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!