From a talk by Richard Dawkins on man’s perception of the universe:

It’s worth recalling Wittgenstein’s remark on the subject. “Tell me,” he asked a friend, “Why do people always say it was natural for man to assume that the Sun went round the Earth, rather than that the Earth was rotating?” His friend replied, “Well obviously because it just looks as though the Sun is going round the Earth”. And Wittgenstein replied, “Well, what would it have looked like if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?”

We are conditioned by who we are, and indeed by what we are, to see things a certain way. That doesn’t mean that we can’t perceive things in a different way (though, as Dawkins argues, that might sometimes be the case), but it does mean that we need to make an effort to avoid falling into the easy default. Often those defaults are handy (well that bottle of bleach might contain champagne, but I’m going to guess it’s just bleach), but many are not. Even more significant, most of our assumptions are unseen; we don’t even know that we’re assuming them. So why don’t you go home today and find something you’ve been taking for granted and challenge it? Unless it’s your wife, of course; I’m trying to challenge you, not get you killed.

The entire video is well worth watching:

Bonus! In a related video David Deutsch points out how untypical our place in the universe is. If we were in a typical place in the universe it would be pitch black; you wouldn’t see anything. If you were then to look at the nearest star at the exact moment it exploded in a supernova, you still wouldn’t see anything 🙂

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Yet another reason not to be a whale. I’m watching a documentary about spaceflight, including the challenges of, um, intimate relations in space. Among problems such as nausea there’s the practical issue of tending to float apart. The ‘we haven’t officially endorsed any solution but it we did this would be it’ solution is some sort of elasticated harness, which at the very least should be fun to get on.

You may be wanting to point out that whales are hardly ever found in space, and you’d be right. But they do exist in a near-zero gravity environment, and hence have similar problems. And their complete lack of elastic webbing means they’ve had to come up with an alternate approach, which is to have another whale swimming around to nudge the couple back into position as needed.

Now I don’t know about you, but I struggle to pee if there’s someone stood behind me, never mind having someone else along for the ride. And given that whales live in pods with other family members… well, no thanks.

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I was listening to a podcast about microbes this morning. For some reason the fact that we have more microbe cells in our bodies then human cells has become quite a popular fact at the moment; it’s understandable, as it’s pretty damned freaky. A related fact from the podcast was that the average pinch of soil contains more microbes than there are people on Earth (and by extension, that the average tablespoon contains more microbes than there have ever been on the planet).

The most striking thing, though, was that to study microbes, until very recently, step 1 was to culture large enough quantities that you could work with them. And only around 1% of microbes can be cultured. That means, as one of the interviewees pointed out lest there be any doubt, that we know nothing about 99% of microbes. In the last couple of decades we’ve advanced to the point where we can analyze the DNA of the microbes to learn something about that 99%, but the technology and our understanding are still young.

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I’ll see your bacon number and raise you… Erdős–Bacon number. Paul Erdős was a mathematician who published some 1,500 papers with 509 different collaborators, in some way paralleling the prolific career of Kevin Bacon. As with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game that gives actors a Bacon number according to the number of co-stars required to link them to Mr Bacon, published academics can be assigned an Erdős number.

Still with me? Then here’s the cool bit. There are a number of academics who have made small cameo appearances in movies, mostly in recognition of advice they have given. But there are a small number of ‘proper’ actors/actresses who have also co-authored academic papers. The two most notable are Natalie Portman and Danica McKellar. In case you’re stuck, McKellar was Winnie Cooper in The Wonder Years. She was rather attractive then; in fact if you are male and currently aged between 30 and 40 I’d hazard that you either had a crush on her or you didn’t have a TV. And now…well let’s just say that it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, she’s smoking hot. She’s also the McKellar of the Chayes-McKellar-Winn Theorem