With robots, we are inventing a new species that is part material and part digital. The ambition of modern robotics goes beyond copying humans, beyond the effort to make walking, talking androids that are indistinguishable from people. Future robots will have superhuman abilities in both the physical and digital realms. They will be embedded in our physical spaces, with the ability to go where we cannot, and will have minds of their own, thanks to artificial intelligence. They will be fully connected to the digital world, far better at carrying out online tasks than we are.
The biosphere—the Earth’s thin layer of life—dates from nearly four billion years ago, when the first simple organisms appeared. Many species have exerted enormous influence on the biosphere’s character and productivity, but none has transformed the Earth in so many ways and on such a scale as Homo sapiens. In Harvesting the Biosphere, Vaclav Smil offers an interdisciplinary and quantitative account of human claims on the biosphere’s stores of living matter, from prehistory to the present day.
Sitting on the beach on a sunny summer day, we enjoy the steady advance and retreat of the waves. In the water, enthusiastic waders jump and shriek with pleasure when a wave hits them. But where do these waves come from? How are they formed and why do they break on the shore? In Waves, Fredric Raichlen traces the evolution of waves, from their generation in the deep ocean to their effects on the coast.
If you touch something hot, it hurts. You snatch your hand away from the hot thing immediately. Obviously. But what is really happening, biologically—and emotionally? In Understanding Pain, Fernando Cervero explores the mechanisms and the meaning of pain. You touch something hot and your brain triggers a reflex action that causes you to withdraw your hand, protecting you from injury. That kind of pain, Cervero explains, is actually good for us; it acts as an alarm that warns us of danger and keeps us away from harm.
Geologists in the field climb hills and hang onto craggy outcrops; they put their fingers in sand and scratch, smell, and even taste rocks. Beginning in 2004, however, a team of geologists and other planetary scientists did field science in a dark room in Pasadena, exploring Mars from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) by means of the remotely operated Mars Exploration Rovers (MER).
Recent advances in disciplines such as biotechnology, nanotechnology, and neuropharmacology entail a “dual-use dilemma” because they promise benefits for human health and welfare yet pose the risk of misuse for hostile purposes. The emerging field of synthetic genomics, for example, can produce custom DNA molecules for life-saving drugs but also makes possible the creation of deadly viral agents for biological warfare or terrorism. The challenge for policymakers is to prevent the misuse of these new technologies without forgoing their benefits.
Birdsong may seem to us to be the purest expression of joy, but in fact when a male bird bursts into melodious song, he is warning off other males and advertising his availability to females. He may also engage in spectacular displays of plumage, dance-like movements, or even acrobatics (tree-based or aerial)--all as part of courtship. The female, meanwhile, assesses his vocalization, plumage, and territory before accepting him as a mate.
In Parasites, Pathogens, and Progress, Robert McGuire and Philip Coelho integrate biological and economic perspectives into an explanation of the historical development of humanity and the economy, paying particular attention to the American experience, its history and development. In their path-breaking examination of the impact of population growth and parasitic diseases, they contend that interpretations of history that minimize or ignore the physical environment are incomplete or wrong.
Standards are the means by which we construct realities. There are established standards for professional accreditation, the environment, consumer products, animal welfare, the acceptable stress for highway bridges, healthcare, education—for almost everything. We are surrounded by a vast array of standards, many of which we take for granted but each of which has been and continues to be the subject of intense negotiation.
Disease eradication represents the ultimate in global equity and the definitive outcome of good public health practice. Thirty years ago, the elimination of smallpox defined disease eradication as a monumental global achievement with lasting benefits for society. Today, the global commitment to eradicate polio and guinea worm and heightened interest in the potential eradication of other infectious diseases, including measles/rubella, lymphatic filariasis, onchocerciasis, and malaria, dominate public health concerns. But what does it take to eradicate a disease?