Thursday, 23 February 2017

The Mystery of Creation is Written in the Sky

When we think of creation we think of there needed to be a thing that creates and substance that is the building blocks of creation. "You can't get something from nothing" surely has to apply. When we think of mystery in science we think of the empty hearts of particle colliders where streams of particles with the energies of battleships at full-stream-ahead smash into each other and bully space into whispering the stories of new physics.
And yet, there is a place where mystery is everywhere and in everything we see. That place is the sky. Listening to the sky we hear the tepid hiss of microwaves, a gentle afterglow of the fires that formed all that is. The microwaves paint a celestial picture with the most delicate of watermarks, a pattern that has its origin in a subtle interplay of the strange and the unknown. The original canvas itself is a mystery. We see only the after-image. The canvas was an immaterial field which filled space. Unlike the electric or magnetic fields that build our technology, this field had no direction. It didn't go from there to here, it simply was where it was. Having no ends, it needed no origin. The field we call 'Higgs', responsible for the mass of particles, is the same: it comes from nowhere and goes nowhere.
The unknown field was different from the Higgs. It had an effect on space. The field tried to compress space, to shrink everything down. In a paradox of relativity, Einstein showed that such a pressure would make gravity blow space up. That's what happened. Space raced apart in a huge expansion which we call "Inflation". As this happened, the field was slowly losing its strength. This wasn't because space was tearing it apart, but because the field was born with a limited life. After a short time the field vanished and as it died, it ripped into space and made all the particles of matter and energy needed for a universe.
In a mystery of physics, the unknown field is labelled not the "Inflation" field, but the "Inflaton" field. (Perhaps this the same reason that the US distorts "Aluminium"). The Inflation field is a mystery. We haven't seen it in our experiments. We may never see it there, as it lives and dies in environments where universes are born. But we see it's beautiful legacy in the microwaves that fill the sky.
The watermarks on the sky are the result of ripples in the Inflaton canvas. They are ripples because of quantum mechanics, as quantum mechanics says that everything everywhere always ripples! The ripples are huge because inflation expanded the canvas again and again and again. There are ripples within ripples within ripples as waves like the splashes of pebbles in a pond spread then slowed. The canvas stretched, more pebbles, more waves. On and on this went, until the canvas was larger than we can ever imagine. The universe we see was the tiniest speck on the cosmic canvas of inflation.
And so, we see the effects of the Inflation, physics beyond what we know, and we see the tiniest wobbles of quantum uncertainty exploded to a size where they form the pattern for a cosmos.
The strangeness isn't over. A universe expanding isn't like the world we know - such a universe takes the laws of physics and flushes them away. You can't get something from nothing in our world, but in an expanding universe, you can. You can get creation for real, without a creator. The energy that fuels the expansion need never run out. The expansion stopped because inflation died out, not because it ran out of fuel.
Strange too is the short life of inflation. The story is beautiful but un
-imaginably brief. All that life, all the rippling of the canvas, lasted only 0.00000000000000000000000000000001 of a second. The birth pangs of our universe were short.
Or perhaps not. Perhaps there is more than one canvas. Perhaps inflation slowed and stopped here, but not everywhere. Perhaps universes are painted in countless skies, and minds will always wonder at the quantum artistry revealed.

Thursday, 9 February 2017

Online abuse is out of control?

There is a recent TED talk about how the online abuse of women has "spiralled out of control". I have great sympathy for anyone who has experienced online abuse, but there is no mystery as to why this abuse occurs and how to deal with it. Abuse occurs because there are extremely vile people online, and current social media gives these people almost unlimited access to abuse anyone. 

We realised the problem of abuse decades ago in the early 90s when the Internet changed from being used mainly by academics to accessible by the general public. To deal with this change social forums like usenet were set up with moderation. This worked pretty well. What went wrong was that new social media were launched with no barriers to entry and, by default, everyone being accessible by everyone else. 

The idea that such wide open systems would be free from bullying and harassment was hopelessly naive. Instead of using online abuse as evidence of how broken our societies are, campaigners should insist that the terrible design flaws in social media such as Twitter and Facebook are fixed.

Thursday, 2 February 2017

Why panpsychism isn't a solution to the mystery of consciousness

I have been reading an article by my philosopher friend Russell Blackford on panpsychism.

I take a stronger position on panpsychism, which is that it is simply false: There is a fundamental logical mistake with panpsychism, assuming the acceptance of "causal closure", that the brain is physical and all events that take place in the brain have physical causes. If all events in the brain have physical causes then those events are solutions of equations which enumerate physical laws. This is true in principle, even though such solutions may be intractable. Those solutions, by definition, cannot contain terms which incorporate panpsychism, because, if they did, panpsychism would be part of the physics of the brain. Therefore, it's not logically possible that any assertion we make about panpsychism can be because of panpsychism. Whatever the supposed mystery of mind is, that mystery cannot have panpsychism as the answer.

There are more subtle arguments against panpsychism, but the lack of causal effect on the brain is, in my view, the strongest.

