new scientist letter

Why do we move forward in time?

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This week, the New Scientist magazine gave me a big compliment by making my latest letter to them their Editor’s letter of the week. Here it is:

Your article 'Why do we move forward in time?" (Issue 3037, 5th Sept 2015, pg34) makes it clear that physics has no clear answer as to why time passes. The article reminded me of an ancient Zen Koan. Two monks were watching a flag flapping in the wind. One said to the other, "The flag is moving." The other replied, "The wind is moving." A Zen master, walking nearby, overheard them. He said, "It is not the flag nor the wind that is moving but your minds." The idea that our minds experience the four-dimensional 'landscape' of physical reality in a chosen time direction would explain the phenomenon of time passing without violating any physics. Perhaps the Zen master was right philosophically and scientifically?


The article concerned was one of a series of articles in the New Scientist that week (issue 3037) about aspects of physics that non one had yet solved. The tricky nature of time is definitely one of these big conundrums. We all experience time flowing; we do things, one after the other, day after day. Around us clocks tick and cars drive and birds fly etc. We can't seem to stop or alter this flow of time. We can't make time stand still. It can certainly sometimes seem as if time is flowing more slowly than at other times. For example, waiting to go into an exam can seem to last forever, but while you're doing the exam, time can seem to scream by. I remember once starting a strategy board game, then becoming completely engrossed and then looking up and finding out that two hours had gone by, as if in a flash. Read More...

Superficial intelligence - the limits of A.I.

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Last weekend, I listed all the letters I sent to the New Scientist magazine for the past three months. Although they weren't printed, I thought it would be nice for people to read the letters anyway, rather than leave them to sit, forgotten on a shelf (sort of). They aren't very long and I think they make some interesting points - one of them even includes a joke! - so it seemed worthwhile to blog them.
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This weekend (5th Sept), out of the blue, the New Scientist have actually printed one of those letters, the 4th August letter entitled 'Superficial Intelligence'. This is what I wrote on the 4th August:

Dear New Scientist. In your Opinion page (issue 3032, 1st August 2015, pg22), Martin Rees states that biological brains will eventually be superseded by far superior, machine intelligences. This follows on from recent comments in the media by Stephen Hawking and others, warning of the dangers of runaway A.I. These are all surprising assertions, as digital computers, fundamentally, are no different from punch-card clocks. Also, A.I. and quantum computing have so far failed to live up to their initial hype; they're currently more Superficial Intelligence than Artificial Intelligence. How do Hawking and Rees think these automated sorters and calculators will reach such lofty goals? 

I'm pleased that the New Scientist magazine published it. They didn't publish the full letter; they removed the middle sentence, but it's still good to see it in the magazine. Thinking again on the topic, I would like to add a few more points. I did write a blog article in March, explaining the fundamental limitations of computers, and that does cover a lot, but here's three new points: Read More...

New Scientist rejected letters

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So far this year, I've been writing regular letters to the New Scientist magazine. Up until May, they printed quite a few of them, on the subjects of alien contact, alien signals, VR headsets transforming public performances, killer robots, the accuracy of internet facts, home servers to create bitcoins and one or two others, which was great.
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But since late May, they haven't printed any of my letters, which is odd, but there you go. Rather than leave the letters to moulder on a shelf, I thought I'd publish my last three months' worth of new scientist letters on my blog. Here they are, in chronological order:

'Fast food hit' (13th May)

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Dear New Scientist. In your recent '60 seconds' column (issue 3020, 9th May 2015, pg7), you report that recent research shows that 'fructose appears to make our brains more responsive to images of food than glucose, and people who drink fructose-rich drinks are more likely to choose high-calorie foods over money prizes'. Since fructose, particularly in the form of high fructose corn syrup or HFCS, is a mainstay ingredient in fast food drinks, does this mean that fast food should be declared officially addictive? 
Read More...

