Posts Tagged ‘Q2C’

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.

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.