Paul P. Mealing

Check out my book, ELVENE. Available as e-book and as paperback (print on demand, POD). 2 Reviews: here. Also this promotional Q&A on-line.

Friday, 30 December 2011

The Quantum Universe by Brian Cox and Jeff Forshaw

I’ve recently read this tome, subtitled Everything that can happen does happen, which is a phrase they reiterate throughout the book. Cox is best known as a TV science presenter for BBC. His series on the universe can be highly recommended. His youthful and conversational delivery, combined with an erudite knowledge of physics, makes him ideal for television. The same style comes across in the book despite the inherent difficulty of the topic.

In the last chapter, an epilogue, he mentions writing in September 2011, so this book really is hot off the press. Whilst the book is meant to cater for people with a non-scientific background, I’m unsure if it succeeds at that level and I’m not in a position to judge it on that basis. I’m fairly well read in this area, and I mainly bought it to see if they could add anything new to my knowledge and to compare their approach to other physics writers I’ve read.

They reference Richard Feynman (along with many other contributors to quantum theory) quite a lot, and, in particular, they borrow the same method of exposition that Feynman used in his book, QED. In fact, I’d recommend that this book be read in conjunction with Feynman’s book even though they overlap. Feynman introduced the notion of a one handed clock to represent the phase, amplitude and frequency of the wave function that lies at the heart of quantum mechanics (refer my post on Schrodinger’s equation, May 2011).

Cox and Forshaw use this same analogous method very effectively throughout the book, but they never tell the reader specifically that the clock represents the wave function as I assume it does. In fact, in one part of the book they refer to clocks and wave functions independently in the same passage, which could lead the reader to believe they are different things. If they are different things then I’ve misconstrued their meaning.

Early in their description of clocks they mention that the number of turns is dependent on the particle’s mass, thus energy. This is a direct consequence of Planck’s equation that relates energy to frequency, yet they don’t explain this. Later in the book, when they introduce Planck’s equation, they write it in terms of wavelength, not frequency, as it is normally expressed. These are minor quibbles, some might say petty, yet I believe they would help to relate the use of Feynman’s clocks to what the reader might already know of the subject.

One of the significant facts I learnt from their book was how Feynman exploited the ‘least action principle’ in quantum mechanics. (For a brief exposition of the least action principle refer my post on The Laws of Nature, Mar. 2008). Feynman also describes its significance in gravity in Six-Not-So-Easy Pieces: the principle dictates the path of a body in a gravitational field. In effect, the ‘least action’ is the difference between the kinetic and potential energy of the body. Nature contrives that it will always be a minimum, hence the description, ‘principle of least action’.

Now, I already knew that Feynman had applied it to quantum mechanics, but Cox and Forshaw provide us with the story behind it. Dirac had written a paper in 1933 entitled ‘The Lagrangian in Quantum Mechanics’ (the Lagrangian is the mathematical formulation of least action). In 1941, Herbet Jehle, a European physicist visiting Princeton, told Feynman about Dirac’s paper. The next day, Feynman found the paper in the Princeton library, and with Jehle looking on, derived Schrodinger’s equation in one afternoon using the least action principle. Feynman later told Dirac about his discovery, and was surprised to learn that Dirac had not made the connection himself.

But the other interesting point is that the units for ‘action’ in physics are mx2/t which are the same units as Planck’s constant, h. In other words, the fundamental unit of quantum mechanics is an ‘action’ unit. Now, units are important concepts in physics because only entities with the same type of units can be added and subtracted in an equation. Physicists talk about dimensions, because units must have the same dimensions to be able to be combined or deducted. The dimensions for ‘action’, for instance, are 1 of mass, 2 of length and -1 of time. To give a more common example, the dimensions for velocity are 0 of mass, 1 of length and -1 of time. You can add and subtract areas, for example, (2 dimensions of length) but you can’t add a length to an area or deduct an area from a volume (3 dimensions of length). Obviously, multiplication and calculus allow one to transform dimensions.

One of the concepts that Cox and Forshaw emphasise throughout the book is the universality of quantum mechanics and how literally everything is interconnected. They point out that no 2 electrons can have exactly the same energy, not only in the same atom but in the same universe (the Pauli Exclusion Principle). Also individual photons can never be tracked. In fact, they point out a little-known fact that Planck’s law is incompatible with the notion of tracking individual photons; a discovery made by Ladislas Natanson as far back as 1911. No, I’d never heard of him either, or his remarkable insight.

Cox and Forshaw do a brilliant job of explaining Wolfgang Pauli’s famous principle that makes individual atoms, and therefore matter, stable. They also expound on Freeman Dyson’s and Andrew Leonard’s 1967 paper demonstrating that it’s the Pauli Exclusion Principle that stops you from falling through the floor. Dyson described ‘the proof as extraordinarily complicated, difficult and opaque’, which may help to explain why it took so long for someone to derive it.

They also do an excellent job of explaining how quantum mechanics allows transistors to work, which is arguably the most significant invention of the 20th Century. In fact, it’s probably the best exposition I’ve come across outside a text book.

But what comes across throughout their book, is that the quantum world obeys specific ‘rules’ and once you understand those rules, no matter how bizarre they may seem to our common sense view of the world, you can make accurate and consistent predictions. The catch is that probability plays a key role and deterministic interpretations are not compatible with the quantum universe. In fact, Cox and Forshaw point out that quantum mechanics exhibits true ‘randomness’ unlike the ‘chaotic’ randomness that is dependent on ultra-sensitive initial conditions. In a recent issue of New Scientist, I came across someone discussing free will or the lack of it (in a book review on the topic) and espousing the view that everything is deterministic from the Big Bang onwards. Personally, I find it very difficult to hold such a philosophical position when the bedrock of the entire physical universe insists on chance.

Cox and Forshaw don’t have much to say about the philosophical implications of quantum mechanics except in one brief passage where they reveal a preference for the 'many worlds' interpretation because it does away with the so-called ‘collapse’ or ‘decoherence’ of the wave function. In fact, they make no reference to ‘collapse’ or ‘decoherence’ at all. They prefer the idea that there is an uninterrupted history of the quantum wave function, even if it implies that its future lies in another universe or a multitude of universes. But they also give tacit acknowledgement to Feynman’s dictum: ‘…the position taken by the “shut up and calculate” school of physics, which deftly dismisses any attempt to talk about the reality of things.’

In the epilogue, Cox and Forshaw get into some serious physics where they explain how quantum mechanics gives us the famous Chandrasekhar limit, developed by Subrahmanyan Chandresekhar in 1930, which determines how big a star can be before it becomes a neutron star or a black hole. The answer is 1.4 solar masses (1.4 times the mass of our sun). Mind you, it has to go through a whole series of phases in between and that’s what Cox and Forshaw explain, using some fundamental algebra along with some generous assumptions to make the exposition digestible for laypeople. But the purpose of the exercise is to demonstrate that quantum phenomena can determine limits on a stellar scale that have been verified by observation. It also gives a good demonstration of the scientific method in practice, as they point out.

This is a good book for introducing people to the mysteries of quantum mechanics with no attempt to side-step the inherent weirdness and no attempt to provide simplistic answers. They do their best to follow the Feynman tradition of telling it exactly as it is and eschew the magic that mysteries tend to induce. Nature doesn’t provide loop holes for specious reasoning. Quantum mechanics is the latest in a long line of nature’s secret workings, mathematically cogent and reliable, but deeply counter-intuitive.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The philosophy of Professor Sir Michael Marmot

This is another redoubtable interview by Margaret Throsby during her recent tour of Europe with the ACO (Australian Chamber Orchestra). Marmot holds a professorship at University College London and was President of the BMA (British Medical Association) until recently. As he admits in the interview, he was an unusual President in that he had an agenda.

The reason I’m writing a post about it is that he confirms a long-held belief of mine that the sense of having control of your life, or not, has an impact on your health, both psychological and physical. He quotes a German physician from the 19th Century, who apparently said: ‘physicians are the natural attorneys of the poor.’ This is because there is a ‘social gradient of health’ that exists in all Western societies (at least) and is not only unacknowledged but ignored. In other words, the poorer you are the poorer your health. According to Marmot, this gradient is statistically true right from the top to the bottom of our social hierarchy. And he puts it down to the sense of control one feels one has over one’s life. This outcome doesn’t surprise me, but apparently it surprises most other people, who think that the higher you are in the social train the more stress you are under and therefore the greater are your health risks. Marmot admits he thought this himself until he did the analysis and found the converse to be true.

Amongst other things, it makes a mockery of the health-reform debate in America, who seem determined to lag behind the rest of the Western world when it comes to social health issues.

In another interview by former Australian Prime Minister, Paul Keating, that touches on subjects like the lost opportunities at the end of the Cold War and politicians' propensity to not tell people the truth, he points out how real incomes in America have not increased over the last 20 years, which contributed to the subprime crisis. In America, corporations have a stranglehold on domestic politics, and no one sees the deleterious effect this has on the welfare of ordinary people.

This is a not unrelated side-issue to the fact that people, wherever they live, are deeply affected by living and working conditions that erode their sense of worth. We actually get the best out of people when they feel they have control over what they’re doing and are not just automatons. This means that the lower one is down the pecking order the less control one feels one has over one’s life and the greater the risk to their health and wellbeing. According to Marmot, figures from all over the Western world confirm this.

At the end of the interview he provides an interesting ‘statistic’. He contends that, globally, 100 billion people live in poverty and that 100 billion dollars could change that situation. This, of course, is a lot of money, but, to put it into perspective, 9 trillion dollars was spent to bail out the banks. It makes one wonder, when, and if, we will finally appreciate that promulgating the global poverty gap is not the way to proceed in the 21st Century.

P.S. I'm unsure how long these interviews are available.

Saturday, 17 December 2011

Consciousness Unexplained

The Mysterious Flame by Colin McGinn, subtitled Conscious Minds in a Material World, was recommended to my by The Atheist Missionary (aka TAM) almost 2 years ago, and it’s taken me all this time to get around to reading it.

But it was well worth the effort, and I can only endorse the recommendation given by The New York Times, as quoted on the cover: “There is no better introduction to the problem of consciousness than this.” McGinn is Professor of Philosophy at Rutgers University, with a handful of other books credited to him. Mysterious Flame was written in 1999, yet it’s not dated by other books I’ve read on this subject, and I would go so far as to say that anyone with an interest in the mind-body problem should read this book. Even if you don’t agree with him, I’m sure he has something to offer that you didn’t consider previously. At the end of the book, he also has something to say about the discipline of philosophy in general: its history and its unique position in human thought.

Most significantly, McGinn calls himself a ‘mysterian’, who is someone, like myself, as it turns out, who believes that consciousness is a mystery which we may never solve. Right from the start he addresses the two most common philosophical positions on this subject: materialism and dualism; demonstrating how they both fail. They are effectively polar opposite positions: materialism arguing that consciousness is neuronal activity full stop; and dualism arguing that consciousness is separate to the brain, albeit connected, and therefore can exist independently of the brain.

Materialism is the default position taken by scientists and dualism is the default position taken by most people even if they’re not aware of it. Most people think that ‘I’ is an entity that exists inside their head, dependent on their brain yet separate from it somehow. Many people, who have had out-of-body experiences, argue this confirms their belief. On the other hand, scientists have demonstrated how we can fool the ‘mind’ into thinking it is outside the body. I have argued elsewhere (Subjectivity, June 2009) that ‘I think’ is a tautology, because ‘I’ is your thoughts and nothing else.

McGinn acknowledges that consciousness is completely dependent on the brain but this alone doesn’t explain it. He points out that consciousness evolved relatively early in evolution and is not dependent on intelligence per se. Being more intelligent doesn’t make us more sentient than other species who also ‘feel’. He attacks the commonly held belief in the scientific community that consciousness just arises from this ‘meat’ we call a brain, and to create consciousness we merely have to duplicate this biological machine. I agree with him on this point. Not so recently (April 2011), I challenged an editorial and an article written in New Scientist inferring that sentience is an axiomatic consequence of artificial intelligence (AI): 'it’s just a matter of time before we will be forced to acknowledge it'. However, the biological evidence suggests that making AI more intelligent won’t create sentience, yet that’s exactly what most AI exponents believe. As McGinn says: ‘…sentience in general does not involve symbolic manipulation’, which is what a computer algorithm does.

McGinn argues that the problem with consciousness is that it’s non-spatial and therefore could exist in another dimension. This is not as daft as it sounds, because, as he points out, an additional dimension could exist without us knowing it and he references Edwin A. Abbott’s famous book, Flatland, to make his point. I’ve similarly argued that quantum mechanics could be explained by imagining a hidden dimension, so I’m not dismissive of this hypothesis.

The most important point that McGinn makes, in my opinion, is a fundamental one of epistemology. We humans tend to think that there is nothing that exists that is beyond our ultimate comprehension, yet there is no legitimate cognitive reason to assume that. To quote: ‘We should have the humility, and plain good sense, to admit that some things may exist without being knowable by us.’

This came up recently in an online discussion I had with Emanuel Rutten (Trying to define God, Nov. 11) who argued the opposite based on an ‘all possible worlds’ scenario. And if there were an infinite number of worlds, then Rutten’s argument would be valid. However, projecting what is possibly knowable in an infinite number of worlds to our specific world is epistemological nonsense.

As McGinn points out, most species on our planet can’t comprehend gravity or how the stars stay up in the sky or that the Earth goes around the sun – it’s beyond their cognitive abilities. Likewise there could be phenomena that are beyond our cognitive abilities, and consciousness may be one.

Roger Penrose addresses this epistemological point in Chapter 1 of Road to Reality, where he admits a ‘personal prejudice’ that everything in the natural world is within our cognitive grasp, whilst acknowledging that others don’t share his prejudice. In particular, Penrose contends that there is a Platonic mathematical realm, which is theoretically available to us without constraint (except the time to explore it), and that this Platonic realm can explain the entire physical universe. Interestingly, McGinn makes no reference to the significance of mathematics in determining the epistemological limit of our knowledge, yet I contend that this is a true limit.

Therefore, I would argue, based on this hypothetical mathematically cognitive limit, that if consciousness can’t be determined mathematically then it will remain a mystery.

Even though McGinn discusses amnesia in reference to the ‘self’, he doesn’t specifically address the fact that, without memory, there would be no ‘self’. Which is why none of us have a sense of self in our early infancy because we create no memories of it. It is memory that specifically gives us a sense of continuity of self and allows us to believe that the ‘I’ we perceive ourselves to be as an adult is the same ‘I’ we were as children.

I’ve skipped over quite a lot of McGinn’s book, obviously, but he does give arguably the best description of John Searle’s famous Chinese Room thought experiment I’ve read, without telling the reader that it is John Searle’s Chinese Room thought experiment.

At the end of the book, he devotes a short chapter to ‘The Unbearable Heaviness of Philosophy’ where he explains how ‘natural philosophy’ diverged from science yet they are more complementary than dichotomous. To quote McGinn again:

‘Science asks answerable questions… eliminating false theories, reducing the area of human ignorance, while philosophy seems mired in controversy, perpetually worrying at the same questions, not making the kind of progress characteristic of science.’

Many people perceive and present philosophy as the poor orphan of science in the modern age, yet I’m unsure if they will ever be completely separated or become independent. Science reveals that nature’s mysteries are endless and whilst those mysteries persist then philosophy will continue to play its role.

Right at the end of the book, McGinn makes a pertinent observation: that our DNA code contains the answer to our mystery, because consciousness is a consequence of the genetic instructions that make every sentient creature. So our genes have the information to create consciousness that consciousness itself is unable to comprehend.

Friday, 25 November 2011

Dr. Noel Fitzpatrick

This is one of the most inspiring interviews I’ve heard, with an Irish vet, nonetheless. Fitzpatrick is best known for being the first vet to attach bionic legs (prostheses) to the hind quarters of a cat, called Oscar, who famously gained most of his mobility again, even to the extent of being able to scratch himself in the way that cats do. You can see how mobile he is here. He lost his legs and one of his nine lives, one would expect, when he tangled with a combine harvester in Jersey, I believe.

But Fitzpatrick has quite a lot to say on topics that go beyond veterinary science, including education, unconditional love and our relationship with animals in general.

In particular, his take on veterinary science that includes non-scientific methods, his belief that human and animal medical science would both benefit if they were done in concert, synergistically, and that the heart is just as important as the head. Fitzpatrick is one of those rare people who lives what he preaches and we could all benefit from his example.

Note: Interview is only available for a limited time.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Trying to define God

This post arose from a lengthy discussion I had with Emanuel Rutten, who claims he has a ‘proof’, using modal logic, that God ‘necessarily exists’. The discussion started on Rust Belt Philosophy and then transferred to Rutten’s own blog. I’m naturally wary of anyone who claims they can prove God exists with nothing but logic, because it defies all epistemological sense. You can prove mathematical conjectures or solve puzzles using logic but everything else requires evidence.

For example, string theory is the latest contender for a so-called ‘theory of everything’ (really a theory of quantum gravity) which makes some extraordinary predictions, like the universe exists in 11 dimensions, of which all but 3 of space and 1 of time are ‘rolled up’ so as to be undetectable. Now, while no one challenges the mathematics behind the theory, no one claims it’s ‘necessarily true’ because there is no evidence to date to support it.

And, whilst I admit that Rutten is much cleverer than me, I think his proof is more sophistry than philosophy, and I’ve told him so on his own blog. Rutten’s argument should really be an argument about logic not religion. If his argument didn’t contain the word ‘God’, no one would give it a second thought and, certainly, no one would take it seriously. But because his argument in logic is an argument for the existence of God, it becomes a religious argument, especially since as a result of his own defence, it becomes clear that his ‘proof’ is critically dependent on how one defines God.

Rutten defines God as both ‘personal’ (meaning sentient) and ‘first cause’. Change this definition and his proof becomes one of negation instead of necessity. In particular, if one defines God as being non-sentient (but still first cause) then God goes from being necessarily existent to impossible to exist (according to Rutten’s own defence). The reason being that a sentient God ‘knows that God exists’ in ‘some possible world’ and a non-sentient God can’t possibly know. So the difference between God necessarily existing in all possible worlds (including ours) and impossibly non-existing is whether God knows that God exists (is sentient) or not. This is the corollary from the 2 conclusions of his own argument: one saying God must necessarily exist and one saying God can’t possibly exist, depending on how God is defined. Therefore God exists but only if God knows that God exists (is sentient). This is circular.

One of the reasons that no one has ever proved that God exists is because, by definition, God is immaterial and, according to most accounts, exists outside our universe. This means that God is not amenable to the scientific method. If God exists then he, she or it, only engages with the universe through the human brain, which is why God is totally subjective, just like colour. I’ve explained this before in an earlier post (God with no ego, May 2011). Colour is purely a psychological phenomenon that only exists in some creature’s mind, but it has an external cause, which is light reflected off objects. Now some may argue that the ‘experience’ of God may also have an external cause, but the difference is that colour can be tested (even for other species) whilst there is no test for God.

An essential part of Rutten’s argument is ‘first cause’, but so-called ‘personal first cause’ can only be found in mythology. As far as science goes, the only thing we can say about first cause is that it was a quantum phenomenon and quantum phenomena are amongst the greatest mysteries of the universe. I’ve written posts expounding on cosmological theories that contend the universe is ‘something from nothing’, including Alan Guth’s inflationary model, the Hartle-Hawking model and Roger Penrose’s cyclic universe. Paul Davies in his book, God and the New Physics, expounds on Alan Guth’s ‘free lunch scenario’, explaining that ‘….all you need are the laws [of nature] – the universe can take care of itself, including its own creation.’

And this seems to be the only pre-requisite for the universe to exist: that the laws of nature, that we understand through the universal language of mathematics, must be either imminent or necessarily entailed in the universe’s own birth. Without an intelligence like ours to comprehend them, nothing in the universe would even know they exist. This leads to the possible contemplation of the ‘anthropic principle’, but that’s a topic for a future post.

In Mar. 2009, I reviewed Mario Livio’s book, Is God a Mathematician? in which Livio suggests that the Pythagoreans would have said that God is the mathematics, and that probably makes more sense than the notion of personal first cause.

Mathematics fulfills 3 of the criteria we normally assign to God: infinity, truth and independent universality. Infinity only makes sense in mathematics and, in fact, is unavoidable at every level; mathematics is the only realm where infinity appears to be at home. Mathematical truths are arguably the only objective truths that are both universal and dependable. And mathematics gives the impression of a universal independence to human thought and possibly the universe itself.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Shame, shame, shame!!!

I managed to write an entire novel without resorting to an exclamation mark, so it’s an indication of my indignation that I’ve used them with such extravagance in the above title.

On this week’s 4 Corners programme, which provides the best investigative journalism in the country, they uncovered the extraordinary damage our government does to refugees in the name of border protection.

Former Australian of the Year, Patrick McGorry, called our detention centres ‘mental-illness factories’ and the 4 Corners programme demonstrated that beyond contention. Meanwhile, other media outlets in Australia, continue to feed the Australian public’s paranoia that refugees get a free ride at our expense. The truth is that we treat refugees, who have committed no crime, worse than the worst criminals in the country.

And this is because politicians from both of our major parties believe it’s necessary to win the xenophobic vote. Fear is always a good vote winner, which is why capital punishment in the US has the history it does. And the media also know that fear sells air-space on television and radio and print-space in newspapers, so they are more than happy to jump on the bandwagon and help the politicians manipulate public opinion.

The height of the politicians’ hypocrisy (on both sides) is that they claim they are creating a ‘deterrent’ which will stop refugees from endangering their lives by crossing the Indian Ocean in ‘leaky boats’. They don’t acknowledge the fact that people only risk their lives in such circumstances because the risk of losing one’s life by staying where they are is even greater. Many of the refugees questioned have lost close relatives to political violence, so it is not safe for them to stay in their country of origin.

The most interesting aspect of all this is that it’s only refugees who arrive by boat who are put in detention. Those who arrive by aeroplane are treated entirely differently. Why is this so? You may well ask. It’s because those who arrive by plane attract no media attention whatsoever, whereas those who arrive by boat get all the media attention and therefore must be vilified by our politicians to show how ‘tough’ they are.

It’s unbelievable that our politicians can be so morally bankrupt, but the desire to win office, and stay in office, corrupts moral principles to the worst degree. As long as the public are unaware or unempathetic to our treatment of refugees, then politicians will do nothing to uphold their charter to treat them humanely. In fact, they will do the opposite because it will win them votes.


Addendum: It’s been demonstrated by neurological investigation that when people experience emotional pain it affects the exact same part of the brain, and to the same degree, as if they experience physical pain. This is why people self-harm when they are exposed to long term emotional stress, because the physical pain becomes a substitute for the emotional pain. This seems perverse, yet it’s been known to occur with animals as well (kept in captivity in stressful conditions).

When refugees self-harm, the idiot commentators, amongst others, tell us that they are seeking attention. Mental-health professionals know better: these people are at the extremity of their sanity and our government’s polices keep pushing them over the edge. This is arguably the most shameful behaviour one can witness in a 21st Century liberal democracy.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

The dawn of the human mind

It’s an extravagant statement to make, bordering on hyperbole, yet, after seeing Werner Herzog’s documentary, Cave of Forgotten Dreams, about the Chauvet cave, discovered in 1994, one struggles to find words befitting the discovery. The first thing that strikes you as soon as you see the images (in 3D) is how modern they look. You can understand why the first reaction from academia was that they were a hoax, not 34,000 years old as has been verified by carbon dating.

The significance of this film is that it will probably be the only one ever made. The caves are closed to the public, only selected scientists and academics can gain access and only at certain times of the year. The caves were hermetically sealed off by a landslide and that’s the only reason we have this preservation of ancient rock art executed during the ice age when we co-inhabited Europe with Neanderthals. I say ‘we’ because they are the common ancestors to most of the peoples in the world today. The human genome project has revealed that we all came out of Africa, including all indigenous tribal people, and Asians as well as Europeans.

One of the archaeologists, a young man with a science background, who spent 4 continuous days in the cave, tells of the emotional impact they had on him beyond his expectations. In particular, they filled his dreams with the animals he saw. He said he dreamt of lions, both depicted and real-life forms. He remarked upon the emotional and subliminal connection that they could still make with humans living over 30,000 years after they had been created. When I was a child (pre-adolescent) I used to draw animals all the time – they were my favourite subject – concordant with a fascination with animal life in general. I was fortunate enough to live near the bush (as we call it in Oz) with a creek running alongside our house that plummeted into a deep gorge, not that far from where we lived.

This connection and this fascination with wild animals is something that we’ve lost. For these people, one feels it was spiritual, and that’s not just a projection. Herzog went to a lot of trouble to place this particular artwork into a much broader context. Talking with a number of academics, it became clear that 30-40,000 years ago in ice-gripped Europe, art, in all its manifestations that we know today, flourished. In particular, there are numerous figurines, especially of the female form, and bone flutes from the same age. So we know that both graphic and sculptural art flourished as well as music, and we can assume that so did storytelling, mythmaking and religion. Many people make a connection between art and religion, and I think one can safely say that they were born at the same time. They both deal with the subconscious and our dreamworld. An archaeologist at another site, produced a bone flute made from the radius bone of a vulture with 4 holes drilled in it. He played The Star Spangled Banner (though he was obviously not American) to demonstrate that these ice-age humans used the same musical scale that we use today.

The same archaeologist, whom we met earlier in the film discussing his dreams, tells of an incident he saw in northern Australia (probably in a documentary) of an Aboriginal Elder showing someone some rock art from thousands of years earlier and explaining how it used to be maintained but now it’s not. He then proceeded to ‘touch it up’ or restore it. When the white man asked him if he was an artist. He said, no, he wasn’t the artist, the ‘spirit’ was. And this is something that all artists can identify with, like we are a medium for something beyond us, out there. This is the exact same sense that people have with religion. They were born at the same time in humanity: the dawn of the human mind.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Where does time go? (in quantum mechanics)

For those who are unacquainted with my blog, I’m not a physicist, or academic of any kind; I’m a self-confessed dilettante. I’ve written on this topic before (The enigma we call time, Jul. 2010) and it’s one of my more popular posts, based on an article I read in Scientific American (June 2010).

This time I’ve been inspired by last week’s New Scientist (8 October, 2011), which was a ‘Special issue’ on TIME; The Most Mysterious Dimension of All. They cover every aspect of time, by various authors, from the age of the universe to our circadian rhythms and everything in between and even beyond. But there were 2 essays in particular that caught my attention and led me to revisit this topic from 12 months ago.

Firstly, a discussion on Time’s Arrow by Amanda Gefter, who points out that, whilst the 2nd law of thermodynamics provides our only theoretical link with time’s arrow, because entropy must always increase, it’s not the solution: ‘If only it were so easy. Unfortunately, the second law does not really explain the arrow of time.’

The point is that entropy is statistical, as Schrodinger pointed out in What is Life? (refer my post, Nov. 2009) as is most of physics, but it’s not a deterministic law like, for example, Einstein’s general theory of relativity. So even though we can say that overall entropy doesn’t go backwards any more than time does, we can’t provide a mathematical relationship that derives time from entropy. In my post on time last year I said: ‘It is entropy that apparently drives the arrow of time…’ Gefter’s exposition suggests that I might be overstating the case.

Gefter goes on to say: ‘The only way to explain the arrow of time, then, is to assume that the universe just happened to start out in an extremely unlikely low entropy state.’ I’ve discussed this before when I reviewed Roger Penrose’s book, Cycles of Time (Jan. 2011), who spends a great deal of space expounding on the significance of the second law to the universe’s entire history, including its future. This is a bit off-topic to my intended subject, so I won’t dwell on it, but, as Gefter points out, the standard explanation for the universe’s initial low entropy is inflationary theory. But then she adds this caveat: ‘Inflation seems to solve the dilemma. On closer inspection, however, it only pushes the problem back.’ In other words, inflation itself must have had a low entropy and the standard explanation is that there were multiple inflations creating a multiverse.