Learning from the past

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In this week's New Scientist magazine, there's a section in the Letters page discussing the recent article on Mankind's exploration of Mars. One of the letters is from me:

In your article on colonising Mars (Issue 3021, 16th May 2015, pg39), the writer Rhawn Joseph states that 'our cosmic biological destiny is to go forth and multiply'. This isn't a scientific idea but a religious one, originating in the Bible (Genesis 9:7) as part of God's covenant with Noah. It's also woefully short-sighted. The destiny of a dominant, tool-using species that multiplies unchecked in its environment is ecological collapse, something we're now seeing here on Earth. We need a new cosmic destiny for the next four thousand years, one where we don't run away from our problems. How about 'stay, stabilise and save'?



I wrote the letter because I was unhappy that a 'ultimate fact' was being placed in the article that was not only non-scientific but non-sensical. 'Go forth and multiply' makes sense if you've just had your population decimated by a cataclysm and you need to restore healthy numbers, but it doesn't make any sense once your numbers start to overwhelm your environment. Strangely enough, the story of the origins of 'go forth and multiply' includes both problems… Read More...

Climate Change and Killer Robots

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This week's New Scientist magazine includes a letter of mine on the subject of Killer Robots. It was triggered by an article in a recent New Scientist magazine issue in which international bodies agreed that we shouldn't make fully autonomous, lethally armed robots. Instead, any robot that could kill should be controlled in some way by a human. Here's my letter:

"In your article on the moral dangers of autonomous, lethally armed robots, Peter Asaro says "most people now feel that it is unacceptable for robots to kill people without human intervention." (18th April, p7). The moral reasoning behind this view is intriguing. How is sending a programmed, armed robot into an area designated as 'enemy occupied' any worse than, say, bombing the area from ten thousand feet? In fact, the level of precision and the amount of human judgement involved in target selection with the robot would be arguably greater."


"There is an even stranger moral angle. Someone who is ordered to go and kill strangers in a war can suffer severe emotional trauma and other mental distress as a result. In the future, there may be societies that decide, on moral grounds, to delegate all killing of the enemy in their wars to fully autonomous robots so as to protect their citizens from such emotional trauma. In that unnerving scenario, the robots wouldn't be seen by those citizens as devils, but heroic guardians."


The second paragraph connects with another topic; how climate change will change our world, both environmentally and politically, in the next century. Read More...

VR primed for the next stage

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The development of VR has been an up-and-down story over the last few decades, but it took an important step forward recently with the creation of the Oculus Rift headset. According to the reports, when a person wears the Oculus Rift headset, they can comfortably 'look around' with the headset without their virtual view becoming a spinning mess of nausea. A lot of commentators are suggesting that this new product heralds the long-awaited era of mainstream use of VR headsets by much of the population for entertainment, education and other related activities.

The New Scientist magazine ran an article last week on this subject entitled 'Virtual reality film revolution puts you in the scene'. The article reports on how several major companies involved in technology and film, such as Sony, are exploring how to use VR to make a new generation of movies and documentaries. The article discusses the benefits, but also the obstacles for VR film-making. I wrote a letter to the New Scientist magazine, suggesting a different use for this new technology, which they've published: Read More...

Google and Max Planck

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In last week's New Scientist magazine, Hal Hodson wrote an interesting article reporting on Google's project to try and weed out what New Scientist magazine often refers to as 'fruitloopery'. Google's plan is to assess websites' statements for accuracy by comparing them to its own store of knowledge. If that website's 'facts' don't match Google's own official facts, then Google will lower that website's ranking accordingly, so that viewers won't be exposed to spurious information. This sounds great, but there is a problem. Here's the letter I wrote in response:

Hal Hodson reports that Google's software for ranking pages on their trustworthiness will make its judgement by drawing on a store of facts gathered from the internet. Isn't this circular logic? How would the Google system handle a statement such as "glass is a liquid"? On the internet, the notion that glass is a slow-moving liquid, resulting in medieval windows that are thicker at the bottom, seems far more prevalent than the truth – that glass is a solid and medieval glaziers placed the thicker end of blown glass sheets at the bottom. Since nothing on the internet is unanimously agreed, Google's software would have to take the majority consensus. If this happened, there is a good chance that any site dispelling a popular misconception would appear far down the list of search results, making it harder, not easier, for people to learn the truth. Popular fiction would dominate because the software would add it to the Knowledge Vault and use that reference point to downgrade the truth. Intelligent people can make clever software, but no one makes intelligent software.


This project also reminded of the physicist Max Planck's comment about new ideas. He said:

A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.

Read More...

SETI and sci-fi expectations

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The New Scientist magazine's letters page this week includes some more discussions about SETI and alien contact. This topic was discussed a while back and I wrote in about it, but there's always something new to add. This week's discussion includes my response to an earlier letter on the subject of the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligences:

In your letters page (21st Feb 2015) John Bailey concludes that since we haven’t been bombarded with self-replicating alien robots or seen huge heat signatures in space, there probably aren’t any advanced civilisations in our galaxy. He seems to think that advanced races will have a ‘more is better’ philosophy, but climate change is showing us that a ‘less is better’ philosophy is the only intelligent long-term strategy. If this is correct, then the more advanced a race is in the galaxy, the less visible they’ll be. It’s the quiet ones that are clever, not the shouters.


John Bailey's expectation that advanced alien civilisations will be huge, star-spanning confederations with big, powerful ships and zillions of self-replicating robots is, I think, because of how they're currently depicted in mainstream fiction. We pick whatever seems cutting-edge and exciting at the moment - nano-technology, robotics, ion-drives - and multiply them by a thousand or a thousand million and, voila, that's your advanced alien civilisation. A century-or-so ago, H.G.Wells came up with the idea of Cavorite, a substance that could negate gravity. Using this discovery, two Englishmen travelled to the moon. From a scientific point of view, Cavorite is just as believable as a warp drive or a hyperdrive but it's now seen as quaint, silly and unscientific. I'd bet that self-replicating robots will be seen as just as daft in a century's time.
Read More...

Computing power and bitcoins

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It's March! Hooray! The British winter is coming to an end. This week, I have another letter in the New Scientist Magazine. This week's letter refers to a New Scientist article about a business venture that hopes to persuade home-owners to buy computer processing servers to both heat their homes and make money as freelance number crunchers, as described in this article.

"The plan to sell home data centres to customers as heat sources sounds innovative, but seems to be missing some key financial points (7th February, pg20). Each customer will need to seek the extra computing power online. The cost of a high-bandwidth connection to the internet and an intermediary to handle the processing tasks is not mentioned. More importantly, the article doesn't mention Moore's law, which states that computing power doubles every two years [Although this law isn't as straightforward nowadays with processor speed limits, it is still roughly true]. This means that the expensive kit a Project Exergy customer buys will roughly halve in value every two years. Also, companies buying the processing power will invariably switch to newer users with newer and faster kit. Early Exergy adopters will be abandoned, leaving them with nothing more than [wildly] expensive electric heaters."


As can be seen from my letter, I wasn't impressed with the strategy of Project Exergy described in the article, but I think their sentiment is positive. As the article states, 'it takes the energy from 34 coal power plants to sustain all digital activities in the US every year'. That's an awful lot of CO2 and innovative ways to reduce this consumption are most welcome, but I think their current strategy isn't the answer.

How about this for an alternative approach? Instead of each household installing servers that remote companies can use for processing tasks, why not set up the servers to mine bitcoins?
Bitcoins are created by running an algorithm to solve a mathematical equation for certain values. In other words, processing time is converted into units of digital currency. If households set up their Exergy servers to do this work, they would not need to encourage remote clients to use their machines and they would therefore not need an intermediary. They would also not need to transmit lots of data and would therefore not need a fat pipe to the internet. In addition, their servers would still be able to grind out bitcoins as the years went by, just at a relatively slower rate. These households would therefore not get 'dumped' by processor clients switching to new customers.

It's still not ideal, but it's hard to think of any currency accumulation that isn't energy intensive. Gold is inert and non-toxic, but it takes a lot of effort and power to get it out of the ground and refine it. Also, its mining processes are hideously bad on the environment. Much of the wealth of the modern world is effectively petroleum turned into money, which isn't much good either. By comparison, generating bitcoins while heating your home doesn't seem too irresponsible. If I can, I'll suggest the idea to the Project Exergy people.

Apart from all that, I'm still immersed in writing a science-fiction comedy novel. I'll try and knock out an article on something interesting soon, when there's a natural gap in the writing. Until then, if you're in the Northern Hemisphere, I hope you're enjoying the longer, sunnier days! :-)


SETI, the 'Wow' signal and the film 'Contact'

Just a quick note to say that another of my letters has appeared in the New Scientist magazine. This one is all about the 'Wow!' signal; the interstellar signal picked up by a U.S. radio telescope in the 1970's. The 'Wow!' signal is probably the most important result so far in the Search for Extra-Terrestrial Intelligence (SETI). Here's my letter:

In your article on a new strategy for those involved in the search for extra-terrestrial intelligence (SETI), David Messerschmitt says that alien civilisations would logically choose to send short, wide-band radio signals rather than prolonged narrow-band ones, to improve both energy efficiency and bandwidth (31st January, p17). Yet probably the most important signal so far detected by SETI is the narrow-band 'Wow!' signal, picked up in 1977. It came from the direction of Sagittarius and was almost exactly on the hydrogen line, a frequency many thought would be ideal for interstellar transmission. Should we tell the alien civilisation in Sagittarius that they're being a bit primitive?


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Reading the letter again, it reminds me of the film 'Contact', starring Jodie Foster, based on the book by Carl Sagan. 'Contact' is a great movie, not only as a story but as a scientifically valid idea. In the film, Foster's character is an astronomer obsessed with finding evidence of transmissions from alien civilisations. She has to fight tooth and nail for funding. She is on the point of giving up when she is given a grant by a mysterious billionaire. She continues her work. One day, her team picks up a signal. It is a narrow-band signal, just like the 'Wow!' signal and it contains detailed information on how to build a device with which to make contact with the aliens who sent the message.

The U.S. government builds the machine described in the blueprints. Eventually, Jodie Foster's character gets to travel in the machine. I won't reveal any more to avoid spoiling it for anyone who hasn't seen it, but the way the story unfolds and is finally resolved is both clever and intelligent.

There is a terrible irony if we compare 'Contact' with the 'Wow!' signal. If we had received the 'Wow!' signal today, rather than in 1977, we'd have the technology to record it in detail and analyse it, just as Foster's team did with the signal they received in the film. It's perfectly possible that the 'Wow!' signal was an extremely detailed signal, just like the film. Unfortunately, the technology available at the time could only record a few alphanumeric values, so we'll never know. Argh! How frustrating!

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There is also a funny side to the story of the 'Wow' signal. To quote the Wikipedia article:

In 2012, on the 35th anniversary of the Wow! signal, Arecibo Observatory beamed a response from humanity, containing 10,000 Twitter messages, in the direction from which the signal originated.


To think, we might have had better kit and found the 'Wow!' message to be full of data. We'd have decoded it, delirious with excitement at the prospect of receiving messages from an interstellar civilisation, and read ten thousand alien social networking messages! CHECK OUT HER TENTACLES! OMG! LOL! :-)

Population blind spot

The kind folks at New Scientist magazine published another of my letters this week. This one's all about global population and is a response to an article in the magazine discussing whether we, as a species, could have avoided wrecking our environment by advancing technologically without fossil fuels:

Examining the possibility of a world without fossil fuels, Michael Le Page comes to the conclusion that global warming may be an inevitable result of any industrialised civilisation, as fossil fuels are an unavoidable phase of that development (18th October pg34). He also reports that this might explain the apparent absence of extraterrestrial civilisations despite the high probability that they exist, as each planet offers once chance at transitioning from reliance on finite fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.Perhaps it would be useful to consider a sentient race that could control its population? If our global population had stabilised at a healthy 7 million, rather than 7 billion or more, it's perfectly feasible that we could have passed right through our fossil fuel phase without wrecking our planet's environment.


The editor writes: We will never know for sure. But it is likely that a critical mass of people as well as energy is needed to reach something we would recognise as an industrialised civilisation.


It's an interesting response from the New Scientist editor. How many people
would be needed on this planet for us to continue to develop successfully as a technological species? From a genetic perspective, a species' minimum viable population (or MVP) is in the thousands, so a human population of a million or more is definitely genetically healthy. Genetics aside, what population is needed for technological development? What global population would be required to keep us advancing technologically to the point where we did developed a purely renewable technology society?

Well,
how about the entire Roman Empire?

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The map above (courtesy of the Wikipedia page) shows the extent of the Roman Empire in around 100 AD. It was big. Surely if our global population was the same as the population of the entire Roman Empire, we'd be able to keep going technologically? Around the time of Christ, daily life in Roman Empire wasn't significantly different from today. They had water supplies, sewage systems, household heating, international trade, docks, cranes, pottery and metalwork and a quality road network. They had developed mathematics, researched complex astronomy and created steam-power prototypes. If the Roman Empire was the only civilisation in the world and its population had stabilised at that point and it had been given enough time, surely it would have been capable of advancing past us? It is true that a lot of technological development in Europe was thanks to developments outside Europe, particularly from the Arab world but the Arab world gained many of their technological developments from Egypt and Greece, which were both part the Roman Empire. For a scientist trying to decide on a critical mass of people required to develop into a modern industrial civilisation, the population of the Roman Empire would seem an adequate amount.

Here's the rub. The population of the Roman Empire, east and west together, in 400 AD, was
70 million people. The entire population of the world at the time of Christ was about 170 million people. Our current global population is a hundred times larger than the population of the entire Roman Empire.

It's very strange that the subject of population is very rarely mentioned when people talk about climate change. It's almost a blind spot and yet population is the elephant in the room. For example, for every extra person in Britain, we need to spend £140,000
more on infrastructure; roads, houses, hospitals etc. Extra people are a big burden. For anyone interested in learning more about the effects of population increase, I recommend visiting the population matters website. Population Matters is a charity that works to educate and inform people about the effect of population on our planet and ourselves. The '£140,000' fact comes from a recent study they conducted into the effects of population growth.

There's a dark final point to the matter of a sustainable global population. It would seem that 70 million people (or 1% of our current population) is a believable global population for survival and development. We've grown fifty times larger in the last two-thousand years and we're still growing, but all the evidence points to climate change putting us back
down to that figure in the next five hundred years if we don't do it ourselves. That reduction will be brutal and ugly if we don't find a way to do it ourselves humanely. The choice is ours.

Dolphins and self-delusion

The kind people at the New Scientist magazine have published another one of my letters. Here it is:

"In her article exploring whether dolphins live up to their reputation for intelligence, Caroline Williams tells of being forcefully rebuffed by a dolphin after attempting to connect with it (27th September, p46). In this era of climate change, the possibility that dolphins don't want to be friends with humans makes them seem more intelligent and emotionally developed than ever."


The mention of climate change led me to think about its connection with another recent topic,
Milgram's Experiment. For a long time, many psychologists have been deeply unhappy that Milgram's Experiment seems to show that most people would willingly cause pain and death to an unfortunate target if they were gradually coaxed into it by authority figures. Humanity isn't like that, they say, people aren't that bad!

But a form of Milgram's Experiment is going on as we speak. It started a while ago when some people were coaxed into hurting a living target in return for personal reward. The level of harm they inflicted was slowly ramped up. They willingly continued to harm the target, even though they could see how it was suffering. Now, the experiment has reached the stage where the people involved are inflicting lethal levels of harm on the living target. Yet, they are still continuing
even though they profess to be concerned about the target's welfare. The experiment I'm talking about is climate change. The living target suffering is the Earth's biosphere and the people concerned are, well, nearly every affluent individual on the planet.

Perceptive creatures, dolphins.

Milgram's experiment just won't die

Just a quick note to say that another of my letters has appeared in New Scientist magazine.

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This letter was in response to a recent feature article in which several psychologists put forward the idea that Milgram's famous experiment (which, among other things, is the subject of a track in Peter Gabriel's excellent, classic, bewitching album 'So') isn't quite as bleak as people have made out. For those who haven't heard of Milgram's famous psychology experiment, I've described it in this earlier post.

