Remembering Oliver Sacks

Oliver Sacks

There have been many wonderful and moving obituaries of the great Oliver Sacks, but I think the most touching tribute is a recent episode of Radiolab, where Dr. Sacks was a regular guest:

When Radiolab was just starting out, Robert asked Dr. Oliver Sacks if he could help us, maybe send us a few story ideas. Over the years he has shared with us stories of chemistry, music, neurology, hallucinations and more, so much more. Because Oliver notices the world and the people around him with scientific rigor, with insight, and most importantly, with deep empathy. ‪When he announced a few months ago that he had terminal cancer and wasn’t going to do any more interviews, we asked him if he’d talk with us one last time. He said yes‬. So Robert went, as he has done for 30 some years now, to his apartment with a microphone, this time to ask him about the forces that have driven him in his work, in his unique relationships with his patients, and in his own life.

Listen to that episode here. 

And don’t stop there, because there’s an archive of Radiolab episodes featuring Dr. Sacks. I highly recommend Oliver Sacks’ Table of Elements, CliveUnlocking The Secrets of Time, About Face, and Happy Birthday, Good Dr. Sacks.

See also Dr. Sacks’ many superb articles for the New Yorker, and of course his recent autobiography.

Remembering Oliver Sacks

Lost in space and in translation

This would make for a great story on Radiolab. By Emily Lakdawalla:

I’ve periodically reported on the status of the International Sun-Earth Explorer (ISEE-3), a spacecraft that was launched in 1978 to study Earth’s magnetosphere and repurposed in 1983 to study two comets. Renamed the International Cometary Explorer (ICE), it has been in a heliocentric orbit since then, traveling just slightly faster than Earth. It’s finally catching up to us from behind, and will return to Earth in August. It’s still functioning, broadcasting a carrier signal that the Deep Space Network successfully detected in 2008. Twelve of its 13 instruments were working when we last checked on its condition, sometime prior to 1999.

Which is great. Except for one thing. We can no longer communicate with this spacecraft:

How could this happen? Well, the fact that ISEE-3 is still broadcasting a carrier signal was actually an error; it should have been shut down. If they had planned for it to still be functioning at this point, they would have maintained the capability to communicate with it. I don’t comprehend the intricacies of deep-space communications well enough to understand the obstacles here, and I don’t question their conclusion, but that doesn’t make me any less sad.

So ISEE-3 will pass by us, ready to talk with us, but in the 30 years since it departed Earth we’ve lost the ability to speak its language. I wonder if ham radio operators will be able to pick up its carrier signal — it’s meaningless, I guess, but it feels like an honorable thing to do, a kind of salute to the venerable ship as it passes by.

Thanks to Cary Corse @vialde for the tip!

Lost in space and in translation

What colour really means

This is fascinating. From The Atlantic:

Humans make all sorts of color choices, every day. We color-code our children’s genders from birth—blue caps for boys and pink caps for girls in the hospital nursery—and paint our bedrooms sea foam green and lemon meringue yellow for serenity. We are intimately familiar with Coca-Cola’s red script, McDonald’s golden arches, and Starbucks’ green mermaid. Red means “stop” and green means “go” in contexts far away from the traffic light—using the colors on food labels has been shown to lead people to make healthier choices. This just goes to show how deeply colors can become lodged in our mind.

Though our world is awash in colors, valid empirical research on how color affects the human mind and behavior has, until recently, been severely limited. Perhaps it is because color seems frivolous—surface level, just icing on the cake. Or perhaps it is because for years scientists thought color best left to the poets. Either way, as a result, the “science” of color has ended up just above phrenology and parapsychology in the barrel of debunked pseudosciences.

But a trend has emerged in the field of behavioral science that has researchers beginning to take color seriously. Cognitive psychology posits a dual system of the mind, explains Jerald Kralik, assistant professor of psychology and brain sciences at Dartmouth University. In the first, there’s a quick response that happens in the lower levels of the mind—our gut reactions, so to speak—and then there is the second, more deliberative, thoughtful thinking that happens on top of that. Influences like color work their effects on us, “to the extent that even our highest-level cognition and intelligence are biased by these low level impressions,” Kralik says.

See also previous posts here on how colour got their names, how fireworks get their colours, and, just for fun, the colour of popular music and how Crayola get made. Oh, and don’t forget to check out this amazing episode of Radiolab, Colors.

NB: Apologies for the mixed US and UK spelling of colors, excuse me, colours, I’ve simply followed what ever spelling each source has used.

What colour really means

ELIZA, Her, and talking to machines

After watching Her just the other day, I especially enjoyed listening to a Radiolab episode from back in 2011 called Talking To Machines:

We begin with a love story–from a man who unwittingly fell in love with a chatbot on an online dating site. Then, we encounter a robot therapist whose inventor became so unnerved by its success that he pulled the plug. And we talk to the man who coded Cleverbot, a software program that learns from every new line of conversation it receives…and that’s chatting with more than 3 million humans each month. Then, five intrepid kids help us test a hypothesis about a toy designed to push our buttons, and play on our human empathy. And we meet a robot built to be so sentient that its creators hope it will one day have a consciousness, and a life, all its own.

Listen to the episode here. See more on Her.

ELIZA, Her, and talking to machines

Choice (and forgiveness)

RL_vertMost times when I head out on a trip by foot, whether that’s around London, or somewhere else, I listen to music, but increasingly I’ve been drawn to truly great radio shows (or podcasts as I should probably call them), chief amongst which is of course 99% Invisible but Benjamen Walker’s occasional Theory of Everything also deserves a mention, as does Radiolab.

Yep, Radiolab. I was so close to not linking to these guys after their truly epic mishandling of their interview with Eng Yang and wonderful author Kao Kalia Yang. And I was happy to tell them what I thought at the time. But I think (hope?) that the guys have learnt their lesson. And their shows are really quite unique.

So here’s a link to a brilliant episode they did a while back on Choice, a subject I covered less eloquently when I edited a magazine in 2000 (I called my piece Choice Anxiety).

Choice (and forgiveness)