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Posts Tagged ‘chemistry

“Supersymmetry was (and is) a beautiful mathematical idea. The problem with applying supersymmetry is that it is too good for this world.”*…

Physicists reconsider their options…

A wise proverb suggests not putting all your eggs in one basket. Over recent decades, however, physicists have failed to follow that wisdom. The 20th century—and, indeed, the 19th before it—were periods of triumph for them. They transformed understanding of the material universe and thus people’s ability to manipulate the world around them. Modernity could not exist without the knowledge won by physicists over those two centuries.

In exchange, the world has given them expensive toys to play with. The most recent of these, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), which occupies a 27km-circumference tunnel near Geneva and cost $6bn, opened for business in 2008. It quickly found a long-predicted elementary particle, the Higgs boson, that was a hangover from calculations done in the 1960s. It then embarked on its real purpose, to search for a phenomenon called Supersymmetry.

This theory, devised in the 1970s and known as Susy for short, is the all-containing basket into which particle physics’s eggs have until recently been placed. Of itself, it would eliminate many arbitrary mathematical assumptions needed for the proper working of what is known as the Standard Model of particle physics. But it is also the vanguard of a deeper hypothesis, string theory, which is intended to synthesise the Standard Model with Einstein’s general theory of relativity. Einstein’s theory explains gravity. The Standard Model explains the other three fundamental forces—electromagnetism and the weak and strong nuclear forces—and their associated particles. Both describe their particular provinces of reality well. But they do not connect together. String theory would connect them, and thus provide a so-called “theory of everything”.

String theory proposes that the universe is composed of minuscule objects which vibrate in the manner of the strings of a musical instrument. Like such strings, they have resonant frequencies and harmonics. These various vibrational modes, string theorists contend, correspond to various fundamental particles. Such particles include all of those already observed as part of the Standard Model, the further particles predicted by Susy, which posits that the Standard Model’s mathematical fragility will go away if each of that model’s particles has a heavier “supersymmetric” partner particle, or “sparticle”, and also particles called gravitons, which are needed to tie the force of gravity into any unified theory, but are not predicted by relativity.

But, no Susy, no string theory. And, 13 years after the LHC opened, no sparticles have shown up. Even two as-yet-unexplained results announced earlier this year (one from the LHC and one from a smaller machine) offer no evidence directly supporting Susy. Many physicists thus worry they have been on a wild-goose chase…

Bye, bye little Susy? Supersymmetry isn’t (so far, anyway) proving out; and prospects look dim. But a similar fallow period in physics led to quantum theory and relativity: “Physics seeks the future.”

Frank Wilczek

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As we ponder paradigms, we might send insightful birthday greetings to Friedrich Wilhelm Ostwald; he was born on this date in 1853. A chemist and philosopher, he made many specific contributions to his field (including advances on atomic theory), and was one of the founders of the of the field of physical chemistry. He won the Nobel Prize in 1909.

Following his retirement in 1906 from academic life, Ostwald became involved in philosophy, art, and politics– to each of which he made significant contributions.

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“To be overly concerned with the original materials, which are merely sentimental souvenirs of the past, is to fail to see the living building itself”*…

The human body replaces its own cells regularly. Scientists at the Weizmann Institute of Science in Rehovot, Israel, have finally pinned down the speed and extent of this “turnover.” About a third of our body mass is fluid outside of our cells, such as plasma, plus solids, such as the calcium scaffolding of bones. The remaining two thirds is made up of roughly 30 trillion human cells. About 72 percent of those, by mass, are fat and muscle, which last an average of 12 to 50 years, respectively. But we have far more, tiny cells in our blood, which live only three to 120 days, and lining our gut, which typically live less than a week. Those two groups therefore make up the giant majority of the turnover. About 330 billion cells are replaced daily, equivalent to about 1 percent of all our cells. In 80 to 100 days, 30 trillion will have replenished—the equivalent of a new you…

Our Bodies Replace Billions of Cells Every Day: “A New You in 80 Days.”

* Douglas Adams, Last Chance to See

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As we sail on the Ship of Theseus, we might spare a thought for Hans Ernst August Buchner; he died on this date in 1902. A bacteriologist, he was a pioneer in the field of immunology, the first to discover a substance in blood, gamma globulins, natural bactericides capable of destroying bacteria.  He also worked with his brother Eduard Buchner, a chemist who won the Nobel Prize in 1907 for his work on fermentation (which helped pave the way for our understanding of the work of enzymes); Ernst had died in 1902, and so did not share in the honor.

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“A year spent in artificial intelligence is enough to make one believe in God”*…

A scan of the workings of an automaton of a friar, c1550. Possibly circle of Juanelo Turriano (c1500-85), probably Spanish.

The wooden monk, a little over two feet tall, ambles in a circle. Periodically, he raises a gripped cross and rosary towards his lips and his jaw drops like a marionette’s, affixing a kiss to the crucifix. Throughout his supplications, those same lips seem to mumble, as if he’s quietly uttering penitential prayers, and occasionally the tiny monk will raise his empty fist to his torso as he beats his breast. His head is finely detailed, a tawny chestnut colour with a regal Roman nose and dark hooded eyes, his pate scraped clean of even a tonsure. For almost five centuries, the carved clergyman has made his rounds, wound up by an ingenious internal mechanism hidden underneath his carved Franciscan robes, a monastic robot making his clockwork prayers.

Today his home is the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, DC, but before that he resided in that distinctly un-Catholic city of Geneva. His origins are more mysterious, though similar divine automata have been attributed to Juanelo Turriano, the 16th-century Italian engineer and royal clockmaker to the Habsburgs. Following Philip II’s son’s recovery from an illness, the reverential king supposedly commissioned Turriano to answer God’s miracle with a miracle of his own. Scion of the Habsburgs’ massive fortune of Aztec and Incan gold, hammer against the Protestant English and patron of the Spanish Inquisition, Philip II was every inch a Catholic zealot whom the British writer and philosopher G K Chesterton described as having a face ‘as a fungus of a leprous white and grey’, overseeing his empire in rooms where ‘walls are hung with velvet that is black and soft as sin’. It’s a description that evokes similarly uncanny feelings for any who should view Turriano’s monk, for there is one inviolate rule about the robot: he is creepy.

Elizabeth King, an American sculptor and historian, notes that an ‘uncanny presence separates it immediately from later automata: it is not charming, it is not a toy … it engages even the 20th-century viewer in a complicated and urgent way.’ The late Spanish engineer José A García-Diego is even more unsparing: the device, he wrote, is ‘considerably unpleasant’. One reason for his unsettling quality is that the monk’s purpose isn’t to provide simulacra of prayer, but to actually pray. Turriano’s device doesn’t serve to imitate supplication, he is supplicating; the mechanism isn’t depicting penitence, the machine performs it…

The writer Jonathan Merritt has argued in The Atlantic that rapidly escalating technological change has theological implications far beyond the political, social and ethical questions that Pope Francis raises, claiming that the development of self-aware computers would have implications for our definition of the soul, our beliefs about sin and redemption, our ideas about free will and providence. ‘If Christians accept that all creation is intended to glorify God,’ Merritt asked, ‘how would AI do such a thing? Would AI attend church, sing hymns, care for the poor? Would it pray?’ Of course, to the last question we already have an answer: AI would pray, because as Turriano’s example shows, it already has. Pope Francis also anticipated this in his November prayers, saying of AI ‘may it “be human”.’

While nobody believes that consciousness resides within the wooden head of a toy like Turriano’s, no matter how immaculately constructed, his disquieting example serves to illustrate what it might mean for an artificial intelligence in the future to be able to orient itself towards the divine. How different traditions might respond to this is difficult to anticipate. For Christians invested in the concept of an eternal human soul, a synthetic spirit might be a contradiction. Buddhist and Hindu believers, whose traditions are more apt to see the individual soul as a smaller part of a larger system, might be more amenable to the idea of spiritual machines. That’s the language that the futurist Ray Kurzweil used in calling our upcoming epoch the ‘age of spiritual machines’; perhaps it’s just as appropriate to think of it as the ‘Age of Turriano’, since these issues have long been simmering in the theological background, only waiting to boil over in the coming decades.

If an artificial intelligence – a computer, a robot, an android – is capable of complex thought, of reason, of emotion, then in what sense can it be said to have a soul? How does traditional religion react to a constructed person, at one remove from divine origins, and how are we to reconcile its role in the metaphysical order? Can we speak of salvation and damnation for digital beings? And is there any way in which we can evangelise robots or convert computers? Even for steadfast secularists and materialists, for whom those questions make no philosophical sense for humans, much less computers, that this will become a theological flashpoint for believers is something to anticipate, as it will doubtlessly have massive social, cultural and political ramifications.

This is no scholastic issue of how many angels can dance on a silicon chip, since it seems inevitable that computer scientists will soon be able to develop an artificial intelligence that easily passes the Turing test, that surpasses the understanding of those who’ve programmed it. In an article for CNBC entitled ‘Computers Will Be Like Humans By 2029’ (2014), the journalist Cadie Thompson quotes Kurzweil, who confidently (if controversially) contends that ‘computers will be at human levels, such as you can have a human relationship with them, 15 years from now.’ With less than a decade left to go, Kurzweil explains that he’s ‘talking about emotional intelligence. The ability to tell a joke, to be funny, to be romantic, to be loving, to be sexy, that is the cutting edge of human intelligence, that is not a sideshow.’

Often grouped with other transhumanists who optimistically predict a coming millennium of digital transcendence, Kurzweil is a believer in what’s often called the ‘Singularity’, the moment at which humanity’s collective computing capabilities supersede our ability to understand the machines that we’ve created, and presumably some sort of artificial consciousness develops. While bracketing out the details, let’s assume that Kurzweil is broadly correct that, at some point in this century, an AI will develop that outstrips all past digital intelligences. If it’s true that automata can then be as funny, romantic, loving and sexy as the best of us, it could also be assumed that they’d be capable of piety, reverence and faith. When it’s possible to make not just a wind-up clock monk, but a computer that’s actually capable of prayer, how then will faith respond?..

Can a robot pray? Does an AI have a soul? Advances in automata raise theological debates that will shape the secular world; from Ed Simon (@WithEdSimon): “Machine in the ghost.” Do read the piece in full.

Then, for a different (but in the end, not altogether contradictory) view: “The Thoughts The Civilized Keep.”

And for another (related) angle: “Is it OK to torture a computer program?

For more on the work of sculptor and historian Elizabeth King on the Smithsonian automaton friar, please see her articles here and here, and her forthcoming book, Mysticism and Machinery.

Alan Perlis (first recipient of the Turing Award)

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As we enlarge the tent, we might send revelatory birthday greetings to Albert Hofmann; he was born on this date in 1906.  As a young chemist at Sandoz in Switzerland, Hofmann was searching for a respiratory and circulatory stimulant when he fabricated lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD); handling it, he absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943– a day now known as “Bicycle Day”– Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD then rode home on a bike, a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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“The ‘paradox’ is only a conflict between reality and your feeling of what reality ‘ought to be’”*…

One of the most bizarre aspects of quantum physics is that the fundamental entities that make up the Universe, what we know as the indivisible quanta of reality, behave as both a wave and a particle. We can do certain experiments, like firing photons at a sheet of metal, where they act like particles, interacting with the electrons and kicking them off only if they individually have enough energy. Other experiments, like firing photons at small thin objects — whether slits, hairs, holes, spheres, or even DVDs — give patterned results that show exclusively wave-like behavior. What we observe appears to depend on which observations we make, which is frustrating, to say the least. Is there some way to tell, fundamentally, what the nature of a quanta is, and whether it’s wave-like or particle-like at its core?

That’s what Sandra Marin wants to know, asking:

“I wonder if you could help me to understand John Wheeler – the delayed choice experiment and write an article about this.”

John Wheeler was one of the most brilliant minds in physics in the 20th century, responsible for enormous advances in quantum field theory, General Relativity, black holes, and even quantum computing. Yet the idea about the delayed choice experiment hearkens all the way back to perhaps our first experience with the wave-particle duality of quantum physics: the double-slit experiment…

Although Einstein definitively wanted us to have a completely comprehensible reality, where everything that occurred obeyed our notions of cause-and-effect without any retrocausality, it was his great rival Bohr who turned out to be correct on this point. In Bohr’s own words:

“…it…can make no difference, as regards observable effects obtainable by a definite experimental arrangement, whether our plans for constructing or handling the instruments are fixed beforehand or whether we prefer to postpone the completion of our planning until a later moment when the particle is already on its way from one instrument to another.”

