The internet is freaking out over this spooky prediction by Carl Sagan about the future.


It’s disturbingly accurate.

 
 Back in 1995, everyone’s favourite astrophysicist, Carl Sagan, published a book called The Demon-Haunted World, which warned against the dangers of pseudoscience and scientific illiteracy, and encouraged its readers to learn critical and skeptical thinking.

Pretty standard stuff for a socially conscious scientist, but one passage in particular has been blowing up on Twitter this week, and it’s not hard to see why.

 Somehow, (we’re not saying time machine, but probably time machine) Sagan managed to predict the state of things as they are today – and it’s unnervingly accurate.

We’re talking the decline in manufacturing jobs; people feeling hopeless about politics; politicians refusing or unable to represent the public interest; and brilliant, revolutionary technologies that never seem to change the lives of anyone but the 1 percent.

The result? Sagan predicts people will opt for superstition and pseudoscience over reality – and even more concerning, he says the public will be intellectually incapable of distinguishing between what makes us feel good, and what’s actually true. Fake news, anyone?

Yep, this passage has got it all:

So did Sagan somehow know enough about society in 1995 that he could accurately predict what life would be like in a couple of generations, or are we all reading too much into it?

Oddly enough, the way we interpret this kind of prediction actually has a lot to do with how we interpret horoscopes – one of Sagan’s biggest bugbears.

 Horoscopes have nothing to do with reality, but they owe their enormous success to the fact that humans tend to see what they want to see.

So while we can be pessimistic about the future of society as a whole, humans are generally pretty optimistic about their individual future prospects – a concept known as optimism bias.

It’s actually an evolutionary survival tactic – and that’s something horoscopes directly tap into.

As Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist from University College London, explains for TIME:

“You might expect optimism to erode under the tide of news about violent conflicts, high unemployment, tornadoes and floods and all the threats and failures that shape human life. Collectively we can grow pessimistic – about the direction of our country or the ability of our leaders to improve education and reduce crime. But private optimism, about our personal future, remains incredibly resilient.”

Thanks to humanity’s optimism bias, you could show someone all the statistics related to divorce, cancer, and average lifespan, and more often than not, they’ll choose to believe that those negative experiences won’t happen to them.

So when we see horoscopes that tell us we’re going to meet our soulmate or get a big promotion this month, we choose to believe it, and don’t tend to go back and fact-check it – the horoscope has already done its job by making us feel good.

A similar thing goes on when we’re presented with a spookily accurate prediction of the future – part of the cognitive bias that’s wired into all humans is that we are drawn to details that confirm our existing beliefs.

As Matt Novak points out over at Gizmodo: “[I]t’s important to remember that the ‘accuracy’ of predictions is often a Rorschach test. An interpretation of a particular prediction’s accuracy usually says a lot about the people interpreting them, and their own hopes or fears for the future.”

We also need to put these predictions into context, because once you read past the viral passage, you’ll see that Sagan is kinda trying to blame the state of things in the future on… Beavis and Butthead?

“The dumbing down of America is most evident in the slow decay of substantive content in the enormously influential media, the 30-second sound bites (now down to 10 seconds or less), lowest common denominator programming, credulous presentations on pseudoscience and superstition, but especially a kind of celebration of ignorance.

As I write, the number one video cassette rental in America is the movie Dumb and DumberBeavis and Butthead remains popular (and influential) with young TV viewers. The plain lesson is that study and learning – not just of science, but of anything – are avoidable, even undesirable.”

How delighted Sagan would be to know that in 2016, more young people were watching David Attenborough than The X Factor. Mind-numbing television is actually the least of our problems right now.

But even with all that said, we do have to give props to Sagan for coming up with a really cracking prediction for the beginning of 2017. Let’s hope for better things to come in the months and years ahead.

Source:sciencealert.com

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On Carl Sagan & Feeling Hopeless About the State of the World


Reflections on the “cosmic perspective” and what to remember when feeling powerless to change the world.

I finally started watching the new Cosmos series the other day. You know, the remake of Carl Sagan’s classic 1980s science documentary-show? The one about science and the universe with Neil deGrasse Tyson as intergalactic guide? Yeah, that one.

I’m a little late to the game, I know. The showed aired way back in March, but I don’t watch a whole lot of television. However, as a big fan of Carl Sagan and of the original Cosmos, I was aflutter with science-happy when a friend of mine said he had the series on his computer and we ought to watch it.

We’ve watched the first few episodes the past couple days, and I gotta say—this shit is tremendous. The computer-generated galaxies, pulsars, black holes, supernovas, and Earth-stuffs are stunningly gorgeous. The storytelling and animation used to convey the history of science are delightful. And although deGrasse Tyson cannot and should not attempt to replicate Carl Sagan’s ineffable charm, he nonetheless has an affable gravitas about him which both endears and commands attention. Let’s be honest: he’s kind of a badass.

