Monthly Archives: June 2012

Work in Progress: The Elegant Universe

In an attempt to both educate myself and prepare for a potential career switch, I’ve made it my goal to read scientifically-inclined books as much as I can, between being consumed by sci-fi and other works of fiction. Brian Greene’s The Elegant Universe makes this goal much easier to achieve by being about string theory and the universe (whoa, nelly!) and very, hah, elegantly and simply explained.

The thing about Greene’s writing is not that it’s erudite, but that it’s quite easily accessible. There are diagrams of the analogies he gives — I’ll come to one of them in a moment — and a clear link from one step of the history of string theory to the next. Actually, it’s more of a tour of the concepts. Greene starts with the idea that space and time are linked, then goes on to talk about the theory of general relativity. But soon, he introduces the idea of microscopic weirdness, as opposed to the macroscopic mind-boggler that is general relativity.

And there’s the rub — that the equations governing space and time at a macroscopic level simply don’t hold when you get down to the Planck level of the universe, which is around 20 orders of magnitude smaller than the radius of an electron (classically, since quantum physics dictates that an electron is more of a probability of position and velocity than anything concrete).

On sub-Planck-scale distances, the quantum undulations are so violent that they destroy the notion of a smoothly curving geometrical space; this means that general relativity breaks down.

No matter how clear you intend to be, however, in books like this, there needs to be a certain amount of hand-waving.  The problem is that a lot of the theory proofs and some of the explanations themselves are rooted in such esoteric branches of mathematics that it’s difficult to conclude an explanation except to say “… and then magic with numbers happened.”

It’s interesting to see, at the fringes of physics, how much we have to cease depending on experiment and observation. Some of the suggestions by various luminaries of physics amount to nothing more concrete than a mathematical analysis of what would make numerical sense. Like negative probabilities, for instance.

But Greene’s simple, fluent storytelling makes this easy to comprehend and digest. He’s so full of enthusiasm for his subject that he sounds like an excited curator at a museum of the physically magnificent — and absurd.

More updates as the book progresses. It’s going slowly, but even paging back to re-read some of it will be worth my time.


Daily Roundup

“When people look at it, it looks crazy.”

Thus begins the YouTube video of the Jet Propulsion Lab, currently engaged in hoping and praying for (and guiding!) Curiosity’s landing on August 6.

It’s rather a magnificent video, enriched equally with facts and details to induce excitement. It’s clear and straightforward, too.

The Tech Museum, where I volunteer, has a lovely replica of the Curiosity, as well as a few videos on the process. There are interviews with the engineers, who all have an almost paternal/maternal attitude towards their creation (as well they should). What I love the most about the interviews and this particular video is the sheer enthusiasm the engineers bring to the table.

It’s energizing in a way that I hope will remind the average layperson what engineering really is: taking a complex problem and breaking it down, solving it creatively. In this instance, it’s the idea of creating several stages to get the rover to land — and finally just lowering it to the surface. The Tech video showed a gigantic thing dropping from the sky like a spider. Dramatic? Yes. Deservedly so.

And in case you thought dropping a ton of complicated sensors on another planet wasn’t sci-fi enough, here’s a news article from PopSci explaining how we can conserve water after the apocalypse.

If that doesn’t remind you of Dune’s stillsuits (without, well, the suits) then I don’t know what will.

Anthropocentrism and Scientific Progress

Short answer: they don’t go together.

Think of Galileo battling the Vatican, of Darwin’s critics, both in the 19th century and (unbelievably) today. It’s the thought I had when I was reading The Atlantic‘s A Perfect and Beautiful Machine, written to commemorate the 100th birthday of Alan Turing.

Turing’s contribution to science deserves multiple books by itself (and just for the record, the Google Doodle accompanying this was pretty fabulous, if difficult to understand at first), but it was the tone of the article that particularly struck me yesterday. This quote sums it up:

The very idea that mindless mechanicity can generate human-level — or divine level! — competence strikes many as philistine, repugnant, an insult to our minds, and the mind of God.

The whole reason why robotics and the idea of artificial intelligence strikes fear and disgust into the minds of people is the underlying assumption that human thought can be reduced to mechanic, and therefore mindless, principles. It is the same reason, Dennett explains, that some of us automatically reject the idea of evolution. Can the same process that produced the earthworm also produce Shakespeare?

