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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

"Plant Intelligence" Studies May Hint at a New Theory of Mind

Last year Michael Pollan created something of a sensation with his New Yorker article entitled “The Intelligent Plant.” Pollan discussed a variety of findings and experiments which suggest that plants may have capabilities that somewhat resemble or mimic aspects of the human mind.

Pollan stated: “Plants are able to sense and optimally respond to so many environmental variables—light, water, gravity, temperature, soil structure, nutrients, toxins, microbes, herbivores, chemical signals from other plants—that there may exist some brainlike information-processing system to integrate the data and co├Ârdinate a plant’s behavioral response.” He pointed out that in 2006 six scientists had called for a new field of study to be called “plant neurobiology.”

I may note that intelligence is not necessarily the same as consciousness, so the idea that plants may have some degree of intelligence does not necessarily imply that plants have consciousness. Computer programs, for example, are not self-conscious, but do show some degree of intelligence.

Pollan claims that “plants have evolved between fifteen and twenty distinct senses, including analogues of our five,” such as sight, hearing, touch, and smell. Somehow plants seem to gather information and then “decide” where to move their roots or stems. A simple example is called phototropism: a plant will grow its stems toward a source of light. Plants also seem to grow away from competitors, notes plant ecologist Rick Karban. Botanists have studied phenomena that resemble communication or signaling between different plants. 

Is there a bit of Mind in our meadows?

Scientist Monica Gagliana has written a paper entitled “Animal-like Learning in Mimosa Pudica.” She claims to have detected that this plant species can “learn” to ignore a stimulus that it originally responded to.

Recently a scientific journal published a paper “Adaptive and selective seed abortion reveals complex conditional decision making in plants." The paper stated: “Ecological evidence for complex decision making in plants thus includes a structural memory (the second seed), simple reasoning (integration of inner and outer conditions), conditional behavior (abortion), and anticipation of future risks (seed predation)." The paper is summarized here, in an article entitled "Are Plants More Intelligent Than We Assume?"

Some materialists have dismissed and belittled such findings, claiming that they are all nonsense. Their reasoning goes like this:
  1. Neurons are the sole source of intelligence.
  2. Plants do not have neurons.
  3. Therefore plants cannot have anything like intelligence.
This reasoning is similar to the reasoning used to reject evidence for a wide variety of paranormal phenomena suggesting human consciousness can exist outside of the brain (phenomena such as near-death experiences, medium phenomena, and apparition sightings). The strategy is all too familiar: when someone accumulates or produces evidence that contradicts your assumption, portray that person as a fraud, a fool, or a fanatic. One may ask why materialists cling so stubbornly to the premise that neurons are the sole source of intelligence, given that no one has any real understanding of how neurons actually produce thoughts.

But what if there is something more than just trickery, misinterpretations or errors behind the numerous indications that neurons may not be the sole source of intelligence? One can imagine an alternate theory of intelligence that may be consistent with these findings about plant intelligence and indications of paranormal phenomena.

The theory might be something along these lines. It could be that there is some unknown external source of what we might call Mind Stuff. A sufficient amount of this Mind Stuff might result in self-conscious beings like us. A much smaller amount of this Mind Stuff might result in some limited degree of information processing capability such as may exist in plants. It could be that our brains are just receptacles for this Mind Stuff, or some kind of receivers that tune in to this Mind Stuff (or organs that attract this Mind Stuff, like a magnet attracts metal, or like a capacitor attracts electric charge). It could be that plants are able to somehow attract or store a small amount of this Mind Stuff. Through such a theory we might be able to get around the difficulty that plants seem to have a limited degree of something like intelligence, even though they have no neurons. We might also be able to explain the anomalous observations discussed here and here (such as the fact that some human minds perform well even with only half as many neurons). 

Although it fits all observations (including reports of paranormal phenomena), such a theory will no doubt be spurned by conventional theorists, who will continue to cling to the dogma that thought can only be produced by neurons, clinging to it like a young child clinging to his favorite stuffed animal.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Rendlesham Forest UFO: A Craft From the Year 8100?

When Americans think of a UFO sighting, they typically recall the famous incident at Roswell, New Mexico. But some people think that the strongest case of a UFO close encounter is another incident: a UFO sighting that occurred in Rendlesham Forest in the United Kingdom.

The Basics of the Incident

The incident began on December 26, 1980, near two US military bases, and was immediately investigated by US military personnel. USAF officers John Burroughs and Jim Penniston went out to investigate a strange light that appeared in the forest near their base. They reported seeing a small metallic craft about two meters high and perhaps two to three meters wide. They reported that the craft illuminated the whole forest with light. Penniston reported seeing strange symbols on the craft unlike any he had seen. Penniston said he touched the craft with his hand. Shortly thereafter, according to Penniston, the craft rose up to the air, and accelerated away at an “impossible” speed. 

Artistic depiction of the Rendlesham Forest sighting
The next day Burroughs, Penniston, and others from the base went searching for the site where the object had landed, and found a spot half a meter wide and 7 inches deep. The spot was checked for radiation, and found to have abnormally high radioactivity.

Later that day, the following was observed, according to an official Air Force memo on January 13, 1981 by Charles Halt, the deputy base commander:

Later in the night a red sun-like light was seen though the trees. It moved about and pulsed. At one point it appeared to throw off glowing particles and then broke into five separate white objects and then disappeared. Immediately thereafter, three star-like objects were noticed in the sky, two objects to the north and one to the south, all of which were about 10 degrees off the horizon. The objects moved rapidly in sharp angular movements and displayed red, green and blue lights. The objects to the north appeared to be elliptical through an 8-12 power lens. They then turned to full circles. The objects to the north remained in the sky for an hour or more. The object to the south was visible for two or three hours and beamed down a stream of light from time to time.

Halt stated that numerous individuals, including himself, witnessed this.

The Plot Thickens: A Craft From the Year 8100?

USAF officer Jim Penniston (retired) later added a unique twist to this UFO encounter. Penniston says that the day after he saw the UFO close up, and touched it, he saw in his mind's eye a string of binary digits such as 101010100111010. Penniston says he wrote the digits down in a notebook. He later gave the notebook to computer experts, to see whether they could decipher the binary digits. The experts reported that the binary digits could be translated into a message in English.

According to the experts, the message consisted mainly of geographical coordinates of some places such as the Great Pyramid in Egypt, and the Nazca lines in Peru. The message also supposedly contained these lines:


Penniston was later hypnotized. He stated, “Under hypnosis, I reveal that they are time travelers from the future.” (Encounter at Rendlesham Forest by Nick Pope, John Burroughs, and Jim Penniston, page 241.)

A UFO that is a vehicle from future time travelers? This is very hard to believe, but it is an interesting theory. Most UFO enthusiasts hold a different theory, that UFOs are from other planets. Some have also speculated that some UFOs may be from some other dimension.

I can think of one difficulty involved in Penniston's claim. There is no such thing as a direct binary representation of English words. Any such binary representation must use some kind of intermediate mapping system for translating between numbers and characters in English. Penniston's binary message uses the intermediate mapping system known as ASCII. ASCII is a standard today, but there is little reason to believe that it will stay in existence for another thousand years. Why would people from the year 8100 be using ASCII?

There is also the following difficulty. If time travelers from the future were actually coming to our planet, and allowing humans to see and touch their craft, wouldn't this run the risk of altering our future (and their past) in unpredictable ways? For an amusing short fictional look at some of the difficulties that can arise when future tourists enter the past, see my short story Time Travel Hotline.

It may be rather easy to dismiss Penniston's binary message as something too fantastic for belief, but it is much harder to dismiss the whole Rendlesham Forest incident. The incident was witnessed by too many reliable witnesses to be easily dismissed. Anyone interested in examining further the evidence regarding this sighting may take a look at this fascinating website.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

The 5 Likeliest Roads to Ruin

Anders Sandberg recently wrote an essay entitled The 5 Biggest Threats to Human Existence. Since Sandberg is a Research Fellow at the Future of Humanity Institute at the University of Oxford, we might expect him to get things right. But I think only some of the five items he mentions are substantial risks to human existence. Below is Sanberg's list, along with comments on each item in the list.

#1. Nuclear war

There is no arguing with this item on the list. Some people seem to think that the threat of nuclear war ended back when the Cold War ended, but that is not true. The United States and Russia still each have about 8000 nuclear weapons. With recent tensions related to Ukraine, it sometimes seems as if the Cold War is still here. You also have to consider the threat posed by other nations with large nuclear stockpiles, such as India and Pakistan.

#2. Bioengineered Pandemic

There is also no arguing with this item on Sanberg's list. The danger of a killer super-virus run amok seems as real as ever, particularly in light of the recent discovery of some smallpox virus vials in a Maryland lab, along with the discovery that some workers at the Center for Disease Control were exposed to live anthrax virus. Both news items suggest that conditions at biological research labs are more lax than we imagine. One can only imagine how conditions are at some foreign labs that might be brewing up the next super-virus in their labs. The terrifying thing about genetically engineered viruses is that they can in theory be created in small labs that could be hidden anywhere.

#3. Superintelligence

Here is the first misfire in Sanberg's list. This is the idea that intelligent machines may take over the planet and get rid of us. But there is almost no chance that this will happen in the foreseeable future. For superintelligence to develop, Moore's Law must stay in effect for several more decades, meaning that computer hardware power and speed doubles every 18 months. But a computer chip expert recently predicted that Moore's law will not stay in effect past the year 2020, as engineers find it harder and harder to pack more processing power into a tiny space.

There is also the fact that superintelligent machines would requires software billions of times more powerful than existing computer software. Computer software development does not grow at any exponential rate comparable to Moore's law. Computer software development progresses at a much slower rate no greater than about 10% per year. Technologists have imagined that we will be able to take some gigantic shortcut to machine intelligence, by scanning the human brain, and transferring “the software of the brain” to the computer. This is fanciful wishful thinking, and there is no particularly good reason to think this will be possible any time soon.

#4. Nanotechnology

I think Sanberg also errs in putting this item on his list. If you believe Eric Drexler about nanotechnology, then we will be able to use it to achieve precise atomic manufacturing, something which would have earth-shaking results for manufacturing (and might create gigantic risks along the lines of “gray goo” involving nanotechnology run amok). But I suspect that such hopes and fears are overblown. Nobel Prize winner Richard Smalley thought that Drexler is way off the mark, that it won't be possible to ever use nanotechnology for precise atomic manufacturing, and that there is no risk of nanotechnology running amok along the lines of the “gray goo” scenario.

#5. Unknown unknowns

I guess you cannot argue with this vague item on Sanberg's list, except by saying that such an item doesn't belong because the purpose of such a list is to warn of dangers, so there's not much point in including this vague catchphrase.

What items should we list as the five greatest risks to human civilization? I would suggest the list below.

#1 Nuclear war

This items is included for the reason listed above, that there are still many thousands of these weapons in existence.

#2. Bioengineered Pandemic

This item is included because it seems all too possible that some future lab might brew up a virus far more deadly than Ebola or smallpox, and all too possible that such a virus might escape such a lab (by design or accident).

#3. Environmental ruin

Why did Sanberg omit this item from his list? Far greater than the risk of superintelligence or nanotechnology is the risk that we will make the planet uninhabitable for ourselves (or barely livable for ourselves) by our polluting activities. There is the possibility that global warming might cause various events (such as the melting of methane hydrates or excessive ocean acidification) that act as feedback loops which then create even more global warming. The result might be human extinction. For a post estimating the odds of such an extinction, see here.

#4. An attack from beyond our planet, natural or purposeful

This item (ignored by Sanberg) includes all threats from outside our planet. One such threat is the threat of a large solar flare that ruins all of our electronics, in an event similar to an electromagnetic pulse attack. Another such threat is the risk of an asteroid or comet striking our planet. If an asteroid only 20 kilometers wide hit our planet, it could be enough to kill everyone (most dying from starvation caused by a nuclear winter). Still another threat from the skies is the threat of an extraterrestrial invasion. Invading extraterrestrials might decide to wipe us out entirely and take the planet for themselves. While each of these threats is rather remote, together they add up to a significant risk. 


#5. Resource depletion

Many are worried that Peak Oil will soon occur, causing a downward spiral of civilization. If we run out of easy-to-obtain oil, the whole forward momentum of our current civilization may start to reverse, leading to a downward spiral of collapse. It may seem unthinkable that this might cause a collapse of civilization, but no one in the Roman Empire around 350 AD imagined how great a collapse would occur in the centuries ahead.

What can we do to reduce these risks? We can accelerate programs for dismantling nuclear weapons. We can tighten up international treaties on biological warfare, and protocols for inspecting labs that might create biological weapons. We can increase the modest funding of astronomical programs to monitor near-earth asteroids. What can the average person do? He or she can help reduce risks #3 and #5 by doing the same thing – conserve and reduce consumption that uses up our resources and worsens global warming. Remember, you can't really consume your way to happiness, but we just might consume our way to extinction or collapse.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Bob Fosse Universe?

A new scientific paper has announced a “strangely coherent coordinated motion” of galaxies that suggests a degree of cosmic choreography never before imagined.

The universe is made up of billions of galaxies, each consisting of many stars. The largest are spiral galaxies like our own galaxy. Our galaxy (the Milky Way) is surrounded by about two dozen much smaller galaxies called dwarf galaxies, which each have a much smaller number of stars. In recent years astronomers discovered that the dwarf galaxies surrounding our galaxy are found in a plane-like structure that is known as the Vast Polar Structure (or VPOS). They have also found that the dwarf galaxies surrounding the nearest nearby spiral galaxy (the Andromeda galaxy) are also found in a plane-like structure called the Great Plane of Andromeda.

Such findings have raised doubts about the prevailing theory of large-scale structure formation, the lambda cold dark matter theory. Such a theory predicts that dwarf galaxies should be located in an irregular blob around our galaxy, not in a plane-like structure.

This week a paper published in the scientific journal Nature announced two big findings. The first was that rather than being a local fluke involving only our galaxy and its biggest neighbor galaxy, the tendency of dwarf galaxies to exist in a plane (around a spiral galaxy) is apparently quite typical. The study suggested data "may indicate planes of co-rotating satellites, similar to those seen around the Andromeda galaxy, are ubiquitous." Such a finding seems to be bad news for the lambda cold dark matter theory.

The second finding of the paper may be bad news to anyone who doesn't like to hear about mysterious unexplained examples of large-scale cosmic order. The scientific paper found an astonishingly strong tendency for the motions of opposite pairs of dwarf galaxies to be anti-correlated. That phrase is quite a mouthful, so let me give a visual which explains it.

In the picture below, we see a galaxy with two much smaller dwarf galaxies next to it. (The picture is a composite image not intended to represent some particular galaxy.) The dwarf galaxies rotate around the larger galaxy. But they rotate in opposite directions, as shown by the red arrows. This is what is meant by an anti-correlated motion.

dwarf galaxy rotation

The Nature paper (by Neil Ibata, Geraint Lewis and others) first checked a huge computer model of the universe to see whether we should expect to see any difference between these two things:
  1. The number of dwarf galaxy pairs on opposite sides of a galaxy which have their rotation motions anti-correlated with each other.
  2. The number of dwarf galaxy pairs on opposite sides of a galaxy which have their rotation motions correlated with each other.
The model predicted that there should be no difference between these two. In other words, the model predicted that the type of motion labeled as A below should be as common as the type of motion labeled as B:

anti-correlated rotation

But the observations gave a dramatically different picture. As shown in the graph below, the study found that for every dwarf galaxy pair that had a correlated motion, there were between 2 and 4 that had an anti-correlated motion. 

We were surprised to find that a large proportion of pairs of satellite galaxies have oppositely directed velocities if they are situated on opposite sides of their giant galaxy hosts," said Neil Ibata, one of the paper's authors. "Everywhere we looked we saw this strangely coherent coordinated motion of dwarf galaxies. From this we can extrapolate that these circular planes of dancing dwarfs are universal, seen in about 50 percent of galaxies," said Professor Geraint Lewis. "This is a big problem that contradicts our standard cosmological models. It challenges our understanding of how the universe works including the nature of dark matter."

Dancing dwarfs? Good heavens, that sounds like something out of a Disney movie.

The paper did not suggest any mechanism for this strange choreography, nor did any of the articles about it that I read. Not surprising, as it is hard to think of any natural mechanism that could explain it.

The Sciencedaily.com article on the paper says, “The discovery may mean that our current models need to be completely revised .” So the new finding could be a paradigm buster. 
This is the third time scientists have made some distant observations suggesting that the universe may behave in shocking defiance of our expectations of random behavior. One other case (discussed here) was that scientists discovered that the polarization vectors of quasars tend to be aligned in the same direction in particular regions of space. In one gigantic area of space, these vectors may be aligned in one direction, and in another huge region of space, they may be aligned in some different direction. Another comparable case (discussed here) is that scientists discovered that galaxies tend to rotate preferentially in certain directions of the sky. In some directions of the sky spiral galaxies tend to rotate as much as 7% more frequently in a left-handed rotation, even though scientists think there should be no difference between the number of left-handed rotations and the number of right-handed rotations.

At the very end of Olaf Stapledon's novel Last and First Men (available here on a single web page) are seven paragraphs that I consider to be one of the greatest passages in English literature. Below is a brief excerpt:

Throughout all his existence man has been striving to hear the music of the spheres, and has seemed to himself once and again to catch some phrase of it, or even a hint of the whole form of it. Yet he can never be sure that he has truly heard it, nor even that there is any such perfect music at all to be heard. Inevitably so, for if it exists, it is not for him in his littleness. 
But perhaps the distant golden fleece to pluck is not the music of the spheres, but the dance of the spheres. And perhaps now we are starting to glimpse some of that strange and surprising cosmic dance. 
Which raises the question: who or what did the choreography?

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Not Even Half Baked: The Premature Project Known as Quantum Gravity

Two of the biggest theories of modern science are quantum mechanics (which deals with the subatomic world) and general relativity (a theory of gravity that works on a large scale, dealing with large massive objects). For decades, scientists have had the hope of uniting the two into a single theory. Einstein spent the last years of his life working on such a project, but came up empty-handed.

In the past few decades, some physicists have continued to work on theories that attempt to unify quantum mechanics and general relativity. Such theories are called quantum gravity theories. One class of these theories is called loop quantum gravity.

One occasionally sees news stories based on the predictions of loop quantum gravity. An example is this recent one, suggesting that black holes eventually become white holes that gush out matter.

But whenever you hear the phrase “quantum gravity” you should also think to yourself: not even half-baked. Or perhaps it might be better to think: not even tenth-baked. This is because it is perhaps centuries too early to be advancing a theory that tries to unite quantum mechanics and gravitation. One reason is that there are too many mysteries involved in gravitation and quantum mechanics. Uniting quantum gravity and gravitation might have to wait until we solve such mysteries.

