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  • Paul W. Smith

The Woo-Woo Engineers

While the burden of proof in our legal system rests on the accuser, an opposite of sorts is in play for new ideas – even a modicum of credibility is often enough to give wings to a novel suggestion. This worldview is exemplified by a quote from John Lennon - “I believe in everything until it's disproved. So I believe in fairies, the myths, dragons. It all exists, even if it's in your mind. Who's to say that dreams and nightmares aren't as real as the here and now?”

The whole idea of non-mainstream ideas that have little scientific support, especially those involving spirituality or mysticism, even has a name – they are known as “woo-woo.” If you or someone you know has ever carried around a crystal, worn a therapeutic copper bracelet, or placed magnets in your underwear then yes, we may be talking about you. Smart people smugly proclaim they would never be wooed by any of this stuff, immediately recognizing it as non-sense. Or would they...

There was a time when advanced means of transportation were considered woo-woo. In 1825, The Quarterly Review of London wrote “What can be more palpably absurd than the prospect held out of locomotives traveling twice as fast as stagecoaches?” Similarly, in 1895 Lord Kelvin – distinguished British mathematician, physicist, and president of the British Royal Society – claimed that “Heavier than air flying machines are impossible.” The woo-woo label was soon vanquished by a dose of engineered reality, ultimately leading to bullet trains and A380's.

Nineteenth century folks were familiar with stagecoaches and birds, but by the 20th century, very few people were acquainted with atomic physics. It was natural then to trust an expert, none other than legendary physicist Albert Einstein, who in 1932 suggested that “There is not the slightest indication that nuclear energy will even be obtainable. It would mean that the atom would have to be shattered at will.” The slightest indication came along 13 years later, when the world’s first nuclear explosion took place at the Trinity site south of Los Alamos, New Mexico. That was enough for Alex Lewyt, President of the Lewyt vacuum cleaner company, to predict in 1955 that “Nuclear-powered vacuum cleaners will probably be a reality in 10 years.”

Suffice it to say that our woo-woo detectors are flawed at best.

Just when we were starting to draw atoms into our reality field, along came subatomic particles, with tantalizing woo-woo like quantum superposition and quantum entanglement. The former says that one particle can be in two or even all possible places at once, thus throwing shade on our concept of time. In the latter, two entangled particles will remain linked together no matter how far apart they are in space. The fact that engineers accept these as fact and are exploiting them for computing and communication systems adds oxygen to the idea that each of us has our own unique reality field. Quantum Physicist and Nobel Laureate Richard Feynman summed it up thusly – “If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics.”

Besides pushing the boundaries of our personal reality fields, woo-woo ideas also form the basis for the best science fiction movies. The Star Wars films grossed more than $15B inflation-adjusted dollars, and in the process introduced viewers to light sabers, light-speed travel, and a galaxy full of strange worlds inhabited by unfamiliar creatures. The movie The Matrix popularized the notion that we could be virtual beings living in a massive computer simulation. Astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson believes this is a possibility that can’t be dis-proven, while flamboyant entrepreneur Elon Musk even thinks the chance that we are not in a simulation is one in billions. Columbia University Astrophysicist David Kipping puts it closer to fifty-fifty.

The woo-woo that we are all simulated beings in a simulated world originated long before there were computers which might someday handle the necessary computations. Classical Greek philosopher Plato (Plato’s Cave) described prisoners chained in a cave such that they could only see shadows on the wall in front of them. They would naturally refer to the shadows as real, even if they were being cast by unseen puppeteers manipulating various objects behind them. In the 3rd Century BC, Chinese author Zhuang Zhou described waking up from a dream that he was a butterfly wondering if he was a man dreaming of being a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was a man. Reality itself has always had an element of woo-woo.

Much woo-woo, in spite of being dismissed by experts, has ultimately been engineered into bona fide technology. Today, Virtual Reality (VR) is good enough to give people vertigo when virtually looking down from high places, and to get them to duck to avoid virtual flying objects. Its current killer apps are games – the more lifelike, the better. Artificial Intelligence (AI) is being used in fields from medicine to law enforcement – the more training data it receives, the smarter it gets. It is more than capable of generating heretofore unseen virtual worlds. All of this requires vast computing power - the Frontier Supercomputer is the world’s fastest at 1.102 EFLOPS (that’s just over a quintillion or 10^18 floating point operations per second), and the world-wide FLOPS race is gathering speed.

Imagine that John Lennon may have been on to something. It’s easy if you try.

Author Profile - Paul W. Smith - leader, educator, technologist, writer - has a lifelong interest in the countless ways that technology changes the course of our journey through life. In addition to being a regular contributor to NetworkDataPedia, he maintains the website Technology for the Journey and occasionally writes for Blogcritics. Paul has over 40 years of experience in research and advanced development for companies ranging from small startups to industry leaders. His other passion is teaching - he is a former Adjunct Professor of Mechanical Engineering at the Colorado School of Mines. Paul holds a doctorate in Applied Mechanics from the California Institute of Technology, as well as Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in Mechanical Engineering from the University of California, Santa Barbara.

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