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

By Sean Carroll | Wondery

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Subscribers: 5758
Reviews: 26

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

 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!

 Sep 3, 2020
I really like this podcast. wide range of subjects, friendly but deep conversation. l Sean Carroll is able to frame excellent questions and to recap concepts in a way which clarifies it all. Must listen to get smarter !

 Jul 7, 2020
Accessible discussions about science, the universe, and everything.

Rohit Singhal
 Apr 5, 2020


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
143 | Julia Galef on Openness, Bias, and Rationality

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.

Apr 19, 2021
AMA | April 2021

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

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.

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

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.

Apr 05, 2021
140 | Dean Buonomano on Time, Reality, and the Brain

“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.

Mar 29, 2021
139 | Elizabeth Anderson on Equality, Work, and Ideology

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.

Mar 22, 2021
138 | Daryl Morey on Analytics, Psychology, and Basketball

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.

Mar 15, 2021
AMA | March 2021

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

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.

Mar 08, 2021
136 | Roderick Graham on Cyberspace, Race, and Cultural Conservatism

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.

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

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.

Feb 22, 2021
AMA | February 2021

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

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.

Feb 15, 2021
133 | Ziya Tong on Realities We Don't See

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.

Feb 08, 2021
Bonus | AIP Oral History Interview

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.

Feb 04, 2021
132 | Michael Levin on Growth, Form, Information, and the Self

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Jan 18, 2021
129 | Solo: Democracy in America

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.

Jan 11, 2021
128 | Joseph Henrich on the Weirdness of the West

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.

Jan 04, 2021
Holiday Message 2020 | The Screwy Universe

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:

Dec 21, 2020
127 | Erich Jarvis on Language, Birds, and People

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.

Dec 14, 2020
AMA | December 2020

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Nov 23, 2020
AMA | November 2020

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.

Nov 20, 2020
123 | Lisa Feldman Barrett on Emotions, Actions, and the Brain

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.

Nov 16, 2020
122 | David Eagleman on Tapping Into the Livewired Brain

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.

Nov 09, 2020
121 | Cornel West on What Democracy Is and Should Be

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.

Nov 02, 2020
120 | Jeremy England on Biology, Thermodynamics, and the Bible

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Oct 05, 2020
116 | Teresa Bejan on Free Speech, Civility, and Toleration

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.

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

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 ( and The Great Courses Plus ( Follow these links for exclusive offers.

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

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.

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

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.

Sep 07, 2020
112 | Fyodor Urnov on Gene Editing, CRISPR, and Human Engineering

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

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

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.

Aug 24, 2020
110 | Neil Johnson on Complexity, Conflict, and Infodemiology

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.

Aug 17, 2020
109 | Jason Torchinsky on Our Self-Driving Future

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.

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

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.

Aug 03, 2020
107 | Russ Shafer-Landau on the Reality of Morality

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.

Jul 27, 2020
106 | Stuart Bartlett on What "Life" Means

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Jun 29, 2020
102 | Maria Konnikova on Poker, Psychology, and Reason

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.

Jun 22, 2020
101 | David Baltimore on the Mysteries of Viruses

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.

Jun 15, 2020
100 | Solo | Life and Its Meaning

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:

Jun 08, 2020
99 | Scott Aaronson on Complexity, Computation, and Quantum Gravity

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.

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

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.

May 25, 2020
97 | John Danaher on Our Coming Automated Utopia

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.

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

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.

May 11, 2020
95 | Liam Kofi Bright on Knowledge, Truth, and Science

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.

May 04, 2020
94 | Stuart Russell on Making Artificial Intelligence Compatible with Humans

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.

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

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.

Apr 20, 2020
92 | Kevin Hand on Life Elsewhere in the Solar System

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.

Apr 13, 2020
91 | Scott Barry Kaufman on the Psychology of Transcendence

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.

Apr 06, 2020
90 | David Kaiser on Science, Money, and Power

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.

Mar 30, 2020
89 | Lera Boroditsky on Language, Thought, Space, and Time

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.

Mar 23, 2020
Tara Smith on Coronavirus, Pandemics, and What We Can Do

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.

Mar 18, 2020
88 | Neil Shubin on Evolution, Genes, and Dramatic Transitions

“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.

Mar 16, 2020
87 | Karl Friston on Brains, Predictions, and Free Energy

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Feb 24, 2020
84 | Suresh Naidu on Capitalism, Monopsony, and Inequality

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.

Feb 17, 2020
83 | Kwame Anthony Appiah on Identity, Stories, and Cosmopolitanism

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.)

Feb 10, 2020
82 | Robin Carhart-Harris on Psychedelics and the Brain

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.

Feb 03, 2020
81 | Ezra Klein on Politics, Polarization, and Identity

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).

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

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.

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

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.

Jan 13, 2020
78 | Daniel Dennett on Minds, Patterns, and the Scientific Image

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.

Jan 06, 2020
Holiday Message 2019: On Publishing Books

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Dec 09, 2019
75 | Max Tegmark on Reality, Simulation, and the Multiverse

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.

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

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Nov 11, 2019
71 | Philip Goff on Consciousness Everywhere

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.

Nov 04, 2019
70 | Katie Mack on How the Universe Will End

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.

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

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.

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

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.

Oct 14, 2019
67 | Kate Jeffery on Entropy, Complexity, and Evolution

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.

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

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.

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

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.”

Sep 23, 2019
64 | Ramez Naam on Renewable Energy and an Optimistic Future

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.

Sep 16, 2019
63 | Solo -- Finding Gravity Within Quantum Mechanics

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.

Sep 09, 2019
62 | Michele Gelfand on Tight and Loose Societies and People

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.

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

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.

Aug 26, 2019
60 | Lynne Kelly on Memory Palaces, Ancient and Modern

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.

Aug 19, 2019
59 | Adam Becker on the Curious History of Quantum Mechanics

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.

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

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.

Aug 05, 2019
57 | Astra Taylor on the Promise and Challenge of Democracy

“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.

Jul 29, 2019
56 | Kate Adamala on Creating Synthetic Life

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.

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

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, 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.

