Sunday, January 30, 2011

Not So Much Uncertainty

The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, or less pretentiously, the uncertainty relationship, is a fact of nature, discovered as part of quantum mechanics (a subset of the more general quantum physics).

Philosophies and religions that believe in an observer-created reality have interpreted the uncertainty relationship as proof of their viewpoint. They claim that reality is subjective, not objective, and this supports or interweaves with other aspects of their viewpoint. Some, but not all, New Age and Eastern (Hinduism, Buddhism and Taoism) religious sects propose that human individuals "create their own world," and that by learning to control their minds can thereby control the world. They may also claim that the world is an illusion, thus justifying not paying attention to it, or basing decisions on faith in religious leaders or scriptures.

These claims warrant examination.

The uncertainty relationship was discovered in 1927, capping a four year period of rapid discoveries in quantum physics which solved problems that had been on the table for decades. It is fair to say that the discovery of the electron (1897), or minimal unit of electric charge, and of the light quanta, or photon in 1905, had started what we now call quantum physics. But in 1923, even though it was believed that electrons associated with atoms obeyed quantum laws, no one could correctly model the spectra (specific frequencies of light) emitted by heated molecules of differing elements.

In September of 1923 Louis de Broglie proposed that electron, like the photon, obeyed the law associating a frequency with its energy level. Energy (E) would equal frequency (f) times Planck's constant h:

E = f x h

In fact he proposed that all forms of matter and energy were governed by that relationship, and thus had a wave property, frequency, associated with them.

Much happened in 1924, but in 1925 Werner Heisenberg cracked the basic math for the frequency of atomic spectra problem. He decided he would use no model of atoms at all, but would instead base his Quantum Mechanics only on observable facts, in the first instance, the frequencies of light emitted by atoms. With considerable help from friends (Born, Jordan, and Pauli), and because all the spectral data had been available for decades, the new system was shown to be essentially correct. In addition Erwin Schrodinger in January 1926 solved the hydrogen spectrum with his wave formulation of quantum mechanics. Physics guys liked that because the math was more familiar to them than Heisenberg's, but soon the two maths were shown to be equivalent.

Max Born issued his first paper on the probability interpretation of quantum mechanics in June of 1926, which is of great philosophical importance, but which won't be followed in this essay. In March of 1927 physical experiments first showed that de Broglie was absolutely right: electrons, thought of as particles, did have frequencies and acted like waves in certain situations.

Which brings us back to Heisenberg, and March 23, 1927. His uncertainty relationship was based on the nature of the math used in quantum mechanics to correctly predict spectra, and on a thought experiment (later carried out with real experimental apparatus). It is important to understand the equation:

change in x times change in p > h/2pi

The "p" represents momentum, "x" can be taken as the location in space, and the triangles in this case indicate the latitude or slack available for their attached variables. The total slack, or uncertainty, from multiplying the observed momentum with the observed locations in space is greater than or equal to Planck's constant (h) divided by 2 times pi (3.14), or about h/6. The best case scenario for accuracy is when the two sides of the equation are equal.

Which is to day if you have really great experimental apparatus and are trying to simultaneously measure something's momentum and position in space, the best you can do overall is get it to within about h/6. If you try to make p smaller (more accurate or certain), x becomes less accurate or certain. If you double the certainty of p, you halve the certainty of x.

Yet on this uncertainty whole philosophies and religions try to defend their metaphysical speculations from the discipline of nature. How much uncertainty are we talking about?

Planck's constant is an experimentally determined number of energy units multiplied by time. Given that our everyday science energy units are on our scale, it is a small number: about 6.626 times ten to the negative 34th Joule seconds. In other words, put down a decimal point, then 33 zeros, then 6626:

.00000000000000000000000000000006626 Joule seconds

You probably have no more sense of how small atomic particles are than I do, but the result is that uncertainty is pretty significant for a light quanta, roughly corresponding to its wave length, and is significant for a single electron. However, it really is not all that significant, most of the time, even for something as light as a hydrogen atom (one proton with one electron). The uncertainty is for the entire experimental system; it does not increase as we work on objects of larger mass.

Upscale to something we think of as really small, say a virus particle, and the uncertainty is still about h/6, which means that determining the momentum and position of our virus is going to be limited by our experimental apparatus and our lack of caring, rather than by the uncertainty relationship.

