Showing posts with label David Deutsch. Show all posts
Showing posts with label David Deutsch. 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 ..."

Saturday, August 25, 2012

Good books

Britain's New Scientist weekly has just put out a selection of 25 popular science books that "have changed the world" [here].

I would have been a little worried if this list of books had included many works that I did not know. On the contrary, I was thrilled to discover that I had read 15 of their suggested titles, while most of the remaining titles rang a bell (in the sense that I had heard of them, and had a good idea of their themes). The only one of the 25 books that was a total newcomer to me was The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat by Oliver Sacks (1985). Here are those that I've read:

•  A Brief History of Time by Stephen Hawking (1988)

•  Brighter Than a Thousand Suns by Robert Jungk (1956)

•  Godel, Escher, Bach by Douglas Hofstadter (1979)

•  Guns, Germs and Steel by Jared Diamond (1997)

•  On the Origin of Species by Charles Darwin (1859)

•  The Ascent of Man by Jacob Bronowski (1973)

•  The First Three Minutes by Steven Weinberg (1977)

•  The Language Instinct by Steven Pinker (1994)

•  The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins (1976)

•  Silent Spring by Rachel Carson (1962)

•  The Double Helix by James Watson (1968)

•  The Emperor's New Mind by Roger Penrose (1989)

•  The Mysterious Universe by James Jeans (1930)

•  The Naked Ape by Desmond Morris (1967)

•  What is Life? By Erwin Schrödinger (1944)

At the top of this list, the "big three" for me would be Dawkins, Watson and Pinker. I would have included a title by David Deutsch... but it's a fact that he remains a bit too recent to have changed the world yet. Maybe "will change the world". The same could be said of Lawrence Krauss.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

Rivers never flow uphill

As a youth in my native Grafton, I didn't think of myself as somebody who might be particularly interested in the flow of rivers. That's because I happened to be living alongside the great Clarence River, which I used to see so regularly (usually from afar) that I finished by no longer noticing it. I had grown up in the aftermath of the tragic December 1943 drowning of 13 boys, junior (cub) members of the local troop of Boy Scouts. As a child of ten or so, I had witnessed the damage waged by the waters of the Clarence in a disastrous flood. Later, I rowed in school races (in "fours") in the shadow of the antique double-decker bridge, over which I used to ride my bicycle regularly.

To paraphrase the well-known forest/trees saying, I simply didn't see the river because of the water. Much later, in Paris, I learned that a river has a left bank and a right bank.

The common-sense adjectives "left" and "right" are so much more tangible, for people living alongside a great river, than the theoretical notions of north and south. So, I had passed my childhood in right-bank Waterview (South Grafton) before moving across to our new left-bank residence in Kent Street (Grafton).

Since arriving here at Choranche, on the edge of the French Alps, I've come to appreciate the sense of the adjectives upstream and downstream. The Bourne flows down from Villard-de-Lans.  Choranche is located on the right bank, and Châtelus on the left. And Pont-en-Royans is a little further downstream. It's a bit like seasons. Back in Australia, I hardly knew what they were all about. These days, at Gamone, they determine my daily existence.

There's another realm, of a theoretical kind, in which we must be aware of the direction of flow. I'm referring to the flow of information and scientific knowledge. Just as rivers never flow in an upstream direction, information and knowledge always flow in a unique direction: downwards from X to Y, say, but never upwards from Y to X.

This was one of the great lessons taught by Karl Popper when he demolished the time-honored but absurd notion that an understanding of the laws of the natural universe can be acquired miraculously when knowledge flows spontaneously, indeed magically, from the natural phenomena being examined by a researcher up into the scientist's mind. This mysterious process, referred to as induction, was a part of established science back in my student days. Since Popper, we realize that a new understanding of the ways in which various natural phenomena unfold can arise in the mind of a brilliant scientist. This knowledge then flows down into other human minds, enabling the newly-imagined explanations to be applied to the natural phenomena that inspired the creative scientist, for verification (best possible case) or for rejection (worst-case scenario).

Two centuries ago, in the domain of the evolution of living organisms, a great and ancient "river" of a physiological kind was thought of as capable, from time to time, of flowing uphill.

 Jean-Baptiste Lamarck considered that a living creature could transmit to its offspring various characteristics acquired during the parent's earthly existence. Take the case of a primitive giraffe, many millennia ago, at a time when giraffes still had relatively short necks, since they could find all the leaves they needed quite close to the ground. Let's suppose that a couple of giraffes were having a serious discussion about the idea of having a baby.

