Edward Burger on Making Up Your Own Mind

BurgerWe solve countless problems—big and small—every day. With so much practice, why do we often have trouble making simple decisions—much less arriving at optimal solutions to important questions? Are we doomed to this muddle—or is there a practical way to learn to think more effectively and creatively? In this enlightening, entertaining, and inspiring book, Edward Burger shows how we can become far better at solving real-world problems by learning creative puzzle-solving skills using simple, effective thinking techniques. Making Up Your Own Mind teaches these techniques—including how to ask good questions, fail and try again, and change your mind—and then helps you practice them with fun verbal and visual puzzles. A book about changing your mind and creating an even better version of yourself through mental play, Making Up Your Own Mind will delight and reward anyone who wants to learn how to find better solutions to life’s innumerable puzzles. 

What are the practical applications of this book for someone who wants to improve their problem-solving skills?

The practicality goes back to the practical elements of one’s own education. Unfortunately, many today view “formal education” as the process of learning, but what they really mean is “knowing”—knowing the facts, dates, methodologies, templates, algorithms, and the like. Once the students demonstrate that newly-found knowledge by reproducing it back to the instructor on a paper or test they quickly let it all go from their short-term memories and move on. Today this kind of “knowledge” can be largely found via any search engine on any smart device. So in our technological information age, what should “formal education” mean?  Instead of focusing solely on “knowing,” it intentionally must also teach “growing”—growing the life of the mind. The practices offered in this volume attempt to do just that: offer readers a way to hone and grow their own thinking while sharpening their own minds. Those practices can then be directly applied to their everyday lives as they try to see the issues around them with greater clarity and creativity to make better decisions. The practical applications certainly will include their enhanced abilities to create better solutions to all the problems they encounter. But from my vantage point as an educator, the ultimate practical application is to help readers flourish and continue along a life-long journey in which they become better versions of themselves tomorrow than they are today. 

How has applying the problem-solving skills described in your book helped you in your everyday life?

In my leadership role as president of Southwestern University, I am constantly facing serious and complex challenges that need to be solved or opportunities to be seized. Those decisions require wisdom, creativity, focus on the macro issues while being mindful of the micro implications. Then action is required along with careful follow-up on the consequences of those decisions moving forward. I use the practices of effective thinking outlined in this book—including my personally favorite: effective failure—in every aspect of my work as president and I believe they have served me well. Effective failure, by the way, is the practice of intentionally not leaving a mistake or misstep until a new insight or deeper understanding is realized.  It is not enough to say, “Oh, that didn’t work, I’ll try something else.” That’s tenacity, which is wonderful, but alone is also ineffective failure.  Before trying that something else, this book offers practical but mindful ways of using one’s own errors to be wise guides to deeper understanding that natural lead to what to consider next. I also believe that through these varied practices of thinking I continue to grow as an educator, as a leader, as a mathematician, and as an individual who has committed his professional life to try to make the world better by inspiring others to be better. 

Can we really train our brains to be better problem solvers?


Would you care to elaborate on that last, one-word response?

Okay, okay—But I hope I earned some partial credit for being direct and to-the-point. Many believe that their minds are the way they are and cannot be changed. In fact, we are all works-in-progress and capable of change—not the disruptive change that makes us into someone we’re not, but rather incremental change that allows us to be better and better versions of ourselves as we grow and evolve. That change in mindset does not require us to “think harder” (as so many people tell us), but rather to “think differently” (which is not hard at all after we embrace different practices of thinking, analysis, and creativity). Just as we can improve our tennis game, our poker skills, and the playing of the violin, we can improve our thinking and our minds. This book offers practical and straight-forward ways to embraces those enhance practices and puzzles to practice that art in an entertaining but thought-provoking way.

Why do you refer to “puzzle-solving” rather than the more typical phrase, “problem-solving?”

Because throughout our lives we all face challenges and conundrums that need to be faced and resolved as well as opportunities and possibilities that need to be either seized or avoided. Those negative challenges and possibilities are the problems in our lives. But everything we face—positive, negative, or otherwise—are the puzzles that life presents to us. Thus, I do not believe we should call mindful practices that empower us to find innovative or smart solutions “problem-solving.” We should call those practices that enhance our thinking about all the varied puzzles in our lives what they truly are: “puzzle-solving.” Finally, I believe we thrive within an optimistic perspective—and no one likes problems—but most do enjoy puzzles.

How did this book come about?

As with most things, this project natural evolved from a confluence of many previous experiences. My close collaborator, Michael Starbird, and I have been thinking about effective thinking collaboratively and individually for dozens of years. That effort resulted in our book, The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (published by Princeton University Press and referenced in this latest work). Then when I began my work as president of Southwestern University over five years ago, I wanted to offer a class that was not a “typical” mathematics course, but rather a class that would capture the curiosity of all students who wonder how they can amplify their own abilities to grow and think more effectively—originally, wisely, and creatively. So I created a course entitled Effective Thinking through Creative Puzzle-Solving, and I have been teaching it every year at Southwestern since 2016.

How did your students change through their “puzzle-solving” journey?

Of course that question is best answered by my students at Southwestern University, and I invite you to visit our campus and talk with them to learn more. From my perspective, I have enjoyed seeing them become more open-minded, think in more creative and original ways (“thinking outside the box”), practice a more mindful perspective, and make time for themselves to be contemplative and reflective. Also, I have them write a number of essays (which I personally grade), and over the course of our time together, I have seen their writing and overall communication improve. Obviously, I am very proud of my students.

Edward B. Burger is the president of Southwestern University, a mathematics professor, and a leading teacher on thinking, innovation, and creativity. He has written more than seventy research articles, video series, and books, including The 5 Elements of Effective Thinking (with Michael Starbird) (Princeton), and has delivered hundreds of addresses worldwide. He lives in Georgetown, Texas.

Christie Henry on the Evolution of University Press Science Publishing

In The Atlantic this month, science journalist Ed Yong writes about new studies on the evolution of mammals that convey how much humans have turned up evolutionary dynamics. Since the 16th century, we sapiens have wiped out 500 million years of phylogenetic evolutionary history, and we stand to lose a further 1.8 billion years within the next five decades, breaking twigs, branches, and core trunks of the mammalian evolutionary tree. It’s astonishing, and humbling, to contemplate the scale of impact, but some of the online commentary on the article is just as devastating. One reader stated that humans just do not care; some of our species don’t read about science, others are persuaded by the untruths of redactions of climate science, or denunciations of planetary temperature fluctuations. Is news about scientific discovery heard as much as a felled tree falling in uninhabited woods?

The evolution of science publishing at university presses tells a different narrative. The #ReadUP world knows how to #TurnItUp for science, and many new branches of editorial programs are generating stands of books that range in topic from altruism to zooplankton, from neuroscience to natural history. In a 2018 survey of university press areas of acquisition, 58 presses reported publishing in earth and environmental science, and 53 in the areas of ecology and conservation. The diversity of presses, and the morphology of their science lists, helps build resilience, and niches for a wide range of book types, from graphic science to popular narratives to graduate level course books. The #Readup editors foraging in these landscapes are resilient, and opportunistic, as books in these fields do not grow on trees, and rarely on the cvs of scientists.

This year, #ReadUPscience readers can swim in the pages of Drawn to the Deep to learn about the underwater explorations of Florida’s Wes Skiles, explore the richness of The Maryland Amphibian and Reptile Atlas , have a trusted foraging companion in Mushrooms of the Gulf Coast States, savor daily joys of A Year in Nature, chatter over the Tales that Teeth Tell, learn best practices of Communicating Climate Change, and how thinking like a geologist can help save the planet in Timefulness.

While there are a diversity of university presses working to amplify science, the evolution and long-term sustainability of these programs, Princeton University Press’s included, depend on the ability to create equitable and inclusive populations of authors, a particularly acute challenge in science publishing. The American Association of Science dedicated much of its annual meeting in 2018 to diversity and inclusion, but waiting for the waves of change to reach the shores of the UP world is akin to waiting for ocean acidification to naturally rebalance; we need intervention. University presses, like scientists we collaborate with, can be pioneers, innovators, and intrepid explorers, discovering new authors to change the world of science publishing. Just as we have found ways to evolve impactful science programs at presses with origins in the humanities and social sciences, so too can we create niches for a greater equity of authorial expertise and voice in these programs.

I turn to Ed Yong again, who spent two years working to fix the gender imbalance in his stories about science. As he notes, gender parity is just a start. We need to first quantify the problem, and provide data to track change. We are doing this research at PUP now, and while the science list here is amazing in its thematic diversity, we are keen to fix the imbalances of author voices.

Just as ecosystems of great biodiversity are more resilient, so too will presses of greater diversity be sustainable. Every microbe in our publishing guts tells us that if we can present the state of scientific understanding from as wide a perspective as possible, our chances of getting readers to tune in, and turn up their own understanding of science, exponentially amplify.

Check out #TurnItUp science posts from our colleagues at Johns Hopkins University Press, Rutgers University Press, University Press of Colorado, Columbia University Press, University of Toronto Press, and University of Georgia Press.

Brian Kernighan on Millions, Billions, Zillions

KernighanNumbers are often intimidating, confusing, and even deliberately deceptive—especially when they are really big. The media loves to report on millions, billions, and trillions, but frequently makes basic mistakes or presents such numbers in misleading ways. And misunderstanding numbers can have serious consequences, since they can deceive us in many of our most important decisions, including how to vote, what to buy, and whether to make a financial investment. In this short, accessible, enlightening, and entertaining book, leading computer scientist Brian Kernighan teaches anyone—even diehard math-phobes—how to demystify the numbers that assault us every day. Giving you the simple tools you need to avoid being fooled by dubious numbers, Millions, Billions, Zillions is an essential survival guide for a world drowning in big—and often bad—data.

Why is it so important to be able to spot “bad statistics?”

We use statistical estimates all the time to decide where to invest, or what to buy, or what politicians to believe. Does a college education pay off financially? Is marijuana safer than alcohol? What brands of cars are most reliable? Do guns make society more dangerous? We make major personal and societal decisions about such topics, based on numbers that might be wrong or biased or cherry-picked. The better the statistics, the more accurately we can make good decisions based on them.

Can you give a recent example of numbers being presented in the media in a misleading way?

“No safe level of alcohol, new study concludes.” There were quite a few variants of this headline in late August. There’s no doubt whatsoever that heavy drinking is bad for you, but this study was actually a meta-analysis that combined the results of nearly 700 studies covering millions of people.  By combining results, it concluded that there was a tiny increase in risk in going from zero drinks a day to one drink, and more risk for higher numbers. But the result is based on correlation, not necessarily causation, and ignores potentially related factors like smoking, occupational hazards, and who knows what else. Fortunately, quite a few news stories pointed out flaws in the study’s conclusion.  To quote from an excellent review at the New York Times, “[The study] found that, over all, harms increased with each additional drink per day, and that the overall harms were lowest at zero. That’s how you get the headlines.”

What is an example of how a person could spot potential errors in big numbers?

One of the most effective techniques for dealing with big numbers is to ask, “How would that affect me personally?” For example, a few months ago a news story said that a proposed bill in California would offer free medical care for every resident, at a cost of $330 million per year. The population of California is nearly 40 million, so each person’s share of the cost would be less than $10. Sounds like a real bargain, doesn’t it? Given what we know about the endlessly rising costs of health care, it can’t possibly be right. In fact, the story was subsequently corrected; the cost of the bill would be $330 *billion* dollars, so each person’s share would be more like $10,000. Asking “What’s my share?” is a good way to assess big numbers.

In your book you talk about Little’s Law. Can you please describe it and explain why it’s useful?

Little’s Law is a kind of conservation law that can help you assess the accuracy of statements like “every week, 10,000 Americans turn 65.” Little’s Law describes the relationship between the time period (every week), the number of things involved (10,000 Americans), and the event (turning 65). Suppose there are 320 million Americans, each of whom is born, lives to age 80, then dies. Then 4 million people are born each year, 4 million die, and in fact there are 4 million at any particular age. Now divide by 365 days in a year, to see that about 11,000 people turn 65 on any particular day. So the original statement can’t be right—it should have said “per day,” not “per week.” Of course this ignores birth rate, life expectancy, and immigration, but Little’s Law is plenty good enough for spotting significant errors, like using weeks instead of days.

Is presenting numbers in ways designed to mislead more prevalent in the era of “alternative facts” than in the past?

I don’t know whether deceptive presentations are more prevalent today than they might have been, say, 20 years ago, but it’s not hard to find presentations that could mislead someone who isn’t paying attention. The technology for producing deceptive graphs and charts is better than it used to be, and social media makes it all too easy to spread them rapidly and widely.

Brian W. Kernighan is professor of computer science at Princeton University. His many books include Understanding the Digital World: What You Need to Know about Computers, the Internet, Privacy, and Security. He lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

William R. Newman on Newton the Alchemist

When Isaac Newton’s alchemical papers surfaced at a Sotheby’s auction in 1936, the quantity and seeming incoherence of the manuscripts were shocking. No longer the exemplar of Enlightenment rationality, the legendary physicist suddenly became “the last of the magicians.” Newton the Alchemist unlocks the secrets of Newton’s alchemical quest, providing a radically new understanding of the uncommon genius who probed nature at its deepest levels in pursuit of empirical knowledge.

People often say that Isaac Newton was not only a great physicist, but also an alchemist. This seems astonishing, given his huge role in the development of science. Is it true, and if so, what is the evidence for it?

The astonishment that Newton was an alchemist stems mostly from the derisive opinion that many moderns hold of alchemy. How could the man who discovered the law of universal gravitation, who co-invented calculus, and who was the first to realize the compound nature of white light also engage in the seeming pseudo-science of alchemy? There are many ways to answer this question, but the first thing is to consider the evidence of Newton’s alchemical undertaking. We now know that at least a million words in Newton’s hand survive in which he addresses alchemical themes. Much of this material has been edited in the last decade, and is available on the Chymistry of Isaac Newton site at www.chymistry.org. Newton wrote synopses of alchemical texts, analyzed their content in the form of reading notes and commentaries, composed florilegia or anthologies made up of snippets from his sources, kept experimental laboratory notebooks that recorded his alchemical research over a period of decades, and even put together a succession of concordances called the Index chemicus in which he compared the sayings of different authors to one another. The extent of his dedication to alchemy was almost unprecedented. Newton was not just an alchemist, he was an alchemist’s alchemist.  

What did Newton hope to gain by studying alchemy? Did he actually believe in the philosophers’ stone, and if so, why? And what was the philosophers’ stone exactly?

Newton’s involvement in alchemy was polyvalent, as befits a pursuit that engaged him intensively for more than three decades and which traditionally included multiple goals. The term “alchemy” in the early modern period was largely coextensive with “chymistry,” a field that included distilling, pigment-making, salt-refining, and the manufacture of drugs alongside the perennial attempt to transmute metals. Beyond an interest in all these technical pursuits, Newton employed alchemical themes in his physics, particularly in the area of optics. Newton’s theory that white light is a mixture of unaltered spectral colors was bolstered by techniques of material analysis and synthesis that had a long prehistory in the domain of alchemy. But at the same time, he hoped to attain the grand secret that would make it possible to perform radical changes in matter. The philosophers’ stone as described by alchemical authors was a material that could transmute base metals into gold and silver and “perfect” certain other materials as well. At the same time, many authors believed that the philosophers’ stone could cure human ailments and extend life to the maximum limit that God would allow. Some of Newton’s sources even claim that the philosophers’ stone would allow its possessors to contact angels and to communicate telephatically with one another. Did Newton believe all of this? Suffice it to say that nowhere in his voluminous notes does he dispute these assertions, even while recounting them. Although he may have been exercising a suspension of disbelief in the case of the more extravagant claims for the philosophers’ stone, his long involvement in the aurific art implies that he must at least have thought the alchemists were on to something when they discussed transmutation.      

Did Newton also believe, as many contemporary alchemists did, that the totality of Greek and Roman mythology was just encoded alchemy?

It’s certainly true that Newton’s favorite sources thought Greek and Roman mythology to contain valuable alchemical secrets. Ovid’s Metamorphoses was a particularly popular target of interpretation, since the whole book deals with radical transformations of one thing into another. Newton himself decoded the story of Cadmus and the founding of Thebes, one of Ovid’s myths, into practical laboratory instructions in one of his notebooks. In Newton’s early reading, Cadmus becomes the iron required to reduce the metalloid antimony from its ore stibnite, and the dragon who attacks Cadmus is the stibnite itself. But does this mean that Newton believed the originators of the myth to have meant it as a veiled alchemical recipe? If so, this would run contrary to Newton’s extensive interpretations of ancient mythology and religion that occur alongside his studies of biblical chronology. In these texts, which occupy about four million words and are thus even more extensive than his alchemical writings, Newton argues that the famous figures of ancient mythology were actual people whose lives were later embellished by mythologizing writers. It is likely, then, that Newton’s alchemical decoding of mythology is actually an attempt to interpret early modern writers who used ancient myth as a way of wrapping their processes in enigma rather than signifying that he himself believed Ovid, for example, to have been an alchemist.    

What did Newton make of the bizarre language that alchemists traditionally used for their secrets, including terms like “the Babylonian Dragon,” “the Caduceus of Mercury,” and “the Green Lion”?

Newton spent decades trying to decipher the enigmatic terminology of the alchemists. In reality, exotic Decknamen (cover-names) were only part of an extensive and well-developed set of tools that alchemists had long employed for the purpose of revealing and concealing their knowledge. Other techniques included syncope (leaving out steps and materials), parathesis (adding in unnecessary terms and processes), and dispersion of knowledge, which consisted of dividing up processes and distributing them over different parts of a text or even putting the parts in entirely different texts.   The bulk of Newton’s reading notes consist of his attempts to arrive at the correct meaning of terms, and he was aware of the fact that the same term often meant different things to different authors. His Index chemicus, for example, lists multiple different meanings for the term “Green Lion,” which Newton links to specific writers. In a word, Newton’s alchemy is as much about the literary decipherment of riddles as it is about putting his interpretation to the test in the laboratory.

Did Newton consider himself to be an “adept,” that is, one of the masters of alchemy who had acquired the great secret of the art?

Although Newton occasionally records eureka moments in his laboratory notebooks such as “I saw the sophic sal ammoniac” or “I have understood the luciferous Venus,” he never records that he found the philosophers’ stone or performed an actual transmutation. He seems to have viewed himself as being on the way to finding the philosophers’ stone, but not to have ever thought that he had attained it. Nonetheless, his rapport with the adepts is clear. Several of his manuscripts record instances where he copied the early modern alchemical practice of encoding one’s name in a phrase that could be interpreted as an anagram. Michael Sendivogius, for example, a celebrated Polish adept, became “Divi Leschi Genus Amo” (“I love the race of the divine Lech”). The most famous of these anagrams in Newton’s case is “Jeova sanctus unus,” which can be rearranged to yield “Isaacus Neuutonus,” Latin for Isaac Newton. This is not the only such anagram in his alchemical papers. One manuscript in fact contains over thirty different phrases in which Newton concealed his name. Along with other clues in his papers, this suggests strongly that Newton believed himself to belong rightly to the band of the adepts, even if he was only an aspirant to their ranks.        

How does your book Newton the Alchemist change what we already knew about Newton’s alchemical quest?

Thanks to scholarly work done in the last third of the twentieth century, there is currently a widespread “master narrative” of Newton’s alchemy, though one with which I disagree. The major scholars of the subject at that time argued that alchemy for Newton was above all a religious quest, and that its impact on his more mainstream science lay in his emphasis on invisible forces that could act at a distance, such as gravitational attraction. Contemporary sources ranging from popular outlets such as Wikipedia to serious scholarly monographs echo these themes. In reality, however, there is little to no evidence to support either view.  Although there was a constant bleed-through from his alchemical research to his public science, Newton pursued the philosophers’ stone neither for the sake of God nor for the sake of physics. Instead, he practiced alchemy as an alchemist. In a word, the celebrated scientist aimed his bolt at the marvelous menstrua and volatile spirits of the sages, the instruments required for making the philosophers’ stone. Difficult as it may be for moderns to accept that the most influential physicist before Einstein dreamed of becoming an alchemical adept, the gargantuan labor that Newton devoted to experimental chrysopoeia speaks for itself.

A common view of Newton’s alchemy is that he kept it a secret from the world. Is this true, and if so, why was he so secretive? Did he think that alchemy was somehow dangerous? Or was it disreputable?

Newton generally kept quiet about his alchemical research, though he did engage in collaborations with select individuals such as his friend Nicolas Fatio de Duillier, and later, the Dutch distiller William Yworth. The main reason for his caution lay in his concern that alchemy might lay claim to secrets that could be dangerous if revealed to the world at large. The social order would be turned topsy-turvy if gold and silver lost their value as a result of the philosophers’ stone falling into the hands of the hoi polloi, and other disastrous consequences might result as well. Newton’s anxiety emerges quite clearly from a letter that he sent to the Secretary of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg, in 1676. The occasion was a publication by another alchemical researcher, Robert Boyle, who had recently published a paper on a special “sophic” mercury that would grow hot if mixed with gold. Newton was alarmed at Boyle’s candor, and suggested to Oldenburg that the author of The Sceptical Chymist should in the future revert to a “high silence” in order to avoid revealing secrets that the “true Hermetick Philosopher” must keep hidden lest they cause “immense dammage to ye world.”

You argue in your book that it’s not enough to read about Newton’s alchemical experiments, but that historians actually need to do them in a laboratory. Tell us what you have found by repeating Newton’s experiments and why this is important.

Anyone who tries to wade through Newton’s laboratory notebooks will be struck at once by the multitude of obscure expressions that he employs for materials. Although terms such as “the Green Lion,” “sophic sal ammoniac,” and “liquor of antimony” already existed in the literature of alchemy, they meant different things to different authors. In order to determine what their precise meaning was to Newton, one must look carefully at the properties that he ascribes to each material and to the protocols that he applies when he uses it in the laboratory. A good example may be found in the case of liquor of antimony, which Newton also refers to as vinegar, spirit, and salt of antimony. Extensive examination of these terms in his notebooks shows that they were interchangeable for Newton, and that they referred to a solution of crude antimony (mostly antimony sulfide) in a special aqua regia. Having made this material in the laboratory, I was then able to use it to make other Newtonian products, such a “vitriol of Venus,” a crystalline copper compound produced from the dried solution of copper or a copper ore in liquor of vitriol. This product is volatile at relatively low temperatures and can be used to volatilize other metals, which helps explain why Newton thought he was on the path to alchemical success. He hoped to liberate the internal principle of metallic activity by subtilizing the heavy metals and freeing them from what he saw as their gross accretions.      

Was alchemy considered a deviant or “occult” practice in Newton’s day? Did doing alchemy make Newton a sorceror or witch?  

It is a popular modern misconception that alchemy, astrology, and magic were all part and parcel of the same “occult” enterprise. To most medieval and early modern thinkers, these were distinct areas of practice, despite the currently reigning stereotypes. Newton had little or no interest in astrology, which did not distinguish him from most European alchemists. If by “magic” one means sorcery or witchcraft, this too was an area quite distinct from alchemy, and entirely alien to Newton’s interests. There was an overlap with alchemy in the domain of “natural magic,” however, and Newton evinced a marked interest in this field in his adolescence. One of the things that I have been able to show is that his earliest interest in alchemy, as revealed by his copying and reworking of an anonymous Treatise of Chymistry in the 1660s, may have grown out of his youthful fascination with works on natural magic and “books of secrets.” But natural magic was considered a legitimate field of endeavor by most experimental scientists in the seventeenth century, not a transgressive or deviant activity.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Browse our Brain & Behavior 2019 Catalog

Our new Brain & Behavior catalog includes an explanation for why your personal traits are more innate than you think, a revealing insider’s account of the power—and limitations—of functional MRI, and a guide to the latest research on how young people can develop positive ethnic-racial identities and strong interracial relations.

If you’re attending the Society for Neuroscience meeting in San Diego this weekend, please join us at Booth 220, or stop by any time to see our full range of brain & cognitive science titles and more.


Written by one of the world’s leading pioneers in the field, The New Mind Readers cuts through the hype and misperceptions surrounding these emerging new methods, offering needed perspective on what they can and cannot do—and demonstrating how they can provide new answers to age-old questions about the nature of consciousness and what it means to be human.


What makes you the way you are—and what makes each of us different from everyone else? In Innate, leading neuroscientist and popular science blogger Kevin Mitchell traces human diversity and individual differences to their deepest level: in the wiring of our brains. Deftly guiding us through important new research, including his own groundbreaking work, he explains how variations in the way our brains develop before birth strongly influence our psychology and behavior throughout our lives, shaping our personality, intelligence, sexuality, and even the way we perceive the world.


Today’s young people are growing up in an increasingly ethnically and racially diverse society. How do we help them navigate this world productively, given some of the seemingly intractable conflicts we constantly hear about? In Below the Surface, Deborah Rivas-Drake and Adriana Umaña-Taylor explore the latest research in ethnic and racial identity and interracial relations among diverse youth in the United States. Drawing from multiple disciplines, including developmental psychology, social psychology, education, and sociology, the authors demonstrate that young people can have a strong ethnic-racial identity and still view other groups positively, and that in fact, possessing a solid ethnic-racial identity makes it possible to have a more genuine understanding of other groups.

Mohamed Noor: Con vs. Con

Mohamed Noor, taking a break from academic conferences with a trip to DragonCon.

My public presentations span two universes, both figuratively and sometimes semi-literally. I speak at scientific conferences almost every year about my work as a professor, studying the evolutionary genetic changes that cause new species to form. As a Star Trek fan and someone who enjoys teaching scientific principles through the use of science fiction, I also speak at sci-fi conventions most years. As one might imagine, these two speaking venues share some attributes but also differ. Below, I describe the similarities and differences using the venues at which I speak the most often for each area: the annual Evolution conference (location and timing vary though usually in the United States and often late June) and DragonCon (annually on Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia, USA).

For context, the Evolution conference typically hosts 1500-2500 evolutionary biologists, and probably between one-third and half of those attending give some sort of presentation, whether that be an oral slideshow on their research or standing beside a poster and discussing the science presented on it. Meanwhile, DragonCon is a broad popular-culture convention allowing roughly 80,000 people to attend various “tracks”, with presentations in each track by actors, artists, gamers, scientists, authors, and many more.

For each of these outlets, the mechanics are similar. Attendee registration starts months in advance, and fees often increase as the date approaches. Each outlet invites “headliner” speakers who have some or all of their expenses paid for attending. Attendees are very eager to see the final schedules, and always whine on social media about how close to the event the schedules are released. Some events are anticipated to be more popular than others and receive larger rooms, and sometimes the organizers anticipate incorrectly, resulting in a cavernous empty room for one event and people packed into chairs and across the floor in another. Both feature vendor areas for purchasing items related to the outlet’s topic (e.g., books and software vs. artwork and memorabilia). And generally speaking, in both venues, the most rewarding and memorable features are rarely the presentations, but instead fun or fruitful interactions with other attendees. Few attendees in either venue go talk-to-talk for the entire duration, but much time is spent in hallways or off-site for eager discussions or other interactions.

Noor’s book, Live Long and Evolve, is an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

However, the similarity in mechanics belies the difference in purpose which becomes more apparent when one looks at the presentations. For the Evolution conference, oral presentations are given because the scientist presenting wants to disseminate a very specific research result to the broader group of scientists in the audience. At DragonCon, oral presentations are delivered to entertain an audience or to educate them in a fairly general area. The former is primarily directed by the presenter’s intention, though audience members attend particular sessions when they feel that they may learn something interesting and/or relevant to their own research. The latter is aimed at giving the audience what they want. For example, when the cast of CW’s Arrow comes on stage at a session in DragonCon, they have no particular message that they seek to convey. Even in DragonCon’s science track, the intended message of any panel is quite general, such as “a better understanding of genetics”, and presenters are eager to answer questions, even those only marginally related to the stated topic. As a result, virtually every oral session at the Evolution conference comes as a single-person PowerPoint presentation that fills most of the allotted period, while at DragonCon, presentations are typically multi-presenter open question-and-answer sessions on a topic following a very brief introduction.

Lest one think that science fiction conventions are therefore more pure in intention than scientific conferences, I stress the financial model is very different. The top media guests at science fiction conventions receive tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars for their time, in addition to having all of their expenses covered. Since attendees are subsidizing these media guests’ travel and income as well as potentially providing a profit for the convention organizers, it makes sense to tailor things for the attendees. In contrast, the president of the non-profit Society for the Study of Evolution, who delivers a plenary address at the Evolution conference, only gets part of their travel expenses paid (no meals or per diem, partial housing) and reaps no honorarium, stipend, or other compensation from the society or conference. Most speakers at the Evolution conference get no financial compensation. Interestingly, science guests at science fiction conventions also get rather small compensation. For a recent other science fiction convention I attended, most of my travel expenses were paid, but for DragonCon each year, I only receive a waiver of the registration fee and that of a guest. Realistically, most of the 80,000 people who come to DragonCon don’t come to see me or the other scientists, but we’re happy to catch their attention and teach them some science when they’re not ogling Stephen Amell.

What do I love about each? I’m a researcher in evolutionary genetics, and I love telling my fellow scientists about our recent results as well as learning what they have discovered recently. It’s extremely intellectually stimulating and rejuvenating to go to scientific conferences. But I’m also a teacher, and I love getting people excited about geeky biology concepts and facts when perhaps they have not had much training in biology. My last talk at DragonCon earlier this month was on why there are so many humanoids in Star Trek, but sneakily, it was also a primer on many evolutionary biology concepts and recent results. Someone walking out of the room at the end commented to their friend, “I learned A LOT.” I could wish for no greater outcome than that.


Mohamed A. F. Noor, besides being a Trekkie, is a professor in the Biology Department at Duke University. He is the editor in chief of the journal Evolution and author of You’re Hired! Now What?: A Guide for New Science Faculty. He lives in Durham, North Carolina.

William R. Newman: Newton the Scientist or Newton the Alchemist?

Isaac Newton was an alchemist. Isaac Newton was perhaps the greatest scientist who ever lived. How do we reconcile these two statements? After all, to most modern people, alchemy was at best a delusion and at worst an outright fraud. But Newton’s involvement in chrysopoeia, the alchemical attempt to transmute metals, is undeniable. Thanks to a famous 1936 auction of Newton’s papers, it is now an indisputable fact that the famous physicist wrote extensively on alchemy. Careful estimates indicate that he left about a million words on the subject, or possibly somewhat more.  Nor can one assert that this material stemmed from Newton’s old age, when he had ceased to be a productive scientist. To the contrary, his involvement in alchemy occupied the most productive period of his life, beginning in the 1660’s, when Newton’s innovations in mathematics and physics were still in their formative stages, and continuing up to the early eighteenth century when he published his famous Opticks.

What then are we to make of Newton’s alchemical quest, which extended over more than three decades? In the last third of the twentieth century, when the academic field of the history of science still held alchemy in low esteem, scholars were perplexed at his devotion to the aurific art. Two complementary theories emerged that attempted to explain Newton’s involvement in alchemy. The first built on the modern idea that alchemy was a type of magic, and that Renaissance magic focused on the hidden sympathies and antipathies between material things. The reason why a lodestone attracted iron at a distance was because of a hidden sympathy between the two.   Couldn’t this sort of explanation have stimulated Newton to think of gravity in terms of an immaterial attraction? And wasn’t alchemy based on the idea that some materials react with others because of a similar principle of affinity? Thus the idea that Newton’s involvement with alchemy was part of a quest to understand gravitational attraction was born. But closer inspection shows that this historical explanation has little or no justification. When Newton actually does speak about gravity and alchemy in the same breath, as in his manuscript Of Natures obvious laws & processes in vegetation, he explicitly proposes a mechanical explanation of gravity that does not involve immaterial attraction. There is no evidence that his concept of action at a distance emerged from his alchemical studies.

The second major attempt to explain Newton’s alchemy in the last generation stemmed from a consideration of two fields: religion and analytical psychology. The pioneering psychologist Carl Jung had been arguing since the early twentieth century that alchemy was really a matter of “psychic processes expressed in pseudochemical language.” Moreover, Jung argued that the language of alchemy was remarkably similar to that of Gnosticism, a heterodox religious movement of the early Christian centuries that stressed the need for personal revelation (gnosis) and communication with God. The 1936 auction that revealed Newton’s alchemy to the world had also released millions of words in his hand that dealt with prophecy, biblical chronology, and the iniquity of the orthodox doctrine of the Trinity. Newton was now understood to be a passionate Antitrinitarian and a deeply religious thinker.

Wasn’t it possible, then, that his alchemy was merely an outgrowth of his religion, and that he saw the philosophers’ stone in its role of perfecting metals as a material surrogate for Jesus, the savior of souls? After all, alchemists had long justified their art as a divine pursuit, which God would only allow to fall into the hands of the worthy. Like the argument about alchemy and gravitational attraction, however, the claim that Newton’s interest in alchemy sprang from his religiosity falls on hard times when one examines the evidence. In reality, Newton never develops the religiously tinted themes that his alchemical sources sometimes convey. When they speak of the Holy Trinity, for example, Newton ignores the obvious religious sense and immediately tries to decode the reference into the form of an alchemical recipe. And if one turns to the roughly four million words that he wrote on religious topics, the references to alchemy are vanishingly small. For Newton, alchemy and religion were independent domains, each to be treated separately.  