Jul 15, 2019
54 | Indre Viskontas on Music and the Brain
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
Jul 08, 2019
53 | Solo -- On Morality and Rationality
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.
Jul 01, 2019
52 | Frank Lantz on the Logic and Emotion of Games
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
Jun 24, 2019
51 | Anthony Aguirre on Cosmology, Zen, Entropy, and Information
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 author page Foundational Questions Institute Future of Life Institute Metaculus Twitter
Jun 17, 2019
50 | Patricia Churchland on Conscience, Morality, and the Brain
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 author page Wikipedia TEDx talk on The Brains Behind Morality Twitter
Jun 10, 2019
49 | Nicholas Christakis on Humanity, Biology, and What Makes Us Good
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 author page Wikipedia Twitter
Jun 03, 2019
48 | Marq de Villiers on Hell and Damnation
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
May 27, 2019
47 | Adam Rutherford on Humans, Animals, and Life in General
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 author page Talk on “What Makes Us Human” Twitter
May 20, 2019
46 | Kate Darling on Our Connections with Robots
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
May 13, 2019
45 | Leonard Susskind on Quantum Information, Quantum Gravity, and Holography
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
May 06, 2019
44 | Antonio Damasio on Feelings, Thoughts, and the Evolution of Humanity
  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 author page Wikipedia TED talk on The Quest to Understand Consciousness Twitter
Apr 29, 2019
43 | Matthew Luczy on the Pleasures of Wine
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?
Apr 22, 2019
42 | Natalya Bailey on Navigating Earth Orbit and Beyond
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
Apr 15, 2019
41 | Steven Strogatz on Synchronization, Networks, and the Emergence of Complex Behavior
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
Apr 08, 2019
40 | Adrienne Mayor on Gods and Robots in Ancient Mythology
The modern world is full of technology, and also with anxiety about technology. We worry about robot uprisings and artificial intelligence taking over, and we contemplate what it would mean for a computer to be conscious or truly human. It should probably come as no surprise that these ideas aren’t new to modern society — they go way back, at least to the stories and mythologies of ancient Greece. Today’s guest, Adrienne Mayor, is a folklorist and historian of science, whose recent work has been on robots and artificial humans in ancient mythology. From the bronze warrior Talos to the evil fembot Pandora, mythology is rife with stories of artificial beings. It’s both fun and useful to think about our contemporary concerns in light of these ancient tales. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Adrienne Mayor is a Research Scholar Classics and History and Philosophy of Science at Stanford University. She is also a Berggruen Fellow at Stanford’s Center for Advanced Study in the Behavioral Sciences. Her work has encompasses fossil traditions in classical antiquity and Native America, the origins of biological weapons, and the historical precursors of the stories of Amazon warriors. In 2009 she was a finalist for the National Book Award. Web page at Stanford Amazon author page Wikipedia Google Scholar Video of a talk on Amazons Twitter
Apr 01, 2019
39 | Malcolm MacIver on Sensing, Consciousness, and Imagination
Consciousness has many aspects, from experience to wakefulness to self-awareness. One aspect is imagination: our minds can conjure up multiple hypothetical futures to help us decide which choices we should make. Where did that ability come from? Today’s guest, Malcolm MacIver, pinpoints an important transition in the evolution of consciousness to when fish first climbed on to land, and could suddenly see much farther, which in turn made it advantageous to plan further in advance. If this idea is true, it might help us understand some of the abilities and limitations of our cognitive capacities, with potentially important ramifications for our future as a species.            Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Malcolm MacIver received his Ph.D. in neuroscience in 2001 from the University of Illinois and the Beckman Institute of Advanced Science and Technology. (This was after an unconventional childhood where he dropped out of school at age 9 and later talked his way into a community college program.) He is currently a professor of Mechanical Engineering, Biomedical Engineering, and Neurobiology at Northwestern University. In 2009 he was awarded the Presidential Early Career Award for Science and Engineering. Northwestern Web Page Google Scholar Talk on sensing and planning Paper: “The Shift to Life on Land Selected for Planning” Twitter
Mar 25, 2019
38 | Alan Lightman on Transcendence, Science, and a Naturalist’s Sense of Meaning
Let’s say, for sake of argument, that you don’t believe in God or the supernatural. Is there still a place for talking about transcendence, the sacred, and meaning in life? Some of the above, but not all? Today’s guest, Alan Lightman, brings a unique perspective to these questions, as someone who has worked within both the sciences and the humanities at the highest level. In his most recent book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he makes the case that naturalists should take transcendence seriously. We talk about the assumptions underlying scientific practice, and the implications that the finitude of our lives has for our search for meaning. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Alan Lightman received his Ph.D. in physics from the California Institute of Technology. After a number of years working as a theoretical astrophysicist specializing in black holes and high-energy processes, he scored an international bestseller with his novel Einstein’s Dreams. Increasingly concentrating on writing, he moved from Harvard to MIT, where he became the first professor to be jointly appointed in the sciences and the humanities. He later was made the John Burchard Professor of Humanities at MIT, which he has subsequently stepped down from to devote more time to writing. He is the recipient of numerous awards, including the Gemant Award from the American Institute of Physics. He is also the founder of the Harpswell Foundation, which supports young women leaders in Southeast Asia. Web page Wikipedia Amazon author page Harpswell Foundation
Mar 18, 2019
37 | Edward Watts on the End of the Roman Republic and Lessons for Democracy
When many of us think “Ancient Rome,” we think of the Empire and the Caesars. But the Empire was preceded by the Roman Republic, which flourished for a full five centuries. Why, after such a long and prosperous run, would an essentially democratic form of government change — with a good deal of approval from its citizens — into an autocracy? That’s the question I discuss with today’s guest, historian Edward Watts. It’s a fascinating story with many contemporary resonances, especially how reformers choose to balance working within the system to overthrowing it entirely. Lessons for modern politics are left largely for listeners to draw for themselves. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Edward Watts received his Ph.D. in history from Yale University. He is presently the Vassiliadis Professor of Byzantine Greek History at UC San Diego, where he was formerly Co-Director of the Center for Hellenistic Studies. He is the author of several books on ancient history, the most recent of which is Mortal Republic: How Rome Fell Into Tyranny. UC San Diego Web Page Center for Hellenistic Studies Page Mortal Republic on Amazon page
Mar 11, 2019
36 | David Albert on Quantum Measurement and the Problems with Many-Worlds
Quantum mechanics is our best theory of how reality works at a fundamental level, yet physicists still can’t agree on what the theory actually says. At the heart of the puzzle is the “measurement problem”: what actually happens when we observe a quantum system, and why do we apparently need separate rules when it happens? David Albert is one of the leading figures in the foundations of quantum mechanics today, and we discuss the measurement problem and why it’s so puzzling. Then we dive into the Many-Worlds version of quantum mechanics, which is my favorite (as I explain in my forthcoming book Something Deeply Hidden). It is not David’s favorite, so he presents the case as to why you should be skeptical of Many-Worlds. (The philosophically respectable case, that is, not a vague unease at all those other universes.) Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. David Albert received his Ph.D. in physics from Rockefeller University. He is currently the Frederick E. Woodbridge Professor of Philosophy at Columbia University. His research involves a number of topics within the foundations of physics, including the arrow of time (coining the phrase “Past Hypothesis” for the low-entropy state of the early universe) and quantum mechanics. He is the author of a number of books, including Time and Chance, Quantum Mechanics and Experience, and After Physics. Columbia web page Publications at PhilPapers Wikipedia page Videos at Closer to Truth BigThink interview
