Thoughts about cosmic expansion (or the lack thereof)

supernovae

I grew up with the notion that our universe was either going to slow its expansion enough to re-collapse, or was going to slow but never quite stop expanding—asymptotically approaching zero growth—or that it would continue to expand, slowing down over time but never quite reaching zero growth.  Though it was perfectly clear to me that, barring some extremely improbable events, there was no way I was going to be alive to know for certain which was right, it was nevertheless a question that I found deeply gripping…much more so than any politics short of the fear of World War III, and probably more important to me even than that.

Of course, the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991 came as a terrific surprise, something that I never would have even considered possible in my younger days (I was 21 when it happened…still pretty darn young, come to think of it).  Nevertheless, though this stopped me from being quite so convinced about the inevitability of nuclear Armageddon, it didn’t really hit me emotionally.  It was just a big surprise.

In 1998, though, when I heard about the supernova evidence of the increasing rate of cosmic expansion—now called dark energy, consistent with some version of Einstein’s previously discarded idea of the cosmological constant—I was excited beyond anything I can recall feeling before or since that wasn’t a literal milestone in my own life.  Seriously.  And when you get right down to it, the only personal milestones that beat it were my marriage and the birth of each of my two children.  Graduating med school didn’t even come close.  This was the most exciting and unexpected thing I’d yet learned, as a discovery in science…new, deep information about the nature and fate of the very universe itself.

Part of my excitement was surely due to the fact that I was learning it literally at the same time as everyone else.  But I’ve always loved cosmology, all the way at least back to when I got Cosmos (the book) as a birthday present when I was ten or eleven and was as happy with it as any other present I can recall having received.  To understand the structure and workings of the universe is just remarkable.  It makes me feel, in just a small way (if that’s not contradictory) that the whole universe is within me.

And of course, as I said, learning about accelerating universal expansion and all the subsequent, related cosmological information, including details of the CMB and its mapping, all that wonderful stuff, was just an incredible adventure.

Now, recently, a paper has come out positing that the conclusions about increasing cosmic expansion might have been premature.  Of course, there’s a lot of push-back against that, which makes sense, but the points made are apparently not unreasonable or outrageous.

On hearing this, I had to ask myself what I would think if it turned out that dark energy were incorrect.  It doesn’t seem terribly likely that dark energy will fall completely, since it jibes with a great many other things as a general part of our picture of the universe, but I could be wrong.  As I thought about it, though, I realized that, if dark energy turns out to need revising, I think I’d be nearly as excited as I was when I heard about it in the first place.  Because whatever the truth is, it is, no matter what we want it to be.  Learning where you’re wrong is the surest step in figuring out the truth…and learning what the actual rules are to the game in which we live is surely just about the coolest thing we can do.

Compared to that, even playing the game—by which I mean, living one’s life from day to day, and from birth to death—seems only a distant second.

A journal of negative scientific results?

This is me thinking about some of the drawbacks of the “file drawer effect” in scientific publication, and brainstorming at least one, probably unworkable, measure against it.

Apologies if I sound like I’m drunk…I’m not.  I just had a toothache at the time and it was affecting my speech.

Here’s a link to “The Infinite Monkey Cage”*


*I can’t recall the specific episode to which I refer in my discussion, for which I apologize.

Natural Selection Is Not Goal-Oriented [This is me, “triggered”]

This is a recording I did Monday morning, January 13, 2020, after listening to a podcast and thinking back to an interaction on Facebook dealing with evolution (and an apparent misunderstanding of its character).  It’s a bit longer than some recent recordings.  It may be a bit meandering, since it was firmly “off-the-cuff”, but hopefully it’s interesting enough to hold your attention for about twenty minutes.


Here’s a link to Stephen Jay Gould’s book, Full House, which I mention in my recording.

Here’s a link to Richard Dawkins’s The Blind Watchmaker, a terrific primer on the basics of evolution.

And here’s a link to Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene, a groundbreaking explanation of the “gene’s eye view” of evolution by natural selection, and in which he also coined the term “meme”.

 

Deep(ish) thoughts on the necessity of suffering and “political scientism”

Here it is.  Rather meandering stuff I came out with yesterday, starting on one topic and then veering semi-naturally to the topic I originally intended cover:

Here’s a link to Yuval Harari’s book, Sapiens

Here’s a link to David Deutsch’s The Beginning of Infinity

Human civilization is just not at equilibrium

1200px-Chaos_star.svg

I was riding in to work this morning, listening to volume two of the Audible version of the Feynman Lectures on Physics (he was discussing symmetry in physical laws).  An accident ahead had closed down all but one lane of traffic, so I got to listen to the lecture much longer than I would have normally; even on a Saturday morning, to have only one lane of traffic open meant that things were very much backed up and slowed down.  In such cases, it’s truly a blessing to be able to listen to one of the great minds of the twentieth century sharing his understanding of the nature of the world.  It almost made the traffic jam pleasant.

