Yet another weird SF fan

I'm a mathematician, a libertarian, and a science-fiction fan. Common sense? What's that?

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Yet another weird SF fan

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Supernormal Power Plants?

In a review of Supernormal Stimuli by Deirdre Barrett, I saw the following:

Even stranger is Ms. Barrett's assertion that the development of nuclear power in the second half of the 20th century far outstripped other alternative-energy sources because nuclear physics offers, in effect, supernormal intellectual stimuli for researchers and engineers. Solar, wind and geothermal energy is "too easy," she says.

Saaay what?

It makes sense to claim that a Hershey bar is a supernormal stimulus for instincts to eat ripe berries and fatty nuts. It makes sense to claim that pornography is a supernormal stimulus for the instinct to marry a woman at the lifetime peak of fertility. It even makes a little bit of sense to claim that Las Vegas is a supernormal stimulus for the instinct to try to hunt dangerous but lucrative animals. I can't think of any caveman activity that would produce an instinct for mathematical physics, unless we find a way to translate cave paintings into equations. (This point has been made more authoritatively in the essay “The Unreasonable Effectiveness of Mathematics in the Natural Sciences” by Eugene Wigner.)

Okay, so personal incredulity isn't much of an argument, especially when I haven't read the book. I must admit that the actual behavior of scientists makes them look like they're under the influence of a supernormal stimulus, especially in fields such as string theory or artificial intelligence. On the other hand, nuclear fission isn't one of those endlessly complicated fields. If anything it's remarkable for getting world-shaking results out of something simple. For example, it took only four years to go from the experimental discovery of nuclear fission to an actual artificial fission reactor. (This should not be astonishing. Just as there are natural nuclear fusion reactors, there have been natural nuclear fission reactors.)

By the way, I'd like to see Deirdre Barrett come up with a working plan (complete with profits) for producing energy on a large scale using those “too-easy” technologies. If they're “too easy,” it should be a snap!

Addendum: I just thought of a possible line of research: Are theories similar to Ms. Barrett's a supernormal stimulus of the instinct to make up rumors about rival tribes?


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