Tag Archives: Science

The tragedy of the meme

memesIt was the geneticist, Richard Dawkins, in his book The Selfish Gene, who first proposed the idea of the meme. Dawkins defined the meme as a unit of cultural transmission, an idea, pattern or concept that could be passed from person to person, changing or evolving as it propagates, such that successful memes or their variants spread rapidly, and unpopular memes die out. Dawkins, a scientist and an atheist, no doubt had in mind the notion that scientific and rational memes would steadily gain acceptance, and that religious and superstitious memes, when exposed to the harsh light of analysis and debate would gradually fade away. What a tragedy then, that the memes that seem to spread like wildfire are trivial nonsense at best, or ignorant bigotry at worst. Continue reading

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After sustainability – what then?

Climate change is a very real danger, but one that we are already well on the way to fixing. Without wanting to sound complacent, I think it’s a challenge that the current generation will solve. But what then? Do we simply want to avoid affecting the Earth’s climate, like environmentalists say? Or should we aspire to actively manage it? Continue reading

What is time?

Time is an oddity. In mystic thought, it is often cyclical. In classical Newtonian physics it was thought of as a steady march onward. In Einstein’s universe, it is wrapped up with the fabric of spacetime and can dilate in unexpected ways.

One thing we know about time is that it waits for no one. Time marches on (although not in a steady way, thanks to Einstein) and we experience it passively. Without any effort on our part, future becomes present and recedes into the past, even while we sleep. We can’t feel the passing of time like we feel the wind against our face, although change is happening imperceptibly, and after a lifetime, we realize that its passing has ravaged our fragile bodies.

Where did the time go, we ask? As if it is a thing that moves. Continue reading

Frozen to Life: A Personal Mortality Experiment (Book review)

frozentolifeI was sent a free copy of this book by the author, and asked to write an honest review. As the author noted in his email to me, ‘I think we have quite a few interests in common. ‘That’s very true, so I thought my review might also be of interest to my blog readers.

The book is the story of why the author (DJ MacLennan), has chosen to have his brain cryogenically frozen when he dies – or as he puts it – when current medicine can do no more to save him from death. It’s a personal story, and a scientific and philosophical investigation of what it means to live and die. Here’s my review of the book. Continue reading

Newton vs Einstein

newtonMy all-time favourite scientist was Isaac Newton. Newton was very clever. In fact he was a genius. He discovered lots of interesting and important things. Unfortunately, most of them turned out to be wrong. That doesn’t make him a bad scientist, of course. Finding wrong answers is an important way that science makes progress.

One of the reasons we know that Newton was a genius is that it took a very long time before anyone proved that he was wrong. Around 200 years, in fact. Then Albert Einstein (my second favourite scientist) showed that Newton was wrong, by coming up with some better explanations. Continue reading

Alien mathematics class

Indulge me in a little thought experiment. Imagine a rocky planet a long way from here, orbiting a star rather similar to our own sun, at just the right distance for water to remain liquid. Let this planet have an atmosphere containing all the elements needed for interesting biochemistry to take place – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulphur and so on. Now imagine that on this planet lives a single lifeform – one composed of trillions of tiny plant-like organisms amassed in one huge layer that covers the entire planet. This lifeform quietly converts the sun’s energy into food, and while it does so, it thinks. What kinds of thoughts might it ponder? Continue reading

Counting on my fingers

The iPhone is perhaps the ultimate symbol of 21st-century technology. How peculiar then, that the Apple website gives its size in inches and its weight in ounces – units of measurement that the Victorians would have heartily approved of, over a century ago. How odd too, that in the United States, oil is measured in barrels, land in acres and temperature in Fahrenheit. Continue reading