Thursday, June 28, 2012

Doves commuting to work

Sometimes animals do surprising things. There is the chimp Santino who, in his zoo cage, gathered a pile of rocks that he later tried to hit tourists with. What is impressive here is not the throwing (I believe that monkeys are quite good at that), but rather the fact that Santino gathered the stones before the tourists arrived.

Another example that many people have probably heard about is the crows in Australia who like nuts (see video below). The problem for the crows is getting the nuts open - they cannot do it themselves so instead they have developed a very clever strategy to achieve their goal. They fly to an intersection with traffic-lights and then wait until the cars stop (red light on), at this point they place their nut in their intersection and then fly up to a light-post of wire and wait for the cars to start driving. The cars then crack the nut and next time when the traffic light are red the crows fly down to the road and get their reward. Very clever indeed!

A third example that I only heard about yesterday, even though it was in our own Capital (Stockholm), is the doves who commute to work. In Stockholm there is a train network which is partially below ground and partially above. Doves have regularly been seen to board these trains, drive one station and then exit the train again. It seems that their rendezvous is "Farsta Strand" where there is plenty of cafes and restaurants where they find their food. The doves typically fly home however, sometimes they commute back from their work as well.

In some of the articles writing about this they say that the doves in London are even cleveler... They sometimes travel more than one stop.... My guess is that these behaviors (maybe with the exception of the chimp) are all extreme cases of operant conditioning. For some unlikely reasons the birds more or less accidentally dropped a nut or entered a train and then received a significant reward (either a nut or a lot of saved energy), which increased the likelihood that the behavior would occur again.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

The secret: The Law of Attraction and Einstein

Rhonda Byrne, author of "The Secret" is an expert when it comes to grabbing quotes from dead scientists to make it sound as if their quotes support her crazy idea that what you are thinking affects the universe. By the way, Byrne when stating her "Law of Attraction" doesn't just mean that what you think changes how you behave which changes the way people interact with you (a statement even I would agree with). Rather Byrne wants us to think that there is a fundamental, universal law (like the law of gravity), which entails that everything that has ever happened to you (at least that is how I interpret it), came about because of what you thought - happy thought lead to good things and negative thought lead to bad things...

Byrne writes that: 

"The law of attraction is a law of nature. It is as impartial as the law
of gravity."

"Nothing can come into your experience unless you summon it through persistent thoughts. "

"Often when people first hear this part of the Secret they recall
events in history where masses of lives were lost, and they find
it incomprehensible that so many people could have attracted
themselves to the event. By the law of attraction, they had to be on
the same frequency as the event. It doesn't necessarily mean they
thought of that exact event, but the frequency of their thoughts
matched the frequency of the event. (p.28)"

Anyways, back to quoting dead scientist turning and twitching in their grave. On page 40 Byrne writes that:

"Marci Shimoff shared a wonderful quote from the great Albert
Einstein: "The most important question any human being can ask
themselves is, 'Is this a friendly Universe?'"
Knowing the law of attraction, the only answer to give is, "Yes,
the Universe is friendly." Why? Because when you answer in this
way, by the law of attraction you must experience that. Albert Einstein
posed this powerful question because he knew The Secret.
He knew by asking the question it would force us to think and
make a choice. He gave us a great opportunity, just by posing the

To take Einstein's intention even further, you can affirm and proclaim,
"This is a magnificent Universe. The Universe is bringing all
good things to me. The Universe is conspiring for me in all things.
The Universe is supporting me in everything I do. The Universe
meets all my needs immediately." Know that this is a friendly Universe!

Seriously? Does asking whether we have a friendly/magnificent universe mean that you believe in the (crazy) law of attraction. Of course not! What Einstein likely meant is how easy/difficult it is for us humans to live in this universe. Why have we not been blown up by a supernova already? For how many more millennia will we be able to live on earth like we do today?

Besides, I hardly think that the Universe Byrne is describing in The secret is a "friendly universe", rather it is a universe which gives back what you think. Those African children in Darfur must really have some nasty thoughts...

The next quote can be found on pp. 62-63:

"Time is just an illusion. Einstein told us that. If this is the first time
you have heard it, you may find it a hard concept to get your head
around, because you see everything happening—one thing after
the other. What quantum physicists and Einstein tell us is that everything
is happening simultaneously. If you can understand that
there is no time, and accept that concept, then you will see that
whatever you want in the future already exists. If everything is
happening at the one time, then the parallel version of you with
what you want already exists!

It takes no time for the Universe to manifest what you want. Any
time delay you experience is due to your delay in getting to the
place of believing, knowing, and feeling that you already have it. It
is you getting yourself on the frequency of what you want When
you are on that frequency, then what you want will appear."

I guess that the only real quote here from Einstein is that "time is an illusion", and there is actually some truth to this, although Einstein would not agree with the conclusions. What Einstein showed was that "the constant" in the Universe was "c" which is the speed of light in vacuum. The faster something moves the slower time will go. From this idea there is a theoretical, mathematical possibility that time travel will be possible but that idea is also associated with many difficulties. Why have we not been visited by someone from the future yet? Furthermore, even if time is relative, that says nothing about "The law of attraction". Does Byrne suggest that you need many parallel universes for the law to work?

The last Einstein quote associated with Einstein is on page 79-80 in The Secret:

"The great scientist Albert Einstein revolutionized the way we view
time, space, and gravity. From his poor background and poor beginnings,
you would have thought it impossible for him to achieve
all that he did. Einstein knew a great deal of The Secret, and he
said, "Thank you" hundreds of times each day. He thanked all
the great scientists who had preceded him for their contributions,
which had enabled him to learn and achieve even more in his
work, and eventually become one of the greatest scientists who
has ever lived."

Right... I invite anyone to show me that Einstein literally said thank you "hundreds of times" everyday. That sounds like a lot to me. However, even if Einstein did say thank you often, maybe he was just a positive dude who thanked people when appropriate. Regarding his thanks to his predecessors, it is clear for scientists that the work done by scientists through the ages is a very important foundation for modern science and we should be thankful for their contribution. Also, if we go by "The Secret" why not just wish for and think positive thoughts and then let the universe bring you a fantastic scientific theory, why all the hard work?

The core of Science: Being self-critical

One of the central theorems of science is being self-critical and to stay open to the idea that whatever the current consensus is, in whatever subject, things may change down the road. In the history of science this has happened many times, perhaps most clearly in the field of physics where we have gone from a geo-centric view of the universe (with the earth as the center), to a heliocentric universe with the sun in the middle.

Newton later described, very accurately, the laws that governed the universe and using these laws allowed us to predict, to an impressive degree, how the planets, stars, and other objects in space move. Despite this success, Newton turned out to be wrong of course and Einstein turned out to be right, or at least more right than Newton was.

Does the fact that Einsteins theory have correctly predicted experimental outcomes up to a gazillion decimals mean that he is definitely right? No, only a religious person would take such a stance. If you are a good scientist you stay open to the idea that there may be even better and more exact theories up ahead. All we really know is that Einsteins theory predicts what will happen in the Universe we live in to an impressive degree, and that this is very useful when designing say computers or GPS satellites.

When I discuss whether science is really like I what I have just described, I often hear the critique that scientists are just people, that they have narrow-minded beliefs just like anyone else, and that there are corrupt persons on key positions in science as well. I think this is all true (although I don't think there is as much corruption in Science as there is in politics), however, what is different is that you can ask (almost) any scientist whether this or that theory is definitely true and he or she is very likely to say no. In other words, even though many scientists cling on to certain theories and ideas, they tend to stay open to the idea that it is wrong, and they stay open to the idea that if the right evidence comes in, they will change their beliefs. The examples above (and there are many more from all fields of science), also show that science does in fact change over time

This, of course, stands in stark contrast to the world of religion where it is claimed that one book presents the truth, i.e., they don't say that if so and so, then I guess there is no God(s). Religion is based on faith which is beliefs that are not based on logic or observations. This is what, at the core separates science from religion and it is a very important distinction to make in my mind.