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Posts Tagged ‘Science

“Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”*…




in Pensées (1670), Blaise Pascal famously outlined a proposition that has become known as “Pascal’s Wager”:

If there is a God, He is infinitely incomprehensible, since, having, neither parts nor limits, He has no affinity to us. We are then incapable of knowing either what He is or if He is…  [so] belief is a wise wager. Granted that faith cannot be proved, what harm will come to you if you gamble on its truth and it proves false? If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation, that He exists.

In last Sunday’s New York Times, philosophy professor Preston Greene updates– and inverts– Pascal’s logic.  Noting that scientists are proposing an experimental test of Oxford professor Nick Bostrom‘s assertion that we are living in an elaborate simulation, Greene argues strongly against it…

So far, none of these experiments has been conducted, and I hope they never will be. Indeed, I am writing to warn that conducting these experiments could be a catastrophically bad idea — one that could cause the annihilation of our universe.Think of it this way. If a researcher wants to test the efficacy of a new drug, it is vitally important that the patients not know whether they’re receiving the drug or a placebo. If the patients manage to learn who is receiving what, the trial is pointless and has to be canceled.

In much the same way, as I argue in a forthcoming paper in the journal Erkenntnis, if our universe has been created by an advanced civilization for research purposes, then it is reasonable to assume that it is crucial to the researchers that we don’t find out that we’re in a simulation. If we were to prove that we live inside a simulation, this could cause our creators to terminate the simulation — to destroy our world.Of course, the proposed experiments may not detect anything that suggests we live in a computer simulation. In that case, the results will prove nothing. This is my point: The results of the proposed experiments will be interesting only when they are dangerous. While there would be considerable value in learning that we live in a computer simulation, the cost involved — incurring the risk of terminating our universe — would be many times greater…

As far as I am aware, no physicist proposing simulation experiments has considered the potential hazards of this work. This is surprising, not least because Professor Bostrom himself explicitly identified “simulation shutdown” as a possible cause of the extinction of all human life.

This area of academic research is rife with speculation and uncertainty, but one thing is for sure: If scientists do go ahead with these simulation experiments, the results will be either extremely uninteresting or spectacularly dangerous. Is it really worth the risk?

The piece in full: “Are We Living in a Computer Simulation? Let’s Not Find Out.”

[Image above, The Matrix, back in theaters on the occasion of its 20th anniversary]

* The Wizard of Oz


As we rethink reality, we might send elastic birthday greetings to Peter Hodgson; he was born on this date in 1912.  An advertising and marketing consultant, Hodgson introduced Silly Putty to the world.  As The New York Times recounted in his obituary,

The stuff had been developed by General Electric scientists in the company’s New Haven laboratories several years earlier in a search for a viable synthetic rubber. It was obviously not satisfactory, and it found its way instead onto the local cocktail party circuit.

That’s where Mr. Hodgson, who was at the time writing a catalogue of toys for a local store, saw it, and an idea was born.

“Everybody kept saying there was no earthly use for the stuff” he later recalled. “But I watched them as they fooled with it. I couldn’t help noticing how people with busy schedules wasted as much as 15 minutes at a shot just fondling and stretching it”.

“I decided to take a chance and sell some. We put an ad in the catalogue on the adult page, along with such goodies as a spaghetti-making machine. We packaged the goop in a clear compact case and tagged it at $1.00”.

Having borrowed $147 for the venture, Mr. Hodgson ordered a batch from General Electric, hired a Yale student to separate the gob into one ounce dabs and began filling orders. At the same time he hurried to get some trademarks.

Silly Putty was an instant success, and Mr. Hodgson quickly geared up to take advantage of it…




Written by LW

August 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I lit a thin green candle to make you jealous of me, but the room just filled up with mosquitoes”*…




It turns out that, if you’re looking for them, the words “mosquitoes,” “fever,” “ague,” and “death” are repeated to the point of nausea throughout human history. (And before: … when the asteroid hit, dinosaurs were already in decline from mosquito-borne diseases.) Malaria laid waste to prehistoric Africa to such a degree that people evolved sickle-shaped red blood cells to survive it. The disease killed the ancient Greeks and Romans—as well as the peoples who tried to conquer them—by the hundreds of thousands, playing a major role in the outcomes of their wars. Hippocrates associated malaria’s late-summer surge with the Dog Star, calling the sickly time the “dog days of summer.” In 94 B.C., the Chinese historian Sima Qian wrote, “In the area south of the Yangtze the land is low and the climate humid; adult males die young.” In the third century, malaria epidemics helped drive people to a small, much persecuted faith that emphasized healing and care of the sick, propelling Christianity into a world-altering religion…

In total… mosquitoes have killed more people than any other single cause—fifty-two billion of us, nearly half of all humans who have ever lived. [They are] “our apex predator,” “the destroyer of worlds,” and “the ultimate agent of historical change.”…

They slaughtered our ancestors and derailed our history– and they’re not finished with us yet: “How Mosquitoes Changed Everything.”

