Comments on a cultural reality between past and future.

This blog describes Metatime in the Posthuman experience, drawn from Sir Isaac Newton's secret work on the future end of times, a tract in which he described Histories of Things to Come. His hidden papers on the occult were auctioned to two private buyers in 1936 at Sotheby's, but were not available for public research until the 1990s.

Friday, February 26, 2016

Awaken the Amnesiacs 4: The New Millennium's Gothic Moment

BBC Four's show, The Art of Gothic: Britain's Midnight Hour (6 November 2014) explained how the 18th and 19th century explosion of science and industry inspired a Gothic counter-movement, a critical moral debate on the implications of unbridled rationalism. The BBC show highlighted the English painting, An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump (1768) by Joseph Wright of Derby (1734-1797), which portrayed the Gothic fear of scientists' experiments. Rationalists' destruction of spiritual concerns created horror. In the painting, the scientist is slowly pumping air out of a bell jar, in which a bird (symbolizing the Holy Spirit) is trapped. The scientist is suffocating the bird to demonstrate its dependence on oxygen. Image Source: Wiki.

The Awaken the Amnesiacs series on this blog explains why and how the human interaction with high technology is taking on spiritual dimensions. In today's post, I discuss the Gothic moment at which undue rationalism carries within itself the seeds of its own undoing. The rational, when overindulged, becomes anti-rational.

Any undertaking, done in the name of 'cutting edge change' will involve a confident, progressive agent. It is easy to criticize our forebears for their blind spots, and more difficult to see our own. In an earlier post, The Night of First Ages, I quoted an adaptation of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness (1899) in the 2005 King Kong screenplay. The characters in King Kong are on a voyage to make a movie on a remote island. On the way, Jimmy, the ship's boy, reads Heart of Darkness, narrated by Conrad's protagonist, Charles Marlow. Marlow is on a journey to find an ivory trader, Kurtz, on the Congo River. Jimmy asks: "Why does Marlow keep going up the river? Why doesn't he turn back?"

The Heart of Darkness scene from King Kong (2005) © Universal Pictures depicts the wall between ego and id, or between the conscious-rational and unconscious-anti-rational parts of the human mind. Reproduced under Fair Use. Video Source: Youtube.

The ship's first mate remarks that Marlow keeps searching for Kurtz, without realizing how deep he is getting into the dark side of human nature, because Marlow believes he is civilized. 'Civilized' characters like Marlow and Kurtz are amnesiacs, who think their own savagery is no longer a threat, something from a long lost, bygone era of sticks and stones. In their hubris, they unconsciously become more savage as they push forward as self-appointed bearers of 'progress': "We could not understand because we were too far ... and could not remember ... because we were traveling in the night of first ages ... of those ages that are gone ... leaving hardly a sign, and no memories. We are accustomed to look ... upon the shackled form of a conquered monster ... but there ... there you could look at a thing monstrous and free."

Jimmy realizes, "It's not an adventure story ... is it Mr. Hayes?" To which the first mate responds, "No Jimmy, it's not." The nested novel-to-movie-to-film metafiction in King Kong should be a message to its audience; as is the metahistorical fact that Heart of Darkness was based on a true story and the character Kurtz was based on a real person. The metafiction and metahistory of Heart of Darkness, embedded inside King Kong, reveal our amnesia. In blindly pursuing the singularity, why don't we turn back? Why don't we see that the history of the new Millennium is not an adventure story? It is because we expect the monster inside ourselves to be shackled. On the Internet and in research labs, the monster is not shackled.

Scientists and technologists have reached a Gothic moment because there is a gap between their practice and the way they are perceived in mass media as progressive actors. When they work with the scientific method, they live with uncertainty. They test hypotheses which, if proven, are accepted until falsified or refined. At the same time, we live in a period when a cult of secular rationalism has supplanted mass religions to furnish the prevailing story of global civilization. Scientific method and rationality are equated with humanism, enlightenment, advanced education, and hyper-progress. Scientists and technologists occupy exalted social positions as perceived experts. In this capacity, they are less cautious. They are little aware that when they become public gurus or market their findings with mythical labels, they tap into that part of secular rationalism that functions like a religion, rather than a considered quantification of reality.

