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Our future, our universe, and other weighty topics

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Brain Scan Stunts Are Not Mind Reading

Yesterday the top link on the Reddit futurology subreddit (www.reddit.com/r/futurology) was an article with a headline Mind Reader: Meet The Man Who Records and Stores Your Thoughts, Dreams and Memories. Over 700 readers have “liked” this article. But this article is junk technology reporting. Nobody has the slightest idea of how to record or store thoughts, dreams, or memories (outside of conventional media).

The article discusses a company founded by one Donald Marks. The company has some technology for doing brain scanning and storing the results. “"Some people call it 'thought identification' but it is essentially mind reading,” says Marks. “It is the process of recognizing activation patterns in the brain and identifying what thoughts are associated with them." Marks seems to be guilty of shameless overblown hype here, something he has a motive for because he has a financial interest in hyping his own company. The process his company is using is not at all mind reading. No one knows how to do any such thing.

There are various ways to scan the brain. One way is to use functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI), which measures change in blood oxygenation. Then there's CT scanning, and a process called PET. Then there's MEG, which measures magnetic fields produced by electrical activity in the brain. Then there's NIRS, another technique for measuring blood oxygenation in the brain.

None of these methods give one single bit of direct information about what someone is thinking or perceiving. However, scientists can try an elaborate technique for matching up brain scans taken at a particular time with data about what a person was observing at some particular time, or what a person says he was thinking at a particular time. It doesn't work very well at all, because two person's brains don't look the same way when they are thinking the same thing, or looking at the same thing. Even a single person's brain doesn't look exactly the same way when that person is looking at the same thing or thinking the same thought at two different times.

But there does seem to be a little bit of a tendency for one brain to look a little like another brain when they are observing the same thing or thinking the same thing. So scientists are able to do a little bit of what I may call a parlor trick. The parlor trick consists of analyzing sets of brain scans, and studying what a brain scan tends to look like when a particular thought is being thought, or a particular thing has being observed. Scientists can use that analysis to make a very weak limited-scope prediction about a person's thought or observations.

For example, when a person thinks about (or observes) something burning in a fire, his brain scan might tend to look a little different from the way it would look if he were thinking of (or observing) someone relaxing in an ocean. So given a set of brain readings, a scientist or a computer might be able to say something like, “It is 20% more likely that he is thinking about relaxing in an ocean than that he is thinking about someone burning in a fire.”

Should we call this type of thing “mind reading”? We should not. A proper term for it is brain scan correlation analysis. But such a term does not attract press attention or investors, so people doing such brain scan correlation analysis might resort to hype, and call it “mind reading” instead. Is there much use that we can foresee for brain scan correlation analysis? Not really. It's probably a dead end. It's basically a kind of parlor trick or stunt, good for attracting a few headlines, but not much else.

In my local library there are many Chinese books I can't read. I might create a new technique for trying to understand Chinese. I might take pictures of the covers of the Chinese books, and run these images through a computer program that correlates certain pictures on the book cover with Chinese words on the book covers. I could probably get a few results I could brag about using such a technique, which might attract some press attention, with headlines about a new computer program that can read Chinese. But such a technique would really be a parlor trick and a dead end. I would never be able to take it much farther, and never be able to really understand Chinese by using such a technique. Such a technique would be similar to using our current type of brain scans to try to read minds.

The items being read in brain scanning are like cloudy blobs, which severely limits the amount of usable information that can be derived from them. If you consider that the same person will have a different set of cloudy blobs when thinking the same thing at two different times (which would differ from the set of cloudy blobs that some other person would produce), it is hard to foresee much use that could be made of such analytics. One application you can think of is creating some kind of lie detector that would work from analyzing brain scans (because the cloudy blobs might look different when someone is lying). But such an approach would probably not be any more accurate than the existing technology of a polygraph. 

 The cloudy blobs of brain scans

The headline in the story I have cited (referring to “the man who records and stores your thoughts, dreams and memories”) is utterly misleading. What is being recorded is the brain scans of people while they are having thoughts, dreams, or recollections, not the thoughts, dreams, and recollections themselves. The story implies that such storage may be useful because a science of some later age may be able to analyze the cloudy blobs of brain scans more accurately, so that they can figure out memories, thoughts, and dreams from studying these cloudy blobs. There is no reason to be hopeful that any such thing will ever happen. It seems like something along the lines of saying, “Freeze yourself at death, and science will be able to figure out how to revive your body.” We might be able to figure out exactly how thoughts and memories are stored in the brain, but that would require science vastly more advanced than the crude indirect techniques of brain scanning correlation analysis.

