Archive for the ‘Science Fiction’ category

Coming late to the Big (Uncanny) Valley

May 20, 2008

One of the things about working at a place like MIT is that you lose your sense of the state of common cultural knowledge.  I don’t think of myself as web or tech savvy — and I’m right, by the standards of my students, and certainly by those of my colleagues over in Building 32.

But I thought everyone knew about the uncanny valley — it has been around for a while, and it has had a run in popular culture that runs pretty deep — think of the role the question of the resemblance between robot and human in Blade Runner, for example.

Not so, though.  This weekend, foreign policy and pop culture maven Matthew Yglesias expressed his surprise that he had to wait for Tyler Cowen and Jason Kottke to tell him about the idea.

Two things.

First, a bit of programmatic self aggrandizement:  Matt! You didn’t have to wait so long.

If you had trawled really hard through the intertubes you could have found the short documentary on this page in which MIT humanoid roboticist and IRobot founder Rod Brooks discusses the valley in the context of Domo, a robot designedmby his student Aaron Edsinger. The artist Pia Lindman weighs in as well, siding with Edsinger on which side of the valley one wants to reside.  The film was made by a team of students in the MIT Graduate Program in Science Writing — which is where my self interest lies.

Second, more globally.  What I said above about misidentifying knowledge as shared impinges on a debate, or at least a complaint I hear all the time in what is now a career long (quarter of a century +) participation in endless lamentations on the state of public understanding of science.

That is: very little of what seems, obvious, even basic, in most disciplines is in fact common cultural currency.  Often, when something does seep out, it does so with a conflation between the definitions of words used in technical senses, and the meanings of those same words as understood in daily conversation.  Think “marginal,” for example, or even “quantum,” — or for the most contentious area these days, how about  “genetic?”

I’m not sure where to go with this thought — hey, this is a blog! — but it does make me want to push much harderwhat has become one of the defining themes of this blog .  I’ve written a bunch of times — an example here, and another here — about the much greater importance of understanding how scientists think, compared with that of knowing many of the details of what scientists have learned lately.  It’s not that the latter is uninteresting or unimportant; its just that most of what the public needs to know turns on ways of thinking about daily, material reality.

Enough bloviating for a morning.  Watch the video. Have a little fun.

Illustration:  Not Darryl Hannah.  Mars MER Robot, courtesy of NASA.  Source, Wikimedia Commons.

Sunday blogging: On the Nature of Things — Philip Pullman edition

April 6, 2008

So I’m late to the Pullman party. I only picked up The Golden Compass after the publicity surrounding the movie — which makes me a full ten years tardy, in fact.

But read that book I did, and then, following a course plenty of folks have travelled before me, devoured the next two books in the trilogy as fast as I could.

The best thing about the book is that Pullman’s argument about the horror of dogma self-perpetuating by force runs through just about every plot event, but almost always does not displace the glories of the work: its realization of a marvelously realized alternate world and a human story told through the lives and actions of recognizable individuals.

There is a polemic reading of the trilogy, that is, but the characters are human, not types. (Mostly human, of course. Iorek is one of the most astoundingly complete characters I’ve found in fiction for a long time, to name one among many.) Pullman’s argument against revealed religion works, in fact, because it plays on the emotions brought into play only when you care about the individual lives and deaths he has made so imaginatively real.

But a bit of pop criticism of a book that I imagine most readers of this blog found long before I did is not why this post comes into existence. Instead, I want here to bring to the surface the root of perhaps the most powerful and beautiful passage in the entire trilogy — the moment (spoiler alert) in Book Three, The Amber Spyglass when Lyra tells the multitudes of the dead what will happen if they follow her and Will back up to the world of the living.

This entire episode is infused with classical sources; the tale of living men or women descending to the underworld to seek insight or to beg favors of the dead is one that originates deep in our past, and recurs again and again in the great literary investigations of human experience. Think of Hercules seeking Persephone, or Oddyseus in pursuit of knowledge…and then Dante, accompanied by Virgil examining the taxonomy of sin and human vanity in the greatest of all such stories (IMHO, of course).

Pullman’s version speaks to that tradition, locating the center of its terror in the direct confrontation between his heroes and their own deaths.

But then, in a brief set-piece, Pullman makes the single most direct and powerful claim of the whole work for his secular vision of transcendence in death. It is the necessary affirmative statement to balance his negative argument about the anti-human qualities of revealed religions. Lyra and Will have offered to lead the dead out of the grim, hellish experience of sense-less eternity. The dead ask what will happen, and Lyra tells them this:

She took out the golden instrument. The answer came at once. She put it away and stood up.

“This is what’ll happen,” she said, “and it’s true, perfectly true. When you go out of here, all the aprticles that make you up will loosen and float apaqrt, just like your daemons did. If you’ve seen people dying, you know what that look like. But your daemons en’t just nothing now; they’re part of everything. All the atoms taht were them, they’ve gone into the air and the wind and the trees and the earth and all the living things. They’ll never vanish. theyre just part of everything. And that’s exactly what’ll happen to you, I swear to you. I promise on my honor. You’ll drift apart, it’s true. But you’ll be out in the open, part of everything alive again.”

And then there is this, as glossed by me in an earlier book of my own:

“For that which once came from earth to earth returns back again…Nor does death so destroy as to annihilate the bodies of matter, but it disperses their combination abroad, and then conjoins others with others…” But though atoms traipse through an eternal dance, coming together and falling apart, the human soul did not. Lucretius wrote, “Even if time shall gather together our matter after death and bring it back again as it is now placed, and if once more the light of life shall be given to us, yet it would not matter to us that even this had been done, when the recollection of ourselves has once been broken asunder, and to us now, no memory, no anguish remains from those who we were before.” Therefore, Lucretius concluded: “We may be sure that there is nothing to be feared after death”–for both sensation and memory are lost forever. Life is lived once, now, and that is all.

Lucretius wrote that in what I think is the greatest poem of science, Of The Nature of Things, written before 50 BCE (i.e. in the last decades of the Roman Republic).

Thus one of the foundational ideas of humanism:

This world matters; this time in which I write and you read is all in all. Our atoms may be eternal (though modern physics would say protons, whose claim on eternity has a current lower bound of 10 to the thirty fifth years) but our consciousness is not.

This is exactly the argument that runs all the way through Pullman’s trilogy. One chance means one chance to get it right. (Contrast this with the morally repugnant claim that commitment to a revealed religion is an essential precondition for leading a moral life. Scroll down to Sharon Soon’s quotes if you have a strong stomach.)

Back to Pullman. This moment comes and goes quickly in the rush of action at the end of the trilogy. After all, Pullman is writing a inversion of the battle for command of heaven and earth that typically ends with the triumph of God and the banishment of the dissident angels. There’s quite a campaign to manage, and the detour to the underworld is here, as in most epics, a subplot, a moment to pause the action, and perhaps (as here) to stand on the soap box for a while.

But this passage contains more than a skeptics credo. Instead, it is essential, I think, to the idea that Pullman wants to leave at and after his long work’s end.

As the trilogy closes, it seems, rather oddly given all the tumult of the last thousand pages or so, that everything returns to normal.Lyra in her world finds that the Church is still there, powerfully contending for allegiance and belief. It is, we are told, somewhat changed, a little less inclined towards the total intellectual dictatorship that threatened at the beginning of the book. The warring factions within and outside the church remain. Life continues.

Lucretius lived more than two millenia ago. It remains something of a mystery how his great poem survived most of those years, given the hostility of this world’s Church to his uncompromised materialism, his denial of the immortality of the individual soul.

This is an old argument, that is, one which, despite the advance of the most successful materialist program of discovery in history — the scientific revolution which began to take on its modern form just a few centuries ago.

There are communities within the science blogosphere that rage against this fact of life, this eternal return of the same battles. (See, e.g., almost any comment thread at Pharyngula.)

I’m not saying they shouldn’t. But I am saying that Pullman got it.

He explicitly presented the titanic struggle of His Dark Materials as but one campaign in a more or less endless war — not so much one between reason and folly (h/t Erasmus) as between the claims of this world vs. those of a notional next. His use of the language, imagery, even the elegance of Lucretius reinforces the point. The Greeks fought about this (as did the Jews, in an interesting way to be blogged another time.) The Romans did. Christian believers have, on both sides of the trenches. We do too. It’s better — more relaxing, certainly, and probably more conducive to tactical clarity — to take the long view. Or so, at least, I read Philip Pullman.

Image:  Luca Signorelli, “The Damned,” 1499-1505. The reproduction is part of a collection of reproductions compiled by The Yorck Project. The compilation copyright is held by Zenodot Verlagsgesellschaft mbH and licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License.

A Monday Morning pick-me-up.

March 16, 2008

So, my sister sends me this link.

I watch it, despite the sense of instant lame-hood when I find myself tapping toes to a Billy Joel song.

But then I asked myself, in all this fire we didn’t start, how much of what the Hon. Mr. Joel sees as incendiary in the last half century or so falls under the heading of science?

Even stretching it pretty far to tech/engineering, I make it 16 images/ideas out of 120 in the song. And I only get that far by counting the Studebaker, just because I like the engineering ideas in that car. (The Edsel didn’t make the cut, even as an example of a negative elenchus.)

Out of my 16, five connect to space flight, (and I counted a sixth for Robert Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, and a seventh for the aerospace/political significance of the U2, just possibly the coolest airplane ever built. (Care to dissent, James Fallows?). The rest are a motley mix of gee whiz and bad news: H-bombs to vaccines to dacron, to my man Albert Einstein.

All in all, I actually think that Billy Joel and his unbelievably dedicated illustrator have caught the central fact of American science interest pretty well: the boffins are good for entertainment, for killing folks, for healing folks, and for gadgets.

Watch the video. It’s fun, and in the end, deeply troubling as well.

And you’ll curse me all day as the tune will not leave your head.

Image: Unknown artist, “The Great Fire of London with Ludgate and old St. Paul’s,” 1670. Source: Wikimedia Commons. One of my favorite fun facts: When Old St. Paul’s burned in the Great Fire (1666), the sixty tons of lead in its roof melted and flowed — a river of glowing metal — from the cathedral precincts a few hundred yards down hill into the Thames. A torrent of lead. Now that’s a conflagration — and in fact it is believed that the blaze turned into a true firestorm by late in the first day of the disaster.

Friday (Isaac) Newton blogging (Thursday edition): “The Coffee House” meeting

January 24, 2008

I don’t think I’ve got this precise to the day, but I can’t let the month pass without tipping my hat to Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke, and the incomparable Edmund Halley. It was in January, 1684 that three men met for refreshment and conversation after one of the Royal Society’s weekly meetings.

They may have done so to put a little rigor into an evening that could have been truly scattered. Neal Stephenson caught the flavor of early Royal Society meetings perfectly in the first volume of his Baroque Cycle. His account is taken from life: if you look at the early volume’s of the Society’s pleadings (JSTOR has ’em all online, if you have access to that resource) you’ll find articles like “An Accompt of the improvement of Optick Glasses” and Robert Hooke’s own telescopic observation “A Spot in one of the Belts of Jupiter” jostling for space with “An Account of a very odd Monstrous Calf” or “Of an Hungarian Bolus of the same Effect with the Bolus Armenus.” (All of these from meetings in 1665.)

So it may well have been either boredom with yet more deformed animals, or exhilaration at some deep observational challenge that got three of the real intellects in the Society going that January night.Wren asked the question that got the fireworks going. How, he asked, did the force of gravity vary as the distance between objects changed? Could it be an inverse square relationship, as he and others had speculated, but failed to demonstrate? (I.e. — did the force of gravitational attraction between two bodies vary inversely with the square of the distance between them?)

This was, of course, the fundamental cosmological problem of the day. The geometry of the solar system was basically understood — laid out by Johannes Kepler and his three descriptive laws of the planets’ orbital motion. But how the planets held to the paths they traced — that no one knew, though Wren and his listeners recognized that the ill-understood phenomenon of gravity must have something to do with problem.

Wren himself and Halley too both confessed they could not demonstrate that an inverse square law actually held in the real world, but Hooke claimed that he had already completed a proof of the idea. Pressed to reveal it, he declined, declaring he would hold it back for a time so that “others triing and failing, might know how to value it.”

To coax out the truth, Wren offered a prize — a book worth 40 shillings (a week’s stipend for Newton at that moment, as it happened) — to Hooke (or anyone else) if he could actually do what he claimed he could within two months. Nothing came.

Then, in August, Edmund Halley made his way to Cambridge for his famous chat with Isaac Newton. In the middle of the conversation, seemingly as an aside, he asked Newton, “what he thought the Curve would be that would be described by the Planets supposing the force of attraction towards the Sun to be reciprocal to the square of their distance from it?”

An ellipse, Newton answered, without pause for thought.

How did he know?

“I have calculated it.”

Newton probably had, unlike the similarly confident Hooke, though he didn’t produce the calculation on the spot. In November, though, he sent Halley a more in depth analysis of the problem, a nine page manuscript “on the motion of bodies in orbit.” Halley immediately recognized that this wasn’t merely the resolution of a bet, but the outline of a whole new science. He urged — almost demanded — that Newton fill out the account…

…and hence, with considerable labor yet to come and a great debt owed to Halley as the project’s midwife, was born Newton’s Principia — and with it, much of what we think of as modern science.

I do not usually toast with coffee, preferring stronger stuff. But it is time to titrate some caffeine into my system, so, in remembrance of that argument in the coffee house, I will shortly lift my mug of Peet’s brew — not to Isaac Newton, this time, deserving of his honors as he certainly is — but to those other three men, who at the crucial moment asked the crucial question, which ultimately found its way to the right man.

So, in this three hundred and twenty first fourth January since Sir Christopher Wren offered his prize, here’s to Wren, Robert Hooke, and above all, to Edmund Halley.

PS: in case anyone was wondering, the name of this blog is indeed an homage to Newton, the subject of my forthcoming book. (Jan-Feb, 2009, at last count.)

Update: arithmetical error corrected above, proving that I shouldn’t do mental arithmetic while in a state of mild caffeine withdrawal. Dependency is an ugly thing.

Image: Robert Hooke’s microscope from Micrographia, 1665. Source: Wikipedia Commons.

Science (fiction) and the Public Square: Star Wars looks at the candidates

January 10, 2008

Without further comment:

the (a) Star Wars Guide to the Candidates.

Not, perhaps, as authoritative as the good work done by our friends at Science and the AAAS, but, as the non-candidate of choice might say:

“Named must your fear be before banish it you can.”