Jason Fried recently wrote that we should teach iteration as a subject, or technique at least, in schools.
Another subject wildly undertaught is evolution. Not just the “creation vs. evolution” Big Picture story of how humans got here that we’ve spent centuries arguing over. I mean the underlying mechanisms of random variation, error correction, and fitness-to-environment testing that creates emergent order:
Out of the random variation, which is the result of mutations/copying-errors (which can be the result of exposure to radiation, metals or chemical substances), only a small percentage actually increases the fitness of an individual. Those mutations tend...
This is a phenomenal interview with Richard Rhodes, author of the legendary The Making of the Atomic Bomb, an expansive history of the Manhattan Project and the development of nuclear weapons technology.
Dwarkesh Shah’s show The Lunar Society is generally excellent and highly recommended. Just listen to how long he lets Rhodes answer and expound on questions without interruption. These are my favorite types of long-form interviews.
This piece from Anton Howes gets at one of the key insights about how innovation works: it doesn’t happen through sudden bursts of insight from thin air — it requires the combination of the right simmering ingredients and a person in search of solutions to specific problems:
Santorio’s claim, it seems, is safe. But in this lies an important lesson for all would-be inventors. The inverted flask experiment had been around for centuries, and even been understood since ancient times as being caused by hot and cold. So its application as a...
Ezra Klein recently hosted Stripe founder Patrick Collison on his podcast for a deep dive into his thinking on progress studies.
Tracking down the origins of what generates progress, and what compels things like substantial breakthroughs in scientific research is a hard problem. Clearly there’s no monocausal explanation. I like Patrick’s idea here that specific attributes of research culture might be key contributors:
If we kind of accept that, and we try to ask ourselves, well, specifically, what are the mechanisms? You know, what’s actually going on? It’s hard for me to say. It...
Geologists on the whole are inconsistent drivers. When a roadcut presents itself, they tend to lurch and weave. To them, the roadcut is a portal, a fragment of a regional story, a proscenium arch that leads their imaginations into the earth and through the surrounding terrane.
This is a book I’d love to revisit. So many great bits of history.
From the world of geophysics, a massive-scale seismic research project has been happening surrounding the island of Réunion, a shield volcanic dome over an Indian Ocean hotspot. Researchers have been using a stream of data collected from a web of seismometers in the region to map out the superheated plumes of mantle material that bubble up from the core.
In 2012, a team of geophysicists and seismologists set out to map the plume, deploying a giant network of seismometers across the vast depths of the Indian Ocean seafloor. Nearly a decade later, the team has revealed...
Jason Crawford is maintaining this list on Roots of Progress, an archive of inventions that seemingly could’ve been uncovered earlier than they were, based on what precursor knowledge would’ve been required. This one about stirrups is wild:
One of the key insights coming out of the progress studies movement seems like a simple idea on the surface, but it’s an important core thesis: that progress is not an inevitability. We don’t see new inventions, innovations, and improvements to quality of life by accident. It’s the result of deliberate effort by people in searching for new life improvements. Using names like “Moore’s Law” perhaps makes it sound like computer chip improvements “just happen,” but researchers at Intel or TSMC would beg to differ on how automatic those developments were.
This conversation with José Luis Ricón Fernández de la Puente on Erik Torenberg’s podcast was an expansive cover of more topics than I think I’ve ever heard discussed on a single podcast. A brief sampling of the subjects touched: scientific progress, economics, GDP growth, health care, regulations, longevity research.
Also see José’s blog for more in-depth coverage on his research topics.
Jeff Atwood on Robert X. Cringely’s descriptions of three groups of people you need to “attack a market”:
Whether invading countries or markets, the first wave of troops to see battle are the commandos. Woz and Jobs were the commandos of the Apple II. Don Estridge and his twelve disciples were the commandos of the IBM PC. Dan Bricklin and Bob Frankston were the commandos of VisiCalc.
Grouping offshore as the commandos do their work is the second wave of soldiers, the infantry. These are the people who...
Adam Elkus with a great essay on the current moment:
“Is this as bad as 1968?” is an utterly meaningless question precisely for this underlying reason. People do not invoke 1968 because of the objective similarities between 2020 and 1968. They do so because we have crossed a threshold at which basic foundations of social organization we take for granted now seem up for grabs. This is an inherently subjective determination, based on the circumstances of our present much as people in 1968 similarly judged...
I really enjoyed this post from Jerry Neumann exploring the structure of how technological and scientific progress happens.
Referencing the well known work of Karl Popper and Thomas Kuhn, he demonstrates how technological change falls into a power-law distribution in its frequency-to-impact ratio. Kuhn’s argument was that progress happens in either small, incremental improvements, or massive, revolutionary leaps:
Kuhn looked at the history of scientific progress and saw that Popper’s heroic scientific machinery was rarely how science happened in the real world. Kuhn’s theory was descriptive: it explained why science...
Ken Burns is producing a documentary series adapted from Siddhartha Mukherjee’s book The Gene: An Intimate History. It’s a history of genetics and the human genome. It was one of my favorite books from 2017. Looking forward to watching this.
The details of Hamilton’s theory are complex, but the basic idea is fairly simple. The starting point is the observation that organisms share a larger fraction of their genes with relatives than they do with unrelated individuals. This has an important implication, namely that any gene that contributes to the development of a tendency to help one’s relatives has a better than average chance of being located as well...
Bloomberg has been publishing this video series on future technologies called “Giant Leap.” It’s well-done and a nice use of YouTube as a medium.
This one explores a number of new companies doing R&D in microgravity manufacturing — from biological organ “printing” to creation of high-quality fiber optic materials. There are still some challenges ahead to unlock growth of space as a manufacturing environment, but it feels like we’re on the cusp of a new platform for industrial growth in the near future.
An interesting technical breakdown on how Figma built their multiplayer tech (the collaboration capability where you can see other users’ mouse cursors and highlights in the same document, in real time).
A beautiful visualization project from Nature converts 150 years of scientific papers into a 3-dimensional network diagram, making concrete the network of citations and references linking together the history of discoveries.
Blot is a super-minimal open source blogging system based on plain text files in a folder. It supports markdown, Word docs, images, and HTML — just drag the files into the folder and it generates web pages. I love simple tools like this.
An interesting post from Robert Simmon from Planet. These examples of visualizations and graphics of physical phenomena (maps, cloud diagrams, drawings of insects, planetary motion charts) were all hand-drawn, in an era where specialized photography and sensing weren’t always options.
I’m a historian of innovation. I write mostly about the causes of Britain’s Industrial Revolution, focusing on the lives of the individual innovators who made it happen. I’m interested in everything from the exploits of sixteenth-century alchemists to the schemes of Victorian engineers. My research explores why they became innovators, and the institutions they created to promote innovation even further.
Another interesting post from Roots of Progress, following up from the previous one, which asked why it took so long to invent the bicycle.
This question on invention is an interesting one. My first reaction is to agree with Jason in general that the leisure time and latitude permitted by times of plenty gives us more room for study and experimentation — the steps that lead to incremental discovery. However there have been many breakthrough discoveries happened upon by accident.
Often times progress is spurred forward by intentional inventions leading...
The relationship that eventually mattered most to Einstein’s legacy was symmetry. Scientists often describe symmetries as changes that don’t really change anything, differences that don’t make a difference, variations that leave deep relationships invariant. Examples are easy to find in everyday life. You can rotate a snowflake by 60 degrees and it will look the same. You can switch places on a teeter-totter and not upset the balance. More complicated symmetries have led physicists to the discovery of everything from neutrinos to quarks — they even led to Einstein’s own discovery...
Glowee reinvents light production with technology nature has already created to make lighting more sustainable and healthier for both humans and the environment. Having identified the genetic coding that creates bioluminescence, Glowee inserts this code into common, non-toxic, and non-pathogenic bacteria to produce clean, safe, synthetic bioluminescence. Once engineered and grown, the bacteria are encapsulated into a transparent shell, alongside a medium composed of the nutrients they need to live and make light. This lighting solution can indefinitely and...
NASA has developed a portable atomic clock that would allow deep space probes to navigate on their own. As Geoff Manaugh notes here, when you’re traveling in space with no access to a frame of reference, travel time from a point of origin is how one orients:
One might say that the ship is navigating time as much as it is traveling through space—steering through the time between things rather than simply following the lines that connect one celestial object to another.
The general problem of ship orientation and navigation...
Neuroscientist Karl Friston is the world’s leading authority on brain imaging science and on the forefront of our understanding of how brains actually work. He’s the creator of the free energy principle, an idea that attempts to unify an organizing framework for what drives all life: minimizing free energy.
The predictive processing model is a cognitive framework for modeling how the brain synthesizes information from two channels:
The “bottoms up” stream of raw data coming in through our senses for processing
The “top down” stream of predictions about the world
These two channels merge together in a continuous interplay inside the brain and allow us to make sense of the world, with each system continually feeding back to the other in a process we’d refer to as “learning”.
This group is building some interesting tools to expose and enable sharing and collaboration on academic papers.
We develop software to help illuminate academic papers. Just as Pierre de Fermat scribbled his famous last theorem in the margins, professional scientists, academics and citizen scientists can annotate equations, figures, ideas and write in the margins.
They have a tool called Margins, which allows researchers to upload, annotate, and share academic papers, and another neat one called Librarian, a Chrome extension for comments and annotations for arXiv papers.
In his new book Loonshots, author Safi Bahcall uses the concept of phase transitions to analyze how companies work. When a substance changes phase, like water going from solid to liquid, the same exact substance is forced to take on a new structural form when the surrounding environment changes.
As Bahcall points out in the book, companies exhibit a similar behavior in their inventions and strategy. He contrasts two different types of innovations that companies tend to be built to produce: “P” type innovations, where a company is great at producing new products, and “S”...
After reading The Breakthrough, I’ve been doing more reading on immunotherapy, how it works, and what the latest science looks like. Another book in my to-read list is An Elegant Defense, a deeper study of how the immune system works. The human defensive system of white blood cells is a truly incredible evolutionary machine — a beautiful and phenomenally complex version of antifragility.
Since The Origin of Species, Darwin’s theory of natural selection has been the foundation of our thinking about the evolution of life. Along the way there have been challengers to the broadness of that theory, and David Quammen’s The Tangled Tree brings together three core “modern” concepts that are beginning to take hold, providing a deeper understanding how lifeforms evolve.
The book mostly follows the research of the late Carl Woese, a microbiologist who spent his career studying microorganisms, looking for connections between creatures in the micro and macro. Beginning with Darwin’s tree...
“But this long history of learning how to not fool ourselves—of having utter scientific integrity—is, I’m sorry to say, something that we haven’t specifically included in any particular course that I know of. We just hope you’ve caught on by osmosis.
“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself—and you are the easiest person to fool. So you have to be very careful about that. After you’ve not fooled yourself, it’s easy not to fool other scientists. You just have to...
A wide-ranging conversation on linguistics, human scientific advancement, and enlightenment thinking with Steven Pinker and John McWhorter.
Linguistics is endlessly fascinating.
I might be an outlier, but I absolutely love YouTube as a medium for this kind of content. This sort of long form video is an example of a fantastic new thing that couldn’t exist or thrive prior to YouTube.
As I started The Gene, I was assuming it’d be framed as a history of genetics. There’s a significant amount of history on the discoveries made the last few centuries as scientists gained an understanding of how hereditary traits are encoded and transmitted. But my favorite parts of the narrative are when Mukherjee seeks to look at the gene as the fundamental building block, making comparisons to bits and atoms.
It reminded me of another book I’d like to revisit: James Gleick’s The Information. That book is to bits what The Gene was to genetics. Claude Shannon’s
Graham Hawkes has a fascinating approach to undersea research and exploration. Rather than focusing on deep ocean submersibles (which he’s built plentyof), his company is currently building underwater airplanes, craft that fly through the water with hydrodynamic wings and thrusters, capable of flying alongside dolphins and manta rays. Hawkes is obsessed with the ocean, and is fond of saying to space explorers that their “rockets are pointing in the wrong direction”. It’s amazing how little is known about the ocean floor, and how relatively little funding we roll into hydro-exploration.