Stephen Hawking’s Final Book and Scientific Paper Just Got Published: Brief Answers to the Big Questions and “Information Paradox”

How did it all begin?  Is there a god? Can we predict the future? Is there other intelligent life in the universe? For decades, many of us turned to Stephen Hawking for answers to those questions, or at least supremely intelligent suggestions as to where the answers might lie. But the celebrated astrophysicist's death earlier this year — after an astonishingly long life and career, given the challenges he faced — took that option away. It turns out, though, that we haven't actually heard the last of him: his last book, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (whose trailer you can watch just above), came out just this week.

"The book is quintessential Hawking," writes physics professor Marcelo Gleiser at NPR. "He starts by addressing the questions in physics and cosmology that he dedicated his intellectual life to answer, using easy-to-follow arguments and drawing from everyday images and thought experiments." Hawking's answers to the big questions figure into his view of not just the world but all existence: he believes, writes Gleiser, "that humanity's evolutionary mission is to spread through the galaxy as a sort of cosmic gardener, sowing life along the way. He believes, even if not without worry, that we will develop a positive relationship with intelligent machines and that, together, we will redesign the current fate of the world and of our species."




In parallel with his career as a public figure and writer of popular explanatory books, which began with 1988's A Brief History of Time, Hawking performed scientific research on black holes. The Guardian's science editor Ian Sample describes it as a "career-long effort to understand what happens to information when objects fall into black holes," capped off by a posthumously published paper titled "Black Hole Entropy and Soft Hair." "Toss an object into a black hole and the black hole’s temperature ought to change," writes Sample. "So too will a property called entropy, a measure of an object’s internal disorder, which rises the hotter it gets." In the paper Hawking and his collaborators show that "a black hole’s entropy may be recorded by photons that surround the black hole’s event horizon, the point at which light cannot escape the intense gravitational pull. They call this sheen of photons 'soft hair'."

If that sounds tricky to understand, all of us who have appreciated Hawking's writing know that we can at least go back to his books to get a grip on black holes and the questions about them that get scientists most curious. Much remains for future astrophysicists to work on about that "information paradox," to do with where, exactly, everything that seemingly gets sucked into a black hole actually goes. “We don’t know that Hawking entropy accounts for everything you could possibly throw at a black hole, so this is really a step along the way,” Hawking's collaborator Malcolm J. Perry tells Sample. “We think it’s a pretty good step, but there is a lot more work to be done.” As Hawking surely knew, the big questions — in physics or any other realm of existence — never quite get fully answered.

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Learn Anatomy Through a Pictorial History of James Bond 007

Remember the scene in Tomorrow Never Dies when sexy double agent Wai Lin handcuffs James Bond to the shower and leaves him there?

Alternately, remember “Table 9” from anatomist Bernard Siegfried Albinus’ 1749 Tabulae sceleti et musculorum corporis humani?

Kriota Willberg, an educator, massage therapist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, and author of Draw Stronger: Self-Care For Cartoonists and Other Visual Artists, is sufficiently steeped in both Bond and Albinus to identify striking visual similarities.

That shower scene is just one iconic moment that Willberg included in her mini-comic, Pictorial Anatomy of 007.

Agent Bond’s sartorial sense is a crucial aspect of his appeal, but Willberg, a Bond fan who’s seen every film in the canon at least five times, digs below that celebrated surface, peeling back skin to expose the structures that lie beneath.

Sean Connery’s Bond exhibits a veteran artist’s model's stillness waiting for the right time to make his move against Dr. No’s “eight-legged assassin.” Even before Willberg got involved, it was an excellent showcase for his pecs, delta, and sternocleitomastoid muscles.

Leaving her flayed Bonds in their cinematic settings are a way of paying tribute to the antique anatomical illustrations Willberg admires for their dynamism:

…sitting in a chair, taking a stroll, holding its skin or organs out of the way so that the reader can get a better look at deeper structures. Some of the cadavers are very flirty. The pictures remind us that we are the organs we see on the page. They do stuff! 

The New York Academy of Medicine selected Willberg as its first Artist in Residence, because of the way she explores the intersections between body sciences and artistic practices. (Other projects include an intricate needlepoint X-Ray of her own root canal and Stitchin’ Time!, a fictional encounter in which Aulus Cornelius Celsus (c. 25 BCE – c. 50 CE), author of  De Medicina, and surgeon Aelius Galenus (129  – c. 200 CE) team up to repair a disemboweled gladiator.

Is there a squeamish bone in this artist's body?

