Dorset south coast, Monday
2021 Earth Day
Basically, physics shows that the world is a web of interactions and nothing exists independently of that web. It is at the atomic and subatomic, or quantum, level that we confront this truth most dramatically.
We live in a quantum universe. It's just that, when many atoms come together, the quantum effects are washed out and it is possible to think of objects with an independent existence such as chairs and tables and people.
Physics has reinforced the fact that we are all part of an interactive web and there are no solutions to our global problems without recognizing and embracing that.
AR From talks with Marcus Chown.
2021 April 21
Armin Laschet is the Nordrhein-Westfalen (NRW) Ministerpräsident, CDU leader, and CDU/CSU Kanzlerkandidat for the September general election.
Laschet, 60, grew up in a Catholic household in Aachen. His life revolved around the church, where he met his childhood sweetheart and future wife. He still lives in Aachen. His core social network has remained much the same for six decades.
Laschet studied law in Munich but failed to complete his law exams. He became editor of a church newspaper, then an Aachen councillor, then a Bundestag MP, then an MEP. As CDU leader, he is criticized for hesitant and indecisive management.
Angela Merkel has refused to get involved in his candidacy. Recent polls show only 15% of Germans see him as a suitable chancellor candidate.
AR I'm not impressed.
Perseverance rover's drone
helicopter makes its first
flight on Mars and snaps
its own shadow
2021 April 20
Fast Problem Solving
Partial differential equations (PDEs) are notoriously difficult to solve, if they can be solved at all. Approximate methods can take months on supercomputers. New deep artificial neural networks can do the work orders of magnitude faster.
Neural networks have layers of artificial neurons. Each neuron takes in a set of inputs, multiplies each one by a weight, sums up the results, and determines an output based on that total. Deep neural networks have one input layer, one output layer and multiple hidden layers in between.
The input to such a neural net is a vector and the output is another vector. If a function maps a set of input vectors to a set of output vectors, the network can be trained to learn the mapping. Any function between two finite-dimensional spaces can be approximated by a neural network.
We train a neural network to learn the correlation between inputs and outputs from training data sets. We feed the network an input, let it produce an output, and compare it to the expected output. An algorithm adjusts the weights of the neurons to minimize the difference between the generated and expected outputs. We repeat this process until the network approximates the target function.
The new deep nets can map any set of functions on the input side to any set of functions on the output side. They can learn how to approximate not just functions, but operators that map functions to functions, to solve a whole family of PDEs at once — fast.
AR This is important: PDEs were a bottleneck.
2021 April 19
The Muon Result
"Could the new muon result be the real thing? Maybe, maybe not. On the same day news of the measurement was greeted with enthusiasm, a paper appeared in Nature presenting the results of a theoretical calculation using supercomputers indicating that the previous theoretical estimates of the muon were slightly off. Taking this into account, the theoretical value may be closer to the value measured last week. There might be no contradiction after all."
AR As I thought from the Quanta report (blog 2021-04-08): Real discoveries in physics tend to take a stronger confluence of hints than the loose talk of 4σ significance suggested.
2021 April 18
"To ask what consciousness is, after having unravelled the neural processes, is like asking what a storm is after having understood its physics: it is a question that makes no sense. To add in a 'possessor' of sensations is like adding Jove to the phenomenon of the thunderstorm. It is like saying, after having understood the physics of the storm, that there still remains, as [David] Chalmers would put it, the 'hard question' of connecting it with the anger of Jove."
AR This is right: The "I" at the end of the neuroscience story is like the electron at the end of the quantum-mechanical story, just a metaphysical flourish that under what we regard as normal circumstances adds a small increment of intuitive closure. As Wittgenstein said, the "I" can shrink to a perspectival vanishing point. This is the view of the matter I adopt in my Mindworlds story.
Windsor Castle quadrangle, military parade at funeral of Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
AR Reminds me of the coronation in 1952 — one of my very first memories
2021 April 17
Memories ⊥ Sensations
The brain absorbs new sensory information and stores memories of earlier observations or events. To keep them distinct, it rotates sensory information to encode it as a memory. The two orthogonal representations draw from overlapping neural activity.
Researchers let mice listen to chord sequences over and over again. The mice associated the chords and could predict them. Over time, the neural representations of associated chords began to resemble each other. New sensory inputs interfered with representations by overwriting representation of previous inputs. The neurons changed their encoding of a past stimulus to match later stimuli.
Intact neural patterns encoding memories of the chord sequences were organized in a dimension orthogonal to the sensory representations. Computational models show this mechanism requires fewer neurons and less energy than alternatives.
AR Evolution is efficient.
2021 April 16
Brexit minister David Frost says talks between the EU and UK to ease tensions in NI are productive and constructive, with momentum established to achieve a solution to the crisis.
European Commission VP Maroš Šefčovič says the outcome must be jointly agreed, without unilateral action. The EU praises the solution-driven atmosphere in the latest talks.
AR Endless story ..
2021 April 15
Hurricanes, dam bursts, and sudden cold snaps are emergencies that require immediate action. Multiply these situations worldwide, and you have the biggest environmental emergency to beset the Earth in millennia: climate change. The climate emergency is here.
The quantum theory of computation suggests seeing physics as the science of what might or might not happen. This "modal" science may help us with big questions.
Think of an electron in a certain spin state as a qubit that can instantiate a bit in multiple ways that cannot all be in focus at the same time. This qubit tells us which transformations you can and cannot perform. Rather than focusing on the actual world, we build a physics of counterfactual worlds.
Modal science lets us express physical laws for both classical bits and qubits. A computer bit holds information because once it has been set to 0, you can set it to 1, and vice versa, and you can copy its value. These properties are counterfactuals. Information theory is unified by modal principles.
Consider quantum theory and general relativity. Let two qubits interact with something else. If that something entangles the qubits, it must have quantum features. If the qubits are two quantum masses and the something is gravity, any entanglement refutes classical theories of gravity.
My team is pursuing constructor theory at Oxford. We hope it will lead to a technological revolution after quantum computation.
AR I inserted the word "modal" here from logic I studied almost 50 years ago.
Saber rattling: USS Ronald Reagan carrier group under USAF air cover led by B-52
Bertrand Russell used
set theory to prove
2 + 2 = 4
2021 April 14
America vs China
I once commanded a fleet of destroyers in the South China Sea. That sea is almost as big as Western Europe. China claims ownership of it, and this worries the international community. China is building a massive fleet, and America, Japan, India, and Australia are looking on with concern. We are happy when our allies decide to work with us in the South China Sea.
AR Admiral Stavridis is a former SACEUR and co-authored 2034.
2021 April 13
The Elizabethan Era
The Elizabethan age is slowly drawing to a close. The monarchy set a stamp of respectability on whatever rottenness hid beneath. The sovereign helped make a Conservative vote seem the British patriotic norm. The word "sovereignty" worked magic in the Brexit referendum.
The monarch never stopped the country electing a progressive government. But the pomp of the crown acted as useful cover for the wild insurgents subverting the Tory party. Their bulldogs hunt down imaginary slights among any who reject their Brexit blinkers.
A Soviet-style 24-hour shutdown of the major TV channels was not enough to appease the Brexiteer-founded Defund the BBC: "Disgraceful! The anti-British BBC has set up a form to encourage complaints about the volume of coverage of Prince Philip's death."
Unchecked, these bullies will terrorise all unorthodoxy as unpatriotic. Thugs disguised as Conservatives feel the Brexit vote gave a strutting ascendancy to their ersatz patriotism. There is still time to end the Elizabethan era with more dignity.
AR Too late: The UK is collateral damage.
A Cultural Wrecking Ball
Correct English, it appears, is a tool of cultural oppression.
A number of universities have decided not to dock marks for spelling mistakes because requiring good English could be seen as elitist. So that no pupil should feel they have fallen at any hurdle, the hurdle of the incorrect answer is removed.
The attack on accuracy, precision, and correct answers replaces objective truth by subjective opinion. No hierarchy of values is permitted. Any such differentiation can be claimed as proof of discrimination or bigotry by an oppressor class.
