All for McNaught
The brightest comet in recent memory suddenly appeared in the sky a few days ago. Discovered on August 7th, 2006 by Robert McNaught in Australia, it has been hanging around the sun during mornings and evenings, becoming visible as light waned and waxed and then either dipping below the horizon or being drowned in the sun’s glare.
However, it surprised astronomers worldwide yesterday, by remaining visible in full daylight. Our chance to view the comet in the northern hemisphere is pretty much over now, but as the comet rounds the sun and slings itself back out into space, it will become visible in the southern hemisphere, much to the delight of its discoverer, I’m sure.
I should have made the effort to get up and see it some morning. The pictures look pretty astonishing. However, my energy simply hasn’t been there for that. I just finished the seventh day of my ten day stretch at work, and I’m already bound for overtime in the current week. As I write this, I’m yawning about every two minutes.
As I walked out to my car this morning, a couple of hours before dawn, I was greeted by a bright shooting star streaking across the western sky below Ursa Major, headed for Lynx. I forgot to make a wish, but in the clarity of the moment, I did remember to be thankful for that gift. I saw two more on the way to work.
A few nights ago, Lannette and I saw another one while we were driving, and I was quick to make a silent wish that time. It’s a good time to be wishing for things, because the Geminid meteor shower peaked last night, and there are likely to be a number of straggling meteors in the sky for the next week or so.
I’ll take all the wishing opportunities I can get right now. 2004 has been rife with changes for me, the most significant being the official end of a long term relationship and the welcome formation of a new family. It has been a stressful year at work, darkened by the loss of two longtime employees who were also friends, though it has not necessarily been an unproductive year.
The latest stressor is a good stressor; Lannette and I are buying a home. When the process is complete, it will be a good thing, but right now, it’s very stressful and there have been enough setbacks that I’ve become a bit paranoid about whether everything will work out okay before Christmas.
That’s where the wishes come in. For the rest of this week, every shooting star I see will be accompanied by a wish regarding some aspect of this home purchase. Any positive wishes that any of you can spare are welcome.
The Tomorrow Makers
By: Grant Fjermedal
Type: Non-fiction survey with touches of biography
Based on interviews with some of the most notable cognitive science researchers in the country and their students, Fjermedal’s book walks the line between non-fiction and biography. Without going into the messy details, he shows that many people in the world believe in the possibility (probability?) of building robots and computers “smart” enough to hold carbon copies of a human mind and continue its thinking processes after the download.
Fjermedal realizes something that not many other survey interviewers do: in an institutional setting, the big names aren’t necessarily the ones who do the most work. Fjermedal not only concentrates on the big fish in the AI pond, such as Marvin Minsky, Joseph Weizenbaum, John McCarthy, Allen Newell, Gerald Jay Sussman and Danny Hillis. He also focuses on the students. Many of them stay up for days at a time working on projects with the kind of dedication that most people don’t give to their careers. They deserve a round of applause, and Fjermedal gives it to them. The student viewpoint is also interestingly fresh because they are accomplished dreamers. They are not afraid to speak of what they think will happen twenty or thirty years down the road. Whereas some university professors will pad their opinions and say, “Well, that might happen someday,” the students respond with, “That will happen. And I’ll do it.” This approach may not be entirely realistic, but reality is not necessarily a good culture for new ideas.
This book, combined with Machinery of the Mind, by George Johnson, works well as a non-technical survey of the directions of artificial intelligence and the people driving there. Fjermedal goes a little more into the personalities and the distance possibilities than Johnson does, but the two books give a consistent view of the field. Specifically, Fjermedal tries to show why the researchers are trying to create intelligent computers and shows the energy with which they are working.
The Tao of Physics
By: Fritjof Capra
In a sweeping series of chapters that read more like essays, Capra gives descriptions of the main Eastern religions, their differences and similarities and the parallels between many of these faiths and the path of modern physics.
