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An attempted ambush interview turns
into a lesson in patternicity and numerology

On Friday, June 17, a film crew came by the Skeptics Society office to interview me for a documentary that I was told was on arguments for and against God. The producer of the film, Alan Shaikhin, sent me the following email, which I reprint here in its entirety so that readers can see that there is not a hint of what was to come in what turned out to be an attempted ambush interview with me about Islam, the Quran, and the number 19:

Dear Michael!

I am the director of a film crew hired by a non-profit organization, Izgi Amal, from Kazakhstan, which has no connection with the American brat, Borat. We have been working on a documentary film on modern philosophical and scientific arguments for and against God for almost a year. We have been taking shots and interviewed theologians, philosophers and scientists in England, Netherlands, USA, Turkey, and Egypt.

We are planning to finish the film by the end of this year and participate in major film festivals, including Cannes. We will allocate some of the funds to distribute thousands of copies of the film for free, especially to libraries and colleges.

Our crew will once again visit the United States and will spend the rest of June interviewing various people, from layman to artists, from academicians to activists.

Though we are far out there, we know your work and we think that it contributes greatly to the quality of this perpetual philosophical debate. We would like to include perspective and voice in this discussion. We would appreciate if you let us know what days in JUNE would be the best dates to meet you and interview you for this engaging and fascinating documentary film.

Since we are planning to interview about 10 scholars and experts of diverse positions such as atheism, agnosticism, deism, monotheism, and polytheism, it is important to learn all available days in this month of June.

Please feel free to contact us via email or our cell phone numbers, below. If you respond via email and please let us know the best phone number and times to reach you.

Peace,
Alan Shaikhi

In hindsight perhaps I should have picked up on his admission that “we are far out there,” which in fact they turned out to be. Present were Mr. Shaikhin, another gentleman named Edip Yuksel, a couple of film crew hands, and a woman videographer who was setting up all the lighting and equipment. Before we began Shaikhin explained that they were actually filming two projects, and that his colleague (Mr. Yuksel) would be interviewing me after he, Shaikhin, was finished. Yuksel, in fact, was very fidgety and throughout the interview with Shaikhin I could see him out of the corner of my eye feverishly taking notes and fiddling around with books whose titles I could not see.

Skeptic magazine volume 16, number 3.

Shaikhin’s interview, in fact, included mostly standard faire questions for such documentaries: Do I think there’s a conflict between science and religion?, What do I think about this and that argument for God’s existence?, Why do I think people believe in God?, etc. He was unfailingly polite and professional. Toward the end he did make some vague reference to Islam and our cover story of Skeptic on myths about the Islamic religion (the myth of the Middle East Madman, the myth of the 72 virgins, etc.), but I begged off answering anything about Islam because I haven’t studied it much nor have I read the Quran.

My first clue that the interview was about to take a sharp right turn came when Shaikhin acted shocked that I would edit an issue of Skeptic on Islam without myself having read the Quran. I explained that I write very few articles in Skeptic and that my job as editor is to find writers who are experts on a subject, which was, in fact, the case with this issue when our Senior Editor Frank Miele interviewed the University of California at Santa Barbara Islamic scholar R. Stephen Humphreys. Nonetheless, Shaikhin continued to act surprised, repeating “you mean to tell me that you edited a special issue of Skeptic on Islam and haven’t read the Quran?” I again explained that editors of magazines are not always (or ever) the world’s leading expert on the topics they publish, which is the very reason for contracting with experts to write the articles for magazines.

With this first part of the interview completed, Edip Yuksel leaped up out of his chair like a WWF wrestler charging into the ring for his big match. He grabbed a chair and pulled it over next to mine, asked for a bottle of water for the match, and instructed the videographer to widen the shot to include him in the interview. Only it wasn’t an interview. It was a monologue, with Yuksel launching into a mini-history of how he wrote Carl Sagan back in 1992 about the number 19 (he didn’t say if Sagan ever wrote back), how Carl had written about the deep significance of the number π (pi) in his science fiction novel Contact, how he is a philosopher and a college professor who teaches his students how to think critically, and that he is a great admirer of my work. However (you knew this was coming, right?), there is one thing we should not be skeptical about, and that is the remarkable properties of the number 19 and the Quran.