Einstein’s relativity theories tell us that time is observer-dependent, yet entropy and its role in the evolution of the universe suggests that there is an ‘entropic’ time that governs the universe’s entire history. Then there is quantum mechanics that has its own time anomalies in defiance of common sense and everyday experience (see below).

I’ve recently started reading Professor Lisa Randall’s book, Knocking on Heaven’s Door; How Physics and Scientific Thinking Illuminate the Universe and the Modern World. This is an excellent book, from what I’ve read thus far, for anyone wanting an understanding of how scientists think and how science works, without equations and esoteric prose. In her introduction, she tells us that after giving guest lectures for college students, the most common question is not about physics, but how old she is. She’s young, blonde and attractive: the complete antithesis of the stereotypical physicist. In her first chapter she explains the importance of scale in physics and how different laws, and therefore different equations, are applied according to the scale of the world one is examining. I’ve written about this myself in a post (May 2009), which is also one of my more popular ones. Obviously, Randall is far better qualified to expound on this than me.

She mentions, in passing, a movie, What the Bleep do we know? to illustrate the error in scaling quantum mechanical phenomena up to human scale and expecting the same rules to apply. I remember when this movie came out and thinking what a disservice it did to science and how it misrepresented science to a scientifically illiterate audience. I remember having to explain to friends of mine, how, despite the credentials of the people interviewed, it wasn’t science at all. It was just as much fantasy as my own fiction, perhaps more so.

And this finally brings me to the second essay I read in New Scientist, titled, Countdown to the Theory of Everything, because it is ‘time’ that creates the conceptual and theoretical hurdle to a scientific marriage between Einstein’s theory of general relativity (gravity) and quantum mechanics. And this is what scientists specifically mean when they refer to a ‘theory of everything’. To quote Amanda Gefter again: ‘…to unite general relativity with quantum mechanics, we need to work with a single view of time. But which one is the right one?’ And then she goes on to quote various exponents on the topic, like Carlo Rovelli at the Centre for Theoretical Physics at Marseilles: “For me, the solution to the problem is that at the fundamental level of nature, there is no time at all.”

And this led me to contemplate how the dimension of time effectively disappears in many quantum phenomena, and at best, becomes an anomaly. In both quantum tunneling and entanglement, time becomes inconsequential. Also, superposition, which is just as difficult to conceptualise as any other quantum phenomenon, actually makes sense if time does not exist: something exists everywhere at once.

In May this year, I wrote an exposition on Schrodinger’s equation, aimed at physics students, which has since become my most popular post. Now Schrodinger’s equation, in its most common form, is a time-dependent wave function, which belies the ideas that I’ve just outlined above. But Schrodinger’s equation entails the paradox that lies at the heart of quantum mechanics and time is part of that paradox. As Gefter points out: ‘Unlike general relativity, where time is contained within the system, quantum mechanics requires a clock that sits outside the system…’ The time in Schrodinger’s equation is the observer’s time and his equation tells us that the particle or photon that the wave function describes, actually ‘permeates all space’, to quote Richard Elwes in MATHS 1001. And as the standard, or Copenhagen, interpretation of quantum mechanics tells us, the observer is a key participant because it’s their measurement or observation that brings the particle or photon into the real world. At best, Schrodinger’s continuous time-dependent wave function can only give us a probability of its position in the real world, albeit an accurate probability.

Schrodinger realised that his equation had to incorporate complex algebra otherwise it didn’t work. I find it curious that only quantum mechanics requires imaginary numbers (square route of -1, i ). What’s curious is that i is not a number per se: you can’t count or quantify anything with i ; it’s more like a dimension. To quote Elwes again: ‘…our human minds are incapable of visualizing the 4-dimensional graph that a complex function demands.’ This is because the imaginary plane is orthogonal to the real number plane. Schrodinger’s equation only relates to the real world when you square the modulus of his wave function and get rid of the imaginary numbers.

I’ve argued in a previous post (Jun. 2011) that quantum mechanics infers a Platonic world like a substratum to the ‘classical physical’ world that we are more familiar with. Is it possible that in this world time does not exist? Penrose, in Cycles of Time, points out that we need mass for time to exist. This is because photons have zero time, which is why nothing can travel faster than light. However a photon in the real world has energy, which means it has a frequency, which means there must be time. Schrodinger’s equation includes energy times a wave function so all aspects are entailed in the equation. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle also demonstrates that there is a clear relationship between energy and time, in exactly the same way there is between space and momentum. As Richard Feynman points out, translation in space is linked to the conservation of momentum and translation in time is linked to the conservation of energy. So time and energy are linked in the classical world and Heisenberg’s equation tells us that they are linked quantum mechanically as well, but only through a particle’s emergence into the physical world, even if it’s a virtual particle.

But if quantum phenomena are time-dimensionless then photons are the perfect candidate. The entire universe can go by in a photon’s lifetime. The same happens at the event horizon of a black hole. Does this mean that the event horizon of a black hole is the boundary between the classical physical world and the quantum world?

In Nov. 2009, I reviewed Fulvio Melia’s book, Cracking the Einstein Code, which is effectively an exposition and brief biography of Roy Kerr, a Kiwi who used Einstein’s field equations to describe the space-time of a rotating body, which is the norm for bodies in the universe. Kerr’s theoretical examination of a spinning black hole led him to postulate that it would have 2 event horizons, and when a body crosses the first event horizon, the parameters of space and time are reversed: space becomes time-like and time becomes space-like. This is because time freezes at the event horizon for an outside observer and the external time becomes infinite from the inside. Time becomes space-like in that it becomes static and infinite.

This post can be put down to the meanderings of an under-educated yet intellectually curious individual. If time does not exist in the quantum world then it actually makes sense of things like superposition, quantum tunneling and entanglement, not to mention time-reversal as expounded by Feynman in his book, QED, using his unique Feynman diagrams. John Wheeler also postulated a thought experiment in which a measurement taken after a photon passes through a slit in Young’s famous experiment can determine which one it passed through. I believe this has since been confirmed with a real experiment. It would also suggest that a marriage between the quantum world and Einstein’s general theory of relativity may be impossible.



Addendum 1: Earlier this year (May 2011) I reviewed John D. Barrow’s latest book, The Book of Universes, and I happened to revisit it and find this extremely relevant reference to the Hartle-Hawking universe devised by James Hartle and Stephen Hawking, using Feynman’s quantum integral method on a wave function for the whole universe.

What’s relevant to this post is that ‘[Hartle and Hawking] proposed an initial state in which time became another dimension of space.’

To quote Barrow’s interpretation:

‘Time is not fundamental in this theory. It is a quality that emerges when the universe gets large enough for the distinctive quantum effects to become negligible: time is something that arises concretely only in the limiting non-quantum environment. As we follow the Hartle-Hawking universe back to small sizes it becomes dominated by the Euclidean quantum paths. The concept of time disappears and the universe becomes increasingly like a four-dimensional space. There is no beginning to the universe because time disappears.’

What’s more: ‘…the transformation that changes time into another dimension of space corresponds to multiplying it by an imaginary number…’

This gives rise to what ‘Hartle and Hawking called the “no Boundary” state for the origin of the universe… Its beginning is smooth and unremarkable… In effect, the no-boundary condition is a proposal for the state of the universe if it appears from nothing in a quantum event. The story of this universe is that once upon a time there was no time.’


The only problem with this scenario, as Barrow points out, is that there is no big bang singularity, nevertheless it fits the idea that the quantum world doesn’t need time and the very early universe must have been a quantum universe at the very least.

Addendum 2: Also from Barrow (same book), I found this mathematical joke:

The number you have reached is imaginary. Please rotate your phone through ninety degrees and try again. (Answer-phone message for imaginary phone numbers)

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Utilitarianism and other moral philosophies

Recently, I was involved in a discussion on utilitarianism on the Rust Belt Philosophy blog. The discussion got a bit esoteric, and, not being an academic, I got left behind. Nevertheless, there are some things that came out of it which I thought worth jotting down. Very early in the history of this blog, I wrote an ambitious and lengthy essay called Human Nature (Nov. 2007) where John Stuart Mill gets a mention but the context was too broad to elaborate on the subject of utilitarianism specifically.

Also in the latest Sep/Oct 2011 issue of Philosophy Now, where the theme is Kant & Co, there is a discussion on the famous rail trolley moral dilemma, which is often given as a classic utilitarian problem. I need to say up front that I don’t call myself a utilitarian but I can see merits in the principle. As someone suggests, in the same issue of Philosophy Now, whilst discussing Kant’s moral philosophy, one shouldn’t narrow one’s options when it comes to assessing moral issues. In fact, I’m not sure that any moral principle can be used on its own, but I’ll introduce other moral principles as I progress.

One of the main points that everyone seemed to agree on, both at Rust Belt Philosophy and in Philosophy Now, is that moral decisions need to be considered on a case by case basis and you can’t just feed a set of parameters into a computer and come up with an answer. In other words, there is not a set of rules that you can apply for specific situations like an algorithm. This is one of the fundamental conceptual differences that separates science from humanities, because, in science, one uses algorithms, in the form of equations, quite a lot. Even, in biological sciences, there are categories and generic mechanisms that make biology predictable in a way that psychology and morality isn’t and probably never will be. In fact, morality owes a lot to psychology, and even Mill understood that, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

Utilitarian philosophy, as espoused by Mill in particular, is generally presented as the ‘greatest happiness’ principle, and on Rust Belt Philosophy, the term ‘maximising well-being’ was used, which was defined as ‘the opposite of suffering’. One of the points I made is that a lot depends on how one employs this principle, because, on face value, it appears that the ‘greatest happiness to the greatest number of people’ means that the majority should always gain at the expense of the minority, which is why we have political parties and why we vote for them. Using some common contentious moral issues, found on blogs, in news media and in political rhetoric, I challenged this prevailing view.

I will quote directly from the comment I left on Eli’s blog:

If you look at real world, moral issues that occupy blogs, politics and media, they are invariably portrayed as being about one person’s rights, or one group’s rights, versus another’s. For example: the rights of gays to marry over the rights of straights to maintain the sanctity of marriage; the rights of an unborn child over the rights of its mother; the rights of refugees over the rights of people to maintain control of their borders; and the rights of Palestinians over the rights of Israelis.

If one takes the ‘greatest happiness’ principle or the ‘maximising well-being’ principle, then you might argue that the majority wins and the minority loses. However, I disagree.

If you increase the well-being of gays by allowing them to marry, it has no effect on the well-being of heterosexuals – does not affect them at all.

By increasing the well-being of refugees, it has no immediate effect on the well-being of the current inhabitants, and history shows that it leads to the increased well-being of everyone in the long term (this is a specific, currently contentious issue in Oz).

The well-being of an unborn child is intimately entwined with the well-being of its mother, so you can’t consider the well-being of one without considering the well-being of the other. Anyone who attempts to do this is attempting to take over the mother’s role, which is impossible.

The well-being of Palestinians and the well-being of Israelis should be able to be resolved through compromise, or so one would think. However, there is a serious imbalance in this case, and addressing that imbalance would go a long way to increasing the well-being of both parties.


These arguments, not surprisingly, reflect my own personal views on these matters, and there are contrary arguments, obviously, otherwise these topics wouldn’t be contentious.

In a dialogue with another contributor on the blog, March Hare, I made the following point:

But there is another, more fundamental point here that I think has been lost. Most people see moral issues like a football match, whereby one person’s gain can only happen at another person’s lost. I think as long as we have that attitude then progress on many issues: moral, political and economical; will stagnate. In a relationship, one rarely gains pleasure at the expense of their partner’s misery. Usually, either both parties are happy or both are miserable. When you have conflict the same equation applies. We should be looking at ways that both parties’ well-being is increased. And, in many cases, one party can increase their well-being without affecting the other party; gay marriage being a case in point. Yes, it may affect some fundamentalists’ sensibilities but it doesn’t affect their own well-being.

March Hare took exception to my point that gay marriage has no effect on the lives of those who oppose it, and we had a protracted discussion over this. March Hare does not oppose gay marriage, by the way, he just believed that my argument was flawed. In particular, he argued that the opponents of gay marriage would be harmed by the law because it affects them psychologically.

To quote him: ‘…they think their way of life is being attacked, they think their country is leaving them, they fear for their future and their children's, they fear for the safety of their children and the moral well being of all. They may even fear god's vengeance on the country.’

And he’s right, because even though the law would have no effect on their own lives it would affect their phobias, as he so aptly describes them. However, if we passed a law, or maintained a law, that validated their phobias then that would create even more harm, though not to them, but to gays, in the way of persecution and vilification, which we’ve witnessed in the past. So capitulating to these phobias would actually create more harm and my utilitarian argument still stands, and, in fact, stands even stronger.

But this issue about ‘rights’ raises another principle, which is ‘universality’ and is taken up by Peter Rickman in Philosophy Now when he discusses Kant’s moral philosophy. Gay marriage is a case in point, where people are asking for a universality of an existing law, that currently applies to heterosexuals, to apply to same-sex couples. If one accepts same-sex relationships as both legal and psychologically valid (as they are in most Western societies), it’s very hard to deny them the same rights as opposite-sex couples, and I’ll return to this specific issue later.

But universality is tied to reciprocity which is tied to empathy: what’s good enough for you is good enough for everyone else. Reciprocity is most famously associated with Confucius, and 500 years later, Jesus, and is often called the golden rule. Confucius purportedly presented it in the negative: ‘Don’t do to others, what you wouldn’t want done to yourself’; which I think has more emotional weight. It emphasises the negation of harm rather than the giving of charity. It also emphasises the need for empathy – we are less likely to harm someone or persecute them or vilify them if we can see ourselves standing in their shoes. I’ve written elsewhere on the importance of art, and storytelling in particular, in promoting empathy. This is very much a humanist philosophy, and Don Cupitt argues that Jesus was in fact the first humanist philosopher (see my post on Jesus’ philosophy, Jan. 2010) though I would argue that both Confucius and Socrates predate Christ by 4 to 5 centuries as more likely contenders.

In an interview in New Scientist (13 April 2011), Simon Baron-Cohen argues that the word evil, should be replaced with the term ‘lack of empathy’ or something similar. I’ve written on this topic myself (refer Evil, Oct. 2007) because it requires the denial of empathy to perform atrocities, yet we hear about it all the time. We have to deny someone their basic humanity in order to treat them inhumanely yet we are surprisingly masterful at it. For this reason, I argue that empathy has to be a key component in any moral philosophy. In fact, I argue that morality cannot be separated from psychology, and I believe Mill understood this as well, albeit in a different context.

Mill, by his own admission, wanted to develop a social science which he called psychology. The term, social norm, had not been invented in Mill’s time, but he certainly understood the concept. In particular, Mill understood that conscience is largely a product of social norms and not some inner voice provided by God.

Everyone believes they know what is ‘right’ and what is ‘wrong’, intrinsically, and we often say, ‘You know it’s right,’ as if it’s undeniable, carved in stone. But, when people contemplate if something is right or wrong, they invariably and subconsciously reference their social norms. Social norms have been driving moral behaviour through all societies and all ages. Mill understood that social norms could be changed and that they didn’t have to be governed by the Church. And this brings me back to the discussion on gay marriage because it’s an example of a social norm in progress. Attitudes toward homosexuality have changed enormously in the last half century in Western societies, despite opposition from sectors of the Church (to this day), to the extent that it’s no longer considered criminal nor a mental health issue in mainstream society. It’s really only a small step to legalising gay marriage, but one that politicians are reluctant to take. Retired Australian High Court judge, Michael Kirby, in a recent interview, said that it’s really a generational issue because he believes that young people already don’t have an issue with it.

So morality, as it’s practiced, is intrinsically related to social norms. What was considered radical in the past becomes the status quo in the present. Abolition of slavery and women’s suffrage seem so last millennium, yet they were contended more vociferously than gay marriage is today. One would like to think that we are making progress at a societal level, but only future generations will let us know.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

The trickledown fantasy

This is a BBC documentary featuring 3 kids (2 in one family) living in modern-day Great Britain.

The really good part about this doco is that it’s almost totally from the mouths of the children. They understand their world just as well as the adults do, and you really do wonder about their future. Possibly the most extraordinary scene in the film is 11 year-old Sam getting his first ever barbershop haircut for a birthday present, from money saved up by his aunt, because it’s outside the family’s necessities list. And this is 21st century England.

The interview at the end of the programme with Danny Dorling (this is a transcript) puts it all into perspective. It’s all about the poverty gap and its pernicious effect on society at large. We really can’t afford to go down this path.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Feudalism in the modern world

This is an interview with monologist, Mike Daisey, who is currently in Australia. The topic of his current tour is ‘The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs’. In a nutshell, Daisey is pointing out the hidden ‘dark side’ of all the gadgetry that we love and use in the Western world, of which I am a participant. This missive is being typed on one of the latest Apple computers, so how ironic is that?

There is no moral compass in the corporate world unless someone shines a spotlight on it. Davies has visited the so-called factories in China where Apple products are made, and witnessed the appalling OH&S conditions that the employees endure. He gives the example of how workers’ fingers are crippled from having to perform the same repetitive action for 16 hrs a day, month in, month out, when the simple measure of rotating the work would eradicate this avoidable injury.

In an unrelated documentary, filmed sometime in the last year by an Australian journalist, I saw how people were suffering from an appalling, debilitating and crippling illness caused by inhaling the glue used to paste the Apple icon on smart phones. I can’t look at the Apple icon on a phone now without thinking about it. And, no, I don’t own one, but they’re unbelievably popular in this country.

Last week I went and saw an exhibition at the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) of the Viennese Secession that erupted at the turn of the 20th Century. According to a talk given at the exhibition, this came about when Franz Joseph carried out political reform in the former Austro-Hungarian Empire. It’s significance to Daisey’s talk is that the feudalistic paradigm was overturned, or, at least, reformed under Joseph, creating the political climate for artisans and artists to flourish.

It made me realise that up until the industrial revolution, everyone (in Europe at least) assumed that the feudal model, that had been followed for centuries, would continue for ever. In today’s world, we assume that the current economic paradigm driven by consumerism and infinite growth will also continue for ever. I expect it won’t continue past this century.

