EssentialstheDiagonal is a personal blog by Mike Gerra, skeptic, technologist, psychologist, artist, humanist, collector of grand, eclectic ideas.theDiagonal blog connects the dots across multiple disciplines for inquisitive, objective and critical thinkers, exploring the vertices of big science, disruptive innovation, global sustainability, illuminating literature and leftfield art. It is on this diagonal that creativity thrives, big ideas take flight and reason triumphs.
Yearly Archives: 2011
Saturday, December 31, 2011
Cosmology meets music. German band Reimhaus samples the regular pulse of pulsars in its music. A pulsar is the rapidly spinning remains of an exploded star — as the pulsar spins it emits a detectable beam of energy that has a very regular beat, sometimes sub-second.
Some pulsars spin hundreds of times per second, some take several seconds to spin once. If you take that pulse of light and translate it into sound, you get a very steady thumping beat with very precise timing. So making it into a song is a natural thought.
But we certainly didn’t take it as far as the German band Reimhaus did, making a music video out of it! They used several pulsars for their song “Echoes, Silence, Pulses & Waves”. So here’s the cosmic beat:
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Friday, December 30, 2011
Today, space travel is closer to reality for ordinary people than it has ever been. Though currently only the super rich are actually getting to space, several companies have more affordable commercial space tourism in their sights and at least one group is going the non-profit DIY route into space.
But more than a decade before it was even proven that man could reach space, average people were more positive about their own chances of escaping Earth’s atmosphere. This may have been partly thanks to the Interplanetary Tour Reservation desk at the American Museum of Natural History....read more
Thursday, December 29, 2011
Wednesday, December 28, 2011
The term “Internet of Things” was first coined in 1999 by Kevin Ashton. It refers to the notion whereby physical objects of all kinds are equipped with small identifying devices and connected to a network. In essence: everything connected to anytime, anywhere by anyone. One of the potential benefits is that this would allow objects to be tracked, inventoried and status continuously monitored.
From the New York Times:
THE Internet likes you, really likes you. It offers you so much, just a mouse click or finger tap away. Go Christmas shopping, find restaurants, locate partying friends, tell the world what you’re up to. Some of the finest minds in computer science, working at start-ups and big companies, are obsessed with tracking your online habits to offer targeted ads and coupons, just for you....read more
Tuesday, December 27, 2011
From Scientific American:
The French poet Paul Valéry once said, “The purpose of psychology is to give us a completely different idea of the things we know best.” In that spirit, consider a situation many of us will find we know too well: You’re sitting at your desk in your office at home. Digging for something under a stack of papers, you find a dirty coffee mug that’s been there so long it’s eligible for carbon dating. Better wash it. You pick up the mug, walk out the door of your office, and head toward the kitchen. By the time you get to the kitchen, though, you’ve forgotten why you stood up in the first place, and you wander back to your office, feeling a little confused—until you look down and see the cup....read more
Monday, December 26, 2011
‘Tis the season to buy, give, receive and “re-gift” mostly useless and unwanted “stuff”. That’s how many economists would characterize these days of retail madness. Matthew Yglesias over a Slate ponders a more efficient way to re-distribute wealth.
Christmas is not the most wonderful time of the year for economists. The holiday spirit is puzzlingly difficult to model: It plays havoc with the notion of rational utility-maximization. There’s so much waste! Price-insensitive travelers pack airports beyond capacity on Dec. 24 only to leave planes empty on Christmas Day. Even worse are the gifts, which represent an abandonment of our efficient system of monetary exchange in favor of a semi-barbaric form of bartering....read more
We celebrate the arrival of winter to the northern hemisphere with an evocative poem by Kenneth Patchen.
From Poetry Foundation:
An inspiration for the Beat Generation and a true “people’s poet,” Kenneth Patchen was a prolific writer, visual artist and performer whose exuberant, free-form productions celebrate spontaneity and attack injustices, materialism, and war.
By Kenneth Patchen
- The Snow Is Deep on the Ground
The snow is deep on the ground.
Always the light falls
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.
This is a good world.
The war has failed.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the snow waits where love is.
Only a few go mad.
The sky moves in its whiteness
Like the withered hand of an old king.
God shall not forget us.
Who made the sky knows of our love.
The snow is beautiful on the ground.
