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Do robots get it?

13 May
female_robot

Image by Rhex Firemind

A story of mine was recently published in the online science fiction journal, Ripples In Space.

It’s about artificial intelligence in a young female robot and a visiting scientist who wants to determine if she is capable of comprehending unconventional thought patterns.

It’s short and you can read it in a flash.

I call it   “Learning”

Click to read. Thanks.

Lanny Morgnanesi

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Nearly every physicist in the world will insist that you – yes, you — have married a movie star, earned millions of dollars and lived in an exotic locale. They know you’ve done this – even if you don’t –because their research proves it. Strangely, this is what science has come to, and it’s bunk.

18 Sep

Quantum

Basic science once was easy. Now it’s difficult for even scientists, and those who pretend to understand it probably don’t.

 

There is no logic to it. Nothing in the observable world compares to it. Metaphors can no longer explain it. Wild imagination is required just to discuss it.

 

In ancient times, when there was a lunar eclipse, people would say their god ate the moon and later vomited it up. Don’t laugh. The stories our scientists tell today also sound like fables.

 

Consider this standard, nearly universal tenant of science:

 

We cannot predict what a particle will do because it actually does everything while inhabiting a multitude of universes.

 

What this means on a larger scale is that each one of us has married a movie star, become a millionaire and done nearly everything else that is possible to do — and maybe more. We just didn’t do it in the single universe we wake up to every day. We did it somewhere else.

 

There is no word yet on how to jump our consciousness to those other universes, where clearly we are having a lot more fun.

 

Rather than just accept such ideas, which evolve from a desperate, almost ruthless attempt to boil science down into a single theory of everything, I take the position that human being are incapable of fully understanding what exists and how the universe works.

 

It’s a concession few are willing to make, but I have made it.

 

To their credit, scientists keep trying to figure it all out. The problem is, they try too hard.

 

In the time-honored tradition of changing the facts to fit the theory, scientists – mainly physicists — make their single-theory equations work by adding 10 or more dimensions to the four we know. They have pushed the limits of logic by describing a key component of matter as having only two dimensions while at the same time saying it seems to have only one. Perhaps most interesting but hardest to accept is that the theory assumes our universe is one of many universes and that the history we know is but one occurrence of infinite occurrences, meaning all things in all ways have happened.

 

Yes, you have driven a Lamborghini and owned a house in the South of France.

 

Only by assuming such things can a single theory work.

 

Feynman quoteModern physics used to be about spheres revolving around a central core of matter. The planets revolved around a sun; electrons around their nucleus. Big and small objects sort of worked the same.

 

The catastrophe of science began when it was determined that big and small did not work the same. Things were far more complex than a bunch of balls circling around other balls.

 

Scientists who longed for a single theory could not live with this duality of big being different from small. And so they struggled for a theory that would handle both. These theories only worked with 10 or 11 dimensions, with vibrating strings replacing atoms, with everything having not one life but a history of every possible life.

 

There actually is an assortment of these theories. And, mathematically, they all work – which I think means they can predict what is observed or sort of observed. In the new science, you really can’t observe anything.

 

Any scientist reading this will know I am not one of them. For the past several decades, however, I have tried keeping up with their progress. I’ve enjoyed and felt comfortable with Einstein’s theories of special and general relativity. They were complex and not entirely in line with what we experience in life, but scientists found believable ways to explain them using stories of clocks on trains and twin space travelers.

 

Next came quantum mechanics, which defied all logic and seemed impossible and ridiculous but could not be proven wrong. Then, when physicists started trying to unify theories on the four forces of nature (gravity, electromagnetism and the weak and strong forces of the atom), a big mess started to accumulate and I could not keep up.

 

But recently, I checked back to see if anything sensible had developed. I picked up the book, “The Grand Design” by Stephen Hawking (the guy in the wheelchair) and Leonard Mlodinow (a physicist at Caltech). Like any survey of science for the layman, it starts off good.

 

The authors even make jokes about their profession.

 

stephen-hawkingAbout all those new dimensions, they say: “Ten dimensions might sound exciting, but they would cause real problems if you forgot where you parked your car.”

 

They included cartoons. One is of a woman introducing two men saying, “You both have something in common. Dr. Davis has discovered a particle which nobody has seen, and Prof. Higbe has discovered a galaxy which nobody has seen.”

 

The authors easily convey the genius of such minds as Richard Feynman (who in his spared time played bongos at a strip club), John Conway (the creator of a simple game that seems to explain the workings of God) and so many others.

 

But they also let on that few if any of today physicists really understand the things they expect us to believe.

 

Indeed, Feynman, a quantum god, once said that no one understands quantum mechanics. He described is as “nature as She is — absurd.”

 

Niels Bohr, a quantum pioneer, said that anyone who does understand quantum mechanics would be shocked by it.

It’s difficult to find a concise explanation of quantum mechanics, but author and theoretical physicist Sean Carroll said the theory tells us that what we can observe about the world is only a tiny subset of what actually exists.

 

Einstein recognized the importance and power of quantum theory while admitting an inner voice told him it was not the real thing.

 

Neils quoteI have this same problem. Something tells me that without elegance, logic and relative simplicity, a theory cannot be correct. The strange, counter-intuitive ideas of science, these mathematical attempts to explain what we are not yet capable of knowing, are earnest and hard-fought attempts to penetrate the impenetrable. They are not, however, for me.

 

I prefer to put in with Aristotle, who didn’t need to test, measure or even observe. If he could think it through and see the sense of it, he accepted it. If it explained the world and what he knew of it, that was enough.

 

Science is a marvel, but so are the philosophers and poets – so many of them ancient Greeks – who could explain the unseen and unknown without so much as a microscope. They were intuitive and in touch with the creation and they just knew.

 

That’s what I’m waiting for. A new Aristotle. A philosopher who just knows.

 

And even then, what is explained will be far short of reality. It will be a beautiful metaphor that we can grasp, glorify and use; one that will enable us to carry on in a long harmonic march toward the greater understanding of ourselves.

 

But I remained convince that the truth, the ultimate theory, is just not for us to know. We were created for another reason, a reason that will never be revealed. Something or someone else, a force not of this world, has the job of knowing. Tough luck for us.

 

The best part, however, is that few but me will admit it, and that the search continues. The search is good. It keeps us alive and gives us meaning, even if it takes us in circles.

 

As the biblical proverb says:

 

“It is the glory of God to conceal a matter; to search out a matter is the glory of kings.”

 

By the way, there are a few scientists who have come around to thinking their colleagues are dead wrong on quantum mechanics. For more, read this.

By Lanny Morgnanesi

The Greatest Science Fiction Story of All Time: A Reflection

29 Apr

Below is an essay I wrote for Analog, the science fiction magazine. It was rejected, so I thought I’d publish it here. Comments are appreciated.

Decades after its phenomenal success, a reaction to a first reading of Asimov’s “Nightfall”

Author Isaac Asimov

By Lanny Morgnanesi

For more than a year there was a task entry in my Outlook program that said simply, “Read ‘Nightfall.’ ”

Although I am a fan of its author, I had never read this celebrated short story.

Some say it is the best science fiction story ever written. It certainly is Isaac Asimov’s most famous story. Hence, the note in Outlook, which I created after reading a passing reference to the story and its hallowed reputation.

I knew I could find the story quickly online whenever I wanted, and so never quite got around to it … like living in New York and not visiting the Statue of Liberty. I must have been waiting for a special moment, not wishing to consume the piece lightly.

That moment came in the form of a premonition, or something like one. I was attending a business meeting in a college library. During a break I went over to the stacks. Directly in front of me, at eye level, was, “Nightfall and Other Stories.”

I took it home.

The story was written in 1941 while Asimov was attending Columbia University and working in his father’s candy store. It was published in Astounding Science Fiction, whose editor was a man named John W. Campbell.

The anthology I brought home came out in 1969. It contains an introduction by Asimov that is almost as interesting as the title story.

Reflecting on something he produced almost three decades earlier, when he was 21, the author expressed amazement at the story’s popularity and endurance. At the time he wrote “Nightfall,” Asimov had published a dozen stories. Another dozen had been rejected. He would go on to become an incredibly prolific author but never considered himself a trained writer.

Still, in his anthology introduction, he seemed flummoxed that as a seasoned professional he could not duplicate the success of the novice who wrote “Nightfall.”

He says in the intro:

“Now let’s get something straight.  I didn’t write that story any differently from the way I had written my earlier stories – or, for that matter, from the way I wrote my later stories. As far as writing is concerned, I am a complete and utter primitive. I have no formal training at all and to this very day I don’t know How To Write.

“I just write any old way it comes into my mind to write and just as fast as it comes into my mind.

“And that’s the way I wrote ‘Nightfall.’”

The tone almost seems resentful of his first great accomplishment.

Asimov had expected to be paid $120 for “Nightfall.” When the check came for $150 he thought it was a mistake. He called the editor, Campbell, who said there was no mistake. Such a good story deserved more.

Campbell had a personal interest in the work. In fact, he gave the idea to Asimov. It was based on his disagreement with a quote by Emerson … a quote that appears at the beginning of “Nightfall.”

This is the quote:

 

“If the stars should appear one night in a thousand years, how would men believe and adore, and preserve for many generations the remembrance of the city of God?”

Rather than create wonder and delight, Campbell believed the sudden appearance of stars (and darkness) after 1,000 years of daylight would drive everyone mad. That is what Asimov wrote about … a planet with multiple suns that is perpetually bright, except for one true night every 2,000 years or so.

The reader learns the planet has no recorded history of these infrequent nights because during each one, the world goes mad and civilization is destroyed.

Over the eons, life has been repeatedly rebuilt from nothing. There is, however, some scattered, vague knowledge of this that is prophesized by an eccentric cult.

Unequivocally, an extraordinary premise for a story.

Yet after so much anticipation, after so many accolades, I was sadly let down by “Nightfall.” I’d like to think it was the filter of time that took the edge off, but I know it was more than that.

How to explain my disappointment with a great, wonderful, brilliant man worshiped by people much smarter and more literate than me?

“Nightfall” maps out a wonderful and inventive idea, but the writer, in my reading, fails to finesse it; doesn’t creatively exploit its potential. I call this kind of writing “idea” writing. The work of Ayn Rand is the same. Concepts are strong; characters and story telling tend to be weak.

My favorite work of Asimov is the Foundation trilogy. Like “Nightfall,” it contains an exceptional scenario and complex, innovative, paradigm-breaking concepts. So rare; so different; so insightful. It is from the mind of someone very special. But it reads the same as “Nightfall.”

There also is the filter of time working against the Foundation series.

Asimov’s work from the 40s and 50s reads as if it were written in the 40s and 50s. It’s not that way with all science fiction of the era. Some writers tried very hard to steep themselves in an entirely new milieu. In an effort to do that, Asimov will give his characters names like Sheerin 501 but then have people smoking on spaceships and treating women passengers like stewardesses.

In “Nightfall” an important and influential character is a newspaper columnist. Newspaper technology, of course, is based on a 15th Century European invention. One wishes, perhaps unfairly, that he would have seen the digital world, or something else, coming.

Still, the young man from the candy store had his touches.

As the panicked mad men and women of “Nightfall” begin setting the world on fire as a way to re-create the light from their disappearing suns, Asimov ends his story this way:

On the horizon outside the window, in the direction of Saro City, a crimson glow began growing, strengthening in brightness, that was not the glow of the sun.

“The long night had come again.”

That, from the best science fiction story ever written, gave me chills.

In the anthology, Asimov advises readers to closely look at the other stories to determine why – or if – “Nightfall” is better than the others. He can’t seem to tell. It is almost as if he is jealous of the early success and hopes the verdict elevates another candidate.

The strong reaction to “Nightfall,” apparently different from Asimov’s, suggests that the artist is really not in control of the art.  Without permission, the work goes where it wants to go or where it needs to be, depending on the mind that absorbs it.

Now there’s a subject for a science fiction story … if only Isaac were around to write it.

Lanny Morgnanesi is a writer living in Doylestown, Pa. He can be reached at lannym7@gmail.com

 

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