Doug Bruns

Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

Men in Trunks

In Life, Science on February 8, 2013 at 6:00 am

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I’ve been traveling and missed a few days at the pool. I’m a swimmer. Upon returning, a friend mentioned that he hadn’t seen me and that it was good I was back “fighting the battle.” I asked if he was familiar with the second law of thermodynamics? Mind you, this dialogue is occurring between two men standing naked, but for their Speedos. I described to him the theory of entropy, which states that the universe moves toward chaos and disarray. I explained that if he’d ever had teenagers in the house or was married to a slob he would know what I meant. Test the theory at home. Don’t clean the kitchen for a week and you’ll see what I mean. Teenagers are too often walking examples of entropy. They are, to use a term of physics, isolated systems spontaneously evolving towards the state of maximum entropy.

It seems the battle he was referring to was the battle against entropy, that in fact the universe is aways moving in a direction contrary to our wishes. Eventually everything will fall into a state of entropy, including, yes, ourselves. Physically and mentally we are going to hell and there is nothing to be done but to pull on your Speedo and wage war. Sometimes locker-room talk might surprise you.

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If, for some reason, you want to think more about entropy:

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And if you want to pursue the subject down the rabbit hole, I suggest James Gleick’s Chaos. (You might recall I suggested reading Gleick’s biography of Richard Feynman in a previous post.) Chaos is not properly about entropy but a background to64582 the development of chaos theory. The two concepts are intertwined. And for what it’s worth, Gleick is one of our best science writers. Any excuse to read him is rewarding.

Thanks for reading and have a terrific weekend.

d

What are the odds?

In Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas on January 18, 2013 at 6:00 am
Ah, "the yoke of inauspicious stars."

Ah, “the yoke of inauspicious stars.”

What are the odds of your existence? Never wondered? Neither have I. But then I read this, which I am about to share with you, and now I must wonder why I never wondered!

This is a long quote, so please excuse me that. It is from Why Does the World Exist? by Jim Holt , the book I’ve been referring to recently— please excuse that as well. Here we go:

As a member of the human species, I have a particular genetic identity. There are about 30,000 active genes in the human genome. Each of these genes has a least two variants, or “alleles.” So the number of genetically distinct identifies the genome can encode is at least 2 raised to the thirty-thousandth power–which roughly equals the number 1 followed by 10,000 zeros. That’s the number of potential people allowed by the structure of our DNA. And how many of those potential people have actually existed? It is estimated that about 40 billion humans have been born since the emergence of our species. Let’s round the number up to 100 billion, just to be on the conservative side. This means that the fraction of genetically possible humans who have been born is less than 0.00000…0001 (insert about 9,979 extra zeros in the gap.) The overwhelming majority of these genetically possible humans are unborn specters. Such is the fantastic lottery that I–and you–had to win in order to shimmer on the scene.

Reading this reminded me of a paragraph from Lewis Thomas, from his book Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony. Here’s Lewis:

Every once in a while the reasons for discouragement about the human prospect pile up so high that it becomes difficult to see the way ahead, and it is then a great blessing to have one conspicuous and irrefutable good thing to think about ourselves something solid enough to step onto and look beyond the pile.

Friends, if you should ever feel this way, ever entertain this degree of “discouragement about the human prospect,” I invite you to read the paragraph above from Jim Holt. We won the lottery. For this we must step up and rejoice.

Thanks for reading,

d

Habits of learning.

In Books, Curiosity, Life, Reading, Science, The Examined Life, The infinity of ideas on January 11, 2013 at 6:00 am

There are many subjects discussed here at “…the house…” It’s an eclectic place. Commenting on this, a friend recently asked about my habits of learning. I thought I’d take a moment and talk about that. I wrote about the habits of reader-writers yesterday. This makes for a natural, albeit tangential, elaboration.

As I’ve said previously, I’m an autodidact. That is, I learn best on my own and without specific direction from others. (Ray Bradbury is a best-case example of an autodidact. A recent post on Bradbury, among other things, can be found here.) College showed me what to be interested in, pointed me in a direction. I took over from there. Through the years I have wished for a mentor, a guide, someone to help me in my intellectual pursuits; but that never happened and is not likely to happen now. Consequently, an evolution of learning resulted, a fashion of making my own way. It is simple and boils down to this: biography and original sources.

Let’s start with biography, and since we recently talked a bit about quantum physics, perhaps we will begin there.

Many years ago I came to better appreciate how modern physics was redefining our understanding of the physical world, but I had little understanding of the work being done. Where to begin? Abstraction is booksdifficult for me. I need the hook of personality to guide my quest. Ergo, biography. Want to learn something? Begin with the lives of those who discovered/practiced/exercised the discipline. I began learning about physics by reading Denis Brian’s biography, Einstein: A Life. More properly, I began learning about the life of Einstein.

The book set the stage, but it was only the beginning. I came to learn from my reading that the good professor was at the sunset of work being done in traditional Newtonian physics. With that (new)98685 knowledge, I moved to modern physics with the brilliant award-winning biography, Genius, The Life and Times of Richard Feynman, by James Gleick. I was starting to settle in, getting traction, and knew that one life still had to be explored: Robert Oppenheimer. I turned to the definitive book, Kai Bird and Martin J. Sherwin’s, American Prometheus: The Triumph and Tragedy of J. Robert Oppenheimer.

71JUG2TW19LI will resist the urge to riff on these books. They get me excited. I cannot over recommend them. (Though Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein is the one to read now.)

With this work done, I was equipped to move to the next phase: original sources. However, I could not read original sources. I am mathematically illiterate. So, where to turn? I read books for the lay person. (Fortunately, too, I have a physicist in the family. Advice: find an expert.) But still, I gave a selection of the original sources a go and found the good Doctor Einstein’s book, Relativity, The Special and General Theory, to be surprisingly accessible (if you ignore the math). File:The_pleasure_of_finding_things_outMany of Feynman’s books are written for the layperson. (Start with The Pleasure of Finding Things Out–not physics, per se, but wonderful thoughts on leaning and curiosity.) The point being, without the biographies I would not have asked the right questions, read the right supplemental books, discovered the correct sources. By the end of the process–I probably invested two year’s reading–I was confident that I knew what I needed and wanted to know.

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I share this to perhaps help you on your quest, whatever that might be. I’ve read a lot of books and hope to read many more. If you’re a life-long learner perhaps you’ve got your own technique. I share mine to show how one person does it. Maybe you have a technique you think I would appreciate. Please share. We’re all pilgrims on this journey.

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Lastly:

Our schools teach from secondary and tertiary sources. This is a pity. Original thinkers shared. They wrote books to be read. My personal admonition: Do the homework, go to the source–and, for me, prepare for the source material; that is, read the biographies.

Thanks for reading,

d

Of this we can be uncertain.

In Curiosity, Life, Philosophy, Science, The infinity of ideas, Thinkers on January 9, 2013 at 6:00 am

“House” member, kvnpete, put a question to me that, I think, everyone might appreciate. The question, a good one, a big one, warrants a larger canvas than just a “comment.”

Here’s what kvnpete asked (I took the liberty to link a few references mentioned, should one wish to pursue further):

“You mention things like the Geodetic Effect and I am wondering if you ever read anything by Roger Penrose? Besides being in the same class as a Stephen Hawking, his most recent book, The Road to Reality, is a physics book that I think that is supposed to be really worth a look, more philosophical than pure science. Penrose always holds some interesting views on the inflationary universe and the human consciousness that may sometimes be unpopular and unproven but there maybe is something there. I haven’t seen The Road to Reality myself; I understand it is more of a project than anything else, but one worth undertaking. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t know the first thing about quantum mechanics except that is two words and not one and I’m not suggesting Penrose is writer that compares to the authors you often mention; but that is apples and oranges. Also quantum mechanics just doesn’t seem to be the most practical topic and maybe more of a religion in the way that it is only discussed by others in the congregation who read the relevant books; but do you think it holds anything that is more than just math equations and physics, and if it does, what is it’s place in all of this? Thanks”

Thanks for the question, kvnpete. Damn, we are a smart and good-looking bunch, aren’t we? The reviewer at The Guardian wrote of Penrose’s bookFile:The_Road_to_Reality (2006), The Road to Reality: “…if you are at all interested in different sizes of infinity, or different dimensions, or quantum particles, the thermodynamic legacy of the Big Bang, then here is chapter and verse, at least until matters are sorted out by a grand unified theory once and for all. You can skate over the equations and let the more comprehensible assertions, or the more stimulating questions, lodge themselves in your mind and assume the character of poetry.” So let’s set Penrose (a Platonist, Penrose has written, “I imagine that whenever the mind perceives a mathematical idea it makes contact with Plato’s world of mathematical concepts.”) and his soon-to-be-procured book aside and get to the meat of the matter, the only mouthful I can attempt to chew–and that is kvnpete’s question, “quantum mechanics…what is its place in all of this?” Great question!

By “all of this” I suspect you’re referring to the big stuff, the universe and our place in it, the meaning and implication of that, and so on. Here’s the little bit I know and what I deem to be the import of that information.

Einstein originally built a fudge-factor into his Theory of Special Relativity. His calculations indicated that the universe was expanding–this was pre-“Big Bang” theory–and he couldn’t accept the fact that the universe was not constant and secure. Later it was demonstrated that, indeed, his initial calculations were correct, that the universe was on the move. In the timeline of things, this was the beginning of the new physics (quantum) and the diminution of the old physics. Like Copernicus, Galileo, and Newton before him, Einstein thought the universe was eternal and unchanging. From the philosophical side of things, Bertrand Russell summed it up: “I should say that the universe is just there, and that is all.” But change was afoot. Feeling the ground shifting under his feet, Einstein famously quipped, “God does not play dice with the universe.”

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The Uncertainty Principal

Personally, the question settled on me heaviest when I happened upon Heisenberg‘s Uncertainty Principal. I was not alone in this and committed, like so many other lay people, all sorts of intellectual sins as a result of my limited understanding. In summary, Heisenberg (1901-1976) discovered that you cannot simultaneously know the location and the speed of a sub-atomic particle. The big hook here was the notion that observation changes the outcome. You can observe the speed of the particle, but that changes its location. You can observe the location of a particle, but that changes its speed. This is of course, sub-atomic stuff we’re talking about, but to the casual, philosophically-inclined, thinker, this was a very big deal. Imagine: the fashion in which we interact with the world, changes the reality of it. At least that was the simplistic conclusion I came to–I said I commented sins. (Oh, forgive me father, for I have made unwarranted philosophical leaps.)

To continue our journey down the history of an idea: The general sense of things is/was that the old guard was losing the battle to explain the universe, and by implication, our place in it. The new quantum guard was painting a picture of chaos and change at every physical level. Philosophically the foundation was being laid that the quest to find meaning in the universe was, at best, absurd.

“…to hope in the possibility of help, not to speak of help by virtue of the absurd, that for God all things are possible – no, that he will not do. And as for seeking help from any other – no, that he will not do for all the world…” ~ Kierkegaard

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Kierkegaard, patron saint of the absurd.

As I’ve said before, I subscribe to Camus‘s notion that one is responsible for creating meaning in existence–it will not come from outside, not from the universe, not from a super-natural being, or a cosmic vibe. (The only cosmic vibe is the repeated echo of the Big Bang. Back in the days of analogue TV, you could tune your television to that fuzzy spot between channels and listen to the resounding pulsing static of the Big Bang.) This position, the place of the absurd, was not conceivable before the modern physicists showed up. It was hinted at–God is Dead, said Nietzsche–but did not carry the weight of physical reality until the math was done.

There is much to be made of all this, and many have gone there to do so–are still going there, even as our understanding of the physical world continues to change.

I find great freedom and energy as a result of this (post-modern) position. (A recent Times Magazine article included this sentence: “[the] atheist is free to concentrate on the fate of this world.”) Freethinkers everywhere have a legitimate claim, even a responsibility, to make of existence what they can. It will not come from a church, a god, a cosmos, “an other.” We must pray at the altar of the absurd and practice the religion of chaos. We are alone, but for the effort to be otherwise. And it is the effort that counts.

And that, dear kvnpete, is what I make of quantum physic’s place in all of this.” Thanks for the outstanding question.

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So sorry to have carried on like this. If you stayed the course, thank you. If you bailed, I understand. Perhaps next time we can simply talk about dogs and walks in the woods.

Thanks for reading,

D