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Posts Tagged ‘heresy

“Alchemy. The link between the immemorial magic arts and modern science. Humankind’s first systematic effort to unlock the secrets of matter by reproducible experiment.”*…

Science has entered a new era of alchemy, suggests Robbert Dijkgraaf, Director of the Institute for Advanced Study at Princeton– and, he argues, that’s a good thing…

Is artificial intelligence the new alchemy? That is, are the powerful algorithms that control so much of our lives — from internet searches to social media feeds — the modern equivalent of turning lead into gold? Moreover: Would that be such a bad thing?

According to the prominent AI researcher Ali Rahimi and others, today’s fashionable neural networks and deep learning techniques are based on a collection of tricks, topped with a good dash of optimism, rather than systematic analysis. Modern engineers, the thinking goes, assemble their codes with the same wishful thinking and misunderstanding that the ancient alchemists had when mixing their magic potions.

It’s true that we have little fundamental understanding of the inner workings of self-learning algorithms, or of the limits of their applications. These new forms of AI are very different from traditional computer codes that can be understood line by line. Instead, they operate within a black box, seemingly unknowable to humans and even to the machines themselves.

This discussion within the AI community has consequences for all the sciences. With deep learning impacting so many branches of current research — from drug discovery to the design of smart materials to the analysis of particle collisions — science itself may be at risk of being swallowed by a conceptual black box. It would be hard to have a computer program teach chemistry or physics classes. By deferring so much to machines, are we discarding the scientific method that has proved so successful, and reverting to the dark practices of alchemy?

Not so fast, says Yann LeCun, co-recipient of the 2018 Turing Award for his pioneering work on neural networks. He argues that the current state of AI research is nothing new in the history of science. It is just a necessary adolescent phase that many fields have experienced, characterized by trial and error, confusion, overconfidence and a lack of overall understanding. We have nothing to fear and much to gain from embracing this approach. It’s simply that we’re more familiar with its opposite.

After all, it’s easy to imagine knowledge flowing downstream, from the source of an abstract idea, through the twists and turns of experimentation, to a broad delta of practical applications. This is the famous “usefulness of useless knowledge,” advanced by Abraham Flexner in his seminal 1939 essay (itself a play on the very American concept of “useful knowledge” that emerged during the Enlightenment).

A canonical illustration of this flow is Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity. It all began with the fundamental idea that the laws of physics should hold for all observers, independent of their movements. He then translated this concept into the mathematical language of curved space-time and applied it to the force of gravity and the evolution of the cosmos. Without Einstein’s theory, the GPS in our smartphones would drift off course by about 7 miles a day.

But maybe this paradigm of the usefulness of useless knowledge is what the Danish physicist Niels Bohr liked to call a “great truth” — a truth whose opposite is also a great truth. Maybe, as AI is demonstrating, knowledge can also flow uphill.

In the broad history of science, as LeCun suggested, we can spot many examples of this effect, which can perhaps be dubbed “the uselessness of useful knowledge.” An overarching and fundamentally important idea can emerge from a long series of step-by-step improvements and playful experimentation — say, from Fröbel to Nobel.

Perhaps the best illustration is the discovery of the laws of thermodynamics, a cornerstone of all branches of science. These elegant equations, describing the conservation of energy and increase of entropy, are laws of nature, obeyed by all physical phenomena. But these universal concepts only became apparent after a long, confusing period of experimentation, starting with the construction of the first steam engines in the 18th century and the gradual improvement of their design. Out of the thick mist of practical considerations, mathematical laws slowly emerged…

One could even argue that science itself has followed this uphill path. Until the birth of the methods and practices of modern research in the 17th century, scientific research consisted mostly of nonsystematic experimentation and theorizing. Long considered academic dead ends, these ancient practices have been reappraised in recent years: Alchemy is now considered to have been a useful and perhaps even necessary precursor to modern chemistry — more proto-science than hocus-pocus.

The appreciation of tinkering as a fruitful path toward grand theories and insights is particularly relevant for current research that combines advanced engineering and basic science in novel ways. Driven by breakthrough technologies, nanophysicists are tinkering away, building the modern equivalents of steam engines on the molecular level, manipulating individual atoms, electrons and photons. Genetic editing tools such as CRISPR allow us to cut and paste the code of life itself. With structures of unimaginable complexity, we are pushing nature into new corners of reality. With so many opportunities to explore new configurations of matter and information, we could enter a golden age of modern-day alchemy, in the best sense of the word.

However, we should never forget the hard-won cautionary lessons of history. Alchemy was not only a proto-science, but also a “hyper-science” that overpromised and underdelivered. Astrological predictions were taken so seriously that life had to adapt to theory, instead of the other way around. Unfortunately, modern society is not free from such magical thinking, putting too much confidence in omnipotent algorithms, without critically questioning their logical or ethical basis.

Science has always followed a natural rhythm of alternating phases of expansion and concentration. Times of unstructured exploration were followed by periods of consolidation, grounding new knowledge in fundamental concepts. We can only hope that the current period of creative tinkering in artificial intelligence, quantum devices and genetic editing, with its cornucopia of useful applications, will eventually lead to a deeper understanding of the world…

Today’s powerful but little-understood artificial intelligence breakthroughs echo past examples of unexpected scientific progress: “The Uselessness of Useful Knowledge,” from @RHDijkgraaf at @the_IAS.

