Category: Science


Adopting Medieval Tactics to Promote Modern Science

This is one of those ideas that came out of the blue while thinking about current events. It’s no secret to anyone reading this in 2018 that there is an alarming reduction in fact-based thinking and discussion. Some of this is due to the highly-charged emotional times we live in. Some of it is also a long, slow decline in emotional connection to science.

I remember reading old 50s magazines and comics years ago. The nuclear age had just begun and the Space Race would soon be on its way. There was this idea that the future would be all space ships and laser guns. In short the future was an adventure and science would pave the way. Today is much different, of course. People use computers, cars and airplanes, but routinely deny the existence of climate change as well. In the past science was magical, but still understood as a human invention to make life better. Today, it seems to have simply drifted into background noise.

I think a lot of this has to do with a lack of proper communication of scientific concepts to the average citizen. As I mentioned earlier, a lack of emotional connection. People seem to understand that science exists, but not that it is a man-made phenomenon that is accessible to the average person. As result, interest has waned, competing ideas are coming into the foreground and America finds itself fighting to get students interested in science so that we can compete with the rest of the world.

A Proposal on Communicating Science to Citizens

Although not entirely the same situation, we do see an ongoing lack of interest in art education. Art is seen as something kids do in school, but no real effort is made to bring artists in line with small business owners on the scale of social respect. In fact, a life of art tends to come across as a sure-fire way to basically be broke all the time. This is bizarre because artists, be they painters, actors or musicians, are basically skilled in emotional communication. They provide emotive experiences that are designed to move audiences towards an idea or state of being.

This ability has been exploited in the past very effectively in the Medieval period in Europe. On the secular side of history, bards were also employed to create poems and songs highlighting important people and events. This was important because while the elites were well educated, the masses were largely illiterate. Written texts would have done very little for spreading information. Religious organizations went even further. First, they spread by identifying the holidays for other religions and presenting their own competing holidays. This is why Easter is a Christian holiday despite originally being a pagan holiday. It’s also why Christmas is celebrated during the winter solstice despite Christ himself having been born in the summer.

Re-purposing the holidays was only part of the equation. Once the people had been assembled, indoctrination had to begin. This began with chants and hymns, which were easy to remember, but expanded over time to plays and pageants. The plays fell into three basic groups: morality plays, mystery plays, and passion play. Mystery plays covered the history as presented by the Bible. That is, the birth of the universe, its death and the intervening events. Morality plays were as their name implies and were generally diverse, as seen by the play Everyman and the medieval plays of Saint Nicholas. The Passion plays were focused on Jesus Christ in particular. These plays were short, easy to understand and, at least in the case of Everyman, highly metaphorical. They were meant for an audience that had not yet been prepared for complex ideas or discussions.

Adapting Ideas to Science

It seems both science and art complement each other well. Scientists are more interested in uncovering facts and expanding knowledge, and artists are more interested in moving the hearts and minds of people. It seems both could adapt the tactics developed in the Medieval age to promote each other in a symbiotic manner in the modern age.

The first step is to identify holidays that draw major public interest, such as Christmas or the 4th of July. Scientific organizations can then organize and promote pre-holiday festival and celebrations. These events would offer free music and theatre presentations. Taking a cue from Medieval plays, they would be short and easy to understand. Comedy is effective, as well. Both the music and the plays would focus on science in some manner. Think Jonathan Coulton’s Mandelbrot Set, as an example for music. In addition, the celebrations should be replete with demonstrations of science. These demonstrations would displays meant to “wow” the attendees. The goal isn’t so much to educate, but amaze. The music and plays themselves are the educational aspect in that they would present easy-to-digest introductions to ideas, people and so forth (again, think Mandelbrot Set, or 88 Lines About 44 Mathematicians.)

Scientific organizations could expand on this by creating in-house positions for theatre groups and individuals. These individuals would act as resident “bards”. Their job would be to create music, poetry and writings that introduce important figures or events, illustrate important ideas and methods and so on. This would be a kind of expansion of general PR duties into the field of edutainment. In essence, someone from within the greater scientific organization would give some information on scientific advances, people or ideas and the bards and playwrights would compose something to present to masses. Imagine Friday nights at a college campus where there is a free concert by the Science building, or an ongoing tradition of lunchtime plays, all free watch.