The following might be a logical plan:
  1. We solve the basic mystery of what causes gravitation, something we don't understand. We know that gravitation is proportional to density of matter, but as it is easy to imagine a universe with no gravitation, we don't really understand why gravitation exists.
  2. We solve the mystery of why gravity is a trillion trillion trillion times weaker than all of the three other fundamental forces of the universe.
  3. We solve the basic problem of the nature of the collapse of the wave function, something which is still furiously debated by quantum mechanics theorists.
  4. We solve the incredibly perplexing problem of quantum entanglement, and how this spooky mysterious “action at a distance” can be occurring.
  5. We solve the mysterious “observer effect” in quantum mechanics, the bizarre fact that matter can behave very differently depending only on the way we observe matter.
  6. We clarify the mysterious “double slit” experiment, which suggests that both electrons and energy photons can switch back and forth between wave behavior and particle behavior.
  7. Then, after gaining a vastly clearer understanding of both quantum mechanics and gravitation, we attempt to create a single theory uniting both of them.
But some of our physicists have jumped straight to item 7 in this list before understanding the first six. This seems to make no sense. How can you unite quantum mechanics and gravitation into a single theory, when there are so many unsolved mysteries involved in both of them?

quantum gravity

Quantum gravity is a nice little niche for some physicists. If you are a quantum gravity theorist, you can spend your year working on some theory that no one will expect to work, piling on one far-out speculation after another. If anyone complains about a lack of verification or predictions, you can say: come on, this is quantum gravity, what do you expect? I'm reminded of that Broadway song with the lyric: nice work if you can get it.

Quantum gravity theorists are good at speculations, but are not very good at justifying their work. One quantum gravity theorist admits that there is no evidence for quantum gravity, but she tries to justify her funding by saying this:

The irony is that quantum gravity phenomenology is as safe an investment as it gets in science. We know the theory must exist. We know that the only way it can be scientific is to make contact to observation. Quantum gravity phenomenology will become reality as surely as volcanic ash will drift over Central Europe again.

This is very unpersuasive reasoning. We are not sure that any workable theory of quantum gravity will ever be discovered, and it is very unclear whether such a workable theory will be developed anytime in the next 500 years. Far from “as safe an investment as it gets in science,” investing in quantum gravity theoretical research seems no more safe than betting on a horse race or buying a lottery ticket. A safe investment, on the other hand, is one that has a high likelihood of giving you a good return within the next decade (such as a mutual fund with a 50% mix of stocks and bonds).

Perhaps the main type of quantum gravity theory is what is called loop quantum gravity theory. Such a theory is based on the idea that time is quantized. You can get kind of an idea of quantized time by imagining that each second is a stack of time-slices, and that there are a limited number of these time-slices in each second.

I think this idea is misguided. The idea of quantized time reinforces the assumption of a strict segregation between this instant and the next instant. But rather than thinking in such a way, we should perhaps be moving in the opposite direction. Although it may shock our expectations, experiments on precognition suggest that there may well rarely be some kind of partial intermingling or information exchange between the future and the present. The same thing is suggested by many human experiences very well described in the book The Science of Premonitions by Larry Dossey MD. A particularly striking example is given on page 41 of the book. On May 2, 1812 an Englishman named John Williams had a dream of the assassination of the British prime minister Spencer Perceval. Williams had the dream three times on the same night, and the dream included very specific details. Nine days later Perceval was assassinated. As Dossey puts it, “The details of the assassination were identical to those of the dream, including the colors of the clothing, the buttons on the assassin's jacket, and the location of the bloodstain on Perceval's white waistcoast.” (See here for another author's discussion of this incident.)

It is hard enough to explain such experiments and experiences with our normal assumptions about time, and it seems even harder to explain them under some assumption of quantized time. If physicists wish to create some exotic new theory of time, they would do better to create one that can help explain experiments on precognition and human experiences of premonitions that came true. Rather than imagining a rigid “one-way street” leading between the past and the future, such a theory might allow for the possibility of a limited degree of mingling or communication between the past and the future, possibly in both directions. Such a theory might describe a separation between the past and the future that is more fuzzy and blurred than we normally imagine.

But such a theory may be a long way off. For the present, I simply suggest: when you hear that something is suggested by quantum gravity, remember that quantum gravity may be centuries away from being ready for prime time.