Archive for the ‘philosophy’ Category


Your garden is full of quantum computers

April 24, 2007

It hasn’t made a big splash in the media, but the revelation about photosynthesis in Nature two weeks ago might be the sleeper science story of the year. (You’ll need a subscription or an academic account to follow the link.)

Photosynthesis has always posed a conundrum. It’s unreasonably efficient. While materials scientists struggle to get solar cells up to 30% efficiency, green plants everywhere chug happily along, converting photons to bound chemical energy with effiiciencies topping 95%.

How on earth do they manage it? That solar cell just converts a photon’s energy to charge, in a single step, and then drains off the charge. But in the light-eating organism, the photon excites an electron in one atom, and the excitation goes through a long cascade of other atoms in a complex molecule like chlorophyll, presumably losing energy all the way, until it finally creates a high-energy bond in a carbohydrate at the other end.

In a world run according to classical physics, not much energy could trickle through that whole process. But direct measurements have now indicated that what passes through the photosynthesizing molecule isn’t a series of distinct particles. It appears to be a single quantum wave, which doesn’t lose its coherence.

Let me unpack that just a bit more. In the two-slit experiment, the textbook example of a quantum process, an electron passes through a shield with two openings to land on a target plane. And what we learned in the ’20s and ’30s is that the electron will act like a wave which passes through both slits at once. The peaks and troughs of the wave passing through one slit will intefere with those of the wave passing through the other slit. At some points on the target plane the two parts of the wave will reinforce each other – the electron will be more likely to show up at those places – and at some they’ll cancel each other out, so the electron can’t show up there at all. Until the rest of the world interacts somehow with the electron, forcing the wave to collapse into a particle, it will retain this wavy character. The wtave state is said to be “coherent”, until such time as a collapse makes it decohere.

What Nature tells us is, that the excited electron at one end of the photosynthetic complex remains coherent, taking all possible paths through the molecule to the other end. And it appears that the complex is so cunningly arranged, that the inefficient, energy-losing paths cancel each other out, while the efficient paths enhance one another. As a result, hardly any energy is lost. It’s a process analogous to the “try all possible answers” method by which quantum computers are expected to filter out all but the right answer to a difficult factorization problem.

Such sustained coherence isn’t supposed to be possible very far from absolute zero. Thermal disturbances ordinarily force decoherence. But it seems that evolution, that clever artificer, has found some way to fend it off.

What does all this signify?

Weird as it is, quantum mechanics really does undergird the seemingly solid physical world. Over the years, we’ve grown used to quantum effects, whether we know it or not, since transistors – and with them our whole panorama of blinking, beeping, mousing, clicking, vlogging consumer electronics world – would be so much dead silicon in a classical Newtonian world.

Every so often some maverick will come along (Roger Penrose being the most credentialed) to suggest that something about our mental lives, from free will to consciousness itself, rests in some vaguely defined fashion on quantum strangeness. And those mavericks are generally laughed out of court, with very little hearing. Brains, neurons, proteins, are so big, and quanta are so small!

Now, the likes of Frank Capra may not deserve much hearing. But the bald assertion that quantum effects can’t figure in to the workings of the brain, because neurons, and even neural synapses, are several orders of magnitude larger than elementary particles, never really made sense. Geiger counters are several orders of magnitude larger still, but their macroscopic behavior will differ, depending on how the Schroedinger wave cookie crumbles.

Thanks to this article, the notions that free will, or consciousness itself, might be quantum-generated effects within the brain, have instantly become orders of magnitude more respectable.

In amore practical terms, the new result raises the faint possibility that plants and microbes may eventually teach us how to triple the efficiency of our solar systems. Why faint? Precise calculation of the quantum states of something as simple as a lithium atom push the limits of today’s supercomputers. To model the green sulphur bacterium’s “Fenna-Matthews-Olsen antenna complex” , its chlorophyll cradled by the attendant chromophores that maintain its subtle balances, would push the limits of Douglas Adams’ Deep Thought.

Some enterprising bioengineer may find an ingenious workaround to avoid brute force calculation. But unless she does, chlorophyll will keep most of its quantum secrets until long after we humans have either solved our CO2 problems by other means, or brought our own quantum computer technology into its full maturity , or descended into barbarism.


