The mind tries to understand the world in terms of concepts, most of which are dressed in language and in some cases, in mathematics.
But our conceptual understanding of the world suffers from a chicken-and-egg problem: where do the concepts in which this understanding is modeled come from in the first place? How can you build a new theory with old terminology and make sure that it doesn’t suffer from the implicit assumptions inherent in the terminology?
The 18th-century empiricist around Locke, Hume, and Berkeley still exert a strong influence on the way modern science is thought of and thinks…
“‘Tristan und Isolde’ is the central work of all music history, the hub of the wheel… I have spent my life since I first read it, trying to solve it. It is incredibly prophetic.”
- Leonard Bernstein
Richard Wagner’s opera Tristan and Isolde from 1865 was one of the most important events in the history of classical music. Taking up the medieval story of the star-crossed lovers Tristan and Isolde that fall intensely in love after accidentally drinking a love potion, Wagner transformed the material into a spiritual reflection on love, death, and transcendence.
There is no country, no town…
The Large Hadron Collider (LHC) is one of the most intricate machines mankind has ever built. When it’s running, every second approximately one billion particles smash into each other at velocities close to the speed of light, probing physics beyond the edges of the current standard model of particle physics.
A lot can happen in these one billion particle collisions, and immense detectors are built around the ring of the LHC to not miss out on anything important. But such large quantities of collisions, coupled with complex detectors, generate a lot of data. Seriously, it’s a lot of data. …
We write the 14th century, and the times are tough. A plague is afoot, killing a third of the population in some parts of Europe, and no one really knows what is going on.
The Paris Academy, one of the major scientific institution of its day, is hard at work trying to explain the rise of what is later to be known as the Bubonic plague. After 3 years of consultation, they release a report. To their credit, it opens quite sensibly:
Seeing things which cannot be explained, even by the most gifted intellects, initially stirs the human mind to…
“Look beneath the surface; let not the several quality of a thing nor its worth escape thee.”
― Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Science firmly rests on the power of observation. Models triumph or fall after they are compared to observations in the real world.
But in more sophisticated models, something very complicated can happen beyond the surface of what is actually being observed, and it is not always clear how to relate the limited scope of the observables available to our limited human faculties to complex underlying processes.
As the story goes, adversity builds character.
As another story goes, Ian Goodfellow was drinking was his friends one night when an idea occurred to him that would have a big impact on the landscape of machine learning. It sounded good in theory, sounded good in the realm of speculative discussion over beer among friends, but with many things that sound good in theory, it doesn’t necessarily follow that they will also be sound in practice.
So Ian Goodfellow went home and implemented his idea. It was a relatively simple idea, so it took him only a couple of hours…
Traditionally, human beings are said to have five senses: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch.
Our senses bring us into contact with the outside world. All we know about the world has to come in through our sensory organs before it can be processed and made sense of.
Our senses have developed to serve an evolutionary need. While in our fishy ancestral times, we spent our days underwater, not being able to see very far around us, eyesight improved dramatically on land to deal with the constant threat of snakes and the likes slithering into our field of vision, threatening to…
It’s scary how much people believe in science.
Immanuel Kant, perhaps the most important philosopher of modernity, hated determinism. How could man retain what made him most humane in the face of the unfolding clockwork of the universe? (Wo)man, after all, is (wo)man only because she chooses, and choosing what is right allows her to act morally, allows her to realize her innermost humaneness.
If it were possible to know the position and velocity of every particle in the universe, then we could predict with utter precision the future of those particles and, therefore, the future of the…
“Two souls, alas, dwell in my breast,
each seeks to rule without the other.
- Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust
At the end of the 18th and beginning of the 19th century, a movement erupted in Europe that Isaiah Berlin (in his fantastic lectures on Romanticism, on which some of this article is based) would later call “the most dramatic shift in the history of European consciousness”. From the order of the century of Enlightenment, of “le siècle des lumières”, broke forth with violence a new mode of thinking about the world and of being in the world.
“If the doors of perception were cleansed, every thing would appear to man as it is, Infinite. For man has closed himself up, till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern.”
In our everyday life, we inhabit a low-resolution version of the world. Cognition is expensive, and so when we live in familiar surroundings, our brains go into energy-saving mode. …