Friday, July 20, 2007

Small, small world

Having just finished Cantor's Dilemma by Carl Djerassi in a day, I can't help but thinking what a small, small world this is. OK, that's nothing new. But the way in which practically everything is connected to everything else continues to amaze. Probably because many of the connections happen in our own minds---and who knows how often---only there..

Take Cantor's Dilemma (the novel). A real page turner. As it so happens, it deals a lot with reproducibility of a scientific experiment. Sounds familiar, when you deal with scientific workflows, their automation and reusability. So there's one link to some of my other interests. Or how about this: Cantor's Dilemma (the paperback) was lying on top of "A Different Universe" by Robert B. Laughlin, a Nobel laureate in Physics from Stanford. On May 22nd this year he gave a lecture at UCD. Surprisingly few people showed up (I suspect absence of PR/advertisement was at least a contributing factor). He gave an interesting talk with (too?) little physics in it. Anyways, I bought the book and asked the famous author to sign it. In his talk, Laughlin mentioned how getting the Nobel wasn't such a big deal after all (lots of eating he mentioned). He also mentioned in his talk (and his book, Chapter 7) a trip to the Neckar valley in honour of the 60th birthday of Klaus von Klitzing, Nobel laureate of 1983. After the talk, while having the book signed, I chatted briefly with Laughlin about the Neckar valley -- which happens to be where I was born.

So Djerassi's book was lying on top of Laughlin's; I had started the latter first, but finished the former sooner.. (eh? Yes.) But there's another connection: Djerassi describes in his novel quite a bit of detail what's going on at the Nobel festivities. This is a nice connection I think -- a novel by a scientist about some interesting happenings surrounding a (fictious) Nobel prize for cancer tumorgenesis; and real Nobel's book on "reinventing physics from the bottom down".

It's a small world indeed. And don't me get started on musing where all that life came from ... or those atoms for that matter...

Saturday, June 9, 2007

Gretchen-Frage (Inconvenient Question)

There is an idiom in German called "Gretchen-Frage". In a nutshell, posing a "Gretchen-Frage" ("Gretchen's Question") means to ask something crucial (for the questioner) and inconvenient (for the questioned), i.e., a question which the respondent might not like to answer directly. In addition to the inconvenience aspect, it is also implied, I think, that the question is "big". Let's see how it came about: In Goethe's Faust, the studied Dr. Faust, aided by Mephisto with whom he made a certain pact, falls in love with the much less studied, younger, conservative, innocent, catholic young woman called Margaret (aka "Gretchen"). Here is what she asks him:

Promise me, Heinrich.

Whatever I can.

How is it with your religion? Please admit--
Your certainly a very good man,
But I believe you don't think much of it.

Leave that my child. I love you, do not fear
And would give all for those whom I hold dear,
Would not rob anyone of church or creed.

That is not enough, it is faith we need.

Do we?

Oh that I had some influence!
You don't respect the holy sacraments.

I do respect them.

But without desire.
The mass and confession you do not require.
Do you believe in God?

My darling who may say
I believe in God?
Ask priests and sages, their reply
Looks like sneers at mock and prod
The one who asked the question.

Then you deny him there?

Do not mistake me, you who are so fair.
Him--who may name?
And who proclaim:
I believe in him?
Who may feel,
Who dare reveal
In words: I believe him not?
The All-Embracing,
The All-Sustaining,
Does he not embrace and sustain
You, me, himself?
Does not the heaven vault above?
Is the earth not firmly based down here?
And do not, friendly,
Eternal stars rise?
Do we not look into each other's eyes,
And all in you is surging
To your head and heart,
And weaves in timeless mystery,
Unseeable, yet seem, around you?
Then let it fill your heart entirely,
And when your rapture in this feeling is complete,
Call it then what you will,
Call it bliss! heart! love! God!
I do not have a name
For this. Feeling is all;
Names are but sound and smoke
Befogging heaven's blazes.

Those are fair and noble phrases;
The priest says something, too, like what you spoke--
Only his words are not quite so--

Wherever you go,
All hearts under the heavenly day
Say it, each in its own way;
Why not I in mine?

When one listens to you, one might incline
To let it pass--but I can't agree,
For you have no Christianity.

OK, so much for that :)
And here the same in the original German. If you please.

Der Tragoedie erster Teil

Marthens Garten

Margarete. Faust.

Versprich mir, Heinrich!

Was ich kann!

Nun sag, wie hast du's mit der Religion?
Du bist ein herzlich guter Mann,
Allein ich glaub, du haeltst nicht viel davon.

Lass das, mein Kind! Du fuehlst, ich bin dir gut;
Fuer meine Lieben liess' ich Leib und Blut,
Will niemand sein Gefuehl und seine Kirche rauben.

