Sunday, December 05, 2004

On The Nature of Kookery

I have, since the age of five, been a science wonk. For many years I dreamt of being a scientist when I grew up but, alas, that never came to pass (I’ve always been weak at applied math). Never the less, I’ve tried my best to be as educated as a layman can be when it comes to matters of science. In many ways this has been an ideal arrangement for me.

Professional scientists need to focus on their particular domains. Although cross-disciplinary research does occur and one does come across the occasional polymath, the norm is that biologists study biology; physicists study physics, and so on. Indeed, the level of specialization tends to be far narrower. In the realm of physics, a person may know everything about optics and next to nothing about cosmology or, conversely, be an expect on condensed matter physics while being frankly ignorant when it comes to string theory (and vice versa).

Since I’m just an ordinary guy looking in from the outside, I can afford to be a dilettante. This allows me to take a broad perspective and to follow my whims. One week I might be reading up on genetic algorithms and the next week I might be learning about gamma ray bursts. I do try to approach my lay studies with an appropriate sense of humility, however. Science is defined by its methodology, which is a very rigorous and demanding one. I get to enjoy the efforts of other people’s labors while not having to go to the effort of doing any of my own research nor of subjecting my conclusions to the grinding mill of peer review and publication. Scientists are like gardeners cultivating an orchard on very challenging terrain whereas I am like a child who comes by and plucks the juicy fruits that they have grown. It is this realization, above all others, that keeps me from becoming a kook.

Every scientist who achieves the least degree of fame (as well as quite a few science fiction authors who get lumped in by association) attracts the attentions of people who are uncharitably called kooks. Some kooks are, clearly, suffering from some form of mental illness. Having a brother who suffers from paranoid schizophrenia, I’ve seen what mental illness looks like up close and can well understand how such a distorted state of mind could compel someone to believe that he has the answers to the mysteries of the universe as well as an overwhelming urgency to share those answers with the world. Most people have an instinctual aversion to the mentally ill but the truth is that such people are blameless. They can no more help how they think than a person with cerebral palsy can help how they walk. Many kooks, however, are not mentally ill, per se.

We are a very creative species. You can see that sense of creativity in our effortless ability to craft improvised tools. Even young children can arrive at ad hoc solutions to challenging problems with the appropriate tool is not had with a degree of facility that would put even the most ingenious chimp in the world to shame. Our big brains are rarely idle. We seek solutions even when the problems facing us are abstract and when lack the cognitive tools to address an issue.

One of the defining traits of humans is that when we encounter a barrier or a limitation, we have a deep-rooted urge to surmount it. We can’t look at a fence or a wall without wondering what’s on the other size and nothing provokes our curiosity like the challenge of a locked box. This is every bit as much true as with natural barriers such as the so-called "sound barrier". As much as strategic consideration drove us to strive for the creation of supersonic aircraft, it is unquestionable that a major part of what motivated the engineers and test pilots who challenged the barrier was the simple fact that it was something that no one was able to break.

This instinct to face and overcome obstacles has served us well over the millennia. A mere fifteen thousand years ago, we were slaves to the elements and the natural forces of the world. Weather, predatory animals, famine and disease were mysterious and largely implacable foes. The natural world seemed vast and inimical. Animistic religions may well have sprung from an urge to anthropomorphize the world so that we could, at least, negotiate with it. To be sure, people still get struck by lightning, mauled by bears, succumb to starvation and, of course, perish from illness but our ability to deal with these ancient woes is much closer to a state of parity if not outright mastery (the predators of the world have much more to fear from us than we do from them).

If we were not a species of problem solvers we’d still be in a state where thirty years was considered a long time to live. The fact that we feel cheated if we can’t make it at least to seventy speaks well of the indomitability of our wills. Unfortunately, this natural sense of challenge that we have can lead us down false paths. As much as it may gall us, there are some problems that literally can’t be solved.

For thousands of years people have been performing elaborate geometrical feats with nothing more than a straight edge and a compass. You can build all kinds of polygons such as triangles and octahedrons as well as performing such geometric operations as bisecting a line or an angle and creating perpendiculars. Some operations, however, that seem like they ought to be possible have proved elusive. One such operation has been the trisection of an angle. It’s very easy to bisect and angle, by which I mean creating a line that precisely divides any arbitrary angle in half. However, creating a pair of lines that precisely divides an arbitrary angle in three parts is more difficult. In fact, it’s impossible to do so only using an ideal compass and an unmarked straight edge. This has been proven mathematically.

A mathematically proof is an absolute statement. There is no room for arbitration or subjectivity. Theologians have often developed a deep fascination with mathematics because it seemed to be a window into a realm of pure and abstract truth such as one might find in the very mind of God. When I say that it’s impossible to trisect an angle with these tools I mean just that. This hasn’t stopped hundreds, if not thousands, of people from trying anyway.

There is no phrase so provocative to the human psyche as any phrase that begins with the words “you can’t”. Such phrases immediately compel us to say, “Oh yeah?” and “Why not?”

We celebrate people who say that nothing is impossible. We cheer for those who dare to do what can not be done. We scorn those meek and petty souls who would tell us that there are things that we can’t do. Who are they to tell us what our limits are? The sky is the limit and not even then! Right? Wrong. Some things really are impossible and trisecting the angle is one of them. People who submit solutions to the problem either don’t understand the problem or don’t have the necessary skills to understand why their solutions are flawed. Most of the people who make the attempt are merely ignorant and, with a little effort, can be made to understand why their methods are flawed. Some, however, persist in their insistence that their solutions are correct and that it is the entire community of mathematicians that is in the error. These are the people who have crossed the line into kookdom.

A classic example of a subject that attracts kooks is the issue of perpetual motion. A perpetual motion machine is a hypothetical device which would generate more energy than was required to run it or, at least, the same amount of energy (a state known as unity). Because such a device would produce a surplus of energy, it could, in principle, use that energy to power itself thus creating a machine that would run indefinitely (hence, perpetual motion). There’s only one problem: the laws of thermodynamics prevent any such device from ever being constructed. In the real world, a machine would always lose energy to friction. Once the machine was out of fuel (or disconnected from its power source) it would invariably run down over time. The thermodynamic principles that mandate this have been well understood for centuries. Unfortunately, this is a case where mere physics gets in the way of sublime hopefulness.

The people who try to build perpetual motion machines are typically not stupid. Many of them clearly have a talent for engineering. What they lack is a basic understanding of physics. Most people who dabble in attempts to built perpetual motion devices quickly become discouraged. Perhaps they learn a little about physics or, perhaps, they simply become frustrated and turn their attentions elsewhere. Some become charlatans who claim that they have succeeded in order to bilk the gullible. A small minority, however, consider the very contention that such devices are impossible to be a slap in the face. Motivated by the highest human instincts they find themselves engaging in the greatest folly. Some of these people waste their entire lives in this pursuit. Although their spirit is laudable their actions, alas, are pitiable. There is no way to calculate how much raw talent has been squandered in the quest to achieve this mirage but there is no doubt that it is vast.

Some barriers offend us not simply because they represent abstract challenges but because they seem to impose direct limitations upon us. The speed of light is one such barrier. Our science fiction is filled with faster than light (FTL) engines for a reason. The alternative is the depressing thought that getting to even the nearest star would take an absolute minimum of 4.3 years. The very term “light barrier” implies that there’s something there to be broken. The term implies that it’s analogous to the sound barrier, only faster. It is, however, a misleading term.

The sound barrier was always understood to be an engineering challenge. No educated person actually believed that it was impossible to go faster than the speed of sound. Plenty of things in the natural world did so all the time (e.g., meteorites). Indeed, every time a bullet was fired or a whip was cracked, the sound “barrier” was broken. The only serious question was whether an aircraft could be designed that would exceed mach 1 and maintain its structural integrity. Few doubted that, eventually, such would be done. It was a challenge but not an impossibility.

The speed of light is not like the speed of sound. The speed of sound is a local phenomenon that can vary according to the medium it’s traveling through (it’s faster through water, for instance) and the such variables as atmospheric pressure. It is an engineering challenge because subsonic flight and supersonic flight have different aerodynamic characteristics. Creating a craft that can manage both environments is tricky.

The speed of light, by contrast, is a very different sort of phenomenon. Many people ask the naïve question of what would happen if someone were going at ten kilometers per and hour under the speed of light and they sped up by another twenty kilometers per an hour. Surely they’d be going ten KPH faster than the speed of light. This is an intuitive thought but this is also a case where the physical world behaves very non-intuitively. Let’s say that I’m traveling half the speed of sound and you fire a bullet parallel to me that’s traveling at mach 1. From your perspective, the bullet is speeding away from you at mach. If I measure it’s velocity, relative to me, as it passes by, though, it’ll only seem like it’s going half that fast. If we try the experiment with me going at fifty percept the speed of light (relative to you) and you fire a laser beam, the results will be very different. You’ll measure the laser beam zipping away from you at approximately 300,000 kilometers per a second. As it passes by me, I will also measure it as going 300,000 kilometers per second. It gets weirder. If someone else fires a laser in the opposite direction I will still measure its velocity as being 300,000 KPS.

This is strange but also true. A century’s worth of experimentation has demonstrated beyond any shadow of a doubt that this is precisely what is observed. To account for this weirdness, Einstein came up with the Theory of Relativity. In the framework of his theory, distance and time is not an absolute quantity but one that can be distorted by velocity and acceleration (as well as mass, but let’s not go on a tangent). The speed of light remains constant for all observers. Although I may accelerate to my hearts content, the photons streaming past me will always be traveling at a constant velocity. An independent observer would see me approaching the speed of light (relative to him) but continuously slowing down as I approached it, never reaching it. Like I said, non-intuitive but, never the less, well verified.

This is precisely the sort of problem that attracts kooks.

“Sure, they say you can’t. Well, I say you can, and who’s to say otherwise, huh?”

