Noteworthy Articles on Philosophy of Mind

Here I am putting together a list of articles / resources on ‘Philosophy of Mind’ which I found worth reading:

Title Minding Matter
Subtitle The closer you look, the more the materialist position in physics appears to rest on shaky metaphysical ground.
Author Adam Frank (Professor of Astronomy at the University of Rochester in New York)
Date 13-Mar-2017 (read on 20-Mar-2017)
Excerpts “the unresolved democracy of quantum interpretations means that our current understanding of matter alone is unlikely to explain the nature of mind. It seems just as likely that the opposite will be the case.”
My summary The traditional conception of matter being fundamentally made up of tiny particles is replaced with a much more puzzling quantum world. The objective access to reality is lost in probability waves, essential uncertainties and the role of observer. There are various competing interpretations of this quantum weirdness presenting us with totally different views of reality. For instance, one of the interpretations posits existence of infinitely many parallel universes to account for the observer effect. All this shows that we have very little grasp on the real nature of matter. In such a situation to claim that consciousness is entirely material (or physical) doesn’t explain much.

Title The Dark Secret at the Heart of AI
Subtitle No one really knows how the most advanced algorithms do what they do. That could be a problem.
Author Will Knight
Date 11-Apr-2017 (read on 25-Apr-2017)
Excerpts We can build these models, but we don’t know how they work.
It might be part of the nature of intelligence that only part of it is exposed to rational explanation. Some of it is just instinctual.
How well can we get along with machines that are unpredictable and inscrutable?
My summary AI systems based on neural networks are probabilistic. Trained on a huge amount of data, they store relations between inputs and outputs in the form of neural networks. Given a new input, they predict the output which can go beyond the human capability of finding patterns. But AI systems cannot explain why they gave a particular output, they don’t reason like humans. Their inability to provide reasoning for their decisions is a problem that limits their utility and their ability to work together with human experts.
As AI systems don’t reason, they may produce strange outputs at times, see ‘There’s a Bit of a Flaw in the Way Artificial Intelligence Is Being Developed‘ (adversarial examples), ‘AI Can Be Fooled With One Misspelled Word‘ and ‘How Cellphone Camera Images Can Fool Machine Vision’.

Title Is consciousness just an illusion?
Subtitle The cognitive scientist Daniel Dennett believes our brains are machines, made of billions of tiny “robots” – our neurons, or brain cells. Is the human mind really that special?
Author Anna Buckley, Daniel Dennett
Date 04-Apr-2017 (read on 05-Apr-2017)
Excerpts In an infamous memo written in 1965, the philosopher Hubert Dreyfus stated that humans would always beat computers at chess because machines lacked intuition. Daniel Dennett disagreed. A few years later, Dreyfus rather embarrassingly found himself in checkmate against a computer.
We’re not just are robots. We’re robots, made of robots, made of robots.
Pressing icons on our phones makes us feel in control. We feel in charge of the hardware inside. But what we do with our fingers on our phones is a rather pathetic contribution to the sum total of phone activity. And, of course, it tells us absolutely nothing about how they work. Human consciousness is the same, says Dennett. “It’s the brain’s ‘user illusion’ of itself,” he says.
Descartes grossly underestimated machines. Alan Turing set him right.
My summary Humans are just machines, albeit complex. And consciousness is an illusion.

Title Daniel Dennett’s Science of the Soul
Subtitle A philosopher’s lifelong quest to understand the making of the mind
Author Joshua Rothman
Date 27-Mar-2017 (read on 07-Apr-2017)
Excerpts A running joke among people who study consciousness is that Dennett himself might be a zombie. (“Only a zombie like Dennett could write a book called ‘Consciousness Explained’ that doesn’t address consciousness at all,” the computer scientist Jaron Lanier has written.)
Along with Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens, Dennett is often cited as one of the “four horsemen of the New Atheism.”
Chalmers accused Dennett and the Physicalists of focusing on the “easy problems” of consciousness—questions about the workings of neurons or other cognitive systems—while ignoring the “hard problem.” Since then, the “hard problem” has been a rallying cry for those philosophers who think that Dennett’s view of the mind is incomplete.
Dennett said, “that you can’t name a kind of experiment that would get at ‘first-personal data,’ or ‘experiences.’ That’s all I ask—give me a single example of a scientifically respectable experiment!”
My summary More biographical, but does go into how Dennett explains consciousness away.
Also describes a showdown between Chalmers and Dennett that happened a few years ago.
Dennett argues that if a machine is so sophisticated that you fall in love with it like you do with a human, not then you will consider the machine as conscious.
Author’s mother had a stroke last year and she lost many of her mental abilities. It seems to the author that she is now “sort of” conscious which makes more sense from Dennett’s perspective. That consciousness is not a light switch, rather it is layers of functions or interconnecting sub-systems.

Title Is The Universe Conscious?
Author Marcelo Gleiser
Date 12-Jul-2017 (read on 20-Jul-2017)
My summary Author explores the idea that universe might itself be consciousness, in the sense that it has a direction and purpose. There seems to be a progression from sub atomic particles to molecules to stars to living things to humans. Panpsychism, idea that mind is everywhere, has found quite a few proponents like David Chalmers. This idea was an essential part of ancient belief systems.

Mysteries of Quantum Mechanics are invoked in support of panpsychism, though there are no real grounds for it.

Title Pain in the Machine (video)
Subtitle Pain leads to empathy and self-preservation: should we make robots ‘feel’ it?
Date 17-Jul-2017 (read on 17-Jul-2017)
Excerpts Evolutionarily, pain exists to warn of potentially harmful and dangerous things in the environment, allowing us and other creatures to learn, respond and ultimately survive. Pain also triggers an emotional response in humans, which links the physical and the emotional experience in ways that are difficult to tease apart, though it does seem that empathy is one result of the emotional component of pain. For decades, scientists and researchers have constructed computers to mimic human neural networks. Recently, some advanced robots have been designed with self-preservation mechanisms that vaguely replicate a pain response. So to what extent should robots share in human pain? Combining interviews with experts from the University of Cambridge and elsewhere, together with clips from amusingly relevant science-fiction films and TV shows, Pain in the Machine explores whether there is a sense in which robots could come to experience pain, and probes the practical and ethical implications of equipping the next generation of robots with such a capacity.
My summary Prof. Peter Robinson (Professor of Computer Technology at University of Cambridge) says that we are a lot like machines but this analogy has limits. And to explain the rest, people come up with various ideas, but professor Peter finds the religious explanation that god created us and endowed us with these faculties to be simpler.

Rest of the experts mostly take a physicalist point of view, though few mention that there is no way to know whether a machine is conscious.

Title Your brain hallucinates your conscious reality (TED Talk)
Author Anil Seth (Cognitive neuroscientist)
Date Apr-2017 (read on Jun-2017)
Excerpts Right now, billions of neurons in your brain are working together to generate a conscious experience — and not just any conscious experience, your experience of the world around you and of yourself within it. How does this happen? According to neuroscientist Anil Seth, we’re all hallucinating all the time; when we agree about our hallucinations, we call it “reality.” Join Seth for a delightfully disorienting talk that may leave you questioning the very nature of your existence.
My summary When we are given general anesthesia, suddenly we are not there; and on becoming conscious, we are back. This is no less than magic. Anesthesia turns people into objects and then back again.

There is nothing to worry about because ultimately we won’t be there. As soon as we die, the consciousness goes away and only an object is left behind. Anil expresses this in more detail in his interview on Philosophy Bites.

Life was considered very mysterious when we had no idea about cells and DNA, concepts like a force of life were invoked to explain it. On learning more about actual workings of living organisms, the mystery faded away. The same should happen, author hopes, with Consciousness as Science is now advanced enough to explore the working of the brain in detail.

Think of consciousness in two different ways: experiences (inner movie) and self. Our common sense notions about both can fall apart.

The rich world, full of colors, shapes and smells, we see around us is a controlled hallucination created by our mind. Optical / Audio illusions tell us that our perception is the best guess of the world that mind conjures up for us. Basically, we are hallucinating all the time. We call it reality when we agree about our hallucinations.

The rubber hand illusion shakes our sense of self as an embodied organism.

So can our smartphones be conscious one day? Author’s research tells him that it might never happen because intelligence and consciousness are two separate things. You don’t have to be smart to suffer. Smartphones can be very intelligent, even more than humans but they are not living organisms.

