Showing posts with label Brian Greene. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Brian Greene. Show all posts

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Magicians reveal what the world's all about

For several years, I've been fascinated by the popular books of three physicists: Brian Greene, David Deutsch and Lawrence Krauss.

Funnily enough, although the three of them are writing about the same general subject—our state-of-the-art understanding of the nature of the universe—they rarely, if ever, get around to handling the same questions in comparable, if not similar, fashions. Moreover, in their latest books, they hardly even refer to one another's work.

It's easy to understand superficially why Greene, Deutsch and Krauss don't seem to have a lot to say to one another. Greene has been reputed for a long time as an adept of string theory, and there's no reason to imagine that the other two physicists are particularly keen on this theory. Earlier this year, Krauss became widely known through his presentation of an esoteric explanation of how the ultimate "free lunch"—obtaining something from nothingness—is a perfectly plausible phenomenon at a cosmic level.

As for the 59-year-old Oxfordian David Deutsch, he comes through to me as the most philosophical member of the trio. Indeed, he offers us a multiverse view of existence that is totally amazing. As in his first book, The Fabric of Reality, Deutsch pursues in The Beginning of Infinity his quest for a Theory of Everything inspired by the work of a somewhat heteroclite foursome: Karl Popper (epistemology), Hugh Everett (multiverse theory), Alan Turing (computation) and Richard Dawkins (evolution). Indeed, between the Popperian explanations of knowledge, the connotations of quantum theory leading to the existence of multiple universes, the vast theories of classical computing put forward by Turing (which are no doubt sufficient to handle, not only the DNA computer responsible for replication and life, but also the phenomena of neuronal computing) and finally the processes of Darwinian evolution and genetics so brilliantly presented by Dawkins, most observers would agree that we've no doubt covered many of the basic essentials of a scientific outlook on reality. Deutsch himself refers to these four grand dimensions of his global philosophical approach as strands (a word I like, which evokes weaving a fabric).

A few weeks ago, I was excited to learn that Deutsch has been working on a kind of fifth strand, of a subterranean nature, which he calls constructor theory. If you've got 47 minutes of free time, I urge you to click here to listen to Deutsch himself presenting this work. Basically, it's a matter of trying to understand why certain things are possible (even though they may have never actually happened yet) whereas countless other potential events are impossible because certain laws of physics have "blacklisted" them forever. In other words, he has enhanced astronomically the sense of the concept of possibility, to the point of claiming that anything and everything is strictly possible... provided only that we know of no law of physics that forbids such a happening, and therefore renders it impossible. Deutsch draw our attention to the strict binarity of the situation. Between the impossible (ruled out by physics) and the possible, there is no third way out. On the one hand, nothing—not even the most extravagant events—should be branded as theoretically impossible unless we are already aware of a law of physics that forbids such things. On the other hand, everything else should be thought of as theoretically possible.

In his eagerness to point out the counterintuitive nature of this thinking, Deutsch hit upon an amusing easy-to-grasp example, which goes straight to the heart of my Antipodes blog. Most of us agree that people on the other side of the planet Earth are in an upside-down position with respect to us, and vice versa.

That old Epinal image is funny but quite silly, of course, because nobody really believes that Antipodeans get around on their hands, with their Hobbit-like feet stretching towards the heavens. But are we truly ready to admit that the heads of Antipodeans point constantly in the opposite direction to our own heads? If technology were to offer me a magical real-time closeup view of Antipodeans, in strict conformity with our mutual orientations, in the same way that binoculars enable me to observe distant objects through my bedroom window, would I not be somewhat surprised to receive upskirt images of Antipodean ladies whose heads appear to be receding upwards into the sky? My surprise (which would be inevitable, I think) would seem to confirm that, to a certain extent, I've never really believed wholeheartedly that the heads of Antipodeans point in the opposite direction to mine. And David Deutsch considers that this mild form of surprise, or doubt, reflects my persistent quest for a third way out, between the possible and the impossible. My scientific culture persuades me that there is no law of physics that would forbid Antipodeans from getting around in an upside-down position with respect to me. So, I conclude that it's perfectly possible for this to be the case. At the same time, I consider that modern laws of celestial mechanics have quashed forever all remnants of flat-Earth theories, meaning that it's unthinkable that the heads of Antipodeans might point in the same direction as mine. And yet I don't seem to have gone one tiny step further and admitted explicitly, in a tangible concrete sense, that people down on the opposite side of the planet are truly presenting me constantly (if only the Earth were transparent) with an upskirt vision of their environment.

What David Deutsch seems to be saying (in a roundabout fashion) is that we would do well to consider, in an equally tangible and concrete sense, that we exist within a multiverse where the quantum effects admitted by today's laws of physics must be thought of, not only as possible happenings, but as garden-variety aspects of the fabric of everyday reality. And I'm not sure that many of us are prepared, at present, to assimilate profoundly that weird mode of looking at existence. Between archaic fairy tales (often supported by so-called commonsense) and hard state-of-the-art science, we persist in hoping, if not believing, that there must surely be some kind of convenient "third way out".

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Blue light in the darkness

I came across an article in the French press about an ingenious device that apparently prevents night-time drivers from falling asleep at the wheel. It's simply a blue LED lamp fixed inside the vehicle, in the vicinity of the rear-view mirror, so that it shines into the driver's eyes.

                                         — photo CNRS/Université Bordeaux Segalen

Researchers at the CNRS (French national scientific organization) and the university of Bordeaux explain that the blue light of their embedded anti-drowsiness device acts upon the driver's biological clock by inhibiting the secretion of the melatonin hormone, which is responsible for inducing drowsiness. [For an in-depth presentation of this hormone, look up melatonin in Wikipedia.] According to its inventors, tests of the blue-light technique demonstrate that it's more efficient than coffee in the prevention of drowsiness... which is the main cause of mortal accidents on French autoroutes (highways). They add nevertheless that 17 per cent of their subjects were unable to complete the tests because the blue lamp shining in their faces made it totally impossible for them to drive at all.

Everybody agrees nevertheless that it's preferable to sleep well during the week that precedes any night-time driving, and to pull over for a 15-minute nap as soon as the first signs of drowsiness appear. That explanation about the advantages of sleep as a remedy for drowsiness is a bit like saying that there's no better remedy for hunger than food.

The idea of a life-saving blue light in the darkness reminds me of one of the loveliest short videos I've ever seen, created by the US cosmologist and science author Carl Sagan [1934-1996].

Sagan's origins were Russian, and he started his prestigious career as a popularizer of science by coauthoring a book with the Soviet astrophysicist Iosef Shmuelovich Shklovskii [1916-1985], Intelligent Life in the Universe (1966).

This was in fact the first serious English-language book ever published on this exciting theme, and it fascinated me at the time, in the late 1960s. Unfortunately, it's the kind of book that has dated rapidly and considerably, and the writing style and didactic content hardly match up to the brilliance of today's great authors of popular books on physics such as Brian Greene (The Hidden Reality, 2011), David Deutsch (The Beginning of Infinity, 2011) and Lawrence Krauss (A Universe from Nothing, 2012). Often, when I'm reading, I underline fragments that have impressed me greatly. In the book by Shklovskii and Sagan, I notice that I underlined the following words: (on page 248):
For all our feelings of self-importance, we are only a kind of biological rust, clinging to the surface of our small planet, and weighing far less than the invisible air that surrounds us.
I realize that I've always been attracted to sentiments that downplay human vanity. Be that as it may, here's Sagan's video on the pale blue dot in the middle of the sky:

Talking of extraterrestrial creatures, I would imagine that most of my readers have met up with the marvelous short story by the US science-fiction writer Terry Bisson entitled They're made out of meat. You can find it on the web by clicking here. It's so short that I've taken the liberty of including a copy here:

"They're made out of meat."


"Meat. They're made out of meat."


"There's no doubt about it. We picked up several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, and probed them all the way through. They're completely meat."

