Archive for the ‘Science’ Category

The ghost in the machine

March 25, 2023

Research into artificial intelligence has created something that is either (1) in some sense, a super intelligent sentient being, or (2) an imitation of a sentient being that is so good that it is impossible to tell the difference.

An AI known as ChatGPT-3 has taught itself to write poetry and computer code even though not specifically programmed to do so.  It expresses emotion and makes moral judgments of users.

I’ve provided samples in previous posts.  So has “Nikolai Vladivostok,” in a post I highly recommend reading.

Is the new AI just a version of auto-correct, with capabilities raised many, many orders of magnitude?  Or is it actually alive, under some definition of “alive”?

Whichever it is, something strange and powerful is being created that we the human race don’t understand and can’t fully control, and yet we are racing to find ways to make it more powerful and embed it in our society.

Some people fear an all-powerful AI awakening and deciding to dispense with the human race.  Others fear the “paperclip apocalypse,” that a super intelligent AI is given a mission, such as making paperclips, and it runs amok and turns the whole world into paperclips.

I don’t have the knowledge to judge the likelihood of these particular threats.  I’m just saying that, as a matter of common sense, it is unwise to entrust key functions of society to entities we don’t understand and to let loose forces we may not be able to control.

A wise society would call a temporary halt to AI development until we can assess what we have got, then proceed cautiously step-by-step, if at all.  Yet there is no mechanism for doing this.

If a researcher holds back from enhancing AI, some other researcher will get ahead of him.  If a business, army, espionage organization, advertising agency, etc., holds back from using AI, a rival business, army, espionage organization, advertising agency, etc. will get ahead of it.  

It is the age-old dilemma of the arms race – bad for all of us collectively, yet dangerous individually to refuse to join in.

Source: U.S. Copyright Office.


Just to keep things in perspective

January 28, 2023

Hat tip to The Kids Should See This.

Science in a divided Europe

January 25, 2023

Atlas particle detector at CERN. Source: The Guardian

Some Western scientists working on CERN’s Large Hadron Collider in Switzerland don’t want their names to appear on the same scientific papers as Russian scientists.  The result is that scientific papers written there aren’t getting published at all.

CERN – the European Organization for Nuclear Research – is supported by 22 European countries plus Israel.  Ukraine is an associate member.  Russia has observer status, and CERN has cooperation agreements with Belarus and a number of other countries.  CERN has decided end Russia’s observer status and Belarus’ cooperation agreement when they expire in two years.

This is part of a wider pattern.   Eleni Petrakou wrote in the Guardian:

Although unique, the case of the LHC experiments is part of a wider trend. The German Research Foundation has warned scientists against publishing with co-authors from Russian institutes. The Web of Science database tracking citations has stopped evaluating articles from Russia. There have been reports of individual peer-review referees rejecting articles.

And as Russian institutes are getting excluded from international projects, some fields see a direct impact – such as climate change research, which is being set back by the suspension of collaboration in the Arctic.

That’s sad.  There was a time when science was international.  Even during the Cold War, some American and Soviet physicists tried to keep in contact. 


Splitting the atomic scientists: how the Ukraine War ruined physics by Eleni Petrakou for The Guardian.

The Zipf file

December 6, 2022

The word “the” is the most commonly used word in the English language. The second most used word is “of” and it occurs half as many times as “the.” The third most used word, “and,” occurs a third as many times, the fourth most used word, “a,” occurs a fourth as many times, and so on down through the whole English language.

This pattern is called Zipf’s Law, named for George Kingsley Zipf, an American linguist who popularized the pattern and sought to explain it.  Zipf claimed that Zipfian distribution applies to a lot of things.  

For example, he claimed the largest city in a country is roughly twice as populous as the second largest city, three times as large as the third largest, four times as large as the fourth largest, and so on.  This isn’t always true, but the pattern appears surprisingly often.  It is a rule of thumb, like the Pareto Principle.

Is this really a law?  If so, why?  What are the implications?  One of them, it seems to me, is that all other things being equal, there will be a drift towards extreme income inequality – which doesn’t mean that extreme income inequality is inevitable or justified.  What do you think?

Why people believe the earth is flat

November 12, 2022

Millions of people believe the earth is flat.  This is a new thing, not the continuation of an age-old belief.  Christopher Columbus understood the world was round, and so did Plato and Dante.

A YouTube journalist named Johnny Harris explained how this belief arose in modern times, and the reasoning behind it.

The universe’s strangest substance

October 15, 2022

Water has many strange properties, including a high surface tension, an ability to dissolve more things than any other common liquid, and a solid state (ice) that floats.  These strange properties come from water’s simple structure.   Its atoms form a chevron shape with a slightly negatively charged oxygen and positive hydrogens.  This allows water to bind to and dissolve both negatively and positively charged molecules.

Meanwhile, the hydrogen of one water molecule is attracted to the oxygen of another.  Within a liquid these attractions briefly hold the molecules together, generating the high surface tension.  This network is frozen in place when the water is cooled, leaving large gaps. As a result, the sponge-like ice floats on the liquid. In contrast, other chemicals form tightly packed solid crystals that are more dense than the liquid and so sink.

Why is water so strange? by Dr Mark Lorch for BBC Science Focus Magazine.

Water: the weirdest liquid on the planet by Alok Jha for The Guardian.

Chemicals may be making people obese

September 15, 2022

Roughly 40 percent of American high school students were overweight by the time they started high school.  An estimated one-third of American youth age 17-24 are ineligible for military service because of obesity.

Worldwide, the incidence of obesity has tripled since the 1970s.  Experts estimate that by 2030, one billion people worldwide will be obese.

This matters.  Obesity is related to high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease and other serious health problems.

Part of the reason for the obesity increase is that, compared to previous generations, people nowadays are more sedentary and eat more processed foods high in sugar, fat and salt.  But this can’t be the whole reason.

In the USA, the rise in obesity affects not only people, but their cats and dogs, and rats and mice in the wild.  It affects laboratory animals that are fed controlled diets.

Mark Buchanan of Bloomberg News reported that some scientists think obesity is caused by chemicals called “obesogens,” which, even in tiny amounts, boost the production of specific cell types and fatty tissue.

An example is a chemical called tributyltin, or TBT, which is found in wood preservatives.  In experiments exposing mice to low and supposedly safe levels of TBT, a scientist named Bruce Blumberg and his colleagues at the University of California, Irvine, found significantly increased fat accumulation not only in the exposed mice, but in the next three generations.

TBT and other obesogens trigger such effects by interfering directly with the normal biochemistry of the endocrine system, which regulates the storage and use of energy, as well as human eating behavior, Buchanan wrote.

Obesogen chemicals are found in plastic packaging, clothes and furniture, cosmetics, food additives, herbicides and pesticides.  Buchanan said nearly 1,000 obesogens have been identified in studies with animals or humans.  

That would explain why laboratory animals get fat.  There might be obesogens in their food or the structure of their cages.

If this is true, it is a big, big problem.  Fixing it would require a virtual revolution in testing and manufacturing.


Plastic Might Be Making You Obese by Mark Buchanan for Bloomberg News.  Another version.

Plastic Might Be Making You Fat by Alex Tabbarok for Marginal Revolution.

The Animals Are Also Getting Fat by Alex Tabbarok for Marginal Revolution. (2013)

Why aren’t medical breakthroughs in obesity a bigger deal? by Matthew Yglesias for Grid.  [Added 09/17/2022]

The James Webb Space Telescope

July 18, 2022

The successful launch of the James Webb Space Telescope was a great morale booster for me.  It showed that my country, the USA, is still capable of great national achievements.

It is a million miles from the earth’s surface—four times as far away as the moon.  Unlike the Hubble Space Telescope, which was 300 miles above the earth, it couldn’t have been repaired if anything went wrong.

The telescope detects stars and galaxies more than a billion light-years away, which means it sees them as they were billions of years ago.

When our civilization is no more, the Webb telescope will still be in orbit, a symbol of the effort the human species was willing to make in order to understand the universe they live in.  

