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Alva Noë

Attitudes toward animals are a delicate and complicated matter.

We can group animals into vertebrates and invertebrates, into the wild and the domestic — or into those we keep as pets, those we eat and those we regard with disgust as vermin.

It's OK to love them — but only so much.

According to a new hypothesis put forward by an international team of geneticists and archeologists, dogs may have been domesticated in two different places from genetically distinct wolf populations in Europe and in East Asia.

Carlo Rovelli's Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, originally published as a series of essays in an Italian newspaper, was just released in book form in the U.S. on March 1. I read the book by the noted physicist in a single sitting with pleasure and mounting excitement.

It is a very clear book and it is likely to provoke in readers, as it provoked in me, a desire to learn more about space, time, quantum reality, the nature of the gravity, our universe and, finally, about ourselves.

Santiago Ramón y Cajal wanted to be an artist. His dad wanted him to study medicine and encouraged him to draw cadavers at the graveyard.

The rest is history.

The answer as to whether a DNA test can tell you your ethnic identity? Yes — and no.

It is one of the great ironies of biology that sometimes breakthroughs seem to come when it is supposed that its problems have less to do with the body, which is pulsing, hot, and wet, and more to do with information processing, which is dry and computational.

To give an example, vision is widely believed to be the process of extracting information about an environment from an image. There is nothing distinctively biological about this. A machine can do it, in principle at least.

For the holidays, I bought my science-loving 11-year-old tickets to "An evening with Neil deGrasse Tyson" at the Orpheum Theater in San Francisco. The big night was last Friday.

Some intellectuals bring out the immense complexity behind simple phenomena and others, like the estimable Dr. Tyson, excel at bringing complicated ideas down to earth. My son and I are both Cosmos fans but, still, we didn't really know what to expect.

Lumosity, a "brain games" company, has agreed to pay $2 million to settle a Federal Trade Commission deceptive advertising suit.

According to Jessica Rich, director of the FTC's Bureau of Consumer Protection, the brain-fitness company, "preyed on consumers' fears about age-related cognitive decline, suggesting their games could stave off memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer's disease."

The claims the company made, it seems, are entirely without basis. As she says: "Lumosity simply did not have the science to back up its ads."

On PBS's Newshour last week, Jon Schull, a research scientist at the Rochester Institute of Technology, made some points about disability.

He said that in a world with lots of small print, the inability to see fine detail is a disability (though some might consider it minor in the range of "disability"). And, he said, this disability becomes a mere nuisance when you have affordable, easy to use reading glasses.

I've always been a little skeptical about the scientific method.

Science isn't one thing, after all. Just as sports isn't one thing. There isn't one way to win, or one way to get the gold. And, so, there isn't one way to conduct research in fields as different as chemistry, economics, climate science and ethology.

The demands of communication put constraints on how everyone talks, regardless of what language they are using.

These pragmatic linguistic universals are the subject of a new study published this week.

Imagine a race of beings who use language just like we do, but who never misunderstand each other; they never need to stop and ask for clarification, as language operates between them in a fluid way. Communication is like the flow of currents and they are all caught up in the flow.

Carl Safina, in his new book on animal minds — Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel makes a strong case for the claim that animals, such as wolves, elephants — and maybe also crayfish — have rich mental lives.

No need to be a baseball fan to get caught up in the drama that unfolded before our eyes during the television broadcast of the Mets-Padres game at Citi Field in New York on Wednesday evening.

It wasn't a baseball drama, but a life drama that puts all of us — and our reliance on, and misplaced confidence in, Twitter (and other new technologies of would-be connectedness) as a source of information — on the spot.

Our Robot Servants

Jul 17, 2015

Industrial robots are big machines capable of merciless speed and power. In a recent report in Time, a robot "grabbed and pushed" a man against a metal plate at a Volkswagen production plant, crushing him.

The new Pixar animation Inside Out, directed by Pete Docter (Monster's Inc., Up), is the playful and ambitious story of the emotional life of a young girl, Riley, who is uprooted when her parents move to a new city so that her father can take up a job. Like a lot of science fiction, however, the fiction drags because the science never really makes any sense.

Any color you choose can be matched by a mixture of short, medium and long wavelength light (i.e., blue, green and red light). This perceptual observation led to the formulation, early in the 19th century, of a neurophysiological hypothesis: The eye contains three kinds of distinct color-sensitive receptors (cones); just as colors themselves can be composed of lights of different spectral character, so we can see the vast range of visible color thanks to the joint operation of only three distinct kinds of receptors.

The Giants challenged a call in Game 7 of the World Series Wednesday night. It took the umpiring crew — in conference with the umpires holed up in the video monitoring station in New York City's Chelsea district — almost three minutes to overturn the on-field decision. They called the runner out at first, giving the Giants a potentially game-changing double play.

"European society is very advanced, very civilized. Between holocausts."

The painter Barnett Newman is said to have replied along these lines to a friend who was bemoaning the sorry state of American political life and praising European social democracy.

It's a good joke. It casts light on the whole religion versus science controversy as well.

No doubt some of the autograph seekers leaning across the fence straining for the baseball players' attention were in it for the money.

I suppose a baseball signed by the right person is worth something. Others were collectors working to complete their sets.

But most of us clumped up along the side of the dugout were fans — and our motives were of an entirely different nature.

Well, to be accurate, I wasn't begging for autographs. My kids were. I was there as a chaperone.