Title Papineau vs Dennett: a philosophical dispute
Author Daniel Dennett and David Papineau, Introduction by Tim Crane
Date 2-Aug-2017 (read on 5-Aug-2017)
My summary This is a debate between the two about the latest Book by Dennett (From Bacteria to Bach and Back) and Papineau’s review titled ‘Competence without comprehension‘. Both are materialists philosophers so it might be puzzling to know that they differ. Time Crane summaries their debates as follows:

“There were two main lines of criticism in Papineau’s review: one concerns Dennett’s doubts about explicit understanding or “comprehension”; the other concerns his views about consciousness.

On comprehension, Dennett maintains that much animal and indeed human behaviour displays “competence without comprehension”, achieving ends without the subject’s understanding why. In a similar vein, he holds that human cultures can develop blindly, due to the natural selection of the “informational viruses” that Richard Dawkins has labeled “memes”, including some of the greatest products of human culture (hence Bach and bacteria). Papineau argues that Dennett fails to justify his downgrading of animal intelligence or his exclusion of deliberate design from cultural innovation, and hence that Dennett does not take sufficiently seriously the widespread role of intelligent insight. On consciousness, Papineau takes issue with Dennett’s view that consciousness is a kind of illusion (“illusionism”) and argues that materialists should have no difficulty accepting the reality of consciousness – the difficulty is finding the material basis of this reality in the brain.”

Title If I teleport from Mars, does the original me get destroyed?
Author Charlie Huenemann (Professor of philosophy at Utah State University)
Date 01-Aug-2017 (read on 01-Aug-2017)
My summary If a replica of me is created which is exactly same down to the last atom, would I be in two places at the same time. Obviously, this assumes that we are made up of matter only (cells, neurons etc.), there is no ghost in the machine.

This thought experiment raises doubt about our sense of self and makes the Author think that there is no inner, substantive me (or soul). Our bodies are going through change all the time and sense of self is an illusion created by our minds amidst this change. If a replica is created, both of them will have an illusion of self and there is no me anyway.

Title Can Integrated Information Theory Explain Consciousness?
Author John Horgan (Science Journalist)
Date 01-Dec-2015 (read on 03-Sep-2017)
My summary The author holds a position called Mysterianism that the hard problem of consciousness cannot be solved. Panpsychism strikes him as self-evidently foolish, even though Chalmers and Koch take it seriously.

IIT Postulate called ‘exclusion’ proposes the components of a system may have non-zero phi but they are not consciousness because the phi of the entire system exceeds that of its components, resulting in suppression of components’ consciousness. So a group of people communicating obsessively with each other might result in them losing their consciousness as the group itself becomes conscious.

Scott Aaronson, a critic of IIT, says that Phi may be a necessary condition for consciousness but not sufficient.  IIT “unavoidably predicts vast amounts of consciousness in physical systems that no sane person would regard as particularly ‘conscious’ at all: indeed, systems that do nothing but apply a low-density parity-check code, or other simple transformations of their input data.  Moreover, IIT predicts not merely that these systems are ‘slightly’ conscious (which would be fine), but that they can be unboundedly more conscious than humans are.”

John Searle in his review of Koch’s book complained that IIT depends on a misappropriation of the concept of information. “you can’t explain consciousness by saying it consists of information, because information exists only relative to consciousness”.

Title Does Consciousness Cause Quantum Collapse?
Author Kelvin McQueen
Date 01-Aug-2017 (read on 15-Aug-2017)
My summary The author describes the double split experiment and how the reality is explained by two different laws: Schrodinger’s equation and collapse postulate. Schrodinger’s equation enables us to calculate the exact state of the system, it’s wavefunction, while collapse postulate is probabilistic. Which of the two laws governs the physical state depends on whether the system is measured or not. This is the measurement problem at the heart of Quantum Physics.

One way to understand measurement puzzle is to consider it as effects of conscious observer, it is proposed by some physicists (many-worlds being another popular explanation). With this unsolved mystery about the possible role of consciousness in physical laws, the Causal Closure argument doesn’t look conclusive.

To explore the possible role of Consciousness in Quantum Physics, Author proposes to devise experiments based on Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness. If IIT is true, such experiments should tell us whether its Consciousness that causes the collapse of the wavefunction.

MOOC Review: The Biology of Consciousness by Christof Koch

Consciousness is one of the top puzzles of modern science and philosophy. Everything we study in science is objective and has physical properties, but consciousness seems to be an exception. It is subjective, it feels like something to be conscious. Each conscious agent has private, privileged access to his own inner experience which is not available to others. A person can report his pain, but we cannot see his pain and analyze it like a material thing. But mysteriously still, the mental and physical can interact, we can tamper with consciousness by tampering with a person’s physical brain.

