Sunday, December 10, 2017

Everything is not what it seems to be

(This has been submitted to the student science journal, Catalyst, of the University of Ottawa.)

I always thought the world was a solid place.  Objects existed and I was aware of them.  If a snowball hits you in the face, it hurts.  The experience of life teaches that things are there and they get in your way.

This was what I thought chemistry, physics and biology was about: the study of an objective reality.

But now that I am a first year biochemistry student, granted longer in the tooth than most first-year students, the idea of an objective reality is becoming confusing.  Not that what I am writing about is in the syllabus, but the syllabus has got me thinking.

It's almost as though the Plato-Aristotle argument has never been resolved.  Plato thought that the imagination created the objects we saw around us; Aristotle taught that our perceptions tell us about the objects we see.  Democritus taught that atoms were indivisible and that everything was made up of such tiny things.  Newton thought that all matter was solid.

Quantum theory gives us the idea that matter has both mass and a wave form.  Only when you are looking at an elementary particle does it presume one or the other form, either matter or energy.  It takes an observer.

Biocentrism takes the revolution a little further.  Nothing exists without an observer.  Not just that the measurement is dependent on the observer, but that the item being observed does not exist without an observer.  Moreover, that observer has to have a conscience to be able to observe.  Without consciousness there is no observer, without an observer, nothing exists.

I see this as an attempt to rationalize quantum mechanics with macro physics.  At the quantum level all is probability.  There is a finite probability that an electron will be at one instant an electron, and the next a wave function.  There is a finite probability of particles springing into existence out of nothing.  There is a finite probability, admittedly infinitesimal, of a snowball vanishing into electromagnetic waves before it hits you.

In some sense what happens at the micro and nano level of existence, influences everything else.  This is the idea of reductionism.  Then comes the idea of emergent function, function that is nevertheless determined by functionality at an underlying level.  Thus the behaviour of DNA in a cell determines the externally observed behaviour and function of the cell, whether it is a heart cell or a brain cell, which in turn determines the performance of an individual.  You can’t describe the behaviour of an individual directly in terms of his or her DNA, but there is a deep relationship.

But the idea that without an observer nothing exists, I find hard to accept.  There is in my experience, albeit governed by my own observations and consciousness, a physical solid reality, independent of my existence.  If a tree falls in a forest on a distant planet, there may be no one to hear it, but it still causes a disturbance in its environment.  I like the old physics.

Whither the world

(This was published in the Cantley Echo, Quebec, December 2017.  Bilingue.)


Ever since I was knee high to a fairy, the world has been going to the dogs.  My grandparents said so; my parents and parents-in-law said so, and now that I am a grandparent myself, so do I.

There are stories every day of progress and of disaster.

There is progress in the rising stock market averages.  There is progress in increasing life expectancy.  There is progress in medical advances of all kinds.  There is progress in the ease with which we live our lives.

And there is disaster in plastic pollution.  Coral reefs are dying.  Vast dead areas exist in our oceans and our lakes.  There is disaster in climate change.  We are in the middle of another extinction event.

The disasters are the result of our progress.  We are rapidly reaching the point where our economic systems are incompatible with our continued existence on this planet. 

We may already have reached the tipping point.  This year, Earth Overshoot Day as it is called, was on August 2nd.  By that date we had consumed the regeneration capacity of an entire year, and thus we are now burning our future.

Global climate records suggest that we are approaching a tipping point that will lead to irreversible changes in atmospheric and oceanic behaviours.  2016 was the warmest year on record; the Greenland ice cap is melting faster than ever before; the Antarctic ice shelves are rapidly disintegrating; and the North Pole may see an ice-free summer in the very near future.

This is an existential crisis that is basically ignored by both our media and our politicians.  They all want this issue to go away.

But unless we really are suicidal, we cannot let it go away.

The dilemma is that continued growth and our existence on this planet are incompatible. We can have continued existence, but we cannot have it and continued economic growth.