* Leonard Cohen


As we nestle under our nets, we might spare a thought for Girolamo Fracastoro; he died on this date in 1553.  A physician, poet, and scholar of mathematics, geography, and astronomy, he he proposed (in 1546) that epidemic diseases are caused by transferable tiny particles or “spores” that could transmit infection by direct or indirect contact or even without contact over long distances; he called these infectious agents fomes, from the Latin, meaning tinder.  His theory was influential for three centuries, until it was sufficiently refined and extended to become modern germ theory, which superseded Fracastoro’s model.


Girolamo Fracastoro, by Titian c. 1528



Written by LW

August 6, 2019 at 1:01 am

“I think I can safely say that nobody understands quantum mechanics”*…




But we may be getting a little bit closer…

It’s not surprising that quantum physics has a reputation for being weird and counterintuitive. The world we’re living in sure doesn’t feel quantum mechanical. And until the 20th century, everyone assumed that the classical laws of physics devised by Isaac Newton and others — according to which objects have well-defined positions and properties at all times — would work at every scale. But Max Planck, Albert Einstein, Niels Bohr and their contemporaries discovered that down among atoms and subatomic particles, this concreteness dissolves into a soup of possibilities. An atom typically can’t be assigned a definite position, for example — we can merely calculate the probability of finding it in various places. The vexing question then becomes: How do quantum probabilities coalesce into the sharp focus of the classical world?

Physicists sometimes talk about this changeover as the “quantum-classical transition.” But in fact there’s no reason to think that the large and the small have fundamentally different rules, or that there’s a sudden switch between them. Over the past several decades, researchers have achieved a greater understanding of how quantum mechanics inevitably becomes classical mechanics through an interaction between a particle or other microscopic system and its surrounding environment.

One of the most remarkable ideas in this theoretical framework is that the definite properties of objects that we associate with classical physics — position and speed, say — are selected from a menu of quantum possibilities in a process loosely analogous to natural selection in evolution: The properties that survive are in some sense the “fittest.” As in natural selection, the survivors are those that make the most copies of themselves. This means that many independent observers can make measurements of a quantum system and agree on the outcome — a hallmark of classical behavior.

This idea, called quantum Darwinism (QD), explains a lot about why we experience the world the way we do rather than in the peculiar way it manifests at the scale of atoms and fundamental particles. Although aspects of the puzzle remain unresolved, QD helps heal the apparent rift between quantum and classical physics.

Only recently, however, has quantum Darwinism been put to the experimental test…

How do quantum possibilities give rise to objective, classical reality?  More on one possible explanation, quantum Darwinism– and on the three experiments that have have begun to vet the theory: “Quantum Darwinism, an Idea to Explain Objective Reality, Passes First Tests.”

* Richard Feynman


As we ruminate on reality, we might recall that it was on this date in 1975 that Jimmy Hoffa disappeared from the parking lot of the Machus Red Fox restaurant in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, a suburb of Detroit, at about 2:30 p.m.  He was never seen or heard from again.

Hoffa had served as President of the International Brotherhood of Teamsters from 1957.  Long suspected of mob ties, he was convicted of jury tampering, attempted bribery and fraud in 1964, and sentenced to 13 years in prison in 1967… from whence he continued in his union office until 1972, when he was pardoned by President Richard Nixon on the condition that he resign Teamsters office.  Out of jail, he began to plot an attempt to reverse this condition and return to power.  Before he could make much progress, he disappeared.  He was declared legally dead in 1982.  While there has never been an official explanation of Hoffa’s demise, it is widely believed that he was killed by the Mafia, which was uncomfortable with his efforts to disrupt the power structure of the Teamsters (over which they has reestablished control).

220px-James_R._Hoffa_NYWTS source


Written by LW

July 30, 2019 at 1:01 am

“There are two things you should remember when dealing with parallel universes. One, they’re not really parallel, and two, they’re not really universes.”*…




At Oak Ridge National Laboratory in eastern Tennessee, physicist Leah Broussard is trying to open a portal to a parallel universe.

