Imagine that someone you care about is procrastinating in advance of a vital exam. If he fails the test, he will not be able to go to university, an eventuality of major consequence in his life.
What is life? For much of the 20th century, this question did not particularly concern biologists. Life is a term for poets, not scientists, argued the synthetic biologist Andrew Ellington in 2008, who began his career studying how life began.
In 1840, Edgar Allan Poe described the ‘mad energy’ of an ageing man who roved the streets of London from dusk till dawn. His excruciating despair could be temporarily relieved only by immersing himself in a tumultuous throng of city-dwellers. ‘He refuses to be alone,’ Poe wrote.
How and why did the modern world and its unprecedented prosperity begin? Learned tomes by historians, economists, political scientists and other scholars fill many bookshelves with explanations of how and why the process of modern economic growth or ‘the Great Enrichment’ exploded in wester
Is it just me, or is everybody out there looking for a quick fix? There is something highly compelling about the idea that there is a secret switch we can flip to become suddenly smarter, to reveal cognitive abilities hidden inside each of us. It is a notion that certainly has commercial appeal.
For patient after patient seeking to cure chronic back pain, the experience is years of frustration. Whether they strive to treat their aching muscles, bones and ligaments through physical therapy, massage or rounds of surgery, relief is often elusive – if the pain has not been made even worse.
One day in 1995, a large, heavy middle-aged man robbed two Pittsburgh banks in broad daylight. He didn’t wear a mask or any sort of disguise. And he smiled at surveillance cameras before walking out of each bank. Later that night, police arrested a surprised McArthur Wheeler.
Programming computers is a piece of cake. Or so the world’s digital-skills gurus would have us believe. From the non-profit Code.
As I was growing up in England in the latter half of the 20th century, the concept of intelligence loomed large. It was aspired to, debated and – most important of all – measured.
Great loners are fascinating. Henry David Thoreau at Walden Pond, Buddhist monks in their hermitage, and fictional heroes such as Robinson Crusoe are all romantic figures of successful solitary survival. Their setting is the wilderness.
You have thoughts, feelings and desires. You remember your past and imagine your future. Sometimes you make a special effort, other times you are content to simply relax. All of these things are true about you.
Young men are particularly liable to become fanatics. Every dictator, every guru, every religious leader, knows this. Fanatics have an overwhelming sense of identity based on a cause (a religion) or a community (gang, team), and a tight and exclusive bond with other members of that group.
Back in the fall of 1999, Norman Conard, a history teacher at the Uniontown High School in Kansas, asked his students to come up with a project for National History Day. While brainstorming ideas, ninth-grader Elizabeth Cambers stumbled on an old clipping from US News and World Report.
The first time we see Darth Vader doing more than heavy breathing in Star Wars (1977), he’s strangling a man to death. A few scenes later, he’s blowing up a planet. He kills his subordinates, chokes people with his mind, does all kinds of things a good guy would never do.
Charisma is easier to recognise than to define. Newspaper and magazine articles consistently identify charismatic leaders – such as John F Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr, Barack Obama – but those same articles rarely describe exactly what charisma is.
If you’d been born 1,500 years ago in southern Europe, you’d have been convinced that the Roman empire would last forever. It had, after all, been around for 1,000 years. And yet, following a period of economic and military decline, it fell apart. By 476 CE it was gone.
When I was a child in the 1950s, my friends and I had two educations. We had school (which was not the big deal it is today), and we also had what I call a hunter-gather education. We played in mixed-age neighbourhood groups almost every day after school, often until dark.
The peacock’s dazzling tail feathers do not exist for them to carry out everyday activities such as eating or sleeping, but because their colourfulness is attractive to peahens: the more brilliant the feathers, the greater the chance the peacock has of finding a sexual partner.
Few companies could announce a new office in the messianic way that Google did last February. Then again, few companies have ever built this sort of office. ‘Google’s presence in Mountain View is simply so strong that it can’t be the fortress that shuts away… the neighbours.
The duty of man who investigates the writings of scientists, if learning the truth is his goal, is to make himself an enemy of all that he reads and … attack it from every side.
English speakers know that their language is odd. So do people saddled with learning it non-natively. The oddity that we all perceive most readily is its spelling, which is indeed a nightmare. In countries where English isn’t spoken, there is no such thing as a ‘spelling bee’ competition.
One evening in the year 1745, a distinguished scientist was dining in a private room at a tavern in London, when suddenly he noticed a man sitting in a corner and apparently speaking to him. Fearing for his sanity, the scientist hurried home and fell asleep.
In 1899, the economist Thorstein Veblen observed that silver spoons and corsets were markers of elite social position.
It is a familiar story. A superpower goes to war and faces a stronger-than-expected insurgency in distant lands, yet has insufficient forces to counter it because of political and military constraints. The superpower decides to hire contractors, some of whom are armed, to support its war effort.
The ideals of the Enlightenment are the basis of our democracies and universities in the 21st century: belief in reason, science, skepticism, secularism, and equality. In fact, no other era compares with the Age of Enlightenment.
You might have seen the cartoon: two cavemen sitting outside their cave knapping stone tools. One says to the other: ‘Something’s just not right – our air is clean, our water is pure, we all get plenty of exercise, everything we eat is organic and free-range, and yet nobody lives past 30.
We are doomed. Our best efforts to reproduce, to conserve, protect and survive will, in the end, come to nought. We could sort out climate change, dispose of our nuclear arsenals, ban research into killer AIs, and still the end would come, as surely as night follows day.