Das ist nicht recht, man muss dran glauben.

Muss man?

Ach! wenn ich etwas auf dich konnte! Du ehrst auch nicht die heil'gen

Ich ehre sie.

Doch ohne Verlangen. Zur Messe, zur Beichte bist du lange nicht gegangen.
Glaubst du an Gott?

Mein Liebchen, wer darf sagen: Ich glaub an Gott?
Magst Priester oder Weise fragen,
Und ihre Antwort scheint nur Spott
Ueber den Frager zu sein.

So glaubst du nicht?

Misshoer mich nicht, du holdes Angesicht!
Wer darf ihn nennen?
Und wer bekennen:
"Ich glaub ihn!"?
Wer empfinden,
Und sich unterwinden
Zu sagen: "Ich glaub ihn nicht!"?
Der Allumfasser,
Der Allerhalter,
Fasst und erhaelt er nicht
Dich, mich, sich selbst?
Woelbt sich der Himmel nicht da droben?
Liegt die Erde nicht hier unten fest?
Und steigen freundlich blickend
Ewige Sterne nicht herauf?
Schau ich nicht Aug in Auge dir,
Und draengt nicht alles
Nach Haupt und Herzen dir,
Und webt in ewigem Geheimnis
Unsichtbar sichtbar neben dir?
Erfuell davon dein Herz, so gross es ist,
Und wenn du ganz in dem Gefuehle selig bist,
Nenn es dann, wie du willst,
Nenn's Glueck! Herz! Liebe! Gott
Ich habe keinen Namen
Dafuer! Gefuehl ist alles;
Name ist Schall und Rauch,
Umnebelnd Himmelsglut.

Das ist alles recht schoen und gut;
Ungefaehr sagt das der Pfarrer auch,
Nur mit ein bisschen andern Worten.

Es sagen's allerorten
Alle Herzen unter dem himmlischen Tage,
Jedes in seiner Sprache;
Warum nicht ich in der meinen?

Wenn man's so hoert, moecht's leidlich scheinen,
Steht aber doch immer schief darum;
Denn du hast kein Christentum.

Friday, June 8, 2007

Tip of the Moonth: Your Spatio-Temporal Path through the Universe

If neither Google calendar, nor regularly occurring events such as 'the weekend' (as it used to be known), nor the seasons give you a sense of how you are moving through the 4th dimension (and the other 3+n dimensions along the way!), then try this one: Keep an eye on the night sky!

Being a dad gives you the convenient excuse to buy stuff you always wanted to buy and pretend you're buying it for your kids ;-) In my case, a beginner's telescope. Once you've got that, you find yourself looking at the sky more often. And then you will notice the Earth's companion's phases which in turn will often make you realize how time flies, or rather how you fly through spacetime, with it (i.e., with the moon).

This can then serve you as a celestial reminder (in case you've lost your DSL connection and thus your Google calendar...) to not postpone whatever it is that you need to do until the rarely occurring Blue Moon.


PS Apropos 'Time flies'. I used to take pleasure in language games such 'Time flies like an arrow. Fruit flies like banana.' Or 'Time flies? We cannot!'. I guess I still do ... (take pleasures in language games -- still can't time those agilent flies...)

Good old Wittgenstein has more profound things to say (it seems) about language games (see also here and here; the latter if you know how to play the game in German ;-)

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Different Universe

Last night, the Institute for Complex Adaptive Matter sponsored a talk by Robert Laughlin, a Physics Nobel Laureate from Stanford. The usual "powerpoints" were rather different -- they consisted of the author's cartoons some of which are also contained in his 2005 book A Different Universe. Among many other things, Laughlin argued that emergence is where the action is; he also spoke of the "crisis of biology" and the "post-mathematical phase" in physics, and how the wine from the Neckar valley (made by physicists??) isn't that good at all... I guess I could agree -- the wine from further south (Kaiserstuhl) is certainly drinkable -- I can attest to it. Now I have to read the book -- despite or because of this review...

Apparently (wikipedia says so), the book argues against the overuse of reductionism in fields such as string theory, and emphasizes that the future of physics research is in the study of emergence. One of the quotes from the talk was (roughly): don't look for the science frontier "out there" in cosmos, nor "down there" at the scale of the tiny (quantum theory) -- rather, "it's all around us". Hmm... certainly a Powers-of-Ten guy needs to think about this... Is the Laughlin reducing everything to emergence? Well, let's not overuse reduction! Ok; now I really need to read the book! ... and lines to read before I sleep ...

