Explaining Things To Your Grandmother

Einstein supposedly once said that you don’t really understand a thing until you can explain it to your grandmother. While I think we can all agree that Einstein was reasonably bright this advice, in its unexpanded form, is fairly stupid.

It encourages people to digest shallow metaphors, maybe memorize a factoid or two from Wikipedia, and then confidently expound upon a subject about which they know literally nothing. I’m sure Einstein wasn’t trying to encourage that sort of behavior, but that’s what’s happened.

What this advice really means is that you should have run the fingers of your mind over the 3-dimensional shape of a concepts so much that you have an intimate acquaintance with its lines and edges. You aren’t just trafficking in facile analogies but can generate a whole host of images, anecdotes, and explanations at will, tailoring them on the spot to better connect with the knowledge already contained in your interlocutor’s head. If they have spotty knowledge of the subject you can skip over those places and drop down in any part of the map that’s still a blank.

Making quantum physics comprehensible to grandmother will not be the same as making it comprehensible to a graduate student in psychology. The grad student might be smarter than grandma, or might not, but that isn’t the only issue. Grandma has a radically different way of understanding the world, a whole host of concepts, intuitions, and biases which can help or hurt comprehension, depending on the context.

She might even surprise you and turn out to remember a good amount of that discrete mathematics class she took 600 years ago.

When you can take the shape of quantum physics in your hands, move it around to expose different faces, change the angle of your explanatory light so that it casts different kinds of shadows onto different kinds of surfaces, illustrate concepts with hand-rolled improvised expositions — with the end result being that your grandmother comes away with a reasonably intuitive grasp of this science, then you understand it.

A Science Podcast?

I had an idea for a podcast the other day exploring plausible, radical alternatives to accepted scientific theories which are carefully supported by available evidence.

For example, Julian Jaynes famously argued that the ancient Greeks were not conscious in the way that you and I are. Instead, they were more like automatons occupying one part of the human brain, with dictats coming from gods which occupied the other part. Eventually developments in language led to a unifying of human consciousness and the rise of modern humans.

….which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But Jaynes spends 500 pages very carefully building his case with evidence from linguistics, exegesis, history, and art. I remember reading his book and thinking “welp, this is a lot harder to dismiss than I first thought.”

I also recently encountered the ‘deep, hot biosphere’ hypothesis by Thomas Gold, which contends that the conventional story of fossil fuels coming from organic matter slowly crushed over long periods of time is nonsense. Instead, there is a vast subterranean biosphere comprising microbes which are somehow or another manufacturing oil as a byproduct of their metabolism.

…which sounds completely ridiculous, right? But in reviews of the book I’ve consistently come across statements like “well, if it were anybody else making this claim we’d just laugh. But coming from a scientist like Thomas Gold…?”


Clearly there is a real danger here of crossing over into pseudoscience. So maybe I could do episodes of the demarcation problem with Massimo Pigliucci and “On Bullshit” with Harry Frankfurt, combined with giving ample room to skeptics who want to poke holes in the supporting arguments.

And I would try to avoid this crossing by only speaking to real, serious intellectuals. I have no interest in Deepak Chopra, for example, but I might talk to Daryl Bem.

In addition to bicamerality and the deep hot biosphere, some other interesting ideas include:

  • Homotopy theory in mathematics;
  • Paraconsistent logic (w/ my brilliant logician friend Erik Istre);
  • Superintelligent AI: fact or fiction?;
  • the Tau v.s. Pi debate;
  • Bayesianism v.s. Frequentism;
  • the Inca Quipu as an actual, functional language;
  • Morphic Resonance with Rupert Sheldrake;
  • Was English a pidgin language?

For fun maybe I could do an episode on fan theories in Star Wars, GoT, and similar franchises.

Is that something you nerds would be interested in?

Two Transhumanist Experiments

Here is a sketch of two Transhumanist experiments I’d like to try in the future:

(1) A company called ‘SenseBridge’ manufactures belts made of cellphone batteries which constantly vibrate in the direction of true North. This is superior to simply wearing a compass because after a while the vibrations weave themselves into your phenomenal field and become something about which you are perpetually aware.

Simultaneously, the wearer should actively banish relational direction words from their vocabulary, as do the Australian Guugu Yimithirr tribe. So instead of saying ‘my left hand’ you’d say ‘my Western hand’.

Observe the changes in your sense of direction, and whether or not they persist when you remove the belt.

