Monthly Archives: August 2003

briefly/foresight

A search engine is indexing my site. This is not ordinarily noteworthy, but it seems that the link to move forward through archived posts works even if one has already passed the most recent item in the archive. And since the URL is constructed by date, it looks different to the search engine every time it follows the link.

As I submit this, the search engine is indexing my posts for January, 2146.

contemplation/universes

Link of the day: A Slate piece on alternate universes. The article well summarizes the interesting issues related to this concept.

Naturally, I have a few comments of my own.

First, my own view on alternate universes: I am reluctantly an adherent to the “many worlds” interpretation of quantum mechanics. I say “reluctantly” because I am sympathetic to the Occam’s Razor argument. However, I discovered that the way I think about quantum mechanics is entirely equivalent to many-worlds, and I can’t escape that without giving up certain essential assumptions that allow me to make any sense at all of the mathematics. So I had to bite the bullet on that one.

I should point out that alternate universes in the quantum mechanics “many world” sense doesn’t explain fine-tuning of the universe for intelligent life; all the fundamental parameters like Planck’s constant are the same in all the different universes.

The article points out that some multiverse concepts could pose problems for natural theologians who would like to explain fine-tuning with a Creator. But I would think a bigger problem would be that a Creator isn’t an explanation for fine-tuning. It just substitutes one question for another; if the answer to “Where did the universe come from?” is “God”, my next question will be “Where did God come from?” And this is actually a harder question! Before we had a nice mathematical universe described by a handful of fundamental equations, and now we have to explain some intelligent being with the power and desire to create such universes. And if the reasoning was good in the previous case, it should be good now: the Creator had a Creator… and off we go into infinite regress.

In other words, if we are satisfied stopping at “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we should be even more satisfied to stop at “In the beginning was the Big Bang.” The Slate writer goes further, and argues that many universes really is a simpler case than one universe plus a Creator, and in a certain sense I think he’s got a point.

The sense I have in mind is this: one doesn’t need a creator to explain logic and mathematics; these things just are, and apply in every universe no matter how many there are. There’s no way one plus one could not equal two, since this is just a logical consequence of the definitions of “one”, “plus”, and “two”. If I draw a solution of a differential equation on a blackboard, I didn’t “create” the solution – it always existed along with all the other solutions and all I created was a visual representation of it. So, if the universe can be described by some mathematical formalism, it and all others like it already exist as part of mathematics. If we think mathematics exists, we get the “fine-tuned” universe plus all the alternates for free, without needing to invoke either a divine creator or some kind of “natural” creation process.

I’ve always liked this idea, but it has a huge philosophical problem. The reason we can do science at all is that the laws of nature don’t change with time (or if they do, it’s in a slow and predictable way). But there are many more mathematically conceivable universes that aren’t time-translation invariant, and in fact change the rules randomly, violently, and on all timescales. If all the mathematically possible universes exist in the same way as this one, we are far more likely to be living in one where the laws of physics just change one day – which means inductive reasoning doesn’t work, and we might as well give up on science. (See also: the grue paradox.)

So, I’ve had to shelve that particular multiple-universe idea. In the end the only reasonable position on the origin of the universe is agnosticism – it really is something unknowable and beyond the reach of science.

Which brings me to one final comment on the fine-tuning problem: this is not a problem at all. To ask “why is the universe fine-tuned for human existence” presupposes some knowledge about how universes originate that the asker certainly does not have. Specifically, if I claim there is something unlikely about the fact that physical parameters fall within the narrow range necessary to sustain life as we know it, I am making a statement about the probability distribution of physical parameters. Actually, it’s worse than that: saying that the range of parameters is “narrow” assumes information about what kind of universes are possible. These statements take for granted that all conceivable universes are in some sense “possible”, and that additionally there is some kind of broad distribution over parameters. Of course these assumptions are entirely unjustified.

The real question to ask is, why does our universe have these particular parameters? But this question takes out the fine-tuning element. I don’t think one necessarily has to be totally agnostic on this question (as opposed to questions about origin), since a unified theory of physics may reduce some numerical parameters to conversion factors between units, as relativity did for the speed of light. This only gets you so far, of course; even with the simplest possible theory we’d be wondering why that was the right one and not some other.

briefly/textbooks

Salon has a look at textbook selection in Texas, and in particular the latest skirmishes over the teaching of evolution. It seems the champions of ignorance have been reduced from “evolution is false” to “the books don’t address the weaknesses of evolutionary theory”. The journalist depicts this as a stealth assault on teaching evolution but I can only see it as progress. Despite Nick Kristof’s 72% figure (of evolution nonbelievers in the American populace) it looks like the truth is winning out, if these guys have to moderate their language to this extent.

Unfortunately the article is about three pages too short; I’d like to see a more in-depth look at these enemies of American scientific progress. When they say the textbooks don’t talk about evolution’s “weaknesses”, what exactly are they looking for? Are we talking crackpot Young Earth theories, or real gaps in the body of scientific knowledge that opponents sometimes point to as “flaws”? If the latter, this could be a good thing, since it has been my experience that discussions of unsolved problems in a field tend to get students interested in the topic.

report/upgrades

Numerical update today. What I need is a “recall index” that averages the Gray Davis recall data. This wouldn’t be too hard to do, actually. Pollkatz uses a subscription service to get the Bush data, but Google News might be enough.

In other news, I have been busy working on our group’s presentation to the Army Research Office on Friday. They and the Air Force fund our research, so this will naturally be an important talk. We’ve distributed the effort so I’m only contributing a few viewgraphs.

In the course of this, trying to build Powerpoint slides on a Linux machine that will be compatible with the rest, my need for a computer running Windows in the lab has been highlighted. Of course there are already a few Windows machines, but at frantic times like this everyone is trying to use them, usually when they’re occupied taking data. (The “Windows is Evil” crowd can take me to task here, but I do need the compatibility.)

So, I’m looking into portable computing options. Probably a Dell, since I can get a discount with them through the university. If anyone has any recommendations, let me know. Also, I will likely set up my apartment for wireless networking (since this will also eliminate one of the cables that’s strung across the floor).

announcement/balance

I almost forgot that today is Fair and Balanced Day. This, of course, is a day for bloggers to reaffirm their committment to fair and balanced commentary. One story drawing much fair and balanced attention is the lawsuit filed by Fox News against Al Franken for his fair and balanced use of a common phrase, which Fox claims have trademarked, in his upcoming book.

Needless to say, Franken must be regretting his undoubtedly fair and balanced choice of title, since soon after news of the lawsuit broke his Amazon sales rank shot from the neighborhood of 800 to the top ten.

However, trademarks can be challenged if they are being used to “misrepresent the source of the goods and services”. Perhaps if Franken can offer a fair and balanced argument as to why Fox’s trademark is neither a fair nor balanced representation of Fox News Channel, this case will come to a fair and balanced conclusion.

rant/piousness

Today’s column from Nick Kristof centers on the idea that “[o]ne of the most poisonous divides is the one between intellectual and religious America,” but it’s really more of a catalog of Scary Things Americans Think. For example:

Americans are three times as likely to believe in the Virgin Birth of Jesus (83 percent) as in evolution (28 percent).

The first stat isn’t so surprising, but the second… 28 percent!? This really says something about the state of science education in this country. Evolution isn’t just a scientific fact, it’s the unifying principle in biology. Trying to understand biology without evolution would be like trying to understand physics without the concept of energy. 28 percent…

Yet despite the lack of scientific or historical evidence, and despite the doubts of Biblical scholars, America is so pious that not only do 91 percent of Christians say they believe in the Virgin Birth, but so do an astonishing 47 percent of U.S. non-Christians.

I can’t even comprehend this. What possible reason would a non-Christian have to believe in the virgin birth? Even Kristof’s take, “America is so pious…” doesn’t explain it. It’s not pious to believe in the virgin birth if you’re not a Christian. It’s just dumb! Who are these people?

On the other hand, maybe these numbers are the result of creative surveying techniques that put some Christian sects into the non-Christian category.

When he runs out of survey results, Kristof goes to the time-honored journalistic technique of finding the most stunningly wacko website he can and quoting from it. And man, does he find a good one:

“God defeated armies of Philistines and others with confusion. Dimpled and hanging chads may also be because of God’s intervention on those who were voting incorrectly. Why is GW Bush our president? It was God’s choice.”

Perhaps the funniest thing about this is the suggestion that the sorts of miracles God works involve rigging elections. Wouldn’t have been more effective and less shady for God to go on CNN (ok, maybe Fox News) and give Bush his official endorsement? I bet if he did that Bush would have actually won Florida.

But seriously, what the fuck is up with this divine right shit? I thought we jettisonned that idea back in 1776. And Ann Coulter calls us traitors.

briefly/buffett

First thing I’ve heard that makes me think Governor Arnold may not be so bad: he has brought on Warren Buffett as his economic adviser. Funniest quote from the article:

“Is this the same Warren Buffett who opposed the president’s tax plan?” said John Feliz, campaign director for Republican state Sen. Tom McClintock. “It’s a let-them-eat-cake approach. This is a very wealthy person who doesn’t understand the problems of a family of four earning $35,000 a year and living in Visalia, California.”

Feliz is obviously living in an alternate universe where the president’s tax plan didn’t give guys like Buffett huge breaks while offering no relief for millions of low-income, taxpaying families.

I’m not ready to buy a “Vote for me if you want to live” t-shirt, but we could do a lot worse than Warren Buffett.

briefly/anniversary

Today, August 12, is the second anniversary of my arrival in Berkeley. I won’t make this into a long entry about the last two years and my plans for the future (though I could!), but I thought it was worth mentioning.

I’m still too jetlagged to write the Tokyo rundown, or comment coherently on something relevant like Schwarzenegger’s candidacy. I will say that things are going well here; I can actually get into my storage room now, I have a new cell phone that works (same number, still doesn’t work well from my apartment), and the reason I didn’t have any e-mail from lab over the weekend is that all my software was working. Hey, with this kind of luck I should just start asking girls out at random.