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Saturday, September 30, 2006

the price of intelligence

Some highly productive individuals seem to also produce a sea of garbage. In dealing with the writings of Harvard string theorist Lubos Motl, for example, one encounters a very defensive individual who characterizes people who don't see things as he does as unintelligent and protects his view of science by throwing the word "crackpot" around every chance he can get. Yet he has enormous stamina and writes prolifically on all sorts of subjects on his blog.

Consider also, Stephen Wolfram, the creator of Mathematica, who's recent book, A New Kind of Science contained vague claims, poor referencing and an attempt to claim all future concepts as derivative of his own.

I also consider Noam Chomsky to be a similar type of individual, though I tend to be more sympathetic to him because I mostly agree with his politics.

I see these people as having narrow world views and enormous intellectual energy. One can say to them: "come on: clearly [string theory, cellular automata, universal grammar] is not enough to understand everything", but to ask them to back off from using the tools of their trades in understanding the world is to ask them to not to have a complete picture.

In some sense, I view them as sick. Normally they would require the reaching out from family and friends to give them a more nuanced perspective, but because of their high profiles, a more public form of help is required. It seems unfair in a way, because there are so many people in need of help, why should the public put all this energy into helping these few. But somehow their very sickness is tied into the public private interaction and it is our duty to help them out. I really see Wolfram's book as a cry for help. He is shouting out his isolation and asking to be understood. Having given us Mathematica and a few theorems on cellular Automata, if there were such a public help mechanism available, I would say he should be a recipient.
I guess I'm saying that highly focused individuals can make great contributions to society. The price society should pay back, if it wants to make use of these contributions is to put up with the garbage of those people and find a way to fill them out as individuals. "Fame" has tried to fill this role but probably usually fails.

What do I mean by help here? I guess I mean putting out the energy to do the analysis that could help them. Not that they will read these analyses. Who of us has the benefit of hundreds of people writing psychological analyses of us? Of course there is much simple tit for tat angry responses to these people. I guess I'm hoping for peace. And that requires a public that has a large enough perspective that it can accept the gifts of its members while explaining to those individuals how those gifts fit into the larger whole.

Having said all this, however, I would say that I don't actually see these people as all that much more intelligent than average. I have in mind a sort of "conservation of intelligence" type concept where if you put all your intelligence in one direction, you lose it in another, along the lines of the line I quoted by Richard Feynman a few posts back.

Thursday, September 14, 2006


What if everything was already known by someone, but the answers were just too hard to understand, intrinsically...?
We spend time figuring things out because we figure that the answer isn't already there just waiting for us.
Does this make any sense? I'm not sure.
Why did I think that becoming a computer person was a good idea??

Wednesday, September 13, 2006


I seem to keep coming back to trying to understand what Nancy Cartwright is saying about science.
Here's a nice essay which gets at some of what I've been struggling with. On the one hand, Chakravartty points out the exaggeration of the claims of Cartwright's "headlines" (she also wrote a book called "How the Laws of Physics Lie"), but on the other says that she has a compelling analysis that should be taken seriously.

The particular point I'd really like to understand is what she says about quantum mechanics. I know some stuff about the formal structure of quantum mechanics, and it is sort of relevant to my research, but I'm interested in how it can be so useful at the same time as so poorly understood. How can it be simultaneously true that it solves many techical problems and that no satisfactory interpretation of it exists? She addresses this question here, but I'd like to understand more of the details. Specifically, how can we use quantum mechanics to build lasers and computer chips (and eventually quantum computers!!??) and not "understand" it?? This question gets into the specialization of science. One might think that all laser technicians are experts at quantum mechanics, or (as I mistakenly thought) all accelerator physicists know profound things about relativity. In a sense these are true, but at that technical of a level, the results are not easilly recognized and put into a form which would be awe-inspiring for a lecture in a "physics for poets" type class, or even a more technical first year introductory physics class. This is where I start to get excited about teaching...

Friday, September 08, 2006

Heaven on Earth

I've been reading an out of print book (published in 1992) called "Heaven on Earth: Dispatches from the Spiritual Frontier", by Michael D'Antonio. The author is a journalist who sets out to explore the new age movement in America. I wanted to read it because one of the chapters involves a visit to the Transcendental Meditation university Maharishi International University (Now Maharishi University of Management). Having struggled with the question of whether TM is a cult, and finally settling on the description of New Age Religion, I was eager to see it situated in the context of other New Age phenomena. Get past the deliberate lying about science, and maybe I can see it as a genuine attempt to create myths which are consistent with what is known about science.

Actually the author singled TM out as the one new age movement that seemed cult-like to him. He describes it as ultimately a repudiation of the values of the 60's, settling into a rigid authoritarian regime, where much of day to day life is controlled by the Maharishi. He gives Maharishi credit for in some sense starting the new age movement in America, even though where he ended up was so far from where he started. (Actually I'm a little skeptical of how magnanimous his early attempts were.) I've also read a chapter on the "vortices" in Sedona. I like the way in which the author is an integral character in the stories he tells even though he is interviewing people, giving background and other such research oriented activities.

Saturday, September 02, 2006


Interview with Richard Feynman- Pleasure of Finding Things Out..
Comment on why he's not particularly interested in the humanities:
"I have a limited intelligence, and I have used it in a particular direction."