Feverish imaginings

February 23, 2011

Last week I gave a popular talk about Active Galaxies, part of the ROE Winter Talks series. Good turn out, some sharp questions, and if there were any nutters they were keeping quiet. Pleasant evening. If you want to see the slides, they are available at the jolly ole personal web page. You won’t get the full effect though, as I like interspersing the pretty pix with impersonations of the Doppler Effect, and demonstrations of Gravity Power by dropping things on me foot etc etc. Rule number one : do everything in threes. Rule number two : wake ’em up every so often. I think of this as a variant on Brechtian alienation. Rule number three : never patronise. Simple is good, colourful analogies bad. This is why P.B.Cox is so good I think. He’s very concrete, and tells the truth.

Every so often of course you show some gaudy picture of a black hole swallowing stuff or such like. Its good at this point to pause and look ’em in the eye and say “… you do know this is an artist’s impression, right ? Wish we had data that good … Anyway…”. Today on the interwebs I came across a wonderful example of runaway impressionisation, if thats the word I want, in a Gemini press release. This reports what looks like a rather nice piece of work by Sylvain Veilleux and others; a GMOS IFU observation of a high velocity conical wind flowing out of nearby Active Galaxy MKN 231. (I think its the nearest BAL QSO ..)

Exhibit A : the actual data.

Some of the squares look a bit different from the other squares.

Some quite interesting data.

MKN 231 in all its horrific glory

Exhibit B : artistic rendering.

Crikey. I’m standing well back from that, mate.

The beast up close

MKN 231, an artist's crude approximation

Hmm. Thinks. Can I get that Lynette Cook to knock me up a really scary warped disk ? Thats what Martin and I should have had for this paper.


Uncomputable Insight

May 11, 2009

My Turing Test post turned out more interesting than I expected. Playing iGod was fun, and just that; but Steve’s link to a musical Turing Test really surprised me. Looks like speech is more quintessentially human than music … this is a challenge to those who see Mozart as a higher art form than Metal. Bach may be easier to fake than Beatle’s lyrics.

Meanwhile I finally finished “The Emperor’s New Mind”. As various folk said, here and privately, although its a fantastic overview of various parts of science, the “consciousness as quantum gravity” line does not end up being convincing. However .. the basic idea that human minds do something uncomputable is intriguing. Its closely linked to an issue that bugs me about mysticism, and especially Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

There are some aspects of Zen/Tao that fit well with the scientific outlook. Mysticism is not misty and vague, but rigorously insistent on the physical world, as opposed to the mental constructs we mistake for the world. (Including the fairy tales the West calls “religion”.) A classic Zen lesson is to hold up a book and ask the pupil what it is. “A book” says the pupil. “No” says the Master, “book is a noise.”. He plants it firmly in the pupil’s hand. “This is what this is”.

Anyway, what Zen and Science have in common is the belief that there is a real concrete world, and that there is a route to knowledge of the world. In both cases we carefully observe the physical world. But beyond this the (official) methods of Science and Zen diverge. In Science the route to truth is a kind of loop around guessing, testing, and refining, together with eternal scepticism. In Zen, there is first a kind of Brechtian alienation, to shock the mind out of false assumptions; but this goes with a belief that once you do that deconstruction, you already know the answer. You meditate on the flower until “The Flower” fades from your mind and your eyes see … the real flower.

Hopefully you get the link back to Penrose. Zen says that you can know the truth all-at-once, that the mind can do this. Science ..or at least textbook scientific philosophy – says you can’t. But of course many scientists also place great stock on insight, intuition, creativity etc. And push a little harder and scientists split into positivists (its meaningless to ask about essential truth; you can only know what works) and Platonists (we may be wrong at any stage, but our aim is to describe reality).

Can we know the world, or is our knowledge ever provisional ?