Algoritmewijsheid – Media Perspectives column

For the Media Perspectives (“platform for media & innovation”) newsletter I wrote a column on the future of media & AI: Algoritmewijsheid. Read it below (in Dutch):

Continue reading “Algoritmewijsheid – Media Perspectives column”

CS Column 3: Uncertainty

The case of my disappearing socks

I keep losing stuff. Even though I live on a surface of seven square meters I manage to misplace and lose all kinds of stuff. More than once pairs of my socks get separated, resulting in me having to wear two different socks. This leaves me wondering: did I lose these socks, or do they magically disappear by themselves? More often than not, the latter seems more likely to me.

Like a religious man clinging on to old stories to explain the inexplicable, I arm myself with science. “It’s not my fault” I tell my girlfriend, “it’s because my socks are wavy.” “… it has to do with quantum mechanics!” I bluff. This intimidating set of scientific principles can be my best friend when I’m blamed for losing stuff.

It works from inside the socks. Let’s take a closer look at my socks. Zoom in all the way, until the separate fibers that make up the sock’s fabric are exposed. Now keep on zooming, until eventually the structure of these fibers will show itself in the molecular scale. Keep on zooming still until you reach the atom-level, previously thought to be the smallest elements in our universe. Now we’re close: keep on zooming, until finally these elements break down into their subatomic parts – electrons and atomic nuclei, made up out of protons and neutrons. This is where the magic happens. This is what makes my sock disappear.

The problem lies in the behavior of the tiny particles that make up the atoms. Take electrons for example: we imagine electrons as tiny balls that fly never-ending circles around the atomic nuclei. But they’re not. Electrons are not simply miniscule balls flying around, they don’t behave like particles in a fixed trajectory. At least, sometimes they do. But at other times, they behave like a wave.

Now this wavy behavior is interesting: since a wave is never on one location at any given time, but rather on multiple locations ‘spread out through space’, it is impossible to know or measure the exact position of an electron at a specific moment in time. This means an electron has a multitude of possible locations at any moment.

So if the things in atoms behave like wavy things – wavy things with multiple possible positions, of which we can’t pinpoint the exact one – doesn’t that mean this also goes for the atoms they constitute, and for the molecules the atoms add up to, and consequently for the fibers of the fabric that make the sock? Wouldn’t it mean that if all atoms ‘wave’ their way to some other place, my sock would ride along in this atomic wave, and change its position?

So the key question is: are my socks really wavy!? Unfortunately, the answer is no. It’s not as simple as I’d like it to be: upscaling the weirdness of the microscopic world to the real world just doesn’t work. The reason a subatomic particle can show wavy behavior is not because of its scale, but because of its isolation. A single, isolated particle behaves like it does because it is isolated. Only if a subatomic particle is completely isolated, it behaves like a weird wavy thing. More surprisingly, this also implies that even to this day, science has failed to demystify the underlying mechanism of my disappearing socks. I can still bluff my way through, though. Quantum mechanics are to blame!

Read my 2nd column for the Cool Science class:
» Mobb Deep’s Vision on Evolution Theory

Read my 1st column for the Cool Science class:
» Emerging Chaos – The Rules of Vietnamese Traffic

CS Column 2: Evolution

Mobb Deep’s Vision on Evolution Theory

“Yo, yo
We livin’ this till the day that we die
Survival of the fit, only the strong survive”

Mobb Deep, Survival of the Fittest (1995)

While I seriously doubt Mobb Deep’s ‘Survival of the Fittest’ song was intended to enlighten their audience with the ideas of evolution theory, I’d like to refer to this song to discuss the famous “survival of the fittest”-slogan. Because next to the Mobb Deep song (from the album ‘The Infamous’), it’s also a famous, popular and punchy ‘summary’ of Darwin’s evolution theory. It was introduced by Herbert Spencer in 1851 – seven years before Darwin re-used it in his revolutionary “The Origin of Species”.

In their song, Mobb Deep rap about living and surviving the harsh street life in Queens, New York City. Listening to this fine piece of East Coast rap made me wonder how scientifically valid this ‘street knowledge’ they provide us could be…

In the chorus Mobb Deep further elaborate on their title: ‘Survival of the fit, only the strong survive’. Shouldn’t that be ‘Survival of the fit, only the well adapted survive’? It might not sound as nice, but it would be more correct, at least from a evolution theory point of view. Darwin’s evolution theory does not imply the strongest or most physically fit will survive. It implies that individuals that fit best in their environment will! This misinterpretation of the word ‘fit’ in ‘survival of the fittest’ is (unfortunately) a very common one.

Darwin’s evolution theory is not about being strong, it is about adapting to the environment, surviving, and ultimately about reproducing to pass on genes. So, while Prodigy (one of two rappers in Mobb Deep) raps “I’m goin’ out blastin’, takin’ my enemies with me / And if not, they scarred, so they will never forget me” one could argue he’d be better off staying at home and reproducing (which, to be fair, is another recurring theme in Mobb Deep’s work).

But before we accuse Mobb Deep of misunderstanding the the word ‘fit’, let’s consider a possible alternative explanation: the artists of Mobb Deep might completely disagree to the evolution theory as Darwin formulated it. Rather, they might be strong advocates of Herbert Spencer’s ideas – the man who invented the slogan.

Spencer was a firm believer of Social Darwinism (before it was called Social Darwinism): the integration of Darwin’s evolution theory on ideas on human society. It dictates that in society, the strong will survive at cost of the weak, and that man should not offer a helping hand to the weak in society, as that would go against the natural order of things.

A controversial philosophy, especially today, but could it make sense if we put it in the context of Mobb Deep? The rappers came from poor life in the ghetto, worked their way up, sold millions of albums and eventually became wealthy through it. One could argue that Prodigy and Havoc are in fact the fittest to survive in contemporary human society!

Whatever the case, misinterpretation of a word or strong Social Darwinism, the fact remains that ‘survival of the fittest’ is a pretty strong and powerful slogan – one of which I personally do not mind if it’s applied in scientifically correct ways or not!