Some Fun for Your Brain

Note: Originally posted at DailyKos.

I was inspired to post this by a little pun RiaD made in a comment earlier today.

It’s a bit long, and not topical at all. It is Saturday.



Two cows were standing in a field and talking:

“Say, old chap, this Mad Cow disease has me in a bit of a tizzy.”

“Not me,” replied the second, “I’m a duck.”

I like irony. I don’t know exactly what it is, but I know it when it hits me. I can’t say I know it when I see it because I suspect there is good deal of irony that gets lost on me – which is ironic, for someone who likes irony.

Irony has many cousins and many bedfellows. Humor is one of irony’s favorite bedfellows, and the oxymoron is often a cousin and a bedfellow, which is a clue that something isn’t right. The funny thing is, the oxymoron often isn’t ironic until it is pointed out; how many times do you see Jumbo Shrimp and not even think about it? How about the Great Depression? Shouldn’t it have been called the Bad Depression? The oxymoron is often hidden in plain sight; how oxymoronic – or is it ironic? It’s not sardonic, and there isn’t even a word called sardony or sardon. I find that ironic.

There are a lot of missing words. I was looking for the opposite of the word exceed the other day and I’ll be damned if inceed is not a word. It should be, if you follow precident; inhale, exhale, inceed, exceed, incest, excest. Nothing is the opposite of exceed as best as I can tell.

Two freaks crashed into each other at the intersection. When asked about it, the chief of police said, “We’ve seen an increase of freak accidents lately.”

That’s too obvious to be ironic. It’s just a pun. A pun is designed to call attention to itself.

Some of the best irony lives just below the surface. Here is some 1st degree irony that also involves freaks and has the added bonus of being true — The rock band Alice in Chains has a CD which shows a photograph of a three-legged dog on the front and a photograph of a three-legged man on the back. I like it very much because on the one hand, it’s ironic that the dog is missing a leg and the man has an extra leg, but on the other hand they both simply have three legs. It’s ambiguously ironic, which has a great sound rolling of the tongue.

Take a look at this:

This sentence has threee erors.

That is cold-blooded, premeditated irony. Its overall truthfulness requires two levels to establish. First there are the two spelling errors, and then there is the error in the number of errors. The sentence is only correct because everything is wrong.

Let’s say you have a car in your garage that you have been slowly fixing up for quite some time. When you can afford it, you buy a new part that is in perfect condition and install it, throwing the old part in the old-part pile. You keep doing this for every part on the car until that great day when you have replaced the very last part. Two years go by and you are bored. You begin tinkering in the old-part pile and before you know it, you have assembled all the parts from the old-part pile back into a working car that looks remarkably similar to your other car.

Which car is your new car?

Is that a paradox? I don’t think so. I think a paradox is the strict and impossibly stubborn cousin of irony. A paradox is intractable. Its truth is impossible to ascertain. Paradoxes can break things… and breaking things can be a lot of fun.

If you are standing exactly at the North Pole, and you are asked to go 3 steps north, which way do you go?

I’ve never had a problem with North, East, South, and West before; the compass directions had always worked just fine for me until I went to the North Pole and then they broke. I complained to the Bureau of Weights and Measures and here is what they said:

“These directions worked for you everywhere else?”

“Yes, though I haven’t been to the South Pole.”

“Well, I think you will have to give them a little latitude.”

“Hey, that’s not right…”

“Oops! I mean latitude and longitude as well.”

“Why didn’t you do that to begin with? Why have N, E, S, W?”

“Well, it would make a compass quite large. It’s all relative with NEWS.”

“Relative? No it’s not! North is absolutely north.”

“To a point. It’s relatively absolute; you can’t have only one absolute because it creates a problem of magnitude which, in your case, is 3 steps..”

Speaking of relativity, Einstein had a theory about it.

Science does a reasonably good job owning up to its mistakes; but then again, it has had plenty of practice because remarkably few scientific theories stand the test of time. Only the great theories survive, and a great theory is one that can be used to predict things with great accuracy and agree with real world observations with as much precision as can be mustered… or maybe a bit less if it’s really good (irony pointed out here). I mention this because you have to appreciate the hole Einstein dug for himself.

