Monday, July 9, 2018

Electrons & Salt

I have been working for the past two months within three degrees of the equator and re-watching The Ascent of Man (an excellent BBC series from the 1970s). Led thereby to consider:

1. the fact that a point on the surface of the earth at the equator spins faster than a point nearer the poles; thus

2. verified according to Einstein's theory of relativity – as speed increases, time must move slower to preserve the absolute limit of the speed of light – time must move a tiny bit slower for me than folks back home up north. 

This led me to wonder what the speed of an electron around an atomic nucleus might be, whether it would approach the speed of light and what that might mean about the nature of reality. The nature of reality is already very strange. Consider that what appears to us as solid matter – from the atom on up – is mostly just empty space. There is so much space inside ordinary matter that you could squeeze our sun down to the size of Manhattan Island (or something like that) and make it one big and very heavy neutron. Things seem solid to us because of electro-static forces that hold together and repel assemblages of atoms and molecules. This strangeness doesn't even include the weirdness of quantum physics. Anyway, what might be going on as an electron spins around inside an atom? 

Of course, electrons actually don't orbit the nucleus like little planets around a sun. Electrons exist in a kind of cloud of probabilities subject to certain allowed energy levels that can be thought of as shells. It is possible, mainly as a thought experiment, to estimate a kind of notional speed of an “orbiting” electron leading to a value of around five million MPH. That is fast but still only about 1% of the speed of light. So while time would certainly pass more slowly for an electron than for me, there would not be any profound relativistic effects. 

This then led me to consider the strangeness of salt. Salt is made from the ionic combination of a poisonous gas (chlorine) and a soft metal that burns in air (sodium). It is also vital to life. Perhaps because life evolved in the sea, sodium and chlorine ions are essential elements for the functioning of core biological systems. What rules of the universe led to the sixth most abundant element in the earth's crust (sodium) marrying so happily and fortuitously with the 21st (chlorine)? 

The sodium atom has a lone electron in its outer shell that it quite willingly donates to the chlorine making the sodium a negative ion and the chlorine a positive ion. That allows the two to remain together through that electro-static charge in a crystal lattice to make common salt. Electrons do not move at relativistic speeds because they are given mass through interaction with the Higgs Field. If they did move at the speed of light, as do massless photons, atoms would not exist and we would not be here.

Saturday, May 5, 2018

Design Without A Designer?


My previous riff on the possibility of a designed universe considered what that might say about the designer. Would that be a First Cause that created the physical laws that seem to have governed the Big Bang and subsequent evolution of the universe, or perhaps a “programmer” using a preexisting set of tools to design a very elaborate simulation? Thomas Nagel offered instead the concept of a design without a designer, one arising through a somehow ordered process of mutation and natural selection. He opposed this to a teleologic explanation (such as divine intervention or creationism) or a merely material and chance elaboration of physical law. His alternative include “the constitutive possibility, in the character of the elements of which the world is composed, of their combination into living organisms with the properties of consciousness, action, and cognition which we know they have.” (pg 93) This “constitutive possibility” is in the same category as mathematical truths. They are just are, embedded in reality. The same can be said for moral truths – such as the imperative not to harm other sentient creatures – that are facts, he says, that we call values. These are accessible to consciousness. “We exist in a world of values and respond to them through normative judgements that guide our action…. The response to value seems only to make sense as a function of the unified subject of consciousness…. Practical reasoning and its influence on action involve the unified conscious subject who sees what he should do.” (pg 114-15 ) This gives consciousness a hook by which to express free will. We chose right or wrong. Nagel calls the whole process – the evolution of life, rise of consciousness and emergent perception of right and wrong – as one “of the universe gradually waking up.” (pg 117)

The emergent ability to perceive good and evil doesn’t mean an automatic tendency toward the good. “No teleologic principle tending towards the production of a single outcome seems suitable. Rather, it would have to be a tendency toward the proliferation of complex forms and the generation of multiple variations in the range of possible complex systems.” (pg 122) According to Nagel, teleology can be restated as “a cosmic predisposition to the formation of life, consciousness, and the value [of what is good for each creature] that is inseparable from them.” (pg 123)

I like all this, it echoes Plato and his notion of the Forms as the basis of reality, perceivable through reason. But it begs the question of how and why there should be any “constitutive possibilities” pre-baked into the creation of the universe. Nagel, a self-declared atheist, wants to avoid the notion of any Devine Designer. But it seems to beg the question of how to posit a design without a designer. It violates Occam’s Razor. So I return to the question of what sort of designer would set this universe spinning. Perhaps Nagel here can point in the right direction. There does seem to be a moral order to the universe as well as a governing set of physical and mathematical laws (which we are still discovering). We can, in fact, know good from evil. (Mere good and bad may vary according to the individual, group or civilization.) We also have the free will to ignore this distinction and clearly human history is full of examples of those who did and do.

