science

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I’m coming up on a birthday soon. It’s hard to not connect birthdays to aging once you reach the mid-forties. 46. Is that really how old I am?

Let’s take a closer look.

The youngest atom in the body is more than a billion years old. Hydrogen, the most abundantly found element, is nearly 14 billion years old and was produced during the Big Bang. Carbon and oxygen atoms are between 7 and 10 billion years old. In other words, we are really really ancient. What’s another 20 or 46 or 72 years in this cosmic scheme of things?

So how old did you say I was?

Cells in our body die every second and new ones replace them. In a sense, we are re-created with each passing moment. A liver refreshes itself in 3 months. Taste buds in 2 weeks. The lung’s surface in 3 weeks. The heart refreshes 2-3 times over a lifetime. Cells in the intestine in 2 days. In fact, only our eyes are as old are we are, not undergoing transformation over time.

So we are made of ancient cosmic dust but renew ourselves in some cases as often as every 2 days and sometimes never?

So, tell me again. How old did you say I was?

Each of us, like a chicken, started off as an egg. From the egg that came from our mothers, that is. The thing about a human egg is that it is formed when the mother herself is an embryo. And we could argue that the formation of the egg, half of which contributed to each of us, is technically our first moment of existence. So, if your mother had you at 25 years of age, and you are 30 years old, technically you are ( 30 + 25 = ) 55 years old.

46 years. 2 days. 14 billion years. Add your mom’s age to yours. Take your pick.  I told you that age is just a number.

And happy birthday to you too (for whenever the day comes). Remember that you are this newborn baby that has existed since the beginning of time and will last till the end of it. Many happy returns of infinity to you.

One of the things we are told, nay coerced, to do well early in life is to be right. Being right is a big part of our education system. If you don’t get the right answer, you will lose points. Winners are those who get the most right answers and thus the maximum marks on tests. This approach works in the context of schools and colleges especially in science and maths where there is little or no ambiguity about the rightness of answers. And then we step out of these cocoons into the real world to discover that there is no such thing as an unambiguously right answer.

It’s little wonder that we are dissatisfied with how education prepares us for life. In fact, it does not prepare us for anything in particular. Not even work. In the real world, it’s not about locating the right answers. It’s about working with others towards finding the least wrong answers. It’s about asking the right questions. I’m not saying that we do away with math and sciences and the current methods of testing our skills in them. I’m saying that we ought to perhaps place more emphasis on the indiscernible. Perhaps we ought to help our children gain better appreciation of such concepts as ambiguity, uncertainty, context and perspective earlier in their lives. Perhaps we ought to have a system which rewards them for asking the right questions instead of finding the right answers.

Einstein described genius as the ability to hold conflicting thoughts in one’s head. He described genius as a state of mind which appreciates the relativity of truth, which is to say that there is a context intrinsic to truth. If we emphasized the absoluteness of truth less, perhaps we will create a society in which genius flourishes and is found to be in abundance. More importantly, we will perhaps create an environment in which people are kinder and gentler towards and less judgmental of their fellow citizens.

Thoughts?

As recently as 100 years back, human life expectancy at birth was a mere 31 years. Today the world average is around 67, and the average in many developed countries is above 75. But for most of history, life expectancy has been 30 years or less. Historically, a large number of humans have died before the age of 10. It is only as recently as 30,000 years back that “grandparents” first came about, which is to say that humans began living long enough to have three generations co-exist.

For most of our time on the planet, humans have not lived long enough to experience the problems of aging. We’ve just begun getting familiar with the social, psychological and economic consequences of aging in the last 30 to 40 years. And we have begun focusing our energies on finding cures for these new age ailments. We’re likely to find a cure for cancer within the next 20 years. When that happens, life expectancy will quickly surpass 100 years. Once life expectancy jumps to 100+, it is likely that humans will live long enough to intercept new breakthroughs in medical science (including prosthetics and artificial limbs) and it won’t be long before life expectancy touches 200 years. In fact, those who are younger than 40 years of age today are likely to live to be 100+ years and their children are likely to live to 200 years of age.

200 years! That is a long, long time. Imagine the consequences of being alive for 200 years. Presumably, people would work for at least 150+ years out of 200. This implies that people would potentially have 3 or 4 different careers in one lifetime. What would relationships look like? Would marriages last? Would friendships last? It’s likely that 6 – 8 generations will co-exist which would make it easier to transfer wisdom and experience across time. Conversely it would also mean that biases and prejudices of past generations would be carried forward interminably longer in time. What would be the impact of a longer life on our religious and philosophical moorings? Would living longer make us somehow less interested in the notion of God? Would it make us more stoic and less spontaneous, because we will have more time on our hands? Would they be more depressed or would they be happier? Would a longer life be a curse or a boon? Interesting questions.

Life is uncertain. As we grow, we learn that stories don’t always have happy endings. We see that poems don’t always rhyme. We are distressed to see that good does not always win over the bad. We find that truth is not always dressed in black or white. We begin to see shades of grey and so we adjust our sensibilities and beliefs. We sense degrees of uncertainty in events that transpire around us. We become uncomfortable and so we embark on a quest to seize control.

In the quest, we try to force happy endings onto tales that cannot be salvaged. We don’t notice or even deride beauty when it does not conform to our sensibilities. We look for patterns amid the disorder and we interpret them in a manner as to reinforce our biases. We mix effects with causes. We try to re-order chaos to make our lives more predictable. We constantly intervene. Sometimes we succeed. That makes us happy. Sometimes we fail. That makes us miserable. So we go on.

There are two fundamental problems with the way we view uncertainty.

  1. Our brains are not wired to comprehend uncertainty.
  2. There is nothing you can do about uncertainty.

The wiring of our brains

The first problem has to do with the way our brains have evolved. In biological terms, evolution is a process which promotes certain traits disproportionately to others. Human evolution, it appears, has promoted the ability to leap to conclusions over the ability to make carefully thought out analytical decisions. This explains why a fast thinking college quarterback or dashing batsman is more popular than a slow thinking chess club geek.

Example: Imagine (a 100,000 years ago) a cave man running into a saber toothed tiger on one of his daily hunts. As you’d imagine, his choices were to either fight or flee. If you think about it, he also had the option of whipping out his NCERT designed maths text book and calculating the odds of an average 20 year old Homo Sapiens male becoming fodder for a wild canine. It turns out that (not surprisingly) that evolution rewarded those who leaped to the swift and plausible conclusion that flight was the prudent course of action. Those paused to analyze and failed to take quick action were weeded out. Thanks to the momentum of evolution, this tendency to leap to quick conclusions persists to this day even in the absence of the threat of encountering sharp toothed felines on daily morning walks.

This is how our brains came to be wired. We are not good at understanding the concepts of chance and probability. Our brains don’t naturally construct normal distributions and assign confidence levels for events. At least, not in normal course of action. If you think back about the struggles with probability and statistics courses in school and college, I’m sure you’d agree.

What can we do about uncertainty?

The first coping mechanism was a belief in an entity called God, who is all-knowing and orchestrates the events of our lives. Pretty soon, salesmen claimed privileged access to God and added extraordinary tales of His powers and especially about His ruthlessness when it came to dealing with disbelievers. These middlemen are possibly ones who understood the nature of uncertainty (that you could do nothing about it) better than most, and exploited this arbitrage to their benefit.

And then came scientific determinism in Europe more than a thousand years after Aristotle spoke of it. Science began explaining events which would normally be interpreted as acts of God. Science began explaining nature in ways that undermined religious middlemen. Scientists began curing people. They made people fly in the skies. They explained why the planets moved the way they did and why stars twinkled. The moon was not made of cheese, they said. Scientists began displaying powers normally attributable to Gods. And it is possible that scientists began believing that they were Gods themselves.

Something happened in 1927 which rocked the world of science. The scientific community which comprised confident men and women who believed that someday they would explain (and thus control) EVERYTHING were told that the creation was not as explainable and controllable as they believed it to be. They were told that, at the subterranean depths of nature where particles smaller than atoms exist, there was great uncertainty. Quantum mechanics described the fundamental aspect of nature as probabilistic (one of many possible outcomes) and not deterministic (a cause leads to a predictable effect) as Newton and Einstein had led them to believe. Wisp like particles with no mass interact in unpredictable ways to produce blocks called atoms and molecules which in turn combine to produce concrete things with mass (like babies, stars, flowers, bees, chairs, etc) which then interact with each other according to deterministic laws, thus creating an illusion of an orderly creation. Some like Einstein never came to terms with this notion of uncertainty. “God,” he complained, “does not play dice with the universe.”