Cosmic Perspective

While admiring the breathtaking-yet-still-educational awesomeness of Cosmos, I couldn’t help but reflect upon what Carl Sagan called the “cosmic perspective”. Sagan had this idea that our scientific understanding of the unfathomable vastness—like, really, so huge and so old our small brains literally cannot conceive of one drop in the cosmic super-sea—of spacetime could alter our collective consciousness down here on Earth:

“Everyone one of us is, in the cosmic perspective, precious. If a human disagrees with you, let him live. In a hundred billion galaxies, you will not find another.”

Carl Sagan

Photo of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away, taken by NASA Voyager. Photo Credit: Public Domain.

Photo of Earth from 3.7 billion miles away, taken by NASA Voyager. 

Sagan’s famous ‘Pale Blue Dot‘ commentary was all about seeing Earth from the “cosmic perspective”. Gazing upon the above image, Sagan was inspired to wax lyrical about the folly of human conceit. I’ve included this speech elsewhere on Refine The Mind previously, but I’m including it again because, well, this is one of those timeless jewels of language that everyone in the world should read or listen to monthly:

“From this distant vantage point, the Earth might not seem of any particular interest. But for us, it’s different. Consider again that dot. That’s here. That’s home. That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there-on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.

The Earth is a very small stage in a vast cosmic arena. Think of the endless cruelties visited by the inhabitants of one corner of this pixel on the scarcely distinguishable inhabitants of some other corner, how frequent their misunderstandings, how eager they are to kill one another, how fervent their hatreds. Think of the rivers of blood spilled by all those generals and emperors so that, in glory and triumph, they could become the momentary masters of a fraction of a dot.

Our posturings, our imagined self-importance, the delusion that we have some privileged position in the Universe, are challenged by this point of pale light. Our planet is a lonely speck in the great enveloping cosmic dark. In our obscurity, in all this vastness, there is no hint that help will come from elsewhere to save us from ourselves.

The Earth is the only world known so far to harbor life. There is nowhere else, at least in the near future, to which our species could migrate. Visit, yes. Settle, not yet. Like it or not, for the moment the Earth is where we make our stand.

It has been said that astronomy is a humbling and character-building experience. There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Look at this picture of the Earth, Carl says. Look at us, friends. We’re a crumb, a speck, a pixel! Every one of us is sitting on that almost-invisible chip of nothing. Hell, everyone you’ve ever known or heard of lived on that chip of nothing—drifting through space, enveloped on all sides by an inestimable black. It’s just us down there. Us. No one is listening to our cries. No one is waiting to save us. We continue to misunderstand, hate, attack, torture, and murder one another in our petty human squabbles. We imagine ourselves to be more important than our neighbors, more important than the Earth. We deceive ourselves. We share this planet; and the Earth, at least for now, is all we have. Cherish the rock! Preserve what lives there! Be decent to one another!

Out of Order

It seems like such a simple message, and while watching Cosmos, mesmerized by the wonders of science, I felt a kind of melancholy longing—a wish that it could really just be so simple. In my imagination, I see all of us on this world suddenly pausing what we’re doing, looking at the stars, pondering the expansive mysteries of the galaxy, and saying, “Wow, I guess we could’ve just chilled out all along. Killing each other for all those years was pretty f***ing stupid. Let’s, like, agree not to do that anymore and work together and shit.”

Terribly idealistic, I know, I know. There are political and economic and geographic and ideological and biological and cultural forces down here on Earth that make it damn hard for the human race to stop perpetually roundhouse kicking itself in the face. But I can dream, I guess. Plenty of us manage it, after all—manage to be basically courteous humans who don’t kill or rape or otherwise maliciously inflict suffering on others. But collectively, we keep failing. Almost 20 years after Carl Sagan’s death, it seems like large segments of the world have yet to glimpse the “cosmic perspective”.

Sailing the Ocean by Latyip. Photo Credit: Wiki Commons.

Sailing the Ocean by Latyip. 

The Internet is currently flooded with opinions on what’s happening in Ferguson, Missouri in the US, my home country. Yet another black teen has been murdered by a white police officer with little to no explanation, and the event has caused ongoing unrest—protesting, rioting, etc.—in the city of Ferguson. Police have responded aggressively to the protesting, using rubber bullets and tear gas on protestors, and this has catalyzed a national debate on the militarization of police. All in all, the situation is chaotic, saddening, and devoid of easy solutions. Racially motivated shootings (not to mention school shootings and other instances of gun violence) continue to occur with disturbing frequency in the US.

And let’s not forget that swaths of innocent children and civilians continue to be murdered elsewhere in the world—Gaza, Tel Aviv, Baghdad, Libya, Syria, etc. In the past year, numerous political conflicts worldwide have developed or intensified. Meanwhile, economic inequality is growing, education systems are broken, prisons abuse rather than rehabilitate, and the global climate is changing for the worse. It’s 2014, and the world seems pretty messed up. (I’m not usually this depressing, I promise.) If you’re one to meditate on how we could change it all, you might be paralyzed with a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness. There’s so much out of order. How can we begin to try to make it better?