(2) In Bruce Lee’s “Enter the Dragon” there is a scene in which Bruce has electrodes hooked up to a typewriter that send electrical shocks to his muscles whenever he hits a key. In the film he claims that this is equivalent to doing 200 pushups in a couple of minutes.

These are real things and you can buy them. I wonder: If a person visualized themselves performing an exercise like squats while sending pulses to their legs, how much stronger would they get?

For this you’d need to have two people of roughly equal strength, one of whom continues doing regular squats and the other of whom uses electrodes and thought.

Standardize the amount of time and number of reps performed, wait a month, and take some measurements.

Pebble Form Ideologies

(Epistemic Status: Riffing on an interesting thought in a Facebook comments thread, mostly just speculation without any citations to actual research)

My friend Jeffrey Biles — who is an indefatigable fountainhead of interesting stuff to think about — recently posited that the modern world’s aversion to traditional religion has exerted a selection pressure on meme vectors which has led to the proliferation of religions masquerading as science, philosophy, and the like. For any given worldview — even ostensibly scientific ones like racial realism or climate change — we can all think of someone whose fervor for or against it can only be described in religious terms.

Doubtless there is something to this, but personally I’m inclined to think it’s attributable to the fact that there are religion-shaped grooves worn deep in mammalian brains, probably piggybacking on ingroup-biasing and kin-selection circuitry.

No matter how heroic an attempt is made to get people to accept an ideology on the basis of carefully-reasoned arguments and facts, over time a significant fraction of adherents end up treating it as a litmus test separating the fools from those who ‘get it’. As an ideology matures it becomes a psychological gravity well around which very powerful positive and negative emotions accrete, amplifying the religious valence it has in the hearts and minds of True Believers.

Eventually you end up with something that’s clearly substituted ‘God’ for social justice, the free market, the proletariat revolution, etc.

An important corollary of this idea is that the truth of a worldview is often orthogonal to the justifications supplied by its adherents. I’m an atheist, for example, but I don’t think I’ve ever met another atheist who has a firm grasp on the Kalam Cosmological Argument (KCA). Widely believed to be among the most compelling arguments for theism, it goes like this:

  1. Everything which *began* to exist has a cause;
  2. the universe began to exist;
  3. therefore, the universe has a cause;

(After this point further arguments are marshalled to try and prove that a personal creator God is the most parsimonious causal mechanism)

Despite being clearly articulated in innumerable places, atheists like Michael Shermer are still saying “but if everything has a cause then what caused God?”

If you understand the KCA then the theistic reply is straightforward: “The universe began to exist, so it has a cause, but God is outside time and thus had no beginning.” The standard atheist line, in other words, is a complete non-sequitur. Atheistic rebuttals to other religious arguments don’t fare much better, which means a majority of atheists don’t have particularly good reasons for being atheists.

This has little bearing on whether or not atheism is true, of course. But it does suggest that atheism is growing because many perceive it to be what the sensible, cool people believe, not because they’ve spent multiple evenings grappling with William Lane Craig’s Time and Eternity.

Perhaps then we should keep this in mind as we go about building and spreading ideas. Let us define the ‘pebble form’ of a worldview as being like the small, smooth stone which is left after a boulder spends eons submerged in a river — it’s whatever remains once time and compression have worn away its edges and nuances. Let us further define a “Maximally Durable Worldview” as one with certain desirable properties:

  1. the central epistemic mechanisms has the slowest decay into faith-based acceptance;
  2. the worldview is the least damaging once it becomes a pebble form (i.e. doesn’t have strong injunctions to slaughter non-believers);
  3.  …?

There’s probably an interesting connection between:

  1. how quickly a worldview spreads;
  2. how quickly it collapses into a pebble form;
  3. the kinds of pebble forms likely to result from a given memeplex rotating through a given population;

Perhaps there are people doing research on these topics? If so I’d be interested in hearing about it.

Profundis: “The Quantum Thief”

Hannu Rajaniemi wields his quill like a machine gun, firing concepts and novelty bombs at his readers as he cackles madly from a perch in the trees. Outside of Neal Stephenson’s best work and Kim Stanley Robinson’s “Mars” trilogy, Rajaniemi’s debut novel “The Quantum Thief” has about as high an insight density as I’ve ever encountered.

And the plot has the breathless, breakneck intensity of rolling down a hill on a unicycle. I’m not sure what’s got the man so busy; maybe he’s teaching people how to pronounce his name, or maybe he’s accepting an award for ‘SF author most likely to star as the heartthrob in a rom-com opposite Rachel Mcadams’. Either way, you’d better make sure the electrodes are attached firmly to your scalp and the TMS is dialed up to 11, because Hannu isn’t about to stop and explain a gotdamn thing to you.

