Monday, April 23, 2012

On the Road

Not a post this week so much as a note from the road. I'm in the final stretch of a month-long research trip, spread peripatetically across four cities. One of the central reasons for my travels has been an exhibition by Anthony McCall, Five Minutes of Pure Sculpture, which opened last week at the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin, Germany. The show runs until August. And it is extraordinary exhibition that I would highly recommend to anyone able to visit. I've travelled to this show because this art is, to my mind, deeply phenomenological. It needs to be experienced physically to be really understood. So it's been a joy to stand back and observe a broad range of different viewers interact with the pieces in all kinds of ways contemplative ways - from walking though and 'touching' the light sculptures, to lying flat on the ground to look up at them for long periods of time. More later from home, including some of the pictures and sounds currently locked away on my own camera...

(image credit: azurebumble)

Thursday, April 19, 2012

The phenomenology of a fourth spatial dimension.

A hyperdimensional cube, known as a tesseract...

Part of the motivation for this blog was to open up a dialogue between working artists and working scientists. One of the conversations that is starting to develop relates to the (artistic) field of phenomenology and whether it does/doesn't have anything to say when it comes to the more abstruse sciences. Of course phenomenology is the study of the things humans experience (at least according to my rudimentary understanding of it) and scientists are human beings who experience abstruse science so phenomenology must have something to say about science, by definition. But what?

The discussions which began this conversation concerned two online applications that aid in the visualisation of the scales involved in time and space. See this post and this post and the comments in each for a discussion of the apps. In that discussion and in the comments to a later post I expressed a sense of disappointment in what these apps were managing to express. I should clarify that I think the apps are great and interesting, but if one is looking for a phenomenology of science I don't think this is where the most interesting phenomenology is (of course the app creators aren't looking for a phenomenology of science, so they are completely forgiven). The scale of space and time are very ordinary, everyday, Earthly things. The most interesting discoveries science has made, at least in the world of high energy physics, are not well described in such terms - this is almost precisely what makes them so interesting.

As Rhys pointed out in one of those comment threads a huge part of this problem is that many of these discoveries rely heavily on mathematics. And, to a very large degree, to understand the discoveries, you need to have a grasp of the maths. The fact that the very abstract structures and symmetries and patterns that lie hidden in the mathematics are then actually exhibited in the real universe is one of the more wonderful things experienced by a scientist. And that is not easily captured simply through pictures, videos and sounds (or even smells) of the universe.

However, I came across an app today that really does try to bridge this gap. If someone were to be looking for a true phenomenology of the more interesting and wonder inducing aspects of theoretical physics then this is the sort of thing one should be looking for. It is an app that simulates a hyper-dimensional cube. OK, so what on Earth does that mean?

Well, a dot exists in zero dimensions, it has no length, width, nothing. A line exists in one dimension, it has simply a length. A square exists in two dimensions, it has a length and a width. Next, a cube, exists in three dimensions, it has a length, a width and a depth. Now, just imagine there was a fourth spatial dimension. Mathematically this is an easy thing to write down. Then, just as one can form a cube by extending a square into a third dimension, one can form something known as a tesseract by extending a cube into a fourth spatial dimension.

Now, we creatures who exist in just three spatial dimension can't visualise a fourth spatial dimension (I certainly can't). But, just as we can look at a two dimensional surface (a TV screen) and see a projection of a three dimensional object, so can we do the same for an imagined four dimensional object projected onto three (or two) dimensions. And this is precisely what this app does for a four dimensional tesseract. [Edit: Or, as Rhys said in this comment "it shows what a 4D painter would paint on a 3D canvas..."]. And the brilliance is that the app even allows you to manipulate the tesseract, to move it, to spin it (in any of the four dimensions) and while manipulating it you see how that three dimensional projection changes on your two dimensional screen. Here's a video preview...

This app came to my attention as a consequence of minutephysics covering extra spatial dimensions in his latest video - which you should watch for a quick overview of higher dimension. There is even, apparently, a game in construction that requires you to move into and around a fourth spatial dimension to solve puzzles (for example using it to navigate one's way around obstacles and put keys into locks).

I actually think that a phenomenology of abstruse science can go even further and get even more interesting than this. A fourth spatial dimension is one of the simplest ideas I can think of that is not directly understandable from an Earthly perspective, but easily described by maths. It also has the unfortunate position of quite possibly not actually being reality and certainly not yet being testably true reality. However, it is here, with this sort of application/idea that I would think a phenomenology of the interesting bits of high energy physics should start.

Twitter: @just_shaun

Friday, April 13, 2012

Are you racist (even if you don't think you are)?

The video above describes something known in psychology as the Implicit Association Test (IAT). Keon, the dude in the video, does a good job of explaining what the test is and why it is interesting so watch and gain in understanding.

The reason why the IAT is interesting (for me at least) is that it can have quite startling results. The example Keon has chosen for his video is a racism test. Effectively, the test will determine whether the person taking the test has an implicit racism. This is not a conscious, directed, racism that might motivate someone to join a hate-group, or take some deliberate racist action, but instead a sub-conscious, implicit, racism that might direct behaviour that is more instinctive or reactive. In other words, the IAT detects racism that the person being tested won't necessarily even know they have.

The point is, you could be as tolerant and open minded as you want to be, but you live in a society that has racist undertones in it and this will have influenced you. Watch the video, take the test and see how much.

Be prepared to be surprised by the results though (whatever your own race or view on racism happens to be)...

I happen to be friends with Keon and he posted this on Facebook a few weeks ago. I took the test in the video and had a couple of immediate objections. Firstly I found both of the final stages of the test difficult and, while I suspected I found the second one harder, I wasn't sure. But secondly, and what I thought was far more importantly I suspected strongly that the ordering of the tests conditioned me. In the process of the test I got used to associating good with white and left and bad with black and right. So I suspected that my difficulty in the final stage had more to do with the difficulty in changing than a genuine difficulty in associating good with black faces.

I mentioned this to Keon and he suggested I try either taking the test again, reversing the steps in the video, or even better, going here and taking a randomised version of the test. I chose the second option and took that test multiple times, with different orderings. I also took different versions of the test. Unfortunately, I repeatedly came out of the test having shown either a slight or a moderate preference for white faces, rather than as I would have hoped, no preference for either. This was entirely independent of the ordering of the test. If you have doubts as well then I strongly recommend that you check out the link above.

I don't rationally associate white with good and black with bad. But sub-consciously, I clearly find it easier to think white=good than I do black=good. I'm glad this test made me aware of this. Some people (especially around my realm of natural sciences) like to view the likes of psychology somewhat disparagingly because of its supposed lack of testability. Well, the people who came up with the IAT have done a stellar job of overcome this supposed boundary and have revealed very interesting things about human psychology.

Your thoughts, as always, are welcomed... (are you sub-consciously racist? were you surprised with the result? Do you doubt the effectiveness of the test?)

Keon has made lots of other videos on psychology. His YouTube channel can be found here.

[Edit: Sesh points out in this comment that even if the test does prove the existence of implicit preferences, it is not accurate to use the word "racism" to describe these associations. I have to admit that, despite my use of the word in this post, I do agree. Is this a far call?]

Monday, April 9, 2012

The ISW mystery III: How did the CMB get so hot?

An example map of what the ISW effect would look like on the sky if we could observe it directly (arxiv:1003.0974)

This is probably my most technical post to date. I don't want my contributions to this blog to be (all the time) popularised, ready to consume, pieces of quirky science. I want you to know what we, the cosmologists, are thinking and wondering about each day, beyond just vague explanations about accelerated expansion, dark energy and dark matter. I want you to understand how we're trying to explore the mysteries of cosmology. What are we measuring, how are we measuring it and what are we hoping it will tell us? Doing this has to be a two-way process. I invest time writing, doing my best to make things like the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect understandable and you invest time and concentration trying to understand.

The benefit for you of doing this is great. You will become engaged in the science in real time. When the mystery I'm about to reveal finally gets solved you will already be there waiting, expecting. You will be able to bask in the wonder of the discovery during the moments of discovery. Hence, it will also be your discovery.

You will only get this though, if you concentrate and think and read this post through. So, if you don't get it the first time, think about it and read it again. And, if you are left confused by anything, ask!

Recap of earlier posts

I'm going to describe in this post why there is an “ISW mystery”. I described in this post that the integrated Sachs-Wolfe (ISW) effect is the subtle heating and cooling of light as it passes through over and under-dense regions/structures in the universe. For most of the universe's history this effect was effectively non-existent. Any energy gained by light falling into a structure in the universe was perfectly balanced by the energy lost by the light climbing out of the structure. However, late in the universe's history something starts pushing the universe apart and as a result there is a net energy change. The gravitational well is smaller when the light leaves the structure than when it goes in.

