Archive for the ‘Author’s Blog> Paradigms Lost’ Category


Wednesday, December 3rd, 2008 by Terence Witt

Although Newton and Einstein were both brilliant individuals, far ahead of their time, this was not their defining attribute. What they, and most of the other truly great theorists of history have shared, is a genuine humility before nature. This is not the same thing as admitting to the incompleteness of the standard model of particle physics, for instance, nor is it the same thing as claiming that the deepest secrets of the universe remain shrouded in great mystery. Humility before nature is to stand in utter awe of the universe, listening with unshielded, unprejudiced ears to what it’s trying to tell you. This is not a mystical experience; this is a case of striving for total objectivity. The mental noise generated by our protracted simian ancestry clouds our thoughts with nonsensical egocentric ideas, and scientific progress is often the first casualty. Examples are too numerous to mention, so let’s just play the highlight reel.

Anthropic principle. This is one of my favorites; designing the universe in man’s image. The anthropic principle is perhaps the most egregious case of the tail wagging the dog in the history of organized thought. There is nothing; absolutely nothing, that is universally unique about the human form. I’ve often said that if the universe were different than it is, we would be different than we are. On reflection, however, the more accurate statement is if the Earth, the lovely blue-green speck floating amongst the hundreds of billions of stars in another speck – the Milky Way – were different than it is, we would be different than we are. Saying that the universe is designed to accommodate humans is like saying that the Earth has to be the way it is or else seagulls would be unable to fly. Ludicrous, yet the anthropic principle persists in many forms.

Conflating math with reality. Although America’s forefathers saw the wisdom of separating church and state, theoretical physics has failed to draw a clean line between math and reality. This is an occupational hazard of course. Without math, theoretical physicists would have little to do. Perhaps if enough theoretical physicists were immersed in engineering or applied mathematics, they would eventually come to the realization that our math is no more than a clumsy idealization of reality. It is the simplistic shadow that reality casts on our minds. Calculus, for instance, works because of the way reality is, not because of the way that calculus is designed.

Reality by consensus and aversion to new concepts. This is tribal activity at its best, and it does have a heavy evolutionary heritage. The shamans of thousands of years ago had jobs similar to the cosmologists of today – to answer questions for which there are often no good answers. The best way to do this is adopt a sweeping, agreed-upon liturgy that covers all the bases. It doesn’t even have to be self-consistent, it just has to be consistent. Getting the story straight, so to speak. In ancient times, the missing logical sequences were attributed to god; in modern times, the missing sequences are denigrated as philosophy. In both cases, the probing of logical inconsistencies is considered an attack, because these areas have already been labeled as out of bounds. “Foul!” they cry in unison. Since any genuinely new idea represents a change in the worldview, and since it takes so long to “get the story straight”, there is widespread resistance to original concepts. Hubris replaces humility, authority replaces curiosity, and science takes the fall…again.

Discovery by brute force. The LHC involves the work of literally thousands of scientists, with the oft stated and well-publicized goal of “probing nature’s deepest mysteries”. Yet it is all done to support a standard model of particle physics that contains a gaping schism near its core – the fundamental incompatibility between quantum mechanics and relativity. This is seen as a problem of course, but not really a pressing problem. Indeed, how could it possibly be in need of urgent attention? The schism has been in place for nearly a century. Full steam ahead, business as usual, damn the torpedoes. So, whereas a prudent airplane mechanic might be deeply concerned upon noticing a crack in a plane’s engine, theoretical physicists are convinced that they can unmask nature’s fundamental secrets by sheer force of will and accelerators so large that they need their own electrical generating plants.

These are only four of the dozens of implicit ways that science has been polluted by our needy, anthropocentric genes. While it is true that a progression of our worldview periodically occurs, it usually takes the form of observations kicking down the door and leaving us with no available recourse. It took a very long time for Earth to be demoted from “Center of Universe” to its current status as “Center of Intelligent Life”. It is entirely unclear how long it will take humankind to see the universe through eyes divorced from their heavily ego-dominated lenses, but this is the one and only path to scientific objectivity. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately, time will tell) we are quickly approaching a situation where the cost/benefit analysis of colliders larger than the LHC and telescopes beyond 20 or 50 m becomes simply indefensible. Either our worldview freezes and physics dies, or we go all the way back to where the cracks started forming in the current paradigms and we start using the most powerful tool of all – logic.

You might think that the author of a book as ambitious as Our Undiscovered Universe would be the last person to blog about humility and respect. And perhaps it might be easy to mistakenly conflate my book’s unbridled enthusiasm for the power of its new ideas with an author’s ego run amok. But as I continue the daunting task of developing and applying null physics, with its nonlinear four-dimensional geometry of particles and photons, and as I see single particle calculations that can effortlessly bring a supercomputer to its knees, humility is really my only option. Or as Yoda might say, “be beaten down by Mother Nature a thousand times in a thousand different ways for 30 years, humbled you will be!”

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Gene Therapy

Monday, September 8th, 2008 by Terence Witt

I had a friend ask me the other day where he could get one of those green ‘glow-in-the-dark’ cats he had read about. He wanted one for his girlfriend’s birthday. “Can I get one that starts blinking when it’s hungry, and what other colors were available?” His sense of humor is almost as dry as mine, so I’m still not sure whether or not he was baiting me. Just in case, I told him that I thought that he should go to his nearest chain pet store to pre-order one, but I didn’t think the blinking version would be out until just before Christmas.

Then he wanted to know how soon it would be before the Army created genetically enhanced super-soldiers or chimps could be modified to drive cars. I told him that the Army would probably opt for ‘Killer Robots’ to avoid the ethical hassles associated with playing with the human genome. As to chimps driving cars – they already do (see Jared Diamond’s excellent book, The Third Chimpanzee for why humans are actually one of the three native species of chimps on Earth).

The best way to understand the challenges of genetic modification (aka gene therapy) is to embrace the complexity of our genome. The execution of good aroma therapy, for instance, requires the ability to put odd smelling stuff in wax and light a candle. Now I’m sure there’s a lot more to this than meets the eye, but it is simply not very difficult to get some sort of beneficial, soothing effect, with technology that was available thousands of years ago.

Compare gene therapy. Imagine that you’ve got this computer program, 3.2 billion code words long, and you really don’t know what most of it does. Now imagine that this program operates by exposing portions of its code to its environment, using what amounts to a protein mask. Some parts are running, others aren’t, based on the parts that are covered up by this mask. Different parts of this mask are permanently configured in different cells, such as the parts that are always exposed in a liver cell but concealed in a bone cell, and other parts of this mask open and close depending on enumerable environmental factors, such as ion concentrations and the presence or absence of thousands of different molecules. So bits and pieces of this mask are winking on and off all the time, in every cell in our body. And that’s just the main code. Beyond this code, there are all sorts of micro-codes scattered through a cell’s cytoplasm that tells the cell how its monstrously complex genetic code is to be interpreted. Also consider that our 3.2 billion code genome, if stretched out as a single molecule of DNA, would be about six feet long. Yet it is so thin and coiled so tightly that it fits inside of a cell’s tiny nucleus. If you don’t think this system is absolutely remarkable, then you just haven’t been paying attention.

So now you set up to program this code nightmare. You have some piece of code you want to run, say, to make your hair green or your skin transparent (creepy!). If this were a computer program, you would just find the appropriate place to add the subroutine, QED. But with the genome, you have two problems. First, you don’t really know where to put it because you don’t really know how the program works. The second problem is that you can’t really control exactly where it goes. This second issue is the truly bad news. Regardless of how the code is delivered (sometimes even shot into a nucleus), whether or not it will ‘take’ depends on where it actually combines with the genome, which is to a large extent random.

There are, after all, only four letters to our wonderful genetic alphabet, and only short sequences can be used to match some location in the genome. So if your matching code is, say, 6 letters long, then the number of places that it might match in the genome is 3.2 billion divided by 4 to the 6th power, or about 800,000 different locations. Now add the fact that the availability of many of these locations winks on and off depending on the environment. Yikes.

Yet even in spite of this staggering complexity, progress is definitely being made, and each new step overcomes monumental odds. But as it stands now, it would be easier to build a shopping mall on the moon than confront some of the technical challenges waiting inside each and every one of our tiny cells. So the next time you get down on yourself for missing a three foot putt or can’t remember where you left your car keys, just keep in mind that you’re running some of the most complex software imaginable. There’s bound to be a few bugs.

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Small Plane, Part II

Saturday, August 9th, 2008 by Terence Witt

I had just arrived in Florida’s panhandle, after flying through moderately poor conditions. My friend was off to check on her sick mom and I needed to get back home before the weather got worse.

The interminable rain was pounding the airport, and I waited for about 10 minutes for it to relent, but it just kept coming. Not wanting to give the storm any more time to build, I filed my flight plan and took off in driving rain and IFR conditions (600 ceiling). Turbulence was mild, and the weather looked about the same as when I flew through it an hour ago. There was a solid wall of moderate to heavy rain stretching for hundreds of miles from Atlanta to far into the Gulf of Mexico. As I started out into the Gulf, to cut across Florida’s ‘armpit’ on my East-bound flight, I reported to Jacksonville Center that my flight conditions were mild to moderate turbulence and rain.

I was about 10 miles offshore when Mother Nature reminded me, in no uncertain terms, who’s boss. Two walls of thunderstorms converged, and rain and turbulence jumped from moderate to extreme. I slowed the plane to what’s called ‘maneuvering speed’. At this speed, so the saying goes, you can apply immediate and full control input without damaging the plane. Since the turbulence was extreme, this is exactly what I was doing to keep the plane level. I reported to Center to please forget about the ‘moderate’ conditions that I had reported earlier. The turbulence was so violent that if my flight instruments were the old style ‘steam gauges’, I wouldn’t be able to see them. My SR22 has a large LCD panel that gives you the plane’s attitude (wings level, ascending or descending) even when your head is being slammed against the ceiling or your door window.

Now when I say ‘extreme turbulence’, please keep in mind that I ride motocross bikes on a track that can get very hacked up. As the flight conditions continued to deteriorate, motocross started to seem very mild indeed. I think a professional bull rider might have even found it disconcerting. The rain was so intense that the sound of it hammering the windshield (even at my reduced speed) made it difficult to hear Jacksonville Center (with the radio cranked up). Then the rain got worse, to the point where droplets were hitting my face inside the cockpit – it was actually coming in through the air vents (which collect their air several feet out on the wings). That’s when the lightning started. Lots and lots of lightning. Beautiful to watch from the safety of distance; disconcerting when flashes are all around you, to include above and below. The lightning did relieve the eerie darkness in the cockpit, but I would have preferred a less dramatic light source.

By then I was about 20 miles offshore over the Gulf, and was becoming a little concerned. The way it works is this. Rain makes you wet, lightning is generally not a problem, but turbulence can kill you. So although intense rain tends to be associated with intense turbulence, it’s not always a one-to-one correlation, and rain is just an indicator, even when a little bit of it is making it into your cockpit. Turbulence – now that’s a problem, and it’s all about the trend. Turbulence starts small, builds to some maximum level, reaches a plateau, then eventually decreases. The trick is to make sure that the turbulence doesn’t get to the point where your wings come off. Unfortunately, as you caper about, like a suitcase in a wind tunnel, you know the turbulence is increasing; you just don’t know when it is going to plateau. Please, please, let me off this unmerry-go-round.

Since this storm was big, I had plenty of time to run through a couple of sobering scenarios. I know a couple of pilots who claim to have bent their wings in extreme turbulence. Since my plane is composite construction, my wings don’t really bend. Their failure modes are separation or breaking. However, even then I have an option few other planes have – a parachute integrated into my plane’s airframe. So if turbulence exceeds the structural capability of my plane, the best-case scenario plays out like this. Deploy the chute, 20 miles offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, in a raging thunderstorm. Suffice as to say that I won’t make it home in time for dinner, even if the Coast Guard finds my emergency locator beacon.

And then the turbulence and rain began to abate, and were soon all the way down to merely ‘alarming’. The trend continued, and I was left with a smooth ride over Orlando. There was a light misty rain south of Orlando, and Orlando Approach asked me if I wanted to deviate to avoid it. “No”, I said and laughed (I don’t think hysterically), “I will persevere”. As I flew home I thought a little about how Mother Nature had really clarified things for me. You know when you’re in a car, sometimes there’s a gnat buzzing against the windshield, trying to get out? And there you are, slapping your hand against the inside of the windshield trying to crush it? You’re playing the role of Mother Nature, and I was the gnat. I got away this time.

I landed at my home airport, taxied to my hanger. As I was putting my plane away, I hugged it and kissed it on the propeller. We bonded.

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Small Plane, Part I

Sunday, August 3rd, 2008 by Terence Witt

Most of the time, my struggles with Mother Nature occur on a purely theoretical level of foundational physics. On rare occasions, however, the struggle becomes far more personal and visceral .

I started flying a few years ago as a result of two related circumstances. First, we were routinely driving 4 or 5 hours to the Florida Keys to go scuba diving, which required transiting the Miami area. For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure, it’s probably safer to fly over Miami in a poorly maintained gyrocopter than to actually drive through it. The second data point was a good friend who became a pilot. Since he is the most accident prone person imaginable, I didn’t think his becoming a pilot was a good idea. Yet he was still alive after several years of flying. The only reasonable conclusion was that flying wasn’t as dangerous as it seemed.

Since I tend to do things in reverse of their customary order (you know, like releasing a new theory in book form and then publishing scientific papers), I started my flying experience by purchasing a new high-performance airplane (310 HP) prior to receiving even a hint of flight instruction. In my defense, the Cirrus salesperson had a great pitch and an incredible product. Go up, let the customer with zero flight time do a few turns at altitude, impress them with all of the cool, state-of-the-art technology, and then close the deal shortly after landing. I was hooked, and fell in love with the plane at first flight. On the drive home, however, it slowly dawned on me that I really would have to get a license to fly this thing. Oh, that. I flew about three times a week and got my license about two weeks before I picked up my plane in Duluth, Minnesota.

Florida is a strangely shaped state, and although its road system is superb, we have a lot of swamp here, and its highways take circuitous routes around many regions that, if you were unlucky enough to drive off the road, would never be found again. I’m not talking quicksand, exactly, but you get my meaning. So, for instance, if you wanted to drive from south central Florida to its panhandle, it might take 10 or 12 hours, depending on where you need to go. Or about an hour or so in my plane, regardless of where you need to go. So, as a result of Florida’s tortured and steaming geography, I have become somewhat of an air taxi for friends and family as the need arises.

The need arose last week when Lauren’s (not her real name) mother, who lives far out in Florida’s panhandle, found herself in the hospital with a sudden illness. I have made this trip before for similar reasons, and Lauren is a fairly nervous passenger, where ‘fairly nervous’ is defined as ‘afraid of one’s own shadow’. Because of this, I only fly Lauren when the weather is picture perfect. Unfortunately, on the day in question, the weather didn’t even come close to perfect. I told her there would be some ‘rough patches’ and received repeated confirmation that she needed to go and would deal with it.

The beginning of the 90 minute west-bound flight was uneventful. I had filed a flight plan and was discussing the deteriorating weather conditions with Jacksonville Center, trying to find the smoothest way through so as to minimize Lauren’s trauma. My first hint that Lauren was going to have a life-altering experience was when we hit some barely perceptible turbulence and she grabbed the overhead support handle. Hmm. The storm was big, dark, and we were about 25 miles offshore over the Gulf of Mexico, cutting across Florida’s ‘armpit’. Unfortunately for Lauren, there was an occasional break in the clouds, and she could see the roiling sea below us. There was a solid wall of moderate rain from Atlanta to well into the Gulf, and I was looking for the quickest, smoothest way through it. My plane is equipped with satellite weather, so I can see almost everything that the ground controllers can see. Unfortunately, nothing either of us saw looked calm.

Soon enough, we were ‘in it’. The plane started bucking, the rain drummed on the windshield, and it got very dark in the cockpit. I kept trying to reassure Lauren, talking her through it, and I thought I was doing ok until I noticed that one of her pant legs was ‘fluttering’. I thought this was caused by flow from her air vent, but then noticed that the vent was off and she was literally quaking in her seat. Poor lady. Moments later we broke out into the blue, and were on our way to our destination. Sadly, Lauren’s trauma wasn’t quite over yet, because the storm was waiting for us.

I was watching it come in as we approached our destination airport, and I knew it was going to be close. I had managed to calm Lauren somewhat at this point, but alas, there was a flight ahead of us, and this delayed our landing just enough so that the storm arrived at the same time. I was about two feet off the runway, already flared for landing, when a 20 knot wind shear hit and literally ‘pulled the air out from under my wings’, causing, in spite of my immediate countermeasures, the plane to drop onto the runway and bounce (at 90 mph). Actually, it was more of a splash-bounce, since there was at least two inches of standing water on the runway.

This of course, was the last thing Lauren needed, and she was preternaturally silent as I taxied through torrential rain to the terminal. We talked in the terminal for a while, and she was surprised when I told her that she was probably the bravest passenger that I’ve ever had. “No way”, she exclaimed, “I was terrified the whole time!”. Yes, and that’s the point. Getting in a small plane and flying through bad weather to check on your sick mom isn’t brave if you aren’t afraid of flying. But she did it anyway, and she’s afraid of almost everything . That’s bravery.

Tune in next week for my report on my return flight. After I dropped Lauren off and headed back to my home base, the weather got bad .

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