Erika Lorraine Milam on Creatures of Cain: The Hunt for Human Nature in Cold War America

After World War II, the question of how to define a universal human nature took on new urgency. Creatures of Cain charts the rise and precipitous fall in Cold War America of a theory that attributed man’s evolutionary success to his unique capacity for murder. Drawing on a wealth of archival materials and in-depth interviews, Erika Lorraine Milam reveals how the scientists who advanced this “killer ape” theory capitalized on an expanding postwar market in intellectual paperbacks and widespread faith in the power of science to solve humanity’s problems, even to answer the most fundamental questions of human identity.

What surprised you when you were researching the book?

I never intended to write about violence. The book started as a kernel of a story about the development and reception of an educational program called Man: A Course of Study, or MACOS. When Americans learned that the Soviet Union had launched the world’s first man-made satellite into orbit, they feared the technological prowess of Soviet engineers and scientists would quickly outstrip their own, unless they poured significant energy into science education. The result was a series of educational programs developed by experts and made available for use in elementary school classrooms around the country: the PSSC, BSCS, and others. MACOS was the first to tackle questions central to the social sciences. Led by cognitive psychologist Jerome Bruner, it focused students’ attention on three questions: “What is human about human beings? How did they get that way? How can we become more so?” I wanted to know more. The program, I discovered, used a wide array of materials—among them: films, booklets, and board games—to get students to contemplate these larger questions about the diverse communities in which they lived. But quickly I realized, too, that when MACOS was adopted by local school systems it was met with protests from community members who objected to the violent content of the materials. It was difficult for me to square the project’s intentions with the accusations hurled at it only a few years later. My research snowballed. Debates over violence during the Cold War—its causes and consequences—served as proxies for scientists thinking about questions of sex, race, and their own contested authority to answer these fundamental issues. This book is the result.

You interviewed a lot of people for the book, what was that like?

Thanks for asking me this! Creatures of Cain would have been a very different book without the generosity of the scientists and writers who took the time to speak with me about their research. In reconstructing past events, historians necessarily rely on archival research. This works brilliantly when people have already deposited their correspondence and papers in an archive, but those collections are more rare than you would think, are often highly curated, and are usually available only after someone has died. (Not everyone is keen to have future historians read through old letters.) When working on recent history, talking with scientists while they are still alive allows historians like myself access to voices and perspectives that would otherwise be difficult to include. Much about a scientist’s life is never recorded in a paper trail: from the books and experiences people found inspiring when they were teenagers to the friends and colleagues who sustained them during and after graduate school. Talking with people about their histories is thus invaluable, especially in trying to recreate informal networks of collaboration that I would have otherwise missed. Plus, I find it thrilling to meet people in person. The lilting cadence of a voice, the disorderliness of an office, or the art on a wall: each of these things leaves a singular impression impossible to glean from the written word alone.

How did you choose the images for the book?

For centuries images have played a crucial role in communicating scientific ideas, including concepts of human nature. After the Second World War, with the exciting coverage of paleoanthropological fossil discoveries in Africa and nature documentaries about modern human cultures from all over the world, still and moving images stirred audiences’ interests in anthropological topics. When selecting images for the book, I chose to emphasize drawings and illustrations that depicted the theories under discussion or scientists hard at work. Their striking visual styles reflect both the artistic conventions of the time and the highly visual nature of scientific conversations. More so than photographs, which can easily be read as flat representations of the past, I hope these images center readers’ attentions on the creativity required to bring theories of human nature to life.

How did you become a historian of science?

I came to the history of science fortuitously. In my undergraduate and early graduate work, I studied biology. Only in my second year of graduate school in the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology program at the University of Michigan did I come to realize that there was a whole community of people, like me, who were interested in the humanistic study of science, technology, and medicine. I started reading books on the history of evolutionary theory, on gender history, and on the history of American science. I was gripped. Now I study how intellectual and social concerns are tightly bound together within scientific inquiries. I find especially fascinating research on the biological basis of sex and aggression in human behavior—each of which touches on the broader question of what it means to be human in a naturalistic world.

What are the lessons for us today that we learn from Creatures of Cain?

When I talk about my project, people ask me whether the growing violence of the struggle for Civil Rights domestically or the escalating Vietnam War made it easier for scientists and citizens to embrace the idea that humans were naturally murderous. The “killer ape” theory, as it came to be known, posited that the crucial divide between humans and all other animals lay in our capacity to kill other members of our own species. Did the violence of the era, perhaps, explain why it was easy to imagine the history of humanity as characterized by violence and only punctuated by moments of peace? I answer by saying that only a decade earlier, in the wake of the death and horrific atrocities of the Second World War, scientists chose instead to emphasize the importance of emphasizing the fundamental unity of humankind. Only through a common struggle against the environment, they argued, had our human ancestors survived life on the arid savannah—we humans may have clawed our way to the present, but we did it together. Biological theories of human nature have been used both to dehumanize and to promote progressive anti-racist conceptions of humanity as a whole. As these accounts demonstrate in juxtaposition, there is no consistent correlation between the desire to biologize human nature and either periods of violence or schools of ideological persuasion.

