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News: February/March 2018

Remembering Murphy’s Law • Control cars with your mind! (What could go wrong?) • Children and chimpanzees crave revenge — News reports by Anja Steinbauer and Filiz Peach

Inventor of Murphy’s Law Born 100 Years Ago

Does a dropped slice of toast always land buttered side down? Is the queue you choose at the supermarket checkout always the slowest moving? January saw the 100th anniversary of the birth of Edward A. Murphy Jr, inventor of Murphy’s Law. An aerospace engineer, he is reported to have said “Anything that can go wrong, will go wrong” during a frustrating set of rocket-sled experiments in 1949 in which he was investigating how much acceleration the human body could withstand. As it turned out, the sixteen painstakingly-arranged sensors on the test pilot had been fastened at the wrong angle so that no readings could be taken. Murphy was irritated by jocular interpretations of his Law; far from being a fatalist he simply wanted to highlight as a design principle that: “If there are two or more ways to do something and one of those ways can result in a catastrophe, then someone will at some point do it.”

Of Cars and Brains

CES 2018 Show Floor
Nissan demo at CES

The carmaker Nissan has unveiled a project to help drivers execute emergency manoeuvres up to half a second faster by using brainwave interface technology. The ‘brain-to-vehicle’ interface that they are developing recognises if a driver is about to stop, brake, swerve or perform some other evasive move, and begins the action immediately, saving vital time. Cars with semi-autonomous capabilities could be fitted with this technology in future. Although the system is still at a fairly early stage of development, Nissan prognosticates that it may be ready for “practical application in 5 to 10 years.” The company gave live demonstrations of the new technology at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas in January. Ironically, the hi-tech show was shut down for several hours by a power outage caused by torrential rain. It was the first rainfall in the desert city for 116 days. No doubt Murphy would have been amused.

Payback Time

How is life in a community possible? What kind of social behaviour is essential? There has been extensive research into empathy in humans and primates, but little has been known about a much more negative yet equally ubiquitous impulse, the desire for revenge on someone who has displayed antisocial behaviour. Now social neuroscientists and evolutionary anthropologists from two Max Planck Institutes in Leipzig have tried to find out at what age humans develop the inclination to watch a deserved punishment and if chimpanzees do the same. Using puppet shows to test children’s responses, they found that children develop the desire for witnessing a deserved comeuppance around the age of six. Then, using a good-cop, bad-cop scenario in which zookeepers removed or supplied food to chimpanzees, they found that the primates had similar reactions to the older children. “Our results demonstrate that six-year-old children and even chimpanzees want to avenge antisocial behaviour and that they feel an urge to watch it. This is where the evolutionary roots of such behaviour originate, a crucial characteristic to manage living in a community,” explains Natacha Mendes, co-author of the published study in Nature Human Behaviour. Her colleague Nikolaus Steinbeis adds: “We cannot definitely say that the children and chimpanzees felt spite. However, their behaviour is a clear sign that six-year-old children as well as chimpanzees are eager to observe how uncooperative members of their community are punished.”

Hans Saner

Swiss philosopher Hans Saner has died aged 83 after a long illness. An original thinker in his own right, Saner was also well known for his connection with one of the great figures from the golden age of existentialist philosophy: Karl Jaspers. From 1962 to 1969 he was Jaspers’ last personal assistant at the University of Basel. He edited much of Jaspers’ later work, as well as writing extensive commentaries on it. Saner also authored numerous books and articles on art, science, religion and politics, some of which have been translated into eleven languages. They include Identity and Resistance (1988), The Anarchy of Silence (1990), The Shadow of Orpheus (2000), and Non-Optimal Strategies (2002). He also wrote a number of essays on Kant, Spinoza, Jaspers and Hannah Arendt.

Hans Saner worked as a primary school teacher in the Bernese Oberland for five years in the 1950s. He then studied Psychology, Philosophy and German at the University of Basel. He completed his dissertation on Kant’s political philosophy in 1967. Saner was known for his outspoken political views and was rejected for a philosophy teaching post by the University of Bern apparently for being ‘too left wing’. He instead became a lecturer at the Music Academy in Basel in 1979 where he taught cultural philosophy until 2008.

Saner had great faith in philosophy. During an interview (Philosophy Now Issue 32) he was asked what he thought of the future of philosophy. His answer was short and sharp: “it will be needed.” He was convinced that everybody could philosophise. However, he thought that “the only difference is that trained philosophers are often arrogant.”

Jerry Fodor Dies

One of the best-known contemporary philosophers of mind, the functionalist Jerry Fodor, died on November 29, 2017 at the age of 82. There is a full obituary in this issue.

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