Science & Technology

'La Scacchiera' by Juan Gris, 1915.

Insanely Complicated, Hopelessly Inadequate

Paul Taylor

21 January 2021

A com­puter can play chess to superhuman levels and yet have no concept of what chess is, what place chess has in the world, or even that there is a world. Does this mean that its behaviour isn’t intelligent? Perhaps there is a limit to what a computer can do without knowing that it is manipulating imperfect representations of an external reality.

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Reading Bones

Gavin Francis

21 January 2021

Ian​ Hamilton once recounted in the LRB (22 October 1992) that ‘when William F. Buckley Jr sent a copy of his essays to Norman Mailer, he pencilled a welcoming “Hi, Norman!” in . . .

Gaia will save us. Sort of

Meehan Crist

7 January 2021

The first photosynthesisers converted light into chemical energy to do work on Earth; humans converted solar energy stored in fossil fuels into work on Earth; the cyborgs will convert solar energy directly . . .

Get the jab!

Rupert Beale

4 December 2020

Do you remember​ the spring? We were said to be ‘following the science’, but the scientific advice was kept secret. The minutes of Sage meetings were not published; even the ad hoc . . .

Among the Neanderthals

John Lanchester

17 December 2020

Our early forebears​ continue to be very good at getting in the news. In 2003, on the island of Flores in Indonesia, a team of archaeologists investigating the movement of humans from Asia to Australia . . .

The Sucker, the Sucker! What’s it like to be an octopus?

Amia Srinivasan, 7 September 2017

Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

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You Are the Product: It Zucks!

John Lanchester, 17 August 2017

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me.

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In Hyperspace

Fredric Jameson, 10 September 2015

Science fiction is not the only mass-cultural genre (or subgenre) whose relationship to ‘high literature’ and to modernism in particular presents problems.

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Ghosting: Julian Assange

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 2014

It was exciting to think that no novel had ever captured this new kind of history, where military lies on a global scale were revealed by a bunch of sleepy amateurs two foot from an Aga.

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Diary: After the Oil Spill

Rebecca Solnit, 5 August 2010

New Orleans’s Saint Charles Avenue is lined with oak trees whose broad branches drip Spanish moss and Mardi Gras beads from the pre-Lenten parades, and behind the oaks are beautiful old...

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Why does it take so long to mend an escalator?

Peter Campbell, 7 March 2002

The descent to the tunnels through which the deep lines run is a tax on the spirit that is paid willingly because it makes it easier to live in an old, tight-packed city. But when the system fails it is strongly resented.

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What’s left of Henrietta Lacks? HeLa

Anne Enright, 13 April 2000

I don’t know where I heard of her first: a woman whose cells are bred in culture dishes in labs all over the world; a woman whose cells were so prolific that there is more of her now, in...

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On the Darwinian View of Progress

Amartya Sen, 5 November 1992

It is now a century and a third, almost exactly, since the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this period the view of evolutionary progress introduced by Darwin...

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The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Oliver Sacks, 19 May 1983

The scientific study of the relationship between brain and mind began in 1861, when Broca, in France, found that specific difficulties in the expressive use of speech (aphasia) consistently...

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Blips on the Screen: Risk-Free Assassinations

Andrew Cockburn, 3 December 2020

The record of this year’s wars shows that although these weapons may not provide a decisive edge in combat they excel in self-advertisement, projecting an image of all-seeing omnipotence. Drones...

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Consider the Giraffe

Katherine Rundell, 19 November 2020

The world is a wild and unlikely place: the giraffe, stranger than the griffin, taller than a tall house, does us the incomparable gift of being proof of it.

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Flour Fixated

Bee Wilson, 24 September 2020

‘Wheat is in everything!’ a friend of mine exclaimed with fury after being diagnosed with coeliac disease. To those of us who live far from the land, wheat seems a changeless and universal...

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In the Lab

Rupert Beale, 13 August 2020

A substantially reduced chance of death for patients in intensive care is good news of a sort, but isn’t going to make the world normal again. You will still avoid hugging and kissing your nearest...

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Consider the Hare

Katherine Rundell, 2 July 2020

‘The cat of the wood,’ Heaney calls them. ‘The stag of the cabbages.’ If there is magic in this world, some part of it lies with them. So if you are reading this, my love, I don’t...

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The more we learn about ourselves and the universe, the more we appreciate that aliens probably won’t just be humans with longer limbs and waving antennae. How do you communicate with a planet-sized...

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All hail the microbe: Things Pile Up

Lavinia Greenlaw, 18 June 2020

As a concept, ‘future fossils’ seems a bit reductive, too slickly oppositional, when put to work in such open terrain. What we’re really talking about is stuff. From plastic teaspoons...

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Drain the Swamps

Steven Shapin, 4 June 2020

It​ starts with bone-shivering chills, which give way to a high fever. The attacks last between six and twelve hours, and end in profuse sweating. When the chills and fever subside, they leave...

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Not in Spanish: Bilingualism

Michael Hofmann, 21 May 2020

The author is obviously in love with his subject, taking it everywhere with him, seeing it wherever he goes. ‘Most of the people I know are bilingual’ is his delightful shrug.

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The government is now keen to claim it was never prepared to tolerate high levels of infection in order to achieve herd immunity, but while it was defending the mitigation strategy it was prepared to argue...

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Consider the Greenland Shark

Katherine Rundell, 7 May 2020

I am glad not to be a Greenland shark; I don’t have enough thoughts to fill five hundred years. But I find the very idea of them hopeful. They will see us pass through our current spinning apocalypse,...

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Short Cuts: Internet Speak

Lauren Oyler, 7 May 2020

The tone of my correspondence veers from ebullient to combative to conspiratorial to semi-ironically frustrated, outraged, mournful. A message that follows spelling and grammar conventions is rare; it’s...

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Short Cuts: Built from Light

Daniel Soar, 16 April 2020

The virtual part of virtual reality has been with us for ever – or at least since the 1790s, when Wordsworth complained that the crowds were too easily pleased by the room-sized illusions...

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The Arrestables

Jeremy Harding, 16 April 2020

Extinction Rebellion has come under fire for suggesting, as Roger Hallam has, that prison isn’t such a bad experience. Eda Seyhan, a lawyer and civil liberties campaigner, delivered a blistering...

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Quaresima: Indefinite Lent

Thomas Jones, 2 April 2020

The belief that ‘it won’t be like that here’ is strong: it was strong in Italy – it was strong in me – when the disease was concentrated in China. When I talk to friends and...

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Short Cuts: Wash Your Hands

Rupert Beale, 19 March 2020

Humanity will get through this fine, but be prepared for major changes in how we function and behave as a society.

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Consider the Hermit Crab

Katherine Rundell, 6 February 2020

They are not, in fact, hermitical: they’re sociable, often climbing on top of one another to sleep in great piles, and their group behaviour is so intricately ordered that they make the politics...

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The Unpredictable Cactus: Mescaline

Emily Witt, 2 January 2020

‘No mind-altering substance has been described more thoroughly and from such a variety of perspectives,’ Mike Jay writes in his new history, Mescaline.

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