When will we actually have technology for reading minds? My guess is sometime between 50 years from now and never. Contrary to the hyped claims of modern would-be technological mind readers, we are simply nowhere near to understanding the mystery of how the brain stores memories and how it produces thoughts. Our knowledge of the matter is so limited that we are not even sure whether the brain is the sole agent involved in storing memory and producing thoughts. We might one day unravel such a mystery after many decades of additional study. Or we might never figure it out.

Thursday, August 28, 2014

The 5 Greatest Moments in the History of the Universe

I looked to see whether I could find a good list of the 10 greatest moments of human history, but I was disappointed. I found one bizarre list of the 10 greatest moments of human history, which included the atomic bombings that ended World War II and Hitler's appointment as chancellor of Germany (hardly what I consider great moments). Then there was another list which counts long periods of time as “moments,” which doesn't make sense. Then there was a list of “Ten Moments That Changed History” which included the invention of porridge (hardly what I consider a great moment).

Perhaps I should try to correct this Internet list shortcoming by trying to write a first-rate list of the ten greatest moments in human history. But instead I'll try something more ambitious: I'll take a stab at making a list of the five greatest moments in the history of the universe. I will consider our entire vast universe of billions of galaxies, and ask: what five moments should be considered the greatest moments in its 13-billion-year history? For this discussion, a moment will be considered as something that occurred within a very short time span. This means items such as “the origin of consciousness” or “the origin of the first technology” or “the first development of science” will have to be excluded, as they apparently did not occur at one particular moment of time.

1. The Big Bang

The first choice on the list is an obvious one. Any list of the greatest moments in the history of the universe must include the universe's first moment, the mysterious event known as the Big Bang that occurred about 13 billion years ago. According to scientists, at the time of the Big Bang, the entire universe began to expand from an infinitely dense mathematical point known as the primordial singularity. It's hard to beat that for drama and significance, particularly since the existence of everyone depended on it going just right (scientists say that if there had been a very slightly different Big Bang, none of us would be here).

2. The First Origin of Life Anywhere in the Universe

I cannot include the origin of the first galaxy or the origin of the first planet or the first star in my list of the universe's five greatest moments, as they each occurred very gradually over a period of many years. So to find the next item on the list, I must fast-forward billions of years, to the time when microscopic life first appeared in our universe. Which planet had the honor of being the first planet on which life appeared? Almost certainly it was not our planet. Given that there are billions of galaxies, the first planet on which life appeared was almost certainly not even a planet revolving around a star in our galaxy. It was probably a planet in some other galaxy, and the first origin of life in the universe probably occurred billions of years before life originated on our planet.

Such an event of fundamental importance must have been completely unrecorded. Given the vastness of the universe, it is very, very unlikely that anyone will ever be able to figure out what was the first planet on which life originated.

3. The First Interplanetary or Interstellar Communication Between Civilizations

Another moment in the universe's history that deserves a place on my list is the first moment in the history of the universe when two civilizations existing on different planets were ever able to establish communication. Such an event may have first occurred when two civilizations existing in different solar systems were able to achieve radio communication with each other (something that is much, much easier than making contact by an interstellar voyage). Or it might have been that the first two civilizations on different planets to communicate with each other may have been planets within a single solar system.

Given the vast age of the universe, such an event very likely occurred long, long ago, probably millions or billions of years ago.

4. The First Interstellar Voyage Reaching Another Star

Another great moment in the universe's history must have been the first time that a spaceship from one solar system was ever able to reach another solar system. The distance between stars is so great that it is very difficult to estimate how often interstellar travel occurs. There could be some special physics that allows interstellar travel to occur commonly. Or perhaps there is no such physics, and interstellar travel only occurs rarely, because of the enormous costs and great lengths of time needed for the journey between stars. But very probably some civilization in the universe has launched a spacecraft that has successfully traveled from one solar system to another. The first time any such spacecraft ever reached another solar system might be considered one of the greatest moments in the history of the universe. 

It might have looked like this

5. The First Interplanetary Physical Contact Between Different Intelligent Species

Another great moment in the universe's history was the first time that intelligent creatures on one planet ever made face-to-face physical contact with intelligent creatures on some other planet, creatures belonging to some entirely different species. This might have been something like a “handshake across the stars,” when an intelligent species in one solar system traveled to a planet in some other solar system, after crossing the vast interstellar void. Or, it might have been something requiring a much shorter voyage. If two planets in a solar system ever developed intelligent life at about the same time, the first interplanetary physical contact between different species might have been merely a case of astronauts from one planet traveling to another planet in the same solar system. Given the great age of the universe, it is likely that this event has already occurred, although we will never know which case of direct contact between different intelligent species was the first such event to occur in the universe's history. Such an event might have occurred after many different interstellar voyages looking to find another intelligent species. 