At this point I had a vague flashback memory of the Million Man March in Washington, D.C. and Louis Farrakhan’s musings about the magical properties of the number 19. The transcript from that speech confirmed my memory. Here are a few of the numerological observations by Farrakhan that day in October, 1995:

There, in the middle of this mall is the Washington Monument, 555 feet high. But if we put a one in front of that 555 feet, we get 1555, the year that our first fathers landed on the shores of Jamestown, Virginia as slaves.

In the background is the Jefferson and Lincoln Memorial, each one of these monuments is 19 feet high.

Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth president. Thomas Jefferson, the third president, and 16 and three make 19 again. What is so deep about this number 19? Why are we standing on the Capitol steps today? That number 19—when you have a nine you have a womb that is pregnant. And when you have a one standing by the nine, it means that there’s something secret that has to be unfolded.

I want to take one last look at the word atonement.

The first four letters of the word form the foundation; “a-t-o-n” … “a-ton”, “a-ton”. Since this obelisk in front of us is representative of Egypt. In the 18th dynasty, a Pharaoh named Akhenaton, was the first man of this history period to destroy the pantheon of many gods and bring the people to the worship of one god. And that one god was symboled by a sun disk with 19 rays coming out of that sun with hands holding the Egyptian Ankh – the cross of life. A-ton. The name for the one god in ancient Egypt. A-ton, the one god. 19 rays.

This is a splendid example of what I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise. And Edip Yuksel launched into a nonstop example of patternicity when he pulled out his book entitled Nineteen: God’s Signature in Nature and Scripture (2011, Brainbow Press; see also www.19.org) and began to quote from it. To wit…

  • The number of Arabic letters in the opening statement of the Quran, BiSMi ALLaĤi AL-RaĤMaNi AL-RaĤYM (1:1) 19
  • Every word in Bismillah… is found in the Quran in multiples of 19
  • The frequency of the first word, Name (Ism) 19
  • The frequency of the second word, God (Allah) 19 x 142
  • The frequency of the third word, Gracious (Raĥman) 19 x 3
  • The fourth word, Compassionate (Raĥym) 19 x 6
  • Out of more than hundred attributes of God, only four has numerical values of multiple of 19
  • The number of chapters in the Quran 19 x 6
  • Despite its conspicuous absence from Chapter 9, Bismillah occurs twice in Chapter 27, making its frequency in the Quran 19 x 6
  • Number of chapters from the missing Ch. 9 to the extra in Ch. 27. 19 x 1
  • The total number of all verses in the Quran, including the 112 unnumbered Bismillah 19 x 334
  • Frequency of the letter Q in two chapters it initializes 19 x 6
  • The number of all different numbers mentioned in the Quran 19 x 2
  • The number of all numbers repeated in the Quran 19 x 16
  • The sum of all whole numbers mentioned in the Quran 19 x 8534

This goes on and on for 620 pages which, when divided by the number of chapters in the book (31) equals 20, which is one more than 19; since 1 is the cosmic number for unity, the first nonzero natural number, and according to the rock group Three Dog Night the loneliest number, we subtract 1 from 20 to once again see the power of 19. In fact, 19 is a prime number, it is the atomic number for potassium (flip that “p” to the left and you get a 9), in the Baha’i faith there were 19 disciples of Baha’u’llah and their calendar year consists of 19 months of 19 days each (361 days), and it’s the last year you can be a teenager and the last hole in golf that is actually the clubhouse bar. In point of fact we can find meaningful patterns with almost any number:

  • 99: names of Allah; atomic number for Einsteinium; Agent 99 on TV series Get Smart
  • 40: 40 days and 40 nights of rain; Hebrews lived 40 years in the desert, Muhammad’s age when he received the first revelation from the Archangel Gabriel and the number of days he spent in the desert and days he spent fasting in a cave
  • 23: The 23 enigma: the belief that most incidents and events are directly connected to the number 23
  • 11: sunspot cycle in years, the number of Jesus’s disciples after Judas defected
  • 7: 7 deadly sins and 7 heavenly virtues; Shakespeare’s 7 ages of man, Harry Potter’s most magical number
  • 3: number of dimensions; number of sides of a triangle, the 3 of clubs—the forced pick in one of Penn & Teller’s favorite card tricks
  • 1: unity; the first non-zero natural number, it’s own factorial and it’s own square; the atomic number of hydrogen; the most abundant element in the universe; Three Dog Night’s song about the loneliest number
  • π (pi): a mathematical constant whose value is the ratio of a circle’s circumference to its diameter, or 3.14159…. Make of this what you will, but Carl Sagan did elevate π to significance at the end of Contact:

The universe was made on purpose, the circle said. In whatever galaxy you happen to find yourself, you take the circumference of a circle, divide it by its diameter, measure closely enough, and uncover a miracle—another circle, drawn kilometers downstream of the decimal point. In the fabric of space and in the nature of matter, as in a great work of art, there is, written small, the artist’s signature. Standing over humans, gods, and demons, subsuming Caretakers and Tunnel builders, there is an intelligence that antedates the universe.

At this point in the filming process I interrupted Yuksel and told Shaikhin that the interview was over, that he could use the footage from the first part of the interview but not this monologue mini-lecture that was an undisguised attempt to convince me of the miraculous properties of the number 19. I didn’t sign any waiver or permission to use any of the footage shot that day, but just in case I was relieved when the videographer came to me in private to apologize and explain that she had nothing to do with the rest of the crew, that she was just hired to do the filming, and that after I had put an end to the interview she stopped filming.

At some point I asked Edip why he felt so compelled to convince me of the meaningfulness of the number 19 in the Quran, when I told him that I haven’t read the Quran and hold that all such numerological searches are nothing more than patternicity. The impression I got was that if he could convince a professional skeptic then there must be something to the claim. I asked him what other Islamic scholars who have read the Quran think of his claims for the number 19, and he told me that they consider him a heretic. He said it as a point of pride, as if to say “the fact that the experts denounce me means that I must be on to something.”

P.S. Edip Yuksel did strike me as a likable enough fellow who seemed genuinely passionate about his beliefs, but there was something a bit off about him that I couldn’t quite place until I was escorting him out of the office and he said, “I see you are a very athletic fellow. Can I show you something that I learned in a Turkish prison?” With scenes from Midnight Express flashing through my mind, I muttered “Uhhhhhh… No.”

Patternicity Challenge to Readers

As a test—of sorts—I would like to hereby issue a challenge to all readers to employ their own patternicity skills at finding meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise with such numbers and numerical relationships, both serious and lighthearted, related to the number 19 or any other number that strikes your fancy. Post them here and we shall publish them in a later feature-length article I shall write on this topic.

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Demographics of Belief

The following excerpt is from the Prologue to my new book, The Believing Brain: From Ghosts, Gods, and Aliens to Conspiracies, Economics, and Politics—How the Brain Constructs Beliefs and Reinforces Them as Truths. The Prologue is entitled “I Want to Believe.” The book synthesizes 30 years of research to answer the questions of how and why we believe what we do in all aspects of our lives, from our suspicions and superstitions to our politics, economics, and social beliefs. LEARN MORE about the book.

According to a 2009 Harris Poll of 2,303 adult Americans, when people are asked to “Please indicate for each one if you believe in it, or not,” the following results were revealing:1

  • 82% believe in God
  • 76% believe in miracles
  • 75% believe in Heaven
  • 73% believe in Jesus is God
    or the Son of God
  • 72% believe in angels
  • 71% believe in survival
    of the soul after death
  • 70% believe in the
    resurrection of Jesus Christ
  • 61% believe in hell
  • 61% believe in
    the virgin birth (of Jesus)
  • 60% believe in the devil
  • 45% believe in Darwin’s
    Theory of Evolution
  • 42% believe in ghosts
  • 40% believe in creationism
  • 32% believe in UFOs
  • 26% believe in astrology
  • 23% believe in witches
  • 20% believe in reincarnation

