Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Whatever happened to Dedalus? (and, by the way, Icarus too)

The failure and opportunity of technological innovation in Greece
Many myths are born in Greece, one of which claims that Greeks rank amongst the cleverest people in the world. And yet, by examining Greece’s ranking in the Global Innovation Index[1] you would be hard-pressed not to disagree. The country was at place 42 last year, at the bottom of every other western European country, a fact reflected on the sobering absence of Greek high technology products and services from the world market. More disparagingly, when the crisis hit, the debate about recovery was focused on investing, and improving, the tourism and agricultural sectors; which makes one wonder if our politicians and mainstream journalists live on another planet, or another era.
A favorite explanation for Greece’ lack of marketable hi-tech ideas is that public investment in research and development is very low. Indeed Greece’s public expenditure on RTD, at 0.57% of GDP[2], is one of the lowest in Europe. The key for improvement, politicians will hasten to claim, is more tax money funneled to science and technology. This may be true in the case of large scientific infrastructures or in fascilitating the mobility of scientists, or even for building a European Research Area free of cross-country obstacles - but the notion of public subsidies or grants is at least debatable when it comes to out-of-the-lab technological innovation. Given the current situation in Greece, not only it is mathematically impossible for the Public Purse to subsidize such type of innovation but, as I will argue, the surest way to stifle bright ideas that can immediately create market value is through government subsidies.
But what about the Universities and the research centres? Surely, they ought to be contributing ideas, people, and means - or don't they? Since Greece joined the EU in the early 1980s billions of Euros have been invested in research infrastructure and payrolls, in universities and research institutes. And more billions have poured in through a superfluity of EU-funded research programs. And yet, there is very little to show for it. With the exeption of certain, isolated, departments here and there Greek universities in general have failed both scientifically and socially. They have become playgrounds for organized groups of brain-washed, leftist students who terrorize staff and their fellow students, and vandalize what is public property in the name of academic freedom. Meanwhile, all kinds of byzantine machinations percolate in the background, for teaching positions that rarely target talent and more often than not are cheap rewards for blind loyalty. Greek universities have thus become a waste of taxpayers’ money which undermine the social cohesion of the country. Why? Because kids from poorer families cannot get the standard of higher education that their more well-off peers –whose parents can afford to send them abroad – do. Bright professors and research students who can, have started to flee. Research institutes do not fare any better. Like every other public institution in Greece they are heavily politicized at the expense of good research work.
The private, high-tech sector does not innovate either. Since the 1980s Greece has been de-industrialized whilst failing to claim a position in the global, digital economy. The result is that the majority of so-called “innovative” companies are proposal-making manufacturers that go after EU-subsidies. It is precisely this policy of subsidization that has rendered Greece a follower and not a leader; and here is the reason why.
The key to marketable innovation is risk. New ideas are risky because you never know if they have any value unless you invest in them first and then roll them out into the real word. So the question arises who takes the risk for all this? By introducing a grant or subsidy system, the risk is borne mainly by the state (or the EU). But this is wrong for at least two reasons, one moral another economical. Why should the taxpayer be burdened with the risk for something that, if successful, will profit only certain individuals? Secondly, the only real motivation for doing things right is when by doing things wrong you have something to lose; grant and subsidy takers do not have a strong enough motivation because they simply do not risk their own money and time; on the contrary, their main economical goal becomes the taking of the subsidy; therefore, their success is measured not by the efficacy of the end product but by the approval of their grant application by a bureaucrat who, in turn, risks not his own but the taxpayers’ money in the name of some vague “social good”. Hence, the proliferation of the proposal-making industry and the strangulation of the really good ideas; the latter constantly have to compete against government subsidies and grants, taxation and levies.
And yet there are many people in Greece with very bright ideas. They are the untapped human capital, the best of the best this country has. They are struggling against a well-entrenched system that is indifferent to merit and hostile to business. Potentially, they could be an agent for change and economic growth, if only they were given a chance. The wonderful thing about the digital economy is that you need very little infrastructure. A computer, a modem and access to the Internet is all you need; that, and a good idea. Greece may never become the innovation hub of big multinationals but can become a place for innovation start-ups in the creative industries, the media, web applications, industrial and architectural design, smart green technologies, as well as social innovation.
There is a movement of people, young or somewhat less young entrepreneurs, who are willing to take risks. Today, if they want to start a business they must go through a bureaucratic labyrinth and begin to pay taxes and contributions before they make their first euro. This is a serious impediment for someone who aspires to something speculative and risky. Greece cannot afford to lose her brightest entrepreneurs. At the same time, no one expects the Greek socio-political system to change overnight to suit them. And yet this crisis can become, paradoxically, a golden opportunity for those innovators, if only the government would be willing to allow them to mitigate risk outside the system. No subsidies, no grants, no nanny state. In fact, the best recipe would be to have as little state intervention as possible.
This can be achieved, for example, by allowing technological start-ups a two-year tax and social contributions’ break. If you think you have a great idea register your tech company with the tax office on-line and get a VAT Number. This procedure should only take one minute and be done wholly on the web. Then, all you have to do is concentrate on being inventive and profitable. For two years you don’t have to pay tax. If you want to employ someone, you do not have to pay IKA. You can pay him/her cash in hand at a level agreed between the two of you. You don’t have to pay TEVE, the various levies, whatever. If after two years you have managed to prove that your idea can succeed in the real world then start paying your dues to the society that permitted you to realize your dream. If not, stop - or maybe try again another idea.
Let the government do that and all else will follow. Given this tax-free framework for innovative start-ups the private sector will be more willing to invest in risky projects. There is a superb example called “Open Fund” right now, a wholly-private, grassroots initiative, which offers seed money and precious business advice to technological start-ups. One must not lose hope that in the near future a major reformation of Greek state universities will also take place under pressure by Greece’s lenders, as well as the establishment of the first private universities, which may be able to transform the current, ruinous situation of higher education in Greece. World-class education standards, a business-friendly environment and less government, and this country may manage to bootstrap itself out of its perennial debts, and become a place we can all be proud of.
I am not a believer of myths, but I do believe in people and individuals with a vision and the will to take risks. What we need is for the Dedalus spirit of inventiveness to be given a chance. Remember that there came a time that Dedalus had enough of his state sponsor and decided to move on; whereupon he had his greatest idea: to fly. Like Dedalus we have to leave behind the shores of false security and take to the skies. Which is a risky business, because for innovation to take flight you need to test the limits and aim to go beyond. To invent like a Dedalus but to think, and dream, like an Icarus.
An edited version of the article was published in Odyssey magazine (Summer 2010 issue)
[1] he Global Innovation Index is a global index measuring the level of innovation of a country, produced jointly by The Boston Consulting Group (BCG), the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), and The Manufacturing Institute (MI), the NAM's nonpartisan research affiliate.
[2] Eurostat Newsrelease 8/9/09

