Tag: BBC Horizon series

The core relationship; with ourself.

A reposting of an item from this place some three years ago.

On Sunday, in recognition of Valentine’s Day, I posted a selection of articles under the post title of Loving Relationships.

Then yesterday my day that should have been quiet and uneventful turned out to be anything other than that! So it was well after 3pm that I sat down in front of my PC wondering what to publish today. I thought that as there had been a steady flow of new readers signing up to follow this place (and a huge thank you – it really does mean a lot to me) I might see what I published three years ago.

To my surprise it was a post about the most important relationship of all; the one with ourself.

So please do enjoy what was published on February 15th, 2012.

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Do you or I really know who we are?

The strangeness of this species Homo sapiens.

My writings of the previous three days have explored the nature of man. The many ways that we struggle to understand so many issues in our lives. In particular the biggest issue of them all since we abandoned the life of the hunter-gatherer. Our very survival.

It would be so easy to beat oneself up. To stare in the mirror and despair at all the unfinished ideas that one has about being ‘sustainable’ shortly before jumping on one’s shiny new tractor, yet another symbol of our industrial civilisation. The hypocrisy, the double standards!

New tractor being delivered last December.
New tractor delivered last December.

But the mistake in any attempt at self-awareness is the assumption that you know who you are! Therein lays the problem.!

Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy is a very smart person. This is how WikiPedia describes him.

sautoy
Prof. Marcus Sautoy

Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy, OBE (born in London, 26 August 1965)[3] is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, and Wadham College, he is now a Fellow of New College. He is President of the Mathematical Association.

Prof. Sautoy came to the realisation that the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience. But where do those thoughts come from? Marcus Sautoy acknowledged that they are notoriously difficult to explain.

So, in order to find out where they come from Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments. With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anaesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science’s greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are?

He learns at what age our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait.

Next, he has his mind scrambled by a cutting-edge experiment in anaesthesia. Having survived that ordeal, Marcus is given an out-of-body experience in a bid to locate his true self. And in Hollywood, he learns how celebrities are helping scientists understand the microscopic activities of our brain.

Finally, he takes part in a mind-reading experiment that both helps explain and radically alters his understanding of who he is.

All of this is covered in a fabulously interesting episode from Horizon, the excellent and long-running BBC TV science and philosophy series. Thankfully, it made its way onto YouTube.

(NB: In the intervening period, that BBC Horizon programme has been removed from YouTube for copyright reasons. That’s a great shame. However, the following documentary from the good Professor will, I am sure, be equally fascinating.)

The Secret Rules of Modern Living Algorithms

Published on Oct 30, 2015

Without us noticing, modern life has been taken over. Algorithms run everything from search engines on the internet to satnavs and credit card data security – they even help us travel the world, find love and save lives.
Mathematician Professor Marcus du Sautoy demystifies the hidden world of algorithms. By showing us some of the algorithms most essential to our lives, he reveals where these 2,000-year-old problem solvers came from, how they work, what they have achieved and how they are now so advanced they can even programme themselves.

As Confucius reportedly wrote: Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.

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Of paradoxes, and headaches!

The interconnectedness of everything – even beyond our wildest imagination.

A while ago John Zande signed up to follow Learning from Dogs. Naturally, I went across to John’s blog to thank him. There I discovered that John is an animal lover and an author. For he states, referring to his book, that, “BUY IT. ALL PROCEEDS GO TO ANIMAL RESCUE AND SHELTER IN BRAZIL”. Fabulous!

John Zande cover_zpsz7wuq9cc

(I did buy the book, am about 20% through it and finding it very stimulating, – if you would like to buy it then click the image of the book on John’s home page.)

Anyway, a few days later we watched the BBC Horizon programme on multiple universes. Here’s how the BBC introduced the programme:

Which Universe Are We In?

Horizon, 2014-2015 Episode 17 of 19

Imagine a world where dinosaurs still walk the earth. A world where the Germans won World War II and you are president of the United States. Imagine a world where the laws of physics no longer apply and where infinite copies of you are playing out every storyline of your life.

It sounds like a plot stolen straight from Hollywood, but far from it. This is the multiverse.

Until very recently the whole idea of the multiverse was dismissed as a fantasy, but now this strangest of ideas is at the cutting edge of science.

And for a growing number of scientists, the multiverse is the only way we will ever truly make sense of the world we are in.

Horizon asks the question: Do multiple universes exist? And if so, which one are we actually in?

Horizon is always great to watch but this episode was incredibly stimulating and interesting. Later, in a exchange of comments to one of John’s posts, where I referred to that programme, John wrote:

The mulitverse is actually the more reasonable explanation for why there is something, and although I don’t understand the maths, the people who do say its simplistically beautiful. Matt Rave is an associate professor of physics and comments here regularly. He has a great book on it all, Why is There Anything?

rave

That lead me to purchasing Matthew Rave’s book that, likewise, is a most fascinating and unusual approach to this topic. His Amazon author’s page reveals that, “Dr. Matthew Rave is an assistant professor of physics at Western Carolina University, in the mountains of North Carolina. His research interests include interpretations of quantum mechanics, the geometric phase, solid state physics, and physics education.” Matthew Rave’s blogsite is here.

Matthew Rave’s book further illustrates the paradox, to my mind, that comes from thinking about why are we here, are we here and, if so, how do we know we are here?

So if that isn’t enough for you and me, then very recently The Conversation blogsite published the following from Geraint Lewis who is Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Sydney. It is republished here within the terms of The Conversation. Did I mention paradoxes and headaches!

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We are lucky to live in a universe made for us

Geraint Lewis, University of Sydney

To a human, the universe might seem like a very inhospitable place. In the vacuum of space, you would rapidly suffocate, while on the surface of a star you would be burnt to a crisp. As far as we know, all life is confined to a sliver of an atmosphere surrounding the rocky planet we inhabit.

But while the origin of life on Earth remains mysterious, there are bigger questions to answer. Namely: why do the laws of physics permit any life at all?

Hang on, the laws of physics? Surely they are a universal given and life just gets on with it?

But remember that the universe is built of fundamental pieces, particles and forces, which are the building blocks of everything we see around us. And we simply don’t know why these pieces have the properties they do.

There are many observational facts about our universe, such as electrons weighing almost nothing, while some of their quark cousins are thousands of times more massive. And gravity being incredibly weak compared to the immense forces that hold atomic nuclei together.

Why is our universe built this way? We just don’t know.

But what if…?

This means we can ask “what if” questions. What if the electron was massive and quarks were fleeting? What if electromagnetism was stronger than the nuclear strong force? If so, what would that universe be like?

Let’s consider carbon, an element forged in the hearts of massive stars, and an element essential to life as we know it.

Initial calculations of such stellar furnaces showed that they were apparently inefficient in making carbon. Then the British astronomer Fred Hoyle realised the carbon nucleus possesses a special property, a resonance, that enhanced the efficiency.

But if the strength of the strong nuclear force was only fractionally different, it would wipe out this property and leave the universe relatively devoid of carbon – and, thus, life.

The story doesn’t end there. Once carbon is made, it is ripe to be transmuted into heavier elements, particularly oxygen. It turns out that oxygen, due to the strength of the strong nuclear force, lacks the particular resonance properties that enhanced the efficiency of carbon creation.

This prevents all of the carbon being quickly consumed. The specific strength of the strong force has thus resulted in a universe with an almost equal mix of carbon and oxygen, a bonus for life on Earth.

Death of a universe

This is but a single example. We can play “what if” games with the properties of all of the fundamental bits of the universe. With each change we can ask, “What would the universe be like?”

The answers are quite stark. Straying just a little from the convivial conditions that we experience in our universe typically leads to a sterile cosmos.

This might be a bland universe, without the complexity required to store and process the information central to life. Or a universe that expands too quickly for matter to condense into stars, galaxies and planets. Or one that completely re-collapses again in a matter of moments after being born. Any complex life would be impossible!

The questions do not end there. In our universe, we live with the comfort of a certain mix of space and time, and a seemingly understandable mathematical framework that underpins science as we know it. Why is the universe so predictable and understandable? Would we be able to ask such a question if it wasn’t?

Our universe appears to balance on a knife-edge of stability. But why?

We appear to be very lucky to live in a universe that accommodates life. Zdenko Zivkovic/Flickr, CC BY

One of a multiverse

To some, science will simply fix it all. Perhaps, if we discover the “Theory of Everything”, uniting quantum mechanics with Einstein’s relativity, all of the relative masses and strengths of the fundamental pieces will be absolutely defined, with no mysteries remaining. To others, this is little more than wishful thinking.

Some seek solace in a creator, an omnipotent being that finely-tuned the properties of the universe to allow us to be here. But the move from the scientific into the supernatural leaves many uncomfortable.

There is, however, another possible solution, one guided by the murky and confused musings at the edge of science. Super-strings or M-theory (or whatever these will evolve into) suggest that the fundamental properties of the universe are not unique, but are somehow chosen by some cosmic roll of the dice when it was born.

This gives us a possible explanation of the seemingly special properties of the universe in which we live.

We are not the only universe, but just one in a semi-infinite sea of universes, each with their own peculiar set of physical properties, laws and particles, lifetimes and ultimately mathematical frameworks. As we have seen, the vast majority of these other universes in the overall multiverse are dead and sterile.

They only way we can exist to ask the question “why are we here?” is that we happen to find ourselves in a universe conducive to our very existence. In any other universe, we simply wouldn’t be around to wonder why we didn’t exist.

If the multiverse picture is correct, we have to accept that the fundamental properties of the universe were ultimately dished out in a game of cosmic roulette, a spin of the wheel that we appear to have won.

Thus we truly live in a fortunate universe.

The ConversationGeraint Lewis, Professor of Astrophysics, University of Sydney

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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12963392-An-image-of-a-man-with-a-headache--Stock-Vector-headache-earache-cartoon

Future uncertainties!

Prediction is very difficult, especially if it’s about the future. Niels Bohr

I love this saying from Mr. Bohr and often repeat it, albeit at times with my own twist to it.  I was reminded of this uncertainty of the future from some comments to a recent post over at Lack of Environment.  The particular post was called Can technology save us? and was a reflection of Martin Lack, the blog’s author, watching a recent BBC Horizon special called Tomorrow’s World.  (There’s the YouTube of the broadcast at the end of this post.) Martin opened his post by saying:

I happened to stumble across a BBC TV Horizon special, entitled ‘Tomorrow’s World’ last Thursday.  It begins with a fascinating review of humankind’s history of – and propensity for – invention. It also explains some truly fascinating – and inspiring – developments in the spheres of space exploration, nanotechnology, biotechnology, and power generation.

In the introduction, the programme presenter and narrator Liz Bronnin explains how, after 100’s of thousands of years of technological stagnation, the fast-moving world of technological innovation is very definitely a modern invention.

Then a little later Martin goes on to say:

After about 32 minutes, Bronnin introduces the power of the Internet to promote innovation – crowd-sourcing research funding and the concept of open-source technology – the complete abrogation of intellectual copyright… It is a fundamental challenge to globalised Capitalism; but it may well be the solution to many of our problems…

However, to me, the final third of the programme is by far the most fascinating… It looks at the challenges of finding a replacement for fossil fuels. It provides a very clear message that this is a technological challenge driven by the reality of physics – not by ideology.

But, overall, Martin lets us know his perspective with his final paragraphs:

Re-engineering nature for our benefit will, without doubt, be very very useful. However, I still think the optimism of the comment at the very end of the programme “…I never worry about the future of the human race, because I think we are totally capable of solving problems…” is very unwise. This is because anthropogenic climate disruption is a problem that is getting harder to solve the longer we fail to address it effectively.

Bronnin concludes by saying that, “it is an exciting time to be alive…” However, I remain very nervous. This is because, as Professor Peter Styles of Keele University – a strong supporter of the hydraulic fracturing industry – recently acknowledged, it will be impossible for carbon capture and storage to remove enough CO2 from the atmosphere to prevent very significant changes to our climate. This is because of the collective hypnosis that deludes most people into seeing perpetual economic growth as the solution to all our problems.

In short, I am certain that technology alone cannot save us. In order to avoid the ecological catastrophe that all but the most ideologically-prejudiced and wilfully-blind can see developing all around us… we need to modify our behaviour: This primarily means that we need to acknowledge the injustice of a “use it up and wear it out” mentality and, as individuals, all learn to use an awful lot less energy.

Climate change “sceptics” have picked a fight with history and science – primarily with the concept of Entropy – and they will lose. The only question that remains is this: Are we going to let them put us all in (what xraymike79 recently called) ‘the dustbin of failed evolutionary experiments’.

Now Jean and I also watched the Horizon special and, to be perfectly frank, found it both uplifting and inspiring.  It seemed a great counter to the overwhelming volume of commentary these days along the lines of ‘The end of the world is nigh!‘ some of that coming from yours truly! That’s not to make light of the huge hurdles ahead.

But it was a couple of comments on Martin’s post from Patrice Ayme that got me thinking.  Here’s the exchange that went between Patrice and Martin following on from a comment from Thomas Foster.