Wow. More people believe in angels and the devil than believe in the theory of evolution. That’s disturbing. And yet, such results should not surprise us as they match similar survey findings for belief in the paranormal conducted over the past several decades.2 And it is not just Americans. The percentages of Canadians and Britons who hold such beliefs are nearly identical to those of Americans.3 For example, a 2006 Readers Digest survey of 1,006 adult Britons reported that 43 percent said that they can read other people’s thoughts or have their thoughts read, more than half said that they have had a dream or premonition of an event that then occurred, more than two-thirds said they could feel when someone was looking at them, 26 percent said they had sensed when a loved-one was ill or in trouble, and 62 percent said that they could tell who was calling before they picked up the phone. In addition, a fifth said they had seen a ghost and nearly a third said they believe that Near-Death Experiences are evidence for an afterlife.4

Although the specific percentages of belief in the supernatural and the paranormal across countries and decades varies slightly, the numbers remain fairly consistent that the majority of people hold some form of paranormal or supernatural belief.5 Alarmed by such figures, and concerned about the dismal state of science education and its role in fostering belief in the paranormal, the National Science Foundation (NSF) conducted its own extensive survey of beliefs in both the paranormal and pseudoscience, concluding with a plausible culprit in the creation of such beliefs:

Belief in pseudoscience, including astrology, extrasensory perception (ESP), and alien abductions, is relatively widespread and growing. For example, in response to the 2001 NSF survey, a sizable minority (41 percent) of the public said that astrology was at least somewhat scientific, and a solid majority (60 percent) agreed with the statement “some people possess psychic powers or ESP.” Gallup polls show substantial gains in almost every category of pseudoscience during the past decade. Such beliefs may sometimes be fueled by the media’s miscommunication of science and the scientific process.6

I too would like to lay the blame at the feet of the media, or science education in general, because the fix then seems straightforward—just improve how we communicate and educate science. But that’s too easy. In any case, the NSF’s own data do not support it. Although belief in ESP decreased from 65% among high school graduates to 60% among college graduates, and belief in magnetic therapy dropped from 71% among high school graduates to 55% among college graduates, that still leaves over half of educated people fully endorsing such claims! And for embracing alternative medicine, the percentages actually increased, from 89% for high school grads to 92% for college grads.

Perhaps a deeper cause may be found in another statistic: 70% of Americans still do not understand the scientific process, defined in the NSF study as grasping probability, the experimental method, and hypothesis testing. So one solution here is teaching how science works in addition to the rote memorization of scientific facts. A 2002 article in Skeptic magazine entitled “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism,” presented the results of a study that found no correlation between science knowledge (facts about the world) and paranormal beliefs. The authors, W. Richard Walker, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl, concluded: “Students that scored well on these [science knowledge] tests were no more or less skeptical of pseudoscientific claims than students that scored very poorly. Apparently, the students were not able to apply their scientific knowledge to evaluate these pseudoscientific claims. We suggest that this inability stems in part from the way that science is traditionally presented to students: Students are taught what to think but not how to think.”7 The scientific method is a teachable concept, as evidenced in the NSF study that found that 53% of Americans with a high level of science education (nine or more high school and college science/math courses) understand the scientific process, compared to 38% with a middle level (six to eight such courses) of science education, and 17% with a low level (less than five such courses) of science education. So maybe the key to attenuating superstition and belief in the supernatural is in teaching how science works, not just what science has discovered. I have believed this myself for my entire career in science and education. If I didn’t believe it I might not have gone into the business of teaching, writing, and editing science in the first place.

Alas, I have come to the conclusion that belief is largely immune to attack by direct educational tools, at least for those who are not ready to hear it. Belief change comes from a combination of personal psychological readiness and a deeper social and cultural shift in the underlying zeitgeist of the times, which is affected in part by education, but is more the product of larger and harder-to-define political, economic, religious, and social changes.

