Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Theories Of Everything: what's all that about then?

I downloaded Einstein's Relativity: The Special and General Theory as an eBook from Project Gutenberg. Written in 1916, Einstein's intention was to give the non-physicist what he called "an exact insight" into the theories. Using very precise language, with as little mathematics as possible, he shows how the theories arise, seemingly inevitably, from the consideration of experiments conducted purely in the imagination. The results of previous real experiments (e.g. those that determined the constancy of the speed of light) are used, but the theories are developed from imagined people and clocks, on imaginary trains and stations.

Einstein spent his later years in an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to derive a 'Grand Unified Theory' that reconciled his theory of gravity with the emerging theories of Quantum Physics. These two key ideas of modern physics both appear to be 'right' (in the sense of making correct and very accurate predictions about the behaviour of things) but do not sit easily together in situations where they are both required (e.g. at the 'big bang', or in black holes).

So here's another thought experiment. Imagine that, somewhere, a writer is putting the finishing touches to a new book. When the book is published, to universal acclaim, Stephen Hawking says: "This is the end of science. There are no more unanswered questions." The book is translated into every world language (except Xam - see earlier post What's in a name?). The book provides answers to such questions as: Why is there something rather than nothing? How does that something work? What is consciousness? Quantum Theory and General Relativity are reconciled; the constants of cosmology and the masses of the elementary particles emerge naturally from the new theory. The distribution of the primes is no longer a mystery. The author is awarded Nobel Prizes in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature and for peace, as well as the Fields Medal for mathematics.

Unless there's an inherent limit to what human thought might achieve, this is surely a possible scenario. I'm wondering what such a book would be like. Would it be the work of a physicist, or a philosopher, or maybe a religious scholar or a mathematician? Would it conform to Einstein's belief that "Most of the fundamental ideas of science are essentially simple, and may, as a rule, be expressed in a language comprehensible to everyone", or would it be filled with such complex maths that a lay person would have to take it on trust that the book was as important as the handful of people who understood it said it was?

Which section of the bookshop would it be found in? Would it be a Richard & Judy Book Club recommendation?

Sunday, 15 April 2007

Will and Kate: A Nation Mourns

Blogging is suspended for today. With Britain still reeling from the shock news about William and Kate, well... it just doesn't seem appropriate.

[Readers outside Britain may wonder who or what Kate and Will are. Well, I had to check for myself, but it seems that Will is a leading member of a long-established cult called "The Monarchy". Kate had become ensnared by the cult, and was being groomed as a priestess. Fortunately, she managed to escape, but experts say she may need help in coming to terms with her experience.]

Saturday, 14 April 2007

Now those memories come back to haunt me...

From ifilm, with all the innocence of an E Street shuffle, this lovely Springsteen moment:

Friday, 13 April 2007

Song for the day

Not that this is becoming a music blog, but I've added a Song For The Day feature to the side panel. There'll just be one track, which will change every few days. If any of the featured artists object, I will of course remove the track immediately.

Today's song is from the album Heart Of Uncle by 3 Mustaphas 3 (check them out on Amazon here). Aj Zajdi Zajdi Jasno Sonce (The Girl Stood In The Meadow...) is a traditional song from Macedonia.

Thursday, 12 April 2007

So it goes...

Farewell then, Kurt Vonnegut (1922 - 2007).

"I am of course notoriously hooked on cigarettes. I keep hoping the things will kill me. A fire at one end and a fool at the other."

Kilgore Trout was 84.

Wednesday, 11 April 2007

In at the deep end

I'm reading Not Even Wrong by Peter Woit, a physicist and mathematician (here's a link to his blog). The book is a critical assessment of String Theory. Woit argues that String Theory isn't science because it doesn't (and, if I understand him properly, can't) make experimentally testable predictions. It's taking physics up an expensive blind alley. Much of his argument involves mathematics far too difficult for me, but he does use, in support, the fact that Richard Feynman was also deeply sceptical of String Theory. Shortly before his death, Feynman said "I think all this superstring stuff is crazy and is in the wrong direction."

