Saturday, January 03, 2009

This and That

Stefan and I, we are still enjoying Rio, so here are just some things to read I came across recently:

  • The Edge Annual Question 2009: What will change Everything? with answers from all the usual suspects: Carlo Rovelli tries to face that his dreams might not come true and he won't witness any great breakthroughs in theoretical physics at all. Lisa Randall shows to be very down to earth and suggests that further increase in computing power will go along with progress in science. Alexander Vilenkin elaborates on the Doomsday Argument and our responsibility to become a space-colonizing species. (For an explanation why the Doomsday Argument is nonsense read this). Lee Smolin wants to liberate time and rethink the meaning of truth and reality - and amazingly enough manages to connect this line of thought to neoclassical economic theory. Max Tegmark fears an accidental nuclear war, Lawrence Krauss a deliberate one, and Garrett Lisi takes once again the meta-stance and suggests Changes in the Changers.


  • The Globe and Mail collects the most absurd stories from the world of work 2008. Highlights: A Chicago public school teacher was pulled from the classroom after she taped a nine-year-old special education student to his chair because he wouldn't sit down. -- An Italian priest organized an online beauty contest for nuns in an effort to dispel the perception that they were all old, sad and dowdy. His bishop nixed the project.-- Two German police officers were mistaken for male strippers when they investigated a complaint about a noisy party. They were mobbed by drunken women urging them to rip their clothes off. -- The head of a German telesales company fired three non-smokers and announced he would hire only smokers in the future. Non-smokers, he said, are grumblers who don't socialize with their co-workers.


  • Seed Magazine has an excellent article "The Scientist in 2008" by Steven Shapin: "Who are the scientists of today? Where do they work? What motivates them? As science increasingly shapes our cultural moment, the identity of its practitioners is also evolving." It is a highly recommendable read though I wish he would have drawn some conclusions from his argumentation. A sample: "The increasing alignment of science with commercial institutions carries a risk: the loss in the public mind of the idea of an independent scientific voice — not truth speaking to power but power shaping what counts as truth. [...] We're still a long way from the general "corruption" of science —  witness the moral outrage attending stories about commercial or political incursions into science. But if it came to pass that these associations count as normal, then the scientific voice would no longer sound independent. The material utility of science that is a substantial basis for its success would then undermine itself. To be a modern scientist is to be an employee, but the job must have a degree of autonomy or scientists will be of no use — to the institutions that engage their services or to the public."


  • Spiegel Online has a very interesting article about France's plans to build the first nuclear fusion power plant. They also report: "A few weeks ago in Garching, physicists discovered another way to improve the fusion process. The discovery is so recent that the results have not been published. Using the ASDEX Upgrade reactor they found that adding nitrogen produces a sensational effect. Instead of being cooled off by contact with this impurity, the plasma grows hotter. "Just how this unexpected phenomenon comes about is something we don't really understand yet," Hasinger admitted. "Surprisingly, the addition of nitrogen seems to insulate the plasma better." The nitrogen enigma suggests how many unanswered questions remain."

And our comment feed still doesn't work, sorry.

32 comments:

Michael Schmitt said...

Thanks for posting this list of interesting articles. The SEED article makes many thought-provoking points. Universities are trying to grapple with the evolution of scientific enterprise (in both senses of research and business), and it is not always clear how to chart a successful path into the future. Different departments are developing differently, and interdisciplinary research forces new thinking about promoting traditional areas of research (such as my field, particle physics). Shapin's observations make it easier to recognize the outlines of what may be coming in the next decade or two.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

Lots to read with the Edge articles being something I already was looking through. What I’ve found this year that’s somewhat intriguing (that didn’t appear in Edge) is Lisa Randall is writing a Opera she’s called "Hypermusic Prologue”. In the interview she gave The Boston Globe she says the following about it:

“"It's kind of mathematical, it is geometrical, and it is looking towards the future," Randall, 46, says of the title.”

