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.

Wednesday, 24 December 2014

In memory of Joe Cocker: 1944 - 2014

With a Little Help from my Friends (Cologne Concert)

The Letter (Cologne)

Just a small tribute to someone who gave us something special. An inspiration and a legend.
'With a Little Help From my Friends' never fails to give me goose bumps, but on this occasion both these songs make me teary-eyed in their final moments.

Friday, 5 December 2014

Theory, knowledge and truth

Bear with me while I give a little backstory. Julia Zemiro, the effervescent host of RocKwiz (a brilliant show for those who are missing out) has made a TV series called ‘Home Delivery’ where she takes a celebrity (all comedians, either UK or Oz) back to their home town. In a recent episode she took Ruth Jones, an award-winning UK comedienne back to her home town in Wales. As part of the tour, she visited her church where a number of events in her life took place, apparently.

Given the context, Julia asked her if she was a ‘believer’. I thought Jones’ answer so candid and honest, it’s worth repeating. She said she believes there is something ‘greater than us’ but we really ‘have no idea’. Maybe not her exact words but certainly her sentiment. It was the admission of ignorance and humility that struck me – so different to any theological statement one cares to hear. And I realised, by the sheer contrast implicit in her statement, why I have such an issue with the Church; well, any church, basically. Because they all claim to know what they can’t possibly know and preach it with the absolute certainty that dogma requires.

And despite what they all claim, there is no text anywhere in the world that can tell us what, if any, greater purpose there is. Now, I’m not opposed to the idea that there could be a greater purpose and I have no problem with people believing that (like Ruth Jones). I only have a problem when they claim to know what that purpose is and what one must do (in this life) to achieve it.

When I was a philosophy student, a lecturer made the salient point that there are things one believes and things one knows and it’s important to keep in mind that what one believes should be contingent upon what one knows and not the converse. This is perfectly logical, even common sense, yet it’s extraordinary the mental gymnastics some people will perform to maintain a contrary position. To give an example, I read an account where William Lane Craig, in a conversation with the author of a Christian text, defended his belief that Mary conceived Jesus without having sex.

And this brings me to the fundamental epistemological divide that exists between science and religion, as we see it discussed and abused in the so-called Western world. Because science is essentially about knowledge, about what we know as opposed to what we might speculate and philosophise about, even though the boundaries sometimes get a bit blurred.

The success of science, over a period of 2500 years, if one wants to go back to Thales and Pythagoras, has arisen from a combination of theory, mathematics and empirical evidence. Now, whilst there is not a lot of mathematics in the biological sciences, it’s the discovery of DNA, with its inherent ‘software-like’ code that underpins all of biology and evolutionary theory in particular. And like the other disciplines of science, mathematics (in the form of knot theory) is informing us as to how DNA actually manages to function.

But out of that triumvirate, it is empirical evidence that ultimately holds sway. We can find truth in mathematics independently of any physical parameters, but when we apply our mathematics to physical theories, only physical evidence tells us if the theory is true. An example is string theory, which is a mathematical model of the universe predicting up to 11 dimensions, yet, whilst no evidence can be found to confirm it, it really does remain just a theory. Whereas Einstein’s theories of relativity (the special and general theory) are proven facts, as is quantum mechanics. Evolution, I would argue, is also a fact, simply because the evidence that proves it’s true could just as readily prove it’s wrong (the evidence is not neutral). So theories can be facts and not ‘just a theory’.

But all scientific knowledge is contingent on future knowledge which is how it has evolved. For example, Newton’s theories were overtaken by Einstein’s theories, yet the equations governing relativity theory reduce to Newton’s equations when relativistic effects are negligible. As someone once pointed out (John Worrall, London School of Economics, 1989) it’s the mathematics that survives from one physical theory to the next that informs us what aspect of the original theory was true. Again, referring to Newton and Einstein, gravity obeys an inverse square law in both their theories.

As I’ve described on another post when I reviewed Noson S. Yanofsky’s excellent book, The Outer Limits of Reason, there are limits to knowledge at all levels. So science acknowledges that it’s impossible to know everything, yet there is every reason to believe that our knowledge will increase for as long as humanity can survive. At the end of my last post, I pointed out that an implication of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem is that mathematics is infinite, which means that there is no end to what we can discover.

So where does philosophy sit and where does religion sit amongst all this scientific knowledge? Well, I would suggest that there is an interface between science and philosophy that will always exist because philosophy quests for answers that are currently beyond our reach, some of which, like multiverses and Artificial Intelligence, may be resolved or may not.

A few years back, I said that religion is the mind’s quest to find meaning for its own existence, and I think that this is a perfectly logical and healthy thing for a mind to do. But religion, as it has evolved culturally, is full of mythology dressed up as truth. That is not to say that the figures who feature prominently in these religions are necessarily fictional, but the stories that have arisen in their wake are mythological in content. People like Jesus, Mohammed, Buddha, even Confucius, never wrote anything down so we are left with their ‘sayings’ (Mohammed was illiterate, which is why the Quran is probably in verse). But myth is very hard to shake once it takes hold in the collective consciousness of a population, and once it becomes ‘religion’ it becomes heretical to even question it.

Unfortunately, much of the debate between science and religion stems from what people think constitutes truth. Truth can exist in fiction, but in the form of life-lessons rather than narrative facts. When people believe that a narrative containing mythical elements is true, they will often argue that the mythical elements really happened by giving them supernatural attributes (like the example provided by Craig above). This is anathema to a scientifically trained mind and as far from any truth they would care to entertain.

So when people use the Bible as a criterion for scientific truth, it is certain to create conflict. Four hundred years ago, Galileo was threatened with torture by the Vatican for proposing that the Earth went round the Sun instead of the converse, as was then believed. The Vatican’s contention was that this contradicted a passage in the Bible that claims that God stopped the Sun moving in the sky. Now, we all know (thanks to pure science) that God could not have stopped the sun moving in the sky because the sun doesn’t move at all relative to the Earth’s orbit.

Yet still, in the 21st Century, we have people (like Ken Ham) claiming that the book of Genesis, which is full of mythological events like a snake that talks and a woman made from a man’s rib and a man made from dirt and a piece of fruit that turns people evil, nevertheless overrules all of modern science. I apologise on behalf of all Australia for unleashing Ken Ham onto the modern world, where he clearly doesn’t belong.

I once posted a question on his website asking for the nomination of one scientific discovery in the past 2500 years that has been made from studying the Scriptures. Not surprisingly, I never received a reply.

A few hundred years before Christ was born, Euclid, who was Librarian at the famous Library of Alexandria, wrote his seminal text, The Elements. This is arguably one of the most important texts ever written, certainly more important than any religious text as it contains real transcendental truths in the form of mathematical proofs. Mathematics is the only knowledge we have that transcends the Universe. As John Barrow quipped in one of his many books (citing Dave Rusin): Mathematics is the only part of science you could continue to do if the Universe ceased to exist.

It is hard to go past mathematics if you want truths, especially truths that are independent of humanity and the Universe itself. Of course, not everyone agrees with this Platonic sentiment, but it’s hard to avoid when one considers that there are an infinite number of primes that we can’t possibly know or an infinite string of digits in pi that we know must exist yet can’t possibly cognise. Mathematics is transcendent simply because it embraces infinity on so many levels.

To quote Barrow again, in a slightly more serious tone:

Mathematics is part of the world, and yet transcends it. It must exist before and after the Universe. Most scientists and mathematicians… work as though there were an unknown realm of truth to be discovered.

Saturday, 29 November 2014

A book for geeks

Matt Parker is a mathematical entertainer, as oxymoronic as that sounds, because apparently, in the UK, he does stand-up comedic mathematics and mathematical-based magic tricks with cards. Originally a school teacher from Oz, he has the official title of Public Engagement in Mathematics Fellow at Queen Mary University of London.

He’s written a very accessible book called Things to Make and Do in the Fourth Dimension, where he attempts to introduce the reader to more obscure areas of mathematics by wooing them with games and little-known intriguing mathematical facts.

For example: if you square any prime number greater than 3 and take off 1 you’ll find it’s divisible by 24.  As he says: ‘That sentence can freak out even the most balanced mathematician.’ In a section at the back, called The Answers in the Back of the Book, he provides an easy-to-follow proof that shows this applies to any number that is not factored by 2 or 3 – so not just prime numbers. Obviously, any prime number above 2 or 3 fits that category as well. So the converse is not true: a number divisible by 24 plus 1 is not necessarily a squared prime. Otherwise, as Parker points out, we would have a very easy ready-made method of finding all primes, which we haven’t.