Though a little over the head of the common layman, The Tao of Physics is an excellent treatise on interconnection. Modern physics, more and more, is suggesting that the reality we perceive is illusory, and that the “real world” is something far beyond our current level of understanding. We have deduced numerous equations to predict how the world works, but none of them apply at all levels of existence; Classical physics breaks down when used to predict the actions of subatomic particles and subatomic physics can not measure with certainty the actions of anything larger than subatomic size. Light appears to be a wave at some times and a stream of particles at others. Electron spin information can be transferred instantaneously — seemingly faster than the speed of light — even when an isolated electron pair is separated by millions of miles (at least in a gedankenexperiment.) The world of modern physics is rife with wonderful contradictions, so what better to compare it with than the mystical wisdom of the orient?
Obviously, the Zen Buddhists come to mind, with their famous koans — hypothetical paradoxes which a student of Zen is to meditate upon to attain enlightenment. Capra focuses much of his comparitive study on this metaphysical faith, but also brings in aspects of Hinduism, Confucianism, Taoism and even jujistu and kendo. It is obvious he is well versed in both theoretical physics and eastern mysticism, and it is refreshing to see a scientist brave enough to step away from the fold and still bring scientific evidence to bear to support his position. This is no Eric von Daniken or Velikovsky talking; Capra knows his work, and is simply pointing out that western science and eastern mysticism may simply be two different paths from which to approach the same enlightened goal.
People who are not at least familiar with developments in modern physics may become bogged down in this book. They might be better off starting with Capra’s other popular book, The Turning Point, or reading Alice in Quantumland by Robert Gilmore to get a light brushup on the ideas covered. Similarly, those with no exposure to eastern mysticism may find that they do not grasp all of what Capra says. Good building blocks for these people can be found in The Spirit of Zen by Alan Watts and any number of good survey texts on eastern religions and thought systems. If you happen to be a master physicist and Zen master, you probably don’t need to read this book; you need to write one!
By: A.K. Dewdney
Type: Pseudo-nonfiction based on scientific extrapolation
Setting: A computer lab in Canada and the two-dimensional world of Arde
In a style reminiscent of an extended gedanken experiment, Dewdney explores the possibility of a two dimensional universe and attempts to chart its scientific, social, religious and artistic rules. Aided in this project by a battalion of colleagues and students, he creates a believable paradigm and weaves it nicely together with a story about how a group of students and himself achieve connection with this world through the development of a computer simulation called 2DWORLD.
Dewdney so carefully treads the line of speculation versus reality that I found myself often wondering whether he really believed in the story. He repeats several times in the text that hedoes belive that he has met an inhabitant of Arde, named Yndred, and that Yndred showed up in the University’s DEC-10 computer when the 2DWORLD simulation program attained a certain level of sophistication. He is most insistent on this at the end of the introduction, and at that point in the work he seems to almost transform into a Randolph Carter type of character, á la Lovecraft. The science is engaging and the touch of mysticism adds flavor.
Still, I found it hard to suspend my disbelief enough to enjoy the story at times. The way in which the Ardean world and ours relate is shaky, especially when Dewdney claims that Yndred spoke in English (despite having a completely foreign alphabet) and that the computer screen automatically takes on a different focus and detail than its programming dictates when they are in contact with Yendred. If Dewdney had not taken the Lovecraftian approach in the introduction, I think I would have been able to enjoy the story more. No doubt, Dewdney believes that two dimensional universes exist, and makes a good case for us to believe it too, but his tactic of trying to draw the reader into the story by describing the events as if they actually happened to him distracted me.
Despite the minor difficulty I had with the approach, I like the book. it is a good exercise in thought experimentation and shows a wide range of intelligence and credit to the reader. It is easy to read; in fact it is hard to put down at times. If you are able to suspend your disbelief on a few practicalities and jump into the culture of a two-dimensional world, you are likely to have a good time with this book and learn something about alternate perspectives.