Nautilus4 min read
What an Extinct Bird Re-Evolving Says About “Species”
You may have heard the news of what sounds like a resurrection story on the small island of Aldabra, off the coast of Madagascar. Around 136,000 years ago, the island was submerged in water and a layer of limestone captured the rails—a species of fli
Nautilus9 min read
Can We Revive Empathy in Our Selfish World?: An experiment shows how to rebuild human compassion.
You wake up on a bus, surrounded by all your remaining possessions. A few fellow passengers slump on pale blue seats around you, their heads resting against the windows. You turn and see a father holding his son. Almost everyone is asleep. But one ma
Nautilus14 min read
Dude, Where’s My Frontal Cortex?: There’s a method to the madness of the teenage brain.
In the foothills of the Sierra Mountains, a few hours east of San Francisco, are the Moaning Caverns, a cave system that begins, after a narrow, twisting descent of 30-some feet, with an abrupt 180-foot drop. The Park Service has found ancient human
Nautilus10 min readPsychology
He Gave Away $30 Million Because It Felt Good: James Doty just may embody the altruism he studies.
James Doty is not a subject under study at the altruism research center that he founded at Stanford in 2008, but he could be. In 2000, after building a fortune as a neurosurgeon and biotech entrepreneur in Silicon Valley, he lost it all in the dotcom
Nautilus5 min read
The Problem with Using the Term “Fake News” in Medicine
Here’s one way to rid society of “fake news”—abandon the term altogether. That’s what a U.K. committee recommended that Parliament do last fall. It argued that the concept has lost any clear meaning, since it has been used to describe everything from
Nautilus5 min read
What Ancient Romans Used Instead of Toilet Paper
We’ve all been caught unawares by our digestive tract at one time or another. It happened to the Nash family several months ago. We were nearing the end of an extended road trip, driving down a secondary highway through a sparsely populated area of C
Nautilus7 min read
Evolution Is Really Not That Into Sex: Plants and animals have reproduced without sex for eons. So why did nature bother?
What is sex for? When I regularly queried students at the beginning of my course in evolutionary biology, most responded that it was for reproducing. Reasonable enough, but wrong. In fact, lots of living things reproduce without sex: Asexual reproduc
Nautilus5 min read
The Deepest Uncertainty: When a hypothesis is neither true nor false.
Georg Cantor died in 1918 in a sanatorium in Halle, Germany. A pre-eminent mathematician, he had laid the foundation for the theory of infinite numbers in the 1870s. At the time, his ideas received hostile opposition from prominent mathematicians in
Nautilus10 min read
Yes, Determinists, There Is Free Will: You make choices even if your atoms don’t.
It’s not just in politics where otherwise smart people consistently talk past one another. People debating whether humans have free will also have this tendency. Neuroscientist and free-will skeptic Sam Harris has dueled philosopher and free-will def
Nautilus5 min read
The English Word That Hasn’t Changed in Sound or Meaning in 8,000 Years
One of my favorite words is lox,” says Gregory Guy, a professor of linguistics at New York University. There is hardly a more quintessential New York food than a lox bagel—a century-old popular appetizing store, Russ & Daughters, calls it “The Classi
Nautilus14 min read
Are Animal Experiments Justified?: A neuroscientist confronts his anguish over experimenting on animals.
The rat sat still in the middle of her cage, moving only in response to my touch, and even then only as if in slow-motion. My subject, GRat66, was a few months old, and except for her long bare tail, fit neatly into my palm a few minutes earlier, whe
Nautilus5 min read
Dark Matter Gets a Reprieve in New Analysis
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. The galactic center shines too brightly, like the glow of a metropolis at night where maps show only a town. To mend their cosmic cartography, astrophysicists have spent years debati
Nautilus10 min read
Only Street Dogs Are Real Dogs: Purebreds don’t satisfy the biological definition of a species.
What is a dog? Many people often think of dogs as kennel club creations. The purebred dog is man’s best friend, not the street dog. Man’s best friends live ubiquitously in the United States, Europe, and other developed countries and, in these countri
Nautilus9 min read
Tantalizing Creatures with Male and Female Genes: Gyandromorphs overturn traditional theories of sexual development.
As they often do after a rainstorm, butterflies had gathered around puddles on Pigeon Mountain in northwest Georgia. Nets in hand, James Adams and his friend Irving Finkelstein watched the insects lapping up salts and proteins dissolved in the muddy
Nautilus5 min readSelf-Improvement
The “Emodiversity” of Star Wars
This past “Star Wars Day,” May 4, I watched some of the original trilogy a bit mournfully: Peter Mayhew, who played Chewbacca, passed away the day before. When The Empire Strikes Back took us to the Yoda-dwelling Dagobah, I recalled what the exiled J
Nautilus7 min read
Human Exceptionalism Stifles Progress: The aversion to playing God is not just about God.
Last November Chinese scientist He Jiankui announced the birth of twin babies whose germline he claimed to have altered to reduce their susceptibility to contracting HIV. The news of embryo editing and gene-edited babies prompted immediate condemnati
Nautilus6 min read
The Mystery of Human Uniqueness: What, exactly, makes our biology special?
If you dropped a dozen human toddlers on a beautiful Polynesian island with shelter and enough to eat, but no computers, no cell phones, and no metal tools, would they grow up to be like humans we recognize or like other primates? Would they invent l
Nautilus11 min read
The Philosopher Who Says We Should Play God: Why ethical objections to interfering with nature are too late.
Australian bioethicist Julian Savulescu has a knack for provocation. Take human cloning. He says most of us would readily accept it if it benefited us. As for eugenics—creating smarter, stronger, more beautiful babies—he believes we have an ethical o
Nautilus6 min readPsychology
The Problem with the Way Scientists Study Reason
In March, I was in Paris for the International Convention of Psychological Science, one of the most prestigious gatherings in cognitive science. I listened to talks from my field, human reasoning, but I also enjoyed those on ethology, because I find
Nautilus9 min readSociety
Nurture Alone Can’t Explain Male Aggression
A young bank teller is shot dead during a robbery. The robber flees in a stolen van and is chased down the motorway by a convoy of police cars. Careening through traffic, the robber runs several cars off the road and clips several more. Eventually, t
Nautilus5 min read
Why a Traffic Flow Suddenly Turns Into a Traffic Jam: Those aggravating slowdowns aren’t one driver’s fault. They’re everybody’s fault.
Few experiences on the road are more perplexing than phantom traffic jams. Most of us have experienced one: The vehicle ahead of you suddenly brakes, forcing you to brake, and making the driver behind you brake. But, soon afterward, you and the cars
Nautilus6 min readScience
Why The Flow Of Time Is An Illusion: Getting human feeling to match the math is an ultimate goal in physics.
In his book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality, Max Tegmark writes that “time is not an illusion, but the flow of time is.” In this month’s issue of Nautilus, which looks at the concept of flow through various port
Nautilus9 min readPsychology
In the Flow on Half Dome: “I felt elated, alive. ‘Look where we are!’ I shouted. ‘This is crazy!’”
We reached Thank God Ledge on the Regular Northwest Face, of Yosemite’s iconic Half Dome climb, by mid-afternoon. This 40-foot horizontal plank-like feature is the most famous part of the route: not for its physical difficulty, but for its stomach-ch
Nautilus5 min readSelf-Improvement
The Problem with Mindfulness
Should we be mindful of how popular “mindfulness” now is? Carl Erik Fisher says we should. Fisher is a professor of clinical psychiatry at Columbia University and a practicing psychotherapist who integrates meditation in his practice, and meditates h
Nautilus6 min readTech
Most Tech Today Would be Frivolous to Ancient Scientists
Surrounded by advanced achievements in medicine, space exploration, and robotics, people can be forgiven for thinking our time boasts the best technology. So I was startled last year to hear Sarah Stroup, a professor of classics at the University of
Nautilus9 min read
How Does Turbulence Get Started?: The high stakes of solving one of science’s most obstinate problems.
The water is always running in Björn Hof’s laboratory. Like a Zen water fountain, it gently flows over the top of a reservoir into a tube, and from there into a glass pipe 15 meters long, but thinner than a glass thermometer. To keep the flow as smo
Nautilus7 min readScience
When Beauty Gets In The Way Of Science: Insisting that new ideas must be beautiful blocks progress in particle physics.
The biggest news in particle physics is no news. In March, one of the most important conferences in the field, Rencontres de Moriond, took place. It is an annual meeting at which experimental collaborations present preliminary results. But the recent
Nautilus9 min read
Why Europa Is the Place to Go for Alien Life: NASA is scheduled to probe the Jovian moon in 2023.
I have seen the future of space exploration, and it looks like a cue ball covered with brown scribbles. I am talking about Europa, the 1,940-mile-wide, nearly white, and exceedingly smooth satellite of Jupiter. It is an enigmatic world that is, in m
Nautilus3 min read
Taking Another Person’s Perspective Doesn’t Help You Understand Them
No moral advice is perfectly sound. The Golden Rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—is only as wise as the person following it. A more modern-sounding tip—take the perspective of others—can seem like an improvement. It was Dale Carn
Nautilus5 min read
Viruses Have a Secret, Altruistic Social Life
Reprinted with permission from Quanta Magazine’s Abstractions blog. Social organisms come in all shapes and sizes, from the obviously gregarious ones like mammals and birds down to the more cryptic socializers like bacteria. Evolutionary biologists o
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