Expolanet Spectacular


Swine flu turned five today. And so maybe it’s strange that I want to talk about extrasolar planets, but that’s what I’m going to do. And while I’m at it, I think it’s important that I outline some of my credentials.

I picked up the January issue of Nature a few weeks ago and this was the cover story.

I am not a scientist by trade. I have a master’s degree in English and undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English. I have what you might call a vested interest in science and the things it teaches us about the world. Apart from its cool factor, it has an utterly irresistible draw for me. I can’t help myself.

So as I was reading the article in Nature I was struck by how curious the language is. This is a journal for scientists, which, as I’ve stated, I am not. It is written by scientists and for scientists and so it uses a unique dialect of the English language that is known only to scientists. I read it about as well as I read German, which is to say that I can get the gist of just about anything that I read, but the finer details, oftentimes the deeper ramifications, the subtleties often elude me.

So what did I get out of reading the article in the magazine? That scientists had discovered a planet the size of Jupiter, but far more massive that had an eccentric elliptical orbit that brought it incredibly close to its sun so that it rapidly heated up and then slowly cooled off again as it traveled away. It’s an interesting thing to think of and it would be even more interesting to see it in action. Nay, it would be fucking awesome. But I have wondered since I read the article if there’s something I might have missed.

Lo and behold, I came across this in BBC’s science section. As it turns out, I grasped it pretty well. The BBC article, however, has the subtleties spelled out in language that laymen can understand. For instance, it points out that as this planet, HD 80606b, passes close to its star, it is closer than Mercury is to ours. It currently holds the record for most eccentric orbit of all discovered extra-solar planets.

What does this mean? Is this knowledge useful? This is the question that so much of this whole science thing hinges on. It has a cool-factor. That much is obvious. We are literally seeing planets in other solar system these days. That’s intense! And this is where that irresistible draw comes in. I can’t help myself. I consume this knowledge with the appetite of a brown bear in the springtime.

It’s interesting because I also have a subscription to Scientific American, which is a fantastic publication. The thing about Scientific American is that it is for the layman. Scientists don’t necessarily read it. It’s for people like us, enthusiasts who like science, but don’t have PhDs in the sciences.

And just for record, all you people who feel the same way, you are the people that I write for. You are not alone.


Why Swine Flu is Important


I would be remiss in my duty if I didn’t put in a few words about swine flu. Forty-ish confirmed cases in the U.S. Deaths in Mexico. It has been elevated to WHO alert level four, pretty close to being classified as a global pandemic.

First, it’s important to note, that this image that I borrowed from the BBC’s article cited a little further on, is actually a picture of the Spanish Flu virus. And so, it’s merely a visual aid in that respect.

The question that is worth asking is what is the flu and what is it that’s important? A virus is nothing more than some strands of DNA or RNA wrapped in a protein shell. It’s basically a fast-evolving, semi-living machine for replicating random bits of DNA. It’s interesting because DNA’s primary goal is self-replication. That’s what it exists to do. Dawkins calls it the Selfish Gene. In complex organisms, the game that genes play is astonishingly complex and involves things like mating rituals and natural selection, but when it comes to viruses, that game is very, very simple: infect a host, find some cells, bust in, harvest the resources needed to replicate itself a few thousand or million times, and then hopefully be transmitted to another host. It doesn’t do the virus any good if the host dies before it can be transmitted.

Viruses like influenza are successful because they don’t often kill their host and they are able to jump from host to host. We get sick, we might get someone else sick, the virus lives on, and we get better, becoming immune to that specific strain of the virus. The problem arises when a strain is good at infecting but gets a little zealous about the messing up the host. People start dying. Ebola is a particularly good example of this because it wreaks terrible havoc on the host, killing very quickly. The reason ebola isn’t a successful virus is because it often kills too quickly. It has a short incubation period and this makes it unlikely that it will get passed on. It fails because it can’t reach pandemic status.

So what’s the deal with swine flu? Well, the simple fact of the mater is, we’re overdue for a flu pandemic. In 1968, Spanish Flu killed a million people worldwide. Swine flue isn’t a big deal yet, but it’s transmitting well and it has killed people. Everyone in the US has recovered, but people are dying. Apparently healthy, young people have died from it and the strain that’s floating around the U.S. is genetically identical to the one in Mexico. It’s also a new virus and so there is no natural immunity to it. We have no vaccines.

It’s not what it’s doing right now, which is really not very much. It’s what is possible. So, here’s the deal. Take everything that media says with a grain of salt. Much of media is engaging in some very alarmist reporting. They don’t, for the most part, know what the hell they’re talking about. The CDC and WHO are the people you should check in with because they know what they’re talking about.

It’s possible that this thing could get as bad as it has in Mexico. The simple fact of the matter is that we don’t know.

What can you do?

Wash your hands. Stay calm. Keep informed. Don’t listen to Fox News, they’re a bunch of alarmist morons who don’t know what the hell they’re talking about. But above all, don’t make it something that it isn’t yet.

The problem with large scale catastrophes is that it is always a matter of “when.” A pandemic will occur. Whether it’s going to be swine flu, ebola, or e. coli, it’s going to happen. You can protect yourself by staying informed and acting with as much knowledge as possible. And even then you could get sick and die. That’s life.

Just remember the closing lines of Oedipus Rex: “Count no man fortunate until he is dead.”

It’s nothing to worry about.


Artificial Intel


Artificial intelligence is a tough thing to pull off. And perhaps the trickiest part of it is knowing how much processing power it’s going to take to pull it off. But, the crazy thing about it is, it’s not inconceivable, at least not in the sense that Vizzini meant it. The Blue Brain Project has made some pretty impressive progress in one particular avenue of artificial intelligence theory.

What they have done is model a portion of the neocortex–the part of the brain that is responsible for complex thought–on a computer. Specifically, a pretty tremendous super computer. And they’ve done it right down the molecule. The question, of course, is what happens when you model something as complex on the human brain and then turn it on. Is it tantamount to creating life?

Well, that depends on how you define life. If life begins at conception–i.e. a sperm penetrating an egg–then it’s probably not life. But if life is consciousness. If life is the ability to think. Then what? If you model a human brain, aren’t you creating something capable of thinking? Aren’t you creating something that is potentially conscious? Is that life? Does it matter that at its most fundamental it’s still just 1s and 0s?

There are further questions to be explored here as well. There is an interesting argument, most eloquently outlined by Nick Bostrum, an Oxford philosopher, that simply states that if Moore’s Law is true and computer processing power continues to increase, then it will eventually be possible to simulate real life. Bostrum’s argument is that if it is possible, then it’s necessarily the case that we already exist in a computer simulation.

Haven’t you ever wondered? The fact that this is such an intriguing and pervasive question is the single most important reason (only?) that The Matrix was such a successful movie.

And so, as scientists and computer programmers make their first tentative steps toward creating intelligence or life or consciousness, what will you be doing? That’s what I thought.


All That Glisters


Friedrich Nietzsche said that gold was highly valued because it was uncommon and useless and shiny. Of course, it’s important that it be shiny. Useless things, no matter how rare they are, are not likely to be sought after. But if they’re shiny, now that’s a big deal. Nietszche said that gold’s virtue was self-bestowing. It gives of itself, he says.

Gold, therefore, is a symbol of the highest virtues. He meant this as an analogy for humans as well. The highest virtue that a human can aspire to is necessarily useless and uncommon. I always assumed, and I might have been reading too far into it, that he was talking about pure knowledge. Knowledge that has no consequences outside of itself. This could be, for instance, the knowledge that at the center of our galaxy a super-massive black hole exists that keeps the Milky Way together. The fact that we know this beyond a reasonable doubt has very little bearing on our day to day lives.

As far as our normal interactions with our world and our friends are concerned, it doesn’t matter in the slightest that there is a super-massive black hole at the center of anything. Or that the universe we live in followed Einstein more than Newton. Newton makes more sense in our normal context, but Einstein was far more correct.

What about Euclid? Even he was wrong about the way the world looks. We can’t directly perceive non-Euclidean geometries, but the fascinating thing is, the universe that we inhabit is much more non-Euclidean than we might initially suspect.

None of these affect us except in a sort of behind-the-scenes sense. If the world didn’t work that way, then the world would be very different. If the speed of light were not 300,000 kilometers per second and was say, fifty miles per hour, then things like time and space would be dramatically different. The fact remains, however, that these things don’t affect us directly. The have little bearing on our relationship with the world. We can get along just fine without that knowledge. And thus, it is useless.

There are some technologies that are inspired by some of these bits of knowledge, but there is a lot that we know about the universe that doesn’t affect us directly at all. This is what Nietzsche was talking about. He said that this kind of knowledge, this knowledge that is utterly without consequence, also possesses the highest virtue of gold.

Of course, culture sometimes even resists this. Why don’t we try and tell Galileo how inconsequential the Copernican Principle is. And now, almost four hundred years after he died under house arrest for “vehement suspicion of heresy,” what if we could tell him that the Copernican Principle might be wrong after all?

As the inaugural post for this new blog, I’d like to pose some of these questions and more as a sort of guiding force for the future of this work. For the time being, consider this blog a sequel to some of my other work. Here, we’ll have a narrowed focus and a clearer statement of purpose. And I hope you’ll join me in exploring some of the bizarre and beautiful things that the world has to offer.

Auf wiedersehen.