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Saturday, June 29, 2013

Reading List: Time Reborn

Smolin, Lee. Time Reborn. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2013. ISBN 978-0-547-51172-6.
Early in his career, the author received some unorthodox career advice from Richard Feynman. Feynman noted that in physics, as in all sciences, there were a large number of things that most professional scientists believed which nobody had been able to prove or demonstrate experimentally. Feynman's insight was that, when considering one of these problems as an area to investigate, there were two ways to approach it. The first was to try to do what everybody had failed previously to accomplish. This, he said, was extremely difficult and unlikely to succeed, since it assumes you're either smarter than everybody who has tried before or have some unique insight which eluded them. The other path is to assume that the failure of numerous brilliant people might indicate that what they were trying to demonstrate was, in fact, wrong, and that it might be wiser for the ambitious scientist to search for evidence to the contrary.

Based upon the author's previous work and publications, I picked up this book expecting a discussion of the problem of time in quantum gravity. What I found was something breathtakingly more ambitious. In essence, the author argues that when it comes to cosmology: the physics of the universe as a whole, physicists have been doing it wrong for centuries, and that what he calls the “Newtonian paradigm” must be replaced with one in which time is fundamental in order to stop speaking nonsense.

The equations of general relativity, especially when formulated in attempts to create a quantum theory of gravitation, seem to suggest that our perception of time is an illusion: we live in a timeless block universe, in which our consciousness can be thought of as a cursor moving through a fixed, deterministic spacetime. In general relativity, the rate of perceived flow of time depends upon one's state of motion and the amount of mass-energy in the vicinity of the observer, so it makes no sense to talk about any kind of global time co-ordinate. Quantum mechanics, on the other hand, assumes there is a global clock, external to the system and unaffected by it, which governs the evolution of the wave function. These views are completely incompatible—hence the problem of time in quantum gravity.

But the author argues that “timelessness” has its roots much deeper in the history and intellectual structure of physics. When one uses Newtonian mechanics to write down a differential equation which describes the path of a ball thrown upward, one is reducing a process which would otherwise require enumerating a list of positions and times to a timeless relationship which is valid over the entire trajectory. Time appears in the equation simply as a label which causes it to emit the position at that moment. The equation of motion, and, more importantly, the laws of motion which allow us to write it down for this particular case, are entirely timeless: they affect the object but are not affected by it, and they appear to be specified outside the system.

This, when you dare to step back and think about it, is distinctly odd. Where did these laws come from? Well, in Newton's day and in much of the history of science since, most scientists would say they were prescribed by a benevolent Creator. (My own view that they were put into the simulation by the 13 year old superkid who created it in order to win the Science Fair with the most interesting result, generating the maximum complexity, is isomorphic to this explanation.) Now, when you're analysing a system “in a box”, it makes perfect sense to assume the laws originate from outside and are fixed; after all, we can compare experiments run in different boxes and convince ourselves that the same laws obtain regardless of symmetries such as translation, orientation, or boost. But note that once we try to generalise this to the entire universe, as we must in cosmology, we run into a philosophical speed bump of singularity scale. Now we cannot escape the question of where the laws came from. If they're from inside the universe, then there must have been some dynamical process which created them. If they're outside the universe, they must have had to be imposed by some process which is external to the universe, which makes no sense if you define the universe as all there is.

Smolin suggests that laws exist within our universe, and that they evolve in an absolute time, which is primordial. There is no unmoved mover: the evolution of the universe (and the possibility that universes give birth to other universes) drives the evolution of the laws of physics. Perhaps the probabilistic results we observe in quantum mechanical processes are not built-in ahead of time and prescribed by timeless laws outside the universe, but rather a random choice from the results of previous similar measurements. This “principle of precedence”, which is remarkably similar to that of English common law, perfectly reproduces the results of most tests of quantum mechanics, but may be testable by precision experiments where circumstances never before created in the universe are measured, for example in quantum computing. (I am certain Prof. Smolin would advocate for my being beheaded were I to point out the similarity of this hypothesis with Rupert Sheldrake's concept of morphic resonance; some years ago I suggested to Dr Sheldrake a protein crystallisation experiment on the International Space Station to test this theory; it is real science, but to this date nobody has done it. Few wish to risk their careers testing what “everybody knows”.)

This is one those books you'll need to think about after you've read it, then after some time, re-read to get the most out of it. A collection of online appendices expand upon topics discussed in the book. An hour-long video discussion of the ideas in the book by the author and the intellectual path which led him to them is available.

Posted at 22:23 Permalink

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Reading List: Looking Backward: 2162-2012

Cody, Beth. Looking Backward: 2162–2012. Seattle: CreateSpace, 2012. ISBN 978-1-4681-7895-1.
Julian West was a professor of history at Fielding College, a midwestern U.S. liberal arts institution, where he shared the assumptions of his peers: big government was good; individual initiative was suspect; and the collective outweighed the individual. At the inauguration of a time capsule on the campus, he found himself immured within it and, after inhaling a concoction consigned to the future by the chemistry department, wakes up 150 years later, when the capsule is opened, to discover himself in a very different world.

The United States, which was the foundation of his reference frame, have collapsed due to unsustainable debt and entitlement commitments. North America has fragmented into a variety of territories, including the Free States of America, which include the present-day states of Oklahoma, Missouri, Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, Utah, Nevada, Idaho, Montana, Wyoming, and North and South Dakota. The rest of the former U.S. has separated into autonomous jurisdictions with very different approaches to governance. The Republic of Texas has become entirely Texan, while New Hampshire has chosen to go it alone, in keeping with their porky-spine tradition. A rump USA, composed of failed states, continues to pursue the policies which caused the collapse of their railroad-era, continental-scale empire.

West returns to life in the Free States, which have become a classical libertarian republic as imagined by Rothbard. The federal government is supported only by voluntary contributions, and state and local governments are constrained by the will of their constituents. West, disoriented by all of this, is taken under the wing of David Seeton, a history professor at Fielding in the 22nd century, who welcomes West into his home and serves a guide to the new world in which West finds himself.

West and Seeton explore this world, so strange to West, and it slowly dawns on West (amidst flashbacks to his past life), that this might really be a better way of organising society. There is a great amount of preaching and didactic conversation here; while it's instructive if you're really interested in how a libertarian society might work, many may find it tedious.

Finally, West, who was never really sure his experience of the future mightn't have been a dream, has a dream experience which forces him to confront the conflict of his past and future.

This is a book I found both tiresome and enlightening. I would highly recommend it to anybody who has contemplated a libertarian society but dismissed it as “That couldn't ever work”. The author is clear that no solution is perfect, and that any society will reflect the flaws of the imperfect humans who compose it. The libertarian society is presented as the “least bad discovered so far”, with the expectation that free people will eventually discover even better ways to organise themselves. Reading this book is much like slogging through Galt's speech in Atlas Shrugged (April 2010)—it takes some effort, but it's worth doing so. It is obviously derivative of Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward which presented a socialist utopia, but I'd rather live in Cody's future than Bellamy's.

Posted at 23:47 Permalink

Sunday, June 16, 2013

Reading List: Sir, The Private Don't Know!

Neven, Thomas E. Sir, The Private Don't Know! Seattle: Amazon Digital Services, 2013. ASIN B00D5EO5EU.
The author, a self-described “[l]onghaired surfer dude” from Florida, wasn't sure what he wanted to do with his life after graduating from high school, but he was certain he didn't want to go directly to college—he didn't have the money for it and had no idea what he might study. He had thought about a military career, but was unimpressed when a Coast Guard recruiter never got back to him. He arrived at the Army recruiter's office only to find the recruiter a no-show. While standing outside the Army recruiter's office, he was approached by a Marine recruiter, whose own office was next door. He was receptive to the highly polished pitch and signed enlistment papers on March 10, 1975.

This was just about the lowest ebb in 20th century U.S. military history. On that very day, North Vietnam launched the offensive which would, two months later, result in the fall of Saigon and the humiliating images of the U.S. embassy being evacuated by helicopter. Opposition to the war had had reduced public support for the military to all-time lows, and the image of veterans as drug-addicted, violence-prone sociopaths was increasingly reinforced by the media. In this environment, military recruiters found it increasingly difficult to meet their quotas (which failure could torpedo their careers), and were motivated and sometimes encouraged to bend the rules. Physical fitness, intelligence, and even criminal records were often ignored or covered up in order to make quota. This meant that the recruits arriving for basic training, even for a supposedly elite force as the Marines, included misfits, some of whom were “dumb as a bag of hammers”.

Turning this flawed raw material into Marines had become a matter of tearing down the recruits' individuality and personality to ground level and the rebuilding it into a Marine. When the author arrived at Parris Island a month after graduating from high school, he found himself fed into the maw of this tree chipper of the soul. Within minutes he, and his fellow recruits, all shared the thought, “What have I gotten myself into?”, as the mental and physical stress mounted higher and higher. “The DIs [drill instructors] were gods; they had absolute power and were capricious and cruel in exercising it.” It was only in retrospect that the author appreciated that this was not just hazing or sadism (although there were plenty of those), but a deliberate part of the process to condition the recruits to instantly obey any order without questioning it and submit entirely to authority.

This is a highly personal account of one individual's experience in Marine basic training. The author served seven years in the Marine Corps, retiring with the rank of staff sergeant. He then went on to college and graduate school, and later was associate editor of the Marine Corps Gazette, the professional journal of the Corps.

The author was one of the last Marines to graduate from the “old basic training”. Shortly thereafter, a series of scandals involving mistreatment of recruits at the hands of drill instructors brought public and Congressional scrutiny of Marine practices, and there was increasing criticism among the Marine hierarchy that “Parris Island was graduating recruits, not Marines.” A great overhaul of training was begun toward the end of the 1970s and has continued to the present day, swinging back and forth between leniency and rigour. Marine basic has never been easy, but today there is less overt humiliation and make-work and more instruction and testing of actual war-fighting skills. An epilogue (curiously set in a monospace typewriter font) describes the evolution of basic training in the years after the author's own graduation from Parris Island. For a broader-based perspective on Marine basic training, see Thomas Ricks's Making the Corps (February 2002).

This book is available only in electronic form for the Kindle as cited above, under the given ASIN. No ISBN has been assigned to it.

Posted at 21:19 Permalink

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Reading List: Moonseed

Baxter, Stephen. Moonseed. New York: Harper Voyager, 1998. ISBN 978-0-06-105903-2.
Stephen Baxter is one of the preeminent current practitioners of “hard” science fiction—trying to tell a tale of wonder while getting the details right, or at least plausible. In this novel, a complacent Earth plodding along and seeing its great era of space exploration recede into the past is stunned when, without any warning, Venus explodes, showering the Earth with radiation which seems indicative of processes at grand unification and/or superstring energies. “Venus ponchos” become not just a fashion accessory but a necessity for survival, and Venus shelters an essential addition to basements worldwide.

NASA geologist Henry Meacher, his lunar landing probe having been cancelled due to budget instability, finds himself in Edinburgh, Scotland, part of a project to analyse a sample of what may be lunar bedrock collected from the last Apollo lunar landing mission decades before. To his horror, he discovers that what happened to Venus may have been catalysed by something in the Moon rock, and that it has escaped and begun to propagate in the ancient volcanic vents around Edinburgh. Realising that this is a potential end-of-the-world scenario, he tries to awaken the world to the risk, working through his ex-wife, a NASA astronaut, and argues the answer to the mystery must be sought where it originated, on the Moon.

This is grand scale science fiction—although the main narrative spans only a few years, its consequences stretch decades thereafter and perhaps to eternity. There are layers and layers of deep mystery, and ambiguities which may never be resolved. There are some goofs and quibbles big enough to run a dinosaur-killer impactor through (I'm talking about “harenodynamics”: you'll know what I mean when you get there, but there are others), but still the story works, and I was always eager to pick it back up and find out what happens next. This is the final volume in Baxter's NASA trilogy. I found the first two novels, Voyage and Titan (December 2012), better overall, but if you enjoyed them, you'll almost certainly like this book.

Posted at 21:59 Permalink