Nautilus3 min read
This Crystal Mimics Learning and Forgetting
You don’t need a brain to learn. Slime molds, for example, solve mazes and navigate obstacles—all without a single neuron. Information about their environment is somehow stored across their bodies. (Scientists are still a bit hazy on how this works.)
Nautilus5 min read
Alienation Is Killing Americans and Japanese
The stories have become all too familiar in Japan, though people often do their best to ignore them. An elderly or middle-aged person, usually a man, is found dead, at home in his apartment, frequently right in his bed. It has been days, weeks, or ev
Nautilus5 min read
A Letter to Einstein From the Future: Two Princeton Physicists Catch Albert Up.: Two Princeton physicists catch Albert up.
We don’t believe in time travel, and we’re not into mysticism. But what if we could write a letter to Albert Einstein to tell him about gravity and black holes in a few paragraphs? We’d write something like this letter. Steven Gubser and Frans Pretor
Nautilus7 min read
Is Tribalism a Natural Malfunction?: What computers teach us about getting along.
From an office at Carnegie Mellon, my colleague John Miller and I had evolved a computer program with a taste for genocide. This was certainly not our intent. We were not scholars of race, or war. We were interested in the emergence of primitive coop
Nautilus15 min readScience
Why Hasn’t Evolution Made Another Platypus?: The debate over whether evolution is predictable or haphazard.
Snuffling through the underbrush, the shaggy little creature wanders through the sylvan night, sticking its nose in one place, then another, seeking the aroma of its soft-bodied dinner. The forest is dark and the pixie’s eyesight poor, but long whisk
Nautilus7 min readTech
Your Next New Best Friend Might Be a Robot: Meet Xiaoice. She’s empathic, caring, and always available—just not human.
One night in late July 2014, a journalist from the Chinese newspaper Southern Weekly interviewed a 17-year-old Chinese girl named Xiaoice (pronounced Shao-ice). The journalist, Liu Jun, conducted the interview online, through the popular social netwo
Nautilus3 min read
Why Cassini Is Ending Its Life with a Kamikaze Plunge
This Friday, NASA’s Cassini probe will run out of fuel and take pictures as it plummets at 75,000 miles per hour through Saturn’s atmosphere. It won’t be crashing—the heat from friction will make Cassini immolate in the sky. Cassini has had a good ru
Nautilus2 min readPop Culture
The Jazz Pianist Vijay Iyer Played “Remembrance” for Us on 9/11
When we visited Vijay Iyer three years ago, on Sept. 11, at his home in Harlem, the monthly Nautilus theme was Genius. The jazz pianist was glad to talk about the subject and play signature pieces by Thelonious Monk and John Coltrane for us. But the
Nautilus2 min read
How Hurricanes Turn Nature Upside Down
Alligators wandering through inundated streets, snakes hiding on porch doors, deer careening across neighborhoods, and other wild sights emerged in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey. What else would you expect? Hurricanes can shift ecology in strange
Nautilus3 min read
A Simple Visual Proof of a Powerful Idea in Graph Theory
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Abstractions A recent advance in geometry makes heavy use of Ramsey’s theorem, an important idea in another field—graph theory. Ramsey’s theorem states that in any graph where all points are connected by either r
Nautilus12 min read
How We Cope With the End of Nature:: As our environment crumbles, we seek solace in animatronic moose.
Solastalgia is the definitive disease of the 21st century but only a few even know its name. The symptoms include an underlying sense of loss, a vague sensation of being torn from the earth, a general out-of-placeness, homelessness without leaving ho
Nautilus14 min read
The Moon Is Full of Money: Capitalism in space.
I was slung in my favorite deck chair, drink in hand, having a gawk at the night sky. Andromeda, Pisces ... I trawled the constellations, mind abandoned, still aware in some curve at the back of my brain that the world is coming apart at the seams an
Nautilus6 min readScience
What the Meadow Teaches Us: Feeling is the physics of the organic world.
Anyone who believes that life is a battlefield full of individual warriors should go out into the meadows on a spring night. There, you can learn that the biosphere does not spawn cutoff, clearly differentiated individuals who compete against one ano
Nautilus11 min readPsychology
How to Choose Wisely: From Yelping to dating, there’s a better way.
Sparkling or still water? Organic or conventional avocados? Four stars or three-and-a-half? The modern world sets loose upon us a barrage of choice in the consumer marketplace, while the Internet not only expands our consumption opportunities—giving
Nautilus7 min readScience
The Problem With the Mutation-Centric View of Cancer
To better understand and treat cancer, physicians need to stop oversimplifying its causes. Cancer results not solely from genetic mutations but by adapting to and thriving in micro-environments in the body. That’s the point of view of James DeGregori
Nautilus4 min readTech
Why A.I. Is Just Not Funny
In the 2004 film I, Robot, Detective Del Spooner asks an A.I. named Sonny: “Can a robot write a symphony? Can a robot turn a canvas into a beautiful masterpiece?” Sonny responds: “Can you?” Scientists have been working on answering Spooner’s question
Nautilus9 min read
Beyond Voyager: NASA scientist Fran Bagenal on what’s next for space exploration.
