Tag Archives: nature

On Catastrophes

Those who live in Boston and have relatives or friends elsewhere probably got some type of message right after the bombings asking if they were okay. The messages most certainly finished with something like “be careful.” For diplomatic reasons, one normally answers “I will” to such advices, while wondering how can we possibly be careful with respect to events of catastrophic nature, such as natural disasters and the unpredictable anger of apparently normal people.

Fortunately, most of us are able to forget these barbarities and go back the normal routine after a certain period of perplexity and fear. Meanwhile, we hope there’ll be people (including ourselves) working on minimizing the chances of catastrophic events to happen. People like President Obama, who is pushing against guns being too easily available, and astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who argues for a more serious study of the possible asteroids that can threaten our species as a whole.

When we discuss what to do against threatening events of rare occurrence, a statistically appealing counterargument appears. As pointed out by psychologist Daniel Gilbert in an article for Nature magazine in 2011, “because resources are finite, every sensible thing we do is another sensible thing we don’t.”

“We worry more about shoe-bombers than influenza,” Gilbert argues, “despite the fact that one kills roughly 400,000 people per year and the other kills roughly none.” Likewise, “we worry more about our children being kidnapped by strangers than about becoming obese, despite the fact that abduction is rare and diabetes is not.” According to this argument, we should stop spending so much on counter-terrorism and invest more on healthier food, and ignore the battery problems of the Airbus Dreamliner to work on influenza research.

The idea is dangerous, however. First, it makes the outrageous assumption that a certain number of individual lives is less important than a much greater number. Second, it ignores the escalation property: while terrorism didn’t claim many lives in comparison with certain diseases, for instance, if nothing is done terrorists can get as powerful as to possess nuclear weapons, thus becoming extremely threatening. Third, even events that caused no human harm whatsoever, such as a large-asteroid impact, are obviously worth worrying about.

Our moral intuitions, crafted during thousands of years of evolution, make us give more attention to threats caused by agents (like terrorists) than objects (like French fries). That awareness does mean we should be more rational on fighting life threats, but it doesn’t imply we can be more reckless about rare events.

Furthermore, there isn’t really a problem of “resources,” for there are plenty of cases where money is invested in things of questionable value. If you disagree, I’ve got a Renoir painting, a contract with a talented young brazilian soccer player, and a 34.65-carat pink diamond to sell you.

On the Higgs Boson Hysteria

There should be a non-cliché rule in photography as well. I say that because the picture of a scientist with a pretentious attitude writing equations on a glass surface in front of the camera is far too common. Anyway, that was exactly how Dr. Peter Ware Higgs appeared in a recent New York Times article wrapping up the story of an elementary particle named after the now 83 years old theoretical physicist.

The observation might be a little harsh, after all last year two independent teams of researcher, looking at experiments performed at the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, discovered something that looks very much like the particle whose existence was proposed by Higgs in 1964. Confirmation of the existence of the Higgs boson, along with the Higgs field, would be of “monumental” importance, it has been stated. It would provide explanation for why certain elementary particles have mass, and certain don’t.

Still, my thoughts about the picture reflect what I think about the whole story: the media, and the world in general, are longing for a meaningful development in physics, for the last time a real breakthrough took place was with the discovery of Quantum Mechanics, almost one hundred years ago. We’re anxious for a push in the understanding of the ultimate nature of reality. But during the last century, essentially all that have been done consisted of solving minor details, developing applications, and crafting unverifiable mathematical speculations.

We are in fact in need of a new Einstein, Eisenberg, or Schrodinger. Someone who’s able to look at the world from a radically different perspective, and set the pace for a new revolution in physics. Nevertheless, looking from a historical perspective, it’s reasonable to expect that no amount of geniuses will get us to solve reality’s puzzle.

Indeed, looking at all developments since Newton and Galileu, we notice a clear trend: the scale of the visible world has consistently become, on one hand, bigger; and on the other, smaller. On the subatomic realm, tinier and tinier particles have been discovered, and it’s argued that the size would shrink further should we have more powerful particle colliders available. On the astronomic level, the universe got larger and larger. Our galaxy was once all we could see; now the visible universe is estimated to have hundreds of billions of them. And one wonders how long it will take to verify that there are actually hundreds of billions of universes as well.

It seems reality is shaped like a fractal, flirting with infinity: if you’re able to look for it, you’ll find entities of scales as big and small as you can possibly imagine.

Thus, Higgs’ discovers do leave us closer to the ultimate answer about reality, but just as much as one hundred billion is closer to infinity than forty two.

(A version of this article appeared in Washington Square News.)