A while back, near the start of my ruminations, I suggested that perhaps the designer was a kind of cosmic Shakespeare, setting up the grandest possible stage on which a myriad of actors could perform. Or perhaps, out of loneliness, it formulated an elaborate simulation it could inhabit in the form of individual conscious agents, bound by time and space. I don’t know but it’s been fun, at least for me, ruminating on it. In the end, my own, I may, or may not, find out.

Monday, April 9, 2018

Decoherence, or What is Special About a Tree


Quantum physics makes some people – especially those that seem to understand it – uncomfortable. It suggests that at the base of reality, things can be both here and not here, both particle and wave, both one and zero. The double slit experiments, in which electrons are sent in groups or individually through screens with slits open or closed, show wave or particle features depending upon the experimental set-up. Anything, small or large, can be thought of as existing as a wave function with the probability that when measured the wave will collapse into a definite object in a specific place as determined by the probabilistic mathematics. (Large objects have the highest probability of being where we see them, when we see them, rather than anywhere else the wave may be spread out to, including perhaps in another galaxy.) The picture of reality that quantum physics paints is strange yet the mathematics of it – quantum mechanics– successfully predicts core elements confirmed by experimentation. Niels Bohr, who was at the forefront of inventing the mathematics, said that it requires a “radical revision of our attitude toward the problem of physical reality.” For Bohr, and others of the Copenhagen school, the relationship of quantum physics to classical physics – the micro world to the macro – is not straightforward. Quantum mechanics accurately predicts outcomes at the level of the very small where quantum affects lead to strangeness. Yet we seldom see quantum effects at the macro level that is well-described by classical physics, despite its failure at the micro level.

One of the stranger possibilities raised by quantum physics is the role of the conscious observer. This interpretation posits that a wave function is collapsed when measured and the measurement observed. (The role of the measuring instrument and whether it is part of quantum or classical reality is one of the many issues still debated.) Various efforts have been made to sweep aside the difficulty of reconciling quantum and classical physics and avoid the messiness of assuming a tree is not there unless someone sees it. (This problem is separate from attempts to reconcile quantum physics with relativity or to unify the fundamental forces and particles of nature.) One such the many worlds theory – suggests that every time a measurement is made, reality splits into separate universes. A more parsimonious approach looks to the concept of quantum decoherence. Essentially, wave functions spread out into each other and merge into the world of classical physics. Strictly speaking, this still leaves the question of the role of measurement and the observer open. But some believe we need not accept any quantum strangeness because decoherence itself leads to macro objects emerging from the micro reality. The quantum waves crash onto the shores of observability by themselves. A tree is there whether we see it or not.

The questions here are profound. One hundred million years ago, the earth was populated by dinosaurs. Some very large creatures roamed the earth and we have found their bones in our time. Surely they existed and moved through space and time as discrete objects. They stepped over stones and across rivers that also had a specific and real existence. Even before that, in deep time, before multi-cellular life, primitive bacteria and archaea lived and reproduced and we’ve found their traces as well. They existed without being measured or observed by any higher, conscious living being. So does this mean that quantum strangeness is fake physics?

The possibilities seem to be three:

quantum mechanics works well at the micro level but is unnecessary to explain the reality of the world we see because it emerges on it’s own whether we are there or not to see it.

nothing emerges from the universal wave function (the equation encompassing the totality of existence across time and space) as discrete objects until observed.

some things exist as collapsed wave functions on their own while other “things” exist only as the former interact with them.

The first possibility simply begs the question of how two fundamentally different pictures of reality can both be true. Rather, let me suggest that the second possibility may be a subset of the third. Life is the dividing line. Rocks, planets, stars and even galaxies exist as wave functions perhaps decohering as they spread out into each other but still not there until acted upon – observed, eaten, stepped on – by something acting as an individual agent, something alive and trying to stay alive and perhaps reproduce. Life seems inevitable given the fundamental constants of physics and chemistry. (Why the universe is made this way is a separate question.) But a rock is just a rock and is never trying to become anything else. It may be acted upon but doesn’t by itself act. A tree is always there because it is trying to be. It acts upon its surroundings with purpose thus collapsing its own wave function and those with which it interacts. It transforms earth and sunlight into living tissue, its own living tissue. This may imply or even require a certain kind of consciousness. Certainly, it does suggest awareness of environment sufficient to utilize it. How is a tree’s awareness different from our own? That is another matter. But a tree is there even if alone its forest.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Intelligence or Bust?

Jennifer Ackerman makes a convincing case for bird intelligence in her 2016 The Genius of Birds. Birds use tools, sing, live socially, navigate over long distances and have at least the rudiments of mind. The most intelligent have larger and more complexly organized brains. In her last chapter, Sparrowville: Adaptive Genius, she suggests that birds that have mastered living in human environments – house sparrows, members of the crow and pigeon families and others – have prospered because of their flexibility and intelligence. She speculates that “we humans, in creating novel and unstable environments, are changing the very nature of the bird family tree” by creating evolutionary pressures for species characterized by increased intelligence. Writ large, she wonders, is whether the changes being wrought by humans in all the areas we affect – from city environments, to deforestation, to climate change – favor the development of intelligence in species that manage to survive.

It is interesting to consider whether the new Anthropocene epoch that we seem to have entered will be one of those catastrophic periods of destruction that sweep away species that cannot adapt quickly enough to the pace and degree of change. Among those species that do adapt and even prosper, the key for many may be the development of greater intelligence. Some species may find other ways to survive, but many will go extinct. Intelligence (in the form of operational flexibility and adaptability) or bust may be the motif of the next centuries, including for human societies. And of course, it is not yet clear that intelligence itself is adaptive in the long term. We may be in the process of changing the world we live in faster than even we can accommodate.

Saturday, January 27, 2018

If There Was A Cosmological Design, What about the Designer?


I have been speculating about the origins of the universe and consciousness for some time now. Following St. Thomas’ finger, modern science points to an act of creation tightly constrained to produce the universe of matter and energy that we see around us (and in which conscious beings arose). If the fundamental constants of physics were not exactly what they are, if the Higgs boson did not manifest itself in a way to create the menagerie of particles that physics has discovered, the Big Bang would have produced some other kind of universe or perhaps none at all. We discover the laws of nature because they – the laws – appear to be there. They were there from the very first moment something “exploded” into spacetime. We exist in a universe that seems to have been designed according to these laws, or better, was created through using a particular set of fundamental constants and rules.

Of course, if there was a design, it suggests there was a designer. (I’m now reading Mind & Cosmos by Thomas Nagel. He suggests something like a design without a designer but more on that another time.) My question this time is why anything capable of designing a law governed creation on the order of the cosmos would have to use or obey law? The traditional notion of a Transcendental God is a being all-powerful and without constraints. As noted here before, I tend not to believe in such a god. And in fact, it seems that whatever set in motion the particular universe we find ourselves in was constrained to act through rules of the game we now discover as fundamental physics. Could an omnipotent god be constrained? Could not such a god simply call a universe that would look like ours into being by commanding or dreaming it? What kind of “god” would work with a rule book and where would that rule book have come from? Either that rule book precedes its use or for some unknowable reason the god created it in order to use it? What kind of god would do the later? And if the rules predate the god then we have not yet reached the First Cause.

I have no answers to these questions so let me have some fun. Let’s imagine a toolkit of cosmic software that allows the creation of universes. It contains menus of all sorts of starting conditions, rules and variables. A “player” – amateur or professional – plugs in, picks through the many choices available and runs the program. The “machine” cranks and out spews the result. Some might crash immediately, others just sit there shining or in the dark, others maybe moving forward in whatever way the rules encourage. A “successful” run might eventually contain things like stars, planets and people. If this program came on the market here, it would quickly outsell any of Sid Meier’s creations.

I said fun, but this is really a thought experiment for it raises the question of why any designer would create a universe and let it run without further ado. For it seems that the putative designer plays no further part in influencing outcomes. There is good and evil in our world and one must assume that it exists anywhere conscious beings exist. Lots of bad things have happened here on earth – to civilizations, societies, individuals – despite whatever prayers or entities were sent the gods’ way. One might argue that God showed its care for us by allowing us free will, by allowing us reason, by giving us the ability to tell right from wrong. There is scant evidence that that has worked out very well when one looks at the present state of the world, or as my historian friend would say, at any period of history. What possibly could be the intention of the possible designer who set our world in motion? Play, experiment or maybe child-rearing?

What if there was no designer but simply a design and the universe is an example of the eternal return?

Saturday, September 16, 2017

The Brain As Quantum Computer


Recently I had the opportunity to watch southern African White-necked crows while they were watching me. I was taking afternoon tea (and eating rusks) on the patio overlooking a beautiful valley in the hills near Mbabane. Crows are smart and these are among the smartest. One sat on the roof of the next house staring at me convinced that at some point, I would grow careless and give him or her a chance to steal something, perhaps something to eat. As I was ever-vigilant, eventually they flew off over the valley, soaring and dipping in very real time. As I watched, I thought about the complex calculations that a bird must make moment-to-moment to move so quickly through three-dimensional space. They must keep track of where they are, where to go, how to get there. Knowing each requires entire subsets of information – such as (for where to go), where they saw food or last saw food or might find food while watching for anything that might require evasive action. These calculations must be solved each fraction of a second. I then thought this must be true for any animal with a brain (or nervous system). Neural systems allow the organism to move through, and react to, the environment rather than obey simple tropisms or merely be buffeted about by the external environment. The more complicated the neural system – reaching a peak of networks of networks to the 4th or 5th power (or beyond) running in our human brains – the more complex the information that can be stored and manipulated. A classical view of the human brain would start with the 500 trillion synapses of the adult brain’s hundred billion neurons. Now that is a lot of synapses. But think about how much information is stored there in language, knowledge, experience, memories and everything else that makes each individual unique and utterly complex.

I’ve speculated in this space about quantum consciousness, the production of mind from brain through “collapsing the wave functions apprehended from the perceptual flow. While watching the crows, I realized that the brain must function as a quantum computer and not as a classical system. The notion that quantum processes mix with (or form) consciousness is called “orchestrated objective reduction.” It rests on the possibility that the microtubules in nerve cells are small enough to contain quantum states. The brain accounts for just two percent of the human body’s mass but utilizes around 20% of its energy. It basically is like having a 20 watt bulb in our head shining all the time. This energy could be powering the creation and persistence of entangled states inside the microtubules of every cell. In this way, the neural organization of the brain would be the maintenance of a complex, constantly refreshed, while constantly changing, global entangled state. The collapse of the highest level of this entangled state-of-states coincides with consciousness. Inside our heads, this quantum computer has storage and calculating power well beyond what would be true if our brains functioned simply along classical physics lines. It may produce what we experience as consciousness. Or, collapse may come through the decisions that we – the “ghost” in the machine, acting as the internal observer – make in each moment as the crow flies.


Thursday, August 3, 2017

Pre-history Inspired by the Surroundings

Been in Swaziland for the last month.  A beautiful country and quite complex for such a small one.  A traditional King and some of the oldest terrain on the planet.  Sibebe Rock is a grand granite mountain some three billion years ago, the second largest pluton in the world.  It dates to the first formation of continental crust.

From hiking through the hills here, some basic ancient history put together from various sources including my ancient geology studies:  About 3.5 billion years ago oceanic basalt broke the surface in what is now southern Africa.  Soon after, erosion, sedimentation, burial, heating and erupting began producing granite.  By 3 billion years ago, enough granite had been extruded – and added with metamorphic gneiss also so produced – to form the root of a continental pluton.  The Swaziland Supergroup of the Barberton Greenstone belt contains some of the oldest-known, least-metamorphosed sedimentary and volcanic rocks on Earth.  Chert is the most abundant sedimentary rock type within the volcanic part of this mix. The oceans then were about 100oF degrees warmer than present. During this time – 3.5 to 3.3 bya – bacteria, including cyanobacteria, formed stromatolites “commonly low-relief, nearly stratiform, laterally linked domes … [and some] pseudocolumns and crinkly stratiform stromatolites …  on a substrate of altered komatiitic lava [lava with high iron-nickel-copper-platinum-group content from an erupting komatiite volcano] and sediments deposited on the lava surface, and in most places … covered by later komatiitic flows. Abundant fine-grained tourmaline included within the stromatolite laminae suggests that stromatolites formed in an environment dominated by boron-rich hot-spring emissions and evaporitic brines.”  Picture the hot springs of Yosemite on a larger scale and perhaps on the shore of an ocean.

Much later, apes turned into humans in the same area and the humans made some of their first tools with that chert.

                                                    Southern Africa Fossil Stromatolite