R.U.R.

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Credt: MediaArtInnovation.com

On this day in 1938, the BBC aired an adaptation of the 1920 play R.U.R., by Czech writer Karel Capek, the first science fiction program to be broadcasted on television. R.U.R. — which stands for Rossum’s Universal Robots — told the story of artificial people called roboti who were created from synthetic organic matter to serve humans, but who ultimately rebel and wipe out our species. In addition to introducing what has now become a familiar trope in science fiction, it also brought as the word “robot”, from the Czech “robota”, which describes the forced labor performed by serfs (essentially slaves).

Capek had also written a novel titled “War with the Newts”, about humanity discovering and then enslaving a race of intelligent amphibious humanoids. He was thus among the first to explore a wide range of social and political issues that have since become familiar to audiences across the globe.

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A Different Kind of Antidepression

In the early days of the 21st century, a South African psychiatrist named Derek Summerfeld went to Cambodia, at a time when antidepressants were first being introduced there. He began to explain the concept to the doctors he met. They listened patiently and then told him they didn’t need these new antidepressants, because they already had antidepressants that work. He assumed they were talking about some kind of herbal remedy.

He asked them to explain, and they told him about a rice farmer they knew whose left leg was blown off by a landmine. He was fitted with a new limb, but he felt constantly anxious about the future, and was filled with despair. The doctors sat with him, and talked through his troubles. They realised that even with his new artificial limb, his old job—working in the rice paddies—was leaving him constantly stressed and in physical pain, and that was making him want to just stop living. So they had an idea. They believed that if he became a dairy farmer, he could live differently. So they bought him a cow. In the months and years that followed, his life changed. His depression—which had been profound—went away. “You see, doctor,” they told him, the cow was an “antidepressant”.

To them, finding an antidepressant didn’t mean finding a way to change your brain chemistry. It meant finding a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place. We can do the same. Some of these solutions are things we can do as individuals, in our private lives. Some require bigger social shifts, which we can only achieve together, as citizens. But all of them require us to change our understanding of what depression and anxiety really are.

This is radical, but it is not, I discovered, a maverick position. In its official statement for World Health Day in 2017, the United Nations reviewed the best evidence and concluded that “the dominant biomedical narrative of depression” is based on “biased and selective use of research outcomes” that “must be abandoned”. We need to move from “focusing on ‘chemical imbalances”, they said, to focusing more on “power imbalances”.

— Johann Hari, in an edited extract from his book, Lost Connections: Uncovering the Real Causes of Depression – and the Unexpected Solutions, courtesy of the Guardian.

(Please note that this is not intended to disparage or cast doubt on other treatments such as therapies or medications; rather it is meant to present an alternative, if not complementary, approach to helping those who struggle with depression in all its forms and degrees. Given that this malady affects diverse people for diverse reasons, it is sensible to consider every possible approach or treatment paradigm to address it.)

The End of Smallpox

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Yesterday, December 9th, came and went like any other day. But on that day in 1979, one of the most groundbreaking endeavors in human history was accomplished: a group of eminent scientists commissioned by the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) certified the global eradication of smallpox, the only human disease thus far to have been completely eliminated from nature. The WHO officially confirmed and announced this momentous achievement a few moments later:

Having considered the development and results of the global program on smallpox eradication initiated by WHO in 1958 and intensified since 1967 … Declares solemnly that the world and its peoples have won freedom from smallpox, which was a most devastating disease sweeping in epidemic form through many countries since earliest time, leaving death, blindness and disfigurement in its wake and which only a decade ago was rampant in Africa, Asia and South America.

Less than a decade before, the end of smallpox would have seemed the remotest possibility. As recently as 1967, the WHO had estimated that 15 million people contracted the disease, and that two million had died that year alone — the average number of annual deaths since the turn of the century. Continue reading

The Eternal Treaty

The Egyptian–Hittite peace treaty, also known as the Eternal Treaty or the Silver Treaty, is the oldest known peace treaty signed between two sovereign nations, dating back to the 13th century B.C.E. (Left photo: Hittite version; Right photo: Egyptian version.)

The treaty followed over 200 years of fighting between the two empires, which culminated in the Battle of Kadesh, a massive engagement that involved anywhere from 40,000 to 70,000 men. (It is also the most well-documented ancient battle.) Both sides sustained heavy casualties with no decisive strategic gain, and the conflict grinded on for another fifteen years without avail. Continue reading

Progress Across Boundaries

It is telling that all the Nobel Prizes this year — as in recent years — have thus far been awarded to multiple laureates, often of different nationalities and/or for research done in a country different from their birthplace. Like so much else nowadays, science is becoming an increasingly globalized endeavor, conducted across an international network of institutes, universities, labs, and other academic and scientific organizations.

Of course, this is nothing new: almost every human achievement, regardless of time or place, can trace its origins to gradual, supplementary, or parallel developments elsewhere. Mathematical principles, political concepts, artistic expressions — all of the contributors to these and other fields built (and continue to build) upon the work of predecessors or contemporaries, adding to or refining the growing pool of ideas along the way. Thanks to advances in technology, expanding access to education of all levels (especially in the developing world), and a growing sense of global consciousness, this historical development is accelerating.