This material would, ideally, be in the public domain. Since different organizations in different locations would each have their own set of theatre groups and bards, a great wealth of material would develop to share and adapt. These would be composed of plays, poems, stories, parables and so forth. Collections could be made and offered for free or a small price to add funds to the productions. One might also argue for a scientific “bible” which would contain various parables, lessons and stories of meant to draw the reader in. Theoretically, if this was done on a large enough scale, a large enough population of people would associate science with some positive emotion. The emotional connection would build and, hopefully, foster an ongoing interest and trust in science.

Appealing to the Non-Masses

There’s another idea that is somewhat complementary, if also somewhat cynical. During the Medieval and Renaissance periods, Masques were all the rage. These were a specific form of theatre that merged together spoken theatre, song and dance. They were specifically made for a particular party event and even included attendees in their performance. Often, they glorified the host of the event and the attendees. Masque’s were the must-go events of their day and were exclusively the domain of those in favor with the court.

Much has been made, both publically and among the tech community, of the incredible position of the scions of Silicon Valley. Jeff Bezos, as of this writing, is the wealthiest man in the world and has aspirations of being the first man on Mars. That is to say, achieving a goal that involves spending billions of dollars with no guarantee of return. Silicon Valley CEOs are phenomenally wealthy and, possibly, very self-satisfied with their success. They are also very interested in continuing their dominance in technology, which itself is a product of scientific research. Interested science and technology organizations could expand on the celebrations mentioned earlier to create exclusive name-only events for these privileged few. After all, who wouldn’t want to enjoy the benefits of wealth?

Like the masques of old, these events would involve productions that glorify the attendees and hosts before transforming into a larger party. In addition, there would be more of the aforementioned scientific spectacles. Something to amaze, but also a possible venue for inspiring some form of argument for funding. Think of it overall as a celebration of successful people. The production feeds into the collective ego of those attending and in turn makes them amenable to arguments for funding this project or that supporting that legislative proposal. Parties are a great way to network and fundraise.

Summary

The current distrust of science and lack of scientific interest can be attributed, at least in part, to the lack of ability to emotionally connect to science, or at least associate science with some positive state. By looking to the past we can observe that there were problems with drawing people to a particular message or idea. Using the tactics of art, in the form of bards, plays and masques, we can see how secular and religious organizations promoted themselves to the masses and the elites. This allowed them to spread messages, secure support and otherwise fulfill their goals. These same tactics can be used to promote modern science and, one hopes, bring scientific literarcy and trust back into the public sphere where it belongs.

Check out NASA’s Voyager Posters

As part of Voyager’s 40th Anniversary, NASA’s JPL has produced a series of downloadable posters
Voyager – Downloads

In celebration of Voyagers’ Interstellar voyage, we’ve added these Posters and Infographics for you to download, print, and share. Click on any of the thumbnails below to learn more and download a free poster-sized image. Explore the Voyager mission through these infographics….

 

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News in Tech: Virtual Reality and Robots

Pokémon GO is the new AR craze, but there’s a lot of other technology out there that is worth looking at. View full article »

Facebook and Google Own You

The future is now.

In Blade Runner, the dystopian future was heavily influenced by the Tyrell Corporation, which provided artificial humans for almost any purpose.

In Robocop the Omni Consumer Products megacorporation planned on buying the entire city of Detroit and make all the citizens shareholders and employees.

In Elysium, the future was ruled by a wealthy social elite that existed above Earth in a technological Eden.

The problem is that these are not just stories. These are issues that we’re facing today. While the world watches Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump battle for the American throne, Google, Facebook and the tech community in general are in the trenches affecting our lives right now. Read on for more. View full article »

You have no idea what Reality is

The Atlantic recently published an interview with Donald D. Hoffman, a professor of cognitive science. In this interview, Hoffman reveals some fascinating ideas about how reality is perceived and how that far off that perception can actually be. Furthermore, it’s possible that living beings are supposed to be that way in order to survive! Read on for more! View full article »

Visual Storytelling: A basis in biology

Quite often with visual art we make the assumption that the artist is an intuitive prodigy. The idea is that art is something that is just “known” to the artist. That it is some mystical force that only the special can sense and no amount of classes or guidelines or rules of thumb will make up for it. As it happens, this might not actually be the case! Recent research indicates our brains might be hardwired in such a way that there is at least a base start from. Read on for more. View full article »

Late in the film, one character declares that the nice thing about dystopia is that no one has to work for it. This, almost accidentally, bookends with a repeated analogy about two wolves. One represents light, the other dark and both are fighting each other. The one that wins is the one you feed the most. It’s a serviceable piece of trite fast-food enlightenment.

