Napoleon and Laplace

Today I got a comment from RRRG mentioning a classic story about Laplace and Napoleon that I posted in an old version of this blog in 2006. Unfortunately that blog is no longer available—I need to do something about it—so I looked for the original text (which is in Wikipedia with numerous sources) and I’m reposting it now, for your reading pleasure:

Laplace went in state to Napoleon to accept a copy of his work, and the following account of the interview is well authenticated, and so characteristic of all the parties concerned that I quote it in full.

Someone had told Napoleon that the book contained no mention of the name of God; Napoleon, who was fond of putting embarrassing questions, received it with the remark, ‘M. Laplace, they tell me you have written this large book on the system of the universe, and have never even mentioned its Creator.’

Laplace, who, though the most supple of politicians, was as stiff as a martyr on every point of his philosophy, drew himself up and answered bluntly, ‘Je n’avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là.’ (“I had no need of that hypothesis.”)

Thanks RRRG!

Yes, my friend

These are the times we are living in:

Barack Obama has first telephone conversation with the Pope: At a press conference on Tuesday the Vatican on infant mortality, Cardinal Javier Lozano Barragan of Mexico, the Pope’s “health minister”, strongly reiterated the Vatican’s opposition to using embryos for research purposes when asked about signs that Mr Obama might reverse or relax the Bush administration’s executive order banning the use of embryos and limiting federal spending for stem cell research. He said embryonic stem cell research “served no purpose”.

Hold on, there is more:

Religion can never justify terrorism or killing of innocents, General Assembly declares: “Concerned about serious instances of intolerance, discrimination, hatred expressions, and harassment of minority religious communities of all faiths, participating States underlined the importance of promoting dialogue, understanding, and tolerance among human beings, as well as respect for all their diverse religions, cultures and beliefs,” according to a declaration read out at a news conference by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as the meeting concluded.

Last but not least:

Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design in the USA

Evolution, Creationism and Intelligent Design in the USA

Bon courage.

Rats

There is this experiment with rats:

They got a rat into a jail and connected a cable to its brain, to a region where you get pleasure if you take controlled discharges. They connected the cable to a button inside the jail and let the rat discover its purpose. Of course, once the rat found how agreeable was pressing button the rat started using it quite often… naturally.

Well, not actually a rat

Not an actual rat

The scientists registered in a computer the patterns the rat followed clicking the button, and then they changed the experiment. Now they were going to provide pleasure automatically using this registered patterns, same cable, same discharges, same registered times. They predicted the rat was going to be as happy as before.

They were wrong.

Maybe happier? Neither. Actually the rat happened to be pretty stressed with the situation, looking nervously for a way to escape. So the scientists put another button in the jail, this time to stop the pleasure. As soon as the rat learned its purpose, it used the button to stop the pleasant discharges.

Why? The thing is that for basic functions like pleasure and rewarding our brain circuits depend on our active interaction. Our brain tends to averse to something if it just comes predefined.

Have you ever wondered why a child doesn’t feel comfortable in the perfect atmosphere designed by his/her parents? Have you ever wondered why a territory wants to get independent from a wealthy country? I’d recommend you to ask the rats, but only if you promise not to laugh at me.

[I read about this experiment in El Científico Curioso, by Francisco Mora, a book that I do recommend you — unfortunately I’m not sure there is an English version yet.]

June 25, 2008 — XXI Century

I used to play with this thing in a former life

Today my colleagues at the University of Granada told me that an article we sent to a Journal one year ago has finally been published.

One year ago.

And of course we do not have access to the Journal because neither my former University nor my current employer are subscribed to that Journal.

I cannot get a PDF of my own article.

This post is dedicated to those who think there is some room for improvement in Science, damn it, this guy did more for Science than Scientific Journals.

Happy birthday Charles!

I have to admit that Charles is an amazing guy. When he was slightly younger than me (22 at that time) he joined a two years expedition around the world. Well, he thought it was going to be just two years, but it finally took five.

The main aim of the expedition was basically to do some hydrographic surveys (gathering information about navigable waters) of the coasts of the southern part of South America, but he seized the opportunity to do some personal geological research as well. And he collected a nice bunch of fossils during that time.

When the expedition finished he published a couple of books explaining the trip. First a journal that became an immediate best-seller, some years later he wrote a more technical book which changed everything. You can easily find more information about that book in the Internet, but basically what it says is the following: “All we knew about life until know was wrong, just a lucubration. We can through away all papers which have been written so far and start over. Good news is that now we have a clue.

Charles is now dead, and buried next to another guy who did pretty much the same in another interesting field. We live interesting times, but it would have been great to meet you guys.

Happy birthday Charles, and many thanks!

God is actually a Scientist

wulffmorgenthaler

The following quote comes from The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins, the book I try to read while I’m nicely elbowed in the metro (ummm… they hit me more with this book than with others):

The great French mathematician Blaise Pascal reckoned that, however long the odds against God’s existence might be, there is an even larger asymmetry in the penalty for guessing wrong. You’d better believe in God, because if you are right you stand to gain eternal bliss and if you are wrong it won’t make any difference anyway.

[…]

But why, in any case, do we so readily accept the idea that the one thing you must do if you want to please God is believe in him? What’s so special about believing? […] What if God is a scientist who regards honest seeking after truth as the supreme virtue? Indeed, wouldn’t the designer of the universe have to be a scientist? Bertrand Russell was asked what he would say if he died and found himself confronted by God, demanding to know why Russell had not believed in him. ‘Not enough evidence, God, not enough evidence,‘ was Russell’s (I almost said immortal) reply.

If this book works as I intend, religious readers who open it will be atheists when they put it down“. Dawkins is provocative from the very beginning, and far from being pretentious, I think he’s probably right for saying it. Because if you read it, it’ll irreversibly damage every single religious belief you may have, but hey, in the most respectful –meaning carefully reasoned– way. Well, more when it’s finished.

(Many thanks Estebán!)

Update: Many thanks to the avid commentator for the image!

Ilya Prigogine

Today, despite of the damn cold weather we have in this beautiful city called Brussels (< 0 ºC), I went with a friend (German, of course) to take a walk in Parc Duden. It is a large park located in the southwest of Brussels, on the right side of the Belgian’s Senne, where the height of some trees is probably the most remarkable thing to see.

And there, by chance, we discovered there is a small château dedicated to Ilya Prigogine. It’s been a sweet and unexpected surprise in a hard morning. Why him? Why there? The thing is that although he was born in Russia, his family emigrated abroad. First to Germany (of course), and then to Belgium. There he obtained the Belgian citizenship and studied Physics. Because he was a physicist. To be honest, this morning I wasn’t able to say if he was a physicist or a chemist. I guess I was a bit confused with the fact that he obtained the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1977.

He’s a famous example of one of these XXth century physicists who started connecting fundamental Science with classically unconnected issues like irreversibility, complexity and social modeling. Because of them, everything became a hell funnier, and more complicated.

And thanks to The Source Of All Knowledge I’ve found this video [8:30] where you can see him talking about that topics:

I realize now how much I miss working in fundamental Science. I stopped in February, and it’s already unbearable.