Infinite in All Directions: A Scientist's Horoscope, Digital Philosophy, the Best Expletive

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Credit: garryknight/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Credit: garryknight/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Astrology, falsifiability, etc.

In a nostalgic article in Physics Today, Lalit Sehgal, a retired physicist (not sure what that means), describes his encounter with an astrologer and uses that as a springboard to speak about what Stephen Gould would’ve called the other magisterium: religion, from the PoV of scientism. Though Gould may have popularised the idea like no other, my own belief in the need for religion (not a religion itself) originated earlier through the words of two other writers: Freeman Dyson (of course) and Terry Pratchett. The both of them in their writing have espoused the idea that there has always been a spiritual truth that science has seemed disinterested in pursuing but whose pursuit as such has seemed essential to happy living.

Anyway, I must say I think Sehgal’s exploration of this topic is facile since it simply recounts some events and then notices one or two metaphors. Then again it could be worth your time: Sehgal also explores the work of Bhrigu, an ancient Indian sage and a horoscope-maker of some renown. Faith in his work relied on an implicit belief in the idea of rebirth, a system that many who have spent time thinking about will know relies on unfalsifiable predictions and therefore isn’t worth pondering about – at least, to the extent that you expect to arrive at concrete ‘solutions’. Sehgal contests, saying that some of his experiences have taught him to question that hierarchy itself: are analytic solutions the end-all of human knowledge?

Recently I happened to meet an acquaintance who is a respected philosopher and theologian with considerable knowledge of Indian scriptures. I told him I possessed a horoscope associated with Bhrigu and was looking for someone who could read it. His first reaction was one of surprise: He did not think that a scientist like me would be interested in horoscopes. I convinced him that my attitude to astrology remained skeptical, but I was curious to know what the horoscope said about my life; at my advanced age I would be in a position to falsify its prognostications.

My friend reacted to the word “falsify” with some distaste. A horoscope, he said, is not a scientific theory that can be proved or disproved. It stems from a philosophy of life that goes back to the earliest human speculation. At the very least, he said, one must accept the idea of birth and rebirth, and the belief that the progress of one’s life is determined by one’s karma, the cumulative sum of the good and bad deeds in previous births.

It began to appear that Bhrigu’s system had evolved into a kind of Theory of Everyone, applicable to every human being and embracing both their present and future lives. A horoscope provides a forecast based not only on natal data, but also on some estimate of karma. It also suggests ways in which subjects can improve their prospects by appropriate acts of charity and atonement. It is an ambitious theory, but the indefinable role of a person’s karma ensures that it is also unfalsifiable. In this respect, the Theory of Everyone has some similarity to certain modern-day Theories of Everything that also have so many imponderables as to render them unfalsifiable.


A receding universe, continued

Last week – on February 8, specifically – the number called the cosmological constant turned 100, at least since the paper in which it appeared had been published. The number was literally thought up by Albert Einstein to ‘balance’ the field equations of his newly birthed general theory of relativity (GR). The equations mathematically encapsulated the conception of the universe according to GR: that gravity pushed on matter, and matter contributed to gravity. This covariant relationship was mediated by a medium called the spacetime continuum: gravity was its curvature, along which matter slid, while matter was its shaper.

Anyway, Einstein added the constant to his equations because he was a firm believer in the philosophy of Ernst Mach, which stipulated that anything that cannot be experienced by the human senses might as well be false or unauthoritative (a.k.a. positivism). The continuum surely existed, or without it GR would break, and it did in four dimensions to boot. By adding the constant, Einstein hoped, at least the universe wouldn’t be forever expanding or contracting – as GR predicted – but remain in a steady state.

As it happened, he believed the constant would be able to fix something about the way gravity behaved. But a few score years later, scientists would realise that it wasn’t gravity that needed fixing, it was matter. More specifically, they were starting to find evidence of a new kind of matter they called (by the mass-energy equivalence) dark energy. It was an energy, a potential to act, contained by spacetime itself, and because of the energy, astrophysicists found that spacetime was expanding at an accelerating rate. GR still held but the constant, it seems, was going bonkers. If only Einstein thought to add the constant on the side of the equation representing the behaviour of matter, he may predicted the existence of dark energy. Oh well.

While the cosmological constant asserts the universe’s expansion, a more intuitive number to understand what’s happening is the Hubble constant. It describes the speed X at which an object is moving away when it’s already a distance Y from you as X km/s/Y megaparsec (Mpc; equals 3.26 million lightyears). And on February 10, scientists announced that they had made a new measurement (in German) of the Hubble constant and found some discrepancies there (which is useful because everyone is looking for signs of ‘new physics’ and any oddity that comes along could help). What’s more, they’d used an old technique to do it: gravitational lensing, whereby a galaxy in the foreground of an object bends the light coming from that object towards Earth. Because multiple streams of light originate from the object, lensing by the foreground galaxy results in multiple images of the object getting to Earth.

The time difference between multiple paths of light reaching Earth depends squarely on two things: the distribution of mass in the foreground galaxy (GR at work) and the Hubble constant. Using multiple lensing systems, the Hubble constant was found to be 72 ± 3 km/s/Mpc, which means an object that is one megaparsec away is moving away from us at 69-75 km/s. The problem – rather an opportunity for ‘new physics’ to make an appearance – is that the ESA Planck satellite, which studies the background radiation prevalent throughout the universe and dating from the time of the Big Bang, has arrived at a lower value of the constant. To be sure, these are first-class instruments and instrumental error, if any, isn’t sufficient to account for the measured discrepancy.

