Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Re-Evaluating All We Know?

SoYouWantToMakeGodsFirst an announcement: I’ll be speaking at the Singularity Summit in New York City October 15-16, along with Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Stephen Wolfram, Michael Shermer, John Mauldin, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jason Silva and many others. My topic: So you want to make gods. Now why should that bother anybody?”  

Our can-do, problem-solving zeal may save humanity and light up the galaxy. Yet, talk of “tech-transcendence” inspires some – and worries others. What can we learn from the past about our future? This will be a stupendous conference. Sign up to attend!

== Can Science Re-Evaluate? ==

The physics world is buzzing over the recent faster than light particle result from CERN - one of those science stories that gets a lot of public press. Apparently, some neutrinos emitted by the great accelerator in the Alps are showing up in an Italian detector a nanosecond or so earlier than relativity ought to allow.

If the result is verified it will prove a major milestone. Among possible explanations might be that super-energetic neutrinos are bumped (very briefly) out of the four dimensional "brane" we call spacetime. (Envision separated membranes like soap bubbles; one film is our universe.) Hauled back in by gravity (the only force that carries between branes), they re-enter our world a bit farther along their old trajectory. Enough (some suggest) to explain the apparent cheating of ol' Einstein. No, I ain't pulling your leg. There are brainy guys who ponder such stuff. And if this, or some other exotic explanation, pans out then we're in for interesting times!

But dig it, please -- extraordinary claims call for extraordinary (and reproducible) evidence. One of the great things about our civilization is we get to see scientists constantly checking, re-checking and poking at whatever Standard Model reigns in their field.  In my life, nearly all of these re-checks have resulted in only minor re-adjustments -- with the exception of the Dark Matter and Dark Energy findings. (Even if they are disproved, it will only be by something else stunning.) Others, like Cold Fusion, caused yearlong investigations and Re-Evaluations of All We Know (REAWK!) but with negative results.

I find it all healthy and look forward to seeing this very competitive truth-finding process apply to the new CERN "FTL" results.  Still, it worries me that many in the press and public take a very unhealthy attitude - that re-appraisal in a branch of science somehow means it had been "all wrong" before.  Some take it as revelation that science is waffling or poorly based... instead of proof of the very opposite.  Others yearn for an upset apple-cart! They see any sign of a re-proved Standard Model as evidence of stodginess or oppression by Old Professors Incapable of Seeing the New (OPISN).

To be clear, I have known plenty of OPISNs! But the incredibly competitive nature of science (Adam Smith would be proud) generally makes them targets of the next wave of bright young guns.

Look, given our heritage as a superstitious species that danced to incantations by campfires, it should be no surprise that many of our neighbors are emotionally out of tune with science, or don't see how its competitive process results in ever-improving models of the world. Models that keep getting better, even when some part of them is shown to have been incomplete, or even wrong. That is how they improve. (Duh?) The ultimate market.

It is only human to perceive a process that you do not understand and judge it by the way your own mind thinks.  But racism was also deeply human. And feudalism. So come. Start by repeating this aloud: "It can be fun to re-evaluate all that I know! Heck, I might even learn something."

There. Don't you feel more scientific already?  Now to make that same spirit work in politics....

Oh... while I'm at it... here’s another paradigm-changing update: Could Dark Energy and even Guth’s “inflation” be overly contrived theories for something more easily explained? By the existence of hyper-long gravitational waves -- left over from the Big Bang?  These might elucidate the recently discovered preferential direction in the cosmos - the so-called “axis of evil.” Plus the revelation that distant-most galaxies seem to be accelerating their velocity of recession from us (thus requiring dark energy to explain the hyper expansion).  The gravitational wave concept makes such cludges unnecessary. Maybe. This paper is certainly worth a read.

== Space Updates ==

Does our solar system exist inside a bubble? Astronomers say we're in a “local bubble” in the interstellar medium – perhaps a result of stellar explosions millions of years ago. (See my cosmological short story about... "Bubbles"!)

Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars -- what's called a circumbinary planet. The planet, depicted in foreground, was discovered by NASA's Kepler mission. (Nearly every article has compared it to Tatooine from Star Wars -- so I'll avoid that cliche! Oops too late.... dang Star Wars $%#$#$!)

