Our pick of the week from around the web, including the decline of Wikipedia, biology’s brave new world and an astronaut fact-checking the film Gravity.
Death in space
An astronaut fact-checks the film "Gravity". Getting a puncture in your space-suit isn’t all bad. “When you’re slowly running out of oxygen, everything seems funny. You slowly nod off. I experienced this phenomenon in an altitude chamber during my training as an astronaut. At some point, someone in the group starts cracking bad jokes. Our brains are gentle with us. A person who dies alone in space dies a cheerful death.”
The decline of Wikipedia
Wikipedia’s community has built a magnificent resource, but its glory days are gone. The volunteer workforce of the English-language Wikipedia has shrunk by more than a third since 2007, and is still shrinking. The “loose collective” running the site today, 90% male, operates a “crushing bureaucracy” with an “often abrasive atmosphere” that deters newcomers. “It looks like Wikipedia is strangling itself.”
Gambling with civilisation
William Nordhaus’s book, "The Climate Casino", gives a calm and reasoned view of the dangers from climate change. But that won’t be enough to win over the sceptical and the indifferent. “Given the current state of American politics, the combination of self-interest, ideology, and hostility to science constitutes a huge roadblock to action, and rational argumentation isn’t likely to help. Meanwhile, time is running out.”
Biology’s brave new world
All the key barriers to the artificial synthesis of viruses and bacteria have been overcome. “The biologist has become an engineer, coding new life forms as desired.” Which may produce breakthroughs in public health; equally, it may produce plagues and other horrors on a global scale, as the science gets easier to replicate. “The tracking of novel DNA and life forms should be implemented on a voluntary or mandatory basis immediately.”
The origins of the concept of species
The concept of “species” is a useful organising tool for science, not a category that exists in nature. “We really do see the patterns in the world we name species. The mistake arises in thinking that our perceptual biases somehow give us the structure of the world”. Usage comes from Athanasius Kircher, a 17th Century Jesuit who calculated how many kinds of animal could have fitted on to Noah’s Ark, and used the Latin word species for “kind”.
The greatest philosopher of the Twentieth Century
The title may well belong to FP Ramsey, who died at 26, having “figured out the principles governing subjective probability, and so opened the way to decision theory, game theory and much work in the foundations of economics… Contemporary debates about truth, meaning, knowledge, logic and the structure of scientific theories all take off from positions first defined by Ramsey.” He translated Wittgenstein, who overshadowed him.
Bad government software
Why do so many government software projects go off the rails? “Big, custom projects are unique by definition, so they are sold as promises, not as finished products. Every vendor promises the same thing, so the one who promises to do it at the lowest cost often wins; when the project turns out late, bad, and over budget, too many executives have too much invested in its success to admit defeat.”