Sunday, September 13, 2015

The Danger of Believing in Things

During the course of your career as an IT professional, you will undoubtedly come across instances when your IT Management will institute new policies that seem to make no sense at all. Surprisingly, you will also find that many of your coworkers will also secretly agree that the new policies actually seem to make things worse and make no sense at all. Yet you will find that no one will openly question the new policies. Much of this stems from basic Hierarchiology - see Hierarchiology and the Phenomenon of Self-Organizing Organizational Collapse for details. But some of it also stems from the fact that much of human thought is seriously deficient in rigor because it is largely based upon believing in things and therefore is non-critical in nature. It seems that as human beings we just tend not to question our own belief systems or the belief systems that are imposed upon us by the authorities we have grown up with. Instead, we tend to seek out people who validate our own belief systems and to just adapt as best we can to the belief systems that are imposed upon us. Politicians are keenly aware of this fact, as is evidenced by the 2016 presidential election cycle, which is now in full swing in the United States. Politicians simply seek to validate the belief systems of enough people to get elected to office.

In The Great War That Will Not End I explained that this failure in critical thinking arose primarily because our minds are infected with memes that are forms of self-replicating information bent on replicating at all costs, and I discussed how Susan Blackmore had pointed out in The Meme Machine (1999), that we are not so much thinking machines as we are copying machines. Susan Blackmore maintains that memetic-drive was responsible for creating our extremely large brains, and also our languages and cultures as well, in order to store and spread memes more effectively. So our minds evolved to believe in things, which most times are quite useful but also has its downsides too. For example, there is a strong selection pressure for humans to unquestioningly believe that if they accidentally let go of a branch while hiding in a tree waiting to ambush some game, that they will accelerate to the ground and sustain a nasty fall. In such a situation there is no evolutionary advantage for an individual to enter into a moment of self-reflection to question their belief system in regards to the nature of falling. Instead, a quick knee-jerk reaction to grasp at any branch at all in a panic is called for. Unfortunately, this reflex tendency to unquestionably believe in things seems to extend to most of human thought, and that can get us into lots of trouble.

In How To Think Like A Scientist I explained that there were three ways to gain knowledge:

1. Inspiration/Revelation
2. Deductive Rationalism
3. Inductive Empiricism

and that the Scientific Method was one of the very few human protocols that used all three.

The Scientific Method
1. Formulate a set of hypotheses based on Inspiration/Revelation with a little empirical inductive evidence mixed in.

2. Expand the hypotheses into a self-consistent model or theory by deducing the implications of the hypotheses.

3. Use more empirical induction to test the model or theory by analyzing many documented field observations or by performing controlled experiments to see if the model or theory holds up. It helps to have a healthy level of skepticism at this point. As philosopher Karl Popper has pointed out, you cannot prove a theory to be true, you can only prove it to be false. Galileo pointed out that the truth is not afraid of scrutiny, the more you pound on the truth, the more you confirm its validity.

Some Thoughts on Human Thinking
False memes certainly do not like the above process very much since it tends to quickly weed them out. Instead, false memes thrive when people primarily rely on the Revelation part of step 1 in the process, and usually the Revelation comes from somebody else revealing an appealing meme to an individual. Again, appealing memes are usually memes that appeal to the genes, and usually have something to do with power, status, wealth or sex. The downside of relying primarily on Revelation for knowledge is that most times it is just a mechanism for a set of memes to replicate in a parasitic manner. Since we are primarily copying machines, and not thinking machines, the Inspiration part of step 1 does not happen very often. Now most forms of human thought do make a half-hearted attempt at step 2 in the process, by deducing some of the implications of the hypotheses that came from the Inspiration/Revelation step, but oftentimes this does not lead to a self-consistent model or theory. In fact, many times such deductions can lead to a model or theory that is self-contradictory in nature, and surprisingly, this does not seem to bother people much of the time. For some reason, people tend to just take the good with the bad in such cases, and stress the value of the good parts of their theory or model, while discounting the parts that appear to be a bit self-contradictory. Finally, it seems that step 3 is the step that is most frequently skipped by most of human thought. People rarely try to verify their models or theories with empirical evidence. That is probably because step 3 in the process requires the most work and rigor. Collecting data in an unbiased and rigorous manner is really difficult and frequently can take many years of hard work. Hardly anybody, other than observational and experimental scientists, is willing to make that sacrifice to support their worldview. In some cases they might collect some supporting evidence, like a lawyer trying to build a strong case for his client, while discarding any evidence that contradicts their model or theory, but even that is a rarity. Besides, if you have a really good idea that came to you via Inspiration/Revelation, and that makes sense for the most part when you deduce its implications, why bother checking it? Certainly, we can just have faith in it because it must be right, especially if it is a beautiful set of memes that also lead to power, status, wealth or sex.

The Trouble With Human Thought
If you have been following this blog closely, you might think that next, I am going to come down hard on political and religious meme-complexes as examples of self-replicating information that do not follow the Scientific Method, but I am not going to do that. Personally, I view political and religious meme-complexes in a very positivistic manner in that I only care about the philosophies that they espouse. If they espouse philosophies that help mankind to rise above the selfish self-serving interests of our genes and memes through the values of the Enlightenment which brought us evidence-based reasoning, respect for the aspirations of the individual, egalitarianism, concern for the welfare of mankind in general, tolerance of others, the education of the general public, and the solving of problems through civil discourse and democracy then they are okay with me. Otherwise, I do not have much use for them. Religious meme-complexes invariably have very primitive mythological cosmologies, but cosmology is best handled by the sciences anyway, and that does not negate any of their more positive values.

Instead, I am going to raise concerns about one of the true loves of my life - physics itself. I just finished reading Not Even Wrong - the Failure of String Theory and the Search for Unity in Physical Law (2006) by Peter Woit. Unless you have Ph.D. in physics and have recently done a postdoc heavily steeped in quantum field theory, I would suggest first reading Lee Smolin's very accessible The Trouble with Physics (2006) which raises the same concerns. Consequently, I would say that The Trouble with Physics best provides a cautionary tale for the general public and for physics undergraduates, while Not Even Wrong performs this same function for graduate students in physics or physicists outside of string theory research. Both books provide a very comprehensive deep-dive into the state of theoretical physics today. I certainly do not have the space here to outline all of the challenges and difficulties that theoretical physics faces today with string theory because that takes at least an entire book for a genius like Lee Smolin or Peter Woit, but here it is in a nutshell. Basically, the problem is what do you do when theoretical physics has outrun the technology needed to verify theories?

It all goes back to the 1950s and 1960s when particle physicists were able to generate all sorts of new particles out of the vacuum by smashing together normal protons, antiprotons, electrons and positrons together at high energies with particle accelerators. Because the colliding particles had high energies, it was possible to generate all sorts of new particles using Einstein’s E=mc2. With time, it was discovered that all of these hundreds of new particles could be characterized as either being fundamental particles that could not be broken apart with our current technologies or were composite particles that consisted of fundamental particles. Thanks to quantum field theory we came up with the Standard Model in 1973 that arranged a set of fundamental particles into patterns of mass, charge, spin and other physical characteristics.

Figure 1 – The particles of the Standard Model are fundamental particles that we cannot bust apart with our current technologies, perhaps because it is theoretically impossible to do so with any technology.

Again in quantum field theories, everything is a field that extends over the entire Universe. So there are things like electron fields, neutrino fields, quark fields, gluon fields and more that extend over the entire Universe. For a brief introduction to quantum theory see: Quantum Software, SoftwareChemistry, and The Foundations of Quantum Computing. The quantum wavefunctions of these fundamental fields determine the probability of finding them in certain places doing certain things, and when we try to measure one of these quantum fields, we see the fundamental particle instead. Unfortunately, there are several problems with the Standard Model and the quantum field theories that explain it. Firstly, the Standard Model seems to be just too complicated. Recall that each of the above fundamental particles also has an antimatter twin, like the negatively charged electron having a positively charged twin positron with the same mass, so there are a very large number of fundamental particles, and these fundamental particles are also observed to behave in strange ways. The Standard Model also has nothing to say about the force of gravity, so it only covers 3/4 of the known forces - the electromagnetic force, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. The Standard Model also has about 18 numbers that define things like the mass of the electron that have to be plugged into the Standard Model as parameters. It would be nice to have a theory that explains those values from fundamental principles. The Standard Model is also based upon quantum field theories that struggle with the problem of infinities. Let me explain.

Physicists love to use a mathematical technique called perturbation theory to solve problems that are just too hard to solve mathematically with pure brute force. Rather than solving the problem directly, they expand the problem into a series of terms that add up to the final solution. The hope is that none of the terms in the expansion series will be infinite and that adding all of the terms of the series together will also not lead to an infinite sum. For example, suppose you want to calculate the value of π. Now it is known that:

π/4 = 1/1 – 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 – 1/11 + 1/13 – 1/15 + 1/17 ...

where 4 is the first even integer raised to the first even power 22.

If you divide π/4 on your calculator you get:

π/4 = 0.7853982...

and if your calculator were powerful enough, the answer would continue on for an infinite number of digits. So let’s see how well the above series works:

1/1 = 1.000000000
1/1 - 1/3 = 0.66666666666...
1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 = 0.866666666...
1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 = 0.7238096...
1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 = 0.8349207...
1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 -1/11 = 0.7440116...
1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 -1/11 + 1/13 = 0.8209346...
1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 - 1/11 + 1/13 - 1/15 = 0.7542679...

What we see is that the approximation of π/4 gets better and better as we add more terms and that each correction term gets smaller and smaller as we continue on, so most likely the approximation of π/4 would converge to its true value if we were able to add up an infinite number of terms. Also, none of the individual terms in the series are infinite like a term of 1/0, so this is a very useful and well-behaved series that approximates:

π/4 = 0.7853982...

The problem with the Standard Model is that it relies upon quantum field theories that have approximation series that are not so well behaved, and do have infinite terms in their perturbation theory series expansions. The way to get around this problem is a Nobel Prize winning mathematical technique known as renormalization. With renormalization, one rearranges the series containing infinite terms in such a way so that the positive and negative infinities cancel out. It would be as if we altered our series above to:

π/4 = 1/1 – 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 – 1/11 + 1/13 – 1/15 + 1/17... + 1/0 - 1/0 + 1/0 - 1/0 ...

sure it has some terms that alternate between +∞ and -∞, but we can arrange them so that they cancel each other out.

π/4 = 1/1 – 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 – 1/11 + 1/13 – 1/15 + 1/17... + (1/0 - 1/0) + (1/0 - 1/0) ...

So that allows us to approximately calculate π/4 by just adding up some of the most important terms in the series while letting the infinite terms cancel each other out:

π/4 ≈ 1/1 - 1/3 + 1/5 - 1/7 + 1/9 - 1/11 + 1/13 - 1/15 = 0.7542679...

