Sean Carroll's Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas

Sean Carroll's Mindscape: Science, Society, Philosophy, Culture, Arts, and Ideas Podcast

Ever wanted to know how music affects your brain, what quantum mechanics really is, or how black holes work? Do you wonder why you get emotional each time you see a certain movie, or how on earth video games are designed? Then you’ve come to the right place. Each week, Sean Carroll will host conversations with some of the most interesting thinkers in the world. From neuroscientists and engineers to authors and television producers, Sean and his guests talk about the biggest ideas in science, philosophy, culture and much more.

90 | David Kaiser on Science, Money, and Power
Science costs money. And for a brief, glorious period between the start of the Manhattan Project in 1939 and the cancellation of the Superconducting Super Collider in 1993, physics was awash in it, largely sustained by the Cold War. Things are now different, as physics — and science more broadly — has entered a funding crunch. David Kaiser, who is both a working physicist and an historian of science, talks with me about the fraught relationship between scientists and their funding sources throughout history...

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89 | Lera Boroditsky on Language, Thought, Space, and Time
What direction does time point in? None, really, although some people might subconsciously put the past on the left and the future on the right, or the past behind themselves and the future in front, or many other possible orientations. What feels natural to you depends in large degree on the native language you speak, and how it talks about time. This is a clue to a more general phenomenon, how language shapes the way we think. Lera Boroditsky is one of the world’s experts on this phenomenon. She uses how ...

Culture language space ideas cognition time

Tara Smith on Coronavirus, Pandemics, and What We Can Do
This is a special episode of Mindscape, thrown together quickly. Many thanks to Tara Smith for joining me on short notice. Tara is an epidemiologist, and a great person to talk to about the novel coronavirus (and its associated disease, COVID-19) pandemic currently threatening the world. We talk about what viruses are, how they spread, and a lot of the science behind virology and pandemics. We also take a practical turn, talking about what measures (washing hands, social distancing, self-isolation) are usef...

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88 | Neil Shubin on Evolution, Genes, and Dramatic Transitions
“What good is half a wing?” That’s the rhetorical question often asked by people who have trouble accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Of course it’s a very answerable question, but figuring out what exactly the answer is leads us to some fascinating biology. Neil Shubin should know: he is the co-discoverer of Tiktaalik Roseae, an ancient species of fish that was in the process of learning to walk and breathe on land. We talk about how these major transitions happen — typically when ...

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88 | Neil Shubin on Evolution, Genes, and Dramatic Transitions
“What good is half a wing?” That’s the rhetorical question often asked by people who have trouble accepting Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. Of course it’s a very answerable question, but figuring out what exactly the answer is leads us to some fascinating biology. Neil Shubin should know: he is the co-discoverer of Tiktaalik Roseae, an ancient species of fish that was in the process of learning to walk and breathe on land. We talk about how these major transitions happen — typically when ...

science genetics biology evolution dna ideas

87 | Karl Friston on Brains, Predictions, and Free Energy
If you tell me that one of the world’s leading neuroscientists has developed a theory of how the brain works that also has implications for the origin and nature of life more broadly, and uses concepts of entropy and information in a central way — well, you know I’m going to be all over that. So it’s my great pleasure to present this conversation with Karl Friston, who has done exactly that. One of the most highly-cited neuroscientists now living, Friston has proposed that we understand the brain in terms o...

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86 | Martin Rees on Threats to Humanity, Prospects for Posthumanity, and Life in the Universe
Anyone who has read histories of the Cold War, including the Cuban Missile Crisis and the 1983 nuclear false alarm, must be struck by how incredibly close humanity has come to wreaking incredible destruction on itself. Nuclear war was the first technology humans created that was truly capable of causing such harm, but the list of potential threats is growing, from artificial pandemics to runaway super-powerful artificial intelligence. In response, today’s guest Martin Rees and others founded the Cambridge C...

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85 | L.A. Paul on Transformative Experiences and Your Future Selves
It’s hard to make decisions that will change your life. It’s even harder to make a decision if you know that the outcome could change who you are. Our preferences are determined by who we are, and they might be quite different after a decision is made — and there’s no rational way of taking that into account. Philosopher L.A. Paul has been investigating these transformative experiences — from getting married, to having a child, to going to graduate school — with an eye to deciding how to live in the face of...

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84 | Suresh Naidu on Capitalism, Monopsony, and Inequality
Nations generally want their economies to be rich, robust, and growing. But it’s also important to person to ensure that wealth doesn’t flow only to a few people, but rather that as many people as possible can enjoy the benefits of a healthy economy. As is well known, the best way to balance these interests is a contentious subject. On one side we might find free-market fundamentalists who want to let supply and demand set prices and keep government interference to a minimum, while on the other we might fin...

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83 | Kwame Anthony Appiah on Identity, Stories, and Cosmopolitanism
The Greek statesman Demosthenes is credited with saying “I am a citizen of the world,” and the idea that we should take a cosmopolitan view of our common humanity is a compelling one. Not everyone agrees, however; in the words of former British Prime Minister Theresa May, “If you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere.” On the other side of the political spectrum, groups who share a feature of identity — race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality, and others — find it useful to band together to ma...

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82 | Robin Carhart-Harris on Psychedelics and the Brain
The Convention on Psychotropic Substances was a 1971 United Nations treaty that placed strong restrictions on the use of psychedelic drugs — not only on personal use, but medical and scientific research as well. Along with restrictions placed by individual nations, it has been very difficult for scientists to study the effects of psychedelics on the brain, despite indications that they might have significant therapeutic potential. But this has gradually been changing, and researchers like Robin Carhart-Harr...

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Introducing WeCrashed
The Rise and Fall of WeWork is a stunning story of hope and hubris. WeWork was the poster child for a new economy. Its founders wanted to revolutionize everything about the way people lived their lives. Its charismatic founder Adam Neumann had an intoxicating vision for the company — but did it ever match the reality?Subscribe today: wondery.fm/wecrashedmindscape...

