What science can tell us about how other creatures experience the world

Ross Andersen writes:

Amid the human crush of Old Delhi, on the edge of a medieval bazaar, a red structure with cages on its roof rises three stories above the labyrinth of neon-lit stalls and narrow alleyways, its top floor emblazoned with two words: birds hospital.

On a hot day last spring, I removed my shoes at the hospital’s entrance and walked up to the second-floor lobby, where a clerk in his late 20s was processing patients. An older woman placed a shoebox before him and lifted off its lid, revealing a bloody white parakeet, the victim of a cat attack. The man in front of me in line held, in a small cage, a dove that had collided with a glass tower in the financial district. A girl no older than 7 came in behind me clutching, in her bare hands, a white hen with a slumped neck.

The hospital’s main ward is a narrow, 40-foot-long room with cages stacked four high along the walls and fans on the ceiling, their blades covered with grates, lest they ensnare a flapping wing. I strolled the room’s length, conducting a rough census. Many of the cages looked empty at first, but leaning closer, I’d find a bird, usually a pigeon, sitting back in the gloom.

The youngest of the hospital’s vets, Dheeraj Kumar Singh, was making his rounds in jeans and a surgical mask. The oldest vet here has worked the night shift for more than a quarter century, spending tens of thousands of hours removing tumors from birds, easing their pain with medication, administering antibiotics. Singh is a rookie by comparison, but you wouldn’t know it from the way he inspects a pigeon, flipping it over in his hands, quickly but gently, the way you might handle your cellphone. As we talked, he motioned to an assistant, who handed him a nylon bandage that he stretched twice around the pigeon’s wing, setting it with an unsentimental pop.

The bird hospital is one of several built by devotees of Jainism, an ancient religion whose highest commandment forbids violence not only against humans, but also against animals. A series of paintings in the hospital’s lobby illustrates the extremes to which some Jains take this prohibition. In them, a medieval king in blue robes gazes through a palace window at an approaching pigeon, its wing bloodied by the talons of a brown hawk still in pursuit. The king pulls the smaller bird into the palace, infuriating the hawk, which demands replacement for its lost meal, so he slices off his own arm and foot to feed it.

I’d come to the bird hospital, and to India, to see firsthand the Jains’ moral system at work in the world. Jains make up less than 1 percent of India’s population. Despite millennia spent criticizing the Hindu majority, the Jains have sometimes gained the ear of power. During the 13th century, they converted a Hindu king, and persuaded him to enact the subcontinent’s first animal-welfare laws. There is evidence that the Jains influenced the Buddha himself. And when Gandhi developed his most radical ideas about nonviolence, a Jain friend played philosophical muse. [Continue reading…]

Earth’s magnetic field is acting up and geologists don’t know why

Nature reports:

Something strange is going on at the top of the world. Earth’s north magnetic pole has been skittering away from Canada and towards Siberia, driven by liquid iron sloshing within the planet’s core. The magnetic pole is moving so quickly that it has forced the world’s geomagnetism experts into a rare move.

On 15 January [postponed to 30 January due to the ongoing US government shutdown], they are set to update the World Magnetic Model, which describes the planet’s magnetic field and underlies all modern navigation, from the systems that steer ships at sea to Google Maps on smartphones.

The most recent version of the model came out in 2015 and was supposed to last until 2020 — but the magnetic field is changing so rapidly that researchers have to fix the model now. “The error is increasing all the time,” says Arnaud Chulliat, a geomagnetist at the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Environmental Information. [Continue reading…]

Emergence: How complex wholes arise from simple parts

John Rennie writes:

You could spend a lifetime studying an individual water molecule and never deduce the precise hardness or slipperiness of ice. Watch a lone ant under a microscope for as long as you like, and you still couldn’t predict that thousands of them might collaboratively build bridges with their bodies to span gaps. Scrutinize the birds in a flock or the fish in a school and you wouldn’t find one that’s orchestrating the movements of all the others.