Monday, September 6, 2010

Looking for Klingsor

Imagine falling asleep and entering a vivid dream, so vivid that when you awake you are going to remember it well. In this dream you find yourself in an extraordinary place that looks like the ruins of a majestic city from a distant past. There is no one around, no one to ask for information, just you and the silent ruins; vestiges of buildings, open spaces that could be agoras, or piazzas, or landing pads for flying machines, and carved pathways that could be remnants of streets or dried-up water channels or whatever. Nothing about this place is familiar. It is the city – if, indeed this is a city – of mysteries.
As you walk on, feeling mystified, perplexed and at the same time full of wonder, you come across a familiar object. It sits atop a podium and, wow, it looks like a book! At last, something you recognize; a book! You are indeed a very lucky person. You rush impatiently to pick it up. Holding your breath you open it in the hope for answers. But as your eyes fall on its pages your initial excitement wanes. Alas, the book is written in a totally unintelligible alphabet. The answers you hoped to find are so out of reach. Nevertheless, you being an intelligent and persistent sort of person, not one to give up so easily, you sit down and start going through the book in a most methodical way, in a single-minded quest to decipher the strange alphabet. Your instinct tells you that the book may hold the city’s mystery. That the unintelligible words might speak the story that fills the gaps. If you managed to read the book you will have arrived at an explanation: you will have known where you are and how you got there, who was there before you and, most importantly perhaps, why the city has been ruined. For it is the last part that concerns you, ultimately, the most. Perhaps the city of gaps is not the past, but the future. Then your quest within your dream comes to an abrupt end and you awake.
Quickly, before dreams, ethereal as they are, volatile in their constitution, unreliable in their loyalties, wipe themselves out from memory, you rush and write down what you saw in your mind’s wonderings. Then you read and re-read what you wrote, re-living your dream. You read your story about a story. If only you were not so absolutely certain that you had been dreaming! Your dream was as real as it could get and the more you read about it the more real it becomes. If someone else read what you wrote she would probably be convinced that you were not a dreamer but a story-teller, or a myth-maker, or an archaeologist, or a forensic expert, or – indeed – a truth-seeker of any guise.

