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I have vague memories of watching Star Trek (both the original series and the next generation or TNG) as a kid, mostly dominated by the quirky personas of Spock and Data. Watching Star Trek TNG on Netflix is, in a way, a walk down a memory lane where the memories have sadly not withstood the test of time. It is like re-discovering something that one had not quite discovered properly in the first place. And yet, even if I had watched it back then with the full force of my attention, I would have still missed the profound philosophical undertones of this wonderful series.

The year is 2364. The Enterprise, a Starfleet ship of a United Federation of Planets, is on its mission of deep space exploration, commandeered by Captain Jean-Luc Picard and his team that, notably, includes Data (an android), Deanna Troi (a betazoid who has telepathic abilities), and Worf (a Klingon). In the course of their voyages, one gets glimpses of different species inhabiting distant planets – each with their peculiar customs and beliefs, varying levels of technological advancement, and with names like the Ligonians, the Edo, and the Ferengi. Through the physical and moral challenges that Jean-Luc and his team face, one gets a sense of their ethos. There are references to the troubled history of war and violence as also capitalism out of which humans had evolved, to having stopped enslaving and killing animals for consumption, to the Prime Directive of not interfering with alien civilizations. The technological advances – of warp speed that allows travel faster than the speed of light, of teleportation, AI (as portrayed by the persona of Data), and space travel to distant galaxies  – are likely to be the stuff of fantasy for many years to come until we realize it, if we do. The portrayal of this distant future fills the gap in one’s imagination of what the world might look like 300 years from now. What separates the world of Star Trek from us is not merely time or the technological advancement, but also the ideology that looks back at the time we now inhabit for all that it is not. There is no nostalgia for the past, merely a sense of relief at having evolved out of it.

Fictional futures of the kind portrayed in Star Trek provide us with an idealized view of the future – one of space explorers that, much like the seafarers during the Age of Discovery, explore the far reaches of the galaxy but with a reformed ethos – to learn and understand and not interfere. An alternate view of the future may have humanity snuff itself out of existence or atrophy away on a desolate planet. It is the burden of every age to determine where this trajectory is headed, for the path to the future goes through us.

The sun has been shining for 4.5 billion years, but it will be another 6 billion years before it’s fuel runs out… and the earth is vaporized. One thinking tendency is to imagine that humans will be there experiencing the sun’s demise. But any life and intelligence that exists then will be as different from us as we are from bacteria.”

From the TED 2007 talk by Sir Martin Rees, professor of cosmology and astrophysics at the University of Cambridge. This is a rather interesting perspective, given that whenever we talk of evolution, we think in terms of the millions of years over which it has taken shape and rarely in terms of the millions of years that lie ahead.

I realize this is a lame way to keep the posts coming – here are two articles that may be of interest:

The Moral Instinct, by Steven Pinker in the New York Times – a dissection of the moral sense.  

Numbers Guy by Jim Holt in the New Yorker, on whether we have an innate sense for numbers.

Very informative articles, both.

There is perhaps no better demonstration of the folly of human conceits than this distant image of our tiny world.

Ponderful! Wikipedia link to the Pale Blue Dot.

The conclusion section is very easy to write: all you have to do is to take your abstract and change the tense from present to past.

A fine potshot on writing a scientific paper from the archives of Annals of Improbable Research. This is the same society that awards the Ig Nobels. The quoted excerpt reminded me of a query from a colleague concerning the difference between the abstract and the conclusion in scientific papers.

And if the world of academic publishing and paper-reviewing piques your interest, here’s more humor on reviewing papers and addressing reviewer comments. You’ve got to be a fellow geek, if you’ve clicked on the links and spared a laugh at the least.

On average, about 15 percent of a doctor’s diagnoses are inaccurate. Groopman directs a well-aimed arrow at a system of medical training that more often than not fails to investigate why these diagnoses are missed. Doctors are rarely taught to ask how an error could have taken place, let alone how it could be avoided in the future.

NYRB has a fine review of the book How Doctor’s Think by Jerome Groopman. Given our near blind-faith in doctors’ diagnoses, this cloud of doubt on the accuracy of such diagnoses is quite unsettling. The review highlights some of the cognitive biases that may lead to mis-diagnoses on the part of doctors, and provides a quick cheat-sheet like enlightenment based on parts of the book to the doctor and reader alike.

What I found particularly interesting, was the list of cognitive biases that may lead to incorrect diagnosis.

Patients might be stigmatized if they are thought to have a mental health problem, or caricatured if they are judged to have engaged in self-harming behavior, such as alcoholism. This kind of mistake is called “attribution error.” “Availability error” occurs when a doctor makes a decision based on an experience that is at the forefront of his mind but which bears little or no relation to the patient before him. “Search satisfying error” takes place when a doctor stops looking for an answer to the patient’s problem as soon as he discovers a finding that satisfies him, albeit incorrectly. “Confirmation bias” intrudes when the doctor selects only some parts of the information available to him in order to confirm his initial judgment of what is wrong. “Diagnostic momentum” takes over when the doctor is unable to change his mind about a diagnosis, even though there might remain considerable uncertainty about the nature of a patient’s condition. And “commission bias” obstructs good clinical thinking when the doctor prefers to do something rather than nothing, irrespective of clinical clues suggesting that he should sit on his hands.

When one thinks about it, these biases may as easily affect the way we reach an opinion in the course of our day-to-day interactions.Knowing and avoiding such and other biases may help us reach a clearer explanation for what we observe.

A list of cognitive biases can be found here.

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