Monthly Archives: October 2012

Can We Trust Our Memories?

We all like to think that our memories are accurate. In other words, none of us likes to think that we don’t always remember things exactly the way they happened! How many times have you (or I) had a conversation that went something like this:

“That’s not what happened at all.”

“Of course it is! That’s exactly how it was!”

“Oh, you don’t remember! It was nothing like that!”

“You’re the one who doesn’t remember! I remember it like it was yesterday!”

It goes without saying that the other person was wrong. But imagine that both of you are reading this at the same time…

When I was in high school back in Norway, I had a teacher named Lasse who told us a story. If you will read it, I will tell it to you. Lasse once took a vacation and drove across the mountains from Oslo to Bergen. There are not many roads through the mountains; you can take the E16 all the way up Slidrefjorden and over to Lærdal, or leave the highway at Fagernes and go by Hallingskarvet and down through Vossevangen: a much shorter but smaller road, narrow but well-maintained. If you drive carefully, it is almost as safe as it is beautiful. That was Lasse’s choice, and it would have been mine too. He drove all through the morning, and by early afternoon he was climbing up to a high pass. Up ahead he saw an old VW Beetle laboring to crest the ridge; there was only about a half kilometer or so to the top. The Beetle was in the middle of the road, so Lasse could not pass. Just as he was thinking about pulling over and waiting for the little car to get over the ridge, another car came from the opposite direction – came popping up over the top of the pass like a jack-in-the-box – and smashed head-on into the Beetle. The speed limits on those mountain roads are 45 km/h (or about 28 mph for the few of us in the world who still doggedly refuse to accept the logic of the Metric System), so the cars were going fast enough to smash themselves up pretty well, but nobody was killed. Lasse stood on the brake pedal and was able to avoid joining the wreck. This was long before cellular phones; Lasse made sure the other drivers were all right, then continued on his way, stopping 40 kilometers down the road at Flåm to notify the police and dispatch a tow truck. Having performed his civic duty, he enjoyed four more days of his vacation before being summoned as a witness to the courthouse in Flåm. Each of the drivers had accused the other of being at fault, and Lasse’s testimony was needed to resolve the matter.

“I remember perfectly,” he told the judge after driving up the mountain again for three hours. “I was behind the Beetle and thought to myself that it was a bad idea to be driving right in the middle of the road.”

“How did you know it was right in the middle of the road?”

Lasse smiled confidently. “I knew it was in the middle of the road because I could see the yellow stripe exactly between the rear tires,” he said.

“That is strange,” said the judge, “seeing as how that section of road has no striping.”

“Of course it does,” Lasse replied, a bit annoyed. “I remember it very clearly.”

“I assure you it does not,” said the judge. And he ordered a policeman to drive over the pass with Lasse in a police car to inspect the road.

There was no striping on the road.

And that is the end of the story.

Another Early Memory

I am sitting in a dim hall with a window, reading a book. It is quiet. The room seems blue, but it might be the lighting. From the apparent size of everything – the ceiling seems impossibly high, the window is enormous – I must have been very small. I am pretty sure it is the third-floor apartment in Chittagong, so I would have to be two or three years old. The book is called We Feed a Deer; I have no memory of the story, which presumably concerns children feeding an even-toed ungulate. My mother enters the room. “Two-thirty,” she says. “Time for tea.” I think to myself that two-thirty is the best time of day. At present, it seems to me that two-thirty would be too early for tea, but the recollection is clear; such a peculiarity, I feel, is unlikely to derive from my imagination, and is probably a reliable memory.

I have a number of such fragmented memories from early childhood, even infancy. From five years on, my recall is very complete; if I take the time to concentrate, I can access memories from any part of my life, each of which sparks a cascade of related memories. I believe a major reason for this is that my mother taught me to read at such an early age. Words allow the mind to fix thoughts and perceptions in a stable form; this must be a necessary condition for memory.

My first teacher, first shaper of my emerging mind: thank you, Mom.

Where Did Writing Come From?

