Archive for October, 2009|Monthly archive page

What if we unassume?

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

My last (and the final) lecture at Q2C: Fotini Markopoulou‘s “Creating Spacetime“. (And yes, I wonder how many times she’s heard a Marco Polo joke…).

Maropoulou is a founding member of PI, and a theoretical physicist whose current interest in quantum gravity, and more particularly, how can we get out from under the dilemma that we have with General Relativity and Quantum Particle Theory. Namely this: while both of these have been proven over and over again, and hold true in the right scale, we can essentially push either theory to arrive at a value of infinity (for General Relativity, it’s at the big bang, and for Quantum Particle Theory, it’s in the distribution of particles that can generate additional positrons and electrons after being already split).

So if we have the two biggies breaking down, then what that indicates is that we don’t really have the full/right answer yet.

Additionally, while we know a great deal about the stuff we can see (and as we’ve heard over and over again), there’s a whole lotta stuff in our universe that we know nothing about – i.e. dark matter and dark energy, and so on (though Markopoulou pegs the unknown at 95% instead of 70%). Leaving physicists with a lot of questions, but no definitive answers …yet.

Markopoulou set out to explain to us civilians what she thinks needs to happen. She started by challenging out notions of time – for if we think about it in physical terms, “time”–the idea that something happened to us before–is tied to our ability to perceive the photons and sound waves that come at us in a certain arrangement. So let’s say she’s giving the same lecture to the same audience, but there’s a black hole hiding behind the lectern that be stealin’ all her photons and voice. In this case, in “theory”, though the lecture does indeed take place, it does not take place for the audience. It’s not in our “time”.

This little intellectual fissure opens up what Maropoulou really wants to go after, and that’s the notion of spacetime (it’s a biggie!). For, if we are to resolve the issues in the way of understanding quantum gravity, then something fundamental needs to change. Like maybe space is NOT a fundamental; rather, it’s emergent. In the sense of “A property of a collection of simple subunits that comes about through the interactions of the subunits and is not a property of any single subunit.” She used the example a river – where we can identify and understand the properties of a river, but can also understand underneath that, that the “riverness” of river is emergent, since the river itself is composed of atoms, which are the “building blocks” of the that riverness.

To follow the analogy then, space is not in and of itself, but emergent from matter. Okay. Boggle that one for a minute.

In terms of theoretical models, what this does is remove an essential problem in the assumptions of General Relativity (that space was always there), and curtails the “random dropping in of Einsteinian equations” to make things work, which is the way things are done now.

Markopoulou went on to show some comprehensible math as to how and why this might be possible via triangle diagrams that lead to our view (the cube) versus what we can call the network view (where all things are simultaneously everywhere). It’s also a nice way to answer for the fact that the universe is a homogeneous temperature even though we know that there are certain parts that have never touched.

She was very clear that we are far out into theoretical models in this. We can’t yet measure it or prove it. But, it’s tantalizing to think on it.

Chicken heart

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

Since we weren’t getting enough science at the Q2C, Melle, Andrew, Melissa and I trundled off to the Ontario Science Centre yesterday for the “Body Worlds & the Story of the Heart” exhibit.

In case you don’t know what this is, it’s the next installment of Gunther von Hagens’ ongoing program to teach us about the human body … using real human bodies of people who have donated their bodies after death.

There are 2 key parts to the program: plastination and live autopsies:

  • plastination is a process patented by von Hagens whereby parts or bodies have the water and fats removed and replaced by a mixture of plastics that preserve the original structures while arresting decay.
  • the live autopsies are his way of exposing our anatomical selves, so to speak – he definitely sees it as education (and you can buy live autopsy videos in the gift shop, but I must emphasize how disappointed I was that there were none with aliens).

The overwhelming feeling of this exhibit is how impressive and beautiful and intricate the human body is. The bodies are posed in a variety of athletic poses (archery, skiing, gymnastics) with certain elements flayed outward (in one case, as angel’s wings, which was very interesting) or certain elements removed so that you can see into a further layer. Plus, they left the belly buttons, nipples and, at least in one case, anuses on so you can orient yourself on the topography and make jokes like a 12 year old.

Since this exhibit is focused on the heart, there were plastinated vein sculptures interspersed with the body parts and body sculptures. What is that? you might ask. Well, basically, plastinate all the veins of something–say, a foot–and then remove all of the other stuff like skin and muscle and bone, and you have the outline of the foot in bright red gauze-y looking stuff. They really looked more like a crazy craft project than real veins. Kind of disturbing when you’re looking at an entire lamb, … or a rooster. Very edumacational though, in terms of seeing where the blood goes, and how integral it is to the entirety of an organism.

It was also pretty amazing to see how much “stuff” we pack into certain areas. Like, for example, the wrist. Given our proclivity for using the hands for stuff, and the relatively small conduit of muscle, bone and blood in that area, the wrist is this crazyass superhighway of tendons and veins. Another intensely packed area is the whole “trunk” part – lungs, heart, kidneys, liver, stomach, spleen, appendix, upper and lower intestines- all strategically placed in such a way to make a professional organizer weep with joy.

The plastinated specimens were complemented by body slices – basically cross-sections of bodies and body parts (either horizontally or vertically). These are fascinating, since you can see how organs relate (in a cross-section of the abdomen, for example) and/or how they are made all the way through (in slices of the brain, for example). There was an entire giraffe done with cross-slices that was gorgeous – and it took the Bodyworld people thousands of hours to make.

Special exhibits focused on each of the main organs. An enlarged heart? Really kind of intimidating. Seeing a heart with the pacemaker still in it? Cool. Cat heart? Bigger than one might expect. Chicken heart? Scary!

And we got to hold some organs! They sprung some poor guy from the morgue for the day to do some “public relations”. He seemed rather pleased to be tossing around a plastinated heart and having people who actually talk back. It was kind of freaky in that the organs remain a little… spongy. Particular the kidney.

If the exhibit is coming to a city near you, I’d highly recommend it.

If someone tried to take MY books, I would punch them in the throat

Sunday, October 25th, 2009

So, Cory. The talk I saw was “Copyright versus Universal Access to All Human Knowledge and Groups Without Cost: the state of play in the global copyfight“. This is another love story, not with a subject, but with books.

Doctorow started his lecture with a homily to books. How we feel about them, how we want keep them and pass them on to our children. I was physically repulsed as he described a job he had at a bookstore when he had to remove the covers and destroy the innards of books that were being returned to the publisher (which was totally his point).

We are at the frontier of figuring out how to move forward in a world of electronic delivery of the arts – ebooks, digital media, and so on – can be accessed, downloaded and shared. But when you bring back the analogies of the “traditional” world of books and mixed tapes, then the absurdity of copyright law is revealed.

Doctorow also talked about “self help” copyright rules and the 3 Strikes premise, which essentially means that any ISP receiving an infringement notice, no matter how spurious, can and will cut off Internet access to the offending household, and you know that there are not many of us (except perhaps that guy living in a cabin in South Dakota, and even he needs access to the Anarchist’s Cookbook), who can make a living or have a life without the Interwebs.

Doctorow asks us to learn about the copyright law in our own countries and at the UN level (and he’s not so happy with the UN), and to participate in discussions as the law is being created.

For, as his informal poll pointed out, none of us are innocent within the system as it is being developed.

During the questions, there was one interesting one referring back to the session I saw with Neal Stephenson and Jaron Lanier – where Jaron had been talking about what he thinks is a more equitable system of delivery. Essentially, we all pay a few cents per use of whatever commodity we want to use — including art, writing, music… Doctorow’s response is that he thinks this is not tenable. He says that experimentation has shown that the cost of us having to decide whether or not this content is worth “5 cents” is  greater than the 5 cents, and so we won’t participate.

Unfortunately, the other questioner was an older “volunteer” with the festival who hijacked the time with simplistic questions (and she asked TWO, which is a no-no). Apparently she did the same at the later session, and I’d strongly recommend that someone explain to her why this is annoying.

I think for this kind of topic, each of us has to think it through and I at least agree that we should participate where we can in the discussion. I do believe that the ability to block someone from the Internet is a very harsh sentence, and needs to be used with care, and I don’t have trust that it will be, since the primary players are lawyers and ISPs.

