Tag Archives: criticality

Okay Google, Directions to Plato’s Cave

I am standing in the dark, looking at the shadows on the walls of this ancient cave when my pocket buzzes — Facebook wants to notify me that I’ve been invited to a play tonight. Who am I? You might say I am Plato, except, like, I also have a smartphone. Editor Stacy Hale had a great conversation with Bryan A. Knowles about AI and giving meaning to language. Greek philosophy, among some silly things, asks the real questions, like: “What is the true nature of the universe?” This question might seem impossible to answer simply because it is impossibly vague, but in Plato’s famous Allegory of the Cave, it is explained that we can never even look upon the face of Truth — our ability to know anything is intrinsically limited by our imprecise senses, psychological processes, and non-universal language. BK: Keep in mind that this train of thought is carried on the assumption that one true Truth exists, something that Relativity and the Uncertainty Principle and the Uniqueness Problem all contradict. Regardless, Plato’s Cave remarkably sums up much of modern scientific skepticism:  There are things we can never know, such as whether any given computer code will halt when executed; there are things we can never approximate, since all it takes is a single electron counted wrong and our weather predictions will quickly be way off; and, there are things we can never expect, such as ... Read more
Editor’s Note: This is an original draft of an article that was first published in New Scientist entitled “One rule of life: Are we posted on the border of order?”.
It’s not the midges that were the problem, says Andrea Cavagna, but the kids. You’d think his efforts to record the movements of midge swarms in the public parks of Rome near sunset would be fraught with risks of being eaten alive by the little beasts — but these were a non-biting variety. Keeping away the children who gathered to watch what these folks were up to with their video cameras, generators and thickets of cabling was another matter. That, and the problem of finding a parking space in central Rome. It’s not easy, he realised, for a physicist to turn field biologist. The reason why Cavagna, based at Sapienza University in Rome, and his colleagues went midge-hunting sounds strange, perhaps even bizarre. The researchers wanted to know if midges behave like magnets. More specifically, if they act like magnets close to the point where heat flips them between a magnetic and non-magnetic state: a so-called critical phase transition.  
“It’s a delicate balance: you need stability, but also responsiveness.”
&nbs... Read more