So Bee perhaps your previous piece about Snow’s “Two Cultures” on how the sciences and arts need to cross fertilize is beginning to come to pass. With the talents you’ve displayed perhaps you should consider expanding that CV of yours as Ms. Randall appears to be widening the door with this one.

Also, I’ve read the piece on what Smolin has said about time which I find more the a bit confusing where he states that to accept time as something eternal and non emergent (as he believes) leaves everything else as emergent or transient, including mathematics. I have to wonder how he arrives at such an opinion and perhaps he should write a book on the topic to offer explanation for he certainly has things turned around from what I would have imagined.

Best,

Phil

Giotis said...

Well, I think the pessimism of Rovelli is justified. In his last paper "Status of Superstring and M-Theory" Schwarz said:

"Many challenges remain, and it will undoubtedly require many decades to answer some of the deepest questions."

I will repeat it again in case someone didn't get it: "it will undoubtedly require many decades".

It could be 10, 15, 20. Who knows. So forget it Bee, we will not see any real progress in our life time.

PS. I don't know about the others but for me it's difficult to follow the blog without the "recent comments" sector.

Gordon Pasha said...

Hi

I find the Der Spiegel article quite misleading. It talks about "nuclear fusion power plant" but in reality it is just an experimental facility, it will not provide power to anyone.

Buried in the article is that "commercial-scale fusion power plants won't be ready until after 2050", which really means no one has a clue when (or if) it will be available.

Regards
Gordon

Plato said...

Just shooting in the dark here Bee/Stefan.

Redo your feed for the blog and then re paste it in the scripting. Also, try doing it behind Firefox, as your browser. Also, use a "good" security system.:)

As much as the snow can lead to cabin fever, there is "still a beauty that matches the beaches" in my opinion:)

Best,

Daniel de França MTd2 said...

Hi Bee,

you are in my city! Wow! If I could personaly meet you to talk about physics, that would be nice :)

Did you like the fireworks?

Daniel.

Bee said...

Hi Daniel:

We are not presently in Rio as I am not a big fan of big cities (though Stefan is). We are presently somewhere between Rio and Sao Paolo. We will be back in a couple of days, but not sure about the timing. If you want to meet, send me an email: sabine at perimeterinstitute dot ca. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Michael:

Yes, I agree on this. The need to update our academic system is a recurring issue in my writing, see e.g. this and this writing. Thus, I am very grateful for everybody who communicates the necessity which seems to me plain obvious. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Yes, I heard about that. Not sure quite what to think. I am peripherally following what Lisa Randall is doing, which is interesting in some regard but it doesn't resonate much with me. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Gordon,

Well, I found the article was pretty clear in that regard. The goal is to produce net energy, but it's not meant to be for public use. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Giotis:

So forget it Bee, we will not see any real progress in our life time.

If you are following this blog you know that in my opinion the organization of the academic system itself hinders progress. If we could manage to improve the situation I am sure progress would follow within one decade. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi Plato, Giotis:

It is a bug with blogger, check the link I have in the post. The comment feed apparently crashes down with the 5000th comment and then gets stuck Aug or Oct 2007. This doesn't only affect this blog, and it's got nothing to do neither with the script I'm using nor with its embedding as you can find out if you check the feed directly. Bottomline is, there is nothing we can do except wait. I find it hard to understand what can be so complicated about fixing this problem that it takes more than two weeks. Best,

B.

Uncle Al said...

D + T --> He-4 + n(14.1 MeV)
N-14(n,p)C-14 resonance is at 11.30 MeV.

Nitrogen in a D-T fusion reactor? Yeah, that's a clever thing to do. NOT.

bellamy said...

"The view that time is real and truth is situated within the moment further implies that there is no timeless arbiter of meaning, and no transcendent or absolute source of values or ethics. Meaning, values and ethics are all things that we humans project into the world. Without us, they don’t exist.

This means that we have tremendous responsibilities."


Jesus. Smolin makes a decent leap - he ain't gone all the way, mind, but it's not bad - and then he falls off the horse. OOPS.

If morality is abitrary - and I've said so before...come on Lee, come sit with me - then there is no such thing as responsibility. There's only function and context. There's a little more after this, but I'll leave that for those who are curious.

I'll tell ya, though. I ain't been impressed with these EDGE folk. Edge, indeed.

Bee said...

Hi Bellamy:

Notwithstanding the question what this all has to do with physics (Lee might have taken the evolution of 'laws' a bit too literal) I actually agree with him that meaning, values and ethics - you can add to this morals if you like - are not absolute but change with times. Coincidentally, I just finished reading Dawkins' "God Delusion" and Dawkins pretty much takes the same point of view: there are no absolute morals, and they change over time. (Dawkins btw seems to like Lee's first book, it makes an appearance in his argumentation.) That morals change with times however does not mean - as you put it - that they are "arbitrary". But it means that taking the morals offered in thousand year old scripts might no longer be suitable today. Best,

B.

Rae Ann said...

I don't know. Some morals should be absolute, like the value of individual lives and freedom of choice over one's own life and so on... I mean, how much can we really alter the meanings of time, life, truth, and "reality"? Sure, there are sociological and historical variations and trends of laws and behaviors, but at the heart of it all there is still that immovable and irresistable black hole that we cannot change, no matter how much we think we know.

You know, most of you scientists pretty much preach that death is absolute and that there cannot be any "afterlife" of our consciousness, so why in the world would any of you try to argue that there are no other absolutes (other than death)?

My apologies if this is harsh, but the hubris of mankind is astounding and has been absolute since the beginning of our existence.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Bee said: “Coincidentally, I just finished reading Dawkins' "God Delusion" and Dawkins pretty much takes the same point of view: there are no absolute morals, and they change over time. (Dawkins btw seems to like Lee's first book, it makes an appearance in his argumentation.)”

Aha, so it's a whole conspiracy of immoral characters in science! :) Making certain dominating practices much less surprising... But how such a good, positively oriented girl could fall under the influence of that terrible company?! All women are immoral?! :) Sorry, difficult to be serious in this world.

But more seriously, Bee, you seem to intentionally “cover” and “attenuate” (why?) the truly ultimate, very clearly expressed subjectivity (rather than simply “relativity”!) of Smolin's attitude. His very special combination of ultimate relativity and personal responsibility gives ultimate subjectivity, which is e.g. a perfect basis for any authoritarian rule (“as everything totally depends on me/us, without any objective law/tendency existing in principle...”). I've heard it directly, many times from various real totalitarian leaders, it's a universal basis for their mental illness. And now it seems that it's also a fundamental basis for science and whole society governance, expressed by our most advanced intellectual leaders... Interesting indeed... And Canada is the friendliest country, really! :)

And to make things absolutely clear, Smolin continues about scientific truth: “The new viewpoint is the direct opposite. It asserts that what is real is only what is real in the moment, which is one of a succession of moments. It is the same for truth: what is true is only what is true in the moment. There are no transcendent, timeless truths.”

He couldn't put it better while characterising the attitude underlying official science disaster today. In particular, those “fruitful” games between string theory and quantum gravity come to mind, as a good example of thus realised “truth of the moment” (where every opponent still believes absolutely in his own “relative” truth of the moment!). However, those poor under-developed taxpayers still seem to believe that by investing in science they support at least something exceeding the “fun of the moment”. They could not be farther from truth, which is finally revealed now by one of the leaders of the most advanced fundamental science community: everything is only within and in favour of each particular moment, the next moment everything will change, according to - that's also important - purely subjective, authoritarian action of our great intellectual leaders. Fascinating!

You say, Bee, Smolin doesn't state that the morals - and one may add truth - are “arbitrary”. No, he doesn't, because he states something much stronger, that all of it is totally “manipulated”, depending exclusively on subjective efforts and pressures. Of arbitrary persons, one must add. Déjà vu, en effet.

