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Friday, November 23, 2012

The Limits of Counterinduction?

A paradox is truth standing on its head to attract attention.
-Nicholas Falletta

Destiny is not a matter of chance-- it is a matter of choice. It is not a thing to be waited for-- it is a thing to be achieved.
-William Jennings Bryan

In this last blog post, I discuss a question that seems to oppose the rest of the arguments presented in this blog: does counterinduction have a limit--i.e. are some laws really untouchable?

The short answer is yes, some laws are untouchable.

The long answer is yes, as long as the realm of science exists in the manner that we know of.

To explain this, I turn again to Kaku's Physics of the Impossible, this time to his Class III impossibilities, or "technologies that violate the known laws of physics."

He points out in the Preface that, 
If they do turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in our understanding of physics.
A specific example that he provides is the concept of precognition, or the ability to predict the future. Like many other topics discussed in this blog, precognition has been an area especially interesting to everyone.

(This picture shows a common conception of how "psychics" predict the future, using a "crystal ball.")

In my last post, I talked about  how time travel does not necessarily violate the known laws of science, so one might expect precognition to be a mere corollary to that fact. However, this does not appear to be the case.

The law in question is a very intuitive and simple law-- the rule of cause and effect (causality). Kaku explains that:
Effects occur after the cause, not vice versa. All the laws of physics that have been found so far have causality built into them. A violation of causality would signal a major collapse of the foundations of physics.
And precognition would clearly violate this fact-- if we know of the effect before the cause, a giant plethora of contradictions and paradoxes would instantly rise.

Yet, there are different physical concepts which have tried to counterinductively refute the "impossibility."

One example is embedded in Maxwell's equations for light. When we solve them, we find two solutions: a "retarded" wave that represents the standard movement of light, and an "advanced" light that actually goes backward in time.


Yes, light that travels backward in time. It probably confused you, it confused me, and it definitely confused mathematicians and physicists.

But surely, if light and electrons have the ability to travel to the past already, then we can send messages through them, right? Doesn't this fact show the violation of causality?

The answer is no.

This is because as the electron travels to the past, it simply fulfills the past. No violations of causality are made, and none can be made if we treat antimatter as just another form of matter. In fact, antimatter is essential to restoring causality!

Hence, Kaku concludes that,
Precognition seems to be ruled out, at least for the foreseeable future...It would set off a major shake-up in the very foundations of modern physics if precognition was ever proved in reproducible experiments.
Hence, we can conclude that although counterinduction is a powerful tool, it still has its limits, at least in our foundations of science.

This concludes the discussion of Feyerabend's Against Method and Kaku's Physics of the Impossible.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Impossible Now, Possible in the Future

"If time travel is possible, then where are the tourists from the future?"
-Stephen Hawking

"[Time travel] is against reason," said Filby.
"What reason?" said the Time Traveler
-H. G. Wells

Kaku's second group of impossibilities-- Class II impossibilities-- are "technologies that sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world. If they are possible at all, they might be realized on a scale of millennia to millions of years in the future." An example that will be discussed here is the idea of time travel.

Like invisibility, time travel has been discussed by everyone-- from scientists and philosophers to innocent children, all throughout the ages. Yet most have so far assumed that such ideas of traveling to the past or to the future is an impossible task, as that would bring out numerous well-known paradoxes. (Tor example, if you go to the past and prevent your parents from meeting, will you exist?) 

And for a while in scientific history, the impossibility of time travel was supported by physics: in Newton's universe, time was labeled as being absolute-- a second on earth was thought to be a second in the entire universe. Time would be an unstoppable arrow.

This all changed with Einstein's new, revolutionary developments in physics, in which he showed that time is like a river, speeding up and slowing down as it flows throughout the universe. In his special theory of relativity, he explained how in a rocket, for example, time slows down the faster it moves. As it approaches the speed of light, time slows down.

Thus, the idea of time travel being impossible was broken: now, we know that time travel is possible (albeit not as nearly as close to the level that we imagine). In fact, the world record for traveling into the future is held by Russian cosmonaut Sergei Avdeyev, who was hurled 0.02 seconds into the future.

Yet even this picture may not be complete! In Einstein's perspective, time travel to the past would still be impossible, as an object would have to travel faster than the speed of light to accomplish such a journey. For instance, in Superman I Superman tries to go back in time by circling around the Earth faster than the speed of light:

(The scene from Superman: The Movie)

However, in order for this to happen, an object would have to have an infinite mass! Yet new discoveries are already suggesting that the speed of light barrier has been broken: researchers at CERN have possibly found that neutrinos (which certainly do not have infinite mass) can travel faster than the speed of light! 

This further reveals just how a standard approach to science only hinders scientific achievement. Had we fully taken Einstein's ideas of science to heart, such discoveries would have never been made, and the scientific community would have been covered in a veil of ignorance. A pluralistic and counterinductive approach, on the other hand, would ensure that (at least) attempts are made to directly challenge such "well-established" theories.

(Referring to the paradox mentioned above, Kaku offers three possible answers/hypotheses:
First, perhaps you simply repeat past history when you go back in time, therefore fulfilling the past. In this case, you have no free will. You are forced to complete the past as it was written. Thus, if you go back into the past to give the secret of time travel to your younger self, then it was meant to happen that way. The secret of time travel came from the future. It was destiny. (But this does not tell us where the original idea came from.)
Second, you have free will, so you can change the past, but within limits. Your free will is not allowed to create a time paradox. Whenever you try to kill your parents before you are born, a mysterious force prevents you from pulling the trigger. This position has been advocated by the Russian physicist Igor Novikov. He argues that there is a law preventing us from walking on the ceiling, although we might want to. Hence, there might be a law preventing us from killing our parents before we are born.
Third, the universe splits into two. On one timeline the people whom you killed look just like your parents, but they are different, because you are now in a parallel universe. This latter possibility seems to be the one consistent with the quantum theory.)

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Will We See Invisibility in the Future?

"You cannot depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus."
-Mark Twain

Kaku separates scientific "impossibilities" into three classes: he describes Class I impossibilities as "technologies that are impossible today but that do not violate the known laws of physics." A primary (and very popular) example is invisibility.

(The idea of invisibility also showed up in Harry Potter. Here, Harry is seen to be wearing an "invisibility cloak," which turns anything it touches invisible.)

From ancient civilizations to current science fiction communities, the idea of invisibility has been very popular and well-known. Yet until just a few years ago, scientists had strongly believed that "metamaterials," which are substances that have unusual properties that have the potential to render objects invisible, cannot physically exist due to the laws of optics.

The process started in 1967, when Soviet physicist Victor Veselago theorized the inconsistent existence of these metamaterials. The ideas and consequences that these brought were so bizarre that they were thought to be impossible to construct.

This all changed in 2006, with groundbreaking research at Duke University and Imperial College.

Scientists there successfully defied conventional "knowledge" by creating an object invisible to microwave radiation. Although we cannot see the direct difference with the naked eye, it was nonetheless a crucial step toward an optical revolution.

Although many scientists initially held onto their theoretical laws of optics, arguing that a negative index of refraction (a number that describes how radiation propagates through a medium) is impossible and that metamaterials must have a negative value, they were reluctantly forced to rewrite all the textbooks on optics.

An even bigger step was taken in early 2007, when scientists in Germany and the U.S. Department of Energy anounced that they had formed metametrials that worked for red light as well as microwave radiation. Such creations foreshadow several drastic changes in optics, as well as the rise of true invisibility.

Kaku thus declares that, "The 'impossible' had been achieved."

It is important here to note how arguing and proposing inconsistent hypotheses-- those which contradicted "established" laws and theories-- were crucial in the making of the metamaterials; for instance, had Veselago not proposed his idea due to pressures by the previously-existing laws of optics, the idea of metamaterials might not have even been discovered now. We must remember that, especially in the realm of such Class I impossibilities, keeping an open and pluralistic mind is the only way to achieve the impossible.

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Entering the Realm of the Impossible

Michio Kaku, in his Physics of the Impossible, tackles numerous topics which the general scientific community-- as well as the general public-- views as being impossible to occur. However, is this really the case, or is the idea of impossibility strictly relative? Can we, in fact, teleport to anywhere, build spaceships that can take us light-years away into space, or do any other "crazy" activities that the scientific community takes lightly?

Kaku responds that,
Normally such feats would be considered impossible by today's physicists. Might they become possible within a few centuries? Or in ten thousand years, when our technology is more advanced? Or in a million years? To put it another way, if we were to somehow encounter a civilization a million years more advance than ours, would their everyday technology appear to be "magic" to us?...Just because something is "impossible" today, will it remain impossible centuries or millions of years into the future?
He first mentions Jules Verne's novel Paris in the Twentieth Century, which was written in 1863. In it, he predicts a world clearly considered to be impossible at his time: a world with "fax machines, a world-wide communications network, glass skyscrapers, gas-powered automobiles, and high-speed elevated trains." The same scene, Kaku claims, is happening right now as well, and that we must recognize an analyze it to the best of our abilities.

He also includes historical examples which were considered at some point in time to be impossible, mentioning ideas such as quantum theory and "alchemy" (the idea of changing one element to another) and inventions such as airplanes, X-rays and atomic bombs. Even black holes were once "proved" to not exist by Einstein.

(Notice how even the picture similarly parallels our current world.)

Kaku explains that such failures to predict the "impossible" result from "huge gaps in the understanding of science at the time." He subscribes to T.H. White's quote from his The Once and Future King: "Anything that is not forbidden, is mandatory!" By so, he means that unless a specific scientific law forbids a new phenomenon, it is eventually found.

Similar to Feyerabend's arguments, regarding those banned by fundamental laws Kaku still maintains that,
If they do turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in our understanding of physics.
Thus he suggests that they may not be as impregnable as the scientific community believes, and that the impossible may still happen.

With that in mind, we dive into some of the "impossibilities" of today...starting from the next post.

Monday, November 19, 2012

Can Unity Be Bad?

In one of the final chapters of his essay, Feyerabend attacks the conventional notion of the benefits of scientific unity. He outlines three main questions:
1. What is science? How do scientists proceed, how do their standards differ from the standards of other enterprises? 
Unlike other scientists or philosophers of science who try to define science in the most efficient and encompassing ways possible, Feyerabend instead argues that such mechanisms, while they may help analyze the achievements and drawbacks of various approaches, eventually only serve to "put one view on top and subordinate the others to it, either by pseudo-derivations, or by declaring them to be meaningless."

Basically, he declares that by narrowing and bounding science to a single interpretation and a single coherent world-view, we at best try to "anticipate a future unity" and at worst bring about a giant "pedagogical fake." He quotes John Ziman, who in his Teaching and Learning About Science and Society argued that,
There is no simple "scientific" map of reality - or if there were, it would be much too complicated and unwieldy to be grasped or used by anyone. But there are many different maps of reality, from a variety of scientific viewpoints.
 Feyerabend also suggests that by limiting science to one definition we reject the possibility of conflicting or inconsistent hypotheses and theories, which can rise to be crucial in scientific advancements.

2. What's so great about science? What are the reasons that might compel us to prefer the sciences to other forms of life and ways of gathering knowledge?
"Popularity, i.e. familiarity with some results and the belief that they are important," is "a measurement of greatness," as Feyerabend describes. But the flaw lies in the fact that the general public believes in a singular, "mythical monster 'science'." The public assumes that
the achievements they read about in the educational pages of their newspapers and the threats they seem to perceive come from a single source and are produced by a uniform procedure. They know that biology is different from physics which is different from geology. But these disciplines, it is assumed, arise when 'the scientific way' is applied to different topics; the scientific way itself, however, remains the same.
But it must also be noted that the fact that a specific approach is "scientific" by some criterion does not guarantee its success or efficiency; each case, each approach, each methodology must be judged and analyzed separately. By perceiving science as a single approach, we (including the general public) narrow our vision to disregard theories that directly oppose conventional ideas, which serve as the main tool for scientific change.
 3. How are we to use the sciences and who decides the matter?
Regardless of the negative consequences that such appeals to a chimaera bring to the field of science, he still mentions that it can have crucial political impacts:
A uniform 'scientific view of the world' may be used for people doing science - it gives them motivation without tying them down. It is like a flag. Though presenting a single pattern, it makes people do many different things.

 Thus a community will use science in "a way that agrees with its values and aims," and it will also use it to "correct the scientific institutions in its midst to bring them closer to these aims." Politically, such ideas can be a political tool that sparks scientific progress.

Nonetheless, Feyerabend warns that,
It is a natural disaster for outsiders...It suggests to them the most narrowminded religious commitment and encourages a similar narrowmindedness on their part.

*This post concludes the analyses of Feyerabend's Against Method and marks the short beginning of the applications of topics from Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Observations Revisted

Stepping out of the book for a second, I wanted to note another author who shared similar beliefs.

