Sean Carroll's Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas

By Sean Carroll | Wondery

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Subscribers: 6967
Reviews: 29

stranger
 Jun 22, 2022


 Sep 12, 2021


 Jul 25, 2021

Shin
 Jan 26, 2021
Excellent educational very impressive podcast series. must listen for everyone on the planet

Seany
 Dec 1, 2020
Sean Carroll is just an incredible science communicator. Sometimes it's a little terrifying that he's able to hold this much information in his head without falling over, but fair play to him. Excellent podcast!

Description

Ever wanted to know how music affects your brain, what quantum mechanics really is, or how black holes work? Do you wonder why you get emotional each time you see a certain movie, or how on earth video games are designed? Then you’ve come to the right place. Each week, Sean Carroll will host conversations with some of the most interesting thinkers in the world. From neuroscientists and engineers to authors and television producers, Sean and his guests talk about the biggest ideas in science, philosophy, culture and much more.


Episode Date
219 | Dani Bassett and Perry Zurn on the Neuroscience and Philosophy of Curiosity
01:02:32

It’s easy enough to proclaim that we are curious creatures, but what does that really mean? What kinds of curiosity are there? And how does curiosity arise in our brains? Perry Zurn and Dani Bassett are a philosopher and neuroscientist, respectively (as well as twins), whose new book Curious Minds: The Power of Connection explores these questions through an interdisciplinary lens. We break down the different ways that curiosity can manifest — collecting and creating loose knowledge networks, digging deeply to create a tight knowledge network, and creatively leaping to make unexpected connections. 

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Perry Zurn received a Ph.D. in philosophy from DePaul University. He is currently an Associate Professor and Director of Undergraduate Studies in Philosophy in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at American University. He is the co-founder of the Trans Philosophy Project and the associated Thinking Trans // Trans Thinking Conference. Among his previous works is Curiosity and Power: The Politics of Inquiry.


Dani Bassett received a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge. They are currently the J. Peter Skirkanich Professor at the University of Pennsylvania, with appointments in the Departments of Bioengineering, Electrical & Systems Engineering, Physics & Astronomy, Neurology, and Psychiatry, as well as an external professor of the Santa Fe Institute. Among their awards are the Macarthur Fellowship, the Lagrange Prize in Complex Systems Science (2017), and the Erdos-Renyi Prize in Network Science.


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Nov 28, 2022
218 | Raphael Bousso on Black Holes and the Holographic Universe
01:21:41

Stephen Hawking’s discoveries of black hole radiation, entropy, and the information-loss problem have both taught us an enormous amount about the relationship between quantum mechanics and gravity, and also left us with some knotty puzzles. One major insight is the holographic principle: the information describing a black hole can be thought of as living on the event horizon (the two-dimensional boundary of the hole), rather than distributed throughout its volume, as normal physics would lead us to expect. Raphael Bousso has made important contributions to our understanding of holography and its implications. We talk about the modern point of view of how gravity relates to quantum mechanics.

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Raphael Bousso received his Ph.D. in physics from Cambridge University, where his advisor was Stephen Hawking. He is currently a professor of physics at UC Berkeley. He has made pioneering contributions to our understanding of black hole information, the holographic principle, the string theory landscape, and multiverse cosmology.


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Nov 21, 2022
217 | Margaret Levi on Moral Political Economy
01:21:16

Why do people voluntarily hand over authority to a government? Under what conditions should they do so? These questions are both timeless and extremely timely, as modern democratic governments struggle with stability and legitimacy. They also bring questions from moral and political philosophy into conversations with empirically-minded social science. Margaret Levi is a leading political scientist who has focused on political economy and the nature of trust in government and other institutions. We talk about what democracy means, its current state, and how we can make it better.

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Margaret Levi received her Ph.D. in political science from Harvard University. She is currently Professor of Political Science and Senior Fellow at the Center for Democracy, Development and Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford University. She is also co-director of the Stanford Ethics, Society and Technology Hub, and the Jere L. Bacharach Professor Emerita of International Studies at the University of Washington. She is the winner of the 2019 Johan Skytte Prize and the 2020 Falling Walls Breakthrough. She is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the British Academy, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the American Philosophical Society, and the American Association of Political and Social Sciences. She served as president of the American Political Science Association from 2004 to 2005. In 2014 she received the William H. Riker Prize in Political Science, in 2017 gave the Elinor Ostrom Memorial Lecture, and in 2018 received an honorary doctorate from Universidad Carlos III de Madrid.


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Nov 14, 2022
AMA | November 2022
03:00:13

Welcome to the November 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). We take questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable number — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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Nov 07, 2022
Introducing - The Vanished
00:05:50

The Vanished is a true crime podcast that explores the stories of those who have gone missing. The Vanished goes beyond conventional news reports to take a deep dive into the story of a different missing person each week. 

Host Marissa Jones brings you exclusive interviews with family members, friends, law enforcement and experts on mainstream cases, as well as little known ones.

Listen in, to hear what The Vanished will uncover next: wondery.fm/M_TheVanished

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Nov 01, 2022
216 | John Allen Paulos on Numbers, Narratives, and Numeracy
01:10:34

People have a complicated relationship to mathematics. We all use it in our everyday lives, from calculating a tip at a restaurant to estimating the probability of some future event. But many people find the subject intimidating, if not off-putting. John Allen Paulos has long been working to make mathematics more approachable and encourage people to become more numerate. We talk about how people think about math, what kinds of math they should know, and the role of stories and narrative to make math come alive. 

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John Allen Paulos received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the University of Wisconsin, Madison. He is currently a professor of mathematics at Temple University. He s a bestselling author, and frequent contributor to publications such as ABCNews.com, the Guardian, and Scientific American. Among his awards are the Science Communication award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Mathematics Communication Award from the Joint Policy Board of Mathematics. His new book is Who’s Counting? Uniting Numbers and Narratives with Stories from Pop Culture, Puzzles, Politics, and More.


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Oct 31, 2022
215 | Barry Loewer on Physics, Counterfactuals, and the Macroworld
01:34:29

The founders of statistical mechanics in the 19th century faced an uphill battle to convince their fellow physicists that the laws of thermodynamics could be derived from the random motions of microscopic atoms. This insight turns out to be even more important than they realized: the emergence of patterns characterizing our macroscopic world relies crucially on the increase of entropy over time. Barry Loewer has (in collaboration with David Albert) been developing a theory of the Mentaculus — the probability map of the world — that connects microscopic physics to time, causation, and other familiar features of our experience.

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Barry Loewer received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Stanford University. He is currently distinguished professor of philosophy at Rutgers University. His research focuses on the foundations of physics and the metaphysics of laws and chance.


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Oct 24, 2022
214 | Antonio Padilla on Large Numbers and the Scope of the Universe
01:15:50

It’s a big universe we live in, so it comes as no surprise that big numbers are needed to describe it. There are roughly 10^22 stars in the observable universe, and about 10^88 particles altogether. But these numbers are nothing compared to some of the truly ginormous quantities that mathematicians have found to talk about, with inscrutable names like Graham’s Number and TREE(3). Could such immense numbers have any meaningful relationship with the physical world? In his recent book Fantastic Numbers and Where to Find Them, theoretical physicist Antonio Padilla explores both our actual universe and the abstract world of immense numbers, and finds surprising connections between them.

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Antonio (Tony) Padilla received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Durham. He is currently a Royal Society Research Fellow in the School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Nottingham. He is a frequent contributor to the YouTube series Sixty Symbols and Numberphile.


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Oct 17, 2022
AMA | October 2022
03:01:16

Welcome to the October 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). We take questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable number — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Oct 10, 2022
Introducing - The ReWatcher: Buffy The Vampire Slayer
00:04:34

Welcome to the Hellmouth Weirdos! Your favorite Morbid hosts Ash and Alaina are branching out from true crime and heading to Sunnydale for the ultimate Buffy the Vampire Slayer Rewatch podcast! Alaina is a Buffy superfan and Ash has never watched a single episode, so whether you’re Team Angel, Team Spike, or have no clue who those people are…they’ve got you covered! Join them each week as they slay their way through the series, episode by episode, re-watching, and watching for the very first time. They’ll break down Buffy and her friends' adventures through weekly recaps, categories, and awards while Ash takes some (wooden stake) stabs at predicting what she thinks will happen next. They'll also welcome the occasional Buffy cast member, guest star, or celebrity superfan to join in the slaying. 

 

Listen to The ReWatcherwondery.fm/MS_REWATCHER

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Oct 03, 2022
213 | Timiebi Aganaba on Law and Governance in Space
01:16:26

With communication satellites, weather satellites, GPS, and much more, what happens in space is already important to our lives here on Earth. And the importance of space is only going to grow as we increase the presence of humans, whether in Earth orbit or beyond. So the questions of what laws govern activity in space, and how nations and institutions should practice good governance more generally, are becoming increasingly urgent. Timiebi Aganaba is an academic and space lawyer who has experience experience in a wide variety of context and countries. We talk about the current status of space law and how to guarantee good governance going forward.

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

Timiebi Aganaba received Ph.D. and LL.M. degrees from the Institute of Air and Space Law at McGill University. She is currently an assistant professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, with a courtesy appointment at the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law. She is also an affiliate faculty with the Interplanetary Initiative and a senior global futures scientist with the Global Futures Lab at ASU. She served as Executive Director of the World Space Week Association, and currently serves on advisory boards for the UN Space Generation Advisory Council, the Board of World View Enterprises, and the SETI Institute. She was the recipient of a Space Leaders Award from the International Astronautical Federation and her doctorate received the George and Ann Robinson Award for advanced research capabilities.


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Oct 03, 2022
212 | Chiara Mingarelli on Searching for Black Holes with Pulsars
01:26:42

The detection of gravitational waves from inspiraling black holes by the LIGO and Virgo collaborations was rightly celebrated as a landmark achievement in physics and astronomy. But ultra-precise ground-based observatories aren’t the only way to detect gravitational waves; we can also search for their imprints on the timing of signals from pulsars scattered throughout our galaxy. Chiara Mingarelli is a member of the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) collaboration, which uses pulsar timing to study the universe using gravitational waves.

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

Chiara Mingarelli received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of Birmingham. She is currently an assistant professor of physics at the University of Connecticut and a research scientist at the Flatiron Institute Center for Computational Astrophysics. Her Ph.D. thesis was selected by Springer Nature as an Outstanding PhD thesis, and she was selected as a “Voice of the Future” by the Royal Astronomical Society. She regularly contributes to science communication, including Amy Poehler’s Smart Girls and the Science Channel’s “How the Universe Works."


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Sep 26, 2022
211 | Solo: Secrets of Einstein's Equation
01:51:25

My little pandemic-lockdown contribution to the world was a series of videos called The Biggest Ideas in the Universe. The idea was to explain physics in a pedagogical way, concentrating on established ideas rather than speculations, with the twist that I tried to include and explain any equations that seemed useful, even though no prior mathematical knowledge was presumed. I’m in the process of writing a series of three books inspired by those videos, and the first one is coming out now: The Biggest Ideas In The Universe: Space, Time, and Motion. For this solo episode I go through one of the highlights from the book: explaining the mathematical and physical basis of Einstein’s equation of general relativity, relating mass and energy to the curvature of spacetime. Hope it works!

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Sep 19, 2022
210 | Randall Munroe on Imagining What If...?
01:08:02

What’s the fastest way to get a human being around a racetrack, if we ignore all the rules of racing? How many pages would you have to read to absorb all of the government laws that apply to you? It’s hard to imagine a better person to tackle these kinds of slightly-askew questions than Randall Munroe, creator of the xkcd webcomic. He collected some answers in his book What If?, and has released a sequel, What If? 2. We dive into how one goes about choosing the right questions and answering them, and how to make it funny along the way.

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Randall Munroe received a degree in physics from Christopher Newport University, before working for a while at NASA’s Langley Research Center. He is now the creator of xkcd and the author of several books. What If? and What If? 2 are based on a regular feature in which he tackles questions asked by readers.


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Sep 12, 2022
209 | Brad DeLong on Why the 20th Century Fell Short of Utopia
01:24:26

People throughout history have imagined ideal societies of various sorts. As the twentieth century dawned, advances in manufacturing and communication arguably brought the idea of utopia within our practical reach, at least as far as economic necessities are concerned. But we failed to achieve it, to say the least. Brad DeLong’s new book, Slouching Towards Utopia: An Economic History of the Twentieth Century, investigates why. He compares the competing political and economic systems that dominated the “long 20th century” from 1870 to 2010, and how we managed to create such enormous wealth and still be left with such intractable problems.

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J. Bradford DeLong received his Ph.D. in economics from Harvard University. He is currently a professor of economics at the University of California, Berkeley. and chief economist at the Blum Center for Developing Economies. He previously served as deputy assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury for Economic Policy from 1993 to 1995. He has been a long-running blogger, now moved to Substack. He is a co-editor of The Economists’ Voice.


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Sep 05, 2022
AMA | September 2022
03:30:29

Welcome to the September 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). We take questions asked by Patrons, whittle them down to a more manageable number — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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Aug 29, 2022
208 | Rick Beato on the Theory of Popular Music
01:11:17

There is no human endeavor that does not have a theory of it — a set of ideas about what makes it work and how to do it well. Music is no exception, popular music included — there are reasons why certain keys, chord changes, and rhythmic structures have proven successful over the years. Nobody has done more to help people understand the theoretical underpinnings of popular music than today’s guest, Rick Beato. His YouTube videos dig into how songs work and what makes them great. We talk about music theory and how it contributes to our appreciation of all kinds of music.

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

Rick Beato obtained a master’s degree in jazz studies from the New England Conservatory of Music. He is currently a producer and owner of Black Dog Sound Studios in Georgia, as well as host of a popular YouTube channel. He has worked as a session musician, songwriter, and lecturer at Berklee College of Music and elsewhere. He is the author of The Beato Book Interactive as well as other music-training tools.


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Aug 22, 2022
207 | William MacAskill on Maximizing Good in the Present and Future
01:42:23

It’s always a little humbling to think about what affects your words and actions might have on other people, not only right now but potentially well into the future. Now take that humble feeling and promote it to all of humanity, and arbitrarily far in time. How do our actions as a society affect all the potential generations to come? William MacAskill is best known as a founder of the Effective Altruism movement, and is now the author of What We Owe the Future. In this new book he makes the case for longtermism: the idea that we should put substantial effort into positively influencing the long-term future. We talk about the pros and cons of that view, including the underlying philosophical presuppositions.

Mindscape listeners can get 50% off What We Owe the Future, thanks to a partnership between the Forethought Foundation and Bookshop.org. Just click here and use code MINDSCAPE50 at checkout.

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William (Will) MacAskill received his D.Phil. in philosophy from the University of Oxford. He is currently an associate professor of philosophy at Oxford, as well as a research fellow at the Global Priorities Institute, director of the Forefront Foundation for Global Priorities Research, President of the Centre for Effective Altruism, and co-founder of 80,000 hours and Giving What We Can.


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Aug 15, 2022
206 | Simon Conway Morris on Evolution, Convergence, and Theism
01:16:59

Evolution by natural selection is one of the rare scientific theories that resonates within the wider culture as much as it does within science. But as much as people know about evolution, we also find the growth of corresponding myths. Simon Conway Morris is a paleontologist and evolutionary biologist who’s new book is From Extraterrestrials to Animal Minds: Six Myths of Evolution. He is known as a defender of evolutionary convergence and adaptationism — even when there is a mass extinction, he argues, the resulting shake-up simply accelerates the developments evolution would have made anyway. We talk about this, and also about the possible role of God in an evolutionary worldview.

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Simon Conway Morris received his Ph.D. in geology from the University of Cambridge. He is currently an emeritus professor of evolutionary paleobiology in the Department of Earth Sciences at Cambridge. Among his awards are the Walcott Medal of the National Academy of Sciences and the Lyell Medal of the Geological Society of London. 


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Aug 08, 2022
AMA | August 2022
03:06:46

Welcome to the August 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). We take questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable number — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. 

Here is a link to the Mindscape Big Picture Scholarship. Please consider donating!

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Aug 01, 2022
205 | John Quiggin on Interest Rates and the Information Economy
01:19:09

The idea of an “interest rate” might seem mundane and practical, in comparison to our usual topics around here, but there is a profound philosophical idea lurking in the background: if you lend me money now against the promise of me paying you back more in the future, I am relating the different values that a certain sum has to me at different moments in time. Traditionally, the interest rates set by the government have been a major tool for influencing the economy, but in recent decades they have increasingly fallen near zero. John Quiggin relates this change to the shift from manufacturing to an information economy, and we talk about what that means for the public interest in having information be reliable and widely available. And yes, there is a bit about crypto.

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John Quiggin received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of New England. He is currently a VC Senior Fellow in Economics at the University of Queensland. He is a Fellow of the Econometric Society and the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia. Among his books are Zombie Economics: How Dead Ideas Still Walk Among Us and Economics in Two Lessons: Why Markets Work So Well, and Why They Can Fail So Badly.


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Jul 25, 2022
204 | John Asher Johnson on Hunting for Exoplanets
01:15:18

Recent years have seen a revolution in the study of exoplanets, planets that orbit stars other than the Sun (or don’t orbit stars at all). After a few tentative detections in the 1990s, dedicated instruments in the 2000s have now pushed the number of known exoplanets into the thousands, enough to begin to categorize their distribution and properties. Today’s guest is John Asher Johnson, one of the leaders in this field. We talk about the various different ways that exoplanets can be detected, what we know about them know, and what might happen in the future.

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John Asher Johnson received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently professor of astronomy at Harvard University. He is the founder and director of the Banneker Institute for summer undergraduate research. Among his awards are the Newton Lacy Pierce Prize from the American Astronomical Society. He is the author of How Do You Find an Exoplanet


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Jul 18, 2022
203 | N.J. Enfield on Why Language is Good for Lawyers and Not Scientists
01:24:11

We describe the world using language — we can’t help it. And we all know that ordinary language is an imperfect way of communicating rigorous scientific statements, but sometimes it’s the best we can do. Linguist N.J. Enfield argues that the difficulties run more deeply than we might ordinarily suppose. We use language as a descriptive tool, but its origins are found in more social practices — communicating with others to express our feelings and persuade them to agree with us. As such, the very structure of language itself reflects these social purposes, and we have to be careful not to think it provides an unfiltered picture of reality.

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N.J. Enfield received his Ph.D. in linguistics from the University of Melbourne. He is currently a professor of linguistics and Director of the Sydney Social Sciences and Humanities Advanced Research Centre at the University of Sydney. His recent book is Language vs. Reality: Why Language Is Good for Lawyers and Bad for Scientists.


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Jul 11, 2022
AMA | July 2022
03:26:28

Welcome to the July 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic.

Big news this week! Mindscape is working with Bold.org to sponsor a college scholarship for students interested in studying the fundamental nature of reality. Listeners can find more details and donate here. Our immediate goal is to raise $10,000, and I will match the first $5,000, so this shouldn’t be too hard for us here. Hopefully we can raise much more! And hopefully this will help encourage someone who might not otherwise have been able to study this kind of topic.

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Jul 04, 2022
202 | Andrew Papachristos on the Network Theory of Gun Violence
01:15:19

The United States is suffering from an epidemic of tragic gun violence. While a political debate rages around the topic of gun control, it remains important to understand the causes and possible remedies for gun violence within the current system. Andrew Papachristos is a sociologist who uses applied network science to study patterns of street violence in urban areas. His research shows that such violence is highly non-random; knowing something about the social networks of perpetrators and victims can help identify who might be at heightened risk of gun violence. It’s an interesting example of applying ideas from mathematics and computer science to real-world social situations.

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Andrew Papachristos received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Chicago. He is currently a professor of sociology at Northwestern University, and a faculty fellow at the Institute for Policy Research. He is also founding director of the Northwestern Neighborhoods and Networks Initiative.


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Jun 27, 2022
Wondery Presents: The Execution of Bonny Lee Bakley
00:05:48

On May 4, 2001, Bonny Lee Bakley was found fatally shot in a car on a dark North Hollywood street. The prime suspect was her husband, famed actor Robert Blake. But Bonny, a longtime con artist, had plenty of enemies. She left behind a trail of men she’d scammed, and she had a volatile relationship with Christian Brando, the troubled son of movie star Marlon Brando. 

Not since the O.J. Simpson case had the eyes of the nation been so fixated on a homicide. The search for Bonny’s killer took detectives on an eleven-month odyssey across the country and through Hollywood's underbelly of hustlers, drug addicts, and would-be hitmen. It would be the most expensive murder investigation in LAPD history to date. 

This is the story of Robert and Bonny’s toxic relationship, her shocking murder, and his chaotic trial. Did actor Robert Blake kill his wife? Or was the murder someone else's vendetta?

From Wondery, and the team behind the hit series Hollywood & Crime (The Dating Game Killer, The Wonderland Murders, Death of Starlet) comes a six-part series about love, obsession and fame gone wrong. Co-hosted by Tracy Pattin and Josh Lucas.

wondery.fm/Mindscape_TEOBLB

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Jun 20, 2022
201 | Ed Yong on How Animals Sense the World
01:09:03

All of us construct models of the world, and update them on the basis of evidence brought to us by our senses. Scientists try to be more rigorous about it, but we all do it. It’s natural that this process will depend on what form that sensory input takes. We know that animals, for example, are typically better or worse than humans at sight, hearing, and so on. And as Ed Yong points out in his new book, it goes far beyond that, as many animals use completely different sensory modalities, from echolocation to direct sensing of electric fields. We talk about what those different capabilities might mean for the animal’s-eye (and -ear, etc.) view of the world.

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Ed Yong received Masters and Bachelors degrees in zoology from Cambridge University, and an M.Phil. in biochemistry from University College London. He is currently a staff writer for The Atlantic. His work has appeared in National Geographic, the New Yorker, Wired, the New York Times, and elsewhere. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism for his coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Among his other awards are the George Polk award for science reporting and the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award for in-depth reporting. His new book is An Immense World: How Animal Senses Reveal the Hidden Realms Around Us.


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Jun 20, 2022
AMA | June 2022
03:04:45

Welcome to the June 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! We are inaugurating a slightly different publication schedule, in which these monthly AMA will take the place of one of the regular Monday episodes, rather than being in addition to all of them. A slight tweak that will hopefully make my obligations a little more manageable.

These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!


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Jun 13, 2022
200 | Solo: The Philosophy of the Multiverse
02:14:35

The 200th episode of Mindscape! Thanks to everyone for sticking around for this long. To celebrate, a solo episode discussing a set of issues naturally arising at the intersection of philosophy and physics: how to think about probabilities and expectations in a multiverse. Here I am more about explaining the issues than offering correct answers, although I try to do a bit of that as well.

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References:


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Jun 06, 2022
199 | Elizabeth Cohen on Time and Other Political Values
01:12:55

Time is everywhere, pervading each aspect of intellectual inquiry — from physics to philosophy to biology to psychology, and all the way up to politics. Considerations of time help govern a nation’s self-conception, decide who gets to vote and enjoy other privileges, and put limits on the time spent in office. Not to mention the role of time as a precious commodity, one that is used up every time we stand in line or fill out a collection of forms. Elizabeth Cohen shines a light on the role of time in politics and citizenship, a topic that has been neglected by much political theorizing.

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Elizabeth Cohen received her Ph.D. in political science from Yale University. She is currently a professor of political science at Syracuse, and in March 2023 will move to Boston University to become the Maxwell Professor of United States Citizenship in the Department of Political Science. Among her awards are the Moynihan Award for Outstanding Research and Teaching at Syracuse and the Best Book award from the American Political Science section on Migration and Citizenship, for The Political Value of Time.


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May 30, 2022
198 | Nick Lane on Powering Biology
01:25:29

The origin of life here on Earth was an important and fascinating event, but it was also a long time ago and hasn’t left many pieces of direct evidence concerning what actually happened. One set of clues we have comes from processes in current living organisms, especially those processes that seem extremely common. The Krebs cycle, the sequence of reactions that functions as a pathway for energy distribution in aerobic organisms, is such an example. I talk with biochemist about the importance of the Krebs cycle to contemporary biology, as well as its possible significance in understanding the origin of life.

