Your Quantum Physics Mindbender of the Day


Physicists have discovered a jewel-like geometric object that dramatically simplifies calculations of particle interactions and challenges the notion that space and time are fundamental components of reality.

“This is completely new and very much simpler than anything that has been done before,” said Andrew Hodges, a mathematical physicist at Oxford University who has been following the work.

The revelation that particle interactions, the most basic events in nature, may be consequences of geometry significantly advances a decades-long effort to reformulate quantum field theory, the body of laws describing elementary particles and their interactions. Interactions that were previously calculated with mathematical formulas thousands of terms long can now be described by computing the volume of the corresponding jewel-like “amplituhedron,” which yields an equivalent one-term expression.

“The degree of efficiency is mind-boggling,” said Jacob Bourjaily, a theoretical physicist at Harvard University and one of the researchers who developed the new idea. “You can easily do, on paper, computations that were infeasible even with a computer before.”

The new geometric version of quantum field theory could also facilitate the search for a theory of quantum gravity that would seamlessly connect the large- and small-scale pictures of the universe. Attempts thus far to incorporate gravity into the laws of physics at the quantum scale have run up against nonsensical infinities and deep paradoxes. The amplituhedron, or a similar geometric object, could help by removing two deeply rooted principles of physics: locality and unitarity.

Thus far, Sean Carroll has not told me what I should think of this finding. But perhaps he will sometime soon.

News that Will Either Infuriate You, or Make You Feel Incredibly Smug

If you are spending 10,000 hours trying to make yourself an expert at something, you might be wasting your time:

Like many others who read Malcolm Gladwell’s book “Outliers” when it came out five years ago, I was impressed by the 10,000-hour rule of expertise. I wrote a column (for a different publication) espousing the rule, which holds that to become a world-class competitor at anything from chess to tennis to baseball, all that’s required is 10,000 hours of deliberate practice.

David Epstein has convinced me I was wrong. His thoroughly researched new book, “The Sports Gene,” pretty much demolishes the 10,000-hour rule -- and much of “Outliers” along with it.

The practice-makes-perfect theory is certainly inspiring. In 2009, and after reading Gladwell’s book and some of the associated research, a 30-year-old man named Dan McLaughlin decided to quit his job as a photographer, determined to practice golf for 10,000 hours and turn pro -- even though his previous experience consisted of just two trips to a driving range as a child. He now practices six hours a day, and is scheduled to hit 10,000 hours in late 2016.

Epstein’s book suggests that McLaughlin better have a backup plan, because, while real elite athletes have put in plenty of practice time, their aptitude is enhanced by their genes.

Read on. More here. And sorry if I ruined your day.

Quote of the Day

There is an old parable — not sure if it comes from someone famous I should be citing, or whether I read it in some obscure book years ago — about a lexicographer who was tasked with defining the word “taxi.” Thing is, she lived and worked in a country where every single taxi was yellow, and every single non-taxi car was blue. Makes for an extremely simple definition, she concluded: “Taxis are yellow cars.”

Hopefully the problem is obvious. While that definition suffices to demarcate the differences between taxis and non-taxis in that particular country, it doesn’t actually capture the essence of what makes something a taxi at all. The situation was exacerbated when loyal readers of her dictionary visited another country, in which taxis were green. “Outrageous,” they said. “Everyone knows taxis aren’t green. You people are completely wrong.”

The taxis represent Science.

(It’s usually wise not to explain your parables too explicitly; it cuts down on the possibilities of interpretation, which limits the size of your following. Jesus knew better. But as Bob Dylan said in a related context, “You’re not Him.”)

Defining the concept of “science” is a notoriously tricky business. In particular, there is long-running debate over the demarcation problem, which asks where we should draw the line between science and non-science. I won’t be providing final any final answers to this question here. But I do believe that we can parcel out the difficulties into certain distinct classes, based on a simple scheme for describing how science works. Essentially, science consists of the following three-part process:

  1. Think of every possible way the world could be. Label each way an “hypothesis.”
  2. Look at how the world actually is. Call what you see “data” (or “evidence”).
  3. Where possible, choose the hypothesis that provides the best fit to the data.
--Sean Carroll.

Big News in the Fight Against HIV/AIDS

I am old enough to remember the days when contracting HIV meant a death sentence; the only question was how long the afflicted had to live. Thankfully, things are different now:

Two H.I.V.-infected patients in Boston who had bone-marrow transplants for blood cancers have apparently been virus-free for weeks since their antiretroviral drugs were stopped, researchers at an international AIDS conference announced Wednesday.

The patients’ success echoes that of
Timothy Ray Brown, the famous “Berlin patient,” who has shown no signs of resurgent virus in the five years since he got a bone-marrow transplant from a donor with a rare mutation conferring resistance to H.I.V.

The Boston cases, like Mr. Brown’s, are of no practical use to the 34 million people in the world who have H.I.V. but neither blood cancer nor access to premier cancer-treatment hospitals.

But AIDS experts still find the Boston cases exciting because they are another step in the long and so-far-fruitless search for a cure. They offer encouragement to ambitious future projects to genetically re-engineer infected patients’ cells to be infection-resistant. At least two teams are already experimenting with variants on this idea, said Dr. Steven G. Deeks, an AIDS researcher at the University of California, San Francisco.

Dr. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, a discoverer of the virus that causes AIDS and the president of the
International AIDS Society, called the findings about the Boston patients “very interesting and very encouraging.” The announcement about the cases was made at the society’s annual conference in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
No, a cure is not right around the corner. But as the story indicates, we are learning more every day about how to fight HIV/AIDS, and the prospect of a cure is not nearly the fantasy that it used to be.

Tremendously Good News (Fight Against Diabetes Division)

This is huge

Fiorina and his team studied hundreds of pathways in animals with diabetes. They eventually isolated one, known as ATP/P2X7R, which triggers the T-cell attacks on the pancreas, rendering it unable to produce insulin.

“By identifying the ATP/P2X7R pathway as the early mechanism in the body that fires up an alloimmune response, we found the root cause of diabetes,” says Fiorina. “With the cause identified, we can now focus on treatment options. Everything from drug therapies to transplants that require less immunosuppression is being explored.”

This has extraordinary implications for people under 20 who have type 1 or type 2 diabetes. According to the article, it will still be a few years before therapies can be tested, but now, we are very close to finally having a cure for a large subset of the population living with diabetes.

Quote of the Day

. . . if “all successful applications of probability to describe nature can be traced to quantum origins,” as Albrecht and Phillips maintain, that means that even when we think we’re using classical probabilities, deep down, it’s really the quantum world calling the shots. We are opening the box on Schrödinger’s cat every time we flip a coin or check the weather, and countless other times during every day.

--Jennifer Ouelette

Nothing Is Written

I enjoyed reading this book review of the great and good Paul Johnson's Darwin: Portrait of a Genius. The following passage was particularly arresting:

. . . Darwin was born into a highly literate and distinguished family, some members of which are the focus of biographical studies in their own right. He was the grandson of Erasmus Darwin on his father’s side, and of Josiah Wedgwood on his mother’s. It was a splendid inheritance. A successful medical doctor, Erasmus corresponded with Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Benjamin Franklin, and hobnobbed with Matthew Boulton, James Watt, Joseph Priestly, and other members of the Lunar Society. His Zoonomia was placed on the Catholic Index of forbidden books. Josiah was such a successful entrepreneur that Samuel Smiles wrote a book on him. Robert, Erasmus’s son and Charles Darwin’s father, married Susannah, Josiah’s oldest daughter. As was the case with many of the Darwin men, Robert was a closet freethinker and atheist. The Wedgwoods on the other hand were religious (Josiah was a staunch Unitarian).

Robert was another successful medical doctor and astute financier (money was invested rather than spent: sober thrift was a characteristic his son was to share). Thus Darwin was born into wealth, and adhered to the conservative values of the landed gentry. By all accounts a quiet, placid, even-tempered child, he was taught at home by his older sister Caroline before being sent, in 1817, to a local day school; in 1818, when he was nine, he was moved to the Shrewsbury Grammar School. The classics were wasted on the young schoolboy – he was brought up in a household which spent much time outside, fishing, hunting, gardening; his own preferences are seen in his father’s sharp words, “You care for nothing but shooting, dogs and rat-catching, and you will be a disgrace to yourself and all your family.”

In 1825, now sixteen, he was packed off to Edinburgh – a “purgative” in the words of Desmond and Moore – in order to follow the family tradition and study medicine. He spent two years there before throwing in the towel (a wonderful anecdote is of the lectures on anatomy in which the professor repeated, word for word, the lectures his own grandfather had delivered over a century before – including asides such as “When I was a student in Leiden in 1719”).

Since a medical career was out of the question, his father decided a career in the church might be suitable. Himmelfarb says that Robert “respected neither the clergy nor his son enough to credit them with any profound religious convictions”. Darwin entered Cambridge, and embarked on the three-year education that would qualify him for a clerical career in the Anglican church. While preparing for ordination, he read and enjoyed William Paley’s 
Natural Theology. He also came across Alexander von Humboldt’s Personal Narrative of a Journey to the Equinoctial Regions of the New Continent. And he developed interests in beetles, botany, and geology. On the surface at least unambitious, and certainly genial and unassuming, he seems to have drifted through Cambridge, although he was befriended by some of the young professors, most notably John Stevens Henslow and Adam Sedgwick.

He appeared to be set on a life as a botanising country clergyman. However, on graduation in 1831, after returning home to prepare for the first day of the shooting season, he found awaiting him a letter from Henslow, who had recommended him as naturalist for a scientific expedition, to be commanded by a Captain Robert FitzRoy RN, which was to survey the coasts of South America and Tierra del Fuego. Then a young captain, FitzRoy wanted a gentleman companion as much if not more than a naturalist, and Darwin, while not yet a qualified naturalist, was certainly a gentleman. If he accepted, he would circumnavigate the globe, be away from home for what was initially thought to be two years, and be provided with countless opportunities to engage in fieldwork in botany, zoology and geology. Suspecting, in Himmelfarb’s words, that beetle-collecting was not much of an improvement on rat-catching, his father opposed the idea – his feckless son seemed to be determined to turn his back on yet another career – and so Darwin, with regrets, initially declined the offer. However a Wedgwood uncle was not only in favour, but willing to plead his case. Permission was given, and he hastily wrote to accept the offer.

He was to embark on the 
HMS Beagle, today surely one of the most famous of all British naval vessels. Originally a three-masted, 235-ton Cherokee-class ship – a class known as “coffin brigs” because they had a tendency to sink in bad weather – she had just returned from a five-year voyage, and had to be rebuilt, adding seven tons and a higher upper deck. After some false starts, she successfully set sail from Plymouth Sound in December 1831. Darwin had previously promised FitzRoy to view the planned departure date as the starting date of his “second life” and to celebrate it “as a birthday for the rest of my life”. It certainly made him who he was.

In what might be related news, the following is possibly worth noting:


This Is Also My Brain in Heaven

Want to live forever? Drink coffee

For hundreds of years, coffee has been one of the two or three most popular beverages on earth. But it’s only recently that scientists are figuring out that the drink has notable health benefits. In one large-scale epidemiological study from last year, researchers primarily at the National Cancer Institute parsed health information from more than 400,000 volunteers, ages 50 to 71, who were free of major diseases at the study’s start in 1995. By 2008, more than 50,000 of the participants had died. But men who reported drinking two or three cups of coffee a day were 10 percent less likely to have died than those who didn’t drink coffee, while women drinking the same amount had 13 percent less risk of dying during the study. It’s not clear exactly what coffee had to do with their longevity, but the correlation is striking.

Other recent studies have linked moderate coffee drinking — the equivalent of three or four 5-ounce cups of coffee a day or a single venti-size Starbucks — with more specific advantages: a reduction in the risk of developing 
Type 2 diabetes, basal cell carcinoma (the most common skin cancer), prostate canceroral cancer and breast cancer recurrence.

Perhaps most consequential, animal experiments show that caffeine may reshape the biochemical environment inside our brains in ways that could stave off dementia. In a 
2012 experiment at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, mice were briefly starved of oxygen, causing them to lose the ability to form memories. Half of the mice received a dose of caffeine that was the equivalent of several cups of coffee. After they were reoxygenated, the caffeinated mice regained their ability to form new memories 33 percent faster than the uncaffeinated. Close examination of the animals’ brain tissue showed that the caffeine disrupted the action of adenosine, a substance inside cells that usually provides energy, but can become destructive if it leaks out when the cells are injured or under stress. The escaped adenosine can jump-start a biochemical cascade leading to inflammation, which can disrupt the function of neurons, and potentially contribute to neurodegeneration or, in other words, dementia.

Read the whole thing. I am guessing that this means tea also does a body good.

How the Creative Class Created

Quite fascinating:

Nikola Tesla typically worked from noon until midnight, breaking at 8:00 p.m. for dinner every night at the Waldorf-Astoria. Among the many peculiarities of this ritualized repast was his practice of not starting the meal until he had computed his dinner's cubic volume, "a compulsion he had developed in his childhood." Truman Capote, who wrote lying down in bed or on a couch, refused to let more than two cigarette butts pile up in an ashtray and "couldn't begin or end anything on a Friday." Louis Armstrong smoked pot ("gage," as he called it) almost daily and couldn't go to sleep until he had taken his dose of a "potent herbal laxative" called Swiss Kriss. "Armstrong believed so strongly in its curative powers that he recommended it to all his friends," Currey writes, "and even had a card printed up with a photo of himself sitting on a toilet, above the caption 'Leave It All Behind Ya.' "

The prolific Hungarian mathematician Paul Erdos believed that "a mathematician is a machine for turning coffee into theorems." And indeed, if there's a drug the artists in
 Daily Rituals can agree on, it's caffeine. Soren Kierkegaard preferred his coffee with sugar, or perhaps it was vice versa: "Delightedly he seized hold of the bag containing the sugar and poured sugar into the coffee cup until it was piled above the rim," his biographer observed. "Next came the incredibly strong, black coffee, which slowly dissolved the white pyramid."

[. . .]

James Joyce, we learn, woke daily around 10:00 a.m. He'd lie in bed for about an hour, then get up, shave and sit down at his piano, where he'd play and sing before writing in the afternoon and then hitting the cafes later that evening. John Updike, meanwhile, worked mornings, preferring to "put the creative project first," as he put it. Of his discipline, he said, "I've never believed that one should wait until one is inspired because I think that the pleasures of not writing are so great that if you ever start indulging them you will never write again."

“Some of the creative feats mentioned in the book seem godlike. P.G. Wodehouse, for instance, wrote the last 8,000 words of 'Thank You, Jeeves' in a single day.

Charles Darwin boasts one of the book's strictest schedules. After a stroll and breakfast alone, Darwin would begin a 90-minute work session around 8:00 a.m. He'd break to read mail with his wife and then return to his study around 10:30 a.m. for a second session. By noon or so, he'd have completed what he considered his workday, but the rest of his waking hours were no less regimented. He responded to letters, read and rested at regular intervals until bedtime, which arrived daily around 10:30 p.m. "Thus his days went for forty years," Currey writes, "with few exceptions."

(Via 3 Quarks Daily.)

People Who Are Against Genetically Modified Foods Are Ill-Informed, and Willing to Let Millions Starve to Death

Read all about it. And remember the port side's insane, completely unjustified opposition to genetically modified foods the next time that someone tells you that the American left and center-left has some kind of monopoly on respect for science and the scientific method.

Oh, and be sure to watch the video:

Anyone really surprised to find out that members of the anti-GMO crowd are unbelievably uneducated, completely weird, and boast at least one individual who refuses to vaccinate her kids because of the entirely invalid fear that vaccines promote autism? By the way, I am sure that these folks are more than happy to latch onto scientific findings when those findings support their particular political agenda. In such cases, you won't hear any of them complain or allege that scientists are on the take from big corporations or the government, or that scientific findings are any kind of fraud on the public.

Reforming the D.S.M.

I am no expert on mental health issues, so I don't know whether objections to the D.S.M. are all that valid, but this article struck me as being very interesting:

When Thomas Insel, the director of the National Institute of Mental Health, came out swinging with his critiques of the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, a couple of weeks ago, longtime critics of psychiatry were shocked and gratified. Insel announced that that the D.S.M.’s diagnostic categories lacked validity, that they were not “based on any objective measures,” and that, “unlike our definitions of ischemic heart disease, lymphoma or AIDS,” which are grounded in biology, they were nothing more than constructs put together by committees of experts. America’s psychiatrist-in-chief seemed to be reiterating what many had been saying all along: that psychiatry was a pseudoscience, unworthy of inclusion in the medical kingdom. To anti-psychiatrists, Insel’s sudden disparagement of their bitter enemy—a mere three weeks before the A.P.A. released the fifth edition of the D.S.M.—came as aid and comfort, a large dose of Schadefreudian therapy.

But Insel was not saying anything he hadn’t been saying for years. In fact, he wasn’t even the first N.I.M.H. director to say such a thing. Steven Hyman, his predecessor at the post, first began expressing concerns about the
 D.S.M. more than a decade ago, noting that its categories had been invented primarily to provide a common language for psychiatrists, to ensure that any two doctors, presented with the same patient, would be able to agree on what diagnosis to render, and that the diagnosis would mean the same thing to every other doctor. Diagnostic labels, according to Hyman, had never been intended as more than useful constructs, placeholders that would provide agreement until psychiatry could develop objective measures—presumably when the understanding of the brain caught up with the understanding of the heart or the understanding of viral transmission.

A book full of detailed descriptions of human suffering was not likely to stay within those narrow boundaries. From the time the
 D.S.M.-III first took the descriptive approach, in 1980, bureaucracies like Insel’s and Hyman’s, which fund most of the mental-health research in the country, began acting as if diagnoses like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder described conditions as real as AIDS or lymphoma, encouraging, if not forcing, researchers to tie their studies to D.S.M. diagnoses. At the Food and Drug Administration, new drug applications tied to D.S.M. diagnoses were placed on a faster (or less slow) track than drugs only tied to symptoms; it was much easier to get approval for a drug targeted to a major depressive disorder than a drug targeted to, say, sadness. In school systems, a D.S.M. diagnosis was an indication that a child had a medical condition that required special services. In courtrooms, expert testimony about a defendant’s mental disorder could affect the disposition of the case. The D.S.M. had been taken, as one of its staunchest defenders put it, “too seriously.” An entire mental-health system had followed the manual down a rabbit hole and into a world that doesn’t really exist. Or, as Hyman put it—and as Insel had long agreed—the D.S.M. had locked psychiatrists in an “epistemic prison.”

The reification of the 
D.S.M. might not have been more than a philosophical problem, were it not for the fact that, at least in Hyman and Insel’s view, it was beginning to hamstring research. And, indeed, the D.S.M. has frustrated scientists, who note that the most common symptoms of mental disorder—sadness and worry, for instance, or delusions and hallucinations—appear as criteria for many different diagnoses; that many patients can be diagnosed with more than one disorder; and that the few solid findings about mental illness that have emerged from genetic and neuroscience studies indicate that the D.S.Ms categories simply don’t correspond to biological reality. Looking for the neurochemistry of mental disorders that don’t necessarily exist has turned out to be as futile as using a map of the moon to get around Manhattan.

I don't know if I am prepared to say that psychiatry is "a pseudoscience," but it may well be that the D.S.M. is preventing psychiatry from being a more exact science. In any event, it will be very interesting to see where this campaign against the D.S.M. goes.

Quote of the Day

He may not be crudely scientistic, but it is true that these days Dennett spends more time around scientists than other philosophers. "I find the discoveries in those fields mind candy, just delicious," he says. "If I go to a scientific conference I come away with a bunch of new things to think about. If I go to a philosophy conference I may come away just having learned four more wrinkles in the debate about something philosophers have been thinking about for all my life."

But Dennett also maintains that we need philosophy to protect us from scientific overreach. "The history of philosophy is the history of very tempting mistakes made by very smart people, and if you don't learn that history you'll make those mistakes again and again and again. One of the ignoble joys of my life is watching very smart scientists just reinvent all the second-rate philosophical ideas because they're very tempting until you pause, take a deep breath and take them apart."

Ridicule and misrepresentation are in some sense an occupational hazard for the philosopher. "The best philosophers are always walking a tightrope where one misstep either side is just nonsense," he says. "That's why caricatures are too easy to be worth doing. You can make any philosopher – any, Aristotle, Kant, you name it – look like a complete flaming idiot with just a slightest little tweak."

--Julian Baggini on Daniel Dennett.