In all fairness, there are respected physicists who have looked for ways to circumvent the limitations of the speed of light via such mechanisms as wormholes, space warps and quantum entanglement. Unfortunately, such methods tend to fall prey practical limitations (proposals for space warps and wormholes involve the use of “exotic matter” that, unfortunately, only exists in our imaginations as well as energies on the order of galaxies or, even, the entire universe) as well as more fundamental issues (transversable wormholes, for instance, lead directly to temporal paradoxes). My own suspicion is that the closer we look at such efforts, the more likely it is that we’ll find that they are disallowed. Never the less, it is conceivable that some such method might get us around the limitations of the speed of light. What can not be done, however, is to simply accelerate something past the speed of light.

There are a lot of people who insist that this is just plain wrong. Most of them error in simply understand the nature of the problem. One common objection to the speed of light limit is to suppose that you have a pair of scissors with very long blades. If the blades were long enough, simply closing the scissors would cause the ends of the blade to snap together faster than the speed of light – or so you might think. In reality, you couldn’t bring the blades together fast enough. As you tried to bring them together, the apparent mass of the ends of the scissor would increase requiring you to expend more and more energy to accelerate them further. Ultimately the blades would either snap from the strain or you’d simply run out of additional energy (no matter how much you had). Nothing could cause them to go faster.

The other tact that kooks tend to take with respect to the issue of FTL is to simply insist that Einstein was wrong and that Relativity is in error. One of the hallmarks of kooks is that they tend to think of themselves as mavericks – lone voices of dissent standing against wrong headed academic elitists. They will typically compare themselves to Galileo or Edison or some other paragon of invention and iconoclasm. There is something about such a person that appeals to us. Who is to say that some smart fellow won’t prove that Einstein was wrong? What do those Ivory Tower academics know anyway?

The sad fact is that science is an elite undertaking. There was a time, early in its undertaking, where an intelligent amateur could make important contributions to the work of science. Although amateurs do still, occasionally, make some contribution to the venture, the typical contribution is on the order of an lay astronomer discovering a new comet or a gifted teen working out some novel but largely inconsequential mathematical proof. The days when a gentleman scientist could make significant discoveries using only an air pump are long gone. The major reason for this is precisely because it is much easier to make new discoveries when forging across virgin territory. It is also a truism that easy questions tend to be resolved before complex questions. As a result of these two factors, science has become more and more of a specialized and complex realm.

None of this is to say that laymen are forbidden from practicing science. There are no science police that are going to come are raid your garage/laboratory in search of illicit Bunsen burners. However, if you want to be taken seriously you’ll need to demonstrate an understand of both existing theory as well as the methodology of science. Science isn’t just people in white coats peering at beakers and occasionally shouting “Eureka!” Science is a system of inquiry and exploration that has been proven to, over time, yield cumulatively more reliable models of the universe. If you challenge a theory without demonstrating that you first of all understand it, you aren’t going to be taken seriously. If you aggrandize yourself without bothering to go through the process of peer review, you’re going to be ignored and rightfully so. In the sciences, having a Big Idea is only the very first step. Demonstrating that your idea is true using the tools of the practice is the real challenge.

I do understand the temptations that turn otherwise sane people into obsessed kooks. A few years ago I was contemplating mathematical constructs that I called “urchins”. They were basically line segments intersecting a common point and having certain other characteristics. I was particularly interested in the forms that they would take when embedded in what’s known as a Hilbert Space (which is a space with an infinite number of dimensions). As I was doing this, I had what seemed to me to be a critical realization that I thought would lead to a solution to the Continuum Hypothesis. I was very, very excited about this since this was one of the really big problems in mathematics. For nearly a whole day I could barely contain my excitement and had to stifle the temptation to call a good friend of mine who is a professor of mathematics.

Fortunately I had the good sense to do some reading on the problem. I learned that I had, in fact, badly misunderstood what the problem was in the first place and that, more over, it was one of a class of problem that could not be solved using any of the standard axiom sets. That moment of forbearance saved me from causing my friend to think of me as another annoying kook without a clue. Never the less, it was exciting. The thrill of thinking, even momentarily, that I had outsmarted all of those big-headed mathematicians was absolutely intoxicating. I can understand how someone could become so enamored of such a pet theory that they would refuse to believe that they could be in error. It’s an addictive proposition.

I think, ultimately, that the fact that science attracts so many kooks is, in an odd way, a validation of the potency of science. People appreciate that it’s an important venture and they desperately want to be a part of it. Too often this can lead people down a path of self-delusion where they believe that they have demonstrated their personal worth by making a significant contribution to that grand adventure. It’s very easy to laugh at kooks, especially when the alternative is to be overcome by a sense of exasperation, but most kooks are, I believe, ordinary people who have succumbed to an ordinary urge to be more than they really are. The tragedy of kookiness is that many kooks really do seem to have above ordinary intelligence. I can’t help but to wonder how many of them, with only the slightest shift in perspective and a little training, could actually become the sort of person they dream of being.

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