Mar 122011

I've been reading on what current physics say about the possibility of time travel. There are three ways that you could create a closed-timelike-curve which would allow traveling back in time. One is a gravitational wormhole – made by combining a black hole and a white hole. Hard to do – because you need a LOT of negative energy to keep it open. We know negative energy can exist – we've MADE It in laboratories, but you'd need a LOT – for a warp-drive you'd need about 10-billion times hte mass of the universe worth (oops).

Then there is a magnetic wormhole – much easier to do (doesn't need negative energy) but it does need a shitload of magnetism and the length of the wormhole is inversely proportionate to how much you have. Any wormhole made with the magnets we got today would have to be about 150 lightyears long – and magnets all the way from one end to the other… expensive to build methinks. You could probably find short ones on neutron stars – where there is incredible magnetic forces, but since the gravity there will also squash you into a cube about 3mm on a side… not really a safe place to go for a time-trip :P 

Option three is the most practical. Ronald Mallet discovered that  light too can bend space-time, and light can be bent. Light at normal vaccuum speed needs a LOT of energy to bend, but we CAN slow light down, Harvard experiments have managed to bring it down to below the speed of sound using Bose-Einstein concentrate. True that exists near absolute zero – but it's already more practical.

A bent light time-machine is by far the simplest, make a circle out of it, and walk along the donut further and further into the past until you step out. It's still beyond current technology but out of all the options – the one which has the fewest practical problems to overcome, and most likely the closest to being practical to build. 

All three however have one major problem – none of them will let you travel back any further than the moment of their construction. You can always go back AS FAR AS the time you first built it… but never earlier than that.

Bringing us to my point… I can't possibly be the only one who has noticed that this ENTIRELY solves the cumulative audience paradox and partially the grandfather paradox can I ? Why don't we have records of millions of time-travelers witnessing the birth of Christ ? Because time machines built say in 2020, can never go back to the birth of Christ. They are great if you keep them running for a while and you want to go back from 2065 to 2020 – but you can't GO back far enough. This solves the cumulative audience paradox for all historic events prior to their construction (and thus any historic events we can currently use to state that this paradox even exists).

As for the grandfather paradox – it rules it out entirely for the constructors (they are already conceived and born by the time they built it, they can't go back far enough to prevent it, and it only enters again if it's kept running enough for a future time traveler who was conceived AFTER it's construction to use it to prevent said conception happening. Of course, this may or may not be possible, either way to build and keep running such a device would in all cases be expensive and one can therefore imagine that is' use would be rather well regulated. Whoever i s paying ot keep it going over numerous generations will get to choose who can go back, how far, and for what purpose. Killing your grandfather probably won't get stamped by the managers who will take over :P

Still it does raise the less violent paradox version of a future traveler going back to right after construction and destroying the machine through sabotage, so it never ran long enough for him to have used it that far, so he couldn't have gone back in time to destroy it, but he did, so it did, so … solve that one !

Yeah, I really DO think about this sort of stuff for fun… 


Nov 292010

Science fiction, everybody knows it's a genre of fiction that is only enjoyed by weirdo, geeky types – not high literature and not all that great as mindless entertainment either. The characters are shallow (even moreso in Science Fiction Horror films where they are regularly even worse than in other horror), the plotlines predictable… well basically it's soap opera's in space right ?

Oh how wrong. As a few English literature professors to name their top ten greatest pieces of literature from the 20th century and two books are almost guaranteed to be on both lists. Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a strange land" and J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings" – one science fiction, one fantasy – both prescribed works for every literature degree in the world today, as important to the history of English literature as Shakespeare.

So it seems that science fiction can in fact be high literature. Stranger in a strange land is particularly telling – it is set against what was, at the time of writing, one of the most overdone memes in the genre: crude humans attempting to interact with a much more advanced and civilized Martian culture. 

Yet on this meager basis is crafted a tale that is not only very good fiction (I'm quite shocked that there is no film of it – perhaps because it's just too deeply honest) but one of the best studies of true human nature. It was not only a literary masterpiece – it was also a bestseller in the popular mind and to this day the term "grok" which it gave us remains in use (though it's not longer quite so strong a counterculture as it was in the 70's). 

So science fiction is in fact very often very good fiction. Stranger in a strange land is just the most powerful example but no such discussion would be complete without mentioning Arthur C. Clarke and many other greats of the genre. Science Fiction it seems can be truly great fiction.

But how about the science ? Again there is the good and the bad. Among true science fiction aficionados the vast majority of the science fiction that gets made on television or in film are considered the worst of the genre – not least for frequently being ignorant of science. When the science fiction has bad science, people tend to complain. Rare exceptions are allowed where the fiction is so good that we don't mind if the science is flagrantly ignoring the laws of physics. Firefly springs to mind, and the way most S.F. fans are prepared to forgive George Lucas for putting sound in space, their stories we love for their exceptional fiction – not their particularly good science… which is why none of us will ever forgive him for Jar-Jar Binks ! 

In fact – with good science fiction we find an incredible complicity between science and science fiction. Science inspires science fiction – which inspires young people to become scientists and engineers – often with the dream of perhaps helping to realize some of those stories they loved so much in their youth. 

This explains at least in part why so much of science fiction's impossible predictions do end up coming true in time. Verne predicted submarines nearly 80 years before we could build one – and got the majority of the details right ! When we did build one, we named it the Nautilus, after the fictional ship of Captain Nemo in "20 thousand leagues under the sea". Verne's "Paris 1930", written in the 1800's  was never published (though the manuscript survives) the publisher didn't believe anybody would be convinced that by 1930 Paris would be a city with electric streetlights and people driving self-powered vehicles (the book was written well before the invention of either the lightbulb or the car). 

Verne even wrote about a moonlanding, he predated rockets by a bit too much and his space ship was basically fired from a huge gun. Even then – he correctly predicted the location from where we actually did go to the moon nearly a hundred years later: Florida. The closest point in the USA to the equator. Verne knew, as NASA later did, that the closer you are to the equator the less energy you need to reach escape velocity (Newtonian physics explains why – look it up if you really must know).

And Jules Verne was probably the first science fiction author to ever live. Others who followed would go further. Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2001 before the Moonlanding, and in the introduction to the sequel 2010 he writes that the moonlanding came ten years earlier than expected (it happened between the two books) and he adjusted his expectations accordingly. Sadly Clarke's vision was then rather too optimistic. The next few decades did not build on the Apollo 11 landing as it should have, but not because of technology problems (most of Clarke's predictions are now recognized as very likely) instead – politics got in the way.

Much later Clarke would complete the trilogy with 3001, in which his lost astronaut returns to earth a thousand years from now… to find a human civilization with ideas and technology that while far removed from our own is not only feasible but feels… likely.

And then there are those who take it all to a whole new level. Orson Scott  Card springs to mind here, the series he began with Ender's game followed Einsteinian physics meticulously – ships were constrained by lightspeed but made use of time dilation – so a trip that took 80 years would feel to the passengers like it took a few months. In this manner humanity ultimately colonizes other planets, it's an idea that is obvious to any physicist as a possible approach but it does have downsides – for returning home it means a good chance of coming back to a planet where everyone you love is dead. Card realized however that it makes colonization of other planets feasible – colonists generally don't plan return trips after all. Then Card predicted a method for faster-than-light communications so these ships could still publish books and such. For this he invented the philote -most fundamental particle of all, and how it could be split. If you split a philote, and twisted one half – the other half would twist by the same degree regardless of how far away it may be. 

He called this link an "ansible". Remarkably – modern quantum physics actually allows for exactly that, the names are different and we do it with electrons – but the methodology does in fact work and forms a crucial part of quantum encryption technologies, quantum computing and indeed quantum teleportation. Currently it is crude and costs a fortune to build – but there seems to be no practical reason why an ansible based on quantum interference could not be possible in future, and perhaps even allow faster-than-light communications, all without ever breaking Einstein's laws. The information isn't traveling, the matter is simply doing what matter does in a quantum universe.[1]

Star Trek and the like invented warp drives to get around Einstein – and this inspired real phycisist to study their feasibility. Mathematically at least, it turns out warp drives do work  ! You can trap yourself in a bubble of space time and then move that around – there is no limit to the speed at which space-time can move. Of course, that revealed a major catch: warp-drives create an event horizon… so our starship Captain will be flying blind and couldn't steer the ship. Not perhaps entirely impossible to get around, one could still potentially fire up the warp drive on some sort of pre-programmed route that automatically exits warp at the right time – though doing so without already knowing exactly what's on the other side would be risky in the extreme – not exactly ideal for exploration missions.

Science and science fiction – complicitely driving each other forward toward a better future for mankind… isn't that nice, and in the meantime – we get some of the greatest books ever written. Sometimes it's more science than good fiction. Asimov fell into that trap a few times – he was a great scientist himself and his books are excellent and believable science, but the fiction is often strenuous, I find Asimov hard to read as an author. His books are more like philosophy of science textbooks with a parable to explain than like stories… I enjoy them but I can understand why they are not particularly well known outside SF circles. Sometimes the fiction wins (firefly again) – but all the time there is a marriage in S.F. of two of the greatest achievements mankind can claim. Art and Science, and it produces some truly beautiful children. Weirdo geeky fans at conventions notwithstanding.

[1] Just some notes on this – which I felt should be clarified but would bog down the main text. Card wasn't the first to propose the concept and he didn't invent the name either. Card was inspired by the earlier works of Le Guin and in the books themselves subtly reference them as the source of the name although Card's ansible is remarkably better thought out than Le Guin's was and has a more accurate name in the books (ansible is basically the folk name by which people know the product). Quantum teleportation by entanglement is the current physics most like the ansible as a concept. However this may not be capable of superluminal communication at all (the consensus today is 'probably not' but it's by no means a settled question) and more-over current technology cannot maintain quantum entanglement over more than microscopic distances. Card was aware of the quantum physics and built on top of it – if an ansible is possible it will take significant development from what is currently possible and may require physics discoveries not yet made (or very widely anticipated), but since Relativity and Quantum still aren't consistent – we know our physics picture of the universe is incomplete… who knows what the next paradigm shift will bring.[2]

[2] Sorry, but people e-mail me and complain if I don't point this stuff out. At least I put in a footnote, can you imagine how cumbersome it would have been to spell all that out in the article ?

Nov 222010

Paley wrote of the watchmaker some 300 odd years ago, the book that would lay the foundation of the Intelligent Design theorem – today the only theory that even attempts to challenge evolution through natural selection as an explanation for biodiversity. In the 1980's Ricard Dawkins wrote an answer to ID called "The blind watchmaker", indicating how random the process of nature is – how some cells can start of converting light energy into motive energy, become light sensitive cells and then get better and better at it until you get a human eye, all without any plan – simply the pressures of survival consistently favoring those with the edge right now.

And evolution is chaotic (in the mathematical sense – as in chaos theory) because the environment creatures compete in is always changing and their responses change it for other creatures. Bringing Dawkins to declare that evolution is a blind watchmaker, jamming parts together out of whatever is handy and whichever watches do something useful survive. 

In the 1990's an answering book "how blind is the watchmaker" challenged the idea that evolution is random – from an Intelligent Design perspective, attempting to state that there must be perpetual influence because random change simply could not create such organisation. 

I side with evolution – as it stands today (which is a massively refined theory from the days of Darwin's first beginnings with it), but Intelligent Design does claim to be science, it does (mostly) obey the scientific method. Most scientists laugh at it because it's theist views are just a little too obvious and the scientific arguments made are fully debunked by the evolution theory as it stands – and that has a lot of evidence going for it while apparently the only real evidence for ID is it's proponents desperate desire to require God's continuous and permanent intervention in the cells of every single creature on the planet. They may not wish to say it, and asking that their scientific arguments and research be judged as science is fair enough – but there is a point after that where it goes a little wrong.  Scientists do not try to prove their theories. Scientist take observational data and attempt to explain it with a hypothesis. Then they and other scientists do everything they can to try and prove that hypothesis false. Consistent failure to do so is what makes a theory trustworthy (not truth – that doesn't exist) but trustworthy – especially if you keep up on it knowing there will be further refinement as and when new data comes to light.

Intelligent Design proponents are hunting evidence in favor of their theory – instead of doing the scientifically proper thing which is to hunt evidence against it, this is at least part of why evolutionary scientists have such an easy time debunking their arguments every time. Because the evidence against the arguments are consistently easy to find – but the I.D. proponents didn't go look for it, didn't refine their own arguments before presenting them by trying to falsify them – and thus other scientists do it with such ease as to make I.D. look absolutely amateurish. 

But I want to add the next step to the chain and ask. How intelligent is the designer ? This is an important question because it looks at one of the fundamental points of I.D. that life is designed, planned and organized with great and exceptional intelligence – either upfront or through constant intervention, I think that argument itself is intensely egotistical – and what's worse is at odds with the primary theist source for I.D. – Christian Creationism ! 

The fundamental argument in favor of I.D. is how perfect life is developed, how perfectly it fits together.  How perfectly our bodies are designed. But that is just plain wrong. We are very far from perfect, and so is everything else. We are at best a work in progress. Christian Creationism at least offers an explanation for that – we are imperfect, both biologically and spiritually because of original sin. I.D. however wants to be taken seriously as science – ergo it's arguments cannot rely on holy books but must be built on evidence.

If the primary evidence they put forward for design is that such perfection and organisation requires an intelligent designer – then it all falls apart in the absence of perfection. It may be religiously sensible – but it's not science anymore. Unless they can prove a massive past regression in body designs of all living things… then they end up not with an Intelligent Designer but an incredibly stupid one. That is not a line of argument they would push of course, and their theist support would rapidly evaporate if they did – but it's the conclusion their own argument leads to when we consider all the facts. Here I am not talking about diseases and such – those are our interaction with other living organisms and ID would say they are also designed and it all fits. I am talking about design flaws easily visible in the bodies of all creatures – including ourselves, I'll use human bodies as an example though.

Lets just take a few simple examples:

1) The most powerfully evolved (or then designed) part of the human body is our brains – the source of our own intelligence, but our brains get psychotic imbalances all too regularly, they clearly aren't designed to be very resilient even to bad influences from within themselves.  Our computers may not be as fancy – but they are a damn site more reliable. They are a lot harder to fool too. Even our memories are imperfect and often flawed (in extreme cases such as false memory syndrome we can have entire memories that were generated by our brains not only without any real events related to them – but to mask the events that actually happened at those times).

2) The appendix – a body part today which is more of a burden than a boon. It's of so little use to us that it's routinely removed through surgery with no known negative effects whatsoever – but untreated the infections which most of us will get at least once in it, are fatal. Why would an intelligent designer (especially an interventionist one) leave it in us in the first place then ? Evolution has an easy answer – it's not enough of a survival issue to affect breeding and thus doesn't get evolved out (at least, not fast), ID just ignores it.

3) One of the number one causes of death in the world, especially among children, is choking. Why do we choke ? Because the passage way our food takes to get into our digestive tract crosses over our airway. A complex set of valves try to guide it all past without letting it in there but we know this valve system is less than perfectly reliable. It wold have been much more survival beneficial to have practically any other layout of that piping. Many other creatures do have different layouts. None of them are land vertebrates however because this piece of piping belonged to that early fish ancestor who first crawled onto the beaches and gave birth to all land animals – they had it, and everything since then inherited it. We know this because we have their fossils. All their descendents kept that flaw despite being frequently fatal right down to us. Evolution says – it wouldn't evolve away because initially there was nothing else on land to compete with and later their descendents (having been around there longer) were superior in so many other ways it quickly become a major dominant design mostly at competition with itself – and since the problem affected everybody equally despite being a flaw it wasn't big enough to be a sufficiently major determining factor in breeding to ever evolve away. I wrote about this one in by far the most detail -in part because I happen to have the most information on the topic in my general knowledge store and *can* say more about it, but also because it's probably the best example of all. No engineer who has to move two things in pipes that should never mix will ever cross the pipes and rely on taps and valves to close one off when the other is flowing ! Hell no plumber would do that … okay maybe some plumbers would but any other plumber would call them idiots.


Yet I.D. wants us to believe an intelligent designer burdened almost every creature on the planet with these flaws ? They best answer I think they could possibly come up with was "it was on purpose – to help control population rates"… well we already have according to them a designed in flaw to do that, it's called "aging". How many do we need ? Evolution would develop multiple ways to control population growth because it's random and anything that helps prevent overpopulation increases survival rates – it would have numerous partial solutions that add up. I would think an intelligent designer would be quite happy to find one – that there is no defense against and use it. Ageing is no constant – different species have different rates of aging, so obviously I.D. would say this is tweaked to their needs – with such a near perfect mechanism – why do you need a choke-hazard built right in then ? 

The biggest flaw I see in Intelligent Design is this  -if bodies are designed, it was not done very intelligently at all… do you really want to rest your faith on a theory that makes your Deity an idiot? Perhaps all those theists in Europe who long since decided to say "Evolution without direct intervention is gods chosen method" to say that not HAVING to manually intervene proves his greatness more than such interventions would (and every computer programmer would agree) and find God in their hearts without having to try and do war against the evidence of nature have a point after all ? 

Do you really need to control people so badly that you tell them they have free will on the one hand but God is busy messing with the very cells of their bodies every single moment on the other hand ? Aren't those two concepts mutually exclusive ? Quite frankly – evolution is science that does a lot less harm to true faith than I.D. does, I.D. tries to scientifically prove a theory built on a theist ideal – what's worse the ideal of a theism that specifically warns you that you will not be able to prove it, that has entire passages in it's holy book declaring the futility of seeking evidence as the very reason why faith in it has virtue.

That ideal – noble as it is in church, is not compatible with science. So do science in the science lab, religion in the church. When it comes to mundane matters of operation – trust the science. Science can tell us how we got here (or at least how we PROBABLY got here – there are currently a few alternative theories to the big bang that are solid science with as much going for it and choosing one definitively again will take some time while we gather more data), but it cannot tell you WHY we got here. String theory tries but just leaves an even bigger why… WHY string theory  then ? 

Religion does answer "why". If you're a believer – take all the comfort in that "why" that you want to – secure in the knowledge that science cannot answer it or disprove it, will not try to, and doesn't care because it isn't something science can affect, your heart is as valuable a measurement tool for it's worth as anything else so you may as well trust it. If you're an atheist well you can take comfort in knowing that none of those answers to "why" has any proof there is no solid reason except personal comfort for the believers to pick one over the other – so you don't need to feel any obligation to pick one at all.

Voila, we can all get along… In practice too many theists (bad ones really but no less influential for that) find that picking fights with others (other theisms and science alike) is far too efficient a source of economic and political power to ever accept such simple rationality.

So they will throw their weight behind dead end theories like I.D. as long as it suits them… when ultimately I.D. is down to just D and the D is looking less and less possible, they will be ready to pick a fight with somebody else and they probably wouldn't have finished that fight with they gays yet so … well you get the point.

EIther way, if you're a rational thinker who likes getting along with people, whether you're a believer or not… recognize I.D for what it is, a dead-end last-ditch attempt to challenge the evolution that happens in nature with something theists and scientific and it's not going to work for all the reasons I already gave. Acceptance and tolerance actually works better than trying to argue against the guys with the evidence.