Pair with: “Neuroscience’s Existential Crisis- we’re mapping the brain in amazing detail—but our brain can’t understand the picture” for a less optimistic view.

*  John Ciardi


As we experiment, we might recall that it was on this date in 1993 that the Roman Catholic Church admitted that it had erred in condemning Galileo.  For over 359 years, the Church had excoriated Galileo’s contentions (e.g., that the Earth revolves around the Sun) as anti-scriptural heresy.  In 1633, at age 69, Galileo had been forced by the Roman Inquisition to repent, and spent the last eight years of his life under house arrest.  After 13 years of inquiry, Pope John Paul II’s commission of historic, scientific and theological scholars brought the pontiff a “not guilty” finding for Galileo; the Pope himself met with the Pontifical Academy of Sciences to help correct the record.

Galileo (standing; white collar, dark smock) showing the Doge of Venice (seated) how to use the telescope. From a fresco by Giuseppe Bertini


“The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption”*…


John Adams didn’t literally call the Philadelphia Aurora (also known as the Aurora General Adviser) “fake news,” but he was not pleased by the way he was often depicted in it

In the margins of his copy of Condorcet’s treatise Outlines of an Historical View of the Progress of the Human Mind, President John Adams scribbled a cutting note.

Writing in the section where the French philosopher predicted that a free press would advance knowledge and create a more informed public, Adams scoffed. “There has been more new error propagated by the press in the last ten years than in an hundred years before 1798,” he wrote at the time.

The charge feels shockingly modern. Were he to have written the sentiment in 2018, and not at the turn of the 19th century, it’s easy to imagine that at just 112 characters, he might have tweeted it, instead.

While Chinese monks were block printing the Diamond Sutra as early as 868 A.D. and German printer Johannes Gutenberg developed a method of movable metal type in the mid-1400s, it took until the Enlightenment for the free press as we know it today to be born.

Condorcet’s 1795 text expanded upon the belief that a press free from censorship would circulate an open debate of ideas, with rationality and truth winning out. Adams’ marginal response reminds us that when something like truth is up for debate, the door is open for bad-faith actors (the partisan press in his view) to promulgate falsehoods—something that a reader today might call “fake news.”…

Harrowing history at: “The Age-Old Problem of ‘Fake News’.”

* “Totalitarian propaganda perfects the techniques of mass propaganda, but it neither invents them nor originates their themes. These were prepared for them by fifty years of imperialism and disintegration of the nation-state, when the mob entered the scene of European politics. Like the earlier mob leaders, the spokesmen for totalitarian movements possessed an unerring instinct for anything that ordinary party propaganda or public opinion did not care or dare to touch. Everything hidden, everything passed over in silence, became of major significance, regardless of its own intrinsic importance. The mob really believed that truth was whatever respectable society had hypocritically passed over, or covered up with corruption.”
― Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism


As we ferret out the facts, we might recall that it was on this date in 1593 that Christopher Marlowe, the foremost Elizabethan tragedian of his day (and a powerful influence on Shakespeare), was indicted by the Privy Council for heresy on the basis of testimony (probably elicited by torture) from Marlowe’s roommate, fellow dramatist Thomas Kyd.  Marlowe (who was in fact an atheist and seems likely to have supplemented his income as a spy) was subsequently arrested, but was able to use his connections to arrange bail.  While out he became involved in a fight– ostensibly over a tavern bill, but believed by many to have been a set-up– and was stabbed to death.

The 1585 portrait discovered at Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, in 1953, believed to be of the 21-year-old Christopher Marlowe.  The inscribed motto is “QVOD ME NVTRIT ME DESTRVIT,” “that which nourishes me destroys me.”  Indeed.


Written by (Roughly) Daily

May 18, 2018 at 1:01 am

“One day I will find the right words, and they will be simple”*…


Words that don’t exist for feelings that do…

… these and more at The Emotionary.

*  Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums


As we pack our portmanteaus, we might recall that it was on this date in 1626 that a large codfish, split open at a Cambridge market, revealed a religious text inside, written by John Frith.  Frith, a English protestant and preacher of religious tolerance, had been imprisoned a century before by Cardinal Wolsey in the fish cellar at Cardinal College.

The text was ultimately published by Cambridge University Press as “Vox Piscis.”

Frith (and Andrew Hewet) being burned at the stake for heresy, 1533



Written by (Roughly) Daily

June 23, 2013 at 1:01 am

The Future of Newspapers…

Tucson-based artist Nick Georgiou finds an enduring use for the broadsheet and the tabloid…  See more inspired folding on his blog, My Human Computer, and at The Design Inspiration.

As we rethink recycling, we might recall that it was on this date in 1626 that a large codfish, split open at a Cambridge market, revealed a religious text inside, written by John Frith.  Frith, a English protestant and preacher of religious tolerance, had been imprisoned a century before by Cardinal Wolsey in the fish cellar at Cardinal College.

The text was ultimately published by Cambridge University Press as “Vox Piscis.”

Frith (and Andrew Hewet) being burned at the stake for heresy, 1533 (source)

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