Scientific Sense Podcast

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

The Chicago constant

Professor Hubble of Chicago proposed and measured a single number, with such broad implications that a century later we are still trying to figure it out (1). The fate of the universe, no less, rests on the thoughts of a singular individual from the Southside. Candles and CMB seem to disagree so closely that God should be chuckling as She let the humans seek unattainable truth as they vanish. But the accomplishments of a single individual, Hubble, cannot be underestimated.

The engineers got LIGO and those who do not have access, simpler ideas. Could we not understand if we expand into darkness or simply converge back into heat and fury? Could we not understand that an ailing World, a spec in the universe, does not matter? Could we not understand that the short horizons we are afforded are so ephemeral that counting money and power are useless? Could we not understand walls and hatred do not solve problems? Could we not understand only those hypotheses that are well supported by "grants," are proved and the rest not. Could we not understand that outcomes are mostly based on initial conditions and not capabilities, competence or assertions?

A single number, invented by an advanced human being, hangs in the balance. It is ironic.


Wednesday, January 23, 2019

The importance of language

A recent study (1) that shows the individual's language preferences could affect what she sees is interesting. But more importantly, one has to wonder if disparate languages drive the apparent cultural, social and policy differences across the globe. If so, that will be unfortunate.

Complex language, apparently the only differentiating quality of the human animal, has gotten them far. They could communicate thoughts, innovate, memorize and survive in the Savannah. They have been creative, perhaps starting in clicks and music and progressing toward more complex structures. In the modern context, languages seem to share common roots in Indo-European, Sino-Tibetan, and Afro-Asiatic with a few unusual divergences in the Pacific and South India. But the larger three streams of language progression appear to be distinctly different in architecture, specialization, and use. If the general hypothesis that language shapes one's comprehension is true, we may have separated ourselves into three different worlds (not to mention smaller ones in the Pacific and South India), purely by chance.

The human brain has been trying to cope with language forever. Language is an unnatural leap for the animal and the brain could not have coped with the idea without great effort. Reinforcement learning would have led the three cohorts of humans into a higher and higher association of language with outcomes. Thus, they would likely reject observations from outside that do not fit. Their science, religion, closely follows with few cultural variations. And, their organizational philosophy, objective functions, and expectations have diverged significantly.

A technology that integrates the three distinctly different streams of language could be a necessary condition for humans to make the next leap.


Monday, January 21, 2019

Is this what we really want?

Recent news (1) that a single digital photograph could predict genetic diseases, demonstrates where humans are heading.  Now, not only hardware but also behavior (2) is predictable. We are fast approaching a regime in which both a newborn's lifespan and her expected contribution to society are predictable at birth. This has broad implications for policy.

It is important to revisit the human objective function. What exactly are we trying to maximize?. Are we trying to maximize societal utility - aggregate happiness of 7.4 billion people across the world? Are we trying to segregate and locally optimize? If so, are we considering time as an axis? Without such a notion, tactical optimization is likely to fail.

In a regime where an individual's expected contributions are predictable, a utilitarian society could cull and advance at the expense of humanity. Mathematics could override emotions and ultimately, humans. Is this what we really want? More fundamentally, is a human an aggregation of her memories? If so, are those memories valuable in the context of a societal objective function?

It appears that it ultimately comes down to what humans want to maximize. A planet spinning in distress could go on for another 4 billion years but more likely will be eliminated by an asteroid collision in significantly less time. If so, should we not attempt to maximize tactical happiness? Should we not attempt to lift 7.4 billion from distress and sorrow? Why do few humans with immense resources not understand the construct of the universe?

It is certainly depressing, but then it has always been.



Saturday, January 19, 2019


Recent news (1) that the components of the microbiome has significant predictive power in the host's age is interesting. The dance between bacteria and other biological entities has been continuing for over 4 billion years. During that time, the first occupants of the planet, have substantially expanded their ability to manage and control every other entity. Now, they demonstrate species wide optimization based on the host's state and it is exciting and possibly, scary. They have shown efficient communication between members of a society and it is possible they are practicing a broader design.

Bacteria, the most beautiful, potent and strategic biological entity in the universe, may have arrived on Earth hitching a ride on an asteroid. They have been busy ever since. They may have aided the development of more complex biological designs for future harvesting or as an enclosure for a sojourn. Such is the power of the single cell entity that they could eliminate entire species within measurable timescales. Humans, the least robust of available substrates, arrested the advance of a superior entity by cobbling together agents from soil under their feet. But now, we are regressing to the past as more powerful bacteria arrive with an ambition to wipe out the miserable lot.

The human enclosure has been profitable for bacteria. They could influence the organ that sends out instructions across the substrate from the gut. And, that gave them immense power to design and control large entities at will. Now, species wide collaboration indicates an understanding of time and the impending demise of the tactical enclosure.

It is ironic that the blue planet has a singular owner.


Saturday, January 12, 2019


Voyager 1 and 2, crowning accomplishments of the space agency, when there were real people with passion, continue their decades old work. Data from Voyager 1, the man made object that left the solar system (2), seems to debunk the hypothesis that dark matter is composed of a large number of small black holes(1). A figment of the physicists' imagination to connect status-quo theory with inexplicable observations, dark matter, has been elusive. In a world governed by experimentalists, always looking to prove what has been speculated, micro black holes certainly fit the bill. But now, Voyager 1, indicates otherwise.

