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A Nobel Prize in Economics a Climate Change Denier Might Love

It has been a scary month in climate science. Hurricane Michael and a frightening report from the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change underlined the potential costs of human-caused global warming. Then to add insult to injury, William Nordhaus won the economics Nobel Prize. Nordhaus wa...

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The Octopus and the Orangutan
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Apes, Men, & Language
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CanWeReallyUnderstandMatter

BY EUGENE LINDEN


Monday, Apr. 16, 1990
Few tasks are more daunting than standing in the path of a charging theoretical physicist who is hell-bent on getting funding for the next particle accelerator. As practitioners of the hardest of the hard sciences, physicists do little to discourage their aura of intellectual supremacy, particularly when suggesting to Congress that a grand synthesis of all the forces of nature is at hand if the Government will only cough up a few billion dollars more. But what if this confidence is misplaced? What if the barriers to knowledge are higher than many physicists like to admit?

For much of this century, scientists have known that the comfortable solidity of things begins to break down at the subatomic level. Like the Hindu veil of Maya, the palette from which nature paints atoms proves illusory when approached. From afar, this world appears neatly separated into waves and particles, but close scrutiny reveals indescribable objects that have characteristics of both.

Physicists have prospered in this quirky realm, but neither physics nor the rest of science has fully digested its implications. Inside the atom is a world of perpetual uncertainty in which particle behavior can be expressed only as a set of probabilities, and reality exists only in the eyes of the observer. Though the recognition of this uncertainty grew in part out of Albert Einstein's work, the idea bothered him immensely. "God does not play dice with the universe," he remarked.

The set of mathematical tools developed to explore the subatomic world is called quantum mechanics. The theory works amazingly well in predicting the behavior of quarks, leptons and the like, but it defies common sense, and its equations imply the existence of phenomena that seem impossible. For instance, under special circumstances, quantum theory predicts that a change in an object in one place can instantly produce a change in a related object somewhere else -- even on the other side of the universe.

Over the years, this seeming paradox has been stated in various ways, but its most familiar form involves the behavior of photons, the basic units of light. When two photons are emitted by a particular light source and given a certain polarization (which can be thought of as a type of orientation), quantum theory holds that the two photons will always share that orientation. But what if an observer altered the polarization of one photon once it was in flight? In theory, that event would also instantaneously change the polarization of the other photon, even if it was light-years away. The very idea violates ordinary logic and strains the traditional laws of physics.

The two-photon puzzle was nothing more than a matter of speculation until 1964, when an Irish theoretical physicist named John Stewart Bell restated the problem as a simple mathematical proposition. A young physicist named John Clauser came upon Bell's theorem and realized that it opened the door to testing the two-photon problem in an experiment. Like Einstein, Clauser was bothered by the seemingly absurd implications of quantum mechanics. Says Clauser, now a research physicist at the University of California, Berkeley: "I had an opportunity to devise a test and see whether nature would choose quantum mechanics or reality as we know it." In his experiment, Clauser, assisted by Stuart Freedman, found a way of firing photons in opposite directions and selectively changing their polarization.

The outcome was clear: a change in one photon did alter the polarization of the other. In other words, nature chose quantum mechanics, showing that the two related photons could not be considered separate objects, but rather remained connected in some mysterious way. This experiment, argues physicist Henry Stapp of Lawrence Berkeley Laboratories, imposes new limits on what can be established about the nature of matter by proving that experiments can be influenced by events elsewhere in the universe.

Clauser's work pointed out once again that the rules of quantum mechanics do not mesh well with the laws of Newton and Einstein. But most physicists do not see the apparent disparity to be a major practical problem. Classical laws work perfectly well in explaining phenomena in the visible world -- the motion of a planet or the trajectory of a curveball -- and quantum theory does just as well when restricted to describing subatomic events like the flight of an electron.

Yet a small band of physicists, including Clauser and Stapp, are disturbed by their profession's priorities, believing that the anomalies of quantum theory deserve much more investigation. Instead of chasing ever smaller particles with ever larger accelerators, some of these critics assert, physics should be moving in the opposite direction. Specifically, science needs to find out whether the elusiveness of the quantum world applies to objects larger than subatomic particles.

No one worries about the relevance of quantum mechanics to the momentum of a charging elephant. But there are events on the border between the visible and the invisible in which quantum effects could conceivably come into play. Possible examples: biochemical reactions and the firing of neurons in the brain. Stapp, Clauser and others believe that a better understanding of how quantum theory applies to atoms and molecules might help in everything from artificial-intelligence research to building improved gyroscopes. For now, though, this boundary area is a theoretical no-man's-land. Certainly physicists are a lot further from understanding how the world works than some would have Congress believe.