In George Orwell's 1984, Winston Smith is tortured for insisting that two plus two equals four. Yet on Twitter, Brooklyn College professor of maths Laurie Rubel wrote that the 2 + 2 = 4 equation "reeks of white supremacist patriarchy".
The attack on correct answers is a cultural wrecking ball.
AR Defend math: Repel the attackers.
2021 April 12
The UK is in deep peril. The pandemic has deepened the crisis. A breakdown of communications with central government lets devolved leaders chart their own course.
Boris Johnson's cabinet is plagued by infighting over strategy amid growing momentum for a second referendum on Scottish independence and the deterioration of relations in Northern Ireland following the Brexit deal.
As the coronavirus crisis continued, Johnson announced the reopening of schools in spring 2020 without the consent of devolved nations. He ceased COBRA meetings and set up new committees lacking devolved representation.
Devolved leaders began to chart their own course. The public may be adapting to the strange idea of a prime minister who speaks for England alone.
AR Former DExEU permanent secretary Sir Philip Rycroft is now a senior visiting fellow at the University of Cambridge Bennett Institute for Public Policy.
2021 April 11
Prince Philip provided the monarch with companionship, support, counsel, and solace. He had courage, intelligence, wit, dignity, and discipline. He remained in spirit the naval officer of his youth, trained to the fulfilment of duty without parading emotion.
Philip was born into a Greek royal family borrowed from German and Danish stock. His parents were exiled, and Philip, a great-great-grandson of Queen Victoria, was born on a kitchen table in Corfu. His parents separated and left him virtually an orphan. His school fees were paid by Sir Harold Wernher.
The Duke of Edinburgh was much the most intelligent of the last century's British royals. His troubled childhood created a toughness that armoured him against adversity. Sir John Wheeler-Bennett wrote that he was "a German Junker" at bottom: too loud and too opinionated.
Princess Elizabeth adored him and showed no interest in any other man. Someone said of him: "He's 150% male, and that's his trouble, really." Gordonstoun and the navy had formed him. His close friends were men's men.
Philip became a gilded prisoner in palaces, an accessory to the monarch. He was obliged to spend countless hours with bores and stuffed shirts, which sometimes provoked his wrath. He disliked and despised politicians even more than journalists.
He had it all
He had it all. Handsome, intelligent, good at sports, envied by men, admired by women, and married to a queen, he had yachts, aircraft, polo ponies, and the free use of royal estates and palaces. Yet the Royal Navy was his only real home.
The romance with Elizabeth began when Philip was so poor that he was living in one room and had only one shirt. George VI was unsure about him. But the princess was smitten by the "Greek god" she'd first met before the war.
Prince Philip had an unwavering commitment to service to the UK. He deserves respect and acclaim.
His most notable achievement was the foundation of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, which since 1956 has enabled millions of young people around the world to undertake service in the community and enjoy the outdoors. But he also did much to advance British engineering and science and to highlight issues around conservation.
Prince Philip did not enjoy pomp and circumstance. He was not afraid to cause controversy.
AR I'm impressed.
⦿ Ron Bell
Elizabeth and Philip during their halcyon days
⦿ Olive Edis
Philip at 15
"I am the daughter of Black
writers who are descended
from Freedom Fighters who
broke their chains and
changed the world."
Brexit is the catalyst
for rioting in NI
2021 April 10
Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh
Prince Philip was the longest-serving royal consort in British history. He was intelligent, but he concealed his intellectual interests behind a bluff exterior.
Philip was born in 1921 into Greece's royal family, but he was from the Danish royal family, the Schleswig-Holstein-Sonderburg-Glücksburgs. He began his life in exile in Paris.
After an English prep school, he went to a school in Germany. In 1934, he was moved to Gordonstoun, the Scottish boarding school established by the German educationist Kurt Hahn. Philip loved it.
He went on to the naval college in Dartmouth. He was first introduced to Princess Elizabeth, 13, during a royal visit. He entered the Royal Navy as a midshipman but soon became a first lieutenant.
In 1946, Philip became engaged to Elizabeth. He acquired British citizenship and adopted the surname Mountbatten. The couple married in 1947. Elizabeth became Queen in 1952.
Philip: "It is a complete misconception to imagine that the monarchy exists in the interests of the monarchy. It does not. It exists in the interests of the people .. We can think of other ways of enjoying ourselves."
Philip Mountbatten-Windsor, Duke of Edinburgh, Baron of Greenwich, Earl of Merioneth, died aged 99.
AR Fascinating life story.
The Life of Philip Roth
Philip Roth was widely regarded as the greatest living American novelist. He won nearly every literary prize except the Nobel.
In 1959, Roth's first book, Goodbye, Columbus, launched his career overnight. Reviewing it, Saul Bellow wrote, "At twenty-six .. he performs like a virtuoso". It won a passionate readership among young women as well as men.
Roth started going three times a week to see Dr Hans Kleinschmidt, a Freudian psychoanalyst in New York who loved celebrated and creative patients. Roth got his investment in the analysis back with interest when he wrote Portnoy's Complaint (1969).
Portnoy made Roth rich. He escaped the annoyances of fame in an elegant Connecticut retreat, where he led the disciplined life of a literary monk by day and pursued sexual pleasure with a series of young women by night.
In 1976, Roth connected with the English actress Claire Bloom. They divided their time between Connecticut, New York, and London, and finally married in 1990. After their divorce in 1995, she wrote an angry memoir.
In 1979 came The Ghost Writer, a masterpiece of theme and execution, in which he created the novelist Nathan Zuckerman as his avatar.
As Roth got older, the women got younger. His last years, from 2006 to 2018, were melancholy.
AR Martin Amis wrote on Roth in The War Against Cliché (pp. 285−297).
2021 April 9
Charles Seife's biography of Stephen Hawking is long overdue.
A wunderkind at Oxford, Hawking had just begun his seminal work on gravitational theory when in 1963 he was diagnosed with ALS. He worked on from a wheelchair, helped by brilliant assistants.
Hawking produced remarkable work on singularities. With Roger Penrose, he showed how the mathematics of collapse could describe the Big Bang. In his greatest triumph, in 1974, he showed that black holes emit radiation and evaporate.
Once anything falls into a black hole, general relativity says its information is lost. But quantum mechanics says information is never lost. Hawking got stuck on this paradox.
When Jacob Bekenstein realized that a black hole could have a temperature and an entropy, Hawking criticized him mercilessly before coming up with the Bekenstein−Hawking relation.
AR Iconoclasm sells.
2021 April 8
Hint of New Physics
The strange behaviour of the muon may hint at exotic physics beyond the standard model.
Muons spin when put in a magnetic field. Their spin axis precesses, so we can measure the spin frequency. The frequency is determined by the g-factor. Using the standard model, we can predict this number precisely.
In 2006, Brookhaven National Laboratory measured a spin rate slightly faster than predicted. New results from Fermilab corroborate the concerns.
The anomaly probably arises from quantum fluctuations due to virtual particles. Virtual pairs appear randomly and can be any type of particle. Some might be new, but we can only predict the effect of ones we know.
Also, recent results from the Large Hadron Collider show something strange about muon decay.
Muon gyromagnetic ratio
Fermilab has found strong evidence that the standard model (SM) is incomplete. The measured value of the muon magnetic moment exceeds the best predicted value beyond the seventh decimal place at the 4.2 sigma level.
In 2020, a team of theorists known as BMW used a supercomputer to recalculate the most uncertain term in the SM prediction. The calculation differs from the value adopted in 2020 by the Theory Initiative consortium.
Both electrons and muons were long thought to have a g-factor (gyromagnetic ratio) of exactly 2. But in 1947, the g-factor of the electron was measured to be 2.00232. The corrections are due to quantum fluctuations due to virtual photons.
Muons are more massive than electrons and are more likely to be surrounded by heavy virtual particles. The Theory Initiative prediction of the muon g-factor is 2.0023318362. This is 3.7 sigma below the last Brookhaven measurement of 2.0023318416. But the BMW value is closer, at 2.00233183908.
