Science and Technology

From Vostok to laughing stock

On 12 April 1961, the first human blasted off into space. It was an amazing achievement and was a display not only of the remarkable technological prowess of those who designed and built the spacecraft, but also of the person courage of the man inside the capsule. His name was Yuri Gagarin and he was just 27 years old. The craft he piloted was called Vostok 1. He is correctly honoured across Russia, and his memory revered, while the Soviet leaders of that time are long forgotten. Gagarin sadly died seven years later in a plane crash. Sixty years after Gagarin’s historic flight, the British...

The science of brains

InSolidarity 597 John Cunningham wrote that a materialist understanding of thought requires a deep understanding of the brain and its functioning at the physical level. Matt Cooper in Solidarity 598 called this a reductionist approach “which attempts to reduce the social-psychological to only a biological level”, arguing instead for psychology as “the study of observable behaviour… [and] the ideas, feelings or mental structures on which it is based”. I think both of these are true and both are partial. How can they both be true? The brain is an extremely complex entity and must be understood...

Women's Fightback: Your assistant may not be female

If you’ve updated the operating system on your iPhone recently you’ll notice Siri is no longer defaulting to a female voice. This is Apple’s response to criticism of the gender bias in virtual assistance. Digital sociologists Yolande Strengers and Jenny Kennedy argue that Siri, and other voice assistants such as Amazon Alexa and Google Home, have been developed in order to “carry out ‘wifework’ — domestic duties that have traditionally fallen on (human) wives.” They accuse tech companies of designing feminised digital assistants who are “friendly and sometimes flirty, occasionally glitchy but...

Automation will not abolish work

Aaron Benanav’s book Automation and the Future of Work is aimed against what he calls the automation discourse. He defines this as a belief that high levels of technological unemployment will result from the introduction of new technology and that we will soon be faced with a largely automated economy. Such ideas can be found both on the left and right. Benanav rejects both their economic analysis and the political solutions such as Universal Basic Income (UBI) most commonly proposed to deal with the fallout from automation. I welcome Benanav’s riposte to the recent flurry of predictions of a...

A reply to Matt Cooper on the brain

In response to my posing the question is there a Marxist analysis of the brain, and the answer to my own question, "probably not", my old friend Matt Cooper argues that we need to be "much clearer".

Materialism and neuroscience reductionism

John Cunningham’s review of The Idea of the Brain in Solidarity 597 asks “Is there a Marxist analysis of the Brain?” Although John answers “probably not”, we need to be much clearer. Marxism is not a-theory-of-everything but a rigorous (scientific, if you like) understanding of human society, its history and progress, conjoined with the value-driven (non-scientific) wish for a complete human existence in an imminent fair and free society. As such Marxism has something to say about scientific method. Certainly, Marxists have much to say on the impact of class society, gender and racial...

Kino Eye: Medical pioneers on film

Here’s a film about the man whose name is forever associated with vaccination — the Frenchman Louis Pasteur. The Story of Louis Pasteur (director William Dieterle, 1936) concerns his struggle to convince a conservative medical establishment that diseases are caused by bacteria. He is opposed by Emperor Napoleon III’s personal physician Dr. Charbonnet. The Republican government which ousts Napoleon encourages Pasteur (actor Paul Munni) to continue his research which, in his experiments with anthrax, ultimately demonstrates the validity of his approach. One American review quipped: “If this...

The science of brains

Is there a Marxist analysis of the brain? Probably not, but a materialist analysis of this amazingly complex organ is possible (and necessary). Matthew Cobb’s book The Idea of the Brain: A History traces the history of our understanding of the brain from 1665, when the Danish anatomist Nicolaus Steno announced that the brain could be best understood as a machine, an idea that still resonates today. And, despite the intense research that has gone on over the years and the mountains of published scientific articles, brain research is still in the dark about how much of the brain functions...

Lab leak theory very unlikely

Jim Denham makes apt criticisms of the Morning Star in his article in Solidarity 596, for yet another article that is both demagogic and championing the Chinese ruling class. Yet he is gives too much ground to the continued viability of a lab leak theory of SARS-CoV-2's origins. Contrary to what Jim's article implied, the WHO mission did investigate the possibility of a laboratory leak. They found "direct zoonotic spillover... a possible-to-likely pathway; introduction through an intermediate host... a likely to very likely pathway; introduction through cold/ food chain products… a possible...

Don't even investigate, says Morning Star

As matters stand the balance of scientific opinion is that the Covid-19 pandemic probably started by a virus jumping from an animal host to humans in the Wuhan wet market or elsewhere. But we don’t know and may never know. The Biden administration in the USA is launching an investigation, which includes considering the idea that the virus leaked from a lab. Of course the Biden administration will have political motives in including that idea, just as the Chinese authorities had their motives for promoting the theory that the virus came from outside China. But it is not pursuing Donald Trump’s...

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