Science for You: Bodies in motion, prime numbers, and AI

One of the things I worry about a lot is the effect of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of our species. I’ve read about scientists developing ways to …

As an alum of the CSU and an emeritus member of the faculty and administration of Humboldt State University, it was a real pleasure to see the New York Times publish an article (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/02/well/move/aging-exercise-walking-cycling.html) about research done by Dr. Justus Ortega, Professor of Kinesiology & Recreation Administration at HSU and colleagues and a collaborator at the University of Colorado about the best kind of exercises for us older folks. Earlier biomechanics studies have shown that as we age our bodies are less effective as we walk, and that we consume more oxygen than younger people who walk at the same rate. Dr. Ortega and his colleagues recruited older (age 65 or more) folks who walk, and also those who ride bicycles. The recruits were asked how tired they were after exercising on a scale of 1 to 3. 1 meant that their exercise was easy and 3 meant it was tiring. Folks who rode bicycles scored their exercise as a 3 while the walkers rated theirs between 1 and 2. After providing their exercise scales, the recruits were asked to walk on a treadmill moving at about 4 miles/hour. When the scientists measured their oxygen use, they found that the people who ride bicycles used about the same amount of oxygen as the younger people who were serving as controls. The older folks who just walk were about 17% less efficient walkers than those of us who ride bicycles too. This science shows that physical exercise has benefits for our health. Dr. Ortega recommends that if you are just someone who walks slowly, you should try a bike or run some or walk up hills, too.

A recent article in Science Magazine (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/369/6505/760.full) reports on studies of a meteorite that crashed to the ground in Costa Rica on April 23, 2019 in the early evening. When pieces of this meteorite were collected a number of them were sold sometimes for more than the cost of gold of the same weight. The meteorite’s age was determined to be 4.5 billion years old making it an interesting source of what compounds were present that long ago when our solar system was just beginning to form. Scientists have also found organic compounds that were likely in the warm and wet inside of the meteorite’s asteroid origin. Asteroids are quite common in orbits around Mars and Jupiter. When some of the meteorite’s parts were ground up and analyzed, they found hundreds of amino acids, the compounds that form the proteins in our bodies. Proteins have not yet been found, but they are being hunted now, and if found, might be part of the evolution of life on the earth. Japan has a spacecraft that collected samples from an asteroid, and it is scheduled to land in Australia late this year. We still have a lot to learn about the origin of our solar system and the organisms that wander about it.

I am having the pleasure lately of reading a book, “The Prime Number Conspiracy,” edited by Thomas Lin. Prime numbers are the basis for much of mathematics and are numbers that can only be divided by 1 and themselves. The numbers 2, 3, 5, 7, 11 and on and on into infinity are primes. The number of numbers between primes has been the subject of many efforts to predict their distributions, but only with some success. One of the things that has fascinated me about these studies is the kind of people that do mathematics. In particular, is the story of Yitang Zhang born in China and could not go to school because his father was opposed to the Communist Party. So, he worked on a farm and read lots of books. Amazingly, at the age of 9, he was already fascinated about mathematics and was able to prove the Pythagorean theorem. This theorem states that the area of a square along the side of a right triangle is the same as the sum of the squares along the other two sides of the triangle. There are a number of proofs of this theorem, including one by Albert Einstein. Zhang was able to produce his own proof at the age of 9. This tells me that there must be some genetic basis for mathematical ability that I did not inherit. I don’t know of any good evidence for this hypothesis at the present. Let me know if you know something else.

One of the things I worry about a lot is the effect of artificial intelligence (AI) on the future of our species. I’ve read about scientists developing ways to download what our brains are doing and whether eventually we can become intelligent machines. I suspect it won’t happen in my lifetime, but it is an issue that science and societies should consider. I read the MIT Technology Review monthly (https://www.technologyreview.com/topic/artificial-intelligence/) and it has frequent articles about AI and its problems. One of the problems that AI and humans have is the lack of a clear understanding of the cause and effect that is the basis of science. Here’s a quote from a long living, now 83, scientist, Judea Pearl, who works at UCLA and is a critic of AI. “What if” questions “are the building blocks of science, of moral attitudes, of free will, of consciousness.” Where will science and us go next?

Rollin Richmond is an emeritus professor of biology and emeritus president at Humboldt State University. He has worked as an evolutionary geneticist at several universities during his career. (Full disclosure: He happens to be responsible for 50 percent of Times-Standard publisher John Richmond’s genetic makeup.) Questions or comments about this column can be sent to rollinr@humboldt.edu.