Re-Evaluating All We Know?

First an announcement: I’ll be speaking at the Singularity Summit in New York City October 15-16, along with Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Stephen Wolfram, Michael Shermer, John Mauldin, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jason Silva and many others.

My topic: “So you want to make gods. Now why should that bother anybody?”  Our can-do, problem-solving zeal may save humanity and light up the galaxy. Yet, talk of “tech-transcendence” inspires some – and worries others. What can we learn from the past about our future? Should be a stupendous conference…Be sure to sign up!

== Can Science Re-Evaluate? ==

The physics world is buzzing over the recent faster than light particle result from CERN – one of those science stories that gets a lot of public press. Apparently, some neutrinos emitted by the great accelerator in the Alps are showing up in an Italian detector a nanosecond or so earlier than relativity ought to allow.

If the result is verified it will prove a major milestone. Among possible explanations might be that super-energetic neutrinos are bumped (very briefly) out of the four dimensional “brane” we call spacetime. (Envision separated membranes like soap bubbles; one film is our universe.) Hauled back in by gravity (the only force that carries between branes), they re-enter our world a bit farther along their old trajectory. Enough (some suggest) to explain the apparent cheating of ol’ Einstein. No, I ain’t pulling your leg. There are brainy guys who ponder such stuff. And if this, or some other exotic explanation, pans out then we’re in for interesting times!

But dig it, please — extraordinary claims call for extraordinary (and reproducible) evidence. One of the great things about our civilization is we get to see scientists constantly checking, re-checking and poking at whatever Standard Model reigns in their field.  In my life, nearly all of these re-checks have resulted in only minor re-adjustments — with the exception of the Dark Matter and Dark Energy findings. (Even if they are disproved, it will only be by something else stunning.) Others, like Cold Fusion, caused yearlong investigations and Re-Evaluations of All We Know (REAWK!) but with negative results.

I find it all healthy and look forward to seeing this very competitive truth-finding process apply to the new CERN “ftl” results.  Still, it worries me that many in the press and public take a very unhealthy attitude – that re-appraisal in a branch of science somehow means it had been “all wrong” before.  Some take it as revelation that science is waffling or poorly based… instead of proof of the very opposite.  Others yearn for an upset apple-cart! They see any sign of a re-proved Standard Model as evidence of stodginess or oppression by Old Professors Incapable of Seeing the New (OPISN).

To be clear, I have known plenty of OPISNs! But the incredibly competitive nature of science (Adam Smith would be proud) generally makes them targets of the next wave of bright young guns.

Look, given our heritage as a superstitious species that danced to incantations by campfires, it should be no surprise that many of our neighbors are emotionally out of tune with science, or don’t see how its competitive process results in ever-improving models of the world. Models that keep getting better, even when some part of them is shown to have been incomplete, or even wrong. That is how they improve. (Duh?) The ultimate market.

It is only human to perceive a process that you do not understand and judge it by the way you own mind thinks.  But racism was also deeply human. And feudalism. So come. Start by repeating this aloud: “It can be fun to re-evaluate all that I know! Heck, I might even learn something.”

There. Don’t you feel more scientific already?  Now to make that same spirit work in politics….

Oh… while I’m at it… here’s another paradigm-changing update: Could Dark Energy and even Guth’s “inflation” be overly contrived theories for something more easily explained? By the existence of hyper-long gravitational waves — left over from the Big Bang?  These might elucidate the recently discovered preferential direction in the cosmos – the so-called “axis of evil.” Plus the revelation that distant-most galaxies seem to be accelerating their velocity of recession from us (thus requiring dark energy to explain the hyper expansion).  The gravitational wave concept makes such cludges unnecessary. Maybe. This paper is certainly worth a read.

== Space Updates ==

Does our solar system exist inside a bubble? Astronomers say we’re in a “local bubble” in the interstellar medium – perhaps a result of stellar explosions millions of years ago. (See below for a link to my cosmological short story about… “Bubbles”!)

Kepler-16b, the first planet known to definitively orbit two stars — what’s called a circumbinary planet. The planet, depicted in foreground, was discovered by NASA’s Kepler mission. (Nearly every article has compared it to Tatooine from Star Wars — so I’ll avoid that cliche! Oops too late…. dang Star Wars $%#$#$!)

Similarly cosmic! Anyone with a soul should find this breathtaking! Watch a Saturn fly-by video composed from high-resolution images from the Cassini Orbiter

Scientists analyzing data from the Kepler spacecraft for exoplanets have encountered a problem: noisy stars! Before Kepler’s launch, researchers had assumed that most Sun-like stars would be about as quiet as the Sun, with mild fluctuations in luminosity. Noise in the Kepler data is much larger – much of it variations in the stars themselves. Sunspots and magnetic activity are the most likely culprits – perhaps because about half of the sun-like stars in the Kepler field are younger than expected (Young stars spin faster, with more vigorous magnetic fields.) If this youthful bias is true of the entire Milky Way, it could alter our understanding of how stars are born and die.

Note also… if our sun is older than average, it might help explain the Fermi Paradox.

How would humans survive extended voyages in space? Five men cooped together over a year to simulate a Mars mission… apparently were going stir crazy! Yipe! (Well, look, several are Russian. Jeepers, did you ever read the book or watch the original film SOLARIS? All is explained.)

See the Solar System in action!  Stunning animation of planetary and satellite orbits – set to any date you choose.

== Life, the Universe and Everything ==

How Life arose on Earth, and How a Singularity might bring it down. This Scientific American article reporting about a recent biological conference is worth reading from top to bottom. Caltech cosmologist Sean Carroll opened the meeting by commenting that “The purpose of life is … to hydrogenate carbon dioxide.” There  you go…

From another talk on the scaling of life: “An organism’s lifespan is proportional to the 1/4 power of its mass, its heart rate goes as the –1/4 power of its mass, so the total number of heart beats is independent of mass—a universal value of about a billion beats for all of us. Use them wisely.” (Except humans get three times that! We’re the Methuselahs of mammals. See my article “So you want immortality?”)

An interesting and fair discussion of the possibility that dolphins have a sort of language and a sort of “intelligence.”  As a sort-of dolphinish guy, I actually have subtle and complex beliefs about this.  The folks I know who’ve worked with high cetaceans all tell me their impression: that the creatures seem to “wish they were smarter.” Subjective, but poignant and telling. (I’ll discuss dolphin “uplift” further in my next novel, EXISTENCE.)

== And a Few Updates ==

Being Human in the 21st Century: Again I’ll be speaking at the Singularity Summit in New York City October 15-16, along with Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel, Stephen Wolfram, Michael Shermer, John Mauldin, Eliezer Yudkowsky, Jason Silva and many others. My topic: “So you want to make gods. Now why should that bother anybody?”  Come on, sign up!

Oh… I may announce an open fans-n-friends bar session in New York, stay tuned!


I’ll be speaking at TEDx Brussells November 22: A Day in the Deep Future.

New Orleans! I’ll be Author Guest of Honor at Contraflow Science Fiction Convention the weekend of November 4-6.

Also the World Fantasy Convention in San Diego.


One of my classic short stories “Bubbles” is in the latest issue of the fine online sci fi zine LIGHTSPEED!  And Harlan Ellison, my rambunctious pal, is doing an audio reading.  I’m honored.

A cool fan site showcasing my novels! Thanks to Susan O’Fearna.

And from the sublime to the ridiculous… or at least now for something completely different… David Brin playing the harmonica at the Reno World Science Fiction Convention (thanks to Lawrence Person.)



Filed under science

5 responses to “Re-Evaluating All We Know?

  1. Georges

    Hello David,
    about the “faster than light neutrinos”, as I am not a physicist, I waited for comments from some scientist friends; and the immediate comment, confirmed by them after reading the original article, was that “group speed” was detected, which doesn’t contradict the relativity theory. It would be impossible to follow a particular neutrino, but witha beam, the speed of one particle cannot be known….

  2. Actually it is “phase velocity” that’s often mistaken for being faster than light. In this case, I am not sure that’s the problem.

  3. I found this fascinating. As a novelist, I had to immerse myself in physics over the last few years as I studied BECs and what happens near Absolute Zero–so the fact that “branes” may exist is fascinating. I’m open to the amazing.

    By the way, the novel I created, LOVE AT ABSOLUTE ZERO, is about a physicist specializing in BECs and decides he needs a wife. He uses the tools of science to find his soul mate–in the three days he has. Chaos ensues. I’m reading from it at Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena (if your here) tomorrow, Thursday the 29th, at 7 p.m.

  4. My God! How could I possibly condense my positions of a lifetime, so comprehensively touched on and made conceptually tangible as this article.

    I have been rendered speechful; I must now produce a string of essays to meld what I have thought for years with what I miraculously found here.

    “It was tremendous fun for the inventor of the wheel so why not have more fun reinventing it and enabling Volvos to run on rubber rather than wooden tires.”

    Thank you very much for a tremendously stimulating, in the good way, article.

  5. barrykort

    Because there was no parallel “microtunnel” to send a beam of photons alongside the neutrinos, the experiment had to rely on a pair of synchronized atomic clocks, one at each end of the track. The clocks are synchronized via GPS.

    But there is something known as the Relativity of Simultaneity that may apply here. Two two clocks are synchronized in the frame of reference of the GPS satellites in Earth orbit, but not in other frames of reference (e.g. a Copernican frame of reference looking down on the Solar System, or an Andromedan frame of reference looking back on the Milky Way Galaxy).

    I have not yet seen an explanation of how this issue is resolved.

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