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Category archive: Science

Wednesday July 16 2014

From Stuff Matters by Mark Miodownik (pp. 80-81):

Given that literally half of the world’s structures are made from concrete, the upkeep of concrete structures represents a huge and growing effort.  To make matters more difficult, many of these structures are in environments that we don’t want to have to revisit on a regular basis, such as the Oresund bridge connecting Sweden and Denmark, or the inner core of a nuclear power station. In these situations it would be ideal to find a way to allow concrete to look after itself, to engineer concrete to be self-healing.  Such a concrete does now exist, and although it is in its infancy it has already been shown to work.

The story of these self-healing concretes started when scientists began to investigate the types of life forms that can survive extreme conditions.  They found a type of bacterium that lives in the bottom of highly alkaline lakes formed by volcanic activity.  These lakes have pH values of 9-11, which will cause burns to human skin.  Previously it had been thought, not unreasonably, that no life could exist in these sulphurous ponds. But careful study revealed life to be much more tenacious than we thought.  Alkaliphilic bacteria were found to be able to survive in these conditions.  And it was discovered that one particular type called B. Pasteurii could excrete the mineral calcite, a constituent of concrete.  These bacteria were also found to be extremely tough and able to survive dormant, encased in rock, for decades.

Self-healing concrete has these bacteria embedded inside it along with a form of starch, which acts as food for the bacteria.  Under normal circumstances these bacteria remain dormant, encased by the calcium silicate hydrate fibrils. But if a crack forms, the bacteria are released from their bonds, and in the presence of water they wake up and start to look around for food. They find the starch that has been added to the concrete, and this allows them to grow and replicate.  In the process they excrete the mineral calcite, a form of calcium carbonate.  This calcite bonds to the concrete and starts to build up a mineral structure that spans the crack, stopping further growth of the crack and sealing it up.

It’s the sort of idea that might sound good in theory but never work in practice.  But it does work. Research now shows that cracked concrete that has been prepared in this way can recover 90 per cent of its strength thanks to these bacteria.  This self-healing concrete is now being developed for use in real engineering structures.

Maybe Miodownik is very good at explaining things, or maybe I am just ready to be learning this stuff.  Probably both.  I chose that excerpt because my average reader may not know about such things as bacteria which automatically repair concrete.  But the truth is that I am almost embarrassed by how much I am reading that is new to me, or only vaguely known, as a sort of historical rumour.

I had no idea, to take just one example, who invented/discovered stainless steel, or where, or how.  Now, I have a much better idea.  The story is told on page 29 of this book, which I heartily recommend to all technological illiterates who would like not to be technological illiterates.

Sunday June 29 2014

Every once in a while I hear or read about someone who sees sound, as colour, different sorts of sounds as different colours.  (As you can tell from the links at the bottom of this, I just did this again, on purpose.) What the hell are these people talking about?  You don’t see sound, you hear it.

But, I have learned enough of the contrasting natures and nervous systems of different people to know that claims of this sort are probably true, in the sense that this is indeed what it feels like to those making such claims, even if the claims made no sense whatever to me.  (Here is another piece by me, about how different people differ, this time with respect to the notion that you (i.e. they) can decide what you (they) believe.  To me, what you believe is what you actually do believe, and you can no more change it with a mere decision than you can decide to grow another foot.  But other people clearly can change what they believe, in just this cavalier fashion.  What they actually, deep down, think is true doesn’t seem to matter to them.  To me: bewildering and bizarre.  To them: obvious and commonplace.)

So anyway, back to those bizarre and bewildering people who see sounds, different sounds as different colours.

I now understand these people much better.

Because, yesterday morning, for a fleeting instant, it happened to me.

Immediately after it happened, I hastily bashed some notes into a computer file describing what I had just experienced, and that is the file that I am now typing further and more considered thoughts into now.

What happened was that I awoke, to the sound of my alarm clock.  This alarm clock makes a high pitched beeping noise: beep, pause, beep, pause, beep, pause ...

And, I experienced this sound as ... white.

That is correct.  I saw the sound.  And the sound was just as white as the background colour of the file into which I am now typing, or the background colour of this blog posting as you are now looking at it. 

