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

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

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.

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AMA | October 2021

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

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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2021-10-14
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168 | Anil Seth on Emergence, Information, and Consciousness

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

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

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2021-10-11
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167 | Chiara Marletto on Constructor Theory, Physics, and Possibility

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

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Chiara Marletto received her DPhil in physics from the University of Oxford. She is currently a research fellow at Wolfson College, University of Oxford. Her new book is The Science of Can and Can?t: A Physicist?s Journey Through the Land of Counterfactuals.

Web siteOxford web pageGoogle Scholar publicationsWikipedia?How to Rewrite the Laws of Physics in the Language of Impossibility,? Quanta

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2021-10-04
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166 | Betül Kaçar on Paleogenomics and Ancient Life

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

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

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2021-09-27
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165 | Kathryn Paige Harden on Genetics, Luck, and Fairness

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

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

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2021-09-20
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AMA | September 2021

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

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2021-09-16
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164 | Herbert Gintis on Game Theory, Evolution, and Social Rationality

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

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

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2021-09-13
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Introducing: 9/12

How did 9/11 the day become 9/11 the idea? That question drives award-winning host Dan Taberski (Missing Richard Simmons, Running From COPS, The Line) to shift his focus to what happened on 9/12, and every day after that. 9/12 is a poignant, surprising, and surprisingly funny seven episode series about people who wake up on 9/12 having to navigate a new, radically altered world. A teenager gets caught up in an out-of-control conspiracy theory that he helped start. A Pakistani business owner finds hundreds of his Brooklyn neighbors are disappearing. Joke-writers at The Onion must figure out just how soon is ?too soon?? 9/12 asks what it all means. We know what happened on 9/11. But what happened on 9/12 to alter our memory and our perspective forever? 

Listen to 9/12: wondery.fm/9_12_Mindscape

All seven episodes of 9/12 are available to stream now on Amazon Music or Wondery+. Episodes will release weekly everywhere starting September 8th.

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2021-09-08
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163 | Nigel Goldenfeld on Phase Transitions, Criticality, and Biology

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

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

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2021-09-06
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162 | Leidy Klotz on Our Resistance to Subtractive Change

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

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

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2021-08-30
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161 | W. Brian Arthur on Complexity Economics

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

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

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2021-08-23
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160 | Edward Slingerland on Confucianism, Daoism, and Wu Wei

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

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

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2021-08-16
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AMA | August 2021

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

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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2021-08-12
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159 | Mari Ruti on Lack, Love, and Psychoanalysis

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

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

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2021-08-09
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158 | David Wallace on the Arrow of Time

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

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

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2021-08-02
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157 | Elizabeth Strychalski on Synthetic Cells and the Rules of Biology

Natural selection has done a pretty good job at creating a wide variety of living species, but we humans can?t help but wonder whether we could do better. Using existing genomes as a starting point, biologists are getting increasingly skilled at designing organisms of our own imagination. But to do that, we need a better understanding of what different genes in our DNA actually do. Elizabeth Strychalski and collaborators recently announced the construction of a synthetic microbial organism that self-reproduces just like a normal unicellular creature. This work will help us understand the roles of genes in reproduction, one step on the road to making DNA molecules and artificial cells that will perform a variety of medical and biological tasks.

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

NIST web pageGoogle Scholar publicationsTalk on Controlling Biology with Complexity?Genetic requirements for cell division in a genomically minimal cell,? Pelletier et al.

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2021-07-26
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156 | Catherine D?Ignazio on Data, Objectivity, and Bias

How can data be biased? Isn?t it supposed to be an objective reflection of the real world? We all know that these are somewhat naive rhetorical questions, since data can easily inherit bias from the people who collect and analyze it, just as an algorithm can make biased suggestions if it?s trained on biased datasets. A better question is, how do biases creep in, and what can we do about them? Catherine D?Ignazio is an MIT professor who has studied how biases creep into our data and algorithms, and even into the expression of values that purport to protect objective analysis. We discuss examples of these processes and how to use data to make things better.

