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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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This Just In
Lincoln’s Famous Letter of Condolence to a Grieving Mother Was Likely Penned by His Secretary
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Brown University Library, Wikipedia/Public Domain

Despite his lack of formal schooling, Abraham Lincoln was a famously eloquent writer. One of his most renowned compositions is the so-called “Bixby letter,” a short yet poignant missive the president sent a widow in Boston who was believed to have lost five sons during the Civil War. But as Newsweek reports, new research published in the journal Digital Scholarship in the Humanities [PDF] suggests that Lincoln’s private secretary and assistant, John Hay, actually composed the dispatch.

The letter to Lydia Bixby was written in November 1864 at the request of William Shouler, the adjutant general of Massachusetts, and state governor John Albion Andrew. “I feel how weak and fruitless must be any word of mine which should attempt to beguile you from the grief of a loss so overwhelming,” it read. “But I cannot refrain from tendering you the consolation that may be found in the thanks of the Republic they died to save.”

Unknown to Lincoln, Bixby had actually only lost two sons in battle; the others had deserted the army, were honorably discharged, or died a prisoner of war. Nevertheless, word of the compassionate presidential gesture spread when the Boston Evening Transcript reprinted a copy of the 139-word letter for all to read.

Nobody quite knows what happened to Bixby’s original letter—some say she was a Confederate sympathizer and immediately burnt it—but for years, scholars debated whether Hay was its true author.

During Hay’s lifetime, the former secretary-turned-statesman had reportedly told several people in confidence that he—not Lincoln—had written the renowned composition, TIME reports. The rumor spread after Hay's death, but some experts interpreted the admission to mean that Hay had transcribed the letter, or had copied it from a draft.

To answer the question once and for all, a team of forensic linguists in England used a text analysis technique called n-gram tracing, which identifies the frequency of linguistic sequences in a short piece of writing to determine its true author. They tested 500 texts by Hay and 500 by Lincoln before analyzing the Bixby letter, the researchers explained in a statement quoted by Newsweek.

“Nearly 90 percent of the time, the method identified Hay as the author of the letter, with the analysis being inconclusive in the rest of the cases,” the linguists concluded.

According to Atlas Obscura, the team plans to present its findings at the International Corpus Linguistics Conference, which will take place at England’s University of Birmingham from Monday, July 24 to Friday, July 28.

[h/t Newsweek]

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science
These Deep-Sea Worms Could Live More Than a Thousand Years

Plunge below the sparkling surface of the Gulf of Mexico, head down into the depths, and there you'll find the ancient ones, growing in clusters of drab tubes like piles of construction equipment. Scientists writing in the journal The Science of Nature report that some of these worms could be more than 1000 years old.

When it comes to marine organisms, the deeper you go, the slower and older life gets. Biologists have found an octopus that guarded her eggs for four and a half years. They've seen clams born during the Ming dynasty and sharks older than the United States. They've seen communities of coral that have been around for millennia.

Previous studies have shown that some species of tube worm can live to be 250 years old. To find out if the same was true for other species—in this case, the Gulf of Mexico's Escarpia laminata—researchers spent years watching them grow. They used a long-lasting dye called Acid Blue to mark six clusters of worms, then let them to go about their wormy business. A year later, they collected all 356 blue-stained tubes and brought them back to the lab to measure their growth.

By calculating the speed of the worms' growth and comparing it to the size of the largest individuals, the scientists could devise a pretty good estimate of the oldest worms' age.

And boy, are they old. The researchers' worm-growth simulation suggested that the most ancient individuals could be more than 9000 years old. This seems incredible, even for tough old tube worms, so the scientists calculated a more conservative maximum age: a mere 1000 years.

A millennium-long lifespan is an extreme and not the average, the paper authors note. "There may indeed be large E. laminata over 1000 years old in nature, but given our research, we are more confident reporting a life span of at least 250 to 300 years," lead author Alanna Durkin of Temple University told New Scientist.

Still, Durkin says, "E. laminata is pushing the bounds of what we thought was possible for longevity."

She's excited by the prospect of finding older creatures yet.

"It's possible that new record-breaking life spans will be discovered in the deep sea,” she says, “since we are finding new species and new habitats almost every time we send down a submersible.”

 

[h/t New Scientist]

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