Project workers overcome great difficulties.  Just one is that the telescope components were refrigerated as close to absolute zero as possible because the telescope detects infra-red rays and anything that has the slightest degree of heat gives off infra-red rays.

The PBS video gives an excellent account of the project and the challenges it overcame.  This shows, too, that PBS is still capable of great journalism.

It does note that the project was behind schedule and over budget.  There was a plausible case for abandoning it, but in this case the correct decision was to persevere and got it done right.

PBS went out of its way to show the racially diverse nature of project workers, which is fine.  I’m inspired by examples of people from different backgrounds working together for the common good.

Also, this was not an exclusively American project.  The Webb telescope was launched with Ariane booster rockets, which were developed by the European Space Agency, from France’s launch site in French Guiana.

Whether or not you have time to watch the entire PBS video, I recommend you read Lambert Strether’s and Silas Laycock’s posts about the project.


The Incredibly Cool James Webb Space Telescope by “Lambert Strether” for naked capitalism.

James Webb Space Telescope: An astronomer explains the stunning, newly released first images by Silas Laycock for The Conversation.

Science saves lives

May 28, 2022

Feynman’s ode to the wonder of life

April 24, 2022

The following words are from an address to the National Academy of Sciences in 1955.  Get details from The Marginalian.

by Richard Feynman

I stand at the seashore, alone, and start to think. There are the rushing waves… mountains of molecules, each stupidly minding its own business… trillions apart… yet forming white surf in unison.

Ages on ages… before any eyes could see… year after year… thunderously pounding the shore as now. For whom, for what?… on a dead planet, with no life to entertain.

Never at rest… tortured by energy… wasted prodigiously by the sun… poured into space. A mite makes the sea roar.

Deep in the sea, all molecules repeat the patterns of one another till complex new ones are formed. They make others like themselves… and a new dance starts.

Growing in size and complexity… living things, masses of atoms, DNA, protein… dancing a pattern ever more intricate.

Out of the cradle onto the dry land… here it is standing… atoms with consciousness… matter with curiosity.

Stands at the sea… wonders at wondering… I… a universe of atoms… an atom in the universe.

The architecture of bubbles

December 11, 2021

Book note: Braiding Sweetgrass

December 9, 2021

BRAIDING SWEETGRASS: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Wisdom of Plants by Robin Wall Kimmerer (2013)

Sweetgrass is an aromatic grass found in Canada and the northern USA.  Indigenous people of the Great Lakes believe it was a gift from Skywoman, a divine being who brought plant life to earth. They pluck the grass reverently, gather it into three bundles and weave it into braids.  Then they make the braids into baskets, which, according to their tradition, should always be given away, never sold for money.

Robin Wall Kimmerer is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation and distinguished teaching professor at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry in Syracuse. In this book, she weaves together three strands—indigenous ways of knowledge, scientific knowledge and stories of her own life and lives of her ancestors.

She does not draw a line between humanity and the natural world; she sees them as parts of the same thing.  She does not draw a line between scientific knowledge and indigenous knowledge; she sees them as two ways of understanding the same reality.  

Indigenous knowledge has its own validity; scientific knowledge has its own beauty and awesomeness.  But both are needed.  Neither one is a substitute for the other.

She weaves her book out of many strands—myth, history, botanical lore, cultural survival, environmental and ecological issues, and her own experiences.   It is a rich tapestry, and I’ll only pick out a couple of the strands.

One strand is the Indian idea of the Honorable Harvest.  The idea is that it is permissible for humans use plants and animals to serve their own needs, but it has to be done with restraint and gratitude.

The rules are: Never take the first thing you find, because it may be the only one.  Never take more than half of what you find.  Never take more than you need.  Show respect and express gratitude for what you are given.  And give back as well as take.

This is a form of reverence for life that embraces acceptance of the fact of death.  Some sweetgrass has to be plucked or else the rest will not get enough sunlight and nutrients.  Some deer must fall to predators or hunters, or else the herd will starve.  My life and yours must end someday, or else there will be no room for new people.

Even if we get what we need from the supermarket rather than the forest, we can show gratitude and avoid greed and waste.

Another strand is the idea that plants are teachers.  Kimmerer shows the grandeur of cedar trees and the amazing tenacity of lichen and moss, but there is more to it than that.

It is a wonder and a mystery that living things can be brought into existence by the photosynthesis of light, air and water.  If it weren’t familiar, we’d call it a miracle.

Nor are plants passive entities.  They move and adapt to their environments, although at a pace of seasons and decades, not seconds and minutes.  They communicate and cooperate, using biochemistry instead of words and gestures.  Indeed, as she wrote, plants can be our teachers.


Coffee, the modern world and me

July 24, 2021

The following is from an article called “The plants that change our consciousness” by Sophia McBain in the New Statesman.

It is no coincidence that caffeine and the minute-hand on clocks arrived at around the same historical moment, the acclaimed food and nature writer Michael Pollan argues in his latest book, This is Your Mind on Plants

Both spread across Europe as laborers began leaving the fields, where work is organised around the sun, for the factories, where shift-workers could no longer adhere to their natural patterns of sleep and wakefulness.

Would capitalism even have been possible without caffeine?  The introduction of caffeine to Europe in the early 17th century coincided with the waning of the mystical medieval mindset and the rise of the cool-headed rationalism of the Enlightenment.

Before the arrival of tea and coffee, alcohol was the safest thing to drink – or at least, safer than most water – so perhaps it is little wonder that the permanently sozzled intellectuals of the Middle Ages were prone to magical thinking.  In contrast, caffeine can intensify “spotlight consciousness,” which illuminates a single point of attention, enhancing our reasoning skills.

Voltaire had such faith in coffee’s power to sharpen his mind that he is said to have drunk up to 72 cups a day.  Balzac sometimes dispensed with drinking coffee altogether and instead ate the grounds for a more powerful hit.


Coming up: a blood moon and a lunar eclipse

May 25, 2021

Wonders never crease.  A blood moon, a “supermoon” and a lunar eclipse will happen together on May 26.

Blood Moon – Red Moon – Total Lunar Eclipse by Apama Kher for

A “supermoon” and a lunar eclipse are both happening on May 26 – Here’s Why by Brian Resnik for Vox.

Super Lunar Event: Supermoon! Red Blood Lunar Eclipse All Happening at Once – Here’s What It Means by Shannon Schmoll for SciTech Daily.

There are degrees of infinity

May 22, 2021

I suspect that infinity is something that the human mind cannot grasp.

I am certain that infinity is something that my particular mind cannot grasp.

The bizarre behavior of rotating bodies

May 3, 2021

I found this fascinating.  Maybe you will, too.  Hat tip to

Illusion, reality and perception

April 24, 2021

How the universe marches in step

April 10, 2021

What do swaying bridges, flashing fireflies, clapping audiences, the far side of the Moon, and beating hearts have in common? Their behavior all has something to do with synchronization. In this video, Veritasium explains why and how spontaneous synchronization appears all the time in the physical world.

Source: The Secret of Synchronization on

Existential threats to humanity, in rank order

December 16, 2020

The Chart of Doom: Ranking Apocalypses by Jason Kottke for

What are the elements good for?

May 3, 2020

Double click to enlarge

The deep strangeness of life in the deep sea

November 9, 2019

Hat tip to Jason Kottke.

The most impressive thing about life in the deepest ocean depths is that it exists at all.

Alternate history and ancient science

June 14, 2019

Alternate history is one of the most popular types of science fiction.  It is based on speculation as to what would have happened if history had been different from what it was – if the Axis had won World War II, or if the South had won the U.S. Civil War.

CELESTIAL MATTERS by Richard Garfinkle (1996) is a work of both alternate history and alternate science.  I read it with great pleasure when it first came out, and reread it with pleasure recently.

The alternate history is what would have happened if the ancient Greek culture had not self-destructed during the Peloponnesian Wars.  