Why then did Newton believe in the aurific art, and what was the empirical basis of his generation-long alchemical quest? By examining the evidence upon which early modern alchemists based their beliefs, one can better appreciate Newton’s goals. In their world, minerals and metals came into being and then died beneath the surface of the earth, forming gigantic trees whose branches presented themselves as veins and stringers of ore. This idea seems less naïve when one considers mineral entities such as wire silver, which really does seem to mimic organic life.

In this world, nature seemed to delight in transmutations, as Newton himself would say in the final editions of his famous Opticks. A famous example lay in the blue mineral vitriol found in mines, which could rapidly “transmute” iron into copper by plating it. The continual sinking down and rising up of living, fertile, mineral fumes led Newton to his own early theory of subterranean generation and corruption. Basing himself on the old alchemical principle that art should mimic nature, Newton spent decades attempting to arrive at ever more volatile metal compounds, which he hoped would act as destructive agencies that could break metals into their primitive components and thereby release their hidden life. In my ongoing attempt to understand Newton’s goals and methods, I have replicated a number of his experiments in the Indiana University Chemistry Department. The results, even if they have not revealed the secret of the philosophers’ stone, can certainly help us to understand why Newton persisted in his quest for the philosophers’ stone over the greater part of his scientific career.

William R. Newman is Distinguished Professor and Ruth N. Halls Professor in the Department of History and Philosophy of Science and Medicine at Indiana University. His many books include Atoms and Alchemy: Chymistry and the Experimental Origins of the Scientific Revolution and Promethean Ambitions: Alchemy and the Quest to Perfect Nature. He lives in Bloomington, Indiana.

Martin Rees on On The Future

Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various prospects for the future—good and bad—are possible. Yet our approach to the future is characterized by short-term thinking, polarizing debates, alarmist rhetoric, and pessimism. In this short, exhilarating book, renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees argues that humanity’s future depends on our taking a very different approach to thinking about and planning for tomorrow. Rich with fascinating insights into cutting-edge science and technology, this book will captivate anyone who wants to understand the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Are you an optimist?

I am writing this book as a citizen, and as an anxious member of the human species. One of its unifying themes is that humanity’s flourishing depends on how wisely science and technology are deployed. Our lives, our health, and our environment can benefit still more from further advances in biotech, cybertech, robotics, and AI. There seems no scientific impediment to achieving a sustainable and secure world, where all enjoy a lifestyle better than those in the ‘west’ do today (albeit using less energy and eating less meat). To that extent, I am a techno-optimist. But what actually happens depends on politics and ethical choices.

Our ever more interconnected world is exposed to new vulnerabilities. Even within the next decade or two, robotics will disrupt working patterns, national economies, and international relations. A growing and more demanding population puts the natural environment under strain; peoples’ actions could trigger dangerous climate change and mass extinctions if ‘tipping points’ are crossed—outcomes that would bequeath a depleted and impoverished world to future generations. But to reduce these risks, we need to enhance our understanding of nature and deploy appropriate technology (zero-carbon energy, for instance) more urgently. Risks and ethical dilemmas can be minimized by a culture of ‘responsible innovation’, especially in fields like biotech, advanced AI and geoengineering; and we’ll need to confront new ethical issues—‘designer babies’, blurring of the line between life and death, and so forth—guided by priorities and values that science itself can’t provide.

Is there a moral imperative as well?

There has plainly been a welcome improvement in most people’s lives and life-chances—in education, health, and lifespan. This is owed to technology. However, it’s surely a depressing indictment of current morality that the gulf between the way the world is and the way it could be is wider than it ever was. The lives of medieval people may have been miserable compared to ours, but there was little that could have been done to improve them. In contrast, the plight of the ‘bottom billion’ in today’s world could be transformed by redistributing the wealth of the thousand richest people on the planet. Failure to respond to this humanitarian imperative, which nations have the power to remedy—surely casts doubt on any claims of institutional moral progress. That’s why I can’t go along with the ‘new optimists’ who promote a rosy view of the future, enthusing about improvements in our moral sensitivities as well as in our material progress. I don’t share their hope in markets and enlightenment.

A benign society should, at the very least, require trust between individuals and their institutions. I worry that we are moving further from this ideal for two reasons: firstly, those we routinely have to deal with are increasingly remote and depersonalised; and secondly, modern life is more vulnerable to disruption—‘hackers’ or dissidents can trigger incidents that cascade globally. Such trends necessitate burgeoning security measures. These are already irritants in our everyday life—security guards, elaborate passwords, airport searches and so forth—but they are likely to become ever more vexatious. Innovations like blockchain could offer protocols that render the entire internet more secure. But their current applications—allowing an economy based on cryptocurrencies to function independently of traditional financial institutions—seem damaging rather than benign. It’s depressing to realize how much of the economy is dedicated to activities that would be superfluous if we felt we could trust each other. (It would be a worthwhile exercise if some economist could quantify this.)

But what about politics? 

In an era where we are all becoming interconnected, where the disadvantaged are aware of their predicament, and where migration is easy, it’s hard to be optimistic about a peaceful world if a chasm persists, as deep as it is today’s geopolitics, between the welfare levels and life-chances in different regions. It’s specially disquieting if advances in genetics and medicine that can enhance human lives are available to a privileged few, and portend more fundamental forms of inequality. Harmonious geopolitics would require a global distribution of wealth that’s perceived as fair—with far less inequality between rich and poor nations. And even without being utopian it’s surely a moral imperative (as well as in the self-interest of fortunate nations) to push towards this goal. Sadly, we downplay what’s happening even now in far-away countries. And we discount too heavily the problems we’ll leave for new generations. Governments need to prioritise projects that are long-term in a political perspectives, even if a mere instant in the history of our planet.

Will super intelligent AI out-think humans?

We are of course already being aided by computational power. In the ‘virtual world’ inside a computer astronomers can mimic galaxy formation; meteorologists can simulate the atmosphere. As computer power grows, these ‘virtual’ experiments become more realistic and useful. And AI will make discoveries that have eluded unaided human brains. For example, there is a continuing quest to find the ‘recipe’ for a superconductor that works at ordinary room temperatures. This quest involves a lot of ‘trial and error’, because nobody fully understands what makes the electrical resistance disappear more readily in some materials than in others. But it’s becoming possible to calculate the properties of materials, so fast that millions of alternatives can be computed, far more quickly than actual experiments could be done. Suppose that a machine came up with a novel and successful recipe. It would have achieved something that would get a scientist a Nobel prize. It would have behaved as though it had insight and imagination within its rather specialized universe—just as Deep Mind’s Alpha Go flummoxed and impressed human champions with some of its moves. Likewise, searches for the optimal chemical composition for new drugs will increasingly be done by computers rather than by real experiments.

Equally important is the capability to ‘crunch’ huge data-sets. As an example from genetics, qualities like intelligence and height are determined by combinations of genes. To identify these combinations would require a machine fast enough to scan huge samples of genomes to identify small correlations. Similar procedures are used by financial traders in seeking out market trends, and responding rapidly to them, so that their investors can top-slice funds from the rest of us.

Should humans spread beyond Earth?

The practical case for sending people into space gets weaker as robots improve. So the only manned ventures (except for those motivated by national prestige) will be high-risk, cut price, and privately sponsored—undertaken by thrill-seekers prepared even to accept one-way tickets. They’re the people who will venture to Mars. But there won’t be mass emigration: Mars is far less comfortable than the South Pole or the ocean bed. It’s a dangerous delusion to think that space offers an escape from Earth’s problems. We’ve got to solve these here. Coping with climate change may seem daunting, but it’s a doddle compared to terraforming Mars. There’s no ‘Planet B’ for ordinary risk-averse people.

But I think (and hope) that there will be bases on Mars by 2100. Moreover we (and our progeny here on Earth) should cheer on the brave adventurers who go there. The space environment is inherently hostile for humans, so, precisely because they will be ill-adapted to their new habitat, the pioneer explorers will have a more compelling incentive than those of us on Earth to redesign themselves. They’ll harness the super-powerful genetic and cyborg technologies that will be developed in coming decades. These techniques will, one hopes, be heavily regulated on Earth; but ‘settlers’ on Mars will be far beyond the clutches of the regulators. This might be the first step towards divergence into a new species. So it’s these spacefaring adventurers, not those of us comfortably adapted to life on Earth, who will spearhead the post-human era. If they become cyborgs, they won’t need an atmosphere, and may prefer zero-g—perhaps even spreading among the stars.