Similarly cosmic! Anyone with a soul should find this breathtaking! Watch a Saturn fly-by video composed from high-resolution images from the Cassini Orbiter.

Scientists analyzing data from the Kepler spacecraft for exoplanets have encountered a problem: noisy stars! Before Kepler's launch, researchers had assumed that most Sun-like stars would be about as quiet as the Sun, with mild fluctuations in luminosity. Noise in the Kepler data is much larger - much of it variations in the stars themselves. Sunspots and magnetic activity are the most likely culprits – perhaps because about half of the sun-like stars in the Kepler field are younger than expected (Young stars spin faster, with more vigorous magnetic fields.) If this youthful bias is true of the entire Milky Way, it could alter our understanding of how stars are born and die.

Note also... if our sun is older than average, it might help explain the Fermi Paradox.

How would humans survive extended voyages in space? Five men cooped together over a year to simulate a Mars mission... apparently were going stir crazy! Yipe! (Well, look, several are Russian. Jeepers, did you ever read the book or watch the original film SOLARIS? All is explained.)

See the Solar System in action!  Stunning animation of planetary and satellite orbits – set to any date you choose.

== Life, the Universe and Everything ==

How Life arose on Earth, and How a Singularity might bring it down. This Scientific American article reporting about a recent biological conference is worth reading from top to bottom. Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll opened the meeting by commenting that “The purpose of life is ... to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” There  you go...

dowereallywantimmortalityFrom another talk on the scaling of life: “An organism’s lifespan is proportional to the 1/4 power of its mass, its heart rate goes as the –1/4 power of its mass, so the total number of heart beats is independent of mass—a universal value of about a billion beats for all of us. Use them wisely.” (Except humans get three times that! We’re the Methuselahs of mammals. See my article "So You Want Immortality?")

An interesting and fair discussion of the possibility that dolphins have a sort of language and a sort of “intelligence.”  As a sort-of dolphinish guy, I actually have subtle and complex beliefs about this.  The folks I know who’ve worked with high cetaceans all tell me their impression: that the creatures seem to “wish they were smarter.” Subjective, but poignant and telling. (I’ll discuss dolphin “uplift” further in my next novel, EXISTENCE.)

== And a Few Updates ==

Being Human in the 21st Century: Again I’ll be speaking at the Singularity Summit in New York City October 15-16, along with Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Stephen Wolfram, Michael Shermer, John Mauldin, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jason Silva and many others. My topic: “So you want to make gods. Now why should that bother anybody?”  Come on, sign up!

Oh... I may announce an open fans-n-friends bar session in New York, stay tuned!


I’ll be speaking at TEDx Brussells November 22: A Day in the Deep Future.

New Orleans! I'll be Author Guest of Honor at the Contraflow Science Fiction Convention the weekend of November 4-6.

Also attending the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego.


One of my classic short stories “Bubbles” is in the latest issue of the fine online sci fi zine LIGHTSPEED!  And Harlan Ellison, my rambunctious pal, is doing an audio reading.  I’m honored.

A cool fan site showcasing my novels! Thanks to Susan O'Fearna.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous... or at least now for something completely different... David Brin playing the harmonica at the Reno World Science Fiction Convention (thanks to Lawrence Person.)


Robert said...

Here is a question to ponder: has anyone measured the speed of light recently? When you consider there are strong suggestions that the Universal Constant is not constant in all regions of the universe, it could very well be that the Speed of Light... changed. That it has been bumped up, just by a tiny bit.

In other words, what we've measured is not particles going faster than the speed of light... but an alteration of the fundamental laws of the universe. Or, if we go by the assumption that the universe is a simulation... a change in the simulation code.

Just something to gnaw on with philosophical teeth. ^^

Robert A. Howard, Tangents Reviews

David Brin said...

Cool question. But these measurements are made all the time at the big experiments. In fact, this neutrino experiment is an example. If "c" had changed, we'd soon see it in other anomalies.

But your instincts are righton!

sociotard said...

