Nautilus10 min read
The Rise And Fall Of The Living Fossil: The idea that some species are relics that have stopped evolving is finally going extinct.
In May 1997, the same month that The Lost World: Jurassic Park debuted in the United States, the U.S. Postal Service released 15 gorgeous stamps depicting various dinosaurs and extinct reptiles. The stamps caused a sensation among dino enthusiasts an
Nautilus7 min read
The Strangeness of Black Holes: From quantum information to the Schwarzschild radius.
An Introduction to the Black Hole Institute Fittingly, the Black Hole Initiative (BHI) was founded 100 years after Karl Schwarzschild solved Einstein’s equations for general relativity—a solution that described a black hole decades before the first a
Nautilus9 min read
Why the Brain Is So Noisy: The surprising importance of spontaneous order and noise to how we think.
One of the core challenges of modern AI can be demonstrated with a rotating yellow school bus. When viewed head-on on a country road, a deep-learning neural network confidently and correctly identifies the bus. When it is laid on its side across the
Nautilus2 min read
When People Are as Predictable as Water
Can we apply a physics-like reductionism to people? That’s a question we asked Simon DeDeo, a professor of social and decision sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, who also heads the Laboratory for Social Minds at the Santa Fe Institute. DeDeo was
Nautilus5 min read
Jellyfish Genome Hints That Complexity Isn’t Genetically Complex
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. An overarching theme in the story of evolution, at least over the past half billion years or so, is rising complexity. There are other themes, of course, but life has undoubtedly bec
Nautilus18 min read
Echos: What happens when a person is simultaneously lost and found?
Before Corrine’s husband abandoned her in Berlin, he liked to say that her name reminded him of the word “corrupt.” But ending in a twist rather than a split. Her last name was the French word for “swimsuit” but he never mentioned that. This seemed s
Nautilus10 min read
How We’ll Forget John Lennon: Our culture has two types of forgetting.
A few years ago a student walked into the office of Cesar A. Hidalgo, director of the Collective Learning group at the MIT Media Lab. Hidalgo was listening to music and asked the student if she recognized the song. She wasn’t sure. “Is it Coldplay?”
Nautilus9 min read
The Dawn of Life in a $5 Toaster Oven: How a homemade piece of lab equipment is recreating chemical evolution on early Earth.
God might just as well have begun with a toaster oven. A few years ago at a yard sale, Nicholas Hud spotted a good candidate: A vintage General Electric model, chrome-plated with wood-grain panels, nestled in an old yellowed box, practically unused.
Nautilus4 min read
Evolution’s Gravity: A Paean to Natural Selection
Physicists speak of four fundamental forces that govern the interactions among the bits of matter that make up our universe. The strongest of these four forces, aptly known as the Strong Force, is so powerful that it can keep an atom’s positively cha
Nautilus6 min read
The Case for More Science and Philosophy Books for Children
During my career as a scientist and a philosopher I have written and edited, thus far, 14 books. Of these, seven are for the general public. Of those, only one (my very first one, as it turns out) was for children. The same picture emerges if one loo
Nautilus6 min read
How Alan Turing Deciphered Shark Skin: The universal math behind hair and feathers.
In 1952, well before developmental biologists spoke in terms of Hoxgenes and transcription factors, or even understood DNA’s structure, Alan Turing had an idea. The famed mathematician who hastened the end of World War II by cracking the Enigma code
Nautilus11 min readScience
It’s the End of the Gene As We Know It: We are not nearly as determined by our genes as once thought.
We’ve all seen the stark headlines: “Being Rich and Successful Is in Your DNA” (Guardian, July 12); “A New Genetic Test Could Help Determine Children’s Success” (Newsweek, July 10); “Our Fortunetelling Genes” make us (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 16); a
Nautilus7 min read
When Stress Comes with Your Mother’s Milk: Stress hormones in breast milk may help prepare us for a turbulent world.
A few years ago, when my oldest daughter was still nursing, I went through a panicky phase. I had committed to a run of public-speaking engagements, and I constantly worried that I would flub them. Before each event, I pumped milk for the baby and le
Nautilus4 min read
The Case Against Geniuses
Once you’re called a “genius,” what’s left? Super genius? No, getting called a “genius” is the final accolade, the last laudatory label for anyone. At least that’s how several members of Mensa, an organization of those who’ve scored in the 98th perce
Nautilus5 min readScience
What Defines a Stem Cell?: Our cells have more diverse regenerative capabilities than anyone expected.
For the past three years, researchers at the Hubrecht Institute in the Netherlands have been painstakingly cataloging and mapping all the proliferating cells found in mouse hearts, looking for cardiac stem cells. The elusive cells should theoreticall
Nautilus11 min read
Yuval Noah Harari Is Worried About Our Souls: The big-data makeover of humanity could be a recipe for disaster.