Is there ‘intelligence’ out there already?

Perhaps we’ll one day find evidence of alien intelligence. On the other hand, our Earth may be unique and the searches may fail. This would disappoint the searchers. But it would have an upside for humanity’s long-term resonance. Our solar system is barely middle aged and if humans avoid self-destruction within the next century, the post-human era beckons. Intelligence from Earth could spread through the entire Galaxy, evolving into a teeming complexity far beyond what we can even conceive. If so, our tiny planet—this pale blue dot floating in space—could be the most important place in the entire cosmos.

What about God?

I don’t believe in any religious dogmas, but I share a sense of mystery and wonder with many who do. And I deplore the so called ‘new atheists’—small-time Bertrand Russell’s recycling his arguments—who attack religion. Hard-line atheists must surely be aware of ‘religious’ people who are manifestly neither unintelligent nor naïve, though they make minimal attempts to understand them by attacking mainstream religion, rather than striving for peaceful coexistence with it; they weaken the alliance against fundamentalism and fanaticism. They also weaken science. If a young Muslim or evangelical Christian is told at school that they can’t have their God and accept evolution, they will opt for their God and be lost to science. When so much divides us, and change is disturbingly fast, religion offers bonding within a community. And its heritage, linking its adherents with past generations, should strengthen our motivation not to leave a degraded world for generations yet to come.

Do scientists have special obligations?

It’s a main theme of my book that our entire future depends on making wise choices about how to apply science. These choices shouldn’t be made just by scientists: they matter to us all and should be the outcome of wide public debate. But for that to happen, we all need enough ‘feel’ for the key ideas of science, and enough numeracy to assess hazards, probabilities and risks—so as not to be bamboozled by experts, or credulous of populist sloganising. Moreover, quite apart from their practical use, these ideas should be part of our common culture. More than that, science is the one culture that’s truly global. It should transcend all barriers of nationality. And it should straddle all faiths too.

I think all scientists should divert some of their efforts towards public policy—and engage with government, business, and campaigning bodies. And of course the challenges are global. Coping with potential shortage of resources—and transitioning to low carbon energy—can’t be solved by each nation separately.

The trouble is that even the best politicians focus mainly on the urgent and parochial—and getting reelected. This is an endemic frustration for those who’ve been official scientific advisors in governments. To attract politicians’ attention you must get headlined in the press, and fill their inboxes. So scientists can have more leverage indirectly—by campaigning, so that the public and the media amplify their voice. Rachel Carson and Carl Sagan, for instance, were preeminent exemplars of the concerned scientist—with immense influence through their writings, lectures and campaigns, even before the age of social media and tweets

Science is a universal culture, spanning all nations and faiths. So scientists confront fewer impediments on straddling political divides.

Does being an astronomer influence your attitude toward the future?

Yes, I think it makes me specially mindful of the longterm future. Let me explain this. The stupendous timespans of the evolutionary past are now part of common culture (maybe not in Kentucky, or in parts of the Muslim world). But most people still somehow think we humans are necessarily the culmination of the evolutionary tree. That hardly seems credible to an astronomer—indeed, we could still be nearer the beginning than the end. Our Sun formed 4.5 billion years ago, but it’s got 6 billion more before the fuel runs out. It then flares up, engulfing the inner planets. And the expanding universe will continue—perhaps forever. Any creatures witnessing the Sun’s demise won’t be human—they could be as different from us as we are from slime mold. Posthuman evolution—here on Earth and far beyond—could be as prolonged as the evolution that’s led to us, and even more wonderful. And of course this evolution will be faster than Darwinian: it happens on a technological timescale, driven by advances in genetics and AI.

But (a final thought) even in the context of a timeline that extends billions of years into the future, as well as into the past. this century is special. It’s the first where one species—ours—has our planet’s future in its hands. Our creative intelligence could inaugurate billions of years of posthuman evolution even more marvelous than what’s led to us. On the other hand, humans could trigger bio, cyber, or environmental catastrophes that foreclose all such potentialities. Our Earth, this ‘pale blue dot’ in the cosmos, is a special place. It may be a unique place. And we’re its stewards at a specially crucial era—the anthropocene. That’s a key message for us all, whether or not we’re astronomers, and a motivation for my book.

Martin Rees is Astronomer Royal, and has been Master of Trinity College and Director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University. As a member of the UK’s House of Lords and former President of the Royal Society, he is much involved in international science and issues of technological risk. His books include Our Cosmic HabitatJust Six Numbers, and Our Final Hour (published in the UK as Our Final Century). He lives in Cambridge, UK.

Browse Our New Biology 2018-2019 Catalog

In our Biology 2018-2019 catalog you will find a host of new books, from a look at how genes are not the only basis of heredity, a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotions in humans and animals, and an engaging journey into the biological principles underpinning a beloved science-fiction franchise.

If you will be at ESA in New Orleans, we will be in booth 303. Stop by any time to check out our full range of titles in biology and related fields.

For much of the twentieth century it was assumed that genes alone mediate the transmission of biological information across generations and provide the raw material for natural selection. In Extended Heredity, leading evolutionary biologists Russell Bonduriansky and Troy Day challenge this premise. Drawing on the latest research, they demonstrate that what happens during our lifetimes–and even our grandparents’ and great-grandparents’ lifetimes—can influence the features of our descendants. On the basis of these discoveries, Bonduriansky and Day develop an extended concept of heredity that upends ideas about how traits can and cannot be transmitted across generations.


The Neuroscience of Emotion presents a new framework for the neuroscientific study of emotion across species. Written by Ralph Adolphs and David J. Anderson, two leading authorities on the study of emotion, this accessible and original book recasts the discipline and demonstrates that in order to understand emotion, we need to examine its biological roots in humans and animals. Only through a comparative approach that encompasses work at the molecular, cellular, systems, and cognitive levels will we be able to comprehend what emotions do, how they evolved, how the brain shapes their development, and even how we might engineer them into robots in the future.

In Star Trek, crew members travel to unusual planets, meet diverse beings, and encounter unique civilizations. Throughout these remarkable space adventures, does Star Trek reflect biology and evolution as we know it? What can the science in the science fiction of Star Trek teach us? In Live Long and Evolve, biologist and die-hard Trekkie Mohamed Noor takes readers on a fun, fact-filled scientific journey.

Tanya Bub & Jeffrey Bub on Totally Random: A Serious Comic on Entanglement

BubTotally Random is a comic for the serious reader who wants to really understand the central mystery of quantum mechanics—entanglement: what it is, what it means, and what you can do with it. A fresh and subversive look at our quantum world with some seriously funny stuff, this book delivers a real understanding of entanglement that will completely change the way you think about the nature of physical reality.

Why a quantum comic?

TB: The idea came to us when we were working on an illustration for a somewhat tricky section of Jeff’s last book. What we wanted was for readers to have that “Aha!” moment of understanding when you experience something directly. Wouldn’t it be cool if instead of just telling you about how weird quantum mechanics is, we could somehow hand you an object that has all the weirdness of quantum entanglement baked into it, so that you get to play with it and see for yourself. We agreed that would be great, but how? That’s when we came up with idea of crafting a quantum object and making it “real” in the form of an experiential comic. The first strip was rough but we could sense that the feeling of understanding you got from it was really different and had a lot of potential. So we started to play around with the idea of doing a full-length quantum comic as a totally new way of giving people a direct understanding of what’s so puzzling and fascinating about quantum mechanics.

Sounds great but can a comic really get across such a difficult topic?

JB: When you think about it, the early guys like Bohr, Einstein, Heisenberg, and Schrödinger didn’t read about quantum mechanics, not initially anyway. They were looking at the results of experiments and trying to imagine a reality that could explain what they were seeing. The comic more or less puts you in their shoes. Yes, the object you get to play with is simpler than what they had to deal with, but mostly all we do is remove any distracting noise that’s not relevant to the mystery of entanglement, which Schrödinger recognized as “the characteristic trait of quantum mechanics, the one that enforces its entire departure from classical lines of thought.” So the reader gets to personally see how all the crazy stuff they came up with, like dead and alive cats, many worlds, apparent faster-than-light signaling, and so on, just sort of naturally falls out of the thing you are “holding” in your hands. We wanted people to experience that same feeling of having the rug pulled out from under their understanding of how the world works that Einstein, Bohr, and others had when they were first faced with quantum phenomena. There’s a very fundamental and disturbing challenge to your commonsense picture of reality when you see how something that seems so self-evident can turn out to be wrong.

