Why I Haven’t Been Writing Lately

Hi guys,

I am really sorry I haven’t been writing at all in the last months. I am afraid this tendency is very likely to continue in the near future. There are several reasons for this. The first one is exhaustion: when I get home in the afternoons I am so tired I cannot start to write. However, the main reason I’ve been off blogging is that I have been otherwise occupied.

What comes now is somewhat technical so sorry if it makes no sense to you. Maybe this is just me clearing my thoughts.

During Christmas I had this idea concerning limits on information processing capacity. I instantly thought of black holes, as they impose a limit on storage capacity given by the surface of their event horizon. Then I realised that the limit on information storage is not given by the surface, but by 1/4th of the surface. That is, the information stored in a black hole is proportional to the are of the circle you would get if you flattened it out.

And this made me think. For some years now I have had this idea going around in my head: without interaction with the Higgs boson, most, if not all of elementary particles (therefore I am not counting protons and the like) would be massless. Zero mass means their speed is equal to the speed of light.

That is: in reality, all particles are really moving at the speed of light and none at less. This means that the “natural” way to look at the universe is from the point of view of a particle that is moving at the speed of light.

However, that cannot be done. When you try, you find out that every particle that is moving towards you has infinite mass and, well, things just break down. Which suggests that using Lorentz transforms straight with classical particles does not work. Well, it does not “suggest” it: it is a known fact that you are not allowed to do that. One thing you do find out, nevertheless, is that space flattens out: that is, one of the dimensions disappears. A black hole turns into a pancake.

Isn’t that curious? It seems like looking at things from the perspective of a photon gives us the right answer for the amount of information in a black hole: the area of its flattened surface.

So I decided to pursue this line of reasoning. But my theoretical physics is a little rusty, so I have had to refresh my QFT. Doing things in a rough, classical way proved to be hopeless, which is not surprising since:

a) QFT works and classical mechanics doesn’t.

b) QFT gives less nonsensical answers to looking at particles from a system that moves at the speed of light.

QFT is not my favourite theory in the world, but so far it’s the only one that works, so I have been forcing myself to re-learn it (it was a long while ago that I quit my PhD in high energy physics). So I’m basically spending all my afternoons going through the book that elkement recommended and doing the problems and so on. So far it’s been kind of fun. When I’m done I guess I’ll go into “QFT in a nutshell” and the other one I forgot and then I’ll review Kip Thorne’s Gravitation, which is a lot of fun. And then I’ll get started with string theory maybe.

I have also been working on finding an information-based treatment of space-time, so that I can get rid of scale invariance (space looks the same at all scales) and also re-write the equations of QFT in a format that only makes reference to information. Since everyone is pretty convinced space and time are not fundamental but arise from interactions, it stands to reason that a space-time-independent formulation of QFT will help to solve the issue.

So far I have been successful in going to dimension to information (with the drawback of having to choose a scale s, like in renormalization) and the next step is to reformulate differential calculus in an information-pure language so that I can then reformulate geometry and the basic equations of QFT and hopefully GR.

And that’s the memo.

In a nutshell: sorry guys, I’ll be gone for a while. Maybe six months, maybe more. However, it is possible that when I’m finally back I’ll have something really awesome to share. Though the probability is quite low (in general, the ratio of people who make a breakthrough to the people who merely try is pretty small. Also, the ratio of aficionados who make a breakthrough to aficionados who try is even smaller.)

Oh, one more thing: on the Hawking black hole thingy. Yes, there are black holes. All he’s saying is that, given enough time, they evaporate (which we already knew) and they leave no remnant (which is open to debate: Lubos Motl doesn’t agree, for example.) If they leave no remnant then eventually everything comes out, so nothing really stays in the black hole. Since the definition of black hole is that things cannot escape from it, in this sense there are no black holes. However, if you think of a black hole as something that will suck you in, turn you into pulp and only let you escape billions of years later as radiation mesh, then there are black holes.

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Why Most Bloggers Are Actually Software (Including Me)

Disclaimer: don’t take this post too seriously. It’s a playful bike digression.

The other day I was on my bike and decided to forego all safety and embark upon a journey of philosophical investigation. The idea was to find out how far I could take the idea that I am a common observer in the universe. That is: out of the (relatively uncommon) observers in the universe, if there is such a thing, I am an average one.

Human brain

An average human brain (Photo credit: EUSKALANATO)

The first thing I came up with was: if I am a common observer, I should live in the most likely time period. That is, the time period with the largest amount of humans. Being a human in the present is much more likely than being a human at any time in the past (we are way, way more people), so that seemed to agree with observations. However, that brought about a disquieting thought: the fact that I am alive now and not in the future means, again assuming I am an average observer, that humans are more common now that in the future. That is, things aren’t looking up, guys. This could be because humans merge into something like eGod or because we get wiped out by:

  • Stupidity
  • Incompetence
  • Machines
  • Meteorites
  • Climate change
  • Killer cockroaches
  • Justin Bieber

But then I kept on thinking and I realized I am not a very common observer. I have a physics degree and a blog; I have also published a book. This puts me in a relatively uncommon portion of the population. There’s more: I was not counting animals, but why shouldn’t I? Animals are also observers. They are in all likelihood conscious, at least mammals. So in this sense I am extremely uncommon: I am a very special type of mammal with a moderately unlikely trait distribution.

There could be several explanations for

Survivor :: clouds not photoshopped [explored =) ]

The future’s looking bright (Photo credit: Nhoj Leunamme == Jhon Emmanuel)

this (again, assuming I am an average observer.) The first one is that animals are not observers and that, despite my relative uncommonness, I am still well within the statistically explainable margin for a human. The other is that, somehow, humans with my characteristics are much more common than it appears. But why would that be?

So I started thinking about possible reasons for that and came up with this: what if, in the future, the humans/machines/super-intelligent cockroaches there is decide to start simulating past humans? Would they just simulate any random human? Probably not.

Now, if I was a human/machine/demigod with a huge computer and I was asked to build a human, here’s what I would do: I would build a huge neural network and train it to give the same responses as a certain person from the past. For that, I would need a lot of information on that person: the more data, the more accurate the simulation. For example, if someone wanted to simulate me, they would need a software brain capable of coming up with this blog post. You see where I’m going with this, right?

What I’m trying to say is that the machines/overlords/whatever would only simulate humans they had substantial amounts of data for. What humans would those be? Well, people with a digital trail mostly. Bloggers, journalists, facebook addicts. Maybe famous people with well documented lives and published works they could draw on.

So is it possible for me to be an average observer? Yes, if I am a simulated one.

Summarizing: I’m either not average and quite lucky/unlucky or I am a simulation reconstructed from blog posts and other media.

Want immortality? Start a blog.

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Why the Many-Worlds Interpretation Makes Time Travel Possible

I’ve been obsessed with time travel since I watched “Back to the Future” and possibly before that. To a curious mind, not being able to go back to, say, the time of the dinosaurs and actually see them is incredibly frustrating. Despite my fascination and probably everyone else’s, time travel wasn’t seriously entertained as a possibility until the early twentieth century, when our new theories about space-time seemed to allow a new batch of crazy possibilities.

Emmett Brown

Unfortunately, having crazy hair and talking very fast doesn’t make you smart.

The whole “serious science” talk about time travel got started with General Relativity. To be more precise, with Special Relativity it already became demonstrably true that time travel is possible, though only to the future: if you travel at close to the speed of light, you will age less than the people around you and thus will be able to see the future. Unfortunately, you may not be able to go back, which makes the whole thing a lot less attractive.

The idea of backwards time travel, however, turned out to be lot more problematic. In this case and despite what Doc Brown said in Back to the Future, it’s not enough to travel at 88 mph on a Delorean to disappear into the past. However, General Relativity does provide us a way to go back: since space-time is curved, one can imagine different regions of space-time located at different being connected by “bridges,” which are normally referred to as wormholes.

Time travel hypothesis ; using wormholes.

Time travel hypothesis ; using wormholes. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

So yes, General Relativity allows for time travel, apparently. But combining Relativity with Quantum Mechanics does not. In 1993, Matt Visser proved that the only method for keeping the two mouths of a wormhole open (feeding it exotic matter) will either collapse the wormhole or make the mouths repel. So there went most people’s hopes for time travel, including mine.

Of course, there were already some of very powerful arguments already against the possibility of time travel, of which I will mention a couple. The first is by Stephen Hawking, who uses a modified version of the Fermi Paradox: he argues that the fact that we’re not seeing any travellers from the future means time travel is not possible: otherwise, the place would be packed with people from other epochs! The second is the classic grandfather paradox: if you could go back to the past you could kill your grandfather and thus never be born, which is impossible since you have been born.

English: Stephen Hawking during the press conf...

Stephen Hawking after destroying my childhood dream. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

You will be amazed, then, to hear that my recipe for time travel solves all of these technical hurdles and skilfully avoids all the paradoxes. It just requires a huge amount of one single thing: luck.

Here’s the idea. There is a non-zero probability that, for example, a pink elephant materializes in the middle of your room. The chances are slim, admittedly, but they are there. Not only that: if you believe in the Many-Worlds Interpretation, then in fact one such elephant has materialized in your room in some parallel universe you’ll never get to see, since you’d need a humongous amount of luck.

Now, that elephant could also have materialized at the time of Julius Caesar’s assassination, for example. In fact, the MWI tells us that one of them did, though sadly we are not in that branch of time, so we don’t get to hear about how Caesar got flattened by a huge pachyderm. And where I say “elephant” I could also say “you:” there is a non-zero chance of you having materialized during Caesar’s murder. This means that you have actually materialized, but you will never get to experience that because it would require a huge amount of on thing: yes, luck.

English: Pink Elephant No, it's not a festive ...

Yup, Caesar was murdered by this in a parallel universe. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The main idea is that nothing (except for overwhelming odds) prevents you from disappearing here and magically appearing in the past, thus feeling the continuity a time traveller would feel. Hence, no wormhole is required and therefore we just don’t care what happens to wormholes. So there, Matt Visser.

How does this theory avoid both the grandfather and Hawking’s pseudo-Fermi paradoxes? Well, here’s the thing: in this scenario, it doesn’t matter if you kill your grandpa. In fact, you can kill all of your family for all I care. All this means is there will be a bunch of universes where you will never be born. In fact, there has really been no change: the possibility of your magically appearing and killing a lot of people was there from the start. You haven’t affected the universe in any way.

So why isn’t our planet full of visitors from the future? Simple: since there are a myriad of presents, the odds of a visitor from the future landing in ours are astronomically small. In fact, they become astronomically small because of the fact that the probability of someone appearing out of nowhere is very, very close to zero. Remember, it’s the same as for the pink elephant.

Summarizing:

  • Time travel is possible.
  • You will never experience it unless you’re very, very lucky.
  • There is actually no travelling involved, since it is already hard-wired into the make-up of our universe.
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A Physics Challenge: Explain Pauli’s Exclusion Principle

I was recently teaching a grade 12 physics class and had to explain why only two electrons can be in the same orbital. My explanation went a bit like this (follow the links for explanations of the concepts):

Diagram showing the possible spin angular mome...

Diagram showing the possible spin angular momentum values for 1/2 spin particles (for example, electrons) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Electrons are spin-1/2 particles. Particles with half-integer spin are called Fermions. Fermions have a really strange property: no two fermions can be in the same quantum state. Because of this, we can only have two electrons in the same energy level: one with its angular momentum pointing down (you can imagine it spinning clock-wise on itself) and one with its angular momentum pointing up (or spinning counter-clock-wise). After that, you’re out of options: the next electron has to be in a different energy level, since electrons are only allowed two possible directions of spin

.

The question that followed left me at a loss for words:

Why can’t two fermions occupy the same quantum state?

The physicists amongst you will have an answer ready: because of Pauli’s exclusion principle. For those of you who never heard about it, Pauli’s exclusion principle says that no two fermions can be in the same quantum state.

However, as an explanation this is not great. Basically what we are saying is: “no two fermions can be in the same quantum state because there is a principle that says that no two fermions can be in the same quantum state.”

Again, the physicists amongst you may have another answer ready: Pauli’s exclusion principle is, after all, a consequence of the spin-statistics theorem. What happens is that particles with a half-integer spin must have an antisymmetric wavefunction. This means that, if we exchange any two particles, the sign of the wavefunction must invert.

English: Asymmetric wavefunction for a (fermio...

English: Asymmetric wavefunction for a (fermionic) 2-particle state in an infinite square well potential. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who are not physicists, this is harder to explain. The idea is that the probability of finding a certain particle in a certain state is given by this mathematical monster called the wavefunction. We calculate probabilities by taking its square (not exactly, but close enough.) A wavefunction can describe not only one particle, but several. In fact, in quantum field theory we don’t talk about particles but fields and the particle number can oscillate. When our wavefunction is antisymmetrical, it means that, by exchanging any two particles, we get a minus sign. That is:

Wavefunction (electron 1 in state 1, electron 2 in state 2) = -Wavefunction (electron 1 in state 2, electron 2 in state 1)

Now, what happens if two electrons are in the same state? Then we have:

Wavefunction (electron 1 in state 1, electron 2 in state 1) = – Wavefunction (electron 1 in state 1, electron 2 in state 1)

However, electrons are indistinguishable particles, so electron 1 = electron 2. Therefore, we have:

Wavefunction (electron 1 in state 1, electron 1 in state 1) = – Wavefunction (electron 1 in state 1, electron 1 in state 1)

There is only one number that’s equal to its inverse: zero! This means that the wave function for two fermions in the same state has to be zero. Since the wave function is the square root of the probability, we have that the probability of finding two fermions in the same state is zero. Therefore, no two fermions can be in the same state.

However, we still haven’t explained anything. Because the next question is:

OK, but why does the wavefunction of a fermion have to be antisymmectric?

And here I have to say I’m stumped. Yes, I know how to derive this mathematically from Dirac’s equation, but I have no idea how to explain it in any mildly intuitive way. I have also been looking online for an easy-to-understand explanation and found absolutely nothing.

Hence, I want to propose a challenge for my physicist readers: can you come up with an intuitive, math-free way of explaining Pauli’s exclusion principle?

I can’t offer a prize, but I can offer my undying gratitude and a link to you in my next (and this) article.

Also, you will have contributed to enlightening a very curious 18-year-old.

That’s gotta be worth something.

Here’s a new take on the issue from my new blog.

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A Crash Course on Dark Matter

Have you ever wondered how we can calculate the mass of the Sun? We of course can’t go there and put it on a scale. So how on Earth do we find out?

The answer lies in Newton’s law of gravitation. According to it, the more mass an object has, the more it pulls others around it; the farther these are, the weaker the pull. If we want to know the Sun’s mass, then, all we need to find out is the force it exerts on some planet of known mass.

Now, how do we find that force? This part is a little trickier, but it can be explained using an example from everyday life. Have you ever spun a yoyo around? If you have, you’ll have realized that the faster it spins, the more force you need to do to keep it from flying off. In fact, there is a precise mathematical formula that relates the force to the speed, so that if you know one, you can find out the other.sun

So how do we find the mass of the Sun? We measure the speed at which some planet is spinning around it and use that to find the force binding both; from that, we calculate the mass of our star. Ta-dah!

This extremely simple technique can be put to good use for calculating other stuff besides the mass of the Sun. For example, we know the distance between the Sun and the center of our galaxy and we know how fast we are moving around it. Knowing this, we can estimate the total mass of our galaxy.

Of course, that is not the only way. Another possibility is to just count the amount of stars we see and multiply that number by the average mass of a star.

What’s funny is that, if you use both methods and then compare, you get different results. But not just a little different: you find out that, if you just count stars, your estimate is wrong by 100%!

English: The contents of the Universe as measu...

English: The contents of the Universe as measured with WMAP and computed by NASA/WMAP Science team. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Physicists, however, being the resourceful creatures they are, are not daunted by this. Instead, they put their analytical minds to work and start deducing what they can from the information they have. For example:

  • There must be some kind of particle we’re not seeing.
  • This particle has mass, since it pulls things gravitationally.
  • This particle does not interact with light or we’d be seeing some trace of it. No interaction with light means no electromagnetic interaction.
  • This particle must be absolutely everywhere and distributed relatively evenly. Otherwise we’d see unexplained movements towards “hot spots” instead of a general increase in the gravitational pull.

These new theorized particles cannot be seen and therefore are “dark.” Hence the name “dark matter.”

The idea of dark matter was first suggested 80 years ago by Jan Oort, but things didn’t advance much until recently, when people started building detectors hoping to catch one of these critters in the act. In the last 20 years these have sprouted like mushrooms: we have DAMA/LIBRA from Italy, CoGeNT, CDMS, Xenon-10, Xenon-100 and CREST. The last player in the game is LUX, who is the protagonist of today’s story.