Now I’m off to fondle my books.

But what publishers of books and music are trying to do, argues Doctorow, is develop a world where, at any time, and with no forewarning, they can reach into your home and essentially “take back” the books that you already purchased. That all that small print in the copyright (sometimes bigger than the ebook they are trying to sell) is basically you signing off on their right to do so.

Palate cleansers

Thursday, October 22nd, 2009

Saw Cory Doctorow this afternoon, but I’ll put in my report tomorrow. In the meanwhile, amuse yourself (some oldies but goodies):

The flippin’ ship caught on fire, but he found more butterflies

Wednesday, October 21st, 2009

Continuing the Q2C Lectures, this afternoon Melle and I went to see “Remarkable Creatures: Epic Adventures in the Search for the Origin of Species” (not uploaded yet, but you can see it here:

The presenter was Sean B. Carroll, an author and biologist from the University of Wisonsin-Madison, and whose book of the same name was recently nominated for the 2009 National Book Award.

This lecture really was a love story. Carroll’s love for the adventures, lives and personal stories of three key people in the development of the Theory of Evolution and Origin of Species. We all know Darwin, of course, but perhaps just as intriguing is the role that two friends: Alfred Wallace and Henry Bates.

Darwin set out on the Beagle in 1831 for a 1-year voyage that turned into 5 years on the sea (apparently, the stalwart captain wanted to recheck some measurements so they crossed the ocean twice). Considering Darwin was horribly seasick for every day he was on the water, you can imagine the excruciating day-to-day he must have had. But even before he got very far, he uncovered “some bones” which turned out to be fossils, including an extinct mega-rodent-mammal now known as Mylodon Darwinii (whose desiccated poo we admired just recently at the ROM!).

According to Carroll, when Darwin arrived at the Galapagos, he was more than underwhelmed – just some weirdo aquatic lizards, some big turtles and a crapload of birds. He described it as “hell on earth”. However, he did his job and detailed the various mocking birds in the islands. It was on the second voyage (while the captain was measuring stuff) as he transcribed his journals that he had the first inklings of what would become his theory. But of course, if you know the story, he did not publish his thoughts until a good 15 years later, in 1859 AFTER the concept was briefly introduced alongside another little paper called “On the Tendency of Varieties to Depart Indefinitely From the Original Type” in 1858. By none other than Alfred Wallace.

So let’s dial it back a few years – Darwin already knows why species differ but he hasn’t talked publicly about it yet. It’s 1848. The boys (Wallace and Bates) put together a scheme to get the hell out of England for parts exotic in the Amazon – where they hoped to collect specimens for themselves and sell some to other collectors, all well hunting for the “origin of species”, already a hot topic in the fecund scientific circles of Victorian England.

They made it to the Amazon but decided to part ways after about a year. Wallace made his way up the Rio Negro, and as well as collecting specimens (i.e. killing and pickling things), he amassed a collection of live animals to take with him back to Merry Old. After about 4 years, and a couple thousand kilometers up the Rio Negro, Wallace was dang tired and he decided to go home. He made it back to port and caught a ride on the Helen – a ship headed back to England.

Oopsie. There was a fire. On the ship. Where all of his specimens, writings and those poor live animals were loaded. He made it to a leaky emergency boat with nothing except a small box with some sketches of butterflies. Then he spent 12 days on the open ocean before he was rescued. After recovering for 18 months in England, the wingnut decided to go back on the seas – this time to the Malay Archipelago (Malayasia, Indonesia…). For the next 8 years he island-hopped, gathered more specimens and had some deep thoughts. Here’s what he noticed about the butterflies–some were noxious to birds, and some were not, and some that were not really LOOKED like the ones that were, so he wondered why that would be. Dunno, maybe SURVIVAL, of the um, FITTEST?

Another thought he had was that there’s an invisible line through the islands — one one side were species that were Australian in nature (marsupials, even if they were in the trees instead of on the ground), and on the other were species that were Asian in nature (mammalian). The Wallace Line as it’s still called today was early evidence for co-location of species and species variation (never mind the fact that the land masses used to be attached).

Somewhere along the way, he was still writing to Bates, and came into correspondence with Darwin (who was already known for treatises on things other than species differentiation). Leading up to that fateful day when he sends Darwin a letter basically laying out the exact thing that Darwin has been writing privately for 15 years. Had Wallace not sent this letter, more than likely we would not seen On Origin of Species until after Darwin’s death.

And what about Bates? Well, he soldiered on in the Amazon for a crazy 11 years. He discovered something like 8,000 species (not specimens, SPECIES) and continued to be close friends with Wallace and Darwin and many other scientific types in the day.

The impact of the presentation was enhanced by Carroll’s use of primary documents like journals and letters. Nothing beats reading/seeing the science come together through the everyday thoughts or unguarded life of its thinkers.

He also reminded me of one of my favourite professors who taught Victorian literature. Thanks to him, I’ve already had the privilege of reading Wallace and Darwin and Lyell and Paley in the originals. His idea was that you need to understand the culture to understand the literature. Dickens is different when you’re immersed in the thoughts of his contemporaries. So holla, Dr Hair!

I still have a few more lectures to go, if you still have the stamina to read about them afterward…

State of the universe is science fiction?

Monday, October 19th, 2009

I went to the first two of scheduled Q2C Lectures last night.

The first one was “State of the Universes“. The panel was Neil Turok–Director at PI, Katie Freese –Physicist/Cosmologist at University of Michigan, and Larry Krauss–Director of Origins Initiative at Arizona State (and also author of The Physics of Star Trek).

The purpose of this talk was to give a state of the union on what we know about the universe from a mostly cosmological perspective. The moderator was Jennifer Ouellette–Science writer for the New York Times (and not the headband chick, as far as I know). I’ve decided that I really need her job, since I would very much enjoy going around to physics conferences and interviewing the geeks and then translating that into human language.

The discussion was lively at times: the three speakers holding true to the idea that a physicist is happiest when arguing with another physicist.

They talked about the knowns: flat universe, old universe at 13.72 billion (except for some people in Texas who think it’s 6,000, as Krauss pointed out), accelerating expansion. However, some theoretical models are opening up the question of the flat universe, and Turok in particular is wondering about an open universe given how much he likes the “bouncy ball” theory of the big bang(s) – whereby there is a bang, followed by deceleration, acceleration and then a collapse of sorts back to the next singularity.

Freese was very informative on some of the experimental work going on, particularly in the area of dark energy and dark matter, which are two of her favourite areas of research. She was confident that we would know/see dark matter within the next 10 years, though I’m not sure that Krauss was as convinced.

There was also some interesting discussion on gravity waves–the next big thing cosmologists want to measure. We are already doing so in a rather ingenious way via the leftover microwave radiation that flows through the universe from the big bang. The problem is how to measure waves that essentially travel through anything in our universe, including ourselves. Well, what happens is the gravity waves actual squish and elongate photons, which we can measure at very small scales. All 3 seemed pretty excited about this one, despite a dearth of evidence so far.

Ouellette was not bad as a moderator. She clearly has a good enough grasp on the subject matter to carry on a conversation, but she was a bit on the bubbly side for my taste. Krauss was both arrogant and funny (awesome combination), and definitely the “prove it” guy on the stage. I don’t think I learned much new from this one, but it was a very good summary of where things are in theoretical and experimental physics.

Their final word was this: we don’t know what we don’t know, and in the end, it’s science fiction until experimental evidence proves it.

Which leads us to the next session : “Seeing Science Through Fiction“. This one was one that all of us were really looking forward to. Speakers were Neal Stephenson–who needs no introduction, I think, but if you live under a rock, he’s the author of the Baroque Cycle, Snow Crash and Anathem, among others; and Jaron Lanier–attributed with the term “virtual reality” and a well-known computer science expert in the field, as well as a musician and a few other things I probably don’t know about.

The moderator for this panel was Lee Smolin–founder at Perimeter and author of some popular science books, including The Trouble with Physics (which I read last year).

