On a cold, bright January morning I walked south across Westminster Bridge to St Thomas’ Hospital, an institution with a proud tradition of innovation: I was there to observe a procedure generally regarded as the greatest advance in cardiac surgery since the turn of the millennium – and one that can be performed without a surgeon.The patient was a man in his 80s with aortic stenosis, a narrowed valve which was restricting outflow from the left ventricle into the aorta. His heart struggled to pump sufficient blood through the reduced aperture, and the muscle of the affected ventricle had thickened as the organ tried to compensate. If left unchecked, this would eventually lead to heart failure. For a healthier patient the solution would be simple: an operation to remove the diseased valve and replace it with a prosthesis. But the man’s age and a long list of other medical conditions made open-heart surgery out of the question. Happily, for the last few years, another option has been available for such high-risk patients: transcatheter aortic valve implantation, known as TAVI for short.
Tag Archives: Science
Numbers do not exist in all cultures. There are numberless hunter-gatherers embedded deep in Amazonia, living along branches of the world’s largest river tree. Instead of using words for precise quantities, these people rely exclusively on terms analogous to “a few” or “some.” In contrast, our own lives are governed by numbers. As you read this, you are likely aware of what time it is, how old you are, your checking account balance, your weight, and so on. The exact (and exacting) numbers we think with impact everything from our schedules to our self-esteem.But, in a historical sense, numerically fixated people like us are the unusual ones. For the bulk of our species’ approximately 200,000-year lifespan, we had no means of precisely representing quantities. What’s more, the 7,000 or so languages that exist today vary dramatically in how they utilize numbers.Speakers of anumeric, or numberless, languages offer a window into how the invention of numbers reshaped the human experience. In a new book, I explore the ways in which humans invented numbers, and how numbers subsequently played a critical role in other milestones, from the advent of agriculture to the genesis of writing.
Entomologists call it the windshield phenomenon. “If you talk to people, they have a gut feeling. They remember how insects used to smash on your windscreen,” says Wolfgang Wägele, director of the Leibniz Institute for Animal Biodiversity in Bonn, Germany. Today, drivers spend less time scraping and scrubbing. “I’m a very data-driven person,” says Scott Black, executive director of the Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation in Portland, Oregon. “But it is a visceral reaction when you realize you don’t see that mess anymore.”Some people argue that cars today are more aerodynamic and therefore less deadly to insects. But Black says his pride and joy as a teenager in Nebraska was his 1969 Ford Mustang Mach 1—with some pretty sleek lines. “I used to have to wash my car all the time. It was always covered with insects.” Lately, Martin Sorg, an entomologist here, has seen the opposite: “I drive a Land Rover, with the aerodynamics of a refrigerator, and these days it stays clean.”Though observations about splattered bugs aren’t scientific, few reliable data exist on the fate of important insect species. Scientists have tracked alarming declines in domesticated honey bees, monarch butterflies, and lightning bugs. But few have paid attention to the moths, hover flies, beetles, and countless other insects that buzz and flitter through the warm months. “We have a pretty good track record of ignoring most noncharismatic species,” which most insects are, says Joe Nocera, an ecologist at the University of New Brunswick in Canada.
I call it the Kekulé Problem because among the myriad instances of scientific problems solved in the sleep of the inquirer Kekulé’s is probably the best known. He was trying to arrive at the configuration of the benzene molecule and not making much progress when he fell asleep in front of the fire and had his famous dream of a snake coiled in a hoop with its tail in its mouth—the ouroboros of mythology—and woke exclaiming to himself: “It’s a ring. The molecule is in the form of a ring.” Well. The problem of course—not Kekulé’s but ours—is that since the unconscious understands language perfectly well or it would not understand the problem in the first place, why doesnt it simply answer Kekulé’s question with something like: “Kekulé, it’s a bloody ring.” To which our scientist might respond: “Okay. Got it. Thanks.”Why the snake? That is, why is the unconscious so loathe to speak to us? Why the images, metaphors, pictures? Why the dreams, for that matter.A logical place to begin would be to define what the unconscious is in the first place. To do this we have to set aside the jargon of modern psychology and get back to biology. The unconscious is a biological system before it is anything else. To put it as pithily as possibly—and as accurately—the unconscious is a machine for operating an animal.
NEW HAVEN, Conn. — Gale Ridge could tell something was wrong as soon as the man walked into her office at the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station. He was smartly dressed in a collared shirt and slacks, but his skin didn’t look right: It was bright pink, almost purple — and weirdly glassy.Without making eye contact, he sat hunched in the chair across from Ridge and began to speak. He was an internationally renowned physician and researcher. He had taught 20 years’ worth of students, treating patients all the while, and had solved mysteries about the body’s chemistry and how it could be broken by disease. But now, he was having health issues he didn’t know how to deal with.“He was being eaten alive by insects,” Ridge, an entomologist, recalled recently. “He described these flying entities that were coming at him at night and burrowing into his skin.”Their progeny, too, he said, seemed to be inside his flesh. He’d already seen his family doctor and dermatologist. He’d hired an exterminator to no avail. He had tried Epsom salts, vinegar, medication. So he took matters into his own hands, filling his bathtub with insecticide and clambering in for some relief.But even that wasn’t working. The biting, he said, would begin again. Ridge tried her best to help. “What I did was talk to him, explaining the different biologies of known arthropods that can live on people … trying to get him to understand that what he is seeing is not biologically known to science,” she said.
In 1992, at Tangalooma, off the coast of Queensland, people began to throw fish into the water for the local wild dolphins to eat. In 1998, the dolphins began to feed the humans, throwing fish up onto the jetty for them. The humans thought they were having a bit of fun feeding the animals. What, if anything, did the dolphins think?
Charles Darwin thought the mental capacities of animals and people differed only in degree, not kind — a natural conclusion to reach when armed with the radical new belief that the one evolved from the other. His last great book, “The Expression of Emotions in Man and Animals”, examined joy, love and grief in birds, domestic animals and primates as well as in various human races. But Darwin’s attitude to animals — easily shared by people in everyday contact with dogs, horses, even mice — ran contrary to a long tradition in European thought which held that animals had no minds at all. This way of thinking stemmed from the argument of René Descartes, a great 17th-century philosopher, that people were creatures of reason, linked to the mind of God, while animals were merely machines made of flesh — living robots which, in the words of Nicolas Malebranche, one of his followers, “eat without pleasure, cry without pain, grow without knowing it: they desire nothing, fear nothing, know nothing.”
There is immense concern about economic inequality, both among the scholarly community and in the general public, and many insist that equality is an important social goal. However, when people are asked about the ideal distribution of wealth in their country, they actually prefer unequal societies. We suggest that these two phenomena can be reconciled by noticing that, despite appearances to the contrary, there is no evidence that people are bothered by economic inequality itself. Rather, they are bothered by something that is often confounded with inequality: economic unfairness. Drawing upon laboratory studies, cross-cultural research, and experiments with babies and young children, we argue that humans naturally favour fair distributions, not equal ones, and that when fairness and equality clash, people prefer fair inequality over unfair equality. Both psychological research and decisions by policymakers would benefit from more clearly distinguishing inequality from unfairness.
Bugs are everywhere—you’re surrounded by them right now, wherever you are, and as the news is always eager to remind us, they could team up to destroy us at any moment they wanted. Insect species make up an estimated 80 percent of all species on Earth, and an estimated 80 percent of plants rely on insects to help them reproduce. Humans, in turn, would starve without those plants. So when you wonder how insects will be affected by climate change, what you’re really asking is how everything will beIn fact, we’re already experiencing the effects of climate change via bugs in surprising (and potentially catastrophic) ways. Last summer in California unusual levels of fire danger, at least partly because rising temperatures force certain native beetles into different environments, and the trees in those environments that can’t handle beetles die by the thousands. When a forest has thousands of dead trees just chillin, without having fallen over yet, that forest becomes a tinderbox.
Nikita Zimov’s nickname for the vehicle seemed odd at first. It didn’t look like a baby mammoth. It looked like a small tank, with armored wheels and a pit bull’s center of gravity. Only after he smashed us into the first tree did the connection become clear.We were driving through a remote forest in Eastern Siberia, just north of the Arctic Circle, when it happened. The summer thaw was in full swing. The undergrowth glowed green, and the air hung heavy with mosquitoes. We had just splashed through a series of deep ponds when, without a word of warning, Nikita veered off the trail and into the trees, ramming us into the trunk of a young 20-foot larch. The wheels spun for a moment, and then surged us forward. A dry crack rang out from under the fender as the larch snapped cleanly at its base and toppled over, falling in the quiet, dignified way that trees do.
Source: Pleistocene Park – The Atlantic
Common sense tells us that only living things have an inner life. Rabbits and tigers and mice have feelings, sensations and experiences; tables and rocks and molecules do not. Panpsychists deny this datum of common sense. According to panpsychism, the smallest bits of matter – things such as electrons and quarks – have very basic kinds of experience; an electron has an inner life.