We are used to being able to see many of the greatest moments in human history on our television screens, either by looking at photography of the event taken while it happened, or by looking at historical documentaries that describe the event very well. But the last four items on this list will forever be shrouded in mystery. Because of the incredible vastness of a universe consisting of billions of galaxies (each made up of millions or billions of stars), we will never be able to say, “This was the planet where life first evolved in the universe,” or “This was the time when two intelligent beings from different planets first stood face-to-face.” Just as our universe keeps most of its “firsts” hidden, it also keeps most of its superlatives hidden. There's no way to tell what is the biggest planet in the universe or the fastest spaceship in the universe or the biggest city in the universe or the coldest planet in the universe. Even if you restricted yourself to only trying to keep track of the superlatives or firsts of a single galaxy, the job of being a galactic Guinness would be a very, very difficult one.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Does the Future Splash on the Present?

On the morning of August 24, 2014 around 2:00 AM EST I was woken up by a vivid dream. The dream seemed like the simplest dream I had ever had. It consisted simply of an image of a small metallic trash basket moving a few inches on the floor, without anything else being nearby.

I thought about the dream and at first thought that it might be a dream about some ghostly force moving the small trash basket. But then I thought of a simpler idea. Perhaps the dream was about an earthquake tremor. If there were a sufficiently powerful earthquake, that might cause a small trash basket to move around on the floor by itself.

Having previously suggested in a blog post that people describe unusual dreams by sending out a Twitter tweet, I decided I would do just that – as soon as I woke up in the morning. I imagined myself sending out a Twitter tweet in the morning, a tweet about a possible earthquake premonition. That would be proof of my premonition if an earthquake soon occurred, because you can't change the time stamp on Twitter tweets.

After I woke up in the morning and went to my computer, I discovered there was no longer any point in sending out such a Twitter tweet. The earthquake had already occurred. It happened about four hours after my dream, at about 6:20 AM EST (3:20 AM PST). It was the worst earthquake in the San Francisco area in 25 years. I hope all those who got injured will recover fully.

This year I have recorded some 17 dreams I have had that match either events that occurred shortly thereafter, or events that occurred (unknown to me) within the previous few days. The most dramatic case is fully described here. It's a dream I had of a meteor fall that had an uncanny resemblance to something that happened within a week. On June 30, 2014 I had another meteor dream that matched reality well. I dreamed that a meteor made a bright colored flash of light in the sky, and that an observer saw the meteor wearing sunglasses, thinking: I'm sure glad I wore these sunglasses, because that was so bright. That night while I was sleeping a British observatory reported the brightest meteor flash it had ever seen, which witnesses said produced a bright green light (it was a type called a bolide meteor).

On April 10 I had a dream about a senior White House official resigning. The resignation of a senior White House official (Sebelius) was announced later that day. On April 16 I had a dream of a power outage at a stadium. There was such an outage on the previous night (unknown to me), and a week later there were two such outages in different places. On April 25 I had a dream of astronauts on the moon carrying radiation shields (stone umbrellas, to be exact). Later in the day a scientific study was released saying that future lunar astronauts will need much better radiation shields.

On June 12 of this year I had a dream of a non-elderly adult woman completely underwater in a bathtub. The next day there was a news story of exactly such an event (a drowning), an event that only occurs about once a month to non-elderly adult women in the US. On June 13 I had a dream of someone stabbing a robber who entered that person's house. Within 24 hours (before or after) there were two such events in different places.

On July 16 I had a terrible dream of a child falling to his death from about the tenth or fifteenth floor of an apartment building. A day earlier (unknown to me) a 16-year-old described as Turkey's youngest novelist had fallen to his death from the tenth floor of an apartment building. On June 30 I had a dream about homeless people living in a hotel or motel. I learned later that day that there had been a local protest a few days earlier about a nearby motel being converted into a homeless shelter. Then there was the dream discussed here.

What I find is that for every case in which one of my dreams seems to match well something that soon happens (which may be an example of precognition), there are roughly an equal number of cases where one of my dreams seem to match well something that happened one day or a few days previously (but which I had no knowledge of). The latter examples may be cases of what is called retrocognition, which means an anomalous knowledge about something that happened in the past.

It is very hard to mathematically compute the odds of such things occurring randomly. These cases could all be due to mere coincidence. But let us at least speculate: what type of theory of time might allow for both anomalous precognition (knowledge of a future event) and anomalous retrocognition (knowledge of some past event that you never learned about through normal means)?

I can think of a crude sketch of such a theory. Let us imagine time as being like a stream of water. We can imagine ourselves as fish swimming in that stream, or we can imagine ourselves as people walking along the side of the stream. Now let us imagine events as being like rocks or pebbles that fall into the stream. We can imagine that each event causes a little splash or ripple. We can imagine that the bigger and more important the event, the bigger the splash or ripple it produces.

Such a theory might help to explain both precognition and retrocognition. Just as the splash of a rock in a stream travels in all directions, we can imagine that some type of paranormal or psychic “event splash” travels both forward and backward in time. When someone has a dream of something about to happen, it might be caused by a “backsplash” of a future event. When someone has a dream about something that recently happened (something he never learned about normally), that might be caused by a “foresplash” of the event.

I have no idea whether such a theory is valid. But I have at least learned one thing. I must discard my previous policy of waiting until the morning to send out a Twitter tweet when I have a vivid dream of something that might soon be verified. From now on when I have such a dream in the middle of the night, I am going to immediately wake up, turn on my computer, and send out a time-stamped Twitter tweet describing the dream, as soon as my dream is finished. Hopefully if I follow this policy I will one day have a nice juicy case where I can prove I dreamed about something a few hours before it happened. 

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Hints of ET Civilizations Found in 50 Galaxies?

There are various possibilities for how mankind might first learn of the existence of extraterrestrial life. We might one day see a huge alien spaceship heading toward our planet. Or we might sniff out the chemical signatures of extraterrestrial life by studying nearby planets. Or we might get a radio message from extraterrestrials. Or, we might discover extraterrestrial intelligence by detecting indirect signs of large-scale astronomical engineering by alien civilizations.

I have always thought the last of these possibilities is quite plausible, and I have argued that perhaps the mysterious hard-to-explain planet Kepler 78b may be an example of extraterrestrial engineering at work. But now astronomers may have discovered evidence of astronomical engineering on a much vaster scale. The finding suggests the possibility of very large-scale astronomical engineering in about 50 different galaxies.

Before discussing the finding, I should discuss why the idea of large-scale engineering projects by extraterrestrials is a very plausible one, rather than some far-fetched idea dreamed up by a wild-eyed fantasist. The universe is about 13 billion years old, and intelligent life could have arisen on other planets at any time during the past several billion years. The universe consists of billions of galaxies which each contain millions or billions of stars. There are therefore a huge number of planets on which intelligent life could have evolved, and many eons during which such intelligent life could have appeared. A civilization much older than ours might be expected to engage in large astronomical engineering projects such as building large space colonies, constructing Dyson spheres, moving planets, or breaking up planets and creating space colonies from some of their parts. Such projects, very difficult for us, might be “child's play” for a civilization thousands or millions more advanced than ours.

Given all these factors, scientists have half-expected to scan the far reaches of space, and find evidence of the large-scale activities of extraterrestrials. It was hoped that such evidence would show up in the form of “heat signatures” that would take the form of infrared radiation. Infrared radiation is given off by all hot bodies. If an extraterrestrial civilization were to be engaging in large-scale engineering projects, this would give off a lot of excess heat which would create infrared radiation that could be read by scientific instruments. But prior to this year, scientists had found no such evidence. Quite a few scientists have said that it is surprising that such evidence has not been found. 

infrared radiation
Map of infrared radiation given off by a human

 So we should not be too surprised to hear about the exciting results from a recent astronomical survey. The survey was done by the Center for Exoplanets and Habitable Worlds at Penn State University, using data from a scientific satellite known as the Wide-Field Infrared Survey Explorer (WISE). According to team leader Jason Wright, a galaxy should emit only about 10 percent of its radiation as mid-infrared radiation. But the survey detected about 50 galaxies that are emitting more than half of their radiation as mid-infrared radiation.

This is exactly what we might expect to see if these galaxies had been “taken over” by one or more extraterrestrial civilizations that engaged in huge engineering projects that caused excess heat to be emitted. Someone speaking in the style of Erich von Daniken (author of Chariots of the Gods?) might call this excess infrared radiation the heat of the gods.

But scientists will need to do more work to rule out natural sources of radiation that might be producing all of this excess heat in these galaxies. Until that is done, we cannot say that proof has been found for extraterrestrial intelligence. But for the time being, we seem to have a tantalizing hint that extraterrestrial intelligence exists, and exists abundantly.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

“Cosmic Discordance” Punctures Our Pretensions

When you go to study biology in school, your textbook will refer to a doctrine called the central dogma of biology. This is the doctrine that DNA makes RNA, which makes proteins. There is no doctrine that is generally recognized as a “central dogma of physics.” But it is as if modern physicists have a central dogma: the doctrine that all of the major forces at work in the universe are currently known.