On a somewhat related note, I had explored last year what it might be like to live in a universe that is constant receding from us. Though the value of the Hubble constant is so low that it may not discernibly impact our study of the universe, it still posits a distance such that the parts of the universe on the other side – outside of a sphere with us at the centre – will remain forever inaccessible to us, and who knows what wonders lie there.


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Against digital philosophy

God plays dice in pure mathematics

If you haven’t heard of information theory, you should definitely take a look. It is one of my favourite branches of science*: it seeks to understand how information evolves in various systems and the digital/mathematical forces acting on it to limit or enhance it. I’ll leave you with this introductory document from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to get you started. The state above comes from a paper written in 2003, titled “From Philosophy to Program Size: Key Ideas and Methods”, and presented as “lecture notes on algorithmic information theory” by none other than Gregory Chaitin, whom I’d known until I found the paper only as a noted metamathematician and an advocate of quasi-empirical mathematics. A quasi-empirical mathematician believes that one should focus on applied mathematics instead of solely on foundational problems because there are some mathematical facts that are true for no reason – i.e. God’s whimsy. As it happens, Chaitin’s arguments in support of such quasi-empiricism originated in the 2003 paper.

Fortunately, the paper is a string of short notes that are all easy to digest. One note in particular I found quite curious (emphasis added):

Wolfram’s book [A New Kind of Science, 2002] as well as my own work on AIT are both examples of what Edward Fredkin refers to as digital philosophy, a viewpoint that Fredkin also helped to pioneer. In a nutshell, digital philosophy posits that the world is a giant computer, a giant digital information processor, and that, fundamentally, everything is discrete 0/1 bits! This algorithmic view of everything works much better if there are actually no real numbers, no continuous quantities, and the physical universe is really, at some bottom level, discrete. Wolfram’s work, AIT, and Fredkin’s digital philosophy are all examples of the convergence of mathematics, theoretical physics, and theoretical computer science! This is an accelerating trend, of which the field of quantum computing is also an example. Of course, traditional mathematical physics is based on continuous math, on ordinary and partial differential equations, and does not fit in too well with a digital philosophy. Maybe digital philosophy is a terrible mistake. Maybe we are taking the digital computer much too seriously! Maybe we shouldn’t make it the basis of a new philosophy, of a new world view, of a new système du monde? We will see!

Reading those lines in bold brought to mind a different quote and from a completely different context: from a paper titled ‘Is there a common chemical model for life in the universe?‘ (a conceptually similar question) by Benner et al. I’d found the paper in November 2014 when writing another article about how life on Venus is not impossible. The quotation:

The universe of chemical possibilities is huge. For example, the number of different proteins 100 amino acids long, built from combinations of the natural 20 amino acids, is larger than the number of atoms in the cosmos. Life on Earth certainly did not have time to sample all possible sequences to find the best. What exists in modern Terran [i.e. Earth-bound] life must therefore reflect some contingencies, chance events in history that led to one choice over another, whether or not the choice was optimal.

To rephrase the idea behind these lines within Chaitin’s context: the universe of material and informational possibilities is also huge. By understanding that information can be quantified, we have also realised different ways in which to quantify, encode and transmit it, and the idea itself was the foundation of our digital age. At the same time, using a computer to process information, through algorithms designed by humans to be efficient according to the needs of all humans, through a digital architecture founded on Boolean logic, is clearly only one way of doing it. And this is why a digital philosophy founded on the computer as we knew it (in 2003) is unjust: by no means does it encompass all that is possible to do with information, and following it limits us to a way of thinking that is already being challenged by counterintuitive forms of logic – embodied by, for example, quantum computing.

*Alongside cybernetics, high-energy physics, astrophysics, cosmology, condensed-matter physics, optics, quantum mechanics… why did I even bother?


Defending Rosling’s optimism

Last week was a quiet one science-wise on The Wire. However, one article did stand out: in an obituary for Hans Rosling, the Swedish statistician, Thomas Manuel provided an important defence of Rosling’s optimism. Though usually not a mistake,

His critics felt his depiction of progress would leave people feeling satisfied with the status quo when in fact the problems of infant mortality, poverty, universal healthcare and education are far, far away from being solved. However, this is mostly misplaced. His first-hand experiences in various African countries had shown him beyond doubt that the world was not a just and equitable place. But like Steven Pinker who made similar claims about declining violence in The Better Angels of Our Nature, Rosling was likely trying to articulate a message of hope, that change for the better is possible. It cannot be the case that the world is so terrible that anyone who is optimistic is automatically pollyannist.


Other bits of interestingness

  • The Arecibo radio telescope is broke (yes, the same telescope that was used to broadcast the Arecibo message in 1974 in hopes of pinging an alien intelligence)
  • A linguist’s guide to making the best expletives (it’s Infinite in All Directions, remember)
  • Did that global warming hiatus in the late 1990s happen or not? Now the question’s getting visibly political.
  • A Dutch scientist built an algorithm – which tells you if your statistical calculations hold up under scrutiny – and let it loose on 50,000 psychology papers
  • Miserable magic: Does depression come with “a nonrandom assortment [of bodily responses] betraying evolutionary design“?

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