Friday, June 25, 2010

The World Cup Parallel Universe

Lately, I’ve been enjoying the World Cup competition in the same way I enjoy the Summer Olympics every four years. These events represent a rare occasion for Americans to gain an appreciation for life outside our borders. I like all the foreign languages, customs, and distinct behavior of the World Cup. I see it as a learning experience. And plus, Futbol (known here in the U.S. as soccer) is easily the most revered sport in the world so I feel a responsibility to appreciate it to some degree.

As I was watching a very exciting match-up between the U.S. and Algeria, I had an unexpected science moment. The sides had battled long and hard only to achieve a “nil to nil” tie up until the end of regulation time. This was after the Americans repeatedly “should have” scored with numerous opportunities. On one particular missed opportunity around minute 85, the British announcer proclaimed “in a parallel universe the U.S. just scored, the game is over and they move on to the round of 16.” Imagine that, a current cosmological model working its way into the stage of world sports.

As it happened, moments later in minute 91 the U.S. team did score a last minute goal, winning the game, and moving on to the round of 16. So it seems, in this case, the two universes collided!

Monday, June 21, 2010

The Collatz Conjecture

OK, this hits close to home and sounds oddly familiar, except I don’t bore people with number theory. I just talk about astrophysics too much. Is that why people stopped hanging out with me?

[Math joke courtesy of MIT’s The Tech newspaper.]

Thursday, June 17, 2010

Alert - Black Holes Racist!

Famed physicist John Archibald Wheeler must be rolling over in his grave right about now with the recent news that the term he coined in 1967 to describe a region of space where the pull of gravity is so immense that not even light can escape it – thus the term “black” hole – is considered racist.

Yes, it is true, the Los Angeles chapter of the NAACP forced Hallmark to pull from its shelves a graduation card the civil rights group deemed racist. Printed on the astronomy themed card, is dialogue such as, “Watch out, Saturn, this grad is gonna run rings around you!" And on the audio chip that plays once the card is opened, characters Hoops and Yoyo continue their riffing on all the things new graduates are going to do once they get out there to take on the universe... “And you black holes -- you're so ominous! And you planets? Watch your back!”

Hallmark calls the outrage a misunderstanding, claiming that the astronomy theme emphasizes the power the graduate has to take over the universe, even energy-absorbing black holes. A Hallmark company spokesman explained “The intent here is to say that this graduate is not afraid of anything.”

The card has been around for three years and uses a common astronomical term "black holes," but because some people hear the word “Ho’s” or “whores,” it has to be pulled.

This situation speaks volumes about the sad state of the public’s awareness of science. OK, we can only use the term “Schwarzchild singularity” from now on. And what’s next, censorship of all kiddy books about the solar system that mention the planet Uranus? Come on, how ridiculous can people be?

Sunday, June 13, 2010

Hush, Aliens are Coming!

I’ve enjoying Stephen Hawking’s new TV series “Into the Universe with Stephen Hawking” because I see it as a rare opportunity to learn some science from arguably the most famous living physicist. I also make sure I attend Hawking’s lectures in Los Angeles each time he visits, never sure when it may be my last chance given his age and physical condition.

A recent episode of the show that aired in April 2010 set off some controversy around his comments about intelligent aliens. Hawking speculated that such aliens would likely be nomads, living in ships after depleting their own planet of resources, and hopping from one interstellar refueling station to the next.

Hawking posited, “If aliens ever visit us, I think the outcome would be much as when Christopher Columbus first landed in America, which didn’t turn our very well for the Native Americans.”

I know that Hawking has been making such comments for years; like in a 1996 essay when he said humans should be “wary of answering” aliens until our species has become more sophisticated. But hiding from alien civilizations seems like an odd concept given my long-time participation in the SETI Project with the prime goal of detecting signals from far-off intelligent life and ultimately communicating with them. I don’t think we can play a head-in-the-sand game with establishing our place in the galactic community. This is more than a global policy decision; this is about science and the pursuit of nature’s truth.

