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.
Concorde
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

Aristotle
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.
C.S.Lewis
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 https://esa.un.org/unpd/wpp/Download/Standard/Mortality/.

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.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Another failed prediction

As you know, I love to point out the mistakes made by those who make future predictions. Since I was little more than a teenager, I have been saving clippings from the press and scientific journals that make more or less reasonable forecasts about the evolution of science and technology. In an earlier article I have pointed out that such predictions are seldom met, even when made by people who are both scientists and visionary, famous science fiction authors such as Arthur C. Clarke or Isaac Asimov.
I just unearthed an article published by Alexander Kusko in the IEEE Spectrum magazine in April 1968, with the following title:
A prediction of power system development, 1968 to 2030
And the following subtitle:
By predicting the trend of future power system design some 60 years hence, we should be better equipped to solve some of the technical and sociological problems that the industry faces today.
The assumptions on which Kusko's predictions were based were the following:
  1. The population will triple. What did actually happen? The world’s population in 1968, according to UN data, was about 3.5 billion people. The world population in 2015 was 7.35 billion. According to UN estimates, the world population in 2030 will amount to between 8.2 and 8.8 billion people. Far from the 10.5 billion estimated by Kusko.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Turgenev and unhappy love

Alfred L. Kroeber
Together with Spengler, Toynbee and Sorokin, the American anthropologist Alfred Louis Kroeber was one of the four great philosophers of history in the twentieth-century. Father of the famous science fiction writer, Ursula Kroeber Le Guin, A.L. Kroeber hypothesized that cultural configurations begin with a precursor genius, continue with a stage of maximum bloom, and then enter a period of decay, more or less extended in time.
The history of Russia during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries provides two perfect examples for Kroeber’s analysis, two astonishingly parallel and simultaneous configurations in two different fields of culture: literature and music.
  • In Russian literature we can point to a clear precursor (Pushkin), a time of maximum bloom (Gogol, Lermontov, Dostoyevsky, Turgenev, Tolstoy and Chekhov), and a period of slow decline (the Russian authors of the twentieth century).
  • In Russian music there was also a precursor (Glinka), a period of maximum flowering (Borodin, Mussorgsky, Tchaikovsky, Rimsky-Korsakov) and another of slow decay (Rachmaninoff, Stravinsky, Prokofiev, Shostakovich).

Thursday, April 6, 2017

Ideology, blacklisting and censorship

In this article I will resort to my own editorial history by means of three anecdotes. As I have published about 50 books with 37 different publishers, I have accumulated many of these anecdotes. However, these three refer to publishers with whom I have never published anything.
First anecdote: One of my first works (Krishna versus Christ, 1978) was an essay, a comparison between two religions: Hinduism and Christianity. When I finished the book, I decided to look for a publisher and went to the headquarters of one of the best known, with the book under my arm, without trying to arrange an appointment. I was greeted in the lobby by one of the employees and explained why I had come and what kind of book I was bringing. The employee asked:
“Does this book attack Christianity?”
I answered it did not.
“Then do not bother to leave it,” he said, smiling. “If it attacked Christianity, it might have a chance, but if it does not, there is no way we will publish it.”
Of course, I left without leaving the book, and have never tried to work with that publisher again.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Brain transplant and personal identity

Daniel Dennett
In the previous post I wrote about brain transplants, but we must still consider the problem of how a brain transplant would affect our personal identity. Is our identity associated with the brain, and therefore would it be transferred to a different body in the case of a brain transplant? Or could something else happen?
In the first place, I must point out that this digression is not scientific, but philosophical, as for the time being a brain transplant is pure science fiction. It is not feasible now, and it does not seem probable that it will become so in a long time, assuming that it is possible to perform it successfully. This means that I am leaning on the void, the same thing I have criticized a few times when others do it...
In 1978, the American philosopher Daniel Dennett wrote a philosophical essay on this problem entitled Where am I?, where he used the science fiction genre to pose the problem of personal identity in the event of hypothetical scientific advances, such as the maintenance of an active living brain out of the body (although connected with it by wifi), or downloading the contents of a human brain into a computer.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Brain transplant

