Tuesday, January 29, 2008

What you hear is what you get

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, psychology, hallucination, mysticism

Socrates, that irrepressible realist, often heard the voice of his "personal deity", his daimonion, and obeyed it explicitly. It was for this most of all that he was ordered to commit suicide ("corrupting youth" was a trumped-up charge).

The sacred scriptures of every religion, and nearly all of literature prior to the 18th Century, are full of people hearing the voices of muses, angels, demons, and deities.

Poets and other artistic creators speak of Muses such as Erato as inspiring (literally "in-breathing") their work. William Blake, shown here, was one such. [The original image is found at InterVoice, an online resource for people who hear voices.] Another resource for voice-hearers is Hearing Voices Network.

While overly rationalistic scientists, mainly psychologists and psychiatrists, have since the 1800s defined all voice-hearing as pathological, these two organizations are devoted to helping people who may be troubled by the voices they hear; even more, they are forums (fora?) for those who are not troubled by their voices, but by people's reaction to any discussion about them.

These and other resources are mentioned in Muses, Madmen, and Prophets: Rethinking the History, Science, and Meaning of Auditory Hallucinations by Daniel B. Smith. Dan Smith does not hear voices; he tried rather hard to induce the experience, without success. He was motivated (driven?) to study these phenomena because his father and grandfather heard voices very frequently; the former with torment, the latter with thanksgiving for their guidance. He prefers the term "Voice Hearing" rather than "Auditory Hallucination". So do I.

His title is well-chosen. Where voice hearing is not pathological, and sometimes when it does cause harm, it is often considered a divine experience. Mystics, Christian and otherwise, credit God or angels for the messages they hear.

Joan of Arc, seen in this painting by Jules Bastien-Lepage [image from the Metropolitan Museum of Art], took guidance from voices she began to hear at age thirteen. They trained her into the personality that could, at the age of seventeen, impose her will on the Dauphin Charles of France for most of a year. Sadly, her voices did not warn her of an ambush by the English, nor adequately guide her as, in her naivety, she spoke in terms the English clerics could only take as heretical. While fear of being burned prompted her to briefly recant, she soon returned, saying she preferred to die than to deny she had heard from holy saints and from God.

Today, "inner voices" are both feared and considered a joke. If you talk about "hearing things", you'd better be joking, or your closest friends might send for "guys in white jackets".

Because of the influence of psychiatry and its DSM-IV, any voice I might hear while someone right next to me (who is not deaf) cannot hear it, is considered a hallucination, which PsyWeb describes thus:
Hallucination can be auditory, olfactory, visual, or tactile. Hallucinations are false perceptions or unreal apparition. They do not correspond to the stimuli that is present and have no basis in reality. You have to remember that what is an hallucination in one culture, is not in another.
Despite the throw-away comment about cultural differences, the authors of the PsyWeb glossary clearly mean to deny any reality to such experiences.

I wonder if any of them is a Lutheran or a Quaker. Both Martin Luther and George Fox heard voices and accepted their guidance. So did Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Theresa of Ávila. When Jesus declared "The words that I say to you I do not speak from Myself, but the Father who abides in Me does His works", was "the Father who abides in Me" a hallucination? Was Saul of Tarsus hallucinating when he heard, "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute Me?"? He states that his attendants did not hear the voice, only he did. Were all the Hebrew prophets hallucinators?

Some researchers, such as Julian Jaynes, who wrote The Origin of Consciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind, propose that voice hearing was characteristic of the human brain when humans were "pre-conscious": To oversimplify, their right brain acted as an inner deity, giving advice and admonition to the left. This has produced a near-cult movement, the Julian Jaynes Society.

However, the prevailing opinion among non-Theists is that all such experiences are imaginary, that they take place only in the (diseased) brain. If that were true, at least a quarter of us—and I mean us Westerners, the most rationalistic and least spiritual of peoples—are subject to such "diseased" experiences. At least a quarter of Americans have heard a voice speaking that seemed to be outside them. I have, but no more than three or four times.

Author Smith relates how two researchers told blindfolded students (one at a time) they were about to hear "White Christmas", but didn't play the tune. After a half-minute of silence, they'd ask the student to rate the experience. Half reported hearing the song play in their head, and 5% thought they'd actually heard the music play in the room. The students tested had all been screened to make sure none were schizophrenic or otherwise mentally "unusual".

For me, as a Christian mystic, but one with few "exceptional" experiences, I am sympathetic to claims of voice-hearing. I believe both God and angels can speak, and that they have done so. I think it likely that Satan (an angel) and perhaps other evil spirits can also speak. Whether they use sound through the air or some more direct influence, I don't know.

Two lines of evidence lead me to believe that voices can be heard in "unconventional" ways. Firstly, direct brain stimulation with a low-voltage probe can induce recall of memories in full sensory regalia: sight, sound, touch, smell, and/or taste. They can also stimulate seeming sensory experiences that are not memories, including heard speech.

Secondly, a signal such as a spoken message that modulates an ultrasonic carrier wave can be focused tightly, and just the person at the focus will, because of the nonlinearity of the outer and middle ear, "rectify" the signal and hear the message. This could become a way for museums to present educational messages at chosen exhibits, that one hears only if one stands "inside the blue circle" or whatever.

In the book, the author goes into quite a bit of detail about Joan of Arc and Socrates, as poles of a mystical spectrum that is not pathological; perhaps I should say, two corners of a triangle that has pathology at its third corner. I know two psychotic people who hear voices that are in no way beneficial, so I know the experience can be very damaging. But I thank the author of the book, and the two organizations linked above, for promoting the interests of people who find the experience to be salutary.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

The most celebrated triglot

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, egyptology, ancient history, translations

The boy-king is on the verge of manhood. A few months shy of age 16, having "reigned" under a series of disastrous regencies for ten years already, and having bought the favor of the priests by promising massive tax reductions and rebates, he is about to be crowned in his own right.

The priests have generously agreed to institute a personality cult in his name, to produce and revere statues in his likeness for every temple and shrine in the land, and to have their "agreement" with him quite literally engraved in stone alongside each statue.

It is left unspoken that the priests, who hold all real power in the realm, will uphold his authority and keep the people (mostly) pacified. It is unforeseen at the time, but probably not unexpected, that they will have him assassinated just fourteen years later, to prevent a war.

It is not known how many statues of the young god-king were produced, or how many copies of the royal/clerical "treaty" were produced. One stone copy of the treaty, mostly complete, survives: the Rosetta Stone, seen here in its home for the past two centures, the British Museum.

When I told my wife I was reading a book about the Rosetta Stone, she asked, "The language program?" Being from Japan, where Chinese history is taught rather than Egyptian (or British, even), she'd never heard of it. I had to do a bit of explaining. What is it that makes this chunk of granite the most famous—at least in the West—monument smaller than Mount Rushmore?

Egyptology has occupied many of the best Western and Near-Eastern minds of the past two centuries. Dynastic Egypt, whose culture and language died out fifteen centuries ago, a culture chronicled by a written history that predates Bishop Ussher's calculation of the epoch of Noah's flood, with a spoken and written language a thousand years older than Chinese, has been for several centuries the archetypical mystery of mysteries, realm of ancient masters and arcane lore.

Speculation about the Egyptian language abounded for more than a millennium, but all was swept away in a few short years after the Rosetta Stone was discovered among construction rubble in 1799. The fascinating story is told in The Rosetta Stone and the Rebirth of Ancient Egypt by John Ray, an Egyptologist at Cambridge University.

These hieroglyphs, from the upper section of the Rosetta Stone, represent the sole writing system used for the Egyptian language prior to about 700BCE. Thereafter, the priests continued to use them for sacred writing for another thousand years or so, but everyone else used a more streamlined written language.

Demotic, as shown here, was actually easier to use, to remember, and to read. Though it also had died out, it was understood to be a primarily phonetic script, whereas its older cousin was considered by most to be purely pictorial...until Hieroghyphs were deciphered with the help of the Rosetta Stone.

The key to it all was Greek, shown here from the bottom portion of the Rosetta Stone. I picked these three selections from similar physical locations in a large image of the stone, so there is some chance that they are saying the same thing. Regardless, those who had the whole of the triple text to work with, despite the large missing pieces, made breakthrough after breakthrough until most of the symbols' pronunciations and/or meanings had been determined.

Decipherment continues. There is a huge corpus of material, and more is discovered from time to time. The dry Egyptian sand has proven capable of preserving fragile papyrus manuscripts for several thousand years. Documents that were discarded but not burnt remain to embarrass their former owners.

