I remember my grandfather commenting—wry amusement tinged with grim resignation—that what made him finally feel old was seeing his children reach middle age. I was a child then. Now I see my own children, not quite middle aged, starting to have children of their own.
Becoming a grandparent is quite lovely, an affirmation of continuity and a front-row-seat to watch (and even, on occasion, participate) as life itself is conveyed into the future. But aging is also our most undeniable memento mori, a reminder not so much of life as one’s own eventual death. My grandfather’s death frightened me as few things have since, except for the recurring recognition (usually at night, alone, in the dark) that his life, everyone’s life, even—astoundingly—my own, is short indeed.
All things, especially living ones, are marinating in the river of time. We see and understand that our bodies will wear out and we will die. At least that’s how it looks through the lens of Western science, where all things come to an end, winding down in a final surrender to entropy. But there’s another perspective, surprisingly in harmony with science, that helps us revisit that huge and ancient terror—fear of time itself—in a new and perhaps even reassuring way. And that is the perspective offered by Buddhism.
For Buddhists, the “center cannot hold,” as the poet W.B. Yeats pointed out, because it doesn’t exist as something rigidly separate from everything else. Nothing is permanent and unchanging, ourselves included. Attempting to cling to a solid, immutable core of a self is a fool’s errand because time not only creates anarchy, it provides the unavoidable matrix within which everything—animate and inanimate, sentient and insensate—ebbs and flows.
A single neuron in isolation cannot be said to possess memory, feelings, or consciousness. However, group many neurons together and the type of advanced information processing that takes place in the human brain suddenly appears. This suggests that perhaps each level in the micro-macro hierarchy can only be understood with a different logic. Might such a hierarchy also exist in ordinary materials that appear on first glance to be more straightforward and less complicated than neurons?
Here we tell you what happens after you’re dead. Seriously. Okay, it’s not so serious, because you won’t actually die. To lay the groundwork, let's recap the scientific view of death: essentially, you drop dead and that’s the end of everything
We used to think that our fate was in the stars. Now we know in large measure, our fate is in our genes.
When the Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of the DNA double helix James Watson made his famous statement in 1989, he was implying that access to a person’s genetic code allows you to predict the outcome of their life.
The troubling implications were not lost on people, of course. A few years later they were explored in the American film Gattaca, which depicted a civilisation from the near future that had embraced this kind of genetic determinism. It was a world in which most people are conceived in test tubes, and taken to term only if they passed genetic tests designed to prevent them from inheriting imperfections ranging from baldness to serious genetic diseases.
With these so-called “valids” – the dominant majority – the film was a warning about the dangers in our technological advancement. As it turns out, we were probably being optimistic about the potential of genetics. Yet too few people seem to have got that message, and this kind of mistaken thinking about the links between genes and traits is having unsettling consequences of its own.
The 20th-century Canadian-American sociologist Erving Goffman believed that we adapt to roles – lover, customer, worker – based on circumstance, and are constantly concerned with how we’re appearing to others. This short animation explains why Goffman’s view of humanity left no room for a ‘true self’ – an actor behind all the roles we play.
How does knowledge grow? Sometimes it begins with one insight and grows into many branches. Infographics expert Manuel Lima explores the thousand-year history of mapping data -- from languages to dynasties -- using trees of information. It's a fascinating history of visualizations, and a look into humanity's urge to map what we know.
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