It was the end of an era; a time of rapidly changing population, politics, and cultural norms. Those who had been securely at the top of the economic and social structure were seeing immigrants and lower-class workers upending their time-honored hold on privilege and power. Demographics were shifting. New technology was changing how people lived, traveled, and communicated. Change was everywhere, and accelerating. And people felt a sense of dislocation from all that change.
In the midst of this unsettled pool of shifting tides and times came, also, new ideas. Radical ideas about rights, social obligations, and environmental science. Ideas that sparked great controversy, excitement, and outrage. For some, the new technologies and ideas were the dawn of an exciting new era. For others, they represented an ominous threat to moral living and world order.
But while the parallels are remarkable, the ideas sparking all that controversy weren't about global warming, gay or civil rights, immigration or universal healthcare. And the year wasn't 2009. It was 1859. The Illinois senator who would become President was still a senator, the house was not yet divided, and Queen Victoria was still on the throne. And the big environmental science idea being debated was Charles Darwin's Origin of the Species.
This fall marks the 150th anniversary of Darwin's earth-shattering tome (2009 is also, coincidentally, the 200th anniversary of his birth). So that would be reason enough to pay some extra attention to the matter. But given some of the parallels in terms of the forces and currents at play, a closer look at Darwin's work, the controversy it sparked, and its social, scientific, and long-term impact, could offer some interesting insights on current-day issues and debates, as well. Of course, Darwin's thoughts on evolution themselves are still being debated, 150 years later. So his work is as much current events as it is history.
Such was the thinking of Phil Terry when he set up the Darwin 150 project: a free, multi-part lecture/reading group/social networking event stretching from now until November 24th, the actual anniversary date of Darwin's publication. Terry is the founder of the non-profit organization Reading Odyssey, which has as its goal "getting adults to re-engage their intellectual curiosity through reading and discussion of great books and ideas," according to volunteer coordinator Kendall Crolius. The all-volunteer organization sponsors virtual reading groups of the classics ... which made the Darwin project a natural fit.
Wednesday evening marked the kick-off event for the fall series: a live web-cast/teleconference lecture by Harvard Professor Everett Mendelsohn on "The World Before Darwin." (An audio recording of the lecture is available here, the webcast will be available on the Darwin150 project website within the week.) For 90 minutes, I got to feel like I was back in college again, curiously absorbing new information, presented by a master lecturer. And I learned more than I think I ever knew about Darwin and the world he inherited.
The series includes four more free lecture/discussions by Pulitzer Prize-winner Jonathan Weiner, Professor Sean Carroll of the University of Wisconsin, the legendary E.O. Wilson, and a final panel presentation on November 24th by Gerald Edelman, Paul Ekman, and Terrence Deacon. Some of those lectures can be attended in person, as well as via the web or telephone. In addition a virtual reading group led by Harvard evolutionary biologist Stephanie Aktipis will read Darwin's Origin of the Species, starting in early October. And for those looking for something a little lighter, there's also the project's Facebook campaign, which has the goal of gathering 1 million members by the anniversary date.
In an era awash with quick sound bites, flip commentary, and instant reactions, the reasoned, thoughtful discussion about Darwin, his world, and his work was like slipping into a refreshing pool of quiet, measured reflection. It also reminded me that we are not the first, nor will we be the last, to live in controversial, changing, or turbulent times filled with progress, backlash and conflict. Fortunately, it seems we also have amazing survival instincts. Including the ability to evolve and adapt to keep pace with the changing world around us. And that, for sure, is something to celebrate.
(Photo: Flickr User kevindooley and Wikimedia Commons)
The Republican frontrunner repudiated a long litany of party orthodoxies in a contentious debate—but will that hurt his candidacy, or help it?
Donald Trump blamed the Bush administration for failing to heed CIA warnings before 9/11; denounced the Iraq War for destabilizing the Middle East; defended the use of eminent domain; promised to save Social Security without trimming benefits; and credited Planned Parenthood for “wonderful things having to do with women's health.”
He’s fresh off a crushing victory in New Hampshire, and the prohibitive favorite in the polls in South Carolina. Will his flouting of Republican orthodoxy sink his chances—or is it his very willingness to embrace these heterodox stances that has fueled his rise?
Even his rivals no longer seem certain of the answer. Jeb Bush, at one point, called Trump “a man who insults his way to the nomination.” He sounded like a man ruing a race that has run away from him.
Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.
Rather, it is what she calls a "micro-moment of positivity resonance." She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in "It's a Wonderful World" when he sang, "I see friends shaking hands, sayin 'how do you do?' / They're really sayin', 'I love you.'"
A passionate, complex conservative, Scalia forever changed how Americans think about original intent. Both liberals and conservatives now play by Scalia’s rules.
In 1996, Antonin Scalia assessed the legacy of the great liberal Justice William Brennan: “He is probably the most influential justice of the century.” Depending on future events, the legacy of the great conservative Scalia—who died Saturday at 79—may eclipse that of Brennan.
Scalia’s death is a monumental event; a Supreme Court without him is difficult to imagine. His legacy is so large and complex that it will take weeks simply to catalogue the questions he leaves behind.
By all accounts, in private Scalia was a figure of considerable charm to liberals and conservatives alike. As a public man, he was by turns impish, saturnine, quarrelsome, and penetrating. He set the terms of debate in the law in not one but two areas: the interpretation of statutes (which is the bulk of the Court’s docket) and the application of an 18th-century Constitution for 20th- and 21st-century needs. In statutory construction, he emphasized the text and the text alone. Before his ascendancy, it had been customary to infer the “intent” of the legislature from committee reports and statements by the measure’s sponsors. Scalia would not have that—only the words of the statute were law, he insisted; a reviewing court should apply only them. Though Scalia called his approach a modest one, the austere textual creed had the effect of placing judges at the center of the complex world of federal statutes. That said, it must be added that his background in the law of administrative agencies made him a careful reader—which a textualist ought to be. In cases with no ideological valence, it was clear that his colleagues often looked to him for legal guidance.
The GOP presidential candidate—and at least two of his rivals—are acting as if the meaning of the Constitution changes depending on the timing of the next election.
Antonin Scalia is dead. Is it legitimate for the Republican-controlled Senate to refrain from confirming a replacement for the late Supreme Court justice until a new president is elected, as Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson and others on the right have urged? Or does the Senate have an obligation to approve a qualified nominee put forth by President Obama, as many on the left argued as soon as news of the death broke?
The debate on Twitter was instantaneous. “The Democrat-controlled Senate confirmed Ronald Reagan's nominee to the Court, Anthony Kennedy, in his last year in office: 1988,” the liberal journalist Glenn Greenwald observed. Jim Antle, a paleoconservative, retorted with a Robert Bork reference, writing, “And it wouldn't quite have been in his final year if first choice had been confirmed in 1987.”
“During the 100 days before the relationship starts, we observe a slow but steady increase in the number of timeline posts shared between the future couple.”
Facebook might understand your romantic prospects better than you do.
In a blog post published yesterday, the company’s team of data scientists announced that statistical evidence hints at budding relationships before the relationships start.
As couples become couples, Facebook data scientist Carlos Diuk writes, the two people enter a period of courtship, during which timeline posts increase. After the couple makes it official, their posts on each others’ walls decrease—presumably because the happy two are spending more time together.
During the 100 days before the relationship starts, we observe a slow but steady increase in the number of timeline posts shared between the future couple. When the relationship starts ("day 0"), posts begin to decrease. We observe a peak of 1.67 posts per day 12 days before the relationship begins, and a lowest point of 1.53 posts per day 85 days into the relationship. Presumably, couples decide to spend more time together, courtship is off, and online interactions give way to more interactions in the physical world.
The passing of Antonin Scalia roils the presidential campaign and could leave the Supreme Court deadlocked until 2017. Will the Senate even consider a replacement nominated by President Obama?
