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Beauty is truth, and truth beauty—and other lies of physics

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Sabine Hossenfelder, a research fellow at the Frankfurt Institute for Advanced Studies, with a special interest in the phenomenology of quantum gravity, writes in Aeon (see below). Her writing has appeared in Forbes, Scientific American, and New Scientist, among others. Her latest book is Lost in Math: How Beauty Leads Physics Astray (2018) and I assume her Aeon piece is abstracted from that book.

Who doesn’t like a pretty idea? Physicists certainly do. In the foundations of physics, it has become accepted practice to prefer hypotheses that are aesthetically pleasing. Physicists believe that their motivations don’t matter because hypotheses, after all, must be tested. But most of their beautiful ideas are hard or impossible to test. And whenever an experiment comes back empty-handed, physicists can amend their theories to accommodate the null results.

This has been going on for about 40 years. In these 40 years, aesthetic arguments have flourished into research programmes – such as supersymmetry, the multiverse and grand unification – that now occupy thousands of scientists. In these 40 years, society spent billions of dollars on experiments that found no evidence to support the beautiful ideas. And in these 40 years, there has not been a major breakthrough in the foundations of physics.

My colleagues argue that criteria of beauty are experience-based. The most fundamental theories we currently have – the standard model of particle physics and Albert Einstein’s general relativity – are beautiful in specific ways. I agree it was worth a try to assume that more fundamental theories are beautiful in similar ways. But, well, we tried, and it didn’t work. Nevertheless, physicists continue to select theories based on the same three criteria of beauty: simplicity, naturalness, and elegance.

With simplicity I don’t mean Occam’s razor, which demands that among two theories that achieve the same thing, you pick the one that’s simpler. No, I mean absolute simplicity: a theory should be simple, period. When theories are not simple enough for my colleagues’ tastes, they try to make them simpler – by unifying several forces or by postulating new symmetries that combine particles in orderly sets.

The second criterion is naturalness. Naturalness is an attempt to get rid of the human element by requiring that a theory should not use assumptions that appear hand-picked. This criterion is most often applied to the values of constants without units, such as the ratios of elementary particles’ masses. Naturalness demands that such numbers should be close to one or, if that’s not the case, the theory explains why that isn’t so.

Then there’s elegance, the third and most elusive aspect of beauty. It’s often described as a combination of simplicity and surprise that, taken together, reveals new connections. We find elegance in the ‘Aha effect’, the moment of insight when things fall into place.

Physicists currently consider a theory promising if it’s beautiful according to these three criteria. This led them to predict, for example, that protons should be able to decay. Experiments have looked for this since the 1980s, but so far nobody has seen a proton decay. Theorists also predicted that we should be able to detect dark matter particles, such as axions or weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). We have commissioned dozens of experiments but haven’t found any of the hypothetical particles – at least not so far. The same criteria of symmetry and naturalness led many physicists to believe that the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) should see something new besides the Higgs boson, for example so-called ‘supersymmetric’ particles or additional dimensions of space. But none have been found so far.

How far can you push this programme before it becomes absurd? Well, if you make a theory simpler and simpler it will eventually become unpredictive, because the theory no longer contains enough information to even carry through calculations. What you get then is what theorists now call a ‘multiverse’ – an infinite collection of universes with different laws of nature.

For example, if you use the law of gravity without fixing the value of Newton’s constant by measurement, you could say that your theory contains a universe for any value of the constant. Of course, you then have to postulate that we live in the one universe that has the value of Newton’s constant that we happen to measure. So it might look like you haven’t gained much. Except that theorists can now write papers about that large number of new universes. Even better, . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

11 July 2018 at 10:24 am

Posted in Books, Science

“Breaking Up with James Joyce”: Enough is enough

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Gabrielle Carey writes in the Sydney Review of Books:

‘The demand that I make of my reader is that he should devote his whole Life to reading my works.’

James Joyce

Dear Jim,

I never thought I’d say it.
It’s over.
After more than forty years.
I mean, what’s in it for me?
You get all the attention.

I’ll keep the academics guessing for the next hundred years, you said.

And you were right.

In the meantime, I am left behind, having misspent my youth lost in your labyrinth, my looks squandered, alone with a pile of indecipherable books. Abandoned, just as you abandoned Nora in a park in Paris after your elopement from Ireland.

I wonder now why I ever wanted to be your friend in the first place. Reflected glory, no doubt. The need to be seen hanging around with an Important Man. A Literary Giant.

You always believed that thirteen was an unlucky number. Typical superstitious Irishman. Perhaps you were right. Thirteen is the number of years I’ve spent reading your final work. And I’m still only up to page 203.

You were right again when you suggested one of the alternative titles for Finnegans Wake:

How a Guy Finks and Fawkes When He Is Going Batty.
Maybe you were going batty.
Maybe you always were batty.
And maybe you’ve sent me batty along the way.

When you left Ireland you said you wanted to fly the nets, free yourself, non serviam, you said. I will not serve.

And yet as you flew free, you left in your wake a gigantic net that thousands upon thousands have got caught up in. All of whom serve you. Networks, newsletters, conferences, symposiums, theses, dissertations, papers, institutes, foundations, centres, theatre pieces, adaptations, musicals, chapters, articles, essays, films, online elucidations, and hundreds upon hundreds of books. To which I vowed I would never add a word.

I offer you now, my broken vow.

Your (Once) Devoted Reader.


My son was nine when a professional man in a suit asked: ‘And what does your mother do?’

Without hesitation, he answered: ‘She works for James Joyce.’

Over the years, my son has heard a lot from his mother’s overbearing boss. On the way home from school he heard readings of Ulysses on the car cassette deck, around the kitchen table he heard discussions of Finnegans Wake, and in the lounge room he heard rehearsals for Bloomsday.

So it was absolutely true that his mother has been in the employ of James Joyce for as long as he could remember. The author has determined my daily work of writing and teaching; he has also provided friends, colleagues, lovers, and once, a husband. Even my social life is arranged around Joyce, anchored each month by a meeting of the Wakers, also known as the Wankers, or, as my daughter refers to them, ‘your boring nerd friends.’ (Or, as the Sydney Morning Herald once accused, ‘the most pretentious book club in Sydney’.)

In many ways, Joyce has been my longest long-term relationship. We met when I was sixteen and have been sweethearts ever since. I would have liked to say that about a living man, the way famous writers do in their acknowledgements of their latest novel, thanking their ‘loving husband, without whose unceasing patience and support etc,etc’. For years I thought it was their  fault – the blokes. Until I realised how annoying it must be to live in the shadow of another man, and a dead one at that.

‘Writers are a scourge for those they cohabit with,’ says Edna O’Brien in her book on James Joyce. In public, Joyce’s manners were impeccable and his letters demonstrate a remarkable courteousness but at home, it was very different. Quite apart from the regular drinking binges, his life was driven by his one-eyed obsession to fulfil his destiny and there was perhaps only one woman in the world who could have put up with the selfishness that such a vocation entailed. Joyce had a knack for picking up just what he needed. ‘Chance furnishes me with what I need,’ he wrote, ‘I’m like a man who stumbles; my foot strikes something, I look down, and there is exactly what I need.’ Nora Barnacle was the most important chance stumble of his life.

The truth is that there would be no Joyce without the three women who supported him: Nora, his life-long partner, Sylvia Beach, the first publisher of Ulysses, and Harriet Shaw Weaver, his benefactor. Lover, publisher and salary provider. Chance indeed furnished him with exactly what he needed. So he certainly doesn’t need another handmaiden in the form of a small-time Australian essayist. But for some reason, I need him.

‘Is Finnegans Wake really important?’ my student asked me a few years ago. He was from India, sent to Australia for his education at great expense by his parents. I felt sorry for him so I had invented some cash-in-hand filing work, much of which involved compiling notes, essays, articles, emails and letters in relation to Finnegans Wake. Now he was daring to ask whether the book I’d spent much of my adult life devoted to was really of any importance.

‘Yes!’ I snapped back immediately, appalled that he dared to doubt my enterprise. But then I realised I couldn’t really explain why. And perhaps that’s where my doubts began. More than doubts. Like so many before me, I have come to realise that there is a reason why Joyce’s nickname is Mr Difficulty.

