Scientific Sense Podcast

Monday, July 29, 2013

Free Marketability

A recent study in the International Journal of the Economics of Business shows that the European Climate Exchange (ECX) has been an efficient way to curb carbon emissions. Free markets, yet again, provide a simple and holistic way to price divisible and tradable benefits and dis-benefits to society. Free trading participants of a system are the most likely to impute efficient prices to outcomes and drive optimal policies. Ignorant politicians and paranoid scientists are unlikely to devise the best policies for society – worse, they make the situation worse.

More generally, society is in the best position to determine the price of an outcome for itself. Attempts at prescriptively driving policies either through the analysis of incomplete data or the adherence to political agendas by a few, will always result in worse outcomes. The basic idea that there is an efficient price to pollution is missing in these emotional debates. Since pollution affects society and its participants, only a large cohort of these participants, expressing freely could determine the cost of it.

There is a need to focus on two areas – first, market mechanisms, that will efficiently price any anticipated positive or negative outcomes to society, including pollution have to be prevalent with easy access to all participants and second, entities that manipulate prices have to be tried with the possibility of the highest penalty – they are engaged in crimes against humanity.

Friday, July 26, 2013

Unified, but not grand

A recent article in the European Physical Journal explains how the behavior of  a complex dynamical system could be explained by the superposition of simpler underlying systems. The work hypothesizes that special relativity and quantum-mechanical dynamics are mathematically identical to two interlocked processes operating at different energy levels.

Grand unification theories have been directionless for decades, attempting the impossible – some spawning particles and others energy fields, to plug the holes in improbable theories. They have been inventing strings, membranes and other such constructs, that would make a dress-maker blush but with little advancement in fundamental knowledge. The notion that complexity can be explained by superposition of simpler processes have been with us for decades as well, but that sounded too simplistic for the pretending geniuses behind ivy walls.

Simpler explanations to complex phenomena will always dominate even though it may not be sufficiently robust to prop up the ego of Nobel seekers.

Saturday, July 20, 2013

Parasitic evolution

Recent research from Vanderbilt University demonstrating that microbes in the gut of animals can substantially influence selection and thus evolution, is interesting. It implies that the outcome of evolution is based on a constrained optimization taking into account the characteristics and needs of multiple organisms in a single matrix. The interesting question is what dominates the process and how it has shaped evolutionary history.

Single cell organisms, amazingly robust and extremely flexible, have been dominating the Earth ever since they arrived, possibly hitching a ride on an asteroid. They shaped the environment to suit them and fundamentally changed the course of the blue planet. They meticulously designed carriers for them to survive in harsh conditions and thrive invisibly. Nothing less could have been expected of a species that travelled through interstellar space, billions of years ago.

Their hosts, complex and customized carrying boxes for this remarkable species are left with sheer astonishment as they study these superior biological entities.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Excess power

A recent study in the Journal of Neuroscience replicates the process of daydreaming in a computer simulation. It is a reminder that the most important asset of humanity – 7 billion brains – is significantly underutilized. An evolutionary quirk endowed humans with a massive organ that finds itself with little to do most of the time. It can control and operate the most sophisticated robot on Earth with less than 10% of the available power. The rest, is simply wasted – and out of sheer frustration, it ventures into daydreaming and night dreaming.

Humans have been attempting to use excess computing power in interesting ways. The Internet finally connected islands of processing power but the use of available excess computing power in the network is still in its infancy. Computing power, however, is a trivial resource compared to brain power – that remains largely disconnected and wasted. Productivity of modern societies is likely highly correlated with its ability to connect brains and use wasted brain power to solve complex and interesting problems.

A technology, akin to the Internet, able to connect brains and utilize the available excess capacity, is needed for humans to take the next step. This is a societal problem – something that the “singularity” peddling technocrats are ill-equipped to understand.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

A measure of goodness

As the world, fully segmented into countries, religions and belief systems, fight to prove and disprove, it is interesting to think about a measure of goodness. Here, actions clearly matter more than words, for the latter is costless. A good person contributes to the wealth of humanity to such an extent that optimization of the system will require the protection and nourishment of that entity at almost any cost. Goodness, then, is about understanding the universe, its interconnectedness and its ability to solve the future and forget the past. It is about shedding the pretense, capturing the thoughts of beautiful minds and extending them. It is about shunning meaningless fights and challenging apparently meaningful present.

Goodness is indeed rare – it is not about wealth, intelligence, status or strength. It is all about beautiful thoughts that connect constrained ideas for the benefit of all. It is not about showcasing own self, but rather appreciating the random ones. It is not about winning at any cost, but rather assuring that victory has meaning. It is not process but content and it is not status but contribution. It is the ability to see the whole and not manufacture the details of the components. It is not running for the meaningless destinations but crawling to the beacons of enigma. It is, indeed, about beautiful thoughts – with fading but powerful examples, such as Einstein and Gandhi – and as a precious few look back in such bewilderment that they could find minds of such inexplicable depth and capabilities, they hang their heads in shame.

How does one measure goodness, then? With asymmetric pay-off to the individual, most rational and ordinary men and women will shun choices of implementing goodness at her own cost. She will be forced to optimize with harsh constraints on her own tactical life, with a programmatic and irreversible end. Could ordinary humans be good enough? Would they put yet another brick in the wall of humanity? Would they extend the knowledge handed down from generations or would they simply give up?

The value of society is the sum total of its goodness – a metric that is clear to those who want to optimize and less so to others.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Wild mouse

Recent research from Northwestern University shows that removal of a single gene from a biological entity can substantially affect behavior. In this specific study, the removal of a gene, TAAR4, from a mouse, rendered it incapable of smelling the urine of the predator cat and avoid them. The team from NU hypothesizes that the gene provides a level of senisitivity to smell in evolved systems, such as humans, helping them avoid rotten foods. Even complex systems, thus, are precariously balanced by the presence of few "apps" for survival.

Even human, a marvel of nature, may be vulnarebale to specialized systems without back-ups. Mice, with a smilar structure, show signifcant vulnerability to the alteration of a single gene in a similar gene pool. Natural designs, thus, have been risky experiments - assuming high confidence of performance in critical systems. The design of an aircraft in this fashion, will substantially increase the probability of failure in every flight. The question is why nature would partake in such risky designs. Clearly, redundancy is costly and if the evolutionary design is part of a game with winner takes all result, then it makes sense to enter risky designs to the competition. With no limits on entries to the evolution competition, it is dominant for nature to push a plethora of efficient but risky designs.

Contemporary bilogical systems, winners of past high stake games, may be ill-equipped to win again in changing regimes.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Entropy driven evolution

Although many explanations exist for the origin of life – mostly from traditional religions, the most robust scientific explanation is the one driven by entropy. A singular direction of time coupled with unambiguously increasing entropy in the universe, point to life as a mechanism that accelerates entropy. Those wondering why a group of complex chemicals will get together and act in unnatural ways, could consider the existence of a simple objective function as the maximization of entropy from available means. In other words, life is the most efficient way to accelerate entropy given a chemical condition.

Evolution, then, could be explained in the same vein. If more complex life forms increase entropy at faster rates, then, there should be a natural push toward the creation of such life. Simpler life, should lead to more complex ones and this is fundamental to evolution. However, from a system perspective, if such a transformation leads to aggregate loss in entropy creation – either due to volumetric loss of simpler life or constraints placed on them by evolving complex ones, then, evolution can lead to suboptimal performance. Since the physics of entropy cannot be refuted, it has to be that complex life is fully capable of compensating for any loss of entropy creation from entities they evolved from. The evolution of the brain, a highly inefficient organ, in mammals, certainly fits the bill.

Evolution, may be better explained by physics, as a process that accelerates the entropy of the universe

Friday, June 21, 2013

Single City

A recent study from the Santa Fe Institute shows that cities are excellent systems – they are efficient social reactors and networks. As they grow, they make larger and denser social webs available to each participant, without any additional effort from the individual. The study does not suggest any diseconomies to scale and maximum limits.

Conceptually, then, the larger a city is, the better. This implies that the best design for humanity is to establish a single city that houses all of the World’s population – about 7 billion currently. To reduce extra-terrestrial risks from such a concentration, perhaps a second city can be established, at a location diametrically opposite to the first one. The second city, a mirror image of the first, could be left vacant for emergency use only. With distributed 3D printing, conventional manufacturing can be eliminated. Power production can be designed at mega scale with concentrating solar and wind farms away from the city, with efficient transmission back. Vertical farming may allow food production in close proximity. Excess power production may ultimately eliminate the need for farming, with instant conversion of power to food or direct consumption of energy instead of food.

With a single city design, most of the World can be returned to its original state. Such a system will have higher diversity and associated flexibility to mend itself after shocks.