I never experience sounds a colours when fully conscious.  But it makes perfect sense to me that experiences I may only have during the weird moment when I am neither entirely awake nor entirely asleep, but am moving from the latter state to the former state, might be experiences that others may have much more frequently, even when fully awake.  Or, fully awake by their standards.

Yesterday morning, for that fleeting, bleeping instant, some sort of weird connection was being made between my ears and the bit of brain where colours get processed and reflected upon, a place where all incoming messages are interpreted as colours no matter what they were originally, a connection that doesn’t normally occur, or perhaps which continues to occur when I am fully awake, but so weakly compared to the connections made between my ears and and the sound processing part of my brain as to be undetectable.

All I have to believe, about those strange people who see sounds as colours all the time, is that they experience what I very briefly experienced yesterday morning, but much more strongly than I did and do.  This is not now hard for me to imagine, not hard at all.

A very quick skim-read of this wikipedia article about chromesthesia (which is the particular sort of synesthesia that turns sound into colour, as opposed to just something into something else) did to tell me that chromosthesia can happen particularly when you are waking up, but that could be wrong.

However, I did spot (at the other end of the chromesthesia link above) this:

However, all studies to date have reported that synesthetes and non-synesthetes alike match high pitched sounds to lighter or brighter colors and low pitched sounds to darker tones, indicating that there may be some common mechanism that underlies the associations present in normal adult brains.

So, I am not alone in associating a high pitched bleep with a very light colour, in my case the lightest colour of the lot. 

Friday April 04 2014

A commenter on one of the climate skeptic blogs, I think at Bishop Hill, provided a link to this fascinating posting, at Coyote Blog.

The Coyote man combines three tendencies that he sees in global temperatures.  First, there is a warming process that has been going on since the Little Ice Age.  Second, there is a slight kink upwards in this graph, very slight, associated with recent CO2 increase.  Third, there is an oscillating wave, for some reason involving a couple of acronyms.  And the result is a graph that seems to fit the recent facts better than any other graph I’ve seen.  Certainly better than that idiot hockey stick.

If Coyote is right about all this, and he is in fact only semi-serious about it, then the global temperature will soon be seen to be inching downwards, until about 2030, at which point it will then turn back towards relatively rapid heating, again, along the lines of what happened from circa 1970 to circa 2000.  So, a few We Will Freeze years, followed by some more We Will Fry decades.

However, we’re talking tiny numbers here.  None of this is remotely describable as a catastrophe, even in the long run.

Coyote says he developed this stuff six years ago.  But I could find no link back to him actually saying this six years ago.  Pity.

Not for the first time, I find myself wishing that I could live another two hundred years rather than for about another twenty or probably less.  What will happen to global temperatures for the next century or so?  How will the politics of it all play out?  I’d love to live long enough to find out.  But, I won’t.

This started out as a jokey posting about climate science.  It ended up as yet another rumination on the process of getting old.  When you are young you are going to live indefinitely.  You will die, eventually.  But too long into the future for this event to be distinguishable for practical purposes from never.  Then, rather suddenly, that all changes.

I recently did another climate science posting at Samizdata.

Tuesday March 18 2014

I still can’t get used to the internet.  I never really will.  You can find all kinds of stuff out in a few seconds.  You know that, and so do I know it.  But, unlike (probably) you, I will never get truly used to this.

Last night, for instance, there was a TV show on about Fossils, fronted by this old Fossil Professor, and mention was made of – and a little sliver of film was shown of – a building (with lots of fossils in it) called the Royal Ontario Museum.  I said, that looks like that Daniel Libeskind museum in Berlin, in the saw cuts in big blocks style.  So let’s see about that Royal Ontario Museum shall we?  Sure enough, that is Libeskind also.

I had imagined that the saw cut style was specifically used only for that Berlin museum, to make you wince when you look at the building, same as you do when you find out the grizzly details of what happened to all those Berlin Jews.

However, it now seems (to me) that Libeskind just likes doing saw cuts.  Am I getting this wrong?

Maybe I could google that question also, and find out if anyone else agrees with the above.  But that’s enough answers for one posting.

Wednesday November 13 2013

… in among all the stuff that does not.

Foster’s flaccid Gherkin used to advertise erectile dysfunction treatment.  Personally, I don’t think the Gherkin looks like a penis, more like a vibrator.  Certainly not a gherkin.

And: Synthetic creature could “save nature” says Alexandra Daisy Ginsberg.  Has this woman never seen any horror movies?

Related: Will Jellyfish Take Over the World?

Monday September 16 2013

Does this photo tell us the direction the Great Climate Debate is going?  I took it in Foyles, underneath the Royal Festival Hall, London, on September 2nd:

image

I put this up to entertain you, and also so that I can send a short email to Bishop Hill about it, rather than a long and annoying one. Because I’m guessing it might interest him.

The Bishop’s (as of now) latest posting concerns an article written by some academic CAGWers (CAGW = Catastrophic Anthropogenic Global Warming), about how they can defeat their ever more annoying and persuasive “denier” enemies?

Bishop Hill:

The answer to this conundrum is - you will never believe it - to be found in the realms of communication. Although Garud and his colleagues note that some observers think that communication is not enough, and point to such initiatives as the Climate Science Rapid Response Team (seriously!) that are already in place, they suggest that something called a ‘narrative approach’ might also be a part of the solution.

But that, as the Bishop well knows but Garud et al do not, is no solution to the problem the CAGWers have.  The “narrative approach” is their problem.  What the CAGWers have been doing is spinning a narrative and calling it science for the last quarter of a century and more, and now this narrative is unravelling, thanks to the efforts of people like Bishop Hill.  This latest plan is for them to stop pretending that they aren’t doing this.  That can’t work.

If the anti-CAGWers had relied on books like Michael Crichton’s State of Fear, which is one of the books in the above photo, to carry the main weight of their arguments, they’d have been utterly crushed.

LATER: Bishop Hill has linked to this, and there are comments there too.

Friday September 13 2013

Here.

So, could this also work for cats?

Scroll scroll:

And for all the cat lovers out there, don’t accuse Polimeno of being biased toward pooches. Finding Kitty is in the works.

A lot of the cat stuff I stick up here on Fridays is things I find by googling for “cat” news.  But this I learned about by getting regular google emails that come to me about face recognition.

Face recognition software is, I predict (as do many others I’m sure), going to have all kinds of weird unintended consequences.  This is only the start of it.

For instance, scientists: Which animals have faces that face recognition software can distinguish between, and which not?  What does those answers mean?

What about face recognition errors, joining you up with relatives or long lost twins you never knew you had?

What will face recognition do to the lookalike trade?  “How much like Brad Pitt do I look?  Face recognition couldn’t tell the difference, that’s how much!”

Will face recognition answer the question: Which celebrity do I most look like?

Any more stuff like that that anyone can think of?

Sunday September 08 2013

Regulars here know that I am an admirer of Britain’s short term weather forecasts.  Britain’s Meteorological Office also has a disgustingly politicised long term weather forecasting department, whose prophecies I despise.  But the short term forecasts are the real deal, based on real knowledge.  Pretty much always, these short term forecasts are correct.

Me being a libertarian, I regret that the Met Office is funded out of taxation rather than with voluntary payments from customers.  That it is now corrupted by the addition of that long term forecasting bit is a typical consequence of such compulsory funding, because compulsory funding has an inbuilt tendency to be grabbed hold of by people with dodgy agendas that wouldn’t pay for themselves by voluntary methods.  It is upon the prestige generated by the short term weather forecasts that the politicised long term forecasts sail forth and do all their damage.

None of which alters the fact that the Met Office’s short term forecasts are, as of now, very good, and a big part of the way I now live.

But as a fan of cricket, as well as of short term weather forecasts, I can’t help noticing that cricket people don’t admire short term weather forecasts nearly as much as I do.  I think this is because the only time when weather forecasts loom large for cricket players and cricket watchers is on rainy days, and most rainy days in England are not days of solid rain, but days with rain sometimes but not at other times, and in some places but not in other nearby places.  Now that the top cricket grounds in England mostly have clever drainage systems, cricket can be played at them pretty much whenever it is not actually raining.  But, when exactly will that be?  “Sunny intervals, scattered showers.” That’s a typical weather forecast in these islands.  But for how long, exactly, and where, exactly, will the sunny intervals be radiating their sunshine and the scattered showers be scattering their showers?

