Archive for the 'Science' Category

A philosophy of ethics in the age of digital intelligences

Thursday, October 9th, 2008

I think about the future a lot. Okay, that’s a lie — I think about the future all the time. I place the blame on the vast quantity of science fiction books I read during my formative years. But it really has been the highest privilege imaginable to watch the future unfold right before my eyes these past twenty-three years, even if it hasn’t always happened quite as we imagined it would. And the best part is, it’s a privilege that never ends! Just looking at what’s on my desk right now, I have 500 GB of storage in a hand-portable format. Take that back to just one decade ago and no one would even believe it.

The encroachment of the future upon the present has been occurring at an accelerating rate, too fast for any single person to keep up with it all. Take any given scientific field — only the experts in it are even aware of all of the groundbreaking research, while people outside that field are entirely clueless (witness the recent unfounded public backlash against the Large Hadron Collider, for instance). This lag time between initial discovery and general synthesis of knowledge isn’t getting any shorter, even as new inventions continue coming along at a breakneck pace. It’s a recipe for severe discrepancies between disparate areas of knowledge.

One area we haven’t normalized with scientific progress yet is ethics. Our legal system, for example, is built entirely around the assumption that humans are the only intelligent actors. Harm inflicted against humans is thus either caused by other humans (whether intentionally or not), by accident, or by nature. The latter two do not merit punishments (though in some cases compensation is awarded), while the first category is dealt with mainly through punishments that are geared to work on people, such as incarceration. But as computers continually grow exponentially more powerful according to Moore’s Law, the categories begin to break down.

Look at the case of Robert Williams, an automotive factory stockroom worker who in 1979 became the world’s first robot fatality when a robot’s arm, entirely lacking in any sort of safeguard, smacked into him at full speed, killing him instantly. The courts (rightfully) considered that robot as a simple tool, and the jury found the robot’s manufacturers negligent and awarded Williams’ family $10 million. Even today, robot fatalities are dealt with in the same manner: they are either declared to be entirely accidental, or the manufacturer of the robot is found to be at fault. They have yet to find the robot itself, acting intelligently and on its own, to be at fault.

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The importance of apex experiments to science

Friday, September 12th, 2008

The recent news blitz over the first day of operation for the Large Hadron Collider got me thinking — what other fields have cool apex experiments? Seeing as how the term “apex experiment” is possibly one that I have invented myself, allow me to explain. An apex experiment is the most important, sought-after, envied, cool, world-changing, and often priciest, experiment in a given field. I’ve modeled this term after the term “apex predator” from ecology, which is a predator that is at the very top of the food chain in its environment (e.g. lions on the savanna, great white sharks in the sea, and eagles in the skies). So if you want to think of an apex experiment as capable of devouring all the rest of the experiments in its field, then that’s cool too.

Particle physics, then, has a really cool apex experiment: the supercollider. The latest supercollider, the Large Hadron Collider, is a behemoth 27 kilometers in circumference buried hundreds of feet in the ground that approaches nearly unimaginable energy levels. It will create hitherto unknown particles from the sheer energy released by the force of tremendous collisions. It’s harder to imagine a field with a better apex experiment, but I have one: rocket science. The apex experiment in rocketry in the 1960s, a manned mission to the Moon, was undeniably awesome, and the current apex experiment, a manned mission to Mars, is awe-inspiring for its sheer difficulty.

Now look at some other fields. Until very recently, the apex experiment in the field of genetics and bioinformatics was sequencing the human genome. Now that that’s been accomplished, the next lofty goal is to do so cheaply, so that it can be done on an individual basis as part of a routine medical diagnostic. A worthy goal, certainly, but it doesn’t have the same coolness factor as the LHC or the Apollo missions. Regrettably, there is no Giant Animal Smasher in biology, though the sheer amazingness of such an awesome contraption existing sends tingles down my spine (though perhaps PETA would have a different reaction).

How about some other fields? Astronomy has the Hubble Space Telescope (and coming soon, the James Webb Space Telescope). SETI has the Allen Array and the Arecibo dish, the latter of which also serves as an apex experiment in the field of radio astronomy. I couldn’t point to one particular example in computer science beyond the now-obsolete Deep Blue, but the ever ongoing race for the most powerful supercomputer serves in a pinch. Biology had the discovery of the form of DNA, though nowadays its apex experiment is probably along the lines of finding a cure for cancer (which is, admittedly, a lot less of a unified endeavor than we once believed). As for chemistry and engineering, nothing immediately jumps to the top of my mind, though I’m sure you readers will have some ideas in the comments below.

Apex experiments are so important because, in addition to giving all the other scientists in a field something to aspire to, they also draw the publics attention to the importance of science, and thus, keep critical science funding from drying up. An apex experiment is like a blockbuster movie: it creates an incredible buzz in mainstream society, and then hopefully while everyone is at the theater watching the movie, they’re also dropping some money on concessions.

Barring the Giant Animal Smasher becoming a reality, I would have to say that the Apollo missions were the apex of all apex experiments. No other singular human scientific endeavor has come close in terms of impact. Space exploration is uniquely captivating and world-changing, so here’s hoping that the next apex experiment in space exploration, journeying to Mars, is not too far off.

The Large Hadron Collider powers up tomorrow

Tuesday, September 9th, 2008

I’ve been eagerly awaiting the completion of the Large Hadron Collider for many years now (here’s proof), so I couldn’t miss this opportunity to remind everyone that the LHC will be powered up for the first time tomorrow. If you’re a nutjob scaremongerer, treat tonight like it’s your last night on Earth appropriately (you know, what with the creating of black holes that swallow the Earth and all). To everyone else: rejoice! If you don’t know the significance of the LHC, well, it may help us finally figure out how gravity works. And/or reveal all sorts of exotic particles that we don’t yet even know about.

So yeah, I’ve kind of been excited about this for a long time, and I’m giddy as a school girl that the date has finally arrived. I’ll definitely be drinking some kind of toast to the LHC tonight.

Why the gender ratio is 1:1

Friday, August 1st, 2008

Well, I’m heading off to a wedding in the family, so I figure if I don’t get a chance to write anything else for the weekend, I may as well leave you with knowledge of Fisher’s principle. Ever wondered why the gender ratio is 1:1 rather than, say, many more females than males? Read that and you’ll know why. Isn’t science grand?

Why the dirigible will never come back

Monday, July 14th, 2008

One of the greatest casualties of the 20th century was the dirigible (or zeppelin, blimp, or airship, call it what you will). Although it was made obsolete by the fixed-wing aircraft, the dirigible has yet to be surpassed in sheer romance, and has long been admired by Steampunk writers and fans. Ponder how amazing it would be if things had turned out differently, and dirigibles still regularly graced the skies above us, docking gently with our tallest skyscrapers. And unlike the cramped confines of an airplane, traveling in dirigibles was downright luxurious, with observation decks providing grand views of the scenery below.
The only problem is, the dirigible died out because fixed-wing airplanes are simply much better. They can travel significantly faster, don’t need to bother with large volumes of tricky-to-corral lighter-than-air gas, can navigate rough weather much better, and don’t require large ground crews to land (a plane just needs an open runway; a dirigible needs a ground crew to grab and secure its tethers). So you can see why I’m a bit skeptical whenever another story hits the media about yet another dirigible that’s supposedly going to bring blimps back into style (pictured to the right).

Dirigibles were awesome, but they simply aren’t coming back in any real capacity, no matter how many times they’re “reinvented”. The latest fad is in dirigibles that aren’t actually lighter-than-air, and that thus require the lift generated from wings during forward motion to stay aloft. The article I’ve linked above is far from the only airship using this design that’s been marketed recently. But the new design simply doesn’t address enough of the fundamental disadvantages of the airship, so expect to see it only in fringe applications, like leisure cruises. It won’t be causing any revolutions in air travel, passenger or cargo.

It’s a shame, but the dirigible, just like the telegraph, is a technology whose time has come and gone. The only sliver of hope for the airship is in its nostalgia value.

Treating depression as brain damage

Thursday, July 10th, 2008

According to a recent article in the Boston Globe, the theory of depression as a chemical shortage in the brain is losing ground amongst scientists in favor of a new theory of depression as damage in the brain. It’s not nearly as out there as it initially sounds, and it actually does fit a lot of clinical evidence better. For instance, fluoxetine (the active ingredient in Prozac) raises the level of serotonin in the brain. Yet using other drugs to lower the level of serotonin in the brain does not cause depression, nor does it make depression worse. The release of serotonin caused by fluoxetine is thus probably doing something else to the brain: healing the neurons, not simply restoring a chemical balance.

Now, this only makes sense if depression is actually a mild, reversible neurodegenerative disorder as opposed to a chemical imbalance. The theory goes that people are depressed because their neurons are in bad shape due to a lack of regenerative trophic factors, and the proper treatments (fluoxetine and exercise are both highly effective) increase the production of trophic factors and cause injured neurons to recover/regrow. This explains the observed clinical phenomenon known as “Prozac lag” — serotonin levels go up within hours of starting treatment with the drug, yet it takes weeks for the depression to be alleviated. Well, guess how long it takes to repair/regrow neurons? Weeks, not hours. Fluoxetine is also being investigated as a treatment for lazy eye, which is caused by underdevelopment of the neural cortex. It works in rats, the theory being that the fluoxetine is fostering the growth of new neurons. It’s now starting to be used as a treatment for lazy eye in humans.

Now nobody’s sure if the new way of thinking about depression is completely correct, so don’t go jumping to any conclusions just yet, but it’s now looking more likely than the chemical imbalance theory of yesteryear. The new theory also explains the other factors that are so often coincident with depression — memory problems, smell and taste sensory deficits, and basic bodily process problems with weight control, sex drive, and sleeping. So under this new theory, we don’t think of depression as just sadness, but of an overall lowering in functioning in the brain caused by neural deterioration, of which sadness is simply the most notable symptom.

The new paradigm should make it easier to get people to accept treatment. Instead of telling people that they need chemical happiness (which some people refuse, because they don’t like the idea of a chemical in their brain making them something other than themselves), tell them that they need a chemical to repair minor neural damage. Phrased that way, it’s a lot less off-putting. Who would be opposed to fixing brain damage by taking a simple pill? It has a convenient explanation, too — in the modern world, humans are exercising a lot less often than we used to, and as a result, the trophic factors that promote neural regeneration aren’t being produced in the same quantities. If people aren’t getting enough exercise to replace those lost trophic factors, at least restore their equivalent brain function through the use of a convenient pill.

I wonder what ramifications this theory this will have on the future of neurology. We may soon find out that other psychiatric disorders are caused by some forms of damage to the brain (we already know about the obvious ones, like Alzheimer’s disease). Medical neuroscience may shift away from modifying neural chemical levels towards treating and rejuvenating neurons. It all goes to show how science is consistently digging up new truths and changing our world for the better. Science brought us fluoxetine and now it’s finally explaining how it actually works, creating a bridge of understanding that will hopefully help in the treatment of other disorders.

Having journeyed outwards, now we journey inwards

Wednesday, June 11th, 2008

We’ve been to Luna. Our robots have been to Venus and Mars. Our probes have visited all the planets in the solar system. But we haven’t been to Sol. Yet. NASA is planning a new mission, set to launch in 2015, to correct that little oversight. Solar Probe Plus will get within nine solar radii of Sol, taking direct measurements of the solar corona. These measurements will likely provide the answers to two of our biggest unknowns about Sol: how is the corona half a million degrees (Celcius) if the surface of the Sun is only 6000 degrees, and where does the solar wind get such high velocity from?

Solar Probe Plus is also going to be a “green” spaceship; it’ll be powered by solar energy (duhhh). The solar arrays actually have to be liquid-cooled, and they can’t be kept in the sunlight for extended periods of time, as the temperature at nine solar radii is 1400 degrees Celcius. Ouch. I hope the main heat shield works well.

I’d also like to take this moment to encourage the use of the names “Sol” and “Luna” instead of the much more awkward phrases “The Sun” and “The Moon” in writing and in speech. Any determinate proper noun that requires a definite article is irregular, and I think should be avoided if an alternative exists. Plus, Sun and Moon aren’t even specific; there are many moons of other planets, and the central star of each solar system (not just our own) can be referred to as its sun. Consider that the sentence “I’m traveling to Earth” sounds correct, whereas “I’m traveling to Sun” does not. So, please do English a favor and elevate your language. Someday there will actually be people living on Luna, and what do you think the odds are of them putting up with the sheer awkwardness of “The Moon” on a day-to-day basis? Slim!

I would also recommend “Terra” instead of the “The Earth”, but we see Earth used so often its dropped its definite article, and thus there’s no need to throw around another potentially unfamiliar name.

How optical illusions work?

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

Researcher Mark Changizi of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in New York believes he may have found the cognitive trick that allows all optical illusions to work — humans can see into the future. Allow me to explain, because it’s actually not nearly as silly as it sounds.

The complete neural pathway from light hitting the eyes to the formation of a visual perception of the world in the higher parts of the brain takes about a tenth of a second. Researchers have long wondered how humans manage to be as accurate as we are, considering how much can happen in a tenth of a second (think of how far a pitched baseball traveling at 80mph will move in 0.1 seconds, for example). Mark Changizi believes that our visual system extrapolates about a tenth of a second into the future to make up for the delay (using dead reckoning, I guess?). Thus, we aren’t actually seeing the world as what it is, but as what our highly honed visual system thinks it should have been based on an extrapolation from a fraction of a second prior. The eyes aren’t relaying images directly to the brain; there is some processing going on in between. And for the most part, this solution works just fine.

Except in the case of optical illusions. Optical illusions trick our brains into falsely extrapolating what an image will look like in the very near future. Optical illusions are thus a continual cycle of our visual system predicting something that won’t actually happen, then constantly getting confused about it. This explains how static images can appear to be moving, etc. It’s a really elegant explanation, and combined with the previous knowledge that there is a delay in our visual system, it just feels right to me. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this explanation ended up being correct.

Shouldn’t we invite the uncontacted tribes into the modern world?

Friday, May 30th, 2008

Incredible as it may seem in 2008, there are indeed some remaining uncontacted human tribes (click that link for the pictures alone). These are people living with no contact with the modern world apart from the occasional airplane sighting, doing things in all likelihood as they have been done for centuries or millennia. While modern civilization has washed across the globe these past few thousand years, it has as of yet failed to spread to the some of the most remote corners of it. I find that absolutely fascinating.

But it also brings to my mind a moral quandary. These are people like you and I; they are not “savages”. It’s not that they were incapable of coming up with civilization on their own, it’s simply that their environment isn’t amenable to it (for more details on this thesis, I refer you to the Pulitzer prize-winning Guns, Germs, and Steel by Jared Diamond). Yet civilization is a great thing that uplifts the human experience, right? So don’t they deserve the benefits of civilization, what with the much better medicine, modern agriculture, the Internet, et al? Who the hell are we to not gift all of this to them when it’s perfectly within our abilities to do so, solely because we want to keep them around as a sort of curious sideshow, a museum exhibit on the human condition before the march of progress revolutionized it? Isn’t that at its core more arrogant than not contacting them at all?

Haven’t we reached a point in the evolution of humanity where we should go back to all of the unfortunate folks who missed the rising tide and fill them in on the great news? We’re sending space probes to distant worlds they likely know of as nothing more than wandering objects in the sky, if that! Were I in their position, I would at least want the knowledge of modern times, even if I did not want the style of modern life. And you have to admit, there is some strange lure to living simply, but I draw a distinction between living simply by choice and living simply in ignorance. Don’t they at least deserve a choice in the matter? It’s their lives. There are a couple of people dying from completely curable illnesses at this very moment in the uncontacted tribes. Shouldn’t we at least ask them if they want our modern medicine? If I was dying of a completely curable disease and someone somewhere had a cure, but refused to announce themselves and alleviate my suffering because they preferred that I remain in an “untouched and pure” state, along with all of the unnecessary suffering that entailed, I’d have a few choice words for them.

Unfortunately, if we do not proactively address the issue of our first contact and do it in a responsible manner, it will be handled by unprofessionals in a completely irresponsible manner. Humanity is sweeping across the globe. Already, the territory of the outermost uncontacted tribes is being infringed upon by loggers and poachers. And their first reaction is often simply to murder the uncontacted tribesmembers using firearms; they simply want the trees and the animals, and don’t want any pesky people defending their land shooting arrows at them to get in the way. Don’t we owe them better than that as an introduction to modern civilization? They’re going to experience civilization one way or another, either in the form of an amazing present or in the form of a large boot squishing them beneath it.

And there’s one more issue at play here. The linked article mentions that the uncontacted tribes haven’t built up many immunities to disease owing to their utter state of isolation. Illnesses following first contact can prove fatal to up to one half of their populations. It’s like the American Indian situation all over again, but even worse, because the diseases are more deadly and more global now than they were centuries ago. Yet loggers are increasingly encroaching upon the uncontacted tribes’ territories, so they will eventually get these diseases regardless. Shouldn’t it happen under the auspices of modern medicine instead? Isn’t that the only moral way to do it? With modern immunizations and hospital care, the mortality rate can be brought way down. We owe them their first contact in a conscientious manner, if for no other reason than so they don’t experience waves of deadly illnesses after their first accidental contact with people who don’t care about their wellbeing.

So, I say we invite the remaining uncontacted tribes into the fold of the rest of humanity. They can turn down all of our amazing technology and continue living life exactly as they do now if they want to, but at least give them the simple choice. They’ve already seen our airplanes buzzing above them. I do not think a simple direct introduction will faze them much further. It is to our great disservice that we patronizingly use the rationalization of “they wouldn’t be able to handle it without their society collapsing” in actively avoiding first contacts. If there’s anything we’ve learned in our own many-thousand-year journey through civilization, it’s that humans are infinitely adaptable.

It’s time to stop leaving them in the dark and turn on the light.

The upside of high petroleum prices

Thursday, May 29th, 2008

As much as I wince each time I have to fill up the gas tank (which I’m doing less and less these days, thanks to working from home more often), I do realize that higher petroleum prices are ultimately a good thing. And so does a writer for Market Watch. We’ve been able to maintain this addiction to oil for so long only because the lobbying might of the oil companies has overwhelmed the benefits of switching (and not because it wasn’t cost beneficial to switch from oil, because it already is). But as gas gets more and more expensive, alternative options like plug-in cars will look more and more attractive. Once a major shift is made, the negative externalities of petroleum production will be reduced by a good deal.

So the next time you’re wincing at how much it costs to fill up at the pump, console yourself with the knowledge that this is ultimately good for the future of mankind on this planet. Widespread petroleum use is environmentally unsustainable due to the particulate pollution and carbon dioxide emissions (and thus, global warming) it causes. The sooner we get away from it, the better. And the best way to get away from it, and indeed, perhaps the only way to get away from it in this political climate where the oil companies wield such great power, is to make it such that people simply cannot afford it.

Who’s with me on a countdown to $10/gallon gasoline?