Not me, I’m certain

Three words matter much: Not me, I’m certain I am uncertain. I’m not simply uncertain. Not simply indecisive, beset by unknowns, nor stymied by possibilities.

The virtue of intellectual humility is getting a lot of attention. It’s heralded as a part of wisdom, an aid to self-improvement and a catalyst for more productive political dialogue. While researchers define intellectual humility in various ways, the core of the idea is “recognizing that one’s beliefs and opinions might be incorrect.”

But achieving intellectual humility is hard. Overconfidence is a persistent problem, faced by many, and does not appear to be improved by education or expertise. Even scientific pioneers can sometimes lack this valuable trait.

~ Michael Dickson from,

The compass for me is, “so what?” When I’m certain of something, I ask myself: So, what? Connecting that which I’m certain of, out into the world via, “so, what?” challenges me to look at the underpinnings of my beliefs, and the integration with my knowledge in total.


A cure for hiccups

[It] boils down to a simple breathing exercise. First, exhale completely, then inhale a deep breath. Wait 10 seconds, then—without exhaling—inhale a little more. Wait another five seconds, then top up the breath again. Finally, exhale.

~ Uri Bram from,

Sometimes I straight-up do public service announcements. Here, have a cure for hiccups!

If you’ve thought about how proper breathing works, you’ll quickly realize those instructions involve incrementally, increasingly flexing your diaphragm muscle. (If that isn’t obvious, the Thoracic diaphragm page on Wikipedia has you covered.) The muscle spasm is part of a feedback loop involving two of our nerves, and intentionally activating the muscle breaks that feedback. The trick is that you need to really flex it… flex it much harder than you normally do when breathing.

Note that if you do the “hold your breath” part of the exercise by closing your glottis (what’s that?) and relaxing your diaphragm, you’re doing it wrong. The entire point of the exercise is to flex, flex, flex and hold tension in the diaphragm muscle.


The gap

The Wrights’ story shows something more common than we realize: There’s often a big gap between changing the world and convincing people that you changed the world.

~ Morgan Housel from,

On one hand, we could simply define “changed the world” to be when people have actually noticed, or when the change is wide-spread. On the other hand, it’d be much more interesting to acknowledge that the change happens at the moment of the advance—the moment the Wright Brothers figured out controlled, powered flight. (It’s the “controlled” part that really made them first.) The challenge for us creatives… for those of us out trying to change the world… is how do we act during the gap. Do we keep working, quietly changing the world further? Do we stop working and start marketing? Or… something else? To quote William Gibson: “The future is here, it’s just not evenly distributed yet.”


Forget glowing noses

During the summer, when the sun spends months above the horizon, the inner parts of the animals’ eyes, a structure called the tapetum lucidum, gleam a shimmering gold. But as the landscape dips into the perpetual darkness of winter, their eyes turn a rich blue.

~ Katherine J. Wu from,

Forget glowing noses; reindeer eyes are magic. This is a short, punchy, pop-sci article— and is exactly the sort of random, interesting thing I delight in trawling through RSS feeds to locate.



Titan is like Earth with its rivers, lakes, and seas filled by rain, but as stated, this is liquid methane and ethane as opposed to liquid water on Earth. Like Earth, Titan also has sand dunes, but they are made of hydrocarbons instead of silicate-based substances. Also, much like Earth, Titan is known for having a seasonal liquid transport cycle, also known as the water cycle on Earth, linking atmosphere, land, and oceans.

~ Laurence Tognetti from,

Back in the 1980s I read a lot of science fiction weaving epic tales and describing alien landscapes. These days, I continue to read things which are weaving epic, and describing alien—but they are no longer fiction.


Logical conclusions

In its original Latin use, the word genius was more readily applied to places — genius loci: “the spirit of a place” — than to persons, encoded with the reminder that we are profoundly shaped by the patch of spacetime into which the chance-accident of our birth has deposited us, our minds porous to the ideological atmosphere of our epoch. It is a humbling notion — an antidote to the vanity of seeing our ideas as the autonomous and unalloyed products of our own minds.

~ Maria Popova from,

This is a delightful meander across time and authors.


That’s… interesting

But in our Physics Project we’ve developed a fundamentally different view of space—in which space is not just a background, but has its own elaborate composition and structure. And in fact, we posit that space is in a sense everything that exists, and that all “things” are ultimately just features of the structure of space. We imagine that at the lowest level, space consists of large numbers of abstract “atoms of space” connected in a hypergraph that’s continually getting updated according to definite rules and that’s a huge version of something like this…

~ Stephen Wolfram from,

I’m not sure what to say about this. I am certain that Wolfram is not crazy and that he is brilliant, but he’s pretty far beyond what I can understand. (Picture me doing that slightly askew, squinting thing.) On the other hand, if they really are making the progress they seem to be… it’s going to be a neat time to be alive, in another decade when they get things sorted out.


Falsity and simplicity

False science and false religion express their dogmas in highly elevated language to make simple people think that they are mysterious, important, and attractive. But this mysterious language is not a sign of wisdom. The wiser a person is, the simpler the language he uses to express his thoughts.

~ Lucy Malory



Motility, and in particular directed motility, is decisively important for host colonization, as bacteria deliberately seek to colonize an organism and conquer all niches.

~ Ludwig Maximilian from,

*shudders* The article is about stress hormones in people, and research into how bacteria are (not “may be”) using our hormones to signal when they (the bacteria, *shudder* again) should go on the offensive and move. I don’t have anything to add. This just struck me as creepy.


Tasty numbers

For five years as a data analyst, I forecasted and analyzed Google’s revenue. For six years as a data visualization specialist, I’ve helped clients and colleagues discover new features of the data they know best. Time and time again, I’ve found that by being more specific about what’s important to us and embracing the complexity in our data, we can discover new features in that data. These features can lead us to ask better data-driven questions that change how we analyze our data, the parameters we choose for our models, our scientific processes, or our business strategies.

~ Zan Armstrong from,

This one just has neat graphs in it. And it has some interesting insights about what data analysts do. The phrase “big data” has been tossed around a lot in recent years—the way “quantum mechanics” gets tossed around by people who have no idea about that either. This article isn’t about truly big data sets, but it’s a neat dive into energy usage as an example of some spiffy data analysis.


May break the Internet

If Earth were to shift to even longer days, we may need to incorporate a “negative leap second”—this would be unprecedented, and may break the internet.

~ Matt King and Christopher Watson from,

The use of the phrase “may break the internet” made me smile. It’s not irony, and it’s serious. I do not want to think about what would happen if they inserted a negative leap second; The forward sort are bad enough, and don’t get me started on Daylight Savings Time. I digress.

This is a refreshingly clear, popular-science level article that covers the myriad reasons there is such variability in the exact amount of time it takes our magic marble to whirl precisely once around its axis. The very first thing most people never think of is how do we even precisely decide what “one rotation” is. (Hint: Astronomy.)


Upper bounds

If we play our cards right, we could live hundreds of thousands of years more. In fact, there’s not much stopping us living millions of years. The typical species lives about a million years. Our 200,000 years so far would put us about in our adolescence, just old enough to be getting ourselves in trouble, but not wise enough to have thought through how we should act.

~ Toby Ord from,

I find it beneficial to have my perspectives stretched. This article walks through scales of time in a delightful manner. It pauses to ask questions, and to point out people who did certain things at precise points in our history. There are countless opportunities to shift perspective. For example: I’ve been alive for 1/100 of recorded human history. And recorded history is only 3/100 of the age of our species. The aggregate progress of humanity is simply the sum of our individual efforts, and my life represents 1/100,000,000,000 of humanity so far. Stretched perspectives indeed.