First, he basically said that the grand master scientist, Isaac Newton was wrong even though Newton’s theorems seemed to work beautifully. Second, he took the generally agreed upon fact that the speed of something is always relative to the motion of the observer, and threw it out the window. The light from a car’s headlights will speed up when the car speeds up, everyone knows that. You would have to be a lunatic to think otherwise.

Einstein said no, the speed of light will always appear the same to any observer, no matter how fast they are going – he made the speed of light absolute.

So why do they call it the theory of relativity?

Well, to make the speed of light absolute, he had to change a few other things because the math wouldn’t work otherwise. What he did was make time relative to an observer’s velocity, and space (or distance) relative to an observer’s velocity. He also threw in mass and made that relative to velocity too. Oh, and he curved space around mass too. To summarize: if you are traveling at any velocity, then time has slowed down, space has shrunk in the direction you are moving, you are heavier, and the shortest distance between two points may be a curve.

He also said he had some good news, and some bad news; the good news was he had a formula for potential energy and it was e=mc2 or, energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. The bad news was he had to steal a formula from a cuckoo named Lorenz change the formula for kinetic energy from e=mv or, energy equals mass times velocity, to this:


He changed m to mean mass equals mass at rest divided by a number. This one had an interesting implication; at normal speeds it was essentially the same as the old formula because m was being divided by a value damn close to 1, which just leaves the same number. However, at 90% of the speed of light, mass better than doubles. At 99%, mass is 7 times larger, and at 99.9999999999%, mass is over 700,000 times larger. He was sorry to say that it would require infinite energy to get all the way to 100% because mass would be infinite. Therefore, faster-than-light travel never was, or ever will be allowed for objects that have mass.

Like I said, Einstein dug himself quite a large hole. Sure the math worked out, but the whole thing is too weird; it couldn’t be right, because we don’t experience anything like that, do we?

It turns out there were a few pesky problems that had been known to science for some time but they were mostly hidden from the public. One problem had to do with the observed orbit of the planet Mercury. It wasn’t quite where it should be according to Newton’s laws. Now mind you, the discrepancy was miniscule, but it was still there, and either the formula worked or it didn’t. When other scientists applied Einstein’s new formulas to this problem, they found it solved the Mercury perihelion precession problem, perfectly.

Sorry if that made you spit on your screen.

The speed of light being defined as universally absolute in something called the Theory of Relativity is not the only irony to be found here. It is also ironic that Einstein never won the Nobel Prize for his astonishing, reality-changing discovery. Instead, he won the prize for a paper he published on the photoelectric effect. Even more ironic is that paper helped lay the foundation for quantum theory – a theory Einstein refused to accept, because it was too weird for him, if you can believe it.

Honestly, the layers of interconnected irony. You can’t make this stuff up.

Einstein dismissed quantum theory with the statement, “God doesn’t play dice with the universe.”

What prompted his comment was that until then, all the formulas used in physics were deterministic. What that means is if you know the precise state of a system and all the rules that govern its evolution, then you can predict exactly what it will look like at any point in time, both past and future. The universe seemed to run like a clock, and that fit in well with the belief that there was a plan for the universe when God made it, and that plan would proceed in an orderly manner.

When looking at the planets closely, any discrepancy from prediction was sure to have a cause; it just had to be found. So certain of this they were, that the planet Neptune was actually discovered when somebody called an observatory and told them where to aim their telescope. Based on a slight wobble with the orbit of Uranus that had been observed over time, someone (I forget who) actually calculated that the wobble could only be accounted for by an unknown planet located at a specific place. When the telescope was aimed at that precise spot in the sky, sure enough there was a planet.

How confident they must have felt. This just reinforced the notion of the universe, and all things in it, running like a clock.

I find it ironic that I don’t know the name of the person who predicted the existence of Neptune, yet I have heard of Nostradamus, who never actually predicted anything, let alone Neptune. As best as I can tell, his predictions are actually post-dictions made by others who fit events to his vague and vapid writings to sell books. I’ll go out on a limb and state that predictions should not happen after the event took place. Some shouldn’t be made at all (yes, Rumsfeld; you!)

Quantum theory did violence to the notion of a deterministic universe. It doesn’t just allow for non-determinism, it demands it. Quantum theory definitely was not a bolt from the blue. It had, and continues to have many contributors, some of who were extremely reluctant to put forth their ideas because the implications were so profoundly obscene.

Quantum theory has remarkable predictive powers, which is ironic for something that forbids the certainty of knowledge about the thing it is predicting. It says the world of the tiny is governed only by probabilities. Quantum theory is so bizarre that there is an official interpretation of it called the Copenhagen Interpretation, which ironically makes no attempt to explain what quantum theory is, only what it can predict.

And predict it does. It has been reconciled perfectly with all sub-atomic processes and even with electromagnetism. Unfortunately, it has not been reconciled with gravity, nor with Einstein’s general relativity. That goal has been sought for so long by the world’s greatest scientists that some have come to believe that Einstein was correct in his assessment and believe there is something even more fundamental that is governing the universe. Like algebra to a dog, it’s possible that a more fundamental theory is currently beyond our ability to perceive. We may be on the cusp of changing that, and I’ll explain why in a bit. First, let me tell you how foolish I am in making that last statement and tell you of another time we were “on the cusp” of something profound.

The following two sentences form a paradox which was used to break something so thoroughly that, to anyone trying to fix it, warned “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.” The two sentences are:

The following sentence is a lie.

The previous sentence is true.

It really loses something in the translation. This killer was originally written in the language of formal mathematics by a person whose name was Kurt Gödel (pronounced Girdle). He broke formal mathematics with it. Breaking math is dangerous because there is a 100% chance that you are either a brilliant super genius or a foaming lunatic. I would be afraid to know that answer.

Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorem states that any axiomatic system that is powerful enough to describe itself will always contain in it, statements whose truth cannot be ascertained. English is an axiomatic system, and it is talking about itself right now, just at it did in the above two sentences. Math is too, and though I’m not fluent, I would just like to say 101010.

Gödel actually scored 200% on my statement above. Sure he broke math, but he also died of starvation while living in New Jersey. That’s bad when you forget to eat to death; it points to something not being right (on a side note, Gödel used to take walks every day with… Albert Einstein! Neither would ever reveal what they talked about during these walks.)

In the everyday world of typical average people, Gödel’s revelation really wasn’t that big of a deal. For all purposes, it was just a pile of poop to step around when encountered. What made it profound was at the time (1931), there was a lot of talk about man being on the cusp of systematizing all of mathematics. There was crazy talk of machines that would automatically be able to solve any math problem, learn complicated things like the multivariable chain rule, and in fact, of machines that would set to work on creating, from first principles, every true statement of mathematics. The scientists thought they would just sit around the machine reading the tape that it spit out and go “Oooo, Ahhh, We did not know that.”

Foolish mortals; just a few years prior people were still putting beaks on their flying machines. Gödel actually did the scientists a favor and sent them packing. Had he not come up with rigorous proof of their futility, they might still be at it. It makes me wonder how much we are spinning our wheels today. I guess it depends on which poet or philosopher you ask.

Knowing when some exercise is futile has tremendous value. A British mathematician by the name of Alan Turing was great at it. By breaking the Nazi codes, Turing was probably responsible for saving more lives in WWII than any other single individual. He was rewarded for that by being kicked out of the service and labeled unfit because it was discovered that he was gay. I guess it’s bad when a gay person saves thousands of lives.

Turing anticipated the invention of the computer. He actually invented a machine, oddly called a Turing machine, that was not a real machine, but rather a hypothetical machine that would read a tape (program) and carry out the instructions on it one step at a time. The instructions were simple statements of math and some control instructions to move the tape back and forth. He never actually wrote any programs for the machine, instead choosing to go straight to the heart of determining what the “boundaries” of such a machine could be.

He showed, without the use of a real computer, what the limits of a real computer would be by determining what was computable and what wasn’t. He showed, for instance, that a program could never be written to find the first time nineteen 7’s occur in a row in the number pi? The best the program could do is to start generating the digits of pi and look for the sevens until it finds them, but the program is never guaranteed to find them; it may run forever.

That problem may seem foolish or obvious at first glance, but looking closely at these kind of problems led to many insightful things. For instance, he found that some problems would indeed lend themselves to being computable and would be certain to find the answer, but how long it took was indeterminate (but finite). This trait could be exploited for secure communications.

The very nature of computability owes a great deal to Alan Turing. It’s an easy thing to characterize a function that takes a number for its input, and outputs the square of that number. It just multiplies that number by itself and returns the answer. The answer is always found in the same amount of time for any number, and the answer is never less precise than the input. Now, what about the reverse function that takes a number for its input and returns the square root of the number for the answer?

That’s a big problem; there is no formula for finding square roots that take a constant number of steps to perform. The only thing a computer can do is try some number that is (generally) smaller than the input, square it, and see if it is the same as the input number. The question is what is the best scheme for doing this? It can obviously be done by starting at 0.0001, test it, and if it is not correct, then incrementing to 0.0002 and check that, and on and on until it finds the closest number to the input. That could take a long time, especially if the number is large. So is there a better way?

Yes. Let’s use a real example; to find the square root of 10, set a low range to 1, and a hi range to 10. Now, take the middle of the two and run the square test. In this case we would square the value 5 and see that it is 25, which is too high. Because of this, we know the square root of 10 has to be lower than 5 so we set a new hi range to 5 and perform the mid-point test again. We will round the mid-point up to 3 and square it to get 9. This is smaller than 10 so we set the low range to 3. The range is now 3 to 5, where originally it was 1 to 10. We can keep doing this, getting closer to the desired value each time we do. Instead of finding the answer in some linear time, it can now be found in logorithmic time. That’s not such a big deal for small numbers, but it is millions of times faster for numbers in the millions.

We can see that enormous complexity can arise by simply reversing a trivial process. We went from a function that always returns a precise value in one step to a function that can only try some numbers and test for correctness, much as a drunk bounces down a corridor.

Where does the complexity arise? Is there some essence we are missing? People look very hard at these things because they help us understand the boundaries of a problem. If you know the boundaries, then you might be able to identify if a problem lies outside the boundaries and you better look elsewhere for a solution.

I still don’t know if I like philosophy or not. So much of it seems so… philosophical. I guess the thing I do like about it is that it seems to form a necessary willingness to give even absurd ideas a chance at redemption and even fruition. Many of the timeless personalities throughout history who shaped and shifted our perception of reality did so not by accident, but by seeking and finding answers in places that others just wouldn’t look at. We hear that penicillin was discovered by accident, but someone did have a Petri dish open and someone did look through the microscope; that’s no accident.

My days of idealism are over, and I find that sort of liberating. It’s a messy world in which we live and that is all the more reason I try to keep my mind open. I let it all wash over me, but that doesn’t mean that I accept everything that comes my way; in fact, my bullshit detector has never worked better. Deception vies for our attention all the time… even our own.

I used to scoff at what passes for news and entertainment. I still don’t really care what Paris Hilton had for breakfast but I can understand why people do. Her breakfast is much easier to stomach than vague threats from Homeland Security and wondering how much better at swimming polar bears must become now that they are running out of ice.

Know nothing, and question everything.

Science is the study of probabilities and religion is the study of absolutes. That’s one of those self-righteous smug slogans masquerading as a humble observation. It sarcastically implies that only science can be trusted for objective truth; at least that’s what I read into it.

Religion has been abused, and for all the wrong reasons. If you preach on TV, there is a good chance you are a religion abuser. History is littered with the corpses of the innocent who fell victim in one way or another to the church. It is second only to science, particularly the branch of science known as Blowing Shit Up.

