I recently discovered an interview series by a remarkably good interviewer, Nikola Danaylov, who seems quite skilled at doing something that one hardly ever sees in media interactions with scientists: challenging the interviewee’s assumptions. Danaylov manages it without ever breaking decorum or giving offense (a skill that a good many non-science journalists could stand to learn). In this post I want to mention two interviews, partly because both are interesting and worth watching, and partly because both related to another issue that I have been thinking about. The first interview is with Dr. Stuart Hameroff, a University of Arizona professor who, in collaboration with Oxford professor Roger Penrose, is the originator of a hypothesis that (to oversimplify) consciousness arises from quantum computation taking place in the microtubules of neurons. The second interview is with Prof. Frank Tipler, a physicist and mathematician and the author of two very controversial books, The Physics of Immortality and The Physics of Christianity, expounding his “omega point cosmology” and projecting the ultimate fate of the universe.

I don’t mean to compare Hameroff’s Orch-OR theory with Tipler’s omega point theory, in terms of either subject matter or credibility. Hameroff tends to annoy some mainstream neuroscience folks — as well as many in the AI field — by rejecting the idea that ordinary Hodgkin-Huxley-type neural activity is sufficient to explain consciousness. Some may also be put off by his tendency to draw parallels with the ideas of various eastern philosophies (I recall attending a seminar of his at ASU a few years ago, presented jointly with a Tibetan Buddhist Rinpoche, which was different), but no one could credibly dismiss him as a crank — he is a professor of medicine, an anesthesiologist with decades of experience, and the driving force behind a well-regarded international conference on the study of consciousness, now in its 21st year — and his collaborator is Roger Penrose, perhaps the greatest living mathematical physicist. The weight of critical opinion tends to be considerably less kind to Tipler; he is a full professor of physics and mathematics at a major university (Tulane) and studied under no less a luminary than John Wheeler, but mixing physics and theology tends to set mainstream science’s teeth on edge. Of course, as I have carried on about elsewhere, personally I enjoy iconoclasts.

The point that I wanted to make has to do with the question of how we decide when we understand something. More »

I just finished reading Farewell to Reality by Jim Baggott, a well written and accessible contribution to the emerging genre of books debating whether untestable theories can be considered science. Thanks in large part to the work of Karl Popper, it has come to be widely accepted that a defining characteristic of science is the making of falsifiable predictions. But there has emerged lately a cadre of (mostly) theoretical physicists advocating that the Popperian standard should be relaxed. See, for example, the recent Edge essay by Sean Carroll, in which he argues that we should instead ask whether a theory is “definite” and “empirical”.

It seems to me that “is it science?” is the wrong question. This is one of those debates that serves mainly as misdirection from the real issue, which is: given that nearly all science today is publicly funded, how and on what shall the limited funds available be spent? That isn’t a scientific question, or even a philosophical one, it’s a political question. In theoretical physics, the string theorists currently have the upper hand, because there are a great many of them and they dominate the grant committees, the peer review process, and the training of the next generation of theoretical physicists. But make no mistake, the issue here is not really “how shall we define science”, it’s “how shall we allocate limited funds.”

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Back when I was teaching Java programming, I wrote a demo program that involved balls moving around and colliding with each other in a box. It was designed as a game, inspired by “Maxwell’s demon“; the box was divided into two parts by a barrier, and the barrier had a gate that the player could open or close, the objective being to try to get all the balls into one compartment. The balls would bounce around, and the idea was to operate the gate so as to let balls through in one direction but block them from getting back out. Needless to say, it did not turn out to be the next Angry Birds. It was written as a Java applet, and, as I have grumbled about elsewhere, the fine folks at Oracle have essentially killed applets dead, breaking zillions of web apps in the process, so I can’t post  a working version, at least not in that form. However, I have coded up a modified version, converted to javascript and running in a web page, here. This version is not a game, it’s a simulation of particles of gas in a box, for the purpose of trying to get a feel for some basic principles of thermodynamics.

The motivation for this simulation (apart from a continuing effort to get more comfortable writing javascript apps) relates to another “hobby” of mine, which is trying to fill some gaps in my grasp of basic physics. Meaning, in this case, the Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution, which (to oversimplify a bit) gives the breakdown of speeds of individual particles in a gas. To understand how this works, suppose you measured the speed of each of 1000 cars on the freeway. Then you could count how many are going between 45 and 50 kph, how many between 50 and 55 kph, and so on, and you could plot the results as a histogram. That’s what a Maxwell-Boltzmann distribution gives you — it’s for molecules of gas bouncing around in a box instead of cars on the freeway, but it’s exactly the same idea.

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I have always been a big fan of iconoclasts and dissenters. Partly, this has to do with the smugness of the defenders of the accepted wisdom, whatever it is — there’s something about the phrase “every reputable scientist / economist / historian / etc agrees” that sets my teeth on edge. It isn’t so much that whatever it is that they’re agreeing on is necessarily wrong — it’s that it’s boring. I can think of very few breakthroughs in science or technology that didn’t start out as off-the-wall ideas that were objectively crazy according to the accepted wisdom at the time. That doesn’t mean that the iconoclasts are always right or even frequently right — obviously, they’re usually wrong, because they’re making what amount to risky bets, and by definition, risky bets usually lose. But the clever ones nearly always have something to say that’s worth listening to, and their writings are often a great source of creative stimulation. They may be wrong a lot, but they’re almost always colorful and interesting. More »