Now that Tomorrowland has been released to the world, there seem to be no end to the critics who enjoyed the film, but shredded the ideas behind it. Many felt that this was director Brad Bird’s least accomplished work, while others pointed out that the dream of “tomorrow” in Tomorrowland is more dystopian than it first appears.

The Deconstruction of Tomorrowland

Adam Rogers of Wired is quick to point out that virtually everything promised to us at the last great World’s Fair has been accomplished. We have jetpacks, albeit not for the general consumer. We have flying cars, but no one wants to see what happens when a drunk driver gets behind the wheel. We have robots to clean for us and transnational corporations to make it all at an affordable price. In order to get that, he points out, we also have to put up with things like pollution and heavily implied fascism. Not to mention the fact that we must exploit Third World workers to achieve the cheap prices that make all of this possible.

Steve Rose of The Guardian continues on the theme of fascism by pointing out that Walt Disney’s vision for the future came at a cost of enforced transience and dictatorship. Disney’s original vision for Tomorrowland included renters who could only stay for one year. Further, there were no voting rights. It was Disney’s way, all the way. In an sense, Disney was the Steve Jobs of his time. He pulled together many successful ideas and packaged them into something that seemed new and exciting. Once the vision was realized, however, it was “perfect” and he wanted no deviation from his masterpiece.

These discussions, I think, miss a bigger issue. The bookends I alluded to earlier are important to remember. The reason for this is that they are both inaccurate views of the problem. There isn’t a light and dark side fighting for the future, and no one is sitting back and letting it happen. Further, the critics have so focused on the failed illusion of the film, that they haven’t noticed the important issue that is accidentally brought to light. Everyone is fighting for a Tomorrowland. Everyone. The problem is, everyone’s Tomorrowland is exclusive to the others.

Tomorrowland as a Battle Royale

When Adam Rogers ended his article with “To get the future you want, you’re going to fight the one you already have”, he missed the fact that our world exists precisely because of this sentiment. Boko Haram and ISIS are not trying to create a terrible future. They have a utopian vision and they’re fighting for it. It’s just a utopia that no one else wants, so they’re going to subjugate as many as possible to get it.

When Neil deGrasse Tyson or Bill Nye discuss the importance of science in general, or climate change and evolution in particular, they are fighting for a future of science. Those who oppose them, the creationists, climate change deniers and so on, fight for a future where they are allowed to continue as they please without scientists telling them how to live their lives.

The Koch Brothers fight for a future where government is all but non-existent while others fight for  a future where government regulates businesses to keep them from getting out of control. Anti-vaxxers fight for a future where vaccinations are akin to child abuse while doctors fight for a future where people actually listen to the medical advice that they are given.

The list goes on. Everyone fights for a future that is, more or less, exclusive to the other. That’s why the world is the way it is today. The importance of a film like Tomorrowland is the hope that we can create a better tomorrow. No one seems to realize, however, that the game is not to actually create a better tomorrow, but a question of who can defeat each other’s vision first. The king of the hill, so to speak, is the one that dictates the rules of the future. That’s a problem.

Building Tomorrowland

There are two ways to build a future, a new Tomorrowland, so to speak. One is to destroy what exists now. The other is to build what will exist then. Both require a certain flexibility. When we look at extremists causing acts of terrorism or social justice warriors harrassing people off the Internet, we see attempts to create a better tomorrow by destroying today. When we see chatterbots like Siri, or robots to take care of the elderly, we see attempts to build a better tomorrow by improving today. The missing element is adaptation. In all cases there needs to be the understanding that this perfect envisioned utopia is not going to solve all the problems the world has. Further there is always the possibility of making certain things worse. This is why any utopia is an unattainable goal. The problems are constantly shifting and changing with time. If this understanding can be baked into the vision of a better tomorrow then perhaps there would be more overall coordination to realize it.

