Sunday, February 12, 2006

Dangerous ideas

Have you seen this year's answers to the annual Edge question?
The history of science is replete with discoveries that were considered socially, morally, or emotionally dangerous in their time; the Copernican and Darwinian revolutions are the most obvious. What is your dangerous idea? An idea you think about (not necessarily one you originated) that is dangerous not because it is assumed to be false, but because it might be true?
There's a lot to get through - 119 contributors - and unless you're a genius you've got Buckley's chance of understanding the import of every response (well, that's what I tell myself). But still, it's interesting. And just the fact that so many major thinkers can be rounded up annually and their brains directed to a single question deserves to be celebrated. Bless the internet for making this possible, if that's the explanation for such warm and fuzzy togetherness.

My pick of these big ideas:

Piet Hut (professor of astrophysics): A radical reevaluation of the character of time

What if a future scientific understanding of time would show all previous pictures to be wrong, and demonstrate that past and future and even the present do not exist? That stories woven around our individual personal history and future are all just wrong?

Brian Goodwin (biologist, author): Fields of danger

Could it be that biology and culture are not so different after all; that both are based on historical traditions and languages that are used to construct patterns of relationship embodied in communities, either of cells or of individuals?

Scott Sampson (museum curator, assoc. prof. of geology & geophysics, TV host): The purpose of life is to disperse energy

Virtually all organisms, including humans, are, in a real sense, sunlight transmogrified, temporary waypoints in the flow of energy. [That's not his dangerous idea. I'm just taking the opportunity to say, "You're sunlight transmogrified, my dear." :) ]

[...] evolution is not driven by the machinations of selfish genes propagating themselves through countless millennia. Rather, ecology and evolution together operate as a highly successful, extremely persistent means of reducing the gradient generated by our nearest star. In my view, evolutionary theory (the process, not the fact of evolution!) and biology generally are headed for a major overhaul once investigators fully comprehend the notion that the complex systems of earth, air, water, and life are not only interconnected, but interdependent, cycling matter in order to maintain the flow of energy.

Lee Smolin (physicist, author): Seeing Darwin in the light of Einstein; seeing Einstein in the light of Darwin

Einstein emphasizes the relational aspect of all properties described by science, while Darwin proposes that ultimately, the law which governs the evolution of everything else, including perhaps what were once seen to be laws - is natural selection.

Should Darwin's method be applied even to the laws of physics? Recent developments in elementary particle physics give us little alternative if we are to have a rational understanding of the laws that govern our universe.

Brian Greene (physicist, mathematician, author, TV presenter): The Multiverse

While some mysteries may indeed reflect nothing more than the particular universe, within the multiverse, we find ourselves inhabiting, other mysteries are worth struggling with because they are the result of deep, underlying physical laws. The danger, if the multiverse idea takes root, is that researchers may too quickly give up the search for such underlying explanations. When faced with seemingly inexplicable observations, researchers may invoke the framework of the multiverse prematurely — proclaiming some or other phenomenon to merely reflect conditions in our bubble universe — thereby failing to discover the deeper understanding that awaits us.

Leonard Susskind (physicist, author): The "Landscape"

On the face of it, the Anthropic Principle is far too silly to be dangerous. It sounds no more sensible than explaining the evolution of the eye by saying that unless the eye evolved, there would be no one to read this page. But the A.P. is really shorthand for a rich set of ideas that are beginning to influence and even dominate the thinking of almost all serious theoretical physicists and cosmologists.

[...] string theorists, much to the regret of many of them, are discovering that the number of possible environments described by their equations is far beyond millions or billions. This enormous space of possibilities, whose multiplicity may exceed ten to the 500 power, is called the Landscape. If these things prove to be true, then some features of the laws of physics (maybe most) will be local environmental facts rather than written-in-stone laws: laws that could not be otherwise.

[This threatens] physicists' fondest hope, the hope that some extraordinarily beautiful mathematical principle will be discovered: a principle that would completely and uniquely explain every detail of the laws of particle physics (and therefore nuclear, atomic, and chemical physics). [...]

What further worries many physicists is that the Landscape may be so rich that almost anything can be found: any combination of physical constants, particle masses, etc. This, they fear, would eliminate the predictive power of physics. Environmental facts are nothing more than environmental facts. They worry that if everything is possible, there will be no way to falsify the theory — or, more to the point, no way to confirm it.

Paul Steinhardt (professor of science): It's a matter of time

[...] recently, some cosmologists have been exploring the possibility that the universe is exponentially older [than previously thought]. In this picture, the evolution of the universe is cyclic. The Big Bang is not the beginning of space and time but, rather, a sudden creation of hot matter and radiation that marks the transition from one period of expansion and cooling to the next cycle of evolution. Each cycle might last a trillion years, say. Fourteen billion years marks the time since the last infusion of matter and radiation, but this is brief compared to the total age of the universe. Each cycle lasts about a trillion years and the number of cycles in the past may have been ten to the googol power or more!

Then, using the slow relaxation mechanisms considered previously, it becomes possible that the cosmological constant decreases steadily from one cycle to the next. Since the number of cycles is likely to be enormous, there is enough time for the cosmological constant to shrink by an exponential factor, even though the decrease over the course of any one cycle is too small to be undetectable. Because the evolution slows down as the cosmological constant decreases, this is the period when most of the cycles take place. There is no multiverse and there is nothing special about our region of space — we live in a typical region at a typical time.

Steven Strogatz (applied mathematician, author): The end of insight

I worry that insight is becoming impossible, at least at the frontiers of mathematics. Even when we're able to figure out what's true or false, we're less and less able to understand why.

In my own field of complex systems theory, Stephen Wolfram has emphasized that there are simple computer programs, known as cellular automata, whose dynamics can be so inscrutable that there's no way to predict how they'll behave; the best you can do is simulate them on the computer, sit back, and watch how they unfold. Observation replaces insight. Mathematics becomes a spectator sport.

If this is happening in mathematics, the supposed pinnacle of human reasoning, it seems likely to afflict us in science too, first in physics and later in biology and the social sciences (where we're not even sure what's true, let alone why).

When the End of Insight comes, the nature of explanation in science will change forever. We'll be stuck in an age of authoritarianism, except it'll no longer be coming from politics or religious dogma, but from science itself