In the New Scientist article, the psychologists argued that the members of the public that participated in Milgram's experiment - the ones that applied the electric shocks - weren't as bad as everyone has made them out. One reason the psychologists gave was that the subjects in the experiment were told that the experiment had scientific benefit. That, argued the psychologists, was partly why the subjects applied what they thought were lethal level shocks. Also, the psychologists argued, Milgram did the experiment many times, with different parameters (including one where the subjects carrying out the shocks had to physically put the victim's hands on the shock plates) and in some of those versions, a greater percentage of people refused to carry out the shocks to lethal levels. All this, the psychologists emphasised, showed that people
aren't as willing to inflict pain and eventual death on a victim - if instructed to by an authority figure - as Milgram's experiments make out.

Being a right picky, curmudgeonly so-and-so, I felt I had to respond with this letter:

"In re-evaluating Stanley Milgram's infamous experiments, Alexander Haslam and Stephen Reicher argue against the popular view that most people will willingly shock someone to death if an authority figure asks them to (13th Sept, pg28). These psychologists might change their mind if they watch the 2010 French/Swiss televisions documentary 'Le Jeu de la Mort', in which participants in a fake game show were asked to shock a contestant who answered trivia questions incorrectly. The participants knew there was no scientific benefit. Yet only a fifth of them stopped before inflicting what they thought were lethal level shocks."


I was very pleased that New Scientist published the letter. The version they printed wasn't actually the version I sent them, but theirs is better. Nuts, I still haven't cracked this clear and efficient prose malarkey. For those who'd like more info on how the devious but illuminating French-speaking fake-game-show people reinforced Milgram's infamous findings, here's the
BBC report.

The universe is a construction

In this week's New Scientist magazine, there is a very interesting article called 'Cosmic Conundrums' about the problems in modern cosmology. The strap line for the article was: 'what can we do when cosmology raises questions it cannot answer?'

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There's no doubt that modern cosmology has several problems that it is current incapable of solving; here's a list of them below. The first two are mentioned in the article.

Boltzmann's 'Well ordered Universe' problem

Ludwig Boltzmann noticed in the late nineteenth century that the universe was in a very well-ordered state; in simple terms, it worked. The suns were stable and supplied energy, planets orbited them, supporting life. What confused Boltzmann was that he knew about thermodynamics and the Law of Entropy. It made no sense that a universe in which things always got more chaotic over time, it would be in this state after billions of years. It made no sense.

The fine tuning problem

The laws of the universe are extremely friendly to life. In fact, the ratios of the fundamental constants are incredibly, precisely, just right for stars and planets to form. If one or more of them were even a tiny amount different from their real values, we couldn't have atoms, never mind stars. Somehow, possibly by astonishing accident, our universe has just the right fundamental constants for atoms and stars to exist.

The baryon asymmetry problem

When the Big Bang banged, it should have produce equal amounts of matter and anti-matter. This is because, according to physics, the universe treats anti-matter and matter both equally. The only problem with this fact is that if the universe had treated them equally when it began, the matter and anti-matter would have cancelled each other out by colliding in a flash of light, leaving nothing but some radiation. Clearly, this hasn't happened and there is nothing in physics to explain why.

What's very interesting about this list of problems is that there is an answer that solves them all, that makes them all make sense. It is very simple:

The Universe is a construction

In other words, the universe didn't come into existence as a random event. The universe is a creation, made with a positive purpose and designed so that it is stable. That is why its settings (its laws, constants and ratios) are astonishingly fine-tuned so that suns and solar systems can form. That's also why our universe is filled with matter, whereas a universe that was created as a random event from nothing should have produced equal amounts of matter and anti-matter.

The strange conundrum then becomes, if that's the only logical answer and it solves all the existing conundrums, why hasn't it been accepted and widely disseminated?

The reason, in a word, is materialism. The dominant belief in modern science at the moment is materialism. Materialists believe that only inert matter exists. Even our minds are not real. According to materialists, they are simply a sensory phenomenon, like a rainbow. Materialists only believe that our universe came about as a random event, an event without any bias, an event where there was no tendency or movement towards a particular goal. It's worth noting at this point that materialism is purely a belief; it is not based on any scientific evidence. Some scientists may think that science has proved materialism but there are many experiments made by senior scientists that negate this view. These experiments have been dismissed on spurious grounds because they don't agree with materialism. Ironically, it's a lot like the Renaissance Vatican priests refusing to look in Galileo's telescope.

In case someone is thinking that I'm making a case for religion, I'm not. The fact that the universe is a construction doesn't mean that it was made by God (or a god). The evidence doesn't indicate who or what constructed our universe, or how or why it was done. Our universe might have been created by a single entity, it might be a technological creation by an extremely advanced civilization, it might be a huge, collaborative, consensual illusion. The evidence doesn't help us work this out, but it sure is an interesting question.

If any readers would like read a related idea of mine, that also explores how life exists, please have a leaf through the Influence Idea. There's lots of attractive illustrations and pictures of famous scientists and some sheds.

I've sent the New Scientist magazine a letter about this cosmological conundrum, pointing out that all the problems they mentioned are solved if we accept that the universe is a construction. They've been very kind to publish my letters in the past, so it may turn up in the magazine at some point. Here's hoping! :-)

postscript:

They have published my letter. Hooray! That is very good of them, as any scientific view that's even a little non-materialistic can get some serious flack. Thank you, New Scientist magazine.

Science fiction ideas

I'm a big fan of New Scientist magazine; I think I've read almost every issue of the weekly magazine from cover to cover for at least the last five years. I love its combination of factual accuracy, readable and accessible style and topicality. It's also been a very useful tool for me to generate new ideas. I'd read about a fact, theory or invention in the magazine and 'flip' it; imagining that item being used in a very different way.

For an example of this 'flipping', here's a letter I wrote to New Scientist recently which has now been published in their letters page:

In your recent article 'artificial tendons help you walk' (issue 2953, pg21), Yong-Lae Park and colleagues of Carnegia Mellon University made 'a robotic device with artificial muscles that could help people with cerebral palsy strengthen their foot and ankle muscles'. There may be another potential use for such robotic devices; helping ordinary people develop their muscles (get ripped) without having to actually move their limbs themselves. In the future, someone may simply climb inside a full-body version of the device and develop a bodybuilder physique without (literally!) lifting a finger.


For anyone keen to find new ways to come up with creative ideas for stories, I definitely recommend they try this 'flipping' approach. It has a Zen Buddhism element to it in the sense that you need to break out of the predictable way of thinking about a story, invention or place. Jokes and humour also follow this approach, flipping an idea around in such a way that it is interesting, but totally unexpected. It's also great fun!

Producing ideas this way can actually influence the future. The lateral-thinking ideas of science-fiction writers have inspired engineers to make the very items they conjured up in their stories. Arthur C. Clarke famously predicted the usefulness of orbitting satellites and Douglas Adams pointed out how Digital Audio Compact Discs might be rather useful for computer data storage. Perhaps someone will read my letter and in five-years' time, start a company that makes robotic suits that turn their owners from couch potatoes into muscle-bound Adonis's? I've no idea, but it's an interesting idea. :-)

Kit will save us!

Back in the 1960’s, when skirts were short and architecture was Lego-like, Freeman Dyson, a physicist and engineer, came up with the idea of a Dyson Sphere. The idea was straightforward; a sun gives out lots of energy but planets only get a fraction of it. What if you built a sphere entirely around the sun and made the inside surface of that sphere like a planet? That way, you’d have an enormous area of land to use which would all be getting sunshine. You could house a squidgillion number of people that way. Sorted! The idea was intriguing, memorable and cropped up in a slightly altered way in Larry Niven’s very successful science fiction novel ‘Ringworld’.

The idea also cropped up more recently in a
New Scientist magazine article. The article’s author reported attempts underway by scientists to find Dyson Spheres out there in the Milky Way. The logic of the article was as follows: By the laws of probability, there should be many advanced civilisations out there in our galaxy. If there are, some of them should have built Dyson Spheres (or similar enormous engineering constructions) in order to house their expanding populations and help their expansion through the Galaxy. There should therefore be Dyson Spheres out there, encasing stars; it’s just a case of spotting their heat signature, shape, E/M emissions etc. Read More...