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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Black Widow Pulsar Gives Fatal Bite to Theory of Cosmological Natural Selection

Faced with the fine-tuning problem of why the universe seems to be so well calibrated to allow the existence of intelligent life, some thinkers have advanced the idea of a multiverse, the idea that there is a vast ensemble of universes. The thinking is that if there are an infinite or nearly infinite number of universes, then we might expect one of them to luckily have just the right conditions allowing for observers. The drawbacks of this approach are many: the nearly infinite baggage of assuming all of those universes, almost all uninhabited; the violation of the principle of Occam's Razor asserting that “entities should not be multiplied beyond necessity” when trying to explain something; the violation of the principle of mediocrity asserting that a random sample from a larger population should be assumed to be representative of the population; the fact that we have never had a verified case of anything being successfully explained by a multiverse; the fact that while the probability of some universe being habitable by chance may be improved by assuming other universes, the probability of any particular universe (including our universe) being habitable by chance is not at all improved by such an assumption, not even by even 1 percent.

Perhaps sensing the weakness of a simple multiverse theory, some theorists have advanced a more complicated theory – a theory they call cosmological natural selection. The idea seems to have first been advanced by the physicist Lee Smolin. In his book Time Reborn, Smolin describes the theory as follows:

The basic hypothesis of cosmological natural selection is that universes reproduce by the creation of new universes inside black holes. Our universe is thus a descendant of another universe, born in one of its black holes, and every black hole in our universe is the seed of a new universe. This is a scenario within which we can apply the principles of natural selection.

Smolin claims to have a theory of how the physics of the universe could evolve through natural selection. But how on earth can we get anything like natural selection out of the idea of new universes being created by the formation of black holes? Smolin gives the following strained reasoning: (1) he claims that the physics that favors a habitable universe are similar to the physics that favor the production of black holes; (2) he claims that a new universe produced by a black hole might have slightly different physics from its parent universe; (3) he claims that random variations in physics that would tend to produce universes that produce more black holes would cause such universes to produce more offspring (more universes); (4) he claims that as a result of this “increased reproduction rate” of some types of universes, we therefore would gradually see the evolution of physical laws and constants that tend to favor the appearance of life and also the production of black holes.

Artist's depiction of black hole (Credit: NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

But there are many holes in this theory based on black holes.

First, let's look at the linchpin claim that a new universe can be produced from the collapse of a huge star to form a black hole. Some analysts let Smolin get away with making this claim, but there is no reason why that should be done. The idea that a new universe can be produced from the collapse of a black hole is a complete fantasy, with no basis in fact. We have no observations to support such a theory.

But let's try to open the door to such an idea. What would it be like if the matter in a collapsing star formed a black hole, and that extreme density of matter caused the surrounding space to be pinched off into its own little bubble? What would we then have? Such a little bubble should not be called a new universe, as that gives a completely misleading idea of some vast area with enough matter to form many galaxies. The bubble would be properly referred to as a spacetime bubble, or a micro-universe.

If such a spacetime bubble were to be formed, what would happen to the matter that was trapped in the black hole? It would be separated from our universe permanently, sealed off in its own little realm. We would no longer observe the gravitational effects of that matter in our universe. We would observe that black holes do not exert gravitational effects once they form. But that is not at all what we observe in regard to black holes. Black holes continue to exert very strong gravitational effects (such as sucking up all nearby gas), just as if their matter continued to exist in our universe. In short, our observations are in conflict with the idea that when a massive star collapses to become a black hole, that matter exits our universe to form another universe. Our observations indicate that the matter lost in black holes is still here in our universe.

And what if the matter in a collapsing star were to cause a new universe when a black hole formed, and the matter moved over to that universe? You would then have a tiny little one-star-sized universe. Such a possibility is worthless in explaining our universe, which has the mass of at least 1,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. 

Another problem with Smolin's theory is that it absolutely requires you to believe that our universe has been optimized to produce a maximum number of black holes -- a thesis that is rather implausible given the fact that the nearest black hole is no closer than 1500 light years away, and that only one in about 30,000,000 nearby stars is a black hole.  In fact, other scientists maintain that the universe is not at all optimized to produce black holes. 

Another huge problem with Smolin's idea is that it does not explain how any universe could have originally came to exist in the state in which black holes could exist in it (a state similar to a state in which life could exist in it), a state enormously improbable to occur by chance. Although you may associate the concept of black holes with ideas of chaos, randomness, or disorder, there are actually many requirements that any universe must meet in order for it to have stars that can form into black holes. Smolin lists 6 such requirements on page 36 of this paper, all of which are incredibly lucky long shots. Another requirement is that the proton charge very precisely match the electron charge to many decimal places, for unless you have that coincidence there will never exist the stars from which black holes form.

In our universe the proton charge and the electron charge match to at least eighteen decimal places, and there is every reason to think that this fine balance is necessary for stars to exist. Imagine if the proton charge and the electron charge differed by one part in a trillion. That would be like increasing the electromagnetic forces on a star by one part in a trillion. But the electromagnetic force (one of the four fundamental forces) is about a trillion trillion trillion times greater than the gravitational force (another of the four fundamental forces), which means that even if there were a very tiny difference in the proton charge and the electron charge (say, 1 part in a trillion), the resulting repulsive force would be many, many times greater than the force of gravity holding together stars, and stars could not hold together. Greenstein (a professor emeritus at Amherst) says that the proton charge and the electron charge have to be balanced to 18 decimal places for stars to exist.

So let's imagine a collection or series of universes with random properties. It would require an incredibly unlikely set of conditions for any particular one of these universes to have the conditions necessary to produce black holes – a long shot with odds of no greater than 1 in a billion billion. According to Smolin's theory, once such a universe existed it might begin making copies of itself, as black holes formed new universes. So if you started out with several billion billion universes, a few might produce black holes, and then gradually (according to Smolin's theory), the fraction of the universes that had black holes (and that were compatible with life) might keep getting higher and higher over the eons. Such a theory might comfort some people by making our universe seem not so untypical in a collection of universes. But it would do nothing to explain the original incredibly unlikely long shot.

To give an analogy, imagine you have a book-copying robot which is given a copy of a rare and wonderful book, such as a first edition of Dickens. Such a robot might then make 1000 copies of the book, and stack them on your bookshelf. Seeing all of those copies on your bookshelf, you might then tend to think that the original first edition was not so rare and wonderful, but this machine would not at all explain the origin of the first edition in the first place, something that would be very hard to plausibly explain by any theory of luck.

Smolin claims that one advantage of his theory is that it makes a falsifiable prediction, and in a 2004 paper (page 38) he lists one such prediction:

There is at least one example of a falsifiable theory satisfying these conditions, which
is cosmological natural selection. Among the properties W that make the theory
falsifiable is that the upper mass limit of neutron stars is less than
1.6 solar masses. This and other predictions of CNS have yet to be falsified, but
they could easily be by observations in progress.

But in this 2010 Science Daily piece reported the discovery of a neutron star: The researchers expected the neutron star to have roughly one and a half times the mass of the Sun. Instead, their observations revealed it to be twice as massive as the Sun."

So according to Smolin's own guideline, the theory of cosmological natural selection has been falsified. He said it would be falsified if we discovered any neutron stars greater than 1.6 solar masses, and a neutron star with a mass of 2.0 solar masses has been discovered.

In fact, this paper estimates that a particular neutron star called the black widow pulsar has 2.4 solar masses. In his book Time Reborn, Smolin concedes, “If that finding holds up under more precise measurements, cosmological natural selection will be falsified.”

It would seem that the black widow pulsar has delivered a fatal bite to the theory of cosmological natural selection, somewhat like a black widow spider giving a fatal bite to a human.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Strange Social Practices of the Future

As the future carves out a new and different world for us to live in, we will no doubt change our social practices and attitudes. But in what ways will our customs and attitudes change? Below are a few possibilities.