And nor can we have continued economic growth based on the consumption of fossil fuels.  Our current economy is in fact highly dependent on fossil fuels.  It is accordingly very difficult if not impossible to meet our Paris climate goals.

We like to think that an annual growth of a small percentage year over year, is a good thing, that if we can continue a small annual growth then our future will be assured.

But what does that mean?  One per cent a year sounds reasonable.  Not too small, not too big.  We can handle that.  At one per cent our economy will double in 70 years, your and my lifetimes.  At 2% it will double in 35 years, as it has in my adult life. 

Cantley in particular, has been growing at a remarkable pace. In the 2011 census figures, we grew by about 5% a year.  This implies a doubling in 14 years.  Before our babies have got to high school, the number of cars on Cantley roads, the amount of garbage we throw out, the cost of our fire and police services, the number of residents and homes in the city will all have doubled.  We do not have the capacity for this.

This is not a solution for the future of our children and grandchildren.

I love to see the glass half-full.  But I also think we have to be realistic about the predicament we have collectively put ourselves into.  The world is not just going to the dogs, it is going to hell in a hand basket.  We need to find a way of doing something about it.

Thoughts for my grandchild

I wrote the following some 7 years ago before the birth of my grandchild, and since forgot about it.  At the time I wrote it, I didn't know her name.  It is meant for her to read when she is ready, perhaps when she approaches her teen years.  It is in the hands of her parents to give it to her when they think she is ready, though they do not yet know its contents.


25th July 2010

Dear Granddaughter:

I don’t know your name, because at the time I’m writing this, you have not been named.  In a week's time or so you may have a name, but your parents haven’t given you one yet.  In fact you have only just been born.

My mother your great-grandmother, was born in 1909.  That may seem like a very long time ago.  But as your life moves on, it will come to seem not so long ago.  Only a hundred years!  By the time you are my age, around 2080, you should be able to think back and realise that you have known people who have had direct connections back to the start of the 20th century, and you will have grandchildren – most likely, who can look forward to their own children living well into the 22nd century.  Time is neat and inexorable. Make the most of what little you have!

The idea here is to record for you a little of what life is like early in the 21st century, at the time of your birth.  Maybe you will reflect on the changes you have witnessed, and think of the changes you will see in the course of the rest of your life.

Whether you and I will ever meet and talk remains to be seen; whether we will talk, as in Alice in Wonderland, about sealing wax and things, who knows.  I’d like to think that reflecting on the state of the world and our experience of it is something you will do.  Who knows?  Maybe it is only something us old farts do, and therefore something you will only do long after your children have flown the coop.

Love they say is what makes the world go round.  I disagree: I think it is sex.

We build so many taboos around the subject that it never ceases to amaze me.  From a biological point of view, our only “purpose” is to reproduce; there is no other, despite what those of a religious bent would have us think.  (This bent comes from our fear of sex.)  Given that as a purpose, then no wonder we are constantly desirous.  It is what has made the species so successful.  Everything else, or nearly everything else, stems from the sex drive.  Our need to attract a mate, drives us to explore, to paint ourselves, to dress ourselves, to sing for others, to entertain, and yes to work.  Through work we attain status and money that enables us, again, to attract a mate, or mates.

Of course, the goals of a woman differ from that of a man.  A man would like to father as many children as he can; a woman is limited because of the time it takes per conception.  Thus the ageless battle of the sexes.

And so we call it love.  Because without it, there would be no commitment to the care of our young.  The bond of love that ensures that our offspring, who need 15 to 20 years of care before they are ready to reproduce, will receive that care.

I have no idea how many siblings you now have (at the time you read this) or will have.  I know that your parents will have dedicated a fair chunk of their lives to your nurture.  Will have shown you care and love and concern.

And then you’ll leave for your search for a mate or mates.  If it goes according to my experience, no matter what you will have been taught, you will still have to discover for yourself how to control your urges, how to manage your affairs, and how to fall deeply in love at the right time.

