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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Are Our Cosmologists Just "Talking a Good Game"?

The phrase “talking a good game” refers to speaking about something in a way that sounds like you have mastered the topic, even though you may be relatively clueless about it. People often use jargon to help them in “talking a good game.” By using technical phrases and jargon buzzwords, people can make it sound as if they have mastered some topic that they are really hopelessly confused by.

Here is an example of how this may work in the business world.

What Richard Says What Richard Is Thinking
Our new project will deliver end-to-end models to enhance global users and create “win/win” partnerships for success. We will utilize resonant experiences to facilitate bleeding-edge content that revitalizes back-end communities. While we formulate revolutionary new business paradigms, we will blaze new trails in viral marketing breakthroughs, while at the same time unleashing transitional efficient experiences. Finally, we will drive migratory technologies to innovate front-end solutions and architect real-time convergence. I sure hope they don't figure out how clueless I am about this fancy whatchamacallit project I've been dragged in to work on. All I know is it's some incredibly complicated geek thing involving a bunch of different computer systems. I could ask 500 questions to try to really figure the thing out, but then everyone would know I don't know jack about this kind of stuff. Guess I'll just cross my fingers, and try to BS my way through this.

We can forgive Richard, because after all, modern computer systems are very confusing. But if this type of “talking a good game” can take place for something as simple as a computer system, how much more more  likely is it that this kind of thing can go on when the subject matter is the entire universe?

At the poorly-named Physics Arxiv blog, there is an article entitled The Paradoxes That Threaten to Tear Modern Cosmology Apart. It seems our cosmologists may not have as keen a grasp of the nature of the universe as one would think from hearing their lofty pronouncements.

I was familiar with the “vacuum catastrophe” issue discussed in this article, which is basically the biggest “scandal” of modern cosmology. It turns out when physicists calculate the amount of energy that should exist in every cubic centimeter of empty space, they get a number a gazillion times higher than the maximum value consistent with observations. It seems that ordinary empty space, according to quantum field theory, should be vastly more packed with energy than the center of the sun – although it actually has no such density. The expected energy density of the vacuum, according to this article is “ 10^94 g/cm^3.” That means 1094 grams per cubic centimeter, which is much denser than the density you would get if you packed the entire observable universe into a little space the size of a sugar cube.

This problem arises because quantum field theory tells us that empty space is teeming with energy caused by the spontaneous appearance of virtual particles. This leads to another problem – the problem of energy conservation and an expanding universe. Scientists say that energy cannot be created (except when produced from the conversion of matter to energy). Scientists say that a basic law of the universe is the law of the conservation of mass-energy. According to this law, considering matter and energy as two forms of a single thing called mass-energy, you cannot create new mass-energy. You can convert matter to energy or energy to matter, but the total amount of mass-energy cannot increase.

But since the time of the Big Bang, the universe has been expanding, which means the amount of space has been constantly increasing. But each second that the universe adds more space, it also adds a lot more energy, because according to quantum mechanics, empty space is teeming with energy. So, apparently, an expanding universe is one that is constantly adding vast amounts of energy to itself.

It's as if every second the expanding universe was pulling more than a billion trillion rabbits out of a hat – because the energy it is adding every second is much more than the mass-energy of a billion trillion rabbits. But how can that be when the law of the conservation of mass-energy says that the total mass-energy of the universe cannot increase?

Apparently we have not just the riddle of how the universe's original mass-energy appeared (the unsolved problem of the cause of the Big Bang), but also the riddle of how the universe could be continually adding mass-energy to itself, like some endlessly flowing horn-of-plenty. It seems the kind of mystery you might have if poof a giant planet suddenly appeared in our solar system, and then kept getting bigger and bigger and bigger, defying our concepts of what should be possible.

The Helix Nebula (Credit: NASA)

Monday, January 19, 2015

Bursts of the Gods?