As far as we can tell, there is no one true objective, deterministic reality that exists independently of observers or interactions. In this Universe, you really to have to observe in order to find out what you get.

The history and the results of John Wheeler‘s famous “delayed choice” experiments: “Is Light Fundamentally A Wave Or A Particle?

* Richard Feynman

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As we reconsider categories, we might recall that it was on this date in 1404 that King Henry IV signed the “Act Against Multipliers,” stipulating that “None from hereafter shall use to multiply gold or silver, or use the craft of multiplication; and if any the same do, they incur the pain of felony.” Great alarm was felt at that time lest any alchemist should succeed in “transmutation” (the conversion of a base metal into gold or silver), thus undermining the sanctity of the Royal currency and/or possibly financing rebellious uprisings. Alchemy, which had flourished since the time of Bacon, effectively became illegal.

The Act was repealed in 1689, when Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, and other members of the vanguard of the scientific revolution lobbied for its repeal.

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Written by (Roughly) Daily

January 13, 2021 at 1:01 am

“Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less”*…

This Little Book Contains Every Reason Why Women Should Not Vote (New York: National Woman Suffrage Publishing Co., 1917)

At the time of the 2016 US presidential election, stationery shops did a brisk trade in entirely blank books, with covers bearing such titles as The Wit and Wisdom of Donald Trump and Why Trump Deserves Trust, Respect and Admiration. A year later Michael J. Knowles topped the Amazon charts with his Reasons to Vote for Democrats, comprising 200 blank pages. It’s an old joke, as this precursor from 1880 shows, and this one from the same year. One of the finest examples of the genre, and at a welcome remove from the petty political-point-scoring mood of many others, is this tiny publication from circa 1917.

Despite its novelty angle, this little book from the National Woman Suffrage Publishing Company (the publishing arm of the National Woman Suffrage Association) was born from a very serious place: the struggle to gain women the right to vote in the United States. The N. W. S. A. published a range of agitprop, not just comedy items. Virginia Commonwealth University has a collection of texts from the New York-based organisation, including the Headquarters News Letter, an A-B-C of Organization, a guide to fundraising, and information brochures on the proposed changes to the Constitution. There are leaflets targeting specific audiences too: teachers, farmers’ wives, Catholics, Southern white women concerned about “the Negro Vote”. More general-audience books, such as Why Women Should Not Vote also found their way to specific targets. A copy was left on the desk of anti-women’s suffrage Rep. Sherman Berry who decried it as “another sample of … the detestable and cheap politics practiced in this State. Gentlemen, that little book carries no more weight with it than does the picketing of the White House in this time of crisis and peril to this nation and the heckling of our President….”

Two years on from the publication of the book (and presumably to Berry’s dismay) the legislative battle for women’s suffrage was won in 1919, with ratification of the 19th Amendment from the required number of states following in 1920: it was prohibited to deny citizens the right to vote on the basis of sex. It was a huge victory, but not the end of the struggle…

All the books pages are blank

Agitprop at it’s best: “Why Women Should Not Vote (1917)

* “It was we, the people; not we, the white male citizens; nor yet we, the male citizens; but we, the whole people, who formed the Union… Men, their rights and nothing more; women, their rights and nothing less.” – Susan B. Anthony

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As we remember that politics is supposed to be about people, we might recall that it was on this date in 1938 that a young Swiss chemist at Sandoz, Albert Hofmann, while researching the medicinal plant squill and the fungus ergot in a search for compounds useful in pharmaceuticals, first synthesized lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD).  As it wasn’t immediately promising, he put it aside.  But he revisited his formulation several years later, on April 16, 1943; handling it, he accidentally absorbed a bit through his fingertips and realized that the compound had psychoactive effects.  Three days later, on April 19, 1943 (a date now known as “Bicycle Day”) Hofmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD, then rode home on a bike– a journey that became, pun intended, the first intentional acid trip.  (This is not to be confused with the UN’s World Bicycle Day.)

Hofmann was also the first person to isolate, synthesize, and name the principal psychedelic mushroom compounds psilocybin and psilocin.

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