All signs point to no.

Asked to pick a favorite Bond movie, she names Goldfinger for the mythology concerning the infamous scene wherein a beautiful woman is painted gold, but also 2006’s Casino Royale for keeping the torture scene from the book:

I didn’t think they’d have the balls! Sorry! Poor taste but I couldn’t resist. Although Timothy Dalton physically resembled Bond as described in the books, most of the movies make Bond out to be smarter than Fleming wrote him. I think Judy Dench called Daniel Craig, Casino Royale’s Bond, a “blunt instrument” which is pretty much how he’s written. He’s tough and lucky and that’s why he’s survived. Plus the machete fight is great. 

Sometimes people get too prissy about the body. I am meat and liver and sausage and so are you. Your body is inescapable while you live. You should get to know it. Think about it in different contexts. It’s fun!

When From Russia With Love’s Rosa Klebb punches master assassin, Red Grant, in the stomach, she is squishing a living liver through living abdominal muscles.

Hard copies of Kriota Willberg’s anatomy-based comics, including Pictorial Anatomy of 007, are available from Birdcage Bottom Books.

Listen to an hour-long interview with Comics Alternative in which Willberg discusses her New York Academy of Medicine residency, anatomical research, and the ways in which humor informs her approach here.

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Ayun Halliday is an author, illustrator, theater maker and Chief Primatologist of the East Village Inky zine.  Her latest script, Fawnbook, is available in a digital edition from Indie Theater Now.  Follow her @AyunHalliday.

You’re Only As Old As You Feel: Harvard Psychologist Ellen Langer Shows How Mental Attitude Can Potentially Reverse the Effects of Aging

You’re only as old as you feel, right? The platitude may be true. In a scientifically verifiable sense, “feeling”—a state of mind—may not only determine psychological well-being but physical health as well, including the natural aging processes of the body.

Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer has spent decades testing the hypothesis, and has come to some interesting conclusions about the relationship between mental processes and bodily aging. In order to do the kind of work she has for decades, she has had to put aside the thorny “mind-body” problem—a longstanding philosophical and practical impasse in figuring out how the two interact. “Let’s forget about how you get from one to the other,” she tells CBS This Morning in a 2014 interview above, “and in fact see those as just words…. Wherever you’re putting the mind, you’re necessarily putting the body.”




What happens to the one, she theorized, will necessarily affect the other. In a 1981 experiment, which she called the “counterclockwise study,” she and her research team placed eight men in their late 70s in a monastery in New Hampshire, converted to transport them all to 1959 when they were in their prime. Furniture, décor, news, sports, music, TV, movies: every cultural reference dated from the period. There were no mirrors, only photos of the men in their 20s. They spoke and acted as though they had traveled back in time and gotten younger.

The results were extraordinary, almost too good to be true, she felt. “On several measures,” The New York Times reported in 2014, “they outperformed a control group that came earlier to the monastery but didn’t imagine themselves back into the skin of their younger selves, though they were encouraged to reminisce." The "counterclockwise" participants "were suppler, showed greater manual dexterity and sat taller…. Perhaps most improbably, their sight improved” as well as their hearing.  Given the seemingly miraculous outcomes, tiny sample size, and the unorthodoxy of the experiment, Langer decided not to publish at the time but continued to work on similar studies looking at how the mind affects the body.

Then, almost thirty years later, the BBC contacted her about staging a televised recreation of the monastery experiment, “with six aging former celebrities as guinea pigs,” who were transported back to 1975 by similar means. The stars “emerged after a week as apparently rejuvenated as Langer’s septuagenarians in New Hampshire.” These experiments and several others Langer has conducted over the years strongly suggest that chronological age is not a linear clock pushing us inexorably toward decline. It is, rather, a collection of variables that include psychological well-being and something called an “epigenetic clock,” a mechanism that UCLA geneticist Steve Horvath has discovered directly correlates with the aging process, and may show us how to change it.

But while Horvath has yet to answer several pressing questions about how certain genetic mechanisms interact, Langer has put such questions aside in favor of testing the mind-body connection in a series of experiments, which engage the aging—or people with specific conditions—in studies that stretch their minds. By creating illusions like the monastery time machine, Langer has found that perception has a significant effect on aging. If we perceive ourselves to be younger, healthier, more capable, more vibrant, despite the messages about how we should look and act at our chronological age, then our cells and tissues get the message. Not only can a change in perception affect aging, but also, Langer theorizes, obesity, cancer, diabetes, and other chronic or life-threatening conditions. Much of her research here gets spelled out in her book, Counterclockwise: Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility.

