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Lectures for a New Year: God, the Universe, and Everything Else

Ready for a spectacular late-80s treat? Here we have Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking, and Arthur C. Clarke in discussion with Magnus Magnusson shortly after Hawking's A Brief History of Time was published. This discussion was sparked by the book (Sagan wrote the introduction), and it shows three visionaries at a time in history when Hawking's book was a massive bestseller. In addition to the men on stage, Sagan joins via satellite (which we're reminded was nominally invented, or at least envisioned in great detail, by Clarke in his writing), and a desktop computer (possibly an Amiga?) sits next to Clarke, displaying the Mandelbrot set -- and he gives a demo of his favorite regions of the set at one point during the discussion. This is geeky in the extreme.

I should point out that during this discussion, the men continually refer to the possible impending doom of the human species. They frequently discuss future work as being possible "if we don't destroy ourselves." It's important to understand that in 1988, the world was still gripped by the Cold War, Soviet forces were in Afghanistan, and the USSR was on the brink of collapse. The Berlin Wall had not yet fallen. It was a tense time. You can perceive a mixture of wonder, hope, and mild existential dread in the faces of these luminaries.

Topics: how Hawking's voice synthesizer works (remember when that had to be explained?), the school system discouraging fundamental questions, the Big Bang, the scientific method applied to the science of cosmology, astrology (briefly), infinity, black holes, imaginary time, fun with mathematics at their most abstruse, fiddling with fractals, is there a limit to the small-scale complexity of the universe?, the role of science fiction, Voyager's Golden Record, optimism from an emerging civilization, the Cold War, Mars, religion, and poetry.

For: anyone interested in science. Really -- if Sagan, Hawking, and Clarke in the same program doesn't interest you, this isn't your thing. If the concept does interest you, it's fifty minutes of wondrous contemplation.

Representative quote:

"We are the product of a grand evolutionary sequence -- cosmic evolution -- about which we are only occasionally aware. One of the great accomplishments of Doctor Hawking is to plug us better in to the knowledge of this long evolutionary sequence." -Carl Sagan

Further Reading

All three of these men wrote extensively, and I could point to dozens of books here. But the relevant one for this particular discussion is the (updated) classic The Illustrated Brief History of Time, Updated and Expanded Edition.

Transcript

I haven't located a transcript, and for some reason the YouTube/Google auto-caption function is disabled for this video. That's a shame, as the audio here is quite good, so auto-captions should work well if they could be enabled. It would be amusing to see how well the system could re-convert Hawking's speech synthesis back into text, but alas, not today.

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Animals
How a Pregnant Rhino Named Victoria Could Save an Entire Subspecies
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Sudan, the last male member of the northern white rhino subspecies, while being shipped to Kenya in 2009
Tony Karumba, AFP/Getty Images

The last male northern white rhino died at a conservancy in Kenya earlier this year, prompting fears that the subspecies was finally done for after decades of heavy poaching. Scientists say there's still hope, though, and they're banking on a pregnant rhino named Victoria at the San Diego Zoo, according to the Associated Press.

Victoria is actually a southern white rhino, but the two subspecies are related. Only two northern white rhinos survive, but neither of the females in Kenya are able to reproduce. Victoria was successfully impregnated through artificial insemination, and if she successfully carries her calf to term in 16 to 18 months, scientists say she might be able to serve as a surrogate mother and propagate the northern white rhino species.

But how would that work if no male northern rhinos survive? As the AP explains, scientists are working to recreate northern white rhino embryos using genetic technology. The San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research has the frozen cell lines of 12 different northern white rhinos, which can be transformed into stem cells—and ultimately, sperm and eggs. The sperm of the last northern white male rhino, Sudan, was also saved before he died.

Scientists have been monitoring six female southern white rhinos at the San Diego Zoo to see if any emerge as likely candidates for surrogacy. However, it's not easy to artificially inseminate a rhino, and there have been few successful births in the past. There's still a fighting chance, though, and scientists ultimately hope they'll be able to build up a herd of five to 15 northern white rhinos over the next few decades.

[h/t Time Magazine]

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entertainment
Why Our Brains Love Plot Twists
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From the father-son reveal in The Empire Strikes Back to the shocking realization at the end of The Sixth Sense, everyone loves a good plot twist. It's not the element of surprise that makes them so enjoyable, though. It's largely the set-up, according to cognitive scientist Vera Tobin.

Tobin, a researcher at Case Western Reserve University, writes for The Conversationthat one of the most enjoyable moments of a film or novel comes after the big reveal, when we get to go back and look at the clues we may have missed. "The most satisfying surprises get their power from giving us a fresh, better way of making sense of the material that came before," Tobin writes. "This is another opportunity for stories to turn the curse of knowledge to their advantage."

The curse of knowledge, Tobin explains, refers to a psychological effect in which knowledge affects our perception and "trips us up in a lot of ways." For instance, a puzzle always seems easier than it really is after we've learned how to solve it, and once we know which team won a baseball game, we tend to overestimate how likely that particular outcome was.

Good writers know this intuitively and use it to their advantage to craft narratives that will make audiences want to review key points of the story. The end of The Sixth Sense, for example, replays earlier scenes of the movie to clue viewers in to the fact that Bruce Willis's character has been dead the whole time—a fact which seems all too obvious in hindsight, thanks to the curse of knowledge.

This is also why writers often incorporate red herrings—or false clues—into their works. In light of this evidence, movie spoilers don't seem so terrible after all. According to one study, even when the plot twist is known in advance, viewers still experience suspense. Indeed, several studies have shown that spoilers can even enhance enjoyment because they improve "fluency," or a viewer's ability to process and understand the story.

Still, spoilers are pretty universally hated—the Russo brothers even distributed fake drafts of Avengers: Infinity War to prevent key plot points from being leaked—so it's probably best not to go shouting the end of this summer's big blockbuster before your friends have seen it.

[h/t The Conversation]

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