Basically, he is a mathematical enthusiast and he wants to share his enthusiasm. As anyone who reads my blog would know, I’m familiar with a fair sample of mathematical concepts and esoterica, so I don’t believe I’m the audience that Parker is seeking. Having said that, he managed to augment my knowledge considerably, like in the previous paragraph. Another example is his description of how to make binary computer logic gates by just using dominoes that actually can perform a calculation. In fact, he and a team of mathematicians spent 6  hours setting up a 10,000 domino ‘computer’ that took 48 seconds to compute 6 + 4 = 10, performed at the Manchester Science Festival in October 2012.

The title of this post is apt: geeks would love this book; yet Parker’s objective, one feels, is to make mathematics attractive to a wider audience. In particular, those who were turned off maths in their high school years, if not before. One of the virtues I found in this book is his selective use of visual representation, even of the simplest kind. I’m not just talking about graphs of exotic equations like Zeta functions and perspective drawings of Platonic solids or even 2D renderings of tesseracts (4D cubes), but rough hand-drawn sketches and sometimes just a list of numbers to demonstrate a series or sequence. I found these most helpful in understanding a tricky concept.

We are visual creatures because sight is our prime medium for comprehending the world. It should be no surprise that visualising an abstract concept, mathematical or otherwise, is the shortest way to understanding it. I work a lot with engineers and when they want to explain something they invariably draw a picture.

The problem with maths in education is that it’s a cumulative subject. More esoteric topics are dependent on lesser ones. If a student falls behind, the gap between what they’re expected to know and what they can actually achieve grows over the years of schooling.

Books like Parker’s attempt to short-circuit this process. He tries to introduce the reader to the more ‘sexy’ aspects of mathematics without grinding them into the ground with mind-bending exercises. His Answers in the Back of the Book allows the more adventurous and less intimidated reader to understand a topic more fully, whilst not burdening a less experienced reader with mind-expanding exercises. It is possible to read this book and come away with both a sense of awe at its magisterial wonder and an appreciation of how maths literally drives our digital world without having to do a lot of mental gymnastics. On the other hand, Parker is letting you into some of the secrets of the priesthood without feeling like you’ve done a PhD.

Although it is divided chapter by chapter into separate topics, this is a book that should be read in the order it is presented. Parker often references material already covered, partly to demonstrate how the mathematical world is so interconnected. To give an example, he sneaks up on the famous Zeta function in a way that makes it appear less intimidating then it really is, yet still manages to explain its relationship to Riemann’s famous hypothesis and the distribution of primes. I was disappointed that he didn’t explain that the non-trivial zeros, which are both the core mystery and ultimate unsolved puzzle, are in fact complex numbers involving the imaginary axis. However, he explains this in a later chapter when he introduces the reader to imaginary numbers and the ‘complex plane’.

Pythagoras famously said (or so we are led to believe, as he never wrote anything down) that everything is numbers. In the digital world this is literally true, and one of Parker’s most illuminating chapters explains how everything you do on your smart-phone from pictures to texting to music are all rendered by 0s and 1s.

Parker is very clever in that he discusses highly esoteric mathematical topics like the Zeta function (already mentioned), quarternions (imaginary numbers in 4D),  the so-called Monster or Friendly Giant in 196,833 dimensions, computer-generated self-correcting algorithms using binary arithmetic, multiple infinities, knot theory’s relevance to DNA not getting tangled and Klein bottles (4D bottles in 3D); without discussing more fundamental topics like logarithms, trigonometry or calculus. He doesn’t even explain the fundamental relationship between polar co-ordinates and Cartesian co-ordinates that makes imaginary numbers such a widely used tool.

He doesn’t get philosophical until the very end of the book, when he discusses the relevance of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem to the study of mathematics for ever (quite literally). As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in previous posts, implicit in Godel’s Theorem is the fact that mathematics is never-ending, therefore it’s a human activity that will never stop. Also Parker points out that there could be other universes with other dimensions to ours, but any hypothetical residents (he calls them ‘hypertheticals’) would still discover the same mathematics as us, assuming they have the intellect to do so.

Sunday, 12 October 2014

The 2 faces of IS: avenger of Muslims and genocidal ideologues

I apologise in advance to overseas readers (outside Australia) who can’t view this, but this interview on ABC’s Lateline current affairs programme on Thursday (8 Oct) was a standout. Emma Alberici, a well respected television journalist and previous foreign correspondent with ABC’s European bureau, interviews, or attempts to interview, Wassim Doureihi, member of Hizb ut-Tahir; an organisation which has been banned in many countries, but not Australia or the UK. This link gives a good summary of that interview, but it’s also ABC, so maybe unavailable outside Oz.

A lecture was held by the group’s Arabic spokesperson, Ismail Al-Wahwah, at Lakemba, Sydney last night, which, according to the SMH and Guardian (links), was not much different in rhetoric to Doureihi’s diatribe a few days earlier. Basically, they claim the current situation in Iraq is a direct consequence of America’s, and its allies’, involvement in that conflict, as well as earlier conflicts involving Muslims. And that, apparently, justifies everything that IS does. Though Doureihi never actually condones IS, he went to extraordinary lengths to avoid discussing their actions and/or strategy when talking to Alberici, which frustrated her enormously.

There are a couple of issues I wish to address: firstly, the sheer distortion in Dourheihi’s argument that doesn’t match the evidence; and secondly, the possible motivation behind people’s desire to join this ‘fight’ and how they manage to justify its atrocities.

Doureihi repeatedly asserted that the current conflict in Iraq is all about foreign occupation. But there is no foreign occupation in Iraq at present – the current Western forces have been invited by the Iraqi democratically elected government (as Alberici pointed out) – and IS arose in Syria, where there is no Western intervention at all, and moved into Iraq before the West got involved. Besides, IS are not attacking a foreign occupation in Iraq (the Westerners they behead are not military personnel); they are attacking people who have lived there for generations, mainly Kurds and Yazidi. In fact, they are committing genocide against these people, which has nothing to do with any foreign occupation.

One can argue about the wisdom of the West’s intervention in Iraq under Bush, especially considering the legerdemain of the so-called WMDs (Weapons of Mass Destruction) that never existed, and its woefully poor execution under Cheney and Rumsfeld. But you have to draw a very long bow to argue that IS have entered Iraq to right the wrongs of that misadventure, when they kill all males who won’t convert to Islam and sell all their women into slavery.

A few years back, I read The Islamist by Ed Hussain, who was radicalised in Great Britain, as a student, before becoming disillusioned and returning to a more moderate position on Islam. It’s an insightful book in that it distinguishes between the religion of Islam as practiced by many Muslims living in secular societies and the political ideology of extremists who want to reshape the world into a totalitarian Islamic state. Hussain believed, at the time, the entire world would inevitably become a ‘Caliphate’, not least because it was ‘God’s Will’. What turned Hussain around was when a student was stabbed to death by a member of his own group. Hussain suddenly realised he wanted no part of an organisation that saw killing non-adherents as part of its creed.

When IS first declared itself a caliphate, an Australian academic (I can’t recall his name or his department) made the observation, in regard to Muslims in Indonesia, that just the idea of a caliphate would have enormous appeal that many would find hard to resist. In other words, many see this as some sort of Islamic nirvana, a new ‘world order’, where all wrongs will be made right and all peoples will be made to see and understand God’s wisdom and be guided by it through Sharia law. Naturally, this is anathema to anyone living in a Western democratic secular society, and is seen as turning back the clock centuries, before the Enlightenment and before the European renaissance and before modern scientific relevations, not to mention undoing generations of women’s independence of men, whether sexually, financially or educationally.

And this is the nexus of this conflict: it’s a collision of ideas and ideals that has no compromise. IS and its ilk, the Taliban in Afghanistan and Boko Haram in Africa, are fighting against the 21st Century. They know as well as we do, that there is no place for them, politically, in the world’s global future, and they can only rail against this by killing anyone who does not agree with their vision, and committing all women to marital slavery.

Finally, there is a comment by an Australian Islamist fighting in Syria, who believes that IS’s tactics of beheading journalists and aid workers is justified because their deaths are insignificant compared to the hundreds of innocent people (including children) killed by Western sponsored air raids. If these deaths can ‘blackmail’ America and its allies into not killing innocents then it is worth it, according to him.

David Kilcullen, an Australian expert on Afghanistan and a former adviser to Condoleezza Rice during the Bush administration, is one of the few who argued against drone strikes in Pakistan because they would ‘recruit’ jihadists. The abovementioned apologist for IS would suggest that such a belief was justified.