Novelist and playwright Thornton Wilder was a serious Wake enthusiast and for years corresponded with Adaline Glasheen, a housewife turned Wakean scholar, until finally, in October of 1959, he confessed: . . .

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Written by LeisureGuy

23 June 2018 at 10:36 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Mr. Rogers Had a Simple Set of Rules for Talking to Children

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Maxwell King, the author of the forthcoming book The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, has an article in the Atlantic:

For the millions of adults who grew up watching him on public television, Fred Rogers represents the most important human values: respect, compassion, kindness, integrity, humility. On Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, the show that he created 50 years ago and starred in, he was the epitome of simple, natural ease.

But as I write in my forthcoming book, The Good Neighbor: The Life and Work of Fred Rogers, Rogers’s placidity belied the intense care he took in shaping each episode of his program. He insisted that every word, whether spoken by a person or a puppet, be scrutinized closely, because he knew that children—the preschool-age boys and girls who made up the core of his audience—tend to hear things literally.

As Arthur Greenwald, a former producer of the show, put it to me, “There were no accidents on Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.” He took great pains not to mislead or confuse children, and his team of writers joked that his on-air manner of speaking amounted to a distinct language they called “Freddish.”

Fundamentally, Freddish anticipated the ways its listeners might misinterpret what was being said. For instance, Greenwald mentioned a scene in a hospital in which a nurse inflating a blood-pressure cuff originally said “I’m going to blow this up.” Greenwald recalls: “Fred made us redub the line, saying, ‘I’m going to puff this up with some air,’ because ‘blow it up’ might sound like there’s an explosion, and he didn’t want the kids to cover their ears and miss what would happen next.”

The show’s final cuts reflected many similarly exacting interventions. Once, Rogers provided new lyrics for the “Tomorrow” song that ended each show to ensure that children watching on Friday wouldn’t expect a show on Saturday, when the show didn’t air. And Rogers’s secretary, Elaine Lynch, remembered how, when one script referred to putting a pet “to sleep,” he excised it for fear that children would be worried about the idea of falling asleep themselves.

Rogers was extraordinarily good at imagining where children’s minds might go. For instance, in a scene in which he had an eye doctor using an ophthalmoscope to peer into his eyes, he made a point of having the doctor clarify that he wasn’t able to see Rogers’s thoughts. Rogers also wrote a song called “You Can Never Go Down the Drain” because he knew that drains were something that, to kids, seemed to exist solely to suck things down.

In 1977, about a decade into the show’s run, Arthur Greenwald and another writer named Barry Head cracked open a bottle of scotch while on a break, and coined the term Freddish. They later created an illustrated manual called “Let’s Talk About Freddish,” a loving parody of the demanding process of getting all the words just right for Rogers. “What Fred understood and was very direct and articulate about was that the inner life of children was deadly serious to them,” said Greenwald.

Per the pamphlet, there were nine steps for translating into Freddish:

  1. “State the idea you wish to express as clearly as possible, and in terms preschoolers can understand.” Example: It is dangerous to play in the street. ​​​​​​
  2. “Rephrase in a positive manner,” as in It is good to play where it is safe.
  3. “Rephrase the idea, bearing in mind that preschoolers cannot yet make subtle distinctions and need to be redirected to authorities they trust.” As in, “Ask your parents where it is safe to play.”
  4. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate all elements that could be considered prescriptive, directive, or instructive.” In the example, that’d mean getting rid of “ask”: Your parents will tell you where it is safe to play.
  5. “Rephrase any element that suggests certainty.” That’d be “will”: Your parents can tell you where it is safe to play.
  6. “Rephrase your idea to eliminate any element that may not apply to all children.” Not all children know their parents, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play.
  7. “Add a simple motivational idea that gives preschoolers a reason to follow your advice.” Perhaps: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is good to listen to them.
  8. “Rephrase your new statement, repeating the first step.” “Good” represents a value judgment, so: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them.
  9. “Rephrase your idea a final time, relating it to some phase of development a preschooler can understand.” Maybe: Your favorite grown-ups can tell you where it is safe to play. It is important to try to listen to them, and listening is an important part of growing.

Rogers brought this level of care and attention not just to granular details and phrasings, but the bigger messages his show would send. Hedda Sharapan, one of the staff members at Fred Rogers’s production company, Family Communications, Inc., recalls Rogers once halted taping of a show when . . .

Continue reading.

This article is adapted from his book.

Written by LeisureGuy

22 June 2018 at 10:03 am

Posted in Books, Daily life

Roots of white rage: America’s clash of class and race, from the Civil War to the rise of Trump

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And in the same vein as the previous post, Chauncey Devega interviews Keri Leigh Merrit, who wrote Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South:

Liberals, progressives and other dreamers who want a true democracy in America often lament how race and the color line have interfered with and too often made stillborn a unified struggle that advances the collective interests of all poor and working class people in America, and around the world. At present this takes the form of how Bernie Sanders and other liberals bemoan how “identity politics” have become too prominent on the left and among the Democratic Party. Of course this formulation is imprecise and myopic: all politics is identity politics; it is only when black and brown people as well as gays, lesbians, women, and other marginalized groups organize for their full and equal rights that somehow “politics” needs a modifier which diminishes the legitimacy of a given claim on rights and justice.

And there are other obvious complications as well. From at least before the founding through to the present those Americans who are considered “white” have consistently chosen the psychological wages of whiteness over working with black and brown people to advance shared material interests.

In the United States, this riddle often focuses on why poor whites in the South and elsewhere chose to fight for the Southern slaveocracy and the treasonous Confederate States of America when as a group they were not made wealthy by the trade, abuse, and murder of black human property.

Why did poor whites not ally with black slaves and black free people to bring down a system of racial tyranny that was also a means for the slave-owning plantation-industrial class to wield great power over whites of the lower classes? How did the lives of poor whites differ from those of poor blacks, both free and enslaved? What of the perversely distorted view of American chattel slavery where somehow it was “poor whites” who had it “worse” than black human property? How can this fiction be exposed? What type of political work do myths about the South and the Civil War do in a moment of resurgent white backlash and white supremacy under Donald Trump and the Republican Party?

In an effort to answer these questions I spoke with Keri Leigh Merritt. She is a historian and author of the widely-praised and provocative book “Masterless Men: Poor Whites and Slavery in the Antebellum South.”

You are a historian whose scholarship focuses on the American South, culture, and the world made by white on black chattel slavery. You are also a Southerner. There is the oft-cited quote that, “To understand the South, you have to understand that they’re the only part of the country that lost a war.”

What does “Southern pride” mean in a moment of white rage, when the Republican Party has embraced neo-Confederatism and all the poison that comes with it?

When people are usually talking about Southerners, they’re talking about white Southerners. So I want to make that distinction because there is an incredible lack of willingness by white Americans, and particularly white Southerners, of dealing with the sins of our forefathers. It is holding us back a great deal. We must confront what our ancestors did. The tendency to cling to Confederate statues and the whole Confederate myth has stemmed I believe largely from sheer ignorance. Most people don’t know when and how these statues were erected, and most people do not know under what circumstances their ancestor may or may not have fought in the Civil War. Were they forced? Compelled? Did they do it to just earn a wage?

And being thought of in terms of being those Americans who lost the war does put a chip on the shoulder of white Southerners. Therefore they cling to false narratives of the Confederacy.

A huge question, but one that is central to your new book: In America how do race and class intertwine?

Well, it’s a very complicated relationship depending on place and time, and how different groups of people negotiate competing interests. But during times of great economic upheaval there’s always a chance, a glimmer of hope for working-class people and poor people to band together across lines of race. At times they do start doing that and then there’s always a big backlash.

In those moments there is despair and want, but also kinship between people across the color line to achieve something on behalf of working people.

What are some examples of alliances across the color line in the service of share interests? Are there any great missed opportunities which stand out to you?

The cross-racial coalitions between blacks and poor whites in various populist movements. A more contemporary example would be Martin Luther King’s Poor Peoples Campaign. Many people do not realize that when they marched on Washington and set up their temporary city to demand rights for the working classes, it was a cross-racial coalition of not just black Americans but Puerto Ricans, Mexican Americans and poor whites. Even if you look at a civil rights movement in the South itself, there were Southern whites involved — not in large numbers — but especially in the real grassroots kind of rural areas.

