Category Archives: Science

This Will Make You Smarter edited by John Brockman

thiswillmakeyousmarterEach year, John Brockman and Edge.org ask a group of renowned scientists and thinkers a thought provoking question to stimulate discussion about important topics. In 2011, he asked “What scientific concept will improve everybody‚Äôs cognitive toolkit?” Something like 150 people contributed short essays with their answer to the question. They range from profound to rather silly (at least, in my opinion). But they all provide new ways of thinking about the world around us.

For example, P. Z. Meyrs discusses the “mediocrity principle”. Simply put, it means that you, or me, or any of us, aren’t special. We aren’t the center of the universe. Things don’t happen to us for a reason. The universe isn’t out there to either help us or hurt us. It just is, and we are just a part of it. Sean Carroll follows up on this, by stating “Humans… like to insist that there are reasons why things happen… [that things] must be explained in terms of the workings of a hidden plan” but, in the end, there is no such plan. In a twist to this idea, Samuel Barondes points out that, while each of us is ordinary, we are also each one of a kind.

Jonah Lehrer discusses research on willpower with an example of 4-year-old kids. These kids were sat down in a tiny room and presented with treats. They could either eat one now, or if they could way for a few minutes alone in the room, they could have two treats when the time was up. Some kids waited and some did not. In the end, it wasn’t a matter of kids having more or less willpower, but the kids who could wait for the two treats were better able to distract themselves, focusing on something else rather than the treats. The most important result: the kids who could wait, who could distract themselves from the most immediate reward, scored 210 points (on average) on SAT tests in high school compared to those who didn’t last 30 seconds before grabbing a treat. As Lehrer states, “these correlations demonstrate the importance of learning to strategically allocate our attention.” If we can learn to focus on things other than the immediate reward, we can improve our overall lot in life.

Another theme that is explored by multiple authors is the human brain’s inability to really assess risk. We inordinately fear things that have an extremely low probability of happening while we don’t give a second thought to things that actually are relatively likely. Garrett Lisi summarizes this paradox nicely: “The startling implication is that the risk of being bitten and killed by a spider is less than the risk that being afraid of spiders will kill you because of the increased stress.” That is, the stress of being afraid of spiders is more deadly than the spiders themselves.

One last example is by Jason Zweig. I like it because, in an ideal world, I would try to implement this in my own life. He focuses on serendipity, and how to nurture the creative process that lead to those Eureka! moments. In particular, he says that research shows that serendipity is a consequence of abrupt shifts in the focus of our brain activity. It is when the brain completely shifts gears. To facilitate this, he personally tries to read one scientific paper each week that is not in his field and to read it in a completely different place. The idea is to break his routine, to force his brain into new circumstances, with the goal of promoting shifts in the focus of the brain. I like the idea; I just need to find some time to do it.

There are a lot of other essays that are very interesting, going into various aspects of the scientific method, or principles from economics, or the role of randomness in our lives. Like the other books in this series, I highly recommend it, if for no other reason than to provide food for thought about how both our brains and the universe they find themselves in work.

 

 

 

My Dangerous Ideas

In a series of books, one each year, John Brockman asks the contributors and members of Edge.org a question. The goal is to foster exchange, to provoke thinking, and to stir debate. I thought I’d give my own answers to each question.

In What is Your Dangerous Idea?, John Brockman asked exactly that: “What is your dangerous idea?” Well, I have two.

The American Dream is a Fraud.

I’ve touched on this before. One of the defining tenants of American society is that anyone can make it, can be a success, if only they work hard. I have serious doubts that hard work is the most important criterion for success in American (with inheritance, skill, perseverance, and dumb luck likely all being more important), but let’s set that aside for the moment. Let’s assume that hard work, and hard work alone, will get you to the top. It’s a nice thought, and a nice ideal, but it simply can’t be true. There isn’t enough room at the top for everyone. Someone has to do those jobs near the bottom of the economic ladder, those jobs no one chooses to do, but must be done for society and the economy to function. Jobs that don’t pay well. The bottom rungs of the economic ladder must be occupied by someone, regardless of how hard everyone works. That is, even if everyone worked hard, the vast majority have to fail for the system to work. The top need the bottom to exist. Thus, the system has to be rigged to ensure that the bottom exists.

