The fastest supercomputer in the world - 2000. Your toaster probably has more computing power now. Photo: Getty
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Reviewed: At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise

Ian Steadman reviews Michael Brooks’s book on scientific discovery.

At the Edge of Uncertainty: 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise 
Michael Brooks

When the Higgs boson was detected by the Large Hadron Collider in 2012, it was something of a bitter-sweet moment for many scientists. The way it provided a neat resolution to the final outstanding problem with the structure of fundamental particles was just too tidy for many. It was the last chapter of 20th-century particle physics but it did little to bring to light any new mysteries that would need solving.

Science, after all, needs mysteries and surprises, as the subtitle of Michael Brooks’s latest book, At the Edge of Uncertainty, makes clear. If you feel that we have not only picked the low-hanging fruit but also shaken the tree naked, then this journey through 11 Discoveries Taking Science by Surprise will thoroughly disavow you of that notion.

Starting breezily and ending profoundly, it’s a look at the current state of several major scientific disciplines – from research into consciousness and computer science to epigenetics and studies in animal culture – with Brooks (who writes a weekly column for the New Statesman) communicating difficult stuff in a typically amiable and lucid manner. He doesn’t get into hard data but rather takes the reader on quick tours through the history of a science, picking up on relevant or remarkable anecdotes along the way.

One highlight is the tale of Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov, a Russian veterinarian to the tsars whose job artificially inseminating racehorses evolved in the early 20th century into an obsession with trying to breed a human/ape hybrid. This horror story was later suppressed by the Soviet Union but Brooks points out that stem-cell research necessarily requires experimenting with human/animal chimeras in the laboratory. A human embryo could accidentally form inside a mouse and, he writes, there is “the other nightmare” of “the pig – or monkey or mouse – with a human brain”.

A recurring theme is the idea that scientists often push forward with research faster than they can understand its moral or political consequences, even if it is rarely out of malice. By definition scientists need to “push at the door of what is possible” and: “The reactions of the society around them are what keep them in check.” Yet there’s a metaphysical note to these 11 topics, too. We find many of these things strange or surprising because they expose how limited our perspective, as clever apes, can be.

Supercomputers, for example, work in binary – but the universe doesn’t. Imaginations and learning are features of non-binary organisms (such as us) but our ability to create machines that can understand more than binary is stymied by “our picture of reality, [which] tends to be constrained by our conception of time and sits within just a few dimensions of space”.

In another chapter, time is revealed to be an illusion – as proven by Buddhist monks or volunteers high on magic mushrooms, observed using magnetic resonance imaging machines. It appears that we perceive it as we do only because this is the most effective survival strategy for the world in which we find ourselves.

Later, Brooks writes about quantum uncertainty and how the act of observing something on the quantum level causes it to change – but astonishingly it seems that the universe might be best understood as a computer simulation (running on God-knows-what) and that quantum uncertainty reflects our ability to “reprogramme” the world as we see it. “We become participators in the processes of the universe . . . We are in a paper-scissors-stone situation where we cannot find the logic to disentangle ourselves from the universe.”

From this perspective, consciousness is the inevitable result of a computer the size of the universe running for billions of years; Carl Sagan’s observation that “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself” was more true than he ever realised.

“The edge of uncertainty,” writes Brooks, “is not a static line, but a dynamic, ever-changing set of answers. What other way is there for humans to behave than to push at the boundaries of our knowledge and our existence – even if the act of pushing exposes our ignorance?” A curious result of reading At the Edge of Uncertainty is to come away with a net total of new ignorance, not new knowledge – but also a sense of excitement at the inevitable success of science to remedy it. 

Ian Steadman is a staff writer on science and technology at the New Statesman

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 16 July 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Our Island Story

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile