One bonobo's view of the world...and stuff.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Guilt and Innocence....of what?

All the right thinking (by which I mean Left thinking) folk have been lining up in support of Julian Assange. All well and good. But do they have their causes confused?

On last Thursday's (16th Dec) 's R4 'World at One', Josefin Brink from Sweden's Vänsterpartiet ('Left Party')1 made the good point that a) The exposure of government lies, double-dealing and general shadiness and b) the alleged rapes of two women are separate issues.

She reminded us that there have been numerous cases of famous men being accuesed of rape, and everyone says "Oh, how could it have been him? He's such a nice guy!" Often, though, our hero has turned out to be a rapist, and people find this concept difficult to accept. She stressed that she's not saying Assange is guilty - but there's one proper place to decide the issue: the court.

The general assumption appears to be that the rape allegations have been trumped up by Dark Forces. One of the victims has been 'linked' (whatever that means) to the CIA. All this might be more than conspiracy theory - after all, remember back to when Anti-Apartheid Activist Peter Hain was fitted up for bank robbery by the South African BOSS, with the compliance of the Met?

Now I accept that the Scandiwegian nations aren't as squeaky lean as they like to believe.: a browse through a Stieg Larsson or Henning Mankell novel suggests an underbelly. But I wonder...if you wanted to bang up a troublemaker for political reasons, which jurisdiction might you find most amenable? Britain? Australia? Sweden? Myself, if I were looking for a fair trial (and a clean, non-Dickensian cell), I know where I'd be headed.

There's also a feminist angle missing here. (I note, with mild surprise, the involvement of Helena Kennedy QC. a leading advocate for justice for women, in this case). From the pro-Assange camp, there have been complaints that the Swedish definition of rape is somewhat more liberal than in other countries. I'm struggling to see their point here. Sweden is also - at least, theoretically - more robust than many in prosecuting rape1. If this is the case, the proof or innocence of a case may turn on complicated matters than whether the man can be proved to have held the woman down at knifepoint. There seem from the allegations here to be prima facie grounds. Granted, there appears in Swedes to uncertainty over whether evidence supports rape or lesser molestation charges, but again...this reflects the complexity of the issues and its why the allegations need to be examined in a court. Surely?

Isn't it somewhat disturbing that some of Assange's supporters have been so ready to dismiss the allegations a priori?

1. But note my 'dark underbelly' comments: below the surface, Swedish men are no more reconstructed than any. Stieg Larsson was making a point with the original, Swedish title of 'The Girl With The Dragon Tatoo' ('Män som hatar kvinnor'): Men who hate women.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Was God a Mathematician?

Last night I watched a BBC4 tellything called 'Beautiful Equations' in which the presenter, an artist with no scientific background, struggled to get to grips with the idea that some scientists have talked about the aesthetic quality of equations. I don't recommend the programme to anyone with a basic understanding of science - it was one of those that was more travelogue than science1 - but the basic idea's interesting enough.

Einstein famously said:

"The only physical theories that we are willing to accept are the beautiful ones."

and Paul Dirac:
“God used beautiful mathematics in creating the
There are implications here that the universe is 'constructed' with an underlying, elegant pattern. Neither was necessarily saying that the universe was created by God. Einstein was certainly an atheist who was at pains to make it clear that he only ever used 'God' as a metaphor. Dirac perhaps took the idea more literally - although in point of fact he probably didn't give it much thought. Certainly neither saw any connection between the ordering of the universe and the conduct of our daily lives: they weren't theologians or philosophers.

(Interestingly, there is a school of thought within Islam that wheras only God can fully understand the universe, we have a duty to practice science to gain insight into the Oneness of God. Sometimes this is described as scraping back the surface of the universe to reveal glimpses of the underlying 'greeness' - green being associated with God, life, etc.)

Even so, the idea that science and mathematics reveal the inherent beauty of the universe is arsey-versy, isn't it? It's an anthropocentric notion. The universe is complicated. We are evolved to grub for roots, spear antelope and/or gather shellfish. We're on a par with other beasties in our ability to Comprehend Nature. Granted, we're extraordinarily adaptive by virtue of our faculties for problem solving. Nevertheless, when we bump our heads against the difficulty of understanding the inner workings of the universe, there's no reason to suppose our capacities are any more limitless than, say, a bonobo. We're undoubtedly better at it...but even our best minds can find it awfully hard.

The reason we're better is that, especially over the last 400-ish years, we've come up with some little tricks to simplify the picture. It goes without saying that equations are useful if they allow us to predict the way the universe behaves. But that wouldn't necessarily make them beautiful. A beautiful equation is something like:

E = mc2
...which has the additional advantage of simplicity. It's not only simple in that it only has three terms, but the way it falls out of Special Relativity is elegant. Plus it tells us a lot about the the universe and has various practical applications.

Or take the Dirac equation:

Now, OK, I'm not going to bullshit that I understand the first thing about this, but my understanding is that its a simple, clean expression which, by manipulating its variables, predicts the existence of various particles (e.g. anti-matter) which are experimentally verifiable.

So what these 'beautiful' equations have in common is that they're neat little bundles with the power to tell us a lot about the universe. Einstein's probably wouldn't have caught on if it went 'E=mc2 except in February minus the number you first thought of...' and on for twenty pages. For an example of an inelegant equation, see the Computus (origin of the word 'computer') by which the date of Easter is calculated. Its main predictive power is to explain why nobody ever knows what date it's going to fall on in any given year. The Dirac equation is slightly different. Wheras most people can grap the bones of Relativity after a bit of thinking about trains, watches and flashlights, even particle physicists struggle with Dirac. My understanding is that in deriving it he 'boiled down' some concrete stuff into abstract variables. E, m and c we can get to grips with, but nobody can quite explain the real-world concept represented by Ψ.

Note, incidentally, that not all mathematical descriptions of the world are considered elegant. I well recall my A-Level in Pure Mathematics with Mechanics2. The Pure, I liked. The Mechanics...sheesh!....all those long, long expressions representing the forces acting on a ladder leaning against a wall on a rough surface. The underlying maths was simple (and repetitive) - basically variants on Newton - but it was pure handle turning, without elegant shortcuts. Subsequently, throughout my so-called career, I've worked with people doing various forms of mathematical modelling. While in no way denegrating them, the type of maths they're dealing with is getting computers to spit out anwers using more data and doing morecalculations than humans can get their heads around. It's a matter of brute force rather than elegance.

But wait a minute. In contrasts to the messy maths, there are the beautiful equations which show themselves to be powerful tools for understanding and manipulating the real world. Doesn't the very fact of their existence demonstrate a beautiful order?

It's Douglas Adams' Intelligent Puddle once again, surely?:

"Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, 'This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn't it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!"3

What we've done is to go out looking for ways to simplfy the world, either for good, practical purposes or simple curiosity. Some parts of it we find can be described in nice, neat equations. But these will only be tractable if they'll fit within a human head or can be worked out on not too many sheets of paper or, more recently, in MATLAB.

We haven't discovered an underlying pattern, pleasing in its beauty. It's more that we've found we cen get our heads around parts of it and have been pleased with our ability.

(Btw, when I say 'we', I mean 'they'...those cleverer people than I who've made scientific discoveries.)

Finally: As a further test of Snow's 'two cultures'...can any scientists amongst us tell me why I have a picture of a vase in this post? See last two lines here. No cheating, now!

1 Actually, it was a good illustration of CP Snow's 'Two Cultures'. At the outset, the presenter seemed to have little notion of the idea of manipulating variables in equations, finding limiting values, etc.
2 My school's assumption was that if you did science and weren't clever enough to be a doctor, then you'd be an engineer, so you needed Mechanics. Alternately, if you did Arts and weren't posh enough to be a solicitor, you'd be an accountant and would need Statistics. It was only at university that I encountered - and was good at - statistics, which comprised a large part of my Experimental Design and Analysis.
3 Completing the quote, to illustrate the potentially malign consequences of anthropocentrism (or puddlecentrism):
"...This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it's still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything's going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for."

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A thousand words paint a picture

I've been playing with tag clouds at the gorgeous For thems as doesn't know, a Tag Cloud is a visual representation of word frequencies within a body of text. More frequent words are shown larger. Wordle lets you monkey around with layout, colour, etc.

Here's what it makes of Shakespeare's sonnets. All 154 of them:

And here's Chaucer's 'Canterbury Tales.' It was a bugger editing out the footnotes from this one. I'm slightly disappointed that 'shiteth' doesn't appear - but bigge shoute out to 'eke':

The Communist Manifesto:

NWA's seminal 'Straight Outta Compton' album:

By way of comparison, I used to do Bonoboworld. It doesn't have such nice graphical features:
(Hmm. This could become recursive.)
Any ideas for what else we really ought to see clouded?