Who the hell is the Pelligrini? What are Gogol pirates? How are EPR states embedded in the belly of a nanomechanical spider and used to steal time from a Millennaire on Mars? What are the Tzadikkim up to? Why are all the names distinctly French? Even the info dump that occurs in the closing pages is hard to follow, but thankfully there exist a number of resources compiled by fans on the internet.

For all this “The Quantum Thief” is suspenseful and rewarding, the tale of a criminal mastermind in an age of space-faring digital Gods and hyper-advanced posthumans, sprung out of the Dilemma Prison by a mysterious warrior from the Oort cloud and soon hot on the trail of a phantom who just might be too smart to outsmart — his former self…

Profundis: The Man Who Knew Infinity

For a long time now I’ve hoped that someone would do a movie on the life of the remarkable Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. His story is a compelling and tragic one: born in India in the late 19th century, he began to distinguish himself as truly exceptional by the time he’d hit puberty. He worked on mathematics in isolation throughout his life, producing startling results and eventually making contact with G.H. Hardy of Cambridge University.

Hardy recognized the calibre of Ramanujan’s genius, and invited him to England. The two men had conflicting styles; Ramanujan grasped everything intuitively, often simply stating results with little to no justification, whereas Hardy was rigorous and believed strongly in proving each step. But as the First World War began and played out in Europe their productive five-year collaboration resulted in Ramanujan getting published, being elected to the London Mathematical Society and the Royal Society, and being made a Fellow of Trinity College.

Unfortunately illness was almost as consistent a theme in Ramanujan’s life as was mathematics. The diet and weather of England did not agree with him, and as his various health problems worsened he eventually decided to return to India to be with his wife and family. After spending barely a year at home, he died in 1920. He was just 32 years old.

Getting a handle on Ramanujan’s intellect necessitates some re-calibration. The chances are good that if you’re reading these words you possess a brain that is comfortably above average intelligence. Some of my readers might even be bona fide geniuses, with IQs in excess of 140 and multiple degrees to their name. They are likely unaccustomed to encountering subjects that baffle them, and have probably only met a handful of minds better than theirs.

Ramanujan makes nearly everyone look like a knuckle-dragging monkey that keeps putting its diapers on wrong. The usual descriptive vocabulary falls short here; one must reach for words like “incandescent” to do him justice.

It is this task which 2015’s “The Man Who Knew Infinity” sets itself, and achieves. Based on a written biography of the same name, the film does an excellent job of illustrating not only how much beyond even Cambridge-level professional mathematicians Ramanujan was, but also the absolutely fascinating way in which his mind worked. He repeatedly claimed that his insights were divinely inspired, often appearing to him fully-formed in dreams and visions of Hindu deities. His results were occasionally wrong, but were never less than astonishing in their originality and depth. They are still inspiring research today, close to a century after his death.

The film takes poetic license with a few aspects of Ramanujan’s life. His wife is depicted as an adult when in fact she was nine at the time of their marriage, for example. But these pale in comparison to the adroit handling of a story that needed to be told.

Highly recommended for anyone who likes mathematics or intellectual history.


The Water Hole

Silent is one of the best adjectives for describing the experience of looking at the sky on those especially pellucid nights when the moon and clouds are absent. In the winter most of all, when the night is free of the endless buzzing and chirping of insects, it’s possible to feel how thin the boundary is which lies between you and the true night of interstellar space.

And yet, if you had the ears to hear it, you could directly perceive that the universe is really an incomprehensibly vast instrument. Everything from galaxies to molecules emit a song of electromagnetic radiation which has been bombarding the Earth since long before man learned to listen.

But this noise isn’t evenly distributed. There are relatively quiet regions, such as the ‘microwave window’, which facilitate probing the heavens for signs of artificially-made signals. Near the bottom of the microwave window lies a range of frequencies between hydrogen (H) and hydroxyl ions (OH), respectively vibrating at 1420 MHz and 1660 MHz:


Hydrogen and hydroxyl are two results of the dissociation of water molecules, and are likely audible throughout the universe.

Because of this ubiquity and their position in one of the quietest parts of the radio spectrum, they make an obvious target for any civilization wanting to communicate with other advanced forms of life. And what do we call this meeting place standing between two byproducts of water? The water hole, of course!

It would be fitting, I think, if we were to someday make contact with other sophonts in the same that species have always congregated with their neighbors.



[1] What is the water hole

SETI: the water hole