Mar 04, 2019
35 | Jessica Yellin on The Changing Ways We Get Our News
Everything we think about the world outside our immediate senses is shaped by information brought to us by other sources. In the case of what’s currently happening to the human race, we call that information “the news.” There is no such thing as “unfiltered” news — no matter how we get it, someone is deciding what information to convey and how to convey it. And the way that is happening is currently in a state of flux. Today’s guest, journalist Jessica Yellin, has seen the news business from the perspective of both the establishment and the upstart. Working for major news organizations, she witnessed the strange ways in which decisions about what to cover were made, including the constant focus on short-term profits. And now she is spearheading a new online effort to bring people news in a different way. We talk about what the news business is, what it should be, and where it is going. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Jessica Yellin has worked as a journalist in a number of different capacities. Beginning with local news in Florida, she then worked as an on-air correspondent and anchor for MSNBC and ABC, before becoming Chief White House Correspondent for CNN. Her writing has appeared in publications such as the New York Times, The Atlantic, and the Los Angeles Times. She is currently focusing on a new project using Instagram as a new way of delivering news. Yellin is a senior fellow at the USC Annenberg School of Journalism and a member of the Board of Directors for the Center for Public Integrity. Her upcoming novel, Savage News, is about a woman trying to navigate the modern news business. Instagram news feed Wikipedia Savage News at Amazon Twitter Profile in Vogue USC web page
Feb 25, 2019
34 | Paul Bloom on Empathy, Rationality, Morality, and Cruelty
Within every person’s mind there is on ongoing battle between reason and emotion. It’s not always a battle, of course; very often the two can work together. But at other times, our emotions push us toward actions that our reason would counsel against. Paul Bloom is a well-known psychologist and author who wrote the provocatively-titled book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and is currently writing a book about the nature of cruelty. While I sympathize with parts of his anti-empathy stance, I try to stick up for the importance of empathy in the right circumstances. We have a great discussion about the relationship between reason and emotion. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Paul Bloom received his Ph.D. in cognitive psychology from MIT. He is currently the Ragen Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science at Yale University. His research ranges over a variety of topics in moral psychology and childhood development. He is the author of several books and the recipient of numerous prizes, including the $1 million Klaus J. Jacobs Research Prize in 2017. Web site Yale web page Wikipedia page TED talk on The Origins of Pleasure Amazon page Publications Online courses at Coursera Twitter
Feb 18, 2019
33 | James Ladyman on Reality, Metaphysics, and Complexity
Reality is a tricky thing. Is love real? What about the number 5? This is clearly a job for a philosopher, and James Ladyman is one of the world’s acknowledged experts. He and his collaborators have been championing a view known as “structural realism,” in which real things are those that reflect true, useful patterns in the underlying reality. We talk about that, but also about a couple of other subjects in the broad area of philosophy of science: the history and current status of materialism/physicalism, and the nature of complex systems. This is a deep one.            Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. James Ladyman obtained his Ph.D. from the University of Leeds, and is currently a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Bristol. He has worked broadly within the philosophy of science, including issues of realism, empiricism, physicalism, complexity, and information. His book Everything Must Go (co-authored with Don Ross) has become an influential work on the relationship between metaphysics and science. Web page Everything Must Go page PhilPeople profile Conversation with Raymond Tallis Structural Realism at the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy
Feb 11, 2019
32 | Naomi Oreskes on Climate Change and the Distortion of Scientific Facts
Our climate is in the midst of dramatic changes, driven largely by human activity, with potentially enormous consequences for humanity and other species. That’s why science tells us, anyway. But there is an influential contingent, especially in the United States, who deny that reality, and work hard to prevent policy action that might ameliorate it. Where did this resistance come from, and what makes it so successful? Naomi Oreskes is a distinguished historian of science who has become, half-reluctantly, the world’s expert on this question. It turns out to be a fascinating story starting with just a handful of scientists who were passionate not only about climate, but also whether smoking causes cancer, and who cared deeply about capitalism, communism, and the Cold War. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Naomi Oreskes received her Ph.D. in Geological Research and History of Science from Stanford University. She is now a professor of the History of Science at Harvard. She is the author of numerous books and scholarly articles, many on the public reception of science. Merchants of Doubt, co-authored with Erik M. Conway, was made into a feature-length documentary film. Harvard web page Wikipedia Amazon author page TED Talk on Why we should trust scientists Twitter
Feb 04, 2019
31 | Brian Greene on the Multiverse, Inflation, and the String Theory Landscape
String theory was originally proposed as a relatively modest attempt to explain some features of strongly-interacting particles, but before too long developed into an ambitious attempt to unite all the forces of nature into a single theory. The great thing about physics is that your theories don’t always go where you want them to, and string theory has had some twists and turns along the way. One major challenge facing the theory is the fact that there are many different ways to connect the deep principles of the theory to the specifics of a four-dimensional world; all of these may actually exist out there in the world, in the form of a cosmological multiverse. Brian Greene is an accomplished string theorist as well as one of the world’s most successful popularizers and advocates for science. We talk about string theory, its cosmological puzzles and promises, and what the future might hold. (For more general string theory background, check out Episode 18 with Clifford Johnson.) Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Brian Greene received his doctorate from Oxford University, and is currently a professor of Physics and Mathematics at Columbia University. His research includes foundational work on topology change, mirror symmetry, and the compactification of extra dimensions. He is the author of several best-selling books, including The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos, both of which were made into TV specials for NOVA. He and Tracy Day are co-founders of the World Science Festival. Web site Publications from InSpire Wikipedia page Amazon author page Twitter TV Documentaries TED talk on string theory World Science Festival
Jan 28, 2019
30 | Derek Leben on Ethics for Robots and Artificial Intelligences
It’s hardly news that computers are exerting ever more influence over our lives. And we’re beginning to see the first glimmers of some kind of artificial intelligence: computer programs have become much better than humans at well-defined jobs like playing chess and Go, and are increasingly called upon for messier tasks, like driving cars. Once we leave the highly constrained sphere of artificial games and enter the real world of human actions, our artificial intelligences are going to have to make choices about the best course of action in unclear circumstances: they will have to learn to be ethical. I talk to Derek Leben about what this might mean and what kind of ethics our computers should be taught. It’s a wide-ranging discussion involving computer science, philosophy, economics, and game theory. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Derek Leben received his Ph.D. in philosopy from Johns Hopkins University in 2012. He is currently an Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Pittsburgh at Johnstown. He is the author of Ethics for Robots: How to Design a Moral Algorithm. PhilPapers profile University web page Ethics for Robots “A Rawlsian Algorithm for Autonomous Vehicles”
Jan 21, 2019
29 | Raychelle Burks on the Chemistry of Murder
Sometimes science is asking esoteric questions about the fundamental nature of reality. Other times, it just wants to solve a murder. Today’s guest, Raychelle Burks, is an analytical chemist at St. Edward’s University in Texas. Before becoming a full-time academic, she worked in a crime lab using chemistry to help police track suspects, and now she does research on building new detectors for use in forensic analyses. We talk about how the real world of forensic investigation differs from the version you see portrayed on CSI, and how real chemists use their tools to help law enforcement agencies fight crime. We may even touch on how criminals could use chemical knowledge to get away with their dastardly deeds. Raychelle Burks received her Ph.D. in chemistry from the University of Nebraska, and is now an Assistant Professor at St. Edward’s University. Her current research focuses on the development of portable colorimetry sensors that can be used in the field. She is active on Twitter as @DrRubidium, and often appears as an expert on podcasts and TV documentaries, as well as speaking at conventions and festivals. She is an active advocate for women and underrepresented minorities in science. Web page Wikipedia Twitter Columns at Chemistry World Blog at Scientopia
Jan 14, 2019
28 | Roger Penrose on Spacetime, Consciousness, and the Universe
Sir Roger Penrose has had a remarkable life. He has contributed an enormous amount to our understanding of general relativity, perhaps more than anyone since Einstein himself -- Penrose diagrams, singularity theorems, the Penrose process, cosmic censorship, and the list goes on. He has made important contributions to mathematics, including such fun ideas as the Penrose triangle and aperiodic tilings. He has also made bold conjectures in the notoriously contentious areas of quantum mechanics and the study of consciousness. In his spare time he's managed to become an extremely successful author, writing such books as The Emperor's New Mind and The Road to Reality. With far too much that we could have talked about, we decided to concentrate in this discussion on spacetime, black holes, and cosmology, but we made sure to reserve some time to dig into quantum mechanics and the brain by the end.
Jan 07, 2019
Holiday Message 2018
There won't be any regular episodes of Mindscape this week or next, as we take a holiday break. Regular service will resume on Monday January 7, 2019. In the meantime, here is a special Holiday Message. Most likely it will be of interest to very few people -- there's no real substantive content, just me talking about the State of the Podcast and some other things I've been doing. Thanks to everyone for listening, here's looking toward great things in 2019! Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal.
Dec 24, 2018
27 | Janna Levin on Black Holes, Chaos, and the Narrative of Science
It's a big universe out there, full of an astonishing variety of questions and puzzles. Today's guest, Janna Levin, is a physicist who has delved into some of the trippiest aspects of cosmology and gravitation: the topology of the universe, extra dimensions of space, and the appearance of chaos in orbits around black holes. At the same time, she has been a pioneer in talking about science in interesting and innovative ways: a personal memoir, a novelized narrative of famous scientific lives, and a journalistic exploration of one of the most important experiments of our time. We talk about how one shapes an unusual scientific career, and how the practice of science relates to more traditionally humanistic concerns. Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal. Janna Levin received a Ph.D. in physics from MIT, and is now the Tow Professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College of Columbia University. She is the author of  How the Universe Got Its Spots, A Madman Dreams of Turing Machines, and Black Hole Blues. Her awards include the PEN/Bingham Prize and a Guggenheim Fellowship. She is also the director of sciences at Pioneer Works in Brooklyn, NY. Web site Columbia web page Publications on INSPIRE TED talk on gravitational waves Amazon author page Pioneer Works Wikipedia page Twitter
Dec 17, 2018
26 | Ge Wang on Artful Design, Computers, and Music
Everywhere around us are things that serve functions. We live in houses, sit on chairs, drive in cars. But these things don't only serve functions, they also come in particular forms, which may be emotionally or aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. The study of how form and function come together in things is what we call "Design." Today's guest, Ge Wang, is a computer scientist and electronic musician with a new book called Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime. It's incredibly creative in both substance and style, featuring a unique photo-comic layout and many thoughtful ideas about the nature of design, both practical and idealistic. Ge Wang received his Ph.D. in computer science from Princeton University, and is currently Associate Professor at the Center for Computer Research in Music and Acoustics at Stanford University. He is the author of the ChucK programming language for musical applications, and co-founder of the mobile-app developer Smule. He has given a well-known TED talk where he demonstrates Ocarina, an app for turning an iPhone into a wind instrument. Stanford Web page Artful Design home page (and Amazon page) TED talk on the DIY Orchestra of the Future Stanford Laptop Orchestra Smule Wikipedia page Twitter    
Dec 10, 2018
25 | David Chalmers on Consciousness, the Hard Problem, and Living in a Simulation
The "Easy Problems" of consciousness have to do with how the brain takes in information, thinks about it, and turns it into action. The "Hard Problem," on the other hand, is the task of explaining our individual, subjective, first-person experiences of the world. What is it like to be me, rather than someone else? Everyone agrees that the Easy Problems are hard; some people think the Hard Problem is almost impossible, while others think it's pretty easy. Today's guest, David Chalmers, is arguably the leading philosopher of consciousness working today, and the one who coined the phrase "the Hard Problem," as well as proposing the philosophical zombie thought experiment. Recently he has been taking seriously the notion of panpsychism. We talk about these knotty issues (about which we deeply disagree), but also spend some time on the possibility that we live in a computer simulation. Would simulated lives be "real"? (There we agree -- yes they would.) David Chalmers got his Ph.D. from Indiana University working under Douglas Hoftstadter. He is currently University Professor of Philosophy and Neural Science at New York University and co-director of the Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness. He is a fellow of the Australian Academy of Humanities, the Academy of Social Sciences in Australia, and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Among his books are The Conscious Mind: In Search of a Fundamental Theory, The Character of Consciousness, and Constructing the World. He and David Bourget founded the PhilPapers project. Web site NYU Faculty page Wikipedia page PhilPapers page Amazon author page NYU Center for Mind, Brain, and Consciousness TED talk: How do you explain consciousness?
Dec 03, 2018
24 | Kip Thorne on Gravitational Waves, Time Travel, and Interstellar
I remember vividly hosting a colloquium speaker, about fifteen years ago, who talked about the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory, which had just started taking data. Comparing where they were to where they needed to get to in terms of sensitivity, the mumblings in the audience after the talk were clear: “They’ll never make it.” Of course we now know that they did, and the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves led to a 2017 Nobel Prize for Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish. So it’s a great pleasure to have Kip Thorne himself as a guest on the podcast. Kip tells us a bit about he LIGO story, and offers some strong opinions about the Nobel Prize. But he’s had a long and colorful career, so we also talk about whether it’s possible to travel backward in time through a wormhole, and what his future movie plans are in the wake of the success of Interstellar. Kip Thorne received his Ph.D. in physics from Princeton University, and is now the Richard Feynman Professor of Theoretical Physics (Emeritus) at Caltech. Recognized as one of the world’s leading researchers in general relativity, he has done important work on gravitational waves, black holes, wormholes, and relativistic stars. His role in helping found and guide the LIGO experiment was recognized with the Nobel Prize in 2017. He is the author or co-author of numerous books, including a famously weighty textbook, Gravitation. He was executive producer of the 2014 film Interstellar, which was based on an initial concept by him and Lynda Obst. He’s been awarded too many prizes to list here, and has also been involved in a number of famous bets. Caltech page Wikipedia page Nobel Prize citation Nobel Lecture author page Internet Movie Database page
Nov 26, 2018
23 | Lisa Aziz-Zadeh on Embodied Cognition, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy
Brains are important things; they're where thinking happens. Or are they? The theory of "embodied cognition" posits that it's better to think of thinking as something that takes place in the body as a whole, not just in the cells of the brain. In some sense this is trivially true; our brains interact with the rest of our bodies, taking in signals and giving back instructions. But it seems bold to situate important elements of cognition itself in the actual non-brain parts of the body. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is a psychologist and neuroscientist who uses imaging technologies to study how different parts of the brain and body are involved in different cognitive tasks. We talk a lot about mirror neurons, those brain cells that light up both when we perform an action ourselves and when we see someone else performing the action. Understanding how these cells work could be key to a better view of empathy and interpersonal interactions. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is an Associate Professor in the Brain and Creativity Institute and the Department of Occupational Science at the University of Southern California. She received her Ph.D. in psychology from UCLA, and has also done research at the University of Parma and the University of California, Berkeley. Home page USC profile Lab home page Google Scholar Talk on Brain and Body
Nov 19, 2018
22 | Joe Walston on Conservation, Urbanization, and the Way We Live on Earth
There's no question that human activity is causing enormous changes on our planet's environment, from deforestation to mass extinction to climate change. But perhaps there is a tiny cause for optimism -- or at least, the prospect of a new equilibrium, if we can manage to ameliorate our most destructive impulses. Wildlife conservationist Joe Walston argues that -- seemingly paradoxically, but not really -- increasing urbanization provides hope for biodiversity preservation and poverty alleviation moving forward. As one piece of evidence, while our population is still growing, the rate of growth has slowed substantially as people move into cities and new opportunities become available. We discuss these trends, the causes underlying them, and what strategies suggest themselves to bring humans into balance with the environment before it's too late. Joe Walston is Senior Vice President for Field Conservation the Wildlife Conservation Society. He received his Masters degree in Zoology and Animal Biology from Aberdeen University. Before moving to New York, he spent fifteen years working in on conservation programs in Africa and SouthEast Asia. His work in Cambodia was awarded with that country's highest civilian honor. A species of tube-nosed bat has been named Murina Walston in recognition of his work on protecting bat habitats. Wildlife Conservation Society ResearchGate Page Twitter Paper on urbanization and biodiversity (and press release)
Nov 12, 2018
21 | Alex Rosenberg on Naturalism, History, and Theory of Mind
We humans love to tell ourselves stories about why things happened the way they did; if the stories are sufficiently serious, we label this activity "history." Part of getting history right is simply an accurate recounting of the facts, but part of it is generally taken to be some kind of explanation about why. How much should we trust these explanations? This is a question with philosophical implications as well as historical ones, and philosopher Alex Rosenberg's new book How History Gets Things Wrong claims that we should basically not trust them at all. It's not that we get the facts wrong, it's that we have wrong ideas about causality and how the human mind works, and we can't help but import these wrong ideas to our beliefs about history. Alex and I dig into how this claim arises naturally from a certain way that naturalists should think about the world. Alex Rosenberg is the R. Taylor Cole Professor of Philosophy at Duke University, with secondary appointments in biology and political science. He has been a Guggenheim Fellow and winner of the Lakatos Award for the best book in the philosophy of science. Rosenberg is the author of numerous books and articles on philosophical aspects of various subjects, including biology, cognitive science, economics, history, causation, and atheism. He has also written two novels, The Girl from Krakow and Autumn in Oxford. Web site Duke home page Wikipedia page Amazon author page Interview at 3:AM Interview at What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?
Nov 05, 2018
20 | Scott Derrickson on Cinema, Blockbusters, Horror, and Mystery
Special Halloween edition? Scott Derrickson is a film-lover first and a director second, but he's been quite successful at the latter -- you may know him as the director and co-writer of Marvel's Doctor Strange. (When I was younger, Doctor Strange was one of my favorite comic characters, along with Green Lantern. At least one of them got a great movie.) Scott was gracious enough to take time from a very busy schedule to sit down for a chat about a wide number of topics. Using Doctor Strange as a template, we go in some detail through the immensely complicated process of taking a modern blockbuster movie from pitch to screen. But Scott's genre of choice is horror -- his other films include Sinister and The Exorcism of Emily Rose -- and we move on to discussing why certain genres seem universal, before tackling even bigger issues about worldviews (Scott is Christian, I'm a naturalist) and how they affect one's life and work. Scott Derrickson is an acclaimed director, producer, and screenwriter. He earned his M.A. in film production from the University of Southern California. His films as a director include Hellraiser: Inferno, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, The Day the Earth Stood Still, Sinister, Deliver Us from Evil, and Doctor Strange. He has written or co-written numerous other films, including Land of Plenty (directed by Wim Wenders) and Devil's Knot (directed by Atom Egoyan). Wikipedia page IMDB page Twitter Doctor Strange on Wikipedia Interview with Scott Myers
Oct 29, 2018
19 | Tyler Cowen on Maximizing Growth and Thinking for the Future
Economics, like other sciences (social and otherwise), is about what the world does; but it's natural for economists to occasionally wander out into the question of what we should do as we live in the world. A very good example of this is a new book by economist Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments. Tyler will be well-known to many listeners for his long-running blog Marginal Revolution (co-created with his colleague Alex Tabarrok) and his many books and articles. Here he offers a surprising new take on how society should arrange itself, based on the simple idea that the welfare of future generations counts for just as much as the welfare of the current one. From that starting point, Tyler concludes that the most moral thing for us to do is to work to maximize economic growth right now, as that's the best way to ensure that future generations are well-off. We talk about this idea, as well as the more general idea of how to think like an economist. (In the second half of the podcast we veer off into talking about quantum mechanics and the multiverse, to everyone's benefit.) Tyler Cowen is the Holbert C. Harris professor of economics and General Director of the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. He is the author of over a dozen books and many journal articles, and writes frequently for the popular press. His blog Marginal Revolution is one of the leading economics blogs on the internet. He is widely recognized for his eclectic interests, from chess to music to ethnic dining. Website Home page at George Mason Mercatus Center web page Marginal Revolution Marginal Revolution University Twitter Bloomberg Opinion columns Tyler Cowen's Ethnic Dining Guide Wikipedia page Amazon books
Oct 22, 2018
18 | Clifford Johnson on What's So Great About Superstring Theory
String theory is a speculative and highly technical proposal for uniting the known forces of nature, including gravity, under a single quantum-mechanical framework. This doesn't seem like a recipe for creating a lightning rod of controversy, but somehow string theory has become just that. To get to the bottom of why anyone (indeed, a substantial majority of experts in the field) would think that replacing particles with little loops of string was a promising way forward for theoretical physics, I spoke with expert string theorist Clifford Johnson. We talk about the road string theory has taken from a tentative proposal dealing with the strong interactions, through a number of revolutions, to the point it's at today. Also, where all those extra dimensions might have gone. At the end we touch on Clifford's latest project, a graphic novel that he wrote and illustrated about how science is done. Clifford Johnson is a Professor of Physics at the University of Southern California. He received his Ph.D. in mathematics and physics from the University of Southampton. His research area is theoretical physics, focusing on string theory and quantum field theory. He was awarded the Maxwell Medal from the Institute of Physics. Johnson is the author of the technical monograph D-Branes, as well as the graphic novel The Dialogues. Home page Wikipedia page Publications A talk on The Dialogues Asymptotia blog Twitter