Pasteur’s Quadrant

The core idea of Pasteur’s Quadrant is that basic and applied research are not opposed, but orthogonal. Instead of a one-dimensional spectrum, with motion towards “basic” taking you further away from “applied”, and vice versa, he proposes a two-dimensional classification, with one axis being “inspired by the quest for fundamental understanding” and the other being “inspired by considerations of use”

~ Jason Crawford from,

I’ve put a bit of thought into research. I’ve certainly considered the two properties of “research for understanding” and “research for application”. But I’ve never thought of them as two dimensions. Click through and check out the simple but illuminating quadrant graph.

And I’m immediately wondering: Can I think of a third dimension upon which to plot research? (Field-of-study comes to mind. Time; The thing being studied, is it something that happens in micro-time like particle physics, or macro-time like geology?) I’m also wondering: what other activities could be plotted in a quadrant? (Writing: insight versus length? Coaching: net change in performance versus time spent training?)


The germ theory

Thus the germ theory, long before it led to medical treatments, drove down mortality rates by revolutionizing sanitation and hygiene.

~ Jason Crawford from,

No, literally draining the swamp. There are a few reasons to click through on that. The most amazing is simply to scroll through the long article and glance at all the graphs; Graphs of magnificent drops in mortality rates by the 1950s. The 50s and 60s were demonstrably amazing simply for the fact that by then, most people weren’t dying of the same infectious things that have been killing people for millennia.

But the little gem quoted above was something that made me pause. Yes, it’s always fun to chuckle from the privileged perspective of the third millennia of the Common Era: The germ theory. *giggles* “Theory.” That’s so cute. What made me pause though was the thought about sanitation. I’d always thought of how the germ theory *giggles* affected medical treatments—washing hands by physicians and surgeons and penicillin and all that good stuff. But the idea that, “hey tiny stuff we can’t see can hurt us… maybe we should, ya know, filter and treat the drinking water?” …it hadn’t occurred to me that that too became a thing we actually started doing because of the germ theory.


Do not delete!

Many mysteries still surround the issue of what noncoding DNA is, and whether it really is worthless junk or something more. Portions of it, at least, have turned out to be vitally important biologically. But even beyond the question of its functionality (or lack of it), researchers are beginning to appreciate how noncoding DNA can be a genetic resource for cells and a nursery where new genes can evolve.

~ Jake Buehler from,

I knew there were “large” portions of the DNA strand that weren’t [as far as we could tell] important. But 98%? waaaaaaaaat? Also, many other great things in this article—and it’s always nice to link to Quanta Magazine.



The Scientific Revolution began in the 1500s; the Industrial Revolution not until the 1700s. Since industrial progress is in large part technological progress, and technology is in large part applied science, it seems that the Industrial Revolution followed from the Scientific, as a consequence, if not necessarily an inevitable one.

~ Jason Crawford from,

It seems clear to me, (and the article does not disagree,) that the the Scientific Revolution was a necessary precursor to the Industrial. So, “was it necessary?” isn’t a very interesting question.

But the question, “how did it lead to and enable the Industrial revolution?” is a very interesting question. I hadn’t thought about how, specifically, did the one lead to the other. The Scientific Revolution didn’t simply create some sort of encyclopedia of human knowledge, (spread out among all the scientists.) It did that, yes. But it also set things up for the Industrial revolution because suddenly the regular, uneducated people believed the world was knowable and believed that they could tinker, and iterate to improve things.

Which is an interesting point to keep in mind the next time I’m ready to throw my hands up in frustration at some wacky something-or-other.


It’s the little things

That even though we evolved as ruthless replication machines, we’ve somehow risen out of the muck and we currently find ourselves running cultural software that’s way out of sync with what game theory would dictate, and perhaps we can seize the moment and build a civilization that can tame the brutal dynamics that created us.

~ “Dynomight” from,

Eliding a long explanation, I’ll just say: I hope that’s still accessible by the time you read this. Also, my normal routine is to bookmark stuff and to later—often much later—write a blog post around it. But not this time. This one caused me to drop what I was doing and blog about it… before even having finished reading it.

