Nov 18, 2008

The ignorant miracle-workers

Is science the surest way of arriving at truth? Can we validate its worth beyond anyone’s doubt? Surely, the limits of knowledge have been discussed ad nauseum by the ancients. Aristotle did not approve of Platonic metaphysics, but ask any string theorist what she thinks about the laws of nature and she will tell you maths. Where is maths? Where does it reside, before expressing itself in the motion of bodies or the flow of fluids? Where does music go when the instruments stop their play? Historians of science tell us that once upon the Middle Ages science and magic were twin sisters, Siamese twins living together side by side and forcefully separating not before the time of Descartes. His definition of res extensa was followed by logical positivism a few centuries later; but no one would have given a toss if it wasn’t for the Industrial Revolution. I stand firmly behind this argument: if it wasn’t for the engineering miracles that were produced as a result of scientific discovery, science would have been little more than a pastime for gentlemen and gentle ladies of plenty means and time to spare. Everyone had to bow to the miracles of science because the damn thing worked – and it did so better than prayer. Planes fly after all, not by well-wishing (although I often see many fellow passengers pray during take off) but by engines roaring and good wing design. But do we really know why they fly? I would argue that we do not, not really. We do have a good set of equations available, and a sound theory of aerodynamics that we teach to college students, but this corpus of descriptions sits uncomfortably on top of vast, unwavering void of stark ignorance. At the end of the scientists’ day what remains in the Petri dish, or the computer printout, or the spectrum of a far away galaxy, are unanswered questions followed by more unanswered questions. Some call this a virtue. And why not: there is certainly something alluding to heroism in a person willing to face mysteries whilst remaining agnostic. Heroics apart, however, the bottom line is that working the miracles of science was, and still remains, the biggest mystery of all. The body of knowledge is riddled with holes, curious singularities where our notions precariously stand. I would like to give three ready examples of such “singularities”. First, the Big Bang; and of course all that follows it, which is the whole of physics. Our descriptions of the universe, mathematical as they are, should not be confused with knowledge. Secondly: Life, the origin of. How did it come about? Thirdly: the mind. If you have doubts about those three examples, let me put them in another way. The litmus test of true knowledge is the power of reproduction. If I know something - truly know it, not suppose it - then I can reproduce it, nominally or otherwise. If we knew, or came to know, the nature of the Universe, of Life and of the Mind, we could easily reproduce all three of them. We do not (not “yet” some will say, but I dispute that). What we do (re)produce are similes; or simulations of. Scientists are ignorant miracle-workers performing in the circus of history while the rest of world watches in amazement. How long more will the show last? A good answer would be “when the miracles run out”. And then what? What will follow science? A retro-religious era perhaps?

The end of the beginning

Turok and Steinhardt’s Ekpyrotic Theory for the Big Bang (This is an article commissioned by “The Athens News”)

Until recently scientists and priests seemed to be in awkward agreement. Genesis started with a bang! It happened 13.7 billion years ago; and questions like “what caused it?” or “what was there before?” were considered a scientific no-man’s land where no decent, career-minding, physicist dared to venture. After all science is about things that can be measured. How could one measure something before it happened?

This was precisely the subject of the public lecture given by Cambridge physicist Neil Turok on April 17th at the Athens Concert Hall. The daring title was “what banged?” and it aimed to introduce a radical new cosmological theory. Turok, together with Paul Steinhardt of Princeton, have named their theory “the ekpyrotic universe” and explain it in their trade book “Endless Universe” (published in Greece by Avgo Books, According to the pair of authors, there have been countless Big Bangs, followed by long terms of space-time expansion, an endless cycle of universal birth and re-birth. “Only by positing an endless universe can we explain the mysteries of the cosmos,” said Turok like a modern-day Brahman.

Cosmic Puzzles
And there are mysteries aplenty to keep cosmologists on their toes. Following the observational confirmation of the Big Bang theory in 1964 by Penzias and Wilson, scientists had to explain how the universe was so uniform (same average density of matter and energy wherever you chose to turn your telescope). They thus hypothesized something that happened during the first critical moments of the Big Bang, a force field that guaranteed thermal equilibrium across the universe as well as uniformity of matter and energy (think of an electric heater trying to heat up uniformly a room that keeps expanding, and you will understand the difficulty cosmologists were facing). The force field was called "inflationary field".

In summary, the traditional viewpoint holds that a tiny fraction of time after the Big Bang, the Universe expanded with an amazing rate, doubling itself in size every billionth of a billionth of a second. The cause of this incredible expansion - named “inflation” - was first suggested by Alan Guth, now at MIT. Inflation worked on the early universe only for a very short while and then died out, allowing for a much slower expansion afterwards. It was an elegant, albeit ad hoc, hypothesis that seemed to satisfy observation data - until two new observational puzzles arrived to upset it.

The first puzzle is the so-called “dark matter” that accounts for 25% of the cosmos (“normal” matter, the stuff of stars, galaxies, you and me, accounts for only 5%). No one knows what dark matter is, but we do know it is out there, in the same way that we know there is water in a glass even if transparent (light bends when travelling through it). The second weirdness is “dark energy”; it accounts for 70% of the universe, and a few billion years ago started to accelerate the universe’s rate of expansion. The inflationary hypothesis had to be urgently overhauled in order to account for both.

Getting rid of Inflation
Turok and Steinhardt had both worked as theorists on the inflationary model of the Big Bang, but became increasingly disillusioned with its ad hoc character; until they decided to apply the mathematics of string theory to the early universe and see what happens. When they did so all puzzles and weirdness disappeared! No need for an invented inflationary field! Dark matter and dark energy were acounted for and made perfect sense! It was an incredible eureka moment! All you had to hypothesize was that we live in a universe of normal matter that hovers parallel to another universe of dark matter. Between the two parallel universes flows dark energy, pulling and pushing them apart. When the two universes collide a Big Bang occurs; all matter and energy becomes light and a new pair of twin universes is born; the “normal matter universe” expands and cools by pulling away from its “dark matter” twin sister and then, when expansion arrives at its maximum, dark energy pulls the two universes back for another collision - and the whole cycle starts anew.

Ekpyrotic Strings
To understand better the ekpyrotic universe hypothesis you have to understand strings. Since the early 20th century physicists have two wonderful theories to explain everything: the relativity theory of Einstein that deals with gravity and explains natural phenomena from a multi-molecular scale upwards to planets and galaxies and clusters of galaxies – and quantum theory, which explains what happens at a submolecular and subatomic scale. The problem is that scientists cannot reconcile – or “unify” - the two theories together. This is extremely annoying because it suggests that nature is operating different laws at macroscopic and microscopic levels, which is absurd. String theory, rich in exotic mathematics and developed during the past twenty years, comes to the rescue! It suggests that nature is built by tiny, dimensionless strings, objects that look like rubber bands. Depending on the oscillations and twists of those tiny strings, the cosmos behaves in a quantum or relativistic way.

According to string theory our universe can be seen as a three dimensional membrane where space-time is stretched and pulled by dark energy. Think of space-time as the arena and planets and galaxies as the objects inside it. String theory suggests that the sun and Earth spring into existence from within the fundamental geometry of space-time. In other words, everything is the physical realization of mathematical entities. The world is a shadow show of maths-at-work in a multi-dimensional background! Plato, had he been among the audience of Athens Concert Hall that night, would have felt vindicated.

Complexity begets complexity
What I find exceptionally thrilling with string cosmologies such as the Ekpyrotic Universe is that instead of assuming material nothingness as the primal cause of the Universe they presuppose mathematical complexity. Indeed, the mathematical complexity of the vacuum assumed by the ekpyrotic theory - and its parent M theory – is (at least for the time being) enormous, to an extent as yet unimaginable. But we do not need to see the whole mathematical picture in order to appreciate that, the very idea whereby a complex universe - such as the one we inhabit - manifests out of complex mathematical-geometrical entities offers a new and deep insight. Could these complex mathematical-geometrical entities be the natural laws? Could the laws of nature resemble abstract, immaterial casts into which planets, starts and creatures and minds are molded? If that is the true nature of reality, I somehow feel that it makes far more sense than silly ideas such as the Copenhagen Interpenetration, or the Multiple Worlds interpretation of quantum physics.

LISA will test
Turok and Steinhardt applied string mathematics to the early universe and found that the theory works perfectly. But how can they be sure? One must always judge the efficacy of a beautiful scientific idea by the means that can be tested. Can we do so in this case? Surely the only way to tell if the ekpyrotic theory is correct is to peer into the moment of Big Bang itself, to go behind the primal afterglow as sensed by W-MAP. But can we measure anything before radiation was born? According to Turok we can! We can measure gravitational waves, the ripples of cosmic turbulence that travel across space-time, like waves on the surface of a pond when a stone has been tossed. And that is exactly what is going to happen in 2018 when spacecraft LISA (Laser Interferometer Space Antenna), a joint venture of NASA and the European Space Agency, will aim to detect and confirm the existence of gravitational waves. If Turok is right there should be no gravitational waves from the Big Bang.

He certainly believes in his theory, so much that he made a wager with a very famous wager-man who also happens to be Neil’s friend as well as his colleague-down-the-corridor at Cambridge University. “I betted Stephen Hawking I’m right”, he said smiling, to the general applause of the Athenian audience.

Interview with Jean-Marie Lehn (in Greek)

This is an edited transcript of an Interview of Jean-Marie Lehn taken by George Zarkadakis in Athens on 3/05/2006)

Ο Jean-Marie Lehn γεννήθηκε στη μεσαιωνική πόλη Rosheim της Γαλλίας το 1938 και στα νεανικά του χρόνια αμφιταλαντεύτηκε να επιλέξει ανάμεσα σε πανεπιστημιακές σπουδές στη φιλοσοφία ή στη χημεία. Τελικά επέλεξε τη δεύτερη και το 1987 κέρδισε το Βραβείο Νόμπελ Χημείας για την έρευνά του στη μοριακή αναγνώριση, δηλαδή τον τρόπο που ένα μόριο-δέκτης εκλεκτικά αναγνωρίζει και προσδένεται σε ένα υπόστρωμα. Σήμερα ο Jean Mari-Lehn είναι Διευθυντής του Εργαστηρίου Υπερμοριακής Χημείας, στο Ινστιτούτο Επιστημών και Υπερμοριακής Μηχανικής του Στρασβούργου (ISIS).

