The Cosmological Axis of Evil

WMAP_temp-anisotropy

The cosmos seems remarkably uniform — look in any direction with the naked eye or the most powerful telescopes and you’ll see much the same as in any other direction. Yet, on a grand scale, our universe shows some peculiar fluctuations that have cosmologists scratching their heads. The temperature of the universe, as described by the cosmic microwave background (CMB), shows some interesting fluctuations in specific, vast regions. It is the distribution of these temperature variations that shows what seem to be non-random patterns. Cosmologists have dubbed the pattern, “axis of evil”.

From ars technica:

The Universe is incredibly regular. The variation of the cosmos’ temperature across the entire sky is tiny: a few millionths of a degree, no matter which direction you look. Yet the same light from the very early cosmos that reveals the Universe’s evenness also tells astronomers a great deal about the conditions that gave rise to irregularities like stars, galaxies, and (incidentally) us.

That light is the cosmic microwave background, and it provides some of the best knowledge we have about the structure, content, and history of the Universe. But it also contains a few mysteries: on very large scales, the cosmos seems to have a certain lopsidedness. That slight asymmetry is reflected in temperature fluctuations much larger than any galaxy, aligned on the sky in a pattern facetiously dubbed “the axis of evil.”

The lopsidedness is real, but cosmologists are divided over whether it reveals anything meaningful about the fundamental laws of physics. The fluctuations are sufficiently small that they could arise from random chance. We have just one observable Universe, but nobody sensible believes we can see all of it. With a sufficiently large cosmos beyond the reach of our telescopes, the rest of the Universe may balance the oddity that we can see, making it a minor, local variation.

However, if the asymmetry can’t be explained away so simply, it could indicate that some new physical mechanisms were at work in the early history of the Universe. As Amanda Yoho, a graduate student in cosmology at Case Western Reserve University, told Ars, “I think the alignments, in conjunction with all of the other large angle anomalies, must point to something we don’t know, whether that be new fundamental physics, unknown astrophysical or cosmological sources, or something else.”

Over the centuries, astronomers have provided increasing evidence that Earth, the Solar System, and the Milky Way don’t occupy a special position in the cosmos. Not only are we not at the center of existence—much less the corrupt sinkhole surrounded by the pure crystal heavens, as in early geocentric Christian theology—the Universe has no center and no edge.

In cosmology, that’s elevated to a principle. The Universe is isotropic, meaning it’s (roughly) the same in every direction. The cosmic microwave background (CMB) is the strongest evidence for the isotropic principle: the spectrum of the light reaching Earth from every direction indicates that it was emitted by matter at almost exactly the same temperature.

The Big Bang model explains why. In the early years of the Universe’s history, matter was very dense and hot, forming an opaque plasma of electrons, protons, and helium nuclei. The expansion of space-time thinned out until the plasma cooled enough that stable atoms could form. That event, which ended roughly 380,000 years after the Big Bang, is known as recombination. The immediate side effect was to make the Universe transparent and liberate vast numbers of photons, most of which have traveled through space unmolested ever since.

We observe the relics of recombination in the form of the CMB. The temperature of the Universe today is about 2.73 degrees above absolute zero in every part of the sky. The lack of variation makes the cosmos nearly as close to a perfect thermal body as possible. However, measurements show anisotropies—tiny fluctuations in temperature, roughly 10 millionths of a degree or less. These irregularities later gave rise to areas where mass gathered. A perfectly featureless, isotropic cosmos would have no stars, galaxies, or planets full of humans.

To measure the physical size of these anisotropies, researchers turn the whole-sky map of temperature fluctuations into something called a power spectrum. That’s akin to the process of taking light from a galaxy and finding the component wavelengths (colors) that make it up. The power spectrum encompasses fluctuations over the whole sky down to very small variations in temperature. (For those with some higher mathematics knowledge, this process involves decomposing the temperature fluctuations in spherical harmonics.)

Smaller details in the fluctuations tell cosmologists the relative amounts of ordinary matter, dark matter, and dark energy. However, some of the largest fluctuations—covering one-fourth, one-eighth, and one-sixteenth of the sky—are bigger than any structure in the Universe, therefore representing temperature variations across the whole sky.

Those large-scale fluctuations in the power spectrum are where something weird happens. The temperature variations are both larger than expected and aligned with each other to a high degree. That’s at odds with theoretical expectations: the CMB anisotropies should be randomly oriented, not aligned. In fact, the smaller-scale variations are random, which makes the deviation at larger scales that much stranger.

Kate Land and Joao Magueijo jokingly dubbed the strange alignment “the axis of evil” in a 2005 paper (freely available on the ArXiv), riffing on an infamous statement by then-US President George W. Bush. Their findings were based on data from an earlier observatory, the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP), but the follow-up Planck mission found similar results. There’s no question that the “axis of evil” is there; cosmologists just have to figure out what to think about it.

The task of interpretation is complicated by what’s called “cosmic variance,” or the fact that our observable Universe is just one region in a larger Universe. Random chance dictates that some pockets of the whole Universe will have larger or smaller fluctuations than others, and those fluctuations might even be aligned entirely by coincidence.

In other words, the “axis of evil” could very well be an illusion, a pattern that wouldn’t seem amiss if we could see more of the Universe. However, cosmic variance also predicts how big those local, random deviations should be—and the fluctuations in the CMB data are larger. They’re not so large as to rule out the possibility of a local variation entirely—they’re above-average height—but cosmologists can’t easily dismiss the possibility that something else is going on.

Read the entire article here.

Image courtesy of Hinshaw et al WMAP paper.

Don’t Hitchhike, Unless You’re a Robot

hitchbot

 

A Canadian is trying valiantly to hitchhike across the nation, from coast-to-coast — Nova Scotia to British Columbia. While others have made this trek before, this journey is peculiar in one respect. The intrepid hiker is a child-sized robot. She or he — we don’t really know — is named hitchBOT.

hitchBOT is currently still in eastern Canada; New Brunswick to be more precise. So one has to wonder if (s)he would have made better progress from commandeering one of Google’s self-propelled, driverless cars to make the 3,781 mile journey.

Read the entire story and follow hitchBOT’s progress across Canada here.

Image courtesy of hitchBOT / Independent.

 

Ugliness Behind the Beautiful Game

Google-map-QatarQatar hosts the World Cup in 2022. This gives the emirate another 8 years to finish construction of the various football venues, hotels and infrastructure required to support the world’s biggest single sporting event.

Perhaps, it will also give the emirate some time to clean up its appalling record of worker abuse and human rights violations. Numerous  laborers have died during the construction process, while others are paid minimal wages or not at all. And to top it off most employees live in atrocious conditions , cannot move freely, nor can they change jobs or even repatriate — many come from the Indian subcontinent or East Asia. You could be forgiven for labeling these people indentured servants rather than workers.

From the Guardian:

Migrant workers who built luxury offices used by Qatar’s 2022 football World Cup organisers have told the Guardian they have not been paid for more than a year and are now working illegally from cockroach-infested lodgings.

Officials in Qatar’s Supreme Committee for Delivery and Legacy have been using offices on the 38th and 39th floors of Doha’s landmark al-Bidda skyscraper – known as the Tower of Football – which were fitted out by men from Nepal, Sri Lanka and India who say they have not been paid for up to 13 months’ work.

The project, a Guardian investigation shows, was directly commissioned by the Qatar government and the workers’ plight is set to raise fresh doubts over the autocratic emirate’s commitment to labour rights as construction starts this year on five new stadiums for the World Cup.

The offices, which cost £2.5m to fit, feature expensive etched glass, handmade Italian furniture, and even a heated executive toilet, project sources said. Yet some of the workers have not been paid, despite complaining to the Qatari authorities months ago and being owed wages as modest as £6 a day.

By the end of this year, several hundred thousand extra migrant workers from some of the world’s poorest countries are scheduled to have travelled to Qatar to build World Cup facilities and infrastructure. The acceleration in the building programme comes amid international concern over a rising death toll among migrant workers and the use of forced labour.