Just a few years ago Yuval Noah Harari was an obscure Israeli historian with a knack for playing with big ideas. Then he wrote Sapiens, a sweeping, cross-disciplinary account of human history that landed on the bestseller list and remains there four
Nautilus7 min read
The Surprising Relativism of the Brain’s GPS: How new data is transforming our understanding of place cells.
The first pieces of the brain’s “inner GPS” started coming to light in 1970. In the laboratories of University College London, John O’Keefe and his student Jonathan Dostrovsky recorded the electrical activity of neurons in the hippocampus of freely m
Nautilus4 min readPsychology
Why Social Science Needs Evolutionary Theory
My high school biology teacher, Mr. Whittington, put a framed picture of a primate ancestor in the front of his classroom—a place of reverence. In a deeply religious and conservative community in rural America, this was a radical act. Evolution, amon
Nautilus9 min read
How Math’s Most Famous Proof Nearly Broke: Andrew Wiles thought he had a solution to an age-old puzzle. Until it began to unravel.
Andrew Wiles gave a series of lectures cryptically titled “Modular Forms, Elliptic Curves, and Galois Representations” at a mathematics conference in Cambridge, England, in June 0f 1993. His argument was long and technical. Finally, 20 minutes into t
Nautilus23 min read
Iron Is the New Cholesterol: Elevated iron is at the center of a web of disease stretching from cancer to diabetes.
Cheerios are the best-selling breakfast cereal in America. The multi-grain version contains 18 milligrams of iron per serving, according to the label. Like almost any refined food made with wheat flour, it is fortified with iron. As it happens, there
Nautilus8 min read
Why We Love Dinosaurs: If museums of natural history are temples to science, dinosaurs are their shrines.
People have always known of dinosaurs, though they have called them by many names. Old legends that place Western dragons in caves or beneath the earth may have originated with fossils. The plumed serpent, prominent in mythologies of Mexico and Latin
Nautilus6 min read
What A Newfound Kingdom Means For The Tree Of Life
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. The tree of life just got another major branch. Researchers recently found a certain rare and mysterious microbe called a hemimastigote in a clump of Nova Scotian soil. Their subsequ
Nautilus5 min read
Does Scrabble Need To Be Fixed?: An experiment in controlling how much of Scrabble is luck.
You can find Lynda Woods Cleary playing Scrabble every Tuesday at a Panera in Princeton, NJ. Cleary, a 68-year-old retired financial consultant, has been playing every week for 20 years since founding the Princeton Scrabble Club in 1998. When I asked
Nautilus4 min read
Holding Hands With A Chimp: How my suburban-hewn world-view was flipped on its head.
Revelation comes in different forms for different people. A biblical verse. A flash of recognition in a lover’s eyes. A Nietzschean proverb. A classical sonata. A child’s embrace. Any moment of profundity, really, where time stops and the divine reve
Nautilus8 min readSociety
Your City Has a Gender and It’s Male: Why city designers are increasingly thinking about the female perspective.
I have a secret to tell you about my city,” she says. “It has to do with what Eve Ensler calls the feminine cell.” It was the autumn of 2016. I’d met her in Quito, Ecuador, at the United Nations’ Habitat III, the biggest global urban development conf
Nautilus10 min readSociety
Retiring Retirement: A growing portion of the elderly look and act anything but.
You don’t take any medications?” “No.” The doctor stared at me dolefully, then reframed the question. “So, when you get up in the morning, what do you put in your mouth?” he asked with an air of exasperation, as if I was the one who wasn’t getting it
Nautilus11 min readPsychology
The New Tech of Relationships: Three stories of our new alliance with technology.
Our relationship to technology and the benefits we reap from it depends on how much we make it our own. This realization has motivated me to contextualize the drumbeat we hear about the perils of technology, particularly social media: increased isola
Nautilus17 min readTech
Why Robot Brains Need Symbols: We’ll need both deep learning and symbol manipulation to build AI.
Nowadays, the words “artificial intelligence” seem to be on practically everyone’s lips, from Elon Musk to Henry Kissinger. At least a dozen countries have mounted major AI initiatives, and companies like Google and Facebook are locked in a massive b
Nautilus5 min read
Dear iPhone—It Was Just Physical, and Now It’s Over
As a kid, I’d sometimes try to imagine what life would be like without a particular sense or part of my body, like with questions from the Would You Rather? game. Would you rather be deaf or blind? Would you rather have no legs or no arms? I’d try to
Nautilus4 min read
How Einstein Reconciled Religion to Science
I recently heard an echo of Albert Einstein’s religious views in the words of Elon Musk. Asked, at the close of a conversation with Axios, whether he believed in God, the CEO of both SpaceX and Tesla paused, looked away from his interlocutors for a b
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