"That's impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars?"

"They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don't come from them. The signals come from machines."

"So who made the machines? That's who we want to contact."

"They made the machines. That's what I'm trying to tell you. Meat made the machines."

"That's ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You're asking me to believe in sentient meat."

"I'm not asking you, I'm telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in that sector and they're made out of meat."

"Maybe they're like the orfolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage."

"Nope. They're born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn't take long. Do you have any idea what's the life span of meat?"

"Spare me. Okay, maybe they're only part meat. You know, like the weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside."

"Nope. We thought of that, since they do have meat heads, like the weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They're meat all the way through."

"No brain?"

"Oh, there's a brain all right. It's just that the brain is made out of meat! That's what I've been trying to tell you."

"So ... what does the thinking?"

"You're not understanding, are you? You're refusing to deal with what I'm telling you. The brain does the thinking. The meat."

"Thinking meat! You're asking me to believe in thinking meat!"

"Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal!  Are you beginning to get the picture or do I have to start all over?"

"Omigod. You're serious then. They're made out of meat."

"Thank you. Finally. Yes. They are indeed made out of meat. And they've been trying to get in touch with us for almost a hundred of their years."

"Omigod. So what does this meat have in mind?"

"First it wants to talk to us. Then I imagine it wants to explore the Universe, contact other sentiences, swap ideas and information. The usual."

"We're supposed to talk to meat."

"That's the idea. That's the message they're sending out by radio. 'Hello. Anyone out there. Anybody home.' That sort of thing."

"They actually do talk, then. They use words, ideas, concepts?"

"Oh, yes. Except they do it with meat."

"I thought you just told me they used radio."

"They do, but what do you think is on the radio? Meat sounds. You know how when you slap or flap meat, it makes a noise? They talk by flapping their meat at each other. They can even sing by squirting air through their meat."

"Omigod. Singing meat. This is altogether too much. So what do you advise?"

"Officially or unofficially?"


"Officially, we are required to contact, welcome and log in any and all sentient races or multibeings in this quadrant of the Universe, without prejudice, fear or favor. Unofficially, I advise that we erase the records and forget the whole thing."

"I was hoping you would say that."

"It seems harsh, but there is a limit. Do we really want to make contact with meat?"

"I agree one hundred percent. What's there to say? 'Hello, meat. How's it going?' But will this work? How many planets are we dealing with here?"

"Just one. They can travel to other planets in special meat containers, but they can't live on them. And being meat, they can only travel through C space. Which limits them to the speed of light and makes the possibility of their ever making contact pretty slim. Infinitesimal, in fact."

"So we just pretend there's no one home in the Universe."

"That's it."

"Cruel. But you said it yourself, who wants to meet meat? And the ones who have been aboard our vessels, the ones you probed? You're sure they won't remember?"

"They'll be considered crackpots if they do. We went into their heads and smoothed out their meat so that we're just a dream to them."

"A dream to meat! How strangely appropriate, that we should be meat's dream."

"And we marked the entire sector unoccupied."

"Good. Agreed, officially and unofficially. Case closed. Any others? Anyone interesting on that side of the galaxy?"

"Yes, a rather shy but sweet hydrogen core cluster intelligence in a class nine star in G445 zone. Was in contact two galactic rotations ago, wants to be friendly again."

"They always come around."

"And why not? Imagine how unbearably, how unutterably cold the Universe would be if one were all alone ..."

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Happiness is a great science book

In the humble and peaceful existence that I lead at Gamone, it's a fact that one of my greatest pleasures consists of having the privilege of getting stuck into various exceptional books. Some of them have become regular companions, which I've reread several times over. For example: The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, The Blank Slate by Steven Pinker, and The Fabric of Reality by David Deutsch. Over the last decade, various new book-reading elements have been falling into place, making it easier for a science aficionado such as me to get deeply involved in this activity. I'm thinking primarily of the Internet, which enables us to learn of interesting new publications, and to obtain in-depth background information concerning, not only the authors and their books, but also—and above all—the scientific domains to which the books refer. This is particularly true of the various life sciences that interest me—biology, genetics, psychology, human paleontology—but it is also the case for websites about physics and cosmology. All that you then need is time and solitude to carry out your reading. This is ideally the case for me at Gamone, where my only annoying distractions are the present blog (which nevertheless has a few meaningful justifications) and a little too much TV (generally high-quality) at times.

I'm perfectly aware that this kind of totally-introspective almost "absolutist" lifestyle is not helping me to become a well-behaved member of any kind of "society", be it my daily real-life environment at Choranche, or the less-tangible community of individuals with whom I enter in contact through the telephone and the Internet. But I don't look upon my personality, character and behavioral faults as things that need to be modified or "improved". I'm too old for that, and I'm really irreparably obsessed and dominated by my passion for a scientific understanding of my existence.

Today, happiness is not simply a great science book. It's rather a monumental document: The Hidden Reality, the third element of Brian Greene's trilogy that started with The Elegant Universe and The Fabric of the Cosmos.

I've just received it, hot off the press, and I'm taking my time to get stuck into it. I'm like my dog Fitzroy sniffing around a new food delicacy, posing it on the lawn, and trying to figure out the best angle of attack.

The subject of Greene's new book is really powerful stuff: the fascinating mind-boggling mysteries of parallel universes, or so-called multiverses, whose "existence" is strongly suggested these days by quantum mathematics and string theory (Greene's ongoing preoccupation).

I've always looked upon the respective domains of Richard Dawkins and Brian Greene as perfectly complementary quests. Dawkins is telling us what has been happening for a while on this precious little green and blue bubble named Earth, whereas Greene is concerned by a much bigger picture: the Cosmos. If I may push my favorite metaphor to its dizzy limits, the Earth and the Cosmos appear to me as Antipodean partners. For as long as we remain preoccupied by our familiar home planet, even to the extent of examining the unbelievably small and strange entities known as viruses, the Cosmos is a weird otherworldly phenomenon where common sense appears to be walking on its head. But, as soon as we turn to the Cosmos, it's suddenly the gene-based world of Dawkins that seems to be unimaginable, walking on its head, since it contains that extraordinary "thing" called consciousness. Dawkins and Greene are two sides of a single coin. Today, what is utterly amazing is that, through a certain number of great books, we can take hold of that coin and turn it over between our fingers.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

No black holes yet

The world has learned that the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] was revved up to cruising speed yesterday.

My home in France is not far away from the Franco-Swiss border where the subterranean device of the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN] is located. If ever the physicists happened to start creating tiny black holes, it's not unthinkable that some of them might stream through the ground and finally burst out into the air through the limestone cliffs of Choranche. And, if they emerged here, these black holes would surely start to gobble up various elements of the landscape, with greater or lesser effects, depending on the volume of the disappearances. If a black hole from the suburbs of Geneva were to hit one of my donkeys, say, then it's likely that the disturbance would only be noticed by me, the remaining donkey and, of course, my dog Sophia... who would no doubt smell the nasty odor of an approaching black hole, and start barking. On the other hand, if a black hole were to take out the entire Cournouze mountain, then this modification of the landscape would surely be noticed by many observers (including me, the inhabitants of Choranche and Châtelus, and countless skiers from the Drôme, driving past on their way up to Villard-de-Lans.

There's a down-to-earth question that puzzles me constantly. What would it feel like if you stepped inadvertently, while out walking, on a microscopic black hole that had just fallen onto the ground after being catapulted here from the CERN? Would you suddenly see your foot disappear mysteriously into thin air? Would you have time to jump aside before losing an entire leg? Would this kind of amputation be painful? I imagine naively that this would be a particularly "clean" kind of surgery, since any excess blood or dangling flesh would no doubt disappear into the hole, leaving the patient/victim with a nice smooth germ-free wound, which would no doubt be heal rapidly.

Enough silly joking about black holes. Let me be serious. The BBC website has produced a few excellent pages that explain the basic principles of the LHC. The stuff concerning the computing aspect of this affair, based upon a gigantic system called the Grid, is amazing. Everything about the LHC is fabulous, and I'm tremendously proud that Europe can get involved in this kind of research.

Recently, I was just as enthusiastic about this whole field of scientific investigation as I am today about genetics. In particular, I've admired the two books of Brian Greene about strings.

It's fascinating to try to compare research work and challenges in two different domains such as genetics and physics ("compare" is an inadequate word). The fields in which Richard Dawkins writes so brilliantly are in fact relatively down-to-earth, almost commonsensical, compared with the LHC universe. Even though there are still countless fuckwits who do their silly best to declare that Dawkins is wrong about almost everything, the truth of the matter is that he's operating in a scientific domain whose concepts and laws are fairly well specified by now. That explains why Dawkins can now amuse himself (as I'm sure he does) by fighting verbal battles with adepts of religion, creationism and quackery in general. I'm not suggesting that he doesn't have any more serious scientific work to do. No, I'm trying to say that, since he's standing on such firm ground, he can afford to take time off from scientific challenges in order to tackle the social and human tasks that consist of educating his fellow human beings.

In the world of physics, on the other hand, the great researchers are not yet in a comfortable position enabling them to get involved in comprehensible discussions with the general public. When geneticists set out to unravel the human genome, they had a clear idea of what they were looking for, and what they would eventually find. But there is no such clarity in the case of the LHC. There's even a distinguished Israeli physicist named Eliyahu Comay who's convinced that the CERN researchers won't find anything at all by means of the LHC: neither the Higgs Boson nor strings. And why not? Simply because such entities, according to Comay, cannot possibly exist! Any dumb nincompoop can enunciate his fuzzy personal reasons for dating the start of the universe, or the age of dinosaurs, or for demonstrating the existence or nonexistence of God. But it's a different kettle of fish when you decide to talk about the Higgs Boson and strings. Even Pope Benedict XVI wouldn't normally be expected to state his profound opinion on such matters. We know beforehand that, no matter what the people at CERN find out about the universe through the LHC, the facts and their conclusions will remain totally incomprehensible for the vast majority of observers.

In fact, that's what's nice about scientific domains that are based upon extraordinary concepts and advanced mathematics. These obstacles filter out the fuckwits. Inversely, the problem at the level of Darwin, Dawkins and DNA (just to name these three pillars) is that everything's so beautifully simple, immediately obvious and totally proven... except to loud-mouthed peanut-brained fuckwits.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Giant atom smasher

The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene is one of the most beautiful and exciting books I've ever read, on a par with the masterpieces of Richard Dawkins. Published in 2004, Greene's book evokes with eagerness the possibilities of the Large Hadron Collider [LHC] in Geneva, whose first beam will be produced next Wednesday. Results obtained from this giant atom smasher could have either a positive or a negative influence upon the willingness of physicists to accept the celebrated theory of strings.

A nice way of getting a feeling for the LHC is to watch the following CERN rap video:

The LHC is theoretically capable of generating microscopic black holes. Brian Greene writes: "These black holes would be so small and would last for such a short time that they wouldn't pose us the slightest threat (years ago, Stephen Hawking showed that all black holes disintegrate via quantum processes—big ones very slowly, tiny ones very quickly), but their production would provide confirmation of some of the most exotic ideas ever contemplated."

Various naive observers (including certain individuals who should know better) have been trying to create a state of consternation by proclaiming that our planet Earth might get sucked into one of these tiny black holes produced by the LHC. Click the logo to read the CERN press release on this theme.

To be perfectly frank, I quite like the idea of a little black hole in Switzerland that starts sucking up the surrounding territory: first the city of Geneva and its lovely lake, then the Swiss Alps, and so on. Ideally, stuff should slide into the "throat" of the black hole sufficiently slowly for onlookers to have time to appreciate the visual show, while knowing full well that they themselves will soon be victims of the gluttonous hole. Sooner or later, though, the fat little black hole would end up inevitably gorging itself, and it would then roll around sluggishly, maybe burping from time to time, incapable of downing an extra village or mountain. Literally, the hole has stuffed itself. A brave French gendarme could then simply creep up behind the groggy black hole and smash it to smithereens with a swift blow of a hammer... and humanity would be safe up until the next time.

Saturday, May 19, 2007


Gumption. I love that old Scottish word (which I recall from my childhood), although I'm not really sure it means much, and even less sure that I grasp what little meaning it might have. My online dictionary says it designates "shrewd or spirited initiative and resourcefulness". Then there's a wishy-washy example about a woman who had the gumption to put her foot down and dissuade a fellow from pursuing his crazy schemes. In fact, I don't like that example. In my mind, this vague stuff called gumption—whatever it might be—is exactly what you need to pursue crazy schemes. I would go so far as to say that, without a good supply of gumption, it would be crazy to even think about crazy schemes. In such contexts, gumption is a sine qua non.

For some time now, I've been saying to myself [that's a habit derived from living for too long in France: the homeplace and haven of reflexive verbs] that, if only I had the necessary gumption, I would embark upon a popular-science book project, to be known simply by a one-word title: Creation. The basic idea—the inspiration, if I were to take myself more gumptiously—is that, while the scientific writers Brian Greene and Richard Dawkins have already done a hell of lot about making the world a more understandable (but not necessarily easier) place to live in, they are both visibly weak (well, less than optimal) in the domain of computing.

I had this impression about Dawkins when I first read The Blind Watchmaker. Like everything by Dawkins, it's a fabulous book, but his biomorphs (computerized graphic gadgets) reveal instantly that the author is a novice computerist, unfamiliar with more sophisticated realms of information science... otherwise he would have alluded to the pioneering work of precursors such as John von Neumann and others. [Click here to see my earlier blog article.]

The "missing link" between Dawkins and me (to borrow a silly Darwin-inspired expression) might be referred to pompously as the computing paradigm. Already, back at the time of my Machina Sapiens [click here to see an earlier reference to this book], I hinted at the fact that we computerists are tempted to see almost everything in terms of... computing. There's a trivial saying in France. What do you bike-riders talk about when they come together? They talk about... bikes! Well, we computerists are like bike-riders. It's a fact. We see the world as some kind of a giant computer...

In the USA in 1971, when I was filming Les machines et les hommes for French TV, I encountered an amazing man named Ed Fredkin. If I remember correctly, he was in charge of computers in the artificial-intelligence laboratory at MIT [Massachusetts Institute of Technology], whose intellectual star was, of course, Marvin Minsky. Fredkin invited me to his family home to talk about his work and my TV project. There, in his family environment, I lost no time in discovering that Edward Fredkin was an amazing individual... probably one of the most surprising and talented people I've ever met. He didn't fit into the US academic mold. He belonged to an intellectual America that has fascinated me on countless occasions, that has nothing to do with Bush mediocracy. As a retired jet pilot in the US Air Force, Fredkin came upon computers as some kind of a gigantic and delightful game, which enabled him to become a millionaire, among other things. When I met up with him, he was fascinated by the possibilities of computer music, and had actually designed a prototype thing that emitted ugly noises. Ed was persuaded that this amazing gadget would enable him to earn further millions, and he started out naively by manufacturing hundreds of these devices which were stored, when I met up with Ed, in the basement of his luxurious Massachusetts home.

Today, the former jet-fighter pilot Edward Fredkin is living somewhere on the planet Earth in recluse... as a digital monk. I would love to see him again, but I don't know how to go about getting back in contact with him.

Meanwhile, an MIT acolyte named Seth Lloyd has become famous by publishing a wonderful book on the subject that enthralls me. Basically, in terribly rough terms, the idea is that quantum mechanics can be visualized as a computerized affair. It's all very vague, very hard to fathom. That's why I'm hoping, as a writer, that I'll be able to amass enough mysterious gumption to tackle this affair, and put a little much-needed order into the Cosmos.