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Annotated captions of Richard Dawkins on our

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tedtalks 00:00
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My title: "Queerer than we can suppose: The strangeness of science."

tedtalks 00:06
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"Queerer than we can suppose" comes from J.B.S. Haldane,

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the famous biologist, who said, "Now, my own suspicion is

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that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose,

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but queerer than we can suppose.

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I suspect that there are more things in heaven and earth

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than are dreamed of, or can be dreamed of, in any philosophy."

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Richard Feynman compared the accuracy of quantum theories --

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experimental predictions -- to specifying the width of North America

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to within one hair's breadth of accuracy.

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This means that quantum theory has got to be in some sense true.

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Yet the assumptions that quantum theory needs to make

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in order to deliver those predictions are so mysterious

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that even Feynman himself was moved to remark,

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00:59

"If you think you understand quantum theory,

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01:02

you don't understand quantum theory."

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01:07

It's so queer that physicists resort to one or another

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paradoxical interpretation of it.

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01:14

David Deutsch, who's talking here, in "The Fabric of Reality,"

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embraces the "many worlds" interpretation of quantum theory,

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because the worst that you can say about it is

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that it's preposterously wasteful.

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It postulates a vast and rapidly growing number of universes

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existing in parallel -- mutually undetectable except through

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the narrow porthole of quantum mechanical experiments.

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01:42

And that's Richard Feynman.

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01:45

The biologist Lewis Wolpert

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believes that the queerness of modern physics

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is just an extreme example. Science, as opposed to technology,

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01:54

does violence to common sense.

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Every time you drink a glass of water, he points out,

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the odds are that you will imbibe at least one molecule

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that passed through the bladder of Oliver Cromwell. (Laughter)

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It's just elementary probability theory.

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The number of molecules per glassful is hugely greater

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than the number of glassfuls, or bladdersful, in the world --

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and, of course, there's nothing special about Cromwell

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or bladders. You have just breathed in a nitrogen atom

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that passed through the right lung of the third iguanodon

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to the left of the tall cycad tree.

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"Queerer than we can suppose."

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What is it that makes us capable of supposing anything,

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and does this tell us anything about what we can suppose?

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02:45

Are there things about the universe that will be

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forever beyond our grasp, but not beyond the grasp of some

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superior intelligence? Are there things about the universe

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that are, in principle, ungraspable by any mind,

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however superior?

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The history of science has been one long series

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of violent brainstorms, as successive generations

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have come to terms with increasing levels of queerness

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in the universe.

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We're now so used to the idea that the Earth spins --

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rather than the Sun moves across the sky -- it's hard for us to realize

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what a shattering mental revolution that must have been.

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After all, it seems obvious that the Earth is large and motionless,

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the Sun small and mobile. But it's worth recalling

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Wittgenstein's remark on the subject.

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"Tell me," he asked a friend, "why do people always say, it was natural

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for man to assume that the sun went round the earth

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rather than that the earth was rotating?"

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His friend replied, "Well, obviously because it just looks as though

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the Sun is going round the Earth."

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03:53

Wittgenstein replied, "Well, what would it have looked like

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if it had looked as though the Earth was rotating?" (Laughter)

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Science has taught us, against all intuition,

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that apparently solid things, like crystals and rocks,

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are really almost entirely composed of empty space.

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And the familiar illustration is the nucleus of an atom is a fly

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in the middle of a sports stadium and the next atom

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is in the next sports stadium.

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So it would seem the hardest, solidest, densest rock

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is really almost entirely empty space, broken only by tiny particles

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so widely spaced they shouldn't count.

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Why, then, do rocks look and feel solid and hard and impenetrable?

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As an evolutionary biologist, I'd say this: our brains have evolved

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to help us survive within the orders of magnitude of size and speed

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which our bodies operate at. We never evolved to navigate

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in the world of atoms.

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If we had, our brains probably would perceive rocks

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as full of empty space. Rocks feel hard and impenetrable

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to our hands precisely because objects like rocks and hands

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cannot penetrate each other. It's therefore useful

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for our brains to construct notions like "solidity" and "impenetrability,"

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because such notions help us to navigate our bodies through

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the middle-sized world in which we have to navigate.

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Moving to the other end of the scale, our ancestors never had to

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navigate through the cosmos at speeds close to

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the speed of light. If they had, our brains would be much better

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at understanding Einstein. I want to give the name "Middle World"

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to the medium-scaled environment in which we've evolved

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the ability to take act -- nothing to do with Middle Earth.

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Middle World. (Laughter)

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We are evolved denizens of Middle World, and that limits

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what we are capable of imagining. We find it intuitively easy

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to grasp ideas like, when a rabbit moves at the sort of

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medium velocity at which rabbits and other Middle World objects move,

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and hits another Middle World object, like a rock, it knocks itself out.

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May I introduce Major General Albert Stubblebine III,

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commander of military intelligence in 1983.

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He stared at his wall in Arlington, Virginia, and decided to do it.

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As frightening as the prospect was, he was going into the next office.

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He stood up, and moved out from behind his desk.

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What is the atom mostly made of? he thought. Space.

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He started walking. What am I mostly made of? Atoms.

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He quickened his pace, almost to a jog now.

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What is the wall mostly made of? Atoms.

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All I have to do is merge the spaces.

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Then, General Stubblebine banged his nose hard on the wall

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of his office. Stubblebine, who commanded 16,000 soldiers,

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was confounded by his continual failure to walk through the wall.

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He has no doubt that this ability will, one day, be a common tool

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in the military arsenal. Who would screw around with an army

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that could do that? That's from an article in Playboy,

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which I was reading the other day. (Laughter)

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I have every reason to think it's true; I was reading Playboy

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because I, myself, had an article in it. (Laughter)

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Unaided human intuition schooled in Middle World

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finds it hard to believe Galileo when he tells us

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a heavy object and a light object, air friction aside,

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would hit the ground at the same instant.

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And that's because in Middle World, air friction is always there.

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If we'd evolved in a vacuum, we would expect them

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to hit the ground simultaneously. If we were bacteria,

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constantly buffeted by thermal movements of molecules,

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it would be different,

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but we Middle Worlders are too big to notice Brownian motion.

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In the same way, our lives are dominated by gravity

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but are almost oblivious to the force of surface tension.

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A small insect would reverse these priorities.

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Steve Grand -- he's the one on the left,

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Douglas Adams is on the right -- Steve Grand, in his book,

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"Creation: Life and How to Make It," is positively scathing

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about our preoccupation with matter itself.

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We have this tendency to think that only solid, material things

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are really things at all. Waves of electromagnetic fluctuation

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in a vacuum seem unreal.

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Victorians thought the waves had to be waves in some material medium:

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the ether. But we find real matter comforting only because

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we've evolved to survive in Middle World,

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where matter is a useful fiction.

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A whirlpool, for Steve Grand, is a thing with just as much reality

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as a rock.

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In a desert plain in Tanzania, in the shadow of the volcano

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Ol Donyo Lengai, there's a dune made of volcanic ash.

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The beautiful thing is that it moves bodily.

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It's what's technically known as a "barchan," and the entire dune

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walks across the desert in a westerly direction

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at a speed of about 17 meters per year.

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It retains its crescent shape and moves in the direction of the horns.

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What happens is that the wind blows the sand

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up the shallow slope on the other side, and then,

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as each sand grain hits the top of the ridge,

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it cascades down on the inside of the crescent,

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and so the whole horn-shaped dune moves.

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Steve Grand points out that you and I are, ourselves,

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more like a wave than a permanent thing.

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He invites us, the reader, to "think of an experience

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from your childhood -- something you remember clearly,

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something you can see, feel, maybe even smell,

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as if you were really there.

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After all, you really were there at the time, weren't you?

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How else would you remember it?

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But here is the bombshell: You weren't there.

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Not a single atom that is in your body today was there

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when that event took place. Matter flows from place to place

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and momentarily comes together to be you.

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Whatever you are, therefore, you are not the stuff

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of which you are made.

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If that doesn't make the hair stand up on the back of your neck,

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read it again until it does, because it is important."

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So "really" isn't a word that we should use with simple confidence.

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If a neutrino had a brain,

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which it evolved in neutrino-sized ancestors,

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it would say that rocks really do consist of empty space.

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We have brains that evolved in medium-sized ancestors

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which couldn't walk through rocks.

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"Really," for an animal, is whatever its brain needs it to be

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in order to assist its survival,

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and because different species live in different worlds,

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there will be a discomforting variety of "really"s.

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What we see of the real world is not the unvarnished world

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but a model of the world, regulated and adjusted by sense data,

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but constructed so it's useful for dealing with the real world.

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The nature of the model depends on the kind of animal we are.

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A flying animal needs a different kind of model

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from a walking, climbing or swimming animal.

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A monkey's brain must have software capable of simulating

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a three-dimensional world of branches and trunks.

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A mole's software for constructing models of its world

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will be customized for underground use.

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A water strider's brain doesn't need 3D software at all,

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since it lives on the surface of the pond

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in an Edwin Abbott flatland.

