Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Quantum consciousness

A recent paper from the University of Auckland claims, “a potential mechanism for the conscious brain to anticipate impending opportunities and threats to survival through massively parallel weak quantum measurement (MPWQM) induced by the combined effects of edge of chaos sensitivity and phase coherence sampling of brain states. It concludes that the underpinnings of this process emerged in single-celled eucaryotes in association with (a) excitability-induced sensitivity to electro-chemical perturbations in the milieu as an anticipatory sense organ and (b) cell-to-cell signaling necessary for critical phases in the life cycle.”

Although the paper is weak on evidence, it does open an interesting avenue for research. The coordinated hypothesis of evolutionary, biological and physical basis of consciousness may remain untestable but it is a satisfying thought experiment, at the very least. Those who live, may be assigning too much value to life and to consciousness but consciousness, one has to admit, has very nice properties to it. And, if it does merge into anticipation with such forecasts emanating from electro-chemical perturbations and cell-to-cell signaling at the fundamental level, it does make it more interesting to think about. More importantly, it may open new avenues to study societal consciousness, in higher order species. The complexity of the organism appears to be inversely correlated to societal consciousness with single cell organisms exhibiting highest competence. Massively parallel systems seem to require consistency at the elemental level to induce and sustain societal consciousness and this may be a subtle sign that if quantum effects are at play, they are unlikely to transfer to complex, non-uniform and non-modular systems.

Extrapolating from stable and uniform networked systems to complex organisms may be a mistake. However, it is, indeed, a good thought experiment.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Cosmic blunder

Recent findings from Stanford University and the University of Chicago seem to confirm the “inflation theory.” Conformists are not deterred by the fact that the “signal” is much stronger than what would be forecasted by the theorists. Yet again, we have the classic case of “believe and prove,” and if the proof is a bit stronger, that is for the best. Institutions of higher learning should have higher standards - papers and the ever anticipated Nobel prizes cannot be the reason.

Cosmic inflation has fascinated many – academic and otherwise. Most students know that their education will be less valuable if they are allowed to “plug” something into an equation, just to make it work. But not for the best physicists of the day – if the data show that one drove from Chicago to Dallas in 6 hours, the “only explanation” has to be that she “inflated” through Southern Illinois, for the concept of time, space and the speed of the car are absolute. How is this any different from religious beliefs who academics tend to scorn. Why is it so difficult to believe that Christ simply rose from the cave and would return in the future. Is that belief any different from “cosmic inflation,” that is now proven albeit the effect is a bit “stronger than predicted.”

Physics is declining to a level comparable to religion. A hypothesis, once stated, will be proven with certainty – those still holding out for uncertainty, do it at their own peril. No Nobel prizes to follow.

Thursday, May 8, 2014


Recent research from McGill seems to prove the opposite to conventional wisdom – free radicals or oxidants – increase longevity, casting a long and dark shadow over the anti-oxidant industry. This is further proof that medical research is progressing backward looking to avoid incremental harm while missing out on substantial benefits. Humans, trained to see and analyze trees as a species, often miss the forest.

Biological systems present the ultimate tease to the shallow human brain, steeped in deterministic and engineering know-how – an unavoidable outcome of constant optimization in the presence of clear and simple objective functions. Sunrise signaled the beginning of the day and they knew they had less than ten hours to hunt, collect and compact within a territory that is well marked. They will start again the next if the nocturnal beings do not invade the cave. They could do this for over five thousand times, if they avoid strong animals and stronger plant toxins in their progress to certain  and unavoidable destiny. Stupidity and ego would force them to overshoot what was attainable, shrinking them to less than a few thousand in the narrow part of the bottleneck.

Humans were never equipped with the skills to understand themselves. They comprise systems of such non-linearity, their engineering brains never had any hope of discerning themselves. It is ironic that the ultimate knowledge that will fail the humans is understanding themselves.

Friday, May 2, 2014

The economics of a disaster

Ever since the metal tube vanished off the Asian skies, there has been a flurry of activities. The talking heads on the cable news network – some living in flight simulators for months, some parading an impressive array of “experts,” who repeat a few lines less adeptly than trained parrots, some worrying about black holes and others the lack of use of psychics in the search process, wolfs, jackals and green screen men – all came out ahead. The equipment manufacturers and service providers of search – sporting blue shrimp, whale and other such aquatic beings – all came out ahead. Those went looking for the black box and heard pings, here, there and nowhere – all came out ahead. The captains, admirals, security officials and their handlers – all came out ahead. Environmentalists, buoyed by sea garbage, found yet another cause to cry and shout, came out ahead. Politicians and leaders of countries – able to look and act like a leader and win bonus points from next year’s electorate, came out ahead. The engineers and data scientists who cut, diced and killed data to find the “final resting place,” came out ahead.

