Friday 27 February 2009

Richard Wiseman: Quirkology

When I was a kid I used to read a lot of stuff about weird facts, and in a way this book reminded me of one of my childhood books of the bizarre and irrelevant.

We expect science to be wearing a white coat and be lurking menacingly in a laboratory full of smoking test tubes. Richard Wiseman simply takes the scientific method out of the laboratory and onto the streets to analyse our everyday lives. So unlike my childhood book of facts, this is a book of experimental results on tests that mainstream science thought too silly.

Richard unearths the scientific truth behind a whole host of things like: astrology, how to tell when someone is lying, how to distinguish false smiles, subliminal messaging, haunted houses, strange coincidences, walking on red hot coals, the world's funniest joke and the best chat up lines.

Many of the experiments require examining the psychology of the test subjects, but in order to remain objective, the subjects are often either not told the true purpose of the experiment or initially led somewhat astray. One particular set of experiments involved testing the honesty of people by using overtly generous cash machines freely dispatching a nice crisp ten-pound note and over munificent shop assistants giving away far too much change.

As perhaps expected, most people are far happier to take from faceless banks or corporations than independent shops or individuals, as Richard says, perhaps we just see it as an opportunity to get even with a bank we feel has already overcharged us. However, shortly after reading this chapter I noticed that someone had abandoned a very nice bicycle just outside my house. My immediate thoughts were therefore to look around for a hidden camera subtly tying to test the psychology of passers by. Five days later it was still there and had even been neatly stowed against a lamppost awaiting it owners return, so I figure I must live in a pretty good neighbourhood.

Another area explored at the length in the book, is the search for the worlds funniest joke. Inspired by Monty Python’s Ernest Scribbler, writer of the world’s funniest joke. The Laugh-Lab experiment invited the public to submit and rate jokes on to a web site where the results were analysed. Dirty jokes were politely removed from the database, and I suspect that the real worlds funniest joke, if submitted, was probably jettisoned with the other unsuitable material. I’ll not steal Richard’s thunder by repeating any of the jokes here, but the most interesting part of the experiment was how different groups of people laugh at different things. For example older people tended to laugh at jokes dealing with the problems associated with old age and genders find jokes associated with stereotypes of the opposite gender more amusing.

The book is so easy to read and crammed full of witticisms that if anything, I feel a little cheated that I finished it so quickly. Also, if you every get the chance to see Richard, its certainly worthwhile as the contents of this book combined with his presentation and magic skills translate into a highly entertaining talk. And if you haven’t already visited, the web site contains some experiments to partake in and some great video clips.

Monday 23 February 2009

Terms and Conditions Apply

I’ve just sent off my application forms and deposit for the kids to attend Camp Quest at the end of July. Camp Quest is the first residential summer camp for the children of atheists, agnostics, humanists, freethinkers and all those who embrace a naturalistic rather than supernatural world view.

Anyhoo, whilst I was filling in the forms and ticking the box to say that I had read the terms and conditions, I thought as a novel idea, just for a change, I might actually read what I’m signing my kids up for. The terms and conditions included a check to ensure I had read through the “Affirmations of Humanism”, having just read through them, I thought I’d stick them on my blog, as I have never read a set of principles before that I felt so totally aligned with my thinking.

So here they are:

1. We are committed to the application of reason and science to the understanding of the universe and to the solving of human problems.

2. We deplore efforts to denigrate human intelligence, to seek to explain the world in supernatural terms, and to look outside nature for salvation.

3. We believe that scientific discovery and technology can contribute to the betterment of human life.

4. We believe in an open and pluralistic society and that democracy is the best guarantee of protecting human rights from authoritarian elites and repressive majorities.

5. We are committed to the principle of the separation of church and state.

6. We cultivate the arts of negotiation and compromise as a means of resolving differences and achieving mutual understanding.

7. We are concerned with securing justice and fairness in society and with eliminating discrimination and intolerance.

8. We believe in supporting the disadvantaged and the handicapped so that they will be able to help themselves.

9. We attempt to transcend divisive parochial loyalties based on race, religion, gender, nationality, creed, class, sexual orientation, or ethnicity, and strive to work together for the common good of humanity.

10. We want to protect and enhance the earth, to preserve it for future generations, and to avoid inflicting needless suffering on other species.

11. We believe in enjoying life here and now and in developing our creative talents to their fullest.

12. We believe in the cultivation of moral excellence.

13. We respect the right to privacy. Mature adults should be allowed to fulfill their aspirations, to express their sexual preferences, to exercise reproductive freedom, to have access to comprehensive and informed health-care, and to die with dignity.

14. We believe in the common moral decencies: altruism, integrity, honesty, truthfulness, responsibility.

15. Humanist ethics is amenable to critical, rational guidance. There are normative standards that we discover together. Moral principles are tested by their consequences.

16. We are deeply concerned with the moral education of our children. We want to nourish reason and compassion.

17. We are engaged by the arts no less than by the sciences.

18. We are citizens of the universe and are excited by discoveries still to be made in the cosmos.

19. We are skeptical of untested claims to knowledge, and we are open to novel ideas and seek new departures in our thinking.

20. We affirm humanism as a realistic alternative to theologies of despair and ideologies of violence and as a source of rich personal significance and genuine satisfaction in the service to others.

21. We believe in optimism rather than pessimism, hope rather than despair, learning in the place of dogma, truth instead of ignorance, joy rather than guilt or sin, tolerance in the place of fear, love instead of hatred, compassion over selfishness, beauty instead of ugliness, and reason rather than blind faith or irrationality.

22. We believe in the fullest realization of the best and noblest that we are capable of as human beings.

Wednesday 18 February 2009

Francis Wheen: How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World

Anyone who is likely to read my blog will not need it pointing out to them that the modern world is full of mumbo jumbo. Irrational beliefs seem to be the norm, whether they be pseudoscience, new age mythologies, quackery, astrology, conspiracy theories, mediums or turbo charged religious fundamentalists.

Can we trace all this mumbo jumbo back to a point in time where the world was primed for the spread of these unfounded beliefs over rationality. This book suggests that a likely candidate might be 1979. I have always associated 1979 with Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” and the Clash’s "London Calling”, but maybe I should try and look at the wider world. Francis Wheen identifies two key events in this year whose consequences, he competently argues, are major contributors to paving the way to today’s world of woo. The first is the return of the Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran on the 1st February 1979, and the second is election of Margaret Thatcher as British Prime Minister on 1st May 1979.

Wheen obviously doesn’t argue that 1979 is a clear demarcation point where such nonsense previously did not exist. He does however take a left-wing political perspective to show how the policy changes set the scene for a series of unrelated beliefs to challenge modernity and enlightenment. Taking a political viewpoint rather than a scientific viewpoint allows this book to encompass a wider remit than say Carl Sagan. Wheen therefore muses on some of the following items:

What turned Britain into a nation of blubbering idiots following the unfortunate accident with a Mercedes, a Parisian tunnel and an over pampered Princess?

How could America’s mid 80’s foreign policy be influenced by the President’s wife’s astrologer?

How did the stock market manage to float dot com companies consisting of nothing much more than a concept on a the back of fag packet for a ludicrous amount a money before a single penny of revenue had been received?

Why are people religiously following the authority of dodgy self appointed life style Gurus and self help books?

Why did people become so attentive to the ravings of Nostradamus and attempt to match up any random convoluted coincidental fact they could dig up

Why has science become so mistrusted?

I’m not going to attempt to answer these questions in the blog, but read the book as it makes a decent and amusing attempt at answering them

The back of the book lists the standard series of glittering reviews. I did however find it quite ironic that it included a rather nice review from the Daily Mail, as I’m sure they’re not completely blameless.

Friday 6 February 2009

Are We Alone?

I noticed this news article today on the BBC website stating that there could be thousands of intelligent alien civilisations out there.

This is exciting stuff, and I think the confirmation of extra terrestrial intelligent life would be probably the most significant discovery in the history of our civilisation and something that I like many others, would dearly love to see in my lifetime. Despite the hope and desire for such evidence I have a little more pessimism than many of my much-respected heroes who have far greater knowledge in this area.

My simplistic view of the likelihood of alien intelligence is based on the Drake Equation. The equation takes a whole bunch of crazy variables such as the number of likely planets, the number of those in the goldilocks zone (not too hot and not too cold), and the probability of life emerging, and eventually evolving intelligence on each habitable planet before becoming extinct.

I’ve cut and pasted the full equation below from the ever reliable wikipdeia:

R* is the average rate of star formation in our galaxy
fp is the fraction of those stars that have planets
ne is the average number of planets that can potentially support life per star that has planets
fℓ is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop life at some point
fi is the fraction of the above that actually go on to develop intelligent life
fc is the fraction of civilizations that develop a technology that releases detectable signs of their existence into space
L is the length of time such civilizations release detectable signals into space.

Technologies in detecting extra solar planets such as Gravitational Microlensing, Transit Method and Radial Velocity have been successful in detecting over 330 planets in recent years. My understanding is that these discoveries have afforded us confidence to feed in higher values for the variables fp and ne than previous conservative estimates. I imagine that upping these values based on this new evidence has increased the value of N (the number of civilisations in our galaxy) to between 361 and 38,000 according to the BBC news article.

The reason for reserving my personal optimism is that it only takes one zero in the equation to piss on our strawberries. No matter how large the other fractions, multiplying by zero will always give you a result of zero. The variable that concerns me is fℓ. In theory it is possible for life to independently develop elsewhere, but apart from our small blue planet we have no evidence that it actually has. Even if we could see evidence of life on earth that came from another root, it would demonstrate the inevitability of life evolving eventually under the right conditions.

To me the initial spark of life could be so utterly improbable that it may have only happend once in a trillion multiverses and we only witness that one vastly improbable example through the anthropic principle. Douglas Adams, used somewhat similar logic in the quote below:

"It is known that there is an infinite number of worlds, but that not every one is inhabited. Therefore, there must be a finite number of inhabited worlds. Any finite number divided by infinity is as near to nothing as makes no odds, so if every planet in the Universe has a population of zero then the entire population of the Universe must also be zero, and any people you may actually meet from time to time are merely the products of a deranged imagination."

In order to increase my optimism in the possibility of life elsewhere the one thing I want to see is evidence of simple microbial life unconnected with our tree of life. A long extinct simple organism with nothing more than a mechanism for replication on Europa would do me. I would argue that future space missions should take this into account on deciding how to spend the meagre budget afforded by most governments for the exploration of space. Once we have found that small piece of evidence we can be confident there are no zeros in the equation and I will be convinced that it is only the vastness of space that has hindered our first contact.

Tuesday 3 February 2009

Marcus Chown: Quantum Theory Cannot hurt You.

I don’t pretend to really understand quantum mechanics, but the reason I find it such a fascinating subject is its so completely counter intuitive to the non-quantum world in which my brain evolved and attempts to make sense of the Universe. I was listening to the news this morning about the latest initiatives and campaigns to make science more popular and seem less elitist. This is exactly the sort of book that scientists need to be writing in order to purse this goal.

Chown, splits the book into two sections, the world of the very small, and the world of the very large, and shows how the fundamental laws that govern these two worlds greatly differ from each other, and the small slice of space and time that we are able to perceive.

The world of the very small is introduced by a few interesting facts to fully illustrate how quantum mechanics farts in the face of our blinkered reality. The logic and consequences of these facts is elucidated, not by mathematics and complex equations, but by comparisons, anecdotes and thought experiments that even I could get my head around. For example, if there were some way to squeeze all of the empty space out of the atoms in our bodies, humanity would fit into the space occupied by a sugar cube. Or an atom can be in two different places at once, the equivalent of you being in New York and London at the same time. That makes Phil Collins’ dual appearance at Live Aid in Wembley and Philadelphia seem positively pedestrian. I especially liked the chapter that explained how atoms influence each other instantly even when they are vast distances apart without being subject to all those tedious light speed limits enforced by Einstein’s cosmic police. This is exemplified by two spinning coins, one in a sealed box on the ocean floor, and one on a cold moon in a distant galaxy. The instant the coin on earth comes down as heads, its cousin a billion light years from earth instantly comes down as tails. The consequences of mastering for example, quantum computing, as we have mastered the electron opens up feasible possibilities that make many fantasy writers seem to be unimaginative dullards.

The second half of the book takes a look at the bigger things and therefore concentrates mainly on Einstein and how he discovered the interchangeably of mass and energy as nicely summarised by: E=mc2. Again Chown draws on comparison and anecdotes to illustrate his points, for example the weight of the sun is reducing every second by about the weight of a super tanker. Therefore showing that “photon’s have mass”, and inducing Woody Allen to quip, “I didn’t even know they were Catholic”. Chown concludes with the ultimate Rabbit out of Hat trick or how we learned that the universe has not existed forever but was born from in a titanic explosion 13.7 billion years ago

I’ve always wondered why many people seem far more concerned with the amount of cellulite on a particular celebrities fat arse than with the fascination of our universe and indeed our existence as made sense of by the scientific method. Chown has insured that the excuse of elitism and lack of understandability can no longer be used as a valid defence by such bum watchers.