What’s with the hands?

TB: Ah yes, the hands! So, the whole idea behind the book is to drag you into the puzzle of entanglement, right? We don’t know what you look like or who you are but we know that if you’re reading the book your hands are holding it. So we thought, what if we actually draw you, your hands, into the book and make you one of the main characters. Because in the end you’re the one who has to figure things out and you’re the one who has to grapple with the questions and ideas that continue to trouble physicists and philosophers to this day.

The other characters in the book, J and T, are obviously you, Jeff and Tanya, the two authors. Are the characters true to life and does their relationship reflect your father/daughter relationship?

JB: I don’t know what your relationship is with your parents or kids but imagine if you tried to write a book with one of them. You start to get a picture. There’s this relationship, this connection that is necessarily going to be a part of the process. It’s there, and what you want to do is use it to fuel the creative process, but you also can’t let it get out of control.

TB: To be honest, the writing of this book included shouting matches as well as huge laughs and in the end it was those things that made it so intense and so much fun. Anyway, because the book asks you, the reader, to be present, we felt it was only fair to  really be in there ourselves in some genuine way that reflected our own process in wrestling with these questions. So yes, while J and T are caricatures, they are in some sense real, and they capture the essence of our relationship and the experience of writing the book.

You also have historical characters like Einstein, Bohr, and Schrödinger in the book. How do they fit in?

TB: OK, so you’ve been playing with your designer quantum object, which as you know is a pair of entangled coins, and you are convinced that something is terribly strange about them and you now have all these questions buzzing though your head. That’s when “Einstein” comes along. He’s the first physicist you encounter. He takes a look at your coins and in his own words tells you what he thinks of them. Exactly why he finds them so very interesting and troubling. And by “in his own words” what I mean is direct quotes taken from some of his most well-known papers, but tweaked so that his words apply precisely to your coins, the entangled coins with which you are now intimately familiar. So in the course of the book you get to understand the subtle thinking of some of the greatest minds in physics, Einstein, Bohr, Schrödinger, Everett, von Neumann, about quantum mechanics, in their own words, but applied to something that you grasp in both the literal and figurative sense.

Einstein is represented as a delivery truck driver, Bohr is a Freudian therapist, von Neumann is a private eye. What was the thinking behind that?

TB: We really wanted to avoid the trap of having talking-head characters with long monologues. We felt that in order for the book to work we needed to take advantage of what comics are good at. Comics can put you in a place, give you an experience, have action, be funny, be outrageous. We really wanted our book to play on the strengths of the medium. So we gave each character a personality and job that somehow reflected the essence of their approach to quantum theory. Einstein as the blue-collar delivery truck driver brings the message of commonsense reasoning to the debate. Von Neumann as the private eye believes that a witness is required to close the case. Bohr uses psychotherapy to help you let go of your preconceived ideas about reality.

Does the book relate to modern-day thinking and technologies?

JB: Yes! You’ve probably seen stuff in the news about quantum technologies. We took the top three hot topics, quantum cryptography, quantum computing, and quantum teleportation and presented them in terms of three challenges that you have to solve using your wits and your entangled coins. By the end of this section you’ll have a personal understanding of how quantum entanglement can be used to do stuff that is otherwise impossible, since you will have just done it yourself. It’s quite funny too.

Who is this book for? Can someone with no background in quantum mechanics understand it, or is it for people who already know something about the subject?

TB: So, there’s no math at all in the book and in that sense anyone can pick it up. No previous knowledge required. So, really, there are no prerequisites other than being curious and open-minded. But the book will challenge some of your very fundamental ideas about how the world works. In other words, it really makes you think. If you are looking to shake up your conception of reality and you are willing to actively participate in the puzzles of quantum entanglement then you are exactly the kind of reader this book is written for. You could be someone who has never thought about quantum mechanics at all, or you could be someone who has an understanding of the math and formal arguments but don’t feel that you have fully grasped their conceptual significance. It’s also for people intrigued by the subject who may have read popular science books or seen documentaries on quantum mechanics but still feel like outsiders and don’t want to take someone else’s word for it anymore. I guess in the end it’s for people who want to really “get” the significance of entanglement for themselves.

Tanya Bub is founder of 48th Ave Productions, a web development company. She lives in Victoria, British Columbia. Jeffrey Bub is Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Philosophy and the Institute for Physical Science and Technology at the University of Maryland, where he is also a fellow of the Joint Center for Quantum Information and Computer Science. He lives in Washington, DC.

Eli Maor on Music by the Numbers

MaorThat music and mathematics are somehow related has been known for centuries. Pythagoras, around the 5th century BCE, may have been the first to discover a quantitative relation between the two: experimenting with taut strings, he found out that shortening the effective length of a string to one half its original length raises the pitch of its sound by an agreeable interval—an octave. Other ratios of string lengths produced smaller intervals: 2:3 corresponds to a fifth (so called because it is the fifth note up the scale from the base note), 3:4 corresponded to a fourth, and so on. Moreover, Pythagoras found out that multiplying two ratios corresponds to adding their intervals: (2:3) x (3:4) = 1:2, so a fifth plus a fourth equals an octave. In doing so, Pythagoras discovered the first logarithmic law in history.

The relations between musical intervals and numerical ratios have fascinated scientists ever since. Johannes Kepler, considered the father of modern astronomy, spent half his lifetime trying to explain the motion of the known planets by relating them to musical intervals. Half a century later, Isaac Newton formulated his universal law of gravitation, thereby providing a rational, mathematical explanation for the planetary orbits. But he too was obsessed with musical ratios: he devised a “palindromic” musical scale and compared its intervals to the rainbow colors of the spectrum. Still later, four of Europe’s top mathematicians would argue passionately over the exact shape of a vibrating string. In doing so, they contributed significantly to the development of post-calculus mathematics, while at the same time giving us a fascinating glimpse into their personal relations and fierce rivalries. As Eli Maor points out in Music by the Numbers, the “Great String Debate” of the eighteenth century has some striking similarities to the equally fierce debate over the nature of quantum mechanics in the 1920s.

What brought you to write a book on such an unusual subject? 

The ties between music and mathematics have fascinated me from a young age. My grandfather played his violin for me when I was five years old, and I still remember it quite clearly. He also spent many hours explaining to me various topics from his physics book, from which he himself had studied many years earlier. In the chapter on sound there was a musical staff showing the note A with a number under it: 440, the frequency of that note. It may have been this image that first triggered my fascination with the subject. I still have that physics book and I treasure it immensely. My grandfather must have studied it thoroughly, as his penciled annotations appear on almost every page.

Did you study the subject formally?

Yes. I did my master’s and later my doctoral thesis in acoustics at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology. There was just one professor who was sufficiently knowledgeable in the subject, and he agreed to be my advisor. But first we had to find a department willing to take me under its wing, and that turned out to be tricky. To me acoustics was a branch of physics, but the physics department saw it as just an engineering subject. So I applied to the newly-founded Department of Mechanics, and they accepted me. The coursework included a heavy load of technical subjects—strength of materials, elasticity, rheology, and the theory of vibrations—all of which I did as independent studies. In the process I learned a lot of advanced mathematics, especially Fourier series and integrals. It served me well in my later work.

What about your music education?

I started my musical education playing Baroque music on the recorder, and later I took up the clarinet. This instrument has the unusual feature that when you open the thumb hole on the back side of the bore, the pitch goes up not by an octave, as with most woodwind instruments, but by a twelfth—an octave and a fifth. This led me to dwell into the acoustics of wind instruments. I was—and still am—intrigued by the fact that a column of air can vibrate and produce an agreeable sound just like a violin string. But you have to rely entirely on your ear to feel those vibrations; they are totally invisible to the eye.

When I was a physics undergraduate at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, a group of students and professors decided to start an amateur orchestra, and I joined. At one of our performances we played Mozart’s overture to The Magic Flute. There is one bar in that overture where the clarinet plays solo, and it befell upon me to play it. I practiced for that single bar again and again, playing it perhaps a hundred times simultaneously with a vinyl record playing on a gramophone. Finally the evening arrived and I played my piece—all three seconds of it. At intermission I asked a friend of mine in the audience, a concert pianist, how did it go. “Well,” she said, “you played it too fast.”  Oh Lord!  I was only glad that Mozart wasn’t present!

Throughout your book there runs a common thread—the parallels between musical and mathematical frames of reference. Can you elaborate on this comparison? 

