Are existential crises heavier when you don't exist?

This robot fails the turing test on herself. She can keep Claude Shannon’s Ultimate Machine company in the category of Self Denying Automata That I Think Are Deep But I Can’t Tell And That’s Why They Are.

A list of things I wanted to know in July 2013

  • the biology of mushrooms
  • the mathematical methods of physics: how to wreak havoc on equations
  • the name and history every plant I step on
  • when we should have decentralized control, when we should have bosses
  • the contributions of statistical physics to social science
  • more theoretical neuro
  • more theoretical bio
  • more theoretical ecology
  • how to evolve modularity, and how modularity evolved
  • birds by their songs
  • more about soil ecology
  • how palm wine tastes differs in every country that you can find it
  • every Mediterranean climate in the world
  • the influences of Greco-Roman culture that elicited Christianity from Judaism
  • the cultural histories of Heavens and Hells
  • how to never lie to myself unintentionally
  • how to keep changing forever
  • how I’ll change when I leave this town for the next
  • why there aren’t more worker-owned businesses

FYI, I don’t know yet.

Enfascination 2013

29742_396066756605_704462_n“Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” Thus spoke Martin Luther King Jr. in a great endorsement for humility, curiosity, and discovery.
On Thinko de Mayo, from 1PM, you will have five minutes to help us see how dangerous we are. You may share anything at all during your five minutes, as long as you personally think it’s fascinating. Your goal is to transmit your sense of fascination to others. FB page:
If the constraints of themes help you brainstorm, try “Science towards nescience.” But generally, you should trust yourself. If you manage nothing more than five minutes of wobbling, inarticulate, ecstatic blubbering then Well Done: You have successfully expressed the unfathomable depth of your subject.
This is the ten-year anniversary of these lectures –– ten years since I attempted the world’s nerdiest 21st birthday kegger. This will be the fifth and probably last in Bloomington. Ask me for help if you’ll have slides or a demo.
Past topics have included:
Slide Rules, Counting the Permutations of Digit Strings, Conceptions of Time in History, Chili Peppers, How to cross a glacier, The Singularity, Indiana Jones, Rural desert water distribution systems, Hexaflexagons, Small precious things, Wilderness Camps as Commodity, DIY Cooking, Roman Emperor Deaths , Joy of Science, Salt , Three Great Banquets in Italian History, How to Sharpen a Chisel, Some Properties of Numbers in Base Ten, The Physiological Limits to Human Perception of Time, Geophagy, Pond Ecology, Superstition: For Fun and Profit, Counterintuitive Results in Hydrodynamics, The Wolof Conception of Time, Arctic String Figures, The Seven Axioms of Mathematics, Dr Seuss and his Impact on Contemporary Children’s Literature, Twee, Motorcycle Life and Culture, Cultural Differences Between Japan and the US, Brief history of the Jim Henson Company, Female Orgasm, Insider Trading: For Fun and Profit, Film of Peter Greenaway, A Typographical Incident with Implications for the Structure of Thought, Cooperative Birth Control, Tones in Mandarin, Unschooling and Deschooling, Q&A: Fine Beer, DIY Backpacking, Chinese Nationalism in Tibet, Biofuels, The Yeti, The Health Benefits of Squatting, The Big Bang, How to Pick Stocks Like a Pro, Food Preservation Technique, or Managing Rot, Infant Visual Perception, Demonstrations in Number Theory, Rangolis, Kolum, The Hollow Earth, Edible Mushrooms: For Fun and Profit, Human Asexuality, A History of the California Central Valley Watershed, An Account of the Maidu Creation, The Paleoclimatology of the Levant, Rural India, German Compound Words, Manipulating Children, Physics of Time, Animal Training on Humans, Constructed Languages, This Week’s Weather, The XYZs of Body Language, Light Filtration Through Orchards, Our Limits in Visualizing High Dimensional Spaces,Twin Studies.
Last year’s audio:
And video/notes from before that:

UPDATE post-party

Here is what happened:

  1. The Tiger Café by Ronak
  2. Jr. High School Poetry Slam by Lauren
  3. The “Border” language by Destin
  4. Perception/Objectivity by Paul Patton
  5. Readings from James Agee by Jillian
  6. “A signal detection theory of morality” or “The morality manatee” by Seth
  7. Dreams and the four candies by Danny
  8. Pick Two by Adam
  9. Trust and Trust Experiments by Jonathan

Never too smart to be very wrong

A lot of my life choices and habits of thought have been devoted to never letting myself get permanently attached something that’s wrong. That would be my hell, and I think that there’s always a risk of it. Somehow there is no being humble enough. As an exercise for myself, and as an illustration of the risks, I went on a hunt for examples of famous scientists who got stuck and went to their graves as the last major holdout for a dead discredited theory. I figure I might learn some of the signs to watch for in myself.
It has been one of those things where you don’t fully understand what you’re looking for until you find it. The understanding happens in the process of sifting through lots of examples that you thought would fit and finding just one. Slightly different from what I described above –– the existential to my universal –– is the otherwise-incredible scientist who proposes a batshit theory that never catches on. There are lots of those, and they’re listed separately. I value them less because, well, I’m not sure. It probably has something to do with the subtle differences between superceded theories, pseudoscientific theories, fringe theories, and unscientific theories. [Ed. It took me a day, but I’m interested in the difference between attachment to a superceded theory and to a fringe theory. I’m focusing on the former, and I think its more dramatic.]
I found other side-categories over the course of refining my main list. There are enough Nobel Laureates going off the deep end that they get their own section. There are plenty examples of experts adopting wacky views outside their area of expertise. I also eliminated lots of potentially great examples because the scientist’s wacky commitment was one that was reasonable to believe at the time –– take physicist Einstein’s discomfort with quantum mechanics, anatomist Paul Broca’s affection for phrenology, and evolutionist George Gaylord Simpson’s pretty violent and unreasonable dismissal of plate tectonics.
There are also people who flirted with a crazy idea but didn’t let it get the better of them and those who, while they believed crazy stuff, didn’t accomplish enough for me to say “this person is way way smarter than everyone I know.”
I did my best, and I learned a lot, but I couldn’t research all of these totally thoroughly. If I had any doubt about someone’s being in the “way too smart to be a paleo holdout” category then I put them in one of the less impressive lists.
The vast majority of these examples are from other people’s brains. The branches of the taxonomy were also influenced as much by people’s comments as my own here-and-there experiences of dissatisfaction. Biggest thanks to Micah Josephy, Finn Brunton, Michael Bishop, all the people here, and at less wrong.

“I’m smart, but I will never stop believing in this wrong theory”

The most interesting cases are where a contested theory became consensus theory for all but a few otherwise thoughtful holdouts, like:

  • Astrophysicist Fred Hoyle who never accepted the Big Bang.
  • Biologist Alfred Russel Wallace who campaigned against vaccines
  • Physicist Heaviside against relativity.
  • Physicist Phillipp Lenard against relativity, thanks to Nazi Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Johannes Stark against relativity, also from Deutsche Physik (Nobel).
  • Physicist Nikola Tesla against relativity.
  • Tesla against other chunks of modern physics.
  • Chemist Joseph Priestley‘s sustained defense of phlogiston.
  • Statistician and biologist Sir Ronald Fischer‘s rejection of the theory that smoking causes lung cancer.
  • Physicist and early psychologist Ernst Mach‘s rejection of atoms! (and relativity). He was arguing for a very subjective philosophy of science well after Einstein’s pre-relativity work to confirm the kinetic theory of gases.
  • Biologist Peter Duesberg‘s rejection that HIV causes AIDs, and his advocacy of alternative causes like drug use.
  • Biologist Trofim Lysenko‘s rejection of Mendelian inheritance, thanks to Michurinism, the Soviet Lamarckism.
  • Psychologist B. F. Skinner‘s rejection of the idea that humans have mental states (from his books, like About Behaviorism; This is cleverly falsified by Shephard and Metzler’s wonderful 1971 experiment).

Honorable mention

These people, despite their notability, didn’t make the list, either because they saw the light, because they weren’t a scientist, or because they are part of an ongoing controversy and might still redeem theirselves. Erdös and Simpson make it because of how badly behaved they were for the short time before they realized they were wrong.

  • Mathematician Erdős and the simple elegant Monty Hall problem. He was adamant about the solution until he was proven wrong. In fact, an embarrassing chunk of the professional mathematics community dismissed the female who posed it until they were all proven wrong. Recounted in The Man who Loved Only Numbers.
  • George Gaylord Simpson’s violent attacks on plate tectonics. Bad form Gaylord. He accepted it when it finally became consensus (p. 339 of this).
  • Florence Nightingale on miasma theory and always keeping the windows open in the hospital. She doesn’t make the list because she’s not really thought of as a scientist.
  • Psychologist Daryl Bem’s recent work on psi phenomena might count towards what I’m after, if the recent failures to reproduce it are definitive and Bem hasn’t recanted.
  • Recently, Luc Montagnier mingling in homeopathy and wacky autism theories (Nobel mention).
  • Maybe this is too political of me, but I’m going to add Noam Chomsky’s rhetorical maneuvers to make his linguistic theories unfalsifiable.
  • René-Prosper Blondlot and N-rays. Thanks to Martin Gardner, he’s usually considered to have taken these to his grave. He was deceiving himself, but I’m guessing he probably recanted after the big embarrassment.

“My pet fringe theory”

There are lots of examples of an otherwise good scientist inventing some crackpot theory are swearing by it forever.

  • Linus Pauling on Vitamin C (that it prevents/cures cancer) (Nobel)
  • Linus Pauling on orthomolecular medicine (Nobel)
  • Similarly, Louis Ignarro on the positive effects of NO on your heart (Nobel)
  • Physicist Gurwitsch on biophotons
  • While working on radios, Marconi was apparently v. predisposed to thinking he was talking to Martians
  • William Crookes on “radiant matter”
  • Ernst Haeckel’s pet continent Lemuria
  • Wilhelm Reich’s pet power Orgone
  • Tesla may have gone over the deep end for wireless energy transfer
  • Physicist Albert Crehore and the Crehore atom, recounted in Martin Gardner’s pretty purple book on fringe science
  • Biologist Alfred Russell Wallace’s allout occultism
  • Nobel Laureate Brian D. Josephson, ESP and homeopathy and PK and cold fusion
  • Carl Reichenbach, chemist, and the Odic Force
  • Physicist Samuel T. Cohen, inventor of the neutron bomb, and of “red mercury” nukes

“Sure I considered and even experimented with this wierd idea but I probably didn’t let it get the better of me”

Another less exciting category for people who redeemed and thus disqualified themselves from consideration above.

  • A lot of early 20th century scientists on established supernatural and extrasensory powers, incl. Albert Einstein, William James, and many more.
  • Jagadish Chandra Bose on sensation/perception in plants and inorganic compounds
  • Maybe Thomas Gold and abiogenic petroleum

“I’m smart and I believed this crazy thing but back then everyone else did too, so no biggie”

These are just people who believed in theories that became superceded, and there are more examples than I could ever enumerate. These are just the ones I sifted through looking for better examples

  • Anatomist Paul Broca and phrenology (covered in Martin Gardner’s Fads and Fallacies)
  • Isaac Newton and alchemy, the philosopher’s stone, and all kinds of other occult topics
  • Johann Joachim Becher and phlogiston
  • Einstein’s and Jaynes’ discomfort with QM
  • Astronomer Simon Newcomb was very skeptical that human flight would be possible, until it became possible. He was probably just being a good skeptic — after all, it is something people wanted to be true.
  • Michelson and aether. He accidentally disproved it and put lots of effort (too much?) into trying to show that his first experiment was wrong. Again, that’s maybe just good science.
  • Mendeleev’s coronium and the abiogenic theory of petroleum

“I’m not qualified to say so, but I’ll insist that this well-established thing in someone else’s field is a crock”

You’ll see that Nobel Prize winners are particularly susceptible

  • Hoyle against the Archaeopteryx
  • Hoyle on microbes from space
  • Lord Kelvin on microbes from space
  • William Shockley and eugenics (Nobel)
  • James Watson and his wackinesses (Nobel)
  • Kary Mullis off the deep end (Nobel)
  • Nikolaas Tinbergen’s controversial approach to autism (Nobel)
  • Arthur Schawlow and autism (Nobel)
  • Physicist Ivar Giaever against climate change (Nobel)

“I’m utterly fringe or worse”

Again, more of these than could ever be listed. These are just the ones I sifted through while hunting for better examples

  • Chandra Wickramasinghe carrying Hoyle’s panspermia flag
  • Andrew Wakefield and vaccines
  • Terence McKenna & timewave zero
  • Cleve Backster & primary perception
  • Franz Mesmer & animal magnetism

Recaps of the Nobel Prize winners

These are the best resources for learnings about Nobel Prize winners going off the deep end

  • intelligent design specifically:
  • and two guys not on either source (thanks), Johannes Stark (the other Lenard), and Arthur Schawlow (autism)

Leads I would go to if I was looking for more examples, and also relevant or cool stuff

I’d love to continue to grow this manifest. Ideas welcome.

  • Many medical professionals and focal infection theory
  • Any big names that got caught up in polywater, cold fusion, and the hafnium bomb. I don’t know any.
  • and Omphalos
  • Chalmers and Searle are dualists
  • The aiua of Leibniz
  • Barbara McClintock’s haters
  • and
  • Kronecker against Cantor’s revolutionary approach to infinity

Undrugs: Sugar pill may work even when you know it's sugar pill

You’re sick? Here’s a sugar pill. We know that it can’t work. Take it anyway. You’ll feel better.

Introduced starting at 9:54. I think the interview is boring before then; he rambles.

My crush on the placebo effect started at Berkeley in Prof. Presti’s molecular neurobiology course. He introduced us to a very carefully controlled study showing that naloxone, a drug that can stop opiate overdoses, can also neutralize placebo pain. That’s a big deal. It can take pain that you started to feel only because you thought you were feeling it, and make that pain go away. The placebo effect is not just psychological, it’s chemical, and it can be influenced by chemistry. That means we can harness it.
I was so addicted to the placebo effect that I started collecting “the last week” of pills from all of my friends on birth control. I quickly amassed hundreds of sugar pills, an impressive drug collection even by Berkeley standards, even more impressive for its mystical power over the psyche. If I thought I was getting sick, I would take one so I could think I was getting better. And it really did always make me feel great, at least while telling that joke.
We don’t understand the mind, the brain, or the relationship between them. That’s true even though we have the perfect tool, drugs. Understanding consciousness will mean being able to describe mental states in chemical terms. Drugs change chemistry and cause predictable changes in mental states. They are they reason we know anything at all about the biological basis of consciousness. Of course, what we know is very little, and that it’s very complicated. The placebo effect is my favorite example: I described the effect of drugs as one-directional “drug -> brain chemistry -> mental states.” But the placebo effect seems to turn that chain on end: “sugar pill -> mental states -> chemistry.”

Seeing the Earth, in the sky, from Earth

Uncountably many photons have come from the sun, bounced off of me, and shot back into space. One day one of them is going to come back. Photons turn as they pass heavy things. A photon retreating from me is being turned, slowly, over billions of empty years, all the way around. A black hole can turn them around in one shot. Ancient photons are returning simultaneously, from all over, right now.
What it means is that we can see ourselves in the sky. At least one of those dots is the Earth in the past. If we manage to see it at all, we won’t start out seeing much more than a fuzzy dot, “Yep, there it is.” But there could be thousands or millions of earths in the sky. Each fragile broken circuit of light is a channel, or rather a mirror, showing the earth as it was or wasn’t 1, 2, 5, 8 billion years ago. Between them, you have the entire history of the earth being projected back to it at each moment.
The most interesting action is in the past millions and thousands of years. To open up the Earth’s human past we would need a black hole very close, within a few thousand light years, like V4641 Sgr, 1600 light years away. I want to watch the decline of Rome. Going further back, I want to see the earthquake that split the temple curtain. And I want to look in the sky and see an ancestor’s eyes as they look up to God. Not to be God, but to make eye contact full of love, and excitement, and no answers.

"In the days of the frost seek a minor sun"

From unsympathetic eyes, no science is more arrogant than astronomy. Astronomers think that we can know the universe and replace the dreams and the meaning in the skies with a cold place that is constantly dying.
But I think that there is no more humble science than astronomy. No science has had so much romance imposed on it by the things that we want to be true, no other science has found a starker reality, and no other science has submitted so thoroughly. They’ve been so pummelled by what they’ve seen that they will believe absolutely anything that makes the equations balance out. As the wild story currently goes, the universe is growing at an accelerating rate because invisible matter woven into the universe is pulling the stars from each other. Its hard to swallow, and we don’t appreciate how astronomers struggled to face that story. They’ve accepted that the universe has no regard for our sense of sensibility, and they are finally along for the ride. I wish it was me, I want to see how much I’m missing by thinking I understand.

My Awe Talk: Inventors who were killed by their own inventions

Awe Talks are a 5-minute fun lecture series started by my pal Kyle. He asked me to record one, here:

Postdoc ergo propter doc

People imagine that experts know lots of things. I mean, it’s true, but that’s like saying the ocean is full of sand. The ocean, as full of sand as it is, is more full of questions.
I think we all miss the point of expertise a little, but experts are the farthest off. I’m on the path to becoming an expert myself. When it happens, I’ll do my part to disappoint the people who expect answers. I’d sooner disappoint them than not. I think the cleanest pursuit of science is the pursuit of feeling small. Maybe it sounds depressing to have only this defiantly inadequate expertise, but it beats the alternative.


This entry was posted on Saturday, February 2nd, 2013 and is filed under nescience, science.

Grad school can make you smarter?

I really didn’t think I would come out of graduate school as a smarter person. I knew that I would know more about stuff, but I assumed, if anything, I would come out constrained by some understanding of how epiphany “should” happen. But I had a funny experience playing Minesweeper yesterday. It was a lapse: in high school I played 4–6 hours a day. It was the first thing I was ever good at. Even though my behavior back then was addictive, I credit Minesweeper with giving me experiences of life that have been indelible. That probably sounds crazy, but I found my first glimpse of self-worth in being good at Minesweeper. And since it is a talent that no normal person would value, I recognized immediately that self-worth was not a thing that has to be connected to what others think. It sounds obvious, but it was big and it changed me completely. I quit playing the game some time in there (around the time that my friend Sudano became way better than me–another valuable experience) and in the decade since I’ve picked it up for maybe a few days every year or so.
Every return to the game has made me feel good and familiar. I’ve recognized every time that if I invested the time I could get as good as I once was (the game is not very physical), and each time I’ve recognized as quickly that I don’t want that. The annual moment of weakness returned two days ago when I started playing a Minesweeper clone instead of reading papers. I only put in an hour, and I was as slow a player as ever, but the experience of playing had changed. I was seeing the game in a way that I never had before. I could recognize, with the consistency of habit, the irrelevance of my old approach to the game. The number-patterns are all the same, but patterns are just the beginning of Minesweeper. Two humps that I never even recognized before were a habitual hesitation before taking necessary risks and an attachment to the visual patterns made available by certainty. On Wednesday I saw the humps clearly, over my shoulder.
It can be really depressing with people, but there are some ways that it is great to interact with a thing that is exactly the same ten years later. Playing Minesweeper gave me an opportunity to measure myself in a very clean way, and it gave me a surprise. Honestly, I don’t really believe that the training I’m receiving in graduate school made me better at Minesweeper. Between challenges at school, at home, and in a relationship, I’m a very different person than I was a year ago. I still can’t describe-in-words any of the changes I feel, but I know I have some expectation of what the changes must have been because of how surprised I was to find “Better at Minesweeper” among them.
There was another time in my life when I was entirely devoted to learning how to draw. I was drawing at least four hours a day for a month. Every week or so I would run my work by an artist in town. On day 1, I was OK. Between day 1 and day 14 I got better. Between day 14 and day 30, I got worse. I had an urgent sense of time, so it was depressing to realize that I had learned to become worse; I didn’t draw at all for the next 30 days. But during that time I discovered the amazing complement to getting-worse-by-doing. I could tell by the way I was physically looking at objects that I was, in those moments, getting better at drawing (drawing is about seeing). Here is a great example of giving too much power to a person that isn’t ready for it: Take someone with an unhealthy commitment to productivity and show them that it is possible to get better at something by not doing it. Instead of accepting that rest and relaxation are a part of growth, I indulged the mystical realization that by doing nothing I could become good at Everything. It was a good time, only in part because it was grounded in the absurd.
Through all of it there is a me in a world putting meaning on things and feeling. I like the idea that I’m currently doing and learning everything. It isn’t just an appreciation that everything-affects-everything; I know the initial conditions are sensitive to me, that I can flap in hurricanes, but there is more. I cherish the invisible decrement to my ambition when a close friend does something that I have always wanted to do. I suddenly don’t need it as much anymore–vicarious experience is experience enough if you use a capital V. And suddenly, again, I’m presently doing nearly everything in the world, merely by caring about people.
What does it mean when the things you believe make you feel gigantic, but the corresponding growth they imply for the world makes you net invisible? The unfolding powers of ten leave enough room for meaning and meaninglessness to coexist, and they make it natural to feel good, busy, tiny, and lost all at the same time. The only real danger in being a busybody is forgetting that its silly. I’m totally content to be a silly creature imagining itself to be doing and learning everything. In fact, I’m thrilled.


This entry was posted on Friday, March 30th, 2012 and is filed under nescience, science.