Situational Storytelling

Creating something genuinely new can be both a daunting and thrilling experience. But one of the frustrating aspects of breaking new ground is that, until the concept breaks through and becomes widely recognized for what it is, it is inevitably framed by what it isn’t.

Imagine stepping into a time machine and trying to inform someone of the promise of in 1995. Your problem would start right at the beginning, with a lack of appropriate vocabulary to describe what Amazon actually is. …

From: The Mind-Body Problem

It’s hardly a secret that the sporting world is awash in tedious, knee-jerk clichés: We’re just taking it one game at a time. We’ll get ’em next time. It’s time to step up. For my part, nothing drives me running screaming from the TV faster than hearing about that infamous “110%” — This time it will be 110%. I knew I had to give it 110%. We’re here today because every one of us gave it 110%. — a truly inane combination of the hackneyed and the nonsensical.

But lurking in this mathematically illiterate hyperbole lies…

There are many areas of scientific research that resonate strongly with the general public, from genetics to neuroscience to particle physics, but few can compare with the appeal of astrophysics and cosmology.

Perhaps it boils down to a question of accessibility. Appreciating the finer points of the structure of DNA or a proton can be daunting even for highly-trained professionals, but everyone knows what it’s like to look up at the night sky in awe and wonder.

It’s not that astrophysics is easy, of course — far from it — it’s that, somehow, its fundamental allure is so universal as…

From Mindsets: Growing Your Brain

It’s hard to find a more universally accepted piece of parenting advice than the importance of regularly showering your child with praise.

From diminishing the disappointment of failure to actively rewarding achievement, consistently bestowing positive reinforcement and external support seems to be one of the paradigmatic responsibilities of parenthood, allowing children to develop the vital sense of confidence and self-esteem in their formative years that will equip them for success in later life when battling through an often indifferent and uncaring world.

Stanford University psychologist Carol Dweck believes in the power of praise as well…

From: Critical Situations

When you first start delving into Philip Zimbardo’s infamous 1971 Stanford Prison Experiment, two words immediately pop to the surface.

The first is “classic”. Nearly half a century after those six intense days in August when 24 summer students had rapidly metamorphosed into sadistic guards and riotous prisoners, the study has long established itself as one of the most famous experiments in the history of social psychology, standing firmly alongside Stanley Milgram’s work a decade earlier as a formidable demonstration of the powerful effects of situational forces on human behaviour.

The second word, though, is “controversial”. Ever…

From: Our Human Variability

Biology fascinates me. But as a non-expert, I’m forced to think of things in pretty simple terms. So when I hear biologists talk about evolution, adaptability and natural selection, I always find myself asking: What’s going on, exactly? What are the physical mechanisms at play?

After all, if a species evolves through mutations of its members, then these mutations must be physically represented somewhere. And where else could that happen other than in our DNA, our own personal “instruction manual” of nucleotides and genes that we carry with us in every cell.

If evolution is as…

Preface from Conversations About The History Of Ideas

Definitions are often thorny things to be dealing with, not infrequently raising nearly as many difficult questions as they were invented to deal with.

So it is with “intellectual history” or “the history of ideas”. What does it mean, exactly, to be engaged in “the history of ideas”? It is hardly as simple as just coolly observing how a particular concept, like “genius” or “freedom”, methodically unfolds down the ages like some curious sort of intellectual baton in a grand historical relay race.

Indeed, precisely those sorts of caricatures have oftentimes resulted…

From: Learning and Memory

When I learned, shortly before speaking with him, that Alcino Silva had received the 2008 Order of Prince Henry award for his contributions to neuroscience, I must admit that I didn’t think much of it.

After all, governments give awards all the time; and the fact that Silva, who grew up in Angola before moving to the United States, had his work recognized by the Portuguese government, hardly struck me as anything particularly noteworthy.

The truth is that I had never heard of the Order of Prince Henry. …

From: A Matter of Energy: Biology From First Principles

While many scientists welcome the opportunity to engage the public with their work, most don’t write popular books about it. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the fear of trivializing subtle technical concepts when rendering them in everyday language to a broader philosophical belief that the advocacy of specific scientific views should best be left to designated academic mechanisms like peer-reviewed journals.

For most, however, the major stumbling block to writing popular accounts of their work simply boils down to a question of time, aware as they are that…

Howard Burton

Exploring the world of ideas through digital media

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store