In Jorge Volpi’s novel “In search of Klingsor” the coded book is the book of nature. The undecipherable letters are protons and electrons and neutrons, the colorful zoo of elementary particles. The dream is Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle. As a reader you find yourself dreaming inside Volpi’s story. Your narrator is Gustav Links, a mathematician and an eye-witness to the incredible physics revolution that took place in Germany between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th. His nemesis is a young American physicist-cum-intelligence officer by the implausible name Francis Bacon. Sometimes the narrative - your reader’s dream - ebbs so subtly back and forth from Bacon to Links, as if those two characters were in fact one and the same. The curious duality persists throughout the plot. After all, you are in Heisenberg’s bizarre quarters of quantum trickery, where nothing can be pinpointed with accuracy. You must accept the dubious, the uncertainty of reality. Volpi’s heroes are in this sense very real too, the whole entourage, Einstein, Bohr, Von Neuman, Kurt Gödel, an order of legendary modern knights who seek the Ultimate Answer, the Truth, the Holy Grail. Klingsor, the code name for the elusive villain, the one Bacon seeks so passionately, along with the American Government – not to mention the Soviets – is a hero of many: Volpi’s, as well as Wagner’s. Klingsor is a Nordic incarnation of knowledgeable evil, a Lucifer of the Arctic, as well as the codename given to the mysterious man who commanded the German scientific research effort under the Nazis. Another duality, another story-within-a-story, another book-within-a-book, multiplicities mirrored ad infinitum. Take note that a rumor persists to date that Francis Bacon, the establisher of the scientific method, was the alter ego of William Shakespeare, the writer. Could the fictional characters Francis Bacon and Gustav Links be alternate manifestations of the same person? Like the dual nature of light, could one be the wave and the other the particle? They seem to share so many common passions, particularly with women. They bond in a very similar and often tragic way, they emit similar photons of desperation, they tunnel through history without ever touching upon its events, narrowly escaping everything that occurs around them – including bombs - until the final chapter, when Links, accelerated beyond control at the speed of light, hits upon a wall and disintegrates. Not surprisingly perhaps, Bacon disappears instantly too.

