Science and our Future Headaches

I have written and published a number of science fiction ebooks, and within these, buried below the story, I try to show what science is about, and what its nature is. I have also tried to show how the future is not necessarily the desirable time we would hope it to be, at elast in terms of the economies. At first sight, this is not a winning strategy as far as ebook sales go. If you look at the most recent big seller and use that as an example, you might assume that if you want to make money, as is shown by the 50 Shades of Grey exercise, you write about sex. That of course, is a little misleading, and is an example of a particularly dangerous form of faulty logic, and unfortunately, this faulty logic is all pervasive in modern society. The actual answer is a little more like, if you want to make a lot of money, you write about things that a lot of people want to read. To get the logic right, you need a correct premise. In this case, the author’s returns from royalties are proportional to the number of sales, therefore to make more money, you must make more sales. A lot of people wanted to read 50 Shades of Grey, but a lot of people also want to read about other things, such as thrillers, more conventional romance, and so on.

One thing that people do not seem to want to read a lot about is correcting faulty thinking. That is fair enough because if you are reading solely for pleasure, you may not want to read something that offers you the opportunity to spend some effort thinking about something. Nevertheless, while I may not be very effective in what I am trying to do, I still think it is worth trying. The problem, as I see it, is that we cannot continue the way we are. Our economic model is one of exponential growth, which means growth is proportional to what is there. So, you may ask, where is the faulty logic there? It has served us eminently well to date. There is no reason to believe we cannot continue.

One problem with exponential growth in the economy is that it requires a corresponding exponential growth in resource consumption, and that is not possible on a finite planet. The amount of resources that can be harvested must be a function of the surface area. Now, if we are talking food, the experts tell us we have been able, in the past, to maintain the required growth by using more fertilizer, by employing genetic engineering, by using advanced pesticides, and so on. However, there comes a time when such growth meets new limits. There is only so much sunlight falling on a given area, and that provides one limit. A limit that will come sooner is the available water supply. Most people ignore this, but a number of areas in the world have been taking more water than is being replaced, and sooner or later what is there runs out. I have heard that California is soon going to face a far more serious water shortage than the average citizen is prepared for. But there are many other places where, yes, there is sufficient water now, but not for a significant expansion in crop levels. Then, if that is not bad enough, there will come a time in the future when the deposits of easily available rock phosphate decline. There will still be phosphate, but not at the levels we have been using. Then on the industrial scale, there are a number of elements that are becoming increasingly more difficult to obtain.

There is a more insidious problem that I put into one of my novels. Exponential growth tends to favour getting more deeply into debt, and this is helped by the exponential decline in the value of our money, again helped by politicians. The reason debt is favoured is that as the economy grows it is easier to repay it. However, the corollary is that should the economy decline, it becomes increasingly difficult to repay debt. Given that many countries have debts at levels they simply cannot repay now, an extended reversal of growth will have very serious consequences.

Now, the usual answer to such growth limits is that science will give us further options. Perhaps it will, but not unless science is supported. But apart from that, surely it is prudent to take what precautions we can now, without seriously reducing our standard of living? Some simple examples include, if waste, and particularly e-waste, were recycled, or at least put somewhere where it could be available later, that might help the elements issue. We could help conserve fuel and help the climate change problem by everyone not driving an SUV to the grocery store every time a trivial purchase was desired. In short, there are a lot of things we can do. But first, we have to wake up to the need to do them, and that requires logical thinking, and the ability to analyse a situation. So yes, maybe I am not succeeding in what I am trying to achieve, but at least I am trying. What is everyone else doing to try and make life better for their grandchildren?

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Science and the afterlife.

Science is not about a collection of facts, but rather it is a way of analyzing what we observe. The concept is, if you have a good theory it will predict things, then you can go out, do experiments, and see if you are right. Of course, in general it is not so easy to form a theory without resorting to nature, which means that most theories largely explain what is known. Nevertheless, the objective is to make a limited number of predictions of what we do not know. Someone then goes out and carries out the experiments, tests or whatever and if the theory is correct, the observations are just what the theory predicted. That is great news for the theoretician.

That is all very well, but what happens when there is a phenomenon that cannot be the subject of an experiment. In a previous post (http://wp.me/p2IwTC-6q ) I remarked that my Guidance Wave interpretation of quantum mechanics permitted, but by no means required, life after death. This cannot be experimented on and reported, however there are a number of reports of people who claim to have “almost died” or momentarily died and who have been revived and then given quite strange and explicit stories. What can science say about them?

One comes from a book I was given to read. Written by a pastor Todd Burpo, it tells of what his son, who was just short of four years old at the time, reported after he had nearly died in hospital. The son made several statements, all of which entailed an “out of body experience” and most involved a short visit to heaven to sit on Jesus’ lap. However, two of the descriptions were of more interest to me, because they described how the “out of body” boy saw his parents, each in a different room, and described what they did. In principle, there is no way he could have this information. The story also has a very frustrating element. The boy described the marks on Jesus’ hands, from the crucifixion. The pastor took that as clear evidence, because how would the boy know where the marks were? The most obvious reply is, he lived in a religious house and there probably were images around. Further, and this is the frustrating part, the standard Roman crucifixion did not have nails through the hands, so the boy was wrong, right? The problem is, Jesus did not have a standard crucifixion. What usually happened was that the victim was left on the cross until the flesh had more or less rotted away or had been picked by the crows, then the residue was disposed of, but not given a burial. To cut the body down and give it for burial was never done, except this time. Accordingly, if it were non-standard, it may have been the soldiers put the nails where it would be easier to get them out later. In short the killer evidence essentially ends up as useless. There is then the added complication that if true, Jesus may have given the image the pastor wanted.

The second is also interesting. Harvard neurosurgeon Dr Eben Alexander was in a coma for several days caused by severe bacterial meningitis. During his coma, he too had a vivid journey, first into other rooms, from which he described people’s actions that he had no possibility of knowing about through his physical body, and then into what he knew to be the afterlife. Now he had previously been a skeptic about this, and considered such accounts to be hallucinations, but in his own case his neocortex was non-functional during his coma, and furthermore, he gives nine different scientific reasons why what he experienced cannot be due to such hallucinogens or imagination. Since I am not an expert in brain function, I cannot comment usefully on his analysis. On one hand he is a prominent neurosurgeon, and should be an expert on brain function, so his analysis should be taken seriously, nevertheless, as Richard Feynman remarked about science, the easiest person to fool is yourself.

Perhaps the most spectacular accounts have been presented by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, MD, a psychiatrist. She had noted that if children have this experience, they always see their mother and father if the parent is dead, but never if they are still alive. Christian children often see Jesus; Jewish ones never do. One particularly unusual account came from a woman who described what people were doing trying to resuscitate her after an accident. She claimed to have had this out of body experience and had watched everything. What is unusual about this is the woman was blind; the out of body “her” could see everything, but when she was resuscitated, she reverted to being blind. Another unusual report was from someone who met one of his parents in this “afterlife”, who confirmed being dead. This parent had died only one hour previously, five hundred miles or so away.

At this point we should look at the structure of a scientific proposition. There are two conditional forms for a statement that apply to a proposition under a given set of conditions:
(a) If the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
(b) If and only if the hypothesis is correct, then we shall get a certain set of observations.
The difference lies here. In (a) there may be a multiplicity of different hypotheses that could lead to the observation, such as a hallucination, or a memory dump. This would apply to observations that the person could have recalled or imagined. In (b) there is only one explanation possible, therefore the hypothesis must be correct. Obviously, it is difficult to assert there is only one possible explanation, nevertheless, seeing something in another room when nearly dead seems to only being explained by part of the person (the soul, say) travelling out of the body into the other room.

So, where does this leave us? Essentially, in the position that there can be no proof until you die. Before that it is all a matter of faith. Nevertheless, as I argued, my guidance wave interpretation of quantum mechanics at least makes this possible within the realms of physics, but it does not require it. Accordingly, you either believe or you do not. The one clear fact though, is that if you do believe, it will almost certainly make dying easier, and that in itself is no bad thing.

Why I question many scientific statements.

From a few of the previous posts, where I have ventured into science, it may be obvious that I am not putting forward standard views. That leaves three possibilities: I don’t know what I am talking about; I am wrong; I might even be right. One of those options makes a lot of people who listen to what I say uncomfortable. Comfort comes when everything falls into place with your preconceptions; a challenge to those preconceptions requires you to think, and it is surprising how few scientists want to be the first person to stand up and support a challenge. So, why am I like that?

It started with my PhD. My supervisor gave me a project; it was a good project, but unfortunately it got written up in the latest volume of Journal of the American Chemical Society after I have been three weeks into it. He gave me two new projects to choose from whereupon he went away on summer holidays. One was, as far as I could see, hopeless, and worse than that, it was highly dangerous. The second I could finish straight away! He wanted me to measure the rates of a reaction of certain materials, and according to the scientific journals, it did not go. So, I was told to design my own project, which I did. I entered a controversy that had emerged. For those who know some chemistry, the question was, does a cyclopropane ring engage in electronic conjugative effects with adjacent unsaturated substituents? (Don’t worry if that means nothing to you; it hardly affects the story. A very rough explanation is, do they slosh over to other groups outside the ring, or must they stay within the ring?) There were a number of properties of compounds that included this structure that had unusual properties and there seemed to be two choices: the proposed quantum effects, or the effects of the strain.

This looked fairly straightforward, but I soon found out that my desire to do something that would not be easily done by someone else had its price: the chemical compounds I wanted to use were difficult to make, but I made them. The first series of compounds were not exceptionally helpful because a key one decomposed during measurement of the effect, but I soon got some definitive measurements through a route I had not expected when I started. (Isn’t it always the way that the best way of doing something is not what you started out trying to do?) The results were very clear and very definitive: the answer to the question was, “No.”

The problem then was that the big names had decided that the answer was yes. My problem was, while I had shown conclusively (to my mind, at least) that it did not, nevertheless there were a number of properties that could not be explained by what everyone thought the alternative was, so I re-examined the alternative. I concluded that because the strain was caused by the electrical charge being moved towards the centre of the ring, the movement was responsible for the effects. Essentially, I was applying parts of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory, which is a very sound part of physics.

What happened next was surprising. In my PhD thesis defence, there were no real questions about my theory. It was almost as if the examiner did not want to go down that path. I continued with my career, waiting for my supervisor to publish my work, but the only paper was one that kept away from controversy. Accordingly, I decided to publish papers on my own. Unfortunately, my first one was not very good. I wanted to get plenty of material in, and I had been told to be brief. Brevity was not a virtue, because I later found out nobody really understood the first part. That was my fault, thanks to the brevity, but the good news was, from my point of view, while that first paper used one piece of observational fact to fix a constant, and thus calculate the key variable, every time subsequently I took the theory into uncharted waters, it always came up with essentially correct agreement with observation. I calculated a sequence of spectral shifts to within almost exact agreement, while the quantum theory everyone else was using could not even get the direction of the shifts right. So I should have been happy, right?

What happened next was that a few years later, a review came out to settle the question, and it landed on the quantum side of things. It did so by ignoring everything that did not agree with it! I was meanwhile employed, and I could not devote time to this matter, but much later, I wrote a different review. The journals I submitted it to did not want it. One rejected it because there were too many mathematics; others said they did not want logic analyses. I posted it on the Chemweb preprint server, but that seems to be history because while it is supposedly still there, I cannot find it. If anyone wants to see it, enquire below. My key point is that the review shows over sixty different types of experiments that falsify the standard position, but nobody is interested. All the work that falsified the prevalent dogma has been buried. Yes, it is still in the literature, but if Google cannot even find my publication when I know the title and the date and the location, how can anyone else find what they do not know about?

So, this is an aberration? I wish. I shall continue in this vein from time to time.

Homochirality – how I believe it originated

In a previous post I issued a challenge that was issued prior to my talk to the Wellington Astronomical Society: can you work out how homochirality arose in life? To remind you, chirality is what causes handedness. If you have gloves, your left hand has its glove and the right hand its, and one cannot really replace the other. Homo chirality means there is one only form of handedness, thus in your body, sugars are D sugars (right handed) while all your amino acids are L, or left handed. The problem is, when you synthesis any of these through any conceivable route given the nature of the starting materials, which have no chirality, you get an equal mix of D and L. On the other hand, if you synthesize the molecules through a chiral entity, chirality remains. Think of using a left-handed glove. If you use it as a mold for a plaster cast, you will keep making casts of left hands, not right hands.

How did nature select one lot and neglect the others? The real reason for asking this, though, was not to do with chirality. Most people can get through life without stopping to worry about why their proteins are made from L amino acids. Space travellers landing on another planet might, though, because if you landed on a planet where all the amino acids were D, then you could not eat their food and be nourished. However we are here. No, the real reason was, this is a chance to show how to develop a theory.

Everyone develops theories, for example, “Who trashed the letterbox?” is an example I gave in my first ebook, which was about developing theories. The book was mainly about scientific theories, so don’t rush out and buy it unless science really interests you, but that point is valid about life. If you look at the web, you can find many places where people theorize on political matters. That would be very good for democracy, if they did it properly, but not so good if the methodology is very bad. Most simply jump to the first conclusion their prejudices lead to, and if that is the way we intend to run our democracy, then we are in trouble. The reason I picked on this issue of chirality is that it is easy, and it is unlikely to run into prejudiced anger and hence can be considered dispassionately.

There are numerous scientific papers devoted to the question of how homochirality arose: they consider the weak force (which does not apply to chemistry anywhere else); materials adsorbed on special clays (without asking how the material can get off again, or why another clay won’t give the complementary material); polarized light (why is there not the opposite result with oppositely polarized light); and even an assertion there is a weak preference in meteorites.
I believe the answer is strangely simple when instead of starting at the beginning with a mixture of both forms, you stop worrying about how it happened, and start asking why it happened? Why would emerging life discard half of the resources available to it? After all, if it did, why did not some other form use both? By using both, it would have twice the amount of resource, so it should be able to survive better, and should prevail.

The obvious answer is that life chose one form because it had to, so where is homochirality so important? The answer is reproduction. What happens is reproduction is governed by nucleic acids that can form a double helix, or duplex. If you have a strand, complementary nucleobases get absorbed on the strand, and if all the bases can link through the phosphate esters, they form their own helix. When that strand is complete, the strands can separate, and the process starts again. That is the essence of reproduction. Now, the problem is in joining those phosphate esters because the appropriate parts have to be in the right place. The new strand has to have the same degree of twist, in the same direction. This is where the chirality comes in. To get a regular twist, or pitch to the helix, all the ribose units have to have the same handedness. Think of making a bolt, and a nut to fit it. If the bolt has right hand thread, then suddenly lurches every now and again into left hand thread, how can you make a nut to fit it?

If a sugar came in with the opposite chirality, the twist would be wrong, the ends would not match up, and the base could not join the strand. It would then go away and nothing would happen until the correct pitch to the helix could be supplied, and that is with the correct chirality of the ribose. At first, strands with any mix could occur, but duplexes would only form with one chirality, and when one came along, since it could reproduce and the others could not, inevitably it must prevail.

Why does that go out to all the other molecules? Because they are made either directly or indirectly from RNA molecules. (RNA is the generator of enzymes.) Accordingly, everything that comes from the chiral RNA will also carry the appropriate chirality.

Was that so difficult to conceive?