She calls it an “oscillation” that would lead her to “mirror matter,” but the idea is fundamentally the same. In a series of experiments she plans to run at Oak Ridge this summer, Broussard will send a beam of subatomic particles down a 50-foot tunnel, past a powerful magnet and into an impenetrable wall. If the setup is just right — and if the universe cooperates — some of those particles will transform into mirror-image versions of themselves, allowing them to tunnel right through the wall. And if that happens, Broussard will have uncovered the first evidence of a mirror world right alongside our own.

“It’s pretty wacky,” Broussard says of her mind-bending exploration.

The mirror world, assuming it exists, would have its own laws of mirror-physics and its own mirror-history. You wouldn’t find a mirror version of yourself there (and no evil Spock with a goatee — sorry “Star Trek” fans). But current theory allows that you might find mirror atoms and mirror rocks, maybe even mirror planets and stars. Collectively, they could form an entire shadow world, just as real as our own but almost completely cut off from us…

If the “mirrorverse” exists, upcoming experiments involving subatomic particles could reveal it: “Scientists are searching for a mirror universe. It could be sitting right in front of you.”

* Douglas Adams


As we reflect of reflections, we might recall that it was on this date in 64 CE that the Great Fire of Rome began, ultimately destroying much of the Imperial City.  The fire began in the slums of a district south of the Palatine Hill.  The area’s homes burned very quickly and the fire spread north, fueled by high winds; it raged out of control for three days.  Three of Rome’s 14 districts were completely razed; only four were untouched by the conflagration.  Hundreds of people died in the fire and many thousands were left homeless.

Legend has it that the Emperor Nero fiddled while the city burned.  But the fiddle did not even exist at the time (Nero was an adept of the lyre), and he was actually 35 miles away in Antium when the fire broke out.  What is clear is that he blamed “the Christians” for it.




Written by LW

July 19, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Behind the hieroglyphic streets there would either be a transcendent meaning, or only the earth”*…



A map from 1893 portrays Earth as square and stationary and warns of Biblical interdiction against the notion of a round Earth flying through space


If you are only just waking up to the twenty-first century, you should know that, according to a growing number of people, much of what you’ve been taught about our planet is a lie: Earth really is flat. We know this because dozens, if not hundreds, of YouTube videos describe the coverup. We’ve listened to podcasts—Flat Earth Conspiracy, The Flat Earth Podcast—that parse the minutiae of various flat-Earth models, and the very wonkiness of the discussion indicates that the over-all theory is as sound and valid as any other scientific theory. We know because on a clear, cool day it is sometimes possible, from southwestern Michigan, to see the Chicago skyline, more than fifty miles away—an impossibility were Earth actually curved. We know because, last February, Kyrie Irving, the Boston Celtics point guard, told us so. “The Earth is flat,” he said. “It’s right in front of our faces. I’m telling you, it’s right in front of our faces. They lie to us.” We know because, last November, a year and a day after Donald Trump was elected President, more than five hundred people from across this flat Earth paid as much as two hundred and forty-nine dollars each to attend the first-ever Flat Earth Conference, in a suburb of Raleigh, North Carolina…

The unsettling thing about spending two days at a convention of people who believe that Earth is flat isn’t the possibility that you, too, might come to accept their world view, although I did worry a little about that. Rather, it’s the very real likelihood that, after sitting through hours of presentations on “scientism,” lightning angels, and NASA’s many conspiracies—the moon-landing hoax, the International Fake Station, so-called satellites—and in chatting with I.T. specialists, cops, college students, and fashionably dressed families with young children, all of them unfailingly earnest and lovely, you will come to actually understand why a growing number of people are dead certain that Earth is flat. Because that truth is unnerving…

Alan Burdick explains what the burgeoning movement says about science, solace, and how a theory becomes truth; “Looking for Life on a Flat Earth.”

* Thomas Pynchon, The Crying of Lot 49


As we contemplate curvature, we might recall that it was on this date in 1850 that Harvard Observatory director William Cranch Bond and Boston photographer John Adams Whipple took a daguerreotype of Vega– the first photograph of a star ever made.



“I feel the earth move under my feet”*…




For more than a century, the San Andreas Fault has been considered the undisputed heavyweight champion of large-scale deformation in the West. It is here that the North American and Pacific Plates meet, jostling for position with often violent results. Eventually, the theory goes, the thin sliver of land between the fault and the ocean—from the southern tip of the Baja Peninsula to the Santa Cruz Mountains—will break off from the mainland and slide north, until LA drifts past San Francisco. But there’s at least one problem with this scenario: The San Andreas appears to have gotten jammed. Northwest of LA, near the town of Frazier Park, the fault is kinked out of alignment so dramatically that many geologists suspect the pent-up tectonic strain will have to seek release somewhere else…

