Saturday, December 16, 2006

Time Trouble

I was looking for some text to go with the cartoon on the left, so I decided to accompany it with an extract from a speculative book I started writing on the Genesis question several years ago entitled "Time Trouble". The extract below does not cover the meaning of Genesis 1, a matter I consider elsewhere. When I refer to “ten-four” creationists I mean those creationists who believe the universe to be no more than 10,000 years old. Here is my extract:

One author who is quite sure he knows exactly what Genesis 1 means is ten-four creationist Stuart Burgess. In his book "He made the Stars also" he writes:

".. the Bible teaches that the stars were created in an instant of time at the verbal command of God (Psalm 33:9). It is an awesome thought that God needed only to speak a word and billions upon billions of stars instantly appeared." (p15)
"... God supernaturally and instantaneously created the stars on the fourth day of creation" (p24)
"When we read of God's supernatural and instantaneous method of creation we must stand in awe of Him." (p34)
"When we consider God speaking the vast Universe of stars into existence, we can do nothing but stand in awe of Him"
(p34) (See also pages 46 & 48)

The role of instantaneity features strongly in this author's understanding of creation. There is, I believe, an ulterior reason for this emphasis, a reason favouring its continued survival. A belief in instantaneous creation effectively posits indivisible creation events making them less amenable to analysis, thus helping to fend off the apparently threatening advances of science by declaring the subject of creation to be off limits and therefore the exclusive domain of a fideist faith, a kind of safe area for irrational religious belief. But the concept of instantaneity is certainly not beyond analytical reflection and its logical and physical status can be probed. Viz: An event of absolute instantaneity would mean that no matter how far we zoom in on and magnify the interval immediately surrounding the event, its duration would always appear the same; that is, precisely zero. An instantaneous event is, to use a technical term, "scale invariant"; that is, under all magnifications it looks exactly the same, and never resolves to show any more detail than just a point on the time line. However, we do not know whether the physical time dimension can be indefinitely magnified in this way; like matter itself time may have a grainy atomic structure beyond which it is meaningless to talk of smaller intervals of time. If this is correct then there will exist a kind of "quantum of time" and apparently instantaneous events will have a duration that will not be less than this value. Moreover, if we take a putative instantaneous event like the transmutation of water into wine (in John 2), it is not at all clear what one would see if this event underwent the tremendous temporal magnifications I have in mind here. In fact this question may even be meaningless; reality may be akin to a kind of highly coherent computer simulation, and Divine manipulations of that reality may be of such an exotic nature as to render the very notion of time redundant for this kind of event. Whether these speculative considerations have any applicability at all is difficult to say, but the point is that instantaneity as a concept raises some highly technical issues. It therefore cannot be portrayed as a precept beyond analytical scrutiny, a kind hallowed altar round which simple rustic faithed Christians can gather away from profane intellectual musings. Another rather technical issue raised by the notion of instantaneous creation is the question of the whether God instantaneously creates physical conditions with bogus histories incorporated into their structure, an issue I will be dealing with in due course.

Our favourite stooge ten-four creationist and straw man, Stuart Burgess, is quite sure he knows the vital property distinguishing "natural" processes from "supernatural" action - it is of course instantaneity. In commenting on Proverbs 8:27-30 where we read about God invoking wisdom as the craftsman of creation Burgess concludes "God did not use evolution because a craftsman carries out instantaneous and deliberate actions whereas evolution involves a long random process" (see "He made the stars also", p31). Here Burgess contrasts the processes of evolution with what he feels are the instantaneous and deliberate acts of the craftsman. Leaving aside the question of Evolution, which we will consider in due course, we cannot but fail to notice that Burgess is wrong as anyone can be about the actions of a craftsman; they are certainly not instantaneous; if they were we might justifiably accuse the craftsmen of being a magician in league with Devil! In fact in some ways the work of the craftsman resembles the inconceivably more sophisticated work in the womb; that is, a stage by stage process moving incrementally closer to an end product as time progresses. These stages proceed against a background of inherent dependencies; e.g. a craftsman can't make a silver candlestick until some silver has been smelted and an embryo can't develop without a union of the appropriate genetic components not to mention the underlying organic chemistry fundamental to all living things. Of course, it is easy to claim that omnipotence could create in one grand slam instantaneous act a fully mature human, but the sequential dependencies I talk of here are conceptually fundamental. A silver candlestick depends on the existence of silver but silver is not obliged to exist in the form of a silver candlestick. Likewise, humans depend on a prerequisite organic chemistry which itself depends on more fundamental conditions such as the construction of atoms. There is a forced logical sequence here that we cannot escape from whether we believe in instantaneous creation or not. If God instantaneously created a mature object that would not detract from the fact that the object itself may have inherent sequences of logical dependencies.

Some concept of sequence, then, may be built into things no matter how they are arrived at. But the sequencing we see in embryo growth and artifact construction is much stronger than this "dependency" sequencing. Both processes pass through a series of stages separated by increments. Each stage is usually a little closer to the final product; although this is not necessarily true in the case of the craftsmen art where sometimes backtracking may occur, not unlike the trials and errors of evolution! But the fundamental aspect of both is the incremental separation between stages. The end product is the result of an accumulation of these incremental changes. The common theme is at least a quasi-continuity of change; you pass from one state to another through a series of intermediate states, thereby forming an incremental sequence of change. I would not, however, want to use the generic term "gradualism" here because some processes like, say, an explosion, is both incremental and yet very rapid. The key notion is one of at least an approximate continuity of change in as much as successive stages are only separated by relatively small displacements.
As I have said before, the religious obsession with a god who speaks into nothingness and makes things instantly appear, ready made, is very suggestive of a god of magic. In fact one thing is clear from Genesis 1: it is certainly not about instantaneous creation! I have to say that Stuart Burgess book, even by ten-four-creationist standards, is a very poor book. In fact at times it was such rubbish that I did wonder if it was a secular spoof that had been launched on an unsuspecting Christian public.