Uncertainty about the SM prediction stems from hadronic virtual particles. This hadronic vacuum polarization contributes a tiny correction to the muon g-factor. Uncertainty about this term is the primary problem.
AR This could become exciting.
2021 April 7
Brexit 'Dishonesty' Fuels Anger
Northern Ireland justice minister says UK government "dishonesty" over the consequences of hard Brexit angers loyalists.
2021 April 6
Russian Arctic Moves
Nick Paton Walsh
Russia is arming up in the Arctic. Moscow says its goals in the freshly ice-free region are economic and peaceful. It aims to export hydrocarbons along the route and to exploit regional resources.
The northern sea route (NSR) between Norway and Alaska along the Russian coast could halve the time it takes shipping containers to reach Europe from Asia via the Suez Canal.
Kremlin strategy aims to ensure Russian territorial integrity and regional peace. It also aims to raise living standards and economic growth in the region and to develop the NSR.
The ice melt has removed Russia's northern defensive wall. Satellite images show new Russian military bases and hardware on the Arctic coastline, including facilities for the latest weapons.
Fired from a Belgorod submarine, the Poseidon nuclear torpedo is designed to sneak past coastal defenses on the sea floor. It can deliver a multimegaton warhead to raise a radioactive tsunami.
AR As the ice melts, a new chill begins.
2021 April 5
Principles for Public Life
The Nolan principles for public life are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty, and leadership. Michael Nolan didn't have a lot to say about chastity or generosity or modesty or humility. He assumed that the public would provide that firewall themselves. Standards for officials assumed a baseline of normal human decency.
Asking whether the Number 10 incumbent(s) breached the Nolan principles is like asking whether two pigeons trying to shag mid-air have violated public decency legislation.
AR First principle of identity politics: I am what I am.
Grapefruit Black Hole Beyond Pluto?
Beyond the giant planets of the outer solar system lies a vast wilderness. We think it contains worlds like Pluto or smaller. But the aligned orbits of a group of smaller bodies suggest something big — P9 — is gravitating out there.
P9 has a few times the mass of the Earth. A planet could not have formed so far out and is unlikely to have been thrown out by Jupiter or Saturn. P9 may be a primordial black hole.
The Optical Gravitational Lensing Experiment (OGLE) watches stars in the central Milky Way for sudden brightening caused by gravitational microlensing. The more sudden the brightening, the lower the mass of the lensing object.
Out of 2600 microlensing events that OGLE detected between 2010 and 2015, 6 were briefer than about 10 hours. Such events might be caused by primordial black holes with a few times Earth mass. P9 may be such an object.
Primordial black holes would be born fractions of a second ABB. A P9 black hole would date from the electroweak transition and now be about 9 cm in diameter.
NASA scientists could send a fleet of small probes using solar sails to the outer solar system. Deviations in their trajectories would tell us more about P9.
AR Grapefruit black holes — exciting!
Cairo, Saturday: Ancient mummies of 22 of Egypt's pharaohs were paraded through the streets from the Egyptian Museum,
their old location near Tahrir Square, to their new home, the National Museum of Egyptian Civilization in al-Fustat.
The Egyptian Ministry of Tourism and Antiquities organized the event. President Abdel-Fattah El-Sisi:
"This majestic scene is new evidence of the greatness of [the Egyptian] people."
A new canal along the
2021 Easter Sunday
A walk beside the beach
A Narrative Masterwork
Blake Bailey's comprehensive life of Philip Roth is a narrative masterwork.
Recognition began with Roth's two earliest novels. Yet he had already published a collection of stories. He was notorious for the shaming and defaming of Jews.
In 1969, when Portnoy's Complaint was published and the uproar of Jewish bitterness grew louder, Roth was catapulted to instant renown. For the sermonizers, the malicious calumnies of Goebbels that had led to the chimneys were being trafficked anew, inconceivably by an American Jew.
