All posts filed under: Science

The Empathy Gap in Tech: Interview with a Software Engineer

Last year I was working on an article about the tech industry when I decided to interview a software engineer who writes for Quillette under the pseudonym “Gideon Scopes”. Gideon had mentioned to me in passing that he had Asperger’s Syndrome (a mild variant of autism spectrum disorder) and I wanted to find out more about the industry from the point of view of someone who is not neurotypical. I first asked him when it was that he knew he wanted to work in technology. He told me that he first knew it when he was five. His family got their first home computer and he was transfixed. Later, he would come across a brief introduction to the BASIC programming language in a book and proceed to teach himself his first programming language. He was only seven. As a child he taught himself programming out of books, mostly alone at home. He told me that his family were not particularly supportive of his hobby. His mother was not happy to see him focus so intently on one …

a Chemical Garden

Where Did We Come From? An Astonishing Hypothesis

“Where did we come from?” Nick Lane’s The Vital Question: Energy, Evolution and the Origins of Complex Life tries to answer this question. He looks back to two moments in time: 1. When bacteria/archaea appeared on Earth about 4 billion years ago. 2. When complex life (eukaryotes) appeared about 2 to 1.5 billion years ago. Lane discusses both of these events. This article will restrict itself to Lane’s hypothesis about the first of these events: the likely emergence of simple cellular life (bacteria and archaea) from an alkaline hydrothermal vent located near a mid-ocean ridge. I shall also discuss recent research about the likely evolution of viruses. This indicates that the ancestors of modern viruses were independently replicating virocells that co-evolved with the bacteria and archaea, and all three of them – virocells, bacteria and archaea – had a last universal common ancestor (LUCA). Lane’s book does not have a detailed discussion of viruses. Nor does the virocell literature discuss where virocells may have evolved. But if Lane and virocell theory are both right, the first …

The Neuroscience of Intelligence: An Interview with Richard Haier

Richard Haier is a Professor Emeritus at the University of California Irvine and is the author of the Neuroscience of Intelligence published by Cambridge University Press. Over his career he has used neuroimaging to study how brain function and structure relate to intelligence, and the ways in which “smart” brains work. He is the editor-in-chief of the journal Intelligence and the past president of the International Society for Intelligence Research. I reached out to him earlier this year to ask about his new book. What follows is an interview conducted with Quillette via email. Thank you for taking the time to talk to Quillette Professor Haier. You’ve spent forty years studying intelligence and have compiled your knowledge into a new book accessible to the general reader called The Neuroscience of Intelligence, which looks fascinating from its précis. Firstly, can you tell us how you became interested in intelligence research, and how you came about studying intelligence through neuroimaging? When I started graduate school at Johns Hopkins in 1971, I was interested in social psychology and personality …

Should We Be Worried About GMOs?

After shaping life on earth for billions of years, evolution via natural selection is in decline and being replaced by intelligent design. For the last 12,000 years, the survival of species has been primarily determined by their usefulness, and vulnerability, to human beings. Now, finally, we have found a way to do away with even this vestige of our biological past and to design species from the top down, working out what traits are desirable and undesirable to us and genetically engineering organisms accordingly. How much should this worry us? For many, the answer is “a lot.” For instance, Nassim Taleb has made dire warnings about the application of GMOs, arguing that they “represent a public risk of global harm” given their potential to produce unrecoverable losses or “ruin.” According to him this justifies a highly precautionary response of “avoid at all costs,” unless and until GMOs have been proven to be safe beyond doubt. GMOs pose such risks, and justify such a response, because, Taleb argues, their impact cannot be localized or contained. GMOs …

Beaked Up Birds: A Review of Big Chicken

A Review of Big Chicken by Maryn McKenna. National Geographic (September 12, 2017) 400 pages.   People began cultivating plants and animals on a large scale about 10,000 years ago. Farming created a steady supply of nutrients, and acted as an insurance policy so that our ancestors weren’t constantly beholden to the whims of weather and the migration of animals. Of course, weather also affected crops, and farm animals sometimes escaped their pens or were killed by parasites. But settled agriculture allowed us to spread risk over longer periods of time and across more people. Agriculture brought with it enormous benefits, including a larger trading network, a greater division of labor, and even some genetic changes that we’re better off with than without. But it also exposed us to new risks, including a less diverse source of nutrients, and new pathogens (some of the genetic consequences of agriculture are a product of our new diet and new pathogens: those who didn’t adapt were culled by the invisible hand of natural selection). When we began to domesticate animals, …

Against the Demonization of Drugs

For most of us, the word ‘drugs’ comes burdened with negative associations. Run a quick mental check: how many positive associations come to mind when you think of the term ‘drugs’? However, a ‘drug’ is simply any substance other than food that causes a physiological change when introduced into the body (inhaled, injected, smoked, consumed, absorbed, etc). As such, the term ‘drugs’ is so broad that any sweeping generalization about them is likely to be false. Drugs include a whole spectrum of substances ranging from the highly addictive, such as crack cocaine, to the life saving and pain relieving, such as anaesthetics, to the mind enhancing, such as caffeine, to the purely recreational, such as alcohol. Yet public discourse on the subject is usually limited to the narrow mantra that “drugs are bad.” Where are the people reminding us that “drugs can be good”? There is no doubt that most anti-drug campaigns have good intentions (such as protecting people from addiction), but the simplistic picture they provide makes it difficult to make useful distinctions between …

What is Mindfulness? Nobody Really Knows, and That’s a Problem

You’ve probably heard of mindfulness. These days, it’s everywhere, like many ideas and practices drawn from Buddhist texts that have become part of mainstream Western culture. But a review published in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science shows the hype is ahead of the evidence. Some reviews of studies on mindfulness suggest it may help with psychological problems such as anxiety, depression, and stress. But it’s not clear what type of mindfulness or meditation we need and for what specific problem. The study, involving a large group of researchers, clinicians and meditators, found a clear-cut definition of mindfulness doesn’t exist. This has potentially serious implications. If vastly different treatments and practices are considered the same, then research evidence for one may be wrongly taken as support for another. At the same time, if we move the goalposts too far or in the wrong direction, we might lose the potential benefits of mindfulness altogether. So, what is mindfulness? Mindfulness receives a bewildering assortment of definitions. Psychologists measure the concept in differing combinations of acceptance, attentiveness, awareness, …