Sunday, January 20, 2013

Lance Armstrong and ephemerality of sports

Enhancing humans to find a TOE

Cyclist Lance Armstrong confessed to Oprah Winfrey. He gave short answers such as "Yes" to questions whether he's been using illegal compounds during every single triumph of his. It's hard to imagine why he would be saying "Yes" in the case that the true answer is "No". That's why the newer answers probably supersede his proclamations over many years.

He's been lying to us for years. Bad Lance. To lie is obviously wrong.



Of course, I never knew whether he would be doping. The hypothesis that his victories were due to unusual gifts from Mother Nature and hard work, aside from several comparable legal things, was always compatible with the basic laws of physics. Someone has to win even if no one is doping. And the individual races aren't independent from each other which makes it more likely that the same winner will be seen many times.

On the contrary, when the concentration of illegal substances in a community is nonzero – and they're probably rather common in cycling (and other sports: to some extent, Armstrong is just a scapegoat) – the person who wins is more likely to be one of those who took them than an average contestant simply because the substances are potential explanations of the success or its part.

East Germany used to be a superpower in sports – many of them. For such a small nation, it was incredible. Years later, we would learn that much of their excess above average was due to doping as well – it was pretty much omnipresent. But how much worse doping really is relatively to legitimate sources as a source of success?




Well, if you allow me to ask this blasphemous question and give an answer, I will be unable to hide that I don't really care about sports. It's surely cool to be fair in sports. And it's impressive to be really good. But it's not too impressive. When it comes to strength, speed, endurance, and stamina, aside from similar words that are helpful for sport professionals, it boils down mostly to some physical prerequisites of the athletes. Nature probably had to be generous to their body if they became so good although very hard work is usually needed to get the extra small advantage over others who are physically gifted by Mother Nature.

Now, as a physicist, I don't really separate Nature from "the rest". Chemical compounds we can produce are parts of Nature, too. They interact with everything else. They obey the laws of Nature. They are Nature. When a company produces vitamin C, it's the same L-ascorbic acid that you may see in wild Nature. (Well, you should be careful about molecules and their images, about chirality, because much of biochemistry is highly sensitive to it.)

It's not just some abstract knowledge about the unity of Nature. My emotions and moral judgment are affected by this knowledge, too. If humans are able to chemically improve themselves, well, then it is just another way how Nature may operate. It may be impressive if someone is very strong for purely natural reasons. But once again, if someone is strong for other reasons, it may be the same strength, physically speaking. From a truly meritocratic vantage point, I find it bizarre to be impressed by the former only. It's hard for wild Nature to produce or evolve physically extraordinary individuals but it's Her problem. Nature in the broader sense may achieve it by producing humans who are clever enough to understand some biochemistry, too. ;-)

Of course, athletes who are doping are also running the risk that they damage their health – usually other things than those they may improve by the illegal substances. But this is only the case when the imitation of wild Nature is imperfect. In some cases, people imitate Nature perfectly. They may produce lots of compounds that are in principle indistinguishable from the natural ones.

Imagine that we would find some (safe) compounds – or some similar technology to enhance the humans – that can make people much more productive or ingenious physicists, much more Einstein-like or Fermi-like. Would we ban them? After all, science is a sports-like competition as well so it should be fair, shouldn't it?

My answer is that I care about the outcomes of the process – scientific insights – much more than I care about some literal kosher rules how they should be obtained. So if some tremendous progress in theoretical physics were possible by applying the miraculous technology to someone who would agree to be enhanced, I would want him or her to be enhanced! ;-) The results – pretty scientific theories that fit together and agree with observations – are the truly amazing entities in this whole game.

In comparison, sports are stupid childish pissing contests in which people compare their abilities and physical attributes – most of which they cannot change. It's fun as a recreational activity or a way to earn money (often lots of money), it's useful as an exercise to keep oneself in good shape, and it's a great source of activity for the fans (I am a sort of sports fan as well these days) but I admit that I consider the intrinsic value of these things to be low. The low value primarily stems from the fact that, as I wrote above, I primarily care about "results" or "products" themselves rather than "who did it" and in sports the "results" or "products" are qualitatively still the same.

As Richard Feynman would say, we don't live in a scientific era. People are obsessed with athletes or even models but they don't give a damn about scientists in particular. If you think about it impartially, you must agree how insanely this situation is. Lance Armstrong has earned something like $100 million for being a fraction of a percent faster than the next guys behind him. And this fraction of a percent was artificially engineered, too. It may always be engineered. But even if it were not, why do we ascribe value $100 million to someone's having speed while riding a bike – an irrelevant quantity by itself – that is a fraction of percent larger than that of other folks? It's just stupid, isn't it?

38 comments:

  1. Sorry, Lumo, but "To lie is obviously wrong.", is not true. ;)

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  2. Yes it is stupid, Lubos. (BTW, I very often agree with you when I grasp the sentiment and/or factual content of your gripe.)

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  3. These days a fraction of a second is a big difference. The world has gone quantum.

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  4. Yes, you are right - I was sloppy and sloshed (at least I can blame the wine right now).

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  5. I did my best to correct my conclusion! ;>
    As you might know, sometimes a lie can save someone's life.

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  6. Well, it can save your own life and kill thousands others after you ;-) Your choice. ;-)

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  7. Are you familiar with the famous hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos ?

    He was an amphetamine addict for more than 20 years and he had approximately 1500 publications. :)

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  8. Lubos, it is all about free markets, of which we are fond of (even I, though I do want it with checks and balances).


    The 100.000.000 is the worth assigned by the average sports follower, collectively, on the free market.



    The Romans called it "bread and sights" for the people.


    Science has a small part of the market, since it does not shine enough for the hoi polloi.

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  9. for the hoi polloi


    Tsk, tsk, anna. That's like writing "for the the plebes". Coming from any moron without a classical education, it would not surprise me. But you, a Greek? What is the world coming to...

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  10. The first time I heard about "hoi polloi" was through Sheldon Cooper :-)
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fq3gyRaxF8Y

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  11. Dear Shannon, in quantum mechanics, we usually deal with short distance scales and short time scales.


    But otherwise the impact of quantum mechanics - if it weren't negligible - on this question is exactly the opposite than you suggest. Quantum mechanics (uncertainty principle etc.) implies that quantities have inevitable uncertainty, an error margin one shouldn't try to get rid of because it's not possible, so quantum mechanics makes it - in principle - even less meaningful to study time (duration) too accurately. So quantum mechanics actually strengthens my point rather than weakening it.

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  12. If Armstrong had drugged and lied then that would be bad enough. In my mind Armstrong's major sins were that he humiliated and harrassed and bullied and sued anyone who spoke out against him. Honest cyclists had their careers destroyed. And I believe that he used his cancer charity as a shield to deflect criticism since I find it hard to believe that he cared about anyone but himself.


    Also, before he became serious about using EPO, he was an ambitious but quite ordinary TdF cyclist who abandoned at least twice and never finished higher than the top 60. He then gets cancer and comes back and wins. Yeah right. What he got was almost exclusive access to Michele Ferrari's bag of drugs at a TdF which after the 1998 Festina affair was trying to ride clean if you believe the retrospective analyses of the 1999 blood samples.


    Also, any study of power output showed that the rapid increase in speed of the race over 1997-2007 was too good to be explained by new training methods.


    By the way, I once saw him riding his bike near my house with Sheryl Crowe - he was with Sheryl Crowe, not me ;-)

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  13. it means "the many". It is different than "the plebes", as it has no class connotations. It is like saying "the average persons".

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  14. Right, "the many" --> "the masses" --> "the plebes", which latter is how we understand "hoi polloi" in current English usage. But that's beside the point, which was that "the hoi" is an example of what used to drive William Safire ("Never, ever use repetitive redundancies") up the wall. See here for a light-hearted read.

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  15. I'm using "quantum" too offhand these days. Apologies ;-) and thanks for reacting.

