Lise Meitner

800px-otto_hahn_und_lise_meitner
Lise Meitner and Otto Hahn in their laboratory, 1912

I’d like to write a quick post about Lise Meitner. Lise Meitner was an Austrian physicist who became the first female physics professor in Germany. She worked with Otto Hahn at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute, where after many years she was finally allowed out of the basement and rose to become head of the physics department. Einstein referred to her as “the German Marie Curie.” It is now generally agreed that Meitner should have shared the Nobel Prize with Hahn, but there were some issues in evaluating interdisciplinary chemistry/physics research.

Meitner and her nephew, Frisch, were the first to figure out and articulate what exactly was happening when Enrico Fermi bombarded uranium atoms with neutrons. Fermi had been trying to create trans-uranic elements; it turned out he was splitting uranium–the first step in making a nuclear bomb.

When she made this discovery, Meitner and her nephew had just moved to Sweden–because the Nazis had kicked her out of her job at the Kaiser Wilhelm Institute for being ethnically Jewish. (Even though she was a baptized Lutheran.)

Enrico Fermi fled Italy because his wife was Jewish, and at the University of Chicago he built the first self-sustaining nuclear reactor.

Nazi Germany did not recover, technologically, from the loss of its top scientists–men like Einstein, Fermi, and Bohr (technically Bohr fled Denmark after the Nazis took it over), women like Lise Meitner. They could have had the atomic bomb–instead they lost the war.

Book Club: How to Create a Mind, pt 2/2

Ray Kurzweil, writer, inventor, thinker

Welcome back to EvX’s Book Club. Today  are finishing Ray Kurzweil’s How to Create a Mind: The Secret of Human thought Revealed.

Spiders are interesting, but Kurzweil’s focus is computers, like Watson, which trounced the competition on Jeopardy!

I’ll let Wikipedia summarize Watson:

Watson was created as a question answering (QA) computing system that IBM built to apply advanced natural language processing, information retrieval, knowledge representation, automated reasoning, and machine learning technologies to the field of open domain question answering.[2]

The sources of information for Watson include encyclopedias, dictionaries, thesauri, newswire articles, and literary works. Watson also used databases, taxonomies, and ontologies. …

Watson parses questions into different keywords and sentence fragments in order to find statistically related phrases.[22] Watson’s main innovation was not in the creation of a new algorithm for this operation but rather its ability to quickly execute hundreds of proven language analysis algorithms simultaneously.[22][24] The more algorithms that find the same answer independently the more likely Watson is to be correct.[22] Once Watson has a small number of potential solutions, it is able to check against its database to ascertain whether the solution makes sense or not.[22]

Kurzweil opines:

That is at least one reason why Watson represents such a significant milestone: Jeopardy! is precisely such a challenging language task. … What is perhaps not evident to many observers is that Watson not only had to master the language in the unexpected and convoluted queries, but for the most part its knowledge was not hand-coded. It obtained that knowledge by actually reading 200 million pages of natural-language documents, including all of Wikipedia… If Watson can understand and respond to questions based on 200 million pages–in three seconds!–here is nothing to stop similar systems from reading the other billions of documents on the Web. Indeed, that effort is now under way.

A point about the history of computing that may be petty of me to emphasize:

Babbage’s conception is quite miraculous when you consider the era in which he lived and worked. However, by the mid-twentieth century, his ideas had been lost in the mists of time (although they were subsequently rediscovered.) It was von Neumann who conceptualized and articulated the key principles of the computer as we know it today, and the world recognizes this by continuing to refer to the von Neumann machine as the principal model of computation. Keep in mind, though, that the von Neumann machine continually communicates data between its various units and within those units, so it could not be built without Shannon’s theorems and the methods he devised for transmitting and storing reliable digital information. …

You know what? No, it’s not petty.

Amazon lists 57 books about Ada Lovelace aimed at children, 14 about Alan Turing, and ZERO about John von Neumann.

(Some of these results are always irrelevant, but they are roughly correct.)

“EvX,” you may be saying, “Why are you counting children’s books?”

Because children are our future, and the books that get published for children show what society deems important for children to learn–and will have an effect on what adults eventually know.

I don’t want to demean Ada Lovelace’s role in the development of software, but surely von Neumann’s contributions to the field are worth a single book!

