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Becoming

6 minutes

Are you sure? Truth, certainty and politics

6 minutes

Do spoilers actually ruin stories?

4 minutes

Dan Tepfer’s player piano is his composing partner

5 minutes

Someone else’s war

29 minutes

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Watch a single cell become a complete organism in six pulsing minutes of timelapse

Native to central and southern Europe, the amphibious alpine newt breeds in shallow water, where its larvae are born, hatch and feed on plankton, before sprouting legs and moving to land. This timelapse video from the Dutch director Jan van IJken tracks the development of a single-celled zygote into the hatched larva of an alpine newt. Captured in stunning detail at microscopic scales, Becoming is a remarkable look at the process of cell division and differentiation, whence all animals – from newts to humans – come. For more awe-inspiring biology from van IJken, watch The Art of Flying.

Filmmaker, producer and editor: Jan van IJken

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What wrapping a rope around the Earth reveals about the limits of human intuition

If you tied a rope tight around the Earth’s equator and then added a single yard of slack, would the extra material make any noticeable difference to someone standing on the ground? Yes, actually. The answer comes as a surprise to most people, but the additional bit of rope raises it high enough off the ground for our eyes to easily discern it, and our feet to easily trip over. That fact might seem trivial, but the early 20th-century philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein believed that this chasm between human intuition and physical reality revealed something important about the fallibility of our thinking. After all, if something that seems obvious to almost everyone can be totally false, what else might we be wrong about? This video from the Center for Public Philosophy at the University of California, Santa Cruz breaks down the mathematics behind Wittgenstein’s knotty example, and asks whether it should make us all feel a bit less certain about even our most deeply held beliefs.

Producers: Gregor Clark, Jon Ellis

Animator: Adam Ansorge

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Spoiler alert: does knowing how it ends make fiction more fun?

‘It’s not the journey, it’s the destination’ might seem like trite advice, but when it comes to storytelling, the worn adage actually seems to hold up to scrutiny. Just ask Nicholas Christenfeld, professor of psychology at the University of California, San Diego: in a 2013 study, he put our cultural obsession with so-called ‘spoilers’ to the test. After sneakily revealing the end of short stories when describing them to test subjects, he found that their enjoyment of the fictional narratives actually increased – a conclusion that perhaps isn’t so surprising if you think about how many times you’ve watched your favourite movie or read your favourite book. However, Christenfeld still found that there was a forceful knee-jerk aversion to the idea of having a story spoiled, so you might still want to restrain yourself before blurting out the latest Game of Thrones twist to friends and insisting it’s for their own good.

Video by Fig. 1

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Meet the jazz pianist who improvises in tandem with a piano that plays itself

‘How can I be free in this particular cage?’

From synthesizers replacing real instruments in the studio to the rise of musical compositions written entirely by AI, it’s not surprising that many professional musicians have been resistant to the ascendent role of technology in the music industry. However, the French-American jazz pianist and composer Dan Tepfer has developed a creative way of leveraging the rise of musical machines using what he calls ‘improvisational algorithms’.

On his digital player piano, his notes are sent through a computer, which then automatically plays back notes that correspond to commands he’s written. And although the idea of predetermined ‘rules’ might on its surface seem to cut against the spirit of musical improvisation, Tepfer finds that they actually fuel his playing, leading him down paths he wouldn’t otherwise find. This video from NPR’s Jazz Night in America series details how Tepfer mines new musical ideas from his improvisational algorithms, which culminated in his album Natural Machines (2019) and a series of performances with visuals generated from the compositions. Read more about Dan Tepfer at NPR’s website.

Producers: Alex Ariff, Colin Marshall

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What motivated three young Britons to join the deadly fight against ISIS in Syria?

As of 2019, some 20 British nationals have left home to join the fight against ISIS in Syria. Eight have died in the process. What’s leading Britons – mostly young civilians – to abandon the relative comforts of home and fight on the frontlines alongside people with whom they had no prior affiliation? Someone Else’s War tracks the journey of three sets of bereaved parents as they travel to Iraq to meet the Kurdish soldiers who witnessed their children’s last months. A nuanced and frequently heartbreaking psychological portrait, the film finds the parents grasping for the meaning of their children’s choices. As the parents’ own views evolve through the process of digging deeper into the stories of their children’s deaths, the documentary explores not only the need for closure, but also the tendency to seek heroism in those who die fighting. 

Directors: George Cowie, Tom Huntingford, Martin Armstrong

Producer: Superfolk Films

Website: Guardian Documentaries

Aeon for Friends

Find out more

Watch a single cell become a complete organism in six pulsing minutes of timelapse

Native to central and southern Europe, the amphibious alpine newt breeds in shallow water, where its larvae are born, hatch and feed on plankton, before sprouting legs and moving to land. This timelapse video from the Dutch director Jan van IJken tracks the development of a single-celled zygote into the hatched larva of an alpine newt. Captured in stunning detail at microscopic scales, Becoming is a remarkable look at the process of cell division and differentiation, whence all animals – from newts to humans – come. For more awe-inspiring biology from van IJken, watch The Art of Flying.

Filmmaker, producer and editor: Jan van IJken

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Essay/
Thinkers and theories
Susan Sontag was a monster

She took things too seriously. She was difficult and unyielding. That’s why Susan Sontag’s work matters so much even now

Lauren Elkin

Essay/
Earth science and climate
Flash!

It ignited life on Earth, propelled evolution, and now signals climate change. Yet what sparks lightning remains a mystery

Sidney Perkowitz