As I rode along, listening to Feynman, I thought about how cool and interesting I’ve always found physics to be, especially when explained by one of its greatest practitioners and teachers.  And because Feynman mentioned some specifics of biology and chemistry, such as how the chirality of biological molecules is an accident of history, not a law of nature, I realized how cool and interesting I thought the complexity of biology and chemistry were, too.  After that take-off point, I thought about how cool and interesting was the mathematics that underlies physics, and thus underlies chemistry and biology.  And mathematics is much broader and more complex than just what’s used for physics, and it can all be tremendously interesting.  Even the stuff that’s way beyond my expertise* is fascinating when it’s explained by people who are experts, as on the videos on “Numperphile”, and “Three Blue, One Brown”, for instance.

Even human psychology, with all its biases and heuristics, its “system one” and “system two”, it’s knee-jerk reactions and all the irrationality it entails, is fascinating.  Though it frequently seems irreducibly silly, we can often discern why it’s silly, as a system that evolved under a particular set of circumstances that didn’t necessarily require it always to be fully rational.

So why, then, I wondered, is human sociology—and its compatriot, human history—so ­un­fascinating? Not to say that the details can’t be interesting, but the “pattern” it plays out, especially at the level of politics, popular entertainment, social mores, celebrity, and nowadays social media and the rest of the internet and web, is such a muddle.  The movement of vast flocks of starlings and of immense schools of fish can seem eerily precise, and we know that such epiphenomena can be produced merely by having each unit follow a few simple rules.  But large-scale human interactions are almost never reducible to anything consistent.  If there are mathematical patterns, they are difficult to discern.

I don’t know about you, but I find much of human interaction at the largish scale to be simply irritating and stupid.  It’s muddy.  It’s just a mess.  There’s no fractal-level chaos here, with hidden, self-similar intricacy.  It’s just the chaos of an untended garbage dump.

Then, suddenly**, it occurred to me:  human society is such a mess at least partly because it’s not in any kind of equilibrium.  It’s an unstable system whose parameters are constantly changing.  The human population is growing, and has been for millennia, at an ever-increasing rate.  New technologies, from the initiation of agriculture, to the invention of money, to the creation of the wheel, and to weapons, on into the modern age of deep science and potent technology, produce an ever-changing background set of assumptions in the system.  New methods of interaction and exchange of information, from spoken language, to written language, to moveable type, to the telegraph, to radio, to television, to the internet, have—especially in recent centuries—changed irrevocably the state of what had come before, producing new and ever-messier epiphenomena.

There has not been anything like the time needed for any kind of sociological and civilizational natural selection to take place.  There’s been no way for long-term evolutionarily stable strategies*** to be selected amongst the phenomena of human interactions at large scales, because before any such selection could happen, something fundamental in the driving parameters of the system changed radically.

So I guess maybe we shouldn’t feel too bad about the fact that politics is such an insane mess, that fashion and celebrity and entertainment are bastions of such goofiness, that we have trouble working out the best economic system (if there is such a thing, and if we are even able to define “best by what measure, best for what purpose?”), that social media is such a nightmare of infantile behavior, and that history is such a catalog of tragedy and horror.

The weather may be a chaotic system that’s all but impossible to predict in specifics beyond a few days, but the physics of it is at least consistent****.  The “physics” of human interaction is being subjected to ever-changing constants of nature (if you’ll allow the metaphor).  They may not change by that much at any given time, but we know that even tiny changes in the true “constants of nature” would lead to radically different universes, in most of which we would not be able to exist even for a microsecond.  We should probably be in awe of the fact that civilization survives at all.

This doesn’t mean we should stop trying to solve all the many and varied problems of human civilization.  We must solve them.  But perhaps we (meaning I) should be more forgiving of just how stupid and inefficient and counterproductive and puerile and horrible so many of our institutions seem so often to be.  We’re still in the primordial soup here, and the primordial soup is cloudy.  We must work on it; we must strive to make it ever clearer.  If we don’t, natural selection will do what it seems to do best, which is to wipe out things that don’t have an evolutionarily stable strategy.  But we (meaning I) can at least perhaps try not to be so judgmental about the idiocy of our institutions.  You don’t judge the mind of a trilobite by the standards of the nervous system of a naked house ape.

But you still must address your problems and try to reach some semblance of an evolutionarily stable strategy (or set thereof) for society and civilization.  The trilobites are extinct and have been for a very long time, and the same thing could easily happen to human civilization, and to human individuals.  Nature would not care, would not give us any second chances, would not bend its rules in the slightest for us.  As far as we can tell, it never has, and it never will.

Still, though it seems any mathematical and modellable science of sociology is at a tremendous disadvantage (Asimov’s “psychohistory” is a long way away) and may never be able to become formalized until after humans have reached a Trantor-level of equilibrium, maybe the problems of trying to reach that stage—trying to survive long enough to reach that stage—can be interesting enough in and of themselves.  In any case, interesting or not, they’re problems that can’t be dodged.  Sometimes you just have to shut up work.


*The physics being discussed at that point in the Feynman lectures was not beyond my expertise, for what it’s worth.  I was a Physics major for a little over a year undergrad at Cornell, so I’m not quite a layman in the field.  And as an M.D., my familiarity with biology—at least parts of it—meets the legal definition of “expert”.

**Really.  It was honestly like an epiphany.

***I’m not referring to biological evolution here, but to a broader form of natural selection of sociological states.

****And thus, predictive climate science can be done

If you want to play the game well, you need to learn the rules

the gambler

Today I’m going to deal with something that’s a bit of a pet peeve of mine, albeit one that may seem nebulous at first.  The thing to which I refer is the common attitude that math and science, such as is taught in primary and secondary school, are not relevant to most people’s daily lives.

I don’t mean by this that most people don’t recognize how important math and science are to technology and to civilization.  I doubt there are many people with such a limited worldview.  I’m thinking of the people who may recognize how powerful and useful mathematics and science are, and who see all things they’ve done for humanity, but who think that their own time learning anything beyond the basics of arithmetic was a waste of time, and that they’ve never used any of it since they learned it in school.

This is silly.  This is foolish.  I have a few rejoinders to such claims.

First, I want to point out that people who exercise—by running, biking, lifting weights, doing push-up, whatever—don’t complain that they’ve never had to do push-ups in their day-to-day life or as part of their jobs.  They don’t whine that they never need to flee predators or chase down prey to survive.  The reason you don’t hear such nonsense is that most people know that the purpose of most exercise isn’t to perfect one’s ability to, say, lift weights beautifully, but to be healthier, stronger, and more physically able.  This attitude can be applied at least as well to mental exercise, whether or not you use the specific tasks with which you exercise your mind anywhere else.  Indeed, mental exercise is probably even more useful and beneficial than bodily workouts are, for a few reasons.  First, the brain has greater and more enduring plasticity and freedom to improve than the body does, and that ability of your brain to grow “stronger” can continue throughout your life, barring neurological illness.

Let’s be honest:  humans don’t rule the world because of our physical acumen.  Numerous animals are stronger, faster, and more fearsome physically than humans (though our endurance is world class).  The reason we are so powerful is because of our outrageously overgrown brains, with which we’ve created external memories and communications that allow us to be social in ways that make honeybees and termites look like hikikomori.  So, if you want to maximize and optimize what makes humans strong, you need to maximize and optimize your mind.  Math and science are among the most rigorous and effective ways to do that.

At a deeper level, though, math and science are fundamental to reality itself in ways that all other endeavors are not.  Galileo famously said that the book of nature is written in the language of mathematics, and he was not the first or the last great mind to proclaim such Pythagorean sentiments, because it is a very deep and true statement about the universe.  I like to think of it as follows:  mathematics is the programming language of reality.  Everything that happens obeys it, and it cannot be contradicted, because such contradictions—in reality—simply cannot exist.  And science is our best attempt to learn the specifics of the program is in which we live.

Any good gamer will tell you, if you want to win a game—or thrive, or get as high a score as you’re able, or last as long as you can, whatever your goal might be when playing any given game—you need to know the rules.  Math and science are the rules, ultimately, that our game follows.  Human laws and customs are parochial and provincial; laws of nature are absolute.  If you try to go against them, you’ll eventually collide with them, and when you collide with the laws of nature, it’s always you that breaks.

Also, mathematics and science are a lot of fun if you give them a chance.  Contrary to popular belief, to understand and enjoy math and science can be tremendously captivating and inspiring, and they require and stimulate the imagination in ways that mere human stories and cultural creations never could.  As J. B. S. Haldane said, nature is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose.  The only thing big enough really to simulate the universe is the universe itself, so we can never completely predict all of what we’re going to find before we find it, but math and science allow us to understand as much of it as possible.

That’s pretty exciting.  And it’s deeper and more real than anything else you’ll ever encounter.  Empires rise and fall; fashion is a form of ugliness so severe that we have to change it every few months; religions come and go; politics is notoriously ephemeral.  But physics is here for good, and as the saying goes, physicists defer only to mathematicians.

And mathematicians defer only to God…if ever.

It’s unreasonable to expect “cures” for most diseases

I often encounter Facebook memes denouncing pharmaceutical companies with words to the effect of: “Big Pharma isn’t interested in making cures, they’re interested in making customers,” as if this were some deep insight into a grave moral failing on the part of the entire industry.  Now, I’m quite sure that there are perverse incentives and inappropriate goals scattered throughout the medical industry in general, from the level of the individual physician, to pharmaceutical manufacturers, to the insurance industry, and everywhere else in the healthcare field.  There’s little doubt that these injustices and inefficiencies gum up the works for everyone, making healthcare overall worse than it might otherwise be.  But simply to complain about the fact that most medications don’t “cure” our many modern ailments is to confess a misunderstanding of the nature of biology and medical treatment. Continue reading “It’s unreasonable to expect “cures” for most diseases”