Tags: science



Thursday, February 21st, 2019


Over on the Failed Architecture site, there’s a piece about Kevin Lynch’s 1960 book The Image Of The City. It’s kind of fun to look back at a work like that, from today’s vantage point of ubiquitous GPS and smartphones with maps that bestow God-like wayfinding. How much did Lynch—or any other futurist from the past—get right about our present?

Quite a bit, as it turns out.

Lynch invented the term ‘imageability’ to describe the degree to which the urban environment can be perceived as a clear and coherent mental image. Reshaping the city is one way to increase imageability. But what if the cognitive map were complemented by some external device? Lynch proposed that this too could strengthen the mental image and effectively support navigation.

Past visions of the future can be a lot of fun. Matt Novak’s Paleofuture blog is testament to that. Present visions of the future are rarely as enjoyable. But every so often, one comes along…

Kevin Kelly has a new piece in Wired magazine about Augmented Reality. He suggests we don’t call it AR. Sounds good to me. Instead, he proposes we use David Gelernter’s term “the mirrorworld”.

I like it! I feel like the term won’t age well, but that’s not the point. The term “cyberspace” hasn’t aged well either—it sounds positively retro now—but Gibson’s term served its purpose in prompting discussing and spurring excitement. I feel like Kelly’s “mirrorworld” could do the same.

Incidentally, the mirrorworld has already made an appearance in the William Gibson book Spook Country in the form of locative art:

Locative art, a melding of global positioning technology to virtual reality, is the new wrinkle in Gibson’s matrix. One locative artist, for example, plants a virtual image of F. Scott Fitzgerald dying at the very spot where, in fact, he had his Hollywood heart attack, and does the same for River Phoenix and his fatal overdose.

Yup, that sounds like the mirrorworld:

Time is a dimension in the mirror­world that can be adjusted. Unlike the real world, but very much like the world of software apps, you will be able to scroll back.

Now look, normally I’m wary to the point of cynicism when it comes to breathless evocations of fantastical futures extropolated from a barely functioning technology of today, but damn, if Kevin Kelly’s enthusiasm isn’t infectious! He invokes Borges. He acknowledges the challenges. But mostly he pumps up the excitement by baldly stating possible outcomes as though they are inevitabilities:

We will hyperlink objects into a network of the physical, just as the web hyperlinked words, producing marvelous benefits and new products.

When he really gets going, we enter into some next-level science-fictional domains:

The mirrorworld will be a world governed by light rays zipping around, coming into cameras, leaving displays, entering eyes, a never-­ending stream of photons painting forms that we walk through and visible ghosts that we touch. The laws of light will govern what is possible.

And then we get sentences like this:

History will be a verb.

I kind of love it. I mean, I’m sure we’ll look back on it one day and laugh, shaking our heads at its naivety, but for right now, it’s kind of refreshing to read something so unabashedly hopeful and so wildly optimistic.

Why Behavioral Scientists Need to Think Harder About the Future - Behavioral Scientist

Speculative fiction as a tool for change:

We need to think harder about the future and ask: What if our policies, institutions, and societies didn’t have to be organized as they are now? Good science fiction taps us into a rich seam of radical answers to this question.

Tuesday, February 19th, 2019

An Interview with Nick Harkaway: Algorithmic Futures, Literary Fractals, and Mimetic Immortality - Los Angeles Review of Books

Nick Harkaway on technology in fiction:

Humans without tools are not magically pure; they’re just unvaccinated, cold, and wet.

SF is how we get to know ourselves, either who we are or who we might be. In terms of what is authentically human, SF has a claim to be vastly more honest and important than a literary fiction that refuses to admit the existence of the modern and goes in search of a kind of essential humanness which exists by itself, rather than in the intersection of people, economics, culture, and science which is where we all inevitably live. It’s like saying you can only really understand a flame if you get rid of the candle. Good luck with that.

And on Borges:

He was a genius, and he left this cryptic, brilliant body of work that’s poetic, incomplete, astonishing. It’s like a tasting menu in a restaurant where they let you smell things that go to other tables and never arrive at yours.

Sunday, February 17th, 2019

Is the universe pro-life? The Fermi paradox can help explain — Quartz

Living things are just a better way for nature to dissipate energy and increase the universe’s entropy.

No anthropocentric exceptionalism here; just the laws of thermodynamics.

According to the inevitable life theory, biological systems spontaneously emerge because they more efficiently disperse, or “dissipate” energy, thereby increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In other words, life is thermodynamically favorable.

As a consequence of this fact, something that seems almost magical happens, but there is nothing supernatural about it. When an inanimate system of particles, like a group of atoms, is bombarded with flowing energy (such as concentrated currents of electricity or heat), that system will often self-organize into a more complex configuration—specifically an arrangement that allows the system to more efficiently dissipate the incoming energy, converting it into entropy.

Saturday, February 16th, 2019

Sunday, February 10th, 2019

CodePen - Solar System 3D Animation (Pure CSS)

This orrery is really quite wonderful! Not only is it a great demonstration of what CSS can do, it’s a really accurate visualisation of the solar system.

Monday, January 28th, 2019

The 500-Year-Long Science Experiment - The Atlantic

Running an experiment for 500 years is hard enough. Then there’s the documentation…

The hard part is ensuring someone will continue doing this on schedule well into the future. The team left a USB stick with instructions, which Möller realizes is far from adequate, given how quickly digital technology becomes obsolete. They also left a hard copy, on paper. “But think about 500-year-old paper,” he says, how it would yellow and crumble. “Should we carve it in stone? Do we have to carve it in a metal plate?” But what if someone who cannot read the writing comes along and decides to take the metal plate as a cool, shiny relic, as tomb raiders once did when looting ancient tombs?

No strategy is likely to be completely foolproof 500 years later. So the team asks that researchers at each 25-year time point copy the instructions so that they remain linguistically and technologically up to date.

Sunday, January 6th, 2019

Arc 1.x/The first year of the future (PDF)

The first hit of Arc is free—a PDF with the a selection of the best sci-fi short stories from the publications first year, featuring China Miéville, Bruce Sterling, and many more.

Thursday, January 3rd, 2019

Elemental haiku

An ode for every element in the periodic table, in the form of a haiku.

Sunday, December 9th, 2018

The Case Against Quantum Computing - IEEE Spectrum

This is the best explanation of quantum computing I’ve read. I mean, it’s not like I can judge its veracity, but I could actually understand it.

Thursday, December 6th, 2018

WALL·E | Typeset In The Future

A deep dive into Pixar’s sci-fi masterpiece, featuring entertaining detours to communist propaganda and Disney theme parks.

Wednesday, November 21st, 2018

Folding Beijing - Uncanny Magazine

The terrific Hugo-winning short story about inequality, urban planning, and automation, written by Hao Jinfang and translated by Ken Liu (who translated The Three Body Problem series).

Hao Jinfang also wrote this essay about the story:

I’ve been troubled by inequality for a long time. When I majored in physics as an undergraduate, I once stared at the distribution curve for American household income that showed profound inequality, and tried to fit the data against black-body distribution or Maxwell–Boltzmann distribution. I wanted to know how such a curve came about, and whether it implied some kind of universality: something as natural as particle energy distribution functions, so natural it led to despair.

Saturday, November 17th, 2018

New kilogram standard: how the SI unit of mass is being redefined - Vox

A fascinating look at standards in the real world. In this case, it’s the kilogram, which is shedding its French Revolutionary roots in favour of the Planck constant.

Our messy human measurements have transcended their messy humanness; they have been melded with an eternal truth.

Mention of The Master Of The Kilogram reminded me of The Keeper Of Time.

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2018

Escape from Spiderhead | The New Yorker

Madeline sent me a link to this short story from 2010, saying:

It’s like if Margaret Atwood and Thomas Pynchon wrote an episode of Black Mirror. I think you’ll like it!

Yes, and yes.

Saturday, September 22nd, 2018


Another great sci-fi short film from Dust.

Thursday, September 6th, 2018

fascism in sci-fi | Sci-fi interfaces

Chris is putting his examination of interfaces in science fiction on pause while he examines a more pressing matter for today’s political climate—an examination of depictions of fascism in science fiction:

  1. Sci-fi interfaces and fascism
  2. A surprisingly empty survey: Strong fascism in screen sci-fi
  3. Why is strong fascism missing in screen sci-fi?

Sunday, August 5th, 2018

Joymaker by Frederik Pohl from The Age of The Pussyfoot

From Frederik Pohl’s 1966 novel:

The remote-access computer transponder called the “joymaker” is your most valuable single possession in your new life. If you can imagine a combination of telephone, credit card, alarm clock, pocket bar, reference library, and full-time secretary, you will have sketched some of the functions provided by your joymaker.

Essentially, it is a transponder connecting you with the central computing facilities of the city in which you reside on a shared-time, self-programming basis.

Tuesday, July 31st, 2018

Neodymium – Popula

Magnets: How Do They Work?

Magnetism might be the most romantic of all the topics in science to be metaphorically butchered by poets.

Monday, July 23rd, 2018

Astronomical Typography

Typography meets astronomy in 16th century books like the Astronomicum Caesareum.

It is arguably the most typographically impressive scientific manual of the sixteenth century. Owen Gingerich claimed it, “the most spectacular contribution of the book-maker’s art to sixteenth-century science.”

Thursday, July 12th, 2018

Unchained: A story of love, loss, and blockchain - MIT Technology Review

A near-future sci-fi short by Hannu Rajaniemi that’s right on the zeitgest money.

The app in her AR glasses showed the car icon crawling along the winding forest road. In a few minutes, it would reach the sharp right turn where the road met the lake. The turn was marked by a road sign she had carefully defaced the previous day, with tiny dabs of white paint. Nearly invisible to a human, they nevertheless fooled image recognition nets into classifying the sign as a tree.