ΓΖ: Τι είναι η ζωή;
L: Δεν υπάρχει μεμονωμένη χημική ουσία που να μπορεί να θεωρηθεί έμβιο ον. Το ζήτημα είναι ποια, ποιο είναι το όριο πέρα από το οποίο ξεκινά αυτό που λέμε ζωή. Η απάντηση είναι οι ιοί. Οι ιοί είναι σαν ένα σακούλι γεμάτο πρωτείνες, το οποίο ωστόσο διαθέτει γονιδίωμα. Όταν ο ιός είναι απομονωμένος θεωρείται νεκρός γιατί πολύ απλά δεν μπορεί να πολλαπλασιαστεί από μόνος του. Όταν όμως προσβάλει κάποιο κύτταρο παίρνει από αυτό τα ένζυμα που είναι απαραίτητα για τον πολλαπλασιασμό και αναπαράγει τον εαυτό του. Τότε θεωρείται ως μορφή ζωής. Μόλις όμως αναπαραχθεί και βγει από το κύτταρο, αυτόματα χάνει την ικανότητα αναπαραγωγής και θεωρείται απλά ως ένα σύνολο μορίων.

ΓΖ: Η ζωή είναι πληροφορία;
L: Το γονιδίωμα είναι η πληροφορία. Ο ιός έχει μια δεδομένη δομή. Για να αναπαραχθεί αυτή η δομή, δηλαδή για να «ξαναφτιαχτεί» ο ιός, χρειάζεται η πληροφορία του γονιδιώματος. Στο DNA, για παράδειγμα, η πληροφορία είναι αποθηκευμένη με τη μορφή τεσσάρων γραμμάτων. Η ακολουθία και οι αλληλεπιδράσεις μεταξύ των γραμμάτων είναι αυτό που λέμε γονιδίωμα.

ΓΖ: Η εξέλιξη είναι μονόδρομος;
L: Όχι, πολλές διαδρομές. Οι προβιοτικοί χημικοί πιθανολογούν ότι η ζωή προχώρησε παράλληλα σε πολλές διαδρομές. Αυτό που συνέβη όμως ήταν το εξής: όταν μια μορφή ζωής ήταν επιτυχημένη συνέχιζε να εξελίσσεται Αντίθετα οι υπόλοιπες σταδιακά εξαφανίστηκαν. Αν η ζωή βρεθεί σε εξελικτικό αδιέξοδο δεν μπορεί να γυρίσει προς τα πίσω, προς το σημείο εκκίνησης, και να διαλέξει άλλο δρόμο εξέλιξης. Έτσι μπορούμε να πούμε η ζωή ήταν ένας συνδυασμός άτακτης και αυτοβελτιούμενης εξέλιξης.

ΓΖ: Τι είναι η «υπερμοριακή χημεία»;
L: Η υπερομοριακή χημεία ασχολείται όχι με τα μόρια των χημικών ενώσεων, αλλά με τις αλληλεπιδράσεις μεταξύ των μορίων μέσα στις χημικές ενώσεις. Η υπερομοριακή χημεία είναι η χημεία που μελετά με ποιες διαδικασίες τα μόρια αναγνωρίζονται μεταξύ τους και γιατί δημιουργούν επιλεκτικούς χημικούς δεσμούς.

ΓΖ: Ποιες είναι οι μεγάλες προκλήσεις της χημείας τον 21ο αιώνα;
L: Αυτό που προσωπικά με ενδιαφέρει είναι η έρευνα γύρω από την οργάνωση της ύλης, η μετάβαση από ένα μεμονωμένο μόριο σε πολύπλοκες μορφές ύλης. Ένας άλλος ενδιαφέρων τομέας της χημείας είναι η κατάλυση, δηλαδή το πώς θα δημιουργήσουμε χημικές αντιδράσεις οι οποίες θα είναι πιο αποτελεσματικές και ταυτόχρονα θα απαιτούν λιγότερη ενέργεια. Επίσης η νανοτεχνολογία, η σύμπραξη χημείας και φυσικής, και η προσπάθεια να ελέγξουμε τις κινήσεις των μορίων ώστε να κατασκευάσουμε μικρομηχανές με μοριακό μέγεθος.

ΓΖ: Πολλοί άνθρωποι θεωρούν τη χημεία συνώνυμη με τη χημική ρύπανση...
L: Καταρχήν να ξεκαθαρίσουμε ότι παράγουμε χημικές ουσίες επειδή ο κόσμος τις χρειάζεται. Αν για παράδειγμα οι άνθρωποι δεν οδηγούσαν αυτοκίνητα δεν θα είχαμε τόση πολύ ρύπανση. Οπότε ας σταματήσουμε να χρησιμοποιούμε το αυτοκίνητό μας αλόγιστα. Αν δεν θέλουμε να το κάνουμε αυτό, τότε πρέπει να δεχτούμε τις συνέπειες των πράξεών μας, δηλαδή την ατμοσφαιρική ρύπανση. Επιπλέον η χημεία ενοχλεί επειδή μυρίζει. Πράγματι, οι άνθρωποι είμαστε ζώα και η αίσθηση της όσφρησης είναι πολύ σημαντική για τα ζώα. Για παράδειγμα, αν βλέπαμε ένα κατακόκκινο σύννεφο το οποίο δεν ξέραμε ότι ήταν τοξικό και δεν μπορούσαμε να το μυρίσουμε, τότε όχι μόνο δεν θα μας ενοχλούσε αλλά μάλλον θα μας γοήτευε κιόλας. Πάντως τα τελευταία 30 χρόνια έχει γίνει μεγάλη πρόοδος στον τομέα της ρύπανσης. Και μπορεί να γίνει ακόμα περισσότερη αρκεί να είμαστε πρόθυμοι να πληρώσουμε. Ένα εργοστάσιο που θα εγκαταστήσει φίλτρα και θα χρησιμοποιήσει αντιρρυπαντική τεχνολογία θα πρέπει να ξοδέψει πολλά χρήματα. Προφανώς το προϊόν που θα βγαίνει από τη γραμμή παραγωγής θα είναι ελαφρώς ακριβότερο και το κόστος αυτό θα μετακυληθεί στον πελάτη. Σε κάθε περίπτωση όμως πρέπει να ξεκαθαρίσουμε ότι με όρους τοξικότητας η φύση παράγει πολύ πιο τοξικές ουσίες απ’ ότι ο άνθρωπος. Για παράδειγμα, υπάρχουν φυτά που χρησιμοποιούμε, μετά από κατεργασία βέβαια, ως φάρμακα και τα οποία είναι τόσο τοξικά ώστε στη φύση είναι άκρως δηλητηριώδη.

ΓΖ: Βλέπετε να αλλάζει ο χάρτης της επιστήμης με την είσοδο νέων «παικτών», όπως η Κίνα ή η Ινδία;
L: Η επιστήμη είναι επιστήμη. Δεν έχει σημασία αν γίνεται στην Ανταρκτική, στην Αλάσκα ή στην Νότια Αμερική. Αυτό που ίσως αλλάξει είναι το επίκεντρο των επιστημονικών ανακαλύψεων. Η Κίνα και η Ινδία διαθέτουν λαμπρούς επιστήμονες και σίγουρα θα καταλάβουν δεσπόζουσα θέση στην παγκόσμια επιστημονική κοινότητα. Αναπόφευκτα η Ευρώπη θα περάσει σε δεύτερη μοίρα εκτός αν προσπαθήσουμε πολύ σκληρά. Αν δεν φτιάξουμε το σύστημα μας, θα μετατραπούμε απλά σε τουριστικό προορισμό και τίποτα παραπάνω. Επιπλέον πιστεύω ότι αν και στην Ευρώπη εδραιώθηκε ο ορθολογισμός, δεν έχουμε καταφέρει να τον περάσουμε στην κοινωνία. Για παράδειγμα πληροφορήθηκα ότι στην Ελλάδα δεν διδάσκεται η θεωρία της εξέλιξης των ειδών στα σχολεία. Αν αυτό ισχύει τότε υπάρχει πρόβλημα. Αντίστοιχα φοβάμαι την άνοδο του φονταμεταλισμού στην Ευρώπη. Η εντύπωση μου είναι ότι οι Κινέζοι εξαιτίας της κουλτούρας τους δεν έχουν ισχυρό θρησκευτικό φονταμεταλισμό, αντίθετα είναι πιο πρακτικοί.

ΓΖ: Πώς θα εξηγούσατε την αβεβαιότητα των επιστημονικών ανακαλύψεων σε ένα κοινό που αναζητά τη βεβαιότητα;
L: Οι άνθρωποι οδηγούν το αυτοκίνητό τους και πιστεύουν ότι σίγουρα θα φτάσουν στον προορισμό τους. Ξαφνικά όμως ένα δέντρο πέφτει στο δρόμο ή σκάει το λάστιχο και τότε… Η βεβαιότητα, το 100%, δεν υπάρχει πουθενά στη φύση γιατί λοιπόν να το απαιτούμε από την επιστήμη;

Science as Religion (in Greek)

(This is an article commissioned by the newspaper "Vima")