Was it incompetence or just merely for the show?  Who lost? The families of those lost in sea and the taxpayers who funded a grand show for nothing.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Data rich, analysis poor

A recent research (1) that shows studying the effects of drugs on yeast could inform drug interaction effects on humans, is revealing. Life sciences companies have lagged in the use of rich data they have collected from past studies. Although the yeast studies are potentially revealing, there is significantly more information hiding in the data from past experiments on humans.

Drug interactions are important from multiple perspectives – some indicating a reduction in efficacy and others showing enhanced toxicity. The yeast studies show interactions between drugs at very high levels, albeit in a different biological entity. The tendency of life science companies to collect “hard data,” holds them back. Every other industry is using data better to predict, act and optimize. It is ironic that the industry that thrives on data is bringing up the rear of analytics.

More importantly, we are fast approaching a regime in which personal efficacy and toxicity could be reliably predicted by individual. One could slow down innovation but it is unlikely that big pharma can escape the coming revolution in data analytics.

(1) Large-scale identification and analysis of suppressive drug interactions, Lunenfeld-Tanenbaum Research Institute

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The sky distraction

Many have been worried about light pollution that obscures the sky and some have gone as far as speculating that the inability of city folks to view the stars overhead is eating into the human psyche. Those who have burned the midnight oil in North America to view the total lunar eclipse recently may be comforted by the fact that there are three more to follow soon. The sky is indeed interesting, but there are more interesting ideas to think about. Watching the sky is not going to change anything – thinking about what could be out there, may.

Conventional education methods have stressed such mediocre attempts to understand science – a trip to the planetarium and a stroll down to the backyard pond – on the premise that seeing, touching and feeling stuff will enhance understanding. In a world of accelerating abstract knowledge, such practicality comes with a huge cost. Real astrophysicists do not “look up” and real biologists are not enamored by the Petri dish. Knowledge comes from imagination and not by verifiable experiments. Mechanics and experimentalism can only sustain the status-quo and not advance it.

So, next time somebody implores you “to look up” to the heavens to learn, think about how much more could be learned by just looking down.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Optimized tactical death

A recent article in the Journal of Sociology speculates that as much as 1 billion people around the world could be living in poverty – on as little as $1 per day. The brain of humans, still by far the most important and scarce resource on Earth, has been sub optimized on every dimension. Lifting humanity from the abyss of ignorance could be the most strategic of actions any individual, organization or country could take. However, most are engaged in the tactical optimization of segmented wealth and presumed utility, they are unlikely to ever see the big picture.

Humans have been enigmatic. They seem to carry an organ of depth on their shoulders but most seem unaware of it. Most do not know that there are seven billion clones of themselves spread across the blue planet. They carry virtually the same genes – a quirk of a bottleneck that humanity encountered nearly hundred thousand years ago. But they spend most of their time reinforcing their boundaries and raising impenetrable walls across countries, religions, color, education and wealth. It appears rational if the objective function is dominated by material wealth but utterly incomprehensible if it extends into utility, happiness and knowledge.

One cannot underestimate humans – they fought their entire existence for things of no value. They are unlikely to move beyond the shackles of their own experiences and ignorance. They will optimize tactically and then perish.

Friday, April 4, 2014

Parallel handicap

Recent research from Microsoft “Research” and “MIT” apparently demonstrates more efficient ways to utilize multi-core computers through parallel processing. As the world turns over craving for more processing power, demanded by “data scientists” and “rules machines,” it is time that the “computer scientists” found ways to produce machines that crunch more efficiently.

They don’t. Media labs and AI labs aside, on both coasts and the Melon in between, there has been more hype than what could be doled out by a used car saleswoman. Personal computers arrived 35 years ago – a life time in the historical timescale of humans – and it has not changed the world. Engineers have never been creative and hyped engineers are worse as they portray incremental failures as advancement and self-driving cars as a game changer. What they don’t seem to understand and likely never will, is that even if cars drive themselves and drones fly at will overhead, they do not make much of a difference to the 7 billion humans across the world.

Massively parallel processed machines – envisioned by those with creative minds decades ago, held hostage by the constraints of “chip design,” may be unwinding. It is certainly not comforting to imagine that the mediocrity, more interested in publishing papers than inventing, will never make it happen.