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Lectures for a New Year: 2011 Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate (The Theory of Everything)

Time for some fairly deep physics -- strap yourselves in! For many decades, notions of a "theory of everything" have floated around scientific circles: can the universe be explained by a "unified theory," in other words a theory that unifies the theories of general relativity and quantum mechanics? Each of these theories works well in their realms (the very big and the very small), but trying to tie them together doesn't work easily. String theory is one of several possible ways to do this -- but there are others, and they all lack much in the way of testable proof. Some scientists continue to think that a unified theory is impossible.

On March 7, 2011, a six-member panel of scientists joined Neil deGrasse Tyson to discuss that elusive "theory of everything." For about an hour and a half, this distinguished group tears it up:

Dr. Katherine Freese, professor of physics at the University of Michigan

Dr. Jim Gates, professor of physics at the University of Maryland-College Park

Dr. Janna Levin, professor of physics and astronomy at Barnard College

Dr. Marcello Gleiser, professor of physics and astronomy at Dartmouth College

Dr. Brian Greene, professor of physics and mathematics at Columbia University

Dr. Lee Smolin, theoretical physicist at Perimeter Institute for Theoretical Physics

Topics: a report from Brian Greene on string theory (ten years after the first such panel), a discussion of the core problem(s) at hand, chirality, data is always just a year away, balloons, Flatland, gravitons, Adinkra symbols, and many other topics. To paraphrase what reader James said earlier this week in suggesting this discussion, the most bizarre and engaging part of this talk is when Dr. Gates raises the possibility that we all may indeed live in some form of The Matrix and are ourselves basically just mathematical/computer code. Want to know what's up with that? Watch.

For: science/physics nerds. The talk is aimed at the layman, though it may seem fairly technical to non-nerds.

Representative Quote: "Science is not about what's true or what might be true, science is about what people with originally diverse viewpoints can be forced to believe by the weight of public evidence." -Lee Smolin

Viewing tip: the introductions are nice, and they explain each panelist's background (two are high school dropouts!), but they are eminently skippable. If you want to get right into the discussion, skip ahead to about 17:00.

Further Reading

Several of these panelists, and NDT himself, have written great books. I'd recommend Brian Greene's books The Fabric of the Cosmos and The Hidden Reality.

Transcript

I haven't found a transcript of this discussion, and the auto-captions are awful. If you locate a good transcript, please point it out in the comments.

Suggest a Lecture

Got a favorite lecture? Is it online in some video format? Leave a comment and we'll check it out! Many thanks to reader James for suggesting this one.

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Trying to Save Money? Avoid Shopping on a Smartphone
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Today, Americans do most of their shopping online—but as anyone who’s indulged in late-night retail therapy likely knows, this convenience often can come with an added cost. Trying to curb expenses, but don't want to swear off the convenience of ordering groceries in your PJs? New research shows that shopping on a desktop computer instead of a mobile phone may help you avoid making foolish purchases, according to Co. Design. Ying Zhu, a marketing professor at the University of British Columbia-Okanagan, recently led a study to measure how touchscreen technology affects consumer behavior. Published in the Journal of Retailing and Consumer Services, her research found that people are more likely to make more frivolous, impulsive purchases if they’re shopping on their phones than if they’re facing a computer monitor. Zhu, along with study co-author Jeffrey Meyer of Bowling Green State University, ran a series of lab experiments on student participants to observe how different electronic devices affected shoppers’ thinking styles and intentions. Their aim was to see if subjects' purchasing goals changed when it came to buying frivolous things, like chocolate or massages, or more practical things, like food or office supplies. In one experiment, participants were randomly assigned to use a desktop or a touchscreen. Then, they were presented with an offer to purchase either a frivolous item (a $50 restaurant certificate for $30) or a useful one (a $50 grocery certificate for $30). These subjects used a three-point scale to gauge how likely they were to purchase the offer, and they also evaluated how practical or frivolous each item was. (Participants rated the restaurant certificate to be more indulgent than the grocery certificate.) Sure enough, the researchers found that participants had "significantly higher" purchase intentions for hedonic (i.e. pleasurable) products when buying on touchscreens than on desktops, according to the study. On the flip side, participants had significantly higher purchase intentions for utilitarian (i.e. practical) products while using desktops instead of touchscreens. "The playful and fun nature of the touchscreen enhances consumers' favor of hedonic products; while the logical and functional nature of a desktop endorses the consumers' preference for utilitarian products," Zhu explains in a press release. The study also found that participants using touchscreen technology scored significantly higher on "experiential thinking" than subjects using desktop computers, whereas those with desktop computers demonstrated higher scores for rational thinking. “When you’re in an experiential thinking mode, [you crave] excitement, a different experience,” Zhu explained to Co. Design. “When you’re on the desktop, with all the work emails, that interface puts you into a rational thinking style. While you’re in a rational thinking style, when you assess a product, you’ll look for something with functionality and specific uses.” Zhu’s advice for consumers looking to conserve cash? Stow away the smartphone when you’re itching to splurge on a guilty pleasure. [h/t Fast Company]
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Animals
Elusive Butterfly Sighted in Scotland for the First Time in 133 Years

Conditions weren’t looking too promising for the white-letter hairstreak, an elusive butterfly that’s native to the UK. Threatened by habitat loss, the butterfly's numbers have dwindled by 96 percent since the 1970s, and the insect hasn’t even been spotted in Scotland since 1884. So you can imagine the surprise lepidopterists felt when a white-letter hairstreak was seen feeding in a field in Berwickshire, Scotland earlier in August, according to The Guardian.

A man named Iain Cowe noticed the butterfly and managed to capture it on camera. “It is not every day that something as special as this is found when out and about on a regular butterfly foray,” Cowe said in a statement provided by the UK's Butterfly Conservation. “It was a very ragged and worn individual found feeding on ragwort in the grassy edge of an arable field.”

The white-letter hairstreak is a small brown butterfly with a white “W”-shaped streak on the underside of its wings and a small orange spot on its hindwings. It’s not easily sighted, as it tends to spend most of its life feeding and breeding in treetops.

The butterfly’s preferred habitat is the elm tree, but an outbreak of Dutch elm disease—first noted the 1970s—forced the white-letter hairstreak to find new homes and food sources as millions of Britain's elm trees died. The threatened species has slowly spread north, and experts are now hopeful that Scotland could be a good home for the insect. (Dutch elm disease does exist in Scotland, but the nation also has a good amount of disease-resistant Wych elms.)

If a breeding colony is confirmed, the white-letter hairstreak will bump Scotland’s number of butterfly species that live and breed in the country up to 34. “We don’t have many butterfly species in Scotland so one more is very nice to have,” Paul Kirkland, director of Butterfly Conservation Scotland, said in a statement.

Prior to 1884, the only confirmed sighting of a white-letter hairstreak in Scotland was in 1859. However, the insect’s newfound presence in Scotland comes at a cost: The UK’s butterflies are moving north due to climate change, and the white-letter hairstreak’s arrival is “almost certainly due to the warming climate,” Kirkland said.

[h/t The Guardian]

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