In 2007 astronomers detected a new class of radiation signal from deep space – what are called fast radio bursts. Fast radio bursts are highly energetic but very short-lived bursts of radio energy, typically lasting less than a hundredth of a second. Fewer than twenty of these bursts have been detected. For years, all of the detections came from a single telescope in Australia, but then the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico also detected such a fast radio burst.

Where are the signals coming from? A recent estimate by scientists is that the signals come from a distance that is "up to 5.5 billion light years from Earth,"  which is pretty vague.

Based on the number of fast radio bursts that have been detected, astronomers have estimated that our planet could be receiving as many as 10,000 of these radio bursts per day. What could be causing the signals? Astronomers don't know. Some astronomers speculate that the fast radio bursts could be caused by various exotic types of stellar events, such as unusual solar flares or two neutron stars colliding with each other.

There is, however, a general problem with such explanations. Most highly energetic freak events imagined as possible sources of the fast radio bursts would probably have produced other types of radiation such as gamma ray radiation, x-rays, or visible light. But no one has detected a flash of any of these types of radiation with a position in space (and time of origin) matching any of the fast radio bursts. To give an analogy, it's kind of as if you felt the ground shaking, and assumed it was something heavy falling to the ground, but you didn't hear any noise at the same time. That would throw doubt on your explanation.

Previous discoveries of the fast radio bursts came from mining old observations. But this year scientists detected a fast radio burst in “real time,” noticing it shortly after the signal arrived. The scientists alerted other observatories around the world, asking them to check the point in the sky where the signal was detected, to look for other types of radiation. The other observatories did that, but basically came up empty. This result is described in this recent paper and this news story that came out today. 

The latest fast radio burst (the time unit is milliseconds)

According to scientist Daniele Malesani, “The fact that we did not see light in other wavelengths eliminates a number of astronomical phenomena that are associated with violent events such as gamma-ray bursts from exploding stars and supernovae, which were otherwise candidates for the burst.”

In short, we seem to have no really good astrophysical explanations for the fast radio bursts. Given the fact that short radio bursts have been postulated as one means by which extraterrestrial civilizations could announce their existence, there would seem to be a very real possibility that some or many of these short radio bursts are coming from extraterrestrial civilizations.

The idea of extraterrestrial civilizations communicating by fast radio bursts may conflict with a long-standing notion of SETI, the search for extraterrestrial intelligence. I may call this idea the “Christmas gift” concept. It's the idea that one day we will be lucky enough to get from some incredibly old and advanced extraterrestrial civilization a nice, easy-to-digest radio signal designed to be understood by primitive newbie fledglings such as our species. It will be just as if they sent us a wonderful Christmas gift across the vast interstellar void (some have even imagined such a radio signal containing an “Encylopedia Galactica” written for beings of our level).

But the idea of extraterrestrial civilizations communicating by fast radio bursts suggests another possibility: that of super-advanced civilizations communicating in ways that can only be intelligible to other super-advanced civilizations, who might have no problem unraveling trillions of bits of information packed into a tiny radio burst lasting only a fraction of a second. We might determine that such signals are likely to be of intelligent origin, but then experience the frustration of having to wait for centuries until we are technologically advanced enough to decipher and unravel such super-condensed information bursts. It will be like getting a Christmas present and being told it's the greatest present ever, but also being told it will take you thirty years before you can figure out how to get the present out of the box.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Growing Evidence for a Mysterious Global Consciousness Effect

The Global Consciousness Project is a long-running project that started out at Princeton University. The project uses a network of more than 50 continuously running random number generators across the world, and records cases when the results from such generators deviates from chance during interesting or memorable moments in a year's events. The project has discovered ever-growing evidence that the results from such random number generators (which should be purely random) do tend to deviate from chance at important events during a year.

A random number generator is just a machine or a computer program designed to churn out random numbers continuously, a string of numbers such as 328532503463948235236120575239623663. A separate computer program can analyze such output, and determine how much it is deviating from what is expected by chance. There are various ways to do this statistically, such as counting up the number of 1's in the string of digits, counting up the number of 2's, and so forth. The program can then look for unusual spikes – something such as a case where 210,344 7's were generated during a particular unit of time, but 230,333 8's were generated during that same unit of time (a difference very unlikely to occur by chance). There are statistical algorithms that allow analysts to compute the exact probability of getting a particular random sequence of numbers that differs from chance.

Such random number generators, algorithms, and programs have been used by the Global Consciousness Project since the 1990's. The project compiles a list of significant news events, and keeps track of a deviation from chance in the output of random number generators operating during that event. A long list of such events can be found here. The list includes 497 events, and in each case there is a probability listed that is the chance probability of getting the particular random number deviation that was recorded. In most cases, this probability is not very low. For example, during the recent Charlie Hebdo incident, the recorded deviation had a probability of .143. During some events, the probability has been much lower, such as a probability of only .03 during the September 11 attacks in 2001.

But the real bottom line number in the Global Consciousness Project is the overall cumulative probability. This is the probability of getting all of the deviations from randomness recorded by the project since 1998, purely by chance. That probability is listed in the graph below, taken directly from the project's web site. The graph lists the overall cumulative probability as 3.343 e-13, which is a probability of .00000000000003343, or about 1 chance in 3 trillion, or 1 chance in 3,000,000,000,000. This is an overwhelming significant result. When scientists get a result like that in any other field, they trumpet it as overwhelming proof of the hypothesis they are testing. 

Global Consciousness Project

As time has passed since 1998, the overall cumulative probability associated with the Global Consciousness Project has grown smaller and smaller, meaning their evidence of a real effect has grown stronger and stronger. At some point early in the project, you might have been only able to say that the chance of getting such results was 1 in a million. Then years later you would have been able to say that the chance of getting such results was only 1 in a billion. Now, after the project has been running for some 16 years, we have finally reached the point where the bottom line is that the chance of getting the results is 1 in 3 trillion.

So this is a very important fact about the Global Consciousness Project. It has now accumulated very strong evidence for a mysterious anomalous global consciousness effect (or some similar and equally paranormal effect), and the evidence for such an effect keeps growing stronger and stronger with each passing month. The accumulated evidence thus far is evidence that would be accepted as rock-solid proof if submitted to back up any lesser claim such as a claim that some medicine has some curative power, or a claim that an accused person committed a particular crime.

Now, I think there is a typical series of events that happens when a skeptical person reads a post like this. The series of events goes like this: (1) the skeptical person reads a post like this one, leaving him unsettled and annoyed by reading something that doesn't fit in with his preconceptions; (2) the skeptical person then reads the wikipedia.org article on the topic, which has a 100% chance of being a completely biased, one-sided criticism of anything relating to the paranormal; (3) the skeptical person then feels much better, thinking he has gotten the “real story” on the topic by reading the wikipedia.org article on it.

But before you do such a thing by reading the wikipedia.org article on the Global Consciousness Project, let me explain why that article is not at all the “real story” on this topic, but instead merely a ridiculous, uninformative example of jaundiced “ax grinding.” The first reason is that the wikipedia.org article does not even mention the “bottom line” of the project – the overall cumulative probability of 1 chance in 3,000,000,000,000 stated in the graph above. The article merely says, “The GCP claims that, as of late 2009, the cumulative result of more than 300 registered events significantly supports their hypothesis.” I can guess what was going on in the minds of the skeptics who edited this article on wikipedia.org. It's as if they were thinking: let's not tell anyone the bottom line result of the project, because then people might be convinced by it.

It is also ridiculous that the wikipedia.org article focuses on criticizing the claim that the data of the Global Consciousness Project from around September 11, 2001 proves something paranormal. Such data is only a drop in the bucket of data that the Global Consciousness Project has accumulated in more than 15 years of operation. While their data from that one day may not prove anything paranormal, their overall results of 15 years of operation do supply very strong evidence of something paranormal, with an overall cumulative probability of 1 about chance in 3,000,000,000,000.