Where did Links and Bacon come from? Whence stories? Do they exist outside the novelist’s mind? And if so where? Are they discovered whilst delving into a platonic realm of perfect forms, or are they invented in the same way that the light bulb was? Is the brain function of the scientist similar to that of the poet, when they compose their respective works?
Apparently dissimilar and mutually exclusive, the “two cultures” took divorce several centuries ago. Plato, ironically, would have approved. In the Republic he makes explicit his distaste for poets and instructs for their exclusion from civilized society (grudgingly, presumably for sentimental reasons, he allows only for the occasional reading of Homer). Descartes cements the divorce further by stating that scientists deal with the “material”, the res extensa and poets, writers etc. (and priests, the other class of story-tellers) with the “spiritual” or the “imagined”, the res cogitans.
In the wake of the 21st century the imagined is being recorded in the bright colors of brain scans. The imagined is now also a “thing”, i.e. a rightful member of the class of res extensa. Dreams are scientific objects to be peered upon in the same way that chemical molecules are. Soon, with the further advancement of brain scan technology, dream watchers in University labs will be able to track dreams at the level of neurotransmitter concentrations and electrochemical pulses. But we do not have to wait for this near future. We can safely conclude now that the imaginer (the scientist, or the writer) and the imagined (the theory, or the novel) are all things. In this sense, literature and science have rediscovered each other in a post-modernist, ultra-materialist fashion. This amazing notion also confirms something we always knew, namely that scientists are story-tellers too. The evolutionary theory is the narrative of life on Earth, from its just-chemical past to its multi-cellular, car-driving, Earth-polluting present. Geology tells us a story about the formation of the continents and thus explains their constitution, morphology, oil wells as well as nasty occurrences such as volcanoes and quakes. Cosmology spins a much longer story, about the whole of the Universe, how it came about starting from a hot soup of exploding energy. Science: stories, within stories, dreams within dreams, things about things, brains areas flashing on a screen, dopamine, serotonin, osmosis, the chemical works.

The trouble with this equalizing notion, however, is that it cancels distinctions. The artificial divorce is off – hurrah! - and narratives are re-united; however, as schoolchildren will confirm, novels are not science and science is not a novel. If science and novels were the one and the same, then we would not have airplanes, or telephones, or antibiotics. Earth could look any way you liked. And birds, sometimes, would talk and even prophesize the future. We would be living inside someone’s imagination, without fixed natural laws, where anything could happen anytime. Miracles, i.e. unexplained freaks of haphazard occurrence, would be the bill of every moment. Experience thankfully says otherwise. And brain scans, alas, are furnishing us with little more than triviality. In fact, it is not only trivial but outright wrongful to surmise that narratives of scientists and narratives of writers are substantially equivalent, in the manner that liquid water is essentially the same as ice. A boundary exists, we can be certain of that. But where is the boundary? And what is it made of?
If the dreamscapes of science are different from the dreamscapes of literature, then they must lie in totally different dimensions. There must be a single, quintessential element that differentiates those different categories of dreamscapes beyond doubt.
That element exists. And it is called the experiment.
In the sum total of infinite dreamscapes, there is only a finite number where the experimental method works. There lie the dreamscapes of science. Nowhere else, in no other literary narrative space whatsoever, can you design and execute experiments. Only in the dreamscapes where experiments are meaningful science stories are being made, tested and told.

Writers are not experimentalists, not in the way scientists are. Literature is believed in a different way, without the need to prove that its stories are, indeed, so. Just imagine people walking out of the theatre because they cannot believe that the actors are who they say they are in a play. The suspension of disbelief granted to a good novel, or a good play, is certainly not granted to any scientific theory. In the latter case the opposite is true. Doubt rules the day. Popper suggests that scientific theories must be falsifiable in order to be worth their name. Novels do not have to be. You cannot prove that Links or Bacon never existed. Not only it is impossible to prove Volpi a liar but it is also beside the point.
And yet the dreamscapes of writers and scientists intersect. Both writers and scientists, belonging to the same species of animal, with brains wired in similar fashion and subject to limits set by the senses and known to theorists of knowledge, share a lot. Above all they share the same method of story-telling. Novels and scientific theories go through successive hypotheses, failures, deductions and intuitions. Ultimately however, a novelist is given the Nobel Prize for telling lies that reveal an inner truth, while a scientist for telling truths that reveal the depth of our collective ignorance or - if you prefer - the inner lies that haunts us.
For science and literature, imagination is a shared laboratory, ideas the denizens of scientists’ and novelists’ minds, their continuous mutations and transformations the material that feeds their brains in order to deliver their work. Within that shared laboratory it is not infrequent that they both discover the same, ultimate, truth. Like Klingsor and the Graal, like Physics and the Theory of Everything, like the Volpi’s novel and any novel or scientific theory, a path is plowed where there was none, a way is found in the dark, a story is told, to fill the gaps and offer answers to as yet unanswered questions, to ultimately arrive at the ultimate gap that always waits inside the nucleus of every story. And in that ultimate, nuclear, gap, novelists and scientists alike, shall always find the beginning of yet another story.