Friday, October 06, 2006

The Contingency Conjecture.

If a man dreamt of a great pile of stones he would dream of such a pile as the Cheesewring”; so writes a Victorian antiquarian of the tor which teeters on a Granite outcrop called Stowe’s hill on Bodmin moor. I took this photo of the tor, which is as tall as a house, whilst holidaying in Cornwall. In the past there has been uncertainty over whether these formations were natural or man made: “.. this wonderful pile of stones .. but whether the work of nature or not I know not”, writes one antiquarian. It seems, however, that this monument is the product of the erosional effects of wind and water after acting many thousands of years on a granite dome that took many thousands of years to cool from a magma plume, which in turn took many thousands of years to well up from the mantel. As another antiquarian writes: “The Cheese-rings were probably constructed by nature herself, in one of her whimsical moments”. In support of this, my inspection of Stowe’s hill revealed several of these bizarre features in various stages of formation: from vertical granite faces with a few horizontally eroded grooves in them, through deep horizontal fissures and completely dissociated boulders, to the precarious piles of rocks, like the one I can be seen standing on in the second picture. However, having said that it is difficult to disprove that these natural features may have not have occasionally been “enhanced” by human intervention – in fact there is a small pile of stones behind the Cheesewring, just visible on my photograph which is a human addition made around 1900 in order to prevent the natural pillar from tumbling. There are small bowl like depressions carved on the top of some of the boulders and these were also at first thought to be artificial enhancements pointing to their use as natural alters for the placing of offerings, but these features too are now believed to be natural pits created by eddying winds carrying abrasive dust.

Whether these tors are natural or not it seems that the ancients did put them to use: a dry stone bank, a work that may date back to the Neolithic period, encloses Stowe’s hill. But with the absence of any historical record, it seems impossible to determine with any certainty just what the prehistoric people who created Stowe’s pound, as the enclosure is now called, were thinking of and just what they did at this location. As is often the case when a rationale for prehistoric human activity is difficult to uncover, archeology refers to Stowe’s pound vaguely as a “ritual enclosure”. All we can do is use our common human connection with these forgotten cultures to make some shrewd guesses about the purpose of what may be the Neolithic equivalent of a cathedral.

What did these early people think of these strange natural piles of rock? A clue may come from the uncertainty expressed by some antiquarians over whether these were natural or man made formations. These antiquarians were working with a background intuition that stones are very unlikely to organize themselves into neat stacks of rock – that requires the intervention of intelligent agency, or so it seems. The apparent artificiality of these strange configurations made these stones stand out from their surroundings. The ancient peoples who venerated this site perhaps also had an intuition that certain organized works are difficult to account for in terms of natural processes thus prompting these people to ascribe these works to some a-priori intelligence. But what kind of intelligence - Human or Divine? Given the ostensibly fantastic form of these rock configurations together with fact that a sense of the Divine is never very far from the preliterate mind, then I would hazard a guess that Neolithic people ascribed these tors to a very direct supernatural intervention. This belief would have heightened their awareness of the Divine in way that singular events, like unusual healings, do in modern Christianity. The Old Testament tells us of the traditional role of high places, like Mount Sinai, as locations for communion with the Supernatural. This historical precedent may give us some insight into just how the Neolithic mind would have regarded the tors of Stowe’s hill; as high places, which came complete with offering bowls and therefore a providential resource for communion with the Supernatural.

I don’t suppose Neolithic culture ever did get to grips with the idea that a vast apron of granite was slowly eroded away until these isolated rock pillars were all that was left. On the contrary, imagination is first likely to envisage the rocks being piled on top of one another by some agency and then left. In fact did the ancients ever conceive the landscape with its variety of formations and different types of rock as anything other than one of natures givens, specially handcrafted by divine agency? The idea here is that things are at first made and then left until kingdom come - a notion that is not far removed from what some six-day creationists suggest actually happened.

The actual nature of Divine creative agency, it seems, is far subtler. We now know that the features we see in the world around us have a form that is inextricably bound up with their history of formation; in fact, form can often be regarded as a kind of trace left by the passing of history. We also now understand that natural processes are quite capable of producing highly organized and complex forms, forms that on the face of it sometimes seems to require the direct intervention of sentient intelligence. Perhaps the most amazing product of natural action is the generation life in the womb. As far as we can yet tell the process of cell division and differentiation whose end result is a complex organism, is governed in its entirety by some incredibly advanced construction algorithm. You might think that randomness is not present in this process, but it is: the mix of molecules building cells, are plucked from solutions of randomly diffusing particles which then lock into their places, not unlike a highly biased form of evolution.

In spite of the marvels achieved through natural processes it is logical truism that we can never find ultimate logical necessity in these processes. If we have learnt anything at all from physics and algorithmics, then it is clear that there will always remain an irreducible giveness about our world. It is not possible to so simplify the logical form of physics until there is no initial content and there will always remain a hard core of givens – in terms of the compression metaphor, it is not possible to so conceptually compress the logical content of physics until its givens are conveniently compressed out of existence. Leibniz alerted us to the concept of sufficient reason, but it is now clear that the cosmos cannot supply its own sufficient reason – at least a finite cosmos cannot.

