Monday, June 23, 2008

Blind Faith Part II

If by some chance a person of religious zeal stumbles across our blog, this post is for you.

Last week I was in Knoxville, TN for a meeting. I was walking down the street toward a bar and grill to get dinner when I was stopped by two young gentlemen. I had my street map out so I was surprised when their purpose was not for directions but rather to initiate the "have you found Jesus" conversation. Typically I'm not so responsive to people testifying in the street, but I have to admit, these two young men were by far the best I've seen. They were not intrusive, but asked poignant and personal questions regarding my religious background, my ideals, and then commented on their perspective of religion. They were bright and used some of the same manipulative speech I use when I'm trying to be persuasive.

Eric will tell you that my knowledge of the Catholic faith (that's what I was raised as) is probably superficial. I know the things they teach in Sunday school and I have some insight into the foundation of the church from a political perspective including the reformation. I'm not a student of religious doctrine so my opinions must be taken at face value. But I know that and I know I can't strongly argue certain questions of "why" because of it.

I had no intention of contradicting their belief system even though it was bordering on the "Blind Faith" concept I hate so much. I see a benefit to having religious faith, and I've said that many times. The problem is they said (he said – one guy was talking more) something to the effect of "You admit that you've sinned, so what are you going to say to God when you're at your judgment?" I had illuminated them on my belief that my worth as a human is based on my positive contribution to humanity through scientific contribution, service, self awareness, and a general accepting and utilization of my talents to their fullest. He said "but that's not good enough. It is your faith alone that will grant you heaven (he was protestant)." He talked about atonement and forgiveness and all that stuff. I reminded him about confession, the last rights, and purgatory.

Perhaps it was because I was reading Red Dragon by Thomas Harris (the first meeting of Hannibal Lector) that I felt compelled to take the "quid pro quo" stance. I asked him a lot of questions about his personal life, his "sins," and his journey to our chance encounter on the streets of Knoxville. I don't think they were prepared for someone like me. I'd guess they were used to complete rejection and combativeness or complete acceptance. Certainly not a somewhat informed person taking a logical stance toward the persuasive strength of their argument rather than the argument itself. Toward the end of the conversation I stopped it completely and complimented them on their technique. I pointed out the strong and weak points in order to help them be more persuasive. I commented on my recent gift subscription to Creationist magazine and to their complete surprise, I said it was terrible. It was a funny reaction. Then I went to explain that the content was ok, but the lack of proper journalism in that they disregard their responsibility to purvey both opinions of time and point out the issues that support their perspective. They just go straight for the jugular without setting up a sound basis for the attack. I told them to stay away from that kind of argument in their evangelism. Most importantly I retorted to the above comment by saying "if we are all sinners, even after we accept Christianity as truth and have asked for forgiveness, then what separates you from me in the eyes of God? Is your contribution to the world enough to grant you pardon?" I'm sure people have asked that before. It was their specific argument's biggest weakness. He had no answer besides reiterating what he had already said about asking forgiveness. It was circular logic. Believe me I didn't want to trap him, but I was fishing for the answer I believe would help his argument the most. Drumroll please. "Faith." That's simply it. By saying we have to take it on faith he's closes the argument, and has left the decision up to the other person. Honestly, he had said it before, but not in the correct context. "Faith" is an unobtrusive word. It inspires personal interpretation for that "personal relationship with God" that I've heard so many times. He has to accept the fact that inevitably that's all he really has to go on. There is very little in the bible that can be proven explicitly, so inevitably one has to have faith in its truth. I think the quieter one got my point, I'm not sure about the other.

And now a deep thought…

Unless science can someday prove without a shadow of a doubt to every common man the exact origin of the universe and the life in it there will always be a fundamental difference in the faith of science and the faith of religion. But right now both take a certain level of blind faith.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Chaos in Prime Numbers

About a year ago I sat in on a seminar by Dr. Boris Kupershmidt on the topic of prime numbers. I'm not a mathematician and therefore most of what he said went right over my head. He did say something, however, that caught my attention: "The distribution of prime numbers is chaotic." If I remember right he was referring to "small" prime numbers. Of course in number theory 10^16 is "small." I had previously taken a course in nonlinear systems and had studied chaos. Mathematical chaos has a very interesting and subtle structure; there is order in chaos. My post entitled A Mathematical Perspective of Global Warming talked about chaos in the weather. Anyway, I am enthralled with chaos to the point that I see strange attractors everywhere. Every time I see a flag blowing in the wind I see a strange attractor. My work in hydrodynamic instability deals with turbulence and turbulence is very closely related to chaos so I get a personal satisfaction of coupling my work with my perspective of nature. I digress. I decided to see for myself if by "chaotic" he meant chaotic in the mathematical sense or chaotic in the nonmathematical vernacular.

I read a book by James Gleick called Chaos: Making a New ScienceISBN 0-140-09250-1. In it he discussed a group from the University of California at Santa Cruz called the Dynamical Systems Collective. They devised an experiment to find attractors in water dripping from a faucet. They saw that in general, the water dripped at a steady rate. If the faucet was disturbed they could force the drips to fall in groups. In order to visualize the attractor they plotted the time between one drip verses the time for the next. The plots showed "blobs" centered around two points for pairs of drips, three points for 3 drips and so forth. I got the idea to plot prime numbers in the same way: the "distance" on a number line between one appearance of a prime and the next. Low and behold some very interesting patterns emerged!

The first plot shows the result for the first 100000 primes. Many points actually plot on top of each other. The more points you plot the more complete the graph becomes and the farther it extends in both the x and y directions. However, this is extremely slow since so many plot directly on top of each other.

My next idea was to take the second difference and plotting it against the first difference

I took the 3rd difference and plotted it against the 2nd difference

Beyond that, the pattern wasn't much different and the shape of the envelope only changed slightly.

As far as predicting prime numbers, I can't really comment on these results other than they seem to give an envelope in which many primes clearly fall and inside the envelope comes organized patterns so that one would not (so) blindly test for primes. As far as theory goes, I'm not worthy enough to even try. The most recent developments in Riemann's Conjecture and computational experiments in prime numbers suggest that this is likely to have been an exercise in futility. That's why I figured it was safe to post this to a blog rather than somewhere in the mathematical community. Either way, if somebody does find this important, I would appreciate some credit!

And now a deep thought…

Is our definition of mathematics universal?

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Poverty Fallacy

These are excerpts from “Understanding Poverty in America

“Each year, the U.S. Census Bureau counts the number of "poor" persons in the U.S. In 2005, the Bureau found 37 million "poor" Americans.”

“Today, the expenditures per person of the lowest-income one-fifth (or quintile) of households equal those of the median American household in the early 1970s, after adjusting for inflation.”

“The following are facts about persons defined as "poor" by the Census Bureau, taken from various government reports:

  • Forty-six percent of all poor households actually own their own homes. The average home owned by persons classified as poor by the Census Bureau is a three-bedroom house with one-and-a-half baths, a garage, and a porch or patio.
  • Seventy-six percent of poor households have air conditioning. By contrast, 30 years ago, only 36 percent of the entire U.S. population enjoyed air conditioning.
  • Only 6 percent of poor households are overcrowded. More than two-thirds have more than two rooms per person.
  • The average poor American has more living space than the average individual living in Paris, London, Vienna, Athens, and other cities throughout Europe. (These comparisons are to the average citizens in foreign countries, not to those classified as poor.)
  • Nearly three-quarters of poor households own a car; 30 percent own two or more cars.
  • Ninety-seven percent of poor households have a color television; over half own two or more color televisions.
  • Seventy-eight percent have a VCR or DVD player; 62 percent have cable or satellite TV reception.
  • Seventy-three percent own microwave ovens, more than half have a stereo, and a third have an automatic dishwasher.”

“As a group, America's poor are far from being chronically undernourished… Most poor children today are, in fact, supernourished and grow up to be, on average, one inch taller and 10 pounds heavier that the GIs who stormed the beaches of Normandy in World War II.”

“Eighty-nine percent of the poor report their families have "enough" food to eat, while only 2 percent say they "often" do not have enough to eat.”

“The typical American defined as "poor" by the government has a car, air conditioning, a refrigerator, a stove, a clothes washer and dryer, and a microwave. He has two color televisions, cable or satellite TV reception, a VCR or DVD player, and a stereo. He is able to obtain medical care. His home is in good repair and is not overcrowded. By his own report, his family is not hungry and he had sufficient funds in the past year to meet his family's essential needs.”

Read the article for more details.

Friday, June 6, 2008

Book Review: Advice to Rocket Scientists

Its been a little while since I read this book, but it is a damn good book, so I needed to say something about. Quite frankly the book is a must read for engineering students, especially those who want to get into academics. The book discusses how to get a job, how to deal with a boss, how to move up in industry, how to publish, how to manage students, how to negotiate a job offer and quite a bit more. To sum it up, it talks about all the stuff that no one ever talks about and it does it in a very simple straight forward way.

Just about everything is good about this book - except for one serious but forgivable flaw - THE TITLE. He states in the first chapter that a rocket scientist is anyone with an aerospace degree or someone that works at NASA, Boeing, etc. This is an absolute shame. This definition is fantastically wrong. A rocket scientist is simply someone who does scientific research on rockets. Simple. All those other aerospace engineers could be working on planes or God knows what, but not rockets, and they are certainly not rocket scientists. The advice in this book pertains to engineers and scientists as a whole - not just rocket scientists.

In my mind this error is a result of one of two possibilities. One, they picked a catchy title so that people would by the book. A very real possibility. Or two, the author (an astronautics - orbital sciences kinda guy) likes to think of himself as a rocket scientist. He is a mission designer. His work is intimately involved with rockets and depends on rockets. But alas, he is not a rocket scientist. He just works really near to them. His incorrect definition may be an attempt to include himself in the 'rocket scientist' crowd.

Before I get all crazy let me bring this article back down to earth and reveal the rocket scientists secret. What we do is hard, damn hard. Rockets are a difficult beast to handle. However, that is not to say that what we do is any harder than a lot of other noble fields. There are a lot of other really smart people out there who do amazing work. By bitching about this title I am not being a high horsed rocket scientist complaining that someone is trying to steal our thunder. Instead, it is simply that rocket science is a very small field with very few people and those of us who actually do rocket science should be acknowledged as rocket scientists, other aerospace engineers are clearly doing other work.

In summary, the book is fantastic, read it, but everywhere he writes 'rocket scientist' replace it with 'engineer' or 'scientist' or 'researcher.' That is who this book is for.

Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Robotic Nation

There is an article by the creator the website 'How Stuff Works' named 'Robotic Nation.' It discusses the interesting implications of an increased use of robotics, mainly in the workplace. In summary the idea goes like this:

As time progresses more and more robots will be used. Skilled labor jobs, low wage jobs and assembly line jobs will be among the first to go. Specifically, one could imagine robots replacing the jobs of many low wage workers. As computer AI and user interface is improved it is likely that fast food restaurants and many other 'simple' jobs could easily be replaced.

The question then is: Are other jobs going to be created to replace the jobs lost to robots? The answer is likely no. It takes very few people to make and repair the robots compared to the jobs they will displace. And remember, robots will be building the robots.

What do these people do then? That is the interesting part. Will this cause a large lower class? Those who are unable to do more complicated technical tasks are not going to have anything to fall back on.

Brain Marshall proposes a welfare system of sorts. That everyone will get some kind of grant ($25,000 in fact) to supplement their living. His concern is that with money flowing into the corporations via the consumer, with little money leaving to the general population via salaries, the economy would be starved for money to be spent on products and we would become less efficient. (Where does this money come from - More Taxes - Ick.)

Now, I would suggest that you read the articles yourself and form your own opinion. It is an interesting thing to think about. My personal thought is that a welfare ideology is crap. That it is bound to fail. We need to teach people to be self reliant. Instead, allow a free market to determine its fate. It is likely it will pick what is best for itself (which typically means that it is better for the economy as well.) If you can't get a job as a minimum wage slacker, well then, tough. I would imagine that forcing society to be highly educated is probably going to do more good than bad. In lieu of this 'impending disaster' which only places more reliance on education, we could use our money to, ah... educate ourselves and our children.

If the future is going to demand education, then so be it.