La inteligencia de las máquinas — Miguel Ángel Quintanilla Fisac

April 29, 2016

Estos días estamos celebrando en el Instituto de Estudios de la Ciencia y la Tecnología el seminario anual de doctorandos, en el que los estudiantes exponen y discuten los avances que han conseguido en sus investigaciones durante el último año. Allí se tratan multitud de asuntos relativos a nuestra cultura científica y tecnológica y se […]

via La inteligencia de las máquinas — Miguel Ángel Quintanilla Fisac


Why I have not asked to be a UK subject (yet?)

April 12, 2016
Screenshot from 2016-04-13 00:06:20I feel disenfranchised. As a citizen of a different EU country living in another, I am not allowed to vote in Parliamentary elections where I live (the UK), while exercising that right in my country of origin (Spain) has become increasingly difficult. When I recently vented my frustration at my friend Philip Howell, himself a Briton living in Germany, he asked the obvious question: Why don’t you apply for British citizenship? It was a good question. I certainly love the UK and I have made deep commitments to it – so why not? Answering it made me articulate some thoughts that had been lurking under the surface. Here is what I told my friend:
  1. The oath of allegiance. As a naturalised citizen, I would have to take it. Those who are born British only have to in particular cases – principally if they join the armed forces. Whether I believe in it or not is beside the point (after all, even Galileo admitted the Sun revolves around the Earth when it came to the rub). In fact, my deep love for this country probably means I would be quite ready to do a lot for it. The point is that a different standard of patriotism is required from naturalised citizens. I am not comfortable with that – in some senses it would make me feel more like a second-class citizen than I do now.
  2. I would lose some of my rights as a Spanish citizen. Although the UK and Spain have, relatively recently, signed a double-nationality agreement, when you become a citizen of a second country you have to give up some of your rights as a citizen of the first. In particular, you lose the right to seek consular assistance in your original country when you are in the new one. So I would gain some rights (particularly the right to vote in UK parliamentary elections) but lose others.
  3. Deep down, I do not believe in nations. I think the rights and responsibilities of citizens should be defined by our common humanity and our actual individual circumstances, not by some abstract legal constructs of nationhood and citizenship which often do not reflect the much more complex, multi-faceted reality of people’s lives. Somehow applying to become a national of a particular country seems like an endorsement of the very idea of nationhood – which has given us so many evils and does so much to distort every debate about how best to live together.

In summary, my current legal status as a citizen of Spain who is a permanently-resident, tax-paying resident of the UK I think reflects the complexity of who I am much better than the apparent simplification that would be afforded by becoming a UK citizen. That said, the potentially massive loss of rights I would incur if the UK left the EU would seriously reduce my options. Were I to decide to stay in the UK after such an event, I might decide that becoming a UK citizen is the better option. By doing this I would become, on paper, a much simpler entity – a British subject living on British soil. I think the primary motor of the whole Leave campaign is a yearning for simplicity in a world that has become too hard to understand for many people. But you cannot wish away complexity by writing on a piece of paper. My belief is that Brexit would not bring about that simplicity – it would lead to chaos and injustice for everyone.

The simplicity so many people yearn for can only be achieved via a cultural shift. We must move beyond trying to explain the present world using the categorisations that worked well in the past, but which are no longer relevant. Our ideal should be “Imagine”, not “God save the Queen”. I think giving citizens of an EU country living in a different one the vote might be a step in the right direction.

PS: When I expressed the above views to my friend Philip and asked him about his own situation he told me that he took up German citizenship four years ago. As a result, he did not feel disenfranchised as I do. All that was required from him was a more pragmatic attitude towards the symbolism associated with naturalisation than I manage to exhibit. I couldn’t help thinking that his attitude and mine fitted in with long-held national stereotypes: British pragmatism vs the type of Quixotic attitude only a Spaniard could manage to sustain for so long. Another layer of complexity or one of the dangerous simplifications I deplore?

Thank you, Professor Eco

February 21, 2016

Umberto Eco has died aged 84.

There are few intellects I admired more than Eco’s. The tiny bit of his work that I had the good fortune to read shaped much of my worldview and even some of my deepest feelings.

My PhD thesis on unconventional superconductors opened with a quote from The Name of The Rose: «Nessuno ci impone di sapere, Adso. Si deve, ecco tutto, anche a costo di capire male.» I asked an Italian colleague, fellow physicist Natascia Andrenacci, to look for those sentences in her copy of the book so I could quote the original (I asked her in an email if she owned one; she explained that everyone in Italy did). I then asked a friend, Caroline Turner, to check that my English translation made sense: “No one demands that we know, Adso. We must, that is all, even at the risk of being wrong.” I had come across these sentences first in Spanish. I felt the English edition did not make them justice. I think the author of “Mouse or Rat?” would have appreciated my vicisitude.

The Name of the Rose could be intepreted as a post-post-modern parable of scientific research. As William of Baskerville explains to Adso, our theories may be wrong, but they allow us to reach a truth, described by a better theory, that we would never otherwise have reached. That truth, of course, is subject to the same relativism and so on ad infinitum. But there is something to find out, and that’s what matters.

I always thought the ideas in “Mouse or Rat?”, his collection of essays on translation, could also be adapted as a vindication of the hopefulness of science from a postmodern perspective. In Eco’s view, exactness cannot exist in translation, but loyalty and faithfulness does. Is that what we are doing when we describe the physical world: translating God’s design (speaking metaphorically, of course) into a description that could never really capture it, but might at least constitute an honest, coherent attempt? I always wondered if Eco had ever written on this subject or at least entertained similar ideas. I should have written to him to ask, but I didn’t. Now I’ve missed my chance.

