Thursday, December 22, 2016

Why polls and surveys fail

Polls and opinion surveys often predict results that never happen. Is there a scientific reason that can explain it? I think so. The problem could be that the mathematical theories behind the polls are misapplied.
A branch of statistics is called sample theory. It was invented to solve the problem of estimating whether the products of a factory are well made or defective, without having to analyze them one by one, which would be too costly.
Let us say, for example, that a factory produces one million screws a day. In theory they should be checked one by one, but since that is impossible, only one part is analyzed. Which part? This is what sample theory tries to solve.
Suppose we analyze just 2000 screws, and find that one of them is defective (0.05%). Can we extend this result to the million screws and assert that in that population there will be approximately 500 defective screws?

Thursday, December 15, 2016

What is immortality

Pieter van Lint - Allegory of immortality
Immortality is in fashion. Every few weeks, the media publish news or interviews related to this matter. In addition to the one I mentioned in an earlier article, let's look at two others, quite recent:
         We will live 1000 years (Aubrey de Gray, May 1, 2016).
         Man is about to attain immortality and artificial intelligence, which will turn him into Homo Deus (Yuval Harari, September 11, 2016).
But first we must define what we mean by immortality; otherwise, we will hardly know what we are talking about. As one reader pointed out in my previous article, living 1000 years is not the same as being immortal. If you live 1000 years and then die, you are not immortal, you have just lived longer. This applies, whatever the duration of life. Living 1000 million years and then dying would not be the same as being immortal.
Those who believe that someday we will be immortal do not put all the eggs in the same basket. In recent years, three different ways have been proposed to achieve immortality:

Thursday, December 8, 2016

The three trunks of the tree of life

The tree of life
As time goes by and more and more genomes of living beings of very different types are sequenced, we are learning a lot about the tree of life. This is a summary of what we know:
  • From the fact that all current living things use the same genetic code (with very minor variations) it follows that all the living beings we know, current or extinct (including viruses), descend from a single ancestor, unknown, of course, because there is no trace of in the fossil record, and if we found it, we would not recognize it. This hypothetical common ancestor has received the curious name LUCA, the acronym of Last Universal Common Ancestor. The first living creature should be placed at the very origin of the tree of life (in the root). Many biologist also think that this common ancestor appeared over 3000 million years ago, near the hydrothermal vents found on the mid-ocean ridges that separate the plates of the earth’s crust, where the magma in the mantle tends to rise to the surface.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

A global conspiracy?

Isaac Asimov
In 1976, at the peak of the pessimistic forecasts about the catastrophic rise in global population, foreseen by the first report of the Club of Rome (1972), Isaac Asimov published a science fiction short story (The winnowing), which suggested a (highly unethical) way to stop this catastrophic increase in population. This is the summary of the story:
In 2005, the unstoppable population growth causes famine in the third world countries. To contain it, the world authorities (the UN), controlled by the developed world, decide to apply a triage to the world population. To do this, a scientist (who does not want to do it, but is threatened with reprisals against his family) is ordered to develop a protein, poisonous for 70% of the population, but harmless for the remainder, depending on each individual DNA, so that its effects will be dramatic, but random. The protein will be introduced in the food sent to alleviate famines, so as to bring the world population down to more manageable levels. The project is not applied exactly as planned, because the biologist who must develop the protein gives it to eat to the world leaders without their knowing, so that 70% of them will die. As the protein has been adapted to the scientist’s DNA, by eating it he commits suicide, thus escaping the consequences of what he has done.

Thursday, November 24, 2016

The problem of Achilles and the tortoise

Zeno of Elea
Zeno of Elea, a follower of Parmenides, is mainly remembered for his paradoxes which try to prove that movement does not exist, especially the paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which asserted that it would be impossible for Achilles to catch the tortoise in a race, if he had accepted a starting handicap.
We know that Achilles runs faster than the tortoise (otherwise he could not catch it and the paradox would make no sense). As he has taken a handicap, when Achilles starts to run the tortoise will already be at a certain distance, at point A. When Achilles reaches point A, the tortoise will have advanced to point B. When Achilles reaches B, the tortoise is already in C, and so on, ad infinitum.
The time Achilles needs to catch the tortoise will be the sum of the times it takes him to reach points A, B, C... The total time is, therefore, the sum of an infinite series of numbers. The problem is that Zeno thinks that the sum of an infinite series of numbers must be infinite, so Achilles will never catch the tortoise (this is the conclusion of his reasoning). This, however, is not true: there are many infinite series whose sum is finite. One of them is precisely the series that computes the time needed by Achilles to catch the tortoise, according to Zeno’s reasoning.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Alternatives to the Big Bang

The Big Bang theory has a problem, which can be explained by the following set of questions:
  • The farthest we can see is the cosmic microwave background radiation, which originated about 380,000 years after the Big Bang. We cannot see directly what happened before, because it is hidden behind that radiation.
  • It is true that we cannot see, but we can deduce what happened in those first 380,000 years by applying the standard physical theory, i.e. general relativity. It is also possible to check those deductions, for they offer predictions, such as the average composition of the cosmos, which fit well with the experimental data.
  • The problem is, general relativity does not take us to time zero, the Big Bang itself. This theory can be applied only from 5×10-44 seconds after the Big Bang (the Planck time), as quantum effects were predominant before that time, and we do not have a physical theory that unifies quantum mechanics with general relativity.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Did the universe have a beginning?

Georges Lemaître
This question has fascinated scientists since 1931, when the Belgian astronomer, physicist and priest Georges Lemaître formulated the theory of the primordial atom, which since 1950 was known as the Big Bang theory. According to this cosmological theory, as the universe is expanding, if we move back in time we must come to a point (13,800 million years ago, the cosmologists tell us) when it would have gone through a singularity, with a volume tending to zero, while pressure and density would tend to infinity. Could this have been the beginning of the universe?
In 1951 Pope Pius XII, in a speech to the Pontifical Academy of Sciences, said the following words:
A mind illuminated and enriched by modern scientific knowledge, calmly evaluating this problem, is led to break the circle of a matter entirely independent and autochthonous, either uncreated, or because it has arisen by itself, and to rise to a creative Spirit... It seems really that present science, by jumping back over millions of centuries, has succeeded in being witness to that primordial “Fiat lux”, when out of nowhere burst forth, together with matter, a sea of light and radiation, while the particles of the chemical elements split and were reunited into millions of galaxies

Thursday, November 3, 2016

More about immortality

Ray Kurzweil
Ray Kurzweil calls himself futurist, meaning that he knows how to predict the future of technology. Actually, what he does is adjusting his predictions as time passes, when he sees that they won’t be fulfilled, as I explained in a post on the horizon effect, which dealt with his predictions about artificial intelligence.
Lately, Kurzweil’s predictions have expanded their scope to medicine. One of his obsessions is that we are about to become immortal. At first he thought this would happen when we will be able to download our consciousness into the memory of a computer, and continue living inside it after our biological death. A few years ago, he predicted that this would take place before 2035.
No longer so confident in this prediction (2035 is around the corner), he now expect us to be immortal shortly before 2050, when he will be 102 years old, so that, by delaying the fulfillment of his prophecies, he begins to risk not to be able to see them.
In a widely publicized interview with Computerworld, Kurzweil now expects us to become immortal through the development of a family of nano-robots that will be injected into our blood and act as a new, much better than our original immune system, detecting and attacking all possible pathogens and cancer cells before they can affect us. Without diseases, we would be immortal. Let's look at a paragraph about that interview:
Imaged prepared by Waquar Ahmad
Futurist Ray Kurzweil said that anyone alive come 2040 or 2050 could be close to immortal. The quickening advance of nanotechnology means that the human condition will shift into more of a collaboration of man and machine, as nanobots flow through human blood streams and eventually even replace biological blood, he added. That may sound like something out of a sci-fi movie, but Kurzweil, a member of the Inventor's Hall of Fame and a recipient of the National Medal of Technology, says that research well underway today is leading to a time when a combination of nanotechnology and biotechnology will wipe out cancer…
That figure, 86% hits, is provided by Kurzweil himself, and in my opinion is far from being real, as Kurzweil usually does not score failures, just delays the date of his predictions. The headline of the story (Nanotech could make humans immortal by 2040, futurist says) would be more suitable if it had been replaced by the following: Ray Kurzweil delays by 10 years the date when we will attain immortality.
Normal and cancer cells
One must be very optimistic to think that in 30 years we will be able to design a better immune system than the one we acquired during a 1000 million years evolution, after a never ending arms race between multicellular beings on the one side, and pathogenic microorganisms and cancer cells on the other. Also remember that these organisms are quite capable to adapt to new situations very quickly, so they would probably find ways to escape from our nano-robots, whose software would have to be constantly changed to adapt to them. I think it probable that we will never be able to defeat them completely.
Finally, overcoming disease is not enough to achieve immortality, we must also stop aging. Otherwise, as I said in last month’s post, we would live for 100 or 110 years, and then die. Too many advances, to be achieved in just about 30 years.

Manuel Alfonseca

Thursday, October 27, 2016

The eerie silence

A little over half a century ago, saw the beginning of project Ozma (named for the princess ruling the fictional country of Oz), which continued with the SETI program (Search for ExtraTerrestrial Intelligence). Assuming that there must be many cases of extraterrestrial intelligence, most of which will undoubtedly have reached a technology capable of communicating by means of electromagnetic waves, surely some of them are sending messages that perhaps we can detect and answer. Initially it was thought that we could take the initiative, sending messages to stars that might harbor planets with life similar to ours, but this was soon considered too expensive, so all efforts were allotted to intercept messages, not necessarily addressed to us. After half a century of efforts, nothing has been achieved. There have been a few false alarms, but none that has been confirmed.
In a previous article I mentioned the Fermi paradox, which holds that we must be alone in the galaxy, because otherwise any extraterrestrial intelligence with several million years advantage would by now be here, because it would not take long to colonize the whole galaxy, even at the interstellar speeds we will reach in the next few centuries.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Aging and longevity

Life span of several species.
Data from Science News, 7-13-2016
It is often said that aging has been favored by natural selection to facilitate the replacement of one generation by the next. According to Alex Kowald (University of Newcastle), this statement is nonsense. It is evident that natural selection would favor individuals aging less and able to reproduce longer. Peter Medawar, Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine (1960), said in 1951: Wild living beings do not live long enough for natural selection to act on genes that affect aging. Death overtakes them long before they are near their limit of longevity.
Each species of living beings seems to have a maximum longevity. In humans, according to appearances, this limit does not seem to go far above 110 years. The longest proven human longevity corresponds to Jeanne Louise Calment (a French woman), who died at age 122.5.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

Who is to blame for human atrocities?

Dr. Thomas A. Dooley
The following paragraph was written by Dr. Thomas A. Dooley in his book Deliver us from evil (1956). After several months in medical command of the camp for the refugees who fled North Vietnam after the partition of the country, at the end of the French colonialism in Indochina, Dr. Dooley provided medical aid in Laos and was a founder of MEDICAL (Medical International Cooperation), a department of the International Rescue Committee (IRC).
Having set up their controls in the village of Haiduong, Communists visited the village schoolhouse and took seven children out of class and into the courtyard. All were ordered to sit on the ground, and their hands and arms were tied behind their backs. Then they brought out one of the young teachers, with hands also tied. Now the new class began. In a voice loud enough for the other children still in the classroom to hear, the Viet Minh accused these children of treason. A "patriot" had informed the police that this teacher was holding classes secretly, at night, and that the subject of these classes was religion. They had even been reading the catechism. The Viet Minh accused the seven of "conspiring" because they had listened to the teachings of this instructor. As a punishment they were to be deprived of their hearing. Never again would they be able to listen to the teachings of evil men.

Thursday, October 6, 2016

The mystery of the missing neutrinos

Detection of solar neutrinos in a one mile deep
South Dakota mine (1972)
One of the pseudoscientific hoaxes running in Internet says something like this:
According to the justification of the Nobel Committee in 2015, Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald received their Nobel Prizes for the discovery of neutrino oscillations, which shows that neutrinos have mass. The Nobel Committee donated again Nobel Prizes and 8 million Swedish Coronas for NOTHING, since the numerical value of the frequency, impulse, kinetic energy, and therefore the mass of the neutrinos, are still unknown. Without the numerical value of the frequency, it has not been proved that the neutrinos oscillate and have mass. According to the pseudo-scientific theory of modern physics, one light-year thick layer of lead absorbs only half of the neutrinos, then how is it possible to detect neutrinos and the neutrino oscillation? Since Takaaki Kajita and Arthur B. McDonald have not one light-year thick layer of lead in their laboratories, therefore the discovery of the neutrino oscillations is only a scam! The neutrino is an invented particle, which comes from the wrong pseudo-scientific theory of modern physics.
This paragraph, which calls pseudoscience the standard theory of particle physics, contains a few glaring mistakes that I will try to detail here:

Thursday, September 29, 2016

Dark matter or a new theory

Urbain Le Verrier
Science studies facts and tries to explain why they occur. Scientific theories are the more credible, the more facts they explain or predict. A single fact in opposition to a theory, or a single unconfirmed prediction, is enough to make us consider revising the theory. With the scientific method, theories are never final and facts must always take precedence.
We have a classic historical example in the theory of universal gravitation, which allowed Newton to explain events like the fall of bodies and the movement of planets and satellites. Its first achievement, by Newton himself, was the mathematical deduction of Kepler’s three experimental laws, obtained empirically from the observation of the orbits of the planets. But the greatest success of the theory was a correct prediction when discrepancies were detected between the orbit of Uranus deduced from the theory and the observed orbit. When something like this happens, the problem can be solved in two ways:

Thursday, September 22, 2016

The myth of the Enlightenment

As I mentioned in the previous article, in my unpublished work Quantification of history and the future of the West I applied an objective quantitative method (not dependent on my preferences) to give points to the main creators in various fields of human activity in the Greco-Roman and Western civilizations: science, philosophy, literature, plastic arts and music. The next figure represents the global cultural evolution of our civilization over the centuries. It can be seen that:
Global cultural evolution of Western civilization

Thursday, September 15, 2016

The myth of the Dark Ages

Bertrand Russell
Echoing the myth of the Dark Ages, a name for the European Middle Ages invented by the writers of the Enlightenment, Bertrand Russell wrote these words in his book Wisdom of the West (1959):
As the central authority of Rome decayed, the lands of the Western Empire began to sink into an era of barbarism during which Europe suffered a general cultural decline. The Dark Ages… It is not inappropriate to call these centuries dark, especially if they are set against what came before and what came after.
What came before was the Roman Empire; what came after the Renaissance.
The myth of the Dark Ages was invented by the writers of the first half of the eighteenth century to enforce another myth they had created, according to which at that time we were entering a new era of reason and knowledge, especially scientific knowledge, which they called by the name of the Enlightenment.
In the Espasa Dictionary, 1000 great scientists (1996) I proposed an objective procedure to quantify the relative importance of the various practitioners of science, using measurements such as the number of lines assigned to each scientist in encyclopedias of different countries (to avoid the bias in favor of countrymen). Later, in an as yet unpublished work (The quantification of history and the future of the West), I applied the same procedure to several branches of human creativity: science, philosophy, literature, the plastic arts and music. The next figure represents the resulting evolution of the Greco-Roman and Western science until the end of the Middle Ages. It can be seen that:

Thursday, September 8, 2016

Ideology and contempt for science

The sentence against Socrates
In several previous articles I have warned about some of the dangers that are just now threatening the advancement of science, which has proceeded for over two centuries and a half. One of the most important is the dominance reached by certain ideologies with great political influence, that when their ideas are attacked on scientific grounds are oblivious to what science says, or just call it pseudoscience.
  • It is a scientifically undisputed fact that the life of a human being begins at the fertilization of an egg by a spermatozoon. Despite what certain politicians and journalists say, there are no discussions on this issue in the scientific world. In a previous article I have summarized the scientific consensus, which has been unanimous for over a century and a half. Nevertheless, the proponents of a certain radical feminist ideology proclaim a right to abortion which in fact is the right to kill their children. If these abhorrent laws hold, it is due to the cowardice of the rulers, who do not dare to repeal it. The result is a step back in the defense of human rights. We are going back to the Middle Ages, when parents had the right of life and death over their children (this right is now granted to mothers). We are going back to slavery, when some human beings (the masters) had the right of life and death over others (the slaves). We are going back to the Roman Empire, when abortion and infanticide were legal until 24 hours after birth. Is this what they call progress? I would rather call it going backwards.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The fallacy of life on Mars

Mars image mosaic from the Viking 1 orbiter
In a previous post I discussed the fallacy of the invisible cat, where the cause was the confusion between a sufficient and a necessary condition, as indicated by the following table:

Correct deduction:
Necessary condition
Fallacious deduction:
Sufficient condition
B is true only if A is true.
B is true.
Therefore A is true.
B is true if A is true.
B is true.
Therefore A is true.

There is another very similar fallacy, which also consists of confusing necessary and sufficient conditions, but in reverse. In this case, the right and wrong syllogisms are indicated by the following table:

Correct deduction:
Sufficient condition
Fallacious deduction:
Necessary condition
B is true if A is true.
A is true.
Therefore B is true.
B is true only if A is true.
A is true.
Therefore B is true.

Let us look at one example of this fallacy, applicable to the existence of life in Mars:
Water is necessary for the existence of life.
There is water on Mars.
Therefore there is life on Mars.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Consequences of statistical ignorance

In a study performed a few years ago [1], the following problem was proposed to 18 expert consultants for AIDS patients:
Helen has tested positive for AIDS. How likely do you think she is really an AIDS patient? What would you advise her?

The input data are:
1.      The probability of having AIDS, when one belongs to a population without special risk, is 1 in 10,000.
2.      The sensitivity of the AIDS test is 99.9%. In other words, the probability of a false negative is 0.1%.
3.      The specificity of the AIDS test is 99.99%. In other words, the probability of a false positive is 0.01%.

The result of the study was as follows:

·         The 18 experts agreed that the probability that Helen is an AIDS patient is greater than 90%. Most thought that the probability is greater than 99%. Some even claimed that is greater than 99.9%.
·         All experts said that they would advise Helen to inform her family, make everybody test for AIDS, and start taking medication.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Science or speculation?