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I've speculated that bats may see color with their ears.

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The world model that a bat needs in order to navigate

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through three dimensions catching insects

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must be pretty similar to the world model that any flying bird,

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a day-flying bird like a swallow, needs to perform

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the same kind of tasks.

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The fact that the bat uses echoes in pitch darkness

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to input the current variables to its model,

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while the swallow uses light, is incidental.

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Bats, I've even suggested, use perceived hues, such as red and blue,

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as labels, internal labels, for some useful aspect of echoes --

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perhaps the acoustic texture of surfaces, furry or smooth and so on,

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in the same way as swallows or, indeed, we, use those

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perceived hues -- redness and blueness etc. --

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to label long and short wavelengths of light.

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There's nothing inherent about red that makes it long wavelength.

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And the point is that the nature of the model is governed by

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how it is to be used, rather than by the sensory modality involved.

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J. B .S. Haldane himself had something to say about animals

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whose world is dominated by smell.

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Dogs can distinguish two very similar fatty acids, extremely diluted:

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caprylic acid and caproic acid.

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The only difference, you see, is that one has an extra pair of

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carbon atoms in the chain.

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Haldane guesses that a dog would probably be able to place the acids

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in the order of their molecular weights by their smells,

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just as a man could place a number of piano wires

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in the order of their lengths by means of their notes.

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Now, there's another fatty acid, capric acid,

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which is just like the other two,

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except that it has two more carbon atoms.

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A dog that had never met capric acid would, perhaps,

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have no more trouble imagining its smell than we would have trouble

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imagining a trumpet, say, playing one note higher

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than we've heard a trumpet play before.

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Perhaps dogs and rhinos and other smell-oriented animals

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smell in color. And the argument would be

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exactly the same as for the bats.

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Middle World -- the range of sizes and speeds

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which we have evolved to feel intuitively comfortable with --

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is a bit like the narrow range of the electromagnetic spectrum

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that we see as light of various colors.

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We're blind to all frequencies outside that,

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unless we use instruments to help us.

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Middle World is the narrow range of reality

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which we judge to be normal, as opposed to the queerness

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of the very small, the very large and the very fast.

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We could make a similar scale of improbabilities;

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nothing is totally impossible.

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Miracles are just events that are extremely improbable.

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A marble statue could wave its hand at us; the atoms that make up

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its crystalline structure are all vibrating back and forth anyway.

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Because there are so many of them,

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and because there's no agreement among them

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in their preferred direction of movement, the marble,

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as we see it in Middle World, stays rock steady.

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But the atoms in the hand could all just happen to move

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the same way at the same time, and again and again.

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In this case, the hand would move and we'd see it waving at us

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in Middle World. The odds against it, of course, are so great

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that if you set out writing zeros at the time of

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the origin of the universe, you still would not have

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written enough zeros to this day.

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Evolution in Middle World has not equipped us to handle

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very improbable events; we don't live long enough.

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In the vastness of astronomical space and geological time,

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that which seems impossible in Middle World

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might turn out to be inevitable.

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One way to think about that is by counting planets.

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We don't know how many planets there are in the universe,

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but a good estimate is about 10 to the 20, or 100 billion billion.

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And that gives us a nice way to express our estimate

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of life's improbability.

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Could make some sort of landmark points

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along a spectrum of improbability, which might look like

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the electromagnetic spectrum we just looked at.

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If life has arisen only once on any --

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if -- if life could -- I mean, life could originate once per planet,

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could be extremely common, or it could originate once per star,

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or once per galaxy or maybe only once in the entire universe,

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in which case it would have to be here. And somewhere up there

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would be the chance that a frog would turn into a prince

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and similar magical things like that.

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If life has arisen on only one planet in the entire universe,

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that planet has to be our planet, because here we are talking about it.

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And that means that if we want to avail ourselves of it,

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we're allowed to postulate chemical events in the origin of life

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which have a probability as low as one in 100 billion billion.

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I don't think we shall have to avail ourselves of that,

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because I suspect that life is quite common in the universe.

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And when I say quite common, it could still be so rare

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that no one island of life ever encounters another,

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which is a sad thought.

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How shall we interpret "queerer than we can suppose?"

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Queerer than can in principle be supposed,

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or just queerer than we can suppose, given the limitations

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of our brain's evolutionary apprenticeship in Middle World?

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Could we, by training and practice, emancipate ourselves

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from Middle World and achieve some sort of intuitive,

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as well as mathematical, understanding of the very small

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and the very large? I genuinely don't know the answer.

