ON 3 November 1793, in the thick of The Terror, the porter of the disaffected Val-de-Grâce abbey in Paris took advantage of the general commotion to slip into a stairway that led into the network of tunnels under the capital, and set off in search of treasure…
This article first appeared in The Idler around 1 January 2018. To continue reading, subscribe here or hunt it down in WHSmiths or bookshops.
WHEN, in 1996, French nun Mariannick Caniou found out she didn’t have Huntington’s disease, the lethal, degenerative genetic disorder, she fell into a depression. Throughout her life, she had been convinced that she would develop the illness that had killed her mother and grandmother. So convinced, in fact, that all her most important decisions had been based on that conviction: her decision not to marry, for example, or not to have children. She didn’t regret her decision to enter the religious life, but now she had to wonder if the specter of Huntington’s had haunted that too: “Everything I had built, my life, seemed no more substantial than air…”
This article first appeared in Slate on 29 September 2017. To continue reading, click here.
COMPUTER scientist Luc Steels uses artificial intelligence to explore the origins and evolution of language. He is best known for his 1999–2001 Talking Heads Experiment, in which robots had to construct a language from scratch to communicate with each other. Now Steels, who works at the Free University of Brussels (VUB), has composed an opera based on the legend of Faust, with a twenty-first-century twist. He talks about Mozart as a nascent computer programmer, how music maps onto language, and the blurred boundaries of a digitized world….
This article first appeared in Nature on 14 September 2017. To continue reading, click here.
WHAT makes someone prepared to die for an idea? This is a question that concerns anthropologist Scott Atran of the University of Oxford’s Centre for Resolution of Intractable Conflicts. Research he has led in some of the most embattled regions of the world, including in Mosul, suggests the answer comes in two parts. Jihadists fuse their individual identity with that of the group, and they adhere to “sacred values”…
This article first appeared in New Scientist on 19 August 2017. To read more, click here.
YOSBELY Soto Soto shares a corrugated iron hut with her two sons on the shores of Venezuela’s Lake Maracaibo. The heat inside has been unbearable since her husband left her a few years ago, taking the air conditioner with him. The 32-year-old has to beg for food to feed herself and her children, something made all the harder because she is shunned by her community. So too are her brother and sister, who like Yosbely have Huntington’s disease…
This article first appeared in Brain on 25 July 2017. To continue reading, click here.