The Grand Design by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow

These are questions as old as humanity itself: why are we here?  where did everything come from? what does it all mean?

Humanity has tried to answer these questions in a multitude of ways.  It is, in my opinion, the reason religion started, as one way to answer these questions.  One way, with a nearly never-ending variety of answers.  Philosophers had been the standard bearers of more systematic approaches to understanding and answering these questions, but also with a vast variety of results.  Relatively recently, science has also weighed in.  As science evolves, the insights into these fundamental questions also change, from the clock-work determinism of Newtonian mechanics to the relativistic view of Einstein’s universe to the inherent randomness associated with the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics.

The Grand Design, by Stephen Hawking and Leonard Mlodinow, is the latest attempt to use modern physics to try to answer some of these questions.  Regardless of what you might think about the authors or their basic premise, the book is both very easy reading and gives some interesting perspective into what modern physics “means”.  I put means in quotes because there are two very different camps about finding meaning in modern physics and, in particular, quantum mechanics and its brethren quantum field theory and quantum chromodynamics.  One view is that the math that underlies these theories is just that, math, and should not be interpreted any more deeply than that.  The words we give different constructs in that math, such as “path” or “particle”, are the consequence of our trying to impose familiar concepts onto physics that are entirely outside our ability to make direct connections to.  The other view is that one can take a more literal interpretation and see where it takes us.  That is the view of Hawking and Mlodinow.

The strangeness of quantum mechanics can be summarized in one simple experiment, the double slit experiment.  As the name implies, the experiment involves a board or paper or some obstacle in which two slits have been cut.  If you imagine throwing particles at it, each particle goes through one or the other slit and the pattern that appears on the detector on the other side consists of two groups where the particles hit the detector.  Imagine throwing tomatoes at the slits.  On the other side, you’d get two stains corresponding to the two slits.  However, when you throw quantum particles at the slits, you get a much more complex pattern, an interference pattern, a pattern that is associated not with particles but with waves.  If a wave passes through the two slits, such as a wave in water, it will go through both at the same time, interfere with itself, and create an interference pattern that consists not of two groups of “stains” on the detector, but many at a given interval.  The amazing thing about quantum mechanics is that you get this interference pattern even if you throw one particle at a time.  What is the particle interfering with?  Itself.

One way to formulate quantum mechanics, developed by Richard Feynman, is that the particle, an electron perhaps, takes all paths from where it starts to where it ends.  That is, you have to integrate over all possible paths.  This is the mathematical construction and is where Hawking and Mlodinow take the next step.  They interpret Feynman’s “path integral” formulation of quantum mechanics as saying that the electron did take all possible paths.  However, in any given universe, clearly it only took one, so there are other universes where the electron took a different path.  This is the so-called Many Worlds Interpretation of quantum mechanics.  In the Copenhagen interpretation, the electron only did one thing, but that thing was random.  In the Many Worlds interpretation, the electron did all things, but in different universes.  Further, Hawking and Mlodinow take the additional step in saying that Feynman’s path integral formulation says that the electron we see could have had one of many histories, so that history is also an indefinite thing.

I have to say that I don’t understand everything they are claiming.  I’ve had a few courses in quantum mechanics, but they were certainly more focused on calculating things than interpretation.  So, here, as in a few other spots, I don’t follow everything they say.

But, if you then apply this interpretation to the universe as a whole, you end up with the conclusion that there are an infinite number of universes and each has its own physics in the sense that the basic physical constants of each universe are a bit different.  We happen to be in one that has the right constants for life to exist.  This is a variant of the weak anthropic principle, which says that the world we live on is one of billions that just happened to have the right conditions.  That there are such planets is not surprising, given the shear number of them.  Applied to the whole universe, this is harder to suggest.  If there is only one universe, it had to be just right, but there were no other random choices, so its a much tighter constraint, called the strong anthropic principle.  However, if you have an infinite number of universes, each with its own constants, then we again are just in the one that of course supports life.  The others don’t.  The strong anthropic principle again becomes weak.

They make further claims, such that at the beginning of the universe, time as a concept breaks down (in the four-dimensional space-time of relativity, time becomes more space like in those first few moments) and there is no beginning.  They suggest it is the same as asking what is south of the South Pole.  Well, nothing, the question is meaningless.  To them, what occurred before the universe was created is the same meaningless question.  This line of reasoning also suggests to them that there is no need to invoke a God as creator of the universe.  The universe comes about naturally as a consequence of the laws of physics.

I don’t feel like I’m giving the book nor Hawking and Mlodinow’s ideas justice.  The book is certainly very interesting with a lot of deep concepts that will take a few readings to absorb more fully.  However, the ideas are presented in a rather logical and straightforward way that I found compelling.  I thought they did a good job of presenting their reasoning.  Along the way, I also learned quite a bit about modern physics that I hadn’t appreciated.

The only complaint I have is that the book is sprinkled with “jokes”, phrases that are meant to be amusing or to connect with the lay reader, but to me they were just jarring and out of place.  I think the book would read much better without those phrases.

Overall, while the book has generated its share of controversy, I would recommend it to anyone interested in these big questions.  You may not agree with them (some reactions, positive and negative, are here), but it will give you a different perspective on what these questions mean and one view towards understanding the universe around us.

Mosquito Doctors and Warriors

There was a story on NPR last week (see this link) about how a scientist at the University of Maryland, Raymond St. Leger, has found a way to essentially infect mosquitos with a fungus that kills the malaria parasite within the mosquitos without killing the mosquito itself (at least not very quickly).  This last point is important, as, since the death is slow, the mosquito won’t adapt to the fungus so quickly, evolving to fight it.  By infecting the mosquitos thus, the malaria parasite is killed and the mosquitos don’t fight back.

It got me thinking (as I’m sure it has people who work for the government) that maybe using this kind of technology, one could do other things with mosquitos.  Two things jump to mind…

First, the good: why not infect the mosquito with a fungus that, instead of or in addition to killing the malaria parasite, also injects it with some kind of medicine, maybe a vaccine to say measles or antibiotics to help against maybe a cholera outbreak that occurs during some natural disaster.  The mosquitos would be released into the population, acting as mini flying syringes, and inoculate or administer drugs to the populace.  Large portions of the populace could be treated easily and quickly, without the need for doctors to visit each individual person.  And the mosquitos could likely access more remote areas that would be hard for doctors to reach. Of course, one could easily imagine abuses, which leads to second point…

If the mosquitos could be infected with a fungus that conveys some benefit, they could also be used in more nefarious ways.  They could transmit a disease itself, something that could be used to knock out a chunk of a population or army during wartime.  In the very least, if they transmitted the flu, it would weaken an army such that opposing forces might be more likely to be victorious in battle.  And, possibly, the disease would be so severe as to just directly kill the opponent.

As with most things, it isn’t the technology itself that is good or bad, but the uses of it.  It seems to me that “mosquito doctors” have a lot of potential beyond just eradicating malaria, but “mosquito warriors” could devastate not only the opposing army, but whole populations.

Glimpsing into the Future?

I saw this blog posting on NPR about some recent experiments by Dr. Daryl Bem of Cornell that are so very weird and interesting that I just had to share.  The blog, by Robert Krulwich, delves into a recent paper by Dr. Bem in which he describes 9 experiments meant to probe extrasensory perception — ESP.  I haven’t read the paper myself, as it is quite long and I haven’t found the time, but if Krulwich’s understanding of the results is correct, it is fascinating stuff.

Krulwich describes two of Bem’s experiments in detail.  In the first, Bem had students sit in front of a computer, which showed two curtains on the screen.  Behind one was an image, behind the other nothing.  The computer randomly determined where the image would go.  The students’ job was to pick the curtain hiding the image.  As you might expect, this is a purely random process and, sure enough, in the first variant of the experiment, the students picked the curtain with the image 49.8% of the time, essentially random guessing.  However, when they were told that erotic images might be behind the curtain — porn if you will — they picked the curtain with the image 53.1% of the time.  Not a whole lot more, but statistically different than random.  Somehow, they were able to “see” where the image was without any more information, given the right motivation.

In the second, even more intriguing experiment (to me), Bem had the students again sit at a computer.  They were shown 64 words, one at a time for 3 seconds each, and asked to visualize the word for those 3 seconds.  So, if the word was tree, the students were supposed to visualize a tree.  After they went through all the words, they were given a quiz on what words they were shown — a memory quiz.  All fine so far.  After the quiz, they were shown 24 of the words, chosen at random, and again asked to visualize them.  That was the end of the experiment.  However, what Bem found is that the students did much better with those 24 words on the quiz than any other random selection of 24 words, even though they only saw those 24 words after the quiz.  That is, studying those words after the quiz somehow helped them during the quiz.  Studying after the fact improved their test score.

Bem is interpreting this as some kind of seeing into the future, or that time is fluid or porous.  And already it seems one paper has not been able to reproduce the results of one of his experiments (not either of these two described here).  And I would say it is way too early to speculate about what these results mean about the nature of time and seeing the future.  But, I have to say, these results are very strange, completely counter to anything we might have expected, and certainly very intriguing.  It certainly begs more study, and I’m sure an army of scientists are trying to reproduce Bem’s results as you read this.  I for one will definitely be following this story to see where this all leads.

Blasphemy 2010 Champion of NFL-Idaho!

