The Universe Within

universe_within

Given enough time, hydrogen starts to wonder where it came from.

It’s the kind of idea you have in the shower or staring out at a starry sky, but it’s also the spirit behind Neil Shubin’s “The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body” – an easy reading pop-science journey on all of the physical, chemical, geological, biological processes and wonders that make us the humans we are today.

“The Universe Within” is a thought-provoking look into the origins of elements, celestial bodies, environments, cells, organs, and societies. Shubin reminds us that our daily lives are shaped in almost every way by the history of the universe extending back 13 billion years. This story evokes a number of curious “shower thoughts” – reminiscent of Carl Sagan or Bill Nye – but it’s also not a surprising or even terribly enlightening story. It’s more of a polite reminder of the basic science we know and tend to forget about while we’re busy breathing, eating, sleeping, driving, walking, synergizing, Snap-Chatting, home-brewing, Netflixing, Apple-watching or whatever else cool people are doing these days.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a solid pop science book. There’s some cool factoids and interesting observations of the natural world that you won’t run across every day. Shubin certainly is an expert at bringing science to the masses – he’s the provost of Chicago’s Field Museum, a University of Chicago professor and has his own popular PBS miniseries “Your Inner Fish,” based off his eponymous book. We need expert scientists like Shubin who can explain complex topics of archaeology, atmospheric science and human physiology to people like me (a lowly social “scientist,” at best).

However, I often felt like compelling topics were left unexplored, or the subject was changed before an interesting idea had been fully exhausted. The book could have used about 100 more pages to expand on its topics and bring home the “wow” factor. It could easily have done that – it tops out at less than 200, and this includes his anecdotes from a fossil expedition in Greenland (nice and all, but the stories don’t really add anything).

“The Universe Within” is a quick read, very straight-forward, devoid of jargon or scientific complexity. Which is why it both interested and disappointed me. I was hoping for a few more in-depth explanations of human chemistry, physics, etc. But this is a broader, more superficial survey of all kinds of natural science topics. It’s a good starting point if you want to dip into the shallow end of our vast and fascinating universe. I, however, was hoping to do a cannonball off the high-dive.

If you want more depth on astronomy, physics, chemistry, etc., try Bill Bryson’s “A Short History of Nearly Everything.” As for earth science, including geology, biology and evolution, I’d recommend “Life: A Natural History of the First Four Billion Years of Life on Earth” by Richard Fortey. However, if you subscribe to “I fucking love science” on Tumblr and want to read a brief, entertaining reminder of all the things you learned in your university science core, read “The Universe Within.” Or just watch an episode of “The Cosmos” – ’bout the same experience, really.

The Universe Within: The Deep History of the Human Body

The Smoke-Filled Chatroom

digital-disconnect

Journalism is dead. Why? Because old media were stubborn and did not adjust to a new world of smart phones and social media. Or so the prevailing thought goes.

Robert McChesney’s “Digital Disconnect: How Capitalism is Turning the Internet Against Democracy” offers another theory, though, one I believe should be discussed and dissected in every journalism school in the United States.

Those who aspire to be journalists need to know and understand the information and arguments in “Digital Disconnect,” because it gives a brutally honest description of today’s “political economy of communication,” and how the demise of good investigative reporting is contributing to a rise in economic inequality.

The book is primarily about how the promise of the Internet – open, untethered, democratic, free of advertising – has been co-opted by two groups of massive conglomerates – telecoms (Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, etc.) tussling over the right to control access, and massive new media companies (Google, Apple, Facebook, etc.) fighting over your data – all to maximize profit. As Jaron Lanier writes, those who owns the most distribution channels and data own the future.

At its heart, however, McChesney’s book tackles the death and future of American journalism. National news organizations are now almost entirely owned by one of six media corporations (who also often own telecom networks), and they design their product to get maximum pageviews or ad clicks through one of the massive social media networks. In other words, the news has fundamentally changed thanks to a squeeze for profits from both ends. The wall between ownership and newsrooms were long destroyed, and terms like “sponsored content” try to disguise the fact that most “news” is now no more than regurgitated press releases.

All of this means journalism is spending less time putting pressure on those who control resources and power in society. This includes their own ownership, actively rewriting laws and regulations to further monopoly control over public means of communication. As a result, these companies, along with the American government, now know nearly anything they want about you, while you are allowed to know as little as possible about them. Primarily, “Digital Disconnect” is an account of corporate and state collusion to increase profits and power at the expense of privacy, choice, dissent and the democratic process. And professional journalism has rolled over and played along.

The Internet has been detrimental to news media, because it has destroyed ad revenues. Journalism struggles to remain afloat. But this was always the case – real journalism has always been a thorn in the side of power, and thus always under attack. Intimidation via digital communication is just the latest tool to render reporting and investigation harmless.

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Mind over machine

You know that part at the end of “The Empire Strikes Back” where a robot is giving Luke Skywalker a robotic hand and it looks and works just like his old hand? Well, that’s not science fiction anymore.

What’s interesting about the arm in that video is that it’s controlled by implants in the remaining arm tissue. Which apparently works well – better than sensors on the surface of the skin. But what if it could be controlled by the brain itself? I read Beyond Boundaries: The New Neuroscience of Connecting Brains with Machines-and How It Will Change Our Lives last year. Author Miguel Nicolelis, one of the world’s leading brain-machine interface scientists, has allowed mice and monkeys to control robotic arms using nothing but their thoughts, sometimes from halfway around the world. Sounds like science fiction, but it’s real.

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