“Whether it’s about aging or anything else,” says Lager, “if you are surrounded by people who have certain expectations for you, you tend to meet those expectations, positive or negative.” The social expectation for the aging is that they will get weaker, less capable, and more prone to deterioration and illness. Ignoring these expectations and changing our perception of what chronological age means—and doesn’t mean—Langer says, seems to actually slow or partially reverse the decline and to ward off disease. Those psychological changes can come about through interventions like caring for children, plants, or animals and using mindfulness practices to learn how to be attentive to change.

You can read more about Langer and Horvath’s specific findings on aging, psychology, and epigenetics at Nautilus.

Note: you can get Langer's book--Counterclockwise Mindful Health and the Transformative Power of Possibility--as a free audiobook through Audible.com's free trial program. Get more details on the free trial here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

The Emperor of Japan, Akihito, Is Still Publishing Scientific Papers in His 80s

State Department photo by William Ng, via Wikimedia Commons

On April 30, 2019, Emperor Akihito of Japan will abdicate, and pass the throne to his son, Crown Prince Naruhito. What will he do in his retirement? Probably the same thing he has done most of his life: make “taxonomic studies of gobies,” as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan reports, “small fish found in fresh, brackish and marine waters.” Akihito has been a member of Japan’s Ichthyological Society of Japan for decades and “published 30 papers in the society’s journal between 1963 and 1989.”

Akihito ascended the throne in 1989, at age 56, and yes, Japan still has an emperor, though—since the post-war Constitution of 1947—the constitutional monarch has no political power and serves only a ceremonial role. This has left Akihito with a lot of time to fill with scientific pursuits: to become an honorary member of the Linnean Society of London, Zoological Society of London, and Research Institute for Natural Science of Argentina, and a research associate at the Australian Museum.




Emperor Akihito remained an active scientist in his emperorship, publishing a history of science article in Nature titled “Linnaeus and taxonomy in Japan” in 2007. In 2016, Akihito appeared as first author in a study published in Gene. The second author is his younger son, Crown Prince Fumihito Akishino, who studied fish taxonomy at St. John’s College, Oxford, then completed a doctoral degree in ornithology. The prince now serves as the president of the Yamashina Institute for Ornithology and the Japanese Association of Zoological Gardens and Aquariums.

The family’s interest in science goes beyond the dabbling of bored aristocrats or a sense of noblesse oblige. Fumihito introduced tilapia to Thailand as an important food source and has helped Thai scientists expand their aquacultural research. The Emperor’s brother, Prince Masahito, is a cancer researcher who has been recognized for making significant contributions to the field, publishing in journals like Cancer Research and the Journal of the International Union Against Cancer.

The Imperial family may represent an outmoded and archaic institution, one humankind can do just as well without. But it's refreshing to see people with such vast resources and privilege use them for the pursuit of intellectual inquiry and the betterment of human and animal life. You can read the first page of one of Emperor Akihito’s papers, “Early Cultivators of Science in Japan” at Science in which he makes a case for the global sharing of knowledge.

“Through my own study of ichthyology,” Akihito writes, “I have come to feel strongly the importance of international cooperation in conducting scientific studies. I recall with a sense of gratitude that behind each one of the papers I have published there has been the unsparing cooperation of people abroad.”

via Shahaf Peleg

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Explore an Interactive, Online Version of Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours, a 200-Year-Old Guide to the Colors of the Natural World

In a post earlier this year, we brought to your attention Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours. Used by artists and naturalists alike, the guide originally relied on written description alone, without any color to be found among its pages. Instead, in the late eighteenth century, German mineralogist Abraham Gottlob Werner painstakingly detailed the qualities of the 110 colors he surveyed, by reference to where they might be found on animals, vegetables, and minerals. The color “Pearl Gray,” for example, might be located on the “Backs of black headed and Kittwake Gulls,” the “Back of Petals of Purple Hetatica,” or on “Porcelain Jasper.”

The literary possibilities of this approach may seem vast. But its usefulness to those engaged in the visual arts—or in close observation of new species in, say, the Galapagos Islands—may have been somewhat lacking until Scottish painter Patrick Syme updated the guide in 1814 with color swatches, most of them using the very minerals Werner described.




It was the second edition of Syme's guide that accompanied Charles Darwin on his 1831 voyage aboard the HMS Beagle, where he “used it to catalogue the flora and fauna that later inspired his theory of natural selection,” as historian Daniel Lewis writes at Smithsonian.

While we might think of taxonomies of color as principally guiding artists, web designers, and house painters, they have been indispensable for scientists. “They can indicate when a plant or animal is a different species or a subspecies,” Lewis notes; “in the 19th century, the use of color to differentiate species was important for what it said about evolution and how species changed over time and from region to region.” For historians of science, therefore, Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours represents an essential tool in the early development of evolutionary biology.

Other color dictionaries followed, “designed to give people around the world a common vocabulary to describe the colors of everything from rocks and flowers to stars, birds, and postage stamps.” Some of these were highly specialized, such as the two-volume set created by the French Society of Chrysanthemists in 1905. All of them, however, strove to meet the high bar set by Werner when it came to level of detailed description. These are guides that speak in human terms, in contrast to the nomenclature most often used today, which “is really a machine language,” Kelsey Cambell-Dollaghan writes at Fast Company, “numerical hex codes crafted to communicate with software on computers and printers.”

In recognition of Werner and Syme’s contribution to color nomenclature, Smithsonian Books recently republished the 1814 edition of their guide, and the revised 1821 edition has been available for some time as scans at the Internet Archive. Now it has received a 21st update thanks to designer Nicholas Rougeux, who has created an online interactive version of the book, “with additions like data visualizations of its 100 colors and internet-sourced photographs of the animals and minerals that the book references"—a feature its creators could never have dreamed of. You can read Werner’s complete text, see all of the colors as illustrated and categorized by Syme, and even purchase through Rougeux's site cool 36” x 24” posters like that above, starting at $27.80.

It’s true, viewing the book online has its drawbacks, related to how Syme’s paint swatches are translated into hex codes, then displayed differently depending on various screen settings. But Rougeux has tried to compensate for this difference between print and screen. On a publicly accessible Google Doc, he has provided the hex codes “for each of the 18th-century hues, from Skimmed Milk (#e6e1c9) to Veinous Blood Red (#3f3033).” Not nearly as poetic as Werner’s descriptions, but it’s what we have to work with these days when reference books get written for computers as much as they do for humans.

See the interactive Werner’s Nomenclature of Colours here.

via Fast Company

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

How Ancient Scrolls, Charred by the Eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, Are Now Being Read by Particle Accelerators, 3D Modeling & Artificial Intelligence

Everyone knows that Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 AD, entombing the Roman town of Pompeii in ash. Almost everyone knows that it also did the same to several other towns, including wealthy Herculaneum on the Bay of Naples. Countless scholars have dedicated their lives to studying these unusually well-preserved first-century ruins and the historical treasures found within. We now understand a great deal about the layout, the structures, the social life of Herculaneum, but some aspects remain unknowable, such as the contents of the scrolls, charred beyond recognition, that fill its libraries — or at least that remained unknowable until now.

"In the 18th century, workmen employed by King Charles III of Spain, then in charge of much of southern Italy, discovered the remains of a magnificent villa, thought to have belonged to Lucius Calpurnius Piso Caesoninus (known as Piso), a wealthy statesman and the father-in-law of Julius Caesar," writes Smithsonian's Jo Marchant. There, "in what was to become one of the most frustrating archaeological discoveries ever, the workmen also found approximately 2,000 papyrus scrolls." But since the heat and gases of Vesuvius had turned them "black and hard like lumps of coal"  — and indeed, some of Charles III's workmen mistook them for coal and threw them away — attempts to open them "created a mess of fragile flakes that yielded only brief snippets of text."

The time of Charles III barely had sufficient know-how to avoid destroying the scrolls of Herculaneum, let alone to read them. That task turns out to demand even the most cutting-edge technology we have today, including custom-made 3D modeling software, artificial intelligence, and the most advanced x-ray facilities in existence. Marchant's article focuses on an American computer scientist named Brent Seales (Professor and Chair of Computer Science at the University of Kentucky), whose quest to read the Herculaneum scrolls has become a quest to develop a method to virtually "unroll" them. This requires not just the computing power and logic to determine how these blackened lumps (Seales calls two of them "Fat Bastard" and "Banana Boy") might originally have opened up, but the most advanced particle accelerators in the world to scan them in the first place.