So how certain were scientists about positions real world things before Heisenberg? The answer is no one had really thought about it clearly. Quick, give me the exact position and momentum of that cloud in the sky over there. See, classical physics was filled with uncertainty, just as life is. But arguing the cloud is not real because you can't tell me to 99 decimals where its center of mass is right now, is foolish. In theory in classical physics the moon has an exact position in space and an exact momentum, but no one was ever able to measure the moon or for that matter anything that would have caused their experiments to be affected by Heisenberg's certainty limitations.

Heisenberg found the uncertainty principle because it finally mattered to scientists. Things that matter in the quantum world of electrons and photons may not matter in our gigantic human everyday scale. The rules of quantum physics apply only to very, very, very small things. In aggregate they average out to ordinary, everyday physics and to our intuitive understanding of dealing with our everyday lives.

What Heisenberg really showed is that we can be highly certain about physical reality if we are willing to put in the effort. Even in the case of electrons.

If you are a carpenter, and are used to your hammer, you know how to hit a nail on the head. There is plenty of uncertainty at a human scale, but its nature is different.

Understand this, and you are probably ready to understand the issue of observation affecting what is observed in the domain of quantum physics. That will be a separate essay.

Key take away: uncertainty is a fact of nature, but in the sense of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it is very, very small.

[special thanks to Abraham Pais for Inward Bound
, pages 252-262 and those who have contributed to Wikipedia articles on quantum physics]

Natural Liberation Philosophy

Friday, January 28, 2011

Once Were Radicals

Book Review

Once Were Radicals (my years as a teenage Islamo-fascist)
by Irfan Yusuf
Allen & Unwin, Australia, 2009
paperback, 310 pages, $22.95 in the U.S.

What would it be like to grow up in an Islamic family? What if you were growing up in Australia and were the only dark-complexioned boy at your school? What if you were regularly attacked by bullies just for being a Muslim?

It sounds grim, but Irfan Yusuf is an exceptional writer who is able to deliver his memoir with a deep sense of humor. He is able to walk us through the many facets of Islamic religion, culture, and politics because from the very beginning he was the curious type, the type that asked why, the type that would not accept pat answers.

Irfan was born in Pakistan to middle-class, educated Islamic parents who then moved to Australia when he was four. His mother insisted that he master Urdu and Islam while maintaining grades that kept him at the head of his class. His childhood persecution by Christians made him an ardent believer, but he also began to discover that Islam was not monolithic. Even among the Pakistani emigres who were friends of his parents there were differences in degrees of faith and adhesion to different sects. Most seemed happy just to be living the good life in Australia, and so worked at blending into the materialistic culture, just as most Christian did.

Irfan became an explorer. He read book after book on Islam, but the books did not agree. He heard the intense anti-Islamic propaganda of the West and was attracted by Christianity's kindler, gentler image. But when he joins the Christian Fellowship at his private (Episcopal) high school, he is ready to analyze Christian theology and finds it lacking.

The thing about Irfan is, he is Modern. So no matter how much he searches for the true Islam, he has a modern eye. Even when he demands that modern Islamic women wear traditional dress, or at least head-scarves, some part of him knows he is being a hypocrite.

Through Irfan you can meet dozens of Islamic schools of thought. You will meet Sunni and Shia and Sufi, but you will also learn that each of them has many sub-schools. Every nation, and sometimes every tribe, has its own cultural take on what it means to be a Muslim. You will meet men and women who think Islam is Peace, and those who believe it is Jihad, and those who think it should not get in the way of Money.

Every American should read this book, and not just to learn about one of the world's largest religious groups. Once Were Radicals is a lesson in humanity. One Prophet, One Text, a thousand interpretations, and a billion individuals.

Also, you will learn a lot of Australian vocabulary. They have a word for everything, including some that I could not quite cipher out.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Confusing Muslim Childhood

Last night I started reading Irfan Yusuf's Once Were Radicals, My years as a teenage Islamo-fascist. I got to page 93. You must read it.

Once you get past the I-am-not-a-terrorist Prologue, Irfan's story gets really funny, really fast. His family is Pakistani Muslim, middle class emigrants to Australia. He gets picked on as a child because he is different. His developing understanding of religion, both Muslim and other, is wonderfully portrayed through the eyes of a six year old, then as he matures.

