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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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”