The Plastic Brain


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Science XXXVIII

As epitomised by the Rocky XXXVIII poster in Flying High II (or, as the rest of the world calls it, Airplane II), even a successful franchise can get a bit tired if you keep repeating the same old formula.

Reading that Bruce Charlton article, whose abstract I posted, has made me wonder how much of this phenomenon is happening in Science.

In particular the process of science has become a victim of economic rationalists, just like the film industry. Who is going to invest millions in a film with no known chance of success? Wouldn’t it be better to make a sequel, and cash in on a known audience? (an irony obviously not lost on the makers of Flying High II).

In the realm of science this translates into grants flowing to established researchers, with track records of studious output, researching “safe” and “hot” areas. All they need to do is write a hit early in their career, then they can keep on churning out incremental versions of the same work.

It’s happened in film, in the music industry, in restaurants, in art – and I reckon it’s happening in science.

While I certainly agree that they is a strong need for safe, incremental science in established areas of research, please let’s not miss out on the revolutionary, off-beat, dogma-challenging stuff that can fall between the cracks of the grant-based-funding system.

Research institutions needs to have a bit more soft money, discretionary funds that they can use to retain and support brilliant mavericks. Let’s not let economic rationalists suck the blood out of research too.

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A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Robert A. Heinlein (via spaceweaver)


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Plato’s Head

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A Poem Inspired by The Republic

That Plato turned things on their head

When Socrates, to Glaucon, said

“The bed you sleep on is no bed.”

Glaucon’s heart was filled with dread,

The man’s gone mad, his brain is dead.

“Why, reason from your mind has fled!”

“The one true bed is in your head,

dear Glaucon, think on that instead.

You’ll reach enlightenment” he said.

“But if it is a phantom bed,

how does it yet support my head?”

Socrates then scratched his head,

and scratched until his pate turned red

“The bed’s not real, nor is your head.

All will be gone when life has fled.

The form of these, this bed, this head,

rest evermore, and this has led

me to conclude what I have said”

He turned, and dove into the Med.

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The simple genius of Christoph Niemann.

Perhaps more relevent to this blog, though, is his post on Unpopular Science

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My Four Cs

The Mesopotamians may have had Seven Seas, but for me the forces that shape our lives can be summarized by the Four Cs.

Physicists also recognise four forces that shape the universe – being electromagnetism, gravity, and the strong and weak nuclear forces. Important though they no doubt are, how do they help us make sense of the everyday world around us?

No, for me, serenity comes from allowing the Four Cs to wash over me. I think the physicists should dip their TOE in my Cs.

What are these four principles?

Complexity, Change, Counterpoint and Cyclicality.

The more you explore anything the more detail there is, it never stays the same, there is often contradiction, symmetry or both, yet somehow, inexplicably, you will always find yourself back where you started.

Don’t worry though. Sit back. Relax. That’s just the way the universe works.