[Nevada state geologist James] Faulds thinks he’s found the spot. It’s an emerging zone of instability, known as the Walker Lane, that closely follows Route 395. He believes that, over the next 8 million to 10 million years, the North American continent will unzip along this stretch of land, east of the San Andreas. The Gulf of California, which separates the Baja Peninsula from Mexico, will surge north into Nevada, turning thousands of square miles of dry land into ocean floor. (Mapmakers, if they still exist, may label the new body of water the Reno Sea.) While this geologic realignment will take long enough for human civilization to fall, rise, and fall again hundreds of times over, Faulds’ hypothesis is more than an academic curiosity. It represents a radical shift in how geologists use up-to-the-minute tools—satellite data, aerial surveys, computer simulations—to fathom age-old processes. And for residents of the West, it is an invitation to think in an altogether new way about the familiar-seeming ground beneath them. Now is the time: Already the Walker Lane region, with its booming population and burgeoning tech economy, is beginning to feel the rumblings of a new seismic regime…

The next Big One?  “Move Over, San Andreas: There’s an Ominous New Fault in Town.”

* James Taylor and Carole King


As we ruminate on the rumbling, we might spare a thought for Richard Dixon Oldham; he died on this date in 1936.  A geologist and pioneering seismologist, he made the first clear identification of the separate arrivals of P-waves (primary waves), S-waves (secondary waves), and surface waves on seismograms.  Later, he developed the first clear evidence that the Earth has a central liquid core.

150px-RD_Oldham source


Written by LW

July 15, 2019 at 1:01 am

“Castles made of sand fall in the sea eventually”*…


dredging sand

Dredging sand from one of Greenland’s fjords


Readers may recall a post a couple of years ago on then-dawning shortage of sand (“To see a world on a grain of sand“).  The problem has only grown, and has led to a new kind of crime– sand rustling.

But there is a new source of sand emerging…

The world makes a lot of concrete, more than 10 billion tons a year, and is poised to make much more for a population that is forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2050. That makes sand, which is about 40 percent of concrete by weight, one of the most-used commodities in the world, and one that is becoming harder to come by in some regions.

But because of the erosive power of ice, there is a lot of sand in Greenland. And with climate change accelerating the melting of Greenland’s mile-thick ice sheet — a recent study found that melting has increased sixfold since the 1980s — there is going to be a lot more.

“It’s not rocket science,” Dr. [Mette] Bendixen said. “One part of the world has something that other parts of the world are lacking.”

Dr. Bendixen is planning a two-year study to answer basic questions about the idea, including its feasibility and the environmental effects of extracting and exporting large amounts of the material. The government of Greenland, a self-ruled territory of Denmark, is studying it as well…

All told, Greenland’s ice sheet delivers about 900 million tons of sediment to the waters surrounding the island each year, or about 10 percent of all the sediment delivered to oceans worldwide. The glacier at Sermilik Fjord, about 50 miles south of the capital, Nuuk, delivers about a quarter of Greenland’s total. That explains the vast delta of sand visible from the air as well as from a research boat as the tide begins to go out.

The delta, with muddy rivulets crisscrossing it, stretches to the glacier more than five miles away.

Dr. Bendixen has made some hypothetical calculations. If just 15 percent of the sediment pouring into this fjord every year could be extracted, that amount of sand — 33 million tons — is twice the annual demand of San Diego County in California, one of the most populous in the United States.

Sermilik Fjord is only one of a number of places in Greenland with large amounts of sand. And the sand will keep coming as the world keeps warming and the ice sheet keeps melting. “It’s like a tap pouring not only water, but sediment,” she said…

Even as climate change taketh away, it giveth: “Melting Greenland Is Awash in Sand.”

For more (and listenable) background on the ubiquity of sand in construction: 99% Invisible‘s “Built on Sand.”

[TotH to MKM]

* Jimi Hendrix


As we have second thoughts about silver linings, we might recall that today is Fools Paradise Day- a kind of “day off” for the mind, celebrating happiness that is rooted in false beliefs or hopes.

The concept of a paradise of fools has a long history; Dante and Ariosto, for example, described such planes– places where fools or idiots were sent after death: intellectually incompetent to be held responsible for their deeds, they cannot be punished for them in hell, atone for them in purgatory, or be rewarded for them in heaven.

The phrase first appeared in English in 1462 in the Paston Letters (“I wold not be in a folis paradyce”).  But it began its trek into the vernacular– and acquired it’s current meaning– in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet (when the Nurse says to Romeo, “if ye should lead her into a fool’s paradise, as they say, it were a very gross kind of behavior”).

fools paradise source


Written by LW

July 13, 2019 at 1:01 am

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