How Should Rationalists Approach Death?

“How Should Rationalists Approach Death?” That’s the title of the panel I’m moderating this weekend at Skepticon, and I couldn’t be more excited. It’s a big topic – we won’t figure it all out in an hour, but I know we’ll get people to think. Do common beliefs about death make sense? How can we find comfort about our mortality? Should we try to find comfort about death? What should society be doing about death?

I managed to get 4 fantastic panelists, all of whom I respect and admire:

  • Greta Christina is author, blogger, speaker extraordinaire. Her writing has appeared in multiple magazines and newspapers, including Ms., Penthouse, Chicago Sun-Times, On Our Backs, and Skeptical Inquirer. I’ve been thrilled to see her becoming a well-known and respected voice in the secular community. She delivered the keynote address at the Secular Student Alliance’s 2010 Conference, and has been on speaking tours around the country.
  • James Croft is a candidate for an Ed.D at Harvard and works with the Humanist Chaplaincy at Harvard. I had the pleasure of meeting James two years ago at American Humanist Association conference, where we talked and argued for hours. Eloquent, gracious, and sharp, he’s a great model of intellectual engagement. He’s able to disagree agreeably, but also change his mind when the occasion calls for it.
  • Eliezer Yudkowsky co-founded the nonprofit Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence (SIAI), where he works as a full-time Research Fellow. He’s written must-read essays on Bayes’ Theorem and human rationality as well as great works of fiction. Have you heard me rave about Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality? That’s him. His writings, especially on the community blog LessWrong, have influenced my thinking quite a bit.
  • And some lady named Julia Galef, who apparently writes a pretty cool blog with her brother, Jesse.

To give you a taste of what to expect, I chose two passages about finding hope in death – one from Greta, the other from Eliezer.


But we can find ways to frame reality — including the reality of death — that make it easier to deal with. We can find ways to frame reality that do not ignore or deny it and that still give us comfort and solace, meaning and hope. And we can offer these ways of framing reality to people who are considering atheism but have been taught to see it as inevitably frightening, empty, and hopeless.

And I’m genuinely puzzled by atheists who are trying to undercut that.


I wonder at the strength of non-transhumanist atheists, to accept so terrible a darkness without any hope of changing it. But then most atheists also succumb to comforting lies, and make excuses for death even less defensible than the outright lies of religion. They flinch away, refuse to confront the horror of a hundred and fifty thousand sentient beings annihilated every day. One point eight lives per second, fifty-five million lives per year. Convert the units, time to life, life to time. The World Trade Center killed half an hour. As of today, all cryonics organizations together have suspended one minute. This essay took twenty thousand lives to write. I wonder if there was ever an atheist who accepted the full horror, making no excuses, offering no consolations, who did not also hope for some future dawn. What must it be like to live in this world, seeing it just the way it is, and think that it will never change, never get any better?

If you’re coming to Skepticon – and you should, it’s free! – you need to be there for this panel.

Easy Math Puzzle – Or is it?

How good are you at basic math? Can you solve this simple logic puzzle? Here, give it a go and let me know how long it took you to answer:

Got it yet?

It looks easier than it is. The options are presented beautifully to cause maximum mental confusion.

As my dad put it, the answer depends on the answer. If the answer is 60%, it’s 25%. If the answer is 25% it’s 50%. If the answer is 50% it’s 25%. There’s an endless loop with no correct answer.

Don’t lose sleep, I “found” an answer, it was hidden: [edited for clarity]

Yes, I photoshopped this. I’m either cheating or engaging in outside-the-box thinking. Sometimes it’s tough to tell the difference.

My preferred set of answers would be:

  • A) 25%
  • B) 50%
  • C) 75%
  • D) 50%

Though I’m tempted to throw a “0%” in for good measure…

(Puzzle via PostSecret by way of Spencer of Ask a Mathematician/Ask a Physicist)

[Edited for clarity]

Why this Meme Exploded

[cross-posted on Friendly Atheist]

Somehow, it went viral. In just 24 hours, the Secular Student Alliance (my organization)’s Facebook page exploded from 6,500 supporters’ “likes” to 18,000. I found myself thinking, “How the hell did that happen?” And then thinking, “Hmm… how can we do it again?”

The whole thing started with Kenny Flagg, one of our group leaders with the Freethinkers of UND. After noticing that the SSA’s Facebook presence was much smaller than Campus Crusade for Christ’s, he wanted to make a difference. He “grabbed both profile pictures for the groups, added the stats from each page, and threw in a quick meme for good measure.” Then he posted it on Reddit. That was it. Take a look – would you would expect it to inspire a frenzy of activity?

Yes, this is the image that launched a thousand clicks. Well, several thousand, actually.

I had to figure out why a simple picture like this inspired such a big reaction. The more I thought about it, the more psychology and rhetorical communication techniques I saw present. Kenny:

  1. Demonstrated insider status
  2. Invoked tribal/patriotic feelings, and
  3. Gave people direction.

Well look at that. In classic style, he hit the three branches of rhetoric: Ethos, Pathos, and Logos.

Kenny’s Insider Status (Ethos)

Kenny was a perfect person for the task. If my coworkers or I had been the ones to post, we would seem self-serving. Kenny, not being an SSA employee, comes across as a more objective voice. Do you trust the used car salesman or the blue book to tell you a car’s value? We tend to trust people more if they share our interest – and we trust them less if we suspect they’re looking out for themselves.

A great way to gain people’s trust is by proving that you’re a member of their community. Sharing group identity acts as a proxy for sharing values. The “Challenge accepted” meme accomplished that beautifully. It’s like using slang – it reinforces your status as an insider. Redditors heard the message: “I’m one of you.” He put that to good use.

Our Tribal Emotions (Pathos)

After establishing his credibility as an insider, Kenny appealed to an incredibly powerful emotion to get them to act: group loyalty. When groups of people get compared to their rivals, it creates an us-versus-them mentality. The competition angle rallied atheists on Reddit into a stronger, more unified group.

And the more atheist redditors rallied together, the stronger the social proof dynamic became. When we’re in a group, we tend to watch other people for cues about how to behave. As redditors saw other people commenting, upvoting the post, and liking the SSA’s page, it influenced their behavior. People got the impression: “This is what it atheists on Reddit are doing.” As part of that group, they felt moved to behave the same way.

Kenny’s post inspired group pride, anger at cultural opponents, and the desire to fit in – emotions that motivate us to act. But that motivation needed direction.

Giving a Direction (Logos)

Have you ever felt that you wanted to make a difference, but just didn’t know how to do it? Without direction, all that energy just sputters out. Telling people to “eat healthier” is overwhelming and vague, but saying “switch to 1% milk” is specific and helpful.

Kenny gave everyone a simple, concrete task: go click “like” on the Secular Student Alliance’s page. He had everyone share his big vision: to get the Secular Student Alliance as many “likes” as the Campus Crusade for Christ page. He even provided a link to the SSA’s Facebook page. The direction was clear.

It all fit together.

Can we do this again?

We never know for sure whether a meme will explode.

But we’ll be more likely to go viral if we pay attention to what works. If you’re interested, I recommend Chip and Dan Heath’s books Made to Stick and Switch. Kenny managed to use psychology techniques without meaning to, but we can be more deliberate with our efforts. (Be careful fostering us-versus-them feelings. Competition is all well and good, but actual hostility is dangerous.)

There might seem like a lot of it boils down to luck. But as Richard Wiseman found, capitalizing on “luck” is really a skill. The Secular Student Alliance prepared by generating student leaders who were enthusiastic to help us out. When we spotted the opportunity we posted like madmen, and even  hosted an “Ask Us Anything” to interact with the community. And yes, Kenny did a fantastic job.

