Sunday, June 12, 2016

Technology and Inference

One can only be astounded by humanity’s ever-accelerating advances in technology … although I’m sure most of them have always taken place out of sight of the general populace. But every once in a while something hits the airwaves, and this latest leaves me feeling there are no limits whatever. Quoting one report (with my emphases) on the achievement:

On September 14, 2015, the two LIGO sites, in Louisiana and Washington State, independently detected a gravitational wave by measuring a discrepancy in the time the light rays took to reach a sensor at the ends of the tunnels. The precision of the measurement is simply astonishing. The difference in length that each light wave traveled corresponds to 1/1000th of the radius of a proton, a subatomic particle that is itself minuscule, with a size of about 10-12    meters. 

            But I am also astounded … and very pleased … that the real payoff of this technological feat must have come about by means of good ol’ rational inference and theory construction. For here (according to the same article) is what that blippiest of blips has revealed to us:

    The signal captured precise details about the two black holes that, within a fraction of a second, collided, coalesced, and produced the gravitational wave. Scientists determined that they were thirty-six and twenty-nine times the mass of our sun, with event horizons approximately ninety-three miles wide. They produced a single black hole sixty-two times the mass of the sun. The difference in mass of the black holes before and after the collision was converted into energy in the form of gravitational waves. This is an enormous amount of energy, more than that in the visible light of all the stars in the universe combinedScientists were also able to conclude that the black holes merged about 1.3 billion years agoand that these ripples that stretched and compressed space traveled unimpeded to earth.

Quotations from:
After Einstein: The Dark Mysteries

Time Is Running Out

The Baby Boomers -- my generation – have always fancied themselves something special. This was due not only to our economic privileges as the wealthiest (young) generation in history (albeit not uniformly distributed, of course!) but also our numbers. My own intimation of mortality came a decade or two ago when I suddenly realized that, say, the Beatles would fade into history, and probably rather rapidly, like everybody else. Except … that didn’t happen! So our collective ego has been reinforced by at least one succeeding generation … and no doubt abetted by the eternal presence of the recent past on the Internet.

            Of course ours was also the generation that grew up with the fear of nuclear world war, which certainly would have ended things right quickly, with no other generations to succeed our massive failure. But side by side with that were inspiring spectacles of a high order, surely the “highest” (for me anyway) being walking on the Moon. (Of course this was not accomplished by boomers.)

            But then was an odd period of hibernation, when even landing on the Moon became a thing of the past, and the students I taught in college learned about it in their history books. The music deteriorated, making money came back in style, women became sex objects again, and a general crassness and indifference took over. We wondered – just like our parents – what are these kids coming to? (“We” being a subset of the boomers, of course, possibly even a very small one. I’ve never been able to figure out how representative I am.) Then religion made a big comeback, and the latest is … racism and bigotry! Oy. (In reality they may never have “gone away,” or maybe their current “resurgence” is more media phenomenon than reality. Again, it’s hard to know what’s what, even in, or perhaps especially in, this age of infinite access to information.)

            The most recent phase of the boomer saga, though, is what I want to write about. (By the way, that there is yet another “phase” is itself an incredible phenomenon to me. I feel I for one have lived through many generations and even lives. I can’t believe I am still alive, and even youngish [by today’s standards]. Life is long, even though it’s just a blip.) For the boomers are suddenly taking over again …although in a backhanded way, since the actual individuals who are making this happen are probably our children and even grandchildren. But somehow it feels like “our” projects. (Perhaps that is just another boomer trait, to see everything else as an extension of oneself?)

            I am talking about the urge and surge to accomplish the ultimate projects, including not only “mundane” things like ending world poverty and diseases (although I think we’ve given up on ending war), but especially the cosmic things like immortality, reaching another star system (we have already reached Pluto and beyond!), and Contact (with ET). On the one hand there are intimations of mortality, such as when I realized the other day that NASA was already planning space missions that I would not live to see! On the other hand, genius scientists and engineers, superentrepreneurs, and billionaire investors are finding and funding marvels of every kind, allowing their science-fiction imaginations to run wild.

            Actually a lot of it is pure hype and wishful thinking and rich people’s fantasies and really no different from any other kind of salvational religion (except that the latter is traditionally the domain of the poor and the uneducated and of course focused on the supernatural). I have seen many of these people up close, and they remain human oh so human. Nevertheless they do have occasional remarkable successes, and the times they really are a-changin’.

But my main point is only that all the stops are being pulled out either directly by boomers or else in our time. It is an extraordinary effort being made to see it all, do it all – for apr├Ęs nous …? Actually, however, “after us” is inconceivable to the folks I’m talking about. They intend to stick around for all of it, forever. And yet, contradictorily, it is a desperate effort … for we will only be immortal if we achieve immortality now