LIFE

INFORMATION AND COMPUTATION

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79413153

"As a theoretical physicist, my main concern is space, time and cosmology. The metaphor about information and computation is interesting. There are some people in physics who have begun to talk as if we all know that what's really behind physics is computation and information, who find it very natural to say things like anything that's happening in the world is a computation, and all of physics can be understood in terms of information. There's another set of physicists who have no idea what those people are talking about.

INFORMATION AND COMPUTATION

[9.18.01]

"As a theoretical physicist, my main concern is space, time and cosmology. The metaphor about information and computation is interesting. There are some people in physics who have begun to talk as if we all know that what's really behind physics is computation and information, who find it very natural to say things like anything that's happening in the world is a computation, and all of physics can be understood in terms of information. There's another set of physicists who have no idea what those people are talking about. And there's a third set — and I'm among them — who begin by saying we have no idea what you're talking about, but we have reasons why it would be nice if it was useful to talk about physics in terms of information."

 

LEE SMOLIN, a theoretical physicist, is a founding member and research physicist at the Perimeter Institute in Waterloo Canada. He is the author of The Life of The Cosmos and Three Roads to Quantum Gravity.

[Click here for Lee Smolin's Edge Bio page]

THE PATTERN OF LIFE'S HISTORY

[5.23.01]

There is no progress in evolution. The fact of evolutionary change through time doesn't represent progress as we know it. Progress isn't inevitable. Much of evolution is downward in terms of morphological complexity, rather than upward. We're not marching toward some greater thing.

Introduction

Stephen Jay Gould died on May 20 at his home in New York City. To remember and honor Steve, to think about his ideas, I present "The Pattern of Life's History", Chapter 2 in The Third Culture (Simon & Schuster, 1995). Included in the chapter are commentaries on Steve and his work by many other participants in the book such as Stewart Kauffman, Marvin Minsky, Niles Eldredge, Murray Gell-Mann, Francisco Varela, J. Doyne Farmer, Steven Pinker, Nicholas Humphrey, Brian Goodwin, Steve Jones, George C. Williams, and Daniel C. Dennett.

— JB

STEPHEN JAY GOULD was an evolutionary biologist, a paleontologist, and a snail geneticist; professor of zoology at Harvard University; MacArthur Fellow; author of, among others, Ontogeny and Phylogeny, The Mismeasure of Man, The Flamingo's Smile, Wonderful Life, Bully for Brontosaurus, Dinosaur in a Haystack, Rock of Ages, Full House, I Have Landed, and The Structure of Evolutionary Theory.

Stephen Jay Gould's Edge Bio Page

SEX AND PHYSICS

[3.31.01]

"What else is there? Sex and physics." 

Introduction

Ten years ago at the AAAS, Dennis Overbye, author of the classic Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos, found himself on a rainy Sunday afternoon in an auditorium watching a handful of historians and physicists arguing about whether Einstein's first wife Mileva had actually invented relativity. This was an eye opener to him, to put it mildly. He was astounded that there could be any mystery about either the origin of relativity or about Einstein's life. He had just assumed that he was so famous and so recent that everything that could be known about him was known.

What followed was a 10-year investigation in which Overbye immersed himself in Einstein's life and wrote his recently published book, Einstein In Love.

"Romantically speaking, Einstein always felt — and always told his girlfriends — that Paradise was just around the corner," he says," but as soon as he got there, it started looking a little shabby and something better appeared. I've known a lot of people like Albert in my time. During this project I have felt lots of shocks of recognition. I feel like I got to know Albert as a person, and I have more respect for him as a physicist than I did when I started, simply because I have more a sense of what he actually did — and how hard it was — than before. If he was around now, I'd love to buy him a beer ..... but I don't know if I'd introduce him to my sister."

— JB

DENNIS OVERBYE is Deputy Science Editor of The New York Times and author of the critically acclaimed Lonely Hearts of the Cosmos and the recently published Einstein in Love.

Click here for Dennis Overbye's Edge Bio page.

THE REALITY CLUB: Leon Lederman, Jeremy Bernstein 

GETTING HUMAN NATURE RIGHT

Topic: 

  • LIFE
http://vimeo.com/79411591

Certainly, human nature is fixed. It's universal and unchanging — common to every baby that's born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior — which is generated by that nature — is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that's sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to 'genetic determinism' is simple.

