Around the World in Six Ideas

By Dickey, Christopher | Newsweek, April 19, 2013 | Go to article overview

Around the World in Six Ideas


Dickey, Christopher, Newsweek


Byline: Christopher Dickey

Before There Were Scientists

The word "scientist" was not coined until 1833. Before that, scientific disciplines were the domain of mostly wealthy men and women who called themselves "natural philosophers." They might have had curiosity cabinets full of fossils, concoctions, and pickled bits of anatomy, but laboratories were few and far between. Then, oddly, the eccentric, opium-imbibing poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge challenged this use of the metaphysical-sounding word "philosopher." The response, as in "artist" or "cellist," was "scientist." Laura Snyder tells this story in her fascinating book The Philosophical Breakfast Club about the way four geniuses at Cambridge University revolutionized modern science to create the many disciplines that exist under that rubric today. But there's a downside, too, she said in a recent TED talk. Her 19th-century heroes would have been "deeply dismayed" by the way science has been "walled off" from the rest of today's culture. She finds it "shocking" that only 28 percent of American adults can say (correctly) whether humans and dinosaurs inhabited Earth at the same time or how much of the planet is covered in water. The majority, it seems, either don't know, don't care, or think those are, well, metaphysical questions.

Common Sins

In the spectacle of American life, redemption is as common as sin. Confessions and comebacks are central to the soap opera of politics. Think of Bill Clinton; look at the philandering former governor of Bible Belt South Carolina running for a seat in the House, or the Twitter-obsessed exhibitionist who fell from grace in Congress, now reviving his bid for mayor in New York City. No wonder the current issue of The Wilson Quarterly, published in Washington, is largely devoted to "The American Quest for Redemption." And it's not just about the pols and their molls. It's about the heart and soul of the United States, says Wilfred McClay in the lead essay. From before they founded a nation, Americans thought they had a "divinely ordained redemptive role in the world." That missionary faith has faded, but we've turned it in on ourselves. "We want redemption more than ever, applied to a wider range of things," writes McClay. It is "a form of alchemy, a making of something fine and noble and new out of what once was ordinary, commonplace, even debased." Americans, says McClay, just love tragedies with happy endings.

Never Lost

When city planners, epidemiologists, emergency managers, and others concerned with dense urban populations look at the wealth of data available from smartphones, they vibrate with expectation. Though they say they just want the raw data about use and movement, not our identities, not our conversations, researchers from MIT and Belgium's Universite Catholique de Louvain say the idea that cellphone data can be made anonymous may be largely an illusion. They analyzed input on 1.5 million cellphone users in "a small European country" and discovered that if they could find just four reference points about the user's location at any given time in the course of a year, they could identify the phone and, from there, learn a huge amount about the user's movements. The process worked in 95 percent of the tested cases. Yves-Alexandre de Montjoye, the lead author of the study, says he just wants better safeguards. "We all have a lot to gain from this data being used," he insists. But it's good to remember that Big Brother no longer needs to be watching you--he can just look up your cell number.

The Homer Genome

Mark Pagel, an evolutionary theorist at the University of Reading in England, decided to use analytical models developed for tracking the mutation of genes over the course of human history and apply them to the mutation of languages. …

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