share a birthday (B) or no-one does (‘B)

The probability that nobody shares a birthday then can be displayed as:

‘B = 366/366 x 365/366 x 364/365 …

And so on, for each of people in the room we are comparing to. Each comparison leads to a smaller and smaller value of ‘B (that nobody shares a birthday).

We know that the first person can have any birthday in the year without invalidating the probability that none of them do. The second may only have a birthday on all of those days minus the one which the first person has the birthday.

The next person has one less day and so on and so on. A simpler way of writing this is:

‘B = 366!/((366-n)!x366^n)

Where n is the number of people in the room. If the value is 367, then we may be certain that two people share a birthday (though at 70, the odds are 99.9%).

If the value is set at 23, the probability works out roughly as 0.5, which is half a chance.

You can work it out with different sizes here.

image11

(Here’s a graphic representation from Cornell University)

 

The Birth of the Paradox

This paradox was featured as part of a maths puzzle in Scientific American in 1957. It had been separately been proposed by mathematicians Harold Davenport and Richard von Mises prior to this.

But why should we care about all of this? Why do we celebrate birthdays? As well as being a strange piece of probability, there is a real world application in hacking called the birthday attack.

It involves attacking the way data can be encrypted via a hash function – stealing data or passwords. If two people are sending data to each other, it will be encrypted with each at both ends able to translate the code via a hash function.

The birthday attack examines the way that two pieces of information may be encoded in the same way, much like two people sharing the same birthday.

The attack means all the hacker needs to do is find any matching pair before and after encryption rather than any single pair. This reduces the time taken to break into a system and is so much more important than it may seem at first!

What’s Next?

  • More maths to bend your mind.
  • Follow Ben on Twitter so you never miss an article from drbenjanaway.com
  • Give this a share if you found it interesting.
  • Let me know what you think in the comments below or on social media.
  • Donate. For just the price of a coffee you can help us Change The World.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of George Aitch and Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of their affiliates. Images courtesy of flickr.

Sources

  1. Su, Francis E., et al. “Pigeonhole Principle.” Math Fun Facts. <http://www.math.hmc.edu/funfacts>
  2. http://mathforum.org/dr.math/faq/faq.birthdayprob.html
  3. https://www.geeksforgeeks.org/birthday-paradox/
  4. http://www.math.cornell.edu/~mec/2008-2009/TianyiZheng/Birthday.html
  5. http://mste.illinois.edu/activity/birthday/

Ever Wonder Why Humans Are So Clever? Scientists Hone In On Special Genes

brain clever gene

There is no doubt that humans are the smartest creatures on the planet. But for the longest time it has been unclear just how exactly we made the jump from simple creatures to ones capable of mathematics, ethical debate and invention.

But now scientists may have begun to unravel the mystery, discovering that three similar genes may be behind the boost.

Coding for the expansion of our brains by increasing the potential for creating neuronal cells, it may be that these three genes hold the key to human intelligence.

clever gene evolution notch2

Monkeys are intelligent creatures, and share most of our genetic material. So what makes us different? Image courtesy of Flickr.

Genes For ‘Clever’ Are A Mistake.

Publishing in CellPierre Vanderhaeghen and his team investigated the role of the NOTCH2NL gene.  This is just one of a family of genes responsible for modulating the development of organisms, but has appeared in four similar forms in humans.

By reconstructing the story of the gene over time, the team noticed something interesting.

Around 14 million years ago a part of the gene was copied by mistake, and remained silent for millions of years. Later another mutation and insertion rendered it functional, eventually leading to a total of four versions. Three work, and the last remains quiet within our DNA.

clever dna gene brain intelligence

Our DNA defines what and who we are, and by studying it we can learn more about what it is to be human. Image courtesy of Flickr.

So what does the gene do? Aside from promote brain cell maintenance, it seems the trio also increase the potential for new brain cells to be created. When Vanderhaeghen inserted the genes into a growth culture including human brain cells, they created new stem cells.

These stem cells can differentiate (change) into new brain cells.

Furthermore, a certain protein expressed by the gene stops further change, meaning that new neuronal cells can replicate over and over.

Basically, the duplication of the gene seems to lead to a greater number of brain cells, and with that, intelligence.

Neuronal Cells, Evolution and Cleverness

When studying ‘intelligence’ humans have made a lot of mistakes. First we considered a ‘larger’ brain likely ‘more intelligent’, but when you consider an elephant you can see this doesn’t quite work.

It seems that the two best predictors of intelligence are ‘surface area’ of the brain and ‘number of connections’ between the cells.

Basically, by increasing the surface area of the brain there is more room for brain cells, and by forming efficient and numerous connections between them these cells can work more effectively.

This is the case in the human brain, which due to its many rolls and crevices boasts a relatively huge surface area.

This new data sheds some light on why our brains may have developed this way, with the NOTCH2NL genes fundamental in both producing surplus neutrons and modulating their abilities.

But the odd thing is that this kind of  ‘mistake’ is fundamental to evolution.

gene clever brain

Every species on earth evolves, and millions of years of mutation and selection has created the wealth of diversity we see today. Image courtesy of Flickr.

When a species reproduces it passes its genes, the coding material for the production of the species, down the line. Although the mechanisms for replication of the molecule are pretty good, mistakes are made. These are called  ‘mutations‘.

Most are harmless, and have no clear effect on the new organism. But sometimes they confer some benefit, increasing the organisms, and thus  the species’, chance of reproducing again.

Explained in the context of evolution, these mutations  are defined as ‘individual variation‘, and this is one of the central tenets of evolutionary theory. In the case of the  NOTCH2NL gene, it seems the mutation means greater intelligence.

More research is needed to explain intelligence fully, but it seems we have caught a lucky break.

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Featured image courtesy of Pixabay.

Colliding Stars May Create Black Holes. Something Weird Is Happening In The Cosmos.

Colliding black hole neutron star

A new report in The Astrophysical Journal claims that two stars may have just collided to create a black hole. If this is true, it may radically alter our understanding of how these super structures are formed. The alternative is potentially just as crazy sounding, that two neutron stars can fuse.  Either way, something very large and exciting has happened in deep space.

Colliding black hole neutron star

A black hole traps any light within its gravitational pull. Image courtesy of Flickr.

Colliding Stars In The Deep

In an event widely discussed in the Astronomy community, August 2017 saw two distant neutron stars collide.  As well as providing detailed information about how elements may be formed and even further proof of gravitational waves, little could have prepared us for what came next.  We were left to wonder, what became of the cosmic dance partners?

 

black hole colliding neutron

Neutron stars can collide, but new data has revealed their fusion may create something dark. Image courtesy of Flickr.

In his report, Astrophysicist David Pooley asserts that the two colliding stars may have created a black hole.  The research examined the nature of electromagnetic waves emitted from the site. If the two stars had combined to form a larger one, what we understand of physics would dictate a high emission of such waves.

But actually, we have detected very little. An observation convincingly explained not by a ‘Super Star’, but a black hole.

Black Holes Born

Conventional theories surrounding the birth of a black hole suggest a gradual accumulation of matter under gravity. As the mass increases, it draws in more material and increases its gravitational strength.

At a certain point, the gravity is enough to prevent light itself from escaping.

So when you look for a black hole, you look for a hole in space. Where the light should be and is not, chances are a black hole exists. Usually these result from a supernova, where the mass of a star becomes incredibly small under its own gravitational weight.

supernova black hole colliding

Supernovae occur when larger stars explode. Although a sad end, it makes for a beautiful send off. Image courtesy of Flickr.

This new report expands on the circumstances in which such phenomena may develop. It may very much be that black holes are not just the result of a star dying, but a dark creation forged between two.

Research is ongoing, and we may have to wait a little while before the finding is proved beyond complete doubt. But in the mean time, we may have a new view of the darkness in the night sky.

So what do you think is really happening? And if black holes can form this way, what does it tell us about the supermassive black hole at the centre of our galaxy?

What’s Next?

The opinions expressed in this article are those of  Dr Janaway alone and may not represent those of his affiliates. Images courtesy of Flickr.

 

« Older Entries Recent Entries »