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I wonder whether we might help ourselves to understand, say,

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quantum theory, if we brought up children to play computer games,

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beginning in early childhood, which had a sort of

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make-believe world of balls going through two slits on a screen,

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a world in which the strange goings on of quantum mechanics

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were enlarged by the computer's make-believe,

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so that they became familiar on the Middle-World scale of the stream.

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And, similarly, a relativistic computer game in which

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objects on the screen manifest the Lorenz Contraction, and so on,

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to try to get ourselves into the way of thinking --

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get children into the way of thinking about it.

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I want to end by applying the idea of Middle World

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18:38

to our perceptions of each other.

tedtalks 18:39
18:42

Most scientists today subscribe to a mechanistic view of the mind:

tedtalks 18:43
18:46

we're the way we are because our brains are wired up as they are;

tedtalks 18:47
18:48

our hormones are the way they are.

tedtalks 18:48
18:50

We'd be different, our characters would be different,

tedtalks 18:50
18:54

if our neuro-anatomy and our physiological chemistry were different.

tedtalks 18:55
18:58

But we scientists are inconsistent. If we were consistent,

tedtalks 18:59
19:02

our response to a misbehaving person, like a child-murderer,

tedtalks 19:02
19:05

should be something like, this unit has a faulty component;

tedtalks 19:05
19:08

it needs repairing. That's not what we say.

tedtalks 19:08
19:12

What we say -- and I include the most austerely mechanistic among us,

tedtalks 19:12
19:13

which is probably me --

tedtalks 19:13
19:17

what we say is, "Vile monster, prison is too good for you."

tedtalks 19:17
19:21

Or worse, we seek revenge, in all probability thereby triggering

tedtalks 19:21
19:24

the next phase in an escalating cycle of counter-revenge,

tedtalks 19:24
19:26

which we see, of course, all over the world today.

tedtalks 19:27
19:29

In short, when we're thinking like academics,

tedtalks 19:30
19:33

we regard people as elaborate and complicated machines,

tedtalks 19:33
19:37

like computers or cars, but when we revert to being human

tedtalks 19:38
19:41

we behave more like Basil Fawlty, who, we remember,

tedtalks 19:41
19:44

thrashed his car to teach it a lesson when it wouldn't start

tedtalks 19:44
19:47

on gourmet night. (Laughter)

tedtalks 19:48
19:51

The reason we personify things like cars and computers

tedtalks 19:51
19:54

is that just as monkeys live in an arboreal world

tedtalks 19:54
19:57

and moles live in an underground world

tedtalks 19:57
20:00

and water striders live in a surface tension-dominated flatland,

tedtalks 20:01
20:05

we live in a social world. We swim through a sea of people --

tedtalks 20:05
20:07

a social version of Middle World.

tedtalks 20:09
20:11

We are evolved to second-guess the behavior of others

tedtalks 20:12
20:15

by becoming brilliant, intuitive psychologists.

tedtalks 20:16
20:18

Treating people as machines

tedtalks 20:18
20:21

may be scientifically and philosophically accurate,

tedtalks 20:22
20:23

but it's a cumbersome waste of time

tedtalks 20:23
20:26

if you want to guess what this person is going to do next.

tedtalks 20:27
20:29

The economically useful way to model a person

tedtalks 20:30
20:33

is to treat him as a purposeful, goal-seeking agent

tedtalks 20:33
20:35

with pleasures and pains, desires and intentions,

tedtalks 20:36
20:37

guilt, blame-worthiness.

tedtalks 20:38
20:42

Personification and the imputing of intentional purpose

tedtalks 20:43
20:45

is such a brilliantly successful way to model humans,

tedtalks 20:46
20:49

it's hardly surprising the same modeling software

tedtalks 20:49
20:53

often seizes control when we're trying to think about entities

tedtalks 20:53
20:56

for which it's not appropriate, like Basil Fawlty with his car

tedtalks 20:56
21:04

or like millions of deluded people with the universe as a whole. (Laughter)

tedtalks 21:04
21:06

If the universe is queerer than we can suppose,

tedtalks 21:07
21:10

is it just because we've been naturally selected to suppose

tedtalks 21:10
21:13

only what we needed to suppose in order to survive

tedtalks 21:13
21:15

in the Pleistocene of Africa?

tedtalks 21:16
21:20

Or are our brains so versatile and expandable that we can

tedtalks 21:20
21:24

train ourselves to break out of the box of our evolution?

tedtalks 21:25
21:29

Or, finally, are there some things in the universe so queer

tedtalks 21:29
21:35

that no philosophy of beings, however godlike, could dream them?

tedtalks 21:36
21:37

Thank you very much.