Hot chocolate in Mexico City

Cortez annihilated the Aztec Empire and enthroned himself as the new ruler of what was to be henceforth named New Spain of the Ocean Sea. Faithful to a centuries-long tradition of establishing the victor’s capital upon the ruins of the vanquished he gave instructions for the new imperial capital to be built on the swamplands of Tenochtitlan. The result, the modern megapolis of Mexico City has been slowly sinking under its own weight ever since, a curious testament to Cortez’s ill-informed vision. They say that some day most of the buildings will have become too unsafe to inhabit. Perhaps in the next century Mexico City will become a ghost town abandoned by its populace. As I drink a cup of hot chocolate in a Starbucks in La Zona Rosa I am thinking of Cortez. Throngs of shoppers and passers-by parade in front of my eyes and they look to me like reincarnated Aztecs bidding their time against eternity, or like ghosts going in and out of time. A gay couple canoodles happily at a table nearby oblivious to the underground forces of suction, and more interested in their own. I imagine a Spanish soldier dreaming a nightmare and waking up in the middle of the night, rushing to Cortez, finding the big man sleeping in the company of two young native girls, and crying out to him, let us leave this place now chief, let us go back down to the coast, let us build our city there. I am a coffee drinker really. Chocolate I chose because, originally, it has been a native American drink exported to the so-called Old World. My attempt to an honest tribute is tainted with unfortunate franchise irony. Fat dark clouds seal the last remaining porthole of blueness in the sky and rain begins to fall in abundance. I feel the water entering the underground veins of Mexico City, seeping and uniting with the never-defeated swamp, sapping the foundations, conspiring towards the city’s ultimate demise. Water from the sky, water underneath. Ten thousand years later: a mystery of city abandonment puzzles the visitors from Star Orion. They are descendants of long-forgotten Earth colonists returning to a deserted Earth, a world too hot to be inhabited, too lifeless to be loved. A young cosmonaut wakes up from a dream as the spaceship enters orbit, a nightmare of a serpent god. I get up and without care of getting wet return to my sinking hotel.


The girl comes dressed like a character from a video game. She materializes out of thin air. Or, perhaps, she comes in through the air, with the blowing of the wind. She says, pointing at the TV. “Anything on?”
But the girl cannot go through walls. She has tried many times and failed. Bangs her head, hurts her hands as she tries to push her way into the tightly-knit molecules of tar and plaster. In the end she gives up. “OK, what's new?” she huffs and plops on the side of the bed.
The character she impersonates changes every time she visits. One day she may be dressed like something out of Super Mario, or Goemon, or Twin Bee, or Mortal Combat. Dragon Quest makes her look the sexiest. She arrives with a twin blade axe and boots up to her thighs and a bra made of leather imitation plastic. Nothing on TV. “Have you got something to eat?” Leftovers from McDonalds.
The girl fades away.
The girl returns.


In the disturbed village of Saint Horribilum, in the northern borders of our empire, the clock that one finds in the rather faceless central square comprises a series of noteworthy technical oddities. Such has been the apparent intent of its makers, to elucidate the vanity of existence, that they have – most strikingly - omitted the dials. Then, they introduced a functionless automaton, a self-negation of a machine that does not work, cannot work, will never work, but nevertheless creates to the beholder the feeling of imminent working. Eyes closed, limps hanging, a diaphanous skeleton which may, if awaken, speak the time. No one lives in the central square since the clock was brought to the village, installed in the church tower and inaugurated by the Emperor’s envoy. The villagers abandoned their homes soon afterwards and all access to the square has been blocked ever since. The visitor (alas, one has to be a believer in miracles to imagine anyone wanting to visit Saint Horribilum) will have to offer considerable bribery and swear secrecy to the gods, in order to be taken to see the notorious clock. One such visitor, probably the only one ever, has written to me recently with his report. There are aspects of the report pertaining to matters of imperial security which I must conceal for obvious reasons. But I am at liberty to disclose one more interesting aspect of the village’s engineering anathema: its cunning resemblance to a miniscule globulin first encountered by the great English polymath Robert Hooke. Perhaps then, the clock is not made of nuts and bolts. Perhaps is not man-made. Perhaps it is an animal.

