Sunday, July 15, 2018

Shortcuts to Reality

Robot juggling

Sometimes we don’t see life when it’s right in front of our noses. That’s part of the way our minds work. And combatting this loss of perception is one of the goals of Zen mindfulness, to enable us to confront reality as we experience it, not brush past it with mind tricks and traps.

One of the mind traps is the human tendency to develop daily routines. Routines like shaving, brushing teeth, washing dishes, and so on—necessary business that we all just have to get done—help us streamline our lives. The eyes move, the hands move, and the work proceeds without our having to think about and plan for each separate action. It’s an efficient way to move through the day, but in the exercise of these routines, we become more like “meat robots” than perceiving human beings.

Sometimes, when I’m brushing my teeth or doing another daily routine, I actually lose track of time. I use an electric toothbrush, which fortunately has a thirty-second cycle and beeps at me. This reminds me to move from one side of my mouth to the other, then from the lower jaw to the upper: the same pattern, timed to the beep, morning, noon, and night. If the thing didn’t make that noise, then I wouldn’t know how long I might brush the same set of teeth, mechanically, blindly, without thinking about it, or perhaps thinking about something else entirely. I might also forget and leave one part of my mouth not brushed at all.

I can lose track of time while driving, too. The motions are automatic: watch the road and center the car in the lane; locate other cars in the pattern all around me; scan the mirrors left, right, and center; watch the road; locate cars, for mile after mile. The routine of driving on the highway, without the distractions of having to look for a street sign or watch for an upcoming exit, can bring on “highway hypnosis,” where the mind is lost to reality. Sometimes I can become so fixed in the mechanics that I become separated from the very things I’m supposed to be watching for: the car next to me that is actually moving into my lane; the light up ahead that hasn’t seemed to change for a few moments, was green the last time I looked, and—holy cow!—it now is red, not green!

Even routines that are supposed to be Zen-like and to free the mind, like doing karate exercises, can become perceptual traps. I’ve been doing the same Isshinryu katas for almost fifty years now. What I’m doing at this late age is not so much learning the moves and committing them to somatic memory as keeping my joints limber, my balance stable, and my muscles supple and strong. If I ever need to actually fight someone, I’m pretty sure I will execute the punch or kick correctly per the forms. In the meantime, I proceed through the motions, the same motions, the patterns I learned back in college, whole regimented sets of them in the same order, during workout sessions two or three times a week.

Lately, I have noticed that I will start a kata and then begin thinking about something else: a plot point in the book I’m working on, how I’m going to react in an interpersonal situation, or some decision I have to make. My body will still be moving, but I won’t be aware of it. And then ten or twenty seconds later I will “wake up,” having mentally come to a decision on the issue occupying my mind, and realize that I’m ten or fifteen moves further into the exercise—or approaching the end—with no awareness of whether I have performed the intervening moves correctly, made the right number of repeats and variations, or anything that’s been going on in the room for those passing seconds. The routine that is supposed to heighten awareness of reality has actually dulled it through repetition.

Another mind trap is the labels we use in our daily lives in place of active and mindful attention to what we see, hear, think, and feel. The human mind cannot actually survive without using labels in place of their more complicated referents, at least in some cases. But depending on them too heavily can insulate us within our own minds and separate us from life.

The sciences have a rich history of assigning labels to new phenomena and processes—so much so that some people think the study of biology, chemistry, and physics is nothing more than an exercise in label manipulation. Because I try to keep up with the fields that interest me, I subscribe to Science and Nature. But I freely admit that some of the article titles—and even the abstracts, which are supposed to offer a higher-level view and be more reader-friendly—baffle me. “Multivalent counterions diminish the lubricity of polyelectrolyte brushes.” “Second Chern number of quantum-simulated non-Abelian Yang monopole.” “Enantioselective remote meta-C-H arylation and alkylation via a chiral transient mediator.” I am not making these up: they are three article titles from recent issues. Even if I recognize some of the words, I can guess that they are not being used in the way that, say, an English major would understand them. Sometimes I can only guess the field of science they are discussing. But what is life without mysteries?

Actually, the process of learning anything is a matter of, first, understanding the underlying nature of a principle, object, event, or process—the referent—and second, assigning proper terms and labels to those concrete understandings so that we can communicate about them. Otherwise, we end up talking about “the thing that does the thing to the thing”—or words to that effect. First you understand the ideas of dichotomy and duality, and then you assign the label “two” and “twain” to the things they represent.

But the more you bandy these labels about, the more risk you run of losing sight of the wonder you felt when you first understood the thing itself. The shortcut does not lead you toward reality but away from it.1 Sometimes you think you know the thing when you only know the label. The name is not the reality, in the same way that following a daily routine is not really living.

One of the differences between human beings and the artificial intelligences, robots, and automated systems that we are starting to build today—and which will become ever more important in years to come—is this access to reality. Humans can experience a wide range of senses and put them together in novel ways. Having that “Aha!” moment of clarity, the epiphany, the sudden understanding, is a uniquely human thing. Robots and software systems don’t perceive reality except as it affects or interferes with their programming. They are focused on the parameters and processes for which they were designed. That design may encompass a wide field of view and a breathtaking array of sensory inputs and programmed contingencies. But it is still a focus, a built-in routine, and a label for which there may not be an understood referent. The robot does what it was designed to do. The automated system processes the parameters that are given to it, or for which it has cameras, microphones, haptics, and strain gauges designed to receive certain signals.

A robot brain is not designed to hear a rustle in the grass and suspect it may be a tiger about to pounce. A mechanical brain is not designed to read meaning into patterns, like the sodden tea leaves in a cup or the glints of candlelight in a crystal. A robot is not susceptible to the wonder and mystery of the life around it. But we are.

1. And sometimes that is intentional. There are scientists in any field who speak in code words simply for the delight of sounding more sophisticated and knowledgeable about the subject than those who speak clearly. Although, on the other hand, there are subjects that can’t be approached without a knowledge of the nomenclature. You can imagine trying to discuss quantum mechanics and the discovery of the Higgs boson if you don’t have a reference for the nature of subatomic particles, concepts about mass, and the theories of this Higgs fellow.

Sunday, July 8, 2018

Still Questioning Gravity

General relativity

With the usual caveats,1 and at risk of showing my great ignorance, I still don’t understand how gravity works. I’ve written about this before,2 and I read every popular explanation I can find, because the math-dense version is generally beyond me in all sorts of dimensions. And yet … some things about general relativity and gravity just don’t make sense to me.

Aristotle, the polymath and chief explainer of things scientific in the Greek golden age, thought gravity was simply the way that things find their own natural place. It’s linked to the concept expressed when we say that water seeks its lowest level. That is, gravity and its action on objects like draining pipes, falling stones, and stumbling people is merely a characteristic of the object itself. Water flows downhill, rocks tumble off cliffs, and you fall on your face if you trip, because that’s where the water, the rock, and you actually want to belong. That is, it’s the water’s and the rock’s fault—and yours.

Isaac Newton, who was the premier polymath of the 17th century, thought gravity was a force. Something about massive objects like the Sun and the Earth exerts a force to attract all lesser bodies, such as falling apples and those same stumbling humans. That is, gravity is a characteristic of the ground, not of the falling object itself. That is, it’s the Earth’s fault.

Newton’s concept of gravity worked well for a couple of hundred years and satisfied most of the observations of astronomy, governing the motions of stars and planets. The one problem was that Newton’s force of gravity was thought to be instantaneous: it was action at a distance not governed by time. So, if the Sun were to explode—no, that would still leave the equivalent mass in rapidly dispersing hydrogen, helium, and fusion products at the center of the solar system—or rather, the Sun could be magically “disappeared” from its central position, the Earth and the other planets would immediately head off in a straight line tangent to their normal orbits that had previously been shaped by gravity. In reality, at the speed of light—the limit governing all actions in the universe—the effects of any such instantaneous removal would take the same eight minutes to be felt at Earth’s orbit that it normally takes light from the Sun to reach us.

Albert Einstein, the polymath of the 20th century, rejected the idea of a “force” and, through his theory of general relativity, defined the effects of gravity as being a curvature in space and time. That is, massive objects bend space and slow down time. And the more massive the object, the more the surrounding space and time—which Einstein conceived as simply different dimensions of the same reality and called altogether “spacetime”—are curved. That is, it’s the fault of the geometry of space and time themselves.

In this conception, the idea of force and how quickly it might act or react is irrelevant, the curvature exists so long as the mass is present. And, of course, while the star might explode and scatter its mass, nothing known to physics is going to remove that mass, magically or otherwise, at any speed greater than, or in any timeframe shorter than, the speed of light, c.

As every science popularizer is quick to point out, Einstein’s concept of general relativity didn’t prove Newton “wrong.” Einstein’s concept of spacetime curvature and the mathematics to support it were just a more refined approach to the problem than a generalized force representing gravity. While Newton’s math worked for most problems in planetary astronomy—being useful, for instance, in calculating a near-Earth orbit or plotting a trip to the Moon—Einstein’s equations gave better answers to more decimal places. Einstein’s math, for example, gave a more accurate prediction of the precession of Mercury’s orbit around the Sun than Newton’s by a few seconds of arc.

Still, and mathematics aside, Einstein and Newton offer very different and irreconcilable conceptions: Newton postulates a force whereby one body acts upon another, like a pitcher hurling a baseball;3 while Einstein postulates the effect that a massive body has on its surroundings, and that effect is present regardless of whether any second body is around to experience it.

For ease of visualization by the layperson, illustrators show the curvature effects of gravity under general relativity with something like a bowling ball sitting on a trampoline and creating a curved depression in the surface—like the illustration here. The trampoline is supposed to represent the “fabric of space.” Of course, the curve is not in just the two dimensions shown for this flat surface but in all three dimensions of space plus a commensurate slowing of time.

I have always had a problem with this usage, even as an analogy, of the word “fabric” to refer to space and time. Space in all other contexts, is generally accepted as simply being empty. If it has a structure, an internal component that can be bent or warped, then space is not just a form of emptiness but instead is something all its own and separate from the protons, neutrons, electrons, photons, and other particles that exist within it and pass through it. Similarly, if time can be made to slow down, that implies some structure or medium that a nearby mass somehow manipulates. Time is not just the measured passage of events but a thing all its own, separate from those events.

In quantum mechanics, particles have associated fields, and these fields guide the motions of the particles within them. The photon, for example, is not just tiny, massless “thing,” but it also establishes a field that guides the movement of light and the properties of magnetism. Supposedly, in quantum mechanics, there must exist a particle called a “graviton” that has an associated field governing what we experience as gravity. But such a particle has never been discovered.4 Otherwise, we could hope to make our cars fly by blocking the exchange of gravitons with the Earth beneath them. But no one has yet been able to reconcile the concepts and mathematics of quantum mechanics with general relativity. Big is big, small is small, and they don’t seem to play by the same rule sets as currently conceived by the best human minds.

The confusion I have with general relativity and the curvature of spacetime is this: I can understand how curved space and time might alter the direction of a body that is already in motion, such as planet Earth wanting to move in a straight line (like all good inertial objects) but being forced into an elliptical orbit by the mass of the Sun. But what about a body that is not moving with respect to that center of mass? Just sitting or standing on the surface of the Earth, I am—according to general relativity—accelerating toward the center of the planet. But I am not moving with respect to that center. I never get any closer to the center, although I am accelerating toward it at a rate of 9.8 meters—more than 32 feet—per second per second. That would be a pretty good clip if I were moving across the surface of the planet and going faster and faster with every second.

Sure, the analogy with a trampoline shows a depression that I might be sliding into, like a kid on a sled sliding “down” a hill. But if I am at rest with respect to the center of the planet or another nearby mass, why would I be moving toward it at all? Even if that surrounding space is curved, what … forces me to move down the curve?5

I’ve read explanations that all of this has to do with different and higher orders of geometry. Also, that objects existing in a faster timeframe, such as in the less-curved spacetime further away from a planet or star, will seek to move toward the slower timeframe created by the mass of a large nearby body. Perhaps it all works out with elegant mathematics. But that still leaves the common-sensical question of why an object would prefer, and naturally move toward, a slower timeframe. Isn’t that just a version of Aristotle’s definition of gravity: that things just try to find their natural place?

I don’t mind if there’s math involved. That doesn’t insult or frighten me. But I do mind if the concept is solely based on mathematical equations. If the underpinnings of the universe cannot be explained except through a set of equations, then we run the risk of the ever-inventive and fertile human mind creating an equation that describes a situation without actually explaining it.6

You can write any number of equations, and they may make mathematically perfect sense. I can measure the distance across the continental Unites States in terms of gallons of milkshake consumed at Dairy Queens along the way. I can relate this function to a traveling body’s metabolism and the ambient temperature, and then link that intake to toilet flushes in restrooms further down the road. I can create elaborate mathematical structures related to distance and dairy products. But they won’t explain anything.

I still don’t understand gravity. And given that we have to fudge around with concepts like “dark matter” to reconcile current conceptions of gravity with the observed motion of stars in galaxies, and with “dark energy” to relate the motions of those galaxies with the size and scale of the universe itself … I don’t think anyone else does, either.

1. I was an English major in college with a minor in karate. The highest level of math I took in high school was Algebra II and Geometry, and I satisfied my college math requirement, as did so many other liberal arts students, with Philosophy I (aka Logic). But since then I’ve been reading continuously in the sciences, particularly physics and astronomy, to support my science fiction writing. My professional life over the years has been to explain the work of engineers and scientists for the lay reader. So, while I am math-challenged, I am neither ignorant of nor disinterested in the subject.

