The World Is Better Than You Think

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Deep breath.  Look around.

Famine is being eliminated. In 2014, 850 million suffered from malnutrition, the lowest figure on record.  Meanwhile, 2.1 billion were overweight.  In 1918, Spanish Flu killed up to 100 million in a year, compared to the 40 million who died in WWI.  But in 2014, the Ebola outbreak – “the most severe public health emergency in modern times”, according to the World Health Organisation – was stopped at 11,000 deaths.  In the 20th century, human violence accounted for 5% of all deaths.  In the 21st century, it’s 1%.  In 2012 56 million people died, but war caused only 120,000 of those deaths.

All these figures are quoted from Yuval Noah Harari’s very highly-recommended book, Homo Deus – A Brief History of Tomorrow (review coming soon to this site).

Those historical harbingers of the apocalypse, war, famine and pestilence, are still far too widespread, but every indicator is improving, and here in 2016, improving rapidly.

Some people out there see an advantage in proclaiming how terrible things are, that all around we have only decline and degradation and that things were always so much better in the past.  Don’t listen to them.

We’re on the cusp of a golden age.

The innovations and advancements created by clever people – the ‘elite’, I suppose – are improving every aspect of our life.  Two days ago, a team at MiT took us a step closer to unlimited clean energy.  Breakthroughs in cancer treatment are coming so fast it’s hard to keep track of them.  Advances in food production techniques, and in health, and the consistently falling global poverty levels will push those Four Horsemen to the fringes.

But the danger now is that we sit back and wait for this new dawn to arrive.  That we foolishly think that everyone wants this better time that’s coming.  It’s going to be great, why wouldn’t they?

No.  Barriers lie everywhere.  Malign forces are working hard to ensure this golden age never comes about, people, and ideologies, who will find no place for themselves in this better world.

Putin has spoken publicly about how his plans for Russia are centred around stopping liberal western values in their tracks – he wants his growing empire to be a bastion of conservatism – and we’ve already seen how the prospect of a third world war is looming.  The global death cult ISIS may be suffering a set-back on its territory in Mosul, but it’s ideology won’t easily be destroyed and it’s committed to a medieval world-view.

And then there are the domestic forces that want to hold everything back – in the US and UK, in France, Germany and across the West, not just the people who are afraid of change, and they are many, but those whose power bases and belief systems are firmly rooted in the 20th century.

If you look at the electoral battles taking place, it’s easy to think this is politics as usual.  Same old parties, same old faces.  It’s not.  What we are now living through is an epochal battle.

This was all predicted in one of my favourite books of the last decade, The Meaning of the 21st Century by James Martin.  The former IBM staffer talked about the tech age back in 1978 in his book The Wired Society, and in this later work he looks at how the world will be changed by technology throughout this century.  But he insisted that it wouldn’t be plain sailing.  He described this process as a river, which plunges into a narrow ravine and becomes a hell of white water, before broadening out into a peaceful drift into a pleasant future.

We’re in that ravine now, and the turbulence is going to be great.  But if we want to come out the other side, we all have to work together to oppose those who’d rather see the whole raft sink.

Left and Right was a good way of defining the political struggle of the last century.  No longer.  Now, all over the West, party barriers are being transcended.

The true political battle of the 21st century is the past versus the future.  You have Left and Right on both sides, one tribe looking back to a perceived golden age, one looking forward, with vested interests everywhere tugging at sleeves.

There’s no room for sitting on the fence.  Our choice now is to stand up, argue, vote for the person or party that’s at least vaguely heading for the destination you want, even if they’re not your perfect choice.  (As an aside, there are no perfect choices in politics.)

I’m looking to the future – that’s where the world I want to live in exists.  You?

 

Bow To Your Tentacled Overlords

New research suggests cephalopods may have developed consciousness before mammals – the first truly thinking creatures on the planet.

Scientists have found cephalopods – including squid, cuttlefish and nautiluses – can use tools, navigate mazes, learn from each other, mimic other species and solve complex problems.

Yet they followed a completely different evolutionary line to “smart” vertebrates like chimps, dolphins and crows.

New Scientist reports: “Octopuses make it notoriously difficult to get recordings from electrodes inserted into the brain, because they can selectively shut off blood supply to an area of their body or brain. That’s if they allow the researchers to insert electrodes at all. Jennifer Basil, a cephalopod researcher at the City University of New York tells the story of one colleague who took on that challenge: ‘He thought the octopus was anaesthetised, so they put the electrode in and the octopus reached up with an arm and pulled it out.’ That marked the end of his work with octopuses. ‘He has worked with lots of animals but he said “that animal knows what I’m thinking. He doesn’t want me to do this so I’m not going to”,’ Basil says.”

You have been warned.

The Limits Of Science

“We live in an age in which science enjoys remarkable success. We have mapped out a grand scheme of how the physical universe works on scales from quarks to galactic clusters, and of the living world from the molecular machinery of cells to the biosphere. There are gaps, of course, but many of them are narrowing. The scientific endeavour has proved remarkably fruitful, especially when you consider that our brains evolved for survival on the African savannah, not to ponder life, the universe and everything. So, having come this far, is there any stopping us?

The answer has to be yes: there are limits to science. There are some things we can never know for sure because of the fundamental constraints of the physical world. Then there are the problems that we will probably never solve because of the way our brains work. And there may be equivalents to Rees’s observation about chimps and quantum mechanics – concepts that will forever lie beyond our ken.”

Interesting article in New Scientist (you’ll have to register, for free, to read it), examining how there could be some – perhaps many – things that we’re just not capable of discovering.

The author identifies a few – what lies beyond the cosmic horizon? how life began? – and then briefly dives in to the polarised consciousness debate (an area of personal interest). Here the argument is pretty much split between those who believe we will never discover what consciousness is and the reductivist mechanics who believe if we break down the brain just a little bit more we will find exactly which bit does what.

I’ve interviewed experts on both sides of the debate. From the snarky comment above, you might guess that I’m not 100% convinced by the reductivist approach and you’d be right. Roger Penrose’s suggestion that a quantum process underpins the nature of consciousness seems more elegant and interesting.

Worth a read.

A New Force Of Nature

Research physicists using a particle accelerator may have discovered a new force of nature. The team at the Tevatron is currently analysing its data before announcing it has found a previously-unknown particle.

If it is in fact true, Dr Hooper believes that the mystery particle represents an undiscovered “fundamental force”.

“We’d essentially be saying there’s a new force of nature being communicated by the particle. We know that there’s four forces: electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. This would be the fifth; every freshman physics class would have to change their textbooks.”

No Hiding Place

He described a future two to three years away in which a user could wear glasses equipped with vision recognition technology that display the profile of any person the user comes into contact with, calling up their conversation history and other personal–but private–information.

No hiding from those drunken tweets or FB status updates. On the other hand, you may know who to avoid in the bar…

Mushrooms That Make Zombie Ants

“On a recent field trip to the region, scientists discovered four new species of fungus that infect ants, take over their bodies and eventually kill them in a place that is just right for the organism to grow inside them.

The fungus can destroy entire colonies and leave behind gruseome ant graveyards, where twisted, dark corpses rest with their mandibles locked around leaf veins, a final act that secures the creature’s host in position before it releases spores to infect others.”

On the bright side, they go very nice in an omelette.

NASA Discovers New Form Of Life – On Earth

NASA has uncovered an entirely new life form on our planet that “doesn’t share the biological building blocks of anything currently living” on Earth.

The lead scientist behind the research Dr. Felisa Wolfe-Simon says, “This microbe is doing something different than what we know.”

She adds, “We’ve cracked open the door for what’s possible for life elsewhere in the universe. and that’s profound to understand how life is formed and where life is going.”

NASA says this could “impact the search for evidence of extraterrestrial life.”

Scientists Conduct First Successful Time Travel Experiment

Turns out it wasn’t 88mph after all. A team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has completed a successful experiment with quantum time travel.

Seth Lloyd and his collaborators “have identified a new approach to the problem that opens up the strange world of time travel to experiments,” according to a report in New Scientist magazine.

What is so tantalising about time travel is that there seems to be nothing to prevent it. As far as the laws of physics are concerned, time can run forwards or backwards. But time travel of the kind that Marty McFly gets up to in the movie Back to the Future is a different kettle of fish. It requires an object to go back in time while everything else keeps creeping forward. Still, there is no shortage of ideas about how this might happen.

Even more fascinating, the MiT team sent a photon back to “kill” itself.

The magazine says, ‘When this experiment is done, something interesting happens: every single time the time travel works, the gun fails to go off. And when time travel fails, the gun works. To put this in the language of the grandfather paradox, as long as there is some chance of your gun misfiring and the assassination failing, time travel may work. “You can point the gun but you can’t pull the trigger,” says Lloyd.’

Alien Planet Discovered Circling Dying Star

Astronomers claim to have discovered the first planet originating from outside our galaxy.

It circles a sun belonging to a group of stars called the Helmi stream, which once belonged to a separate dwarf galaxy.

The “dying star” piece of the information reminded me of this:

So now you know where they came from…

We Can Predict The Future

A major scientific journal is about to publish a peer-reviewed paper that may have staggering implications.

“Extraordinary claims don’t come much more extraordinary than this: events that haven’t yet happened can influence our behaviour.:

In other words, we have instinctive precognition, if the evidence presented in the paper holds up. The study has already been examined by sceptical psychologists who can’t find any flaws.

Cautious scientists don’t get to extrapolate from this. Everyone else can have a lot of fun. And there are *many* potential repercussions.