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Sunday, August 14, 2011
Science ... Society ...

I’m still a big science buff, and I now have a subscription to Scientific American. I even read it, cover to cover! Here’s a quick review of the July 2011 issue.

To be honest, most of the articles are about science and research at work; i.e. how the day-to-day workings of science (what philosopher Thomas Kuhn called “normal science” and “puzzle solving”) promise a variety of social benefits in the foreseeable future (e.g. better ways to control malaria mosquitoes or contain health care costs), or how researchers are getting closer to affirming or denying a theory regarding an unresolved issue (e.g., dark matter or chronic fatigue syndrome). Other articles inject a scientific viewpoint into a major policy issue, e.g. the question of HIV rates in southern states and what to do with the melted-down Fukushima nuclear reactors in Japan. And there are still a few ‘pure science’ articles like SA focused on before 1990, e.g. about trends in the luminosity and surface temperature of visible stars, and the evolution of the eye. But certain SA issues have a handful of articles with broader, more game-changing implications, and the July issue was one of these. So, here is what I think was important.

In the neuroscience realm, I liked “The Limits of Intelligence” by Douglas Fox. I’ve read a lot of books about how the brain works with all its networked neurons and neurochemical regulators, but this article approached the issue from a new angle, i.e. from the question of overall design. Fox views the brain from the perspective of some power that could alter the design of the human brain to make it better. Interestingly, bigger is not better. There are plenty of creatures with bigger brains than us, including the Neanderthal humans that preceded us. But our brains are designed better in terms of interconnectedness, signal speed, functional specialization areas and neuron density; so we can run circles around these big-brained species. Who came up with all of this? Well, the forces of evolution over thousands and millions of years, of course.

The interesting part is Fox’s contention that evolution has pretty much pressed our brains to the limit, given the basic design components and environmental limitations. If we were to increase brain size, increase interconnectedness, and boost up signal speed and neuron density, it could well slow down our minds and/or take more energy from our bodies. We could theoretically become smarter, but at the cost of having weaker bodies and slower brains. We’d take longer to make judgments in emergencies, and even once we did, our bodies wouldn’t be able to move us as quickly because our bigger and denser brains would suck up most of the energy that our stomachs and lungs could create. We’d all be brilliant, but slow and weak. Probably not a good trade-off, despite the fact that modern society no longer requires us to hunt animals for food and dodge predators. We still need to be able to dodge reckless drivers and run to the airport to make a flight. So strength and quickness still are good things to have in today’s world.

Fox concludes that even though individual humans probably aren’t going to get much smarter due to evolution, society as a whole will get smarter, as well as other human-machine networking mechanisms. Like the Internet, for example. We can still get smarter because of “collective thinking” done via large-scale collaboration. E.g., crowd wisdom, cooperative research, computer-assisted decision-making, etc.

OK, that’s a pretty good point. But Fox also discussed something in his article that may unintentionally dig up the bones from a malevolent social notion that was buried not long ago. Do you remember “The Bell Curve” by Herrnstein and Murray, arguing that intelligence is distributed largely by genetic factors, and to a lesser degree by social dynamics, that tend to concentrate intellectual abilities in certain races versus others? Their arguments were pretty well debunked or deemed irrelevant (i.e., racial differences in measured intelligence seem more explicable by environmental and historical factors than by factors strictly inherent to the race).

However, Fox offhandedly cites a 2009 study from the University Medical Center Utrecht (Netherlands), along with a similar study from the Unversity of Cambridge, finding that shorter neural pathways between brain areas along with faster data flow rates correlated with higher IQ and better working memory. Uh oh — maybe there is a genetic basis to intelligence, at least for the kind of intelligence that our society values the most. I doubt if any major educational institution will take the next step, i.e. to study whether these physical brain features correlate across racial lines. E.g., do Asians generally have shorter and faster transmitting neural pathways interconnecting their brain areas? Liberal academians probably don’t want to know, and that’s likely a good thing. But if Obama loses next year . . . Maybe the issue isn’t dead, after all. Bottom line, “uh oh”.

Next up on the big-hit parade is “The Last Great Global Warming” by Lee Kump. In a nutshell, research shows that around 56 million years ago, the earth went thru a period of rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, and at some point the rising global temperatures triggered a set of “positive feedbacks” that ramped up the gas concentrations and corresponding rates of warming. These include release of carbon dioxide and methane in seabeds and under permafrost. Another ‘uh oh’ here. Some scientists have warned that our current greenhouse gas trends, if not contained very soon, could trigger these mechanisms and cause very large scale climate changes to occur in relatively short periods. I.e., we ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

For a while there I was siding with some of the more thoughtful “climate change doubters”, contending that although climate change was inevitable given all the carbon that human-kind has and will continue to dump in the atmosphere, the changes might be slow enough to adapt to without any huge catastrophes. The more intellectual doubters argued that there are potential negative feedback factors that will slow things down enough to give us time. But this article reflects some new research showing that the feedbacks could be positive and quite devastating, based on what actually happened 56 million years ago. Of course, things aren’t the same today as back then; the causes are different and the speed at which carbon concentrations increased is also different. But those differences are “much faster and quicker”. And messing with a complex system like the earth’s climate on a faster and quicker basis could induce even more chaos than a 20,000 year mechanism, as the “Paleocene-Eocene Thermal Maximum” was. Once again – ‘uh oh’.

Then there is the article on whether and how a malevolent, determined computer hacker could bring down the American power grid, and keep it down for weeks or months. Yikes, no electricity across the nation – not a pretty thought. David Nicol sets out in detail a seemingly plausible list of ways that it could be done. Yep, another ‘uh oh’.

Then there’s the grand finale, an interview with string-theory physicist Leonard Susskind. What really set me back was Susskind’s theory about how our universe could really be just an information processing simulation, like something from the movie “The Matrix”, but on a universal scale. Susskind contends that black holes contain information about the stuff they swallowed up on their surface. Although the stuff is gone, the information is still there, maybe in entirety. So a 3-D chair thrown into a black hole would no longer exist in the 3-D world; but it may still exist on the 2-D surface of the black hole, as information.

In the interview, Susskind implies that if you had a very powerful observation tool, a super-microscope capable of capturing all possible information about an object (including all quantum states of its quarks and other particles), you would need so much energy that you would create a black hole. And that black hole might swallow up the object you were trying to gain information about. So the thing you wanted to observe would be gone, but the info about it might remain. And that info might be holographic enough as to allow the object to “live on”.

On a grand scale – what if our entire universe is just a 2-D surface (on a black hole or otherwise) with enough information in a holographic form as to allow an entire universe to “live”, to change and grow and do all kinds of things over the course of time? Including hosting intelligent, sentient life? The theories can’t rule out that possibility. We indeed might be just a lot of information interacting on a 2-D surface, creating an illusion of depth and time. Yikes! Even beyond “uh oh”!!!

Susskind also said that quantum physics shows that you can know everything there is to know about a composite system, and yet not know everything about the individual constituents. Hmm, that’s a toughie if you get down and try to really understand it. If you knew absolutely everything about your toothbrush, you’d think that you would know everything about all the atoms and molecules within the bristles and handle.

However, when you get to really complex things like human consciousness, maybe this idea makes more sense. We inherently know everything about the experience of consciousness, and we scientifically know a lot about the brain and body structures and processes that create it. But yet, we don’t know how those structures and processes come together to form the experience of consciousness. Just what about them mixes together in what kind of way to cause conscious experience? If Susskind is right, perhaps there is a system information limit akin to what is found in the quantum world. Perhaps we will never know just what it is about neurons and molecules and sensory structures that mix together under certain conditions to cause consciousness.

And to be honest, that might be a good thing. To that idea, I will hold back the “uh oh”.

◊   posted by Jim G @ 8:40 pm      

  1. Jim, Nice summary of the articles in Scientific American. May I respectfully say that I notice that most of the articles have you saying: “Yikes” and “uh oh”!! If I were reading something that gave me that reaction, I’d tend to look for something else on the subject. But this may be just me; I am only commenting here and thinking in terms of what may be less depressing reading, that’s all.

    As regards the warming of the earth and what happened 56 million years ago: If the whole earth warming “thing” is inevitable because that is what the earth tends to do (cool down at times and heat up at other–or maybe it’s certain places that do this–and man may be just hurrying up this natural process), I tend to think that the emphasis should be put on adjusting to the change. My understanding of the Neanderthals is that they survived because they could and did adapt to the cold. My understanding is that at the time they flourished, the Northern Hemisphere was much colder than it is now.

    Recently I read (can’t remember if it was in The Atlantic or the National Geographic–I plead old age) that recently scientists have found that there are only very few humans living on the earth now (they are in South Africa, if I remember correctly) who do not have some DNA from the Neanderthals; seems the Neanderthals and Homo Sapiens interbred for at least some thousands of years at one point. So maybe we’ve inherited a bit of the adaptation of the Neanderthals. Why not think of that possibility?

    I do have a question: Why would the possibility that our world is a 2-D surface that allows an entire universe to live and change and grow, etc., evoke a “Yikes! Even beyond “uh oh”!!! ? It seems to me that if we perceive the world the way we perceive it, presumably as 3-D here, why should it bother us if it is really 2-D? Why would we care if it is not what we think it is?

    Actually, I tend to think that each person’s perception of the world is his/her own perception of the world and, thus, each person’s “world” is different from every other person’s world. So far, if this is the case, this system actually seems to be working quite well for us.

    And I must say I am glad to see that you are beginning to think that perhaps we may never know what consciousness is. Something about that appeals to me. While it’s possible to reduce everything to neurons firing or not firing, etc., what seems so obvious to me is that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Thus, consciousness has an element to it that we may never know. Glad to see Scientific American can bring you around to thinking about that. MCS

    Comment by Mary S. — August 15, 2011 @ 7:38 pm

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