Saturday, June 20, 2009

Notes from The Ages of Gaia by James Lovelock

First, let's start with a word of wisdom:

"The young usually find the constraints of convention too heavy to escape, except as part of a cult. The middle-aged have no time to spare from the conservative business of living. Only the old can happily make fools of themselves."
James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, Introductory.

The second point concerns entropy and the fact that has become more and more obvious to me recently, that for any achievement, from the construction of a building to that of an idea, waste is unavoidable and this waste represents the entropy that needs to be rejected for the achievement to be meaningful, to be out of the ordinary and randomness:
"You, as you read these words, are creating entropy by consuming oxygen and the fats and sugars stored in your body. As you breathe, you excrete waste products high in entropy into the air, such as carbon dioxide, and your warm body emits to your surroundings infrared radiation high in entropy. If your excretion of entropy is as large or larger than your internal generation of entropy, you will continue to live and remain a miraculous, improbable, but still legal avoidance of the second law of the Universe. «Excretion of entropy» is just a fancy way of expressing the dirty words excrements and pollution. [...] We animals pollute the air with carbon dioxide, and the vegetation pollutes it with oxygen. The pollution of one is the meat of another. Gaia [Planet Earth] is more subtle and, at least until humans appeared, polluted the region of the Solar System with no more than the gentle warmth of infrared radiation."
James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, What is Gaia?

I will write, tomorrow, "Entropy" on the side of my garbage cans.

We keep going with an issue concerning the stability of a system and its level of complexity. Is the more complex a system, the more stable? This is, from what I have heard still a controversial issue. In his book, James Lovelock agrees with the theoretical ecologist, Robert May: the more complex a system, the more fragile and unstable and inversely. This goes maybe against the naive assumption that if a system has a greater diversity, it has a greater chance to handle external perturbation. But May's mathematics prove the contrary: "increasing complexity makes for dynamical fragility rather than robustness". Thus, "the complex natural ecosystems currently under siege in the tropics and subtropics are less able to withstand our battering than are the relatively simple temperate and boreal systems." (R. May, in Theoretical Ecology, cited in The Ages of Gaia, Exploring Daisyworld)

In the chapter Middle Ages, James Lovelock mentions an extraordinary theory that Earth biosphere would be responsible in part to...the plate tectonics:
"The geologist Don Anderson has speculated that the deposition of limestone on the ocean floor [via, for instance, the dying and sinking of Coccolithophores and the burying of their calcium shells] is a key factor in the motion of the Earth's crust. He proposed that sometime far back in the Earth's history, sufficient limestone was deposited to alter the chemical composition of the crustal rocks of the ocean floor near the continental margins. As a result an event, called the basalt-eclogite phase transition by geologists, took place. This transition so altered the physical properties of the crustal rocks that it became possible for the great machinery of plate movement to begin turning."
James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, The Middle Ages.

This theory would explain why plate tectonics are not a universal properties of the planets. I have no idea, however, if this idea has been dropped or is still alive. More reading will be needed. But fascinating idea nonetheless.

I will finish on an improved definition of Gaia's theory, that also gives some explanation on the origin of the interaction between the biosphere and its environment. James Lovelock, himself, has corrected a previous definition of Gaia's theory and has re-defined it in his book as follows:
"Living organisms and their material environment are tightly coupled. The coupled system is a superorganism, and as it evolves there emerges a new property, the ability to self-regulate climate and chemistry."
James Lovelock, The Ages of Gaia, Gaia since 1988.

In this definition, the co-evolution of the biosphere and its environment is the key to explain why the self-regulation of the system is a likely property. I know that there is a lot of criticisms against Gaia, even with this improved definition. Although I am also a bit skeptical, I am wondering why there is no such criticism relative to the thermal regulation of mammals. In this case as well, it should be hard to believe that cells can organize at such a higher level that the whole system succeeds in regulating its temperature. If such feast is possible for an organism, given the geological time over which evolution is working, why not for the Earth's system as well?

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Einstein's empirical creed

Max Born, in his Physics in my generation, reports Einstein's empirical creed:

"Concepts which have been proved to be useful in ordering things easily acquire such an authority over us that we forget their human origin and accept them as invariable. Then they become 'necessities of thought','given a priori', etc. The path of scientific progress is then, by such errors, barred for a long time. It is therefore no useless game if we are insisting on analysing current notions and pointing out on what conditions their justification and usefulness depends, especially how they have grown from the data of experience. In this way their exaggerated authority is broken. They are removed, if they cannot properly legitimate themselves; corrected, if their correspondence to the given things was too negligently established; replaced by others, if a new system can be developed that we prefer for good reasons."
quoted in Physics in my generation, Einstein's statistical theories.

Those are the conditions necessary to the evolutionary march of ideas. I also like the comment that ideas are and will always be of human origin, simple, beautiful and the counterpart, inexact. In such, they are formations of the brain to make nature more understandable to our eyes; but they are not nature itself.

View on Einstein on the determinism of nature

Max Born, in his book Physics in my generation, relates Einstein's view on the determinism of nature:

"His conviction seems always to have been, and still is today, that the ultimate laws of nature are causal and deterministic, that probability is used to cover our ignorance if we have to do with numerous particles, and that only the vastness of this ignorance pushes statistics into the forefront."
Max Born, Physics in my generation, Einstein's statistical theories.

Now, nobody says that Einstein was always right. Indeed, the development of quantum mechanics went in the opposite direction to Einstein's view.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Comparison of Bush and Obama's speeches on Middle East

I watched yesterday Obama's speech on the Middle East and found it courageous and fair. But am I objective, given that I am a strong Obama's fan? I found an old speech given by Bush that is revealing. Here is a comparison of the two speeches:

From my own account, I find Bush's approach to the issues aggressive, lesson-giving and most of all, lacking self-criticism. His description of the concepts of democracy and freedom are striking examples and are reminiscent of his own dual vision of the world: "we are the greatest, sorry; follow us or go to hell". I am not even sure I am being unfair here.

Notice also how he is not shy of critics of his "enemies". The issue of education at the beginning of the video is the perfect example of how to hurt an entire people: "[...] with primary schools teaching basic skills such as reading and math [rather than?] indoctrinating children with ideology of hatred." Unfair and completely counter-productive.