How a Couple of Guys Built the Most Ambitious Alien Outreach Project Ever. Smithsonian.com, September 26, 2016. I wrote about the Cosmic Call, an ambitious and intellectually audacious effort to send a radio message to nine nearby stars. One of my favorite aspects of the story is the message itself, written in a symbology that let them explain the basics of human math, physics, and biology without using a single word of English. Not only that, they could use it to ask questions of the recipients. They created symbols that mean “What is your…” and “you” — which is really remarkable. The story includes a link to a detailed explanation of every page of the message.
Let Artificial Intelligence Evolve. Slate, April 18, 2016. This piece is a preview of some of the arguments from my book-in-progress. “To get a system that has sensations, you would have to let it recapitulate the evolutionary process in which sensations became valuable. That’d mean putting it in a complex environment that forces it to evolve. The environment should be lethally complex, so that it kills off ineffective systems and rewards effective ones.”
Can Social Insects Have a Civilization? Centauri Dreams, December 31, 2015. This isn’t an article, it’s a blog entry, but it was a substantial piece that I spent a fair amount of time writing, and it got 91 comments. I asked myself, “Would it be possible for social insect colonies on some other planet to evolve to have language and technology – in other words, a civilization?” Like the Slate piece above, it’s a preview of some of the ideas in my book-in-progress.
Your Brain on Metaphors. Chronicle of Higher Education, September 5, 2014. This story’s on using brainscanning to see how brains behave when they process literal, metaphorical, and idiomatic sentences. Sounds like a thrill a minute, right? But this research is sneaking up on a nascent theory of linguistic consciousness — a way to explain how wet masses of neurons manage to understand language at all. It also provides a stiff challenge to the widespread assumption that computers will become self-aware. I had a lot of fun researching this story.
Crowdsourced Research Delves, Uncertainly, Into the Gut. Chronicle of Higher Education, September 23, 2013. This is about the start-ups uBiome and American Gut, which are enlisting volunteers to take samples of bacteria from their bodies for use in research. Critics question the methodology; supporters say we stand to learn a great deal. This is behind a paywall at the moment.
The Seventy-Billion Mile Telescope. New Yorker’s Elements blog, June 26, 2013. The Sun’s a gravitational lens hundreds of thousands of miles wide, with a focal point seventy billion miles away. It could be the biggest telescope ever, if we could just get a spacecraft that far out.
Our Guts May Hate Mars. Slate, June 6, 2013. What will happen to the microbiota inside astronauts if they spend the rest of their lives on Mars? Nothing good, but there may be ways to jigger with their diet to keep them healthy. We could spend a lot of money sending sauerkraut and yogurt to Mars.
The Plate Tectonic Wars. Astronomy Now, June 2013. This was about the question of whether super-Earths will have plate tectonics. This is important because plate tectonics are thought to be important for making a planet friendly to life. The answers: yes, no, and maybe. That’s because (as I found out) we don’t know why the Earth has plate tectonics, so it’s hard to predict whether other planets will too.
Where Thomas Nagel Went Wrong. Chronicle of Higher Education, May 13, 2013. I reviewed Thomas Nagel’s book Mind and Cosmos and suggested that Nagel could have drawn from a large literature investigating whether life is inevitable in the universe.
Seeking Life on Super-Earths. Astronomy Now, October 2012. This is about using the James Webb Space Telescope, to be launched in 2018, to study the atmospheres of distant Earth-sized planets for signs of life.
Waiting for the Bionic Man. Wired, April 2012. This is a story on how difficult it really is to build a prosthetic arm.
“The Ascent of Life” (web version: One-way evolution: The ladder of life makes a comeback.) New Scientist, January 21, 2012, pp. 35-37. Here’s where I took a gander at the idea that progress is built into evolution, rather than happening essentially by accident.
Algae and Light Help Injured Mice Walk Again. Wired, November 2009. About the emerging technology of optogenetics, which allows neuroscientists to stimulate genetically altered neurons in the brain by cell type. This article inspired key sections of World Wide Mind.
Confessions of a Bionic Man. Washington Post, Sunday, April 13th, 2008. This story uses my experience with cochlear implants to muse on how neurotechnology may change the way people communicate.
The Networked Pill. Technology Review, March 20, 2008. About a pill that radios back data on conditions inside the body.
Helping the Deaf Hear Music. Technology Review, February 26, 2008. About a test that measures how well cochlear implant users hear pitch, timbre, and melody.
Looking into the Brain with Light. Technology Review, January 29, 2008. About monitoring oxygen levels in the brain using light.
The Naked Ear. Technology Review, Jan/Feb 2008. About Otologics’ fully implantable hearing aid.
An Algorithm That Makes Voices Clearer. Technology Review, November 28, 2007. About headphones that make voices clearer.
The Invisible Hearing Aid. Technology Review, August 28, 2007. About a fully implanted hearing aid being developed by Otologics, a startup company in Boulder.
Making Deaf Ears Hear with Light. Technology Review, August 10, 2007. About using infrared laser light instead of electricity to stimulate neural cells in the cochlea.
My Bionic Quest for Boléro. Wired, November 2005. About a new program for my cochlear implant that let me hear music better.