The contingency conjecture suggests that the cosmos is a work of art, a realized possibility that need not exist, rather than a logical necessity. Artists create works of art not because those works are required by some obliging theorem but because they are possible creations selected from the myriad of all possible creations. Contingent forms lie dormant in a mathematical space of unrealized possibilities until the work of a creator, whether human or other, brings them forth.

Anselm’s ontological argument for the existence of God is, in all likely hood, misconceived, but he may have got one thing right: he instinctively perceived that the Divine substance, unlike our own contingent world which requires creation, needs no creation because it is in some sense self-justifying; that is, some kind of contradiction is entailed if one tries to imagine its non-existence, although a proof of this self referencing affirmation of the Infinite may defy our understanding.

In a rather cloudy intuitive way the ancients who used Stowe’s hill may have also instinctively perceived The Necessity of the Divine Substance and yet at the same time they were all too aware of their own contingency. The fragility of their lives underlined this contingency – they well new that they need not exist, and that no fundamental law was transgressed if their lives and even their cosmos should end. In short they understood that they were in debt to someone or something. Above all, they owed their creation and continued existence to an act of creative grace transcending the natural order. That’s why they needed a sacred space in which to pay homage and creative providence had provided it for them.

Monday, September 11, 2006

Tim Ventura, Anti-Gravity, and The Philadelphia Experiment

Some years time ago, whilst I was working as a programmer, a software engineer who was aware of my physics background approached me and asked if I knew anything about LCR circuits. The outcome of the ensuing conversation was that I promised I would give him some information on the theory of these circuits, and subsequently I provided him with a couple of sheets of equations. He never did tell me just why he wanted this information. I knew him to be accomplished in both hardware and software engineering and I guessed he was engaged on some private hardware project. In time he left the company, but that was not the last I heard of him. Some years later I happened across an engineering magazine containing an article where he was being hailed as an inventor of a new device. The device? - A dimmer switch for fluorescent lighting. That’s a bit like managing to invent a tin of stripped paint. The magazine article claimed that my friend had been told that such a device was against the laws of physics.

Although I don’t think there was really any contravention of the laws of physics here, this engineers attitude is in many ways typical of his class. He now has a consultancy and in his publicity material we read of “ ….our radical and positive attitude. Where others might say ‘it's not possible’, we'll take up the challenge to inquire, improve and innovate.” As a theorist I like to keep an eye on the practical inventers: if anyone is going to test the laws of physics to breaking point it’s the engineers and inventors – their eye is on what they can actually achieve and not what on the laws of physics tells them they can’t do. They tinker around until they get what they want or stumble across something new, and if they manage to achieve this by dispensing with the laws of physics, so be it!

Perpetual motion has long been an interest of engineers and inventors, and the modern version of the perpetual motion aficionado can found amongst the “zero point energy” web sites. The “zero point energy” enthusiasts are not actually striving for perpetual motion as such, for their hope is now grounded in fundamental physics and they are seeking to harvest an inexhaustible supply of free energy by extracting it from the quantum fluctuations of space. These web sites are not for the girls – they don’t present sensitive green schemes that modestly gather energy from nature’s gentler and familiar forces of wind, wave and water, but instead these are very male projects that aim to hunt down and wrench energy from nature by exposing her deepest secrets. It is a masculine story of daring do, a venture into the unknown for treasure, exceeding great treasure. And it’s not all amateurs: Professor Martin Fleishmann of cold fusion fame probably fits into this category.

However, my favourite cutting edge engineer-inventor web sites, for obvious reasons, are the antigravity sites. If there is such a thing as gravitational anomalies that break the mould of current gravitational theory then these men stand a good chance of finding them. Prominent among the antigravity workers is Tim Ventura. Dubbed as “The Linus Torvalds of Antigravity” he is the designer and constructor of the high voltage lifters popular amongst garage based inventors (See leading picture accompanying this post). These ‘lifters’ are reckoned by some to demonstrate an antigravity effect, although it has to be said that the physics of these lifters looks suspiciously like the well-known ion wind effect rather than a true gravitational anomaly

As well as constructing lifters Ventura spends a lot of time researching the background of antigravity, and he mixes with some colourful characters and tells some very colourful stories. One story he reports is so fantastic that it has provided material for film producers. It is a story of intrigue, misunderstood geniuses, secret Nazi projects, heroic refugee scientists, cover-ups, governmental conspiracies, sci-fi technology, flying saucers, you name it. It’s the physics version of The DaVinci Code, an admixture of all the ingredients of block-buster cinema. Does real life ever bring together all this in one convenient concentrate? It does in Tim's stories.

The story starts with that now legendary theoretical genius, Einstein. After developing his space-time curvatur
e theory of gravity Einstein went on to attempt the development of a unified field theory that would incorporate electromagnetism; this much is well known. It is also well known that this had the effect of marginalizing Einstein from the main stream of physics as the new kids on the block went on to develop quantum theory, a theory toward which Einstein expressed diffidence. Hence, the picture of Einstein in his latter years is that of solitary genius working by himself into old age on a now forgotten project, a project that many today would regard as the work of a has been. It is at this point that Ventura’s less substantiated narrative takes over. Taking up the testimony of some of his mysterious contacts Ventura hints that Einstein’s efforts to create a unified field theory were at least partly successful and when he escaped Nazi Germany and fled to America Einstein left a colleague in Germany who handed over the details of this theory to the Third Reich. The Nazis set up a research park under SS chief, Hans Kammler (pictured) where they endeavored to make use of Einstein’s unified field theory to develop new superiority weapons. Like "The DaVinci Code" Ventura’s story has real sites that you can actually visit and ponder the mystery. The research park is in Poland and you can see its dank underground workshops. Above these workshops on the surface is a strange concrete construction (pictured), which, provided you have flying saucers in mind, looks suggestively like a saucer launch pad - either that or it's modern day Stonehenge with all the associated mystery!