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Nick Lane received his PhD from the Royal Free Hospital Medical School. He is currently a professor of Evolutionary Biochemistry at University College London. He was a founding member of the UCL Consortium for Mitochondrial Research, and is Co-Director of the UCL Centre for Life’s Origin and Evolution. He was awarded the 2009 UCL Provost’s Venture Research Prize, the 2011 BMC Research Award for Genetics, Genomics, Bioinformatics and Evolution, the 2015 Biochemical Society Award, and the 2016 Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize and Lecture. His new book is Transformer: The Deep Chemistry of Life and Death.


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May 23, 2022
197 | Catherine Brinkley on the Science of Cities
01:08:28

The concept of the city is a crucial one for human civilization: people living in proximity, bringing in resources from outside, separated from the labors of subsistence so they can engage in the trade of goods and ideas. But we are still learning how cities grow and adapt to new conditions, as well as how we can best guide them to be livable as well as functional. I talk with urban scientist Catherine Brinkley about the structure of cities, including the fractal nature of their shapes, as well as what we can do to make cities thrive as much as possible.

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Catherine Brinkley received a Ph.D. in City and Regional Planning as well as a degree in Veterinary Medicine from the University of Pennsylvania. She is currently Associate Professor of Human Ecology and Faculty Director at the Center for Regional Change at the University of California, Davis. She has been awarded fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity, and the Santa Fe Institute.


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May 16, 2022
AMA | May 2022
03:36:17

Welcome to the May 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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May 12, 2022
196 | Judea Pearl on Cause and Effect
01:16:50

To say that event A causes event B is to not only make a claim about our actual world, but about other possible worlds — in worlds where A didn’t happen but everything else was the same, B would not have happened. This leads to an obvious difficulty if we want to infer causes from sets of data — we generally only have data about the actual world. Happily, there are ways around this difficulty, and the study of causal relations is of central importance in modern social science and artificial intelligence research. Judea Pearl has been the leader of the “causal revolution,” and we talk about what that means and what questions remain unanswered.

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Judea Pearl received a Ph.D. in electrical engineering from the Polytechnic Institute of Brooklyn. He is currently a professor of computer science and statistics and director of the Cognitive Systems Laboratory at UCLA. He is a founding editor of the Journal of Causal Inference. Among his awards are the Lakatos Award in the philosophy of science, The Allen Newell Award from the Association for Computing Machinery, the Benjamin Franklin Medal, the Rumelhart Prize from the Cognitive Science Society, the ACM Turing Award, and the Grenander Prize from the American Mathematical Society. He is the co-author (with Dana MacKenzie) of The Book of Why: The New Science of Cause and Effect.


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May 09, 2022
195 | Richard Dawkins on Flight and Other Evolutionary Achievements
01:18:43

Evolution has equipped species with a variety of ways to travel through the air — flapping, gliding, floating, not to mention jumping really high. But it hasn’t invented jet engines. What are the different ways that heavier-than-air objects might be made to fly, and why does natural selection produce some of them but not others? Richard Dawkins has a new book on the subject, Flights of Fancy: Defying Gravity by Design and Evolution. We take the opportunity to talk about other central issues in evolution: levels of selection, the extended phenotype, the role of adaptation, and how genes relate to organisms.

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Richard Dawkins received his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Oxford. He is an emeritus fellow of New College, Oxford, where he was previously the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science. He is an internationally best-selling author, whose books include The Selfish Gene, The Blind Watchmaker, and The God Delusion. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society and the Royal Society of Literature.


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May 02, 2022
194 | Frans de Waal on Culture and Gender in Primates
01:08:17

Humans are related to all other species here on Earth, but some are closer relatives than others. Primates, a group that includes apes, monkeys, lemurs, and others besides ourselves, are our closest relatives, and they exhibit a wide variety of behaviors that we can easily recognize. Frans de Waal is a leading primatologist and ethologist who has long studied cognition and collective behaviors in chimps, bonobos, and other species. His work has established the presence of politics, morality, and empathy in primates. His new book is Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist.


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Frans de Waal received his Ph.D. in biology from Utrecht University. He is currently Charles Howard Candler Professor of Primate Behavior in the Department of Psychology at Emory University and director of the Living Links Center at the Yerkes National Primate Research Center. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and the American Philosophical Society. Among his awards are the Knight of the order of the Netherlands Lion, the Galileo Prize, ASP Distinguished Primatologist, and the PEN/EO Wilson Literary Science Writing Award, not to mention an Ig Nobel Prize.


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Apr 25, 2022
193 | Daniels on Everything, Everywhere, All at Once
01:08:53

Every time we make an important decision, it’s hard not to wonder how things would have turned out had we chosen differently. The set of all those hypothetical lives is a kind of “multiverse” — not one predicted by quantum mechanics or cosmology, but a space of possibilities that is ripe for contemplation. In their new movie Everything Everywhere All At Once, Daniels (the collective moniker for writer/directors Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert) use this idea to tell the story of Evelyn (Michelle Yeoh), who is the “worst” of all her avatars in the multiverse. We talk about philosophy, filmmaking, and how we should all strive to be kind amidst the chaos.

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Daniel Kwan and Daniel Scheinert are writers and directors collectively known as Daniels. They met and formed a collaboration while in film school at Emerson College. They have directed a number of music videos for artists such as DJ Snake and Tenacious D. Their first feature film was Swiss Army Man, starring Daniel Radcliffe.


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Apr 18, 2022
AMA | April 2022
03:27:26

Welcome to the April 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Apr 14, 2022
192 | Nicole Yunger Halpern on Quantum Steampunk Thermodynamics
01:17:12

Randomness and probability are central to modern physics. In statistical mechanics this is because we don’t know everything about the distribution of atoms and molecules in a fluid, so we consider a probability distribution over what they might be; in quantum mechanics it’s because the theory only lets us predict measurement outcomes probabilistically. Physicist Nicole Yunger Halpern explains how we’ve been lagging behind at bringing these two theories together, and how recent progress is changing the landscape of how we think about the microworld.

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Nicole Yunger Halpern received her Ph.D. in physics from Caltech. She is currently a NIST physicist and Adjunct Assistant Professor of Physics and IPST at the University of Maryland. Her Ph.D. thesis won the international Ilya Prigogine Prize for a thermodynamics dissertation. As a postdoc she received the International Quantum Technology Emerging Researcher Award. Her new book is Quantum Steampunk: The Physics of Yesterday’s Tomorrow.


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Apr 11, 2022
191 | Jane McGonigal on How to Imagine the Future
01:21:55

The future grows out of the present, but it manages to consistently surprise us. How can we get better at anticipating and preparing for what the future can be like? Jane McGonigal started out as a game designer, working on the kinds of games that represent miniature worlds with their own rules. This paradigm provides a useful way of thinking about predicting the future: imagining changes in the current world, then gaming out the consequence, allowing real people to produce unexpected emergent outcomes. We talk about the lessons learned that anyone can use to better prepare their brain for the future to come.

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Jane McGonigal received her Ph.D. in performance studies from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently a writer and Director of Games Research and Development at the Institute for the Future. She teaches a course at Stanford on How to Think Like a Futurist. She has developed several games, including SuperBetter, a game she designed to improve health and resilience after suffering from a concussion. Her recent book is Imaginable: How to See the Future Coming and Feel Ready for Anything–Even Things That Seem Impossible Today.


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Apr 04, 2022
190 | Lea Goentoro on Regrowing Limbs
01:03:55

Biological organisms are pretty good at healing themselves, but their abilities fall short in crucial ways. Planaria can be cut into pieces, and each piece will regrow into an entire organism; but for most advanced animals, loss of a limb becomes a permanent condition. But why should that necessarily be so, if an organism’s genome knows what it’s supposed to look like? Lea Goentoro’s lab has recently produced surprising results that indicate that it’s easier than you might think to coax animals into regenerating limbs.

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Lea Goentoro received her Ph.D. in chemical engineering from Princeton University. She is currently Professor of Biology at Caltech. Her research involves how biological systems function and develop across a variety of scales, including perception, organization, and self-repair.


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Mar 28, 2022
189 | Brian Klaas on Power and the Temptation of Corruption
01:22:29

All societies grant more power to some citizens, and there is always a temptation to use that power for the benefit of themselves rather than for the greater good. Power corrupts, we are told — but to what extent is that true? Would any of us, upon receiving great power, be tempted by corruption? Or are corruptible people drawn to accrue power? Brian Klaas has investigated these questions by looking at historical examples and by interviewing hundreds of people who have been in this position. He concludes that power can corrupt, but it doesn’t necessarily do so — we can construct safeguards to keep corruption to a minimum.

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Brian Klaas received his D.Phil. in Politics from the University of Oxford. He is currently Associate Professor in Global Politics at University College London and a columnist for The Washington Post. His new book is Corruptible: Who Gets Power and How it Changes Us. He is host of the Power Corrupts podcast.


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Mar 21, 2022
AMA | March 2022
03:18:32

Welcome to the March 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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Mar 17, 2022
188 | Arik Kershenbaum on What Aliens Will Be Like
01:21:13

If extraterrestrial life is out there — not just microbial slime, but big, complex, macroscopic organisms — what will they be like? Movies have trained us to think that they won’t be that different at all; they’ll even drink and play music at the same cafes that humans frequent. A bit of imagination, however, makes us wonder whether they won’t be completely alien — we have zero data about what extraterrestrial biology could be like, so it makes sense to keep an open mind. Arik Kershenbaum argues for a judicious middle ground. He points to constraints from physics and chemistry, as well as the tendency of evolution to converge toward successful designs, as reasons to think that biologically complex aliens won’t be utterly different from us after all.

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Arik Kershenbaum received his Ph.D. in Evolutionary Biology and Ecology from the University of Haifa. He is currently College Lecturer and Director of Studies at Girton College, University of Cambridge. He is the author of The Zoologist’s Guide to the Galaxy: What Animals on Earth Reveal About Aliens — and Ourselves.


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Mar 14, 2022
187 | Andrew Leigh on the Politics of Looming Disasters
01:20:38

We’re pretty well-calibrated when it comes to dealing with common, everyday-level setbacks. But our brains aren’t naturally equipped for dealing with unlikely but world-catastrophic disasters. Yet such threats are real, both natural and human-induced. We need to collectively get better at anticipating and preparing for them, at the level of political action. Andrew Leigh is an academic and author who now serves in the Parliament of Australia. We discuss how to move the conversation about existential risks from the ivory tower to implementation in real policies.

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Andrew Leigh received his Ph.D. in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. He is a member of the Australian House of Representatives representing Fenner. He was previously a professor of economics at Australian National University, and has served as Shadow Assistant Minister for Treasury and Charities. His recent book is What’s the Worst That Could Happen? Existential Risk and Extreme Politics.


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Mar 07, 2022
186 | Sherry Turkle on How Technology Affects Our Humanity
01:11:38

Advances in technology have gradually been extending the human self beyond its biological extent, as we augment who we are with a variety of interconnected devices. There are obvious benefits to this — it lets us text our friends, listen to podcasts, and not get lost in strange cities. But as it changes how we interact with other people, it’s important to consider the possible downsides. Sherry Turkle is a psychologist and writer who specializes in the relationship between humans and their technology. She makes the case for not forgetting about empathy, conversation, and even the occasional imperfection in how we present ourselves to the world.

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Sherry Turkle received her Ph.D. in sociology and personality psychology from Harvard University. She is currently Abby Rockefeller Mauzé Professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology in the Program in Science, Technology, and Society at MIT, founding director of the MIT Initiative on Technology and Self, and a licensed clinical psychologist. Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, a Rockefeller Humanities Fellowship, the Harvard Centennial Medal, and she was named “Woman of the Year” by Ms. Magazine. Her new book is The Empathy Diaries: A Memoir.


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Feb 28, 2022
185 | Arvid Ågren on the Gene’s-Eye View of Evolution
01:25:47

One of the brilliant achievements of Darwin’s theory of natural selection was to help explain apparently “purposeful” or “designed” aspects of biology in a purely mechanistic theory of unguided evolution. Features are good if they help organisms survive. But should we put organisms at the center of our attention, or the genetic information that governs those features? Arvid Ågren helps us understand the attraction of the “selfish gene” view of evolution, as well as its shortcomings. This biological excursion has deep connections to philosophical issues of levels and emergence.

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Arvid Ågren received his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of Toronto. He is currently a Wenner-Gren Fellow at the Evolutionary Biology Centre at Uppsala University. Previously he worked at Cornell and Harvard. His recent book is The Gene’s-Eye View of Evolution.


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Feb 21, 2022
184 | Gary Marcus on Artificial Intelligence and Common Sense
01:24:17

Artificial intelligence is everywhere around us. Deep-learning algorithms are used to classify images, suggest songs to us, and even to drive cars. But the quest to build truly “human” artificial intelligence is still coming up short. Gary Marcus argues that this is not an accident: the features that make neural networks so powerful also prevent them from developing a robust common-sense view of the world. He advocates combining these techniques with a more symbolic approach to constructing AI algorithms.

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Gary Marcus received his Ph.D. in cognitive science from MIT. He is founder and CEO of Robust.AI, and was formerly a professor of psychology at NYU as well as founder of Geometric Intelligence. Among his books are Rebooting AI: Building Machines We Can Trust (with Ernest Davis).


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Feb 14, 2022
AMA | February 2022
04:15:39

Welcome to the February 2022 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Feb 10, 2022
183 | Michael Dine on Supersymmetry, Anthropics, and the Future of Particle Physics
01:39:43

Modern particle physics is a victim of its own success. We have extremely good theories — so good that it’s hard to know exactly how to move beyond them, since they agree with all the experiments. Yet, there are strong indications from theoretical considerations and cosmological data that we need to do better. But the leading contenders, especially supersymmetry, haven’t yet shown up in our experiments, leading some to wonder whether anthropic selection is a better answer. Michael Dine gives us an expert’s survey of the current situation, with pointers to what might come next.

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Michael Dine received his Ph.D. in physics from Yale University. He is Distinguished Professor of Physics at the Santa Cruz Institute for Particle Physics, University of California, Santa Cruz. Among his awards are fellowships from the Sloan Foundation, Guggenheim Foundation, American Physical Society, and American Academy of Arts and Sciences, as well as the Sakurai Prize for theoretical particle physics. His new book is This Way to the Universe: A Theoretical Physicist’s Journey to the Edge of Reality.


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Feb 07, 2022
182 | Sally Haslanger on Social Construction and Critical Theory
01:37:34

Reality is just out there — but how we perceive reality and talk about it depends on choices we human beings make. We decide (consciously or not) to conceptualize the world in certain ways, whether it’s because those ways provide elegant predictive descriptions or because they serve a more subtle political purpose. To get at the true nature of reality, therefore, it’s important to think about which aspects of it are socially constructed, and why. I talk with Sally Haslanger about these issues, and the techniques we can use to understand the world and make it a better place.

Update (22 March): Our discussion here could have (and did) leave some listeners with the wrong impression of how Sally and I feel about trans rights -- we are entirely for them! My fault for not making things more clear during the conversation. So I have added a brief note during the podcast intro to make our position perfectly explicit. Thanks to everyone who commented.

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Sally Haslanger received her Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently the Ford Professor of Philosophy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Among her awards are the Carus Lectureship, the Distinguished Woman Philosopher award, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the author of several books, including Resisting Reality: Social Construction and Social Critique.


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Jan 31, 2022
181 | Peter Dodds on Quantifying the Shape of Stories
01:16:47

A good story takes you on an emotional journey, with ups and downs along the way. Thanks to science, we can quantify that. Peter Dodds works on understanding the structure of stories and other strings of words (including Twitter) by analyzing the valence of individual words, then studying how they are strung together in different kinds of stories. Understanding these structures offers powerful insight into how people communicate and how to reach them. As Peter says, “Never bring statistics to a story fight.”

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Peter Dodds received his Ph.D. in mathematics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He is currently a professor of computer science at the University of Vermont and Director of the Vermont Complex Systems Center. He has won multiple teaching awards, and was elected a Fellow of the Network Science Society.


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Jan 24, 2022
180 | Camilla Pang on Instructions for Being Human
01:03:40

Being a human is tricky. There are any number of unwritten rules and social cues that we have to learn as we go, but that we ultimately learn to take for granted. Camilla Pang, who was diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder at age eight, had a harder time than most, as she didn’t easily perceive the rules of etiquette and relationships that we need to deal with each other. But she ultimately figured them out, with the help of analogies and examples from different fields of science. We talk about these rules, and how science can help us think about them.

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Camilla Pang received her Ph.D. in computational biology from University College London. She is currently a postdoctoral researcher in pharmaceuticals and a volunteer cancer researcher at the Francis Crick Institute. She was awarded the Royal Society Prize for Science Books in 2020 for her book Explaining Humans: What Science Can Teach Us about Life, Love, and Relationships (US title: An Outsider’s Guide to Humans: What Science Taught Me about What We Do and Who We Are).


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Jan 17, 2022
179 | David Reich on Genetics and Ancient Humanity
01:13:20

Human beings like to divide themselves into groups, and then cooperate, socialize, and reproduce with members of their own group. But they’re not very absolutist about it; groups tend to gradually (or suddenly) intermingle, as people explore, intermarry, or conquer each other. David Reich has pioneered the use of genetic data in uncovering the history of ancient humanity: what groups existed where and when, and how they interacted. The result is a picture of churning populations in constant flux, including “ghost populations” that no longer exist today.

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David Reich received his Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Oxford. He is currently a professor of genetics at Harvard Medical School. Among his awards are the Dan David Prize, the National Academy of Sciences Award in Molecular Biology, the Wiley Prize, the Darwin-Wallace Medal, and the Massry Prize. He is the author of Who We Are and How We Got Here: Ancient DNA and the New Science of the Human Past.


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Jan 10, 2022
178 | Jody Azzouni on What Is and Isn't Real
01:14:31

Are numbers real? What does that even mean? You can’t kick a number. But you can talk about numbers in useful ways, and we use numbers to talk about the real world. There’s surely a kind of reality there. On the other hand, Luke Skywalker isn’t a real person, but we talk about him all the time. Maybe we can talk about unreal things in useful ways. Jody Azzouni is one of the leading contemporary advocates of nominalism, the view that abstract objects are not “things,” they are merely labels we use in talking about things. A deeply philosophical issue, but one that has implications for how we think about physics and the laws of nature.

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Jody Azzouni received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the City University of New York. He is currently a professor of philosophy at Tufts University. In addition to his philosophical work, he is an active writer of fiction and poetry.


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Jan 03, 2022
Holiday Message 2021 | On Disciplines & Cocktails
00:59:13

As each December comes to a close, we wrap up another year of podcasts with the Mindscape Holiday Message. Nothing too profound, just some thoughts that wouldn’t fit easily into a regular podcast. This year we’re talking about academic disciplines and cocktails. What do they have in common, you may ask? Listen and find out!

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Mindscape will be dark on Monday December 27, and will resume regular programming on Monday January 3. Here are the two books I mentioned in the podcast, and the one essay:


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Dec 20, 2021
AMA | December 2021
03:37:53

Welcome to the December 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Note that there will be no January AMA, for purposes of a holiday break. Enjoy!

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Dec 15, 2021
177 | Monika Schleier-Smith on Cold Atoms and Emergent Spacetime
01:10:44

When it comes to thinking about quantum mechanics, there are levels. One level is shut-up-and-calculate: find a wave function, square it to get a probability. One level is foundational: dig deeply into the underlying ontology. But there’s a level in between, long neglected but recently coming to life. In this level you think about — or do experiments with — entangled quantum systems in the real world, putting entanglement to use. Monika Schleier-Smith is an experimental physicist specializing in cold atoms, which can be both entangled and manipulated. We discuss how to use such systems to study everything from metrology to quantum gravity.

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Monika Schleier-Smith received her Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is currently an Associate Professor of Physics at Stanford University. Among her awards are a MacArthur Fellowship, a Sloan Fellowship, and the I. I. Rabi Prize in Atomic, Molecular, and Optical Physics from the American Physical Society.


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Dec 13, 2021
176 | Joshua Greene on Morality, Psychology, and Trolley Problems
01:26:27

We all know you can’t derive “ought” from “is.” But it’s equally clear that “is” — how the world actual works — is going to matter for “ought” — our moral choices in the world. And an important part of “is” is who we are as human beings. As products of a messy evolutionary history, we all have moral intuitions. What parts of the brain light up when we’re being consequentialist, or when we’re following rules? What is the relationship, if any, between those intuitions and a good moral philosophy? Joshua Greene is both a philosopher and a psychologist who studies what our intuitions are, and uses that to help illuminate what morality should be. He gives one of the best defenses of utilitarianism I’ve heard.

Bonus! Joshua is a co-founder of Giving Multiplier, an effective-altruism program that lets you donate to your personal favorite causes and also get matching donations to charities that have been judged to be especially effective. He was kind enough to set up a special URL for Mindscape listeners, where their donations will be matched at a higher rate of up to 100%. That lets you get matching donations when you donate to a personal favorite cause along with a charity that has been judged to be especially effective. Check out https://givingmultiplier.org/mindscape.

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Joshua Greene received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. He is currently Professor of Psychology and a member of the Center for Brain Science faculty at Harvard University. His an originator of the dual-process model of moral reasoning. Among his awards are the the Stanton Prize from the Society for Philosophy and Psychology and Harvard’s Roslyn Abramson Award for teaching. He is the author of Moral Tribes: Emotion, Reason, and the Gap Between Us and Them.


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Dec 06, 2021
175 | William Ratcliff on Multicellularity, Physics, and Evolution
01:26:47

We’ve talked about the very origin of life, but certain transitions along its subsequent history were incredibly important. Perhaps none more so than the transition from unicellular to multicellular organisms, which made possible an incredible diversity of organisms and structures. Will Ratcliff studies the physics that constrains multicellular structures, examines the minute changes in certain yeast cells that allows them to become multicellular, and does long-term evolution experiments in which multicellularity spontaneously evolves and grows. We can’t yet create life from non-life, but we can reproduce critical evolutionary steps in the lab.

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William Ratcliff received his Ph.D. in Ecology, Evolution, and Behavior at the University of Minnesota. He is currently Associate Professor in the School of Biological Sciences at Georgia Tech. Among his awards are a Packard Fellowship and being named in Popular Science‘s “Brilliant 10” of 2016.


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Nov 29, 2021
174 | Tai-Danae Bradley on Algebra, Topology, Language, and Entropy
01:21:32

Mathematics is often thought of as the pinnacle of crisp precision: the square of the hypotenuse of a right triangle isn’t “roughly” the sum of the squares of the other two sides, it’s exactly that. But we live in a world of messy imprecision, and increasingly we need sophisticated techniques to quantify and deal with approximate statistical relations rather than perfect ones. Modern mathematicians have noticed, and are taking up the challenge. Tai-Danae Bradley is a mathematician who employs very high-level ideas — category theory, topology, quantum probability theory — to analyze real-world phenomena like the structure of natural-language speech. We explore a number of cool ideas and what kinds of places they are leading us to.

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Tai-Danae Bradley received her Ph.D. in mathematics from the CUNY Graduate Center. She is currently a research mathematician at Alphabet, visiting research professor of mathematics at The Master’s University, and executive director of the Math3ma Institute. She hosts an explanatory mathematics blog, Math3ma. She is the co-author of the graduate-level textbook Topology: A Categorical Approach.


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Nov 22, 2021
AMA | November 2021
03:54:58

Welcome to the November 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Nov 17, 2021
173 | Sylvia Earle on the Oceans, the Planet, and People
01:11:32

It’s a well-worn cliché that oceans cover seventy percent of the surface of Earth, but we tend to give them secondary consideration when thinking about the environment. But climate change is wreaking havoc on the oceans, not to mention pollution and overfishing — 90% of the world’s marine fish stocks are fully exploited or depleted. Today’s guest, Sylvia Earle, is a well-known ocean scientist, a celebrated underwater explorer, and a tireless advocate for the world’s oceans. We talk about the current state of our oceans, what we know and have yet to learn about them, and what we can do individually and collectively to make things better.

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Sylvia Earle received her Ph.D. in phycology from Duke University. She is currently National Geographic’s Rosemary and Roger Enrico Chair for Ocean Exploration, as well as founder of Mission Blue, SEAlliance and Deep Ocean Exploration and Research. She formerly served as Chief Scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Among her awards are the TED Prize, the National Women’s Hall of Fame, and the inaugural Lifetime Achievement Award from the Seattle Aquarium. She is the author of several books, the most recent of which is National Geographic Ocean: A Global Odyssey.


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Nov 15, 2021
172 | David Goyer on Televising the Fall of the Galactic Empire
01:16:55

Science and storytelling have a long and tumultuous relationship. Scientists sometimes want stories to be just an advertisement for how awesome science is; storytellers sometimes want to use science for a few cheap thrills before abandoning it in the morning. But science is about ideas, and ideas can make for thrilling stories when done well. David Goyer is an accomplished screenwriter and director who has taken up a daunting task: adapting Isaac Asimov’s famous Foundation series for TV. (Available on Apple TV now.) We talk about the challenge of making a television version of a beloved series whose central character is a mathematician, and how science and storytelling relate to each other more generally.

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David Goyer graduated from the University of Southern California’s School of Cinematic Arts. He has written stories or screenplays for a number of well-known films, including Dark City, Blade, the Dark Knight trilogy, Man of Steel, and Batman v Superman, as well as TV series such as FlashForward and Constantine. He has also directed and produced numerous films and shows. He has written novels, comic books, and video games such as Call of Duty: Black Ops. In addition to Foundation, he is currently working on a TV adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels. Episodes of Foundation are released every Friday; the finale of the first season will be available Nov. 19.


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Nov 08, 2021
171 | Christopher Mims on Our Interconnected Industrial Ecology
01:27:10

As the holidays approach, we are being reminded of the fragility of the global supply chain. But at the same time, the supply chain itself is a truly impressive and fascinating structure, made as it is from multiple components that must work together in synchrony. From building an item in a factory and shipping it worldwide to transporting it locally, processing it in a distribution center, and finally delivering it to an address, the system is simultaneously awe-inspiring and deeply dehumanizing. I talk with Christopher Mims about how things are made, how they get to us, and what it all means for the present and future of our work and our lives.

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Christopher Mims received a bachelor’s degree in neuroscience and behavioral biology from Emory University. He is currently a technology columnist at The Wall Street Journal. He has previously written for publications such as Wired, Scientific American, The Atlantic, and Smithsonian. His new book is Arriving Today: From Factory to Front Door — Why Everything Has Changed About How and What We Buy.


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Nov 01, 2021
170 | Priya Natarajan on Galaxies, Black Holes, and Cosmic Anomalies
01:27:52

There is so much we don’t know about our universe. But our curiosity about the unknown shouldn’t blind us to the incredible progress we have made in cosmology over the last century. We know the universe is big, expanding, and accelerating. Modern cosmologists are using unprecedentedly precise datasets to uncover more details about the evolution and structure of galaxies and the distribution and nature of dark matter. Priya Natarajan is a cosmologist working at the interface of data, theory, and simulation. We talk about the state of modern cosmology, and how tools like gravitational lensing are providing us with detailed views of what’s happening in the distant universe.

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Priya Natarajan received her Ph.D. in astrophysics from the University of Cambridge. She is currently professor of astronomy at Yale University, the Sophie and Tycho Brahe Professor at the Niels Bohr Institute of the University of Copenhagen, and an honorary professor for life at the University of Delhi, India. She is an Affiliate at the Black Hole Initiative at Harvard University and an Associate Member of the Center for Computational Astrophysics at the Flatiron Institute in New York. She is a frequent contributor to the New York Review of Books and other publications. Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the India Abroad Foundation’s “Face of the Future” Award, and an India Empire NRI award for Achievement in the Sciences. She is the author of Mapping the Heavens: The Radical Scientific Ideas That Reveal the Cosmos.


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Oct 25, 2021
169 | C. Thi Nguyen on Games, Art, Values, and Agency
01:24:12

Games are everywhere, but why exactly do we play them? It seems counterintuitive, to artificially invent goals and obstacles just so we can struggle to achieve them. (And in some games, like Twister, the fun is in losing, even though you’re supposed to try to win.) C. Thi Nguyen is a philosopher who has developed a theory of games as an art form whose medium is agency. Within each game, we have defined goals, powers, and choices, and by playing different games we can experiment with different forms of agency. A dark side of this idea is to be found in “gamification” — turning ordinary-life activities into a game. Games give us clarity of values, and that clarity can be seductive but misleading, leading people to turn to conspiracy theories about the real world.

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C. Thi Nguyen received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently associate professor of Philosophy at the University of Utah. He has written public philosophy for venues such as Aeon and The New York Times, and is an editor of the aesthetics blog Aesthetics for Birds. He was the recipient of the 2020 Article Prize from the American Philosophical Association. His recent book is Games: Agency as Art.


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Oct 18, 2021
AMA | October 2021
02:59:09

Welcome to the October 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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Oct 14, 2021
168 | Anil Seth on Emergence, Information, and Consciousness
01:25:00

Those of us who think that that the laws of physics underlying everyday life are completely known tend to also think that consciousness is an emergent phenomenon that must be compatible with those laws. To hold such a position in a principled way, it’s important to have a clear understanding of “emergence” and when it happens. Anil Seth is a leading researcher in the neuroscience of consciousness, who has also done foundational work (often in collaboration with Lionel Barnett) on what emergence means. We talk about information theory, entropy, and what they have to do with how things emerge.

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Anil Seth received his D.Phil in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence from the University of Sussex. He is currently a professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience at Sussex, as well as co-director of the Sackler Centre for Consciousness Science. He has served as the president of the Psychology Section of the British Science Association, and is Editor-in-Chief of the journal Neuroscience of Consciousness. His new book is Being You: A New Science of Consciousness.


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Oct 11, 2021
167 | Chiara Marletto on Constructor Theory, Physics, and Possibility
01:35:14

Traditional physics works within the “Laplacian paradigm”: you give me the state of the universe (or some closed system), some equations of motion, then I use those equations to evolve the system through time. Constructor theory proposes an alternative paradigm: to think of physical systems in terms of counterfactuals — the set of rules governing what can and cannot happen. Originally proposed by David Deutsch, constructor theory has been developed by today’s guest, Chiara Marletto, and others. It might shed new light on quantum gravity and fundamental physics, as well as having applications to higher-level processes of thermodynamics and biology.

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Chiara Marletto received her DPhil in physics from the University of Oxford. She is currently a research fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her new book is The Science of Can and Can’t: A Physicist’s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals.


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Oct 04, 2021
166 | Betül Kaçar on Paleogenomics and Ancient Life
01:14:17

In the question to understand the biology of life, we are (so far) limited to what happened here on Earth. That includes the diversity of biological organisms today, but also its entire past history. Using modern genomic techniques, we can extrapolate backward to reconstruct the genomes of primitive organisms, both to learn about life’s early stages and to guide our ideas about life elsewhere. I talk with astrobiologist Betül Kaçar about paleogenomics and our prospects for finding (or creating!) life in the universe.

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Betül Kaçar received her PhD in biomolecular chemistry from Emory University. She is currently an assistant professor in the Department of Bacteriology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is also principal investigator of Project MUSE, a NASA-funded astrobiology research initiative and an associate professor (adjunct) at Earth-Life Science Institute of Tokyo Institute of Technology. Among her awards are a NASA Early Career Faculty Fellow in 2019, and a Scialog Fellow for the search for life in the universe.


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Sep 27, 2021
165 | Kathryn Paige Harden on Genetics, Luck, and Fairness
01:25:24

It's pretty clear that our genes affect, though they don't completely determine, who we grow up to be; children’s physical and mental characteristics are not completely unrelated to those of their parents. But this relationship has been widely abused throughout history to underwrite racist and sexist ideas. So there has been a counter-reaction in the direction of removing any consideration of genetic heritage from how we understand people. Kathryn Paige Harden argues in favor of a more nuanced view: DNA does matter, we can clearly measure some of its effects, and understanding those effects is a crucial tool in fighting discrimination and making the world a more equitable place.

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Kathryn Paige Harden received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Virginia. She is currently a professor in the Department of Psychology at the University of Texas at Austin. She is the leader of the Developmental Behavior Genetics Lab and co-director of the Texas Twin Project. She was the recipient of the Award for Distinguished Scientific Early Career Contributions to Psychology from the American Psychological Association. Her new book is The Genetic Lottery: Why DNA Matters for Social Equality.


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Sep 20, 2021
AMA | September 2021
03:38:49

Welcome to the September 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Sep 16, 2021
164 | Herbert Gintis on Game Theory, Evolution, and Social Rationality
01:29:42

How human beings behave is, for fairly evident reasons, a topic of intense interest to human beings. And yet, not only is there much we don’t understand about human behavior, different academic disciplines seem to have developed completely incompatible models to try to explain it. And as today’s guest Herb Gintis complains, they don’t put nearly enough effort into talking to each other to try to reconcile their views. So that what he’s here to do. Using game theory and a model of rational behavior — with an expanded notion of “rationality” that includes social as well as personally selfish interests — he thinks that we can come to an understanding that includes ideas from biology, economics, psychology, and sociology, to more accurately account for how people actually behave.

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Herbert Gintis received his PhD in economics from Harvard University. After a long career as professor of economics at the University of Massachusetts, he is currently a professor at Central European University and an External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute. His book Schooling in Capitalist America, written with frequent collaborator Samuel Bowles, is considered a classic in educational reform. He has published books and papers on economics, game theory, sociology, evolution, and numerous other topics.


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Sep 13, 2021
163 | Nigel Goldenfeld on Phase Transitions, Criticality, and Biology
01:31:35

Physics is extremely good at describing simple systems with relatively few moving parts. Sadly, the world is not like that; many phenomena of interest are complex, with multiple interacting parts and interesting things happening at multiple scales of length and time. One area where the techniques of physics overlap with the multi-scale property of complex systems is in the study of phase transitions, when a composite system transitions from one phase to another. Nigel Goldenfeld has made important contributions to the study of phase transitions in their own right (and mathematical techniques for dealing with them), and has also been successful at leveraging that understanding to study biological systems, from the genetic code to the tree of life.

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Nigel Goldenfeld received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Cambridge. He currently holds the Chancellor's Distinguished Professorship in Physics at UC San Diego. Until recently he was a Swanlund Endowed Chair and Center for Advanced Study Professor in Physics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Among his awards are the Xerox Award for research, the A. Nordsieck award for excellence in graduate teaching, and the American Physical Society’s Leo P. Kadanoff Prize. He is the co-founder of NumeriX, a company that specializes in high-performance software for the derivatives marketplace.


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Sep 06, 2021
162 | Leidy Klotz on Our Resistance to Subtractive Change
01:14:22

There is no general theory of problem-solving, or even a reliable set of principles that will usually work. It’s therefore interesting to see how our brains actually go about solving problems. Here’s an interesting feature that you might not have guessed: when faced with an imperfect situation, our first move to improve it tends to involve adding new elements, rather than taking away. We are, in general, resistant to subtractive change. Leidy Klotz is an engineer and designer who has worked with psychologists and neuroscientists to study this phenomenon. We talk about how our relative blindness to subtractive possibilities manifests itself, and what lessons might be for design more generally.

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Leidy Klotz received his Ph.D. in Architectural Engineering from Penn State University. He is currently Copenhaver Associate Professor of Engineering Systems and Environment and Architecture at the University of Virginia. Before becoming a professor, he worked as a school designer, and before that was a professional soccer player for the Pittsburgh Riverhounds. His new book is Subtract: The Untapped Science of Less.


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Aug 30, 2021
161 | W. Brian Arthur on Complexity Economics
01:35:43

Economies in the modern world are incredibly complex systems. But when we sit down to think about them in quantitative ways, it’s natural to keep things simple at first. We look for reliable relations between small numbers of variables, seek equilibrium configurations, and so forth. But those approaches don’t always work in complex systems, and sometimes we have to use methods that are specifically adapted to the challenges of complexity. That’s the perspective of W. Brian Arthur, a pioneer in the field of complexity economics, according to which economies are typically not in equilibrium, not made of homogeneous agents, and are being constantly updated. We talk about the basic ideas of complexity economics, how it differs from more standard approaches, and what it teaches us about the operation of real economies.

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W. Brian Arthur received his Ph.D. in operations research from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently an External Faculty Member at the Santa Fe Institute, IBM Faculty Fellow, and Visiting Researcher in the Intelligent Systems Lab at PARC. He was formerly the Morrison Professor of Economics and Population Studies and Professor of Biology at Stanford. He is known for developing the theory of increasing returns in economics. Among his awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Schumpeter Prize in economics, and the Lagrange Prize for complexity.


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Aug 23, 2021
160 | Edward Slingerland on Confucianism, Daoism, and Wu Wei
01:23:45

Plato and Aristotle founded much of what we think of as Western philosophy during the fourth and fifth centuries BCE. Interestingly, that historical period also witnessed the foundation of some of the major schools of Chinese philosophy, especially Confucianism and Daoism. This is a long-overdue discussion of ancient Chinese ideas, featuring philosopher and religious-studies scholar Edward Slingerland. We talk about the relationship between these two schools of thought, and their differences and similarities with Western philosophy. One of the biggest ideas is wu wei, or “effortless action” — the way that true mastery consists of doing things without too much conscious control. Today we would call it “flow” or “being in the zone,” but the idea stretches back quite a ways.

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Edward Slingerland received his Ph.D. in religious studies from Stanford. He is currently Distinguished University Scholar, Professor of Philosophy, and Associate Member of the departments of Asian Studies and Psychology at the University of British Columbia. He is Director of the Database of Religious History, and co-director of the Center for the Study of Human Evolution, Cognition, and Culture. Among his books are Trying Not to Try: Ancient China, Modern Science, and the Power of Spontaneity, and a translation of Confucius’s Analects. His new book is Drunk: How We Sipped, Danced, and Stumbled Our Way to Civilization.


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Aug 16, 2021
AMA | August 2021
03:11:11

Welcome to the August 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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Aug 12, 2021
159 | Mari Ruti on Lack, Love, and Psychoanalysis
01:49:44

Neuroscience has given us great insights into how our brains work. But there is still room for purely humanistic disciplines to help us think through our thoughts and emotions, not to mention the meaning of our lives. Mari Ruti is a professor of English literature, with expertise in critical theory, gender studies, and psychoanalysis, especially the work of French theorist Jacques Lacan. We talk about the psychological drive that is motivated by what Lacan calls “lack,” which is related to “desire.” We use this as a way to think about such essential human experiences as mourning, creativity, and love. (We don’t talk about love enough here on the podcast.)

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Mari Ruti received her Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard University. She is currently a Distinguished Professor of critical theory and gender and sexuality studies at the University of Toronto. She is the co-editor of the Psychoanalytic Horizons book series for Bloomsbury.


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Aug 09, 2021
158 | David Wallace on the Arrow of Time
01:47:58

The arrow of time — all the ways in which the past differs from the future — is a fascinating subject because it connects everyday phenomena (memory, aging, cause and effect) to deep questions in physics and philosophy. At its heart is the fact that entropy increases over time, which in turn can be traced to special conditions in the early universe. David Wallace is one of the world’s leading philosophers working on the foundations of physics, including space and time as well as quantum mechanics. We talk about how increasing entropy gives rise to the arrow of time, and what it is about the early universe that makes this happen. Then we cannot help but connecting this story to features of the Many-Worlds (Everett) interpretation of quantum mechanics.

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David Wallace received a D.Phil. in Physics and a D.Phil. in Philosophy from Oxford University. He is currently W.A. Mellon Professor of Philosophy of Science, with joint appointments in the Philosophy Department and the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of The Emergent Multiverse: Quantum Theory According to the Everett Interpretation. Among his honors are the Lakatos Award for outstanding contribution to the philosophy of science. His most recent book is Philosophy of Physics: A Very Short Introduction.


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Aug 02, 2021
157 | Elizabeth Strychalski on Synthetic Cells and the Rules of Biology
01:17:30

Natural selection has done a pretty good job at creating a wide variety of living species, but we humans can’t help but wonder whether we could do better. Using existing genomes as a starting point, biologists are getting increasingly skilled at designing organisms of our own imagination. But to do that, we need a better understanding of what different genes in our DNA actually do. Elizabeth Strychalski and collaborators recently announced the construction of a synthetic microbial organism that self-reproduces just like a normal unicellular creature. This work will help us understand the roles of genes in reproduction, one step on the road to making DNA molecules and artificial cells that will perform a variety of medical and biological tasks.

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Elizabeth Strychalski received her Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University. She is the founder and current leader of the Cellular Engineering Group at the National Institute of Standards and Technology. She serves on the steering group for the Build-A-Cell collaboration.


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Jul 26, 2021
156 | Catherine D’Ignazio on Data, Objectivity, and Bias
01:28:13

How can data be biased? Isn’t it supposed to be an objective reflection of the real world? We all know that these are somewhat naive rhetorical questions, since data can easily inherit bias from the people who collect and analyze it, just as an algorithm can make biased suggestions if it’s trained on biased datasets. A better question is, how do biases creep in, and what can we do about them? Catherine D’Ignazio is an MIT professor who has studied how biases creep into our data and algorithms, and even into the expression of values that purport to protect objective analysis. We discuss examples of these processes and how to use data to make things better.

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Catherine D’Ignazio received a Master of Fine Arts from Maine College of Art and a Master of Science in Media Arts and Sciences from the MIT Media Lab. She is currently an assistant professor of Urban Science and Planning and Director of the Data+Feminism Lab at MIT. She is the co-author, with Lauren F. Klein, of the book Data Feminism.


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Jul 19, 2021
155 | Stephen Wolfram on Computation, Hypergraphs, and Fundamental Physics
02:40:45

It’s not easy, figuring out the fundamental laws of physics. It’s even harder when your chosen methodology is to essentially start from scratch, positing a simple underlying system and a simple set of rules for it, and hope that everything we know about the world somehow pops out. That’s the project being undertaken by Stephen Wolfram and his collaborators, who are working with a kind of discrete system called “hypergraphs.” We talk about what the basic ideas are, why one would choose this particular angle of attack on fundamental physics, and how ideas like quantum mechanics and general relativity might emerge from this simple framework.

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Stephen Wolfram received his Ph.D. in physics from Caltech. He is the founder and CEO of Wolfram Research, and the creator of Mathematica, Wolfram|Alpha, and the Wolfram Language. Among his awards are a MacArthur Fellowship. Among his books is A New Kind of Science. He recently launched the Wolfram Physics Project.


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Jul 12, 2021
AMA | July 2021
03:48:59

Welcome to the July 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Jul 09, 2021
154 | Reza Aslan on Religion, Metaphor, and Meaning
01:25:47

Religion is an important part of the lives of billions of people around the world, but what religious belief actually amounts to can vary considerably from person to person. Some believe in an anthropomorphic, judgmental God; others conceive of God as more transcendent and conceptual; some are animists who attribute spiritual essence to creatures and objects; and many more. I talk with writer and religious scholar Reza Aslan about his view of religion as a vocabulary constructed by human beings to express a connection with something beyond the physical world — why one might think that, and what it implies about how we should go about living our lives.

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Reza Aslan received his Ph.D. in sociology from the University of California, Santa Barbara. He is currently a professor of creative writing at the University of California, Riverside. He is the author of numerous books, including No God but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of IslamZealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth; and God: A Human History. He has also worked in television, producing and writing documentaries, and serving as a consulting producer for the drama series The Leftovers. He recently started a podcast, Metaphysical Milkshake, with actor Rainn Wilson.


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Jul 05, 2021
153 | John Preskill on Quantum Computers and What They’re Good For
01:32:52

Depending on who you listen to, quantum computers are either the biggest technological change coming down the road or just another overhyped bubble. Today we’re talking with a good person to listen to: John Preskill, one of the leaders in modern quantum information science. We talk about what a quantum computer is and promising technologies for actually building them. John emphasizes that quantum computers are tailor-made for simulating the behavior of quantum systems like molecules and materials; whether they will lead to breakthroughs in cryptography or optimization problems is less clear. Then we relate the idea of quantum information back to gravity and the emergence of spacetime. (If you want to build and run your own quantum algorithm, try the IBM Quantum Experience.)

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John Preskill received his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He is currently the Richard P. Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics at Caltech and the Davis Leadership Chair at the Institute for Quantum Information and Matter, as well as an Amazon Scholar at Amazon Web Services. Before moving into quantum information, he was a leading researcher in quantum field theory and black holes. He is the winner of multiple bets with Stephen Hawking.


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Jun 28, 2021
152 | Charis Kubrin on Criminology, Incarceration, and Hip-Hop
01:19:38

It’s all well and good to talk abstractly about morality and justice, but at some point you have to sit down and figure out what to do about people who break the rules. In our modern legal system, mostly that involves incarceration, especially for so-called “street crimes.” Here in the US, we’ve taken that strategy to extremes, leading the world in the number of incarcerated people per capita. How do we decide who goes to prison, and how should we decide? I talk with criminologist Charis Kubrin on how the justice system distinguishes guilt from innocence. We discuss one interesting issue at length: the use of rap lyrics written by defendants as evidence of guilt. What role should artistic creations play in deciding someone’s culpability of a crime?

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Charis Kubrin received her Ph.D. from the University of Washington. She is currently a professor of Criminology and Law and Society at the University of California, Irvine. She is co-author of the textbook Introduction to Criminal Justice: a Sociological Perspective. Among her awards are the Ruth Shonie Cavan Award and the Coramae Richey Mann Award from the American Society of Criminology, and the W.E.B. DuBois Award and the Paul Tappan Award from the Western Society of Criminology.


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Jun 21, 2021
151 | Jordan Ellenberg on the Mathematics of Political Boundaries
01:23:43

Any system in which politicians represent geographical districts with boundaries chosen by the politicians themselves is vulnerable to gerrymandering: carving up districts to increase the amount of seats that a given party is expected to win. But even fairly-drawn boundaries can end up quite complex, so how do we know that a given map is unfairly skewed? Math comes to the rescue. We can ask whether the likely outcome of a given map is very unusual within the set of all possible reasonable maps. That’s a hard math problem, however — the set of all possible maps is pretty big — so we have to be clever to solve it. I talk with geometer Jordan Ellenberg about how ideas like random walks and Markov chains help us judge the fairness of political boundaries.

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Jordan Ellenberg received his Ph.D. in mathematics from Harvard University in 1998. He is currently the John D. MacArthur professor of mathematics at the University of Wisconsin. He competed in the International Mathematical Olympiad three times, winning a gold medal twice. Among his awards are the MAA Euler Book Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. He is the author of How Not to Be Wrong and the novel The Grasshopper King. His new book is Shape: The Hidden Geometry of Information, Biology, Strategy, Democracy, and Everything Else.


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Jun 14, 2021
AMA | June 2021
03:18:44

Welcome to the June 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Jun 10, 2021
150 | Simon DeDeo on How Explanations Work and Why They Sometimes Fail
01:32:46

You observe a phenomenon, and come up with an explanation for it. That’s true for scientists, but also for literally every person. (Why won’t my car start? I bet it’s out of gas.) But there are literally an infinite number of possible explanations for every phenomenon we observe. How do we invent ones we think are promising, and then decide between them once invented? Simon DeDeo (in collaboration with Zachary Wojtowicz) has proposed a way to connect explanatory values (“simplicity,” “fitting the data,” etc) to specific mathematical expressions in Bayesian reasoning. We talk about what makes explanations good, and how they can get out of control, leading to conspiracy theories or general crackpottery, from QAnon to flat earthers.

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Simon DeDeo received his Ph.D. in astrophysics from Princeton University. He is currently an Assistant Professor in Social and Decision Sciences at Carnegie Mellon University, and External Professor at the Santa Fe Institute.


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Jun 07, 2021
149 | Lee Smolin on Time, Philosophy, and the Nature of Reality
01:29:24

The challenge to a theoretical physicist pushing beyond our best current theories is that there are too many ways to go. What parts of the existing paradigm do you keep, which do you discard, and why make those choices? Among today’s theorists, Lee Smolin is unusually reflective about what principles should guide us in the construction of new theories. And he is happy to suggest radical revisions to well-established ideas, in areas from the nature of time to the workings of quantum mechanics. We talk about time, the universe, the role of philosophy, a new picture of spacetime, and the future of physics.

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Lee Smolin received his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He is currently on the faculty of the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo, Canada, where he was a founding member. Among his awards are the Majorana Prize, the Klopsteg Memorial Award, and the Buchalter Cosmology Prize. He is the author of several books, most recently Einstein’s Unfinished Revolution: The Search for What Lies Beyond the Quantum.


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May 31, 2021
148 | Henry Farrell on Democracy as a Problem-Solving Mechanism
01:26:40

Democracy posits the radical idea that political power and legitimacy should ultimately be found in all of the people, rather than a small group of experts or for that matter arbitrarily-chosen hereditary dynasties. Nevertheless, a good case can be made that the bottom-up and experimental nature of democracy actually makes for better problem-solving in the political arena than other systems. Political theorist Henry Farrell (in collaboration with statistician Cosma Shalizi) has made exactly that case. We discuss the general idea of solving social problems, and compare different kinds of macro-institutions — markets, hierarchies, and democracies — to ask whether democracies aren’t merely politically just, but also an efficient way of generating good ideas.

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Henry Farrell received his Ph.D. in Government from Georgetown University. He is currently the Stavros Niarchos Foundation Agora Institute Professor of International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies. He was the 2019 recipient of the Friedrich Schiedel Prize for Politics & Technology. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and co-leader of the Moral Economy of Technology initiative at Stanford University. He is a co-founder of Crooked Timber blog, as well as the Monkey Cage blog at the Washington Post.


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May 24, 2021
147 | Rachel Laudan on Cuisine, Culture, and Empire
01:16:30

For as much as people talk about food, a good case can be made that we don’t give it the attention or respect it actually deserves. Food is central to human life, and how we go about the process of creating and consuming it — from agriculture to distribution to cooking to dining — touches the most mundane aspects of our daily routines as well as large-scale questions of geopolitics and culture. Rachel Laudan is a historian of science whose masterful book, Cuisine and Empire, traces the development of the major world cuisines and how they intersect with politics, religion, and war. We talk about all this, and Rachel gives her pitch for granting more respect to “middling cuisine” around the world.

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Rachel Laudan received a Ph. D. in History and Philosophy of Science from University College London. She retired from academia after teaching at Carnegie-Mellon, the University of Pittsburgh, Virginia Tech, and the University of Hawaii. Among her awards are the Jane Grigson/Julia Child prize of the International Association of Culinary Professionals and the IACP Cookbook Award for Best Book in Culinary History.


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May 17, 2021
AMA | May 2021
02:58:33

Welcome to the May 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic.

Enjoy!

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May 13, 2021
146 | Emily Riehl on Topology, Categories, and the Future of Mathematics
01:16:49

“A way that math can make the world a better place is by making it a more interesting place to be a conscious being.” So says mathematician Emily Riehl near the start of this episode, and it’s a good summary of what’s to come. Emily works in realms of topology and category theory that are far away from practical applications, or even to some non-practical areas of theoretical physics. But they help us think about what is possible and how everything fits together, and what’s more interesting than that? We talk about what topology is, the specific example of homotopy — how things deform into other things — and how thinking about that leads us into groups, rings, groupoids, and ultimately to category theory, the most abstract of them all.

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Emily Riehl received a Ph.D in mathematics from the University of Chicago. She is currently an associate professor of mathematics at Johns Hopkins University. Among her honors are the JHU President’s Frontier Award and the Joan & Joseph Birman Research Prize. She is author of Categorical Homotopy Theory, and co-author of the upcoming Elements of ∞-Category Theory. She competed on the United States women’s national Australian rules football team, where she served as vice-captain.


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May 10, 2021
145 | Niall Ferguson on Histories, Networks, and Catastrophes
01:25:10

The world has gone through a tough time with the COVID-19 pandemic. Every catastrophic event is unique, but there are certain commonalities to how such crises play out in our modern interconnected world. Historian Niall Ferguson wrote a book from a couple of years ago, The Square and the Tower, that considered how an interplay between networks and hierarchies has shaped the history of the world. This analysis is directly relevant to how we deal with large-scale catastrophes, which is the subject of his new book, Doom: The Politics of Catastrophe. We talk about global culture as a complex system, and what it means for our ability to respond to crisis.

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Niall Ferguson received his D.Phil. degree from the University of Oxford. He is currently the Milbank Family Senior Fellow at the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, a senior faculty fellow of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard, and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing. He is the author of numerous book, several of which have been adapted into television documentaries, and has helped found several different companies. He won an international Emmy for his PBS series The Ascent of Money, and has previously been named one of the 100 most influential people in the world by Time magazine.


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May 03, 2021
144 | Solo: Are We Moving Beyond the Standard Model?
01:11:49

I’ve been a professional physicist since the 1980’s, and not once over the course of my career has a particle-physics experiment produced a completely surprising new result. We’ve discovered particles (top quark, Higgs boson) and even phenomena (neutrino masses), but nothing we hadn’t either predicted or could easily accommodate within the Standard Model of particle physics. That might have changed just this month, with possible confirmations of two “anomalies” in particle-physics measurements involving muons. They might be new physics, or they might just go away. I talk about what it might mean, and (more importantly) how we should feel about the likelihood that these results really do imply physics beyond the Standard Model.

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Here are some relevant references for the first result, from LHCb at CERN, that B-mesons are seemingly decaying at different rates into electrons and muons:

And here are some references for the other result, from the Muon g-2 experiment at Fermilab, on the anomalous magnetic moment of the muon:


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Apr 26, 2021
143 | Julia Galef on Openness, Bias, and Rationality
01:32:16

Mom, apple pie, and rationality — all things that are unquestionably good, right? But rationality, as much as we might value it, is easier to aspire to than to achieve. And there are more than a few hot takes on the market suggesting that we shouldn’t even want to be rational — that it’s inefficient or maladaptive. Julia Galef is here to both stand up for the value of being rational, and to explain how we can better achieve it. She distinguishes between the “soldier mindset,” where we believe what we’re told about the world and march toward a goal, and the “scout mindset,” where we’re open-minded about what’s out there and always asking questions. She makes a compelling case that all things considered, it’s better to be a scout.

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Julia Galef received a BA in statistics from Columbia University. She is currently a writer and host of the Rationally Speaking podcast. She was a co-founder and president of the Center for Applied Rationality. Her new book is The Scout Mindset: Why Some People See Things Clearly and Others Don’t.


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Apr 19, 2021
AMA | April 2021
02:41:35

Welcome to the April 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These monthly excursions are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). I take the large number of questions asked by Patreons, whittle them down to a more manageable size — based primarily on whether I have anything interesting to say about them, not whether the questions themselves are good — and sometimes group them together if they are about a similar topic. Enjoy!

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Apr 14, 2021
142 | Charlie Jane Anders on Stories and How to Write Them
01:26:22

Telling a story seems like the most natural, human thing in the world. We all do it, all the time. And who amongst us doesn’t think we could be a fairly competent novelist, if we just bothered to take the time? But storytelling is a craft like any other, with its own secret techniques and best practices. Charlie Jane Anders is a multiple-award-winning novelist and story writer, but also someone who has thought carefully about all the ingredients of a good story, from plot and conflict to characters and relationships. This will be a useful conversation for anyone who tells stories, reads novels, or watches movies. Maybe you’ll be inspired to finally write that novel.

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Charlie Jane Anders studied English and Asian literature at Cambridge University. She is the author of over 100 published works of short fiction and several novels, including the new Young Adult book Victories Greater Than Death. She was co-founder of the website io9, a blog about science and science fiction. She is a frequent event organizer, including the monthly Writers With Drinks. Among her accolades are Hugo, Nebula, Locus, Sturgeon, and Crawford awards. She is the co-host, with Annalee Newitz, of the Our Opinions Are Correct podcast. Later this year she will publish Never Say You Can’t Survive: How to Get Through Hard Times by Making Up Stories.


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Apr 12, 2021
141 | Zeynep Tufekci on Information and Attention in a Networked World
01:17:58

In a world flooded with information, everybody necessarily makes choices about what we pay attention to. This basic fact can be manipulated in any number of ways, from advertisers micro-targeting specific groups to repressive governments flooding social media with misinformation, or for that matter well-meaning people passing along news from sketchy sources. Zeynep Tufekci is a sociologist who studies the flow of information and its impact on society, especially through social media. She has provided insightful analyses of protest movements, online privacy, and the Covid-19 pandemic. We talk about how technology has been shaping the information space we all inhabit.

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Zeynep Tufekci received a Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Texas-Austin. She is currently an Associate Professor in the School of Information and Library Science at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and will be a Visiting Professor at the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security at Columbia University. She is the author of Twitter and Tear Gas: The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, Scientific American, The Atlantic, and elsewhere, and she publishes the Insight newsletter on Substack.


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Apr 05, 2021
140 | Dean Buonomano on Time, Reality, and the Brain
01:27:41

“Time” and “the brain” are two of those things that are somewhat mysterious, but it would be hard for us to live without. So just imagine how much fun it is to bring them together. Dean Buonomano is one of the leading neuroscientists studying how our brains perceive time, which is part of the bigger issue of how we construct models of the physical world around us. We talk about how the brain tells time very differently than the clocks that we’re used to, using different neuronal mechanisms for different timescales. This brings us to a very interesting conversation about the nature of time itself — Dean is a presentist, who believes that only the current moment qualifies as “real,” but we don’t hold that against him.

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Dean Buonomano received his Ph.D. from the Department of Neurobiology and Anatomy at the University of Texas Medical School, Houston. He is currently a Professor in the Department of Neurobiology at UCLA. His lab studies how the brain perceives time and constructs models of the external physical world. He is the author of Brain Bugs: How the Brain’s Flaws Shape our Lives and Your Brain is a Time Machine: The Neuroscience and Physics of Time.


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Mar 29, 2021
139 | Elizabeth Anderson on Equality, Work, and Ideology
01:19:16

Imagine two people with exactly the same innate abilities, but one is born into a wealthy family and the other is born into poverty. Or two people born into similar circumstances, but one is paralyzed in a freak accident in childhood while the other grows up in perfect health. Is this fair? We live in a society that values some kind of “equality” — “All men are created equal” — without ever quite specifying what we mean. Elizabeth Anderson is a leading philosopher of equality, and we talk about what really matters about this notion. This leads to down-to-earth issues about employment and the work ethic, and how it all ties into modern capitalism. We end up agreeing that a leisure society would be great, but at the moment there’s plenty of work to be done.

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Elizabeth Anderson received a Ph.D. in philosophy from Harvard University. She is currently the Arthur F. Thurnau Professor and John Dewey Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy and Women’s Studies at the University of Michigan. Among her honors are the MacArthur Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She was named by Prospect magazine as one of the top 50 thinkers of the Covid-19 era.


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Mar 22, 2021
138 | Daryl Morey on Analytics, Psychology, and Basketball
01:16:43

You might think that human beings, exhausted by competing for resources and rewards in the real world, would take it easy and stick to cooperation in their spare time. But no; we are fascinated by competition, and invent games and sports to create artificial competition just for fun. These competitions turn out to be wonderful laboratories for exploring concepts like optimization, resource allocation, strategy, and human psychology. Today’s guest, Daryl Morey, is a world leader in thinking analytically about sports, as well as the relationship between impersonal data and the vagaries of human behavior. He’s currently an executive in charge of the Philadelphia 76ers, but I promise you don’t need to be a fan of the Sixers or of basketball or of sports in general to enjoy this wide-ranging conversation.

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Daryl Morey received a bachelor’s in computer science from Northwestern University, and an MBA from the MIT Sloan School of Management. He served as general manager for the Houston Rockets from 2007 to 2020, and since November 2020 has been the President for Basketball Operations for the Philadelphia 76ers. He is founder and co-chair of the annual MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference. He was voted NBA Executive of the Year in 2018.


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Mar 15, 2021
AMA | March 2021
03:11:04

Welcome to the March 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). With an expanding number of questions, it’s become a bit impractical for me to try to rush through and answer them all. So instead, this time I have picked out certain questions to tackle, and grouped some together if they were related. I tried to pick questions on the basis of whether or not I had anything interesting to say in response, but that will of course be in the ear of the listener.

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Mar 10, 2021
137 | Justin Clarke-Doane on Mathematics, Morality, Objectivity, and Reality
01:32:50

On a spectrum of philosophical topics, one might be tempted to put mathematics and morality on opposite ends. Math is one of the most pristine and rigorously-developed areas of human thought, while morality is notoriously contentious and resistant to consensus. But the more you dig into the depths, the more alike these two fields appear to be. Justin Clarke-Doane argues that they are very much alike indeed, especially when it comes to questions of “reality” and “objectivity” — but that they aren’t quite exactly analogous. We get a little bit into the weeds, but this is a case where close attention will pay off.

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Justin Clarke-Doane received his Ph.D. in philosophy from New York University. He is currently Associate Professor of philosophy at Columbia University, as well as an Honorary Research Fellow at the University of Birmingham and Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University. His book Morality and Mathematics was published in 2020.


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Mar 08, 2021
136 | Roderick Graham on Cyberspace, Race, and Cultural Conservatism
01:23:00

The internet has made it so much easier for people to talk to each other, in a literal sense. But it hasn’t necessarily made it easier to have rewarding, productive, good-faith conversations. Here I talk with sociologist Rod Graham about what kinds of conversations the internet does enable, and should enable, and how we can work to make them better. We discuss both how social media are used for nefarious purposes, from cyberbullying to driving extremism, but also how they can be mobilized for more lofty goals. We also get into some of the lost nuances in conventional discussions of race, including how many minorities are more culturally conservative than an oversimplified narrative would lead us to believe, and the tricky relationship between online discourse and social cohesion.

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Roderick Graham received his Ph.D. in sociology from the City University of New York. He is currently an Associate Professor of Sociology and Criminal Justice at Old Dominion University, and serves as the coordinator of the university’s Cybercriminology Bachelor’s program. He is the author of The Digital Practices of African-Americans.


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Mar 01, 2021
135 | Shadi Bartsch on Plato, Vergil, Confucius, and Modernity
01:20:08

In our postmodern world, studying the classics of ancient Greece and Rome can seem quaint at best, downright repressive at worst. (We are talking about works by dead white men, after all.) Do we still have things to learn from classical philosophy, drama, and poetry? Shadi Bartsch offers a vigorous affirmative to this question in two new books coming from different directions. First, she has newly translated the Aeneid, Vergil’s epic poem about the founding myth of Rome, bringing its themes into conversation with the modern era. Second, in the upcoming Plato Goes to China, she explores how a non-Western society interprets classic works of Western philosophy, and what that tells us about each culture.

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Shadi Bartsch-Zimmer received her Ph.D. in Classics from the University of California, Berkeley. She is currently the Helen A. Regenstein Distinguished Service Professor of Classics at the University of Chicago. Among her awards are a Guggenheim Fellowship, an American Council of Learned Societies Fellowship, and multiple teaching awards. She has served as the Editor-in-Chief of Classical Philology, and is the Founding Director of the Stevanovich Institute on the Formation of Knowledge. She is developing an upcoming podcast.


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Feb 22, 2021
AMA | February 2021
02:53:43

Welcome to the February 2021 Ask Me Anything episode of Mindscape! These are funded by Patreon supporters (who are also the ones asking the questions). This month is in what has been the conventional format, where I just try my best to answer every question. But it’s growing a bit unwieldy, so going forward I might just try to pick my favorite questions and answer them in greater detail. We shall see.

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Feb 17, 2021
134 | Robert Sapolsky on Why We Behave the Way We Do
01:28:38

A common argument against free will is that human behavior is not freely chosen, but rather determined by a number of factors. So what are those factors, anyway? There’s no one better equipped to answer this question than Robert Sapolsky, a leading psychoneurobiologist who has studied human behavior from a variety of angles. In this conversation we follow the path Sapolsky sets out in his bestselling book Behave, where he examines the influences on our behavior from a variety of timescales, from the very short (signals from the amygdala) to the quite ancient (genetic factors tracing back tens of thousands of years and more). It’s a dizzying tour that helps us understand the complexity of human action.

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Robert Sapolsky received his Ph.D. in neuroendocrinology from Rockefeller University. He is currently the John and Cynthia Fry Gunn Professor of Biology, Neurology, and Neurosurgery at Stanford University. His awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, the McGovern Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and Wonderfest’s Carl Sagan Prize for Science Popularization.


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Feb 15, 2021
133 | Ziya Tong on Realities We Don't See
01:37:57

It’s a truism that what we see about the world is a small fraction of all that exists. At the simplest level of physics and biology, our senses are drastically limited; we only see a narrow spectrum of electromagnetic waves, and we only hear a narrow band of sound. We don’t feel neutrinos or dark matter at all, even as they pass through our bodies, and we can’t perceive microscopic objects. While science can help us overcome some of these limitations, they do shape how we think about the world. Ziya Tong takes this idea and expands it to include the parts of our social and moral worlds that are effectively invisible to us — from where our food comes from to how we decide how wealth is allocated in society.

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Ziya Tong received a B.A. in psychology and sociology from the University of British Columbia, and an M.A. in communications from McGill University. She has served as host, writer, director, producer, and reporter from a number of science programs, most notably Daily Planet on Discovery Canada. She is a Trustee of the World Wildlife Fund, and served on the Board of WWF Canada. Her book The Reality Bubble: How Science Reveals the Hidden Truths that Shape Our World was published in 2019.


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Feb 08, 2021
Bonus | AIP Oral History Interview
04:01:58

Here is a special bonus punishment treat for Mindscape listeners: an interview of me, by David Zierler of the American Institute of Physics’s Oral History project. This is a fantastic project that collects interviews with influential physicists of all ages, and apparently sometimes less-influential physicists. So if you’d like to hear my (academic) life story boiled down to a mere four hours, here you go!

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It’s well worth checking out the AIP Oral History Project website, which has over 1000 fascinating interviews with physicists from different decades. The transcript of this particular interview can be found there. Thanks to David and the AIP for letting us include this as a bonus podcast episode.

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Feb 04, 2021
132 | Michael Levin on Growth, Form, Information, and the Self
01:21:33

As a semi-outsider, it’s fun for me to watch as a new era dawns in biology: one that adds ideas from physics, big data, computer science, and information theory to the usual biological toolkit. One of the big areas of study in this burgeoning field is the relationship between the basic bioinformatic building blocks (genes and proteins) to the macroscopic organism that eventually results. That relationship is not a simple one, as we’re discovering. Standard metaphors notwithstanding, an organism is not a machine based on genetic blueprints. I talk with biologist and information scientist Michael Levin about how information and physical constraints come together to make organisms and selves.

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Michael Levin received his Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University. He is currently Distinguished Professor and Vannevar Bush Chair in the Biology department at Tufts University, and serves as director of the Tufts Center for Regenerative and Developmental Biology. His work on left-right asymmetric body structures is on Nature’s list of 100 Milestones of Developmental Biology of the Century.


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Feb 01, 2021
131 | Avi Loeb on Taking Aliens Seriously
01:40:33

The possible existence of technologically advanced extraterrestrial civilizations — not just alien microbes, but cultures as advanced (or much more) than our own — is one of the most provocative questions in modern science. So provocative that it’s difficult to talk about the idea in a rational, dispassionate way; there are those who loudly insist that the probability of advanced alien cultures existing is essentially one, even without direct evidence, and others are so exhausted by overblown claims in popular media that they want to squelch any such talk. Astronomer Avi Loeb thinks we should be taking this possibility seriously, so much so that he suggested that the recent interstellar interloper `Oumuamua might be a spaceship built by aliens. That got him in a lot of trouble. We talk about the trouble, about `Oumuamua, and the attitude scientists should take toward provocative ideas.

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Abraham (Avi) Loeb received his Ph.D. in plasma physics from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. He is currently the Frank B. Baird Jr. professor of science at Harvard University. He served as the Chair of Harvard’s Astronomy department from 2011-2020. He is Director of the Institute for Theory and Computation of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, and Founding Director of Harvard’s Black Hole Initiative. He is chair of the Advisory Committee for the Breakthrough Starshot Initiative. His new book is Extraterrestrial: The First Sign of Intelligent Life Beyond Earth.


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Jan 25, 2021
130 | Frank Wilczek on the Present and Future of Fundamental Physics
01:16:03

What is the world made of? How does it behave? These questions, aimed at the most basic level of reality, are the subject of fundamental physics. What counts as fundamental is somewhat contestable, but it includes our best understanding of matter and energy, space and time, and dynamical laws, as well as complex emergent structures and the sweep of the cosmos. Few people are better positioned to talk about fundamental physics than Frank Wilczek, a Nobel Laureate who has made significant contributions to our understanding of the strong interactions, dark matter, black holes, and condensed matter, as well as proposing the existence of time crystals. We talk about what we currently know about fundamental physics, but also the directions in which it is heading, for better and for worse.

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Frank Wilczek received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University. He is currently the Herman Feshbach professor of physics at the MIT; Founding Director of the T. D. Lee Institute and Chief Scientist at Wilczek Quantum Center, Shanghai Jiao Tong University; Distinguished Professor at Arizona State University; and Professor at Stockholm University. Among his numerous awards are the MacArthur Fellowship, the Nobel Prize in Physics (2004, for asymptotic freedom), membership in the National Academy of Sciences and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. He is the author of numerous books, most recently Fundamentals: Ten Keys to Reality.


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Jan 18, 2021
129 | Solo: Democracy in America
01:43:37

The first full week of 2021 has been action-packed for those of us in the United States of America, for reasons you’re probably aware of, including a riotous mob storming the US Capitol. The situation has spurred me to take the unusual step of doing a solo podcast in response to current events. But never fear, I’m not actually trying to analyze current events for their own sakes. Rather, I’m using them as a jumping-off point for a more general discussion of how democracy is supposed to work and how we can make it better. We’ve talked about related topics recently with Cornel West and David Stasavage, but there are things I wanted to say in my own voice that fit well here. Politics is important everywhere, and it’s a crucial responsibility for those of us who live in societies that aspire to be participatory and democratic. We have to think these things through, and that’s what this podcast is all about.

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Apologies to Alexis de Toqueville, who wrote an important book whose name I stole, and who is mentioned nowhere in this episode.

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Jan 11, 2021
128 | Joseph Henrich on the Weirdness of the West
01:27:19

We all know stereotypes about people from different countries; but we also recognize that there really are broad cultural differences between people who grow up in different societies. This raises a challenge when most psychological research is performed on a narrow and unrepresentative slice of the world’s population — a subset that has accurately been labeled as WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic). Joseph Henrich has argued that focusing on this group has led to systematic biases in how we think about human psychology. In his new book, he proposes a surprising theory for how WEIRD people got that way, based on the Church insisting on the elimination of marriage to relatives. It’s an audacious idea that nudges us to rethink how the WEIRD world came to be.

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Joseph Henrich received his Ph.D. in anthropology from UCLA. He is currently Professor and Chair of the Department of Human Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. Among his awards are a Fulbright scholarship, a Presidential Early Career Award, the Killam Research Prize, and the Wegner Theoretical Innovation Prize. His trade books include The Secret of Our Success: How Culture is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smart, and the new The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous.


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Jan 04, 2021
Holiday Message 2020 | The Screwy Universe
01:31:14

Welcome to the third annual Mindscape Holiday Message! Just a chance for me to be a little more chatty and informal than usual, although as it turned out this isn’t all that different from a conventional solo episode. With the difference that what I’m talking about — a phenomenon called “cosmic birefringence” — has played a big part in my personal scientific career, so I get to be a bit autobiographical.

Every photon has a direction of polarization, which generally remains fixed as the photon travels through space. Birefringence is an effect by which the polarization rotates rather than staying fixed. It can happen in materials, but generally not in outer space. But there are exotic physics ideas that could cause such a rotation, including the dynamical dark energy candidate known as quintessence. People have put limits on such cosmic birefringence for a while now, but recently there was a claim that there might be a nonzero amount of birefringence visible in the polarization of the cosmic microwave background! Still very tentative, but if this hint turns into real evidence, it would big extremely big news for our understanding of physics and cosmology, possibly helping us pinpoint the nature of dark energy.