And always the lights of heaven glow
Softly down on the hair of my belovèd.
Image: Kenneth Patchen. Courtesy of Wikipedia.
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Sunday, December 25, 2011
A fascinating infographic below highlights the most popular children’s Christmas gifts over the last 100 years. Of course, classic toys seem to go on and on and on…
Infographic courtesy of dailyinfographic.
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Saturday, December 24, 2011
From the Wall Street Journal:
Many of my economist friends have a problem with gift-giving. They view the holidays not as an occasion for joy but as a festival of irrationality, an orgy of wealth-destruction.
Rational economists fixate on a situation in which, say, your Aunt Bertha spends $50 on a shirt for you, and you end up wearing it just once (when she visits). Her hard-earned cash has evaporated, and you don’t even like the present! One much-cited study estimated that as much as a third of the money spent on Christmas is wasted, because recipients assign a value lower than the retail price to the gifts they receive. Rational economists thus make a simple suggestion: Give cash or give nothing.
But behavioral economics, which draws on psychology as well as on economic theory, is much more appreciative of gift giving. Behavioral economics better understands why people (rightly, in my view) don’t want to give up the mystery, excitement and joy of gift giving....read more
Friday, December 23, 2011
Memory is, well, so 1990s. Who needs it when we have Google, Siri and any number of services to help answer and recall everything we’ve ever perceived and wished to remember or wanted to know. Will our personal memories become another shared service served up from the “cloud”?
From the Wilson Quarterly:
In an age when most information is just a few keystrokes away, it’s natural to wonder: Is Google weakening our powers of memory? According to psychologists Betsy Sparrow of Columbia University, Jenny Liu of the University of Wisconsin, Madison, and Daniel M. Wegner of Harvard, the Internet has not so much diminished intelligent recall as tweaked it....read more
Thursday, December 22, 2011
Digital cameras and smartphones have enabled their users to become photographers. Affordable composition and editing tools have made us all designers and editors. Social media have enabled, encouraged and sometimes rewarded us for posting content, reviews and opinions for everything under the sun. So, now we are all critics. So, now are we all curators as well?
Wednesday, December 21, 2011
Tuesday, December 20, 2011
Many mathematicians and those not mathematically oriented would consider Albert Einstein’s equation stating energy=mass equivalence to be singularly simple and beautiful. Indeed, e=mc2 is perhaps one of the few equations to have entered the general public consciousness. However, there are a number of other less well known mathematical constructs that convey this level of significance and fundamental beauty as well. Wired lists several to consider.
Even for those of us who finished high school algebra on a wing and a prayer, there’s something compelling about equations. The world’s complexities and uncertainties are distilled and set in orderly figures, with a handful of characters sufficing to capture the universe itself.
For your enjoyment, the Wired Science team has gathered nine of our favorite equations. Some represent the universe; others, the nature of life. One represents the limit of equations....read more
Monday, December 19, 2011
A widely held aphorism states that owners often look like their pets, or visa versa. So, might it apply to humans and fish? Well, Ted Sabarese a photographer based in New York provides an answer in a series of fascinating portraits.
From Kalliopi Monoyios over at Scientific American:
I can’t say for certain whether New York based photographer Ted Sabarese had science or evolution in mind when he conceived of this series. But I’m almost glad he never responded to my follow-up questions about his inspiration behind these. Part of the fun of art is its mirror-like quality: everyone sees something different when faced with it because everyone brings a different set of experiences and expectations to the table. When I look at these I see equal parts “you are what you eat,” “your inner fish,” and “United Colors of Benetton.”
Read more of this article here.
Discover more of Ted Sabarese’s work here.
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Sunday, December 18, 2011
As in all other branches of science, there seem to be fascinating new theories, research and discoveries in neuroscience on a daily, if not hourly, basis. With this in mind, brain and cognitive researchers have recently turned their attentions to the science of art, or more specifically to addressing the question “how does the human brain appreciate art?” Yes, welcome to the world of “neuroaesthetics”.
