Steven Pinker’s TED Talk: Is the world getting better or worse?

I read Steven Pinker’s new book, Enlightenment Now, and came away more optimistic about humanity. We’ve made remarkable progress in even the last few decades, not to mention the drastic difference in the human experience over the past two centuries.

The book, though, is filled with an extraordinary amount of data backing up his arguments and is slow going.

TED recently released this video of Pinker’s TED Talk on the subject. In just 18 minutes, Pinker clearly makes his case. If you don’t want to make time for the book, this talk will suffice.

Things fall apart: The Second Law and the meaning of life

I keep coming back to this feature I read last year on the scientific term or concept that scholars think ought to be more widely known. Here’s the scientist Steven Pinker’s response explaining why more people should understand entropy as described by the second law of thermodynamics:

Why the awe for the Second Law? The Second Law defines the ultimate purpose of life, mind, and human striving: to deploy energy and information to fight back the tide of entropy and carve out refuges of beneficial order. An underappreciation of the inherent tendency toward disorder, and a failure to appreciate the precious niches of order we carve out, are a major source of human folly.

To start with, the Second Law implies that misfortune may be no one’s fault. The biggest breakthrough of the scientific revolution was to nullify the intuition that the universe is saturated with purpose: that everything happens for a reason. In this primitive understanding, when bad things happen—accidents, disease, famine—someone or something must have wanted them to happen. This in turn impels people to find a defendant, demon, scapegoat, or witch to punish. Galileo and Newton replaced this cosmic morality play with a clockwork universe in which events are caused by conditions in the present, not goals for the future. The Second Law deepens that discovery: Not only does the universe not care about our desires, but in the natural course of events it will appear to thwart them, because there are so many more ways for things to go wrong than to go right. Houses burn down, ships sink, battles are lost for the want of a horseshoe nail.

Poverty, too, needs no explanation. In a world governed by entropy and evolution, it is the default state of humankind. Matter does not just arrange itself into shelter or clothing, and living things do everything they can not to become our food. What needs to be explained is wealth. Yet most discussions of poverty consist of arguments about whom to blame for it.

More generally, an underappreciation of the Second Law lures people into seeing every unsolved social problem as a sign that their country is being driven off a cliff. It’s in the very nature of the universe that life has problems. But it’s better to figure out how to solve them—to apply information and energy to expand our refuge of beneficial order—than to start a conflagration and hope for the best.

(Pinker’s massive new book, Enlightenment Now, is about this very topic and explores in detail how much progress we have made in imposing order on a disorderly world.)

My layman’s mind doesn’t quite get the scientific nuances at play here. But I get that things in the universe fall apart (the stars are literally falling away from each other right now) and will continue to do so with only minuscule bits of resistance.

Those seemingly insignificant and likely futile efforts to “fight back the tide of entropy”, though, are our keys for living a meaningful life.

Steven Pressfield in his excellent book The War of Art calls that apparently malevolent force that pushes back against our efforts to grow and improve and create “the resistance”. But, maybe that force is just entropy, the natural inclination of the universe toward disorder. It’s our effort to overcome entropy and make progress against this relentless current pushing us toward chaos and decay that could instead be called “the resistance”. We are freedom fighters battling against an overwhelming tyranny.

It’s been too easy to believe that progress is inevitable, that humanity will just naturally grow smarter and gentler, because that’s what we’ve seemed to witness in general over the last couple of centuries.

But, progress is not the default. The default is disorder, not order, not improvement. Left on their own, things fall apart.

Organize your sock drawer on Sunday, and, without at least a little attention and effort, it’s likely to be a mess again by Friday. The lawn won’t stay mowed. Stop exercising and you’ll get weaker almost immediately.

The tide of entropy is relentless. Our very existence—all of biology, for that matter—is owed to fighting against that tide, to digging in and making something that will stand and endure long enough for the next wave of resistance to relieve us.

Progress, for individuals and for our species as a whole, depends on diligent, unrelenting striving, pushing against the natural default of disorder.

It’s all ultimately futile, I suppose, in the really big scheme of things. The sun will die its natural death eons from now. Our species will likely be long gone well before then. Even a mere two centuries into the future, who will remember your name or care that you lived?

But instead of sinking into despair about our fate, choose to rise with courage each day to go into battle and fight for meaning and truth and beauty while you can.

Individually, this should remind us to embrace discontent, to keep searching and stretching, and to be vigilant in our efforts to move our lives forward. Get stronger physically. Eat real food. Expose yourself more often to discomfort. Get off the well worn path regularly and venture into surprise and serendipity and uncharted territory.