Forty years ago this coming Tuesday, a car-sized piece of equipment launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida. Thirty five years later, it became the first and only man-made object to enter interstellar space. Along the way, the Voyager probes (there w
Nautilus6 min readPsychology
Getting Googled by Your Doctor: Will mental health clinicians become liable for missing your latest Facebook post?
One day not long ago, police forcibly brought a man to the hospital after he updated his profile picture on Facebook. He was in his late 20s and had a long history of suicide attempts, a diagnosis of bipolar disorder, and a close relationship with hi
Nautilus8 min readScience
How Much More Can We Learn About the Universe?: These are the few limits on our ability to know.
As a cosmologist, some of the questions I hear most frequently after a lecture include: What lies beyond our universe? What is our universe expanding into? Will our universe expand forever? These are natural questions to ask. But there is an even dee
Nautilus14 min read
Sexism Killed My Love for Philosophy Then Mary Astell Brought It Back: How one woman philosopher reinvigorated another.
In 2004, I spent many hours walking the dirt paths of the Driftless Area, an undulating region in the Midwest left untouched by glaciers from Earth’s ice ages. In some parts the cracked earth exhales a cool air generated by underground ice. It’s a re
Nautilus4 min readSelf-Improvement
Is Japanese Culture Traumatized By Centuries of Natural Disaster?
Ayumi Endo remembers the 2011 earthquake and tsunami with exquisite detail. She ran downstairs to screaming coworkers. The phones in Tokyo had stopped working, and the trains outside stopped running. To kill time, she went to a pub, and saw a tsunami
Nautilus5 min readReligion & Spirituality
The Case for Cosmic Pantheism
Aren’t those opposites?” people often ask me, when they discover I study science and religion. As a professor of religious studies, I am particularly drawn to the places where religion and science seem antagonistic, but turn out to be entwined. The m
Nautilus4 min read
When Dark Humor Stops Being Funny
In either ninth or tenth grade, my friend Dan and I found a book of “Truly Tasteless Jokes” on the cafeteria floor. Our teenage psyches were quickly mesmerized, and we spent the majority of lunch reading it cover to cover. I laughed at one dead baby
Nautilus10 min read
The Catch 22 of Hacktivism: Are hackers who expose the military serving it?
In the run-up to NATO’s 2011 intervention in Libya, a Dutch radio hacker named Huub (@fmcnl) tweeted to the United States military that one of their F-16 fighter jets was mistakenly broadcasting its identity in the clear due to a misconfigured Mode S
Nautilus5 min readScience
This Ecologist Wants to Tell You What Matters in Science: “What physicists and astronomers do is trivial compared to solving these problems.”
Many scientists love to sing the praises of their own specialties, but few proclaim them with the confidence of Andrew Dobson, a professor of ecology and evolutionary biology at Princeton University and the director of the University’s Andrew Dobson
Nautilus3 min readScience
When Driver and Car Share the Same Brain: An artist teams with an automaker to counter driverless cars with neuroscience.
Ten million driverless cars are expected to hit the road by 2020, according to a recent Business Insider report. Google and Apple are racing to join the automotive industry. Traditional car manufacturers are investing billions of dollars in R&D. Ther
Nautilus8 min read
Will the Earth Ever Fill Up?: We’ve predicted and broken human population limits for centuries.
To say that Thomas Robert Malthus was unpopular would be putting it mildly. His 19th-century contemporary Percy Shelley, the revered poet, called him a eunuch and a tyrant. The philosopher William Godwin dubbed him “a dark and terrible genius that is
Nautilus2 min read
Are You Downplaying Luck’s Role in Your Life?
When we succeed, we often take that success, in retrospect, to be the result of suffering that liquid trinity of blood, sweat, and tears. Perhaps fortune favored you here and there but, by and large, it was your effort and talent—not contingency—that
Nautilus3 min read
The Man Who Discovered the Sun’s Puzzling Heat Is Being Forgotten
When you observe a solar eclipse—with great care, of course—what you see is a thin, red crescent outlining the blocked-out Sun and, extending beyond it, a stark white mane. This is the corona, an aura millions of miles thick of superheated plasma. I
Nautilus1 min readSelf-Improvement
The Pernicious Myth of Willpower
I often find myself on the cusp of doing something productive, and then decide not to. Even though I say to myself, in such circumstances, “Hey, you’re procrastinating,” I still witness myself rationalizing putting that productive thing off. It’s a b
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