Sean Carroll’s Mindscape Podcast: Anthony Aguirre on Cosmology, Zen, Entropy, and Information

Sean Carroll in Preposterous Universe:

Cosmologists have a standard set of puzzles they think about: the nature of dark matter and dark energy, whether there was a period of inflation, the evolution of structure, and so on. But there are also even deeper questions, having to do with why there is a universe at all, and why the early universe had low entropy, that most working cosmologists don’t address. Today’s guest, Anthony Aguirre, is an exception. We talk about these deep issues, and how tackling them might lead to a very different way of thinking about our universe. At the end there’s an entertaining detour into AI and existential risk.

More here.

Putting the Political Back in Politically Correct

Jonny Thakkar in the Chronicle of Higher Education:

Debates about political correctness on college campuses can be extremely frustrating. On one side you have those, like New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who claim to detect “a system of left-wing ideological repression” that operates both within the academy and beyond. On the other you have those, like Moira Weigel, in The Guardian, for whom “PC was a useful invention for the Republican right,” “a phantom enemy” that allowed it to scare voters, rebrand racism, and defund universities. The gap between those views is so large that each side seems bound to accuse the other of bad faith — not least since the one thing they agree on is that the future of higher education is at stake. In the face of such disagreement, the way forward is to take a step back. We must think philosophically — by defining terms, breaking down arguments, and interpreting others charitably while questioning ourselves.

A lot depends on what we mean by political correctness. Chait thinks of it as a whole “style of politics” that is intolerant of dissent and obsessed with identity. That analysis packs in too much, threatening to turn political correctness into a floating signifier whose real referent is “stuff that annoys me.”

More here.

“Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason” with Justin Smith

Wasim Akhtar at Bridging the Gaps:

In his new book, “Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason” philosopher Justin Smith presents a fascinating narrative that reveals the ways in which the pursuit of rationality often leads to an explosion of irrationality. Smith, a professor of the history and philosophy of science at the University of Paris, acknowledges that we are living in an era when nothing seems to make sense. Populism is on the rise, pseudoscience is still around and there is no shortage of of conspiracy theories. Smith discusses the core of the problem that the rational gives birth to the irrational and vice versa in an endless cycle, and any effort to permanently set things in order sooner or later ends in an explosion of unreason. He notes that despite the fact logic and reason are well understood, methods and practises that were supposed to have been setup to counter irrationality, ended up mired in the very problem that they were meant to solve, and that is irrationality.

“Irrationality: A History of the Dark Side of Reason” is rich and ambitious and ranges across philosophy, politics and current events. It challenges conventional thinking about logic, natural reason, dreams, art and science, pseudoscience, the Enlightenment, the internet, jokes and lies and death and shows how history reveals that any triumph of reason is temporary and reversible, and that rational schemes often result in their polar opposite. Smith argues that it is irrational to try to eliminate irrationality and describes irrationality an ineradicable feature of life. It has been an absolute pleasure speaking with Professor Justin Smith in this episode of Bridging the Gaps. This has been a fascinating conversation.

More here.

The Art of Lorna Simpson

Lorna Simpson and Osman Can Yerebakan at The Brooklyn Rail:

Simpson’s benevolent yet piercing approach to life is not far from how her art grasps us under the guise of beautiful images of models from magazine spreads. Her unassuming warmth and determination to always look into my eyes during our conversation melts the breeze emanating from her paintings of mountainous ice chunks gloriously standing at remote corners of the world. She blows up images culled from science publications and prints them onto gessoed fiberglass, after adding occasional cutouts of text. Then, the surface is hers to paint into blue, horizontally or on the floor, letting the blues build serpentine paths on the surface. In the far corner of her spacious studio, blown up images of women pulled from Ebony and Jet magazine ads stare in convincing perfection. Arguably her most extensively know works, her collages of women from vintage magazine ads have over the decades evolved into bridges between America’s past and present histories of race and visibility.

more here.

Finding and Losing Schizophrenia

Paul Broks at Literary Review:

Madness is deep-rooted in the human imagination. The mad are unreachable, unfathomable, alarmingly other. They unsettle us. Yet we also romanticise madness. Great poetry and art spring from transcendent states at the edge of sanity, don’t they? And falling in love is a kind of madness, a stumbling into a dream world of irrationality and delusion. The lunatic, the lover and the poet are of imagination all compact. One line of thought is that madness is the price Homo sapiens has paid for the jewel of human consciousness. Perhaps it is.

There have always been alienated individuals marked out as ‘mad’ by the rest of society on account of their bizarre beliefs and eccentric behaviour, but it was not until the late 19th century that Emil Kraepelin established a formal taxonomy of signs and symptoms.

more here.

Liz Johnson Artur’s Vibrant Chronicle of the African Diaspora

Anakwa Dwamena at The New Yorker:

There is so much sound, movement, and energy in Liz Johnson Artur’s first solo museum show, “Dusha,” at the Brooklyn Museum, that walking through the galleries feels like attending a party at a local Pan-African community center. The exhibit showcases Artur’s “Black Balloon Archive,” which consists of images of the global African diaspora captured in the course of decades. Here are two boys spinning each other on the sidewalk, surrounded by a crowd of onlookers. Nearby is Brother Michael, in a black suit and white tie, selling Nation of Islam newspapers. A group of women show off their matching head wraps, and precocious schoolgirls relax outside a classroom. A man wearing Ankara prints and sunglasses mugs for the camera. All that is missing is the line for jollof and the music of Fela Kuti.

more here.

My Seditious Heart by Arundhati Roy – powerful, damning essays

Bidisha in The Guardian:

With its gold-striped spine, crimson endpapers and silky leaves, My Seditious Heart is a handsome edition of previously published essays by Booker-winning writer Arundhati Roy. Despite the stately presentation and the fact that some of the essays first appeared 20 years ago, these studies are trenchant, still relevant and frequently alarming. Roy reveals some hard truths about modern India and makes powerful analytical forays into American and British foreign policy, aid, imperialism and attitudes.

Roy’s India is one of extreme wealth and extreme poverty; opportunity and exploitation; cynicism and hypocrisy; ambition and greed; dynamism and thuggery. “India lives in several centuries at the same time. Somehow we manage to progress and regress simultaneously.” She describes emaciated workers toiling by candlelight through the night to lay broadband cable to accelerate the country’s digital revolution. The Greater Common Good looks at (futile) resistance to the Sardar Sarovar Dam in the Narmada valley, the forced displacement of local people and the slandering of activists as troublemakers. Another essay looks at uranium mining in Jadugoda, while in another piece Roy accompanies tribal anti-government fighters in the forests of Dantewada in Chhattisgarh. Certain areas of interest emerge clearly. Roy covers the aggressive appropriation of tribal rural lands for mining and water projects, the expansion of nuclear weapons programmes, the privatisation and commercialisation of Indian services, the legacies and continuation of colonisation and imperialism in various forms, government corruption, American warmongering and national hypocrisy. The essays are also prescient in their early sensitivity to environmental damage and to indigenous rights.

More here.

How personalized medicine is transforming your health care

Fran Smith in National Geographic:

Precision medicine flips the script on conventional medicine, which typically offers blanket recommendations and prescribes treatments designed to help more people than they harm but that might not work for you. The approach recognizes that we each possess distinct molecular characteristics, and they have an outsize impact on our health. Around the world, researchers are creating precision tools unimaginable just a decade ago: superfast DNA sequencing, tissue engineering, cellular reprogramming, gene editing, and more. The science and technology soon will make it feasible to predict your risk of cancer, heart disease, and countless other ailments years before you get sick. The work also offers prospects—tantalizing or unnerving, depending on your point of view—for altering genes in embryos and eliminating inherited diseases.

More immediately, the research points the way to customized therapies for the most recalcitrant cancers. Last spring, researchers at the National Cancer Institute reported the dramatic recovery of a woman with metastatic breast cancer, Judy Perkins, after an experimental therapy using her own immune cells to attack her tumors. The team, led by Steven Rosenberg, an immunotherapy pioneer, had sequenced her tumor’s DNA to analyze the mutations. The team also extracted a sampling of immune cells called tumor-infiltrating lymphocytes and tested them to see which ones recognized her tumor’s genetic defects. The scientists reproduced the winning lymphocytes by the billions and infused them into Perkins, along with a checkpoint inhibitor, pembrolizumab. More than two years later, Perkins, a retired engineer from Florida, shows no signs of cancer.

More here.

June 17, 2019

The Puzzle of Cicero’s Philosophy of Religion

by Scott F. Aikin and Robert B. Talisse

Cicero’s philosophical dialogues are notoriously difficult.  In some cases, as with the Academica and the Republic, their fragmentary state exacerbates the challenge of interpretation. In other cases, as with On Ends, the breadth of the discussion makes it difficult to locate the thread. In every case, Cicero stays true to his Academic skeptical training of opposing every argument with another argument. In some instances, one line of reasoning comes out clearly best, but in others, it is not so clear. And then there is On the Nature of the Gods. It is a special case. Let us explain.

The overall structure of On the Nature of the Gods is quite simple. The theologies of three philosophical schools are represented, each with a Roman mouthpiece. Epicureanism is represented by Velleius, Stoicism by Balbus, and Academic skepticism by Cotta. Cicero writes himself into the dialogue, too, as listening in and promising not to tilt the verdict in favor of his fellow Academic, Cotta. Velleius proceeds to give an outline of Epicurean theology, complete with an account of how it is possible to know things about the gods, what the gods are like, and how we should live in light of these truths. In short, Epicureans believe that we know about the gods because we have deeply held conceptions of them, which must have antecedent causes. The gods have human bodies and they live lives free of care for eternity. Consequently, we should not fear the gods, because they take no notice of us. Cotta the Academic skeptic then proceeds to demolish the Epicurean case. Why trust preconceptions when they are so often wrong? If the gods have human-like bodies, how can they be immortal? And if the gods don’t care about us, then what’s the point of religion or piety at all? Isn’t Epicureanism really just atheism? Read more »

Making ice in Vietnam

by Jonathan Kujawa

I just returned from the joint Vietnam-US math conference held at the International Center for Interdisciplinary Science and Education in beautiful Quy Nhon, Vietnam.

Math in Space!

While it is a human endeavor, mathematics doesn’t care about gender, race, wealth, or nationality. One of the great pleasures of the math community is finding yourself on common ground with people from around the world. It is for good reason movie aliens usually first communicate using prime numbers and we chose to include math on the Voyager spacecraft’s Golden Record  [1].

Quy Nhon, Vietnam

In this spirit, the American Mathematical Society and the Vietnamese Mathematical Society organized a joint meeting to encourage connections, collaborations, and friendship between the two countries’ mathematical communities. Given the fraught history between the two countries, the importance and symbolism of the conference were especially notable. During the cold war, even innocuous communication between mathematicians on the two sides was quite difficult. Even sending a letter, nevermind a conference to meet in person, was a rare event. More than a few results were discovered independently on both sides of the Iron Curtain. Progress was often held up due to not knowing of the latest advances on the other side. The Soviet Union, for example, made it difficult for its citizens to participate in the International Congress of Mathematicians. In an age where internationalism and science are treated with skepticism, building direct connections between countries’ citizens is a wonderful thing. The conference even made the local evening news!

Another great thing about these sorts of conferences is the breadth of mathematics covered. This meeting covered everything from topology to mathematical physics, from modeling natural gas flows in pipelines to groups and representations (my own area of research). As part of this, the meeting had six plenary talks by eminent mathematicians covering the various fields represented at the conference.

One of the speakers was Henry Cohn, arguably the world expert on sphere packings. Dr. Cohn gave a fantastic talk about the latest breakthroughs in this area. Nearly three years ago here at 3QD we talked about an amazing breakthrough in sphere packing. This included work by Dr. Cohn. As we’ll see, Dr. Cohn and his collaborators haven’t been napping. Read more »

Adrift On A Music Stream

by Anitra Pavlico

What has happened to music? To the joy of cozying up with your records, tapes, or CDs and your music source, whether it was a boom box, or stereo with faux-wood speakers taller than a small child, or Walkman? It used to be simple to figure out where to buy music and how to listen to it. You went to the local record store, and then you brought it home and absconded to your bedroom, where you cranked your new purchase as loud as you could before your parents knocked on the door and told you to turn it down. There was a spatial aspect to music, as the music store was obviously circumscribed in space, with different sections for different tastes. Listening also usually took place in an intimate setting, layered like a palimpsest with memories of years past. Well before five-disc (and then 100-plus-disc) CD changers, we listened to one album at a time, and usually with the songs in the same order that the artist or the producer intended. It was a form of communion, however illusory, with the musician. There were also visual and tactile elements, as you had something to hold in your hands and pore over–liner notes, album credits, lyrics, glossy pictures of the band members. Did anyone ever vote to relinquish these sensory companions to the music-listening experience?

I did not have access to the ultimate in high fidelity as a kid, and I remember practically gluing my ear to my Sony Dream Machine clock radio’s speaker. When my parents bought me my first “boom box” they managed to find one with only one speaker. It hardly boomed, but it was still more than sufficient. In my mind’s ear, even these devices had much better sound quality than the digital music we have come to rely on. At the source, at least, the sound was fuller, less broken down or compressed into heartless bits and bytes. We did also have a lot of vinyl, not because we were hipsters, but because it was the 1970s.

I can’t pretend that it always makes a difference, today’s lesser sound quality. It was a trade-off that didn’t trouble me for years as I joined the rest of the world in celebrating the fact that virtually my entire music collection could fit on an iPod that I could carry around with me. As years go by, and you simply lose the memory of what music used to sound like, you don’t realize that convenience has supplanted most of the other elements of the experience of listening to music. Read more »

What if Equality of Opportunity is a Bad Idea?

by Tim Sommers

In the first scene of the first episode of “The Wire”, McNulty asks the Corner Boy who witnessed the murder of his friend “Snotboogie”, for stealing the money from the pot in a crap game, why they let Snotboogie play, since he always tried to steal the money. The Corner Boy replies, “Got to. This is America, Man.”

This is America. Everybody gets to play. More than that, everybody gets an equal, or at least a fair, shot. Everybody deserves equal opportunity. Justice itself demands that we strive for equality of fair opportunity. Right?

I’m not sure. But I think not. I think equality of opportunity is a bad idea – all the worse because it seems so obviously like a good idea.

But how can one deny that we should strive for equality of fair opportunity? Here’s one way. If you think property rights override everything else, and you always have the right to do what you will with your property no matter what; then it follows that you don’t have to hire gay people if you don’t want to and you don’t have to serve people of color at your restaurant if you don’t want to. This is how Rand Paul, who fancies himself a libertarian, got in trouble – questioning the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

I have no sympathy for this way of being against equal opportunity. Of course, nondiscrimination, what is often called “formal” equality of opportunity, is a requirement of justice. I just don’t think we should call that equal opportunity. I would prefer that we treat the right not to be discriminated against as a basic liberty on par with free speech or the right to vote – maybe, even as part of, or an extension, of equality before the law. Read more »

The Last Chance

by Adele A. Wilby

Shade from the mango tree blocked out the light to my room. I felt into the darkness of my wardrobe, and as I did so I hoped a confused cobra had not gotten lost and slithered in and curled itself up and taken temporary residence in a corner amongst my clothes.  I walked my fingers down my pile of shirts until I recognised the texture of the one I wanted to wear, and dragged it out. Nervous excitement whirled around in my stomach.  Today could be the day, I thought, as my fingers fumbled to button up my shirt.  Perhaps I was being foolish: perhaps I shouldn’t go.

‘Let’s go. Let’s go.  It’s getting late,’ shouted the driver, as he gestured to the group of guerrillas languishing on the veranda waiting to get into the vehicle for their ride home. The murky green of the pick-up made it look more like a battle tank than a transport vehicle.

The four young men threw their carry bags into the back and clambered onto the vehicle and perched themselves on the seat. The cool breeze would fan their hair and their faces as they made their way along to their homes, and from where they could be on guard also. They held their Kalashnikovs tight and upright between their legs. They knew their lives depended on keeping a firm grip of that rifle as they passed through the jungle road where the known that lurked amongst the tangled foliage posed as great a threat as the unknown. Read more »

My Bauhaus: A tale of two cities

by Brooks Riley

Racing down a German autobahn at impossible speeds is like running past a smorgasbord when you don’t have time to eat. Exit signs fly by, pointing to delicious, iconic destinations that whet the appetite but that one has no time for: Hameln, Wittenberg, Quedlinburg, Eisenach, Erfurt, Altenburg, Jena, Weimar, Dessau—markers of histories whose tentacles reach into the present in ways that belie their sleepy status on the map. You suppress the urge to slow down and take the off-ramp instead of moving right along to a big-city destination You opt to remain on the asphalt treadmill with arrival anxiety, telling yourself that one day you will take the time to explore all this, just not right now.