Even more important to me than Eco’s ideas was the way reading him can connect us with some very basic features of what it is to be alive, and human. In Foucault’s Pendulum the main character, when he realises that all is lost for him, focuses on his young son, and imagines him having his special moment, that instant when being, place and time itself combine together to produce an intense awareness of the sensory wonderness of our world and our being sentient beings in it. He wonders what will make it for his son. Observing a little ant, maybe? Eco’s monumentally important point is that, above and beyond any Popperian, rational arguments against magical thinking and conspiracy theories like the ones pursued by the main character’s tormentors, their way of thinking misses the very point of what fascinates that “diabolical” horde: the inherent trascendnce in our being in this world. Such transcendence is not achieved by reason, be it through the (diabolical) discovery of hidden networks of conspirators or the (scientific) unveiling of fundamental laws of nature, but by raw sensory awareness and self-awareness. It’s not a thought, but a feeling.

Many years later, when my daughter was born, I wrote her a poem (as sentimental parents do) and wondered what wonders she would see today. The poem mentions a little ant as an example of what something wondrous could be for a little baby. I now realise I was channelling Eco without even noticing it.

Like Richard Feynman, Eco teaches us not just that to think deeply is fun, but that we must think deeply because it is fun.

Thank you, Professor Eco. I wish your special moment, whenever that was, and whatever it consisted of, was as eye-widening and intense as any could ever have been.

Hysteresis and the European Institutions

November 14, 2015

Readig this interview with Yanis Varoufakis I was pleased to see him mention the phenomenon of hysteresis. Later on, he states

I wish we had never entered the eurozone, which is not the same thing as my saying I think we should get out.

This is exactly the type of comment that it is hard to get across, but it all becomes much clearer when one has an understanding of what hysteresis is. In Varoufakis’ own words:

The path that you take to somewhere, once you get to that somewhere, doesn’t exist anymore. We just can’t turn around upon the original path and find ourselves outside where we used to be.

This observation has important implications in many areas of political discourse. But where does the word “hysteresis” come from?

If you have played with magnets, perhaps as a child, you will have noticed that some metals, when in contact with a magnet, will themselves magnetise. For example, an iron nail stuck to a magnet will itself attract other iron objects. Sometimes this effect remains even after the material is removed: the iron nail keeps attracting other iron objects, so it has effectively become a magnet itself. This is one of the classic examples of hysteresis: the nail has been subjected to an external influence (the magnet) and has changed its properties (become magnetic) with the change remaining even when the original external influence has been taken away.

How does this come about? It turns out that a piece of iron is made up of many “magnetic domains” that is, regions of the sample where the magnetisations of different atoms are all pointing in the same way, leading to a net magnetisation of the domain. The magnetisations of different domains, however, point in random directions, which is why a piece of iron is usually not, by itself magnetic. However, application of an external magnetic field will orient the domain magnetisations, so that they all now point in the same direction. This makes the iron have a net magnetic field of its own. The thing is, the domains actually have lower energy when they are aligned, so when we then remove the applied field they stay in the aligned configuration.
An “energy barrier” was overcome by the external field. Once the system has gone over the barrier, you cannot take things back to the way they were simply by removing the field that took the syste to the state it is in now.

The same happens with the European Union and other international institutions. Their creation overcomes barriers and makes the participating countries change in ways that are irreversible. Going back to the situation where those institutions no longer exist does not take us back to the original state – it leaves us in a different state altogether. I think that is what Varpufakis means when he says that it is one thing to wish that bis cou try nad never entered the Euro, a d a different thing altogether to wa t it to get out. Reforming the Euro zone is tbe only way forward – dismantling it is not an available option anymore.

The terrorist’s problem

November 14, 2015

The terrorist’s problem is that they don’t have enough people on their side. That is why he or she resorts to terror. Their hope is that their outrageous acts will provoke an over-reaction. That over-reaction will have a prejudical effect on members of what the terrorists perceive as their wider constituency. That, in turn, or so their twisted logic goes, will mobilise more of that perceived constituency to their cause.

Let us break that logic. Let us stand with the French people, with their security forces, but also with the vast majority of muslims who want nothing to do with these abominations. Let us defeat terrorism.

Quite horrified…

November 13, 2015

…after reading Christine Odone’s article complaining that her daughter is being overly encouraged into studying scientific subjects at school. She fails to see the poetry in science, its role as the ultimate challenge of authority and liberation of the human intellect.

I think, however, that if we use economic arguments to convince politicians that more of the population (e.g. girls) should be given access to, and encouraged to take up, scientific subjects then we are bound to antagonise the “arty types” who feel pressurised to do something for purely economic reasons, something they see no meaning in. It is, of course, quite circular: they don’t see the meaning because they don’t understand it (sadly, C. P. Snow’s “The Two Cultures” is as relevant as ever).

Thousands of women and men lost their lives over many centuries trying to pursue science in the face of virulent opposition from religious authorities and others: Hypathia of Alexandria, Girodano Bruno, Miguel Servet… It’s a long and illustrious list. What would they say if they saw how we have now reduced the reasons for pursuing science to merely pragmatic and economic ones?

But of course if we make the effort to convince by appealing to the poetry of the Universe, the struggle to find truth in the face of authority, the liberating effect of reason and experimentation, then we lose the politicians and the captains of industry that ultimately will fund the efforts to do science and to extend its appeal to a wider and wider section of the population.

I just wish that self-declared “arty types” like Odone were able to see through what’s going on. The sad truth is that you cannot feel passionate about science if you do not have an understanding of it.

Are you after my research group’s website?

October 20, 2015

This is my personal blog with opinion, politics, and poetry. If you are after my official research group’s website, please navigate to