Essays —

"A crowbar. Hit someone or something with it. Repeat."


These are essays and articles that have largely shaped my thinking. They're mostly about science and philosophy. I love essays because they can be bite-sized, succinct, and parsimonious bits of enlightenment.

Most of the essays are hosted by me, and as such they have a unifying look. If the original source is online, that is also linked to. Some of the essays are from OCR scans, and I've tried to correct the errors in these as best I can. I have also changed the punctuation style to the one I use myself. If there are some I've missed, feel free to tell me.

The list

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Transgressing the Boundaries by Alan Sokal (1996)
A hoax paper by a real physicist, "Transgressing the Boundaries" is peppered with nonsense, as an experiment to see if it would be accepted by a journal in postmodern social studies, Social Text (it was). Sokal explains why he did it.
Computing Machinery and Intelligence by Alan Turing (1950)
The paper in which what is now called the Turing Test is laid out. The first part is about the test proper, and the second about possible objections to the proposition "Can machines think?"
1967 by Bertrand Russell (1967) (Source)
Russell's last essay, which deals in what I like to call militant pacifism.
Why I Am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (1926) (Source)
An excellent essay which touches on all the good reasons for not being a Christian (like the doctrine of hell and the dubious teachings of Christ).
Why the Future Doesn't Need Us by Bill Joy (2000) (Source)
Bill Joy advocates caution and prudence with the development of potentially devastating technologies.
Can We Know the Universe? by Carl Sagan (1979) (Source)
Can we ultimately understand the Universe? The answer depends on whether you use brute force or clever shortcuts.
Mr. X by Carl Sagan (1969) (Source)
Carl Sagan originally wrote this essay under the psuedonym Mr. X (which is also the title), in which he describes his experiences with smoking cannabis.
The Burden of Skepticism by Carl Sagan (1987) (Source)
This essay advocates skepticism and argues that everyone has it. It's also a wonderful defence and explanation of skepticism.
The Dragon In My Garage by Carl Sagan (1997) (Source)
What's the difference between an invisible, incorporeal, floating dragon who spits heatless fire and no dragon at all?
The Fine Art of Baloney Detection by Carl Sagan (1996) (Source)
An essay on the essential tools of skepticism (like Occam's Razor) and logical fallacies (like a false dichotomy).
Metacrap by Cory Doctorow (2001) (Source)
Explains why perfect metadata will never be. (Alas.)
Where Am I? by Daniel C. Dennett (1978) (Source)
What if your brain were kept in a vat but connected to the nerve stumps in your skull? Where would you be?
A Coffeehouse Conversation on the Turing Test by Douglas R. Hofstadter (1981)
Three people (a physics student, a biology student, and a philosophy student) having a conversation about the Turing Test, with a postscript by Hofstadter about an experience he had with a clever program over teletype.
Twelve Virtues of Rationality by Eliezer Yudkowsky (2006) (Source)
Describes virtues of rationality. It's a fine, poetic expression of scientific methods.
SF Words and Prototype Worlds by Eric S. Raymond (2002) (Source)
Explains why science fiction is unlike other branches of literature and how reading SF is an acquired skill.
From Man in the Universe by Fred Hoyle (1966)
A short excerpt about the computer in our heads (the brain).
Politics and the English Language by George Orwell (1945)
This essay presents five specimens of bad English (from politics and science) and explains what is wrong with them (vagueness and total disregard for the meanings of words).
The Modern Demonology by Isaac Asimov (1962)
The demon of chemistry gives birth to the demon of biology.
The New Teachers by Isaac Asimov (1976)
Speculation on teaching machines. This essay is pretty prescient for its age.
The Relativity of Wrong by Isaac Asimov (1988)
Explains why there is a continuum from right to wrong. (Note: All the online versions of this essay that I could find had a huge chunk of the text missing, so this one links to one I made myself, directly from the essay collection.)
What Is the Universe? by Isaac Asimov (1987)
Asimov elegantly explains the basic structure of the universe.
Whatever You Wish by Isaac Asimov (1977)
In an age of total automation, every profession will be an elective.
On Being the Right Size by J. B. S. Haldane (1928) (Source)
