Reason; as the supreme authority in matters of opinion, belief, or conduct

Category: Interest

Unknown resolves prime questions

“There are a lot of chances in your career, but the important thing is to keep thinking” – Yitang Zhang

Yitang Zhang was unknown in the mathematical field, and contended with difficult years finding academic work before rising to receive international acclaim for a long overdue resolution to an age old conundrum concerning prime numbers.



Future technology becoming less distinct?

It seems that every technological discipline you care to look at promises to close the gap on science fiction in the coming years. I try to remind myself that the rate of advancement will, it seems, stun as much as the creativity and brilliance of the technologies we see. A ‘perfect lens’ that can image a protein, or an invisibility cloak? We may soon see both.


Carl Sagan’s thoughts on Voyager 1’s Image

Carl Sagan’s thoughts on Voyager 1’s Image

“Look again at 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.”

– Carl Sagan, 1994


A little perspective…

A little perspective…

Carl Sagan once said, in his profound and eloquent thoughts on Voyager 1’s iconic image looking back at Earth, that “There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.” I think his point is exactly the right one to make, the kind made by a man who would not for a second consider passing up an opportunity to champion rationalism. The greatest thinkers seldom do.

Seeing this type of perspective is a good exercise for humans. It helps to thwart that tempting inner feeling that we are somehow special, somehow divine. That dangerous feeling that we will prevail. Below I include a link to an interesting wikipedia page that I think can have the same effect. When you think of the extreme dangers we are ignoring today, that threaten us on a time scale of hundreds of years or less, it is strange to think we will, in all likelihood, never have the chance to pit our collective wit against the myriad of far greater difficulties that lie ahead.


“This brings me to the last of the big questions, the future of the human race. If we are the only intelligent beings in the galaxy, we should make sure we survive and continue. But we are entering an increasingly dangerous period of our history. Our population and our use of the finite resources of planet Earth are growing exponentially, along with our technical ability to change the environment for good or ill. But our genetic code still carries selfish and aggressive instincts that were of survival advantage in the past. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand or million. Our only chance of long term survival is not to remain inward looking on planet Earth, but to spread out into space.” – Stephen Hawking in his 2008 TED talk.


A journey through Hawking’s imagination on life beyond our planet

A journey through Hawking’s imagination on life beyond our planet

“…My name is Stephen Hawking; physicist, cosmologist, and something of a dreamer”

‘Into the universe with Stephen Hawking’, the 2010 series communicating the mesmerising insights of one our greatest living thinkers, is a journey through those features of the universe that I think we all consider the most compelling, the most captivating. In this episode he discusses alien life; what might these organisms be like? In what environments could they exist? Would they necessarily require the conditions that have led to the spectacle of life we see on earth? And, with undertones of his famous comments on our own survival hopes, what traits might make for a successful civilisation?




Today there are considered to be around 6900 living languages. Although the different word structures of languages like Cantonese (as well as the varying definitions of what constitutes a word) make comparisons of the number of words in a language difficult, English is considered to be the largest. Various major dictionaries place the number over half a million; however, a study by Harvard and Google that analysed over five million books found that the language had over a million words (1,022,000 at the time of the study). They also found that this number grows by around 8,500 words per year. Mind you, if Shakespeare was still writing today it might be increasing faster still. He was attributed, in his published work, as either inventing or first recording around 1700 words.


Cognitive biases 001 – The illusion of control

Introduction (

Following the ground-breaking work of Ellen Langer in 1975, we have come to understand the illusion of control as a cognitive bias that manifests as the perception that we have more control over some events than we actually do. One of my favourite examples of this bias looked at gamblers trying to throw the combined dice value they needed in a game of pure chance. When a person needed a high number they threw the dice harder; and softer when they needed a lower value. Other studies have shown individuals to believe they could improve their ability to predict a coin toss with practice (44% of participants believed this).

Like all cognitive biases this phenomenon must have served a functional advantage and one could speculate for hours as to the benefit here – of which many suggestions may be correct. Perhaps the still-evolving human, living in an unforgiving, survival-of-the-fittest world, who believed that they could control events that were beyond their influence; would persevere longer. Maybe these organisms chanced their way through danger they couldn’t control but would assert themselves at the very first instant they could because they had never believed that they couldn’t make a difference. Conversely, however, in situations where we have a lot of control we have been shown to underestimate it; perhaps suggesting that theories attributing responsibility to heuristics in the mechanisms by which we link goals to outcomes are correct. The bias has been shown to strengthen in stressful and competitive situations, which should be taken into account in its interpretation (the implications to financial markets I’m sure speak out on their own).



TED talk: Adam Savage: How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries

TED talk: Adam Savage: How simple ideas lead to scientific discoveries

One of the most pleasing aspects of science, and of human contemplation in general, is how creative and innovative solutions to apparently unsurpassable obstacles seem to reliably surface as time passes. The genius that is there to be seen in any field you happen to turn your eyes to is always astounding. From the proposed use of salts as coolants in atmospheric pressure nuclear reactors to the sky crane that lowered Curiosity onto Mars; for the open minded thinkers there may always come along a solution that fits Einstein’s premise: that “Any idea that does not at first seem insane, is doomed to fail.”

In this seminal TED talk Adam Savage captures the essence of such innovative brilliance as he relays some of the most creative and exceptional work of some of the greatest minds to have been recognized for their genius.


Unit 731

In the dark basement archives that detail the history of unethical medical trials it is important to remember that even from the countries or cultures without notable documented cases it would hardly constitute a challenge to find equally distinguishable breaches of ethics, if not perhaps in the name of medical science.

I have to give the introduction above to feel that I am not being unfair to post here the example of perhaps the most shocking single case of atrocious medical research that emerged from a country with a cultural history at least as interesting and rich as any I have come across. Unit 731 was a research facility under the control of the Imperial Japanese Army between 1935 and 1945 in an area of north-eastern China under Japanese control.