Showing posts with label science writing. Show all posts
Showing posts with label science writing. Show all posts

Sunday, December 4, 2016


As a young man encountering mathematics, science and philosophy at the University of Sydney, I was fascinated by a book by Arthur Eddington [1882-1944] : The Nature of the Physical World.

In this breath-taking book, published in 1928, Eddington introduced the concept of mind-stuff.

The mind-stuff of the world is, of course, something more general than our individual conscious minds.... The mind-stuff is not spread in space and time; these are part of the cyclic scheme ultimately derived out of it.... It is necessary to keep reminding ourselves that all knowledge of our environment from which the world of physics is constructed, has entered in the form of messages transmitted along the nerves to the seat of consciousness.... Consciousness is not sharply defined, but fades into subconsciousness; and beyond that we must postulate something indefinite but yet continuous with our mental nature.... It is difficult for the matter-of-fact physicist to accept the view that the substratum of everything is of mental character. But no one can deny that mind is the first and most direct thing in our experience, and all else is remote inference.

Thanks to Eddington, I acquired my fundamental awareness of science-based philosophy at the age of 15. Apart from my later passion for quantum theory, biology and computer science, my thinking has not changed greatly since then. These days, I find it more and more difficult to communicate meaningfully and profoundly with people who are not on this wavelength.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Amazing and frightening virus world

I've just finished reading this splendid 100-page specimen of science writing from the US academic Carl Zimmer, who writes regularly in the New York Times and Scientific American.

Not so long ago, I would never have imagined myself buying a book on viruses, or even being capable of reading such a book, since I've never done any formal studies in biology, let alone human viral pathologies. But this subject has been constantly in the news for many years, and I consider it worthwhile to make an effort to understand what it's all about. In any case, Zimmer's immense talents as a writer (he lectures on science writing at Yale) enable the layman to read his fascinating virus tales as if they were stories in a popular magazine. So, I strongly recommend this little book to people who are interested in topics such as infamous everyday viruses (common cold, influenza), horrors from history (smallpox), current challenges (HIV, West Nile virus, Ebola) and the astonishing case of bacteria-eating viruses (phages).

One of the mysterious themes handled brilliantly by Zimmer is summed up in a simple question: Is a virus a true living thing—like animals, plants, fungi, bacteria, etc? Normally, we would imagine that the answer is no, since the defining aspect of a virus is that it can only "be fruitful and multiply" when it has teamed up with a living host. But, insofar as a virus carries around a specific cargo of exotic genes (quite unlike those of humans), we would be narrowing down absurdly the scope of viral studies if they were to be regarded essentially as lifeless piles of chemical substances. They are better looked upon as "almost-living" entities, which often have terrifying surprises up their sleeves. Some dog-owners say, of their dear pet: "The only thing he lacks is the power of speech." In the case of viruses, the only thing that prevents them from being looked upon as "true" living creatures is their inability to reproduce themselves autonomously in an ordinary DNA style.

Incidentally, one of Zimmer's chapters has a particularly ominous title: Predicting the next plague.

VIDEO: For obvious reasons, viruses in humans have a bad reputation. But this is a narrow vision of the relationships that exist between humans and these mysterious microscopic entities, who have provided us with certain vital genes. Zimmer talks here about archaic life-sustaining viruses in humans: