March 14, 2007

Pi day, and Einstein's birthday

(Este post en español.)

Pi day is back! I shouldn't actually considered it as such, since we Spanish-speaking people write this day as 14/3, instead of 3/14... however, since the 3th day of the 14th month isn't likely to arrive anytime soon, I may as well jump on the wagon. My humble contribution is an applet (see below) for estimating Pi by picking random points in a square.

But additionally, today is the birthday of Albert Einstein, who was born in Ulm, Germany, 128 years ago. He was a giant like few others, and we are still waiting for someone big enough to stand on his shoulders and see further. Before the pi applet, here are some quotes from Einstein; Bora has some more.

Anyone who has never made a mistake has never tried anything new.

There are two ways to live: you can live as if nothing is a miracle; you can live as if everything is a miracle.

Space and time are modes by which we think, not conditions under which we live.

Underlying the seeming differences between science and magic are more similarities than you might imagine. Both disciplines rely on a process sparked by mystery and nurtured by curiosity.

After a certain level of technological skill is achieved, science and art tend to coalesce in aesthetic plasticity and form. The greater scientists are artists as well.

Do not worry about your problems with mathematics, I assure you mine are far greater

And now, let's estimate pi. What's the idea? It's simple: we have a circle (of a certain radius R) inscribed inside of a square. Since the radius of the circle is R, the side of the square is 2R. The area inside of the circle is πR2, and the square's area, (2R)2=4R2. Thus, if we randomly pick a point inside of the square, the probability that it will fall inside the circle (and hence, the frequency with which this will happen) is (πR2)/(4R2) = π/4. If we pick many points, and multiply by 4 the frequency with which we fall inside the circle, we will be increasingly close to the value of pi.

The applet is fairly intuitive; the points shown are the last 20 that have been picked (the fade away after 20 iterations), though the pi computation is done with the total accumulated points. With a few points, the "3" of pi shows up. Before 1000, the first decimal will converge to 1. Alas, maaaaany iterations are required to obtain (with a good probability) a good number of decimals; the 4th decimal will probably be beyond your patience.

Another method for estimating pi through probabilities (which is nicer, since there is no obvious circular thing in the setup) is through Buffon's needles.

Here is the applet; you can see the source code here:

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March 10, 2007

On a lighter note...

(Este post en español.)

Some other things I learned while perusing three months worth of blogs...

* Second Life is becoming more and more like a real country, and one that appears in the newspapers more than some of the traditional ones. Not surprisingly, Reuters opened a news agency there. Sweden has become the first country to open a virtual embassy in SL. There is even a terrorist movement in-world! Last but not the least, there is also science on display in SL; in my brief visit (yes, I joined, I'm curious!) I didn't manage to find any, but now I see that Paul Decelles provides some useful pointers. Rob Knop of Galactic Interactions gave a talk there, and promised to write about SL in the future.

* The truth came out.

* The nice Powers of 10 video was featured in a lot of blogs, but only in The Daily Transcript did I find Simpsons' version too.

* 17 was found to be the most random number. Though, of course, with randomness you can never be sure.

* There is some hope, after so many promises, that stem cells will finally start to deliver.

* I was really impressed by the story about chimps making spears (and I don't understand why the whole planet is not speaking about it). But how could this even more shocking discovery go almost unnoticed?

* Another bit of natural history which wasn't highlighted as it deserved: The march of the librarians (via Improbable Research). Forget penguins. Al Gore was lucky; this documentary should have been nominated and awarded instead of his talk.

* Via Digg: how would the creatures imagined by children look if they could draw just a little bit better? Perhaps like this?

* Of course, there where plenty of quizzes waiting for me in the feeds. Thus I learned that I'll die from an Unlikely Illness ("only to find out after death that eating more broccoli would have cured you"), that I'm Einstein ("a detached intellectual whose ideas saved/will destroy the world"), that my dominant intelligence is linguistic, that I'm Dr. Doom ("blessed with smarts and power but burdened by vanity"), that I know the Bible 95%, that I'm a mad King of France, that my brain falls exactly in the middle of the male-female continuum, that I'm William Gibson, and that I'm a loser (sorry about that, William).

During the last few months...

(Este post en español.)

After returning from a long trip and a couple of months mostly offline, I had (of course) to go through the 11000+ posts accumulated in bloglines; I still haven't finished the 10% I marked as "worth reading". So much stuff, so much. And the tables of contents of journals are lagging even behind that, a monstrous lump growing in my inbox. I just want to highlight some of the things I found when I reconnected to the blogosphere, and after that I hope to keep posting.

* Two new carnavals worth paying attention: Oekologie, "the blogosphere’s first ecology and environmental science carnival", and one that was long due: a carnival of mathematics, creatively called the Carnival of Mathematics. Three editions are already up, chez Alon, MarkCC, and the third since yesterday at Michi's. Editions will appear every other Friday, and the next one will be hosted by Jason Rosenhouse at EvolutionBlog. Lots of good stuff in each one.

* Anatol Rapaport passed away in January. He made great contributions to mathematical biology and mathematical social science, both through specific works and by organizing research areas and programmes.

* In February there was a Week of Science, where a number of science bloggers refrained from fighting crackpots, discussing politics and posting quizz results, and just wrote about science, one post per day. All entries (a looot of them) where crossposted at a Just Science blog, which will now be in stand-by until next year's edition.

* Some science bloggers have been writing posts on basic concepts in science; a list is being compiled and maintained by John Wilkins here. Extraordinary work.

* Also in the field of "blog aggregation", Bora of A Blog around the clock compiled and published a science blogging anthology, The Open Laboratory. The list of posts included is here, the book can be bought here, and John Dupuis has reviewed it (along with two other books). The idea grew out of a Science Blogging conference, and the next conference and anthology are already in the works.

* People, but specially the press, love to do reviews when a year ends and another begins, and 2006 didn't escape from that. If you still want to remember what happened last year besides Pluto's demotion (now reverted in New Mexico, by the way), Charles Daney at Science and Reason had links and comments to Nature's and Science's reviews, as well as a list of physics stories of the year. Nobel Intent, Ars Technica's science blog, reviewed the year in four posts, too. On the other hand, if you want to know what awaits us in 2007, see what some people told Seed magazine about it.

* Another New Year tradition: Edge.org published the answers of many clever people to a certain question. This time: What are you optimistic about?. They made me feel like Schopenhauer in a bad day.

* Two important memorial days. One was for Charles Darwin, and Clock's Bora compiled links to the many posts. The other was for Carl Sagan, and Joel Schlosberg has the list of the even more numerous blog tributes. I can only add links to this remembrance of Sagan as a skeptic, at the Skeptical Inquirer, and two reviews of his recent posthumous book, The Varieties of Scientific Experience. I'm sorry not to have blogged on those days; Darwin and Sagan were both important in my early interest in science. I remember how I bothered the librarian of my school until she managed to buy The Origin of Species, and how after that I never borrowed it (since I had also bothered my parents, and had received my own copy by then :-) ). And since I couldn't watch Sagan's Cosmos on TV (it was on a channel that didn't reach my city at the time), I bought and enjoyed the book as soon as my monthly allowances became worth saving.

* Bill Hooker completed a trilogy of guest posts at 3 Quarks Daily on Open Access, Open Science, and An Open Science World. Excelent.

February 16, 2007

Rebooting...

I know, I know... For two months this seemed to be another still-born blog. But don't dispair, random visitors: in the next days (perhaps hours) blogging will resume, or rather, actually start.

December 04, 2006

My reasons for appeasing...

I was writing a comment to a post over a Larry Moran's Sandwalk, and it grew a bit long. Since I don't like long comments, and on the other hand, I haven't found the time to post here, I decided to paste it here and only send the trackback there.

The general topic is the current controversy in blogs and elsewhere about how to deal with religions; I won't survey the discussion here, since I doubt that anyone will land here who has not already seen the topic elsewhere.

I agree with most of the post of Moran; the argument of Scott Atran he quotes is certainly a bad one, a Moran's answer sensible. My comment is to the last part, where he quotes Sam Harris:
There's another interesting point made by Harris. He explains that there are only three good reasons for appeasing the superstitious.
(1) Certain religious beliefs are true (or likely to be true); here's why…
(2) Religious beliefs, while not likely to be true, are so useful that they are necessary; here's the evidence…
(3) Many religious people are so irrational that it is simply too dangerous to criticize their beliefs. Please keep your mouth shut.
I agree. I'd like to hear from the Neville Chamberlain Appeasers. Which one of these three arguments do you support?

There is a question, here is my answer.

I don't know the exact definition of appeaser, but I guess I'm one. At least in the sense of not being a militant atheist; and I don't think it would be a good idea to fight religion in all its forms, as long as we don't have a tested and viable way to replace its roles in society. And here are some of my reasons (there may be more); I think they fall mostly under point 2 of the trichotomy:

- I know people who are quite happy being religious, and religion is part of their happiness. Since happiness is a rare thing, I'd be loath to take it away from them (being an atheist can be quite difficult). The fact that I think they are wrong is not enough for me; as long as their religiosity remains civil and I see they are happy, I won't preach atheism to them.

- The fact that, when people stop believing in god, they are likely to start believing any BS. As Razib has argued repeatedly over at Gene Expression, people are inclined to believe, and they will find something to believe in. Probably something simple. As long as we don't have a good replacement, my first answer to those who would like to see the instant demise of churches is "be careful what you wish for...". A mature, organized, domesticated big religion, can be more easy to deal with (for matters of public interest, like health) than a pandemonium of new age superstitions, with faith in alternative medicine and the like.

- Charities. Religions are just good at it. I have considered refusing to give money to religious charities (since I know that this contributes to their status and reputation), but what can I do if in my country the most important provider of help for the poor is a Catholic charity? And they are not just the biggest, but also the most professional and effective. In my country, which has being doing quite well during the last decades, it could be argued that the state can and should take care of the issues the charities currently address. But in most of the third world, religions provide safety nets that are not available otherwise, and won't be available any time soon.

- For some years in the late 60's and early 70's there was a strong political polarization in my country. After that we had a brutal dictatorship, which shut down almost every social organization. The combined effect of the whole process effectively destroyed the texture of society. When it was rebuilt, the Catholic Church was essential (along with some other confessions): the embryos for the organization of the new unions, neighbourhood associations, whatever, they were all the work of the Church. I don't know what else could have filled that role, with the same nation-wide influence, connections and appeal. Not to mention the amazing job they did in protecting and supporting those who were politically persecuted at the time, saving lives of both church-goers and godless communists.

That's it. I hope that we'll some day outgrow religion. But the day seems to be far away, and fighting religion as a whole won't bring it closer; educating people, raising the living standards, and studying religion à la Dennett, in order to understand it and be able to eventually design, try and test alternative institutions that can fill its roles, that looks more promising to me.

November 20, 2006

Though I don't care that much...

...about the culture wars in the US, I feel obliged to do my part in answer to RPM's request for a little google bombing on Casey Luskin. Ok, that was it. Despite the fun of reading the stupid claims of anti-science activists, and the joy of reading the often brilliant fisking by science bloggers, I'd be happy to see the IDiots fade away; then the public space could be used for more interesting (and real) controversies.

November 17, 2006

First idle post

I'm a sucker for silly tests, and now I have a blog. It follows that I must post what I got at the Belief-O-Matic.... Well, just the top and the bottom of the list:

1. Secular Humanism (100%)
2. Unitarian Universalism (100%)
3. Liberal Quakers (88%)
4. Mainline to Liberal Christian Protestants (85%)
5. Nontheist (79%)
...
23. Islam (17%)
24. Orthodox Judaism (17%)
25. Hinduism (10%)
26. Eastern Orthodox (10%)
27. Roman Catholic (10%)

Seems like the path has been long since my days as an active Roman Catholic. And yes, it feels like a long path too. Hat-tip to Razib.