Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Don't Sweat the Details

Don’t Sweat the Details
Charles Jordan

When I was a young man–just exactly how young is hard to remember–everything was new. But everything is still new.  The passage of time has always been hard for me to relate to. “Just the other day” can mean last Sunday or when I was in high school. Absentmindedness was the result of my one dimensional thinking as long as I can remember.  Schedule and deadlines are foreign concepts. Events are always much more important than sequences.

Events do seem to be predicated on causes, a set of of conditions which lead to a result. So the time sequence is interesting in the short term. An example is the graph Al Gore showed in An Inconvenient Truth which showed the average temperature over the earth and the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere going up and down together, purporting to show that more carbon dioxide made things hotter.  But the temperature changed about 600 years before the carbon dioxide, so it seems that the temperature caused the carbon dioxide to change, not the other way around.   An event is just a data point, but trying to figure out or guess what was necessary for the event to occur is often unclear and multifaceted.  
Once you get started on this quest the goal keeps moving backward in time, like what caused the temperature to rise which caused the carbon dioxide to increase, or what happened to make the”big bang”, bang?  Much of the time there are multiple possibilities and the delicious game is deciding which one is more probable. It is much harder to go out and confirm reproducible cause and effect relationships by actually observing effects under different conditions than to guess what might have happened.  

Unfortunately, that is what you have to do  if you are trying to explain the past.  You can’t really go back and find out what the conditions were.  This sort of metaphysics explains why many creationists can claim and perhaps even believe that any artifact of the past, up to and including the immediate past, through an agent with unlimited capability, could have been created in such a way as to mimic a story of the past without the past ever happening.  We are limited to inventing a story of the big bang which leads to predictions that we can confirm today.  If other stories can explain all the data, then we will have to wait until new data is available.  If that doesn’t happen then we will just have to choose the story we like best.

It is really entertaining to me to make up stories about why something happened.  I like to use my wife as a representative of a person who has an appetite for other aspects of knowledge.  She accepts an event for what it is and then considers how it fits into her picture of the world.  She likes to say “You don’t have any idea what happened.  Why are you making it up?”

Take the example of a green flash when the sun disappears under the horizon as the sun sets. It could be due to constantly staring at the sun, or it could be due to the different bending of the sun’s colors as they pass over the horizon through the atmosphere, or it could be something that I can’t even imagine.

If I have an explanation that explains all the facts, even though the assumptions are shaky, I confidently explain my idea to others and wait for someone to say, “No, that can’t be right. I think the right answer is so-and-so” or they might say “I’ve looked for that stupid green flash for 10 days in a row and it never happened”, or as my separate -reality wife might say “Why don’t you just enjoy the spectacle? Stop analyzing the beauty of nature, just enjoy it.”  If the “denier” has some good points, but I still have something to contribute, I modify my story and see if he buys that.  And so on, until we converge on a consensus and we both go away happy.  Of course, sometimes we agree to disagree.

We all have to individually decide how important it is to reduce the phenomenon to its simplest parts.  Sometime that results in oversimplification, like global warming is due to carbon dioxide only.  It is easy to get lost in the details in a subject that is intrinsically complex and resistant to simple explanation. 

When the explanation has many factors each in chaotic variation–the atmosphere has clouds next to the clear areas, there is a haze of various chemicals (smog), there are hotspots on the horizon causing shimmering, or the observer’s eye is particularly sensitive, insensitive, or colorblind, we are sometimes reduced to Plato’s state of “seeing through a glass darkly.” 

He suggested that we assume that, behind all the difficulties of knowing or measuring exactly what is going on which might change the next time we look, there is a beautiful, but hidden truth which agrees with our own concept of beauty. 

So it often comes back to our personal perception of beauty. In many cases, the human response to a problem has been to choose which truth we want to follow.  The idea may be wrong, but not glaringly wrong.  In a complicated problem, there is often more to be gained from agreeing there is a problem than designing the perfect solution.  Richard Taylor, my group leader at SLAC and a Nobel Prize winning scientist, is of the opinion that any “solution” is partially wrong because there are pros and cons to every issue, either with the conceptual question or the personal consequences.  Therefore, he says decisions should be delayed until the last possible moment.

After all, decisions are just the choosing of which answer we want to implement.  They are the transitions from multiple possibilities (stories) to an answer which is bound to be partially wrong given the limits to the knowledge of the conditions leading up to the decision.  Luckily, if we survive our guess, new data will be generated allowing us to correct our thinking, hopefully again an a convergent path to consensus. 

I’ve always been interested in guessing or imagining new and different relationships between various players in the rich world of natural phenomena. It is a wonderful game to play even if you wander down the path to nowhere. There’s nothing to keep you from starting out again. And it’s never too late to start.

It is unflaggingly satisfying to consider the question “What’s up with that?”, or in the language of the 50s, “What makes that thing tick?” Dreaming up different answers leads you in many different directions, regularly uncovers new aspects, and rarely disappoints. For simple problems there is sometimes only one answer, or better said, the obvious answer gets us close enough. But the closer I look, the more complicated it gets. There will always be interesting questions out there in this involuted, convoluted, simple, complicated, real, imaginary, conscious, subconscious, mental, physical world we inhabit for a few years. We’ll never figure it all out, but isn’t that what life’s all about.