Image 01

An Invisible Man, Two Visible Heads and The Future

October 14th, 2010 by Jessika

Physicist Stephen Hawking experiences zero gravity. (Photo Courtesy NASA)

As usual, my readings for this week bounced around from topic to topic. I learned about an icon, entered the mind of a fascinating couple, and explored the future. I have been inspired on so many levels.

Here’s why.

An Invisible Man

Before I read the “Return of the Invisible Man” by Tim Folger, I didn’t know much about Stephen Hawking. I did know that he sat in a motorized wheelchair and spoke through a computer-like device, making him sound like a robot. He had done some sort of scientific  work that made people talk about him sort of like an icon. But beyond that I knew nothing.

I had no idea he studied black holes and the universe. I had no idea he couldn’t walk or speak on his own because he has amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, a muscular disease that usually caused death within five years of diagnosis.

After reading Folger’s piece, I am nowhere near an expert on Hawking or his work. But I can at least say that I know quite a bit more about him.

One of the first things that struck me about this article was how much others idolize Hawking for a book he wrote 20 some odd years ago. He still draws thousands of people to speaking engagements and commands a sense of awe when people see him. I do wonder, though, if people look at him in awe because of his genius or his disease. The author also mentions this possibility.

“His paradox, then,” writes Folger, “is that much of the public’s fascination with his science seems to rest squarely on the nonscientific aspects of who he is.”

Regardless of whether or not Stephen Hawking’s acclaim comes from his disease or not, his ideas, at least in A Brief History of Time, are revolutionary. With that book, he turned physics on its head by proposing that the  universe had once been a singular concentrated point, and you can’t go beyond that point indefinitely. No one had applied Einstein’s general relativity law to the universe. Hawking also said that black holes emit radiation, an idea contrary to what other physicists believed, and at some point black holes will disappear because the gravitational energy in a black hole eventually splits into particles and shrinks.

Unfortunately, though, some of Hawking’s theories have gone unconfirmed by other scientists. For example, no one has seen a black hole vanish, and even Hawking doubts that physicists will see this with new technology.

So, then if Hawking’s theories never prove true, does that mean Hawking is any less important to physics? No. Like it or not his disease has made people fascinated with him. But it doesn’t matter if they are interested in his ideas or the fact that he sounds like a machine when he talks. Either way, their fascination exposes them to a world, or perhaps more appropriately a universe, that they probably wouldn’t have found otherwise: physics. This article made me want to know more about his universe, and I have never even really liked physics.

Two Visible Heads

Pat and Paul Churchland share a lot. They have two children, work at the University of California, San Diego, teach and study philosophy, and love studying the mind.

“They have shaped each other,” wrote Larissa MacFarquhar in”Two Minds,” “so profoundly and their ideas are so intertwined that it is impossible, even for them, to say where one ends and the other begins.”

In MacFarquhar’s piece, her best illustration of this is when she shows them completing each other’s thoughts and sentences. The dialogue between Pat and Paul in the piece does make it hard to tell them apart. While this does illustrate the author’s point, it does make it a little confusing while reading. I wasn’t sure who was talking all the time.

Other than that, though, the author did a great job showing who the Churchlands are. I liked how MacFarquhar moved between past and present. She did break the past and present up into distinct sections at times. For example, when she began talking about Pat’s childhood, there is an intentional break from the section above it. (This could have been an editorial break, though.)

The Churchland’s philosophical theories are fascinating. They have found a way to marry philosophy and science, much to the chagrin of many philosophers. Paul argues that we shouldn’t assume our psychological notions are any more accurate than our uninformed notions. This has tremendous implications. What would happen if our psychological theories turned out to be incorrect? Pat spent a great deal of time studying how the brain worked. But many philosophers thought this was a waste of time. Philosophers also were opposed to the idea that the mind and the brain are connected, preferring instead to treat them as distinct entities.

The most interesting idea presented by the Churchlands, though, is not part of their formal research. It is one of speculation.  They think that parts of today’s language will be replaced by scientific words. One day, they think that you will come home from work angry and tell your friend not that you’re mad but that your adrenaline levels are high and your serotonin levels are low. While maybe one day people will use scientific words to identify everyday things, that seems like a long way off. I would even say it’s a little boring. Part of the fun of language is the metaphors. I would rather say my blood is boiling than my adrenaline levels are high. It’s much more interesting. Though, it is much less accurate I suppose.

MacFarquhar asked an interesting questions at the end. “If, someday, two brains could be joined, what would be the result?” Would the brains merge into a super brain? Or would they fight each other for dominance? Who knows. But I would like to think that it would be like Pat and Paul, blurring the line from one to the other.

The Future

In “Ten Weeks to Save the World” Nicola Jones takes us to a very interesting place. Roughly 80 students from around the world spend 10 weeks of their summer in California at the NASA Ames Research Center. But they aren’t there to learn about space exploration. They are there to learn about business, entrepreneurship, technology, science, and computers, to name a few.

Singularity University offers students the chance to take an intensive, crash course in a spectrum of subjects. That new knowledge is then applied to real life problems. The founders of the university hope that this program will give students the tools to change our world, making the future a better place.

My first thought when I read this piece was that I want to go. My second thought was that there is no way I could afford it. (The course costs $25,000.) Students get to learn from cutting edge researchers and go on exciting field trips. This is an incredible opportunity. At the same time, though, can a 10-week program really teach someone to save the world? I have my doubts.

Researchers are working on technologies that could very well change the world.

Lloyd Smith, for example, is studying (and creating) DNA spiders. These spiders are nanorobots that are programmed to walk on DNA matrices and change the DNA. While the technology is still in its infancy it is beyond fascinating. “DNA on the Move” by Gwyneth Dickey provides a great overview of these spiders. If the technology advances, though, we could one day have hundreds of these spiders injected into us programmed to find damaged cells and correct their DNA.

Maybe one day a student from Singularity University will help propel Smith’s technology to the next level. Maybe one of those students will be injecting us with a better future. I would love to be that student.

Leave a Reply