Scientific Sense Podcast

Saturday, October 29, 2016

Live forever?

Recent findings that appear to indicate that aging can be stopped in mammals by starvation and possible introduction of simple chemicals is encouraging for those who may want to live longer. Humans, a plumbing system designed by bacteria to consume and dispel nutrients favorable to them, have found it difficult to sustain life beyond thresholds established at their inception. Anti-bacterial agents did extend life tactically by a decade or so but it appears that they are hitting against some hard constraints. Engineering systems, specializing in plumbing tasks, have limited life and humans appear to fall into this category.

Although humans carry a specialized quantum computer on their shoulders, the action has largely been in their gut, thus far. A crude tubular structure, able to break down a variety of materials to feed its occupants, has been the main design feature. But just as any other such mechanical designs, the scaffolding deteriorates over time and the structure itself loses flexibility and crumbles after certain number of cycles. So, it is not surprising to imagine that life can be extended by starvation as that will reduce the number of cycles imparted on the most important aspect of a human - her gut.

The more important question for humans is what they are likely to do with a possible extension of life. Would they use the extra time to seek knowledge or fight with those who do not look or think like themselves? Would they use the extra time to advance society or segregate themselves into neatly fractured boxes? Would they look forward or be encumbered by their past, driven by simple objective functions? Would they attempt to create and leave a legacy or understand that legacy is meaningless in an advanced society? Would they attempt to understand themselves or be misunderstood forever?

Monday, October 24, 2016

Extreme skew

Over 100 billion humans lived on the earth since they have arrived hundred thousand years ago. However, most of the fundamental knowledge they have gained from fire to quantum mechanics over this time period came from an incomprehensibly few number of people, perhaps as few as 100. This is a hard constraint for humans to advance knowledge as it depends very much on the arrival of a unique individual, perhaps in a few generations. Increase in abstract and fundamental knowledge does not seem to depend on anything else except the presence of that special individual who propels humanity across a discontinuity. Forecasting of knowledge progression in such a regime that follows a smooth stochastic evolution with an extremely small probability of a jump, is a futile exercise. 

Why is this the case? The variation in intelligence across humans appear very small and their physical abilities as good as perfect cloning. But a single person out of one billion appears to possess special powers, albeit all measurable characteristics of that individual are within expected norms. If the probability of this error solely depends on quantity and not on time, then, there could be as many as 7 such individuals who could be present in today's world. This does not seem to be the case as there has been little advancement in fundamental knowledge for close to hundred years.

Systems that exhibit time based errors are similar to electrical systems such as computers and not mechanical systems that can move. The hundred errors seen over 100 thousand years appear evenly spaced in time and show no acceleration in the presence of much larger number of contemporary experiments. If these errors were part of a natural process such as evolution, humanity would have produced a dozen such fundamental leaps in a single generation by now. However, all indications are that there is no difference in the arrival rates of the genius who changes the human mind.

If the universe were a rules based simulation or driven from a random initial state, then larger experiments will unambiguously lead to larger number of errors. It appears to be programmed to regime shift only with time, implying a game with possibly prescribed and controlled end outcomes. 

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Space contamination

Space agencies world over have been on a quest to send a feeble human out of the world and most likely to Mars. Now that the president has also joined the game, more investments will be going in that direction. And many private companies are on the same track as well. But is there any reason other than nourishing own ego to attempt a trip to the red planet?

Humans have ably demonstrated that they are incapable of taking care of the environment they live and breed in. To send a specimen of the human kind to another planet would be the first step to initiate an irreversible catastrophe. Some have argued that sterilization of robotic equipment travelling to other planets is overdone and even suggested that humans should seed any rock they can find with bacteria and virus. Sure, the single celled cousins may jump at the suggestion, but is that wise?

Exploration has been integral to the human experience. But history also shows that their explorations have resulted in irreversible damage to what they found. They have been unable to learn by observation and bad habits picked up in the past hundred thousand years invariably has led to scorched earth policies. Now that the horizons are expanding beyond the struggling blue planet, there is no indication that humans have learned from their mistakes.

God does seem to have a sense of humor as she appears to have imposed daunting space-time constraints on a species who has acquired a quantum computer, by sheer accident. To make matters worse, the canopy, humans could observe is infinitely bigger than they could ever experience and akin to an ironic twist in a horror movie, they find that such observations are fleeting as the whole universe runs away from them at an accelerating rate.

Those who sit back in awe of the abundance of ignorance surrounding them, often have no desire to drive the truck to the next planet. But the engineers among us live for such meaningless tactics without ever thinking what it really means.

Monday, October 10, 2016

How long?

A recent survey from Columbia (1) shows some interesting results. They asked 1600 participants between the ages of 18 and 64, how long they prefer to live. It appears that close to half of the surveyed population would not want to live more than the average life expectancy and almost 1/6 indicate a preference lower than that. Beyond the obvious correlation to expectations of the quality of life in old age, the data also shows significant relationship to race - with African Americans and Hispanics wanting to live a lot longer than White/Caucasians.

This is an important question and a rich area for further research. Till recently, humans had conquered most of the pathogens but they succumb to auto-immune diseases in which the body attacks itself. Heart disease, cancer and diabetic complications top the list - all of which portend lower quality of life in later years. This coupled with a brain that is bored could be a potent combination for humans, whose infrastructure was never designed to go beyond a few decades. In spite of the billions going down the drain to “cure all diseases,” it is clear that homo-sapiens may require outside help to get over their genetic deficiencies.

How long does one want to live? I think it should depend on whether one is able to add value to society.