Well as far as I'm concerned, if Feynman thought String Theory is wrong, that's good enough for me. I know that he would say not to take his word for it, work it out for yourself, but I for one won't be wasting any more time trying to visualise10-dimensional Calabi-Yao spaces.

Michael Scott, the first president of Apple, tells the story of his first encounter with Feynman, at CalTech:

There were 183 of us freshmen, and a bowling ball hanging from the three-story ceiling to just above the floor. Feynman walked in and, without a word, grabbed the ball and backed against the wall with the ball touching his nose. He let go, and the ball swung slowly 60 feet across the room and back — stopping naturally just short of crushing his face. Then he took the ball again, stepped forward, and said: "I wanted to show you that I believe in what I'm going to teach you over the next two years."

[Children, do try this at home, but maybe start with something softer than a bowling ball, and be sure to just let go of the ball without giving it any extra push. Momentum is conserved.]

I'd be surprised if Professor Feynman didn't crop up again in this blog.

Tuesday, 10 April 2007

That difficult third post...

When in doubt, tell a joke. Here's a philosophical one:

René Descartes takes a break from his work and goes to a party, something he doesn't usually do. The host says, "René, would you like a drink?" "I think not," he says, and poof, he disappears.

Sunday, 8 April 2007

In my estimation...

People are prone to confuse the usage of underestimate and overestimate. For example, today I heard an interview on the wireless with the charming and peace-loving* former US ambassador to the UN, John Bolton. Discussing the Iranian seizure of British sailors he said that "...it is impossible to underestimate the importance of their [the sailors'] mission."

Well, call me a pedant, but this man is listened to by those in charge of America's foreign policy. If you're going to invade another country you want to be very clear whether the repercussions have been under- or overestimated.

*Hard to believe, but Bolton really was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, in 2006; almost as ironic as Kissinger's award of the prize in 1973.

Friday, 6 April 2007

What's in a name?

Being someone who by nature likes to keep a low profile, I thought about writing this blog under a pseudonym. Teaspoon Decosta is the name of my SecondLife avatar; hence the URL of this blog. I decided against this, but... it started me thinking about names. This is my first post, written proudly under my own name.

When I lived in Africa I was, initially, quite amused by the sometimes bizarre names of the Africans I worked with. For example, I remember meeting a man called Sixpence Banda. Then I found out the origin of these names. The following quotation is taken from Missionaries by Julian Pettifer and Richard Bradley:

As another missionary from Umtali wrote in a letter to the US in 1916: "Heathen mothers do not know much, but many boys and girls go to our schools now and are begging to read God's word and write and to take care of their bodies and be clean and dress like the people of America." These "heathen" boys and girls were also given "Christian" names like Kitchen, Tobacco, Sixpence or Bottle.

Given the tragedies that continue to befall their continent, I don't suppose these given names are a primary concern to many Africans these days. But Thabo Mbeki, the South African President, did say recently:

We have inherited an unbecoming legacy of racial and gender divisions and antagonisms. The majority of our people were victims of a colonial history that obliterated the Xam* and sought to deny the humanity of the rest. That history sought to deny that these masses had any history, culture, belief or value system of their own. It said the African people are but barbarians and savages with no names of their own except those that the civilised masters gave them, proclaiming them to be Christian names and therefore holy. Thus did Sipho become Jim, Nomsa, Mary and Kealeboga, Sixpence. These names were given to deny the very being of the African, to tell them that they had no identity except such an identity as they were given by the civilised master.
*Xam is an extinct African language, and the name of the people who spoke it. The word is correctly written with a preceding vertical bar, but for some reason the bar doesn't render properly in this editor. The bar indicates a clicking sound. With or without the bar, the pronunciation should only be attempted with great caution by non-Africans.