Η πνευματική επανάσταση η οποία ξέσπασε στην Ευρώπη ανάμεσα στον 16ο και 18ο αιώνα ανέτρεψε τον μέχρι τότε τρόπο σκέψης και αντίληψης του κόσμου. Αν και η επιστήμη γεννήθηκε μέσα από τα σπλάχνα της θρησκείας η μητροκτόνος σύγκρουση ήταν αναπόφευκτη. Η Εκκλησία έκανε τα πάντα για να αποφύγει το μοιραίο. Όμως ο κατ΄ οίκον περιορισμός του Γαλιλαίου και η πυρπόληση του Τζιορντάνο Μπρούνο από την Ιερά Εξέταση δεν κατάφεραν να αναστρέψουν τον οριστικό θρίαμβο της επιστήμης. Η βιομηχανική επανάσταση του 19ου αιώνα και η σχάση του ατόμου τον 20ο αιώνα ήταν η χαριστική βολή. Σήμερα, σε μια εποχή ιδεολογικών αναταράξεων, όπου ο ισλαμικός φανατισμός τροφοδοτεί την παγκόσμια τρομοκρατία και οι χριστιανοί υπερσυντηρητικοί επανακάμπτουν αμφισβητώντας την εξελικτική θεωρία, τα αναχώματα ανάμεσα στις δύο φαινομενικά αντίπαλες κοσμοθεωρίες υψώνονται πάλι, σαν ο πόλεμος ανάμεσά τους να μην κόπασε ποτέ. Επιφανείς διανοητές - όπως ο Ρίτσαρντ Ντόκινς στο πρόσφατο βιβλίο του («Η περί Θεού αυταπάτη») - παίρνουν μια ακραία πολεμική στάση εναντίον της θρησκείας, κατηγορώντας την για μισαλλοδοξία και λογική ασυνέπεια, και (επανα)προτάσσοντας ισχυρά επιχειρήματα υπέρ της υπεροχής της επιστήμης.
Αδιαμφισβήτητα, η επεξηγηματική ισχύς της επιστήμης, καθώς και η επιτυχία της να προσφέρει θεαματικές τεχνολογικές ανακαλύψεις, δείχνουν να καθιστούν την οποιαδήποτε σύγκριση μάλλον περιττή. Θα πρέπει να είναι κανείς επίμονα εθελοτυφλών για να ισχυρίζεται τις ανοησίες των δημιουργιστών. Μάλιστα, οι περισσότεροι θρησκευόμενοι – λογικά σκεπτόμενα όντα και αυτοί - παραδέχονται ότι η επιστήμη εξηγεί το φυσικό κόσμο με τόσο σαφή και λογικό τρόπο που η θρησκεία οφείλει να αναθεωρήσει την κυριολεκτική ερμηνεία των ιερών γραφών της και να επιδιώξει καταφύγιο στην αλληγορία. Ο επιστημονικός τρόπος σκέψης έχει ταυτιστεί στη συνείδησή μας με τη λογική, τη νηφαλιότητα και, ακόμα, με τη δημοκρατία. Οποιαδήποτε παρέκκλιση επισείει το σκέλεθρο της δεισιδαιμονίας, του ολοκληρωτισμού, της καταπίεσης της ελευθερίας της σκέψης, και της παλινδρόμησης στην τυραννία και στον σκοταδισμό.
Η επιστήμη δεν χρειάζεται ακόμα έναν υπερασπιστή. Στόχος μου είναι - χωρίς διάθεση να υπερασπιστώ τη θρησκεία - να επισημάνω ορισμένα χαρακτηριστικά της επιστήμης τα οποία θεωρώ ότι προσομοιάζουν στη θρησκεία σε τέτοιο βαθμό ώστε να μου προκαλούν ανησυχία. Θα εστιάσω εν συντομία σε τρία από αυτά.

Το πρώτο - το σημαντικότερο ίσως - έχει να κάνει με την φαινομενικά εντυπωσιακή αποτελεσματικότητα της επιστήμης να μας παρέχει μια ορθολογική και απρόσωπη εξήγηση των φυσικών φαινομένων - σε αντιδιαστολή με τη θρησκεία της οποίας η εξήγηση βασίζεται σε μια υπερ-προσωπικότητα (το Θεό) «έξω από το σύμπαν». Η διαφορά, θα έλεγε κανείς, είναι προφανής: η μεν αναπόδεικτη ύπαρξη της θεότητας απαιτεί πίστη ενώ, αντιθέτως, η επιστημονική ερμηνεία αποδεικνύεται χωρίς αμφιβολίες μέσω του πειράματος.
Κι όμως, όπως έδειξε ο Σκοτσέζος φιλόσοφος Ντέιβιντ Χιουμ (1711-1776), το πρόβλημα με το πείραμα είναι ότι - πάντα και αναπόφευκτα - οι επιστήμονες χρησιμοποιούν επαγωγικό λογισμό για να γενικεύσουν τα αποτελέσματα των πειραμάτων τους και να διατυπώσουν μια φυσιοκρατική εξήγηση των φαινομένων. Το πρόβλημα με τον επαγωγικό λογισμό είναι ότι δεν μπορεί να είναι κανείς ποτέ απολύτως βέβαιος ότι τα αποτελέσματα ενός πειράματος μπορούν να επαναληφθούν παντού και πάντα. Ο επιστήμονας πρέπει επίσης να πιστέψει στη γενίκευση που διατυπώνει. Ο Καρλ Πόπερ (1902-1994) επιχείρησε να αντιμετωπίσει τον Χιουμ μέσω της ιδέας της διαψευσιμότητας: μια θεωρία είναι επιστημονική, όχι όταν επιβεβαιώνεται από το πείραμα, αλλά μόνον όταν μπορεί να διαψευσθεί. Αλλά και αυτή η ιδέα πάσχει αφού η οι επιστημονικές θεωρίες δεν ανατρέπονται αναγκαστικά όταν ένα γεγονός δεν συμφωνεί με τη θεωρία, όπως έχει επανειλημμένα συμβεί στην ιστορία της επιστήμης. Συχνά, οι θεωρίες απλώς διορθώνονται. Φυσικά, υπάρχουν και επιστήμες (όπως η κοινωνιολογία και τα οικονομικά) οι οποίες δεν εμπεριέχουν το πείραμα, αλλά ο Πόπερ εννοούσε κυρίως την πιο θεμελιώδη επιστήμη, η οποία είναι η φυσική.
Εντός των επομένων μηνών θα έχουμε την ιστορική ευκαιρία να διαπιστώσουμε (ή να διαψεύσουμε) την επιτυχία της σύγχρονης φυσικής. Στο CERN θα αναζητηθεί η πειραματική απόδειξη του σωματιδίου Χιγκς το οποίο, σύμφωνα με το Ενοποιημένο Μοντέλο, δίνει τη μάζα στην ύλη. Αλλά, αναρωτιέμαι, κι αν ακόμα «βρεθεί» το Χιγκς θα έχουμε όντως απαντήσει το αίνιγμα της δημιουργίας; Η σύγχρονη φυσική, κυρίως η κβαντική, έχει περιέλθει από τις αρχές του 20ου αιώνα στην μαθηματική περιγραφή ενός αόρατου κόσμου πέρα από τις αισθήσεις, κι ακόμα πιο πέρα από την κατανόησή μας. Το σωματίδιο Χιγκς, όπως τα φωτόνια, τα κουαρκς, τα σωματίδια πεδίων, είναι μαθηματικές έννοιες που κατοικούν έναν ιδεατό κόσμο μακριά από τον ρεαλισμό με τον οποίο υποτίθεται η επιστήμη ερμηνεύει τον κόσμο. Παρατηρούμε τα αποτελέσματα της θεωρητικής τους ύπαρξης αλλά όχι τα αντικείμενα αυτά καθαυτά. Το «Άγιο Δισκοπότηρο της Φυσικής», η αναζήτηση δηλαδή μιας Μεγάλης Ενοποιητικής Θεωρίας (π.χ. μέσω της θεωρίας των χορδών), ακούγεται ως ύποπτο υποκατάστατο ενός απρόσωπου, μαθηματικού δημιουργού – τον οποίο ποτέ δεν θα γνωρίσουμε αφού η πειραματική του απόδειξη θα βρίσκεται πάντα πέρα από τις ικανότητές μας. Κατά πόσον λοιπόν αυτή η επιστημονική «εξήγηση» διαφέρει από τη θέση της θρησκείας περί της ύπαρξης ενός αόρατου - και άγνωστου κατά βάθος - Θεού; Κατά τη γνώμη μου, ελάχιστα. Αναρωτιέμαι μάλιστα αν μια μη-μονοθεϊστική κοινωνία θα είχε την ίδια μονομανία για μια επιστημονικά ενοποιητική θεωρία, σε σύγκριση με μια πολυθεϊστική. Γιατί η φύση θα πρέπει να έχει μια και μοναδική αιτία; Γιατί όχι δύο, ή τρείς, ή άπειρες;

Ας έρθω τώρα στην κοινωνική οργάνωση της επιστήμης. Τα πρώτα ευρωπαϊκά πανεπιστήμια οργανώθηκαν με πρότυπο τα μοναστήρια. Όχι τυχαία λοιπόν η επιστημονική κοινότητα διαθέτει όλα τα χαρακτηριστικά ενός οργανωμένου ιερατείου. Επιπλέον, η κοινωνία αντιμετωπίζει τους επιστήμονες με δέος ως σύγχρονους προφήτες, αφού η εξήγηση και η πρόβλεψη είναι δομικά συμμετρικές. Κι όμως, θα έλεγε κανείς ότι υπάρχει μια σημαντική διαφορά ανάμεσα σε θρησκεία και επιστήμη: ο κριτικός ορθολογισμός - η τολμηρή αναζήτηση της αλήθειας χωρίς ιδεοληψίες αλλά με διάθεση σύγκρουσης με το κατεστημένο, η διαρκής εξέλιξη των ιδεών που διαρκώς κρίνονται, το αποκλειστικό προνόμιο της επιστήμης ως της μόνης λογικής μεθόδου σκέψης και διερεύνησης του κόσμου. Διαφωνώ ως προς την αποκλειστικότητα του προνομίου, αφού και η ιστορία της θεολογίας είναι γεμάτη από παρόμοιες συγκρούσεις με βάση τον ορθολογισμό. Αν βρεθείτε ποτέ σε κάποιο συνέδριο φυσικής για τις χορδές είναι πολύ πιθανόν να σας φανεί ότι οι σύνεδροι μιλούν λίγο-πολύ για πόσους αγγέλους χωρά το κεφάλι μιας καρφίτσας! Επιπλέον, θεωρώ ότι ο Τόμας Κουν (1922-1996) έχει επαρκώς περιγράψει τον τρόπο με τον οποίο εξελίσσεται η επιστήμη, μέσα από τις περιρέουσες κοινωνικές συγκρούσεις και τις απαιτήσεις τις εκάστοτε εποχής.

