Laplace’s Demon, the hypothetical imp that knows the instantaneous positions and velocities of every particle in the universe, was said to be able to calculate the entire future or past by plugging these values into the equations that express the laws of mechanics and electromagnetism.
You can write with clarity and with flair, too. And though the emphasis is on nonfiction, the explanations should be useful to fiction writers as well, because many principles of style apply whether the world being written about is real or imaginary. I like to think they might also be helpful to poets, orators, and other creative wordsmiths, who need to know the canons of pedestrian prose to flout them for rhetorical effect.
Julius Caesar was one of the thirty-four Roman emperors (out of the total of forty-nine that reigned until the division of the empire) who were killed by guards, high officials, or members of their own families.
the political scientist James Payne suggests that ancient peoples put a low value on other people’s lives because pain and death were so common in their own. This set a low threshold for any practice that had a chance of bringing them an advantage, even if the price was the lives of others.
The mind is not designed to grasp the laws of probability, even though the laws rule the universe.
An Englishman, a Frenchman, and a Jew are sitting in a doctor’s waiting room and each is told he has twenty-four hours to live. They are asked how they plan to spend their final day. The Englishman says, “I’m going to my club to smoke my pipe, sip some sherry, and chat with the blokes.
Social psychology, the science of how people behave toward one another, is often a mishmash of interesting phenomena that are “explained
The human mind tends to estimate the probability of an event from the ease with which it can recall examples, and scenes of carnage are more likely to be beamed into our homes and burned into our memories than footage of people dying of old age.1 No matter how small the percentage of violent deaths may be, in absolute numbers there will always be enough of them to fill the evening news, so people’s impressions of violence will be disconnected from the actual proportions.
empathy is not a reflex that makes us sympathetic to everyone we lay eyes upon. It can be switched on and off, or thrown into reverse, by our construal of the relationship we have with a person. Its head is turned by cuteness, good looks, kinship, friendship, similarity, and communal solidarity.
Some biblical scholars believe that the story of the fall from the Garden of Eden was a cultural memory of the transition from foraging to agriculture: “In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread.