Keep Moving / Being Wrong / Keep Moving

Sometimes I feel that I stand in-between too many things. Un-firm. Undecided. This is in part due to my fond appreciation for not only a lot of disparate topics but also disparate approaches. I believe in the vigour of an approach which involves good research. I also believe that we can lace “good research” with wishful thinking so that the evidence it produces is wishful thinking presented as fact. I believe that there are charlatans who willingly or naively provide a distraction that slows us down. I also believe that we dismiss many things as charlatanism not because they pose a danger but because they conflict with the politics of our personal or professional lives. I believe in intuition. I also believe intuition alone brings us too close to a raw reflexiveness which doesn’t serve long term needs.

So when someone asks me What do you think about x? I sometimes find myself considering a number of things and contexts to understand the question. The drawback is we’ve created a world where this sort of complexity is undesired. Certainly, in some industries and roles, complexity is unnecessary — a prime example would be assembly line work where the task is to simply crank out carbon copy iterations of something already conceived-of and revised to an acceptable standard. If you want to know what roles robots and AI are going to swallow up in the future, it’s those things. Complexity, on the other hand, keeps us guessing, reminds us that there are no set answers, or if there are they are kludges we developed until the next discovery forces us to revise our notions, our presumptions.

In an essay in this weekend’s New York Times Magazine, Ferris Jabr profiles someone turning to exotic flora in order to stave off our imminent depletion of effective antibiotics. The researcher in question turns to the lore of sometimes ancient civilizations, the extracts and tinctures from nature that one might rightly think come from fantasy, or from a presumably primitive culture. From some pharmaceutical industry perspectives, this is quackery. And yet, in one example, Continue reading

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Book Review: The Trouble With Physics, by Lee Smolin

I posted about this book earlier, noting that it was surprisingly hard to get into, particularly for someone such as myself who, while not majoring in physics in high school, has always been curious about science and particularly interested (since a young age) in the concepts surrounding quantum physics. Boy, what a difference the last half of a book can make.

Smolin’s approach to the organization of information in his book might make sense to him, and – if I had an undergraduate in physics – it would to me also. He begins by stating five fundamental unsolved problems with our understanding of the universe, not already explained by Einstein’s theory of relativity (governing big stuff) and quantum physics (governing small stuff). He then goes on to discuss the idea of string theory and how it was posited as a candidate for a unifying theory which might possibly go to explain these unresolved problems (along with the effects of gravity). After laying out the details, he then discusses the Continue reading

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The Trouble With The Trouble With Physics

I’m on my second attempt reading Lee Smolin’s 2006 book The Trouble With Physics. I am reminded of a similar situation with another book, Joyce’s Ulysses. And, similarly, my second attempt with The Trouble With Physics is not a reappraisal but a confirmation: this is hard to read.

Smolin’s book is making a case for the fact that string theory is a failure; a spectacular failure that its adherents defend with a most byzantine theoretical web; that, because string theory is de rigueur in so many of the top schools, with so many reputations at stake, no one wants to recognize the fact that string theory — an attempt to harmonize the ideas of quantum theory and relativity so that we might understand the foundation of the universe more clearly — is a dead end.

The problem I’m (still) having with the book is that Smolin is writing to an audience that is willing to take a steep (try 90 degrees upward) climb in order to understand the various concepts and theories which not only formed the foundation of string theory, but the issues that weren’t resolved through the original work of Newton, Einstein, etc. Smolin lays out in the beginning various fundamental aspects of how things work that we simply don’t know — instilling early that scientific inquiry is, if anything, about the need for curiosity. However, given Smolin’s densely described approach to get us ready to understand his arguments, and while I don’t doubt the necessity, I think he would need to double the length of his book to do so effectively for interested readers who are not physicists.

What is more successful, and the reason I continue to read it, is how Continue reading

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The Importance of Self Care

I was reading this article in the National Post, about a psychiatrist whose trained specialty is analyzing and working with violent sexual predators, who recently experienced a breakdown as a result of what is believed to be symptoms of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder). He has worked on cases involving Paul Bernardo, Robert Pickton, and most recently Russell Williams: all of them so-called sexual sadists, all of them convicted murderers.

To put this into context for those reading from outside Canada, each of these convicted – by virtue of the severity and depravity of their crimes – is a poster boy for reinstating capital punishment (which, for the record, I do not support). They have individually terrorized regions of the country when they were active. It’s important to understand all of this due to the nature of being a mental health professional – someone trained to see people as people no matter who they might be or what they might have done – working with people of this description.

The article describes how Dr. John Bradford simply lost his ability to keep the burden of content (and ostensibly the affect of said content) from seeping into his consciousness, whereas before he was able to separate the explicitly graphic information he worked with from getting to him. What stood out in the article for me was the following:

What he wouldn’t realize until he went into therapy was that the videos from his many cases had been gradually taking their toll and they rushed back to haunt him on that long drive home.”

 

In particular, the phrase “until he went into therapy”, which implies that he wasn’t seeing a therapist until this point. Assuming this conjunction isn’t sloppiness on behalf of the writer, I find it appalling that Dr. Bradford could have such a role and somehow not be mandated by his employer (or his governing professional society) to be in some form of regular personal therapy. It boggles my mind, actually.

We live in an odd time when the general public are being told (rightfully) the importance of mental health and not allowing toxic environments to fester within them and yet someone tasked with watching videos of killers’ victims doesn’t walk into a therapist’s office until he is exhibiting signs of PTSD and is forced to take a month off work?

Let me be clear: to my knowledge there is no explicit mandate for said procedure. I am not implying that Dr. Bradford was in any way professionally negligent. I am however suggesting that the past and current culture of psychiatry, with its “detached” experts, should reconsider its standards for those tasked with a specialty like Dr. Bradford. Self care goes both ways: it allows patients/clients/non-professionals to seek help and understanding for their issues; it also allows professionals an opportunity to explore how their work impacts their lives.

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SARS Essay in Torontoist

Torontoist just posted an essay I wrote about this being the 10th anniversary of the SARS breakout in Toronto (which went on to kill 44 people and cost the country $2 billion), and the fact that nothing is being done to commemorate it. That is to say that commemorations are not necessarily celebrations, but can be sober remembrances of mistakes made in our past.

Read it here.

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No Such Thing As a One-Ended String

I am beginning a small bout of learning, if that is possible, into what is called “string theory” (there is a nice article here, which summarizes the basics at the bottom). I’m learning about it, because there is so much controversy directed at it. On the one hand, it is a contender for The Theory Which Explains Everything (Ultimately). Yet, there is (after over 40 years of theorizing) no documentable proof of its existence. This would be a question of trivia were this theory not so heavily influential – and invested into – within academia (particularly in America’s most elite universities), where there is growing concern that this theory has become a self-propelling conceptual vehicle which is capable of using unanswered questions of its existence to justify its existence.

I once chatted up someone who revealed himself to be a retired physics professor, and the subject of string theory came up. He smirked and said dryly, “String theory is a cult, waiting for its Jonestown.”

How could I not take that as a cue to learn more?

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quote

“The major philosophical problem with the block-Universe interpretation of four-dimensional spacetime is that it appears to be fatalism disguised as physics. It seems to be a mathematician’s proof of determinism and a denial of free will dressed up in geometry.”

Paul J. Nahin, from Time Machines: Time Travel in Physics, Metaphysics, and Science Fiction

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Book Review: Introducing Quantum Theory, by J.P. McEvoy

Never let it be said that I’m only a fiction-reader…

I’ve been fascinated with the concepts (and the idea) of quantum theory since I was but a boy in high school. There were several problems, however, that stood in my way:
1) I sucked in both math, physics, and chemistry (though I attained a rather impressive “B” in biology).

2) Quantum theory is notoriously difficult to visualize, and if you’re an artsy-type person who sucks in mathematics, it will perennially seem somehow “just around the corner” from one’s understanding.

However, as Bukowski said, “perseverance is greater than strength”. I’ve never given up my interest in quantum theory, even though I long ago realized that I would probably never truly understand it within the language it was conceived (ie. math). For a writer, not being able to visualize with language is a form of impotence.

One day, during a “second wind” of faith – that I could find a book which could magically explain quantum theory comprehensively – I posted my question to a message board. It would be a year later before someone responded. After adjudicating my level of “maths”, a kind person suggested Introducing Quantum Theory by J.P. McEvoy.

Having previously read (surprise, surprise) Introducing Wittgenstein, I was familiar with the format of the Introducing series; essentially, they are well-written and concisely distilled comic books. I know of no better way to describe them and I can think of no better series of books that manage to grapple subjects as diverse as Keynesian Economics and Kafka for the curious mind. They also make great streetcar reads.

It took some hunting – let’s face it, this isn’t exactly a top-seller – but eventually I found a copy (with thanks to Toronto’s World’s Biggest Bookstore).

And now that you’ve read my heart-warming prelude, the review…

The most important paragraph in this book, as I discovered about a quarter of the way through, is on the second last page, in the Further Reading section:

 

Quantum theory cannot be explained. Physicists and mathematicians from Niels Bohr to Roger Penrose have admitted that it doesn’t make sense. What one can do is discover how the ideas developed and how the theory is applied. Our book has concentrated on the former.

 

I wish I’d known this when I was a kid.

That said, Introducing Quantum Theory is an excellent primer. It focuses on the historical impetus which led to the stumbling-upon of the theories which now formulate our current (if not fixed) understanding of quantum phenomena. It starts with establishing the era of Classical (Newtonian) Physics – so assured were scientists of the day with the prevailing theories that it was referred to as the Age of Certainty…and, rather deliciously, it began to unravel via the route science often is forged: experimentation. Thanks, primarily, to Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Niels Bohr, foundational rules of Classical Physics were brought into question and a new, quantum, world was revealed.

