Far more marvelous is the truth

The Physical Review response of a few days ago reminded me of this favorite quote, part of which I read at at the celebration we had after my dad passed away,

Poets say science takes away from the beauty of the stars — mere gobs of gas atoms. Nothing is “mere.” I too can see the stars on a desert night, and feel them. But do I see less or more? The vastness of the heavens stretches my imagination — stuck on this carousel my little eye can catch one-million-year-old light. A vast pattern — of which I am a part — perhaps my stuff was belched from some forgotten star, as one is belching there. Or see them with the greater eye of Palomar, rushing all apart from some common starting point when they were perhaps all together. What is the pattern, or the meaning, or the why? It does not do harm to the mystery to know a little about it. For far more marvelous is the truth than any artists of the past imagined! Why do the poets of the present not speak of it? What men are poets who can speak of Jupiter if he were like a man, but if he is an immense spinning sphere of methane and ammonia must be silent? – R.P. Feynman

Physical Review Editors

Here is a final paragraph I wrote (CTC = closed timelike curve):

Finally, we would not be honest if we did not end this paper with the caveat that this work is at best a creature of eager speculation. Without a theory of quantum gravity, we cannot know whether CTCs can exist let alone whether they can be generated within the confines of the such a theory. Practical considerations are humorous at best. The surprising answer that quantum computation in the presence of CTCs is a powerful new model of quantum computation gives us reason, however, to pause and ponder the implications.

and the Physical Review editors replied with:

The wording of the last paragraph of your paper does not conform to the presentation of Physical Review A. We prefer literal descriptions and suggest the following: End the first sentence with “… at best based on eager speculation.” Remove the penultimate sentence entirely.

Is it any wonder that science is full of dull writing and that the public’s perception of science is that of a bunch of boring egomaniacs jargonizing endlessly about trivialities?

The Block

If writers get writer’s block, what do scientists get? Scientist’s block? Research stagnation? Creative Blockage? Perhaps the greatest parallel between doing theory and being a writer is not that they are both creative endeavors (because artistic creativity is very different from scientific creativity. two cultures? no! but different skills, most definitely!) but that practitioners of both can sufer from stagnating periods of unproductivity. In scientific academia, because there is a structured “road to tenureship,” this stagnation mostly leads (quickly!) to “alternative careers for scientists.” For writers it must similarly lead to putting their dreams of writing aside.
The past few years I’ve found myself confronting a severe case of whatever it is you call the scientist’s version of writer’s block. Why? Well part of it was a conscious decision. I wanted to make sure that the work that I did was not just good work, but was excellent work. Or at least that is the convenient myth I tell myself for my lack of productivity. Now, applying for jobs, where my lack of productivity is clearly a liabity, I often wonder if I would have done things differently. Of course this is a silly question (the past exists only as recorded in the present), and my answer is the equally unuseful “yes and no.” No, I don’t think I would have been happy with myself if I had decided to work on the easy problems which would lead to easy publications. It’s some silly integrity issue rooted deep in my psyche (I’m reminded of a line from pink floyd: “to martyr yourself to caution is not going to help at all”) Would I spend more times on some research and less on others? Probably. Would it have been smarter to try both the easy and the hard problems? Economically? yes. Spiritually? maybe not.

One Researcher's Ouch

Courtesy Ben Toner, via a
math preprint
by Craig Feinstein:

And the author welcomes and challenges anyone to produce a rigorous version, as he has no plans of even trying, because he is pretty tired of working on this problem and if he had to do it over again would never have even attempted it, not even for the prize of a million dollars for solving it – it’s just not worth all of the headache…

Evolving Evolving … Evolving Evolution

One of my favorite ideas is that the “theory of evolution” is a self-referentially robust. By this I mean that the “theory of evolution” itself can undergo “evolution” and this strengths the theory of evolution (in the sense that theory is more consistent with experiment and history.)
Consider now genetic algorithms where you want to evolve a program to carry out a task. Then we can also talk about evolving the way in which we implement the genetic algorithm which will evolve the program to carry out the task. Well, once you’ve gone to one level of recursion, why not continue on down this path? We can evolve the program which is evolving the genetic algorithm for the program which solves the problem. It seems intuitively clearly (and there are some papers on this, I believe) that (Evo)^(Evo) > Evo, i.e. evolving a program to evolve programs is better than simply evolving a program. So it is interesting to consider (…((Evo)^(Evo))^….^(Evo)). What is the power of evolution recursed?

Drunk Free Will

Suppose you are told to attempt to produce a sting of zeros and ones which is completely random. Of course, one would like to believe that one could act totally random. But it is easy to write a computer program which gets as input a sample of some of the random sequences you produce and then, based on this sample, the program can be used to predict what you will produce if you re-attempt producing sequences with a probability of successfully predicting you which is better than chance. Scott Aaronson (who is visiting here from Berkeley) performed such an experiment and found that only one of the students he tested the program on could beat the program (in the sense of the program being unable to correctly predict the students sequences more than would be expected from chance.) Scott expressed this as “only one of my students had free will.”
Well the question I want to answer, is what happens to this effect as a function of the inebriation of the individual being tested. Do drunks have more or less free will than those who are sober? Perhaps a quantum beer night would help settle this question!

Diamond Age

Wired has an article about synthetic diamonds. It’s worth a read, if only for the second company involved: Apollo Diamond. AD’s primary goal is not the consumer diamond market, but they are focusing on the long term possibility of producing diamond wafers for computer wafers (high thermal conductivity, eh?) Sometimes a story really feels like it might have something to do with the future, and this is exactly such a story.
Interestingly, the main man behind AD is Robert Linares, who has been awarded an award from the Navy for “diamond based Quantum computing.”

Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius

Slashdot is running an article about theToynbee tiles. These small colorful mysterious tiles have been spotted around the world embedded in street asphalt. Here is a picture of such a tile stolen off the web
Nobody knows who has placed these tiles around the world, or exactly what the message in the tiles means.
Interestingly, the Toynbee refered to in the tiles, an English historian, believed that humanity’s perception of history shaped its future. Even futher, we can postulate that humanity’s perception of its past not only shapes the future but explicitly creates the future (for how else is the future to be shaped in not from information about the past as encoded into the present.) Then what are we to make of these strange tiles? One person’s attempt to shape our future into a reality in which heaven is actually a holding pen on the planet Jupiter? Immortality through the manipulation of our collective perception of what we expect to find on Jupiter.