Despite reflecting on the good life for more than 2,500 years, philosophers have not had much to say about middle age. For me, approaching 40 was a time of stereotypical crisis. Having jumped the hurdles of the academic career track, I knew I was lucky to be a tenured professor of philosophy.
One crisp day last March, Harvard professor John Kovac walked out of his office and into a taxicab that whisked him across town, to a building on the edge of the MIT campus. People were paying attention to Kovac’s comings and goings that week. He was the subject of a fast-spreading rumour.
The humanities are in crisis. It’s become orthodoxy. In fact, so much attention has been paid to the ‘crisis of the humanities’ that few have stopped to ask if there actually is such a crisis. Over just the past few generations, enormous changes have transformed higher education.
In the Western world, only since the mid-18th century has it been possible to discuss ethical questions publicly without referring to Christianity. Modern thinking about morality, which assumes that gods do not exist, or at least do not intervene, is in its infancy.
‘Buy land – they aren’t making it any more,’ quipped Mark Twain.
War defines the United States. Domestically, it is the country’s greatest budgetary priority: $598 billion, 54 per cent of discretionary spending, in fiscal year 2015. Globally, we have more than 800 bases in some 80 countries, and spend more than the next nine nations combined.
Immortality has gone secular. Unhooked from the realm of gods and angels, it’s now the subject of serious investment – both intellectual and financial – by philosophers, scientists and the Silicon Valley set.
Imagine you are standing on the prow of a sailboat, watching a school of dolphins leaping left and right. When travelling long distances, jumping saves dolphins energy, because there’s less friction in the air than in the water below.
‘If you could say it in words, there would be no reason to paint.’ These words are attributed to the realist painter Edward Hopper. Few can paint like Hopper could, but all of us can relate to the feeling that words are sometimes not enough. Having said that, what makes images any better?
Last year, a reporter in the Guardian described how the Man Booker Prize judges spent ‘a summer… devouring novel after magnificent novel’, culminating in their selection of ‘a (baker’s) dozen’. This is nothing unusual. The language of eating is often used to describe reading habits.
When researchers at Emory University in Atlanta trained mice to fear the smell of almonds (by pairing it with electric shocks), they found, to their consternation, that both the children and grandchildren of these mice were spontaneously afraid of the same smell. That is not supposed to happen.
Imagine the following. I’m planning a birthday celebration, and everyone’s invited. I start a group chat on Facebook to discuss the arrangements. While all this is going on, my sister, Fleur, does something to upset me.
People get angry for all sorts of reasons, from the trivial ones (someone cut me off on the highway) to the really serious ones (people keep dying in Syria and nobody is doing anything about it). But, mostly, anger arises for trivial reasons.
Was Mahatma Gandhi a philosopher? He would not have thought so himself. But I want to show that he was a model for philosophy in the philosophical subtlety of his accounts of non-violence and in his thinking on a vital kind of freedom.
Humans are social animals. We live in groups. We care for our offspring for years. We cooperate with each other (the United States Congress notwithstanding). Most of all, we have lasting relationships with other individual humans – what biologists call long-term pair bonds.
We live enmeshed in networks. The internet, a society, a body, an ant colony, a tumour: they are all networks of interactions, among people, ants or cells – aggregates of nodes or locations linked by some relation. The power of networks is in their local connections.
A rooster crows and awakens my family at the farm where we are staying for a long weekend. The air is crisp, and stars twinkle in the sky as the Sun rises over the hill. We walk to the barn, where horses, cows, chickens, pigs, dogs and cats vie for our attention.
‘One coward may lose a battle, one battle may lose a war, and one war may lose a country.’ This was Rear-Admiral and Conservative MP Tufton Beamish speaking to the House of Commons in 1930, giving voice to an idea that must be as old as war itself.
We do this to our philosophies. We redraft their contours based on projected shadows, or give them a cartoonish shape like a caricaturist emphasising all the wrong features.
Why do some countries fall apart, often along their ethnic fault lines, while others have held together over decades and centuries, despite governing a diverse population as well? Why is it, in other words, that nation-building succeeded in some places while it failed in others? The current tra
In the 1920s, the Soviet scientist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov used artificial insemination to breed a ‘humanzee’ – a cross between a human and our closest relative species, the chimpanzee. The attempt horrified his contemporaries, much as it would modern readers.
Organised violence – the term war boils down to – has long been a unifier of peoples. Archeological evidence shows that nearly half those who lived during the last part of the Stone Age in Nubia, an area along the southern reaches of the Nile River, died violent deaths.
Philosophers pride themselves on thinking clearly by seeing what follows from what, exposing sophisms, spotting fallacies, and generally policing our reasoning. Many have spent years honing their skills, often deploying them on arcane topics.
This is my lunar acre. There are many like it, billions, but this one is mine. At least, it could be for a modest fee: a steal at $19.95 through Cosmic Registry, $19.99 through Lunar Embassy, or ‘prices to fit any budget’ through Lunar Registry, depending on the quality of the neighbourhood.
The Roman empire became Christian during the fourth century CE. At the century’s start, Christians were – at most – a substantial minority of the population. By its end, Christians (or nominal Christians) indisputably constituted a majority in the empire.
What is gender? This is a question that cuts to the very heart of feminist theory and practice, and is pivotal to current debates in social justice activism about class, identity and privilege.