BB #63: In the News

Time for another Friday News Dump! The good news is that these are about quite recent news articles that caught my eye. (The bad news is that I might dump some older ones on you if there’s room.)

Usually I present them, more-or-less, in order of their interest to me… and apparently to my readers, since the comments seem to always involve the first article. So, this time I’m going to save the meatier one (in my eyes) for last hoping the others get some interest.

The lineup is: Dog brains, static electricity, quantum DNA, and free will.

§ §

There’s a common belief that different dog breeds are hardwired for different temperaments and behaviors. Yet many people experienced with dogs believe environment and training are more significant.

It’s a classic nature versus nurture question.

A recent study seems to indicate the common belief is correct, that we have molded different breeds into dogs with different brains. Their brains actually vary between breeds.

Gizmodo: Different Dog Breeds Have Different Brains, Scientists Find

The study is by Erin Hecht, assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard University. She’s been interested in dogs and their connection with evolution since her grad school days.

Recently she obtained “a treasure trove of brain scans taken from good boys and girls who had gotten an MRI but turned out to have no neurological problems. With these scans, Hecht’s team was able to closely compare the brains of 62 purebred dogs from 33 different breeds.”

When you consider the variety of dog bodies, it seems obvious their brains must differ as well. And, for once, something “obvious” turns out to be correct.

It certainly confirms what most dog owners (including myself) have always believed. And it highlights just how unique our relationship with dogs really is.

The interesting thing scientifically is how we have shaped the evolution of dog brains through selective breeding pressure. As a result, we have dogs that are good at hunting, good at guarding, good as companions, or good at hauling.

It does seem most of the acquired talents are just that: talents. As far as temperament (as with humans, too), environment and training still play a huge role. The question never was “nature or nurture” — both matter.

§ §

We’ve known about static electricity for more than 2,500 years. We know a variety of ways to create it, but knowing exactly what was going on has eluded scientists.

But maybe now we’ve finally solved it: Solving the longstanding mystery of how friction leads to static electricity

A Northwestern University team has a model involving “the bending the tiny protrusions on the surface of materials.”

By “tiny” they mean nanoscale, and nearly all materials have protrusions at that scale. When these protrusions are bent, they produce tiny amounts of electricity due to the flexoelectric effect.

As there are many, many nano-scale protrusions, the tiny amounts of electricity add up to a noticeable voltage — often capable of giving you a good strong jolt.

So science has apparently solved one more mystery!


Entirely coincidentally (I’m sure), scientists have discovered a new species of electric eel. It’s new because it can deliver a shock of 860 volts — the highest of any known animal.

The previous record, by another species of eel, was 650 volts.

What’s interesting is that this is the first time a species has been differentiated by the voltage it produces.

The good news (for us) is that they don’t produce much current, so a shock from one is likely to be just that — shocking, but not fatal. (Unless you’re a small fish.)

§ §

One of the keys to quantum computers is quantum computer algorithms.

This isn’t an area I’ve explored much, but my understanding is that quantum algorithms work by superposing all possible answers such that the correct answer tends to interfere constructively while all the others tend to interfere destructively.

Getting a solution requires multiple runs to get multiple answers with the idea of the results converging on the correct answer.

Most who’ve looked into quantum computing at all are familiar with Shor’s quantum algorithm for factoring large (integer) numbers. This was the first quantum algorithm.

The second quantum algorithm (news to me) is Grover’s search algorithm.

Which brings us to:

Techology Review: An important quantum algorithm may actually be a property of nature

Today Stéphane Guillet and colleagues at the University of Toulon in France say this may be easier than anybody expected. They say they have evidence that Grover’s search algorithm is a naturally occurring phenomenon. “We provide the first evidence that under certain conditions, electrons may naturally behave like a Grover search, looking for defects in a material,” they say.

Which has implications for quantum computing, of course, but it also presents another example of real-world quantum behavior that may be connected with human biology:

The work also has implications for our thinking about the genetic code and the origin of life. Every living creature on Earth uses the same code, in which DNA stores information using four nucleotide bases. The sequences of nucleotides encode information for constructing proteins from an alphabet of 20 amino acids.

Which raises the question: Why four bases? Why 20 amino acids?

It might be related to our cells using a natural Grover search (that electrons seem to implement one in searching for surface defects indicates there is such a thing as a naturally occurring Grover search):

But a quantum search using Grover’s algorithm is much quicker: Patel showed that when there are four choices, a quantum search can distinguish between four alternatives in a single step. Indeed, four is optimal number.

This thinking also explains why there are 20 amino acids. In DNA, each set of three nucleotides defines a single amino acid. So the sequence of triplets in DNA defines the sequence of amino acids in a protein.

Biologists (and many other scientists) have disdained the idea of quantum effects working in living things because they are hot, wet, messy environments. Engineers trying to design working quantum computers usually need cold, dry, clean environments.

But “Photosynthesis, for example, is now thought to be an essentially quantum process.”

And why wouldn’t nature make use of everything at Her disposal?

The paper is available here.

Of course, what interests me is the possibility of quantum effects in the brain having something to do with consciousness. As examples of possible quantum biology grow, the idea becomes a lot less fringe.

§ §

Which brings us to a possible indication that our wills might, in some sense, actually be free:

The Atlantic: A Famous Argument Against Free Will Has Been Debunked

The story starts in 1964, when two German scientists monitored the electrical activity of test subjects tapping their fingers. The subjects were told to tap at whatever irregular intervals they chose.

What they found (in a way that turns out to be a bit questionable) is that there appears to be a rise in brain electrical activity prior to the tap. It appeared to be the first evidence of the brain preparing to perform a voluntary action.

They gave this activity a name: Bereitschaftspotential (readiness potential)

And it turned out to be an argument against free will:

Twenty years later, the American physiologist Benjamin Libet used the Bereitschaftspotential to make the case not only that the brain shows signs of a decision before a person acts, but that, incredibly, the brain’s wheels start turning before the person even consciously intends to do something.

As with the Eskimos having 50 words for snow, this “fact” became widely accepted as truth. It has become cultural lore that humans are not the authors of their actions.

I’ve always thought that was bullshit. I’ve always thought it simply means our consciousness is deeper than our surface thoughts indicate. (Various masking experiments seem to me to confirm this.)

The original German scientists who discovered Bereitschaftspotential both believe in free will, and their experiment was intended to demonstrate that the brain has a will of sorts. They had “grown frustrated with their era’s scientific approach to the brain as a passive machine that merely produces thoughts and actions in response to the outside world.”

Then, in 2010, researcher Aaron Schurger took a whole new view of things.

For one, he considered the patterns of any noisy system with lots of parts, the stock market, for instance (or waves in the ocean). His analysis showed similar apparent rising potential, but demonstrated there was no purpose behind it. The patterns simply “reflect how various factors had happened to coincide.”

Two years later, Schurger, along with two colleagues, proposed an explanation:

Neuroscientists know that for people to make any type of decision, our neurons need to gather evidence for each option. The decision is reached when one group of neurons accumulates evidence past a certain threshold.

The finger taps, “Schurger reasoned, must have coincided with the haphazard ebb and flow of the participants’ brain activity.” Importantly:

This would not imply, as Libet had thought, that people’s brains “decide” to move their fingers before they know it. Hardly. Rather, it would mean that the noisy activity in people’s brains sometimes happens to tip the scale if there’s nothing else to base a choice on, saving us from endless indecision when faced with an arbitrary task.

(I do love that “hardly” in there. 😆)

This coincides with what I’ve always thought. Our brains are noisy at all levels, and given our ability to visualize the future, I’ve always believed free will comes from some thought rising above the noise — perhaps due to attention.

I take it a step further: I think brains, certainly human brains, may be the one thing the universe has produced that are not fully physically determined.

§ §

And that’s the news!

Stay free willed, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

25 responses to “BB #63: In the News

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    The whole Libet thing always struck me as much ado about nothing. The idea that it disproved free will always seemed to require an arbitrary interpretation of the data. So I’m surprised people are now seeing this as some major reveal.

    None of it, as far as I can see, rescues contra-causal free will, but it does indicate that conscious will isn’t obviously false.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      I suspect most people do see it the way you do, so it isn’t so much a “major reveal” as a firmer scientific refutation of Libet. As we’ve said often, intuition is one thing, but scientific reasoning has a lot more umph.

      The more I think about it, the more I see the supposed lack of contra-causal free will as also something of a chimera. We can’t even accurately predict orbits for more than two bodies, so the idea that causal forces determine what we and our minds do is kind of a “Meh, so what!” to me. It’s not like we could ever leverage, or even just understand, it.

      That said, as I closed the post with, I still have a wild-ass guess that the dynamics of the human brain just might transcend causal determinism. But I fully acknowledge that as a WAG. (Honestly, I’m not even sure I think the universe, in general, is strictly determined. Quantum physics isn’t, and it’s the physics beneath everything, so even if we can’t really see how it affects macro-level physics, that doesn’t mean it absolutely doesn’t.

      Between Heisenberg and random wave-function collapse,… who knows! Maybe the universe really is fuzzy and undetermined. I am pretty sure the block universe hypothesis is false.

      (Sort of along those lines, I wish those MWI folks would make up their minds. I just read of a review of Carroll’s book in which the author says he now is much more comfortable with MWI because it doesn’t mean the other realities actually exist… something he apparently gleaned from the book. Yet Carroll keeps talking about all those other Carrolls… ARG!)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “The more I think about it, the more I see the supposed lack of contra-causal free will as also something of a chimera. ”

        That’s the thing. I work with IT systems that, despite absolute confidence that all the components are 100% deterministic, we often can’t predict what they’ll do. A random driver updated somewhere, a code change on some side system, or database tables holding a pattern of data they’ve never held before, and crazy things happen. This week our ERP went unresponsive because of some change on Chrome. And these systems are simple compared to human minds.

        A lot of physicists do accept Everettian physics but not the reality of the other worlds. What I don’t understand is, once accepting the base view, how they rule out all the predicted consequences. I’m currently reading Carroll’s book but still in the early chapters. I’m hoping there’s a cogent explanation, along with the answers to some other questions.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…and crazy things happen.”

        I think the problem quickly grows such that no normal computer can calculate the possible outcomes in the lifetime of the universe (essentially ruling out any possibility of predicting which crazy thing will happen). (But the “quantum computer” called Reality does it constantly in real time.)

        If reality really is a quantum calculation, perhaps randomness is built in.

        “I’m currently reading Carroll’s book but still in the early chapters.”

        I’ll look forward to your reactions and posts about it!

        When I first heard about MWI long ago, I couldn’t believe they really meant actual new universes. That would be crazy. But even back then some serious people seemed to think it wasn’t crazy, so I kind of imagined my own “sensible” interpretation.

        Which seems similar maybe to other interpretations I’ve heard. It isn’t that actual new universes are created (that would be crazy 🙂 ). It’s that the wave-function evolves in such a way as if there were multiple worlds — the state of the w-f now superposes those worlds.

        The reality we perceive is, in a sense, what would be real if the w-f collapsed — one of the possible worlds. But it doesn’t collapse, it continues, and the “now” is that evolving worldline.

        But there’s always (or still) a mystery: what that worldline among them all? Random? It just is what it is? Aren’t we right back where we started?

        I liked that it provided a structure for past, now, future, plus no actual new worlds — just the one.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I’ll look forward to your reactions and posts about it!”

        Hopefully it won’t be too long. Carroll’s book is easy reading, but I’m currently distracted by the question of instrumental habit learning, on which the literature is far from easy reading. I’m reading Carroll during the breaks.

        “When I first heard about MWI long ago, I couldn’t believe they really meant actual new universes.”

        When I first heard about it, my initial thought was far less concerned with reality: “Oh yeah, the Star Trek evil universe.” (Although the Star Trek concept was almost certainly not initially inspired by the MWI, which wasn’t well known yet in the 60s, but by an older tradition of parallel universes in sci-fi going back to the 30s.)

        For me, for the single reality interpretation of the interpretation to work, I need to see some plausible answer to the why-this-world-line question. So far in the book, Carroll is leaning heavily on the MWI being the simplest interpretation in terms of assumptions; introducing additional assumptions to kill off all the other worlds seems like it would spoil that argument.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I’m currently distracted by the question of instrumental habit learning,”

        I’ve noticed the conversation you’re having about it, but haven’t read too closely. It’s not an area I’m competent to discuss. My only thought is “fire together, wire together” — any repeated action becomes easier to repeat. It can become so easy as to become habit. The “training” behavior doesn’t have to be goal-oriented. (Which is probably pretty obvious.)

        “For me, for the single reality interpretation of the interpretation to work, I need to see some plausible answer to the why-this-world-line question.”

        Seems in a quantum world we’re stuck with a mystery no matter what. Different interpretations seem just to place that mystery in different places.

        A while back (20+ years, I think), I met a guy who had embraced MWI. I knew about it then, but had never encountered anyone who took it seriously. At that point I thought it just an oddball alternate interpretation.

        As he started explaining his position, his first words were, “You’ll think I’m crazy, but…” 🙂

        The main thing I remember from that conversation is — in answer to the “where does the new stuff come from?” question — his pointing out that, even a simple equation like x2=4 has two answers (higher-degree polynomials have more), and no one is bothered by where the “extra” answers come from.

        Which is fine if one also embraces Tegmark’s MUH, but doesn’t seem that helpful otherwise.

        One thing that bothers me is that MWI examples are usually posed as A/B situations. A photon either reflects or passed through a half-silver mirror in Carroll’s Universe Splitter device. But consider the two-slit experiment with a detector (where the pattern forms) that has billions of pixels.

        The photon can end up on any pixel (some more likely than others due to interference). So does this split the universe into billions of worlds where, in each, the pixel detected a photon?

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “The “training” behavior doesn’t have to be goal-oriented.”

        What I’m trying to wrap my brain around is how it fits between classical Pavlovian conditioning and goal-directed learning. If there isn’t a prediction made for a reward, the reinforcement part of instrumental conditioning, what leads to the behavior initially being taken up, and repeated enough for the habit to set in?

        “Seems in a quantum world we’re stuck with a mystery no matter what.”

        We definitely seem to be stuck with craziness no matter what. Every interpretation has to throw some aspect of classical reality under the bus. We can choose to throw away realism, determinism, locality, one world, or probably many others no one has considered yet.

        “As he started explaining his position, his first words were, “You’ll think I’m crazy, but…””

        Erwin Schrodinger reportedly mooted the idea in a 1952 talk, where he said it might “seem lunatic”. That seems to be most people’s reaction to it.

        Carroll promises early in the book he’ll address the conservation of energy concern. I’m curious to see what that’ll look like.

        “One thing that bothers me is that MWI examples are usually posed as A/B situations.”

        My understanding is that’s an oversimplification to get the idea across. If so, the actual MWI is every possible part of the wave function gets realized. The part I just finished reading emphasized that waves are smooth entities, so it’s not clear to me how, even in principle, the number of branches can be quantified.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “…what leads to the behavior initially being taken up, and repeated enough for the habit to set in?”

        Something in the environment?

        “Carroll promises early in the book he’ll address the conservation of energy concern. I’m curious to see what that’ll look like.”

        Like I said, I’ll be looking forward to your posts about it!

        “The part I just finished reading emphasized that waves are smooth entities, so it’s not clear to me how, even in principle, the number of branches can be quantified.”

        Right! A photon could hit the wall anywhere. I suppose it could be limited to all the possible electrons that could absorb it. Maybe the quantization of matter limits the possible collapses?

        (I just read an NPR review of the book that emphasizes all the myriad Sean Carrolls — and all the rest of us. It does mention that since “zillions” of quantum events are happening “zillions” of times there are an almost infinite number of us. If that’s true, there must be copies of me that pursued a musical career. Or one in standup comedy! That one never occurred to me until just recently when I realized I’d be a natural at it, so there must be worlds were that happened. 😀 )

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Something in the environment?”

        Definitely. But the question is what goes on in the animal’s brain? Does habit learning require cognition? (Habit execution doesn’t appear to.) I’m gradually coming to accept that it may well not.

        ” so there must be worlds were that happened.”

        And one where everyone has a goatee and is a villain 😉

        One of the things that’s interesting to ponder about that paradigm is, at what point is the variation out there no longer you? How different does it need to be before it’s just another person altogether? The one that just branched away just before the last keystroke feels like it would be me, but the one that maybe married my first serious girlfriend and raised a Catholic family, doesn’t.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “Does habit learning require cognition?”

        I don’t see why it would have to. Neural Nets effectively learn “habits” from the training input.

        (FWIW, per the discussion on your blog, I don’t agree sentience == consciousness.)

        “And one where everyone has a goatee and is a villain”

        😀 😀 😀

        “How different does it need to be before it’s just another person altogether?”

        Good question. I’ve always thought of it as requiring my genetics (or nearly so), so I would include all versions of “myself” regardless of the path they took. Even the one who did marry my Catholic girlfriend from college, whose name, ironically, was “Wright” — as in “the Wright woman.”

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “Neural Nets effectively learn “habits” from the training input.”

        There’s a distinction in instrumental learning: model-free vs model-based reinforcement learning. As soon as I saw that, I recognized the machine learning concepts of the same name. Not sure if this is cognitive research influencing AI research or the other way around, but I found it very interesting.

        I got to the part of Carroll’s book on how often the wave function branches. Unfortunately, it’s kinda a let down:

        We don’t know how often branching happens, or even whether that’s a sensible question to ask. It depends on whether there are a finite or infinite number of degrees of freedom in the universe, which is currently an unanswered question in fundamental physics. But we do know that there’s a lot of branching going on; it happens every time a quantum system in a superposition becomes entangled with the environment.

        Carroll, Sean. Something Deeply Hidden (pp. 119-120). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        That is a bit of a hand-wave. It occurs to me to wonder how often natural systems involve superposed particles or systems. Scientist create such situations, but how (or when) does nature do it? Do the edges of any shadow cast by the sun involve a kind of natural two-slit context?

        In the post, that article mentions how electrons apparently do a natural Grover’s algorithm search when looking for defects in a material. It all makes me wonder what’s really involved in this MWI world-splitting.

        Looks like you’re still fairly early in the book (unless it’s a short book 🙂 ). Maybe it gets less vague later? (One peeve I have with many pop-science books is that they’re well-grounded and detailed in the ground laying and coverage of known physics, but once they get to the author’s view, hypothesis, or theory, they often seem to get a lot more hand-wavy and vague. That Carlo Rovelli book about time was that way, and Lawrence Krauss’s book about ‘something from nothing’ really drove me crazy that way. Read that damn thing three times, and it never did make a lick of sense.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        According to Kindle, I’m at 36%, so still early, although the latter part of the book gets into Carroll’s cosmology work; I’m not sure how MWI related it is. Part of the reason for my stately pace has been the habit learning distraction, but I like to meter my progress through these types of books anyway. I find if I race through them, comprehension is compromised. (Unless I read them multiple times like you did, which I dislike unless I’m *really* into the material.) Not that this is particularly dense reading.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Wow. His usual SOP is to update the original blog post, but he was excised enough to do a separate one. And he turned off comments on the new post.

        Although I think he’s assuming Carroll wrote that NPR blurb. I doubt it. I don’t think Carroll would say our conscious decisions, in and of themselves, have anything to do with it, at least not in any way that any other kind of physical process would as well.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        Yes, “wow,” indeed!

        I think he perceives Carroll as standing by all the publicity done in his name.

        I don’t know if Carroll does it during this tour, but I’ve seen a YT video of a talk he gave a while back about MWI, and he uses his photon splitter app to determine if he jumps left or right and then goes on to point out there’s a world in which he jumped the other way. He definitely seems to support the notion of actual physical multiple peer Carrolls.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Right, but he’s basing his decision on what the app tells him, right? I can see where someone not paying close attention might think different though, and maybe that’s what’s upsetting Woit.

        (Of course, under the MWI, there are multiple peer Carrolls even if he does nothing. Just standing around, there are zillions of quantum events happening in his body and in the immediate surroundings every second. Even if he’s macroscopically indistinguishable among the copies, the copies would have differences at the quantum level, with at least some infinitesimal slice of those differences bleeding into the macroscopic realm.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I think Woit is objecting to the idea of legit other worlds on par with ours, but it’s hard to tell for sure until he says more about it.

        He references a post he wrote in 2004 about the movie, What the Bleep Do We Know? (which was a truly stupid, lame movie). In that post he writes, “The general idea was that since quantum mechanics supposedly says that there isn’t one reality, but an infinite number of possibilities, one just has to be enlightened to an awareness of this, and then you can make whatever you want happen.”

        So it may well be the new-age mysticism involving multiple worlds that offends him so much.

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        If he’s objecting to other worlds, it’s hard to imagine how he could have given the review he did of the book. Carroll isn’t at all coy about the many worlds aspect. That said, that review from him was surprising.

        I have complete sympathy with exasperation over new age mysticism, although the mystics usually go for self affirming interpretations.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        The review was overall positive, but Woit didn’t seem to care for the “reality” of other worlds:

        I’ve never understood why those favoring so-called “Multiple Worlds” start with what seems to me like a perfectly reasonable project, saying they’re trying to describe measurement and classical emergence from quantum purely using the bare quantum formalism (states + equation of motion), but then usually start talking about splitting of universes. Deciding that multiple worlds are “real” never seemed to me to be necessary (and I think I’m not the only one who feels this way, evidently Zurek also objects to this). Carroll in various places argues for a multiple world ontology, but never gives a convincing argument.


        My problem here is that the whole splitting thing seems to me to lead to all sorts of trouble (how does the splitting occur? what counts as a separate world? what characterizes separate worlds?), so if I’m told I don’t need to invoke multiple worlds, why do so? According to Carroll, they’re “enormously convenient”, but for what (other than for papering over rather than solving a hard problem)?

        It may be that his main objection is that Carroll isn’t being very clear about what exactly is going on. (It’ll be interesting to see if you agree or disagree once you finish the book.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Carroll argues that the other worlds fall out of the bare quantum formalism, and that you have to add things to the formalism to avoid them (such as a wave function collapse, pilot waves, random collapse, etc). That said, just letting them fall out seems like it’s not without problems, and I’m not finding that he’s adequately handling the ones that bother people. Still reading though.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        I understand the argument, but granting peer ontology to those other worlds seems a big addition in itself, given there appears to be a version of MWI that just says the universe’s wave-function contains those other realities in superposition, but that only one is actually realized. (Although that obviously demands an explanation, too.)

      • Wyrd Smythe

        There’s a neat article in Forbes by Chad Orzel: Many Worlds, But Too Much Metaphor.

        He recommends that MWI should stand for “Metaphorical Worlds Interpretation” — because this whole “multiple copies” business isn’t really real.

        (I’ll mention this in your post where folks are discussion MWI in case you don’t see it here. And for the benefit of your regulars.)

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        Thanks. I did see it. I’m planning on commenting on it in my book post.

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