For such a quick image, it had a lot going for it. It’s not exactly Cicero orating in the Roman Senate, but it was damn good rhetoric in its own way. Forget a thousand words, that picture was worth 12,000 Facebook fans.

Overcoming The Curse of Knowledge

[crossposted at LessWrong]

What is the Curse of Knowledge, and how does it apply to science education, persuasion, and communication? No, it’s not a reference to the Garden of Eden story. I’m referring to a particular psychological phenomenon that can make our messages backfire if we’re not careful.

Communication isn’t a solo activity; it involves both you and the audience. Writing a diary entry is a great way to sort out thoughts, but if you want to be informative and persuasive to others, you need to figure out what they’ll understand and be persuaded by. A common habit is to use ourselves as a mental model – assuming that everyone else will laugh at what we find funny, agree with what we find convincing, and interpret words the way we use them. The model works to an extent – especially with people similar to us – but other times our efforts fall flat. You can present the best argument you’ve ever heard, only to have it fall on dumb – sorry, deaf – ears.

That’s not necessarily your fault – maybe they’re just dense! Maybe the argument is brilliant! But if we want to communicate successfully, pointing fingers and assigning blame is irrelevant. What matters is getting our point across, and we can’t do it if we’re stuck in our head, unable to see things from our audience’s perspective. We need to figure out what words will work.

Unfortunately, that’s where the Curse of Knowledge comes in. In 1990, Elizabeth Newton did a fascinating psychology experiment: She paired participants into teams of two: one tapper and one listener. The tappers picked one of 25 well-known songs and would tap out the rhythm on a table. Their partner – the designated listener – was asked to guess the song. How do you think they did?

Not well. Of the 120 songs tapped out on the table, the listeners only guessed 3 of them correctly – a measly 2.5 percent. But get this: before the listeners gave their answer, the tappers were asked to predict how likely their partner was to get it right. Their guess? Tappers thought their partners would get the song 50 percent of the time. You know, only overconfident by a factor of 20. What made the tappers so far off?

They lost perspective because they were “cursed” with the additional knowledge of the song title. Chip and Dan Heath use the story in their book Made to Stick to introduce the term:

“The problem is that tappers have been given knowledge (the song title) that makes it impossible for them to imagine what it’s like to lack that knowledge. When they’re tapping, they can’t imagine what it’s like for the listeners to hear isolated taps rather than a song. This is the Curse of Knowledge. Once we know something, we find it hard to imagine what it was like not to know it. Our knowledge has “cursed” us. And it becomes difficult or us to share our knowledge with others, because we can’t readily re-create our listeners’ state of mind.”

So it goes with communicating complex information. Because we have all the background knowledge and understanding, we’re overconfident that what we’re saying is clear to everyone else. WE know what we mean! Why don’t they get it? It’s tough to remember that other people won’t make the same inferences, have the same word-meaning connections, or share our associations.

It’s particularly important in science education. The more time a person spends in a field, the more the field’s obscure language becomes second nature. Without special attention, audiences might not understand the words being used – or worse yet, they might get the wrong impression.

Over at the American Geophysical Union blog, Callan Bentley gives a fantastic list of Terms that have different meanings for scientists and the public.

What great examples! Even though the scientific terms are technically correct in context, they’re obviously the wrong ones to use when talking to the public about climate change. An inattentive scientist could know all the material but leave the audience walking away with the wrong message.

We need to spend the effort to phrase ideas in a way the audience will understand. Is that the same as “dumbing down” a message? After all, complicated ideas require complicated words and nuanced answers, right? Well, no. A real expert on a topic can give a simple distillation of material, identifying the core of the issue. Bentley did an outstanding job rephrasing technical, scientific terms in a way that conveys the intended message to the public.

That’s not dumbing things down, it’s showing a mastery of the concepts. And he was able to do it by overcoming the “curse of knowledge,” seeing the issue from other people’s perspective. Kudos to him – it’s an essential part of science education, and something I really admire.

