Wednesday, March 28, 2007

"Not Even Wrong" And How My Mathematical Mediocrity Accidentally Saved Me A Lot Of Grief

Not Even Wrong* by Peter Woit is a book about how string theory monopolizes the attention and resources of theoretical particle physics for the past 20 years while producing no testable prediction to decide whether the idea is correct or not. I have just finished reading the book this week, and found it to be a very interesting book. Aspiring physic students should definitely read it before they choose their research fields**.

To understand the overview of the history of particle physics in the first half of the book, the reader should be a layman interested in physics or has at least an undergraduate science training. However, any rational, scientifically-minded person can follow the conclusion of the book. The most striking passage of the book that I found is:

"Now matter how things turn out, the story of superstring theory is an episode with no real parallel in the history of modern physical science. More than twenty years of intensive research by thousands of the best scientists in the world producing tens of thousands of scientific papers has not led to a single testable experimental prediction of the theory. This unprecedented situation leads one to ask whether one can really described superstring theory research as scientific research in the field of physics. This question tends to take on two different forms. One form of the question that many physicists ask is whether superstring theory should not perhaps be described as mathematics rather than physics. A second form of the question asks whether the theory is a science at all."

In 1990, I was a junior physics undergrad at Caltech and was contemplating whether I should go into theoretical particle physics or not. At the time, string theory seemed to be the only game in town for particle theorists who want to have any chance of a tenure professorship. After a lot of investigation, I just could not see the internal beauty of the theory as claimed by many, many smarter people advocating the theory. To me, with my mediocre mathematical skills, it just seemed very complex and difficult, with no accessible physical interpretation. I decided to go into biomedical physics and software instead and followed the theoretical ideas from the sideline.

That decision turned out to be good for me in the long run. I had enough time to explore a wider range of human knowledge such as computer science, evolution, history, signal processing, statistical inference, handgunning, and Buddha's discovery. I didn't have a chance to discover the ultimate building blocks of the universe, but given that thousands of smarter people working for two decades and failing to have any testable prediction, I doubt that I would have done any better.

Well, the morals of the story are:

  1. Even if you don't have great skills, you can be quite happy doing what you find personally interesting;
  2. A scientific theory must make predictions that can be tested by experiments or observations. If it cannot do so, we cannot know whether it's correct or not;
  3. There are infinitely many internally consistent mathematical objects. To know which one corresponds to our physical reality, we should humbly ask Nature through suitable experiments;
  4. Monoculture, for living things and for ideas, is harmful. For monocultured living things, a single strand of virus can wipe out the entire population. For monocultured ideas, a fashionable but misguided idea can do a lot of damages, even to geniuses among us.
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*The famous physicist Wolfgang Pauli (of Pauli Exclusion Principle) usually proclaimed "wrong" (falsch) or "utterly wrong" (ganz falsch) when he disagreed with a scientific idea. He reserved "That is not even wrong" (Das ist nicht einmal falsch) for vague ideas that could not be confirmed or refuted, and therefore did not belong in science.

**My first blog post was about options that a highschool/college student might want to know about.

Monday, March 26, 2007


เมื่อวันเสาร์ที่ 24 มีนาคม บริการใส่ใจ ได้รางวัลชมเชยสาขาซอฟท์แวร์เพื่อสังคม ในการแข่งขันเพื่อ รางวัล เจ้าฟ้าไอที รัตนราชสุดา สารสนเทศ

ผมเศร้าที่ไม่ได้ที่หนึ่ง :-) แต่จริงๆแล้วข่าวนี้น่าตื่นเต้นสำหรับพวกเราชาวเอเทรียมอย่างมากด้วยเหตุผลดังนี้:
  1. เราได้รางวัล แม้ว่าควรจะมีผู้ชนะรางวัล Grand Prize เพียงรางวัลเดียว ปรากฏว่าคณะกรรมการได้มีการเพิ่มรางวัลอีกสองรางวัล และเราก็ได้หนึ่งรางวัลจากสองรางวัลนั้น
  2. คณะกรรมการให้คำจำกัดความรางวัลเราไว้ว่า "รางวัลชมเชยสาขาซอฟท์แวร์เพื่อสังคม" พวกเราดีใจมากว่ามีคนเห็นความพยายามที่จะทำประโยชน์ให้ส่วนรวม
  3. คณะกรรมการให้กำลังใจเป็นเงินสนับสนุนถึง 100,000 บาท

