Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, September 12, 2015

The human syndrome

The human syndrome, a disease that has been with humans ever since they arrived, has been declining for several centuries. A complex phenomenon, that has many symptoms including empathy, compassion, anonymous charitable giving and effective altruism, has been tackled well by modern humans. Eradication efforts around the world that include institutionalized religion, racism and a variety of modern segmentation schemes, have been exceptionally effective in reducing the prevalence and spread of this horrible disease. Systematized education at all levels seem to have also aided the efforts to eradicate the disease.

It has been a triumph for humans. They have been able to nearly get rid of irrationality and imagination, characteristics of environments that aid the spread of the disease. More recently, large swaths of humans immersing in prescriptive sciences, engineering and technology, has acted as an inoculation against it. Although complete eradication could be a few decades away, the reliable negative slope in prevalence is encouraging. The biggest danger appears to be the tendency of humans to be emotional and their occasional excursions into thinking about the world as a system. Such CNS deficits, could be treated effectively with available medicines. Perhaps a cocktail of such medications coupled with the policies pursued by the ignorant, could do the trick.

The human syndrome, that has held humans back for over 100 thousand years, is nearly history. This is apt as the “singularity,” dreamt by the technologists would require humans and mechanical robots to be indistinguishable from each other. We appear to be very close to it.

Sunday, September 6, 2015

Fusion, it is here (almost)

Ever since a brilliant member of the Homo Erectus produced fire for the first time nearly 2 Million years ago, their descendents have been trying to tame and use energy optimally. More recently, humans have been getting smarter with alternatives to wood burning, including fossil fuels, biofuels, nuclear energy, hydro, solar, wind and tidal. For many decades now, it has been obvious to many that most of these are inelegant solutions to the energy problem.

Burning hydrocarbons, albeit easy to do, has possible long term negative effects on the environment and biofuels take more energy than they produce. Nuclear fission, often fails to account for the costs associated with the storage of waste materials, with half lives exceeding 50,000 years. Solar, the darling of environmentalists, is not economical – in all varieties, photoelectric and concentrating-solar and it is an industry propped-up by subsidies, devised by politicians looking for brownie points. Hydro power has displaced massive populations across the world, with long term deleterious effects on the ecosystem. Finally, tidal and wind, better understood by public, show low efficiency and they are pushed by “green companies,” who make turbines for profits.

The energy problem is far from being solved. Lately, however, there are glimpses of hope – Lockheed, Alpha Energy and National Ignition Facility – to mention a few, seem to be making great strides to taming fusion. Ever since humans understood how stars worked, it should have been obvious that there is only one avenue to pursue to solve energy. Better late than never.

Fusion could lead to zero cost energy and that will make most tactical problems that consume humanity currently, utterly irrelevant.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Accreditation revoked?

The famous school in Philadelphia, that has produced many capable people in politics and business, appears to be running out of steam. Its recent entries into politics appear less convincing – some paranoid and others ignorant, that the professors of the illustrious school may be holding their head in eternal shame. Even its business school, famous for finance and business, seems to have produced somebody who does not understand that the asset side of the balance sheet is not equivalent to net worth. Did the business school allow skipping Accounting 101 in its business program? How else would one explain it?

In a world crowded by educational institutions, accreditation should be at risk if graduates of a school, that it has awarded degrees to, do not understand basic stuff. Even if that person got a D in Accounting, the fact that the school was willing to hand out a degree, should be sufficient to put its accreditation at risk. It does not matter if it has Nobel Laureates in its faculty, if the school graduates a person of complete ignorance, one has to question the system. It has been tried before, another famous son of a school, up north, argued, he did not know accounting to avoid going to jail.

It is time for the famous school in Philadelphia to give up its accreditation, for its graduates seem to lack basic intelligence and knowledge.

Friday, August 28, 2015

Advanced society

As the astrophysicists look for advanced intelligence across the universe, it may be worthwhile to reflect what an advanced society may look like, conceptually. As asserted by the knowing, it appears that an “Earth-Like” planet – similar size, rocky and in the “habitable zone” from its star, harboring water and possibly Oxygen, are all that is needed for ET with big brains to emerge. A more subtle question is if ET is actually advanced, what characteristics are more likely in such a society. Perhaps, this is less interesting for the scientists, but it could be almost as important as water.

The going in hypothesis appears to be that an advanced society will unambiguously try to dominate its neighborhood. Metrics such as the quantity of radiation at certain wavelengths were suggested as possible proxies a few decades ago and accepted without question, even now. The desire and ability to dominate their planet and galaxy, appear to be necessary conditions for “advanced intelligence.” As the presidential race heats up in the US, we do see some “highly advanced intelligent beings” in the race, according to this metric, used by NASA and other ET seeking organizations. One of them, so dominant, he is scaling his domination of real estate to this universe and the next – a sure sign of ET like intelligence.

An advanced society, one could argue, is one that has solved space-time to its advantage. Such a society is unlikely to be restricted by such trivial things as water and Oxygen and they will have no interest to come eye-to-eye with ET seeking sub-intelligence. They are unlikely to be wrapped in radiation, emitted by systems of incompetence and ignorance. They are unlikely to be interested in the tactics of “domination” for there are so much more interesting thoughts that can span the multi-verse. 

More practically, one has to wonder if humans are equipped to seek intelligence elsewhere, as they appear to be lacking it.

Tuesday, August 18, 2015

Superior Agnosticism

A recent study that uses conventional metrics to show a positive correlation between atheism and intelligence, may be erring in the scientific principles it purports to use. Religion and atheism, both irrational based on observable data, have divided whole populations into polar opposites. In a world, where strife is derived from these two fundamental concepts, one has to argue that society is stuck on irrational thoughts – led by scientists and religious leaders. Scientific dogmatism, as damaging as religion, has been leading an entire generation down rabbit holes. The scientist who shouted, “Nobel prizes all around” after finding the “Higgs Boson” by using inescapable noise from trillions of experiments is no better than those who lead populations down blind alleys based on religious hypotheses, that remain un-provable.

The only rational thought is agnosticism, wrapped in humility – a complete acceptance that known information remain insufficient to prove anything. The value that can be imputed to remaining flexible and agnostic is significant for the individual and the society. Creating noise by large volume of data cannot prove anything – scientific or not. Similarly, asserting religious beliefs, by definition, cannot be accepted at any level. The parallels between these two streams of thoughts are surprisingly high – one using old scriptures and the other, newer ones.

Agnosticism, the only rational dimension of humanity, could be fast losing ground – struck from the left and the right.

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Selective Bayesian Updating

Confirmation and conformation biases, symptoms of a disease that is eating into science and technology, have wrecked havoc in many areas including pharmaceutical research, astrophysics, finance, healthcare and policy, just to name a few. It appears that participants in these areas, utilize a novel mathematical technique – Selective Bayesian Updating (SBU). It is not just that data are fine tuned to prove the hypothesis but even in cases where it could not be proved, the posteriors remain the same for subsequent experiments.

Take Search for Extra-terrestrial Intelligence (SETI) as an example. It has been speculated that oceans that could support life exist in many icy and rocky remnants within the solar system – Titan, Europa and even the outcast, Pluto. Suppose the missions to these objects reveal no signs of life, will NASA and SETI use Selective Bayesian Updating for the probability of ET? Recent excitement around Kepler 452B, the most “Earth-like” planet ever found in the Milky Way, has led SETI to focus their instruments in that region. Suppose we find no signals of value, will the posterior probability of the existence of ET, remain the same? This is very convenient for those involved in the research. It is the ultimate free lunch in science – a negative result has no change in the posterior probability of the hypothesis being correct.

In pharmaceutical research, it has been shown that the efficacy of marketed drugs decline over time. This is a curious phenomenon as cutting edge research coupled with a vigilant regulator, the FDA, are unlikely to let marginal drugs into market. Was Selective Bayesian Updating deployed in the many experiments that led to the approval of the drug? Patients and providers, perhaps, are less susceptible to this problem and normal updating over a period of time, may be revealing the truth.

Selective Bayesian Updating, a disease that is substantially slowing the innovation slope in science and technology, could be treatable.

Thursday, August 13, 2015

Perfect simulation

It has long been speculated that the universe is a simulation and it is not real. The observed heavy fine tuning of its hypothesized ingredients – dark matter, dark energy, matter and anti-matter – supports this view. It is believed that an addition of even a gram of ordinary matter into the system could substantially alter its expected end state and its progression toward that. Both the initial conditions as well as the fundamental parameters of the laws of Physics, appear to have been so carefully selected for this simulation to work. Whatever be the case, these cannot be proved or disproved by the participants in the simulation as it will require an outside the system view and/or experiments that span multiple such simulations.

Perfection can come in only two ways – either there are infinite trials that produced a perfect outcome randomly or the experiment is designed carefully. Granted, in this context, the definition of perfection is somewhat arbitrary without data on alternative simulations that may lead to systems that are equally perfect. However, the possibility that we could be living in a simulation has many implications, the least of which is the approach we could take to search for life outside our corner in the universe.

If it is indeed a simulation, it is possible that it is focused on biological systems in a singular space-time that evolves over time. However, if our current understanding is correct (which is unlikely), the space-time window afforded to these very special biological entities is so narrow that the scope of the simulation (the universe itself) does not make sense. This leads to either rejecting the existence of the hard space-time constraint or not accepting that the only currently observed biological systems are special. An alternative is that the observed single occurrence of biology is an error and that such errors are unlikely in a system that is so well tuned. If it is an error, it would not make sense to seek such systems elsewhere as the objective function of the game does not include biology. Another possibility is that biology is a central theme of the simulation and the game evolves from an infinite separate occurrences of such features, across the universe. However, given that the participants of the simulation will have no control over the outcomes of such a pursuit, it seems less interesting.

In general, if the universe is a simulation, it does not make sense to seek intelligence elsewhere.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Quantum business

Businesses, for many centuries, have been dealing with constructs analogous to Newtonian Physics. For example, traditional finance and accounting, based on agriculture and more recently manufacturing, have devised cash flows and Net Present Value (NPV), constructs most conventional businesses apparently still run on. They stipulate precise measurement of the stock and flow of cash and decisions based on those ideas. They also introduced risk, something that became more precise over time, an unavoidable bad to adjust the cash flows, considered to be unambiguously good. All of these are precisely measurable – just as the gravitational constant and terminal velocity on Earth.

Business schools, world over, are still enamored by these archaic notions and they continue to graduate students, adept at counting and dividing, skills that have no value in the modern context. Businesses have been forced to migrate into a different regime, in which counting is delegated to computers and the velocity of Intellectual Property (IP) creation, reign supreme. Accounting metrics, profits and tangible assets, and even more sophisticated ones, free cash flow from operations, have all become utterly irrelevant. IP does not often equate to cash flows nor does it allow representation in a balance sheet, a remnant of manufacturing. The regime of quantum business has arrived and it is likely going to divide those engaged in it, into parallel worlds, some chasing the past of cash flows and the other redefining the uncertain future.

Financial statements, the least representative of the value of a firm in the modern world, still waste a sizable portion of the GDP in their creation, interpretation and consumption.