Knowledge and talent know no boundaries, whether political, linguistic, or ethnic, and the more we facilitate the exchange of ideas and the collaboration, the closer we will come to greater human progress. This is not easy, due to both practical and cultural challenges, but neither is it utopian; there is thousands of years worth of cross-cultural progress persisting to this very day proving it can be done, and the world has a lot to show for it. Given how much more needs to be done — socially, scientifically, ideologically, etc. — we have all the more reasons to keep it up.

Why “Mom” Sounds the Same in Most Major Languages

In almost every language on Earth, no matter how distantly related, the word for mother is more or less a variation of “ma” or “mama”; this is one of the few instances of a word being near-universal across distinct cultures.

It is hypothesized that this is because these are some of the earliest sounds that infants make, and thus every culture associated them with the mother. Russian linguist Roman Jakobson proposed that infants make these sounds nasally while nursing.

Read more about this fascinating phenomenon at The Atlantic

The End to Malaria

Malaria has been a scourge of humanity for thousands of years, and as recently as a century ago, was a problem in almost every country. The GIF below shows how far we have come towards completely eradicating this debilitating disease:

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Courtesy of Global Health Sciences, University of California, San Francisco

As recently as the 1950s, developed countries like the U.S. and the U.K. were still dealing with malaria infections; by the 1970s, most wealthy countries had completely wiped it out. Today, over a hundred nations across both the developed and developing world are free of malaria, with nearly thirty others in the process eliminating it. Continue reading

Global STEM Leaders

STEM — short for science, technology, engineering, and mathematics — is all the rage these days, as economies across the world become more knowledge-based, and as humanity faces threats like climate change and resource depletion that will require creative, technological solutions.

That’s why so many nations, especially in the developing world, are trying to gain a competitive advantage by investing in STEM education and seeking to attract STEM graduates from abroad. According to Forbes, which cites a report from the World Economic Forum, these are the countries leading the way:

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Unsurprisingly, with their large and youthful populations, India and China have the most graduates overall at 78 million and 77.7 million, respectively. The U.S. is in third place with 67.4 million graduates, although the quality of its degrees may be greater than that of its competitors, whose education infrastructure is younger, less developed, and less prestigious (for now).

Japan’s high ranking is not surprising given that is a well established scientific and economic powerhouse, although its aging population and low rate of immigration likely explains why it doesn’t rank higher despite a population of 126 million. Russia, Iran, and Indonesia are rarely touted as academic leaders, but each is fairly populous — at 147 million, 75 million, and 260 million respectively — and Russia and Iran in particular have a long history of scientific achievement.

However, China may soon close this gap as it continues to improve its institutions and education standards:

Some estimates see the number of Chinese graduates aged between 25 and 34 rising 300 percent up to 2030 compared to just 30 percent in the U.S. and Europe. According to the World Economic Forum, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) has become a pretty big deal in China’s flourishing universities. In 2013, 40 percent of Chinese graduates finished a degree in STEM, over twice the share in American third level institutions

In an increasingly globalized world, the ability to draw and retain students and graduates from around the world will likely become a bigger consideration for more countries. For all the complexities of its visa and customs systems, the U.S. has long enjoyed an edge in this regard — for example, all six of its 2016 Nobel Prize winners were foreign-born.

But a wave of nativism and xenophobia may undercut its attractiveness as a research and academic hub, and other countries — including neighboring Canada — have begun to step up as alternative options, dangling such incentives as a path to citizenship upon graduation.

One thing is for certain. The future of a nation’s success and survival will depend on its command of technology and science. How it goes about advancing those intellectual resources is a different matter altogether. But any country’s increasing education is humanity’s gain.

 

 

 

Hans Rosling, Data-Driven Optimist, Passes Away

It is not easy being an optimist, and doing so just got harder with the recent death, at 68, of Swedish physician and statistician Hans Rosling. A tireless advocate for improving the world through compelling yet data rich presentations, Rosling brought a unique and crucial pizzazz  when it came to public advocacy and education.

Foreign Policy, which once named him one of the world’s top 100 thinkers, highlighted  some of the work Rosling did to change people’s perceptions of the world and to bring attention to humanity’s often-understated progress.

After roughly two decades studying hunger in Africa, he became a professor at the Karolinka Institute — a medically focused university in Sweden — and then the founder of data visualization site Gapminder. He was dedicated to bringing people facts in a way that seemed compelling and understandable to them.

In Feb. 2006, for example, he gave a presentation that used data to demonstrate that the concept of the “developing world” was one based on preconceived biases, not borne out of reality.

In 2010, he showed in just four minutes how lifespan and wealth had increased over the past 200 years — and how inequality between and within countries increased with it.

Indeed, I have twice posted about Rosling’s videos and data (here and here), and considered him a personal hero of mine. He helped inform my optimistic, humanist worldview with his energetic yet substantive presentation of the facts, be it about the rapid decline in child mortality or the growth of leisure through innovation. He was a champion for human development, using his data to both inspire hope and inform future policy and action. His eclectic mix of humor, colorful visualizations, and endearing levels of energy — which formed his shtick as an “edutainer” — has no doubt done much to keep the world moving along towards progress.

Rosling will certainly be missed, but thank goodness for his rich legacy of creative and hope-inspiring talks, all of which you can view here. That’s quite a way to live on.

 

 

 

The Incredible Promise of CRISPR

Clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats / Cas9, better known as just CRISPR, is a form of genetic modification that utilizes the immune system of bacteria to selectively remove or replace individual genes. As you can imagine, it is a very complex concept — I recommend this great full explainer – but it has vast implications for the future of human health and prosperity, Continue reading