Remembering

This quandary absorbed me during and after watching Cosmos—a sense that our predicament is too large, that I have no hope of making a meaningful difference. Maybe you’ve felt this way too—frustrated, afraid, angry at the problems of the world. It’s easy to slip into this sort of negativity, but it’s hardly productive or healthy. Mostly it convinces us that doom is imminent and that we shouldn’t do anything. After a couple days, I remembered this and a few other important things.

Perhaps the most important thing I remembered (in this situation and others) is that I am just one human with my own issues and shortcomings. It is not within my power to solve all of the world’s problems, and that’s okay. It is a fallacy to impose inadequacy onto natural boundaries that we do not choose for ourselves. I needed to recognize my limitations, but also appreciate what I can and do contribute. I write, teach, create, donate, get better at recycling, try to be kind.

There are numerous ways to help make the world better, numerous routes of activism, to be sure. I remembered that there are countless others like me working in various ways to tackle the world’s problems, that I am not alone. I also happened to read the 2014 Gates Foundation Letter yesterday, and this further demonstrated to me, empirically, that so many people care about bettering the world, and that we have made astonishing strides toward ending global poverty and health crises—the most devastating killers of humanity—in the past 50 years alone. I don’t know if we will ever overcome many of our challenges, but the fact that it is we who are trying—a collective effort—makes me feel less immobilized, motivates me to get up and do something like write this article.

I also remembered that I cannot and should not dedicate every waking moment to thinking about and trying to change the world’s problems. To do so would be foolish, as life hardly seems worth the trouble if we never detach from the endless drama and just enjoy itI remembered that the human race has always had problems and always will. If we are without problems, we create some; such is the tragicomic nature of our existence, it seems. Who am I to deem this situation “bad” or “shitty” in 2014 when the universe has been unfolding for aeons and will doubtlessly outlive the human race and its finite imagination? Perhaps the universe knows better than my this-or-that labeling.

A deep breath was in order, as well as a pause. I needed to sit down and focus on the basics—the fundamentals of being a not-sinister human. I actually just needed to remember to always start with those sage words of Carl Sagan’s. I needed to remember that if each of us were to take his sentiments to heart, the world would see a remarkable transformation. Considering that truth inspired me to write this, as a reminder to myself and to all of you. As with all of human history, this era has its wonders and its atrocities. This polarity may well be unavoidable, but in an effort to reduce the gunk, let’s try to hold onto the cosmic perspective, to imprint Sagan’s words on our soul-stuff:

“There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world. To me, it underscores our responsibility to deal more kindly with one another, and to preserve and cherish the pale blue dot, the only home we’ve ever known.”

Source:http://www.refinethemind.com

Carl Sagan on the Meaning of Life .


“We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock.”

Carl Sagan was not only one of the greatest scientific minds in modern history, he was also an unrelenting humanist with profound insight on spirituality, psychology, and even literature. From The Meaning of Life: Reflections in Words and Pictures on Why We Are Here (public library) — the same wonderful 1991 anthology that gave us timeless meditations on existencefrom such luminaries as John Cage, Annie Dillard, Stephen Jay Gould, Arthur C. Clarke, and Charles Bukowski — comes a remarkable contribution from Sagan, an anchoring reminder that rings with exquisite timeliness:

In the past few decades, the United States and the Soviet Union have accomplished something that — unless we destroy ourselves first — will be remembered a thousand years from now: the first close-up exploration of dozens of other worlds. Together we have found much out there that is magnificent, instructive and of practical value. But we have found no trace, no hint of life. The Earth is an anomaly. In all the solar system, it is, so far as we know, the only inhabited planet.

We humans are one among millions of separate species who live in a world burgeoning, overflowing with life. And yet, most species that ever were are no more. After flourishing for one hundred fifty million years, the dinosaurs became extinct. Every last one. No species is guaranteed its tenure on this planet. And humans, the first beings to devise the means for their own destruction, have been here for only several million years.

We are rare and precious because we are alive, because we can think. We are privileged to influence and perhaps control our future. We have an obligation to fight for life on Earth — not just for ourselves but for all those, humans and others, who came before us and to whom we are beholden, and for all those who, if we are wise enough, will come after. There is no cause more urgent than to survive to eliminate on a global basis the growing threats of nuclear war, environmental catastrophe, economic collapse and mass starvation. These problems were created by humans and can only be solved by humans. No social convention, no political system, no economic hypothesis, no religious dogma is more important.

The hard truth seems to be this: We live in a vast and awesome universe in which, daily, suns are made and worlds destroyed, where humanity clings to an obscure clod of rock. The significance of our lives and our fragile realm derives from our own wisdom and courage. We are the custodians of life’s meaning. We would prefer it to be otherwise, of course, but there is no compelling evidence for a cosmic Parent who will care for us and save us from ourselves. It is up to us.

The Meaning of Life is superb in its entirety. Pair it with Sagan’s reading list, hisgentle warning to future Mars explorers, and his superb advice on mastering the vital balance between skepticism and openness.

The Evolutionary Mystery of Left-Handedness and What It Reveals About How the Brain Works.


From Medieval sword-fighters to Broca’s brains, or why the hand may hold the key to the link between creativity and mental illness.