Show notes, links, transcript: https://www.preposterousuniverse.com/podcast/2020/12/21/holiday-message-2020-the-screwy-universe/

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Dec 21, 2020
127 | Erich Jarvis on Language, Birds, and People
01:15:31

Many characteristics go into making human beings special — brain size, opposable thumbs, etc. Surely one of the most important is language, and in particular the ability to learn new sounds and use them for communication. Many other species communicate through sound, but only a very few — humans, elephants, bats, cetaceans, and a handful of bird species — learn new sounds in order to do so. Erich Jarvis has been shedding enormous light on the process of vocal learning, by studying birds and comparing them to humans. He argues that there is a particular mental circuit in the brains of parrots (for example) responsible for vocal learning, and that it corresponds to similar circuits in the human brain. This has implications for the development of intelligence and other important human characteristics.

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Erich Jarvis received his Ph.D. in Animal Behavior and Molecular Neurobehavior from Rockefeller University. He is currently a professor in the Laboratory of Neurogenetics of Language at Rockefeller and an investigator at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Among his many awards are the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation, an American Philosophical Society Award, a Packard Foundation fellowship, an NIH Director’s Pioneer award, Northwestern University’s Distinguished Role Model in Science award, and the Summit Award from the American Society for Association Executives.


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Dec 14, 2020
AMA | December 2020
03:24:19

Getting into the swing of things here with monthly Ask Me Anything episodes. If you missed the explanation last month, there is a Patreon page for people who wish to support Mindscape with a small donation per episode. Benefits include a warm feeling, social status, access to ad-free versions of the podcast, and the ability to ask questions once per month, which I answer over the course of a hilariously long podcast. Thanks to the generosity of Patreon supporters, we are now making the fruits of these monthly adventures available on the regular podcast feed.

Here is the December 2020 edition. Note that there won’t be a January 2021 edition, as I take a break from podcasting for the holidays. Have a good one everybody!

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Dec 09, 2020
126 | David Stasavage on the Origin and History of Democracy
01:25:37

Those of us living in democracies tend to take the idea for granted. We forget what an audacious, radical idea it is to put government power into the hands of literally all of the citizens of a country. Where did such an idea come from, and where is it going? Political scientist David Stasavage has written an ambitious history of democracy worldwide, in which he makes a number of unconventional points. The roots of democracy go much further back than we often think; the idea wasn’t invented in Athens, but can be found in a large number of ancient societies. And the resurgence of democracy in Europe wasn’t because that continent was especially advanced, but precisely the opposite. These insights have implications for what the future of democracy has in store.

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David Stasavage received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. He is currently Dean for the Social Sciences and the Julius Silver Professor in the Department of Politics at New York University and an Affiliated Professor in NYU’s School of Law. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. His most recent book is The Decline and Rise of Democracy: A Global History from Antiquity to Today.


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Dec 07, 2020
125 | David Haig on the Evolution of Meaning from Darwin to Derrida
01:15:28

Aristotle conceived of the world in terms of teleological “final causes”; Darwin, or so the story goes, erased purpose and meaning from the world, replacing them with a bloodless scientific algorithm. But should we abandon all talk of meanings and purposes, or instead conceptualize them as emergent rather than fundamental? Philosophers (and former Mindscape guests) Alex Rosenberg and Daniel Dennett recently had an exchange on just this subject, and today we’re going to hear from a working scientist. David Haig is a geneticist and evolutionary biologist who argues that it’s perfectly sensible to perceive meaning as arising through the course of evolution, even if evolution itself is purposeless.

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David Haig received his Ph.D. in biology from Macquarie University. He is currently the George Putnam Professor of Organismic and Evolutionary Biology at Harvard University. His research focuses on evolutionary aspects of cooperation, competition, and kinship, including the kinship theory of genomic imprinting. His new book is From Darwin to Derrida: Selfish Genes, Social Selves, and the Meanings of Life.


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Nov 30, 2020
124 | Solo: How Time Travel Could and Should Work
02:41:50

Time! It doesn’t stop, psychological effects of being under lockdown notwithstanding. How we experience time depends on our situation, but time itself just marches forward. Unless, of course, it’s possible to travel to the past, as countless science-fiction scenarios have depicted. But does that really make sense? Couldn’t we then change the past, even so dramatically that our own existence would never have happened? In this solo podcast I talk about both the physics and fiction of time travel. I point out that it might be allowed by the laws of physics, and explain how that would work, but that we really don’t know. And I try to make sense of some of the less-sensible depictions of cinematic time travel. Coming up with a logical theory that could account for Back to the Future isn’t easy, but podcasting isn’t for the squeamish.

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But wait, there’s more! I was contacted by Janna Levin, who we fondly remember from Episode 27. Janna moonlights as Chair and Director of Sciences at Pioneer Works, an institution dedicated to bringing together creative people in art and science. Like the rest of us, they’ve been looking for ways to offer more online content in these pandemic times, so we thought about ways to collaborate. Here’s what they came up with: artist Azikiwe Mohammed has created an animated video backdrop to this podcast episode. The visuals are trippy, colorful, and inspired by (without trying to directly illustrate) what I talk about in the episode. You can check out a brief write-up at the Pioneer Works site, or view the video directly below.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kHy1j4LiyGQ

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Nov 23, 2020
AMA | November 2020
03:12:22

As you have likely heard me mention before, I have an account on Patreon, where people can sign up to donate a dollar or two per episode of Mindscape. In return they get two tangible (if minor) benefits. First, they get to listen to the podcast without any ads. Second, once per month I do an Ask Me Anything episode, where patrons are allowed to ask any question they like, and I do my best to answer as many as I can.

Patreon supporters have kindly agreed to let these monthly AMA episodes be released to the general public (though they maintain the right actually ask the questions). I announced that I’d be doing this a while back, but with the cost structure I had with my podcast host it turned out to be prohibitively expensive for me. But now we’ve got that all figured out! So now, and hopefully going forward, these AMAs will be part of the regular podcast feed. They will be released sometime in the middle of each month, not as part of the usual Monday weekly series, so they won’t get numbers of their own.

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Nov 20, 2020
123 | Lisa Feldman Barrett on Emotions, Actions, and the Brain
01:17:03

Emotions are at the same time utterly central to who we are — where would we be without them? — and also seemingly peripheral to the “real” work our brains do, understanding the world and acting within it. Why do we have emotions, anyway? Are they hardwired into the brain? Lisa Feldman Barrett is one of the world’s leading experts in the psychology of emotions, and she emphasizes that they are more constructed and less hard-wired than you might think. How we feel and express emotions can vary from culture to culture or even person to person. It’s better to think of emotions of a link between affective response and our behaviors.

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Lisa Feldman Barrett received her Ph.D. in psychology from the University of Waterloo. She is currently the University Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Director of the Interdisciplinary Affective Science Laboratory at Northeastern University. She also holds research appointments at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH)/Harvard Medical School in the Psychiatric Neuroimaging Program and at the Martinos Center for Biomedical Imaging in the Department of Radiology. Among her many honors are the Award for Distinguished Service in Psychological Science from the American Psychological Association, the Mentor Award for Lifetime Achievement from the Association for Psychological Science, and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is the author of How Emotions Are Made: The Secret Life of the Brain, and her latest book is Seven and a Half Lessons About the Brain.


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Nov 16, 2020
122 | David Eagleman on Tapping Into the Livewired Brain
01:17:14

Imagine you were locked in a sealed room, with no way to access the outside world but a few screens showing a view of what’s outside. Seems scary and limited, but that’s essentially the situation that our brains find themselves in — locked in our skulls, with only the limited information from a few unreliable sensory modalities to tell them what’s going on inside. Neuroscientist David Eagleman has long been interested in how the brain processes that sensory input, and also how we might train it to learn completely new ways of accessing the outside world, with important ramifications for virtual reality and novel brain/computer interface techniques.

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David Eagleman received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from the Baylor College of Medicine. He is currently the CEO of Neosensory, a company that builds sensory-augmentation devices, as well as an adjunct professor at Stanford. His research has involved time perception, synesthesia, and sensory substitution. He is the founder and director of the Center for Science and Law. He is a bestselling author of both fiction and nonfiction. He was the writer and host of the TV show The Brain with David Eagleman, and writer of the Netflix documentary The Creative Brain. His most recent book is Livewired: The Inside Story of the Ever-Changing Brain.


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Nov 09, 2020
121 | Cornel West on What Democracy Is and Should Be
01:21:51

This episode is published on November 2, 2020, the day before an historic election in the United States. An election that comes amidst growing worries about the future of democratic governance, as well as explicit claims that democracy is intrinsically unfair, inefficient, or ill-suited to the modern world. What better time to take a step back and think about the foundations of democracy? Cornel West is a well-known philosopher and public intellectual who has written extensively about race and class in America. He is also deeply interested in democracy, both in theory and in practice. We talk about what makes democracy worth fighting for, the different traditions that inform it, and the kinds of engagement it demands of its citizens.

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Cornel West received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. He is currently Professor of the Practice of Public Philosophy at Harvard University as well as Professor Emeritus at Princeton. He is the author of numerous books, including Race Matters and Democracy Matters. He is a frequent guest on the Bill Maher Show, CNN, C-Span, and Democracy Now, appeared in the Matrix trilogy, and has produced three spoken-word albums. He is the co-host, with Tricia Rose, of the Tight Rope podcast.


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Nov 02, 2020
120 | Jeremy England on Biology, Thermodynamics, and the Bible
01:28:51

Erwin Schrödinger’s famous book What Is Life? highlighted the connections between physics, and thermodynamics in particular, and the nature of living beings. But the exact connections between living organisms and the flow of heat and entropy remains a topic of ongoing research. Jeremy England is a leader in this field, deriving connections between thermodynamic relations and the processes of life. He is also an ordained rabbi who finds resonances between modern science and passages in the Hebrew Bible. We talk about it all, from entropy fluctuation theorems to how scientists should approach religion.

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Jeremy England received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He is currently Senior Director in the Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning group at GlaxoSmithKline. He has been a Rhodes scholar, a Hertz fellow, and was named one of Forbes‘s “30 Under 30 Rising Stars of Science.” His new book is Every Life is on Fire: How Thermodynamics Explains the Origins of Living Things.


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Oct 26, 2020
119 | Musa al-Gharbi on the Value of Intellectual Diversity
01:16:26

In the service of seeking truth, there would seem to be value in intellectual diversity, both in keeping ourselves honest and in the possibility of new ideas coming from unexpected quarters. That’s true in the natural sciences, but even more so in the humanities and social sciences, where the right/wrong distinction is sometimes less clear. But academia isn’t always diverse; as an empirical fact, there are a lot more liberals on university faculties than there are conservatives. I talk with Musa al-Gharbi about why this is true — self-selection? discrimination? — the extent to which it’s a real problem, and how we should better think about the value of diverse viewpoints.

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Musa al-Gharbi received Masters degrees in philosophy from the University of Arizona and in sociology from Columbia University. He is currently a Paul F. Lazarsfeld Fellow in Sociology at Columbia, and until recently served as the Communications Director for Heterodox Academy. His essays have appeared in outlets such as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Atlantic Magazine, Foreign Affairs, Voice of America, and Al-Jazeera.


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Oct 19, 2020
118 | Adam Riess on the Expansion of the Universe and a Crisis in Cosmology
01:18:18

Astronomers rocked the cosmological world with the 1998 discovery that the universe is accelerating. Well-deserved Nobel Prizes were awarded to Saul Perlmutter, Brian Schmidt, and today’s guest Adam Riess. Adam has continued to push forward on investigating the structure and evolution of the universe. He’s been a leader in emphasizing a curious disagreement that threatens to grow into a crisis: incompatible values of the Hubble constant (expansion rate of the universe) obtained from the cosmic microwave background vs. direct measurements. We talk about where this “Hubble tension” comes from, and what it might mean for the universe.

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Adam Riess received his Ph.D. in astronomy from Harvard University. He is currently Bloomberg Distinguished Professor and Thomas J. Barber Professor of Physics and Astronomy at Johns Hopkins University and a Senior member of the Science Staff at the Space Telescope Science Institute. Among his many awards are the Helen B. Warner Prize of the American Astronomical Society, the Sackler Prize, the Shaw Prize, the Gruber Cosmology Prize, the MacArthur Fellowship, the Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics, and the Nobel Prize.


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Oct 12, 2020
117 | Sean B. Carroll on Randomness and the Course of Evolution
01:20:45

Evolution is a messy business, involving as it does selection pressures, mutations, genetic drift, and the effects of random external interventions. So in the end, how much of it is predictable, and how much is in the hands of chance? Today we’re thrilled to have as a guest my evil (but more respectable, by most measures) twin, the biologist Sean B. Carroll. Sean is both a leader of the modern evo-devo revolution, and a wonderful and diverse writer. We talk about the importance of randomness and unpredictability in life, from the evolution of species to the daily routine of every individual.

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Sean B. Carroll received a Ph.D. in immunology from Tufts University. He is currently the Andrew and Mary Balo and Nicholas and Susan Simon Endowed Chair of Biology at the University of Maryland, Vice-President for Science Education at the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, the Executive Director of HHMI Tangled Bank Studios, and Professor Emeritus of Genetics and Molecular Biology at the University of Wisconsin. His new book, A Series of Fortunate Events: Chance and the Making of the Planet, Life, and You, explores the role of chance in the development of life.


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Oct 05, 2020
116 | Teresa Bejan on Free Speech, Civility, and Toleration
01:43:50

How can, and should, we talk to each other, especially to people with whom we disagree? “Free speech” is rightfully entrenched as an important value in liberal democratic societies, but implementing it consistently and fairly is a tricky business. Political theorist Teresa Bejan comes to this question from a philosophical and historical perspective, managing to relate broad principles to modern hot-button issues. We talk about the importance of tolerating disreputable beliefs, the senses in which speech acts can be harmful, and how “civility” places demands on listeners as well as speakers.

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Teresa Bejan received an M.Phil. in Political Thought and Intellectual History from Cambridge and a Ph.D. in Political Science from Yale. She is currently Associate Professor of Political Theory and Fellow of Oriel College at the University of Oxford. Among her awards are the American Political Science Association’s Leo Strauss Award for the best dissertation in political philosophy and the inaugural Early Career Prize for the greatest overall contribution to research and teaching in political thought from the Britain & Ireland Association for Political Thought. Her book Mere Civility: Disagreement and the Limits of Toleration considers political speech through the lens of early modern debates about religious liberty.


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Sep 28, 2020
115 | Netta Engelhardt on Black Hole Information, Wormholes, and Quantum Gravity
01:26:59

Stephen Hawking made a number of memorable contributions to physics, but perhaps his greatest was a puzzle: what happens to information that falls into a black hole? The question sits squarely at the overlap of quantum mechanics and gravitation, an area in which direct experimental input is hard to come by, so a great number of leading theoretical physicists have been thinking about it for decades. Now there is a possibility that physicists might have made some progress, by showing how subtle effects relate the radiation leaving a black hole to what’s going on inside. Netta Engelhardt is one of the contributors to these recent advances, and together we go through the black hole information puzzle, why wormholes might be important to the story, and what it all might teach us about quantum gravity.

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Netta Engelhardt received her Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara. She is currently on the faculty in the physics department at MIT. She recently shared the New Horizons in Physics Prize with Ahmed Almheiri, Henry Maxfield, and Geoff Penington, “for calculating the quantum information content of a black hole and its radiation.”


Today’s episode is sponsored by LinkedIn Jobs (http://linkedIn.com/mindscape) and The Great Courses Plus (http://thegreatcoursesplus.com/mindscape). Follow these links for exclusive offers.

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Sep 21, 2020
114 | Angela Chen on Asexuality in a Sex-Preoccupied World
01:08:56

Sexuality is, and always has been, a topic that is endlessly fascinating but also contentious. You might think that asexuality would be more straightforward, but you’d be wrong. Asexual people, or “aces,” haven’t been front and center in the public discussion of gender and sexuality, and as a result there is confusion about such basic issues as what “asexuality” even means. Angela Chen is a science journalist and an ace herself, and she’s written a new book about asexuality and how it fits into the wider discussion of sex and gender. Precisely because sexuality is so taken for granted by many people, thinking about asexuality not only helps us understand the issues confronting aces, but the meaning of sexuality more broadly.

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Angela Chen received a B.A. in comparative literature from UC San Diego. She is a contributing editor at Catapult magazine, and her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, Vox Media, The Atlantic, MIT Technology Review, and elsewhere. Her new book is Ace: What Asexuality Reveals about Desire, Society, and the Meaning of Sex.


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Sep 14, 2020
113 | Cailin O'Connor on Game Theory, Evolution, and the Origins of Unfairness
01:19:52

You can’t always get what you want, as a wise person once said. But we do try, even when someone else wants the same thing. Our lives as people, and the evolution of other animals over time, are shaped by competition for scarce resources of various kinds. Game theory provides a natural framework for understanding strategies and behaviors in these competitive settings, and thus provides a lens with which to analyze evolution and human behavior, up to and including why racial or gender groups are consistently discriminated against in society. Cailin O’Connor is the author or two recent books on these issues: Games in the Philosophy of Biology and The Origins of Unfairness: Social Categories and Cultural Evolution.

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Cailin O’Connor received her Ph.D. in Philosophy from the University of California, Irvine. She is currently Associate Professor of Logic and Philosophy of Science and a member of the Institute for Mathematical Behavioral Science at UCI. Her works involves questions in the philosophy of biology and behavioral science, game theory, agent-based modeling, social epistemology, decision theory, rational choice, and the spread of misinformation.


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Sep 07, 2020
112 | Fyodor Urnov on Gene Editing, CRISPR, and Human Engineering
01:20:03

Not too long ago nobody carried a mobile phone; now almost everybody does. That’s the kind of rate of rapid progress we’re seeing with our ability to directly edit genomes. With the use of CRISPR-Cas9 and other techniques, gene editing is becoming commonplace. How does that work — and perhaps more importantly, how are we going to put it to use? Fyodor Urnov has worked in this area from its beginning, having coined the term “gene editing.” We talk about how this new technology can be used to cure or prevent disease, as well as the pros and cons of designer babies.

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Fyodor Urnov received his Ph.D. in Biology from Brown University. He is currently professor of Genetic, Genomics, and Development in the Department of Molecular and Cell Biology at UC Berkeley, as well as Director for Technology and Translation at the Innovative Genomics Institute. His research focuses on using CRISPR gene-editing techniques to develop treatments for sickle cell disease, radiation injury, and other conditions, as well as guiding IGI researchers as they bring these therapies from the lab to the clinic.

Todays episode is sponsored by The Great Courses Plus. Mindscape listeners get a free trial if they sign up at http://thegreatcoursesplus.com/mindscape.

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Aug 31, 2020
111 | Nick Bostrom on Anthropic Selection and Living in a Simulation
01:20:39

Human civilization is only a few thousand years old (depending on how we count). So if civilization will ultimately last for millions of years, it could be considered surprising that we’ve found ourselves so early in history. Should we therefore predict that human civilization will probably disappear within a few thousand years? This “Doomsday Argument” shares a family resemblance to ideas used by many professional cosmologists to judge whether a model of the universe is natural or not. Philosopher Nick Bostrom is the world’s expert on these kinds of anthropic arguments. We talk through them, leading to the biggest doozy of them all: the idea that our perceived reality might be a computer simulation being run by enormously more powerful beings.

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Nick Bostrom received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the London School of Economics. He also has bachelor’s degrees in philosophy, mathematics, logic, and artificial intelligence from the University of Gothenburg, an M.A. in philosophy and physics from the University of Stockholm, and an M.Sc. in computational neuroscience from King’s College London. He is currently a Professor of Applied Ethics at the University of Oxford, Director of the Oxford Future of Humanity Institute, and Director of the Oxford Martin Programme on the Impacts of Future Technology. He is the author of Anthropic Bias: Selection Effects in Science and Philosophy and Superintelligence: Paths, Dangers, Strategies.


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Aug 24, 2020
110 | Neil Johnson on Complexity, Conflict, and Infodemiology
01:23:33

Physicists have traditionally simplified systems as much as possible, in order to shed light on fundamental properties. But small, simple parts build up into large, complex wholes. Are there new rules and laws of nature that apply specifically to the realm of complexity? This has been a popular question for a few decades now, and we have some answers but not as many as we would like. Neil Johnson is an expert on complex systems generally, and information networks in particular. We discuss how self-organization can arise from individual units following their own agendas, and how we can mathematically characterize such behavior. Then we talk about information networks in the modern world, including how they have been used to spread disinformation and find recruits for radical fringe groups.

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Neil Johnson received his Ph.D. in physics from Harvard University. He is currently professor of physics at George Washington University, where he heads an initiative in Complexity and Data Science. In 1999 he presented the annual Christmas Lectures at the Royal Institution in London. He was the recipient of the Burton Award from the American Physical Society in 2018. Among his books are the textbook Financial Market Complexity and the trade book Simply Complexity.

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Aug 17, 2020
109 | Jason Torchinsky on Our Self-Driving Future
01:18:19

It’s easy to foresee that technological progress will change how we live; it’s much harder to anticipate exactly how. Self-driving cars represent an enormous technological challenge, but one that is plausibly on the way to being solved. What will be the unanticipated consequences when autonomous vehicles become commonplace? Jason Torchinsky is a fan of technology, but also a fan of driving, and his recent book Robot, Take the Wheel examines how our relationship with cars is likely to change in the near future.

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Jason Torchinsky is a senior editor at Jalopnik. His writing has also appeared in venues such as Boing Boing, Muck Rack, and Mother Jones. He is a producer and occasional guest star on Jay Leno’s Garage, and has been the host of the YouTube series Jason Drives.


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Aug 10, 2020
108 | Carl Bergstrom on Information, Disinformation, and Bullshit
01:24:10

We are living, in case you haven’t noticed, in a world full of bullshit. It’s hard to say whether the amount is truly increasing, but it seems that everywhere you look someone is trying to convince you of something, regardless of whether that something is actually true. Where is this bullshit coming from, how is it disseminated, and what can we do about it? Carl Bergstrom studies information in the context of biology, which has led him to investigate the flow of information and disinformation in social networks, especially the use of data in misleading ways. In the time of Covid-19 he has become on of the best Twitter feeds for reliable information, and we discuss how the pandemic has been a bounteous new source of bullshit.

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Carl Bergstrom received his Ph.D. in biology from Stanford University. He is currently a professor of biology at the University of Washington. In addition to his work on information and biology, he has worked on scientific practice and communication, proposing the eigenfactor method of ranking scientific journals. His new book (with Jevin West) is Calling Bullshit: The Art of Skepticism in a Data-Driven World, which grew out of a course taught at the University of Wisconsin.


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Aug 03, 2020
107 | Russ Shafer-Landau on the Reality of Morality
01:30:49

Despite occasional and important disagreements, most people are in rough agreement about what it means to be moral, to do the right thing. There’s much less agreement about why we should be moral, or even what kind of answer to that question could be convincing. Philosopher Russ Shafer-Landau is one of the leading proponents of moral realism — the view that objective moral truths exist independently of human choices. That’s not my own view, but ethics and meta-ethics are areas in which I think it’s wise to keep an open mind and listen to smart people who disagree. This conversation offers food for thought for people on either side of this debate.

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Russ Shafer-Landau received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Arizona. He is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Among his numerous books are Moral Realism: A Defense and Whatever Happened to Good and Evil? He is the editor of Oxford Studies in Metaethics, and is the founder and organizer of the annual Madison Metaethics Workshop.


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Jul 27, 2020
106 | Stuart Bartlett on What "Life" Means
01:25:57

Someday, most likely, we will encounter life that is not as we know it. We might find it elsewhere in the universe, we might find it right here on Earth, or we might make it ourselves in a lab. Will we know it when we see it? “Life” isn’t a simple unified concept, but rather a collection of a number of life-like properties. I talk with astrobiologist Stuart Bartlett, who (in collaboration with Michael Wong) has proposed a new way of thinking about life based on four pillars: dissipation, autocatalysis, homeostasis, and learning. Their framework may or may not become the standard picture, but it provides a useful way of thinking about what we expect life to be.

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Stuart Bartlett received his Ph.D. in complex systems from the University of Southampton. He is currently a postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences at Caltech, and was formerly a postdoc at the Earth Life Science Institute at the Tokyo Institute of Technology.


