Archive for the ‘Science’ Category



January 14, 2009

In George Hrab’s recent podcast, he answered a question from a user above whether he would accept immortality if it were offered him. I thought his answer was interesting.

Anyone who really knows me knows that I plan to live forever. I totally hate the idea of dying – of ceasing to exist as a thinking entity. In that regard, I cannot entirely side with George (who was not entirely sure he would be into the idea). I would far rather live as long as I wanted to – even if (perhaps especially if) it means thousands of years – and die when I felt I had done everything interesting that I could possibly do than to leave this life at any earlier time.

George raised related issues, though, which I have thought about on and off over the years. It all revolves around three points of view – those of our current mind (the “meat”), the new mind (digital), and everyone else in the universe (others).

Machine intelligence
A common theme in sci-fi and near-future predictions is the ability to “download” (although, really, “upload” is a more appropriate term) our minds into a machine of some sort – computer, robot, whatever – and thus live happily forever.

My problem with this is that our mind is a collection of the entire contents of our brain. If that brain is emptied, our mind is gone. A copy may exist in that machine, but that copy is not, as far as our meat body is concerned, our mind. The meat mind will, for all intents and purposes, consider itself to be dying and will cease to exist as soon as the transfer is complete. The digital mind will think of itself as the “original,” because it will have all the thoughts of the meat mind up to and including the transfer, so it will feel as though it experienced a continuous existence. The rest of the universe will consider the digital mind to be “original,” because it will behave and react exactly as the original mind.

So, from a universal point of view, including that of the digital mind, a transfer from meat to machine would appear to produce the original consciousness in the new medium. However, to the meat, it will still feel like dying – the original consciousness will be gone and no amount of copying will ever change the fact that you, as the original meat, will have died.

Transporter disruption
This brings up a concept I thought of some time ago relating to Star Trek. From everything I understand about the “science” behind transporters, and without going too deep into semi-nonsensical Trekker speak, a transportee’s body is captured in a matrix, disassembled and then reassembled in the new location. (Keep any discrepancies between that simplistic explanation and Trekker lore to yourself – I really don’t care all that much.) From my point of view, the original transportee’s mind is destroyed at the first disassembling. Therefore, every person in the Star Trek universe who has ever been transported has been killed – there just happens to be a new entity with the same mind replacing that person. From a universal point of view, there has been a full transfer. From the original meat POV, death has occured. However, nobody notices it because everyone who goes through the transporter has died, leaving only perfect (or sometimes not-so-perfect) copies behind.

Ultimately, the best way to immortality without risking the meat/digital dichotomy presented above is to do it piecemeal. Don’t replace the brain, make modifications to it; change just a bit at a time via memory expansions, processor upgrades, sense modification, whatever the options are. If I just increase my memory, my mind is not destroyed. If it just works faster, nothing has otherwise changed. Over time and many changes, it is entirely possible that only digital will be left, but I am confident that during the entire process, there is no discontinuity of the original “meat” consciousness. It is the only form of digital immortality that would be acceptable to me. (Hurry up, science!)


Ringing in 2009

January 5, 2009

Not much of note since the last post. We are recovering from the holidays (and what a long vacation for the children that was!) and the house is beginning to look more like normal – not that that is necessarily a good thing, but at least the Christmas decorations are largely absent.

This household eagerly awaits January 20th and the hoped-for changes the event will cause. (It would definitely be nice not to be despised by the majority of the industrialized world again.)

Life in a Fishbowl

Life in a Fishbowl

Now that I have found most of my desk, school work of a sort begins again – I have research to restart, much to learn and studying for a dreadedly-anticipated Physics GRE to manage. This all will likely result in 2-3 days per week at GMU, because I have well-convinced myself that I cannot do serious work at home unless I am already totally in the grove (which will probably happen once I get seriously programming in IDL). It’s just way too easy to get distracted.

I also hope to get a lot more exercise this year, including regular krav maga sessions now that I no longer have a class schedule in conflict with training. We’ll see how that works out!

WWII Memorial and Washington Monument

WWII Memorial and Washington Monument

In the trickling way which will probably continue, here is another image taken from my Washington Photo Safari. In this one, I set up with my back to the reflecting pool (where I took this photo) and aimed at the area we had just left – the WWII memorial and Washington monument. I liked the setup, especially with the monument reflecting in the glass-smooth pool in the foreground. I definitely need to make my way back down to the monuments at night, alone or with another enthusiast, so I can take my time and get the shots I really like (instead of needing to stick with a group and being under a deadline).


Undergraduate Days Gone By

December 20, 2008

This past semester was my final one as a physics undergrad. I had two last classes to take officially – one had to be Sr. Physics Lab but the other was an elective which could (and, by the opinion of various advisors, should) have been Quantum Mechanics but I chose to take Introduction to Astrophysics instead. The benefit of being a (putative) adult is that I do not always need to take the advice of others, even if it really is a good idea. The administration of the physics department has corrected that oversight and QM is required for anyone using the latest course catalogs.

Senior Physics Lab, taught by Dr. Karen Sauer, was quite interesting as I had hoped and expected it to be. It consisted of two 30-45 minute lectures followed by 3 official hours of lab work each week. We could work additional hours if we wanted to, except for the one experiment that required a radioactive source only the instructor was permitted to handle. Each student had to complete four projects/experiments over the semester, generally as a solo project (except for one or two projects considered difficult/complicated enough to duo). For my projects, I chose the Zeeman Effect, Plasma Diagnosis, Compton Scattering and Optical Pumping. The projects themselves ranged from fairly easy (ZM) to bothersomely difficult (PD). The write-ups, however, were the real challenge. Dr. Sauer demanded (after the first draft) fairly rigorous, publishable-level papers. Whether she got anything close to that level is a question for her, but I tried. My papers ran 1600-3300 words and were graded 9 out of 10 on average. My grade for the semester: A

Introduction to Astrophysics, taught by Dr. Shobita Satyapal, was a mixed bag. On one hand, the topic is incredibly interesting to me and getting some in-depth information on how the universe works was fascinating. On the other hand, I felt the class was easier than perhaps it should be. Granted, it is a survey course (like nearly everything else in the undergrad physics world), but I think we could have spent more time on the equations of astrophysics beyond the mostly-unproved basics. On the other hand, if it had been very difficult, I likely would have just complained about that, so I should just be happy with the A+ grade I received.

Even though I only took two classes officially, I still tried to squeeze in some more unofficially, just to keep things active.

Astrobiology, by Dr. Summers. I’ve taken this before and since I am nominally doing research for him and really enjoyed the class, I regularly attended this class. It was great two years ago and even better now. Class attendance has doubled and his slides have become even more awesome with time. It’s still fun. I took one exam without studying for it (did not realize it was being offered) and scored an 85, which was pretty good considering I usually forget things immediately after the semester ends.

Electromagnetic Theory – I sat through maybe half the classes of this one, hoping to pick up something I had missed in my first horrid class. However, the instructor was teaching off the same exact notes (word for word, example for example) as the ones used in the class I took officially and the teaching seemed under par.

Introduction to Quantum Mechanics was every bit as complex as I anticipated, but I attended and took notes as well as I could. I kept up fairly well with the topics until we reached Hermitian operators, at which point an entire class went by which sounded like a completely foreign language to me (the result of doing no outside work on the class). At that point, I realized I would be wasting my time attending further classes and used the time to extend my lab work or go home early and see my children before bedtime.

And so my undergrad career comes to a close with a cumulative GPA of 3.96. Now that I am not distracted by regular classes, I hope to be able to dig deep into my research, probably by taking my laptop to school one or more days a week and concentrating on things there, since I will always find a distraction if I stay at home. The grad school situation is currently fuzzy – my intent is to continue my work at GMU with Dr. Summers, but they now require applicants to take the Physics GRE and the next test is not held until just before the deadline for applications, so I may end up with a dead semester or two until I can get the paperwork completed, unless I can get a waiver to skip that portion given the faculty’s familiarity with me over the past several years. Time will tell.


Semester Update

October 7, 2008

It has been a busy, but unexciting semester so far. As I mentioned earlier, I am taking a lab and one course for credit, auditing 3 others and attempting to start up some new research on the side. In the copious spare time that remains, I also am trying to manage my family.

The hardest part is trying to keep tabs on the girls. For a change, all my classes are in the afternoon, so I don’t need to dash out the door early in the morning for a 9 am class. The tradeoff, though, is that I am not around when their school lets out 4 days out of the week, which is tough on the whole family.

The first lab report (Zeeman Effect) has been handed in – it should do well (the draft version got high marks). The second lab (Plasma Diagnosis) is in progress, but has been very troublesome so far. Tomorrow is the last reasonable effort I can make to collect the needed data – report due in one week!

My first (only?) mid-term exam is next Thursday, in Astrophysics. I am somewhat worried about that one – the instructor classifies it as a hard exam. This is the professor who thinks the homework is fairly easy, but it invariably causes stress for most of the class. At least we can bring a sheet of paper with whatever we want on it – and I can write in very tiny print.

My research is totally slacking – I’m supposed to be learning how the outer layers of the sun work hydrodynamically (in order to assist with other work I’m done – I’m not actually studying stars for this research). I’ve just been so swamped lately – in part due to an out-of-town medical emergency (now passed – hi, Mom!) which chewed up most of a week of mental time, in part due to me being a slacker still – that I have not taken the time to truly absorb the material. I need to get my butt in gear before he casts me off.

Right now, I am watching the 2nd Obama/McCain debate instead of doing homework or studying for the probability/uncertainty quiz I have tomorrow, but at least I’m not on the Xbox. And where are McCain’s manners? He ignores Obama while the latter is talking and various other rude moments tonight and throughout the campaign. The worst, though, is totally blowing off Obama’s hand shake offer at the end – he tapped Obama in the back to get his attention, and when Obama turned around with his hand out for a shake, McCain looked at it and turned away! Obama recovered well and turned to McCain’s wife (who did accept the hand) and then continued his business. Manners, Mr. McCain, manners – you must be civil to the Democratic nominee to the highest elected position in the country, even if you despise everything about him (as he must be to you, as the Republican nominee).