Oct 15, 2018
17 | Annalee Newitz on Science, Fiction, Economics, and Neurosis
The job of science fiction isn't to predict the future; it's to tell interesting stories in an imaginative setting, exploring the implications of different ways the world could be different from our actual one. Annalee Newitz has carved out a unique career as a writer and thinker, founding the visionary blog io9 and publishing nonfiction in a number of formats, and is now putting her imagination to work in the realm of fiction. Her recent novel, Autonomous, examines a future in which the right to work is not automatic, rogue drug pirates synthesize compounds to undercut Big Pharma, and sentient robots discover their sexuality. We talk about how science fiction needs more economics, how much of human behavior comes down to dealing with our neuroses, and what it's like to make the transition from writing non-fiction to fiction. Annalee Newitz is currently an Editor at Large at Ars Technica. She received her Ph.D. in English and American Studies from UC Berkeley. She founded and edited io9, which later merged with Gizmodo, where she also served as editor. She and Charlie Jane Anders host the podcast Our Opinions Are Correct, a bi-weekly exploration of the meaning of science fiction. Home page Wikipedia page Amazon author page Articles at io9/Gizmodo Articles at Ars Technica Our Opinions Are Correct podcast
Oct 08, 2018
16 | Coleen Murphy on Aging, Biology, and the Future
Aging -- everybody does it, very few people actually do something about it. Coleen Murphy is an exception. In her laboratory at Princeton, she and her team study aging in the famous C. Elegans roundworm, with an eye to extending its lifespan as well as figuring out exactly what processes take place when we age. In this episode we contemplate what scientists have learned about aging, and the prospects for ameliorating its effects -- or curing it altogether? -- even in human beings. Coleen Murphy received her Ph.D. in biochemistry from Stanford University, and is currently Professor in the Department of Molecular Biology and the Lewis-Sigler Institute of Integrative Genomics at Princeton. Home page at the Lewis-Sigler Institute Lab web page Princeton Profile Google Scholar publication page Twitter
Oct 01, 2018
15 | David Poeppel on Thought, Language, and How to Understand the Brain
Language comes naturally to us, but is also deeply mysterious. On the one hand, it manifests as a collection of sounds or marks on paper. On the other hand, it also conveys meaning – words and sentences refer to states of affairs in the outside world, or to much more abstract concepts. How do words and meaning come together in the brain? David Poeppel is a leading neuroscientist who works in many areas, with a focus on the relationship between language and thought. We talk about cutting-edge ideas in the science and philosophy of language, and how researchers have just recently climbed out from under a nineteenth-century paradigm for understanding how all this works. David Poeppel is a Professor of Psychology and Neural Science at NYU, as well as the Director of the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics in Frankfurt, Germany. He received his Ph.D. in cognitive science from MIT. He is a Fellow of the American Association of Arts and Sciences, and was awarded the DaimlerChrysler Berlin Prize in 2004. He is the author, with Greg Hickok, of the dual-stream model of language processing.
Sep 08, 2018
14 | Alta Charo on Bioethics and the Law
To paraphrase Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, scientists tend to focus on whether they can do something, not whether they should. Questions of what we should do tend to wander away from the pristine beauty of science into the messy worlds of ethics and the law. But with the ongoing revolutions in biology, we can’t avoid facing up to some difficult should-questions. Alta Charo is a world expert in a gamut of these issues, working as a law professor and government official specializing in bioethics. We hit all the big questions: designer babies, birth control, abortion, religious exemptions, stem cells, end of life care, and more. This episode will give you the context necessary to think about a host of looming questions from a legal as well as a moral perspective. Alta Charo is currently the Warren P. Knowles Professor of Law and Bioethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. She earned a B.A. in Biology from Harvard, and went on to receive her J.D. from Columbia University. Charo served as a bioethics advisor on the Obama Administration transition team, as well as working as a senior policy advisor at the Food and Drug Administration. She has been a Fulbright Scholar, is a member of the National Academy of Medicine, and was awarded the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award at UW-Madison.
Sep 08, 2018
13 | Neha Narula on Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, and the Future of the Internet
For something of such obvious importance, money is kind of mysterious. It can, as Homer Simpson once memorably noted, be exchanged for goods and services. But who decides exactly how many goods/services a given unit of money can buy? And what maintains the social contract that we all agree to go along with it? Technology is changing what money is and how we use it, and Neha Narula is a leader in thinking about where money is going. One much-hyped aspect is the advent of blockchain technology, which has led to cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. We talk about what the blockchain really is, how it enables new kinds of currency, and from a wider perspective whether it can help restore a more individualistic, decentralized Web. Neha Narula is the Director of the Digital Currency Initiative at MIT. She obtained her Ph.D. in computer science from MIT, and worked at Google and Digg before joining the faculty there. She is an expert on scalable databases, secure software, cryptocurrencies, and online privacy.
Sep 08, 2018
12 | Wynton Marsalis on Jazz, Time, and America
Jazz occupies a special place in the American cultural landscape. It's played in elegant concert halls and run-down bars, and can feature esoteric harmonic experimentation or good old-fashioned foot-stomping swing. Nobody embodies the scope of modern jazz better than Wynton Marsalis. As a trumpet player, bandleader, composer, educator, and ambassador for the music, he has worked tirelessly to keep jazz vibrant and alive. In this bouncy conversation, we talk about various kinds of music, how they might relate to physics, and some of the greater challenges facing the United States today. (This and the next few podcasts were recorded on the road with headset microphones, and the sound quality isn't quite as good, sorry about that.) Hailing from an accomplished New Orleans family, Wynton Marsalis was marked as a prodigy from a young age. He played locally before moving to New York and attend Julliard, and played and recorded with artists such as Art Blakey and Herbie Hancock. He has recorded numerous albums as a leader of small ensembles, big bands, and as a soloist with symphony orchestras. He is a multiple-time Grammy winner and the first to win in both jazz and classical categories in the same year, and in 1997 his oratorio Blood on the Fields was the first non-classical work to win the Pulitzer Prize for music. Marsalis founded and continues to lead Jazz at Lincoln Center, which is in residence at Lincoln Center along with such organizations as the New York Philharmonic, the Metropolitan Opera, and the New York City Ballet. He has won the National Medal of the Arts and the National Humanities Medal, along with numerous other awards and honorary degrees.
Sep 04, 2018
11 | Mike Brown on Killing Pluto and Replacing It with Planet 9
Few events in recent astronomical history have had the worldwide emotional resonance as the 2006 announcement that Pluto was no longer considered a planet, at least as far as the International Astronomical Union was concerned. The decision was a long time coming, but no person deserves more credit/blame for forcing the astronomical community's hand than Caltech astronomer Michael Brown. He and his team discovered a number of objects in the outer Solar System -- Eris, Haumea, Sedna, and others -- any of which was just as deserving of planetary status as Pluto. Rather than letting the planetary family proliferate without bound, astronomers decided that none of these objects dominated the orbits in which they moved, so none of them should be planets. Now Brown and his colleague Konstantin Batygin have found indirect evidence that there is another real planet far beyond Pluto's orbit -- which they have dubbed Planet Nine just to remind you that there are currently only eight. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Mike Brown received his Ph.D. in Astronomy from U.C. Berkeley in 1994, and is currently the Richard and Barbara Rosenberg Professor of Planetary Astronomy at Caltech. He shared the Kavli Prize in Astrophysics in 2012 for his discovery of major new objects in the outer Solar System, and in 2007 won Caltech's annual Feynman Teaching Prize. Home page Wikipedia page Blog Twitter How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming Online course, The Science of the Solar System Download Episode