However, IS don’t just behead Westerners; it’s one of their psychological tactics against anyone who doesn’t convert to their specific brand of Islam. It’s meant to horrify and terrorise all their enemies, whoever they might be, and it succeeds.

Contrary to popular belief and popular crime thrillers, most people who perform evil acts, as perceived by most societies, don’t believe that what they are doing is evil and can always find a way to justify it. No where is this more acute than when the perpetrators believe that they have ‘God on their side’.

Monday, 6 October 2014

Mathematics as religion

I’ve just read John D. Barrow’s Pi in the Sky, published in 1992, and hard to get, as it turns out. I got a copy through Amazon UK, who had one in stock, and it’s old and battered but completely intact and legible, which is the main thing.

Those of you who regularly read my blog (not many of you, I suspect) will know that I’ve read lots of Barrow’s books, possibly The Book of Universes is the best, which I reviewed in May 2011.

Pi in the Sky is a very good title because it alludes to the Platonist philosophy of mathematics that seems to dominate both mathematics and physics as it’s practiced, in contrast to how many of its practitioners would present it. Barrow points out, both in his introduction and his concluding remarks (after 250+ pages), that Platonism has religious and mystical connotations that are completely at odds with both mathematics and science as disciplines.

He points out that there is a divide between mathematicians and physicists and economists and sociologists in the way they approach and view mathematics. For the economist and sociologist, mathematics is a tool that humans invented and developed, which can be applied to a range of practical applications like weather forecasting, economic modelling and analysis of human behaviours.

On the other hand, pure mathematicians and physicists see an ever-increasing complex landscape that has not only taken on an existence of its own but is becoming the only means available to understanding the most secret and fundamental features of the universe, especially at the extremities of its scale and birth.

This is an ambitious book, with barely an equation in sight, yet it covers the entire history of mathematics from how various cultures have represented counting (both in the present and the ancient past) to esoteric discussions on Godel’s theorem, Cantor’s transfinite sets and philosophical schools on ‘Formalism’, ‘Constructivism’, ‘Intuitionism’ and ‘Inventism’. Naturally, it covers the entire history of Platonism from Pythagoras to Roger Penrose. It’s impossible for me to go into any detail on any of these facets, but it needs to be pointed out that Barrow discusses all these issues in uncompromising detail and seems to pursue all philosophical rabbits down their various warrens until he’s exhausted them.

He makes a number of interesting points, but for the sake of brevity I will highlight only a couple of them that I found compelling:

‘Once an abstract notion of number is present in the mind, and the essence of mathematics is seen to be not the numbers themselves but the collection of relationships that exists between them, then one has entered a new world.’

This is a point I’ve made myself, though I have to say that Barrow has a grasp of this subject that leaves me well behind in his wake, so I’m not claiming any superior, or even comparable, knowledge to him. It’s the relationships between numbers that allows algebra to flourish and open up doors we would never have otherwise discovered. It is the interplay between ingenious human invention and the discovery of these relationships that creates the eternal philosophical debate (since Plato and Aristotle, according to Barrow): is mathematics invented or discovered?

One cannot discuss this aspect of mathematics without looking at the role it has played in our comprehension of the natural world: a subject we call physics. Nature’s laws seem to obey mathematical rules, and many would argue that this is simply because we need to quantify nature in order to study it, and once we quantify something mathematics is automatically applied. This quantification includes, not just matter, but less obvious quantifiable entities, like heat, gravity, electromagnetism and entropy. However, as Barrow points out, the deeper we look at nature the more dependent we become on mathematics to comprehend it, to the point that there is no other means at our disposal. Mathematics lies at the heart of our most important physical theories, especially the ones that defy our common sense view of the world, like quantum mechanics and relativity theory.

The point is that these so-called ‘laws’ are all about ‘relationships’ between physical entities that find analogous mathematical ‘relationships’ that have been discovered ‘abstractly’, independently of the physics. There may not be a Platonic realm with mathematical objects like triangles and the like but the very peculiar relationships which constitute the art we call mathematics have sometimes found concordant relationships in what we call the ‘laws of nature’. It is hard for the physicist not to believe that these ‘mathematical’ relationships exist independently of our minds and possibly the universe itself, especially since this mathematical ‘Platonic’ universe seems to contain relationships that our universe (the one we inhabit) does not.

In 2010, or thereabouts, I read Marcus du Sautoy’s excellent book, Finding Moonshine, which is really all about dimensions. The most fantastical part of this book was the so-called ‘Atlas’, which was a project largely run by John Conway with a great deal of help from others (in the 1970s), which compiled all 26 ‘sporadic groups’ that I won’t attempt to explain or define. Part of the compilation included a mathematical object called the ‘Monster’ which existed in 196,883 dimensions. Then a friend and colleague of Conway’s, John Mackay, discovered a most unusual and intriguing connection between ‘The Monster’ and another mathematical entity called a ‘modular function’ in number theory, even though it first appeared as an apparent ‘coincidence’ - as no reason could be conceived - but a sequence in the modular function could be matched to the sequence of ‘dimensions’ in which the Monster could exist.

I’m only telling snippets of this story – read du Sautoy’s book for the full account – but it exemplifies how completely unforeseen and unlikely connections can be found in disparate fields of mathematics. The more we explore the world of mathematics, the more it surprises us with relationships we didn’t foresee; it’s hard to ignore the likelihood that these relationships exist independently of our discovering them.

Because the only mathematics we know is a product of the human mind, it can be, and often is, argued that without human intelligence it wouldn’t exist. But no one presents that argument concerning other areas of human knowledge like the laws of physics, where experimentation can validate or refute them. However, no one denies that mathematics contains ‘truths’ that are even more unassailable than the physics we observe. And herein lies the rub: these ‘truths’ would still be true even without our knowledge of them.

This brings me to the second insight Barrow made that caught my attention:

He points out that our mathematical theories describing the first three minutes of the Universe predict specific ratios of the earliest ‘heavier’ elements: deuterium, 2 isotopes of helium and lithium, which are 1/1000, 1/1000, 22 and 1/100,000,000 respectively; with the remaining (roughly 78% ) being hydrogen. And this has been confirmed by astronomical observations. He then makes the following salient point:

‘It confirms that the mathematical notions that we employ here and now apply to the state of the Universe during the first three minutes of its expansion history at which time there existed no mathematicians… This offers strong support for the belief that the mathematical properties that are necessary to arrive at a detailed understanding of events during those first few minutes of the early Universe exist independently of the presence of minds to appreciate them.’

As Barrow points out more than once, not all conscious entities have a knowledge of mathematics – in fact, it’s a specialist esoteric discipline that only the most highly developed societies can develop, let alone disseminate. Nevertheless, mathematics has provided a connection between the human mind and the machinations of the Universe that even the Pythagoreans could not have envisaged. I’ve said this before and Marcus du Sautoy has said something similar: it’s like a code that only a suitably developed intelligent species can decipher; a code that hides the secret to the Universe’s origins and its evolvement. No religion I know of can make a similar claim.

Monday, 25 August 2014

Climate Change is a psychological problem

In last week’s issue of New Scientist (16 August 2014, pp. 24-25), George Marshall wrote a mostly pessimistic opinion piece about the acceptance of human-initiated climate change by the general public. Marshall is founder of the ‘Climate Outreach and Information Network in Oxford, UK,' and author of a book, Don’t Even Think About It; Why our brains are wired to ignore climate change, which is about to be published. This alone will stop many climate change sceptics from reading his article let alone his book.

Basically, he argues that it’s human nature to place more importance on short term pain over long term gain. In other words, we are reluctant to make sacrifices or accept short term costs in favour of long term goals that won’t be seen in our own lifetime and which no one can definitively quantify. Politicians don’t have the political will to overcome the collective inertia or risk election over an issue that many can’t perceive as current or relevant to their own lives. In Australia, and, I suspect elsewhere, this has become an emotionally charged issue with people sending threatening emails to scientists, and claiming that there is some global academic conspiracy to maintain funding and jobs for climate scientists who would otherwise be out of a job if climate change didn’t exist. Such irrationality merely demonstrates how reason is the first casualty when public opinion attempts to overturn peer-reviewed science.

In last week’s episode of ABC’s weekly programme, Q&A, the issue came up and Heather Ridout, a highly respected Australian business woman, currently head of AustralianSuper and a Board member for the Reserve Bank of Australia, seems an unlikely advocate for action on Climate Change, given those credentials, yet argued that the scientific argument is well and truly over and it’s time we accepted the scientific status quo instead of challenging it with spurious and contrary viewpoints that are given the same weight as globally accepted scientific opinion.

