Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Dangerous ideas

Last year, the annual question of edge.org was
This year, John Brockman et al. ask what is your
Let me choose some of the famous personalities whom I find interesting.

Steve Pinker knows what to say

Steve Pinker's dangerous idea - one that will spread in the next decade - is that different groups of people genetically differ in their talents and temperaments. He disputes the claims that the races do not exist, and so forth, and thinks about the potential impact of these insights. He argues that the differences between the two sexes are rather well-established and the differences between the races less so. Of course, I would probably subscribe to almost every single word he wrote.

Also, we may worry about various violent political implications of these insights. These threats do not worry me too much because I have spent one half of my life so far in a system whose generalized form has killed more people, using the ideas of equality, than the Nazis killed using their racist hypotheses. I just don't think that science directly determines politics or even kills the people. I don't think that the truth may be "evil". And I certainly don't think that the moderates and right-wingers are more evil than the left-wing radicals. ;-) It's always the people themselves who kill (or discriminate against) others - and science itself can very rarely justify an extremist political viewpoint.

Needless to say, some people find Pinker's simple comments truly dangerous - and our pinko feminist friends over at Cosmic Variance get really furious about them. ;-) Sean Carroll argues that Steve Pinker is either an idiot who does not understand the difference between suggesting a hypothesis and using the hypothesis to explain the data (Sean has probably lost his mind completely: explaining the data is the very purpose of all hypotheses), or that Pinker is "lying intentionally to score some points of his own". Well, Sean Carroll may be used as an example that the people can behave like wild animals in the name of "equality" much like they can behave so in the name of "differences".

Sean also asks how loudly does he have to shout for his misconceptions to be generally accepted. The answer is that no volume is sufficient to achieve this goal in the U.S.; 90 decibels is however enough to be identified as mentally ill and 180 decibels is enough to be used as a motor for Boeing aircrafts. In the feminist update of the North Korean regime, 5 decibels is enough to codify your ideas assuming that you are a prominent member of the leading party. :-)

Some of the other ideas I completely agree with: Irene Pepperberg argued that the difference between humans and non-humans is quantitative, not qualitative. And yes, I also liked the dangerous idea of a free market and Matt Ridley's comments that the government is not a solution to our problems but the problem itself.

Frank Tipler discusses physics beyond the Standard Model with a focus on CP violation. He speculates about the full conversion of matter to energy via "E=mc^2". That's a dangerous idea because he predicts a new kind of a bomb. ;-)

Jared Diamond promotes his books by introducing the dangerous idea that the primitive tribes are not nice - instead, they damage their environment, fight in wars, and sometimes eat each other. It's dangerous because it could convince many of us that we should not be nice to these tribes.

Steven Strogatz is afraid that no one understands mathematics anymore, even if we can figure out what's true and what's not.

Geoffrey Miller explains the Fermi paradox - why don't we see the extraterrestrial civilizations already if they exist? - by the other civilizations' becoming overly consumeristic, much like us. He also suggests that we may avoid this consumerist dead end if all of us start to believe Islam. ;-)

Paul Davies' dangerous idea is that the struggle against the global warming is lost. I agree that it may be a dangerous idea - because by assuring ouselves that the main goal of the ecoterrorist movement is lost, we may give them a chance to revive their dirty goals to regulate the whole world. ;-)

Gregory Benford at least tries to think about non-Kyoto, big scale technologies that can be used to avoid "global warming" if it exists. I personally think that if there were hypothetically any real and serious threat of "global warming", we could fight it by emitting a lot of aerosoles of some safe type or making one of hundreds of possible things. In my opinoin, all these speculations belong to science-fiction.

Oliver Morton has a more radical approach to the environment. He argues that it is a good idea for the Earth to occassionally wipe out the species because it improves the available biotechnologies encoded in the genes.

Martin Rees worries that science is getting out of control, especially because it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. In other words, science is getting out of control exactly because of Martin Rees' answer.

Back to physics of the landscape

In physics, the most dangerous idea is quite clearly the anthropic principle. This is why many people chose it.

Leonard Susskind, one of the most original physicists alive, presents his new dangerous scientific idea about the anthropic principle, proudly claiming that it spreads like cancer. Well, except that the anthropic principle is not quite his invention, and it is not a scientific idea either. And is it spreading like cancer? I no longer think so. For example, Lenny constructed his book to be a paradigm-shifting answer to Brian Greene's bestselling "The Elegant Universe", apparently expecting the same number of copies to be sold. :-) Except that Brian's book has made it to the #1 book at amazon.com while Lenny's book is around #5000, with four mostly unhelpful reviews of readers who don't seem to be too interested in real physics. Lenny also mentions:
  • Another danger that some of my colleagues perceive, is that if we "senior physicists" allow ourselves to be seduced by the Anthropic Principle, young physicists will give up looking for the "true" reason for things, the beautiful mathematical principle. My guess is that if the young generation of scientists is really that spineless, then science is doomed anyway. But as we know, the ambition of all young scientists is to make fools of their elders.
I think that Lenny is very correct in this particular point. If the young generation were that spineless - and there are signs that it might be - physics would be doomed for sure, indeed. But even if the young generation is not spineless, it would not yet guarantee that physics is not doomed. There are other things that may cause problems.