Dr. Ray chronicles the history of the Stone and the students it inspired. Chief among these were the Briton Thomas Young (of Young's Modulus, the Young-Helmholtz Theory of color vision,the Young-Laplace Equation for capillary attraction, and innovations in linguistics and insurance underwriting), and the Frenchman Jean-François Champollion, a much more focused Orientalist. The author shows the amazing work done by these men and others.

Champollion's understanding of both Coptic and Chinese led him to the most significant finding: that both Demotic and Hieroglyphic writing systems were a combination of pictographic and phonetic elements. Demotic, with only a fraction of the gamut of signs compated to Hieroglyphic, is much more phonetic.

It is a pity he didn't know Japanese. I consider it today's closest analogy to Hieroglyphic. This text, clipped from an ad on amazon.co.jp, contains four kinds of signs.

The first two characters, and about half of the total, are Kanji, derived from Chinese characters. There are about 7,000 of these in common use and many more known to more educated Japanese.

The three symbols that follow are phonetic characters, Hiragana, that represent the inflection of the word (its nominative and grammatical form). These three are seen at the end of the third line also, following a different Kanji word. There are 72 Hiragana, which represent syllables such as "so"; they are not "letters" as we understand them in English.

There is a second complete set of 72 syllables, the Katakana, used only for non-Japanese words, mainly names. The first five symbols on the third line and the first four on the fourth line are Katakana. Finally, the Japanese use Romaji, or "Roman letters" for certain European words and abbreviations, as seen in the fifth line. Later in the same ad "PlayStation 2" is spelled out in Romaji.

Imagine if, knowing only an alphabetic or phonemic written language, you were confronted with a Japanese newspaper. This was the situation of most Egyptologists prior to the work of Young and Champollion. Their series of inspired guesses and head-cracking deductions led to the first understanding of a language nobody had heard or read for 1,500 years.

To these men and their successors (including Dr. Ray), and to the Rosetta Stone, we owe our ability to know the ancient culture that is Egypt.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

What I tell you three times...

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, storytelling

Telling stories is the most human of human activities. Even autistic people tell stories (those who are capable of speech). In a disorderly, chaotic world, stories make the meaningless meaningful, the chaotic orderly, and the confusing sensible. We use stories to amuse ourselves and others, to "one-up" rivals, and ultimately to define who we are.

As a professor of American Culture and a practiced storyteller (both print and performance), Bruce Jackson is well suited to "look under the covers" of stories and storytelling in his book The Story is True: The Art and Meaning of Telling Stories.

As I began to read the book, I wondered if it might ruin stories for me. I remembered once, walking with a lady friend: as we passed a particularly lush lawn I noted that it was all crabgrass. I told this to my friend, stating that a grass that is so strong might as well be used for lawns; it thrived better than all our "bought" grasses. She scowled and said, "I thought it was real pretty until you said that."

Dr. Jackson delves into stories in three areas: Personal, Public, and "Too Good to be True" (but we accept them anyway).

We all tell stories, all the time. When my wife and I tell each other how our day went, we're condensing a confusing scramble of little-related events into two or three "bullet points" that meant something to us: we're telling stories. When a friend asks how my son is doing at college, most of my reply is in story form. When something amusing happens, I or a friend will recall a similar incident, highlighting the recitation to display the similarity, often with an amusing twist.

Are our stories true? Never, and always. Here is one I've told when instructing young spelunkers on the first principle of caving/climbing safety, "It IS possible to get into something you can't get out of":
My Dad sometimes took me hiking in the desert. Once, when I was 12, we took different paths. I would up climbing a cliff, until I got to a point where I couldn't go up, and could not see how to get back down. I was ~30 feet up. When he found me, he told me, step by step, what foot to move in what direction to find footholds so I could descend safely.
It is a true story, but I leave out a lot of details, such as that I hollered for a while, or the gray color of Dad's face when he caught sight of me.

Sometimes we read or hear a story and appropriate it, such as this one I have told a few times:
My family dined at Chinese restaurants a lot. I learned to use chop sticks very young. Once, right after we began eating, a waitress looked at us a moment, then dashed to the back of the restaurant. She returned with two small Chinese children, and said, "See, they eat with chop sticks!"
This could have happened to us, but it didn't. I read it in a Reader's Digest in the 1970s. But I've used it as though...Did I lie? Strictly speaking, yes. It is harder to say whether the rock-climbing story is wholly truthful because of all that I leave out. To this day (I am 60 now), Asians are amused and often remark on my skill with chop sticks. In a certain sense, then, the restaurant story is still happening.