Being a Dick is not Binary

(crossposted at Friendly Atheist)

“Should we be offensive?” is a common question in the secular movement. It’s also the wrong question.

The title of this post comes from Phil Plait’s “Don’t be a Dick” talk at TAM 8, which sparked conversation about the wisdom of offending people in the cause of critical thinking. Though it generated the most attention, it’s not the first time we’ve asked these questions: Should we condemn people for opposing LGBT rights? Mock people for believing in creationism? Call religion a delusion? Sometimes it seems like everything we do offends people – even the simple act of advertising our existence offended Iowa Governor Chet Culver.

In the face of that, it’s almost liberating, isn’t it? If everything we do is offensive, it doesn’t matter anymore – we can stop worrying about it. In fact, I used to argue that myself! When confronted with accusations that Everybody Draw Muhammad Day was offensive, I’d point to the bus ads and billboards and say, “People get offended at the most mundane things. We can’t let that hold us back.”

But offensiveness not a simple yes-or-no issue. Like Julia wrote a few months ago, it’s tempting to treat belief as a black and white matter. It’s not – we can hold beliefs with differing degrees of confidence, and if we treat it otherwise we lose a lot of power to make distinctions, see nuance, and chart the best course of action. It’s the same with asking whether or not to be offensive. We need to add nuance.

At the first level, it’s probably more helpful to phrase the question “How many people are my actions likely to offend?” Not all offensive statements are equal. Sure, saying “People can be good without god” offends people, but not as many people as “Religion is a myth.”

We can go further. Asking how many people we expect to offend still treats the issue as a binary: they’re either offended or they’re not. A better phrasing would be “How offended will people be?” Billboards reading “Religion is a myth” and “Jesus was a bastard” would both upset a lot of people – but not to the same extent.

But even this isn’t what we want to be asking. To take the final step, we need to dissolve the question away into what we actually want to know. Each time we ask “Should we be a dick in this situation?” we’re really wondering a lot of things, like:

  • Do we like the short-term and long-term reactions this will elicit?
  • Would it attract attention for our message?
  • Would it reduce the chance of persuading the target?
  • Would it help push the boundaries of the national conversation?
  • Would it damage a helpful relationship?

There isn’t an inherent property “being offensive” or “being a dick” – that’s just a heuristic, and it’s not very precise. Well, maybe I shouldn’t say just a heuristic – labeling a message as ‘offensive’ is a helpful way to talk about expected reactions. But we need to be able to step back and refocus our attention when the heuristic causes confusion.

And the heuristic IS causing confusion. Treating it as a single, inherent property leads people to miss the strategic benefits – and drawbacks – of getting people upset in different ways and contexts. Treating it as a binary question leads people to wield anger indiscriminately rather than tactically.

What we should be asking ourselves, when choosing a message, is this: “How offended do we want people to be, and offended how?”

For example, I still stand behind my support of Everybody Draw Muhammad Day – it did cause a lot of offense, but it offended people in the right way: by intentionally disregarding the Islamic demand that we respect their prophet. That was the goal – shocking people into paying more attention to a dogma which wouldn’t stand up to scrutiny.

On the other hand, I wouldn’t support using mockery in a one-on-one conversation with a creationist. When we’re trying to educate someone, a small amount of offense is useful to catch their attention – say, by openly disagreeing. But mockery is a different kind of offense, one that reduces our chances of convincing them.

Sometimes it’s easier to talk about whether or not to offend people.  But we can be so much more precise thinking about it in terms of anger, surprise, disrespect, disagreement.

They say the devil’s in the details – so we should feel right at home.

Ender Wiggin, Harry Potter, and Kurt Godel

I love finding real-life connections to my favorite fictional characters. One of the consistent criticisms I hear about Ender’s Game is that people have trouble buying into the notion that children as young as six can be so intelligent, rational, and independent. That’s also a knock against Harry in Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality (which was clearly influenced by Ender’s Game) – he just doesn’t fit with how we expect eleven-year olds to behave. But if we accept the premise of a hyper-intelligent child, would the other traits follow?

I was reading Rebecca Goldstein’s book Incompleteness on the life and work of Kurt Gödel, and young Kurt might fit the bill. Gödel was an extremely intelligent child, far more intelligent than his parents. Goldstein thinks he made this realization as early as five, and it had a big impact on his character:

It would be comforting, in the presence of such a shattering conclusion… to derive the following additional conclusion: There are always logical explanations and I am exactly the sort of person who can discover such explanations. The grownups around me may be a sorry lot, but luckily I don’t need to depend on them. I can figure out everything for myself. The world is thoroughly logical and so is my mind – a perfect fit.

It’s been a while since I’ve read Ender’s Game, but that sounded pretty familiar – the grown ups weren’t able (his parents) or willing (the teachers) to protect him, so he had to find ways to solve problems himself.

I’ve read Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality much more recently, and he might be a closer fit. In this version, Harry is extremely intelligent and raised by parents who love him, but are – frankly – unable to keep up. This particular passage caught my eye:

Harry nodded. “I still don’t know whether the Headmaster was joking or… the thing is, he was right in a way. I had loving parents, but I never felt like I could trust their decisions, they weren’t sane enough. I always knew that if I didn’t think things through myself, I might get hurt… Even if it’s sad, I think that’s part of the environment that creates what Dumbledore calls a hero – people who don’t have anyone else to shove final responsibility onto, and that’s why they form the mental habit of tracking everything themselves.”

Situations like Kurt Gödel’s are rare, but that’s the point of fiction. Given his example, perhaps it’s not SO big of a stretch that children who surpass their parents at such a young age would turn into an Ender Wiggin or “rational” Harry Potter.

At the very least, perhaps this connection will help people suspend their disbelief a little bit, and go read either of these fantastic works of fiction.

Pain Research: Not Minding That It Hurts

How well can we adapt to pain in the long run? Since pain is such a source of disutility, it’s important for us to learn as much as we can about managing or reducing its impact on our lives. One researcher studying the issue is Dan Ariely, who has a rare perspective after suffering major burns at a young age. He describes some fascinating findings at the beginning of one of his TED Talks (before moving on to his research on cheating), but he devotes a whole chapter to adaptation in his recent book, The Upside of Irrationality.

I haven’t read the book quite yet, but Ariely has posted videos of himself discussing the first few chapters:

Besides being flat-out interesting, pain research could have public policy implications. The current laws tightly regulate the most effective drugs at treating chronic pain, and often discourage doctors (read: scare doctors away) from prescribing them. Earlier this year, Matt Yglesias referenced this kind of research to evaluate some of the costs and benefits of the war on drugs.

This is terrible. One of the most interesting findings from the happiness research literature is that human beings are remarkably good at adapting to all kinds of misfortunes. Chronic pain, however, is an exception. People either get effective treatment for their pain, or else they’re miserable. Adaptation is fairly minimum. The upshot is that from a real human welfare perspective, we ought to put a lot of weight on making sure that people with chronic pain get the best treatment possible. Minimizing addiction is a fine public policy goal, but the priority should be on making sure that people with legitimate needs can get medicine.

Policy decisions require us to weigh the interests of different segments of the population. If we’ve been underestimating the suffering of those in chronic pain, it might be best if we made a shift toward supporting them more and found other ways to offset our worries about addiction.

Another one of Ariely’s suggestions interested me – that events can change the associations we have with pain. I hadn’t given much thought to the dual nature of pain as a physical sensation and an emotional reaction to the sensation. I had always viewed it as a useful but necessarily unpleasant signal that someone is wrong with our bodies. Sure, it’s no fun to experience, but we need to know that we’re putting weight on a fractured bone, right? However, if it’s possible to have that physical alert without the mental anguish, we could get the best (well, the slightly better) of both worlds: notification of problems but not the accompanying distress. As Peter O’Toole said in Lawrence of Arabia: “The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts.