Τέλος, θα ήθελα να εξετάσω το βαθμό της ηθικής ουδετερότητας της επιστήμης. Σε αντιδιαστολή με τη θρησκεία, η επιστήμη φαίνεται σαν να μην προτάσσει καμία ηθική εντολή. Η επιστημονική αλήθεια υποτίθεται ότι προσφέρεται ακέραια, αμερόληπτη και δίχως ιδεολογικές επιταγές. Μάλιστα, η επιστήμη μοιάζει σαν να ελευθερώνει τον άνθρωπο από τα δεσμά της ιδεολογικής προκατάληψης και της απολυταρχικής εξουσίας, και σε μεγάλο βαθμό - είμαι βέβαιος - ότι το κάνει. Όχι όμως πάντα. Ολοκληρωτικά συστήματα όπως ο κουμμουνισμός και ο ναζισμός βάσισαν την ιδεολογία τους στην επιστήμη με ολέθρια αποτελέσματα. Στις μέρες μας η επιστήμη της κλιματικής αλλαγής έχει προσλάβει διαστάσεις ορθοδοξίας και άνθρωποι που τολμούν να αμφισβητήσουν την γενική επιστημονική παραδοχή (η οποία όπως εξήγησα είναι τελικά, σε όλες τις περιπτώσεις, πίστη και μόνον πίστη) διώκονται πνευματικά. Χωρίς αμφιβολία, ζούμε σε μια εποχή επιστημονικού φονταμενταλισμού όπου η επιστήμη καθορίζει το ηθικό πλαίσιο συμπεριφοράς των πολιτών, των κρατών και των διεθνών σχέσεων. Όποιος εκπέμπει διοξείδιο του άνθρακα είναι, σχεδόν, εγκληματίας (φυσικά όλοι το κάνουμε μέσω της εκπνοής, ένα ακόμα δείγμα του βαθμού γελοιότητας στον οποίο η οποιαδήποτε ακραία ιδεολογική θέση νομοτελειακά καταλήγει) .
Ελπίζω να φώτισα μερικά σημεία όπου η επιστήμη προσλαμβάνει τα χαρακτηριστικά της υποτιθέμενης αντιπάλου της. Η πρότασή μου είναι να επανέλθει το κέντρο στον πολωμένο διάλογο ανάμεσα σε θρησκεία και επιστήμη, που δεν είναι άλλο από τον υγιή αγνωστικισμό. Τόσο η επιστημονική αθεΐα (η πίστη στην μη-ύπαρξη του Θεού) όσο και η θρησκευτική ομολογία (η πίστη στην ύπαρξη του Θεού) βασίζονται εξίσου σε αναπόδεικτες ιδέες. Θεωρώ ότι τόσο η επιστήμη όσο και η κοινωνία θα εξελιχθούν καλύτερα όταν επανέλθει στη συλλογική μας μνήμη το περίφημο λογοπαίγνιο του Σωκράτη περί της επιγνώσεως της αγνοίας. Γινόμαστε σοφότεροι μόνον όταν αντιλαμβανόμαστε ένα ακόμα μέρος της άγνοιάς μας. Κι αυτό δεν είναι καθόλου κακό. Ας διατηρήσουμε τον σκεπτικισμό μας, τόσο για τη θρησκεία όσο και για την επιστήμη. Ο πραγματικός εχθρός είναι η απόλυτη βεβαιότητα.

Nov 6, 2008

The post-scientific era is here

Counterknowledge, the corpus of pseudofactual narratives that dominate much of today’s discourse, shocks many in the scientific community. I often talk to scientists who cannot comprehend why intelligent people, some with science degrees, are so gullible that they take homeopathy drugs, read their horoscopes and believe that aliens frequently visit our planet aboard UFOs. Richard Dawkins has been prominent in forging a camp of polemical atheists who, presumably fed up with counterknowledge, have raised their intellectual arms against the resurgence of religion. Meanwhile, creationism gains ground in the west and is the dominant belief in the Muslim world as well as among Muslims living in western countries. I am told that the President of China has been reported claiming that Chinese vessels circumnavigated the world in 1421 and established colonies in South America. Is the world going crazy? It seems to me that the world has entered a post-scientific era. The Enlightment project, still unfinished, is on the defense everywhere. A medieval mentality had returned whereby belief is more important than fact, where connections and patterns between disparate things are put together in order to “prove” the most incredible things. The media, applying the only filter they care for (i.e. ratings) propagate these narratives and thus legitimize them further. The results range from comical to tragic. People in South Africa have been dying of AIDS because their ex-President believed that the disease is not caused by a virus but by social conditions. Scientists have a new social responsibility. They cannot hide in their labs, watch the other way, delegate the issue to politicians. If they do, soon there may be no labs. If the trends of today are left unchecked, then in the not-so-distant future tax money may be diverted to building astrological observatories and laws may be enacted that require the ritualistic blessings of "enlightened" beings in order for society to function. Dawkins has been criticized for causing a “polarization” between science and religion. My opinion is that he has not caused anything of the kind; he has simply shown to the rest of us that such a polarization already exists and we should wake up and do something about it. The future could well be of a world in possession of nuclear technology and the lack of rational thinking. Imagine the Crusaders attacking medieval Jerusalem with atom bombs and you’ll get the picture. This is the definition of a nightmare.

Cyborgs - 1

Augmenting physical ability by making use of techno-prostheses is as instinctive to primates as the sticks that some chimpanzees use to extract termites from their nests. The whole edifice of technological civilization has been exactly that, to implement knowledge collected on natural processes in order to achieve supernatural ends. It should therefore not come as a surprise that a fusion of machine and body has become ever so prominent in the last few years. The difference is one of interface, or to be more succinct, of intimacy. It is one thing to sit in your car and drive at a hundred miles per hour and a completely different thing to be running at a hundred miles per hour using a pair cyber-legs – or is it? I would argue that although it may “feel” different it is basically one and the same. But I guess the real issue with cyborg technology is not adding a few degrees of extra functionality to our bodies. Simply by wearing a pair of glasses and correcting my shortsightedness I have already done so. The real issued emerges when the human brain is part of the interface, when the intimacy between body and machine reaches the level of our neurons. Deep brain stimulation works miracles with patients suffering with severe symptoms of Parkinson’s disease, and yet the ethical repercussions of this “intrusion” send shivers up the backs of ordinary folk. Is this the dawn of a post-human era? Of creatures half-machine and half-human? Where the “self” is modulated by electrical currents and electrodes implanted in the brain? And what would that mean for Free Will? These are too many questions to ask at once, so let me try to unravel each one in turn, in the light of the New Narrative. A central thesis of the New Narrative is the deconstruction of Self. This is something that began in earnest with the introduction of psychoanalytic theory in the mainstream culture. The “discovery of the subconscious” blew the foundations of assumed rationality sky high. It is perhaps rather amazing that it took a century for economists to factor the human subconscious into their theories – but this is, I believe, a fine example of the permeability of the New Narrative, a subject that I shall return to. To return to my current analysis, the result of deconstructing the Self has been that cyber dreams are interpreted as horrors, in the same manner that a room of magic mirrors modulates our reflection to the extend that it becomes another “us” out-there. The rationalists would have no trouble realizing that cyborg technology does not alter a thing. But we are not rationalists, not any more. We are the heroes of a narrative that self-describes our existence using a new code of ethics based on deconstruction. According to this code, we are all post-human, in the sense that our biology has been enhanced by technology, chemically, electrically, mechanically, members of an interconnected hive called the Web, our “collective consciousness”. The questions we therefore ask are completely out of context. When we ask, for example, where is “Free Will” in the case of electrical brain modulation, we are directing the question to our past, not our present, and certainly not to our future. Thus, the question lingers on unanswered, for it is unanswerable. A better question might have been: can we modulate Free Will in order to achieve a more harmonious society?

The political anticlimax of climatic change

This article was commissioned for the Athens News

Our planet is warming up. Scientists agree that global average temperature is about 0.6oC higher than it was a century ago and that atmospheric levels of carbon dioxide have risen by about 30 percent over the past 200 years, mostly because of the burning of fossil fuels. Although the causal link between the increase in greenhouse gases and global warming cannot be unequivocally established, there is widespread consensus amongst scientists that global warming is man-made. There are data that contradict this consensus; for example, satellite measurements of the upper atmosphere where temperatures have remained virtually unchanged and deep ocean temperature measurements which indicate that oceans are in fact cooling. Other factors may be attributing to global warming too, such as atmospheric soot, land-use change, and solar variations, as well as natural processes which we do not understand yet. Scientists, in trying to understand disparate data and thus explain global warming, build so-called models, which are mathematical simulations of measured facts and logical hypotheses. These models are run on powerful computers and their efficacy is tested by means of their predictability. Current climate models are quite sophisticated and most of them predict a rise in global temperatures of around 10C in the next 50 to 100 years.
It is important to understand that although few disagree that global warming is real, the interplay between anthropogenic climate forcings and natural processes is a difficult one to establish. Our planet is an extremely complex system of natural feedback systems in constant interplay and, therefore, in unremitting change. For example, the history of climate on Earth, as revealed by science, shows that 500 million years ago temperatures were 80C higher than today; and levels of carbon dioxide many times higher too. Antarctica glaciated around 30 million years ago, probably due to plate tectonics that caused a restriction in the flow of ocean currents. Temperatures started falling below today’s average around 3 million years ago and the world entered into alternating ice-age cycles, the last one ending 10,000 years ago. Since then we live in what has been called “the long summer”, and it is no coincidence that farming and civilization arose around the same time.

Faced with undoubted scientific facts as well as scientific uncertainties, pressured from environmental groups who see their day, overwhelmed by media hype that feeds upon the theme of climatic apocalypse, western political thinkers have devised policies to avert climate change. The main premise of such policies is to “fix” future climate by reducing the burning of fossil fuels today. The argument for such policies is economic; climate change according to certain economic analyses will be devastating and, therefore, action should be taken today to avert future consequences.

Both the premise and the argument are debatable. Earth’s climate is always changing and the world can only accept change, embrace it and prepare for it. “Fixing” is an engineering term that assumes a deterministic understanding of the system to be fixed; something which does not apply to Earth’s climate. We are simply too ignorant, and too arrogant, to want to fix Earth’s climate by twiddling concentrations of carbon dioxide over the ensuing decades. Suggestions for “positive Geo-engineering” (altering Earth’s climate towards a “preferred” state by disrupting natural processes) reflect the logical extend of such a misled, potentially dangerous, and much criticized, approach.

Although there is widespread scientific consensus on the anthropogenic causes of climate change, economic analyses on the future impact of climate change are very disparate. For example, the Stern Report to the UK government, which estimated the cost of carbon dioxide at 86$ per ton, has been challenged as too overblown; most economists estimate it between 2 and 12$. Other economists argue that funds spent to fix climate will be withheld from other, more crucial and more urgent causes such as world poverty, tropical diseases or the spread of AIDS.

Proposed climate policies are also under scrutiny. “Market-based” greenhouse gas reduction schemes, such as cap-and-trade, promote the development of a carbon cartel seeking to exploit the system to make profits. Political considerations affect carbon markets and carbon lobbyists are having a field day. The carbon markets can never be truly open, and therefore market forces will be perennially superseded by politics and political corruption. “Green tax” schemes, although more effective, will be extremely unpopular to enforce, not only in the US but also in the EU where petrol prices are already heavily taxed by governments. It is no coincidence that, despite big talk from European leaders, Kyoto targets have not been met by the majority of EU members. Everyone knows that reducing the burning of fossil fuels, or increasing fuel taxes, will adversely affect economic growth and jobs in developed countries, particularly in times of economic downturn and recession; it will also put in peril economic advancement of the energy-hungry developing world. It is a dismal sign of our media-weary times that not one western politician seems brave enough to contradict global groupthink.

And yet the world ought not to remain inactive. Dependence on fossil fuels is politically and economically precarious for the West, as the case of Iran, the deliria of Chavez and the conflict in Georgia amply demonstrate. Continuing global economic development and prosperity needs vast amounts of environmentally-benign energy that must be found and made available to all, without the threat of blackmail by cartels and dictators. The long-term solution will have to come from massive public and private investment in research on renewable forms of energy, such as wind and solar, as well as safer nuclear. Climate change is an unavoidable part of living on a planet with an atmosphere. Future generations will be better prepared to face it - and better off - if we, instead of alluding to ineffective policies, we tap humanity’s greatest asset: our inner world of ideas.

Ghost-hunting at Pylos

Searching for the mysterious neutrino particle
This article was commissioned for the Athens News

Imagine yourself in the countryside during a clear night staring at the countless stars that never failed to inspire poets, science fiction writers and lovers. For those lucky enough to have viewed the sky through a powerful telescope, the splendid beauty and immensity of the cosmos acquire near-religious potency. Astronomers, a race of stellar priests-cum-poets of sorts, use electromagnetic radiation – such as light or radio waves – that is emitted by those distant worlds in order to investigate the mysteries of the universe and to explore the evolution of stars and planets. However, there are parts of the universe that are opaque to optical or radio telescopy. For example the nuclei of stars, or the dense centers of galaxies, or the early universe when light did not yet exist.
The experimental confirmation of the mysterious neutrino particle in 1956 ushered a new era in astronomy - called “neutrino astronomy” - that can boldly go where other astronomies cannot, and see things no optical or radio telescope can. 
Neutrinos (not to be confused with neutrons) were first theorized to exist in 1930 by the famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli. They are tiny particles which result from nuclear reactions, such as the ones taking place in the Sun or inside a nuclear reactor. Unlike electrons (which are negatively charged) neutrinos have no electric charge and are virtually massless. Thus they pass through matter virtually unhindered. Every second 50 trillion of those ghostly things pass through your body without you noticing it!
The bonus of being like a ghost is that you can travel through anything, anywhere, anytime. Compare that with photons, the particles of light. Photons produced inside the core of the Sun take 40,000 years to reach its outer surface and become visible by our optical telescopes. This is because photons interact with the electromagnetic forces inside the core of the Sun which impede their transmission. Neutrinos, having no charge and interacting with nothing, travel from the core to the surface almost instantly. A similar phenomenon occurs during the final stages in the lifetime of a big star. When such a massive star burns out it implodes and then violently explodes all its matter and energy into space. The phenomenon is called supernova and is one of the most spectacular and amazing events in the universe. In 1987 detection of a massive “neutrino storm” foretold a supernova explosion 18 hours before the light from the explosion arrived at Earth.
Let us return for a moment back to our imaginary telescope. Modern astronomy tells us that all the stars and the galaxies out there, all “ordinary matter” as it is called, accounts only for 4% of the universe. Of the rest, 22% is made up of the mysterious dark matter, and 74% of the even more mysterious dark energy. Dark matter is responsible for the way galaxies are clustered together, it gives the universe its “shape” and it is made up from weakly interacting particles of matter that are still unknown. Neutrinos may account at least for a part of the “missing” dark matter.

With so many cosmic mysteries to solve, the scientific interest in neutrinos is great and since the late fifties many scientists and engineers have tried to develop machines that could detect them. This is no easy feat. For example, if we wanted to block half the typical neutrinos that emanate from our Sun we would need a sphere of water around the sun with a radius of 10 light years!

The coast of Pylos may not hold so much water but it does hold enough for Nestor, an experimental neutrino telescope. The design for Nestor is based on a rigid metal structure that supports arrays of thousands of sensors which detect the faint collisions of neutrinos as they pass through Earth. The structure, more than 10 times higher than the Eiffel Tower, has been immersed in the deep waters outside Pylos, where depths go down to 5 kilometers. So far only 2 of the total 12 floors of the structure have been assembled. The sea water is important because it absorbs most of the light as well as other electromagnetic radiation, allowing only the ever-elusive neutrinos to pass through.

In fact it is the great depth, combined with the close proximity to the shore that Pylos is putting forward as its comparative advantages in competing with the two other European observatories, Antares in France and Nemo in Italy. The prize will be the selected site for KM3Net, the future European infrastructure for neutrino telescopy. At the southern hemisphere, on icy Antarctica, another neutrino telescope – aptly called IceCube - is being built already. Together, IceCube and KM3NeT will view the full sky while searching for neutrino sources, such as gamma ray bursts, supernovae or colliding stars. A final decision for KM3Net is expected within the next two years and the Greek scientists, as well as the Greek Government, are trying to convince their European counterparts for the scientific as well as geographical values of Pylos. Till then, the existing detectors of Nestor will keep on searching for the ethereal passes of the tiny neutrinos, listening deep into the dark waters of the Mediterranean Sea, perhaps the most unlikely and curious place to watch the sky.

A Wh(ITER) elephant?

This article was commissioned for the Athens News

Imagine a machine that you can throw in a few grams of hydrogen – which abounds in the Earth’s oceans – crank it a few times, and harvest massive amounts of cheap energy. And all that thanks to fusion, a physical process where the nuclei of two elements (for example deuterium and tritium, which are kinds of hydrogen) fuse together to produce a new element (helium). The new, fused, nucleus is somewhat less than the sum of the two original nuclei, and the residual mass becomes energy (called “thermonuclear”) according to Einstein’s famous formula E=mc2. And that’s all the physics you need to solve Earth’s energy problems!

Fusion sounds too good - and because it is also true - it has led to ITER, the “International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor”, a 10billion dollar megaproject, jointly funded by the EU, Russia, US, Japan, South Korea, China and India. ITER’s long and turbulent history began in 1985 as a political-cum-scientific gesture towards easing Cold War tensions. The West and the Soviet Union, each one having developed their own thermonuclear technologies, decided to put them together for the benefit of all mankind. The Soviet Union collapsed but ITER survived. After much politicking and dramatic bargaining over the ensuing decades, its location has been finally decided: Cadarache, near Marseille.

ITER will take 10 years to construct, and 20 more years to operate. It will build upon experience gained from previous experiments, such as JET (The “Joint European Taurus”), and will test new ideas and designs for a reactor. Although the science is well-known and straight-forward, the engineering is a daunting task evermore. For nuclear fusion to occur elements have to be stripped off their electrons. This state of “electron-less” matter is called “plasma”. The Sun is a fireball of plasma and its radiant energy is theorized to be the result of naturally occurring fusion. Plasma only exists in extremely high temperatures and therefore no material container can contain it. So engineers must develop something “immaterial”; a magnetic field powerful enough to hold plasma at 100 million degrees centigrade. By 2018 the hope to fuse half a gram of hydrogen, sustain the generated plasma for 400 seconds, and produce 500MW of energy. (By comparison, in 1997 JET managed to sustain plasma for half a second only and produce 16.1MW). Commercial thermonuclear reactors are envisaged by 2050.

The promise of ITER is environmentally benign, widely applicable, essentially inexhaustible electricity. Criticism from environmental groups focuses mainly on safety and waste disposal; however safety is inherent in fusion reactors (if plasma cools, even slightly, reactions stop at once) and the only waste is water. Fusion reactors may become radioactive but much less so than commercial nuclear reactors currently in use; and tested technologies to safely manage decommissioning already exist. Indeed, faced with the huge challenge to drastically cut down on greenhouse emissions, thermonuclear energy seems god-sent. Economic growth, which lifts people out of poverty, increases prosperity and guarantees peace, is based on the assumption of cheap, renewable, and widely available, energy resources. Such resources do not exist on our planet. Solar, wind and hyrdo cannot keep pace with the required rates of economic growth. Thermonuclear, with its zero emissions, inherent safety, minimum waste management overheads, and Mega-watt energy output is seen, by ITER’s supporters, as the only real alternative.

Nevertheless, serious scientific skepticism points to the fact that, although the uranium-fission bomb that obliterated Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945 has found peaceful use in nuclear reactors, the hydrogen-fusion bomb of 1952 has not. Containing the plasma at 100 million degrees for any economically meaningful period, may be an impossible engineering feat. Furthermore, the prevailing theory that the Sun is a gigantic fusion reactor is currently in dispute because it does not comply with new measurements of solar radiation. NASA is scheduling missions to investigate alternative explanations for the Sun’s mysterious energy cycle.
Could ITER be a White Elephant? A multi-billion megaproject which will result in nothing but water?
Questions such as these have led the US to vacillate in and out of ITER, and Canada to let go for good. The current political climate does not help either. The reasoning behind any “blue-sky” exploration smacks against the “precautionary principle”, an idea dominating contemporary political discourse. In a risk-averse society, playing with an expensive toy full of radioactive plasma may sound like an abomination. And yet we humans have managed to survive thus far by taking risks, by going out there and hoping to discover something new. Stifling potentially vital innovation on the grounds that it is “very difficult” to produce any results, or that it may incur “risk”, may be a far more dangerous proposition.

Big Bang Reloaded

This article was commissioned for the Athens News

It is now official: in a somewhat embarrassed statement, scientists recently declared that Earth will not be swallowed up by the tiny black holes that could be created this summer at CERN. Akin to the paranoia of 1910, when the media forewarned on the destruction of the planet due to the gaseous tail of Halley’s comet, the switching-on of the largest-ever experiment in physics has made news mostly by grace of its hypothetical potential to end it all in one big flash. A group of concerned citizens in Hawaii has filed a lawsuit requesting an injunction to stop CERN immediately. So is this the vainglorious return of human hubris to be stopped before it’s too late? Are scientists, like the ever-curious Pandora, about to open the proverbial box and let all hell break loose?

The European Centre for Nuclear Research (CERN) is a wonder of international collaboration. Situated at the Franco-Swiss border it has been a beacon of scientific excellence since its establishment after the WWII, churning out not only insights into the workings of subatomic nature but also fabulous inventions like the World Wide Web. During the past twenty years CERN has been abuzz with an army of scientists, engineers, technicians and workers putting together the largest, most complex project ever built. It is called the Large Hardon Collider (LHC) and its purpose is to explore the edge of our understanding about nature.
The LHC is a particle smasher in the shape of a hollow ring 27km in length, dug 100m underground. Inside this ring neutrons and protons, the elementary particles that make up the nuclei of atoms, will be accelerated by means of strong magnetic fields. Once they reach 99.99% of the speed of light they will be made to smash into each other. The particle debris that will result will be awash with exotic things scientists are dying to explore; evidence of extra dimensions, mysterious traces of the dark matter that is supposed to pervade the universe, the infamous Higg’s boson which gives mass to everything. The LHC will offer us a glimpse of the universe when it was only one millionth of a second old. In this sense, it is also a time machine which will take us back to the beginning of time.

