Category Archives: Science

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

Other Known Conspiracies

A conspiracy theory remains a theory and fodder for crackpots until it is blown wide open. At that point, the crackpots become award winning journalists and the leaders who were considered national heroes become sociopathic criminals. Such is the fickleness of popular opinion, and so it will be with the 9/11 conspiracy when it becomes widely known (if it ever does) that it was a conspiracy.

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9/11 Debunkers

Personally, one of the main reasons I started taking the conspiracy theories about 9/11 seriously is the ardor and certainty of the so-called debunkers. They are so sure of their views and so ready with their explanations that they seem rehearsed, coached or even incentivized. Looking at the fire-induced, symmetric, and free-fall collapse of WTC7, how can anyone with any level of scientific background be so certain? The best a debunker could say would be something like, “Yes, the free-fall and the symmetry aspects of the collapse do look quite strange. But the official explanation seems plausible. At least, it is more plausible than a wild conspiracy by the government to kill 3000 of our own citizens.” But that is not at all the way they put it. They laugh at the conspiracy theories, make emotional statements about the technical claims, and ignore the questions that they cannot explain away. They toe the official line even when it is clearly unscientific. They try to attack the credibility of the conspiracy camp despite the obvious fact that it has the support of many seasoned professionals, like architects, physics teachers, structural engineers and university professors.

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9/11 – Motives for Mass Murder

In the first post in this series, we saw that 7 World Trade Center building was the smoking gun of a possible conspiracy behind the 9/11 attack. The manner in which it collapsed and the way the collapse was investigated are strong indications of a conspiracy and a cover up. However, when I first heard of the conspiracy theory in any serious form, the first question I asked myself was why – what possible motive could any person or organization have to commit mass murder at this scale? I honestly couldn’t see any, and as long as you don’t see one, you cannot take these conspiracy theories seriously. Of course, if you buy the official story that the conspiracy actually originated in Afghanistan among terrorist monsters, you don’t need to look for any rational motives.

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9/11 Conspiracy

Some people are more susceptible to conspiracy theories than others. I am one of them. But even to me, the 9/11 conspiracy theories sounded ludicrous at first. I couldn’t see any possible motivation for anyone to go and murder 3000 people, nor any possible way of getting away with it. But there were things that could not be explained in the way the buildings came down, especially the World Trade Center Building 7, WTC7. So I went through as much of the conspiracy literature, and their debunking as I could. After a month or so of casual research, I have to say that a conspiracy is plausible, and even likely. I thought I would share my thoughts here, with apologies to anyone who might find this line of thinking offensive.

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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…
Photo by Arturo de Albornoz

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.

Photo by General Press1

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 Rate. But the more questions you answer, the more accurate my guess about your faith is going to be.

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]

Photo by Waiting For The Word

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.

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.