Merging of two black holes
In December 2013 several media made reference to an article published in the journal Physical Review Letters, in the field called quantum gravity, a set of mutually incompatible theories that in the last 30 years have scarcely formulated a single testable prediction, although they are usually presented as the latest in physics and give rise to news broadly popularized by the general media. This scientific news was presented by some media with this title: quantum entanglement causes the appearance of wormholes. Some of the reviews contained important mistakes. I’ll cite two:
1.      The group showed that, by creating two black holes intertwined, later separated, a wormhole appeared, a “shortcut”' through the universe, connecting the two distant black holes to one another.
Comment: the group did not show that. It just found some equations that suggest that this might happen (or not, because mathematics is not the same as physics). Moreover, these theoretical speculations are based on string theory, which is just one among several alternative proposals of quantum gravity existing today.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Happy anniversary

Tomorrow August 12th is the second anniversary of the opening of this blog on popular science. The Spanish version of the blog appeared a little earlier, on January 15th 2014. In these two years I have published over 100 articles, usually one per week, although I have interrupted publication during the summer, and slowed it somewhat in Christmas.
In this anniversary I want to take stock of what has been done so far, and the goals I imposed myself when I started this activity. The decision on whether I have achieved any of these goals is left open to the consideration and critical judgment of the readers.

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Pirated eBooks, or just free eBooks?

A headline in a major Spanish newspaper: Piracy increases. The text says: A survey shows that 56.6% of those who downloaded a book through the Internet did it without any payment... [In Spain] we are going backwards, because while in countries like France the number of pirated eBooks decreases year after year, here, however, it increased. Next door is another story where publishers complain of their falling sales.
In this context, we should notice a couple of widespread errors:
         There is confusion between a free downloaded eBbook and a pirate eBook. Both things are quite different. For instance, when I bought my eBook reader, it came with a library of about 1000 files. (Books and files cannot be considered equivalent, for each story by Edgar Allan Poe, to give one example, was in a separate file). All these books were legal, because all of them were works out of copyright. Later on I have added many more: just now I have over 2000 volumes of classic books, downloaded from free sites like the Project Gutenberg, the University of Adelaide, epub Books, the Cervantes virtual library, Dominio Público, Livres Pour Tous, Ebooksgratuits, etc. All the books that can be downloaded from these sites are free, but all are legal. However, publishers (and the media who echo them) tend to count any freely downloaded book as a pirate book, because it does not provide them with any profit.

Thursday, July 7, 2016

Political correctness attacks again

University of Bologna (1088)
Since the foundation of the Western universities, starting at the eleventh century, these centers soon became places for debate, where different topics of discussion were raised by two or more specialists who defended the different sides of the issue to be discussed, after which the audience could decide for one or the other position, or for both at once.
This debating function of the universities has persisted for many centuries (we are near turning a millennium). Now, however, political correctness, this new form of censorship, threatens to end this activity in the universities.
Consider the headline of the story:
Oregon State University Socratic Club Debate Cancelled
And the first paragraph:

Thursday, June 30, 2016

The hollow Earth in pseudoscience and science

Cyrus Reed Teed (Koresh)
1870 saw the first appearance of a curious variant of the hollow Earth theory outside the literary field. The American Cyrus Read Teed proclaimed his belief that the Earth is hollow, but (here is the difference with previous theories) we live inside. Although the sea surface has been known for over two thousand years to be convex, and in spite of the arguments that led the Greek philosophers to assign the Earth a spherical shape, with ourselves on its outer surface, Teed was convinced that the Earth is really concave. The apparently infinite outer space would be a hollow bubble inside a universe made of rock. Teed changed his name to Koresh and founded a religion (Koreshanity) which reached several thousand followers, although they were scattered after his death in 1908.
Soon after, a German aviator named Bender, a prisoner in France during the First World War, read Teed publications and believed them. Bender developed these theories and asserted that the universe is an infinite mass of rock surrounding a bubble 13,000 kilometers in diameter, in whose inner surface we live. The atmosphere, 60 kilometers thick, thins up to the central vacuum, where three bodies move: the sun, the moon and the ghost universe, a ball of gas with shining points of light: the stars. When the ghost universe passes before the sun, it causes the alternation of day and night in the various regions of the inner surface of the Earth.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

The hollow Earth in religion and literature

The idea that the interior of the Earth is hollow and inhabited is probably as old as man. In almost all ancient religions, the dead are the inhabitants of the hollow Earth. The origin of this belief may depend on the custom of burying the bodies, which dates back at least from the Neanderthals. Volcanoes and earthquakes also contributed to this idea, while caves plunging into the bowels of the earth seemed to be the entries to the underworld.
In ancient Egypt, survival after death was an obsession. At first the Pharaoh, as representative of the gods, was the only one who could achieve immortality, but the privilege was later extended to others. During the second millennium B.C.E., the democratization of the afterlife was complete. The dead were judged by a court of forty-two gods, presided by Osiris, the lord of the underworld. The next life was considered a simple continuation of this life. This is why they filled the graves with useful objects and statuettes of slaves and workers, which would play the role of servants, replacing the deceased person in the work to be done in the afterlife. But the dead Egyptians did not spend all their time underground. In the night, provided with a lantern, they would stroll around heaven: these were the stars.