Harlan Elison is your pal? The people I'd talked to said he was a wonderful writer and they always looked forward to his material, but that he wasn't a person you'd want to meet. They say he's something of a prima donna.

Oh, and if you snag a bit of time with Yudowsky, could you ask him what his opinions about Scientists sharing their 'dangerous secrets'? It's one of the places in HPMoR where I wondered if that was his opinion or just one his character held.

Robert said...

Well, that's the problem, really. One method we use to measure the distance of the Moon to Earth is by how long it takes light to go from the Earth to a reflector and back to the Earth. But if "c" has changed... then we just get a different distance measurement that is so small it might not be noticed. The benefit of this neutrino experiment is that the precise distance between the two points is known and is a constant. Measuring "c" elsewhere would not be quite as easy... though I could easily see the use of a couple high mountains with no intervening terrain and with a precise knowledge of the distance used to fine-tune measurements of different wavelengths of light and see if they're a tad faster as well.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

Rob H,
GPS relies on relativity, which relies on you-know-what. So a change would make GPS suddenly inaccurate. Everyone would notice.

(oushadom: Homeworld of the Ocean Shadow race.)

Paul451 said...

Speaking of science...

New HIV vaccine looks promising (again.)

sociotard said...

Well, GPS is accurate to a degree. The change in C, if there was one, would be tiny. Enough to make a difference?

Stefan Jones said...

The big picture remains the same: Light from galaxy clusters confirms theory of relativity

BCRion said...

If the speed of light is changing, we would likely have observed it by now, if for nothing else, the whole mass to energy conversion thing. Radiation detection signals would be seeing unexplained deviations simultaneously all over the world, energy output of nuclear reactors would inexplicably change, the sun would be put out a different amount of solar radiation from some unexplained mechanism, and many other observable, macroscopic effects.

David Brin said...

Harlan would be the first to call himself a prima donna. I judge a man more by what he fights for than by the sometimes jerky way that he fights for it.

And being mind-bogglingly entertaining can help counter-weigh jerkiness, too.

Tony Fisk said...

It's a little noticed phenomenon, but the value of 'c' is changing as space expands.

Actually, my 'gut' feel about 'c' is that it is the curvature of space that defines its speed. Total speculation.

btw, has anyone noted the disturbing case in Italy where scientists are being sued for not predicting a fatal earthquake?

sociotard said...

*shrugs* I don't honestly know much about Ellison. The only fight I know of him taking up is the one to destroy all copies of In Time because he thinks it is too close to "Repent, Harlequin! Said The Ticktockman".

As near as I can tell, he is flat out wrong in this one case.

David Brin said...

Yeah but he takes on giants.

On another thread, John Powers offers this wonderful quotation which I'll use when I write that passage on "paraphrasing"...

In his book "Angels and Ages", Adam Gopnik celebrates Charles Darwin for doing exactly what David B is suggesting:

"Yet the other great feature of Darwin’s prose, and the organization of his great books, is the welcome he provides for the opposed idea. This is, or ought to be, a standard practice, but few people have practiced it with his sincerity—and, at times, his guile. The habit of ‘sympathetic summery,’ what philosophers now call the ‘principle of charity,’ is essential to all the sciences. It is the principle, as Daniel Dennett says, that a counter argument to your own should first be summarized in its strongest form, with holes caulked as they appear, and minor inconsistencies or infelicities of phrasing looked past. Then, and only then, should a critique begin."

LarryHart said...

Dr Brin in the previous thread:

Patricia thanks for this interesting and thoughtful essay about the ethos of the superhero and how being a self-made or inherited mogul enters into it.

The filter at work didn't allow me to read that site, so I'm just getting to it now.

I have to think about the distinction between the heroic and villanous CEOs. Like many others, I've tended to think self-made rich people are "better (or at least more deserving of their wealth) than those who inherit money they didn't earn. I hadn't given much thought to the other side--that the ruthless pursuit of wealth is a corrputing influence, whereas a heroic personality who just happens to have a fortune to devote to the cause might be more genuinely noble.

