One of the things we regularly discuss here on TDG is the difficulty in getting serious attention for new or 'heretical' scientific ideas. I'm sure then that many readers will enjoy reading Against the Tide. A Critical Review by Scientists of How Physics and Astronomy Get Done (free PDF download available via the link, or buy from Amazon US / UK):
This book deals with the tension between the scientific establishment of a given time, and scientists with radical or heretical ideas, who work outside the mainstream, and have difficulties in having their ideas accepted or even seriously critiqued...much of the scientific activity at the present time confirms [sic] to a set of ideas and paradigms which are unquestionably accepted by the vast majority of practising scientists. Most work is done within this framework, and those who disagree with it find it difficult to survive academically, because they are denied grants, positions, research facilities like observing time on telescopes, invitations to speak at conferences, the opportunity to publish in the best research journals, and even to post their papers on open electronic archives heavily used by the community. These difficulties make it impossible to air radical ideas, or glaring inconsistencies in experimental or observational data, which challenge the very foundations of mainstream science. This suppression of dissent and challenging new ideas, without examining them carefully for correctness and applicability, prevents progress in human knowledge, and the vast resources expended on science go in vain, merely perpetuating unqualified beliefs and dogmas... The book should be read by everyone working in science, to become acquainted with the anguish that some people feel at the way they have been treated by the scientific establishment...
I think that in many ways, the exclusion of new ideas initially acts well as a safeguard against a mass of incorrect suppositions not backed by evidence. But there are also many other cases where a good deal of evidence has been gathered, which should at least bring these new ideas to a point where they are seriously discussed in an objective manner, but they aren't. So I don't think the argument is cut-and-dried, but there is certainly room for some criticism of over-zealous defenders of the paradigm.
It's interesting to look at how science fiction has evolved over the past 120 years or so. I have wondered whether the increasing complexity of technology and perceived need to break out from oft-repeated story concepts are leading to a marginalisation of science fiction, due to the 'need' to cater to the harshest critics of science fiction, uber-geeks who can understand the concepts involved, at the expense of the general reading public.
The near-tautology of speculating on the future of science fiction is an interesting one, and a couple of weeks ago New Scientist hosted a feature on that very topic:
These days, science can be stranger than science fiction, and mainstream literature is increasingly futuristic and speculative. So are the genre's days numbered? We asked six leading writers for their thoughts on the future of science fiction, including Margaret Atwood, William Gibson and Kim Stanley Robinson.
Plus, we review the latest sci-fi novels, highlight the writers to watch and reveal the results our poll of your all-time favourite sci-fi films and books.
With an introduction by Marcus Chown, the feature is definitely worth checking out if you're at all interested in the genre. Coincidentally, around the same time PBS also ran a feature on how the science fiction pulps are struggling to survive (rather ironically) in the modern world of free content on the Internet.
This year I've been revisiting many of my science fiction favourites of my youth, as I stopped reading fiction for quite a long while. Anybody got good recommendations for some quality 'modern' reads?
The 2008 Singularity Summit was held on October 25th, with a sell-out of 500 attendees watching presentations by the likes of legendary sci-fi author Vernor Vinger, Intel CTO Justin Rattner, inventor and singularity spokesman Ray Kurzweil, and Peter Diamandis, the founder of the Xprize Foundation. For the neophytes out there, the singularity is "the point in mankind’s future when we will transcend current intellectual and biological limitations and initiate an intelligence and information explosion beyond imagining." Most singularity proponents believe that time is within the next few decades. Personally, while I'm fascinated by the content of singularity discussions and think it's excellent to discuss and strive for, I also get a feeling that the singularity sometimes has a rapture-like religious effect on some individuals which clouds clear-thinking to a certain extent.
In any case, Singularity Hub has an excellent, detailed rundown of the event which is worth checking out to get a feel for where the field is at right now - here's the summary of points the writer took away from the day:
1. When people become believers in a near term singularity (a singularity that may come in their lifetimes) they radically change their behavior in terms of risk tolerance, eating habits, and investment horizon. If large numbers of people begin to believe in a near term singularity this poses the possibility of enormous and potentially dangerous upheavals for society.
2. Even if a true singularity is not reached within our lifetimes the singularity summit reinforces the vision that tremendous technological change beyond our imagining is coming in the next 40 years. In the next 5 years an explosion in interest about the singularity and the pace of accelerating technology may occur.
3. According to Ray Kurzweil, solar energy is an information technology that is experiencing exponential growth. Solar energy production has doubled every year for the last 20 years and is now only 8 doublings away (that is about 10 years!) from providing nearly all of the world’s energy needs. The implications of this trend are huge and warrant careful consideration for the environment, investment, politics, etc.
4. Peter Diamandis announced that the Singularity University (SU) will be launched in the near future. The Hub’s Keith Kleiner will be a founding member of SU and we will have much more to say about SU soon!
5. According to Intel CTO Justin Rattner Intel has a solid roadmap that will ensure that Moore’s law will continue for at least another 10 years, by which time computers will be at least 1,000 times more powerful than today’s computers
6. Virtual worlds will continue to gain traction and functionality as people continue to recognize and leverage the unique advantages that these worlds offer versus the physical world.
7. Computers may be able to beat humans at chess and air hockey, but they are still a long way off from emulating human emotion and social behavior. Demonstrations today of the cutting edge in computer emulation of emotion and social ability were downright pitiful. Of course it is possible that we will make big leaps in the coming years, but today’s demonstrations were not encouraging.
For a full rundown on all speakers' presentations, head to Singularity Hub. There are also links to other reports, and images, on the Singularity Summit website (with audio and video from the event coming in December).
After 68 hours in orbit and a space walk, the Chinese astronauts have returned safely, and the mission can be considered a rotund success.
Spacewalker Zhai Zhigang was the first to emerge and was helped to a nearby folding chair, where he was greeted with flowers and applause and said he was "proud of his motherland."
You can view Zhigang's historic space walk here.
2008 has been a year of lights and shadows for China. Good things have happened to them (The Olympic games and this), along with very bad things (toxic-milk scandals, lead-in-toy scandals, floods, earthquakes and the collapse of schools constructed with inadequate materials, political controversy over Tibet, etc). While I'm not one who shies away from criticizing the bad, I nevertheless congratulate the Chinese for this succesful mission, and wish them the best on future endeavours related to the peaceful exploration of space... as long as it stays peaceful.
The latest edition (#6) of Rudy Rucker's "webzine of astonishing tales", Flurb, has been released. Sometimes it's good to unplug and read some good speculative/science fiction (though I'm sure some 'skeptics' might say we do that every day here on TDG) - and it doesn't come much more fun and mind-bending than Flurb (and, of course, it's free).
Here we go again: those of a rationalist bent are getting over-excited about a fictional television series' portrayal of science: Fringe (official website here). IO9 ran with a a sensationalist headline to their interview with the creators of Fringe, sure to provoke supporters of science (read the quote and compare it to the headline). And Popular Mechanics has posted a feature questioning myriad aspects of J.J. Abrams' new show: "From LSD Brain to Dead Autopilot, Fringe Premiere Skirts Reality":
When it comes to fringe science—that occasionally dubious study of mind control, teleportation, invisibility and reanimation—the only true expert might be Dr. Frankenstein. That is, until J.J. Abrams moved beyond the sci-fi-bending universe of Lost—the Large Hadron Collider, time travel and all—and set out to create Fringe, the new X-Files-esque show that debuted last night on Fox. Now, he’s trying to convince the disbelievers that science and technology have advanced to the point where anything is possible.
Personally, I'd imagine J.J. Abrams is trying to entertain, and make a truckload of money in the process. But that's just my opinion: the folks at Popular Mechanics felt moved enough to call in real-world experts in various branches of science to deconstruct the pilot "and separate the science from science fiction". I feel safer already - now I'm just waiting for PM to deconstruct the other 6 days, 23 hours and 100 channels of TV...
Perhaps one of the more controversial elements of the show was the segment in which a drug coctail including LSD and a sensory deprivation tank are used to enable "synaptic transfer" - a shared dream state. Now this was obviously fiction...we all know that they should have been using pure Ketamine, as LSD just doesn't cut it!
On a more sober note, when the article quotes neurologist Dr. Mark Milstein as saying "There is no current science that allows two people to share information directly between their brains, though admittedly, ketamine and LSD—both major hallucinogenic drugs—might make the user think she was sharing someone else’s dreams and memories", they're not really delving too deeply into the 'real' fringe science going on out there. Surely they could have noted the success of the Maimonides Dream Telepathy experiments (see Dream Telepathy - Amazon US and UK), or if they wanted something more modern, this 2003 review in the Journal of Consciousness Studies of subsequent dream-telepathy studies which concluded that "combined effect size estimates for both sets of studies suggest that judges could correctly identify target materials more often than would be expected by chance using dream mentation." Or perhaps this recent Dutch study by Professor Dick Bierman (PDF file) studying the effect of psychedelics on psi (not conclusive, but certainly suggestive)?
At least someone's making some money from the topic of fringe science...
I love science. I love technology. Quite a shock, I know, to all those skeptics who think people like me are "science-haters". My concern with science, is that sometimes it becomes more akin to a religion, rather than the very handy (and in some ways, limited) tool that it is. On the other hand (and, sometimes as a direct result of the foregoing) there are too many people out there who fear (and even hate) science, which is something that I don't really understand.
A recent post on Bad Astronomy might be a worthy case study in how science can be treated like a religion - in particular, how apostates to the accepted dogma are treated. Phil Plait posted a video and short comment on how Professor Brian Cox (quite literally a 'rock star' physicist) had opened "a can of intellectual whoopbutt" (Phil Plait's words) on Sir David King, current President of the British Association for the Advancement of Science, in regards to their short debate on whether the science of the Large Hadron Collider was worth the financial cost of building and running it.
There's a lot to like about Brian Cox (see this TED talk he gave on the LHC for a look at how well he handles himself) - he's the sort of spokesman that can bring science to the masses. But David King is no slouch either, especially in terms of knowledge in this debate - he is an extremely well-qualified scientist, and has extensive experience in liaising with governments on science funding and policy.
In the short video debate posted on BA, King openly conceded the LHC was exciting, and that he was eager to see the results. He called Brian Cox “brilliant”, and wasn’t obnoxious at all - he remained quietly spoken even when Cox kept talking over the top of him. He simply tried to make a point about the allocation of research money - something he’s very familiar with - and whether the theoretical nature of the LHC experiments could justify their expense, considering the numerous imminent threats to humanity that science funding could be directed at helping to solve.
To view the comments at BA though one would think that King had asked for all science funding to be stopped - perhaps inspired by Phil Plait's original statement about Cox opening "a can of whoopbutt" on King. "Always a perverse pleasure to be had from seeing a pompous stuffed shirt get smacked down," says one commenter. "Administrator, meet … excuse me, did your head just come off?" says another. There's a certain 'flock' mentality happening here, with very few asking whether King had something worth discussing. It appears he has been deemed apostate, and therefore shall now be excluded from the congregation.
However, one very good point made in the comments is that the LHC funding is dwarfed by military spending around the globe, and so it is quite daft to say too much is being spent on this project. King though, I think, is maintaining a practical line here - he knows that 'defence' spending is not going to change, and that limited funds are available to science - he is, after all, very experienced in this area. (It's also quite ironic that many of Cox's statements about spin-off technology could equally be applied to military spending.) But it is a point worth keeping in mind when dissing funding of science - it is but a drop in the bucket compared to how much is spent on destructive technology, and so it is an absurdity to take science to task when there are real decisions we could make about advancing humanity rather than continuing to behave like territorial savages. As our good friend Michael Grosso once commented: "The current U.S. military budget is roughly $350 billion, all dedicated to the technology of death. Contrast this with the funds available to do research on the conscious survival of death. Did I hear an amused snicker?"
Note that I am simply discussing the debate at hand here. I am not conversant with David King's thoughts and opinions - I may well have very different views to him in numerous areas. But I do think, in this case, that he is being treated rather unfairly, and that it has arisen from a group 'religious fervour' that has deemed it blasphemy to question (no matter how politely) scientists. I find that worthy of comment. Quite apart from that, it's great to see two top-line scientists discussing this topic in a civil manner on television.
One final note: in supporting Cox, Phil Plait sums up by saying "All science has spinoffs, and sometimes powerful ones. Not only that, we don’t know what they will be in advance (usually) so, guided by our wisdom, it pays to let basic research go wherever the science will lead it." I'm glad to see the new president of the JREF is in support of parapsychology research by the likes of Dean Radin...
Other LHC features worth checking: Alan Boyle reports on the controversial start-up in "Big Bang Sparks Big Reaction". And MSNBC also has Professor Michio Kaku discussing the "nightmares and dreams" surrounding the LHC.
Addendum: Synchronistically, this IO9 story was the next thing I came across this morning...
We all know those crazy scientists are willing to risk it all by starting up the Large Hadron Collider. Play your part in keeping an eye on them, via these live webcam feeds.
Well, a little humour to start the weekend is always good...
Missed this last week when I was struggling with the flu: the latest issue of Antimatters (Volume 2, Issue 3) is now available for reading online. Some of the fresh content includes Ulrich Mohrhoff's article "Evolution of consciousness according to Jean Gebser", Willis Harman's "The scientific exploration of consciousness: towards an adequate epistemology", Frank Joseph's "Synchronicity: the key to destiny", and even an article by me (originally from New Dawn magazine), "The atheist delusion: answering Richard Dawkins" (not sure how it ended up in there?!). Antimatters is devoted to "addressing issues in science and the humanities from non-materialistic perspectives", so there's some excellent reading on the crossover points between science and spirituality. Check it out.
A group of mathematicians and graphic designers have created a series of videos helping to visualise 4-dimensional space. Head to the 'Dimensions' website to access/download/purchase the video tutorials:
Mathematicians, freed in their imaginations from physical constraints, can conjure up descriptions of objects in many more dimensions than that. Points in a plane can be described with pairs of numbers, and points in space can be described with triples. Why not quadruples, or quintuples, or more?
There is the minor difficulty that our nervous systems are only equipped to conjure images in three dimensions. But that doesn’t stop Étienne Ghys of the École Normale Supérieure in Lyon, France, from visualizing the four-dimensional dynamical systems he studies: “I live in dimension four,” he says.
The narration is a bit dry and slow, and the constant rotating geometrics tended to confuse me more than anything (when he says "It's easy, isn't it", I'm tending to reply "Er, no...") But great stuff for bending your brain a little and thinking outside your normal perceptions - see how you go with it. (And I'd love to hear how 'trippers' out there relate to the 3D manifestations of 4D objects...something very "self-transforming" about them).
For old school multi-dimensional thinking, you can always check out Edwin Abbott's brilliant Flatland. And Michio Kaku's Hyperspace (Amazon US and UK) has a nice little summary of how extra-dimensional thinking fascinated early 20th century society - he quotes Linda Dalrymple Henderson as saying "[T]he fourth dimension had become almost a household word by 1910...Ranging from an ideal Platonic or Kantian reality - or even Heaven - the answer to all of the problems puzzling contemporary science, the fourth dimension could be all things to all people."