Thursday, June 16, 2016

The scientific mistake in Cube

Cube is a horror movie directed by Vincenzo Natali and released in 1997. The film was inspired by an episode of the popular television series of the end fifties and the sixties, The twilight zone. The episode in question, issued on December 15, 1961, was titled Five characters in search of an exit, a title which in turn was inspired by Pirandello’s play Six Characters in Search of an Author. This is the summary of Cube’s plot:
Six persons find themselves inexplicably in an unfamiliar place, consisting of cubic spaces connected together. As they explore, they discover that there are 17,576 spaces, which together form a larger cube, 26 small cubes per side; that each space is numbered with three three-digit numbers; and that some of the cubes (those where at least one of the numbers is prime or a power of a prime) contain deadly traps, while the cubes marked only with composite numbers (the product of different primes) are safe. Before being transferred to the cube (we never learn how) the five characters were engaged in different activities: a policeman, a crook specialized in escapes, a doctor, a math student, an autistic genius and the architect of the cube. The autistic boy has the amazing ability to decompose numbers into their prime factors, which helps them make sure that cells are safe. The math student says that breaking a number into its prime factors is very difficult. In the end, only the autistic boy gets out of the cube alive.

Sometimes, in my classes, I posed my students the following problem:
What is the scientific mistake in Cube?

Thursday, June 9, 2016

The scientific mistake in The Matrix

Let's start with a summary of the plot of the famous science fiction movie The Matrix, directed in 1999 by the Wachowski brothers, the first of a trilogy:
During the twenty-first century, as a result of a total war between human beings and artificial intelligence machines, the humans are defeated. As a result of the war, the Earth is caught in a nuclear winter and sunlight cannot reach the surface. To find an alternative energy source, which they need to ensure their operation, the machines collect the human survivors and put them in a state of suspended animation to extract energy from their bodies, entertaining their minds with a virtual reality program (The Matrix) that makes them live in a world similar to that of 1999. Some of the humans escape that fate and carry out a guerrilla war against the machines, using the algorithms in The Matrix to obtain superpowers in the virtual reality world. One of the free humans (the main character, an exceptional hacker played by Keanu Reeves) manipulates The Matrix in such a way that, at the end of the film, he is hailed as the chosen one, who has been sent to save mankind from slavery.
During the last years when I taught, I used to pose my students the following problem:
What is the most important scientific mistake in The Matrix?

Thursday, June 2, 2016

The anthropomorphism of animalists

Flag of the animals in
Animal Farm, by George Orwell
A year ago I published an article in which I showed with multiple arguments that man is not just an animal, despite attempts by materialists to reduce us to that level. In fact, many animalists seem to do exactly the opposite: they inadvertently raise the animals to the human level. They do this even with insects, as when they speak of the horror suffered by a caterpillar being devoured by a hymenopter larva, although they reserve their special compassion for the higher animals: birds and mammals.
In their campaign against animal acts in circuses, animalists use the following motto:
A circus is a prison
They usually say the same of zoos, even though modern zoos have little resemblance to those of the early twentieth century, the so-called menageries.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Disappointment in the face of unreasonable optimistic forecasts

Arthur C. Clarke
The future is unpredictable. The information revolution that began in the 80s with the personal computer, followed in the 90s with the global expansion of the Internet, and continued in the first decade of this century with the smartphones, came as a surprise for many futurists. Half a century ago, all predictions agreed that future computers would be larger. In fact, they became smaller. By 1965, something like Internet seemed a prediction for the next century (see the story by Arthur C. Clarke, Dial F for Frankenstein). Looking back, many of the scientific advances of the twentieth century were surprising. Why then do we insist on making predictions, if they are almost never met?
The March 2016 issue of the Spanish version of the journal Scientific American includes an article entitled Neuroscience: how to avoid disappointment, by Professor Alfredo Marcos, which reviews some of the modern predictions about research on the human brain, which he considers far too optimistic. If these forecasts are not met, as can be expected, the disappointment of the public and the governments that sponsor and fund these scientific efforts could lead to a wave of excessive skepticism. These are a few of his words:
However much we learn about the brain, we must not expect that it will provide us with the immediate healing of all our medical and social ills, from Alzheimer's to violence; much less with the keys to human existence.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

The golden number

The Greeks knew since ancient times the so-called golden section of a segment, which is nothing but its division into two parts, so that the longer divided by the shortest is the same as the length of the total segment divided by the longest. Consider, for example, segment AB. Its golden division is given by the point X if and only if AX/XB = AB/AX.