A tremendous amount of information will come out of LHC, and the next big challenge for scientists will be to record, analyze and, ultimately, make sense of it. To help them, four extremely sophisticated detectors, placed at certain points along the ring, will act like huge cameras taking snapshots of the disintegrating particles. The biggest one - aptly named ATLAS - will have to process data equivalent to 50 billion phone calls made at the same time!
The late physicist Victor Weiss was right to call underground particle colliders the “gothic cathedrals of the 20th century”. The LHC is pushing our technology to its limits, has required the combined craftsmanship and ingenuity of thousands of workers and it has taken decades of collective, single-minded commitment from conception to completion. But there is another aspect in the simile that I find even more inspiring. Like the cathedrals of the medieval past the LHC is the modern temple of worship of the ultimate forces that have created us. Scientists may not call it God but, in essence, is the same: recreating the Big Bang in this magnificent mega-lab will not only enhance our scientific understanding but will also provide the moral justification for our technological civilization. It will demonstrate that technology is not merely utilitarian but, like art, music and literature, it underpins the spiritual fabric that makes life worth living. The 10 billion Euros spent to build LHC are therefore the best - and wisest - investment we taxpayers of the western world have ever made.

So what about those tiny black holes? True, Stephen Hawking has predicted that they will be part of the debris. Buy will they suck up everything around them and start growing fast till they eat up the planet? Virtually impossible, or – to be more scientifically precise – equally probable with a firedragon materializing inside CERN’s cafeteria one late winter evening. Earth is bombarded daily with cosmic rays which are scales of magnitude greater than the energies at LHC, creating billions of tiny black holes every second, and yet we are all still here. If Hawking is right, those pussycat black holes are nothing like their roaring lion cousins that lounge in the centre of galaxies and eat up stars. They live for a fleeting moment and then vanish by radiating away all their energy. At least that is what Hawking is theorizing and, if proven right, he will be snatching one of the Nobel prizes expected to varnish the great discoveries to be made at CERN in the next few years. Stay tuned and fear not. Planet Earth is safe.

Interview with Leonard Susskind

This is an edited transcript of an interview with Leonard Susskind (Stanford 13/04/2004)

GZ: What are the big questions in physics today?
LS: The connection between cosmology, gravitation, quantum mechanics and string theory (if it turns out to be the right theory which is probably). For me these are the central questions. Of course there are questions which divide the universe into before year 2000 and after year 2000. There are questions left over from the twentieth century. The questions from the twentieth century are how we understand the pattern of elementary particles and so forth, how we understand what’ s called the Standard Model, how does it fit into something bigger and more complete.
Under 21st century physics I would classify questions that have to do with the structure of universe, as well as the origin of our laws of nature, our laws of physics.

GZ: Could string theory be the “theory of everything” and give all the answers?
LS: I dislike the term “theory of everything” and I would never use it myself and if knew who had said it first I would shoot him. It’s an inflammatory term and all kinds of people correctly say that it is not a theory of everything. It doesn’t explain how the brain works and so it’s a term which I would not use. If it is a theory which can, at some point, explain the origin of the universe and the spectrum of elementary particles and so forth, it remains to be seen. My feeling is that there’s probably only one quantum theory of gravity and string theory appears to be a part of that theory of gravity.
What we are discovering about string theory is very different from what we had expected and hoped for. The original hope of string theory was that it would provide an absolutely unique set of answers to the questions such as: what is the particles’ spectrum, what are the masses of particles. It would have been a very elegant answer, a beautiful mathematical answer and extremely unique. Unique in that we would find that, basically, the world could not be any other way that the way it is. That was the hope. The reality is extremely different. The reality is that the more we study of the theory, the more possible kinds of things we discover it can describe. We discover it’s a theory with a vast number of solutions. We simply find that there are enormous numbers of possible worlds that string theory can describe.

GZ:String theory has often been called a “revolution in physics”...
LS: The word revolution has been tremendously overused. Super and revolution are the most overused words in physics. Everything is a revolution. Is string theory a revolution? We don’t know yet. I think we don’t know what string theory is yet. I think we’ve made very wrong guesses about what string theory will do for us. I think we got it completely wrong. We thought it would give us a unique theory of the elementary particles. Instead it’s giving us perhaps as many as 10500 different possibilities of what the universe could be like. This is very puzzling. What do we make out of it? Do we just randomly pick one of these possible universes? Or all of them are important? What’s going on? My own view for some time now, is that in an inflationary context you could have a patch of this universe, a patch of that, a patch of whatever else is possible. In string theory it looks like 10500 possibilities are possible, each with its own set of particles, set of interactions. My guess is that the universe is just exceedingly big, full of tremendous amount of diversity. All these different possibilities materialize at some place. We simply live where is possible to live, in that part of this giant structure which is not totally hostile or lethal to our existence.

GZ: String theory has captured the public imagination because it refers to hidden dimensions. Of course, science fiction stories have made a lot of hidden dimensions. Why do we need so many extra dimensions to explain nature?
LS: Wish I could give you a simple mathematical explanation, for I’m afraid nobody can explain it simply otherwise. It‘s a very complicated theory which fits together in a consistent way only if the number of dimensions are ten or eleven. Why does physics need them? Elementary particles in the ordinary view of things are point particles. A point can’t have many, many properties. A point is too simple to have properties. However, we know that elementary particles have a lot of properties. They have spin, they have electric charge, they have something called isotopic spin, they have a quantum number called color - it’s not got anything to do with ordinary color - they have generations that they belong to, there are whole catalogs of different kinds of quantum numbers, of different kinds of properties that quarks, electrons, netrinos, or photons have. It sounds unreasonable for a point to have that structure. So the feeling most of us have is that, at some level, if you look deeply enough into things, you‘ll discover that particles aren’t points. That they must have all kinds of internal machinery that gives them these properties. One of those machineries, one of the ingredients into understanding what the quantum numbers of particles are, is the idea of higher dimensions. I‘ll give you an example. The simplest and oldest theory of higher dimensions is called the Kaluza theory. It was invented by Kaluza in 1917. Einstein liked it very much. It postulated one extra dimension, i.e. a particle in the extra dimension could be regarded as a little circular dimension. The idea of Kaluza theory is that the particle can move not only in the usual three directions of space but it can also move around in this extra dimension. Well, the particle which moves around in the extra dimension is different than one that moves differently in the extra dimension. The amount of speed that is going in the extra dimension as well as the direction it goes matter a lot. What is this new option corresponds to? It corresponds to the electric charge of the particle in Kaluza’s theory. So, electric charge becomes motion in another direction, in a new direction. What’s going on now is that these extra directions - all of them - correspond in various kinds of ways to the extra properties that these points have. So I wouldn’t say that we needed the extra dimensions, but we needed the kind of structure, the kind of complexity in space that could explain why these other degrees of freedom are there.

GZ: Skeptics say that string theory will forever remain outside the realm of real science, because it’s not experimentally falsifiable.

LS: I would simply dismiss these people for lack of imagination. There are all these people who are constantly pontificating of what science is and what science isn’t. These people lack of imagination. I also lack of imagination but I have a lot of imagination to know that I lack of imagination. We do not know what people can do in the future. We do not know what the human intelligence is capable of collectively. True, we are in a new course of exploration s studying extremely remote things which are very, very difficult to establish experimentally. But we should not abandon our course.

GZ: Let me take you back to what we discussed before about string theory predicting up to 10500 different possible universes. Is this perhaps an answer to the paradox that we live in a universe so finely-tuned. Is this the answer to the Anthropic principle?
LS: That may be. My view is that the fine-tuning of the universe, particularly with regards to the cosmological constant, is so exceptional that we can no longer ignore it. Nevertheless, we have to ask whether the Anthropic principle is really serious business. Different people mean different things by the anthropic principle. Some give a religious depth to that thing, that the Almighty created the universe for no other purpose than people to live there. That’s one theory to which I don’t subscribe. I think it’s the duty of physicists and scientists to take that theory only as an absolutely last resort, when everything else fails. Other people think it’s part of the weirdness of quantum mechanics that somehow we live in the one place we can.
My view is a little different. It’s similar to asking why we live on a planet which is so finely-tuned. Our planet is at just the right distance from the sun so that we do not get boiled or frozen. That’s a very small window of opportunity, it’s a fine tuning. To find the reason why this is so, you need at least two things: a set of very large alternative possibilities and a cosmology which creates all of these different possibilities. So, it wouldn’t be enough to know that the “planet equation” - whatever it is - has many, many solutions with different values of, say, the “right temperature”. I also want to know that the surrounding universe grew and expanded creating lots of planets. Those two ingredients make sense out of this anthropic idea. One, that the theory, whatever it is, has so many solutions that even though it takes a very fine tuning for life, there will still be enough other solutions, so that statistically there will be one. And that, whatever the cosmology of the universe is, it creates always different possibilities some place.

GZ: How about string theory then. Does it fit your two requirements for an explanation?
LS: I think that string theory provides us with a space of enormous possibilities. By involving so many mechanisms put together in various combinations the number of possible universe is 10500or something. We don’t what the number is, but it’s vast. The other thing we need is something like Linde’s and Lincoln’s theory of eternal inflation, where inflation takes place constantly and spins off different environments. Their ideas seem to me to be very, very reasonable, that the universe expands to something enormously big and it creates patches of all different kinds of what Alan Guth calls “pocket-universes”.

GZ: Could we ever find if that is true?
LS: For the moment it looks impossible because of the horizon problem. Our world has a horizon that we can not see beyond. Presumably these other worlds are behind this horizon. One of the things we’ve learnt from thinking about black holes in the context of string theory, is that at quantum level the horizon is not really a barrier to knowledge. What goes on outside the horizon is also equally well described by the Hawking radiation of the black hole. I suspect that cosmic horizons are scrambled in complicated ways. Cosmic microwave background, which is light Hawking radiation, has this information in it. Can anybody ever extracted it? Certainly not with experimental tools currently available. But as I said never say never. We don’t know what the limits of imagination, or the limits of intelligence, are and that’s something for the future to do. Young smart physicists want to be explorers. They want to explore those things which everybody else says are impossible.

GZ: The LHC is underway and will soon start experiments for the Higgs particle . Will they find it?
LS: I think so. I don’t see any other good alternative.

GZ: So the LHC is money worth spent!
LS: Well, yes, whether we find the Higg’s particle or not. If we find it’s there, that’s wonderful and confirms everything we knew. If it’s not there, it’s even more radical and money will have been even better spent. It will mean that we have been thinking wrong about physics for thirty years now.

GZ: Is time is an illusion?
LS:Space is an illusion. You are an illusion.

GZ:This sounds very Buddhist to me.
LS:Well, physicists don’t think that way because it’s not a useful way to think. We can measure time, just like as we can measure space, just like we can measure electrons. So why pick on time as being an illusion? Everything is an illusion in that view. But it’s not a useful view for a physicist. If you can measure it, if you can describe it, then we regard it as real.

GZ: Let me press this point of illusion a little further. Quantum mechanics introduces the observer into the very fabric in reality. Somehow if you take observers out, if you take consciousness out, “reality” ceases to exist. Does the universe exist when we do not observe it?
LS: I’m not a philosopher and I’m trying not to be philosophical. I’m trying to be more practical. Let’s see...Ask me the question again.

GZ: Is there something that we can call extended reality, a reality outside our perception? Or are we constantly creating reality through our measurements or our observations?
LS: We don’t really know how to understand the world of quantum mechanics. We know how to understand one special set of circumstances, where you can clearly separate the world in observer and system.
But the real world is not like that. We the observers are always part of the system. In the context of the laboratory we can usually make some separations. We cannot make that separation about cosmology of the universe. We are part of it. We influence it. So we do not really understand how to think about a system when we are a part of it, because of quantum mechanics. A very good friend goes so far as to say that he doesn’t think that quantum mechanics is complete because of this. And he thinks underlying the quantum mechanics is something much more deterministic. Most physicists think it’s a screwy idea. My answer is I don’t know.

GZ: When we talk about physics, when we talk about reality, we usually talk about energy, talk about matter, interactions between particles and fields etc. Let me for a moment suggest to you that the universe is not like that at all, the universe is made out of bits and information. Wolfram wrote a book about cellular automata which made quite of sensation. Could you believe in Matrix world? Could the universe be made out of bits, at an elementary level?
LS: Yes I think that it is made out of bits. It is nothing but information .

GZ: Could this notion change our physics?
LS: No, it can explain our physics. With respect to Wolfram, I’ m a physicist who thinks Wolfram’s ideas are interesting. But keep in mind that Wolfram’s ideas have no place for quantum mechanics. And the world is quantum mechanical. Wolfram believes that the world is cellular automata. But he knows that cellular automata are not quantum mechanical. Quantum mechanics has to come from somewhere. Where does it come from I don’t know. So I would say, until you can understand why the world is quantum mechanical, to say that it’s made of cellular automata is servicing a point. No quantum mechanics no cigar.

GZ: Einstein once said that the most inexplicable thing about this universe is that we can explain it. Are we now reaching the limits of our cognitive abilities? Do you believe that there are cognitive limitations to the human mind?
LS: Sure there are limitations. The human mind can not have more bits of information than the whole universe has. There are limitations to the human abilities in general. I would have bet anything on that no human being can play six musical instruments at the same time. I would have bet very much that nobody can jump as high as Michael Jordan. It turns out that the ranges of people have in the very, very far parts of the distribution are so amazing that nobody would have guess that they were possible. When people say such things as we’re reaching the limits, what they really mean is that I ´m reaching my limit. When they say they can’t conceive of anybody solving a certain problem what they really mean is that they can conceive of themselves solving this problem. The limits are probably way beyond what we imagine. They always are. The danger in trying to predict the limits of human abilities is always going in the wrong direction. It’s much more likely to underestimate than to overestimate. As long as it’s physically possible, as long as it doesn’t violate the laws of nature, it means there’s a possibility that human beings can do it. Forget individuals. Collectively human beings have such a diversity of different kinds or ways of thinking, they have the flexibility to be able to bend their own way of thinking about new things. We simply don’t know, but I would guess that when we try to estimate these things we ‘re in much more danger of underestimating to what people can do than overestimate it.

GZ: As we expand our knowledge of the cosmos through our physics, if we ever reach points that we don’t really understand and we can not possibly falsify, then are we in a danger that science, physics can regresses to religion?
LS: There is such a danger. So, on one hand there is such a danger and in the other hand I also say that you are also in danger of underestimating what people will be able to do in the future. Will they be able to do experiments that now seem to be so completely out of this world that they seem totally impossible? I‘ll give you two examples. The first is the inflationary theory of the universe. Everybody who saw that the first time said “well, that’s very nice Alan Guth, but your own admission of the inflation of the universe wipes out any evidence of itself. Nobody will ever be able to make science out of it”. That’s what everybody said, including Alan. Nobody expected that within twenty-five years people would figure out how to confirm observationally that the inflation theory was right. But it happened. I’ll give you another example. I can easily imagine people telling Darwin “nice theory Charles, but the only way to confirm it will be to go back a billion years and see what’s going on, and that’s simply impossible”. Well, it took a hundred years to make science out of evolutionary theory. It took a hundred years for people to get enough knowledge about biochemistry and genetics, to watch microorganisms evolve. It took a hundred years but it happened. And as I said the two dangers are, falling into a trap of t faith-based physics, but also giving up because it looks too hard.

GZ: Apart from technological development making life more comfortable what is the role of science in the 21st century? With regards to politics, society and perhaps ideologically. Does science play a role in modern world of religious conflict, fanaticism and lack of rationality?
LS: To a certain extent I think physicists have been the keepers of the truth. A case of point would be the Soviet Union during the dark days when the keepers of the truth were physicists, people like Zakharof and Orlof. They were people who simply believed in the concept of the truth. You know what’s happened to the concept of the truth in American society? It’s been replaced by advertising! All kinds of things which tend to make irrelevant to what’s true and what’s not true. Scientists in general are people who recognize what it means for something to be true. They are people who will question when something it’s not true. And their whole mental make up, their whole ideological basis, has to do with finding the truth. That’s necessary for preserving society.

GZ: So you are not a postmodernist?

LS: Postmodernism has some truth but it has been carried too far. It is true that the way humans think about the laws of nature, the words that we use to explain things, are dependent on culture and so forth. When new scientific ideas come into the front a lot of the argument about them tends to be dominated about the language that we should use to describe them. But, eventually, through some filter, what comes out of the other end is pretty much independent of the specific mentalities of the people who discovered it. And so yes, I believe there is real truth in the bottom of all of it, and it’s also true that the language we use to describe things depends on culture. So, that was a good idea, it was an important idea but it got carried too far when it said that there’s no such thing as objective truth.

The God Particle: Notes for a debate

Thoughts for a debate at Cheltenham Science Festival, June 4th

Reductionism and Scientific Ontology
My thesis would be that the central issues of the debate are the epistemology of reductionism and the ontology of modern physics.

First epistemology: The most important correlate of reductionism is that the universe is governed by a set of natural laws. Modern Physics would argue that, knowing these laws is sufficient for knowing the Universe. The discovery of the Higg’s boson at CERN, by completing the last gap in the Standard Model, would seem to triumphantly reconfirm this notion. And yet, there are obvious problems with reductionism, the most obvious one being the irreducibility of biology into physics.
We have a huge epistemological problem here: we cannot explain complex emergent phenomena by reducing them to particles or strings. The problem becomes ever harder when we need to explain agency, for example economics or consciousness.

To Ontology: If we accept that all that is real are particles (or strings) then Science has nothing to say about Religion; like two complete strangers they sit on the opposite banks of a vast ontological abyss.
If however, we accept that the ontology of the universe (i.e. “reality”) includes emergence and agency, then the picture changes dramatically. Immediately, we have moved away from Determinism and have embraced Indeterminism, not as a sign of Ignorance or Epistemological Weakness but as an ontological fact. We can then accept without feeling uncomfortable that emergent phenomena are impossible to predict (i.e. computed in advance) regardless of the computing power available. In this sense, Emergence expresses a universal agency for creativity that is unpredictable and yet at the same time, scientifically comprehensible. Unpredictability is neither mysterious nor metaphysical.

If nature is irreducible, then what?
It is widely accepted today that physics is more “advanced” than biology because it is more “mathematical”. I think it too early to draw this conclusion. In fact, I would bet that the opposite will become apparent in the decades to come. Physics, as it advances beyond reductionism, as it faces through experimentation new levels of reality which are irreducible, will come to the realization that complexity rules not only at large scales but at the fundamental fabric of reality too. Physics, one day, will be more like biology.

The Unifying Theory of Everything as Jehovah-in-disguise
The Judeo-Christian-Islamic tradition of monotheism has much to do with the inherent conviction of western scientists that “a unifying theory must exist”. Whether it is strings or not, the idea of an “equation that will describe everything” – or a “fundamental law of nature” - echoes the mathematical mysticism of the Pythagoreans and Plato. But why should there be a unifying principle? Perhaps the universe is governed by a number of driving forces, or not governed by anything at all? Perhaps the universe is evolving by constantly finding new ways to do so. Perhaps we know this already: classical physics may be an emergent phenomenon of quantum physics.

Defining God(s) the Science Way
Finally, as in all discussions about Religion, one must define the word “God”. Since Galileo science has gathered enough evidence to support the claim that a Creator God - although not completely impossible – is probably unlikely. From this, orthodox-cum-reductionist point of scientific view, “The God Particle” is a very ironic way to describe the Higg’s boson!
Nevertheless, a non-reductionist Science would be less opposed to a broad definition of divinity. But do we need such a Science? One that could replace medieval-mindset religions with a new sciento-spiritual ethic? One closer to - as Carl Sagan used to say - an “informed worship” of the natural creativity of the universe? But this might be a topic of a future debate!

Event Information The God Particle: Is Science the New Religion? Town Hall, June 4th, 4.15-5.30pm 
What would scientific proof for a ‘theory of everything’ mean for religion? The world’s largest particle accelerator switches on in Switzerland this year. It will hunt for the Higgs boson, often called the ‘God Particle’ for its importance in confirming our most fundamental theories of matter. In an international panel facilitated by physicist Jim Al-Khalili , former Bishop of Oxford Richard Harries, CERN particle physicist Albert de Roeck and Greek journalistGeorge Zarkadakis debate whether science could ever address the ultimate questions of reality. In association with the British Council (South East Europe) Beautiful Science project

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Interview with Christof Koch

(This is an edited transcript of an interview of Christof Koch, taken by George Zarkadakis on April 2004, in Tucson, AZ)

GZ: How would you define the problem of consciousness?
CK: The problem is very difficult to define. We are conscious right now, when you ´re talking to me you are conscious, you can hear things, you can see things, you can remember things, that´ s what we mean by consciousness. It becomes very difficult to define it in more rigorous ways. There is an objective aspect, a feeling aspect, the feeling of being hungry, the feeling of seeing something, of seeing a bird, the feeling of remembering something, because of our conscious sensations. There are many things going in our body that don´ t involve consciousness. I can move my eyes, I can drive a car, I can climb, I can run, all those things bypass consciousness. Where’s the difference in between? To define it right now is not possible. However it is not necessary to define everything rigorously in order to advance. Historically, definitions only happen by hindsight. If you see the history of biology - genes for example - even today it’s not easy to define what’s a gene.

