Friday, 7 September 2007

The Great Quantum Suicide/Prayer experiment

One of the wackier ideas I've come across recently is the Quantum Suicide thought experiment. For a full explanation look here

It concerns one of the interpretations of Quantum Mechanics, (a subject I studied a long time ago at University & wasted many late evenings in pointless discussions of its philosophical implications).

In the "Many Worlds" interpretation of Quantum Mechanics, all possible outcomes of an event occur in separate parallel universes. Consider a radioactive atom that has a 50/50 chance of decaying in any given second. We are unable to predict which of these outcomes will happen, only the chance of one or the other. Albert Einstein didn't like this idea, and was often quoted as saying "God does not play at dice". (Well, coin-tossing in this case). Enter the Many Worlds Interpretation (MWI) to the rescue. In fact at the end of a second, there are two parallel universes, one in which the atom has decayed, and one in which it hasn't.

Now imagine a physicist who wants to test if the Many Worlds Interpretation is correct, as opposed to there being One World, where the outcome is determined by God (or whatever) tossing a coin. The way to test it is to rig up the radio-active atom to a detector, which, if it detects the decay, fires a gun. The physicist sits in a chair facing the gun. At the end of the first second, there are two parallel universes, one with a dead physicist, and one with a live physicist. Clearly, the physicist's consciousness only continues in the universe where he is alive. Now the physicist repeats the experiment for 1000 repetitions. The chance of getting 1000 coin tosses in a row coming up heads is so astronomically small that if there is but one Universe, then the physicist is going to be dead by the end as sure as eggs are eggs. But in the Many Worlds Interpretation, all outcomes always happen, so at the end of 1000 seconds, there is one universe with a live physicist, and 999 with dead ones.

Now the physicist returns home elated after his day's work, and says to his wife:

"Hi, dearest, I'm home, and guess what? I've proved that many worlds interpretation is true - and I'm going to be famous".

However, his devoutly religious wife knew about the experiment and also knew that barring miracles, her husband would be dead before the end of the day. And so she prayed to her God to intervene and save her husband's wife. So even though it dampens her husband's enthusiasm, she replies:

"No you haven't proved it's true, I've just proved that prayer works. It's a miracle!!".

(Sadly in 999 other universes, the grieving wife is left wondering if God exists at all).

What should our physicist do? Should he:

(a) Divorce his religious nutter of a wife, publish his findings and get the Nobel prize?
(b) Start believing in the same God that his wife believes in?
(c) Go back to the lab and try and figure out what went wrong with the experiment?

[ Clue: what would be the most scientific thing to do?]

Tuesday, 19 June 2007

Useless tips for computer programmers # 121

Choose variable names in your program that can be touch typed one-handed, like "reader", "axes", "lollipop", "phylum", "minimum".

That way you can increase productivity by continuing to work while sipping your coffee.

Friday, 15 June 2007

Surreal joke

A skeleton walks into a bar. Asks for a pint of beer and a mop.
Classic FM today. They have redeemed themselves. (See "Hunger for Seriousness")

Sunday, 25 February 2007

Ambient Music

Here's a poem I wrote some time back. In the post God's Flute I wrote about Elgar hearing his music in nature. This is about the music I hear in nature. On writing the previous post, I realised that it resonated very much with this poem & much the same thoughts must have given rise to it. Order out of chaos again?

Ambient Music

As if


Had assembled
A random orchestra
And placed me in the empty hall,
I hear music ..

In the woodwind of birdsong
The distant dissonance of a sheep bleat
The cadence of rain coming down,
The drone of a van going up hill
Briefly broken
By the leisurely
of a gear change.

And deep rest comes
Not in sleep
But in deeply awake ...
When the boring voices inside
Churning the same questions
About life and stuff
Have laid off,
The answers are all here

God's Flute

I wrote a while back of Darwin's letter to Asa Gray, where he said he considered the marvellous universe we live in to be the result of designed laws, with the minor details, whether good or bad, left to what we may call chance.

Darwin, as is well-known was an agnostic, but I'd like to develop these ideas a little from my point of view as a Christian.

One thing many of my Christian friends have a problem with is evolution. Much of this may be due to the increasingly hostile attitudes of prominent evolutionists such as Richard Dawkins. But I suspect also part of the problem is the idea that all this complexity can come about from random, chaotic processes.

However, this does not imply the absence of a designer, or a creative intelligence, and evidently Darwin didn't think so either. The fact is that systems that obey physical laws can often pick out what they need from random processes - and turn randomness into order. Consider what happens when you draw a bow across a violin string. The resin on the hairs of the bow is effectively randomly distributed, and therefore when you draw the bow across the string, you are applying a random stimulus. But the string itself is tuned to resonate at a particular frequency. It naturally selects, therefore, the relevant frequency components from the "white noise" applied to it, and amplifies them emitting a beautiful sound. The same happens when you blow across the mouthpiece of a flute - the right components of the white noise signal produced by your breath over the mouthpiece are selected, and the instrument resonates, producing a pure and delightful tone.

