Sunday, September 04, 2011

From my notepad

The 2011 FQXi conference was an interesting mix of people. The contributions from the life sciences admittedly caught my attention much more than those of the physicists. Thing is, I’ve heard Julian Barbour’s and Fotini Markopoulou’s talk before, I’ve seen Anthony Aguirre’s piano reassemble from dust before, and while I hadn’t heard Max Tegmark’s and George Ellis’ talk before I’ve read the respective papers. The discussions on physics conferences also seem to have a fairly short recursion time and it’s always the same arguments bouncing back and forth. One thing I learned from David Eagleman’s talk is that neuronal response decreases upon repetitive stimuli – so now I have a good excuse for my limited attention span in recursive discussions ;-)

All the talks on the conference were recorded and they should be on YouTube sooner or later. Stefan also just told me that the talks from the 2009 FQXi conference are on YouTube now. (My talk is here. Beware, despite the title, I didn’t actually speak on Pheno QG. Also, I can’t for the hell of it recall what that thing is I’m wearing.) Anyways, here is what I found on my notepad upon return, so you can decide what recording you might want to watch:

  • Mike Russell gave a very interesting talk on the origin of life or at least its molecular ancestors. He explained the conditions on our home planet 2 billion years ago and the chemical reactions he believes must have taken place back then. He claims that under these circumstances, it was almost certain that life would originate. With that he means a molecule very similar to ADP, the most important cellular energy source, is very easy to form under certain conditions that he claims were present in the environment. From there on, he says, it’s only a small step to protein synthesis, RNA and DNA and they are trying to “re-create” life in the lab.

    Chemical reactions flew by a little too fast on Russell’s slides, and it’s totally not my field, so I have no clue if what Russell says is plausible. Especially I don’t know how sure we really can be the environment was as he envisions. In any case, I took away the message that the molecular origins of life might not be difficult to create in the right environment. Somewhat disturbingly, in the question session he said he has trouble getting his work funded.

  • Kathleen McDermott, a psychologist from Washington University, reports the results of several studies in which they were trying to find out which brain regions are involved in recalling memory and imagining the future. Interestingly enough, in all brain regions they looked at, they found no difference in activity in between people recalling an event in the past and envisioning one in the future.

  • David Eagleman gave a very engaging talk about how our brains slice time and process information without confusing causality. The difficulty is that the time which different sensory inputs needs to reach your brain differs by the type and location of input, and also the time needed for processing that might differ from one part of the brain to the next. I learned for example that the processing of auditory information is faster than that of visual information. So what your brain does to sort out the mess is that it waits till all information has arrived, then presents you with the result and calls it “right now,” just that at this point it might be something like 100ms in the past actually.

    Even more interesting is that your brain, well trained by evolution, goes to lengths to correct for mismatches. Eagleman told us for example that in the early days of TV broadcast, producers were worried that they wouldn’t be able to send audio and video sufficiently synchronized. Yet it turned out, that up to 20ms or so your brain erases a mismatch between audio and video. If it gets larger, all of a sudden you’ll notice it.

    Eagleman told us about several experiments they’ve made, but this one I found the most interesting: They let people push a button that would turn on a light. Then they delayed the light signal by some small amount of time 50ms or so past pushing the button (I might recall the numbers wrong, but the order of magnitude should be okay). People don’t notice any delay because, so the explanation, the brain levels it out. Now they insert one signal that comes without delay. What happens? People think the light went on before they even pushed the button and, since the causality doesn’t make sense, claim it wasn’t them! (Can you write an app for that?) Eagleman says that the brains ability to maintain temporal order, or failure to do so, might be a possible root of schizophrenia (roughly: you talk to yourself but get the time order wrong, so you believe somebody else is talking) and they’re doing some studies on that.

  • From Simon Saunders talk I took away the following quotation from a poem by Henry Austin Dobson on “The Paradox of Time:”

      “Time goes, you say? Ah no!
      Alas, Time stays, we go;
      Or else, were this not so,
      What need to chain the hours,
      For Youth were always ours?
      Time goes, you say?- ah no”

  • Malcom MacIver, who blogs at Discover, studies electric fish. If that makes you yawn, you should listen to his talk, because it is quite amazing how the electric fish have optimized their energy needs. MacIver also puts forward the thesis that the development of consciousness is tied to life getting out of water simply because in air one can see farther and thus arises the need for ahead planning. In a courageous extrapolation of that, he claims that our problem as a species on this planet is that we can’t “see” the problems in other parts of the world (e.g. starving children) and thus fail to properly react to them. I think that’s an oversimplification and I’m not even sure that is the main part of the problem, but it’s certainly an interesting thesis to think about. He has a 3 part series on posts about this here: Part I, Part II, Part III.

  • Henry Roediger from the Memory Lab at Washington University explained us, disturbingly enough, that there is in general no correlation between the accuracy of a memory and the confidence in it. For example, shown a list of 16 words with a similar theme (bed, tired, alarm clock, etc) 60% of people (or so, again: I might mess up the numbers) will “recall” the word “sleep” with high confidence though it was not on the list. A true scientist, he is trying to figure out under which circumstances there is a good correlation and what this means for the legal process.

  • Alex Holcombe told us about his project, a tool to collect and rate pro and con arguments on a hypothesis. I think this can be very useful, though more so in fields where there actually is some evidence to rate on.

Scott Aaronson's talk on free will deserves a special mentioning, but I found it impossible to summarize. I recommend you just watch the video when it comes out.


  1. Aw thanks Bee for the note will be interesting to go through the links you have provided. :)


  2. Bee,
    More or less on topic with regard to the subject of time, I notice that in your post’s first two paragraphs you manage to use the following words:


    It happens that I woke up this morning thinking about the “re” words, and before reading your post, had just checked various sources on the etymology of the “re-“ prefix. Apparently the trail fades out with the Latin prefix meaning "again, back to the original place."
    I am curious about the physics of “re”. It seems like it must be an emergent phenomenon/property, to have necessarily had some precursive condition. Also, it seems that the capacity for “re” must be an essential ingredient for any universe in which life might arise.
    So, small question, what elemental (topology?) is necessary for “re” to occur?
    Second question, can the first question be refined into a well formed question?

  3. Hi Don,

    Yes, for all I know the prefix "re" is Latin for again (pre, post, trans, inter, etc are all Latin prefixes that are generally useful to know). I don't know though how much relevance one should assign to the colloquial use of "again" since it's never really a true repetition, it's more a repetition in pattern or in certain aspects. See, if Obama gets elected again, you could call it a reelection, but it certainly won't actually be the same election again. Now the Poincare REcurrence time is the time of an actual perfect repetition, just that in reality it'll fapp never happen. Not sure this answers your question. Best,


  4. Hi Bee,

    Thanks for the quick rundown and your initial thoughts regarding the conference. Thanks also for all the references you supplied. And yet with all the different spins that would have been given the matter I find as you that the ones related to our cognitive perception of time to be the most interesting. I was disappointed not to discover your name on the list of presenters and yet when would you have found the time with all you’ve had going on in your life in the last little while. The conference being held on board ship for the first few days for me being the most intriguing and yet perhaps that’s because I don’t get sea sick, as well as having a little salt in my veins.

    “A thing, then, will be affected by time, just as we become accustomed to say that time wastes things away, and all things grow old through time, and that there is oblivion owing to the lapse of time, but we do not say the same of getting to know or of becoming young or fair. For time is by its nature the cause rather of decay, since it is the number of change, and change removes what is. ”

    -Aristotle, "Physics", Book IV, Chapter 12 (350 B.C.)



  5. Thanks Bee,
    If this were baseball, you could play shortstop, perhaps a recurrent “Pee Wee” Reese, similar in agility with a bouncing ball, accurate in your throws to first base, kindred in civility, simply not in quite the same physical package.

    Unfortunately, in my screenplay (starring Harrison Ford, coming soon to a theatre near you) I find a need for greater mystery, to have some ancient, hidden secret lurking just beneath the surface.
    How is it that, in a universe so profoundly driven outward, return of any sort should have its first instance? What is the alchemy return, even if it’s simply to the neighborhood?
    You can consider this question a high fly ball, out of bounds, shortstop takes a breather.

  6. Penrose saids,

    I think that Fig. 34.1 best expresses my position on this question, where each of three worlds, Platonic-mathematical, physical and mental-has it’s own kind of reality, and where each is (deeply and mysteriously) found in one that precedes it ( the worlds take cyclicly). I like to think that, in a sense the Platonic world may be the most primitive of the three, since mathematics is a kind of necessity, virtually conjuring its very existence through logic alone. Be that as it may, there is a further mystery, or paradox, of the cyclic aspect of these worlds , where each seems to be able to encompass the succeeding one in its entirety, while itself seeming to depend only upon a small part of its predecessor.”(Page 1028-The Road to Reality- Roger Penrose- Borzoi Book, Alfred A. Knoff- 2004)

  7. "I took away the message that the molecular origins of life might not be difficult to create in the right environment." Original proposals were abiogenic default (near-) surface chemistries given energy and small molecules (water, ammonia, methane, sulfur and phosphorus species; hydrogen cyanide... then showtime!), plus surfaces to get slimed with concentrates, patience, then the inevitable. Once life gets started it is profoundly creative.

    Surface chemistries (the stockroom) do better if further diddled near deep ocean vents (hot smokers) for high temps without charring, concentrated high surface area catalytic transition metal compounds, clays, and lots of dissolved sulfur. Light atom redox metabolisms came later. The first metabolic engines now look like sulfur- and metal-based electron flows, clunkers formally thought to be exotic given the eventual race car result.

