Two years ago, I decided to do nothing. As a neuroscientist, I was already familiar with the evidence that mindfulness meditation, or attending to the present moment, is beneficial for stress and anxiety. So I had been meditating regularly for about a half a year, looking to enhance my practice. And although I didn't know it yet, there were already scientific studies showing that the more extreme form of "doing nothing" that I was now interested in--floating in a sensory reduction tank--could significantly reduce stress, blood pressure, and cortisol levels. And so it was my plan, in the first week of March 2020, on what would become the eve of the COVID-19 pandemic lockdowns, to enter a commercial float studio in West Los Angeles, called Float Lab.
In this special issue we are reprinting our top stories of the past year. This article first appeared online in our "Hidden Truths" issue in June, 2021. If you could soar high in the sky, as red kites often do in search of prey, and look down at the domain of all things known and yet to be known, you would see something very curious: a vast class of things that science has so far almost entirely neglected. These things are central to our understanding of physical reality, both at the everyday level and at the level of the most fundamental phenomena in physics--yet they have traditionally been regarded as impossible to incorporate into fundamental scientific explanations. They are facts not about what is--"the actual"--but about what could or could not be. In order to distinguish them from the actual, they are called counterfactuals. Suppose that some future space mission visited a remote planet in another solar system, and that they left a stainless-steel box there, containing among other things the critical edition of, say, William Blake's poems.
In this special issue we are reprinting our top stories of the past year. This article first appeared on Nautilus in our "Universality" issue in April, 2021. It all started with an odd pile of shells: a pile that, upon closer inspection, fell apart like a flower losing its petals, introducing a burned-out nature documentarian named Craig Foster--and, in time, the world--to the octopus hiding cleverly inside. Known simply as "her," she would become the star of My Octopus Teacher, the Oscar-nominated Netflix documentary and surprise pandemic hit that told the story of Foster's unlikely relationship with that eight-armed mollusk. Released in September 2020, it arrived at the perfect moment. Audiences exhausted by lockdowns and unrelenting 2020-ness were primed for escape into the undersea fantasia of South Africa's kelp forests, where Foster met her. Best-selling books like The Soul of an Octopus and Other Minds: The Octopus, the Sea, and the Deep Origins of Consciousness had whetted public curiosity about these uncannily intelligent creatures with whom humans last shared a common ancestor 600 million years ago. Yet while most writing about octopuses emphasizes their ostensibly alien, unknowable nature,1 and serious, science-minded nature documentaries elevate concern about biodiversity over sentiment for a single animal, My Octopus Teacher defied convention. It embraced Foster's feelings for the octopus, which over the course of a year evolved from curiosity to care--even to love. And though her own feelings were left for viewers to interpret, the film's indelible impression was of nature populated by species who are not only beautiful and exquisitely evolved and ecologically important, but highly sentient, too.
In this special issue we are reprinting our top stories of the past year. This article first appeared online in our "Wonder" issue in February, 2021. Suppose aliens existed, and imagine that some of them had been watching our planet for its entire four and a half billion years. What would they have seen? Over most of that vast timespan, Earth's appearance altered slowly and gradually. Continents drifted; ice cover waxed and waned; successive species emerged, evolved, with many of them becoming extinct. But in just a tiny sliver of Earth's history--the last hundred centuries--the patterns of vegetation altered much faster than before. This signaled the start of agriculture--and later urbanization.
In this special issue we are reprinting our top stories of the past year. This article first appeared online in our "Mind" issue in March, 2021. One autumn afternoon in the bowels of UC Berkeley's Li Ka Shing Center, I was looking at my brain. I had just spent 10 minutes inside the 3 Tesla MRI scanner, the technical name for a very expensive, very high maintenance, very magnetic brain camera. Lying on my back inside the narrow tube, I had swallowed my claustrophobia and let myself be enveloped in darkness and a cacophony of foghorn-like bleats. At the time I was a research intern at UC Berkeley's Neuroeconomics Lab. That was the first time I saw my own brain from an MRI scan. It was a grayscale, 3-D reconstruction floating on the black background of a computer screen. As an undergraduate who studied neuroscience, I was enraptured. There is nothing quite like a young scientist's first encounter with an imaging technology that renders the hitherto invisible visible--magnetic resonance imaging took my breath away.