And so perhaps this is not that far from the idea that out of randomness, the finely tuned earth brings forth the most wonderful and beautiful forms. The sounds produced by a musical instrument come about by naturally selecting the right components from a random signal, and discarding the wrong ones.

These natural resonances can be even more complex than a single note. The composer Elgar said that he "heard" all his music in Nature. That he would just go out in the hills and take all he wanted. I can't say that I hear Elgar when I go out into the countryside. But I'm just tuned differently from him.

But at the end of the day, all these things I've spoken of are like resonances that occur naturally. But that doesn't mean there isn't a violin maker, or as Darwin put it, a designer of the laws of nature. Nor does it prove that there is a Designer (I'll be writing about Intelligent Design and why it ultimately doesn't convince me at a later time).

Meanwhile, I am content to look upon the universe as if it were a flute that God breathes upon, which produces the most wonderful resonances.

Sunday, 14 January 2007

Hunger for seriousness

Why do I love miserable music? I'm not a miserable person at all, and yet it seems my favourite music always seems to be of the kind that most people tend to find depressing.

One of my favourite composers is Shostakovich. Now Classic FM play quite a bit of Shostakovich, but give rather a biassed view by only playing lollipops like the "Romance" from the film score "The Gadfly", or his brilliantly witty arrangement of Tea For Two (In the Soviet Union this was called Tahiti Trot). But none of the Shostakovich pieces that are regularly played by Classic FM capture the true bleakness and tragedy of this man's music. By contrast, I attended a performance by the Lindsay Quartet of Shostakovich's deathly 13th String Quartet at Manchester University a few years back. The quartet ends with an extended passage for solo viola accompanied by deathly taps as the second violin is directed to tap the body of the instrument with the bow. It ends in a high scream. At the end, the viola player was white, unsmiling and shaking having played in a phenomenal fashion. The woman who was sitting next to me in the audience said at the end: "Well, I suppose he has a right to be so negative, but it's not for me". She acknowledged that I had been mesmerised by it, however.

By the same token, when the Radiohead single "Pyramid Song" was first played on Top of the Pops, I was really impressed by it, but the rest of my family thought I was completely mad to like such a mournful song. It appears the song is about suicide (the first line being "Jumped in a river"). I saw a fan on a website commenting on the lines "We all went to heaven in a little rowboat/And there was nothing to fear, nothing to doubt" and saying it meant we would go to heaven when we die and it would be perfect. But I think this perhaps misses the point - a possible way of seeing the lines is that death is a nothingness, where there is literally "nothing to fear" and "nothing to doubt", in fact nothing at all. Such a state might well be looked forward to and embraced gladly by someone in a suicidal frame of mind.

But such negative thoughts - the deathliness of Shostakovich's music, and the gloomy and trancendental contemplation of death and perhaps suicide by Radiohead are far from my own philosophy of life as a Christian. Why, then do such things hold such a fascination for me?

I think it may have to do with the innate hunger we all have for seriousness. This idea is presented well by Philip Larkin in his famous poem "Churchgoing". In the poem, Larkin, an atheist himself, finds himself wandering round a church, not really understanding what it's all about but savouring the atmosphere. He, also is puzzled as to why he finds it pleasing to come to churches again and again, and concludes it is because "a serious house on serious earth it is", and that this can never be obsolete "since someone will forever be surprising in himself a hunger to be more serious".

As a final recollection of satisfying this hunger for seriousness in myself (despite having a jokey nature), I recall going to a Prom concert performance of Tchaikovsky's Sixth symphony (a work that preceded by only a few weeks Tchaikovsky's own suicide following threats of being "outed" as a homosexual). During the first movement there is a section where the music erupts into an almost hysterical outpouring of grief. At that point, I recall the sense of a tingle that passed from the top of my head right through me, and that the smile had been wiped completely not just from my body, but my soul. And yet it wasn't a miserable experience - it was strangely uplifting to be taken solemly to the edge of the abyss, to stare into it, and to get the feeling that this was alright and that there was nothing to fear in this calm contemplation of total loss. Similarly the tragic slow last movement left me incapable of smiling, and in a way enriched that the joker inside me was silenced for a while.

This post was prompted by hearing the same last movement of Tchaikovsky's Sixth played on Classic FM yesterday. Again the music worked its solemn magic on me, and again the smile was wiped off my face for a while. Now, I really like to listen to Classic FM quite a bit, especially on the car radio, but occasionally they really irritate me. Such was the case here - after the movement came to an end, the honeyed tones of the announcer said this:

Tchaikovsky ...... at his melancholy best!!

To which the only response can be: