Desiderata #14: links and commentary
Primer but with superconductors, Bukowski, AI spam, dinosaur civilizations
The Desiderata series is a monthly roundup of links and thoughts, as well as an open thread and ongoing AMA in the comments for paid subscribers (along with extra links).
1/13. Since the last Desiderata, The Intrinsic Perspective published:
High-tech pastoral as the new aesthetic: Explaining a common taste of aging millennials
(🔒) The Intrinsic Podcast #3: What does it mean to be an intellectual online? Guest Anna Gát is the salonnière of the internet
The internet's "town square" is dead: The ability to control speech always leads to corruption
On my increasing nervousness as publication of my book draws near: Plus where to find me in person this summer
(🔒) Star Trek predicted generative AI, and the future of fiction, literally perfectly: In which props are giveth
2/13. The perfect philosophy cartoon doesn’t
3/13. There is a new much-discussed paper allegedly showing a method for building superconductors which operate at room temperature and regular pressure, i.e., effectively anywhere.
Betting markets were initially skeptical, as this would be huge news, particularly because the technique is also easy to manufacture (I believe it even involves a mortar and pestle). Basically, the vibe here is Primer—world-changing technology you can copy in your garage (there’s a lot of lead involved, etc, so please don’t actually do this).
There hasn’t been a lot of mainstream media coverage, possibly because claims on these sort of things have turned out to be untrue before. It’s kind of a regular thing. Perhaps mainstream outlets are waiting on peer review, but that’s probably irrelevant here—when a paper gets this much publicity, peer review is automatic, and far better than three anonymous experts. What matters is now replication. Right?
Well, the first attempts didn’t go that great. Experiments are delicate, it’s really easy to get a false negative on things like this. So therefore it’s interesting, as a scientist, to follow these replication attempts online, and the seesawing confusion of those who’ve been watching to see if the effect is real. People have even referred to it as “fog of war.” Oh there was a replication attempt in India that failed, but did they make the disk flat enough? What if they crumbled it up, because another report was that the substance was actually levitating when it was just a crumb? Then there’s the Chinese attempt, which says they confirmed the results of the paper but not that it’s a superconductor??? And so on.
Hmmm, but now what do we do in that situation? Maybe the five successful replications are just as confused as the original authors, and the thirty unsuccessful ones are correct.
Allow me to frame it this way: if, with the entire world watching, and a huge advancement in technology on the line, and it’s this hard to see if a little rock you can fashion in your garage is actually levitating, imagine how difficult it is to validate and replicate more complex scientific theories (e.g., how the brain works, how cancer develops, etc); especially when most theories and experiments don’t have worldwide attention, are never replicated or only rarely so, and everything is just sort of allowed to exist unchallenged. If you’ve ever thought “Wow science sure seems like a hot mess sometimes” the unfolding “I can’t tell if the rock actually levitates” is a good example of the hot mess up close, where people seem unable to agree exactly what counts as levitation, and one must distinguish between good replication attempts and bad ones, and so on. Here’s from a blogger keeping track of them:
At the same time, seeing science being done live is pretty incredible and hopeful, especially as it’s participated in by academics, anons with anime profile pics, and start-up members. We will likely figure this out. Just last night there were multiple updates of possible replications, as well as a paper claiming to show that a superconductor of this kind might be theoretically possible. Prediction markets have jumped today accordingly.
Maybe this is a local peak, but let us dream. How would this discovery impact you, if it were true? While some are saying that quantum computing would become available at room temperature, I think this is likely wrong/simplistic (disclaimer: not an actual physicist). But assuredly regular computers would be far better made (and possibly not even from silicon).
Probably the most noticeable thing would be that laptops and phones wouldn’t get hot and have batteries that last much longer. They might not even need internal fans anymore—we’ll have to tell our kids about the days when our computers used to whirr and whirr away. In fact, as I type this, I have a small external fan pointed at this computer’s keyboard in a desperate fight against entropy. And this does seem positively barbaric, ripe for revolution, the kind of behavior that desires, teleologically I mean, to become a relic in the face of progress.
4/13. An under-appreciated Tweet.
Err, under-appreciated Xeet?
5/13. I had no idea that Charles Bukowski (the writer) was, at 49, a post office worker who no one had heard of. By 50 he had been discovered by an agent who essentially started a publishing company just to publish Bukowski.
I am reminded of reasoning I once heard from the Templeton Foundation (a large grant-funding organization) for why they focused so much on philosophy. They told me that, in terms of funding in the sciences, a million dollars is a drop in the bucket. But if you give a philosopher a million dollar grant to hire a team and do research, you can significantly shift the field. The bang for your buck goes a long way. Similarly, a single rich person can essentially make a writer incredibly famous with just a bit of support, the kind that publishers won’t usually give. After all, Bukowski is still read (sometimes hate read) today.
6/13. Speaking of books—my first official work of nonfiction, The World Behind the World: Consciousness, Free Will, and the Limits of Science, is now out. A huge thank you to everyone who ordered a copy and showed up to the launch party. I’ll do an update about reception, responses, and the launch party later. You can check out the many pictures people are posting of the book out and about here.
7/13. Nautilus asks: “Could an Industrial Civilization Have Predated Humans on Earth?”
In 2018, climatologist Gavin Schmidt and astrophysicist Adam Frank published an intriguing paper in the International Journal of Astrobiology called, “The Silurian hypothesis: Would it be possible to detect an industrial civilization in the geological record?” The title is derived from a Doctor Who episode featuring a reptilian race known as the Silurians who gained intelligence before humans. The purpose of the Silurian hypothesis isn’t to assert that another civilization came before us. . . Schmidt and Frank write that a “species as short-lived as Homo sapiens (so far) might not be represented in the existing fossil record at all.” Today, less than 1 percent of the Earth’s surface is urbanized, a tiny proportion that hardly stands a chance of being re-exposed millions of years in the future. Unless humans continue to live on Earth for millions of years, our tenure on this planet might be far too brief to leave any trace. “Most of the surface gets completely restructured after a few million years,” Frank told me by email. “So there simply is no (almost no) old surface around which might be hiding such structures.”
Personally, in my own imaginary version of Earth’s history, I think I’d combine the Silurian hypothesis with a paper from earlier this year, wherein a
controversial new study suggests some dino brains were as densely packed with neurons as those of modern primates. If so, that would mean they were very smart—more than researchers previously thought—and could have achieved feats only humans and other very intelligent animals have, such as using tools.