Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Science is Hard, or Joe vs. the Cosmoquantumdestructocollider

There’s been this idea churning in the back of my head for the last week or so. It got going reading this post at the (aptly named) Science Blog. In it, Jonah Lehrer bemoans an issue he has perceived: that advanced scientific research is generally headed into areas that have little relevance to the public at large. My initial reaction was a snarky “I bet Einstein would have annoyed the bloggeristas as well.”

Then I picked up the Chicago Tribune Sunday Magazine last weekend (yes, we all know it pales in comparison to NYT Sunday Mag), the focus of which was dynamics in the ongoing soap opera that is creationism vs. evolution. While the primary article was a decent primer in current trends towards reconciling a deity-driven model of the universe with the scientific approach, it didn’t cover any new ground. The more interesting piece was this backgrounder on the Creation Museum that’s recently opened in Louisville, Kentucky. The museum developers have spared no expense in creating a pseudo-science museum experience, right down to animatronics of homo sapiens sapiens hanging out with various grass-eating dinos (of course, they wouldn’t be hanging out with T. Rex, would they?).

At first glance, the two items seem completely unrelated. Either author is likely to be offended to be mentioned in the context of the other. Yet try as I might, the themes embedded within each kept swirling around the other like a pair of stars trapped in a complex gravity dance. Somehow, there was an intrinsic relation between the two articles.

As I’ve had time to mull on it, I think I’ve come to comprehend the underlying issue: we, as a society, do a dismal job engaging people in understanding the “what” and “why” of science (ok, so I’m sure it feels like a bit of a “duh” moment, but stick with me). We do a better job at the “how”, inasmuch as scientists like to show off their shiny cosmoquantumdestructocollider beams to the world. Humans can intuit hardware—they have a harder time with software. What we don’t do, what we’ve never done, is to foster human intuition where it comes to scientific principle, and both these articles are perfect examples.

Consider Lehrer with his “science is hard” complaint. If you look at the significant strides that have been made, especially in the field of physics (where the bulk of his ire is focused), they have all occurred in the shadow of an uncomprehending public. I joked about Einstein, but your Joe Bagadoughnuts still doesn’t intuit relativity. Try explaining to him that relativistic effects could cause different observers to experience a time series of non-casually related events in different orders, and see what kind of look you get. You might as well fuggetabut da math.

The Creation Museum represents the idea taken to its illogical extreme. Faced with an environment lacking a clear framework upon which to develop intuition, humans revert to the known. Consider: Galileo wasn’t a heretic because he was right. He was a heretic because he challenged the preexisting intuition. Evolution challenges our current environment in much the same way. Yes, there are some in the scientific community who relish in rear guard attacks on evolution’s principles. But the real problem is our inability to integrate evolution within our human intuitive framework in the same way that, say, Euclidian geometry is part of the things we "don't know we know". I may not be able to write a proof that two parallel lines in two-dimensional space never intersect, but I "know" it to be the case.

Ultimately, I think this challenge results from deficiencies in three areas, which I will discuss in future posts (this one is already too long):

(1) Lack of effective explanatory models;
(2) Failure to maintain integration between the fields of philosophy and science;
(3) Culture.

Friday, January 25, 2008

Cold like...

Cold, like…

a Joe Lewis right hook
pre-GE Jack Welch
the stare of Parisian waiter serving Iowans
a hospital gown
an end-of-shift gate agent
the Saks 5th fragrance counter attendant when asked for a low-budget Dior
a Liberal response to the Conservative agenda
pranks involving body parts and Super Glue
a professional sniper
humming Manilow in a roomful of Boomers
spoiling Santa Claus for a child
the scene in Goodfellas where Pesci gets “made”
stiffing the paperboy
the sensation of knowing you’ll lose your home to foreclosure
spoofing your nemesis’ IM account to cause trouble
a lopsided victory at a children’s game
an IV drip
posting YouTube of scholarGirl binge drinking
tasering your parakeet
knowingly creating false hope
a Kathryn Hepburn stare
taking center stage at your ex’s wedding
changing your blocking opening night
honking as you pass a cyclist
assigning the manual calculation of the square roots from 1-50 (to 25 decimal places) on a Friday
the best dish of revenge ever
Hillary and Bill against
the person you become when you let greed in
the relationship between an absentee dad and his adult children
the potential of an unfired revolver
Simon on Idol
an economist predicting a mild recession
a drug company with an exclusive patent
the candlelight anniversary dinner served to the late arriving, too-much-to-drink husband
the Junior League luncheon to Gloria Steinem
metaphor devoid of meaning

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Hubble Bubbles and You

I’ve been immersing myself recently in the weirdness that is Information Theory. Briefly, IT originated in the mid-20th century as part of an effort at Bell Labs to describe the rate at which information can be pushed through a given medium. Since then, it’s gotten entangled with such diverse concepts as thermodynamics, genetics and quantum mechanics. Underlying Information Theory is the concept that objects are the sum of their information—their measurable properties.

A particularly fascinating idea is the concept of Hubble Bubbles(1). Take a sphere of matter and energy—for argument’s sake, let’s say one the size of a dust mote. Based on research at the intersection of Information Theory and quantum mechanics, it’s generally accepted that the matter and energy comprising this dust mote-sized Hubble Bubble can be organized in a finite number of ways. Like the Rubik’s Cube I was never able to solve, there are lots (and I mean LOTS) of different ways things can be arranged, but there is an upper limit.

