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Our Long Lasting Relatives

Neandertals are all the rage these days. People can get their DNA analyzed and learn about their genetic background, including whether or not they have Neandertals – we’ll stay with that spelling – lurking in the family tree. Even if you haven’t checked your DNA, you may be interested in Beebe Bahrami’s Café Neandertal.

Cafe Neandertal cover imageThis is a dense romantic, fact-filled, roaming account of a dig on a Neandertal site in France. Beebe Bahrami, is probably best known as a travel writer, but she’s also a cultural anthropologist with a deep affection for Neandertals and a love for the land and the people of the Dordogne. She has a unique perspective on the Neandertals and a unique way of telling the story of the dig. I’ve not read a book which was simultaneously so fascinating and annoying as this one. It’s a kind of memoir about Neandertals, about the places they lived in France, about the people who live there nowadays, about wine and good food and paleoanthropologists. It leaps back thousands of years and also confusingly shuffles time in the past decade. No matter, this is a book worth reading.


Time Flies

We received the following communication on the Nature of Time from the writer Francesca Forrest. We don’t know when she wrote it, but the typeface suggests sometime in the 18th century. That’s only a guess. Besides, she’s a contemporary writer of fantasy and science fiction.
Time Flies 480 A

Encryption & the 4th Amendment

Constitution - We the PeopleAlas, there’s no right to privacy in the Constitution of the United States. The closest we come to that right is in the 4th Amendment which states that “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no warrants shall issue, but upon probably cause —” and so forth.

For the past few years, the administration has been trying to get US companies to install “back doors” in their encryption programs. That way federal agencies will be able to access our otherwise private information. And now, as you know, a federal judge has ordered Apple, Inc. to hack its encrypted i-phone so the FBI will get into the device used by one of the killers in the San Bernardino massacre. Apple says No. Doing that, says CEO Tim Cook, would ultimately compromise the privacy of all i-phone users.

That’s a brave stand for privacy. And, frankly, if we have to rely on global corporations to protect us from government snooping, we’re in a bad way.

In 1890 a couple of law partners, Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis, wrote an article for the Harvard Law Review about privacy. In the years since then, it’s become one of the most famous articles ever printed in that review. In their article, the young lawyers found a right to privacy  — or, as they wrote, “the right to be left alone” — in common law, and also found it implicitly in a variety of statutes. It was a good start, but that was over 100 years ago.

Thirty years later, the same Louis Brandeis, by then a Justice of the Supreme Court, argued that a right to privacy was implicit in the 4th Amendment. The case was Olmstead v. the United States, and the question was whether recordings of wiretapped private telephone conversations constituted impermissibly seized evidence and consequently should be excluded from the trial. The case was well chosen to favor the use of wiretaps, because the people being wiretapped were in an outrageously huge bootlegging business. By a five-to-four decision, the Court said wiretapping had not violated the 4th Amendment. So Brandeis lost. As Chief Justice William Howard Taft said, there had been no searching and nothing had been seized, the conversation had been merely overheard. By the way, that decision was not overturned until 1967, thirty-nine years later.

The article written by Brandeis and Warren in 1890 had been stimulated by the invention of the camera and the public display in newspapers of photographs of private people. And in the 1928 Olmstead case, the decision followed upon the use of telephone wiretaps. In each case the interpretation of the 4th Amendment came in response to a technological advance that law didn’t cover. Now, of course, technology has advanced terrifically with the invention of the marvelous digital phone and all that it can do.

Clearly, any conclusive decision in the Apple case will have to involve an interpretation of the 4th Amendment. The Apple case, like the Olmstead case of 1928, is well chosen to favor the authorities, namely the FBI, since the phone they want to get into  was used by the perpetrators of the horrifying San Bernardino massacre. It’s a hard case. And there’s an old legal adage that say, “Hard cases make bad law”

If you’re interested, Critical Pages has an earlier post on Louis Brandeis.

Gravity Waves & Valentines

Valentine heart 120Scientists detected gravitational waves this past September, but spent the next four months checking their figures to make absolutely certain they knew what had happened and then, after giving it some thought, they chose to announce their findings this Feburary, just before Valentine’s Day. After all, these scientists are real flesh-and-blood people, not robots. They were as aware as you are that being swamped by love changes everything, affects your sense of time and space — alternately squeezing and stretching them  — as do gravity waves.

Linking gravity with Valentine’s Day gives a weight to the concept of love and meaningfulness to the notion of gravity. Gravity is powerful when objects are close to each other, but it weakens amazingly fast as the distance between them increases; in fact, it diminishes with the square of the distance and pretty soon it’s so weak as to be undetectable. Essentially, there’s nothing there. Phone calls don’t get returned, emails don’t get answered.

Scientists hoping to detect gravity waves searched for four years and got nowhere, no results. They shut down their equipment, improved it’s performance fourfold and began their search again. And they got lucky. Two intensely powerful gravitational loci circling each other closer and closer finally merged, devouring and sinking into each other in a fashion reminiscent of the poet Lucretius’s description of a man and a woman making love. The event, which happened 1.3 billion years ago sent waves across the universe which were picked up at the LIGO detector in Hannaford, Washington, and the LIGO detector in Livingston, Louisiana.

Those two points of pure gravitational energy were drawn to each other 1.3 billion years ago and the vibrations emanating from that mating have been traveling across the cosmos to us ever since, reaching us this past September, and expanding even now beyond us. It’s good to celebrate Valentine’s Day.

Couple in bed 464
Shy But Happy Couple Making Gravity Waves

Our posts on earlier Valentine’s Day are accessible from the search box at the top of the page.

Ada’s Algorithm

Ada Lovelace
Augusta Ada King, Countess of Lovelace

Maybe you know about Ada Lovelace, Lord Byron’s daughter, a very bright young mathematician who worked with the older scientist, Charles Babbage, when he was developing the first programmable computing machine — a precursor of the contemporary computer. If you know a bit more, you know that the machine, which was never actually built, was to be programmed by punched cards, similar to the punched cards that were used a hundred and more years later in the early computers of the 20th century. And if you’re like most people who know about Ada, that’s about all you know of her.

Ada’s life has the elements of a good gossipy story, and that’s the way it’s treated in James Essinger’s biography, Ada’s Algorithm. Or, as the book’s subtitle says, How Lord Byron’s Daughter Ada Lovelace Launched The Digital Age. Ada’s father was as notorious for his bad-boy behavior as he was famous for his poetry, and Ada wasn’t able to escape the celebrity of his name. Probably the most decisive effect of having Byron for a father was that Ada’s mother constructed an educational program for Ada that was designed to stamp out any fanciful or imaginative tendencies the girl might have inherited from dreadful dad. Lady Byron gave birth to Ada on December 10, 1815, and thirty-five days later she folded back the covers from her side of the bed, slipped from her sleeping husband’s side, then bundled herself and her daughter in warm clothes and, with a maidservant, left their London house.

Ada never saw her father after that. George Gordon, Lord Byron, was a great poet but he wasn’t cut out to be a husband or father.

James Essinger’s light and chatty biography provides brief sketches of Ada’s parents and grandparents and, what’s more to the point, it gives the reader a good sense of how mother and daughter behaved in regard to each other. Lady Byron’s plan to protect Ada from whatever imaginative tendencies she might have inherited from her father included a good dose of mathematics. As it happened, Ada did very well in mathematics. Indeed, she excelled in that field and eventually directed her own studies and became a fine mathematician — not an easy feat for a woman in the early 19th century. She had a lively interest in science and technology, too. In 1833 Ada turned 18 and, following the custom of her class, she was formally introduced to society as a marriageable young woman. Young women of high social status were often presented at court and so it was with Ada who, wearing white satin and tulle, and accompanied by her mother, curtsied to the king and queen, and hobnobbed with the dignitaries there on that day in May. (more…)

Robots, Free Will & Predestination

Ava, a robot from Ex Machina

The intellectual magazine Foreign Affairs displays a humanoid robot on the cover of its July/August issue, and one of the summer’s most popular movies, Ex Machina, is about a similar robot. The Foreign Affairs robot is posed much like Hamlet glumly contemplating the skull of Yorick. And the female robot advertising Ex Machina looks at us skeptically from the movie advertisements. These humanoid machines are not our cheerful servants.

Star Wars brought us happy, useful robots — the charming barrel-shaped R2-D2, and the humanoid, etiquette-expert C-3PO. But that was then, before we had smart phones and drones that made their own flight plans. Nowadays, people are beginning to wonder if artificial intelligence or building a really, really smart robot is such a good idea.

In Ex Machina, Caleb Smith, a programmer who works for the world’s largest internet search engine, wins a company-wide contest which rewards him with a week as guest at the home of Nathan Bateman, the brilliant and reclusive CEO of the company. When Caleb arrives at Nathan’s isolated ultra-modern dwelling, the owner doesn’t come to the door. Caleb wanders through the big shoebox structure, an interior of glass-walled rooms and no windows to the outside, until he exits onto a terrace where he finds muscular black-bearded Nathan in boxing gloves, pounding a punching bag.

Nathan tells Caleb that he wants him to perform a Turing test on Nathan’s newest creation, a human-like female robot named Ava. Over the next seven days Caleb interacts with Ava and is interrogated by Nathan as to whether Ava’s artificial intelligence and awareness of self are indistinguishable from those qualities in a human.

OK, the setup is silly. Maybe we can accept that Nathan is one of the richest people on the planet, a Mozart of coding who created an entire programming language as a teenager. But, no, we don’t believe that he or anyone can run a successful global corporation from an isolated forest valley located on the far side of a colossal glacier. And, no, we don’t believe that anyone working alone and in total paranoid secrecy could build, piece by piece, a robot sophisticated enough to pass for human.

But forget all that. It’s a science-fiction movie and the important thing is that we now have our Frankenstein in his laboratory. We have our egomaniac scientist Nathan and his humanoid creation Ava and, as the stand-in for ourselves, a decent and intelligent outsider, Caleb. So we suspend our disblief and watch the drama play out.

And it’s worth it. The writer-director Alex Garland has written an excellent script and chosen precisely the right actors to direct. Alicia Vikander, who plays Ava, studied ballet at the Royal Swedish Ballet School, but opted for acting instead of ballet and that earlier training works beautifully in this role. Vikander conveys, by the ever so subtle placement of her head, her torso and limbs, a sense of hidden machinery. At the same time, her face – again by very subtle changes – convinces us that there’s a vulnerable human sensibility at work inside that machine.

Domhnall Gleeson as Caleb comes across as the opposite of his boss; there’s nothing about him that suggests overbearing masculinity or violence. Quite the contrary, he is a vulnerable man with a naivete we might have expected in Ava. Indeed, those two make a good match. You might say they were made for each other in this prison-like Eden, watched over by omniscient Nathan who thinks of himself as God. Oscar Isaac, an actor who fits perfectly with the other two, plays Nathan as a man who controls everything, including his own violence.

As the drama plays out, Caleb begins to see — sometimes more slowly than we in the audience — that Nathan has created Ava as perhaps sentient and maybe endowed with free will, but certainly as constrained as a slave. And the question arises, as it must: if you build a machine that displays all the outward signs of human intelligence and human feeling, is it moral to treat that machine as a machine? How do you distinguish between a machine that mimics human sensibilities and a human?

Of course, in Ex Machina, these are not merely philosophical questions, they’re matters of life and death. During recurring power outages, when — presumably — Nathan’s camera’s and recording devices don’t work, Ava asks Caleb’s help to escape from Nathan’s glass walled prison. And Caleb does respond to her appeal.

The robot C-3PO looked like a streamlined version of the Tin Man from The Wizard of Oz, but Ava is convincingly female, at least in regard to her expressive face and that part of her upper body covered by a sweater-like garment. Furthermore, Nathan assures Caleb that she has a vagina loaded with sensors and if stimulated, she will feel pleasure. Her midsection and parts of her limbs are a maze of gleaming silvery rods and wires, so she is visually an expression of the contradiction between being human and being machine.

Caleb and Ava are separated by an unbreakable wall of clear glass, but as they talk and respond to each other over those seven days we can see Caleb’s emotional involvement deepening. But Caleb, like the rest of us, knows that Ava’s artificial intelligence, her entire sense of self, her stratagems and ways of relating to the world and specifically to this new man, Caleb — all this in Ava was designed and programed by omnipotent Nathan. So, does Ava have free will, or is what she says and does ultimately the result of Nathan’s handiwork?

Ex Machina begins slowly and builds with relentlessly increasing tension as we and Caleb see ever more clearly the truth of the situation — along with certain terrible ambiguities. We can take this drama as an updated version of the goings on in Frankenstein’s laboratory or as a false Eden contrived by an ego driven God, the moral dilemmas and the physical dangers are the same.  Whether the ending is necessary or arbitrary and whether it fits esthetically are questions that viewers will decide for themselves, but certainly this stylish multidimensional movie is something to enjoy and think about.

Pi Day equals 3/14/15 or 3.1415926

Pi Pie
Pi Pie, created at Delft University of Technology, applied physics, seismics and acoustics

Pi day (π day) comes every year, but this year’s pi day is special and there won’t be another one like it for a hundred years. If you write pi to two decimal places, you have π=3.14, and you can read that as March 14. But if you write it out to four decimal places you have π=3.1415. That’s March 14th, 2015 and that happens only once every hundred years!

Some of you reading this don’t feel the excited need for an exclamation point at the end of that previous sentence. We’re sorry about that. We realize that you have to have a certain affection for mathematics and a love for pi in particular to get excited about seeing it carried it out to four places in decimal notation and on your calendar.

Though pi may not be exactly loveable, it’s definitely special. There are certain numbers that keep turning up again and again, and some of them are so omnipresent that mathematicians, wanting to save time and space, have used symbols to represent them. Pi, as we say it,  or π, as we write it in mathematics, is certainly the most famous. Among mathematicians, e is almost as famous as π, but if you gave up on math when you left high school you may still remember something about π while you haven’t heard a thing about e. But let’s put e aside and get back to pi.

In mathspeak, pi is an irrational number — not to imply that 3.14159 is a particularly wacky numeral, but simply that you cannot get it by dividing a number by another number. Or, to speak mathematically, it isn’t the ratio of two numbers and, hence, it’s irrational. So, it’s not equal to 22/7, which many students pick up in high school.

You can calculate pi by drawing a regular hexagon inside and outside a circle, and you can use the sides of the hexagon as the base of triangles whose vertex is at the center of the circle. It’s simple enough to calculate the areas of the triangles and hence the hexagons, and you know that the area of the circle is bigger than the inside hexagon and smaller than the outside hexagon. Archimedes did that and kept doubling the number of sides until he had a 96-sided polygon. Then he was able to show that pi was bigger than 223/71 and smaller than 22/7. And that’s where 22/7 comes from.

Our pi is transcendental. That sounds more unusual and ecstatic than it is. Again, in mathspeak, a transcendental number is not algebraic, which is to say that it’s not a root of a non-zero polynomial equation with rational coefficients. (Satisfied?) Most real numbers are transcendental, but if we start discussing what we mean by that previous sentence we won’t enjoy much of the day.

Pi — everyone knows you know this — is the number you get when you divide the circumference of a circle by it’s diameter.What’s interesting — or amazing, if you’re in the mood — is that when you compare the diameter and circumference and try to divide the circumference by the diameter, you get a number which is clearly just a little bit bigger than three, but it’s impossible to discover exactly how much bigger. Or look at it this way, you can divide the diameter into little equal pieces with nothing left over, or you can divide the circumference into little equal pieces with nothing left over, but you’ll never find a size of equal little pieces that that will work on the circumference and on the diameter, too, with nothing left over. Far better to eat your Pi pie.

Big Bang Getting Bigger Faster

Whether God is an old man with a white beard, as portrayed by Michelangelo on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, or whether, on the contrary, God is a badly organized committee just blundering along, are theological questions beyond the scope of this web site. Consequently, when it comes to Creation, we’ll stick to the scientific news we read in the New York Times and witness on BBC TV.

Now, the cosmological news this season comes from astronomers at the South Pole who believe they’ve found evidence that in the trillionth of a trillionth of a trillionth of a second after the Moment of Creation, or Big Bang, the universe expanded at a truly terrific rate and took on the smooth shape it appears to have today. They also believe they’ve found evidence of gravity waves – and no one has ever done that before.

Inflation of the cosmos - Polarization Pattern in Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation

The image above shows the polarization of the cosmic microwave background radiation, and those twists and turns were presumably produced during the period of terrific expansion, or inflation, which occurred very shortly after the Big Bang went bang! We don’t think the image is a suitable substitute for Michelangelo’s painting of God creating the sun and moon and planets, but what it portrays is evidence that our universe did undergo rapid expansion.  Of course, the evidence will be queried and tested by other cosmologists before it gains complete acceptance.

Calling the Moment of Creation the Big Bang really shrinks it down rather a lot, and reduces it to an almost trivial phenomenon. Even so, it’s a difficult moment to envision. Most people – and this includes physicists, too, especially when they draw on the blackboard or make cinematic dramatizations of the event – imagine a vast volume of empty blackness and then a tiny white speck that explodes and is the BIG BANG. The problem with that vision is that prior to the event there’s nothing there, and by nothing we mean nothing at all – no big empty volume of blackness. Remember, prior to the Big Bang there’s no space. No, not even empty space.

Below is one of Michelangelo’s images from the Sistine Chapel showing God creating the sun and moon and other astronomical bodies. He looks rather angry, but maybe that’s because creating the cosmos is hard work, even for God — or maybe that’s just Michelangelo’s personal irritation coming out as he’s trying to paint while lying on his back on scaffolding way up close to the ceiling, with drops of paint spattering him.God creating sun & moon & planets


Johannes Kepler
Johannes Kepler

Johanes Kepler was the astronomer who first understand the beautiful eliptical orbits of planets around the sun. He had a wonderfully restless mind and in 1611 he composed a charming, learned little book speculating on why snowflakes have six points. Brilliant though he was, Kepler didn’t have the knowledge of atoms and molecules that we do today, so his book, fascinating as it is, doesn’t come up with the answer.

Here’s how we get those delicate snowflakes, some of which landed on Kepler’s coat as he walked across the Charles bridge in December of 1610. A molecule of water is composed of two little atoms of hydrogen linked to a bigger atom of oxygen. The two hydrogen atoms are positioned 104.5 degrees from each other, and that gives the three atoms taken together a shape rather like a three-sided pyramid. That’s a water molecule.

That’s not the same as what we call water, which is a bunch of water molecules hanging out together. The comparatively large oxygen atom is composed such that the side opposite the two hydrogen atoms is able to link up with the hydrogen atoms of other water molecules. When a water molecule links up with four other water molecules, it arranges into a nice four-sided pyramid – called a tetrahedron in your geometry class.

Now we’re getting someplace. Because as the temperature drops, these four-sided arrangements of water molecules draw closer together and form a six-sided, or hexagonal, structure – which is what we see when we look at an ice crystal. That ice crystal is the heart of the combined molecules which add up and spread out to a clearly visible snow flake. Now you know.

Another version of why snowflakes have six points can be found in the very short tale The Queen of the Rain Was in Love with the Prince of the Sky. Furthermore, that little story also explains why no two snowflakes are precisely alike. And this is shameless self-promotion, because that little gem is by Eugene Mirabelli, who writes all these unsigned posts at Critical Pages.

If you’d like to read the mini-book The Queen of the Rain Was in Love with the Prince of the Sky which is considerably lighter and  more entertaining than molecular chemistry, click on the title at the start of this sentence.  On the other hand, if you’re a chemistry buff and can’t follow the lucid explanation of the arrangement of atoms and molecules posted here and insist on seeing diagrams, you can find some really good ones on the web. And if you’d like to read that book by Kepler, check out the offerings at Paul Dry Books.

Dr. Gupta and the Weed

Dr. Sanjy Gupta
Dr. Sanjay Gupta

Dr. Sanjay Gupta, one of the most visible and popular medical doctors in the United States, a popular face on television, has just announced that up to now he’s been wrong about marijuana. He’s discovered that marijuana isn’t the terrible destructive drug he had previously said it was. And now he has a CNN special, called “Weed,”to  explain why he’s changed his mind.

Back in 2009 Dr. Gupta wrote in Time magazine about the perils of marijuana. Back then he opposed prescribing marijuana even for severe medical problems where it would have provided relief. Because back then he was being misled. But it turns out that Dr. Gupta recently did some research on the subject.  Better late than never.

Well, he didn’t actually do the research, but he read a lot of articles and medical papers about it by others who did the research, and it turns out he had been misled.  He doesn’t say so, but we think maybe he also researched the election returns and discovered that public opinion and laws about usage of marijuana have begun to change and some states have already legalized the weed.

Marijuana leaf
Marijuana leaf

Writing on CNN.com on August 8, 2013, he said,  “We have been terribly and systematically misled for nearly 70 years in the United States, and I apologize for my own role in that. “

That’s a very interesting sentence. When Dr. Gupta says “we” he seems to be including himself among the people who have been mislead, but in the second half of the sentence he apologizes “for my own role in that.” For his own role in what? His role in being misled? Being  misled doesn’t require an apology unless, of course, you were willfully blind to all the easily available articles giving an alternative view of marijuana. Maybe he’s apologizing for his role in misleading us.  Because he did mislead.

We can’t judge Dr. Sanjay Gupta’s smarts as a doctor, but we do know he’s  a media savvy TV personality. We find it hard to believe that this highly educated doctor, who is himself part of our popular culture,  didn’t know the other side of the marijuana story.  In his article on CNN.com he says, “I hope this article and upcoming documentary will help set the record straight.” We hope so, too.

More Notes

The World Happiness Report, released by the United Nations, ranks countries on six key variables that support well-being: income, freedom, trust, healthy life expectancy, social support and generosity. This year, Finland is first, followed by Norway, Denmark, Iceland and Switzerland, followed by Netherlands, Canada,New Zealand, Sweden, Australia. The United States, which has never been in the top ten, silpped down four places from last year and is now 18th. President Trump may make American Great Again, but apparently not happier.