‘This has to be wrong’

Science derives its legitimacy from grounding in what anyone, anywhere can observe.  It’s called “empiricism.”  But the very success of science has tempted people in all fields to promote theoretical ideas before there is appropriate empirical support.

String theory had its origins in 1968, and over 50 years it has become the darling of theoretical physicists as a candidate for a Theory Of Everything.  Thousands of scientific papers have been written about string theory, because the mathematics is so much fun and leads to so many interesting places.   But the acknowledged drawback of string theory is that it has so many different forms that it you have to write an exponent within an exponent to write the number.  Hence, there are no predictions from string theory, and no way to test it against the reality of our world.

This spring, finally a general prediction was derived, true of all string theories.  Dark energy must decrease as the universe expands.  But in our universe, dark energy seems to be holding steady.


String theorists are not taking this sitting down, but are applying their creative energies to the discovery of loopholes and exceptions.

Article in Quanta Magazine by Natalie Wolchover

An illustration of upside-down grassy hills topped with cosmic blue spheres


Intelligent Design

Dear Readers –

I’m an evolutionary theorist, and it prejudices my professional reputation to be saying this, but I think there are big questions about the current evolutionary paradigm.  At professional gatherings and in journal articles, I have no trouble saying that the prevailing Selfish Gene model is ridonculous.  But privately, my doubts go beyond this.

I don’t question that complex living things have evolved from simpler living things, I don’t question the archaeological record, and I believe the standard time scale of 4 billion years.

But I think we have no idea how life on earth might have gotten started, and that all ideas that I know of on the subject are inadequate.  I think that the process of evolution has itself evolved over 4 billion years, so that now Lamarckian inheritance is routine, which is to say, the lived experience is fed back into epigenetic and even genetic changes in the next generation.  Even Lamarck, I think, is inadequate to explain how efficient evolution has managed to be in creating new structures and adapting to changed environments.

The most conservative hypothesis I can imagine involves a micro-consciousness operating at the quantum level that steers molecular changes in chromosomes toward new functionality.  This is not a man with a white beard who created the world in six days, but it does sound dangerously close to Intelligent Dizzine.

Ever irreverent, provocative, and amusing, Fred Reed writes on the subject at Lew Rockwell’s blog.


David Bohm

Scientific American has a personal recollection piece about David Bohm that captures just a slice of his humanity and his genius.

Bohm did a PhD thesis at UC Berkeley under J Robert Oppenheimer which offered basic insights into the physics of plasmas.  This was toward the beginning of the reign of Joe McCarthy and the Unamerican Activities Committee, which introduced the phrase witch hunt into the American lexicon.  [Oliver Stone’s video]   Bohm was commanded to testify against another student, who was a Berkeley activist, and he refused.  In retribution, the HUAC blacklisted him and, though he was one of the most brilliant physicists of his generation, no university could hire him.  His thesis was classified, so that he could not publish it nor talk about it in applying for jobs.  He fled to University of São Paolo in Brazil, and the State Department took away his passport, so he could not attend scientific meetings or interview for professorships outside Brazil.

It was during this time that Bohm did some of his most important and original work, writing a textbook about quantum mechanics that offered a new view of what it means.  Eventually, Bohm found asylum in England, and a professorship at University of London.  He could not return to the US because there was a warrant for his arrest.

Later in his life, Bohm offered us a fundamental insight into physics that we know how to study and physics that is impossible to study by our usual methods.  What we know how to study are patterns in space and time, where things close together are related to one another, and where an event has effects that ripple out from that center, becoming weaker as the waves travel further out.  What is so difficult to study are patterns that are spread over space and time, but the laws of quantum mechanics suggest that fully half the order in the universe is spread out in this way.

What appears to us as disorder or randomness or Heisenberg’s uncertainty is actually not disorder at all, but rather an order that is spread out so that we cannot see it with our eyes or instruments.  For example, if you put a drop of ink into a glass of water and stir the water, the dot disappears as the ink spreads through the water.  On a microscopic level, all the information is still there, specifying where the water was clear and where the ink drop was.  Under some conditions, you can actually unstir the water, and get your ink drop back.  (The secret ingredient in this video is corn syrup.)

Bohm gave us the insight that half of physics is hidden from us in a form that he dubbed the Implicate Order.  Bohm became a disciple of Krishnamurti, and though he never wrote about the connections of quantum mechanics to spirituality, his work was popularized by Nick HerbertGary ZukavFritjof Capra, and others.



