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Cecily Cecily

Writing Worth Reading

Why We Can’t Rule Out Bigfoot

How experimental science works. You start with the assumption that the effect you are observing is random (the “null hypothesis”), then try to collect data to show that the effect is almost certainly not random — usually meaning a less than 5% probability of occurring by chance. You reject the null hypothesis. This is a high standard of proof. We have not, for example, “disproved” the existence of Bigfoot (1,380 words)

Cloudy With a Chance of War

English physicist and mathematician Lewis Fry Richardson pioneered scientific weather forecasting in the 1920s by developing equations that captured atmospheric turbulence. His maths was too complex to be useful at the time, but now provides the basis of computerised weather forecasting. Richardson’s greater ambition was to develop a mathematics for forecasting war. That didn’t go so well (3,940 words)

Coming Soon To Your Spanish Class

Discover whether you have a gift for foreign languages before spending years trying to learn one. The High Level Language Aptitude Battery (Hi-LAB) measures the key skills for language acquisition: Working memory, associative memory and implicit learning. The US military used Hi-LAB to spot soldiers who could be taught Arabic in a hurry after 9/11. Now it’s being franchised to IBM for civilian use (2,500 words)

Why Physicists Make Up Stories In The Dark

Masterly essay on light and darkness in science and culture. We used to think of light as a simple state of nature. But in the late 19C scientists found light to be “a small slice of a rainbow” extending “far into the unseen” via radio waves, infrared and X-rays. Physics found its new frontiers in the worlds of the dark and the invisible, and began advancing into the territory of myth and mystery, of “dark matter” and “dark energy” (4,070 words)

Life Is A Braid In Spacetime

Enjoyable exercise in extreme reductionism, with a nice ruling conceit: “You are a pattern in spacetime. A mathematical pattern. Specifically, you are a braid in spacetime — one of the most elaborate braids known. At both ends of your braid, corresponding to your birth and death, all the threads gradually separate, corresponding to all your particles joining, interacting and finally going their own separate ways” (2,100 words)

The Termite And The Architect

Can we design better human habitats, by studying those of animals and insects? Perhaps; but only if we are smart enough to understand them. “We look to nature to validate our own solutions. If the natural world has settled on something similar, that makes us feel good. But you can’t make great explicit leaps between the societies of humans and social insects like termites. There are different value systems at play” (2,800 words)

Paper Versus Pixel

Reports of the death of print have been greatly exaggerated. Information on paper looks set for a long cohabitation with information on screens; both have their advantages. “We were probably mistaken to think of words on screens as substitutes for words on paper. They seem to be different things, suited to different kinds of reading and providing different sorts of aesthetic and intellectual experiences” (1,900 words)

Why We Keep Playing The Lottery

The best answer here comes from Rebecca Paul Hargrove, designer of America’s most successful state lotteries, and a keen student of human weakness. When you buy a lottery ticket, you don’t really buy the chance of winning, which is close to zero; you buy the dream of winning. “For $2 you can spend the day dreaming about what you would do with half a billion dollars — half a billion dollars!” (3,580 words)

Roadmap To Alpha Centauri

Could we send a spaceship to the nearest star, using available science? An ion drive would take tens of thousands of years; a light-powered solar sail perhaps a thousand years; a solar sail with a microwave booster might do it within a human lifetime. The best option would be nuclear pulse propulsion. “Load the starship with 300,000 nuclear bombs, detonate one every three seconds, and ride the blast waves” (2,230 words)

Unhappy Truckers And Other Algorithmic Problems

On the “travelling salesman” problem. How do you calculate the quickest route between a lot of stops? Sounds easy, soon gets difficult. Six-city route has 720 possible paths, 20-city route has more than 100 quadrillion possible paths. Computer scientists have been wrestling with this class of problem for decades. How about transport companies, who are doing it for real? What’s their solution? It’s mostly trial and error. And keeping drivers happy (3,100 words)

It’s Good To Be Wrong

Essay on fallibility and the paradoxes to which it leads. “A fallibilist cannot claim to be infallible even about fallibilism itself. And so, one is forced to doubt that fallibilism is universally true. Which is the same as wondering whether one might be somehow infallible—at least about some things. For instance, can it be true that absolutely anything that you think is true, no matter how certain you are, might be false?” (3,240 words)

We Are All Princes And Paupers

Thrilling piece on the math of genealogy. Every sentence an eye-opener for the non-adept. “Anyone who was alive 2,000-3,000 years ago is either the ancestor of everyone who’s now alive, or no one at all.” “Everyone of European heritage alive today is a descendant of Charlemagne.” “Past a certain number of generations back, your number of ancestors stops growing exponentially, because they start being the same people” (909 words)

The Cosmopolitan Ape

Interview with primatologist Frans de Waal. There is no fundamental difference between humans and other animals. “The social sciences and the humanities are still very influenced by religion. They have this whole mindset that humans are absolutely special. But the average biologist believes that everything is continuous. We know that plants have DNA and humans have DNA, so we see that all of us are totally connected” (4,090 words)

Where Uniqueness Lies

Advances in genetics, biology, neuroscience, anthropology, tend to point up how similar humans are to other animals, not how different. Whatever sets us apart, it isn’t very much. “Humans will never abandon the quest to prove that they are special. But nor can we escape the fact that our minds are a modest tweak on an ancient plan that originated millions of years before we came onto the scene” (1,470 words)

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