Equally important, fundamental questions about the nature of humanity—in the colloquial scientific books I make the center of my analysis—have helped recruit and inspire generations of students to pursue careers in the natural and social sciences. Even though such discussions rarely appear in the pages of professional scientific journals, they are central to how scientific and popular ideas about human nature change. Drawing a sharp distinction between specialist and non-specialist publications would thus distort the history of ideas about human nature in these decades. After all, scientists read (and reviewed) colloquial scientific publications, too, especially when exploring new ideas outside their immediate expertise.

When observations that chimpanzees also killed chimpanzees became broadly known in the latter half of the 1970s, it spelled the end of the killer ape theory. Although the idea that aggression provided the secret ingredient to the unique natural history of humanity has faded, this theory helped lay the groundwork for how scientists conceptualize human nature today.

Bonus question (if you dare): Please summarize the book in a tweet.

Oh wow! Okay, here’s a sentence from the introduction that actually fits: “In its broadest scope, Creatures of Cain demonstrates that understanding the historical fate of any scientific vision of human nature requires attending to the political and social concerns that endowed that vision with persuasive power.”

Erika Lorraine Milam is professor of history at Princeton University. She is also the author of Looking for a Few Good Males: Female Choice in Evolutionary Biology.

Browse our Physics & Astrophysics 2019 Catalog

Our new Physics & Astrophysics catalog includes a provocative and inspiring look at the future of humanity and science from world-renowned scientist and bestselling author Martin Rees, an eccentric comic about the central mystery of quantum mechanics, as well as a brief introduction to gravity through Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

If you plan on attending AAS 2019 in Seattle this weekend, please stop by Booth 417 to see our full range of Physics and Astrophysics titles and more.

Humanity has reached a critical moment. Our world is unsettled and rapidly changing, and we face existential risks over the next century. Various outcomes—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 prospects depend on our taking a very different approach to planning for tomorrow. On the Future will captivate anyone who wants to understand the critical issues that will define the future of humanity on Earth and beyond.

Totally 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.

Measure two entangled particles separately, and the outcomes are totally random. But compare the outcomes, and the particles seem as if they are instantaneously influencing each other at a distance—even if they are light-years apart. This, in a nutshell, is entanglement, and if it seems weird, then this book is for you.

Of the four fundamental forces of nature, gravity might be the least understood and yet the one with which we are most intimate. From the months each of us spent suspended in the womb anticipating birth to the moments when we wait for sleep to transport us to other realities, we are always aware of gravity. In On Gravity, physicist A. Zee combines profound depth with incisive accessibility to take us on an original and compelling tour of Einstein’s general theory of relativity. 

Gift Guide: Biographies and Memoirs!

Not sure what to give the reader who’s read it all? Biographies, with their fascinating protagonists, historical analyses, and stranger-than-fiction narratives, make great gifts for lovers of nonfiction and fiction alike! These biographies and memoirs provide glimpses into the lives of people both famous and forgotten:

Galawdewos Life of Walatta-Petros book coverThe radical saint: Walatta-Petros

Walatta-Petros was an Ethiopian saint who lived from 1592 to 1642 and led a successful nonviolent movement to preserve African Christian beliefs in the face of European protocolonialism. Written by her disciple Galawdewos in 1672, after Walatta-Petros’s death, and translated and edited by Wendy Laura Belcher and Michael Kleiner, The Life of Walatta-Petros praises her as a friend of women, a devoted reader, a skilled preacher, and a radical leader, providing a rare picture of the experiences and thoughts of Africans—especially women—before the modern era.

This is the oldest-known book-length biography of an African woman written by Africans before the nineteenth century, and one of the earliest stories of African resistance to European influence. This concise edition, which omits the notes and scholarly apparatus of the hardcover, features a new introduction aimed at students and general readers.

 

Devlin_Finding Fibonacci book coverThe forgotten mathematician: Fibonacci

The medieval mathematician Leonardo of Pisa, popularly known as Fibonacci, is most famous for the Fibonacci numbers—which, it so happens, he didn’t invent. But Fibonacci’s greatest contribution was as an expositor of mathematical ideas at a level ordinary people could understand. In 1202, his book Liber abbaci—the “Book of Calculation”—introduced modern arithmetic to the Western world. Yet Fibonacci was long forgotten after his death.

Finding Fibonacci is Keith Devlin’s compelling firsthand account of his ten-year quest to tell Fibonacci’s story. Devlin, a math expositor himself, kept a diary of the undertaking, which he draws on here to describe the project’s highs and lows, its false starts and disappointments, the tragedies and unexpected turns, some hilarious episodes, and the occasional lucky breaks.

 

The college president: Hanna Gray Gray_Academic Life book cover

Hanna Holborn Gray has lived her entire life in the world of higher education. The daughter of academics, she fled Hitler’s Germany with her parents in the 1930s, emigrating to New Haven, where her father was a professor at Yale University. She has studied and taught at some of the world’s most prestigious universities. She was the first woman to serve as provost of Yale. In 1978, she became the first woman president of a major research university when she was appointed to lead the University of Chicago, a position she held for fifteen years. In 1991, Gray was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor, in recognition of her extraordinary contributions to education.

Gray’s memoir An Academic Life is a candid self-portrait by one of academia’s most respected trailblazers.

 

The medieval historian: Ibn Khaldun Irwin_Ibn Khaldun book cover

Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) is generally regarded as the greatest intellectual ever to have appeared in the Arab world—a genius who ranks as one of the world’s great minds. Yet the author of the Muqaddima, the most important study of history ever produced in the Islamic world, is not as well known as he should be, and his ideas are widely misunderstood. In this groundbreaking intellectual biography, Robert Irwin presents an Ibn Khaldun who was a creature of his time—a devout Sufi mystic who was obsessed with the occult and futurology and who lived in a world decimated by the Black Death.

Ibn Khaldun was a major political player in the tumultuous Islamic courts of North Africa and Muslim Spain, as well as a teacher and writer. Irwin shows how Ibn Khaldun’s life and thought fit into historical and intellectual context, including medieval Islamic theology, philosophy, politics, literature, economics, law, and tribal life.

 

The novelist and philosopher: Iris Murdoch Murdoch_Living on Paper book cover

Iris Murdoch was an acclaimed novelist and groundbreaking philosopher whose life reflected her unconventional beliefs and values. Living on Paper—the first major collection of Murdoch’s most compelling and interesting personal letters—gives, for the first time, a rounded self-portrait of one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and thinkers. With more than 760 letters, fewer than forty of which have been published before, the book provides a unique chronicle of Murdoch’s life from her days as a schoolgirl to her last years.

The letters show a great mind at work—struggling with philosophical problems, trying to bring a difficult novel together, exploring spirituality, and responding pointedly to world events. We witness Murdoch’s emotional hunger, her tendency to live on the edge of what was socially acceptable, and her irreverence and sharp sense of humor. Direct and intimate, these letters bring us closer than ever before to Iris Murdoch as a person.

Browse Our Earth Science 2019 Catalog

Our new Earth Science 2019 catalog ranges from the northernmost reaches of the globe to the unfathomable depths of its oceans, and even into space, while also covering essential techniques and concepts in the fields of complexity and predictive ecology. 

If you will be attending the American Geophysical Union 2018 meeting in Washington, D.C. this weekend, please stop by booth 1506, where you can pick up a copy of the catalog in person and see our full range of books in Earth Science.

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Few of us have any conception of the enormous timescales in our planet’s long history, and this narrow perspective underlies many of the environmental problems we are creating for ourselves. The passage of nine days, which is how long a drop of water typically stays in Earth’s atmosphere, is something we can easily grasp. But spans of hundreds of years—the time a molecule of carbon dioxide resides in the atmosphere—approach the limits of our comprehension. Our everyday lives are shaped by processes that vastly predate us, and our habits will in turn have consequences that will outlast us by generations. Timefulness reveals how knowing the rhythms of Earth’s deep past and conceiving of time as a geologist does can give us the perspective we need for a more sustainable future.

Syukuro Manabe is perhaps the leading pioneer of modern climate modeling. Beyond Global Warming is his compelling firsthand account of how the scientific community came to understand the human causes of climate change, and how numerical models using the world’s most powerful computers have been instrumental to these vital discoveries.

Does life exist on Mars? The question has captivated humans for centuries, but today it has taken on new urgency. NASA plans to send astronauts to Mars orbit by the 2030s. SpaceX wants to go by 2024, while Mars One wants to land a permanent settlement there in 2032. As we gear up for missions like these, we have a responsibility to think deeply about what kinds of life may already inhabit the planet–and whether we have the right to invite ourselves in. This book tells the complete story of the quest to answer one of the most tantalizing questions in astronomy. But it is more than a history. Life on Mars explains what we need to know before we go.

 

Kevin Mitchell: Wired that way – genes do shape behaviours but it’s complicated

Many of our psychological traits are innate in origin. There is overwhelming evidence from twin, family and general population studies that all manner of personality traits, as well as things such as intelligence, sexuality and risk of psychiatric disorders, are highly heritable. Put concretely, this means that a sizeable fraction of the population spread of values such as IQ scores or personality measures is attributable to genetic differences between people. The story of our lives most definitively does not start with a blank page.

But exactly how does our genetic heritage influence our psychological traits? Are there direct links from molecules to minds? Are there dedicated genetic and neural modules underlying various cognitive functions? What does it mean to say we have found ‘genes for intelligence’, or extraversion, or schizophrenia? This commonly used ‘gene for X’ construction is unfortunate in suggesting that such genes have a dedicated function: that it is their purpose to cause X. This is not the case at all. Interestingly, the confusion arises from a conflation of two very different meanings of the word ‘gene’.

From the perspective of molecular biology, a gene is a stretch of DNA that codes for a specific protein. So there is a gene for the protein haemoglobin, which carries oxygen around in the blood, and a gene for insulin, which regulates our blood sugar, and genes for metabolic enzymes and neurotransmitter receptors and antibodies, and so on; we have a total of about 20,000 genes defined in this way. It is right to think of the purpose of these genes as encoding those proteins with those cellular or physiological functions.

But from the point of view of heredity, a gene is some physical unit that can be passed from parent to offspring that is associated with some trait or condition. There is a gene for sickle-cell anaemia, for example, that explains how the disease runs in families. The key idea linking these two different concepts of the gene is variation: the ‘gene’ for sickle-cell anaemia is really just a mutation or change in sequence in the stretch of DNA that codes for haemoglobin. That mutation does not have a purpose – it only has an effect.

So, when we talk about genes for intelligence, say, what we really mean is genetic variants that cause differences in intelligence. These might be having their effects in highly indirect ways. Though we all share a human genome, with a common plan for making a human body and a human brain, wired so as to confer our general human nature, genetic variation in that plan arises inevitably, as errors creep in each time DNA is copied to make new sperm and egg cells. The accumulated genetic variation leads to variation in how our brains develop and function, and ultimately to variation in our individual natures.

This is not metaphorical. We can directly see the effects of genetic variation on our brains. Neuroimaging technologies reveal extensive individual differences in the size of various parts of the brain, including functionally defined areas of the cerebral cortex. They reveal how these areas are laid out and interconnected, and the pathways by which they are activated and communicate with each other under different conditions. All these parameters are at least partly heritable – some highly so.

That said, the relationship between these kinds of neural properties and psychological traits is far from simple. There is a long history of searching for correlations between isolated parameters of brain structure – or function – and specific behavioural traits, and certainly no shortage of apparently positive associations in the published literature. But for the most part, these have not held up to further scrutiny.

It turns out that the brain is simply not so modular: even quite specific cognitive functions rely not on isolated areas but on interconnected brain subsystems. And the high-level properties that we recognise as stable psychological traits cannot even be linked to the functioning of specific subsystems, but emerge instead from the interplay between them.

Intelligence, for example, is not linked to any localised brain parameter. It correlates instead with overall brain size and with global parameters of white matter connectivity and the efficiency of brain networks. There is no one bit of the brain that you do your thinking with. Rather than being tied to the function of one component, intelligence seems to reflect instead the interactions between many different components – more like the way we think of the overall performance of a car than, say, horsepower or braking efficiency.

This lack of discrete modularity is also true at the genetic level. A large number of genetic variants that are common in the population have now been associated with intelligence. Each of these by itself has only a tiny effect, but collectively they account for about 10 per cent of the variance in intelligence across the studied population. Remarkably, many of the genes affected by these genetic variants encode proteins with functions in brain development. This didn’t have to be the case – it might have turned out that intelligence was linked to some specific neurotransmitter pathway, or to the metabolic efficiency of neurons or some other direct molecular parameter. Instead, it appears to reflect much more generally how well the brain is put together.

The effects of genetic variation on other cognitive and behavioural traits are similarly indirect and emergent. They are also, typically, not very specific. The vast majority of the genes that direct the processes of neural development are multitaskers: they are involved in diverse cellular processes in many different brain regions. In addition, because cellular systems are all highly interdependent, any given cellular process will also be affected indirectly by genetic variation affecting many other proteins with diverse functions. The effects of any individual genetic variant are thus rarely restricted to just one part of the brain or one cognitive function or one psychological trait.

