Friday, August 29, 2008

Interesting breakthroughs on the way?

Back from an amazingly productive time at Harvard, which also included some client visits as well as working on three fascinating projects with colleagues at PED, and hearing a bit about the amazing progress that my collaborators and former collaborators are making. We've submitted our outline proposal to the Templeton Foundation following very useful discussions with two outstanding neuroscientists. It is clear that we need to focus on the computational side first and this will lead to appropriate "wet" experimental design, but the new concepts in Neural Networks and Evolutionary Game Theory that we are introducing look very exciting in their own right. If everything connects up as we expect it will be amazing, but even if we can only solve pieces of the problem it will represent substantial progress.

I also had a good discussion with Lee Smolin albeit briefer than either of us would have liked - he couldn't get to PED in the end so we met for breakfast. He is collaborating with the amazing-sounding Roberto Mangabeira Unger and it will be interesting to see how his thinking develops.

Saw a lot of Elder Daughter and son-in-law including a nice visit to ED's office. Sadly no chance to sail this trip but I did manage to kayak on the Charles.

Also had a good long chat to my publisher (hitherto only communication has been by email) and hope to meet him when he is over next month in the UK. Arrangements for the UK launch are progressing well.

Not had much chance to follow US politics in detail but I looked at Sarah Palin's speech today - she looks outstanding and Obama has a tough fight on his hands ( I still stand by my view that Obama has a 60:40 chance). We may well have been looking at the first female President of the USA.

So if things pan out as I suspect they might, there will be interesting scientific and political breakthroughs in the coming couple of years.

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Freewill and Democracy in China

To Boston for work (both business and academic) and also to see Elder Daughter and Son-in-law who have moved here. Have been working v hard on my revised paper for the discussion with Lee, which I have now sent to Lee, Polkinghorne and PED.

Met v interesting guy (Daniel) who was star physics student at Colombia (knew Lederman and TD Lee) now a medic. A fascinating discussion on pain and various other things - one of the interesting observations is that pain does tend to reduce when you tell someone about it. In Evolutionary terms I think this can be understood because the survival value of pain (which as Daniel points out responds to the main threats that we normally face) is greatly enhanced if you can communicate it to other friends and therefore they get the benefit of it.

Making some further progress on the ED of Freewill - and I think I can see an elegant way of connecting some experimental ED to the computational ED, computational Neuroscience and experimental Neuroscience.

Olympics finished with GB on 19 Golds - terriffic and of course we could have got more. Interesting piece in the NY Times today by Nicholas Kristof about how he as been testing the censorship of the Great Firewall of China. I hope, and believe, that the Chinese consider democracy inevitable, but they want to avoid the chaos and corruption that can be associated with it

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Cosmology, Nobels and Gold Medals

More fascinating developments re Cosmological Natural Selection. I think Lee and I will meet at PED next week for a mini-seminar to thrash out some of the key points, with some outstanding PED-ians. I've also formulated, and I think applied insightfully, an Exploding Free Parameters Postulate: any theory that seeks to explain the fine-tuning of the Standard Model eventually contains more free parameters than it seeks to explain.

Tony Hewish has recommended another Nobel Laureate who might be willing to endorse the book, I've just heard from a third who is happy to look at it, and there are some other interesting possibilities who are members of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences. PAS membership is not at all restricted to Christians, but it seems unlikely that anyone completely hostile to religion would accept the invitation to join. I discovered BTW that Nils Bohr's son Aage is a member and also won the Nobel Prize. I think the first father & son to win a Nobel were William and Lawrence Bragg - still the youngest person ever to win a Nobel Prize (at 25!). There is a slight family connection in that my grandfather (so I was told) did some work with them at the Royal Institution, and his widow was our opposite neighour in our first flat in Cambridge and was one of the first people outside the family to babysit our son. Roger Kornberg is also the son of a Nobel Laureate and apparently there are 3 others.

The Olympics continue to dazzle - I watched the last part of the Women's 10k swimming and the performance of Keri-Anne Payne and Cassie Patten with awe. Incredible teamwork and dedication - a pity Ilchenko overhauled them but what a race! Sailing also great although what a pity Dempsey missed a medal. But we have excellent chances in the Star class only 2 points behind the leaders with the Medal Race tomorrow. Sadly we have no chance in the Tornado class. The poor coverage of sailing by the BBC is a scandal - I've been unable to see any Tornado sailing on the web at all. I hope ISAF or the RYA produces a DVD. Our dominance of this sport in the current Olympics is 2nd only to Cycling (where we currently have 8 golds vs 6 for the RoTW - is sailing the figures are 3 vs 6).

Monday, August 18, 2008

Winning and Cosmological Natural Selection - and Coralling

Lovely sailing on Sat and Sun - with a new crew because Daughter is away. We practised on Sat at the reservoir (the first time we had met) and then sailed in two races on Sun. Sea state was "moderate" which is 1 below "rough" and wind was 4-5 so tough conditions and since this was the first time I'd sailed my boat I was pleased we didn't finish last even though we started late on both races. British Olymians are doing brilliantly - sailors have won 2 Golds and a Silver, are almost certain to win Gold in the Laser and have good chances in the Sailboard. Nick Dempsey and Sarah Ayling are engaged and agreed that whichever won Gold would keep their surname. So if they both win Gold...? Scandalous that the BBC covers sailing so badly.

A poll on LabourHome asks
Will the electorate listen to Gordon?
+ Yes he is the wise helmsman of the nation. 0%
+ Only if he changes his style radically 18%
+ Only if the economy improves substantially 0%
+ No, fairly or unfairly he turns people off 81%

Votes: 11 - so not a really large sample - but indicative I think.

Further interesting e-correspondence with Lee Smolin and I've now expanded by critique of Cosmological Natural Selection to 3 pp. We may meet next week to discuss - in the meantime Joe Silk has kindly agreed to look at it - he wrote the original scathing review in Science and still stands by it. Lee suggests that one of the serious problems (about multiversal time) may be fixed by work of Amjorn and Markopoulou? From arXiv:0807.4481v1 and 0801.0861v2 their ideas look fun and interesting but seem pretty speculative. It'll be great to finish the text completely - hopefully by the end of the week.

PS - a friend who is doing an OU degree and I were talking about the work on freewill. She said that we were programmed - but then changed to "corralled". This is exactly the mot juste. Our choices are limited, but usually not eliminated.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Cosmology in epicycles, but progress on neuroscience and Anglicanism

Started reading Universe or Multiverse? that Martin Rees recommended. It's a very interesting collection of papers - though it makes it clear how diverse and overconfident the views of cosmologists are. The idea that we can confidently infer, from the CMB statistics, the existence of inflation with sufficient confidence to state that "even if the universe began with a radius of the Planck scale, after 10^-30 s of inflation this acquires a huge size of l ~ 10^(10^12)" (Linde's paper, p131) is simply evidence that people have completely lost a sense of proportion. The old slogan still applies: "often in error but never in doubt". Cosmology feels at the moment as if it is going round in epicycles.

Two interesting items from the press: one an excellent letter by Bishops Tom Wright, Geoffrey Rowell and others excoriating the very dodgy reporting in The Times of some old letters by Rowan Williams. And the other, a ringing endorsement of Christianity in general and Anglicanism in particular from Julie Burchill.

Hava has met our collaborator at the Harvard Medical School who is very keen to work on our project (he already has all the funding he needs) and we'll start this month. Initial response from the funding body is very positive as well for the longer term. Interestingly this work, begun from a theological PoV, may turn out to have important therapeutic implications after all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Emigration, Olympics and Cosmology

Elder Daughter & her husband left for Boston yesterday - they start their new jobs (within 600 yds of each other) in Cambridge Mass later this month. We went to church together on Sun evening (sermon about Ruth) and they stayed the night. Fortunately we'll be seeing them soon since we have an office in Cambridge. How people must have felt in the days when emigration meant days or weeks on ship and almost no realistic chance of seeing eachother again is hard to imagine.

Quite enjoying the Olympics coverage on the web, although BBC's sailing coverage is not at all as it should be - I think in common with New Labour they regard it as an "elitist" sport. If Ben Ainslie and the Yingling girls don't win Golds it will be a major upset, and we have in theory a good chance with the 49-ers although 2 bad races yesterday will be a problem. Interesting that both UK Golds have been superb technical finishes, real professionalism and quality in the training. I so hope Paula wins the Marathon - she has after all won 7 of the 8 marathons she has run but with doubts about fitness ... Sobering thought though that if Philips achieves his target he will probably possibly win more Golds than the whole of the UK.

Making progress with Questions of Truth launch arrangements - will probably be on Fri 13th March in the UK (which shows that religion is not the same as superstition). We'll make some final adjustments to the section on Cosmological Natural Selection in the next few days, as a result of my e-correspondence with Smolin. As always there is more that could be said, but the more I think about CNS the more problems there are. I suspect that the CNS predictions can be explained much better by the hypothesis that the universe is maximally anthropic - without having to invent 10^1800 or so other un-knowable universes and pin ones faith in highly questionably Hole Bang Transitions.

Saturday, August 09, 2008

Sailing, McGrath, Smolin and Freewill

Two nice evening sails, on Weds where I used a kite single-handed on a Dart 16X for the first time, and last night down the Thames in very light airs, with 8 people in 4 boats at the sailing club. The camaraderie of sailors is great - it is not an accident that so many of the first disciples were (sailing) fishermen.

Christianity's Dangerous Idea continues to fascinate - it's great to have more time to read books having finished writing. Extraordinary that Protestantism, until almost the 19th century, was actively disinterested in mission. in 1792 the prevailing attitude was that the Great Commission applied to the Apostles but not to us and "When God pleases to convert the heathen, He will do it without your aid or mine".

Interesting e-discussions with Lee Smolin on Cosmological Natural Selection. He is keen to demonstrate that CNS is real science - which it is, somewhat speculative to be sure but much less so than String Theory. But even if CNS were correct, the likelihood of a "random" universe being anthropic is extremely low. Smolin realises that we can't establish through CNS that we at a global maximum of his proposed "fitness function" and his claim is that this is a local maximum. But this still doesn't mean that the probability of a "random" universe being anthropic is especially high. There is also something deeply problematic about hypothesising 10^50 or 10^100 unknowable alternative universes - if theologians did it they would be ridiculed.

Another great discussion with Hava on our Freewill work - she has a meeting next week with the Prof at the Harvard Medical School which will lead to further progress.

So to come back to my points 1 & 2.

1. Even if CNS shows that the present Anthropic universe is the most likely outcome, it doesn't necessarily show that being Anthropic is particularly likely. (c/f 500k Heads out of 1M tosses).

2. A fortiori.

However, whilst I understand your point about what we might call (3) - resource constraints - I think this is an area which could repay deeper thought. We don't (yet) know of any resource constraints, but we don't yet know of any mechanism for small variations in the Universe's parameters when a Black Hole (hypothetically) bounces. But it's worth asking what kind of resource constraints that might conceivably exist which would lead to a set of interesting results. IRL there are always resource constraints, it's just a question of understanding what they are. If the production of Universes is not constrained by energy, perhaps it is constrained by information, for example?

Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Natural Selection and Dangerous Ideas

Responses to copy-edits of Questions of Truth went off last night. Lee Smolin has recently posted two updates about his Cosmological Natural Selection ideas and was able to read them and adjust what we say about this in Appendix A as a result. Having got that right I thought I should email him with the problems we raise - three are fairly standard and well known - he responds to them in his papers although the responses are not wholly satisfactory. But two of them are new points to him, one he didn't quite get (because I explained it elliptically) and the other he considers a new and interesting point that he wants to think about.

I've always thought Smolin was a good guy since reading The Trouble with Physics and Smolin, unlike Dawkins, is clear about the limitations of his theory and that he is not attacking theological versions of the Anthropic Principle, only its misapplication in (esp) String Theory. Will be fun to discuss this all with him further.

Also enjoying Alister McGrath's Christianity's Dangerous Idea. I know very little about the history of the Reformation so every page has some revelations. I rather enjoy his description of how a Duke of Savoy procured that his son be appointed Bishop of Geneva. "The appointment was not a success. But what can you expect from an 8-year old." And the mind boggles at the thought that Henry VIII might have been elected Holy Roman Emperor!

PS interesting story from the history of one of the previous PMs who never won an election. Apparently Hailsham was not among those Conservatives who refused to serve in Alec Douglas-Home's Government, despite telling the new Prime Minister that he thought his tenure would prove a calamity for party and country.

Sunday, August 03, 2008

Back from Cornwall

Back from 8 days in Cornwall with our grandsons. Our house is about 2 miles from where David and Samantha Cameron were staying, but we didn't see them. Weather was variable, but high points included kayaking with each grandson, and kayaking to/from Porthcothan with Daughter's French Exchange (v nice, daughter of piano-teacher's husband's best friend) and Daughter resp.

Going through copy-edits on Questions of Truth - hard work but necessary. 55 responses on the body of the text - which I have cleared with John - and now I have to go through the Appendices.

It's a big puzzle why the polls are so static. Weighted Moving Average is 46:26:17 which is the same as it was on 20th June. It still seems amazing that all this infighting hasn’t damaged Labour more. But August polls aren’t very reliable, we’ll see where we are in Sept. I think we are down to a core Labour vote in the sense that almost anyone who says they will vote Labour now is doing so with quite a deep emotional attachment to the Party. This takes time to remove, so only after several months of despair will people say: OK I’m off then. So we can expect a time-lag of say 3-6 months.

Poll on Labourhome

Gordon will..
+ Be highly supportive of his successor provided it is Ed Balls 11%
+ Be highly supportive of his successor whoever it is 11%
+ Be fairly supportive 5%
+ Sulk 72%
+ Don't know 0%

Votes: 18

Saturday, August 02, 2008

We are on the horse

Hava has had a meeting with the Prof at the Harvard Medical School with whom we want to work on our freewill project, and sent me an email with the enigmatic title "we are on the horse". She has now revised my 1-pager, bringing in various important themes which I had not considered and where she has enormous expertise: dis-synchornizations ... resource bounded Kolmogorov characterization... addiction...habitual versus inhibitory/cognitive loops...super-Turing computational power in neural architectures.

I've sent the draft 2-pager to the relevant official at the funding body and look forward to his preliminary response.