A        X     B
Leonardo: the Vitruvian Man
For the Greeks, as for many great painters, the golden ratio or golden section divides a segment in the most aesthetically attractive way. The Italian mathematician Lucas Paccioli, who called this ratio the divine proportion, influenced Leonardo da Vinci and Albrecht Durer. In the twentieth century, neo-Impressionist painters like Seurat have used the golden section to define the dimensions of some of their compositions. Architects like Le Corbusier used the golden ratio to design their works. And many books published in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries had the dimensions of a golden rectangle. The golden ratio has also been used by musicians such as Erik Satie and Debussy, and provided some mystics with food for thought.
The golden ratio has curious properties. For example, you can build a golden rectangle whose height is the golden section of its base. If you take from this rectangle the square whose side is equal to its height, the smaller rectangle is also golden. This effect can be repeated indefinitely from the new rectangle.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The god of the gaps

In 1977 Pergamon Press published a curious book called The Encyclopedia of Ignorance, which tried to collect, in a collection of articles written by specialists in different areas, most of the problems (then) unresolved in fields such as cosmology, astronomy, particle physics, mathematics, evolution, ecology, biological development, medicine and sociology. Some of these problems have not yet been solved, almost 40 years later; others, like the mystery of the missing neutrinos in the solar radiation, which I mentioned in the previous post, seem to be in the way of being resolved, although this has led to the emergence new problems, as often occurs in science.
Since the nineteenth century, one of the typical accusations of atheists against believers has been that they resort to the god of the gaps, i.e. to use God to explain those things we still don’t know about the structure of the world. We are still far from knowing everything, because science is (and probably always will be) incomplete: there will always be mysteries. Well, believers are accused to rely precisely on the mysteries (the gaps of science) to justify the existence of God. According to this view, God would be nothing more than the deus ex machina of the Greco-Roman drama, who appeared to solve the unsolvable problems where the playwright had entangled his characters. As science advances, the holes will be filled and the need to turn to God will get lower.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

The theory of everything

In Joe Dacy’s science fiction novel Esquelle and the lost enclave (2015), which belongs to the hard science fiction genre, skillfully combined with espionage, adventure and political fiction, and covers 1500 years of future history, including the invention of time travel and the manipulation of the past, one can find the following quotation:

At this point, the Theory of Everything is actually the Theory of Not Very Much

Is Joe Dacy II right? Do we think we know a lot, but we know very little? What is this Theory of Everything, with such a grandiose name?
This name has been invented by a few physicists and cheered by the press, on the same line as the name of the God particle applied to the Higgs boson, possibly discovered in 2012. Yes, I say possibly, as it is not certain. Although the particle discovered had the predicted mass and decomposed in some of the predicted particles (not all of them), it has not yet been proved that the Higgs field exists.
What is meant by the name of Theory of Everything is that we know everything about the physical fundamentals of matter, that we do not need God.

Thursday, April 28, 2016

What is science and what is politics?

In March 2009, the Spanish Directorate General of Traffic made the following announcement in the media: 22% of those who died in traffic accidents were not wearing seat belts. To save lives, everyone is recommended to use them.
Expressed in this way, the data are ambiguous. One might argue in this way: if just 22% of the victims were not wearing the seat belt, then a number over three times larger (78%) were in fact wearing seat belts when they died in an accident. Therefore it looks like it would better not to use the seat belt at all.
I’ll explain why this conclusion is fallacious. In order to draw the correct conclusion out of the data, one fact is missing: with or without accidents, how many people do use the seat belt and how many don’t? This piece of data can be found, although it took me some time and effort: 95% drivers do wear the seat belt, just 5% don’t. Combining this with the original data, we can compute the probability of dying in an accident with and without the seat belts: it is over 4 times higher among those who do not wear it than among those who do. If everybody used it, the number of deaths could decrease by 18%. Therefore the advice given was sound, although the data were incomplete.
Given how this news was presented, I feel moved to complain about the way in which politicians and the media use statistics and incorrectly report scientific data. If I do that, am I doing politics? Or am I defending science?