In other words, if you were given a 300 qubit quantum computer capable of processing every single microscopic piece of data from the beginning of time and then were somehow able to construct a model that explained EVERYTHING till date, you would still not be able to predict what would happen the very next nanosecond because even nature does not know what she is going to do next.

To say that the only thing certain about uncertainty is that you can do nothing about it is a conundrum unto itself.

The beauty in uncertainty

Whether you choose to confide in God about your deepest hopes and fears, or to place your faith in text books and armies of scientists who toil unsung in far away laboratories, or to unconditionally embrace the uncertainty in this creation is your decision. However, there is something to be said about the beauty inherent in uncertainty. This beauty becomes pronounced and magical when we view it from a position that is separated from the self.

Happiness comes from simply listening to the music and swaying with your eyes closed without having to torment yourself about why and how the notes came to be composed. The greatest of joys sometimes does not always come from knowledge or discovery. It comes from the simple act of surrendering to the experience.

I know I haven’t written on here in a few weeks. I haven’t been on Twitter either. There are a couple of reasons for this. One is that I’ve teamed up with some really cool folks to start a company called Positive Integers (www.positiveintegers.com). We’re in the data analytics space, and already have the fortune of being able to work with a few big customers. Wish us luck. We’re working hard on the projects we have, setting up our office, getting ourselves organized, hiring great people, etc. In the last few weeks, I’ve been focusing a lot on that.

The other reason is that I’ve been spending time on weekends with my older daughter, who just went through her final exams and is now entering the tenth grade. We’ve been working together on preparing for Maths and Physics finals, and then having all kinds of chats about what she could be doing in college. It might seem a tad early to start this conversation. On the other hand, it’s not a bad idea to start mulling things over.

These two forces combined to consume pretty much all my time. But, it’s been great fun. The downside is that it came at the expense of blogging. I guess that’s the way things happen, at times. Having said that, I plan to set aside a couple of hours a week for at least one blog post, and another couple of hours  for Twitter ( it’s actually fun to engage with folks on there) going forward. I also plan to blog regularly on our company blog. Let’s see how things play out.

Going through the final exams grind with my daughter reminded me of a fascinating aspect of mathematics education in middle school, which relates to the Pythagoras theorem. Pythagoras was an interesting chap. I’ll save that for another day. But, you probably remember his 2,500 year old theorem which states that the sum of the squares of the sides of a right triangle equals the square of its hypotenuse. This pretty much forms the foundation for areas like trigonometry. The fascinating aspect of Pythagoras theorem is that while it is introduced in middle school (either 8th or 9th grade), the students are not taught the proof of the theorem itself at that time. Rather, the books and teachers tell the students to take the theorem as ‘given’ and motor on. As a matter of fact, the proof for Pythagoras theorem, which is such a fundamental theorem in mathematics, is never taught in school. I’m told that only Maths majors learn to prove the theorem in college, and that too only in some countries.

Do you recall learning the proof? I don’t believe we were ever taught this. Try asking a friend or a colleague. The answer is likely the same. The chances are that very few of us can actually prove the Pythagoras theorem if asked to do so. This is because we never learnt about it. Obviously, it raises the question of why is it that we were not taught this in school? Why are school kids still not being taught the proof for one of the most famous mathematical theorems?

The answer is that the proof for the theorem is apparently considered too complicated to be taught to eighth grade students. So, students are taught to understand this empirically. They’re asked to construct right triangles and physically verify the truth in the theorem by measuring the sides and then by applying the theorem. There’s no “proof” given to them. They’re asked to go along with it. The reason they are asked to ‘blindly’ accept it is because there is a great benefit to knowing and applying the Pythagoras theorem from the eighth grade onward, and because without it, further learning and advancement is not possible in some areas. This is interesting.

It struck me that much of religious and spiritual belief works the same way. We are asked to place faith in a notion (say, the existence of God), the proof for which is complicated and hence unavailable at that time. But trust and belief in the notion is fundamental and critical to moving oneself forward to a state where the proof for the notion may become self evident. Fascinating.

ps: if you’re curious, here’s a simple way to prove the Pythagoras theorem below. cheers.

pyth theorem