Blog: Thinking Small

The Future of Genetics and Genomics panel at Lexington Public Library

Recently I was invited to participate in a panel discussion on the futures of genetics and genomics at the Lexington public library, as part of a month-long celebration of the 150th birthday of Thomas Hunt Morgan. I mostly talked about the ethics of genetically engineering humans. It was great fun, and I snuck in some shout-outs to great ethical-conundrum science fiction, like The Wind-Up Girl and Gattaca. If you want to listen to the whole panel discussion, the audio can be found here.

Linus the Philosodog!

One of the greatest things happening in philosophy right now is the Philosodog Blog, a collection of interviews with contemporary philosophers about their dogs. The interviews are funny, heartfelt, inescapably philosophical, and most importantly, they are punctuated with lots of adorable pictures of the dogs discussed therein. So I am very proud to announce that my dog Linus was recently featured! Read his interview here

On the Semiotics of a Powerlifting T-Shirt

Sometimes I write articles that show up elsewhere on the internet. Earlier this week I wrote an essay about the iconography on a powerlifting shirt I've seen around lately and how it symbolizes the current state of feminism in the sport in a variety of ways. I think it is pretty funny, and also pretty true. If you want to read it (and lots of other interesting commentary on fitness and feminism), go visit it at Fit Is A Feminist Issue

A High Schooler Asks Me About Happiness

This morning, I got one of the weirder non-spam emails I've received in a while. A high school student named Lydia wrote to me from Maine to ask me what philosophers think about happiness. While I am dying to know what led Lydia down the path of teacher-assigns-professor-interview-assignment through Google into my inbox, her questions were really interesting, and trying to teach philosophy to an invisible stranger with no particular background in the material turned into one of the more enjoyable writing exercises I've put myself through lately. So here it is: 

Do you believe happiness can be measured scientifically? 

There are definitely certain chemicals (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, endorphins) that are strongly correlated with positive moods, both in the short-term and long-term. That is why anti-depressant medications often work for their users. And there are measurable brain states that are correlated with lower stress, higher self-reflection, and other things that we tend to think of happy people as having—scientists will scan the brains of meditating monks, for instance, and they are able to learn that their brains work differently when they are meditating. And we think of those monks, or those people who are having success with their anti-depressant medications, as happier than average or happier than they were in the past. But there isn't anything like a happiness thermometer that you can stick under your tongue and it can tell you whether you're happier than your neighbor or your teacher. This is in part because other studies in human psychology have shown us that making comparisons between ourselves and other people often itself leads to feeling unhappy—studies that explain why people tend to feel worse after looking at celebrity gossip magazines/sites, for instance, or "The Instagram Effect." (

Are humans a "naturally happy" species?

For this one, it really depends on what you mean by "natural" or what you think "nature" is like. Thomas Hobbes, a philosopher from the 1600s, famously wrote that in nature, that is, outside a social or political society like the town of Orono or the country of the United States, the life of man is "solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short." His point was that nature is about survival, not happiness. Now other philosophers have disagreed with him, like Jean-Jaques Rousseau, who wrote against Hobbes in the 1700s. Rousseau thought that the most natural state humans could live in is that of seeking pleasurable things and avoiding painful things. In seeking those pleasurable things, according to Rousseau, we then come to an idea of happiness, so for him, part of what it is to be human is to seek happiness. But notice that seeking happiness and finding it, or being happy, are different things. A lot more philosophers, from Aristotle to Camus, agree that one of the goals of life is to seek happiness. And this makes sense to me. Think about where we seek pleasure—in tasty food, in God, in music, in love and romance and (safe and consensual!) sex, in beautiful movies and poignant books, in good grades and jobs we like, in our team winning the Super Bowl—these are the things we care about, and these things stick around in our collective cultural consciousness and in our individual memories when other things fade.

How is happiness defined philosophically? 

In philosophy, happiness is one of those things that we often think of as what's called a "sine qua non" (pronounced see-nay kwah nohn). That's a Latin phrase that means "that without which, nothing," or in other words, it is the thing that everything else depends on, that gives other things their meaning. The idea of a sine qua non is a funny way of thinking about ideas that is particular to philosophy, like using x and y variables is a funny way of thinking about numbers that is particular to algebra. So here's an example: you can't read the words I'm writing right now if you don't know how to identify the letters and turn them into words in your head. You have to know sound what each individual letter stands for, plus some rules about how to make new sounds when certain letters are combined (like "th"), and even when you know all of that you still have a long, long way to go before you can read complicated English sentences. But if you didn't even know was a letter was, that the black marks on the screen in front of you had any pattern or meaning at all, then you'd be totally lost and no amount of memorizing definitions of words or learning grammar rules would help you. The letters in our alphabet, then, are a sine qua non of written English. Everything else in written language depends on them. So for a lot of philosophers, happiness is the first, most important, fundamental thing there is, and everything else (like what nature is, or what it means to be human, or to live a good life, or whether there is a god out there, or whether people of all races and genders should be treated equally) is defined in terms of happiness. Happiness is the central, undefined thing that everything else is defined in terms of---the "one ring to rule them all," if you like. Here is how Aristotle puts it in a book called the Nicomachean Ethics:

"Since there are evidently more than one end, and we choose some of them (e.g. wealth, flutes, and in general instruments) for the sake of something else, clearly not all ends are final ends; but the chief good is evidently something final. Therefore, if there is only one final end, this will be what we are seeking, and if there are more than one, the most final of these will be what we are seeking. Now we call that which is in itself worthy of pursuit more final than that which is worthy of pursuit for the sake of something else, and that which is never desirable for the sake of something else more final than the things that are desirable both in themselves and for the sake of that other thing, and therefore we call final without qualification that which is always desirable in itself and never for the sake of something else.

Now such a thing happiness, above all else, is held to be; for this we choose always for itself and never for the sake of something else, but honor, pleasure, reason, and every virtue we choose indeed for themselves (for if nothing resulted from them we should still choose each of them), but we choose them also for the sake of happiness, judging that by means of them we shall be happy. Happiness, on the other hand, no one chooses for the sake of these, nor, in general, for anything other than itself . . .

Happiness, then, is something final and self-sufficient, and is [the chief good] and the end of action."

Personally, I find this approach to thinking about what happiness is much more satisfying than the neuroscientist's story about brain chemicals or the psychologist's story about pleasure-seeking/pain-avoiding. It also lines up with what we find in many spiritual traditions, particularly in the practices of Buddhism and Yoga, which are both about seeking. What they seek is peace, enlightenment and freedom from the suffering caused by attachment to the material world, but maybe, just maybe, that's all that happiness is, in the end.

Finally, notice how this answer about what happiness is helps to explain why we won't ever have a happiness thermometer: if the point of it all, the reason we're here, is to be seeking happiness, and you're trying to measure how much happiness is already inside you, then you're simply measuring the wrong thing. 

Genius and Imitation

A week or two ago, this article was making the rounds on the parts of the internet that concern themselves with cultural bias in the academy. The big pull-quote-able sentence that everyone seems to be pull-quoting summarizes the point well: “The more a field valued giftedness, the fewer female Ph.D.s.”

A few weeks before that, back in the end of 2014, director Morten Tyldum and a host of medium-time production companies, along with a medium-A-list cadre of Brits, released The Imitation Game, an adaptation of Andrew Hodges’ biography of Alan Turing. The movie has received mixed acclaim and derision. The former has been directed primarily at Benedict Cumberbatch’s impeccable performance and the period costumes, which are tweedy and bespoke enough to make any historically-inclined hipster swoon. The latter concerns a variety of historical inaccuracies and oversimplifications about everything from its portrayal of Turing’s personality and the circumstances of his death to the central plotline of the movie, namely, the development of the bombe machines that cracked the German’s Enigma codes during WWII. The film has received eight Academy Award nominations.

Telling historical stories is a difficult task, and one that, unlike cracking the Enigma, does not have one clearly correct answer. So filmmakers who task themselves with historical adaptations always have choices to make. (Stop me if I’m saying anything surprising.) What I want to point out here is that one of the choices this movie’s crew made, which influenced many of the other historical bobbles the film made, was to steer mostly clear of explaining any of the computer science and cryptography involved in the development of the bombes. And they got away with this by playing up Turing’s giftedness to the point of near-comic absurdity.

The basic conceit, of which this movie is certainly not the sole employer, is this: the thing we are making a movie about is hard to understand, so it took a Gifted Genius to make it happen. Usually, and definitely in the case of Imitation, the Gifted Genius is tortured by how dumb the rest of the world is for not getting his (yes, almost always, his) idea. Implicit in this type of portrayal is the suggestion that the audience is not smart enough to get the idea, so the filmmakers are off the hook from trying to explain. Instead, they can focus on how hard it is to be a Gifted Genius and how unfair it is that the rest of the world is dumb. Viewers, we’re talking to you.

Now, I’m not saying cryptography and cryptanalysis are easy to comprehend. They’re not. But by painting Turing, or any other biopic-worthy Gifted Genius of science, as an impenetrable enigma (see what I did there?) whose ideas sprung, Athena-style, from the foam of his brain, filmmakers like the ones who made Imitation are playing into the exact same Myth of the Gifted that has now been shown to keep women and ethnic minorities out of Ph.D. programs. In the case of the bombes, Imitation portrayed the project as a small-scale operation made up of Turing and a handful of his cronies—including, to be fair, a Gifted Lady Genius (Keira Knightly) who plays Turing’s love non-interest. But the actual bombe operation at Bletchley employed thousands and relied on previous international insights from codebreaking, including British breakthroughs during the Spanish Civil War, Polish mathematicians, and 20th-century tech outifts, such as the British Tabulating Machine Company. (Extra credit assignment: Google Mavis Lever.)