Work Rationing

Work rationing will be what happens if society discourages people from working more than a certain number of hours per week. We could easily see work rationing if advances in automation cause a big increase in unemployment. Imagine if more and more people are losing their jobs to computers and robots. There could then be new laws that strongly discourage people from working for more than a particular number of hours per week – perhaps 40, perhaps 35, or perhaps 30.

The simplest way to enact a work rationing program would be to enact wage laws that would require not just time and a half for overtime, but double pay or triple pay for overtime. Overtime might be defined as anything more than 40 hours per week, 35 hours, or 30 hours.

Energy Rationing

The last thing anyone wants is to go back to a system like that followed during World War II, in which everyone was issued coupons that had to be produced in order to buy gas. But a practice like this may come back, if dire predictions about Peak Oil come true. The practice could be updated by giving everyone a gas card with a magnetic strip, one that would have to be produced whenever you buy gas. A more general energy rationing program would be one that also rationed air travel. Each citizen might be issued an air travel card entitling him to no more than a certain number of miles of air travel per year.

Drug Legalization

We currently have the huge problem that many millions of Baby Boomers are nearing retirement without much money saved for retirement. Many millions won't be able to afford travel or golf during their golden years. Perhaps the government may deal with the problem by encouraging drug legalization, and encouraging drug use by the elderly.

One can imagine how a cold government bureaucrat might think such a policy was good. From the government's standpoint, it is a tragedy when a young person dies from a drug overdose, because that means a loss of tax revenue. But from the government's standpoint, it is no tragedy when a very old person dies, as that saves the government costs in social security and medicare payments. We can therefore imagine a future government (with grave financial problems) encouraging not just drug use by elderly citizens, but also drug use that involved a high risk of accidental overdose. Will future state-sponsored television commercials ask: had your heroin today, Grandpa?

Robot Wives and Robot Children

One major problem that may plague the future is overpopulation. We don't see its effects all that dramatically in the United States, but in nations such as China one can see the grim effects of overpopulation in cities that are typically covered in very thick smog.

If overpopulation worsens, we may see the encouragement of novel social practices designed to minimize reproduction. We may see a social acceptance of men living with robot wives rather than real wives. We may see a social acceptance of married couples living with robot children designed as substitutes for real children. Perhaps the government might even give a free robot child to any couple who promised not to have a real child.

Vegetarianism as the Norm

Currently vegetarians are in the minority in countries such as the United States. But as global warming worsens, and people realize what a large percent of greenhouse gases are produced in order to support meat eating, then we could see a reverse of present attitudes. Meat eaters might then become an ostracized minority, somewhat like cigarette smokers are today. We can imagine a future in which meat advertisements are forbidden on television, and meat eaters have to wait to be seated in the relatively few restaurants that still serve meat.

Assisted Suicide

Currently only three US states have laws allowing physician-assisted suicide: Washington, Oregon, and Montana. But what if overpopulation problems worsen, and what if the nation starts to be bankrupted by the economic costs of supplying retirements benefits and health care for the very aged? We might then see something like vending machines that dispense suicide pills. In order to use the machine, you would have to swipe a credit card. The software in the machine would check that you are over a particular age, such as 80 or 85. The software might also be linked with a central medical computer, which might allow anyone to use the machine if that person had a diagnosis of a fatal disease.

Lawsuits About Whether Someone is Dead

In our society death is something with very significant legal ramifications. Whether you are dead may determine who is the owner of your house and other investments, and it may determine whether it is or is not the time for an insurance company to make a payout. But what if the status of your death is blurred by technology? What if you have uploaded your mind into a computer or a robot? Are you then dead, or not dead?

We can imagine relatives battling out such issues in court. One relative may argue that dear old Dad is dead, because his body has been buried; therefore, his will should now be executed. But maybe his surviving wife argues that Dad is not really dead, because he has had his mind uploaded into a computer. 

 A news story of the future

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The SAGE Hypothesis, or Why Mankind Might Not Be So Inferior

For decades the main assumption about extraterrestrial intelligences is that our galaxy contains many civilizations much older than ours, perhaps millions of years older. The reason for this assumption is the fact that the universe is thousands of times older than the human race. Humanity is estimated to be only a few hundred thousand years old, but the universe is some 13 billion years old. Apparently intelligent life could have arisen on other planets any time during the past three or four billion years. A period of about three billion years is about 10,000 times longer than a period of only a few hundred thousand years. So it would seem that if intelligence arose in our galaxy at random times, it would have arisen mainly during the first 99% of this three-billion-year period, which would mean most extraterrestrial civilizations would have arisen millions of years ago. Under such a scenario, our species is a very inferior species, and there are extraterrestrial minds as superior to our minds as our minds are superior to mice or insects.

Such reasoning seems pretty solid, but there is one big problem with it: the fact that we do not see any evidence of other extraterrestrial civilizations (with the possible exception of UFO's, a matter of controversy). If many civilizations arose on other planets millions of years ago, we might expect that such civilizations would have left signs of themselves which we would have detected. But no such sign has been indisputably found. Our searches for extraterrestrial radio signals have not been successful; we have seen no evidence of extraterrestrials in deep space; and we see no artifacts from extraterrestrials anywhere in the solar system.

This discrepancy is known as Fermi's Paradox, the paradox that asks: where is everybody? I discussed various possible solutions to Fermi's Paradox in this earlier blog post. I would now like to suggest another possible solution. I will call this possible answer the SAGE hypothesis. SAGE is an acronym standing for Simultaneous Appearance of Galactic Extraterrestrials.

The idea behind the SAGE hypothesis is that all intelligent life that has appeared in the galaxy has appeared only in the past 300,000 years . Rather than asserting our galaxy has many civilizations millions or many thousands of years older than man, the SAGE hypothesis asserts that while our galaxy may have many civilizations, none of them are much older than mankind.

The answer that the SAGE hypothesis gives to the “Where is everybody?” question of Fermi's Paradox is: they exist, but we have not detected them because they appeared not very long ago; they are about as old as we are.

If this hypothesis is correct, it can adequately explain Fermi's Paradox. We would not expect that we would have received radio signals from extraterrestrial civilizations that are only about as old as our civilization, since our civilization has made almost no attempts yet to send radio signals to other civilizations. We also would not expect to see any signs of extraterrestrial civilizations in deep space if they are only about as old as we are, nor would we expect that they would have reached our planet with spacecraft from their planets.

The graph below illustrates the difference between conventional thinking about the origin date of extraterrestrial civilizations and the assumption of the SAGE hypothesis. Each dot represents the appearance of an extraterrestrial civilization at a point in time and space. The pattern of red dots illustrates the pattern we might expect under conventional assumptions, with extraterrestrial civilizations appearing at random intervals in the past billion years. The pattern of blue dots illustrates the pattern that might occur under the SAGE hypothesis, with all the civilizations appearing relatively recently.


Two Contexts in Which the SAGE Hypothesis Would Be Credible

Despite its success in answering Fermi's Paradox, one might argue that the SAGE hypothesis is not credible, because it seems to require too much of a coincidence for all intelligent life in the galaxy to have appeared only during the past small sliver of cosmic history (a period less than a thousandth of the total length of cosmic history). But there are two contexts in which the SAGE hypothesis would be entirely credible.

The first context in which the SAGE hypothesis would be credible is a theistic context. Let us imagine for a moment the possibility that the universe was specifically created billions of years ago by a cosmic designer, a possibility that cannot be casually dismissed in the light of all we know about the anthropic principle, apparent cosmic fine-tuning, and remarkable coincidences required for our existence. Under such a possibility it is plausible enough that the universe might be either programmed or controlled so that there is a widespread simultaneous appearance of intelligent life, all in the relatively recent past, rather than at random intervals over a span of billions of years.

We can imagine why a cosmic designer or controller might want the earth-like planets of the galaxy to produce intelligent life at roughly the same time – perhaps as a sign of that being's control over things, or perhaps to prevent one civilization from being able to take over the galaxy before other civilizations appeared. By arranging for civilizations to appear simultaneously throughout the galaxy, such a cosmic designer or controller might be guaranteeing a more even-handed distribution of things, so that each civilized planet gets a fairly equal share of the galactic pie.