On February 13, 2017, the Spanish newspaper La Razón Digital published an interview with Rafael Matesanz, expert in transplants, with the following headline:
Brain transplant would be the panacea
As usual, the media prefer the most spectacular headlines, regardless of whether they misrepresent the meaning of the article. In this case, for example, the headline was taken from a rather secondary part of the interview. The following:

The brain.
To make it replaceable, we should know how to connect with the bone marrow the fibers leaving the central nervous system, otherwise... We are still far away, although we would like to be able to do it, for that would mean being able to cure quadriplegia and paraplegia.
...
Consider what it would mean to people like Stephen Hawking, with a privileged brain, which you could transplant into a healthy body. Or many vegetative diseases that spoil the motor part of a body, with a healthy brain. It could be an unbeatable form of treatment, but we are far from it. Conceptually it would be the panacea.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Headlines and texts

Prehistoric pregnancy (Science News)
On several occasions I have criticized the distortion of scientific news by the media, especially the headlines, by saying things contradicted by the text, which apparently are more appealing. It seems that many journalists (at least those in charge of headlines) follow the old journalistic dictum, usually quoted in several forms, more or less equivalent, which, as is often the case with these lapidary phrases, has been attributed (probably apocryphally) to diverse personalities, such as William Randolph Hearst:
Do not let reality spoil a good headline (or a good report).
What I think regrettable is the fact that a magazine dedicated to scientific popularization, such as Science News, also falls in this trap of offering appealing headlines, which after reading the text can be seen not to correspond to the content. Let’s look at a few examples, offered during the week of February 19, 2017:

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Intersex

Hermaphroditus,
wall painting from Herculaneum
In the previous post I mentioned that in biological chimeras (individuals formed by the fusion of two independent fertilized eggs) it may happen that most of the body belongs to one sex, but the genital organs belong to the other. This phenomenon is called pseudohermaphroditism. It can also be the case (although it is rarer) that the same individual has the two genital organs, complete or incomplete. This phenomenon was formerly called hermaphroditismname of a son of Hermes and Aphrodite in Greek mythology, but these cases have recently been included in the concept of intersexa more general term that covers all cases that do not fit the usual definition of male or female bodies, reserving the word hermaphroditism for animals or plants where that condition is normal.
To clarify things, normal members of the human species have 46 chromosomes (23 pairs), with pair 23 formed by the two sex chromosomes, which are responsible for the differences between the sexes. They can be either two X chromosomes (one inherited from the mother, the other from the father); this genetic endowment is called XX and the individual is female. Or they can be an X chromosome (inherited from the mother) and a Y chromosome (inherited from the father); this genetic endowment is called XY and the individual is male. But in addition to these two cases there are others, much less frequent. Let us quote a few (frequency figures are taken from Wikipedia):

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Biological chimeras

A chimeric mouse with pups
Identical twins arise when a zygote (a fertilized egg) begins to divide. About five days after fertilization, it reaches the blastula stage and is implanted in the uterus, but for unclear reasons it can be broken into two separate parts, which will result in two independent embryos that may or not share the same placenta, although they usually have a different amniotic sac. The two siblings who are born share the same genetic endowment (the same DNA), except for possible post-separation mutations.
In contrast, two non-identical twins arise when two distinct eggs are fertilized, each by one spermatozoid, forming two different blastulas, each of which is implanted in the uterus through a placenta of its own. The two brothers will have different genetic endowments, similar to those of two non-twin brothers, because they come from different gametes.
But there is a third possibility: a chimera arises when two blastulas that would normally give rise to two non-identical twins merge before being implanted in the uterus and give rise to a single embryo and, consequently, to a single individual possessing, in different cells, two different genetic endowments. Thus, it may happen that a chimeric individual has (for example) the liver with a genetic endowment and the kidneys with another. Typically, chimeras are difficult to detect, unless (for example) just one of the blastulas would have given rise to an albino, in which case the resulting chimeric individual may have unequally pigmented skin. Even in this case, the cause could be different. It could also happen (although it is very rare) that one of the two zygotes is male (with X and Y chromosomes) and the other female (with XX chromosomes), in which case part of the cells of the chimera would be male and another part female.