Nature is filled with such examples of complex behaviors that arise spontaneously from relatively simple elements. Researchers have even coined the term “emergence” to describe these puzzling manifestations of self-organization, which can seem, at first blush, inexplicable. Where does the extra injection of complex order suddenly come from?

Answers are starting to come into view. One is that these emergent phenomena can be understood only as collective behaviors — there is no way to make sense of them without looking at dozens, hundreds, thousands or more of the contributing elements en masse. These wholes are indeed greater than the sums of their parts.

Another is that even when the elements continue to follow the same rules of individual behavior, external considerations can change the collective outcome of their actions. For instance, ice doesn’t form at zero degrees Celsius because the water molecules suddenly become stickier to one another. Rather, the average kinetic energy of the molecules drops low enough for the repulsive and attractive forces among them to fall into a new, more springy balance. That liquid-to-solid transition is such a useful comparison for scientists studying emergence that they often characterize emergent phenomena as phase changes.

Our latest In Theory video on emergence explains more about how throngs of simple parts can self-organize into a more extraordinary whole:


The periodic table is 150 – but it could have looked very different

File 20181211 76968 1lsh5rp.png?ixlib=rb 1.1
Theodor Benfey’s spira table (1964).

By Mark Lorch, University of Hull

The periodic table stares down from the walls of just about every chemistry lab. The credit for its creation generally goes to Dimitri Mendeleev, a Russian chemist who in 1869 wrote out the known elements (of which there were 63 at the time) on cards and then arranged them in columns and rows according to their chemical and physical properties. To celebrate the 150th anniversary of this pivotal moment in science, the UN has proclaimed 2019 to be the International year of the Periodic Table.

John Dalton’s element list.
Wikimedia Commons

But the periodic table didn’t actually start with Mendeleev. Many had tinkered with arranging the elements. Decades before, chemist John Dalton tried to create a table as well as some rather interesting symbols for the elements (they didn’t catch on). And just a few years before Mendeleev sat down with his deck of homemade cards, John Newlands also created a table sorting the elements by their properties.

Mendeleev’s genius was in what he left out of his table. He recognised that certain elements were missing, yet to be discovered. So where Dalton, Newlands and others had laid out what was known, Mendeleev left space for the unknown. Even more amazingly, he accurately predicted the properties of the missing elements.

[Read more…]

The blind spot of science is the neglect of lived experience

Adam Frank, Marcelo Gleiser, and Evan Thompson write:

The problem of time is one of the greatest puzzles of modern physics. The first bit of the conundrum is cosmological. To understand time, scientists talk about finding a ‘First Cause’ or ‘initial condition’ – a description of the Universe at the very beginning (or at ‘time equals zero’). But to determine a system’s initial condition, we need to know the total system. We need to make measurements of the positions and velocities of its constituent parts, such as particles, atoms, fields and so forth. This problem hits a hard wall when we deal with the origin of the Universe itself, because we have no view from the outside. We can’t step outside the box in order to look within, because the box is all there is. A First Cause is not only unknowable, but also scientifically unintelligible.

The second part of the challenge is philosophical. Scientists have taken physical time to be the only real time – whereas experiential time, the subjective sense of time’s passing, is considered a cognitive fabrication of secondary importance. The young Albert Einstein made this position clear in his debate with philosopher Henri Bergson in the 1920s, when he claimed that the physicist’s time is the only time. With age, Einstein became more circumspect. Up to the time of his death, he remained deeply troubled about how to find a place for the human experience of time in the scientific worldview.

These quandaries rest on the presumption that physical time, with an absolute starting point, is the only real kind of time. But what if the question of the beginning of time is ill-posed? Many of us like to think that science can give us a complete, objective description of cosmic history, distinct from us and our perception of it. But this image of science is deeply flawed. In our urge for knowledge and control, we’ve created a vision of science as a series of discoveries about how reality is in itself, a God’s-eye view of nature.

Such an approach not only distorts the truth, but creates a false sense of distance between ourselves and the world. That divide arises from what we call the Blind Spot, which science itself cannot see. In the Blind Spot sits experience: the sheer presence and immediacy of lived perception. [Continue reading…]

The importance of knowing you might be wrong

Brian Resnick writes:

Julia Rohrer wants to create a radical new culture for social scientists. A personality psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Human Development, Rohrer is trying to get her peers to publicly, willingly admit it when they are wrong.

To do this, she, along with some colleagues, started up something called the Loss of Confidence Project. It’s designed to be an academic safe space for researchers to declare for all to see that they no longer believe in the accuracy of one of their previous findings. The effort recently yielded a paper that includes six admissions of no confidence. And it’s accepting submissions until January 31.

“I do think it’s a cultural issue that people are not willing to admit mistakes,” Rohrer says. “Our broader goal is to gently nudge the whole scientific system and psychology toward a different culture,” where it’s okay, normalized, and expected for researchers to admit past mistakes and not get penalized for it.

The project is timely because a large number of scientific findings have been disproven, or become more doubtful, in recent years. One high-profile effort to retest 100 psychological experiments found only 40 percent replicated with more rigorous methods. It’s been a painful period for social scientists, who’ve had to deal with failed replications of classic studies and realize their research practices are often weak.

It’s been fascinating to watch scientists struggle to make their institutions more humble. And I believe there’s an important and underappreciated virtue embedded in this process.

For the past few months, I’ve been talking to many scholars about intellectual humility, the crucial characteristic that allows for admission of wrongness.

I’ve come to appreciate what a crucial tool it is for learning, especially in an increasingly interconnected and complicated world. As technology makes it easier to lie and spread false information incredibly quickly, we need intellectually humble, curious people. [Continue reading…]

Surprising hidden order unites prime numbers and crystal-like materials

Princeton University reports:

The seemingly random digits known as prime numbers are not nearly as scattershot as previously thought. A new analysis by Princeton University researchers has uncovered patterns in primes that are similar to those found in the positions of atoms inside certain crystal-like materials.

The researchers found a surprising similarity between the sequence of primes over long stretches of the number line and the pattern that results from shining X-rays on a material to reveal the inner arrangement of its atoms. The analysis could lead to predicting primes with high accuracy, said the researchers. The study was published Sept. 5 in the Journal of Statistical Mechanics: Theory and Experiment.

“There is much more order in prime numbers than ever previously discovered,” said Salvatore Torquato, Princeton’s Lewis Bernard Professor of Natural Sciences, professor of chemistry and the Princeton Institute for the Science and Technology of Materials. “We showed that the primes behave almost like a crystal or, more precisely, similar to a crystal-like material called a ‘quasicrystal.’”

Primes are numbers that can only be divided by 1 and themselves. Very large primes are the building blocks of many cryptography systems. Primes appear to be sprinkled randomly along the number line, although mathematicians have discerned some order. The first few primes are 2, 3, 5, 7 and 11, becoming more sporadic higher in the number line.

Torquato and his colleagues have found that that, when considered over large swaths of the number line, prime numbers are more ordered than previously believed, falling within the class of patterns known as “hyperuniformity.”

Hyperuniform materials have special order at large distances and include crystals, quasicrystals and special disordered systems. Hyperuniformity is found in the arrangement of cone cells in bird eyes, in certain rare meteorites, and in the large-scale structure of the universe. [Continue reading…]

Science, and government scientists, suffer under Trump

Joe Davidson writes:

In an administration skilled in myth making, science suffers.

Consider findings from the Union of Concerned Scientists, a non-profit advocacy organization that surveyed thousands of scientific experts in the federal government. The first line of its new report paints a dismal picture of the place science holds under President Trump:

“A year and a half into the Trump administration, its record on science policy in several agencies and departments is abysmal.”

There are a couple of bright spots in the administration, however, so all is not lost. But responses from 4,200 scientists in 16 agencies present an alarming record of “studies cancelled, public-facing information altered or removed from websites, and scientists coming under political pressure.” Self-censorship, staffing cuts, low morale and management issues make the problem worse.