Reconstruction was another great missed opportunity. In the early years of Reconstruction, you see some of the most radical American politics that you can imagine where you have amazing black leaders who come to power and they are mobilizing black laborers to not only demand land but actually monetary reparations. They also pull poor whites into their political parties and say, “Look, we share the same class interests. We should be arguing for the same things, the same wage protections, the same labor protections.”

For a few years there is actually a chance of something to happen. But of course federal troops withdraw and then the KKK crushes these alliances. And so of course not only do federal troops pull out but then I argued that the Klan crushes a lot of it. The importance of vigilante violence in suppressing black Americans in the South and interracial alliances cannot be underestimated.

By some estimates 50,000 black Americans were killed after the Civil War by white racial terrorists. In his foundational text “Black Reconstruction in America” W.E.B. Du Bois discussed the psychological wages of whiteness and how poor whites may not have much materially but they still have white skin privilege.  As such ,the psychological wages of whiteness can be used to manipulate whites to work against their own self-interest. But there is also a competing analysis. Whiteness may pay a psychological wage, but even for poor whites they receive material advantages compared to nonwhites.

Just by virtue of being white you’re always many steps ahead of nonwhites. I do agree with Du Bois.  There was a possibility for poor whites and blacks to band together in the 1850s and into the mid-1860s. By the late 1860s and early 1870s, the Ku Klux Klan and other vigilante groups more or less crushed real dissent and poor whites were brought into the privileges of Whiteness. This included finally being given a public education, being courted politically, how upper class whites are trying to get lower class whites to vote with them along racial lines.

The media was central here.  In the 1850s and 1860s there were newspaper articles by slaveholders which talked about a “war between the races” that is going to naturally erupt if the slaves are free. That rich people can flee the south, but the poor white men are going to be left at the ravages of what they call the “black plague.” Black men are going to marry and rape the wives and daughters of these poor whites.

There is a classic picture that is likely in most secondary school history textbooks showing the slave owning South arranged as a pyramid with white slavers on the top, black people owned as human property on the bottom and poor whites (and perhaps First Nations and other nonwhite groups) in the middle. All the money flows upward to the top. One of the recurring questions in America popular discourse about slavery is why did poor whites fight for a system that did not benefit them like it did white rich people? Moreover, what was day-to-day life like for a poor white person in the slave-holding South?

In the Deep South where enslaved blacks comprise half the population there was an incredibly brutal, strictly policed, heavily surveilled society. This is different from the Upper South which were “societies with slaves” and not “slave societies” where everything is based around the system of slavery. Daily life is really dire for these poor whites who made up about one-third of the white population in those states. About one-third of the white population were slaveholders.

One-third of the white population were middle class, landed Yeoman, our merchants, people with economic ties to slavery. Then the bottom third of white people were these poor whites who could never quite extricate themselves from poverty. Daily life was brutal. A lot of them went through periods of hunger and want. They couldn’t find jobs because they had been displaced by this influx of slaves from the upper south in the 1830s and 40s. Their ancestors had all worked in agriculture, and then all of a sudden they were out of agricultural jobs because slaves were doing all of the labor. I’ve had a lot of people argue with me, wondering, “Why don’t you call them working class?”

Well, the reality is most of them weren’t working, at least not for most of the year. They would piece together little tiny jobs, especially at the bottleneck seasons of planting and harvesting, but most of these poor whites were not working full-time jobs. They lived very precariously and had to depend on planters at times for a little bit of paternalism to just get by with corn and meat until the next month.

What did poor whites think about their own lives?  Did they feel a sense of empathy with black slaves?

Continue reading. There’s much more.

Written by LeisureGuy

19 June 2018 at 5:39 pm

Anatomy of a fraud: Theranos and Elizabeth Holmes

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Julia Belluz reports in Vox:

When Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes set out to revolutionize the multibillion-dollar blood testing industry, she wasn’t building a health science startup. She was building a religious cult, completely divorced from medical evidence.

