Thursday, December 28, 2017

The best 40 science fiction novels I have read

Blade Runner poster
Lists of favorite books have always existed, and with the rise of the Internet they have proliferated. That’s why I decided to make a new list (in case there were not enough). But what I’m showing here is not just the list of my favorite books in this genre, but something a little more complex.
To build the list, I started with four lists made by others, sometimes individually, sometimes collectively. For example, one of those lists has been created in Goodreads, the social network for books, is called Best Science Fiction and contains over 2,000 books. In order to build this list, the members of Goodreads vote (almost 1000 people have voted for at least one book), together with the book’s score and the number of people who have read it (in some cases several million).
To form my new list I used the following criteria:
  1. It just contains books that I have read.
  2. It does not contain books that I have read, but did not like at all (i.e. those I would assign one star in the Goodreads or Amazon ratings). As an example of these books I will mention Do androids dream with electric sheep? by Philip K. Dick. Its argument is based on an interesting idea, but the way it has been developed in the form of a novel is deplorable, sometimes absurd. This is one of the rare cases where the film based on a book (Blade Runner) turned out to be far superior to the original work.
  3. Therefore, if one of your favorite books is not listed here, it may be for three reasons: because I have not read it, because I did not like it at all, or because it didn’t come among the top 40 in the average of the lists I have used to build mine.
  4. It only contains science fiction books. The Lord of the Rings, for example, has not been included, although it is on one of these lists, because I don’t consider it science fiction.

Thursday, December 21, 2017

What really happened in the history of cosmology

To complete last week’s post, I will offer here a summary of the history of Cosmology, from the Greeks to the paradigm shift that took place in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
The basic elements of Ptolemaic astronomy, showing a planet on an epicycle (smaller dashed circle), a deferent (larger dashed circle), the eccentric (×) and the equant (•).
  • Greek cosmology (with the exception of Aristarchus of Samos) put the Earth at the center of the universe. Plato and, above all, Aristotle established the idea that, since the sky is perfect, the orbits of the planets must be exactly circular, because, for them, the circumference is the most perfect curve of all.
  • The Greek model explained well the movements of the sun and moon, and therefore made it possible to predict eclipses, but had a problem with the retrograde movements of the planets then known (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn). Three centuries before Christ, Apollonius of Pergamum proposed that the orbits of these planets are epicycles, circumferences centered on another circumference (the deferent), which in turn revolves around a point located near the Earth, but apart from its center (the eccentric).

Thursday, December 14, 2017

Was physics wrong in Ptolemy's cosmology?

1919 solar eclipse
A recent article in the journal Science News has this title: Eclipses show wrong physics can give right results. It claims that Ptolemy’s physics was incorrect, because he assumed that the Earth was at the center of the universe, and yet Greek science was able to predict the dates of eclipses.
According to the article, Ptolemy’s physics was less correct than the physics of Copernicus, who fourteen centuries later proposed that it was not the Earth, but the Sun, at the center of the universe.
The analysis in this article in Science News is completely wrong. Ptolemy’s physics was exactly the same as the physics of Copernicus. Copernicus did not propose a change in the physical theories that had governed classical astronomy since Hipparchus (2nd century BC). Copernicus just showed that, with a change in the coordinate system, and applying the same physics, the calculations are easier to perform. Logically, the same results are obtained.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

Automatic Learning

 Originally posted to Flickr as Comic-Con 2004
Terminator statue, CC BY 2.0
As I said in a previous article, automatic learning is one of the areas of weak artificial intelligence which has been object of research for at least 40 years. Strictly speaking, rather than a field of application, automatic learning is a methodology or technique used by other fields of application, such as neural networks, expert systems or data analysis. Automatic learning is divided into two main branches:
  • Supervised automatic learning, which has been used most frequently up to now. This post is dedicated to explain it.
  • Unsupervised automatic learning, related to the field usually called Data Mining. It has lately been widely advertised by the media in relation to a program (AlphaGo Zero) that, learning by itself, has reached a level comparable to the world champion of the game called Go (at the end of this post I’ll talk more about this).

Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Turing test

Alan Turing
In 1950, in an article published in the Mind magazine, Alan Turing wrote this:
I believe that in about fifty years' time it will be possible to programme computers, with a storage capacity of about 109, to make them play the imitation game so well that an average interrogator will not have more than 70 per cent. chance of mating the right identification after five minutes of questioning.
Why precisely 70 percent? Because studies conducted, where some persons tried to deceive about their sex another person who couldn’t see them, gave that result. In seventy percent of the cases, the persons who had to guess if they were being cheated found the correct answer. In other words, what Turing said was this:
If the machine were able to deceive human beings, posing as human, with the same ease with which a human being can deceive another, it should be considered intelligent.