It is hard to say exactly when this idea became an ossified dogma of the modern physicist, but it was perhaps around about 1970 or 1980. After discovering the forces of electromagnetism and gravitation centuries earlier, scientists discovered two more forces in the twentieth century: the weak nuclear force and the strong nuclear force. Then somewhere along the line, physicists seemed to erect a great big “Mission Accomplished” banner, rather like George W. Bush's team did on an aircraft carrier a few weeks after the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. Physicists came to believe that they had figured out all of the important forces at work in the universe.

mission accomplished
The central dogma of modern physics

A modern physicist is someone with great confidence that he understands every major force at work in the universe. He is willing to consider that there may be new types of matter that he doesn't know about. He is willing to consider that there may be some unusual type of energy that he doesn't know about. He is willing to consider that there may be whole other universes he knows nothing about. But the modern physicist draws the line at considering the possibility of unknown forces at work in our universe. No, no, no, he thinks to himself, we already have all the forces of the universe figured out.

Perhaps we can understand this vaunting affectation if we think of it as a kind of firewall. Admitting any unknown force at the work in the universe might open the door to possibilities many a physicist wishes to exclude, such as the idea that what is going on in the universe is not merely the result of blind chance. To lock out such ideas that make them uncomfortable, physicists cling to the pretension that they understand all forces at work in the universe.

Later some serious difficulties arose in understanding the universe. It seemed that the known force of gravitation just was not doing the job adequately at explaining the structure of the universe. None of the other four fundamental forces works on a large scale. The physicists and cosmologist had a choice: they could either concede the existence of some unknown force at work in the universe, or they could start believing that almost all of the matter in the universe was invisible (the doctrine of dark matter). Strangely enough, they chose the second of these beliefs. The average physicist seemed to think: Much better to believe that most of the matter in the universe is some weird, invisible, unknown matter than to believe in the terrifying idea that there is an unknown force at work in the universe.

Later on cracks started to show in this model. It seems that the positions and motions of dwarf galaxies are not consistent with the theory of cold dark matter, as discussed here and here. Also, a just-released scientific paper (entitled “Cosmic Discordance”) shows a problem with the cold dark matter model, as shown in the diagram below. The blue part shows estimates made using dark matter theory. The purple part shows data from two major space satellites. The purple part and the blue part are supposed to overlap, but they do not. The deeper blue part and the deeper purple part (the most likely values) are far apart. Message from this graph: we are lost in the cosmic woods.

cosmic discordance

But have physicists now started to doubt dark matter? Have they conceded their approach may be wrong, and that there may be forces at work in the universe they don't understand? No, they're clinging to their cold dark matter theory as zealously as ever. It's needed to prop up the central dogma of physics, that there are no major undiscovered forces.

A corollary of this central dogma of physics is that there can be no earthly forces we do not understand. So any paranormal phenomena involving some unknown force is taboo, strictly prohibited. A long-running project involving random number generators around the world has apparently shown deviations from randomness whenever important events happen, as if global consciousness was mysteriously affecting the random number generators by some unknown force. But such results must be wrong, a physicist would tell you, because it involves an unknown force, and we understand all the forces at work in the universe. Such phenomena are excluded on the grounds that they are “occult.” The word “occult” simply means hidden, but what could be more occult than the physicist's assertions that most of the universe’s matter is some invisible, unknown, hidden type of matter (dark matter)?

We saw this central dogma of physics at work recently when two sets of tests (including one done by NASA) indicated that some new type of space drive works, apparently using some new type of force. Physicists jumped quickly to their keyboards to in effect tell us: the tests can't be right, because there can't be some new force we don't understand.

Perhaps the best way to refute the central dogma of physics is to consider the Big Bang, the explosive origin of the universe. According to modern science, the entire universe began to expand from an infinitely dense mathematical point about 13 billion years ago, a point called the primordial singularity. Can we really claim that we understand all the forces that were involved in that infinitely strange event, or that it only involved the forces known to us? Can we have any confidence that such an unfathomable event of infinite mystery involved only the small number of forces we know of? Of course not.

At some time in the future a wiser generation of physicists will realize that our knowledge of the universe is merely fragmentary, and that the universe is greatly affected by mysterious forces and phenomena that we know nothing about. Scientists will realize that they have been like little children playing at the seashore with a few interesting shells, while the great ocean of truth lay undiscovered in front of them (to borrow a great simile from the great physicist Isaac Newton). Scientists will then take down the “Mission Accomplished” banner raised prematurely by a generation of physicists who thought they had figured out all the forces at work in the universe.