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81 | Ezra Klein on Politics, Polarization, and Identity
People have always disagreed about politics, passionately and sometimes even violently. But in certain historical moments these disagreements were distributed without strong correlations, so that any one political party would contain a variety of views. In a representative democracy, that kind of distribution makes it easier to accomplish things. In contrast, today we see strong political polarization: members of any one party tend to line up with each other on a range of issues, and correspondingly view th...

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80 | Jenann Ismael on Connecting Physics to the World of Experience
Physics is simple; people are complicated. But even people are ultimately physical systems, made of particles and forces that follow the rules of the Core Theory. How do we bridge the gap from one kind of description to another, explaining how someone we know and care about can also be “just” a set of quantum fields obeying impersonal laws? This is a hard question that comes up in a variety of forms — What is the “self”? Do we have free will, the ability to make choices? What are the moral and ethical ramif...

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79 | Sara Imari Walker on Information and the Origin of Life
We are all alive, but “life” is something we struggle to understand. How do we distinguish a “living organism” from an emergent dynamical system like a hurricane, or a resource-consuming chemical reaction like a forest fire, or an information-processing system like a laptop computer? There is probably no one crisp set of criteria that delineates life from non-life, but it’s worth the exercise to think about what we really mean, especially as the quest to find life outside the confines of the Earth picks up ...

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78 | Daniel Dennett on Minds, Patterns, and the Scientific Image
Wilfrid Sellars described the task of philosophy as explaining how things, in the broadest sense of term, hang together, in the broadest sense of the term. (Substitute “exploring” for “explaining” and you’d have a good mission statement for the Mindscape podcast.) Few modern thinkers have pursued this goal more energetically, creatively, and entertainingly than Daniel Dennett. One of the most respected philosophers of our time, Dennett’s work has ranged over topics such as consciousness, artificial intellig...

Philosophy arts atheism evolution ideas Science consciousness

Holiday Message 2019: On Publishing Books
Welcome to the second annual Mindscape Holiday Message! No substantive content or deep ideas, just me talking a bit about the state of the podcast and what’s on my mind. Since the big event for me in 2019 was the publication of Something Deeply Hidden, I thought it would be fun to talk about the process of writing and selling a popular book. Might be of interest to some of you out there!Mindscape takes off for the holidays, so the next regular episode will be published on Monday January 6. It’s a good one —...

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77 | Azra Raza on The Way We Should Fight Cancer
In the United States, more than one in five deaths is caused by cancer. The medical community has put enormous resources into fighting this disease, yet its causes and best treatments continue to be a puzzle. Azra Raza has been on both sides of the patient’s bed, as she puts it — both as an oncologist and expert in the treatment of Myelodisplastic Syndrome (MDS), and as a wife who lost her husband to cancer. In her new book, The First Cell, she argues that we have placed too much emphasis on treating cancer...

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76 | Ned Hall on Possible Worlds and the Laws of Nature
It’s too easy to take laws of nature for granted. Sure, gravity is pulling us toward Earth today; but how do we know it won’t be pushing us away tomorrow? We extrapolate from past experience to future expectation, but what allows us to do that? “Humeans” (after David Hume, not a misspelling of “human”) think that what exists is just what actually happens in the universe, and the laws are simply convenient summaries of what happens. “Anti-Humeans” think that the laws have an existence of their own, bringing ...

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75 | Max Tegmark on Reality, Simulation, and the Multiverse
We've talked a lot recently about the Many Worlds of quantum mechanics. That’s one kind of multiverse that physicists often contemplate. There is also the cosmological multiverse, which we talked about with Brian Greene. Today’s guest, Max Tegmark, has thought a great deal about both of those ideas, as well as a more ambitious and speculative one: the Mathematical Multiverse, in which we imagine that every mathematical structure is real, and the universe we perceive is just one such mathematical structure. ...

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75 | Max Tegmark on Reality, Simulation, and the Multiverse
We've talked a lot recently about the Many Worlds of quantum mechanics. That’s one kind of multiverse that physicists often contemplate. There is also the cosmological multiverse, which we talked about with Brian Greene. Today’s guest, Max Tegmark, has thought a great deal about both of those ideas, as well as a more ambitious and speculative one: the Mathematical Multiverse, in which we imagine that every mathematical structure is real, and the universe we perceive is just one such mathematical structure. ...

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74 | Stephen Greenblatt on Stories, History, and Cultural Poetics
An infinite number of things happen; we bring structure and meaning to the world by making art and telling stories about it. Every work of literature created by human beings comes out of an historical and cultural context, and drawing connections between art and its context can be illuminating for both. Today’s guest, Stephen Greenblatt, is one of the world’s most celebrated literary scholars, famous for helping to establish the New Historicism school of criticism, which he also refers to as “cultural poeti...

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73 | Grimes (c) on Music, Creativity, and Digital Personae
Changing technologies have always affected how we produce and enjoy art, and music might be the most obvious example. Radio and recordings made it easy for professional music to be widely disseminated, but created a barrier to its creation. Nowadays computers are helping to reverse that trend, allowing casual users to create slick songs of their own. Not everyone is equally good at it, however; Grimes (who currently goes by c, the symbol for the speed of light) is a wildly successful electronic artist who w...

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72 | César Hidalgo on Information in Societies, Economies, and the Universe
Maxwell's Demon is a famous thought experiment in which a mischievous imp uses knowledge of the velocities of gas molecules in a box to decrease the entropy of the gas, which could then be used to do useful work such as pushing a piston. This is a classic example of converting information (what the gas molecules are doing) into work. But of course that kind of phenomenon is much more widespread -- it happens any time a company or organization hires someone in order to take advantage of their know-how. César...

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71 | Philip Goff on Consciousness Everywhere
The human brain contains roughly 85 billion neurons, wired together in an extraordinarily complex network of interconnected parts. It’s hardly surprising that we don’t understand the mind and how it works. But do we know enough about our experience of consciousness to suggest that consciousness cannot arise from nothing more than the physical interactions of bits of matter? Panpsychism is the idea that consciousness, or at least some mental aspect, is pervasive in the world, in atoms and rocks as well as in...

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70 | Katie Mack on How the Universe Will End
Cosmologists are always talking excitedly about the Big Bang and all the cool stuff that happened in the 14 billion years between then and now. But what about the future? We don't know for sure, but we know enough about the laws of physics to sketch out several plausible scenarios for what the future of our universe will hold. Katie Mack is a cosmologist who is writing a book about the end of the universe. We talk about the possibilities of a Big Crunch (and potential Big Bounce), a gentle cooling off where...

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Introducing The Next Big Idea
Ideas are coming at you every day from all directions. How can you process it all? You can start with The Next Big Idea. Host Rufus Griscom and thought leaders Malcolm Gladwell, Adam Grant, Dan Pink, and Susan Cain, will be your personal “idea” curators. Open your mind and get ready for something big, because the right idea--at the right moment--has the power to transform your life. Listen now at http://wondery.fm/TNBIMindscape...

68 | Melanie Mitchell on Artificial Intelligence and the Challenge of Common Sense
Artificial intelligence is better than humans at playing chess or go, but still has trouble holding a conversation or driving a car. A simple way to think about the discrepancy is through the lens of “common sense” — there are features of the world, from the fact that tables are solid to the prediction that a tree won’t walk across the street, that humans take for granted but that machines have difficulty learning. Melanie Mitchell is a computer scientist and complexity researcher who has written a new book...

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67 | Kate Jeffery on Entropy, Complexity, and Evolution
Our observable universe started out in a highly non-generic state, one of very low entropy, and disorderliness has been growing ever since. How, then, can we account for the appearance of complex systems such as organisms and biospheres? The answer is that very low-entropy states typically appear simple, and high-entropy states also appear simple, and complexity can emerge along the road in between. Today’s podcast is more of a discussion than an interview, in which behavioral neuroscientist Kate Jeffery an...

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66 | Will Wilkinson on Partisan Polarization and the Urban/Rural Divide
The idea of “red states” and “blue states” burst on the scene during the 2000 U.S. Presidential elections, and has a been a staple of political commentary ever since. But it’s become increasingly clear, and increasingly the case, that the real division isn’t between different sets of states, but between densely- and sparsely-populated areas. Cities are blue (liberal), suburbs and the countryside are red (conservative). Why did that happen? How does it depend on demographics, economics, and the personality t...

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65 | Michael Mann on Why Our Climate Is Changing and How We Know
We had our fun last week, exploring how progress in renewable energy and electric vehicles may help us combat encroaching climate change. This week we’re being a bit more hard-nosed, taking a look at what’s currently happening to our climate. Michael Mann is one of the world’s leading climate scientists, and also a dedicated advocate for improved public understanding of the issues. It was his research with Raymond Bradley and Malcolm Hughes that introduced the “hockey stick” graph, showing how global temper...

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64 | Ramez Naam on Renewable Energy and an Optimistic Future
The Earth is heating up, and it’s our fault. But human beings are not always complete idiots (occasional contrary evidence notwithstanding), and sometimes we can even be downright clever. Dare we imagine that we can bring our self-inflicted climate catastrophe under control, through a combination of technological advances and political willpower? Ramez Naam is optimistic, at least about the technological advances. He is a technologist, entrepreneur, and science-fiction author, who has been following advance...

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63 | Solo -- Finding Gravity Within Quantum Mechanics
I suspect most loyal Mindscape listeners have been exposed to the fact that I’ve written a new book, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. As I release this episode on Monday 9 September 2019, the book will officially be released tomorrow, in print, e-book, and audio versions. To get in the mood, we’ve had several podcast episodes on quantum mechanics, but the “emergence of spacetime” aspect has been neglected. So today we have a solo podcast in which I explain a bit about ...

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63 | Solo -- Finding Gravity Within Quantum Mechanics
I suspect most loyal Mindscape listeners have been exposed to the fact that I’ve written a new book, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. As I release this episode on Monday 9 September 2019, the book will officially be released tomorrow, in print, e-book, and audio versions. To get in the mood, we’ve had several podcast episodes on quantum mechanics, but the “emergence of spacetime” aspect has been neglected. So today we have a solo podcast in which I explain a bit about ...

quantummechanics physics Philosophy gravity ideas quantum Science spacetime


62 | Michele Gelfand on Tight and Loose Societies and People
Physicists study systems that are sufficiently simple that it’s possible to find deep unifying principles applicable to all situations. In psychology or sociology that’s a lot harder. But as I say at the end of this episode, Mindscape is a safe space for grand theories of everything. Psychologist Michele Gelfand claims that there’s a single dimension that captures a lot about how cultures differ: a spectrum between “tight” and “loose,” referring to the extent to which social norms are automatically respecte...

psychology society ideas CULTURE sociology

61 | Quassim Cassam on Intellectual Vices and What to Do About Them
All of us have been wrong about things from time to time. But sometimes it was a simple, forgivable mistake, while other times we really should have been correct. Properties that systematically prevent us from being correct, and for which we can legitimately be blamed, are “intellectual vices.” Examples might include closed-mindedness, wishful thinking, overconfidence, selective attention, and so on. Quassim Cassam is a philosopher who studies knowledge in various forms, and who has recently written a book ...

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60 | Lynne Kelly on Memory Palaces, Ancient and Modern
Memory takes different forms. Memories can be encoded in the strength of neural connections in our brains, but there’s a sense in which photographs and written records are memories as well. What did people do before such forms of memory even existed? Lynne Kelly is a science writer and researcher who specializes in forms of memory in the ancient world, as well as a competitive memory expert in her own right. She has theorized that ancient structures such as Stonehenge might have served as memory palaces, en...

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59 | Adam Becker on the Curious History of Quantum Mechanics
There are many mysteries surrounding quantum mechanics. To me, the biggest mysteries are why physicists haven’t yet agreed on a complete understanding of the theory, and even more why they mostly seem content not to try. This puzzling attitude has historical roots that go back to the Bohr-Einstein debates. Adam Becker, in his book What Is Real?, looks at this history, and discusses how physicists have shied away from the foundations of quantum mechanics in the subsequent years. We discuss why this has been ...

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58 | Seth MacFarlane on Using Science Fiction to Explore Humanity
Fiction shines a light on the human condition by putting people into imaginary situations and envisioning what might happen. Science fiction expands this technique by considering situations in the future, with advanced technology, or with utterly different social contexts. Seth MacFarlane’s show The Orville is good old-fashioned space opera, but it’s also a laboratory for exploring the intricacies of human behavior. There are interpersonal conflicts, sexual politics, alien perspectives, and grappling with t...

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57 | Astra Taylor on the Promise and Challenge of Democracy
“Democracy may not exist, but we’ll miss it when it’s gone” — or so suggests the title of Astra Taylor’s new book. We all know how democracy falls short, in practice, of its lofty ideals; but we can also appreciate how democratic values are crucial in the fight for a more just society. In this conversation, we dig into the nature of democracy, from its origins to the present day. We talk about who gets to participate, how economic inequality affects political inequality, and how democratic ideals manifest t...

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56 | Kate Adamala on Creating Synthetic Life
Scientists can’t quite agree on how to define “life,” but that hasn’t stopped them from studying it, looking for it elsewhere, or even trying to create it. Kate Adamala is one of a number of scientists engaged in the ambitious project of trying to create living cells, or something approximating them, starting from entirely non-living ingredients. Impressive progress has already been made. Designing cells from scratch will have obvious uses is biology and medicine, but also allow us to build biological robot...

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55 | A Conversation with Rob Reid on Quantum Mechanics and Many Worlds
As you may have heard, I have a new book coming out in September, Something Deeply Hidden: Quantum Worlds and the Emergence of Spacetime. To celebrate, we're going to have more than the usual number of podcasts about quantum mechanics over the next couple of months. Today is an experimental flipped podcast, in which I'm being interviewed by Rob Reid. Rob is the host of the After On podcast, of which this is also an episode. We talk about quantum mechanics generally and my favorite Many-Worlds approach in pa...

Philosophy arts Society ideas CULTURE Science physics

54 | Indre Viskontas on Music and the Brain
It doesn’t mean much to say music affects your brain — everything that happens to you affects your brain. But music affects your brain in certain specific ways, from changing our mood to helping us learn. As both a neuroscientist and an opera singer, Indre Viskontas is the ideal person to talk about the relationship between music and the brain. Her new book, How Music Can Make You Better, digs into why we love music, how it can unite and divide us, and how music has a special impact on the very young and th...

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53 | Solo -- On Morality and Rationality
What does it mean to be a good person? To act ethically and morally in the world? In the old days we might appeal to the instructions we get from God, but a modern naturalist has to look elsewhere. Today I do a rare solo podcast, where I talk both about my personal views on morality, a variety of “constructivism” according to which human beings construct their ethical stances starting from basic impulses, logical reasoning, and communicating with others. In light of this view, I consider two real-world exam...

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52 | Frank Lantz on the Logic and Emotion of Games
Games play an important, and arguably increasing, role in human life. We play games on our computers and our phones, watch other people compete in games, and occasionally break out the cards or the Monopoly set. What is the origin of this human impulse, and what makes for a great game? Frank Lantz is both a working game designer and an academic who thinks about the nature of games and gaming. We discuss what games are, contrast the challenges of Go and Poker and other games, and investigate both the “dark e...

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51 | Anthony Aguirre on Cosmology, Zen, Entropy, and Information
Cosmologists have a standard set of puzzles they think about: the nature of dark matter and dark energy, whether there was a period of inflation, the evolution of structure, and so on. But there are also even deeper questions, having to do with why there is a universe at all, and why the early universe had low entropy, that most working cosmologists don’t address. Today’s guest, Anthony Aguirre, is an exception. We talk about these deep issues, and how tackling them might lead to a very different way of thi...

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50 | Patricia Churchland on Conscience, Morality, and the Brain
It’s fun to spend time thinking about how other people should behave, but fortunately we also have an inner voice that keeps offering opinions about how we should behave ourselves: our conscience. Where did that come from? Today’s guest, Patricia Churchland, is a philosopher and neuroscientist, one of the founders of the subfield of “neurophilosophy.” We dig into the neuroscience of it all, especially how neurochemicals like oxytocin affect our attitudes and behaviors. But we also explore the philosophical ...

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49 | Nicholas Christakis on Humanity, Biology, and What Makes Us Good
It’s easy to be cynical about humanity’s present state and future prospects. But we have made it this far, and in some ways we’re doing better than we used to be. Today’s guest, Nicholas Christakis, is an interdisciplinary researcher who studies human nature from a variety of perspectives, including biological, historical, and philosophical. His most recent book is Blueprint: The Evolutionary Origins of a Good Society, in which he tries to pinpoint the common features of all human societies, something he du...

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48 | Marq de Villiers on Hell and Damnation
If you’re bad, we are taught, you go to Hell. Who in the world came up with that idea? Some will answer God, but for the purpose of today’s podcast discussion we’ll put that possibility aside and look into the human origins and history of the idea of Hell. Marq de Villiers is a writer and journalist who has authored a series of non-fiction books, many on science and the environment. In Hell & Damnation, he takes a detour to examine the manifold ways in which societies have imagined the afterlife. The idea o...

