Speck of Dust

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Speck of Dust

Postby Radium » Thu Sep 01, 2011 11:02 am UTC

Image

This photograph was taken by the Juno Space Probe, bound for Jupiter, at a distance of 9 million kilometres on the 30th of August.

It is an image of the earth and the moon.

The entirety of the extent of human influence has been in this image. Every single person lived, and died, on that speck of light.

Kinda puts everything into perspective more than Pale Blue Dot, at least for me.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby xkcd follower » Sat Sep 03, 2011 12:50 am UTC

This is a scary thought of being so insignificant. All the wars, deaths (Life in general) is based on that speck. Now I wonder what it looks like from another few million miles away.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Sat Sep 03, 2011 2:07 am UTC

xkcd follower wrote:Now I wonder what it looks like from another few million miles away.
Something like this, I suspect.
Image
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Sat Sep 03, 2011 3:31 am UTC

xkcd follower wrote: Now I wonder what it looks like from another few million miles away.

A few million miles is nothing. The Milky Way is a hundred thousand million million miles in diameter. In fact the nearest start to us (the sun exempted) is 25 million million miles away.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby letterX » Sat Sep 03, 2011 5:24 am UTC

Meh. I have a hard time waxing poetical about the smallness of earth, given that we so far haven't found anywhere nearly as special in the universe. Let me know when they start building a hyperspace bypass through the solar system...

However, I agree with the 'getting a sense of perspective' as I've frequently found it difficult to get a real sense of how big the moon is in relation to the earth, and how far away. But now I can say that the earth is a large marble-ish size, and the moon is a pea-ish thing a couple feet away. Which is useful!

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby poxic » Sat Sep 03, 2011 6:29 am UTC

That "couple of feet away" isn't terribly useful. We don't know (from the picture) what angle we're seeing. The moon could be just about to roll behind the Earth (from the probe's perspective) in that shot, or it could be at a perpendicular line to the one drawn between the probe and Earth. I doubt it's the latter. It's probably more like this:

angle.jpg
Note: not to scale. Not even fucking close.
angle.jpg (8.53 KiB) Viewed 6642 times
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Charlie! » Sat Sep 03, 2011 7:10 am UTC

Some people tell me I laugh too much. To them I say, "ha ha ha!"

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby letterX » Sat Sep 03, 2011 2:32 pm UTC

Curse you Geometry!

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby IIAOPSW » Sat Sep 03, 2011 7:47 pm UTC

Carl Segan wrote:Consider again that dot. That's here. That's home. That's us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies, and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every "superstar", every "supreme leader", every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there - on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.


Well said Carl. Well Said
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby xkcd follower » Sun Sep 04, 2011 9:11 pm UTC

Lovely Geometry now. But still, we are so insignificant.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby userxp » Sun Sep 04, 2011 10:30 pm UTC

Yep.
http://www.wolframalpha.com/input/?i=volume+of+a+human%2Fvolume+of+the+universe

But in terms of intelligence, a small group of humans can produce systems several orders of magnitude more complex* than an entire galaxy**.

* by some definition of complexity
** one that does not have intelligent life, of course.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Technical Ben » Mon Sep 05, 2011 7:23 am UTC

But only when you add significance to the empty space.
It's the bit's that are not empty we add significance to. Besides, if we compress the data, all the empty bits are less than the filled bits. ;)
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Zamfir » Mon Sep 05, 2011 8:09 am UTC

userxp wrote:But in terms of intelligence, a small group of humans can produce systems several orders of magnitude more complex* than an entire galaxy**.

Isn't that basically saying that humans produce lots of human stuff?

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Technical Ben » Mon Sep 05, 2011 1:26 pm UTC

And, was the original post not saying "large spaces" are large? :wink:
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby ikrase » Mon Sep 05, 2011 5:48 pm UTC

It does nothing that way for me. There is pleasant arrogance in seeing the vast area yet unclaimed, there to support our lives of love and science.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Charlie! » Tue Sep 06, 2011 6:32 am UTC

userxp wrote:in terms of intelligence, a small group of humans can produce systems several orders of magnitude more complex* than an entire galaxy.