ถ้าท่านมีลูกหลานอายุสัก 7-8 ขวบขึ้นใปที่เริ่มใช้คอมพิวเตอร์ และต้องการจะปลูกฝังภูมิคุ้มกันทางอารมณ์ และทางสังคม ด้วยการเข้าใจและสอนให้ถูกทาง* ผมแนะนำให้ลองใช้บริการใส่ใจดูครับ จะได้ไม่เหมือนปิดตาเลี้ยงลูก มีสมาชิกหลายรายเขียนจดหมายมาบอกผมว่าคิดไม่ถึงว่าเด็กจะรู้เรื่องและสนใจเรื่องแปลกๆหลายๆเรื่อง ถ้าไม่ได้ใช้ใส่ใจ ก็จะไม่มีทางรู้เลย

เข้าใจลูกเสียก่อน จะได้สอนเขาให้ถูกทาง

ถ้าเราช่วยกันสอนลูกดีๆ สังคมไทยอาจจะพัฒนาได้อย่างเข้าท่าได้ในอนาคตอันใกล้**

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*ผมประมาณการว่าปัญหา 80%ของประเทศไทยมาจาก "สังคมแย่เพราะเด็กพ่อแม่ไม่สั่งสอน" เลยหาทาง optimize การสอนเด็กเพื่อลูกหลานเหลนโหลนของพวกเราจะได้อยู่ในสังคมที่ดีขึ้น


Wednesday, March 21, 2007

A Reason To Live "Forever"*

I found an interesting article about what important ideas scientists want to tell us. Sir Martin Rees said this:

"I'd like to widen people's awareness of the tremendous timespan lying ahead — for our planet, and for life itself. Most educated people are aware that we're the outcome of nearly 4bn years of Darwinian selection, but many tend to think that humans are somehow the culmination. Our sun, however, is less than halfway through its lifespan. It will not be humans who watch the sun's demise, 6bn years from now. Any creatures that exist then will be as different from us as we are from bacteria or amoebae.

Our concern with Earth's future is, understandably, focused upon the next 100 years at most — the lifetimes of our children and grandchildren. But awareness of this longer time horizon, and the immense potential that human actions this century could foreclose, offers an extra motive for proper stewardship of this planet."

I hope scientists will learn about our biology and information processing fast enough to significantly extend our lives. Although I want to believe otherwise, all evidences so far tell me that I only have one life to live, so I better live a good, long one before this consciousness ceases to exist at my death. There is so much to explore and learn, so much potential in directly evolving our body and mind, and so little time to do it. But hey, if we succeed, maybe we will become something like Q!

Another two quotes that I think more people should know about are:

"I wish everyone understood Darwinian natural selection, and its enormous explanatory power, as the only known explanation of "design". The world is divided into things that look designed, like birds and airliners; and things that do not look designed, like rocks and mountains. Things that look designed are divided into those that really are designed, like submarines and tin openers; and those that are not really designed, like sharks and hedgehogs. Darwinian natural selection, although it involves no true design at all, can produce an uncanny simulacrum of true design. An engineer would be hard put to decide whether a bird or a plane was the more aerodynamically elegant." -- Richard Dawkins

"Science is not a catalogue of facts, but a search for new mysteries. Science increases the store of wonder and mystery in the world; it does not erode it. The myth that science gets rid of mysteries, started by the Romantic poets, was well nailed by Albert Einstein —whose thought experiments about relativity are far more otherworldly, elusive, thrilling, and baffling than anything dreamt up by poets.

Isaac Newton showed us the mysteries of deep space, Charles Darwin showed us the mysteries of deep time, and Francis Crick and James D Watson showed us the mysteries of deep encoding. To get rid of those insights would be to reduce the world's stock of awe." --
Matt Ridley
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*"Forever" because it's not really forever as in infinite years, just a few centuries to a few billion years :-)