For about 300 years—roughly from 1600 to 1900—classical music was based on the principle of tonality: a composition was always tied to a given home key, and while deviating from it during the course of the work, the music was invariably related to that key. The home key thus served as a musical frame of reference in which the work was set, similar to a universal frame of reference to which the laws of classical physics were supposed to be bound.

But in the early 1900s, Arnold Schoenberg set out to revolutionize music composition by proposing his tone row, or series, consisting of all twelve semitones of the octave, each appearing exactly once before the series is completed. No more was each note defined by its relation to the tonic, or base note; in Schoenberg’s system a complete democracy reigned, each note being related only to the note preceding it in the series. This new system bears a striking resemblance to Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity, in which no single frame of reference has a preferred status over others. Music by the Numbers expands on this fascinating similarity, as well as on the remarkable parallels between the lives of Schoenberg and Einstein.

You also touch on some controversial subjects. Can you say a few words about them?

It is generally believed that over the ages, mathematics has had a significant influence on music. Attempts to quantify music and subject it to mathematical rules began with Pythagoras himself, who invented a musical scale based entirely on his three “perfect intervals”—the octave, the fifth, and the fourth. From a mathematical standpoint it was a brilliant idea, but it was out of sync with the laws of physics; in particular, it ignored other important intervals such as the major and minor thirds. Closer to our time, Schoenberg’s serial music was another attempt to generate music by the numbers. It aroused much controversy, and after half a century during which his method was the compositional system to follow, enthusiasm for atonal music has waned.

But it is much less known that the attraction between the two disciplines worked both ways. I have already mentioned the Great String Debate of the eighteenth century—a prime example of how a problem originating in music has ended up advancing a new branch of mathematics: post-calculus analysis. It is also interesting to note that quite a few mathematical terms have their origin in music, such as harmonic series, harmonic mean, and harmonic functions, to name but a few.

Perhaps the most successful collaboration between the two disciplines was the invention of the equal-tempered scale—the division of the octave into twelve equally-spaced semitones. Although of ancient origins, this new tuning method has become widely known through Johann Sebastian Bach’s The Well-Tempered Clavier— his two sets of keyboard preludes and fugues covering all 24 major and minor scales. Controversial at the time, it has become the standard tuning system of Western music.

In your book there are five sidebars, one of which with the heading “Music for the Record Books: The Lowest, the Longest, the Oldest, and the Weirdest.”  Can you elaborate on them?

Yes. The longest piece of music ever performed—or more precisely, is still being performed—is a work for the organ at the St. Burkhardt Church in the German town of Halberstadt. The work was begun in 2003 and is an ongoing project, planned to be unfolding for the next 639 years. There are eight movements, each lasting about 71 years. The work is a version of John Cages’ composition As Slow as Possible. As reported by The New York Times, “The organ’s bellows began their whoosh on September 5, 2001, on what would have been Cage’s 89th birthday. But nothing was heard because the score begins with a rest—of 20 months. It was only on February 5, 2003, that the first chord, two G-sharps and a B in between, was struck.” It will be interesting to read the reviews when the work finally comes to an end in the year 2640.

I’ll mention one more piece for the record books: in 2012, astronomers discovered the lowest known musical note in the universe. Why astronomers?  Because the source of this note is the galaxy cluster Abell 426, some 250 million light years away. The cluster is surrounded by hot gas at a temperature of about 25,000,000 degrees Celsius, and it shows concentric ripples spreading outward—acoustic pressure waves. From the speed of sound at that temperature—about 1,155 km/sec—and the observed spacing between the ripples—some 36,000 light years—it is easy to find the frequency of the sound, and thus its pitch: a B-flat nearly 57 octaves below middle C. Says the magazine Sky & Telescope, “You’d need to add 635 keys to the left end of your piano keyboard to produce that note!  Even a contrabassoon won’t go that low.”

Eli Maor has taught the history of mathematics at Loyola University Chicago until his recent retirement. He is the author of six previous books by Princeton University Press: To Infinity and Beyonde: the Story of a NumberTrigonometric DelightsThe Pythagorean TheoremVenus in Transit; and Beautiful Geometry (with Eugen Jost). He is also an active amateur astronomer, has participated in over twenty eclipse and transit expeditions, and is a contributing author to Sky & Telescope.

A Big Deal: Organic Molecules Found on Mars

by David Weintraub

MarsIn 1976, both Viking 1 and Viking 2 touched down on the surface of Mars. Both landed on vast, flat plains, chosen because they were ideal locations for landing safely. Perhaps the most important Viking experiment for assessing whether life could exist on Mars was the gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer (GCMS) instrument, built by a team led by Klaus Biermann of MIT. Ultimately, Biermann and his GCMS team reported a definitive answer: “No organic compounds were found at either of the two landing sites.” None, nada, zilch.

This scientific discovery had enormous importance for our understanding Mars. Summing up what we learned from the Viking missions in 1992, and in particular what we learned from the absence of any organics in the sampled Martian soil, a team of Viking scientists wrote, “The Viking findings established that there is no life at the two landing sites.” Furthermore, because these two sites were thought to be extremely representative of all of Mars, they concluded that this result “virtually guarantees that the Martian surface is lifeless everywhere.” 

If Mars is sterile, then SpaceX and NASA and Blue Origin and Mars One can all move forward with their efforts to land colonists on Mars in the near future. They needn’t wrestle with any ethical issues about contaminating Mars.

Fast forward a generation. In a paper published in Science last week, Jennifer Eigenbrode and her team, working with data collected by the Mars Science Laboratory (i.e., the Curiosity rover), report that they discovered organic molecules in Martian soil. The importance of this discovery for the possible existence of life on Mars is hard to overstate. The discovery of organics on Mars is a BIG deal.

Let’s be careful in discussing organic molecules. An organic molecule must contain at least one carbon atom and that carbon atom must be chemically bonded to a hydrogen atom. All life on Earth is built on a backbone (literally) of organic molecules (DNA). And life on Earth can produce organic molecules (for example, the methane that is produced in the stomachs of cows). But abiological processes can also make organic molecules. In fact, the universe is full of such molecules known as PAHs (polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons), which are found in interstellar clouds and the atmospheres of red giant stars and which have absolutely nothing to do with life.

Repeat: the presence of organic molecules on Mars does not mean life has been found on Mars. The absence of organic molecules in the Martian soil, as discovered in the Viking experiments, however, almost certainly means “no life here.” 

Were the Viking scientists wrong? Yes, in part. Their conclusion that the plains of Mars are representative of every locale on Mars was an overreach. When assessing whether the environment on Mars might be hospitable to life, local matters. That conclusion shouldn’t surprise anyone. After all, we find significant differences on Earth between the amount and kinds of life in the Mojave Desert and the Amazon River basin. Why? Water.

The vast, flat plains of Mars are free of organics, but they are unlike Gale Crater. Gale Crater was once a lake, full of water and dissolved minerals. We know now that certain locations on Mars that were warm and wet for extended periods of time in the ancient past have preserved a record of the organic molecules that formed in those environments.

Could life have played a role in creating these molecules?  Maybe, but we don’t know, yet. We do know, however, where to keep looking. We do know where to send the next several generations of robots. We do know that we should build robotic explorers that can drill deep into the soil and explore caves in places similar to Gale Crater.

Abigail Allwood, working at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, is building a detector called PIXL that will be sent to Mars on a rover mission that is scheduled for launch in 2020. PIXL will be able to make smart decisions, based on the chemistry of a rock, as to whether that rock sample might contain ancient, fossilized microbes. A later mission might retrieve Allwood’s PIXL specimens and bring them back to Earth for more sophisticated laboratory studies. With instruments like PIXL, we have a good chance of definitively answering the question, “Does Mars or did Mars ever have life?”

What does the presence of organic molecules in the Martian regolith mean, as discovered by Curiosity? Those molecules could mean that life is or once was present on Mars. Finding those molecules just raised the stakes in the search for life on Mars. The jury is still out, but the betting odds just changed.

Given all we currently know about Mars, should we be sending astronauts to Mars in the next decade? Do we have the right to contaminate Mars if is already home to native Martian microbes? These are important questions that are more relevant than ever. 

David A. Weintraub is professor of astronomy at Vanderbilt University. He is the author of Life on Mars: What to Know Before We GoReligions and Extraterrestrial Life: How Will We Deal with It?How Old Is the Universe?, and Is Pluto a Planet?: A Historical Journey through the Solar System. He lives in Nashville.