Public stories are a more collective effort. The author dwells for a chapter and a half (and parts of others) on the story of O.J. Simpson's murder trial and the very public drama so many spent a year of their lives upon. The whole truth will never be told in full (unless someone gets to the murderer with a syringe of pentothal). But the story, a collaboration between the police, lawyers, judges, prosecutors, OJ, the victims' families, journalists, broadcasters and a hugely willing public, lives on and is still morphing this way and that, in two versions, a black one and a white one. On this stage, the race tensions of the mid-1990s were played out (By the way, I find it refreshing that, less than fifteen years later, Barack Obama is a serious contender for President. Things do change).

But OJ is not the only megastory of these times. Jackson discusses whether Bob Dylan was booed at Newport, the archetypical hero embodied in the Lone Ranger, the need to "break the mold" for some stories to be told, and the euphemisms public (and not-so-public) figures use to distance themselves from responsibility for the consequences of the stories they find themselves enacting: "Mistakes were made", or "Events resulted in the officer dying" (this by the officer's murderer).

The penultimate chapter chronicles a truly inventive imposter and the widespread fraud he perpetrated on the author and others. He was such a charming raconteur, that even those who knew he was lying let it continue for quite a while, until he got so far out on a limb nobody could keep silent any more.

Ultimately, while "the story [of our own life] is true," none of us can ever tell the whole truth—it would take longer in the telling than in the living. Somehow, most of us recognize the boundary between the lies we have to tell and those we don't. The "real liars" help us define that boundary.

Monday, January 21, 2008

We might really be exactly midscale

kw: musings, physical universe, sizes

As I prepared to review Mind, Life, and Universe, I spent a bit of time poring over a table that showed the Human size as just midway between the largest and smallest physical things, from quarks to galaxies. A few steps were missing, so I decided to produce my own table. First, some background.

The smallest dimension possible according to quantum mechanics is the Planck Length, 1.616252x10-35 meters. However, it is unlikely that anything will ever be measured to a precision in this range, because you have to use a probe with a wavelength in this range to "see" such details. For example, microscopes using visible light cannot show us details smaller than about half the wavelength of the light being used. Electron microscopes show us much smaller details because the wavelength is much smaller.

The trouble is that shorter wavelength implies higher energy. The proportionality constant I remember from classes in X-ray spectroscopy is 1,240 eV-nm; a particle having one electron volt (1 eV) of energy will have a wavelength of 1,240nm, or 1.24µm. Such a particle might be an infrared photon. Visible light, with wavelengths of 0.4µm to 0.7µm, is composed of photons with energies between 1.77eV and 3.10eV.

A "million-volt" electron microscope (such a machine was first touted to the public in newspaper stories in about 1960) produces electrons having a wavelength near 0.00124nm, about 100 times smaller than the diameter of an iron atom. However, it is hard to focus them that accurately, and atoms weren’t imaged until twenty years later. Also, such energetic electrons tend to knock orbital electrons out of your sample, so the target gets modified about as quickly as you can make the image: electrons running loose cause chemical changes.

The most energetic particle ever observed is called "Omigod " or the "Oh-my-God " particle, a cosmic ray observed in 1991 that had an energy equivalent to a well-thrown baseball, or a few million times as energetic as the particles the Large Hadron Collider will be producing later this year. If we could produce such particles regularly, we could probe a size scale a billion times smaller than a proton, but only by breaking that proton into skajillions of tiny pieces in the process! So I pick this particle’s wavelength as the smallest "practical" size.

At the large end of things, our best telescopes will never see deeper than about 13 billion light-years, because the Universe is only about 13 billion years old; there is no older light to show us farther things, even though cosmologists think the actual "size" of the Universe is between a few hundred billion to several trillion light-years. It will be a long time before any large portion of it becomes visible!