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47 | Adam Rutherford on Humans, Animals, and Life in General
Most people in the modern world — and the vast majority of Mindscape listeners, I would imagine — agree that humans are part of the animal kingdom, and that all living animals evolved from a common ancestor. Nevertheless, there are ways in which we are unique; humans are the only animals that stress out over Game of Thrones (as far as I know). I talk with geneticist and science writer Adam Rutherford about what makes us human, and how we got that way, both biologically and culturally. One big takeaway lesso...

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46 | Kate Darling on Our Connections with Robots
Most of us have no trouble telling the difference between a robot and a living, feeling organism. Nevertheless, our brains often treat robots as if they were alive. We give them names, imagine that they have emotions and inner mental states, get mad at them when they do the wrong thing or feel bad for them when they seem to be in distress. Kate Darling is a research at the MIT Media Lab who specializes in social robotics, the interactions between humans and machines. We talk about why we cannot help but ant...

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45 | Leonard Susskind on Quantum Information, Quantum Gravity, and Holography
For decades now physicists have been struggling to reconcile two great ideas from a century ago: general relativity and quantum mechanics. We don’t yet know the final answer, but the journey has taken us to some amazing places. A leader in this quest has been Leonard Susskind, who has helped illuminate some of the most mind-blowing ideas in quantum gravity: the holographic principle, the string theory landscape, black-hole complementarity, and others. He has also become celebrated as a writer, speaker, and ...

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44 | Antonio Damasio on Feelings, Thoughts, and the Evolution of Humanity
When we talk about the mind, we are constantly talking about consciousness and cognition. Antonio Damasio wants us to talk about our feelings. But it’s not in an effort to be more touchy-feely; Damasio, one of the world’s leading neuroscientists, believes that feelings generated by the body are a crucial part of how we achieve and maintain homeostasis, which in turn is a key driver in understanding who we are. His most recent book, The Strange Order of Things: Life, Feeling, and the Making of Cultures, is ...

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43 | Matthew Luczy on the Pleasures of Wine
Some people never drink wine; for others, it’s an indispensable part of an enjoyable meal. Whatever your personal feelings might be, wine seems to exhibit a degree of complexity and nuance that can be intimidating to the non-expert. Where does that complexity come from, and how can we best approach wine? To answer these questions, we talk to Matthew Luczy, sommelier and wine director at Mélisse, one of the top fine-dining restaurants in the Los Angeles area. Matthew insisted that we actually drink wine rath...

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42 | Natalya Bailey on Navigating Earth Orbit and Beyond
The space age officially began in 1957 with the launch of the Sputnik 1 satellite. But recent years have seen the beginning of a boom in the number of objects orbiting Earth, as satellite tracking and communications have assumed enormous importance in the modern world. This raises obvious concerns for the control and eventual fate of these orbiting artifacts. Natalya Bailey is pioneering a novel approach to satellite propulsion, building tiny ion engines at her company Accion Systems. We talk about how sate...

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41 | Steven Strogatz on Synchronization, Networks, and the Emergence of Complex Behavior
One of the most important insights in the history of science is the fact that complex behavior can arise from the undirected movements of small, simple systems. Despite the fact that we know this, we’re still working to truly understand it — to uncover the mechanisms by which, and conditions under which, complexity can emerge from simplicity. (Coincidentally, a new feature in Quanta on this precise topic came out while this episode was being edited.) Steven Strogatz is a leading researcher in this field, a...

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40 | Adrienne Mayor on Gods and Robots in Ancient Mythology
The modern world is full of technology, and also with anxiety about technology. We worry about robot uprisings and artificial intelligence taking over, and we contemplate what it would mean for a computer to be conscious or truly human. It should probably come as no surprise that these ideas aren’t new to modern society — they go way back, at least to the stories and mythologies of ancient Greece. Today’s guest, Adrienne Mayor, is a folklorist and historian of science, whose recent work has been on robots a...

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39 | Malcolm MacIver on Sensing, Consciousness, and Imagination
Consciousness has many aspects, from experience to wakefulness to self-awareness. One aspect is imagination: our minds can conjure up multiple hypothetical futures to help us decide which choices we should make. Where did that ability come from? Today’s guest, Malcolm MacIver, pinpoints an important transition in the evolution of consciousness to when fish first climbed on to land, and could suddenly see much farther, which in turn made it advantageous to plan further in advance. If this idea is true, it mi...

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38 | Alan Lightman on Transcendence, Science, and a Naturalist’s Sense of Meaning
Let’s say, for sake of argument, that you don’t believe in God or the supernatural. Is there still a place for talking about transcendence, the sacred, and meaning in life? Some of the above, but not all? Today’s guest, Alan Lightman, brings a unique perspective to these questions, as someone who has worked within both the sciences and the humanities at the highest level. In his most recent book, Searching for Stars on an Island in Maine, he makes the case that naturalists should take transcendence seriousl...

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37 | Edward Watts on the End of the Roman Republic and Lessons for Democracy
When many of us think “Ancient Rome,” we think of the Empire and the Caesars. But the Empire was preceded by the Roman Republic, which flourished for a full five centuries. Why, after such a long and prosperous run, would an essentially democratic form of government change — with a good deal of approval from its citizens — into an autocracy? That’s the question I discuss with today’s guest, historian Edward Watts. It’s a fascinating story with many contemporary resonances, especially how reformers choose to...

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36 | David Albert on Quantum Measurement and the Problems with Many-Worlds
Quantum mechanics is our best theory of how reality works at a fundamental level, yet physicists still can’t agree on what the theory actually says. At the heart of the puzzle is the “measurement problem”: what actually happens when we observe a quantum system, and why do we apparently need separate rules when it happens? David Albert is one of the leading figures in the foundations of quantum mechanics today, and we discuss the measurement problem and why it’s so puzzling. Then we dive into the Many-Worlds...

