Saturday, May 19, 2012

From Art to Chemistry

I didn’t understand art very well when I was little. I thought it was useless, pointless, and boring. Art class was a pain for me, because I couldn’t figure out the purpose of it. All I can draw is straight lines, circles, and triangles.

Later in my life, as my experience grew, I noticed that art is useful in many ways. Sometimes it is used to put a message in pictures, like in road signs. Sometimes it is about creating feelings for people visiting a place like the decoration of modern hotels or traditional Chinese restaurants. After realizing this, I began to wonder how artists create things that look beautiful and interesting among so many possibilities. What exactly in art makes us feel that way?

I think the relationship between neuroscience and art is similar to that between physics and chemistry. Physicists are trying to know the basic workings of atoms and particles. Chemists are dealing with the function of different combinations of atoms. Neuroscience is the study of the nervous system, the inner workings of the brain, and human psychology. And I think what artists are trying to do is use tools to interact with our brains without first knowing how our brains work. This is not a bad thing because chemists in the 19th century also knew so much about many chemical elements and made great use of them without first knowing exactly how atoms work.

For me, art is just like a chemistry experiment. Artists put many colors, materials, shapes, and sounds together to see what happens when people see them. Chemists add different combinations of elements with different temperatures and quantities together to see what they will produce. I think modern art, which has a tendency toward abstraction, is the very attempt to try to simplify the variables involved just like what we do in science. However, it is still too early to say we can completely understand the complexity and sophistication of art through science.

Friday, March 23, 2012


What is skepticism exactly? In Wikipedia, it states that:

Skepticism generally refers to any questioning attitude towards knowledge, facts, or opinions/beliefs stated as facts, or doubt regarding claims that are taken for granted elsewhere.

For me, skepticism means to question everything, make no assumptions, and judge each claims based on evidence. Of cause, even when we examine all the evidences, most of the time we will still left with some uncertainties. But I think it’s better to live with uncertainties rather than to have answers which might be wrong. Does it mean once we adopt skepticism, we are not able to decide anything because we are uncertain about it? No. We can act based on different degrees of uncertainty.

For example, the uncertainty of the negative effects of smoking is pretty low. We have many studies to indicate that it has effect on many diseases; we know what chemicals in cigarettes can raise the probability of getting cancer; we know some of the users will develop addiction and never able to quit. Nevertheless, we know little about the health effect when one smoke rarely(not daily); we can’t see with our own eyes that cigarettes actually cause harms; we can’t be absolutely sure that all these evidences are not lies that are designed to trick us so somebody can enjoy more cigarettes by themselves! But no evidence has shown that this is the case. Thus, we can avoid cigarettes as much as possible with high certainty that it could cause harm, at the same time, trying to find out more about it.

Naturally, this skepticism let me questioning many aspects of things. Some of them are little thing in life: Why do we celebrate birthday by cake and candles? Why do we celebrate Christmas with gifts and trees? Who are we really celebrating for? Why do we always buy a diamond ring for marriage? Some of them are bigger questions: Can strict laws and longer imprisonment (lock someone in prison) effectively lower crime rate? Is our educational system outdated? Can free market solve all economic problems by itself? Does god or gods exist?

It turns out that most of them don’t have an easy answer. But as we find out more about it, the fogs surrounding these questions will become clearer.  
Cyanide and Happiness, a daily webcomic

“Curiosity killed the cat” is an old saying used to warn the dangers of unnecessary investigation or experimentation. For one thing, we are not cats! For another, curiosity is exactly the hallmark of our species. It is why we can improve science and technology so rapidly, free ourselves from daily work and feed a cat!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

An investigation into “The Photon Belt”

On February 17th, I received an email titled “2012 is not the end of the word.”(In Chinese) Rather, the first sentence claimed “Scientists finally make sure! On December 21st 2012, the earth will be in the dark continuously for 3 days! It is the time that shift of the Ages will occur on the earth.”

At first, I thought it is just a solar eclipse (occurs when the Moon passes between the Sun and the Earth). But it is not what the article mean; it means all human, whether they live in North America, China, or India, will not be able to see our sun for 3 days. It is a tremendously interesting topic for me. How did I miss it? If such prediction is correct, it will be the first time this astronomy phenomenon ever happens in all recorded human history or even since the birth of our solar system! Why I didn’t see any scientific journal writes about it? How does it happen? Could we avoid it? What should we do during that time? Are human in danger because of it?

I have to find out more. So I continue to read it.

Surprisingly, the email said relatively little about science in the email. Mostly, it wrote about our earth will enter “The Photon Belt” and “Zero Dimension” during that 3 days period. But it didn’t explain what is “The Photon Belt”, what is photon, nor what does it mean to experience “Zero Dimension.” It predicted many people will die, but mentioned little about how and where people will die. It also predict geomagnetic reversal will happened in this year, but again, nothing about what makes it happen.

So I decided to use internet to search the source of its claim. Maybe it will include some science and explain it more. Maybe the author of the email didn’t bother to mention it because he or she think it is too difficult to be understood.

On a Wikipedia page titled “Photon belt”, it point the source to a German engineer named Paul Otto Hesse who described his beliefs about the Photon Belt and its impact on humanity and planet Earth in his book Der Jüngste Tag (The Last Day) in 1950. His book and the Photon Belt concept had been referred by many people and organization including Cosmic Awareness (, who wrote a Q&A article called “2012 and the Ascension” that I believe the Chinese version came from.

However, in the article “2012 and the Ascension”, again, said nothing about scientific findings, experiments, nor published papers. It only reminded me of many pseudo-scientific beliefs which often use big word like Universal Consciousness, 5th (or higher) dimension, The Veil of Forgetfulness, and so on to confuse general public so people would buy their books or video tapes. We should be alarmed when the person who asks for money is the same person who knows money will be useless after their prediction come true.

In fact, from other sources on the internet, prediction regarding “The Photon Belt” had already been made and failed not once, not twice, but thrice, included 1992, 1997, and 2011. Also, from physics point of view, photons are merely particles of electromagnetic energy, which we commonly experience as light. If a huge number of photon ever strikes Earth, we would experience nothing more than a little sunburn rather than a total darkness. Furthermore, in order to form a hypothetical belt full of photon to orbit around a star cluster (a group of thousand stars) called Pleiades as stated by Cosmic Awareness and others alike; it will require a mass of a black hole which astronomers never observed. Did scientists ever found something about it? Yes. The star cluster is actually about 400 light years away and it is running away from us. It is not likely for the star cluster to be anyway near the solar system soon.

Nevertheless, when I looked back at the original email, I found it is hard to blame the author or the sender. Their intention is generally good. They asked nothing in return. At the end of email, the author argued “regardless of this message is true or not, we should accompany our family and friends more while this wonderful world still exists. We should start to appreciate what we have now! ” I guess this is why LC Tung talked about this after I read my article concerning why we should appreciate our short existence on Earth.

Indeed, it is hard to distinguish between seemingly reasonable fictions that satisfy our needs and often counterintuitive nature of science that can not be easily understood. Eventually, I think scientists are responsible for it because they didn’t try hard enough to make science interested and enjoyable to people outside of scientific community. I believe learning English is the first step to figure out what science really tell us. This investigation is only possible by using English, and it will not be possible if I didn’t attend this writing class.

Side note: What if the reason why the media didn’t mention about “The Photon Belt” is because government didn’t want public to panic and overreact? Well, to be fair. If you think government is powerful enough to do so, you will have to admit it is also probable that they sent a 23 year old engineering student to spy on a writing class for 6 months and write an article once he hear a truth that government doesn’t want you to know.