What all this means is that we should not expect the discovery of genetic variants affecting a given psychological trait to directly highlight the hypothetical molecular underpinnings of the affected cognitive functions. In fact, it is an error to think of cognitive functions or mental states as having molecular underpinnings – they have neural underpinnings.

The relationship between our genotypes and our psychological traits, while substantial, is highly indirect and emergent. It involves the interplay of the effects of thousands of genetic variants, realised through the complex processes of development, ultimately giving rise to variation in many parameters of brain structure and function, which, collectively, impinge on the high-level cognitive and behavioural functions that underpin individual differences in our psychology.

And that’s just the way things are. Nature is under no obligation to make things simple for us. When we open the lid of the black box, we should not expect to see lots of neatly separated smaller black boxes inside – it’s a mess in there.

Innate: How the Wiring of our Brains Shapes Who We Are by Kevin Mitchell is published via Princeton University Press.Aeon counter – do not remove

This article was originally published at Aeon and has been republished under Creative Commons.

David Hu on How to Walk on Water and Climb Up Walls (Part 2)

Insects walk on water, snakes slither, and fish swim. Animals move with astounding grace, speed, and versatility: how do they do it, and what can we learn from them? In How to Walk on Water and Climb up Walls, David Hu takes readers on an accessible, wondrous journey into the world of animal motion. From basement labs at MIT to the rain forests of Panama, Hu shows how animals have adapted and evolved to traverse their environments, taking advantage of physical laws with results that are startling and ingenious. In turn, the latest discoveries about animal mechanics are inspiring scientists to invent robots and devices that move with similar elegance and efficiency.

In the second part of our Q+A with David Hu, he describes what we know (and don’t know) about animal motion, and what the future of robots will look like. Check out the first part of our Q+A here.

Don’t we already know everything about animal motion?

From cave paintings to today’s videos of cats on YouTube, the movement of animals has always fascinated people. The thesis of my book is that there is an explosion of new interest and progress in understanding animal motion. Recent technological developments and the teamwork of biologists, computer scientists, physicists, and engineers, are leading to changes in the way animal motion is now studied.

What can we learn from studying animal motion?

Animals have existed for millions of years. As a result, they have evolved a huge diversity, inhabiting nearly every part of the planet, across terrains from desert to forest to sea. This range of environments, combined with their intense competition to eat or be eaten has led to the evolution of ingenious methods of locomotion. Their varying locomotion mechanisms can inspire new ways of propulsion for humans, from robots that walk across the clutter in our homes to tracked vehicles that move across the dusty surface of Mars. But before we robots are improved sufficiently to enter our everyday lives, an understanding how animals movement is of great benefit.

What kind of approach is needed to study animal motion?

We already have many of the tools to understand the movement of animals.  Because animals move through air and water, the same tools that engineers use to design boats and airplanes can be applied to animals. The brains of animals can be studied in a similar way. To react quickly to their surroundings, animals rely on a system of nerves that can act autonomously, similar to the cruise control in your car, and the motion of an autonomous robot. Since animals share things in common with boats, airplanes, and robots—the same tools to study these human-made systems can be used to reverse-engineer systems in nature.

How did you become interested in studying animals and insects?

My PhD was on the physics of insects that walk on water. People who study the motion of fluids have often looked to birds and fish for inspiration. During my PhD, I realized that while we often see insects as annoying, they are the dominant non-microscopic life form on earth, and their small size gives them an even greater versatility to move. After my PhD study on water striders and a postdoctoral study on snakes, I founded my own laboratory for studying animal movement.

What are the applications of your work, whether it’s a shaking wet dog or animals waving their tails?

In the course of my work, I often design and build new devices based on animal movement. My work on water striders led to a collaborator building a palm-sized water-walking robot. My work on cat tongues led to a cat-tongue inspired brush that combs with lower force and is easier to clean. From this book, I hope to show curiosity-based research on animal motion can lead to useful new inventions.

What are the robots of the future going to be like?

Many robots rely on wheels and are tested on linoleum floors. Robots built for such structured environments often do poorly in nature. A grassy field, a moss-covered stream, even a living room littered with children’s toys. These are terrain that is impassible by most robots. To traverse these cluttered areas, robots will likely need multiple legs, or no legs at all, resembling insects or snakes. I bet that robots that successfully traverse outdoor environments will show some resemblance to the animals that make this place their home. This is because the laws of physics provide immutable constraints that have influenced the shape and kind of motion that is most effective on these terrain.

David L. Hu is associate professor of mechanical engineering and biology and adjunct professor of physics at Georgia Institute of Technology. He lives in Atlanta.

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?

Yes!

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.