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News: May/June 2012

Ruth Barcan Marcus • Alan Turing Birthday Party • Festival Fun & Frolics • Wikipedia philosophy editor makes a million edits — News reports by Sue Roberts

Ruth Barcan Marcus

The logician Ruth Barcan Marcus died on 19th February, aged 90. Born in the Bronx, Marcus was a professor at Yale University for many years. She made original contributions to many areas of philosophy, including metaphysics, philosophy of language, and theory of knowledge, but she is particularly known for her groundbreaking work on quantified modal logic. She was one of the first women philosophers to have a major impact on what has been seen as a particularly male-dominated branch of philosophy.

Though some found her energy and strong will intimidating, former colleagues and students praised her warmth and her supportive attitude. One member of Philosophy Now’s editorial board, Prof. Walter Sinnott-Armstrong, is a former student of Marcus. He told the Yale Daily News: “I think she will always be a model of the philosophical life. She showed how one can be a serious philosopher with very high standards and a compassionate person.”

How The Light Gets In

Over the first ten days of June, a large festival will take place in the small town of Hay-on-Wye at the foot of the Black Mountains, on the border between Wales and England. ‘How the Light Gets In’ promises to be an unusual combination of live music events and philosophical debate. It will include a large number of philosophy talks and panel discussions involving such folk as Luce Irigaray, Mary Midgley, James Lovelock, Nigel Lawson, Brian Eno, and Julian Savulescu. Kevin Warwick will be talking about cyborgs, and Stephen Cave will be talking about ways to live forever. Philosophy Now’s Anja Steinbauer will be giving a talk on sentimentality, our columnist Professor Raymond Tallis will be talking about all sorts of things and there will be a Philosophy Now dinner on the final weekend. For all events advance booking is best, so see www.howthelightgetsin.org.

Alan Turing Birthday Party

On 15th-16th June a 100th birthday party will be held for Alan Turing (1912-1954), who will be unable to attend for obvious reasons. Turing’s birthday is well worth celebrating, as his many achievements in cryptography and computer science shaped the modern world. He introduced the revolutionary idea that computing machines could be controlled by means of a program of coded instructions stored in the computer’s memory. During WW2 he played a crucial role within the British team at Bletchley Park which cracked the coded messages produced by the Enigma Machine, an achievement often credited with shortening the war. A few years later, a grateful nation prosecuted him for homosexuality (which was then illegal) and the pressure is presumed to have driven him to suicide in 1954. His other contributions include the ‘Turing Test’ for machine intelligence.

The birthday party will be held at King’s College, Cambridge, where Turing was a student and later a fellow. Speakers will include a team of experts on Turing, leading scientists and science broadcasters including Simon Singh and Stephen Wolfram, and well-known philosophers Margaret Boden and Dan Dennett. Members of Turing’s family and others who knew him personally will be there to share their memories of him. There will be lectures on Turing’s contributions to: wartime codebreaking, artificial intelligence, artificial life, the development of our technological society, the theory and practice of computing and the understanding of the human mind.

Be Anxious… Be Very Anxious

Research into behavioural patterns has thrown interesting light on how worrying correlates with intelligence. A study reported in the journal Frontiers in Evolutionary Neuroscience reveals that the worst sufferers of a common anxiety disorder had a higher IQ than those whose symptoms were less severe. The researchers speculate that worrying is good for the brain and probably vital for survival; evolving in humans along with intelligence to make them more adept at avoiding danger. Alternatively, of course, it could just be that more imaginative people can think of more things to worry about.

Facts? Forget ‘Em!

In April, inner-London teacher John Overton warned the conference of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers that a return to traditional teaching methods, with the emphasis on learning dates, facts and figures (as recently proposed by the British government) could be counter-productive. He proposed that schools should instead concentrate on teaching skills such as independent research, interpreting evidence and critical thinking. He suggested that smartphones provide a ‘substantial’ knowledge bank which make it unnecessary to commit as many facts to memory as in the past. The idea that smartphones could complement or replace the memory in our heads resonates well with current theories of ‘extended consciousness’ proposed by philosophers and neurologists such as Antonio Damasio.

A Grateful World Celebrates Justin Knapp Day

On 19th April it was announced that since 2005, a million edits have been made to philosophy, religion and politics articles on Wikipedia … by the same man. Justin Knapp, a 30-year old graduate of the University of Indiana with degrees in philosophy and politics, has averaged an astonishing 385 edits per day ever since he joined the online encyclopedia’s 90,000 voluntary editors in that year. In recognition of his achievement in becoming the first person ever to notch up a million edits, Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales decreed that April 20th 2012 should be celebrated as Justin Knapp Day. Knapp’s source of income has been reported as being pizza delivery, but he is said to have become a folk-hero to fellow editors.

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