Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, May 25, 2013


As humans find ways to live longer – first comprehensively beating out the bugs and then tackling some autoimmune diseases – it appears that the brain is taxed more and more. It has been the workhorse, ever ready to monitor, maintain and occasionally think, but it was never designed to last this long. A quantum computer, no less, but constrained by its biological origins and lack of flexibility, the brain has been a puzzle to those who attempt to use it. It stores information but retrieves it less efficiently, allowing humans to be ordinary animals, inaccurately recollecting the past and happily speculating about the future.

Memories of the brain, then, are what sustain humanity and the loss of them is simply disastrous. As the sane departs into the folds of history, they take those precious memories with them as there is no cloud, with sufficient capacity, to store it all. What a tragedy that humans have not found a way to preserve their own memories as the loss of information from those leaving and those who left but yet alive, is infinitely costly. Housed in small spaces, the brain has been front and center to the tribulations of generations in the past and more yet to come, yet it shows flashes of brilliance and compassion with failed attempts at integration and introspection. What could be done to preserve its creative intentions, its ability to seek the truth, its actions to make things right, its attempts to resolve the past and its valiant attempts to forecast the future?

The brain, the final frontier, will likely elude humanity forever as they travel in deep space, accumulate wealth and fame, explain particles and energy, kill and mutilate in the name of religion and politics and assert superiority over the known universe.

Friday, May 17, 2013

Better, older..

Recent observations (1) from a binary star system that includes a neutron star dancing with a white dwarf, indicate that Einstein's general theory of relativity, nearly a 100 years old now explain the seen gravity waves, the best. This is further affirmation that the dark ages of science is prolonged, with no foreseeable end. Fancy theories and heavy steel never measured up to sheer intellect and imagination.

The real question for physicists is where they go from here. Now that the Higgs Boson is proven to be “true”, what is next? Perhaps, a more exotic version of the Boson or maybe another trip to the particle zoo to pick an unproven fantasy, that may require a bigger and more powerful atom smasher. In either case, the expected progress in knowledge is close to zero. Both status-quo education systems and the process of awarding research grants have to change substantially to make any difference here. Awards and prizes, mere nods to mediocrity, who strive to discover and publish, peer reviewed or otherwise, simply make the situation worse. Further, engineers clamoring for “bigger” and more interesting projects simply aid and abet useless experimentation.

It is time to return to paper and pencil, the forgotten art of thinking, instead of measuring.


Einstein's gravity theory passes toughest test yet. Published: Thursday, April 25, 2013 - 14:10 in Astronomy & Space

Friday, May 10, 2013


A recent article (1) proposes that the mere existence of markets substantially erodes moral value, subjectively defined as the willingness to save the life of a mouse (used in animal experiments) instead of receiving money by trading them. Further, the authors argue that multilateral markets adversely affect morality more than bilateral markets.

These are interesting observations. If one were to accept the definition of morality as the ability to reject money to save a life (of a mouse), then, lack of markets will certainly enhance it. For, without markets, one cannot transact and hence an individual with no access to markets will be unambiguously, the most moral. At the other extreme, with large multilateral markets – and at the limit, with instantaneous and unrestricted access to infinite markets, the proclivity of an individual to transact (for money or other such benefits) will be the highest. Such large markets will always reduce transaction costs and participants in these markets will always be less moral (according to the definition) than those with no or restricted access to markets.

The real question is how one should define morality. Is morality a property of the individual or does it depend on the environment presented to her? Does morality change with the context, space and time of the issue at hand? Is morality demonstrable and measurable? Is morality binary or continuous? Does morality differ across ethnic and geographical regions? Are moral people better and if so how? Is morality valuable to society, or is it costly?

It is always important to define what is being measured before setting out to measure it. Also, passive assertion of societal benefits from subjective constructs such as morality can lead to the wrong conclusions.

(1) Morals and Markets Armin Falk 1,*, Nora Szech 2,
1 Center for Economics and Neuroscience, University of Bonn, Bonn, Germany.
2 Department of Economics, University of Bamberg, Bamberg, Germany.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Analyze this!

A recent research demonstrates that application of machine learning techniques applied to brain activity in a dream state do well against activity found in waking responses to visual stimuli (1). In general, visual contents of dreams seem to correlate well with those observed when the brain is awake.

The brain, albeit being a non-linear quantum computer, harbors characteristics that could be understood by traditional techniques. Machine learning techniques have been improving although most are extensions of deterministic statistical methods, engineers have been using for many decades. The observation that even such a crude technology is able to correlate brain states is encouraging and it may imply that the practice, if not the theory, of the brain is understandable. Research into biological and artificial intelligence progressed along opposite directions with little in common. The ability to build robust models from brain patterns that do well in predictions in different brain states could open a path toward collaboration among experts in these different areas.

Convergence in technologies and ideas is the most powerful concept yet. Segmented research is increasingly less productive.

(1) Neural Decoding of Visual Imagery During Sleep
T. Horikawa1,2, M. Tamaki1,*, Y. Miyawaki3,1,†, Y. Kamitani1,2,‡

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Shutting down the brain

Recent research from UCLA demonstrates that rats require less brain power in a virtual reality than in real world. This is an interesting observation. Although the UCLA experiment defines virtual reality in a narrow sense, one could broaden the concept. Conceptually, humans with routine lives are in a sort of virtual reality that requires less brain power to live in and thrive. Such a programmatic life is the norm for most, following traditional careers.

The larger question is whether such an effect has evolutionary implications. If the probability of success is higher when you find yourself in a virtual reality – a repeating game with less volatility – then they are more likely to be selected. Most large companies of today fit the bill. This means that the skills to adhere and optimally shut down parts of the brain that are not useful are the most valuable. If so, it is possible that humans may slide down the brain power curve as they evolve. The brain, already a highly expensive organ consuming 20% of available energy, can only be justified if it is fully deployed. Why buy a super computer if all one needs is a PC running a spreadsheet?

We may be precariously positioned in the evolutionary process, that never led to optimal outcomes in the past. The most likely outcome appears to be more brawn and less brain – a return to the origins for humans.

Thursday, April 25, 2013


Recent research from Cornell University hypothesizes that life in the universe may have originated 9.5 Billion years ago. The authors, Alexei A. Sharov and  Richard Gordon do this by looking at trends on Earth and using a linear regression against the Log of the Genome size – a measure of complexity. See the chart below.

This has several implications.

First, with a universe only 13.7 billion years old and suffering from an initial violent epoch dominated by QSOs, this observation means that life initiated at the first available opportunity – just 4 billion years after the inception of the universe. As the solar system does not demonstrate any advantages over numerous other alternatives, it is likely that life originated across the universe, 10 billion years ago.

Second, the only known life progression has taken nearly 10 billion years to reach a level of complexity that aids interstellar communication capabilities. If this relationship holds in the universe, then the complexity of life everywhere may be approximately the same as what is found on Earth. Current capabilities of humans to communicate thru interstellar space are primitive. With similar expected capabilities elsewhere, the chance of a contact is close to zero. Further, current theory allows a very limited window of space-time for possible communications and that further constraints this possibility.

Finally, this observation makes it clear that life arrived in the solar system from outside – perhaps just 4.5 billion years ago. The visitors already harbored sufficient genetic complexity and spread highly successfully. What is not known, however, is whether the progression could have been different given different conditions.

Extra-terrestrial life has been a fascination for humans from the beginning. It appears that the effort expended in this direction is a waste of time. Humans may be better off focusing on how to protect the Earth and borrow sufficient time to evolve into something, bit more interesting.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Quantum efficiency

Recent research from the University of Chicago hypothesizes that quantum coherence may play an important role in the highly efficient conversion of energy in photosynthesis. This is an exciting fundamental finding that may open the doors for the creation of efficient and possibly organic solar cells. This further illustrates that most life, including plants, have figured out how to practically use quantum effects.

Humans are heavily handicapped – as they seek to improve incrementally based on well established frameworks. Most of what we proudly hold as true, are irrelevant and in most cases send us on dead end pursuits. There are enough signs that technologists are on a wrong track to boredom – but they are shackled by an antiquated education system and their prospective employers are chasing next quarter's earnings. This spiral – well constrained by the established notions and status-quo structures, can have only inferior outcomes.

It is ironic that humans are the last ones to the quantum party.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Fine tuning emptiness

Recent findings that the universe is older, is expanding slower and it harbors more dark matter than energy compared to what was previously thought, are attempts at fine tuning a model, most are unwilling to let go. The basic idea that the inhabitants of a space-time bubble could not understand the system that governs itself, appears to have been lost. Only imagination, not experiments, has any chance of breaching that hard constraint.

Knowledge, then, could only come from philosophy and imagination, with science and technology delegated to noise created by those who do not perceive the constraints. Ironically, science is most apt at showcasing the constraints even though the underlying theories valiantly attempt to surpass them. There was a fork on the road – perhaps couple of centuries ago - when humanity eagerly marched down the scientific route, that was predetermined to win the tactics but lose the plot. The question is whether there is a possibility of convergence of the different ideas to substantially expand knowledge. That will require an integration of contrasting belief systems – science and philosophy, included.

Not all hope is lost – As a beautiful mind remarked nearly a century ago - “Logic will get you from A to B, but imagination will take you everywhere.”