Then, in this post, I explained that the ISW effect is incredibly small. This makes observing it very difficult. We can't observe it directly by looking at light from galaxies, quasars, supernovae, stars, etc. because we don't know the temperature of the light's source well enough. In fact, there is only one source of light that we do know well enough to use it to detect the ISW effect. This is the cosmic microwave background (CMB), which I introduce here. Unfortunately, even the tiny fluctuations in the temperature of the CMB are of the same size as the expected ISW temperature shifts. So, we still can't observe the ISW effect directly. What we can do though, is observe it on average. We know that the ISW effect occurs as light travels through over and under-dense regions in space. So what we can do is look for over and under-densities and ask whether the CMB is hotter on average when it has passed through an over-density and colder on average when it has passed through an under-density. How to find structures in space and what I mean by on average is covered in the post you are about to read...

Monday, April 2, 2012

Games as a collaborative art

[Note from Shaun: The following is a guest post from Alan Owen. Alan makes video games for a living at Plug-in Media. Amongst his claims to fame are working on two BAFTA award winning games (I and II), and making games specifically for the BBC and the Tate gallery. Alan and I happen to share the same Scottish grandparents and while I was in England recently we found time to catch up. One of the things we chatted about was Barnabas' earlier guest post on whether video games are art. Here are Alan's thoughts on where you can find the aesthetic in games...]

The tactic of ‘logical defusal’: Denied.

In direct answer to the question ‘can video games be classed as art?’, my first draft of this post summarised a need to be rigorously clear in our definition of the terms ‘game’ and ‘art’. This is an important point to make, because it is very easy to concisely answer the question with an explicit and limited definition of each term, and an application of simple logic! The answer to the salient question is directly related to the individual asking it, and to their particular phrasal of definition: “does this ‘game’ (as I define the term) constitute ‘art’ (as I define the term)?”. Rigorously enforced definition empowers one to slice through that ‘unknown quantity’ of subjectivity, and simply get on with things...

This was, alas, seen to be a bit of a cop-out, and hence deeper thought stimulated by my diligent editor! I took such constructive criticism amicably, because Shaun hit me with a very valid point - in sidestepping the question, I’d cheated myself (and the reader) out of any enlightenment that might have been forthcoming from an appraisal of aesthetics, ‘the philosophy of the nature of art’, as it relates to the video game. So, without recourse to disarming logic: are games art?

Collaborative art

I’d like to entertain a more suitable classification for video games as a form of collaborative art, by which I mean ‘art’ executed by a number of individuals working cooperatively to create some coherent entity. In my day to day job I both participate in, and perceive other people around me, diligently working each within their own sphere of expertise to realise some greater goal: a creative digital entity that has (generally) the primary purpose of entertainment. Within my own company, the scale of such projects is relatively small (carrying a budget to match), but big games are big business, with an industry on a scale comparable to Hollywood moviemaking. What do such video games give to humanity that makes them worthwhile, beyond just a means to waste time?

Aesthetic value can be manifest in many ways within a video game, but this value can sometimes be rather hidden from the casual player or spectator. In the following paragraphs I’ll shine a light upon just some such ‘artistic’ modalities that I am conscious of when I play a video game - travelling through layers of progressively less visible aesthetics and into my own domain; the invisible.

The obviously visible:

Sunday, April 1, 2012

Phenemonology between Husserl and Heidegger

Cy Twombly, The First Part of the Return from Parnassus (1961)

Regular readers of this blog will have noticed the relatively recent addition of a blog-roll, in the form of a themed list of 'blogs we read.' That list is for active blogs, in my opinion, but I've found an inactive blog that I wanted to highlight because I think it speaks to some issues meaningful to the motivations of this endeavor for communication across disciplines and specializations: some of our themes of open access, vernacular writing on the web, and increasingly, phenomenology.

The blog, Between Husserl and Heidegger, is clearly an outcome of a graduate-level course in phenomenology at an American university, most likely one taught from a philosophy department or a department arrayed around the disciplinary study of philosophy. The posts are all summaries of the readings written by students in the class. I've written these kinds of excursus myself in graduate school, and have asked them of my own students. Writing a careful, detail-oriented account of someone else's argument is a great exercise in close and attentive reading, and hones sensitivity to the craft of constructing concepts.

So, the blog is a fragment of a course that has been left lying around on the web. It's useful in a number of ways for precisely this reason. For a specialist, it's a nice summary of names and books that reflects an interesting and informed syllabus. For non-specialists, it's an insight into how teaching and learning works in the humanities. For anyone interested in phenomenology, it's a great open-access bibliography — a source for the vocabularies, ideas, and contemporary histories of a topic I'm well aware isn't the most accessible out there.

The URL for the blog is erlebnis - the German word for 'lived experience' which acts as a central, motivating concept in all strands of twentieth-century phenomenology — as the blog's author himself notes. In keeping with his excellent taste, I've taken the image for this post from one of my favorite Cy Twombly paintings in the collection of the Art Institute of Chicago.