Scientific Sense Podcast

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Terraforming the Earth

As space agencies around the world race to the red planet and beyond in an attempt to satisfy ego and ignorance, they may want to focus their limited resources on real tactical problems facing the planet. As those, who had a tough time with science at school, rise to make polices that affect humanity, the danger of human extinction is now more real than ever. To top it off, those who were good at science appear to get real excitement by looking at pictures of the dwarf planet and designing ways to punch a one-way ticket for humans to a planet close-by. Admirable, of course, but completely irrelevant.

It is time NASA had a real resource and portfolio management process. Engineers, albeit being good at what they do, often fail to see the big picture. The risk of an asteroid impact or run-away greenhouse effect are so high in close quarters - it does not make any sense to allocate resources to finding green men in the solar system or among the thousands of exo-planets, that were found recently.  Terraforming the Earth, although not as exciting as the projects undertaken by the space agency, has real utility for humanity. Humans, designed to burn anything they get their hands to, have cooked up a real mess, that would require rectifying. It is a solvable problem if the best technologists in the world put their minds to it and perhaps forget the exploration of the universe for a little bit. Sure, this may not propel careers or pave the way to easy Nobel prizes, but limited resources have to be optimally deployed for the sake of humanity. Additionally, although not as exciting as science fiction including a black hole from the LHC devouring us all, an asteroid impact that could substantially extinguish humans is real. Having “plans on paper” to “bomb the rock” may not be realistic. It may require real technology to nudge the Earth bound catastrophe to safety.  

Those who are responsible and accountable for deploying the limited resources to practical uses may need to refocus their priorities. Ego cannot be part of the objective function, rationality has to be.

Monday, December 28, 2015

Barren universe

Not withstanding the efforts of space agencies and academic institutions around the world to find extra-terrestrial life, it appears that disappointment could be in store for humans. Recent excitement about an exoplanet just 14 light years away is symptomatic of scientific quest that is chasing pre-determined answers. Before turning all listening devices to the “target,” one may want to ask a few questions. If we are seeking human like life there, one has to assume that they are enjoying “Friends” and “Seinfeld” now. And, it is difficult to find fault with them not attempting to make contact. If we are seeking something less or more, then it is unlikely they will be spewing garbage into the airways. In other words, the attempts of humans to make contact are unlikely to be rewarded unless an extra-terrestrial civilization of similar incompetence is close at hand.

Humans, locked into a tiny window of space-time, have been chasing an unattainable dream – intelligent life that could teach them better tricks. As they peak through that microscopic window, they are most likely to see a barren universe, devoid of life and intelligence. Expanding the window, either by new Physics or by constructs deemed feasible with the status-quo, such as worm holes, information travelling at speeds many magnitudes higher than light and quantum entanglement, could provide a way out of these hard constraints.

Finding life in the searchable space-time in close proximity is as unlikely as spotting a needle in a haystack as big as the solar system. Good luck getting there by 2020.

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

The death of logic

In a country of blue, red and grey
In a land of every possible hue
Where policies are made on the back of a napkin
To satisfy donors and those who may become donors
In a country of red, white and blue
In a land of every possible opinion
Where judgments are made by pictures on TV
To satisfy friends and those who may become friends
In a country of East, West and Midwest
In a land of every possible culture
Where biases are made by location and accents
To satisfy those nearby and those who may move close
In a country of wealthy, poor and the middle-class
In a land of disappearing dreams for most
Where classes segregate by every possible means
To satisfy those who hold similar views
In a country of knowledge, ignorance and mediocrity
In a land of expensive and unattainable education
Where students march in the streets to be heard
To satisfy their own cults and egos
In a country of fake hair, fake stories and fake passion
In a land of politicians and incompetent policy-makers
Where debates are designed to expose the hatred
To satisfy the millions glued to the idiot box
In a country of science, religion and agnosticism
In a land of pretense and wisdom
Where they battle each other for superiority
To win prizes, acceptance and money
In a country of coasts, mountains and plains
In a land of inexplicable space and beauty
Where they battle for the last acre of land
To nourish their own false sense of wealth
In a country of finance, technology and movies
In a land of fraud, fallacy and fiction
Where the suits battle the turtle-necks
To stuff their own pockets and wallets
In a country of such complexity
Where logic is dead and buried
But, somehow, one can’t lose hope
For without it, the world will be in despair

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Proof of simulation

The idea that the universe is a simulation has been in the periphery of cosmology. This is not surprising – every established scientific arena, astrophysics, medicine and economics included, has not been kind to pursuits that questioned the status-quo. This abundant bias, nourished by the ability to publish and win Nobel prices in short horizons, has perpetuated established theories even in the absence of any evidence. Even “theories” that could never be tested has been gaining popularity, within the closed doors of academia, with even less interest to look outside than country club dwellers.

The thought experiment that the universe could be a simulation, however, has been around for over a decade. Some have even suggested ways to test it experimentally. Given that the established theories require 96% fantasy for them to work, it is not too big a leap to go a bit further. After all, thought experiments typically do not require 6 trillion experiments to ferret out an elusive particle and such statistical fantasies have been held as one of the greatest achievements of contemporary humans.

If the universe were a simulation, what would be the properties of such a system? In a sufficiently complex simulation:

1. The participants of the simulation, albeit capable of describing the processes that make the simulation work, will never be able to explain the origin of it.

2. The participants, who could measure the constants that drive the rules of the simulation, will find them finely tuned and held constant.

3. The simulation will exhibit recurring patterns.

4. The participants will find constraints within the system that limit them to certain parts of the simulation.

5. The participants will face an overall hard constraint that does not allow them to get outside the simulated system.

6. The participants of the system will remain unaware of anything outside the boundaries of the simulation for the duration of the simulation.

