Brief Candle In The Dark

As a long-time admirer of biologist Richard Dawkins, I thoroughly enjoyed his autobiography, Brief Candle in the Dark: My Life in Science. The book is structured as a series of stories and anecdotes, ordered by subject matter rather than chronology. It was fascinating to take a peak behind the curtain and get to know the man behind the science.

After reading several of Dawkins’s previous books, Brief Candle in the Dark offers context about how they fit into the bigger picture of his life and career. It also provides a rather candid look at his experiences, inspirations, and personal philosophies surrounding science, religion, education, the public debate format, and many other topics.

Dawkins is clearly one of the great minds of his generation, but what I think truly sets him apart is his ability to communicate scientific ideas to the general public with excitement and eloquence, instilling in millions a sense of intellectual curiosity.

If you’re a fan as well, you don’t want to miss this book.

I Don’t Want To Upload My Brain To A Computer

Great documentary by Germany’s DW, though I don’t find myself all that interested in uploading my consciousness to a computer.

Don’t get me wrong: mapping the brain and reconstructing its functions are indeed worthy pursuits with grand implications. But I suspect what makes the idea compelling to most people is a hope for self-preservation, i.e. you upload your consciousness to a machine and then you get to live forever!—but that wouldn’t exactly be the case.

Mapping or “uploading” your brain to a computer is fundamentally just a data transfer. In any data transfer, the source data and destination data are momentarily identical—but they persist as two distinct entities, with neither having any particular influence on the other. When you copy a file from one location to another, the original file doesn’t change just because it was copied. It doesn’t become the copy. And of course, the original file can still be destroyed.

Likewise, if and when the technology arrives to map your brain and recreate your consciousness using a computer, it will essentially be like cloning the person you were in that moment—in other words, making a copy. And like any other original file, you, too, can still be destroyed.

Using machines to emulate our consciousness does little to prevent our biological demise. This sort of technology is fascinating and valuable for plenty of reasons, but immortality is not among them.

Better Students Don’t Earn More Money As Adults

A new study suggests that defiant kids who break the rules tend to earn higher incomes as adults than their more studious peers. reports:

In 1968, researchers began studying 12-year-old students who were in the sixth grade. They examined the influence of their intelligence, characteristics, behaviors and their parents’ socioeconomic status.

Then, 40 years later, they followed up with those students. Not surprisingly, the students who were described by teachers as “studious” were more likely to have prestigious jobs. But, the studious kids didn’t make the most money in adulthood.

The highest income earners were the “naughty kids.” The kids who broke the rules and defied parental authority became the highest income earners as adults.

Similarly, the Illinois Valedictorian Project found that valedictorians are less likely to become millionaires than their peers.

Of course, life isn’t all about money. But the implication here is something I have long suspected: those inclined to break rules and question authority are more likely to be successful.

Stephen Hawking On Curiosity

Genuinely sad to learn that the legendary physicist Stephen Hawking has died at age 76. His work helped shape our understanding of concepts like black holes and relativity, and he inspired millions to embrace their curiosity and ask questions about the cosmos.

It surprises me how disinterested we are today about things like physics, space, the universe and philosophy of our existence, our purpose, our final destination. It’s a crazy world out there. Be curious.

The Trolley Problem, Tested

The Trolley Problem is a classic thought experiment in ethics that goes something like this:

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. However, you notice that there is one person tied up on the side track. You have two options:

  1. Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track.
  2. Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person.

Which is the most ethical choice?

When surveyed, the vast majority of respondents say they would choose to kill the one and save the five.

But would they really?

The Trolley Problem is difficult to test, due to ethical concerns of causing emotional and psychological harm to participants.

But on the first episode of the second season of YouTube Red series Mind Field, Michael Stevens of Vsauce conducts what may be the first real-world Trolley Problem simulation.

Participants are led to believe they’re at the helm of a railroad switch. An operator (actor) teaches them how to use the switch before excusing himself to take a phone call. “Live” video feeds above the control panel show a train approaching five construction workers on one track, and the participants have the opportunity to switch the train over to a second track where only one worker is standing.

To the participants, it feels like a real life-or-death situation, and it’s up to them to decide who lives and who dies.

To keep the study ethical, all participants were screened in advance for a history of post-traumatic stress and other traits that could make them susceptible to lasting harm. They were also debriefed immediately after the simulation, and on-site counseling was provided.

Despite the small sample size in this study, there was a clear pattern: most people froze, unable to make a decision with such serious consequences.

However, a couple of people did flip the switch. It was fascinating to see their presence of mind in that moment and hear their thoughts after the fact.

Note: you will need a YouTube Red subscription to watch this video. If you can afford the $9.99 a month, I feel it’s well worth it—even if only to watch Mind Field.

Earth Day 2017

Today is Earth Day, and people in more than 193 countries are working to raise awareness for the world’s mounting climate concerns, among other issues. The March for Science is taking place in just about every major city here in the U.S.

When I was a kid, Earth Day was nothing significant—just a day vaguely dedicated to tree-hugging, as far as I was concerned. But in reality, it’s a massively important event that aims to change human behavior and provoke policy changes through peaceful protest and demonstration—the very core of democracy—to minimize the effects of climate change and ensure we’re leaving a habitable world for our children and grandchildren.

This is more important than ever in light of the anti-intellectualism we’re seeing in Washington.

A Slave To My Biology

Something that both fascinates and terrifies me is the fact that I, my consciousness and sense of self, are just products of chemistry.

I’m a slave to my biology. A vessel created solely to carry genetic information into the next generation. And here I am contemplating it.

What If Half Of Your Brain Was Transplanted Into Another Body?

A hemispherectomy is a rare surgical procedure (typically performed on children) where half of the brain is removed in order to treat severe epileptic seizures. The remaining half of the brain then takes over, with no significant long-term effects on memory, personality, or overall cognitive function.

A brain transplant (or full body transplant) is a procedure where a brain is taken from one body and transplanted into another. It has never been conducted on humans (only dogs), but it is theoretically possible.

With those procedures in mind, let’s say, hypothetically, that half of your brain is surgically removed and transplanted into another body, while the other half remains in your current body. Both halves continue to function and carry your memories and personality with them.

Which person is you?