The book is full of formulae – it has to be – however, it’s not necessary for the casual reader to use the formulae or to necessarily understand what any given formula does (although the latter would be nice). The concepts are outlined well by J.P. McEvoy – the conflicts, the dead-ends, and the frustrations of the worlds greatest minds as each took turns refining the prevailing speculation. He has done a great job outlining, linearly and non-linearly, the essential questions: how did this happen, when did this happen, who was involved, and – most importantly – why we should care.

It is a book that deserves (requires, perhaps) that the reader approach it from the beginning straight to the end, on several occasions in order to fully grasp the evolution of quantum theory. I fear that, in one read, it may all be too much for most – personally, I look forward to approaching this book again, as I feel it of great value which, over the course of several reads, will keep inspiring me in different ways. It’s important to realize that this isn’t necessarily about science, but about the refinement of how mankind perceives the world around us.

Introducing Quantum Theory, by J.P. McEvoy (ISBN: 1-84046-577-8) is available at an independently owned bookstore near you, or available at various online vendors. I should add, since this book incorporates original illustrations on every page, the graphic artist: Oscar Zarate.

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Quotes and Science

Work. It is the great blog-killer.

Sorry for the lack of updates. In lieu of something original and scintillating, I bring you two quotes from Max Born, Nobel Prize-winning atomic physicist:

“There are two objectionable types of believers: those who believe the incredible and those who believe that ‘belief’ must be discarded and replaced by ‘the scientific method’.”

“The belief that there is only one truth and that oneself is in possession of it seems to me the deepest root of all evil that is in the world.”

I’ve spent a lot of time lately reading Introducing Quantum Theory by J.P. McEvoy. I find it fascinating in many ways (least of which being the mathematical formulae). I’m finally beginning to understand not only what “quantum theory” truly refers to, but how it was discovered/unearthed, and how it relates/differs to classical physics.

Art & Science, I’m convinced, are the same – to avoid one is to live a life of wilful ignorance.

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Article/Comment: Watch Your Language

(This post is currently in competition in the Philosophy Blog War. Feel free to cast your vote for it. If you like, you can vote directly by pressing this button.)

I read a very interesting essay on the BBC News website entitled “Chaotic world of climate truth”. It’s written by Mike Hulme, Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and in it he criticises the hyperbole which casts a pall on the discussion of global warming.

This is not a partisan piece, in the sense that Mr Hulme is not one of a seeming endless army of paid-for voices in the climate change debate. By virtue of his office and his profession, he makes his argument clear from the outset:

Climate change is a reality, and science confirms that human activities are heavily implicated in this change.

But over the last few years a new environmental phenomenon has been constructed in this country – the phenomenon of “catastrophic” climate change.

It seems that mere “climate change” was not going to be bad enough, and so now it must be “catastrophic” to be worthy of attention.

The increasing use of this pejorative term – and its bedfellow qualifiers “chaotic”, “irreversible”, “rapid” – has altered the public discourse around climate change.

This blog entry isn’t about climate change (notice there are no stock images of ensuing storm clouds and other nature metaphors for imminent disaster). I’m not apathetic to the topic but, reading his essay, Mr. Hulme’s description of how hyperbole cheapens legitimate debate rang very true and has implications outside of the context of this particular subject.

We’re living in an increasingly ideological age. I cannot remember a time (I’m 36, so I gather there are precedents beyond “my years”) when words such as intolerance, fundamentalist, and radical were used so extensively (the trope intolerant fundamentalist radical, for example, is no longer the sole jurisdiction of religious persecution but rather has extended itself to include such diverse groups as environmentalists and, my personal favourite, secular progressives). I’ve written here about the decline of discussion and true debate in N. American society; it’s as if we feel that no one will listen to us unless we raise our voices to the sky and colour our points with invective. Nothing is important anymore: it’s imperative. Nothing is troubling anymore: it’s a crisis.

In exaggerating the situation with alarmist language (which is often disingenuously intended to get attention rather than be realistic/logical) we fall into a trap. Like the boy who cried wolf, if our standard for discussion is hyperbole, then who will truly believe us when there truly is something to be alarmed about?

I see this behaviour not only in the usual suspects (blogs, user groups, forums), but also emanating from supposedly respectable institutions (governments, scientific research institutes, charities). It’s in the newspapers, it’s on television, it’s in our RSS feeds. I suppose it’s the scale of it, and the feeling (or fear) that this is the “new normal” of discourse which concerns me.

The language of catastrophe is not the language of science.

Those words start Mr. Hulme’s summary. In the context of how I feel I would say that “the language of catastrophe is not the language of an evolved society”, but rather one that is becoming more and more tribal and classist.

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