The problem, I think, is that we have a very human-based view of the universe and our place in it. Which is both obvious and understandable; we’re human, it’s what we do. But a human scale of time — measured in terms of a century, if that — and a geological scale of time are incompatible in some respects, because it means we just don’t grasp how much time it takes for evolution to occur. We also don’t appreciate, on a scale of space, how vast our galaxy is, and how many light years lie between us and our nearest spiral galactic neighbor, Andromeda.

We can also say, similarly, that we don’t appreciate the tightly interconnected, intuition-like steps of cognition that help us achieve the most mundane tasks. We are content to assume that human thought is special and significant in some way. But the genius that we admire — the non-linear thinking and aesthetics of poetry and sculpture, or the form-function perfection of architectural feats — is still a very human admiration for a very human set of accomplishments.

Perhaps we make the case that, while evolution is an extremely strong theory and practically a law of nature, the notion of computing and artificial intelligence is simply another approach to reality, merely one way to progress scientifically.

That is: holding an anthropocentric view of human life is actually an impediment to the understanding and acceptance of evolution, which affects all life. But the only thing that point of view would have affected, in the field of computing, is the presence of smartphones in our lives.

Turing said this:

It is possible to invent a single machine which can be used to compute any computable sequence.

Here’s where I go out on a limb and say that Turing’s idea — (simplistically) that everything can be computed — is a subset of a greater idea that might have deeper scientific significance, something that could be damaged irretrievably by our anthropocentric view. The point I’m trying to get at is that Turing thought of human activity as reducible to computable components, and therefore things that could be reproduced by a machine. A large part of our “intelligence” is now replicable by machines.

The greater idea I’m thinking of is intelligence. What is it? Does only human intelligence qualify? Do individual components of a system — like humans in society — qualify as intelligent, or does the society itself exhibit “intelligent” properties? Do animals have their own systems of intelligence?

The ideas I’m playing with here are, to some extent, farfetched. Possibly insane. But with so much astronomical work being done recently in the field of habitable planets and planetary configurations and the idea of water on Mars, I honestly think we’ve begun — quietly, without any fanfare, almost unconsciously — to take the idea of alien life seriously.

The problem is: will we recognize it if we see it?

I’m fully cognizant of the importance of DNA as building blocks of matter and of carbon in life-forms, but that is a very biological point of view to have. Not that I think we can or should be doing anything else; if we’re remotely mining our neighbor for signs of life, we really only have so much material to work with.

But what happens when we discover something unusual or unexpected? Stuck as we are on the idea of human intelligence, will we be able to recognize a non-human form of intelligence, of computability?

Let us, in fact, forget alien life for a while and focus on artificial intelligence here on Earth. We keep aiming for smarter machines and more intuitive objects — will we be able to recognize when we’ve succeeded, when the only standard of intelligence we’re looking at is human intelligence? Admittedly, there’s no other kind of intelligence that’s really relevant or that we even know of. And I’m certainly not talking about a Skynet-like self-consciousness. When do we know when machines have begun, not to spew out random phrases a la chatbots, but have begun to actually respond?

[This post was definitely supposed to end about five paragraphs ago.]

My point is this — as we scale upwards towards larger and larger slices of the known universe, scale down towards the nano-world in search of self-assembly and interesting behavior, build smarter machines and put the power of computability in nearly everyone’s hands, our view of Nature and of life has to change. We’re not the only players in this game.

Venus Transit 2012

Clandestinely watching the 2012 transit of Venus across the face of the sun at work, but not really caring about getting caught because hey, no one alive right now is probably going to see it in 2117.

It’s been an astronomically amazing month so far, what with a mega-moon and two eclipses but this is the cherry on top. This transit, in the 18th century, marked the start of international scientific collaboration. This was necessary in fact because we managed, by dint of creative measurement and pigeon carrier or something, measure what’s called the astronomical unit: the distance from the Earth to the Sun. I’ve lost the original link to this information, but this article serves as a good intro.