* by some definition of complexity

You are a frog, for certain definitions of "frog," but people don't go around saying that because words mean things to us. Complexity already has a cluster of perfectly fine definitions, and so no, a galaxy is much more complex than anything we've made.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Wed Sep 07, 2011 1:30 am UTC

I think you may be giving the argument less credit than it deserves. Honestly, what is a working term for "complexity" that you think a human and the sun can be compared against? Suppose you use the theory required to understand how they function. If so, then a human is vastly more complicated than the sun. If instead you used a definition more akin to "complexity is a measure of the amount of activity or particles moving around" then the sun would be vastly more complicated than a human. But is the former definition really that ridiculous? I can describe how the sun works chemically, and its specific properties in a single dense infographic page, but could not begin to do the same for the entire discipline of psychology, and neuron structure, much less the vast unknown between them. I truly believe that it's not insane to consider a human to therefore have a more complex structure than the sun.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Sep 07, 2011 2:28 am UTC

Malconstant wrote:I can describe how the sun works chemically, and its specific properties in a single dense infographic page
I think you are crazily underestimating the amount we still don't know about the sun.

And in any case, the original claim was about the entire *galaxy*. About which we know even less.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Wed Sep 07, 2011 3:50 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:I think you are crazily underestimating the amount we still don't know about the sun.

And in any case, the original claim was about the entire *galaxy*. About which we know even less.

Regarding structural complexity, do you think so? The assumption (and it's for no good reason, but that's what it is) is that all other parts of the galaxy have no life on them, and that it's the structure of consciousness and life which is so hard to model.

Sure, with the galaxy is easy to imagine there might be other things out there unlike we've ever seen. But the sun? What kind of structural complexity do you imagine it has that could rival consciousness, in all seriousness. The current models seem pretty good.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Sep 07, 2011 4:22 am UTC

Malconstant wrote:But the sun? What kind of structural complexity do you imagine it has that could rival consciousness, in all seriousness. The current models seem pretty good.
Okay then: when will we see the next large solar flare? Coronal mass ejection? What's the answer to these problems?

Modeling weather on Earth is impossible to do beyond a few days because it's so complex. The sun is a million times bigger.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby PM 2Ring » Wed Sep 07, 2011 5:09 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:Modeling weather on Earth is impossible to do beyond a few days because it's so complex. The sun is a million times bigger.

And it's not just a matter of size - modelling the behaviour of a bit of damp air over a rather small temperature range, pressure range and gravitational gradient is child's play compared to doing a magnetohydrodynamic analysis of the solar plasma. And in the outer regions of a star we don't even have the additional complexity of nuclear processes to consider. As for precisely modelling what's going on in the core, forget it!

Certainly, human neural structure is complex, but its kolmogorov complexity is dwarfed by that of a star.

IMHO, thinking that a star is "just a big ball of plasma", is a bit like thinking a computer chip is just a bit of cooked sand. :)

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Wed Sep 07, 2011 5:21 am UTC

Hah, nice. Though the article itself talks about how the problems have been either resolved or have some credible leads. The anomalies are generally just relative to itself, not to star models.

I think it's an issue of semantics we're arguing over here, for what "complexity" means. Here we finally have some real terms to use, thanks to Tworing here, I posit that you sympothize with this Kolmogorov complexity definition. Would you say that a pocket watch is more or less structurally complex than the air molecules in a large room? By all means you could argue that the pocket watch is knowable and predictable, while the room is a fundamentally chaotic system, whose sporadic changes in density, pressure, and heat would take extensive modeling to have any hope of prediction. But for structure? It has none, it's just a chaotic mess, so of course it will fluctuate and that will affect things, but you can model it with regular physics.

The same goes for the sun. There is structure to how it sustains itself, its chemical shells, fusion, all that. But the rest is just a ridiculously large and chaotic system which lacks actual structure beyond being a chaotic system (chaos has its own structure of course, which has been studied for the better part of a century by now).

What I'm saying is that when you hear people make claims like "a human is more complex than a star", that's exactly the definition of structural complexity that they are using. You can call that a dumb definition, but I personally think there's more merit to that line of thought than to just dismiss it. Maybe not much more, and you can call it a different term if you like, who cares, it's semantics, but it's a neat thought. Maybe there's a better (surely there's a cleaner) way of getting at this, but do you see what I'm getting at? Maybe you could state it better than I can.

