19 October 2014

The eerie silence

I recently read a book, "The Eerie Silence", by physicist Paul Davies. Paul Davies is the head of project SETI. The book is about the search for extraterrestrial life/intelligence. Of course, to-date, there has been no hint of any life whatsoever outside our own planet. Nevertheless,  the 50-year old project SETI, apparently now privately funded, is alive. There are many excellent reviews of the book on the Internet, for example, on the Guardian (see here and here), the New York Times, Goodreads, Science News, and others. The book is, indeed, interesting. It debunks UFO stories, discusses the issue of whether life is a commonplace in this galaxy (or in the universe)--with no conclusions, of course, the issues of habitable zone and multiple biospheres on Earth, the probability of intelligent life elsewhere (and Drake's "equation"), the need for less anthropocentric search methods, the possible ways that aliens might communicate with us (which may be far from what we currently think of or use), the inability we might have in even recognizing advanced extraterrestrial technology, various philosophical issues, what would happen if we ever recognized that life existed, and an optimistic conclusion.

Now, all that is great, we need to be optimistic, we need to keep searching and wondering and, as is well known, the answer to the question "is there life elsewhere" would be profound regardless of whether it is positive or negative. But the book is rather long and tends to get a bit boring at times. Drake's "equation" for instance is hardly anything remarkable. It's just a back-of-the-envelope calculation that anyone with high school knowledge can think of (except that data may be missing, and they still are). At times, there are diversions towards religion, history or philosophy. What I found remarkably shallow is the author's claim that it was monotheistic religions (and, by this, he means the Abrahamic religions) are conducive to science. Namely, Davies claims, in the book and elsewhere, that, as opposed to Hinduism, the Abrahamic religions hold that the universe had a beginning. He also claims
The Greek philosophers taught that humans could come to understand the world by the existence of reason, which achieved its most disciplined form in the rules of logic and mathematical theorems that followed therefrom. They asserted that the world wasn't arbitrary or absurd, but rational and intelligible, even if confusing and complicated. However, Greek philosophy never spawned what today we would understand by the scientific method, in which nature is `interrogated' via experiment and observation, because the Greek philosophers' touching belief that the answers could all be deduced by pure reason alone.

Meanwhile, monotheism increasingly shaped the Western world view during the formative stages of science. Judaism represented a decisive break with almost all contemporary cultures by positing an unfolding cosmic narrative based on linear time.

The concept of linear time, and a universe created by a rational being and ordered according to a set of immutable laws, was adopted by both Christianity and Islam, and was the dominant influence in Europe at the time of Galileo. The early scientists, who were deeply religious, regarded their work as uncovering God's plan for the universe, as revealed through hidden mathematical relationships. What we now call the laws of physics they saw as thoughts in the mind of God. Without belief in a single omnipotent rational lawgiver, it is unlikely that anyone would have assumed that nature is intelligible in a systematic, quantitative way, mirrored by eternal mathematical forms.
Davies' claims suffer from a number of historical and logical inaccuracies.
  1. It is true that ancient scholars had not fully developed the scientific method, but it is not true that they only relied on things they could do in their heads. Indeed, the name of Archimedes is never mentioned in the book. Neither is any mention of the Antikythera mechanism. It is true that these things belong, perhaps, to the domain of engineering, but it is clear that nobody could have built them by thinking only, without any kind of experimentation. The claim that "nature [was not] `interrogated' via experiment and observation does not seem to be correct.
  2. When Davies speaks of monotheistic religions, he means the Abrahamic ones. There have been other monotheistic religions which are not included in his `reasoning', for instance, Zoroastrianism.
  3. Davies speaks of what--he thinks--monotheistic religious scientist achieved several centuries after these religions were invented, but he never mentions what happened, for example, when Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire. Who got rid of all work in mathematics and reason, up to that point, if not the new monothestic religion (or the particular version which the emperors adopted)? 
  4. The claim that "linear time" and "universe which has a single beginning" are both mentioned by monotheistic religions does not imply that monotheism implies these concepts. It is, merely, an accident that these concepts were adopted by the Jews (and hence by Christians and Muslims). The implied implication is not valid. 
  5. "Early scientists were deeply religious." We've heard this argument many times. But why is not Davies considering the obvious fact that those scientists had to be religious in order to be allowed to do what they were doing. Yes, some of them believed in god (there was no alternative anyway), some did not, but everyone had to pretend and behave as if they actually believed. So we will never know the truth. Imagine, for instance, the future historian who will claim that "in 20th. c. America, every president was highly religious and always appeared to pray in public". We, of course, know that without appearing to be religious they stand no chance of getting elected.
This is a weak point of the book. Other than that, I liked it, but, as I said, I could have read the same things in half the space.

Davies seems to be a smart person. So let us examine why he often digresses to praise monotheism. Well, there are several reasons, among which I can identify at least two:
  1. First, he's director of SETI which is privately funded, so he needs to please donors. Many of them (by virtue that they come from a religious country) are probably religious.
  2. Second, he probably likes awards. For example, he's a recipient of the Templeton prize. This is a very peculiar prize because it is given to all kinds of people, including ones who have caused harm. The prize has been criticized by Richard Dawkins ("[the Templeton prize is] usually [given] to a scientist who is prepared to say something nice about religion"),  Sean  Carroll (people cannot take Templeton research grants when they do not support Templeton's beliefs) and Martinus Veltman ("the Templeton prize bridges the gap between sense and nonsense")
Davies' claims that monotheism is conducive to science gives religionists ground to support their irrational beliefs. Some Muslims believe that the Quran contains science and they sometimes quote Davies as scientific support of this ridiculous claim.

On the Christian front, Davies seems to be a friend of John Lennox who likes to use "mathematics" and "logic" and "science" to support his religious claims. (The worst of all, in this conversation, is that Davies and Lennox, a physicist and a mathematician, discuss "specified complexity", a bogus concept invented by William Dembski for the sole purpose of promoting creationism.)

Last but not least, I can't fail but notice that the website (mentioned in the Eerie Silence) IETI (invitation to extraterrestrial intelligence, created because if--they claim--aliens get in touch with us, they might do so over the Internet) contains 100 individuals (inviting aliens) among which a certain Sohail Inayatullah who "brings an Islamic and Indian tantric perspective to understanding the Other, space travel, and alternative futures."

The upshot of all this is that, by trying to please everyone, including those who have nothing to do with science, one ends up having their work used for the purposes of the those who do nonsense.

10 October 2014

New Christian film: "The Lock In"

First of all, about the concept of "lock in":
A sleepover party, usually held in a public place such as a church or school, in which the participants are not allowed to leave until the next morning.
Indeed, churches (in the US, of course, but I wouldn't be suprised if it happens in  churches of the American/lunatic type  in Sweden too) have lock ins for teenagers. For example, the Springfield Church of Christ is one of them: they lock the kids in for a weekend and, among other things, they
set aside time for small group devotions and bible study, incorporating games such as "find that verse" or other Bible trivia.
And, now, there is a new movie out, "The Lock In", a Christian film, produced by some kind of American Baptist Church, a film that teaches the horror of porn. It teaches that watching porn is a danger to one’s mortal soul. The working premise is that the devil and other demons lurk inside women's genitals.
The film introduces us first to the idea of the church lock in, terrifying in its own right. A group of teens lock themselves in a Baptist church overnight with an old pastor. Fun times ensue. We’re then shown a cast of unlikable Christian teens: Justin, the almost unseen cameraman, filming the lock in because why not? Blake, the rowdy, outrageous ringleader who just wants to have a good time. Nick, the lovelorn lead we’re supposed to relate to. And Jessica, the target of Nick’s insatiable lust. The three boys, thinking it would be hilarious, bring a dirty magazine they found into the church. This lets the Devil in. The Devil then traps the hapless Scooby Gang alone in the church and fucks with their recording capabilities until they go insane. Why? Because porn.
The story here is that the footage was found (and edited) by some church pastors and was so horrifying that they immediately resigned to go sell insurance instead. This horrifying imagery includes a trash can falling over on its own, a shot of a dark hallway suddenly getting kind of yellow, a strange “Braugh!” sound coming from somewhere off-screen (about four times), and the four leads sitting on the floor talking about how they like to look at porn at home. Oh, a random child also appears and makes the same “Braugh!” sound, causing our heroes to run frantically and then spend three minutes recapping what we just saw (they do this a lot).
It goes without saying that the movie, as a movie, is total crap. Everything about it is terrible. I have not seen it, but I read the reviews, here, here, here, and here. Oh yes, and here is a review from the Christian Film Database site (which finds nothing wrong with the film, of course.) Nevertheless,
‘The producers of the film hope that not only will it be entertaining, it will also be used as a tool for conversations about the dangers of pornography and the importance of being aware.’