Science can scoff all it wants at religion but if you ever saw a broken down old reverend/priest/rabbi/whatever, holding the door open late at night to a makeshift community center in a dangerous part of a city, too poor to have a church of his own, give comfort to a lost soul who is crawling on his knees and praying to sweet Jesus for the strength to go just one more day without touching the bottle then, my friend, you don’t know anything about religion.

I can’t speak for other religions, but Christianity is so full of holes and contradictions that it’s nearly impossible to feel that it hasn’t been compromised. It should take a more flexible stance like science has. A one point science had the earth at the center of the universe and all the stars, and even the Sun whirled around us. Then it was decided that the earth spun around and the stars were fixed in space. Then Copernicus showed us it was the Sun that was at the center of the universe and the earth, and everything else, whirled around it. Then the universe shrunk down to the Milky Way. Then the universe became much larger when the fuzzy nebulae turned into other galaxies. Each time it changed, it literally shifted our perception of reality. Reality is quite fluid.

Right now, science is telling us that we are just a little piss-ant planet circling a completely average star in the back woods of the outer arm of a completely average galaxy which is part of a cluster of galaxies known as the Local Cluster. Wow! What an original name! I wonder if any aliens over in Andromeda call it the Local Cluster too.

At a mere 2.5 million light years away, Andromeda is the closest galaxy to ours. A light year is about 6 trillion miles. To give you a sense of how far 6 trillion miles is, shrink all of space, and everything in it, so that the earth is one foot from the sun; at that scale, you would have to walk 11 miles away to be at a scaled light year. Now you only have 27.5 million more real miles to walk to be at scaled Andromeda.

The extent of the universe and the age of the universe are things that have changed quite a bit over time. At one point the age of the universe was younger that the age of the earth, if you can believe that. The geologists and astronomers had to have a chat over that.

The extent of the universe has been shown to be finite by a very clever line of reasoning that goes like this: the distribution of stars and galaxies appears to be very smooth at large scales and that lends itself nicely to statistics. If the universe was infinite, then there would be an infinite number of stars in any direction you looked, no matter how small of a region you looked. That means the sky should be ablaze with light of unimaginable intensity. It doesn’t matter how far away they are, an infinite number of stars adds up to blinding light. It was suggested that there might be a shell of dust and gasses obscuring the rest of the stars but it was pointed out that in no time, an infinite amount of stars would heat up the shell of dust and gas so that it too glowed with great intensity. There is really no way around it; space is not infinite. Like a loaf of raisin bread cooking, the universe is expanding and the raisins are all moving away from each other.

B.T.W, did you know that the surface area of a sphere increases at a rate that is the square of its radius? Did you know that such things as gravity and heat are inversely proportional to the square of the radius? It’s not magic, folks; it just spreads out.

There are a lot of questions that science does not have the answer to, and there are a lot of science “preachers” who either reject many of these questions as absurd or just shrug them off because they don’t have answers to them. I think it’s ironic that scientists are supposed to be dedicated to the pursuit of new, truthful knowledge, but many only like to discuss what they already know.

I was on site at a company once and there was a person that I needed to deal with whose title was Scientist of Information Theory.  He was about 9 pay grades and 8 academic degrees above me but he was a chatty chap.

“I’m not very familiar with information theory,” I said to him. “I know it always takes some amount of energy to transmit information, and I know it can never be transmitted faster than the speed of light.”

He just smiled politely and said, “Well there you go; you can skip the eight years of college.”

I ignored his sarcasm and asked, “Has anyone ever speculated on how fortune tellers, and psychics, and those people who talk to dead relatives for a fee get their information, and what medium it might be transmitted in?”

“From the UFO’s,” he said.

“I don’t believe in UFO’s.”

“Really, Why?” he asked.

“Information theory,” I teased. “Space is big. If a planet were close to us, say 50,000 light years, and they just now pointed their telescopes at us, they would be looking at images from 50,000 years in our past. They wouldn’t see any cities, or hear any radio, or anything. Even worse, they would have had to start out 50,000 years ago and travelled at near light speed to be here now. That’s fantastically improbable in my book. It seems like a lot of work to go through when they could just listen and watch instead. If they came all the way here, I’m afraid it would be because they had to physically be near us, and there’s only one good reason for that.”