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35 | Jessica Yellin on The Changing Ways We Get Our News
Everything we think about the world outside our immediate senses is shaped by information brought to us by other sources. In the case of what’s currently happening to the human race, we call that information “the news.” There is no such thing as “unfiltered” news — no matter how we get it, someone is deciding what information to convey and how to convey it. And the way that is happening is currently in a state of flux. Today’s guest, journalist Jessica Yellin, has seen the news business from the perspective...

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34 | Paul Bloom on Empathy, Rationality, Morality, and Cruelty
Within every person’s mind there is on ongoing battle between reason and emotion. It’s not always a battle, of course; very often the two can work together. But at other times, our emotions push us toward actions that our reason would counsel against. Paul Bloom is a well-known psychologist and author who wrote the provocatively-titled book Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion, and is currently writing a book about the nature of cruelty. While I sympathize with parts of his anti-empathy stance,...

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33 | James Ladyman on Reality, Metaphysics, and Complexity
Reality is a tricky thing. Is love real? What about the number 5? This is clearly a job for a philosopher, and James Ladyman is one of the world’s acknowledged experts. He and his collaborators have been championing a view known as “structural realism,” in which real things are those that reflect true, useful patterns in the underlying reality. We talk about that, but also about a couple of other subjects in the broad area of philosophy of science: the history and current status of materialism/physicalism, ...

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32 | Naomi Oreskes on Climate Change and the Distortion of Scientific Facts
Our climate is in the midst of dramatic changes, driven largely by human activity, with potentially enormous consequences for humanity and other species. That’s why science tells us, anyway. But there is an influential contingent, especially in the United States, who deny that reality, and work hard to prevent policy action that might ameliorate it. Where did this resistance come from, and what makes it so successful? Naomi Oreskes is a distinguished historian of science who has become, half-reluctantly, th...

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31 | Brian Greene on the Multiverse, Inflation, and the String Theory Landscape
String theory was originally proposed as a relatively modest attempt to explain some features of strongly-interacting particles, but before too long developed into an ambitious attempt to unite all the forces of nature into a single theory. The great thing about physics is that your theories don’t always go where you want them to, and string theory has had some twists and turns along the way. One major challenge facing the theory is the fact that there are many different ways to connect the deep principles ...

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30 | Derek Leben on Ethics for Robots and Artificial Intelligences
It’s hardly news that computers are exerting ever more influence over our lives. And we’re beginning to see the first glimmers of some kind of artificial intelligence: computer programs have become much better than humans at well-defined jobs like playing chess and Go, and are increasingly called upon for messier tasks, like driving cars. Once we leave the highly constrained sphere of artificial games and enter the real world of human actions, our artificial intelligences are going to have to make choices a...

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29 | Raychelle Burks on the Chemistry of Murder
Sometimes science is asking esoteric questions about the fundamental nature of reality. Other times, it just wants to solve a murder. Today’s guest, Raychelle Burks, is an analytical chemist at St. Edward’s University in Texas. Before becoming a full-time academic, she worked in a crime lab using chemistry to help police track suspects, and now she does research on building new detectors for use in forensic analyses. We talk about how the real world of forensic investigation differs from the version you see...

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28 | Roger Penrose on Spacetime, Consciousness, and the Universe
Sir Roger Penrose has had a remarkable life. He has contributed an enormous amount to our understanding of general relativity, perhaps more than anyone since Einstein himself -- Penrose diagrams, singularity theorems, the Penrose process, cosmic censorship, and the list goes on. He has made important contributions to mathematics, including such fun ideas as the Penrose triangle and aperiodic tilings. He has also made bold conjectures in the notoriously contentious areas of quantum mechanics and the study of...

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Holiday Message 2018
There won't be any regular episodes of Mindscape this week or next, as we take a holiday break. Regular service will resume on Monday January 7, 2019. In the meantime, here is a special Holiday Message. Most likely it will be of interest to very few people -- there's no real substantive content, just me talking about the State of the Podcast and some other things I've been doing. Thanks to everyone for listening, here's looking toward great things in 2019! Support Mindscape on Patreon or Paypal....

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27 | Janna Levin on Black Holes, Chaos, and the Narrative of Science
It's a big universe out there, full of an astonishing variety of questions and puzzles. Today's guest, Janna Levin, is a physicist who has delved into some of the trippiest aspects of cosmology and gravitation: the topology of the universe, extra dimensions of space, and the appearance of chaos in orbits around black holes. At the same time, she has been a pioneer in talking about science in interesting and innovative ways: a personal memoir, a novelized narrative of famous scientific lives, and a journalis...

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26 | Ge Wang on Artful Design, Computers, and Music
Everywhere around us are things that serve functions. We live in houses, sit on chairs, drive in cars. But these things don't only serve functions, they also come in particular forms, which may be emotionally or aesthetically pleasing as well as functional. The study of how form and function come together in things is what we call "Design." Today's guest, Ge Wang, is a computer scientist and electronic musician with a new book called Artful Design: Technology in Search of the Sublime. It's incredibly creati...

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25 | David Chalmers on Consciousness, the Hard Problem, and Living in a Simulation
The "Easy Problems" of consciousness have to do with how the brain takes in information, thinks about it, and turns it into action. The "Hard Problem," on the other hand, is the task of explaining our individual, subjective, first-person experiences of the world. What is it like to be me, rather than someone else? Everyone agrees that the Easy Problems are hard; some people think the Hard Problem is almost impossible, while others think it's pretty easy. Today's guest, David Chalmers, is arguably the leadin...

