Science & Technology

Automaton in the form of a monk, probably Spain, possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano, c. 1550, hardwood, enamel, leather, metals, paint - Metropolitan Museum of Art


James Vincent

20 October 2022

Artificial life could be both mechanical and magical. The term ‘automaton’, referring to a self-moving machine, was first used in Europe in 1531 in a catalogue of magic, De Occulta Philosophia. Automata are listed as a type of ‘celestial magic’, a category which includes maths, music, astronomy and mechanics.

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Linnaeus makes the rules

Lorraine Daston

20 October 2022

Linnaeus accepted the evidence of the astonishing specimens sent to him from far and wide as well as what the microscope revealed of the life teeming in a drop of water. The same Linnaeus who made short . . .

Losing San Francisco

Rebecca Solnit

8 February 2024

Seeing cars​ with no human inside move through San Francisco’s streets is eerie enough as a pedestrian, but when I’m on my bicycle I often find myself riding alongside them, and from that vantage . . .


Liam Shaw

25 January 2024

When​ Virgin Galactic’s spaceplane VSS Unity made its third commercial flight on 8 September 2023, its three crew members were accompanied by three paying customers, ‘private astronauts’ who had . . .

A National Evil

Jonah Goodman

30 November 2023

As​ far as the archivist knew, the 48 box files locked in an attic above the Institute for the History of Medicine at the University of Bern had never been opened. They contained a mass of handwritten . . .

The Sucker, the Sucker! What’s it like to be an octopus?

Amia Srinivasan, 7 September 2017

Octopuses frustrate the neat evolutionary division between clever vertebrates and simple-minded invertebrates. Their intelligence is like ours, and utterly unlike ours. Octopuses are the closest we can come, on earth, to knowing what it might be like to encounter intelligent aliens.

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You Are the Product: It Zucks!

John Lanchester, 17 August 2017

I am scared of Facebook. The company’s ambition, its ruthlessness, and its lack of a moral compass scare me.

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In Hyperspace

Fredric Jameson, 10 September 2015

The time-travel story literally depicts the physical conditions of ‘the Place’ where the ‘points’ from which we ‘view’ plots unfolding must be presumed to abide. But modernity has in fact invented such a hyperspace from which to observe the observer: it is called the camera.

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Ghosting: Julian Assange

Andrew O’Hagan, 6 March 2014

It was exciting to think that no novel had ever captured this new kind of history, where military lies on a global scale were revealed by a bunch of sleepy amateurs two foot from an Aga.

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Diary: After the Oil Spill

Rebecca Solnit, 5 August 2010

The blowout was not only the biggest oil spill in American history by far: it’s a story that touches on everything else – taints everything, like the black glop on sandy beaches, on pelicans, terns, boats, sea turtles, marshlands and dolphins. It’s about climate change, peak oil, the energy future, the American presidency, about corporate power and the corrosive effect of Big Oil on global politics.

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Why does it take so long to mend an escalator?

Peter Campbell, 7 March 2002

The descent to the tunnels through which the deep lines run is a tax on the spirit that is paid willingly because it makes it easier to live in an old, tight-packed city. But when the system fails it is strongly resented.

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What’s left of Henrietta Lacks? HeLa

Anne Enright, 13 April 2000

I don’t know where I heard of her first: a woman whose cells are bred in culture dishes in labs all over the world; a woman whose cells were so prolific that there is more of her now, in...

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On the Darwinian View of Progress

Amartya Sen, 5 November 1992

It is now a century and a third, almost exactly, since the publication in 1859 of Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. In this period the view of evolutionary progress introduced by Darwin...

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The man who mistook his wife for a hat

Oliver Sacks, 19 May 1983

The scientific study of the relationship between brain and mind began in 1861, when Broca, in France, found that specific difficulties in the expressive use of speech (aphasia) consistently...

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‘We’ve messed up, boys’: Bad Blood

Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite, 16 November 2023

Ultimately, the companies responsible for producing and distributing infected blood products paid more than a billion dollars in compensation worldwide, but most victims never got a penny.

