Cosmology meets Philanthropy — guest post by Jess Riedel

My colleague Jess Riedel recently attended a conference  exploring the connection between these seemingly disparate subjects, which led him to compose the following essay.–CHB

People sometimes ask me what how my research will help society.  This question is familiar to physicists, especially those of us whose research is connected to every-day life only… shall we say…tenuously.  And of course, this is a fair question from the layman; tax dollars support most of our work.
I generally take the attitude of former Fermilab director Robert R. Wilson.  During his testimony before the Joint Committee on Atomic Energy in the US Congress, he was asked how discoveries from the proposed accelerator would contribute to national security during a time of intense Cold War competition with the USSR.  He famously replied “this new knowledge has all to do with honor and country but it has nothing to do directly with defending our country except to help make it worth defending.”
Still, it turns out there are philosophers of practical ethics who think a few of the academic questions physicists study could have tremendous moral implications, and in fact might drive key decisions we all make each day. Oxford philosopher Nick Bostrom has in particular written about the idea of “astronomical waste“.  As is well known to physicists, the universe has a finite, ever-dwindling supply of negentropy, i.e. the difference between our current low-entropy state and the bleak maximal entropy state that lies in our far future.  And just about everything we might value is ultimately powered by it.  As we speak (or blog), the stupendously vast majority of negentropy usage is directed toward rather uninspiring ends, like illuminating distant planets no one will ever see.
These resources can probably be put to better use.  Bostrom points out that, assuming we don’t destroy ourselves, our descendants likely will one day spread through the universe.  Delaying our colonization of the Virgo Supercluster by one second forgoes about 10^{16} human life-years. Each year, on average, an entire galaxywith its billions of starsis slipping outside of our cosmological event horizon, forever separating it from Earth-originating life.  Maybe we should get on with it?
But the careful reader will note that not everyone believes the supply of negentropy is well understood or even necessarily fixed, especially given the open questions in general relativity, cosmology, quantum mechanics, and (recently) black holes.  Changes in our understanding of these and other issues could have deep implications for the future.  And, as we shall see, for what we do tomorrow.
On the other side of the pond, two young investment analysts at Bridgewater Associates got interested in giving some of their new disposable income to charity. Naturally, they wanted to get something for their investment, and so they went looking for information about what charity would get them the most bang for their buck.   But it turned out that not too many people in the philanthropic world seemed to have many good answer.  A casual observer would even be forgiven for thinking that nobody really cared about what was actually getting done with the quarter trillion donated annually to charity.  And this is no small matter; as measured by just about any metric you choose—lives saved, seals unclubbed, children dewormed—charities vary by many orders of magnitude in efficiency.
This prompted them to start GiveWell, now considered by many esteemed commentators to be the premier charity evaluator.  One such commentator is Princeton philosopher Peter Singer, who proposed the famous thought experiment of the drowning child.  Singer is also actively involved with a larger movement that these days goes by the name “Effective Altruism”.  It’s founding question: If one wants to accomplish the most good in the world, what, precisely, should one be doing?  
You won’t be surprised that there is a fair amount of disagreement on the answer.  But what might surprise you is how disagreement about the fundamental normative questions involved (regardless of the empirical uncertainties) leads to dramatically different recommendations for action.    
A first key topic is animals.  Should our concern about human suffering be traded off against animal suffering? Perhaps weighted by neural mass?  Are we responsible for just the animals we farm, or the untold number suffering in the wild?  Given Nature’s fearsome indifference, is the average animal life even worth living?  Counterintuitive results abound, like the argument that we should eat more meat because animal farming actually displaces much more wild animal suffering than it creates.
Putting animals aside, we will still need to balance “suffering averted”  with “flourishing created”.  How many malaria deaths will we allow to preserve a Rembrandt?  Very, very bad futures controlled by totalitarian regimes are conceivable; should we play it safe and blow up the sun?
But the accounting for future people leads to some of the most arresting ideas.  Should we care about people any less just because they will live in the far future?  If their existence is contingent on our action, is it bad for them to not exist?  Here, we stumble on deep issues in population ethics.  Legendary Oxford philosopher Derek Parfit formulated the argument of the ”repugnant conclusion”.  It casts doubt on the idea that a billion rich, wealthy people living sustainably for millennia on Earth would be as ideal as you might initially think. 
(Incidentally, the aim of such arguments is not to convince you of some axiomatic position that you find implausible on its face, e.g. “We should maximize the number of people who are born”.  Rather, the idea is to show you that your own already-existing beliefs about the badness of letting people needlessly suffer will probably compel you to act differently, if only you reflect carefully on it.)
The most extreme end of this reasoning brings us back to Bostrom, who points out that we find ourselves at a pivotal time in history. Excepting the last century, humans have existed for a million years without the ability to cause our own extinction.  In probably a few hundred years—or undoubtedly in a few thousand—we will have the ability to create sustainable settlements on other worlds, greatly decreasing the chance that a calamity could wipe us out. In this cosmologically narrow time window we could conceivably extinguish our potentially intergalactic civilization through nuclear holocaust or other new technologies.  Even tiny, well-understood risks like asteroid and comet strikes (probability of extinction event: ~10^{-7} per century) become seriously compelling when the value of the future is brought to bear. Indeed, between 10^{35} and 10^{58} future human lives hang in the balance, so it’s worth thinking hard about.
So why are you on Facebook when you could be working on Wall Street and donating all your salary to avert disaster? Convincingly dodging this argument is harder than you might guess.  And there are quite a number of smart people who bite the bullet.

Funding boost for the arXiv

This is fantastic news: starting this January, the Simons Foundation will provide the Cornell University Library with up to US $300k per year (for the next five years) of matching funds to help ensure the continued sustainability of The funds are matched to donations by about 120 institutions in a dozen countries that are well funded and are heavy downloaders of articles from the arXiv. It is also providing an unconditional gift of $50k per year. Here’s the press release from the CUL.
I think it is pretty remarkable how an institution like the arXiv, which every reader of this blog will agree is absolutely indispensable for research, has struggled to make ends meet. This is especially true given that the amount of money it takes to keep it going is really just a drop in the bucket compared to other spending. Look at some of the numbers: in the last year alone, there were more than  50 million downloads worldwide and more than 76,000 articles submitted. To have open access to that kind of information for a total cost of about $1m per year? Priceless.

Unindicted co-conspirators — a way around Nobel's 3-person limit?

This is the time of year the selection process begins for next fall’s Nobel Prizes.  Unlike Literature and Peace, most fields of science have become increasingly collaborative over the last century, often forcing Nobel Committees to unduly truncate the list of recipients or neglect major discoveries involving more than three discoverers, the maximum Nobel’s will allows.  A possible escape from this predicament  would  be to choose three official  laureates randomly from a larger set of names, then publish the entire set, along with the fact that the official winners had been chosen randomly from it.   The money of course would go to the three official winners, but public awareness that they were no more worthy than the others might induce them to share it.  A further refinement would be to use weighted probabilities, allowing credit to be allocated unequally, with a similar incentive for the winners to share money and credit according to the published weights, not the actual results, of the selection process.
If the Nobel Foundation’s lawyers could successfully argue that such randomization was consistent with Nobel’s will, the Prizes would better reflect the collaborative nature of modern science, at the same time lessening unproductive competition among  scientists to make it into the top three.

Could Elsevier shut down

They haven’t yet, but they are supporting SOPA, a bill that attempts to roll back Web 2.0 by making it easy to shut down entire sites like wikipedia and craigslist if they contain any user-submitted infringing material. (Here is a hypothetical airline-oriented version of SOPA, with only a little hyperbole about planes in the air.)
I think that appealing to Elsevier’s love of open scientific discourse is misguided. Individual employees there might be civic-minded, but ultimately they have $10 billion worth of reasons not to let the internet drive the costs of scientific publishing down to zero. Fortunately, their business model relies on the help of governments and academics. We can do our part to stop them by not publishing in, or refereeing for, their journals (the link describes other unethical Elsevier practices). Of course, this is easy to say in physics, harder in computer science, and a lot harder in fields like medicine.
There is another concrete way to stand up for open access. The White House Office of Science and Technology Policy has requested comments on the question of public access to federally-funded scientific research. Comments should be from “non-Federal stakeholders, including the public, universities, nonprofit and for-profit publishers, libraries, federally funded and non-federally funded research scientists, and other organizations and institutions with a stake in long-term preservation and access to the results of federally funded research.” That’s us!
But don’t procrastinate. The deadline for comments is January 2.
Here is more information, with instructions on how to comment.
Here is also the official government Request For Information with more details.

Time After Time

Ole Peters was a postdoc at the Santa Fe Institute during the time I was also a postdoc there. In addition to being a world class windsurfer, Ole likes to think about critical phenomena and stochastic processes. And in the TEDxGoodenoughCollege talk below he almost convinces me that I need to think harder about ensemble versus time averages 🙂

Talk on Economics, Beauty, and Math

Those of you interested in the recent debate over math, beauty, economics, and Paul Krugman, and who are in New York on Oct 5 might be interested in a talk by Eric Weinstein at Columbia:

We will be taking a position opposite to the Claim of Nobel Laureate Paul Krugman:

“As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth.”

It is our claim that in Economics as well as Physics, Mathematics and Biology, Elegance has been an essential guide to understanding how to properly construct the foundations of theory and that the true problems of the field lie elsewhere. The argument will be developed that, counter to expectation, many of the coming advances needed to repair economic theory will bring it into meaningful contact with the elegance of Field Theory, Natural Selection, Gravitation, and Soros’ Theory of Reflexivity.

Reflexivity is probably the one subject on this list that readers of the Quantum Pontiff aren’t familiar with 🙂 Actually this is not true: if you know the Kochen-Specker theorem you are well on the way of accepting the gospel according to the palindrome!
Oops 9/16/09 update: Forgot to include the link to the talk and the time/location Oct 5, 2009 6-7:30pm, 412 Schapiro CEPSR, Davis Auditorium.

Krugman: I'm For Math!

Krugman clarifies:

I’ve been getting some comments from people who think my magazine piece was an attack on the use of mathematics in economics. It wasn’t…So by all means let’s have math in economics — but as our servant, not our master.

(Of course the point I was trying to make was that I read the end of his article as suggesting that because economics must deal with the irrational and unpredictable behavior of humans, that it must therefor be messy and beyond elegant mathematical description. I don’t buy this line of reasoning, as I think it is unknown whether the conclusion is true, but apparently, reading comments to my article, I’m the only one who doesn’t like to put his mathematics before his solution 🙂 )
But anyway, is anyone going to explain inflation without using gauge theory? (Channeling Eric Weinstein)

Weinstein v. Krugman v. Orzel (Mathematical Elegance Death Match)

Over at the most uncertain blog, he of uncertain principles (aka Chad) takes up a challenge posed by @EricRWeinstein on twitter concerning Paul Krugman’s recent article on why economists got the economic crisis so wrong. Since I know even less economics than anyone around here this seems like a great opportunity for me to weigh in (this is, after all, the blogosphere!)
Continue reading “Weinstein v. Krugman v. Orzel (Mathematical Elegance Death Match)”