The second context in which the SAGE hypothesis would be credible is a context in which the universe has some kind of information capabilities beyond any that we currently understand. Let us imagine that the universe has some strange capability in which the following astonishing thing happens: once a highly unlikely event occurs in one place in the galaxy, it then becomes radically more likely to start occurring in other places in the galaxy. This might happen if the galaxy had some type of information field or computational layer, a field perhaps allowing the universe to in some sense “learn” from great successes of the past . We can imagine some context under which the chance of intelligent life appearing on a planet is, say, 1 in a billion – until the time that it first appears, and then the probability changes to be vastly higher (perhaps only 1 in 10 or 1 in 100). It could be that for some information-related reasons, once some great but highly improbable event occurs, it is then almost as if the universe “learns” how to accomplish this thing; and once that happens it could then be relatively easy for the event to occur elsewhere.

Under this idea (which does not require any assumption of a divine creator or designer or controller, but which does require assuming some unusual computation-related feature of the universe), we have a second context in which this SAGE hypothesis could plausibly be true. If the probability of intelligent life appearing on a particular planet were somehow to be radically improved once it had occurred one time, there might be a significant chance of intelligent life appearing more or less simultaneously on many planets in the galaxy.

The Predictions of the SAGE Hypothesis, and How It Could Be Falsified

To many philosophers of science, a scientific idea should ideally be falsifiable, and it should make specific predictions. In this regard, the SAGE hypothesis is in good shape, because it can be falsified, and does make specific predictions.

The SAGE hypothesis would be falsified if we were to look for and receive radio signals or television signals from a very old civilization vastly older than ours. We might then learn that the civilization was far older than ours. That would instantly falsify the SAGE hypothesis, which maintains that no civilizations in our galaxy are very much older than ours. The hypothesis would also be falsified if our planet was to receive a spaceship from another planet, and those beings told us their civilization was very much older than ours.

Below are specific predictions that follow from the SAGE hypothesis:
  1. We will find no evidence of Dyson Spheres, or any other gigantic galactic engineering projects that would have required many thousands or millions of years to complete.
  2. If we receive extraterrestrial radio signals or television signals, they will not show us pictures of some vastly superior mega-civilization with godlike technology, but will merely show us a civilization not very much more advanced than our own.
  3. If we ever receive an extraterrestrial spaceship, it will not be from some civilization vastly older than ours, but will at most be from some civilization that only has started to explore the galaxy fairly recently.
We can imagine how the SAGE hypothesis could be pretty well verified in the next century. Looking in one direction of the sky, we might find radio or television signals from an extraterrestrial civilization only slightly more advanced than ours. Then looking in some opposite direction of the sky, to a completely different part of the galaxy, we might then find the same thing – signals from another civilization about the same age as ours. Once the same thing happened three or four times, we would have a choice between believing in a one in a billion coincidence, or believing in something like the SAGE hypothesis, which would pretty well clinch the hypothesis.

Do I personally think that the SAGE hypothesis is correct, and that civilizations have only recently appeared in our galaxy? No, I think it is somewhat unlikely that the SAGE hypothesis is correct. I still tend to prefer the idea that there are some civilizations in our galaxy much older than our civilization. However, I think that the SAGE hypothesis is a respectable hypothesis that might well be true, a hypothesis that deserves a mention in a discussion of Fermi's Paradox. I would say the SAGE hypothesis is rather unlikely to be true, but perhaps not very unlikely to be true. I also think that the SAGE hypothesis has some good aspects, particularly the fact that it is falsifiable and the fact that it makes specific predictions that we might well be able to verify in a reasonable time frame.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Davies' Dubious Defense of a Double Standard