As a consequence, it simply can’t be true that all one needs is to work hard. Sure, some will work hard and rise above their “humble beginnings,” but we all can’t. Most of us won’t, regardless of how hard we work. If the majority of us are able to move up the ladder, we must bring in new people who are willing to exist at the bottom, for whatever reason.

The only way I can see that the American Dream can be a reality for the vast majority of Americans is for us to develop the technology to automate all of those jobs at the lowest economic rungs. Possibly then, we won’t need people to do them and the system will have the freedom to allow most or maybe even all of us to move up and realize the American Dream. But, until that happens, I fear that most of will have to settle for the hope of the American Dream for their children.

Behavior can be Predicted and Controlled.

It seems that, as we learn more about how the brain functions, we are learning more and more that many behaviors are a consequence of the structure and chemistry of the brain. Much of what defines each of us is based on genetic factors and our predilections are often a function of how our brains are wired, out of our direct control. If true, this has enormous implications for our place in society.

Imagine if each of our brains can be mapped to such a degree that we can place high probabilities of us behaving in certain ways. And imagine if this could be done when we are infants. That is, consider a world in which an infant, not long in this world, can have his or her brain mapped and the propensity for unsocial behavior determined. Behavior, for example, such as tendency to be violent or a psychopath or a sociopath. What should we do with such capabilities and knowledge? Should we use it to determine the likelihood of each and every individual’s probability to be a damaging member of society? And, if we can, what should we do to those people? Should we continuously monitor them in the hope of preventing them from harming anyone? Should we abscond them away to ensure they don’t?

Now imagine we take the scenario a bit further. Imagine we have the ability to change behavior, through chemistry. We do this already to some extent, with ADHD and other behaviors deemed undesirable. What if we could use chemicals, possibly forcibly given, to turn off that part of the brain that drives pedophiles? Or murders? What if we could alter the brain chemistry of individuals determined to be a danger to society to remove that danger? That is, what if we could stop these people from doing any harm, by changing them before they were ever able to do any harm? If we could identify the Jeffery Dahmers and Adolf Hitlers of the world long before they became those monsters, should we? And what should we do about it?

There are many ethical questions that arise from such a scenario, including the right of society to so drastically interfere with the rights of any given individual who has done nothing wrong, but has a brain that strongly indicates they will. Further, there will be those who want to use such power for more nefarious purposes, such as eliminating people with behaviors that aren’t dangerous but are deemed unacceptable (for example, homosexuality) or maybe dangerous to the regime (such as a proclivity to question authority).

I think we will soon have the ability to both determine who might be prone to dangerous behavior and then modify them so they don’t. We will soon have to answer questions about what we do with that ability.

My Elegant Explanation

In a series of books, one each year, John Brockman asks the contributors and members of Edge.org a question. The goal is to foster exchange, to provoke thinking, and to stir debate. I thought I’d give my own answers to each question.

In This Explains Everything, John Brockman asked “What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?”

maxwell-equations225px-James_Clerk_MaxwellFor me, it has to be Maxwell’s equations. When I was an undergrad physics major, struggling with some of the concepts in classical mechanics, it was really electromagnetism that struck me as both deep and elegant. Here is a set of four equations that not only link electricity and magnetism, but provide an immense and rich physical world that simply falls out of the equations. This includes the fact that electromagnetic waves can propagate in space. This understanding was the foundation from which Albert Einstein, who started with Maxwell’s equations, developed the special theory of relativity, which postulates that light travels at a constant speed, always.

Developed by James Clerk Maxwell, who was inspired by, amongst others, Michael Faraday, one of the greatest experimental physicists ever, Maxwell’s equations embody, to me, the beauty of physics. A concise set of equations that encapsulate a model of reality that both explains a vast amount of experimental observations but also provide profound insight into the nature of the universe and predict new phenomena that simply was not even dreamt of before. I don’t necessarily believe that all of physics and the physical sciences can be summarized and encapsulated into such nice and tidy equations. But, for those instances where it can, the power, beauty, and understanding provided by such a description is immense (all of our modern technology is essentially enabled by the understanding that Maxwell’s equations embody). Maxwell’s equations are one of the pinnacles of physics and, to me, essentially define an elegant and beautiful explanation.

What is Your Dangerous Idea? edited by John Brockman

what-is-your-dangerous-idea-book-by-john-brockman1After reading This Explains Everything, I’m now a bit addicted to the Edge.org series of books, in which John Brockman poses a question to some of the leading minds in the world. I quickly went through the second and am now on the third of these books.

The second, What is Your Dangerous Idea?, asks exactly that question: what idea do you have or do you think is dangerous? The meaning of dangerous is in the eye of the beholder, with some contributors discussing ideas that might be coming from science that might be taken in the wrong way by politicians or those who would repress others (such as innate differences in people in terms of abilities of various sorts) to ideas that would shatter the status quo (such as the discovery of alien life or the idea that we may soon be able to control our own evolution). Most of the ideas are very interesting and, as with the previous volume I read, thought provoking. Worth a read if for nothing else than to stir the mental juices and get one thinking about ideas that might not normally cross one’s mind. However, there is one set of ideas that I found particularly striking.

The first relates to free will. In back-to-back essays, first Eric Kandel and then Clay Shirky touch on this. Kandel describes experiments in which the subconscious mind is measured to register activity before the conscious mind is aware it is about to do something. That is, if one were asked to move their finger, there is subconscious activity before the person has actually made the decision to move their finger (or, better said, is consciously aware of the decision). Shirky discusses how this has important consequences on how we interact with and are manipulated by advertisers and politicians, amongst others. In particular, he states “everyone from advertisers to political consultants increasingly understands, in voluminous biological detail, how to manipulate consciousness in ways that weaken our notion of free will.” (In a super-cool aside, it seems that Helmholtz, the famous physicist who was instrumental in the development of thermodynamics, was the discoverer of this subconscious activity.) The implication, really, is that advertisers and politicians know us better than we know ourselves, and know how to target messages to our subconscious, which is much more important for our decision making and behavior than we are ever aware. It is only through recognizing this and knowing how our subconscious responds to such stimuli that we have any hope of not being manipulated. Mahzarin Banaji sums this up nicely with a quote from Richard Dawkins: “Let us understand what our own selfish genes are up to, because we may then at least have a chance to upset their designs, something that no other species has ever aspired to do.”

Other essays touch on this theme. Richard Nisbett points out how “When our behavior is insufficiently justified, we move our beliefs into line with the behavior, so as to avoid the cognitive dissonance we would otherwise experience.” The bottom line: we really don’t know how we think, why we think what we think, or where our thoughts come from. Those that do and are willing to use that understanding can manipulate us without us even being aware.

 

 

 

This Explains Everything edited by John Brockman

thisexplainseverythingEdge is a collection of people, leaders in fields from physics to biology and successful business people and musicians. People we’ve all heard of, like Alan Alda, Jared Diamond, Steven Pinker, and Richard Dawkins, along with a lot of other people that aren’t yet household names, but are leaders in their respective fields. The goal of Edge is to simply get people — intellectual leaders of all sorts — and have them talk. Have them ask questions to one another, have them discuss important topics and push the frontiers of what we, collectively, know. As they summarize their purpose:

To arrive at the edge of the world’s knowledge, seek out the most complex and sophisticated minds, put them in a room together, and have them ask each other the questions they are asking themselves.

As part of this goal to ask and answer questions, each year the Edge contributors propose and vote on a question that they then each try to answer. This has been going on for a few years now and each year the answers are collected into a book, edited each year by John Brockman. The latest book, which is also the first one I read, is called This Explains Everything and collects the answers to the question: What is your favorite deep, elegant, or beautiful explanation?

The book collects about 150 answers from a large variety of people. Each answer is 1-10 pages and vary from choosing Darwin’s Theory of Natural Selection, to Maxwell’s Equations (what I personally would have chosen if I were part of this), to more modern cutting edge science that, to be honest, is sometimes a bit hard to follow. And it isn’t all science, there are poets and musicians who also contribute their answers.

