Tag Archives: Peter McKnight

Quantum realities and perceptions (part 2)

To sum up Friday’s posting: I discussed the nature of reality (both quantum and macro) and its relationship to our perceptions while examining a Buddhist perspective on science. Today, I’m adding a recently published (Nature Nanotechnology) paper, Anticipating the perceived risk of nanotechnologies, by Terre Satterfield [University of British Columbia, Canada], Milind Kandlikar, Christian E. H. Beaudrie, Joseph Conti and Barbara Herr-Harthorn to the mix.

It’s a meta-analysis of a number of public surveys on nanotechnology and perceptions of risk. From the paper,

Perception is critical [] for a number of reasons: because human behaviour is derivative of what we believe or perceive to be true [emphasis mine]; because perceptions and biases are not easily amenable to change with new knowledge1 [ ] and because risk perceptions are said to be, at least in part, the result of social and psychological factors and not a ‘knowledge deficit’ about risks per se []. [Note: I can’t figure out how to reproduce the numbered notes in superscripted form as my WordPress installation is still problematic. Please read the article if you are interested in them.] p. 1 of the PDF.

Although the authors of the paper are not concerned with the ultimate nature of reality, the words I’ve emphasized struck home because it touches on the notion of relationships. From Peter McKnight’s article about Buddhism and science,

In other words, how we define the objects of our knowledge — in this case, particles — depends on the capacity we have to know about them. This instrumentalist view has a deeply Kantian flavour: Kant taught that our knowledge of phenomena is a product of the relation between things and our ways of knowing about them, rather than about things themselves.

… [Mathieu Ricard, Buddhist monk and former geneticist speaking]

“All properties, all observable phenomena, appear in relationship with each other and dependent on each other. This view of interdependence — one thing arising in dependence on another, and their relationship — actually defines what appear to us as objects. So relations and interdependence are the basic fabric of reality. We participate in that interdependence with our consciousness; we crystallize some aspect of it that appears to us as objects.”

At the base, it’s our perception that governs our behaviour which in turn governs our relationships. Richard Jones in his book (2004), Soft Machines, had this to say,

Issues that concern the nature of life are particularly prone to lead to such a reaction–hence the gulf that has opened up between many scientists and many of the public about the rights and wrongs of genetic modification. These very profound issues about the proper relationship between man and nature are likely to become very urgent as bionanotechnology develops. p. 217

It seems that Jones is not alone, from the Satterfield, et al. paper,

More broadly as applications move as predicted towards more complex domains where bioinformation and nanotechnologies converge, the nature of the risks involved will move beyond the immediate concerns relation to toxicity and enter into contentious moral and ethical terrains. p. 6 of PDF

For me, the whole thing resembles a very complex conversation. More tomorrow.

Quantum realities and perceptions (part 1)

(This is going to be a ‘philosophical’ entry.) The more I read about nanotechnology and look into the science, the more I wonder about the nature of reality. Serendipitously, the Dalai Lama was in Vancouver (Canada) recently which occasioned an article (by Peter McKnight of the Vancouver Sun, Saturday, Sept. 26, 2009, p. C5) titled Exploring the nature of reality; Buddhism and  science are not always in agreement, but they still have much in common.  (The Dalai Lama is quite interested in science and he supported a series of dialogues between scientists and Buddhists which started in 1987.(

From the Buddhist perspective, reality is an illusion so there cannot be indivisible particles such as electrons and quarks which, according to scientists, are the basic building blocks for matter.  Consequently, you cannot use measurements (of charge, mass, and spin angular momentum) to prove their existence as the measurements themselves are illusory. From the article,

The Dalai Lama put it this  way: “things and their properties are mutually dependent … one can speak of an entity only in relation to attributes, and one can speak of attributes only in relation to an entity. Once you have conceptually removed all the attributes, it is nonsensical to speak of what remains.”

These Buddhist concepts are in sharp contrast to what many scientists believe, i.e. there are indivisible objects and matter is real.

Getting back to Buddhism, it reminds me a little of Bruno Latour’s work, Laboratory Life; The Construction of Scientific Facts, where he points out that the practice of science is very much informed by perception, social relations, and belief.

As as I’m concerned, it’s always been a’ best guess’ scenario and one proceeds with a theory as long as it works. I found out that I am not alone; there is a philosophy for thinkers like me, ‘instrumentalism’. From the article,

… [scientific] theories are seen as ways of explaining, predicting and controlling phenomena, and concepts like electrons are viewed as constructs that help us to make predictions and control nature. Instrumentalism therefore doesn’t deny reality. If it did, there would be no chance of making accurate predictions because there would be nothing to predict and nothing to control. Rather, instrumentalism merely says that our scientific theories don’t get to the ultimate truth about reality. But they work, and that’s what’s important.

(If you want to read more from the article, go here.) As noted earlier, I’ve been playing with these ideas as I’ve been exploring nanotechnology and the quantum world. In reading about nanotech and quantum realities, it’s always a leap of the imagination. The descriptions of what occurs at the atomic and molecular levels contradicts the sensory input I receive. Take this for example from an article by Michael Berger (Shaking hands with a virus — getting all touchy-feely with nanotechnology) on Nanowerk,

So while your ‘reality’ tells you that you are sitting in your chair right now as you are reading this, reality at the subatomic level means that you are not really sitting in your chair – thanks to the repulsion of your and the chair’s electrons you are actually floating on it at a height of a fraction of a nanometer.

This a complete contradiction of what I perceive and yet scientists say it’s so and on the basis of their work have made all kinds of quantum discoveries which have been applied to real world products.

In common with quantum particles, my objects too can be measured (they have weight, dimension, hardness, state [gas/liquid/solid], etc.) My perceptions and my measurements are the only proof I have of reality and yet according to scientists there is another reality at the nano scale and their means of proving that ‘nano’ reality is similar to mine.This all leads to the question I started with, what is the nature of reality? (more next week)

On a somewhat related note, I’ve got a lovely short story from Bruno Breathnach, A simple glass of water, which has a very Buddhist flavour.

Happy weekend!

Water molecules are made up of water clusters!?! and Academic Pride

Kudos to Michael Berger at Nanowerk News for picking up on a very funny (and sad) piece of copywriting. It’s advertising for a nutritional supplement which makes use of nanotechnology (supposedly). According to the copywriter, water molecules are made up of water clusters which adhere to a particle in the middle. It’s funny because it’s so wrong (and if you read the article here, because of Berger’s colour commentary). It’s sad because I suspect there’s a fairly sizable portion of the population that doesn’t realize how very wrong the science is.

There’s an interesting interview with Jim Flaherty, [Canada] Minister of Finance in MacLean’s Magazine here. (Thanks Rob Annan, Researcher Forum, Don’t Leave Canada Behind). Here’s a quote that Annan singled out from the article,

Q. If Canada’s fiscal fundamentals are strong, these are still unsettling times. For instance, R  &  D by Canadian companies is perennially weak. And now the future of two of the very biggest research spenders, Nortel and AECL, are in doubt. Should we be worried about our innovative capacity shrinking?

A. As a government we are among the largest funders of R & D in the world. We’re low on the private-sector side, which has been a persistent concern. One of the things I’ve talked about with my Economic Advisory Council, which is important to me, is that in the IT sector we have a tremendous success. We have more than half a million people working in that sector and it has not gone into recession. It’s a tremendous source of research and development innovation. In the financial services sector we have sources of innovation. [this is not the full text for the answer, you can see the full text in Annan’s posting [and his take on the interview] or in the interview itself).

What I find puzzling in the answer is Flaherty’s claim that that the Canadian government is one of the largest funders of R&D spending in the world. (Unfortunately, Flaherty does not cite sources to support his claim.) According to Peter McKnight’s article, which I mentioned yesterday in another context,

…  Statistics Canada has estimated that federal funding for research and development will decline three per cent in 2008/2009 — a troubling prediction given that R & D funding as a percentage of gross domestic product decreased to 1.88 in 2007 from 2.08 in 2004.

Given that Canadian business has been historically weak in terms of its R & D spending, it seems to me that the big drop in R&D spending must be largely the consequence of decreased funding by the government.  By the way, I’d be interested to know if Obama’s declaration that science funding would grow to 3% of US gross domestic production includes business investment or only includes government funding. If someone knows offhand, please do let me know. Otherwise, I will try and track it down.

Meanwhile, there was a demonstration in France yesterday (Academic Pride, June 4, 2009) about the research situation there and in Europe generally. It was marked as a failure because only 800 researchers showed up. (By Canadian standards, that would be a success.) Rob Annan has a pre-event writeup here, but it’s in French so the event is referred to as, La Marche de tous les Savoirs. My French is rusty so I can’t offer a translation with any confidence but I can say that the situation in Europe cetainly bears some resemblance to the situation in Canada.

I found something amusing (to me) in Science Daily about soap sniffing. Apparently some doctors have created a device that can sniff hospital workers hands and determine if they’ve been washed recently. My favourite bits,

Call it a Breathalyzer for the hands. Using sensors capable of detecting drugs in breath, new technology developed at University of Florida monitors health-care workers’ hand hygiene by detecting sanitizer or soap fumes given off from their hands.

“This isn’t big brother, this is just another tool,” said Richard J. Melker, M.D., Ph.D., a UF College of Medicine anesthesiology professor who developed the technology along with professors Donn Dennis, M.D., and Nikolaus Gravenstein, M.D., of the anesthesiology department, and Christopher Batich, Ph.D., a materials science professor in the College of Engineering. [emphasis mine]

There’s more here.

Finally, poet Heather Haley is hosting a poetry event, June 9, 2009 at her home in Bowen Island.

VISITING POETS on Bowen Island Reading/Salon<!– blockquote, dl, ul, ol, li { padding-top: 0 ; padding-bottom: 0 } –>

POETRY READING/SALON with visiting poets Allan Briesmaster and Clara Blackwood

Please join us for a lovely evening of stellar verse with father and daughter poets Allan Briesmaster and Clara Blackwood from Ontario.

7:30 pm
Tuesday, June 9
At the home of Josef Roehrl and Heather Haley
Bowen Island, BC
Information: 778 861-4050

Allan Briesmaster is a freelance editor and publisher, and the author of ten
books of poetry, including Interstellar (Quattro Books, 2007). He was
centrally involved in the weekly Art Bar Poetry Reading Series in Toronto
from 1991 until 2002. As an editor Allan has been instrumental in producing
more than 70 books of poetry and non-fiction since 1998. Last year he
co-edited the 256-page anthology Crossing Lines: Poets Who Came to Canada in
the Vietnam War Era for Seraphim Editions. Allan lives in Thornhill, Ontario
with his wife Holly, a visual artist with whom he has collaborated several

Clara Blackwood

Born and raised in Toronto, Clara Blackwood has been writing poetry for 15 years. Her first poetry collection, Subway Medusa (2007), is the inaugural book in Guernica Editions¹ First Poets Series, which showcases first books by poets thirty-five and under. From 1998 to 2004, Clara ran the monthly Syntactic Sunday Reading Series at the Free Times Café in Toronto. Her poetry has appeared in such magazines as the Hart House Review, Misunderstandings Magazine, Surface & Symbol and Carousel.