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.