Recently I read Norwood R. Hanson's short article called "Observations," in which he depicts a familiar scenario:
Imagine [Johannes Kepler] on a hill watching the dawn. With him is Tycho Brahe. Kepler regarded the sun as fixed: it was the earth that moved. But Tycho followed Ptolemy and Aristotle in this much at least: the eath was fixed and all other celestial bodies moved around it. Do Kepler and Tycho see the same thing in the east at dawn?
He describes a situation in which two people view the same object but consider it to be different. In this case, obviously, Kepler saw the Earth moving while Tycho saw the Sun moving. So one might ask, why do we even need to incorporate all such mindsets, as Feyerabend proposes?

Surprisingly, this example rather highlights the need to compare and contrast between various different theories. When Kepler, Copernicus, Galileo, and other astronomers began to note observations that contradicted the geocentric model, they brought revolutionary changes in the field of astronomy. Yet had such inconsistent data challenged the geocentric model directly, the arrival of the heliocentric model might not have arrived at that point in time. Had such observations not been used, the world would have lived in scientific ignorance for a longer time.

Furthermore, the "established" theory could simply be one of the interpretations of the observations. Because different people view different objects differently, it is definitely possible that the interpretation is subjective and incomplete. This is exacerbated by the fact that most scientists try to prove current or established theories, rather than simply exploring possible scenarios. Such a fixed and short-sighted mindset is the source of such subjectivity, and it will be impossible to break away from that cycle unless alternative observations and theories are considered. Thus a combined analysis is the only way to determine the best theory that can result with given facts.

Thus fittingly, Hanson concludes by saying that,
Sorting out differences about data, evidence, observation, may require more than simply gesturing at observable objects. It may requires a comprehensive reappraisal of one's subject matter. This may be difficult, but it should not obscure the fact that nothing less than this may do."

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Is Science Just a Tradition?

In an interesting chapter, Feyerabend describes how scientists now perceive current standards of science as measurements of excellence. He points out and asks,
Modern science arose from global objections against earlier views and rationalism itself, the idea that there are general rules and standards for conducting our affairs, affairs of knowledge included, arose from global objections to common sense...Are we to refrain from engaging in those activities that give rise to science and rationalism in the first place? Are we to rest content with their results? Are we to assume that everything that happened after Newton (or after Hilbert) is perfection? Or shall we admit that modern science may have basic faults and may be in need of global change?
He then moves on to describe the act of choosing a particular field of research not because of its intrinsic "perfection" but because he/she wants to see where it leads, which he labels as the pragmatic philosophy. He claims that such a philosophy can only flourish if
The traditions to be judged and the developments to be influenced are seen as temporary makeshifts and not as lasting constituents of thoughts and actions.
So what is the issue here? The problem lies in the fact that one cannot see his/her own, cherished tradition in perspective, as "parts of a changing and, perhaps, absurd tradition." Such a mindset, Feyerabend claims, is the reason for the illogical process of maintaining one specific "tradition" and disregarding the rest. We preserve these standards, when actually they should be attacked with varying, alternate beliefs.

But how do we never notice these alternative beliefs? Surely, if they are significant enough to make such a difference, then they ought to pop up! Feyerabend, in response, explains how we do notice these different traditions-- in a different form: when critics of a certain practice "discover" flaws and limitations that contradict another set of beliefs, they are merely noticing that the two bodies of ideas-- the one being criticized and the one used in the criticism-- simply do not fit each other.

He provides a simple example:
Many arguments against an out-and-out materialism are of this kind. They notice that materialism changes the use of 'mental' terms, they illustrate the consequences of the change with amusing absurdities (thoughts having weight and the like) and then they stop. The absurdities show that materialism clashes with our usual ways of speaking about minds, they do not show what is better - materialism or these ways. But taking the participants' point of view with respect to common sense turns the absurdities into arguments against materialism.
He jokes that "It is as if Americans were to object to foreign currencies because they cannot be brought into simple relations (1:1 or 1:10 or 1:100) to the dollar.

Rather than seeing the situation as a comparison between two traditions, the participants of a tradition blindly follow theirs as the truly "objective" belief. Thus, when they defend the "objectivity" of such values, they only use their beliefs instead of examining and analyzing it. This does not make the tradition an "objective measure of validity," nor does it show that the specific tradition is any good.

Therefore, in order to break this cycle and critically examine all "standards" and traditions, Feyerabend argues that we must be able to recognize these different traditions instead of using one to reject another.