Remainders

By Sean Carroll | July 19, 2006 11:30 am

The internets move faster than I do. Interesting stuff that has accumulated in the past couple of weeks while I have been balancing work with jet-setting.

  • Backreaction is the go-to blog these days for cool expository posts about physics. Bee, newly hitched, has great articles about extra dimensions and neutrinos.
  • Penrose tensor diagrams Not to be outdone, jao at physics musings has some musings about physics diagrams. Feynman’s, of course, but also these funny pictures invented by Penrose to represent tensor algebra (pictured right). (Not sure what to call them, as “Penrose diagrams” is already taken.) They are a cute way of keeping track of the index gymnastics of ordinary tensors. I’m not sure if they actually represent an advance over the indices (of which I’m quite fond), but if nothing else they provide an interesting insight into the mind of someone smarter than most of us.
  • An interesting multi-blog disscussion was prompted by a provocative post at Feministing about a study claiming that conditions in the womb can affect men’s sexual orientation. Jessica wondered out loud whether or not we should even be studying these issues; she has legitimate concerns that whatever results are obtained could be used to excuse yet more repression. As a scientist, the answer is obvious: of course we should be studying these issues. We should study everything! But we should not pretend that our investigations have no consequences, and constantly be on guard against those who would put scientific discoveries to bad uses. Chris at Mixing Memory has a typically insightful post, as does Dr. Free-Ride (who also links to all the rest of the discussion). Janet also segues elegantly into a related issue, “how should scientists talk to non-scientists?” In a later post she defends a counterintuitive part of her answer: non-scientists have a duty themselves to improve the professional/amateur discourse.
  • Speaking of which, Angela at Tech Space steps onto her soapbox to harangue a bit about the state of science journalism. She points to a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review by friend-of-CV KC Cole. I’ll let you read, but the short answer is that we can blame the editors.
  • To end on a down note, George W. Bush has decided to put any doubts that he is the most anti-science President in our nation’s history completely to rest. Aided by a fawning Republican congress, he has managed to skate through six years of administration without vetoing a single piece of legislation — until now. Bush is expected to veto a bill just passed by Congress that would loosen restrictions on the use of embryonic stem cells in medical research. (As DarkSyde reminds us, the cells in question come from blastocysts that are already slated for destruction. They are going to be destroyed; the choice is between using them to fight disease — or not.) There are enough anti-Enlightenment Republicans in the Senate to prevent an override of the veto, so this particular avenue of scientific inquiry will continue to be stifled. In the United States, at least.

And one little update, to cleanse the palate and restore the jaunty mood.

  • It’s Yeats Day at Le Blog Bérubé.

    O sages standing in God’s holy fire
    As in the gold mosaic of a wall,
    Come from the holy fire, perne in a gyre,
    And be the singing-masters of my soul.
    Consume my heart away; sick with desire
    And fastened to a dying animal
    It knows not what it is; and gather me
    Into the artifice of eternity.

    Now that’s some serious poeting.

  • Vince

    Here’s the thing. If you accept the premise that the blastocyst is a human life (though nowhere near from having acquired physical characteristics that you and I have now), then it is immoral to “discard” it, let alone using it for research before discarding it; federally funded research. It doesn’t matter if the research is a lot more promising than adult stem cell research (which is also promising) and will lead the way to curing some pretty bad diseases. It’s not justified to achieve a good end by an immoral means.

    Now, I have no idea what percentage of people want this research to be done, but I don’t think a leader is someone who always obeys the people. He should lead according to his conscience, his moral principles, his experience, etc., not his particular faith. So I think it wouldn’t be right for the President to not veto something which, if passed, would lead to practices he considers immoral.

    So is embryonic stem cell research immoral? Is the question “When does human life begin?” a religious one, a philosophical one, a scientific one? Is there a definite answer? Many people say ‘yes’, many people say ‘no’. There are good reasons for both answers. If so, I don’t consider the President vetoing this an anti-scientific action on his part. If he is doing this solely on moral grounds, then it’s definitely not anti-scientific.

    Will certain human rights be in jeopardy if ESCR is not given the go-ahead? Probably not. If every scientist capable of doing this research decided not to pursue it after all (eg. because they all suddenly thought it was immoral), even if it was given the go-ahead, I’m guessing they wouldn’t be sued or charged, right? It’s up to the scientists. People have the right to available cures for diseases, and adequate health care.

  • fh

    Definately an advance over indices! Not for all purposes, but if you make these diagrams rigorous by calling them categories defining 2D topological QFTs becomes a one line for example.

    Furthermore there are important cases (SU(2) representation theory) where you basically drop the boxes, add a couple of conventions and are left with only diagrams, containing all the interessting information, and virtually nothing spurious.

    A 6j symbol is a tetrahedron, the pentagon identity is obvious by shuffeling branches on a tree, etc, etc.