“At several federal agencies and departments, scientists reported that political and capacity pressures are compromising their ability to protect public health and the environment,” said Jacob Carter, a co-author of the report and a research scientist with the Union’s Center for Science and Democracy. “In many of the critical science agencies—especially the agencies that handle environmental regulation—scientists reported that they are having trouble doing their jobs because of political interference, staff reductions and a lack of qualified leadership.” [Continue reading…]

The nastiest feud in science

Bianca Bosker writes:

While the majority of her peers embraced the Chicxulub asteroid as the cause of the [dinosaurs’] extinction, [Gerta] Keller [a 73-year-old paleontology and geology professor at Princeton] remained a maligned and, until recently, lonely voice contesting it. She argues that the mass extinction was caused not by a wrong-place-wrong-time asteroid collision but by a series of colossal volcanic eruptions in a part of western India known as the Deccan Traps—a theory that was first proposed in 1978 and then abandoned by all but a small number of scientists. Her research, undertaken with specialists around the world and featured in leading scientific journals, has forced other scientists to take a second look at their data. “Gerta uncovered many things through the years that just don’t sit with the nice, simple impact story that Alvarez put together,” Andrew Kerr, a geochemist at Cardiff University, told me. “She’s made people think about a previously near-uniformly accepted model.”

Keller’s resistance has put her at the core of one of the most rancorous and longest-running controversies in science. “It’s like the Thirty Years’ War,” says Kirk Johnson, the director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History. Impacters’ case-closed confidence belies decades of vicious infighting, with the two sides trading accusations of slander, sabotage, threats, discrimination, spurious data, and attempts to torpedo careers. “I’ve never come across anything that’s been so acrimonious,” Kerr says. “I’m almost speechless because of it.” Keller keeps a running list of insults that other scientists have hurled at her, either behind her back or to her face. She says she’s been called a “bitch” and “the most dangerous woman in the world,” who “should be stoned and burned at the stake.”

Understanding the cause of the mass extinction is not an esoteric academic endeavor. Dinosaurs are what paleontologists call “charismatic megafauna”: sexy, sympathetic beasts whose obliteration transfixes pretty much anyone with a pulse. The nature of their downfall, after 135 million years of good living, might offer clues for how we can prevent, or at least delay, our own end. “Without meaning to sound pessimistic,” the geophysicist Vincent Courtillot writes in his book Evolutionary Catastrophes, “I believe the ancient catastrophes whose traces geologists are now exhuming are worthy of our attention, not just for the sake of our culture or our understanding of the zigzaggy path that led to the emergence of our own species, but quite practically to understand how to keep from becoming extinct ourselves.” [Continue reading…]

Thinking about emergence

Paul Humphreys writes:

If you construct a Lego model of the University of London’s Senate House – the building that inspired the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four – the Lego blocks themselves remain unchanged. Take apart the structure, reassemble the blocks in the shape of the Great Pyramid of Giza or the Eiffel Tower, and the shape, weight and colour of the blocks stay the same.

This approach, applied to the world at large, is known as atomism. It holds that everything in nature is made up of tiny, immutable parts. What we perceive as change and flux are just cogs turning in the machine of the Universe – a huge but ultimately comprehensible mechanism that is governed by universal laws and composed of smaller units. Trying to identify these units has been the focus of science and technology for centuries. Lab experiments pick out the constituents of systems and processes; factories assemble goods from parts composed of even smaller parts; and the Standard Model tells us about the fundamental entities of modern physics.

But when phenomena don’t conform to this compositional model, we find them hard to understand. Take something as simple as a smiling baby: it is difficult, perhaps impossible, to explain a baby’s beaming smile by looking at the behaviour of the constituent atoms of the child in question, let alone in terms of its subatomic particles such as gluons, neutrinos and electrons. It would be better to resort to developmental psychology, or even a narrative account (‘The father smiled at the baby, and the baby smiled back’). Perhaps a kind of fundamental transformation has occurred, producing some new feature or object that can’t be reduced to its parts.

The notion of emergence can help us to see what’s going on here. While atomism is all about burrowing down to basic building blocks, emergence looks upward and outward, to ask whether strange new phenomena might pop out when things get sufficiently large or complex. [Continue reading…]