But if those outdated taxpayers thought that they could ransom their miserable existence at a cheap price, the cost of today's “momentary” science enterprise, they were wrong again, because perspectives of this truly interdisciplinary, “third-culture” attitude are “far broader”, always broader! Economics, for example: “Getting economic theory right has implications for a wide range of policy decisions, and how time is treated is a key issue. An economics that assumes that we cannot predict key innovations must be very different from one that assumes all is knowable at any time.” Isn't it great, the last conclusion? If we can't predict innovations, that's very different from the case where we can. Incredible... Did you know it? Because this is what it's all about, our leading, truly advanced research. Difficult not to agree with bellamy's estimate of Edge level of intelligence... Or maybe it's all but a joke, finally, science and economics including?! Seems so...

Can't forget you saying, Bee, a few comments above: “The need to update our academic system is a recurring issue in my writing, see e.g. this and this writing.” Indeed, you repeat it again, in your “reassuring” answer to pessimistic Giotis conclusion: “If you are following this blog you know that in my opinion the organization of the academic system itself hinders progress. If we could manage to improve the situation I am sure progress would follow within one decade.” Now, because you “actually agree with him” [Smolin] on his basic attitude, should one understand that his attitude to truth and related approach to knowledge system evolution, as very clearly expressed in the cited Edge contribution, is close to your programme of academic system update? Because it's very easy to see the result of Smolin's programme: it's everywhere, already today. Any amendments, in your version? Take it easy, of course, we're just chatting. But comparing your various “smoothing” yes-and-no interventions here with exponentially diverging real tendencies in science and elsewhere, it's difficult to avoid the old truth that it may be difficult to serve all gods... Nice holidays and regards to Christine (or other Brazilian gods if you miss her)!

P.S. Rae Ann said on the topic in the last comment: “I mean, how much can we really alter the meanings of time, life, truth, and "reality"?” After which I have only one question to her: don't you have an idea to found an advanced study institute? :) If you ever do, I apply. Because here is a different programme example. :) Despite everything, the truth always comes from America: “My apologies if this is harsh, but the hubris of mankind is astounding and has been absolute since the beginning of our existence.” (A little harsher, please: some like it hot! :) ) Something tells me that it's sincere. Yes, they can ... some of them at least, after the crisis... :) The only problem: the hubris of mankind is astounding also in its ability to concentrate on top :) .

Bee said...

Hi Andrei:

He couldn't put it better while characterising the attitude underlying official science disaster today. In particular

As usual you are on a slippery slope towards nonsense. Science today is far from a disaster. Its organization is presently not optimal, but there are many more ways to make matters worse instead of better and whatever be done be better done so carefully. I also don't know what your rant has to either with what I said nor with what Lee said about the topic.

But how such a good, positively oriented girl could fall under the influence of that terrible company?! All women are immoral?! :) Sorry, difficult to be serious in this world.

Your attidute is completely off anything I wrote. I did not say there are no morals, I said they change with time. Morals, ethics, values etc all change with the human evolution.

Because it's very easy to see the result of Smolin's programme: it's everywhere, already today. Any amendments, in your version?

The reason that morals and ethics are not absolute is in fact one of the reasons I disagree with Lee. That having been said, it seems to me he disagrees with himself in his attempt (check book or recent talk recordings on the issue) to formulate a set of ethics for science. These can only be temporary, that's why I am not interested in formulating them. What I am interested in is a system that evolves along with change, change in culture and values, change through progress, change in our societies, in our needs and our interests. Any static system or set of rules is destined to fail sooner or later.

Take it easy, of course, we're just chatting. But comparing your various “smoothing” yes-and-no interventions here with exponentially diverging real tendencies in science and elsewhere, it's difficult to avoid the old truth that it may be difficult to serve all gods...

If you think I am not being consistent, please tell me why so, I am not aware of it. I am far from trying to serve all gods, if that is your understanding of my writing you didn't even get the bottomlines for I have repeated an endless amount of times that in the present system working for science can very well mean working against ones own personal interests. It is this tension that bothers me, but it is a problem that can be solved. Best,

B.

Bee said...

