Quantum physics can help with Brexit and Irish Border problem.

March 6, 2019

The issue of the Irish border is bedevilling Brexit negotiations. But physics can provide a novel solution: the border should be a Schrödinger border.

Let me explain. 

Instead of a Newtonian border (with a clear demarcation of the location of the border) a Schrodinger border would have uncertainty about it: the closer one came to defining where the border was, the more uncertain would the existence of the border become. Similarly, one could be certain of the border’s existence, but then completely unsure about where it was. One would, however, be able to detect which side of the border one was on, but not when one crossed the border. 

Using quantum tunneling, a lorry carrying goods would at one instant be in Northern Ireland, and the next instant in the Republic. Because of the uncertainty about the existence of the border, it could instantly arrive into the Republic, without it being at all clear where it had crossed the border.  Thus, because of the delocalization of the border, there could be no possibility of policing it. 

(I wrote about this originally in https://lestheprof.com/2018/11/07/a-schrodinger-border/ : but there’s more mileage in this now that the issue is becoming more urgent.)

Playing the clarinet

March 4, 2019

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_3380Two years ago I finally decided to take up a new instrument, and I chose the clarinet. It was portable (unlike the piano – even the electric piano), and is played in jazz, klezmer and classical music. What more could one wish for?

So I purchased a student clarinet, found a teacher, Gillian Armstrong, and set to. I’d never played a blowing instrument before (apart from an unsuccessful attempt with a fluke quite a long time ago), so it was a bit of a revelation to discover that one had to control breath, fingering and tonguing all at once. This from a piano player who’d never had to contend with those sorts of issues at all.

However, the ability to add so much expression to a melody line, the ability to take a note and crescendo and diminuendo on it, and the way in which the tonguing could alter a phrase was entirely new to me. And practise was critical. I soon discovered that I needed to play every day, or I might as well not try to learn a new instrument at all.

So at last, yesterday evening, I plucked up my courage, and played the tune Carrickfergus at the Dunblane folk club. It went well. Just the one tune: I’ll need to practice some others now!

Winter Solstice 2018.

December 21, 2018

Late night dram on the solstice

hopes of light to come.

Mixtures of music from the piano

major sevenths and ninths

and blue notes from old jazz tunes.

Will there be light again?

Will the darkness be defeated?

Only to come again next time round

next year, if we make it.

But the music will still be there.

Have I joined the dark side?

December 20, 2018

Netflix. Video on demand over the internet. I finally decided that broadcast TV just wan’t enough. We have FreeView: but there never seems to be a programme that I want to see when I want to see it. And while my smart TV (actually, a Mac mini with a USB tuner) can record TV programmes, and while I have iPlayer as well, and can watch programmes that have been shown, it never quite seems to work.

So I decided to try Netflix.

When I was but a young lecturer in Computing, teaching people about X25, and later the Coloured Book Protocols , the idea of Video on Demand was completely over the top. Getting that sort of data rate was quite unimaginable, and besides, it was seen as terribly wasteful of valuable communications resources. But faster networks, much better compression techniques, and virtually free processing cycles have turned all that on its head (even if the protocols and network are still not very well designed for that sort of thing). But here we are, into the 21st century, with videophones, VoD, though not jet-packs or 15 hour working weeks!

So I watched a Star-Trek movie, with a wee glass of whisky in my hand. Downtime. Necessary from time to time.

But will it work? One could spend all one’s time watching the box of delights. What about creative pursuits, like clarinet, piano, or, indeed, artificial intelligence or spike-based low-level audio interpretation…

Watch this space. Will the next blog entries be about music, or science, or reviews of films?

Emeritus at last…

December 15, 2018

At the University Court meeting on Monday last, I was made (I understand) an Emeritus Professor. Hurrah! Now at least I have an official position, again, with my University. Mind you, they kept me an office the whole time, so I can’t really complain.

An ocean of consciousness

November 15, 2018

How do minds and brains relate to each other? I was talking with Ashley, my niece Zoe’s partner about this, and she said she believed in an ocean of consciousness. (I misheard her the first time, I thought she said a notion of consciousness.)

I was sure I’d heard the phrase before, and I just looked it up: it seems common parlance for universal consciousness.

I’ve tended to believe in consciousness being created by the brain (or perhaps by the body and the brain together, though the brain is itself part of the body, so one might just say by the body). But, like most neuroscientists (computational in my case, but I’ve not heard anything different from clinical or experimental neuroscientists), I’ve not had much clue how the brain might give rise to consciousness. But what has been clear is that consciousness can change if the brain is stimulated, whether electrically or using drugs (or in any other way). I’d tended to think of that as being conclusive evidence for the brain being the seat of consciousness: but that neither speaks for nor against an ocean of consciousness. For the evidence doesn’t distinguish between whether the brain is entirely responsible for consciousness, or whether the brain simply connects the body to the ocean of consciousness. Indeed, the phrase seat of consciousness can be interpreted either way.

I seem to hold two diametrically opposed views.

From my own work as a computational neuroscientist, I know that we create our world from our sensory perceptions, and that our internal world is but a model of the macrocosm out there. And as a scientist, I have spent a lot of time making computational models of parts of the brain (and I’m very aware of the sophisticated models like NEST, or those of the Human Brain Project). However, I am very aware of both (i) what these models can and cannot do, and (ii) just how limited these models are when compared to the extraordinarily complex systems that really do take place in neural tissue. (Here, I’m thinking of the different type of ions, of the zoo of ion channels, the range of neuromodulators, not to mention the different proteins involved in neural excitability: and I haven’t even started on either glial cells or the amazingly complex three dimensional interconnection  between neural calls).

