Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘science fiction’

What is the rating on this movie?

Looking at the NY Times headline

U.S. Faces a Startling New Political Reality After Donald Trump’s Victory

with some mentions of possible cabinet positions for Chris Christie and Rudolf Giuliani, and I had the powerful sense of having fallen into one of those movies where the protagonist accidentally upsets his time stream — for instance, travels to the past and crushes a butterfly — creating an alternate reality where all kinds of bizarre events start to accumulate in the intermediate past: For instance, instead of the respected former secretary of state who is president in our reality, there is a depraved reality TV star who has become president and then filled his cabinet with criminals and then nuked California. (They were nasty.) There must be a way to fix this…

Predicting the future of communication

I just had the thought: Who would have predicted, thirty years ago, that in 2016 bookstores would still be thriving, but video stores would have all but disappeared?

I am reminded of this essay by Isaac Asimov, “The Ancient and the Ultimate”, that I read about 1980, but was written in the early 1970s, about the future of video technology. He was at a conference on communications and society, where a speaker was praising the new technology of videocassettes, and suggesting that authors such as him would soon be tossed on the scrapheap of history. The essay speculates about possible future improvements to video technology, inferring tongue-in-cheek that the pinnacle of the technology would be attained when it had turned into books.

Early greenhouse

I read a novel that I’d known about for a long time, but had never gotten around to: Ursula K. Le Guin’s The Lathe of Heaven. I was startled to discover that an essentially background point of the plot of this novel, published in 1971, was the destruction of the Earth’s environment by the greenhouse effect. This has already taken place before the events of the novel, set in the early twenty-first century.

Rain was an old Portland tradition, but the warmth — 70ºF on the second of March — was modern, a result of air pollution. Urban and industrial effluvia had not been controlled soon enough to reverse the cumulative trends already at work in the mid-twentieth century; it would take several centuries for the CO2 to clear out of the air, if it ever did. New York was going to be one of the larger casualties of the Greenhouse Effect, as the polar ice kept melting and the sea kept rising.

This is only incidental to the themes of the novel, which grapples with the structure of reality and the nature of dreams. But it amazed me to see global warming being confidently projected into our future, at a time when — as the climate-change skeptics never tire of pointing out — discussions of climate change tended to refer to the danger of a new Ice Age.

At least, that is my memory. According to the Google Books NGram viewer, though, the “greenhouse effect” was as mentioned in books around 1970 as frequently as it is today; and, oddly, it has declined substantially from a peak three times as high in the early 1990s.Screenshot 2015-12-16 14.22.01

For example, a 1966 book titled Living on Less begins its section on “The Environment” by discussing global warming, and launches right into a description of the greenhouse effect that sounds very similar to what you might read today.

Too many orang-utans?

I recently read Pierre Boulle’s Planète des Singes [Planet of the Apes]. I knew about the novel, of course, but hadn’t read it. It is very much of its time and place — though, as I have commented, the origins of the story have been sufficiently obscured by the various film versions, as to make a French version seem to an American cartoonist a plausible punchline. What I had not anticipated was the extent to which the novel is a satire about scientists, the management of science, and science education. The point is well summarised mid-way through the story, when we are finally given an overview — from the chimpanzee perspective — of the social structure of the planet Soror. I say social structure, but the only apes who are of any interest are scientists of some sort or other, and the only social or political organisation we hear about is scientific, though we do hear about a more brutal past, where the gorillas ruled by force. They have maintained the habit of power.

Ils excellent dans l’art de tracer des directives générales et de manoeuvrer les autres singes. Quand un technicien a fait une découverte interéssante, tube lumineux par exemple ou combustible nouveau, c’est presque toujours un gorille qui se charge de l’exploiter et d’en tirer tout le bénéfice possible. Sans être véritablement intelligents, ils sont beaucoup plus malins que les orang-outans. Ils obtiennent tout ce qu’ils veulent de ceux-ci en jouant de leur orgueil. Ainsi, à la tête de notre Institut… il y a un gorille administrateur, que l’on voit très rarement…
[They excel in composing general instructions and in manipulating other apes. When a technician has made an interesting discovery, for example a luminiferous tube, or a new fuel, it is almost always a gorilla who takes charge of the development and extracting the maximum possible benefit. Without being genuinely intelligent, they are much more clever than the orang-utans. The gorillas get everything they want from them by playing on their pride. Thus, our Institute is headed by a gorilla administrator, who is almost never seen.]

The gorillas also produce, when they do occasionally stoop to research, massive tomes that are expertly structured and organised, even if the content is produced by others, each one by a different subaltern chimpanzee.

The orang-utans are referred to as the “official science”, although

certains se poussent parfois dans la politique, les arts et la littérature. Ils apportent les mêmes caractères dans toutes ces activités. Pompeux, solennels, pédants, dépourvus d’originalité et de sens critique, acharnés à maintenir la tradition, aveugles et sourds à toute nouveauté, adorant les clichés et les formules toutes faites, ils forment le substratum de toutes les academies. Doués d’une grande mémoire, ils apprennent énormément de matières par coeur, dans les livres. Ensuite, ils écrivent eux-mêmes d’autres livres, ou ils répètent ce qu’ils ont lu, ce qui leur attire de la considération de la part de leurs frères orang-outans…. Le malheur c’est qu’ils fabriquent ainsi tous les livres d’enseignement, propageant des erreurs grossières dans la jeunesse simienne.
[some of them do occasionally make their way into politics, art, and literature. They display the same characteristics in all their activities. Pompous, solemn, pedantic, lacking in originality and critical sense, obsessed with preserving traditions, blind and deaf to all novelty, adoring clichés and settled formulas, they form a substratum in all the academies. Gifted with excellent memories, they learn enormous amounts of material by heart from books. Then they write it all down in other books, repeating exactly what they read, thus attracting the approbation of their brother orang-utans… The real tragedy is that they write, in this way, all the textbooks, perpetuating gross errors among the simian youth.]

As for the chimpanzees,

Ceux-ci semblent bien représenter l’élément intellectuel de la planète. Ce n’est pas par forfanterie si Zira soutient que toutes les grandes découvertes ont été faites par eux. C’est tout au plus une généralisation un peu poussée, car il y a quelques exceptions. En tout cas, ils écrivent la plupart des livres intéressants, dans les domaines les plus divers. Ils paraissent animés par un puissant esprit de recherche.
[They appear to be the intellectual element of the planet. It is not mere boastfulness when Zira claims that all the great discoveries have been made by chimpanzees. To be sure, it is a bit exaggerated, as there are some exceptions. In any case, they write most of the interesting books on all subjects. They appear to be motivated by a powerful spirit of research.]

There must be important lessons for us here, in the age of the REF. Also for teaching. The government wants us to produce more gorillas, but our education system is optimised for orang-utans. As for the chimpanzees, they’ve recognised that they’ll muddle through anyway, or enough of them anyway, motivated by this “powerful spirit of research”, willing to work for a few bananas on fixed-term contracts.

Technical literature

I just read Charles Yu’s review of Neal Stephenson’s new novel Seveneves (after reading the novel itself), a story that begins with the moon being suddenly disintegrated by a mysterious force, and goes downhill from there. Yu  writes

The skill with which this is all carried out is also a liability. Stephenson is so fluid a writer, so adept at the particular thing he does, that he can get away with very long stretches of what’s frequently referred to as “infodumps” but what I prefer to call “techsposition”: an amalgam of technical geekery and plotty exposition, fused into one substance, a material Stephenson has seemingly perfected… The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in sentences like this:

“A new niksht had been formed, just at the place where the whip was attached to the hebel, and was beginning to accelerate ‘forward,’ accelerating the flivver to the velocity it would need to accomplish the rest of the mission.”

… The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are rocks is that some of the most important entities are rocks.

This doesn’t look very good. But you might make similar comments about other, more generally esteemed, novels. For instance,

The amount of context required to understand any given passage, its lingo and conceptual background prerequisites, is astounding — resulting, at times, in passages like this:

“The lower subdivided part, called the junk, is one immense honeycomb of oil, formed by the crossing and recrossing, into ten thousand infiltrated cells, of tough elastic white fibres throughout its whole extent. The upper part, known as the Case, may be regarded as the great Heidelburgh Tun of the Sperm Whale.”

The challenge of writing a novel in which some of the most important entities are whales is that some of the most important entities are whales.

That is, indeed, how many 19th century readers appraised Moby Dick. With greater familiarity, critics came to understand that technical detail is essential to a story of human struggle with nature. Nature doesn’t care about our passions and ambitions, or any of our self-aggrandisement, except as these are manifested physically. So it is with Seveneves, whose characters strut upon a vast stage of human striving, conflict and desire, but their lofty thoughts and speeches can seem ridiculous when put up against the hard facts of orbital mechanics and inertia that brook no persuasion. The very weight of detail communicates the ponderous physical law that the characters need to contend with, a heroic age where Odysseus needs to retire to his tent to spend days calculating,

Data-mining for Cthulhu

I don’t ordinarily repost what other people have written, but this post by The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal is so beautiful that I feel the need to copy it. It really just consists of juxtaposing the buzzword Big Data with this quote from H. P. Lovecraft — one that I was already familiar with, but had never exactly put into this context. It is the famous opening of The Call of Cthulhu:

The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents. We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity, and it was not meant that we should voyage far. The sciences, each straining in its own direction, have hitherto harmed us little; but some day the piecing together of dissociated knowledge will open up such terrifying vistas of reality, and of our frightful position therein, that we shall either go mad from the revelation or flee from the deadly light into the peace and safety of a new dark age.

Safety of a new dark age. Hmm. If only I could turn that into a grant proposal…

Quantum babble

Here’s  a recent article from New Scientist about the discovery — creation, actually — of a new kind of particle called the “Majorana fermion” that physicists have supposedly been searching for for 75 years (who knew?!)

I more or less trust New Scientist, so it’s presumably legitimate, but it’s amazingly close to a parody of quantum gobbledegook. I know more than the average person about quantum physics, but I really can’t tell if someone’s pulling my leg here. I could just as well imagine this having been scribed by Stanislaw Lem, and it wouldn’t be entirely out of place as a wonky Spock-Kirk colloquy in Star Trek, explaining how hyperwarp communications or something functions.

What is a Majorana fermion?

It is named for the physicist Ettore Majorana, who found that a particle could be its own antiparticle.

If a particle has properties with values unequal to zero, then its antiparticle has the opposite values. What that means is that all the properties of a Majorana fermion, the charge, energy, what have you, it’s all zero. It is a particle, but it doesn’t have properties that we can measure. That makes it very mysterious. It also makes it difficult to find.

How did you find the Majorana?
We made one. The Majorana comes out of the superposition of an electron and a “hole” – the absence of an electron in a metal. By applying a magnetic field to semiconducting nanowires laid across a superconductor, you can move electrons along these wires, creating two points in space that each mimic half an electron. The electrons go back and forth, so the hole jumps from left to right. If it spends an equal amount of time on each side, then, quantum mechanically, it’s in a superposition of being on the left and right. If it’s stable, then we call it a particle.

I’ve had graduate level courses in relativistic quantum mechanics, but I can’t tell if this is a joke.

Genetics and Democracy in the United Kingdom

What is the attraction of monarchy? According to the BBC headline “Kate Middleton in labour as world waits”. Really? The world? What exactly are they holding off on? Doesn’t the world have important things to do? (On the other hand, I’ve just discovered that The Guardian now has an alternative “republican” versions of its web site, with a report on rock star Morrissey in place of the princess’s labour pains. Just click to toggle.)

In honour of the newly announced maturation of the royal zygote into an air-breathing royal neonate — and its generous decision to head off a constitutional crisis by choosing to make do with only half its potential complement of X chromosomes — who is already predestined to rule over Britain, even while he is likely to be occupied less with affairs of state in the near future than with spitting up curdled royal milk from HRH the DoC’s royal mammary glands, I am reposting my proposal from two years ago, occasioned by the royal wedding. The proposal has been unaccountably ignored, despite its prospects for improving the democratic legitimacy of the monarchy. I can only infer that the neglect is due to a basic discomfort among the British elite with the innovations of modern science (unlike the innovations in, say, tax accounting, of which they tend to be avidly fond).

crowned_egg

With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery:

The idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.

(Paine never got to see the number of statistician children filling posts in some of today’s leading statistics departments, but the point is, in principle, well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular superstition that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:

  1. Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
  2. The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
  3. The elected sperm will be invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.

* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.

** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf.  Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).

purim_royal_wedding

Genetics and Democracy in the United Kingdom

Solving the democracy deficit through modern science

 

crowned_egg

With the impending union of male and female royalty breeders, there has been increasing tendency to cite Thomas Paine’s evergreen mockery: “the idea of hereditary legislators is as inconsistent as that of hereditary judges or hereditary juries; and as absurd as an hereditary mathematician, or an hereditary wise man; and as ridiculous as an hereditary poet-laureate.” (Paine never got to see the number of mathematician children filling the posts in most of today’s leading mathematics departments, but the point is well taken.) Seen as the monarchical version of an election — the keystone of the procedure by which a legitimate head of state is created — a Royal wedding certainly feels a trifle arbitrary. But this opposition to monarchy, though it wears the finery of modernity, has failed to keep up with advancing technology. True, it might formerly have been the case that the hereditary principle made the choice of head of state no different from a lottery (for which, see this suggestion). It seems impossible to unite the hereditary principle with the increasingly popular beliefs that rulers should be selected by some non-random process, and that hoi polloi should have something to say about it. But now the following arrangements have been announced by the Palace (a particularly sodden corner of the palace wine cellar, to be precise)*:

  1. Following the wedding, a selection of at least 5 royal spermatozoa** will be extracted and fully sequenced by a specially selected team at the Royal Institution for Genetics Pedigree Studies. The secret method (which, in a nod to popular taste, does use beer as a reagent) has been designed to be maximally non-destructive.
  2. The sequences will published on the website princesperm.gov.uk. The public will have 5 days to register and vote for the one that they prefer be invited to form their new ruler.
  3. The elected sperm will invited in the first instance to inseminate the royal egg. Should it fail in its attempt, the second-place sperm will be sent in. In the case of a repeat failure, a national referendum will be held to determine the correct voting procedure.

* It may be argued that this election proposal, being purely fictional and even farcical, has no bearing on the justification or not of the British monarchy. A dangerous argument indeed, for those who would dispense with fiction and farce would leave central pillars of the British constitutional order bereft of all foundation.

** Why are the future queen’s eggs not also sequenced? Choice of the ovum is a royal prerogative, cf.  Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England, v. 5, section 113 (Oxford 1765-1769).

purim_royal_wedding

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