The human movie has been playing in slow motion. The information content of the universe, likely infinite, has been fed to humans in bit size chunks. Satisfied with so little, Lord Kelvin declared over a century ago that "there is nothing new to be discovered now and all that remains is more and more precise measurement." The smarter ones at the turn of the century who substantially changed the slope of human knowledge, remained relatively humble. The current crop, however, is unwilling to abandon age old ideas and they cook up theories with such mathematical precision, such ideas are dead on arrival. The engineering and experimental orientation of physicists have dampened the knowledge curve for modern humans.

It is always risky to propose something completely new and it is a lot safer to prove something that has already been stated by the lords of science. A cult like culture that seems to scorn religion has all the same characteristics. The modern dark ages that show little fundamental leap in knowledge is in full flow.



Tuesday, January 8, 2019

The Economist(s)

Economists are odd people. They love numbers and they pretend to make policies with a level of determinism that does not even exist in physical sciences. They will cut, dice and serve numbers onto your plate like the most skilled chef in a Benihana restaurant. And they top that off with colorful charts and interesting conclusions.

A recent article in the grand magazine appears to conclude that the "retreat of democracy," stopped in 2018 (1). This is an amazing observation. In any other professional field, this will raise many questions but apparently not in economics. The first question will be seeking a definition of the phenomenon, "democracy." Sure, this throws a wrench into the neatly tied up spreadsheets used by the authors to make such a fascinating conclusion. The next question is whether we knew if "democracy (whatever that is)," was in decline. To stop the "retreat," one has to imagine the retreat first. Colorful charts and spreadsheets are useful but they typically do not provide any insights. Granted they look beautiful in the glossy paper of the magazine that travels across the world, spewing wisdom,

Let's step back for a moment and revisit the fundamental question of definition. The largest and arguably the greatest democracies of the world elect idiots and religious fanatics. The smaller and older ones that were pushed back into their corners by their "subjects," elect bureaucrats with no understanding of the world. And, across the rest of the world where democracy reigns, they elect those who want to create policies to fragment and concentrate. So, was democracy in decline before and more importantly, have we stopped the decline?

Humans have been democratic before the arrival of the modern variety. The "modern humans," have objective functions specializing in killing, pillaging and domination. This is incompatible with "democracy," as evolved from Greek philosophers. When the brain ruled, humans found interesting ways to tap into the information content of society. This was lost many decades ago when ignorance and materialism enveloped the declining species.

In spite of all the "numbers," democracy was never in decline nor have we "stopped the decline of it" We have not had democracy for hundreds of years.


Monday, January 7, 2019

Smart fish

Recent finding (1) that archerfish demonstrates facial recognition, likely over and above the most hyped up AI technology, is a constant reminder that humans are not very smart. Their Silicon infused technologies have led them astray and their ego has gotten them blind and incompetent. It is not the count of brain cells nor the ratio of the brain weight to that of the body weight that matters. It is how you use it and the human is the most unlikely candidate for efficient use of her endowment.

As the search, operating system and hardware monopolists with infinite access to capital prove that they can create racism on Twitter (as if that needed proof) and play games like no human has done before, it is important to be aware of basic notions of intelligence. It is not deep mind, however superb that "great," mind is playing star wars, it is not alpha go, however awesome a go player she really is, it is not deep blue, in spite of the domination of arbitrary chess boards and guess game in Jeopardy - intelligence has nothing to do with any of these games that old men and women play. The archerfish can recognize a human face from any angle without any evolutionary specialization and she has very few resources.

Humans appear to be held back because of their own progress. It is an oxymoron, for the contemporary crop seems to have forgotten what got them here. As the whales and parrots mimic human speech, as the great apes sit and wonder what has gone wrong with the universe, as the elephants visit the spot where their companion fell to mourn, as the pigs play and sleep together in a harmonious community, as the dolphins attempt to guide, as the dogs attempt to rationalize, as the octopus hide, as the squirrels save and as the crows make tools, we have a species that hate, kill and destroy their own habitat.

Not too smart.


Friday, January 4, 2019

Plan S

As ignorant politicians battle against each other to make the world worse, there is a movement afoot that could move humanity closer to a positive slope of advancement. It is ironic as the undemocratic countries sign on to an idea of open science, the "advanced democracies," stay on the sidelines. There are good reasons for this as money make many "scientists," go blind and the rest seek fame, tenure and Nobel prizes by hiding their research, funded by the public.

It is time for Plan S (1). Knowledge should not be bottled up even for money and fame. This is especially true if such money and fame came from funded research by the public. The racket has been widespread - authors, publishers and "peer reviewers," - an in-bred community who do not understand the world at large. They assert they are "elite," and know everything. They attempt to teach at universities with singular metrics for performance that counts the number of "publications." Such manufactured research, akin to sausage making, moves us back and not forward.

It is time for Plan S. For nearly half a million years, homo-sapiens progressed across unknown terrains by sharing information freely. They collaborated, brain-stormed and advanced thinking. The academic sham has put an end to human progress as they protect marginal increments in knowledge to extract economic rents. They pretend to teach but only those who do not understand their "research." They "advise," but only those who do not recognize the shallowness of their knowledge. They "influence," policy as if they can see the future and they look down on the rest.

It is time for Plan S. If you discovered something with public money, it is for the public and not for you.