DOWNLOAD my reading of the prologue (48MB MP3)
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References

  1. www.harrisinteractive.com/vault/Harris_Poll_2009_12_15.pdf
  2. www.gallup.com/poll/16915/Three-Four-Americans-Believe-Paranormal.aspx

    Similar percentages of belief were found in this 2005 Gallup Poll:

    Psychic or Spiritual Healing 55%
    Demon possession 42%
    ESP 41%
    Haunted Houses 37%
    Telepathy 31%
    Clairvoyance (know past/predict future) 26%
    Astrology 25%
    Psychics are able to talk to the dead 21%
    Reincarnation 20%
    Channeling spirits from the other side 9%
  3. www.gallup.com/poll/19558/Paranormal-Beliefs-Come-SuperNaturally-Some.aspx
  4. news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/5017910.stm
  5. Gallup News Service. 2001. “Americans’ Belief in Psychic Paranormal Phenomena is up Over Last Decade.” June 8.
  6. National Science Foundation. 2002. Science Indicators Biennial Report. The section on pseudoscience, “Science Fiction and Pseudoscience,” is in Chapter 7. Science and Technology: Public Understanding and Public Attitudes. Go to: www.nsf.gov/sbe/srs/seind02/c7/c7h.htm.
  7. Walker, W. Richard, Steven J. Hoekstra, and Rodney J. Vogl. 2002. “Science Education is No Guarantee of Skepticism.” Skeptic, Vol. 9, No. 3, 24–25.
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The Woo of Creation: My evening with Deepak Chopra

Shermer and Deepak

On Thursday, March 31, Deepak Chopra and I squared off for a second time in person in a public venue, this time accompanied by the physicist Leonard Mlodinow on my side and Stuart Hameroff on his side (along with other panelists). The question on the table was this:

“Is there an Ultimate Reality?” and if yes, “Can it be accounted for by science such as mathematics, biology and physics?”

My answers: YES and YES

I explained that I am a Materialist and a Monist. I do not believe that there is a body and a soul, there is just a body. There is no brain and mind, just brain. The mind is just a word we use to describe what the brain does. I said, “you know I’m right” (which got a surprising laugh from the audience) because of the evidence from strokes, tumors, brain damage, senility, dementia, and Alzheimer’s, all of which kill brain cells, and along with the loss of brain comes the loss of mind. I asked Deepak and Stuart where Aunt Millie’s mind goes when her brain slowly disappears from the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.

I noted that consciousness is just a word we use to describe our inner thoughts about the workings of the brain, and that our “soul” is just a pattern of information stored in our genes and our brains. Consciousness is just an emergent property of integrated brain modules and patterned firing of neural networks.

By contrast, I believe that Deepak’s use of the word “consciousness” is very anthropocentric, once again returning humans to a central place in the cosmos as the “observers” who, in quantum mechanics, brings things into existence. If Deepak is right then the moon doesn’t exist unless it is observed, and yet, quoting that great scientist Bill O’Reilly, “times come in, tides go out—never a missed communication—and they would do so whether or not humans, or any other conscious (or unconscious) being existed.

In fact, I said, Deepak’s quantum consciousness is not holistic but reductionistic in the extreme. We don’t need to go down that far. Quantum mechanics is not needed to explain brain functions: the neuron is the individual unit of thought, the “atom” of mind. I then worked in a little joke I wrote earlier in the day:

Quantum mechanics is spooky and weird.
Consciousness is spooky and weird.
So what? Charlie Sheen is spooky and weird, but we don’t need quantum mechanics to explain his behavior. His “tiger blood” theory works just fine.

Haha.

In Deepak’s worldview, everything is conscious, which means that there is no way to distinguish between consciousness and unconsciousness, which is how I often feel when I listen to Deepak.

Thought Experiment:

  • If humans went extinct instead of Neanderthals, how does that effect the universe?
  • What if the Earth were suddenly demolished by a rogue planet (as in 2012)? Would that mean the end of the universe because observers would disappear?
  • Are whales, dolphins, gorillas and chimps conscious and therefore integral to the universe?
  • What can it possibly mean to say that the universe is conscious? If you will pardon the nerd science pun, that is such a vacuous concept!

Before the debate Deepak asked me to read a paper by himself and Menas Kafatos and Rudolph Tanzi published in the Journal of Cosmology, entitled: “How Consciousness Becomes the Physical Universe.” Deepak asked me to comment on it, which I did in the second half of the debate. I noted that given the prominence of “consciousness” to the central theme of the paper that one might expect it to be defined with semantic precision. Nope. Here is what the authors write:

“We will sidestep any precise definition of consciousness, limiting ourselves for now to willful actions on the part of the observer.”

What can it possibly mean for the universe to be conscious in the sense of having willful actions? The universe behaves with willful action? The universe is an observer? As well, quantum mechanics only requires an observation of any kind: an electron microscope will do. Is an electron microscope willful? Does an electron microscope take action? The authors of this paper write:

Werner Heisenberg concluded that the atom “has no immediate and direct physical properties at all.” If the universe’s basic building block isn’t physical, then the same must hold true in some way for the whole. The universe was doing a vanishing act in Heisenberg’s day, and it certainly hasn’t become more solid since. And Heisenberg again: “The atoms or elementary particles themselves … form a world of potentialities or possibilities rather than one of things or facts.”

No, sorry, these are different levels of analysis. To prove it I challenge Deepak to climb to the top of this building and jump off and see if the ground is a potentiality or a thing! They also write:

Heisenberg: “What we observe is not nature itself, but nature exposed to our method of questioning.” Reality, it seems, shifts according to the observer’s conscious intent.

Once again, NO! This would imply that anyone’s method of questioning is just as valid as anyone else’s, which would mean that the way astrologers question the universe is just as valid as that of astronomers. I concluded by saying that if you want to get a spacecraft to Mars the questions that astronomers ask are absolutely objectively really better than those of astrologers. Q.E.D.!

In Deepak’s rebuttal, in discussing quantum mechanics, he actually used the phrase “the womb of creation.” Nice. It’s that sort of precise language that makes people all gushy and mushy about science. I pressed him for a definition of consciousness, which he gave me as “consciousness is the ground of existence.” I replied that this sounded tautological to me: since reality needs consciousness to come into existence, this means that reality = consciousness = existence; or existence = existence. A is A. Very Aristotelian. But what does that really tell us?

In the end I pressed both Deepak and Stuart Hameroff for an answer as to where Aunt Millie’s mind goes during the ravages of Alzheimer’s disease. Stuart’s answer was so rapid fire and jargon laden (something about the collapse of the wave function inside the microtubules in the neurons inside Aunt Millie’s brain) that I couldn’t quite get an answer, so Deepak clarified it for me later: Aunt Millie’s mind is in the matrix. Okay, I asked, how does poor Aunt Millie access the matrix. “We’re working on that,” was the reply. Okay, fine, and if our memories really are stored somewhere outside of our brains, then that would indeed be one of the greatest discoveries ever made in the history of science: Nobel worthy. But, until that is proven, I remain … skeptical.

Post Script

I am often asked if I believe that Deepak believes what he says, with an underlying assumption behind the question that Deepak is knowingly selling snake oil and doesn’t really believe his public patter. Having gotten to know Deepak over the years I can assure you that he absolutely positively believes what he says, and that while he may make a lot of money in the process of writing books, giving lectures, hosting radio and television shows, and running his various business enterprises (but, hey, that’s not exactly something anathema in America), this fact is quite orthogonal to his deeper mission in life: to shift the Western worldview Eastward.

I had never met Stuart Hameroff before, but I liked him as well, sharing a beer after the debate while watching a Laker game and schmoozing about science. Although I do not accept his theory of consciousness (most neuroscientists are skeptical as well), it would be fun to engage him again in a spirited debate over the brain and the mind.

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Feynman’s Vision

TEDxCaltech Celebrates the Vision of Richard Feynman

screenshot from TEDxCaltech website

On Friday, January 14, 2011, the spirit of TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) was enacted as TEDxCaltech, one of many independent lecture series that have spontaneously emerged from the bottom up by what I call “ideas entrepreneurs,” creative individuals who want to change the world by spreading ideas in the format modeled after the annual event now held in Long Beach (albeit at a fraction of the cost: $85 versus $6000). The theme of TEDxCaltech was “Feynman’s Vision: The Next 50 Years,” celebrating Richard Feynman’s famous 1959 lecture, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom,” which helped launch the field of nanotechnology. As Feynman said, “Our imagination is stretched to the utmost, not, as in fiction, to imagine things which are not really there, but just to comprehend those things which are there.”

