Extinction is supposed to be forever. But in labs around the world, scientists—using the latest biotechnology—are trying to bring extinct animals back to life. From passenger pigeons to woolly mammoths, Britt Wray delves into the science, the ethics, and the implications of de-extinction for all animals, including us humans.
Tagged with “science” (725)
They might find beauty in the same things humans do, you never know.
Alien invasion is a constant theme of Hollywood science fiction, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day. But Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker, author of the new book Enlightenment Now, argues that highly developed civilizations tend toward peace and tolerance, and that advanced aliens are much more likely to be friendly.
“I think it’s not inconceivable that wars between countries will go the way of slave auctions and dueling, just be seen as too ridiculous for any reasonable country to engage in,” Pinker says in Episode 296 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “And maybe that’s the natural arc of civilizations, including ones on other planets.”
But wouldn’t alien brains be so different from ours that it would make mutual understanding impossible? On the contrary, since aliens would have been subject to the same evolutionary pressures as us, they would probably possess an appreciation of science—and maybe even beauty—similar to ours.
“It’s conceivable that other intelligences have a sense of beauty that is not wildly different from ours,” Pinker says, “because they too might be expected to be attuned to counter-entropic forces and patterns in nature.”
An example of this is our appreciation of the bright colors and symmetrical configuration of many flowers. “Flowers are designed to attract bugs,” Pinker says, “but they also attract us, and our brains are pretty different from bugs’ brains.”
But there are limits. Vast differences in culture and biology would definitely lead to some significant differences when it comes to art appreciation.
“It may be pushing things to say that little green men from Alpha Centauri would groove to Thelonious Monk,” Pinker says. “I don’t think I’d push it that far.”
Listen to the complete interview with Steven Pinker in Episode 296 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Steven Pinker on progress:
“Nowadays in the most conservative part of the world, namely the Islamic Middle East and North Africa, in many ways they are as liberal, even a bit more liberal, than people of the same age in, say, Sweden or Norway in the early 1960s. At first when I saw that graph I just couldn’t believe it, what are you talking about? People in Libya today are more liberal than people in Sweden in the early sixties? But if you actually think about it, if you go back to people’s attitudes in the sixties, the idea of say gay marriage—you ask a Swede in 1960 what they thought of gay marriage, they’d think you were nuts. Or women’s equality. We tend to underestimate how much the world has changed, particularly when it comes to generation by generation turnover.”
Steven Pinker on AI:
“If Elon Musk was really serious about the AI threat he’d stop building those self-driving cars, which are the first kind of advanced AI that we’re going to see. Now I don’t think he stays up at night worrying that someone is going to program into a Tesla ‘take me to the airport the quickest way possible,’ and the car is just going to make a beeline across sidewalks and parks, mowing people down and uprooting trees, because that’s the way the Tesla interprets the command ‘take me by the quickest route possible.’ That’s just idiotic, you wouldn’t build a car that way, because that isn’t an example of artificial intelligence — plus he’d get sued and there’d be reputational harms. You’d test the living daylights out of it before you let it on the streets.”
Steven Pinker on science fiction:
“If you take Moral Philosophy 101, or even better you dive into the technical literature in moral philosophy in the philosophy journals, it’s kind of all science fiction. It’s ‘what would happen if …?’ I mean, it’s not very good science fiction, as literature, but it’s putting together an imaginary world and exploring the consequences, to see what you really deep down believe. A simple example is the trolley problem—you know, imagine there’s a hurtling trolley and if it continues on its way it’ll kill five workers on the track who don’t see it coming, but if you flip the switch it’ll be diverted and kill only one person. Should you flip the switch? And all kinds of variations that start to go into the realm of science fiction. But it’s these stretches of the imagination that clarify what you really believe. So science fiction and moral philosophy are often pretty similar.”
Steven Pinker on academia:
“Just yesterday I got a slew of letters after I published an article in the Wall Street Journal just mentioning climate change, and a lot of the readers wrote back and said, ‘Don’t tell me you believe in climate change. That just comes out of universities and everyone knows that there’s just a left-wing echo chamber in the universities.’ Now that’s total and utter nonsense, I know these people—the climate scientists and planetary scientists and geophysicists, and they are not left-wing fanatics—but when you’ve got the university culture developing a reputation for orthodoxy and suppression of controversy, which is true in some parts of the university, it taints the university system as a whole, to the detriment of the entire society.”
Melvyn Bragg and guests discuss the pioneering scientist Rosalind Franklin (1920 - 1958). During her distinguished career, Franklin carried out ground-breaking research into coal and viruses but she is perhaps best remembered for her investigations in the field of DNA. In 1952 her research generated a famous image that became known as Photograph 51. When the Cambridge scientists Francis Crick and James Watson saw this image, it enabled them the following year to work out that DNA has a double-helix structure, one of the most important discoveries of modern science. Watson, Crick and Franklin’s colleague Maurice Wilkins received a Nobel Prize in 1962 for this achievement but Franklin did not and today many people believe that Franklin has not received enough recognition for her work.
Three people grapple with the question, “Are we alone?”
The magical world of Conelis Drebbel, inventor of the first submarine in 1621.
How did the crew of this remarkable vessel manage to breathe underwater, completely cut off from the surface, 150 years before oxygen was officially discovered?
King James I of England and thousands of his subjects lined the banks of the River Thames in London to watch the first demonstration. The strangest boat they had ever seen sank beneath the waves and stayed there for three hours.
Did Drebbel know how to make oxygen? Historian Andrew Szydlow reveals that Drebbel did have secret knowledge of how to keep the air fresh.
In his day, Drebbel was a pioneer of exploring uninhabitable places. Today’s equivalent is to make oxygen on the Moon and as scientists grapple with this ultimate challenge, Monica Grady explains their work is being used under the waves where Drebbel began.
Nicola Davis explores the hypothetical common ancestor of modern Indo-European languages and asks, where did it come from? How and why did it spread? And do languages evolve like genes?
You may love "2001," but you probably don’t love it as much as he does.
Francine Stock explores the hidden wonders of 2001: A Space Odyssey in a special edition.
Fresh from the movie theaters, here’s our flash review of “Solo: A Star Wars Story.” In a world where there’s a new “Star Wars” movie every year, sometimes it’s a relief not to have the fate of the galaxy at stake. What are the rules of Sabacc? Are references the lowest form of fan service? Will casual fans be more enthusiastic than hard-core ones? Why watch droids fighting for entertainment when you have holograms? From train heists to floating space yachts to surprise cameos, we break it all down.
Fifty years ago, Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke set out to make a new kind of sci-fi. How does their future look now that it’s the past?
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