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Short Take

In Memorium: Koko the Gorilla

Koko the gorilla died on June 19. She and a female chimpanzee named Washoe (who died in 2007) played an outsized role in changing how we view animal intelligence. Their accomplishments inaugurated deep soul-searching among us humans about the moral basis of our relationship with nature. Koko and Washoe have made it much more difficult for us to treat animals as commodities, in any way we wish.

I knew the two great apes when I was young and they were young, and I”ve closely followed the scientific, philosophical and moral upheavals they precipitated over the last five decades. In the 1960s and ’70s, they learned to use American sign language, and they came to understand that words could be combined to convey new meanings. It threw the scientific world into a tizzy, implying that sentience and languagewere not ours alone, that there was a continuum in higher mental abilities that linked animals and humans.

The problem for science remains unresolved: 3,000 years into the investigation of signal human attributes and we still don’t have rigorous ways to define language and intelligence that are agreed on and can be empirically tested. There remain a number of scientists who don’t think Koko and Washoe accomplished anything at all. Even if a scientist accepts one of the definitions of language that do exist, it’s nearly impossible to test it in animals because what is being examined is inherently subjective, and science demands objective, verifiable results.

Consider how hard it is to prove a lie beyond a reasonable doubt in court. Then consider trying to prove lying in an animal in accord with the much stricter standards of science.

As difficult as proving it may be, examples of apes lying abound. When Koko was 5, I was playing a chase game with her. When I caught her, she gave me a small bite. Penny Patterson, Koko’s lifelong foster parent and teacher, was there, and, in sign language, demanded, “What did you do?”

Koko signed, “Not teeth.”

Penny wasn’t buying it: “Koko, you lied.”

“Bad again Koko bad again,” Koko admitted.

“Koko, you lied.” But what was Koko’s intent — a central issue when it comes to proving a lie. What was actually going on in her head when she made the gestures for “not teeth?” As if that weren’t inscrutable enough, one of the guiding principles of scientific investigations of animal intelligence is what’s known as Morgan’s Canon: Scientists must not impute a higher mental ability if a behavior can be explained by something more primitive, for example, simple error.

Analogously, about 50 years ago, on a pond in Oklahoma, Washoe saw a swan and made the signs for “water” and “bird.” Was she simply noting a bird and water, or was she combining two of the signs she knew to describe an animal for which she had no specific word? The debate continued for decades and was unresolved when she died.

Since Washoe made those signs, there have been many more instances of apes combining words to describe something, but these examples still don’t prove they can combine words to arrive at a novel term, even if it seems obvious that they can. Faced with these ambiguities, many scientists have moved to studying whether animals can accomplish specific cognitive tasks, and a welter of credible findings show sophisticated abilities in animals ranging from crows to elephants.

Although science struggles with questions of general intelligence, language and intent, the public is in the “it’s obvious” camp, readily accepting evidence of animal sentience. The latest objects of fascination are the octopus — a relative of the clam! — and fish. Stories of cephalopod escape and problem-solving regularly go viral, and to the consternation of sushi lovers , John Balcomb’s book, “What a Fish Knows,” provides copious evidence that fish know a lot.

We tend to see animals as either personalities or commodities, or sometimes, both. When I wrote about octopus intelligence, I was amused by one octopus-oriented website that divided its space between stories of smart octopuses and recipes for cooking them. Perhaps the most extraordinary example of our schizophrenic view of animals occurred some years back when a chimp colony that included sign-language-using apes was disbanded and many of these onetime celebrities were shipped to a medical research lab to be used in Hepatitis B and AIDS drug testing.

I knew these chimps too, and visited them in their new environment. They were desperate to communicate with their human captors, but the staff didn’t know sign language. So insistent were Booee and Bruno with their signing that one handler put up a poster outside the cages showing some basic signs to help the humans respond. When I was there, three days after Booee had arrived, he was signing agitatedly for food and drink. But what I think he really wanted was reassurance: If the humans would respond to “gimme drink,” things were going to be OK.

Teaching Koko, Washoe and other animals some level of human and invented languages promised experimenters insight into the animal mind. But the animals seemed to seize on these languages as a way to make their wishes — and thoughts — known to their strange, bipedal wardens, who had no ability or interest in learning the animals’ communication system. For Koko, I believe, sign language was a way to make the best of a truly unnatural situation, and so she signed.

Science doesn’t know if great apes can invent terms or if they tell lies. And the tension between whether we view and treat animals as personalities or as commodities lives on. The truth is, Koko, Washoe and many other animals who have had two-way conversations with the people around them shatter the moral justification for the latter.



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