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Toward Brave New World

Cover of Brave New World's 1st edition
Just as a utopia is a literary work that describes a perfect society, from the point of view of its author, a dystopia is the description of a society where certain characteristics of the world in which the author lives, which he considers unacceptable, are exaggerated and carried to the extreme, with a satirical or denouncing intent.
The two world wars caused a feeling of disillusionment in the West that gave rise to the two most famous dystopias of recent history: Brave New World by Aldous Huxley (written in 1931, published in 1932) and Nineteen-Eighty-Four by George Orwell (written in 1948, published in 1949). These two works are original in another sense: while other earlier dystopias (such as Samuel Butler's Erewhon, 1872) were located in remote places, such as the Antipodes, the two modern dystopias take place in the future.
The feeling of oppression that seizes the reader of these two novels is almost unbearable. In both cases, the very few nonconformists in society are excluded: in the first, they are banished to an island; in the second, the exclusion is only temporary: the rebel is submitted to brainwashing so as to destroy his spirit and turn him into a mental waste, raw material on which the social planner can act, remodel and educate until he is recovered and adapted to society. The two dystopias are horrible, but they have a very great power of conviction and verisimilitude.

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Pending problems in the standard cosmological model

The standard cosmological model, prevailing since 1998, is called LCDM and is based on the following statements:
  • The universe began with a Big Bang, after which there was a phase of accelerated expansion (inflation), which then declined to levels close to the current ones. Ordinary matter appeared later, formed essentially by hydrogen and helium.
  • The average curvature of the cosmos is close to zero (flat universe): three-dimensional space is approximately Euclidean.
  • The average density of matter in the cosmos is equivalent to about 30% of the critical density (which separates an open, unlimited expanding cosmos from a closed cosmos that would contract again). Since the ordinary density of matter detected so far represents less than 5% of critical density, the remainder (over 25%) must be an unknown form (dark matter). In fact, it would be what is called cold dark matter, which explains the initials CDM in the name of the model. I talked about dark matter in an earlier post.

Thursday, February 9, 2017

Automatic translation

John McCarthy
In a famous summer course that took place at Dartmouth College in 1956, the term artificial intelligence was applied for the first time to all those computer programs that perform tasks traditionally considered exclusively human, such as playing chess and translating from one human language to another. Those attending the course, led by John McCarthy, felt optimistic enough to predict that in ten years those two problems would have been completely solved. Thus, they hoped that by 1966 there would be programs capable of defeating the world chess champion, and others that would translate perfectly between any two human languages.
In March 1961, my uncle, Felipe F. Moreno, then chief of Spanish translators at the headquarters of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) in Geneva, wrote in the ITU magazine an article on machine translation and how it could affect human translators, which proves that the question was hot. Shortly afterwards, when the deadline announced by the artificial intelligence forerunners had been reached, with both problems far from being solved, it was obvious that they had been overly optimistic.
We know that the goal of writing a program that would defeat the world chess champion was met in 1997, when Deep Blue defeated Garry Kasparov, the champion in that year. The other problem, machine translation, was even more difficult. At the end of the sixties the following anecdote was well-known in the computer-programming world:

Thursday, February 2, 2017

The origin of violence

Pitirim Sorokin
On the question of violence and evil in society there are three fundamental theories:
  1. Every human being is a battlefield between good and evil and carries with him strong tendencies towards evil and violence. It is necessary to educate him in moral values, ​​to teach him to control his impulses.
  2. Man is good by nature, society makes him bad. Education must try to keep us as much as possible in our original natural state, the good savage. This is the theory of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
  3. Man is good by nature, everything bad is a consequence of a poorly focused education. The solution is education in the gender ideology, which is dominant today.
What does science say (in this case, Sociology)?
One of the most important sociologists of the 20th century, the Russian-American Pitirim Sorokin, wrote the following in his book Society, Culture and Personality (Chapter VI, Factors of Solidarity and Antagonism):

Thursday, January 26, 2017

Futurology

In an earlier post I mentioned that many of scientific news published today are not really new discoveries, but future previsions. What I did was analyze a specific issue of the magazine Science News, and found that just three news, out of 18 it contained, corresponded to concrete findings.
At the suggestion of one of my readers I made a more meaningful analysis, by reviewing, not just a single magazine, but 40, of four different years, to see if the effect stays constant or changes with time. The results were as follows:
Year
Nr. of articles
% Futurology

1990
176
32
2001
177
47
2006
167
40
2008
161
48