Carl Sagan, and the Baloney Detection Kit

When asked to cite the most influential person to the way I perceive the universe I have no hesitation to say that it is Carl Sagan.

The first time I heard about Carl Sagan was in a Physics Lecture in year twelve at school. Our teacher had recorded the opening episode of Cosmos and from not too far into it my world view expanded and I’ve never looked at things the same way again. The original Cosmos television series from the 1980s is where Sagan entered most of our lives but for many it was through his academic works or the leading role he played in the American space program.

NASA gave Sagan three weeks to design a message to be engraved on two twenty three centimetre wide aluminium plaques attached to the Pioneer Deep Space Probes.

As well as his work in the scientific community Sagan also wrote fiction – I’ve found most of the best scientific minds also have a highly developed imagination.

He wrote the book Contact,  and in 1997  was made into a Hollywood movie staring Jodie Foster. At the end of this book (spoiler alert) the main character is labeled as a fraud and even begins to doubt her memory. She goes on to search for deeper meanings eventually in the last passage discovers the pattern of a perfect circle encrypted in the decimal places for the mathematical constant Pi. The gist of this revelation being that the shape of a circle, and if so, the universe was designed and did not simply spring into existence.

Initially I found this an odd inclusion for probably the world’s most famous atheist. But later reading his work The Demon Haunted World this is the sort of evidence that would pass all of the tests in his well publicised Baloney Detection Kit.

Sagan is a famous skeptic and this Baloney Detection Kit  provides a set of tools for testing arguments and detecting fallacious or fraudulent arguments:

Baloney Detection Kit

  • Wherever possible there must be independent confirmation of the facts.
  • Encourage substantive debate on the evidence by knowledgeable proponents of all points of view.
  • Arguments from authority carry little weight (in science there are no “authorities”).
  • Spin more than one hypothesis – don’t simply run with the first idea that caught your fancy.
  • Try not to get overly attached to a hypothesis just because it’s yours.
  • Quantify, wherever possible.
  • If there is a chain of argument every link in the chain must work.
  • Occam’s razor – if there are two hypotheses that explain the data equally well choose the simpler.
  • Ask whether the hypothesis can, at least in principle, be falsified (shown to be false by some unambiguous test). In other words, it is testable? Can others duplicate the experiment and get the same result?

“If you wish to make an apple pie from scratch, you must first create the universe.” — Carl E. Sagan, professor, Cosmos, 1980

Another of his books that is worth seeking out is The Varieties of Scientific Experience: A Personal View of the Search for God. It was published on the tenth anniversary of his death and is based on his famous Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology.

The suppression of uncomfortable ideas may be common in religion or in politics, but it is not the path to knowledge, and there’s no place for it in the endeavor of science. We do not know beforehand where fundamental insights will arise from about our mysterious and lovely solar system.

The history of our study of our solar system shows us clearly that accepted and conventional ideas are often wrong, and that fundamental insights can arise from the most unexpected sources. – Carl Sagan

“S” is for Carl Sagan

Ray Kurzweil…and the singularity

Ray Kurzweil, the Futurist, wrote The Age of Intelligent Machines between 1986 and 1989 and in it he extrapolated existing trends to make many predictions about technology. He predicted that:

by 1998 a computer would beat the world’s best chess player. In fact IBM’s Deep Blue computer beat the World Chess Champion Garry Kasparov.

He also stated that the Internet would explode not only in the number of users but in content as well, eventually granting users access “to international networks of libraries, data bases, and information services”.

Kurzweil wrote that, due to paradigm shifts, a trend of exponential growth will extend Moore’s law from integrated circuits to electromechanical computers. He predicts that the exponential growth will continue, and that in a few decades the computing power of all computers will exceed that of human brains, with superhuman artificial intelligence appearing around the same time.

Moore's Law, The Fifth Paradigm

In his most controversial prediction however Kurzweil postulates a law of accelerating return where by the improvements in technology increase exponetially to a point known as the Technological Singularity where the computer, medical, and material technology (nanotechnology) advances to enable artificial intelligence or amplification of human intelligence.

“The Singularity will allow us to transcend these limitations of our biological bodies and brains … There will be no distinction, post-Singularity, between human and machine.” Ray Kurzweil The Singularity is Near pg. 9

I have read many descriptions of the Technological Singularity but the most simple is that at this point artificial intelligence can improve itself faster than humans can and thay will do exactly that, effectivly cutting us out of the loop.

Although many technologists do not support the plausibility of a sudden change such as this, the issue is worthy of study by artificial intelligence reserchers.

R is for Ray Kurzweil – the Futurist

The Mars Series by Kim Stanley Robinson

Although Kim Stanley Robinson’s award-winning Mars Series , written in 1992, has been criticised for some failings for forsight, such as the exclusion of China from the multinational venture, and the larger than expected role of the Russian team following the real world collapse of the USSR. However, twenty years on the story does not feel dated as many other science fiction titles do.

The three original three volumes, Red, Blue, and Green Mars received acclaim (Nebula, Hugo, and BSFA awards) from both within and without the science fiction genre, and like the Apollo missions of NASA in the 1960’s this story of the colonisation and terraforming of Mars has inspired a new generation of scientists and philosophers to look towards our neighboring red planet with longing eyes and big dreams.

The Mars Series tells the story of the first one hundred humans to permanently settle on Mars.

It is the red planet itself though that drives the story forward, as both a character and the sense of “place” it provides.

Kim Stanley Robinson: science fiction's realist - The Guardian UK

Red Mars, the first book in the series, begins with a speach given by John Boone, the default leader of the multinational venture and “the first man on Mars”, at the opening of the first “tented” city of Nicosia. But then moves back to the selection of the first one hundred team on earth and then the departure of the Ares of the from earth orbit where it had been constructed.

The series contains all the admirable tropes of the science fiction genre but it is no “Space Opera” and it has received some negative criticism from with the genre because of this. It was with this series that new sub-genre of science fiction was coined; Future History. It reads like a novelisation of well known historic events rather than pure invention and this only enhances it realism.

In addition to the red planet itself as the driving force of the story, it is the extraordinarily detailed characters that stay with you. The structure of the books, particularly the narrative mode of third person subjective, lends itself to this end with the POV set with the one character for each chapter. Robinson’s writing is of such high quality that the reader cannot help but sympathies with these POV characters even when they could be considered antagonists.

I always feel a sense of loss when one chapter ends and I am summarily evicted from inside the head of the POV character who led the chapter. But this loss is more than balanced by the welcoming feeling when returning to a POV character that I’ve come to know intimately.

In 2012, the twentieth anniversary of the release of Red Mars, the series reads as fresh and thought provoking as it did when first published.

Kim Stanley Robinson’s latest work 2312 is due for release in late May 2012. Orbit publisher Tim Holman described the setting of this novel thusly:

2312 will be set in our solar system three hundred years from now; a solar system in which mankind has left Earth and found new habitats. This will be a novel for anyone curious to see what our future looks like – a grand science-fictional adventure in every sense.

It is number one on my list of recommended reads for both readers of SCI FI and fiction in general.

“M” is for the Mars Series

Learning…the teacher must learn the most

Today’s post is a cacophony of snip-its and quotes about learning and teaching.

From “The Years of Rice and Salt” by Kim Stanley Robinson

It is always the teacher who must learn the most, Bistami thought, or else nothing real has happened in the exchange.  Pg. 130

The word of God came down to man as rain to soil, and the result was mud, not clear water. (Bistami) Pg. 128

US edition coverFrom “Musashi” by Eiji Yoshikawa

At times like this, the world, which he once thought so full of stupid people, seemed frighteningly large. Pg. 472

After this experience, he realised how premature his judgement had been and how importent and useful randomly acquired bits of knowledge could subsequently be.Pg. 362

– I must have subconsciously picked this lesson up from a previous reading, or another source, as it is one of the items of advice I included in a conference presentation in 2002: “Listen to everything, try and understand everything, see everything. Time is only wasted if you do not listen. One day this knowledge will be useful in ways you do not expect.”

From “The Lone Samurai – the life of Myamoto Musashi” by William Scott Wilson

…the principles of swordsmanship must be understood as though the student himself had discovered them. This was a major departure from other sword styles of Musashi’s time.

From “The Martians” by Kim Stanley Robinson

Imbition is the tendency of granular rock to imbibe a fluid under the force of capillary attraction, in the absence of any pressure. Sax became convinced that this was a quality of mind as well. He would say of someone, “She has great imbition.” and people would say “Ambition?” and he would reply, “No imbition.” And because of his stroke people would assume he was just having speech trouble again. Pg. 337

From Quotes:

If you’re more relaxed I think your brain functions more effectively. Tibetans, generally speaking, are quite jovial. In my family we were always laughing. – Dalai Lama

Minds are like parachutes; they work best when open. – Lord Thomas Dewar

You must sit in a chair for a very long time, with your mouth open, before roast duck flies in. Chinese Proverb

If you are standing on the shoulders of giants, modesty is not only pointless, it is disrespectful.

Don’t limit a child to your own learning for they were born in another time. – Rabbinical saying

Teching in a martial art is a great place to learn the art of teaching (and learning), “there is nowhere to hide on the mat”, but the princples can be applied to any situation be it a business meeting, talking with your children, or writing a story/magizine article.

I have found that when most people teach or talk it is a one directional act. People immediately put up walls in their minds, even if they know the information is something they need to understand; it is primeval. You have to set up the environment so that they decide to draw the information in, then as a teacher you don’t force it on to them or spoon feed them, you just put the knowledge out there to be imbibed by their now open minds.

“L” is for Learning

Humanity, how do we ensure the survival of our species?

It’s to dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out… Sax Russell, from Kim Stanley Robinson‘s Red Mars

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap vi...

Mars, 2001, with the southern polar ice cap visible on the bottom. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Kim Stanley Robinson’s Mars Trilogy is top of my “Recommended Reads” list and I am featuring it and an authorial review on day M of the A to Z April Challenge (14 April).

In the first volume, Red Mars, Sax Russell, a scientist and one of the first 100 people on Mars has a long and thought-provoking monologue that I found life changing. I’ve included just an excerpt of it in this post; it was in response to Anne Clayborne’s case for leaving Mars as it is – too beautiful to risk loosing.

The beauty of Mars exists in the Human mind , … Without the human presence it is just a concentration of atoms, no different from any other random speck of matter in the universe.

It’s we who understand it, and we who give it meaning…

But science is more than that. Science is part of a larger human enterprise, and that enterprise includes going to the stars, adapting to other planets, adapting them to us. Science is creation. The lack of life here [on Mars] and th lack of any findings in 50 years of SETI indicates that life is rare, and intelligent life even rarer.

And yet the whole meaning of the universe, its beauty, is contained in the consciousness of intelligent life. We are the consciousness of the universe, and our job is to spread tha around, to go look at things, to live everywhere we can. It’s too dangerous to keep the consciousness of the universe on only one planet, it could be wiped out…

We can transform Mars and build a cathedral,  as a monument to humanity and the universe both!

This is more “one hand clapping” stuff I know but read in its entirety, and using the terraforming of Mars as a literary example, it makes a compelling argument, and one wonders why this argument is brushed aside by our nations’ leaders.

“H” is for Humanity