SMBC: What if the universe is made of math?

I loved this SMBC.  It echoes something I’ve observed before, that some physicists have disdain for philosophy, while often engaging in it themselves.

Hovertext: “Philosophy is dumb, unless it comes out of the mouth of a physicist.”

Click through for full sized version and red button caption.

via Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal.

I’ve discussed the question before on this blog on whether the universe is mathematics, mathematics is the universe, or some weird combination.  Personally, I’ve gradually become more convinced that the foundations of mathematics and logic are empirical, that they are our most fundamental theories about how the universe works.  This isn’t completely intuitive because we are born with some logic and quantity cognitive pre-wiring, giving the illusion, perhaps, that it comes from somewhere else.

One consequence of seeing math and logic as theories, is that they are subject to revision, something many will find intolerable.  Still, arguably quantum physics led to revision in logic.

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‘The Martian': Robinson Crusoe meets Apollo 13

TheMartianCoverI recently read Andy Weir’s novel: ‘The Martian‘.  Weir’s book is a self publishing success story.  An admitted life long geek, he enjoyed thoroughly researching how a mission to Mars might work and what might go wrong with it.  He originally published the book, in serialized form, on his web site.  In response to reader requests, he put it in a Kindle book on Amazon.

It was so popular he was offered a deal with a traditional publisher and a movie deal, almost simultaneously.  The version I read was a Kindle book published by Broadway Books.  The film, which is directed by Ridley Scott, and starring Matt Damon, will be coming out in October.

I could write a few paragraphs describing the basic premise of the story, but I think it will be easier to just call your attention to the movie trailer.  It does a pretty good job at getting the basic situation across.

I’m very much looking forward to the movie.

But as to the book itself, it was amazing.  If you enjoyed Castaway and Apollo 13, think of this story has a combination of those stories, but with the difficulties for the central character immeasurably higher.  Mark Watley is stranded on Mars, millions of kilometers and years away from any conceivable source of help, in an environment where the slightest misstep can kill him.  At the beginning no one even knows that he’s still alive.

The initial situation is so desperate, the circumstances do dire, that you viscerally feel Mark Watley’s isolation and loneliness.  Most of the story is about his ingenuity in jury rigging systems to survive.  It’s both a desperate tale of survival and a geek fest.

If you enjoy reading about possible Mars missions, you’ll love this book.  To say that the author has done his homework is a major understatement.  If you’re familiar with Robert Zubin’s writings, the mission format in the book is a modified form of the Mars Semi-Direct plan.  The main modification that stands out to me is having one interplanetary transport vehicle both ways that uses a low-thrust Vasimr engine to reduce the transit time between planets.

The details of the mission plan become crucial plot points.  For example, one of the goals of the story is for Watley to get the next mission’s Mars Ascent Vehicle, which is already on the Mars producing fuel for that future mission, and crucially, has the ability to communicate with NASA on Earth.

The author, Weir, has very close familiarity with, or has thoroughly thought about, the detailed workings of a lot of the mission equipment, including how spacesuit and habitat environmental systems work, how communications systems work, and the difficulty of growing crops in the Martian environment.

Most of the story is told from a first person perspective as we read Watley’s day to day journal of his ordeal.  (Well, actually the sol to sol journal, since it takes place on Mars; a “sol” is a Martian day.)  We read as he conceives plans, implements them, sometimes succeeds, and sometimes fails, occasionally with devastating consequences.  It also allows the character’s personality to come out, and Weir manages to make Watley, who has a very strong sense of humor, a character we very much care about.

Periodically, Weir backs up into third person omniscient mode.  Often this is to show us what’s going on at NASA back on Earth, or with the other astronauts on the return flight to Earth.  But occasionally it’s to describe a developing situation that will eventually turn into a deadly one for Watley, such as a seal that is about to give out on the airlock.  We then switch back to his journal, watching to see if he will realize the danger in time, or experience another catastrophe.