Thursday, April 21, 2016

Plans, forecasts and estimations

Forecast about energy consumption
The media, and sometimes even serious publications, often mistake the use of the three terms in the title of this post. In his book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973) E.F.Schumacher explains their differences:
We talk happily about estimating, planning, forecasting, budgeting, about surveys, programmes, targets, and so forth, and we tend to use these terms as if they were freely interchangeable and as if everybody would automatically know what was meant. The result is a great deal of confusion, because it is in fact necessary to make a number of fundamental distinctions. The terms we use may refer to the past or to the future; they may refer to acts or to events: and they may signify certainty or uncertainty.
According to Schumacher, combining the three different binary components (act-event; past-future; certain-uncertain) we have 8 possibilities:

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Crazy to predict the future

Consider this quotation of the book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973), by E.F.Schumacher:
There have never been so many futurologists, planners, forecasters, and model-builders as there are today, and the most intriguing product of technological progress, the computer, seems to offer untold new possibilities. People talk freely about 'machines to foretell the future'. Are not such machines just what we have been waiting for? All men at all times have been wanting to know the future.
These words are still true today, over forty years after they were written. What’s more, they apply especially to science and technology, two fields of human activity which at first glance should be free of fantasy and keep their feet glued to the ground.

Thursday, April 7, 2016

Is science higher than the arts?

Albert Einstein
The explosive expansion of Western science since the sixteenth century has led, with a delay of two centuries, to an equally explosive development of technology. In this situation, modern man tends to be swayed by appearances and thinks that science and technology are the most important of all human activities, as expressed in the quote attributed to Einstein:
One thing I have learned in a long life: that all our science, measured against reality, is primitive and childlike — and yet it is the most precious thing we have.
We could confront this paragraph against this quotation by E.F.Schumacher in his book Small is Beautiful: Economics as if People Mattered (1973):

Thursday, March 31, 2016

The fallacy of the invisible cat

Isaac Newton
In Chapter 1 of his book Astrology, science or belief? published in 1992, Manuel Toharia writes:
However wise they can be about certain subject matters, there is always some element that contradicts the myth of the perfect genius. For example, it is well-known that Newton was an angry man, terribly unfriendly and probably a repressed homosexual. Lest there be any misunderstanding, we must add immediately that what we find wrong with this alleged homosexuality of the English genius is its repression, which certainly made him a bitter person, no doubt with a minimal dose of self-esteem.
Probably a repressed homosexual? And how can we know this, if it is true that Newton repressed it? Or did Toharia (or whoever was his original source) have inside information, or perhaps he came to this conclusion because he knows that Newton suffered at least two psychic crises in his life, and believes that their cause must have been his repressed homosexuality? Observe the use of the qualifiers certainly and no doubt. If so, his argument would be a textbook example of the fallacy of the invisible cat:

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Computing the date of Easter

Raphael - Resurrection of Christ
The first Ecumenical Council was held in Nicaea, Asia Minor, in 325, convened by Emperor Constantine. Ecumenical councils could not be held before that date, for Christians were persecuted and had to meet in secret. This first Council had very important consequences: Aryanism, which denied the divinity of Christ, was condemned; the version of the creed still recited in mass today was defined; and the Council established the algorithm to calculate the date of Easter, which is still in use. This algorithm is so complicated that Donald Knuth included a program to perform it in his famous and classic computer encyclopedia, The Art of Computer Programming.
Easter was fixed on the first Sunday after the first full moon after the spring equinox, which that year fell in March 21st. To calculate the exact date one must take into account that the solar cycle (the year) contains 365.2421988 days, while the lunar cycle (the phases of the moon) lasts 29.530588 days, two numbers with many figures that do not have a simple relationship with one another, so the calculation is quite complex.

Thursday, March 17, 2016

Can time travel paradoxes be avoided?

Cover of Fantastic SciFi with a
Porgess story (The Shadowsmith)
In a science fiction story written in 1962 by Arthur Porges, entitled The rescuer, the inventors of a time machine discover that a man has entered the machine to travel back in time. To stop him, they destroy the machine with the man inside. When they are tried for murder and destruction of valuable property, they explain:
This man had taken with him a repeating rifle and five thousand rounds of ammunition. His intention was to arrive at Golgotha in time to rescue Jesus Christ from the Roman soldiers. In short, to prevent the crucifixion. And with a modern rifle, who can say he wouldn’t succeed? And then what?... What of the effect on the future, the entire stream of history, secular as well as religious?
The story is an excellent example of the paradox of predestination mentioned in a previous article, with several more that make us doubt the possibility of time travel. But is there no way to avoid the paradoxes? Is it possible to devise a theory that would remove them making time travel feasible, at least in principle? There have been several attempts to achieve this.