“Sahara is too little price / to pay for thy Right hand,” Emily Dickinson wrote in a poem. “The right hand = the hand that is aggressive, the hand that masturbates,” Susan Sontag pondered in her diary in 1964. “Therefore, to prefer the left hand! … To romanticize it, to sentimentalize it!” The human hand has long carried cultural baggage, and yet we still struggle to unclutch from it the myths and reveal the realities.

The question of why some humans are left-handed — including such notable specimens as Plato, Charles Darwin, Carl Sagan, Debbie Millman, Stephen Jay Gould, Noam Chomsky, and Albert Einstein* — has perplexed scientists for centuries. For Southpaws themselves — the affectionate term for lefties — this biological peculiarity has been everything from a source of stigma to a point of pride. But at the heart of it remains an evolutionary mystery — one that Wired contributing editor David Wolman, himself (but of course) a lefty, sets out to investigate in A Left-Hand Turn Around the World: Chasing the Mystery and Meaning of All Things Southpaw (public library).

Wolman, who spoke about the oddity of handedness in a fantastic recent Radiolab episode about conflict, traces 200 years of biological and psychological perplexity as he scours the world for answers, from a Parisian science museum that houses pioneering French surgeon and scholar Paul Broca’s bottled brains to a castle in Scotland that hides clues to the heritability of left-handedness to the neuroscience labs of Berkeley to the golf courses of Japan.

To be sure, a Southpaw wasn’t always a mere scientific curiosity, let alone the “lefty superiority complex” which Wolman both notes and embodies — for centuries, it was the subject of superstition, which bestowed upon its owner a serious social curse. Wolman writes:

In the Western world, left-handedness has long been associated with the worst of the worst: sin, devil worship, Satan himself, and just an all-around bad position with God. Catholic schoolteachers used to tell students that left-handedness was “the mark of the Beast,” the Scots say a person with terrible luck must have been baptized by a left-handed priest, and orthodox Jews wrap their left arms in the leather strap of tefillin as if to say, in the words of Rabbi Lawrence Kushner: “Here I am, standing with my dangerous side bridled, ready to pray ” The Bible is full of references to hands, and usually they are about God doing something benevolent and holy with his right hand. I’ll spare you the run-through and stick to a token example, like this one from Psalms 118: “The right hand of the Lord is exalted. The right hand of the Lord doeth valiantly.”
Carl Sagan, a lefty

While Carl Sagan once hypothesized that the cultural link between left-handedness and badness arose due to the left hand’s use for hygiene purposes in nonindustrialized countries, Wolman points out that the association has much deeper roots, including the very etymology of the word “left”:

The Anglo-Saxon lyft means weak or broken, and even modern dictionaries include such meanings for left as “defective,” “crippled,” “awkward,” “clumsy,” “inept,” and “maladroit,” the latter one borrowed from French, translated literally as “bad right.” Most definitions of left reduce to an image of doubtful sincerity and clumsiness, and the Latin word for left, sinister, is a well-known beauty. From this version springs my favorite term for left-handedness, “the bend sinister,” which Vladimir Nabokov used for the title of a book that has nothing to do with handedness.

Even today, our understanding of handedness is muddled by misconceptions. While it’s currently estimated that 10-12% of the human population is left-handed, the very definition of handedness is cause for confusion:

Most people presume the hand used for writing is the litmus test for determining whether someone is lefty or righty, and for anyone content to live with a pedestrian level of knowledge on the subject, this narrow reading will serve well enough. [And yet] everyday tasks, like throwing and eating, also influence the popular understanding of hand dominance, sometimes nearly as strongly as writing. These different behaviors lead immediately to a quintessential problem of handedness inquiries: how to define handedness itself. The definition of lefty or righty varies, sometimes to a frustrating degree, and that variation has troubled researchers who want to get a better handle on why it is that humans have hand preference and performance discrepancies in the first place, where these discrepancies come from, and why as a population we usually favor the right hand.

Also to be accounted for is the fact that many people are born with a natural inclination to write with the left hand but are schooled out of it for various reasons. (I myself, an adult righty, am among them. The most visceral evidence is found on my left thumb, whose pad an elongated scar splits vertically. It was inflicted while carving a watermelon jack-o-lantern at age six and accidentally flipping the knife the wrong way, pressing onto its edge rather than its blunt side. The fact that I held the knife in my left hand is cited to this day as indication of my natural left-handedness. The fact that I held the knife at all is cited as indication of questionable parenting.)

The most commonly used test for handedness is this imperfect inventory created in the early 1970s, which generates what researchers call a laterality quotient:

 

Still, even if we were able to codify handedness, the question of why the dichotomy exists in the first place remains open. But before diving into the various theories, Wolman offers an essential primer on how the brain works:

It’s a well-known aspect of the brain-body relationship that control of movement is crisscrossed. That is, the act of swatting at a buzzing mosquito with the right hand is controlled by the left side of the brain, or more specifically by a certain area of the left hemisphere known as the left motor cortex, which sends the necessary signals to muscles in the right arm. The reverse is true for actions carried out with the left hand, and all of this is irrespective of handedness. The hemisphere on the same side as a movement isn’t entirely silent … but for the most part motor control comes from the opposite hemisphere. This contralateral control, first described by Hippocrates himself, isn’t limited to hands. It applies to arms, legs, eyes, ears, and indeed almost all motor faculties, which is why people who’ve had a stroke or tumor on one side of the brain often experience partial or total paralysis on the opposite side of the body.