Matter and Antimatter

In the early days of quantum mechanics, Paul Dirac figured out that for every kind of particle there is another particle that is the opposite in every way.  We live in a world of electrons, neutrons, and protons.  But if the world were made of anti-electrons, anti-neutrons, and anti-protons, it would be just the same.

The standard story you hear cosmologists tell goes like this:  The recipe for the big bang included a whole lot of matter and a whole lot of antimatter.  But for every 2,000,000,000 anti-electrons, there were 2,000,000,001 electrons.  And very similar numbers for anti-protons and protons.  By the time the universe was a thousandth of a second old, all the anti-electrons had found electrons, and all the anti-protons had found protons and all the anti-neutrons had found neutrons.  But there was a tiny residue left over of unpaired particles, and that’s what our universe is made of.

If it sounds fishy to you, it sounds fishy to cosmologists, too.  Nobody likes this story very much.   Physicists don’t like to be too obvious about putting the rabbit in the hat.

There are other possibilities.  The obvious one is that maybe we live in a part of the universe where matter predominates, but there are other parts where anti-matter predominates.  They just got separated.  That’s not such a crazy idea, but we run into trouble at the boundaries.  Matter will annihilate with the antimatter wherever they mix, turning into two very energetic light particles called gamma rays.  According to E=mc2,  the gamma ray would have exactly as much energy as the proton has mass, and the gamma ray astronomers have looked for such rays, and we don’t find them.

Are there antimatter galaxies?

Maybe there are galaxies made of matter and other galaxies made of antimatter and they never touch each other, so they never turn into gamma rays.  Actually, to make that work, the galaxies have to be pretty far apart.  Even the ‘empty’ space around the galaxies contain enough protons and electrons that if there were antiprotons and antielectrons, they would find each other and we would see gamma rays.

Here’s a long-shot idea that’s been bounced around.  We don’t have a quantum theory of gravity, so we don’t know for sure whether the matter galaxies and the antimatter galaxies would attract each other.  Maybe they repel each other.  Maybe that’s why the expansion of the universe is getting faster?

Here’s and article and a video by Fraser Cain.

The Poetry of Numbers

Numbers are alive for me, as if they sing and dance
All day a spreadsheet full of ciphers holds me in a trance
Data laugh and beckon me, I want to understand
While friends look blank and shake their heads at what for them is bland.
I wish that I could share with you the data-lover’s joy
The millstone of your weary toil, for me a bouncing toy.
Goethe, Maxwell and Piet Hein, Nick Herbert as “Jabir”
They saw the poetry in math, and earned the title “seer”.
If sentences can have aesthetics, why not numbers, too?
They leap to life and preach to me, (and so they might for you).


Science Bites its Tail

The central program of science is to abstract the observer from the observed.  This is Empiricism, the idea that there is an objective physical reality that we can agree upon and describe in a common language if we discipline ourselves to make observations in a specified, standard manner.

Quantum mechanics has pulled the foundation from under the scientific program.  When QM first crystallized in the minds of Bohr, Heisenberg, Dirac and Schrödinger, 1925-27, the talk was about uncertainty and questions that are meaningless because they cannot be asked with an experiment.  Heisenberg in particular grounded the Uncertainty Principle in the practical limits of how much you unavoidably disturb a particle with the very light that you need to see it.

But 40 years later, John S. Bell tightened the paradox by demonstrating with a bit of math that there can be no objective reality independent of the observer.  The stunning conclusion of Bell’s Theorem is that objectivity is illusory.  Reality is always co-created by the observer and the observed. </

John Wheeler (Feynman’s PhD adviser) analogized the situation as a game of 20 Questions where the experimenter is asking the yes/no questions and Nature is answering them, always in a self-consistent way, but without an object selected ahead of time.  The first few answers are not about any object in particular, but as more and more questions are answered, the answers gradually bring an object into focus. The final description that emerges has been created half by nature’s answers and half by the experimenter’s choice of questions.

This is a story of physics research, pursued on its own terms by luminaries in the field, pointing to the inference that the physical description of our world cannot be complete without the addition of observers.  Consciousness complements and helps to define physical reality.

Science, pursued doggedly with its own rules and methods, has produced a result that has undermined the most basic of those rules and methods.  This paradox is so far from our experience and our culture — the scientific culture most especially — that fifty years after Bell, we are still at a loss what to make of it.  For the most part, we are ignoring it. One great mystery is why science works so well, why there is so much that humans can agree on, in spite of the fact that objective reality is but half the story, and our subjective choices — presumed to be individual — are the other full half.

1516mrt012klnMy view:  At the least, we should open our minds to subjective experience, to mystical traditions in which we co-create our reality, and to experimentation in parapsychology that lends tentative support to those perspectives.  The idea that consciousness has an existence of its own, independent of brains or computation or any physical matter, is frequently denigrated by people who call themselves scientists — I can only think they have not absorbed the bracing message of quantum mechanics.

— Josh Mitteldorf

The Science that Science Ignores

“The plural of anecdote is not data.”
— [source in dispute]

Science aspires to be an all-encompassing way of looking at the world.  Some scientists are Christians or Buddhists, but for many, science is their religion.  Many people who are not professional scientists have also taken the scientific worldview to heart, as an overarching paradigm of how the world works that leaves little wiggle room for an omnipotent deity to hurl his Olympian thunderbolts.  We don’t believe in miracles.

I say “we” because I am a scientist, and I number myself in this group.  Science is the foundation of my worldview, but…

But does the community of professional scientists authentically embody the scientific worldview?

But has science, as it is practiced today, retreteated from the aspiration to explain all that can be explained?

But has our common notion of the scientific worldview become identified with a kind of mechanistic reductionism, even as quantum mechanics — which is the deepest and most successful scientific theory in history — is holistic at its core?

Modern science is a career for a select few million people around the world.  To an extent we don’t like to recognize, our research projects are driven by business considerations.  Can we get funding to do this? Does our lab have the resources to address this question? Can this question be encapsulated in a project with an endpoint clear enough to make a suitable dissertation topic for a grad student?

At the center of my concerns is the computer revolution.  Computers have made possible some kinds of science that were not possible as recently as fifty years ago.  We routinely sift through vast amounts of data to find an outlier, and we imbue it with meaning. A hundred years ago, physicists focused their attention on the small subset of simple equations with analytic solutions.  When I went to school in the 1960s, there were entire courses on the tricks that could be used to solve differential equations in a long list of special cases. Now we solve systems of equations numerically and plot the results in a few minutes, not even bothering to check whether any of these tricks are applicable.  Even in pure mathematics, computers are performing proofs that involve checking out more cases and more bookkeeping and more symbolic manipulation than any mortal human could perform without succumbing to boredom and its consequence, error.

The danger now is that the tools have begun to direct the science.  We collect data not because we think it will help to answer a question of vital interest, but because we can.  We have stopped asking the questions that cannot be addressed by collecting more data.

The greatest loss, in my opinion, is that we have dismissed whole classes of observations  as “anecdotal evidence” and refused to take their message to heart. Among these stories and one-off observations, there are many that call our fundamental assumptions into question, and scientists, like most humans, become uncomfortable when it appears that their fundamental assumptions may need to change.  We are committed to our research agendas and don”t like distractions.  “Damn the torpedos — full speed ahead.” becomes “Please don’t confuse me with the facts.” We don’t want to look down to notice that the reasoning on which our science is based has cracks in the foundation.

We have become reluctant to ask the kinds of questions that computers cannot help to answer.  Too many scientists have developed a contempt for what they call “anecdotal evidence” — the compelling stories that are the driving force behind our curiosity.  The believe that sets of numerical data are the only kind of observations that science should consider.  What would they have made of the one-off observation of Michelson and Morley in 1887 that gave Einstein the idea for relativity?

Humans set our roots in stories, and these usually take their force precisely from their unique, irreproducible nature.  My first kiss. A July snowstorm during my honeymoon in the Alps. Trying to calm the tears of my younger daughter by the side of a pool, oblivious to the fact my older daughter lay unconscious at the pool bottom.  A 1979 scientific meeting at which I was taken under the wing of a Sufi master…

Many scientists and more administrators have come to believe that “if it can’t be reproduced, science can’t study it.”  Indeed, if a surprising new result is reported in a journal, other labs will try to reproduce the experiment, and if their results differ, the new result is dismissed as a mistake.  Many journal editors have the idea that it is more conservative to avoid printing something that turns out to be wrong than to allow open discussion of speculative new science. Hence, if a submitted manuscript goes against what they believe to be true, they will refuse even it the space in the journal (and the opportunity for discussion that this provides) until the result has been replicated by more than one lab.

You can’t do science if you’re afraid to be wrong.  The business model of maximizing prospects for success is fundamentally incompatible with the conduct of science.

All this is insidious because it looks from the outside as though science is thriving. It’s not just more and more articles in more and more journals.  Technological breakthroughs are coming along at a pace faster than society can accommodate them. The number of things we can do now that we couldn’t do twenty years ago is truly dizzying.

But this success at the top blinds us to a void at the bottom.  There have been no fundamental new discoveries in science since I was a child.  The first half of the 20th century brought us relativity, quantum mechanics, the new synthesis of Darwinian evolution with Mendelian genetics, the expanding universe, the double helix, the incompleteness theorem of Godel, the 3 degree microwave background and the Big Bang.  The last of these was 1964. Has there been any comparable discovery in the last fifty years?

The biggest danger is that we take this lack of fundamental new discoveries as evidence that our basic understanding is now correct, that we have discovered the large principles that govern life and the universe, and it remains for us now to build on this solid foundation and fill in the details. This attitude could spell the death of science.

So what exactly am I talking about?  Where is the glaring evidence that science is ignoring, to its peril?  Here is my list of 10 areas of reported observation that will change the face of biology once they are addressed:

  1. The origin of life: We are accustomed to think that 4 billion years ago, somewhere on earth, a set of chemicals appeared by chance that just happened to be able to create copies of itself.  But decades of trying to find such a combination points to an un-bridgeable gap between the most complex system that could have arisen by chance and the simplest system capable of auto-catalysis.
  2. The Anthropic Principle: We think of such numbers as the gravitational constant and the mass of the electron as fundamental constants of nature that just happen to be what they are.  But since the 1960s it is clear that these numbers are very special, and if any of them were just a little bit different, the universe would be a dull place indeed.
  3. Evolvability: Evolutionary biologists now accept that not just any self-reproducing system is capable of evolving.  So how did life get to be evolvable? Evolvability must have evolved, but this requires a mechanism not encompassed by “survival of the fittest”.
  4. Lamarckian Inheritance: Does the giraffe who stretches to reach the uppermost leaves have children with longer necks?  Evolutionary biologists have rejected this idea since the government-tainted “research” of Trofim Lysenko in the 1930s.  But Lamarckian epigenetic inheritance has now been well-established, and all the pieces are in place to support the plausibility of the thesis that plants and animals can alter their genetic legacy as well.
  5. Where is memory? The conventional answer is that memory dwells in the brain, specifically in synapses that connect neurons.  But one-celled ciliates demonstrate learning. Plants have memories but no neurons. Monarch butterflies somehow pass the memory of their overwinter location through six generations of offspring each summer.  And some heart transplant recipients have been reported to acquire the memories of the deceased donors.
  6. Plant communication: The forest is not just a free-for-all of individual trees each trying to outdo its neighbors in height so it can grab a bigger share of the sunlight.  Trees send pheromonal signals to warn of invading browsers and insect pests. These signals are picked up and acted upon by trees of other species and by birds.  Trees pass nutrients to each other through fungal filaments underground, and take turns nourishing one another through years of sickness.
  7. Animal migration:  A homing pigeon depends on the earth’s magnetic field for part of its navigational ability.  But a pigeon can be put in dark, magnetically-shielded box and carried a thousand miles from its home, and within minutes after its release, it will begin flying toward home.  Whales and some ocean fish navigate over thousands of miles to a specific destination, though they can’t see more than a few feet in front of them. Crabs and turtles and butterflies congregate in swarms at times and places that they are somehow able to agree upon, though they are separated by hundreds or thousands of miles.
  8. Telepathy, telekinesis and precognition: There is a credible science of parapsychology that has been pushed to the fringes by well-meaning realists whose theories have made them arrogant.  Robert Jahn, Dean Radin, Daryl Bem, Julia Mossbridge and Jessica Utts are among the most careful and meticulous of the researchers in these phenomena, and all of them have experienced ridicule and ostracism from the scientific community.
  9. The “hard problem”: What is the relationship between the brain and our consciousness?  The conventional view is that brains produce consciousness. “The mind is what the brain does.”  But already 120 years ago, William James taught us there is another alternative that is less consistent with our paradigms but more consistent with the facts.  Maybe the brain is a transmission organ that connects the world of thoughts, feelings and intentions to the material world of molecules, cells and bodies.
  10. Visitors from other worlds:  There are so many stories of sighting UFOs that these people can’t all be nuts.  In 1997 over Phoenix AZ, a hundred thousand people saw an object the size of a battleship hovering in the air for hours.  Many government insiders tell stories that the US military has been hoarding reverse-engineered alien technology since 1947, while using disinformation, ridicule and murder to keep their secret intact.