Monday, February 13, 2006

Wolfram's Talk at PARC (Feb 2003)

A New Kind of Science by Stephen Wolfram (2002), ISBN 1-57955-008-8.

Wolfram’s talk sold out the PARC auditorium, and 95% stayed an extra half hour till 9:30. I found it enjoyable, informative, entertaining, and took a bunch of notes. Lots of nice graphics.

Nothing new, but a more concise (than the book :) explanation of his view that “the universe could be a computer,” like the edge of a seashell, running some very simple program. The best question (also the first) was a guy who asked “if the future is deterministic, then what is my question going to be?”

His most often repeated point was his principle of “computational equivalence,” which says that any complex equation is pretty much like any other, there’s an upper bound, lots of things reach it, and they look a lot alike. But I don’t recall any quantitative evidence or reasoning to back this up. He said read the last part of Chapter 7.

The take home point, if there was one, was that if you were trying to program a molecule, you might try starting with Rule 110, rather than trying to emulate a Von Neumann architecture. He will soon put a dictionary of computational primitives on his website, like an organic molecule database, for people to use as raw material.

If some complex behavior is hard enough to predict, and we can only discover it by running the program, then “free will” can emerge that appears “free” of its underlying laws. Turing machines that “win” are usually the most complex, resembling engineered programs.

Randomness can arise from 3 sources, 1) external variations, like a boat bobbing on unseen waves, 2) initial conditions, driving chaotic systems that highly depend on them, and 3) implicitly within CA (cellular automata) rules, a source of the truest randomness, and yet it arises from no external actions or inputs. Mathematica has used Rule 30 as a random number generator for 15 years.

He laconically summarized his business success: “I didn’t hire a management team. I managed it myself.”

He felt that quantum computing may be less than it’s cracked up to be. There is way too much idealization of so-called quantum events. The measuring device, which must amplify some tiny signal to huge proportions, needs a lot of time to recover its equilibrium between hits, and to get more efficient it would need infinite time and infinite energy.

As to the criticism and controversy that have surrounded him, he admitted he hadn’t read many of the comments. They are thinking of trying to respond to some of them, but can’t yet draw a line between comments worthy of an answer, and those that are not.

Established peer reviewed science can’t handle big, non-incremental shifts. All new paradigms are attended by controversy, and the degree of anger correlates to their enduring value. He’s published the Mathematica Journal for 10 years, and peer review is not what it appears. It’s not easy to get meaningful comments, especially on big picture material that would need 1000 papers to describe in incremental terms. Most of the comments he got during his career were on his most technical papers, not his general ones.

If his detractors think his science is garbage, “how much longer can they keep saying it?” Sooner or later it will no longer be news. He’s received 15,000 e-mails from people who want to know more about how to apply his discoveries, and who would he rather spend time with, them or detractors from the science establishment?

Originally posted 2-14-2003.

For a more detailed book review, see Cosma Shalizi, "A Rare Blend of Monster Raving Egomania and Utter Batshit Insanity" (10-21-2005).

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Book / "Quantum Philosophy" by Roland Omnes (1999)

Omnes is a French physicist, who has written several other books on quantum interpretation.

He ambitiously recaps all of philosophy and math, shows how it is destroyed by quantum logic, and then reconstructs common sense using quantum concepts. Definitely worth reading, as it really takes the quantum bull by the horns, as it were.

Most of our experience seems to be the product of decoherence, a very fast and efficient effect that destroys the superpositions of states. Under any kind of pressure, such as air molecules, or the friction of the pivot of the instrument needle, the multi state decoheres in 10^-16 sec or less, which has been directly observed.

The cat dies and stays dead, because the chance of getting its "live" wave function back is practically zero. If the "cat" consisted of only 2-3 atoms, we might be able to restore it from its state of uncertainty.

Originally posted 8-1-2004.

Book / "The Diamond Age" by Neal Stephenson (1995)

This futuristic novel is a solid read all the way through with many nice literary touches. Published in 1995 and set in the late 21st century, it calls the internet right, and portrays a world dominated by nanotechnology, where anyone can visit a public "matter compiler" and request any basics they need, like food and clothing, free of charge.

It is a strange -Topia, neither Eu- nor Dys-. Nanotech has greatly improved everyone's lives, but there is still a lot of poverty and squalor. Those who are well off can style their lives any way they like, and people have arranged themselves into cultural enclaves rather than old style nation states.

A complex plot unfolds in which a top nanotech engineer creates a special book, really a super-powerful computer, at the behest of a great "equity lord" to teach a young girl about life, and to have some spunk. Yet due to a turn of events, this magic and subversive book ("The Young Lady's Primer") winds up in the hands of a poor little girl living a horrible life in the bad section of town.

The Primer tells her a long, complex, dark, "unreconstructed Grimm Brothers" fairy tale that mirrors her life, including her toy friends, with user participation and lots of factual instruction. By the end of the novel (and of the fairy tale) the little girl's life has been totally transformed, along with those of thousands of other little girls, and the world at large, and the Princess Nell of the fairy tale is now a real world Queen Nell.

While Stephenson calls advanced nano reasonably well, he flubs quantum computing, which will no doubt be a big thing by then. Also it is far from clear that the internet will lead to the collapse of nation states, but who knows? There's still time.

Issue / Mini Dialog on Solipsism

Q: So you think there are these objects, which exist outside of yourself? When did you first start seeing them? A: Oh, maybe around the age of 3-6 months I started noticing and paying attention to them. Especially my mother, who was producing me, she was very noticeable.

Q: And what convinced you to consider them as "real"? A: Well, there is this suite (or group) of space time translation operations that can be applied to them. Also my nervous system has a lot of redundancy, and gets the simple stuff right most of the time.

Q: And that convinced you? A: Also everyone in the society around me made a big deal out of them, so I had to go along with that. For all I know they might be an illusion, perhaps consisting of pure information, but I've never been able to break out of my conditioned responses.

Q: And so you act as if they are real and outside of you? A: Then I read some science books where they claimed to have demonstrated that the Earth was 4 billion years old. Their proof seemed overwhelming, so I decided the Earth would still be around after I was dead, and I was not producing it, it was producing me.

Q: But what is your criterion for belief in them? A: Like I said, space time translation, basic neural reliance, social pressure, impressive demonstrations, and lack of time to devise an alternative view.

Q: What about the new creationist theme parks, that show how G-d created the dinosaurs before the Flood? A: I'm aware of those models, but they don't produce fast answers to all questions raised by the evidence. Hence they do not enhance survival, but are parasitic on scientific society. They do however demonstrate the social aspect of beliefs.

Originally posted 5-22-2004.

Movie / Aeon Flux

This is a perfectly decent, cartoon like, science fiction adventure film, set 400 years in the future. I can't fathom why the producers pushed it out without critical previews. Nor can I fathom why the reviewers trashed it. The advance reviews on "Cool News" (which never hesitates to call Turkey!) were respectful, as were the initial viewer comments on IMDB.

The show was well attended, in a large hall. Sure I could think of a dozen things that could have been better, and sure all the bad guys were bad shots, but that's no worse than 1000s of other films. It was a good bit more novel and mind teasing than any of the recent Star Wars films.

The film is based on an animated series that appeared on MTV, which I had never heard of, but its plot has been "reimagined," and frankly I found the whole thing fun and refreshing. Any film that tries to project out 400 years is well advised to keep it light, and not get too complex on the technology, because it's too risky. Better to stick with eternal tried and true themes, like love that lasts forever.

The 90 minute film briskly tracks its "120 page script," but the plot is quite complex and would require several long sentences to summarize. Each major character experiences a number of reversals as the story unfolds. The ending is definitely not obvious, contra some critics.

Charlize Theron occupies the screen much of the time, wearing a spandex and leather body suit, what else? It's not difficult to imagine her getting injured and delaying filming for a month, in view of the large number of acrobatic jumping and climbing scenes. Her opposite number probably has a nice career ahead of him, since he looks (to me) like a younger James Garner. There is one tasteful sex scene, and ample cartoon violence, but no personalized suffering.

Originally posted 12-4-2005.

Movie / Mirrormask

Wow. This film was awesome, one of my lifetime best, way too good for the general public, so only playing at one art theater. A must-see for young ladies with artistic ability.

A teenage girl, with strong artistic talent, belongs to a family that runs a small (but tasteful) circus in England. Already beset by the issues of growing up, she experiences more stress when her mother falls seriously ill. Whereupon she enters a dream world of endless visual inventiveness, puppets, animations, live characters in strange get-ups, and herself walking around in bunny slippers.