The Nazis, it seems, did not succeed in bringing about a practical result. Instead the research park was overrun by the Russians, but not before one of the top scientists escaped to America. This scientist then provided vital input toward secret American military projects of which the most notorious was the infamous Philadelphia experiment. So what’s the Philadelphia experiment? It was an experiment that, like all promethium tamperings with the fundamentals of nature, went horribly wrong. It was intended that via an application of Einstein’s unified field theory rays of light would be bent round an object in such a way as to give it a cloak of invisibility. However, instead the experiment succeeded in teleporting the test object! And what was the test object? Was it an experimentally controlled carefully quantified block of metal? No. Was it a fly that accidentally got trapped in the apparatus? No. Was it a laboratory rat? No. Was it a tank? No. Was it some brave volunteer? No. It was nothing less than a whole battleship, crew and all! (USS Eldridge – pictured) Today there is a cast of colorful characters flitting in and out of the shade who are supposed to have some sort of connection with and/or knowledge of this experiment and know a lot more than they are letting on. Tim Ventura, of course, has had contact with some of them and like a modern day Tintin he is helping to bust the Governmental cover up and conspiracy surrounding the experiment.

I like Tim Ventura; he’s ambitious, he’s bright, he’s freelance, he’s fair-minded and he thinks big, but he has, perhaps, taken the male hankering after the Boys own adventure just a little too far. I recommend
Tim's site, if like me, you find fiction rather tame compared to stuff that adds an extra twist by inextricably tangling fact with, let’s just say, some creative interpretations (a bit like the Jack the Ripper Dairies!) and thus presents the investigator with the problem of trying to extract the true story. Unfortunately, although I am a gravity investigator myself, I can’t come anywhere near matching this kind of drama, and this may be why I have to tell you about other peoples’ adventures rather than my own. The story of my own encounter with the romantic force of gravity is utterly commonplace and banal. That story would include those holidays spent on the beach at the Norfolk seaside resort of Hemsby as I reflected on the problem of gravity, a problem that I increasingly felt was coming my way. Whilst the Children played in sand and sea I, between sips of tea from a vacuum flask, spent many hours with binoculars looking out to sea, pondering with amazement the bulging curvature of the planet Earth that becomes so apparent when good binoculars are used. I have always found that sight breath taking. To see the Earth as a planet from a height of just a few feet above sea level added a palpability to Arthur C Clarke’s technically competent 2001 trilogy of interplanetary travel, a trilogy I read through on more than one occasion during those Hemsby beach holidays. That’s about as near I got to intrigue and high adventure during my forays into Gravitational theory. Boring? No doubt, but then I can only tell it as it is.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

The Machinery of Explanation

Children start life unable to speak but quickly learn the language of their culture. It has been remarked that the actual contact time children have with a language does not in itself provide enough information for them to make sense of it from scratch. It seems therefore that newborn humans have an innate understanding of some basic linguistic constructs. These constructs act as template categories and the particulars of a given language rapidly fall into the template slots as children learn. In short, human beings have prior expectations about how language works and these expectations, if fulfilled, speed along the process of language learning. (See Pinker)

It is likely that humans also have prior expectations in a more general sense about the “syntax and semantics” of the wider world. For it seems that we are primed to proactively make sense of situations in as much as we organize incoming data in order to fit the theory we have, or are in the process of developing. We expect the world to make a modicum of sense and this expectation helps to catalyze the process of learning. However, there is a trade-off here: Our readiness to find theoretical narratives behind the events around us imputes a propensity to find them even when they are not there. It’s a bit like the faces we see in the clouds – we are innately sensitive to the face configuration and we are therefore inclined to see them in places where there are no faces. The hazard of human theoretical creativity is that it is in constant danger of taking off into the wilder blue yonder and into the realm of fantasy. Garfinkel’s experiment, which I mentioned in the last post, bears this out.

What helps to control the fires of human theoretical creativity and keep it anchored to the real world is that circumstances often force theoretical narratives to be used in an anticipatory way. Although this check is not foolproof, it certainly helps. The child who quickly makes sense of the complex stream of language is rewarded when that learning is confirmed by successful anticipation of the meanings intended by fellow humans. In contrast, however, we note that the patients in Garfinkel’s experiment were not asked to anticipate the therapist’s responses in advance. Reckoning day never came and the patient did not have to put his money where his thoughts were. Each new response was fitted into a growing theoretical elaboration.

There is much to be said for
Gregory Chaitin's view that theories are a form of data compression. That is, theoretical narratives are very succinct expressions that can be used to inform us about the outcome of a large number of experimental cases. If Chaitin is right then Garfinkel’s patients where engaged in an impossible task; that is, of trying to “compress” a random sequence into a succinct narrative explaining the therapists random replies. As each random ‘yes’ or ‘no’ comes in the patient has to incorporate it into his explanation of what is going on, and this requires that the patient, in order to keep track of the irreducible complexities of randomness, must elaborate an explanation that has an equal complexity. As long as the patient is prepared to keep elaborating his explanation of what is going in order to fit an apparently random output, no compression of concept is actually taking place - it is simply a fancy way of recording the data, with no real attempt at radical anticipation of any fundamental underlying logical structure constraining a whole edifice of potential output. The patient was, in effect, acting a bit like one of the conspiracy theorists of our time, who succeed in retrospectively accounting for all sorts of behavior by simply elaborating the conspiracy theory via the addition of further characters, motives and what have you. Seldom does the conspiracy theorist put his theory to real use and launch out with some honest theoretical risk taking by using his theory to generate (that is, anticipate) further incoming data.

