Sunday, November 4, 2012

Approaching Infinity

Going about our work as people - either the top, middle or the bottom of society - there invariably comes a time when we run into self-limiting beliefs. This paradigm busting exercise usually helps; it comes from the late Sidney Coleman, as presented to his graduate physics class at Harvard:

Hold a ball in both hands and rotate it by three hundred and sixty degrees. That's not so awkward, you may say. Now hold the ball cupped in one hand, palm facing up. Your goal is to rotate the sphere while always keeping your palm facing up.

Keeping your palm facing up, rotate the ball inward towards your body. At ninety degrees - one quarter of a full rotation - the ball is comfortably tucked under your arm.

Keep on rotating in the same direction, palm facing up. At one hundred and eighty degrees - half a rotation - your arm now sticks out towards the back of your body to keep the ball cupped in your palm.

As you keep rotating to two hundred and seventy degrees - three quarters of a rotation - in order to maintain your palm facing up, your arm sticks awkwardly out to the side, ball precariously perched on top.

At this point, you may feel that it is impossible to rotate the last ninety degrees to complete one full rotation. If you try, however, you will find that you can continue rotating the ball; keeping your palm up by raising your upper arm and bending your elbow so that your forearm sticks straight forward.

The ball has now rotated by three hundred and sixty degrees - one full rotation. If you've done everything right, however, your arm should be crooked in a maximally painful and awkward position.

To relieve the pain, continue rotating by an additional ninety degrees to one and a quarter turns, palm up all the time. The ball should now be hovering over your head, and the painful tension in your shoulder should be somewhat lessened.

Finally, like a waiter presenting a tray containing the piece de resistance, continue the motion for the final three quarters of a turn, ending with the ball and your arm (wr.hat a relief) back in its original position.

If you have managed to perform these steps correctly, and without personal damage, you will find that the trajectory of the ball has traced out an infinity sign in space. You have just proven that, objects must be rotated around twice to return to their original configuration i.e. by seven hundred and twenty degrees.

Relating it back to behaviour we say things like: ”think twice before you speak” or ”once bitten, twice shy”. Actually, we have become conditioned to single cycles; without realizing that the second rotation is where the magic happens. We stop halfway when infinity is beckoning.

Although this exercise might seem no more than some fancy and painful basketball move, it’s a reminder that “second chances” complete unfinished business; and that we always have the option to give up what we know (the past) for what we can learn (the future). An idea that should console you as you ice your shoulder.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Large Small Civilization

The long-term prospects of civilization here on Earth are very uncertain. Many say it is a matter of when, not if, disaster will strike. By that prediction, the only sure way for humans to survive in the long run is to spread beyond the Earth and explore the galaxy.

The problem is that our chances of doing that, before our errant ways or some sort of catastrophe wipes us out, appear to be rather bleak. The probability for a civilization to survive the existential challenges and colonize its galaxy may be small, however, it is still above zero; the so-called ‘large civilizations’ of theoretical physics.

By extension there are ‘small civilizations’ too, but these die out before they spread much beyond their native planets. For the sake of the argument, let us assume that small civilizations do not grow much larger than ours currently; and die soon after they reach their maximum size.

Then, the total number of individuals who lived in such a civilization throughout its entire history, is comparable to the number of people who ever lived on Earth; which is about 400 billion people, 60 times the present Earth population. Although, we logically accept that a large civilization contains a much greater number of individuals.

Moving on...a galaxy like ours has about 100 billion stars. We don't know what fraction of stars have planets suitable for colonization; but with a conservative estimate of 0.01%, we would still have about 10 million habitable planets in our galaxy (give or take, what’s a million here or there!).

Assuming that each planet will reach a population similar to that of the Earth, we get 4 trillion individuals. (For our purposes lets focus on human-like civilizations, disregarding the planets inhabited by little green people). Of course, the numbers can be much higher if the civilization spreads well beyond its galaxy.

The crucial question of this thought experiment is: “What is the probability for a civilization to become large?” It takes 10 million (or more) small civilizations to provide the same number of individuals as a single large civilization. Thus, individuals likely live predominantly in large civilizations.

That, then, is where we should expect to find ourselves if we are typical inhabitants of the universe. Furthermore, a typical member of a large civilization should expect to live at a time when that civilization is close to its maximum size, since that is when most of its inhabitants are going to live.

These expectations are in a glaring conflict with what we actually observe; we either live in a small civilization or at the very beginning of a large civilization. However, based on the numbers above, both of these options are very unlikely - which indicates that the original assumption is probably wrong.

If, indeed, we are typical observers in the universe; then we have to conclude that the probability for a civilization to survive long enough to become large must be very tiny. In our example, it cannot be much more than one in 10 million. This is the notorious "Doomsday Argument".

However, the Doomsday Argument is statistical in nature. It does not predict anything about our civilization in particular. All it says is that, the odds for any given civilization to grow large are very low. At the same time, it proposes that some rare civilizations do beat the odds.

What would distinguish these exceptional civilizations? Apart from pure luck, apparently, civilizations that dedicate a substantial part of their resources to space colonization i.e. start the colonization process early and do not stop; stand a better chance of long-term survival.

With many other diverse and pressing needs, this strategy may be difficult to implement; and one of the reasons why large civilizations are so rare. On top of that, there is no guarantee either. Only when the colonization is well underway, and the number of colonies grows faster than they are dying out, can one declare a victory.

But, if we ever reach this stage in colonization of our galaxy, this would truly be a turning point in the history of our civilization. One question that needs to be addressed is: “Why is our galaxy not yet colonized?” There are stars in the galaxy that are billions of years older than our Sun, therefore, it should take much less than a billion years to colonize the entire galaxy.

Which probably means we are solely responsible for a huge chunk of real estate, 80 billion light years in diameter. Our crossing the threshold to a space-colonizing civilization would then really change everything. It will make a difference between a "flicker" civilization, which blinks in and out of existence, and a civilization that transforms itself.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012


Created by a French man, Guy Negre, the Airpod has an engine that runs on air. It might seem far-fetched and too good to be true, but the idea isn’t new - it’s been around since the late 19th century. And what better fuel is there? It’s all around us in abundance and it’s free. 

You can fill the Airpod at a fueling station in about three minutes and travel around 125 miles on one tank. If you choose to refill your vehicle at home with the air compressor that comes with the car, it will take three to four hours. The running cost is about 50 cents for every 60 miles, and if you use renewable energy, it’s totally free. The only emissions the air-powered vehicles produces are from the creation of electricity used to fill it up. 

The Airpod’s top speed is about 50mph, and the larger vehicles will get to around 70mph. All the vehicles are made from carbon fiber and aluminum to make them as light as possible for a longer range on a small tank of fuel. The engine is much more durable and robust than conventional car engines as it is a much simpler technology. On the bigger vehicles, the driver is positioned in the middle, allowing more room for passengers and the trunk. This also makes it easier to sell in countries where the driver is usually positioned on the right, since they don’t have to worry about shifting the driver’s seat.

In 2007, MDI signed a contract with TATA, India’s largest car manufacture, giving them a license to build and develop the Airpod and other vehicles. Mexico and Brazil are also looking to take on the concept. Hopefully the air-powered car will be available for the masses very soon all over the world. MDI have also developed other vehicles and engines other than the Airpod and city cars, such as: tow tractors and forklifts, agricultural tractors, boat and light aircraft engines and production and backup generators.

Guy Negre also has a new concept for production. Rather than having one or two massive factories and transporting the vehicles half way across the world, Negre wants to have “small factories located within the market, which is an original concept. It is very important for the economy, social issues, pollution issues and the environment.”