What Is Outside of the Box?

By James Wallace Harris, Friday, October 9, 2015

We are constantly advised to think outside of the box. This usually comes on the job, when a breakthrough is needed because doing things the old ways are obviously no longer working. But what is outside the box? For a CPA, it might be new ways to shelter taxes, or for a NASA engineer, a completely novel way to land a rover on Mars, but for most people it means, “Try thinking other than the way you’ve always thought.”


To understand how that’s done really requires knowing what’s in the box and what’s outside the box. I like to think of the box as our skull. Our brains are inside a bone box, connected to the outer world by five sensory input ports. You can read 2,500 years of philosophy about what’s outside the box, but it essentially comes down to three things. Solipsistic thinkers believe only the self exists and there’s nothing outside the box. It’s all an illusion. Theistic thinkers believe we are souls embedded in a physical reality created by God, that obscures a greater spiritual reality . Finally, scientific thinkers believe there is a vast singular objective reality outside our heads that can be understood through gathering evidence with scientific and statistical methods using our five senses.

Each of these viewpoints can hinder the perception of what’s outside of the box through rigid adherence to beliefs about what might potentially be outside the box. Which is why we’re constantly told to think outside the box. If you believe your religion explains what’s outside the box, then why are there so many other religions? Which one explains reality? If you believe the religion you were brought up to believe, how can you know if you’re not culturally brainwashed? To think outside the box would require studying a good sampling of all religions, and then deciding which theological ontology is the most valid, if any. Any scientist who’s heard the phrase paradigm shift will understand their own potential for rigid thinking that blinds them to something new.

Inside our heads, we build the walls of our box with cultural brainwashing. Most people think the way they do because they were taught to think that way by parents and peers. We seldom escape that original packaging. Anyone who is completely confident in believing what they were taught are delusional. And even when taking on new views, it’s very easy to take on new delusions about what’s outside the box. Can we ever really know what’s exists outside our skulls?

It’s very easy to find masters of hidden wisdom who to claim to teach the ultimate secrets to what’s outside of the box. Just watch this entertaining video about thinking outside the box. It’s a come-on for the esoteric belief in hidden knowledge called Kabbalah. I highly recommend watching this video because it’s very convincing. And that’s the trouble, there’s an infinity of convincing cases made to what’s outside the box. There are plenty of other ancient systems of hidden knowledge, like Gnosticism and Pythagoreanism. Folks have been trying to figure out what’s outside the box for thousands and thousands of years. Yuval Noah Harari suggests in his book Sapiens that humans have been inventing ideas since the cognitive revolution 17,000 years ago. Homo sapiens are experts as making shit up—it might be our defining characteristic.

For the last five hundred years, science has been trying to measure data from outside the box by looking for consistent behavior. During the time it has developed an extremely statistically consistent view of what’s outside the box. It’s precise down to enough decimal places to allow scientists to send probes to Pluto billions of miles away or let giant heavy-than-air jumbo jets fly around the world.

We all live in a subjective reality created by our minds which give us delusions that we know what’s outside the box. We’d like to believe there an objective reality that is the same for all seven billion of us to perceive. Subjective reality might be too powerful to ever let us comprehend what’s outside the box. Culturally we carry the baggage of thousands of years of religious and philosophical thinking that provide no actual evidence to what’s outside the box. Zen Buddhists work to teach people to see directly with their senses and forget corrupting concepts, but few people can do that.

Often to think outside of the box requires us to stop thinking inside the box. It helps to let new concepts inside.

If you’re following the 2016 U.S. Presidential campaign, so far all the candidates are rigidly thinking inside their boxes, and so are the voters. Essentially politics have become a way to form coalitions of like minded subjective thinkers, usually based on the same moldy old issues inspired by subjective desires. If there is an objective reality out there, we must work on the actual problems that we face to let us live safely in that objective reality. If it’s a solipsistic or metaphysical reality, it hardly matters. Sadly, most voters are seeking candidates that validate their delusions. Isn’t time we all start wondering what’s actually outside our boxes?


JWH #971

The Science Fiction in The Martian

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, October 5, 2015

Most folks call The Martian science fiction, even when most of the articles I read about the book and movie praise its science. After I thought about it, I find it very difficult to find anything science fictional about The Martian. When does fiction mutate into science fiction? Science fiction has always been notoriously hard to define. Does rocketships and a Mars setting automatically make The Martian science fiction? Is being set slightly in the future make it science fiction? In terms of publishing categories and movie marketing labeling, it’s pretty natural to call The Martian science fiction, but I’m wondering if that’s old habit or lazy convenience.


Don’t get me wrong, I love super hard science fiction that doesn’t stray far from scientific laws. But from the vantage point of when I grew up back in the 1950s and 1960s, our lives in the 2010s are already science fictional. So it’s hard to discern everyday far out from imaginative far out. The Martian would definitely be science fiction if it was written back when Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke and Isaac Asimov were telling stories about going to Mars hoping to inspire humanity to really go. Isn’t Andy Weir and his work a child of science fiction, but not necessarily science fiction? Aren’t we too close to going to Mars for stories about going to Mars to be called science fiction?

One reviewer said The Martian should just be called fiction. Even if we haven’t gone to Mars yet, it doesn’t mean a story about going to Mars is science fiction. Science fiction speculates about the possibilities of what science might discover, and The Martian uses science that engineers routinely apply now to existing space missions. About the only fantastic speculation I can see The Martian is the belief that the United States will spend trillions of dollars on a Mars mission sometime in the near future. The only area where I see Ridley Scott pushing believability is the scale of his Mars rockets, rovers, habitats and equipment. It’s been a while since I read the book, so I don’t remember if Andy Weir imagined everything so big.

Science fiction is about a sense of wonder that pushes the limits of knowledge. Sure it’s often unbelievable and even ultimately unscientific, and although science fiction is fantastic like fantasy fiction, science fiction is something we want to believe is possible even though it’s probably not. The Martian is far out, and has tremendous sense of wonder, but isn’t it too mundane to be science fiction? Isn’t it really just fiction? We could do everything in The Martian if Uncle Sam would write NASA a big enough check. And I say again, that’s about the only thing I think is science fictional in The Martian.

I’m wondering if there are qualities to science fiction that we don’t understand. That it’s too easy to call anything about the future, or anything that takes place in outer space as science fiction. Maybe we don’t know what to point to when we’re looking for the essence of science fiction. For 99.9% of people, science fiction is the perfect label for The Martian. The book and movie are wonderful, inspiring and filled with a powerful sense of wonder. I think they make people feel like they used to when they were kids reading science fiction for the first time. However, I think there is something more to science fiction. Something elusive that we can’t easily pin down. Something that we long for when we’re old, and wish we could find it again. I’m not sure that’s in The Martian. I believe it has too much science for that ineffable quality.

Nor do I mean any criticism of The Martian by thinking about not calling it science fiction. It’s a standout story and movie. I was just wondering when times get so close to science fictional if we need to reserve the label for stories a little more into the twilight zone.


Why Science is Not Myth

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, June 29, 2015

My book club was discussing Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari when Linda said she liked how the author compared capitalism to religion. Tim replied that many things are like religion, including atheism. Cayce then added everything boils down to myths, including science. I knew what Tim and Cayce were getting at, that we all use our beliefs like a religion, and that we understand aspects of reality through stories, but I objected that science should be called another myth. Cayce then countered that I should show him a photograph of an electron. Tim then commented that science often gets corrupted and misused. Cayce then said that science can’t prove anything, and can only offer a probability that never approached certainty.


I wanted to argue more, but by then, it seemed like we were getting into a private discussion, boring the rest of the group. However, I think it’s extremely important to define why science is not myth. First I think we need to define the word myth. For our purposes I’d say myths are stories that explain reality. However, one definition of myth is a false story – “That’s just a myth.” I’m not sure if Cayce was arguing that science is a myth because it’s just another story explaining reality, or that no story can explain the absolute truth about reality, so they are all myths.

I believe it’s important to distinguish that science is not myth because it’s the only cognitive tool our species has developed to explain how reality works. Myths, religions and philosophy have failed at explaining reality, and what sets science apart is its success. Science is the only system of thought that has consistently worked even though it doesn’t offer absolute certainty, or answers to all questions.

One reason why myths sometimes appear to work is believers assume our reality is not the real reality, that we live in an illusion, and a higher reality contains the truth to our existence. Some believers in myths believe reality is mutable and thought can shape reality. However, I’m working on the assumption that there is an external reality, that it’s part of a single reality, and reality can be understood by observation.

To assume science is just another myth, is to suggest that reality is unknowable. It implies that the knowledge we’ve gained from science is just another illusion. I reject that for two reasons. First, science is a method, not a belief. Second, the results of science is too consistent.

Myths impose concepts on reality. Science reveals patterns in reality. Myths come from the inner world of our subjective minds. Science studies objective reality outside our brains. Science and myth are polar opposites.