You can read more about Seales' work with the Herculaneum scrolls, which after twenty years has shown real promise, at Mental Floss and Newsweek. Though quite expensive (demand for "beam time" on a particle accelerator being what it is), hugely time-consuming, and occasionally, in Seales' words, "excruciatingly frustrating," the invention of a reliable method for reading these and other seemingly lost texts from antiquity could make substantial additions to what we think of as the canon. (The texts revealed so far have had to do with the ideas of Epicurus, a primer on whose philosophy we've previously featured on Open Culture.) But gaining the fullest possible understanding of what our ancestors knew in the first century may first require a few more 21st-century developments in physics and computer science yet.

via Mental Floss

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Long-Lost Letter Shows How Galileo Tried to Fool the Inquisition & Escape Censure for Putting Scientific Truth Ahead of Church Dogma (1613)

“Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” wrote Emily Dickinson, “Success in Circuit lies.” No doubt she had more literary, or metaphysical, matters in mind than scientific. But for scientists working in times hostile to change, telling the truth, as they know it, can be dangerous. This applies to EPA scientists working today as it did 400 years ago to European astronomers, who faced censure—with possibly fatal consequences—for contradicting the official version of reality dictated by the Catholic Church and enforced by the Inquisition.

The story of Galileo Galilei’s infamous confrontation with what the Rice University Galileo Project calls that “permanent institution” of the Church, “charged with the eradication of heresies,” has swelled into legend, with the astronomer playing the part of a martyr for reason and evidence. Other versions, like Bertolt Brecht’s play Galileoportray him, writes The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik, not as “a martyr-hero but a turncoat, albeit one of genius.” Rather than standing on principle, he hedged and compromised.




A “newer (and, unsurprisingly, Church-endorsed) view,” writes Gopnik, “is that Galileo made needless trouble for himself by being impolitic," and that all the poor Church wanted, “as today’s intelligent designers now say,” was to “’teach the controversy’” between Copernican and Aristotelian theories. Whatever their interpretation, historians of the events leading up to Galileo’s conviction for heresy after the publication of his Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems now have a new piece of evidence to add to their assessment.

A letter, “long thought lost,” Nature reports, has reappeared, providing “the strongest evidence yet that, at the start of his battle with the religious authorities, Galileo actively engaged in damage control and tried to spread a toned-down version of his claims.” In the seven-page document, written to his friend Benedetto Castelli in 1613, Galileo “set out for the first time his arguments that scientific research should be free from theological doctrine.” Furthermore, and most damningly for him:

He argued that the scant references in the Bible to astronomical events should not be taken literally, because scribes had simplified these descriptions so that they could be understood by common people. Religious authorities who argued otherwise, he wrote, didn’t have the competence to judge. Most crucially, he reasoned that the heliocentric model of Earth orbiting the Sun, proposed by Polish astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus 70 years earlier, is not actually incompatible with the Bible.

Copies of the controversial letter circulated, and inevitably made their way into the hands of Inquisition authorities in 1615, forwarded by a Dominican friar named Niccolò Lorini. Alarmed, Galileo “wrote to his friend Piero Dini, a cleric in Rome, suggesting that the letter Lorini had sent to the Inquisition might have been doctored.” He enclosed another, less inflammatory, version, which he claimed was the original. He wrote of the “wickedness and ignorance” of those he claimed had tried to frame him. The Inquisitors, he wrote “may be in part deceived by this fraud which is going around under the cloak of zeal and charity.”

Historians have long known of the two letters, but were uncertain as to whose version of events to believe. The original of the Lorini copy was thought to have been lost, until its recent discovery by postdoctoral science historian Salvatore Ricciardo, who found it, of all places, in the Royal Society library, where it had sat unnoticed for 250 years. The original letter, which Castelli had returned to Galileo, shows edits in his own hand. “Beneath its scratchings-out and amendments, the signed copy discovered by Ricciardo shows Galileo’s original wording—and it is the same as in the Lorini copy” that landed him in trouble.

The evidence proves that Galileo strongly advocated for the Copernican system, and against Church interference in free inquiry, in 1613. In one passage of the letter, originally describing the Bible as “false if one goes by the literal meaning of the words,” Galileo crosses out “false” and inserts “look different from the truth.” In another reference to scripture as “concealing” the truth, he opts for the more theological-sounding “veiling.” The letter shows Galileo softening his views to escape condemnation, but it does not show him recanting in any way.

In 1616, the year after the Church received a copy of the first letter from Lorini and Galileo’s doctored version, he was warned to stop arguing for the Copernican model, though he later received assurances from Pope Urban VIII that he could continue to write about heliocentrism if he presented the idea as a mathematical proposition rather than a statement of fact. Of course, as we know, his continued support for the science earned him permanent house arrest in 1633, and centuries of enduring admiration from the opponents of dogmatic suppression of scientific knowledge.

via Nature

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

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