Explores what it means for animals to be of differing sizes. For instance, insects are very much aware of the thin cohesive film on top of water which enables them to walk on it, but are hardly aware of the force of gravity. Humans, on the other hand, are oblivious to surface tension but very well aware of falling.
A Modest Proposal by Jonathan Swift (1729) (Source)
A satirical pamphlet advocating the sale of Irish infants for food to Englishmen.
Seven Wonders by Lewis Thomas (1983) (Source)
An attempt at coming up with seven modern wonders of the world.
The Awful German Language by Mark Twain (1880)
A satire on the various absurdities of the German language.
Thoughts of God by Mark Twain (1900) (Source)
The argument from the problem of evil encapsulated in a story about the creation of the fly.
A Skeptical Look at Karl Popper by Martin Gardner (2001) (Source)
"If Popper bet on a certain horse to win a race, and the horse won, you would not expect him to shout, 'Great! My horse failed to lose!'"
Philosophy of Science 101 by Massimo Pigliucci (2004) (Source)
A pretty short introduction of the big ideas in the philosophy of science.
Is Google Making Us Stupid? by Nicholas Carr (2008) (Source)
Argues that with the advent of fast retrieval of information (Google), knowledge is becoming more and more superficial.
One Self by Nicholas Humphrey (1997) (Source)
Using the metaphor of an orchestra and a dancer to illustrate the initial fragmentation and later unity of consciousness.
Awesome Versus Adipose by Peter Atkins (1998) (Source)
An essay about the incompatibility between science and religion.
From The Periodic Table by Primo Levi (1975)
Follows a carbon atom as it moves about the world, giving an exciting narrative to an otherwise common-place event.
A Godless Ramble Against the Ditherings of Theologians by PZ Myers (2006) (Source)
A down-to-Earth reply to theological sophistry.
Elephants' Wings by PZ Myers (2009) (Source)
A story about four blind people bumping into an elephant in their path. Three are scientists, one is a philosopher.
Planet of the Hats by PZ Myers (2006) (Source)
Why the hatless are upset that the hat-clad are hot-headed about hats.
The Courtier's Reply by PZ Myers (2006) (Source)
Criticism of something doesn't require the full immersion in the subject being criticized.
Why We Need Academic Freedom to Question Newtonism by PZ Myers (2008) (Source)
A satirical critique of the current Newtonian orthodoxy in American universities and its staunch refusal to teach the controversy.
An eclipse? It's my kind of magic by Richard Dawkins (1999) (Source)
Explains eclipses and extols the precision with which they can be predicted.
Gaps in the Mind by Richard Dawkins (1993) (Source)
Deals with the artificial wall of separation between humans as humans and every other creature as animal. The discontinuous mind is everywhere.
Postmodernism Disrobed by Richard Dawkins (1998) (Source)
A review of Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures and general fun-poking at postmodernism.
Science, Delusion and the Appetite for Wonder by Richard Dawkins (2006) (Source)
Science is cumulative, and it's more than able to fill your appetite for wonder.
The Real Romance in the Stars by Richard Dawkins (1995) (Source)
A scathing denunciation of astrology. Delicious!
There's Plenty of Room at the Bottom by Richard P. Feynman (1960) (Source)
A classic essay (actually a lecture) on nanotechnology.
Individuality by Robert Green Ingersoll (1873) (Source)
Paints a picture of life as a huge plain upon which rests several road-signs (with people tending them) and extols individuality and free thought.
Evolution as Fact and Theory by Stephen Jay Gould (1981) (Source)
Explains why evolution is both a fact and a theory.
September 11, 1901 by Stephen Jay Gould (2001) (Source)
A solid avowal that the decency of many will prevail over the evil of few.
Size and Shape by Stephen Jay Gould (1974) (Source)
When an object is enlarged, its volume increases faster than does its surface, and the same is true of animals. Gould compares insects (which don't have, or need, lungs) to large animals (which do).
The Median Isn't The Message by Stephen Jay Gould (1982) (Source)
Gould explains the mean, the median, and the skewing of distributions on a Bell curve. The title is a play on the famous phrase "The medium is the message" coined by Marshall McLuhan.
Nothing in Biology Makes Sense Except in the Light of Evolution by Theodosius Dobzhansky (1973) (Source)
An essay about the explanatory power of evolution.