For me, the best thing about this book isn’t necessarily knowing what Jared Diamond’s favorite explanation is, but rather to get different views on well established science, such as Darwin, as well as become exposed to new ideas that, as a scientist working in a very narrow field, I don’t come across in my daily work. Some of the ideas are simply weird — Aubrey De Grey suggests that it won’t be long until monogamy is a thing of the past, essentially equating sharing sexual partners to sharing chess partners. I’m not sure I buy that one. But, there are a lot of other great ideas which I was very happy to learn about. A couple of my favorites:

  • Scott Atran: “reason itself is primarily aimed at social victory and political persuasion rather than philosophical or scientific truth”
  • Joel Gold: “Aristotle defined man as a rational animal. Contradictions like these [described earlier] show that we are not.”
  • Paul Steinhardt, in describing the discovery of quasi-crystals: “While elegance and simplicity are often useful criteria for judging theories, they can sometimes mislead us into thinking we are right when we are actually infinitely wrong.”
  • Frank Wilczek: “In theoretical physics, we try to summarize the results of a vast number of observations and experiments in terms of a few powerful laws. We strive, in other words, to produce the shortest possible program that outputs the world. In that precise sense, theoretical physics is a quest for simplicity.”
  • Gerd Gigerenzer: “Illusions are a necessary consequence of intelligence. Cognition requires going beyond the information given, to make bets and therefore to risk errors.”
  • Anton Zeilinger: “without occasionally taking a risk, even in the most exact science no real innovation can be introduced.”
  • Andre Linde: “mathematicians and physicists can live only in those universes that are comprehensible and where the laws of mathematics are efficient.”
  • Gino Segre: “I have spent a good part of my career searching for an explanation of the masses of the so-called elementary particles. But perhaps the reason it has eluded us is a proposal that is increasingly gaining credence — namely, that our visible universe is only a random example of an essentially infinite number of universes, all of which contain quarks and leptons with masses taking different values.”
  • Andrian Kreye: “In Europe, the present is perceived as the endpoint of history. In America, the present is perceived as the beginning of the future.”
  • Helena Cronin: “And thus environments, far from being separate from biology, autonomous and independent, are themselves in part fashioned by biology.”
  • John Tooby: “Natural selection is the only known counterweight to the tendency of physical systems to lose rather than grow functional organization — the only natural process that pushes populations of organisms uphill (sometimes) into higher degrees of functional order.” and “Entropy makes things fall, but life ingeniously rigs the game so that when they do, they often fall into place.”
  • Peter Atkins: “We, too, are local abatements of chaos driven into being by the generation of disorder elsewhere.”
  • Elizabeth Dunn, on why we feel pressed for time: “They argue that as time becomes worth more and more money, time is seen as scarcer.”
  • Seth Lloyd: “The true symmetry of space is not rotation by 360 degrees but by 720 degrees.”
  • Tim O’Reilly: “Climate change really is a modern version of Pascal’s wager. On one side, the worst outcome is that we’ve built a more robust economy. On the other, the worst outcome really is Hell. In short, we do better if we believe in climate change and act on that belief, even if we turn out to be wrong.”
  • Alvy Ray Smith, on Pixar’s development of animation: “Motion blur was the crucial breakthrough. In effect, motion blur shows your brain the path a movement is taking and also its magnitude.”
  • Albert-Laszlo Barabasi: “North America and Western European cuisine show a strong tendency to combine ingredients that share chemicals… East Asian cuisine thrives by avoiding ingredients that share flavor chemicals.”
  • Lawrence Krauss, on the unification of electricity and magnetism and Maxwell’s equations: “It represents to me all that is best about science: It combined surprising empirical discoveries with a convoluted path to a remarkably simple and elegant mathematical framework, which explained far more than was ever bargained for and in the process produced the technology that powers modern civilization.”
  • Robert Kurzban: “The idea is that when people intervene in systems with a lot of moving parts — especially ecologies and economies — the intervention, because of the complex interrelationships among the system’s parts, will have effects beyond those intended, including many that were unforeseen or unforeseeable.”
  • Samuel Barondes: “personality differences are greatly influenced by chance events.”
  • Stanislas Dehaene: “Our brain makes decisions by accumulating the available statistical evidence and committing to a decision whenever the total exceeds a threshold.”
  • Andy Clark: “Language thus behaves a bit like an organism adapting to an environmental niche. We are that niche.”
  • Nicholas Carr: “The shape of existence is the shape of failure.”

(Ok, my list is a little long… but it serves to illustrate some of the very interesting ideas and concepts that were discussed in this book.)

As I mentioned, the best thing about this book was just being exposed to ideas beyond what I encounter in my daily work. Not all of them are things I can personally use in my work, but they show some of the cutting edge work being done in other fields.

I greatly enjoyed the book and have already downloaded my next one from this group, This Will Change Everything.