“We don’t know how much they are spending on the World Cup, but we just need our salary,” said one worker who had lost a year’s pay on the project. “We were working, but not getting the salary. The government, the company: just provide the money.”

The migrants are squeezed seven to a room, sleeping on thin, dirty mattresses on the floor and on bunk beds, in breach of Qatar’s own labour standards. They live in constant fear of imprisonment because they have been left without paperwork after the contractor on the project, Lee Trading and Contracting, collapsed. They say they are now being exploited on wages as low as 50p an hour.

Their case was raised with Qatar’s prime minister by Amnesty International last November, but the workers have said 13 of them remain stranded in Qatar. Despite having done nothing wrong, five have even been arrested and imprisoned by Qatari police because they did not have ID papers. Legal claims lodged against the former employer at the labour court in November have proved fruitless. They are so poor they can no longer afford the taxi to court to pursue their cases, they say.

A 35-year-old Nepalese worker and father of three who ssaid he too had lost a year’s pay: “If I had money to buy a ticket, I would go home.”

Qatar’s World Cup organising committee confirmed that it had been granted use of temporary offices on the floors fitted out by the unpaid workers. It said it was “heavily dismayed to learn of the behaviour of Lee Trading with regard to the timely payment of its workers”. The committee stressed it did not commission the firm. “We strongly disapprove and will continue to press for a speedy and fair conclusion to all cases,” it said.

Jim Murphy, the shadow international development secretary, said the revelation added to the pressure on the World Cup organising committee. “They work out of this building, but so far they can’t even deliver justice for the men who toiled at their own HQ,” he said.

Sharan Burrow, secretary general of the International Trade Union Confederation, said the workers’ treatment was criminal. “It is an appalling abuse of fundamental rights, yet there is no concern from the Qatar government unless they are found out,” she said. “In any other country you could prosecute this behaviour.”

Read the entire article here.

Image: Qatar. Courtesy of Google Maps.

MondayMap: Drought Mapping

US-droughtThe NYT has an fascinating and detailed article bursting with charts and statistics that shows the pervasive grip of the drought in the United States. The desert Southwest and West continue to be parched and scorching. This is not a pretty picture for farmers and increasingly for those (sub-)urban dwellers who rely upon a fragile and dwindling water supply.

From the NYT:

Droughts appear to be intensifying over much of the West and Southwest as a result of global warming. Over the past decade, droughts in some regions have rivaled the epic dry spells of the 1930s and 1950s. About 34 percent of the contiguous United States was in at least a moderate drought as of July 22.
Things have been particularly bad in California, where state officials have approved drastic measures to reduce water consumption. California farmers, without water from reservoirs in the Central Valley, are left to choose which of their crops to water. Parts of Texas, Oklahoma and surrounding states are also suffering from drought conditions.
The relationship between the climate and droughts is complicated. Parts of the country are becoming wetter: East of the Mississippi, rainfall has been rising. But global warming also appears to be causing moisture to evaporate faster in places that were already dry. Researchers believe drought conditions in these places are likely to intensify in coming years.
There has been little relief for some places since the summer of 2012. At the recent peak this May, about 40 percent of the country was abnormally dry or in at least a moderate drought.

Read the entire story and see the statistics for yourself here.

Image courtesy of Drought Monitor / NYT.

Computer Generated Reality

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Computer games have come a very long way since the pioneering days of Pong and Pacman. Games are now so realistic that many are indistinguishable from the real-world characters and scenarios they emulate. It is a testament to the skill and ingenuity of hardware and software engineers and the creativity of developers who bring all the diverse underlying elements of a game together. Now, however, they have a match in the form of computer system that is able to generate richly  imagined and rendered world for use in the games themselves. It’s all done through algorithms.

From Technology Review:

Read the entire story here.

Video: No Man’s Sky. Courtesy of Hello Games.

 

 

Gun Love

Gun Violence in America

The second amendment remains ever strong in the U.S. And, of course so does the number of homicides and child deaths at the hands of guns. Sigh!

From the Guardian:

In February, a nine-year-old Arkansas boy called Hank asked his uncle if he could head off on his own from their remote camp to hunt a rabbit with his .22 calibre rifle. “I said all right,” recalled his uncle Brent later. “It wasn’t a concern. Some people are like, ‘a nine year old shouldn’t be off by himself,’ but he wasn’t an average nine year old.”

Hank was steeped in hunting: when he was two, his father, Brad, would put him in a rucksack on his back when he went turkey hunting. Brad regularly took Hank hunting and said that his son often went off hunting by himself. On this particular day, Hank and his uncle Brent had gone squirrel hunting together as his father was too sick to go.

When Hank didn’t return from hunting the rabbit, his uncle raised the alarm. His mother, Kelli, didn’t learn about his disappearance for seven hours. “They didn’t want to bother me unduly,” she says.

The following morning, though, after police, family and hundreds of locals searched around the camp, Hank’s body was found by a creek with a single bullet wound to the forehead. The cause of death was, according to the police, most likely a hunting accident.

“He slipped and the butt of the gun hit the ground and the gun fired,” says Kelli.

Kelli had recently bought the gun for Hank. “It was the first gun I had purchased for my son, just a youth .22 rifle. I never thought it would be a gun that would take his life.”

Both Kelli and Brad, from whom she is separated, believe that the gun was faulty – it shouldn’t have gone off unless the trigger was pulled, they claim. Since Hank’s death, she’s been posting warnings on her Facebook page about the gun her son used: “I wish someone else had posted warnings about it before what happened,” she says.

Had Kelli not bought the gun and had Brad not trained his son to use it, Hank would have celebrated his 10th birthday on 6 June, which his mother commemorated by posting Hank’s picture on her Facebook page with the message: “Happy Birthday Hank! Mommy loves you!”

Little Hank thus became one in a tally of what the makers of a Channel 4 documentary called Kids and Guns claim to be 3,000 American children who die each year from gun-related accidents. A recent Yale University study found that more than 7,000 US children and adolescents are hospitalised or killed by guns each year and estimates that about 20 children a day are treated in US emergency rooms following incidents involving guns.

Hank’s story is striking, certainly for British readers, for two reasons. One, it dramatises how hunting is for many Americans not the privileged pursuit it is overwhelmingly here, but a traditional family activity as much to do with foraging for food as it is a sport.

Francine Shaw, who directed Kids and Guns, says: “In rural America … people hunt to eat.”

Kelli has a fond memory of her son coming home with what he’d shot. “He’d come in and say: “Momma – I’ve got some squirrel to cook.” And I’d say ‘Gee, thanks.’ That child was happy to bring home meat. He was the happiest child when he came in from shooting.”

But Hank’s story is also striking because it shows how raising kids to hunt and shoot is seen as good parenting, perhaps even as an essential part of bringing up children in America – a society rife with guns and temperamentally incapable of overturning the second amendment that confers the right to bear arms, no matter how many innocent Americans die or get maimed as a result.

“People know I was a good mother and loved him dearly,” says Kelli. “We were both really good parents and no one has said anything hateful to us. The only thing that has been said is in a news report about a nine year old being allowed to hunt alone.”

Does Kelli regret that Hank was allowed to hunt alone at that young age? “Obviously I do, because I’ve lost my son,” she tells me. But she doesn’t blame Brent for letting him go off from camp unsupervised with a gun.

“We’re sure not anti-gun here, but do I wish I could go back in time and not buy that gun? Yes I do. I know you in England don’t have guns. I wish I could go back and have my son back. I would live in England, away from the guns.”

Read the entire article here.

Infographic courtesy of Care2 via visua.ly

The Best

The United States is home to many first and superlatives: first in democracy, wealth, openness, innovation, industry, innovation. The nation also takes great pride in its personal and cultural freedoms. Yet it is also home to another superlative: first in rates of incarceration.  In fact, the US leads other nations by such a wide margin that questions continue to be asked. In the land of the free, something must be wrong.

From the Atlantic:

On Friday, the U.S. Sentencing Commission voted unanimously to allow nearly 50,000 nonviolent federal drug offenders to seek lower sentences. The commission’s decision retroactively applied an earlier change in sentencing guidelines to now cover roughly half of those serving federal drug sentences. Endorsed by both the Department of Justice and prison-reform advocates, the move is a significant step forward in reversing decades of mass incarcerationthough in a global context, still modest—step forward in reversing decades of mass incarceration.

