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The 2010s: what just happened?

THE 2010s were the decade in which we were reminded that science is just a method, like the rhythm method. And just like the rhythm method, it can be more or less rigorously applied, sabotaged, overrated, underrated and ignored. If you don’t treat it with respect, you may not get the optimal result, but that’s not the method’s fault…

Ice mountains on Pluto

This article was first published in The Guardian on 26 December 2019. To continue reading, click here.

 

There was no Axial “Age”

IT’S an idea that has been influential for more than 200 years: around the middle of the first millennium BC, humanity passed through a psychological watershed and became modern. This ‘Axial Age’ transformed an archaic world of divine rulers, slavery and human sacrifice into a more enlightened era that valued social justice, family values and the rule of law. The appeal of the general concept is such that some have claimed humanity is now experiencing a second Axial Age driven by rapid population growth and technological change. Yet according to the largest ever cross-cultural survey of historical and archaeological data, the first of these ages never happened — or at least unfolded differently from the originally proposed narrative…

Karl Jaspers, 1946

This article was first published in Nature on 9 December 2019. To continue reading, click here.

History as a giant data set

IN its first issue of 2010, the scientific journal Nature looked forward to a dazzling decade of progress. By 2020, experimental devices connected to the internet would deduce our search queries by directly monitoring our brain signals. Crops would exist that doubled their biomass in three hours. Humanity would be well on the way to ending its dependency on fossil fuels…

Joan of Arc by Dante Gabriel Rossetti (1882)

This article first appeared in The Guardian on 12 November 2019. To continue reading, click here.

Who owns life?

NEXT week, delegates will gather in Rome to discuss a question that could have profound implications for global biodiversity, food security and public health. Stripped of technical language, it boils down to this: who owns life? …

Josie Ford for New Scientist

This article was first published in New Scientist on 6 November 2019. To continue reading, click here (paywall).

 

 

Tongue twisters

IN 1882, linguists were electrified by the publication of a lost language—one supposedly spoken by the extinct Taensa people of Louisiana—because it bore hardly any relation to the languages of other Native American peoples of that region. The Taensa grammar was so unusual they were convinced it could teach them something momentous either about the region’s history, or the way that languages evolve, or both…

George Catlin (American, 1796 – 1872 ), Chief of the Taensa Indians Receiving La Salle. March 20, 1682, 1847/1848, oil on canvas, Paul Mellon Collection

This article was first published in Slate on 30 October 2019. To continue reading, click here.