But a little background first.

Dark matter detection is a relatively straightforward matter (no pun intended): even though dark matter particles are not subject to the electromagnetic interaction, they are still capable of hitting a nucleus and making it recoil. The idea, then, is simple: get a bunch of atoms, wait for one of them to be hit by something you can’t readily explain, count the occurrences and be done. Of course, in reality things are never that simple, since there are many sources of noise, so that separating actual recoils from random sources is more than a little hard.

However, it so happens that, since more than 10 years ago, DAMA/LIBRA has been observing a yearly fluctuation in their number of recoils. Their explanation for it is that they have detected a dark matter particle with a mass around 10 GeV. When they announced this, of course, nobody believed them. That is, until CoGeNT, which had a much smaller background noise, detected exactly the same. After that, people started getting excited: did we finally get a glimpse of the elusive dark matter particle?

English: CDMS (cryogenic dark matter search) p...

English: CDMS (cryogenic dark matter search) parameter space exclusion of DAMA result represented in green parameter space. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It turns out that no, we didn’t. LUX, a state-of-the-art detector in the US, just released a paper that completely eradicates any possibility that what DAMA and CoGeNT observed is actually a dark matter signal. The result is we’re more confused than ever, since nobody seems to have a clue about what’s causing the yearly fluctuation, but it’s certainly not dark matter.

That’s physics: new data comes in, people get excited and, at the end, the most boring scenario is usually the case. Surprises are few and far between but, when they come, are they worth it.

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Some Useful and Useless Advice on Getting an Audience for your Blog

I started a blog because I wanted to showcase my writing. You see, three years ago I wrote this really weird book that was half-way between a novel, a popularization book and a collection of interviews. I then gave it to an agent, who loved it. Then this agent gave it to a professional reader, who loved it. Just in case, they passed it on to a different reader, who also loved it. So we were all really excited.

It turns out my book still hasn’t been published, despite all the positive feedback. One of the reasons is that publishing anything in Spain is pretty much a suicide mission, since people don’t read. Another reason is that editors won’t risk their money on anything they don’t have a reasonable chance of monetizing. I am a John Doe and, as such, my book does not promote itself. The last and most fun of all reasons is that my book does not fit any category and, therefore, there’s no collection to publish it on.

See? You should strive for originality, but not too much.

So I decided to start a blog, thinking: maybe if I build an audience that is large enough, publishing houses won’t have a problem betting on me, since the advertisement will be done for them. I decided to write it in English because I was pretty confident the audience for the kind of stuff I’m interested in is next to inexistent in Spanish.

At the beginning I had no idea about how to build an audience, so I looked up stuff online. I found heaps of advice that bordered on the useless. For example: “get a Facebook page, so that your Facebook fans will visit your blog.” Funnily enough, if you looked for advice on getting Facebook fans, people would say: “get a blog, so that your readers visit your Facebook page.”

The whole thing seemed a little bit circular.

Then I found other brilliant suggestions, such as: “comment on other blogs.” But the thing is, if I go and comment on other blogs (whether I like them or not) so that people will comment on mine, this is a disaster from a time-investment point of view. Let’s say reading a blog post takes me 5 minutes, including commenting (which is a pretty low estimate). If I want 200 people to visit my blog each day, according to this strategy I’d have to spend 1,000 minutes (16 hours) commenting.

So my advice would be: comment on whatever blogs it is you like to read, but don’t do it as an investment. It just doesn’t pay off.

My favorite piece of advice, though, was this one: “write quality content.”

You don’t say.

First, I’d like to point out most bloggers in the planet, including the really crappy ones, believe they write quality content. Even the crazy people who leave 2-page long comments in my blog with their theory of life and death think they are writing quality content.

Secondly, writing quality content will get you nowhere. Writing shareable content, on the other hand, will. Images, quotes, short jokes. This has nothing to do with quality, but with virality. However, if you’re trying to set yourself up as a writer, this is a really poor strategy, since it does not serve to showcase your skill.

After almost a year in this blogging business and still not having a large audience by any measurable standards, I have arrived at several conclusions about what would actually work. Unfortunately, I do not possess the necessary personality traits to pull any of these strategies off. Anyway, here they go.

I’d say that, first, you need to be proactive in your social relationships. Try to befriend successful bloggers and get them to guest-post on your site or vice-versa. Shamelessly self-promote by going on twitter and asking others to retweet you. The basic idea is: act as if you were a door-to-door salesman, but online.

Of course, most people would feel extremely uncomfortable doing something like this. If you, like me, would rather set your arm on fire than attempt this kind of social engineering, your options are greatly reduced.

Another successful strategy is having a blog with a topic that people feel passionate about and thus will very likely share. Communities such as the atheist one are a perfect example, since they are extremely active and even have their own Reddit channel. Some of my most successful posts were about atheism.

Posts that go like “10 reasons you should…” are also really successful. The whole of cracked.com is based on those and boy do they have an audience. I am guilty of browsing that site myself more than I’d like to admit. I could have turned this post into one of those, but I decided it restricted what I wanted to say, so I went for a 2-pages long essay that few people will bother to read instead. That’s my PR brain right there.

What I have found the most useful personally is having posts that will attract people from search engines. My most successful post ever is “The future of porn: a disturbing possibility.” Why? Because lots (lots!) of people google “disturbing porn.” I am not making this up: this post has more visits than all my other ones combined. This, however, is not very good advice, since there is no a priori way of knowing what people will google and, even if there was, I wouldn’t bother to use it.

So what if you are the kind of person that, like me, wouldn’t be caught dead working as a salesman, tends towards shyness even online, is afraid of rejection and has no idea how to create memes that go viral?

Here’s my honest advice: hire a professional.

Seriously. If you don’t, you are going to spend hours of your time promoting your blog, only to get meager results. You will spend time and energy that you could have used for writing in much less productive endeavors that will suck your soul. Professionals and advertisement will get you a much better return for your money/time in a much shorter period. It’s their job: they know how to do this. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel. Let the pros handle it.

It may seem a little weird that I’m telling people to hire a PR professional but don’t do this myself. However, the only reason I don’t is that I am aware that my content, lately, is not up to standard, be it because I’m tired or because I have no spare time. So it seems pointless to promote when I have nothing worth promoting.

I hope this was useful or, at least, refreshing. If you’re a regular, you’ll have gotten to know a little more about me and my vain aspirations. If you’re starting off, this may serve to shed a bit of light on the whole “15 great ways to get readers” articles that plague the Internet. And heck, I could be wrong. I am probably wrong. Maybe you know a great way to get an audience that involves no virality and self-promotion. But, if that was the case, you probably wouldn’t want to tell me!

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The Phone Zombies

I have heard many people complain about the phone zombies. I’m sure you’ve seen them too: they populate subway wagons and cafeterias, staring dumbly at their screens instead of focusing on the world around them. They detach themselves from reality and instead devote their attention to their virtual, meaningless lives, to which they remain always connected, foregoing real human contact, literature or thought.

Gone are the days when people actually read in the subway. Or contemplated. Or stared at the other passengers while considering the great truths of the human race.

English: Dan Brown, bookjacket image.

God Bless You, Dan Brown. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The thing is, I really don’t remember those days. Back when there were no phones to stare at, I remember people sleeping or staring blankly at infinity. Some others looked positively sad. I even have a vivid memory of a guy with a knife that liked to poke holes on the subway wall while singing and clapping loudly. Yes, some commuters would do crossword puzzles and, yes, some would read, though probably not Nietzsche but Dan Brown or whatever the equivalent was back then.

I don’t really mind the phone zombies. In fact, I think they only look like zombies. To be more precise, I think some of them are zombies, but not because of their phone. You see, people who don’t like thinking or reading don’t need any excuse to not do any of those things. They just don’t do them. Listening at the noise of the rails is distraction enough. People who like thinking or reading or contemplating the great truths of human existence will most likely use technology in order to further these passions and, even though they will seem to be lost in their screens, they will be doing something productive.

For example, I like to read my flipboard and my feed.ly when I am on the tram. I get updated on science and technology issues and, sometimes, I check the news. I probably look like I’m a babbling idiot, but that’s because my brain is engaged in highly demanding cognitive processes that deviate my brain’s attention from trying to look cool while I read.

Subrata Ganguly, a thirty six years old lady u...

Subrata Ganguly, a thirty six years old lady using her Nokia 1100 cell phone. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I have also noticed that many people actually read on their phones. Sometimes, incredibly heavy stuff. Before technology boomed, you could not read “In search of lost time” in the subway. It just didn’t fit in your handbag or your pocket or whatever it is you had. You had to stick with light-weight works, which were the only ones that were easy to transport. But now you don’t even have to carry any extra stuff with you: you turn on your phone, go to Google Books and start reading “A tale of two cities” for free. And boy, isn’t that wonderful.

What I want to say is that I don’t think technology is making is dumber. We may look dumber, but have you ever looked at someone who’s watching TV? Yes, not the prettiest sight in the world. It’s just the relaxed face muscles. Technology cannot make you dumber or smarter: you are dumb or smart and it is this characteristic that’s going to determine how you use technology. You can use Coursera to learn Quantum Computing or you can post comments on youtube saying “ur hot” to 15-year old girls. But technology is not making you do these things. Your brain wiring is.

That said, I do feel there has been a shift in the weight that new generations put on cognitive abilities, but that has happened before. Before the printing press, people memorized books. This may seem like an amazing achievement to us, but it was relatively routine back then. Right now, no sane person would even try. But why would we? We have books. We don’t have to memorize them. The information is there, readily accessible: we have outsourced the need.

This outsourcing trend is continuing to a much higher degree now. We can check any fact we want in our phones in less than 30 seconds. Why would we bother to memorize any dates? Today we need to be good at browsing and filtering information, not at retaining it. We have machines that do this for us. Of course, a person may look dumber since, without their phone, they seem to possess a lot less knowledge than a person from 30 years ago. However, if we could bring someone from back then here and give them a phone, their global man-machine performance would in all likelihood be lower than that of a man-machine set today. That is: we have adapted to our new tools, so much so that our intelligence cannot be measured without taking them into account. Our gadgets work as extensions of our psyches.

Have we become dumber? I don’t think so. Separate from our extensions, maybe. With them, there is no contest. Consider this: I teach a 16-year-old who knows more about cutting-edge science and technology than I do. How? Reddit and an interest in the subject. This was unthinkable when I was his age: the information just wasn’t available. Now it is, for anyone who wants to have it.

Is it any wonder we spend hours glued to our screens?

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Introducing Psychohacking

Not long ago, Johannes introduced me to a website called Medium, which aims to raise the level of the debate by promoting the kinds of thoughtful posts that don’t get easily shared elsewhere. I thought it was a great idea and checked it out immediately: I was impressed. It is beautifully designed and easy to read. Even though, for the moment, the wealth of content is relatively poor (not many people know about it yet) it looks like the kind of platform many of us have been dreaming of.

I therefore decided to publish my latest article, Introducing Psychohacking, there. I did it to experiment, partly, and because there is a feature that I find extremely interesting: it is possible to add comments to single paragraphs. This makes the debate much more fluid and contextualized and allows people to leave their thoughts as they read. I just wish WordPress had something like that.

Anyway, there it is: feel free to check out the article or, at least, the website. It is truly amazing in design and concept.

Oh, I also created another website (yes, I’m a little hyperactive!) at www.psychohacking.com. However, I have no intention of ever updating it: the idea is to create a community and let it take care of everything. Probably it will never bear fruit, but domain names are cheap and I already have decent hosting. So I gave it a try.

On an unrelated note, I hope I can post more regularly, though I promise nothing. Some days I am so exhausted I can barely read, let alone write something coherent. I hope this exhaustion wears off eventually.

All the best,

David

Bohemian Gravity: Physics Is Phun

So, I miscalculated again. It turns out I’m working so hard I don’t really have time to write every day. Add to that the fact that I have some friends visiting in 3 days and you have a recipe for disaster. Maybe I’ll have to revisit my blogging frequency.

I had a little time on my hands, though, and thought I’d share this thing I found online some days ago. Whether you’re a physicist or a fan of Bohemian rhapsody, you’ll probably enjoy it. It’s not much, but it did make my day. Enjoy!
By the way, if you understand anything at all thanks to the articles in this blog I’ll consider myself a happy guy.

How to Spot Pseudo-Science

Most of the really interesting stuff in this blog happens in the comments section. Not only do I get to read extremely insightful thoughts from people who are wiser than I, but I also get to find out about people’s reactions to what I write, as well as a lot of other completely unrelated stuff.

Something that has come up repeatedly is the question: “I have just seen this guy who claims X. Is this reliable?” That is: how can I tell science from pseudo-science?

By Shang

By Shang

This is a short guide to help you determine exactly this. Instead of a long discussion, I’ll try to make this into bullet points, so that it stays entertaining and easy to browse.

  1. Can they spell? Seriously. When the authors cannot spell their own name, their take on whatever scientific matter they’re tackling is suspect. This also goes for the name of famous scientists: “Feynmann” or “Eintsein” may be real people, but they have nothing to do with physics.
  2. Where did you read this? I understand it is unrealistic to expect non-scientists to read scientific magazines. But, for example, anything from “The Epoch Times” can almost immediately be dismissed as bogus. Did the New York Times say anything about this too? That’s a good sign. No major newspaper mentioned the news? Well, there’s probably a reason for that.
  3. Is it referenced? Always look for a link to an article: that usually means something (though it can be faked, as many “scientific” magazines will publish pretty much anything.) Anyway, a reference to a research paper should count as points up.
  4. How huge is the finding? If it’s huge, you can be 99.9% sure it’s not true. Huge discoveries happen rarely: that’s why they are huge. And, when they do, scientists are usually cautious about it and present it in a way that sounds less than what it is. For example, we now have several indications that we’ve found Dark Matter, but you still haven’t seen “Dark Matter found” anywhere. That’s because we need more data and no serious scientist is going to make a proclamation until the evidence has mounted up.
  5. Does it talk about “media suppression” or “conspiracies”? Dismiss it immediately. I don’t have to explain why.
  6. Does it prove some widely-accepted theory to be wrong? Dismiss it immediately. This does not mean widely-accepted theories cannot be wrong. But, if we were to discard relativity, we’d need a huge amount of evidence and doubts would be slowly mounting up. This would never happen in a day.
  7. Does it claim to have solved the world’s energy problems? Bogus. When this happens, you’ll know. It will be everywhere.
  8. Does it talk about energy and forces in a vague way? Dismiss. Energy and force are precisely defined scientific concepts that have absolutely nothing to do with, well, other stuff.
  9. Does it make value judgments? Dismiss. Scientific articles do not judge: they just present data and conclusions in the most neutral way possible. There may be a few exceptions, but better safe than sorry.
  10. Does it rely on ancient or esoteric knowledge? Remember the bubonic plague? Its treatment was based on ancient knowledge. Knowledge gets replaced as we learn: that is the whole point of the scientific method. Something being ancient does not equate to it being good. This doesn’t mean ancient stuff cannot work, but if it does it’s not because it’s ancient, just because it’s effective. “Ancientness” is not a valid argument. Ancient wisdom also says that the Earth is at the center of the universe and that everything is made of 5 elements.
  11. Is it “all natural”? Funny how that works. Smoking a joint: natural or artificial? One would say quite a lot of human labor has gone into it. In fact, anything produced by us is by definition artificial. That said, crap is natural and still we don’t eat it. Not everything natural is good; not everything artificial is bad. “Naturalness” should not be equated to health. That said, this doesn’t mean some products currently in the market do not carry a huge amount of substances the benefits of which for your health are anything but clear. But that is another discussion and I’m unfortunately not an expert.
  12. Are the claimants making any money if people believe them? That, of course, could apply to scientists that makes any discovery (they may get a better position or tenure) but we’re talking about different money scales. If there is a substantial economic interest behind a claim, you should be at least suspicious.
  13. Wikipedia is your friend. Every time I’m not sure about something, I go to Wikipedia and straight to the “criticisms” section. It is readily apparent whether the criticisms make sense.
  14. Ask Google. Google “Claim X reliable” and you’ll find thousands of posts in forums and the like. For example, some months ago a read something in the Epoch Times about crystals in the desert that could only be produced by atomic bombs but were thousands of years old (therefore aliens). It took me 20 seconds to find alternative explanations that did not involve little green men. Since then I’ve been paying attention every time a piece of news from that site shows in my Flipboard and I’ve learnt to quarantine anything they say.

And, to end up, a couple of articles that expand on the subject:

http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4037

http://imgur.com/gallery/EWI1zPT (you may not agree with everything, but it’s still funny)

And here’s a link to a site that allows you to get a doctor’s degree in science in about 20 seconds! http://thunderwoodcollege.com/

Enjoy.

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