The wikipedia.org article on this topic is mainly just a series of putdowns by hardcore skeptics. The article ends by quoting someone who says “the only conclusion to emerge from the Global Consciousness Project so far is that data without a theory is as meaningless as words without a narrative." But that's an absurd claim. In many or most cases data is, in fact, quite meaningful even when there is no theory to explain it (such as the data that was accumulated on comets and supernova explosions before we had any idea what such things are). For example, if I get a terrible sickness putting me on the brink of death, I may collect data on my failing health, but have no theory to explain such data. But such data is very meaningful indeed, telling me that I need to see a doctor and may need to set my affairs in order in case I die. Even if I never see any doctor to give me a theory as to my symptoms, the data is meaningful, because it has important implications. Similarly, even though we have no good theory to explain the results of the Global Consciousness Project, the data is extremely meaningful, because it has important implications, one of which is that human consciousness may be something much bigger than we think it is (not to mention the implication that current reductionist materialist paradigms are on the wrong track).

Stripping away its vacuous putdowns such as the quotation above, the wikipedia.org article on the Global Consciousness Project provides no substantive analysis or facts that should cause anyone to doubt the importance or reliability of the project's findings.

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

6 Myths About Science, Scientists and Scientific Theory

People often toss around misconceived ideas about science, scientists, and the nature of scientific theories, whenever such an idea may serve whatever point they are trying to make. Below is a look at some of the more common examples of such misconceptions.

Myth #1: Any good scientific theory is falsifiable

This idea was advanced by the philosopher Karl Popper, and has been repeated by many others. The idea is that we can distinguish between a scientific theory and an unscientific theory or idea by asking whether or not the theory can be proven wrong, or falsified. It is argued that whenever you have a good scientific theory, you can always imagine observations that might disprove that theory, or falsify it.

But it is easy to imagine some examples of perfectly good scientific theories that are not falsifiable. The best example is the theory that extraterrestrial life exists. There is no way to falsify such a theory, because we can imagine no series of observations that would prove it wrong.

Imagine what it would take to disprove the existence of extraterrestrial life. You might think that this could be accomplished by making a survey of all planets in the universe. But there is no way that any civilization (even a civilization millions of years more advanced than ours) could make such a survey. Because of the limit of the speed of light, it would take eons to survey the planets in an entire galaxy of billions of stars. Once such a survey had been completed, there would still be billions of other galaxies to check. Surveying them all would take billions of years.

Suppose we imagine some civilization with some warp-drive that allows instantaneous travel. Even with a large fleet of warp-drive starships traveling instantaneously, it would take many millions of years to check all the planets in a universe such as ours with more than 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 stars. After such a survey, could you then say that extraterrestrial life doesn't exist? No, because there would always be the possibility that life could have started somewhere during the eons it took to do the survey, on one of the planets that had already been checked.

So while it may be true that most scientific theories are falsifiable, it is not at all true that all scientific theories are falsifiable. The theory that life exists on other planets is a top-notch scientific theory that is not falsifiable.

Myth #2: Scientists are almost all unbiased and impartial judges of truth

I'm sure that many scientists are unbiased and impartial judges of truth, but there are reasons why many scientists far fall short of such a standard. First, let's consider sociological factors. A modern scientist belongs to a relatively small subculture subject to sociological factors such as peer pressure, group taboos, and group norms. When a scientists deviates from those group norms and group taboos, he may be subject to punishing sanctions from his peers, which may include ridicule, non-publication of papers, or denial of promotions. In some sciences we see a strong herd mentality, in which scientists tend to jump on some bandwagon which may or may not make sense to jump on. In some cases there may be a financial reward or incentive to jump on that bandwagon, and a financial penalty or sociological penalty for “running against the herd” and rejecting it. Can we suppose that in such cases our scientists act as unbiased and impartial judges of truth? Often they do not. We should not assume that scientists are more likely to be unbiased and impartial judges of truth than people in most other professions.

Consider also the case of a scientist who specializes in some theoretical area such as inflation theory or string theory or some flavor of quantum gravity. Early in his career, such a scientist is almost “betting the farm” on that theory, by taking years to study its intricacies. Once such an investment is made, that scientist becomes a vested interest. He will flourish if that theory gains support, and may flounder if the theory loses support. Is such a person going to be an objective judge about whether the theory is probably true? No, not any more than someone holding 100,000 shares of a particular company will be an objective analyst of the company's future prospects.

Myth #3: Science is whatever scientists think or assert

A good definition of science is observations and experimental data accumulated through methodical investigation, and theories that have been conclusively proven from such observations and data. Are the assertions of scientists limited to such a thing? Not at all. Scientists are people who have opinions, and those opinions are often group norms enforced by their subculture. Such norms may or may not be anything verified by observations or data.

We must distinguish between two different things: science and the opinions of scientific academia. The relation is illustrated in the Venn diagram below. Since there is too much in science to be understood by the average scientist, there is a red area outside of the purple area.

An example of an item in the blue area but not in the purple or red area is the opinion of many scientists that life arose billions of years purely because of chance chemical combinations. Such an opinion does not correspond to an observation or experiment. It's an opinion.

In quite a few cases, writers will misspeak, speaking as if things in the blue area of the diagram are things that are part of science. A writer will maintain that such and such gloomy opinion is science, because most scientists think it. But a scientist's opinions are a mixture of science, his own inclinations, and most likely the ideological norms of his particular subculture. Such norms may or may not correspond to anything that has been actually proven by facts or experiments.

Myth #4: Science is only produced by scientists, or is only what is published in scientific journals

As I stated before, science can be defined as observations and experimental data accumulated through methodical investigation, and theories that have been conclusively proven from such observations and data. Anyone today can methodically collect observations by using a camera and carefully noting facts relevant to the photos. This means that any average Joe can contribute to science, without having a science degree. 90% of the facts accumulated in a biology textbook (such as the basic facts of internal anatomy) were originated by people who did not have degrees in science, but who merely made observations and systematically recorded such observations.

Consequently, appalling as such an idea may be to some scientists, anyone who at length methodically investigates a phenomenon with sufficient diligence and honesty produces work that is as much science as some result from some fancy expensive particle accelerator, regardless of whether the phenomenon is considered paranormal. There is no sound basis for the claim that only work published in scientific journals is science. If such a standard were applied, we would have to throw out half of the facts in our science textbooks, which were originally established by researchers long ago who did not publish in scientific journals.

Myth #5: A theory that makes predictions is more worthy of respect

Science writers often claim that when a theory makes predictions, it is more worthy of respect than some other theory that does not make predictions. But this is not correct. The fact that a theory may make predictions does not mean that it is more likely to be correct than some other theory that does not make predictions. 

Consider the following example. A car strikes a pedestrian walking on the outer edge of the road. The first theory is that this was due to pure bad luck, that the driver just failed to notice the person walking on the side of the road. The second theory is that the driver was intentionally trying to kill a random victim. The first theory makes no prediction. But the second theory predicts that the driver will try such a thing again, given his homicidal nature.  Does this mean the second theory is more likely to be true? No, it doesn't. It fact, the second theory is less worthy of belief than the first theory, given that careless people are much more common than homicidal people. 

Myth #6: If scientists spend lots of time on something, then it's science

Because their small subculture is strongly subject to herd effects and groupthink, scientists may jump on a bandwagon and waste millions of taxpayer dollars and countless man-years pursuing some dubious enthusiasm, the popularity of which may persist for decades. But such activity does not necessarily mean that the underlying theory is actually science. Science is not automatically what scientists have long labored on – it is only what they have proven.