Tuesday, January 01, 2008

This and That

If you're still in a pondering mood with the New Year, here are a few things to think about

  • At his website The Edge, pop-science literature agent John Brockman compiles every year answers by scientists and writers to one "big question". This year's question is WHAT HAVE YOU CHANGED YOUR MIND ABOUT? WHY?, and it's very interesting to read through the answers by people with backgrounds ranging from physics over neuroscience to sociology and political science. See at Cosmic Variance for a few selected answers.

  • Evaluating everything in numbers may be a controller's dream, but I am less sure about what to think about Bruce Knuteson's "Quantitative Measure of Experimental Scientific Merit" (arXiv:0712.3572v1). Building on Shannon's information entropy, Knuteson proposes a formula expressing the value of an experimental result by "how surprised you are that the particular result has been obtained", and applies his ansatz to experiments in particle physics over the last 35 years. The Collider Blog and Charm and Co are cautious about this measure of scientific merit - and indeed, it's not very well suited to evaluate the merit of precision experiments which, while maybe not very surprising, are nevertheless essential to solidify the trust we have in our theories.

  • Chanda let us know of the 2008 joint annual meeting of the National Society for Black Physicists (NSBP) and the National Society of Hispanic Physicists (NSHP), in Washington (DC, USA) on February 20-24, 2008. Additional information on the program can be found at the NSBP web site.

  • And, on a personal note, we were just informed that Sabine's post The Marketplace of Ideas made it into the second Science Blogging Anthology "Open Laboratory 2007". Yeah!

A Happy New Year to all of you!


  1. Sabine's post The Marketplace of Ideas made it into the second Science Blogging Anthology "Open Laboratory 2007".

    Bee has a knack for popularized interdisciplinary/science writing in the good sense (remember James Burke - whatever happened to him? He came up with some good stuff like that such as "Connections.")

  2. Hi Bee,

    The articles on the changes of mind truly are both interesting and indeed thought provoking. Two in particular now will have me go into one of my own pondering modes. The first is a quote taken from that of Lee Smolin, who of course is one of Perimeter’s leading and founding researchers. He is referring here to his change of mind as to time being merely an illusion. He sums up his thoughts as follows:

    “It is becoming clear to me that the mystery of the nature of time is connected with other fundamental questions such as the nature of truth in mathematics and whether there must be timeless laws of nature. Rather than being an illusion, time may be the only aspect of our present understanding of nature that is not temporary and emergent.”

    I must admit that I share Smolin’s thoughts in regards to this. That is not that I should be compared as to fully having his depth of understanding on the matter. Einstein himself wrestled with this himself and once when asked if he thought that it could be simply as Smolin first thought said (I have paraphrased). “It all could be an illusion, yet if so it is a stubbornly persistent one.”

    The second one is that of the change of mind of Todd Feinberg (Professor of Psychiatry and Neurology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine in the US). Here is expressing his change of mind as to whether a human being possessed a soul. As taken from the article he previously believed that the notion of a soul was a fanciful religious invention. However, he has had a change of heart in saying:

    “I have come to believe that an individual consciousness represents an entity that is so personal and ontologically unique that it qualifies as something that we might as well call ‘a soul’.”

    Although he has come to this new way of thinking he qualities this in adding that although convinced that the brain and the mind could be regarded as separate, though dependent, entities. He reminds that the soul dies with the body.
    This of course is something that from a scientific and philosophical perspective I have also wrestled with for years. My current line of thinking although not exactly the same as his, runs pretty close.

    The interesting thing for me is that Dr. Feinsberg’s position could be slightly modified by that of Dr. Smolin’s. That modification would be that time if truly one aspects of nature proven not to loose its status as being a true aspect reality and that reality is that of Einstein’s, insisting that time being a dimension, then any one part of this dimension would also have permanence of sorts (as any part of a dimension would have). In this way Dr. Feinsberg’s soul, although not immortal in the usual sense, could be at least permanent in the context in which Dr. Smolin suggests. I know all this is mere conjecture and a conjecture as science considers is nothing until empirically supported. It is however interesting to imagine that this too one day may also be decided.

  3. "a formula expressing the value of an experimental result"

    It is not the scientist's surprise upon discovery! All discovery is insubordinate. Colleagues' subsequent outrage is the telling assay. History dotes on riots.

    "There is a certain quality to quantity," Joseph Vissarionovich Jugashvili.

  4. and deserved.
    it's a good blog, and one must admit great creative effort put in it.
    happy new year,

  5. Uncle: "There is a certain quality to quantity," Joseph Vissarionovich Jugashvili.

    "Everything counts in large amounts." ~ Depeche Mode

  6. Hi Neil,

    Thanks. It is maybe just that I am interested in science and progress, generally, what happens, how it works, where we are and where we go, that applies to natural as well as social sciences. I guess that reflects in what I write about, which is not necessarily my own research field. For that reason it is however also a writing inspired often by interest more than by expert knowledge.

    Hi Phil,

    I have to admit that I haven't had the time to read the contributions to the Edge 2008 question. And since I am somewhat old fashioned, I will probably wait and buy the book.

    Regarding the question of time: to begin with I don't know how one can ask whether time is an 'illusion' without explaining what an illusion is. Which brings us back to the question of what reality is. Also, there are several concepts of 'time' people have in mind when they talk about it. E.g. it seems clear that the existence of 'time' plays a special role, for the simple reason that differential equations care a lot about a sign. So I don't think one can say much about our universe in a 'timeless' way. On the other hand, this concept of time has little or nothing to do with the time that we actually experience, which comes with a whole bunch of other problems that shouldn't be confused like the arrow of time (or several arrow's of time!) and the question of why we have something like a 'now'.



  7. Hi Bee,

    “Regarding the question of time: to begin with I don't know how one can ask whether time is an 'illusion' without explaining what an illusion is.”

    If we take it as I understand Smolin has, he considers that an illusion would be something temporary or emergent in nature. In other words, something that is without permanence or a composite of lesser things or beginnings. That is to say perhaps time in not being such is simply as fundamental of an entity as one can have. Whether that relates to eternal or not I certainly don’t pretend to know and I suspect neither does Smolin (not to presume to underestimate him). That of course is not to suggest that we or the world we perceive around us are illusions, simply that they are temporary and emergent.

    This could also be extended to suggest that time relates to conservation as physics considers it. In that time is something that is neither created or destroyed; as to say it just is. I also seem to sense that as he refers to the nature of truth in mathematics, he is indicating that much of it, as it relates to physics, points also to this truth; as in the example you gave with sign requirement in differential equations. The liberty I admit to have taken is to suggest this entity we call time is fundamentally a dimension, as Einstein suggested (rather insisted). I also admitted that everything that followed is also mere conjecture. My point was simply to suggest that science, as it seems to be progressing, could approach the day that it might actually decide such a matter. That I find both encouraging and inspiring.

    Of course you have the advantage, for you can ask Smolin himself as to what he meant. I would be most interested to know what that was.



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