Mr Giraffe: There's only one thing that worries me, dear. Due to global warming, there's no longer any grass around. So, we're forced to eat leaves. But there are fewer and fewer leaves at a low level. Soon, to reach the high leaves and survive, giraffes will need to have longer and longer necks.

Mrs Giraffe: My dear husband, I agree with you entirely. But, if our future baby needs an exceptionally long neck to find food, then we must make sure that he's born with such a neck. There are no two ways about it.

Mr Giraffe: OK, but how can we make sure that his neck will be long enough for him to survive?

Mrs Giraffe: We must pray, my dear husband, and implore our Good Giraffe God to perform a miraculous intervention of genetic engineering.

So, that's what they did. And, soon after, biological information from the parched earth flowed up through the tree trunks, past the bare branches at the bottom of the trees, until it reached the level of the luscious greenery. And, from there, this precious information—dealing primarily with the complex procreative question of how to produce giraffe embryos with long necks—was consumed and digested by Mrs Giraffe… who suddenly felt a glowing long-necked warmth in her womb. The miracle was taking place!

We now know that Lamarckism was totally wrong, but it was never, at any stage, a completely crazy belief. Even today, when tourists halt for a moment alongside the lovely old thatched house in Pont-en-Royans [display], and chat with the village blacksmith and his son, they are invariably impressed by their giant strong hands, which have been  photographed in closeup on countless mobile phones.

Blacksmith: My ancestors have been blacksmiths here at Pont-en-Royans for countless generations, and the blacksmiths' sons and daughters have always married the offspring of other blacksmiths in neighboring villages. And the gnarled hands of our kids, today, reveal the traces of all those centuries of hard work at the forge.

Who could possibly doubt the truth of the good man's words? His strong hands have been shaped, over the centuries, by a mysterious process of divinely-ordained genetic engineering that seems to "understand" that future blacksmiths need to inherit the hands, not merely of their forefathers, but of their forefathers' trade! This knowledge has flowed up from the forge to the uterus of every young lady chosen to become the mother of a future blacksmith. It's all a bit like the Nazarene carpenter's wife, who had received knowledge informing her that she would be giving birth to the Lord.

The only flaw in these nice and convincing tales is that knowledge about a future offspring never needs to flow into an embryo, because the zygote formed from the pair of gametes provided by the parents of a future member of the blacksmith dynasty contains all the information that it is required to forge a new human being. And, if the baby blacksmith looks as if he has inherited gnarled hands, that merely means that at least one of his parents had gnarled hands. And that characteristic had nothing to do with their daily occupations. Even if the latest generations of the baby's ancestors had all decided to transform their ancient forges into tourist boutiques, they would still have been born with gnarled hands. Inheritance specifications never flow upwards from a blacksmith's forge to human parents and their babies. They are transmitted, through chromosomes, from parents down to their offspring. Rivers never flow uphill.

This metaphor of information flow applied both to Karl Popper's views on induction and to Lamarck's views on inheritance was developed at length by David Deutsch, of Oxford.

His article Selfish Genes and Information Flow appeared in the collection entitled Richard Dawkins, How a Scientist Changed the Way We Think, Oxford University Press, 2006.

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Standing still requires creative effort

In competitive track cycling, there's a curious technique—in the two-person racing format known as sprinting—that consists of standing still on your bike while hoping that the other person will be forced to head off first. The general idea is that it's preferable to remain in the second position at the start of a sprint, since you can take advantage of the first rider's airstream.

Funnily enough, standing still on a track bicycle consumes quite a lot of physical energy, because the rider has to be constantly pressing back and forth on his pedals to avoid moving forwards down the track (or backwards, in certain situations). I know what I'm talking about because, back in my days of track cycling, I used to master this technique quite successfully… but mainly just for fun. Let us refer to this spent energy as status quo (SQ) energy. In other words, it's the energy you need to spend in order to stay exactly where you are.

In our everyday life, we often encounter people who appear to be spending enormous amounts of SQ energy in order to remain more-or-less immobile. I'm thinking above all of bourgeois folk who are obsessed by their status within such-and-such a peer group to which they belong. Even though the Joneses may in fact evolve imperceptibly at a social level, simply keeping up with them can be a relentless and arduous full-time job for neighbors who make this their mission. Most often, SQ energy is used in the hope of demonstrating that one is perfectly normal with respect to one's particular milieu. Members of social groups such as political parties, civic associations, religious bodies and sporting clubs will often devote a lot of SQ energy towards furthering the impression that they are ordinary trustworthy members of the group in question, with no imaginable reason to be ostracized. In another context, you might say that a young man asking for the hand of the girl he loves is often called upon to expend much SQ energy in the context of his future parents-in-law. In La Cage aux Folles, poor Albin had to exploit with talent a maximum of SQ energy in order to prove that "she" was, as expected, an ordinary and acceptable wife/mother.

It would be a mistake to consider that SQ energy is negative, or wasted, because it might indeed be important—for citizens preoccupied by their social status, no less than for a track cyclist—to remain in the same place, with the same status as before. But we would probably not be too wrong in referring to SQ energy as nonproductive, in the sense that it gives rise to nothing new. That's to say, it's not at all the kind of energy that a society might use in its quest for innovation.

Now, the reason I'm talking about SQ energy is that this question has arisen in one of the many ingenious explanations in The Beginning of Infinity by David Deutsch, in a chapter entitled The Evolution of Creativity. Deutsch set out to explain a puzzling era in human prehistory and history. For countless generations, humanity's progress could be represented by an almost flat graph. That's to say, there was no perceptible social or technical innovation whatsoever. In a general sense (excluding calamities, all too frequent, such as warfare, plagues and natural catastrophes), every day tended to be a copy of the previous day. Then, all of a sudden, at an epoch designated as the Enlightenment, the old world order exploded, and innovation burgeoned. Well, Deutsch envisages the existence of a common force behind the immensely long period of negligible human progress and the prolific age of the Enlightenment, and he designates that common force by an unexpected term: creativity.

• During the preliminary era of near-zero progress, individuals who were sufficiently endowed genetically with creativity were able to expend SQ energy enabling them to survive in primitive so-called static societies that abhorred all forms of innovation.

• When the tide turned with the Enlightenment, this same endowment of creativity enabled the descendants of the static societies to abandon their SQ preoccupations and to promote all kinds of innovation.

Here's the pivotal paragraph from Deutsch:

Hence, paradoxically, it requires creativity to thrive in a static society — creativity that enables one to be less innovative than other people. And that is how primitive, static societies, which contained pitifully little knowledge and existed only by suppressing innovation, constituted environments that strongly favoured the evolution of an ever-greater ability to innovate.
The Beginning of Infinity, page 414

As in a track-cycling sprint, the same forces that have enabled a rider to stand still can then be unleashed to make him win.

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Ultimate science book

In my recent blog post entitled Wonders of the world [display], I evoked the 58-year-old Israeli-born Oxford scientist David Deutsch.

Deutsch has presented several excellent TED talks, which can be found by means of the Google argument "david deutsch ted". Well, his latest book, The Beginning of Infinity, has just been published.

The first book from Deutsch since 1997, it's a precious event. I only received my copy a few days ago, and I've started to read it slowly, savoring each page, seated under a giant linden tree, looking out over the sunny valley, with my dogs lounging on the grass alongside my deck chair. While weighing my words, but without having had enough time to step back and reflect upon this claim, I'm already starting to wonder whether Deutsch might have possibly written the ultimate science book… at least up until somebody produces a challenger.

Deutsch—whose specialty is the quantum theory of computing—has a dazzling capacity to look out upon the world, detect the presence of a small number of fundamental principles, and then employ these principles to explain to us what our existence is all about. The verb "explain" is basic in Deutsch's approach. Besides, the subtitle of this masterpiece is Explanations that Transform the World.

The themes of The Fabric of Reality remain intact. The essential approach is still based upon the four celebrated strands represented by Karl Popper, Hugh Everett, Alan Turing and Richard Dawkins. Deutsch still hits back constantly, fiercely and profoundly at the infamous words of Stephen Hawking (1995 interview): "The human race is just a chemical scum on a moderate-sized planet, orbiting round a very average star in the outer suburb of one among a hundred billion galaxies." And Deutsch's readers are certainly not invited, in the bibliographies of the two books, to read anything from Hawking. Incidentally, I agree entirely. The otherwise brilliant theoretical scientist Stephen Hawking has never been what I think of as a significant general-science author. In Deutsch's latest book, the Hawkings statement is referred to as the Principle of Mediocrity: There is nothing significant about humans.

Deutsch evokes the so-called Spaceship Earth phenomenon, which is a reflection of popular current ecological and environmental thinking and actions: The biosphere is a limited life-support system for humans. When confronted simultaneously with Hawking's "chemical scum" allusion ("We're less than nothing") and the Spaceship Earth metaphor ("The planet Earth is the only way out"), what the hell can we do? With our trash boarding passes, should we nevertheless try to scramble aboard the Spaceship Earth?

Hold on a moment. There's a reassuring surprise. David Deutsch explains that these two syndromes—"chemical scum" and "Spaceship Earth"—are both demonstrably false. Instead of trying to navigate between the Scylla of scum and the Charybdis of the Earth's limited resources, Deutsch's book offers us—as it were—an extraordinarily positive way out of this enigma. There's a new kid on the street: knowledge. Through knowledge, we are anything but scum, for we humans can indeed imagine the universe, almost as if we had created it. And through this same knowledge, we do not have to depend exclusively upon the poor little planet Earth, for we can think our way to the stars. In a nutshell: knowledge is the beginning of infinity.

Needless to say, in my humble blog, I can only scratch the surface of Deutsch's exciting and beautifully-written book. For the moment, I find it too early to say whether or not this is indeed the ultimate science book. Let's say that I've short-listed it as a most likely candidate.

POST SCRIPTUM: In a recent blog post entitled Happiness is a great science book [display], I evoked the latest book by Brian Greene, The Hidden Reality, in which the famous string theoretician embraced massively the multiverse theme, so dear to Deutsch. In fact, I was a little overwhelmed by the highly speculative nature of Greene's otherwise excellent book. Without claiming to understand the subject at a mathematical level, I have the impression that all the string-theory stuff remains, for the moment, totally hypothetical… and that it might not even be good science in the Popperian sense. In any case, I was intrigued to discover that Deutsch's The Beginning of Infinity makes no mention whatsoever of strings. On the other hand, Deutsch's remarkably short bibliography includes Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (certainly one of the most mind-boggling books I've ever read), the fabulous Just Six Numbers by Martin Rees, and a couple of well-known books by Douglas Hofstadter, not to mention Plato's Euthyphro and the Funeral Oration of Pericles. When I look upon this exotic bibliography, I have the nice impression that I'm browsing through the required credentials for becoming a member of a highly-exclusive club: the David Deutsch Society.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Wonders of the world

Humans have always liked to draw up lists of the most marvelous things in the world. In Hellenistic times, a famous list of this kind contained seven items, including public gardens (Babylon), a lighthouse (Rhodes) and a tomb (Halicarnassus).

From this assortment of world wonders, the only one that still exists is the pyramid of Giza.

Meanwhile, even this marvel has recently been depleted of much of its mystery thanks to the ingenious findings of an amateur archaeologist, the French architect Jean-Pierre Houdin, presented in my article entitled How did they do it? [display].

Periodically, people get excited about drawing up new lists of the world's wonders, often using Internet polls, but the outcome is generally of little interest, if not biased. For example, one such list, proposed by a Californian fellow named Matt Rosenberg, includes space exploration (which is a rather fuzzy wonder), the engineering phenomenon of telecom and the Internet (even fuzzier still), the tunnel under the sea between France and the UK, and the modern state of Israel (whose creation is said to be "nothing short of a miracle"). And I wouldn't be surprised if my Australian compatriots, asked to draw up a revised list of world wonders, were to include instinctively the Sydney Harbour Bridge and their opera house.

At the start of his 1997 masterpiece entitled The Fabric of Reality, which I presented briefly in a blog post of 2007 [display], the Oxfordian physicist David Deutsch included a dedication:
Dedicated to the memory of Karl Popper, Hugh Everett and Alan Turing, and to Richard Dawkins. This book takes their ideas seriously.
Richard Dawkins, alive and well, needs no introduction, at least not in my Antipodes blog, which celebrates constantly the insights and writings of this great Oxfordian intellectual. Concerning the other three, most people know that Karl Popper [1902-1994] was a Vienna-born philosopher, mentioned in my recent article entitled Voices from Vienna [display]. And Alan Turing [1912-1954] was, of course, the English mathematician who worked in the bunkers of Bletchley Park (Buckinghamshire) during the war years, designing primitive "computers" to crack Nazi codes.

But who's the third guy, Hugh Everett? Well, he died in 1982, at the age of 51. Today, his 48-year-old son Mark—singer, writer and performer with the band Eels—is no doubt better known than his father.

[Click the image for an article on Hugh Everett]

If Deutsch mentioned Everett Senior in his dedication, it's because this man introduced into science one of the weirdest ideas that a human brain has ever imagined, if not the weirdest idea: the existence of a multiverse. That's to say, the everyday universe to which we've grown accustomed could well be just one of very many coexisting universes.

Getting back to wonders of the world, I agree totally with David Deutsch that they number four, and that they can be represented respectively by the four individuals mentioned in his terse dedication. We are speaking here neither of natural marvels (such as the Great Barrier Reef) nor of spectacular worldly constructions (such as the Taj Mahal). Deutsch has indicated four stupendous intellectual creations, built by identifiable humans, which surpass infinitely the splendors of pyramids, palaces, temples, tombs, skyscrapers, etc. They are wonders of the world in the sense that (a) we might well wonder how humble human beings have acquired the wisdom to create such knowledge structures, and (b) the nature and consequences of these wonders leave us spellbound, as if we were gazing in awe upon the divine faces of angels. Except for Philistine observers who don't give a screw about anything, these four intellectual wonders of the world designated by Deutsch demand respect and admiration. To put it bluntly, we would seem (for the moment) to have no more profound sources of wonderment in the Cosmos.

And what in fact are they, these four Deutschian wonders of the world? Well, reduced to simple words, they don't necessarily sound all that marvelous and mind-boggling alongside the gardens of Babylon or even the dull foyer of the Sydney Opera House (which shocked me because of its charmless mediocrity, light years away from the splendor of the illustrious opera houses of Paris, Vienna and Venice, just to name a few, when my friend Ron Willard kindly invited me there in 2006).

• Let's start with the intellectual theme represented by Karl Popper. In a nutshell, this is the extraordinary observation that humble human scientists on our tiny planet Earth can in fact find explanations concerning the Cosmos. Before Popper, science was conceived as an affair of diligent workers in dull laboratories, analyzing the data revealed by Nature. Today, thanks to Popper, we realize that the great scientists have been starry-eyed creators, artists, poets, visionaries, quantum monks and madmen, who have nothing in common with docile laboratory employees. God was not a chartered accountant, a bank manager…

• Deutsch's second wonder of the world is the multiverse thing, which I've mentioned. Here, of course, from an understanding viewpoint, it's every man for himself. Personally, I had the good fortune of growing up in contact with 20th-century physics, so I've always had a vague idea of what was happening in domains labeled relativity, quantum mechanics, cosmology, etc. Frankly, I don't know to what extent the multiverse discourse might be fuzzily comprehensible, if at all, by a total novice in physics. In talking like that, I realize that I might be accused of intellectual elitism, but I can see no way of "sweetening" the hard facts of scientific knowledge.

• The third wonder of the world is closer to home: computing, symbolized by Alan Turing, the pioneer thinker on artificial intelligence. Now, if you happen to think that computing is basically a matter of shit stuff such as Microsoft Window and Facebook, then you're unlikely to understand immediately why the concept of digital computing (defined precisely through the metaphorical Turing Machine, described in my Machina Sapiens) might be imagined as a wonder of the world. Today, computer programming is synonymous with DNA coding. We now know that everything, including what we once thought of as our cherished "minds", is digital.

• Finally, the fourth and final wonder of the world is life, animal evolution, represented by dear old Charles Darwin and his living guardian angel Richard Dawkins. In a way, life is perhaps the easiest marvel to access, in the sense that few mysteries remain, apart from (a) how exactly it started, and (b) how it produced the strange epiphenomenon of consciousness… without which I wouldn't be here today, writing this blog post.

Things were hugely simpler back in the days when humanity could marvel at lighthouses, gardens, tombs, temples…

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.

Thursday, July 26, 2007

Brilliant book

This excellent book by the Oxford physicist David Deutsch came out a decade ago, but I've only just got around to reading it. Seeking to lay the foundations of a vast theory of everything, Deutsch introduces four great domains of knowledge that he refers to as strands:

— Quantum physics

— Epistemology, inspired by the work of Karl Popper

— Theory of computation, inspired by the work of Alan Turing

— Theory of evolution, inspired by the work of Richard Dawkins.

It's rare to find an eclectic author who's prepared to blend such different disciplines into a synthetic whole.