There would be downsides, of course. Pain isn’t just an immediate reaction, it helps shape our future behavior. The emotional component to pain might be important in training ourselves to avoid harmful situations. If we “don’t mind that it hurts” we would probably be more prone to do stupid things.

At the moment, it’s fairly theoretical to me anyway. If we need to go through acute injuries to get to the tolerance Ariely has, count me out – it’s not worth it to me. But we need to understand suffering in order to reduce it, and research like Ariely’s will help.

(Sidenote: I hear Julia will have a chance to meet Dan Ariely at Burning Man this weekend. I couldn’t go because I’ll be on a business trip to Dragon*Con [I know, no sympathy for me] but I hope she has a fantastic time! I’m not envious or bitter at all… )

Lies and Debunked Legends about the Golden Ratio

In my eyes, there’s a general pecking order for named mathematical constants. Pi is at the top, e gets a good amount of attention, and Tau, like a third-party candidate, sits by itself on the fringes while its supporters tell anyone who’ll listen that it’s a credible alternative to Pi. But somewhere in the middle is Phi, also known as the Golden Ratio. It’s no superstar, but it gets its fair share of credit in geometry and culture.

I was first introduced to Phi as a kid by watching the charming video Donald in Mathmagic Land. One of the things I remembered over the years is that the Greeks used the Golden Ratio in their paintings and architecture, particularly the Parthenon. Thanks to the power of the internet, I can share this piece of my childhood with you:

How brilliant and advanced of the Greeks, right? But there’s one problem…

It’s probably not true. My faith was first shaken reading Keith Devlin’s The Unfinished Game, where he entertained a quick digression:

Two other beliefs about this particular number [Phi] are often mentioned in magazines and books: that the ancient Greeks believed it was the proportion of the rectangle the eye finds most pleasing and that they accordingly incorporated the rectangle in many of their buildings, including the famous Parthenon. These two equally persistent beliefs are likewise assuredly false and, in any case, are completely without any evidence. For one thing, tests have shown that human beings who claim to have a preference at all vary in the rectangle they find most pleasing, both from person to person and often the same person in different circumstances. Also, since the golden ratio is actually not a ratio of two whole numbers, it is impossible to construct (by measurement) a rectangle having that proportion, even in theory.

What?! Donald, I trusted you! It was tempting to tell myself that the Greeks could have found ways to approximate the ratio, and that this is just one source, and I’ve heard it so many times it must be true, and la la la I don’t want Donald to have lied to me.

But I looked into it a bit more, checking out what Mario Livio had to say about it in his book The Golden Ratio. He acknowledges that it’s a very common belief, but ultimately backed Devlin up:

The appearance of the Golden Ratio in the Parthenon was seriously questioned by University of Maine mathematician George Markowsky in his 1992 College Mathematics Journal article “Misconceptions about the Golden Ratio.” Markowsky first points out that invariably, parts of the Parthenon (e.g. the edges of the pedestal [in a provided figure]) actually fall outside the sketched Golden Rectangle, a fact totally ignored by all the Golden Ratio enthusiasts. More important, the dimensions of the Parthenon vary from source to source, probably because different reference points are used in the measurements… I am not convinced that the Parthenon has anything to do with the Golden Ratio.

So, was the Golden Ratio used in the Parthenon’s design? It is difficult to say for sure… However, this is far less certain than many books would like us to believe and is not particularly well supported by the actual dimensions of the Parthenon. [emphasis mine]

Alas, claims about the Greeks using Phi in their architecture seem overrated. Some sites bring you celebrity gossip, we bring gossip about celebrated mathematical constants. Welcome to Measure of Doubt!

Watching the video again, I can’t tell exactly how they decided where to overlay the Golden Rectangles. How much of the pedestal do we include in the rectangle? How much of the pillar? Does the waist start here, or there? It seems a bit arbitrary, as though we’re experiencing pareidolia and seeing the Golden Rectangle in everything.

Talk about disillusionment.

