Do the words we use determine the world we perceive?
If I say to-mah-toe and you say to-may-toe, to call the whole thing off would be rash. But if I say tomato and you say la tomate, we might be living in subtly different worlds. Do your tomatoes have something in common with cars (la voiture) and houses (la maison) and the Moon (la Lune) that mine do not, simply in virtue of the gender of your words? Lera Boroditsky, Assistant Professor in the Department of Psychology at Stanford University, thinks so. In a series of studies exploring linguistic relativism, she claims to have shown that “even small flukes of grammar, like the seemingly arbitrary assignment of gender to a noun, can have an effect on people’s ideas of concrete objects in the world”. 
In one experiment, for example, Boroditsky and colleagues asked German and Spanish speakers to describe a key – an object named by a masculine noun in German and a feminine noun in Spanish. Boroditsky found that German speakers were more likely to say “hard”, “heavy”, “metal”, and “useful”, while Spanish speakers favoured terms like “golden”, “intricate”, “little”, and “lovely”, which would appear to suggest that German speakers see keys as having more masculine qualities than Spanish speakers do. It is a fascinating claim, but a controversial one. “Unfortunately,” says Professor Gabriella Vigliocco, of University College London’s Division of Psychology and Language Sciences, “lack of replication is a major issue in this area.”
“Language is a fundamental feature of how we think about the world,” says Vigliocco. “Language tells us a lot about what concepts there are, and how we should conceive of the world in general.” But her own findings in experiments with English and Italian speakers do not support the idea that linguistic gender has a conceptual effect – despite admitting that it would be “far more interesting” if they did. “The fact that in Italian ‘the fork’ is feminine doesn’t make the fork more female-like, so to speak, than in a language that doesn’t have a gender,” she explains.
According to Vigliocco, linguistic gender comes into play in such experiments only once speakers are prompted to come up with characteristics for an object. “People use whatever resources they have [available] in order to solve such tasks, and if the language has gender, why not?” she says. “If your language were to divide objects into male or female, then that’s an obvious way to go about classifying them.”
The issue is complicated. “Of course language is playing a fundamental role in shaping our cognition,” she says. “On the other hand, it’s also not as black-and-white or as simple as saying ‘oh, this language has two genders, male and female, so for these speakers all the things that have a masculine gender are going to be more male-like than the things that have the female gender.’”
Of particular interest are the more abstract concepts “related to society, politics, religion, and so forth” that we can only access through language– things we cannot experience with our senses. “We learn to categorise the internal world via language,” she says. Our grasp of more abstract concepts may be more susceptible to linguistic influence than concrete ones. Boroditsky, for example, has also looked at whether our perception of time is affected by the way we talk about it. Though there are again difficulties with replication, Vigliocco is more open to that possibility. “In my work, I always claimed that effects of language on cognition should be assessed one by one,” she says. “But this does not exclude the possibility of an effect for time.”
Brain-imaging techniques are now being used to complement behavioural experiments, which might open up new lines of research. “It’s a two-way street,” she says. “Especially if you are looking at how other systems – like perceptual systems – work and are affected by a specific language.” By monitoring what goes on in the brain while people speak, we can learn how words are processed mentally. New techniques might also help with the replication issues of behavioural work. “They are different experimental techniques that really go hand in hand,” she says.
But what of our initial question? Does the way we speak really affect our perception of the world? “I think there is good enough evidence now that language can affect cognition under some conditions,” she says. “So, really, we are beyond asking whether there is some form of relativism or not. Yes, there is. However, this does not also imply that language is the only force sharing our cognitive make-up. Our culture, our physical environment, and our bodies also play a critical role in how our cognition is shaped.”
 “How Does Our Language Shape the Way We Think?”, in Max Brockman (ed.) What’s Next? Dispatches On the Future of Science.
Enjoying that cup of coffee? That’ll be 21g of CO2 emissions, please. The sandwich is 40g, the crisps 15g, and the banana 80g. And while 3g for flushing the toilet is thankfully a bargain, washing and drying your hands will cost another 35g. How do I know this? My phone told me. And if David Stefan gets to extend his recent stunt beyond the Chelsea College of Art and Design, yours would tell you too.
Stefan is probably best described as a software engineer, but he splits his time between University College London’s Department of Computer Science and the Urban Sustainability & Resilience Centre where he is working towards a doctorate. For the last month, though, he has been creating an art installation with a team of design students that he hopes will amount to a fresh way of thinking about urban sustainability.
Most of us are used to food coming with a breakdown of dietary information – calories, salt content, saturated fats – so why not add a carbon cost to the list? “Because that number doesn’t tell you much,” says Stefan. “Do you know what 80 grams of CO2 is? I wouldn’t know what it means.” But that is exactly what he and his collaborators wanted to get people asking.
They hit on the idea of sticking QR codes – square barcodes easily read by most of our phones – to as many consumable items as they could. In case these eye-catching yellow and black stickers were not intriguing enough, they finished off the installation by digging up the turf of Chelsea College’s parade ground to make a QR code 12 metres square and viewable only from the sky.
“We somehow came to the idea of a QR code because you can use that idea to basically encode any sort of information,” says Stefan. “If you scan a banana it will take you to a website that tells you the CO2 that’s produced by eating a banana. Growing it, shipping it over to Europe, distributing it to the shops, getting it to the college… We can’t just think in terms of price or how many calories we get by eating a banana – there’s also how big an impact it makes on the environment. That was the main message I think.”
Information is power, they say. Good thing my phone also comes with a calculator.
“What I cannot create, I do not understand.” – Richard Feynman
We live in a man-made world. There is a good chance that everything within your sight right now has been manufactured, except – though perhaps only for now – the people. Machines for every purpose, buildings filled with clutter, paved and plastic surfaces, commodities of all kinds, dogs, clothes, and haircuts. Artefacts, every one. Away from industrialised cities, agriculture has been carving out its landscape for millennia. We have covered the Earth and filled the skies with human constructs, remaking the world to suit our myriad needs. Changes we have made to the Earth can be seen from space, and telescopes show us what we left behind on the moon.
We have manipulated atoms to write the initials of corporations and synthesised an artificial genome. Here too, Craig Venter’s team left their mark, etching their names into the fabric of life. They announced they had encoded in their genome those famous words of Feynman quoted above – found on his blackboard after his death in 1988 – and a line from James Joyce: “To live, to err, to fall, to triumph, to recreate life out of life.” When told they had misquoted Feynman’s words and used Joyce’s without permission Venter, master craftsman, simply promised to resynthesise a corrected version. To err is human, but so is to triumph.
Of course, nothing would be possible without tools. The making of tools – whether stone axes or computers – is the precursor to making everything else. Our development as a species has gone hand in hand with making and without tools, without artefacts, would we even be human? But with great power comes great responsibility, as the old adage goes. Though popularised as Uncle Ben’s advice to Stan Lee’s young Spiderman, the sentiment goes back at least to Voltaire, the Enlightenment, and the birth of modern science. Today, with the capabilities to remake not only our world but ourselves, are we mature enough to show restraint if – or when – it is needed?
“Practising responsibly requires some humility,” says Dr Megan Palmer, Deputy Director of Practices at the Synthetic Biology Engineering Research Centre (SynBERC) – one of many institutions promoting responsible research along science’s new fronts. For Palmer, responsibility “involves recognizing that we are always operating under limited and imperfect information, and striving to identify and address areas of uncertainty in both the benefits and risks of technologies.” Perhaps we should then add to Feynman’s words: “What I can create, it is my duty to understand.”
Contrary to popular legend, it turns out the Fountain of Youth is a sewage outlet behind the Queen’s Medical Centre in Nottingham. “Strangely, the water quality’s actually very good,” says Aziz Aboobaker of the University of Nottingham in the video below as he scrabbles around under stones, looking for planarian worms. But these tiny animals are more than just a cute face. As a recent paper co-authored by Aboobaker puts it, they are potentially immortal (“or at least very long-lived”).
“I think the coolest thing is that we can take a worm in the lab, chop its head off, and within seven days the worm has regrown a whole new brain,” he says. “The brain, even in a simple worm like that, is incredibly complex. Thousands of cells have all got to be in the right place, all know what they’re doing, so this animal can find its way about.”
This feat is made possible by the large number of stem cells the worms have. “Between 15 and 25 percent of all the cells in this worm are stem cells,” he says. Humans have a certain number of stem cells – in our bone marrow, for example – primarily allowing us to make new blood, new bone, and new muscle cells. But the worms can replace every system in their body.
In a vivid analogy, Aboobaker says this would be like cutting off one of his hands and having it grow into a whole new him – with a new skeleton, organs, and nervous system. But mini-Aboobaker would be just 6 inches tall, since the regeneration process would have only the tissue of that hand to work from.
A stem cell is any cell that is capable of making more than one other type of cell. So all the cells in our body originally came from a cell that was a stem cell – hence the interest in conducting research with stem cells taken from embryos. “The ultimate stem cell is the one-cell embryo before it divides,” he says.
Planarium worms are so fascinating because their stem cells retain the ability to make any other cell into adulthood. “If we can figure out how that animal does it, we’ll hopefully be able to apply those same mechanisms to medical applications,” he says. Aboobaker can also recommend the little critters as pets. “They’re kind of cute, no trouble, perfect pets, and they don’t die.”
Yet another charming thing about the video is that it was apparently a YouTube comment that prompted Aboobaker to conduct the latest research culminating in the recent paper. All quests for the secret of eternal life need a quest-giver.
In February 2082, 70 years from now, 65,536 objects enter our atmosphere simultaneously, blanket the Earth in a precise latitudinal/longitudinal grid, emit radio signals for just over a minute, then burn up. This is first contact, this is Firefall.
A crew of post-humans – phenotypes extending into machinery both inside and outside the body – led by a vampire – one of a super-intelligent species genetically engineered back into existence – is sent to investigate a comet in the Kuiper Belt. Their ship, the Captain, lets them sleep for five years, waking them instead for a rendezvous with a super-Jovian beyond the Oort cloud.
So far, so Arthur C. Clarke (except for the vampires). But Blindsight is a novel scattershot with ideas, including 18 pages of appendices and 144 real-world citations. “References and remarks, to try and convince you all I’m not crazy”, is how Watts puts it. On vampire biology, for instance: “Since intersecting right angles are virtually nonexistent in nature, natural selection did not weed out the Crucifix Glitch until H. sapiens sapiens developed Euclidean architecture; by then, the trait had become fixed across H. sapiens vampiris via genetic drift, and—suddenly denied access to its prey—the entire subspecies went extinct shortly after the dawn of recorded history.” Its slow-burning narrative also builds to a resolution of the Fermi paradox that involves one of the most disturbing possibilities I have ever come across.
Given that the age and size of the universe ought to make intelligent life a statistical likelihood, Enrico Fermi wondered in the 1950s why there was no evidence of extraterrestrial civilisations. The number of Earth-like exoplanets recently discovered gives Fermi’s observation renewed bite. However, the devastatingly plausible premise of Blindsight is that intelligence need not imply sentience. Non-sentient life could exist, and evolve, and become what we would call – perhaps anthropomorphically – intelligent. The universe may even be filled with it. But it would not think. It would not reflect. It would not reach out to make contact, it would not make civilisations.
“Everyone else is still looking for some reason for self-awareness to exist, some adaptive advantage that it confers”, Watts once said. “And I really, really hope they’re right, but I can’t think of one.” Consciousness is a distraction, it is energy-inefficient, and as New Scientist reported in 2006, conscious decisions are slower: “At some point in our evolution, we started to make decisions consciously, and we’re not very good at it”, Ap Dijksterhuis of the University of Amsterdam is quoted as saying. Consciousness may be an evolutionary dead end.
“We could engineer ourselves back into non-sentience, perhaps”, one of the crew suggests in Blindsight. “But I guess that wouldn’t be much of a win, would it? What’s the difference between being dead, and just not knowing you’re alive?”
It is often said we can feel most alone in a crowd. Looking up at the sky and imagining it teeming with unconscious life, I believe that to be true.