He seemed to enjoy that and said, “Yes, it would be the smart thing to do for them. We might take their oil someday.”

“Good thing there are no UFO’s,” I said. “So seriously, where would a fortune teller get his or her information?”

“You are kidding, right?”

“No! I’m not saying they are any more accurate than you or I, I’m only asking if there is the possibility of information lurking in mediums that we can’t tune in yet. There are all kinds of real crap that we don’t have an explaination for.”

“Like what?” he asked.

“Well, have you ever had the feeling someone is looking at you, and sure enough they are?”

“That’s not real,” he said. “You just think that because your subconscious saw the person looking at you a moment before.”

That was lame but I didn’t want to argue. “OK, then why is it that one person can massage another person’s scalp or scratch and arm and generate a sensation that is impossible to duplicate on one’s self?

That one stopped him dead in his tracks for a moment.

“It’s probably because the brain can’t both coordinate the arm movements and the sensory input at the same time and produce the same feeling.”

Oh, he was good!

I went on; “Why is it that when I look in the mirror, reflections are flipped right and left but not up and down? Why does one spatial axis get favored over the other?”

He mumbled something about perception.

“So all the things I mentioned have their answers rooted in some mental reflex.”

“Yes,” he said. “Those are my best objective answers.”

“You mean subjective,” I corrected. “My questions were objective because we all experience the same thing, but your answers were all subjective.”

“Whatever. The brain is a pattern matching machine and it will fill in the blanks on its own sometimes – it’s called inductive reasoning and we fight it all the time because it can carry us away to places that are far from reality. A normal, functioning brain is supposed to take in input and, using the information it already has to augment its decision making process, arrive at a conclusion that is, if not correct, at least rooted in reality. When it doesn’t have enough information, it will ask for it. If it still lacks information, it will manufacture it to keep moving forward.”

There was a good deal of sense to what he said but the brain cannot always be trusted to operate in such an objective way. I came across an ethical dilemma once that really slammed that point home. It contrasts two seemingly equivalent problems and asks, “Is this behavior acceptable?” The “correct” answers to each are at such odds with one another that it offends the senses. The worst thing about it is, articulating the reasons for the different answers is nearly impossible, and what reasons are given usually don’t hold up to close examination.

The first part of the dilemma is this:

An engineer is driving his train through a very narrow canyon when he rounds a corner and sees up ahead that 3 people are hopelessly trapped on the tracks. There was no way he can stop the train in time to avoid killing the people. His only option is to throw a switch that would send the train onto a side rail where there is only 1 person hopelessly trapped.

The question is: would it be morally acceptable to throw the switch and kill 1 person in order to save 3 people? Common sense says yes, and there is probably not a jury in the land that would convict the engineer for doing anything criminal.

The second part of the dilemma is this:

A surgeon has 3 extremely sick patients, each waiting for a different organ transplant. Death is imminent for all three unless they have the surgery. The surgeon also has a patient coming in to get his tonsils removed and he can’t help but notice this patient is a perfect donor match for his 3 very sick patients.

The question is: would it be morally acceptable to kill the 1 patient in order to save the other 3 patients? To me, the very thought of it is repugnant and I think it would land him in prison.

In the first situation, it’s unfortunate but acceptable to kill 1 person to save 3, but in the second, it is unacceptable to kill 1 person to save 3.

So what is different about the two situations?

It’s ironic that I have bumped into information theory once again since meeting my scientist friend. I would have liked to press a few more questions on him about some conclusions I have drawn from the new knowledge I have acquired. As so often happens, this insight began with a seemingly harmless statement about something called information density; something I had never thought about before.

I have come to understand what my scientist friend was talking about a little better when he said that the brain fills in the blanks all by itself. This too can be exploited in information density theory but only under the right circumstances. In many cases, it can be quite dangerous.