GZ: I see parallels between the difficulty of defining life and consciousness. Is there another parallel between the two that we should be aware of.
CK: Depending on which philosophers you believe the problem of life was one of the big problems in early 20th century. People saw no way that chemistry and physics could allow the transmission of information from one generation to next. People said we know chemistry, we know physics, we know there’s no way that all the information that makes you up, your eye color, your height, can be just chemistry. What people didn’t realize was the ability of one dimensional change in macromolecules. They just didn’t know about this so they said well, we probably need new principles. So the lesson here is that we want to be cautious about what’s consciousness is. Many people say we need some fundamental new laws, but perhaps they are wrong, and consciousness can be explained when we discover the neural mechanism that evokes it.

GZ:Why is consciousness necessary for life?
CK: It is very difficult to speculate its functions. I mean why do you have only two arms rather than four arms? You can suggest various reasons but it’s difficult to confirm. Human psychology seems to need consciousness. Say there is an earthquake or a fire, you know we have to do something we have never done before, we have to quickly get out, we have to leave the building etc. That’s an unplanned contingency, so that’s what I think we need consciousness for. However for most things that you typically do you do without consciousness.

GZ:You are studying vision. Why so? Why not the hearing system or some other body system?
CK: It’s a tactical decision. I´ m a vision scientist, it’s my own personal interest. Also in vision we’ve learned to do things that are very difficult to do with any other body system, to manipulate the relationship between physical world and its subjective interpretation in a very precise way. We can use these techniques to manipulate the relationship between subjective person and physical stimulus, in order to track the footprints of consciousness in the brain.

GZ:The Holy Grail for neuroscientists is to identify the neural correlate of consciousness. What exactly is that?
CK: It is the minimal set of neural mechanisms that are sufficient for consciousness in a person. Once we have the neural correlate of consciousness we can track what happens in diseases like schizophrenia and autism that intervene with consciousness, what happens in a newborn baby, how do we know that a newborn baby is conscious, or what happens in patients in a coma. Once we have the neural correlate we can begin to tackle these questions in a rigorous way.

GZ: Do you think that the so called “hard problem” will fade away?
CK: Practically speaking, methologically speaking, conceptually speaking, intellectually speaking, it may turn out to be an easy problem. Because of the really difficult problem is that the brain is by far the most complex system in the known universe. We are missing many basic aspects. We don’t understand how very complicated networks of tens of thousands of millions neurons interact with each other. Once you understand this network, you say “oh that’s how it happened!”

GZ: Roger Penrose is suggesting what he calls “platonic realism” and says that consciousness is somehow a fundamental property of the universe and that through quantum effects it is being picked up from the brains and therefore we have qualia. What is your opinion?
CK: Even if you assume quantum gravity to be relevant to the brain it doesn’t really make answer why quantum gravity should solve the hard problem. By involving yet another physical law, not just electromagnetism or chemistry, you introduce just another set of physical laws that do little to solve the mystery. Once you understand the brain as a classical device, then from the energies and the time scales involved, there’ s no evidence of any short of quantum superposition. I will stick with studying the brain as a classical rather than as a quantum system.

GZ:Why so many scientists are having a hard time accepting the fact that the brain can be explained?
CK: It depends who you talk to. Biologists, physicists which are not much involved are generally skeptical, but not the neuroscientists that deal with the problem of consciousness. Anyway, I think there are many people on the planet who don’ t want to hear about this kind of research because they are afraid of the picture of humans that may emerge.

GZ: What is like working with Francis Crick?
CK: I continue to work with him. It’s very intense. He’s 87 years old and he’s never seized to stop wondering, he’s never lost his curiosity and he is a person who, more than anybody else, questions every assumption, even his own assumptions.

GZ: You do rock climbing. How do you combine consciousness and rock climbing?

CK: Rock climbing is very intense and you have to focus when you do it. So it’s a bit like science, if you do it you are totally absorbed into it, because you cannot afford to do anything else.

GZ: Are you an optimist?
CK: Of course I am an optimist.

GZ: You think is possible for science to enlighten people or is it a luxury only for an elite?
CK: In the long term science is going to make people healthier, safer and happier, living longer lives, no question about that. This has been happening for the last 2.000 years and I see no reason why shouldn’t continue in the future.

GZ: So why most people read their horoscopes?
CK: You got to ask them if they really believe in the horoscopes. Also many people believe in superstitions, but I don’t think that these things affect dramatically the way we generally think, which is, basically, rational.

Interview with Steven Pinker

(This is an edited transcript of an interview of Steven Pinker, taken by George Zarkadakis on April 2004 in Tucson, AZ)

GZ: When did language appear?
SP: All human societies have a complex language and no one has ever discovered a tribe in a remote area that lacks language. Thus, it seems likely that it was present in the common ancestors of all humans before the diversion lead to different races and continental groups. So language must have developed at least 60.000 years ago, because that was when, by estimate, the Australian Aborigines first arrived in Australia. It could of course have been earlier than this. A recently discovered gene has been implicated in the disorders of speech and language. This gene has diverged from the corresponding gene in chimpanzees about 200.000 years ago. This must have been one of the genetic events that lead to modern human language. The development of language may have been even earlier than that, because people lacking that gene don’t lack language all together, they are just slower when using it.

GZ: How can a mutant gene “separate” humans from other apes, by means of impeding language? It sounds like a paradox.
SP: The effect of the gene is to delay acquisition of language, to make speech more laboure-intensive and in children easier than in adults. It causes one to make grammatical errors in speech and have difficulties in judgment about grammaticality of sentences, and some difficulties in comprehending complex sentences. It also has some affect in control of the speech muscles, but also when blowing out a candle or sucking on a straw. So, it has a number of effects, as most genes do, but the most dramatic effects are concentrated at speech and language. It ties into the theory in a couple of ways. One is that studies have showed that is a “turn” (διακόπτης) gene that has gone under modifications in humans compared to the similar gene in chimpanzees and other mammals and moreover these changes have been the result of natural selection rather than random processes.

GZ: Why did language develop?
SP: Language allows us to communicate and allows us to negotiate agreements and therefore allows altruism to flourish amongst humans. Biologists tell us that that cooperation among non relatives can only evolve, if there are complex promises which produce a beneficial result and when there is a way to express and accomplish those promises. Language provides such a tool, facilitating social cohesion and organization in humans. Also it’s a way to transfer technology and know-how. You can share experience with your children, you can exchange for other information with other people in your group and so it multiplies the benefit of any kind of technological discovery and lowers the cost. You can acquire some of the necessary skills from other people by having them explaining to you. So, I ´ve always thought that language evolved in tandem with general intelligence, as the ability to figure out how the world works and apply the technology, social cooperation and language. Each one of them makes the other two that much more valuable.

GZ: What systems in the brain "produce" language?
SP: Language is a complicated system because it involves a number of components that have to work together. There is the production of language, the control of speech muscles and of course comprehension. So, I think the language system in the brain has to tie together a number of different systems. Most of my research for the last 15 years have contrasted regular morphology, that is for forms like cat-cats, dog-dogs or past tense forms like walk-walked and wait-wait, which are completely predictable and I argue are generated in the mind by a mental algorithm. In contrast irregular forms like bring-brought in the past tense or foot-feet for the plural, are idiosyncratic and have to be retrieved from memory. Now these are the principal systems of language, for expressing combinations of concepts and words and for communicating familiar simple concepts. And they are likely to have a correspondence of systems of the brain that sub serve more general purposes. For example, reading memory is related to vision in general and the algorithm for combining bits of symbols into complex words, or words into phrases. Sentences probably relates to systems for planning and coordination.

GZ: Most research on language and the brain is done on western languages and mostly English. Would you expect differences in results for, say, the Chinese?
SP: I would not expect dramatic differences. I ´ve done some research on a language very close to English, German, which is interesting because they diverged about 600 years ago. By looking the similarities and differences between German and English we construct some of the steps that lead the languages to become different. But then I ´ve also done some research on a language that’s very much unlike English, the Hebrew, which is not an Indo-European language and we found that more or less the same patterns occurred in terms of the logic of the language. Other people have looked at patterns of language loss found on brain damage in Italian. I don’t think that anyone has done it for Chinese yet but I expect it to come out quite similarly.

GZ: How do we acquire language?
SP: My first research work was a detailed theory of how children acquire language. Well, it’s not enough for children to just to listen to the sounds. I think the child has to first of all make a guess to what the parents are intending to say. They do so by means of intuitive psychology. The child correlates the sound signal from ears with the guess of what the parent is saying. It tries to figure out rules that correlate to the meaning encapsulated in the sound. The child has a brain circuitry that tries to analyze the continuous speech sound into words, words into categories like nouns and verbs, and that creates rules that order nouns and verbs and subjective objects in a way that systematically relates to what they mean.

GZ: Some people suggest that certain animals have a kind of language. Do you agree?
SP: I don’t if anyone could successfully argue that animals can have the ability of language. They are neurologically very different than humans.

GZ: What about the songs of the whales or the clicks of dolphins. They suggest some kind of communication through sounds.
SP: Yes, it is certainly communication by sound but not language. Take birds, as another example. There is no way that a particular set of bird sounds maps on to a particular meaning. They seem rather to calls that show of the virtuosity of the singer, mostly used during sexual selection. But they have no meaning.

GZ: What is the future of language in today’s world where English gains dominance over other languages?
SP: I am afraid the situation is very poor. We’re seeing the extinction of languages spoken by indigenous groups in Russia, in Australia and in U.S. In South America languages are becoming extinct at a faster rate than species do. Larger languages, of hundreds of thousands, or millions of speakers, have nothing to fear. English will become increasingly a second language but it’s hard to make predictions because there are two forces working to different directions. On one hand there is the value of having a common language for international activities, science, business and English has become the language of science. On the other hand there’s simply large numbers of people who speak to each other in a different than English language. On top of that there’s the fact that language is a batch of ethnic identity and people are emotionally attached in their language. So even as global media like MTV and CNN spread English there’s also now an attempt for local versions of MTV in the local language. Which of these two trends will be more powerful it’s hard to predict.