I can relate, if my experiences were no where near as extreme. Irfan's mother was his main religious influence. Compared to my own mother she seems quite tolerant. I was raised by a mother who had converted to Catholic Christian from old school Baptist/Methodist, in a community (Jacksonville, Florida) where Catholics were still a minority clumped in with Jews and Blacks by the local KKK.

I have not gotten to the point in the book where Irfan goes militant, but in my own youth I did a back flip on that idea. Irfan rebels against Australian society by becoming, for a time, a militant Muslim. I dropped the Catholic Church like a hot potato and was attracted, instead, to Marxists, Anarchists, and even Buddhists.

The great thing is that Once Were Radicals allows you to see the varieties of Islam (it is just as varied as Christianity or atheism) from the inside, with an overlay of being able to have the sharp critical insights that usually come only from outsiders.

Buy this book and circulate it. Americans need to read it, especially those few remaining Americans who are religious intolerants.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Obama, Karzai, Truman and Chiang

Today we learned that the "government of Afghanistan," and its "international partners" plan to expand the Afghan army and police to 378,000 by October 2012. That would be a 42% expansion over the present level.

While pretending to be a democracy, the government of Hamid Karzai is actually a patchwork of opium-growing warlord domains. The army and police are, so far, unreliable. U.S. President Barack Obama gained office in the 2008 elections largely because he gave the voters the impression that he would get the U.S. military out of Iraq and Afghanistan. Instead (as I predicted) he took the same path President Richard Nixon took in Vietnam, choosing to expand the war. Well, actually, Nixon continually reduced the number of U.S. troops in Vietnam, though he expanded it to Cambodia and Laos, and eventually did sign a peace treaty. Obama has increased the number of troops in Afghanistan twice since he took over the Presidency from George W. Bush.

Now for a contrast, instead of a parallel. Franklin Roosevelt and his predecessors supported Chiang Kai-shek as dictator of China for a couple of decades, using him in as a puppet for the U.S. struggle for supremacy against Japan in east Asia. But he was not a very effective puppet. His extended family, the Soongs and Kungs, and his war-lord underlings looted both their own countrymen and aid sent by the U.S. They let their troops fighting the Japanese loose battles for lack of equipment and ammunition that was being hoarded as a source of wealth and to be used for internal rivalries.

President Harry Truman later said, "Chiang Kai-shek and the Madame and their families, the Soong family and the Kungs were all thieves... They stole seven hundred and fifty million dollars out of the thirty-five billion we sent ... and invested in real estate ... And I don't want anything to do with people like that."

The problem for Truman was that it was clear that the fall of Chiang Kai-shek would lead to a communist takeover. Soon after the end of World War II the communists governed more people, far more effectively, than Chiang's nationalist government did. Truman knew he would would be attacked in the U.S. if the communists took over China, even though his Communist-fighting credentials were very good. Yet he did not want to waste any more American troops in China, backing a cause that was not just losing, but that was evil by any standard of government or ethics. [Note even incompetent, evil people can have good qualities and do good things, at times, as shown in Hollington Tong's biography of Chiang Kai-shek. Chiang was a competent war lord, who started as an idealistic anti-imperialist, but that was not the kind of competence China needed to become a modern nation.]

Karzai's Afghanistan resembles Chiang's China in remarkable detail, but Barack Obama is no Harry Truman. The U.S. begs Karzai to reform his government, but Karzai's government is a coalition of scoundrels. The reason the Taliban first came to power not that many years ago is because the people of Afghanistan hated the Karzai gang. There are things Westerners (including me) dislike about the Taliban, but their puritanical brand of Islam actually was a major improvement over the only other realistic option, remaining mired in corruption.

Barack Obama is afraid to do what is right for both Afghanistan and the United States, withdraw all American troops. Barack Obama would rather see all of Afghanistan suffer rather than take the political heat in the U.S. for a withdrawal. In his own way he is as corrupt and incompetent as Karzai and Chiang.

Who supplied the communists of China with the arms they needed to overthrow Chiang Kai-shek? They manufactured some primitive arms themselves in their remote guerilla hideouts, but almost all of their serious weapons were captured from the Japanese or from United States shipments to Chiang. Like Karzai, Chiang got a big part of his finances from running the opium trade.

American soldiers seem to be able to hold onto their arms, but arming Karzai's cops is basically just giving arms to the Taliban.