*Slides soapbox back under the table*

Anyway, back to Kurzweil, now discussing quantum mechanics:

There are two ways to view the questions we have been considering–converse Western an Easter perspective on the nature of consciousness and of reality. In the Western perspective, we start with a physical world that evolves patterns of information. After a few billion years of evolution, the entities in that world have evolved sufficiently to become conscious beings In the Eastern view, consciousness is the fundamental reality, the physical word only come into existence through the thoughts of conscious beings. …

The East-West divide on the issue of consciousness has also found expression in opposing schools of thought in the field of subatomic physics. In quantum mechanics, particles exist in what are called probability fields. Any measurement carried out on them by a measuring device causes what is called a collapse of the wave function, meaning that the particle suddenly assumes a particular location. A popular view is that such a measurement constitutes observation by a conscious observer… Thus the particle assume a particular location … only when it is observed. Basically particles figure that if no one is bothering to look at them, they don’t need to decide where they are. I call this the Buddhist school of quantum mechanics …

Niels Bohr

Or as Niels Bohr put it, “A physicist is just an atom’s way of looking at itself.” He also claimed that we could describe electrons exercised free will in choosing their positions, a statement I do not think he meant literally; “We must be clear that when it comes to atoms, language can be used only as in poetry,” as he put it.

Kurzweil explains the Western interpretation of quantum mechanics:

There is another interpretation of quantum mechanics… In this analysis, the field representing a particle is not a probability field, but rather just a function that has different values in different locations. The field, therefore, is fundamentally what the particle is. … The so-called collapse of the wave function, this view holds, is not a collapse at all. … It is just that a measurement device is also made up of particles with fields, and the interaction of the particle field being measured and the particle fields of the measuring device result in a reading of the particle being in a particular location. The field, however, is still present. This is the Western interpretation of quantum mechanics, although it is interesting to note that the more popular view among physicists worldwide is what I have called the Eastern interpretation.

Soviet atomic bomb, 1951

For example, Bohr has the yin-yang symbol on his coat of arms, along with the motto contraria sunt complementa, or contraries are complementary. Oppenheimer was such a fan of the Bhagavad Gita that he read it in Sanskrit and quoted it upon successful completion of the Trinity Test, “If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one,” and “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.” He credited the Gita as one of the most important books in his life.

Why the appeal of Eastern philosophy? Is it something about physicists and mathematicians? Leibnitz, after all, was fond of the I Ching. As Wikipedia says:

Leibniz was perhaps the first major European intellectual to take a close interest in Chinese civilization, which he knew by corresponding with, and reading other works by, European Christian missionaries posted in China. Having read Confucius Sinarum Philosophus on the first year of its publication,[153] he concluded that Europeans could learn much from the Confucian ethical tradition. He mulled over the possibility that the Chinese characters were an unwitting form of his universal characteristic. He noted with fascination how the I Ching hexagrams correspond to the binary numbers from 000000 to 111111, and concluded that this mapping was evidence of major Chinese accomplishments in the sort of philosophical mathematics he admired.[154] Leibniz communicated his ideas of the binary system representing Christianity to the Emperor of China hoping it would convert him.[84] Leibniz may be the only major Western philosopher who attempted to accommodate Confucian ideas to prevailing European beliefs.[155]

Leibniz’s attraction to Chinese philosophy originates from his perception that Chinese philosophy was similar to his own.[153] The historian E.R. Hughes suggests that Leibniz’s ideas of “simple substance” and “pre-established harmony” were directly influenced by Confucianism, pointing to the fact that they were conceived during the period that he was reading Confucius Sinarum Philosophus.[153]

Perhaps it is just that physicists and mathematicians are naturally curious people, and Eastern philosophy is novel to a Westerner, or perhaps by adopting Eastern ideas, they were able to purge their minds of earlier theories of how the universe works, creating a blank space in which to evaluate new data without being biased by old conceptions–or perhaps it is just something about the way their minds work.

As for quantum, I favor the de Broglie-Bohm interpretation of quantum mechanics, but obviously I am not a physicist and my opinion doesn’t count for much. What do you think?

But back to the book. If you are fond of philosophical ruminations on the nature of consciousness, like “What if someone who could only see in black and white read extensively about color “red,” could they ever achieve the qualia of actually seeing the color red?” or “What if a man were locked in a room with a perfect Chinese rulebook that told him which Chinese characters to write in response to any set of characters written on notes passed under the door? The responses are be in perfect Chinese, but the man himself understands not a word of Chinese,” then you’ll enjoy the discussion. If you already covered all of this back in Philosophy 101, you might find it a bit redundant.

Kurzweil notes that conditions have improved massively over the past century for almost everyone on earth, but people are increasingly anxious:

A primary reason people believe life is getting worse is because our information about the problems of the world has steadily improved. If there is a battle today somewhere on the planet, we experience it almost as if we were there. During World War II, tens of thousand of people might perish in a battle, and if the public could see it at all it was in a grainy newsreel in a movie theater weeks later. During World War I a small elite could read about the progress of the conflict in the newspaper (without pictures.) During the nineteenth century there was almost no access to news in a timely fashion for anyone.

As for the future of man, machines, and code, Kurzweil is even more optimistic than Auerswald:

The last invention that biological evolution needed to make–the neocortex–is inevitably leading to the last invention that humanity needs to make–truly intelligent machines–and the design of one is inspiring the other. … by the end of this century we will be able to create computation at the limits of what is possible, based on the laws of physics… We call matter and energy organized in this way “computronium” which is vastly more powerful pound per pound than the human brain. It will not jut be raw computation but will be infused with intelligent algorithms constituting all of human-machine knowledge. Over time we will convert much of the mass and energy in our tiny corner of the galaxy that is suitable for this purpose to computronium. … we will need to speed out to the rest of the galaxy and universe. …

How long will it take for us to spread our intelligence in its nonbiological form throughout the universe? … waking up the universe, and then intelligently deciding its fate by infusing it with our human intelligence in its nonbiological form, is our destiny.

Whew! That is quite the ending–and with that, so will we. I hope you enjoyed the book. What did you think of it? Will Humanity 2.0 be good? Bad? Totally different? Or does the Fermi Paradox imply that Kurzweil is wrong? Did you like this shorter Book Club format? And do you have any ideas for our next Book Club pick?

cathedral round up #2

In the WTF file: Ex-Harvard Student Brittany Smith Sentenced to Three Years in Prison

“On May 18, 2009, just two weeks before Smith’s graduation from Harvard, her boyfriend Copney and two accomplices shot and killed Cosby in the basement of Kirkland’s J entryway.

“An aspiring songwriter from New York City who frequently visited Smith and stayed in her room, Copney was convicted of felony murder of the first degree at the conclusion of his trial in April. He was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole. …

“A senior in Lowell House at the time, Smith watched Jiggetts load the gun in her room before the men brought Cosby to Kirkland House to arrange the drug rip. Smith gave Copney and his accomplices her Harvard ID to gain access to the Kirkland basement, where Cosby was shot. Cosby later died from a bullet wound to his abdomen.

“Upon Copney’s return from Cosby’s shooting, Smith hid the gun in her blockmate’s room in a bag under her bed. She then called a taxi to help with the men’s getaway to South Station, where the four boarded a bus to New York. Smith returned to Harvard the next day.”

According to HuffPo,

“Prosecutors said Cosby, 21, was shot during an attempted robbery by Smith’s former boyfriend, Jabrai Jordan Copney, and two other New York City men.”

Harvard, is this the kind of student you’ve sunk to admitting?

In a related matter, Education Department Dismisses Admissions Complaint:

“The U.S. Department of Education has dismissed a complaint filed against Harvard this spring by 64 Asian-American groups accusing the University of discriminating based on race in its admissions practices.

“The complaint, filed in May, accused the University of unfairly denying admission to highly qualified Asian-American students while admitting similar applicants of other races.”

Everyone knows they do it, but they still get away with denying it. (A similar lawsuit is ongoing, though.)

Also, via iSteve: MIT shits on one of its minority groups, white men:

“The MIT Physics Department is committed to increasing the diversity of its faculty and student populations to improve our excellence and to better serve the society that supports our work.”

“Like in many physics departments, white males are over-represented in our student and faculty populations.  There are several reasons to pursue change, seeking to increase the number of women and under-represented minorities in our community:”

Make that two minority groups: “Under-represented minorities” is code for “Piano-playing Asians need not apply. We have enough of you already.”

The whole thing is a painful ball of nonsense and lies. Putting more of group X, Y, or Z into the MIT physics department has zero effect on whether or not the department serves the society that supports its work. For that matter, who the hell do you think supports the MIT physics department? Asian men, white men, and Jewish men. THOSE ARE THE PEOPLE THAT SUPPORT YOU. Don’t shit on them.

When I need some physics, maybe a quark proven to exist or a new state of matter created, do I care the race or gender of the physicist? No! I just want them to prove that quarks exist and create new states of matter.

MIT, stop hurting my soul.

Meanwhile, Yale Law’s professors have been focusing on police:

Law professor Tracey Meares is interviewed about Sandra Bland in Sandra Bland Video Shows An Argument With Police Officer:

“TRACEY MEARES: It’s a pretty good example of a police officer. He’s angry because she said no.

“KASTE: Tracey Meares is a professor at Yale Law. She was also on President Obama’s police reform task force. She’s actually surprised by how well this traffic stop went at first. But the cigarette was the turning point. Meares says it looked like a case of contempt of cop. That’s when a police officer tries to reassert authority in the face of disrespect. And she says it’s not justified.

“MEARES: Given that he is a police officer with the power to take her life that it’s incumbent on him to make the first move and maybe tolerate a little bit more disrespect.”

and in State Child Advocate; Policing in the 21st Century:

“Also, we’ll sit down with a Yale Law professor who is on President Obama’s task force examining policing, as America grapples with a series of deaths of African Americans after confrontations with police.”

(The rest of the interview is audio, so you’ll have to listen to it yourself.)

Professor Wishnie is quoted in, “Lynch visits Connecticut in stop on community policing tour“:

“Despite the improvements, East Haven police still have work to do, including fulfilling the remaining requirements in the consent decree, said Michael Wishnie, a Yale Law School professor who represented the plaintiffs in the civil rights lawsuit.

“The kinds of structural racism and practices that have long existed in East Haven take a long time to change,” Wishnie said. “I think it’s far too soon to claim victory.”

San Francisco slaying case likely would have played out differently in Connecticut:

“In Connecticut, California slaying suspect Juan Francisco Lopez-Sanchez would have been held for pickup by Immigration and Custom Enforcement officials only if he had a violent felony in his background or there was a court order in the case. …

In February 2013, as part of a settlement with a legal clinic at the Yale Law School, the Connecticut Department of Correction said it would review each request on a case-by-case basis.

It agreed to hand over the person if they already were the subject of a removal order; they were gang members or part of an anti-terrorism database; of if they had been convicted of a felony. This was codified into statute as part of the Connecticut Trust Act. …

“Under the revised policy, the Connecticut Department of Correction will no longer enforce ICE detainer requests and Administrative warrants solely on the basis of a final order of deportation or removal, unless accompanied by a judicial warrant, or past criminal conviction unless it’s for a violent felony,” Commissioner Scott Semple wrote in a memo to ICE.

Maybe I’m just too tired, but I can’t figure out what this article is trying to say about the difference between Conn and CA law.

Could One Soldier Derail ISIS War?

“President Barack Obama’s war against the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq currently is illegal, many scholars say, and as the one-year mark for U.S. intervention approaches one constitutional law expert has an idea for how to prove it in court.

“Yale University law professor Bruce Ackerman, like other critics of the war’s current legal grounding, says Obama is violating the War Powers Resolution by committing the U.S. military to hostilities without specific authorization from Congress.

“It’s historically been tough to establish standing to make such claims in court. But Ackerman has a plan.  …”

What was that about chicken butts?

Robotics and the Law: When software can harm you sounds like an interesting article, but I can’t read it because UW Today’s website is shitty. However, I did make it through to How Makerspaces Can Be Accessible to People with Disabilities:

“The effort is part of a broader National Science Foundation-funded AccessEngineering initiative, which supports students with disabilities in pursuing engineering careers and promotes accessible and universal design in engineering departments and courses.

“A lot of universities are creating these more casual prototyping spaces where students can have more of a DIY experience, as an alternative to a traditional machine shop,” said AccessEngineering co-principal investigator Kat Steele, a UW assistant professor of mechanical engineering whose Human Ability & Engineering Lab focuses on developing tools for people with cerebral palsy, stroke and other movement disorders.