    See John Baez’s homepage.

  • http://quasar9.blogspot.com/ Quasar9

    “We should study everything, …”
    Art for Art sake, who decides what is Art?
    Science for Science sake, who decides what is purposeful?
    Madness for Madness sake, who decides who or what is Mad?
    .
    Do we need to save life?
    No, I don’t want a pseudo altrusistic or non-specific generalised yes

    (1) Should we keep lifers alive on life support machines, because life means life, whilst at the same time have people waiting on Death Row waiting for the Switch to be flicked
    (2) Should we send in the Red Cross to places under air attack to ‘save’ lives, which may be ended by the next raid.
    (3) Should we do everything possible to artificially sustain life which cannot sustain itself, whilst at the same time destroying healthy life in a womb on a whim
    .
    The answer appears to be a resounding Yes.
    As to the why, who cares.
    Just because we can, or because there are research funds to promote diversity, under the premise of ‘original’ research
    or simply for the sheer hell of it
    .
    Now there’s a curious turn of phrase.
    Who in hell came up with that one? lol!
    .

  • rk

    Bush just did it!

    Imagine you are sitting with your child in stem cell research facility. A fire breaks out. Time is short. Do you run over to the fridge and save the cells or do you save the child? It’s the same debate.

  • spyder

    I am not sure i know what Vince’s point was trying to address, since the current dispensation (under Bush executive orders) of the blastocysts is destruction, rather than some sort of moral life sustainment, thus the bill itself merely asked that before they are destroyed anyway, maybe some of them could be used for research? Alas, the veto message claims that boys and girls will live while in fact they will be destroyed en masse.

    Also, i have, in my grumpy old dotage, begun to take offense at the use of the phrase “saving a life.” We have never once saved a single life. We have merely postponed that which is 100% guaranteed to happen–death. There is no life saving, saving a life, rescuing a life, or whatever. WE make amazing advances in prolonging it, in lengthening it, in providing a body with the capacity to endure while the mind/spirit/soul (you pick) has left the physicality (the house). But no, we don’t save a life.

    During my travels over the last two months, i did happen into a lengthy conversation about the importance of balancing our scientific knowledge with some expectation that the general public is for the most part uninterested, and perhaps (at best) uninformed regarding that knowledge. While this particular discussion regarded consciousness research, it seemed to continue much of what others have been saying (as mentioned by Sean above) about the efforts necessary to motivate the public, and especially the media, to express greater substantive accuracy in their haphazard utterances that claim scientific authenticity. The proverbial “We all know such and such is true” needs to be challenged when it is easily shown that such and such is in fact not true at all. Hard to do, and ever much more so given these times, but still worthy of the effort.

  • Vince

    I would save neither: they’re both just a collection of atoms. I would save the jewelry. At least I can get money by selling the jewelry.

    Also, I would save neither since both the child and the cells are just cells. Would I save skin cells that had fallen on the floor of the lab? No. So why would I save the child or the cells. They’re both cells.

    Presumably (I’m no fire expert, so what do I know), the cells inside the fridge would be safe anyway. Don’t you need heat and oxygen to sustain a fire?

    “Where having a baby.”
    “How’s the baby?”
    “Did you lose the baby?”

    Why would they say “baby”? Why not say “clump of cells with a different, but complete, human genetic makeup”? Well, the latter is much longer and more complicated, but that’s not the point.

  • Vince

    “Also, i have, in my grumpy old dotage, begun to take offense at the use of the phrase “saving a life.” We have never once saved a single life. We have merely postponed that which is 100% guaranteed to happen—death. ”

    What’s wrong with “saving a life”? When you go inside a burning building and rescue someone who collapses, you save their life. You prevent their death, which would inevitably happen if you didn’t go in there

    “There is no life saving, saving a life, rescuing a life, or whatever. WE make amazing advances in prolonging it, in lengthening it, in providing a body with the capacity to endure while the mind/spirit/soul (you pick) has left the physicality (the house). But no, we don’t save a life.”

    And we don’t murder either. We merely expedite which is 100% guaranteed to happen – death.

    “thus the bill itself merely asked that before they are destroyed anyway, maybe some of them could be used for research?”

    I’ve got an idea, since the people on death row with be destroyed anyway, why not use them for scientific research? Hey, let’s insert this gene and see if they develop the disease.

    The logic is that if you accept the premise that a blastocyst is a human life, then it is wrong to use that life as a means to an end (one which involves its destruction), and not treat it with respect, just as it is wrong to use the person on the street in the same way.

    In my opinion, this issue, as with many issues (as we are all aware) depends on what this thing we are experimenting on is.

  • Bob E.

