Scientific Sense Podcast

Monday, October 31, 2016

Missed by a whisker

As the string theorists work out the mathematics of the "theory of everything,", as the particle zoo keeper adds yet another particle to the compendium of knowledge, as the space agencies and private companies clamor to dominate space and send humans to Mars, as the environmentalists lament about the impending gloom and doom and as the activists burn and pillage to redirect policies, a large asteroid passed by the Earth peacefully, missing it by a mere 300K kilometers last night, a literal blink of an eye. And more, a lot more, is in the channel heading for the blue planet. I wonder why there was nothing in the news about it.

Humans habitually worry about the tactics and forget the big picture. There is an evolutionary basis for this as most of their history has been about tactical survival. The African Savannah was not a friendly place and as she descended from the trees, she exposed herself to danger all around her. The human psyche, thus, is programmed to worry about tomorrow and not next year for the probability of the later having any meaning for the individual was low. As the "Nobel laureates" attempt to mend the environment, they have to at least understand that the likelihood of Earth surviving a hit by a reasonable sized asteroid is small. And, there are an unimaginable number of objects in the splintered neighborhood of the solar system. The failed star, Jupiter, does her best but sweeping up all the dangerous objects that shower down from beyond her is almost an impossible task.

Those with a few billion $ to invest to create a "legacy," may be best advised to analyze the risks and rewards of their investment choices, Sure, creating a "space colony" and "curing death," are indeed great ideas but if they want humanity to survive (without whom their "legacy," will have no value), they may need to focus on something entirely different. Those who have been chasing "singularity," may need to consider that even "Artificial General Intelligence," will be dead and gone by the physics of impact. Creating robots of immense talent is good, but protecting a fragile environment built over five billion years may be more valuable.

It will be indeed ironic if the "advanced humans," are wiped out by a similar incident that lend mammals, an opening to dominate.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Live forever?

Recent findings that appear to indicate that aging can be stopped in mammals by starvation and possible introduction of simple chemicals is encouraging for those who may want to live longer. Humans, a plumbing system designed by bacteria to consume and dispel nutrients favorable to them, have found it difficult to sustain life beyond thresholds established at their inception. Anti-bacterial agents did extend life tactically by a decade or so but it appears that they are hitting against some hard constraints. Engineering systems, specializing in plumbing tasks, have limited life and humans appear to fall into this category.

Although humans carry a specialized quantum computer on their shoulders, the action has largely been in their gut, thus far. A crude tubular structure, able to break down a variety of materials to feed its occupants, has been the main design feature. But just as any other such mechanical designs, the scaffolding deteriorates over time and the structure itself loses flexibility and crumbles after certain number of cycles. So, it is not surprising to imagine that life can be extended by starvation as that will reduce the number of cycles imparted on the most important aspect of a human - her gut.

The more important question for humans is what they are likely to do with a possible extension of life. Would they use the extra time to seek knowledge or fight with those who do not look or think like themselves? Would they use the extra time to advance society or segregate themselves into neatly fractured boxes? Would they look forward or be encumbered by their past, driven by simple objective functions? Would they attempt to create and leave a legacy or understand that legacy is meaningless in an advanced society? Would they attempt to understand themselves or be misunderstood forever?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Extreme skew

Over 100 billion humans lived on the earth since they have arrived hundred thousand years ago. However, most of the fundamental knowledge they have gained from fire to quantum mechanics over this time period came from an incomprehensibly few number of people, perhaps as few as 100. This is a hard constraint for humans to advance knowledge as it depends very much on the arrival of a unique individual, perhaps in a few generations. Increase in abstract and fundamental knowledge does not seem to depend on anything else except the presence of that special individual who propels humanity across a discontinuity. Forecasting of knowledge progression in such a regime that follows a smooth stochastic evolution with an extremely small probability of a jump, is a futile exercise. 

Why is this the case? The variation in intelligence across humans appear very small and their physical abilities as good as perfect cloning. But a single person out of one billion appears to possess special powers, albeit all measurable characteristics of that individual are within expected norms. If the probability of this error solely depends on quantity and not on time, then, there could be as many as 7 such individuals who could be present in today's world. This does not seem to be the case as there has been little advancement in fundamental knowledge for close to hundred years.

Systems that exhibit time based errors are similar to electrical systems such as computers and not mechanical systems that can move. The hundred errors seen over 100 thousand years appear evenly spaced in time and show no acceleration in the presence of much larger number of contemporary experiments. If these errors were part of a natural process such as evolution, humanity would have produced a dozen such fundamental leaps in a single generation by now. However, all indications are that there is no difference in the arrival rates of the genius who changes the human mind.

If the universe were a rules based simulation or driven from a random initial state, then larger experiments will unambiguously lead to larger number of errors. It appears to be programmed to regime shift only with time, implying a game with possibly prescribed and controlled end outcomes. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Space contamination

Space agencies world over have been on a quest to send a feeble human out of the world and most likely to Mars. Now that the president has also joined the game, more investments will be going in that direction. And many private companies are on the same track as well. But is there any reason other than nourishing own ego to attempt a trip to the red planet?

Humans have ably demonstrated that they are incapable of taking care of the environment they live and breed in. To send a specimen of the human kind to another planet would be the first step to initiate an irreversible catastrophe. Some have argued that sterilization of robotic equipment travelling to other planets is overdone and even suggested that humans should seed any rock they can find with bacteria and virus. Sure, the single celled cousins may jump at the suggestion, but is that wise?

Exploration has been integral to the human experience. But history also shows that their explorations have resulted in irreversible damage to what they found. They have been unable to learn by observation and bad habits picked up in the past hundred thousand years invariably has led to scorched earth policies. Now that the horizons are expanding beyond the struggling blue planet, there is no indication that humans have learned from their mistakes.

God does seem to have a sense of humor as she appears to have imposed daunting space-time constraints on a species who has acquired a quantum computer, by sheer accident. To make matters worse, the canopy, humans could observe is infinitely bigger than they could ever experience and akin to an ironic twist in a horror movie, they find that such observations are fleeting as the whole universe runs away from them at an accelerating rate.

Those who sit back in awe of the abundance of ignorance surrounding them, often have no desire to drive the truck to the next planet. But the engineers among us live for such meaningless tactics without ever thinking what it really means.

Monday, October 10, 2016

How long?

A recent survey from Columbia (1) shows some interesting results. They asked 1600 participants between the ages of 18 and 64, how long they prefer to live. It appears that close to half of the surveyed population would not want to live more than the average life expectancy and almost 1/6 indicate a preference lower than that. Beyond the obvious correlation to expectations of the quality of life in old age, the data also shows significant relationship to race - with African Americans and Hispanics wanting to live a lot longer than White/Caucasians.

This is an important question and a rich area for further research. Till recently, humans had conquered most of the pathogens but they succumb to auto-immune diseases in which the body attacks itself. Heart disease, cancer and diabetic complications top the list - all of which portend lower quality of life in later years. This coupled with a brain that is bored could be a potent combination for humans, whose infrastructure was never designed to go beyond a few decades. In spite of the billions going down the drain to “cure all diseases,” it is clear that homo-sapiens may require outside help to get over their genetic deficiencies.

How long does one want to live? I think it should depend on whether one is able to add value to society.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sugar & Salt

For nearly hundred thousand years, humans were without two ingredients that will cut their life short substantially. In the last few thousand years, sugar and salt rose to prominence and are now considered responsible for a large spectrum of human diseases including heart disease and metabolic syndrome that includes diabetes. The economics of these chemicals has been attractive from inception. Recent evidence that the sugar lobby (1) has been involved in suppressing the evidence that sugar played a major role in CHF is symptomatic of the fact that there has been powerful forces behind these industries. Little did Gandhi knew that his salt march in India, nearly a century ago, could have been deleterious to the health of Indians.

The taste buds of Homo sapiens are finely tuned to pick up these toxins, for small quantities are absolutely essential for health. The evolutionary forces could not anticipate that these chemicals will be manufactured and consumed by modern humans in such frequency and quantities that their organs simply give up, unable to cope with them. These materials have become a sign of wealth and power and nations warred to take control of their sources and production. More recently, they have been disbursed in colored and famous water world over, to fundamentally transform human health. 

Two toxins, salt and sugar, are responsible for possibly half the health care costs in the world. However, there are no signs of any abatement in their production and consumption.