In England, the weather on a rainy day can be very local.  I live a walk away from the Oval cricket ground, which is on the other side of the Thames from me.  I have known many a nice day for me when the cricket was washed completely out at the Oval, and other days when they played, but would not have played at all had the weather been as I got it.

A day can be generally rainy, but whether any of the rain will fall, and for how long, on the particular cricket ground that the cricket world happens to be obsessing about that day is in the lap of the weather gods, and beyond the powers of the Met Office to be exact about. 

So, cricket people tend not to admire weather forecasts, or to set much store by them.

The ODI on Thursday in Leeds was a total washout.  I pretty much knew that it would be, because they were forecasting solid rain, which is actually quite rare in England.  But even then, a little local break in the clouds might have meant a shortened game.  They just had to wait and see, although by about lunchtime the game was up.  That was a day when their deep distrust of forecasts got their hopes up needlessly.  The spectators, I believe, stayed away in their thousands.

Today there is the second ODI between England and Australia in Manchester.  Here is the BBC version of the weather forecast for that right now:

A chilly but bright start to the day in many areas, but with showers affecting some western areas. Showers becoming more widespread during the morning with some of these heavy. A cool day with generally light winds.

That tells me, and has actually been telling me for several days, that today in Manchester would probably not be that good day for one of my photo-wanders.  I typically just want to know what kind of day it’s going to be, and that tells me.  If I did venture out, I’d take a brolly and a good book, make an early start, and stay close to transport so I could get home quick if it later turned really bad.  But the cricketers can’t tell from that whether they’ll get a game or not, because everything depends on exactly where the rain lands, and in what exact amounts.  That forecast could mean anything from an almost total wash-out to a great day of cricket.  I will be tuning in to see, but I don’t know what kind of game it will be, and neither does anyone else.

Saturday August 03 2013

For reasons that I may or may not explain some other time (it involved this), I found myself, exactly one week ago today, at the toppish layer of Kings College, London.

There was some hanging about waiting for events to start and for lifts to arrive, and at such times I took (grabbed) photos, mostly through windows, out at London in its various manifestations, near and far:

image image imageimage image image

Just as there is much aesthetically anarchic clutter at the tops of buildings, so too is there similar clutter around the backs of buildings, the bits where you are looking at the stage scenery, so to speak, from the other side.

As for the more orthodox view, of various Big London Things (bottom right), you may think, not much of a photo, technically speaking, and you would be right, but I like it nevertheless, in the sense that it is a technically rather average realisation of a very good shot, like so many of my photos.  Also, I had only a few seconds to take/grab it, and only one go at it, because a lift was even then opening up and demanding my presence.  I was with someone else, which always complicates the taking of photos, I find.

Note in particular the exact alignment of The Wheel with the New Tower (most recently featured here in one of these snaps (3.2)) that they are now finishing off, at Vauxhall, the one where there was all that crane drama.  See also Big Ben and that other Parliament Tower (St Stephen’s), Battersea Power Station, Westminster Abbey, and even the tower with the crazy hairdo in the previous posting.  What the green dome with the Union Jack flying on it is, I do not know.

Plus, who knew that there was a Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at Kings U?  Well, probably Menzies, and the people who study Australia in it.  But who else?

Shame it’s not Austrian, and economics.

Saturday June 01 2013

Commenter Jimmy Haigh (May 30, 3:05 PM), on this at Bishop Hill:

He’s trying to sit on the fence and eat it too.

He is talking about the revolting Tim Yeo, who either has, or has not, changed his mind about Global Warming, depending on who you read.  But either way, he continues to make lots of money out of it.

Monday May 13 2013

I greatly enjoyed the documentary about Richard Feynman shown on BBC2 TV last night, having already greatly enjoyed the docu-drama about the Feynman Challenger investigation.