Consider this:

A small meteorite hits earth and is witnessed by many people who race to the impact site. They are amazed to discover the meteorite is a stone cube, and on one of its sides it has the following engraving:


What can be learned from the six dots? The crowd seems to already have some ideas, and as you walk around some of the things you hear are:

“The aliens are showing us they know how to count – 1, 2, 3.”

“No, the aliens are showing us they know the first 3 prime numbers – 1, 2, 3.”

“No, the aliens are showing us they know how to add – 1 plus 2 equals 3.”

“No, the aliens are the same ones who built the pyramids.”

“No, the aliens are pointing to something.”

“No, the aliens are showing they are on top, and all others are below them.”

Hmm. That sure is a lot of information for 6 dots. Where did it come from? All I know is that we are the undisputed masters at finding patterns and filling in the blanks.

Personally, I think the correct answer to the above question is nothing; no judgment of truth can be made with any certainty as to its meaning. The problem is, as you move around the crowd telling them the six dots mean nothing and not to draw any conclusions, you are likely to reinforce their inductive thoughts and raise suspicion about yourself. They might think you are trying to conceal their true meaning. With just a few well-placed words such as “you were not meant to see this,” you could possibly place yourself as the authority on the real meaning of the dots. That’s another form of information density – or disinformation density as the case may be. If you managed to exploit your position of authority, then you might go to great lengths to suppress any future messages that could contradict the fiction you concocted around the original message. It would be tough to explain that the dots on the first cube were a hat for a smiley face on the next cube that fell from the sky.

Information density is the most likely reason why the shape of the brain is all wrinkled. The highest densities of neural cells are at the surface of the brain, and the wrinkled structure greatly increases the surface area when compared to a smooth dome. People think about these things and clever people exploit them. I speculated above that a more fundamental theory of nature that unifies the strange but undeniable existence of quantum theory with that of gravity and Relativity might currently be beyond our ability to perceive much the same way that algebra is beyond the perception of a dog. I then cryptically alluded to the possibility that we might be on the cusp of changing that.

Several years ago the sequencing of the human genome was completed after a massive effort. Furious work is now underway to decode the genome so that a full understanding of which parts of the DNA control all the various metabolic processes that make us human and keep us healthy. Already, the largest computer in the world has been constructed by IBM for the sole purpose of tracking the legal patents that will be arising from this knowledge. Proving that you have fully decoded all the genes responsible for the production of hemoglobin in red blood cells, and proving that your modifications to these genes that can enable people to run twice as far will not interfere with normal body functions or intrude on other patents is tricky business.

If this was indeed your business, you might very well have a hard time staying away from finding the gene or genes that control the amount of wrinkling in the brain, or how fast synaptic connections in the brain are formed. This would represent the first time man has taken a direct, active roll in our intelligence. Until that moment arrives, all our learning will have been passive. We read and learn, and maybe write something that contributes a little more to the collective body of knowledge for others to read and learn. It’s a relatively slow process. If you learned how to double the surface area of the brain, it is possible that those brains might gain a deeper perception of reality and might even figure out further improvements to perform on the brain. It is not out of the realm of possibility that a self-reinforcing process could be established where, in a very short period of time, our mental capabilities undergo a hyperbolic increase leading to who-knows-what. Our natural brains would have proven to be just smart enough to learn how to manipulate themselves and then, something not fully human, would have taken over from there. It is truly a frightening thought unless of course you allow for the possibility that these… neo-people learned whole new levels of love and appreciation for life, the arts, the sciences, and possibly even elevate their perception to reach something that passes for God directly. Someone may be waiting for them – us. Who knows?

I know I could love some little bulb-headed child who communicated by telepathy and levitated furniture, so long as she or he still needed a hug every now and then.

Two neo-humans were standing at the edge of a cliff gazing in silence over a beautiful valley. The first one suddenly started laughing and said, “I just figured out the secret of gravity and it’s beautiful.  Watch; I’m going to fly to the other side of this valley.”

The other neo-human put her hand on his shoulder and said, “Maybe you should take off from the ground first.”


