The progress of science

- funeral by funeral -
– funeral by funeral –

Science progresses funeral by funeral, as Max Planck, founding father of quantum theory, famously said.

Except, of course, he didn’t. What he actually said was:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

This is a suitably sober pronouncement for a physicist’s autobiography, which is the original source of the quote, but it lacks the pithy magic of the aphorism coined by economist Paul A. Samuelson. Quote Investigator unravels the misattribution.

A different view of the same coin comes from the late Freeman Dyson, professor of physics at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, who suggested that science is steered, if not driven, by heretics:

“The rules of the world-historical game change from decade to decade, and the dogmas that we have now will probably become obsolete. In the years to come, my heresies will probably also be obsolete. It is up to the next generation to find new heresies to guide the way to a more hopeful future.

Most of the papers ran obituaries when he died at the end of February, but Physics World’s tribute to Dyson is worth reading: Freeman Dyson: unorthodox to the end

Small Time Arrow

Time runs forward
Time runs forward

The onward march of time is widely considered to be underwritten by the Second Law of Thermodynamics, which describes the tendency of a system to increasing disorder. Apparently there have been doubts that this applies at a quantum level where theoretically time could equally run backwards.

However PhysicsWorld reassuringly reports that time probably runs forward even at the quantum scale. I can’t pretend to understand the intricacies of the experiment described here, but I am relieved at the results. The experiment …

… involves coupling a superconductor qubit to the fundamental mode of a microwave waveguide cavity. With this setup, the researchers can determine the quantum state of the qubit by measuring the phase of the cavity’s output signal. Because of the quantum nature of the system, the measurement results in a backaction that affects the final state of the qubit.

I hoped other science blogs might have reported the good news (and perhaps in layman’s terms), but a cursory web search revealed nothing, other than that perhaps it’s not “new” news. Back in 2015, the excitingly named ScienceAlert reported the same results from a different experiment in which …

… the researchers used a bunch of carbon-13 atoms in liquid chloroform, and flipped their nuclear spins using an oscillating magnetic field. 

Again, the details of the process mean nothing to me, but the comforting assurance remains: all is well with reality.

Feeling by numbers

One, two, three . . .
Feeling by Numbers
The spread of interactive conversational agents (think Siri, Alexa, Cortana), has provided ample opportunity for fools everywhere to open their hearts and souls to a familiar and seemingly dis-interested tool.
And it’s all crept up on us.  We’ve become so used to interacting with search engines through our smartphones — asking of them the most intimate of questions (what are the symptoms of bowel cancer? how do I get rid of my car/my boss/my boils? where can I find love?), questions we may be too shy, or too ashamed to ask either our doctors, or our best friends — that we didn’t notice the creep.  The easy availability of a smart, talking-back, front-end to this service-as-usual seems both obvious and inevitable, and it is but a tiny step, a shuffle, no less, in the same direction.
And we trust them, or at least we want to trust them because they keep giving us more frictionless living: turn down the lights, we can say; turn up the music; why am I so lonely?  Countless science fictions have instilled in us the notion that technology in general, and AI in particular, is rational and neutral, making it an ideal agony aunt providing personal, private, objective advice.
The spread of behaviours surrounding these services have also afforded much scope for social commentary with pundits keen to dissect the phenomenon and ascribe a trend: the decline of morality, the ascent of depravity, the death of privacy, humanity. 
The battle for privacy is long lost, if it was ever seriously contested.  A white flag hangs limply in every living-room raised the moment it became easier to ask a brushed aluminium gadget to change channel rather than seek out the TV remote, orient it, find the right button . . .  The new battle is ideological and the field of battle is our emotions.
A recent article in Aeon magazine raises some interesting issues about the quantification of emotions, or more specifically the algorithmic response to human feelings. The authors make much of the difference between a Russian conversational agent called Alisa, who delivers a more earthy, “tough love” response, in contrast to the saccharin pap of western bots like Alexa and Google Assistant.  Both, they maintain, are reflections of the societies from which they spring, digging into something they term  “emotional regimes”, and, ultimately, a reflection of the way the technology works (which is a kind of synthesis of responses formed by munching through buckets of sample data).
So the deeper impact is the cultural assumptions in the data sets and our vulnerability to being “nudged”.   “Nudging” is a term which puts a friendly gloss on the practice of behavioral change beloved of government, marketers and tech startups.  Not pushing or forcing: nudging. Small, incremental changes that don’t hurt. It’s gentle, almost avuncular, and it implies a social benefit. Why fix the fundemental problems when you can fix the people’s experience of them and make them see it’s really their problem all along.

AI => Humanity++

Let's solve hyperbole!
Let’s solve hyperbole!

Google CEO Sundar Pichai proclaims that AI is “more profound” than the harnessing of fire and electricity, according to  The Verge article here. It is, he says in an upcoming interview, “one of the most important things that humanity is working on,” since it might solve climate change, and cure cancer.

Still no cure for hyperbole, though.  Poor kitty.

Sticks and stones

Sticking up for the stick
Where are the sticks? The archaeological record is incomplete

Wood decays, so sticks haven’t reached through the archaeological record quite as successfully as stones have to tell us how they were fashioned, and how used, by our early ancestors. There must have been sharp sticks for poking stuff, clubby sticks for bashing things, hooked sticks for back scratching — or indeed pulling a fruit-laden branch within the easy orbit of a languorous arm.

ALEXANDER LANGLANDS provides a whistle-stop tour of the Stone Age from the Paleo- to-Neolithic in The Stick Is an Unsung Hero of Human Evolution: Stone’s silent sister in the archaeological record.  Not only does he lament the absence of the stick, but also the fading knowledge and skills needed to hand-craft stick-oriented tooling, such as fishing rods and flint-tipped spears.

SMART Giveaway on Goodreads

Prolibris is marking the year since the publication of SMART with a giveaway on Goodreads.  There are 5 paperback copies to be won, and the giveaway runs through April to May 7th.

Goodreads Book Giveaway

Smart by Joel Mentmore


by Joel Mentmore

Giveaway ends May 07, 2017.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter Giveaway

IndieReader Discovery Awards Verdict

“SMART delivers in droves—Mentmore writes terrific prose and dialogue that truly dazzles.”


Eat my dust
The Race is On


IndieReader Discovery Awards are announced towards the end of May, but the panel are publishing pre-award verdicts – here’s their verdict in full:


“Joel Mentmore’s SMART, clever, quick, and pithy, is the rare novel that is fantastically contemporary, a nightmare of technology that is doubtless chilling even weeks after reading. A high-tech thriller that is both a mystery of heart-stopping suspense and the tale of a perplexing, ambivalent male friendship, SMART delivers in droves—Mentmore writes terrific prose and dialogue that truly dazzles.”