The Archive

The Archive is complete. Nothing is missing from it. Its tomes have been catalogued with absolute precision, with meticulous care, and a detailed index has been constructed for all time. There is nothing more to add. To subtract is a capital offence. The task of the Master Archivist is to maintain the order of the Archive; to ensure its completeness; to eternalize its perfection; to preserve its integrity and purity. In fact, his title is misleading. His not truly an Archivist, for he does not archive anything. As said, the Archive is complete. It contains everything that is to be contained. Nothing exists, or is allowed to exist, that is not already there. Therefore, the Archivist is more like a guardian; or a keeper, a watcher, a minder. He exists in order to guarantee that everything remains so forevermore. That nothing will be either lost or added. So that the balance may never be disturbed. If however, as it occasionally happens, a new piece of material is created, by some paradoxical twist of misfortune, then the Archivist must initiate the process of it destruction. He must order a message to be sent to the prefect agent and thereof to the field agents in the area of creation, who in turn will have to make sure the material gets eliminated immediately. You could say that the order of things is incarnated in the watchful preservation of the Archive. The Archive is all there is.

Etherwave Proxima Q

The technology is rather simple, I am told. A square wooden box, big enough for an average sized human to crouch within, painted blue or green on the outside. It is important that water is somehow present, perhaps a glass of water placed nearby; although the word “water”, written in any language, or even insinuated, would also suffice. One does not have to enter the box. It is however imperative to imagine oneself inside: eyes closed, relaxed, without worries or concerns, as if about to depart on a long and pleasant journey. The box is to be placed in an open space, a field of grass or, preferably, a desert. One does not have to be near it. In fact, the most famous virtuosos of Etherwave Proxima Q usually sit hundreds, and sometimes thousands, of miles away from their instruments. Sounds are produced spontaneously by the instrument. Players do not produce sounds and cannot make the instrument produce sounds either. They can only modulate, shape and hopefully re-compose the haphazardly-produced sounds into music. Trained players can force sounds into the natural scale by simply thinking about it. And can control pitch by breathing deep, or shallow, increasing or decreasing respectively. Weather permitting (storms are better than windless days, and hurricane season better still), one can tune the instrument into a full-blown orchestra. Recent reports suggest that sunspot activity may affect tonality and polyphonic spectrum. But it is too early for conclusions. The psychic overhead of monitoring the sun’s chaotic patterns while at the same time imagining sounds is too burdensome and one has yet to come with a full-scale piece of solar etherwave worthy of public performance.

The nomadic texts

It began as a simple translation. The civil servants who still resided idly at the Archives, not having anything better to do with their time, spending their working hours doing no work at all, decided to practice their language skills. They chose a text at random. (No one knows what the initial text was). At first, the text was translated in a language that one of them had a very sketchy, knowledge of. In fact, he had knowledge only of its existence, not of the language itself. Luckily, in the Archives, there was a grammar book written by a dead scholar, a singular world expert in that forgotten language, and the servants used it as a guide. A peculiar characteristic of that language was that verbs migrated. Perhaps because the people who originally spoke that language were migrants too, lost souls wandering the vastness of grassy steppes. Their spoken words travelled up and down their sentences, as if the horizon was nowhere, changing their meaning, as one would have to do if one lived inside an immutable medium. For example, if one intended to say “tomorrow I will meet you at the battlefield,” but changed his mind half way while uttering the sentence, he could simply transpose the verb, and the sentence could read any odd perturbation such as, “the battle is for tomorrow but I will not be there”, or “tomorrow is a fine day to battle”, or “meet me tomorrow and we shall see what happens”, etc.
At first, the civil servants found their game an amusing one. The initial text was made to mean increasingly different things, verbs jumped sentences as if by their own will, and every time they translated back and forth, the text – or should we now set texts – became alive, like a swarm, like a superorganism, a like a nest of nomadic ants seeking a place to entomb their colony. Several days later, the merriness of the civil servants that was to be heard by passers-by, as they played their language game and laughed at the ever more meaningless results, ceased. No one paid attention at the beginning, assuming that the servants had become bored at long last, and had fled the Archives, for there was no reason for them to be there in the first place, the whole Civil Service having been defunct since the island’s disappearance. When they were found, years later, or eons, or tomorrow in the battle, they met.