Sunday, October 2, 2016

Sugar & Salt

For nearly hundred thousand years, humans were without two ingredients that will cut their life short substantially. In the last few thousand years, sugar and salt rose to prominence and are now considered responsible for a large spectrum of human diseases including heart disease and metabolic syndrome that includes diabetes. The economics of these chemicals has been attractive from inception. Recent evidence that the sugar lobby (1) has been involved in suppressing the evidence that sugar played a major role in CHF is symptomatic of the fact that there has been powerful forces behind these industries. Little did Gandhi knew that his salt march in India, nearly a century ago, could have been deleterious to the health of Indians.

The taste buds of Homo sapiens are finely tuned to pick up these toxins, for small quantities are absolutely essential for health. The evolutionary forces could not anticipate that these chemicals will be manufactured and consumed by modern humans in such frequency and quantities that their organs simply give up, unable to cope with them. These materials have become a sign of wealth and power and nations warred to take control of their sources and production. More recently, they have been disbursed in colored and famous water world over, to fundamentally transform human health. 

Two toxins, salt and sugar, are responsible for possibly half the health care costs in the world. However, there are no signs of any abatement in their production and consumption.


Friday, September 16, 2016

They are already here

As a chunk of investments go down the drain seeking extra-terrestrials, drug resistant bacteria that cause two million illnesses and 23 thousand deaths in the US alone (1), have gotten little attention. These true extra-terrestrials, who got here hitching a ride on an asteroid, have been powerful and robust over a few billion years. They have transformed the planet, oxygenated it and prepared it for larger organisms, that would fall prey to them. They could dance in unison, divide and multiply and evolve in short horizons, aided by almost countless experiments. They will create organisms that could walk and eat, to satisfy their every whim, with an intelligent control system, that "advanced life," calls the microbiome. They could trigger feelings, switch their occupants' brain on and off, get them to eat what they would like and even decide on an expiry date for the host. Such is the power of the single cell organism, they have dominated the blue planet since their arrival, perhaps by chance.

ET is already here and they have been for over four billion years. As the greatest scientists fear, they are indeed more intelligent as they have not only designed an environment for themselves but also populated it with organisms they could control for their own benefit. As the chemists seek soil from far and wide to conquer the fully optimized machines they could only observe under a microscope, as the pharmaceutical companies run away from declining economics of third world diseases, as the NIH struggles to figure out how to advance thoughts and action, as the foundations that proclaim to lift humanity from disease and strife stop at mosquito nets and commercials, the single cell organism organizes further to consolidate control.

The worst idea of human history is the thought that they are "advanced."


Monday, September 5, 2016

ROE - Return on Education

As the political season heats up, politicians appear to be mired in tactics, symptomatic of lack of vision and strategic intent. A society deserves the politicians they are afforded but increasingly policies that affect the long term health and prosperity of the nation are unlikely to be affected by the appointed leaders, whoever they may be. Some want walls and others Wall street, but neither can lift the spirit and ambitions of 320 million beating hearts across the continent. As space enthusiasts search for extra-terrestrials, technologists build artificially intelligent bots and medical experts seek methods to ameliorate pain and defeat micro-organisms - politicians, caught in a time warp struggle to stay relevant. The younger generation has left them, for they have seen the light at the end of the tunnel, where they could imagine and build a world for the future.

As the blue planet spins and rotates to stay alive from its perpetual plunge into the center of the sun, protected from countless debris by its venerable cousin, Jupiter, its inhabitants, blinded by ignorance, appear to be ready to fight. They fight with ideas, races, countries, localities, genders and the gender-less, as if their whole life depends on it. They shout on TV and against those on the idiot box, they soften and harden policies at will, they own and disown coal, make speeches to the top bankers for money, refuse to release tax returns and proclaim wealth without understanding there is a liability side to the balance sheet. They visit churches of color, dance to show approval only to break down a few minutes later. They seek money for charities funded by the straight and the crooked, they meet lobbyists and people, shake hands and hold babies as if the whole country is melting down at the sheer sight of them.

Politicians, possibly a new species, could be endangered species, especially if the world educates itself with freely available information. Education has the highest return compared to any other investment by an individual or society. It can help sort out fake politicians who assert their past and your future, confidence tricksters, non-replicatable academic studies, drugs that lose efficacy over time, financial advisers who do not know finance, advertisements that promise the impossible, religious fanatics who perform magic, insurance policies that do not pay, charlatans who shout buy and sell as markets close and space agencies who spawn manned space missions for their own sake.

Such is the state of misinformation that education has higher returns now than it ever had.

Friday, September 2, 2016

The stock and flow of IQ

A recent publication in the Royal Society Open Science (1), hypothesizes an intriguing idea - explosion in hominoid intelligence a few million years ago was aided by a significant increase in blood flow to the brain and not necessarily by an increase in its size. Moreover, the increase in the flow of blood may have resulted in the growth in brain size. If so, a lucky change in the diameter of the arteries carrying blood to the brain may be responsible for humans dominating the blue planet.

Plumbing appears to be central to health. It has been speculated that most autoimmune diseases, including even Alzheimer's disease, could be related to the body's declining ability to eliminate waste through the plumbing system, it has been afforded. Age and use of these systems appear negatively correlated with their efficiency in clearance. If the recent finding is true, the plumbing alone plays a central role in the evolution of intelligence, providing the energy hungry organ with ample fuel and cooling and nourishing it from relatively modest beginnings in Australopithecus to arguably better modern humans.

Plumbing appears to be central to modern medicine. In a regime with little threat from microorganisms, humans may perish by the clogging of their own aging infrastructure.