Each Step in the table below is a factor of 1,000 in size. (In the West, this is the Engineering scale convention; in Japan, they have a word for 10,000 and tend to use steps of 10,000 instead). With the Omigod particle at the small end and a very approximate guess as to the size of the total Universe as the other, we humans really are at the middle of the size range, logarithmically speaking [I can't get rid of an unconscionable amount of white space here. Sorry. Skip down quite a bit to find the table]:

StepSize Range, mNameEquivalent or Item
-1210-360.062 Planck Lengths
-1110-3361.9 Planck Lengths
-910-27Wavelength of "Omigod" cosmic ray (3x10+20eV) ~4x10-27m
-810-24yoctometer (ym)
-710-21zeptometer (zm)Wavelength of 7TeV particle in CERN's LHC accelerator 177zm (= 0.177am)
-610-18attometer (am)
-510-15femtometer (fm)Proton charge radius 0.87fm

Iron nucleus diameter ~4.5fm
-410-12picometer (pm)
-310-09nanometer (nm)Iron atom diameter: 0.28nm

AIDS virus diameter ~50nm
-210-06micrometer (µm)E. coli "rod": ~1 µm diameter x ~4µm length
-110-03millimeter (mm)Ball in ballpoint pen
01meter (m)Height of a 2-3 year old child
110+03kilometer (km)0.621 mile; a 10-15 minute walk
210+06megameter (Mm)1000 km. Asteroid Ceres diameter ~950km
310+09gigameter (Gm)Million km. Earth-moon distance ~0.38Gm
410+12terameter (Tm) Billion km. Jupiter orbit diameter ~1.6Tm
510+15petameter (Pm)0.106 light year (ly) = 0.0324 parsec (pc). Nearest Star 4.22ly=1.29pc=39.9Pm
610+18exameter (Em)106ly. Betelgeuse 427ly = 4.03Em
710+21zettameter (Zm)106,000ly. Large Magellanic Cloud 187,000ly = 1.8Zm; Andromeda galaxy 2.5 million ly = 24Zm
810+24yottameter (Ym)106 million ly. Visible Universe radius ~13 billion ly = 120Ym
910+27106 billion ly. "Cosmic Inflation" proposes a "total Universe" this size or larger

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Fantasy in ad hoc mode

kw: opinion, book note, fantasy

Once I finished reading White Night by Jim Butcher, I realized I just couldn't review it. The narrative is gripping enough, but the undercurrent of sadism easily matches anything I remember from reading my mother's collection of James Bond thrillers four-plus decades ago. The level of abuse the protagonist absorbs just getting to the end of the three-day story frame is, well, fantastic.

While there is a bit of lip service paid to rules and realms of magical arts, the fact is, every crisis is answered by another total surprise on the reader's part. This necessitates whole chapters of explainery. I found myself skimming hard to "get back to the story." Oh, well.

Saturday, January 12, 2008

36 fireside chats

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, scientists, interviews

The trouble with a book like Mind, Life, and Universe: Conversations with Great Scientists of Our Time is that it is all to easy to read one interview, then set the book aside and spend quite a bit of time musing. Lynn Margulis and Eduardo Punset are listed as the Editors, but in actuality, Dr. Punset conducted these interviews over a number of years, then he and Dr. Margulis organized them as to content. He is very well known in Spain for his science writing and on-air interviews.

Most of the chapters begin with a bit of commentary by the former, from a line or two to a page or more; the rest is a condensed interview (most of them began as a transcript of a conversation lasting an hour or two). From time to time, the latter Editor adds comments of her own as footnotes.

The content of each chapter is meaty enough to fuel a book of its own...and is often extracted from a meaty book or two by the interviewee. The Editors allowed each scientist to recommend two, and only two, books or articles, their own or others', for further reading. The seventy-plus items in "The Readings" would constitute a good starting library of science and ideas.

The "Great Scientists" of the subtitle is a bit hyped. Each of the thirty-seven scientists (one interview was of two of them together) has won renown—quite a number are Nobelists—, yet not that many are household names. I am better read than most, but recognized just under half the names. Guess I've a bit more reading to do!!

Anyway, because of the "think time" needed, I am at this point just over halfway through the book, and thought it best to report on it without further delay. It has been four days, after all. I'll begin something lighter, while I continue reading these interviews and giving each appropriate thought.

A few highlights that I have enjoyed so far:
  • For those who think office work burns them out, Robert Sapolsky might say, "For the typical mammal, stress is induced by another who is intent on eating you in the next two minutes."
  • Robert Hare says of psychopaths, "In a Utopian world, psychopaths would stand out, as they would be predators,... Even if we could achieve a perfect social utopia, the psychopaths would not disappear." I guess this is why Jesus said we must be "wise as serpents but harmless as doves." Those who are only "wise as doves" are the serpents' victims.
  • While interviewing Kenneth Kendler, Dr. Punset mentions work that indicates people with loose joints have higher anxiety. The ensuing discussion, however, seems to indicate the loose joints are the cause; to me, they are the effect: the anxious are prone to giving up.
  • I have no simple quote from the interview with Jane Goodall, but it was clearly brought out that she caused us all to re-define "human" several times during the forty years she studied Chimpanzees. Had we not done such re-definition, we'd have had to admit that chimps are human, or at least hominids (and I think they are hominids and belong in the genus Homo).
  • Diana Deutsch discovered a number of auditory illusions. Her web site has links to sound files that illustrate them. My favorite is the Tritone Paradox, in which two computer-generated, slightly buzzy notes are sounded: one, then the other. For some pairs, the first note sounds higher, and the reverse is true for other pairs. I had a colleague from Korea standing next to me as four of these were played. We agreed on three, but for one of the pairs, she thought the second note had a lower pitch, while I thought the second pitch was higher.
I may have further highlights later. I plan to copy the "Readings" list, and gather at least a few of the volumes therein.

Tuesday, January 08, 2008

Quantum giants humanized

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, quantum theory, scientists

A "simple" thought experiment: Suppose the Universe consisted of four items, two moving particles, an edge, and a sensitive screen. The first particle moves past the edge and strikes the screen. The second particle, moving in exactly the same path as the first as it approaches the edge, moves past the edge and strikes the screen.

The salient question: Does the second particle strike the screen at the same spot as the first? This question cannot be answered. Suppose both particles do strike the same spot on the screen. We must first ask, How can we know whether the two particles actually followed the same path?

The concept known as Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle states that we cannot measure both the position q and the momentum p (including direction) of any object with infinite precision. Heisenberg quantified his insight: pq≥ћ, where ћ is Planck's Constant, a very small quantity that has popped up everywhere since Planck first derived it to describe the quantization of "blackbody" radiation.

The philosophical question: does the attempt to measure either q or p by itself affect both quantities so that we can't be sure of their values, or do these quantities have a built-in "fuzziness" that attempts at measurement simply unveil?

In 1926 and 1927 Neils Bohr and a number of the giants of theoretical physics wrestled with the implications of quantum mechanics and quantum theory, and produced the Copenhagen Interpretation, which decided in favor of the latter, and furthermore, requires the presence of an "observer" to discern the result.

My own dissent against the Copenhagen Interpretation is this: In the thought experiment above, the Edge is "observer" enough. Its presence affects the path of the particle. No matter how far the particle "misses" the edge, its path will be changed, it will not continue as if there were no edge.

There is also some finite probability that the screen may record nothing. That is, the equation that describes diffraction near an edge has a sinusoidal shape of decreasing magnitude, but while that magnitude is zero for a series of angles, it is nonzero at all points except that specific series of angles, even near 180º.

Well, I may rant about these things further some day. These are some thoughts that arose after I finished reading Faust in Copenhagen: A Struggle for the Soul of Physics by Gino Segré. This book actually says little about such things. Segré presents to us the persons involved.

It is a combined biography, first of seven giants of quantum physics (Niels Bohr, Paul Ehrenfest, Lise Meitner, Werner Heisenberg, Wolfgang Pauli, Paul Dirac, and Max Delbrück), then to a lesser extent, of their collaborators, including Albert Einstein, Max Planck, and Enrico Fermi.

I'd always thought Bohr something of a jerk. I just knew the stories of his notorious tendency to argue until his opponent collapsed. Indeed, once when Heisenberg fled to his bed, Bohr sat at his bedside and argued him into insensibility. I never wondered why they tolerated it and came back for more. They loved him...no, they adored him. They knew he loved them even more.

The author, nephew of Nobel laureate Emilio Segré, a lesser giant among these titans, shows Bohr as a family man (he and Margrethe had six children, including a son who won a Nobel of his own), one whose "family" included dozens of physics students. Niels Bohr is the prototype of the scientist who needs others to do his science. He simply had to discuss in order to think. So if you went skiing with him, you could be sure of plenty of physics with your evening toddy.

Even the more, this collective biography shows that genius isn't the unique possession of any personality type. Paul Dirac was the nearest thing to a Vulcan, Paul Ehrenfest was insecure and eventually suicided, and Wolfgang Pauli could be as caustic as Jackie Leonard, yet was almost as beloved as Bohr.