Lex Luthor is an interesting case, because Luthor as CEO really only began with John Byrne's 1986 tenure on Superman when the title was almost 50 years old. For most of Superman's history before that, Luthor's "thing" was that he was a brilliant scientist (more like a brilliant engineer) who could escape from prison using an asprin and a pen-light--a sort of McGyver on steroids. His being a wealthy CEO who was the "most powerful man in Metropolis" until Superman came along is a relatively recent retcon, though I admit it makes for a better dynamic than the earlier one.

CulturalEngineer said...

I hope you do that "Bar Session!"

I'm going to be in New York for Douglas Rushkoff's Contact Summit on the 20th and hope to be there for a few days before and after if I can and could certainly handle a couple of beers.

(Would love to attend the Singularity Summit also but already over-stretched... though with high hopes for personal economic turnaround very soon!)

sociotard said...

Moon Night wasn't quite a Bruce Wayne or a Tony Stark, but he is solidly in the millionaire range. Then again, he got the startup captial for his investments from a lifetime of unscrupulus mercenary work.

Tony Fisk said...

Oh! I think I c the light!

Sorry about that, but it's all really quite simple.

The neutrino anomaly is simply part of the fine tuning required to bring about the end of the world on October 21.

muskers: the smell associated with a certain date in October.

David Brin said...

Tony Fisk said...

Weird looking guy you've found there, David! ;-)

sociotard said...

I've never even seen Jersey shore, and I know who Snooki is. I lucked out knowing Sagan, because I'd seen a youtube video of autotuned clips from his tv series. Heck, I'd read one of his books, and that was obviously no help recognizing his face.

sociotard said...

Oh look, I found an issue that Dr. Brin can agree with Rick Perry on.

Michele Bachmann's Anti-Vaccination Rhetoric Is Not Only Bad Science—It's Bad History

Basically, Perry signed an executive order saying all girls aged 12 in public school had to get the HPV vaccine unless their parents signed a paper saying no. Bachmann, in debate, used that to try to show that Perry was in favor of big government.

The article gives a good counterexample from the founding fathers.

Paul451 said...

Interesting that Sagan is seen as the unquestioned patron saint of science. During the 70s & 80s he was despised by many fellow scientists because of his attempts to popularise planetology and cosmology.

Interesting#2, Sagan is still one of few science popularisers I ever saw who never made me cringe when he dumbed down concepts for us.

Re: variable c, & GPS accuracy.

Even if GPS worked by triangulation alone, a 20m error over 700km (the CERN result) would translate to a 500m error over the 20,000km altitude of the GPS satelllites.

People would notice.

(loging: The new Planking. Extreme Taking-shelter-in-small-theatre-alcoves.)

Paul451 said...

Re: Bachmann & Gardasil.
If I may speculate...

Based on anti-vax material I've seen, the woman who came up to Michele Bachmann was most likely talking about an infant vaccine like MMR "causing" her daughter's retardation, not Gardasil.

And based on narcissistic media-whores I've seen, Bachmann didn't care enough to understand what the woman was actually saying, but was perfectly happy to use the woman as an anecdote to defend herself in a subsequent interview.

Robert said...

If the speed of light has changed locally, we might not observe large-scale effects on it immediately. Of course, it also raises questions as to the size of the universe - seeing the universal constant seems to differ in different areas, might not the speed of light differ as well? We may observe the effects and not yet comprehend what it means. (Sort of like... dark matter and dark energy.)

And when you consider the level of the change is almost minuscule... the effects might just not be noticeable on a macro scale.

Rob H.

Paul451 said...

"Loves the spread, free regards the news female,
the appeal thing, the appeal thing, AV superior, the appeal apparatus,
the airplane cup, the self-consolation, the gasification baby, massages the stick, jumps the egg,
the prestige softens, T-shaped trousers, sexy night clothes, role acting clothing"

Poetry. Groovy.

François Marcadé said...

I suppose the speed of light is measured every day. In my sophomore year, I had to measured it to 4 digits accuracy (I remember vividly the experimental set was malfunctioning and I got full mark and the associate professor gratitude for debugging it).

I hope for your sake that this explanation for the Fermi paradox is wrong. Imagine if the humans are the progenitors and we start uplifting races across the galaxies inspired by the Uplift saga. Who would morally responsible for suggesting a 10,000 years Indenture?

rewinn said...

Sagan/SnookiGate makes me wonder: why not a reality show about scientists?

Not "reality" in the sense of "that which science seeks to figure out" but "reality" in the sense of "unscripted bickering that is edited into amusement." Surely modern equivalents to Richard Feynman and John Nash could provide endless quotable lines and ... stereotypes aside ... I'm pretty sure that a whole lot of leading scientists could look better on camera than Ozzy Osborne.

David Brin said...

Been renting DVD episodes of Morgan Freeman's science show "Through The Wormhole" to share with our youngest. We've all been enjoying it immensely. Without a doubt one of the best sci-shows of recent years and well worth your attention. Of course, it could have used a few physicist-scifi-authors. Or even one. But I'll take the good stuff however I can get it!

"And based on narcissistic media-whores I've seen, Bachmann didn't care enough to understand what the woman was actually saying, but was perfectly happy to use the woman as an anecdote to defend herself in a subsequent interview."

A good thing, too, because it gave a prominent physician that chance to cast a $10,000 absolute falsification wager at Bachmann, demanding ONE proved example. That is the sort of thing we need more of. Big, bold wager-challenges that assault the jerks where it hurts, in their vaunted "manhood." Put up or shut up.

sociotard said...

Check out the PBS series "Rough Science". I'm not sure if it is still on or not.

Paul451 said...

Re: scientist reality show.


TheMadLibrarian said...

The series Curiosity has been of interest around our house. It's been slightly hit or miss; I prefer the less sensational episodes with a little more hard science (the initial interview with Dr. Hawking over the one with the 5 top planetary doomsday scenarios, for example), but it's still head and shoulders above Ancient Aliens, for example.


ingrappe: fortified grappa

Catfish N. Cod said...

Re: variable c, & GPS accuracy.

Even if GPS worked by triangulation alone, a 20m error over 700km (the CERN result) would translate to a 500m error over the 20,000km altitude of the GPS satelllites.

People would notice.

Out of an odd curiosity, I also worked out the distance underground that the path traverses. Even given the Earth's oblateness and the presence of the Alps, the path taken by the neutrinos is never more than ~12km below ground. This is half of the thickness of the Earth's crust in the middle of a continent (such as Europe).

Conclusion: the 20m difference cannot be an effect of gravity differing due to varying density within the Earth. An effect that large should have shown up as a major difference in density by seismology, and it ain't there.

geotrati: a plausible brand name for the GPS receivers used in the tachyonic neutrino experiment

David Brin said...

Artist John Powers writes a fascinating riff, comparing Star Trek to the American dream... and weaving in a number of my own observations about the underlying design of the 200 year American Experiment.

sociotard said...

Not sure if this has been posted or not:

Flowchart to guide you through NPRs top 100 scifi/fantasy books

David Brin said...

Dang! Read about Elon's Falcon Heavy booster.

Paul451 said...

Video of the SpaceX's reusable Falcon 9 concept.

And SpaceX has already sought FAA approval to operate a test version of the reusable F9 first stage (which they're calling Grasshopper.) So this isn't just more video art, they're bending metal.

"SpaceX averages approximately five Merlin-1D tests per week as well as six Falcon 9 Stage 1 tests per year."

These guys are rockstars.

rewinn said...

Stuff that makes us smarter: generates QR codes for wikipedia articles that ... this is the cute part ... are served in the language preference of the cellphone scanning the code (assuming the article exists in the language)!
An immediate application for public resources (such as state parks) that wish to provide multilingual materials at minimum cost by posting the QR, but I'm sure this is just a small example.

David Brin said...


Stefan Jones said...

Neal Stephenson's speech on Innovation Starvation.

'Shestive': When you feel impatient with the rituals of the high holy days. L'chaim!

Joseph said...

Alas, even though I live within driving distance, $685 for a science conference is a little beyond my means.

Doubtless the audience will be filled with academics who can simply charge the price to their university. It does leave the rest of us out in the cold, though.