It is kind of funny that, in the intervening decades, communism has become acceptable, but Islam is now seen as the Great Evil by Americans. If the Taliban were Communists, no one would figure it is worth fighting them. Even if they were harboring foreign communists bent on making more communist revolutions.

Recommended reading:
The Last Empress: Madame Chiang Kai-shek and the Birth of Modern China by Hannah Pakula
The Great War for Civilisation: The Conquest of the Middle East by Robert Fisk

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Gabrielle Giffords, Jared Loughner and Political Violence

Against the background of historic and global violence, the attempted assassination of Gabrielle Giffords by Jared Lee Loughner, in which 7 other people were killed, including federal judge John M. Roll, is of significance only because it was unexpected and local. The event will probably be remembered as an embarrassment to ultra-conservative Republicans like Sarah Palin, Glenn Beck, and John Boehner, and to the gun lobby. It probably did not involve an organization, just a confused young man acting on impulse.

It is, nevertheless, an occasion to reflect on violence, both political and social. Representative Giffords was a member of the Democratic Party, a war crimes organization, and the U.S. Congress, a war crimes government. Those labels shock most Americans, but they are factual, not rhetorical. War crimes and crimes against humanity are very clearly defined. Both the U.S. government and the Democratic Party (and the Republican Party, too) have long histories of committing war crimes. They are committing war crimes in Afghanistan as I write.

It is the nature of governments to want a monopoly on violence. In a representative democracy, in theory, this violence is then used to achieve public goals. If the United States is considered to be the test case, in reality a fairly small elite sets most of the goals of government and derives the greatest benefit from the (attempted) monopoly on violence.

I don't know much about Gabrielle Giffords' record. Apparently she consistently voted for money for the war against the people of Afghanistan.

Limited political violence says a lot about the American system, in which the elite rule, but in which there are safety valves to allow the ambitious to better themselves by serving, perhaps even becoming, that elite. There are many ostensibly violent political groups in the United States, but they are all small. Today they are mostly ultra-conservative, but as late as the 1980's there were plenty of ultra-leftist, mainly Leninist groups around. It also says a lot about the police-state strategy in America. Free speech is encouraged, people are watched, and confidential informants developed. It is hard to have a radical political group of any size in the U.S. that does not have an FBI agent or confidential informant as a member. So groups get broken up before they can accomplish much. We have seen that with both right-wing militia groups and Islamic groups of late.

Jared Lee Loughner was under the radar. Apparently he read up on things, mostly on the Internet, but acted alone. Representative Giffords was just a convenient target. If bigger fish had been in town, he might have tried for one of them.

Politics without violence is a good goal, but it creates dilemmas. How can the American people stop war crimes by our government when the money of the corporate security state determines the outcomes of almost all federal elections? The American people apparently voted against the Afghan war both in 2006 and 2008, to no avail. In 2010 they turned their attention to the sorry state of the economy, now resigned to the crookedness of the Democratic Party's continued funding of the war.

The Democratic Party was the creation of the ultra-violent General (later President) Andrew Jackson. Jackson was an-equal opportunity maniac who liked to challenge men less skilled with pistols to duels (he killed several), who once had a volunteer child-soldier under his command shot for not obeying an order, who killed native American Indians, whipped slaves, and even profited from staging dog fights and chicken fights. Not everybody in the Democratic Party has been as evil as its founder, but just joining that party, or running for office under its banner, shows a lack of ethical integrity.

Both the Democratic Party and the Republican Party richly deserve destruction, but that won't happen by shooting individual elected officials. When it comes to violence, the corporate security state will come out the winner every time. Difficult as it might be, the only non-violent alternative is to win elections with candidates who show they can be elected without the corrupt machinery of the war-crimes political parties.

See also:

A Brief History of the Democratic Party
A Brief History of the Republican Party

Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Get Down Moses, With the U.S. Constitution

When the U.S. Constitution was forced on the American people in 1788 religion was not very different than it is today. There were no Mormons yet, but most of the major Christian sects had made an appearance. The educated ruling class studied the Greek and Roman classics, meaning they were exposed to both pagan beliefs and skepticism. Many Americans, possibly a majority were agnostics, atheists, materialists, or deists.

Politics was already a highly developed art and craft. So was its camp follower, corruption. I would argue that the first Congress under the new Constitution was the most corrupt in American history, but then there is a lot of competition, and records of corruption are incomplete, so I can't be sure. The U.S. Constitution was largely based on the British Constitution, but also borrowed from the Iroquois confederation, ancient Greek and Roman forms, and the various states, notably the State of Virginia.

Science, on the other hand, was just beginning its climb up Mount Sinai. Isaac Newton had invented calculus and outlined what is now called classical physics; he had died in 1727. But electricity was still something created by friction or lightning. Charles Darwin would not be born until 1809. Atoms would remain basically undifferentiated blobs until the 1890's.

For a document designed to centralize the power of the ruling elite, with just enough democracy included to keep the rabble from revolting too often, the U.S. Constitution is a pretty good basis for government. Its most obvious flaws, like the structure of the Senate, are a result of political compromise, not planning or wisdom. Amendments have, on the whole, improved it over the centuries. Most importantly, even the early ruling elite had their moments of working for the public good.

Largely because of Tea Party agitation, many Americans are taking a good look at their Constitution. Like any complex object, it can be looked at from many different angles. A citizen might like one part and dislike another. Throw in the often-mythologized stories about the (white) men who wrote the damned thing, and you have a lot of room for principled disagreements. Need more room, and you can just desert principles, which is a rather common (and often successful) political strategy.

Religious people, I mean the truly religious, project their religion into almost everything. It is almost a truism in certain circles that the U.S. Constitution was written by God. Now you and I know that is not true: God writes in Latin, not English. But the God-smitten won't have it any other way.

Which creates its own issues. Were Amendments to the Constitution written by God, or just the Original Constitution? Did God also write the Articles of Confederation? Why exactly did God give Congress the power to "promote the progress of science" [Article I, Section VIII, paragraph 8]?

You know why. He was preparing the way for his greatest prophets. Charles Darwin, James Clerk Maxwell, Max Planck, Albert Einstein, and Francis Crick, among others.

Saturday, January 1, 2011

2011: Wild Year Ahead

Some predictions are easy to make. It did not take much looking at Barack Obama in 2008 to see that he did not have the spine to take on the corporate military state in any meaningful way. Some predictions are well-nigh impossible to make, either because they involve incredible levels of complexity (predicting the paths of all 2011 hurricanes, today) or because we simply have limited knowledge of specifics that give birth to them.

The chances of peace, or of a military victory, in Afghanistan are pretty near zero for 2011. The United States and allies will spend another half trillion dollars, the Taliban and allies will spend somewhere south of half a billion dollars (that is a thousand to one ratio), and the year will end in stalemate. Without advanced weapons and training the Taliban cannot defeat the U.S. No one is going to loan them jets or even cruise missiles. Yet the people of Afghanistan aren't going to suddenly like being bossed around by a bunch of militant Christians from the U.S. and their local puppets. Killing Taliban fighters (and Afghan civilians) just creates more orphans that grow up to be Taliban process.

If anything happens in Congress this year, it won't be for the good of the American people, if by people you mean those earning less than the national median. Or for that manner, the lower 80%. Any Republican measures can be blocked by Obama or by Democrats in the Senate; any Democratic measures can be blocked by Republicans in the House of Representatives. So the only measures that will pass will be those that help industries that contributed campaign funds to both Republicans and Democrats.

The economy will improve in 2011 [See also 2011 Economic Analysis]; I predict both Republican and Democratic Party politicians will take responsibilities for any improvements, while continuing to deny any responsibility for the Great Regression.

I predict that in 2011 fundamentalist christians will Praise Jesus for anything good that happens, and blame Satan for anything that goes wrong.

The environment, on the whole, will continue to deteriorate. This is largely a function of the growth of the American and global economies. However, deterioration will continue at such a slow rate that most people, especially politicians, will be able to deny reality or deprioritize doing something about it. The exception is the State of California. Here politicians have written laws such that in-state cement factories will not contribute to global warming (cement = limestone + heat, releasing carbon dioxide in the process). Cement will be brought in from Mexico, so in addition to the greenhouse gasses needed to create it, more will be created transporting it. But since the emissions will go into Mexican air, I suppose they won't warm up California.

In other words, life will go on in 2011. Apocalypse may be just around the corner, or at the end of the tunnel, or sitting waiting for you in the Texas School Book Depository or the jungle or the next traffic jam, but before then we all must muddle through 2011.

The good old rules still apply. Practice charity, love the Earth and its occupants, and don't be too gullible. Humans are mortal; that is why life is precious. Enjoy it while you can.