Self-Referential Haikus and Nerdy Math Shirts

I don’t always buy t-shirts. But when I do, I tend to make them really nerdy ones. ThinkGeek is a good source, but Snorg Tees might be my new favorite.

Self-reference, like this sentence, is hilarious.

But you can never have just one haiku. When they get out in public, they have a tendency to spawn as people are inspired to create their own. Here was my contribution to the arts:

Haiku are easy
but the ones I write devolve
into self-reference.

To which a friend responded,

Reference. Syllables?
If reference is two, I’m good.
Three? Then I am screwed.

If self-reference isn’t your cup of tea, SnorgTees also has a couple great math shirts:

That’s right: I keep it real. After I posted the picture to Facebook, a cousin commented:

It might be real…but it’s not natural.

and my dad chimed in with the brilliant:

Aren’t you the negative one.

I love my family and friends.

Tales of Badass Mathematicians: Cardano

Giorlamo Cardano (Sep 24, 1501 - Sep 21, 1576): Annoying, Arrogant, Brilliant, Badass.

When people think of excitement, intrigue, and violence, they rarely think of mathematicians. That’s because they haven’t heard enough about Girolamo Cardano: 16th century Italian mathematician, physician, inventor, and general badass. This situation must be remedied.

Cardano was one of the first mathematicians to publish an autobiography, and it’s well-deserved. Not only did he have academic accomplishments, he lead a fascinating life. I was reading about how he published the first mathematical examination of probability theory when this passage in Keith Devlin’s The Unfinished Game caught my eye:

“Throughout his life, Cardano was a compulsive gambler who needed every bit of help he could find at the gambling tables, from mathematics or any other source. (And he did find other sources of help. Once, when he suspected he was being cheated at cards, he took out the knife he always carried with him and slashed his opponent’s face.)”

Let’s just say that Cardano wouldn’t have stood idly by as Roman soldiers disturbed his circles. He wasn’t particularly strong, but according to his autobiography he trained persistently and became quite the swordsman. He also boasts, “Another feat I acquired was how to snatch an unsheathed dagger, myself unarmed, from the one who held it.” Not a mathematician to mess with.

Cardano was also a talented physician. Despite his abilities, the College of Physicians in Milan rejected him – ostensibly due to his illegimate birth, but probably because he had an annoying personality (something Cardano admits to). That didn’t stop Cardano – though it wasn’t allowed, he treated patients on the side and developed a reputation as one of the best. Even as his fame grew, he couldn’t help but make enemies.

“With a client list that soon included wealthy people of influence in Milan – including some members of the college – it was surely only a matter of time before the college would be forced to admit him. But then, in 1536, still fuming at his continuing exclusion, he killed his chances by publishing a book attacking not only the college members’ medical ability but their character as well.”

Oh, as we used to say in middle school, snap. (Actually, even calling them “artificial” and “insipid” didn’t prevent Cardano from getting into the College – Devlin goes on to say that they admitted him a couple years later under pressure from supporters.)

The drama goes on and on. He got into a feud with Tartaglia, another mathematician, over whether he had promised to keep Tartaglia’s method for solving cubic equations secret. His eldest son was convicted of poisoning his cheating wife, and Cardano wasn’t able to save him from torture and execution. Then his younger son got into gambling debt and stole from Cardano, who sadly turned him over to the authorities to be banished.

Later, in what Devlin suspects was a deliberate attempt to gain notoriety, Cardano provoked the Catholic Church by publishing a horoscope for Jesus Christ and writing a book praising anti-Christian Nero. He was convicted of heresy (To add to the intrigue, Wikipedia says that “Apparently, his own son contributed to the prosecution, bribed by Tartaglia.”) After serving a few months in prison and making up with the Pope, he spent the last few years of his life writing an autobiography.

Even his death had style. Cardano died on September 21th, 1576 – the exact date he had predicted years ago. It’s believed that he committed suicide just to make sure he got the date right. What a way to go.

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