The Mission Diaries I

The task that befell the High Office was to assemble a mission to conduct a methodical search for the lost island. It was a decision that many in the High Office dreaded. So when the paper with the order arrived - by official post so that the regular excuses for endless delay would not hold the slightest water - dread gave way to exasperation. A committee was put together hastily, leaves were cancelled, lights were switched on for working deep into the hours of night, and they threw themselves into the Archives in search of potential members for such a mission. They studied the tales of Jason and the Argonauts, the Odyssey, the Aineiad; and took notes of a thorough list of skills that a team ought to combine; unmatched mastery in the martial arts, superhuman navigational instinct, indomitable courage, unparalleled engineering genius, and most importantly, formidable psychic powers that could bend space-time at will. The Committee went through the phone book and called a few numbers. In the following days a long line of applicants appeared outside the High Office’s office building, a twisting snake of eagerly-awaiting hopefuls. Centuries later, when word of the island’s whereabouts and the fate of the mission finally reached our world, it became clear that the selection process was erratic, not to put it in any finer words. It was said that among the crew a certain fellow, a borrowed soul from a novel not yet written, a conjurer of dreams, was destined to lead the mission through the most treacherous of waters, and that it was thanks to him that the mission did not lose its way completely, that it managed to circumnavigate the Sea of Emotions and the Spheres of Galactic Apprehension and then ride on the spiral Nebulas of Ignorance, and then…Oh, but their story never ends. And in so far as that dreamer fellow is concerned, the Archives speak mostly of his infamous talent; to enter minds like a worm enters a fruit, to burrow all the way to their nucleus, to see things that no mind could ever see by itself. His name was Cyrus.

Wednesday, September 1, 2010


This is the alpha constant, a pure number which determines the structure of atoms in our universe. Had it been more than 4% different it would be impossible to have stable carbon atoms, and therefore there would not be carbon-based life-forms writing blogs and pondering about the mystery of this number.

To get the alpha constant you must multiply the square of the electron charge by 2 pi and then divide the product by the product of the speed of light times the Planck constant. So it is a constant of constants, with the difference that is dimensionless, i.e. id does not have measurement units. If an alien civilization used any other different set of measurement units to describe the same physical constants they would arrive at the same, pure, number.

So why this number? Why this universe so fine-tuned for life? During the long debate about the alpha constant some of the most logical, and at the same time crazy, hypotheses, were (a) that there are infinite number of universes and we just happen to inhabit in the life-friendly one – the “multiple universes hypotheses” and (b) that we inhabit a small part of a much, much, much bigger universe where all kinds of variations of nature’s constants occur – “the multiverse hypothesis”.

In a paper just submitted to Physical Review Letters, a team led by John Webb and Julian King from the University of New South Wales in Australia present evidence that the fine-structure constant may not actually be constant after all; evidence in favour of a multiverse. If their observations stand the test of independent duplication, then we can imagine the multiverse as a giant ocean, lifeless for the most part, where nothing happens, and only after travelling for an endless distance the interuniversal explorer of our imagination may come along a tiny coral reef, mostly dead too but still too interesting not to miss.

For our explorer would observe structure and complexity therein, and if she looked deeper still, she would discover the strangest and most wonderful behaviour of matter and energy, how they bonded together to form carbon-based compounds, that became more complex still, they reproduced themselves, they developed into ecosystems, into life, and at some stage, given enough time and vast amounts of luck, into intelligence.