2. See Three Things We Don’t Know about Physics (I) from December 30, 2012, and (II) from January 6, 2013.

3. A force is represented by the most basic equation in physics, f=ma, or “force equals mass times acceleration.” The pitcher’s arm muscles accelerate the 142-gram mass of a baseball from, say, zero miles per hour in his set position to, say, 90 miles per hour—or 132 feet per second—for a fastball at the full extension of his arm at release, which occurs about half a second later. That’s an acceleration—not an exit velocity, but the acceleration needed to achieve it—of 264 feet per second per second. Mass times acceleration. Einstein used a variation of this physics equation to come up with his famous statement about the energy content of matter itself, e=mc2.

4. Recently, there was much to-do when the Large Hadron Collider at CERN identified the previously theoretical Higgs boson. This heavy particle, which is not normally found in nature, is supposed to give matter its mass. This is a different particle from, but might be a kind of precursor to, a graviton. We still have much to learn.

5. I used this question to create a fantasy mechanism for time travel in The Children of Possibility.

6. I can define gravity as the hand of an ever-watchful and invisible little god, call him “Mr. G.” He watches me and every other thing in the universe. If I am sitting, he presses gently on my lap so that I don’t float away from the seat of the chair. If I am walking and careful about my steps, he has a hand on my shoulder to keep me in contact with the ground. But if I stumble, he flicks the back of my head with his finger, pushes me over, and presses me down. If I jump, he lets me rise only so far, consistent with my muscle tone, and then pushes me back down to the floor. And if I take a capsule into orbit, he watches my direction and speed, and at the appropriate time he stops pushing down on me so that I can float freely around the cabin. There! I have a working concept of gravity that fits all observations. I could even write out Mr. G’s influence in the form of a set of equations. But is this what’s actually going on in the universe?

Sunday, July 1, 2018

Distrust of Government

Minute Man

I’ve written before1 about how for the past four centuries America, and the New World in general, simply by existing became an escape valve for Europe’s population of disenchanted individualists. And now, by extension, we have become the magnet for people from all over the world who want more freedom, greater opportunity, and a better life. This drive for freedom and what my mother used to call “inde-goddamn-pendence” is not just a casual or passing attitude, it’s written into our genes from ancestors who voted with their feet long ago—or maybe in just the previous generation.

Our founding fathers, the authors of the American Revolution, also known as the American War for Independence, had a profound distrust of government. It wasn’t just distrust of a distant and unresponsive king and parliament, “taxation without representation,” and the economic strictures and political disadvantages imposed on the thirteen colonies because they were, after all, possessions and not the same as English counties and boroughs with direct representation in Parliament and ancient rights under English law. It wasn’t a bad experience or two with the occupying force of British redcoats, having to quarter them in civilian homes, or enduring the Boston massacre, and later having to fight a war in which the might of the British nation—or as much as it could spare at the time—came down on ragtag bands of freedom fighters and a woefully underfunded and ill-equipped Continental army.

The distrust was in large part the heritage of dissenters, deportees, transportees, indentured servants—and later freed slaves—who had seen the iron rule of law at work in the hands of men grown too well-stuffed and powerful to care about their neighbor’s plight. Of people who wanted a place less crowded, less restricted, less governed, in which they could live where and how they wanted. A large measure of this dissatisfaction was also religious—carried by people with different ideas who were escaping an established Church of England that poorly tolerated unconventional practices and viewpoints—and gave rise to local congregations and enclaves of Puritans, Calvinists, Quakers, the Anabaptist Amish, and later the Mormons or Latter Day Saints. But the distrust went beyond religion to any established institution that would impose that iron rule with no easy or direct line of escape for the freethinker.

Distrust of government as an institution is written into the U.S. Constitution. The basic structure is arranged to provide those famous “checks and balances.” The Congress, however structured and elected, can only write the laws. The President, however supported by cabinet and other administrative positions, can only enforce the laws as written. And the Supreme Court, whose members are nominated by the President but must be confirmed by Congress, can only rule on the soundness of the law in practice, once someone has brought a case contesting its actual application. No one branch of government is meant to be all powerful or able to take action except in the context of the other two.

Today, as in the past, various Presidents have sought to bypass Congress through “executive orders.” While the Constitution makes no specific reference to executive orders, they are usually justified as part of the broad powers that the Constitution gives the President as chief executive and Commander in Chief. Still, they are not meant to supersede the power of Congress to make law.

Similarly, the Constitution has no provision for the vast federal bureaucracy that has grown up around the President’s cabinet posts and its various departments like Agriculture, Commerce, Education, Energy, Health and Human Services, Housing and Urban Development, Interior, Labor, Transportation, and so on. Defense and Homeland Security would appear to be the only posts necessary to the President’s role as head of the armed forces. State and the Treasury would also appear necessary to the chief executive’s function as representative to other nations of the world. But the rest of the cabinet has grown up over the years—mostly during the 20th century—to become interpreters and implementers of the laws passed by Congress.

These days we have the spectacle of laws passed with ever more pages of detail, requiring ever more interpretation by the executive branch. Simple laws that can fit on a page or two and be easily read and understood by the average citizen are a thing of the past. Our country’s book of administrative law, the Code of Federal Regulations, as published in the Federal Register, now adds about 80,000 pages a year. It’s a commonplace thought that everyone, without doing anything out of the ordinary or intentionally criminal, is guilty of something under current federal law. All the more to put the average citizen in his or her place.

I believe the founding fathers would regret this state of affairs.

In part their distrust of government was based on the founders’ own experience with what they called “factions,” which today we would call “parties” or “partisanship.” Not only is each branch of government set as a check and balance on the other two as a matter of design but also as a prevention against one group gaining control of the levers of power and using them without fear of obstruction, impediment, or retaliation. The members of Congress are—or were—supposed to be impermanent, serving for terms of two or six years, and capable of being voted out if they failed to do the job the public wanted. The President nominates members of the cabinet but they must be confirmed by Congress, as are the heads of major bureaucracies like the Central Intelligence Agency. The U.S. Civil Service, representing non-appointed, non-military civilian government employees, was only established by law in 1871. But these positions have traditionally been and are supposed to be filled by competitive hiring based on personal merit—and not, as in the conspicuous case of corruption in New York’s Tammany Hall, as a reward for partisan support.

The founders’ respected majority opinion, but they also looked out for the rights of the minority. People and political positions that lose a legislative battle by a vote of 49% to 51% are not to be automatically ground under, hunted down, or led to the guillotine.2 And important votes, such as overriding a President’s veto, have to be settled by more than a simple majority. The Constitution also allows each body to set its own rules for operation, and the Senate early on—that is, from about the 1850s—allowed minority objectors to a piece of legislation to filibuster it, or hold the floor and delay the vote for as long as their legs and their breath held out.

And finally, the Constitution’s own Article VII allows for its ratification by the states. That is, the new government under the Constitution could not simply impose itself on states that did not want to be ruled by this document. They had to choose to abide by its conditions.

Distrust of government is thickly strewn through the Bill of Rights, too. These first ten amendments to the Constitution were proposed after the battles for ratification in the late 1780s and specified federal guarantees to individual citizens. The people could speak their minds and worship how they pleased; defend themselves against tyranny; refuse to house soldiers except as prescribed by law; be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects from unreasonable searches and seizures; be free from double jeopardy and self-incrimination; enjoy the right to a speedy public trial before an impartial jury and to confront their accuser; be free of excessive bails and fines, and from cruel and unusual punishments; and enjoy all the rights and powers not enumerated in the Constitution.

The Bill of Rights staked out the ground where the new government could operate—quite narrowly, in fact, when compared with the old laws of Europe. These rights were designed to say that people, on their own as individuals and without the consent of a king or parliament, or even of their own elected government, had worth and stature. It was really meant to be a government of, by, and for the people, and not government for its own sake or as a convenience to those who held temporary power.

In short, the founders considered a national government, state government, or any formal control over the freedom of the individual as a necessary evil—not as a good thing in and of itself.

There are people and parties in this country today who would like to bring back the old European ideals: that the government grants rights and sets limits for the individual; that the products of an orderly society should be uniformly shared, even if that means giving up individual freedoms; that the average person is too willful, reckless, or stupid to make reasonable, intelligent decisions for him- or herself; and that to protect the rest of society, the “best and brightest” must step forward to direct the common citizen.3 These people want a more orderly, controlled—and controlling—state to define the limits of human existence.

And there are people and parties in this country today who say to that: “Been there. Done that. No thanks.”

1. See We Get the Smart Ones from November 28, 2010.

2. Thomas Jefferson, in his 1801 inaugural address, interpreted the Constitution thus: “All … will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will to be rightful must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal law must protect and to violate would be oppression.”

3. This was the essence of Plato’s “philosopher kings” in The Republic. But remember that Plato and his crowd were admirers of the rigid Spartan regime, which was a closely held oligarchy and not an open society of equal individuals. His ideas were notable in Athens not because they were revered but because they were antithetical to Athenian democracy. Or else why was Plato’s annoying mentor and protagonist Socrates forced to drink poison?