Last night’s documentary contained the following particularly choice piece of dialogue:

“Why is your van covered in Feynman Diagrams?”

image“Because we’re the Feynmans.”

Good answer.

There is a picture of the Feynmans, next to their van, which I found here, where the picture is slightly bigger.

Does this van still exist, with all the Feynman Diagrams on it?  I hope so.

Saturday May 04 2013

A fortnight ago today, I went to a wedding.  The weather, just as the weather boffins had been prophesying throughout the previous week, was superb:

image image imageimage image image

Click to get a bit of context.

1.1: The weather outside my front door.

1.2: The weather at Aldermaston Station, near where the wedding was to be, when I stepped out of the train.

1.3: The weather at the venue, when I first got there.

2.1: Ditto, this time with a view from the venue.  Different view.  Same superb weather.

2.2, 2.3: More water-based picturesqueness.  2.2: A cloud!  Scary!  The little square from 2.3 is a bit lighter than the others, because the photo (click) was mostly landscape, with only a tiny bit of sky, which caused the Automatic setting on my camera to make the sky lighter.  The original version of the little square picture featured those sharp shadows, but I decided to stay abstract.

The Bride and Groom, the Groom especially (what with him being the fretter of that team) had been fretting for the last two months about what the weather would be like.  Would it be horribly cold?  No bother.  As another guest said, they chose the first day of Summer.

I have many more wedding snaps to show you, but am doing them in separate postings which each make a few particular points, rather than as a huge and totally unwieldy posting that nobody, apart from the Groom, would have read.  That way, I also get some of these postings done, as opposed to (maybe) none of them.  That itself being a point.

Friday March 01 2013

imageOne of the about seventy seven signs of aging is definitely being more sensitive to the weather, and in particular the cold.  I remember feeling this way as a small child, when first compelled to travel every morning to school.  Now, I feel it again.  I actually “caught a chill” earlier this week, and had to take to my bed for a whole day.

However, I will soon be getting out from under the weather, if the next ten day weather forecast is anything to go by, which it is.  As of today, it looked like that (see right).

Talking of short range weather forecasts, James Delingpole did a silly piece in the Daily Mail a while back, saying the Met Office is a total waste of space.  But it is precisely because the Met Office’s short-range weather forecasts are generally so spot-on that its mad opinions about the weather in the more distant future are taken so seriously.  If the short-range forecasts were as bad as so many unthinking idiots say, the Met Office wouldn’t be half such a menace on the C(atastrophic) A(nthropogenic) G(lobal) W(arming) front.  This Delingpole article played right into the hands of CAGW-ers.  Asked the News Statesman: Was there ANYTHING in James Delingpole’s Daily Mail piece which was true? Yes.  The Met Office is bonkers about CAGW.  But Delingpole’s attempts to prove that the Met Office never gets anything right were indeed ridiculous, and did the anti-CAGW team no favours at all.

But I digress.  To more serious matters.  There is another reason I am glad the weather is going to perk up soon, which is that rugby matches are far more entertaining when the weather is nicer.

The Six Nations began with what the commentators were all telling each other was one of the best Six Nations first weekends ever.  All three games were full of tries.  England won.  Okay, only against Scotland, but they won, and actually Scotland are looking a bit better now, with some backs who can actually run fast.  Ireland and Wales scored lots of tries against each other.  Italy beat France.  It doesn’t get much better for an England fan.

But then the weather turned nasty and the games turned attritional.  England beat Ireland, but nobody scored any tries.  England beat France, with one fortuitous England try which shouldn’t have been allowed.  Italy reverted to being … Italy.  The one truly entertaining thing about the next two weekends, after the entirely entertaining first weekend, is that now it’s England played 3 won 3 and France played 3 won ZERO!  Arf arf.  Sorry Antoine.

Talking of England v France, I’ve been reading (and watching the telly) about the 100 Years War.  And it seems that towards the end, the French cheated by having guns.  That explains a lot.

So anyway, no more 6N rugby until the weekend after next, and I really miss it, just as I did the weekend before last.  The Six Nations takes seven weekends to get done, with weekends 1, 2, 4, 6 and 7 being occupied with games, and weekends 3 and 5 being skipped.  During weekends 3 and 5, I pine, and watch ancient rugby games, the way I never would normally, to fill the rugby gap.

The best ones I recently watched were two epic Wales wins against France, in 1999 (France 33 Wales 34) and 2001 (France 35 Wales 43), on VHS tapes.  Sorry Antoine.  But the next one I’ll be watching will be 2002 (Wales 33 France 37).

Monday February 11 2013

While I was on that Waterloo Station upper deck, I espied a couple of adverts next to each other, put out by this organisation.

Here they are together:

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And here they each are separately, for you to click on to get them well and truly readable:

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Okay, I accept these challenges, and will respond.

The left hand one is a variant on the theme of “a billion people can’t be wrong”.  Yes they can.  Why has the Qur’an remained unchanged?  There are any number of reasons why that would happen, other than what they are trying to say, which is that it is all true.  Because it is an object of unthinking worship, rather than of serious study?  (Remember that the memorising of it is often done by people who have no idea what they are saying, merely reproducing sounds.) Because people have been too scared to challenge it?  Because Islam remains stuck in the seventh century, and unthinking bigotry is built into it?

Science, which the second advert seeks to argue was pre-echoed by the Qur’an, has changed over and over again.  And this is a sign of science’s intellectual seriousness and intellectual vitality.  Lack of change, century after century, signifies the opposite.

As for the claim of the Qur’an to be science before science, the real theory of the big bang is but the conceptual tip of an intellectual iceberg consisting of a ton of evidence and interpretation, and it is the latter that gives science its force. Science is not merely true.  It explains why it is true.  It argues about whether it is true.  And consequently it gets ever more true.  Islam is no truer now than it was thirteen centuries ago.

The good news here is that the claim that the Qur’an is as scientific as real science is a huge concession to the acknowledged intellectual superiority of science.  “We have been right all along, and science proves it!” But if they really thought that the Qur’an was the last word on everything, they wouldn’t be dragging science in to back the claim up.  Science would be ignored.

But they know that they cannot now ignore science.  Science is a challenge they know they have to respond to.  On account of it being so much truer and so much better at getting at more truth than the unchanging and unchangeable incantations that they are stuck with.

Wednesday November 14 2012

So far, for me, one of the most impressive or a great many impressive things to be found in Steven Pinkers new book, The Better Angels of Our Nature, is his description of The Enlightenment.  (I mentioned this huge volume, in passing, in my latest Samizdata posting, and at greater length in an earlier posting.)

So.  The Enlightenment.  This is a word I have heard all my life.  But what did it, does it, mean?  It is assumed that all educated people know what The Enlightenment means, and that it was and is a noble and fine thing, and why it was and is a noble and fine thing.  But why, exactly?  I guess that, until now, I was not educated.

What makes Pinker’s exposition of the ideas behind The Enlightenment so excellent is that he explains how the scientific project at the heart of The Enlightenment was joined at the hip to a new moral vision of mankind.  This was not merely a couple of vaguely benevolent quests, for scientific truth on the one hand, and for moral excellence on the other.  For, as Pinker asks, why did the quest for scientific truth necessarily imply a quest for moral improvement (as we now regard it), for greater “humanity” in our treatment of other humans?  Pinker answers this question.

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I found that picture of Pinker here.

Whenever I scan in a great gob of verbiage from a book into this blog, I warn readers that the posting may disappear without warning, in the event of the slightest objection from the author, or from the publisher, or from anyone else connected with upholding the intellectual property in question.  There is no way that me reproducing this relatively tiny fragment of Pinker’s huge book will damage its sales, quite the reverse.  But, if those charged with overseeing such things inform me that, in their view, a line has been crossed by this posting, a line they consider worth defending, this excerpt (from Chapter 4, “The Humanitarian Revolution”, pp. 216-221 of my Penguin paper edition) will immediately vanish.

In other words, if, having read the above, you decide that you will be wanting to read what follows, best to do that now.

Bringing people and ideas together, of course, does not determine how those ideas will evolve. The rise of the Republic of Letters and the cosmopolitan city cannot, by themselves, explain why a humanitarian ethics arose in the 18th century, rather than ever-more-ingenious rationales for torture, slavery, despotism, and war.

