The first slide here shows the longest running simulation of dark matter density across the known universe and the second slide shows a map of neuron connections within the brain of a human being. It is plausible that the two phenomena share such a striking resemblance simply due to operation under the same physical laws. A few weeks ago, we compared the fluid dynamics of Jupiter’s atmosphere and Earth’s bodies of water. The third image here shows the gnarled yet seemingly gentle upper atmospheric clouds of the solar system’s largest planet. Jupiter’s rapid rotation combined with hot gas rising from deeper in the atmosphere creates the fantastic swirling patterns we see in its atmosphere. The fourth image shows a phytoplankton bloom in the Baltic Sea that is being influenced by a fluid vortex. The same heat-transfer mechanisms and angular movement that influence Jupiter’s ammonia-rich clouds are in effect in Earth’s oceans, and are important for distributing heat, nutrients, and carbon around the planet. The observation that the same mechanisms are operating throughout the cosmos is humbling and intriguing. Humbling in that it reminds us that we do not occupy a particularly special place in space. Our planet and bodies are not immune to the governing laws of the universe and observing similar phenomena on other planets and in other galaxies remind us of this. I am intrigued by the very fact that the universe does not provide our species with specialized physical laws. This means that similar or far-exceeding intelligences could have evolved under the same mechanisms. If it happened on Earth, there is no reason to think that it couldn’t happen elsewhere, and I hope we share the universe with other intelligent beings. As Carl Sagan remarked, “..it would be an awful waste of space” if we didn’t. Regardless of whether we have intelligent cosmic neighbors, there are still an endless number of fantastically interesting phenomena waiting to be studied. Let us rejoice in our privileged position of being able to think freely about science and philosophy. We should never take it for granted.
Far more likely than not, all your goals and accomplishments will be swallowed by eternity and forgotten forever. Happy Monday, haha. Although this may not be the most pleasant thought to start the week, I think is important to consider and can be rather helpful. I am inspired to write about the futileness of our life goals after a bar conversation I had this weekend with a friend. Our conversation wandered through the familiar territory of determinism and free will, and ultimately landed on meaning. More specifically, we discussed where meaning is to be found in a predetermined cosmos. If you need to be reminded of your lack of free will: you didn’t choose your parents, you had absolutely no control over the innumerable occurrences that were necessary for your arbitrary arrival into the Milky Way, and you don’t even have control over the next thoughts that are going to arise in your mind! That debate aside, we pondered why any of us should do anything if we are simply pawns of the universe. I have always felt that this question has an easier answer than most people assume. That is, just because the universe is predetermined doesn’t mean that you cannot enjoy the experience of the moment. Even if we have no control over our place in the universe, we still have our consciousness. Many scientists have made the point that in a cosmos filled with probable illusions (e.g. free will), the one thing we have without doubt is the ability to experience something (i.e. consciousness). So, even if we have no free will, we still have experience—and it is in that where meaning is to be found (maybe). Bringing us back to the top, this conversation wrapped up on the seemingly nihilistic note that eventually the Universe’s entropy will reach 100 and the lights will go out. All your accomplishments, longings, experiences, and unsatisfied goals will be lost forever. Forever forever. I think that this recognition serves as another healthy reminder to enjoy the present moment. An individual’s accomplishments (and the commonly positively correlated ego) can probably be added to the aforementioned list of cosmic illusions. At the end of the game, all will be dark.
What would happen if you fell into a black hole? Most likely, a phenomenon known as ‘spaghettification’ would stretch your body past it’s elastic limits and snap you apart just above the hips. The same mechanism would continue to break down each half of your body, and over the course of a few seconds you would be reduced to a string of disconnected atoms plummeting towards the inescapable singularity. How does this spaghettification occur? Dr. Stephen Hawking famously described a fictional situation in which an astronaut approaches the event horizon of a black hole feet-first. Newtonian mathematics tell us that the force of gravity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance between two objects. Therefore, as a human body approaches a black hole, the difference in distance from the toes to singularity and the head to singularity would have disastrous consequences. The extreme, non-homogeneous gravitational field would provide a drastically different gravitational pull on the feet and head. This difference in gravity would lead to spaghettification, or the vertical stretching and horizontal compressing of the human body. When the body would reach its elastic limit would depend on the size of the black hole consuming it. In a supermassive black hole, stretching of the body likely wouldn’t begin until after crossing the event horizon, whereas it would likely be spaghettified before crossing the horizon of a stellar-mass black hole. Regardless of when it occurred, the stretching effect would not stop after breaking you in two. It would continue to work on the resulting parts and ultimately break your body down into its smallest constituents. Therefore, our bodies and brains will arrive at the singularity represented by the atoms that composed them. What happens to physical matter at this point is unknown and may be one of the unanswerable questions of the universe.
A few minutes ago, I was stuck in traffic behind an ancient cement truck that appeared to be on the edge of simply falling apart on the spot (the type of vehicle that I like to refer to as a shi*box). The traffic started moving and the truck subsequently backfired and emitted a massive cloud of thick black smoke and exhaust from its tail pipe. The smoke that didn’t end up directly in the cab of my vehicle I watched rise into the crystal-clear blue sky (haha). All by myself, I started laughing out loud—which probably doesn’t seem like an appropriate response to such an occurrence. I’ll explain. Amid the chaos of morning traffic and vehicles (like the truck above) that are constantly emitting toxic gases into our atmosphere, I was thinking about how absolutely ridiculous our current modes of transportation are—especially cars. Here’s a simplified outline of how we power the internal combustion engine: Homo sapiens fight wars to gain access to the decomposed remains of plants and animals in the subsurface of our planet. We (sometimes carelessly) extract these remains (crude oil) from below and subsequently spend huge amounts of money to refine the fossil fuels into various usable forms (like gasoline). After refining (which has a huge environmental impact), we spend billions of dollars just to transport the fuel to “stations”, from which WE are finally able to fill our own vehicles (at great cost to us). Over the following week, each of us drains our fuel tank and contributes to the ever-rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations that drive global warming. The cycle continues. As a geoscience student interested in the oil and gas industry, I can tell you that although the steps outlined above are frustrating, they are necessary. We don’t have a solution yet, but we will. And I am confident that we will look back on the internal combustion engine and fossil fuels as a failed experiment. Closing the circle—the reason I was laughing this morning is because I tried to view the truck as someone would from the future. A behemoth metal death trap shaking and blowing noxious opaque fumes into its surroundings. A failed experiment, indeed.
There is a philosophical consideration in artificial intelligence research known as the “alignment problem”, which emphasizes the importance and difficulties of making sure that an intelligent machine has end goals that align with the intentions of its creators. Also known as the “control problem”, this idea essentially recognizes that it will be unsettlingly easy to create an AI that either misinterprets or disregards our initial commands—resulting in a future that is far from one that maximizes human well-being. This concept includes the concern of an AI fulfilling our goals, but in a way that we would never want (e.g. command a superintelligence to minimize human suffering, so they eliminate humanity to ensure zero suffering). I have had this aspect of the control problem on the mind since watching Netflix’s recently released film “I Am Mother”, which I highly recommend. There will be a few minor spoilers in the following sentences. I think that the plot of “I Am Mother” represents a subtle but clear example of the control problem. The film portrays a future in which intelligent machines are clearly following the initial commands of their human ancestors, but in a way that strikes the viewer as unethical for various reasons. When given the task of facilitating the repopulation of Earth, the intelligent machines are willing to make sacrifices that are antithetical to the Kantian view that each individual has an intrinsic moral worth. Sacrifices need to be made to ensure long-term fulfillment of the initial goal. I will allow you to watch the film to see what these sacrifices consist of. The film also touched briefly on the potentiality of a collective machine consciousness, which needless to say got me super hyped up, but must be addressed in a future discussion. Watch the movie this evening if you haven’t and come back to share your thoughts. For those who have seen it, what did you think? Photo credit: NASA; I Am Mother, Netflix #space #science #think #nasa #universe #philosophy #ai #technology #computer #simulation #brain #neuroscience #astronomy #existence #human #robot #consciousness
I want to share a few thoughts that came to me during a scientific conference I attended over the past week. This conference aligned closely with my research interests and many impressive scientists presented fascinating and important work to our rather niche group of about 100 people. Although the scientific results were interesting and consequential, I want to emphasize something much more fundamental. Several times during the conference, I looked around the room and simply considered the fact that the human beings in attendance were there voluntarily. The fact that a hundred individuals were willing to spend a week of their lives with essentially total strangers solely to talk about current advances in science. And not only were those in attendance willing to be there, they were delighted to be there! That is something truly fantastic about our species—we are so curious and motivated by truth that we prioritize and find great excitement in spending time with others to further our knowledge. Obviously, this doesn’t only apply to this specific conference, but rather all of them across the world that are continuously happening. Maybe I am overthinking how fantastic it actually is, but I will leave that for you to decide. I think it is awesome (in the true sense of the word) that we voluntarily come together to share and discuss ideas. Further confessions of a scientific romanticist, I suppose. People are curious. It’s a fundamental truth of human existence, it’s built into our DNA. Therefore, I don’t think you should hesitate to share your ideas with others! Sure, many will not share your enthusiasms, but there are countless people who will. And it is through a continued sharing and discussion of ideas that the raft of humanity will remain upright and oriented downstream through the raging whitewater of existence. Photo credit: Voyager: ISS, NASA #space #science #think #nasa #universe #philosophy #humanity #technology #computer #simulation #brain #existence #human #consciousness
What does it feel like to be you? Undoubtably it feels like something! That feeling is the most fundamental and understandable definition of conscious experience. The philosopher Thomas Nagel first proposed this thought experiment in an essay titled “What is it like to be a bat?”. He (and many others) maintain the argument that an organism is conscious if there is something that it is like to be that organism. Following this line of reasoning, we can make a few assumptions with nearly 100% confidence, including that the chair you sit on or the shoes you stand in are not conscious. It seems very likely that a brain (or something approximating a brain) is a precursor to consciousness, because the felt presence of direct conscious experience depends entirely on the brains ability to send and receive signals. I’ve been thinking a lot about where the line should be drawn in the discussion regarding what is and is not conscious, and I find myself making serious adjustments to the line’s position in the natural world. If we can conclude that a certain amount neurological complexity is all that is needed for “the lights to come on”, it becomes likely that we share our planet with much more conscious life than we currently perceive. The bumble bee, for example, has over a million neurons within their brain that weighs <1 gram (10x higher circuit density than human beings). Capable of highly complex behavior, bees have the ability to recognize individual faces within their nests and even dance with one another. With behaviors like this and vastly complex brains, I truly believe that an inability to communicate with bees may be the only barrier preventing us from recognizing their potential consciousness. This can be expanded to many other animal species and possibly even plants and fungi (some of which seem to communicate with us when ingested haha). The origin and mechanisms of consciousness are absolutely fascinating, and I am mad excited to see where the next few decades of neuroscience research takes us.
“Today’s mismatch between what science can and will soon be able to achieve and how poorly people understand and are prepared for it is creating an extremely dangerous public tinderbox that must be addressed, first and foremost, through public education and engagement.” –Jamie Metzl. This passage stirs something in me and largely explains the fundamental goal of Astro-Daily. The goal, not confusing or controversial, is to help people recognize that education forms the cornerstone of all functioning individuals, communities, countries, and civilizations. The importance of education is simply not recognized or acknowledged enough, and the fact that many students feel a sense of relief and happiness when they leave their institution of learning exposes a flaw in our education system. This flaw is the result of learning being viewed as a chore, which is possibly the most backwards and harmful perspective an individual and society can possess. For this reason and many others, it is widely agreed upon that our education system needs an adjustment. Fortunately, I do not think that the adjustment that needs to be made is as drastic or difficult as people think it is. I believe that the most fundamental change that needs to be made—one that will dramatically enhance the experience of the individual and benefit society—is changing the way that people view the process of learning. We must shift away from this abhorrent idea that learning is a chore. The solution, I think, is as simple as changing people’s perspective on learning, and using our educational institutions to breed life-long learners who leave their formal education with an insatiable curiosity towards the world and universe. Many (but not all) teachers and professors instill in us a belief that the reason we go to school is to get good grades, graduate, and get a “good” job. Absolute nonsense. We go to school to become critically thinking, society-enhancing, and ultimately curious people. And in the end, it doesn’t matter whether or not you are a formal student, changing your perspective on the process of learning will change your life and the life of those around you for the better.
Newton’s famous Second Law, stating that the acceleration of an object is dependent on the net force applied to it and the objects mass (a=F/m), was believed to be true for the 200 years after its formulation. Albert Einstein discovered both the mathematical error in the Newtonian law of motion and its correction in the year 1905. Newton’s Second Law held the assumption that the mass of an object remains constant during acceleration—an assumption that we now know to be incorrect. The mathematics of Einstein’s Principle of Special Relativity exposes that the mass of an object actually increases with velocity, which is displayed in his eloquent equation on slide three. The correction to the mass of a moving object from Newton’s static-mass is all you need to understand to have a fundamental grasp on special relativity. A few things about this fascinating equation! First off, you may have noticed that the mass change must be very small in ordinary circumstances, because it relies entirely on the speed of the object *relative (key word hehe) to the speed of light. At 300,000 km/s (186,000mps), the speed of light serves as a worthy denominator. For example, at Interstate speeds of 145 km/hr (80mph), the correction to mass is only one part in one hundred billion (impossible to observe). However, as the speed of objects with finite mass obtain higher speeds, the correction becomes more serious and more important (reference equation). If an object with a resting finite mass of 1kg were accelerated to 90% the speed of light, its mass increases to ~2.3kg. At 99% of c, 7.1kg. What happens next is what I find most fun to think about! Velocity (v) hits the speed of light and the denominator for the mass correction equation becomes the square root of zero, or zero, right? WRONG. Haha, you can’t divide by zero homie! This is just one of the many ways that it is possible for physicist to prove that nothing can reach the speed of light. It is truly a cosmic speed limit—one that we can get as close to as we want but will never reach.
Scientists commonly use our understanding of the very small to gain insight into the nature of the very large. Last night I was reading about a technique known as “quantum cooling”, which allows for experimental apparatuses to be cooled down to temperatures extremely close to 0-kelvin (absolute zero). One way that this cooling is achieved, which can bring temperatures as low as 2 mK (0.002 K), is through the mixing of Helium-3 and Helium-4 isotopes. Due to quantum mechanical effects (specifically the Heisenberg uncertainty principle), the mixing of these isotopes results in an absorption of heat—ultimately allowing for the cooling of an apparatus or detector of interest. Here’s where astrophysics comes in. Quantum engineers at Leiden University in the Netherlands have started using the technique outlined above (known as dilution refrigeration) to cool down a new kind of gravitational wave detector. Gravitational waves, for those unfamiliar, are essentially ripples in the fabric of spacetime that propagate outwards from massive objects undergoing acceleration—the most common measurable sources being rotating neutron stars and colliding black holes. The aforementioned detector is known as “MiniGRAIL” and consists of a 1.5-ton copper-aluminum spherical antenna (see slide 3). When cooled down to nearly absolute zero, the atoms comprising this sphere come very close to standing still, allowing for scientists to measure very (VERY) miniscule displacements of its spherical space (i.e. the kinds of displacements produced by the passing of a gravitational wave). In other words, small changes in the shape of the sphere occur during the passing-by of a gravity wave (slide 4). The shrinking and expanding that occur are on the order of ~10E-20 meters, which is less than billionth the size of an atom, smaller than the nucleus itself. If the sphere were not cooled down to almost 0-Kelvin, it would have thermal vibrations of its own that are much larger than the vibrations produced by a passing gravitational wave. The MiniGRAIL instrument is just one of thousands of ways that quantum cooling and the science of the small can be used to investigate the large.
In c. 65 AD, the Roman Stoic philosopher Seneca stated that “…[we] and the things we live amongst are destined to perish.” In rereading Joseph Goldstein’s “Experience of Insight” (1976), I came across this concept eloquently rephrased as a reminder that “…inherent in all things that arise is decay.” Although these are not original ideas of the two men, I thought they served well as representatives of a concern we have had since the beginning of our self-consciousness: mortality. The concept of impermanence is pervasive through all human history, reaching back as far as the earliest surviving work of human literature (the Epic of Gilgamesh). Philosophers, historians, and scientists have always written about death, decay, and mortality as if they were unavoidable universal truths, hence the examples above. Our views on mortality remained constant over thousands of years due to essentially no scientific method and its consequential advances. Only recently has this changed. The unprecedented explosion of technology and scientific ability has profoundly transformed our understanding of life and death and, consequently, we are beginning to question if mortality is indeed a “fundamental truth” of existence. I am finishing up a fantastic book called “Hacking Darwin” by Jamie Petzl (2019) that addresses the current state of genetic engineering. His book makes it crystal clear that biology is no longer what it once was and will continue to change dramatically over the coming decades. Our technology and understanding of human biology are conjoining, and it is possible that within the next 30-50 years we will have the ability to safely alter our genome and greatly prolong our lives. Perhaps more importantly than prolonging our lives, we will be able to selectively choose which genes are present in our children, ultimately allowing us to produce offspring that far exceed us in intelligence, strength, and creativity. Are there limits to this? We will find out. Maybe our period of genetic engineering will only play a minor role between where we are now and the eventual uploading of our consciousness to “the cloud”. I can’t help but wonder what Seneca would think.
Right now, as you read this, there are hundreds of brilliant human minds working tirelessly in an attempt to create an artificial intelligence. Even more individuals are working on creating technology that will unintentionally assist in achieving this goal. As computing power doubles every two years (Moore’s Law), we are getting closer and closer every day to creating echoes of the human mind in the machine. As exciting as our technological growth is, we must maintain a proper level of concern regarding AI and consider the future paths we will need to take and strategies we will need to employ to control it. In “Superintelligence”, Nick Bostrom outlines (in excruciating and illuminating detail) the steps that are necessary to prevent AI from catastrophically getting away from us. Much of his book focuses on an artificial superintelligence—one that far exceeds a normal “general” artificial intelligence. Through recursive self-improvement (continuously building better versions of itself), it is probable that the creation of a general AI could inevitably lead to a machine that will leave us in the dust intellectually (and spiritually, artistically, etc). However, superintelligence aside, I want to emphasize the possible implications of creating a computer matching only the intellectually capabilities of the humble Homo sapien. Let’s say that in the year 2030, scientists/technologists create the first ever AI with intellect matching that of your average researcher at MIT or Caltech. Even with equivalent intelligence, a general AI would far exceed our capabilities through speed alone, as electronic circuits function approximately one million times faster than biochemical ones. Therefore, over the course of one human work day in the MIT lab, the AI will have made ~20,000 years of intellectual progress. Imagine this occurring day after day, and you may start to get an idea of what would become possible. We are talking about machines that will have the capability to read every book, every newspaper/magazine article, every legal document, and every webpage that has ever been written—in a matter of seconds. How can you not be frightened by that alone?