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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

The Origin Of Laughter, Smiles, And Tears

Exciting amalgam of neuroscience and speculative anthropology. On crying: “My best guess, strange as it might sound, is that our ancestors were in the habit of punching each other on the nose.” Crying would mimic the effects of that injury, inviting comfort. On laughter: “Tickling is only the beginning of the story of laughter. If the touché theory is correct, then laughter can function as a kind of social reward” (5,100 words)

The Great Forgetting

Adults generally remember little or nothing from their first three or four years of life. Freud thought such memories were repressed; perhaps they were never formed. Recent research shows that small children can indeed form memories; but the memories disappear within a couple of years. Why? Perhaps because they are not formed systematically enough to co-exist with the influx of new information; they are swept away (3,600 words)

If A Cat Could Talk

Dogs confirm us, cats confound us. Our relationship with cats is an “eruption of the wild into the domestic”. Cats blend in; their lethal instincts align with our interests; but they do not assimilate; they belong to the night. Cats are “vehicles for our projections, misrecognition, and primitive recollection”. They are part of our symbolic universe as much as our physical universe. Michel Foucault called his own cat ‘Insanity’ (2,400 words)

The End Of Sleep

Imagine a disease that cuts your conscious life by one-third. You would clamour for a cure. There is no cure yet for sleep, but the palliatives are getting better. Take 400mg of modafinil every eight hours and you can sleep just one night in three. Mild electroshock therapy cuts optimal nightly sleep from eight to four hours. Winner of the 2014 Best Feature Award from the Association of British Science Writers (3,900 words)

A Theory Of Jerks

“We need a theory of jerks. We need such a theory because, first, it can help us achieve a calm, clinical understanding when confronting such a creature in the wild”. And we need a theory, second, because it may help us to see when we are jerks ourselves. “As one climbs the social hierarchy it is easier to become a jerk. Thinking yourself important is a self-gratifying excuse for disregarding the interests of others” (3,600 words)

Beauty And Truth: A False Equation

Einstein said that “the only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones”. But what can “beauty” mean, in science? In practice it seems to connote qualities such as simplicity, inevitability, symmetry. But this is a strange idea of beauty; we usually associate beauty with degrees of complexity and surprise. “Our galleries are not, on the whole, filled with paintings of perfect spheres” (3,050 words)

An Interview With Ai Wewei

China’s leading dissident artist is busier than ever, employing 40 assistants in his Beijing studio and mocking “absurd” state surveillance by publishing every detail of his life via social media. “Being threatened is addictive. When those in power are infatuated with you, you feel valued”. Ai the artist and Ai the dissident have merged in “an ongoing performance in which the man has become the art, and the art is the man” (3,200 words)

Nature’s Other Drive

Physics and chemistry describe a world that, for all its complication, is basically mechanical; biology describes a world that is not. The logic of life may be more randomised, it may be more purpose-driven; the universal rules have eluded us — but perhaps not for much longer. “The conceptual unification of biology with physics and chemistry is now underway.” It begins with new understanding about the origins of life (2,300 words)

The Mathematical World

On the philosophy of mathematics. Two essential characteristics distinguish mathematics from other sciences: Complete abstraction, and the claim to discover absolute truths. But is mathematics anything more than a set of internally consistent rules — and therefore, at some level, a tautology? Or are those rules determined by external realities? Short answer: the latter. Symmetries and ratios exist in nature, for example (2,400 words)

A Mad World

Psychiatrist discusses “diagnostic creep” — the conceptualising of more and more patterns of behaviour as mental illness. “We don’t think that everyone is crazy, nor are we necessarily guilty of pathologising normal existence”. The question is always whether treatment might be useful: “A continuous view of mental illness extends into areas that might actually be normal, but still detract from optimal, day-to-day function” (2,100 words)

Return To Nib’s Knoll

Memoir of exploring the internet in the early 1990s via MicroMUSE, a community housed on a server in MIT’s AI lab. The “rudimentary” scripting language, “at about the level of Excel macros”, allowed “anyone to create anything: an object, a room, a house, a chocolate factory”. It was “a premonition of Minecraft, with the same sense of open-ended possibility that speaks so powerfully to 14-year-olds today” (2,700 words)

Hell On Earth

Life-extension technologies could keep bad people alive as well as good ones, allowing prolonged punishment for unusually wicked criminals — an idea with many moral complications: “If you put someone in prison for a crime they committed at 40, they might, strictly speaking, be an entirely different person at 940. And that means you are effectively punishing one person for a crime committed by someone else” (2,800 words)