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  16. I am not a sports fan myself either, I think that sport, when compared to science, has meaningless outcomes. And I wouldn't think of a mental-enhancing-drug as a bad thing. At least not immediately.

    However, Armstrong's mistakes and attitudes in my opinion, has nothing to do with the sport of cycling itself. In my opinion it has more to do with the image he inspired on many of us. I never watched a bicycle race on tv, nor was aware of the upcoming races or anything like that, but I did know Armstrong had testicular cancer, and had a surgery where one of his testicles got removed...pretty harsh experience for any man. The image he projected was that of success after cancer, sort of a greek epic battle against one of today's greatest fears: cancer. An image of bravery, an inspiration to all cancer patients who see their illness as a finishing point in their lives. Even if it all was augmented by propaganda and marketing, the image was undoubtedly that one.

    The fact that he use any dope to win doesn't bother me, it is irrelevant. Perhaps Olympic games should allow them. Perhaps we are accelerating the slow process of optimization called evolution, perhaps it is a failed mutation (since it might result in premature death), perhaps not...who knows. All I'm saying is that that is not the important part here, and we should judge it on this basis.

    Armstrong's doping "scandal" bothers me for different reasons. Reasons involving principles. I feel a little bit disappointed to know that all this bravery, all this self growth, this come back from "death" was all fake.

    Dissapointed to know that he did not go through the pain, the anguish and the suffering of climbing whaterver mountain he had to climb, in whaterver time he did it. Dissapointed to know that this lesson about keep going when you can't go anymore, the lesson about running the extra mile, the lesson of thinking on your dreams when you are about to give up so you can find strength to keep on going, were all being preached by someone who actually didn't go through them, since the doping made it an easier ride that it would have been otherwise. The lessons were being taught by someone who didn't know about them, who didn't have a moral authority to talk about this things.---

    ----That is the part that troubles me, nothing to do with some guy being smart enough to learn some biochemistry and increase the concentration of certain chemicals in his blood so he can be faster or stronger.

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  17. Ha ha! Interesting analysis.

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  18. Today I take a psilocybe. Not a great scientific discovery, but I just saw that the dirt accumulated on the numeric keyboard is as Benford's Law, and on the letters as an zip algorithm:)

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  19. How much did you eat of this stuff? ;-)

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  20. LOL, Shannon.

    Eugene, our presidential debate is full of the "plebes" because it's a contest between an aristocrat and a pleb. Well, the pleb made it even funnier. His name is Zeman and zeman was really a low countryside aristocratic rank.

    So in the last night TV debate that Zeman overwhelmingly won, he talked about aristocracy's being degenerated. A funny story that leaves one a bit breathless but I am confident that Zeman knows exactly how much he could afford without interrupting the TV broadcast.

    When asked to compare the backgrounds, he said that as kids, nobility live with silver spoons in the mouth and they face no obstacles at all. That becomes a disadvantage later because they don't know how to surpass obstacles. In the history, princes such as Schwarzenberg had the right of the first night, Droit du seigneur, so they didn't have to work hard to rape their serfs. Zemans, on the other hand, had to work hard to earn their right to rape these babes which is why they're not degenerated today! ;-)



    A brutal historical witticism of Zeman's sort. Schwarzenberg replied wittily, too. He said he liked the story because he would hear it in 1947-1948 that aristocracy is all degenerated and hearing it again therefore made him younger by 65 years. ;-)

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  21. Lately quite little. This morning I remembered I had some in the fridge for years.

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  22. Now that you like ephemeris: Last week was the anniversary of the birth of Albert Hofmann http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Albert_Hofmann

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  23. In not so distant future (couple decades) we may see technologies (like nanomedicine) that safely enhance your performance by several orders of magnitude. It'd be ridiculous to see regular population or kids enhanced with respirocytes outperform pro athletes.

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  24. Lubosi (as I pointed previously), while you claim that " [Armstrong performance] was always compatible with the basic laws of physics." it however was not compatible with the basic laws of biology and human physiology.

    My problem with the whole affair is, that people ask for a great show and superhuman performances, and can realistically expect wide spread doping, but chose to ignore it. Than when they cannot deny the fact any more, they turn against the sportsman who was delivering what they asked for.



    Bottom line, if you see anybody putting out 450 W of energy for hours at a time, you can be pretty sure that he is artificially enhanced.

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  25. Well, I wouldn't go as far as to say "pretty sure" but in general, I agree with the spirit of your comment, Honzo.

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  26. Lance Armstrong was a sociopath, too, in my opinion. Not only the lying, but the vicious way he attacked those who in any way threatened to undermine his status.

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  27. The big question is Usain Bolt. How did he win the 2008 Olympics 100 m final with his shoes untied and coasting for the last 10 meters and still crush the opposition? Is he juicing? But he doesn't appear especially muscled compared to his rivals. In fact, he does not look like a sprinter at all, he's got the body type of a quarter-miler. Apparently he benefits from having the angles and levers of a tall man while able to move his legs as quickly as a short guy. How is that possible?

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  28. Precious Lubos,
    I am almost starting to suspect that your houba-picking/eating habit has caused you to harbor a sneaky hope of "cracking the big one", and making it "big time" (prize-winning wise), by doping your already unique and primed for snaring a breakthrough (by tying together some loose ends) brain, by munching some much more potent mushroom varieties.
    Just be careful to not be caught by customs officers if you plan a stocking-up trip to South America! ;)

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  29. LOL, Peter, I am surely a below-average mushroom eater. (I could tell you about top physicists for whom drugs were arguably important to make certain discoveries, some of these stories are legendary.) And now I am slightly afraid of them because they belong to the kingdom of Fungi.


    They were discouraged with Candida and after some time, I thought it had to be a superstition because a mushroom species can't have sex and reproduce with a different fungi species such as yeast - at least I can't imagine how such f*cking would proceed.


    However, more recently, I found it plausible that the mushrooms in diet may still support the growth of yeast because the yeast may perhaps recycle some material from the mushroom such as ergosterol that is used to build the cell membranes (similar role as played by chloresterol in animals like us).

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  30. May I offer you, Shannon, a lesson in (or an opportunity to embrace or adopt) my through plenty of error plagued trials now consistently by me resorted to QM-aligned (thus far from ineptly compromising and fundamentally acceptable) Tolerance Principled attitude? ;->

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  31. Adopted, Peter ;-)

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  32. In a broader sense the whole sense of any sport or other contests could be viewed as not fair, since mother nature resuses to give everybody the same configuration and natural ability to win etc ...


    If there existed a "natural in a broader sense" possibility I could use to become smart enough to contribute something to nice theoretical physics (instead of just enjoying it by watching and following it as best as I can) I would immediately do it ... :-P

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  33. Yippee!
    I've snared my first customer! (A non-paying one - but one has to start from somewhere.) ;>

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  34. This is the longest extended participial modifier I've ever seen outside of German academese. Do Swedes really talk like this?

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  35. Haha! Only some Swedes seek refuge in swirly sem_antics. It could be seen as my possibly overdeveloped verbal version of brake-dancing. It is much less wearing on the knee-joints while no less of a balm for a potentially bothered (or bored) brain. ;-)

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  36. Hi Lubosi. Here is couple of links to articles that make me thinking you can be pretty sure. Check it out, its almost physics. ;-)

    http://www.sportsscientists.com/2010/11/limit-of-human-performance-how-much.html

    http://www.sportsscientists.com/2010/07/cycling-performance-what-is-possible.html

    http://www.sportsscientists.com/2012/10/sponsors-overboard-guest-post-on.html

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  37. So to solve the problem I propose the following: All sport will be divided into two leagues - A control league in which no "drugs" are allowed; and an anything goes league in which participants are free to control the intake into their own bodies with no intrusive testing for recreational or enhancing substances. Going a step further would involve other measures to make the control league bouts ever more "fair" with dietary restrictions or even forced uniformity (meals, barracks housing etc) culminating in genetic matching lest a contestant gain a lopsided advantage.

    The winners of the two leagues could have a Super Bowl in the respective sport - anything goes vs control.

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