Too many people today think the data collected by the process of scientific research as something you can accept or reject. There are two problems here. One, the current results of science can be uncertain, and two, people want to believe what they want to believe. It’s unfair to judge science because people don’t like the results, or the results are inconclusive. Science constantly refines what we know about reality because it never stops gatherings new information. Myths never do that.

Myths are popular memes. We keep myths going because people like them. For instance the idea of heaven. There has never been on shred of evidence that heaven exists, but most people believe in it.

Myths are ideas we want to be true. Scientific ideas are ones we prove to be true. Myths require no evidence. Science does.

The reason science is not myth is because science is a technique not an idea. The results of the scientific method are statistical data. Mythology produces infinite possibilities. Science shows us consistent patterns.

Science does not depend on belief. Gravity works whether you believe in it or not. So does evolution and climate change. Electrons exist without us seeing them. Seven billion plus people use electrons every day. Electrons are immensely dependable and predictable. Cayce was holding an iPhone when he asked for a photograph of an electron. I should have pointed out that an iPhone is better evidence of electrons than any picture.

Mythology produced countless human cultures before the advent of science. Since the advent of science culture is homogenizing around consistent scientific results. The Comanche of North America, the Australian aborigines, or even the Israelites of the Old Testament could imagine living in any kind of reality they wanted, but they could never have built a Boeing 777 or IMAX theater. Citizens around the Earth are seeing a consistent reality because science showed us how to build cars, computers, cell phones and CT scanners.

Humans around the globe rebel against science because they want their myths. This is why I’m making such a fuss about refusing to accept science as myth. We have a clear choice. We can live in the illusion of what we want to believe, or we can use science to study how reality actually works and adapt our minds and culture to what’s real.


A Different Flavor of Science Fiction–The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, February 3, 2015

The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert is fiction about the heart of science. Alma Whittaker, the protagonist represents the empirical ideal, while Ambrose Pike stands in for the mystical and metaphysical. The Signature of All Things is another kind of science fiction, a story about scientific thinking, set in the 19th century, the century where the scientist came into being, the century where we turned from reading the word of God to reading all things natural, the century where evolution was revealed as the driving force of creation.

I love The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert so much that I hunger to know how it was written. This book is such a perfect mixture of historical detail, psychological realism and imagined characterization that it becomes deeply philosophical, going well beyond just a great story. I can’t help but believe it’s Gilbert’s personal statement about the nature of reality. I don’t know if Alma Whittaker is Elizabeth Gilbert, but she’s probably the woman Gilbert would want to be if she lived in the 19th century. Don’t let any prejudice about Gilbert’s earlier books keep you from reading this one.

If you love stories of the 19th century, especially ones about natural philosophers becoming scientists, then you should read The Signature of All Things. Gilbert’s sprawling tale covers two lifetimes beginning in the 18th century and ending in the 19th, and includes sea voyages, botany, biology, lithography, Tahiti, Captain Cook, Joseph Banks, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russell Wallace. This time around, we get to live an alternate history where there is a woman scientist, Alma Whittaker, who made some very great discoveries on her own. Alma Whittaker is the person you’d want to be if you could reincarnate backwards in time.

If you’ve ever fantasized about living in the 19th century and becoming an amateur scientist yourself, The Signature of All Things is among the more detailed of such fantasies. Science fiction has always looked to the future, but the future hasn’t turned out to be everything it was cracked up to be, so many science fiction fans have turned to fantasy, and many of them love steampunk, a retro look at the Victorian era. This book isn’t steampunk, but it wears the same appealing fashions. I think there are many deep rooted psychological reasons why us futurists have turned to look backwards to Darwin and Dickens. This book is historical, but not quite historical fiction. It has intense sense of wonder, but it’s not science fiction, not in the traditional sense, but it should appeal to the science minded person.

Science fiction itself evolved out of Victorian era sense of wonders, and we grew up believing in lone inventors who could master the magical incantations of science. We love all those butterfly collections, scientific sea voyages and dinosaur hunters.

Orchid lithograph

The Signature of All Things is a love letter to those who embrace the natural world over the metaphysical.

The entire time I read The Signature of All Things I kept wondering how Gilbert imagined her novel. I’d gladly buy The Making of The Signature of All Things if Gilbert would write it. The book is an amazing feat of imagination, research, inspiration and psychology. In one sense it’s a feminist fantasy, and on the other hand, it’s a fantasy for anyone who reveres the 19th century. I got on the Internet hoping to find clues as to how and why Gilbert wrote this novel, and I luckily discovered that Gilbert had a Pinterest page devoted to The Signature of All Things. The financial success of Eat, Pray, Love let Gilbert spend three years researching The Signature of All Things. Few writers get such an opportunity, and her hard work paid off in a big way.