At the end of the film, recruiters are sent out into the world to bring in people from all walks of life. People who are dreamers and will work together to create that better future. It’s a good start. If we could arrange something like that in the real world, perhaps we could have that hope for a better future come back to us. Until then, however, it’s basically a battle royale deathmatch. It will be for quite some time.

ICYMI: Blood Moon and Street Art

 

The Fourth Blood Moon

Those able to stay up late enough got a treat on April 4: the third showing of the Blood Moon tetrad! There is a six-month gap between each stage of the blood moon, so the next showing will be in September.

The “Blood Moon” is so named because of the the way the sun’s light is filtered through Earth’s atmosphere. A blood moon is a full lunar eclipse where the Earth is between the sun and the moon in a particular manner. Earth’s atmosphere basically captures all of the sun’s light spectrum except for the red wavelength. This means the blood moon is painted with a red color, hence it’s name.

This particular blood moon wasn’t completely obscured by Earth’s shadow. A faint sliver of the moon’s natural color could still be seen. This is because this particular time the moon’s orbit took it to the upper edge of the Earth’s shadow, so, depending on the angle it was viewed at from Earth, it would either be completely obscured, or just peek a bit out from the top. From California this is exactly how it appeared. How will it appear next time? Stay tuned in September and we’ll let you know! For more information, check out NASA’s page on the blood moon tetrad!

The Burbank Art Festival

West Coast Artists came in over the weekend and kicked off the Burbank Art Festival in downtown Burbank. Vendors came out with paintings, photography, sculptures, music and more. Unfortunately, Quantum Pop had to respect a variety of “No Photo” signs put up by the artists, but we still managed to snag some great photos of artists painting the streets with street chalk. There are two more festivals coming up in October; one is in Long Beach and the other is in Westwood. You can find more information at the West Coast Artist website!

 

Tech is the new sorcery

If you look back on centuries of myths and legends, you’ll see countless stories about homonculi (artificial humans), vampires, alchemical processes and other superstitions. Although the worlds of spirituality and science are often at odds, sometimes they seem closer than anyone realizes.

Years ago, in my regular scouring of the Internet, I saw a post about a man trying “computer magic” by making a ceremonial gown out of floppy disks. In another instance, there was a case study about a group of people that tried to create some kind of spell by sending emails to each other in a loop. I suspect they crashed their own servers or the email providers thought their computers were hacked, but either way the pagans believed that they had awoken spirits in the Internet which had lashed out at them. I suppose an angry IT admin could be considered a supernatural terror of sorts…

We live in such a time that I sometimes wonder if people realize how close we are to the legends and superstitions of old. In Homer’s The Odyssey, Odysseus returns home to find his house occupied and his wife threatened. The goddess Athena comes to his aid and drives off the attackers with a war cry that curdles their blood. Today, we have actual sonic cannons that are used to disperse large and unruly crowds. Sure, the cannons are not in the shape of a beautiful goddess, but aside from that is there really a fundamental difference? Let’s take a look at the other ways tech and myth are converging.

Homonculi and Golems

A homonculus means “little man” and is one of the many interests of alchemy. Golems, for their part are from Jewish myth. The idea here that a magic word can animate an otherwise non-living entity. The idea of an artificial life form is no longer novel. We create them in computer simulations and clone animals using modern biotechnology. As for golems, consider we can make 3D print body parts on command. Currently this is just for replacing parts, but it’s a short step from there to a full body. In 2013, Oxford Performance Materials replaced the skull of a man who had lost 75% of his own. In 2011 and the company Xilloc used 3D printing to create a titanium jaw for a woman whose jaw had been eroded away by disease. We can clone living tissue and generate artificial body parts. Mary Shelley would be proud.

Vampires and Eternal Youth

Dracula may be the most famous of the vampires, but he was fiction. Elizabeth Bathory was uncomfortably real and killed dozens of women. She was convinced that regular infusions of their blood would keep her young forever. Turns out she wasn’t too far off. Scientists at Harvard are working to commercialize GDF11, a protein found in blood that allowed blood from a young mouse to jumpstart the biology of an older mouse. Assuming this stuff could be brought to market, maybe the Draculas and Bathorys of the world can knock off that whole murdering-people-for-their-blood thing.