On the one hand, I can believe that somewhere in that complexity there is room for  generation of consciousness, (even though I cannot imagine what it might look like: the scientists within me requires that it be explainable).

On the other hand, each morning, I do some yoga, and I briefly meditate, and that seems to connect me to the world, to ground me within the world. This makes me more inclined towards the ocean view.

Could I then join resolve these different viewpoints by looking in the brain not for generation of consciousness, but for connection to the ocean of consciousness? But what might this look like? Would it be any less of a mystery than seeking to generate consciousness from matter? 

As I read this through, I am struck by the difficulty of talking about this at all. Phrased like “we create our world from our sensory perceptions” require a “we” and an “our” that has perceptions, and  world. I’m also struck by the range of difficulties within the area: the question’s just too big. I once wrote a short paper about the neural construction of perceptual time, and that seemed hard enough on its own, without considering any other issues! Maybe this is all just too hard!

Dunfermline abbey, west door.

November 9, 2018

Version 2Where do you think this might be? Italy? France? Spain?

In fact, it’s the tympanum of the West door of Dunfermline Abbey, in Scotland. While it’s famous for holding the bones of Robert the Bruce, it is one of the most ancient religious buildings in Scotland.

The tympanum above is (I think) 11th century, much older than the doors of the Cathedral in Dunblane where I live. I’m interested in the designs on the outermost stones – the inner ones seem to primarily have a chevron design on the innermost two, a flower-like pattern on the next one, and chevrons again on the 4th one.   On the outermost ring, some are faces, some interlocked rings, and some other designs that I don’t recognise. I’m sure these have symbolic meanings, but I don’t know what they might be.

I think this tympanum is exceptionally beautiful.

 

A Schrödinger border…

November 7, 2018

This morning I read in the Times letters of the concept of a Schrödinger border: researching it on the internet, I see that it’s not a new concept, but still, I think there’s mileage here.

To me, it would mean a border that

  • one can detect which side of it one is on

but

  • is never actually crossed (or if you prefer, one quantum tunnels through the border)

So, if one never actually crosses the border, but it still exists, this could satisfy contradicting demands from different politicians. This could be a way forward not just for the Irish border, but for a future Scotland/England border as well. Indeed, it could allow for local borders wherever one would like them (for example, for the Kingdom of Fife)….

This could be a politically useful application of quantum physics.

Retirement: a new experience.

September 30, 2018

After 34 years and 1 month at Stirling University, I am finally retiring. Officially, from 3 October (my 66th birthday) I will be retired, but my Department held a party for me (and my wife) on Friday, and I’ve decided that I will not work this week, if only to ensure that i actually feel as though I have retired.

Last week was eventful: on Monday we bought a new car (a Jaguar – the first properly good car I’ve had in my life), on Tuesday our beloved, but very old dog, Lara was put down, on Thursday I gave my last lecture, and on Friday, there was the party for my retirement. Perhaps it’s not surprising that I feel just a little unsettled this Sunday evening, looking forward to next week, (and beyond) not quite knowing what to expect.

I had hoped to transition from being a Professor (paid) to being an Emeritus Professor (unpaid) smoothly, and therefore applied to be an Emeritus in April. But it was not to be: an email got lost somewhere, and the application will go forward to the University Court in December (where, hopefully, it will be approved). I’ve got the University to agree not to take me off their email list, and to let me keep my office for now, but my official status is unclear. I do have projects I’m working on (and indeed, I’m writing this on a laptop that belongs to the University), and these will keep me in contact with current University staff.

For now, though, I need to think a bit about ways forward. Or do I? Shall I simply go for a drive in the nice shiny new Jaguar, or for a ride on my e-bicycle?

I feel the need for something  longer-term than these evanescent though enjoyable activities. The projects I have continue the research I’ve been doing (on early auditory processing, and working with the context project at Stirling). And then there’s music: something I’ve been doing even longer than Computing (from which I’ve been earning a living since 1974). Jazz piano, and (very) basic clarinet. But how to take these disparate element forward, and make something of them, I can’t really see just now. I do, however, have the time to think about ways forward, which itself is something rather new.

Snow in Dunblane

March 1, 2018

IMG_1860

It’s not unusual to have some snow here, nor is it unusual to have it in late February or early March, but we have had rather more than usual this year. I think it’s about 30 cm (or 12 inches, or a foot in the old measures). And while it’s been really very pretty, it has brought things to a complete standstill here: no trains, no buses, the University at Stirling suspended. Just a few shops open, plus a few doing coffee (and catering for the intrepid – mostly dog-walkers, plus a few with skis on. It’s not been just the snow: it’s been quite cold (not above 0C here last few days), and quite windy. The wind has been making the snow blow about a lot, and that’s not been fun to walk in. The local river (the Allan) is beginning to freeze as well, and that’s quite unusual for this time of the year.

Meanwhile, I’m just at home, reading some papers (but no newspaper today – not trains coming up from London or Glasgow or Edinburgh), and playing a bit of music. No work tomorrow (was scheduled for an 09:00 lab on Big Data), so another quiet day!