Feynman was famous for telling stories, so first up on the morning program was Feynman’s daughter Michelle, who recounted what it was like to hear bedtime stories from her famous father. Michelle then introduced Christopher Sykes, the British documentary film maker who cast Feynman’s stories into filmic narrative in his famous film The Pleasure of Finding Things Out (the phrase inspired by a Feynman quip about why he does science—not to change the world or discover some grand unifying theory of everything, but just for the pleasure of finding things out). Sykes recounted how intimidating it was to initially approach the normally reclusive Feynman with the idea of sitting him down in front of a camera, but Feynman agreed, perhaps because he knew his life was coming to an end because of cancer, or perhaps because Sykes is such a warm and engaging man. Whatever the reason, the world is a better place with Feynman’s voice still engaging us two decades after his death (you can watch excerpts from the film on YouTube).

The talks throughout the day were peppered by video clips of Feynman, plus musical performances inspired by Feynman’s passion for drumming. But the meat of the day was in the lectures by scientists, grad students, and even undergrad students who have carried on Feynman’s vision in various fields. To wit, Curtis Wong, a Principal Researcher in eScience at Microsoft introduced us to WorldWideTelescope.org, “a free interactive storytelling and virtual learning environment providing the highest resolution multispectral imagery of the universe.” It is a 3D tour of the universe, inspired by Feynman’s creative genius in visualizing data in a manner that enhances understanding.

click to enlarge

The afternoon sessions of heavy-duty science and technology talks were broken up with some seriously geeky humor when Caltech cosmologists Kip Thorne (whom I posed with in the picture) and John Preskill played a science-geek version of Who Wants to be a Millionaire, complete with the music, rotating spot lights between questions, and slides projecting the question and four-answer options on the screen. Since TEDxCaltech was a tribute to Feynman, all questions pertained to things that Feynman said or did, so of course the correct answer to every question was “Richard Feynman.” Nevertheless, Thorne and Preskill could not seem to agree on an answer so they had to use their three lifelines: 50/50, poll-the-audience, and phone-a-friend. The first question was:

“Who said ‘If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.’?”

Answer choices:

  • George W. Bush
  • Lady Gaga
  • Albert Einstein
  • Richard Feynman

For this question Thorne and Preskill used their 50/50 lifeline and narrowed it down to Einstein or Feynman, and they correctly guess the latter because the former never fully accepted quantum mechanics, much less understood it.

The next two questions went the same way, forcing Thorne and Preskill to poll the audience (we got it right: “Richard Feynman”) and, finally, to phone-a-friend. For the latter, Thorne and Preskill deduced that the answer was either Stephen Hawking or Richard Feynman, so they chose to phone no less an expert than Stephen Hawking, who not only answered his phone, but when Thorne asked him to please come to Caltech to answer the question, there he was, wheeling down the aisle of Beckman Auditorium at Caltech and up onto the stage, where he promptly answered, “Richard Feynman. That’s my final answer.”

photo

click to enlarge

photo

The day wrapped up with speakers discussing Feynman diagrams, the squiggly lines that help particle physicists visualize what interacting subatomic particles are doing when they collide in atom smashers. Even though Feynman diagrams are so useful that they appear on blackboards in physics departments around the world—and even on the side of Feynman’s van—additional discussions noted how difficult it is to actually compute mathematically what is really happened in even the simplest of particle interactions depicted in such diagrams. Nonetheless, Feynman’s vision, and his legacy lives on.

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Murder, Mass Die Offs, and the Meaning of Randomness

The following is an op-ed originally published in the Los Angeles Times, Tuesday January 11, 2011 (under a different title and slightly shorter).

The media once again scrambled this past week to find the deep underlying causes of shocking events. We saw it in the rush to explain the tragic murder of six people in a shopping center in Tucson. And we saw it in the rush of stories about mass die offs of birds and fish around the country.