I found this book to be well written, using first person narrative when it was most useful, but not being afraid to shift into other viewpoints as necessary.  I also found the scientific and technological discussions accessible, although you should be warned that they are a major part of the book.  People who don’t enjoy those types of discussions may want to wait for the movie.

In sum, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys hard science fiction, or who is interested in the details of how a Mars mission might work, including the details of how the major systems might work.  I don’t expect the movie to get into the technical details nearly as much as the book did, so if you’re interested in them, reading is the way to go.  (Not that you can’t watch the movie too; I know I definitely plan to.)

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First Peoples and Neanderthals


This weekend, I finished off the last of the ‘First Peoples‘ PBS miniseries on prehistoric humans.  If  you’ve watched other documentaries on human prehistory and found them interesting, then you’ll want to watch this one to get the latest findings.  It was fascinating.  (A lot of people have mentioned ‘Becoming Human‘ to me, which I’ve seen and enjoyed, but its content is now dated by a few years.)

I did find the sound editing in the first hour to be poor.  Often I couldn’t hear what the narrator was saying over the music or sound effects.  Hopefully they’ll fix that by the time the series is available in other venues.  If not, don’t let it deter you from watching the rest.  It gets much better after that first hour.  And the actual content of that first hour, on prehistoric native Americans, is fascinating if  you can bear with it.

In the final episode, we see anthropologist John Hawks discuss a theory about Neanderthals that I wrote about a few months ago, that they actually didn’t go extinct, but were assimilated into Home sapien societies.

A couple of decades ago, there were two major theories on the evolution of Homo sapiens.  One, called the Multiregional theory, posited that modern humans evolved throughout the world, with gene flow between the continents keeping humanity one species.  The other was the Replacement, or Out of Africa theory,  which held that modern humans evolved in Africa and then spread throughout the world, replacing other archaic human species such as the Neanderthals.

In recent years, the evidence seemed to swing decidedly in favor of the Replacement model.  All of the oldest remains of modern humans were found in Africa, and all archaeological signs of behavioral modernity throughout the rest of the world were less than 50,000 years old.  Genetic studies revealing the prehistoric migrations that Homo sapiens followed seemed to be the nail in the coffin of the Multiregional model.

All of which didn’t have modern humans looking too good in our relationship with other archaic humans.  It was starting to look uncomfortably like we had invaded their turf and drove them to extinction, either directly through conflict or indirectly through resource competition.

Then someone sequenced the DNA of Neanderthals and discovered that all ethnic non-Africans (from relatively recent times) share between 1% and 4% of their DNA with Neanderthals.  There was some discussion that maybe that shared DNA went back to the common ancestor of Homo sapiens and Neanderthals, but most scientists now see this shared genetics coming from intermixing.

In other words, Homo sapiens and Neanderthals mated.  If they did that, these two groups must have seen a lot more humanity in each other than had previously been supposed.  Neanderthals, since their discovery, have moved from an ape like conception to a branch of humanity that most of us have inherited from.

As Hawks discussed, Neanderthal population was probably never more than a few thousand individuals, while Homo sapiens migrating into their regions numbered in the tens of thousands, maybe even hundreds of thousands.  Neanderthals didn’t so much as go extinct as get swamped and assimilated.  Unless your ethnicity is African (again from recent historical times since we’re all Africans if we go far enough back), then you are part Neanderthal.

Depending on where your ancestors lived, you also may have bits of other archaic human population genetics in you, such as the Denisovans.

So, the verdict of evidence appears to be that the Replacement model was mostly right.  All of us are mostly descended from Africans, including the parts that make us modern humans.  But the Multiregional model was not completely wrong either since most of us have DNA from other branches of humanity.

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How a driverless car sees the road

I found this TED talk on self driving cars interesting, particularly the time frame mentioned at the end that Google is aiming for.  If it comes to fruition, it could revolutionize travel by the 2020s.

Personally, I’m looking forward to being able to surf the web, read, or just get a head start on emails and phone calls during my morning commute.  And for long trips, if I don’t have to actually drive it, but can instead spend it playing games, watching movies, and sleeping,  I can see car travel taking me much further, to destinations I currently feel the need to buy a plane ticket for.

