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delerium

I've had the flu (sore throat, fever, & sinus) all weekend. Hopefully, it's past the worst. I think this is only the third time I've gotten sick since 1999, though, so I think I was long overdue for it. Didn't do much today other than lay in bed, but I thought I might as well make an lj post since I'm not being productive. Even if I do have to use annoyingly slow dialup. I really wish I had more time in a typical week to write. The seminars so far this quarter have been really cool. I meant to write about several of them, but since I never got around to it I'll just summarize them now:



Retinal Prosthesis:

The quarter started off with a talk by Wentai Liu on his revolutionary work on restoring sight for the blind. Through most of the talk I was thinking "yeah right, this ain't gonna happen for another 50 years," but man was I wrong. The device he's designed is a sleek looking pair of sunglasses with a mounted camera with a radio transmitter that communicates lowres visual images to a microchip that is surgically implanted on the back of a blind person's eyeball. The microchip then directly stimulates the retina causing the person to experience something close enough to "sight" that they can make out rough outlines in black and white. I figured this was all well and good, but more sci-fi than real for the moment... that is, until he showed us the videos! They've already implanted the chip behind several test-patients' eyes and it works. Not very well, but well enough for them to read "HI" in large tape letters on the wall, and recognize the object on the table as a cup. He showed us video of the surgery as well as the tests afterward and it was truly amazing. (I should note, however, that it has only been tested on people who lost their vision when they were young, not people who were born blind. One of the test-patients hadn't seen a thing for over 50 years though.) He mentioned that another neuroscientist is working on a way to restore functionality to the legs and arms of paralysis sufferers by direct spinal stimulation. My main thoughts on it were: if science can help the blind to see and the lame to walk, why does anyone still need religion?

Quantum Gravity and the Cosmological Constant:

Second week Tom Banks gave his talk on the meaning of the cosmological constant from a quantum-gravity perspective. He emphasized giving up certain ideas about locality associated with quantum field theory and moving towards a more holistic, holographic, view. Somewhat disappointingly, he does not think we will ever be able to place the cosmological constant (the simplest explanation for "dark energy") on a theoretical basis. In his words, "it should just be an input parameter to the theory".

Writing Science Books for the General Public:

Went to a small seminar on how to write general-audience science books. Thoroughly enjoyed hearing first-hand accounts of what it's like to go through the whole process of publishing such a book. Considering how much I love writing and physics, I would be very surprisedl if I didn't end up trying it at some point. Hopefully after I know what the hell I'm talking about.

Eternal Inflation, Multiple Universes, and other Dark Matters:

This was another small seminar. We got our prof to reschedule a quiz so that three of us could skip class and go to it. Anthony Aguirre gave the talk, about other universes outside of our visible universe but in the same physical space. Nothing that new, but I learned more about what eternal inflation is and how it relates to the rest of this stuff. He says we should use the anthropic principle to look for statistical predictions about our universe (such as the nature and type of dark matter) based on an ensemble of universes which can support conscious observers. I think it's interesting that he thinks we can actually use the anthropic principle to make testable predictions (rather than just using it to say "I don't know"), but he admitted there were a lot of problems with determining how to choose the right ensemble and how to define what a conscious observer was, etc. It seems a lot of cosmologists are moving towards similar kinds of ideas right now. I'm a bit skeptical of this stuff being all that fruitful, but I enjoy hearing about it.

The Unexpected Physics of Modern Wireless Communications: Replicas, Diffusons, and Supersymmetry for fun and profit

That was the title, and it was a really cool talk. But it was a bit of a gip in that he didn't mention anything about supersymmetry till the last 10 minutes of the talk. At that point he said "oh yeah... I promised I'd tell you how we can use supersymmetry in wireless communications. Well, here's a rough overview..." Actually, well worth it though. This guy was from Bell Labs, and he told us how putting two antennas on a cellphone can give you twice the effective bandwidth (while only using up the same amount of actual physical bandwidth). But you have to do some pretty crazy shit to take advantage of it... like rescanning the path-length through a city filled with buildings and cars every few milliseconds. He says it's not implemented yet except for one company in Japan, but they've tested it in New York and we should see more of it in the near future.

See? Not bad for the first four weeks, eh?

Comments

( 25 comments — Leave a comment )
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 01:26 am (UTC)
WOW this entry is so great it reminds me why I am a physicist at all!

You are so right, religion is completely antiquated! With genetic engineering etc., we will soon be able to resurrect people which would make religion totally obsolete. Though people will still cling to it like a child clings to their childhood "blanky". Physicists are the priests and holy men of the next generation. That may sound upsetting, but it's so true. As our science grows in complexity, the layman will understand less and less which will in turn make the physicist the conduit and mediator of the laws of nature.

To have an understanding of the significance and importance of the things you do, you are an extraordinary individual. I now remember why I added you to my friends list.
spoonless
Apr. 25th, 2004 04:05 pm (UTC)

As our science grows in complexity, the layman will understand less and less which will in turn make the physicist the conduit and mediator of the laws of nature.

I appreciate your compliments, but I have to disagree with this comment.
I do not think laymen will understand less and less. I think scientists will understand more and more, and as a direct consequence the laymen will understand more (as new information trickles down through the education process). Maybe I'm overly optimistic, but I do not think science is something that should be held out of reach of the common person. Maybe they won't be able to understand or have time to investigate it in such detail as a physicists does, but the basic ideas about new discoveries and paradigm shifts should be explainable in down-to-earth terms, otherwise that knowledge is not very useful for the human race.
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 06:46 pm (UTC)
Well, I have to be more precise about what I mean. I also would like to say that I share the idealistic hope that humanity as a whole will stay in touch with their own bounds of knowledge. However I do not think this can realistically happen.

Think of it like this. The average level of knowledge of the average human I would undoubtedly say is continuously increasing as a function of time. However, the rate at which the bounds of knowledge of the human race is increasing is much faster as time goes on. It is something I have noticed when I go and attend lectures in other parts of the physics department where they are talking about highly specific things to which I am barely able to follow without a glossary of terms and acronyms. Things are just getting so complex that what an atomic-molecular theorist is working on my be totally in accessible to what a high energy theorist is working on and vice versus. It is a trend I have felt in my own life time, 10 years ago physics was simpler but a whole lot. I just don't see how the layman could ever keep up if scientists in a given field have to try really hard just to get the basic idea.

People have tried to popularize quantum mechanics by saying things like the uncertainty principle in a catch phrase like "if you completely know where you are going, then you don't know where you are at all". But phrases like this are just so wrong and do not capture the embodiment of the theory. In fact, I would wager that many senior researchers do not know quantum mechanics that well. It is a relatively young theory compared to the age of our science, a mere 90 something years old.

Said another way, my argument can be summed as saying that it seems to be taking longer and longer just to develop a rudimentary knowledge of modern physics let alone mastery, this is more than a gut feeling. The average number of years for a PhD in physics is now 6 years and the average number of post-docs a tenure track junior faculty member has is something like 1.8.
spoonless
Apr. 26th, 2004 05:58 pm (UTC)
I have to admit, I have noticed most of the things you mention here as well. Including the bothersome catch phrases about quantum. So you might be right, that the gap of knowledge between fields will ever increase. But I think it isn't that illuminating to measure knowledge relative to whoever knows the most. Even if the gap of knowledge continuously increases, the knowledge of the lowest common denominator can increase as well... albeit at a slower rate.

I'm not sure what to do about those misleading catch phrases--on the one hand, I'm always excited to find popularizations of physics, but on the other hand I'm disappointed when I find people misinterpretting them because they're taking the analogy too literally. I still think there's some kind of balance to be struck, some way that we can get enough of the point across without resorting to broken analogies and catch phrases. What we need is not a higher quantity of popularizations, but higher quality.
firmament
Apr. 25th, 2004 02:28 am (UTC)
My main thoughts on it were: if science can help the blind to see and the lame to walk, why does anyone still need religion?

Death.

Mortality is certainly not something that is going to be solved by genetic engineering or any of the things that are currently under the investigation of science. For now, people still die, and that's one of the most serious anxieties of the human race, one of the most serious reasons to turn toward religion.
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 04:32 am (UTC)
actually currently today it is possible to clone you and save your entire life history on computer disk in which case you won't ever actually die. So you need religion because you are scared of something you won't ever feel or know ever happened to you or are you just really empathetic toward your clone?
(Deleted comment)
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 06:59 pm (UTC)
Fear is totally an irrational thing, whether something makes you less fearful or not is completely up to you and is neither here nor there.

I know that cloning doesn't prolong your life. Anyone with internet should know this because you can just look it up. This is why I said to record and store the experiences. What is a person other than genetics + experiences (environment, upbringing etc.)??
pbrane
Apr. 26th, 2004 11:43 pm (UTC)
Anyone with internet should know this because you can just look it up.

... way to be rude for no reason, dude.
spinemasher
Apr. 27th, 2004 08:03 pm (UTC)
whatever....
Um so aside from the fact that I don't see how this involves you in anyway.....

That italicized statement of mine is just a factual statement about my opinion on how the internet should be put to good use, I fail to see how it is rude. Maybe I considered it rude that it would even cross a person's mind that I would respond to a post on a topic I know nothing about.
pbrane
Apr. 27th, 2004 08:36 pm (UTC)
Re: whatever....
Your factual statement was in effect saying, "Yeah, I know that, as could anyone who knows how to read - what's your point?", and that seemed pretty rude, but Chanda wasn't about to call you out on it because she's a nice person.

Just because someone doesn't know how much you know about a subject doesn't mean they're questioning your intelligence or anything like that.

It only involves me in that both Jeff and Chanda are friends of mine and reading you act rude to her for no apparent reason is a little off-putting, so I thought I'd call it like I saw it. But I'll drop it here, as this is Jeff's journal, not mine or yours, and it's not really a huge deal.
spinemasher
Apr. 27th, 2004 09:23 pm (UTC)
Please don't tell me what my own factual statements are "in effect" saying. If you chose to read something negative into completely neutral statements of mine, all I can say is that you are mistaken about my meaning and intentions. If I was intending to be rude it would be very blatant, most likely accompanied by clear and direct insults.

And yes this is jeff's journal, I agree we should drop this since it is completely irrelevant to his original post.

But thanks for the lesson in congeniality.
spoonless
Apr. 25th, 2004 10:03 pm (UTC)
Actually, my opinion on this issue changed a lot a few years ago after I took this philosophy quiz: http://www.philosophers.co.uk/games/identity.htm

Anyone who is interested in this stuff and reading this should go take it too (it's very short, only 3 questions). The one with the teleporter pretty much convinced me that if what spinemasher is suggesting were possible, then it would be the same as extending your life... as long as there is psychological continuity, you are effectively the same entity. However, I don't think anything like what he's suggesting will be possible in any imaginable amount of time soon.
spoonless
Apr. 25th, 2004 03:53 pm (UTC)

actually currently today it is possible to clone you and save your entire life history on computer disk in which case you won't ever actually die.

whoa... you say this is possible today? This goes way beyond anything I knew was even being considered yet (and way beyond the retina stimulation thing, which I wouldn't have believed if I hadn't seen it)... could you direct us to a link or something? I don't see how they could do this yet seeing as how we're not even sure how memories are stored.
shaktool
Apr. 25th, 2004 05:10 pm (UTC)
This isn't the same thing, or nearly as impressive, but these links may be interesting anyway...

Can we be immortal?
Telomerase and Immortality
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 06:55 pm (UTC)
No no, what I am saying is much simpler. Think of a child born today. From day one they can have all their experiences recorded, video taped and saved on DVD say. It would be a monumental endeavor but it is possible. Before that person dies you get their genetics and clone them, grow the clone and then have it raised in a similar fashion with all the videos to watch. Because a human is nothing more than their genetics + environment the clone will be able to carry on the legacy of their original person. Hence the person would have lived on.

A bit trite but effective nonetheless, as our technology gets better the possibility I outlined will become a) easier to do, b) more effective in supplying sufficient detail so that it will be more likely to be successful and c) less expensive and more attainable by the average person.
spoonless
Apr. 25th, 2004 09:51 pm (UTC)

No no, what I am saying is much simpler. Think of a child born today. From day one they can have all their experiences recorded, video taped and saved on DVD say. It would be a monumental endeavor but it is possible. Before that person dies you get their genetics and clone them, grow the clone and then have it raised in a similar fashion with all the videos to watch. Because a human is nothing more than their genetics + environment the clone will be able to carry on the legacy of their original person. Hence the person would have lived on.

But watching somebody's life on DVD is not even remotely the same thing as living it. I have had plenty of experiences in my life which are not capturable with a video camera, and there are plenty of experiences left that I don't think I could ever learn about by watching a video. Do you think watching a video about falling in love is the same as falling in love? Or getting rejected and laughed at? Or getting arrested? Or going scuba diving, hangliding, rock climbing, using psychadelic drugs, having sex? Is it going to give you the same memories, the same associations? The same mind? It might give you enough familiarity with the other person's life to be able to pass yourself off as them, but then maybe not even that. You'd know all the names of their friends and facts about them etc. But I don't think there's any way you can say you'd be the same person. It may be possible to sample and store someone's mind in the (far off) future, but taping events with a video camera is not going to duplicate a mind. The part of me that I'd want to preserve is not encoded in facts you could learn about me by watching a video, it's encoded much deeper in the recesses of my memory banks, in a form that I would have no idea how to put into words even if I wanted to try.
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 11:34 pm (UTC)
In short, yes because the power of imagination goes a long way, of course it's not the same but it's close enough.

So because I do not believe in the metaphysical or "soul" aspect of existence a person is nothing but the sum of their (important) parts. Hence the only thing I see worth keeping is the record (memory) of the events of my life, the lessons that came with them and the chemical aspects (hormones etc.) which I get from genetics and not the "feeling" of any of it since that is all abstract and not clear that it means anything to survival. That is to say I agree with the TPM analysis of living on forever. Certainly something like a video, book or journal can convey significant meaning.

It just boils down to you saying it is all not enough and me thinking that it is. I think ultimately how effective it is depends on how much effort is put into the production. Think if your parents raised you while you wore a video camera, then they would be talking to the camera as if it were you when someone watched it. All a researcher would then have to do is connect the clone baby to some relevant stimuli that was queued with the film. It is certainly possible today, it's just fucked up and requires a life time of work, or rather two life times.
spoonless
Apr. 26th, 2004 05:40 pm (UTC)

Hence the only thing I see worth keeping is the record (memory) of the events of my life, the lessons that came with them and the chemical aspects (hormones etc.) which I get from genetics and not the "feeling" of any of it since that is all abstract and not clear that it means anything to survival.

It appears we have radically different interpretations of consciousness.
I consider the feeling of life to be an essential part of it, if not the most important part. Also, many of the "lessons" I've learned are not things I'd be able to pass on with words or pictures--they're more of a je ne sais quoi. In fact, 90% of the day I usually pay very little attention to what's going on around me and am absorbed in my own thoughts. They're not going to see that on the video tape, nor are they going to see my dreams at night which have significantly shaped my identity as well. Everyone responds differently to events, even identical twins in the same situation. Someone else is not going to understand the significance an event had to me unless they're in my head. And by "my" I don't just mean someone with the same genes. Did you know that when they clone animals the clone doesn't even always have the same color fur? There is a lot more to biology than DNA. Plus, I've heard that DNA mutates randomly over the course of your life.

And even if DNA were the only thing involved and human behavior were entirely deterministic (neither of which I think is a correct assumption), you could only get a perfect clone to have the same thoughts after N years as the original if at every moment from birth onward you exposed him to exactly the same perceptual inputs which include not only the 5 senses but also perception of temperature, pain, and awareness of various internal organ operation such as heartbeat, digestion, headaches, etc. To accomplish the same internal function you'd need to feed him the exact same molecules of the same food at every instant in the same order. Chaos theory guarantees that if at any moment during the development of the clone any of the above things varied even for a second... the clone would likely develop into an entirely different person, have different thoughts, and a different experience of the world entirely.

In contrast to doing all that, the video idea only captures two senses at most: hearing and vision, and it doesn't do a very good job of the latter since it ignores depth perception, paralax, etc. So my saying that "it's not enough" is a pretty big understatement.
spinemasher
Apr. 27th, 2004 08:13 pm (UTC)
Yes, the fur is different
So I can see how the fundamental uncertainty of molecular dynamics (encoding proteins) makes you reject phrases like "it's the same", well because it isn't. But as the TPM thing pointed out, it doesn't matter what eye color you have or whether your limbs are plastic or not it only matters that the essential ideas are carried on. I have been assuming through this whole thing that due to the upbringing of the clone it will accept the identity that is handed to it. Because it doesn't know better but as you pointed out in the form of chaos, by the time this thing is a teenager it could totally rebel. Which raises an interesting question,

Do you regard historical figures like say Einstein as having successfully "lived on" in the human culture and history or Newton or any good example you can think of?
spoonless
Apr. 28th, 2004 03:13 pm (UTC)
Re: Yes, the fur is different

Do you regard historical figures like say Einstein as having successfully "lived on" in the human culture and history or Newton or any good example you can think of?

I don't regard them as still being alive or conscious. But yes, a part of them has lived on. Perhaps there was a miscommunication in what we were really discussing. I think the rest of us assumed you were talking about living on in a more physical sense. Or maybe you don't care as much about that distinction, but to me it seems somewhat important. By throwing the clone in there, you confused us further because it sounded like you were saying you would still be conscious and alive and still "you" whereas I don't think that would be the case at all. At least not with current technology.

Sigh--this has been the most traffic and drama my lj has ever gotten so far. In my mind that makes it officially a "real" livejournal now. ;) Took long enough!
firmament
Apr. 25th, 2004 04:35 pm (UTC)
actually currently today it is possible to clone you and save your entire life history on computer disk

No it isn't.

And even if it were, functional continuity doesn't imply continuity of personal identity. And most people wouldn't be able to afford such a procedure, unless the government is going to supply it for free. And even if they did, surely it would only work in case of death where they had time to prepare.
spinemasher
Apr. 25th, 2004 07:01 pm (UTC)
Ok it is just silly to simply say "No it isn't" without providing reason for claiming something is false.

This is spoonless's journal so I am not going to go back and forth with you in a childish manner saying "yes", "no", "yes", "no" repeatedly.

So I am ignoring you from here on in.
spoonless
Apr. 25th, 2004 10:31 pm (UTC)
Maybe we can just get everyone to believe in quantum immortality...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quantum_immortality

Mostly kidding, actually. But I do know one thing... one shouldn't worry about not being around in 2500 any more than one should worry about not having been around in 1500. (where by worry I mean worry philosophically, rather than practically... it's fine to want life-extension, but that's something science has had at the forefront of its goals all along).
firmament
Apr. 26th, 2004 10:04 am (UTC)
Hehe.

Just last night I read David Lewis's paper on this, "How Many Lives Has Schrodinger's Cat?" It's pretty scary, actually.
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