Friday, February 15, 2013

CH1: Explaining the Very Improbable

“Explaining is a difficult art. You can explain something so that your reader understands the words; and you can explain something so that the reader feels it in the marrow of his bones.”

     Physics is a complicated subject. But things that Physics studies about isn’t complicated. They can be explained by Mathematics language. That’s why Physics is full of mathematics. 

    “Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose. Physics is the study of simple things that do not tempt us to invoke design.”

      In 18th century, a theologian, William Parley, made analogy of man-made things and natural things. If you see a natural thing like a stone on the ground, you’d just ignore it. But if you see a telescope on the ground, you’d probably wonder “who put it there?”. 
     Parley believed that both man-made and natural things are similar. They differ only in scale. Both exist for certain purposes. Eyes and telescopes exist to receive pictures. But eyes are much more delicate than telescopes.
“Natural selection, the blind, unconscious, automatic process which Darwin discovered, and which we now know is the explanation for the existence and apparently purposeful form of all life, has no purpose in mind. It has no mind and no mind's eye. It does not plan for the future. It has no vision, no foresight, no sight at all. If it can be said to play the role of watchmaker in nature, it is the blind watchmaker.”

     So the conclusion was that everything must have designers who know its purposes, and create it for the purposes. Unfortunately, we was wrong.

A Complex Things

     A thing is said to be complex if one part of it differs from another part of it. Milk is simple. A spoon of milk taken from the top of the bottle is similar to a spoon of milk taken from the bottom of the bottle. An airplane is complex, since its parts (e.g., wings, windows) differ from one another.
“A complex thing is something whose constituent parts are arranged in a way that is unlikely to have arisen by chance alone.”
     The above is necessary but not sufficient to explain what complex things are. So we need the second condition.
     Second condition: If you put all the parts of complex thing together at random, it is unlikely that you’ll get something uniquely interesting. If you disassemble an airplane and then put all its parts back together at random, a high change is that you’ll get a pile of steel, rather than an airplane. With the luck, there is only one or very few  combinations that the pile of steel will fly. These combinations are uniquely interesting.

Design, Complexity and Interesting

     For machines, complexity is tied to hindsight. Someone must have designed it to be interesting. It is highly unlikely that you’ll throw a pile of steel together and it will turn out to be an airplane. Someone must have designed it. But as for nature, Mt. Everest is interesting. It differs from a pile of rocks. But in this case, no one had designed Mt. Everest. Mt. Everest was there. We came later and we name it Mt. Everest. No one had designed it. 

The Meaning of “Interesting”

     But now, we need to know what we mean by “interesting”. An interesting thing is good at something. For machines, that something is functionality. For living-things, that something is proficiency. 

“... complicated things have some quality, specifiable in advance, that is highly unlikely to have been acquired by random chance alone.”

     Every living thing is good at, at the minimum, staying alive and reproduce. More specific things can do more. Whales are good at swimming. Insects are good at crawling, and so on.

We Try Very Hard to be Alive

      Unconsciously, living things try very hard to be different from surrounding environment. Our body temperature differs greatly from surrounding temperature. When we die, we stop trying and our body temperature become similar to surrounding temperature. In time, our body will disintegrate into soil, and will be indistinguishable from the surrounding environment. 
     Non-living things, on the other hand, do not try to be different from surrounding environment. When you drop a rock, it follows the law of physic and stays on the ground. It does nothing to resist the environment. 
     So we cannot apply the law of Physics to living things, because they will try to resists the law to be alive. However, we can apply the law to their parts. Putting a hot plate on your hand, the heat is conducted from the plate to the hand. That’s a law of Physics. But, we, not our hands, will react by retracting our hand to avoid getting burned. 


     How do we explain the meaning of a complicated thing? We usually break a complicated thing into parts, and explain how each part interact with each other. Then, we dig into the details of each part. For each part, we break it down into sub-parts, and explain their interactions. We keep doing this until we reach the level that we feel satisfied. That’s when we stop asking question, not because we understand the complicated thing, but because our level of understanding satisfies us. 
     So, we know that people are interested in interaction of small components. But having too many interactions can lead to confusion. When explaining something, try to limit the number of interactions to less than six. Keep the main ones and ignore  the detailed one.

How Do Complicated Things Come into Existence

     We already discuss about complicated things. We know that it is highly improbably that we can randomly put together parts of a complicated thing and get something interesting. This suggests that complicated things do not instantly come into existence. It evolves step-by-step, and in the end, becomes a complicated thing.

A Biological Object

     In conclusion, a biological object is statistically- improbable-in-a-direction-specified-without-hindsight. This definition is the opposite of physical object. Yet, we shall explain biological object using the law of Physics. But, we shall do so in the way that physicists do not do. 
“The physicist’s problem is the problem of ultimate origins and ultimate natural laws. The biologist’s problem is the problem of complexity. The biologist tries to explain the workings, and the coming into existence, of complex things, in terms of simpler things.”

Book or Audiobooks?

Personally, I prefer audiobooks. It's fun, and I can listen when I'm doing something else. It also makes other activities (e.g., jogging) a lot more fun. For more detail about audiobooks, please read [this post].

There is one more reason that may encourage you to go for the audiobook version. You can get it now for FREE. Audible offers you a free trial for 14 days. Even if you get the book and cancel the subscription right away (so that you don't have to pay), you can keep the book. And, don't worry if you lost the audiobook file. Just log into You can keep downloading the over and over again.
About the summary: It takes time to finish up a book. And, when you do, sometimes, you want to review what you learn from the book. If you do not make  notes as you read, you might have to go through the book once again. This can be time-consuming when you are dealing with a book. But you can still flip through the book and locate what you are looking for.

However, when the material is an audiobook, it is extremely hard to locate a specific part of content. Most likely you will have to listen to the entire audiobook once again.

This book summary will help solve the pain of having to go through the book all over again.

I am leaving out the details of the books. Most books have interesting examples and case studies, not included here. Reading the original book would be much more entertaining and enlightening. If you like the summary, you may want to get the original from the source below.

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