Marshall opens his article with a quote from Daniel Kahneman, who won the 2002 Nobel Prize for economics: “…I am deeply pessimistic, I really see no path to success on climate change.” To quote Marshall, Kahneman won the prize ‘for his research on the psychological biases that distort rational decision making.’ In particular, he coined the term “loss aversion”, which is effectively the point I made in the opening of the second paragraph: reluctance to accept short term pain for a long term gain of uncertain magnitude.

Kahneman also talks about “assimilation bias”, which is our ability to make information fit our personal prejudices, which is why people on opposing sides of the political spectrum can have such contradictory views over the same issue, like climate change. The problem with all this, as Marshall expounds, is that, politically, it is much easier to postpone the problem than deal with it now. The easy way out for politicians, is to give it lip service whilst pursuing policies that actually do nothing to address it. This is exactly what our current political leadership is doing in Australia, and I believe it’s happening elsewhere as well.

What I find interesting, in light of the psychological dimension that both Marshall and Kahneman propound, is how the issue seems to fall on the 'right' and 'left' of the political divide. In Australia, a conservative politician lost the leadership of his own party (by 1 vote) when he put climate change on the line, which was very brave, but changed the political landscape in Australia dramatically for the last 3 election terms.

It is the ‘right’ of politics that sees climate change as a furphy and it is the ‘left’ that sees it as one of the foremost challenges of the 21st Century, for the entire world. If one examines politics historically, it is the ‘liberal’ politicians who have led social reforms in areas of equality and social justice that have, in later generations, become mainstream. I predict that this also applies to climate change, where ‘liberal’ politicians are once more showing leadership on a socially contentious issue, that will, in later generations, be accepted as the status quo, as the scientific community has already done.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Woody Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight

I’ve just seen this movie at NOVA (yes, I’ll give them a plug for Melbournians). In Australia, we are very fortunate in that we have art-house multiplexes, as well as commercial ones. Not all movies are made for teenagers (in particular teenage boys): there are lots of good movies from all over the world made with adults in mind. And Melbourne art-house cinemas are evidence that there is an audience for them, at least in Melbourne. Does that make me a cultural snob? Probably.

About 15 years ago, I was working on an engineering project in the ‘bush’, in north-east Victoria, living in Benalla, which is about 2.5 hrs from Melbourne. About 10 minutes outside of Benalla was a ’one-horse’ town called Swanpool – one of those towns you’d miss if you blinked – I don’t even think it had a pub. But it had a public hall that some locals had converted into a cinema. The seats were cheap and you came rugged up (Benalla is frosty in winter) and brought your own coffee mug to get a cheaper cup of coffee. The point of this little sojourn is that on Saturday nights they screened blockbusters but on Friday nights they screened art-house movies (usually foreign). I saw the Cuban film about homosexuality, Strawberry and Chocolate and the French surrealist film, The City of Lost Children, amongst many others. I remember sending an email to an ex-pat friend living in California that art-house cinema was alive and well in country Victoria.

Woody Allen is going through a European phase, and Magic in the Moonlight is no exception, set on the Cote d’Azur in France. Amongst his more recent films, I think To Rome With Love failed to hit the mark, but Midnight in Paris was a work of genius. I also enjoyed You’ll Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, even though it didn’t get good reviews; I liked it for Allen’s ability to put up a mirror to our humanly flaws, and loved it for the Faustian twist in its tail.

Which brings me to Magic in the Moonlight, starring British acting icon, Colin Firth. It’s masterly economical in the way Allen leads us through the narrative, referencing the next scene in its predecessor, so that the story flows without any intellectual or logical hurdles to deal with. And yes, it’s predictable but we don’t know how it will be resolved, so that sort of predictability is welcome, especially when the resolution is both logical and a surprise, as it is in this film. The resolution of the romantic dimension is less a surprise but it’s treated in an unusual and humourous fashion.

But the reason I’m writing about this particular Allen film is because it has a philosophical dimension. Colin Firth’s character, ‘Stanley Crawford’, is a sceptic in the tradition of James Randi, and he meets his match in ‘Sophie Baker’ (Emma Stone), an American ‘psychic’, and the rest I won’t tell you. In fact, I haven’t told you any more than you can deduce from the trailer. The point is that Allen plays with his audience, knowing they will take sides in this philosophical-oriented debate: is there something beyond the world we can see? In effect, he tackles the divide between the hard-nosed scientists and empiricist philosophers and the romantic idealists who believe or like to believe that life holds more meaning than the short span of our years.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

Don’t judge all Muslims the same

In Philosophy Now (Issue 102, May/June 2014), Terri Murray (Master of Theology, Heythrop College, London) wrote an essay titled, Is Judging Islamic Culture Possible? Now I’ve touched on this topic before in various guises, but it’s perhaps more relevant than ever with the rise of ISIS or IS (Islamic State) with its self-appointed Caliphate and its barbaric treatment of anyone who won’t follow its dictates.

Murray’s article is lengthy and well-argued, so it’s a bit unfair to distill her arguments into succinct sound-bytes, as I’m about to do. Basically, Murray delineates between what she calls ‘liberal multiculturalism’ and ‘pluralist multiculturalism’: where she contends the former (of which she claims to belong) puts the rights of the individual above cultural identity; and the latter where cultural identity holds sway over individual liberty. That’s the gist of her argument, but, in particular, she compares this with feminism and LBGT rights, both of which she’s been an outspoken advocate of, or so she tells us, and I have no reason to disbelieve her.

But she also refers to the ‘pluralist multiculturalists’ as ‘relativists’, and much of her argument revolves around this, contextually. In effect, the moral or cultural relativists argue that we in the West are not in a position to criticise other cultures and Islamic culture in particular – political correctness gone mad, is how many conservatives and some liberals would put it.

Murray lives in England and I live in Australia, where cultural sensitivities are not dissimilar but not exactly the same. I both work and socialise with Muslims, some of whom I consider very good friends, which naturally colours my own perceptions and opinions, but that’s not the issue. In a post last year (Aug. 2013), I argued that there was no such thing as moral relativism, whereas Murray’s argument effectively hinges on that idea. I argued that no one can hold a moral standpoint on an issue that covers every perceived view – it’s impossible – so what she’s talking about is tolerance, as she acknowledges herself. But I’ve also argued elsewhere that the limit of tolerance is intolerance by others. Like many so-called liberals, I’m intolerant of intolerance, and that is the guiding criterion when it comes to judging Islam or variants of Islam or any other cultural practice.

Moral values, as practiced, are invariably subjective, and arise from cultural or social norms that we are exposed to from our earliest cognitive years. But in our teens and early twenties, our so-called ‘formative’ years, we can undergo changes in attitudes and beliefs and often challenge the views we were brought up with. It is my belief that many members of IS, especially those from a Western background, fall into this category. Why they are attracted to this ideology, I can neither imagine nor understand, but we know it’s happening. The point is that while many of us find their behaviour abhorrent in the worst possible way, they believe the opposite and claim that it is our lifestyle that is sinful and against the laws of ‘God’, which is how they justify what they do. As I’ve said before, when you take your morals from ‘God’ you can justify any atrocity.

The danger, as I see it, is in taking a polarised view. Murray is arguing against one of those polarised views: that we must accept and tolerate all manifestations of Islam irrespective of its consequences on individuals. Even forgetting about IS for the moment (Murray’s article was written prior to IS’s rise to dominance in Syria and Iraq), issues like female genitalia mutilation and honour killings are examples where the rights of individuals trump cultural tolerance and sensitivity, as Murray points out. But there is another form of polarisation that is equally dangerous and far more likely, which is to brand all Muslims with the same brush. We already see this with religious commentators like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris, both of whom attack all kinds of religion and argue that moderate religious believers somehow support fundamentalism, which is simplistic, divisive and plain wrong. No one suffers under militant Islam more than moderate Muslims as we are currently witnessing in Iraq, but also Indonesia and other countries. To alienate moderate Muslims in a ‘war’ against Islamic extremists is a huge mistake. In Australia, at least, politicians and strategists seem to be very aware of this dimension to the issue, at least, locally.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Understeer, oversteer and steering in general

I promise that this will be my last post on this subject. Well, I shouldn’t promise, but I don’t want to change the fundamental nature of my blog. Driving is a basic life-skill in modern societies and people die from it, therefore it’s worth a bit of print. In fact, people receive horrendous injuries, comparable to what one might get in a war, but few of us ever think about that when we get into a car, otherwise we probably wouldn’t.