Many people will insist that they love driving, and can’t imagine giving it up.  I like driving too, when the weather is good, the traffic is lite, and I’m not tired.  I have to say that those circumstances don’t happen nearly often enough these days to stop me from giving it up once I can have the same freedom without it.

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xkcd: Pluto

New Horizons passed by Pluto this morning, so be on the watch in the news for all kinds of detailed photos and analysis over the next several days.  One of the best sources is probably NASA’s New Horizons page.

To commemorate, here’s xkcd’s take on one of the recent images.  (Click through for full sized image.)

via xkcd: Pluto.

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Michael Graziano on building a brain

I’ve written a few times on the Attention Theory schema of consciousness.  It’s a theory I like because it’s scientific, eschewing any mystical steps, such as assuming that consciousness just magically arises at a certain level of complexity.  It’s almost certainly not perfect, but I think it’s a major step in the right direction.

Michael Graziano, the author of the theory, has a new article up at Aeon, describing, under his theory, the essential steps in giving a computer consciousness.  Of course, the devil is in the details, as they always will be.  But it’s a fascinating new way to describe the theory.  If you’ve read my previous posts on this and still didn’t feel clear about it, I recommend checking out his article.

Artificial intelligence is growing more intelligent every year, but we’ve never given our machines consciousness. People once thought that if you made a computer complicated enough it would just sort of ‘wake up’ on its own. But that hasn’t panned out (so far as anyone knows). Apparently, the vital spark has to be deliberately designed into the machine. And so the race is on to figure out what exactly consciousness is and how to build it.

…In this article I’ll conduct a thought experiment. Let’s see if we can construct an artificial brain, piece by hypothetical piece, and make it conscious. The task could be slow and each step might seem incremental, but with a systematic approach we could find a path that engineers can follow.

Read the rest at Aeon.


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Great decisions by the court; now a caution

SCOTUSbuilding_1st_Street_SEIt’s been a good week for liberals.  The Supreme Court once again, in dismissing a ludicrous lawsuit, decided not to tank Obamacare, and in a historic decision, recognized the right of same sex couples to marry.  By any measure, the court has moved the country forward in a progressive way this week.

Now a caution.  If, like me,  you are a liberal, you must remain aware of a crucial fact.  What the Supreme Court giveth, the Supreme Court can taketh away.

Yes, the court rarely takes away rights, but it you think it never happens, then google “Dred Scott” or “Plessy v. Ferguson”.

Many social conservatives are outraged.  They are enraged.  And it would be naive to think they will nurse their anger without future actions, that they will simply meekly retire and allow the broad sweep of history to move forward.

Remember, Supreme Court justices are nominated by the President and confirmed by the Senate.  Court nominees are some of the longest lasting legacies of any President and Senate.  Decades after their terms are done, their choices about who sits on the court influence American policy and society.  The current court has nominees from Ronald Reagan, 26 years after he left office.

All of which is to say, elections matter.  It’s easy to dismiss them when the politicians don’t seem to be arguing about things we care about, when they’re mired in petty sounding policy squabbles.  But the philosophy of those who win those elections have long lasting consequences.

Just about every President gets a chance to nominate at least one Supreme Court justice.  And the next President may get a chance to nominate several.  It’s worth remembering that the marriage ruling was a five to four decision.  Ideologically, the court often sits on a knife’s edge.

If you have strong feelings about the court’s decisions this week, then pay careful attention to the reactions of the various Presidential candidates.  It would be naive to assume, should they become President, that those reactions wouldn’t be reflected in their future nominee choices.  Yes, nominees don’t always vote the way Presidents think they will, but most do.

By all means, celebrate this week’s decisions.  But then prepare to be vigilant.  Because these types of fights never completely end.  Just a couple of years ago, this same court scaled back the 1965 Voting Right Act, a fight many liberals thought was long over.

Pay attention to the next Presidential election.  And vote.  That vote could have repercussions for decades to come.

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