How large is America’s prison problem? More than 2.4 million people are behind bars in the United States today, either awaiting trial or serving a sentence. That’s more than the combined population of 15 states, all but three U.S. cities, and the U.S. armed forces. They’re scattered throughout a constellation of 102 federal prisons, 1,719 state prisons, 2,259 juvenile facilities, 3,283 local jails, and many more military, immigration, territorial, and Indian Country facilities.

Compared to the rest of the world, these numbers are staggering. Here’s how the United States’ incarceration rate compares with those of other modern liberal democracies like Britain and Canada:

That graph is from a recent report by Prison Policy Initiative, an invaluable resource on mass incarceration. (PPI also has a disturbing graph comparing state incarceration rates with those of other countries around the world, which I highly recommend looking at here.) “Although our level of crime is comparable to those of other stable, internally secure, industrialized nations,” the report says, “the United States has an incarceration rate far higher than any other country.”

Some individual states like Louisiana contribute disproportionately, but no state is free from mass incarceration. Disturbingly, many states’ prison populations outrank even those of dictatorships and illiberal democracies around the world. New York jails more people per capita than Rwanda, where tens of thousands await trial for their roles in the 1994 genocide. California, Illinois, and Ohio each have a higher incarceration rate than Cuba and Russia. Even Maine and Vermont imprison a greater share of people than Saudi Arabia, Venezuela, or Egypt.

But mass incarceration is more than just an international anomaly; it’s also a relatively recent phenomenon in American criminal justice. Starting in the 1970s with the rise of tough-on-crime politicians and the War on Drugs, America’s prison population jumped eightfold between 1970 and 2010.

These two metrics—the international and the historical—have to be seen together to understand how aberrant mass incarceration is. In time or in space, the warehousing of millions of Americans knows no parallels. In keeping with American history, however, it also disproportionately harms the non-white and the non-wealthy. “For a great many poor people in America, particularly poor black men, prison is a destination that braids through an ordinary life, much as high school and college do for rich white ones,” wrote Adam Gopnik in his seminal 2012 article.

Mass incarceration on a scale almost unexampled in human history is a fundamental fact of our country today—perhaps the fundamental fact, as slavery was the fundamental fact of 1850. In truth, there are more black men in the grip of the criminal-justice system—in prison, on probation, or on parole—than were in slavery then. Over all, there are now more people under “correctional supervision” in America—more than six million—than were in the Gulag Archipelago under Stalin at its height.

Mass incarceration’s effects are not confined to the cell block. Through the inescapable stigma it imposes, a brush with the criminal-justice system can hamstring a former inmate’s employment and financial opportunities for life. The effect is magnified for those who already come from disadvantaged backgrounds. Black men, for example, made substantial economic progress between 1940 and 1980 thanks to the post-war economic boom and the dismantling of de jure racial segregation. But mass incarceration has all but ground that progress to a halt: A new University of Chicago study found that black men are no better off in 2014 than they were when Congress passed the Civil Rights Act 50 years earlier.

Read the entire article here.

Climate Change Denial: English Only

It’s official. Native English-speakers are more likely to be in denial over climate change than non-English speakers. In fact, many who do not see a human hand in our planet’s environmental and climatic troubles are located in the United States, Britain,  Australia and Canada. Enough said, in English.

Sacre bleu!

Now, the Guardian would have you believe that media monopolist — Rupert Murdoch — is behind the climate change skeptics and deniers. After all, he is well known for his views on climate and his empire controls large swathes of the media that most English-speaking people consume.  However, it’s probably a little more complicated.

From the Guardian:

Here in the United States, we fret a lot about global warming denial. Not only is it a dangerous delusion, it’s an incredibly prevalent one. Depending on your survey instrument of choice, we regularly learn that substantial minorities of Americans deny, or are sceptical of, the science of climate change.

The global picture, however, is quite different. For instance, recently the UK-based market research firm Ipsos MORI released its “Global Trends 2014” report, which included a number of survey questions on the environment asked across 20 countries. (h/t Leo Hickman). And when it came to climate change, the result was very telling.

Note that these results are not perfectly comparable across countries, because the data were gathered online, and Ipsos MORI cautions that for developing countries like India and China, “the results should be viewed as representative of a more affluent and ‘connected’ population.”

Nonetheless, some pretty significant patterns are apparent. Perhaps most notably: Not only is the United States clearly the worst in its climate denial, but Great Britain and Australia are second and third worst, respectively. Canada, meanwhile, is the seventh worst.

What do these four nations have in common? They all speak the language of Shakespeare.

Why would that be? After all, presumably there is nothing about English, in and of itself, that predisposes you to climate change denial. Words and phrases like “doubt,” “natural causes,” “climate models,” and other sceptic mots are readily available in other languages. So what’s the real cause?

One possible answer is that it’s all about the political ideologies prevalent in these four countries.

The US climate change counter movement is comprised of 91 separate organizations, with annual funding, collectively, of “just over $900 million.” And they all speak English.

“I do not find these results surprising,” says Riley Dunlap, a sociologist at Oklahoma State University who has extensively studied the climate denial movement. “It’s the countries where neo-liberalism is most hegemonic and with strong neo-liberal regimes (both in power and lurking on the sidelines to retake power) that have bred the most active denial campaigns—US, UK, Australia and now Canada. And the messages employed by these campaigns filter via the media and political elites to the public, especially the ideologically receptive portions.” (Neoliberalism is an economic philosophy centered on the importance of free markets and broadly opposed to big government interventions.)

Indeed, the English language media in three of these four countries are linked together by a single individual: Rupert Murdoch. An apparent climate sceptic or lukewarmer, Murdoch is the chairman of News Corp and 21st Century Fox. (You can watch him express his climate views here.) Some of the media outlets subsumed by the two conglomerates that he heads are responsible for quite a lot of English language climate scepticism and denial.

In the US, Fox News and the Wall Street Journal lead the way; research shows that Fox watching increases distrust of climate scientists. (You can also catch Fox News in Canada.) In Australia, a recent study found that slightly under a third of climate-related articles in 10 top Australian newspapers “did not accept” the scientific consensus on climate change, and that News Corp papers — the Australian, the Herald Sun, and the Daily Telegraph — were particular hotbeds of scepticism. “TheAustralian represents climate science as matter of opinion or debate rather than as a field for inquiry and investigation like all scientific fields,” noted the study.

And then there’s the UK. A 2010 academic study found that while News Corp outlets in this country from 1997 to 2007 did not produce as much strident climate scepticism as did their counterparts in the US and Australia, “the Sun newspaper offered a place for scornful sceptics on its opinion pages as did The Times and Sunday Times to a lesser extent.” (There are also other outlets in the UK, such as the Daily Mail, that feature plenty of scepticism but aren’t owned by News Corp.)

Thus, while there may not be anything inherent to the English language that impels climate denial, the fact that English language media are such a major source of that denial may in effect create a language barrier.

And media aren’t the only reason that denialist arguments are more readily available in the English language. There’s also the Anglophone nations’ concentration of climate “sceptic” think tanks, which provide the arguments and rationalisations necessary to feed this anti-science position.

According to a study in the journal Climatic Change earlier this year, the US is home to 91 different organisations (think tanks, advocacy groups, and trade associations) that collectively comprise a “climate change counter-movement.” The annual funding of these organisations, collectively, is “just over $900 million.” That is a truly massive amount of English-speaking climate “sceptic” activity, and while the study was limited to the US, it is hard to imagine that anything comparable exists in non-English speaking countries.

Read the entire article here.

A Godless Universe: Mind or Mathematics

In his science column for the NYT George Johnson reviews several recent books by noted thinkers who for different reasons believe science needs to expand its borders. Philosopher Thomas Nagel and physicist Max Tegmark both agree that our current understanding of the universe is rather limited and that science needs to turn to new or alternate explanations. Nagel, still an atheist, suggests in his book Mind and Cosmos that the mind somehow needs to be considered a fundamental structure of the universe. While Tegmark in his book Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality suggests that mathematics is the core, irreducible framework of the cosmos. Two radically different ideas — yet both are correct in one respect: we still know so very little about ourselves and our surroundings.

From the NYT:

Though he probably didn’t intend anything so jarring, Nicolaus Copernicus, in a 16th-century treatise, gave rise to the idea that human beings do not occupy a special place in the heavens. Nearly 500 years after replacing the Earth with the sun as the center of the cosmic swirl, we’ve come to see ourselves as just another species on a planet orbiting a star in the boondocks of a galaxy in the universe we call home. And this may be just one of many universes — what cosmologists, some more skeptically than others, have named the multiverse.

Despite the long string of demotions, we remain confident, out here on the edge of nowhere, that our band of primates has what it takes to figure out the cosmos — what the writer Timothy Ferris called “the whole shebang.” New particles may yet be discovered, and even new laws. But it is almost taken for granted that everything from physics to biology, including the mind, ultimately comes down to four fundamental concepts: matter and energy interacting in an arena of space and time.

There are skeptics who suspect we may be missing a crucial piece of the puzzle. Recently, I’ve been struck by two books exploring that possibility in very different ways. There is no reason why, in this particular century, Homo sapiens should have gathered all the pieces needed for a theory of everything. In displacing humanity from a privileged position, the Copernican principle applies not just to where we are in space but to when we are in time.

Since it was published in 2012, “Mind and Cosmos,” by the philosopher Thomas Nagel, is the book that has caused the most consternation. With his taunting subtitle — “Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False” — Dr. Nagel was rejecting the idea that there was nothing more to the universe than matter and physical forces. He also doubted that the laws of evolution, as currently conceived, could have produced something as remarkable as sentient life. That idea borders on anathema, and the book quickly met with a blistering counterattack. Steven Pinker, a Harvard psychologist, denounced it as “the shoddy reasoning of a once-great thinker.”

What makes “Mind and Cosmos” worth reading is that Dr. Nagel is an atheist, who rejects the creationist idea of an intelligent designer. The answers, he believes, may still be found through science, but only by expanding it further than it may be willing to go.

“Humans are addicted to the hope for a final reckoning,” he wrote, “but intellectual humility requires that we resist the temptation to assume that the tools of the kind we now have are in principle sufficient to understand the universe as a whole.”

Dr. Nagel finds it astonishing that the human brain — this biological organ that evolved on the third rock from the sun — has developed a science and a mathematics so in tune with the cosmos that it can predict and explain so many things.

Neuroscientists assume that these mental powers somehow emerge from the electrical signaling of neurons — the circuitry of the brain. But no one has come close to explaining how that occurs.

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Continue reading the main story

That, Dr. Nagel proposes, might require another revolution: showing that mind, along with matter and energy, is “a fundamental principle of nature” — and that we live in a universe primed “to generate beings capable of comprehending it.” Rather than being a blind series of random mutations and adaptations, evolution would have a direction, maybe even a purpose.

“Above all,” he wrote, “I would like to extend the boundaries of what is not regarded as unthinkable, in light of how little we really understand about the world.”

Dr. Nagel is not alone in entertaining such ideas. While rejecting anything mystical, the biologist Stuart Kauffman has suggested that Darwinian theory must somehow be expanded to explain the emergence of complex, intelligent creatures. And David J. Chalmers, a philosopher, has called on scientists to seriously consider “panpsychism” — the idea that some kind of consciousness, however rudimentary, pervades the stuff of the universe.

Some of this is a matter of scientific taste. It can be just as exhilarating, as Stephen Jay Gould proposed in “Wonderful Life,” to consider the conscious mind as simply a fluke, no more inevitable than the human appendix or a starfish’s five legs. But it doesn’t seem so crazy to consider alternate explanations.

Heading off in another direction, a new book by the physicist Max Tegmark suggests that a different ingredient — mathematics — needs to be admitted into science as one of nature’s irreducible parts. In fact, he believes, it may be the most fundamental of all.

In a well-known 1960 essay, the physicist Eugene Wigner marveled at “the unreasonable effectiveness of mathematics” in explaining the world. It is “something bordering on the mysterious,” he wrote, for which “there is no rational explanation.”

The best he could offer was that mathematics is “a wonderful gift which we neither understand nor deserve.”

Dr. Tegmark, in his new book, “Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality,” turns the idea on its head: The reason mathematics serves as such a forceful tool is that the universe is a mathematical structure. Going beyond Pythagoras and Plato, he sets out to show how matter, energy, space and time might emerge from numbers.

Read the entire article here.

Non-Spooky Action at a Distance

Albert Einstein famously called quantum entanglement “spooky action at a distance”. It refers to the notion that measuring the state of one of two entangled particles makes the state of the second particle known instantaneously, regardless of the distance  separating the two particles. Entanglement seems to link these particles and make them behave as one system. This peculiar characteristic has been a core element of the counterintuitiive world of quantum theory. Yet while experiments have verified this spookiness, other theorists maintain that both theory and experiment are flawed, and that a different interpretation is required. However, one such competing theory — the many worlds interpretation — makes equally spooky predictions.

From ars technica:

Quantum nonlocality, perhaps one of the most mysterious features of quantum mechanics, may not be a real phenomenon. Or at least that’s what a new paper in the journal PNAS asserts. Its author claims that nonlocality is nothing more than an artifact of the Copenhagen interpretation, the most widely accepted interpretation of quantum mechanics.

Nonlocality is a feature of quantum mechanics where particles are able to influence each other instantaneously regardless of the distance between them, an impossibility in classical physics. Counterintuitive as it may be, nonlocality is currently an accepted feature of the quantum world, apparently verified by many experiments. It’s achieved such wide acceptance that even if our understandings of quantum physics turn out to be completely wrong, physicists think some form of nonlocality would be a feature of whatever replaced it.

The term “nonlocality” comes from the fact that this “spooky action at a distance,” as Einstein famously called it, seems to put an end to our intuitive ideas about location. Nothing can travel faster than the speed of light, so if two quantum particles can influence each other faster than light could travel between the two, then on some level, they act as a single system—there must be no real distance between them.

The concept of location is a bit strange in quantum mechanics anyway. Each particle is described by a mathematical quantity known as the “wave function.” The wave function describes a probability distribution for the particle’s location, but not a definite location. These probable locations are not just scientists’ guesses at the particle’s whereabouts; they’re actual, physical presences. That is to say, the particles exist in a swarm of locations at the same time, with some locations more probable than others.

A measurement collapses the wave function so that the particle is no longer spread out over a variety of locations. It begins to act just like objects we’re familiar with—existing in one specific location.

The experiments that would measure nonlocality, however, usually involve two particles that are entangled, which means that both are described by a shared wave function. The wave function doesn’t just deal with the particle’s location, but with other aspects of its state as well, such as the direction of the particle’s spin. So if scientists can measure the spin of one of the two entangled particles, the shared wave function collapses and the spins of both particles become certain. This happens regardless of the distance between the particles.

The new paper calls all this into question.

The paper’s sole author, Frank Tipler, argues that the reason previous studies apparently confirmed quantum nonlocality is that they were relying on an oversimplified understanding of quantum physics in which the quantum world and the macroscopic world we’re familiar with are treated as distinct from one another. Even large structures obey the laws of quantum Physics, Tipler points out, so the scientists making the measurements must be considered part of the system being studied.

It is intuitively easy to separate the quantum world from our everyday world, as they appear to behave so differently. However, the equations of quantum mechanics can be applied to large objects like human beings, and they essentially predict that you’ll behave just as classical physics—and as observation—says you will. (Physics students who have tried calculating their own wave functions can attest to this). The laws of quantum physics do govern the entire Universe, even if distinctly quantum effects are hard to notice at a macroscopic level.

When this is taken into account, according to Tipler, the results of familiar nonlocality experiments are altered. Typically, such experiments are thought to involve only two measurements: one on each of two entangled particles. But Tipler argues that in such experiments, there’s really a third measurement taking place when the scientists compare the results of the two.

This third measurement is crucial, Tipler argues, as without it, the first two measurements are essentially meaningless. Without comparing the first two, there’s no way to know that one particle’s behavior is actually linked to the other’s. And crucially, in order for the first two measurements to be compared, information must be exchanged between the particles, via the scientists, at a speed less than that of light. In other words, when the third measurement is taken into account, the two particles are not communicating faster than light. There is no “spooky action at a distance.”

Tipler has harsh criticism for the reasoning that led to nonlocality. “The standard argument that quantum phenomena are nonlocal goes like this,” he says in the paper. “(i) Let us add an unmotivated, inconsistent, unobservable, nonlocal process (collapse) to local quantum mechanics; (ii) note that the resulting theory is nonlocal; and (iii) conclude that quantum mechanics is [nonlocal].”

He’s essentially saying that scientists are arbitrarily adding nonlocality, which they can’t observe, and then claiming they have discovered nonlocality. Quite an accusation, especially for the science world. (The “collapse” he mentions is the collapse of the particle’s wave function, which he asserts is not a real phenomenon.) Instead, he claims that the experiments thought to confirm nonlocality are in fact confirming an alternative to the Copenhagen interpretation called the many-worlds interpretation (MWI). As its name implies, the MWI predicts the existence of other universes.

The Copenhagen interpretation has been summarized as “shut up and measure.” Even though the consequences of a wave function-based world don’t make much intuitive sense, it works. The MWI tries to keep particles concrete at the cost of making our world a bit fuzzy. It posits that rather than becoming a wave function, particles remain distinct objects but enter one of a number of alternative universes, which recombine to a single one when the particle is measured.

Scientists who thought they were measuring nonlocality, Tipler claims, were in fact observing the effects of alternate universe versions of themselves, also measuring the same particles.

Part of the significance of Tipler’s claim is that he’s able to mathematically derive the same experimental results from the MWI without use of nonlocality. But this does not necessarily make for evidence that the MWI is correct; either interpretation remains consistent with the data. Until the two can be distinguished experimentally, it all comes down to whether you personally like or dislike nonlocality.

Read the entire article here.

We Are Back

Old-Kiln trail Boulder Jul2014

After a month-long respite, marred by sporadic writing, theDiagonal is finally back. Your friendly editor has relocated to Boulder, CO, where the air is fresh, the streams are cold, and natural beauty is all-enveloping. Writing continues apace.

 

Isolation Fractures the Mind

Through the lens of extreme isolation Michael Bond shows us in this fascinating article how we really are social animals. Remove a person from all meaningful social contact — even for a short while — and her mind will begin to play tricks and eventually break. Michael Bond is author of The Power of Others.

From the BBC:

When people are isolated from human contact, their mind can do some truly bizarre things, says Michael Bond. Why does this happen?

Sarah Shourd’s mind began to slip after about two months into her incarceration. She heard phantom footsteps and flashing lights, and spent most of her day crouched on all fours, listening through a gap in the door.

That summer, the 32-year-old had been hiking with two friends in the mountains of Iraqi Kurdistan when they were arrested by Iranian troops after straying onto the border with Iran. Accused of spying, they were kept in solitary confinement in Evin prison in Tehran, each in their own tiny cell. She endured almost 10,000 hours with little human contact before she was freed. One of the most disturbing effects was the hallucinations.

“In the periphery of my vision, I began to see flashing lights, only to jerk my head around to find that nothing was there,” she wrote in the New York Times in 2011. “At one point, I heard someone screaming, and it wasn’t until I felt the hands of one of the friendlier guards on my face, trying to revive me, that I realised the screams were my own.”

We all want to be alone from time to time, to escape the demands of our colleagues or the hassle of crowds. But not alone alone. For most people, prolonged social isolation is all bad, particularly mentally. We know this not only from reports by people like Shourd who have experienced it first-hand, but also from psychological experiments on the effects of isolation and sensory deprivation, some of which had to be called off due to the extreme and bizarre reactions of those involved. Why does the mind unravel so spectacularly when we’re truly on our own, and is there any way to stop it?

We’ve known for a while that isolation is physically bad for us. Chronically lonely people have higher blood pressure, are more vulnerable to infection, and are also more likely to develop Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Loneliness also interferes with a whole range of everyday functioning, such as sleep patterns, attention and logical and verbal reasoning. The mechanisms behind these effects are still unclear, though what is known is that social isolation unleashes an extreme immune response – a cascade of stress hormones and inflammation. This may have been appropriate in our early ancestors, when being isolated from the group carried big physical risks, but for us the outcome is mostly harmful.

Yet some of the most profound effects of loneliness are on the mind. For starters, isolation messes with our sense of time. One of the strangest effects is the ‘time-shifting’ reported by those who have spent long periods living underground without daylight. In 1961, French geologist Michel Siffre led a two-week expedition to study an underground glacier beneath the French Alps and ended up staying two months, fascinated by how the darkness affected human biology. He decided to abandon his watch and “live like an animal”. While conducting tests with his team on the surface, they discovered it took him five minutes to count to what he thought was 120 seconds.

A similar pattern of ‘slowing time’ was reported by Maurizio Montalbini, a sociologist and caving enthusiast. In 1993, Montalbini spent 366 days in an underground cavern near Pesaro in Italy that had been designed with Nasa to simulate space missions, breaking his own world record for time spent underground. When he emerged, he was convinced only 219 days had passed. His sleep-wake cycles had almost doubled in length. Since then, researchers have found that in darkness most people eventually adjust to a 48-hour cycle: 36 hours of activity followed by 12 hours of sleep. The reasons are still unclear.

As well as their time-shifts, Siffre and Montalbini reported periods of mental instability too. But these experiences were nothing compared with the extreme reactions seen in notorious sensory deprivation experiments in the mid-20th Century.

In the 1950s and 1960s, China was rumoured to be using solitary confinement to “brainwash” American prisoners captured during the Korean War, and the US and Canadian governments were all too keen to try it out. Their defence departments funded a series of research programmes that might be considered ethically dubious today.

The most extensive took place at McGill University Medical Center in Montreal, led by the psychologist Donald Hebb. The McGill researchers invited paid volunteers – mainly college students – to spend days or weeks by themselves in sound-proof cubicles, deprived of meaningful human contact. Their aim was to reduce perceptual stimulation to a minimum, to see how their subjects would behave when almost nothing was happening. They minimised what they could feel, see, hear and touch, fitting them with translucent visors, cotton gloves and cardboard cuffs extending beyond the fingertips. As Scientific American magazine reported at the time, they had them lie on U-shaped foam pillows to restrict noise, and set up a continuous hum of air-conditioning units to mask small sounds.

After only a few hours, the students became acutely restless. They started to crave stimulation, talking, singing or reciting poetry to themselves to break the monotony. Later, many of them became anxious or highly emotional. Their mental performance suffered too, struggling with arithmetic and word association tests.

But the most alarming effects were the hallucinations. They would start with points of light, lines or shapes, eventually evolving into bizarre scenes, such as squirrels marching with sacks over their shoulders or processions of eyeglasses filing down a street. They had no control over what they saw: one man saw only dogs; another, babies.

Some of them experienced sound hallucinations as well: a music box or a choir, for instance. Others imagined sensations of touch: one man had the sense he had been hit in the arm by pellets fired from guns. Another, reaching out to touch a doorknob, felt an electric shock.

When they emerged from the experiment they found it hard to shake this altered sense of reality, convinced that the whole room was in motion, or that objects were constantly changing shape and size.

Read the entire article here.

 

The Art of Annoyance

g-g-clad

Our favorite voyeurs and provocateurs of contemporary British culture are at it again. Artists Gilbert & George have resurfaced with a new and thoroughly annoying collection — Scapegoating Pictures. You can catch their latest treatise on the state of their city (London) and nation at White Cube in London from July 18 – September 28.

From the Guardian.

The world of art is overwhelmingly liberal and forward looking. Unless you start following the money into Charles Saatchi’s bank account, the mood, content and operating assumptions of contemporary art are strikingly leftwing, from Bob and Roberta Smith’s cute posters to Jeremy Deller’s people’s art. The consensus is so progressive it does not need saying.

Gilbert & George have never signed up to that consensus. I am not saying they are rightwing. I am definitely not saying they are “racist”. But throughout their long careers, from a nostalgia for Edwardian music-hall songs to a more unsettling affinity for skinheads, they have delighted in provoking … us, dear Guardian reader.

Their new exhibition of grand, relentless photomontages restates their defiant desire to offend on a colossal scale. I could almost hear them at my shoulder asking: “Are you annoyed yet?”

Then suddenly they were at my shoulder, as I wrote down choice quotes from Scapegoating Pictures, the scabrous triptych of slogan-spattered pictures that climaxes this exhibition. When I confessed I was wondering which ones I could quote in a newspaper they insisted it’s all quotable: “We have a free press.” So here goes: “Fuck the Vicar.” “Get Frotting.” “Be candid with christians.” “Jerk off a judge.” “Crucify a curator.” “Molest a mullah.”

This wall of insults, mostly directed at religion, is the manifesto of Gilbert & George’s new pictures – and yet you discover it only at the end of the show. Before revealing where they are really coming from in this dirty-mouthed atheist onslaught, they have teased you with all kinds of dubious paranoias. What are these old men – Gilbert & George are 70 and 72, and the self-portraits that warp and gyrate through this kaleidoscopic digital-age profusion of images make no attempt to conceal their ageing process – so scared of?

At times this exhibition is like going on a tour of east London with one of Ukip’s less presentable candidates. Just look at that woman veiling her face. And here is a poster calling for an Islamic state in Britain.

Far from being scared, these artists are bold as brass. No one is asking Gilbert & George to go over the top one more time and plumb the psychic depths of Britain. They’re respectable now; they could just sit back in their suits. But, in these turbulent and estranging works, they give voice to the divided reality of a country at one and the same time gloriously plural and savagely bigoted.

In reality, nothing could be further from the mentality of racists and little Englanders than the polymorphically playful world of Gilbert & George. Their images merge with the faces of young men of all races who have caught their eye. Bullet-like metal canisters pulse through the pictures like threats of violence. Yet these menacing forms are actually empty containers for the drug nitrous oxide found by the artists outside their home, things that look evil but are residues of ecstatic nights.

No other artists today portray their own time and place with the curiosity that Gilbert & George display here. Their own lives are starkly visible, as they walk around their local streets in Spitalfiields, collecting the evidence of drug-fuelled mayhem and looking at the latest graffiti.

Read the entire story and see more of G & G’s works here.

Image: Clad, Gilbert & George, 2013. Courtesy of Gilbert & George / Guardian.

You Are a Neural Computation

Since the days of Aristotle, and later Descartes, thinkers have sought to explain consciousness and free will. Several thousand years on and we are still pondering the notion; science has made great strides and yet fundamentally we still have little idea.

Many neuroscientists now armed with new and very precise research tools are aiming to change this. Yet, increasingly it seems that free will may indeed by a cognitive illusion. Evidence suggests that our subconscious decides and initiates action for us long before we are aware of making a conscious decision. There seems to be no god or ghost in the machine.

From Technology Review:

It was an expedition seeking something never caught before: a single human neuron lighting up to create an urge, albeit for the minor task of moving an index finger, before the subject was even aware of feeling anything. Four years ago, Itzhak Fried, a neurosurgeon at the University of California, Los Angeles, slipped several probes, each with eight hairlike electrodes able to record from single neurons, into the brains of epilepsy patients. (The patients were undergoing surgery to diagnose the source of severe seizures and had agreed to participate in experiments during the process.) Probes in place, the patients—who were conscious—were given instructions to press a button at any time of their choosing, but also to report when they’d first felt the urge to do so.

Later, Gabriel Kreiman, a neuroscientist at Harvard Medical School and Children’s Hospital in Boston, captured the quarry. Poring over data after surgeries in 12 patients, he found telltale flashes of individual neurons in the pre-­supplementary motor area (associated with movement) and the anterior cingulate (associated with motivation and attention), preceding the reported urges by anywhere from hundreds of milliseconds to several seconds. It was a direct neural measurement of the unconscious brain at work—caught in the act of formulating a volitional, or freely willed, decision. Now Kreiman and his colleagues are planning to repeat the feat, but this time they aim to detect pre-urge signatures in real time and stop the subject from performing the action—or see if that’s even possible.

A variety of imaging studies in humans have revealed that brain activity related to decision-making tends to precede conscious action. Implants in macaques and other animals have examined brain circuits involved in perception and action. But Kreiman broke ground by directly measuring a preconscious decision in humans at the level of single neurons. To be sure, the readouts came from an average of just 20 neurons in each patient. (The human brain has about 86 billion of them, each with thousands of connections.) And ultimately, those neurons fired only in response to a chain of even earlier events. But as more such experiments peer deeper into the labyrinth of neural activity behind decisions—whether they involve moving a finger or opting to buy, eat, or kill something—science could eventually tease out the full circuitry of decision-making and perhaps point to behavioral therapies or treatments. “We need to understand the neuronal basis of voluntary decision-making—or ‘freely willed’ decision-­making—and its pathological counterparts if we want to help people such as drug, sex, food, and gambling addicts, or patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder,” says Christof Koch, chief scientist at the Allen Institute of Brain Science in Seattle (see “Cracking the Brain’s Codes”). “Many of these people perfectly well know that what they are doing is dysfunctional but feel powerless to prevent themselves from engaging in these behaviors.”

Kreiman, 42, believes his work challenges important Western philosophical ideas about free will. The Argentine-born neuroscientist, an associate professor at Harvard Medical School, specializes in visual object recognition and memory formation, which draw partly on unconscious processes. He has a thick mop of black hair and a tendency to pause and think a long moment before reframing a question and replying to it expansively. At the wheel of his Jeep as we drove down Broadway in Cambridge, Massachusetts, Kreiman leaned over to adjust the MP3 player—toggling between Vivaldi, Lady Gaga, and Bach. As he did so, his left hand, the one on the steering wheel, slipped to let the Jeep drift a bit over the double yellow lines. Kreiman’s view is that his neurons made him do it, and they also made him correct his small error an instant later; in short, all actions are the result of neural computations and nothing more. “I am interested in a basic age-old question,” he says. “Are decisions really free? I have a somewhat extreme view of this—that there is nothing really free about free will. Ultimately, there are neurons that obey the laws of physics and mathematics. It’s fine if you say ‘I decided’—that’s the language we use. But there is no god in the machine—only neurons that are firing.”

Our philosophical ideas about free will date back to Aristotle and were systematized by René Descartes, who argued that humans possess a God-given “mind,” separate from our material bodies, that endows us with the capacity to freely choose one thing rather than another. Kreiman takes this as his departure point. But he’s not arguing that we lack any control over ourselves. He doesn’t say that our decisions aren’t influenced by evolution, experiences, societal norms, sensations, and perceived consequences. “All of these external influences are fundamental to the way we decide what we do,” he says. “We do have experiences, we do learn, we can change our behavior.”

But the firing of a neuron that guides us one way or another is ultimately like the toss of a coin, Kreiman insists. “The rules that govern our decisions are similar to the rules that govern whether a coin will land one way or the other. Ultimately there is physics; it is chaotic in both cases, but at the end of the day, nobody will argue the coin ‘wanted’ to land heads or tails. There is no real volition to the coin.”

Testing Free Will

It’s only in the past three to four decades that imaging tools and probes have been able to measure what actually happens in the brain. A key research milestone was reached in the early 1980s when Benjamin Libet, a researcher in the physiology department at the University of California, San Francisco, made a remarkable study that tested the idea of conscious free will with actual data.

Libet fitted subjects with EEGs—gadgets that measure aggregate electrical brain activity through the scalp—and had them look at a clock dial that spun around every 2.8 seconds. The subjects were asked to press a button whenever they chose to do so—but told they should also take note of where the time hand was when they first felt the “wish or urge.” It turns out that the actual brain activity involved in the action began 300 milliseconds, on average, before the subject was conscious of wanting to press the button. While some scientists criticized the methods—questioning, among other things, the accuracy of the subjects’ self-reporting—the study set others thinking about how to investigate the same questions. Since then, functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) has been used to map brain activity by measuring blood flow, and other studies have also measured brain activity processes that take place before decisions are made. But while fMRI transformed brain science, it was still only an indirect tool, providing very low spatial resolution and averaging data from millions of neurons. Kreiman’s own study design was the same as Libet’s, with the important addition of the direct single-neuron measurement.

When Libet was in his prime, ­Kreiman was a boy. As a student of physical chemistry at the University of Buenos Aires, he was interested in neurons and brains. When he went for his PhD at Caltech, his passion solidified under his advisor, Koch. Koch was deep in collaboration with Francis Crick, co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, to look for evidence of how consciousness was represented by neurons. For the star-struck kid from Argentina, “it was really life-changing,” he recalls. “Several decades ago, people said this was not a question serious scientists should be thinking about; they either had to be smoking something or have a Nobel Prize”—and Crick, of course, was a Nobelist. Crick hypothesized that studying how the brain processed visual information was one way to study consciousness (we tap unconscious processes to quickly decipher scenes and objects), and he collaborated with Koch on a number of important studies. Kreiman was inspired by the work. “I was very excited about the possibility of asking what seems to be the most fundamental aspect of cognition, consciousness, and free will in a reductionist way—in terms of neurons and circuits of neurons,” he says.

One thing was in short supply: humans willing to have scientists cut open their skulls and poke at their brains. One day in the late 1990s, Kreiman attended a journal club—a kind of book club for scientists reviewing the latest literature—and came across a paper by Fried on how to do brain science in people getting electrodes implanted in their brains to identify the source of severe epileptic seizures. Before he’d heard of Fried, “I thought examining the activity of neurons was the domain of monkeys and rats and cats, not humans,” Kreiman says. Crick introduced Koch to Fried, and soon Koch, Fried, and Kreiman were collaborating on studies that investigated human neural activity, including the experiment that made the direct neural measurement of the urge to move a finger. “This was the opening shot in a new phase of the investigation of questions of voluntary action and free will,” Koch says.

Read the entire article here.

Go Forth And Declutter

Google-search-hoarding

Having only just recently re-located to Colorado’s wondrous Front Range of the Rocky Mountains, your friendly editor now finds himself surrounded by figurative, less-inspiring mountains: moving boxes, bins, bags, more boxes. It’s floor to ceiling clutter as far as the eye can see.

Some of these boxes contain essentials, yet probably around 80 percent hold stuff. Yes, just stuff — aging items that hold some kind of sentimental meaning or future promise: old CDs, baby clothes, used ticket stubs, toys from an attic three moves ago, too many socks, ill-fitting clothing, 13 allen wrenches and screwdrivers, first-grade school projects, photo negatives, fading National Geographic magazines, gummed-up fountain pens, European postcards…

So, here’s a very timely story on the psychology of clutter and hoarding.

From the WSJ:

Jennifer James and her husband don’t have a lot of clutter—but they do find it hard to part with their children’s things. The guest cottage behind their home in Oklahoma City is half-filled with old toys, outgrown clothing, artwork, school papers, two baby beds, a bassinet and a rocking horse.

“Every time I think about getting rid of it, I want to cry,” says Ms. James, a 46-year-old public-relations consultant. She fears her children, ages 6, 8 and 16, will grow up and think she didn’t love them if she doesn’t save it all. “In keeping all this stuff, I think someday I’ll be able to say to my children, ‘See—I treasured your innocence. I treasured you!’ “

Many powerful emotions are lurking amid stuff we keep. Whether it’s piles of unread newspapers, clothes that don’t fit, outdated electronics, even empty margarine tubs, the things we accumulate reflect some of our deepest thoughts and feelings.

Now there’s growing recognition among professional organizers that to come to grips with their clutter, clients need to understand why they save what they save, or things will inevitably pile up again. In some cases, therapists are working along with organizers to help clients confront their psychological demons.

“The work we do with clients goes so much beyond making their closets look pretty,” says Collette Shine, president of the New York chapter of the National Association of Professional Organizers. “It involves getting into their hearts and their heads.”

For some people—especially those with big basements—hanging onto old and unused things doesn’t present a problem. But many others say they’re drowning in clutter.

“I have clients who say they are distressed at all the clutter they have, and distressed at the thought of getting rid of things,” says Simon Rego, director of psychology training at Montefiore Medical Center in Bronx, N.Y., who makes house calls, in extreme cases, to help hoarders.

In some cases, chronic disorganization can be a symptom of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder and dementia—all of which involve difficulty with planning, focusing and making decisions.

The extreme form, hoarding, is now a distinct psychiatric disorder, defined in the new Diagnostic and Statistical Manual-5 as “persistent difficulty discarding possessions, regardless of their value” such that living areas cannot be used. Despite all the media attention, only 2% to 5% of people fit the criteria—although many more joke, or fear, they are headed that way.

Difficulty letting go of your stuff can also go hand in hand with separation anxiety, compulsive shopping, perfectionism, procrastination and body-image issues. And the reluctance to cope can create a vicious cycle of avoidance, anxiety and guilt.

In most cases, however, psychologists say that clutter can be traced to what they call cognitive errors—flawed thinking that drives dysfunctional behaviors that can get out of hand.

Among the most common clutter-generating bits of logic: “I might need these someday.” “These might be valuable.” “These might fit again if I lose (or gain) weight.”

“We all have these dysfunctional thoughts. It’s perfectly normal,” Dr. Rego says. The trick, he says, is to recognize the irrational thought that makes you cling to an item and substitute one that helps you let go, such as, “Somebody else could use this, so I’ll give it away.”

He concedes he has saved “maybe 600” disposable Allen wrenches that came with IKEA furniture over the years.

The biggest sources of clutter and the hardest to discard are things that hold sentimental meaning. Dr. Rego says it’s natural to want to hang onto objects that trigger memories, but some people confuse letting go of the object with letting go of the person.

Linda Samuels, president of the Institute for Challenging Disorganization, an education and research group, says there’s no reason to get rid of things just for the sake of doing it.

“Figure out what’s important to you and create an environment that supports that,” she says.

Robert McCollum, a state tax auditor and Ms. James’s husband, says he treasures items like the broken fairy wand one daughter carried around for months.

“I don’t want to lose my memories, and I don’t need a professional organizer,” he says. “I’ve already organized it all in bins.” The only problem would be if they ever move to a place that doesn’t have 1,000 square feet of storage, he adds.

Sometimes the memories people cling to are images of themselves in different roles or happier times. “Our closets are windows into our internal selves,” says Jennifer Baumgartner, a Baltimore psychologist and author of “You Are What You Wear.”

“Say you’re holding on to your team uniforms from college,” she says. “Ask yourself, what about that experience did you like? What can you do in your life now to recapture that?”

Somebody-might-need-this thinking is often what drives people to save stacks of newspapers, magazines, outdated electronic equipment, decades of financial records and craft supplies. With a little imagination, anything could be fodder for scrapbooks or Halloween costumes.

For people afraid to toss things they might want in the future, Dr. Baumgartner says it helps to have a worst-case scenario plan. “What if you do need that tutu you’ve given away for a Halloween costume? What would you do? You can find almost anything on eBay.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google search.

Questioning Quantum Orthodoxy

de-BrogliePhysics works very well in explaining our world, yet it is also broken — it cannot, at the moment, reconcile our views of the very small (quantum theory) with those of the very large (relativity theory).

So although the probabilistic underpinnings of quantum theory have done wonders in allowing physicists to construct the Standard Model, gaps remain.

Back in the mid-1920s, the probabilistic worldview proposed by Niels Bohr and others gained favor and took hold. A competing theory, known as the pilot wave theory, proposed by a young Louis de Broglie, was given short shrift. Yet some theorists have maintained that it may do a better job of reconciling this core gap in our understanding — so it is time to revisit and breathe fresh life into pilot wave theory.

From Wired / Quanta:

For nearly a century, “reality” has been a murky concept. The laws of quantum physics seem to suggest that particles spend much of their time in a ghostly state, lacking even basic properties such as a definite location and instead existing everywhere and nowhere at once. Only when a particle is measured does it suddenly materialize, appearing to pick its position as if by a roll of the dice.

This idea that nature is inherently probabilistic — that particles have no hard properties, only likelihoods, until they are observed — is directly implied by the standard equations of quantum mechanics. But now a set of surprising experiments with fluids has revived old skepticism about that worldview. The bizarre results are fueling interest in an almost forgotten version of quantum mechanics, one that never gave up the idea of a single, concrete reality.

The experiments involve an oil droplet that bounces along the surface of a liquid. The droplet gently sloshes the liquid with every bounce. At the same time, ripples from past bounces affect its course. The droplet’s interaction with its own ripples, which form what’s known as a pilot wave, causes it to exhibit behaviors previously thought to be peculiar to elementary particles — including behaviors seen as evidence that these particles are spread through space like waves, without any specific location, until they are measured.

Particles at the quantum scale seem to do things that human-scale objects do not do. They can tunnel through barriers, spontaneously arise or annihilate, and occupy discrete energy levels. This new body of research reveals that oil droplets, when guided by pilot waves, also exhibit these quantum-like features.

To some researchers, the experiments suggest that quantum objects are as definite as droplets, and that they too are guided by pilot waves — in this case, fluid-like undulations in space and time. These arguments have injected new life into a deterministic (as opposed to probabilistic) theory of the microscopic world first proposed, and rejected, at the birth of quantum mechanics.

“This is a classical system that exhibits behavior that people previously thought was exclusive to the quantum realm, and we can say why,” said John Bush, a professor of applied mathematics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology who has led several recent bouncing-droplet experiments. “The more things we understand and can provide a physical rationale for, the more difficult it will be to defend the ‘quantum mechanics is magic’ perspective.”

Magical Measurements

The orthodox view of quantum mechanics, known as the “Copenhagen interpretation” after the home city of Danish physicist Niels Bohr, one of its architects, holds that particles play out all possible realities simultaneously. Each particle is represented by a “probability wave” weighting these various possibilities, and the wave collapses to a definite state only when the particle is measured. The equations of quantum mechanics do not address how a particle’s properties solidify at the moment of measurement, or how, at such moments, reality picks which form to take. But the calculations work. As Seth Lloyd, a quantum physicist at MIT, put it, “Quantum mechanics is just counterintuitive and we just have to suck it up.”

A classic experiment in quantum mechanics that seems to demonstrate the probabilistic nature of reality involves a beam of particles (such as electrons) propelled one by one toward a pair of slits in a screen. When no one keeps track of each electron’s trajectory, it seems to pass through both slits simultaneously. In time, the electron beam creates a wavelike interference pattern of bright and dark stripes on the other side of the screen. But when a detector is placed in front of one of the slits, its measurement causes the particles to lose their wavelike omnipresence, collapse into definite states, and travel through one slit or the other. The interference pattern vanishes. The great 20th-century physicist Richard Feynman said that this double-slit experiment “has in it the heart of quantum mechanics,” and “is impossible, absolutely impossible, to explain in any classical way.”

Some physicists now disagree. “Quantum mechanics is very successful; nobody’s claiming that it’s wrong,” said Paul Milewski, a professor of mathematics at the University of Bath in England who has devised computer models of bouncing-droplet dynamics. “What we believe is that there may be, in fact, some more fundamental reason why [quantum mechanics] looks the way it does.”

Riding Waves

The idea that pilot waves might explain the peculiarities of particles dates back to the early days of quantum mechanics. The French physicist Louis de Broglie presented the earliest version of pilot-wave theory at the 1927 Solvay Conference in Brussels, a famous gathering of the founders of the field. As de Broglie explained that day to Bohr, Albert Einstein, Erwin Schrödinger, Werner Heisenberg and two dozen other celebrated physicists, pilot-wave theory made all the same predictions as the probabilistic formulation of quantum mechanics (which wouldn’t be referred to as the “Copenhagen” interpretation until the 1950s), but without the ghostliness or mysterious collapse.

The probabilistic version, championed by Bohr, involves a single equation that represents likely and unlikely locations of particles as peaks and troughs of a wave. Bohr interpreted this probability-wave equation as a complete definition of the particle. But de Broglie urged his colleagues to use two equations: one describing a real, physical wave, and another tying the trajectory of an actual, concrete particle to the variables in that wave equation, as if the particle interacts with and is propelled by the wave rather than being defined by it.

For example, consider the double-slit experiment. In de Broglie’s pilot-wave picture, each electron passes through just one of the two slits, but is influenced by a pilot wave that splits and travels through both slits. Like flotsam in a current, the particle is drawn to the places where the two wavefronts cooperate, and does not go where they cancel out.

De Broglie could not predict the exact place where an individual particle would end up — just like Bohr’s version of events, pilot-wave theory predicts only the statistical distribution of outcomes, or the bright and dark stripes — but the two men interpreted this shortcoming differently. Bohr claimed that particles don’t have definite trajectories; de Broglie argued that they do, but that we can’t measure each particle’s initial position well enough to deduce its exact path.

In principle, however, the pilot-wave theory is deterministic: The future evolves dynamically from the past, so that, if the exact state of all the particles in the universe were known at a given instant, their states at all future times could be calculated.

At the Solvay conference, Einstein objected to a probabilistic universe, quipping, “God does not play dice,” but he seemed ambivalent about de Broglie’s alternative. Bohr told Einstein to “stop telling God what to do,” and (for reasons that remain in dispute) he won the day. By 1932, when the Hungarian-American mathematician John von Neumann claimed to have proven that the probabilistic wave equation in quantum mechanics could have no “hidden variables” (that is, missing components, such as de Broglie’s particle with its well-defined trajectory), pilot-wave theory was so poorly regarded that most physicists believed von Neumann’s proof without even reading a translation.

More than 30 years would pass before von Neumann’s proof was shown to be false, but by then the damage was done. The physicist David Bohm resurrected pilot-wave theory in a modified form in 1952, with Einstein’s encouragement, and made clear that it did work, but it never caught on. (The theory is also known as de Broglie-Bohm theory, or Bohmian mechanics.)

Later, the Northern Irish physicist John Stewart Bell went on to prove a seminal theorem that many physicists today misinterpret as rendering hidden variables impossible. But Bell supported pilot-wave theory. He was the one who pointed out the flaws in von Neumann’s original proof. And in 1986 he wrote that pilot-wave theory “seems to me so natural and simple, to resolve the wave-particle dilemma in such a clear and ordinary way, that it is a great mystery to me that it was so generally ignored.”

The neglect continues. A century down the line, the standard, probabilistic formulation of quantum mechanics has been combined with Einstein’s theory of special relativity and developed into the Standard Model, an elaborate and precise description of most of the particles and forces in the universe. Acclimating to the weirdness of quantum mechanics has become a physicists’ rite of passage. The old, deterministic alternative is not mentioned in most textbooks; most people in the field haven’t heard of it. Sheldon Goldstein, a professor of mathematics, physics and philosophy at Rutgers University and a supporter of pilot-wave theory, blames the “preposterous” neglect of the theory on “decades of indoctrination.” At this stage, Goldstein and several others noted, researchers risk their careers by questioning quantum orthodoxy.

A Quantum Drop

Now at last, pilot-wave theory may be experiencing a minor comeback — at least, among fluid dynamicists. “I wish that the people who were developing quantum mechanics at the beginning of last century had access to these experiments,” Milewski said. “Because then the whole history of quantum mechanics might be different.”

The experiments began a decade ago, when Yves Couder and colleagues at Paris Diderot University discovered that vibrating a silicon oil bath up and down at a particular frequency can induce a droplet to bounce along the surface. The droplet’s path, they found, was guided by the slanted contours of the liquid’s surface generated from the droplet’s own bounces — a mutual particle-wave interaction analogous to de Broglie’s pilot-wave concept.

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Image: Louis de Broglie. Courtesy of Wikipedia.