The first fifty pages of the book is about Henry Whittaker, a fascinating character that could have easily overshadowed the main character, his daughter Alma. Alma Whittaker is the ultimate free-range child educated by her stern Dutch mother, Beatrix. Alma was born January 5, 1800, so she ages with the century. Alma grows up on a huge estate outside of Philadelphia, and her father invited the most interesting men in the world to visit. Even as a child, Alma was expected to carry on an adult conversation at the dinner table. She mastered many living and dead languages, read everything in her father’s large library, and taught herself to become a botanist, specializing in mosses.

I can’t begin to chronicle all the ideas in this novel. Gilbert distilled her three years research into five hundred pages of fiction, and on almost every page, I wondered about her choice of detail to reveal. The book is tightly plotted, with an abundance of vivid characters, and the reader travels around the world three times. And it’s not until the end, that everything finally comes together. It’s a very satisfying ending, yet I wanted to know more. I wanted to know how and why Gilbert made her writing decisions.  I found some of the answers I sought in this interview:

Victorian scientists were big on developing classification systems, mapping every scrap of land and sea, inventing coordinate grids and measurement systems, taxonomies, and most of all, collecting. Science in the time of Dickens was small enough in scope, that most intelligent individuals could be well-versed generalists. There is a special kind of appeal to science before relativity and quantum mechanics. A gentleman or gentlewoman with a microscope and telescope could confirm most of what they read, and it was still possible to keep up with the reading in most fields.

Alma Whittaker, is a woman that wants to understand, and through almost endless hardships, becomes enlightened.


Faith in Science

I am reading The Innovators by Walter Isaacson, an overview of the men and women who brought about the age of computers. At other times during the day I’m listening to The Glass Cage by Nicholas Carr, a book about how automation is making humans dumber. Isaacson gives the history of computers starting when they were first imagined as mechanical devices, but really came into being as electronic devices using vacuum tubes, and finally evolving into solid state devices we know today after the invention of the transistor.

Here’s my problem. I can sort of visualize how a mechanical calculator works, at least for adding and subtraction, but beyond that my brain explodes. I especially can’t conceive of how vacuum tubes were used to make a digital computer. I started taking computer programming classes in 1971, and even passed two semesters of assembly language. I used to be pretty good at binary and hexadecimal arithmetic.  But it’s extremely hard for me to imagine how a computer actually works. Essentially, it’s all magic, and I just accept that it’s possible to build a computer according to the laws of science – but my acceptance is really faith in science.

Nicholas Carr believes the more work we give to computers the dumber humans will become. Watch these two videos, and tell me if you understand them. The first is from 1943 and is about the basics of a vacuum tube, obviously a device essential to most of industrial progress at the time, but a forgotten tech today.

This is the technology that scientists used to build the first electronic programmable computers. Can you in any way conceive of how they get from vacuum tube to data processing? How much would I have to know to understand how the first computers were assembled? I keep reading about vacuum tubes, and even though I get a slight glimpse into their nature, I cannot for the life of me imagine how they were used to create a machine to do arithmetic, and show the results – much less understand the commands of a programming language, no matter how primitive that language.

I then thought maybe I’d understand vacuum tubes better if I could understand how they were made.  I found this film.

This film makes me mightily impressed with scientists of the late 19th and early 20th century. If civilization collapsed it would be a very long time before we could ever reinvent the vacuum tube, much less a computer.

What these two short films show me is human knowledge is divvied up so everyone learns extremely tiny pieces of total knowledge, but collectively we can create magical machines like an iPhone 6. A smartphone represents countless forms of expertise I will never understand, or even fathom with any kind of analogous modeling. An iPhone 6 probably has the equivalent of billions of vacuum tubes as transistors shrunk down into a solid state that are only individually visible with an electron microscope. It’s fucking magic. There’s no way around it. I know it’s science, but to my mind any mumbo jumbo I come up with to explain the miracle of a smartphone is no better than the incantations in a Harry Potter novel.

Wouldn’t it be great if we all were Renaissance beings that knew everything the entire human race had learned up to this point? Would we all have more respect for science if our K-12 education had been about recreating how we got to our current level of technology? What kind of curriculum would be required so that each graduating class had to build an ENIAC to earn their high school diplomas? That would only put them 70 years behind the times.

