Excerpted from K.C. Cole’s LA Times article, “In Patterns, Not Particles, Physicists Trust”:

If pinning down reality is a matter of seeing consistent patterns, then humans are well equipped, because ferreting out patterns is what we do best: We see patterns in the stars, on the moon, in the cracks in the ceiling, in the orbits of the planets.

Arranging things into patterns makes them easier to understand. But only sometimes do the patterns point out “real” relationships.

The orbits of the planets are connected by a single law of gravity, but the stars in the Big Dipper are connected only by our imagination. Both are real, but the motions of the planets tell us things about nature; the dipper in the sky tells us only about ourselves. All too often, we mistake the “real world” for one that exists mainly in the human brain.

“Having lost the gods, we fall in love with the beautiful idols we can raise in their places,” writes Amherst College physicist Arthur Zajonc in his book, “Catching the Light.” “Atoms, quarks, tiny black holes . . . they are reified, garlanded, and dragged forward to assume a place in the temple. Calling them real, we animate them. . . .”

In the end, finding out what’s real may require redefining what we mean by reality. After all, science often requires that we go beyond sense impressions (as well as common sense). No matter how real or unreal something might seem, it ultimately has to stand up to experimental scrutiny and theoretical consistency.

The chair is real because you can sit on it. Newton’s laws of gravity are real because they keep the planets in orbit around the sun. Real enough to command our attention, in any event. Real enough so that they can’t be easily ignored. Or as Weinberg puts it: “When we say that a thing is real, we are simply expressing a sort of respect.”

See full article at http://articles.latimes.com/1999/mar/04/local/me-13916


gas, liquid, and…perceptonium?: a new state of matter

Any slurpee of atoms can exist in the gas phase — provided that you have the thermal means to vaporize the bejeezus out of it.

If vaporizability can be generalized to all collections of atoms, then it is a mistake to say that “gas-ness” is a property of any single atom. Rather, the properties of gases such as compressability and expandability are constituted by an arrangement of atoms into a meaningful pattern. It is the pattern which carries the property of gases, and not the atoms.

This distinction is the sweet pea of cognitive science. As the physicist Max Tegmark argues in his TedTalk “Consciousness is a mathematical pattern,”

We are simply food. Rearranged.

Why is one arrangement conscious, and not the other?

And what is the meaningful pattern that gives rise to consciousness? Is consciousness a substrate-independent phenomena? Can it arise out of any material, provided that there is enough of it to assume the structure of consciousness?

The video of Tegmark’s TedTalk, which I’m posting below, answers none of these questions. But you can be assured the satisfaction of interesting questions, analogies, and a general sense of universal elegance.

Brain-cloud painting by John Baldessari. Photo retrieved from http://media5.artspace.com/media/john_baldessari/brain_cloud/john_baldessari_brain_cloud_1024x768.jpg

“…Perhaps consciousness arises when the brain’s simulation of the world becomes so complete that it must include a model of itself.”

The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins

There are about 100 billion stars in our galaxy.

That’s   100,000,000,000    * ‘s.

Holy sh*t!

By the way, the number of cells that make up one adult human body is roughly 37,200,000,000,000. That’s 37.2 trillion highly complex, cooperating cells.

According to William Atkinson’s Nanocosm, published in 2003, all this goes to say that

You, reader, exist in finer detail than all the stars and nebulae in the Local Galactic Group. Your structure and function are more complicated; at any given instant your body hosts a greater range of chemical events than all the visible stars.

What’s more, is that we experience the complexities of the physical world with mediocre resolution. The senses we are born with do not allow us to examine the nanostructures of iridescent butterfly wings or perceive scratches on the surface of the international space station without an external aid. Sensorily-speaking, we occupy a middle ground between small-scale physics and large-scale physics.

Below [this] middle kingdom, which we measure in yards of meters (40 inches), a series of subworlds exists in nested shells. Each subworld embodies an alternate reality. A scale of millimeters brings us to the world of the insects. These mobile computers (the insects) are perfectly adapted to the intricate ecosystems they occupy, from lawns and trees to walls and mattresses. Drop down a notch and you enter the world of the micrometer or micron, a unit of length that is one thousandth of a millimeter. This subworld is, literally, the microcosm. It is a the world of the cell–autonomous units such as amoebas and zooplankton, as well as specialized “social” populations that make up skin, bones, and brain.

Below the microcosm comes creation on the scale of the nanometer, one millionth of a millimeter. I call this the nanocosm. It is a finely detailed, completely structured cosmos, or organized universe, that exists around and within us. All that is–microbes, humans, planets, stars, totality–is built up from the nanocosm, atom by atom. This subworld is as varied and complex as any other level of being: a place unto itself. Its rules are neither those of galaxies nor those we see within the middle kingdom. This simple truth has puzzled many a would-be nanotechnology.

For more, check out Nanocosms by Wiliam Illsey Atkinson.

Other sources referenced in this post:


Picture: http://www.blastr.com/sites/blastr/files/milkwaynasa.jpg

Never accept candy from a stranger?

This time I did. I was on a flight to Seattle and the nice Canadian man with a waxed mustache sitting next to me in Economy class offers a bag of Skittles with an insistent “no-no I don’t like candy.” The burble of an empty stomach encourages me to accept and thank him for the bag of Skittles. He beams back at me.

When I turn over the bag to read the ingredients label, here is what I immediately noticed:


There’s Titanium Dioxide in Skittles? As confirmed by http://www.wrigley.com/global/brands/skittles.aspx, yes, there is TiO2 in Skittles.

TiO2 is an inexpensive semiconductor material used to construct solar cells and photocatalysts because of its favorable electronic properties. TiO2 nanoparticles are also a UV-blocking ingredient in sunscreens. Titanium, by mass alone, can compose anywhere from 1% to an upwards of 10% of the product.

So why are they in our candy? “Doctor / Professor” Wikipedia says,

Titanium dioxide is the most widely used white pigment because of its brightness and very high refractive index, in which it is surpassed only by a few other materials. Approximately 4.6 million tons of pigmentary TiO2 are used annually worldwide, and this number is expected to increase as utilization continues to rise. When deposited as a thin film, its refractive index and colour make it an excellent reflective optical coating for dielectric mirrors and some gemstones like “mystic fire topaz“. TiO2 is also an effective opacifier in powder form, where it is employed as a pigment to provide whiteness and opacity to products such as paints, coatings, plastics, papers, inks, foods, medicines (i.e. pills and tablets) as well as most toothpastes. In paint, it is often referred to offhandedly as “the perfect white”, “the whitest white”, or other similar terms.

So there it is. For pigment. TiO2 can also be found in certain brands of skim milk, where it is a used to improve “whiteness.” [Yummy.] Another site I visited estimates that children consume 1-2 mg of TiO2 per day via the consumption of candy containing TiO2 as a pigment agent.

How worried do we need to be? The ingredient has been extensively researched and we can find some articles here, that tell us we don’t need to worry about adverse effects on our health. But, if anything we should be wrinkling brows over how these nanoparticles interact with our environment, sloshing around in our oceans and being swallowed up by all varieties of creatures.

For a list of a few other cosmetic items and consumables containing TiO2 nanoparticles, see http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3288463/

Other sources: