A solitary journey across Antarctica

David Grann writes:

The man felt like a speck in the frozen nothingness. Every direction he turned, he could see ice stretching to the edge of the Earth: white ice and blue ice, glacial-ice tongues and ice wedges. There were no living creatures in sight. Not a bear or even a bird. Nothing but him.

It was hard to breathe, and each time he exhaled the moisture froze on his face: a chandelier of crystals hung from his beard; his eyebrows were encased like preserved specimens; his eyelashes cracked when he blinked. Get wet and you die, he often reminded himself. The temperature was nearly minus forty degrees Fahrenheit, and it felt far colder because of the wind, which sometimes whipped icy particles into a blinding cloud, making him so disoriented that he toppled over, his bones rattling against the ground.

The man, whose name was Henry Worsley, consulted a G.P.S. device to determine precisely where he was. According to his coördinates, he was on the Titan Dome, an ice formation near the South Pole that rises more than ten thousand feet above sea level. Sixty-two days earlier, on November 13, 2015, he’d set out from the coast of Antarctica, hoping to achieve what his hero, Ernest Shackleton, had failed to do a century earlier: to trek on foot from one side of the continent to the other. The journey, which would pass through the South Pole, was more than a thousand miles, and would traverse what is arguably the most brutal environment in the world. And, whereas Shackleton had been part of a large expedition, Worsley, who was fifty-five, was crossing alone and unsupported: no food caches had been deposited along the route to help him forestall starvation, and he had to haul all his provisions on a sled, without the assistance of dogs or a sail. Nobody had attempted this feat before. [Continue reading…]

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Nabokov’s experiments with time

Michael Wood writes:

Language has many forms of quiet kindness, refusals of stark alternatives. “Never” can mean “not always,” and “impossible” may mean “not now.” Insomnia may mean a shortage of sleep rather than its entire absence, and when Gennady Barabtarlo writes that “Nabokov typically remembered having his dreams at dawn, right before awakening after a sleepless night,” or indeed calls his own book Insomniac Dreams, we are looking not so much at a paradox as a touch of logical leeway. There is no need to go “beyond logic,” as Nabokov says one of the characters does in his story “The Vane Sisters,” but we do often need to bend it a little, ask it to relax.

In October 1964, Nabokov began the experiment that Barabtarlo expertly unfolds for us:

Every morning, immediately upon awakening, he would write down what he could rescue of his dreams. During the following day or two he was on the lookout for anything that seemed to do with the recorded dream.

He continued the record, written in English on index cards now kept in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, until the beginning of January 1965. He and his wife, Véra, were living at the Palace Hotel in Montreux, Switzerland. Lolita and his teaching career at Wellesley and Cornell lay in the past. He had published Pale Fire in 1962 and completed his translation of and commentary on Eugene Onegin, which appeared in June 1964. The English version of his early novel The Defense came out in September of that year, and he was working on the Russian translation of Lolita. The novels still to come were Ada, or Ardor (1969), Transparent Things (1972), Look at the Harlequins (1974), and the fragmentary, posthumous The Original of Laura (2009).

The “experiments with time” of Barabtarlo’s subtitle have several points of reference. There is the book An Experiment with Time, by J.W. Dunne, first published in 1927, with several later editions, which prompted Nabokov’s attempt at a dream record. A card dated October 14, 1964, is headed “An Experiment” and the words “Re Dunne” are written in a corner. “The following checking of dream events,” Nabokov writes,

was undertaken to illustrate the principle of “reverse memory.” The waking event resembling or coinciding with the dream event does so not because the latter is a prophecy but because this would be the kind of dream that one might expect to have after the event.

“Not because the latter is a prophecy” is the voice of Nabokov’s caution, and pretty much contradicts Dunne’s claim. His idea is that we routinely dream of the future but deny our experience because we think this can’t happen. Precognitive dreams are as normal as memory or anxiety dreams. [Continue reading…]

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Who first buried the dead?


Paige Madison writes:

A mysterious cache of bones, recovered from a deep chamber in a South African cave, is challenging long-held beliefs about how a group of bipedal apes developed into the abstract-thinking creatures that we call “human.” The fossils were discovered in 2013 and were quickly recognized as the remains of a new species unlike anything seen before. Named Homo naledi, it has an unexpected mix of modern features and primitive ones, including a fairly small brain. Arguably the most shocking aspect of Homo naledi, though, concerned not the remains themselves but rather their resting place.

The chamber where the bones were found is far from the cave entrance, accessible only through a narrow, difficult passage that is completely shrouded in darkness. Scientists believe the chamber has long been difficult to access, requiring a journey of vertical climbing, crawling, and tight squeezing through spaces only 20 centimeters across. It would be an impossible place to live, and a highly unlikely location for many individuals to have ended up by accident. Those details pushed the research team toward a shocking hypothesis: despite its puny brain, Homo naledi purposefully interred its dead. The cave chamber was a graveyard, they concluded.

For anthropologists, mortuary rituals carry an outsize importance in tracing the emergence of human uniqueness—especially the capacity to think symbolically. Symbolic thought gives us the ability to transcend the present, remember the past, and visualize the future. It allows us to imagine, to create, and to alter our environment in ways that have significant consequences for the planet. Use of language is the quintessential embodiment of such mental abstractions, but studying its history is difficult because language doesn’t fossilize. Burials do.

Burials provide a hard, material record of a behavior that is deeply spiritual and meaningful. It allows scientists to trace the emergence of beliefs, values, and other complex ideas that appear to be uniquely human. Homo sapiens is unquestionably unlike any other species alive today. Pinpointing what separates us from the rest of nature is surprisingly difficult, however. [Continue reading…]

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3.5 billion-year-old fossils challenge ideas about early life on Earth

Rebecca Boyle writes:

In the arid, sun-soaked northwest corner of Australia, along the Tropic of Capricorn, the oldest face of Earth is exposed to the sky. Drive through the northern outback for a while, south of Port Hedlund on the coast, and you will come upon hills softened by time. They are part of a region called the Pilbara Craton, which formed about 3.5 billion years ago, when Earth was in its youth.

Look closer. From a seam in one of these hills, a jumble of ancient, orange-Creamsicle rock spills forth: a deposit called the Apex Chert. Within this rock, viewable only through a microscope, there are tiny tubes. Some look like petroglyphs depicting a tornado; others resemble flattened worms. They are among the most controversial rock samples ever collected on this planet, and they might represent some of the oldest forms of life ever found.

In December, researchers lobbed another salvo in the decades-long debate about the nature of these forms. They are indeed fossil life, and they date to 3.465 billion years ago, according to John Valley, a geochemist at the University of Wisconsin. If Valley and his team are right, the fossils imply that life diversified remarkably early in the planet’s tumultuous youth.

The fossils add to a wave of discoveries that point to a new story of ancient Earth. In the past year, separate teams of researchers have dug up, pulverized and laser-blasted pieces of rock that may contain life dating to 3.7, 3.95 and maybe even 4.28 billion years ago. All of these microfossils — or the chemical evidence associated with them — are hotly debated. But they all cast doubt on the traditional tale. [Continue reading…]

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‘Shocking’ decline in birds across Europe due to pesticide use, say scientists

The Independent reports:

Bird numbers across France have declined by a third in the past 15 years, according to new figures released by researchers.

Linked to changes in agricultural practices such as pesticide use, the dramatic collapse is comparable with trends observed in other parts of Europe, including the UK.

Nevertheless, the latest figures have shocked scientists who previously thought France’s bird population was relatively stable.

“We had some idea because when you are working in the countryside you find places where the birds are missing,” Professor Romain Julliard, a conservation biologist at France’s National Museum of Natural History, told The Independent.

“So we all had a feeling that something was going on, but seeing the figures was a shock.”

In some areas, the researchers reported certain species had vanished completely, and noted the overall decline appeared to be accelerating. [Continue reading…]

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Why Denmark dominates the World Happiness Report rankings year after year

File 20180319 31617 8mfe08.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Okay, we get it, you’re happy – no need to rub it in.
Very_Very/Shutterstock.com

By Marie Helweg-Larsen, Dickinson College

The new World Happiness Report again ranks Denmark among the top three happiest of 155 countries surveyed – a distinction that the country has earned for seven consecutive years.

The U.S., on the other hand, ranked 18th in this year’s World Happiness Report, a four-spot drop from last year’s report.

Denmark’s place among the world’s happiest countries is consistent with many other national surveys of happiness (or, as psychologists call it, “subjective well-being”).

Scientists like to study and argue about how to measure things. But when it comes to happiness, a general consensus seems to have emerged.

Depending on the scope and purpose of the research, happiness is often measured using objective indicators (data on crime, income, civic engagement and health) and subjective methods, such as asking people how frequently they experience positive and negative emotions.

Why might Danes evaluate their lives more positively? As a psychologist and native of Denmark, I’ve looked into this question.

Yes, Danes have a stable government, low levels of public corruption, and access to high-quality education and health care. The country does have the the highest taxes in the world, but the vast majority of Danes happily pay: They believe higher taxes can create a better society.

Perhaps most importantly, however, they value a cultural construct called “hygge” (pronounced hʊɡə).

[Read more…]

Sudan, the last male northern white rhinoceros, dies in Kenya

The New York Times reports:

The last male northern white rhinoceros died on Monday at the Ol Pejeta Conservancy in Kenya following a series of infections and other health problems.

At 45, Sudan was an elderly rhino, and his death was not unexpected. Hunted to near-extinction, just two northern white rhinos now remain: Najin, Sudan’s daughter, and Fatu, his granddaughter, both at the conservancy.

The prospect of losing the charismatic animals has prompted an unusual scientific effort to develop new reproductive technology in hopes of saving them.

“This is a creature that didn’t fail in evolution,” said Thomas Hildebrandt, head of reproduction management at the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin and one of the project’s leaders. “It’s in this situation because of us.” [Continue reading…]

Why Seneca’s advice for living centered on dying

James S. Romm writes:

Recent experiments have shown that psilocybin, a compound found in hallucinogenic mushrooms, can greatly reduce the fear of death in terminal cancer patients. The drug imparts “an understanding that in the largest frame, everything is fine,” said pharmacologist Richard Griffiths in a 2016 interview. Test subjects reported a sense of “the interconnectedness of all people and things, the awareness that we are all in this together.” Some claimed to have undergone a mock death during their psychedelic experience, to have “stared directly at death…in a kind of dress rehearsal,” as Michael Pollan wrote in a New Yorker account of these experiments. The encounter was felt to be not morbid or terrifying, but liberating and affirmative.

“In the largest frame, everything is fine.” That sounds very much like the message Lucius Annaeus Seneca preached to Roman readers of the mid-first century, relying on Stoic philosophy, rather than an organic hallucinogen, as a way to glimpse that truth. “The interconnectedness of all things” was also one of his principal themes, as was the idea that one must rehearse for death throughout one’s life—for life, properly understood, is really only a journey toward death; we are dying every day, from the day we are born. In his works of ethical thought, Seneca spoke to his addressees, and through them to humankind generally, about the need to accept death, even to the point of ending one’s own life, with a candor nearly unparalleled in his time or ours.

“Study death always,” Seneca counseled his friend Lucilius, and he took his own advice. [Continue reading…]

Living in an indifferent universe

Samir Chopra writes:

One morning, my father died at home. I awoke to a call for help – my name shouted once, loudly, desperately, fearfully, by my mother – ran into my parents’ bedroom, and found my father convulsing in the throes of a massive heart attack. His body bucked on a deadly trampoline, his chest heaved, spittle flecked his lips and the sides of his mouth as he desperately sought to fill his lungs with air. By the time our friendly family doctor arrived, stethoscope and black bag in tow, my father was dead. A dashing pilot and war hero, he had flown supersonic fighter jets in two wars, evaded anti-aircraft fire and airborne interceptors, only to come home and die as his wife and two sons looked on helplessly. Bullets and shells had missed their mark; a clogged artery, a fragment of plaque, had not. He was 43 years old. I was 12.

Fourteen years later, after a protracted struggle with breast cancer that included a disfiguring mastectomy, adjuvant chemotherapy, blasts of directed radiation, hormonal treatment, and a four-year remission, my mother, too, succumbed and passed away. Her last days were painful, mind-numbingly so. She was nauseated, incoherent, delirious, sleepless, her skin yellowed by her failing liver, her lungs crushed. The morphine we asked her doctors to administer made her catatonic and slowed her pulse to a barely discernible crawl. I had become unrecognisable to her; she to me. She was 52 years old. I was 26.

When my parents died, a fundamental, metaphysical sundering between the world and me took place. Lightning had struck twice. The gravity the world had promised – the anchoring of my flights of anxious fancy – had disappeared. The world was now treacherous, lurking with pitfalls, crevasses and trapdoors. The world of misfortune was once dimly glimpsed, its details barely visible, but now I lived in it. I had imagined that with my father’s death, the world had exacted its pound of flesh, a tax so terrible it would be levied only once. But in 14 years, death came calling again. One God – a child’s God, mythical and compassionate – died with my father; another – an adult’s God, a God of reasonableness, the one that ensured this world would not do excessively badly by you – died with my mother.

My parents’ deaths, occupying polar positions on a spectrum of suddenness, infected my life with a persistent dread; they suffused my life with an incurable anxiety, a dread that did not require an identifiable object. Their deaths taught me that this world is ruled by merciless probabilities: there are no warnings attached to daybreak that this might be the day of catastrophic misfortune, of fatal eventuality. [Continue reading…]

Are the most successful people mostly just the luckiest people in our society?

Scott Barry Kaufman writes:

What does it take to succeed? What are the secrets of the most successful people? Judging by the popularity of magazines such as Success, Forbes, Inc., and Entrepreneur, there is no shortage of interest in these questions. There is a deep underlying assumption, however, that we can learn from them because it’s their personal characteristics–such as talent, skill, mental toughness, hard work, tenacity, optimism, growth mindset, and emotional intelligence– that got them where they are today. This assumption doesn’t only underlie success magazines, but also how we distribute resources in society, from work opportunities to fame to government grants to public policy decisions. We tend to give out resources to those who have a past history of success, and tend to ignore those who have been unsuccessful, assuming that the most successful are also the most competent.

But is this assumption correct? I have spent my entire career studying the psychological characteristics that predict achievement and creativity. While I have found that a certain number of traits— including passion, perseverance, imagination, intellectual curiosity, and openness to experience– do significantly explain differences in success, I am often intrigued by just how much of the variance is often left unexplained.

In recent years, a number of studies and books–including those by risk analyst Nassim Taleb, investment strategist Michael Mauboussin, and economist Richard Frank— have suggested that luck and opportunity may play a far greater role than we ever realized, across a number of fields, including financial trading, business, sports, art, music, literature, and science. Their argument is not that luck is everything; of course talent matters. Instead, the data suggests that we miss out on a really importance piece of the success picture if we only focus on personal characteristics in attempting to understand the determinants of success. [Continue reading…]