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.


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.

Suggest a Lecture

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What Pop Culture Gets Wrong About Dissociative Identity Disorder

From the characters in Fight Club to Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, popular culture is filled with "split" personalities. These dramatic figures might be entertaining, but they're rarely (if ever) scientifically accurate, SciShow Psych's Hank Green explains in the channel's latest video. Most representations contribute to a collective misunderstanding of dissociative identity disorder, or DID, which was once known as multiple personality disorder.

Experts often disagree about DID's diagnostic criteria, what causes it, and in some cases, whether it exists at all. Many, however, agree that people with DID don't have multiple figures living inside their heads, all clamoring to take over their body at a moment's notice. Those with DID do have fragmented personalities, which can cause lapses of memory, psychological distress, and impaired daily function, among other side effects.

Learn more about DID (and what the media gets wrong about mental illness) by watching the video below.

Scientists Reveal Long-Hidden Text in Alexander Hamilton Letter

Age, deterioration, and water damage are just a few of the reasons historians can be short on information that was once readily available on paper. Sometimes, it’s simply a case of missing pages. Other times, researchers can see “lost” text right under their noses.

One example: a letter written by Alexander Hamilton to his future wife, Elizabeth Schuyler, on September 6, 1780. On the surface, it looked very much like a rant about a Revolutionary War skirmish in Camden, South Carolina. But Hamilton scholars were excited by the 14 lines of writing in the first paragraph that had been crossed out. If they could be read, they might reveal some new dimension to one of the better-known Founding Fathers.

Using the practice of multispectral imaging—sometimes called hyperspectral imaging—conservationists at the Library of Congress were recently able to shine a new light on what someone had attempted to scrub out. In multispectral imaging, different wavelengths of light are “bounced” off the paper to reveal (or hide) different ink pigments. By examining a document through these different wavelengths, investigators can tune in to faded or obscured handwriting and make it visible to the naked eye.

A hyperspectral image of Alexander Hamilton's handwriting
Hyperspectral imaging of Hamilton's handwriting, from being obscured (top) to isolated and revealed (bottom).
Library of Congress

The text revealed a more emotional and romantic side to Hamilton, who had used the lines to woo Elizabeth. Technicians uncovered most of what he had written, with words in brackets still obscured and inferred:

Do you know my sensations when I see the
sweet characters from your hand? Yes you do,
by comparing [them] with your [own]
for my Betsey [loves] me and is [acquainted]
with all the joys of fondness. [Would] you
[exchange] them my dear for any other worthy
blessings? Is there any thing you would put
in competition[,] with one glowing [kiss] of
[unreadable], anticipate the delights we [unreadable]
in the unrestrained intercourses of wedded love,
and bet your heart joins mine in [fervent]
[wishes] to heaven that [all obstacles] and [interruptions]
May [be] speedily [removed].

Hamilton and Elizabeth Schuyler married on December 14, 1780. So why did Hamilton try and hide such romantic words during or after their courtship? He probably didn’t. Historians believe that his son, John Church Hamilton, crossed them out before publishing the letter as a part of a book of his father’s correspondence. He may have considered the passage a little too sexy for mass consumption.

[h/t Library of Congress]


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