The human side of science is clearly shown in books written in 1929-30 by Heisenberg, Pauli, and Dirac. Their subject and goal is the same, and their understanding of the subject was equivalent, but only Dirac's The Principles of Quantum Mechanics is still in print and in use. What they say is much the same, but the way they each connect with the reader differs. It is paradoxical that Dirac, the least personable, has the clearest writing style.

And what of the book's title? The last major meeting that the seven were supposed to attend (Pauli had to miss it) was Bohr's Copenhagen conference of April 1932. Those attending wrote and produced a skit, as they had before. This one was based on Goethe's Faust, in which the Lord (Bohr) and Mephistopheles (Pauli) dispute the fate of Faust (Ehrenfest). Quotes from Goethe's play are found throughout the book.

By 1932 the Copenhagen Interpretation was considered settled truth by most (Einstein was a notable exception). The skit was a loving look back at the wrangling that produced it, a chance to blow off some steam and mend fences.

World War II scattered the attendees, and many of them became developers of the nuclear bomb, which made their choice of Faust for their last revel all the more striking.

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Supergirl meets physics

kw: book reviews, science fiction, androids

Killswitch is the third novel of Joel Shepher's "Cassandra Kresnov" series. The series is approaching the limit of action-packing, on a level with books based on films like "Matrix" and "Terminator". I've commented on the author's skills and characterization before. He's gone a bit farther in the explicit sex department than before, to no good purpose that I can see...just pandering.

The prior novels established Ms Kresnov as a "best of the best" android superwarrior, tactician, cook, lover, and all-around great gal...an order of magnitude beyond "Ivan Skavinsky Skivar" in the old Crimean War ballad.

This time she has a handicap: She finds out that her brain contains a self-destruct mechanism, the killswitch, that can be activated over the network to which she is almost always wirelessly connected. So she is conveniently almost blinded at crucial times. She is also now only one of four androids at her level, and she has to fight—or ambush—a couple of them.

This time, I found myself wondering, what are the physical limits to performance of a human-size mechanism? I'll defer pondering brain power. Just how strong can her "myomer"-based muscle be, how fast can she run, and how high can she really jump?

In one scene, the author has a virtual sidebar that she has power enough to jump after low-flying aircraft, but too short a stroke to "realistically" jump higher than fifteen meters (~50 ft). If she weighs around 50kg, the gravitational potential to overcome is 7,350J. A one-meter stroke in her legs means an average 15 G's (height-to-stroke ratio), and probably double that in mid-stroke.

The leg bones of a healthy, young person can typically support about ten times one's weight, so if the muscles could supply the energy, a five meter leap (~16 ft) would be possible. Chuck Yeager brags about jumping off 15-foot fences as a youngster, and that's probably about the limit. Taking off is a much slower proposition, which is why high jumpers don't raise their center of mass more than about four feet (1.2 m).

Thus, Ms Kresnov's bones need to be at least twice the strength of a human's. Not out of the question. But the muscles? Mr. Shepherd's "myomer" must have really amazing energy storage capacity and release efficiency.

Figures are lacking for how fast she can run; it is just remarked here and there that people find her hard to follow (in a visual sense); she seems a blur in combat mode. The shoe isn't made that will allow a runner to accelerate with more than one G. That's pretty good, though: 9.8 m/s2, so if her top running speed is of the order of 20 m/s (~45 mph), she can hit that in less than 3 seconds. Faster takeoffs require a wall to push off of...a very strong wall.

But how long can she sustain high energy consumption? A young woman at rest has a basal metabolism of about sixty watts. A sprinter who peaks at 30 mph (13 m/s) in a 100-meter dash must sweat about a quart of water during and after that 9-second run, because of expending a couple kilowatts for that time.

The kinetic energy reaches about 4 kJ, and much more energy goes into staying off the ground, but most of the total energy expended goes to heating the body, perhaps half a million Joules, enough to raise body temperature a couple degrees C (~4ºF). So it seems to me that a modest improvement in muscular efficiency is the main thing needed to give an android the means to run long and hard without excessive heating.

If "myomer" could be 50% efficient (compared to ~5% for muscle), the androids could run a few miles before breaking a sweat. This is more plausible than 15-m leaps. I wonder what genes we'd have to tweak to double the efficiency of actual, mammalian muscle...?

Well, it is fun to speculate. Nearly as much fun as the reading.