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Jul 20, 2020
105 | Ann-Sophie Barwich on the Science and Philosophy of Smell
01:17:45

We gather empirical evidence about the nature of the world through our senses, and use that evidence to construct an image of the world in our minds. But not all senses are created equal; in practice, we tend to privilege vision, with hearing perhaps a close second. Ann-Sophie Barwich wants to argue that we should take smell more seriously, and that doing so will give us new insights into how the brain works. As a working philosopher and neuroscientist, she shares a wealth of fascinating information about how smell works, how it shapes the way we think, and what it all means for questions of free will and rationality.

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Ann-Sophie Barwich received her Ph.D. in Philosophy at the Centre for the Study of the Life Sciences, University of Exeter. She is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Cognitive Science Program at Indiana University Bloomington. She has previously been a Presidential Scholar in Society and Neuroscience at The Center for Science & Society, Columbia University, and held a Research Fellowship at the Konrad Lorenz Institute for Evolution and Cognition Research, Vienna. Her new book is Smellosophy: What the Nose Tells the Mind.


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Jul 13, 2020
104 | David Rosen and Scott Miles on the Neuroscience of Music and Creativity
01:26:19

Creativity is one of those things that we all admire but struggle to define or make concrete. Music provides a useful laboratory in which to examine what creativity is all about — how do people become creative, what is happening in their brains during the creative process, and what kinds of creativity does the audience actually enjoy? David Rosen and Scott Miles are both neuroscientists and musicians who have been investigating this question from the perspective of both listeners and performers. They have been performing neuroscientific experiments to understand how the brain becomes creative, and founded Secret Chord Laboratories to develop software that will predict what kinds of music people will like.

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David S. Rosen received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Drexel University. He is currently a co-founder and the chief operations officer at Secret Chord Laboratories, a music-tech startup company. His interdisciplinary research program covers an array of topics: creative cognition, peak experiences, the neuroscience of music production and perception, psychedelics and STEAM education. David began playing the piano at the age of 8 and bass at age 15. He is the co-creator and bassist of sci-fi transmedia band, Chronicles of Sound, and instrumental progressive rock band, NAKAMA.

Scott Miles received his Ph.D. in neuroscience from Georgetown University. He is currently the CEO and innovation leader of Secret Chord Laboratories. He has been performing and producing music since the age of 10. In his doctoral work he investigated how music preference is formed in the brain. He secured funding through the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship to support this work. With David Rosen, Ph.D., he found support for two hypotheses about how the structure of music leads to purchase decisions. Miles then coded an algorithm to generate new music, and in a behavioral experiment, music featuring these properties was indeed preferred. He formed and has overseen the development of Secret Chord laboratories since it was incorporated in June 2018.


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Jul 06, 2020
103 | J. Kenji López-Alt on Cooking As and With Science
01:15:29

Cooking is art, but it’s also very much science — mostly chemistry, but with important contributions from physics and biology. (Almost like a well-balanced recipe…) And I can’t think of anyone better to talk to about the intersection of these fields than Kenji López-Alt: professional chef and restauranteur, MIT graduate, and author of The Food Lab. We discuss how modern scientific ideas can improve your cooking, and more importantly, how to bring a scientific approach to cooking anything at all. Then we also get into the cultural and personal resonance of food, and offer a few practical tips.

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James Kenji López-Alt received a bachelor’s degree in architecture from MIT. After working at several restaurants, he began writing the Food Lab column for Serious Eats, where he is now Chief Culinary Consultant. His first book, The Food Lab: Better Home Cooking through Science, won the 2016 James Beard Award for General Cooking and the International Association of Culinary Professionals Cookbook of the Year Award. He is co-owner of Wursthall Restaurant and Bierhaus in San Mateo, California.

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Jun 29, 2020
102 | Maria Konnikova on Poker, Psychology, and Reason
01:20:14

The best chess and Go players in the world aren’t human beings any more; they’re artificially-intelligent computer programs. But the best poker players are still humans. Poker is a laboratory for understanding how rationality works in real-world situations: it features stochastic events, incomplete information, Bayesian updating, game theory, reading other people, a battle between emotions and reason, and real-world stakes. Maria Konnikova started in psychology, turned to writing, and then took up professional-level poker, and has learned a lot along the way about the challenges of being rational. We talk about what games like poker can teach us about thinking and human psychology.

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Maria Konnikova received her Ph.D. in psychology from Columbia University. She is currently a contributing writer for The New Yorker. She is the author of two bestselling books, The Confidence Game and Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes. Among her awards are the 2019 Excellence in Science Journalism Award from the Society of Personality and Social Psychology. She is a successful tournament poker player and Ambassador for PokerStars. She is the host of The Grift podcast. Her new book is The Biggest Bluff: How I Learned to Pay Attention, Master Myself, and Win.


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Jun 22, 2020
101 | David Baltimore on the Mysteries of Viruses
01:14:12

I recently saw an estimate that if you took all the novel coronaviruses in the world (the actual viruses, not patients), you could fit them into a bucket no more than a couple of liters in volume. A huge impact has been wrought by a very small amount of stuff. The world of viruses is vast and complicated, and we’re still learning some of its basic features. Today’s guest David Baltimore won the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery that genetic information in viruses could flow from RNA to DNA, establishing an exception to the Central Dogma of Biology. He is the author of the Baltimore Classification scheme for viruses, and has done important research in the role of viruses in diseases from AIDS to cancer. We talk about what viruses are, how they work, and the status of the novel coronavirus we are currently battling. David also has some strong opinions about public health and how we should be preparing for future outbreaks.

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David Baltimore received his Ph.D. in molecular biology from the Rockefeller Institute. He is currently the Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology at Caltech. At age 37 he was awarded the Nobel Prize, which he shared with Howard Temin and Renato Dulbecco. He has served as the President of both Rockefeller University and Caltech, as well as President of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the Founding Director of the Whitehead Institute for Biomedical Research. Among his other awards are the National Medal of Science and the Warren Alpert Foundation Prize.


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Jun 15, 2020
100 | Solo | Life and Its Meaning
01:33:10

A podcast only hits the century mark once! And for Mindscape, this is it. There have been holiday messages and bonus episodes and the like. But this is the 100th officially-numbered episode. To celebrate, I decided to treat myself to a solo episode in which I reflect, somewhat non-systematically, on the age-old question of the meaning of life. I end up spending a lot (most?) of the time talking about the meaning of “life,” i.e. what it means to be a living organism in a naturalistic universe. But then I go on to muse about the construction of human meaning in a world where values are not imposed on us or objectively grounded in physical facts.

I think life does have meaning, and it’s important to understand what forms it might take. I settle largely on the idea that humans can conceive of different possible futures, assign value to them, and work against the natural order of things to create something that otherwise would not have been. This is far from the final word, even in my own mind; it’s an invitation to think and converse in a reasonable way about some of the biggest questions there are. Just like the podcast in general.

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Here are some modern works offering other perspectives on the meaning of life:

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Jun 08, 2020
99 | Scott Aaronson on Complexity, Computation, and Quantum Gravity
01:52:53

There are some problems for which it’s very hard to find the answer, but very easy to check the answer if someone gives it to you. At least, we think there are such problems; whether or not they really exist is the famous P vs NP problem, and actually proving it will win you a million dollars. This kind of question falls under the rubric of “computational complexity theory,” which formalizes how hard it is to computationally attack a well-posed problem. Scott Aaronson is one of the world’s leading thinkers in computational complexity, especially the wrinkles that enter once we consider quantum computers as well as classical ones. We talk about how we quantify complexity, and how that relates to ideas as disparate as creativity, knowledge vs. proof, and what all this has to do with black holes and quantum gravity.

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Scott Aaronson received his Ph.D. in computer science from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently the David J. Bruton Jr. Centennial Professor of Computer Science at the University of Texas at Austin, and director of the Quantum Information Center there. He specializes in quantum computing and computational complexity theory, but has written on topics from free will to the nature of consciousness. Among his awards are the Tomassoni-Chisesi Prize in Physics (Italy) and the Alan T. Waterman Award from the National Science Foundation. His blog Shtetl-Optimized is known both for its humor and as the most reliable source of information on news in quantum computing. He is the author of Quantum Computing Since Democritus.


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Jun 01, 2020
98 | Olga Khazan on Living and Flourishing While Being Weird
01:01:43

Each of us is different, in some way or another, from every other person. But some are more different than others — and the rest of the world never stops letting them know. Societies set up “norms” that define what constitute acceptable standards of behavior, appearance, and even belief. But there will always be those who find themselves, intentionally or not, in violation of those norms — people who we might label “weird.” Olga Khazan was weird in one particular way, growing up in a Russian immigrant family in the middle of Texas. Now as an established writer, she has been exploring what it means to be weird, and the senses in which that quality can both harm you and provide you with hidden advantages.

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Olga Khazan is a staff writer for The Atlantic, covering health, gender, and science. She has previously written for the Los Angeles Times, the Washington PostForbes, and other publications. Among her awards are the National Headliner Awards for Magazine Online Writing. Her new book is Weird: The Power of Being an Outsider in an Insider World.


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May 25, 2020
97 | John Danaher on Our Coming Automated Utopia
01:22:41

Humans build machines, in part, to relieve themselves from the burden of work on difficult, repetitive tasks. And yet, despite the fact that machines are everywhere, most of us are still working pretty hard. But maybe that’s about to change. Futurists like John Danaher believe that society is finally on the brink of making a transition to a world in which work would be optional, rather than mandatory — and he thinks that’s a very good thing. It will take some adjusting, personally as well as economically, but he envisions a future in which human creativity and artistic impulse can flourish in a world free of the demands of working for a living. We talk about what that would entail, whether it’s realistic, and what comes next.

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John Danaher received an LLM degree from Trinity College Dublin and a Ph.D. from University College, Cork. He is currently Senior Lecturer in the School of Law at the National University of Ireland, Galway. His research is situated at the overlap of legal studies and philosophy, and frequently involves questions of technology, automation, and the future. He is the coeditor of Robot Sex: Social and Ethical Implications, and author of the recent book Automation and Utopia: Human Flourishing in a World Without Work. He writes frequently for publications such as The Atlantic, The Guardian, and The Irish Times, and is the host of his own podcast, Philosophical Disquisitions.


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May 18, 2020
96 | Lina Necib on What and Where the Dark Matter Is
01:21:43

The past few centuries of scientific progress have displaced humanity from the center of it all: the Earth is not at the middle of the Solar System, the Sun is but one star in a large galaxy, there are trillions of galaxies, and so on. Now we know that we’re not even made of the same stuff as most of the universe; for every amount of ordinary atoms and other known particles, there is five times as much dark matter, some kind of stuff we haven’t identified in laboratory experiments. But we do know a great deal about the behavior of dark matter. I talk with Lina Necib about why we think there’s dark matter, what it might be, and how it’s distributed in the galaxy. The latter question has seen enormous recent progress, especially from high-precision measurements of the distribution of stars in the Milky Way.

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Lina Necib received her Ph.D. in physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. She is currently a Sherman Fairchild Postdoctoral Scholar in Theoretical Physics at Caltech, and will be an Assistant Professor of Physics at MIT starting in the fall. Her research spans issues in particle physics and astrophysics, especially concerning the nature and distribution of dark matter, as well as techniques for detecting it and constraining its properties.


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May 11, 2020
95 | Liam Kofi Bright on Knowledge, Truth, and Science
01:35:55

Everybody talks about the truth, but nobody does anything about it. And to be honest, how we talk about truth — what it is, and how to get there — can be a little sloppy at times. Philosophy to the rescue! I had a very ambitious conversation with Liam Kofi Bright, starting with what we mean by “truth” (correspondence, coherence, pragmatist, and deflationary approaches), and then getting into the nitty-gritty of how we actually discover it. There’s a lot to think about once we take a hard look at how science gets done, how discoveries are communicated, and what different kinds of participants can bring to the table.

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Liam Kofi Bright received his Ph.D. in Logic, Computation and Methodology from Carnegie Mellon University. He is currently on the faculty of the London School of Economics in the Department of Philosophy, Logic, and the Scientific Method. He has worked on questions concerning peer review and fraud in scientific communities, intersectionality, logical empiricism, and Africana philosophy. He is well-known on Twitter as the Last Positivist.


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May 04, 2020
94 | Stuart Russell on Making Artificial Intelligence Compatible with Humans
01:27:24

Artificial intelligence has made great strides of late, in areas as diverse as playing Go and recognizing pictures of dogs. We still seem to be a ways away from AI that is “intelligent” in the human sense, but it might not be too long before we have to start thinking seriously about the “motivations” and “purposes” of artificial agents. Stuart Russell is a longtime expert in AI, and he takes extremely seriously the worry that these motivations and purposes may be dramatically at odds with our own. In his book Human Compatible, Russell suggests that the secret is to give up on building our own goals into computers, and rather programming them to figure out our goals by actually observing how humans behave.

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Stuart Russell received his Ph.D. in computer science from Stanford University. He is currently a Professor of Computer Science and the Smith-Zadeh Professor in Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, as well as an Honorary Fellow of Wadham College, Oxford. He is a co-founder of the Center for Human-Compatible Artificial Intelligence at UC Berkeley. He is the author of several books, including (with Peter Norvig) the classic text Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach. Among his numerous awards are the IJCAI Computers and Thought Award, the Blaise Pascal Chair in Paris, and the World Technology Award. His new book is Human Compatible: Artificial Intelligence and the Problem of Control.


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Apr 27, 2020
93 | Rae Wynn-Grant on Bears, Humans, and Other Predators
01:02:16

Human beings have a strange fascination with dangerous, predatory animals — bears, lions, wolves, sharks, and more. The top of the food chain is an interesting and precarious place to live; while you might be the boss of your local environment, you also depend on the functioning of an entire ecology. Rae Wynn-Grant is a carnivore ecologist who studies how large predators migrate, feed, reproduce — and especially how they interact with humans. We talk about the diverse social structures of different species of carnivores, how they find mates, and how they diversify their diet. And of course we discuss how humans and other locally-dominant species can live together peacefully.

Rae Wynn-Grant received her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Columbia University. She is currently a Fellow with National Geographic Society working on carnivore conservation in partnership with the American Prairie Reserve. She maintains a Visiting Scientist position at the American Museum of Natural History, and adjunct faculty positions at Columbia University and Johns Hopkins University. She appears in National Geographic’s Born Wild: The Next Generation, premiering on April 22.


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Apr 20, 2020
92 | Kevin Hand on Life Elsewhere in the Solar System
01:56:25

It’s hard doing science when you only have one data point, especially when that data point is subject to an enormous selection bias. That’s the situation faced by people studying the nature and prevalence of life in the universe. The only biosphere we know about is our own, and our knowing anything at all is predicated on its existence, so it’s unclear how much it can teach us about the bigger picture. That’s why it’s so important to search for life elsewhere. Today’s guest is Kevin Hand, a planetary scientist and astrobiologist who knows as much as anyone about the prospects for finding life right in our planetary backyard, on moons and planets in the Solar System. We talk about how life comes to be, and reasons why it might be lurking on Europa, Titan, or elsewhere.

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Kevin Hand received his Ph.D. in Geological and Environmental Sciences from Stanford University. He is currently Deputy Chief Scientist for Solar System Exploration at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. He has collaborated with director James Cameron, and is a frequent consultant on films, including acting as a science advisor to the movie Europa Report. His a cofounder of Cosmos Education, a non-profit organization devoted to science education in developing countries. His new book is Alien Oceans: The Search for Life in the Depths of Space.


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Apr 13, 2020
91 | Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology of Transcendence
01:19:18

If one of the ambitious goals of philosophy is to determine the meaning of life, one of the ambitious goals of psychology is to tell us how to achieve it. An influential work in this direction was Abraham Maslow’s hierarchy of needs — a list of human needs, often displayed suggestively in the form of a pyramid, ranging from the most basic (food and shelter) to the most refined. At the top lurks “self-actualization," the ultimate goal of achieving one’s creative capacities. Psychologist Scott Barry Kaufman has elaborated on this model, both by exploring less-well-known writings of Maslow’s, and also by incorporating more recent empirical psychological studies. He suggests the more dynamical metaphor of a sailboat, where the hull represents basic security needs and the sail more creative and dynamical capabilities. It’s an interesting take on the importance of appreciating that the nature of our lives is one of constant flux.

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Scott Barry Kaufman received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Yale University. He has taught at Columbia University, NYU, the University of Pennsylvania, and elsewhere. He is the host of The Psychology Podcast. He was named by Business Insider as one of the “50 groundbreaking scientists who are changing the way we see the world.” He is the author of numerous books; his most recent, Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, is published April 7.


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Apr 06, 2020
90 | David Kaiser on Science, Money, and Power
01:34:49

Science costs money. And for a brief, glorious period between the start of the Manhattan Project in 1939 and the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, physics was awash in it, largely sustained by the Cold War. Things are now different, as physics — and science more broadly — has entered a funding crunch. David Kaiser, who is both a working physicist and an historian of science, talks with me about the fraught relationship between scientists and their funding sources throughout history, from Galileo and his patrons to the current rise of private foundations. It’s an interesting listen for anyone who wonders about the messy reality of how science gets done.

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David Kaiser received a Ph.D. in physics, and a separate Ph.D. in history of science, from Harvard University. He is currently Germeshausen Professor of the History of Science in MIT’s Program in Science, Technology, and Society, Professor of Physics in MIT’s Department of Physics, and also Associate Dean for Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC) in MIT’s Schwarzman College of Computing. He has been awarded the Davis Prize and Pfizer Prize from the History of Science Society, was named a Mac Vicar Faculty Fellow for undergraduate teaching at MIT, and received the Perkins Award for excellence in mentoring graduate students. His book Quantum Legacies: Dispatches from an Uncertain World is available April 3.


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Mar 30, 2020
89 | Lera Boroditsky on Language, Thought, Space, and Time
01:28:39

What direction does time point in? None, really, although some people might subconsciously put the past on the left and the future on the right, or the past behind themselves and the future in front, or many other possible orientations. What feels natural to you depends in large degree on the native language you speak, and how it talks about time. This is a clue to a more general phenomenon, how language shapes the way we think. Lera Boroditsky is one of the world’s experts on this phenomenon. She uses how different languages construe time and space (as well as other things) to help tease out the way our brains make sense of the world.

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Lera Boroditsky received her Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from Stanford University. She is currently associate professor of cognitive science at UC San Diego. She serves as Editor in Chief of the journal Frontiers in Cultural Psychology. She has been named one of 25 Visionaries changing the world by the Utne Reader, and is also a Searle Scholar, a McDonnell scholar, recipient of an NSF Career award, and an APA Distinguished Scientist lecturer.


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Mar 23, 2020
Tara Smith on Coronavirus, Pandemics, and What We Can Do
01:20:34

This is a special episode of Mindscape, thrown together quickly. Many thanks to Tara Smith for joining me on short notice. Tara is an epidemiologist, and a great person to talk to about the novel coronavirus (and its associated disease, COVID-19) pandemic currently threatening the world. We talk about what viruses are, how they spread, and a lot of the science behind virology and pandemics. We also take a practical turn, talking about what measures (washing hands, social distancing, self-isolation) are useful at combating the spread of the virus, and which (wearing masks) are probably not. Then we look to the future, to ask what the endgame here is; Tara suggests that the kind of drastic measure we are currently putting up with might last a long time indeed.

Tara Smith received her Ph.D. in microbiology from the University of Toledo. She is currently Professor of Epidemiology at the Kent State University College of Public Health. She has researched and written extensively about diseases such as ebola and MRSA. She is an active science communicator, and writes regular columns for SELF magazine.


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Mar 18, 2020
88 | Neil Shubin on Evolution, Genes, and Dramatic Transitions
01:33:12

“What good is half a wing?” That’s the rhetorical question often asked by people who have trouble accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Of course it’s a very answerable question, but figuring out what exactly the answer is leads us to some fascinating biology. Neil Shubin should know: he is the co-discoverer of Tiktaalik Roseae, an ancient species of fish that was in the process of learning to walk and breathe on land. We talk about how these major transitions happen — typically when evolution finds a way to re-purpose existing organs into new roles — and how we can learn about them by studying living creatures and the information contained in their genomes.

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Neil Shubin received his Ph.D. in organismic and evolutionary biology from Harvard University. He is currently the the Robert Bensley Distinguished Service Professor and Associate Dean of Biological Sciences at the University of Chicago. He is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and the American Philosophical society. His first book, Your Inner Fish, was chosen by the National Academy of Sciences as the best science book of 2009, and was subsequently made into a TV special. His new book is Some Assembly Required: Decoding Four Billion Years of Life, from Ancient Fossils to DNA.


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Mar 16, 2020
87 | Karl Friston on Brains, Predictions, and Free Energy
01:29:57

If you tell me that one of the world’s leading neuroscientists has developed a theory of how the brain works that also has implications for the origin and nature of life more broadly, and uses concepts of entropy and information in a central way — well, you know I’m going to be all over that. So it’s my great pleasure to present this conversation with Karl Friston, who has done exactly that. One of the most highly-cited neuroscientists now living, Friston has proposed that we understand the brain in terms of a free energy principle, according to which our brains are attempting to model the world in such a way as to minimize the amount of surprise we experience. It’s a bit more complicate than that, but I think we made great headway in explicating some very profound ideas in a way that should be generally understandable.

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Karl Friston received his medical degree from King’s College Hospital, London. He is currently Professor at the Institute of Neurology, University College London, and Wellcome Principal Research Fellow and Scientific Director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Neuroimaging. Among his major contributions are statistical parametric mapping, voxel-based morphometry, and dynamical causal modeling. He is a Fellow of the Royal Society, of the Academy of Medical Science, and of the Royal Society of Biology. Among his awards are the Young Investigators Award in Human Brain Mapping, the Minerva Golden Brain Award, the Weldon Memorial Prize, the Charles Branch Award, and the Glass Brain Award for human brain mapping.


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Mar 09, 2020
86 | Martin Rees on Threats to Humanity, Prospects for Posthumanity, and Life in the Universe
01:40:02

Anyone who has read histories of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 nuclear false alarm, must be struck by how incredibly close humanity has come to wreaking incredible destruction on itself. Nuclear war was the first technology humans created that was truly capable of causing such harm, but the list of potential threats is growing, from artificial pandemics to runaway super-powerful artificial intelligence. In response, today’s guest Martin Rees and others founded the Cambridge Centre for the Study of Existential Risk. We talk about what the major risks are, and how we can best reason about very tiny probabilities multiplied by truly awful consequences. In the second part of the episode we start talking about what humanity might become, as well as the prospect of life elsewhere in the universe, and that was so much fun that we just kept going.

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Lord Martin Rees, Baron of Ludlow, received his Ph.D. in physics from University of Cambridge. He is currently Emeritus Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge, as well as Astronomer Royal of the United Kingdom. He was formerly Master of Trinity College and President of the Royal Society. Among his many awards are the Heineman Prize for Astrophysics, the Gruber Prize in Cosmology, the Crafoord Prize, the Michael Faraday Prize, the Templeton Prize, the Isaac Newton Medal, the Dirac Medal, and the British Order of Merit. He is a co-founder of the Centre for the Study of Existential Risk.


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Mar 02, 2020
85 | L.A. Paul on Transformative Experiences and Your Future Selves
01:14:10

It’s hard to make decisions that will change your life. It’s even harder to make a decision if you know that the outcome could change who you are. Our preferences are determined by who we are, and they might be quite different after a decision is made — and there’s no rational way of taking that into account. Philosopher L.A. Paul has been investigating these transformative experiences — from getting married, to having a child, to going to graduate school — with an eye to deciding how to live in the face of such choices. Of course we can ask people who have made such a choice what they think, but that doesn’t tell us whether the choice is a good one from the standpoint of our current selves, those who haven’t taken the plunge. We talk about what this philosophical conundrum means for real-world decisions, attitudes towards religious faith, and the tricky issue of what it means to be authentic to yourself when your “self” keeps changing over time.

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L.A. (Laurie) Paul received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. She is currently professor of philosophy and cognitive science at Yale University. She has worked extensively on causation, the philosophy of time, mereology, and transformative experience. She has won fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Humanities Center, and the Australian National University. Among her books are the monograph Transformative Experience; she is currently working on a popular-level book on this theme.


