Unrelated to all that, 7/26 edition

The limits of animal life on Tatooine

This anecdote about filming a sci fi movie in the pre-CGI era becomes a lot more important if you’re trying to take Star Wars semi-literally, as an accounting of alien worlds and the animals and sentient beings that live there. From this perspective, there are at least 15 animal species native to desert-covered Tatooine plus another five whose origins are either otherworldy or unclear. (The two most-famous beasties — the Rancor and the Saarlac — aren’t actually natives.) Most of these animals are megafauna, big enough that a human could ride them. And you can probably guess what I’m going to say: This is scientifically unrealistic. But not necessarily because of the heat. Get too hung up on whether big animals can survive under hot and dry conditions, and you’ll miss the major reason scientists raise an eyebrow at Tatooine’s fauna.

Sequenced in the U.S.A.: A Desperate Town Hands Over Its DNA

Eleven years ago, the community, about 25 miles northwest of Charlotte, was the scene of the largest single layoff in North Carolina history. All in one day, some 4,300 locals—a tenth of the town’s population—lost their jobs when the textile mill at the center of town closed its doors…Today’s Kannapolis does not offer as many good blue-collar jobs as it used to—unemployment still hovers at 10 percent—but it does provide plenty of opportunities for locals to serve as human research subjects. At any given time, Kannapolites can take part in studies of nutrition, longevity, or cognitive or physical performance; eat a standardized diet; or spend time in a metabolic chamber while their vital signs are monitored—sometimes for $30 to $250 and up.

This one statistic about peer review will shock and surprise you

Recently I heard a public talk I heard by a person who has access to data from the Journal of Neuroscience (40,000 submissions in the dataset over the last 7 years).

The question is how much does the journal’s choice of reviewer affect your review. Specifically if they go with your recommended reviewer(s).

suggested reviewers

Of Maggots and Brain Scans

But what do brain images really tell us? What critical questions can a layperson ask to avoid being sucked into a brain vortex or wowed by new words such as “connectome”? Can we really link specific brain structures to particular behaviors? Or do these fascinating new finds get a critical pass because they feed into ingrained preconceptions about biology as a root cause of all things evil or inevitable?


Oddly, I want to begin answering these questions by considering an important new study of fruit fly larvae. In a tour de force involving the automated analysis of almost 40,000 larvae, a research team led by neuroscientist Marta Zlatic identified twenty-nine worm behaviors including such showstoppers as wiggling to escape predators, crawling backward, and executing sequences of left and right turns. The scientists used specially engineered fly strains and, with a blue light, were able to selectively activate small groups of brain cells in individual larvae. A larval fly brain contains about 10,000 neurons, and Zlatic’s group activated up to fifteen neurons at a time in order to observe what behaviors, if any, resulted. Using automation and sophisticated mathematical analysis, they looked at the effects of groups of neurons that covered almost the entire brain.

Physicist George Ellis Knocks Physicists for Knocking Philosophy, Falsification, Free Will

Ellis: If they really believe this they should stop indulging in low-grade philosophy in their own writings. You cannot do physics or cosmology without an assumed philosophical basis. You can choose not to think about that basis: it will still be there as an unexamined foundation of what you do. The fact you are unwilling to examine the philosophical foundations of what you do does not mean those foundations are not there; it just means they are unexamined.

Actually philosophical speculations have led to a great deal of good science. Einstein’s musings on Mach’s principle played a key role in developing general relativity. Einstein’s debate with Bohr and the EPR paper have led to a great of deal of good physics testing the foundations of quantum physics. My own examination of the Copernican principle in cosmology has led to exploration of some great observational tests of spatial homogeneity that have turned an untested philosophical assumption into a testable – and indeed tested – scientific hypothesis. That’ s good science.

Cognitive celebrity

But despite this formidable scientific legacy, Einstein’s fame owes something more to our culture’s obsession with celebrity. In many ways, Einstein was well-suited for celebrity. Apart from his distinctive coif, he had a way with words and, as a result, he is frequently quoted, occasionally with bon motshe didn’t actually say. More than anything, Einstein possessed the distinctive mystique of genius, a sense that he was larger than life, or different from the rest of us in some fundamental way, which is why so many people were desperate to get hold of his brain.

Is quantum mechanics relevant to the philosophy of mind (and the other way around)?

For the purpose of this discussion it is useful to distinguish two different theses regarding the putative links between quantum mechanics and the mind:

  1. The mind is relevant in interpreting quantum mechanics
  2. Quantum mechanics is relevant in the philosophy of mind

Of course the two theses are not necessarily construed as independent by the proponents of quantum-mind hypothesis. One could argue that the mind is relevant in interpreting quantum mechanics, precisely for the same reasons that quantum mechanics is relevant in the philosophy of mind. This is actually what I will argue here (or at least that it is a promising hypothesis that should be pursued). However, the two theses face different kinds of objections and need to be distinguished.

Perdition Days: On Experiencing Psychosis

I tweeted to my followers, “What would you do if you were actually dead, and the life you were living right now was your second chance?”

It was a good hypothetical question, the kind of thing that a self-development junkie like me was apt to mention. But for me, it was true. I stayed with that perception for a single day before the delusion dimmed.  

The ‘Jiro Dreams of Sushi’ of Bread & Butter

Meet the electric life forms that live on pure energy

Unlike any other living thing on Earth, electric bacteria use energy in its purest form – naked electricity in the shape of electrons harvested from rocks and metals. We already knew about two types, Shewanella and Geobacter. Now, biologists are showing that they can entice many more out of rocks and marine mud by tempting them with a bit of electrical juice. Experiments growing bacteria on battery electrodes demonstrate that these novel, mind-boggling forms of life are essentially eating and excreting electricity.


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