You’ll instantly see (once you go there… why are you still here?) why it appeals to me. You’ll be way ahead of the average level of science knowledge if you just skim the list. But the big take-away for me is: It’s not at all hard to find things to be thankful for, and I don’t just mean insanely technical things like that which are on that list. No, I mean…

All you have to do is look around, and start imagining changes. Completely realistic changes. Small changes even. And every single thing that we think, “oh, that’s nice,” becomes something to be thankful for.


Straight-up magic

The aim of fusion research is to develop a climate- and environmentally-friendly power plant. Similar to the sun, it is to generate energy from the fusion of atomic nuclei. Because the fusion fire only ignites at temperatures above 100 million degrees, the fuel—a low-density hydrogen plasma—must not come into contact with cold vessel walls. Held by magnetic fields, it floats almost contact-free inside a vacuum chamber.

~ Max Planck Society, from

I’ve been following the syndication feed for, like 20 years. It kicks out a lot of posts. (About 840 each month in fact. Which I can tell by looking in my account at I’ve been watching from afar for decades as we humans try to figure out nuclear fusion.

The sun fuses light elements—Hydrogen mostly—creating slightly heavier elements—Helium mostly. Our bombs and nuclear reactors go in the other direction: They take very rare, very heavy elements—like Uranium-238 which is even more rare than it’s very rare “normal” Uranium that has 235 protons and neutrons in its nucleus—and break them apart releasing an enormous amount of energy. But breaking them apart is fairly easy. Uranium is such a big fat nucleus that it breaks apart on its own. (That’s what Radon gas comes from in your house.) Fission is pretty easy.

Fusion on the other hand is insanely difficult. You have to push two protons very close together before they decide to stick together. But when they do stick you get energy out. Hydrogen only has one proton in it’s nucleus, and the center of the sun is literally a churning soup of protons and free-roaming electrons. Gravity squeezes it more and more. Millions of degrees. Inconceivable pressures. The material is so dense, so opaque, that the light produced by the little Heliums getting created bounces around inside so much, it helps balance the gravitational crushing. In fact, the light that leaves the sun is only a tiny fraction of the energy being generated. Most of it just fights gravity off. Yes, the solar energy reaching Earth is a tiny fraction, of a tiny fraction of the total energy the sun produces.

Yeah. We humans have figured out how to do that. In fact, we have two very different engineering solutions—the “tokomak” and the “Wendelstein 7-X”. They work. We can put cheap, abundant, harmless Hydrogen in and it creates Helium. Yes, with a net outflow of energy. Years ago, we could do it for fractions of a second, but it consumed more energy than we got back out. But now, today, these two devices literally consume Hydrogen and spit out Helium. Pure, magic. You get so much energy out from Fusion, it’d be trivial to split good old water apart… push that little Oxygen in H2O off using electrolosys and send the Oxygen elsewhere. (It has lots of applications.)

Ever see some sci-fi movie where the people find alien technology? They’re all like, “ooooooh, look at this suitcase sized power supply that runs the whole ship” and “how’s that work” and “alien science.”

Yeah. That shit up top there in that article. BAM! Human science. Pure magic.


Demonic door operator

A thought experiment devised by the Scottish physicist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867 stumped scientists for 115 years. And even after a solution was found, physicists have continued to use “Maxwell’s demon” to push the laws of the universe to their limits.

~ Jonathan O’Callaghan from,

This is a fun, and well-done, description of what started out as a thought-experiment in 1867—that’s 154 years ago—and which after being solved in theory has subsequently been verified by doing literal experiments on lab benches. They’ve built several of the demons, put them to work and shown why entropy always increases. If you’ve heard of “entropy”, but have always scratched your head, then…

…well, to be honest, this cutesie article won’t explain it all. But it will get you a step in the right direction, so long as you don’t mind the demon working the door.