    Mike Russell is poorly funded because he is doing something. All his experiments risk empirical failure. No manager grant funds risk. Mathematics need only be self-consistent. Theory is guaranteed to appear on paper, zero risk. Grant fund the plans but not the walk, lest the traveler step in something unpleasant.

  8. Hi Bee,

    You wrote:
    "One thing I learned from David Eagleman’s talk is that neuronal response decreases upon repetitive stimuli ...."

    Such as repetitive television watching, of the same shows year after year?

    Well, that would explain much, both in my country ... and in my household.

    Idiocracy <=== much more than a comedic film starring Luke Wilson, it may actually come to pass, sheesh.

    Uncle Al hits it out of the ballpark, yet again with the following line (and thanks Al for the thought that oceanic vents may have been where life began. I hadn't considered that, cool):

    Al writes:
    Mike Russell is poorly funded because he is doing something. All his experiments risk empirical failure. No manager grants funds risk. Mathematics need only be self-consistent. Theory is guaranteed to appear on paper, zero risk.

    "Same as it ever was." ... Devo

  9. "Oh, lion hunter
    in the jungle dark,
    and sleeping drunkard
    in Central Park,
    and a Chinese dentist
    and a British queen
    all fit together
    in the same machine,
    Nice, nice,
    Such very different
    people in the same

    Bokonon's 53rd Calypso, Cat's Cradle, 1963, Kurt Vonnegut, Holt, Rinehart and Winston

    Would you say it’s all in one device, Penrose’s three worlds included?

    Surely ideation, that of Plato’s and Penrose’s both, arises from the same worldly substrate as that of the slime mold.

    Even mathematics pure cannot escape a subtle physics of its own, must have some moonlight current moving through its prism, has its own electric moments.
    Cognitive reflection is emblematic of larger nature’s general capacity to turn one part back upon another.

    I know they have worked out in great detail the physics of the universe’s first moments. Somewhere within that tumult we would find the first instance, the germinal seed of turning back (a backreaction?). There is something to be revealed in really understanding that early fold in nature’s grand origami. At least that’s the idea, in so far as words can make it so. Regards.

  10. Cosmic Re-birthing is interesting too. Comment section important too.

    Time becomes some what of an issue here in context of how we see the past/future within the context of the "universe becoming in any now?" You see the full scope now? You have to look for evidence. Where, does this become so?


  11. So, when did time begin? Science does not have a conclusive answer yet, but at least two potentially testable theories plausibly hold that the universe--and therefore time--existed well before the big bang. If either scenario is right, the cosmos has always been in existence and, even if it recollapses one day, will never end. The Myth of the Beginning of Time

    One may find it difficult to associate to a world where we are constantly turning our world inside/out by our interaction with it, but that's a necessary part of being in order to arrive at any self evidential moments of realization? Truth for some that is lead too by reasoning?

    If conceived as a series of ever-wider experiential contexts, nested one within the other like a set of Chinese boxes, consciousness can be thought of as wrapping back around on itself in such a way that the outermost 'context' is indistinguishable from the innermost 'content' - a structure for which we coined the term 'liminocentric'.A Conversation with Physicist Brian Greene

    Call it "Liminocentricity" with a touch of topological seasoning?

    "[Geometry is] . . . persued for the sake of the knowledge of what eternally exists, and not of what comes for a moment into existence, and then perishes, ...[it] must draw the soul towards truth and give the finishing touch to the philosophic spirit."

  12. Hi Plato,

    Thanks for the baseball piece as I truly enjoyed it; so much in fact I saved it to my favourites. It has me wondering if baseball and golf can truly be equated with one another, as it would be like attempting to translate Fulani into English. That is can a home run be called the same as a hole in one, as the former having the ball many places to land while with the later it is severely restricted. That would be like attempting to compare something where randomness has less effect on success with something where it would be the best way it could be explained; or then again maybe not;-)



  13. I mean sure one hold's the bat, or how one holds the club, the speed at which the ball is thrown, wind variables and how it may affect the golf ball on the long shot?

    You see the parameters of thinking once circumventing to a example of metaphorical relations. You must know I had your Golf article in mind.:)How to get to the beach.

    Also, it is linguistically related to the subject at hand, the context with which we see the universe, how it is parametrized to a cosmological description yet the full scope is seen in relation to time. I don't think may people had made that connection as to what is equally real as to a method of describing time in relation to the universe?

    While it appears "as mystical" as appearing outside of time, it is a real attempt to understand the reality with which we a live.

    Take baseball then, or golf, and add another set of rules as characterizing time and let's say, it's not defined by a singularity but is open to the past as well as the future in our now. I am looking for the physical relation in real time, and as an experimental correspondence.

    Think about back-reaction for a minute. In the collision process where is this seen? If I direct you to forward looking examples of faster than light components through the mediums of earth Ice and water, then what has been said of any collision process? You see?

    Muon detection methods used to helps us to identify?


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