Airline pilots go through training drills regularly, which is why they can cope with most things that try to spill them out of the sky. In the case of driving, which most of us do above a certain age, the only training we get, beyond how to operate a vehicle and the local road rules, is what we learn ourselves. I’m a firm believer that we should be teaching kids how to drive in schools, and teaching them so-called advanced driving skills like how to brake and swerve at the same time. I know at least one driver who is convinced that if she swerves she will roll the vehicle, so she’s probably the norm rather than the exception. I know another driver who won’t drive on the shoulder because the prospect scares him to death. I’ve done both on more than one occasion and avoided certain disaster on each occasion.

So what can I possibly write on a blog that may help? Well I can explain the dynamics of a car when cornering because that’s the essence of driving in my view. I believe a car should be an extension of your mind and body, because in some ways it is. You think and act which produces effects that change direction and change speeds, often at the same time, in response to visual and sensory stimuli. The sensory stimuli include your sense of balance, the strain on the muscles of your neck, the weight of the steering wheel and the pressure you feel on the brake pedal. What’s more, you can’t see the extremities of your vehicle, let alone where the wheels touch the ground, yet you can place it on the road with centimeter precision, out of sheer practice.

Of course, some cars do this better than others, and, unfortunately, a lot of cars are designed and manufactured to do the opposite: isolate the driver from the driving experience as much as possible, so they can indulge in the illusion that the car does the driving for them. I guess this makes me old-fashioned; I even drive a manual.

Most cars are designed to understeer when pushed because that’s what most drivers expect and what they are comfortable dealing with. Understeer is technically when the front wheels slip more than the rear and oversteer is the opposite when the rear wheels slip more than the front. In real world terms, understeer is when the front of the car runs wide in a corner and oversteer is when it feels like the back is trying to overtake the front, and, in extremis, can lead to the car spinning. Spinning is not so bad an outcome, by the way, because the car loses its energy and doesn’t go anywhere, like sliding into a tree or another car. I’ve seen people spin cars, unintentionally, and they came out unscathed. It’s also why racing drivers spin their cars, intentionally, when they lose control, to try and lose as much kinetic energy (speed) as quickly as possible. These days, most cars have ESP (electronic stability programmes) or some such acronym, so spinning a car may be next to impossible. I don’t know, I haven’t tried recently.

Getting back to understeer, the antidote is pretty simple: you take your foot off the throttle or apply more steering lock or both, both of which are the opposite to what created it in the first place, so it’s easy and intuitive to do.

Some cars are designed to be neutral or well balanced, which means, that under ideal conditions, they let go at the front and rear simultaneously. This is my own personal preference, because you can change it from understeer to oversteer or vice versa. You may ask: what could possibly be the advantage of oversteer? Well, mild oversteer, as opposed to snap oversteer, can help to point the car into the corner, and well-balanced cars facilitate this in a very non-threatening and confidence-building manner. In most driving circumstances, there are only 2 inputs involved in cornering: steering and throttle. Throttle allows you to adjust the car and, in combination with steering, you can finesse it around a corner without lurid slides or screeching tyres, just fluid and efficient progress that impresses people rather than scaring them.

Now, it needs to be pointed out that front-wheel-drive cars are often particularly adept at this steering on the throttle, as it’s called, and lift-off oversteer is possible. In other words, you may get dramatic oversteer from simply lifting off the throttle sharply, though, with the electronic intervention that all modern cars have, this is unlikely. Rear-wheel-drive cars do the opposite and can be made to oversteer with extra application of the throttle, but again, modern electronics, makes this unlikely in today’s cars.

Finally, I wish to point out something that is not generally spoken or written about, and that is that steering is one of those skills that the brain delegates to the subconscious, as it does other skills like walking, or hitting a ball with a cricket bat or a tennis racket or a baseball bat. Fingering skills that musicians learn also fall into this category so they become automatic and we can do them without thinking about them. In fact, the brain does this, out of practice, so it can think about more important things.

So I don’t believe that anyone thinks about steering when they drive a car around a corner – I know I don’t – I just do it. What I think about when approaching a corner is what gear I should be in, whether I brake or just lift off the throttle, so I’m only thinking about things that affect my speed of entry. I never think about where I should put my hands on the wheel or when I should turn in or even where I should apex the corner – I do all of that automatically. But speaking about speed, one of the worse things you can do is look at the speedo when you’re entering a corner – I’m sure a lot of accidents have occurred because of that – yet no one ever tells you. It’s like taking your eye off the ball. If you want to know what speed you’re doing around a corner, then look at the speedo on exit, not on entry. Also, possibly the worst thing you can do is enter a corner with a preconceived speed in your head, and have it on the speedo before you commit. You should be able to judge what speed to do around a corner without looking at the speedo – in fact, I think that’s fundamental.

Lastly (I know I’ve already said finally) a lot of ink has been used and many words spoken on the technique you should use for steering. There are 2 favoured methods: feeding the hand and the racing driver technique. I think there’s a place for both of them, but I have another which I evolved myself without any instruction. When I was learning to drive (in Oz) driving instructors were teaching what I call the shuffle technique, whereby student drivers were shuffling the wheel in short strokes in order to keep their hands on opposite sides of the wheel at all times. I was reminded of this recently when I was a passenger in a car where a woman of my vintage was doing a 3 point turn using this very technique. Now, it’s not her fault – it’s what she was taught, and because the brain delegates this to the subconscious she’s condemned to do it for the rest of her driving life.

What I believe these instructors were trying to teach was the ‘feed-the-hand’ technique, whereby we turn one hand over the top of the wheel - left hand for right turning and right hand for left turning – into the opposing hand which remains stationary. Thus, when we have applied the correct lock, our opposing hand is in the correct position to control the car. By correct position, I mean it’s ideally placed for maximum leverage and control which is on the side of the wheel. In fact, this is the best position to have both hands when we are driving straight ahead as well. In some cars there are little indents for the thumbs that facilitate this position when the steering wheel is in the straight ahead position.

And this is the position that’s advocated in the so-called racing driver technique, only they don’t change their position when they turn the wheel. I'm a firm believer in adopting the racing driver technique as a default position because it’s the best place to have your hands if you need to swerve. When you swerve, it’s always a reflex action and you don’t have time to change positions or move your hands on the wheel.

However, when approaching a corner, I move one of my hands over the wheel (depending which way I need to turn) so it automatically applies the right amount of lock when it returns to the default position (on the side) with wheel in hand. In other words, instead of feeding my hand, I grab the amount of wheel I think I’ll need. The difference, in practice, is that with feeding-the-hand, one hand ‘hands over’ to the other at some point in the process; whereas, with my technique, the handover occurs before you actually turn the wheel.  Now, I’m not the only one who does this, but no one taught me: it just evolved and I do it without thinking. It has the advantage that subconsciously I must intuit how tight the corner is as I judge how much lock I need before I enter the corner. Once I’m in the corner, my hands (both of them) are on opposing sides of the wheel which gives me best control. The only time I use the feed-the-hand technique is when I know I need more than one handful of lock, and I have to reach one hand over the other, which is the case for most suburban intersections.

There is one other advantage in a well-balanced or neutral car and that is that if it slides it will correct itself due to the underlying physics – the car will intrinsically seek neutrality. In other words, in an oversteer slide I will simply let go of the steering wheel and the car will correct itself. So why should a car slide? Well, it depends on the conditions, like mud or snow or slush, so I’m not talking high speeds. Even with electronic intervention, slides are possible if the conditions are diabolical enough.

I haven’t mentioned how important good tyres are – they are your lifeline – and how equally important it is to maintain their air pressure. I put air in mine about every 1,000km (600 miles) or every second time I fill up with petrol. They lose around 2-3psi in that time, so I put in an extra 2psi more than what is recommended by the manufacturer. Imagine how much you would care about your tyres and air pressure if you only had 2 wheels instead of 4.

Addendum: I need to say something about cruise control. In Australia, cruise control is very popular, partly because people use it to avoid breaking speed limits. Australia has the lowest tolerance to exceeding speed limits of probably anywhere in the world. Having said all that, I never use cruise control, because I have a psychological problem with giving up that aspect of the car’s control – I like to know I’m controlling the car’s speed all the time. I know that makes me an outstanding exception. The problem with cruise control, as I see it, is that we give up our sense of speed - we delegate it to the car - though I consider it to be essential to driving. By sense of speed, I mean we know longer make judgements about how fast we should be going, because we no longer are allowed to.

Addendum: Can I just say that probably the best book on this subject is How to Drive by Ben Collins, aka The Stig (from Top Gear). Unlike me, he's a professional driver. He was also a stunt driver for at least one James Bond movie.

Sunday, 13 July 2014

The Physics of Motorcycling

Since I wrote a post on the Physics of Driving (March 2014), it seems only logical and fair to write one on the physics of motorcycle riding. The physics is more complex and counter-intuitive, but it’s also more intriguing.