Considering that it is technology which has enabled us to “conquer” nature and thus the degradation of the environment which is a consequence of that it seems most unlikely to this writer that the cause will also bring about a cure. Thomas Foster

—–

The genus Homo has been technological for 5 million years. Give or take two million. Homo is the cure for life. Patrice Ayme

—-

If we Homo Sapiens have been technological for 5 million years, we have spent most of that time being very unsuccessful; and have spent the rest being far too successful. Is there no scope for just living in harmony with our environment (as opposed to being at war with it)? Martin Lack

—-

Hominids have been masters of the environment for at least three million years. By a million years ago, only Homo was left (but for places like Flores). Dozens of megafauna species got annihilated. Homo’s technology has extended to the entire Earth for at least a million years. The Earth itself was turned into a tool. A tool we are not at war with, but that we use. Patrice Ayme

—-

A utilitarian attitude to Nature is one that does not recognise its inherent value (i.e. which it would have even if we did not exist). Seeing ourselves as superior to Nature rather than as part of it has resulted in our not living in harmony with it. This is, by definition, equivalent to being at war with Nature. QED. Refer: Nature is not your enemyMartin Lack

—-

Call it what you want, Martin. Man manipulates nature, and that nature one calls nature has not been “natural” for more than a million years. Except if one views man as part of nature! Patrice Ayme

Patrice is a very clear thinker even if, at times, pretty hard-hitting.  But this exchange confirmed in my mind that clearly looking out to the future must always be hard.  Most certainly in this period of mankind’s evolution predicting the future is especially difficult.  Hence my contribution to Martin’s post:

Jean and I watched the Horizon special a couple of evenings ago. To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what my overall thoughts are in response to your post, Martin. What does come to mind is that old saying, “Never underestimate the power of unintended consequences.

So it may be that we are at a particular point in time, or more likely an era, where seeing clearly into the future is challenging.

The one aspect of modern life that is a game-changer is what we are doing now. Sharing ideas and thoughts across a far-flung net. Not only as the Horizon programme illustrated but as ordinary people trying to make sense of the world.

These are incredibly uncertain times.  Undoubtedly not the first in man’s long history as an historian will explain (cue to Alex!).   But to all of us alive today, these are the most uncertain times we have ever experienced!

No wonder so many of us feel lost at times in today’s world.

Here’s that BBC Horizon, courtesy of YouTube.

I will close with this thought from one masterly ‘wordsmith’, William Wordsworth.

“Life is divided into three terms – that which was, which is, and which will be. Let us learn from the past to profit by the present, and from the present, to live better in the future.”

Do you or I really know who we are?

The strangeness of this species Homo sapiens.

My writings of the previous three days have explored the nature of man.  The many ways that we struggle to understand so many issues in our lives. In particular the biggest issue of them all since we abandoned the life of the hunter-gatherer.  Our very survival.

It would be so easy to beat oneself up.  To stare in the mirror and despair at all the unfinished ideas that one has about being ‘sustainable’ shortly before jumping on one’s shiny new tractor, yet another symbol of our industrial civilisation.  The hypocrisy, the double standards!

New tractor being delivered last December.
New tractor delivered last December.

But the mistake in any attempt at self-awareness is the assumption that you know who you are!  Therein lays the problem.!

Marcus Peter Francis du Sautoy is a very smart person.  This is how WikiPedia describes him.

sautoy
Prof. Marcus Sautoy

Marcus Peter Francis du SautoyOBE (born in London, 26 August 1965)[3] is the Simonyi Professor for the Public Understanding of Science and a Professor of Mathematics at the University of Oxford. Formerly a Fellow of All Souls College, and Wadham College, he is now a Fellow of New College. He is President of the Mathematical Association.

Prof. Sautoy came to the realisation that the thoughts that make us feel as though we know ourselves are easy to experience.  But where do those thoughts come from? Marcus Sautoy acknowledged that they are notoriously difficult to explain.

So, in order to find out where they come from Marcus subjects himself to a series of probing experiments.  With the help of a hammer-wielding scientist, Jennifer Aniston and a general anaesthetic, Professor Marcus du Sautoy goes in search of answers to one of science’s greatest mysteries: how do we know who we are? ,

He learns at what age our self-awareness emerges and whether other species share this trait.

Next, he has his mind scrambled by a cutting-edge experiment in anaesthesia. Having survived that ordeal, Marcus is given an out-of-body experience in a bid to locate his true self. And in Hollywood, he learns how celebrities are helping scientists understand the microscopic activities of our brain.

Finally, he takes part in a mind-reading experiment that both helps explain and radically alters his understanding of who he is.

All of this is covered in a fabulously interesting episode from Horizon, the excellent and long-running  BBC TV science and philosophy series.  Thankfully, it made its way onto YouTube.

It is just under an hour long but I promise you it will capture you from the very first moment.

Enjoy.  Even if you end up realising, as I did, what a strange person you are!

As Confucius reportedly wrote: Real knowledge is to know the extent of one’s ignorance.