That was my first brush with Dessau, as I was rushing somewhere else. I knew that it was a home of the Bauhaus and that it had been heavily bombed during the war—more than half of it destroyed. In the distance I could see the amorphous outline of a town I wanted to visit someday.

Destiny must have listened. For reasons that had nothing to do with architecture or the Bauhaus, I ended up spending time in both Weimar and Dessau—the two main locations of a movement that exerted an immeasurable influence on the future of architecture worldwide, and occupied an inordinate amount of downtime in my imaginary life. Read more »

Can the Climate Crisis Continue to Go Begging?

by David Introcaso

Two weeks ago the 9th US Circuit Court heard oral arguments in the Juliana v. the US case filed in 2015 by 21 children who petitioned the federal court to require the government to protect their Constitutional rights to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by addressing the climate crisis. In its defense the US argued the plaintiffs have “no fundamental constitutional right to a stable climate system,” or a “climate system capable of sustaining human life.”

It appears plaintiffs’ lives are in fact not protected.  In a just-published essay in The New England Journal of Medicine by Harvard’s Dr. Renee Salas and her colleagues concluded, “climate change is the greatest public health emergency in our time and is particularly harmful to fetuses, children and adolescents.” This is because recent reports including the US’s National Climate Assessment, the United Nations’ (UNs’) Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC’s) “Global Warming of 1.5ºC” and Lancet’s “Countdown on Human Health and Climate Change” all describe in agonizing detail rapid atmospheric warming from currently 1º Celsius to 2º Celsius within the next few decades are causing increasing flooding, wildfires, disease, starvation, forced migration and war.  According to a recent Carbon Brief study, the carbon budget of a child born today will have to be one-eighth that of one born in 1950 if they want to live in a world that is less than 2º Celsius warmer.

The Juliana case along with numerous related others was decades overdue.  Since Ronald Reagan, the Republican Party has denied or worked to undermine the life-extinguishing effects of atmospheric warming.  President Trump summarized his recent 90-minute discussion on the topic with Prince Charles by stating, “the US right now has among the cleanest climates.”  He refused to recognize climate science stating, “I believe there’s a change in weather and I think it changes both ways.” Incoherent rhetoric aside, the US Geological Survey recently decided to project climate crisis impacts only through 2040 rather than to the end of the century to avoid detailing the worst impacts of Anthropocene warming. Read more »

June 16, 2019

Everything you think you know about the death penalty is wrong

Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times:

President Trump is now calling for expanding the death penalty so it would apply to drug dealers and those who kill police officers, with an expedited trial and quick execution. A majority of Americans (56 percent, according to Gallup) favor capital punishment, believing that it will deter offenders or save money and presuming that it will apply only to the vilest criminals and that mistakes are not a serious risk.

All these assumptions are wrong.

My interest in the death penalty arises partly from a mistake of my own. At the beginning of 2000, I spoke to Barry Scheck of the Innocence Project, who told me about a white man on death row in Texas, Cameron Todd Willingham, whom he believed to be innocent. I discussed with editors the possibility of doing a deep dive into the case but let myself be lured away by the sirens of that year’s Iowa caucuses instead. I never wrote about Willingham, and he was executed in 2004.

Subsequent evidence strongly suggests that not only was Willingham innocent but that no crime was even committed.

More here.

Laser Destroys Cancer Cells Circulating in the Blood

Emily Waltz in IEEE Spectrum:

Tumor cells that spread cancer via the bloodstream face a new foe: a laser beam, shined from outside the skin, that finds and kills these metastatic little demons on the spot.

In a study published today in Science Translational Medicine, researchers revealed that their system accurately detected these cells in 27 out of 28 people with cancer, with a sensitivity that is about 1,000 times better than current technology. That’s an achievement in itself, but the research team was also able to kill a high percentage of the cancer-spreading cells, in real time, as they raced through the veins of the participants.

If developed further, the tool could give doctors a harmless, noninvasive, and thorough way to hunt and destroy such cells before those cells can form new tumors in the body. “This technology has the potential to significantly inhibit metastasis progression,” says Vladimir Zharov, director of the nanomedicine center at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences, who led the research.

More here.  [Thanks to Farrukh Azfar.]