…or, What a difference a yard makes!

The 2010 season of the NFL-Idaho Fantasy Football League ended on Dec 28th with the victory of the Vikings over the Eagles in a snow-delayed prime-time matchup.  While ensuring that the Eagles wouldn’t be higher than the 3 seed in the NFC, it also determined our league champion and, for the second time in league history, Blasphemy is champion of the league (the last time being 2005)!  But, boy, how close it was.

Our league uses three categories to determine the champion.  Every week, we are paired off with another team in the league, and battle head-to-head.  One category is head-to-head wins.  We also tally how well we did each week if we faced all of the other teams, or an overall record for the week and thus an overall wins category.  Finally, we have a total points category.

I pretty much had my head-to-head win in the bag by the time of the Vikings-Eagles game, which also assured me second place in the head-to-head wins category, since first was sealed up by Uberman, and the others who might have caught or passed me lost their head-to-head matchup.  I was in essentially a tie for second for total points, though in the end I ended up third, only 3 points behind second place, held by Juggernaut (there was little chance of catching the first place Villains).

Entering this last week of the season, however, I was second in overall wins to Villains, with Juggernaut in an immediate third.  Villains had a relatively poor showing and dropped a few spots in overall wins.  Juggernaut had a good showing and was ahead of me.  In fact, before the week, he was only one game behind me, and if he finished more than one game ahead, the championship would be his.  As we entered the final game, The 8th Man was sitting right between the Juggernaut and myself, essentially dropping me out of a tie for first place in overall wins and thus costing me the championship.  Juggernaut had gotten so far ahead because Eli Manning had just barely gotten 300 yards — for which we award a bonus — propelling him past me.  Similarly, Brees had done the same for The 8th Man, also pushing him ahead of me.

But, now it was my turn.  My only player in the Vikings-Eagles game was Percy Harvin, who had done very well for me throughout the season, as we treat kick and punt returners well.  But, so far, he wasn’t having a break-out game and hadn’t scored any touchdowns.  Near the end of the game, though, he reached 100 yards receiving — again, a total for which we give a bonus — which pushed me past The 8th Man, just one game behind Juggernaut in overall wins for the week and into a tie for the year, and on to the championship.

This was probably the closest finish we’ve had yet.  And it was, for me anyways, incredibly exciting.  And it all came down to a few yards.  One less yard by Harvin, I lose.  If Brees or Manning had had 2 less yards passing, it wouldn’t have come down to Harvin in the first place.  In some sense, it was entirely random who won, because it was so close.  I was fortunate enough to come out on top this time.  Hopefully that luck continues to next season.

Consumerism and Capitalism

A few months back, hanging out at a friend’s house with some beers, we engaged in one of those BS sessions that were so common in college but so rare these days.  We wandered all over the proverbial map, but a particular interesting and engaging topic was the relationship between capitalism and consumerism.

Those who know me likely realize that I’m pretty liberal and believe we should have more social programs to benefit society as a whole.  I basically feel that if my neighbor is better off, so will I be.  However, I also think that capitalism is overall a good system that encourages innovation and progress and allows people the best chance to better themselves.  Where I have real issues is with consumerism.

I basically think that consumerism — consuming for consuming sake — is bad.  And it seems that our economy is so dependent on this.  Consumer confidence is a key indicator of the state of the economy and our political leaders are always cajoling us to spend more.  The economy will pick up when people buy more, as that will spur manufacturing, and thus hiring.  It seems a vicious circle, with us buying stuff just so we can have jobs.  If we stop buying, the jobs disappear.

This consumerism also leads to companies producing products solely so we have something to buy.  They aren’t always good products and, even when they are, they are developed not because of any need, but just to have some new iteration for us to buy.  If Apple didn’t have a new gee-whiz gadget every few months, what would we buy?  Would they still be profitable?  Would their business model collapse?  What does the new iPhone do that the old one didn’t?  Do I really need it?

It seems no.  It seems like these products are produced almost exclusively so that they have something to sell and we have something to buy.  And that leads to more stuff that just gets obsolete and tossed into the land fill.  It all seems an engine to generate waste.

And this begs the question, are consumerism and capitalism fundamentally connected?  Can capitalism exist without consumers consuming?  If not, what is the basis of the capitalist market?

As might be expected, we didn’t answer this question.  We did think that maybe the paradigm could be shifted slightly if the full cost of a product, including its disposal, were included in its price.  If the cost of disposing of some object were included in the purchase price, rather than in either utility bills from the city or just ignored completely, maybe products would have to be designed that were meant to be durable, to have some lasting power, and thus the market would have to rely on other components rather than just consuming.  But, what those would be, I don’t know.

Blah, blah, blah… I've got the blahs.

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