Atomic Clusters

I apologize for not posting anything in such a long time.  Some of you have also been leaving me comments which I haven’t responded to.  I’ve been busy working a project which takes atoms, places them randomly in a small cube of space, and then solves how they would snap together into a molecule.  Well, I’ve figured out how to do this for certain types of atomic bonds anyway.  On a neat sidenote, I also got the chance to program in some condensed matter physics, watching them vibrate and emit radiation.  Here’s a picture of one such molecule.

On my computer screen, the atoms vibrate and shake in 3D. I’ve really been enjoying myself.  Knowing how to program advanced 3D simulations comes in handy.  I have plans to study a lot more physics, and even eventually get into some quantum chemistry.  The more I learn about these things we call “atoms”, the more I’m convinced there’s practically an infinite number of ways they can be assembled.  Our world has the potential to be practically anything if we’re only skilled enough to snap these little things together in the right way.

During my lifetime, over the next fifty years and beyond, molecular manufacturing will be coming into existence.  Nanotechnology.  3D printers are the first versions of them, but they’ll be getting a whole lot better with time.  I hope to see a world where we can download a blueprint for a toaster and “print” it out, using a nano-assembler.  When I daydream about it, I see a world where physical things are as easy to share and distribute as digital documents are today.  Food could be printed out, like the replicators in Star Trek.  Appliances, furniture, whatever you need.

This is one of those things that rides on the back of computational speed.  Before we had fast computers with large amounts of memory, you could only calculate these molecules coming together and vibrating in very basic scenarios.  Faster computers lets you simulate things with greater complexity.  But then again, with better tools, you can design and build faster computers, so a sort of positive feedback loop is set up.

Smart Grids – The Energy Internet

I believe that science holds solutions to problems that never would be solved otherwise.  When it comes to energy, I want to see a giant energy network evolve, similar to how the internet is today.  I imagine a world where the roofs of people’s homes are covered in solar panels, and their windows are embedded with special nanotechnology which absorbs sunlight.  In my last post, I showed that if we build our homes with energy efficiency in mind, we’re pretty much already able to reach net-zero energy usage, where homes produce as much energy as they consume.  In my mind, that’s what true freedom is.  Everyone needs energy in today’s world, and ideally we want people to be able to produce as much of it on their own as possible.

All of these homes should be linked together in an information network, aware of all energy sources, and utilizing this energy in an intelligent way.  Unlike today’s energy grids, we need energy networks that are much larger in scale, capable of sending wind energy produced in South Dakota to the inner city of Chicago.  I want to see energy companies take a secondary role in our lives, with us capable of producing most of our power on our own.  I want to see a more decentralized model for energy.

For power above and beyond what we can produce, we should construct huge solar and wind farms in the best locations, and transmit the power to us where it’s needed.  And while we’re constructing that, we need to invest huge amounts of money into fusion research, which would allow us to produce practically unlimited amounts of energy by “burning” sea-water and converting it into massive amounts of energy using the same process the sun uses.  Stephen Hawking was once asked what scientific discovery he would like to see happen.  More than any other, he said he wanted to see fusion power come online because it would solve all of our energy problems and there is no pollution.

Science can solve so many problems if we’ll only fund it.  The free market would never create fusion power, but if we as a society, together, are willing to fund research into plasma physics and fusion power, we can overcome this obstacle and put energy problems behind us.

We need to be smarter when it comes to how we use energy.  However, the solution is not to live in small tiny homes, give up life’s luxuries, and forego running our air conditioning.  We need better technology which doesn’t pollute and doesn’t stress the planet.  That’s what science can bring us if we’ll fund the research.  Solar power is only going to get better, and we should combine this with a smart energy grid to distribute the power we’re all producing.

When I heard Governor Romney insulting President Obama for investing a lot of money into this sort of smart-grid, green energy infrastructure, I sat in my chair shaking my head.  The more we invest in this technology, the better.  This isn’t an issue of “freedom”, as if taxing the people to fund these very valuable things is nothing but stealing the fruits of their labor.  It’s about building a sustainable future of real growth instead of short-term gains which require us to massively pollute and pass on the burden to future generations.  Our current way of living is not sustainable and this is the direction to move forward.  The world knows this and they’re all moving in this direction as well.  It’s not a conspiracy with Obama paying off his buddies.  This is the way industry is moving and governments are trying to accelerate these developments in order to protect their environments.

Introducing Zero-Energy Housing

During the recent presidential debate, Governor Romney accused President Obama of wasting tax dollars on failed green projects, specifically referencing Solyndra as an example.  What he failed to mention was that while three or four of the government’s green investments failed, over 23 of them have been success stories.  These are the sorts of infrastructure investments our country needs.  They create sustainable jobs while also helping us live more lightly on the planet.

Under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) along with the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) constructed a home which produces, on average, as much energy as it uses.  A normal family of four could live inside, enjoying all of life luxuries, and their home is pretty much able to produce its own power.  If we work at it, net-zero is possible.

Even more amazing is the fact that this home uses technologies that are commercially available today.  This is the sort of direction energy policy in America needs to move toward, not denying climate change and acting as if we don’t have an upcoming energy crisis.  The government is barely putting any money into new energy research.  We also need to move toward a smart energy grid.  So much needs done.

I have high hopes for solar and fusion power.  For example, we have technology which allows solar technology to be infused within transparent windows, allowing skyscrapers to generate their own power.

Cost can be an issue for these things, but prices are dropping quickly and will continue to do so.  Nanotechnology research is continually helping to bring down prices, and the more we invest in these areas, the quicker we can bring down the costs and reap the benefits.

Is Life A Passive Movie?

What would you consider to be the most profound thing you’ve ever learned?  Something that has totally reshaped the way you view everything, including your place in the cosmos?  As for myself, neuroscience leaves me totally baffled.  I’ve been struggling with the idea of free will for years now.  I have such a hard time accepting that maybe I’m simply “watching” this life play out, with no control over what’s happening.

It’s not a conclusion people want to accept, nor is it something anyone should accept without really looking into it.  The consequences of not having free will are of such importance, what else is there?  Just think about it for a moment.  Your words are not your words, they’re the universe talking to itself.  Your thoughts are not your thoughts, it’s just a sort of “happening”.  Your actions are not your actions, they’re just firings of a complex biological machine.  It’s no wonder that people refuse to accept these ideas.

I’ve been watching the Gifford lecture series Dr. Gazzaniga delivered at the University of Edinburgh a few years ago.   If you haven’t heard of him, he’s considered the father of cognitive neuroscience and is one of the most respected academics in brain science.  If you major in neuroscience in any university around the country, you’ll be studying out of his textbooks.  There are seven one hour lectures available online, and this is his Gifford lecture on whether or not we have free will.

It’s a wonderful lecture series.  You can easily find the other lectures on Youtube.  Just search “Gazzaniga Gifford”, and you’ll find them all.  His series begins by asking, “What are we?”  He then gives a quick overview of the different areas of the human brain and what they do.  He talks about how our brains come to understand the world, how we make decisions, and how it generates an illusion of “self”.  Many things will leave you speechless as you try to take it all in.

For example, take his own research into split brain patients.  People suffering from epilepsy undergo a surgery which severs their corpus callosum, leaving the left and right hemispheres of the patient’s brain isolated from one another.  This is done in hopes that the chaotic fits of brain activity will be confined to one hemisphere and the patient will be able to remain conscious and in control of his or her body during an attack.  But when we cut those connections, weird things start to happen.  Eventually he ends up asking us, “Are there two people living in that one skull?”  The evidence seems to suggest that’s the case.  When you study how our brain works, you have to rethink everything.  Your intuitive sense of what you are and what this life is just isn’t right.

In the video above, pay close attention to Joe when he’s asked to identify the word he saw, which is “bell”.  The speaking side of his brain is isolated from the other half of his brain which saw the word, and because it doesn’t understand why that half of his brain identified that picture on the screen, it rationalized the decision.  Gazzaniga calls this the “Interpreter”.  Our brains are making up reasons for why we do the things we do all the time, and this little game is exposed when you do split brain experiments.  Learning about it really makes you rethink your life.  Our actions aren’t our actions.  Things simply happen in this world, including our own decisions, but we have a special brain “chip” which examines everything it sees and makes up plausible reasons for it.  That’s the story of you trying to figure out your life and why you did what you did.  Your brain made a decision to do something, and then the “cause and effect” chip saw what happened and justified the action, yet you falsely mistake the process for “you” making a decision.  That’s just one our brain’s many magic tricks.

There’s no central “I” anywhere.  The brain is this set of interconnected systems working in parallel, all competing with each other, in many ways isolated from one another.  When I wake up in the morning, I find myself asking, “What is this?  What’s going on?  Why am I here?  Why am I experiencing this life?”  “I’m” plagued by this idea of “I”.  Apparently this life is more like a vivid movie and I’m being tricked into thinking this experience “I’m” living is really “me”.  But if I’m not making my decisions, if my words aren’t my own, and if I had no role in even the thoughts running through my head, how am I supposed to claim any of this is “me”?  It can’t be.  It’s a happening.

But don’t let this lead you to a bleak outlook on life.  It actually gives me a profound peace.  When I realized that my “self” was an illusion, I haven’t worried about death since.  Life isn’t something that you “live”.  Just watch the movie.

It’s all so confusing.  I tell myself that maybe I haven’t quite grasped the whole picture of life.  Maybe if I understood dark energy and dark matter, they’d lend some more clues into what’s going on.  Or maybe there’s even more to think about, such as  parallel universes.  Maybe quantum physics can leave some room for freedom of some sort, like a sort of branching tree of possible paths to choose.  But still, no matter how hard I try, I can’t find a way to make any of that coherent.  Everything seems to suggest there isn’t any freedom.  All of those explanations are what I want to be true, not what the evidence points to.  A real explorer follows the evidence, wherever it may lead.  That’s what it means to be honest and humble.

I was born, I “watched” this movie of life, and then will soon “die”.  It’s a short movie.  A strange movie.  And you know what, I don’t expect you to believe me.  It’s sort of like when my grandfather took off his wrist watch one Sunday afternoon and told me, “Now if I was to place a bunch of rocks in a cup and shake them up, no matter how much I did so, this watch would never emerge.  Somebody had to create it.  The same goes for this world.”  I thought, “You know, I can see why you think that.  The arguments for evolution are difficult and take a lot of time to learn about.  The evidence behind it all is never directly experienced in your day to day life and a lot of it can be subtle.  You have to actively seek it out, reading books, researching the material, and carefully examine the evidence with an open mind.  If you haven’t been exposed to those facts, such as the fossil record, the workings of our DNA, or bad design remnants from our biological lineage, then your argument certainly would sound plausible.  But if you know the facts, you realize that the truth is different from what you’d first suspect.”

The same idea applies to free will.  I don’t expect a short post like this to convince anybody that we lack free will.  It doesn’t work that way.  There’s no quick argument which would or should convince you.  But if you take the brain apart, look at what each section does and how it ties together, and learn how it all works, you’ll come to the same conclusion as Dr. Gazzaniga — like many things, free will is an illusion.

And if free will is an illusion, then I’m not a male, I’m not a human, I’m not anything.  I’m the subjective consciousness watching this occurrence from the front row seat of my body.  There’s just this evolving existence and for whatever reason I’m conscious of it at this time.  That’s all I feel confident in saying.