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Feb 24, 2020
84 | Suresh Naidu on Capitalism, Monopsony, and Inequality
01:26:54

Nations generally want their economies to be rich, robust, and growing. But it’s also important to person to ensure that wealth doesn’t flow only to a few people, but rather that as many people as possible can enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy. As is well known, the best way to balance these interests is a contentious subject. On one side we might find free-market fundamentalists who want to let supply and demand set prices and keep government interference to a minimum, while on the other we might find enthusiasts for very strong government control over all aspects of the economy. Suresh Naidu is an economist who has delved deeply into how economic performance affects and is affected by other notable social factors, from democracy to revolution to slavery. We talk about these, as well as how concentrations of economic power in just a few hands — monopoly and its cousin, monopsony — can distort the best intentions of the free market.

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Suresh Naidu received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently professor of economics and international affairs at Columbia University as well as a fellow at Roosevelt Institute, external faculty at the Santa Fe Institute, and a research fellow at National Bureau of Economic Research. His awards include a Sloan Research Fellowship and the “Best Ph.D. Advisor Award” from the Columbia Association of Graduate Economics Students.


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Feb 17, 2020
83 | Kwame Anthony Appiah on Identity, Stories, and Cosmopolitanism
01:38:48

The Greek statesman Demosthenes is credited with saying “I am a citizen of the world,” and the idea that we should take a cosmopolitan view of our common humanity is a compelling one. Not everyone agrees, however; in the words of former British Prime Minister Theresa May, “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” On the other side of the political spectrum, groups who share a feature of identity — race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and others — find it useful to band together to make political progress. Kwame Anthony Appiah is a leading philosopher and cultural theorist who has thought carefully about the tricky issues of cosmopolitanism and identity. We talk about how identities form, why they matter, and how to negotiate the difficult balance between being human and being your particular self.

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Kwame Anthony Appiah received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Cambridge University. He is currently Professor of Philosophy and of Law at New York University. He is the author of numerous academic books as well as several novels. He is a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and is the recipient of a number of major awards, including the National Humanities Medal of the United States. He currently writes the New York Times Magazine column “The Ethicist“, and frequently writes for The New York Review of Books. (Note that in the podcast intro I mistakenly said he was “born and raised” in Ghana; he was actually born in London, moving to Ghana when he was six months old.)


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Feb 10, 2020
82 | Robin Carhart-Harris on Psychedelics and the Brain
01:17:33

The Convention on Psychotropic Substances was a 1971 United Nations treaty that placed strong restrictions on the use of psychedelic drugs — not only on personal use, but medical and scientific research as well. Along with restrictions placed by individual nations, it has been very difficult for scientists to study the effects of psychedelics on the brain, despite indications that they might have significant therapeutic potential. But this has gradually been changing, and researchers like Robin Carhart-Harris have begun to perform controlled experiments to see how psychedelics affect the brain, and what positive uses they might have. Robin and I talk about how psychedelics work, how they can help with conditions from addiction to depression, and how they can help people discover things about themselves.

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Robin Carhart-Harris received his Ph.D. in psychopharmacology from the University of Bristol. He is currently the Director of the Centre for Psychedelic Research in the Department of Brain Sciences at Imperial College London, and holds an honorary position at the University of Oxford. His research involves functional brain imaging studies with psilocybin (magic mushrooms), LSD, MDMA (ecstasy) and DMT (ayahuasca), plus a clinical trial of psilocybin for treatment-resistant depression.


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Feb 03, 2020
81 | Ezra Klein on Politics, Polarization, and Identity
01:21:43

People have always disagreed about politics, passionately and sometimes even violently. But in certain historical moments these disagreements were distributed without strong correlations, so that any one political party would contain a variety of views. In a representative democracy, that kind of distribution makes it easier to accomplish things. In contrast, today we see strong political polarization: members of any one party tend to line up with each other on a range of issues, and correspondingly view the other party with deep distrust. Political commentator Ezra Klein has seen this shift in action, and has studied it carefully in his new book Why We’re Polarized. We talk about the extent to which the apparent polarization is real, how we can trace its causes, and whether there’s anything we can do about it.

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Ezra Klein received a B.A. in political science from the University of California, Los Angeles. He is currently the editor-at-large and founder of Vox. As a writer and editor his work has appeared in/on The Washington Post, MSNBC, Bloomberg, The New York Review of Books, and The New Yorker. Among his awards are Blogger of the Year (The Week), 50 Most Powerful People in Washington DC (GQ), Best Online Commentary (Online News Association), and the Carey McWilliams Award (American Political Science Association).


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Jan 27, 2020
80 | Jenann Ismael on Connecting Physics to the World of Experience
01:26:50

Physics is simple; people are complicated. But even people are ultimately physical systems, made of particles and forces that follow the rules of the Core Theory. How do we bridge the gap from one kind of description to another, explaining how someone we know and care about can also be “just” a set of quantum fields obeying impersonal laws? This is a hard question that comes up in a variety of forms — What is the “self”? Do we have free will, the ability to make choices? What are the moral and ethical ramifications of these considerations? Jenann Ismael is a philosopher at the leading edge of connecting human life to the fundamental laws of nature, for example in her recent book How Physics Makes Us Free. We talk about free will, consciousness, values, and other topics about which I’m sure everyone will simply agree.

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Jenann Ismael received her Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. She is currently Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. Her work includes both the foundations of physics (spacetime, quantum mechanics, symmetry) and the philosophy of mind and cognition. She has been awarded fellowships from Stanford University, the Australian Research Council, the Scots Philosophical Association, and the Center for Advanced Study in Social and Behavioral Sciences, as well as an Essay Prize from the British Society for the Philosophy of Science.


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Jan 20, 2020
79 | Sara Imari Walker on Information and the Origin of Life
01:23:23

We are all alive, but “life” is something we struggle to understand. How do we distinguish a “living organism” from an emergent dynamical system like a hurricane, or a resource-consuming chemical reaction like a forest fire, or an information-processing system like a laptop computer? There is probably no one crisp set of criteria that delineates life from non-life, but it’s worth the exercise to think about what we really mean, especially as the quest to find life outside the confines of the Earth picks up steam. Sara Imari Walker planned to become a cosmologist before shifting her focus to astrobiology, and is now a leading researcher on the origin and nature of life. We talk about what life is and how to find it, with a special focus on the role played by information and computation in living beings.

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Sara Imari Walker received her Ph.D. in physics from Dartmouth college. She is currently Associate Professor in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, Deputy Director of the Beyond Center for Fundamental Concepts in Science, and Associate Director of the ASU-Santa Fe Institute Center for Biosocial Complex Systems. She is the co-founder of the astrobiology social network SAGANet, and serves on the Board of Directors for Blue Marble Space.


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Jan 13, 2020
78 | Daniel Dennett on Minds, Patterns, and the Scientific Image
02:01:35

Wilfrid Sellars described the task of philosophy as explaining how things, in the broadest sense of term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term. (Substitute “exploring” for “explaining” and you’d have a good mission statement for the Mindscape podcast.) Few modern thinkers have pursued this goal more energetically, creatively, and entertainingly than Daniel Dennett. One of the most respected philosophers of our time, Dennett’s work has ranged over topics such as consciousness, artificial intelligence, metaphysics, free will, evolutionary biology, epistemology, and naturalism, always with an eye on our best scientific understanding of the phenomenon in question. His thinking in these areas is exceptionally lucid, and he has the rare ability to express his ideas in ways that non-specialists can find accessible and compelling. We talked about all of them, in a wide-ranging and wonderfully enjoyable conversation.

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Daniel Dennett received his D.Phil. in philosophy from Oxford University. He is currently Austin B. Fletcher Professor of Philosophy and co-director of the Center for Cognitive Studies at Tufts University. He is known for a number of philosophical concepts and coinages, including the intentional stance, the Cartesian theater, and the multiple-drafts model of consciousness. Among his honors are the Erasmus Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and the American Humanist Association’s Humanist of the Year award. He is the author of a number of books that are simultaneously scholarly and popular, including Consciousness Explained, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, and most recently Bacteria to Bach and Back.

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Jan 06, 2020
Holiday Message 2019: On Publishing Books
01:06:08

Welcome to the second annual Mindscape Holiday Message! No substantive content or deep ideas, just me talking a bit about the state of the podcast and what’s on my mind. Since the big event for me in 2019 was the publication of Something Deeply Hidden, I thought it would be fun to talk about the process of writing and selling a popular book. Might be of interest to some of you out there!

Mindscape takes off for the holidays, so the next regular episode will be published on Monday January 6. It’s a good one — maybe my favorite episode thus far.

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Dec 22, 2019
77 | Azra Raza on The Way We Should Fight Cancer
01:22:05

In the United States, more than one in five deaths is caused by cancer. The medical community has put enormous resources into fighting this disease, yet its causes and best treatments continue to be a puzzle. Azra Raza has been on both sides of the patient’s bed, as she puts it — both as an oncologist and expert in the treatment of Myelodisplastic Syndrome (MDS), and as a wife who lost her husband to cancer. In her new book, The First Cell, she argues that we have placed too much emphasis on treating cancer once it has already developed, and not nearly enough on catching it as soon as possible. We talk about what cancer is and why it’s such a difficult disease to understand, as well as discussing how patients and their loved ones should face up to the challenges of dealing with cancer.

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Azra Raza received her M.D. from Dow Medical College in Karachi, Pakistan. She is currently Chan Soon-Shiong Professor of Medicine and Director of the MDS Center at Columbia University in New York. Previously she was the Chief of Hematology-Oncology and the Gladys Smith Martin Professor of Oncology at the University of Massachusetts. Her Tissue Repository contains over 60,000 samples of samples from MDS and acute leukemia patients. She is the co-editor of the celebrated blog site 3 Quarks Daily.


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Dec 16, 2019
76 | Ned Hall on Possible Worlds and the Laws of Nature
01:25:32

It’s too easy to take laws of nature for granted. Sure, gravity is pulling us toward Earth today; but how do we know it won’t be pushing us away tomorrow? We extrapolate from past experience to future expectation, but what allows us to do that? “Humeans” (after David Hume, not a misspelling of “human”) think that what exists is just what actually happens in the universe, and the laws are simply convenient summaries of what happens. “Anti-Humeans” think that the laws have an existence of their own, bringing what happens next into existence. The debate has implications for the notion of possible worlds, and thus for counterfactuals and causation — would Y have happened if X hadn’t happened first? Ned Hall and I have a deep conversation that started out being about causation, but we quickly realized we had to get a bunch of interesting ideas on the table first. What we talk about helps clarify how we should think about our reality and others.

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Edward (Ned) Hall received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Princeton University. He is currently Department Chair and Norman E. Vuilleumier Professor of Philosophy at Harvard University. According to his web page, “I work on a range of topics in metaphysics and epistemology that overlap with philosophy of science. (Which is to say: the best topics in metaphysics and epistemology.)” He is the coauthor (with L.A. Paul) of Causation: A User’s Guide.


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Dec 09, 2019
75 | Max Tegmark on Reality, Simulation, and the Multiverse
01:11:34

We've talked a lot recently about the Many Worlds of quantum mechanics. That’s one kind of multiverse that physicists often contemplate. There is also the cosmological multiverse, which we talked about with Brian Greene. Today’s guest, Max Tegmark, has thought a great deal about both of those ideas, as well as a more ambitious and speculative one: the Mathematical Multiverse, in which we imagine that every mathematical structure is real, and the universe we perceive is just one such mathematical structure. And there’s yet another possibility, that what we experience as “reality” is just a simulation inside computers operated by some advanced civilization. Max has thought about all of these possibilities at a deep level, as his research has ranged from physical cosmology to foundations of quantum mechanics and now to applied artificial intelligence. Strap in and be ready for a wild ride.

Max Tegmark received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of California, Berkeley. He is currently professor of physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He has played an important role analyzing data from large-scale structure and the cosmic microwave background. He is the author of Our Mathematical Universe and Life 2.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence. He is a co-founder of the Foundational Questions Institute and the Future of Life Institute.


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Dec 02, 2019
74 | Stephen Greenblatt on Stories, History, and Cultural Poetics
01:06:01

An infinite number of things happen; we bring structure and meaning to the world by making art and telling stories about it. Every work of literature created by human beings comes out of an historical and cultural context, and drawing connections between art and its context can be illuminating for both. Today’s guest, Stephen Greenblatt, is one of the world’s most celebrated literary scholars, famous for helping to establish the New Historicism school of criticism, which he also refers to as “cultural poetics.” We talk about how art becomes entangled with the politics of its day, and how we can learn about ourselves and other cultures by engaging with stories and their milieu.

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Stephen Greenblatt received his Ph.D. in English from Yale University. He is currently Cogan University Professor of the Humanities at Harvard University. He has specialized in Renaissance and Shakespeare studies, but has also written on topics as diverse as Adam and Eve and the ancient Roman poet Lucretius. He has served as the editor of the Norton Anthology of English Literature and the Norton Shakespeare, and is founder of the journal Representations. Among his many honors are the Pulitzer Prize, the National Book Award, and the Distinguished Humanist Award from the Mellon Foundation. His most recent book is Tyrant: Shakespeare on Politics.


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Nov 25, 2019
73 | Grimes (c) on Music, Creativity, and Digital Personae
01:18:10

Changing technologies have always affected how we produce and enjoy art, and music might be the most obvious example. Radio and recordings made it easy for professional music to be widely disseminated, but created a barrier to its creation. Nowadays computers are helping to reverse that trend, allowing casual users to create slick songs of their own. Not everyone is equally good at it, however; Grimes (who currently goes by c, the symbol for the speed of light) is a wildly successful electronic artist who writes, produces, performs, and sings her own songs. We dig into how music is made in the modern world, but also go well beyond that, into artificial intelligence and the nature of digital/virtual/online personae. We talk about the birth of a new digital avatar -- who might be called "War Nymph"? -- and how to navigate the boundaries of art, technology, fashion, and culture. Her new album Miss Anthropocene will be released in February 2020.

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Grimes, or c, studied neuroscience at McGill University before turning full-time to music. Her previous albums include Geidi PrimesHalfaxaVisions, and Art Angels. Her latest album, Miss Anthropocene, channels the goddess of climate change. On December 5th in Miami, she will be orchestrating the one-night-only rave Bio-Haque.


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Nov 18, 2019
72 | César Hidalgo on Information in Societies, Economies, and the Universe
01:16:35

Maxwell's Demon is a famous thought experiment in which a mischievous imp uses knowledge of the velocities of gas molecules in a box to decrease the entropy of the gas, which could then be used to do useful work such as pushing a piston. This is a classic example of converting information (what the gas molecules are doing) into work. But of course that kind of phenomenon is much more widespread -- it happens any time a company or organization hires someone in order to take advantage of their know-how. César Hidalgo has become an expert in this relationship between information and work, both at the level of physics and how it bubbles up into economies and societies. Looking at the world through the lens of information brings new insights into how we learn things, how economies are structured, and how novel uses of data will transform how we live.

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César Hidalgo received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Notre Dame. He currently holds an ANITI Chair at the University of Toulouse, an Honorary Professorship at the University of Manchester, and a Visiting Professorship at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences. From 2010 to 2019, he led MIT’s Collective Learning group. He is the author of Why Information Grows and co-author of The Atlas of Economic Complexity. He is a co-founder of Datawheel, a data visualization company whose products include the Observatory of Economic Complexity.


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Nov 11, 2019
71 | Philip Goff on Consciousness Everywhere
01:34:34

The human brain contains roughly 85 billion neurons, wired together in an extraordinarily complex network of interconnected parts. It’s hardly surprising that we don’t understand the mind and how it works. But do we know enough about our experience of consciousness to suggest that consciousness cannot arise from nothing more than the physical interactions of bits of matter? Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness, or at least some mental aspect, is pervasive in the world, in atoms and rocks as well as in living creatures. Philosopher Philip Goff is one of the foremost modern advocates of this idea. We have a friendly and productive conversation, notwithstanding my own view that the laws of physics don’t need any augmenting to ultimately account for consciousness. If you’re not sympathetic toward panpsychism, this episode will at least help you understand why someone might be.

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Philip Goff received his Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Reading. He is currently Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Durham. His new book, Galileo’s Error: Foundations for a New Science of Consciousness, is being published on Nov. 5.

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Nov 04, 2019
70 | Katie Mack on How the Universe Will End
01:23:11

Cosmologists are always talking excitedly about the Big Bang and all the cool stuff that happened in the 14 billion years between then and now. But what about the future? We don't know for sure, but we know enough about the laws of physics to sketch out several plausible scenarios for what the future of our universe will hold. Katie Mack is a cosmologist who is writing a book about the end of the universe. We talk about the possibilities of a Big Crunch (and potential Big Bounce), a gentle cooling off where the universe gradually grows silent, and of course the prospect of a dramatic phase transition, otherwise known as the "bubble of quantum death." Which would make a great name for a band, I think we can all agree.

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Katherine (Katie) Mack received her Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University. She is currently an Assistant Professor at North Carolina State University, where her research centers on theoretical cosmology, including dark matter and black holes. She is also a member of NCSU’s Leadership in Public Science Cluster. Her upcoming book, The End of Everything, will be published in 2020.


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Oct 28, 2019
69 | Cory Doctorow on Technology, Monopoly, and the Future of the Internet
01:17:50

Like so many technological innovations, the internet is something that burst on the scene and pervaded human life well before we had time to sit down and think through how something like that should work and how it should be organized. In multiple ways — as a blogger, activist, fiction writer, and more — Cory Doctorow has been thinking about how the internet is affecting our lives since the very beginning. He has been especially interested in legal issues surrounding copyright, publishing, and free speech, and recently his attention has turned to broader economic concerns. We talk about how the internet has become largely organized through just a small number of quasi-monopolistic portals, how this affects the ways in which we gather information and decide whether to trust outside sources, and where things might go from here.

Cory Doctorow is a science fiction writer, activist, journalist, and blogger. He is a co-editor of the website Boing Boing, and works as a special consultant for the Electronic Frontier Foundation. He is the author of the nonfiction book Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free as well as science-fiction works such as Walkaway and Radicalized. He has been awarded an honorary doctorate from the Open University, where he is also a Visiting Professor, as well as being an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate and a Visiting Professor of Practice at the University of South Carolina’s School of Library and Information Science.


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Oct 21, 2019
68 | Melanie Mitchell on Artificial Intelligence and the Challenge of Common Sense
01:22:16

Artificial intelligence is better than humans at playing chess or go, but still has trouble holding a conversation or driving a car. A simple way to think about the discrepancy is through the lens of “common sense” — there are features of the world, from the fact that tables are solid to the prediction that a tree won’t walk across the street, that humans take for granted but that machines have difficulty learning. Melanie Mitchell is a computer scientist and complexity researcher who has written a new book about the prospects of modern AI. We talk about deep learning and other AI strategies, why they currently fall short at equipping computers with a functional “folk physics” understanding of the world, and how we might move forward.


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Melanie Mitchell received her Ph.D. in computer science from the University of Michigan. She is currently a professor of computer science at Portland State University and an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute. Her research focuses on genetic algorithms, cellular automata, and analogical reasoning. She is the author of An Introduction to Genetic Algorithms, Complexity: A Guided Tour, and most recently Artificial Intelligence: A Guide for Thinking Humans. She originated the Santa Fe Institute’s Complexity Explorer project, on online learning resource for complex systems.


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Oct 14, 2019
67 | Kate Jeffery on Entropy, Complexity, and Evolution
01:12:58

Our observable universe started out in a highly non-generic state, one of very low entropy, and disorderliness has been growing ever since. How, then, can we account for the appearance of complex systems such as organisms and biospheres? The answer is that very low-entropy states typically appear simple, and high-entropy states also appear simple, and complexity can emerge along the road in between. Today’s podcast is more of a discussion than an interview, in which behavioral neuroscientist Kate Jeffery and I discuss how complexity emerges through cosmological and biological evolution. As someone on the biological side of things, Kate is especially interested in how complexity can build up and then catastrophically disappear, as in mass extinction events.

There were some audio-quality issues with the remote recording of this episode, but loyal listeners David Gennaro and Ben Cordell were able to help repair it. I think it sounds pretty good!

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Kate Jeffery received her Ph.D. in behavioural neuroscience from the University of Edinburgh. She is currently a professor in the Department of Behavioural Neuroscience at University College, London. She is the founder and Director of the Institute of Behavioural Neuroscience at UCL.


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Oct 07, 2019
66 | Will Wilkinson on Partisan Polarization and the Urban/Rural Divide
01:52:51

The idea of “red states” and “blue states” burst on the scene during the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections, and has a been a staple of political commentary ever since. But it’s become increasingly clear, and increasingly the case, that the real division isn’t between different sets of states, but between densely- and sparsely-populated areas. Cities are blue (liberal), suburbs and the countryside are red (conservative). Why did that happen? How does it depend on demographics, economics, and the personality types of individuals? I talk with policy analyst Will Wilkinson about where this division came from, and what it means for the future of the country and the world.

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Will Wilkinson received an M.A. in philosophy from Northern Illinois University, and an MFA in creative writing from the University of Houston. He has worked for the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and as a research fellow at the Cato Institute, and is currently Vice President of Policy at the Niskanen Center. He has taught at Howard University, the University of Maryland, the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop. He has written for a wide variety of publications, including The New York Times, The Economist, The Washington Post, The Atlantic, Vox, and The Boston Review, as well as being a regular commentator for Marketplace on public radio.


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Sep 30, 2019
65 | Michael Mann on Why Our Climate Is Changing and How We Know
01:17:24

We had our fun last week, exploring how progress in renewable energy and electric vehicles may help us combat encroaching climate change. This week we’re being a bit more hard-nosed, taking a look at what’s currently happening to our climate. Michael Mann is one of the world’s leading climate scientists, and also a dedicated advocate for improved public understanding of the issues. It was his research with Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes that introduced the “hockey stick” graph, showing how global temperatures have increased rapidly compared to historical averages. We dig a bit into the physics behind the greenhouse effect, the methods that are used to reconstruct temperatures in the past, how the climate has consistently been heating up faster than the average models would have predicted, and the relationship between climate change and extreme weather events. Happily even this conversation is not completely pessimistic — if we take sufficiently strong action now, there’s still time to avert the worst possible future catastrophe.

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Michael Mann received his Ph.D. in Geology and Geophysics from Yale University. He is currently Distinguished Professor of Atmospheric Science at Pennsylvania State University, with joint appointments in the Departments of Geosciences and the Earth and Environmental Systems Institute. He is the director of Penn State’s Earth System Science Center. He is the author of over 200 scientific publications and four books. His most recent book is The Tantrum that Saved the World, a “carbon-neutral kids’ book.”


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Sep 23, 2019
64 | Ramez Naam on Renewable Energy and an Optimistic Future
01:16:48

The Earth is heating up, and it’s our fault. But human beings are not always complete idiots (occasional contrary evidence notwithstanding), and sometimes we can even be downright clever. Dare we imagine that we can bring our self-inflicted climate catastrophe under control, through a combination of technological advances and political willpower? Ramez Naam is optimistic, at least about the technological advances. He is a technologist, entrepreneur, and science-fiction author, who has been following advances in renewable energy. We talk about the present state of solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources, and what our current rate of progress bodes for the near and farther future. And maybe we sneak in a little discussion of brain-computer interfaces, a theme of the Nexus trilogy.

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Ramez Naam worked for 13 years at Microsoft, helping to develop early versions of Outlook, Explorer, and Bing. He founded Apex Technologies, which develops software for use in molecular design. He holds 19 patents. His science-fiction trilogy Nexus was awarded several prizes. He is chair of Energy and Environmental Systems at Singularity University.

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Sep 16, 2019
63 | Solo -- Finding Gravity Within Quantum Mechanics
01:50:26

I suspect most loyal Mindscape listeners have been exposed to the fact that I’ve written a new book, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. As I release this episode on Monday 9 September 2019, the book will officially be released tomorrow, in print, e-book, and audio versions. To get in the mood, we’ve had several podcast episodes on quantum mechanics, but the “emergence of spacetime” aspect has been neglected. So today we have a solo podcast in which I explain a bit about the challenges of quantum gravity, how Many-Worlds provides the best framework for thinking about quantum gravity, and how entanglement could be the key to showing how a curved spacetime could emerge from a quantum wave function. All of this stuff is extremely speculative, but I’m excited about the central theme that we shouldn’t be trying to “quantize gravity,” but instead looking for gravity within quantum mechanics. The ideas here go pretty far, but hopefully they should be accessible to everyone.