And anyway, maybe I have too much esteem for the complexity of consciousness. Maybe it's just my way of trying to sleep at night as a physicalist trying to reconcile consciousness. That'll be the one topic that I'll never sit well with. Consciousness just beats the hell out of me. I feel like I'm capable of pretty well understand what's going on with a star, but I swear I'll never have the slightest goddamn idea how my experience of consciousness comes about.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Zamfir » Wed Sep 07, 2011 1:22 pm UTC

Malconstant wrote:But for structure? It has none, it's just a chaotic mess, so of course it will fluctuate and that will affect things, but you can model it with regular physics.

But doesn't that just mean that we care about the small fluctuations of human behaviour, in a way that we do not care about individual fluctuations in most fluid flows?

Someone who did not care much about human behaviour could easily decide to model a human as a constant-temperature object that moves around in trajectories that are fairly predictable in the short term, but unpredictably chaotic in the longer run. Then they could observe the movement of the centre of mass of a few groups of humans. And for example set up a probability function that gives the odds that the centre of mass ends up at more than X meters from its current position after Y seconds.

And such a being might then well conclude that humans are basically a solved problem. Unless you are weird enough to care about the most insignificant details of individual humans.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Wed Sep 07, 2011 3:33 pm UTC

Are you...suggesting that smaller components of the sun have agency or are in any way comparable to the structural complexity of humans? Again I think this is semantics. When I say "structural complexity" I mean the antithesis of chaotic behavior. The sun has plenty of interesting structure beyond being "a huge chaotic mess of plasma", but that huge chaotic mess is an absolutely defining feature. Humans, on the other hand, are much more defined by structural design than chaotic mess. Of course the chaotic mess is there at the right scale, but you can't seriously argue that it's in any way as important to what a human is at it is for the sun.

Now do you think it's really just ridiculous to use a definition of structural complexity which doesn't consider vast chaotic messes of behavior to be very structurally complex by definition? If so, what would you rather call that?
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Zamfir » Wed Sep 07, 2011 3:57 pm UTC

Not so much suggesting, as genuinely wondering. Is the stuff we find special really special, or just in special in the eye of the beholder? I don't know, and if we want to learn about it I think we'd best approach it with an open mind.

We could start by assuming that humans are special, and then look for a definition of complexity (or whatever) on which we score high. But that easily gets us to question-begging.

This might point int he right direction:
Malconstant wrote:When I say "structural complexity" I mean the antithesis of chaotic behavior.

Arguably, the antithesis of chaotic behaviour is simple deterministic behaviour. Structure, patterns, the stuff Kolmogorov complexity assigns low numbers.

We humans clearly feel that we are a special middle case. Enough structure and patterns that we are not random, enough complexity that we are not simple. But perhaps we are just assigning lots of value to that particular mix because it's us, not for any deeper reason.

Or perhaps we really are special, but I am not convinced that we have already found a good way to make that case.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Wed Sep 07, 2011 4:31 pm UTC

Seriously, this is all arguing semantics here. It's an uninteresting claim that "The Earth has a way higher 'human' coefficient than the rest of the galaxy", but if the Earth contains a level of deterministic model structure complexity which rivals the rest of the galaxy, then that becomes a more interesting claim. That's different from a "human coefficient", structure is something that other parts of the galaxy has.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Dopefish » Wed Sep 07, 2011 4:35 pm UTC

We also have a lot more experiance with the inner workings of ourselves to 'see' how complex we really are, not to mention thousands of years to explore each aspect enough to see the sub-questions that branch off it.

Stars on the other hand we don't have nearly as much experiance with, so it may be hard to appreciate all the complexity that you might not realise was there until we really looked. If we put as much effort into understanding stars as we did into trying to understand ourselves/consciousness, we might find that they're both expansive and complicated to the point we'd need a rigourous definition to actually say one is more complex then the other.

Also, I feel like the notion of entropy is relevant to this discussion, but I can't put my finger on what about it exactly I want to say with regards to it. Still, might give someone a push in a direction they want to discuss, so figured I'd mention it.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Wed Sep 07, 2011 9:45 pm UTC

Malconstant wrote:Seriously, this is all arguing semantics here.
Well yeah. Shockingly enough, it turns out that words mean things, and making sure you and another person agree on those meanings is kind of important when you want to have a discussion.

Especially if the discussion you now seem to be dismissing as "just semantics" is one that you started, about the meaning of "complexity".

Malconstant wrote:the rest is just a ridiculously large and chaotic system
Sure, from your position as a human brain, it's quite easy to dismiss the enormous complexity of our sun as "just" a chaotic system. I'm sure the sun feels the same way about humanity taken as a whole.