When you explain this to most people, they might scratch their heads a bit but they eventually accept this as reasonable. What gets strange is when you extend the logic. If there is a limit to the number of states (“wave functions” in technical jargon) possible for your tiny Hubble Bubble, then there is also a limit to the number of wave functions possible for a sphere of matter and energy the size of a tennis ball. Yes, the number is larger; but, it remains finite.

So, what happens when we expand our Hubble Bubble to planet size? Galaxy size? Known universe size??? If we accept that the rule holds for a dust mote, then (by extension) it must also hold for our universe. Scientists generally accept that there are a finite number of ways the matter and energy in our universe can be organized.

Mull that over. Conceptually, it may not seem like a big deal, but it leads to some really outlandish conceptual models once you take the training wheels off. I’ll come back to this in a future post.

(1) A term applied to a number of different scenarios in astrophysics. The usage described here originated with Charles Seife in his book Decoding the Universe.

The 8:35 Local

The 8:35 local is an interesting ride home. It leaves the Loop too late for all the day workers and touristas, and too early for all the party- and theatre-goers. I sit here--top deck, end twofer seat--wondering about the stories of the lives surrounding me. At the same time, the mind loves to categorize. Halfway back on my side is "middle-aged divorced woman", looking generally unhappy as she absorbs her Subway sandwich. Below me, on the opposite side (with tie loose) is "overcaffienated CBOT floor trader". He's not wearing the ID or telltale fisherman's vest: he just has that energy to him.

So, why are we here? My story: a business dinner with my "team". Average meal, inconsequential discussion, decent wine…all in all, the kind of evening that helps to inoculate me from the depths of my self-deceit. It used to be easier, convincing myself that my work was important, was meaningful. Now, it takes at least a bottle of wine--and it better have a nice nose to it.

So, why am I here? Lots of reasons, none of them very convincing as I sit, facing backwards: seeing what we've past, but not where we're going. I wonder if this is how Britany feels about now--the cover of the tabloid consuming the woman on the top deck opposite me seems to indicate that she might. I wonder if these people all have good reasons for being on the 8:35, or if they even long for a good reason.

I wonder how soon I'll be home.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008


You could spend a lot of time describing the quality of light on my walk to the train this morning. Someone more verbose than me at 7:00 am might employ descriptive words like: steely, sullen, ashen, bleak, etc. If you were naming a paint color (a great job if ever there was one), you might be temporarily overcome with the urge to christen it "January 15 Chicago Grey". Apropos as the moniker might be, it's certainly not all that marketable. You'd quickly realize your error, slap "Colt 45 Brushed Nickel" on the side of the can, and move on.

For those of us who have been here awhile, it's just "grey". When you use the term in midwinter Chicago, people know you're not talking about hair or cars or dishwater. It's the light. You can't even say "sky" really; it's more of a 360 degree experience. Especially now that the holiday lights have been boxed up for another year, it's grey as far as the eye can see. It's like leaving your house and walking into an episode of "Leave it to Beaver"--one that's outside, in the winter (I was going to add "...and not funny", but the show didn't make me laugh).

If you're not careful, the grey begins to seep into your brain: which, of course, is also grey. This whole "grey on grey" invasion can have a noticeable impact on your personality. If your brain is a lighter grey than the environment, then you'll find yourself turning more gloomy and depressing. On the other hand, if the outdoors is a lighter grey than your brain, then you might sense a little extra spring in your step (this is not all that common).

People not from around here think it's the cold of winter that we struggle against. In truth, it's the grey.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

More warrantless searches

NYT Article

Ok, so I'm a couple of days behind going through my news feeds, but this one really got the neurons firing at 7:00am. We, as a nation, are becoming ever more inventive at finding ways of limiting our freedom. If you don't have time to link thru to the article, it discusses pending appelate review of warrantless searches of personal computers carried into the US. The primary defendant isn't all that appealing a character, but the case should be a cause for concern for anyone looking at this post.

I've got three computers in my home, plus a work computer. What distinguishes them from a border-crossing laptop? Form factor? No, they're all laptops. Purpose? Not really...they all have some combination of business and personal information on them (note to my employers: yes, the work computer contains only limited personal info). Residence of owner? No, the owner of the computer in question is a US citizen. Location? Bingo! The defendants computer was coming into the US with him, while mine sit inside my house.

Unfortunately, the physical location of data means less and less in our current legal environment. You don't have to be a legal scholar to draw a fairly straight line from warrantless border searches of laptops to warrantless electronic intrusions into the hard drive of the computer on which you're reading this post. As the Electronic Frontier Foundation puts it in their FOTC brief, it's "...simply electronic surveillance after the fact."

Monday, January 07, 2008

New Year, New City

So, for those of you visiting for the first time, welcome. Posts prior to this one represent the history of stageNEXT, the initiative I founded and led in Charlotte, NC, with the hope of bringing regional-level theatre back to Charlotte. While there was a lot of moral support for the effort, our group was not able to turn that backing into dollars. Catch me sometime after a few drinks, and I'll fill in the blanks between the posts. It's an interesting story, and was a great learning experience (although I wish they didn't always have to be so painful!).

But that was then, this is now. It's 2008, and my family and I have relocated to Chicago. I've gotten over my savior complex, and am simply looking for opportunities to leverage my artistic abilities in support of the theatre. Henceforward (I love the word "henceforward"), this blog will serve as my journal of these collaborations as well as collecting random thoughts and life/theatre experiences that I choose to foist (another good word) upon you, my readers.

So, welcome.