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Monday, October 29, 2007

Did God play dice with the world?

Einstein famously mentioned that God did'nt play dice with this world. This was in spite of the fact that his own findings (further worked upon by others) suggested that our universe, capable of bearing intelligent life, belonged to an infinitesimal minority of all the universes possible. More recently, this was coined in the form of "Anthropic Principle", stated simply:

The universe must be such so as to admit the creation of us as observers within.

In my mind, such a principle overly simplifies things and undermines any deeper research. Consider some answers from the Anthopic principle:

Q: How can intelligent life exist in the Universe in spite of such heavy odds against it?
A: Heavy odds or not, the event has happened. We are here. That is the explanation.

Q: How could the condition on earth be ripe for our existence?
A: If the condition were'nt ripe, we would'nt be here to ask this question, now, would we?

This leads to the question whether the nature is truly random and we are here just as a statistical possibility. Put another way, if I throw coins for millions of years, will the results be equally split between heads and tails?

I have been intrigued by this question before and considered it to be just a matter of belief since I did'nt think it could be possible to prove one way or the other. But a program on National Geographic yesterday shook my thoughts again. The episode was about a Random Event Generator (REG) Experiment. Pioneered by Prof. Jahn in 1970s and furthered by Doctor Nelson at Princeton University, the experiment consists of REG black boxes (smaller than a cigerette box) containing a microchip which constantly throws a one or a naught randomly. 65 such REG units have been installed in 40 countries and have been throwing one/naught for over a decade now at extremely high speed. If nature is truly random then the results should be equally split.

And so is the case. However, not quite so. Every once in a while, when a global event happens, the results go out of whack. The first such event was in 1997, Princess Diana's funeral. The chart shot upwards recording a major shift in the results. Infact, since then, the REG has somehow sensed a whole lot of global events ranging from September 11 attacks to the Asian Tsunami. And behold for the spookiest detail - the charts sensed Sep 11 attacks four hours beforehand and the Tsunami 24 hours beforehand !!! An electronic oracle??

The Scientists are skeptic as well as flabbergasted. The project team states that the chances of such correlation between REG and global events is a million to 1 and ascribes the correlation to a "hypothesis" that human community shares a common sub-conscious mind and when they are all focussing on one thing, they tilt the odds of the nature. Phew !!!

I am not so much concerned about the power of mind, important as it might be. I am just happy that there is some hope that we are just not statistical freaks of nature but there could be more to us.


Thursday, October 25, 2007

Occupational Hazards of being a Superhero - I

We were watching the movie - Superman returns and somebody asked the question why people can't link Superman's face back to Clark Kent. An honest reply came that it is so because Clark Kent wears glasses. It brought smile to my face but also took my mind to another tangent. Clark Kent does'nt just wear glasses, he also wears the Superman Costume (Complete with the cape, though they never show that) underneath his normal clothes. If the size of the cape fluttering behind a flying Superman is anything to go by, then it would be quite ackward to wear it underneath. Going further back, imagine how much time it would take Clark Kent to get dressed in the morning. I remember having dressed as Captain Jack Sparrow to a theme party. It took me over half an hour to put the damn thing on and that too when I did'nt have a Superman's costume underneath. That is a mighty waste of time when you could put it to better use such as killing the bad guys or taking your women to a space-trip.

When Clark Kent goes to the tailor, he probably has to get his measurements with the costume on so as to accomodate the extra inches (meters if you are thinking about the cape). The tailor has to be one of the best if Clark Kent's fitting clothes are anything to go by and probably quite expensive too. But then, probably Superman covers it off by offering his services in exchange like precision-cutting the cloth via his laser eye thing.

That is not a problem for Spiderman, though. His costume is really tight-fitting and his normal clothes are conveniently ill-fitting to hide the costume underneath. If not, he will probably need to offer to stitch for the tailor in exchange for his services. Come to think of that, Spiderman and Superman can really be a great business team - Cut and Stitch tailors. They will probably need to hire professional designers, though; who wants to wear their underwear on top of their pants or a tight mask making it difficult to breathe or to be kissed.

Spiderman, however, has other problems. I, for one, would not want to live in the same city as Spiderman. Imagine the plight of the municipality when the whole city is swarming with Spidey's webs hanging from every sky-scraper and too strong to be just wiped away with a broom. Living in such a city, one will always be prone to walk into a maze of slimy webs created by a mutant, making your skin crawl. Consider you are jogging and all of a sudden you are catapulted into two-three spins before hitting the ground face-first because you ran into a waist-high rope slung by Spidey a couple of years back. No sir, I will prefer to stay in a city ridden with crime than share it with Spiderman.

Batman, however, is neat and tidy. He is rich, has got good taste and barring some rare displays of bat-flurry, mostly leaves you in peace assuming you pay your taxes on time. But his gadgets are something to be considered - batarangs, bat mobile, bat sub, utility belt..., the list is endless. Think about batarang, the bat-shaped throwing weapon. I remember the scene in "Batman Returns" where Bruce Wayne is working on a machine to make batarangs. If you are remotely like me who looks at every task and immediately starts thinking about how difficult that task is, how much time/effort/money is involved and eventually gives up on the task, you would know what I am talking about. In any case, these batarangs are of bat-shape, of course and would take a professional hours to get the right shape and size. Assume that Bruce Wayne imports small metal pieces in bulk and then shapes them into batarangs on a portable machine. Now, do you see the difficulty. The fact that he uses Wayne Enterprises money for his personal whims should be a topic for debate on corporate responsibility. If he is using Alfred to make these batarangs, that is a bloody murder and he will probably need to pay a rich monotony allowance. Consider Alfred watching Batman thulp the bad guys on Bat-TV and when Batman throws a batarang, he would have to gasp - "Oh there goes another one. Now there are only 223 left in store."

All the above is probably the reason why they don't have any girl friends. See some conversations:

Woman: Lets make love.
Clark Kent: Ok. I will need about 25 minutes to get out of my clothes and then I will try and last for a good five minutes.

Woman: Why dont you spend more time with me.
Batman: Umm, I have to make 473 batarangs before the sun goes down today.

Well, you get the point.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Exact Science

As a child, the thing that initially attracted me most to Science and math was that they were exact. History was always written by the victorious. Language had too many nuances in both the usage and pronounciation that I find hard to comprehend even today. Civics was a study too far removed from the reality and geography seemed too backward (Who wants to dig when one could fly out to space and beyond)

However, as I grew up, the same exactness of science and math became too predictable and monotonous. The periodic table listed all the elements discovered and also had slots for the ones to be discovered. The speed of light was defined and constant. A star's life was reduced to a choice between being blown up, being crunched to a dot or flicker away into non-existence. Big pregnant bang gave birth to the universe which was again pre-destined to either continue expanding or oscillate between expanding/contracting. It seemed that our predecessors were too selfish and had discovered everything by themselves leaving us with no mystery.

How wrong was I? Over the past years, science is no longer as exact as it used to be. Some examples:

Blackholes are'nt entirely black any more.

The smallest particle is not an electron but it is a quark and that too because a smaller one is yet to be discovered.

The uncertainty principle states that at a given time, one can either know the velocity or the location of a particle, but not both.

Speed of light may be a constant at a given point of time but there are indications that it was much faster to begin with and has slowed down over time. Seems, it is tiring down.

The big pregnant bang theory still holds its fort but further research is on to identify the father.

When I came across the above, I presumed that all this must have been discovered only in the recent years. But that was'nt the case. Some of the above is recent but a lot was known as early as seventies and eighties. It turns out that my curriculum was behind time. Infact, it was so behind time that time would have been a speck on the horizon. Too bad, the world lost out on another Einstein.

Nonetheless, all this has made Science interesting once again, even in this old age. I can hardly follow much of the recent theories but it is a pleasure in looking at these immense puzzles that nobody knows how to solve, for sure. Infact, with each small step towards the solution, the puzzle becomes even more complicated. May be Scott Adams was right when he said that as soon as a theory to explain the universe and everything is found, the universe will immediately transform itself into even more complicated form. Spooky, well, this puzzle is definitely better than a crossword or a sudoku.

Science Fiction

I have been reading science fiction for a long time. The limited knowledge of physics that I have always seemed to take the credibility/punch out of the most consummate plots. I guess that is why it is Science Fiction and not just science. Nonetheless, I thought that in the past decade that I havent stayed in touch with the development in physics beyond the third law (There is no end to being pushed around) and relativity (in grading and performance appraisal, that is), it may be that some of the old science fiction may have ceased to be fiction. After a long time of struggling with five dimention mathematics and string theories, I had to give up (Surprise, surprise). But, it did enable me to look at science fiction from a very comical angle.

Consider an example of a starship located about ten light years away from Planet Earth (It will still be next-door neighbour to Earth at a cosmic scale) and communicating with Earth over a three-dimensional telephone line (wireless, of course). Now, since I know, thanks to Einstein, that nothing can travel faster than light, let us see how the communication flows:

Earth: "Hi there" ; October, 2047, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era

This signal, assuming it travels at the speed of light, will take about ten years to get to the Starship.

Starship Captain: "Hi yourself" ; October 2057, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era

Earth in-charge, if he chooses to continue this rather quiet conversation, will get the reply in 2067, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era. Imagine if he did'nt really keep a detailed log of all the multiple conversations he has been having and in this particular case, cannot recall what they were talking about.

Earth: "Sorry, how can I help you?" October 2067, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era

Starship Captain: "Huh?" October 2077, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era

Earth: "Oh yes, you are relieved of duty with immediate effect and can come back home. A very well deserved vacation. Congratulations." October 2087, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era

Starship Captain: "There is some disturbance in the line. Can you repeat that?" October 2097, Solar Calendar, Galactic Era.

The captain, in this story, finally gets the message two decade hence and promptly dies of heart attack as the excitement of the news was too much for that old age. The above is just one example. Now, imagine coordinating troops for a space-war against aliens, romancing with your lover, wishing your son on his birthday or playing long-distance scramble/chess with your grand-dad etc. etc.

The only way, this could be faster, is a) modes of travelling faster than light are possible or b) the world is full of almost immortal bored individuals devoid of any life (Notice the similarity with zombies). Since (a) is virtually impossible (or so I think), it is most likely going to be (b).

I am glad that I wont be around to check that out.