“Because this is a big growth area for engineering schools, we wanted to help with some best practices and guidelines so that as these new spaces are being created they can be accessible to the widest group possible.”

Cerebral Palsy is caused by brain damage, and somewhere around 30-50% of sufferers are also intellectually disabled. While I know personally a very capable engineer who must use a wheelchair, severely disabled people, on the whole, tend to have things wrong with them that also impact their brains. Making cerebral palsy accessible labs will catch only a very small number of geniuses who happen to have cerebral palsy; by contrast, just spending the same money to hire people who have already graduated with STEM degrees and can’t find jobs would do far more to create more science in the world. Instead of actually hiring scientists to do research, universities want to throw buckets of money at specific identity groups just to look good.

Just in case you thought Harvard’s business was educating students: Harvard’s Controversial Romanian Forest Sold to Ikea Group:

“The move distances Harvard from a corruption case involving one of the contractors who helped oversee the land, and comes shortly after a change in leadership at Harvard Management Company, which invests the University’s $35.9 billion endowment. …

“HMC began purchasing timberland in 1997. It invested heavily in timber under the guidance of then-President and CEO Jane L. Mendillo, who resigned in 2014 after a tumultuous six-year stint as the head manager of Harvard’s endowment. Her replacement, Stephen Blyth, comes from a background in public markets and faces high expectations to bring Harvard back to its pre-recession dominance in investment returns.”

After Federal Feedback, Law School Implements New Title IX Standards:

“Unlike the procedures for students at other parts of the University, Law School students involved in cases of alleged sexual harassment will now be guaranteed access to an attorney, paid for by the Law School, during the different stages of a case. After professional investigators examine a case, a separate adjudicatory panel, whose members are not affiliated with Harvard, will determine guilt, potentially after a hearing. A school-specific Title IX committee, staffed by tenured professors, will oversee the process for investigating and adjudicating cases of alleged sexual misconduct between Law School students. …

“The apparent implementation of the school’s procedures marks the close of a lobbying process that Law School professors, unhappy with Harvard’s new approach to Title IX, began last year. Harvard’s new policy and procedures, unveiled last July, altered its new definition of sexual harassment and centralized its process for handling cases, a fact administrators lauded as a positive step forward. It also adopted the preponderance of the evidence standard for determining guilt.

“But quickly afterward, both in closed-door meetings with top University officials and in an open letter published in The Boston Globe, several Law School professors pushed back. They charged that the University’s framework was biased against the accused and did not offer adequate due process. …

“The discord between the Law School and central administrators has also made some Law professors increasingly wary of centralized administrative rule at Harvard.”

This is perhaps an excessive level of formality given A. the number of people who get raped at HLS every year, and B. the fact that rape is already illegal under completely normal criminal laws, so I don’t see any reason why universities should set themselves up as parallel court systems in the first place instead, but at least HLS appears to be holding back from the full madness.

And over at the Harvard Crimson, we get some student opinions:

A Police Officer’s Bullet, The People’s Ballot

“Today, Ferguson, Missouri will be holding its first city council elections since Michael Brown was shot and killed last August. The city of Ferguson has been around for 121 years; during those first 120 years, only three black candidates ran for city council. This year, there are four black candidates for the Ferguson city council. This is no coincidence. Many of those in Ferguson realize that to prevent the next police officer’s bullet from killing another unarmed, black teenager, they need the ballot.

Yet, fresh off the heels of the 2014 midterm elections, which saw the lowest voter turnout since World War II, I am still worried. I am worried that our generation is losing sight of what it means to even have the right to vote. I am worried that not enough young people, people of color, and people who care about social justice are participating in the political process.”

Written before Trump came on the scene: A Threat to Moderation: Cruz’s candidacy will only drive Republican candidates further right

“It is difficult to believe that the Republican Party will win a presidential election in the near future when Tea Party candidates like Ted Cruz—whose announcement speech included numerous religious references and alluded to repealing the Affordable Care Act and eliminating the Internal Revenue Service—run in the primaries and pull the eventual nominee into supporting more ideologically extreme platforms.”

Yup, Ted Cruz sure did turn out to be the right-wing ideologue for liberals to fear.