    Penrose uses these diagrams lin his new book “Road To Reality”. Sir Penrose gave a talk Before the Big Bang at the University of Texas at Dallas a few months back. He and Wolfgang Rindler, one of my profs, appear to be close colleagues (otherwise IMO he would never have come to Dallas!). It was a mob scene. The auditorium was SRO. His books were being sold in the lobby and there was a book signing after the talk. I impulsively bought the RTR book for $40 and afterwards found it on Amazon for $25. The book signing line was so long that I did not queue up. As a beginning graduate physics student, I understood little of his talk (one of my professors also admitted the same). Everyone applauded loudly after the talk, which probably

  • Bob E.

    Oops, the rest of my previous comment was cut off. Maybe becuase I used a “

  • Bob E.

    OK OK
    Seems I cannot even use the “less than sign” in quotes.

    End of my “real” comment:

    Everyone applauded loudly after the talk which probably less than 5 percent understood. The whole affair was too “commercial” (can’t think of a better adjective). One would think the talk was by a movie or rock star. I wonder if he was embarrassed?

    I’ll be really embarrassed if this does not post correctly. Looks fine in the PREVIEW window below.

    Bob.

  • lunay

    just save a strand of the child’s hair, then you can clone him later.

  • Supernova

    The logic is that if you accept the premise that a blastocyst is a human life, then it is wrong to use that life as a means to an end (one which involves its destruction), and not treat it with respect, just as it is wrong to use the person on the street in the same way.

    But isn’t it then also wrong to simply dispose of that life if one doesn’t need it? Apparently this happens all the time at fertility clinics. If blastocysts are human beings, they are the most innocent human beings imaginable. Why aren’t those who think that blastocyst = human protesting this merciless death sentence, this gross waste of sacred humanity?

    I think there is a vast gray area here, which can be summed up in the word “potential.” As in, a blastocyst is a potential human being. Not every blastocyst becomes a baby (or even a fetus), even under the best possible conditions. While acknowledging this semantic difference doesn’t remove all the ethical difficulties involved here, I think it does help us to distinguish between the child and the fertilized clump of cells in the refrigerator. Posturing and devil’s advocacy aside, I’m pretty sure we’d all acknowledge that there is a difference between the two. One has some probability of becoming a human being; the other already is one.

  • Vince

    “But isn’t it then also wrong to simply dispose of that life if one doesn’t need it? Apparently this happens all the time at fertility clinics. If blastocysts are human beings, they are the most innocent human beings imaginable. Why aren’t those who think that blastocyst = human protesting this merciless death sentence, this gross waste of sacred humanity?”

    I don’t know.

    “I think there is a vast gray area here, which can be summed up in the word “potential.” As in, a blastocyst is a potential human being.”

    So when does that potentiality become actualised? Also, how does this happen? What exactly happens which causes this transformation? Why is it that exactly the same stages occur at roughly the same times in each pregnancy, whether or not the pregnancy reaches full term — a human newborn baby?

    Also, if it’s just potentially a human being, what is it before this potentiality is actualised?

    “Not every blastocyst becomes a baby (or even a fetus), even under the best possible conditions.”

    What are those?

  • Paul Valletta

    I am pretty certain that Penrose is delving into the pre-bang concept, using a specific model that involves a “reverse-entropy” cyclic phase?

    At the “heat-death” of our Universe (the major contributing factor would be accelerated expansion), the 2nd Law is forced to equilibriate over all Universe distances, and a Phase Transition is imminent, a big-crunch/contraction is the “last-instant” of a previous Universe, and thus is also the “first-instant” of the following Universe?

    At least this is what Penrose appeared to be leaning towards in a interview this January?

  • http://www.amara.com/ Amara

    >The logic is that if you accept the premise that a blastocyst is a human life,

    A ‘human life’ is too vague a phrase for the significant claims. The nine months of gestation represents millions of years of human evolution and as alluded above, many conditions must be met along the way. A person using such a term is on a slippery slope to try to equate a blastocyst with a fully formed human being.

  • Thomas Dent

    Three words on the ‘blastocyst’ argument: quality of life.

    That doesn’t mean that life should be fun or pleasant or fulfilling; it does mean that what we call ‘life’ has to be able in principle to distinguish between what is pleasant and unpleasant. Blastocysts fall on one side of this, babies the other. Human life is slightly more even than that: it involves a particular form of consciousness.

    Now perhaps someone will come along and ask for a definition of the exact biological moment when this first occurs – and if we can’t give a rigorously correct account of this moment we are not allowed to make any distinction at all.

    But actually, all we need to do is make sure we stay sufficiently far from the edge, then the exact moment does not matter.

    Let me make it very simple: it is generally socially acceptable to nudge someone in the ribs. It is not acceptable to punch someone in the stomach. But where is the exact dividing line between these two?

    It doesn’t matter. Just stay sufficiently far away from it.