To my mind Chaitin is right on at least one count. Right because much of our world, particularly in physics, is organized to yield to those natural philosophers who seek compressed explanatory narratives. However, the fact that Garfinkel’s patients succeeded in retrospectively interpreting random data is testimony to just how complex the socio-personal world is – it is so complex that it can be used to account for random configurations. Although the patients ultimately put together spurious explanatory narratives, the potential is clearly there: The socio-personal world is complex enough for patients to assemble its many elements and variables in order to produce at least a plausible explanation for an ostensibly random output, and this is evidence of just how complex objects are humans and their societies.
Unlike physics the starting point of socio-personal explanations is the most complex things in the cosmos, namely human beings and society. As is often the case when we are dealing with the socio-personal, such as, say, trying to account for simple scene of crime clues, the explanation of the simple is found in the complex purposes of human beings and the condition of society as a whole; in fact we have here an inversion of the physical paradigm: In the latter simple physical principles explain complex physical outputs, but in the social sciences complex socio-personal constructs may be used to account for simple events. In short, Chaitin’s ideas, although certainly very useful, are not comprehensive.

But the socio-personal world is not the only context where complex entities are used as an explanatory framework. In spite of the fact that much of physics yields to Chaitin’s notion that theories are ways of compressing complex physical data, it is precisely in physics that we find a hard case of theoretical incompressibility. We have, of course, the well known random outputs of quantum mechanics, which as far as we yet know are irreducibly random. Although the statistics of quantum mechanics are constrained by various quantum equations, nevertheless particular outputs have a random element and we have to proceed as did Garfinkel’s patients – each real quantum output event is what it is, and has to be taken at face value and simply recorded as part of the complex sequence of random data of which it is part.
Coming Soon: American Antigravity, Tim Ventura and the Philadelphia Experiment.

Saturday, August 12, 2006


Somebody recently e-mailed me the following:

You might want to consider the "Documentary method of interpretation'': Garfinkel suggests that the way individuals bring order to, or make sense of their social world is through a psychological process, which he calls "the documentary method". This method firstly consists of selecting certain facts from a social situation, which seem to conform to a pattern and then making sense of these facts in terms of the pattern. Once the pattern has been established, it is used as a framework for interpreting new facts, which arise within the situation. Garfinkel did an 'experiment' of sorts in which he set up a supposed 'new' method of therapy. This new method was such that the therapist could only answer questions, and only answer them with a 'yes' or a 'no'. The patient would come into the room, and the 'therapist' would sit one side of a barrier, with the patient on the other (i.e., so they could only hear each other). The patient was informed that this was a new 'experimental' therapy in which (as I just mentioned) the therapist would only use yes or no answers. Anyway, so the patient begins to tell the therapist of any troubles they have, etc., and the therapist answers, however, what the patient didn't know was that the therapist's answers were simply *random* (reading out from a list) yes and nos. What they found was that the patient responded, rationalising the yes and nos to form a coherent and sensible meaning within the context in which they occurred. Contradictions made by the therapist (e.g., answering 'yes' and then 'no' to identical questions) were accounted for by the patient.

Well, I did consider it, but my considerations will have to wait for another posting.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Tacky Science

An article in the BBC online magazine relates the story of the Korean scientist Hwang Woo-suk, a pioneer of stem-cell research, who went on trial in July, “charged with deliberately falsifying his laboratory results and embezzling millions of pounds worth of state funding”. The article also mentions Louis Pasteur who, claims the article, developed a vaccine against rabies using unethical methods that his formal experimental account “was carefully drafted to obscure”. But the article goes on to say:

“As it was, the vaccine's success was such that no doubts were ever raised. Pasteur was a scientific gambler, whose bet paid off. Gamblers try to force the pace of research, wagering that the experimental results they are currently fudging will come good.”

I was reminded by this article of Prof. Martin Fleishmann and the cold fusion debacle. Unlike Hwang, Fleishmann was honest, but he may have been victim of similar career pressures. A natural gambler’s optimism may have lead them both to hazard that the final outcome would fall in their favour and that any short cuts or compromises they made on the way, like Pasteur, would be forgotten or forgiven in the harvest of success.

Although Fleishmann did not falsify his results, his sin, if sin it was, was to bypass the peer review system and go straight to the media with work he genuinely believed to contain an important discovery. If the gamble had paid off he would have been a winner and his career assured. Perhaps Fleishmann believed that if he was onto something new then the peer review system would stultify his discovery – I have heard dark rumours that one’s work, amongst a competitive peerage, can be obstructed and even plagiarized if one doesn’t get a move on.

The demands put upon the career scientist are incompatible – on the one hand (s)he must build a respectable reputation and yet on the other hand engage in the speculative and imaginative thinking required of a courageous excursion into some bizarre corners of our strange and wonderful world.

Reputation and career driven science may be part of the problem here. Perhaps the 18th C hobbyist gentleman scientists hold some lessons for us as models for innovative and pioneering science. Their prime motive was love of their subject, and unorthodox and groundbreaking work didn’t hold the career risks that it does for today’s professional scientists. “Search, reject, and select” as I always say of the acquisition of knowledge; it seems that in the maze searching process that is science some of us are chosen to probe what ultimately turn out to be dead ends.

Finally we come to two jokers in the pack. The BBC article mentions the Piltdown affair of the early twentieth century where career pressures and wish fulfillment may have help given hoax fossils the respectable cover of the prestigious Natural History museum in London until they were outted in the 1950s. In physics the peer review system normally does lend some accreditation to one’s work, but peer reviewed theoretical physics has been tainted by the notorious
Bogdanoff affair. Here, an apparently nonsensical paper, hiding under a cloak of abstruse jargon, was submitted to the journal “Classical Quantum Gravity” and accepted for publication. Even now, amid claim and counter claim, there seems some doubt as to whether the authors of the paper have perpetrated a hoax! Once again one wonders if reputations are being protected and backs are being covered and this may in part explain why exposing these papers has not been a straightforward process.

Friday, January 13, 2006

Physics and The Wild Web

What draws some people to develop fundamental theories of physics even though they are well beyond the circles of the professional physics community? The odds against success seem overwhelming. Professional initiation into much advanced mathematics is required just to get to the frontiers of current physics, let alone succeed in pushing the boundaries of those frontiers into new areas. And yet have look at some of the titles from the Web enabled Print On Demand publishers. In their science sections you will find a plethora of books from “Do It Yourself” theorists, many of who radically challenge the basis on which current physical theory is founded. Added to this are the numerous offbeat physics papers to be found published directly on the Internet. This phenomenon is probably most prevalent in the USA with its go getting, “anything is possible”, frontiersman ethos. Where I live (the UK) people are less inclined to try anything so ambitious. This may be because a trace of medieval ambiance still lingers here and people are more likely to accept their station in life. If one wants to do different in the UK, it helps to be eccentric and it helps even more if you don’t care.

Fundamental physics, it seems, is fair game for a variety of outsiders who come to the subject with a mixture of motives and backgrounds. One can find, for example, electrical engineers who believe an extension of Maxwellian electromagnetism provides the key to the problem of gravity. The are also practically minded technologists hunting for the Holy Grail of star travel – the anti-gravity drive; why let the laws of physics get in the way of technological goals? Less practical are the New Agers trying to get a mystical handle on the fundamental laws as they seek spiritual enlightenment in physics. There are self-proclaimed geniuses, egotists whose totalizing theories rewrite physics to its last word. There are quasi-paranoiacs who despise academia and believe Relativity and Quantum Mechanics to be the product of a conspiracy of deception. There are, I think, even some professionally trained maverick scientists working independently – the distinction between crank and genius has never been clear-cut, as exemplified by the great Isaac Newton himself. An exhaustive taxonomy of the kind of worker we are talking about here is quite a study, but all in all this is physics with attitude, often bad attitude. Some of these workers carry their physics forward with ill humor and have a complete and unwavering conviction that they alone are right. Unshakeable self-belief is the survival strategy that keeps them going against the odds, and guards against any crisis of confidence. Self-awareness is a trait that sits uneasily with high confidence.

Whatever their temper and frame of mind these self-motivated theorists nevertheless share, with the greatest theorists and mythmakers of the past, the time honored aspiration to compress a profusion of complexity and mystery into relatively simple logical narratives and to perhaps discover deep meaning therein. Moreover, contemporary physics is suffering an intellectual logjam as a glut of concepts founder on the relation of Gravity and Quantum Mechanics. As professional practitioners attempt to resolve this issue they are disappearing rapidly over the intellectual horizon with Byzantine depictions of reality not conducive to a favorable social perception of physics. Many independent workers are aware of these problems and are exploiting physics in its hour of need as they short cut the thick undergrowth of professional theoretical physics. The subtext is: “Enough is enough. If you can’t come up with intellectually economic models of reality, then we will”. The feel-good factor that comes from knowing that you have a chance of undercutting the experts with bargain basement theory is not to be underestimated. Moreover, it is probably true that convincing one’s self of the groundbreaking importance of one’s work enhances one’s self image and thus the ego gets a boost. But then who doesn’t strive to feel good about themselves in this way? And who doesn’t know the strife and grief caused when social kudos and ego clash, with all the concomitant mental stress?

If it sounds as though I fancy myself as an authority on this subject then maybe that’s because I speak from the insights of “done that, got the T-shirt” experience. Yes, my T-shirt says “Cranko-Physics Fringe” and I tell my story of freelance physics and what it’s like to be closeted away struggling with difficult ideas from a perspective inside that closet. The fundamental physics bug got me around 1990 (although the roots go even further back). At the time I was totally absorbed minding my own business writing a piece of search engine software with no idea where this work was ultimately going to lead me. This software really depended on the idea of simulating word association. For example, “red” is associated with “blood”, “blood” with “liquid”, “liquid” with “wet” and so on. In fact, every word is embedded in a network of associations, where each node of the network is a word, thus giving rise to a so-called “semantic net”. Thus, activating “red” in one of these networks will not only activate “blood” – it will also activate “ink” or “Traffic Light”, or anything else that is commonly red in color. When my piece of software was complete, offering a word to the network resulted in simulated signals being radiated out to a halo of potential targets. However, if two words were offered to the network, like say “red liquid”, then this resulted in two haloes of signals which intersected and overlapped in a Venn-diagram like way, and effectively reduced the list of potential output solutions to the input problem. Thus, for example, an input of “red liquid” would return “blood” as a possible solution – it could also return “ink” as ink is sometimes red, but it would exclude “Traffic Light” as the latter has little to do with liquid. An understanding of probability was crucial to this project as “solutions” to “problems” were returned with an assigned probability. Some of the ideas I deployed here were based on a notion of probability I had developed and published in the June 1988 edition of The British Journal for the Philosophy of Science. Ultimately I brought this software to bear on the problem of searching text for meaning rather than literal character patterns. But before I could get a practical product up and running I dropped the project. Something exciting had caught my attention. Perhaps I should have ignored what I had seen, but for me it was like stumbling across a gold mine.