[…]

The left and right sides of the brain are physically quite distinct. The brain is made up of two mostly separate halves, each composed of billions and billions of neural connections. Yet despite popular notions to the contrary, left-handed people do not think in the right hemisphere of the brain, nor do right-handers think in the left hemisphere. The motor cortex, that part of each hemisphere cross-wired to control the other side of the body, is only one relatively minor aspect of this dizzyingly complex organ, and it says nothing or nearly nothing about a person’s thoughts or personality.

 

So what can the brain reveal about handedness? One of the first scientists to ponder the mystery of left-handedness was pioneering French surgeon Paul Broca, whom Wolman calls “the closest thing the religion of Southpaw has to a prophet.” In 1861, just two years after Darwin had discovered the principles of evolution, Broca encountered two patients who stumped him profoundly. One was an epileptic man named Leborgne but known as “Tan,” nicknamed after the only syllable he was capable of uttering. Leborgne was able to understand spoken language but couldn’t articulate his thoughts in speech — something that perplexed Broca enormously, doubly so given that one of Leborgne’s first symptoms was a weakening of function in the right side of his body, which progressed to more loss of motor control and eventually the loss of sight and some of his mental faculties.

When Leborgne died at the age of 51, Broca decided to crack the mystery — literally. He dissected Leborgne’s brain and found massive lesion in the left frontal cortex, likely due to a tumor. Broca concluded that this must somehow be related to Leborgne’s symptoms, of which the loss of speech was the most dramatic. But a direct link would take longer to recover.

Then came Lelong, an elderly patient who had ended up in Broca’s care after a fall, only able to utter a few words. When Lelong died two weeks later, Broca discovered a similarly dramatic lesion in the left side of his brain, which is preserved to this day in Paris.

But the most perplexing of Broca’s patients were the few who had either had damage to the left hemisphere but no difficulties with speech or who had lost their ability to speak but only had damage in the right hemisphere. This led Broca to conclude that for a minority of people, the speech centers were located in the right rather than left hemispheres, which he at first thought might be tied to handedness, but later surmised that both phenomena were anomalous exceptions and weren’t correlated. Still, his work was the first significant spark for the study of handedness and stirred quite the flurry within the scientific community. Wolman points out the clash between science and popular culture that ensued:

Because some people are an exception to the language-to-the-left rule, and because a similarly small proportion of people are left-handed, everyone and his cousin in the medical establishment figured the two must go hand in hand; lefties should have language lateralized to the right. What’s interesting about this conclusion is that few people in nineteenth-century Europe would have admitted to being left-handed. Detecting someone’s left-handedness would have been difficult, with eating, writing, and other major tasks all usually carried out with the right hand. What’s also interesting about this conclusion is that it’s wrong. Nearly 99 percent of right-handers have language located in the left hemisphere, and about 70 percent of lefties do. A different proportion, yes, but hardly the opposite; most lefty brains are like righty brains, at least as far as speech function is concerned. The rest either have language in the right hemisphere, or have it distributed more evenly between the two sides of the brain.


Paul Broca

Though Broca himself had gently dismissed the link between handedness and right-hemispheric speech dominance, he hadn’t gone out of his way to assert the dissociation, so the myth that lefties had their speech located in the right hemisphere persisted for nearly half a century. It wasn’t until WWI, when physicians began to notice that injured veterans who were lefties didn’t necessarily have right-hemispheric language localization, that the myth began to erode and the quest for new theories gained momentum.

Wolman points to several of the notable theories that followed, each in turn disproven by science but offering a valuable piece of the still-unfinished puzzle. One of the earliest proposed that handedness in humans was originally evenly distributed, but hand-to-hand battle in the ancient world killed off the lefties because they held the sword with their left hand and the shield in their right, thus leaving the heart much less protected than for righties, who held the shield on the left. As the lefties perished on the battlefield, so did their genes.

The theory was disproven for a number of reasons, including the fact that there is evidence of left-handedness long before the invention of the sword and shield as well as the biological reality that the heredity of handedness isn’t so straightforward.

A later theory proposed pretty much the opposite — that left-handedness gave warriors a competitive advantage “for much the same reason left-handed tennis players, boxers, or fencers have an advantage.” Wolman cites the example of a left-handed 16th-century Scottish warrior from the famous Kerr clan:

The lefty advantage exists because, in a world with far fewer lefties than righties, right-handed, or even left-handed, opponents have comparatively little practice facing off against left-handers. Lefty forehands are hit from that less familiar side, their stronger punches originate from that less comfortable side, and their opposing stance differs from what people are accustomed to, namely right-handed opponents. For Andrew Kerr, the matter was of far greater import than for, say, John McEnroe serving up another ace to the ad-court at Wimbledon; for Kerr, success with the sword was a matter of life and death.

