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

Thursday, January 19, 2017

Catastrophes and catastrophism

Chernobyl disaster
From time to time catastrophes occur, usually unforeseen, sometimes causing tremendous damage. Let's look at some relatively recent ones:
  • July 28, 1976: Tangshan Earthquake (China), intensity 7.5 on the Richter scale. The official death toll was 249,419, though some say it was actually three times as big.
  • December 3, 1984: Bhopal disaster, a leakage of methyl isocyanate from a pesticide factory that caused some 20,000 deaths and affected about 600,000 people.
  • 26 April 1986: Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant Disaster, which caused 31 direct casualties. It is estimated that the number of deferred deaths due to the effects of radiation could approach 80,000, although the estimates may not be reliable.

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Permanent economic growth is unsustainable

2009 World Economic Forum Meeting
Politicians and economists often tell us that job creation requires a GNP growth above 2 or 3%. According to them, the optimum situation and the end of the crisis will be reached when a permanent growth is achieved above these figures, the higher the better. Not many seem to be considering whether such a situation is possible in the long run.
Let us take the simplest case: assume that it were possible to achieve a cumulative annual growth of 3% GNP, indefinitely continued. Would we have achieved utopia, would we be living in the best of worlds?
Maybe, but not for long.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Numerical equality or equal opportunities

It is common to hear concerns about the fact that women do not want to study technical careers and prefer to pursue other professions, such as in health sciences, psychology or the humanities, where they usually make the majority. In contrast, in technical schools there is usually a high percentage of male students. For example, at the Higher Polytechnic School of the Autonomous University of Madrid, during the 20 years between 1992 and 2012, in our degree in Computer Engineering, two-thirds of the students were male, just one-third were female. And between 2003 and 2012, in the degree in Telecommunications Engineering, the proportion of women was even lower: there were three men for each woman.