Malconstant wrote: I feel like I'm capable of pretty well understand what's going on with a star, but I swear I'll never have the slightest goddamn idea how my experience of consciousness comes about.
If that's true (which at this point I still doubt, given your demonstrated lack of understanding of how our sun actually works), it could have a lot more to do with the fact that you're trying to analyze consciousness from the inside, and the sun from the outside. And so it may be a simple matter of your brain not really giving you the tools needed to understand how you are your brain.

Malconstant wrote:When I say "structural complexity" I mean the antithesis of chaotic behavior
So a huge rigid crystalline lattice the size of the universe would be the most structurally complex thing ever? Because it seems like you're talking about ordered and low-entropy things, which, speaking of antitheses, is kind of antithetical to what people normally mean by complexity.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Thu Sep 08, 2011 1:02 am UTC

Woah! Goddamn guns a-blazing there. Saying that we're arguing about semantics isn't meant to dismiss the discussion. You're right, the whole point that I was defending was a particular use of the idea of complexity. I didn't come up with the idea, I'm sure it has a more-defined terminology. But I'm really surprised/disappointed in you if you're truly unable to consider any not-insane definition of an idea of structural complexity in which a pocket watch could be considered more complex than a large room of gas.

To push the idea, a huge crystalline rigid structure also has very low complexity in this sense. You can describe the structure of the whole thing in very few terms. The important distinction between what you're thinking as complexity and my definition is that I'm comfortable claiming that states of very-high entropy have the structure described by chaos theory. That's a very simple explanation, and it doesn't tell you where every particle is, but that's the threshold that I'm defining by assumption.

gmalivuk wrote:Sure, from your position as a human brain, it's quite easy to dismiss the enormous complexity of our sun as "just" a chaotic system. I'm sure the sun feels the same way about humanity taken as a whole.

seriously?

gmalivuk wrote:
Malconstant wrote: I feel like I'm capable of pretty well understand what's going on with a star, but I swear I'll never have the slightest goddamn idea how my experience of consciousness comes about.
If that's true (which at this point I still doubt, given your demonstrated lack of understanding of how our sun actually works), it could have a lot more to do with the fact that you're trying to analyze consciousness from the inside, and the sun from the outside. And so it may be a simple matter of your brain not really giving you the tools needed to understand how you are your brain.

Jesus man. Goddamn ad hominems here. More to the point, how is it a "simple matter" of my brain not giving me the tools needed to understand how I am my brain? If my brain can theoretically understand the structure of the sun, but it cannot understand the structure of consciousness, then unless you're positing that consciousness isn't that hard to figure out, but human brains are just designed with an inexplicable inability to figure that out, that's exactly what it means for the brain to be more complex than the sun.

I feel like you're getting awfully defensive for attacks on the sun's complexity here, and I can't figure out why. But you seem shockingly confident that a human could never understand how something like the sun works. Any chance you're an astronomer (I ask that seriously, as in, if you were that would explain the passionate defense of the complexity of the sun)?

EDIT:
Actually I have a better idea. How about compare what it takes to describe what "a human" is, compared to what it takes to describe what "a star" is. So not a particular star, just the idea of a star, what goes into one, what are its defining properties. for a human you'll need to go into the central nervous system, internal organs, digestive track, immune system, consciousness, memory-formation, reproduction, etc.. For "a star" you've got the mechanisms for sustaining it, the atomic/chemical structure, etc. There's more to both, obviously, but does that seem like an equally-insane way of trying to phrase things? Does the complexity of the design of a human still get totally dwarfed by that of the design of a star? If you think so then alright, that's what I would consider an unreasonably hardline stance assuming that there is a truly tremendous amount that we don't understand fundamentally about stars, but at least it's a clear and bold stance.
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Sep 08, 2011 1:49 am UTC

Malconstant wrote:You can describe the structure of the whole thing in very few terms.
If that counts for you as low complexity, then it seems you are, in fact, describing something akin to Kolmogorov complexity.

I'm comfortable claiming that states of very-high entropy have the structure described by chaos theory. That's a very simple explanation, and it doesn't tell you where every particle is, but that's the threshold that I'm defining by assumption.
So, if chaos theory can describe something, it becomes less complex again?

Malconstant wrote:More to the point, how is it a "simple matter" of my brain not giving me the tools needed to understand how I am my brain?
The same way it's harder to talk about language in language, and talk about formal logic in formal logic, than it is to talk about other things. A brain understanding how it is a brain has a kind of self-reference that doesn't exist for a brain trying to understand the sun. And I'm not saying this is necessarily an insurmountable barrier to properly understanding it, but it definitely is a kind of barrier, nevertheless.

I feel like you're getting awfully defensive for attacks on the sun's complexity here, and I can't figure out why. But you seem shockingly confident that a human could never understand how something like the sun works.
What? Where the heck did you get that idea? I have never said anything of the kind. I've simply been pointing out that you seem to be greatly overestimating our understanding of how it works, in an attempt to demonstrate that it's less complex than the brain (which you say you'll never have the slightest goddamn idea of how it works).

Actually I have a better idea. How about compare what it takes to describe what "a human" is, compared to what it takes to describe what "a star" is. So not a particular star, just the idea of a star, what goes into one, what are its defining properties.
This is a nonstarter. Describing our concepts of stars and humans isn't a very good way to get around our innate human-centric biases. Of course we imbue the concept of "a human" with more complex traits, since we have ample experience of what it's like to be inside one. Stars, on the other hand, are something we literally only know about from the bits that make it to Earth.
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What it seems to me like you're really trying to get at is how much it takes to describe how to create each of these things. Because in that case, then sure, I'll grant you: stars are a lot simpler. Just get a bunch of stuff close enough together for gravitational collapse, and gravity takes care of the rest.

But if that's what you mean by "complexity", then you really ought to find a more appropriate word for it...
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby bane2571 » Thu Sep 08, 2011 7:03 am UTC

This argument that a human is more complex than a galaxy amuses me, since at least one known galaxy holds about 7 billion humans and in order to describe a galaxy accurately, you must first describe t's contents.

Now if we compare a single human's complexity to that of the sun:
Malconstant's arguement appears to be that we can discount any level of "chaotic" behaviour in the sun as irellevant to its complexity. This is a mistake in reasoning as chaos simply means that there is a system at work that is beyond our level to understand. So, if there are portions of the sun we must pass over describing because they are "chaotic" but there are not similar portions of a human, I would say the sun must be more complex simply because it is harder to describe.

Mind you, Malconstant seems to be working on two entirely different ways of describing things: the sun is a big ball that radiates heat, Humans are:<INSERT EVERYTHING ABOUT HUMANS EVER>

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Zamfir » Thu Sep 08, 2011 8:31 am UTC

gmalivuk wrote:What it seems to me like you're really trying to get at is how much it takes to describe how to create each of these things. Because in that case, then sure, I'll grant you: stars are a lot simpler. Just get a bunch of stuff close enough together for gravitational collapse, and gravity takes care of the rest.

Four letters are enough to describe how to create a human being. Nature takes care of the rest.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Thu Sep 08, 2011 1:25 pm UTC

As it turns out, the average human genome is slightly longer than four base pairs, and "nature" involves rather a lot more than gravity.

For a non-human entity (in other words, one that can't just combine sperm and egg in its or another's body and have "nature" take care of the rest), a star is definitely easier to create.
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Malconstant
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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Thu Sep 08, 2011 2:09 pm UTC

@ bane2571: you really didn't even want to begin to try to actually understand what I was getting at did you?

gmalivuk wrote:As it turns out, the average human genome is slightly longer than four base pairs, and "nature" involves rather a lot more than gravity.

For a non-human entity (in other words, one that can't just combine sperm and egg in its or another's body and have "nature" take care of the rest), a star is definitely easier to create.

Thank you! Sorry I was being so bad at communicating, but that's really the best way of phrasing it. If you were God and had huge bowls fulls of whatever atoms you'd like and were putting together a star, you wouldn't need to care about "chaotic structure". You'd just need to make vast regions of the same element, with no particular care to how exactly each piece is fit in, and it would still function as a star. Sure, the chaotic structure is there, and it's crazy and cool to think about, but it's details really aren't important in designing and functioning as a star.

But a human is way less robust. If you were building a human atom-by-atom, you'd need to take a great deal more care towards how the pieces fit together or else it'll just be a fleshy dead thing. That's the idea I was defending, whatever you want to call it, "defining structural complexity".