This Friday, I am taking a photo workshop with Washington Photo Safari (monuments at night), which could be cool (with the offset problem of possibly getting me too interested in photography again – like I have the time!).

Finally, I am attempting to keep up my training in krav maga at least twice a week – I was on a good roll until a few weeks ago when I lost two weeks in a row. Now I have to get my butt in gear again. I might add on a second type of training (perhaps muay thai) just so I can open up another night or two to work out – the krav sessions just don’t fit my schedule well this semester.


Large Hadron Collider to Destroy the Earth!

September 6, 2008

Well, not really.

However, it amazes me-although it should not-just how many folks apparently believe it will. Miniature black holes, strangelets, vacuum bubbles and more are expected by doomsayers to pop out and obliterate our world (and, occasionally, the universe).

It is all nonsense.

Even at full power, which the LHC won’t get to until next year, the power of the large hadron collider pales in comparison to the experiment the universe performs on us every single day. So far, cosmic rays striking the earth have performed the equivalent of about one hundred thousand lifetime runs of the LHC on us and, unless I missed a memo, we have not gone poof yet.

A blog on today mentioned that now LHC scientists, including a Nobel laureate, are receiving death threats against starting up this marvelous machine. Dr. Brian Cox, as usual, has the perfect response. There are many sources explaining how not-at-risk we are here, although Wikipedia, as usual, has a good summary page on it.


One Week Down

August 30, 2008

The first week of my last undergraduate semester didn’t go so badly, although it did give me a slight taste of what is to come for the rest of this year.

I am taking two physics courses for credit and sitting in three others unofficially. That gives me Sr. Physics Lab, Astrophysics, E/M Theory, Astrobiology and Quantum Mechanics to worry about (total of 11 lecture hours and 6 lab hours per week), plus a weekly meeting with my research advisor (more below) and bi-weekly meetings for astrophysics journal club, physics club and physics club officers (I’m the VP). Plus occasional seminars here and there. Oh, and research to do.

When I stopped to talk with my research advisor, he told me he had come up with not one, but two (unrelated) projects for me to consider. One deals with NASA’s AIM mission and the other with exoplanets. Both are way cool, but I suspect I will be going with the exoplanets one because it fits my interests and (very basic) foundation a bit better. So now I have another hundred or so pages of research papers and presentations to read plus some online work, preparatory to doing a lot more IDL coding. His hope is that the introductory work would keep me busy for the next two semesters (I’ll have a lot more time after this one, since I’ll have no classes at all this spring, most likely) and we would submit an official PhD thesis proposal(!!) next fall.

Of course, we’ve ignored (so far) the fact that I actually have to prepare for, take and suitably pass both the general and physics GREs to get into GMU’s graduate program, but at least I have a direction in which to travel.

And some time during all this (3 days!), my darling children head back to school, so I probably should pay attention to them occasionally as well (plus their mommy).


School Bell’s A-Ringing

August 25, 2008

First day of the fall semester today.

I started it off with a visit to my research adviser, who has not one, but two different PhD thesis-level projects in mind for me. Gift horse, anyone? One of them involves an active NASA mission. One is related to (but not directly involved with) my Charon work. The first one comes with funding, wherein I would draw a stipend (plus, presumably, funding for conference travel). The second has no funding itself, although Dr. Summers said he could probably spring for a couple conferences.

Now I have to decide between an interesting project I get paid for and a (somewhat more interesting) project that I won’t necessarily get paid for. And since I could conceivably be working on whichever one I choose for the next 6-8 years (although presumably I would eventually find some funding for the latter project – except in the current anti-science administration, that’s pretty well impossible), I need to choose pretty carefully. However, it’s a good problem to have – rather too many projects than not enough (or an unhelpful research adviser).

After that meeting, and some chatting with various friends in the hallways, I headed to Senior Physics Lab. This promises to be quite an interesting class, with two half-hour lecture periods followed by 3-hour lab periods each week. Additionally, we can always get a key to the advanced physics lab to work independently whenever we wish. We each have to work solo (with a couple exceptions) on four different experiments throughout the semester. My first is a study of the Zeeman Effect on mercury vapor. On Wednesday, we have an oral pass/fail exam on our individual experiments which we must pass before we’re permitted to begin work, then it’s radiation safety education and quizzing next week and finally we can begin work.

Following lab I sat in on the first Introduction to Quantum Mechanics course. Although this course is packed to full (every seat taken), I have permission from the instructor to sit in on it unofficially. It is now a required course for all new Physics undergraduates. However, since I am running under an older catalog, it is only optional for me (I’m taking Astrophysics instead), but it is still a good idea to know the contents since a significant part of the physics GRE uses the knowledge. My main surprise in the class is the number of physics majors in there whom I swear I have never seen before. You’d think I would know (at least by sight) all the junior/senior level physics students by this point (since there are only a few dozen total physics undergraduates).

Tomorrow – three more classes (two audits, one for credit)!