Thursday, November 23, 2017

When can we expect a strong artificial intelligence?

Ramón López de Mántaras
It has been said that man is the only animal that stumbles twice on the same stone. In other words, it is difficult to learn from history (especially when history is not taught) and it is difficult to learn from our own mistakes. This is happening in relation to the field of Artificial Intelligence. In the previous article I mentioned that the creators of the name of this discipline predicted that in 10 years spectacular results would be obtained. Twenty years later, something similar happened when expert systems were invented. In 1990, Ray Kurzweil predicted in his book The Age of Intelligent Machines that strong artificial intelligence would come by the year 2000. In 1999, when he saw that this prediction was not going to be fulfilled, he moved it to 2010 in his new book The age of spiritual machines. As this prediction was not fulfilled either, between 2009 and 2014 he delayed it until 2029. It seems that now he is making less optimistic predictions in this field, and more about immortality, as I mentioned in another article.
Lately the media are announcing the coming of strong artificial intelligence, the real one, in just three years, or at most ten. What do the true experts say about this, those who are doing research on Artificial Intelligence? Let us look at the opinion of Ramón López de Mántaras, director of the Institute for Research in Artificial Intelligence (IIIA, of the Spanish Higher Council for Scientific Research, CSIC). He has received the Donald E. Walker Award for Artificial Intelligence in 2017; the EurAI Distinguished Service Award in 2016; the Spanish National Computing Award in 2012; and the Robert S. Engelmore Award from the Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence (AAAI) in 2011. This is what he thinks about all these announcements:

Thursday, November 16, 2017

What is artificial intelligence

Hal 9000, from the film 2001 a Space Odyssey
Terms such as smart and artificial intelligence are being abused lately. Let’s look at some recent news that have appeared in various media:
  • Smart benches with solar energy free mobile charge, and access to Wi-Fi. These public street benches, installed in London by Ford, incorporate a Wi-Fi repeater and a solar plate that gives them power to charge a mobile phone battery. Where is the intelligence in the bench? Nowhere. The intelligence belongs to the human being who invented these devices. In a similar case, we would be saying that our houses are smart because they have electricity and an Internet connection.
  • China implements smart trash cans. In this case the waste bin also incorporates a solar panel connected to a mobile phone charger. In the future they will also have a Wi-Fi repeater and a device to disinfect the garbage with ultraviolet rays. As in the previous case, the mere presence of an electrical or electronic device is confused with intelligence.
  • Goodyear tests a tire that predicts when it must be changed. The tire has a built-in wireless sensor that detects when it needs to be replaced and issues the corresponding warning. Although this case is somewhat more complex than the previous two, something is again called smart when it isn’t. To implement this, you just need a sensor and a simple electronic device, more or less equivalent to those radio devices that since decades have been incorporated to wild animals, to follow their displacements and watch their activities.
As you can see, what is now called smart is just what was formerly called automatic. But of course, the word smart is more appealing, that’s why it’s being abused. In the same way, there is a tendency to call artificial intelligence what formerly was called computer science.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

The Pascal wager and the Smith wager

Blaise Pascal
Blas Pascal (1623-1662) is known for his activity in mathematics (he devised the triangle of Pascal), physics (he proved the principle of Pascal, invented the hydraulic press and experimented with atmospheric pressure) and especially for his Pensées (Thoughts) one of which contains the first known example of the use of game theory, whose theoretical development had to wait until the twentieth century. This example is the famous Pascal wager, which he expressed thus:
Dieu est ou il n’est pas. Mais de quel côté pencherons‑nous?... Pesons le gain et la perte en prenant croix que Dieu est. Estimons ces deux cas: si vous gagnez, vous gagnez tout, si vous perdez, vous ne perdez rien. Gagez donc qu’il est sans hésiter. 
Whose English translation is:
God exists or He does not exist. Which side shall we take?... Let us weigh the gain and loss, assuming that God exists. Let us consider both cases: if you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. So you must wager, without doubt, for His existence.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

The end of mankind

Lord Kelvin
In an earlier post in this blog I spoke about the myth of the Enlightenment, which gave rise to the theory of indefinite progress and the forecast of enormous advances for humankind that would be within our reach in the not too distant future. Although the first half of the eighteenth century was a brake on almost all the cultural activities of our civilization, including science, they were delighted with themselves. Friedrich Melchior, Baron von Grimm (1723-1807), expressed it with unequaled candor, in these words [1]:
The eighteenth century has surpassed all the others in the praises it has lavished on itself.
One of the ideas in vogue by that time was the assumption that scientific advances would let man reach immortality, not too far in time. Although the idea, as a distant possibility, goes back to Roger Bacon, it seemed much closer in the late eighteenth century. Hence the anecdote told of the octogenarian wife of marshal Villeroi, who exclaimed, while looking at Professor Charles’s ascent in a hydrogen balloon:
Yes, it is true! They’ll discover the secret of not dying, after I’ll be dead!
The optimistic ideas of the eighteenth century suffered a sudden, impressive turn in the nineteenth, when came to dominate a pessimistic vision of the future of mankind, based mainly on two scientific discoveries:

Thursday, October 26, 2017

Some clarifications on the cosmic background radiation

In 1948, Ralph Alpher and Robert Herman (both in George Gamow’s team) came to the conclusion that if the universe had come out of a Big Bang and had expanded since that point in time, there should exist a cosmic background radiation in the frequency of microwaves (or what means the same, at a temperature of about 5K, 5 degrees above absolute zero). Alpher and Gamow had published that same year another prediction about the average composition of the cosmos, starting from the Big Bang theory.
In 1964, Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson were working with a newly built very powerful radio telescope and detected a background noise that could not be eliminated. First they thought that it would be of terrestrial origin, but once all the possible sources of noise had been taken into account, the effect persisted. Then they came to the conclusion that such noise could not come from the solar system or from our galaxy (for in that case it would be more intense in one direction than in another), and that its origin had to be cosmic. The temperature of that radiation (that is, its frequency, considering the Wien equation) turned out to be about 3K. Robert Burke of MIT suggested to Penzias that such noise could be the cosmic background radiation predicted by Alpher and Herman. This was in fact confirmed. For their discovery, Penzias and Wilson received the Nobel Prize in 1978.
Along with the argument based on the average composition of the universe, the cosmic background radiation gave the accolade to the Big Bang theory, which became the standard cosmological theory (although see an earlier article on this blog).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Virtual particles

Werner Heisenberg
Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, one of the consequences of quantum mechanics, makes possible the birth of virtual particles in the void, apparently transgressing the principle of energy conservation, the most holy in physics. The reason is that Heisenberg’s principle can be expressed in several ways, one of which relates the uncertainty about the energy to the uncertainty about time:
This expression can be interpreted in the sense that a pair of objects, each with energy E, can appear spontaneously in the vacuum, provided that they lasts at most a time Dt<ħ/(2E). These pairs of objects are called virtual particles. One of these particles is always matter, the other antimatter, and their duration, according to this principle, is ridiculously small. A virtual electron, for instance, would last 1.3×10-21 seconds (just above one sextillionth of a second). The higher the mass (energy) of the virtual particle, the less time it will last. After that time, the two particles will annihilate each other and disappear. Due to their short duration, the existence of virtual particles has not been experimentally verified.
Is it possible for these virtual particles to become real under certain circumstances? Yes it is, and it is believed that there are at least two situations (somewhat drastic, it is true) where this could happen.

Thursday, October 12, 2017

Is physics losing touch with reality?

In his famous posthumous book The Discarded Image, published in 1964, a few months after his death, C.S. Lewis shows he is ahead of his time by predicting a situation that today, when it has become usual in physics, gives a rather bad forecast for the future of this science. Let’s look at a relevant quote:
The mathematics are now the nearest to the reality we can get. Anything imaginable, even anything that can be manipulated by ordinary (that is, non-mathematical) conceptions, far from being a further truth to which mathematics were the avenue, is a mere analogy, a concession to our weakness. Without a parable, modern physics speaks not to the multitudes. Even among themselves, when they attempt to verbalise their findings, the scientists begin to speak of this as ‘making models’... Sometimes [the models] illustrate this or that aspect of [reality] by an analogy. Sometimes, they do not illustrate but merely suggest, like the sayings of the mystics... By accepting [an expression such as] the ‘curvature of space’ we are not ‘knowing’ or enjoying ‘truth’ in the fashion that was once thought to be possible.

Thursday, October 5, 2017

Scientific mistakes in Planet of the Apes

In 1963, the French writer Pierre Boulle published a famous science-fiction novel titled Planet of the Apes, which was adapted to the cinema for the first time in 1968, with Charlton Heston as the protagonist and script by Michael Wilson and Rod Serling, the latter famous for the TV series The Twilight Zone. A decade earlier, Boulle had published another bestseller, also successfully adapted to the movies: The Bridge over the River Kwai.
Boulle’s novel tells the story of three astronauts embarking on a two-year journey (measured in relativistic time) to a planet revolving around Betelgeuse (alpha of the Orion constellation) and find there an extraterrestrial civilization at a level similar to ours in the mid-twentieth century, where intelligent beings are three species of apes (identical to the terrestrial gorillas, chimpanzees and orangutans) while human beings (also identical to us) are devoid of reason. Of course, the only surviving terrestrial astronaut finds it very difficult to convince the apes that he is an intelligent being.

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Plato's Timaeus, the philosophical basis of the medieval cosmological model

Plato, according to Raphael Sanzio
Among Plato’s dialogues, Timaeus has always captured the attention of scholars, for it represents the first description in Greek philosophy of a coherent cosmological model, which reached great resonance by becoming part of the medieval model through the partial translation into Latin of this dialogue by the mysterious Roman philosopher Calcidius.
Very little is known about Calcidius. Although he lived in the fourth century, we do not know his date of birth or death, nor the place where he lived. It is not even known whether he was a Christian or a pagan (a Neo-Platonist). His book is dedicated to a certain Hosius, who may or may not be the bishop of Cordoba who participated in the Council of Nicaea.
It is often said that medieval philosophy in Western Europe was based initially on Plato, and from the twelfth century on Aristotle. This happened because, in the realm of the Western Roman Empire, the knowledge of the Greek language had been lost, therefore the Greek classics could no longer be read in their original language. There were no Latin translations, for the illustrated Romans of the imperial period could read the Greek language perfectly, so did not need them. What is not usually mentioned is that Plato’s works had also become inaccessible, with the sole exception of the Timaeus, which in the partial translation by Calcidius knew an unexpected boom during the Middle Ages, even stronger than Calcidius’s work during his life.

Thursday, September 21, 2017

The Tunguska event

On June 30th, 1908, at dawn, a mysterious explosion took place in an almost uninhabited region of central Siberia. The explosion leveled 2000 km2 of taiga, uprooting about 80 million trees, which were left lying on the ground, away from the central point of the event, like the spokes of a wheel. The most probable theory considers the event as the impact of a meteorite or comet, although nobody could find the debris. Unlike other cases, as the Arizona Meteor Crater, no crater was found in the place of the event. As an explanation of these anomalies, it was concluded that the explosion of the celestial body took place at a high altitude (between 5 and 10 km). Taking into account the effects, it has been calculated that the energy released by the explosion would be in the span of 3 and 30 megatons. Recall that the most powerful nuclear weapon ever detonated (by the Soviet Union) was a 50 megatons hydrogen bomb, over 1000 times stronger than the Hiroshima bomb, which only released 20 kilotons. (One megaton equals 1000 kilotons). During the cold war, the Soviet Union boasted of possessing an even larger bomb (100 megatons) that they couldn’t use in Europe, as the effects of its explosion would reach their own territory.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

A few clarifications on the quantum revolution

First of all, let as clarify a few concepts, for recent news published in the media tends to encourage confusion.
·         Qubit: the quantum unit of information. While classical information is expressed in bits, which may take only the values 0 or 1, qubits are formed by superposition (or linear combination) of two quantum states, |0> and |1> (i.e. the horizontal or vertical polarization of a photon) and its value is: α|0>+β|1>, where α and β are two complex numbers called probability amplitudes.
·         Quantum Cryptography: It encrypts information through a protocol that takes advantage of the quantum properties of matter. The procedures devised so far can be deciphered by opponents using quantum procedures, but it is known (or believed) that they are impossible to decipher by classical means. The first quantum cryptography protocol, BB84, was proposed in 1984 by Charles Bennett and Gilles Brassard of IBM.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Medical Dietetics, Science or Fashion?

Food containing magnesium
The advices given by medical dieticians about healthy food oscillate continuously as time goes by. They rather look like the alternatives of fashion, than the discoveries of science. Here are a few examples:
         In the fifties and sixties it was fashionable to disparage the consumption of olive oil and recommend the use of seed oils, supposed to be healthier. Heart patients were advised to consume various seed oils, while olive oil was not even mentioned. Sometimes it was asserted that the consumption of olive oil increases cholesterol in blood. This policy caused significant damage to Spain, one of the main olive oil exporters, as stated in a newspaper article published in 1968:
The economic problems of the olive grove are motivated, to a great extent, by the change in the taste of the consumers, who sometime ago were forced to use different seed oils, and now, when we are trying to bring them back to a higher consumption of olive oil, they don’t want to do it in the proportion advisable for this market of the Spanish fruit, as it is rather more expensive.

Thursday, August 31, 2017

The scientific ignorance of politicians

Robert N. Proctor
Let’s look at a few recent quotes in the press about the scientific ignorance of politicians, as a sample of a new discipline called agnotology by Robert Proctor:
- Ross Pomeroy, August 23, 2012. Headline: Politicians ignorant of science because we are. This article contains the assertion that the percentage of scientists (including medical fields) in the US House of Representatives is 6.9%, about the same as the proportion of scientists in the global population (6.4%).
- Nigel Morris, August 2, 2010, Independent (UK). Headline: Only scientist in Commons ‘alarmed’ at MPs ignorance. The text explains that Julian Huppert, a research biochemist who became the Liberal Democrat MP for Cambridge at the last election, said he was alarmed at the lack of scientific knowledge among colleagues.