In this special issue we are reprinting our top stories of the past year. This article first appeared online in our "Mind" issue in March, 2021. The 21st century is a time of great scientific discovery. Vaccines against deadly new viruses are created in less than a year. The latest Mars Rover is hunting for signs of alien life.
It's Monday morning of some week in 2050 and you're shuffling into your kitchen, drawn by the smell of fresh coffee C-3PO has brewed while he unloaded the dishwasher. "Here you go, Han Solo, I used the new flavor you bought yesterday," C-3PO tells you as he hands you the cup. C-3PO arrived barely a month ago and already has developed a wonderful sense of humor and even some snark. He isn't the real C-3PO, of course--you just named him that because you are a vintage movie buff--but he's the latest NeuroCyber model that comes closest to how people think, talk, and acquire knowledge. He's no match to the original C-3PO's fluency in 6 million forms of communication, but he's got full linguistic mastery and can learn from humans like humans do--from observation and imitation, whether it's using sarcasm or sticking dishes into slots. Unlike the early models of such assistants like Siri or Alexa who could recognize commands and act upon them, NeuroCybers can evolve into intuitive assistants and companions.
A few years ago, at the Princeton Club in Manhattan, I chanced on a memorable chat with the Harvard psychologist Steven Pinker. His spouse, the philosopher Rebecca Goldstein, with whom he was tagging along, had been invited onto a panel to discuss the conflict between religion and science and Einstein's so-called "God letter," which was being auctioned at Christie's. Pinker had recently published Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress. I was eager to pepper him with questions, mainly on religion, rationality, and evolutionary psychology. I remember I wanted Pinker's take on something Harvey Whitehouse, one of the founders of the cognitive science of religion, told me in an interview--that my own little enlightenment, of becoming an atheist in college, was probably mostly a product of merely changing my social milieu. I wasn't so much moved by rational arguments against the ethics and existence of God but by being distanced from my old life and meeting new, non-religious friends. I recall Pinker almost pouncing on that argument, defending reason's power to change our minds. He noted that people especially high in "intellectance," a personality trait now more commonly called "openness to experience," tend to be more curious, intelligent, and willing to entertain new ideas. I still think that Pinker's way of seeing things made more sense of my experience in those heady days. I really was, for the first time, trying my best to think things through, and it was exhilarating. We talked until the event staff shelved the wine, and parted ways at a chilly midtown intersection.
On a May evening in 1959, C.P. Snow, a popular novelist and former research scientist, gave a lecture before a gathering of dons and students at the University of Cambridge, his alma mater. He called his talk "The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution." Snow declared that a gulf of mutual incomprehension divided literary intellectuals and scientists. "The non-scientists have a rooted impression that the scientists are shallowly optimistic, unaware of man's condition," Snow said. "On the other hand, the scientists believe that the literary intellectuals are totally lacking in foresight, peculiarly unconcerned with their brother men, in a deep sense anti-intellectual, anxious to restrict both art and thought to the existential moment." Snow didn't expect much of his talk.
On a chilly evening last fall, I stared into nothingness out of the floor-to-ceiling windows in my office on the outskirts of Harvard's campus. As a purplish-red sun set, I sat brooding over my dataset on rat brains. I thought of the cold windowless rooms in downtown Boston, home to Harvard's high-performance computing center, where computer servers were holding on to a precious 48 terabytes of my data. I have recorded the 13 trillion numbers in this dataset as part of my Ph.D. experiments, asking how the visual parts of the rat brain respond to movement. Printed on paper, the dataset would fill 116 billion pages, double-spaced. When I recently finished writing the story of my data, the magnum opus fit on fewer than two dozen printed pages. Performing the experiments turned out to be the easy part. I had spent the last year agonizing over the data, observing and asking questions. The answers left out large chunks that did not pertain to the questions, like a map leaves out irrelevant details of a territory.