Scientific Sense Podcast

Sunday, April 19, 2015

Stuck in the weeds

Yet another policy choice and the reaction of our fearless leaders to it, show the level of ignorance and incompetence the country has to get over before it can advance further. The magic leaf has been with humans for thousands of years and it shows significant medical advantages already. Because of its status, research has been dampened and we have a large number of people sitting in jail for a crime because of legalese. Those who wear the badge of “free markets,” elsewhere should engage in introspection and remove the inconsistencies in their policy choices.

In addition to the limits, there has to be education and competence requirements for people who want to legislate. I do not mean “self certification,” but hard constraints including exams that politicians have to pass before they can run for important policy positions. The gap between the current generation and the ones in Washington is big and it is getting bigger every passing day. If doctors, engineers and scientists have to demonstrate competence through structured tests, it is unclear why this is not the case for those who could have profound impact on a large number of people. Educational Testing Services – please take note and design a PAT – Politics Admission Test – that could have weeded out the crop that is currently legislating.

Stuck in the weeds and frozen in time, our leaders are unlikely to move society to a better state.

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Engineers discover probabilities

Recent news that MIT engineers have finally discovered probabilities is heartening news. A “probabilistic programming language,” they “invented” appears to be quite competitive to conventional systems for vision and cognition. It is always better to arrive late rather than not at all. Determinism, the bane of engineering, has kept many bright minds back for long.

There have been weak attempts at the same many decades before. After the hype of Artificial Intelligence waned in the towering institutions of the East and the West in the 80s, some feeble attempts at programming in logic surfaced in unknown quarters. Such programming was all about probabilities – and it had no prescriptive GoTo statements. The originators underestimated the wrath of engineers – who generally knew everything there is to know. Prolog was shown the grave before it arrived.

Machine learning, the latest hype, has some potential – but not in the hands of engineers with deterministic education. Perhaps, the next generation can leave the legacy of ego and ignorance behind and really make something happen.

Friday, April 10, 2015


Recent research from Princeton that attempts to spin yet another particle – spinon – to “explain” frustrated magnets, is symptomatic of trying to fit existing (old) theories into observations. Contemporary education and learning institutions are so inflexible that they are simply unable to break away from tradition. If observations do not fit a theory, it is better to ask if the theory is right rather than incrementally attaching an error that is yet to be proven. Sure, writing papers are easier this way but it is unlikely to advance knowledge.

If magnets are not behaving as expected, it is ok to call them “frustrated.” But to hypothesize a particle that may explain such frustration is fiction. This is dangerous research  - as experience tells us that, once “speculated,” it shall be “proven” in Physics – either by unachievable mathematics or by generating mind numbing noise from experiments. It is ironic that there has been only a single individual for over hundred years who could create a framework to think in Physics.

Educational institutions, world over, adept at producing “bricks in the wall,” graduates – engineers, scientists and doctors – prisoners of the status-quo, have to rethink – and quick.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Stop time

Stopping time appears to have several advantages. The trick is the modality of stoppage. If time is stopped with an incremental move, say a day, and then repeated in an infinite loop and if information transfer is allowed at the boundaries, then knowledge can increase infinitely. Biological systems, with a hard expiry date, have been inefficient in the transfer of information across space-time. The Fermi paradox is an important notion in this context. Biology, appears to be highly inferior to systems that perpetuate – either through time or space.

Search for extra-terrestrial life does not make any sense in this vein. An advanced society is most likely to harness gravity and stop time rather than travel across space or even show themselves on Radar. The epitome of modern transportation – humans packed like sardines in an aluminum can with wings – should provide a hint that travel is the least of things an advanced society would do. The idiots with the telescope and antennas in the heart of Silicon Valley never asked why an advanced society will show themselves to their inferior finding techniques. My tax dollars are better spent elsewhere.

Humans, the least likely species to search the heavens for their next of kin, may be getting ahead of themselves. The fact that they found a toy to scan the skies, does not mean that it is the best use of their time.

Friday, March 20, 2015

The “habitable zone”

A recent publication in the “Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society,” uses “heavy Mathematics,” to show that there could be billions of stars in the milky way alone with multiple planets in the “habitable zone,” defined as the existence of “acceptable” temperatures with the possibility of water. Humans, are funny animals – with all their brain power and scientific knowledge, they are perfectly happy extrapolating from a single observation. The embarrassing use of Mathematics in the calculation of the probability of life in the Milky Way itself, that appears to be indistinguishable from 1.0, may surface many questions.

High energy Physics, not significantly different from fiction, is clinging to century old theories, that explain less than 4% of the observations. Meanwhile, ego driven space administrations, are on the edge, not being able to prove extra-terrestrial life, something they strongly feel should have been done by now. The tiny slice of space-tine, handed to humans, apparently is not a constraint for the big brains, who have adroitly forecasted the arrival of green women in less than twenty years, albeit, the proof could be less compelling than the “encounters of the fourth kind.” Meanwhile, the famous one in England, worried about the green variety life not being friendly, strongly admonishes against the search for the same. Clearly, there is content here befitting day time soap.

The only known habitable zone, a quirk in space time, could be easily destroyed before its occupants find another.

Friday, March 13, 2015

Lifeless water world

Recent news that Ganymede, Jupiter’s famous moon, may house more water than the Earth, is interesting. NASA’s bold claim that they “shall find” extra-terrestrial life in less than 20 years, should be viewed with abundant caution in this context. If significant water worlds in close proximity to Earth are lifeless, one has to question the logic of looking for water across space. The problem is that, once hypothesized, nothing remains unproven in contemporary science.

If Ganymede has underground oceans that rival the Earth, all efforts should be focused on finding life there – not in distant galaxies. If the presence of water is a necessary condition for life to emerge, as argued by the famous and the systematic, then they have to focus on the many instances of water in the solar system itself. If attempts at finding life in these close quarters come empty, then one has to question both the idea that life could exist elsewhere and if water is a necessary condition for life. One cannot have it both ways. Just as the “Higgs Boson” surfaced in mindless noisy data, it will not be sufficient to show spectral noise of oxygen and water, somewhere in a distant galaxy and claim extra-terrestrial life. Scientists, with egos that rival the stupid, have shown a weakness when it comes to proving stated hypotheses – and never even considering the alternative. But then, tenure and publications are more important than real science.

If there is only one observation of life ridden mass in the entire universe, then, the probability remains close to zero to find it elsewhere. No amount of mathematical manipulation is going to make this probability higher. And, if life cannot be found in conditions that are assumed to be favorable, the probability of extra-terrestrial life gets even less. It is depressing to think that the samples of life that can be observed on Earth, are indeed the best the universe could come up with. But that does not mean that they exist elsewhere.

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Limited imagination

And then, she could see the heavens beyond her imagination
Out in the distance, Quasars shine but the physicists do not know
Near in time, people die, but the intelligentsia does not know
Champaign flows and the suits in glass houses get religion
8 Billion, too few to count, but too many for those, counting pennies
Brain cells, a liability for most, have failed again to make an impact
They sever heads in the East and intelligence in the West
It is, indeed, a show, nobody should miss
Blonde hair, racism and democratic intent on television and media
The ones in the South adhering to belief and those in the North to principles
Neither wins nor do they advance humanity
It seems futile and irrelevant to those with brains over their shoulders
Humans, complex animals and a quirk of evolution, normalize again
They should not be here, but now, they are ready to inflict damage
To themselves, and anything they may touch and destroy
They cannot measure damage, they write history with glowing language
Time, the only artifact with power, shall erase every action and thought
And space, inferior to time, shall close in on the incompetent and stupid
The predictable collapse, cannot be anticipated by those with constraints
But then, the question remains for the few who may be left behind

Monday, March 2, 2015

Small noise

Recent research from Penn State (1) surfaces interesting questions on privacy in the modern world. Privacy has become a stumbling block in the use of valuable data for research and business purposes. Penn State team advocates adding small noise to data to achieve “differential privacy.” Privacy, a theme picked up by regulators with little knowledge of technology, has to be advanced by foundational mathematics. High tech giants, makers of search, faces, operating systems, databases, flashy hardware and next-quarter’s profits, are ill-equipped to solve this problem.

Research has been lagging. Privacy is a mathematical problem and not a data problem. With less than 8 billion samples across the world, it should be relatively easy to assure privacy if its is solved systematically. Regulators, lost in time and space, are attempting to use archaic tools to solve a problem, they deem important. And, big businesses, who want to hoard and abuse data are unlikely to play. Hence, this is a problem, only academics can solve.

Privacy, as important as education and health in the modern context, can only be protected by the application of mathematics. With few distinct samples with limited time horizons, it should not tax academic minds, if they focus on it.