People have been using written symbols to communicate for several thousand years. Different experts have differing opinions about how writing began, but there are some facts  they all agree upon: someone was already painting figures of animals on cave walls at least 40,000 years ago, and there are examples from the same period in time of scratching notches in sticks and stones to keep track of numbers. By around 5,000 to 6,000 years ago, people had developed systems of writing that allowed them to keep detailed records of events on clay tablets that can be read and understood today. Somewhere between the animal paintings and the clay tablets is the origin of writing, and the beginning of history (the difference between history and myth is getting things written down so that the story remains the same from one telling to another).

Nobody knows for sure how, when, or why the pictures became text. That is where the experts disagree! Since nobody knows for sure, I have my own theory, or fantasy, whatever you prefer to call it.

I imagine that the cave painters started painting the animals they hunted, for whatever reasons they had, much like people today would paint a picture of an animal seen at the zoo: an impression of the animal’s appearance drawn from memory. Then one of them painted the hunters chasing and bringing down the animal. They could bring children to the cave and tell the story while showing off the pictures – much more exciting than just hearing the tale!

Who knows how long this went on? At some point, a specially creative painter decided to draw a series of pictures describing events that had not happened yet. This is the point where art begins to become writing. Now pictures can be used, not just to tell a story of past events, but to explain a plan or describe how something should be done, or even to show a hunter’s god what the hunter is praying for.

If writing began when people started to think about things they wanted to happen, or hoped would happen, then it becomes really important: writing might not be just a way of remembering things. It might be the beginning of language itself. You could even argue that writing may be what jump-started the human imagination, which – like writing – sets us apart from all other species on the planet. Did we become human at the same time as we started writing?

“In the beginning was the Word…” – the Gospel of John, chapter 1, verse 1

Religion or Science? Wrong Question!

I picked my son up from his Wednesday youth group at church. He seemed more thoughtful than usual; I asked him what was on his mind.

“I don’t know, Dad,” he said. “Which should I believe in, religion or science?”

“Good news,” I said.

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t have to choose. Science is the way we look for answers to questions about how the world works, and religion is the way we handle the questions that science can’t answer. Does that make sense?”

“Sort of.”

“Let me see if I can do better. If you want to know which kinds of materials conduct electricity, what would you do?”

“I guess I would link up a battery and a light bulb with wires and close the loop with the materials I wanted to know about. If the light bulb lights up, it conducts electricity.”

“You were paying attention in science class. Good. Now, people all over the world can do that same experiment and get the same results, so nobody disagrees over it. It’s easy to prove. But it’s not so easy to explain why some materials are conductors and others are insulators. It has to do with how the electrons are arranged in the different kinds of atoms, but I can’t prove that to you. A physics professor could, but I wouldn’t even know how to try. Anyway, the point is that there are ways to test it and observe the results. That’s how science works.

“People argue a lot about what things are right and wrong, too. None of them can prove it to the others. The funny thing is that everyone – even people who don’t believe in a god – agrees that there is such a thing as right and wrong. That’s religion.

“Science is about questions that can be answered by testing and observing the results. Religion is about the meaning of things that can’t be tested. You don’t have to choose between science and religion. They’re about different kinds of questions, and neither one is any good at answering the other kind. That’s not a perfect answer, or even an easy one, but it’s the best I can do without talking your ears off for a few hours. “

By that time, we were pulling into the driveway at home. It was time for cookies; there would be time enough for philosophy later.


Will Humans Ever Go To Mars?

In 1950, when Ray Bradbury published The Martian Chronicles, it seemed like a no-brainer: of course we’re going to Mars! The fact that many reputable scientists of that day considered it impossible to leave Earth – let alone go to Mars – dampened public optimism not a bit. Pessimism in the scientific community persisted; as late as 1967, Dr. Lee DeForest (a radio pioneer) famously stated, “Man will never reach the moon regardless of all future scientific advances.” As we know, Neil Armstrong (rest in peace, Neil!) stepped onto the surface of the Moon two years later.

So if there are naysayers in today’s scientific community, we don’t have to listen! Human imagination and ingenuity trumps difficulty of execution every time. Putting human beings on the surface of Mars makes the Apollo missions look like a trip to the grocery store by comparison; still, there is no doubt that we are able to make it happen.

Whether it will indeed happen – today’s question – is another matter entirely. Curiosity is a basic human trait; we can’t help exploring. If we never walk the red sands of Mars, it will not be because it was too hard for us. If Ray Bradbury’s dream never comes true, it will be because we found a way to go there without the long journey through space, without the bulky suits, without the oxygen tanks and the food and water restrictions.

Right now, some of you are rolling your eyes and saying “Oh sure, robots. Great – more weirdly shaped photos and geological data! Boring!” But I’m not talking about robots like the ones we have had on Mars since 1997 (although I personally think they are exciting and have followed their exploits since then) – what I’m talking about is robotic avatars. Now, before you start rolling your eyes again, you might want to check out this one (frivolous but fun) or maybe this one (serious and really quite impressive).

How long will it be until robotic avatars can relay, not just sight and sound, but smell and touch to the controller? I would bet no more than five years, tops. At that point, it becomes feasible to send a machine to Mars that can take you there in an immersive, multisensory experience. You will see the red Martian soil with your eyes, hear the whistle of the thin Martian wind in your ears, feel the crunch of the dry gravel beneath your feet, smell the dry cold rusty air in your nostrils. You will be there. You? Yes, you and anyone else who tunes in or orders pay-per-view or whatever it turns out to be, millions of Mars explorers all at once, each of whom experiences being alone on Mars while sitting in the safety of the living room. A mission like that would cost a small fraction of the expense involved in sending a single human in person; a $5.00 pay-per-view would probably even make the whole thing profitable within a year.

Now think of sending robotic avatars out into the Solar System. The farther we go, the more it makes sense to send robots. The only reason not to do so is the desire to experience adventure firsthand. But with good enough sensory relay technology, that issue goes away. If you believe you are there, what difference does it make?

There is one more thing. Eventually, leaving our planet – really in person – will be necessary. If we start caring for our Earth as if it were our mother (which in a very real way, it is), we might have many millions of years left. If we keep going the way we have been since the Industrial Revolution began, we might have centuries or decades to find a new home. That will not be enough, which makes caring for Earth really kind of urgent. One way or another, our planet has a life cycle like everything else in the Universe. If ours turns out to exceed that of our home, we will have to find another or perish.

Back to the original question: will humans ever go to Mars? In short, yes. More than likely, you will be one of them!

Will Apes Take Over the World?

The short, easy answer is that (as we humans are, biologically, part of the ape family) we already have! But that wasn’t really the question; readers want to know if any of the situations portrayed in the “Planet of the Apes” movies could become reality!

In the original movie from 1968, starring Charlton Heston, the “planet of the apes” turns out to be Earth in the far future; the idea is (aptly enough for a Cold War-era movie) that human civilization was destroyed by war, allowing apes to take our place. Whether the war was nuclear, and whether the “civilized” apes were a product of mutation from radioactive fallout, is not directly addressed, although it would make sense in the context.

The 2001 remake of the movie (with Mark Wahlberg in the lead role) takes a different tack. In this version, the planet is not Earth but really a new planet; the humans and apes living there are survivors of a space station crash. The apes had rebelled against their human handlers after the crash and developed an ape civilization over the next 5000 years, while the humans became primitive.

The newest installation (“Rise of the Planet of the Apes”, 2011) takes place on Earth, where a scientist researching a cure for Alzheimer’s accidentally gives a chimpanzee the intelligence of a human genius. The chimp suffers prejudice and mistreatment by humans, and ends up escaping to the redwood forest with a tribe of apes after dosing them with the same drug that boosted his own intelligence. Thus, it can not be a prequel to the 2001 movie but could rather be a prequel to the original 1968 version.

Most movie buffs – at least those as old as I am – will have seen all three movies; each has its fans who declare it superior to the rest. My purpose here is not to take a side in that dispute! The relevant point for us here is that each movie gives a different explanation for how the apes took over. So far, we have humans destroying themselves by warfare; ape revolt; and medical science gone awry. But there is another scenario, less familiar to the average “Planet of the Apes” aficionado.

The 1968 movie was itself an adaptation of a French sci-fi novel written five years earlier by Pierre Boulle. In the book, the planet of the apes is not Earth but a distant planet similar to Earth, populated by both humans and apes. The humans enslaved the apes, but grew lazy and dependent upon their slaves. Over millennia, the apes grew smarter and stronger, learning to use the humans’ technology and language; the humans degenerated until they lost both intelligence and the faculty of speech.

And that brings us back around to the question: could it happen?

Fact: Most people today do not know how to read a map, light a fire by striking flint and steel, navigate by the stars, recognize wild edible plants, or even sharpen a knife. We have robots that sweep the floor and cars that drive themselves. Functional illiteracy is on the rise; compare a handwritten letter from 100 years ago to the average text message on a cellphone. The former will be eloquent, thoughtful, and personal; the latter, a mass of inarticulate, garbled nonsense.

Fact: Koko the gorilla understands 1,000 signed words and 2,000 words of spoken English; she has demonstrated ability to form coherent sentences and has used known words to form a new compound word to describe a new object (source: Koko’s vocabulary is equal to that of a large portion of the human population.

Fact: Researchers have documented at least 22 cases of wild chimpanzees sharpening sticks into spears which they use to hunt and kill smaller primates (source: National Geographic).

While it is true that large numbers of humans are becoming illiterate, inarticulate, and helplessly dependent upon technology, there are very many who do not fall into that category. Technology can be a powerful tool as well as a crutch. Apes are learning new skills (some of them from us humans); did we expect them not to? We are learning too. We have learned how to change our environment to the point of destroying it; as long as we can learn to heal the harm we have done to each other and to our planet, we need not worry about our simian cousins overthrowing us. An ape takeover might be a possibility in some distant future where most things have gone wrong for humanity, but the odds are against it.

I still like the movies!

Einstein and da Vinci

This morning on the way to school, my son asked me, “Dad, was Einstein the new da Vinci?” Mind you, this is at about ten to seven in the morning and my second cup of coffee is still in the travel mug. But the boy wants to know; what can I do?

“OK, let’s see: Einstein and da Vinci, each one a transcendental genius, each a household name. Both names are used ad nauseam by marketers of educational products.”

“What’s ad nauseam?”

“”With disgusting persistence. They were both intensely curious men; Einstein said so himself on numerous occasions, and Leonardo’s notes and sketches are proof that he was interested in pretty much everything. They were both mathematicians. So much for similarities. Einstein was much more famous in his own time than Leonardo was, probably because of communications technology like newspapers and radio. Einstein’s theory of relativity had an immediate, major, and permanent effect on the world: it was the beginning of the Nuclear Age. Leonardo had plenty of great ideas for inventions – the helicopter, the battle tank, solar power – but the technology to make them real was centuries in the future. He was too far ahead of his time. In the end, he changed the world of art, but not science, really.”

“What if Leonardo had been born at the same time as Einstein?”

“You know, that’s a really smart question. I don’t know. No doubt da Vinci was into everything while Einstein was pretty focused on math and science – the math part of science, anyway. But his education and da Vinci’s were very different. Einstein did well in school, in spite of what people think, but he thought schools were too much like student factories when they should be places where learning is fun. Leonardo probably had more fun with his education because he didn’t go to school at all; he learned whatever caught his interest from people around him. Later he studied painting from a really great painter named Verrocchio. If da Vinci had been born in Einstein’s day, he might not have been allowed to study art, or he might have been punished for getting distracted in class or doodling during a lecture. There would be no Mona Lisa. On the other hand, if Einstein had been born in the 15th century, the math he ended up using to work out his own ideas – Newton’s math – would still have been in the future, so somebody else would have probably become famous in the 20th century for relativity.”

“I’m glad Einstein and da Vinci were born when they were.”

“Me too.”