Reading medieval literature, it's hard not to be impressed with how much the characters get done--as when we read about King Harold doing battle in one of the Sagas of the Icelanders, written in about 1230. The first sentence bristles with purposeful action: "King Harold proclaimed a general levy, and gathered a fleet, summoning his forces far and wide through the land." By the end of the third paragraph, the king has launched his fleet against a rebel army, fought numerous battles involving "much slaughter in either host," bound up the wounds of his men, dispensed rewards to the loyal, and "was supreme over all Norway." What the saga doesn't tell us is how Harold felt about any of this, whether his drive to conquer was fueled by a tyrannical father's barely concealed contempt, or whether his legacy ultimately surpassed or fell short of his deepest hopes.
Physicists know how to use quantum theory--your phone and computer give plenty of evidence of that. But knowing how to use it is a far cry from fully understanding the world the theory describes--or even what the various mathematical devices scientists use in the theory are supposed to mean. One such mathematical object, whose status physicists have long debated, is known as the quantum state.
This past week, the novelist Cormac McCarthy published the first nonfiction piece of his career, a three-thousand-word essay titled "The Kekulé Problem," in the popular science magazine Nautilus. It is studded with suggestive details about the anatomy of the human larynx, what happens to dolphins under anesthesia, and the origins of the click sounds in Khoisan languages, all marshalled to illuminate aspects of a profound pair of questions: Why did human language originate, and how is it related to the unconscious mind?
When a robot almost looks human--almost, but not quite--it often comes across as jarringly fake instead of familiar. Robots that are clearly artificial, like WALL-E or R2-D2, don't have this problem. But androids like this one that imperfectly mimic human mannerisms and facial expressions are weird enough to be haunting.
In A History of Reading, the Canadian novelist and essayist Alberto Manguel describes a remarkable transformation of human consciousness, which took place around the 10th century A.D.: the advent of silent reading. Human beings have been reading for thousands of years, but in antiquity, the normal thing was to read aloud. When Augustine (the future St. Augustine) went to see his teacher, Ambrose, in Milan, in 384 A.D., he was stunned to see him looking at a book and not saying anything.