P.S. If you like Christian films, there seems to be many of them. For instance,  "Harry Potter: A Spirit Conspiracy?" (Harry Potter is a seducing spirit as prophesied of in the Bible),  "The Visitation" (miracles performed by a charismatic guy),  "The Sins of the Fathers" (where one has to decide whether the dreams of a woman are spiritual or not), "The Last Messengers" (disasters happen everywhere, and then Christ appears). In view of all this wealth, "The Lock In" may not be the worst film of all.


4 October 2014

Statistics Workbook for Dummies

Some time ago, I came across a book titled "Statistics Workbook for Dummies". The for-dummies series is well-known and is supposed to be a series of popular math/science/etc books. But this book is, really, for morons, written by morons. On page 102 of the book, the central limit theorem is "explained" or "motivated" thus:

Of course, this is misleading and is not an explanation of the central limit theorem at all.

The central limit theorem is a theorem in mathematics which has some physical consequences. Its proof requires some mathematics and cannot be fully understood without it. Can it be explained, however, to a non-specialist? Sure, but the explanation is not as trivial as the phrase above suggests. For those who want to apply the central limit theorem, understanding what it is about is essential. Like many other "popular" books in mathematics, statistics, phsysics, science, ... this one makes a bad job. Not surprising. It's one of many many others.

But the problem, you might think, is that the book is, indeed, for dummies. After all, it says so in its title. So, you might think, if you go to the university and take a statistics class in a "quantitative department" (by this I mean, mathematics or engineering or physics, or some other department which does not shy away from mathematical symbols....) you will understand the central limit theorem. Wrong. I have seen generations of students graduate from various reputable "quantative departments" who never learn a proof of the central limit theorem nor what the theorem is about. What is the problem? Well, many of the people who teach that stuff do not know themselves what mathematics is about and yet insist in teaching mathematics. Amazing as it may sound, it is not far from the truth.

Summary: "Statistics Workbook for Dummies" is doing a bad job but this bad job is not much worse than the job being done in many self-proclaimed reputable universities.

9 September 2014

Happy birthday Tolstoy (and a few thoughts)

Through the evil Google, I learned that today is Leo Tolstoy's birthday (whatever this means: dates then, 1828, and now, keep shifting as the period of the Earth's orbit around the Sun and around its axis are not rationally related and so, to catch up, we have to revise calendars) and the following sprang to mind:
How come some nations, some peoples, have a much richer literature than others? 
I do not know the answer: Is it education?  Is it social structure? Is it wealth? Is it religion? Is it language? Is it history? Is it political freedom or its absence? A combination of the above? Which combination? Why? The answers are not straightforward because for every yes there is an exception and for every no there is another exception.

It is a fact that, had the world been without modern (19th c. and later) Russian literature, it would have been a much poorer world: Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Chekhov, Lermontov, Gogol, Pushkin, etc. etc. They have formed an inspiration for the whole world.

Which brings forth the next observation: When learning a language, one of one's criteria (at least mine) has been the ability to see a new world through the writings in this language. And Russian is worth learning not least for this reason. (Alas, I do not know Russian beyond tourists' phrases.) Even though, as modern linguists tell us, all languages have the same expressive power, it is not true that all languages have achieved the same quality of literature. One criterion for learning a language is one's ability to communicate with the speakers of this language: languages whose speakers are good communicators can be learned more easily. Another criterion is the writings in this language: literature inspires and opens up new worlds. (By analogy, why should one read poor mathematical/scientific papers?)



T H E B O T T O M L I N E

What measure theory is about

It's about counting, but when things get too large.
Put otherwise, it's about addition of positive numbers, but when these numbers are far too many.

The principle of dynamic programming

max_{x,y} [f(x) + g(x,y)] = max_x [f(x) + max_y g(x,y)]

The bottom line

Nuestras horas son minutos cuando esperamos saber y siglos cuando sabemos lo que se puede aprender.
(Our hours are minutes when we wait to learn and centuries when we know what is to be learnt.) --António Machado

Αγεωμέτρητος μηδείς εισίτω.
(Those who do not know geometry may not enter.) --Plato

Sapere Aude! Habe Muth, dich deines eigenen Verstandes zu bedienen!
(Dare to know! Have courage to use your own reason!) --Kant