 

French scientists recently hypothesized that fighting advantages for left-handers in prehistoric human societies ensured reproductive success. To test the idea, they looked at the homicide rates in various societies, wondering if the Southpaw advantage might be magnified within historically more violent populations. From the results, it looks like it was, with proportions of left-handedness ranging from 3.4 percent in an especially pacifist African community in Burkina Faso to 22.6 percent in a notoriously violent culture in South America. Southpaws aren’t more violent, of course, but may have had a survival advantage in societies that were.

Still, these hypotheses were never proven with any degree of verifiability. Fast-forward to the late 1970s and early 1980s, when Harvard neurologist Norman Geschwind proposed a theory that endured for many years: He suggested that high levels of testosterone in the womb led to a minor mutation in the brain, which caused its organization to shift away from right-handedness. One support point cited for his theory is the fact that there are slightly more male lefties than female.

An earlier womb theory had posited that the fetus’s orientation inside fosters its sense of stability, so handedness is based on whether fetus uses the left or right hand for balance — the free hand, in most cases the right, can then move and explore, eventually becoming the dominant one.

Once again, neither theory found sufficient support. And so we return to the brain and genetics. Wolman cites the work of English researcher Marian Annett, who discovered the key to the messy heredity patterns of handedness:

In 1972, Annett … published a paper titled, “The Distribution of Manual Asymmetry,” which, although of little notice at the time, would later serve as the foundation for one of the most widely accepted explanations of human handedness. She called it the Right Shift Theory, and she later expanded it in a 1985 volume of the same name. Annett argues that whereas human handedness is comparable to the left- or right-side preferences exhibited by other creatures with hands, paws, feet, or what have you, the approximate 90 percent predominance of right-handedness in the human population sets us apart. All other animals have a 50-50 split between righties and lefties. According to Annett’s model, handedness in nature rests on a continuum, ranging from strong left, through mixed, and then to strong right-handedness. But for humanity the distribution of preference and performance is dramatically shifted to the right. Human bias to the right, Annett explains, was triggered by a shift to the left hemisphere of the brain for certain cognitive functions, most likely speech. . . . That momentous shift was caused by a gene.

Of course, that question had perplexed generations of scientists since Darwin — who, by the way, was a victim of the confounding heredity of handedness: his wife and father-in-law were lefties, but only two of Darwin and Emma’s ten children were. But Annett’s Right Shift Theory was the first systematic explanation for the genetics of handedness. Still, Wolman observes the complexities of genetics:

In many ways, the genes-versus-environment dichotomy is a misleading one because so often the two work hand in hand. Say, for instance, a gene or genes instructs for a certain amount of testosterone in the womb. If the level of that hormone varies and somehow influences the development of the fetus, should traits affected by the level of testosterone be dubbed genetic or environmental? One could argue that the biochemical conditions in the womb-the fetus’s surroundings-qualify as environmental factors, but those conditions are shaped by genetic instructions. Yet within the DNA of every cell of that newborn baby, there will be no information specific to the child’s conditions in the womb. Can we call that a genetic trait? Luckily, Annett’s theory supposes a less ambivalent role for a gene, or possibly a few genes. Inside the nuclei of nearly every cell in the body are left-twisting bundles of DNA that either do or do not contain what Annett has dubbed the “Right Shift factor.”

What this series of hypotheses reveals, more than anything, is just how little we know about the inner workings of the body — despite having sequenced the human genome, here we are still struggling to explain as seemingly simple a characteristic as handedness. And yet, Wolman argues, Annett’s research was groundbreaking and immensely valuable for three reasons: “the idea of a handedness continuum; the chance-based gene predicting not individual handedness but shifted population distribution; and finally the suggestion that people are not left-handed or right-handed, but right-handed or non-right-handed.”
Vintage artwork from ‘A Visual History of Magic.’ Click images for details.

Perhaps the most interesting theory, however, is a rather fringe proposition that ties handedness to “magical ideation” — one’s tendency to believe in metaphysical phenomena beyond that aren’t scientifically verifiable, from supernatural forces to extrasensory perception to reincarnation and other concepts that wouldn’t hold up to Carl Sagan’s Baloney Detection Kit. Wolman cites New Zealand scholar Michael Corballis, who has written about the potential link between more brain symmetry — something found in lefties — and magical ideation:

Hemispheric asymmetry itself may lead to more decisive and controlled action, and perhaps a better ability to organize hierarchical processes, as in language, manufacture, and theory of mind. Those individuals who lack cerebral asymmetry [a.k.a. increased symmetry] may be more susceptible to superstition and magical thinking, but more creative and perhaps more spatially aware.

On the magical ideation scale — the measure of belief in such phenomena — lefties tend to score higher than righties. And yet, Wolman points out, “anecdotal evidence that lefties are highly represented in low-bullshit-tolerating professions such as journalism and science doesn’t exactly support this notion,” suggesting instead that the magical ideation hypothesis is best “recalibrated as a degree-not-direction descriptor.”