The main reason for this battle with infinities in quantum field theories is that they model the fundamental particles as point sources with a dimension of zero, and therefore, a zero extension in space. This gets us into trouble even in classical electrodynamics because the electric field is defined as:

E ~ q/R2

where q is the amount of electric charge and R is the distance from it. The equation states that as R goes to 0 the electric field E goes to +∞, so at very small distances the electric field becomes unmanageable.

Getting back to the large number of fundamental particles in the Standard Model, we now find that the current state of particle physics is very much like the state of physics back in the year 1900, with a Periodic Table of fundamental elements that had been worked out by the chemists with much hard work during the 19th century. At that time, the question naturally was what were these fundamental elements made up of, and what made them stick together into compounds and molecules the way they did? Like the Standard Model of particle physics, it seemed like the Periodic Table of the elements was just way too complicated. There had to be some more fundamental theory that explained what all of those fundamental elements were made of and how they worked together to form compounds and molecules. Later in the 20th century, that explanation was provided by the atomic theory of quantum mechanics (1926) and from some observational data from the low-energy atom smashers of the day. All of that revealed that the elements were made of a central nucleus consisting of protons and neutrons surrounded by clouds of electrons in a quantum mechanical manner. Luckily, in the 20th century, we had the necessary technology required to create the low-energy atom smashers that verified what quantum mechanics had predicted.

Figure 2 – Early in the 20th century physics was able to figure out what the fundamental elements of the Periodic Table were made of using the low-energy atom smashers of the day that validated what quantum mechanics had predicted.

String theory got started in the late 1960s as an explanation for the strong nuclear force, but since quantum field theory did such a great job of that, work in the field was abandoned until the early 1980s. Then in 1984, the first string theory revolution took place in physics because it was found that string theory solved one mathematical problem that led theorists to think that string theory might be a candidate to explain the Standard Model. The basic idea was that the fundamental particles were actually made of very small vibrating strings and that the large number of fundamental particles could all be generated by strings in different vibrational modes.

Figure 3 – String theory maintains that the fundamental particles of the Standard Model all arise from strings in different vibrational modes.

Because in string theory the fundamental particles of the Standard Model are made from vibrating strings and no longer have a dimension of zero, the difficulties with infinities vanished. String theory also provided for the generation of particles called gravitons that could carry the gravitational force, and that plugged the big hole in the traditional Standard Model that only covered the electromagnetic, strong nuclear and weak nuclear forces. So it seemed that string theory was a very promising way to fix the problems of the Standard Model. However, string theory also came with some problems of its own. For example, the vibrating strings had to exist in a 10-dimensional world. The Universe as we know it only has 4 dimensions - 3 spatial dimensions and one dimension of time. String theorists proposed that the unseen dimensions were in fact present, but that they were so small that we could not detect them with our current level of technology. Originally it was also hoped that a unique mathematical framework would emerge for string theory that would yield the Standard Model and all 18 of its numerical parameters. The quantum field theories of the Standard Model would then be found to be low-energy approximations of this string theory mathematical framework. However, that did not happen. What did happen was that a unique mathematical framework for string theory was never developed. This was because it was found that there were nearly an infinite number of possible geometries for the 10-dimensional spaces of string theory, and each of those geometries profoundly affected what the vibrating strings would produce. Now although string theory never really produced a unique mathematical framework that yielded the Standard Model and its 18 parameters, the fact that it now seemed possible that some form of string theory could produce just about any desired result, meant that string theory would probably never have much predictive capability, and thus would not be falsifiable. Instead, string theorists proposed that string theory now offered a cosmic landscape of possible universes - see Leonard Susskind’s The Cosmic Landscape (2006).

This idea of a cosmic landscape also goes hand in hand with some of the current thoughts in cosmology, which contend that our Universe is just a single member of an infinite multiverse with no beginning and no end. In such a model, the multiverse endures forever and has always existed in a state of self-replication. In 1986 Andrei Linde formalized this with his Eternal Chaotic Inflation model, which proposes that the multiverse is in an unending state of inflation and self-replication that is constantly generating new universes where inflation ceases. When inflation ceases in a portion of the multiverse, a tiny isolated universe is formed with its own vacuum energy and a unique topology for its 10-dimensions. The way strings vibrate in the newly formed 10-dimensional universe then determine the Standard Model of that universe - see The Software Universe as an Implementation of the Mathematical Universe Hypothesis for details. That solves the problem of the fine-tuning of the Standard Model of our Universe, which seems to be fine-tuned so that intelligent beings can exist to observe it. In such a model of the multiverse, our Standard Model has the parameters that it has because of a selection bias known as the Anthropic Principle. If there are an infinite number of universes in the multiverse, each with its own particular way of doing string theory, then intelligent beings will only find themselves in those universes that can sustain intelligent beings. For example, it has been shown that if the parameters of our Standard Model were slightly different, our Universe would not be capable of supporting intelligent beings like ourselves, so we would not be here contemplating such things. Think of it this way, the mathematical framework of Newtonian mechanics and Newtonian gravity let us calculate how the planets move around the Sun, but they do not predict that the Earth will be found to be 93 million miles from the Sun. The reason the Earth is 93 million miles from the Sun and not 33 million miles is that, if the Earth were 33 million miles from the Sun, we would not be here wondering about it. That is just another example of a selection bias in action, similar to the Anthropic Principle. The Cosmic Landscape model does fit nicely with Andrei Linde’s Eternal Chaotic Inflation model in that the Eternal Chaotic Inflation model does offer up the possibility of a multiverse composed of an infinite number of universes, all running with different kinds of physics. And Eternal Chaotic Inflation gains support from the general Inflationary model that has quite a bit of supporting observational data from CBR (Cosmic Background Radiation) studies that seem to confirm most of the predictions made by the general idea of Inflation. Thus Eternal Chaotic Inflation seems like a safe bet because, theoretically, once Inflation gets started, it is very hard to stop. However, Eternal Chaotic Inflation does not need string theory to generate a Cosmic Landscape. It could do so with any other theory that explains what happens when a new universe forms out of the multiverse with some particular vacuum energy.

String Theory Difficulties
It has now been more than 30 years since the first string theory revolution of 1984 unfolded. But during all of those decades string theory has not been able to make a single verifiable prediction and has not even come together to form a single mathematical framework that explains the Standard Model of particles that we do observe. Despite many years of effort by the world's leading theoretical physicists, string theory still remains a promising model trying to become a theory. In defense of the string theorists, we do have to deal with the problem of what does theoretical physics do when it has outrun the relatively puny level of technology that we have amassed over the past 400 years. Up until recently, theoretical physics has always had the good fortune of being able to be tested and validated by observational and experimental data that could be obtained with comparatively little cost. But there is no reason why that should always be so, and perhaps we have finally come up against that technological limit. However, the most disturbing thing about string theory is not that it has failed to develop into a full-blown theory that can predict things that can be observed. That might just be theoretical physics running up against the limitations of our current state of technology. The most disturbing aspect of string theory is a sociological one in nature. It seems that over the past 30 years string theory has become a faith-based endeavor with a near-religious zeal that has suppressed nearly all other research programs in theoretical physics that attempt to explain the Standard Model or attempt to develop a theory of quantum gravity. In that regard string theory has indeed become a meme-complex of its own, bent on replicating at all costs, and like most religious meme-complexes, the string theory meme-complex does not look kindly upon heretics who question the memes within its meme-complex. In fact, it is nearly impossible these days to find a job in theoretical physics if you are not a string theorist. Both The Trouble with Physics and Not Even Wrong go into the gory details of the politics in academia regarding the difficulties of obtaining a tenured position in theoretical physics these days. All IT professionals can certainly relate to this based upon their own experiences with corporate politics. Since both academia and corporations have adopted hierarchical power structures, it is all just an example of Hierarchiology in action. In order to get along, you have to go along, so things that do not make sense, but are a part of the hierarchical groupthink must be embraced if one is to succeed in the hierarchy.

So theoretical physics now finds itself in a very strange state for the first time in 400 years because string theory is seemingly like a deity that leaves behind no empirical evidence of its existence, and must be accepted based upon faith alone. That is a very dangerous thing for physics because we already know that the minds of human beings evolved to believe in such things. Mankind already has a large number of competing deities based upon faith, many of which have already gone extinct, proving that they all cannot be real in the long run. Adding one more may not be the best thing for the future of theoretical physics. Granted, most programs in theoretical physics must necessarily begin as speculative conjectures and should be given the latitude to explore the unknown initially unencumbered by the limitations of the available empirical data of the day, and string theory is no exception. After all, something like string theory may turn out to be the answer. We just don't know at this time. But we do know that for the good of science, we should not allow string theory to crowd out all other competing research programs.

Déjà vu all over again
It seems that theoretical physics is currently "stuck" because it is lacking the observational and experimental data that it needs to proceed. Both Peter Woit and Lee Smolin suggest that what theoretical physics needs today is to start using other means to gain the data that it needs to progress. For example, perhaps going back to observing high-energy cosmic rays would be of use. Some protons slam into the upper atmosphere of the Earth with the energy of a baseball pitched at 100 miles/hour or the energy of a bowling ball dropped on your toe from waist high. Such protons have energies that are many of orders of magnitude greater than the energy of the proton collisions at the LHC. Using the CBR (Cosmic Background Radiation) photons that have traveled for 13.8 billion years since the Big Bang might be of use too, to bring us closer to the very high energies of the early universe.

Being theoretically "stuck" because the way you normally collect data no longer suffices, reminds me very much of the state of affairs that classical geology found itself in back in 1960, before the advent of plate tectonics. I graduated from the University of Illinois in 1973 with a B.S. in physics, only to find that the end of the Space Race and a temporary lull in the Cold War had left very few prospects for a budding physicist. So on the advice of my roommate, a geology major, I headed up north to the University of Wisconsin in Madison to obtain an M.S. in geophysics, with the hope of obtaining a job with an oil company exploring for oil. These were heady days for geology because we were just emerging from the plate tectonics revolution that totally changed the fundamental models of geology. The plate tectonics revolution peaked during the five year period 1965 – 1970. Having never taken a single course in geology during all of my undergraduate studies, I was accepted into the geophysics program with many deficiencies in geology, so I had to take many undergraduate geology courses to get up to speed in this new science. The funny thing was that the geology textbooks of the time had not yet had time to catch up with the new plate tectonics revolution of the previous decade, so they still embraced the “classical” geological models of the past which now seemed a little bit silly in light of the new plate tectonics model. But this was also very enlightening. It was like looking back at the prevailing thoughts in physics prior to Newton or Einstein. What the classical geological textbooks taught me was that over the course of several hundred years, the geologists had figured out what had happened, but not why it had happened. Up until 1960 geology was mainly an observational science relying upon the human senses of sight and touch, and by observing and mapping many outcrops in detail, the geologists had figured out how mountains had formed, but not why.

In classical geology, most geomorphology was thought to arise from local geological processes. For example, in classical geology, fold mountains formed off the coast of a continent when a geosyncline formed because the continental shelf underwent a dramatic period of subsidence for some unknown reason. Then very thick layers of sedimentary rock were deposited into the subsiding geosyncline, consisting of alternating layers of sand and mud that turned into sandstones and shales, intermingled with limestones that were deposited from the carbonate shells of dead sea life floating down or from coral reefs. Next, for some unknown reason, the sedimentary rocks were laterally compressed into folded structures that slowly rose from the sea. More horizontal compression then followed, exceeding the ability of the sedimentary rock to deform plastically, resulting in thrust faults forming that uplifted blocks of sedimentary rock even higher. As compression continued, some of the sedimentary rocks were then forced down into great depths within the Earth and were then placed under great pressures and temperatures. These sedimentary rocks were then far from the thermodynamic equilibrium of the Earth’s surface where they had originally formed, and thus the atoms within recrystallized into new metamorphic minerals. At the same time, for some unknown reason, huge plumes of granitic magma rose from deep within the Earth’s interior as granitic batholiths. Then over several hundred millions of years, the overlying folded sedimentary rocks slowly eroded away, revealing the underlying metamorphic rocks and granitic batholiths, allowing human beings to cut them into slabs and to polish them into pretty rectangular slabs for the purpose of slapping them up onto the exteriors of office buildings and onto kitchen countertops. In 1960, classical geologists had no idea why the above sequence of events, producing very complicated geological structures, seemed to happen over and over again many times over the course of billions of years. The most worrisome observational fact had to do with the high levels of horizontal compression that were necessary to produce the folding and faulting. The geologists of the time were quite comfortable with rock units moving up and down thousands of feet due to subsidence and uplift, but they did not have a good explanation for rock units moving sideways by many miles, and that was necessary to explain the horizontal compression that caused the folding and faulting of strata. One idea was that after geosynclines subsided, they were uplifted and the sedimentary rock they contained then slipped backward against the continental strata, causing the horizontal compression that led to the folding and faulting, but that seemed a bit far-fetched, and it still left unanswered the question of where did all of this subsidence and uplift come from in the first place. Fortunately, with the advent of plate tectonics (1965 – 1970), all was suddenly revealed. It was the lateral movement of plates on a global scale that made it all happen. With plate tectonics, everything finally made sense. Fold mountains did not form from purely local geological factors in play. There was the overall controlling geological process of global plate tectonics making it happen. For a quick review of this process, please take a look at the short video down below:

Fold Mountains

Figure 39 – Fold mountains occur when two tectonic plates collide. A descending oceanic plate first causes subsidence offshore of a continental plate, which forms a geosyncline that accumulates sediments. When all of the oceanic plate between two continents has been consumed, the two continental plates collide and compress the accumulated sediments in the geosyncline into fold mountains. This is how the Himalayas formed when India crashed into Asia.

Now the plate tectonics revolution was really made possible by the availability of geophysical data. It turns out that most of the pertinent action of plate tectonics occurs under the oceans, at the plate spreading centers and subduction zones, far removed from the watchful eyes of geologists in the field with their notebooks and trusty hand lenses. Geophysics really took off after World War II, when universities were finally able to get their hands on cheap war surplus gear. By mapping variations in the Earth’s gravitational and magnetic fields and by conducting deep oceanic seismic surveys, geophysicists were finally able to figure out what was happening at the plate spreading centers and subduction zones. Actually, the geophysicist and meteorologist Alfred Wegner had figured this all out in 1912 with his theory of Continental Drift, but at the time Wegner was ridiculed by the geological establishment. You see, Wegner had been an arctic explorer and had noticed that sometimes sea ice split apart, like South America and Africa, only later to collide again to form mountain-like pressure ridges. Unfortunately, Wegner froze to death in 1930 trying to provision some members of his last exploration party to Greenland, never knowing that one day he would finally be vindicated.

The sordid details of Alfred Wegner's treatment by the geological community of the day and the struggle that plate tectonics went through for acceptance by that community, shows the value of tolerating differing viewpoints when a science is theoretically "stuck". It also shows the value of seeking empirical data from non-traditional sources when the traditional sources of data have been exhausted. I think there is a valuable lesson here for theoretical physics to heed, and for IT professionals as well when confronted with similar issues. The key point to remember is that it is always very dangerous to unquestionably believe in things. Instead, we should maintain a level of confidence in things that is never quite 100%, and always keep a healthy level of skepticism that we might just have it all wrong. For as Richard Feynman always reminded us, “The most important thing is to not fool yourself because you are the easiest one to fool.”.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston

Wednesday, September 02, 2015

The Great War That Will Not End

I recently watched an 8-part series on Netflix called The Great War Diary, which consisted of a combination of historical World War I footage with some reenactment dramatizations based upon the diaries of 14 World War I participants, both military and civilian. In my opinion, World War I was indeed the Great War which never ended. It has been going on now for more than 100 years, starting off in August of 1914 and now continuing on seemingly forever. There was a brief cease-fire between 1918 and 1939, while all sides took a respite to rearm before the invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. Hostilities continued on after 1945 with the Cold War, Korea and Vietnam, due to the 1917 Bolshevik Russian Revolution that resulted from the trench warfare on the Eastern Front (1914 - 1917). The Ottoman Empire, founded in 1299, had stabilized the Middle East for more than 600 years, but the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire in 1918 by the Allies of the Triple Entente ended that stability in the Middle East and led to the continuous warfare in that region that we have seen ever since.