The great mystery has me hooked for quite some time and I have been reading books by leading philosophers like Dennett, Thomas Nagel, Chalmers and Searle. This course is a bit different, more scientific than philosophical. It is a short introduction to the biology of Consciousness along with a brief primer about Integrated Information Theory.

The course, called Master Class, is offered by World Science U. I am a big fan of the content they offer, in particular, on Physics. The quality of their courses with animations and interactive content is just amazing.

Following are some of the topics covered by Professor Christof Koch:

  • Why is consciousness a mystery to modern science?
  • Understand what we mean by Consciousness
  • Neural Correlates of Consciousness
  • Integrated Information Theory of Consciousness

Connecting Hyper-V Virtual Machine to Wireless network and Internet on Windows 10

Connecting Hyper-V virtual machines to the wireless network adapter can be a painful experience. I was wondering why it is so hard and poorly documented. As explained here, probably the reason is that the product is primarily targeted for servers where we always have wired networks.

To connect the VM to the wireless network, we have to create a virtual switch. There are two types of virtual switches: Internal and External. I initially managed to get it to work with the internal switch, but it stopped working after some time. External Virtual Switch has more chances of working based on what I gathered from blogs on this topic. It did work for me but after some effort as I was getting the following error:

Error applying virtual switch properties changes (catastrophic failure)

I was able to overcome this by running the following on Command Prompt (Admin Mode).

netcfg -d

Please run this command at your own risk as it will reset your host network connections. You will be disconnected from network and security key will be required for reconnection.

After resetting the network connections using above command, I followed the steps for creating external switch and it worked.

Internal Virtual Switch

Internal switch configuration requires minimum changes to the host network settings and it doesn’t expose your guest machine to the internet. But it may or may be work for your system configuration.

Another way of making internal switch work is described here, but it didn’t work for me.

External Virtual Switch

The external option requires more changes to the network settings. Instructions for setting up external virtual switch can be found here.

Review: Nietzsche and the Postmodern Condition by Rick Roderick

Rick Roderick in his overbearing sarcastic style thrashes popular culture and modernity with the aid of Nietzsche’s writings.

He describes Nietzsche as a ‘Master of Suspicion’, a phrase taken from Paul Ricœur. Nietzsche’s definition of truth, the coin worn out by constant use losing its real value and leaving just the metal behind, is epitomical of his method of suspicion. So often we take our understanding of truths for granted, not bothering to see what it really is.

Rick Roderick reads Nietzsche in a much more metaphorical way than other scholars I have come across. For him, Nietzsche’s eternal recurrence is not a theory about cosmology, rather it is meant to challenge you to live a life that you would want to relive over and over. Same applies to Nietzsche writings about God.

Rick Roderick finds plain and simple atheism boring as it doesn’t add value or tell you anything meaningful. On the other hand, writers like Nietzsche are interesting as they understand the significance of religion for humankind and feel the gravity of our condition.

Rick sarcastically criticizes modernity and popular western culture. Donald Trump and other names prop up from time to time in this regard.

In the lecture on the genealogy of morals, Rick talks about the immoral beginning of our morals and the values behind our values. He questions all the talk about love by preachers and looks at it with suspicion. In particular, he cites Thomas Aquinas regarding the desire of believers to watch bad people burn in hell and take satisfaction out of it.

On Nietzsche’s will to power, Rick Roderick defends him on the charge of providing philosophical fuel for fascism. He spends the most time with Michel Foucault’s expansion of Nietzsche’s arguments in his book, Discipline and Punish.

Rick praises Nietzschean analysis of how knowledge is always surrounded by structures of power.

For detailed notes, check out this link.

Review: ​ Philosophy and Human Values by Rick Roderick

The series of lectures is a passionate critique of modern mass culture with frequent references to contemporary politics and Hollywood films. Blade Runner, 1982 science fiction, get mentioned quite a few times in particular.

Do not expect a systematic, structured exposition of the topic, rather it’s an engaging series of lectures, more concerned with making ideas relevant to our present situation than getting the subject matter across.

Rick defines his personal position on values as fallibilist, it is to have strong beliefs about human values but without a further belief that you cannot be mistaken.

Starting with Socrates and his life of inquiry, he explains Greek values and the ideal of excellence. Moves on to how Epicureanism is associated more with the rising Roman empire while Stoicism with the declining.

He presents the two dominant modern ethical theories: Kant’s Categorical Imperative and Mill’s Utilitarianism. While having more admiration for Kant’s theory, Rick points out that neither theory is completely satisfactory.

Mill valued freedom too much to leave it at the mercy of his utilitarianism, so he came up with the harm principle, which is in some tension with his original theory. Harm principle only allows for coercion of individual by society to prevent harm to others.

But this conception of freedom by Mill is very thin, wholly negative. Freedom should be such that it enables you and gives you a real choice, not just an illusion of it.

When it comes to Hegel, each epoch in history defines freedom in its own terms. Left wing Hegelian, Karl Marx, expanded on this and developed a thorough criticism of Capitalism and a new ideal of freedom.

Finally, Rick talks about Nietzsche, master of suspicion, and then Kierkegaard, one of the most profound modern Christian thinkers.

You can find detailed lectures notes here. Also, full transcript of lectures is available at rickroderick.org

Completed ‘Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity’ from Coursera

Completed ‘Søren Kierkegaard – Subjectivity, Irony and the Crisis of Modernity‘ course taught by Associate Professor Jon Stewart from University of Copenhagen. The course is offered through Coursera platform and ran for 8 weeks from 6st October 2014 through 1st December 2014.

Course consisted of weekly reading assignments from the works of Kierkegaard, followed by video lectures where Professor Jon provided the background of the text and explained the key points. Video lectures are shot at various locations in Copenhagen which are associated with the life of Kierkegaard. The course concluded with an assignment to write a shot essay on a given topic related to Kierkegaard’s ideas.

My essay was on ‘What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates? Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?’.

Coursera Soren Kierkegaard Certificate

What did Kierkegaard learn from his study of Socrates? Why is this connection between Socrates and Kierkegaard still relevant in the world today?

I wrote the following piece as part of an assignment for online course on Kierkegaard from Coursera.

…..

Kierkegaard believes from his study that Socrates has a distinct methodology for teaching his audiences through his dialogues. This method of Socrates has a profound wisdom where it focuses on preparing his interlocutor for accepting and realizing the truth, rather than directly confronting him with it.

Socrates uses Irony to show contradictions in beliefs of his contemporaries. As Socrates engages in dialogue with a person, he praises his interlocutor and acknowledges his wisdom and social stature. He expresses the desire and willingness to learn from him and claims that he ignorant on the subject. The dialogue starts with Socrates asking questions and getting involved in an argument. As Socrates asks deeper questions or points out contradictions, the interlocutor finds him at a loss to answer. This bring about a realization that some of our deeply held beliefs cannot be defended so easily and may be questioned.

At this point, when the interlocutor cannot defend his position, Socrates doesn’t offer his own position on the subject. Instead, he leaves the dialogue without any conclusion, in a state of Aporia. It is a state of puzzlement where a person actively engaged with a riddle is left on his own to solve it.

Socrates don’t confront his interlocutors with truth. Instead, he felt that the real task is to direct one towards a path where he can find the truth for himself. This is important as we already have the truth within ourselves, just it is needed to be brought out. In this sense, Socrates believed that his role was like a midwife whose only assists in bringing out. This characteristic of Socratic Method is called Maieutics (midwifery).

Socratic Method takes into account the subjective aspect of truth i.e. an individual should have an inward realization of truth to really grasp it. It requires an effort, a journey on part of the seeker. Truth, rather than just being told or accepted based on some authority, should also be internalized. This does not mean that Socrates was a relativist, he was against Sophist who were the relativist of his time. He believed in the objectivity of truth but also acknowledged that it has a subjective aspect.

Socrates’s teachings are negative in the sense that they tear apart arguments and beliefs of his interlocutors. In this regard, Kierkegaard argues that Socrates’s teaching are completely negative and he doesn’t offer anything positive at all. For Kierkegaard, as opposed to Hegel, this shall not be taken as a deficiency in Socrates’s approach. It is due to the wisdom of Socrates that he never offers any positive doctrine but instead plays the role of a midwife. He assists the person in his journey to bring out the truth which he already have within himself.

Kierkegaard is deeply influenced by this Socratic Method and tries to follow this model throughout his scholarly career. This theme can be seen in all his works where Socrates and his wisdom props up from time to time.

. . . . .