Thursday, August 24, 2017

62 years later: scientific predictions by George Thomson

George Paget Thomson
In a previous post in this blog I expressed distrust about the predictions made by scientists and popular writers about the future of science and technology. Most of them never take place. Sometimes they are overly optimistic, sometimes overly pessimistic.
Sometimes, however,  they are true, if only in part. In 1955, George Paget Thomson (Nobel Prize in physics for the discovery of electron diffraction) published a book about technological predictions (The Foreseeable Future, Cambridge University Press). I will summarize here the conclusions of his first chapter about the future of energy:
Until the population increase can be stopped, which is not foreseeable until 2050, energy consumption will continue to increase. Among the various sources, hydraulics will quickly reach its practical limits; coal and oil will be depleted sooner or later; solar energy is too dispersed and its use too expensive; wind and tidal power will never be major sources. The only alternative is nuclear energy: for the time being, fission energy, until fusion becomes possible.
This paragraph written 62 years ago could have been written today. In this field, progress has been very slow. In contrast, Thomson’s predictions about the evolution of transportation have been less accurate and can be summarized as follows:
Increasing the maximum speed of cars does not make sense. The maximum speed in railroads (100 miles per hour) has hardly grown in the last century and  is not expected to improve much. The only option to increase the speed of shipping would be by building large submarines powered by atomic energy, capable of moving at 60 or 70 knots. Major advances can only be envisaged in commercial air navigation, which will soon reach 2.5 times the speed of sound: crossing the Atlantic will take one hour.
Thomson’s predictions for commercial air navigation have not been met. The only step in that direction, the Concorde, was a failure. The super-submarines have never come into existence. By contrast, railroads have more than doubled their top speed.
In biology, he correctly predicted the rise of biotechnology, genetics and the industrial use of microorganisms. In medicine, on the other hand, he expressed doubts about increasing the average duration of human life beyond 70 years (by 1955 it was 63) unless it were possible to eliminate death completely and maintain youth indefinitely. In his words:
This new state of affairs will profoundly alter man’s attitude toward death, perhaps not for his good. It will make him more cowardly, as he will have more to lose.
Thomson fails dramatically in his predictions about the future of computing. He believes that one can now say that computers do think (while they were in the first generation!), But the only future applications he envisages are the verification of scientific theories and performing economic and electoral predictions. As their publication can influence the result of what they predict, he assumes that these predictions and polls will be considered top secret by governments. In this way, according to Thomson, the use of computers will lead, in the long run, to less information dissemination. What has happened is exactly the opposite.
It is interesting to mention his predictions about the importance of scientific popularization, which compensates for the growing specialization in science and technology:
[Popularization] is not easy to do, and those who dedicate themselves to it deserve as high a place in scientific estimation as the researchers. Generally, those who are not specialists in a field are better able to explain to others.

The same post in Spanish
Manuel Alfonseca

Thursday, August 17, 2017

Is time an illusion?

Albert Einstein
Physicists sometimes deny the reality of irreversible time and consider it an illusion, a psychological phenomenon. In a letter of condolence written in 1955, Einstein said this: ...the distinction between past, present and future is only an illusion, although persistent. A curious way to comfort those who have lost a beloved one. His reasons for saying this were the following:
·         In Newton equations of universal gravitation, if the sign of the variable representing time is changed, the equations don’t change. If we look at the film of a gravitational process, the theory predicts that we won’t be able to detect if the projection was made in the right sense or in reverse.
·         The same is true of Maxwell equations, which describe the behavior of electromagnetic waves.
·         The same is true of Einstein equations of General Relativity, which replace Newton equations to describe gravity.
·         The same happens with the Schrödinger equation, the basis of quantum mechanics.
But there is a problem: the equations mentioned do not make all of physics. The second principle of thermodynamics implies the existence of an arrow of time. In 1928, in a book titled The nature of the physical world, the inventor of this term (Arthur Eddington), said the following: if your theory [opposes] the second law of thermodynamics... [it will] collapse in deepest humiliation.
Every physical theory is a simplified abstraction where some parts of reality have been eliminated. If the irreversibility of time is one of those simplifications, it is not surprising that the final result is always reversible. In real events, however, there is no abstraction or simplification. All the physical theories, including the second law of thermodynamics, must be applied together. If this is done, the alleged temporal symmetry goes away.
Newton and his apple
One of the first applications of Newton’s theory describes the fall of an apple. If a film being projected shows several pieces of an apple on the ground, which suddenly set in motion and gather in a single fruit, which then rises upwards until it gets attached to a tree, would we doubt that it has been projected in reverse? The fact that we don’t is a consequence of the second law of thermodynamics.
·         This also applies to the movements of celestial bodies. Imagine a recording of Mercury moving in its orbit, with the sun visible. By studying the solar sunspots we could deduce whether the film is projected correctly or in reverse. Sunspots are a consequence of thermodynamic phenomena.
·         Radioactive decay is another example of a theoretically reversible process that in practice is irreversible. In fact, the proportion of uranium-238 and lead-206 in a rock provides a reliable method to calculate its age. The chain of disintegrations from uranium to lead is far more likely than the reverse chain, although physical theories affirm that both things could happen in theory.
·         Whatever Schrödinger equation says, the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics requires an irreversible time. If a photon hits an electron with some energy, the electron is left in two overlapping spin states. If the spin is measured, the quantum superposition collapses into a positive or a negative value. This process involves a direction of time: first comes the impact of the photon, then the electron in two superimposed states, finally a measurement and a quantum collapse. The reverse process cannot happen.
In these examples, when all of physics is taken into account without excluding thermodynamics, the supposed reversibility of time disappears. Apparently physicists put their theories above reality, doing the opposite of what the scientific method demands. Not even great men like Einstein were exempt.

El mismo artículo en español
Manuel Alfonseca

Thursday, July 13, 2017

The destruction of language

C.S. Lewis
Languages change continually. Over time, some words disappear, others are created to be applied to new concepts that did not exist before, and others change slightly in meaning. The process can continue until a word comes to mean something totally different from its original sense, or even opposed. Sometimes, various meanings of the same word coexist simultaneously.
In a book entitled Studies in Words, published in 1960, C.S. Lewis coined the word verbicide to refer to the murder of a word, making it lose its meaning with a use different than its previous one, which is subsequently lost. An equivalent symmetrical case is coining new words that are in fact totally unnecessary, since there were already other words perfectly applicable for that meaning.
The media have a great responsibility in these processes, since they frequently adopt, launch or indiscriminately copy vogue words, without regard to the consequences. Most of them are unnecessary or lead to the verbicide of some useful word. Let’s look at some of the ways this process can take place, as C.S. Lewis points out in the introduction to his book:

Thursday, July 6, 2017

Mass manipulation

Aldous Huxley
Albert Speer, minister for armaments in Adolph Hitler’s government, said these words when he publicly apologized during the Nuremberg trial:
Hitler’s dictatorship differed in one fundamental point from all predecessors in history: it was the first dictatorship in the present period of modern technical development, a dictatorship that made complete use of all technical means for the domination of its own country. Through technical devices like the radio and the loud-speaker, eighty million people were deprived of independent thought.
Since the days of Hitler, the technological tools that a dictator can use to manipulate the masses have come a long way. In addition to radio and loud-speakers, cinema and the press, available to Hitler, we now have television, sound and image recording, mobile phones that provide countless information, computers capable of processing it, and social networks, which are becoming one of the most powerful instruments of social manipulation in existence.
As I said in another post on this blog, these tools are neither good nor bad: what is good or bad is their use. All can be used well, and all can be misused. Do we have controls to prevent their being misused? Or do we know that they are actually being misused?

Thursday, June 29, 2017

Newton, the greatest scientist of our civilization

Isaac Newton
As I said in the previous article, in my biographical dictionary 1000 great scientists (1996) and an unpublished book, I proposed an objective quantification of the importance of different scientists, using measures such as the number of lines that various encyclopedias assign to each. Six scientists, one Greek (Aristotle), of whom we have already spoken, and five from the West (Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein) were tied with the highest score in these studies. Among these five, is there one who can be considered the greatest scientist of our civilization?
In 1964 Isaac Asimov conducted another study (The Isaac Winners) on the relative importance of men of science, which resulted in a list of the 72 best scientists of all time, in his opinion. This list is simply qualitative and does not establish a relative order among the names that appear in it, although Asimov (again in his opinion) asserts that Isaac Newton, who happened to be his namesake, was the greatest scientist of all time.

Thursday, June 22, 2017

Aristotle, the greatest scientist of the Greco-Roman civilization

In my biographical dictionary, 1000 great scientists (1996) I proposed an objective quantification of the importance of different scientists, using measures such as the number of lines assigned to each in encyclopedias in different languages, to avoid bias in favor of the fellow citizens. Subsequently, in an unpublished work (The Quantification of History and the Future of the West), I applied the same procedure to various branches of human creativity: science, philosophy, literature, fine arts, and music. In that study, six scientists were tied with the highest score: one Greek (Aristotle) ​​and five from the West (Descartes, Newton, Darwin, Freud and Einstein). We can therefore say that Aristotle was the greatest scientist of the Greco-Roman civilization.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Is man a kingdom of nature?