Despite recent triumphs and headlines, there are signs of amnesia among today's scientists, technologists, and technophiles. They press ahead as experts and progressive actors, even when their impact on society starts to become surreal, or when their followers become cultish. They do not stop to reconsider their position, even when, as I put it in this post, "a nearly-unstoppable faith in, and optimism about, rampant technology" gives rise to "a heart-tearing soul-sickness which emerges from that intermingling of the virtual and the real."

Scientists are frank about how much they do not and cannot know. The Guardian: "It is perhaps a sign of the health of modern science that the harbingers of so much doubt have met with such acclaim." The current situation is serious: physicists have reached the analytical limits of scientific inquiry for two reasons. They discovered that they can only observe and measure the tiny part of the universe which absorbs light radiation. When they do measure that tiny portion, they have confirmed that they change it at the sub-atomic level. We can only see a tiny portion of reality, and we change that reality when we look at it. Together, these issues trap us in a self-referential bubble of perception.

When physicists determined that 96 per cent of the universe is unobservable and exists in the forms of dark matter and dark energy, scientists at CERN and other labs set out to breach those limits. Particle physicists, who deal with measurable knowns, stand at the edge of the methodological line, with a high point being their 4 July 2012 discovery of the Higgs Boson or 'God particle.' In 2012, Russia Today interviewed Aleksey Filippenko, an astrophysicist and Professor of Astronomy at the University of California, Berkeley, who admitted that the 'God particle' raised more questions than answers:
"Let me start by saying that I am going to discuss the universe only from the perspective of a scientist, from an intellectual perspective. I am not going to be talking about whether there is spiritual God or a personal God or a purpose to the universe – these are questions that scientists can’t address. My own belief is that once you have the laws of physics the universe just keeps going on its own. And it could even be that the laws of physics are all that you need in order to get the universe to start from the very beginning – the “Big Bang”. ...

The Higgs boson helps to complete what is called the Standard Model of particle physics. There is a way we have to try to understand – electrons and quarks and neutrino and other kinds of particles. And Higgs boson was kind of a missing piece of the puzzle. Which, if it were not there, would mean that we would have to kind of start over. But the fact that it appears to have been found completes our picture of the Standard Model of particle physics. That is not to say that we understand everything. We don’t yet understand how gravity fits in with particle physics. Other than the fact that gravity pulls particles together. We also do not understand things like dark energy. The universe seems to be filled with a dark energy that is expanding the universe faster and faster – I helped to discover that. And the 2011 Nobel Prize in physics was given to the team leaders last year for that discovery.

So, we don’t understand the dark energy. There is also something called dark matter. It may or may not be some kind of fundamental particles that could be part of the Standard Model – we don’t yet understand. The Higgs boson is a very important discovery. But it does not solve all the questions that remain in physics. But it is a very important discovery. In a sense, it would have been more exciting as a scientist to me if it were not there because it would mean that we were not correct in our view of the universe. The surprises are more fun than the expected discoveries. ...

I don’t think scientists will ever truly understand creation because I don’t think we will know where the laws of physics came from. But given a universe, given a universe can arise I think some day we may well understand dark energy and dark matter and the other constituents of the universe. We only discovered dark energy 14 years ago – the accelerating expansion of the universe. So it is no surprise that we don’t yet fully understand dark energy. Dark matter was only conceived a few decades ago. So again, we don’t yet fully know what dark matter is. But we have not been investigating it for very long. I mean, in hundreds of years who knows what we will know. We might have a full inventory of what is in the universe and how everything behaves. So we will know a lot. But we won’t quite know why it all happened and why there is something other than nothing.