From Boswell, an oracle for our time

August 3, 2006

These days I’m reading Bury the Chains, Adam Hochschild’s penetrating and compulsively readable history of the British antislavery movement. One of the attendees at a critical London dinner, at which M.P. Wilberforce agreed to take up the abolitionist cause, was James Boswell.

Even the crotchety Boswell (who was later to change his mind) expressed backhanded support: “After saying the planters would urge that the Africans were made happier by being carried from their own country to the West Indies, [he] observed, ‘Be it so. But we have no right to make people happy against their will.'”

How delightful it would be, if Johnson’s scribe could attend a present-day White House dinner. Upon being told of how Bush and Cheney and Rumsfeld, in raining death and destruction upon one Middle Eastern country after another, have no object in mind but the spread of Democracy and Freedom, and the happiness of whatever little brown folks might be left alive at the end of America’s kindly ministrations, that acerbic son of Scotland could deliver himself of exactly the same remark.


Same old show. More expensive seats.

July 28, 2006

Thucydides, The Peloponnesian War, 431 BCE:

The meaning of words had no longer the same relation to things, but was changed by them as they thought proper. Reckless daring was held to be loyal courage; prudent delay was the excuse of a coward; moderation was the disguise of unmanly weakness; to know everything was to do nothing. Frantic energy was the true quality of a man. A conspirator who wanted to be safe was a recreant in disguise. The lover of violence was always trusted, and his opponent suspected.

The weapons grow more terrible, the costs more insupportable. But the ugliness and inhumanity of war never change. And the traits of a nation caught up in war fever never change either.

The country’s growing weary of the Iraq war, so the trusted lovers of violence are in the kitchen cooking up the next one, a fresh new shiny one, with its riveting new cast of scary villains. Their eye on fat juicy ratings, the media will once again pick up their trumpets and join the parade. But maybe, just maybe, it’s a little too soon since the last scam. This time, maybe, just maybe, the rest of us won’t fall into lockstep behind them.

I would like to find an old snapshot of the America I grew up in. A country where even the poorest had a roof over their heads. A country that wasn’t afraid of its own shadow; that did not kidnap and disappear people; that did not run secret torture chambers; that did not eavesdrop on all of its citizens’ conversations; that did not wage bloody Blitzkrieg on nations which posed no threat to it. I’d like to put that snapshot on milk cartons all over the land, asking “Have you seen me?”

Maybe some kind soul would find that strong, generous, friendly country, perhaps sleeping in an alley among the bombed-out and homeless, or sheltering between the pages of a forgotten Constitution, gather her up, give her a square meal of unfiltered information and fortified civil liberties. And bring her back to us.


There once was a man who said “Um”

July 21, 2006

I was peacefully napping when the messenger appeared at my bedside. The wings and the flowing robe accorded with tradition, but there was something slapdash about her. Maybe it was the strands of tinsel no one had bothered to brush out of her hair.

“It has come to our attention,” she said, “That you’ve blogged a few poems.”

“True enough,” I admitted, wondering what sort of infraction that might be.

“Not all that many bother with poetry anymore,” she said. “As a reward, you are being blessed with a Visitation. That would be me. Let me introduce myself. My name is Nevergotintogranta, and I am an Adjutant Assistant Inferior Muse. The Literaturnichtsohauptamt has authorized me to inspire you. In a small way, of course.” With a slightly embarrassed duck of her head, she withdrew a tiny scroll from under her robe, placed it by my pillow. “You may find this of comfort,” she said, “on those days when the stupidity and apathy are about to drive you to despair.” Then she vanished in a puff of Pine Needle Scent.

And so this limerick came into being.

There once was a man who said “Um”,
Sat down, and proceeded to num-
Ber lives that would end
Should survival depend
On removing one’s ass from one’s thumb.


Sands of temps perdu

April 24, 2006

Face it. When it’s all added up at the end, we’re not going to be able to point to that much time well spent. So the goal must be to maximize the sum of time spent well and time wasted well.

It’s your call whether this contributes to that sum. Just be warned that if you click here, the sands of time will slip away faster than you planned.