Sunday, June 27, 2010

The Brain: A Special-Purpose Computer

by Richard Crews
You would not expect the computer at an ATM--quick and versatile as it is--to fly a jet; nor a hospital lab analyzer to scan sales at a super market. They are special-purpose computers, able at what they do but woefully lacking at the versatility to step out of their assigned tasks.

Similarly, the human brain evolved under certain circumstances to handle certain problems--to seek and assess food, to watch for and avoid predators, to court and procreate, and to raise children, and so forth. Is it any wonder that when we ask it to step outside of those circumstances, it balks and falters and cannot do the job?

For example, the brain evolved for problems in a "mid-size" range--to assess the progress of predator or prey running through the woods; to throw, catch, or dodge a projectile under the influence of gravity and momentum; to run or climb and avoid falling. When we tell it that at the astronomical-size range, two photons may be fired in opposite directions, each at the speed of light, yet they are still traveling at the speed of light with respect to one another, the mind stalls. Similarly when we try to imagine a two dimensional surface, somehow we can only see it as if it were suspended in a three-dimensional world. Or four spacial dimensions (time doesn't count in this exercise)--the mind balks--much less five, six, or more dimensions. And though sound and patterns of light come easily to our ways of thinking, we have no framework for envisioning the thousands and thousands of radio waves with their complicated and separable messages that we know are coursing through our bodies at every second of the day and night.

At the sub-microscopic level, particles leap across impenetrable barriers by ceasing to exist on one side and taking up their existence on the other. Some processes do not occur until they are observed; others cannot occur while they are observed. Such things simply do not happen at the perceptual level our brains developed to handle; we simply cannot grok them.

Finally, consider problems of causation. It is very useful in daily life to project effects--to imagine jumping from a high place or trying to lift a tree and to imagine the results without actually "doing" it. And to infer causes--there is a noise; there must be something there that caused it. My hand hurts and is bleeding--something must have caused that. So it is natural for us to try to find reasons and causes for any mysterious things we sense or imagine around us--for the origin and evolution of life, for example, or the origin of the universe.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Life Keeps Popping Up Here and There

by Richard Crews
When I went to high school (in the middle of the last century), I learned that all life--and I mean ALL--depended on energy from the Sun. Through the miracle of chlorophyll, sunlight charged up delicate organic chemicals which could then be used to fuel growth, tissue repair, reproduction and the seven-or-so key abilities that all living things can do, and no non-living things can do. Basically if you weren't green (with chlorophyll), you ate somebody who was green--or maybe you ate somebody who ate somebody who was green. Somewhere back in your food-chain base you got energy for life from the Sun.

Then in 1977 scientists discovered deep sea vents--essentially under-water volcanoes that spewed out hot chemicals. And these vents had ecosystems around them that never knew light from the Sun. Complicated ecosystems with networks of plants and animals. Moreover, as explorations proliferated, it turned out these ecosystems were enormous--a total mass of living beings worldwide that far exceeded the mass of chlorophyll-dependent life: the forests and fields and animals and bugs we had thought was all there was to life.

Other ecosystems were discovered (1985) deep in the Gulf of Mexico that get their energy from oil seeping up through the seafloor bed. (Granted, the energy in this oil came originally from chlorophyll-trapped sunlight, but that was so many millions of years ago that only a purist would quibble with the novelty of it.) Other explorations (2006) turned up organisms tucked away deep in a South African mine, organisms that use radioactive decay of uranium and thorium as their only source of energy.

Life, it seems, will spring up around whatever energy source is available.

What about the dilemma that only life can make life (at least until a few months ago when a computer with a few bottles of chemicals finally managed the task). How on Earth can the life-making-life process ever have gotten started? Not too tough a question after all, since it turns out that inter-stellar space is rife with complex organic chemicals--they are raining down on the planet all the time.

Along the way scientists also found the most adventurous "extremophiles," organisms that thrive in boiling hot battery acid; or in water so salty it would float a penny (well, not really, but I was looking for an impressive metaphor here); in microscopic cracks in rocks miles beneath the surface of the Earth; and in all manner of hostile environments.

