Oliver Sacks. Photograph: Adam Scourfield/BBC/AP Photo/AP
Goodbye, Dr. Sacks. You were one of the best friends that nerds obsessed with thinking and consciousness ever had. Fortunately for us we can continue our conversation with you every time we read your books. (As many books as he wrote, there were other manuscripts that he never got around to publishing, as mentioned in his autobiography On The Move.)
Filipino scientist Giselle Yeo has a video submission to the Centenary Institute Lawrence Creative Prize and would very much appreciate your support. The Prize recognizes work by an early-career scientist who uses innovative methods for a medically relevant application.
As far as we can tell, Giselle’s research combines molecular biology and physics to study tropoelastin mutants which may be used for bone repair and regeneration. (Sounds X-Men/Wolverine-y.)
If you like the video, vote for Giselle! You need to log in to thinkable.org with either Facebook or Google+, or sign up with an email address. Click the “vote” button underneath my video and that’s it!
Please feel free to share it with people who might be interested in supporting early-career scientific research.
In February the neurologist, writer and all-around super-nerd Oliver Sacks wrote that he had metastatic cancer and did not have long to live. He sounded more serene and cheerful as he awaited the end than many people with decades and decades ahead of them. Last week he published an update on his condition. It is dire. And yet he sounds almost excited to be at the final frontier. We know that when the time comes, in the event that there is an afterlife and there is any way he can report to us from there, he will.
We haven’t gotten around to reviewing his autobiography On The Move because we get too emotional.
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I have tended since early boyhood to deal with loss — losing people dear to me — by turning to the nonhuman. When I was sent away to a boarding school as a child of 6, at the outset of the Second World War, numbers became my friends; when I returned to London at 10, the elements and the periodic table became my companions. Times of stress throughout my life have led me to turn, or return, to the physical sciences, a world where there is no life, but also no death.
And now, at this juncture, when death is no longer an abstract concept, but a presence — an all-too-close, not-to-be-denied presence — I am again surrounding myself, as I did when I was a boy, with metals and minerals, little emblems of eternity. At one end of my writing table, I have element 81 in a charming box, sent to me by element-friends in England: It says, “Happy Thallium Birthday,”a souvenir of my 81st birthday last July; then, a realm devoted to lead, element 82, for my just celebrated 82nd birthday earlier this month. Here, too, is a little lead casket, containing element 90, thorium, crystalline thorium, as beautiful as diamonds, and, of course, radioactive — hence the lead casket.
Woke up the other day with this playing in our head. Why, we have no idea. We read the chapter on earworms in Oliver Sacks’s Musicophilia, but he doesn’t know what causes them, either. Earworms are also known as “last song syndrome”, but in this case we hadn’t heard Bob Dorough in years when he started singing in our head. We have a cassette of one of his albums, which a friend recorded from vinyl, but our one surviving cassette player has a perpetual whirr. So we were happy to find Devil May Care on YouTube, along with his other songs including Baltimore Oriole and Blue Xmas, an anti-Xmas song that ranks up there with Christmastime is Here from A Charlie Brown Christmas.
Yes, we like bebop, our musical tastes are guy-ish and Dorough’s singing IS odd.
The danger of Science-Fiction Week is that you may feel like abandoning other genres altogether, they seem so staid and predictable in comparison. We saw Alex Garland’s excellent Ex Machina, starring Alicia Vikander as Ava the artificial intelligence, Oscar Isaac as her creator, and Domhnall Gleeson as the programmer chosen to administer the Turing test. Garland got his SF cred from Danny Boyle’s Sunshine, in which a team that includes Cillian Murphy and a bearded Chris Evans embark on a voyage to turn the sun back on. He also wrote the novels The Tesseract, set in the Philippines (reportedly he wrote it in Quezon), and The Beach and the screenplay for 28 Days Later.
Alicia Vikander, like Oscar Isaac, is in every other movie that opens this year, and she’s so good we cannot begrudge her Michael Fassbender assuming they’re still together. We loved Domhnall Gleeson in About Time, in which he was part of a family that used their ability to go back in time to read Dickens over and over again (there are worse ways to use time). And Vikander and Gleeson were by far the best parts of Joe Wright’s Anna Karenina (they were Kitty and Levin), except possibly for Aaron Taylor-Johnson’s moustache.
In Ex Machina, the tech billionaire behind the world’s most popular search engine—we think of him as Larry/Sergey—creates AI and gets one of his employees to test her. Lonely geek becomes emotionally attached to a program: it’s Spike Jonze’s Her, minus the whimsy, romance and the high-waisted pants. Ex Machina challenges the viewer to define what “human” is, and the results are uncomfortable. It makes us think that the singularity isn’t near, it’s already here and Asimov’s Laws no longer hold. The movie is chilly, and it’s supposed to be, so the sudden disco break is welcome.
Then we saw Alicia Vikander in James Kent’s Testament of Youth, based on Vera Brittain’s memoir of World War I. Vikander plays Vera, and she’s surrounded by some of the most adorable young British actors today, including Kit Harington (or as we call him at home, Christopher Darling), Colin Morgan (from the TV series Merlin, which makes us very angry because it takes painful myths we love and makes them cute), and Taron Egerton (from Kingsman). If you still haven’t recovered from the season finale of Game of Thrones, see Jon Snow clean-shaven here.
Testament of Youth reminded us of Joe Wright’s Atonement, no surprise since Brittain’s book is cited by Ian McEwan as one of the sources of his novel. Vera is a young woman who falls in love and gets accepted to Oxford in the same year—she’s all set to go to university with him when WWI breaks out and everything goes to hell.
Sapiens, available in hardcover at National Bookstores, Php1255
Seveneves got us to thinking about the survival of the species, so we picked up Sapiens, a history of the species by Yuval Noah Harari. We’re on chapter 4. It’s a fascinating book that makes leaps of logic that academics may scoff at, but we have no problem with.
The first part tries to answer the question: How did a species in the middle of the food chain suddenly vault to the top? We’d always thought that Homo sapiens descended from earlier versions of the species, Neanderthals and so on, but Harari points out that a mere 70,000 years ago there were six human species on the planet and sapiens basically won out. The competition was bigger and stronger, but sapiens could work together towards one goal, thanks to their ability to imagine things that did not exist, and to tell each other stories that bound their community together. In short, their weapon was fiction. So all you people who don’t read fiction, you’re doomed.