UPDATE: Seattle Mark wrapped this in a bow with this comment:

In the section where you write about the discovery of Neptune, I thought you were headed for another instance of irony. But actually, the irony was in the discovery of Pluto.

Pluto was discovered as the result of a telescopic search inaugurated in 1905 by American astronomer Percival Lowell, who postulated the existence of a distant planet beyond Neptune as the cause of slight irregularities in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Continued after Lowell’s death by members of the Lowell Observatory staff, the search appeared to end successfully in 1930, when American astronomer Clyde William Tombaugh found Pluto near where Lowell predicted another planet. Pluto became the ninth and most distant known planet in the solar system. However, the new planet posed a puzzle-Pluto appeared to be too small to affect the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Astronomers later detected errors in Lowell’s calculations and determined that the irregularities Lowell noted in the orbits do not exist. Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto now is seen as a lucky accident that rewarded hard work.

Now that’s some irony!

I second that.


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  1. Err, it says try again later.

  2. Raymond Smullyan would be proud.

    As far as the laws of the universe are concerned, all I have to say is:

  3. Thanks!

    • pico on March 15, 2008 at 21:20

    and as a big fan of Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach, I give it a giant thumb’s up.

    I want to comment at length, but I’m out of the door for a bite to eat, so two quick shots:  Gödel didn’t break math, he merely showed everyone that it had always been broken (and they just didn’t realize it).  Even more importantly, he showed that it’s impossible to create a math that isn’t broken in some fundamental way.  That’s one of the reasons we love him!

    Also, as someone who studies literature, I bristle at the popular use of the word “irony” to mean a lot of things that aren’t irony at all, but I loved this essay so much that I’ll put down the shotgun and take it all in good fun.  

    Seriously, this is one of the best essays I’ve ever read on a blog.


    • pico on March 15, 2008 at 22:58

    There are at least two pieces I can highly recommend because the dovetail so beautifully with your essay that I have a feeling you’d enjoy them:

    The first is Arcadia, a play by Tom Stoppard.  For my money it’s the best play written in the last 50 years or so, but I don’t have much money, so take that as you will.  As far as plot goes, Arcadia is about two interactions at a British country house: one in the late 18th century, and one contemporary.  The 18th century people live their lives, their loves, their intrigues; the 21st century people try to reconstruct life in 18th century England through the evidence left behind.  

    Along the way we get Fermat and thermodynamics, iterated algorithms and fractals.  And lots of irony.  It’s a brilliant, funny, heartbreaking play.  (and it’s highly enough regarded in science circles that it tied for the second best “book” about science in a recent Guardian study)  

    The other work that comes to mind is the science fiction of Stanislaw Lem, which often deals with the limits of our abilities of cognition.  The example of the dotted meteor in your essay forms the backbone of his novel His Master’s Voice, a dramatization of first contact that borders on the hopelessly pessimistic.  When we recognize a particular neutrino stream as 1. regular and 2. repetitive, we can safely make the assumption that it’s artificial, but then… Where do you go from there?  

    HMV is a novel about coming to terms with our eternal loneliness as a species, since Lem speculates that there can be no form of meaningful contact (which he explores in more detail in his much-more-famous Solaris) because our way of conceptualizing the universe is species-bound rather than “absolute”.  If Godel has shown us that our maths are broken, and that an infinite other broken maths exist with no particular hierarchy (they’re all either incomplete or inconsistent), do we have the equipment even to attempt to interpret the maths of an alien species?  What if they have no math at all?  

    Neither of these are – on the surface – particularly uplifting works.  But they do something that the best art can do: they allow us to break out of our narrow world and glimpse infinite possibility in a way that’s emotionally and aesthetically and intellectually satisfying.  If you haven’t read them, I think you’ll find both are worth the time.  

    Arcadia is a lot more accessible, by the way.  It’s also laugh-out-loud funny.

    • kj on March 16, 2008 at 14:16

    for my brain (i had to stop and rest) but appreciate this essay anyway.  🙂  

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