7. The participants will likely reject the hypothesis that they are part of the simulation.

8. The participants may find anomalies to the rules they have discovered because of the possible flaws in the simulation itself. Such flaws may be patched up over time and the anomalies may disappear.

9.  The system will exhibit no learning.

10. Any excursion – random, planned or induced by the participants, away from the rules, will revert back to the rules.

Within the context of the tiny part of the universe – humans - all these properties appear to be true. Moreover, no current observation negates the hypothesis. Hence, it is likely that the universe is a simulation.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Chicago’s moment to leap to the future

With nearly 75% of the US population expressing the idea that racism is a problem for the country, it is clear that the country is in deep thoughts as to how to get rid of the cancer affecting its soul. A modern society, afflicted by the disease of racism, could have a rather pessimistic prognosis. On the other hand, if most of the country sees the problem, then, we can certainly solve it. As they say in medicine, early diagnosis almost always leads to better outcomes. And, in the pain and despair of a horrible incident, Chicago has a unique opportunity to lead the country and perhaps the world out of ignorance and a curable disease through education and the advancement of culture.

Chicago has been at the forefront of advancing emerging ideas in economics, science, arts and journalism. Its educational institutions opened the eyes of those seeking knowledge but the city itself, could not get out of its artificially imposed boundaries, allowing irrational thoughts and actions to percolate through. In the process, they suffered from violence and segmented islands of wealth, information and ignorance. A city, that led in thought and culture advancement has been trailing in practical actions, however. Steeped in political corruption for decades, the city has been losing its just position in history. It will be a shame if one of the greatest cities in the world, sub optimizes itself, not because of lack of knowledge but of the constraints self imposed on itself.

This is Chicago’s moment to leap to the future. It has leaped many times before to open the eyes of the world. Now, it is time for introspection and out of that will come strength to leap again. 

A small leap for Man and a big jump for Math

Recent news that a University of Chicago mathematician may have reduced a NP complexity problem of network comparisons to that akin to P level complexity, signals a jump in knowledge in otherwise stagnant field. Consumed by big data and bigger noise, mathematicians and data scientists have been burning the midnight oil, solving everything under the Sun, using century old techniques and faster computers. In the process, most forget to think and step aside to see the challenge in front of them could be simplified before diving deep.

In the age of cheap hardware and companies plush with cash, innovation appears stagnant. Making a neural net with thousands of computers in a network is not innovation, it is just a show of brawn over brains. Pumping large number of rules through a supercomputer in an attempt to beat a human recollecting random facts is not innovation, it is scaling ignorance. Collecting, storing and analyzing large amounts of noise in an attempt to discover complex heuristics is not innovation, it is just sticking one’s head in the cloud.

Innovation happens but only rarely. Reducing the complexity of a problem class, fits the bill perfectly.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

The economics of violence

Organizations – religions, countries and country clubs, operate on a simple idea. Individuals in a system have a put option with a limited exercise horizon and if the system can coax an individual to exercise it prematurely for the presumed benefit of the system, then the managers of the system could effectively do anything they want. Since the objective function of the system itself is fuzzy and ill defined, managers do not need to show optimality and they can use anecdotes and unproven hypotheses, to elicit premature and suboptimal exercise from a small number of individuals. The act of violence, perpetuated by closed systems, autocratic and strategic, with benefits accruing to a small percentage of the members, require the ones on top convincing a few to engage in irrational acts by demonstrating the asset they hold is wasting and a premature extinguishing of their own lives is optimal, if not for themselves but the system itself.

For hundred thousand years, humans killed and mutilated their way to glory, aided and abetted by clan leaders, fully aware of what they were doing. If the value of an individual demonstrably improves, then it will diminish the ability of clan leaders to force premature exercise of put options held by the individual. Education, the only tool, that could improve asset values in closed systems, may be the last hope for humans, slipping away to oblivion at the height of their ascendancy. Education and knowledge have been stagnating, however, with a few drinking from fire hydrants and others infinitely seeking the illusive mirage. While some in the valley sleep dreaming about the singularity and the cure for death, there are seven billion elsewhere, without a clue what tomorrow is going to bring.

The foundations, sitting on billions still debating whether to provide white or pink nets to cure malaria, may have to rethink their strategy. If they really want to cure the ills of the world, they have to improve the knowledge content of humans.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Puppet show

The Unified Microbiome Initiative (UMI), as described in a recent article in Science, albeit belated, is a step in the right direction. As indicated by one of the founding members from the department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago, it has been abundantly clear that microorganisms play a critical role in the welfare of humans. Perhaps, UMI should go a bit further – it is not just that microorganisms have a critical role in health and disease of humans in a tactical sense, they may be controlling how humans evolve, a true strategic imperative.

Intelligence has been ill defined. Ability to maximize utility for the system seems to move inversely to the complexity of the individual. Thus, humans, on top of the food chain, appear least competent to maximize societal utility. An alternative definition of intelligence is the ability of the individual to contribute to system welfare. Here, microorganisms are dominant. They have been here for 4 billion years and they will likely be here for another 4 billion before the Sun throws a temper tantrum and balloon to a red giant. Meanwhile, the “intelligent,” will likely perish in an asteroid impact within perhaps a few 100s of thousands of years.

More importantly, humans appear almost ignorant of the systemic effect imparted on them by microorganisms. The DNA provided by the parasites far surpasses any bits and pieces of the human DNA admitted to the ecosystem, some affectionately call, the human body. In this vast universe of organs and food digesting machinery, humans have been dancing to every whim of their visitors in the stomach and elsewhere. Diseases can be forecasted, health can be measured and even death can be predicted by a simple conversation with the Microbiome.

It is ironic that humans are simple puppets to those who have been dominating the Earth for so long.