Sunday, August 27, 2006

Real and Imaginary

I've got a few blog entries marked "keep new" in my Bloglines feed, because I keep meaning to get around to writing about them. The problem is that they're on intimidating subjects, which deserve long, thoughtful posts, and it's hard to muster that much mental energy. But they nag at me, and so perhaps I'll just try to say something about them, and link to them, and get it over with.

One is a sort of rambling post by Lance Mannion called The Purpose of Religion.

In it, he says

Faith, that is the belief in things unseen, is willful stupidity. Faith is believing that what your eyes and ears tell you is secondary to what your imagination allows you to wish were true instead. Faith is a belief in nonsense. To have even a little faith is to believe in nonsense and to open your mind up to all kinds of other nonsense.

That sounds harsh, and later he backs off it a little -- he seems to be trying to say that he can see the appeal, unlike some atheists. But seeing the appeal is not the same as approving.

By contrast, Pyracantha posted a nice series of short essays beginning with Science Religion Imagination Realities, part I (and continuing with part II, III, IV, and V) wherein she summarizes the conflict between those who believe in the supernatural and those who do not, and places herself somewhere outside of that, as someone who believes that the supernatural exists in our minds, and that this kind of existence, while unphysical, is still real.

She thinks that scientists will scorn this unempirical, irrational view of the world. But I think that if they do, they're hypocrites. The thing is, scientists believe in math. Math is unphysical. And yet you'll have a hard time finding a scientist who doesn't believe the person who discovered the value of pi (or rather, the means to calculate it to as many digits as you please) didn't discover something real about the universe.

I had this argument with a philosophy professor in college. I said, "Pi doesn't exist." He said, "Yes, of course it does." I said, "Show me where." He said, "It's implicit in every circle." I said, "Show me a perfect circle."

I don't remember how he answered that. It seems to me unanswerable. There are no perfect circles. Pi is an idealization, and abstraction, an idea.

The same goes for every theorem ever "discovered" by mathematicians. They are really invented. They rest explicitly on unprovable assumptions. Some of those assumptions are even acknowledged to be inconsistent with what we see about the universe around is, and yet scientists believe theorems about hypothetical spaces where triangles have more than 180 degrees to be, nevertheless, "discovered," to be in some sense, facts.

But it doesn't stop at math. If pressed, most scientists will admit that they believe in such abstractions as justice, friendship, and personal identity. All the fictions that human beings live by. You can't kick justice, you can't measure friendship, and no one is really the same person from moment to moment; nobody is consistent or predictable enough in their behavior to qualify as a real scientific phenomenon.

The metaphor that I like, I got from Buckminster Fuller. It's something like this: these abstract things are like knots tied in a rope. You can't have the knot without the rope, of course. The knot, by itself, isn't a physical thing. It's just a pattern. The physical thing is the rope. But the knot is really there, nevertheless. Another metaphor for the same thing: a mosaic. Let's say a mosaic depicting an elephant. The stones are physically there. The elephant is not, has no existence beyond the stones. It's true, there is no elephant. And yet everyone who sees it knows exactly what it is.

Buckminster Fuller said that energy was the rope, and even matter was just a knot in it. Because matter is created and destroyed (in nuclear reactions, usually) but energy, on average, is not.

You can extend these metaphors. What if I make a pattern out of knots, two and then one, two and then one? Is the pattern really there? But it only exists in the knots, which only exist in the rope. You could even imagine using the knots to make morse code, or the mosaic tiles to make letters, and spelling out the word "apple." In what sense is the apple "really there"? (It must be a little bit really there, because if I show it to people and tell them to go fetch one, they'll consistently -- repeatably! -- come back with real, physical apples.)

So that's my take. The difference between a real person and a fictional character is a level of abstraction, the difference between a knot and a pattern made out of knots.

Now believing that a God exists at some level of abstraction is not likely to satisfy a genuinely religious person, since Sherlock Holmes also exists, at some level of abstraction. The question is, is God a pattern in the universe, or a pattern in our minds? What level of abstraction? This ambiguity is sort of like a Rorschach test or an optical illusion -- is the image on the page or in your head? But maybe either way, it hardly matters. The mind is so many levels of abstraction away from matter and energy anyway, what's one more, give or take? If it exists in the mind, it's only a little further from the physical than we ourselves are. And it can still have consequences in the world, can still make people fetch apples. Of course, the only difference between a right theory and a wrong theory in science is also the level of abstraction (wrong theories exist only in your head), but if God is not a scientific theory, is more like a work of art? Does it really matter if a this still life was painted from a model or simply created in the artists' imagination? Does it matter if he got the details "wrong"?

Statements like Lance Mannion's seem to me like someone looking at a mosaic and insisting that there is no elephant, only a bunch of stones.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

You Say You Want a Revolution

Maybe the odds are a bit better for Big New Physics being developed in my lifetime than I thought.

It appears "dark matter" is no longer just speculation. Here's some observational evidence that there is something out there that we can't see.

Short explanation for those who've never heard of dark matter before: for a long while, it's appeared that the galaxies and other astronomical objects we can see don't move the way we'd expect them to for the mass they appear to have, if they were just acting under the influence of gravity. So physicists speculated that either they were more massive than they look (by a lot!) or our understanding of gravity was wrong.

But there are apparently reasons to believe that if they are more massive than they look, that mass doesn't come in the form of stuff made of neutrons and protons and electrons. It seems it has to come from something that doesn't interact with normal matter by almost any means except through gravity, otherwise we'd be able to detect it. So ghostly "dark matter" was invoked. Such convenient substances have been hypothesized before, though, and eventually disproved, as in the case of luminiferous aether

Only all of the sudden it's no longer so mysterious, so speculative. It seems that some astronomers have found a couple of galactic clusters which collided, and the collision knocked the matter in them away from the gravitational center of mass. Now normally the center of mass is, you know surrounded by mass. That is to say, surrounded by matter. But here all the matter's been pushed away, and the gravity is still pulling things toward where it used it be. It's as if the Sun got knocked out of the solar system but the earth kept orbiting the point where it once was. You'd have to assume there was something else there, right?

The revolution will come when and if we ever figure out what dark matter actually is, besides all around us.

(Actually dark matter still isn't enough to completely explain the dynamics of the stars. Something else, called "dark energy" or sometimes "the cosmological constant," is invoked to explain some aspects. But that remains in the realm of speculation and controversy for now. Anyway, I'm looking forward to finally taking that general relativity class this winter, and I'm sort of glad I'll be taking it after this dark matter discovery.)

Sunday, August 20, 2006

Low Sodium Soup

This is an advertisement. Why? Because I want this product to do well so that there is a market for similar products.

No salt added minestrone: low sodium soup from Health Valley.

Do you know how hard it is to find low sodium products?! Much harder than low fat or low calorie or even "low carb."

If anyone has tips or recommendations, leave a comment.

Friday, August 18, 2006

August Poem

I have been away, attending the funeral of my great aunt Mary, and then visiting my family for my mother's birthday and my sister's sixteenth birthday. It's been a strange trip, a funny mixture of sad and happy. My parents had to work during our visit, but my grandfather was there during the day. He was fun to hang out with, in spite of some medical problems of his own. My mom took us out to fancy dinners and then took me shopping on her birthday. Ken drove us, more than 2500 miles in all. That was stressful. And while we were there he drove my sister around to see some friends, get a haircut. He's a good brother-in-law. She passed her driving test yesterday and will soon be driving herself around.

I'm tired, after sixteen hours in the car yesterday, so it seems like a good opportunity to post the August poem:

On The Meaning Of Things
by Ana Castillo

(In memory of Dieter Herms)

He took me to my first opera.
I was 38 and he was dying.
He looked elegantly gaunt rather than infirmed
in an off-white double breasted jacket
suitable for summer.
It was 'Don Giovanni', in Italian with
German subtitles projected onto a screen.
"The plot is rather stupid," he said and already knew,
but enjoyed hearing Mozart again, the high point for him
being when he recognized an aria and could fit it
into the story.
He listened throughout near-faint
with the thinness of air, the crowded theatre,
and the constant drilling pain.
At intermission, he reserved a table
and we had champagne.
"This will be the last time we see each other,"
he said. "What is hardest for me to give up is memory."
I moved my seat closer to his, "Perhaps, memory too,
will be transformed," I said.
"Will I remember you?" he asked.
"In another way," I speculated,
as is all we can do
with the meaning of greetings and partings, and love
that resists death.

--Originally printed in Poesía, Ollantay Press, 1995

My aunt Mary never took me to see an opera, but she did own opera glasses, and used them for watching TV, or watching the pastor in church. She was going blind, her last years, and resented it, but the opera glasses helped. Aunt Mary worked as the admissions director for a fancy girls school in Dallas for 37 years (I went there for preschool and kindergarten) and moved in a set of rich and famous people who did go to operas. She did take me to breakfast and then to school, when I was about five years old, and we lived in Dallas. She did give me old books signed by famous authors she'd met, for my birthdays. It's funny how as soon as someone dies, they stop being old. They're every age at once. She's as much the person I remember from my childhood, now, as the person who was sick in the nursing home these last few years. She's the person I've heard stories about, who went to college and then began a career in Chicago before World War II, and then moved to Wichita to work for Boeing as a part of the war effort. The happier, younger Mary is as real now as the older, sadder one, who had already given up a lot of her memories... That's a comforting thought for me.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

Mini Blog

I wrote a short story this weekend, so my writing muscles were too tired for blogging. Before I wanted to be a physics major, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. I figured a PhD was a good fallback... Turns out, it takes up a lot of your time. Who knew? But I recently joined a writer's group, as a way of having a social life, and it's motivated me a bit. People have weirder hobbies, right?

Only I still can't think of anything to blog about. So you get a little lazy blogging, which means, "repeating something I read in the Tribune." You heard it here second (or more likely, twenty-second. This must've gotten some publicity that I missed):

One Laptop Per Child.

That's the name of an organization that's developing cheap laptops for kids in developing countries. They give the village a wireless router and the kids computers, and presto, internet for everyone.

Apparently, Microsoft has problems with this idea. From the Tribune story:

At long last, MIT-associated computer experts gave a demonstration of a seriously working model of the final machine to be distributed to worldwide poverty pockets, to the dismay of some industry stalwarts, notably the folks running Microsoft Corp.


Craig Mundie, top new technology planner at Microsoft, has been quoted saying that a better solution would be to build such a computer around a cell phone--preferably one running Windows Mobile PC.

By picking the open-source and free Linux instead of Microsoft's products, if successful, the project could affect Microsoft's overseas sales to one degree or another.

Additionally, by picking small-fry chip fabricators instead of Intel for the 500 megahertz central microprocessor, the project has shunned the American industrial establishment since it was introduced by Nicholas Negroponte at the World Economic Summit in Davos, Switzerland, on Jan. 28, 2005.

Annoying Microsoft isn't the actual point, of course. The point is raising a generation of literate kids with technological tools and expanded horizons.

There's a view of the prototype here.

There seem to be lots of practical features built in, like a low-power black and white mode, and a hand crank for temporarily recharging it. But I wonder...

Are parents going to really let their kids use these? I mean, it looks like something for kids, but you'd think it would be such a precious possession. And these will get broken. I can imagine hundreds and hundreds of ways for kids to break these things. Their parents will be so furious... If your computer were irreplacable, would you trust your kid with it?

Then again, will the parents be able to use them at all? Or does it take a kid to figure it out? Technology, like language, seems to be a skill learned best when learned young. That seems to be the idea behind the project. Maybe parents will let their kids play with them, because the parents won't actually understand their value.