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News: January/February 2012

Mary Midgley wins Philosophy Now award • Philosophers & physicists discuss particles • Mixed-up monkeys ‘better than mice’ — News reports by Sue Roberts

Michael Dummett

The Oxford philosopher Professor Sir Michael Dummett died at the end of December, aged 86. Dummett was among the most influential British philosophers of the late 20th century, particularly in philosophy of language (he wrote about the relationship between evidence and truth) and philosophy of mathematics (he defended intuitionism). He was also a campaigner for racial tolerance; in 1958 he and his wife Ann co-founded the Institute of Race Relations think tank. Their passion for racial justice resulted in Dummett putting his academic career on hold for a time in order to campaign against racism. Dummett’s first book, Frege: Philosophy of Language did not appear until 1973, but was followed by several later works. His obituary will be in Issue 89.

Opposition on All Sides

During their long multi-sided civil war, the citizens of Lebanon learnt a great deal about oppositions, so there may have been something ironic in the decision of the American University of Beirut to host a World Congress on the Square of Opposition this coming June. However, the ‘square of opposition’ in this case is a famous diagram in Aristotelian logic. It summarizes the logical relations between four kinds of proposition. The organisers promise “a multidisciplinary event with stars from the East and the West”, so maybe it should have been held in Bethlehem instead. (For more info, see www.square-of-opposition.org.)

Opinions Set to Collide

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN, Geneva, has begun searching for the Higgs Boson, the so-called ‘God particle’. But if it is found, will it be more accurate to say it has been discovered or that it has been created in the experiment? What place can such an extraordinarily massive yet elusive particle occupy in our picture of the cosmos? When experiments are so complex and the results so ambiguous and open to interpretations, what can we say we know afterwards? Philosophers and physicists will sit down together to discuss such questions at a workshop on modeling and high energy physics to be held from 26th-28th January at Wuppertal University in Germany.

By the way, here is the latest joke from the physics community: “And the barman says, ‘I hear you guys can run faster than light?’ Two neutrinos go into a bar.”

Oregon of Species?

The journal Cell reports that a team of scientists at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland has achieved a ‘first’ by producing three healthy rhesus monkeys after implanting combined cells from separate embryos into female monkeys. Animals composed of a mixture of genetically distinct cells from two or more embryos are known as chimeras. In this research project the cell mix represented tissue from up to six distinct embryos. Head of team Dr Shoukhrat Mitalipov explained that while in mice the different cells would fuse together, in this case “the cells never fuse but stay together to form tissues and organs.”

Prof. Robin Lovell-Badge, from the UK National Institute for Medical Research, described the results as being very significant, saying “Assumptions about the way human embryos develop have always been based on the mouse.” Monkeys should provide a better role model for humans than mice. Chimeras can be used to understand the role of specific genes in the development of embryos as well as for studying the overall mechanisms of development.

Philosophy Now Festival

On 18th December, Philosophy Now magazine celebrated it’s 20th birthday by holding London’s first philosophy festival. The all-day festival at Conway Hall included debates, public lectures, and philosophical fun and games. According to the CEO of Conway Hall, Dr Jim Walsh, around 1,500 people passed through the doors during the course of the day. We’ll be publishing a full report in the next issue. Many thanks to all who took part!

The winner of the first annual Philosophy Now Award for Contributions in the Fight Against Stupidity (out of 25 nominations received) was the philosopher Dr Mary Midgley. The award was for her many contributions to clear thinking. Unfortunately Dr Midgley had fallen and injured her hip two weeks before the festival, so the award was accepted on her behalf by one of her sons, Martin Midgley, who also gave a talk.

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