Amount of information available to different species
Among all living species, there is a special one: ours. This has been said since antiquity, and has only been questioned in the last half century. Many biologists argue that the human species is one among many, that it cannot be considered superior to any of the others, either bacteria, insects, or other mammals.
There is, however, a quantitative and perfectly objective criterion that makes it possible to prove that the human species is unique, completely different from all others: the amount of information that each individual can handle.
For unicellular beings, the only information available to each individual is their own genome, which is easy to quantify: their bit value is approximately equal to twice the number of nucleotides in their genome. For viruses, from 10 to 50 kbits; for bacteria, up to 10 Mbits; for a unicellular eukaryote, up to 25 Mbits.
If we move to multicellular animals and plants, the size of the genome increases, and with it the amount of information it contains: about 200 Mbits for a nematode, up to several Gbits for vertebrates. For man it is estimated at about 6 Gbits, not much larger than the genomes of other mammals. In fact, the living being with the largest genome happens to be a fish.
In addition to the genome, vertebrates have a second source of information: their nervous system, especially the brain. The total amount of information contained in a brain is estimated at about 10 kbits for amphibians, 10 Gbits for reptiles, 200 Gbits for mammals.
Here man is unique: in proportion to the human body, our brain is larger than that of any other living species and is capable of storing no less than 10 Tbits (10 trillion bits), 50 times more than most mammals and a thousand times more than our own genome. It can be said that, with man, life crossed a critical point. For the first time in history, a single individual is able to reach such levels of information handling.
Five thousand years ago, with the invention of writing, man crossed a new critical point, a consequence of the previous one. We have become the only species with a third source of information, a memory external to our body. With the arrival of computers and Internet, this information has been made available to everybody and is still growing. Currently it is estimated that it has exceeded 100 exabits (100 quintillion bits, or 1020 bits: one followed by twenty zeros). Every human being, apart from what is contained in the brain, has access to extra information ten million times greater, as if we were connected with ten million brains apart from ours.
The attached figure summarizes this and combines (on a logarithmic scale) all sources of information available at any time for the species capable of handling most information, depending on the time elapsed from the origin of life to the apparition of the said species, in billions of years.
Man is so different from all other species, so overwhelmingly dominant, that we should be considered a kingdom of nature. I have indicated in another post that, for better or worse, our effect on the rest of living beings (the biosphere), the atmosphere and the whole Earth is greater than that of all the other animals together. When biologists claim that man is a species like any other, that the history of life shows no progress in any direction, the least that can be said is that they don’t know what they are saying. Or perhaps they have been carried away by extra-scientific ideologies that try to denigrate man and deprive us of our dignity, so as to be able to kill us when we hinder (through abortion or euthanasia) or to manipulate us whenever some people wish it (see The abolition of man, by C.S.Lewis, 1943).
Manuel Alfonseca

Thursday, June 8, 2017

The debacle of determinism

Isaac Newton
By the end of the eighteenth century, Isaac Newton’s theory of universal gravitation was well established. As this theory makes it possible to predict very accurately the orbits of the bodies in the solar system, the French astronomer Pierre Simon de Laplace believed he had sufficient reasons to say the following:
An intelligence that knew all the forces that animate nature, as well as the respective situation of the beings that make it... could cover in a single formula the movements of the largest bodies of the universe and those of the lighter atom. Nothing would be uncertain and both the future and the past would be present before his eyes.
This assertion became the dogma of deterministic materialism, a philosophical (not scientific) doctrine asserting that only matter exists (taking the term broadly) and that the whole history of the universe is determined. Therefore there is no human freedom, nor intentionality, nor final causes in nature. There are just efficient causes.
Laplace’s statement can be expressed in more modern terms:
If we knew the position and the momentum of all the particles of the universe at a given instant, we could predict all their past and future development.

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Bell’s inequality and causality

Niels Bohr
Quantum Mechanics took shape about ninety years ago. During the twenties, Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg formulated the Copenhagen interpretation, which added to the mathematical formulation some additional considerations such as the following:
  • Physical systems with properties that can take concrete and opposing values ​​(such as direction of polarization or spin) in certain circumstances can be in a state where those properties do not take a defined value, but keep all the possibilities simultaneously open. For example, the direction of polarization of a photon can be simultaneously north-south and east-west. The spin of a particle can be both up and down.
  • The act of measuring one of these properties causes the collapse of the wave function, which means that the result of the measurement can only be one of the possible values. The wave function gives us the probability of obtaining each value.
  • It is possible to build a physical system formed by two or more interlaced particles with respect to some property, which means that if one of the particles collapses with a certain value, the other particle has no choice but to collapse with the other.