Hi RaeAnn:

Some morals should be absolute, like the value of individual lives and freedom of choice over one's own life and so on... I mean, how much can we really alter the meanings of time, life, truth, and "reality"? Sure, there are sociological and historical variations and trends of laws and behaviors, but at the heart of it all there is still that immovable and irresistable black hole that we cannot change, no matter how much we think we know.

You are making that judgement from your own knowledge of human life as it is today. Though I would agree with you that these are good points to value, I find it possible to imagine civilizations in which these would have a very different value than in ours. In fact, this play on values is a fairly common theme in the science fiction literature. Time and life are even differently valued among cultures on earth, and both have also evolved over the centuries. Truth and reality fall into a different domain, for it is already their meaning which is difficult (What is reality? What is truth?). Best,

B.

Arun said...

""The view that time is real and truth is situated within the moment further implies that there is no timeless arbiter of meaning, and no transcendent or absolute source of values or ethics. Meaning, values and ethics are all things that we humans project into the world. Without us, they don’t exist."

--- I wonder why everyone takes this to mean that meaning, value, ethics become arbitrary. They don't. English does not exist without us humans, but English is not arbitrary. (Well, it might seem so to someone who is just learning it :) ).

The value of the individual is an "absolute" for humans, but not for sentient ants, nor for Star Trek's Borg.

Arun said...

Dear Bee,

To save a visit to my blog, here is the text (for links, you'll have to visit). How would you address the point made below?

“Most academics are really reluctant to take part in the public dialog, because the public dialog requires you to have an opinion about things you can’t really be sure about,” says Mr. Rajan. “They fear talking about things where everything is not neatly nailed in a model. They stay away and let the charlatans occupy the high ground.” -- Free market economist Raghuram Rajan; his 2005 paper which said that markets could sometimes get things terribly wrong was pooh-poohed by the leading lights of the profession.

Anonymous said...

Was that supposed to be Alexander Vilenkin (rather than Wilenkin)?

Plato said...

I see anonymous beat me too it.

Best,

Bee said...

Hi Anonymous, Plato:

Thanks, I've fixed the typo.

Best,

B.

Bee said...

Dear Arun,

I would say he is right with his observation that scientists are reluctant to take part in the public dialogue, but the reason he gives is very lopsided. The problem is that careful argumentation, accuracy and precision is in the nature of science. Scientists are reluctant to step away from that because that is their job, and it puts them in the position to either act against their own convictions and to risk their integrity, or to not be listened to at all, which would be a waste of time. If there was more public awareness for the fact that a conclusion is only as good as its assumptions and that acknowledging uncertainty is an important ingredient to scientific knowledge discovery that would improve matters considerably. It would also help, I'd think, if scientists had the option to add some 'fine print', in the sense: I give you here the rough argument, but see below for restrictions which apply. That way they could better cover both sides: scientific accuracy and the need for simplifications. The trend to scientific over-simplifications we are presently seeing I find occasionally very worrisome. Best,

B.

Andrei Kirilyuk said...

Bee said: “What I am interested in is a system that evolves along with change, change in culture and values, change through progress, change in our societies, in our needs and our interests. Any static system or set of rules is destined to fail sooner or later.”

That's it, the “Edge style”, a sequence of banal, “unbeatable” generalities like “all things change” (oh, really?!), “I am for progress” (congratulations and join us other 6 billions!), “any static system fails” (have just discovered it?), etc. What's the real value of such “intellectual” statements by professional “thinkers”? Who's against “progress” in general? Nobody! Then why not to specify what that “progress” and “change” should be now, practically, in fields/issues we are talking about, e.g. organisation, content and practice of science? If you know it, of course, and if you don't, then why repeating universally correct and therefore absolutely useless generalities? I am not talking about any extensive “technical details”, but about major direction, purpose and means - but specified as such - of changes to be done now by us. Just don't say again that we should “work hard” to “increase” and “ameliorate” everything we can for the benefit of humanity! Enough of vain generalities, they lead to further degradation, rather than progress.

