Pressing the Origins

If I were pressed to write less than 700 words on the current state of cosmology and tie it in with infinite number theory and the deplorable state of scientific media communication, then I might write something like this following email to my friend Syko.

Let me first get you “in” on this conversation:

Syko made a comment in an earlier email to the effect that he could agree the origin of the universe can be taken seriously, but … (in his words):

I … rather support the notion of the origin. I struggle with the idea that the universe is infinite. Doesn’t make sense to me. Don’t buy it.

Then I wrote back saying something like:

Things do not need to make sense for them to be real.  There are some wonderful and bizarre levels of “infinite”, in fact far more infinitely many layers of infinity than most ordinary people realise, but since you Syko are not an ordinary person I can reveal some of the panorama for you.  And in any case, you do not get to buy in to Nature, Nature has bought you, and you have no say in this deal!   If it is an infinite universe then it’s infinite and you’ll have to suck that up, if it is finite then it’s finite and we have to live within that.    As Feynman said, “The theory of quantum electrodynamics describes Nature as absurd from the point of view of common sense. And it agrees fully with experiment. So I hope you accept Nature as She is — absurd.”

One thing about the potentially infinite expanse is that it is darn hard to kill off our universe.  How can you destroy it?  In 1998 those crazy astronomers measured the expansion was accelerating.  So gravity will not seem to be crushing us out of existence in a few trillion trillion years, so it’ll just keep expanding forever from what current measurements can predict.

But within that infinite expansion there are amazing things that could happen.

One is a cyclical time cosmology.  You can Google that along with “Penrose” since any discussion of cyclic time without Roger Penrose is probably New Age clap-trap. Penrose is however the real deal.  I WARN YOU, it is pretty awesome stuff!   So Google at your own peril!  hahahaha!
Then Syko replied:

Haha. Nature is not for me to buy, but the theories of mere men are, until proven. The infinite thing is a little to abstract. I get that there was a beginning. That the universe could be expanding. But the idea that it has no end or frontier and that it never ends. Well , I don’t think that’s right. It seems lazy to say it’s infinite.

And that led to my longer email about cosmology, the infinite, and science communication.  Here it is …

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Hey Syko,

I’m curious why you think it is lazy to theorise the universe could have infinite extent in time?  (Note that this does not imply infinite extent in space unless the expansion does not slow down to an asymptotic limit.)

Surely the idea of an infinite time is not really lazy, none more so than theorising time will be finite.  However, stating a theory which begins with such an assumption, either way, finite or infinite, is a lazy approach in a sense (and perhaps that’s what you mean?)  because it is simply assuming a fact that should be provable or falsifiable by other means, either by a less presumptive theory or by observational evidence.

But in any case, the best evidence available to date tells us the universe will expand forever.  This is not a theory.  It is a fact about the dark energy component of the universe together with the theory of general relativity.  It could be wrong, but it’s the best answer we have at present.

These physical “potential infinities” are one thing.  But the really exciting stuff, I think, is in pure mathematics where the transfinite numbers are considered.  It takes some mental effort to wrap your head around the concepts, but there are amazing possibilities involving transfinite number theory being applied to solve hitherto impossible problems in analysis (calculus) including maybe tackling problems that arise in quantum mechanics and general relativity when calculations arrive at irreducibly infinite numerical answers.  The idea before was that the theories had to be wrong or incomplete because they gave infinite numerical answers to fairly basic questions.   But modern mathematic suggests the idea that the infinite number answers might be totally sensible if interpreted according to transfinite arithmetic.  However, this is not all worked out and there is a communication gap between the physicists and the mathematicians.

Ordinal number spiral

When you have time… I am also curious about people who cannot conceive of anything existing prior to the “Big Bang”.   People are fond of saying that the Big Bang arose out of nothingness as a quantum fluctuation.  But this is sheer madness, since quantum fluctuations cannot fluctuate without a pre-existing spacetime in which to fluctuate.  And no one has ever shown how spacetime can fluctuate itself into existence from nothing.   In fact, there is not even a primitive philosophy about how to do it, so the physics has absolutely no hope of actually explaining the existence and origin of the universe.