In both cases the driving force (excuse the pun) is gyroscopic dynamics, though, in the case of a motorcycle, it’s both more central and more controlling. I can still remember the first time I went round a decent corner (as opposed to a street intersection) on a motorcycle and felt the inherent weightlessness it generates. This is the appeal of riding a bike and what separates the experience viscerally from driving a car.

As I’ve already explained in my previous post on driving, it’s the muscle strain on our necks that tells us how hard we are cornering, whether we are in a car or on a bike, though the effect is reversed from one to the other. In the case of a car we lean our heads into the corner to balance the semi-circular canals in our ears, and our neck muscles subconsciously tell us what the lateral force is in a subjective sensory manner. In the case of a bike we lean our bodies and keep our heads upright - because we feel effectively weightless - but the strain on our neck muscles is exactly the same, even though it is reversed.

So that explains how it feels but it doesn’t explain how it all works. The physics is not easy to grasp, but the effect is relatively easy to explain, even if one doesn’t understand the dynamics behind it, so please persevere with me. There is a second law of angular momentum, which effectively says that if you apply a torque around an axis perpendicular to the rotating axis, you will get a rotation around the third axis, called precession. One usually draws diagrams at this stage to demonstrate this, but I can do better: I will give you an example that you may be able to perform at home.

A surveyor’s plumb bob works best to demonstrate this, but a bicycle wheel can work as well. Take a plumb bob with its string wrapped around it, hold it horizontally so the wound string is vertical, then let it go while holding the end of the string. As it falls the unwinding string makes the plumb bob spin about its horizontal axis, but when it gets to the end of the string, it doesn’t fall over.  It precesses, giving the impression of weightlessness. This YouTube video demonstrates what I’m talking about rather dramatically with a heavy flywheel, and its sequel demonstrates it even better, and explains the so-called weightless effect. And this video explains the physics concerning the 3 axes using an ordinary bicycle wheel on the end of a rope (which you may be able to do yourself) .

So what has all this physics got to do with riding a motorcycle? It’s what gets you around a corner – as simple as that – but the way it does it is completely counter-intuitive. To get the bike to lean over we apply a torque, via the handlebars, perpendicular to the rotational axis, only we apply it in the opposite direction to what we might think. Basically, if you push on the bar in the direction you want to turn, it will lean over in that direction. By ‘push’ I mean you push on the left bar to lean left and on the right bar to lean right. This is the counter-intuitive part, because we would think that if we pushed on the left bar the wheel would turn right. In fact, I’ve argued about this with people who ride motorbikes, but I know it’s true because, I not only understand the physics behind it, I put it into practice in over a decade of riding.

Now, when the bike leans over, it behaves exactly the same as the fly-wheel in the videos, and, under the force of gravity, the bike precesses around the corner, generating a feeling of weightlessness at the same time.

So that’s the core of the physics of riding a motorcycle but there’s more. In a car you can swerve and brake at the same time, as any advanced driving course will teach you. But on a bike you can do one or the other but not both. If you brake in a corner, the bike will ‘stand up’ and there is nothing you can do about it. This is different to simply closing the throttle, when the bike will tighten its line (turn tighter). Now, why this quirk of physics may seem catastrophic, it’s what allows you to brake in a corner at all. You see the bike will still follow the same curved trajectory while it’s slowing down, and it does it without any intervention from you except for the application of brakes.

The other laws of physics I explained in my last post, regarding the inverse law of speed versus rate-of-change of direction, and the braking distance following the speed squared law still apply. In other words, it takes twice as long to change direction at double the speed, and it takes 4 times the distance to brake at double the speed.

Monday, 26 May 2014

Why consciousness is unique to the animal kingdom

I’ve written a number of posts on consciousness over the last 7 years, or whenever it was I started blogging, so this is a refinement of what’s gone before, and possibly a more substantial argument. It arose from a discussion in New Scientist  24 May 2014 (Letters) concerning the evolution of consciousness and, in particular the question: ‘What need is there of actual consciousness?’ (Eric Kvaalen from France).

I’ve argued in a previous post that consciousness evolved early and it arose from emotions, not logic. In particular, early sentient creatures would have relied on fear, pain and desire, as these do pose an evolutionary advantage, especially if memory is also involved. In fact, I’ve argued that consciousness without memory is pretty useless, otherwise the organism (including humans) wouldn’t even know it was conscious (see my post on Afterlife, March 2014).

Many philosophers and scientists argue that AI (Artificial Intelligence) will become sentient. The interesting argument is that ‘we will know’ (referencing New Scientist Editorial, 2 April 2011) because we don’t know that anyone else is conscious either. In other words, the argument goes that if an AI behaves like it’s conscious or sentient, then it must be. However, I argue that AI entities don’t have emotions unless they are programmed artificially to behave like they do – i.e. simulated. And this is a major distinction, if one believes, as I do, that sentience arose from emotions (feelings) and not logic or reason.

But in answer to the question posed above, one only has to look at another very prevalent life form on this planet, which is not sentient, and the answer, I would suggest, becomes obvious. I’m talking about vegetation. And what is the fundamental difference? There is no evolutionary advantage to vegetation having sentience, or, more specifically, having feelings. If a plant was to feel pain or fear, how could it respond? Compared to members of the animal kingdom, it cannot escape the source, because it is literally rooted to the spot. And this is why I believe animals evolved consciousness (sentience by another name) and plants didn’t. Now, there may be degrees of consciousness in animals (we don’t know) but, if feelings were the progenitor of consciousness, we can understand why it is a unique attribute of the animal kingdom and not found in vegetation or machines.

Monday, 12 May 2014

How should I live?

This is the 'Question of the Month' in the latest issue of Philosophy Now (Issue 101, March/April 2014). Submissions need to be 400 words or less, so mine is 400 words exactly (refer below).

How should I live?

How I should live and how I do live are not necessarily the same, but having aspirations and trying to live up to them is a good starting point. So the following is how I aspire to live, which I don’t always achieve in practice.

The most important point is that no one lives in isolation. The fact that we all, not only speak in a language, but also think in a language, illustrates how significantly dependent we are on our milieu. What’s more, from our earliest cognitive experiences to the remainder of our lives, we interact with others, and the quality of our lives is largely dependent on that interaction.

Everyone seeks happiness and in modern Western societies this universal goal is taken for granted. But how to achieve it? A tendency to narcissism, tacitly encouraged by the relatively recent innovation of social media, can lead to self-obsession, which we are particularly prone to in our youth. Socrates famously said (or so we believe): ‘The unexamined life is not worth living.’ But a thoughtful analysis of that coda, when applied to one’s own life, reveals that we only examine our lives when we fail. The corollary to this is that a life without failure is a life not worth living. And this is how wisdom evolves over a life’s experiences: not through success or study but through dealing with life’s trials and tribulations. This is reflected in virtually every story that’s been told: how the protagonist deals with adversity, be it physical or psychological or both. And this is why storytelling is universally appealing.

So how should I live my life? By being the opposite to narcissistic and self-obsessed. By realising that every interaction in my life is an opportunity to make my life more rewarding by making someone else’s life more rewarding. In any relationship, familial, work-related, contractual or whatever, either both parties are satisfied or both are dissatisfied. It is very rare that someone achieves happiness at someone else’s expense, unless they are competing in a sporting event or partaking in a reality TV show.

There is an old Chinese saying, possibly Confucian in origin: If you want to know the true worth of a person, observe the effects they have on other people's lives. A true leader knows that their leadership is not about their personal achievements: it’s about enabling others to realise their own achievements.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Pitfalls of a Democracy

The latest issue of Philosophy Now has as its theme, ‘Democracy’, with a number of articles on the subject covering Plato to contemporary politics. In particular relevance to this post, Anja Steinbauer ‘explains why Plato had problems with democracy.’ I won’t discuss her article at length, but early on she points out that ‘…it all comes to a head with Socrates: Athenian democracy didn’t like Socrates, which is why the troublesome thinker was democratically put to death.’ The reason I paraphrase this is because it has dramatic relevance to current political events in Australia.

On a recent issue of 4 Corners, whistleblowers and video footage tell us what the government was unwilling to reveal regarding not so recent events at a detention centre for refugees on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea, where an asylum-seeker was killed during a riot. The programme reveals the deeply flawed inhumanity of this particular government policy which was originally introduced by the previous (Labor) government and is now being brutally pursued by the incumbent (Liberal) government. Both sides of politics endorse this policy because it’s a vote-winner and, in fact, the last election campaign was dominated by who could be more successful in ‘stopping the boats’ (containing asylum-seekers) as if we are suffering from a wartime invasion.

