Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Responding to Science Questions I - From Facebook

The following are a list of some questions that I have responded to on various scientific issues.

Question: When a baby is within the womb, if something happens that it doesn't like (tickling of mother's stomach, etc.) it will kick to assert itself. So if a newborn being can acknowledge that it is discomforted, why can't a neuron, proton, etc; make conscious decisions?

My response: The baby is responding to a type of stimuli (tactile). This does not require conscious thought. As is the case of a plant. On a reductionist level it is merely the interplay of a number of inputs with consequences driven by the Laws of Physics. Why questions aren't really scientific. Essentially metaphysical and can always be answered by the retort 'Why not?' Science at its core is largely concerned with the 'How' which may approximate the 'Why' if the evidence is there.

Question: Plants move themselves towards light sources for nutrients. I believe that plants can think as well as any being. Matter makes up everything; we know this. So what proof has been discovered that matter needs to fully form into something BEFORE it can gain the ability to think? Look at white blood cells: They sense dangerous matter within the bloodstream, and they attack. They also just exist when there is no danger. Is there an argument that cells cannot think as well?

My response: We have no evidence that regular matter acts with conscious intent. We can't prove it but then again science does not deal with proof. It is an inductive rather than a deductive process. Yes we should open ourselves to the possibility that this is true but the lack of evidence seems to indicate that this is highly unlikely. It is also important not to confuse a response to stimuli with conscious intent. Plants growing towards the light are demonstrating a response to stimuli known as phototropism. It can be explained by chemical recourse only.

Question: Matter within the wave function, has the ability to think and make conscious decisions, as we can see from it's actions once an observer is entered into the equation (Double Slit Experiment). I am curious to know if anyone else believes that it is possible that matter can ultimately choose what the observer perceives it to be, BEFORE it is being observed, and the wave function has collapsed.

My Response: Human beings can think and make conscious decisions but this is not a property of matter itself. It is an emergent functionality that has developed within our species as a result of evolutionary selection pressure. You have reversed the Copenhagen explanation. It is the action of the observer that impacts the result, not the matter itself under observation, acting with conscious intent.

Question: Would light change form if you could slow it? And when does heat energy become light energy?

My response: The speed of light changes depending on the optical medium that it is traveling through. It only travels at c in a vacuum. When moving from one medium to another it's frequency remains constant but it's wavelength changes. Visible light is a very small part of a family of waves that define what is known as the electromagnetic spectrum. These include gamma rays, x rays, microwaves, Infra red, ultraviolet, radio waves etc. All travel at c in a vacuum but have different frequencies and wavelengths. They all have associated magnetic and electric field vectors and propagate perpendicular to the direction of each of those two vector fields. Electromagnetic waves do not need a medium to propagate. They are very different to sound waves which are essentially pressure waves, Heat is a term that is used in thermodynamics to describe a general transfer of energy. It occurs via conduction, convection and radiation with the latter facilitated by the action of Electromagnetic waves.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

15 Books on Physics that I recommend reading (if you have time of course).

1. The Elegant Universe – Brian Greene - excellent introduction into the fundamentals of Modern Physics.
2. Hyperspace – Michio Kaku - wonderful take on extra-dimensions by a strong narrator.
3. The Ideas of Physics – Ernest Hutten - an oldie but a goldie – discusses key ideas that shaped the discipline.
4. Fearful Symmetry – A. Zee - Looks at the Beauty in Physics.
5. Physics of Immortality – Frank Tipler - a bit over the top but highly entertaining nevertheless.
6. Theories of Everything – John Barrow - Low key but well written.
7. Feynman Lecture Series – Richard Feynman - A struggle for the lay person but if you can get through a third of it your effort will be rewarded.
8. The Trouble with Physics – Lee Smolin - an important critique of the group think that has encroached on the discipline.
9. Physics – Douglas Giancoli - Doesn’t matter what the edition is its treatment of classical physics is praiseworthy.
10. The Flying circus of Physics – Jearl Walker – Challenging problems that force one to really think deep.
11. Relativity Simply Explained – Martin Gardiner – Its title says it all.
12. The First Three Minutes – Steven Weinberg- Still one of the best treatments of the Big Bang.
13. The Constants of Nature – John Barrow – Delves into the details of these definitive constants that so encapsulate our universe.
14. Thirty Years that Shook Physics: The Story of Quantum Theory – Gamow is a great storyteller and he didn’t disappoint with this useful read.
15. 50 Physics Ideas – Joanne Baker – Lots of fun and really easy to read.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

The Trump Phenomenon - Whenceforth does it emerge?

Trump's lead is slipping but it still intrigues me as to where his support is coming from. Social conservatives prefer Cruz and to a lesser extent Carson (whose numbers are going down as well) and the establishment seems to be rallying around Rubio (now that Jeb Bush is sinking). Trump's business background may appeal to fiscal conservatives (FCs) but many FCs would be turned off by his rhetoric on other topics.

My sense at the moment is that Trump is essentially cutting across all strata and is drawing heavily from the Libertarian and Angry White Male base who feel rightly alienated from a system that under the Obama years has not served them well. In a way this makes his appeal very powerful as it draws support from groups that can shift between parties. It is the Ross Perot grouping plus more and that more, includes a substantial portion of the forty percent of Americans who don't normally vote in elections.

I prematurely predicted (like so many) that Trump's candidacy would fizzle out but it hasn't. He continues to press hot button topics that both party elites have refused to confront and has juxtaposed his position as a breath of fresh air against a system well on the way to decline. I would not wish to see him as President but his Jacksonian appeal will resonate with those who see themselves disenfranchised by a Hamiltonian consensus. This is not an insignificant number of souls and unless the establishment takes these voices seriously such undercurrents will threaten the integrity of the Union. Trump may be just one in a series of 'warnings' that are likely to follow in the future. However compounded over time they can erode, divide and bring down the center.

Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Dualism within me

Not sure for certain if others here feel the same way but I expect that many do. I have always considered myself a rational person. Logic and reasoning and a healthy dose of skepticism dominates my thinking. Many years of immersion in the sciences have definitely played a key role in my personal evolution but so has the writing of Hume, Burke, Mills, Russell and in the more modern context Hansen and Dalrymple. On the surface I should be a strong agnostic yet I find that as much as I try, I cannot free myself from a spirtualism (perhaps mysticism..I even have a fondness Kabbalah) that I should theoretically reject.

I believe, although with limited scientific evidence, in an essence that extends beyond the physicality of the matter/energy universe and even though I cannot quantify or even qualify its being, its presence seems real. Perhaps this is a function of my individuality (so defined by my genetics and environmental history) but as much as I have tried to shrug off its presence and succumb to scientific materialism and the logical consequence of atheism I simply cannot. To do so would be untrue to myself just as much as an adoption of religious orthodoxy and blind worship flies in the face of who I am. I have tried to reconcile these two pillars but such attempts seem contrived so at best I operate under the avenue of separate domains. Acknowledging that there may be fusion on an objective level somewhere but content to treat the dualism as a outgrowth of my subjective challenge.

Monday, December 14, 2015

Think for Yourself

Over the years I have learnt that all issues are not as clear cut as their champions make them out to be and in virtually every case your personal take is at best the optimum stance using the pertinent information available at the time. While it is necessary to have principles it is equally important to listen to contradictory standpoints, which is why the free flow of ideas is so critical to any debate. I have changed my stance over the years on several issues and will likely do so in the future. While my tendency is to favour positions on the center-right of the political spectrum it certainly doesn't define my take on every issue (not by a long way). However I have noticed over the years that the moment one favours a particular left-right position on a single topic people naturally assume that you have to buy into the rest of the smorgasbord of ideas associated with that side of the political spectrum. This is ridiculous and incredibly short-sighted. While some people may order off a set menu of positions associated with a certain ideology I certainly don't and will continue to advocate for the most important of all notions ie. Think for Yourself.

Anger Man

There are a lot of very angry people out there. Earlier today some guy accused me of not looking where I was going despite the fact that he was driving like a maniac and literally missed t-boning me in the parking lot. He then charged my car with eyes blaring and steam literally coming out of his nose (after giving me an obscene gesture) and dared me to hit him (he actually had his kid in the car beside him which is even more pathetic). I told him that he wasn't worth the effort. He then continued to demand that I hit him and that if I did I would be on the floor (clearly he was not a PR type of guy). I rolled up my window and drove away. I am not a violent person and if I had to resort to violence I would pick my fight. This was not worth it and I acted accordingly. Yet the incident left me rattled and I spent the next half an hour back home 'googling' videos of white guys going wild with road rage. Funny thing is that this happened outside a bagel store and the guy seemed to be a member of the tribe. Bizarre. Not sure how to interpret this at all but some people have serious anger management issues. I pity the woman who is married to this guy.