Saturday, 28 January 2017

The accelerating universe - what will and won't happen

Since 1999 we have known that the universe isn't just expanding, but the expansion is speeding up. This sounds weird, and it has led to suggestions that, eventually, everything will fall apart, including galaxies, stars, and even our bodies. That's not what an accelerating universe means, fortunately (assuming we are concerned with what happens to bodies tens of billions of years in the future). The expansion of the universe, at least the part we can see, speeding up happens because of a constant force. That force is called 'dark energy'. We don't know what dark energy is, but we have some ideas. The thing that is significant is that dark energy has constant density throughout space. It doesn't dilute as the universe expands. This sounds like it breaks physical law - how can new energy come into existence? The law of conservation of energy doesn't apply if space itself is expanding, so there is no problem with this new dark energy appearing. Anyway, the dark energy generates a very, very small repulsive (yes, repulsive) gravitational force. That force is so tiny it has virtually no effect on things that are held together by other forces. This means galaxies, solar systems, planets and our bodies. These things aren't going to be ripped apart, because the expansion force is very, very small and constant. Parts of the universe that are too far apart to have significant gravitational interaction will be separated, and that separation will not just increase but accelerate, because a constant force produces a constant acceleration. In the very distant future a being within our galaxy would not see any other galaxies, as they will have accelerated away and now be moving faster than light with respect to our galaxy (the expansion force expands space, and there is no limit for the speed at which space can move. But, those beings will be in no danger from the expansion force. It will just make astronomy a lot more boring.

Thursday, 26 January 2017

On-line physics learning resources

These are my favourite on-line physics learning resources. They are, of course, a minute fraction of what is available, but they have really helped and informed me: Leonard Susskind First, the wonderful lectures on physics by Leonard Susskind. He is a superb friendly lecturer, taking his audience through some of the most complex ideas. I particularly like his explanation of the Higgs effect. Just search for 'Susskind' on YouTube. DrPhysicsA These are a series of physics tutorials. Rigorous and slow enough even for a beginner to follow. Perfect for students at all levels. Search for 'DrPhysicsA' on YouTube. PBS space time. A really fun set of videos which explain concepts very accurately and with humour and enthusiasm. My favourite in the explanation of the quantum mechanics of black hole formation. Search for 'PBS space time' on YouTube.

Support science

It's a worrying time when governments try to suppress science, as is happening now in the USA and Turkey.  We badly need widespread understanding of scientific matters, such as global warming, to allow informed voting so democratic governments have mandates for necessary action. During such times it's important to do what we can to boost the public understanding and support for science.  I'm hoping to finish a book on the nature of mind this year, and I am re-launching this blog, and will try and post several times a week. We supporters of science all need to do what we can, and thus is my contribution.

Tuesday, 14 June 2016

Vote Remain for so much more

When I was young I lived in a dangerous world in which two superpowers threatened to destroy civilization. I thought that there must be something better than this. What must happen is for countries with economic and political power to come together in a union which could turn to the other superpowers and say no - enough - the world deserves better. Such a union could be more than just a partnership of commerce - it could combine resources to support great projects - to promote and spread human rights, to deal with poverty, to research and develop new technologies for the production of energy, to support initiatives to help its members live in a cleaner and safer world. I was happy to see us join the Common Market, and extremely pleased when it became the European Union, and I was proud to become a European citizen. So much could be achieved, and we could become a new form of political community, a European super-state within which each country maintained its identity and uniqueness, with government at the appropriate level, and with citizens being able to live and work without barriers from the Northernmost tip of Sweden to the warm shores of Sicily. That was my hope, and my vision.

Things are far from perfect in the EU. The situation regarding Greece has been a huge crisis, both financial and humanitarian. The EU has also expanded far too fast for my liking, with countries like Poland having a deeply unpleasant record on human rights. I would have hoped for a smaller and more stable EU, giving things time to evolve socially and politically.

But, so much of my vision has come to pass. The right to travel and work and live within the EU is wonderful and powerful. The income from membership of the EU has been hugely beneficial for the British economy. The work the EU does towards the environment is vitally important, as is its substantial organisational and financial support for science.

I want more. Much more. I don't fear a European super-state, I want it passionately. I want a European army. I want an alternative to NATO that isn't treading on the toes of Russia and always looking towards America. I want a Europe that has the financial power to compete with China, and to not 'catch a cold when Wall Street sneezes". I want the large economy of the UK to help build the engine of such a European state, not splutter in isolation.

So much of the discussion of the EU has been about finance, about counting the pennies of contributions and refunds. So much discussion has been about the fear of other Europeans, as if migrants are wolf packs coming to ravage our country, not people with families who work here, pay taxes, and contribute to our culture. (It's ironic that in towns where a night out is usually to an Indian restaurant, voters state their fear of immigration).

We are better than this. We should not be fearful penny-pinching accountants, hostile to change. We should be working together to change the world through our combined strength and wisdom, and goodness knows the world desperately needs us to do this.

Don't vote just for 'remain' - vote for a positive, progressive vision of a better, safer, saner world, a world where we don't talk any more about 'The West', but about 'Europe', a new power yet with deep roots, a place of exciting ideas based on thousands of years of history, the birthplace of the Enlightenment where science and reason have never been stronger, a place where freedoms and rights and secure. Vote 'remain' for a world that can be so much better, because we can make it better together.