The alternate science is what the world would be like if ancient Greek science were correct—if matter consisted of the four elements of earth, air, fire and water, if the sun, moon and planets revolved around the earth, if medical theories of the “humors” were true, if life could be created through spontaneous generation.

In the novel, the Delian League, the alliance of the Greek city-states formed after the defeat of the Persian invasion, did not become a vehicle for Athenian domination, but was an equal alliance of Athenian thought and Spartan valor that endured for a thousand years.

Alexander of Macedon, influenced by his wise tutor Aristotle, did not attempt to conquer Greece, but joined the Delian League.  He did not cut the Gordian Knot, but allowed Aristotle to gently untie it.  He conquered not only Persia but India, lived to a ripe old age and set up an enduring stable government.

The Delian League’s only rival was the Middle Kingdom, whose technology was based on Taoist principles of Yin and Yang and “xi” force.

The novel’s protagonist, Aias of Tyre, is a scientific officer on an expedition to the Sun to obtain solar fire to use as a high-tech weapon against the Taoists.  The principles of space flight in the novel, of course, have nothing to do with gravity or Newton’s laws of motion.

Alas has to contend with Taoist attacks, sabotage by a secret traitor, personality conflicts in the high command and his doubts about the possible blasphemy against the divine Apollo—not to mention his growing attraction to the female Spartan officer appointed as his bodyguard.

The Greek gods exist and speak to him and other characters, but as voices and images in their minds.  Each of the gods represents a separate aspect of life and of the good.

This is not a novel for everyone, but if this is the kind of novel you enjoy, you will enjoy Celestial Matters a lot.

The next ten billion years.

May 17, 2019

The only thing certain about the future is that this, too, shall pass away.  To get an idea of what that may mean, click on The Next Ten Billion Years by John Michael Greer on The Archdruid Report.  It’s not that his specific predictions are sure to come true, although there’s no specific reason why they couldn’t.  It’s that almost everything we think is important is just a blip in the cosmic scheme of things.

The planet closest to Earth isn’t Venus or Mars

March 30, 2019

The order of the planets’ orbits going outward from the Sun is Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.  The orbit of Venus is a little closer to the orbit of Earth than the orbit of Mars is.

But Venus is not our closest neighbor in the Solar System.  Mercury is, most of the time.

The thing many people forgot is that the planets are in motion, and are different distances from each other at different times.  Venus is somewhat closer to the Earth than Mercury when they are both on the same side of the Sun as Earth, but much further away than Mercury when they are on the opposite side of the Sun from Earth.  The video shows how this works.

In fact, Mercury is the closest planet to all the other planets in the Solar System for this reason.

The failure to keep in mind that the planets are constantly changing position in relation to each other invalidates the background (though not the enjoyment) a lot of old-time science fiction.

Most stories with an interplanetary background assume, without spelling it out, that a space voyage from, say, Earth and Mars is like an ocean voyage from Nantucket to Shanghai, a journey between two fixed points.

Instead, how long it would take to get from Planet A to Planet B, and how much trouble it would take, would depend on the date.


Venus is not Earth’s closest neighbor by Tom Stockman, Gabriel Monroe and Samuel Cordner for Physics Today.


From the Big Bang to the origin of humanity

December 22, 2018

This 10-minute history of the universe shows all the amazing things that had to happen in order for the human race—that is, for you and me—to exist.

It’s quite a story.  My question is: Where are we in the story?  Are we near the end?  Or at the beginning?  Or somewhere in the middle?

I grew up reading science fiction, and envisioned the human race spreading out to the planets, then to other solar systems and perhaps other galaxies.  I now realize this can’t be taken for granted, but I also know I don’t have the knowledge to set limits on the future.  If life is a rare event in the universe, could it be the destiny of humanity to spread life beyond its point of origin?

Or are we at the end of the story?  Is it the destiny of the human race to use its intelligence to wipe itself out—through nuclear war, through plague, through runaway global warming or just through loss of the will to live.

Or is the history of civilization is just a blip in the life of a species evolved to be hunter-gatherers?