I'll grant you that it's kind of a dumb topic, but when phrased like that at least it's clear that making a human is a much more subtle/nuanced endeavor than making a star, there's just a tremendous amount that you need to get just right or it won't be able to live and reproduce with other humans. Stars are very simple in this way and humans are very complex. So then the people making this argument found some more precise way of quantifying this sense of complexity to compare all the humans on Earth to all the stars and such in the galaxy. That's it, that's the whole argument. It's inconsequential, it's just a little fun something to think about.
Technical Ben wrote:PS, doogly, way to miss the point.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby PM 2Ring » Thu Sep 08, 2011 3:15 pm UTC

Malconstant wrote:Are you...suggesting that smaller components of the sun have agency or are in any way comparable to the structural complexity of humans?

They might, but it's hard to tell from here.

Malconstant wrote: Again I think this is semantics. When I say "structural complexity" I mean the antithesis of chaotic behavior. The sun has plenty of interesting structure beyond being "a huge chaotic mess of plasma", but that huge chaotic mess is an absolutely defining feature. Humans, on the other hand, are much more defined by structural design than chaotic mess. Of course the chaotic mess is there at the right scale, but you can't seriously argue that it's in any way as important to what a human is at it is for the sun.

We don't know if the Sun is merely a huge chaotic mess or whether it has components that have the right mix of order and mess to be compared with "life as we know it". And we may never know, but that's no reason to assume that it is just chaos.

Malconstant wrote:Now do you think it's really just ridiculous to use a definition of structural complexity which doesn't consider vast chaotic messes of behavior to be very structurally complex by definition? If so, what would you rather call that?

It's a tricky problem. Information theory says that a maximally compressed data stream is indistinguishable from a random stream. Given a set of data with high entropy you can't just say it's merely chaotic; there might be loads of information in there, given the right key.

I think we can all agree that systems that are highly ordered or highly chaotic are pretty boring and the interesting systems are those which are somewhere in-between, systems that look like some kind of information processing is going on in them, and that have the ability to preserve at least some of that information over time. Certainly, the most complex systems that we know about that fit the bill are living creatures and societies and ecosystems they inhabit, but I don't believe we are in a position to rule out other possibilities.

I'll also agree with you that conscious self-awareness is a pretty amazing thing. OTOH, as has already been pointed out, we may be biased to consider our consciousness to be more amazing than it really is. I like to think that I'm a fairly complex creature, but I tend to think that if it were possible to make a fair comparison between such disparate complex systems that a few square miles of Amazonian jungle would most likely turn out to be more complex than I am. Sure, human consciousness gives us certain abilities, but most of the other inhabitants of the Earth seem to do ok without it, apart from the disadvantages they have when dealing with humans...

But getting back to the Sun and other systems with potentially interesting complexity, I assume that you're familiar with cellular automata. Any system that combines the right mix of stability and chaos can potentially support some form of cellular automata, and it only requires fairly simple rules for such a system to be Turing complete, ie it's capable of computing anything that's computable. If such a system is large enough and has a long enough runtime, who's to say what sort of interesting complexity could arise within it? For all we know, there could be exceedingly complex entities "living" in such systems in places that are totally inhospitable to life as we know it. Such systems could not only arise in stellar plasmas, they could also occur in vast natural semiconductors inside white dwarfs, or even in the gigantic molecular clouds that give birth to stars.

I don't claim to be an expert on cellular automata, but I have spent many hundreds of hours exploring Conway's Life, and have managed to make a few minor discoveries and build some interesting patterns (including one that generates Collatz sequences in binary). Certainly, most interesting Life patterns arise by design & careful construction, but some surprising discoveries have arisen by pure chance, or by applying a selection process to random or semi-random starting patterns. OTOH, given a large enough space & enough time for natural selection mechanisms to work there's no limit to the level of complexity that could arise.

I feel obliged to end this admittedly rather speculative post with a link to a relevant xkcd comic. :)

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby bane2571 » Thu Sep 08, 2011 11:34 pm UTC

Malconstant wrote:Thank you! Sorry I was being so bad at communicating, but that's really the best way of phrasing it. If you were God and had huge bowls fulls of whatever atoms you'd like and were putting together a star, you wouldn't need to care about "chaotic structure". You'd just need to make vast regions of the same element, with no particular care to how exactly each piece is fit in, and it would still function as a star. Sure, the chaotic structure is there, and it's crazy and cool to think about, but it's details really aren't important in designing and functioning as a star.