Most physics freelancers, I suspect, bring to bear the insights of their particular walk of life. I was no exception. If I had been an electrical engineer I would have applied induction. If I had been employed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory I would have discovered an inertial discrepancy. If I played the violin I would have become a String Theorist. If I had been a cook I would have seen some connection between self-raising flour and the expanding universe. But I was a programmer and probability theorist so I fancied I saw a connection between my fields of probability in a semantic network of nodes, and the wave fields of Quantum Mechanics. Moreover, my fields, like quantum wave fields, had an “output” in the form of a “field reduction” – in this case a reduction to the Venn-diagram like intersections. Furthermore, these “intersections” could be activated as the input to a new problem. In fact, I perceived a kind general “computation” serially structured as halo-intersection-halo-intersection-halo…etc, and this seemed to mirror the alternation in quantum mechanics between wave development and wave reduction. Here was a process with a strong time asymmetry; a computation that disposes of possible outcomes in favor of other outcomes cannot be wound backwards.

Quantum Mechanics seemed to be carrying out the same kind of computational task that I found in my semantic net. Was there some mileage to be had in this similarity with Quantum Mechanics? Was there a profound clue here about the nature of reality? I thought there must be: I found the whole vision of the declarative programming model that my semantic net conjured up a very compelling metaphor imputing meaning to the enigma of quantum theory. It was at least as compelling as the action principles so beloved by some mathematical physicists. Many scientists do not expect to connect in some way with the objects of their study – quite the opposite, in fact, they expect to enter a world that gets more and more alien, inhuman, difficult and meaningless the more it is removed from the level of street and furrow. This ethos must surely impede the rationale and hope that drives them. But if one suspects that humanity is set up to connect with physical enigmas then the fuel of motivation is more readily found to help drive the project of physics forward – that and a little reverse engineering.

But one must be wary: Kepler was compelled by what he perceived to be a connection between the five regular solids and the relative sizes of the planetary orbits – a hunch which, of course, proved to be spurious. More recently another compelling concept that proved to be wrong was the neat idea that the four letters (A, T, G, C) and three place words of the genetic code does not need to include a word separator if only 20 of the 64 possible word combinations are used. By strange coincidence this elegant and seductive logic was actually supported by the observation that 20 equates to the number of amino acids used by the genetic code to build protein chains. With this sort of thing at the back of my mind I certainly had doubts about a solitary foray into Quantum Theory. However, there was nothing for it but to give my own metaphor a chance and follow the path that had opened up before me. It was risky; in all likelihood it would prove to be a garden path. I am cutting a very long story short when I say that I developed (or should I say “reverse engineered”?) a form of quantum mechanics along similar lines: Nodes signaling Nodes with complex signals – and to incorporate the effects of relativity it was necessary for these “quantum signals” to squeeze and contract the separation between nodes, and thus apparent “space-time curvatures” dropped out quite unexpectedly and naturally: Gravity, it seemed, was staring me in the face. In time some bits of Einstein’s equation emerged. That was a bonus - if you can get Einstein’s name somewhere in your work then that puts you in the cranko-fringe premier league. Though I tend to despise the conceited theoretical totalizers who presume to clear the board completely, I found to my horror that I was starting go that way myself. One thing lead to another and it wasn’t long before I fancied I had “discovered” explanations for “dark matter” and the positive cosmological constant.

Needless to say someone coming along claiming to have, in one decisive action, blazed a trail (or at least a garden path) from the tiny quantum world through to the cosmological constant, solving the problem of gravity on the way, goes down like a feather sandwich with your average academic. I can’t say I blame them - the whole field is awash with ideas, and approaches from unaccredited upstart theorists must seem as unwanted distractions from time wasters. Nevertheless, I generally support the sterling work of many academics and unlike some other freelancers I don’t see myself as a competitor. But even so, given the enigma of gravity I say it ought to be all hands deck and freelancers should be welcomed - the more the merrier, because an outsider might just rumble the solution (or should I say “a solution”?) by daring to do different: Collect together enough monkeys and perhaps one of them will come up with something. And it is just possible that the experts could be looking in the wrong place; their tight knit and well networked community might actually be a disadvantage because a spurious perspective, if it takes hold, is likely to lock itself in. In fact, when one hears String Theory aficionados claim that theirs is the “only game in town” it’s not good news for physics, because if they are wrong, they are likely to stay wrong. Moreover, this goes to show that bad attitude and a lack of self-awareness are not only to be found amongst freelancers. Perhaps the String Theorists have tied themselves down with the most sophisticated mathematical trap the world has yet seen. If a pair of magic scissors, in the form of new 21st century mathematics, doesn’t turn up to help them cut the knots of String Theory, then they’ve got their work cut out because, as one internet correspondent has quipped, “The theory is brighter than we are!”. Perhaps one day the strings dancing in atoms will be as much a non-issue as the Byzantine angels dancing on a pinhead and the extra dimensions of String Theory will seem like Aristotle’s Quintessence. In any case what do they mean “The only game in town”? There are some very capable and respected theoretical physicists like Roger Penrose who seem to be playing another game altogether. (That’s actually “Sir Roger” to the likes of me – like I said, we are still feudal in the UK)

However, let me return to my humble story. Is this story really one of an obscure persona stealing a march on the experts and in one swoop solving the greatest scientific problem of all time? Well, I endeavor to be self aware enough to understand that there are lots of pretenders to that! Nevertheless, I still think my story does at least have some human interest value, if not scientific interest, for it is a story of the human struggle to understand and testament to the extraordinary ability of the human mind to fit a theoretical narrative around experiential complexities – at least for a while – for in science a spurious theory can fit some of the experiments some of time, but it can’t fit all of the experiments all of the time. Scientific chickens come home to roast in the real world and in my case my theory has yet to receive a roasting from that world. I take some consolation, however, in my philosophical view that all theories are likely to be limited simulations with a sell-by-date, even though it is a Newton or an Einstein who annunciates them. Limitations or not, theories are very useful sense making aide-memoirs organizing the complexities of a cosmos built around what I believe to be a Divinely ordained grand rationality, a rationality that makes that cosmos amenable to human theorizing. In this sense my theory is scientific; its thesis may prove to be of limited applicability and organizing power, but it is science in as much as it is at least a protem comprehension of my own perspectives, a comprehension that is open to logical and experimental challenge.