In my blog post several days ago I complained about what I called a double standard followed by many a modern physicist. The double standard is that theoretical physicists spend huge amounts of time speculating about strange, far-out concepts such as spacetime wormholes, time travel, parallel universes, string theory and multiverses (things for which there is no observational support), but the same individuals dismiss as nonsense many possibilities such as ESP for which there is a great deal of evidence (much of it accumulated by scientists and documented in scientific papers that have been published for decades). That evidence includes compelling ganzfeld studies that show a success rate of about 31% greatly in excess of the expected success rate of 25%. For example, this study says, if one considered all the available published articles up to and including 1997 (i.e., Milton and Wiseman’s 30 studies, plus 10 new studies), 29 studies that used standard ganzfeld protocols yielded a cumulative hit rate that was significantly above chance (31%).”   An ESP study involving only artistically gifted people reported a success rate of 50%, twice the success rate expected by chance.

Schematic depiction of ESP

The very next day I read a book The Eerie Silence by physicist Paul Davies that contained a passage that almost seemed to have been written in response to my blog post. He discussed exactly the same discrepancy I discussed, using the same term that I used (“double standard”) to describe it; however Davies tried to defend this double standard.

Before trying to rebut this reasoning by Davies, let me make clear that I am a longtime Paul Davies fan. I have enjoyed many books he has written, and in 19 cases out of 20 I find his reasoning to be convincing. But in the example I will now discuss, I think Davies fails to come up with a convincing argument.

Davies starts out like this:

The point about modern physics is that weird entities like dark matter or neutrinos are not proposed as isolated speculations, but as part of a large body of detailed theory that predicts them. They are linked to familiar and well-tested physics through a coherent mathematical scheme. In other words, they have a place in well-understood theory. As a result, their prior probability is high.

Davies is on extremely dubious ground here. Neutrinos are predicted by the Standard Model of Physics, but dark matter is not at all predicted by that theory. There are no particles of dark matter mentioned in the Standard Model of Physics. Physicists believe in the likelihood of dark matter not for theoretical reasons but because of observational reasons, because they need dark matter to help explain certain observations. Exactly the same thing can be said about ESP.

Dark matter is not at all “linked to familiar and well-tested physics through a coherent mathematical scheme.” It is instead a completely mysterious alleged thing that we basically know nothing about. We have zero tested equations that describe dark matter, and also zero equations that describe ESP. That really leaves dark matter and ESP in the same ballpark.

In the case of a similar and equally important mysterious phenomenon – dark energy – we can say that there is a strong theoretical basis for believing that there is something like dark energy. However, the problem is that the theory (quantum field theory) tells us dark energy should be at least a trillion trillion trillion trillion trillion times more powerful than it is. This is the widely discussed “vacuum catastrophe,” often referred to as the worst prediction in the history of science. Scientists continue to believe in dark energy, even though their theories are almost infinitely out of whack with our observations about how much dark energy exists. So is dark energy something that is “linked to familiar and well-tested physics through a coherent mathematical scheme”? No it isn't. You can't use such language when the theory gives an answer that is wrong by a factor of 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000, 000,000,000,000,000,000,000. So any claim of theoretical rectitude can't be used for dark energy – but scientists continue to believe in it.

In truth, neither dark matter nor dark energy is part of “well understood theory.” They are mysterious things that we do not have any well-established theory for (at best we have half-baked, super-speculative or “way off the mark” theories). The same thing can be said about multiverses, parallel universes, time travel and wormholes.

I may also note that Davies errs when he suggests that the “prior probability” of something is “high” when it can be “linked to familiar and well-tested physics through a coherent mathematical scheme.” With sufficient ingenuity, a physicist can create all kinds of bizarre, improbable theories that are linked in some way to existing physics. Inventive physicists have done that, creating a thousand and one conflicting theories of time, space, particles, and forces, including countless different varieties of string theory, inflation theory and quantum gravity. The fact that you can somehow link your theory in with existing physics does not show it has even one chance in 100 of being correct. As Davies himself says in another book, “It is easy to construct artificial universe models, albeit impoverished ones bearing only a superficial resemblance to the real thing, which are nevertheless mathematically and logically self-consistent” (Information and the Nature of Reality, page 68).

Regarding ESP, Davies says the following:

Telepathy is not obviously an absurd notion, but it would take a lot of evidence for me to believe in it because there is no properly worked out theory, and certainly no mathematical model to predict how it works or how strong it will be in different combinations. So I assign it a very low (but non-zero) prior probability. If someone came up with a plausible mechanism for telepathy backed up a proper mathematical model which linked it to the rest of physics, and if the theory predicted specific results – for example, that the 'telepathic power' would fall off in a well-defined way as the distance increases, and would be twice as strong between same-sex subjects as mixed-sex subjects – I would sit up and take notice. I would then be fairly easily convinced if the experimental evidence confirmed the predictions. Alas, no such theory is on the horizon, and I remain extremely skeptical about telepathy in spite of the many amazing stories I have read. 
Here Davies professes quite a demanding set of criteria before we can believe something: (1) that we should only believe something if it is predicted by some mathematical model; (2) that this model should be “linked to the rest of physics”; (3) that the model should make specific numerical predictions that can be confirmed. Does it make sense to advance such a set of criteria as a prerequisite for believing in something? It certainly does not.

One reason is that a very large fraction of all things that we do believe in (inside and outside of the sciences) do not satisfy such a set of criteria. But we accept such things nonetheless because we have observations that compel us to believe in them. I refer to things such as love, hate, psychological discomfort, newly discovered species, gamma ray bursts, and earthquakes. Consider, for example, when a biologist discovers a new species of animal in Brazil. It is not at all something predicted by some mathematical model, but it is accepted as a new scientific finding nonetheless. Even in the hard physical sciences we have things that are accepted even though they are not at all predicted by existing models. A recent example is the discovery of the acceleration of the universe's expansion, which left scientists stunned, having been predicted by no popular theory.

What Davies describes here is a model of verification that is sometimes followed (but often not followed) in the world and physics and astronomy, but such a model of verification is actually uncommon in many other sciences. Sciences such as psychology, geology, and biology make relatively little use of mathematical models and prediction. If you pick up a textbook on zoology you will see almost no equations or mathematical models anywhere. In such sciences there is no standard at all that some new scientific conclusion must be supported by some mathematical model.

As for Davies' idea that ESP would need to be supported by some theoretical model “linked... to the rest of physics,” such a prerequisite does not make any sense. It amounts to saying, “I refuse to believe in something unless it is similar to things I have already learned.” I may note that some of the greatest advances in physics and astronomy occurred when scientists started to postulate things that did not fit in with the previous framework of ideas. When quantum mechanics was introduced, it did not fit in at all with physics as it had been previously understood. When the Big Bang theory was introduced, it did not fit in at all with the previous cosmological ideas of scientists such as Einstein, who favored the idea of an eternal, static universe.

Davies suggests the idea that we should not take an observed phenomena seriously unless we have a theory of how it works, one that makes good predictions. That is a misbegotten principle that scientists themselves do not follow. When scientists observe a new type of phenomenon, they accumulate observations for the phenomenon, and at the same time start working on theories to explain the phenomenon. It may be decades or centuries later that a theory arrives that finally explains the phenomenon. An example is pandemics. The phenomenon was studied for centuries before scientists such as Pasteur finally came up with a decent theory to explain it.
It would have made no sense around 1600 to have said, “Don't believe in pandemics – we don't have a good theory to explain it.” Another example is lightning. Scientists observed it for a long time, but did not develop a decent model to explain it until the 18th century. It would have made no sense around 1500 to have said, “Don't believe in lightning – we don't have a good model to explain it.”

What Davies' criteria amounts to is a kind of plea that he should be excused from taking something seriously whenever that thing does not have characteristics that allow him to study it in the way that he is most familiar and comfortable with studying things. That's a lame type of reasoning. We can imagine the same type of reasoning being used by a biologist: “I refuse to believe in galaxies or other reputed deep space-objects, because I cannot view them through my microscope, or place them in my test tubes, or study them in a cage or an aquarium.”

A wiser approach is that we should take a phenomenon seriously whenever we have repeated compelling evidence for its existence, regardless of whether we have familiar off-the-shelf methods for studying the phenomenon, and regardless of whether the phenomenon comfortably meshes with our preconceptions.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Cosmic Heartbreak: A Science Fiction Story

Steve noticed her immediately on the first day of the ten-day National Parks tour. Her name was Lyra. She was young, blonde, and gorgeous. He sat next to her on the tour bus, and started up a conversation with her about the places they were going to see. She spoke very gently and rather slowly, in a strange accent Steve had never heard before.

Steve noticed that there were funny little gaps in her knowledge. When she told her he was a computer programmer, she sounded as if she had no idea what a computer programmer does. When he asked her about where she had grown up, she sounded very evasive. But Steve didn't care. All she had to do was look at him with those big beautiful eyes, and Steve would fall into a kind of trance, no matter what she was saying.

They went everywhere together on the tour. They started out at the Grand Canyon, and took a donkey ride near the rim. Then they went on a vehicle that went driving around Monument Valley. In the last half of the tour they hiked through the glories of Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. Somehow the beauty of the surroundings amplified the beauty of her face. To Steve she seemed like all the beautiful things in the world rolled into one.

By the time the bus started back to Las Vegas, Steve had made up his mind. He decided this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing, and he had to act immediately. After all, he reasoned, Las Vegas is the traditional place for impulsive weddings.

When the tour ended and everyone got out of the bus, Steve begged Lyra to wait for him in front of the fountains at the Bellagio resort. He told her he'd be right back. Spotting a nearby jewelry store, he quickly bought an engagement ring, and rushed back to the fountains outside the Bellagio.

Lyra,” Steve said, “I know we've known each only ten days, but it seems like I've known you all of my life. I know the Real Thing when it comes along, and this is the Real Thing. I've fallen hopelessly in love with you. Will you marry me?”

Lyra looked at him with sad eyes, and then said, “I'm afraid that's not possible.”

Why not?” he asked.

It's because I'm not one of your kind,” said Lyra.

I don't care about your class or your religion or your ethnic background,” Steve said.

No, I mean...I'm not a human being,” said Lyra.

What are you talking about?” he said.

You know I'm a tourist,” said Lyra. “But I'm not just a tourist from another country. I'm a tourist from another planet.”

It took a while before he finally believed this incredible story, but she finally convinced him. She and seven other aliens were here on planet Earth for only a few weeks, for the sake of seeing its most beautiful sites. She had to return soon to a place in the desert where a spaceship would descend from the sky, to take them back to their mother ship orbiting planet Earth. Then the aliens would all leave the solar system forever.

But can't you stay with me here on this planet?” Steve asked sadly. “It's a beautiful planet – we can see all of it together.”

I have taken this human form only temporarily,” said Lyra. “Soon I must return to my original bodily form, or I will die. That form is not one that you could ever love. It is a strange, alien form utterly unlike your own. If you were to ever see my real body, it would fill you with horror and disgust.”

I feel so heartbroken,” said Steve. “The memory of you will haunt me forever. I'll never be able to get over you.”

Do you mean that if one of your species becomes romantically attached to another person,” said Lyra, “and that person goes away forever, then that causes long-term anguish for the first person?”

Of course it does,” said Steve.

That's interesting,” said Lyra. “But don't worry, I can fix that.”

Lyra put her hands on Steve's skull, and she concentrated deeply for ten seconds. Then she took her hands away.

Steve looked around like someone who had awoken from a sleep. How on earth, he wondered, had he got to this location? His memory was all blurry and fuzzy. All he knew was that he was standing next to the most beautiful woman he had ever seen.

Hi, my name's Steve,” said Steve. “Somehow I have the vague feeling that we've met somewhere before.” He kind of winced after saying this, as it sounded like the stalest pick-up line ever. 
No, we've never met,” said Lyra, “and I don't talk to strangers.” She walked away and never saw Steve again.

Steve was left with a very puzzled look on his face, wondering how he had spent the last ten days.