Category Archives: Science

Structure vs Function

As a result of lurking on various online discussions, I’ve been thinking about computationalism in the context of structure versus function. It’s another way to frame the Yin-Yang tension between a simulation of a system’s functionality and that system’s physical structure.

In the end, I think it does boil down the two opposing propositions I discussed in my Real vs Simulated post: [1] An arbitrarily precise numerical simulation of a system’s function; [2] Simulated X isn’t Y.

It all depends on exactly what consciousness is. What can structure provide that could not be functionally simulated?

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Abacus and Slide Rule

Ye Olden Tools of Yore

I’ve been meaning to write an Abacus post for years. I used one in my first job, back in high school, and they’ve appealed to me ever since. Many years ago I learned there were people who had no idea how an abacus worked. Until then I hadn’t internalized that it wasn’t common knowledge (maybe a consequence of learning something at an early age).

Recently, browsing through old Scientific American issues before recycling them, I read about slide rules, another calculating tool I’ve used, although, in this case, mainly for fun. My dad gave me his old slide rule from when he considered, and briefly pursued, being an architect.

So killing two birds with one stone…

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Border Chaos

Complete Chaos!

One of my favorite discoveries in life is the Mandelbrot set. Considering it gives me a strong sense of the numinous. I’ve been enthralled by it ever since Fractint, an MS-DOS program that generated fractals. I’ve posted about it a lot here; today I want to take you into the heart of its chaotic behavior.

The Mandelbrot set has a number of properties that make it such a fascinating study: Firstly, it demonstrates chaos theory. Secondly, it demonstrates how complex patterns can arise from simple beginnings. Thirdly, it reveals a problem concerning real numbers. Fourthly, every pixel is a demonstration of Turing’s Halting Problem. It’s also infinitely complex and incredibly beautiful.

Today we’re going to explore the shore of the Mandelbrot lake.

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Simple Probabilities

I’ve written before about Drake’s Equation and the Fermi Paradox. The former suggests the possibility of lots of alien life. The latter asks okay, so where the heck are they? Given that the universe just started, it’s possible we’re simply the first. Maybe the crowd comes later. (Maybe we create the crowd!)

Recently, one of my favorite YouTube channels, PBS Space Time, began a series of videos about this. The first one (see below) talks about the Rare Earth Hypothesis, a topic that has long fascinated me.

The synchronicity in this is that I’d just had a thought about basic probability and how it applies to our being here…

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Time and Thermodynamics

There is something about the articles that Ethan Siegel writes for Forbes that don’t grab me. It might be that I’m not in the target demographic — he often writes about stuff I explored long ago. I keep an eye on him, though, because sometimes he comes up with a taste treat for me.

Such as his article today, No, Thermodynamics Does Not Explain Our Perceived Arrow Of Time. I jumped on it because the title declares something I think many have backwards: the idea that time arises from entropy or change. Quite to the contrary, I think entropy and change are consequences of time (plus physics).

Siegel makes an interesting argument I hadn’t considered before.

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Causal Systems

Recently, I’ve been involved in some discussions about causality, and some of those discussions have struggled to find any resolution, which I find frustrating. I don’t think people need to agree on ideas, but my experience is that usually people can agree on how to frame and talk about those ideas.

I sometimes get the feeling people are so set on disagreeing that they don’t always engage on what the other party is saying. I never know if it’s a lack of comprehension, a lack of willingness, or (on my part) a lack of communication skill or sufficient explanation.

So here are some things I think (I hope) are uncontroversial.

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Blocking the Universe

Recently I had a debate with someone who was downright evangelical about the Block Universe (BU) being, absolutely, positively, the way things are. Because Special Relativity. In particular because of what SR says about simultaneity between inertial frames.

Up to that point I’d never given the BU a great deal of thought other than to file it under «Probably Not the Case» (for reasons I’ll get to). But during my morning walks I’ve turned it over in my mind, and after due consideration,… I still think it’s probably not the case.

I get why people feel SR seems to imply a BU, but I don’t see the necessity of that implication. In fact, it almost seems contrary to a basic tenant of SR, that “now” is strictly a local concept.

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42 Finally Solved!

Musicians practice; actors rehearse; athletes work out; and mathematicians play with numbers. Some of the games they play may seem as silly or pointless as musicians playing scales, but there is a point to it all. That old saying defining insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results was never really correct (or intended to be used as it often is).

An old joke is more on point: “How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” (Asked the first-time visitors to New York.) — “Practice, practice, practice!” (Replied the street musician they asked.) The point of mathematical play can be sheer exercise for the mind, sometimes can uncover unexpected insights, and once in a while can be sheer fun.

As when finally solving a 65-year-old puzzle involving the number 42!

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Size Matters

I have always liked those comparisons that try to illustrate the very tiny by resizing it to more imaginable objects. For instance, one says: if an orange were as big as the Earth, then the atoms of that orange would be a big as grapes. Another says: if an atom were as big as the galaxy, then the Planck Length would be the size of a tree.

The question I have with these is: How accurate are these comparisons? Can I trust them to provide any real sense of the scale involved? If I imagine an Earth made of grapes am I also imagining a orange and its atoms?

So I did a little math.

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Time and Two Doors

In the last week or so I read an interesting pair of books: Through Two Doors at Once, by author and journalist Anil Ananthaswamy, and The Order of Time, by theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli. While I did find them interesting, and I’m not sorry I bought them (as Apple ebooks), I can’t say they added anything to my knowledge or understanding.

I was already familiar with the material Ananthaswamy covers and knew of the experiments he discusses — I’ve been following the topic (the two-slit experiment) since at least the 1970s. It was nice seeing it all in one place. I enjoyed the read and recommend it to anyone with an interest.

I had a little trouble with the Rovelli book, perhaps in part because my intuitions of time are different than his, but also because I found it a bit poetic and hand-wavy.

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