My own view is that the two developments really are linked. When a large enough community of free, rational agents confers on how a society should run its affairs, steered by logical consistency and feedback from the world, their consensus will veer in certain directions. Just as we don’t have to explain why molecular biologists discovered that DNA has four bases - given that they were doing their biology properly, and given that DNA really does have four bases, in the long run they could hardly have discovered anything else - we may not have to explain why enlightened thinkers would eventually argue against African slavery, cruel punishments, despotic monarchs, and the execution of witches and heretics. With enough scrutiny by disinterested, rational, and informed thinkers, these practices cannot be justified indefinitely. The universe of ideas, in which one idea entails others, is itself an exogenous force, and once a community of thinkers enters that universe, they will be forced in certain directions regardless of their material surroundings. I think this process of moral discovery was a significant cause of the Humanitarian Revolution.

I am prepared to take this line of explanation a step further. The reason so many violent institutions succumbed within so short a span of time was that the arguments that slew them belong to a coherent philosophy that emerged during the Age of Reason and the Enlightenment. The ideas of thinkers like Hobbes, Spinoza, Descartes, Locke, David Hume, Mary Astell, Kant, Beccaria, Smith, Mary Wollstonecraft, Madison, Jefferson, Hamilton, and John Stuart Mill coalesced into a worldview that we can call Enlightenment humanism. (It is also sometimes called classical liberalism, though since the 1960s the word liberalism has acquired other meanings as well.) Here is a potted account of this philosophy - a rough but more or less coherent composite of the views of these Enlightenment thinkers.

It begins with skepticism. The history of human folly, and our own susceptibility to illusions and fallacies, tell us that men and women are fallible. One therefore ought to seek good reasons believing something. Faith, revelation, tradition, dogma, authority, the ecstatic glow of subjective certainty - all are recipes for error, and should be dismissed as sources of knowledge.

Is there anything we can be certain of? Descartes gave as good an answer as any: our own consciousness. I know that I am conscious, by the very fact of wondering what I can know, and I can also know that my consciousness comprises several kinds of experience. These include the perception of an external world and of other people, and various pleasures and pains, both sensual (such as food, comfort, and sex) and spiritual (such as love, knowledge, and an appreciation of beauty).

We are also committed to reason. If we are asking a question, evaluating possible answers, and trying to persuade others of the value of those answers, then we are reasoning, and therefore have tacitly signed on to the validity of reason. We are also committed to whatever conclusions follow from the careful application of reason, such as the theorems of mathematics and logic.

Though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it. The application of reason and observation to discover tentative generalizations about the world is what we call science. The progress of science, with its dazzling success at explaining and manipulating the world, shows that knowledge of the universe is possible, albeit always probabilistic and subject to revision. Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge - not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.

The indispensability of reason does not imply that individual people are always rational or are unswayed by passion and illusion. It only means that people are capable of reason, and that a community of people who choose to perfect this faculty and to exercise it openly and fairly can collectively reason their way to sounder conclusions in the long run. As Lincoln observed, you can fool all of the people some of the time, and you can fool some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Among the beliefs about the world of which we can be highly confident is that other people are conscious in the same way that we are. Other people are made of the same stuff, seek the same kinds of goals, and react with external signs of pleasure and pain to the kinds of events that cause pain and pleasure in each of us.

By the same reasoning, we can infer that people who are different from us in many superficial ways - their gender, their race, their culture - are like us in fundamental ways. As Shakespeare’s Shylock asks:

Hath not a Jew eyes? hath not a Jew hands, organs, dimensions, senses, affections, passions? fed with the same food, hurt with the same weapons, subject to the same diseases, healed by the same means, warmed and cooled by the same winter and summer, as a Christian is? If you prick us, do we not bleed? if you tickle us, do we not laugh? if you poison us, do we not die? and if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?

The commonality of basic human responses across cultures has profound implications. One is that there is a universal human nature. It encompasses our common pleasures and pains, our common methods of reasoning, and our common vulnerability to folly (not least the desire for revenge). Human nature may be studied, just as anything else in the world may be. And our decisions on how to organize our lives can take the facts of human nature into account - including the discounting of our own intuitions when a scientific understanding casts them in doubt.