The Stanford dropout often told the employees at her Silicon Valley startup that if they didn’t believe in her and the company mission, they should quit immediately, as John Carreyrou tells it in his riveting new book, Bad Blood.

Whenever anyone raised questions about her technology — which she claimed could run hundreds of tests and detect diseases early based on a small drop of blood — she fired them, tried to muzzle them with legal threats, or accused them of sexism.

Yet even as Holmes’s blood tests were first being rolled out in Walgreens five years ago for thousands of patients to access, her technology had never been validated or externally vetted. Holmes also misled investors on how much revenue the company was going to make, and faked demonstrations of her lab equipment to keep the charade going.

The list of high-profile people Holmes managed to hoodwink is almost as eye-popping as her deceits. It includes economist and political figure George Shultz, Defense Secretary James Mattis, and media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, who incidentally owns the Wall Street Journal, where Carreyrou works and did much of his reporting for the book.

At its peak, Theranos was valued at $9 billion and employed 800 people. Yet according to Carreyrou, as of this week, Theranos is down to just 20 employees who are working to turn the company’s lights off within the next month and a half.

This is largely thanks to Carreyrou’s sleuthing. He published his first story in the Journal in October 2015. By 2016, the company was correcting thousands of lab test results. By March of this year, the Securities and Exchange Commission had charged Holmes with defrauding investors and stripped her of control of the company she founded. And on Friday, federal prosecutors finally filed criminal charges against Holmes and her ex-boyfriend, Sunny Balwani, who was president and chief operating officer at Theranos, claiming that they defrauded investors, doctors and patients.

I had read Carreyrou’s reporting in the Journal and wasn’t sure I’d learn much more from the book. But I couldn’t put it down, largely because of how he answers the question at the heart of this scandal: how Holmes managed to create a multibillion-dollar valuation out of nothing. It’s as much a cautionary tale of what happens when Silicon Valley’s “fake it till you make it” mentality meets public health as it is a study of human psychology.

I recently called up Carreyrou to find out what Holmes is doing now, what he’d ask her if he could (he’s never interviewed her), and whether he’s optimistic about health journalism and Silicon Valley tech regulation post-Theranos. The conversation that follows has been edited for length and clarity.

Julia Belluz – I’m really interested in this tension between slow and plodding science and the speed of innovation in Silicon Valley. There are a couple of times in the book where you mention that Holmes voiced frustrations to her employees about the process of science — that it’s too slow and too cumbersome — and her dislike of scientific experts. How much is she a product of Silicon Valley?

John Carreyrou – One of her advisers was Larry Ellison [the billionaire co-founder and CEO of Oracle]. Larry Ellison’s advice to her was that in his early years, he was also getting told by the coders and guys creating the software he was selling that “this isn’t feasible” and “we can’t get it done on time.” And [Larry] was always pushing them to deliver and ignoring their complaints. And he told [Elizabeth] to do the same.

Of course, that was terrible advice and he was a bad role model. He famously engaged in vaporware in the early years of Oracle, promising things he couldn’t deliver. That’s the advice he was giving her, and she was drinking it up.

Julia Belluz – So what do you now think is the right trade-off between innovation and science and patient safety?

John Carreyrou – There’s more and more of a convergence between traditional Silicon Valley technology and health innovation. That convergence is only going to intensify in the coming years.

The Theranos story is a cautionary tale for people — whether they [are] startup founders or other types of investors involved in this burgeoning corner of Silicon Valley, which people refer to as health tech. It’s a reminder that your consumer isn’t just someone sitting at home or on the go, disappointed if their Twitter feed has an outage. It’s someone who is going to be making an important health decision based on how your product works. They should bear that in mind — lives are at stake.

Most people are ethical, and most people have boundaries they know they don’t want to cross. So it’s relying on a commonsense code of ethics and reminding yourself that what you’re doing is trying to improve medicine and not harm people. It’s as simple as that, really.

Julia Belluz – Part of the reason Theranos got away with its bold, untested claims for so long has to do with how we the media covered Silicon Valley — which was very uncritically. Do you think that’s changing now?

John Carreyrou – There has been a readjustment over the past three years. The coverage has been more skeptical. There has been a litany of other scandals, some involving UberLending TreeHampton Creek — the list goes on and on. The press has done a better job of vetting these companies and founders’ claims as opposed to taking their word for it and lionizing them.

