Pattern Recognition

Pattern recognition.  I’m pretty sure everyone knows what it is, and I’m certain everyone does it.  It’s one of those marvels of the human mind, our tendency to search out and recognize patterns.  So much so, in fact, that occasionally we see patterns that aren’t there.  But perhaps that’s our trust in our ability to see patterns combined with our sense of superiority…  And, on the other hand, it seems there are those out there who exclaim, whenever they hear something they don’t like “Oh, you’re just seeing patterns where there aren’t any!”

At any rate, I was watching Cosmos with my boys tonight.  We watched the episode about lead poisoning, which was very interesting.  There’s a lot that could be said as commentary about that episode; things about the politics of money, scientists besmirching the name of science for money, doing excessively dangerous things for the sake of ease and money (wait, was there any of that that wasn’t about money?).   There’s also lots of cool science and a bit of history.  Mass spectrometers are awesome.
The part that got me thinking this time, though, was about the radioactive half-life of uranium.  This combined with our dependance of carbon dating to assess the age of some object.  Now, this technology and this science is really, really cool.  I love science, I really do.  It is half of all Truth (the definition of truth per my definition of it, especially in regards to science and religion is meaty enough for a different post) is found in science and the observable world.   But the fact is that radioactive decay/half life has always seemed somewhat flawed to me.  Maybe I just don’t understand the concept well enough, maybe it’s something in the math or the logic that I’m just not quite getting, but deep down, I’ve always felt it is flawed.
This episode of Cosmos reminded me of this deep seated feeling.   Our Narrator-of-Awesomeness (because I don’t remember his name, though I should, and because I don’t feel like looking it up) mentioned that the testing and tracking of the decay of Uranium was tested over decades.  Now, that’s a pretty formidable set of data, hard to argue with.  Except, I have to wonder…
The Laws of Physics and of Nature aren’t quite as concrete as we’d like to believe.  The universe, on a grand scale, doesn’t always follow the law that govern our everyday lives.  Physicists were amazed to discover that on a small scale, many of the Laws of Physics no longer even applied (hello, Quantum Mechanics)!    This leaves me to wonder.   According to the testing that was done on a meteorite shard that hit the Earth found it’s Uranium to be nearly 5 Billion years old.  Ok, cool, fair enough.  But… has the test been repeated on other meteorites? On rocks brought back from the moon?  Surely?  I wonder what those results say.  And more, wouldn’t that number be more the age of the solar system, perhaps, than the earth?  Maybe, maybe not (that is where a larger sample size might come in handy).
But more, I wonder, we tested Uranium decay over a couple decades.  What’s a couple decades to 5 billion years?  Not even a flash in the pan.   Are we doing Quantum Physics sized test lengths on an subject of Macro proportions?  What if the rules are different for larger swaths of time?
Go to a grocery store and people watch.  At first thought you might shrug them off as all random and see no pattern, beyond their humanity.  But pull back, perhaps many of them are wearing coats.  What does it mean?  Maybe they all like coats, maybe it’s cold out, maybe it’s rainy, maybe they all carry shotguns.  Expand your time and you may find that more people come a certain time of day than others.  Expand and you’ll see a new pattern where some days are busier than others.  Expand again and you’ll see a change of clothes over the seasons of the year.  Expand again and you’ll see patterns of fashion.  All where once you saw only random people…
Patterns are everywhere and in everything, but sometimes you just don’t see them because you’re too close, your sample size isn’t large enough or perhaps you just don’t know what to look for.  Where one person might see a pile of rocks, another may see where they come from, what has happened to them, if they belong together, etc.  Where one person sees raindrops falling in random places, another might see the undulating pattern of the wind in those drops.  Pattern recognition is what gives us science, gives us society, gives us life as we know it.
True, not all patterns should be maintained. True, not all perceived patterns are accurate.   True, not all patterns lead to something greater, some patterns hold us, individually and as a people, back from becoming all the great things that we could be.  But, one way or the other, it seems to me that the worst thing you could do would be to ignore the very existence of these patterns.
They are here, and they come, and come again.  But, you cannot truly take control of them, to break them, or use them or bend them to your will, until you understand them.  And for that, you must first find a way to see them.

Anyhow, that’s enough rambling on that subject for now.  🙂


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