But a human is way less robust. If you were building a human atom-by-atom, you'd need to take a great deal more care towards how the pieces fit together or else it'll just be a fleshy dead thing. That's the idea I was defending, whatever you want to call it, "defining structural complexity".

Up until this point, I didn't really get the point. I see now what you mean and it kind of makes sense. I also think it is still a flawed argument. If you put a bunch of atoms with the same composition as a sun in the same space, there is no guuruntee they will act as a sun, muchless the type of sun you are expecting. In much the same way as putting all the atoms that make up a human in the same space won't make you a human.

The problem I think is that you are working on two seperate levels: Stars aren't complex if you consider them to be a pile of atoms but don't look at the macro interactions but humans are complex if you look at every single macro interaction. You are thinking about what it would take to create a generic star, not caring about specifics and then comparing that to the complexity of creating a working human, probably down to the specifics of eye colour. Of course one seems more complex than the other.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Fri Sep 09, 2011 1:33 am UTC

bane2571 wrote:If you put a bunch of atoms with the same composition as a sun in the same space, there is no guuruntee they will act as a sun, muchless the type of sun you are expecting. In much the same way as putting all the atoms that make up a human in the same space won't make you a human.

Why not? For both a star and a human.

I think this may be getting at why you seem to think that I'm applying different standards in analyzing them (I promise I'm not). It's just that in putting together a human from scratch, you really need to get a lot of things just right or it doesn't count as a human. If you got everything right but failed to include a central nervous system, then I'm sorry but that's not a human. If it can't reproduce with other humans, I'm sorry, but you have failed to create a human. There are a lot of necessary conditions for what constitutes a generic human. But for a star, you just need huge masses of particular elements grouped together in relatively concentric shells (the shell's compositions aren't arbitrary of course, because that's not how they work for stars. If your outtermost shell is made of iron, for instance, I'm sorry but you've failed to make a star. However even in that case it's likely that it will eventually collapse and come to act like an actual star, but that's just because stars are incredibly robust things), and if you set it loose it'll function like a star does, it will be a star.

It just doesn't take much sophistication to put together a star and have it end up functioning like a star, but that's extremely different for a human. But I think the first question to address is the one I started out with. Because if you don't think that even a star will act like a star if I made it from scratch God-style, then I think that's our biggest point of actual contention. So why don't you think that would work?
Technical Ben wrote:PS, doogly, way to miss the point.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby bane2571 » Fri Sep 09, 2011 3:44 am UTC

I get it now, ou're starting with a broad term "star" and comparing it to an extremely specific term "human". In that sense, yes the star is huely less complex, because you dont care about the specific details that make any given star unique, only that it conforms to a few basic parameters. If you look at it that way then yes, the star is a whole lot simpler, but only because you have simplified it.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby Malconstant » Fri Sep 09, 2011 4:28 am UTC

Well, what would you say are necessary conditions for being a star? I agree it's not fair to use a double-standard here, and naturally I'll be more familiar with the necessary conditions for something to be called a human. So I get the feeling that you honestly don't think that if I gathered a sufficient amount of hydrogen, helium, etc. and placed them in appropriate concentric shells, that what you would have could actually be called a star. That the result of this would be just something that looks kind of like a star in the same way that you could design a metal robot with human skin and that wouldn't be the same thing as a human. Does that sounds about right for your objection? Just that you believe it's possible, if not downright likely, that in order for something to be called a star there are more parameters and nuance to the arrangement?

I honestly think that it's reasonable to believe otherwise, that stars are just incredibly robust things which can be formed a gajillion different ways and still be a star in every meaningful way. I'd imagine their ubiquity and our understanding of the varying kinds lends credence to this claim. In which case the burden of proof would need to come from you as to a compelling reason why a star needs to be more restrictive properties in order to be properly called a star. And I'm assuming that your stance is fundamentally agnostic to the issue, rather than having a set of compelling parameters in mind that you haven't thought to share.
Technical Ben wrote:PS, doogly, way to miss the point.

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Re: Speck of Dust

Postby gmalivuk » Fri Sep 09, 2011 4:35 am UTC

Malconstant wrote:I get the feeling that you honestly don't think that if I gathered a sufficient amount of hydrogen, helium, etc. and placed them in appropriate concentric shells, that what you would have could actually be called a star.
I get the feeling that literally no one in this thread believes anything of the kind.
Unless stated otherwise, I do not care whether a statement, by itself, constitutes a persuasive political argument. I care whether it's true.
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