Why are there any mathematical laws of physics rather than just nothing at all? I don’t know whether we will ever understand that. Scientists are only well-aware of 4 per cent of the universe – that is, we understand pretty well the nature of 4 per cent of the universe. The stuff that is made of atoms. Ninety-six per cent of the universe is made out of dark matter and dark energy. And although we know they are present we don’t know what their detailed properties are or why they are there. Or what exactly is going on."
On the other side of the line stand theoretical physicists, who deal with unmeasurable unknowns using mathematics. Astrophysicists stand, somewhat unhappily, on both sides of the line. A 2011 book by Richard Panek, The 4 Per Cent Universe, emphasized that scientific measurements begin to break down at dark energy and dark matter. The conventional wisdom is that as discoveries, knowledge, and tools improve, the scientific method will expand and continue. But this underestimates the problem of scientific methodological analyses - and for researchers in all disciplines who use them. It is not just a question of having insufficient tools to measure and quantify reality. It is a question of not being able to comprehend the findings. The Smithsonian: "'We have a complete inventory of the universe,' Sean Carroll, a California Institute of Technology cosmologist, has said, 'and it makes no sense.'"

Apollo 18 (2011) faux found footage movie explained why 'we've never gone back to the moon.' The film was a huge box office hit. The real reasons for canceled Apollo missions were political, technical and funding challenges. Image Source: Movie Blogger.

Just as physicists hit a wall, big science stumbled elsewhere as well. In one generation, the space age promised and failed to produce space station cities, moon pod villages, and colonists on Mars. Lunar settlements remain technical concepts, and China's 2013 landerYutu, made the first soft landing on the moon since 1976. On the Internet, lunar exploration has become the dismal stuff of conspiracy theory and cinematic legend. Nor did the atomic age solve the energy crisis, or bring us cold fusion. Instead, it vomited up the radioactive fallout of nuclear disasters and inexplicable dark matter. Geneticists were supposed to cure cancer and the common cold, not produce human-animal hybrid chimeras which scare the public. These generalizations do not account for the realities of research and funding; but they explain why mass sympathy and confidence in big science waned over the past generation.

Another day at Boston Dynamics. Image Source: RAND Corporation.

Where big science stumbled, big tech was supposed to bail us out. In the public mind, if not in reality, the torch passed in the 1990s from big science to big technology. Over the past fifteen years, interest shifted from space exploration and cosmology - to computers, gadgets and the Internet. Technologists promised transhumanism, posthumanism, artificial intelligence, and the Singularity. This was why 'singularity' became the evangelical buzzword of technophiles between 2003 and 2012, and remains fashionable with its own cluster of personalities. Silicon Valley became one of the most powerful places on earth. High tech would launch us exponentially toward a gnostic, mind-opening, theophanic moment of transcendence.

Enter the computer programmers, designers and engineers. We would remake ourselves on the clock, rework our societies and the whole world, and finally efficiently manage resources. The Internet, conceived by the scientists at CERN, was rationalistic in its construction. Unfortunately, it is anti-rational in its execution; it exploits users' unconscious impulses and forms a giant collective mind. We did not get a robot-supported Valhalla. Instead, we got 9-million-hit Roomba cat videos, cyber-bullies, social-media-supported home invasions, remote-controlled brain-to-brain interfaces, and Boston Dynamics cheerfully preparing its Second Variety military hardware for World War III. The technological revolution began to give way to the surveillance revolution.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Science and Tech: Headlines and History in February 2016

The world's first flexible smartphone lets you hold and use your mobile phone like an old-fashioned book. Gif source: Engadget.

Recent scientific and high tech headlines struck a positive note, with some discordant undertones. Several cutting-edge experiments create synthetic or mechanical versions of what we already have in organic form, revealing the underlying meta-mentality of researchers. The European Commission's Digital Single Market announced the arrival of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' in late January, 2016. In early February, there was a discussion at Quora about converting energy into matter: E=mc2 says energy and mass are interchangeable. Are energy and matter states of a same thing? Is matter a rigid form of energy? Great discoveries, such as the possible cure for blindness this week, are beneficial; yet that same desire to overcome physical debilitation, limitations and illnesses becomes problematic in other examples, as when parents assert the right to edit their children's genes.

The flood of news in such a short amount of time reveals vast resources diverted to these spheres, with very little to no resources comparatively devoted to putting this work into human perspective. The headlines show how difficult it is to keep track of the explosion of innovations on an ongoing basis; and they reveal how necessary it is to do so (hat tips: Engadget, ErekAlert, Graham Hancock):
  • Quartz (3 February 2016): Germany is getting closer to nuclear fusion—the long-held dream of unlimited clean energy
  • BBC (11 February 2016): Einstein's gravitational waves 'seen' from black holes
  • BBC (11 February 2016): Why you really should get excited about gravitational waves
  • Engadget (12 February 2016): Watch DARPA's tiny drone do 45 MPH indoors, autonomously ... and then crash into countless expensive pieces
  • Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health (12 February 2016): Researchers Create ‘Mini-Brains’ in Lab To Study Neurological Diseases
  • Independent (13 February 2016): Chinese nuclear fusion scientists achieve temperatures three times hotter than the sun The temperatures were roughly equal to a 'mid-sized thermo-nuclear explosion'
  • Guardian (14 February 2016): Race is on for next breakthrough as physicists target dark matter: Scientists from South Dakota to Australia seek material believed to make up quarter of universe as researchers in China investigate another mystery particle
  • University College London / EurekAlert (15 February 2016): Virtual reality therapy could help people with depression: "Patients in the study wore a virtual reality headset to see from the perspective of a life-size 'avatar' or virtual body. Seeing this virtual body in a mirror moving in the same way as their own body typically produces the illusion that this is their own body. This is called 'embodiment'. While embodied in an adult avatar, participants were trained to express compassion towards a distressed virtual child. As they talked to the child it appeared to gradually stop crying and respond positively to the compassion. After a few minutes the patients were embodied in the virtual child and saw the adult avatar deliver their own compassionate words and gestures to them. ... 'People who struggle with anxiety and depression can be excessively self-critical when things go wrong in their lives,' explains study lead Professor Chris Brewin (UCL Clinical, Educational & Health Psychology). 'In this study, by comforting the child and then hearing their own words back, patients are indirectly giving themselves compassion.'"
  • Engadget (15 February 2016): Johns Hopkins grows tiny brains in petri dishes for lab testing: "Most new drugs tested on mice don't work on humans, because we're 'not 150-pound rats,' says Johns Hopkins' Bloomberg School's Dr. Thomas Hartung. He and his team believe the 'mini-brains' they've designed and grown in the lab are better test subjects for drug development, since they're derived from human cells. These mini-brains are truly tiny at 350 micrometers in diameter, or about the size of a housefly."
  • PhysOrg (15 February 2016): No more keys or cards? Technology goes under the skin
  • Guardian (15 February 2016): Cancer researchers claim 'extraordinary results' using T-cell therapy ‘This is unprecedented’ says researcher after more than half of terminally ill blood cancer patients experienced complete remission in early clinical trials
  • Guardian (16 February 2016): WHO paves way for use of genetically modified mosquitoes to combat Zika: Consequences of Zika outbreaks could be ‘staggering’ says WHO as it advocates further trials and assessments for controversial mosquito control techniques
  • Ars Technica (16 February 2016): The NSA’s SKYNET program may be killing thousands of innocent people: "Ridiculously optimistic" machine learning algorithm is "completely bullshit," says expert: "Last year, The Intercept published documents detailing the NSA's SKYNET programme. According to the documents, SKYNET engages in mass surveillance of Pakistan's mobile phone network, and then uses a machine learning algorithm on the cellular network metadata of 55 million people to try and rate each person's likelihood of being a terrorist."
  • Engadget (16 February 2016): Doctors reveal they can 3D print body parts and tissue
  • Sky News (16 February 2016): 'Extraordinary' Cancer Breakthrough Revealed: Terminally ill patients are left symptom free after treatment with modified cells - described as a "potential paradigm shift"
  • Discovery News (16 February 2016): Hawking: Gravitational Waves Could Revolutionize Astronomy
  • Engadget (17 February 2016): Flexible smartphones may be coming sooner than you think
  • EurekAlert (17 February 2016): DNA evidence shows that salmon hatcheries cause substantial, rapid genetic changes
  • EurekAlert (17 Feburary 2016): New predictor of cancer: When your biological age is older than your chronological age, the risk of getting and dying of cancer rises
  • EurekAlert (17 February 2016): Progress toward an HIV cure highlighted in special issue of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses
  • Yahoo (17 February 2016): The Hubble Space Telescope Just Snapped Photos of the Biggest Black Hole We've Ever Observed: "So how big is it, exactly? Well, according to our best estimates, the supermassive black hole is roughly 21 billion times the size of the Sun, and its event horizon (an area so dense and powerful that light can’t escape its gravity) measures 130 billion kilometers in diameter. That’s about 15 times the diameter of Neptune’s orbit around the Sun, according to scientists at the Hubble Space Telescope."
  • PhysOrg (18 February 2016): Five-dimensional black hole could 'break' general relativity: "Ring-shaped black holes were 'discovered' by theoretical physicists in 2002, but this is the first time that their dynamics have been successfully simulated using supercomputers. Should this type of black hole form, it would lead to the appearance of a 'naked singularity', which would cause the equations behind general relativity to break down. The results are published in the journal Physical Review Letters."
  • Guardian (18 February 2016): Robots could learn human values by reading stories, research suggests. Scientists have been running tests where artificial intelligences cultivate appropriate social behaviour by responding to simple narratives
  • Baltimore Sun (18 February 2016): Woman's blindness apparently reversed by stem cell treatment
  • Economist (20 February 2016): Wireless: the next generation. A new wave of mobile technology is on its way, and will bring drastic change
  • Daily Mail (20 February 2016): Earth really IS special: None of the 700 million trillion planets in our known universe are similar to our own, study finds
  • HuffPo (20 February 2016): Lost Tapes Reveal Apollo Astronauts Heard Unexplained ‘Music’ On Far Side Of The Moon. "If you’re behind the moon and hear some weird noise on your radio, and you know you’re blocked from the Earth, then what could you possibly think?"
  • Science Alert (22 February 2016): NASA researchers are working on a laser propulsion system that could get to Mars in 3 days. "There is no known reason why we cannot do this."
  • Wired (22 February 2016): Nasa's laser-powered engine could get us to Mars in 72 hours (if it works)
  • Reuters (22 February 2016): Brazil to fight Zika by sterilizing mosquitoes with gamma rays
  • Science Daily (22 February 2016): Bat 'super immunity' could help protect people
  • PhysOrg (22 February 2016): Study shows plants appear able to forget memories when they are not useful
  • Science Alert (23 February 2016): NASA has been inundated with a record number of astronaut applications. Real-life space cadets
  • Space.com (23 February 2016): Plans Being Devised for Human Outpost Near the Moon
  • Discovery News (23 February 2016): Self-Driving Flying Car to Take Off in Two Years
  • Nature (23 February 2016): Should you edit your children’s genes?
  • ErekAlert (23 February 2016): DNA 'Trojan horse' smuggles drugs into resistant cancer cells
  • ABC News (23 February 2016): Vaccinating wildlife with GM viruses could stop diseases jumping to humans, scientists suggest
  • Engadget (23 February 2016): Boston Dynamics presents the 'next generation' Atlas robot. Google's humanoid robot-builders have created a version that's smaller, lighter and more agile
The confirmed discovery of gravitational waves (11 February 2016), when two American research institutes recorded the merging of two black holes a billion years ago, has huge implications. Image Source: BBC via Twitter.