From Scientific American:
The notion of “the aesthetic” is a concept from the philosophy of art of the 18th century according to which the perception of beauty occurs by means of a special process distinct from the appraisal of ordinary objects. Hence, our appreciation of a sublime painting is presumed to be cognitively distinct from our appreciation of, say, an apple. The field of “neuroaesthetics” has adopted this distinction between art and non-art objects by seeking to identify brain areas that specifically mediate the aesthetic appreciation of artworks....read more
Saturday, December 17, 2011
Having just posted this article on Christopher Hitchens earlier in the week we at theDiagonal are compelled to mourn and signal his departure. Christopher Hitchens died on December 15, 2011 from pneumonia and complications from esophageal cancer.
His incisive mind, lucid reason, quick wit and forceful skepticism will be sorely missed. Luckily, his written words, of which there are many, will live on.
Richard Dawkins writes of his fellow atheist:
Farewell, great voice. Great voice of reason, of humanity, of humour. Great voice against cant, against hypocrisy, against obscurantism and pretension, against all tyrants including God.
Author Ian McEwan writes of his close friend’s last weeks, which we excerpt below.
From the Guardian:
The holidays approach, which for many means spending a more than usual amount of time with extended family and distant relatives. So, why talk face-to-face when you could text Great Uncle Aloysius instead?
Dominique Browning suggests lowering the stress levels of family get-togethers through more texting and less face-time.
From the New York Times:
ADMIT it. The holiday season has just begun, and already we’re overwhelmed by so much … face time. It’s hard, face-to-face emoting, face-to-face empathizing, face-to-face expressing, face-to-face criticizing. Thank goodness for less face time; when it comes to disrupting, if not severing, lifetimes of neurotic relational patterns, technology works even better than psychotherapy....read more
Friday, December 16, 2011
Massimo Pigliucci over at Rationally Speaking ponders free will, moral responsibility and consciousness and, as always, presents a well reasoned and eloquent argument — we do exist!
From Rationally Speaking:
For some time I have been noticing the emergence of a strange trinity of beliefs among my fellow skeptics and freethinkers: an increasing number of them, it seems, don’t believe that they can make decisions (the free will debate), don’t believe that they have moral responsibility (because they don’t have free will, or because morality is relative — take your pick), and they don’t even believe that they exist as conscious beings because, you know, consciousness is an illusion....read more
Thursday, December 15, 2011
Wednesday, December 14, 2011
For adults living in North America, the answer is that it’s probably more likely that they would prefer a rapist teacher as babysitter over an atheistic one. Startling as that may seem, the conclusion is backed by some real science, excerpted below.
From the Washington Post:
A new study finds that atheists are among society’s most distrusted group, comparable even to rapists in certain circumstances.
Psychologists at the University of British Columbia and the University of Oregon say that their study demonstrates that anti-atheist prejudice stems from moral distrust, not dislike, of nonbelievers.
“It’s pretty remarkable,” said Azim Shariff, an assistant professor of psychology at the University of Oregon and a co-author of the study, which appears in the current issue of Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.
Tuesday, December 13, 2011
Author, polemicist par-excellence, journalist, atheist, Orwellian (as in, following in George Orwell’s steps), and literary critic, Christopher Hitchens shows us how the pen truly is mightier than the sword (though me might well argue to the contrary).
Now fighting oesophageal cancer, Hitchen’s written word continues to provide clarity and insight. We excerpt below part of his recent, very personal essay for Vanity Fair, on the miracle (scientific, that is) and madness of modern medicine.
From Vanity Fair:
Death has this much to be said for it:
You don’t have to get out of bed for it.
Wherever you happen to be
They bring it to you—free.
Pointed threats, they bluff with scorn
Suicide remarks are torn
From the fool’s gold mouthpiece the hollow horn
Plays wasted words, proves to warn
That he not busy being born is busy dying.
—Bob Dylan, “It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding)”
Monday, December 12, 2011
Davide Castelvecchi over at Degrees of Freedom visits with one of the founding fathers of modern cosmology, Alan Guth.
Now professor of physics at MIT, Guth originated the now widely accepted theory of the inflationary universe. Guth’s idea, with subsequent supporting mathematics, was that the nascent universe passed through a phase of exponential expansion. In 2009, he was awarded the 2009 Isaac Newton Medal by the British Institute of Physics.
From Scientific American:
On the night of December 6, 1979–32 years ago today–Alan Guth had the “spectacular realization” that would soon turn cosmology on its head. He imagined a mind-bogglingly brief event, at the very beginning of the big bang, during which the entire universe expanded exponentially, going from microscopic to cosmic size. That night was the birth of the concept of cosmic inflation....read more
Robert Hayden is generally accepted as one of the premier authors of African American poetry. His expertly crafted poems focusing on the black historical experience earned him numerous awards.