“I have repeated an endless amount of times that in the present system working for science can very well mean working against ones own personal interests. It is this tension that bothers me, but it is a problem that can be solved.”

Same case: how can it be solved exactly?! That's all that matters, especially when one knows that the situation hasn't changed for many decades, despite multiple and well-specified measures proposed! But now, after all those vain efforts by our best forces, you know that the problem can be solved (in a new way, obviously!). Well, great, congratulations! But if it's not a question of a blind personal belief or an absolutely secret know-how technology, may we, ordinary scientists, know at least some major lines of the great plan that solves the painful problem directly influencing all our lives and professional activity? Thank you in advance, saviour.

Returning to our discussion about eternal or only temporal ethical norms, the above provides an explicit and elementary counter-example to your (and Smolin's) statements that there can be practically no unchangeable ethical norms: “Thou shalt not give only general, unspecified statements and propositions on practical matters except cases of profession de foi or intentionally kept secrets”. That's eternal because when and where it's not observed, there are big losses (take today's official science operation - but also the whole unitary “democracy” - as “burning” examples). Correct morals are but practically driven and oriented rules, and as long as there are unchangeable practical rules of success (there are many, at least until the sun's last explosion!), there are the correspondingly “unchanged” ethical norms. It's another question that there are also always those who like “easier” (though illusive) ways to (their personal) success violating these real norms and therefore immoral (i.e. practically harmful)... They too like “everything's relative” kind of reference... Let me skip examples this time.

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“The trend to scientific over-simplifications we are presently seeing I find occasionally very worrisome?”

It could be said that when it comes to social science that even some scientists are guilty of this. Take Richard Dawkins for example, where he uses science to promote the view that religion in the world is the root of all its ills and to argue that we would be much better off without it. I find it even more interesting and disturbing that none of his peers have stepped forward to challenge him, not so much on his atheist convictions, yet rather his belief that ethics would serve as being a desired total replacement for religiously inspired morality. It would also be interesting to learn that if Dawkins’ world had already been realized if this would have increased or decreased the likelihood of having an economic crisis as the one we are now in the midst of.

Best,

Phil

Bee said...

Hi Phil,

Interesting you are saying that. Though I find Dawkins book brilliantly written, I am feeling somewhat uneasy with some of the conclusions he draws. Would it be of interest I write a brief review so we can discuss the topic? I wasn't really planning on it, as I am sure there must be a million reviews online already, but it would certainly be an interesting discussion. Best,

B.

Rae Ann said...

Bee, I would love to read your review of The God Delusion, if you find time to do one.

Andrei, I certainly would like to form some kind of center for thinkers. Actually, if I weren't so lazy I might work on having a little scientists' retreat here. The gears are turning...

Phil Warnell said...

Hi Bee,

“Would it be of interest I write a brief review so we can discuss the topic?”

I’ve found it mostly interesting to read a review on just about anything you’ve read, not only this particular book. I must be straight up however and tell you I haven’t read this particular one since Dawkings’ reputation on such matters has been known for some time. I did many years back read his book “The Selfish Gene” which I enjoyed yet even in this early work he had already grabbed the pulpit so to speak. It’s not that I have much difference with him as to what should be reasonably be believed, it’s simply he does it with so much vile and disdain that for me it relates him with those who he is so critical of. None the less I would certainly be interested to learn of your thoughts on the book. However, you do realize it’s bound to draw some out of the woodwork of the likes you haven’t seen comment here since your LHC posts:-)

Best,

Phil

Giotis said...

Personally I don't take seriously the people who mix religion with science. To use religion to explain the physical world is dumb. To use science to undermine religion is dumber. Religion is an inseparable part of human psyche and that's the way is gonna be regardless of any science progress.

Bee said...

Hi Andrei:

Then why not to specify what that “progress” and “change” should be now, practically, in fields/issues we are talking about, e.g. organisation, content and practice of science?

That is what I have written about in many posts at this blog as you know very well, so your "criticism" is completely besides the point and unconstructive in addition. Best,

B.