GETTING HUMAN NATURE RIGHT

[8.29.00]

"Certainly, human nature is fixed. It's universal and unchanging — common to every baby that's born, down through the history of our species. But human behavior — which is generated by that nature — is endlessly variable and diverse. After all, fixed rules can give rise to an inexhaustible range of outcomes. Natural selection equipped us with the fixed rules — the rules that constitute our human nature. And it designed those rules to generate behavior that's sensitive to the environment. So, the answer to 'genetic determinism' is simple. If you want to change behavior, just change the environment. And, of course, to know which changes would be appropriate and effective, you have to know those Darwinian rules. You need only to understand human nature, not to change it."

Introduction

Helena Cronin achieved prominence in the early 90's as the author of The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today, named one of the Nine Best Books of the Year by the New York Times Book Review in 1992, and widely considered the definitive history and integrative summary of altruism and sexual selection in modern evolutionary biology. It is also unusual in being as well informed in the history and philosophy of the subject as it is up-to-date with modern evolutionary theory.

For several years she ran a highly influential program of public lectures and debates at the London School of Economics which thrust evolutionary biology, psychology, medicine, and social science onto center stage. In convening the intellectual salon known as the [email protected] seminars “ the "hottest intellectual ticket in London" “ Cronin carved for herself a unique niche as the convener of a cutting edge intellectual salon of worldwide repute and, in so doing, she has become an important public intellectual in the UK.

Cronin, who is also co-editor of the Darwinism Today book series, has become a renowned champion of Darwinian theory, especially as it applies to the human species and can be used to inform social policy. Through many articles, interviews, and appearances in the British media, she has become known as an eloquent and tough-minded spokesperson for the importance of Darwinism in modern intellectual life. 

HELENA CRONIN is a Co-Director of London School of Economic's Centre for Philosophy of Natural and Social Sciences, where she runs the wide ranging and successful program "[email protected]" which fosters research at the forefront of evolutionary theory. She is the author of The Ant and the Peacock: Altruism and Sexual Selection from Darwin to Today.

Helena Cronin's Edge Bio Page

THE REALITY CLUB: J. Doyne Farmer


GENETICS PLUS TIME

[3.26.00]

Steve Jones is a highly regarded geneticist and snail biologist. He is interested in why so much diversity exists in animals and plants: why no two individuals are alike. Surely, it can be argued, natural selection should instead inevitably lead to the evolution of one perfect form for each species. He works on the striking variety of shell color and banding patterns in the land snail Cepaea nemoralis. Cepaea has been seen as an archetype of diversity since the nineteenth century. In the 1950s, the English biologists Arthur Cain and Phillip Sheppard argued that such apparently trivial differences were under the action of natural selection (in this case because birds would attack the conspicuous forms). Jones finds that climate is also involved and — most important — that differences in microclimate on the scale of a few inches can alter the behavior and survival of snails of different pattern. Ecologically complex habitats hence foster genetic diversity. Jones has been writing and lecturing about science to a general audience for fifteen years. His book, The Language of the Genes won the 1994 Science Book Prize.

W.D. Hamilton, an obituary

[3.12.00]

W D Hamilton is a good candidate for the title of most distinguished Darwinian since Darwin. Other candidates would have to include R A Fisher, whom Hamilton revered as a young student at Cambridge. Hamilton resembled Fisher in his penetrating biological intuition and his ability to render it in mathematics. But, like Darwin and unlike Fisher, he was also a superb field naturalist and explorer. I suspect that, of all his twentieth century successors, Darwin would most have enjoyed talking to Hamilton. Partly because they could have swapped jungle tales and beetle lore, partly because both were gentle and deep, but mostly because Hamilton the theorist was responsible for clearing up so many of the very problems that had intrigued and tantalised Darwin.

William Donald Hamilton FRS was Royal Society Research Professor in the Department of Zoology at Oxford, and a Professorial Fellow of New College. He was born in 1936, spent a happy childhood botanising and collecting butterflies in Kent, was educated at Tonbridge, then Cambridge where he read Genetics. For his Ph.D. he moved to London where he was jointly enrolled at University College and LSE. He became a Lecturer at Imperial College in 1964, where his teaching skills were not highly rated. After a brief Visiting Professorship at Harvard, he accepted a Museum Professorship at the University of Michigan in 1977. Finally, in 1984 he moved to Oxford at the invitation of Richard Southwood, who had been his Professor at Imperial.

Hamilton was showered with medals and honours by the academies and learned societies of the world. He won the Kyoto Prize, the Fyssen Prize, the Wander Prize, and the Crafoord Prize - instituted by the Swedish Academy because Alfred Nobel unaccountably failed to include non-medical Biology in his list of eligible subjects. But honours and recognition did not come early. The autobiographical chapters of Hamilton's collection of papers, Narrow Roads of Gene Land, reveal a lonely young man driven to self-doubt by lack of comprehension among his peers and superiors. To epitomise the Cambridge of his undergraduate days, where "many biologists hardly seemed to believe in evolution" he quotes one senior professor: "Insects do not live for themselves alone. Their lives are devoted to the survival of the species . . ." This is "Group Selection", a solecism which would cause today's biology undergraduates to wince, but they have the advantage of a post-Hamilton education. The young Hamilton felt that in Cambridge he was wincing alone. Only the cantankerous Fisher made sense to him, and he had been advised that Fisher "was good with statistics but knew nothing about biology."

For his doctoral work he proposed a difficult mathematical model with a simple conclusion now known as "Hamilton's Rule." It states that a gene for altruistic self sacrifice will spread through a population if the cost to the altruist is outweighed by the benefit to the recipient devalued by a fraction representing the genetic relatedness between the two. Hamilton's original paper was so difficult and innovative that it almost failed to be published, and was largely ignored for a decade. When finally noticed, its influence spread exponentially until it became one of the most cited papers in all of biology. It is the key to understanding half the altruistic cooperation in nature. The key to the other half - reciprocation among unrelated individuals - is a theory to which Hamilton was later to make a major contribution, in collaboration with the social scientist Robert Axelrod.

The great obsession of his later career was parasites - their evolutionary rather than their medical impact. Over twenty years, Hamilton convinced more and more biologists that parasites are the key to many outstanding problems left by Darwin, including the baffling riddle of the evolution of sex. The sexual shuffling of the genetic pack is an elaborate trick for outrunning parasites in the endless race through evolutionary time. This work led Hamilton into the arcane world of computer simulation, where his models were as richly textured, in their way, as his beloved Brazilian jungle. His spin off theory of sexual selection (how Darwin would have relished it!) was that bird of paradise tails and similar male extravaganzas are driven by the evolution of female diagnostic skills: females are like sceptical doctors, actively seeking parasite-free males to supply genes for their shared posterity. Male advertisement is an honest boast of health.

Hamilton's mathematical models never became arid; they were laced with, and often inspired by, bizarre natural history. Would that every mathematical lump were leavened, as Hamilton's were, by eye-witness accounts of, say, the male mite who copulates with all his sisters and then dies before any of them are born. Or of aphid females who give live birth to their daughters and granddaughters simultaneously.

For most scientists, good ideas are a scarce commodity, to be milked for everything they are worth. Hamilton, by contrast, would bury, in little throwaway asides, ideas for which others would kill. Sometimes he buried them so deeply that he overlooked them himself. Extreme social life in termites poses a particular evolutionary problem not shared by the equally social ants, bees and wasps. An ingenious theory exists, widely attributed to an author whom I shall call X. Hamilton and I were once talking termites, and he spoke favourably of X's theory. "But Bill", I protested, "That isn't X's theory. It's your theory. You thought of it first." He gloomily denied it, so I asked him to wait while I ran to the library. I returned with a bound journal volume and shoved under his nose his own discreetly buried paragraph on termites. Eeyorishly, he conceded that, yes, it did appear to be his own theory after all, but X had explained it much better. In a world where scientists vie for priority, Hamilton was endearingly unique.

Those who loved him saw a Felix with nine lives. Charmingly accident-prone, Bill would always bounce back. A childhood experiment with explosives cost him several finger joints of his right hand. He was frequently knocked off his bicycle, probably because of misjudgements by Oxford motorists who couldn't believe a man of his age with a great shock of white hair could possibly cycle so fast. And he travelled dangerously in wilder and more remote places than Oxford. He hiked through Rwanda at the height of the civil war, and was treated as a spy, so implausible was his (true) story that he was looking for ants. Held up at knife point in Brazil, he made the mistake of fighting back, and was viciously wounded. He jumped into an Amazon tributary when his boat was sinking, in order to plug the hole, like the little Dutch boy, with his thumb (the ferocity of Piranha fish, he explained, is over-rated). Finally, to gather indirect evidence for the theory (of which he was a strong supporter) that the AIDS virus was originally introduced into the human population in an oral polio vaccine tested in Africa in the 1950s, Hamilton went, with two brave companions, to the depths of the Congo jungle in January this year. He was rushed back to London, apparently with severe malaria, seemed to recover, then collapsed into complications and coma. This time, he didn't bounce back.

He is survived by his wife, Christine, from whom he had been amicably separated for some time, by their three daughters Helen, Ruth and Rowena, and by his devoted companion of recent years, Luisa Bozzi. 

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