One More Time: Repetition In Music

Repetition is the essence of music. Repetition is “so powerfully linked with musicality that its application can dramatically transform apparently non-musical materials into song”. Repetition “makes a sequence of sounds seem less like an objective presentation of content and more like a kind of tug that’s pulling you along”. Repetition “actually gives rise to the kind of listening that we think of as musical” (2,700 words)

Twilight In A Box

Conditions for American prisoners in solitary confinement “hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable for those with normal resilience”. Many inmates fall over the edge into mental illness. The stress of isolation can unbalance the mind and permanently damage the brain. Prisoners emerge with “their minds altered by an experience so fraught with risk that scientists require special dispensation to do it to animals” (8,500 words)

Can Beauty Make Us Better?

We cannot define beauty. But by thinking about why we find things beautiful, we can learn about, and possibly improve, ourselves. Still the best starting point for reflection is Friedrich Schiller’s Aesthetic Education; which argues that we find beauty in those things which satisfy both sides of our human nature: our sensual drive, which seeks immediate gratification, and our formal drive, which seeks coherence over time (1,900 words)

How Useful Is GDP?

GDP is “simple in principle”. It is “the sum in a given time period of everything produced in the economy with a monetary value”; which should in theory equal the incomes earned by every person and company in the economy; and the total spent by those same people. It has conquered the world as a measure of economic performance since its launch in Britain in 1941. But the world has changed. Do we need new benchmarks? (2,780 words)

Our Quantum Reality Problem

Quantum theory is “supposed to describe the behaviour of elementary particles, atoms, molecules and every other form of matter in the universe”. But it is still something of a black box. “While the mathematics of quantum theory works very well in telling us what to expect at the end of an experiment, it seems peculiarly conceptually confusing when we try to understand what was happening during the experiment” (6,400 words)

Geel Welcomes The Mentally Ill

Moving. Amazing. Geel, an “otherwise unremarkable Belgian market town”, has a unique vocation: “For more than 700 years its inhabitants have taken the mentally ill and disabled into their homes as guests.” Odd behaviour is “ignored where possible, and when necessary dealt with discreetly”. The system is non-medical. “When boarders meet their new families, they do so without a backstory or clinical diagnosis” (2,800 words)

The Strange Life Of Colin Wilson

A self-taught existentialist, his huge output of naive and unusual books — about philosophy, esotericism, crime — brought him short-lived fame in the 1950s, followed by a long career as a cult figure on the margins of literature. “When he wrote his first book, he’d read more than enough to put most undergraduates to shame, but he’d never had what a university education might have given him: a training in critical thinking” (1,400 words)

Die, Selfish Gene, Die

For a century the primary account of evolution, culminating in Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene, has emphasised the gene as the determinant of the species. But the more we learn about genes, the more they take on the character of variables: they can act and interact to produce lots of different outcomes. We may be able to adapt to new environments without changes to our DNA; changes in the way our DNA operates may be enough (5,300 words)

Deep Play

Thoughts on a new mom-and-pop template for economic development. Sustainable growth requires responsible institutions which constrain behaviour and look to the long-term — the “martinet moms”. But it also requires flashy adventurers focused on short-term gains, who drive innovation — the “deadbeat dads”. The best results come when both parents work together to manage the cycles of disruption and consolidation (3,500 words)

In Praise Of The Polymath

We overvalue specialists in the intellectual world, and undervalue generalists — perhaps because the division of labour has worked well in the business world. But skilled polymaths are happier and more innovative. “Over-specialisation eventually retreats into defending what one has learnt rather than making new connections. The initial spurt of learning gives out, and the expert is left, like an animal, merely defending his territory” (2,400 words)

Embracing The Void

A visit to Star Axis, a monumental work of land art in the New Mexico desert, 40 years in the making, still not finished, already awe-inspiring. Sculptor Charles Ross has dug an artificial canyon crowned with a stone cap through which rises a long staircase aligned with the earth’s axis and pointing towards the North Star. It is a new Great Pyramid, a work of “celestial geometry”. Look up, and “tremble before the sky” (8,200 words)

I’d Rather Be Dissected

You can arrange to have your body buried or cremated. You can offer specific organs for transplant. But probably the best thing you can do for the well-being of humanity is to leave your whole body for scientific study. “To study the human body, nothing but a real one comes close. There are usable proxies — computer models and crash-test dummies, for example. But neither replaces the real thing”. And the real thing is always in short supply (2,600 words)

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