Be intentional about building and strengthening the relationships in your life. Life is all about relationships. Especially don’t let what seem like good relationships that you value coast along untended. Everything falls apart without some tending.

And get busy making something with your life that will add value to others. Focus less on what you can get and more on what you can give. What can you contribute? Where can you give back? What unique contribution, no matter how small, can you offer in this noble effort to move humanity forward?

Build systems, habits, and routines into your life to stay ahead of the pull of entropy. Come up with a battle plan, of sorts, for taking on this challenge week by week and day by day.

The writer, Annie Dillard, was getting at just this:

“How we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives. What we do with this hour, and that one, is what we are doing. A schedule defends from chaos and whim. It is a net for catching days. It is a scaffolding on which a worker can stand and labor with both hands at sections of time. A schedule is a mock-up of reason and order—willed, faked, and so brought into being; it is a peace and a haven set into the wreck of time; it is a lifeboat on which you find yourself, decades later, still living.”

Of course, don’t resist what already is. Accept reality as it is right now. But do resist the pull toward chaos that would otherwise define our existence.

I’ve shared this before, but a character in Walker Percy’s novel, The Moviegoer, issues a fitting challenge:

“I don’t know quite what we’re doing on this insignificant cinder spinning away in a dark corner of the universe. That is a secret which the high gods have not confided in me. Yet one thing I believe and I believe it with every fibre of my being. A man must live by his lights and do what little he can and do it as best he can. In this world goodness is destined to be defeated. But a man must go down fighting. That is victory. To do anything less is to be less than a man.”

Putting up a fight is victory, no matter that we’re all going down eventually.

Engage with life. Be excellent. Shine while you can.

Darwin’s plodding path to brilliance

I filed away this Farnam Street article and just now read it. It’s a great take on what made Charles Darwin such a transformational thinker.

In short, Darwin wasn’t gifted with an off-the-charts IQ. He was no Isaac Newton or Albert Einstein. But he could focus intently on minute details and stick with an idea for a very long time. And he was relentless about fully considering any contrary evidence, any doubt or kernel of hesitation about his own ideas.

He clearly had what turned out to be a crucially valuable ability to sit with the discomfort of not knowing, of probing deeply into how he might be wrong.

Most of us are inclined to be content with our own opinions and never entertain contrary viewpoints. Blissful ignorance is a thing.

So much of current public discourse makes no pretense of genuinely trying to understand the opposing view.

Criticism is painful to absorb, and I know I don’t seek it out.

But Darwin squarely faced any sign that he might be in error. And with diligence and vigilance he sought to test and to prove and to meticulously weigh every argument that challenged his thesis. 

He could have published his landmark theory many years earlier than he did, but instead he patiently pursued the long game to be certain his idea had the full weight of the most compelling evidence. 

Talent tends to be overrated. Raw intellectual horsepower is a wonderful gift. But it is effort and persistence and a willingness to trudge through adversity and obstacles that just might vault you into a level of accomplishment that mere talent alone will not. 

The story of Hubble’s Deep Field image

The Hubble telescope’s Deep Field image from 1995 is one of the most important images in human history.

I’ve been fascinated by it since I first heard about it in a talk by the neuroscientist, David Eagleman. (Great talk. Add it to your must watch list.)

I regularly bring up the Hubble Deep Field image when I speak to audiences, especially high school students. It never fails to get a reaction when I tell the story then display the Deep Field slide. posted a video feature last week telling the story of how the Deep Field image was captured.

In an empty speck the size of a pinhead in the night sky Hubble found thousands of galaxies.

It showed us just how vast and gloriously, mysteriously interesting the universe is.

If you need a dose of perspective, look up into the night sky and see how small you are. But see also that you are part of — a wonderfully conscious part of — a grand universe filled with more to learn than we ever could in the limited time we have.


Big picture, big history

I’m on a big picture, big history kick right now. 

I’ve been reading a great history of Homo sapiens, and I’ve started listening to the audio version of Bill Bryson’s A Short History of Nearly Everything

Bryson’s book is a delightful survey of the biggest ideas and discoveries that explain what we know about the universe. 

What stands out is just how much we got wrong and how certain we were in our errors. 

The steps forward were usually dependent on those who were willing to embrace uncertainty and not-knowing, who could follow their curiosity rather than their egos. 

Pluto: To boldly go

We can actually see Pluto for the first time ever. Incredible!

We (meaning the brilliant humans of NASA and the New Horizons team) launched this piano sized spacecraft nine years ago and sent it hurtling toward the edge of the solar system.