Aug 27, 2018
10 | Megan Rosenbloom on the Death Positive Movement
We're all going to die. But while we are alive, it's up to us how we understand and deal with that fact. In the United States especially, there is a tendency to not face up to the reality of death, and to assume that our goal should be to struggle at all costs to squeeze every last minute out of life. The Death Positive movement aims to change that, helping people to both face up to death on a personal and cultural level, and to give themselves more control over the manner of their own deaths. One of the leaders in this movement is today's guest, Megan Rosenbloom, who works as a medical librarian by day. We talk about attitudes toward death around the world, the differences between dying at home and in a hospital, the importance of autonomy in old age, and how individuals and societies can cope with the ultimate inevitability that comes with being alive. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Megan Rosenbloom received a Masters from the University of Pittsburgh in 2008, and is currently Associate Director for Instruction Services at the Norris Medical Library of the University of Southern California. In 2016 she won a Mover & Shaker award from Library Journal. She is active in the Death Positive movement, serving as the co-founder and director of the Death Salon. She is currently working on a book about the history of books bound with human skin. Home page Norris Medical Library page Order of the Good Death Death Salon Anthropodermic Book Project Talk sponsored by USC's Office of Religious Life Twitter Download Episode
Aug 20, 2018
9 | Solo -- Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?
It's fun to be in the exciting, chaotic, youthful days of the podcast, when anything goes and experimentation is the order of the day. So today's show is something different: a solo effort, featuring just me talking without any guests to cramp my style. This won't be the usual format, but I suspect it will happen from time to time. Feel free to chime in below on how often you think alternative formats should be part of the mix. The topic today is "Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?", or equivalently "Why Does the Universe Exist at All?" Heady stuff, but we're not going to back away from the challenge. What I have to say will roughly follow my recent paper on the subject, although in a more chatty and accessible style. It concerns ideas at the intersection of physics, philosophy, and theology, so tune in if you're into that sort of thing. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Big news! After a number of people have asked, I have finally opened a Patreon account for people who would like to support Mindscape in some way. You can sign up to kick in a dollar or more per podcast episode, and in return you get 1) access to occasional Ask Me Anything episodes done exclusively for patrons, and 2) my undying gratitude. If the Patreon route is successful enough, I'll forego having ads on the podcast -- we'll see how it goes. Download Episode
Aug 13, 2018
8 | Carl Zimmer on Heredity, DNA, and Editing Genes
Our understanding of heredity and genetics is improving at blinding speed. It was only in the year 2000 that scientists obtained the first rough map of the human genome: 3 billion base pairs of DNA with about 20,000 functional genes. Today, you can send a bit of your DNA to companies such as 23andMe and get a report on your personal genome (ancestry, health risks) for about $200. Technologies like CRISPR are allowing scientists to edit genes, not just map them. Science writer Carl Zimmer has been following these advances for years, and has recently written a comprehensive book about heredity: She Has Her Mother's Laugh: The Powers, Perversions, and Potential of Heredity. We talk about how our understanding of heredity has changed over the years, how there is much more to inheritance than simply listing all the information we pass down in our DNA, and what the future might hold in a world where genetic manipulation becomes widespread. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Carl Zimmer is a leading science writer whose work regularly appears in The New York Times, National Geographic, The Atlantic, and elsewhere. He is the author of thirteen books, including a university-level textbook on evolutionary biology. He has been awarded prizes and fellowships by the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the Guggenheim Foundation, among others. He teaches as an adjunct professor at Yale University. Home page Matter column in The New York Times Yale home page Wikipedia page Amazon author page Talk on Science, Journalism, and Democracy Twitter Download Episode
Aug 06, 2018
7 | Yascha Mounk on Threats to Liberal Democracy
 Both words in the phrase "liberal democracy" carry meaning, and both concepts are under attack around the world. "Democracy" means that they people rule, while "liberal" (in this sense) means that the rights of individuals are protected, even if they're not part of the majority. Recent years have seen the rise of an authoritarian/populist political movement in many Western democracies, one that scapegoats minorities in the name of the true "will of the people." Yascha Mounk is someone who has been outspoken from the start about the dangers posed by this movement, and what those of us who support the ideals of liberal democracy can do about it. Among other things, we discuss how likely it is that liberal democracy could ultimately fail even in as stable a country as the United States. Yascha Mounk received his Ph.D. in Government from Harvard University. He is a Lecturer on Government at Harvard, a Senior Fellow in the Political Reform Program at New America, and Executive Director at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. His most recent book is The People vs. Democracy: Why Our Freedom Is in Danger and How to Save It.
Jul 30, 2018
6 | Liv Boeree on Poker, Aliens, and Thinking in Probabilities
Poker, like life, is a game of incomplete information. To do well in such a game, we have to think in terms of probabilities, unpredictable strategies, and Bayesian inference. These are ideas that play a central role in physics and rationality as well as in poker, which makes Liv Boeree such a great person to talk about them. Liv is a professional poker player who studied physics as a university student, and maintains an active interest in science generally and astrophysics in particular. We talk about poker, probability, the likelihood that aliens exist elsewhere in the universe, and how to be rational when it comes to charitable giving. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Liv Boeree earned a First Class Honours degree in Physics from the University of Manchester, before becoming a professional poker player. She has won well over $3 million on the poker circuit, including taking First Place at the 2010 European Poker Tour Main Event in San Remo, Italy. She is the co-founder of the charity organization Raising for Effective Giving, which has raised millions of dollars (largely from fellow poker players) for good causes. Home page Wikipedia page TEDx talk on probabilities Vox article on the Fermi paradox Raising for Effective Giving Twitter Download Episode
Jul 23, 2018
5 | Geoffrey West on Networks, Scaling, and the Pace of Life
If you scale up an animal to twice its height, keeping everything else proportionate, its volume and weight become eight times as much. Such a scaling relation was used by J.B.S. Haldane in his famous essay, "On Being the Right Size," to help explain certain features of living organisms. But scaling relations go much deeper than that, and they are often much more subtle than the volume going as the cube of the length. Geoffrey West is a particle physicist turned complexity theorist, who studies how features from metabolism to lifespan change as we adjust the size of an organism -- or of other complex systems, from cities to computer networks. His insights have important implications for innovation, sustainability, and the best ways to organize life here on Earth. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Geoffrey West received his Ph.D. in physics from Stanford University. He is currently a Distinguished Professor at the Santa Fe Institute, where he served as President from 2005 to 2009. He has been listed as one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in the world. He is the author of Scale: The Universal Laws of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability, and the Pace of Life in Organisms, Cities, Economies, and Companies. Home page Wikipedia page Amazon page TED talk on "The Surprising Math of Cities and Corporations" Google Scholar publications Download Episode
