Einstein: His Life and Universe (Review)

Albert Einstein was:

— An absent husband and father, who occasionally burst with warmth and tenderness toward those closest to him, even though he was often wryly detached in his life.

After cheating on his first wife, Mileva Marić, he eventually convinced her to divorce him in exchange for half of his Nobel Prize winnings. He desired to marry his cousin Elsa, who he became romantically involved with during his first marriage. In his second marriage, he still had relationships with other women. Despite Einstein’s infidelity, Albert and Elsa shared a deep bond together, raising two stepchildren as their own. Elsa supported his scientific work, nursed him back to health, guarded him against intrusions, shared the glamor of his celebrity, and moved with him to the United States.

— A brilliantly intuitive theoretical physicist who developed the theories of general and special relativity, which led to radically new understandings of matter, energy, space and time.

— A visual thinker known for his famous thought-experiments.

— A revolutionary scientist early in his career, but a conservative later in his career.

He defended epistemological realism and often attacked the findings of quantum mechanics. He believed in an underlying reality, one that followed elegantly predictable laws, but was unknown to theoretical understanding. He failed to find a Grand Unified Theory.

— A loner, rebel, and non-conformist.

— A playful man with a childlike curiosity.

— A gifted violinist.

— A slacker in his youth.

— A patent clerk.

— An absentminded intellectual who focused so intently on the ideas that stimulated his imagination that every other concern was blocked out.

— An aloof man who delved into scientific ideas to escape from the emotional turmoil of his life.

— A German-Jewish secular humanist.

While Einstein was proud of his Jewish heritage, especially during periods of rampant antisemitism, he wrote that he was free from attachments to nationality, class, state, religion, and so on. Einstein considered himself to be a human being first. He stated that even though he was dimly aware of the laws of physics, he was too limited in his knowledge to believe or not believe in a God. He honored the mystery of the universe above all.

— A disorganized teacher who often improvised his lectures.

— A democratic socialist who denounced the atomic bomb, war, class inequality, racism, militarism, nationalism, and authoritarianism.

— An international celebrity who loved to complain about his status, but secretly enjoyed the attention.

— A German-Swiss-American citizen who criticized fascistic ideas, whether in the form of Nazism or McCarthyism.

He was considered to be a national security threat, and a Communist sympathizer, by some officials in the American government.

Some of Einstein’s Contributions to Science:

— Light is made up of small packets of energy called photons. Photons can behave both like particles and like waves, depending on what experiments are used to measure them.

— E = mc², which expresses that energy is equal to mass times the speed of light in a vacuum squared. From this formula, particles are shown to have rest, kinetic, and potential energy. Mass and energy are not separate entities, but can change into each other. Additionally, any change in an object’s energy changes its mass and any change in an object’s mass changes its energy. Knowledge of the inseparable relationship between mass and energy led scientists to develop nuclear energy, and to eventually build the atomic bomb.

— Motion in time is relative to the position and velocity of the observer, while light is constant and the laws of the universe are the same. Time itself is not absolute, but dependent on how fast an object travels, what direction that object travels in, and where it is relative to the mass and the position of other objects around it.

— Space and time are not separate entities, but rather, are interwoven in four dimensions (three dimensions for space and one dimension for time). Mass causes spacetime to curve, and the more massive an object is, the more curvature there is. Gravity is no longer a mere force in the Newtonian sense, but causes a warping of spacetime. Spacetime is not flat, but curved. Light (or photons) travels along a curved path.

Skepticism 101: How to Think Like a Scientist (Reflections)

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A skeptic will believe in an idea when there is sufficient evidence for that idea being true. Until then, depending on the quality of evidence and the probability of that idea’s truth, a skeptic will either suspend their judgement or lack a belief in such an idea.

Skeptics are open to many diverse — even seemingly paradoxical — ideas, but they will not accept those ideas as being true until there is empirical evidence and logic, which supports those ideas.

People who are intelligent and well-educated can still believe in strange, illogical ideas.

Just because a person is smart in one area doesn’t mean that they are smart in another. People are prone to believing in many superstitious ideas like ghosts and fortune telling, elusive fairies and demons and telepathy, knocking on wood for good luck, and peeing on a wart for its removal.

Smart people not only can believe in strange ideas, but they often argue for their beliefs much better than the average person, rationalizing for their side, while being resistant to any counter arguments.

Often someone will claim a supernatural event happened to them, such as one of their dreams predicting a future event, while ignoring all those times when their premonitions did not occur.

It is normal to remember a significant event while ignoring an insignificant event.