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The end of this episode includes a bonus, a short snippet from the audio book, read by yours truly. Audio excerpted courtesy Penguin Random House Audio. And here are links to some of the technical papers mentioned in the podcast.

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Sep 09, 2019
62 | Michele Gelfand on Tight and Loose Societies and People
01:12:16

Physicists study systems that are sufficiently simple that it’s possible to find deep unifying principles applicable to all situations. In psychology or sociology that’s a lot harder. But as I say at the end of this episode, Mindscape is a safe space for grand theories of everything. Psychologist Michele Gelfand claims that there’s a single dimension that captures a lot about how cultures differ: a spectrum between “tight” and “loose,” referring to the extent to which social norms are automatically respected. Oregon is loose; Alabama is tight. Italy is loose; Singapore is tight. It’s a provocative thesis, back up by copious amounts of data, that could shed light on human behavior not only in different parts of the world, but in different settings at work or at school.

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Michele Gelfand received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Illinois. She is currently Distinguished University Professor of Psychology and affiliate of the RH Smith School of Business at the University of Maryland, College Park. She is a past president of the International Association for Conflict Management. Among her numerous awards are the Carol and Ed Diener Award in Social Psychology, the Annaliese Research Award from the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation, and the Outstanding International Psychologist Award from the American Psychological Association.

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Sep 02, 2019
61 | Quassim Cassam on Intellectual Vices and What to Do About Them
01:10:12

All of us have been wrong about things from time to time. But sometimes it was a simple, forgivable mistake, while other times we really should have been correct. Properties that systematically prevent us from being correct, and for which we can legitimately be blamed, are “intellectual vices.” Examples might include closed-mindedness, wishful thinking, overconfidence, selective attention, and so on. Quassim Cassam is a philosopher who studies knowledge in various forms, and who has recently written a book Vices of the Mind: From the Intellectual to the Political. We talk about the nature of intellectual vices, how they manifest in people and in organizations, and what we can possibly do to correct them in ourselves.

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Quassim Cassam received his Ph.D. in philosophy from Oxford University. He is currently Professor of Philosophy at the University of Warwick. He previously held faculty positions at Cambridge University and University College London. He has served as the president of the Aristotelian Society, and was awarded a Leadership Fellowship by the Arts and Humanities Research Council in the UK.

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Aug 26, 2019
60 | Lynne Kelly on Memory Palaces, Ancient and Modern
01:15:38

Memory takes different forms. Memories can be encoded in the strength of neural connections in our brains, but there’s a sense in which photographs and written records are memories as well. What did people do before such forms of memory even existed? Lynne Kelly is a science writer and researcher who specializes in forms of memory in the ancient world, as well as a competitive memory expert in her own right. She has theorized that ancient structures such as Stonehenge might have served as memory palaces, encoding social knowledge over extended periods of time. We talk about how to improve your own memory, the origin of religion, and how prehistoric cultures preserved their know-how.

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Lynne Kelly received her Ph.D. in English from La Trobe University. Originally trained as a computer scientist, she has worked as an educator before transitioning into science writing and memory research. She is an Honorary Research Associate at La Trobe University. She is the author of a number of books, including The Skeptic’s Guide to the Paranormal. Her work on memory methods and ancient societies was published as an academic book, Knowledge and Power in Prehistoric Societies: Orality, Memory, and the Transmission of Culture, as well as in trade form as The Memory Code: The Traditional Aboriginal Memory Technique That Unlocks the Secrets of Stonehenge, Easter Island and Ancient Monuments the World Over. Her most recent book is Memory Craft: Improve Your Memory Using the Most Powerful Methods From Around the World.


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Aug 19, 2019
59 | Adam Becker on the Curious History of Quantum Mechanics
01:40:09

There are many mysteries surrounding quantum mechanics. To me, the biggest mysteries are why physicists haven’t yet agreed on a complete understanding of the theory, and even more why they mostly seem content not to try. This puzzling attitude has historical roots that go back to the Bohr-Einstein debates. Adam Becker, in his book What Is Real?, looks at this history, and discusses how physicists have shied away from the foundations of quantum mechanics in the subsequent years. We discuss why this has been the case, and talk about some of the stubborn iconoclasts who insisted on thinking about it anyway.

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Adam Becker received his Ph.D. in physics from the University of Michigan. He is currently a science writer and a Visiting Scholar at the Center for Science, Technology, Medicine & Society at UC Berkeley. His book What Is Real? The Unfinished Quest for the Meaning of Quantum Physics comes out in paperback on Sept. 3, 2019.


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Aug 12, 2019
58 | Seth MacFarlane on Using Science Fiction to Explore Humanity
01:12:14

Fiction shines a light on the human condition by putting people into imaginary situations and envisioning what might happen. Science fiction expands this technique by considering situations in the future, with advanced technology, or with utterly different social contexts. Seth MacFarlane’s show The Orville is good old-fashioned space opera, but it’s also a laboratory for exploring the intricacies of human behavior. There are interpersonal conflicts, sexual politics, alien perspectives, and grappling with the implications of technology. I talk with Seth about all these issues, and maybe a little bit about whether it’s a good idea to block people on Twitter.

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Seth MacFarlane is a screenwriter, director, actor, producer, and singer. He is the creator of the animated TV shows Family Guy, American Dad!, and The Cleveland Show. He wrote, directed, and starred in the films Ted, Ted 2, and A Million Ways to Die in the West. He created and stars in the live-action episodic TV show The Orville (which will be moving from Fox to Hulu for its third season). He has recorded several albums as a jazz singer, and was the host of the Academy Awards in 2013. He is an executive producer for the reboot of Cosmos. His honors include several Primetime Emmy Awards, an Annie Award, a Webby Award, a Saturn Award, and a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.


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Aug 05, 2019
57 | Astra Taylor on the Promise and Challenge of Democracy
01:23:53

“Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone” — or so suggests the title of Astra Taylor’s new book. We all know how democracy falls short, in practice, of its lofty ideals; but we can also appreciate how democratic values are crucial in the fight for a more just society. In this conversation, we dig into the nature of democracy, from its origins to the present day. We talk about who gets to participate, how economic inequality affects political inequality, and how democratic ideals manifest themselves in any number of real-world situations.

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Astra Taylor is a filmmaker, author, and activist. Her documentary films include Zizek!, The Examined Life, and most recently What Is Democracy? Her books include The People’s Platform: Taking Back Power and Culture in the Digital age and the new Democracy May Not Exist, But We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone. She has taught sociology at the university level, and written for publications from n+1 to The London Review of Books. She was active in the Occupy movement, and is a co-founder of the Debt Collective.


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Jul 29, 2019
56 | Kate Adamala on Creating Synthetic Life
01:12:02

Scientists can’t quite agree on how to define “life,” but that hasn’t stopped them from studying it, looking for it elsewhere, or even trying to create it. Kate Adamala is one of a number of scientists engaged in the ambitious project of trying to create living cells, or something approximating them, starting from entirely non-living ingredients. Impressive progress has already been made. Designing cells from scratch will have obvious uses is biology and medicine, but also allow us to build biological robots and computers, as well as helping us understand how life could have arisen in the first place, and what it might look like on other planets.

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Katarzyna (Kate) Adamala received her Ph.D. working with Pier Luigi Luisi at the University of Rome and Jack Szostak at Harvard. She is currently an assistant professor of Genetics, Cell Biology, and Development at the University of Minnesota. She is a member of the Build-A-Cell international collaboration, which brings together multiple groups to work on constructing artificial life.


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Jul 22, 2019
55 | A Conversation with Rob Reid on Quantum Mechanics and Many Worlds
01:26:16

As you may have heard, I have a new book coming out in September, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. To celebrate, we're going to have more than the usual number of podcasts about quantum mechanics over the next couple of months. Today is an experimental flipped podcast, in which I'm being interviewed by Rob Reid. Rob is the host of the After On podcast, of which this is also an episode. We talk about quantum mechanics generally and my favorite Many-Worlds approach in particular, homing in on the motivation for believing in all those worlds and the potential puzzles that this perspective raises.

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Rob Reid received his MBA from Harvard. He currently works as an author, entrepreneur, and podcaster. He was the founder of Listen.com, which was acquired in 2003 by RealNetworks. He has written nonfiction books about Harvard Business School and about the early days of the Web, as well as two novels. His most recent book is the science-fiction novel After On, which is also the name of his podcast.


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Jul 15, 2019
54 | Indre Viskontas on Music and the Brain
01:15:11
It doesn’t mean much to say music affects your brain — everything that happens to you affects your brain. But music affects your brain in certain specific ways, from changing our mood to helping us learn. As both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, Indre Viskontas is the ideal person to talk about the relationship between music and the brain. Her new book, How Music Can Make You Better, digs into why we love music, how it can unite and divide us, and how music has a special impact on the very young and the very old.   Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Indre Viskontas received her Ph.D. in Cognitive Neuroscience at UCLA. She is currently a Professor of Sciences and Humanities at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, and an Adjunct Professor of Psychology at the University of San Francisco. She is also Creative Director of the Pasadena Opera, Director of Vocallective, and host of the Inquiring Minds and Cadence podcasts. She served as the co-host for the documentary series Miracle Detectives, and has produced lecture series for The Great Courses. Her opera performances include roles in Mozart, Puccini, and others. Web site UCSF web page Wikipedia How Music Can Make You Better Great Courses professor page TEDx talk Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Jul 08, 2019
53 | Solo -- On Morality and Rationality
02:05:18
What does it mean to be a good person? To act ethically and morally in the world? In the old days we might appeal to the instructions we get from God, but a modern naturalist has to look elsewhere. Today I do a rare solo podcast, where I talk both about my personal views on morality, a variety of “constructivism” according to which human beings construct their ethical stances starting from basic impulses, logical reasoning, and communicating with others. In light of this view, I consider two real-world examples of contemporary moral controversies: Is it morally permissible to eat meat? Or is there an ethical imperative to be a vegetarian? Do inequities in society stem from discrimination, or from the natural order of things? As a jumping-off point I take the loose-knit group known as the Intellectual Dark Web, which includes Jordan Peterson, Sam Harris, Ben Shapiro, and others, and their nemeses the Social Justice Warriors (though the discussion is about broader issues, not just that group of folks). Probably everyone will agree with my takes on these issues once they listen to my eminently reasonable arguments. Actually this is a more conversational, exploratory episode, rather than a polished, tightly-argued case from start to finish. I don’t claim to have all the final answers. The hope is to get people thinking and conversing, not to settle things once and for all. These issues are, on the one hand, very tricky, and none of us should be too certain that we have everything figured out; on the other hand, they can get very personal, and consequently emotions run high. The issues are important enough that we have to talk about them, and we can at least aspire to do so in the most reasonable way possible.   Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Jul 01, 2019
52 | Frank Lantz on the Logic and Emotion of Games
01:04:39
Games play an important, and arguably increasing, role in human life. We play games on our computers and our phones, watch other people compete in games, and occasionally break out the cards or the Monopoly set. What is the origin of this human impulse, and what makes for a great game? Frank Lantz is both a working game designer and an academic who thinks about the nature of games and gaming. We discuss what games are, contrast the challenges of Go and Poker and other games, and investigate both the “dark energy” that games can sometimes induce and the ways they can help us become better people. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Frank Lantz is a game designer and Director of the Game Center at New York University. He co-founded Area/Code games, and is the designer or co-designer of numerous popular games, including Drop7 and Universal Paperclips. He is also responsible for a number of large-scale real-world games. He has taught at New York University, Parsons School of Design, and the School of Visual Arts. Web site NYU web page Wikipedia Talk on Go, Poker, and the Sublime Talk on Logic and Emotions in Games Twitter Universal Paperclips QWOP See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Jun 24, 2019
51 | Anthony Aguirre on Cosmology, Zen, Entropy, and Information
01:31:52
Cosmologists have a standard set of puzzles they think about: the nature of dark matter and dark energy, whether there was a period of inflation, the evolution of structure, and so on. But there are also even deeper questions, having to do with why there is a universe at all, and why the early universe had low entropy, that most working cosmologists don’t address. Today’s guest, Anthony Aguirre, is an exception. We talk about these deep issues, and how tackling them might lead to a very different way of thinking about our universe. At the end there’s an entertaining detour into AI and existential risk. Anthony Aguirre received his Ph.D. in Astronomy from Harvard University. He is currently associate professor of physics at the University of California, Santa Cruz, where his research involves cosmology, inflation, and fundamental questions in physics. His new book, Cosmological Koans, is an exploration of the principles of contemporary cosmology illustrated with short stories in the style of Zen Buddhism. He is the co-founder of the Foundational Questions Institute, the Future of Life Institute, and the prediction platform Metaculus. Web site UCSC web page Google Scholar page Wikipedia Amazon.com author page Foundational Questions Institute Future of Life Institute Metaculus Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Jun 17, 2019
50 | Patricia Churchland on Conscience, Morality, and the Brain
01:12:08
It’s fun to spend time thinking about how other people should behave, but fortunately we also have an inner voice that keeps offering opinions about how we should behave ourselves: our conscience. Where did that come from? Today’s guest, Patricia Churchland, is a philosopher and neuroscientist, one of the founders of the subfield of “neurophilosophy.” We dig into the neuroscience of it all, especially how neurochemicals like oxytocin affect our attitudes and behaviors. But we also explore the philosophical ramifications of having a conscience, with an eye to understanding morality and ethics in a neurophilosophical context.   Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Patricia Churchland received her B.Phil. in philosophy from Oxford University. She is currently the President’s Professor of Philosophy (emerita) at the University of California, San Diego, as well as an adjunct professor of neuroscience at the Salk Institute. Among her awards are the MacArthur Prize, The Rossi Prize for Neuroscience and the Prose Prize for Science. Her latest book, Conscience: The Origins of Moral Intuition, was just released. She has arguably the best web site of any professional philosopher. Web site Google Scholar Amazon.com author page Wikipedia TEDx talk on The Brains Behind Morality Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Jun 10, 2019
49 | Nicholas Christakis on Humanity, Biology, and What Makes Us Good
01:54:29
It’s easy to be cynical about humanity’s present state and future prospects. But we have made it this far, and in some ways we’re doing better than we used to be. Today’s guest, Nicholas Christakis, is an interdisciplinary researcher who studies human nature from a variety of perspectives, including biological, historical, and philosophical. His most recent book is Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, in which he tries to pinpoint the common features of all human societies, something he dubs the “social suite.” Marshaling evidence from genetics to network theory to accounts of shipwreck survivors, he argues that we are ultimately wired to get along, despite the missteps we make along the way.   Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Nicholas Christakis received an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a Ph.D. in Sociology from the University of Pennsylvania. He is currently Sterling Professor of Social and Natural Science in the Department of Sociology, with additional appointments in the Departments of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Statistics and Data Science; Biomedical Engineering; Medicine; and in the School of Management. He is a member of the Institute of Medicine of the National Academy of Sciences and a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Yale web page Google scholar page Amazon.com author page Wikipedia Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Jun 03, 2019
48 | Marq de Villiers on Hell and Damnation
01:11:04
If you’re bad, we are taught, you go to Hell. Who in the world came up with that idea? Some will answer God, but for the purpose of today’s podcast discussion we’ll put that possibility aside and look into the human origins and history of the idea of Hell. Marq de Villiers is a writer and journalist who has authored a series of non-fiction books, many on science and the environment. In Hell & Damnation, he takes a detour to examine the manifold ways in which societies have imagined the afterlife. The idea of eternal punishment is widespread, but not quite universal; we might learn something about ourselves by asking where it came from.   Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Marq de Villiers was born in South Africa and now lives in Canada. He has worked as a reporter in a number of locations, from Cape Town to London to Moscow to Toronto. His books cover a variety of topics, many on history and ecology. He has been named a Member of the Order of Canada and awarded an honorary degree from Dalhousie University, among other accolades. Web site Amazon page Wikipedia Talk on the state of the world’s water See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
May 27, 2019
47 | Adam Rutherford on Humans, Animals, and Life in General
01:38:15
Most people in the modern world — and the vast majority of Mindscape listeners, I would imagine — agree that humans are part of the animal kingdom, and that all living animals evolved from a common ancestor. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we are unique; humans are the only animals that stress out over Game of Thrones (as far as I know). I talk with geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford about what makes us human, and how we got that way, both biologically and culturally. One big takeaway lesson is that it’s harder to find firm distinctions than you might think; animals use language and tools and fire, and have way more inventive sex lives than we do. Adam Rutherford received his Ph.D. in genetics from University College London. He has written numerous books on genetics, evolution, synthetic biology, human history, and the origin of life. His most recent book is Humanimal: How Homo Sapiens Became Nature’s Most Paradoxical Creature — A New Evolutionary History. (Published in the UK with the more manageable title The Book of Humans: The Story of How We Became Us.) He frequently appears on and hosts science programs for the BBC on both radio and television, including Inside Science for BBC Radio 4. BBC Bio Page Articles at The Guardian Wikipedia Amazon.co.uk author page Talk on “What Makes Us Human” Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
May 20, 2019
46 | Kate Darling on Our Connections with Robots
01:06:44
Most of us have no trouble telling the difference between a robot and a living, feeling organism. Nevertheless, our brains often treat robots as if they were alive. We give them names, imagine that they have emotions and inner mental states, get mad at them when they do the wrong thing or feel bad for them when they seem to be in distress. Kate Darling is a research at the MIT Media Lab who specializes in social robotics, the interactions between humans and machines. We talk about why we cannot help but anthropomorphize even very non-human-appearing robots, and what that means for legal and social issues now and in the future, including robot companions and helpers in various forms. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Kate Darling has a degree in law as well as a doctorate of sciences from ETH Zurich. She currently works at the Media Lab at MIT, where she conducts research in social robotics and serves as an advisor on intellectual property policy. She is an affiliate at the Harvard Berkman Klein Center for Internet & Society and at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies. Among her awards are the Mark T. Banner award in Intellectual Property from the American Bar Association. She is a contributing writer to Robohub and IEEE Spectrum. Web page Publications Twitter TED talk on why we have an emotional connection to robots See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
May 13, 2019
45 | Leonard Susskind on Quantum Information, Quantum Gravity, and Holography
01:13:35
For decades now physicists have been struggling to reconcile two great ideas from a century ago: general relativity and quantum mechanics. We don’t yet know the final answer, but the journey has taken us to some amazing places. A leader in this quest has been Leonard Susskind, who has helped illuminate some of the most mind-blowing ideas in quantum gravity: the holographic principle, the string theory landscape, black-hole complementarity, and others. He has also become celebrated as a writer, speaker, and expositor of mind-blowing ideas. We talk about black holes, quantum mechanics, and the most exciting new directions in quantum gravity. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Leonard Susskind received his Ph.D. in physics from Cornell University. He is currently the Felix Bloch Professor of Physics at Stanford University. He has made important contributions to numerous ideas in theoretical physics, including string theory, lattice gauge theory, dynamical symmetry breaking, the holographic principle, black hole complementarity, matrix theory, the cosmological multiverse, and quantum information. He is the author of several books, including a series of pedagogical physics texts called The Theoretical Minimum. Among his numerous awards are the J.J. Sakurai Prize and the Oskar Klein Medal. Web page Theoretical Minimum page Susskind Lectures on YouTube TED Talk about Richard Feynman Publications at Inspire Amazon author page Wikipedia See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
May 06, 2019
44 | Antonio Damasio on Feelings, Thoughts, and the Evolution of Humanity
01:12:26
  When we talk about the mind, we are constantly talking about consciousness and cognition. Antonio Damasio wants us to talk about our feelings. But it’s not in an effort to be more touchy-feely; Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes that feelings generated by the body are a crucial part of how we achieve and maintain homeostasis, which in turn is a key driver in understanding who we are. His most recent book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, is an ambitious attempt to trace the role of feelings and our biological impulses in the origin of life, the nature of consciousness, and our flourishing as social, cultural beings. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Antonio Damasio received his M.D. and Ph.D. from the University of Lisbon, Portugal. He is currently University Professor, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience, Professor of Psychology, Professor of Philosophy, and (along with his wife and frequent collaborator, Prof. Hannah Damasio) Director of the Brain and Creativity Institute at the University of Southern California. He is also an adjunct professor at the Salk Institute in La Jolla, California. He is a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the National Academy of Medicine, and the European Academy of Sciences and Arts. Among his numerous awards are the Grawemeyer Award, the Honda Prize, the Prince of Asturias Award in Science and Technology, and the Beaumont Medal from the American Medical Association. USC web page Brain and Creativity Institute Google Scholar page Amazon.com author page Wikipedia TED talk on The Quest to Understand Consciousness Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Apr 29, 2019
43 | Matthew Luczy on the Pleasures of Wine
01:46:20
Some people never drink wine; for others, it’s an indispensable part of an enjoyable meal. Whatever your personal feelings might be, wine seems to exhibit a degree of complexity and nuance that can be intimidating to the non-expert. Where does that complexity come from, and how can we best approach wine? To answer these questions, we talk to Matthew Luczy, sommelier and wine director at Mélisse, one of the top fine-dining restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Matthew insisted that we actually drink wine rather than just talking about it, so drink we do. Therefore, in a Mindscape first, I recruited a third party to join us and add her own impressions of the tasting: science writer Jennifer Ouellette, who I knew would be available because we’re married to each other. We talk about what makes different wines distinct, the effects of aging, and what’s the right bottle to have with pizza. You are free to drink along at home, with exactly these wines or some other choices, but I think the podcast will be enjoyable whether you do or not. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Mattew Luczy is a Certified Sommelier as judged by the Court of Master Sommeliers. He currently works as the Wine Director at Mélisse in Santa Monica, California. He is also active in photography and music. Mélisse home page Personal/photography page Instagram Ask a Somm: When Should I Decant Wine? See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Apr 22, 2019
42 | Natalya Bailey on Navigating Earth Orbit and Beyond
00:59:37
The space age officially began in 1957 with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. But recent years have seen the beginning of a boom in the number of objects orbiting Earth, as satellite tracking and communications have assumed enormous importance in the modern world. This raises obvious concerns for the control and eventual fate of these orbiting artifacts. Natalya Bailey is pioneering a novel approach to satellite propulsion, building tiny ion engines at her company Accion Systems. We talk about how satellite technology is rapidly changing, and what that means for the future of space travel inside and outside the Solar System.             Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Natalya Bailey received her Ph.D. in aeronautics and astronautics from MIT, where she helped invent a new kind of ion engine. She is currently co-founder and chief executive officer of Accion Systems Inc. She has been included in 30 Under 30 lists from Forbes, Inc, and MIT Technology Review. Accion Systems Wikipedia page Twitter Talk on the Human Side of Rocket Science Real-time map of satellites currently in orbit See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Apr 15, 2019
41 | Steven Strogatz on Synchronization, Networks, and the Emergence of Complex Behavior
01:14:35
One of the most important insights in the history of science is the fact that complex behavior can arise from the undirected movements of small, simple systems. Despite the fact that we know this, we’re still working to truly understand it — to uncover the mechanisms by which, and conditions under which, complexity can emerge from simplicity. (Coincidentally, a new feature in Quanta on this precise topic came out while this episode was being edited.) Steven Strogatz is a leading researcher in this field, a pioneer both in the subject of synchronization and in that of small-world networks. He’s also an avid writer and wide-ranging thinker, so we also talk about problems with the way we educate young scientists, and the importance of calculus, the subject of his new book.             Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Steven Strogatz received his Ph.D. in applied mathematics from Harvard, and is currently the Jacob Gould Schurman Professor of Applied Mathematics at Cornell. His work has ranged over a wide variety of topics in mathematical biology, nonlinear dynamics, networks, and complex systems. He is the author of a number of books, including SYNC, The Joy of x, and most recently Infinite Powers. His awards include teaching prizes at MIT and Cornell, as well as major prizes from the Joint Policy Board for Mathematics, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Mathematical Association of America, and the Lewis Thomas Prize. Web site Cornell web page Google scholar page Amazon author page Wikipedia TED talk on synchronization Twitter See Privacy Policy at https://art19.com/privacy and California Privacy Notice at https://art19.com/privacy#do-not-sell-my-info.
Apr 08,