I’ve said before that we still live in a feudalistic society, only now it’s global rather than national. Daisey’s talk confirms that point of view. At the end of the interview he lays the problem at the door of the corporate mindset that dominates politics and economics worldwide.

Addendum (17 March 2012): This story has just emerged that Daisey's contentions are in dispute. However this ABC programme from Oct. 2010 independently supports his allegations.

Friday, 16 September 2011

The perspective from outer space

This is an interview with astronaut, John Grunsfeld, and it juxtaposes humanity’s greatest achievements against our greatest destruction. Grunsfeld points out that, in just over half a century, we went from experimentation with canvas and wire flying contraptions to manned space flight: Wright brothers in 1903 to Armstrong and Aldrin on the moon in 1969. Who would have predicted that the two achievements could happen in the same century?

Grunsfeld, according to his own testimony, has witnessed, over many space flights, the deforestation in the Amazon, a symptom of our worst excesses in the 20th Century. He points out the irony of our technological prowess compared to our unparalleled and unstoppable destruction of the planet’s largest ecosystem.

Part of the problem is the disconnect between science and politics, worldwide, which I’ve commented on many times on this blog. Politicians see science and technology as a tool to drive the economy and to push our finite resources to their absolute limit. When scientists try and disseminate messages that are politically unpalatable, they are either ignored, or their warnings are watered-down. We can’t have the public drawing their own conclusions, without the filter of political spin. Politicians can only provide positive messages – any negative message is political suicide – such is the dilemma of living in a democracy.

The best-known current example is climate-change. But a quarter of a century ago it was the ozone hole, and, whilst it took decades to achieve political action in the face of corporate opposition, it’s one of the few scientifically driven political success stories. It will also take decades for action to be realised on climate change, but by 2030 I expect public opinion may overtake political inertia.

And public opinion is what drives these debates. Unfortunately there is a huge public distrust of science that politicians and special-interest groups love to exploit. Almost everything one touches in a Western society is dependent on science yet people can somehow make a disconnect between the past and the future when it comes to trusting science.

The other half of this equation, that Grunsfeld leaves unmentioned, is the economic paradigm that’s driving population growth and the decimation of the planet’s resources. I spoke about this in my last post so I don’t have much to add. We have the technology to save the planet from ourselves but we don’t have the political will or the vision to do it. Without a change to our economic paradigm of infinite growth, neither the political will nor the vision will eventuate.

Friday, 9 September 2011

Biology, economy, humanity

This is a culmination of issues from 4 different sources, including one from last week. The first (from last week) was an interview with Rob Brooks, an evolutionary biologist at the UNSW (University of New South Wales) in Sydney, Australia. He also wrote an article in the last issue of COSMOS about the relationship between rock and roll, and art in general, and human evolution. How rock gods like the Rolling Stones (Mick, Keith and Brian, in particular) had a number of offspring via different partners, hence ensuring the successful propagation of their genes.

What was more interesting, and even counter-intuitive, was his revelation that wealthy people statistically have more sons and poor people statistically have more daughters, and that there was a biological explanation for this. He explained that a study in Germany during the industrial revolution revealed that within the landed gentry the sons prospered and daughters didn’t, but amongst the poorer classes the reverse was true: daughters prospered and sons didn’t. He said the reason was cultural as well as biological because sons can’t marry up in the manmade class structure but daughters are more likely to. But the curious point is that, according to Brooks, this is still true today. What’s more, the female selects the sperm with the requisite X or Y chromosome according to her social status, though, of course, not consciously. In other words, nature does it for her.

When asked to give another example in the natural world, he referred to a study of red deer on an island off Scotland (don’t ask me the name of the island; this was a radio interview). Because stags have to compete with others for the does, in a poor season, it makes more sense if a pregnant doe has a female fawn because it would have a better chance of getting pregnant itself. However, in a good season she’s more likely to give birth to a stag because he will have the requisite strength to compete with others. What Brooks is saying is that this biological selection that occurs for animals in the wild also occurs for humans in modern Western civilisation. In the wild it’s climatic conditions that determine the outcome, whereas, for humans, it’s economic conditions. But in both cases the outcome is the same: for the well-off, male offspring are more likely and for the less-well-off, female offspring are more likely.

The other issue that Brooks referred to was what he called the ‘tragedy of the commons’ which he acknowledged was originally coined by Garrett Hardin and has far-reaching consequences in the modern world. The tragedy of the commons is based around the idea that different people, or, more likely, groups of people, share a common resource but no individual or particular group takes responsibility. In fact, it becomes competitive whereby one group will either deny others access or take more than their share yet blame others when this leads to scarcity. We see this in everything from the global depletion of fisheries to the climate change debate to arguments over asylum seekers and refugees.

In Australia, the climate change debate has become irrational with people targeting scientists with death threats and demonstrations demanding that scientists give the ‘other side’ a fair voice. One may well ask who the ‘other side’ is? Popular opinion seems to be the answer. In fact, the argument seems to be that this debate can be resolved by taking a vote the same way political governance is resolved. In other words, ignorance carries the same weight as scientific opinion. It’s a modern equivalent to burning witches to avert a natural calamity. As someone pointed out, getting rid of the scientists isn’t going to get rid of the science, yet that’s what these people seem to think.

The relevance between this debate and Hardin’s ‘tragedy of the commons’ is that no one wants to take the lead in committing to lowering carbon dioxide emissions and countries all over the world point to the ‘other’ as being the chief culprit. So no one will take responsibility because it’s always someone else’s problem. In Australia, the populace at large seem to be in denial, and believe that if we stop the science investigating the problem we will stop the problem.

Yesterday I heard an interview with Wade Davis, National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence (yes, that’s his official title). Davis is a man with a fascinating past, having lived with indigenous cultures all over the world, but particularly in the Amazon. His message, or one of his messages, is that we discount so many indigenous cultures as backward, irrelevant and imminently extinct.

In the Western world we live in a cocoon shielded by technology to the extent that we don’t even know where our food comes from, how our meat is killed or how many heavy metals there may be in the seafood we eat. Ignorance is bliss. We are so dependent on technology that most of us cannot even imagine living without electricity, even for one day.

Then a friend sent me an article from the New York Times about a study being done on our dependence on electronic communications, which is exactly what I’m doing now. It’s been a long time since I’ve gone camping in the bush but I have good memories of it. I grew up in a place where I could go walking in the bush and literally leave my normal life behind. We know that being in nature, quite literally, affects our well-being. What this study shows is that given time, people stop looking at their blackberries and even stop wearing a watch. For the mind, time slows down and we become more meditative.

We live in an artificial environment from the time we are born. We go to school, in part, to develop a routine that continues through our entire adult lives: get up, go to work, come home, watch TV, go to bed, get up… We live on a treadmill that drives the economy and if we get off we become unemployed, a burden to society, lose the meaning of our lives and become destitute.

There is a connection between this small-scale daily process that we all lead and the large scale problems facing the planet. Education is necessary because it leads to smaller families, lower birth rates and greater opportunities. This is just as relevant in third world countries as it is in the first world. But economic growth, in both developing and developed countries, insists that cities keep growing which means that populations must keep growing which means that the ‘tragedy of the commons’ becomes more critical globally, affecting water, food and energy resources world wide, which means more wars.

This is the dilemma of the human race: we have the technology to do almost anything yet we have a clash between economy and ecology, with species and cultural decimation occurring at an unprecedented rate. Davis pointed out that the disappearance of languages is synonymous with the disappearance of cultures. Yet, arguably, cultural diversity is just as important as genetic diversity.

Can we afford to lose the knowledge that allowed us to live for centuries without technology? I’m not arguing that we give up technology or turn back the clock, quite the contrary. I’m arguing that we look at the future and find a vision that doesn’t end in a train wreck. We need to rid ourselves of our dependency on fossil fuels, develop an economy that rewards recycling and longevity over waste and limitless consumerism, and change our perception from king of the evolutionary tree to a recently formed and relatively short-lived branch. Having said all that, I don’t expect it to happen without a lot of pain. Human society has a history of boom and bust. Considering the extent of the boom since mid-last century, one does not want to contemplate the bust.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Ayrton Senna, the movie, the life, the man

Notice that I didn’t say the legend because that would be so unfair, not only to Senna, but to the people who made this movie.

I saw this movie at a mid-morning session in mid-week at what is called a ‘babes in arms’ session, where mothers can bring their babies. So I was the only bloke in the cinema who didn’t have a baby, and I was surrounded by mothers with strollers and the odd father as well. Not surprisingly, the cinema was far from capacity to the extent that I expect they made no money for that viewing.

I need to make a confession: I’m a closet petrol-head, which, for most people, means that I’m one of those blokes who never grew up when it came to cars, motorcycles and anything else that goes fast. I didn’t review Eric Bana’s great autobiographic movie, Love The Beast, but this one is different. And you may well ask: how can you write a philosophical post about a racing car driver? Well, watch me.

For a start, Senna was a deeply complex person: very sensitive, which means that he was also passionate and temperamental. In this respect, I could identify with him on a personality level, albeit superficially. Senna was a person who could never hide what he was feeling. His temperament was more akin to an artist’s than a sportsperson’s. He strived for an authenticity that was very existential, despite his deeply and candidly held religious beliefs. In his early successes, he claimed it was because of his belief in God, but in truth, it was his belief in himself.

