Category Archives: Science

My thoughts on non-physics sciences — like evolutionary biology, cognitive neuroscience etc.

Autism and Genius

Most things in life are distributed normally, which means they all show a bell curve when quantified using a sensible measure. For instance, the marks scored by a large enough number of students has a normal distribution, with very few scoring close to zero or close to 100%, and most bunching around the class average. This distribution is the basis for letter grading. Of course, this assumes a sensible test — if the test is too easy (like a primary school test given to university students), everybody would score close to 100% and there would be no bell curve, nor any reasonable way of letter-grading the results.

If we could sensibly quantify traits like intelligence, insanity, autism, athleticism, musical aptitude etc, they should all form normal Gaussian distributions. Where you find yourself on the curve is a matter of luck. If you are lucky, you fall on the right side of the distribution close to the tail, and if you are unlucky, you would find yourself near the wrong end. But this statement is a bit too simplistic. Nothing in life is quite that straight-forward. The various distributions have strange correlations. Even in the absence of correlations, purely mathematical considerations will indicate that the likelihood of finding yourself in the right end of multiple desirable traits is slim. That is to say, if you are in the top 0.1% of your cohort academically, and in terms of your looks, and in athleticism, you are already one in a billion — which is why you don’t find many strikingly handsome theoretical physicists who are also ranked tennis players.

The recent world chess champion, Magnus Carlsen, is also a fashion model, which is news precisely because it is the exception that proves the rule. By the way, I just figured out what that mysterious expression “exception that proves the rule” actually meant — something looks like an exception only because as a general rule, it doesn’t exist or happen, which proves that there is a rule.

Getting back to our theme, in addition to the minuscule probability for genius as prescribed by mathematics, we also find correlations between genius and behavioral pathologies like insanity and autism. A genius brain is probably wired differently. Anything different from the norm is also, well, abnormal. Behavior abnormal when judged against the society’s rules is the definition of insanity. So there is a only a fine line separating insanity from true genius, I believe. The personal lives of many geniuses point to this conclusion. Einstein had strange personal relationships, and a son who was clinically insane. Many geniuses actually ended up in the looney bin. And some afflicted with autism show astonishing gifts like photographic memory, mathematical prowess etc. Take for instance, the case of autistic savants. Or consider cases like Sheldon Cooper of The Big Bang Theory, who is only slightly better than (or different from) the Rain Man.

I believe the reason for the correlation is the fact that the same slight abnormalities in the brain can often manifest themselves as talents or genius on the positive side, or as questionable gifts on the negative side. I guess my message is that anybody away from the average in any distribution, be it brilliance or insanity, should take it with neither pride nor rancor. It is merely a statistical fluctuation. I know this post won’t ease the pain of those who are afflicted on the negative side, or eliminate the arrogance of the ones on the positive side. But here’s hoping that it will at least diminish the intensity of those feelings…

Seeing and Believing

When we open our eyes and look at some thing, we see that damn thing. What could be more obvious than that, right? Let’s say you are looking at your dog. What you see is really your dog, because, if you want, you can reach out and touch it. It barks, and you can hear the woof. If it stinks a bit, you can smell it. All these extra perceptual clues corroborate your belief that what you are seeing is your dog. Directly. No questions asked.

Of course, my job on this blog is to ask questions, and cast doubts. First of all, seeing and touching seem to be a bit different from hearing and smelling. You don’t strictly hear your dog bark, you hear its sound. Similarly, you don’t smell it directly, you smell the odor, the chemical trail the dog has left in the air. Hearing and smelling are three place perceptions — the dog generates sound/odor, the sound/odor travels to you, you perceive the sound/odor.

But seeing (or touching) is a two place thing — the dog there, and you here perceiving it directly. Why is that? Why do we feel that when we see or touch something, we sense it directly? This belief in the perceptual veracity of what we see is called naive realism. We of course know that seeing involves light (so does touching, but in a much more complicated way), what we are seeing is the light reflected off an object and so on. It is, in fact, no different from hearing something. But this knowledge of the mechanism of seeing doesn’t alter our natural, commonsense view that what we see is what is out there. Seeing is believing.

Extrapolated from the naive version is the scientific realism, which asserts that our scientific concepts are also real, eventhough we may not directly perceive them. So atoms are real. Electrons are real. Quarks are real. Most of our better scientists out there have been skeptical about this extraploation to our notion of what is real. Einstein, probably the best of them, suspected that even space and time might not be real. Feynman and Gell-Mann, after developing theories on electrons and quarks, expressed their view that electrons and quarks might be mathematical constructs rather than real entities.

What I am inviting you to do here is to go beyond the skepticism of Feynman and Gell-Mann, and delve into Einstein’s words — space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions in which we live. The sense of space is so real to us that we think of everything else as interactions taking place in the arena of space (and time). But space itself is the experience corresponding to the electrical signals generated by the light hitting your retina. It is a perceptual construct, much like the tonality of the sound you hear when air pressure waves hit your ear drums. Our adoption of naive realism results in our complete trust in the three dimensional space view. And since the world is created (in our brain as perceptual constructs) based on light, its speed becomes an all important constant in our world. And since speed mixes space and time, a better description is found in a four dimensional Minkowski geometry. But all these descriptions are based on perceptual experiences and therefore unreal in some sense.

I know the description above is highly circular — I talked about space being a mental construct created by light traveling through, get this, space. And when I speak of its speed, naturally, I’m talking about distance in space divided by time, and positing as the basis for the space-time mixing. This circularity makes my description less than clear and convincing. But the difficulty goes deeper than that. You see, all we have is this cognitive construct of space and time. We can describe objects and events only in terms of these constructs even when we know that they are only cognitive representations of sensory signals. Our language doesn’t go beyond that. Well, it does, but then we will be talking the language, for instance, of Advaita, calling the constructs Maya and the causes behind them Brahman, which stays unknowable. Or, we will be using some other parallel descriptions. These descriptions may be profound, wise and accurate. But ultimately, they are also useless. It reminds me of those two guys lost while flying around in a hot-air balloon. Finally they see a man on the ground and shout,
  “Hey, can you tell us where we are?”
The complete accurate and useless reply is,
  “You are in a hot-air balloon about 100 ft above sea level.”
The guy on the ground must have been a philosopher.

But if philosophy is your thing, the discussions of cognitive constructs and unknown causations are not at all useless. Philosophy of physics happens to be my thing, and so I ask myself — what if I assume the unknown physical causes exist in a world similar to our perceptual construct? I could then propagate the causes through the process of perception and figure out what the construct should look like. I know, it sounds a bit complex, but it is something that we do all the time. We know, for instance, that the stars that we see in the night sky are not really there — we are seeing them the way they were a few (or a few million or billion) years ago because the light from them takes a long time to reach us. Physicists also know that the perceived motion of celestial objects also need to be corrected for these light-travel-time effects.

In fact, Einstein used the light travel time effects as the basis for deriving his special theory of relativity. He then stipulated that space and time behave the way we perceive them, derived using the said light-travel-time effects. This, of course, is based on his deep understanding that space and time are “the modes by which we think,” but also based on the assumption that the the causes behind the modes also are similar to the modes themselves. This depth of thinking is lost on the lesser scientists that came after him. The distinction between the modes of thinking and their causation is also lost, so that space and time have become entities that obey strange rules. Like bent spoons.

Average Beauty

If you have migrated multiple times in your life, you may have noticed a strange thing. The first time you end up in a new place, most people around you look positively weird. Ugly even. But slowly, after a year or two, you begin to find them more attractive. This effect is more pronounced if the places you are migrating from and to have different racial predominance. For example, if you migrate from the US to Japan, or from India to China. As usual, I have a theory about this strange phenomenon. Well, actually, it is more than a theory. Let me begin at the beginning.

About fifteen years ago, I visited a Japanese research institute that did all kinds of strange studies. One of the researchers there showed me his study on averaging facial features. For this study, he took a large number of Japanese faces, and averaged them (which meant he normalized the image size and orientation, digitally took the mean on a pixel-by-pixel basis). So he had an average Japanese male face and an average Japanese female face. He even created a set of hybrids by making linear combinations of the two with different weighting factors. He then showed the results to a large number of people and recorded their preference in terms of the attractiveness of the face. The strange thing was that the average face looked more pleasant and attractive to the Japanese eye than any one of the individual ones. In fact, the most attractive male face was the one that had a bit of female features in it. That is to say, it was the one with 90% average male and 10% average female (or some such combination, I don’t remember the exact weights).

The researcher went one step further, and created an average caucasian face as well. He then took the difference between that and an average Japanese face, and then superimposed the difference on an average face with exaggerated weights. The result was a grotesque caricature, which he postulated, was probably the way a Japanese person would see a caucasian for the first time.

This reminded me of the time when I visited my housemate’s farm in a small town in Pennsylvania – a town so small that the street in front the farm was named after him! I went with his parents to the local grocery store, and there was this little girl sitting in a shopping cart who went wide-eyed when she saw me. She couldn’t take her eyes off me after that. May be, seeing an Indian face for the first time in her life, she saw a similar caricature and got scared.

Anyway, my conjecture is that an averaging similar to what the Japanese researcher did happens in all of us when we migrate. First our minds see grotesque and exaggerated difference caricatures between the faces we encounter and the ones we were used to, in our previous land. Soon, our baseline average changes as we get more used to the faces around us. And the difference between what we see and our baseline ceases to be big, and we end up liking the faces more and more as they move progressively closer to the average, normal face.

Here are the average male and female faces by race or country. Notice how each one of them is a remarkably handsome or beautiful specimen. If you find some of them not so remarkable, you should move to that country and spend a few years there so that they also become remarkable! And, if you find the faces from a particular country especially attractive, with no prolonged expsosure to such faces, I would like to hear your thoughts. Please leave your comments.


[I couldn't trace the original sources of these images. If you know them, please let me know -- I would like to get copyright permissions and add attributions.]

There is more to this story than I outlined here. May be I will add my take on it as a comment below. However, the moral of the story is that if you consider yourself average, you are probably more attractive than you think you are. Than again, what do I know, I’m just an average guy. :-)

If you found this post interesting, you may also enjoy:

  1. Why is seeing not quite believing?
  2. Sophistication

Do You Believe in God?

I got in trouble for asking this question once. The person I asked the question got angry because she felt that it was too personal. So I am not going to ask you whether you believe in God. Don’t tell me — I will tell you! I will also tell you a bit more about your personality later in this post.

Ok, here is the deal. You take the quiz below. It has over 40 true-or-false questions about your habits and mannerisms. Once you answer them, I will tell you whether you believe in God, and if so, how much. If you get bored after say 20 questions or so, it is okay, you can quit the quiz and get the score. But the more questions you answer, the more accurate my guess about your faith is going to be.

q: When you walk into a theater, classroom, or auditorium (and assuming that there are no other influential factors), you tend to sit on the right side.
a: false
q: When taking a test, you prefer an objective style of questions (true/false, multiple choice, matching) rather than subjective (essays).
q: You often have hunches.
a: false
q: When you do have hunches, you follow them.
a: false
q: You have a place for everything and keep everything in its place.
q: When you are learning a dance step, it is easy for you to learn by imitating the teacher and getting the feel of the music.
a: false
q: When you are learning a dance step, it easier for you to learn the sequence of movements and talk your way through the steps.
q: You prefer to keep the same arrangement of your furniture; you don’t like to move occasionally.
q: You can tell approximately how much time passed without a watch.
q: It is easier for you to understand algebra than geometry (speaking in strictly relative terms).
q: It easier for you to remember people’s faces rather than their names.
a: false
q: When given the topic “school”, you would prefer to express your feelings through writing rather than drawings.
q: When some one is talking to you, you respond to the word meaning, rather than the person’s word pitch and feelings.
q: When speaking, you use few gestures. (i.e., you very seldom your hands when you talk.)
q: Your desk or your work area is neat and organized.
q: It is easier for you to read to grasp the main ideas rather than specific details.
a: false
q: You do your best thinking sitting erect, rather than lying down.
q: You feel more comfortable saying/doing well-reasoned things rather than humorous things.
q: In math, you can explain how you got the answer.
q: You always wear a watch.
q: You keep a journal.
q: You believe there is a right and a wrong way to do everything.
q: You have difficulty following clear step-by-step directions.
a: false
q: The expression “Life is just a bowl of cherries” makes no sense to you.
q: You like it when people stick to their schedule.
q: If somebody asked you for directions to get somewhere, you would give clear step-by-step instructions rather than draw a map.
q: If you lost something, you would try to remember where you saw it or used it last rather than look for it everywhere.
q: If you don’t know which way to turn, you would think taking a chance (tossing a coin, for example) is as good as going with your instincts.
q: You are pretty good at math.
q: If you had to assemble something, you’d read the directions first.
q: You are almost always on time getting places.
q: You set goals for yourself so that you don’t slack off.
q: When somebody asks you a question, you turn your head to the left.
a: false
q: If you have a tough decision to make, you write down the pros and the cons.
q: You would make a good detective.
q: You are musically inclined.
a: false
q: You believe there are two sides to every story.
a: false
q: You keep a to-do list.
q: You feel comfortable expressing yourself with words (writing), rather than pictures and colors (drawing).
q: Before you take a stand on an issue, you get all the facts.
q: You often lose track of time.
a: false
q: If you forgot someone’s name, you would go through the alphabet until you remembered it.
q: When you are confused, you usually try to figure it out rather than go with your gut instinct.
q: You have considered becoming a lawyer, journalist, or doctor (but not a poet, a politician, an architect, or a dancer).

Once you have your score (or rate, if you didn’t finish the quiz), click on the button corresponding to it.


Here is how it works. There is a division of labor going on in our brain, according to the theory of hemispheric specialization of brain functions. In this theory, the left hemisphere of the brain is considered the origin of logical and analytical thinking, and the right hemisphere is the origin of creative and intuitive thinking. The so-called left-brain person is thought to be linear, logical, analytical, and unemotional; and the right-brained person is thought to be spatial, creative, mystical, intuitive, and emotional.

This notion of hemispheric specialization raises an interesting question: is atheism related to the logical hemisphere? Are atheists less emotional? I think so, and this test is based on that belief. The quiz tests whether you are “left-brain” person. If you score high, your left-brain is dominant, and you are likely to be more analytical and logical than intuitive or creative. And, according to my conjecture, you are likely to be an atheist. Did it work for you?

Well, even if it didn’t, now you know whether you are analytical or intuitive. Please leave a comment to let me know how it worked.

[This post is an edited excerpt from my book The Unreal Universe]

Are You an Introvert?

Here is a simple 20-question quiz to see if you are an introvert or an extrovert. Introverts tend to agree with most of these statements. So if you get a score of close to 100%, you are a confirmed introvert, which is not a bad thing. You are likely to be a quiet, contemplative type with strong family ties and a generally balanced outlook in life. On the other hand, if you get close to 0%, congratulations, I see stock options in your future. And you are a party animal and believe that life is supposed to be wall-to-wall fun, which it will be for you. I’m not too sure of those in the middle though.

I prefer one-on-one conversations to group activities.
I often prefer to express myself in writing.
I enjoy solitude.
I seem to care about wealth, fame, and status less than my peers.
I dislike small talk, but I enjoy talking in-depth about topics that matter to me.
People tell me that I’m a good listener.
I’m not a big risk-taker.
I enjoy work that allows me to “dive in” with few interruptions.
I like to celebrate birthdays on a small scale, with only one or two close friends or family members.
People describe me as “soft-spoken” or “mellow.”
I prefer not to show or discuss my work with others until it’s finished.
I dislike conflict.
I do my best work on my own.
I tend to think before I speak.
I feel drained after being out and about, even if I’ve enjoyed myself.
I often let calls go through to voice-mail.
If I had to choose, I’d prefer a weekend with absolutely nothing to do to one with too many things scheduled.
I don’t enjoy multi-tasking.
I can concentrate easily.
In classroom situations, I prefer lectures to seminars.
title: Are you an introvert?

These questions are from Susan Cain’s best seller, Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, and a prelude to my review of it. The questions are copyrighted to Cain, and are reproduced here with the understanding that it constitutes “fair use.” If you have any concerns about it, feel free to contact me.

The Student Debt Crisis

[Guest Post by By Sofia Rasmussen]

It has become common knowledge as certain as death and taxes that a college education leads to a better life. A recent Pew research poll found that Americans holding a Bachelor’s Degree can expect to make an additional $650,000 on average than those who have only graduated high school. That said, the loans many college students and parents need to take out to pay for higher education have college graduates asking themselves if it’s all worth it. Students are asking if that trip to MIT really a good investment at a 7% compounding interest rate and if going to Harvard is really worth that much more than a top online PhD degree. As debt increases, recent graduates are entering the workforce already overwhelmed, and economists are speculating as to whether the current trends in student loans may be leading to the nation’s next major debt crisis.

It’s easy to see why student loan debtors and economists are concerned. According to a report by the National Association of Consumer Bankruptcy Attorneys, individual college seniors owed an average of $25, 250 in 2010, up 5 percent from 2009. These trends are no less staggering on a macro level, with 2011 representing the first time that US student loan debt exceeds $1 trillion, higher than the amount of credit card debt Americans have accrued.  A report from Standard and Poor’s states that ‘student loan debt has ballooned and may turn into a pricing bubble’.

The US is not the only nation facing student debt issues. India has been struggling to handle  student loan applications that have more than doubled in five years, thanks to growing aspirations among the their previously lower economic class. As more Indians attend university, the cost of educational degrees has been on the rise and Educational loans from self-financing institutions in engineering, medical fields and management have become widely used. Also rising is default on debt, and India’s banks have taken notice. Banks have aimed to address bad loans by linking loan approval to employability. It is telling, then, that India’s banks do not provide any loan at all for a degree in Arts.

Whether or not student loan debt will lead to disaster for the economy at large remains to be seen, but for recent graduates, the crisis is readily apparent. Owing $25 thousand without ever having a full-time job or experience in one’s desired field can have a profound psychological effect. The student loan anxiety can impact job decisions throughout an entire career. Even if there are openings in the fields they specialize in during college, the burden of debt leads recent graduates to opt for work with the fewest potential risks. Often this work is outside of a student’s preferred field or less intellectually stimulating than they’re capable of handling. According to a recent article in The New York Times, only half the jobs landed by new graduates even require a college degree. A graduate with a degree in Arts may be dismayed to find there is little market for a vast and intricate knowledge of WWII era British Literature, even if they had found their knowledge of the subject lead to great success in college.

While the outlook is better for a sciences graduate, they too are often saddled with work in fields that are very different from what they passionately studied at university. There is certainly no lack of need in the sciences, but often graduates with little experience outside of the classroom are saddled with grueling hours and demanding work, work they would never take if it  weren’t for the threat of crushing debts to pay off.

Even as the cost of education continues to rise, parents around the world happily risk tens of thousands of dollars to send their children to best schools they can afford. For most young people, college remains a good investment. What may be changing is the sense of freedom that has traditionally been associated with college. Students may be expected to know exactly what they want to study much earlier in their educational career, perhaps even choosing specialized skill schools as opposed to the more rounded university experience. While it’s true, this may result in less culturally savvy graduates, for many students it may be the practical solution for an economically feasible life.

Bye Bye Einstein

Starting from his miraculous year of 1905, Einstein has dominated physics with his astonishing insights on space and time, and on mass and gravity. True, there have been other physicists who, with their own brilliance, have shaped and moved modern physics in directions that even Einstein couldn’t have foreseen; and I don’t mean to trivialize neither their intellectual achievements nor our giant leaps in physics and technology. But all of modern physics, even the bizarre reality of quantum mechanics, which Einstein himself couldn’t quite come to terms with, is built on his insights. It is on his shoulders that those who came after him stood for over a century now.

“Science alone of all the subjects contains within itself the lesson of the danger of belief in the infallibility of the greatest teachers in the preceding generation. Learn from science that you must doubt the experts. As a matter of fact, I can also define science another way: Science is the belief in the ignorance of experts.”
— Richard Feynman

One of the brighter ones among those who came after Einstein cautioned us to guard against our blind faith in the infallibility of old masters. Taking my cue from that insight, I, for one, think that Einstein’s century is behind us now. I know, coming from a non-practicing physicist, who sold his soul to the finance industry, this declaration sounds crazy. Delusional even. But I do have my reasons to see Einstein’s ideas go.

[animation]Let’s start with this picture of a dot flying along a straight line (on the ceiling, so to speak). You are standing at the centre of the line in the bottom (on the floor, that is). If the dot was moving faster than light, how would you see it? Well, you wouldn’t see anything at all until the first ray of light from the dot reaches you. As the animation shows, the first ray will reach you when the dot is somewhere almost directly above you. The next rays you would see actually come from two different points in the line of flight of the dot — one before the first point, and one after. Thus, the way you would see it is, incredible as it may seem to you at first, as one dot appearing out of nowhere and then splitting and moving rather symmetrically away from that point. (It is just that the dot is flying so fast that by the time you get to see it, it is already gone past you, and the rays from both behind and ahead reach you at the same instant in time.Hope that statement makes it clearer, rather than more confusing.).

[animation]Why did I start with this animation of how the illusion of a symmetric object can happen? Well, we see a lot of active symmetric structures in the universe. For instance, look at this picture of Cygnus A. There is a “core” from which seem to emanate “features” that float away to the “lobes.” Doesn’t it look remarkably similar to what we would see based on the animation above? There are other examples in which some feature points or knots seem to move away from the core where they first appear at. We could come up with a clever model based on superluminality and how it would create illusionary symmetric objects in the heavens. We could, but nobody would believe us — because of Einstein. I know this — I tried to get my old physicist friends to consider this model. The response is always some variant of this, “Interesting, but it cannot work. It violates Lorentz invariance, doesn’t it?” LV being physics talk for Einstein’s insistence that nothing should go faster than light. Now that neutrinos can violate LV, why not me?

Of course, if it was only a qualitative agreement between symmetric shapes and superluminal celestial objects, my physics friends are right in ignoring me. There is much more. The lobes in Cygnus A, for instance, emit radiation in the radio frequency range. In fact, the sky as seen from a radio telescope looks materially different from what we see from an optical telescope. I could show that the spectral evolution of the radiation from this superluminal object fitted nicely with AGNs and another class of astrophysical phenomena, hitherto considered unrelated, called gamma ray bursts. In fact, I managed to publish this model a while ago under the title, “Are Radio Sources and Gamma Ray Bursts Luminal Booms?“.

You see, I need superluminality. Einstein being wrong is a pre-requisite of my being right. So it is the most respected scientist ever vs. yours faithfully, a blogger of the unreal kind. You do the math. :-)

Such long odds, however, have never discouraged me, and I always rush in where the wiser angels fear to tread. So let me point out a couple of inconsistencies in SR. The derivation of the theory starts off by pointing out the effects of light travel time in time measurements. And later on in the theory, the distortions due to light travel time effects become part of the properties of space and time. (In fact, light travel time effects will make it impossible to have a superluminal dot on a ceiling, as in my animation above — not even a virtual one, where you take a laser pointer and turn it fast enough that the laser dot on the ceiling would move faster than light. It won’t.) But, as the theory is understood and practiced now, the light travel time effects are to be applied on top of the space and time distortions (which were due to the light travel time effects to begin with)! Physicists turn a blind eye to this glaring inconstancy because SR “works” — as I made very clear in my previous post in this series.

Another philosophical problem with the theory is that it is not testable. I know, I alluded to a large body of proof in its favor, but fundamentally, the special theory of relativity makes predictions about a uniformly moving frame of reference in the absence of gravity. There is no such thing. Even if there was, in order to verify the predictions (that a moving clock runs slower as in the twin paradox, for instance), you have to have acceleration somewhere in the verification process. Two clocks will have to come back to the same point to compare time. The moment you do that, at least one of the clocks has accelerated, and the proponents of the theory would say, “Ah, there is no problem here, the symmetry between the clocks is broken because of the acceleration.” People have argued back and forth about such thought experiments for an entire century, so I don’t want to get into it. I just want to point out that theory by itself is untestable, which should also mean that it is unprovable. Now that there is direct experimental evidence against the theory, may be people will take a closer look at these inconsistencies and decide that it is time to say bye-bye to Einstein.

Why not Discard Special Relativity?

Nothing would satisfy my anarchical mind more than to see the Special Theory of Relativity (SR) come tumbling down. In fact, I believe that there are compelling reasons to consider SR inaccurate, if not actually wrong, although the physics community would have none of that. I will list my misgivings vis-a-vis SR and present my case against it as the last post in this series, but in this one, I would like to explore why it is so difficult to toss SR out the window.

The special theory of relativity is an extremely well-tested theory. Despite my personal reservations about it, the body of proof for the validity of SR is really enormous and the theory has stood the test of time — at least so far. But it is the integration of SR into the rest of modern physics that makes it all but impossible to write it off as a failed theory. In experimental high energy physics, for instance, we compute the rest mass of a particle as its identifying statistical signature. The way it works is this: in order to discover a heavy particle, you first detect its daughter particles (decay products, that is), measure their energies and momenta, add them up (as “4-vectors”), and compute the invariant mass of the system as the modulus of the aggregate energy-momentum vector. In accordance with SR, the invariant mass is the rest mass of the parent particle. You do this for many thousands of times and make a distribution (a “histogram”) and detect any statistically significant excess at any mass. Such an excess is the signature of the parent particle at that mass.

Almost every one of the particles in the particle data book that we know and love is detected using some variant of this method. So the whole Standard Model of particle physics is built on SR. In fact, almost all of modern physics (physics of the 20th century) is built on it. On the theory side, in the thirties, Dirac derived a framework to describe electrons. It combined SR and quantum mechanics in an elegant framework and predicted the existence of positrons, which bore out later on. Although considered incomplete because of its lack of sound physical backdrop, this “second quantization” and its subsequent experimental verification can be rightly seen as evidence for the rightness of SR.

Feynman took it further and completed the quantum electrodynamics (QED), which has been the most rigorously tested theory ever. To digress a bit, Feynman was once being shown around at CERN, and the guide (probably a prominent physicist himself) was explaining the experiments, their objectives etc. Then the guide suddenly remembered who he was talking to; after all, most of the CERN experiments were based on Feynman’s QED. Embarrassed, he said, “Of course, Dr. Feynman, you know all this. These are all to verify your predictions.” Feynman quipped, “Why, you don’t trust me?!” To get back to my point and reiterate it, the whole edifice of the standard model of particle physics is built on top of SR. Its success alone is enough to make it impossible for modern physics to discard SR.

So, if you take away SR, you don’t have the Standard Model and QED, and you don’t know how accelerator experiments and nuclear bombs work. The fact that they do is proof enough for the validity of SR, because the alternative (that we managed to build all these things without really knowing how they work) is just too weird. It’s not just the exotic (nuclear weaponry and CERN experiments), but the mundane that should convince us. Fluorescent lighting, laser pointers, LED, computers, mobile phones, GPS navigators, iPads — in short, all of modern technology is, in some way, a confirmation of SR.

So the OPERA result on observed superluminalily has to be wrong. But I would like it to be right. And I will explain why in my next post. Why everything we accept as a verification of SR could be a case of mass delusion — almost literally. Stay tuned!

Faster than Light

CERN has published news about some subatomic particles exceeding the speed of light, according to BBC and other sources. If confirmed true, this will remove the linchpin of modern physics — it is hard to overstate how revolutionary this discovery would be to our collective understanding of world we live in, from finest structure of matter to the time evolution of the cosmos. My own anarchical mind revels at the thought of all of modern physics getting rewritten, but I also have a much more personal stake in this story. I will get to it later in this series of posts. First, I want to describe the backdrop of thought that led to the notion that the speed of light could not be breached. The soundness of that scientific backdrop (if not the actual conclusion about the inviolability of light-speed) makes it very difficult to forgo the intellectual achievements of the past one hundred years in physics, which is what we will be doing once we confirm this result. In my second post, I will list what these intellectual achievements are, and how drastically their form will have to change. The scientists who discovered the speed violation, of course, understand this only too well, which is why they are practically begging the rest of the physics community to find a mistake in this discovery of theirs. As it often happens in physics, if you look for something hard enough, you are sure to find it — this is the experimental bias that all experimental physicists worth their salt are aware of and battle against. I hope a false negation doesn’t happen, for, as I will describe in my third post in this series, if confirmed, this speed violation is of tremendous personal importance to me.

The constancy (and the resultant inviolability) of the speed of light, of course, comes from Einstein’s Special Theory of Relativity, or SR. This theory is an extension of a simple idea. In fact, Einstein’s genius is in his ability to carry a simple idea to its logically inevitable, albeit counter-intuitive (to the point of being illogical!) conclusion. In the case of SR, he picks an idea so obvious — that the laws of physics should be independent of the state of motion. If you are in a train going at a constant speed, for instance, you can’t tell whether you are moving or not (if you close the windows, that is). The statement “You can’t tell” can be recast in physics as, “There is no experiment you can device to detect your state of motion.” This should be obvious, right? After all, if the laws kept changing every time you moved about, it is as good as having no laws at all.

Then came Maxwell. He wrote down the equations of electricity and magnetism, thereby elegantly unifying them. The equations state, using fancy vector notations, that a changing magnetic field will create an electric field, and a changing electric field will create a magnetic field, which is roughly how a car alternator and an electric motor work. These elegant equations have a wave solution.

The existence of a wave solution is no surprise, since a changing electric field generates a magnetic field, which in turn generates an electric field, which generates a magnetic filed and so on ad infinitum. What is surprising is the fact that the speed of propagation of this wave predicted by Maxwell’s equations is c, the speed of light. So it was natural to suppose that light was a form of electromagnetic radiation, which means that if you take a magnet and jiggle it fast enough, you will get light moving away from you at c – if we accept that light is indeed EM wave.

What is infinitely more fundamental is the question whether Maxwell’s equations are actually laws of physics. It is hard to argue that they aren’t. Then the follow-up question is whether these equations should obey the axiom that all laws of physics are supposed to obey — namely they should be independent of the state of motion. Again, hard to see why not. Then how do we modify Maxwell’s equations such that they are independent of motion? This is the project Einstein took on under the fancy name, “Covariant formulation of Maxwell’s equations,” and published the most famous physics article ever with an even fancier title, “On the Electrodynamics of Moving Bodies.” We now call it the Special Theory of Relativity, or SR.

To get a bit technical, Maxwell’s equations have the space derivatives of electric and magnetic fields relating to the time derivatives of charges and currents. In other words, space and time are related through the equations. And the wave solution to these equations with the propagation speed of c becomes a constraint on the properties of space and time. This is a simple philosophical look on SR, more than a physics analysis.

Einstein’s approach was to employ a series of thought experiments to establish that you needed a light signal to sync clocks and hypothesize that the speed of light had to be constant in all moving frames of reference. In other words, the speed of light is independent of the state of motion, as it has to be if Maxwell’s equations are to be laws of physics.

This aspect of the theory is supremely counter-intuitive, which is physics lingo to say something is hard to believe. In the case of the speed of light, you take a ray of light, run along with it at a high speed, and measure its speed, you still get c. Run against it and measure it — still c. To achieve this constancy, Einstein rewrote the equations of velocity addition and subtraction. On consequence of these rewritten equations is that nothing can go faster than light.

This is my long-winded description of the context in which the speed violation measured at OPERA has to be seen. If the violation is confirmed, we have a few unpleasant choices to pick from:

  1. Electrodynamics (Maxwell’s equations) is not invariant under motion.
  2. Light is not really electromagnetic in nature.
  3. SR is not the right covariant formulation of electrodynamics.

The first choice is patently unacceptable because it is tantamount to stating that electrodynamics is not physics. A moving motor (e.g., if you take your electric razor on a flight) would behave differently from a static one (you may not be able to shave). The second choice also is quite absurd. In addition to the numeric equality between the speed of the waves from Maxwell’s equations and the measured value of c, we do have other compelling reasons why we should believe that light is EM waves. Radio waves induce electric signals in an antenna, light knocks of electrons, microwaves can excite water molecules and cook food and so on.

The only real choice we are left with is the last one — which is to say SR is wrong. Why not discard SR? More reasons than a blog post can summarize, but I’ll try to summarize them any way in my next post.

The Unreal Universe

We know that our universe is a bit unreal. The stars we see in the night sky, for instance, are not really there. They may have moved or even died by the time we get to see them. This delay is due to the time it takes for light from the distant stars and galaxies to reach us. We know of this delay. The sun that we see now is already eight minutes old by the time we see it. This delay is not a big deal; if we want to know what is going on at the sun right now, all we have to do is to wait for eight minutes. We do have to “correct” for the delay in our perception due to the finite speed of light before we can trust what we see.

Now, this effect raises an interesting question — what is the “real” thing that we see? If seeing is believing, the stuff that we see should be the real thing. Then again, we know of the light travel time effect. So we should correct what we see before believing it. What then does “seeing” mean? When we say we see something, what do we really mean?

Seeing involves light, obviously. It is the finite (albeit very high) speed of light influences and distorts the way we see things. This fact should hardly come as a surprise because we do know that there is a delay in seeing objects like stars. What is surprising (and seldom highlighted) is that when it comes to seeing moving objects, we cannot back-calculate the same way we take out the delay in seeing the sun. If we see a celestial body moving at an improbably high speed, we cannot figure out how fast and in what direction it is “really” moving without making further assumptions. One way of handling this difficulty is to ascribe the distortions in our perception to the fundamental properties of the arena of physics — space and time. Another course of action is to accept the disconnection between our perception and the underlying “reality” and deal with it in some way.

This disconnect between what we see and what is out there is not unknown to many philosophical schools of thought. Phenomenalism, for instance, holds the view that space and time are not objective realities. They are merely the medium of our perception. All the phenomena that happen in space and time are merely bundles of our perception. In other words, space and time are cognitive constructs arising from perception. Thus, all the physical properties that we ascribe to space and time can only apply to the phenomenal reality (the reality as we sense it). The noumenal reality (which holds the physical causes of our perception), by contrast, remains beyond our cognitive reach.

One, almost accidental, difficulty in redefining the effects of the finite speed of light as the properties of space and time is that any effect that we do understand gets instantly relegated to the realm of optical illusions. For instance, the eight-minute delay in seeing the sun, because we can readily understand it and disassociate it from our perception using simple arithmetic, is considered a mere optical illusion. However, the distortions in our perception of fast moving objects, although originating from the same source are considered a property of space and time because they are more complex. At some point, we have to come to terms with the fact that when it comes to seeing the universe, there is no such thing as an optical illusion, which is probably what Goethe pointed out when he said, “Optical illusion is optical truth.”

The distinction (or lack thereof) between optical illusion and truth is one of the oldest debates in philosophy. After all, it is about the distinction between knowledge and reality. Knowledge is considered our view about something that, in reality, is “actually the case.” In other words, knowledge is a reflection, or a mental image of something external. In this picture, the external reality goes through a process of becoming our knowledge, which includes perception, cognitive activities, and the exercise of pure reason. This is the picture that physics has come to accept. While acknowledging that our perception may be imperfect, physics assumes that we can get closer and closer to the external reality through increasingly finer experimentation, and, more importantly, through better theorization. The Special and General Theories of Relativity are examples of brilliant applications of this view of reality where simple physical principles are relentlessly pursued using the formidable machine of pure reason to their logically inevitable conclusions.

But there is another, competing view of knowledge and reality that has been around for a long time. This is the view that regards perceived reality as an internal cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. In this view, knowledge and perceived reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate. What is external is not the reality as we perceive it, but an unknowable entity giving rise to the physical causes behind sensory inputs. In this school of thought, we build our reality in two, often overlapping, steps. The first step consists of the process of sensing, and the second one is that of cognitive and logical reasoning. We can apply this view of reality and knowledge to science, but in order do so, we have to guess the nature of the absolute reality, unknowable as it is.

The ramifications of these two different philosophical stances described above are tremendous. Since modern physics has embraced a non-phenomenalistic view of space and time, it finds itself at odds with that branch of philosophy. This chasm between philosophy and physics has grown to such a degree that the Nobel prize winning physicist, Steven Weinberg, wondered (in his book “Dreams of a Final Theory”) why the contribution from philosophy to physics have been so surprisingly small. It also prompts philosophers to make statements like, “Whether ‘noumenal reality causes phenomenal reality’ or whether ‘noumenal reality is independent of our sensing it’ or whether ‘we sense noumenal reality,’ the problem remains that the concept of noumenal reality is a totally redundant concept for the analysis of science.”

From the perspective of cognitive neuroscience, everything we see, sense, feel and think is the result of the neuronal interconnections in our brain and the tiny electrical signals in them. This view must be right. What else is there? All our thoughts and worries, knowledge and beliefs, ego and reality, life and death — everything is merely neuronal firings in the one and half kilograms of gooey, grey material that we call our brain. There is nothing else. Nothing!

In fact, this view of reality in neuroscience is an exact echo of phenomenalism, which considers everything a bundle of perception or mental constructs. Space and time are also cognitive constructs in our brain, like everything else. They are mental pictures our brains concoct out of the sensory inputs that our senses receive. Generated from our sensory perception and fabricated by our cognitive process, the space-time continuum is the arena of physics. Of all our senses, sight is by far the dominant one. The sensory input to sight is light. In a space created by the brain out of the light falling on our retinas (or on the photo sensors of the Hubble telescope), is it a surprise that nothing can travel faster than light?

This philosophical stance is the basis of my book, The Unreal Universe, which explores the common threads binding physics and philosophy. Such philosophical musings usually get a bad rap from us physicists. To physicists, philosophy is an entirely different field, another silo of knowledge, which holds no relevance to their endeavors. We need to change this belief and appreciate the overlap among different knowledge silos. It is in this overlap that we can expect to find great breakthroughs in human thought.

The twist to this story of light and reality is that we seem to have known all this for a long time. Classical philosophical schools seem to have thought along lines very similar to Einstein’s reasonings. The role of light in creating our reality or universe is at the heart of Western religious thinking. A universe devoid of light is not simply a world where you have switched off the lights. It is indeed a universe devoid of itself, a universe that doesn’t exist. It is in this context that we have to understand the wisdom behind the statement that “the earth was without form, and void” until God caused light to be, by saying “Let there be light.”

The Quran also says, “Allah is the light of the heavens and the earth,” which is mirrored in one of the ancient Hindu writings: “Lead me from darkness to light, lead me from the unreal to the real.” The role of light in taking us from the unreal void (the nothingness) to a reality was indeed understood for a long, long time. Is it possible that the ancient saints and prophets knew things that we are only now beginning to uncover with all our supposed advances in knowledge?

I know I may be rushing in where angels fear to tread, for reinterpreting the scriptures is a dangerous game. Such alien interpretations are seldom welcome in the theological circles. But I seek refuge in the fact that I am looking for concurrence in the metaphysical views of spiritual philosophies, without diminishing their mystical and theological value.

The parallels between the noumenal-phenomenal distinction in phenomenalism and the Brahman-Maya distinction in Advaita are hard to ignore. This time-tested wisdom on the nature of reality from the repertoire of spirituality is now being reinvented in modern neuroscience, which treats reality as a cognitive representation created by the brain. The brain uses the sensory inputs, memory, consciousness, and even language as ingredients in concocting our sense of reality. This view of reality, however, is something physics is yet to come to terms with. But to the extent that its arena (space and time) is a part of reality, physics is not immune to philosophy.

As we push the boundaries of our knowledge further and further, we are beginning to discover hitherto unsuspected and often surprising interconnections between different branches of human efforts. In the final analysis, how can the diverse domains of our knowledge be independent of each other when all our knowledge resides in our brain? Knowledge is a cognitive representation of our experiences. But then, so is reality; it is a cognitive representation of our sensory inputs. It is a fallacy to think that knowledge is our internal representation of an external reality, and therefore distinct from it. Knowledge and reality are both internal cognitive constructs, although we have come to think of them as separate.

Recognizing and making use of the interconnections among the different domains of human endeavor may be the catalyst for the next breakthrough in our collective wisdom that we have been waiting for.