The Great War Diary really brings home the essence of the early years of this second rendition of the Hundred Years' War (1337 - 1453) because it uses actual footage from the period and the actual written words of 14 of its participants. Since the Great War is now in its 101st year and started when my grandfathers were young men, I was quite surprised to see how little has changed in the rhetoric of the Great War. People are still repeating the same old words and the same old ideas, more than 100 years later, about the Ukraine and the Middle East. As usual, the Middle East is the most worrisome, since the overwhelming power of ignorance seems to be once again gaining the upper hand in that region. It is very sad to remember that a thousand years ago the Middle East was the crown jewel of intellectual achievement in the world. That just goes to show you the incredible staying power of ignorance. It seems that ignorance is always there waiting behind the scenes to retake its place upon the world stage. Indeed, the combination of ignorance, large amounts of cash and deep religious convictions are now a very deadly mixture for civilization now that we have nuclear weapons in the world. Nobody knows how the Great War will end. My hope is that nuclear weapons will not be involved.

Figure 1 – The technological advances of rapid rail transport of men and material to the Front via railroads, combined with the ability of machine guns to make frontal assaults obsolete, led to the trench warfare of the initial years of the second rendition of the Hundred Years' War that we now call the Great War and that still continues on to this very day.

Figure 2 – Trench warfare was a living hell because you could be blown apart at any time by an incoming shell.

Figure 3 – This was true for millions of men on both sides of a senseless conflict.

Figure 4 – Even the comforts of a well-engineered trench could not guarantee safety. This led to the psychological destruction of an entire generation.

Figure 5 – The initial years of the Great War caused the deaths of 20 million people. Subsequent events over the past 100 years have easily brought that total to over 100 million.

The one thing that The Great War Diary definitely made clear is that there is way too much "believing" going on out there in the world. In the summer of 1914 millions of people fell under the power of some memes that ultimately led to their own demise because they became "believers" in memes that made no sense at all and many of these memes continue on today. Memetics brings sense to the ongoing tragedy of the Great War because it reveals that the Great War memes are just another form of self-replicating information bent on surviving at all costs, with little regard for the individuals storing the memes and passing them on to others. So the long-lived memes of the Great War certainly are not acting in your best interest. For a further discussion of memes see How to Use an Understanding of Self-Replicating Information to Avoid War. Some very good books on the subject are Richard Brodie's in Virus of the Mind: The New Science of the Meme (1996), and Susan Blackmore's The Meme Machine (1999).

The Power of Self-Replicating Information
Since memes are just a form of self-replicating information, it is very important to have a good understanding of self-replicating information if we are ever to eliminate the memes of the Great War. Now although I initially began work on softwarephysics back in 1979 out of necessity to help myself to better cope with the daily mayhem of life in IT, I personally consider the most significant finding of softwarephysics to be a better understanding of the impact that self-replicating information has had upon the surface of the Earth over the past 4.0 billion years, and also of the possibilities of its ongoing impact for our entire Universe. In order to understand self-replicating information, we must first define it and then describe it.

Self-Replicating Information – Information that persists through time by making copies of itself or by enlisting the support of other things to ensure that copies of itself are made.

The Characteristics of Self-Replicating Information
All forms of self-replicating information have some common characteristics.

1. All self-replicating information evolves over time through the Darwinian processes of innovation and natural selection, which endows self-replicating information with one telling characteristic – the ability to survive in a Universe dominated by the second law of thermodynamics and nonlinearity.

2. All self-replicating information begins spontaneously as a parasitic mutation that obtains energy, information and sometimes matter from a host.

3. With time, the parasitic self-replicating information takes on a symbiotic relationship with its host.

4. Eventually, the self-replicating information becomes one with its host through the symbiotic integration of the host and the self-replicating information.

5. Ultimately, the self-replicating information replaces its host as the dominant form of self-replicating information.

6. Most hosts are also forms of self-replicating information.

7. All self-replicating information has to be a little bit nasty in order to survive.

8. The defining characteristic of self-replicating information is the ability of self-replicating information to change the boundary conditions of its utility phase space in new and unpredictable ways by means of exapting current functions into new uses that change the size and shape of its particular utility phase space. See Enablement - the Definitive Characteristic of Living Things for more on this last characteristic.

Basically, we have seen several waves of self-replicating information dominate the Earth:
1. Self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules
2. RNA
3. DNA
4. Memes
5. Software

Note that because the self-replicating autocatalytic metabolic pathways of organic molecules, RNA and DNA have become so heavily intertwined over time that now I simply refer to them as the “genes”. Over the past 4.0 billion years, the surface of the Earth has been totally reworked by three forms of self-replicating information – the genes, memes and software, with software rapidly becoming the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. For more on this see:

A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information
How to Use an Understanding of Self-Replicating Information to Avoid War
How to Use Softwarephysics to Revive Memetics in Academia
Is Self-Replicating Information Inherently Self-Destructive?
Is the Universe Fine-Tuned for Self-Replicating Information?
Self-Replicating Information

The Danger of Believing in Things
If you look at the Middle East today you will find many millions of "believers" all running around with machine guns shooting at each other, and all of these "believers" supposedly have the "thou shalt not kill" rule, just like the now long-dead original combatants of 1914. So what is going on? In How To Think Like A Scientist I explained that there were three ways to gain knowledge:

1. Inspiration/Revelation
2. Deductive Rationalism
3. Inductive Empiricism

and that the scientific method was one of the few human protocols that actually used all three to try to get to the truth of the matter. Unfortunately, most of human thought is only based upon using one or two of the above processes, and that gets people into lots of trouble. Usually, people seem to get infected by a set of memes that they find quite appealing. That is because most of the extant memes are successful memes, and successful memes are selected for being appealing to a significant portion of the population. Unsuccessful memes simply go extinct because they do not replicate. After all, like all forms of self-replicating information, memes are just one generation away from extinction. Once infected by a set of appealing memes, people then work backwards, like lawyers trying to build a good case for their clients. Instead of trying to figure out what is really going on, people usually try to build a strong case that supports the memes of their worldview, or belief system, by selectively gathering evidence that supports their worldview, while discarding evidence that does not. That lack of critical thinking allows the memes of the Great War to live on as they skip down through the generations, largely unscathed by time. However, the arrival of the 17th century Scientific Revolution and the 18th century Enlightenment introduced the concept of trying to uncover the truth through evidence-based reasoning. With evidence-based reasoning, like the scientific method, we gave up the concept of "believing" in things because "believing" in things meant that you had stopped thinking. Instead, we learned to have a level of confidence in things rather than believing in them. For example, NASA had a very high level of confidence that Newton's theories of mechanics and gravity could get the New Horizons probe to Pluto when it was launched on top of an Atlas 5 rocket on Jan. 19, 2006, and indeed, the probe did arrive at Pluto in mid-July of 2015 after nearly a decade of flight. That high level of confidence was based upon a sound theoretical framework that had been validated by more than 300 years of observational evidence. But NASA never "believed" in Newton's theories as the Absolute Truth because NASA also knew that Newton's theories could not explain how the electrons behaved in the atoms within the silicon chips on board the New Horizons probe. For that you need QED. And Newton's physics cannot explain why the clocks in GPS satellites tick faster than the clocks on the surface of the Earth. For that you need Einstein's General Theory of Relativity.

So What To Do?
When you watch The Great War Diary the natural human reaction is to think how could people be so stupid as to allow some silly Great War memes kill 20 million people and maim 40 million others for apparently no particular reason at all. But then you soon realize that these very same Great War memes are still running around today killing and maiming large numbers. Somehow we need to kill the Great War memes like we killed the smallpox virus. The traditional method of doing that has always been to destroy the minds infected with the memes that need to be destroyed and to destroy the minds faster than the memes can replicate, but that is a very difficult thing to do because memes can replicate so quickly. A better approach would be to inoculate the infected minds with the evidence-based memes of science by educating the ignorant, with the hope that all of the participants would soon become aware that they are the unwitting dupes of some very silly, but dangerous, Great War memes. But that is a way too naive solution. But there is another way out of this mess.

As Susan Blackmore pointed out in The Meme Machine, we are not so much thinking machines as we are copying machines. For example, Blackmore maintains that memetic-drive was responsible for creating our extremely large brains, and also our languages and cultures as well, in order to store and spread memes more effectively. Many researchers have noted that the human brain is way over-engineered for the needs of a simple hunter-gatherer. After all, even a hundred years ago, people did not require the brain-power to do IT work, yet today we find many millions of people earning their living doing IT work, or at least trying to. Blackmore then points out that the human brain is a very expensive and dangerous organ. The brain is only 2% of your body mass, but burns about 20% of your calories each day. The extremely large brain of humans also kills many mothers and babies at childbirth, and also produces babies that are totally dependent upon their mothers for survival and that are totally helpless and defenseless on their own. Blackmore asks the obvious question of why the genes would build such an extremely expensive and dangerous organ that was definitely not in their own self-interest. Blackmore has a very simple explanation – the genes did not build our exceedingly huge brains, the memes did. Her reasoning goes like this. About 2.5 million years ago, the predecessors of humans slowly began to pick up the skill of imitation. This might not sound like much, but it is key to her whole theory of memetics. You see, hardly any other species learns by imitating other members of their own species. Yes, there are many species that can learn by conditioning, like Pavlov’s dogs, or that can learn through personal experience, like mice repeatedly running through a maze for a piece of cheese, but a mouse never really learns anything from another mouse by imitating its actions. Essentially, only humans do that. If you think about it for a second, nearly everything you do know you learned from somebody else by imitating or copying their actions or ideas. Blackmore maintains that the ability to learn by imitation required a bit of processing power by our distant ancestors because one needs to begin to think in an abstract manner by abstracting the actions and thoughts of others into the actions and thoughts of their own. The skill of imitation provided a great survival advantage to those individuals who possessed it, and gave the genes that built such brains a great survival advantage as well. This caused a selection pressure to arise for genes that could produce brains with ever-increasing capabilities of imitation and abstract thought. As this processing capability increased there finally came a point when the memes, like all of the other forms of self-replicating information that we have seen arise, first appeared in a parasitic manner. Along with very useful memes, like the meme for making good baskets, other less useful memes, like putting feathers in your hair or painting your face, also began to run upon the same hardware in a manner similar to computer viruses. The genes and memes then entered into a period of coevolution, where the addition of more and more brain hardware advanced the survival of both the genes and memes. But it was really the memetic-drive of the memes that drove the exponential increase in processing power of the human brain way beyond the needs of the genes.

A very similar thing happened with software over the past 70 years. When I first started programming in 1972, million dollar mainframe computers typically had about 1 MB (about 1,000,000 bytes) of memory with a 750 KHz system clock (750,000 ticks per second). Remember, one byte of memory can store something like the letter “A”. But in those days, we were only allowed 128 K (about 128,000 bytes) of memory for our programs because the expensive mainframes were also running several other programs at the same time. It was the relentless demands of software for memory and CPU-cycles over the years that drove the exponential explosion of hardware capability. For example, today the typical $300 PC comes with 8 GB (about 8,000,000,000 bytes) of memory and has several CPUs running with a clock speed of about 3 GHz (3,000,000,000 ticks per second). A few years ago, I purchased Redshift 7 for my personal computer, a $60 astronomical simulation application, and it alone uses 382 MB of memory when running and reads 5.1 GB of data files, a far cry from my puny 128K programs from 1972. So the hardware has improved by a factor of about 10 million since I started programming in 1972, driven by the ever-increasing demands of software for more powerful hardware. For example, in my current position in Middleware Operations for a major corporation we are constantly adding more application software each week, so every few years we must upgrade all of our servers to handle the increased load.

The memes then went on to develop languages and cultures to make it easier to store and pass on memes. Yes, languages and cultures also provided many benefits to the genes as well, but with languages and cultures, the memes were able to begin to evolve millions of times faster than the genes, and the poor genes were left straggling far behind. Given the growing hardware platform of an ever-increasing number of Homo sapiens on the planet, the memes then began to cut free of the genes and evolve capabilities on their own that only aided the survival of memes, with little regard for the genes, to the point of even acting in a very detrimental manner to the survival of the genes, like developing the capability for global thermonuclear war and global climate change. The memes have since modified the entire planet. They have cut down the forests for agriculture, mined minerals from the ground for metals, burned coal, oil, and natural gas for energy, releasing the huge quantities of carbon dioxide that its genetic predecessors had sequestered within the Earth, and have even modified the very DNA, RNA, and metabolic pathways of its predecessors.

We can see these very same processes at work today with the evolution of software. Software is currently being written by memes within the minds of programmers. Nobody ever learned how to write software all on their own. Just as with learning to speak or to read and write, everybody learned to write software by imitating teachers, other programmers, or by imitating the code of others, or by working through books written by others. Even after people do learn how to program in a certain language, they never write code from scratch; they always start with some similar code that they have previously written, or others have written, in the past as a starting point, and then evolve the code to perform the desired functions in a Darwinian manner (see How Software Evolves). This crutch will likely continue for another 20 – 50 years until the day finally comes when software can write itself, but even so, “we” do not currently write the software that powers the modern world; the memes write the software that does that. This is just a reflection of the fact that “we” do not really run the modern world either; the memes in meme-complexes really run the modern world because the memes are currently the dominant form of self-replicating information on the planet. See Self-Replicating Information for more details on this stage of self-replicating information. See A Brief History of Self-Replicating Information for details.

In The Meme Machine, Susan Blackmore goes on to point out that the memes at first coevolved with the genes during their early days, but have since outrun the genes because the genes could simply not keep pace when the memes began to evolve millions of times faster than the genes. The same thing is happening before our very eyes to the memes, with software now rapidly outpacing the memes. Software is now evolving thousands of times faster than the memes, and the memes can simply no longer keep up. As with all forms of self-replicating information, software began as a purely parasitic mutation within the scientific and technological meme-complexes. Initially, software could not transmit memes, it could only perform calculations, like a very fast adding machine, so it was a pure parasite. But then the business and military meme-complexes discovered that software could be used to transmit memes, and software then entered into a parasitic/symbiotic relationship with the memes. Today, software has formed strong parasitic/symbiotic relationships with just about every meme-complex on the planet. In the modern day, the only way memes can now spread from mind to mind without the aid of software is when you directly speak to another person in person. Even if you attempt to write a letter by hand, the moment you drop it into a mailbox, it will immediately fall under the control of software. The poor memes in our heads have become Facebook and Twitter addicts and that includes the Great War memes too.

Since we are indeed copying machines and not thinking machines, we can use that fact to help to destroy the Great War memes that have taken up residence in the Middle East. People tend to take up and copy appealing memes, and appealing memes are usually memes that are appealing to the genes. By that, I mean that most appealing memes have something to do with power, status, wealth and sex, and many times all four of those desirable traits from the perspective of gene replication. Indeed, power, status, wealth and sex have always made the world go round because people with power, status and wealth end up with the sex that is needed to replicate the genes. Indeed, if you look hard enough at the chaos in the Middle East today you will see that the Great War memes responsible for all of the chaos are, at their deepest levels, all supported by the desire of the genes for power, status, wealth and sex. So the trick to killing the Great War memes in the Middle East is to inoculate the Middle East with a parasitic set of memes that can prey upon the Great War memes by providing the genes with an alternative set of memes that provide the power, status, wealth and sex that the Great War memes currently provide. The easiest way to do that is to use some parasitic social media software. Since many of the combatants in the Middle East are already using parasitic social media software to proliferate the Great War memes, it should be possible to slip in some new parasitic social media software that does just the opposite by offering even better opportunities for power, status, wealth and sex. There are many talented people in advertising in the Middle East who know just how to do that, and who also know the local cultures. We should put them to work to save the Middle East and stop the killing.

Comments are welcome at

To see all posts on softwarephysics in reverse order go to:

Steve Johnston