Hayden was elected to the American Academy of Poets in 1975. From 1976 – 1978, he was Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress (the first African American holder of that post). He died in 1980.
By Robert Hayden
- Frederick Douglass...read more
Sunday, December 11, 2011
The question, as posed by the New York Times, may have been somewhat rhetorical. However, as we can see from the rise of the technocratic classes in Europe intellectuals still seem to be in reasonably strong demand, albeit if no longer revered.
From the New York Times:
The rise of Newt Gingrich, Ph.D.— along with the apparent anti-intellectualism of many of the other Republican candidates — has once again raised the question of the role of intellectuals in American politics.
In writing about intellectuals, my temptation is to begin by echoing Marianne Moore on poetry: I, too, dislike them. But that would be a lie: all else equal, I really like intellectuals. Besides, I’m an intellectual myself, and their self-deprecation is one thing I really do dislike about many intellectuals....read more
Saturday, December 10, 2011
Friday, December 9, 2011
According to Apple, Siri is:
… the intelligent personal assistant that helps you get things done just by asking. It allows you to use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. But Siri isn’t like traditional voice recognition software that requires you to remember keywords and speak specific commands. Siri understands your natural speech, and it asks you questions if it needs more information to complete a task.
It knows what you mean.
Thursday, December 8, 2011
The world lost pioneering biologist Lynn Margulis on November 22.
One of her key contributions to biology, and in fact, to our overall understanding of the development of complex life, was her theory of the symbiotic origin of the nucleated cell, or symbiogenesis. Almost 50 years ago Margulis first argued that such complex nucleated, or eukaryotic, cells were formed from the association of different kinds of bacteria. Her idea was both radical and beautiful: that separate organisms, in this case ancestors of modern bacteria, would join together in a permanent relationship to form a new entity, a complex single cell.
Until fairly recently this idea was mostly dismissed by the scientific establishment. Nowadays her pioneering ideas on cell evolution through symbiosis are held as a fundamental scientific breakthrough.
We feature some excerpts below of Margulis’ writings:
From the Edge:
Wednesday, December 7, 2011
Fahrenheit 2,451 may well be the temperature at which the glass in your Kindle or Nook eReader is likely to melt. This may give Ray Bradbury mixed feelings.
In one of his masterworks, Fahrenheit 451, Bradbury warned of the displacement and destruction of books by newer means of distribution such as television. Of the novel’s central idea Bradbury says, “It’s about the moronic influence of popular culture through local TV news, the proliferation of giant screens and the bombardment of factoids… We’ve moved in to this period of history that I described in Fahrenheit 50 years ago.”
So, it’s rather a surprise to see his work in full digital form available through an eReader, such as the Kindle or Nook. More over at Wired on Bradbury’s reasoning.
Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Contemporary medical and surgical procedures have been completely transformed through the use of patient anaesthesia. Prior to the first use of diethyl ether as an anaesthetic in the United States in 1842, surgery, even for minor ailments, was often a painful process of last resort.
Nowadays the efficacy of anaesthesia is without question. Yet despite the development of ever more sophisticated compounds and methods of administration little is still known about how anaesthesia actually works.
Linda Geddes over at New Scientist has a fascinating article reviewing recent advancements in our understanding of anaesthesia, and its relevance in furthering our knowledge of consciousness in general.
From the New Scientist:
Monday, December 5, 2011
Fans of Isaac Asimov’s groundbreaking Foundation novels will know Hari Seldon as the founder of “psychohistory”. Entirely fictional, psychohistory is a statistical science that makes possible predictions of future behavior of large groups of people, and is based on a mathematical analysis of history and sociology.
Now, 11,000 years or so back into our present reality comes the burgeoning field of “neuroeconomics”. As Slate reports, Seldon’s “psychohistory” may not be as far-fetched or as far away as we think.
Neuroscience—the science of how the brain, that physical organ inside one’s head, really works—is beginning to change the way we think about how people make decisions. These findings will inevitably change the way we think about how economies function. In short, we are at the dawn of “neuroeconomics.”...read more