I wish I could be around at the time to help you, but it is very unlikely – I will be (or would have been!) 88 by the time you are 20: you won't appreciate my advice then!  All I can do is wish you the best of luck.  Enjoy the sex, and strive for a long deep love.

I am writing to you on my Apple MacBook Pro, a fine piece of electronic engineering, that I am particularly proud of.  Whether when you read this, there will still be Macintosh computers or not, I may never know.

When my father would have written to me, though he didn’t, he would have had to write with pen and paper.  He might have typed, but I don’t think he ever learnt.

Maybe you’ll never even type!  It could be that any “written” word, will be created via voice recognition.  Such tools are available today, but suffer from limited application.  There are cars and phones that respond to voice commands, but not much else.  There are applications (Kurtzweil for instance) that will transcribe spoken text into a Word document.  But considerable intelligence is still required to get the spelling and grammar right.  Context is everything and that cannot be presumed.

Maybe this will all have changed, but I doubt it.  Considerable advances have been made in artificial intelligence; the power of computers has increased dramatically over the last 40 years.  Enough to make full and correct sense of the spoken word?  No, I think there will still be the need for “transcription” of words to text, there will still be the need for translators of text between languages.

I use software translators on occasion today, I did just yesterday.  But once translated – which certainly saves time, there is still a significant amount of work required to correct both grammar and sense.  Even if I had my own personal robot translator – which perhaps you will have, it would still fail in many contexts.  For example, the word for a tax return in English is a “return,” but in French it is “d├ęclaration,” not “retour” which would be the obvious translation.  Context is everything.

I started on an IBM computer, the 1401.  This is the machine that made IBM the computing powerhouse it was back in the 60s and 70s.  It enabled IBM to design and build the 360, the machines I then grew up with through my 20s and 30s.  But the 1401 began with 1.4Kb of memory.  On this machine we did stock control for the Queen’s navy in England!  Punch cards by the thousand that were fed in through a machine that read the holes in the cards, and then under program control, punched other cards out, or printed from them.

1400 bytes of memory.  Today the computer I’m using on my desktop has 2 Gb of memory, 2 thousand million, 2 billion bytes of memory!  For you this may be peanuts.  Perhaps the machine you are using, or will shortly, will have several terabytes of memory.

Or perhaps not.  There is a trend today to use what is called “cloud computing.”  In this computing model the power of the computer is no longer on the desk of the user, but somewhere else in the world, in the cloud of the internet.  So maybe the device you use will only have a small amount of memory, the rest all being who knows where.

But I somehow find this hard to believe.  There is something very personal and private about one own’s data being with one.  If we allow our data and processing to be held somewhere else, we are delegating authority and responsibility for our own selves to others.  That takes an enormous amount of trust that I am not prepared to give.

One of the things that is really amazing is the gullibility of people.  It is said that there is one born every minute, and that no one failed by underestimating the intelligence of the masses.  The real thing perhaps is the power of our imaginations.

We have been gifted, or rather we have evolved to have quite remarkable powers of imagination.  We need it, and we needed it, as hunter-gatherers, to survive in the competitive natural world of “eat or be eaten.”  But we fool ourselves if we imagine that there are things beyond those that we can experience directly ourselves.

Imagination enables us to see significance in patterns.  We need to see significance to distinguish the threat from the harmless, such as the patterns of a Tiger in the grass to enable us to escape the danger.

But then we see a man in the moon where there is clearly none.  We see canals on Mars where clearly there are none.  And we see the invisible hand of God in things we otherwise have no explanation for.

Don’t fall into this trap!  It is perfectly acceptable not to have an explanation for something.  You do not have to invent a god to explain such things.

(Interesting that even as an atheist, I have difficulty seeing the word god spelled with a lower case g.  The only use of the upper case G is to show a mark of respect for the idea, an idea that I reject.)

It seems to me very unlikely that religion will fade.  There are too many zealots in the world to let that happen.  It is one of my greatest fears that of all human characteristics, the one most likely to be taken to the stars is our religious faiths.  Religion has been a tremendous power for the good and for the growth of our civilization.  We would probably not have our civilization were it not for the organizing power of religion and religious ideas.

However, since they are all predicated on the existence of a nonexistent entity, god, they are all based on nonsense, based on childish ideas, that as St Paul said, “Now that I am grown up I will give up childish things.”  Only if that had happened!

There is a particularly pernicious form of religion called fundamental.  Fundamentalists appear to have no tolerance for those of other beliefs.  They are clearly so right that not only must all the others be wrong, they are forever permanently damned.

Fundamentalists exist on all sides of the spectrum.  There are fundamental Christians, fundamental Muslims, fundamental Jews.  Many wars of the last thousand years can be called religious wars: The crusades, the Holy wars, the war on terror.  Others are wars of resource control – the Second World War, the Great War as the Russians call it.  I suspect we will continue to have religious wars for the next thousand.  Education and tolerance do not always go hand in hand.

So god will be around for millennia to come.  And will continue to be a source of both sainthood, martyrdom and bloodshed.

I don’t know how or when you will get this.  I will suggest to your parents that the envelope that contains it be kept for perhaps your sixteenth birthday.  Or maybe earlier.  You may show interest in the things your granddad did or not, who knows.  Perhaps it will be consigned to some dusty box that only your grandchildren will find!

If you get the chance read some or all of the following:
The Omivore’s Dilemma, Michael Pollan
The Ancestor’s Tale, Richard Dawkins
The Black Swan, Nicolas Taleb
Your Inner Fish, Neil Shubin
Anything by Elmore Leonard

I am going to end by welcoming you to a world that has no room for you.  No, that’s too harsh.  Your world has plenty of room for you.  Your parents – and your grandparents will treat you as the jewel you are.  No matter how you turn out, no matter what befalls you, whether good or bad, you will be loved.

No, my concern is for the whole world we live in.  As John Donne said “No man is an island,” and we share this planet with a burgeoning population.  When I was at school in 1950, there were 3 billion people.  Now as I write this, there are over 6 billion inhabitants, and when you read this maybe in excess of 8 billion, and by the middle of this century perhaps as many as 11 or 12 billion.

There are many of us who believe that the planet cannot take it.  There is not enough land nor resources to allow all of us to live a decent life.  Some authors (eg David Suzuki) have suggested that if we in North America continue to lead our lives the way we do, requiring about 4.5 acres per person, and if all the world’s population were to consume the same way, that we would need 4 earths to give everybody the same way of living.

Some have gone as far as to suggest that the carrying capacity of the planet is as low as 500 million people.

Clearly that is not possible.  But equally clearly, no one today seems to get it.  All our political leaders, national and international, continue to champion growth, growth, growth.  As though that will solve all our problems, and allow us to feed and clothe every day another 10,000 people.  Even the Green Party, which alone stands for a truly sustainable future doesn’t get it: “limits on population” is a dirty phrase.

But growth will only result in the consumption of more resources.  And there is a limit to the availability of those resources.  If you run out of resources there is nothing that can be done to replace them.  Well, mine the asteroids I suppose, or the moon.  And if you run out of resources, then growth will stop.  And if growth stops, there will be intense competition for the limited resources then available.  And by intense, I mean armed and nasty competition.

So the solution from my understanding has to involve population control, a concept that few want to grapple with because of the intense feelings it generates.  But without it, life into the 22nd century will be nasty for all of us.  The fighting in the Middle East, in Afghanistan, in Iraq, will be as nothing compared to what you may see and hear of.  The human species along with everything else on this jewel of a planet could be lost.

None of which reduces my delight in knowing of your arrival, nor my wishes to you for a long and healthy and happy and enjoyable life.  Be positive, be a friend, welcome new ideas, love and be loved.

I look forward to talking to you about the things that excite you, and those that have excited me.

You have my love.

Your Granddad