In the case of the shooting of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords at a shopping center in Tucson, attention has turned to the motives of the shooter, 22-year old Jared Loughner, whose political ramblings about returning to the gold standard and about excessive control by the government have sent the media searching for answers in the vitriol of right-wing talk radio, the rhetoric of the Tea Party movement, and the bellicose divide between Democrats and Republicans in Congress and elsewhere.

The mass die offs of fish and birds has spurred a number of deep causal theories, including suggestions that the apocalypse is near and that secret government experiments were to blame, such as HAARP, the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program in Alaska that studies the ionosophere that is run by DARPA, the government’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, which admittedly does sound like something concocted by the writers for the television series X-Files.

We live in a causal universe, so all effects do have causes, but before we turn to grand overarching causal theories such as political rhetoric or government experiments, we must always remember the clustering effect of randomness and how our brains tend to look for and find deeper meaningful patterns even where none exist. Toss a handful of pennies into the air and you will notice that they do not land randomly on the ground. They cluster into apparently nonrandom patterns in which some are closer and others are farther apart. There is nothing inherently hidden in such a clustering effect—no concealed forces under the ground causes the pennies to fall as they do. It’s just chance. But our brains abhor randomness and always seek meaning.

The National Institutes of Mental Health estimates that about 1% of the population suffers from schizophrenia, and that more than 25% of us have some kind of diagnosable mental disorder. As well, psychologists estimate that 1–3 percent of the U.S. population suffers from psychopathy, or the inability to feel empathy and an almost complete lack of moral conduct. Using the conservative figure of 1% and a U.S. population of 300 million people, this means that some 3 million people with either psychosis or psychopathy are walking among us, as well as tens of millions more whose mental health is askew in some way. And many of those who need it aren’t receiving treatment. Given these statistics, events such as the shooting in Tucson are bound to happen, no matter how nicely politicians talk to one another on the campaign trail or in Congress, no matter how extreme Tea Party slogans are about killing government programs, and no matter how stiff or loose gun controls laws are in this or that state. By chance—and nothing more—there will always be people such as Jared Loughner who do the unthinkable.

According to Audubon Society biologist Melanie Driscoll, about 5 billion birds die each year in the United States from a variety of causes. Because of the clustering effect of randomness it is inevitable that some of those billions of birds will die in apparent nonrandom clusters. The 5,000 red-winged blackbirds that died in Arkansas, for example, looks like an ominous cluster when scattered about the ground, but there are over 200 million red-winged blackbirds in the U.S., and according to Driscoll they fly in flocks of 100,000 to 2 million. Although 5,000 birds falling dead out of the sky sounds positively apocalyptic, it represents a scant 0.0025% of the total population.

Of course there are specific causes for specific events. We will, in time, learn of the particular personal and social conditions behind Jared Loughner’s heinous act. And biologists are already identifying the causes of each fish and bird die off. The Arkansas blackbirds, for example, died during a New Year’s eve fireworks display, which may have been a contributing factor. Biologist Driscoll notes that “they cannot see well in the dark and we know they were seen crashing into buildings and cars and poles. Necropsies show blunt force trauma to brain and breast.” Others died near power lines that are thin and hard to see at night. The American Bird Conservancy notes that of the 5 billion annual bird deaths, about 1 billion birds are killed each year in collisions with buildings, communication towers, windmills, and other human-made structures. We just never hear about them unless such deaths happen in clusters and are reported in the media, thereby triggering a type of mass hysteria that leads to conspiratorial thinking and what I call patternicity: the tendency to find meaningful patterns in both meaningful and meaningless noise.

Patternicity is what our brains do. We can’t help it. We see those clusters of events and naturally seek out deep causal meaning in some grand overarching theory. But as often as not events in life turn on chance, randomness, and statistical probabilities that are largely beyond our control. So calls for “an end to all overt and implied appeals to violence in American politics”—such as that just issued by MoveOn.org—may make us feel better but they will do nothing to alter the inevitability of such one-off events in the future.

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