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Take that, astrolabe: Medieval Time

Tom Johnson, 19 October 2023

 ‘Medieval people’, Gillian Adler and Paul Strohm write, were ‘more keenly aware of simultaneous and contending temporalities than we are, and more skilled at entertaining a wider range of temporal...

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Are you still living? Counting Americans

Kasia Boddy, 19 October 2023

Who is counted, how, and for what purpose, has changed a lot since 1790. No census has exactly matched its predecessor in method or design: each time, some questions are dropped and others added, while...

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Let them eat oysters: Animal Ethics

Lorna Finlayson, 5 October 2023

It hardly needs to be said that all is not well with our world. We are disempowered, isolated and (quite rationally) anxious about the future. The animal world offers both an escape and the promise of...

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The need for prosthetic brainpower has been apparent throughout human history, evidenced by the continual development of techniques and technologies to compensate for our biological inadequacies. The first...

Read more about Instrumental Tricks: Prosthetic Brainpower

Who scored last? Collision Sport

Gavin Francis, 5 October 2023

Is rugby a participation sport, or an entertainment spectacle? Which should take priority? The newer style of play is making a lot of money for a lot of people, but there is unequivocal evidence that injury...

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Short Cuts: Orca Life

Francis Gooding, 21 September 2023

We may understand less about orcas than they do about us. The example of Twofold Bay suggests they are able to understand human desire and intention, at least when it overlaps with theirs.

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Get a rabbit: Don’t trust the numbers

John Lanchester, 21 September 2023

Data and statistics, all of them, are man-made. They are also central to modern politics and governance, and the ways we talk about them. That in itself represents a shift. Discussions that were once about...

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Diary: Desperate Midwives

Erin Maglaque, 7 September 2023

‘What do you do?’ a midwife asked as she helped me to the bathroom. We were in the postnatal ward for people who have had a bad time of it. ‘I’m a historian of ... all this,’ I answered, and...

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Aha! Plant Detectives

Liam Shaw, 7 September 2023

Pollen is difficult to dislodge, burrowing down into the weave of fabric and insinuating itself into crevices. Inside our noses are delicate curled plates of bone known as the nasal turbinates, each covered...

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Treading Thin Air: Catastrophic Thinking

Geoff Mann, 7 September 2023

The point of highlighting the vertiginous degree of uncertainty is that we might not be making nearly as big a deal of climate change as we should. We are, as a result, tragically under-prepared for the...

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At Wiels: Marc Camille Chaimowicz

Brian Dillon, 10 August 2023

Deciding what to show at Wiels, Chaimowicz wrote to the curator, Zoë Gray: ‘I would like to send you my sitting room.’ The result is a theatrical approximation of The Hayes Court Sitting Room, an...

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In the Alchemist’s Den

Mike Jay, 27 July 2023

Smell has always been a crucial diagnostic sense, the one that brings us closest to the fundamental properties of matter, and the evolution of perfume follows an unbroken narrative thread that extends...

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On Marshy Ground: Fen, Bog and Swamp

Fraser MacDonald, 15 June 2023

Peatlands are wetlands, the argument goes, and wetlands disturb us; they’re the abject backwaters of modernity – marginal and malarial, disavowed and despoiled. We’ve ruined them and now they’ll...

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Short Cuts: High Seas Fishing

Chris Armstrong, 18 May 2023

The scale of the loss is mind-boggling. For every three hundred green turtles that swam the Caribbean before industrialised fishing, just one is left. Ninety per cent of the world’s large fish and oyster...

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Brain Spot Men

Gavin Francis, 4 May 2023

Neurologists are accustomed to breaking bad news. Robert Douglas-Fairhurst’s doctor was brisk and businesslike: ‘I’m going to come right out with it,’ she said. ‘I think you have multiple sclerosis.’

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Paradigms Gone Wild

Steven Shapin, 30 March 2023

Philosophers of science had long accepted their role in justifying science, making the case that scientific knowledge is – take your pick – true, objective, rational, reliable, progressive, powerful....

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Short Cuts: Elective Surgery

Alice Spawls, 30 March 2023

As the suffering increases so do the numbers who go private in desperation. I am sure that in doing so myself I contributed to what seems the unstoppable drift to a two-tier system. But there is a further...

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