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Happy Birthday Linnaeus and Dark Matter

The current issue of The Economist has a couple of brief stories spanning (as usual) multiple Powers of Ten; in this case ranging from the classification of species to collision between galaxy clusters (clusters mind you, not any of those plain old galaxy collisions... like the upcoming collision (or is this one?) of our own milky way with the Andromeda Galaxy...)

So here we go:

Jog your Brain!

Carl Sagan once wrote:
We are an intelligent species and the use of our intelligence quite properly gives us pleasure. In this respect the brain is like a muscle. When we think well, we feel good. Understanding is a kind of ecstasy.
Well said! (BTW, here is some context of this quote.)
On the other hand, according to Bertrand Russell,
Many people would sooner die than think. In fact, they do so.
So which way are you going? ;-)

Computer scientists sometimes venture into a Theory of Everything.
More specifically, in A Computer Scientist's View of Life, the Universe, and Everything, Jürgen Schmidhuber asks Is the universe computable?. He then goes on to chat about perceived and true randomness, life, generalization, and learning in a given universe.

To wet your appetite, let me just quote his paragraphs on philosophy at the end of the paper (most of the paper is quite technical in fact):

Life after death. Members of certain religious sects expect resurrection of the dead in a paradise where lions and lambs cuddle each other. There is a possible continuation of our world where they will be right. In other possible continuations, however, lambs will attack lions.

According to the computability-oriented view adopted in this paper, life after death is a technological problem, not a religious one. All that is necessary for some human's resurrection is to record his defining parameters (such as brain connectivity and synapse properties etc.), and then dump them into a large computing device computing an appropriate virtual paradise. Similar things have been suggested by various science fiction authors. At the moment of this writing, neither appropriate recording devices nor computers of sufficient size exist. There is no fundamental reason, however, to believe that they won't exist in the future.

Body and soul. More than 2000 years of European philosophy dealt with the distinction between body and soul. The Great Programmer does not care. The processes that correspond to our brain firing patterns and the sound waves they provoke during discussions about body and soul correspond to computable substrings of our universe's evolution. Bitstrings representing such talk may evolve in many universes. For instance, sound wave patterns representing notions such as body and soul and ``consciousness'' may be useful in everyday language of certain inhabitants of those universes. From the view of the Great Programmer, though, such bitstring subpatterns may be entirely irrelevant. There is no need for Him to load them with ``meaning''.

Talking about the incomputable. Although we live in a computable universe, we occasionally chat about incomputable things, such as the halting probability of a universal Turing machine (which is closely related to Gödel's incompleteness theorem). And we sometimes discuss inconsistent worlds in which, say, time travel is possible. Talk about such worlds, however, does not violate the consistency of the processes underlying it.

Conclusion. By stepping back and adopting the Great Programmer's point of view, classic problems of philosophy go away.

Hmm... go away? I'm reminded of some Wittgenstein quotes here:
Das Rätsel gibt es nicht
Philosophy is a battle against the bewitchment of our intelligence by means of language
Oh no! I'm puzzeled and bewitched already ...

Dumbest Lies about Evolution. EVER.

... under the title "Evolution - For Skeptics, Cynics, and Believers Alike". What a bunch of clowns.
Or should the title of "worst lies about evolution" go to these guys?
This hurts my brain. A little "Mr. Deity" to the rescue! Episode 1 (Mr Deity and the Evil) is still the killer...
... a few minutes later ...
Ah.. feeling better already! Now a quick hop to Understanding Evolution and the world makes sense again!! Try for yourself ...

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Powers of Ten: Let's do the space-time warp again!

In the 70's or 80's I must have seen a print version of the "Powers of Ten". Keeping an eye on scale can provide interesting perspectives. Here an example of recent news:
  • May 15, 2007: At the human scale (10^0), whales have been sighted in West Sacramento (SacBee article) -- that's probably not that great news for those whales...
  • May 15, 2007: In other developments and at far greater scales, the Hubble space telescope has found a ring of dark matter. Check out Figure 14 of the paper that goes with these news: very neat! It shows 5 "mirror" images of the same galaxy -- the mirrors are due to an effect called 'gravitational lensing'. Figure 14 shows the "de-lensed" images: I find this quite convincing as it shows both that the original images were indeed "mirages" and that the scientists' model is "good" -- at least good enough to allow the de-lensing to work reasonably well!
  • Earlier: Finally, the Inner Life of the Cell is a fantastic animation, giving a glimpse of exactly that (i.e., the inner life of a cell).
So life can be exciting at all levels... no need to breakout into a "Second Life"


PS I like how 'powersoften' can be parsed in different ways: not just (1) Powers-of-10, but also (2) "powers often" and (3) "power soften" ... at this hour, my power (is) softening... OVER!