Turning on a light switch- Proof that dinosaurs roamed the Earth

23 05 2011

I’ve been in a long running debate regarding the potential for machine intelligence. By long running, I mean fifteen years- so not as long as the debate itself (several hundred years and counting), but long enough for me to develop the sort of rarefied views that make it hard for me to try and summarize all my thoughts for the beginner. I will, however, summarize where I am specifically at this juncture: I no longer believe in intelligence at all. There are mechanical aspects to our brain- recall and memory, pattern recognition and associative properties- but these are the “simple machine” analogues of a neural net. Any computer these days can, and does do them with great efficacy. People get into the whole “self awareness” conundrum and usually the debate grinds down to two distinct camps then and there. I am of the opinion that intelligence as we define it (remember as we define it) is a broad linguistic construct that generally tries to describe externalities. The fact that the IQ test has a score modified by age and thus experience, introduces a randomness of variables that have nothing to do with the mind itself and thus reduce the empirical value of the test to just beneath laughable. All other quantitative and qualitative measures of intellect ultimately run into the same problem. They do not measure and aspect of the mind, but how the mind exists between things. It is a quandary that we must use the same organ that we wish to analyze to analyze the organ. Problems abound. There is no such thing as intelligence. There is only happenstance.

That is a rough summary of my thoughts on intelligence. When I encounter people that think the Earth is six thousand years old and that dinosaurs existed alongside humans I have much less energy with which to counter them. Generally this is because I consider their ideas to be notions of faith and thus have no parity with scientific pronouncements. It’s apples and oranges, no, it’s apples and metric hex nuts. One has nothing to do with the other. If the community of creationists could keep their ideas in church things might be fine, but the leaders of said community really want their belief discussed as an alternative theory to evolution. They sit on school boards. They are often the type of conservative upstanding types that fight like fascists to be heard… alone. I can’t convince anyone. The arguments usually involve “have you seen anything evolve?” “where are the intermediate species?” on and on. The only response is of course the honest one: “the fossil record is woefully spare on land, but if you want to, I can show you about a thousand genera of crustaceans changing through time.”  In the end the creationist argument is always time- how do you know how old they are, how do your really know? Turn on the lights. Zircon. Uranium. Lead.

My brief argument. Electricity, as any lineman will tell you, works in predictable and consistent ways. Static can be measured. I can wire up a nail with some copper and an acid and base or I can rub fur on a rod of amber. There are a million experiments I can engage in and I can predict the outcome, ceteris paribus, every single time. That’s what we call a scientific law. The outcome is always consonant with the predicti0n. Electricity was observed, and well described, for centuries. It was not understood, however, until the revelations of Rutherford, Bohr ( and many, many others) created the quantum physics. We knew what electricity did, could use and manipulate it, but we could never have achieved the heights of engineering embodied in the microprocessor and its attendant descendants (cell phones, global positioning, space shuttles, pokemon etc) without quantum science. We knew how the subatomic, elemental particle called the electron worked and knowing, we made new things. Part of knowing and describing the electron was knowing or surmising the existence of other bits. We had the proton and later we had the neutron (thankfully we had the neutron after the electron and proton as it is the necessary particle for blowing up atomic bombs, and if it had of been discovered in 1911 instead of 1931, Germany would have had the bomb just in time for WWII!) So with the description of the “atomic parts kit” science was able to move forward in all sorts of interesting ways. As mentioned before we got atomic bombs, but we also gained the uses of many more mundane products (mundane from this vantage point), microwave ovens, household cleaners, video game consoles, digital cameras and composite materials. Every single one of these wonders of modern life is made possible because of the very predictable natures of atomic structure. We know how atoms work, we can predict how they interact and we make things with that knowledge. One of the most fundamental (and useful- smoke detectors!) properties of the atomic structure is how it decays. This decay, called- a bit prosaically- radioactivity, is the breakdown of the atom from a less stable and more energetic form, to a more stable and less energetic state. Radon, that lovely carcinogenic gas that makes basements so fun, is one of the products of the decay of uranium into lead. Lead, the ultimate destiny for uranium, is completely nonreactive and gives off no radiation. One gram of uranium 238 takes just under 4.5 billion years to decay into half a gram of lead and half a gram of uranium 238. We know this because digital cameras work, and cell phones, and your Nintendo Wii- all the things based on Quantum mechanics that we use every day. Unstable isotopes- uranium 238, plutonium 239, carbon 14 and so on- decay into more stable forms and elements at a very steady and predictable rate. Though no single atom can be predicted to shed its outer shells at any given time, the probability of all of the atoms in a given sample decaying can be accurately, very accurately, calculated. This is the celebrated half life, or the amount of time it takes half of the sample to decay into another state.

So we know that uranium 238 turns into lead in a constant, predictable way because GPS works thanks the highly accurate clocks made possible by harassing the very same process of measured decay. Same principle. In the planet’s crust, all through it really, are tiny, super durable and tiny crystals of zircon that formed in a molten medium from silicates and other material. They formed when the Earth was young and hot and they also contain fairly large numbers of uranium atoms (as much as 1% of their weight). They do not form, however, around lead atoms, so when you put one of these puppies into a mass spectrometer and you find equal parts uranium and lead, you can bet your buttons that the crystal was formed in the molten Earth over 4 billion years ago. Nintendo Wii, GPS, cell phones- proof that Earth is billions, not thousands of years old. If you don’t believe me then you need to throw out all your gadgets, your car, and turn of the electricity because none of it can work otherwise.

Counter Arguments

I have run into a few people that persist in the 6000 year claim despite the above argument. The most common counter is a form of “God buried the bones to test our faith” approach. It goes, “God could put decayed-looking uranium and lead into the crystals, because he’s God.” I can’t argue with that, but it does seem to be a version of Descartes’ Evil Genius and there isn’t much you can do about it, but it’s about as satisfying as the “it was all just a dream” ending to a crappy sit-com.

A person with six-thousand year version of Earth’s history asked me if I had ever seen uranium decay. This is a version of the “You’ve never seen an animal evolve,” to which my answer has always been, “No, but I’ve heard one.” The creationist crowd is big on the “you’ve never seen it happen,” as a counter argument to science, which is ironic for a group that believes in an invisible entity that controls the universe and must be taken on faith. I don’t need faith to know the age of the Earth; I have GPS, and though a Tom-Tom doesn’t answer my existential questions, it does tell me where I need to go.

Evolution

How does zircon and Nintendo Wii prove evolution? It doesn’t, it proves the age of the Earth and with the fossil record it shows a vast sweep of life going back over a billion years (my personal theory is that life is over 3 billion years old, well over, possibly back to the close of the Hadean, 3.75 billion years ago). With over 99.99% of all species that have ever been now extinct, the only mechanism that gets from protoplamic bactrums to George Clooney is Evolution. (bacteria to Karl Rove however, is one of the creationists best counter arguments.)

So there you have it. Turn on a fluorescent light bulb and bask in atom smashing, ancient Earth proving, evolution affirming science!

That’s the Science of Science… er Fiction.

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