So I really lose patience and can get quite irate with scientists in the media who get into the public airways and start saying things like how physics has explained the origin f the universe.  It is utter nonsense and gives physics a bad reputation in my opinion.   To give you some idea of the scale of this lunacy, at least in my opinion, I would describe it as analogous to a reputable biologist speaking to the media in all calmness and coolness and seriousness telling them that not only all known diseases, but in fact all future possible diseases from all possible vectors whether they be based either on DNA-based pathogens or non-DNA based life, have all been cured in theory by recent discoveries in the field of quantum medicine.

What physics can do is explain how things evolved after the period of cosmic hyper-inflation which happened after the universe became more than a singularity.  The actual history prior to this is completely mysterious to physics.  We do not even know if there ever was an initial singularity.   People who argue science says otherwise are completely deluded and are impossible to debate and argue rationally with.

That’s my opinion.  I wish people would take my opinion more seriously and read them, and take them to heart, before issuing any public relations announcements on behalf of science.  Of course if people did so and qualified all their claims and speculations correctly no science press conference could possibly last for less than about 30 minutes I imagine.  Hahahaha!

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You know what, I actually prefer Sir Roger’s hand-drawn diagrams:

Penrose CCC diagram

If you are interested in business strategy and economics and marketing, there is a dude Ben Thompson writing a great blog on such matter.  I mention him because he also uses hand-drawn diagrams to amazing effect.  It’s only data viz art, but funky cool.  Check him out here:,  and there is his podcast here:


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Wish I Was There

My amazing Bro’, Greg Zemke-Smith, just emailed me asking me when I’d be returning to New Zealand to be closer to my family.  I miss them so much it gets me down at least a few times every day, and especially at night when I’m trying to drift asleep.   I wrote back to him complaining that education (the field I work in) in New Zealand is in a worse mess than people care to admit.  So I would have a hard time going back home to work in schools.  University is the only place I can currently teach with sufficient freedom and autonomy and creativity.  On the surface New Zealand has a truly revolutionary secondary education system,  They have implemented many modernist ideas in pedagogy and assessment, but the combined system is deeply flawed because it still hangs on the much of the conservative education establishment norms.  And when a potential bright new spherical revolutionary system is put into an old-world establishment box, it just dies. It’s worse than the bad old system alone.

So my Bro’ then wrote back saying New Zealand’s NCEA system is at least better than the Cambridge exam system.  And I thought about this for a bit, since I was inclined to agree, but then wrote him the following email.

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Yeah, … maybe… maybe on a good day when the sky is clear and I’m tipsy on caffeine I’d agree NCEA appears to be better than IB or Cambridge.

I started writing you a short reply, but then got carried away!  hahahaha!
 Hexagonal close packing of students.

The trouble with NCEA is that it really only pretends to make learning more inclusive and student-centric, whereas in practice pretty much the same pedagogies get propagated as in the past, and students still only get taught what teachers think the students need to score well in exams.  I know some of the reformers have their hearts in the right place, but I think they are just a bit too dim to see the consequences of their policies.  It’s tragic really, NZ has such well-intentioned educators and policy-makers, and some brilliant teachers, but they lack the intellects or balls (perhaps) to really crack the insides of the edu system open and go supernova.  Just too many conservative plodders or nice people in heart without genius brains to be more super-visionary.

So while NCEA is still an exam-based assessment it will never be all that much better than IB or Cambridge or any other exam based standards education assessment system, even if the NCEA exam questions look cooler and more open-ended.   Exams aren’t the only evil but I think they are a huge part of the problem.  A predetermined set syllabus that is the same for every individual student is another evil, which tends to pair nicely with national set nation-wide exams. It’s crazy in our modern world to be treating all children or teenagers as more or less the same blank slate who all can do with the same syllabus and teaching regime.  We have the technology to easily totally individualize learning, all that is really required are teachers who can be comfortable answering any questions thrown at them and who are happy to sit back a  bit more an manage students in self-directed learning, rather than trying to bulk teach a whole class.