The relevance to Steinbauer’s insightful commentary on Plato and Socrates is that, with the explicit support of the general public, a government can execute policies that directly contravene the human rights of people who have no political representation in that country. In essence, we are guilty of inflicting both physical and emotional trauma on people; an action we would condemn if it was being done somewhere else. In short, a democratic process does not necessarily provide the most ethical and moral resolution to a dilemma.

The other side to this, is the airing of the programme itself. Only a healthy democratic society can foster a journalistic culture that can openly criticise government policies without fear of retribution.

Saturday, 15 March 2014

The physics of driving

This is quite a departure, I know, but one of my hobby-horses is how little people know about the physics of driving. Unlike our man-made road rules, the laws of nature are unbreakable, so a rudimentary knowledge can be useful.

But what prompted me to write this post was a road test I read of the new, upmarket Infiniti Q50 in EVO Australia (March 2014). The big-selling feature of the Infiniti Q50 is its so-called ‘direct adaptive steering’; a world first, apparently for a production car (as opposed to a prototype or research vehicle). It’s a totally ‘fly-by-wire’ steering system, so there is no mechanical connection between the helm and the front wheels. Personally, I think this is a dangerous idea, and I was originally going to title this post, rather provocatively, “A dangerous idea”. Not surprisingly, at least to me, the road-tester found the system more than a little disconcerting when he used it in the real world. It was okay until he wanted to push the car a little, when the lack of feedback through the wheel made him feel somewhat insecure.

There are gyroscopic forces on the front wheels, which naturally increase with cornering force and can be felt through the  steering wheel. The wheel weights up in direct proportion to this force (and not the amount of lock applied as some might think). In other words, it’s a linear relationship, and it’s one of the major sources of determining the cornering force being generated.

I should point out that the main source of determining cornering force is your inner ear, which we all use subconsciously, and is why we all lean our heads when cornering, even though we are unaware of it. It’s the muscle strain on our necks, arising from maintaining our inner ear balance, that tells us how much lateral g-force we have generated. On a motorcycle, we do the opposite, keeping our heads straight while we lean our bodies, so the muscle strain is reversed, but the effect is exactly the same.

Therefore, you may think, we don’t need the steering wheel’s feedback, but there is more. The turn-in to a corner is the most critical part of cornering. This was pointed out to me decades ago, when I was a novice, but experience has confirmed it many times over. Yes, the corner can change radius or camber or both and you might strike something mid-corner, like loose gravel, but, generally, if the front wheels grip on entry then you know they will grip throughout the rest of the corner. This is the case whether you’re under brakes or not, wet or dry surface. It’s possible to loosen traction with a heavy right foot, but most cars have traction control these days, so even that is not an issue for most of us. The point is that, if the front wheels grip on turn-in, we ‘feel’ it through the steering wheel, because of the gyroscopic relationship between cornering force and the weight of the wheel. And cornering force is directly proportional to the amount of grip. The point is that without this critical feedback at turn-in, drivers will be dependent on visual cues to work out if the car is gripping or not. What’s more, the transition from grip to non-grip and back won’t be felt through the wheel. If this system becomes the engineering norm it will make bad drivers out of all of us.

While I’m on the topic, did you know that at twice the speed it takes four times the distance to pull up to a stop? Perhaps, you did, but I bet no one told you when you were learning to drive. The relationship between speed and braking distance is not linear – braking distance is proportional to the speed squared, so 3 times as fast takes 9 times the distance to stop. This is independent of road surface, tyres and make of car – it’s a natural law.

Another one to appreciate is that at twice the speed, changing direction is twice as slow. There is an inverse relationship between speed and rate of change of direction. This is important in the context of driving on multi-lane highways. A car travelling at half the speed of another – that’s overtaking it, say – can change direction twice as fast as the faster car. This is also a law of nature, so even allowing for superior tyres and dynamics of the faster car, the physics is overwhelmingly against it. This is why the safest speed to travel on multi-lane highways is the same speed as everyone else. An atypically slow car, in these circumstances, is just as dangerous (to other motorists and itself) as an atypically fast car.

Addendum: I also wrote a post on the physics of riding a motorcycle.

Saturday, 8 March 2014

Afterlife belief – a unique human condition

Recently I’ve been dreaming about having philosophical discussions, which is very strange, to say the least. And one of these was on the topic of the afterlife. My particular insight, from my dream, was that humans have the unique capacity to imagine a life and a world beyond death. It’s hard to imagine that any other creature, no matter its cognitive capacity, would be able to make the same leap. This is not a new insight for me; it’s one my dream reminded me of rather than initiated. Nevertheless, it’s a good starting point for a discussion on the afterlife.

It’s also, I believe, the reason humans came up with religion – it’s hard to dissociate one from the other.  Humans are more than capable of imagining fictional worlds – I’ve created a few myself as a sometime sci-fi writer. But imagining a life after death is to project oneself into an eternal continuity, a form of immortality. Someone once pointed out that death is the ultimate letting go of the ego, and I believe this is a major reason we find it so difficult to confront. The Buddhists talk about the ‘no-self’ and ‘no attachments’, and I believe this is what they’re referring to. We all form attachments during life, be it material or ideological or aspirational or through personal relationships, and I think that this is natural, even psychologically necessary for the most part. But death requires us to give all these up. In some cases people make sacrifices, where an ideal or another’s life takes precedent over one’s own ego. In effect, we may substitute someone else’s ego for our own.

Do I believe in an afterlife? Actually, I’m agnostic on that point, but I have no expectation, and, from what we know, it seems unlikely. I have no problem with people believing in an afterlife – as I say, it’s part of the human condition – but I have a problem when people place more emphasis on it than the current life they’re actually living. There are numerous stories of people ostracizing their children, on religious grounds, because seeking eternal paradise is more important than familial relationships. I find this perverse, as I do the idea of killing people with the promise of reaching heaven as a reward.

Personally, I think it’s more healthy to have no expectation when one dies. It’s no different to going to sleep or any other form of losing consciousness, only one never regains it. No one knows when they fall asleep or when they lose consciousness, and the same applies when one dies. It leaves no memory, so we don’t know when it happens. There is an oft asked question: why is there something rather than nothing? Well, consciousness plays a big role in that question, because, without consciousness, there might as well be nothing. ‘Something’ only exists for ‘you’ while you are alive.

Consciousness exists in a continuous present, and, in fact, without consciousness, the concepts of past present and future would have no meaning. But more than that, without memory, you would not even know you have consciousness. In fact, it is possible to be conscious or act conscious, whilst believing, in retrospect, that you were unconscious. It can happen when you come out of anaesthetic (it’s happened to me) or when you’re extremely intoxicated with alcohol or when you’ve been knocked unconscious by a blow. In these admittedly rare and unusual circumstances, one can be conscious and behave consciously, yet create no memories, so effectively be unconscious. In other words, without memory (short term memory) we would all be subjectively unconscious.

So, even if there is the possibility that one’s consciousness can leave behind the body that created it, after corporeal death, it would also leave behind all the memories that give us our sense of self. It’s only our memories that give us our sense of continuity, and hence our sense of self.

Then there is the issue of afterlife and infinity. Only mathematicians and cosmologists truly appreciate what infinity means. The point is that if you have an infinite amount of time and space than anything that can happen once can happen an infinite number of times. This means that, with infinity, in this world or any other, there would be an infinite number of you and me. But, not only am I not interested in an infinite number of me, I don’t believe anyone would want to live for infinity if they really thought about it.

At the start, I mentioned that I believe religion arose from a belief in the afterlife. Having said that, I think religion comes from a natural tendency to look for meaning beyond the life we live. I’ve made the point before, that if there is a purpose beyond the here and now, it’s not ours to know. And, if there is a purpose, we find it in the lives we live and not in an imagined reward beyond the grave.

Saturday, 1 February 2014

Quantum mechanics without complex algebra

In my last post I made reference to a comment Noson Yanofsky made in his book, The Outer limits of Reason, whereby he responded to a student’s question on quantum mechanics: specifically, why does quantum mechanics require complex algebra (-1) to render it mathematically meaningful?

Complex numbers always take the form a + ib, which I explain in detail elsewhere, but it is best understood graphically, whereby a exists on the Real number line and b lies on the ‘imaginary’ axis orthogonal to the Real axis. (i = -1, in case you’re wondering.)

In last week’s New Scientist (25 January 2014, pp.32-5), freelance science journalist, Matthew Chalmers, discusses the work of theoretical physicist, Bill Wootters of Williams College, Williamstown, Massachusetts, who has attempted to rid quantum mechanics of complex numbers.