I’ve said many times that I don’t judge people for their belief in God (or not) and I don’t try to rationalise it either. But, in Senna’s case, his belief was part of what he was. God was as much a part of Senna’s makeup as his passion for racing cars (where ‘racing’ is a verb in this context). I’ve also said before (on this blog) that a belief in God can lead someone to extraordinary hubris or extraordinary humility. From what I read about Senna in the mainstream press during his Formula 1 career, I thought he was egotistical as most driven people are. But the film painted a different picture: more than one person spoke of his humility, including the F1 doctor, who became his friend, and, coincidentally, tried to talk him into retiring on the eve of his last fateful race. I think Senna’s humility was purely a result of his belief in God – it put the entire world into perspective for him – that there were things greater than him, greater than F1 championships, greater than life itself.

One cannot discuss this movie without discussing Senna’s genius and I don’t use that word lightly. If genius is defined by the ability to do what no one else can do then Senna qualifies in spades. On more than one occasion he produced performances that were considered ‘impossible’ under the circumstances. Watching his early races, he could make the car skate through corners, reminiscent of past masters like Nuvolari and Fangio. He demolished the opposition as if they were driving cars with half the power. In the wet he was unbeatable and in the dry he drove the car like he was driving in the wet. He was one of those rare drivers who could actually drive a car beyond its limit – to his limit and not the car’s.

The film is dominated by his career-long rivalry with Alain Prost, which became very personal and bitter. In 2 successive Japanese GPs, they put each other out of the race when the GP championship was hanging in the balance (on the first occasion they were driving for the same team). It goes without saying that Senna was loved in Japan, though not as much as he was loved in Brasil. Senna was loyal to his roots, both national and familial – it was part of who he was. He made it clear that he wanted to set up a fund to give under-privileged children an education. After his death, his sister Viviane fulfilled that dream and Prost is one of the trustees. Prost was also a pall-bearer at his funeral.

Senna also had a testy and, dare-I-say-it, openly confrontational relationship with F1’s boss at the time, Jean-Marie Balestre (FIA President). There is one scene in the ‘drivers’ room’, prior to a race, where they have a stand-up and heated argument. Balestre manages to save face but Senna gets his way because the other drivers support him. Many might argue that the film is unfair to Prost and I suspect that another version would give a different perspective on their ‘war’.

This is a sport where death is much closer than other ‘gladiator’ contests we see in the modern world but it would be wrong to assume that racing car drivers, and Formula 1 drivers in particular, have a callous disregard for life. Senna talks honestly and candidly about this aspect of his sport in one interview, after Prost claimed that Senna’s belief in God made him ‘dangerous’ on the circuit.

We see 3 deaths in this film, and everyone is clearly and deeply affected by them, none more so than Senna. There was a death during practice at the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix in Imola, Italy (Austrian, Roland Ratzenberger) and Senna was deeply affected by it. It was after this incident that F1’s Chief Doctor, Sid Watkins, suggested that Senna retire and they go fishing together. In fact, after this incident it was unsure if Senna would even take his place on the grid. There was also an earlier incident in practice when newcomer and fellow Brasilian, Rubens Barrichello, had a nasty accident, and Senna climbed a fence to be by his compatriot’s side. And then there was an incident at the start of the race itself when JJ Lehto’s car stalled on the grid and was rammed by an un-sighted Pedro Lamy. There were more injuries in the crowd, however, (8 fans and a Police Officer) than on the track, caused by this incident.

In 1993, the previous season, the Williams racing team had changed F1 racing by adding electronics to many components of the car, including the suspension. This made them unbeatable, though Senna won the last 2 races in Japan and Australia. I didn’t know this, until I saw the film, but Senna won his last race and his last podium finish in Australia.

After Williams’ technological domination, F1 changed the rules for 1994 but not before Senna had changed teams from Mclaren to Williams. What was obvious straightaway, is that without its electronic ‘magic’, the Williams’ car was rubbish. This was evidenced by the fact that the best driver in the world struggled to keep it on the track. It was obvious from body language more than words that Senna was frustrated and stressed by his inability to get the car ‘balanced’ on the track.

On the morning he died, his sister claims that Senna asked God a question, which I fail to recall (go see the movie). The answer, according to her, was that he opened his Bible and read the passage that ‘God would give his greatest gift, and that was God himself’. Obviously people can read into that what they want.

At the end of the day, Senna died in a freak accident. He came off the track on a corner, that someone claimed no one should come off. People claim that his car ‘broke’ – in particular, it’s speculated that his steering failed. Watching the incident it appears that way: the car just spears off the track as you would expect if the steering suddenly failed at high speed (refer Addendum below). Even then, Senna should have survived except that a suspension arm flew up and hit his helmet. He had no broken bones and no bruises to his body. His friend, Sid Watkins, was with him when he died. He could tell from his injuries that he wouldn’t live and he claims that he’s not a religious man but when Senna sighed and gave up his life he felt like his spirit had left him. I have to admit I’ve had that experience myself, though only once.

I should inform you that much of the film, if not all, is poor quality video, but neither this nor the occasional screaming baby could distract me from being fully and emotionally engaged by this biopic. And I concede that it glossed over some of Senna’s questionable behaviour both on and off the track: for example, when he punched rookie driver, Irishman, Eddie Irvine, for ‘unlapping’ him in the 1993 Japan Grand Prix. Having said that, when he won against Prost in the 1990 Japan Grand Prix after colliding with him, it was obvious that he took little pleasure from the win.

But perhaps the most telling piece of video is not in the main body of the film but in the credits at the end. The filmmakers show bits of video of Senna enjoying himself with his family and clowning with his friends. In the midst of this ‘fun’ they show a clip where Senna has to drive around a car, recently crashed. It’s what happens after that that really shows what Senna’s priorities were, because he stops his car on the side of the track and runs back whilst other cars are still dodging the accident to check on the driver.

After his death, Senna’s friend, Professor Sid Watkins, became head of F1 safety and whether by fate or good management or both, Senna was the last F1 fatality as I write this.

Addendum: Here is an explanation of Senna's crash, the veracity of which I cannot confirm, but it gives the impression that it's based on 'black box' data.

Saturday, 27 August 2011

Tenth Anniversary of Tampa

It’s been 10 years yesterday since the infamous Tampa incident unfolded under the Howard government of the day, and, by tapping into Australia’s inherent paranoia and xenophobia, given fresh air by Pauline Hanson’s One Nation Party, helped Howard to win an election.

This is part of Australia’s shame yet most seem to be caught up in the hysteria still, as ‘boat people’ once again become the pawns in our major political parties’ determination to prove who has the most backbone in halting asylum seekers coming to this country. Really, it’s a battle to see who can be the most amoral, least charitable and most pernicious in treating victims of foreign conflicts.

Julian Burnside QC, an outspoken advocate for the rights of refugees, wrote an excellent editorial in yesterday’s AGE in the hope of convincing Australians that they are misinformed and manipulated without compunction by our political leaders on both sides of the House.

Anyway, I won’t waste words when Burnside’s argument is far more informative and eloquent than anything I could write on the subject.

Back in April 2009, I wrote a short post called Tampa Revisited concerning horrific stories of atrocities committed against refugees forced to return to Afghanistan. Here is a story with a positive outcome because the refugees were given sanctuary in our neighbouring country, New Zealand.

Saturday, 6 August 2011

Great Equations

This is a book by Robert P. Crease, subtitled The hunt for cosmic beauty in numbers, and it takes the reader from Pythagoras’s Theorem to quantum mechanics. In so doing, it pretty well covers the whole of Western physics – it's as much history as it is exposition – which makes it an ideal introduction for anyone with only a passing knowledge of physics and mathematics.

Crease takes us from Euclid to Newton, Euler, Boltzmann, Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Schrodinger and Heisenberg. Even though he jumps from Euclid to Newton (chapters 1 to 2) he includes others who played a significant role: in particular, Plato, Aristotle, Copernicus, Galileo, Kepler and Descartes. It’s this historical context that gives the book a semblance of narrative, albeit an episodic one, and provides an appeal that may go beyond scientific nerds like myself. There is, in fact, very little mathematics in the book, yet he explains the physics behind the equations with eloquence and erudition. That’s quite an accolade, considering he covers the most seminal scientific discoveries and equations in all of Western history.

Only 2 of the ‘great equations’ are pure mathematics, the other 8 (4 of which are 20th Century) are all physics equations. The 2 exceptions are the well-known, and erroneously titled, Pythagoras’s Theorem (a2 + b2 = c2), and the lesser known, but no less iconic, Euler’s identity (e + 1 = 0). Euler’s identity is technically not really an equation because it contains no variables, and it’s derived from Euler’s equation: eix = cosx + isinx. But no book of ‘great equations’ could leave it out.

Pythagoras’s equation, as it relates to right angle triangles, was well known centuries before Pythagoras, and was discovered independently in various cultures, including India, China and Egypt. But even though the proof may well have been developed by Pythagoras or his school, it is Euclid’s proof that is best known. In fact, Euclid’s famous Elements, as Crease points out, is the first known work to provide mathematical proofs from stated axioms and became the standard by which mathematics has been mined ever since.

One of the historical and philosophical points that Crease makes is that, during the period from the Ancient Greeks to Newton, there were 2 recognised sources of knowledge and it was only during the renaissance that a conflict first arose, epitomised by Galileo’s famous clash with the Catholic Church.

What is not so well known is that Euclid’s Elements was the second most published book after the Bible following its initial typesetting in Venice in 1482. I find it most interesting that a mathematical volume should contest the Bible as a source of ‘truth’, during a period when Christianity was, politically, the most powerful force in Europe. Half a millennia on, this conflict still exists for some people, yet, for most of us, there is simply no contest, epistemologically.

Mathematics is a source of truth that no religious writings can match, because religious scriptures (of any persuasion) are completely open to diverse interpretations, dependent on the reader, whereas mathematical truths are both universal and epistemologically independent of the individual who discovers them.

Crease covers 2 of Newton’s equations: the second law of motion (F = ma) and the universal equation of gravitation (Fg = m1m2G/r2). Newton transformed the way we perceive abstract qualities like force, energy and gravity, which are, nevertheless, all tangible to our everyday experience. It was Newton’s discovery and consequential deployment of calculus (he called it fluxions) that opened up this world of physics from which we’ve never looked back. Despite the consequential discoveries of people like Maxwell, Planck, Einstein, Schrodinger and Heisenberg (all covered in this book) Newton’s equations are no less significant today than they were in his time, and no less relevant as humankind’s exploration of the solar system has demonstrated.

Euler’s identity is arguably of less significance to our everyday understanding of the universe (than Newton’s mathematical discoveries) yet no one who comes across it for the first time and appreciates its deep profundity can help but be gobsmacked by it. In one succinct formula it pulls together so many strands of mathematics: logarithms, trigonometry, calculus, power series and complex algebra. It’s all the more impressive when one realises it’s made up of 2 infinite series, that when combined gives the most unlikely relationship in mathematics between rational, irrational and imaginary numbers. The equation, as opposed to the better known identity (that is effectively a special case) is central to Schrodinger’s equation, developed a couple of centuries later.

Euler’s identity seems to encapsulate mathematical truth, which is why it has gained iconic status. As Richard Feynman wrote just months before his 15th birthday, when he first discovered it: ‘[it is] The most remarkable formula in math.’ Like the great Indian mathematician, Srinivasa Ramanujan, who also discovered it whilst still in high school, Feynman was disappointed to learn that Euler had made the connection a couple of centuries earlier. It’s not for nothing that it’s earned the title, God’s equation.

No book on great equations could leave out Einstein’s famous equation (E = mc2) that is a direct consequence of his special theory of relativity, and Crease provides a good exposition of how the theory developed and its logical consequence from a conceptual conflict between Maxwell’s equations and Newton’s mechanics. Crease also captures the other players like Fitzgerald, Lorentz and Poincare, which makes us realise that Einstein’s theories would have eventually evolved even without Einstein. But it was Einstein’s ambitious thought experiments that set him apart from his contemporaries and led him to the iconoclastic theories that history deservedly gives him credit for.

I’ve skipped over Maxwell’s equations and the second law of thermodynamics, yet in both cases, Crease points out that these discoveries transformed life as we know it. One was essential to the industrial revolution and the other to the communications industry that followed. He makes the salient point that few people appreciate the significance of great scientific discoveries and their impact on so-called civilisation the way they appreciate political changes and acts of war. He quotes Feynman, who once claimed that Maxwell’s equations would come to have a greater historical significance than the American Civil War, both being products of the 19th Century.

On my 50th birthday I was given a copy of Peter Watson’s A Terrible Beauty; A History of the People and Ideas that Shaped the Modern Mind. This ambitious book covers the entire 20th Century and was published to coincide with the dawn of the new Millennium. But, instead of covering the politics and wars that enveloped that century, Watson concentrated on the science and art, which he wrote about with equal erudition. It’s an extraordinary book and a great birthday present. I read it over a year, whilst travelling and working in North America, simultaneously writing my only published novel.

I mention Watson’s book because it encapsulates a point that Crease makes more than once: how the importance of scientific erudition often gets lost when scholars examine the history of the Western world. He makes this point specifically in regard to the 2 aforementioned 19th Century discoveries: Maxwell’s equations and the second law of thermodynamics.

Crease quotes Max Born in his introduction to Einstein’s equation of his General Theory of Relativity, who compared it to a work of art. I have to admit that was how I considered it when I first read about it in Einstein’s own words. I confess that I didn’t follow the physics and the mathematics at the time, yet I appreciated its significance and its beauty. Conceptually, Einstein realised that a falling body feels no force, which appears to contradict Newton’s formulation. He reformulated it so the motion of a falling body is a consequence of the geometry of space-time that is curved as a result of the existence of mass. This is an extraordinary intellectual achievement, especially when one realises that his equation maintains Newton’s inverse square law, thereby only disagreeing with Newton on relativistic grounds. Even the word genius sometimes seems inadequate when you apply it to Einstein; such was his vision, bravado and intellectual tenacity.

I wrote an exposition on Schrodinger’s equation back in May, and I’m proud to say it’s become my most popular post, though it’s strictly an introduction. One thing Crease does better than me is to explain the dichotomy between quantum mechanics and classical physics. In particular, he contends that the so-called collapse of the wave function is conceptually misleading. He argues that the wave function is a convenient mathematical device, like a plot device in a narrative (my analogy, not his) that no longer serves any purpose once a measurement is made. The wave function gives a probability that is confirmed statistically over many measurements, but determines nothing specific for a specific event.

The last great equation in his book is Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle expressed mathematically. By juxtaposing it with Schrodinger’s equation in the previous, second-to-last chapter, Crease demonstrates how the 2 antagonists used different mathematics to reach the same result. In other words, Schrodinger’s wave mechanics and Heisenberg’s matrices are mathematically equivalent (proven by Schrodinger), yet the different approaches led to arguments about what they meant conceptually and philosophically. Interestingly, Born played a key role in both interpretations: he realised that Schrodinger’s wave mechanics led to probabilities; and he realised that Heisenberg’s non-commutative algebra could be reformulated using matrices, and this led to the precursor of Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle with the conclusion pq does not equal qp, where p represents momentum and q represents position of a particle.

Crease’s account exemplifies the importance of ideas being challenged in their formative stages by people of comparable knowledge, and how the interaction between philosophy and science is a necessary factor in the advancement of scientific theories.

Like Schrodinger’s equations, Heisenberg’s uncertainty principle makes predictions that can be confirmed experimentally, yet the predictions can never be specific. Both equations, in different ways, highlight the inherent fuzziness that differentiates quantum mechanics from classical physics, whether it be Newtonian or relativistic. In fact, quantum mechanics and Einstein’s general theory of relativity have never been satisfactorily resolved, with the best contender being String Theory requiring 11 dimensions and predicting 10500 universes.

In his conclusion, Crease emphasises how the discovery process for theoreticians often involves a re-evaluation of what they set out to achieve. No where is this more apparent than in the early 20th century when physics underwent 2 revolutions, the epistemological and ontological consequences of which are still unresolved today.

Monday, 27 June 2011

The case of Jock Palfreeman

This is a story about clashes: a clash of cultures, a clash of justice systems, a clash of families; and its genesis was a clash on the streets that has resulted in tragedy for both sides. I’m sure no one knows about this outside of Bulgaria and Australia, and I suspect some will see it as a clash of two countries.

Not surprisingly, I’ve only seen one side of the story, through Australian journalists and an Australian family, though the prosecutor for the Bulgarian side was interviewed and we see footage of the victim’s father voicing his opinion on Bulgarian national television. The victim’s family refused to be interviewed by Australian journalists (from the ABC).

Basically, 24 year old Jock Palfreeman, an Australian who has spent some time in Bulgaria – enough to be familiar with its darker side – became involved in a melee when he went to the aid of a Roma (gypsy) being bashed and became the target of the attack himself. According to his account, he was knocked to the ground when hit on the head from behind, and, when he regained his feet, drew a knife to defend himself. This apparently resulted in the death of 20 year old Andrei Monov, who suffered a single knife wound under his armpit, though Palfreeman claims he has no memory of inflicting the wound, even though he admits he was wielding a knife.

There are statements from witnesses who support Palfreeman’s account of events, quite accurately, yet these statements were not admitted to the court, and Police written statements also conflicted with their in-court evidence. When the defence team requested that the original Police statements be admitted to court, they were overruled by the victim’s family, who were part of the prosecution team. Apparently, this is the norm in Bulgaria. Jock Palfreeman’s father, Dr. Simon Palfreeman, who is a pathologist, had to mount the defence case, though he hired an Australian legal team to help him.

Simon Palfreeman, who is a scientist by discipline, had never had to deal with a legal exercise of this nature before, let alone in a foreign Eastern bloc country. In hindsight, his faith that justice and fair representation would prevail could be seen as naïve. Certainly, his son has a better appreciation of the situation than his father.

In the end, Jock Palfreeman was charged with ‘Murder with hooliganism’ and the sentence handed down was 20 years. They’ve since gone through an appeal process, which is Part 2 of the programme, and the conviction was upheld. The defence team are now talking about going to the European Court of Human Rights where Bulgaria has 200 cases pending, apparently.

What I find remarkable, in Part 2, is that Jock Palfreeman has not only become acceptant of his fate, but has taken on a role of supporting fellow inmates in one the worse prisons in Europe, according to Dr Krassimir Kanev, Bulgarian Helsinki Commitee, Human Rights Group.

Part 1 and Part 2 are 30mins each, or you can read the transcripts.

Addendum: It's worth watching/listening to the 5 min interview with Prof. David Barclay, an internationally recognised forensics expert at Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen, Scotland (behind the Part 2 link).