The moral of this story is that life keeps popping up everywhere. Will it be found in the oceans of Jupiter's satellite Europa? Probably. In the rocky crystals on Mars? Probably. On some of the hundreds of exoplanets now being studied that are circling stars outside of our solar system? Probably.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Mineral Wealth in Afghanistan

by Richard Crews
Afghanistan is a poor and primitive country. Although it has about one-fifteenth the land area of the U.S. and one-tenth the population, the GDP (the overall economic output) is less than one-one thousandth that of the U.S. Much of the social and political structure is reminiscent of Europe during the Middle Ages with feudal warlords controlling small territories. The economic relationship with the industrialized world is largely based on three activities: opium production, narcotics trafficking, and foreign aid. There is little modern infrastructure--very few roads, rails, or communications resources, and little in the way of education, sanitation, health care, or emergency services.

Some international attempts to eradicate opium poppies have failed because there is, frankly, no substitute cash crop. Although there have been some attempts to introduce farming of various fruits and commercial flowers, without their poppy crops feeding into the base of international narcotics trafficking, small farmers barely grow enough vegetables and farm animals to sustain themselves.

The recent revelation that there is enormous mineral wealth underlying scattered areas of Afghanistan changes this picture. There are huge undeveloped veins of iron ore, copper, cobalt, gold, and several other metals of industrial importance. Afghanistan has the potential to become a major international mining resource. It can attract foreign development capital by the tens and hundreds of billions of dollars. (China has already contracted for tens of millions of dollars of copper ore.)

The crucial question is whether a central Afghan government (with international help) can administrate the development of these resources without bleeding off so much of the wealth through corruption and mismanagement that the country's infrastructure and the health, wealth, and happiness of the Afghan people gain rather little.

Saturday, June 5, 2010


by Richard Crews
Language is humanity's highest intellectual achievement.

Although there are about 7,000 different languages in the world, they have a number of things in common.

Most use the vocal cords and the anatomical structures of the pharynx and mouth to make sounds.
Except, for example, the whistled languages (of which there are about 200) such as Silbo on the island of La Gomera in the Canary Islands; Kuşköy in Turkey; Aas in the French Pyrenees; Mazatec and Chinantec of Oaxaca, Mexico; Pirahã in South America; and Chepang of Nepal.
And except, of course, for sign language of the deaf which uses no sounds at all.

Most have four basic classes of words: nouns, verbs, adjectives, and adverbs.
Except that several languages lack an open adverb class. Others, such as Lao, spoken in Laos, have no adjectives at all. A few languages, such as Straits Salish, spoken by indigenous people from north-western regions of North America, do not even have distinct nouns or verbs. Instead they have a single class of words to encompass events, entities, and qualities.

Very importantly, to reflect complex human thought processes most languages allow recursion--"John's friend" can be extended to "John's friend's cat" and then, in turn, to "John's friend's cat's paw," etc. or "John thinks that Mary thinks that..." etc.
Except, for example, that Amazonian Pirahã does not have this recursive quality.

Most languages have plural markers, that is, ways of handling a singular word to indicate that there are more than one of the thing or action referenced.
Except, for example, that the Kiowa people of North America use a plural marker that means "of unexpected number." Attached to "leg," the marker means "one or more than two"; attached to "stone," it means "just two."

Most languages have ideophones by which diverse feelings about an event are closely attached to the event word. Sometimes the feelings attached by way of ideophones can be complex and subtle, for example, the word "rawa-dawa" from the Mundari language of the Indian subcontinent means "the sensation of suddenly realizing you can do something reprehensible, and no one is there to witness it."
An interesting example of a language that lacks ideophones is English.

But varied as they may be, languages are at least uniquely human. Only Homo sapiens have developed and use languages.
Except that many species--from bees and bats to porpoises and elephants--are known to have complex socializing, warning, hunting, and foraging communications.
And several species--from parrots to great apes--have learned to correctly interpret and use hundreds of words from human languages. Several gorillas, with arduous training and given special computer keyboard equipment (since they lack the anatomical sound-making mechanisms) have learned hundreds of words, and learned to combine them in grammatical constructions that go beyond their learning experiences. One gorilla mother even taught her son this human-generated sign language.