The other implication of our psychological commonality is that however much people differ, there can be, in principle, a meeting of the minds. I can appeal to your reason and try to persuade you, applying standards of logic and evidence that both of us are committed to by the very fact that we are both reasoning beings.

The universality of reason is a momentous realization, because it defines a place for morality. If I appeal to you to do something that affects me - to get off my foot, or not to stab me for the fun of it, or to save my child from drowning - then I can’t do it in a way that privileges my interests over yours if I want you to take me seriously (say, by retaining my right to stand on your foot, or to stab you, or to let your children drown). I have to state my case in a way that would force me to treat you in kind. I can’t act as if my interests are special just because I’m me and you’re not, any more than I can persuade you that the spot I am standing on is a special place in the universe just because I happen to be standing on it.

You and I ought to reach this moral understanding not just so we can have a logically consistent conversation but because mutual unselfishness is the only way we can simultaneously pursue our interests. You and I are both better off if we share our surpluses, rescue each other’s children when they get into trouble, and refrain from knifing each other than we would be if we hoarded our surpluses while they rotted, let each other’s children drown, and feuded incessantly. Granted, I might be a bit better off if I acted selfishly at your expense and you played the sucker, but the same is true for you with me, so if each of us tried for these advantages, we’d both end up worse off. Any neutral observer, and you and I if we could talk it over rationally, would have to conclude that the state we should aim for is the one where we both are unselfish.

Morality, then, is not a set of arbitrary regulations dictated by a vengeful deity and written down in a book; nor is it the custom of a particular culture or tribe. It is a consequence of the interchangeability of perspectives and the opportunity the world provides for positive-sum games. This foundation of morality may be seen in the many versions of the Golden Rule that have been discovered by the world’s major religions, and also in Spinoza’s Viewpoint of Eternity, Kant’s Categorical Imperative, Hobbes and Rousseau’s Social Contract, and Locke and Jefferson’s self-evident truth that all people are created equal.

From the factual knowledge that there is a universal human nature, and the moral principle that no person has grounds for privileging his or her interests over others’, we can deduce a great deal about how we ought to run our affairs. A government is a good thing to have, because in a state of anarchy people’s self-interest, self-deception, and fear of these shortcomings in others would lead to constant strife. People are better off abjuring violence, if everyone else agrees to do so, and vesting authority in a disinterested third party. But since that third party will consist of human beings, not angels, their power must be checked by the power of other people, to force them to govern with the consent of the governed. They may not use violence against their citizens beyond the minimum necessary to prevent greater violence. And they should foster arrangements that allow people to flourish from cooperation and voluntary exchange.

This line of reasoning may be called humanism because the value that it recognizes is the flourishing of humans, the only value that cannot be denied. I experience pleasures and pains, and pursue goals in service of them, so I cannot reasonably deny the right of other sentient agents to do the same.

If all this sounds banal and obvious, then you are a child of the Enlightenment, and have absorbed its humanist philosophy. As a matter of historical fact, there is nothing banal or obvious about it. Though not necessarily atheistic (it is compatible with a deism in which God is identified with the nature of the universe), Enlightenment humanism makes no use of scripture, Jesus, ritual, religious law, divine purpose, immortal souls, an afterlife, a messianic age, or a God who responds to individual people. It sweeps aside many secular sources of value as well, if they cannot be shown to be necessary for the enhancement of human flourishing. These include the prestige of the nation, race, or class; fetishized virtues such as manliness, dignity, heroism, glory, and honor; and other mystical forces, quests, destinies, dialectics, and struggles.

I would argue that Enlightenment humanism, whether invoked explicitly or implicitly, underlay the diverse humanitarian reforms of the 18th and 19th centuries. The philosophy was explicitly invoked in the design of the first liberal democracies, most transparently in the ‘self-evident truths’ in the American Declaration of Independence. Later it would spread to other parts of the world, blended with humanistic arguments that had arisen independently in those civilizations.  And as we shall see in chapter 7, it regained momentum during the Rights Revolutions of the present era.