So, a physicist, a bald writer and a dreadlocked white guy walk into a bar… The most entertaining part of this panel was the degree to which three socially awkward smart guys could interact in a semi-coherent and accessible manner. Smolin kept going OCD on his pen and water bottle, Stephenson had a bouncy leg and couldn’t look at the audience and formulate a response at the same time, and Lanier played the keyboard (or perhaps a weird wind instrument) on his knees for the entire time.

I think Smolin’s big thing was to get at a comparison of the cloistered environment in which the scientists live in Anathem, to the patently open Perimeter Institute, where outreach is a fundamental part of the institution. Stephenson wasn’t willing to say that the novel is proscriptive, but it did generate a discussion on how and when scientists (or artists) need to withdraw and to engage. Lanier in particular feels it’s very necessary for the scientist/artist to have time to really go through the essence of a thing before it can be shared or communicated–and that that process needs to be done in isolation.

Stephenson did give some insight on his writing process (totally doesn’t think about the audience–which, duh), and perhaps the bigger surprise was that he seems to subscribe to the ancient Greek conceit/belief that writing is really a channelling of the gods (Dionysus especially), whereby the writer is a vessel through whom the words flow. Of course, he didn’t go on about Dionysus (that was me)–no, he referred to Stephen King’s forward to The Dark Tower series (which presumably says something similar). And he also said, in an aside, that he liked King–the only writer he knows who wrote more words than he did (joke!).

I like what Lanier had to say on a few topics–when asked about the singularity (T2 kind, not big bang kind), he’s definitely in the “not anytime soon” camp. As he points out, we still can’t write software that works, so how the hell do we expect artificial intelligence to come along in our lifetime. He referred to a paper he did around 1974 where he said it would be okay to keep UNIX around for the next 2 years – since it’s a good “short term” solution (heh).

Smolin wasn’t the best in the way of moderators, and Stephenson was very thoughtful, if a bit wooden, but it was still a nice way to spend a Sunday evening.

Those were the days

Sunday, October 18th, 2009

Due to logistics, we had the family Thanksgiving this weekend instead of last weekend. It was great to see everyone, and the youngest nephew has gone from crawling to walking just in time for his first birthday. Oldest nephew and I bonded over Maru, and niece was ecstatic to get a new DS.

While we were gorging on turkey and multiple desserts, my sister popped in a DVD of old family movies. There we were at different ages. The divas would completely recognize me beside my cousins, building a kickass fire on one of our camping trips.  And there’s evidence about just how happy I was to receive my Shaun Cassidy album back in the day (link to geocities – natch!).

But what’s with me, in my underwear, doing cartwheels in the living room?

I guess some things never change.

Spam ham meatloaf

Friday, October 16th, 2009

I was the Concordia Club last night for dinner during Oktoberfest (I know – it’s been 15 years or so since I’ve been there). It was for work, alright?

Anyway, for some reason I decided to order “the meatloaf” instead of schnitzel. The only way I can describe it is spam ham extruded from the behind of the Schneider’s factory. Or, maybe like a hot dog in the shape of a slice of bread.

It was …interesting.

Why Fox is an asshole

Wednesday, October 7th, 2009

As reported in Whedonesque, Fox is considering giving ”Chuck” executive producer Scott Rosenbaum a show that’s kind of a “Western with a Sci-Fi twist”:

I don’t think you need to read the comments to imagine what the response is. For example:

Are you kidding me?? Does FOX have no short term memory? I seem to remember watching this when it was called FIREFLY!!!

Are you freakin’ kidding me, Fox?? That’s like when I was in Grade 4, and my mom used to make these awesome oatmeal chocolate-chip cookies and every time we had them they were fantastic, and then one day she took the cookies away. No more cookies. We were desolate. We rebelled and ate Fudgeos at the neighbours but it just wasn’t the same. A while later, she promised us cookies again. But guess what kind of cookies?! CAROB flippin’ WHEAT GERM cookies. Which, we all know, ain’t cookies.

Um. Not that my mom is Fox. Or an asshole.

The Ig Nobels are out!

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

Of course the media picked up on the full vs empty beer bottle as a weapon of choice. I think my favorite is about naming cows…