A 3D printed, human-size ear (16 February 2016). Image Source: Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine / Engadget.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Fifth Dimensional Memory and the Fortress of Solitude

Image Source: engadget.

In the quest to store information permanently, the University of Southampton has developed a memory chip so durable that it will last until after our sun burns out:
Using nanostructured glass, scientists from the University’s Optoelectronics Research Centre (ORC) have developed the recording and retrieval processes of five dimensional (5D) digital data by femtosecond laser writing. ...

Coined as the ‘Superman memory crystal’, as the glass memory has been compared to the “memory crystals” used in the Superman films, the data is recorded via self-assembled nanostructures created in fused quartz. The information encoding is realised in five dimensions: the size and orientation in addition to the three dimensional position of these nanostructures.

Professor Peter Kazansky, from the ORC, says: “It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations. This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilisation: all we’ve learnt will not be forgotten.”

The researchers will present their research at the photonics industry's renowned SPIE Photonics West—The International Society for Optical Engineering Conference in San Francisco, USA this week. The invited paper, ‘5D Data Storage by Ultrafast Laser Writing in Glass’ will be presented on Wednesday 17 February [2016]. The team are now looking for industry partners to further develop and commercialise this ground-breaking new technology. Contact Professor Peter Kazansky to find out more. Learn more about the SPIE Photonics West conference and exhibition. Read about the special legacy gift presentation made to UNESCO in celebration of the IYL2015 [International Year of Light and Light-Based Technologies 2015].
In a related report from 17 February 2016, Engadget revealed Southampton's curious mixed impulse toward the ultra-new and ever-permanent:
Researchers at the University of Southampton's Optical Research Center announced on Tuesday that they've perfected a technique that can record data in 5 dimensions and keep it safe for billions of years. The method etches data into a thermally stable disc using femtosecond laser bursts. The storage medium itself holds up to 360 TB per disc, can withstand temperatures up to 1000 degrees C and are estimated to last up to 13.8 billion years at room temperature without degrading.

Each file is comprised of three layers of nanoscale dots. The dots' side and orientations, as well as their position within the three standard dimensions, constitute its five dimensions. These dots change the polarization of light travelling through the disc which is read using a microscope and polarizer.

... In the three years since their first demonstration, they've ... recorded the entirety of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), Newton's Opticks, Magna Carta and Kings James Bible.

"It is thrilling to think that we have created the technology to preserve documents and information and store it in space for future generations," Professor Peter Kazansky from the ORC said in a statement. "This technology can secure the last evidence of our civilisation: all we've learnt will not be forgotten."
To make their research accessible to the public, scientists exploit popular culture and so must not complain when the masses comprehend science with pseudoscientific labels and mystical weirdness. Tagging this memory chip with fifth dimensional capabilities shows the University of Southampton's media-savvy, and they have asked us to respond with one big "quantum wow." Anything in '5D' is incredibly popular right now; it is a pseudoscientific catch phrase, like 2016's anti-ageing creams, which claim to work by altering your DNA. Invoking the fifth dimension in a press release alludes to a gnostic vault up to a supra-spiritual existence. 5D is a loosely-grasped point of perspective, above regular three-dimensional reality and the fourth dimension of spacetime. I have previously alluded to 5D concepts herehere, here and here.

Superman in his polar citadel, the Fortress of Solitude, stocked with memory crystals. Image Source: Superman Homepage.

Southampton's optics researchers do not show much interest in the deeper meaning of durable memory, of what it means to preserve knowledge until after our sun burns out. If they knew anything about the Superman story, they would understand that crystallized memory implies a push beyond the normal human capacity to remember, toward the alienated superhuman, into the moral and physical challenges of permanent isolation.