What makes this theory intriguing, however, isn’t its verifiability or lack thereof but what it reveals about our culture’s beliefs about creativity and mental illness, or cognitive abnormality. Wolman writes:

The magical ideation line of thinking loops back to creativity when we consider findings indicating an increased proportion of left-handers who suffer from such disorders as schizophrenia. With due acknowledgment once again to Corballis for synthesis of this idea, it’s plausible that schizophrenia and magical ideation sprout from similar neurological roots. Research demonstrating connections between mixed-handedness and either of these two conditions advances that plausibility.

[…]

Consider for a moment that there’s a thin, perhaps blurred line between genius and mental illness. What if some types of genius stem from the same aspect of the brain — or influence on the brain — as, say, magical ideation and schizophrenia, and that subtle variation in the arrangement of certain brain circuits determines the difference between the next da Vinci, the next graphology believer, the next Hendrix-like guitar god, or the next schizophrenic?
Albert Einstein’s brain (Photograph: NMHM, Silver Spring, MD via Nature)

Wolman points to Kim Peek, the autistic “megasavant” on whom the film Rain Man is based, and perhaps most notably Albert Einstein, celebrated as “the quintessential modern genius”:

Examination of his brain after death showed unusual anatomical symmetry that … can mean above-normal interhemispheric connections. Then there’s the fact that Einstein’s genius is often linked with an imagination supercharged with imagery, a highly right hemisphere-dependent function. It was that kind of imagination that ignited questions leading eventually to the Theory of Relativity: what does a person on a moving train see compared with what a person standing still sees, and how would the body age if traveling near the speed of light in a spaceship compared to the aging process observed on Earth? Is it such a stretch to speculate that Einstein landed on the fortunate end of the same brain organization spectrum upon which other, less lucky individuals land in the mental illness category? And what if handedness too is influenced by this organizational crapshoot?
Illustration by Vladimir Radunsky for ‘On a Beam of Light: A Story of Albert Einstein.’ Click image for details.

The investigation is ever-ongoing, but Wolman offers a wealth of other pause-giving findings and theories in the rest of A Left-Hand Turn Around the World.

* Einstein’s handedness is somewhat a matter of debate. While he is often cited among history’s famous lefties, laterality scholars have surmised that he was mixed-handed — which is not to be confused with ambidextrous: mixed-handed people use the right hand for some things and the left for others, whereas the ambidextrous can use both hands equally well for most tasks.

Richard Feynman on Good, Evil, and the Zen of Science, Plus His Prose Poem for the Glory of Evolution.


 “I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.”

“Everyone’s moral behavior is much more variable than any of us would have initially predicted,”psychology researchers David DeSteno and Piercarlo Valdesolo wrote in their fascinating exploration of the good and evil in all of us, and hardly is this variability more critical than in matters that profoundly affect not merely the fate of the individual but also the future of society at large. In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out: The Best Short Works of Richard P. Feynman (public library) — the same indispensable anthology that gave us The Great Explainer’s insights on the universal responsibility of scientists and the role of scientific culture in modern society, titled after the famous film of the same name — Richard Feynman explores the capacity of science to be a catalyst for both good and evil, and the moral choices steering the direction of the dial.

feynman_atoms1

The first way in which science is of value is familiar to everyone. It is that scientific knowledge enables us to do all kinds of things and to make all kinds of things. Of course if we make good things, it is not only to the credit of science; it is also to the credit of the moral choice which led us to good work. Scientific knowledge is an enabling power to do either good or bad — but it does not carry instructions on how to use it. Such power has evident value — even though the power may be negated by what one does.

I learned a way of expressing this common human problem on a trip to Honolulu. In a Buddhist temple there, the man in charge explained a little bit about the Buddhist religion for tourists, and then ended his talk by telling them he had something to say to them that they would never forget — and I have never forgotten it. It was a proverb of the Buddhist religion:

“To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.”

What, then, is the value of the key to heaven? It is true that if we lack clear instructions that determine which is the gate to heaven and which the gate to hell, the key may be a dangerous object to use, but it obviously has value. How can we enter heaven without it?

The instructions, also, would be of no value without the key. So it is evident that, in spite of the fact that science could produce enormous horror in the world, it is of value because it can produce something.


But, for Feynman, science has another value, an entirely personal one, captured in the famous Feynmanism after which this very book is titled. This glorious intellectual enjoyment, he argues, is far too frequently dismissed by those who stress scientists’ moral obligations to society, but it is of equal importance:

Is this mere personal enjoyment of value to society as a whole? No! But it is also a responsibility to consider the value of society itself. Is it, in the last analysis, to arrange things so that people can enjoy things? If so, the enjoyment of science is as important as anything else.

feynman_imagination1

But I would like not to underestimate the value of the worldview which is the result of scientific effort. We have been led to imagine all sorts of things infinitely more marvelous than the imaginings of poets and dreamers of the past. It shows that the imagination of nature is far, far greater than the imagination of man. For instance, how much more remarkable it is for us all to be stuck-half of us upside down — by a mysterious attraction, to a spinning ball that has been swinging in space for billions of years, than to be carried on the back of an elephant supported on a tortoise swimming in a bottomless sea.