Thursday, May 25, 2017

A mathematical model for time travel

Welcome for time travellers
On May 2 2017, Newsweek published an article with this title:
Time travel is mathematically possible with mind-boggling model
You may well imagine that, with that title, the article will rather fall into the category of sensationalist papers on seemingly scientific issues. Indeed, in a quick reading of this article I have detected the following inaccuracies:

  1. The title does not make clear the difference between a theoretical possibility of traveling in time and building a time machine. That is, the different between theory and practice. What Ben Tippett has developed is a purely theoretical mathematical model.
  2. It presents the idea as something new which puts an end to a string of failures and disappointing calculations. Space-time loops, however, are known to be compatible with the general theory of relativity since quite a long time ago. In 1992, for instance, Stephen Hawking came to the conclusion that it would not be possible to use them without negative energy, something that is not known to exist. In 2005, the Israeli Amos Ori proposed a procedure that would not require it, consisting of spinning around an empty toroid region surrounded by a sphere containing enormous amounts of matter (e.g. a black hole). This is not so different from what is being proposed now.

Thursday, May 18, 2017

Is the increase in life expectancy accelerating?

Nick Bostrom
Some philosophers, such as Nick Bostrom and the transhumanists, have concocted an updated version of Nietzsche’s superman. Their forecasts are based on two scientific advances presented as imminent since several decades ago: immortality, which will be attained when the advances in medicine increase life expectancy beyond one year per year; and artificial intelligence, the design of super-intelligent machines. Both advances could be combined to attain immortality through artificial intelligence, by downloading our conscience (something we cannot even define scientifically) into a super-intelligent machine, so that it would go on existing inside the machine.
Unfortunately for transhumanists, the UN data do not confirm their expectations. Let us look first at the data about the evolution of the maximum life expectancy in the world from 1950 to 2015 (see table 1). These and the following data have been taken from

Thursday, May 11, 2017

Four ideas by Alvin Plantinga about God and materialism

Alvin Plantinga
Taking advantage of the awarding of the Templeton Prize to the American philosopher Alvin Plantinga, this post will try to review a few of his thoughts in the debate between theism and materialism. As it is impossible to review all his work in detail, I will mention just four of his ideas:
  1. The Mozart argument for the existence of God. Why are we able to appreciate beauty? According to the materialistic hypothesis, there is no explanation why evolution has led us to this, as it is difficult to see how this trait could be useful for our survival. Instead of good music, we should appreciate cacophony, which is more abundant in nature. If we assume that God exists, however, this fact is easy to explain, because God appreciates beauty (in fact, God is beauty). This argument, along with many others, is in this web address.

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Is there a universe?

The Spanish Wikipedia defines the universe thus:
The universe is the totality of space and time, all forms of matter, energy and momentum, plus the laws and physical constants that govern them. However, this term is also used in slightly different contextual senses and refers to concepts such as cosmos, world or nature. Its study, at the highest scales, is the object of cosmology, a discipline based on astronomy and physics, which describes all the aspects of this universe, together with its phenomena.
Before applying to the universe, the Greek word cosmos meant order and beauty. Notice that this sense is maintained in one of its derivatives, the word cosmetic. The Latin word mundus also has the two meanings: as a noun, it means the world, the totality. As an adjective, clean, neat, elegant. Presumably the first sense was copied from Greece, and to translate the world cosmos they adopted the same word that represented in Latin its other meaning. Finally the word nature (physis in Greek) has phenomenal connotations (rather than to the universe, it refers to what happens in it). From this word come physics (the study of nature) and metaphysics (beyond physics).

Thursday, April 27, 2017

Truth and New-Age syncretism

What is truth?” asked Pilate. We are still asking. There are now philosophical currents that deny the existence of the truth, or the possibility of knowing it. Science, however, aims at the discovery of truth, and the fact that technology works, seems to indicate that the scientific discoveries of the last centuries, which have made our technological advances possible, must represent, at least in part, the truth about the world around us.
There are several different types of truth:
  • Scientific truth: It is an incontrovertible fact that there is a cosmic background radiation. But the theories we use to explain its existence may not be true, or may be incomplete. Scientific theories are validated in terms of the facts they predict or explain. Thus, Einstein’s General Relativity is considered closer to truth (or to reality) than Newton’s theory of Gravitation, because the former explains the same facts as the latter plus a few more.
  • Philosophical truth: Aristotle’s hylomorphism may be debatable, but assertions such as something exists, nothingness does not exist, are indisputable. Philosophical theories are validated on the basis of the evidence of their axioms or starting points (as cogito ergo sum) and the validity of their reasoning.