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

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2021-07-19
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155 | Stephen Wolfram on Computation, Hypergraphs, and Fundamental Physics

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

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

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2021-07-12
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AMA | July 2021

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

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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2021-07-09
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154 | Reza Aslan on Religion, Metaphor, and Meaning

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

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

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2021-07-05
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153 | John Preskill on Quantum Computers and What They?re Good For

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

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

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2021-06-28
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152 | Charis Kubrin on Criminology, Incarceration, and Hip-Hop

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

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

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2021-06-21
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151 | Jordan Ellenberg on the Mathematics of Political Boundaries

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

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

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2021-06-14
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AMA | June 2021

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

Support Mindscape on Patreon.

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2021-06-10
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150 | Simon DeDeo on How Explanations Work and Why They Sometimes Fail

You observe a phenomenon, and come up with an explanation for it. That?s true for scientists, but also for literally every person. (Why won?t my car start? I bet it?s out of gas.) But there are literally an infinite number of possible explanations for every phenomenon we observe. How do we invent ones we think are promising, and then decide between them once invented? Simon DeDeo (in collaboration with Zachary Wojtowicz) has proposed a way to connect explanatory values (?simplicity,? ?fitting the data,? etc) to specific mathematical expressions in Bayesian reasoning. We talk about what makes explanations good, and how they can get out of control, leading to conspiracy theories or general crackpottery, from QAnon to flat earthers.

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

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2021-06-07
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149 | Lee Smolin on Time, Philosophy, and the Nature of Reality

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

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

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2021-05-31
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148 | Henry Farrell on Democracy as a Problem-Solving Mechanism

Democracy posits the radical idea that political power and legitimacy should ultimately be found in all of the people, rather than a small group of experts or for that matter arbitrarily-chosen hereditary dynasties. Nevertheless, a good case can be made that the bottom-up and experimental nature of democracy actually makes for better problem-solving in the political arena than other systems. Political theorist Henry Farrell (in collaboration with statistician Cosma Shalizi) has made exactly that case. We discuss the general idea of solving social problems, and compare different kinds of macro-institutions ? markets, hierarchies, and democracies ? to ask whether democracies aren?t merely politically just, but also an efficient way of generating good ideas.

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

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2021-05-24
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147 | Rachel Laudan on Cuisine, Culture, and Empire

For as much as people talk about food, a good case can be made that we don?t give it the attention or respect it actually deserves. Food is central to human life, and how we go about the process of creating and consuming it ? from agriculture to distribution to cooking to dining ? touches the most mundane aspects of our daily routines as well as large-scale questions of geopolitics and culture. Rachel Laudan is a historian of science whose masterful book, Cuisine and Empire, traces the development of the major world cuisines and how they intersect with politics, religion, and war. We talk about all this, and Rachel gives her pitch for granting more respect to ?middling cuisine? around the world.

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

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2021-05-17
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AMA | May 2021

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

Enjoy!

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2021-05-13
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146 | Emily Riehl on Topology, Categories, and the Future of Mathematics

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

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

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2021-05-10
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145 | Niall Ferguson on Histories, Networks, and Catastrophes

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

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

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2021-05-03
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144 | Solo: Are We Moving Beyond the Standard Model?

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

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

arxiv paperCERN CourierScientific AmericanResonaances

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

arxiv paperFermilab articleLattice QCD calculationQuantaArs TechnicaResonaancesMoving the g-2 ring from Brookhaven to Fermilab

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2021-04-26
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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.

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2021-04-19
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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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2021-04-14
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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.

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2021-04-12
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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.

Web siteUNC web pageInsight @ SubstackGoogle Scholar publicationsNew York Times profileWikipediaTwitter

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2021-04-05
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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.

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2021-03-29
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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.

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2021-03-22
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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.

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2021-03-15
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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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2021-03-10
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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.

Web siteColumbia web pageGoogle Scholar publicationsInterview at What Is It Like to Be a Philosopher?Heyman Center event

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2021-03-08
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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.

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2021-03-01
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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.

Web siteUniversity of Chicago web pageWikipediaTwitterAmazon author pageWashington Post Op-Ed

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2021-02-22
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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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2021-02-17
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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.

Stanford web pageWikipediaRobert Sapolsky Rocks (fan page)Amazon author pageYouTube lectures on Human Behavioral BiologyIMDb

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2021-02-15
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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.

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2021-02-08
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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.

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2021-02-04
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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.

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2021-02-01
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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.

Harvard Astronomy web pageCenter for Astrophysics web pageWikipedia

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2021-01-25
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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.

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2021-01-18
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Hur lyssnar man på podcast?

En liten tjänst av I'm With Friends. Finns även på engelska.
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