Kierkegaard has influenced many later philosophers and thinkers, especially in our times. His ideas have been part of, and a source of inspiration for leading philosophical movements of 20th century like existentialism and post-modernism. His philosophy is still relevant as he was a highly original thinker and was one of first to perceive and predict the problems of modern era. It is difficult to classify him as being part of any of the modern philosophical movements, because he never attempted a systematic exposition of his views. Rather his writings shake and stimulate the reader to look for the truth which he can appropriate and which can become the purpose of his life.

Modern man suffers from the loss of moral innocence and a lack of meaning. There is a widespread feeling of alienation as old social structures give way to the modern way of life. Kierkegaard with his Socratic teaching is pertinent to this modern condition, it encourages us to question the excesses of our times and emphasizes the need to understand and appropriate truth for one’s self. The value of truth is not in the cogent set of arguments which prove its validity, its power lies in the giving us a purpose and making our life meaningful.

Kierkegaard died in 1855 but his ideas are still with us with the power to strike a chord within our heart and make our existence worth it.

 

Reading eBooks – Finding the right reader

Over the years, I have started doing more and more of my reading on electronic devices. In the PC era, Adobe PDF was the format of choice for delivering and reading e-books. But with the variety of devices and form factors in use now, there has been a shift towards ePub and mobi formats. These formats offer reflowable content, rather than fixed pages of PDF. PDF is more suited for printing while ePub and Mobi are focused on making documents readable on different screen sizes. I explored various options for consuming ePub files on PC, Mac and tablets including Apple’s iBooks, Adobe Digital Editions, Calibre, Readium and others.

iBooks

I found Apple’s iBooks to be the most pleasing to use. It has the right options in just the right places. It is available on Mac OS and iOS. But the drawback is: there is no option to get your notes and highlights out of iBooks and take them with you to, let’s say, a Windows machine. There is a third party software that extracts notes and bookmarks out of iBooks but it only works on iPad and iPhone, not on Mac. Due to this limitation I dropped the idea of using iBooks.

Adobe Digital Editions

Digital Editions is available for both Mac and Windows. It stores the notes and highlights in a separate file at C:UsersDocumentsMy Digital EditionsAnnotations. DropBox can be used to sync these files across Mac and Windows. ADE was the first software I downloaded and might not have gone further to try any other reader but there is a bug in current version of ADE (v 2.0.1) which compelled me to look elsewhere. The text rendering is terrible if you keep your side bar open. It took me some time to figure this out that the side bar is causing the awful rendering of text. Side bar contains things like notes and bookmarks, if you keep it closed then the content is rendered properly.

Others

I wanted to try Amazon Kindle also, it is available for all popular desktop and mobile platforms. But Amazon doesn’t allow Kindle downloads outside United States and few other countries.

I tried a few other readers available on internet but all of them suffer from one of the two shortcomings. Either they are buggy and have not been updated for a long time or they don’t provide the functionality to take notes and highlight content while reading.

Finally

After looking at these alternatives, I decided to continue with my current method:
– Use PDF files, this ensures that all my notes and highlights are within the book and can be easily moved around
– Sync PDF which I am reading currently through Google Drive or DropBox

Besides popular DropBox, Google Drive and SkyDrive, a nice cloud sync option is acrobat.com which offers about 10 GBs of free cloud storage. On the positive side, it is integrated with Adobe Acrobat Reader which is available for all desktop and mobile platforms. But the synchronisation is not as robust as DropBox and others.

In case, I just have the ePub file, Calibre is a good tool to convert to PDF and to many other formats for that matter. I found it to be better than other options like www.zamzar.com/convert/epub-to-pdf/‎. Calibre is a ePub reader also but it doesn’t allow note taking.

Took ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ from Coursera

Completed ‘A Brief History of Humankind’ course taught by Mr. Yuval Noah Harari from Hebrew University of Jerusalem. The course is offered through Coursera platform.

It is a big history course, giving bird eye view of evolution of humankind from hunter-gathers to present day knowledge workers. The course analyzes long periods of time and is divided into four sections:

Part 1: Cognitive Revolution (about 70,000 years ago)
Part 2: Agriculture Revolution (about 12,000 years ago)
Part 3: Unification of Humankind
Part 4: Scientific Revolution (last 500 years)

Each section has several lectures with the total of 17. The course ran from 10-Aug-2013 to 31-Dec-2013.

It is an highly opinionated account of history, full of contentious claims and ideas. I disagree with the Professor in many of the views expressed in the lectures, still it is a fascinating journey through history, albeit with a different perspective.

Coursera A Brief History of Humankind_01

Udacity’s ‘Introduction to Physics’ course

Took ‘Introduction to Physics’ course at Udacity. It is a beginner level course and I have skimmed through most of it. But what kept me going till the end is the extremely engaging way in which it is taught. Every lesson, you take one important Physics problem and try to solve it. You make progress in small steps by learning required techniques and mathematics. Interactive nature of the platform always makes you think by asking questions before introducing new concepts. On top that, all this is linked with the history of the problem, who solved it and how?

The course has 7 lectures:

Lecture # 1: Circumference of Earth

The Greek philosopher, Eratosthenes (276 BC – 195 BC), was the first person to calculate the circumference of earth with remarkable accuracy. He used geometry and trigonometry to figure this out.

He only needed to take following measurements for his calculation:

  • Length of the shadow cast by an object A at noon at location X.
  • Height of the object A.
  • Distance of location X to the nearest location where sun doesn’t cast any shadow at noon.

See the diagram and link below for details.

Method of Eratosthenes

(Source: http://www8.svsu.edu/~lgreed/PartGrant7illust.htm)

 

Lecture # 2: Speed of freely falling object

Aristotle had following view on this:

  • Objects fall at constant speed.
  • Speed is directly proportional to mass of object.

It was Galileo who found that the distance covered by a falling object is directly proportional to the square of time it has been falling (i.e. objects fall with constant acceleration irrespective of their mass).

 

Lecture # 3: What causes motion?

The prevalent view before Galileo and Newton was Aristotelian. According to which there is one set of laws governing heavenly bodies and a different set for bodies on earth.

Newton through his laws of motion asserted that both heavens and the earth follow the same laws. And the apple falling from a tree or moon orbiting the earth do so under the influence of same force.

 

Lecture # 4: Keeping Holland Dry

 

image

This lecture is about Archimedes Screw and the basic principles behind its working. It builds on the understanding of force from previous lectures and introduces simple machines: Inclined Plane, Pulley and Lever. Simple machines enable us to trade off the force required to lift or move things with the distance. For example, using an inclined plane to move something to a higher level will require less force but we need to push it for a longer distance.

Next, the concepts of Work, Energy and Power are introduced.

  • Work = Force * Distance
  • Work = Change in Energy
  • Power = Work / Time
Work Energy Theorem 
 

Finally, the Law of Conservation of Energy is discussed with the example of roller coaster ride. During the ride, energy changes its form between kinetic and potential with some of the energy lost due to friction as heat.

 

Lecture # 5: Lost at Sea

Problem of this lecture is how to measure latitude and longitude?

image

Latitude is relatively easier to calculate while longitude is much trickier.

When sun is at the highest point in the sky and it is equinox, the latitude can be calculated as explained in the first lecture.

For calculating Longitude, we need to keep track of time. Galileo attempted to measure time by observing transit of Jupiter’s moon but the idea was not very fruitful due to the difficulties involved.

The answer lies in Simple Harmonic Motion.

Simple_Harmonic_Motion_Orbit

Elastic Potential Energy

pelasimage

k = Spring Constant

Lecture discusses the discovery of Pendulum by Galileo and invention of Pendulum Clock by Christiaan Huygens.

Longitude can be measured by comparing the time on ship to the time of a known location. Pendulum clocks can be used to reliably measure time and hence calculate longitude.

 

Lecture # 6: Lightning Strikes

 

image

Lightning is an electrical phenomenon. This was not very clear in 18th century. The link between lightning and electricity was there in the literature but it was Benjamin Franklin (17-Jan-1706  to  17-Apr-1790) who emphasized this link and developed lightning rods which prevented buildings from burning due to lightning strikes.

 

This lecture talks about basics of electricity with particular focus on lightening rod and how it grounds the electric current keeping buildings safe.

 

Lecture # 7: Special Relativity

This is brief teaser to Special Relativity explaining the following two postulates of the theory and how they lead to bizarre conclusions like time dilation.

  • Laws of Physics are same in all inertial frame of reference
  • Speed of light constant regardless of the frame of reference

de Sitter double star experiment is explained as test of Special Relativity.

 

It concludes with a final exam where you can test your problem solving skills using the knowledge gained through the course. There are couple of bonus lectures also about ‘simple harmonic motion’ and ‘why can’t we open windows on an airplane’.