Roth saw ignorant philistinism by minds impenetrable to the antic liberties of satire. Put aside the irony of a charge of antisemitism hurled against a writer for whom antisemitism was one of his most visceral antipathies. Roth insisted he was not a Jewish writer but an American writer.
A biographer molds mere chronology into a coherent theme. As in a novel, what is seen at first to be casual chance is revealed at last to be a steady and powerfully demanding drive.
Life itself could affront and ridicule and even torment the provocateur. Calamities were accompanied by illnesses, surgeries, agonies, suicidal breakdowns, panics, depressions and disorientations that dogged Roth for much of his life. In the intervals came the parade of book after book (31 in toto), award after award, and lover after lover.
The lure of attractive and loyal young women never cooled. Nor has the charge of misogyny waned, abetted by the roster of smitten young women, soon to be judged as discarded.
Roth: "I have chosen to make art of my vices rather than what I take to be my virtues."
Whether he is or is not a Jewish writer, Roth at times unwittingly advanced what he most railed against. In 2014, when he received an honorary degree from the Jewish Theological Seminary, he was moved to think how gratified his parents would have been.
AR Martin Amis led me to Portnoy's Complaint in 1970.
2021 April 3
Boris Johnson divined quickly that the UK obesity crisis was worth highlighting as an explanation for the high Covid death rate. Better that, from his point of view, than the alternative: that he locked down too late.
Johnson plans to put catching up at the heart of his plans for the rest of this parliament. Number 10: "Making sure children can read and write properly and have the skills they need to prosper is the prime minister's real central focus."
AR Appoint a new education secretary.
2021 April 2
A year ago, scientists made xenobots by taking cells from a frog embryo and shaping the cell clumps by hand. Since then, new xenobots have formed on their own, without human help.
The frog genome need not say exactly how to make a frog body. The genome programs cells to behave in ways that form an organism during embryogenesis. But in other environments, other shapes may emerge.
Cells communicate with each other. A cell might send a message by releasing a molecule that sticks to the surface of another cell, as in embryogenesis. Cells also talk by exchanging calcium ions, as between neurons.
The variety of body shapes and functions in natural organisms may be less the result of specific developmental programs coded in their genomes than of tweaks to cell behaviors.
Xenobots display the basic self-organization of multicellular aggregates. They result when the formal constraints and the environmental resources and opportunities are minimal.
A xenobot is an organism. It has a self. When xenobots meet each other and stick, they maintain and respect their selfhood. The implications for science may be huge.
AR This is big.
2021 April 1
Toward the end of March, the UK Covid death rate per 100 000 people stood at 190, the highest in the G7. The UK has over 126 000 confirmed Covid deaths, by far the highest in Europe. The UK also had the largest GDP fall of any G7 economy in 2020.
A public inquiry into HM Government's handling of the pandemic is needed. Many HMG calls were wrong, but HMG has not admitted to any specific mistakes.
In Q1 2020, about 190 000 people flew into the UK from Wuhan and other high-risk Chinese cities. HMG held its first COBRA Covid meeting on January 24 but took no significant action to secure PPE supplies for a further 38 days. Its last pandemic rehearsal in 2016 identified PPE as a key gap.
In the six weeks after that first COBRA meeting, HMG failed to build an effective test and trace regime. The UK lacked the basic capacity and considered herd immunity.
On February 27, SAGE outlined a scenario in which over half a million people would die. The SAGE advice was not implemented in full for another four weeks.
The PM missed the first five COBRA Covid meetings and chaired his first on March 2. He then gave up COBRA meetings for daily strategy meetings in the Cabinet room.
By the time the UK locked down on March 23, over 15 000 elderly people had been discharged from hospital into care homes with no mandatory testing. The errors continued through 2020: premature reopening of the economy in June; the Eat Out to Help Out scheme; delayed second and third lockdowns; mismanaged school openings and closures.
The UK response to the pandemic was bad for three key reasons: (1) insufficient capacity in the system, (2) Brexit distracted HMG, (3) squabbling between institutions.
In the centralized UK government, the abilities and character of the PM dominate crisis response.
AR Sad story.