Such events, which may feel personally unique, may occur regularly in a probabilistic sense. All insignificant events, however, are often not accounted for, when considering the totality of such events. The hits are recorded but the misses are not.

Science is a method that leads to provisional conclusions. The scientific method aims at objectivity under external validation. Science is based on rational thought and logic and evidence.

There is a tension in science between skepticism and credulity. For paradigm shifts to occur in the field, scientists need to be willing to challenge established views. They need to criticize the cherished beliefs of civilization as well.

What distinguishes science from pseudoscience is the validity of each claim, the consistency of those claims with other theories, the quality of the evidence presented, the ability of each claim to be tested, and so on.

It is important to be rigorous when investigating claims because people are deeply flawed thinkers, prone to biases, misconceptions, and perceptual mistakes.

Many people are seduced by compelling anecdotes while never considering the evidence behind those anecdotes. Anecdotes are not data, no matter how many people believe in them, unless they are backed by sufficient evidence.

The burden of proof is on those who make claims rather than on those who do not agree with the claims presented. One doesn’t have to disprove every story invented.

When confronted with claims, a skeptical person should look for sound reasoning. It is all too common for proponents of a belief to argue on irrational, self-contradictory grounds, based on enthusiasm and tradition and appeals to emotion.

One fallacy that individuals use is the argument from ignorance. They may say that if they or anyone else cannot explain X, then their proposed explanation must be true. It is much more rational to say “I don’t know” than to assume a conclusion.

Another fallacy comes from equating correlation to causation. The human mind naturally seeks relationships and patterns. At the same time, many events may be coincidental, or probable, but not necessarily connected.

Often during heated arguments, people use ad hominem fallacies. They insult their opponents rather than addressing their arguments directly.

Even if such insults are true, that still doesn’t invalidate the other person’s argument. An ad hominem argument, rather than dealing with the substance of the argument, acts to distract.

Along with these fallacies, among others, people have cognitive biases.

Many biases aren’t conscious.

Individuals look for ideas that confirm their belief systems while filtering out, neglecting, and ignoring contrary evidence.

They may form conspiracies about past events once they’ve been given the benefit of hindsight.

They may justify poor choices with rationalizations while ignoring any opposing evidence.

It is common for individuals to consider their views to be rational. They will see their opponents, however, as emotional.

There are many cognitive biases such as trusting in authorities only because they are authorities, generalizing a trait of one person to all people of that same group, and focusing on negative ideas much more than positive ideas.

Scientists are as prone to wrong thinking and biases as everyone else. That is why there needs to be a rigorous standard for evidence.

People have evolved to find patterns, even when there are none, and look for threats, even when none exist.

Scientific thinkers must be able to distinguish what is real from what is an illusion, while not being seduced by the appearance of patterns.

It’s normal for people to ascribe agency to natural patterns (like the constellations) and find great significance in probability (like a pair of dice landing on the same number three times in a row).

When something that is unexplained, mysterious, or unknown gains validity through evidence, it will eventually be incorporated into science. Ideas that cannot be tested, or analyzed, under peer-reviewed standards, will still be considered unknown, meaningless, or unexplained, until there is reason and evidence in support of them.

Science is a method that filters good ideas from bad ideas. It is a long, self-correcting process.

Even the most obvious, ordinary, basic phenomena, which are assumed as true by most people, must still undergo the same amount of scrutiny as the wildest ideas. Even ideas that appear to have evidentiary support, overtime, may be falsified. Superior models may replace outdated models, new evidence may challenge an existing paradigm.

With so many claims about what reality is, it is important to be skeptical. As Carl Sagan, a famous scientist and public educator and author, once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.”

Scientists don’t have the burden of proof to disprove every idea. It is up to those who make positive assertions to prove themselves.

At the same time, scientific thinkers must be aware of the vast number of biases that interfere with how people determine what evidence is credible. Hindsight bias, confirmation bias, and other such biases, affect all people to a degree. Science is a method that cuts down on these biases overtime.

No scientific principles are absolute. All scientific principles must be tested and theories must lead to predictable results. It is important to question what is seen as acceptable and challenge the premises for any given conclusion.

Claims about reality should always be taken as false, meaningless, or unknown, until those claims gain enough evidence in support of them being true. Then they should be accepted tentatively. They may later be shown to be outdated, false, limited, full of errors, and so on.

Not all claims are created equal. Many claims are often misperceptions, misconceptions, hallucinations, lies, manipulations to serve ideological motives, speculations, opinions, untestable ideas, and so on, and so on.

Those who believe in irrational ideas can influence not only themselves, but those around them. They can form groups, which are destructive to the well-being of others. Their groups can create divisions in society, where the out-group is seen as less than human. Groups tend to conform to in-group values, while being hostile to outsiders.

They will listen to authorities that support their views, even when those authorities are wrong. Eloquent speakers can persuade uncritical people to follow them, even when their words are manipulations.

People can be convinced of outlandish ideas. Even smart people can fool themselves. There are no exceptions.

It is common for humans to believe in supernatural events because humans are hardwired to be social creatures, to feel good when they believe in transcendent ideas, following what those in their closest environments follow. There may even be a genetic predisposition toward believing in supernatural ideas, inherited from past ancestors. Culture then shapes what is passed down, providing a structure for what is already there.

People are natural-born believers. While it is crucial for individuals to be open to the unknown, to novelty and a future of what could be, they must not be so open that they neglect to critically think about issues that affect their well-being and the well-being of others.

To be duped into joining cults and stupid fads, into voting for politicians who promote disastrous policies for the environment, to be fooled into ordering sham products, donating life savings to charlatans, and wasting years on false solutions, while spreading misinformation to those who are nearest, is not only unwise.

It may ultimately be dangerous.

Incognito: The Secret Lives of the Brain

The human brain is a three pound galaxy of complex, evolutionarily developed, neural connections, which when working together or apart, underlies the many processes, forming all of consciousness.

A typical neuron has around 10,000 connections to other neurons. These neurons fire in patterned sequences in many parts of the brain, all before a person is even conscious of thinking about acting.

What is a thought if it cannot be touched or felt or smelled or tasted? This strange organ inside each of our skulls controls our thoughts, but most of our brain’s activity is unconscious. Any change to the brain changes our thoughts, from the food we eat to the drugs we take to the amount of sleep we have to who we’re sexually attracted to from the time of puberty.

Our brains don’t see any absolute reality. We receive neural inputs from our organs, which are limited and biased. Our brains interpret these signals, while rejecting or ignoring what’s considered inessential. Most of what’s out there in reality is not registered. What is registered is highly interpretive.

What is perceived is an unconsciously put together illusion of a reality. Subjectively, however, reality feels more stable than it really is. People often don’t know what they don’t know.

From treating patients with brain injuries to testing cognitive biases with sensory illusion tests, it is often shown that the brain constructs a type of reality, mostly unconsciously, from a narrow selection of neural patterns, which subjectively, are given conscious meaning only afterward. Based on these neural patterns, the brain makes predictive assumptions when encountering perceptual blind spots.

Our brains are hardwired with a sense of Newtonian physics. We often learn a new physical ability consciously and then it becomes an unconscious process. If we encounter a variable that isn’t predicted, we become conscious again to process that variable and its relationship to our sensory-motor system, until it becomes automatic as well.

Our perception of time lags behind time. We need to process the moment we’re in before becoming aware that we are in that moment. At the same time, our feeling of time passing slowly or quickly alters and can be manipulated by external events.

We often have gut feelings based on prior experiences where we unconsciously formed associations between two or more things. Our associations between things influences our decision making and can easily be manipulated, making us act in irrational ways based on our hunches, even if we consciously know otherwise.

The brain is made of systems and sub-systems, responsible for different tasks, such as memory, speech, movement, and so on. Some of these systems overlap, like with the right and left hemispheres. Other systems compete with each other. Many of these areas are deeply embedded in the brain, unconsciously working, while conscious attention acts as a general.

Brains work to conserve as much energy as possible, using the most resources at the start of learning a new skill, and then eventually reducing that energy level after finding ways to be more efficient. When a person damages part of their brain, other areas often compensate for that deficiency. If the damage becomes too great, then conflicting messages will occur. Brains compensate for a lack of function in one area because they are highly adaptive and can rewire. Furthermore, brains are always active, working to create patterns of meaning, even when there are none externally.

When the conditions of a person’s brain changes, they fundamentally change as people. Someone’s inclination to commit a crime, to feel depressed, to gamble without restraint, to be smart, to have sexual desire for a certain sex, and so on, is determined by the type of brain they have, whether that brain is healthy or unhealthy, how that brain functions with chemicals, environments, hormones, etc.

Genetics hardwires brains while environments slant the hardwiring. People are born with complex neural systems in changing environments. Each brain has genetic predispositions and a high adaptability to variables overtime. People’s brains are mostly unconscious while people feel freedom in their thoughts and actions.

The brain is made up of many smaller “brains,” each with its own purposes for the benefit of the collective brain, sometimes competing, sometimes in harmony, rebuilding connections while ignoring what seems irrelevant, weaving together meanings through a processing of old patterns, ignorant of their biases when perceiving, all while maintaining an illusion of stability.