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Friday, August 22, 2003

Pity About His Sentence Construction

In the mailbox today: "I can say quite readily that I do like his hat..................I had to go check and make sure mine was still on the rack.... those sly Spanish based economists....He writes very well (though he needs for his wife to edit his sentence construction, I think.)" The remarks come from a fellow hat-wearer in Austin Texas, forwarded to me by the wise and wonderful Ed Buffaloe. BTW, if you're the curious kind, you can check out Ed's hat here . We could run a competition to see which of them Wim Duisenberg should be constrained to eat! Meanwhile in self-defence of my sentences, part of the problem I'm sure is being in the habit of thinking in too many languages at the same time (the other part being the disorderly way I think - or my 'unruly' mind) . This is not some sophistocated form of one-upmanship, its a real problem. In any given moment I can have any one of the three languages in regular use in this household (English, Spanish, Catalan) circulating through my cerebral pipework. This means that even though the end product is in English (or at least what I claim to be English) the intermediaries may not have been. Result : something feels not quite right. The worst thing of all is that I can no longer spot when things are going wrong. Incidentally my brother has exactly the same problem with German. He 'dropped out' of a magnificent banking career some 15 years ago to dedicate his life to art. Initially he went to live in Leipzig, just before the wall came down, not I may add to familiarise himself with the more intimate details of authoritarian regimes, but because Leipzig was the home of JS Bach, and the whole area is a repository of some extremely fine examples of German Baroque - not to mention the nearby Weimar, home at one time or another to Goethe, Liszt and Schiller. They also had a very acceptable and very cheap opera house in Leipzig at the time. Anyway, since those early days he has had a certain success, in particular with poetry, in German. But English publishers just don't seem interested in his prose: one of the reasons (and now we finally get to the point), they keep asking him whether he is a native English speaker! So it seems it is true: you can get too much of a good thing. In fact something similar seems to have happened to my accent. Brits I meet have no problem accepting that I am speaking in English, but they still find something preoccupying about the way I speak. 'Have you ever lived in South Africa' I was recently asked.

Well the answer is no, and finally let's get back to Ed Buffaloe who has a marvellous site full of photography, poetry and travel stories. Among the many little gems, a link to this one from Freeman Dyson:

In this world of digital wonders, why are we so fascinated with things analog? Mechanical watches and fountain pens have become status symbols, but what is the attraction? It involves the appreciation of well-made artifacts, and a certain nostalgia. Expensive fountain pens were status symbols in the 1920’s just as they are today. Fine watches have always been cherished for beauty as well as mechanical precision. But it seems the advent of digital technology has given many things analog an air of antiquity.

The fact is, many of our mechanical wunderkinds will long outlast the cheap digital junk that is being made today. My Casio calculator watch has lasted nearly ten years on one battery (pretty remarkable, really), but when it finally dies I will be more likely to buy another than to attempt to replace the battery. So much of what we make today is made to be thrown away when it breaks..............

“The next question that arises is, are we humans analog or digital? We don't yet know the answer to this question. The information in a human is mostly to be found in two places, in our genes and in our brains. The information in our genes is certainly digital, coded in the four-level alphabet of DNA. The information in our brains is still a great mystery. Nobody yet knows how the human memory works. It seems likely that memories are recorded in variations of the strengths of synapses connecting the billions of neurons in the brain with one another, but we do not know how the strengths of synapses are varied. It could well turn out that the processing of information in our brains is partly digital and partly analog. If we are partly analog, the down-loading of a human consciousness into a digital computer may involve a certain loss of our finer feelings and qualities. That would not be surprising. I certainly have no desire to try the experiment myself............

Another possible form of life is the Black Cloud described by Fred Hoyle in his famous science fiction novel. The Black Cloud lives in the vacuum of space and is composed of dust-grains instead of cells. It derives its energy from gravitation or starlight, and acquires chemical nutrients from the naturally occurring interstellar dust. It is held together by electric and magnetic interactions between neighboring grains. Instead of having a nervous system or a wiring system, it has a network of long-range electromagnetic signals that transmit information and coordinate its activities............

I started thinking about the abstract definition of life twenty years ago, when I published a paper in Reviews of Modern Physics about the possibility that life could survive for ever in a cold expanding universe. I proved to my own satisfaction that survival is possible for a community of living creatures using only a finite store of matter and energy. Then, two years ago, Lawrence Krauss and Glenn Starkman, friends of mine at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, sent me a paper with the title "Life, the Universe, and Nothing". They say flatly that survival of life for ever is impossible. They say that everything I claimed to prove in my Reviews of Modern Physics paper is wrong. I was happy when I read the Krauss-Starkman paper. It is much more fun to be contradicted than to be ignored.

In the two years since I read their paper, Krauss and Starkman and I have been engaged in vigorous arguments, writing back and forth by E-mail, trying to pokes holes in each others' calculations. The battle is not over, but we have stayed friends. We have not found any holes that cannot be repaired. It begins to look as if their arguments are right, and my arguments are right too. We can both be right because we are making different assumptions about the nature of life. It turns out that they are right, and life cannot survive for ever, if life is digital, but I am right, and life may survive for ever, if life is analog. This conclusion was unexpected. In the development of our human technology during the last fifty years, analog devices such as LP records and slide-rules appear to be primitive and feeble, while digital devices are overwhelmingly more convenient and powerful. In the modern information-based economy, digital wins every time. So it was unexpected to find that under very general conditions, analog life has a better chance of surviving than digital life. Perhaps this implies that when the time comes for us to adapt ourselves to a cold universe and abandon our extravagant flesh-and-blood habits, we should upload ourselves to black clouds in space rather than download ourselves to silicon chips in a computer center. If I had to choose, I would go for the black cloud every time.

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