Monday, August 29, 2011

Quantum Theory Cannot Hurt You by Marcus Chown

A superb primer on the quirky phenomena/theories of quantum mechanics (1st half) and relativity (2nd half). If you are going to start on these topics, this book is probably a great first step. Chown has made some very complicated topics a lot less so while still presenting the important experiments, people and thinking that under-gird these incredible theories in physics.
While I enjoyed the latter exploration of special and general relativity, I found there was more novelty in Chown’s framing of various quantum phenomena. (Note: I expected the work to be primarily a review and only secondarily an extension, and this extension happened more with the quantum content.)
Chown emphasized the importance of having particles/systems isolated, which is easier to do when things are small, thus why quantum mechanics is thought of as the physics of the very small. He stresses how things just are the way they are, with experimental data and math as support for the validity of results, but so much of interpretation and other theories are just words (I already shared this view so I might be biased). Additionally, wave-particle duality, decoherence and uncertainty all get excellent coverage. Unfortunately, as quantum theory is so complicated, I can’t quite recall as many of the insights as I would have liked… guess I’ll have to listen again and take more notes (which should be taken as a sign of my failing memory and the complexity of the topic rather than of poor presentation).
Highly recommended.

Friday, August 26, 2011

Nonsense on Stilts: How to Tell Science from Bunk by Massimo Pigliucci

Nonsense on Stilts is a decent exploration of the scientific method(s), recent topics in the world of psuedoscience and some philosophical foundation for the entire scientific enterprise. The book consists of two halves: the first about science and psuedoscience, and the second about science, philosophy and knowing. Unfortunately, I think Pigliucci would have been better served writing two books instead of two halves. One reason is that much of the examination of science (or non-science) topics in popular culture is dated - books and movies reviewed are more than 5 years old. A second reason is that the audience that would typically be interested in the content of the first half wouldn't be in the second and vice-versa (although I am, and think others should be).

Part I:
Nonsense on Stilts provides an important service when it explores different aspects of what science is and the different types of scientific methods, as well as how some disciplines are more amendable to precision or similar results, but face differential amounts of variance due to what they measure.  It is a good review of the main topics in the skeptical community, as well as a look at some areas of science that may have less rigour than commonly believed.
Topics convered include: Quantum theory; Evolutionary psychology; SETI and the Drake equation; Astrology; UFOs; "What the bleep do we know?"; Intelligent design (Dover trial, Behe, Irreducible complexity, media misleading); Responsibility of intellectuals; Anti-intellectual themes in American history and life (isn't it interesting that sports stars are venerated while intellectuals, whose abilities are also beyond those of the average person are sometimes disdained?); Anti-rationalism; Gould and Sagan as case studies of public intellectuals in science; and Global Warming.

Part II:
Pigliucci successfully presents an intellectual-philosophical overview of some key minds in the history of the development of science and rational thinking. I quite enjoyed this examination of the path of scientific and intellectual ideas forward throughout time, especially the Renaissance (and I was less familiar with this content than that of the first part). Additionally, it provided a much needed rebuttal to the absurd position of Steven Weinberg and Stephen Hawking who argue that philosophy is useless or dead.

Topics/People covered include: Plato; Aristotle; Hume; Kant; Empiricists and Rationalists; Induction and Deduction; Bacon; Descartes; Galileo; Newton; Darwin; Scientism and Post-moderism, Sokal hoax; Notions of truth (correspondence theory and others); Kuhn; Perspectivism (objectivism and social construct); Bayesianism; and the nature of expertise.

Given all of the above, you will know if this book is for you. Personally, I was hoping for more.

Sunday, August 21, 2011

50 Impressions

Below is the list of impressions I did on this YouTube video. Brackets attribute sources where appropriate, with my own content labelled original.

1. Schwarzenegger (Predator; misc; original)
2. De Niro – (Taxi Driver/original)
3. Abominable Snow Man (Bugs Bunny/Looney Tunes)
4. Steven Root (Milton from Office Space)
5. Mike Tyson (Misc; original)
6. Wall- E
7. John F. Kennedy (original)
8. Nixon (Misc; original)
9. Henry Kissinger (original)
10. Reagan (original)
11. George Bush Sr. (Dana Carvey’s; original)
12. Bill Clinton (original)
13. George Bush Jr. (Jon Stewart’s; original)
14. Sean Connery (Darrell Hammond’s; SNL Celebrity Jeopardy)
15. Marlon Brando (Godfather)
16. Peter Lorre
17. Gollum (Lord of the Rings)
18. Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite)
19. Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven; Dirty Harry)
20. Tom Hanks (Forrest Gump; original)
21. Benicio del Toro (The Usual Suspects)
22. Howard Cosell
23. Muhammad Ali
24. Burgess Meredith (Mickey Goldmill in Rocky)
25. Stallone (Rocky)
26. Don Hertzfeldt Rejected Cartoon (Man with big spoon)
27. Don Hertzfeldt Rejected Cartoon (Banana Guy)
28. Christopher Walken
30. Kevin Spacey (As Walken auditioning for Han Solo in Star Wars in SNL sketch)
31. Bruce Lee (Enter the Dragon)
32. Ringo/Beatles (Simpsons)
33. Jimmy Stewart (Misc; original)
34. Jack Nickelson (Cuckoo’s Nest; Batman; A Few Good Men
35. Keanu Reeves (original)
36. Hugo Weaving (The Matrix)
36. Robin Williams (Mrs. Doubtfire)
37. Chewbacca (Star Wars)
38. Dr. Claw (Inspector Gadget)
39. Patrick Warburton (David Puddy on Seinfeld)
40. Michael Richards (Kramer on Seinfeld)
41. Mike Myers (Dr. Evil in Austin Powers)
42. Mike Myers’ Scottish Voices (So I Married an Axe Murderer; Austin Powers 2; Shrek)
43. Eddie Murphy (Shrek)
44. Simpsons - Snake
45. Simpsons - Captain Quigly
46. Simpsons - Italian guy
47. Simpsons - Mr. Burns
48. Simpsons – Guy who said boo urns (?)
49. Russell Peters (Chinese Store Owner bit)
50. Stewie (Family Guy)
51. Brad Pitt (Snatch)
52. Mickey Mouse
53. Jim Carrey (In Living Colour x2; Truman Show)

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

The Ego Tunnel: The Science of the Mind and the Myth of the Self by Thomas Metzinger

 What is consciousness? What is a self? How did it come to be? What types of selves exist?
If you like thinking about these questions, you will probably enjoy The Ego Tunnel — an excellent exploration of the philosophy and recent science of consciousness and the nature of the self. Personally, I find these issues fascinating, but also so complicated that periodic revisitations are required to integrate the associated facts and arguments into one’s worldview.
Metzinger argues for the self as a process, as something that comes together from the combined action of brain areas activated at similar times. Although it is a radical idea, I already agreed with this, but the uninitiated might find it startling. If you open up the brain, there is nobody home, so where are “you”? Most of our brain's processes are so automatic that we do not have access to how our perceptions are formed. Simply put, you can’t. If you could, the perception itself would crumble. For example, if you are holding a red apple, you have a sense of its weight, but you do not have first-person access to the processes that enabled you have to that sense of its weight. On a related note, the redness of the apple isn’t "out there" in the world, but a creation of your brain being affected by electronic impulses sent from your eyes, which are processing different wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation. Many sciencey people know this last point, but I would argue that while such facts can be understood on some level, they are incomprehensible from a subjective standpoint.
Metzinger provides a good introduction and overview of his model, and how it fits with neuroscientific findings. There are decent chapters on lucid dreams and out-of-body experiences, and some interesting interviews at the end of a few chapters — my favourite being the one with the theoretical artificial advanced self we create in the future. The Ego Tunnel raises some important ethical issues surrounding the creation of artificial selves and Metzinger cogently proposes a new field of ethics — consciousness ethics — to deal with it.  For example, if we can create conscious selves, it is likely our initial versions would be greatly diminished in capacity (compared both to us and to future versions of themselves). Would such diminished creations, which we’ll be experimenting upon, be similar to a retarded human baby, or something more like a cat, or something entirely different? Complicated issues, indeed!
I found the entire work quite enjoyable and, if pressed, my only criticism would be to say I found the middle third ‘only’ interesting as opposed to first and last thirds which were very interesting. The self and consciousness are not what they seem. If you are curious to investigate further, The Ego Tunnel is a decent place to start.
I experienced the work as an audiobook, which was narrated at the perfect pace to challenge my ability to understand the content. The Ego Tunnel is supposedly a more accessible and condensed version of Metzinger’s Being No One, but since I only have that behemoth on my shelf and haven’t read it, I can only say that is likely true based on the table of contents and length alone.
I highly recommend this work (and hope this will be a useful primer for Being No One).