The story I tell is of a very personal engagement with a rational Cosmos. It recounts my own version of the time-honored strivings for understanding and the human aspiration to integrate cosmic variety into relatively simple narratives. I present it first and foremost as the story of my own quest into the unknown, regardless of its scientific status. I try to be self-aware enough to accept that the likelihood of me producing anything of long-term scientific value is small. However, at the very least my theoretical proposal does fit the perceptions that have come to my attention, and given my perspective on the Universe, it is my best shot. In the final analysis this personal project may have nothing whatsoever to do with official science, but it still remains as at least a partially successful attempt to create a unifying “myth” around some of the disparate raw texts generated by our society, texts which are deemed to contain the “facts”.

Thanks to the technological innovations of the Print On Demand (POD) companies, book printing nowadays is not just for best selling exclusive elites, and the canonical publishing process can be circumvented. Like other technological changes this has resulted in a shift of controlling interests, which in turn has caused some hard feelings. However, balancing potential Internet exposure against both the high feelings generated by non-canonical publishing, and the improbability of a single draught manuscript even being looked at, I decided to publish my story in a POD book called “Gravity and Quantum Non-Linearity”. A limited number of free copies of this book are available for those who might wish to seriously review it. However, don’t necessarily expect any more than an idiosyncratic excursion into mathematics and physics. If it’s going to be the theory that will ultimately sweep the board then it’s just as well I wrote that paper on probability, because I think I am going to need all the “luck” I can get. If you want to find out more about that luck (or lack of it) try “Google=Quantum+Non-Linearity”, because, like all freelancers, “I’m feeling lucky”. You’ve got to; otherwise you wouldn’t get out of bed in the morning.

c. Timothy V Reeves, June 2005

With many thanks to AuthorsOnline

Note: To access the probability article try Google=Reeves+probability

Friday, January 06, 2006

Position Statement: Religion

The world has always seemed a wonderful and strange place to me. Its sheer existence is a one-off miracle that evokes a sense of numinous awe, a miracle that some philosophers probe with language stretching questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing?” Strangest of all is my own sense of conscious being. Everything takes place within the theatre of one’s conscious cognition: sensations, feelings, understandings, concepts, and explanations etc. Even physical theories that attempt to explain conscious cognition are effectively a subcategory of the very thing they purport to explain in as much as they use conceptual artifacts, such as neurons and atoms, which are themselves constructed and hosted by the mind. It is impossible, therefore, to carry out an absolute reduction of mind stuff to a purely physical ontology (say to “just atoms”, for example) because all such ontological reductions, in the final analysis, are reductions to logically structured cognita. All attempts to get at the nature of the “thing-in-itself” only has the effect of generating more cognita.

The first person perspective, for me, has therefore always seemed an irreducible aspect of reality. The peculiarity of the central role of consciousness in ontology has made the existence of a primary Divine Personality at least an intelligible notion to me. However, intelligibility doesn’t entail existence, and so uncertainty always dogged any attempt of mine to relate to this Personality. It is an irony, however, that this very skepticism lead to my own faith, for a consistent skepticism is unable rule out that which it cannot rule out with certainty and therefore invites further investigation and testing. Moreover, the primary and irreducible place of conscious cognition in the greater scheme of things meant that the logical status of the conjectured Divine Persona is not on a par with Bertrand Russell’s teapot in solar orbit.

For a skeptic such as myself Pascal’s wager always seemed worth playing and in time this lead to my acceptance of the New Testament Jesus as the revelation of the Grace of God. I have studied other religions and in comparison I have to say, whatever revelations may be therein, they are in my opinion far surpassed in quality and gravitas by the unspeakable riches we find in the New Testament story of Divine sacrifice. Like my grandmother who used to bet on horses, a study of form lead me to lay Pascal’s wager on the best in field. Nevertheless, in spite of the exclusiveness of Christian revelation in terms of its perfect synergy of quality and historical influence, there is, I believe great variation and leeway in how God reveals His grace from individual to individual, and I would be anxious to operate an inclusiveness on this level.

It is clear that Christains are no longer stewards or authors of the authoritative texts of society. A consequence of this, perhaps, is that many Christains are diffident toward the text as a form of revelation. Quite common in contemporary Christian circles is a notion of revelation bound up with naked abreactions and “Touches of God”, neither of which is easily articulated without using quasi-sensual imagery. There is, I feel, nothing wrong with this per se provided it is not exclusive, uncontrolled, or is in fact a subliminal strategy to either avoid polemical engagement with texts challenging Christianity, or to excuse a suspension of the mind in order that the crass illustrations and fideist philosophy of some cliché surfing preacher can be ingested without difficulty.

For myself the joy of the faith is in knowing that one really can ‘investigate’ one self into the presence of God. For as I have said “Revelation is what we cannot discover unless God chooses that we discover it.” The act of seeking only brings fruit unless God chooses that it does so, whether through the seekings of reason or mystical experience (Jeremiah 29:13-14 , 33:3).