Clairvoyance and Telepathy

Everyone has a story about that uncle or friend who just seemed to know when a particular person was about to call or walk through the door. Or perhaps they seemed to be capable of conversing with certain people without being in the same room with them. Perhaps they were clairvoyant or telepathic. Perhaps they just had a cell phone that vibrated. Human human tactile sensory system is nuanced enough that it can detect almost the full range of human emotions by touch alone. It can also be used to communicate something more complex. It’s called Haptic Technology and it’s being used to develop apps like Mumble, which vibrates a smartphone in a specific pattern. This in turn allows the person carrying the phone to know what the alert is for without even pulling the phone out of the pocket. It’s not limited to phones, either. There’s a wristband called BuzzWear that vibrates in 24 different patterns. So now in addition to mysteriously knowing that your cousin just arrived at the airport, you can mysteriously know he’s sending you cat pics again.

Summary

And that’s just the tip of the iceberg. The systematic way Facebook and other social networks keep you on their site amounts to demonic possession while the chemicals that go into heat packs or glow sticks would amount to alchemy. Centuries ago, people would have written this off as demonology, paganism, or mad scientist-style alchemy. It turns out they were born a bit too early to see modern technology coming around the corner.

Climate Change and the end of Evolution

The Washington Post recently put up an article on the coming “megadrought” that will hit the Southwest and Central United States. Whether you think that climate change is real or that the megadrought is just hype isn’t relevant to this article. What is relevant is the following quote:

We really need to start thinking in longer-term horizons about how we’re going to manage it

This is a quote from one of the scientists interviewed for the article and it hits on a major point. Human beings must now think in a long-term manner, something that may well be impossible.

The Limit of Evolution

Not everyone believes in evolution, but lets pretend it’s real for a second. If we go with this premise, then it’s important to see that creatures evolve to survive in an eternal past. They develop mutations that allow their ability to have offspring, or they die without having offspring. That’s basically it. The longer those conditions exist, the more ingrained the mutation becomes.

Human beings, like many other creatures on Earth, developed in an environment where immediate attention was required. Get food now. Run from the bear. That sort of thing. The advances we’ve made in the last thousand years or so are a blip compared to the time we’ve lived without those conveniences. That, it turns out, is part of the problem.

Human beings are geared towards understanding what is happening “right now ™”. Thinking in abstract terms is difficult and thinking in broad terms may well be impossible. This tendency to only pay attention to what is right in front of us served Humanity well for thousands of years. That’s because for thousands of years, this is was where all the action was happening. Unfortunately, in 2015 humans have constructed a world so elaborate that to properly manage it requires an ability to think deeply about a particular issue and broadly about the possible ramifications. This is something that, thus far, most humans spectacularly fail at.

Certainly we could blame other things. Politicians are essentially paid to lie to us at the behest of corporate sponsors. A technology-infused society has us moving so fast we don’t have time to think in depth any more. There is also, of course, the good old-fashioned conspiracy theorist who thinks this “climate change” nonsense is a plan from the Illuminati.

All these things and more are influencing public opinion on climate change. Yet, all these things are also proof of the basic tenet that human attention is strictly short-term. Politicians take money and position because it benefits them immediately. A fast-paced society means that people can only deal with what is in front of them, something they’re geared for anyway. Conspiracy theorists only seek out what confirms their fantasies without thinking of the greater issue. People, in general, are simply not prepared for dealing with a long-term, fairly abstract issue that could ultimately change the world quite drastically.

Rough Weather

What about technology? Activists? Scientists? The picture of Humanity described thus far is one of the masses. People who have drunk the Kool-Aid, are misinformed, or just don’t have time to know what the truth is. What about the thinkers and specialists? Well… have they done anything yet? Climate change is as big a threat as ever, so despite the reports, studies and treaties, the answer seems to be no. We live in a world where China pollutes the rest of the world with impunity. Think about that. One nation is polluting the rest of the planet without reprimand and largely for short-term financial and socio-political gain. Again, think on the thesis of this article.

The End

In the end, it may well be that there is no way off the roller coaster ride. The future not certain, of course, but the issue has been a long time coming. Perhaps it is soon time for humanity to be going.