Fortunately, a spineless character can often work against the anthropic principle, too - and the fact that 80% of the participants of Strings 2005 voted against the anthropic principle has quite measurably affected various colleages of ours. ;-)

It really seems that our generation is rather spineless and afraid to inform Lenny, in a friendly and constructive fashion, that his unscientific, vacuous, inelegant, and defeatist new field of "quantum tautology" indicates that he may be getting a bit senile. ;-)

Lenny may think that the previous paragraph is just a result of the natural ambitions of young scientists to make fools of their elders - but it may also be a good idea for him to think about the possibility that the comment is actually true. :-)

It has been said that young scientists like to make fools of their elders and Lenny wants to be forever young, so he makes fool of himself. ;-) You know that I am saying all these things because I admire Lenny tremendously, don't you? And I believe that the landscape is not his last influential discovery, and he will still help physics to make another important step.

Brian Greene puts it even more politely and in his characteristically elegant fashion. Nevertheless, he points out that the anthropic lack of principles is dangerous because it may stop the people (of all ages) from searching for the truth.

In other words, it may bring all people on the frequency of Lawrence Krauss who also speculates that the fundamental laws of physics might be non-existent. I, for one, have no idea what these comments - that go even beyond the landscape - mean. The world around us obviously follows very exact laws very accurately - and we have determined a large portion of them. It was not obvious a priori that we could have done so and that the Universe works according to such laws, but it is obvious now. The question is whether we can determine them with an arbitrary accuracy and completeness - and the only reason why we won't if we won't is that we won't be sufficiently smart and determined.

Also Paul Steinhardt discusses the anthropic principle in the context of eternal inflation or something like that.

Philip Anderson proposes that dark energy does not exist. That's not a dangerous idea; that's an attractive idea that has however big problems to be reconciled with the recent observations - observations that Anderson apparently does not know. He also tries to compute the probability of God in a way that I am probably not intelligent enough to understand.

Lee Smolin has another strange contribution in which he essentially says that Darwin's and Einstein's discoveries are analogous because both of them are background independent and relational. Darwin was essentially a loop quantum gravity guy. ;-) General relativity has transformed spacetime into an active player that is as affected by matter as matter is affected by spacetime's curvature. However, special relativity - and to some extent also General Relativity - has identified many things that are more absolute than ever before, and the idea that everything is relative in relativity is laymen's misconception. I seem to feel that if the analogy between Einstein and Darwin has any truth in it, it is so vague that we won't learn anything from it.

Carlo Rovelli explains that he does not study string theory and extra dimensions because he has not yet "digested" quantum mechanics and relativity - an explanation of his attitudes that sounds realistic to me, after having read many un-digestable comments of Prof. Rovelli about the nature of quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. The 20th century was soooo faaaaaast. Only 100 years for all these Hilbeeeeerrrt spaaaaceeees. Again, I hope that the kids in 143b will do better on their final exam from Quantum Mechanics II.

Links elsewhere:

As mentioned previously, our feminist friend Sean Carroll has only discussed Steve Pinker. On the other hand, Peter Woit has only discussed the anthropic principle. Other blogs that discuss dangerous ideas may be found via Technorati.


  1. So, uh, where is yours?

    Come on... out with it... what is your dangerous idea?

  2. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

  3. Regarding to P. Anderson's opinion regarding dark energy/dark matter. There is nothing to be reconciled with observational facts. The point is whatever the dark matter/dark energy is, clearly they have NOT been directly observed by any way, mean or form. So anything you speculate about them are perfectly fine as long as they do not contradict the fact that they have not been detected so far.

    Not detected does not mean not exist. It simply mean the instruments can't pick up any signal. I believe the dark energy/dark matter is nothing more than simply molecular hydrogen, uniforming distributed through out the universe. You can do some calculation how diluted their density would be.

    The universe is such a vast volume that the hydrogen molecules would be so thinly distributed, that when star lights from edge of the universe travel tens of billions of light years to arrive at the earth. The amount of hydrogen it has encountered during all the way is no more than the equivalent of a thin layer of hydrogen gas no more than 13 meters thick if compressed to one atmospheric pressure.

    Remember the earth bound telescopes routinely detects photons from billions of years away, with virtually no background noise contributable to the earth atmosphere, although all the photo signals would have to travel through hundreds of kilometers of earth atmosphere. So, of course, a thin layer of hydrogen gas of just 13 meters thick, and cooled to 2.725K, is certainly completely transparent and totally undetectable.


  4. I think that it's a very dangerous and stupid idea to believe that the implied specialness of the anthropic principle isn't true for good reason in one finite universe.

    And I think that this "free-thinker" mentality is as dangerous to science as religious fanaticism can be.

    I think it's dangerous to call modern physics, science.

  5. Dear Matt B.,

    I am not working on dangerous ideas. The most important ideas for me are those that try to find the the truth - which I believe is never dangerous by itself, and moreover it is always a matter of time before we do so.

    You must ask others what are my dangerous ideas - you will definitely get hundreds of answers. ;-)

    All the best

  6. Lubos (string theorist) said "I'm not working on dangerous ideas."

    Also, the First Officer of the Titanic said: "I'm not working on a dangerous ship!"