Thursday, April 20, 2017

Another failed prediction

As you know, I love to point out the mistakes made by those who make future predictions. Since I was little more than a teenager, I have been saving clippings from the press and scientific journals that make more or less reasonable forecasts about the evolution of science and technology. In an earlier article I have pointed out that such predictions are seldom met, even when made by people who are both scientists and visionary, famous science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov.
I just unearthed an article published by Alexander Kusko in the IEEE Spectrum magazine in April 1968, with the following title:
A prediction of power system development, 1968 to 2030
And the following subtitle:
By predicting the trend of future power system design some 60 years hence, we should be better equipped to solve some of the technical and sociological problems that the industry faces today.
The assumptions on which Kusko's predictions were based were the following:
  1. The population will triple. What did actually happen? The world’s population in 1968, according to UN data, was about 3.5 billion people. The world population in 2015 was 7.35 billion. According to UN estimates, the world population in 2030 will amount to between 8.2 and 8.8 billion people. Far from the 10.5 billion estimated by Kusko.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Turgenev and unhappy love

Alfred L. Kroeber
Together with Spengler, Toynbee and Sorokin, the American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber was one of the four great philosophers of history in the twentieth-century. Father of the famous science fiction writer, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, A.L. Kroeber hypothesized that cultural configurations begin with a precursor genius, continue with a stage of maximum bloom, and then enter a period of decay, more or less extended in time.
The history of Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides two perfect examples for Kroeber’s analysis, two astonishingly parallel and simultaneous configurations in two different fields of culture: literature and music.
  • In Russian literature we can point to a clear precursor (Pushkin), a time of maximum bloom (Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov), and a period of slow decline (the Russian authors of the twentieth century).
  • In Russian music there was also a precursor (Glinka), a period of maximum flowering (Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and another of slow decay (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich).

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ideology, blacklisting and censorship

In this article I will resort to my own editorial history by means of three anecdotes. As I have published about 50 books with 37 different publishers, I have accumulated many of these anecdotes. However, these three refer to publishers with whom I have never published anything.
First anecdote: One of my first works (Krishna versus Christ, 1978) was an essay, a comparison between two religions: Hinduism and Christianity. When I finished the book, I decided to look for a publisher and went to the headquarters of one of the best known, with the book under my arm, without trying to arrange an appointment. I was greeted in the lobby by one of the employees and explained why I had come and what kind of book I was bringing. The employee asked:
“Does this book attack Christianity?”
I answered it did not.
“Then do not bother to leave it,” he said, smiling. “If it attacked Christianity, it might have a chance, but if it does not, there is no way we will publish it.”
Of course, I left without leaving the book, and have never tried to work with that publisher again.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Brain transplant and personal identity

Daniel Dennett
In the previous post I wrote about brain transplants, but we must still consider the problem of how a brain transplant would affect our personal identity. Is our identity associated with the brain, and therefore would it be transferred to a different body in the case of a brain transplant? Or could something else happen?
In the first place, I must point out that this digression is not scientific, but philosophical, as for the time being a brain transplant is pure science fiction. It is not feasible now, and it does not seem probable that it will become so in a long time, assuming that it is possible to perform it successfully. This means that I am leaning on the void, the same thing I have criticized a few times when others do it...
In 1978, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a philosophical essay on this problem entitled Where am I?, where he used the science fiction genre to pose the problem of personal identity in the event of hypothetical scientific advances, such as the maintenance of an active living brain out of the body (although connected with it by wifi), or downloading the contents of a human brain into a computer.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brain transplant

On February 13, 2017, the Spanish newspaper La Razón Digital published an interview with Rafael Matesanz, expert in transplants, with the following headline:
Brain transplant would be the panacea
As usual, the media prefer the most spectacular headlines, regardless of whether they misrepresent the meaning of the article. In this case, for example, the headline was taken from a rather secondary part of the interview. The following:

The brain.
To make it replaceable, we should know how to connect with the bone marrow the fibers leaving the central nervous system, otherwise... We are still far away, although we would like to be able to do it, for that would mean being able to cure quadriplegia and paraplegia.
...
Consider what it would mean to people like Stephen Hawking, with a privileged brain, which you could transplant into a healthy body. Or many vegetative diseases that spoil the motor part of a body, with a healthy brain. It could be an unbeatable form of treatment, but we are far from it. Conceptually it would be the panacea.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Headlines and texts

Prehistoric pregnancy (Science News)
On several occasions I have criticized the distortion of scientific news by the media, especially the headlines, by saying things contradicted by the text, which apparently are more appealing. It seems that many journalists (at least those in charge of headlines) follow the old journalistic dictum, usually quoted in several forms, more or less equivalent, which, as is often the case with these lapidary phrases, has been attributed (probably apocryphally) to diverse personalities, such as William Randolph Hearst:
Do not let reality spoil a good headline (or a good report).
What I think regrettable is the fact that a magazine dedicated to scientific popularization, such as Science News, also falls in this trap of offering appealing headlines, which after reading the text can be seen not to correspond to the content. Let’s look at a few examples, offered during the week of February 19, 2017:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Intersex

Hermaphroditus,
wall painting from Herculaneum
In the previous post I mentioned that in biological chimeras (individuals formed by the fusion of two independent fertilized eggs) it may happen that most of the body belongs to one sex, but the genital organs belong to the other. This phenomenon is called pseudohermaphroditism. It can also be the case (although it is rarer) that the same individual has the two genital organs, complete or incomplete. This phenomenon was formerly called hermaphroditismname of a son of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology, but these cases have recently been included in the concept of intersexa more general term that covers all cases that do not fit the usual definition of male or female bodies, reserving the word hermaphroditism for animals or plants where that condition is normal.
To clarify things, normal members of the human species have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs), with pair 23 formed by the two sex chromosomes, which are responsible for the differences between the sexes. They can be either two X chromosomes (one inherited from the mother, the other from the father); this genetic endowment is called XX and the individual is female. Or they can be an X chromosome (inherited from the mother) and a Y chromosome (inherited from the father); this genetic endowment is called XY and the individual is male. But in addition to these two cases there are others, much less frequent. Let us quote a few (frequency figures are taken from Wikipedia):