The sudden death of Antonin Scalia, an associate justice of the United States Supreme Court, on Saturday morning will shake up American politics like few events in recent memory, reshaping the 2016 presidential campaign and potentially leaving the Supreme Court deadlocked for more than a year.
In the short term, President Obama will have to decide who to nominate to replace the voluble conservative jurist, and the Republican-led Senate will have to decide whether to even consider the president’s pick in the heat of the election campaign. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell immediately signaled that an Obama nominee would not get a vote this year. “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court justice,” the Kentucky Republican said in a statement. “Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.” CNN reported Saturday evening that Obama intends to nominate a new Supreme Court justice, setting up a potential confrontation with Republicans that would play out both on Capitol Hill and on the campaign trail.
Today’s empires are born on the web, and exert tremendous power in the material world.
Mark Zuckerberg hasn’t had the best week.
First, Facebook’s Free Basics platform was effectively banned in India. Then, a high-profile member of Facebook’s board of directors, the venture capitalist Marc Andreessen, sounded off about the decision to his nearly half-a-million Twitter followers with a stunning comment.
“Anti-colonialism has been economically catastrophic for the Indian people for decades,” Andreessen wrote. “Why stop now?”
After that, the Internet went nuts.
Andreessen deleted his tweet, apologized, and underscored that he is “100 percent opposed to colonialism” and “100 percent in favor of independence and freedom.” Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, followed up with his own Facebook post to say Andreessen’s comment was “deeply upsetting” to him, and not representative of the way he thinks “at all.”
The number of American teens who excel at advanced math has surged. Why?
On a sultry evening last July, a tall, soft-spoken 17-year-old named David Stoner and nearly 600 other math whizzes from all over the world sat huddled in small groups around wicker bistro tables, talking in low voices and obsessively refreshing the browsers on their laptops. The air in the cavernous lobby of the Lotus Hotel Pang Suan Kaew in Chiang Mai, Thailand, was humid, recalls Stoner, whose light South Carolina accent warms his carefully chosen words. The tension in the room made it seem especially heavy, like the atmosphere at a high-stakes poker tournament.
Stoner and five teammates were representing the United States in the 56th International Mathematical Olympiad. They figured they’d done pretty well over the two days of competition. God knows, they’d trained hard. Stoner, like his teammates, had endured a grueling regime for more than a year—practicing tricky problems over breakfast before school and taking on more problems late into the evening after he completed the homework for his college-level math classes. Sometimes, he sketched out proofs on the large dry-erase board his dad had installed in his bedroom. Most nights, he put himself to sleep reading books like New Problems in Euclidean Geometry and An Introduction to Diophantine Equations.
The Islamic State is no mere collection of psychopaths. It is a religious group with carefully considered beliefs, among them that it is a key agent of the coming apocalypse. Here’s what that means for its strategy—and for how to stop it.
What is the Islamic State?
Where did it come from, and what are its intentions? The simplicity of these questions can be deceiving, and few Western leaders seem to know the answers. In December, The New York Times published confidential comments by Major General Michael K. Nagata, the Special Operations commander for the United States in the Middle East, admitting that he had hardly begun figuring out the Islamic State’s appeal. “We have not defeated the idea,” he said. “We do not even understand the idea.” In the past year, President Obama has referred to the Islamic State, variously, as “not Islamic” and as al-Qaeda’s “jayvee team,” statements that reflected confusion about the group, and may have contributed to significant strategic errors.
Einstein’s gravitational waves rest on a genuinely radical idea.
After decades of anticipation, we have directly detected gravitational waves—ripples in spacetime traveling at the speed of light through the universe. Scientists at LIGO (the Laser Interferometic Gravitational-wave Observatory) have announced that they have measured waves coming from the inspiral of two massive black holes, providing a spectacular confirmation of Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, whose hundredth anniversary was celebrated just last year.
Finding gravitational waves indicates that Einstein was (once again) right, and opens a new window onto energetic events occurring around the universe. But there’s a deeper lesson, as well: a reminder of the central importance of locality, an idea that underlies much of modern physics.