Jul 16, 2018
4 | Anthony Pinn on Humanism, Theology, and the Black Community
According to atheism, God does not exist. But religions have traditionally done much more than simply proclaim God's existence: they have provided communities, promoted the arts, handed down moral guidance, and so on. Can atheism, or perhaps humanism, replicate these roles? Anthony Pinn grew up as a devout Methodist, but became a humanist when he felt that religion wasn't really helping the communities that he cared about. Today he is a professor of religion who works to bring together atheism and the black community. We talk about humanism, identity politics, and the way forward. [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_linkedin="true" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Anthony Pinn received his Ph.D. in the Study of Religion from Harvard University, and is currently the Agnes Cullen Arnold Professor of Humanities and Professor of Religious Studies at Rice University, where he was the first African-American to hold an endowed chair at the university. He is the Founding Director of The Center for Engaged Research and Collaborative Learning at Rice University, and Director of Research,The Institute for Humanist Studies. Among his many books are Writing God's Obituary: How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist and When Colorblindness Isn't the Answer: Humanism and the Challenge of Race Home page Faculty page at Rice Wikipedia page page Online course at edX: Religion and Hip Hop Culture Talk on How a Good Methodist Became a Better Atheist Twitter Download Episode
Jul 12, 2018
3 | Alice Dreger on Sexuality, Truth, and Justice
The human mind loves nothing more than to build mental boxes -- categories -- and put things into them, then refuse to accept it when something doesn't fit. Nowhere is this more clear than in the idea that there are men, and there are women, and that's it. Alice Dreger is an historian of science, specializing in intersexuality and the relationship between bodies and identities. She is also a successful activist, working to change the way that doctors deal with newborn children who are born intersex. We talk about human sexuality and a number of other hot-button topics, and ruminate on the challenges of being both an intellectual (devoted to truth) and an activist (seeking justice). [smart_track_player url="" social_gplus="false" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Alice Dreger received her Ph.D. in the History and Philosophy of Science from Indiana University. She has worked as a faculty member at Michigan State University and Northwestern University. She has been a Guggenheim Fellow, and was the Founding Board Chair of the Intersex Society of North America. She is the author of a number of books, including Galileo's Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and One Scholar's Search for Justice, and most recently The Talk: Helping Your Kids Navigate Sex in the Real World. Home page Wikipedia page Publications TED Talk: Is Anatomy Destiny? Twitter
Jul 11, 2018
2 | Carlo Rovelli on Quantum Mechanics, Spacetime, and Reality
Quantum mechanics and general relativity are the two great triumphs of twentieth-century theoretical physics. Unfortunately, they don't play well together -- despite years of effort, we currently lack a completely successful quantum theory of gravity, although there are some promising ideas out there. Carlo Rovelli is a pioneer of one of those ideas, loop quantum gravity, as well as the bestselling author of such books as Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and the recent The Order of Time. We talk about how to make progress on this knotty problem, including whether string theory will play a role (Carlo thinks not). [smart_track_player url="" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Carlo Rovelli is a professor of theoretical physics at the Centre de Physique Théorique de Luminy of Aix-Marseille University in France. In 1988, he and Abhay Ashtekar and Lee Smolin introduced the idea of loop quantum gravity. He is also the author of the "relational" interpretation of quantum mechanics. Home page Wikipedia page Google Scholar publications author page Talk on The Physics and Philosophy of Time Twitter Download Episode
Jul 10, 2018
1 | Carol Tavris on Mistakes, Justification, and Cognitive Dissonance
For the first full episode of Mindscape, it's an honor to welcome social psychologist Carol Tavris. Her book with co-author Eliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), explores the effect that cognitive dissonance has on how we think. We talk about the fascinating process by which people justify the mistakes that they make, and how that leads to everything from false memories to political polarization. [smart_track_player url="" social_email="true" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Carol Tavris received her Ph.D. in social psychology from the University of Michigan. She is the author of numerous books, covering topics such as gender, biology, and emotion, and is a frequent contributor to a variety of newspapers and magazines. She is a Fellow of the American Psychological Association, the Association for Psychological Science and the Committee for Skeptical Inquiry. Carol Tavris on Wikipedia Social Psychology Network profile author page A lecture on "Dissent and Dissonance: The Science and Art of Argument." Download Episode
Jul 04, 2018
Welcome to the Mindscape Podcast!
I've decided to officially take the plunge into the world of podcasting. The new show will be called Mindscape, and will mostly consist of me talking to smart people about interesting ideas. (Occasionally it will be me talking by myself about ideas of questionable merit.) I'm a grizzled veteran at appearing on other podcasts, and it's past time I sat in the director's chair here. [smart_track_player url="" artist="Sean Carroll" social_gplus="false" social_email="true" tweet_text="Sean Carroll's Mindscape Podcast, Episode 0: Welcome!" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ] Today I'm just releasing a short teaser podcast, in both audio (bottom of this post) and video (right here) form. Next week will be a more official launch, with several real episodes, all of which I had enormous fun recording. FAQ: It won't just be about physics, although physics will naturally appear. Indeed, the opportunity to talk about things other than physics is a large part of my motivation here. I have plans/hopes to talk to historians, psychologists, biologists, philosophers, artists, filmmakers, neuroscientists, economists, writers, theologians, political scientists, musicians, and more. The video above is just to lure you in. Almost all episodes will be audio-only. I don't have a strict release schedule, that will depend on other obligations. I would guess one every two weeks, perhaps weekly if things start going super-well. (So if you want more episodes, encourage others to subscribe!) Typical episodes will be an hour long, at least to start, though don't hold me to that. Right now you can both subscribe to the RSS feed, and/or to an email list, both available on the sidebar to the right. If you join the email list, you can choose to either get just the episodes as they are released, or just special announcements relevant to the podcast, or both. Soon I hope to be available on iTunes and Google Play and various other platforms, but I'm not sure how quickly that happens. There won't be any ads to start, but I am planning to monetize it if things go well. These microphones don't pay for themselves. I'm not really in it for the money, but if money starts rolling in, my incentive to keep going will be correspondingly boosted. Feel free to leave comments and discuss individual episodes as they appear. There is also a subreddit which might make a good conversation spot. Like everything else I do that isn't physics research, this is a hobby, and might have to take a temporary back seat if things get busy. But so far it's been a lot of fun, and I'm excited to see where it will go. Show notes for this episode: I mention a study of the different ways in which artists and regular people look at images, which you can read about here. And we're ready to go! Thanks to everyone who has helped me set this up, including Gia Mora (web and technical help), Julian Morris (prodding), Cara Santa Maria (podcasting wisdom), Jason Torchinsky (art), Ted Pyne (music), Robert Alexander (gear), and Jennifer Ouellette (patience, support, wine). Comment here if you have suggestions, for good ideas to talk about, good people to talk to, or format/technical wisdom. (As always, demands that I not talk about this or that will be summarily deleted; those are my choices to make, not anybody else's.) Still very new at this, mistakes both technical and judgmental are practically guaranteed to happen, but I'm optimistic that it should be a fun ride. Download Episode [smart_podcast_player permalink="" hashtag="mindscapepodcast" ]
Jul 01, 2018