Produced by the Jim Henson company, the puppets, costumes, and ever changing scenes are at the level of fine art, as is the musical score, a combination of modern jazz and lots of modern serious, i.e., Bartok-like themes. (Break out the single malt scotch.) Not your typical American film.

In the World of Light the White Queen (her mother) lies alseep and dying, and the Dark Princess (there are "wanted" posters for her everywhere, bearing the girl's face) has stolen the charm that balances the worlds. Without it the World of Shadows, ruled by the Black Queen (also her mother) is rapidly growing and destroying the World of Light. Early on it becomes apparent that these worlds and their inhabitants are based on the girl's prolific artworks, the memory of which helps her find her way through them.

As she looks through windows from time to time, she sees back into her real world bedroom, and the struggles she's going though there, with her light versus dark sides, leading to her ultimate triumph in bringing them back together again.

Originally posted 10-5-2005.

Movie / Serenity

Wow! This film earns its 5-star rating. It's got everything -- a brain damaged psychic 17 year old girl with super human combat skills, whose brother is young Dr Kildaire, a Millennium Falcon space ship piloted by a Han Solo lookalike with a crew of Vogue models and and Marlboro men, an evil big brother empire that wants to program everyone into subservient mush, a race of hideous outcasts that devour their victims, a super smooth hit man sent by the empire, a computer hacker with a cute robotic girlfriend, a deep dark secret, and so on. Combines the best elements of The Matrix, Blade Runner, Star Wars, and Alien. No sex but tons of violence, definitely not for younger kids.

Originally posted 10-25-2005.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Book / Warped Passages by Lisa Randall

Last year Harvard President Larry Summers ignited a firestorm when he suggested there might be innate reasons why women were underrepresented in the upper ranks of hard science and math. Presumably Lisa Randall of the Harvard Physics Dept. is the exception, since her papers on theoretical physics have been cited 1,000s of times.

I will not try to summarize this book, which would take too long. I found the first 1/3 to 1/2 rather tedious and sub-par, because she covers a lot of ground that will be familiar to readers of other popular physics books, without adding anything new or doing an especially good job. I found her analogies nebulous, despite having somewhat of a woman's touch. Fortunately it gets much better later on, when she talks about her own work, how it fits in, and where it may lead.

After a refreshing denunciation of string theory, in which she explains how they are all stuck in a tree (with a top down approach) and there is no reason to believe they will ever get anywhere, she outlines her "model building" approach, which is to try and develop notions of how extra dimensions might work, possibly including the concept of branes (which overlap with string theory), and how they can be used to model the "next phase" of particle physics, including predictions that might be testable in the forthcoming Large Hadron Collider (LHC). These are reasonably cool ideas, and it looks like she may be onto something.

The goals of a credible model, we infer, are to (1) reproduce the "Standard Model" of particle physics (quarks and such), (2) not violate cosmology, and (3) shed some light on major riddles, notably the "hierarchy problem," or why is gravity so weak compared to the other three forces, and the Planck Mass so huge? She postulates an extra dimension, or several variations thereof, into which gravity can heavily leak away, while everything else looks the same. The concept of supersymmetry, which has never been proven, is jettisoned.

Useful ideas I got from this book relate to how extra-dimensional objects would look. If you lived in a 2-dimensional "Flatland" and a 3-dimensional sphere passed through your plane, it would look like a circle that expands, contracts, and then disappears. Likewise if a 4-sphere passes through our 3-brane, it will look like a sphere that expands and contracts. Extra-dimensional particles, if we can create them, will "appear" as missing mass/energy in particle traces. A stationary object with momentum in another dimension (even a rolled up one) will seem heavier, and its motion along another dimension (an extended or infinite one) could be modeled as color change.

Randall criticizes the excessive faith in string theory, which has led some universities such as Princeton to focus solely on string theory, to the exclusion of her preferred "model building" at energy levels that have some hope of being tested. However, she makes no reference to loop quantum gravity (LQG). This book is basically a vanity piece to publicize her predictions prior to the LHC coming on stream. Still she should have at least mentioned LQG, which offers a competing theory of gravity with plenty of substance, and not doing so seems cowardly to me.

Net-net: This popular book provides an overview of a "model building" approach to physics (at soon-to-be-achieved energy levels) that is neither string theory nor LQG, and hence is recommended (as an antidote to both of them) for those interested in expanding their views of modern physics.

(See also my related posting on the perils of "Micro Black Holes," based on a quote from this book.)