I don’t want to live by faith in science, I want my brain to comprehend science.

I think Carr might be right. I think we’re passing our knowledge off to machines and slacking off ourselves. One day we’ll have intelligent machines that can actually do anything any scientist in history has every done. And all we’ll know how to do is double-tap an app icon to get it started.


The Insulting Parts of Interstellar

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 11, 2014

This is not a review of Interstellar. The film is thrilling, emotional and big fun. Go see it. It has some astounding special effects and amazing sense of wonder concepts.

No, what I want to write about is the philosophical implications of the science fiction as presented in Interstellar. The film makes a great touchstone to contemplate the nature of science fiction. Science fiction reflects our collective ambitions about exploring reality and the future of mankind. At the deepest level of desire, science fiction fans want to travel into space, especially to the stars and other worlds. Interstellar even travels to other galaxies, something seldom seen even in the most ambitious science fiction stories.


Science fiction also reflects our desire to control reality, and sees us as the master of our own fate. Science fiction is a rejection of the metaphysical, which believes humans are the minions of divine beings. Science fiction is hubris at its best (or worse, depending on your belief in God). Science fiction is the ultimate expression of human powered evolution.

The trouble with science fiction is most of humanity doesn’t buy into the dream, they prefer metaphysical fantasies. In Interstellar, NASA is a forgotten aspect of the government, and schools teach that the Moon landings were faked. The movie suggests that the human race gave up on the idea of the final frontier, and that it’s not until humanity is about to become extinct that we finally discover our next stage of evolution is to travel to the stars.

I thoroughly enjoyed Interstellar as an entertaining movie, but some of its philosophical implications rankled me. It suggests that humans are destined to use up the Earth, and when we do, abandon it like an old computer sent to the landfill. The movie makers suggest the savior for our species is to travel to the stars with the help of higher dimensional beings. That smacks of guardian angels to me.

I want humans to travel the stars, but not because we selfishly used up our planet. Besides, I want to colonize space now, and we need to find real reasons to do so. Positive reasons.

In the film, no one campaigns to save the Earth. The conflict is between our descendants who endure our legacy, and those who want to run away. That idea sucks big time. I’m sure the movie makers thought it was just an easy justification for the plot, but I find it offensive. Yet, their attitude is not uncommon. Republicans pretend our sins of self-destruction aren’t ours, while the Democrats are perfectly willing to accept we’re to blame, yet do nothing to stop us from destroying ourselves.

Interstellar sees Earthly humanity expiring and says, “Let’s go to the stars” to start over. Now, here is where I get into spoilers by explaining how we’re saved. One part of the solution involves New Age mumbo-jumbo, and the other part involves 1930s style super-science mumbo-jumbo, the kind found in books by E. E. “Doc” Smith. Neither solution will save us, nor are they philosophically appealing. They each say we need the help of higher powers. Bullshit.

We already know the science to save our planet – we choose not to. Abandoning Earth for the lifeboats is not an ethical solution. It’s about as noble as the Republican’s head in the sand plea of denial, or the Democrats mea culpa “The buck stops here but I ain’t going to do anything about it because the Republicans won’t play fair” whine.

I also find it offensive that the story in Interstellar suggests we need the help of super-beings. That’s one reason I don’t like religion – it shirks responsibility. We don’t need some divine daddy or fifth dimension super being to save us. If we can’t save ourselves then we deserve to go extinct. The movie cops out on its cop out, but I don’t like it’s philosophical solution either.

To me, the science fiction in Interstellar wimps out. Real, hard-core, science fiction is about humanity pulling itself up by its own bootstraps, using real science we discovered. To a degree the movie does that, and that’s exciting, but the ending of Interstellar is much like the ending of 2001: A Space Odyssey, which I also found philosophical insulting. Arthur C. Clarke in his two most famous stories, 2001 and Childhood’s End suggests we need outside help getting to the next stage of existence, and that help involves superpowers that are damn close to metaphysical. I find that really distasteful.

I’m a believer in evolution, which doesn’t allow for outside helping hands. You either climb up out of the slime on your own, or you go extinct.

Colonizing space or traveling to the stars is a great ambition, but we need to go on under our own steam, and after we become good caretakers of the Earth. I think if we’re going to destroy everything we touch I imagine our alien neighbors, higher dimensional beings and the gods would prefer we just stay home.


Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014

By James Wallace Harris, Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Every fall, I look forward to the Best American series coming out, especially the Best American Science and Nature Writing. The 2014 annuals collects the best of what was published in 2013. If you’re not much of a magazine reader, these annual volumes of essays, short stories, travel writing, mystery stories, sports stories, comics, and even infographics, is a great way to read the best-of-the-best of periodical journalism. I usually get the volumes for short stories, essays and science and nature writing. There also a volume from another publisher, The Best American Science Writing that follows the same format of having a series editor with a yearly guest editor. Between the two, it’s an easy way to keep up with a broad range of scientific studies. They aren’t technical, but extremely well-written reporting of science related news, so even people who aren’t science geeks will enjoy them.


I’m listing the table of contents for the Best American Science and Nature Writing 2014 with links to those articles still available on the web, so you can sample the writing. The Kindle edition at $8.52 is a cheap way to have inspiring short reads on your mobile device – and the paper copy is only $14.95 at your favorite bookstore. Amazon offers a free sampler of the 2012 Best American series, the collects pieces from all the different subject anthologies. For science and nature this year, we have:

  1. Mixed Up” by Katherine Bagley
  2. The Great Forgetting” by Nicholas Carr
  3. The Social Life of Genes” by David Dobbs
  4. What Our Telescopes Couldn’t See” by Pippa Goldschmidt
  5. A Race to Save the Orange by Altering Its DNA” by Amy Harmon
  6. A Life-or-Death Situation” by Robin Marantz Henig
  7. 23 and You” by Virginia Hughes
  8. “Why the Brain Prefers Paper” by Ferris Jabr
  9. “O-Rings” by Sarah Stewart Johnson
  10. “When Animals Mourn” by Barbara J. King
  11. Where It Begins” by Barbara Kingsolver
  12. Danger! This Mission to Mars Could Bore You to Death!” by Maggie Koerth-Baker
  13. The Lost World” by Elizabeth Kolbert
  14. Awakening” by Joshua Lang
  15. Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna
  16. The Return of Measles” by Seth Mnookin
  17. Ants Go Marching” by Justin Nobel
  18. TV as Birth Control” by Fred Pearce
  19. The Madness of Planets” by Corey S. Powell
  20. Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” by Roy Scranton
  21. Under Water” by Kate Sheppard
  22. “Twelve Ways of Viewing Alaska’s Wild, White Sheep” by Bill Sherwonit
  23. “The Separating Sickness” by Rebecca Solnit
  24. “Trapline” by David Treuer
  25. The Rebirth of Gorongosa” by E. O. Wilson
  26. Bringing Them Back to Life” by Carl Zimmer

These Best American volumes are perfect for ebook reading. Most people hate reading off their computer screens, and few people read magazines anymore, even when they subscribe. I know many people now that have discovered reading books on their smartphones, so these anthologies of shorter pieces are perfect for reading when you have an idle moment now and then.

Some of these stories are philosophical or political in nature, like “Learning How to Die in the Anthropocene” by Roy Scranton, who uses his experiences as a soldier in Iraq to contemplate the inevitable consequences of climate change. Or Pippa Goldschmidt’s “What Our Telescopes Couldn’t See” about her time as an astronomer looking at quasars, and then turning her gaze back to events on Earth. A profound philosophical statement is made by Nicholas Carr in “The Great Forgetting” questioning how much of human endeavors should we share with machines.

Many of the stories are like the terrific “Ants Go Marching” by Justin Nobel, who chronicles the fascinating history of fire ants in America, and his travels around the south visiting folks battling the invasion. Fire ant armies might sound scary, but what’s terrifying is “Imagining the Post-Antibiotics Future” by Maryn McKenna. I watched a documentary on PBS Frontline about diseases resistant to antibiotics recently, and it’s far scarier than Ebola, and about equally horrifying as Climate Change.

And don’t let me leave you thinking that all science stories are scary. There’s some good news reports like, “TV as Birth Control” by Fred Pearce, which chronicles how television is helping reduce the population growth in India.

Stories about science, nature and technology really are stories about humans adapting to their environment. We’re constantly at war with Mother Nature, often killing ourselves in our own friendly fire. The history of science is one of humanity making tremendous mistakes, but the overall trends shows we’re learning more and more every year. Humans are the primary cause of climate change – we the primary cause of most changes on the Earth right now. We change everything we touch. We have a long track record of fucking things up, but we’re learning to do better. We’re in a great race – can we learn enough to save ourselves before we make ourselves extinct. We’re in an exciting dead heat at the moment. Most of these stories are reports from the front, about various battles to conquer ourselves.