It is now more than 3 billion (!) miles from home and sending back stunningly detailed information about what was the most mysterious world in our planetary neighborhood.

That we can do something like this, that we can truly “boldly go where no one has gone before”, burnishes my optimism for our species.

Standing on the edge of the known

A recent episode of the Nerdist podcast featured physicist Brian Cox, who hosts his own entertaining and enlightening podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage.

I listened to most of this episode of the Nerdist while walking my dog last night. The podcast was a fascinating conversation between regular humans and a super smart scientist who has a knack for making complex concepts approachable for the rest of us.

It’s a great episode and made me consider possibilities about the nature of the universe that I hadn’t before. And Cox had this poetic comment more than an hour into it that I had to write down:

“I think the key to being a scientist is to delight in not knowing. It’s to stand on the edge of the known and face the unknown with curiosity and delight and not fear.” –Brian Cox

It’s the key to being not just a scientist, though, but a curious, open-minded human no matter your work. This embrace of not-knowing has been a theme in much of what I’ve read recently.

Courage is required, but delight and wonder and new possibilities are the reward for letting go of certainty.

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The merits of doubt

As I was trying to wake up my 7-year-old for school this morning, I reminded her that today is St. Patrick’s Day. That got her attention, and she asked if I thought leprechauns were real. Apparently, there’s been talk at her school this week about leprechauns making mischief.

Without giving it much thought, I just said, “Of course, leprechauns are NOT real.” I suppose I should have played along, but I was still waking up myself, and I thought I was providing some relief from her being anxious about the thought that leprechauns might be lurking about. I usually smile and nod at the fairy tale wishes of my kids, but I just blurted out my first reaction to the leprechaun musings this morning.

But she shot back that I couldn’t prove they aren’t real. “Ah!” I responded. “The burden of proof is not on me, but on those who say leprechauns are real.”

Her adamance and our brief conversation about “proving” beliefs got me thinking that we tend to overly deprecate doubt and overvalue belief.

I shouldn’t have to prove the non-existence of something. Believers are the ones with the burden to substantiate the thing they say is true if they want others to believe along with them.

“Doubting Thomas” is a term of derision. “Just believe!”, conversely, comes across in our culture as a worthwhile exhortation. But shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t doubt be an honorable and logical default for any thinking person? Belief without reason or evidence is hollow.

Later in the day I came across this essay, Teaching Doubt, by the physicist Lawrence Krauss in the online version of The New Yorker. He makes the case that a modern society that values reason and education should make it a priority to “plant the seeds of doubt” in the next generation.

From Krauss’s essay:

Doubt about one’s most cherished beliefs is, of course, central to science: the physicist Richard Feynman stressed that the easiest person to fool is oneself. But doubt is also important to non-scientists. It’s good to be skeptical, especially about ideas you learn from perceived authority figures. Recent studies even suggest that being taught to doubt at a young age could make people better lifelong learners. That, in turn, means that doubters—people who base their views on evidence, rather than faith—are likely to be better citizens.

And he closes with this:

One thing is certain: if our educational system does not honestly and explicitly promote the central tenet of science—that nothing is sacred—then we encourage myth and prejudice to endure. We need to equip our children with tools to avoid the mistakes of the past while constructing a better, and more sustainable, world for themselves and future generations. We won’t do that by dodging inevitable and important questions about facts and faith. Instead of punting on those questions, we owe it to the next generation to plant the seeds of doubt.

I don’t want to steal the wonder and delight of childhood by killing the magic of fairy tales or by pouring cold water on imaginative flights of fancy. But I do want my kids, and you should want yours, to not just take some authority’s word for the way things are. Instead of handing them answers, I need to free them to ask questions, whether I’m confident of what I think the answers are or not.

I’m not envisioning a cynical, “prove-it-to-me”, arms folded, hard-hearted kind of doubt. The posture that seems most promising is an open-minded, skeptical, yet optimistic curiosity. The attitude that responds with “Fascinating” and “Help me understand” and “I wonder why…” and “I might be wrong, but…”

What if the next generation grows up more curious than they are certain, more inclined to seek evidence and understanding than being content with hand-me-down answers? There will still be room for imagination and fantasy and maybe leprechaun stories, but there also will be more possibilities for making sense of the mystery we all are swimming in.

