Today’s Most Interesting and Important Scientific Ideas, Discoveries, and Developments
Know This — When you ask a range of prominent thinkers to identify the most important scientific news of the day, and then you pull their answers together in a wide-ranging collection, it’s amazing what you get. Here’s what John Brockman manage to produce. It’s marvellous.
Know This — The Age of Awareness
Changes in sensor technology and computing make this age the Age of Awareness. Increasingly, digital technology monitors everything people do, creating a flywheel world. Data that used to be static now flow in many directions.
Computers are gathering and analyzing data on an unprecedented scale and in all areas. Which give ways to better understanding of human pattern for better customization of products and service, not only to serve humanity better but also for better profit margin and maximum resource utilization.
Researchers who analyze large data sets can identify common traits. New imaging techniques generate an improved understanding of deep learning, as advances in neural networks help scientists get closer to answering how people represent and manipulate meaning.
The growing possibilities offered by applications of artificial intelligence (AI) are another crucial development. DeepMind, a British AI company, taught a computer system how to play video games and even how to learn to play the games, which represents a form of unsupervised learning. While this isn’t the same as human intelligence, it is only one of several different advances bringing AI closer to reality.
This development is essential because humankind is pushing its negative capacities so far and so fast by developing weapons and changing the climate in ways that could drive society to extinction. Humanity needs AI to help people make better decisions. Ethical reasoning rests and depends on a biological base, a realization that might complicate how people apply AI.
Morality comes from decisions about biological and social realities, such as making choices about family life.
Know This — Climate and Ecosystems
Earth’s climate is changing: Human-driven global warming is melting the ice caps and glaciers, which will raise sea levels, threatening human habitation near low-lying coastal regions. Even before sea levels rise, human technology is bringing death to the planet. Many species are already extinct. Mankind might not be too far behind.
“Every time you learn something, your brain changes.” (psychology professor Tania Lombrozo)
Some emerging technologies can potentially bring great benefits. New forms of concrete are de-carbonizing, drawing carbon dioxide from the air. Wind turbines are scalable and bring power to millions without contributing to global warming. New batteries are safer and store more power. Sustainable sources like wind can provide more power since electricity can be stored more efficiently.
“The most exciting and counterintuitive battery invented is the lithium-air, which inhales air for the oxygen needed for its chemical reaction and exhales the air when finished.” (artist James Croak)
Electric cars and now planes travel long distances with better fuel efficiency. The low energy nuclear reaction (LENR) offers possibilities for replacing fossil fuels. Patterns of consumption are changing as more people seek and consume “intangibles” digital products and experiences rather than material possessions.
Know This — How People Live and How They Should Live
Now, know this that some recent debates about humankind’s impact on the environment have been centred on new scientific and technological developments and, as usual, there are two main camps with divergent points of view.
One camp argues for technologically advanced cities.
Another camp argues for greener, more “biophilic” cities.
Both sides are right and, in a positive wrinkle, these two positions can be integrated: A well-designed city can be both high-tech and nature-rich. Technological developments also shape how people monitor natural resources and environmental crises, as well as how they perceive social and political entities. More recently, satellite imaging allows people to monitor climate change.
One recent development is that people are turning back to ancient practices. People used to hunt and gather their food, and some are returning to foraging and other ways of living directly off the land. Throughout most of history, people lived with only natural light, and some new technology aims to replicate that.
Humanity lived in small groups with numerous peer-to-peer connections; this is returning. At the same time, minority groups are calling for greater recognition, which unites some people but divides others.
Science has long known that emotion can affect individual health. Recent studies show that emotions also affect environmental well-being by shaping individuals’ responses to environmental issues. New information on health or learning from past mistakes can also drive lifestyle changes. The push to not eat any fat resulted in many people eating nonfat foods full of carbohydrates and sugar, and seeing their health suffer. In response to rising diabetes rates, people are returning to fatty foods.
In 1915, Albert Einstein announced his general theory of relativity. Since then, physicists have been working to reconcile general relativity with quantum mechanics. Thus far, they have failed. At present, physicists are in an odd situation, for several reasons.
Time and space have been foundational concepts for physics at least since Einstein, but some thinkers no longer view previous findings of them as fundamental. String theorists argue that entanglement might take their place. While others see quantum information as fundamental.
Black holes also pose various puzzles. The late Stephen Hawking contended that observers must accept black holes as violating the principle of conservation of information. More recently, Stanford physicist Leonard Susskind argued that this couldn’t happen because it would yield catastrophic results. This leads scientists to other conclusions: that “the universe must be spatially finite” and could end in a “Big Crunch singularity.”
Recent experiments further complicate efforts to find unifying theories that aim to explain the physical world. When physicists discovered the Higgs boson elementary particle in 2012, they didn’t find “superparticles.” This leaves advocates of “supersymmetry” longing for new breakthroughs but unsure of where they’ll come from.
Physicists are reconsidering what they thought they knew in several areas. They used to accept the idea that space was largely empty. Recently, however, they’ve discovered that vacuum energy is accelerating the expansion of the universe. In 10 billion more years, our universe will have doubled in size.
Space News, Alien News
For decades, the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence (SETI) program has scanned the heavens for alien life. In 2015, the Breakthrough Listen organization joined the investigation to scan space more comprehensively. One recent discovery suggests that humans might not be alone. Observations of the so-called Tabby’s Star, 1,500 light-years away, suggest changes in its emitted light might be due to the creation of Dyson spheres – massive but heretofore hypothetical structures built by advanced civilizations to trap a star’s energy output. Some scientists are certain humanity contaminated Mars through human explorations of the planet.
Closer to home, 2015 saw the New Horizons spacecraft fly past Pluto, sending back images indicating that Pluto is a more active body than previously thought. Such breakthroughs have become routine, but Americans aren’t willing to spend more on space exploration. In 2015, two private enterprises, Blue Origin and SpaceX, launched rockets. The age of the space shuttle may be ending, but new options are emerging that may be more functional.
The Nature and Limits of Humanity
Life is almost inevitable, an outcome of the laws of thermodynamics. But scientific breakthroughs challenge existing limits on life and force consideration of ethical questions. As of 2015, researchers had sequenced more than a million humane genomes, providing a more complete understanding of human genetics. Clustered Regularly Interspaced Short Palindromic Repeats (CRISPR) technology enables targeted editing of an organism’s genome.
This opens the door to the possible elimination of inherited diseases and the ability to select positive traits, leading to the possibility of “designer humans.” It ushers in an age of “cellular alchemy,” whereby humanity could take control of its evolution and reprogram DNA like software. Humans control life on the planet. Using genetic manipulation, scientists can transform cells and create “induced pluripotent stem cells,” which open the possibilities for research and regeneration without embryonic stem cells.
Psychology, the Self, the Mind and Morality
New techniques enabling scientists to observe brain activity are generating a deeper understanding of brain function. The field of psychology faces a crisis because so few of its published studies result in findings that other researchers can reproduce. People fear the bright, flashy things that fill the news, rather than things that are actually likely to harm them.