There’s also a backlash against big tech — against Facebook, Twitter, Google — over the data privacy issues. So we’re in a different place and a healthier place.

But I also don’t like to blame reporters who wrote about Holmes on the way up. They were outright lied to. When they went in, there was no reason to suspect they were dealing with a pathological liar.

Julia Belluz – And it wasn’t just journalists who bought into Holmes’s lies. It was also regulators and the investors in the Silicon Valley startup ecosystem. What message do you hope your book sends to Silicon Valley?

John Carreyrou – Silicon Valley companies, at least the private ones, have had this mentality that because they are not publicly traded, they don’t have to play by the rules everyone else has to play by. That’s what got Uber into trouble as well. I think Theranos and Uber are a reminder that just because you’re private doesn’t mean you don’t have to abide by the same rules other companies and citizens have to abide by.

Julia Belluz – What do you think drives Holmes?  . . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

15 June 2018 at 2:39 pm

Is nature continuous or discrete? How the atomist error was born

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It does seem that on the level of Planck’s constant nature may be granular, but Thomas Nail, associate professor of philosophy at the University of Denver whose latest book is Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018), has an interesting comment in Aeon:

The modern idea that nature is discrete originated in Ancient Greek atomism. Leucippus, Democritus and Epicurus all argued that nature was composed of what they called ἄτομος (átomos) or ‘indivisible individuals’. Nature was, for them, the totality of discrete atoms in motion. There was no creator god, no immortality of the soul, and nothing static (except for the immutable internal nature of the atoms themselves). Nature was atomic matter in motion and complex composition – no more, no less.

Despite its historical influence, however, atomism was eventually all but wiped out by Platonism, Aristotelianism and the Christian tradition that followed throughout the Middle Ages. Plato told his followers to destroy Democritus’ books whenever they found them, and later the Christian tradition made good on this demand. Today, nothing but a few short letters from Epicurus remain.

Atomism was not finished, however. It reemerged in 1417, when an Italian book-hunter named Poggio Bracciolini discovered a copy of an ancient poem in a remote monastery: De Rerum Natura (On the Nature of Things), written by Lucretius (c99-55 BCE), a Roman poet heavily influenced by Epicurus. This book-length philosophical poem in epic verse puts forward the most detailed and systematic account of ancient materialism that we’ve been fortunate enough to inherit. In it, Lucretius advances a breathtakingly bold theory on foundational issues in everything from physics to ethics, aesthetics, history, meteorology and religion. Against the wishes and best efforts of the Christian church, Bracciolini managed to get it into print, and it soon circulated across Europe.

This book was one of the most important sources of inspiration for the scientific revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries. Nearly every Renaissance and Enlightenment intellectual read it and became an atomist to some degree (they often made allowances for God and the soul). Indeed, this is the reason why, to make a long and important story very short, science and philosophy even today still tend to look for and assume a fundamental discreteness in nature. Thanks in no small part to Lucretius’ influence, the search for discreteness became part of our historical DNA. The interpretive method and orientation of modern science in the West literally owe their philosophical foundations to ancient atomism via Lucretius’ little book on nature. Lucretius, as Stephen Greenblatt says in his book The Swerve (2011), is ‘how the world became modern’.

There is a problem, however. If this story is true, then modern Western thought is based on a complete misreading of Lucretius’ poem. It was not a wilful misreading, of course, but one in which readers committed the simple error of projecting what little they knew second-hand about Greek atomism (mostly from the testimonia of its enemies) onto Lucretius’ text. They assumed a closer relationship between Lucretius’ work and that of his predecessors than actually exists. Crucially, they inserted the words ‘atom’ and ‘particle’ into the translated text, even though Lucretius never used them. Not even once! A rather odd omission for a so-called ‘atomist’ to make, no? Lucretius could easily have used the Latin words atomus (smallest particle) or particula (particle), but he went out of his way not to. Despite his best efforts, however, the two very different Latin terms he did use, corpora(matters) and rerum (things), were routinely translated and interpreted as synonymous with discrete ‘atoms’.

Further, the moderns either translated out or ignored altogether the nearly ubiquitous language of continuum and folding used throughout his book, in phrases such as ‘solida primordia simplicitate’ (simplex continuum). As a rare breed of scholar interested in both classical texts and quantum physics, the existence of this material continuum in the original Latin struck me quite profoundly. I have tried to show all of this in my recent translation and commentary, Lucretius I: An Ontology of Motion (2018), but here is the punchline: this simple but systematic and ubiquitous interpretive error constitutes what might well be the single biggest mistake in the history of modern science and philosophy.

This mistake sent modern science and philosophy on a 500-year quest for what Sean Carroll in his 2012 book called the ‘particle at the end of the universe’. It gave birth to the laudable virtues of various naturalisms and materialisms, but also to less praiseworthy mechanistic reductionisms, patriarchal rationalisms, and the overt domination of nature by humans, none of which can be found in Lucretius’ original Latin writings. What’s more, even when confronted with apparently continuous phenomena such as gravity, electric and magnetic fields, and eventually space-time, Isaac Newton, James Maxwell and even Albert Einstein fell back on the idea of an atomistic ‘aether’ to explain them. All the way back to the ancients, aether was thought to be a subtle fluid-like substance composed of insensibly tiny particles. Today, we no longer believe in the aether or read Lucretius as an authoritative scientific text. Yet in our own way, we still confront the same problem of continuity vs discreteness originally bequeathed to us by the moderns: in quantum physics.

Theoretical physics today is at a critical turning point. General relativity and quantum field theory are the two biggest parts of what physicists now call ‘the standard model’, which has enjoyed incredible predictive success. The problem, however, is that they have not yet been unified as two aspects of one overarching theory. Most physicists think that such unification is only a matter of time, even though the current theoretical frontrunners (string theory and loop quantum gravity) have yet to produce experimental confirmations.

Quantum gravity is of enormous importance. According to its proponents, it stands poised to show the world that the ultimate fabric of nature (space-time) is not continuous at all, but granular, and fundamentally discrete. The atomist legacy might finally be secured, despite its origins in an interpretive error.

There is just one nagging problem: quantum field theory claims that all discrete quanta of energy (particles) are merely the excitations or fluctuations in completely continuous quantum fields. Fields are notfundamentally granular. For quantum field theory, everything might be made of granules, but all granules are made of folded-up continuous fields that we simply measure as granular. This is what physicists call ‘perturbation theory’: the discrete measure of that which is infinitely continuous and so ‘perturbs one’s complete discrete measurement’, as Frank Close puts it in The Infinity Puzzle (2011). Physicists also have a name for the sub-granular movement of this continuous field: ‘vacuum fluctuations’. Quantum fields are nothing but matter in constant motion (energy and momentum). They are therefore never ‘nothing’, but more like a completely positive void (the flux of the vacuum itself) or an undulating ocean (appropriately called ‘the Dirac sea’) in which all discrete things are its folded-up bubbles washed ashore, as Carlo Rovelli puts it in Reality Is Not What it Seems (2016). Discrete particles, in other words, are folds in continuous fields.

The answer to the central question at the heart of modern science, ‘Is nature continuous or discrete?’ is as radical as it is simple. Space-time is not continuous because it is made of quantum granules, but quantum granules are not discrete because they are folds of infinitely continuous vibrating fields. Nature is thus not simply continuous, but an enfolded continuum.

This brings us right back to Lucretius and our original error. Working at once within and against the atomist tradition, Lucretius put forward the first materialist philosophy of an infinitely continuous nature in constant flux and motion. . .

Continue reading.

Written by LeisureGuy

18 May 2018 at 2:33 pm

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Absolutely fascinating, so far: “Understanding Ignorance: The Surprising Impact of What We Don’t Know” (MIT Press)

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Just the idea thaat ignorance is like the banks of the river, which constrain and guide the flow of water, only what ignorance guides in the channel are knowledge, decisions, consequences. Those flow in directions determined by our banks of ignorance.

Just read the first few pages using the “Look inside” feature.

Written by LeisureGuy

17 May 2018 at 7:31 pm

Posted in Books, Daily life

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