“Of course we might be wrong, but…”

From an interview on with Brian Cox, the physicist and science superstar and host of the entertaining BBC radio show/podcast, The Infinite Monkey Cage:

Science is often presented as being dogmatic, when actually it’s the opposite of that. I’m just writing a new book actually, with a colleague of mine Jeff Forshaw at Manchester [University], and it’s really about how to think like a scientist. And in it we say that there’s an implicit preface — the start of every scientific book or every theory, the sentence should start “of course we might be wrong, but…” Could you imagine if every other area of human thought began with that? Imagine if the Bible started with “of course we might be wrong. However, in the beginning, God created…” Fantastic!

It’s a delight to fully embrace not-knowing. It takes the pressure off. You don’t have to be right or to have it figured out.

When I was young, I was pretty close to having it all figured out. Somehow, though, I’ve gotten dumber as I’ve aged. That’s normal, right?

Grasping for certainty can lead to bludgeoning others, and yourself, with the so-called right answers, with your application of what’s black and white and with no room for grey. And you’re likely to end up holding tightly to a comfortable fiction.

What if you searched for possibilities instead of certainty? Everything gets bigger with that approach. More possible paths. More possible solutions. More insecurity and uncertainty, yes. But more fun, too.

You look good in grey. Really. It flatters you.

Of course, I might be wrong…

Andromeda rising

This merits full screen. It’s a great video highlighting the most recent wonder from the Hubble Space Telescope, a stunning view into the galaxy nearest ours.

The density of stars in this image of just a portion of just one galaxy is incredible. And watch till the end of the video to appreciate the context. And remember that galaxy is headed straight for us.

If you need a regular dose of perspective, bookmark this video. When you feel the weight of the world on you, just pause and look into the sky and unburden yourself.

You are so, so small. But it’s glorious to be so small and yet able to ponder just how grand it all is.

Sunday evening Stoic: Wash off the mud

Meditations 7.47:

Of course, you do revolve with the stars. And, our view of the stars and the perspective they provide has magnified profoundly since the second century when the emperor wrote those words.

The image in the slide above is the latest bit of wonder from the Hubble space telescope. It’s an incredible new photo of Andromeda, the galaxy nearest to our Milky Way. You can see so many far, far away stars, and in just one little speck of the nearby universe. (Consider this image for a good sense of how massive Andromeda is, but also for an appreciation of what a small speck we are in relation to the wonders of the universe.)

The world too much with you? Weighing you down? Stuck in the mud of life and not seeing the light? Look up. Look within. Let the big picture cascade over you and wash away the mud.

We are living in wonder land.

Imagining a future on the frontier beyond Earth

This gorgeous short film by Erik Wernquist imagines humans exploring deep into our solar system. The images are stunning in their beauty and in the vision they offer of humans venturing to the frontier beyond our own planet. And there’s Carl Sagan’s voice and poetic words. So good.


Why should we even dream of such ventures? Because we are human, and we’ve been wandering and searching and exploring from the beginning. We journey. It’s what we do, and it’s how we are wired. And in journeying we find ourselves and attempt to make sense of our place.

The sedentary life has left us edgy, unfulfilled… The open road still softly calls. –Carl Sagan

Imagine what it would take for even a small portion of this filmmaker’s vision to become a reality. Epic, gargantuan investments of brainpower and resources and will, right? But, remember, the previous generation sent men to the moon. That was back when computers filled rooms. They fit in our pockets now.

Can’t we fit dreams like this into our future and honor our nature as wanderers? If our physical survival doesn’t depend on it (and it might), at least the survival of our questing spirit and restless curiosity ultimately may be at stake.

This may be centuries away, but it’s on us to point ourselves in that direction.

via Kottke

Our star-filled neighborhood


This photo of the Milky Way by astrophotographer Robert Gendler is stunning:GSC_6273_289

Click on this photo to enlarge it for full awesomeness and existential stupefaction.

Phil Plait wrote about it on his site yesterday. Look into what seems like a cloud and realize you’re looking at countless individual stars and their glow. How tightly packed these stars seem to be. Each one a massive wonder in its own right, a peer to our sun, maybe with Earth-like planets orbiting. So much mystery and possibility in this fabulous photo.

There are probably more than 200 billion stars in just our galaxy. And there are probably at least one hundred billion galaxies in the universe.

We are so, so small. A speck in a vast sea of wonders. But knowing how small we are makes us grander than we have ever been as a species. Embracing our place in the universe is the first step on the path to understanding and expressing the epic magnificence of reality.

Having a bad day? A little star gazing is good for the soul and will recalibrate your perspective while crushing your puny so-called problems. Just look up.

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Beyond not knowing

Any line of questioning leads to the ultimate: “I don’t know”. –Adam Savage, Mythbusters

The latest episode of the TED Radio Hour includes the line above from the Mythbusters guy.

Curiosity moves us forward. Some questions may be unanswerable, for now. But keep asking.

“Why is the sky blue?” Centuries ago the answer would be a guess or something way off course handed down with misplaced certainty but no evidence.

Now, science can tell us the sky is blue because of Rayleigh scattering. (I have to Google that question periodically, and I still struggle trying to explain it to my kids.) But that answer is now a jumping off point for even more questions, which will lead ultimately to “nobody knows”.

Scientists seem pretty sure of the big bang, but what was before that? No one knows.

Pushing towards uncertainty and not-knowing can be scary and frustrating and exhilarating. My level of certainty on so many things is much shakier now than it was twenty years ago. And it’s certainly made life more interesting.

The path of honesty and curiosity and courage regularly will lead to “I don’t know”. And that is where possibility comes alive as we push a little further beyond comfort and past not-knowing.

“Magnificent desolation”


My family just got home from an hour-long full moon guided hike at the botanical garden nearby. It was a nice change from our usual Saturday night. We learned about nocturnal creatures and enjoyed hearing the fading sound of the cicadas being replaced by the katydids as the sun went down.

As we drove home, the full moon was shining brightly. After walking in the woods and experiencing such variety of life and landscapes, imagining the stark emptiness of the moon is striking.

I read this comment about the moon from Apollo astronaut Buzz Aldrin this week:

My first words of my impression of being on the surface of the Moon that just came to my mind was “Magnificent desolation.” The magnificence of human beings, humanity, Planet Earth, maturing the technologies, imagination and courage to expand our capabilities beyond the next ocean, to dream about being on the Moon, and then taking advantage of increases in technology and carrying out that dream – achieving that is magnificent testimony to humanity.

But it is also desolate – there is no place on earth as desolate as what I was viewing in those first moments on the Lunar Surface. Because I realized what I was looking at, towards the horizon and in every direction, had not changed in hundreds, thousands of years. Beyond me I could see the moon curving away – no atmosphere, black sky.

Cold. Colder than anyone could experience on Earth when the sun is up- but when the sun is up for 14 days, it gets very, very hot. No sign of life whatsoever.

That is desolate. More desolate than any place on Earth.

I saw a tweet from physicist Brian Cox this morning speculating that Earth may be the only planet in the Milky Way with intelligent life. He later tweeted that intelligent life is likely elsewhere in the universe, but it’s his opinion that we are it for our galaxy.

We are living in wonderland, an oasis of fabulously interesting complexity and variety and beauty. I tend to be oblivious to how magnificent our world is. It’s nice to be reminded regularly that we are surrounded by wonders on this lovely little planet. Indeed, we are wonders ourselves.

The Fermi Paradox and our place in the universe

What is the more disorienting, confounding possibility? That Earth is the only source of intelligent life in this massive and intricately complex universe, or that we are only one of many intelligent species scattered across the countless galaxies? has a magnificent explanation of the Fermi Paradox. It’s complicated. Go read it and ponder this really big question: since the universe is so, so big and very, very old and filled with earth-like planets in abundance, why haven’t we heard from any other intelligent species?

Consider this from the article:

for every grain of sand on Earth, there are 10,000 stars out there


there are 100 Earth-like planets for every grain of sand in the world

These can be your imagination-defying, consciousness-expanding thoughts for the day, for the year even. You deserve to go to the beach just to stare dumbfounded at the sand and sky and bask in your smallness.

The article concludes with this:

Beyond its shocking science fiction component, The Fermi Paradox also leaves me with a deep humbling. Not just the normal “Oh yeah, I’m microscopic and my existence lasts for three seconds” humbling that the universe always triggers. The Fermi Paradox brings out a sharper, more personal humbling, one that can only happen after spending hours of research hearing your species’ most renowned scientists present insane theories, change their minds again and again, and wildly contradict each other—reminding us that future generations will look at us the same way we see the ancient people who were sure that the stars were the underside of the dome of heaven, and they’ll think “Wow they really had no idea what was going on.”

That said, given that my normal outlook is that humanity is a lonely orphan on a tiny rock in the middle of a desolate universe, the humbling fact that we’re probably not as smart as we think we are, and the possibility that a lot of what we’re sure about might be wrong, sounds wonderful. It opens the door just a crack that maybe, just maybe, there might be more to the story than we realize.

I love that thought: “the possibility that a lot of what we’re sure about might be wrong, sounds wonderful.”

Brace yourself for regularly discovering that you are wrong about really important stuff. Having all the answers is boring anyway, right? The people with the good questions are the ones having the most fun.