He concludes by illustrating his point with what could be best described as a prose poem about the magnificence of evolution, what Richard Dawkins termed“the magic of reality”, Einstein extolled as the ineffable spirit of the universe, and Carl Sagan celebrated as the reverence of nature. The poetic eloquence for which Feynman remains known, which hardly anyone has mastered since, except perhaps Neil deGrasse Tyson and Brian Cox, makes for a beautiful read on par with Diane Ackerman’s Cosmic Pastoral. Feynman writes:

I have thought about these things so many times alone that I hope you will excuse me if I remind you of some thoughts that I am sure you have all had — or this type of thought — which no one could ever have had in the past, because people then didn’t have the information we have about the world today.

For instance, I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves . . . mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business . . . trillions apart . . . yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages . . . before any eyes could see . . . year after year . . . thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what? . . . on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest . . . tortured by energy . . . wasted prodigiously by the sun . . . poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves . . . and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity . . . living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein . . . dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land . . . here it is standing . . . atoms with consciousness . . . matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea . . . wonders at wondering . . . I . . . a universe of atoms . . . an atom in the universe.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org

You Are Stardust: Teaching Kids About the Universe in Stunning Illustrated Dioramas.


youarestardust1 youarestardust2 youarestardust3 youarestardust4 youarestardust5

“Every tiny atom in your body came from a star that exploded long before you were born.”

“Everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was … lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam,”Carl Sagan famously marveled in his poeticPale Blue Dot monologue, titled after the iconic 1990 photograph of Earth. The stardust metaphor for our interconnection with the cosmos soon permeated popular culture and became a vehicle for the allure of space exploration. There’s something at once incredibly empowering and incredibly humbling in knowing that the flame in your fireplace came from the sun.

That’s precisely the kind of cosmic awe environmental writer Elin Kelsey and Toronto-based Korean artist Soyeon Kim seek to inspire in kids in You Are Stardust (public library) — an exquisite picture-book that instills that profound sense of connection with the natural world. Underpinning the narrative is a bold sense of optimism — a refreshing antidote to the fear-appeal strategy plaguing most environmental messages today.

Kim’s breathtaking dioramas, to which this screen does absolutely no justice, mix tactile physical materials with fine drawing techniques and digital compositing to illuminate the relentlessly wondrous realities of our intertwined existence: The water in your sink once quenched the thirst of dinosaurs; with every sneeze, wind blasts out of your nose faster than a cheetah’s sprint; the electricity that powers every thought in your brain is stronger than lightning.

But rather than dry science trivia, the message is carried on the wings of poetic admiration for these intricate relationships:

Be still. Listen.

Like you, the Earth breathes.

Your breath is alive with the promise of flowers.

Each time you blow a kiss to the world, you spread pollen that might grow to be a new plant.

The book is nonetheless grounded in real science. Kelsey notes:

I wrote this book as a celebration — one to honor the extraordinary ways in which all of us simply are nature. Every example in this book is backed by current science. Every day, for instance, you breathe in more than a million pollen grains.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org

 

 

Carl Sagan on Mastering the Vital Balance of Skepticism & Openness.


Fine-tuning the machinery of distinguishing the valid from the non-valid.

Seven years ago this week, David Foster Wallace argued that “learning how to think really means learning how to exercise some control over how and what you think.” Yet in an age of ceaseless sensationalism, pseudoscience, and a relentless race for shortcuts, quick answers, and silver bullets, knowing what to think seems increasingly challenging. We come up with tools like The Baloney Detection Kit and create wonderful animations to teach kids about critical thinking, but the art of thinking critically is a habit that requires careful and consistent cultivation. In his remarkable essay titled “The Burden of Skepticism,” originally published in the Fall 1987 issue of Skeptical Inquirer, Carl Sagan — always the articulate and passionate explainer — captured the duality and osmotic balance of critical thinking beautifully:

It seems to me what is called for is an exquisite balance between two conflicting needs: the most skeptical scrutiny of all hypotheses that are served up to us and at the same time a great openness to new ideas. Obviously those two modes of thought are in some tension. But if you are able to exercise only one of these modes, whichever one it is, you’re in deep trouble.

If you are only skeptical, then no new ideas make it through to you. You never learn anything new. You become a crotchety old person convinced that nonsense is ruling the world. (There is, of course, much data to support you.) But every now and then, maybe once in a hundred cases, a new idea turns out to be on the mark, valid and wonderful. If you are too much in the habit of being skeptical about everything, you are going to miss or resent it, and either way you will be standing in the way of understanding and progress.

On the other hand, if you are open to the point of gullibility and have not an ounce of skeptical sense in you, then you cannot distinguish the useful as from the worthless ones. If all ideas have equal validity then you are lost, because then, it seems to me, no ideas have any validity at all.

Some ideas are better than others. The machinery for distinguishing them is an essential tool in dealing with the world and especially in dealing with the future. And it is precisely the mix of these two modes of thought that is central to the success of science.

Source: http://www.brainpickings.org/