Saturday, 27 October 2007

Science and political (un)correctness

Within a space of a week three news item have hit me. The first was the enormous PC based pressure and attack on James Watson for his remarks on Africa and its state of affairs. Quoted totally out of context (as I have been unable to find the whole interview) the offending Watson statement was:
I am inherently gloomy about the prospect of Africa because all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours - whereas all the testing says not really.

First Watson talks in the UK were cancelled, then his Institution, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory forced him to resign (here are the CSHL and Watson's official announcements).
But I urge you to look at the statements, even as they are taken out of context (and I am pretty sure that whoever picked them up, did pick the worst parts of the whole viewpoint), not the conditionals and caveats. So what: statement that some people (as measurements say) might be less intelligent than others and that our policies should reflect this?
But we are doing it everyday. What and how we teach children in schools has to be based on assumption of the differences in capability to absorb and use information. Trying to teach first graders straight university level science would result in ... catastrophe. But suggesting that the problem might be more general is racism.
Of course, the fact that 95% of NBA players are black has nothing to do with racism. Racism works only one way.

The second piece of news was the massacre of gorillas by some African militia. Apparently to train themselves, for shooting practice, they have killed some tens of the great apes. For fun. In a recent report I have read that 1/3 of the primate population is in danger, directly because of human activity. Now, I am going to be racist again: think who is organizing the preservation areas and trying to save the apes, and who is using them as targets (good ones: they move, but they won't shoot back!)

The third piece of news is a statement by an UN expert, Jean Ziegler (the UN Special Rapporteur on the right to food), who has stated that
It is a crime against humanity to convert agricultural productive soil into soil which produces food stuff that will be burned into biofuel.

Ziegler claims that all causes of hunger are man-made, it’s a problem of access, not overpopulation or underproduction, and can be changed by human decision.
He noted that from 1972 to 2002, the number of gravely undernourished people in Africa increased from 81 million to 202 million, and every day hundreds of Africans “take to the sea” fleeing from hunger.

He called on the UN Human Rights Council “to declare a new human right” to protect those who flee from hunger.

The right to food is defined as the right to have regular, permanent and unrestricted access, either directly or by means of financial purchases, to quantitatively and qualitatively adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people to which the consumer belongs, and which ensures a physical and mental, individual and collective, fulfilling and dignified life free of fear.

When we look at the statement above we can hardly disagree. Or can we? Is the right applicable regardless of the size of human population? How can we be sure of adequate and sufficient food corresponding to the cultural traditions of the people, when the density of these people has increased (since beginning of XX Century) more than 30 times? Should we not look at the possibility that a change in the culture would be advisable? That the "laws" should have physical possibility of being implemented?

Ziegler calls for a five year ban on production of biofuels. Perhaps a five year `restraint' on human population growth in some places would be more sensible? To take care of the people who live there today and to take care of the environment for their future descendants?

Sunday, 21 October 2007

Physics of insanity

My regular search through arXiv has brought a small pearl of pseudoscience, a paper called `Continuum of consciousness: Mind uploading and
resurrection of human consciousness. Is there a place
for physics, neuroscience and computers?
' by Vadim Astakhov.

The paper is an incredible mixture of two languages. On one side we find:
resurrection, mind uploading, time tunneling and teleportation.
On the other we find a lot of equations (I doubt very strongly as to their applicability) and even longer list of physical concepts deemed to be applicable to the topic:
Riemannian metric, Ricci tensor, Euler-Lagrange equations, Lia-algebra (sic!), generator of infinitesimal transformation, Renormalization group, Holographic representation, etc. etc.
as well as relatively new notions:
Stoichiometric matrix, auto poetic functionality, geometric networks, information geometry, causality circuit.

Perhaps I am wrong, but the first attempt to read the paper did lead me to a conclusion that this is a complete mumbo-jumbo. Perhaps some Reader of this blog would explain why and how the metric for the network system should be Riemannian (Section 2), so that the theory "resembles" General Relativity. And how would this be related to Section 7, when the system is described in quantum way, strangely resembling the one used for Bell theorem. Or why `total Fidelity-information is conserved. This is something like Energy Conservation Law for information systems'.
I'd like to apply this law, because I am constantly forgetting things.

However, the misuses seen by me in this particular paper are of secondary nature. This is a free world, especially when it comes to WEB publications. This blog is a perfect proof of the freedom.

But the arXiv publication has a note that the work has been submitted to conference Toward a Science of Consciousness 2008. I've looked up the conference site, and as the organizers (Arizona University) claim, it is to be a place to present `intense, far-ranging and rigorous discussions on all approaches to the the fundamental issue of how the brain produces conscious experience'.

I shall try to keep an eye on the list of accepted papers. And if Astakhov makes it, then I would have to redefine my notion of the word rigorous. Or of the word science?

Monday, 15 October 2007

Is ultimate reality a mathematical structure?

I have always liked the style of Max Tegmark. He combines his expertise and witty language with courage to pick pretty unusual (for mainstream science) topics. In a couple of papers Shut up and calculate and The Mathematical Universe, one short and dedicated even to laymen, the other much longer and technical exposition) he presents a rather radical hypothesis: the universe itself is a mathematical structure, or rather multiple mathematical structures.
Although he openly admits that he is not the first to propose the ideas, the way they are presented is quite interesting. The proposal is based on two hypotheses. The first of these is close to my heart, while the other one, is, hmmm, courageous. What are the two hypotheses?

External Reality Hypothesis (ERH):
There exists an external physical reality completely independent of us humans.
Mathematical Universe Hypothesis (MUH):
Our external physical reality is a mathematical structure.

ERH seems to be quite widely accepted, although in the light of Quantum Mechanics results we must remember that the external physical reality might be very different from our intuitions. It might be nonlocal, unreal, quantum - pick the name you prefer. The key point, which I hold dear, is independent of us humans.

Now, the aim of the papers is to argue for the necessity of MUH. There are great reasons for this: it would solve the mystery of why is the Universe, in so many of its aspects, so well describable by mathematics.
It could also change our perspective on the Theory of Everything and science:
If the mathematical universe hypothesis is true, then it is great news for science, allowing the possibility that an elegant unification of physics and mathematics will one day allow us to understand reality more deeply than most dreamed possible. Indeed, I think the mathematical cosmos with its multiverse is the best theory of everything that we could hope for, because it would mean that no aspect of reality is off-limits from our scientific quest to uncover regularities and make quantitative predictions.

However, it is even more difficult to break the bounds of our limited imagination and intuitions and perceive our universe as some mathematical structure, which is by definition an abstract, immutable entity existing outside of space and time. What is `mathematical structure' anyway? Set of abstract objects and rules that connect them? How complex should that structure be to describe the seemingly infinite variety of our observations, the probable complexity of the Universe? Most people, even physicists and mathematicians, would not venture into his abstract space at all.

But - why not? Our human perspective is rather limited and inadequate. Even for `almost normal' phenomena. It suggests that Sun circles the Earth when we observe it moving across the sky. It does not help us in understanding how a light bulb works, or a hard disk in our computer. Why should our intuitions be more usable when we talk about the question of ultimate reality? Tegmark even uses our inadequacy as a `proof' of the Mathematical Universe hypothesis (although I detect some measure of tongue-in-cheek there):
Ultimately, why should we believe the mathematical universe hypothesis? Perhaps the most compelling objection is that it feels counter-intuitive and disturbing. I personally dismiss this as a failure to appreciate Darwinian evolution. Evolution endowed us with intuition only for those aspects of physics that had survival value for our distant ancestors, such as the parabolic trajectories of flying rocks. Darwin’s theory thus makes the testable prediction that whenever we look beyond the human scale, our evolved intuition should break down.

We have repeatedly tested this prediction, and the results overwhelmingly support it: our intuition breaks down at high speeds, where time slows down; on small scales, where particles can be in two places at once; and at high temperatures, where colliding particles change identity. To me, an electron colliding with a positron and turning into a Z-boson feels about as intuitive as two colliding cars turning into a cruise ship. The point is that if we dismiss seemingly weird theories out of hand, we risk dismissing the correct theory of everything, whatever it may turn out to be.

It is like saying `it must be true because I do not understand it'. Well, perhaps it is worthwhile to remember our limitations and to be sure that we do not dismiss some possible solutions because of these limitations.

But the papers are certainly worth reading.