Friday, July 16, 2010

Aristotle in a chip

The reemergence of ancient notions in the modern field of bioinformatics

Aristotle, in his zoological opus Historia Animalium (The history of animals), launches into his analysis of the animal kingdom by observing differences and similarities between the species. For example, he observes that bats and birds both have wings, so he surmises that they must be grouped together; like fish and dolphins should. By examining animal anatomy and by comparing features such as number or shape of legs (or absence of legs), wings, types of skin, habitats, etc., Aristotle put together a logically coherent taxonomy of animal life that remained virtually unchallenged until Linnaeus. This idea of comparative anatomy, as systematized by Aristotle, is essentially the study of homology (from the Greek word “hómoios”: “similar”) – i.e. of similarities. The idea flowed naturally from Aristotelian Logic and in particular his theory of syllogisms: is A equals B and C equals B, then A equals C. If one replaces “equal” with “similar”, then homology is the logical corollary of equality.

Ancient Greek, and by consequence Medieval European, homology was explained by ideal archetypes, by timeless blueprints designed by a heavenly architect, and into which the objects of perceived reality were molded. Darwin’s revolutionary idea was to provide a naturalistic explanation to animal homology, thus ushering in the era of the scientific study of life.

One and a half centuries after the publication of Darwin’s Origin of Species the modern brethren of his Victorian genius spend much of their time, alas not aboard adventurous sailing yachts roaming the southern seas, but in front of computer monitors applying an ever-expanding arsenal of mathematical and computational techniques in the analysis of living organisms.

One of the most significant application areas of bioinformatics – as this contemporary fusion of biology, computer science and mathematics is termed – is in the study of complex molecules, such as proteins.

Proteins, the building blocks of cells, have structures made up from their particular sequence of aminoacids (which are, in turn, the building blocks of proteins); the way these amino acid molecules unfold in three-dimensional space is what determines the function of a protein. So it is very important for biologists to be able to predict the structure of proteins. What we know is that a protein structure is generally determined by the sequence of the gene that codes for it. And here is where the notion of homology reemerges. It is used to predict the function of a gene. If the function of gene A, whose function is known, is homologous to the sequence of gene B, whose function is unknown, one could infer that B may share A’s function. In a technique called homology modeling, this information is used to predict the structure of a protein once the structure of a homologous protein is known.

Caveat Lector: biologists beware! Meddling with mathematicians who are, secretly, Platonic devotees, may one day lead you to the defense of positivist naturalism against subversive philosophical attacks from the musical spheres of perfect, ideal, proteins-out-there. Ancient ideas, as you should know, are very hard to beat.

Monday, July 12, 2010

The Word Machine of Lagado

Jonathan Swift published the first edition of Gulliver’s Travels in 1726 and since then it has never been out of print. In Book III, Gulliver is abandoned by pirates on the continent of Balnibarbi. After a visit to the flying island of Laputa, he is taken to the Academy of Lagado, where “useless projects” are undertaken. There, he is given a demonstration of a word machine, which is nothing less than a giant mechanical computer used for making sentences and books. The satirical aspect of Swift’s idea is that the machine renders obsolete any study or expertise; an absolute idiot can write a masterpiece by virtue of cranking the machine. In the post-modern context the irony becomes a tenet: all texts are self-produced, they have an transcendental-bibliographical animus which acts like a virus. Human minds are the hosts of this viral propagation and mutation of texts. The writer “thinks” he is the creator but he is merely an empty vessel, a hapless idiot.

The word machine of Lagado has fascinated computer dreamers too. It is the original idea behind Hilbert’s Ur-algorithm – a logical contraption that, should humanity come to an end, can recreate by itself, automatically, the works and knowledge that was lost. The machine that can write any book. The mathematical formula that can prove every theorem. Thanks to Gödel we now know that such a machine, or algorithm, is impossible to construct. But the fascination with the word machine of Lagado is too strong to let go. Like a childhood dream it returns again and again to haunt the adult life with nostalgia. What if there is a way round Godel’s incompleteness theorem? What if there exists, somewhere in an infinite multiverse, a word machine like the one dreamt by Swift? What if our thoughts are written in the pages of its infinite books?