Next Week, Avoid The Zombies

The 2014 IdeaFestival kicks-off next week in Louisville and will feature nearly 30 events. One of which involves surviving the great zombie apocalypse! California-based mathematician Sarah Eichhorn and neurobiologist Andrea Nicholas will discuss when the zombie apocalypse happens how math and science will help ensure our survival. But in keeping with the IF DNA we will also explore how these ideas might apply to real world threats like natural disasters or infectious disease epidemics (think Ebola).

See you next week.

Kris Kimel

Tyler Cowen - Average is Over

In Average Is Over, George Mason University economist Tyler Cowen delivers good news and bad news with nearly equal enthusiasm. Joseph R. Stromberg

Tyler Cowen is an economist, writer and academic at George Mason University, and has been named one of the most influential economists of the past decade.

"There has never before more opportunity. The best education had never been better. The highest earners have never earned more," he begins. But for most Americans, wages have become lower over the past decade. There has been no net job growth in that period of time.

Average is over.

In a world of data, of measurement and information technology, people and organizations either do very well or not well at all. "The middle is becoming thinner. The tails are thicker," he explains, referencing the statistics. The share of national wealth taken home by labor is falling. Cowen runs through a series of slides to drive home the point that wealth no longer naturally accrues to the middle class. Thanks to public support, the poor, he says, are "somewhat" better off, the middle class are worse off, and the wealthy, much wealthier than before.

Two trends are driving economic developments today: "information technology and automation." It's hard to compete with computers, and mid- or low-level white collar jobs are rapidly disappearing.

For many technological sectors outside of consumer information technology, the pace of changes has slowed dramatically. The designs for general aviation planes, Cowen points out, date to the 1960s and earlier. The Concorde that flew over his Northern Virginia home when he was a younger man did not, as it turns out, point to an inviolable future of widespread progress. His home, built in the 1950s, functions well but has not as a technology been dramatically improved upon. Technological change outside of information technology is happening at the margins.

History will record that the post World War II era of expansion was a special period, the exception, not the rule. The future will be unevenly distributed, with middle class missing out on the country's relative wealth. Cowen believes that 20 percent of the population in the next decade will have incomes equivalent to today's millionaires.

"That's nice, but also troubling." Male earners ages 18 - 40 have been by far the biggest losers. Women, who increasingly are better educated, are doing correspondingly better. Home ownership is down. The savings rate among the young will be a problem for the country in future years, Cowen says.

Even though there is more access to information than at any time in history, "it's hard to be a flat out optimist." But from there, he pivots to the good news. He believes the economically prosperous people in the future will be those who "love ideas," those who can "intelligently apply the humanities." That sounds good to us.

Hearing Cowen talk, I was reminded of Daniel Pink's well-known 2005 Wired article, "Revenge of the Right Brain," which described how future individual success would be tied to value-added activities. Given widespread access to knowledge, the "meaning makers" would prosper.

For Cowen, the individuals with "thick skins" who generally understand technology (but are not necessarily technologists), those who exercise intuition and conscientiousness will succeed.

In the concluding question and answer session, Cowen says he believes an "obsessive" focus on science, technology, engineering and math, the so-called STEM degrees, is a mistake. "Remember that [Facebook founder] Mark Zuckerberg was majoring in psychology."

Cowen asks, rather, will those STEM graduate in what will undoubtedly be a technology-driven and automated world also understand people?

His advice: cultivate "the universals that cannot be outsourced." That will be the differentiator. 


Lee Billings - "Planets Pour Out of the Sky"

“Two possibilities exist: either we are alone in the Universe or we are not. Both are equally terrifying.” Arthur C. Clarke

Lee Billings is the author of Five Billion Years of Solitude and is speaking today at the IdeaFestival. He starts at the VERY beginning.

It's been 13.8 billion years. "Let me congratulate you on the improbable achievement of being here.... Most of the universe is empty space."

Spreading his arms wide, he suggests that if all of time were contained within his reach, human existence could be scraped away with a nail file. Moreover, cosmically speaking, we are perhaps nearer the end of complex life on earth than its beginning. And if we want to have a future after the next 500 million years, when planetary life will become untenable because of the changes in our sun, we might want to think of alternatives. We're capable, he says, of "choosing our own cosmic fate."

In the meantime, the search for life elsewhere "can give valuable context to life right here on this small cosmic speck of dust." Turning to the subject of his talk today, he points out that science and technological progress tell us that planetary formation is common.

In fact, planets are now "pouring out of the sky." He believes that 10,000 confirmed finds will soon be in the exoplanet catalog, which only came into existence in the past 20 or so years. Plotting those finds on a graph overhead, he points to "walls of worlds" discovered in just the past three or four years thanks to the space telescope Kepler. Interestingly, he says, Kepler has told us that OUR planetary system is atypical. 

Billings walks the audience through two basic exoplanet detection techniques, the transiting and radial velocity methods. "Wobbles give you size. Transiting gives you mass." Kepler uses the transiting method.

The data so far, he is quick to add, doesn't support some of the wilder claims for habitable Earths that have reached the popular press. We're just in the formative stages of a new science. He explains that as late as the 1950's, many informed scientists believed that Venus might be a terrific place to live. It's emblematic, he says, of where exoplanetology is today.

Since direct observation of worlds tens of thousands of light years away is problematic because the competing light from the host star overwhelms the reflected light from nearby planets, we know what we know about the suitability of worlds for life based, in part, on how light interacts with chemicals as it passes through a planet's atmosphere on its way to our telescopes. Those signatures can be teased out in spectrographic prints to tell us what what molecules are present above the host body.

Thanks to that technique and the evidence offered by robotic explorers, we now know that Venus' crushing atmosphere is suffering from a runaway greenhouse effect. It would be a terrible place to live.

In the next few years, the enormous James Webb telescope will be able to peer at nearby stars to look for water vapor. And we could fund additional searches, but the trade-offs in a time of budget cuts are hard. One proposed exoplanetary telescope, for example, was killed in favor of funding two more Space Shuttle missions.

Meanwhile, "the planets are piling up." Asked during Q&A about what it would mean to find microbial life in our own planetary neighborhood, Billings believes it would be "disconcerting." If primitive life thives nearby, it means that, like planatary formation, it too is a common phenomenon.

And since we haven't heard from intelligent life elsewhere, is there a "filter" along this developmental path that prevents intelligent civilizations from flourishing?

The question lingers.


Jason Padgett - We Need Every Kind of Mind

Jason Padgett, an aspiring mathematician and number theorist, is one of very few individuals in the world with acquired savant syndrome. He wasn't always this way.

He scraped by in high school by copying the work of his friends, and only graduated because one of those friends did his homework for him for a final.

Padgett: "That gives you an idea about how seriously I took school.... I had a very shallow life."

But one night outside of a karaoke bar, his life was changed dramatically. He was severely beaten in a mugging gone wrong.

"Immediately, everything," quite literally, "looked different." He explains that he began to see motion as a series of discreet events, much like how a mechanical flip book might display moving images.

One day, obsessively drawing fractals and Pi, he heard Daniel Tammet talk about synesthesia. Padgett realized that Tammet's experience was much like his, and that the experience of seeing the world as start and stop, as a series of shapes and numbers, was not unique. While the attack had left him with serious post-traumatic stress syndrome and in self-imposed exile away from anyone and everyone outside his home, the feeling he had for the first time in a long time was one of overwhelming relief. His condition had a name.

As he explained, "I didn't want to be that crazy guy who didn't know he was crazy."

He put some of his mathematical drawings online tagged with the word "synesthesia," and an expert on the condition contacted him. Functional MRIs later revealed that he had "conscious access," in his words, to parts of the brain that most humans "don't have access to." Physical changes in his brain could explain his attraction to Pi and his intense interest in mathematics.

Watching Padgett talk, it's clear that the recovery process, understandably, is ongoing. No longer that disinterested young man - his words - content to get by, he has a curiosity about the world around him. He explains that he feels much more deeply than he did in his old life. Moreover, he connects the interior landscape smeared with numbers and a developing skill in advanced mathematics to a person that has been changed for the better.

Describing why the Doppler effect is the result of compressing sound waves, which we hear as a higher pitch sound as they approach and a gradually lowered pitch noise as they expand and move away, he connects that phenomenon to special relativity. Using the wave-like property of light, astronomers, he explains, are able to measure "red shift" to approximate the immense distances in the universe. In a poetic turn, he says that if an observer were able to stand with him while he rushed away at the speed of light while another were to remain stationary, the blue shirt he was wearing today would appear red to person left behind, while his companion would continue to see blue. Relativistic physics are well established in that regard. But "in fact," he adds, "if everyone in the universe could see him" at that moment, his shirt would be every color.

His point: we need every kind of mind.

In the following question and answer session, Padgett tells the audience in evident disbelief that a movie of his life will be opening in the next year or so. Channing Tatum will play him. "And," he adds, a bit chuffed at the idea, "he is taking math classes to prepare for the role."


Claudia Hammond - Time Warped, Our Minds Play Tricks on Us

As often happens at the IdeaFestival, we begin asking more questions than we can answer. Such is the case at this afternoon’s Time Warped session with Claudia Hammond.

BBC reporter and psychologist, Hammond has been mulling over the question of time-perception for quite a while (in real time). 

She opens today’s talk by describing what happened to Alan Johnston, a BBC journalist who was kidnapped and held hostage in Gaza for four months.

“When the gun was put to his head,” Hammond says, “time slowed down.”

Johnston had no watch or clock. He could not see the sun rise or fall. He began to contemplate the psychology of time.

We often hear how a moment can feel like an eternity. But this is not just a cliche— it’s real.

And even less extreme cases, Hammond reminds us, illustrate the point. A 30-minute lunch break with a friend will often feel rushed; if you’re spending that time waiting in line, it’s a different story.

Hammond is interested in the psychology of time. How does time FEEL? Our minds, she says, are vulnerable; time can play tricks on us.

Psychologists have shown ways that we can be manipulated.

In 2003, psychologists gave 50 people name tags and asked them to chat with others in the group. Afterwards, the subjects were asked to form pairs with the people they were getting along with. Then, the experimenter took half of the group aside, each person individually, and told them (falsely) that no one had selected them as a partner. The experimenters told the other half (falsely) that everyone had selected them as partner. Then, each person proceeded to work on a task individually.

The rejected group, perhaps not surprisingly, felt time pass more slowly. 

So emotional state has an effect on time-perception. Happy people perceive time moving faster. Depressed people feel time passing more slowly.

“We actively construct in our mind how much time is passing,” Hammond says. 

Emotions play into time-perception in another way; the experiences we find meaningful (as well as new experiences) resonate more deeply; we will feel time moving more slowly through those moments.

Are you paying attention?


Hope Reese @hope_reese

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