The Journal of Cosmology compiled commentaries from a dozen scientists. Some like me criticized Hawking’s use of human behavior to predict what aliens would do. I’m totally on board with this criticism. It is all too human-centric to believe aliens would plunder worlds in a manner like the Conquistadors and their minions.

Perhaps the best response to Hawking's notion comes from Calvin and Hobbes cartoonist Bill Watterson: "Somtimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us."

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Artificial Life

I’ve been a huge fan of artificial life for as long as I can remember. In junior high school, I wrote a computer program in BASIC to compute generations of The Game of Life as defined by John Conway in a 1970 issue of Scientific American. The CDC mainframe at CSUN would display a snapshot of the evolving population of cellular automata every 100 generations. I’d see surprising results like a glider-gun spitting out gliders that would slam into beehives, obliterating them. It didn’t take much to impress me back then, but just the thought of creating new and innovative a-life populations inside the computer was enough to keep me coming back for more.

Another interesting simulation game that I found very compelling was included in Richard Dawkins 1986 book The Blind Watchmaker. The Blind Watchmaker applet is easy to use and demonstrates very effectively how random mutation followed by non-random selection can lead to interesting, complex forms. These forms are called "biomorphs" (a word invented by Desmond Morris) and are visual representations of a set of “genes.”

Then in 1992, Maxis came out with the game SIM LIFE (see inset image), and I was hooked again. This time, the “genetic playground” simulation game was based more on real biology concepts where you could explore the interactions of life forms and environments. You could define a new organism and its genetic make-up, along with flora and fauna and specify environmental variables such as temperature, terrain, predators, etc. I would define a new organism and leave my computer on overnight running the simulation. In the morning, I would be pleased if I saw things running around the screen because it meant the populations I defined had flourished.

In the years that followed, I would follow the artificial intelligence community closely, especially expert systems. I dreamed of capturing my own “essence” inside of a computer one day as an expert system so that I could interact with myself and maybe conduct a Turing Test (remember Blade Runner) on the simulation of myself. Wild huh?

Constructing computer-based life is one thing, but creating actual biological artificial life is another. On Friday, May 21, 2010, famed molecular biologist J. Craig Venter announced in the journal Science that he and his team created the first cell controlled entirely by DNA assembled from laboratory chemicals. He described the cell as “the first self-replicating species we’ve had on the planet whose parent is a computer.” My, we’ve come a long way from my days playing with Game of Life simulations!

Saturday, June 5, 2010

The Fermat Puzzle

I’ve been playing around with this little mathematics proof shown in the inset image – The Fermat Puzzle. The number theory puzzle originally appeared as a challenge in MIT’s school newspaper “The Tech.” The solution was submitted presumably by a student and appeared at some point later in the newspaper.

I found the proof to be quite tidy, but it included some steps, as you can clearly see, that I would not have thought to use – in particular the polynomial expansion. I really enjoy mathematical machinations like this. How about you?

[7/16/2010 Update - see below for another take on this problem. Courtesy of MIT's The Tech]

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Watching Over Earth

Sometimes late at night, when its quiet and I’m alone with my thoughts of mathematics and physics, I like to watch over our planet as only a person of the 21st century can, with a camera floating high above in orbit. Of course I’m talking about the International Space Station that circles the earth every 90 minutes. NASA TV provides a wonderful service to us dreamers who would rather ponder the cosmos late at night rather than sleep.

You can also use this applet to track the ISS’s orbit to judge whether the camera image is showing a daylight image, otherwise all you might see are some scattered lights on the ground.

I find that having a view of earth up on my computer screen while I do my scientific research provides a reassuring feeling of oneness with my place in the universe, and of being a beneficiary of millennia of human scientific progress. Such a view also urges me onward to explore the wonders of nature, and heck, it just makes me feel good!