In fact, the more vague open-ended questions in NCEA are a disaster!  They defeat the purpose of exams which is really (should be) to assess quality of education.  If you want fair assessment then the exam questions need to be fairly boring, mild, even multiple-choice and not involve too much subjective answering.  The problem is teachers are too afraid to NOT teach-to-tests, so they drill students on how to answer exam questions, no matter what the type of questions.  And with the open-ended nature and complexity of NCEA style questions this is a nightmare for teachers.  And it is paradoxically killing creativity in our schools. If the questions were all mild and boring then teachers could ignore them and teach more creatively and tell students not to worry one jot about the exams.  Exams should really be a total minor after-thought, useful for teachers as data for helping inform, test, and improve teaching methods.

Actually, I’ve come to think testing and assessment are extremely important, but should still always be viewed as secondary to learning and secondary to encouraging positive affect in schools.  But it is the way testing is used which is vital.  I think some slight anarchy is needed, teachers should have autonomy to test their students in any way they please, but make the testing open to external scrutiny and NZQA business should be about assessing the assessments, not the students!  Tests then become ways of gathering data for assessing quality of teaching.  People, we, society, everyone, should then just simply TRUST that if the learning and teaching is good, and always iteratively evolving and improving, then students will naturally have experiences good or sufficient quality of education, so there is no need to assess students, not need to grade them.

Why do we still have grades?  The main reason I think (other than for political control of teachers) is to block and prevent some students from gaining entry into higher education.  This is evil to me.  ALL education should be freely accessible, and even maybe free cost at least up to some ways of paying for services and hence fees, but entry should not be restricted by grades, it should be restricted by self-selection of students with courses.  With Internet a lecturer can teach millions of students, there is a virtual classroom, so class sizes are irrelevant these days.

The first country to crack giving high quality peer-reviewed tested but without any student grading, and freely accessible education, will i think gain a huge economic advantage and will outshine other nations for years before the rest catch up.   Unfortunately this experiment might never happen since many top universities are giving away their course materials in OpenCourseWare.   It that ever leads to wide-spread self-education maybe our universities will gradually close down from lack of registered students!  (Probably not, but it’s at least conceivable that might happen, at least for OpenCourseWare that does not require a laboratory or other physical equipment, like engineering or medicine.  But in fact, remote equipment control over the internet is already happening, so even heavy physically resourced courses could eventually go fully online.)

But I think if I came back to NZ preaching all of this I’d never find a job, not even at Polytech.

But I think your Polytech idea is a good one for me.  I think I’d like that environment, if only there was an opening and a course I could teach.  Maybe I’ll design a course and pitch it to WelTec?  Something to put on my list of things to do in my research time.  Somehow though I think this project is more important than discovering the keys to quantum gravity.

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Small and Large Prime Lecture Times

Is this why blogs were invented? So people could just let off steam.


The glance at the wrist watch.

Whatever the case, I have some steam about academic seminars which needs something to heat. Preferably a department HOD or resident seminar organizer, or the lecture hours manager.

In my lunch hours I get time to hold a mathematics seminar in my office. The audience size is 1, and the guest speaker is not present.

Well I don’t have the privilege of working in a great mathematics or physics department at the moment. So I need to YouTube for all my seminars. This gives up control. So if something annoys me all I have is a blog and a few friends who occasionally do not mind a small buzzing noise in their ears emanating from my general direction.

The origin of my current plume of steam is Terry Tao, Ph.D. Small and Large Gaps Between the Primes (

Here I am enjoying my lunch with coffee listening to Professor Tao explain the sieves, the loglogloglog theorems, the probabilistic number theoretic models and other tricks for deducing the bounds on gaps between primes. Then about 43 minutes into the video he glances at his wrist-watch and clearly wonders if he has enough time to explain the ideas in some detail. He says,

“Zhang’s big breakthrough was that he found a new theorem about primes in arithmetic progressions that was not available before.

[glances at his watch]

Ummm, arrr, or, ok, maybe I, I won’t say exactly what it is … “

Well, damn! That kinda’ spoils the whole movie doesn’t it!

So it’s understandable isn’t it. You have 55 minutes for a seminar and should really stick to it, since lecturers have students waiting for classes and so forth. But then I thought, why?

It’s bullshit. Students can attend the darned seminar. They could learn something. Or at worst catch some useful zzz’s. Classes can be put on hold, or even canceled, did that ever hurt a single student? Then you just go and let a guy like Terrance Tao talk for as long as he damn well pleases without a single clock in sight to distract him.

That’s how to run seminars people!

Not so’s people are all like this …


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