There’s an excellent quote that NASA pulled up, by William Harkness, which I find very poignant:

We are now on the eve of the second transit of a pair, after which there will be no other till the twenty-first century of our era has dawned upon the earth, and the June flowers are blooming in 2004. When the last transit season occurred the intellectual world was awakening from the slumber of ages, and that wondrous scientific activity which has led to our present advanced knowledge was just beginning. What will be the state of science when the next transit season arrives God only knows. Not even our children’s children will live to take part in the astronomy of that day. As for ourselves, we have to do with the present …” (Address by William Harkness,” Proceedings of the AAAS 31st meeting … August, 1882 (Salem, 1883), 77.)

God only knows. They’re speaking about this during the NASA webcast right now, with more than a touch of wonder — what will we, the human race, be doing in 2117? How will we be recording this?

Here’s this picture I took during the webcast. I know it sounds foolish to say it, but the sun is so large. It is not, in fact, a little disk of warmth that enables crops to grow or freckles to sprout on beaches; it’s a gigantic ball of gas that powers an entire solar system.

Second contact: Venus separates from the edge of the Sun to become an independent black disk

That’s what astronomical events give us: an intense sense of perspective, of both space and time.

Hacking Everything

Wired article I read a few months ago was interesting for its incongruity: it was all about a group of Parisians working underground to keep the city in the same aesthetic condition as ever. That includes rebuilding the Pantheon’s 19th century clock tower.

The most intriguing thing about the whole article was (besides the exploits of the group, of course) how fittingly the word “hacker” could be applied to these people. They go where they’re not allowed, they are each part of an elite community that’s obsessed with what they do, and they want to make something, somewhere, better than it is.

I thought of that article when I read two frankly awesome articles in PopSci the past few weeks. One is The Boy Who Played With Fusion which, as astonishing as it sounds, is about a 14 year old, the youngest person to ever accomplish nuclear fusion. In his garage. Experimenting with his grandmother’s radioactive urine. The boy isn’t only off-the-charts intelligent, he’s also possessed by the desire to build a portable, efficient reactor that would create isotopes for use during cancer treatment.

Something similar leaped out at me when I was reading Guess What’s Cooking in the Garage. Even besides the sheer joy of problem-solving, of hacking your way to an answer by collecting whatever’s lying around re-purposing it… there’s the potential to solve a local problem using inexpensive materials. Meredith Patternson and her friends, for instance, want to engineer a biochemical tool that will detect melamine. Perhaps in the future, as this sort of technology becomes ubiquitous, someone in a country deprived of enough electricity and fuel could engineer a biofuel-producing organism that would power small electric vehicles. Kids could get to school faster, anything could be turned into an emergency vehicle in the case of an accident.

I’m not saying everything that’s a hacker solution has to be driven by a sense of altruism and brotherhood. But the idea behind the hacker mentality, as far as I can understand it, is to identify an everyday problem and then solve it with technology, especially if it requires you to boostrap your way into it.

Throwing money at a problem is one way of doing it. But the other, more interesting way is to apply intelligence — and a hell of a lot of dogged perseverance.

These articles make me think of the early days of APIs, where a proprietary software would expose some parts of its functionality to developers so that they can build applications based on the platform. Now you’ve got iPhone and Facebook applications and the list is growing. What if gene manipulation and controlled nuclear reactions are really the prototypes of a new kind of app atmosphere?

What else could be hacked in the future? Now that we’ve got the physical and the biological fields represented (more or less) what about the chemical? Perhaps some of that’s already been done, but unfortunately the only examples I can think of are meth labs and homemade bombs. But maybe there are solutions that are more subtle than that — perhaps manipulations of proteins to create specific lock-and-key systems that plug into receptors of the body.

Actually, protein folding is a fascinating field in its own right and something I’ve written about in a Daily Roundup post the beginning of this month. The even more interesting part about the field is that some of it is being crowdsourced: there’s FoldIt, which invites players to solve complex protein folding problems as part of a game.

Ultimately, in a manner similar to that of the increasingly cheaper DIY PCR machines (which help to generate a large enough volume of DNA for analysis by replicating it), the general public might be able to get its hands on… spectroscopy machines? Protein analysis software?

And then hacking would really take off.