    In any case, anyone who allows fertility clinics to operate but vetos stem cell research cannot be operating on any moral principle about saving lives. It is as cynical a political calculation as you will ever see.

    Now, where are the results for the FQXI grants? They were due out five days ago.

  • http://eskesthai.blogspot.com/2006/02/big-bangone-mans-change-of-heart.html Plato
  • http://spatulated.wordpress.com/ Spatulated

    awsome links

    backreaction’s blog is fantastic. thanks for sending me that way

  • Bob E.

    Paul, your description closely resembles Sir Roger’s presentation from what I can remember. His idea(s) were very entropy-centric, but I cannot reproduce details. The slides he presented looked like they had been sketched by hand that afternoon. I will see if we (the University of Texas) have the presentation on-line, in which case I’ll post the link.
    Bob.

  • Vince

    “That doesn’t mean that life should be fun or pleasant or fulfilling; it does mean that what we call ‘life’ has to be able in principle to distinguish between what is pleasant and unpleasant. Blastocysts fall on one side of this, babies the other. Human life is slightly more even than that: it involves a particular form of consciousness.”

    I’m not sure what you mean, Thomas. What do you mean by ‘pleasant’ and ‘unpleasant’? Blastocysts and babies fall on what side? What do you mean by ‘even’ in the last sentence? Thanks.

  • http://backreaction.blogspot.com/ B

    Hi Sean, thanks for the nice words and the link :-) !! Best, B.

  • Chris W.

    Bob E.,

    You need to escape characters that are interpreted as HTML (and XML) markup by replacing them with the appropriate “character entities”:

    & = &
    > = >
    < = &lt;

    Escaping single and double quotes is also recommended, and in some contexts (HTML element attributes) essential:

    " = &quot;
    ’ = &rsquo;
    ‘ = &lsquo;

    Another useful character is the em-dash:

    — = —

    Note the use of a numeric character code. This is always an option, and some browsers will honor it but not the corresponding mnemonic.

    (I hope I’m not being misled by the WordPress preview, which shows the above as intended. More info, plus lists of standard character entities may be found here.)

  • Chris W.

    Okay, let’s try the Unicode encoding of the em-dash:

    — =

  • Chris W.

    Never mind. Note that three dashes in sequence (—) will be converted by WordPress to an em-dash. That’s easier than remembering or typing the escape sequence.

  • http://www.dailykos.com/ DarkSyde

    Vince it’s pretty simple really. There is a continuum between a blastocysts and a human being. Just as there is a continuum between a four year old and an adult. Some rather ideological people tend to insist that this continuum cannot be. But it does indeed exist. Reality has a way of not caring what you or anyone else thinks.

    A blastocsyst is no more a person than a four year old is an adult. But there is no clear point-dividing line between the two other than that we create. Those are the facts, and no amount of whining or arm chair amateur philosophy on your part will change them. But if you insist, then I expect you’ll also have to support treating four year olds as adults with all the benefits and responsibilities therein.

  • Vince

    “There is a continuum between a blastocysts and a human being.”

    What is meant by a continuum? Does this mean that there is constant change between a blastocyst and a human being? A newborn baby is a human being, right? So when does that happen? Are you saying that the blastocyst gradually grows to become a human being? What exactly is it in the middle of this process? Is it anything at all?

    “Some rather ideological people tend to insist that this continuum cannot be. ”

    Ideological? I would say that many people have given this issue some serious thought, without appealing to any sort of ideology or religion. Are you being “ideological” when you assert that this continuum does exist?

    “A blastocsyst is no more a person than a four year old is an adult.”

    But you would agree that a four year old is a human being, right? So is an adult. But these are just labels we give to human beings to describe their level of physical and mental sophistication. An adult is more developed than a baby, no doubt. But both are considered human. Perhaps a blastocyst is to a baby as a baby is to an adult. Why can’t I say that and assert that they are all human. You’ve given me no argument for blastocysts not being human.

    “Those are the facts, and no amount of whining or arm chair amateur philosophy on your part will change them.”

    Gee thanks. I’m not whining. Nobody’s whining. Both sides of the debate have very clear, thought-out and logical arguments. There’s lots of good thinking going on. It all depends on which are the correct premises, if such exist.

  • Paul Valletta

    #14
    Turok et-al
    :http://arxiv.org/abs/hep-th/0607164

    Have a fantastic new paper detailing some aspects that tie in with Penrose “new theory”.

    At the “heat-death” of our Universe (the major contributing factor would be accelerated expansion), the 2nd Law is forced to equilibriate over all Universe distances, and a Phase Transition is imminent, a big-crunch/contraction is the “last-instant” of a previous Universe, and thus is also the “first-instant” of the following Universe?

  • http://www.getbesthealth.com/ Tobby Maguire

    Gather a strand of the hairs of your child or keep the DNA of your child. Later make a clone of him.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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