Before There Were Scientists
The word “scientist” was not coined until 1833. Before that, scientific disciplines were the domain of mostly wealthy men and women who called themselves “natural philosophers.” They might have had curiosity cabinets full of fossils, concoctions, and pickled bits of anatomy, but laboratories were few and far between. Then, oddly, the eccentric, opium-imbibing poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge challenged this use of the metaphysical-sounding word “philosopher.” The response, as in “artist” or “cellist,” was “scientist.” Laura Snyder tells this story in her fascinating book The Philosophical Breakfast Club about the way four geniuses at Cambridge University revolutionized modern science to create the many disciplines that exist under that rubric today. But there’s a downside, too, she said in a recent TED talk. Her 19th-century heroes would have been “deeply dismayed” by the way science has been “walled off” from the rest of today’s culture. She finds it “shocking” that only 28 percent of American adults can say (correctly) whether humans and dinosaurs inhabited Earth at the same time or how much of the planet is covered in water. The majority, it seems, either don’t know, don’t care, or think those are, well, metaphysical questions.
In the spectacle of American life, redemption is as common as sin. Confessions and comebacks are central to the soap opera of politics. Think of Bill Clinton; look at the philandering former governor of Bible Belt South Carolina running for a seat in the House, or the Twitter-obsessed exhibitionist who fell from grace in Congress, now reviving his bid for mayor in New York City. No wonder the current issue of The Wilson Quarterly, published in Washington, is largely devoted to “The American Quest for Redemption.” And it’s not just about the pols and their molls. It’s about the heart and soul of the United States, says Wilfred McClay in the lead essay. From before they founded a nation, Americans thought they had a “divinely ordained redemptive role in the world.” That missionary faith has faded, but we’ve turned it in on ourselves. “We want redemption more than ever, applied to a wider range of things,” writes McClay. It is “a form of alchemy, a making of something fine and noble and new out of what once was ordinary, commonplace, even debased.” Americans, says McClay, just love tragedies with happy endings.
When city planners, epidemiologists, emergency managers, and others concerned with dense urban populations look at the wealth of data available from smartphones, they vibrate with expectation. Though they say they just want the raw data about use and movement, not our identities, not our conversations, researchers from MIT and Belgium’s Université Catholique de Louvain say the idea that cellphone data can be made anonymous may be largely an illusion. They analyzed input on 1.5 million cellphone users in “a small European country” and discovered that if they could find just four reference points about the user’s location at any given time in the course of a year, they could identify the phone and, from there, learn a huge amount about the user’s movements. The process worked in 95 percent of the tested cases. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, the lead author of the study, says he just wants better safeguards. “We all have a lot to gain from this data being used,” he insists. But it’s good to remember that Big Brother no longer needs to be watching you—he can just look up your cell number.
The Homer Genome
Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England, decided to use analytical models developed for tracking the mutation of genes over the course of human history and apply them to the mutation of languages. He and two colleagues in the United States focused on a specific book: The Iliad attributed to Homer. Instead of basic DNA components, they looked at a list of about 200 concepts that have words to represent them in every known language and culture: father, mother, body parts, colors, and so on. They found 173 in the ancient epic about beautiful Helen, angry Achilles, and the fall of Troy. Then, by comparing those words with another ancient language and with modern Greek, they traced the mutations and determined the core text we have dates to 762 B.C., give or take a few decades. For classics scholars, this is more confirmation than revelation. They already determined that the core text dated to about eighth-century B.C. But of course the research opens the door to much-wider inquiries about ancient texts, including religious ones. The Talmud? The Gospels? The Quran? We won’t get our creator’s genome, but we could be headed back to the beginning when the word was with God.
The Darker Side Of Green
British poet and environmental activist Paul Kingsnorth’s view of our ongoing “planetary eco-suicide” is beyond bleak, although he claims he’s trying to stay upbeat. It’s a measure of his pessimism that he’s been reading and rather agreeing with the rambling anti-tech diatribes of convicted back-to-nature terrorist Ted Kaczynski, also known as the Unabomber. But such is the relentless logic of Kingsworth’s essay, “Dark Ecology,” published in the current issue of Orion magazine that nobody comes out looking good. “The greens are seeing a nasty realization dawn,” he writes. “Despite all their work, their passion, their commitment, and the fact that most of what they have been saying has been broadly right—they are losing.” Their nemeses are the “neo-environmentalists,” as Kingsnorth calls them, who peddle a dubious “old fashioned Big Science, Big Tech, and Big Money narrative filtered through the lens of the Internet and garlanded with holier-than-thou talk about saving the poor and feeding the world.” Both sides will fail, he predicts, and the end result will be a strange, otherworldly combination of “ongoing collapse” and doomed “techno-solutions.” Disappointingly, Kingsnorth’s answer to all this is to retreat, like Voltaire’s Candide, to cultivate his own garden.
We know that primitive organisms can take simple inorganic elements, mix in some proteins and, presto, create whole new chemical structures. One dramatic example is the otherwise unimpressive sea snail, the abalone, which turns carbon and calcium into a rock-hard, mother-of-pearl-lined shell. Angela Belcher, a revered professor at MIT, uses the shellfish to illustrate on a small scale what she causes to happen on an infinitesimally smaller one when she brings together biology and nanotechnology. She has developed ways to tweak the genetic makeup of harmless bacteria-eating viruses. A drop of liquid can hold billions, which are put together with various elements to see what happens. Those that produce useful results are extracted, replicated, improved until they are able to “grow,” for instance, lithium-ion batteries, or photovoltaic cells, or water purifiers. And that’s just for starters. Belcher says, only half joking, that she hopes to drive a “virus powered” car some day. But as she told the BBC, “what drives me is solving important problems”: energy, health care, water. To do that, she asked herself, “How do you give life to non-living things?” Then she did it. On a tiny scale, it’s a brave new world.