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24 | Kip Thorne on Gravitational Waves, Time Travel, and Interstellar
I remember vividly hosting a colloquium speaker, about fifteen years ago, who talked about the LIGO gravitational-wave observatory, which had just started taking data. Comparing where they were to where they needed to get to in terms of sensitivity, the mumblings in the audience after the talk were clear: “They’ll never make it.” Of course we now know that they did, and the 2016 announcement of the detection of gravitational waves led to a 2017 Nobel Prize for Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne, and Barry Barish. S...

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23 | Lisa Aziz-Zadeh on Embodied Cognition, Mirror Neurons, and Empathy
Brains are important things; they're where thinking happens. Or are they? The theory of "embodied cognition" posits that it's better to think of thinking as something that takes place in the body as a whole, not just in the cells of the brain. In some sense this is trivially true; our brains interact with the rest of our bodies, taking in signals and giving back instructions. But it seems bold to situate important elements of cognition itself in the actual non-brain parts of the body. Lisa Aziz-Zadeh is a p...

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22 | Joe Walston on Conservation, Urbanization, and the Way We Live on Earth
There's no question that human activity is causing enormous changes on our planet's environment, from deforestation to mass extinction to climate change. But perhaps there is a tiny cause for optimism -- or at least, the prospect of a new equilibrium, if we can manage to ameliorate our most destructive impulses. Wildlife conservationist Joe Walston argues that -- seemingly paradoxically, but not really -- increasing urbanization provides hope for biodiversity preservation and poverty alleviation moving forw...

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21 | Alex Rosenberg on Naturalism, History, and Theory of Mind
We humans love to tell ourselves stories about why things happened the way they did; if the stories are sufficiently serious, we label this activity "history." Part of getting history right is simply an accurate recounting of the facts, but part of it is generally taken to be some kind of explanation about why. How much should we trust these explanations? This is a question with philosophical implications as well as historical ones, and philosopher Alex Rosenberg's new book How History Gets Things Wrong cla...

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20 | Scott Derrickson on Cinema, Blockbusters, Horror, and Mystery
Special Halloween edition? Scott Derrickson is a film-lover first and a director second, but he's been quite successful at the latter -- you may know him as the director and co-writer of Marvel's Doctor Strange. (When I was younger, Doctor Strange was one of my favorite comic characters, along with Green Lantern. At least one of them got a great movie.) Scott was gracious enough to take time from a very busy schedule to sit down for a chat about a wide number of topics. Using Doctor Strange as a template, w...

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19 | Tyler Cowen on Maximizing Growth and Thinking for the Future
Economics, like other sciences (social and otherwise), is about what the world does; but it's natural for economists to occasionally wander out into the question of what we should do as we live in the world. A very good example of this is a new book by economist Tyler Cowen, Stubborn Attachments. Tyler will be well-known to many listeners for his long-running blog Marginal Revolution (co-created with his colleague Alex Tabarrok) and his many books and articles. Here he offers a surprising new take on how s...

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18 | Clifford Johnson on What's So Great About Superstring Theory
String theory is a speculative and highly technical proposal for uniting the known forces of nature, including gravity, under a single quantum-mechanical framework. This doesn't seem like a recipe for creating a lightning rod of controversy, but somehow string theory has become just that. To get to the bottom of why anyone (indeed, a substantial majority of experts in the field) would think that replacing particles with little loops of string was a promising way forward for theoretical physics, I spoke with...

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17 | Annalee Newitz on Science, Fiction, Economics, and Neurosis
The job of science fiction isn't to predict the future; it's to tell interesting stories in an imaginative setting, exploring the implications of different ways the world could be different from our actual one. Annalee Newitz has carved out a unique career as a writer and thinker, founding the visionary blog io9 and publishing nonfiction in a number of formats, and is now putting her imagination to work in the realm of fiction. Her recent novel, Autonomous, examines a future in which the right to work is n...

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16 | Coleen Murphy on Aging, Biology, and the Future
Aging -- everybody does it, very few people actually do something about it. Coleen Murphy is an exception. In her laboratory at Princeton, she and her team study aging in the famous C. Elegans roundworm, with an eye to extending its lifespan as well as figuring out exactly what processes take place when we age. In this episode we contemplate what scientists have learned about aging, and the prospects for ameliorating its effects -- or curing it altogether? -- even in human beings. Coleen Murphy received her...

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15 | David Poeppel on Thought, Language, and How to Understand the Brain
Language comes naturally to us, but is also deeply mysterious. On the one hand, it manifests as a collection of sounds or marks on paper. On the other hand, it also conveys meaning – words and sentences refer to states of affairs in the outside world, or to much more abstract concepts. How do words and meaning come together in the brain? David Poeppel is a leading neuroscientist who works in many areas, with a focus on the relationship between language and thought. We talk about cutting-edge ideas in the sc...

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14 | Alta Charo on Bioethics and the Law
To paraphrase Ian Malcolm in Jurassic Park, scientists tend to focus on whether they can do something, not whether they should. Questions of what we should do tend to wander away from the pristine beauty of science into the messy worlds of ethics and the law. But with the ongoing revolutions in biology, we can’t avoid facing up to some difficult should-questions. Alta Charo is a world expert in a gamut of these issues, working as a law professor and government official specializing in bioethics. We hit all ...

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13 | Neha Narula on Blockchain, Cryptocurrency, and the Future of the Internet
For something of such obvious importance, money is kind of mysterious. It can, as Homer Simpson once memorably noted, be exchanged for goods and services. But who decides exactly how many goods/services a given unit of money can buy? And what maintains the social contract that we all agree to go along with it? Technology is changing what money is and how we use it, and Neha Narula is a leader in thinking about where money is going. One much-hyped aspect is the advent of blockchain technology, which has led ...