Chalmers introduces his topic by explaining how i (-1) is not a number as we normally understand it – a point I’ve made myself in previous posts. You can’t count an i quantity of anything, and, in fact, I’ve argued that i is best understood as a dimension not a number per se, which is how it is represented graphically. Chalmers also alludes to the idea that i can be perceived as a dimension, though he doesn’t belabour the point. Chalmers also gives a very brief history lesson, explaining how i has been around since the 16th Century at least, where it allowed adventurous mathematicians to solve certain equations. In fact, in its early manifestation it tended to be a temporary device that disappeared before the final solution was reached. But later it became as ‘respectable’ as negative numbers and now it makes regular appearances in electrical engineering and analyses involving polar co-ordinates, as well as quantum mechanics where it seems to be a necessary mathematical ingredient. You must realise that there was a time when negative numbers and even zero were treated with suspicion by ancient scholars.

As I’ve explained in detail in another post, quantum mechanics has been rendered mathematically as a wave function, known as Schrodinger’s equation. Schrodinger’s equation would have been stillborn, as it explained nothing in the real world, were it not for Max Born’s ingenious insight to square the modulus (amplitude) of the wave function and use it to give a probability of finding a particle (including photons) in the real world. The point is that once someone takes a measurement or makes an observation of the particle, Schrodinger’s wave function becomes irrelevant. It’s only useful for making probabilistic predictions, albeit very accurate ones. But what’s mathematically significant, as pointed out by Chalmers, is that Born’s Rule (as it’s called) gets rid of the imaginary component of the complex number, and makes it relevant to the real world with Real numbers, albeit as a probability.

Wootters ambition to rid quantum mechanics of imaginary numbers started when he was a PhD student, but later became a definitive goal. Not surprisingly, Chalmers doesn’t go into the mathematical details, but he does explain the ramifications. Wootters has come up with something he calls the ‘u-bit’ and what it tells us is that if we want to give up complex algebra, everything is connected to everything else.

Wootters expertise is in quantum information theory, so he’s well placed to explore alternative methodologies. If the u-bit is a real entity, it must rotate very fast, though this is left unexplained. Needless to say, there is some scepticism as to its existence apart from a mathematical one. I’m not a theoretical physicist, more of an interested bystander, but my own view is that quantum mechanics is another level of reality – a substrate, if you like, to the world we interact with. According to Richard Ewles (MATHS 1001, pp.383-4): ‘…the wave function Ψ permeates all of space… [and when a measurement or observation is made] the original wave function Ψ is no longer a valid description of the state of the particle.’

Many physicists also believe that Schrodinger’s equation is merely a convenient mathematical device, and therefore the wave function doesn’t represent anything physical. Whether this is true or not, its practical usefulness suggests it can tells us something important about the quantum world. The fact that it ‘disappears’ or becomes irrelevant, once the particle becomes manifest in the physical world, suggests to me that there is a disjunct between the 2 physical realms. And the fact that the quantum world can only be understood with complex numbers simply underlines this disjunction.

Friday, 3 January 2014

The Introspective Cosmos

I haven’t written anything meaty for a while, and I’m worried I might lose my touch. Besides, I feel the need to stimulate my brain and, hopefully, yours in the process.

Just before Christmas, I read an excellent book by Noson S. Yanofsky, titled: The Outer Limits of Reason; What Science, Mathematics, and Logic CANNOT Tell Us. Yanofsky is Professor in the Department of Computer and Information Science at Brooklyn College and The Graduate Center of the City of University of New York. He is also co-author of Quantum Computing for Computer Scientists (which I haven’t read).

Yanofsky’s book (the one I read) covers a range of topics, including classical and quantum physics, chaos theory, determinism, free will, Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem, the P-NP problem, the anthropic principle and a whole lot more. The point is that he is well versed in all these areas, yet he’s very easy to read. His fundamental point, delineated in the title, is that it is impossible for us to know everything. And there will always be more that we don’t know compared to what we do know. Anyone with a remote interest in epistemology should read this book. He really does explain the limits of our knowledge, both theoretically and practically. At the end of each section he gives a synopsis of ‘further reading’, not just a list. I found the book so compelling, I even read all the ‘Notes’ in the appendix (something I rarely do).

Along the way, he explains things like countable infinities and uncountable infinities and why it is important to make the distinction. He also explains the difference between computing problems that are simply incomputable and computing problems that are computable but would take more time than the Universe allows, even if the computer was a quantum computer.

He discusses, in depth, philosophical issues like the limitations of mathematical Platonism, and provides compelling arguments that the mathematics we use to describe physical phenomena invariably have limitations that the physical phenomena don’t. In other words, no mathematical equation, no matter its efficacy, can cover all physical contingencies. The physical world is invariably more complex than the mathematics we use to interpret it, and a lot of the mathematical tools we use deal with large scale averages rather than individual entities – like the universal gas equation versus individual molecules.

He points out that there is no ‘fire in the equations’ (as does Lee Smolin in Time Reborn, which I’ve also read recently) meaning mathematics can describe physical phenomena but can’t create them. My own view is that mathematics is a code that only an intelligence like ours can uncover. As anyone who reads my blog knows, I believe mathematics is largely discovered, not invented. Marcus du Sautoy presented a TV programme called The Code, which exemplifies this view. But this code is somehow intrinsic in nature in that the Universe obeys laws and the laws not only require mathematics to quantify them but, without mathematics, we would not know their existence except, possibly, at a very rudimentary and uninformed level.

Yanofsky discusses Eugene Wigner’s famous declaration concerning ‘The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics’ and concludes that it arises from the fact that we use mathematics to probe the physical world, and that, in fact, leaving physics aside, there is a ‘paucity of mathematics in general science’. But in the next paragraph, Yanofsky says this:

The answers to Wigner’s unreasonable effectiveness leads to much deeper questions. Rather than asking why the laws of physics follow mathematics, ask why there are any laws at all.

In the same vein, Yanofsky gives a personal anecdote of a student asking him why complex numbers work for quantum mechanics. He answers that ‘…the universe does not function using complex numbers, Newton’s formula, or any other law of nature. Rather, the universe works the way it does. It is humans who use the tools they have to understand the world.’ And this is completely true as far as it goes, yet I would say that complex numbers are part of ‘the code’ required to understand one of the deepest and fundamental mysteries of the Universe.

Yanofsky’s fundamental question, quoted above, ‘why are there any laws at all?’ leads him to discuss the very structure of the universe, the emergence of life and, finally, our place in it. In fact he lists this as 3 questions:

1: Why is there any structure at all in the universe?
2: Why is the structure that exists capable of sustaining life?
3: Why did this life-sustaining structure generate a creature with enough intelligence to understand the structure?

I’ve long maintained that the last question represents the universe’s greatest enigma. There is something analogous here between us as individuals and the cosmos itself. We are each an organism with a brain that creates something we call consciousness that allows us to reflect on ourselves, individually. And the Universe created, via an extraordinary convoluted process, the ability to reflect on itself, its origins and its possible meaning.

Not surprisingly, Yanofsky doesn’t give any religious answers to this but, instead, seems to draw heavily on Paul Davies (whom he acknowledges generously at the end of the chapter) in providing various possible answers to these questions, including John Wheeler’s controversial thesis that the universe, via a cosmic scale quantum loop, has this particular life and intelligence generating structure simply because we’re in it. I’ve discussed these issues before, without coming to any definitive conclusion, so I won’t pursue them any further here.

In his notes on this chapter, Yanofsky makes this point:

Perhaps we can say that the universe is against having intelligent life and that the chances of having intelligent life are, say, 0.0000001 percent. We, therefore, only see intelligent life in 0.0000001 percent of the universe.

This reminds me of John Barrow’s point, in one of his many books, that the reason the universe is so old, and so big, is because that’s how long it takes to create complex life, and, because the universe is uniformly expanding, age and size are commensurate.

So Yanofsky’s is a deep and informative book on many levels, putting in perspective not only our place in the universe but the infinite knowledge we will never know. Towards the end he provides a table that summarises the points he delineates throughout the book in detail:

Solvable computer problems                             Unsolvable computer problems
Describable phenomena                                    Indescribable phenomena
Algebraic numbers                                            Transcendent numbers
(Provable) mathematical statements                 Mathematical facts

Finally, he makes the point that, in our everyday lives, we make decisions based primarily on emotions not reason. We seemed to have transcended our biological and evolutionary requirements when we turned to mathematics and logic to comprehend phenomena hidden from our senses and attempted to understand the origin and structure of the universe itself.