The point is, this sort of portrayal is bad news for those of us who care about making STEM education and STEM careers accessible to people from a wide variety of cultural backgrounds. By making scientific breakthroughs look as if they are the innate property of Gifted Genius individuals, such portrayals are whispering into their audiences’ ears, “No, no, this isn’t for you.” If, instead, filmmakers made movies about the agonizing backs and forths, successes and failures, of the process behind scientific discoveries, they might just (gasp!) encourage viewers to get involved in making the kinds of big, world-changing discoveries that help science to change the world.

Cases in Point One and Two: BBC Films and HBO Films have quietly released two movies in the past decade whose primary goal is to explain how scientists come to the conclusions that they do. Einstein and Eddington (BBC, 2008) takes on the empirical confirmation of general relativity and in so doing, takes Einstein down a peg on his Giftedess Genius Of All Time pedestal. It shows how the fairly understandable astronomical observations that Eddington made were a necessary component of getting the scientific community to get behind relativity, and it depicts the exchange of ideas between a variety of scientists as essential to the process. Temple Grandin (HBO, 2010) is a should-be-classic biopic of the animal scientist who develops ideas about livestock psychology by making analogies to her own experiences of the world as a person with autism.

Case in Point Three: House, M.D. (Fox, 2004–2012) Now I’m not saying Dr. Gregory House is a role model for how to run a laboratory, especially with regard to his treatment of women. But the whole scientific content of the show is a series of difficult diagnoses that House and his multiracial, multi-gendered, multi-sexually-oriented team (AND HIS TEAM! AND HIS TEAM!) solve, and sometimes fail to solve, through the application of experiments, theories, inferences, and case histories. House portrays the incredible amounts of teamwork and failure that go into the discoveries made by a typical would-be, self-appointed, Gifted Genius.

Programs like these may just inspire viewers to think, “Hey, that science stuff looks like hard work, but I think I could do it.” They are the antidote to the Gifted Genius narrative, which portrays scientific discovery as a sort of Tortuga of the human mind; if you don’t already know how to get the answer, you never will. And while I’m sure I’m not the first person to point it out, I can’t resist extending a finger (index finger, team, come on) to the Cumberbatch of it all: in Benedict’s breakout role, he plays a 21st-century Sherlock Holmes, who is perhaps the most asinine fictional Gifted Genius of all time.

All of this is not to say that I didn’t cry when Imitation’s bombe machine finally cracked its first message—I did—but through my soundtrack-backed tears I couldn’t help wondering if in that moment, I was part of the problem, not part of the solution. 

The Nano Wiki is (Fake) Real!

Over at Millstone Lab we have been dreaming up a project for the past few years that is one of those "hey-wouldn't-it-be-great-if"-"yeah-but-paper-deadlines" projects where we can never seem to find the time to actually sit down and make it happen. The project is a wiki for the nanosynthesis community, where users share the kind of information that is left out of publications—details of protocols, things to watch out for in nanosynthesis that you wouldn't think of if you only do macroscopic synthesis, questions about how to think about nanostuff, etc. 

From the nano community's standpoint, the wiki will lower the entry barrier to scientists who want to try nano projects, as well as making nano more collaborative and all the normal benefits of introducing open-source energy into a community. From my standpoint, the wiki will give us all that as well as a forum for discussion of foundational concepts in nanoscience. Ideally, it will be a place to watch scientists work out theories in real-time. 

Well, something gave over the past few weeks and we are finally getting the site together! It is just in under-construction mode for now, but you can see a mock-up of it here. More to come in the next few weeks!

20 Questions

An excerpt from my upcoming paper on the role of scale in scientific classification:

In the car-trip game 20 Questions, one player thinks of an object and other players take turns asking yes-or-no questions (up to 20 in all) to figure out what the object is. Whoever guesses correctly first wins, and if no one gets it, the player who thought of the object wins. One of the most common and, it is generally agreed, most effective starting questions for the game is ``Is it smaller than a bread box?'' The utility of this question at partitioning possible objects in a 20-questions game illustrates just how powerful a role scale plays in underwriting classification. Of course, the bread-box question is only actually effective when one knows about how big a bread box is. For those whose childhoods included neither 20 Questions nor bread boxes, perhaps a better partition here would be "Is it smaller than the 10-volume Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy?''


This blog will update periodically, both with new posts about philosophy, nanoscience, teaching, and other goodies, as well as material from my previous blog, Reaction Crate. Please check back!