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12 | Wynton Marsalis on Jazz, Time, and America
Jazz occupies a special place in the American cultural landscape. It's played in elegant concert halls and run-down bars, and can feature esoteric harmonic experimentation or good old-fashioned foot-stomping swing. Nobody embodies the scope of modern jazz better than Wynton Marsalis. As a trumpet player, bandleader, composer, educator, and ambassador for the music, he has worked tirelessly to keep jazz vibrant and alive. In this bouncy conversation, we talk about various kinds of music, how they might relat...

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11 | Mike Brown on Killing Pluto and Replacing It with Planet 9
Few events in recent astronomical history have had the worldwide emotional resonance as the 2006 announcement that Pluto was no longer considered a planet, at least as far as the International Astronomical Union was concerned. The decision was a long time coming, but no person deserves more credit/blame for forcing the astronomical community's hand than Caltech astronomer Michael Brown. He and his team discovered a number of objects in the outer Solar System -- Eris, Haumea, Sedna, and others -- any of whic...

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10 | Megan Rosenbloom on the Death Positive Movement
We're all going to die. But while we are alive, it's up to us how we understand and deal with that fact. In the United States especially, there is a tendency to not face up to the reality of death, and to assume that our goal should be to struggle at all costs to squeeze every last minute out of life. The Death Positive movement aims to change that, helping people to both face up to death on a personal and cultural level, and to give themselves more control over the manner of their own deaths. One of the le...

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9 | Solo -- Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?
It's fun to be in the exciting, chaotic, youthful days of the podcast, when anything goes and experimentation is the order of the day. So today's show is something different: a solo effort, featuring just me talking without any guests to cramp my style. This won't be the usual format, but I suspect it will happen from time to time. Feel free to chime in below on how often you think alternative formats should be part of the mix. The topic today is "Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing?", or equivalentl...

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8 | Carl Zimmer on Heredity, DNA, and Editing Genes
Our understanding of heredity and genetics is improving at blinding speed. It was only in the year 2000 that scientists obtained the first rough map of the human genome: 3 billion base pairs of DNA with about 20,000 functional genes. Today, you can send a bit of your DNA to companies such as 23andMe and get a report on your personal genome (ancestry, health risks) for about $200. Technologies like CRISPR are allowing scientists to edit genes, not just map them. Science writer Carl Zimmer has been following ...

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7 | Yascha Mounk on Threats to Liberal Democracy
Both words in the phrase "liberal democracy" carry meaning, and both concepts are under attack around the world. "Democracy" means that they people rule, while "liberal" (in this sense) means that the rights of individuals are protected, even if they're not part of the majority. Recent years have seen the rise of an authoritarian/populist political movement in many Western democracies, one that scapegoats minorities in the name of the true "will of the people." Yascha Mounk is someone who has been outspoken...

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6 | Liv Boeree on Poker, Aliens, and Thinking in Probabilities
Poker, like life, is a game of incomplete information. To do well in such a game, we have to think in terms of probabilities, unpredictable strategies, and Bayesian inference. These are ideas that play a central role in physics and rationality as well as in poker, which makes Liv Boeree such a great person to talk about them. Liv is a professional poker player who studied physics as a university student, and maintains an active interest in science generally and astrophysics in particular. We talk about poke...

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5 | Geoffrey West on Networks, Scaling, and the Pace of Life
If you scale up an animal to twice its height, keeping everything else proportionate, its volume and weight become eight times as much. Such a scaling relation was used by J.B.S. Haldane in his famous essay, "On Being the Right Size," to help explain certain features of living organisms. But scaling relations go much deeper than that, and they are often much more subtle than the volume going as the cube of the length. Geoffrey West is a particle physicist turned complexity theorist, who studies how features...

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4 | Anthony Pinn on Humanism, Theology, and the Black Community
According to atheism, God does not exist. But religions have traditionally done much more than simply proclaim God's existence: they have provided communities, promoted the arts, handed down moral guidance, and so on. Can atheism, or perhaps humanism, replicate these roles? Anthony Pinn grew up as a devout Methodist, but became a humanist when he felt that religion wasn't really helping the communities that he cared about. Today he is a professor of religion who works to bring together atheism and the black...

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3 | Alice Dreger on Sexuality, Truth, and Justice
The human mind loves nothing more than to build mental boxes -- categories -- and put things into them, then refuse to accept it when something doesn't fit. Nowhere is this more clear than in the idea that there are men, and there are women, and that's it. Alice Dreger is an historian of science, specializing in intersexuality and the relationship between bodies and identities. She is also a successful activist, working to change the way that doctors deal with newborn children who are born intersex. We talk...

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2 | Carlo Rovelli on Quantum Mechanics, Spacetime, and Reality
Quantum mechanics and general relativity are the two great triumphs of twentieth-century theoretical physics. Unfortunately, they don't play well together -- despite years of effort, we currently lack a completely successful quantum theory of gravity, although there are some promising ideas out there. Carlo Rovelli is a pioneer of one of those ideas, loop quantum gravity, as well as the bestselling author of such books as Seven Brief Lessons on Physics and the recent The Order of Time. We talk about how to ...

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1 | Carol Tavris on Mistakes, Justification, and Cognitive Dissonance
For the first full episode of Mindscape, it's an honor to welcome social psychologist Carol Tavris. Her book with co-author Eliot Aronson, Mistakes Were Made (But Not By Me), explores the effect that cognitive dissonance has on how we think. We talk about the fascinating process by which people justify the mistakes that they make, and how that leads to everything from false memories to political polarization. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/carol-tavris.mp3" social_email="tru...

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Welcome to the Mindscape Podcast!
I've decided to officially take the plunge into the world of podcasting. The new show will be called Mindscape, and will mostly consist of me talking to smart people about interesting ideas. (Occasionally it will be me talking by myself about ideas of questionable merit.) I'm a grizzled veteran at appearing on other podcasts, and it's past time I sat in the director's chair here. [smart_track_player url="http://traffic.libsyn.com/seancarroll/episode-zero-audio.mp3" artist="Sean Carroll" social_gplus="false...

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